Friday, March 31, 2006


There is a moment in The Iliad when the useless devastation of war suddenly comes into focus, when all its associated bravery & implicit nobility is revealed as pointless & stands for the catastrophe it invariably is. The Iliad, after all, is the song of Ilium, or Troy, and there comes a moment when the destruction of Troy is inevitable, when it is clear to all concerned that Ilium has no future.

That moment is the death of Hector, firstborn son of the king, at the hands of Achilles. Hector understands the futility of his fight going into the match &, at his death, his father, Priam, bemoans the loss of his sons, Hector most of all, & Hector’s widow cries out not only for her dead spouse, but for the future that awaits their son Astyanax, of whom Homer says:

now his life is only filled
with misery and a pathetic path

This moment is the focal point of Iliad XXII, a stunning book & terrific translation by Lisa Jarnot, just published by Atticus Finch books of Buffalo. Of all the political acts against the current debacle in Iraq, this is surely the most elegant. Not simply because of the translation nor the production values (a new level of excellence for Michael Cross, who is rapidly joining the legendary fine press printers of Buffalo, NY, alongside Kristen Gallagher & Kyle Schlesinger), but because of the sly way this particular passage points out that Homer was clear 2800 years ago about some of the basic dynamics of history that so clearly elude W & his neocon brain trust.

Iliad XXII is fascinating not simply as political gesture. Lisa Jarnot has already demonstrated herself to be one of our most resourceful & talented poets. Her translation is doubly sly for the ways in which it calls up yet another bellicose rightwinger, one who in fact had more than a little interest in Homeric verse:

So then the Trojans
poured down through the city
and fled there like deer
that were brightened
with sweat,
and they drank
and they cooled down
their thirst,
and they
rested themselves
in the city’s embankments

and all of the troops of Achaeans
with their shoulders to steady their shields

and then there was Hector
where fate made him stay
in front of the city
and alone at its gate.

The first word of this passage is almost uniformly translated “Thus,” so that Jarnot’s insertion of a word favored by Ezra Pound – the two final words of Canto I are So that – hardly can be an accident.

Iliad XXII is not a Pound imitation. The style Jarnot adopts for the translation, however, falls clearly in a long line extending out from Pound, and which would include Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn’s great translation of The Poem of the Cid – one of the all-time major neglectorino texts – & others whom Jarnot herself thanks in a brief acknowledgements note. It is true, and not that often acknowledged, that right at the front of the Pound- Williams-Zukofsky tradition & that of the Projectivist poets who followed most closely in that same vein, right there in the very first Canto, lies a version of Homer. Which may be why this literary vein, among all others, has stood up so well as a mode for epic translation – contrast Blackburn’s Cid with the bloodless mess put forth by Bill Merwin. Jarnot stays close to this Pound/post-Pound tradition, tho she is capable of sounding positively beat, as when Athena comes to Hector in the guise of his younger brother:

my elder brother,
Achilles of the swift foot
is working his bad shit on you,
chasing you around the city of Priam
in that sleek fast way that he has –
but come indeed
let’s stand here
and fend off
his next approaching.”

So this is not a Lisa Jarnot poem, even if it is a Lisa Jarnot work. It is, however, a translation that is turned in more than one direction: at Homer, at Bush & Co., at Pound, at an entire tradition of writing as a mode of literary transcription, at the questions of bravery & fate, and of the consequences of war, that leveler of civilizations, destroyer of families. That’s a lot to get into just two signatures of paper sewn into perfect-bound boards. But hardly anyone sets the bar for their work as high as Lisa Jarnot, and this is no exception.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006



Stanislaw Lem

1921 - 2006



Watten’s Braxton

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


I think that I expected Selah Saterstrom to be ten, maybe 20 years, older than she actually is. That was my first thought when I met her for the first time last Saturday in Chapel Hill, a couple of hours before we read together in the Desert City Reading Series there. Both her content & her ability to handle it suggest, to me at least, someone considerably older than 30. I know that I didn’t possess the wherewithal to really confront subjects like rape, incest, alcoholism, the whole family dysfunction package, until I was much older – and, frankly, I was lucky, most of that was on the peripheries of my own story. Some folks don’t get that luxury.

