Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I’m always reading a dozen books at once, sometimes twice that many. Even my “current novel,” literally my bedtime reading as I drift off to dreamland, is divided between Tao Lin’s sad but oddly beautiful Richard Yates and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, the latter of which I’m reading as an e-book, a PDF version of the Project Gutenberg edition on an old Palm Pilot that’s not much good for anything else these days. In part, this reading style is because I have an aversion to the immersive experience that is possible with literature. Sometimes, especially if I’m “away” on vacation, I’ll plop down in a deck chair on a porch somewhere with a big stack of books of poetry, ten or twelve at a time, reading maybe up to ten pages in a book, then moving it to a growing stack on the far side of the chair until I’ve gone through the entire pile. Then I start over in the other direction. I can keep myself entertained like this for hours. That is pretty close to my idea of the perfect vacation.
I’ve had this style of reading now for some 50 years – it’s not something I’m too likely to change – but I’ve long realized that this is profoundly not what some people want from their literature, and it’s the polar opposite of the experience of “getting lost” in a summer novel, say. Having been raised, as I was, by a grandmother who had long psychotic episodes makes one wary of the notion of “getting lost” in the fantasy life of another.
Happily, it turns out that this is not a bad way to read a lot of poetry. It’s one thing, for example, to read Mark Goldstein’s Tracelanguage, a work he acknowledges as a translation of Paul Celan’s Atemwende – he calls it a “transtranslation” & likens it to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca – and to read it against, say, Pierre Joris’ translation of the same work by Celan, published as Breathturn, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m reading Goldstein alongside Demosthenes Agrafiotis’ Chinese Notebook (itself a translation from the Greek by John & Angelos Sakkis), Lynn Behrendt’s petals, emblems, Mark Truscott’s Nature, Jeffery Beam’s Gospel Earth, John Godfrey’s City of Corners & Carla Harryman’s Baby. Things turn up in Goldstein’s work – the angst that is at the heart of Celan’s writing for example – that comes across very different in the context of a Beam, a Behrendt or a Truscott than it would playing “test of translation” against Joris. And there is a sense of the source (or Ur-) text as other in Goldstein that is palpable as well in the Agrafiotis book, but which also shows up in Baby in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on. Contexts really do lead you into the work from different angles.
This list is just the tip of a much larger stack, the whole of which in itself is keeping me (or perhaps I ought to write “helping to keep me”) from directly confronting what I take to be the book of the year for 2010, the four-volume Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, which sits rather like the white whale on my coffee table upstairs. The Collected Poems is definitely one of those “if you only buy one book this year” items. Indeed, if you read, really seriously read, not just glanced at, eight poems per day, one year would not be quite enough to make your way through all 3,070 items therein. It’s one thing to feel that one is being tossed into the deep end of the pool when one reads a book like Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Pitch: Drafts 77 – 95 cover to cover, but the collected Eigner is more akin to being dumped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with the admonition to Go Swim. Good luck with that.
In fact, Stanford & Eigner’s editors Robert Grenier & Curtis Faville are presently contemplating a Selected that would in some way represent the vast reaches of that oeuvre. I had fun thinking of how you might edit down the work of Zukofsky into something manageable (see, for example, here & here), but doing the same for Eigner is a project on an entirely different scale. The editors have their work cut out for them, though hopefully they realize that – unless they botch things horribly in some way that is unimaginable – the end result there also will be the manifest book of the year of 20-whatever.
Nonetheless, I did find several books in 2010 that pulled me, whether or not that’s what I wanted, into immersive reading experiences, including Tracelanguage, petals, emblems & Pitch, Steve Carey’s AP (published in 1984!), CAConrad’s The Book of Frank, and Andrew Levy’s Nothing Is In Here (of which I have what publisher Tim Peterson described to me as an advanced reading copy whose 75 pages can be found as a 48-page PDF file on the EAOGH website). In each instance, I have had to put everything else aside while I dove through large portions of these works. So in retrospect, I’m wondering what it is about these books, as such, that literally forced / is forcing me out of my decades-ingrained habits as a reader.
At one level I might say that there is, in each of these volumes, something extra to be gained by confronting them fully, letting the book, so to speak, take over. This is why, for example, collections of minimalist poems, such as Truscott’s or Steve Roggenbuck’s i am like october when i am dead, a book that can be read in the time it takes to learn how to spell the author’s surname, never fully count as immersive experiences: they are the literary equivalent of bucket showers one might take on a camping trip, quite bracing but so brief that it’s difficult to live there. That’s not a criticism – I recommend both of these books & several of Robert Creeley’s later books would equally fall into this category, as would more than a few of Eigner’s individual volumes. It’s the fate, almost by definition, of all chapbooks.
