poetry and poetics in review
It is (you may say) conflicted. Tina Celona's chapbook Songs & Scores is beautifully put together. The cover is made from a lovely paper in which leaves, petals and grasses are pressed; the pages are satisfyingly thick; the layout is clean, the type well chosen. At its best, Songs & Scores has a wonderful ear, paying precise attention to word tone and the resonance of individual phrases. Likewise, in moments, when not trying too hard to be poetic, the poems discover strong juxtapositions & images.
do not show the moon how her age moves us; she is beautiful and young, the grass amuses her, the trees praise her, the snow reveals her, the fields raise her, so too, we who sing of the moon.At its worst, reading Songs & Scores is like reading a pre-teen's dream diary or the journal of a disgruntled graduate student. Not to call it tired Surrealism, but when the images do fail it is because they do not tie into a thing/idea or movement, let's say action, that the reader can identify. Though the book contains a few somewhat engaging poems, too often the book practices the worst kind of self-reflexivity, simply referring to poetry or this poem and then moving on, all the while beating its reader over the head with the first person singular, creating the type of gimmicky poems of which I am growing increasingly weary. Such a weakness only finds amplification when, more often than not, lines move from one to another without a clear reason why, without weight or a sense of purpose: "i don't feel that way about a / few days which manages / to be cute without being trivial, suddenly i cough / and it tastes terrible and i remember realizing". While it appears that Celona is aware of some of these weaknesses--she questions her own line breaks in the first poem for example--she does not go so far as to overcome them.--Joel Bettridge
(Editors' note: Spectacular Books are edited by Katherine Lederer and can be reached at: P.O. Box 250648, Columbia University Post Office, New York, NY 10025 and/or email@example.com)
Entire Dilemma is Michael Burkard's first book since 1990's My Secret Boat (A Notebook of Prose and Poems), and it is, in my mind, the most coherent of his collections. This is not to say that his earlier poems make no sense--they do, and much of their sense is damn good--but rather to say that Burkard's work has always seemed "collected" out of a need to simply give the poems a place to exist rather than out of the need to have a group of poems talk to each other between the covers, to resonate. The earlier work sings to and from what could be called "American surrealism" (Williams and Stevens, Tate and Knott), with strains of Kafka, Babel and Borges providing the European backup vocals. This aesthetic is certainly present in Entire Dilemma, but it is also accounted for with a clarity that, for me, has been equally lacking in all poetry "camps" these days. The book's long first poem, "Before the Dark," begins the conversation:
Fred, I don't know what to do. About me and you and the dream which knocks and knocks at me, now has me consistently in dream's time: am completely in belief then hapless realize, of course, dream, dream, it's only a dream. So: here you are, with me, not quite, after a quarter of a century, and I am simply missing you as I have been prone to do, especially since being sober.This poem is one of several in the collection that deals with alcoholism and the losses that accompany recovery. As Fred, "one/of many names," appears and disappears during the course of the poem, we see the shimmering of missing habits and friends as they are found again, and often buried, by memory:
Sometimes someone tells me of a recluse writer or painter, and she or he is still drinking somewhere, or he or she is known to be out there in a specific place but so reclusive that it doesn't matter, whereabouts "unknown." And being an alcoholic, even in recovery, I have this more than momentary sense that dark life isn't so bad after all. There is an alcoholic shine to that darkness. It's enough of a longing to make me tremble. And then I turn back, as I do here. ("Sober Ghost")Burkard "shades" his latest book with other books: Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Roethke's Collected Poems, The Cantos, an unnamed Kafka with a "black/yellow" coverleaf, and even his own Fictions from the Self, which lends the title of one of it's poems, "A Fire in the Alphabet" to Entire Dilemma's "The Spellers":
If there were to be a fire in the alphabet tonight one would not want to be a z, an m, a c . . . who knows where it would begin . . . and one would not want to be a speller --maybe not even a friend.The book frequently refers to itself as well, as certain matters of subject appear again and again, familiarizing themselves with the reader and allowing the poems to converse in a way that seems productive rather than reductive. These are not position-taking poems which belabor a point in rapid succession, but they bring home the "point" by way of the bounce of ideas. What the poems "have" to say and share are their doubts about certainty, family, town, house, friend. Burkard knows how to use the refrain, and he knows the usefulness of this action's ability to define (see his repetition of some particularly stunning lines in "The Tenderness," "The Job," "The Summer after Last" and the title poem and his use of repetend in "Prose Noir" and "Goodbye,"). But he also knows when to refrain, when to let a sentiment, and ultimately a poem, go. Though there are those who might see this as a sort of cheap "giving up," I take it to be the most forceful and important assertion the poetic intelligence has to offer. A poem should beat the reader to the "enough already," and this is an experience which, these days, does not happen as often as I'd like:
I think I will be quiet now. I would like to read that passage about the bird. ("When Sal Died")
Juliana Spahr's writing has quietly developed into one of the more uniquely conceptual enterprises in contemporary poetry. This conceptuality is not a matter of overall approach or particular insight, but derives instead from the stringency with which she relies on clear, even prosaic statements to create the effect, through juxtaposition and repetition, of a haunting complexity. The statements themselves are scarcely profound--are not even charming or witty in their simplicity, as with Gertrude Stein. Spahr is not, and does not pretend to be, a philosopher like Lyn Hejinian, a historian like Susan Howe, a cultural worker like Theresa Cha. Rather, she relies on basic insights which tend toward the emotionally compelling (joining is better than separating; criticism is a parasitic activity; poetry and love are forms of relation with much in common), allowing these insights to reverberate within a structure that leads the reader to interrogate and not simply accept the truth of what she is saying.
Yet if Spahr's unique mode of conceptual writing is most usefully considered at the "meta-" level, her method is such that the individual elements retain an intrinsic importance. Here she veers most decisively from the common practice of the day. Her writing is not, like Leslie Scalapino's, the opaque product of a largely hidden intention; nor is her writing the illustration of some fundamental insight about language and meaning, like Charles Bernstein's, or an illustration of procedure, like Jackson Mac Low's. There is, to some extent, a kinship with Ron Silliman, for Spahr too achieves architectural grandeur without using building blocks grand in their own right. But where Silliman's constructions are only meaningful in aesthetic terms, Spahr's are very nearly the opposite: aesthetically pleasing only insofar as they deepen meaning or illuminate intention.
The book at hand is a case in point. At once an "Introduction" and "Addendum" to Spahr's work as a whole, Spiderwasp presents, metaphorically, what at first glance might seem to be a dismissive view of its subject, the poet-critic relation. The critic, suggests Spahr, is a kind of "pepsis wasp," a creature who survives as a species by "lay[ing] eggs on the body of a tarantula." The poet in this construction is the spider, who undergoes the procedure "alive but paralyzed." As put by Spahr in her affectless prose:
This is a story involving submission and dominance: wasp searches for correct version of tarantula (for only one version will do); as wasp searches it probes tarantula's body with an antenna; once right version is found, wasp digs grave for tarantula; . . . there is a fight now and the wasp wins to paralyze the tarantula with poison, always wins; the wasp then drags tarantula to grave.The image is at once lurid, powerful, compelling, but Spahr to her credit doesn't let this sensationalism fix the image with a single meaning, nor does she allow the image's multiple meanings to become fixed by a single judgment. Indeed, the correlation between critical judgment and monogamy almost immediately blurs the focus, making the reader ask if "literary criticism" is really Spahr's subject at all. (Is her wasp a WASP? one wonders. Her tarantula some hairy ethnic lover seduced and abandoned? Or are we instead glimpsing an entirely new social territory, "topographically rich and seismically distorted," such as Octavia Butler might have imagined?) Allowing her metaphor to reverberate within a larger context, Spahr invites the reader to reconsider, and reconsider more sympathetically, the emotional and intellectual contours of the violent relation between her two equally unappealing creatures, not only by insisting on the eroticism of the relation ("He or she came home with his or her body covered with spider bites. He or she came home with his or her shirt torn"), but by playing wasp to her own tarantula--by playing both poet and critic within the covers of a single book, that is, by recreating herself, cyborg-fashion, as a hybrid creature, as a spiderwasp.