Imagine, if you will, As I Lay Dying as told by Dodie Bellamy – that might give you some sense of what reading The Pink Institution, Saterstrom’s first novel, might be like as an experience. Like the Faulkner classic, The Pink Institution is not simply the telling of a story of a family totally out of control, with a strong Southern flavor – Saterstrom comes from Mississippi herself, tho from Natchez on the Louisiana border line, quite a bit further south than Faulkner’s Oxford – but it is also the telling of multiple generations in a very spare book. One might think of this novel as a Southern Gothic, but handled in just over 130 pages, most of which have more than a little white space, several of which have either photos or section titles or epigrams like “These songs could be heard in the ears of dogs.” Here is a chapter called “Stationery”:

Azalea discovered scratches on Ginger’s face. Ginger said two nuns had done it. Several days later Azalea went out shopping. The old woman who watched the children saw two nuns pulling Ginger toward the garden gate. She began a child tug-of-war with the nuns. The nuns said Ginger was a naughty child who escaped from the orphanage. The old woman began praying in tongues. haw    skimy     malahi        jeezzuz         cr       eye                st. The nuns ran away. Ginger acquired an expensive piece of stationery on which she recorded the family’s sins and annoyed them all. There was no convent. There was in 1870, but it had burned.

Ginger, as it happens, is the narrator’s aunt, a detail we don’t learn for another 35 pages, when the narrator herself first appears.

The Pink Institution seems always to be two things at once, as if Saterstrom set out deliberately to create the impossible: post-avant Southern gothic, spare – even beautiful – bildungsroman, a dense, heavy experience that is also often quite cheerful, humorous & a “quick read” – I completed it in one day, quite a contrast from Don Quixote which I’ve been working my way through for six months now, with at least five left to go yet. If The Pink Institution’s not perfectly successful – I felt like the sections in which the narrator appears toward the end were less sharply defined, as if this were the one portion of the tale Saterstrom herself couldn’t quite imagine – it’s an imperfection that reveals just how absent of flaws the rest of this volume actually is.

I’d read bits & pieces of this book on the web, part of my homework preparing for my visit to Chapel Hill. But I don’t think that’s the way to read this book at all. You really ought to immerse yourself in it for a day to pull up all of its rewards. It will make you stop & contemplate whatever parallels might exist in the histories of your own family. This book would also, as I think the passage above clearly suggests, make for a great audio CD or, better yet, a marathon reading by the author, cover to cover in a single evening or day. But should that ever happen, you may be surprised, I think, by the sunny young person who shows up as its author.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006


An image I saw of an African-American man’s skin nailed to the wall like a hunting pelt, constructed (fortunately) not of flesh but rusted roofing tin has stayed with me, haunted me, since I first saw it in the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill last Saturday. If there is anywhere a more powerful image of the terror that was slavery, I have never seen it. Indeed, the figure’s spread-eagled posture calls to mind other, more recent images as well  -- prisoners at Attica, stripped naked, forced to assume this same position after Rockefeller’s goons retook the yard, even Rodney King, beaten into this position on the streets of Los Angeles.

Perhaps it is all the more amazing that this work was in a show that celebrates – legitimately – roots & family, the art work of the amazing Betye Saar & her two daughters, Lezley & Alison. The life sized pelt – its title is Skin Deep – is the work of Alison, whose work I was familiar with primarily from her illustrations for Erica Hunt’s book, Arcade, a decade back. As I circled & recircled through the galleries of this exhibit, accompanied by Ken Rumble & Chris Vitiello, I found myself struck by pieces, paying almost no mind to who did what.