Nor does immersion necessarily mean reading the book straight through to completion. In that list two paragraphs above, only AP & The Book of Frank got devoured completely from beginning to end [I’m in the midst of petals, emblems now so can’t yet say what that experience will ultimately be]. With Tracelanguage I got three-quarters of the way through the book & got to a point right at page 74 where I could not continue, even tho I tried for three straight days. I got distracted fairly early on in Pitch, then picked the book back up after a couple of weeks & went straight to the end with such a sense of force I couldn’t go back & locate what had happened to disrupt the reading. It’s not only the best volume yet in DuPlessis’ remarkable Drafts project, it elevates the entire multivolume poem to a whole new level.
I had an eerily dissimilar experience earlier in the year with Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life. I got sucked into the world of that book on page 1 & read that way for almost half of the book, then found it hard to continue until I returned & completed it in a much more piecemeal fashion. The end felt much quieter than the beginning. As with DuPlessis, I can’t say what disrupted the reading in the first place.
I’ve known Andrew Levy’s writing for a couple of decades & always liked it, so agreed to pen a blurb, then got to a point in the book that flat out stopped me. Nothing is in Here is a work that I think of as being an “Edgar on the Heath” project. My favorite line in all of Shakespeare belongs to Edgar in his guise as Tom o’ Bedlam in King Lear when he declares “Edgar I nothing am,” four words that operate not so much grammatically but rather in the manner of nested dolls, going from the outermost social layer inward to the pure recognition of immanence that is consciousness. In much the same way, Nothing is in Here operates as diary, memoir, manifesto, stalking as it were the “I” that speaks whenever Andy Levy speaks. One of its goals as a writing project – and it’s masterful in this regard – is to explore what literally remains as one switches from this mode to the next, from verse, to prose, even to photographs lifted from the newspaper. Where does one inhabit that?
But just as Edgar’s moment where epistemology & ontology meet also is always already about a difficult relationship with the father (in Lear, Gloucester, who has been duped into disowning Edgar only to be later blinded & left bereft), Nothing is in Here likewise finds its center as project, at least in my reading, when Levy addresses his own father directly. As somebody who grew up much more deeply abandoned by my father than was Edgar, this is special territory for me, a space in which I can’t trust that my reading, or my sense of the power a work has, is really in the text or rather triggered in me by me, as tho the book were merely a detonating device & I was my own personal IED.
So when I got to that moment in Nothing is in Here, I stopped cold, or rather I stopped suddenly quite sweaty & clammy. I didn’t pick the book up again for a month & I waited until I felt I was in a strong enough place psychologically to do so. I did let Peterson & Levy know that I didn’t think I could write a timely blurb. When I did come back to it, I let all of it in, which I think is the only way to read this book (even if it is not the way to read all books, nor the way I tend to read them). I don’t think Levy’s text will let you do it any other way. You have to acknowledge that a news photo of a dead soldier is as much “him” as is the most personal writing, and that of course is precisely what he’s trying to explore. Thus the claim of the title – which I take both directly and ironically – has to do with the self as a vessel, a container as empty as any received literary form. Perhaps the obvious question should not be Who speaks, but What speaks.
I am by nature a Brechtian with regards to that question of whether the reader should be conscious that he or she is active in the process of reading, even though my own texts often push I think to make that hard for readers. I totally get, for example, why my nephew Daniel has begun to photograph windows because he wants to locate that experience of the frame, that membrane of glass between viewer & object. Which is why so many of the windows are wet or fogged over or compromised by ambient lighting on all sides. Of course, I had 20-20 vision until I was 40, but had to have cataract surgery on both eyes before I was 45: even when I remove my trifocals, I’m staring at the world through pieces of hard plastic, they just happen to be embedded in my eyes. I’m painfully conscious that the fly needs in fact to be led out of the fly bottle, that we live in this emulsion of atmosphere that is, in some sense, a liquid, no more free than fish.
All of which means to me this: the capacity for immersive reading is not a requirement of great literature, yet all works that achieve this quality qualify as terrific acts of writing. The works that strive to achieve this and fail – especially in fiction – are legion & one of the interesting aspects of Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is that the author seems to wish to hold just this aspect at arm’s length, recognizing it, testing it, but not really inviting it in. This is the whole point, I think, of giving his protagonists the preposterous names of Dakota Fanning & Haley Joel Osment. In this sense, Lin is doing between text & reader something very close to what Kathy Acker was getting at between text & author when she appropriated the work of Harold Robbins as part of her plagiarism + porn = autobiography strategy.
It is the ability for the writer to be sufficiently in control of their tools to make the question a decision that should be the test. We as readers can only approach these texts in contexts not of their author’s choosing. If we are to be fair to these texts, we must learn to acknowledge our side of the engagement as readers as equally as we do ability of poets & fictioneers to construct all these various alternatives for our dismay or our delight.