This Spahr does by structuring her book as two parallel texts, with poetry on the left-hand side and criticism on the right. The poetic text (first published on its own in An Anthology of (New) American Poets) presents the central metaphor, as well as a series of fragmentary narratives involving air travel, criticism, reading and love affairs. The critical text is a polemic against self-consciously avant-garde poetry, but also a celebration of three writers (Lisa Jarnot, Jena Osman, Joan Retallack) who are said to offer an alternative. Taken on its own, the essay is not especially compelling, but Spahr's gift for juxtaposition and reverberation redeems even this, the weakest portion of her book, for her essay's combination of polemic and celebration offers a concrete example of the mode of criticism given sinister representation in her poetic text, even as the essay's various examples (not just Jarnot, Osman and Retallack, but Silliman, Nick Lawrence, Robert Grenier and Bob Perelman) further trouble the reader's judgments regarding spiders and wasps as such.
Spahr seems to me to have discovered a mode of writing that emphasizes her intellectual virtues (a keen appreciation of what is and isn't relevant; an introspective bent that resists arriving at premature conclusions) while deemphasizing those aspects of writing which might show her at a disadvantage. This is a lesson that many writers simply refuse to learn, usually out of vanity. (I think of X's insistence on hermetic lyricism, when her real talent is for social observation; or of Y's emphasis on politics, when outrage and even sympathy run counter to his wry humor and largely cool temperament; or of Z's desire to compose ascetic experiments, when her greatest gift is for passionate explosion.) Aware of her own subjective preferences, objective regarding her writerly limitations, Spahr has a sensibility distilled from writers far less stringent in their own distillations--an irony that only underscores the clarity of her enterprise.
Yet Spahr's stringency, eminently suited to her own talents and interests, has a general relevance for poetry today, not only in its suggestion of how craft might function in the aftermath of Language Writing (the anti-craft poetry par excellence), but in its illumination of a path beyond mere opacity, mere verbal sensation, mere lyrical effusion, mere wit. In this general relevance, moreover, her work offers, in her own words (applied with far less justification to Jarnot, Osman and Retallack, writers of much more definitive origin) a hybrid of "different aesthetic practices . . . challenging the ease of categorical separations." The key word in this formulation is "challenge." Today, the most vexing problems in poetry, of whatever categorical definition, are laxness, complacency, intellectual smugness, aesthetic ennui. Spiderwasp offers a corrective.--Benjamin Friedlander
(Editors' note: Spectacular Books are edited by Katherine Lederer and can be reached at: P.O. Box 250648, Columbia University Post Office, New York, NY 10025 and/or firstname.lastname@example.org)
For me poetry and poetics are not so much a matter of how I can make words mean something I want to say but rather letting language find ways of meaning through me. The shortest distance between two points is a digression.1.
His desire to dismantle the conventional "I" notwithstanding, Bernstein has achieved, perhaps unwillingly or unwittingly, a recognizable way of writing. The issue of style is especially troublesome for a poet like Bernstein, who most likely views it as a manifestation of cultural and social myopia/ignorance/commodification. But at some level, style also becomes a manifestation of personality, and most of the writing in My Way demonstrates a consistent personality. His strategies might change, but his ways of seeing and evaluating the world remain more or less consistent, therefore recognizable.
Bernstein does not blur the traditional division between poetry and criticism, he demolishes it, refusing to follow "appropriate scholarly decorum" in his "structurally challenging essays." In My Way, he writes, "One thing I am proposing is a modular essay form that allows for big jumps from paragraph to paragraph and section to section" in order to achieve "an array or constellation or environment" rather than a "linear sequence." Although other poets have treated the intersections of poetry, poetics, and politics in a manner similar to Bernstein, none has been so consistently humorous and outrageous. Whatever his subject--the audience of poetry, the state of contemporary criticism and intellectual life, the impact of cultural studies on literary studies, the teaching of poetry, the politics of form, the performance of poetry, ideolectical poetries, strategies for lineation, the act of reading, Reznikoff, Oppen, Stein, Pound, (Riding) Jackson--Bernstein manages to engage, elucidate, and fascinate (even if he infuriates). And he does this in a number of forms--poems, prose essays, verse essays, articles, interviews, verse letters, conference papers, book introductions--bespeaking a broad talent, a wide base from which he makes forays into poetry and its production.
Poetry is the ultimate small business, requiring a careful keeping of accounts to stay afloat. . I have wanted to bring poetry into the 'petty, commercial,' indeed material and social world of everyday life .3.
Yet it seems unsettling that a poet as iconoclastic as Bernstein has become so obviously successful. Any academic who publishes with Harvard University Press or University of Chicago Press has achieved some manner of success, of legitimacy within the predominant culture and academic community. But Bernstein rails against "official verse culture" in A Poetics, a book published by Helen Vendler's publisher. Perhaps he should revise his tag to "officious verse culture" since he has managed, with other poets, to change the course of the mainstream and, therefore, the meaning of "official" when applied to "verse culture." (For a number of younger poets, "official" verse culture resides in equal measure at SUNY-Buffalo, Columbia, Harvard, and Iowa.)
Granted, Bernstein does not publish in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, or Poetry--those anemic, exhausted bastions of officious verse culture--but don't Sulfur, Michigan Quarterly Review, Talisman, New American Writing, Colorado Review, and Verse--all acknowledged as original publishers for pieces in My Way--create their own kind(s) of official-ness? Despite Bernstein's specificity about what constitutes official verse culture, his definition must be subjective, thereby limited. I imagine those who try, and fail, to publish in any of the second group of magazines envision a process of exclusion based on power, an alternative official verse culture that promotes its own cadres of poets and poet-critics while ignoring others. Although I agree with the reasons behind Bernstein's criticisms of The New Yorker et al., I question the efficacy of identifying any official verse culture when that culture is so protean. Sometimes the best way to combat the predominant verse culture is to establish one's own, which Bernstein and other poets from the Language movement have done, with tremendous success.
"What is a poet-critic, or critic-poet, or professor-poet-critic?; which comes first and how can you tell?; do the administrative and adjudicative roles of a professor mark the sell-out of the poet?" Bernstein asks in "Revenge of the Poet-Critic." How one answers that last question depends on that person's occupation and institutional affiliation, or lack thereof. Poets and poet-critics who do not teach are often the most conservative and reactionary; a professor-poet-critic can be as subversive as the farthest outsider, since some non-academic institutions-the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Critics Circle, and other prize-giving bodies-seem unadventuresome in the extreme. Bernstein is an example of subversion within the academy and of the ability to flourish outside the perpetuators of prizes and mediocrity. Criticizing professor-poet-critics for being professors implies a more "noble" alternative (washing dishes? sorting mail? going to law school?). Criticizing professor-poet-critics for writing poorly-and therefore "teaching" poorly-or for placing career above vocation makes sense and leads to the questions: Can poetry writing be taught? Does teaching poetry adversely affect the teacher's own poetry? Is teaching poetry giving false hope to the hopeless? But in the long run, does any of this matter to poetry? Mediocre poets have always pushed and conned their way into lucrative positions; what does it matter if it's at court or at Columbia? When the focus returns to poetry, and not to the role of the professor-poet-critic, occupations and occupational hazards seem less pressing issues, and Bernstein does well to make light of them.