Betye, for example, who has several pieces in the show that explore the implications of her own light skin within the American black community, as one piece entitled Cream (2001), a collage on hand-made paper – its tone exactly that of French vanilla ice cream – on which she’s attached an ancient, white child’s dress, at the bottom of which we see an image, perhaps of the artist herself as an infant (she’s 80 this year), above which is a little lock of hair, light brown in a small white bow, while at the top two other images, also ancient head shots of a man & woman – the triangulation is patently genealogical. Around all this are the handprints of small children. To describe it like this gives almost no sense of its elegance or cohesion, which are in fact integral to its impact on the viewer.

Lezley, on the other hand, is the most painterly of the three and often makes figurative/narrative objects, reminiscent of Joseph Cornell or Santeria altars. One can see everything in her work from Romare Bearden to Simon Rodia, the visionary sailor behind the great ship that is the Watts Towers. Her work is full of rich colors &, like both her mother and sister, reflects a sharp wit that undercuts any sense of an aesthetics of victimization.

This wit is at the core of the family’s politics. Two of Alison’s pieces, for example, employ wire to embody hair, entangled in one instance with small bottles, perhaps baby food jars, in the other piece one of the objects is a magnet. In another, she presents a mulatto woman – both in a print & a wooden sculpture – as striped, dreadlocks standing straight up to accentuate the effect.  And it’s around this issue of hybrid identities that one senses the impact of Betye’s late husband, Richard, of German & Scotch heritage, a painter turned art conservationist.

I’m happy to note that this exhibit both has a catalog – tho I didn’t see any copies at the Ackland when I was there – and is set to travel, first to Pasadena, then San Jose’s Museum of Art, then the Palmer at Penn State, where it will be from January thru April next year. I can assure my friends in San Francisco that this will be worth the drive down to San Jose to see. The Saar family is not unlike the Berrigan clan in poetry, an embarrassment of riches, each one doing significant & visually meaty work. The show is both serious & fun, which is a great combination. But I know that I’m going to be seeing that man-pelt in my dreams.

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Monday, March 27, 2006


Ian Hamilton Finlay

1925 – 2006

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My first thought when I saw “One Hundred People You Should Know” in Derek Fenner’s My Favorite Color is Red was – O no! – not another epigramiphone! But then I started to read & just like that! – my wish was granted. Rather than a 100 epigrams in the vein of Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis, Fenner’s book of poems – whose cover I would swear is closer to blood orange than it is to red – has, right at its center, 100 drawings mostly of writers & painters accompanied by quotations from their works & words.

In the middle of what appears to be a book of poems, this reversal of text & illustration is jolting. It displaces the emphasis placed on the text elsewhere, not only in this book but in others, anything that permits an illustration. Suddenly “The Katie Couric Odes” earlier in the book, which are themselves illustrated, stand just a little differently. It’s not as if you can desanctify a prose poem entitled “How is Katie Couric in the Sack?” But the irony & play there stands sharply in contrast to “One Hundred People,” which could not be further from the spirit of Kent Johnson.

Take, for example, the portrait of Funk Art painter Wallace Berman, a Los Angeles artist associated both by time & inclination with the Beats. That’s Berman’s likeness on the cover of Fenner’s book, not his own – in his self-portraits, Fenner himself looks suspiciously like filmmaker Kevin Smith in his Silent Bob routines. Putting someone else’s face up big on the cover of your book is itself an interesting move, a deflection. Here is the text that accompanies this drawing:

Art is Love is God.

Each statement is carefully – even obsessively, given this book’s general attitude toward academic form (ironic & dismissive) – documented. Thus, just below this quotation:

Berman, Wallace. Untitled. Box with Bullet, 15 x 13 x 18 cm. Date Unknown. Collection of Temple of Man, Venice.

Given the detailing of the absence both of name and date, it’s interesting to see the presumption that we’ll know this Venice is not a town sinking in Italy, but one even closer to the shore in Southern California.

