Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Jordan’s note to the comments stream regarding my note about Conjunctions was short, but to the point:

Never mind the names – any work in the issue you'd consider major?

I nominate Marcella Durand's lyric essay.

It’s a good question. I found myself sympathizing also with the commentators who bemoaned the difficulty of “keeping up” with journals in an era of shit distribution, increasing reliance on web publishing & still way too many print magazines. Even as I get notes every week as to “where should I send my work?” from two or three blog readers here.

I get 20 books in the mail on a slow week these days. Of these, somewhere between seven & ten deserve some serious attention. And I’m lucky if I get to half of those. It would be very easy indeed to become overwhelmed with guilt because I didn’t read your book, or his book, or her book, or that stack over there, three freaking feet tall next to the exploding eight-foot tall bookcase that contains the unread books that fit into the “deserve serious attention” category. And I can understand why friends of mine in the bookstore industry often treat their wares as if it were shit – it’s really a defense against that overwhelming guilt. There’s a tale that Milton was the last man to have read all the available literature in his time, but I suspect that’s apocryphal. I suspect that that had already become impossible.

So what does one do?

There are of course many more ways than one to read a text simply front to back the way you were taught in preschool. Just as there different ways to go to a museum or to look at a work of visual art. It’s perfectly reasonable to go to a museum and to sit in front of a single painting or sculpture all day long, just as it is to walk rapidly through gallery after gallery, letting the paintings sweep over you in waves & clusters. That is at least as valid as the zombies you see at these palaces of visual culture with the Official Story literally hanging from their neck & plugged into their ears, wandering from numbered work to numbered work, missing everything else. Or trailing a half-trained docent. Is there anyone who goes to a museum just to look at a single detail – a corner of a Rothko, or the way the registration of paint doesn’t quite fit the lips in one of Warhol’s Marilyn multiples? I don’t see why not. One can learn a lot this way.

There are, looking in Conjunctions’ 25th anniversary number, several poets whom I do tend always to read straight through – Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, Forrest Gander, Robert Kelly, C.D. Wright – as well as a number of others whom I tend to read a lot. But even with these poets, it’s not always how I read them when I’m going through a magazine. For example, Peter Gizzi has a longish piece here, five pages, that is quite unlike much of his other poetry, entitled “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures.” Gizzi’s work often starts from a take on the work of poets, mostly New Americans, around which he constructs often dazzling meta-commentaries. “Vincent,” tho, doesn’t immediately suggest such an approach and is composed instead of 14 stanzas, each of 11 lines, long lines at that. Reading a stanza in the middle, I start to count out the feet, ten here, twelve there, until I ascertain that there isn’t a fixed pattern at this level as well. I go back to the beginning, which starts, literally, with a rhetorical question and realize that there is no way on earth I would ever complete this poem if it were by someone whose name I had never heard of before, my distaste for this relic of the 19th century is so strong. It is noteworthy, I think, that the rhetorical question –

Is this what you intended, Vincent
that we take our rest at the end of the grove
nestled into our portion beneath the bird’s migration
saying, who and how am I made better through struggle.

– itself contains an interior question, yet neither invokes or otherwise seems to warrant the actual deployment of a question mark. Gizzi wants to put the reader into a particular style of discomfort, which is consistent not only with the next question, but the remainder of the stanza itself:

Or why am I I inside this empty arboretum
this inward spiral of whoop ass and vision
the leafy vine twisting and choking the tree.
O, dear heaven, if you are indeed that
or if you can indeed hear what I might say
heal me and grant me laughter’s bounty
of eyes and smiles, of eyes and affection.

How is it, in the middle of all this self-consciously stilted language, does a phrase like whoop ass and vision suddenly show up? Otherwise, the stanza reads like a translation, deliberately so. Gizzi’s poetry often pushes & prods the reader, but this one seems instead to want to smother him or her. Gizzi very much to knows what he wants & what he’s doing here, but it’s not a journey I’m personally comfortable taking. I read & think through the first two pages, but don’t complete the piece. But I don’t feel as tho I “haven’t read it,” tho in some sense that’s exactly the case.

Another piece that seems to me no less problematic is “Realm of Ends” by Ann Lauterbach. I like Ann personally a great deal & trust her sense – one shared by several other poets in Conjunctions, including Gander & Wright – that there can be a middle road between the New Americans & the traditionalism of the School of Quietude, that one can have literally the best of both worlds without necessarily being torn apart by the contradictions. “Realm of Ends” immediately raises this same specter for me that Gizzi’s choice of dramatic monolog invokes. It is narrative to the point where I could imagine hearing Danny Glover read it aloud on NPR’s salute to fiction, Selected Shorts:

Francis turns. He has something to say. He has an
announcement. He says, “Snow in summer” and falls silent.

A single egg in the nest. Francis turns.
It is not metaphysical; it is merely distraction.

Time passes. The nest is empty.
The snow, bountiful. A girl dedicates her last weeks

to a show of force. She writes gracefully about force.
Francis turns. He seems weak and small and without volition.

Thus the bird lands on his head.
Thus there are radiant seconds.