One element of Bernstein's writing that makes it excitingly unpredictable is his practice of "scissoring / the syntax of language (that is, cutting / against expected breaks of the / grammatical phrase or unit of / breath)." By upsetting conventional grammar, he establishes a nonconventional style. In "An Interview," he offers a convincing explanation for the traditionally "weak" line breaks of much of his poetry: "Given my interest in interruption (more than fragmentation), the lines allows for a visual interruption of the phrase (or sentence) without necessarily requiring a temporal interruption, a pause: that's why I so often cut the line where you are least likely to pause (say between an article and a noun). When [I] break the line against the phrase, rather than at the end of a phrase, . I can . set in motion a counter-measure that adds to the rhythmic richness of the poem."
Bernstein's attitude toward idiomatic language recalls Williams and Creeley: "I love to transform idioms as much as traditional metrics." But Bernstein has not made an overweening commitment to the colloquial; rather, he uses it when helpful to a particular work, often as a contrast to arcane or otherwise non-vernacular language. "It's the texture of everyday experience I'm after," he says in "An Interview"; since that texture includes but is not limited to language, Bernstein focuses heavily on everyday language but does not limit himself to it, as he employs a range of dictions.
The issue of comprehension-the duty of the author to "make sense" to a reader-figures large in Bernstein's writing; he addresses it in another interview (with Manuel Brito): "I figure if a reader or listener can't make out a particular reference or train of thought, that's okay-it's very much the way I experience things in everyday life. If the poem is at times puzzling or open-ended or merely suggestive, rather than explicit, maybe it gives readers or listeners more space for their own interpretations and imaginations." Although Bernstein's statement might be interpreted as evasion or resignation (i.e., "I cannot understand everything in my own life, so a reader should not understand everything in my poetry"), it points to the fundamental problem of all writing and at least offers an answer, albeit one hedged with "maybe."
My Way aptly ends with a poem, "The Republic of Reality," that ricochets among lyricism-"a hummingbird imagines / its nest as spun of / pure circumstance"; "Sometimes, alone at night, falling / into what lies beyond sleep"-narrative, and meta-poetry that carries a hint of nursery rhyme repetitiveness, disarming the reader through the appearance of (rhetorical) simplicity:
This line is stripped of emotion. This line is no more than an illustration of a European theory. This line is bereft of a subject.. This line is elitist, requiring, to understand it, years of study in stultifying libraries, poring over esoteric treatises on impossible to pronounce topics. This line refuses reality.A primary strength of My Way is that Bernstein refuses nothing, no idea or approach, before testing it himself. Unpredictable and unafraid of failure, he succeeds more often than not. Few poets think like Bernstein does, and few think as much. In an increasingly anti-intellectual poetic environment (even among university-based professor-poet-critics), the intellectual poet can expect a few scuffles. With its nod to the late, formidable Frank Sinatra, My Way shows that Bernstein is up for it.--Brian Henry
Brooklyn-based Kristin Prevallet, best known as one of the four editors of apex of the M, has done more than any other poet in recent years to further the practice of poetic collage. A previous book, Perturbation, My Sister, took its inspiration from Max Ernst's Hundred Headless Woman. In her ongoing work as editor of the Helen Adam papers, Prevallet has unearthed a lost oeuvre of visual collage, drawing a hitherto unknown relation between the ballad tradition (of which Adam was a master) and modernist technique.
The jump from Ernst to Adam is indicative of a general trend toward localizing a style that has never seemed especially American. That Adam should be the vehicle for this Americanization of collage is especially ironic. One of the few women who attended Jack Spicer's Poetry as Magic workshop, Adam was born in Scotland and represented for her California colleagues, in Robert Duncan's words, "the missing link to the tradition." The mystical overtones of her collage--part San Francisco Renaissance, part bardic inheritance--qualifies and transforms the prurient Victorianism of Ernst's material, which Ernst never quite overcame, and which Prevallet develops with a winning insoucience into a post-Langpo simulacrum of '50s bohemianism.
In Selection from "The Parasite Poems," Prevallet fits information and headlines from the newspaper and other periodicals into a poetry formally inspired by Spicer's Heads of the Town up to the Aether, in particular his use of "Explanatory Notes." Indeed, Prevallet goes Spicer one better by giving notes to her notes (i.e., identifying the sources of her facts and factoids), as if to make explicit Spicer's implicit belief that poetry is a form of knowledge. Thus, a poem beginning, in allusion to Spicer's famous Vancouver lecture, "The martian soil is powdered/by heat razed through the clearing/where an intruder comes into the frame" is given the note "The unending crawl of urban sprawl means a greater likelihood of people running into reptiles," cited in turn to a New York Times story from 5-12-98, "And now, El Nino Brings Bumper Crop of Snakes." Taken all together, the poem evokes at once the personified world of Oz and the biocentric perspective of an Edward Abbey--an enjoyable hybrid, even for those who like their grunge and love their leather jackets.
The book has two sections. Part One, "Samples," includes eight poems, each placed on the left-hand side of the page, with the aformentioned notes set near the bottom of the corresponding right. The poems are hallucinatory, as befits their loopy ecofeminism. Thus, "Human Body Used for Ammunition" reads:
In ghostland I am a swallow without a breed born one morning when the wound on your thigh took over your mind and glassy was your eye your temple by the see. A silver plate, a rejected alien seen by your blood as an intruder too vast to blink the milky way streaked and smudged the interior.The notes (taken from the Greenville News, NASA Space Science Features and Reuters) begin, "We are immune to penicillin," and end, "The body might not reject harvested pig organs," as if to show that the most monstrous locutions are indications of a technological and not merely poetic possibility--as if to justify the poem's technopoetic hybridity by pointing to those bizarre works of the imagination (life-sustaining bread mold, interspecies transplants) essential to our health and well-being.
Part Two, "Headlines," is an unnumbered sequence of fragments of capitalized newspaper-speak. Though more pastoral than Charles Bernstein, the end result seems close enough to a poem like "The Land and Its People" or "Stunment" to affirm, yet again, that there is more than one way to skin a cat:
(Buffalo, NY) Woman Accused of Poisoning Child, Self With Drug Used To Euthanize Animals. Chickens Slaughtered, Stomped. Worker Moves Chicken Cages (China). 1968, 1957, 1919: Flu epidemics. Rash of Flea Lily. Orange Bug Beetle (Ailanthus altissima). Feasts Scotch Broom. Broom's immune to Beetle's Bite.Perhaps because the book's collage elements are so well integrated into an overall vision, Selection from "The Parasite Poems" is, like Spicer (or Bernstein, for that matter), fun to read even when you have no idea what the hell is being said. Capitalizing on the daily paper's daily nonsense--the very measure of meaningfulness for some--Prevallet finds profit in the often bankrupt practice of "cut-up," an art of juxtaposition whose end result is usually a giggle, if that.--Dirk Jefferson
Several summers ago, while vacationing in the Hebrides, a heavy-set cousin of the sort who weighs down every family outing opined that the Hebrews were the only true representatives of the old Roman Empire, just as the Arabs of the Middle Ages were the only true survivors of the Greeks. At the time, I scoffed at my philosemitic cousin's presumption. (Surely there are some Italians equal to the imagination of all those tax collectors in Egypt who learned their astrology from Ptolemy.) But reading Professor Bloom's account of Hamlet, I see that pudgy Chauncey was correct. The Hebrews, especially in America, are a damn clever lot, with an instinctive understanding of Realpolitik such as never troubled the sweet dreams of an honest Celt. (Lord knows my colleagues at Derwent College are not so clever.)
