Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nick Piombino, Toni Simon

Looking at the 400 (exactly) aphorisms collected in Nick Piombino’s Contradicta: Aphorims, a collaboration with painter & collagiste Toni Simon, you might think that since aphorisms are by their nature quite short – I think the longest one here runs to all of four sentences – that this will be the literary equivalent of Skittles, something sweet that you can gobble by the handful & run through pretty quickly.

You would be exactly wrong.

If, in fact, there is an appropriate analog for this little book (6” high, 4¼” wide, 167 pages thick, with no more than 4 aphorisms per page & that much only 33 times), it’s not Skittles but ironwood, the carved objects of which invariably weigh several times what you anticipate. This may look like a terrific book to slot into one’s back pocket, to read on the bus or subway, snacking on it as you go about your day. But the truth is it’s heavy. It’s actually difficult to go through more than two or three of these paired aphorisms at a time. You find yourself wanting to think or dream about them. Or the argue about others, sometimes within the same pair.

Now pairs are an issue. This is not a book of 400 aphorisms, but rather of 200 paired aphorisms, each pair divided by an asterisk, the white space of the page often haunted (absolutely the right word) by Simon’s post-surreal collages that – just like the text – appear so simple until you actually absorb them (the torso of a man emerging from the shell of a mollusk with pages to sell).

Aphorisms are, by their nature, inherently deeper than they first seem. Paired aphorisms pose an entire world in their tension. The book’s title, Contradicta, suggests that there will be a logical structure here:




But that is relatively seldom the case. In the process of reading through this book, which took just about two months cover to cover, I came to think of that asterisk at the center as being more like a gear. I could imagine an ideal (interactive?) version of these texts in which the two sections of each pair would vary where they appear, as if they were moments on a clockface. The first aphorism might appear straightforward, the literary equivalent of 12 o’clock. For example:

The pleasure in viewing the belongings of the great masters derives from the inability to believe that they did things in the same way and places that everyone else does.

But where precisely should one situate its pair?

My father never spoke so now I won’t stop listening.

Six o’clock that is not. Seven thirty? Eleven? I could entertain those relations of the second to the first much more readily. In this sense, I think Contradicta is actually misnamed. Abdicta feels more to the point. Or even Polydicta, tho I tend to think poly- invariably is a cop-out, at least as a prefix in theory.

This example also raises a lot of the other issues that makes this book anything but light. I’m not at all certain that I concur with Piombino’s proposition in this first paragraph. It might be true in some of the houses of the “masters” that I’ve visited over the years (Goethe, George Washington), but it is profoundly not true with others. Thomas Jefferson did not even sleep the way other men did, let alone dine,write, think or even use his Bible. To step into Monticello is to walk into the imagination of someone who never did anything just because that was how it was done. Which is why, frankly, his ownership & sexual use of slaves is not something that can be passed over with a “he was no different than other men of his time & state” defense.

My relationship to that second aphorism is even more complicated. My father was gone after I was two. My grandfather – a very different role – was himself very close to the description Piombino offers of his father. But that was at least partly a reaction to the fact that my grandmother was never silent¹, and in her psychotic episodes, not in the slightest ordinary with what issued forth verbally. That is why I can’t stop listening, but also I would never think to use the auxiliary won’t. There is nothing voluntary in the process, at least for me.

These are the sorts of engagements / arguments I find myself having with virtually all of the paired aphorisms here, which explains why perhaps this little book proves the antithesis of easy reading. Not every pair, nor every aphorism, sparks such a personal(ized) debate for me, which is to be expected when you have 400 of everything (think of Grenier’s Sentences, or the thousands of Eigner poems, to pick two examples). Further, I think the aphorism itself is a problematic format for our time. One of the two (yet another pair!) epigrams at the head of this text is one from Karl Kraus’ 1909 Dicta and Contradicta, to wit:

The philosopher thinks from eternity into the moment; the poem from the moment into eternity.

At one level, this is not much more than Williams’ “No ideas but in things,” aligning poetry with specificity. At another, it is all about categories. Indeed, its argument is that philosophy lies in categories as such. Specificity is but an instance when looked at from that end of the telescope. And while it is true that there are poets (Robert Duncan, William Blake, Walt Whitman, even Ginsberg) for whom these sublime (divine) groupings are as (or more) real as any piece of belly-button lint, there is likewise that other side of the dance, Williams, the Objectivists, Creeley & Olson at their best, for whom such aggregate thinking invariably falsifies. It is what Williams despised most about Eliot. For a lot of writers of my generation – and I’m one of them – arguing about generalities comes across as muddy or even sentimental. That’s a risk Piombino knowingly tackles head-on. He’s not, to my mind, uniformly successful when he does, but it’s never for erring on the side of caution.

Contradicta: Aphorisms is a complicated, exhausting, often maddening book, one that is hard to “just read” but almost impossible to put down. Even if you feel you’re watching Nick Piombino sky diving without a parachute, you never doubt that he knows exactly what he’s doing.


¹ 42 years of working in a paper recycling plant – there is a highrise condo there now – in Emeryville also robbed my grandfather of much of his hearing as well. The truth about the real world is that such circumstances seldom have single causes. One problem with aphorisms is that they tend to edit these out.