Is it reliable? Not the garden. Not the bed.
The streaming elocution is more or less prosaic.

The bird lifts up onto the bare branch.
The tree, an elm, is dying, almost dead.

Francis is indifferent, but the bird, a cardinal,
shines on the barren branch.

Tit tit tittit tit hovers the weary pragmatist.
It is hoped, by Francis and the rest, that she

cannot know heartbreak, not
the melodrama of the nest’s margin of error.

Here Lauterbach’s mastery of line and stanza fascinate me & carry me past my initial flinch at the recognition of a narrative so symbolic that I want to cringe at a phrase like “weary pragmatist” characterizing a bird, recognizing the Catholic undertone in the choice of a cardinal, just as, at this moment, I think Lauterbach wants the reader to at least entertain the idea that this may be Francis of Assisi.

The person I immediately think of here, curiously enough, is the late William Bronk, whom I think of as the master of the line that contains within it multiple sentences with their inevitable full stops – it’s the point in Bronk’s work where he gets closest also to the Oppen of Of Being Numerous, the nearest Bronk gets to Objectivism as an overall program.

This puts me into an interesting position – Lauterbach is doing things narratively here I would almost never bother to read – it’s a model of the tale I inherently think of as false because it excludes too much, leaving us only the threads she wants to remain, more suitable to a motion picture (where the camera raises problems of containment poetry never need confront) than to a poem – but Lauterbach is also doing things to line and stanza that completely draw me in. I read the whole poem – the section above is just the first of six – feeling this push-pull dynamic the entire way. At the end I feel that Lauterbach has had her way with me, gotten me to do things I don’t generally like to do, gotten me even to enjoy it. It’s exhausting and brilliant, but it leaves me feeling upset at the same time, not just because of what occurs in the narrative, but because of the narrative itself – this poem would make a great short film, tho perhaps one only Ingmar Bergman could have directed.

So in this manner I proceed through Conjunctions, mostly skipping the fictioneers to whom I may or may not come back later. Are there works here that are major, at least in the way I presume that Jordan must mean? I’m not sure that’s the role of a journal. There are works that are entirely new in what they’re doing, including (as Jordan suggests) Marcella Durand’s work, though I wouldn’t call it a “lyric essay” so much as meditative. Jonathan Lethem has a piece that bristles with brilliance from beginning to end. Called “Their Back Pages,” this short story, which has more akin to the work of fiction of Thomas Pynchon (young Pynchon at that) than to other work I’ve previously read by Lethem, is not unmindful of the allusion to Dylan, as this inserted poem, clearly “to the tune” of “Woody’s Song,” Dylan’s very first effort at writing, testifies:

Say, Keener Dingbat, I wrote you a poem
On a funny old island where much has gone wrong
Sit right back and you’ll hear of my love
For coiled scribbled hair and your spidery legs
Not so spidery though as the giant spider I killed
To protect you, my love, but should I have let it eat
Your husband and kids and that wretched vile clown?
Oh, Keener Dingbat, you’re haunting my days
I see you in the pale lagoon and at the hidden spring
I seek you like a sheriff hunting a walnut oh shit
I stole that line, I can’t help myself, I steal everything, I am
Your Villain,

It is worth noting that everything above is immediately apparent and relevant from the perspective of the story as a whole.

Another work that jumps out at me here is by Marjorie Welish, yet another of the Third Way poets. Written in numbered sections a la Lauterbach, but centered on the page in the manner of Michael McClure, “Isle of the Signatories,” plays with narrative, literature (from Virgil to Artaud), pop culture, ontology & much more all at once. Here are the first three, of eleven, sections. Be sure to read at least the first aloud:


The following lines were omitted:

Even in
Arcady I exist
e-signature in whose writings
lie the body
or its facsimile
Et in arcadia, I also,
Saw “
Pierre” there also.


The following lines were omitted:

I, too, have known
Name, signature
Here lie
Ego’s avatars also
I, Jacques Rivière,
The lie:
Fabrication requires a thinker, he said.
Whereas, he went on, attempting to think
Any thought, yet

Attempting to think henceforth
As a text though ex temporare
All were reprinted
With the lyric effect
His and “there is”
By adverting to the effect.


The following lines were omitted, probably deliberately:

I, Marni Nixon, unpaginated
And the corrected typescript
At a table, as a text
Attempting to think henceforth
To think as the corrected typescript would think
through the lyric effect
incited to rhetoric where structure has been.

Followed by an additional line:

I, writing.

“Isle of the Signatories” has one characteristic I associate with all great literature – it makes me madly jealous that I didn’t write it. At what level is this a discussion of death’s immanence in writing? Or of the “ghost” in so much movie music that was Marni Nixon (check out her career). Or the role of the editor in the text, which is how I read Rivière’s presence here? If this poem is characteristic of what Welish is doing these days, she has clearly moved to a new level in her already quite significant career. This is a poem that not only ensures that I will read it completely, but that I will now have to go read & reread her most recent books. As Lethem’s Murkly might put it, something is happening here and there’s only one way to find out.