To be sure, worldiness and cleverness are only specious forms of brute power, and have nothing to do with art. This I absolutely believe. But are American students of British art really any worse than theatre people? I think not.
"Judges, Policemen, Critics. These are the real Lower Orders, the low, sly lives, whom no decent person should receive in his house." So wrote Auden, who was shameless himself when it came to receiving houseguests. Sometimes, however, a policeman is just what the doctor ordered. And if the Dane himself had had an honest judge (a man like Prof. Bloom, for example), perhaps we wouldn't have any play at all, much less a tragedy on the order of Hamlet.
Quite a thought, that!
For many years Opera was the province of the over-educated and the mafiosi--an audience divided by a gulf of experience as wide as can be imagined. Thanks to the sixteen contributors to the present volume, we now know that the gulf was exactly as wide as a nation, and exactly as deep as sexual difference. For this factual knowledge alone the editors of The Work of Opera deserve our thanks. If only this tedious book were able to bridge the gulf, or even fill it with something other than lugubrious prose.
The problem begins with the cover. Since "opera" means "work" in Italian, the title is something of a redundancy. From there, things only get worse. To adapt Wagner's memorable compliment to Baudelaire, we never thought academics could replicate the boredom of attending an Opera, until we saw this book.--Benesis B. Orradge
The book begins with Allen Ginsberg's 1984 photograph bearing this inscription: "Out my kitchen window, Ed Sanders' Fuck You!/A Magazine of the Arts was 'mimeo'd in a secret location on the Lower East Side' circa 1964." Embedded in Ginsberg's description is the phrase that served as the "motto" of Sanders' press, which appeared blurb-like on the back cover of Fuck You! publications. The image is of Ginsberg's kitchen window, a frame inside the frame, and a backyard cityscape replete with the tree-weed Ailanthus. A thermometer protrudes from the right-hand side of the frame, too dim to be read. The day is overcast and drizzly, the photograph focused on the clothesline raindrops--the clothesline that connects in order to "air" objects of one's habitude and habitat, and so make them public.
Ginsberg, migratory as he was, is an apt figurhead for a collection whose title portends to track the "Adventures in Writing" that span two decades, for while New York is a point of focus, a lot of ground is travelled, and many presses and publications from east to west are depicted in photographs of those involved, of cover art graphics, paintings, sketches and collages, and in writing in various modes by participant-historians ranging from the pre-face of Jerome Rothenberg to the contextualizing Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips, to the literally hundreds of short remembrances by publishers of the small, smaller, and smallest presses (including, for example, Eileen Myles' Dodgems, which ceased after two issues in 1977). Page numbers are in mock-mimeo typeface, and the book also includes a fold-out timeline and an extensive index.
This account proceeds by way of a hefty introduction and four large 50-plus-page sections. These are either fraught with their own dissipation or overly aware of the historian's appropriating tendencies: the consistent modifier of this book is "and Others." The sections begin roughly to the West with the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissances and the Beats ("and Others") and move eastward to a geographic but moreso aesthetic middle ground, there ranging among "Black Mountain, Ethnopoetics, Deep Image, Intermedia and Performance, and Others" before reaching the "East Side" of the range, to look at "First, Second, and Third Generations, and Others." In the final section the veneer of geographic taxonomy crumbles with "Language Writing and Others," where production is all over the map. But in another attempt to make somewhat coherent what the constant incursion of "Others" complicates, the introduction shuffles these four different decks together, arranging the whole in a chronological sequence that, at the same time, encompasses a whole other range of others, pointing in directions not covered elsewhere in the book. To cite the subtitles: "Other Places (Chicago, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, Iowa, and Beyond)," "Canada, England, Scotland, Europe, and Australia," "Women's and feminist Writing" and "African-American Writing." This is not to say that Clay and Phillips aren't aware of their burdens of categorization. In yet another introductory note to "The Presses and Publications," they write that "the basic categories . . . provide a useful but by no means tidy model" as the publishers and publications . . . exist in a snarled labyrinth of associations."
So much ground is covered (or at least acknowledged) that if one were to look to Ginsberg's photograph for a glimpse of the secret location, it would have to be seen, as the book reveals, in all those city windows plus the haze above the buildings gesturing towards yet more city windows, other cities, other poetries and other lives. For what we find is that the "Secret Location" can't be distinguished from the whole small press circumstance, the whole of the mimeo revolution, and its various inheritors and participants. The book would only coyly admit that its frame, that Lower East Side window frame, while feeling itself to be a center, is only one of many similar frames. The Lower East Side is a but not THE "center." It doesn't tell the temperature of the times, it only sees and participates in the weather. Clay and Phillips make clear their primary allegiance: "we have consciously weighted the book . . . toward the New York School, in particular the second generation, in part as a reflection of our residence in that great city, but more importantly to pay special respect to The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery."
Though the title would lead one to believe that this book is about New York, the contents tell us otherwise. It can be about being in New York. The book was realized through a collaboration with the New York Public Library, which archives large portions of the material catalogued here and exhibited by the Library's Berg Collection of English and American Literature in the Spring and Summer 1998 (see The New York Times, 7/14/98, B1, B7). Though the exhibit materials were from the collection of the NYPL, the exhibit itself closely mirrored the book, likewise ranging geographically, aesthetically, and chronologically.
It's about New York only slightly moreso than it's about any place being any place. Finally what we get is not the poetry that was written, not some sense of the oeuvre of the Lower East Side scene, but one way in which a few generations saw themselves producing poetry--saw the magazine, saw the book, and saw the way these artifacts collaborated and corroborated with other elements that now come forward to speak of that time: the images, the art, and the verbal impressions.--Linda Russo
Any discussion of "politics," or negotiation of difference, in poetry remains woefully inadequate so long as issues of translation are not addressed. Lack of attention to what is going on in "other" languages, even where it pertains to our own scene, will only reinforce the imperial status so much "avant garde" American poetry (still) pretends to oppose--confirming the platitude that imperial cultures are translation-poor, even while or indeed because they are export rich. Viewed from within the translation space of Yunte Huang's slender provocation, SHI, A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry, American discussions of poetics do seem oddly flattened. American attempts at translation, whether as formal exercise, "homophonic" ditty, cultural projection/appropriation, or as a grappling with linguistic fragmentation on the part of second or third generation immigrants, have little impact. Indeed, for any real depth, such discussions will have to rely increasingly on the perspective of bilingual immigrants like Huang.