That Fenner would pick Berman & put Berman on his cover – as, in a way, David Meltzer, that other Beat associated with Los Angeles, did by using a Berman pic for the cover of his recent selected poems – is intriguing to say the least. Fenner was all of three years old when Berman died, but somehow has become a fan of a particular angle toward art, one that includes not just Ginsberg & Kerouac & McClure, but Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo & Jack Hirschman, Picasso & Hunter Thompson & Bill Luoma. One might call it the Beat side of the post-avant – there’s Laurie Anderson & Jess & Robert Duncan (Jess has a great quote about the stains on the walls & ceiling of the house he & Robert shared) & Hemingway, Joyce, Stan Brakhage & Tom Raworth, Ann Waldman, Bob Dylan & Wally Hedrick. Some of these make perfect sense, but then you go back & say, wait, what’s Luoma or Hedrick doing there? Or Ian Hamilton Finlay? Or all those painters, from Edward Hopper to Van Gogh to Francis Bacon. All of these images began with photographs, often famous ones, of the person pictured, which Fenner processes – he details this at the head of the portraits, which take up literally two-thirds of this volume – to get just to the most significant lines & shadows.

Fenner’s own poetry has a sort of late Beat or post-Beat air to it:

Diary of a Genius

Swans reflect the poetry
America. Elephants
are Original Sin.

Mae West, the
great masturbator on the beach
with a telephone.

Salvador! Salvador!
Stop staring
and flush.

Yet where Beat aesthetics so often have been interpreted to mean (wrongly, I’d argue) a certain anti-intellectual, or at least anti-theory, stance toward the world, here’s Derrida & Foucault & Benjamin among Fenner’s 100. Alfred North Whitehead & Klaus Kinski?!

One sees this double-sidedness I think most clearly in a series of haiku Fenner wrote while teaching art to young felons. The poems are in dialect, but with a precision that is clearly Fenner’s:

Went gone got PC.
A snitch is a snitch is a
punk dead man walking.

Here, unlike the quotations in the portraits, Fenner simply seems to presume that we’ll understand the acronym in the first line to mean neither personal computer nor politically correct, but protective custody. Each of the first two lines is organized around its own reiteration of sound – gone got & snitch…snitch – while the last is organized around its own elegant syntactic construction when you realize that the speaker here is speaking of himself.

It’s fascinating to read Fenner just to see someone whose own aesthetic owes a lot to a time before he was born, but who has been as deeply influenced by painters & painting as any member of the first generation New York School, tho generally by different ones. It makes you realize just how many choices were being made by John, Frank & Jimmy. Even as Fenner includes Warhol & Brainard & Basquiat, his eye really belongs to the West Coast artists of the same period: Berman & Jess & George Herms & Bruce Conner. Early on in the book, there is a wonderful description of the burial of Edward Keinholz

on Howe Mountain in his 1940 Packard. Smash, his cremated dog, was in the back seat. Ed had a dollar in his pocket, a bottle of good Italian wine from 1931, and a deck of cards – enough to get him started in the next world.

Allen Ginsberg and I once had a conversation about the problem of imitators, a problem he had much worse than I. On the one hand, it’s moving, literally, to see people so committed to what one has done, but on the other hand, the impulse of the imitator is fundamentally different from that of the person being copied. The original is striking out into the world, the imitator wants rather the experience of writing like that, which actually requires living quite a bit differently, having ultimately very different values.

Fenner has, I think, moved beyond that, but the world he seems most interested in isn’t the present. Rather, he’s recasting the past in different guises, an eminently likeable & crafty world, even at its most harsh, as in the sixth of Fenner’s “Cleveland Sonnets”:

Cleveland, I’ve give you all my problems and now you’ve
turned right around and given them back. Sold me out
to the Gold Star Pawn Shop, Inc.
I don’t want treats
by Pat, so give me the consolation prize once more and I’ll
never again step foot in your Imperial Super Buffet.
There’s this passage I have memorized from the Bible.
It goes, “Now Cleveland was corrupt
in God’s sight, and
Cleveland was filled with violence. And God
Cleveland, and it was corrupt. For all its dwellers
had corrupted their way upon the city.” It’s in Genesis.
Find out what’s coming your way. God’s
gonna get down on you. d.a. levy said,
”Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s another dump like this.
I know, I know it sounds untrue, but there is, there is.”

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