In SHI, a collection of "translations" of eleven deceptively mainstream Chinese poems, nothing is quite what it seems. Huang distances himself, in his brief introduction, from the metaphysical tendencies of modernist translation theories (Pound's "Luminous Detail," Benjamin's "pure Language," ethnopoeticists' Romantic "origins") at the same time that he recuperates the practical advances of these predecessors: Pound's "interpretative" translation experiments (translating for one aspect, such as "melopoeia," in his almost-homophonic translations of Arnaut Daniel, less well known that his "phanopoetic" Rihaku versions), Benjamin's defense of "literal" translation (where "mode" rather than "sense" is the object), or Alton Becker's linguistic anthropology. Translation, in Huang's view, is verbal rather than objective, a process, to be rescued from the shadows of the "original" as well as from the transparency of "translations": "looking from such a vantage point, translation is no longer able to hide itself in our blind spot; instead, the often-invisible face of translation is being brought to the foreground of poetic texture and the traces of translation's needle work are being exposed to the reader's view."
Huang foregrounds the precipitate of "multitudinous detail" and linguistic impurities usually swept under the translator's magic carpet by exploding his presentation into at least four parts: a poetic translation (or version), with facing annotations and the Chinese text at the bottom of the page; "More Explanations" on another page, where he breaks down selected characters to show the radicals (roots) involved; next a "Radical Translation" in interlinear form, with the Chinese characters above and composite translation (of radical plus the whole character's meaning--like translating an idiom word for word) below; and, finally, "Diagnostic Translation," made up of two vertical lists, "What's in English" and "What's in Chinese," juxtaposing "what is characteristic of each language that stands as insurmountable blocks to translation." This means, in the case of English, grammatical formations with no equivalent in Chinese (articles, variations of verbal tenses, affixes and plural nouns), and in the case of Chinese, a list (character with English translation) of the radicals taken from the "Radical Translation" section. Huang offers a lovely, and perhaps beguiling, metaphor for the new perspective these radicals are given in the "diagnostic" section:
When the ancient people carved words on the mountain cliffs or stone monuments, they chiseled off chips of rocks and left concave marks that have been called "words." But now, instead of musing over the metaphysical absence in those concaves, we are looking at the scattered rock chips to feel the concreteness of the words.All of this, Huang hopes, will bring translation closer to poetry (and vice versa) by enacting the "wordness of the words" in a "close reading of the bone and flesh that physically construct each language." Furthermore, "the particular mode of translation here, such as radical translation, is meant to be read as English writing that is experiencing its own foreignness in the foreign linguistic soil." Although ignorance of Chinese poetry limits my ability to comment on Huang's choice of poems, they clearly seem to be occasions--set pieces many Chinese school children would know by heart--for multi-directional explorations of the translation issue. For example, he includes "Night-Moor at Maple Bridge," the one famous piece by Zhang Ji, so famous that "both Maple Bridge and Cold Mountain Temple have become hot tourist spots because of this poem":
NIGHT-MOOR AT MAPLE BRIDGE _Zhang Ji_ moon set, crows caw, frost fills the sky river maples, fishing fires, drowsing in sorrow outside Gusu City, the Cold Mountain Temple at the midnight bell, arrives the visitor's boatIn "More Explanations," Huang notes that the character for "caw," in the first line, is, "a pictophonetic character: the left [part] is a mouth; the right is the sound 'ti'" (its pronunciation). Hence his "radical translation" for this word is, "mouth-caw." In the penultimate line, the characters for "midnight" are a character containing the "moon" radical (night) and one with a "bull" radical, with marks for "cutting in half": "'Midnight' is therefore . . . cutting a night, like a bull, into halves." The "radical translation" is "moon-night bull-cut-half." Finally, the "Diagnostic Translation" juxtaposes "-s (crows, maples, fires); -s (fills, arrives); -ing (fishing, drowsing); [and] the" with a list of the radicals: moon, water, grass, crow, fish, cold, mountain, etc.
There is no space here to convey the range of information rolled up in this little volume, its glimpses not only into Chinese culture but back at Fenollosa, Pound, Amy Lowell, Williams, Duncan, Pearl Buck, with many witty asides and delightful interpretations of the pictographic "radicals." In its open, digressive structure it is a walk through Chinese poetry with ranger Huang. It is also a fitting homage to modernist masters who, to a greater or lesser degree, looked East. Huang's seeming bemusement at this western primitivist tradition of the East strikes a civil balance between appreciation and critique. From the perspective of translation theory, this is a modest tour; it tiptoes around ambiguities translation is bound to scare up (doesn't the "wordness of words" just replace one kind of metaphysic with another, no less troubled by a desire to name or the confusion of voices?) with an open, reader-centered structure, one probably more friendly to poets than philosophers or theorists. There are countless ways to read this book, more the more the reader's approach is playful--and in that, it succeeds at least in its declared aim, "to strengthen the alliance between translation and poetry." For example, in "Radical Translation" typographic distinctions (italic for radicals, bold for literal translations) allow one to read at least three differently "foreignized" English poems: the literal poem, the poem made by radicals, or the poem made by both together. The "What's in Chinese" lists of radicals operate, as you flip through the book, like permutations of an infinite "basic Chinese" poem, with endlessly variable combinations of moons, birds, bamboo, mountains, grass, boats, rain, etc.
Nevertheless, nothing in a translation space is quite what it seems, and Huang's real art seems to lie in a strategic use of this ambivalence. While most of the annotations are informational, some of them seem to serve a different function, as when Huang informs us that the "visitor's boat" (above) is the "poet's boat," or, in another poem, that "tasteless drinks" are meant to indicate the "sadness of separation." These obvious "explanations" read oddly against an open structure presuming active and playful intelligence: a parody of pedantry? What role does "correct" understanding have in a book where, as Huang insists, "'bamboo-xiao ear-sound mouth-sob' shouldn't be read as an analysis of the radicals in Chinese, but as an English sentence itself"? At one point, Huang discusses a clearly self-aggrandizing poem by Mao where the ambiguity of person in the Chinese allows for an alternate, orthodox reading (that Mao is not really glorifying himself but the contemporary revolutionary mass). Some literary scholars who interpreted the poem in the most apparent way actually were jailed or killed. The "horrible truth" Huang draws from this parable--"either to misread with your head on the shoulder or to read with your head in the hand"-- sharpens the ambivalent edges of his translation. At the very least, it sends a pointed, if oblique, glance back at western Marxist double-readings.
Once we realize that Huang may not be playing a straight hand, we begin to grasp the engaged, performative nature of SHI. This "radical" reading of Chinese poetry is--if by radical Huang means oppositional--more accurately a reading of (American) English, or a reading of American readings of Chinese. I'd like to call it "back translation"--Huang back translates a tradition of Orientalist "translations" of Chinese culture, holding the mirror up to long-ingrained habits of simplification. He does so not only via parodies of scholarly crowing over scenic and stylistic tropes, the "painted scenes" we have come to accept as synonymous with Chinese culture, but also by way of a reverse-treatment exposing English to its own strangeness, "experiencing its own foreigness in the foreign linguistic soil." In one instance (no doubt drawing on his expertise as a translator of the Pisan Cantos), Huang uses Pound's own "ideogrammatic" method to back translate the famous lines of Canto IV--"Ityn!/Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!"--seeing and hearing the Chinese character for "caw," made by a mouth plus the sound "ti," in the cry "Ityn!" (for Itys) of the tongueless Philomela-turned-nightingale. In the space between languages, where even a translator has trouble pinning valences down, Huang lets the uncomfortable edges of translation's duplicity have full play.
While it is possible that the banality (pace Zukofsky's "little words") of lists of "articles, variations of verbal tenses, affixes, and plural nouns" is meant to hold a mirror up to our own condenscension in viewing, with Fenollosa, "splendid flashe[s] of concrete poetry" in the corresponding list of "imagistic" Chinese radicals (equally meaningless to most native readers of Chinese), it is equally possible that those elements are precisely what, from Huang's perspective, make our language exotic, interesting (as well as problematic) and worth appropriating. Perhaps SHI heralds a time to come, when Chinese will be the imperial language and the "Language" era poets will be translated for the "music of their grammar," at the same time that Americans will be suspected and tried for their attempts to steal China's superior poetic models.--Jonathan Skinner
Henry, Brian and Andrew Zawacki (U.S.); John Burnside (U.K.),
Verse 1998: Vol. 15.3-Vol. 16.1
Published 3 times a year
Folio/Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 1998
Like other former colonies, Australia sees itself as both new and old, and fashions an occasional identity--in short, it is full of impossible contradictions (consider the woolly Brit in Australian heat). It's all down under, Christmas in summer. England was gardens and Australia is desolation, punctuated by specks of settlement and the dry bones of its cartographers. When the center (London) of the circle (Australia or Canada or Ghana or India) is outside the circle, a nation's poetry is likely decentered. First the bush-bards sang and named the outback, now the suburb is invoked. The land has power, not people, and makes a man of you even if you're a woman. In paintings a woman looks like a tree. In 1892, Henry Lawson goes "Up the Country": "I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track, / Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I'm glad that I am back." Back where? If it's the city, Ania Walwicz would only laugh. An immigrant in "Australia" (1981), she heckles the big man absurdly proud of "Nobody on your streets": "You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach. I've seen enough already."
When the occasion is an anthology of poets, the country wonders how it will look, this time. For those interested in how Australia has represented itself in its poetry anthologies, one place to start is David McCooey's essay in the recent double issue of Verse, the first half of which is an anthology of Australian poetry itself. (The second includes an interview with Tomaz Salamun, poems by Susan Schultz and a book review of Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters.) McCooey reviews the many anthologies produced in the 90s, and the editorial objectives of each. Poems from 26 writers, older and young, 3 essays (including McCooey's), an interview with John Kinsella and 13 book reviews all produce their own effects, each extending certain Australian myths while attacking others. Regarding Australia from Cambridge, England, where he teaches, Aussie John Kinsella says in the interview that "Pluralism and guilt undo the collective Identity, and that is as it should be."
Australians are great travellers, trading that collective Identity for an internationalism even within their own borders. Whether you want to or not, meeting Australians any place you go is inevitable, an effect of its colonial history for all of us. Now the sun never sets on the American Empire--true most intensely for Americans themselves, perhaps, slaves to their own global imperatives and a Hot Hot sun. Despite strong connections with Asian countries to the north, Australia focuses on the West. From Chris Wallace-Crabbe: "The heavens have ripped open; business cards / come pouring down. There is neither north / nor south nor east in this terrible clear soup." Joanne Burns also speaks with humor in the face of various conditions in "ampersand":
so you puff down the boulevarde huffy and patriotic as the global village idiot waving its torch towards zeus your personal best, o his koala eyes; you can piss in your lycra if you really have to, this being the chumpy age of the celebrity sweatshirtBurns says in the "Notes on Contributors" that "poetry for me is like comic strips for the lyrically challenged." Peter Minter might say that poetry is "testing hay bales / for their memory."
In the shade of your computer are links to these new dialogues. Most of the poets in this Verse anthology are to me unknown. One Australian poet reaching across the Pacific and beyond, though, is John Tranter--in particular with his on-line magazine Jacket, a valuable poetry resource with graphic design second to some, but not many. Tranter is poet, publisher and editor (see The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry 1991). He has a four seasons prose poem in the Verse issue: in "Summer," "Rodney twined a length of tartan ribbon around the sleigh bells on the reindeer's collar and paused, rubbing his stomach. Why had he ordered a second dozen at the Oyster Bar?" Beginning with Parallax in 1970, Tranter has consistently published and published innovative poetry, such as The Alphabet Murders. Selected Poems appeared in 1982.
Different Hands is a collection of seven stories in the Lawson tradition, burning fancy verses as in each story the poet takes two texts--Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Gibson's Neuromancer, for instance--up the country and "back towards meaning." With a computer in hand, Tranter experiments with authorial intention and readability to produce a hands-off text that reaches the fine point where nonsense is cousin to Shakespeare's fool. Tranter uses a computer program designed by Neil Rubenking in 1985 to analyze and generate the 14 texts used in the making of the book. It indexes the frequency and distribution of letter-groups, leaving the poet with a vocabulary that hints at certain plot and style vectors, there to be fashioned into stories. After all this, Tranter smiles and says in his Foreword, "Most of the words in these final versions are my own."
While much of this writing process involves decisions beyond the ego-author, the list of source texts reveals a defined comic personality testing the limits of control and genre: imagine Ginsberg's Howl, Alcott's Little Women and Charles Sales' The Specialist, "a booklet about a handyman who builds outdoor lavatories," together forming a constellation that will flash you, like satellites more than stars, winking in recognition there and in misrecognition somewhere else. The grammar evolves toward handbook formation, but syntax and diction mess with coherence and linearity to produce the unexpected. In "Neuromancing Miss Stein," "Finally all they talked about was split infinitives, how it is best to firmly split them, and the icebreaker as a kind of blank space in the evening's chatter, a buffer zone before the real talk." It takes patience and a sure hand to firmly split infinitives, and language itself into its smallest parts, but--like Stein's--Tranter's language exercises bear the marks of an unmistakable humor and inventiveness. A conversation in sign language heard far outside Australia.
(Editors' Note: Tranter's essay on the Rubenking computer program can be found at: http://www.alm.aust.com/~tranterj/prose/nonfiction/brekdown.html)
Ellingham, Lewis and Kevin Killian
Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
Wesleyan University Press, 1998
$35 (hardcover), 439 pp.
The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer
Wesleyan University Press, 1998
$19.95 (paper), 265 pp.
Alexander, Christopher W., Guest Editor
Jack Spicer Feature
It does not seem to have been made quite clear yet as to whose was the decisive achievement, Duncan's or Spicer's, in the final years of the San Francisco Renaissance. The critics and biographers are not too objective in crediting many of the ideas developed at that time. Spicer would appear to have been the more adept in developing a poetic cult, in creating a poetry of magic, and in writing a successful serial poem, but Duncan led the way apparently in matters of fundamental approach, though not always. By 1962 anyhow Spicer, I have the impression, was beginning to lose that intellectual authority which (despite, in his own case, a tendency to assert his power over the young) had enabled both writers to turn out an almost uninterrupted succession of innovations in poetics and especially community activity between 1946 and 1958. Duncan, more sure-handed than Spicer to start with, kept this authority up until Spicer's death and continued to be enterprising even after, as he showed in his later "Passages," and in statements of poetics that go to the brink of poststructuralism. It was only with his Stein imitations, written in 1953, that Duncan's sureness wavered and these are, almost for the only time, inferior to Spicer's production of the same period. Spicer meanwhile never abandoned the modes of reference already established by the end of his Minnesota years and, though he too experimented with "nonsense," he moved more cautiously and did not aspire as far as Duncan to the integrity of language as such.
Harold Dull says that when Duncan moved to Stinson Beach in 1958, his relations with Spicer changed. But we hear also that he and Spicer had a quarrel in 1962 over Jess's illustrations for a book by Blaser; certainly they were cool to each other ever after that. Spicer soon plunged into perpetual drunkenness, and three years later was dead. After a two-year break, he continued to write poetry, but he was no longer spurred in his writing by competition with an equal and had to readjust himself at first by looking more closely at Blaser, whom he himself had led, and at a great advance, for over a decade. Meanwhile Duncan, who continued to find companionship with challenging peers (Olson, Creeley, Levertov) executed some of his strongest and most original poems--works which presented the San Francisco sensibility in a more austere Black Mountain style.
Perhaps the break with Duncan made no really radical difference in Spicer's career. We shall never be able to tell. But it is a fact that his inventiveness abandoned him, and in the years after 1958 he seems to have followed Duncan's trail consistently and without ever regaining the initiative. When Duncan began writing prose poems under the rubric "The Structure of Rhyme," Spicer began his "Textbook of Poetry." When Duncan began to lay claim to the tradition, in poems inspired by Pindar, Dante, Blake, Shelley and H.D., Spicer followed suit again, adapting the Holy Grail-- whose story he remembered from college--into a vehicle for expressing his animus towards Duncan. And when, after 1960, Duncan began publishing his poems in mainstream magazines, Spicer once more followed, albeit derisively, with his Book of Magazine Verse. I do not mean that he followed abjectly; his sensibility, aside from the fact that it produced poems more given to humor and less burdened with erudition than Duncan's, has always been independent enough to convert to itself whatever it touched; but he became dependent on Duncan for his cues. And after 1962 he fell far short of his former friend, if not in felicity, then in ambition, musical sense, emotional power and intellectual breadth.
All this the new collection of Spicer's lectures, delivered mostly over a four-day period in 1965, makes plainer than ever. It is a little sad to read, in spite of its value. From his famous definition of dictation, as great as anything ever said about poetry--"It's as if a Martian comes into a room with children's blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message"-- there is almost a steady decline, almost as if he had one thing to say and no reason to continue lecturing once it was uttered. This he all but admits in his later lecture at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, on "Poetry and Politics," when he says, "The idea of making things last is something which just has to be conquered." On his own work he is never less than helpful, but his best moments are invariably drawn from others, for instance Blaser's definition of the serial poem: "It's as if you go into a room, a dark room. A light is turned on for a minute. Then it's turned off again and you go into a different room where a light is turned on and turned off." Even the idea of dictation is inconceivable without the precedent of Yeats. The weakness of Spicer's thinking in these late lectures is not a matter of faulty logic or lack of commitment, but rather stems from an absence of generosity, and, to a lesser extent, from jealousy and paranoia (for example, in his diatribe against the "bosses" of poetry).
During all those years Spicer's predominant obsession, and that by far, was the occult. The relative narrowness of his repertory, in means as well as subject, makes an abrupt contrast to Duncan's. And at the same time he remains more consistently a product of the San Francisco Renaissance, seldom attempting to break away from that era's fundamental conception of the way to equate the materiality of language with that of nature. As Peter Gizzi points out, Spicer was less pure than Duncan, more aware of his personal limitations, and infinitely less impatient with those imposed by contingency. Thus, if Spicer has not cut such a figure in the history of poetry, he has at least been far more loyal to himself.
But has this been enough? Even though we recognize how badly Duncan served himself during the twenty years which followed Spicer's death by his refusal to acknowledge his limitations and by his highly arbitrary efforts to show that he could do everything--even then, we cannot excuse Spicer. Wasn't he too complacent? Could he not have tried to cope with a greater range of ideas than he did? The crisis of the San Francisco Renaissance as the great promise of postwar poetry justifies these questions, as unjust as they may be to the poet himself.
It is true, of course, that enterprise and adventure in poetry are no longer as much on the order of the day as they were up until the late fifties, and that the historical conditions that made them so possible have largely disappeared. Duncan, shutting his eyes to this, tried, however, to continue programatically that audacity which, because, no doubt, of the "heroic age" atmosphere that formed him before 1960, seemed to him the normal mode of the ambitious poet. And we, with our own notions formed in good part by Duncan's example, tend to feel the same. Actually, I think that Duncan was correct--correct in principle, that is, for contemporary poetry. Whether history now moves faster than it used to is an open question, but it seems that today more than ever art begins to languish the moment it stops assimilating new ideas. It is to the operation of this law that Spicer succumbed, so that his thinking (but not the poetry itself) fell to a level far below Duncan's, which while it sinned in the opposite direction--by trying to assimilate new ideas even when the newness of the idea is not grasped--did at least seek out every challenge the age could offer.
Spicer was essentially a hedonist, conscientious about practice, annoyed by questions of theory. From the early sixties he followed the course typical of such a writer in a period of decadence, when talent is simply borne up, swept along, and extended to its full by collective inspiration: he was content to turn out authoritative-sounding pronouncements which offered a richness of suggestibility and wit, but only as isolated poetic insights, not as integrated parts of a whole world view. Read the last of the "Ten Poems for Downbeat." There Spicer even abandons dictation and strives for something not too unlike the Personism of O'Hara, in search of a profundity not rightly his. There he gives in to "the big lie of the personal" with a clumsiness and lack of charm and artifice such as we would have expected of him least of all. The unrefined presentation of attitude and opinion is, even as raw thought, forced, complacent; it is the polemic, the advance of self-interest, egotism, not the poetry of the thought itself (see, for example, the first of the "Four Poems for the St. Louis Sporting News").
It is sad. I become curious as to what Spicer thought of himself at the end. Was he aware of what had happened to his great gift? What did he feel about his relation to Duncan? Was it the two-year absence from writing that the final break from Duncan forced on him, his alcoholism, or his growing alienation from the first flower of the 1960s counterculture, that made such a difference between the writer of After Lorca and the writer of "Heros eat soup like anyone else"? Did he need Duncan more than Duncan needed him? Or were his temperament and native capacities, and the turn of the times, the crucial factors--that is, crucial in more than the ordinary sense? Spicer's career strikes me as even more puzzling than Wieners' (whose importance begins lately to seem even greater than his). How, in the hectic atmosphere of the San Francisco of the sixties, was he able to avert his glance from so many challenges?
Editors' note: The following talks were presented by Leslie Bumstead and Jean Donnelly in Graham Foust's living room in Buffalo, NY on Saturday, March 20th, 1999. Several souls attended; snacks and beverages were consumed.
FOR POEMS: A POETICS IN PROGRESS
I don't believe people should live lives of morbid self-attention. I believe they should become people, just like other people. --Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
what crazy admission or child-saint becoming
socialized painted pruned delighted besmirched
moving into questions dressed up as questions disguised as
visitors--hello! how have you been? it's beautiful
to see them again
who were wrested from sleep
chastised for anger
angry for having been so
strange island of polytheists
may we be so haven't seen you
am looking for them
words tormentors stadium dwellers
ridiculous bodies in the world
why aren't we dropping, exhausted, eternally
trying to catch our collective breath
from all this repetition?
even in demanding &
posturing & claiming that this is who
we are who we've always been &
so what. old tired men feeling challenged
& threatened by the tantalizing possibility
that they were wrong & this is unnatural.
visionary lookalike, holding
you, Tuesday, Monday, seldom
married dreamer condemn you it
the Sunday park is the best
example--a family moves through dust &
horse shit to be more family & other families
give up your shirt to be whole give up miss
liberty her green liberty horse
shuffling up dust painted horses wooden horses
miniature ponies look funny!
I've tried so hard here in your tattoo
but weather is always pending
stars coming out to bend the dark
I will see you walking in your coat
but I can't hear you through the bellboy
chatter can't see my suitcase
so our numbers don't dwindle. no one is noble.
circumstances bear us not the other way around
but list them, casually, list them by fragrance
by shape by gold-digger in the tattered office
you'll find spirits & bugs & an old ugly couch
crazy then, on the death of whomever.
the harder you work the harder you.
name you by privilege by peon by
necromancy who inhabits you
what we are, personal treasure & garbage out
in the alley. shoes coat purse. silly person
with things. silly to walk into a room
whatever your sins
the same words same marsh same
swallow taken there & this heavy vascular
we sat down to watch you
create an empire. Mister doorman
empire. Sally's slipper empire.
Letter-writing empire. Reversible raincoat empire.
everything outside is unreal or subject to
definition description by one of us.
if we don't understand you you are wrong.
if you come here we will hate you
& put you to work.
if we go there we will love you if you are nice
to us but never really respect you. & if
you are hostile we will live in fear
& feel noble.
dark & rainy 6:50 am. grey sky some leaves.
a portrait of bombs ripping apart time,
literally. the second of the blast present forever.
forgive human wailing.
a film about war depicting war is an invitation
to civilians to feel horrified glorified sickened--
that is the nature of our empire now. we have
so much money we can create the dangerous
moment so the safe people won't feel denied,
left out, inexperienced, unworthy. Spielberg
made it so "real" even vets said so. & so we
feel justified. we saw themovie. the movie
theater dark, the popcorn, books are not so
different. "war, and the news is war."
meaning does matter. it can come
from anywhere. what won't be un-
forgettable? your love, a tangerine in the pillbox.
something bugs me about people who won't
take anything seriously. artists I mean.
for whom serious might mean some form of
emoting. I think a little emoting is o.k.
though when I see artists trying to get
their audience to emote it bugs me too.
then the work is limited to performance
& catharsis. artist will work
to tug at emotions without admitting
or caring that it's all convention.
how do you ask about pain? did it hurt?
how much? did you cry? did you not cry?
the combatants were taught that nothing was as important
as the struggle. not love, not pain. so when
you ask them, what do you think they'll say?
imagine an objective poetics.
imagine objectivity at all.
Doug got so mad at U.S. officials who criticized
his stories for making their policy in Haiti look bad.
at the Sisters of Charity hospital the children
were starving because of the embargo. one egg a week
could save these children's lives, the nuns said.
& Doug said to the U.S. officials you think it's different
for the mothers of these dying children--you think
they're used to it, hardened, you think
they don't feel the pain as deeply as you would,
& you're wrong.
who is more objective then, the journalist
or the policy-maker?
so many ways to move forward. starve an island.
& what do you hear in your head?
what you've been eating? articulating? refusing?
be serious & say "this is what I mean."
to be excluded--makeshift punishment.
the piling up of condescending
glares. pulling us outward, dreamer, mailman, deacon.
it embarrasses me greatly when newscasters try
to be "poetic" by using alliteration & then they
feel so smug about it. I hate all frauds
come to my rescue realistically. father my
children etc. to be the damnedest people.
I miss you, follow you, can't see you. gather
the strangest documents & file them.
one chance of this, panic, playpen, look
at the mess you've made. misspelling words
as you speak them.
The tricky (and suspect?) Wittgensteinian theory of meaning begins in the home probably when a child an infant learns object permanence. A parent is more than a cultural conveyance but sometimes you don't feel that way. The cultural and biological pressure for women to become mothers can be astounding. But as Alice Notley says, "At this time there are few poems about pregnancy and childbirth." While reading Bernadette Mayer's "The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters" I set out to write Leslie Bumstead (5 months pregnant and growing) a letter and a poem and it became "The Bonnet Gospels," a kind of prose tome to the new mother and a trap for what most would consider the static of the domestic day. The constraint is utilitarian-written during my youngest son's 1-2 hour morning nap. Jack is 14 months old, my husband's name is Arthur, and my eldest son, Alexander, is 10 years old. We live in an apartment that has a wonderful view of a private psychiatric institute for the criminally insane. Mayer wrote in her letter "We make a funny bridge." These are excerpts from five sections: A Preface, The Gospel of Music, The Gospel of Evidence, The Gospel of Names, and The History of Birth.
Firetrucks for the second time this week at the psychiatric institute
Jack watches them like curious bobbles in a backyard
all the catalogs in the mail heave an emotional elicitness
Arthur's grouchy but tries
we don't have cash for Alex's lunch and that really upsets him
Jack climbed clad in a diaper up the stairs
yesterday I felt like me again lost all the post-pregnant physiology
mostly in my face
the gospels are curious mavens
how do epigraphs engage the poem
a little maitre d'
no natural world surrounds me but butts up against the city in pockets and niches
when the latent beauty of a thing catches that's when we can actually see it
but that's empowering a thing and things can be empowered like the knick-knacks
in a catalog
pregnancy is pure differentiation
between beings and being
remember that song from The Sound of Music when the child interrupts to say "But
it doesn't mean anything!"
a disembodied refrain of post-Holocaust, late 20th-century American culture
like the Holocaust museum
when do you think you'll take your child to see that
who will your baby be freshly a person with curious habits
with important emotional attachments
indelible little spirit at first when its most vivid perhaps
not another you
but with little bits of you
making a song with what no one sees of you
reading Bernadette got me crying and laughing because you never read or
approach the pregnant days with such companionship
Jack climbed from his crib today and fell on his eyebrow
sometimes I feel sad or relieved at night that the kids are asleep or both sad and
relieved at once but that's possible as you know
like feeling astounded and relieved by a poem because it changes the way you see
(see Bernstein on Oppen)
and also paves the way for possibility in your own work
that's so strange how we talk in third person to the children not "I" yet to them
not free of them but related
becoming to know that
I've been trying to develop the right constraint the structure
a system for getting at a poem which goes to you
but maybe it's in the letters anyway
how can you say the music shunts because it doesn't unless it's bubbly
reading Mayer that's relieving
all the static is important surfaces as intrinsic to a domestic poetics
when I feel sad that the children are sleeping at night I find myself surprised at
expecting them to wake and need me to talk to me to play with me
Jack dances in a wobbly swaying way the same way to Schubert as to All Saints
and Alex likes that
it's not so strange to love a song about Jesus when you're not a christian
Mayer and Notley implode the confessional because the site of the personal meets
a linguistic frontier it's bound for
also they're brilliant
we're living over John who's an accountant for the government
big noisy family over John's head
Jack chirps when he brings me the broom and the dustpan
a little song about sweeping
when you look at your child and see a parade a parrot and the child again
who he is
who is he
person you thought you knew cleaning diapers carrying the first teeth in your
then you must write and they can't give you the time because it's not theirs or it is
and the little rings they leave in the sink are innumerable
or they cry in the night
or call your name in the morning
I mean your real name
and you stop in the hallway and think about that
that they're separate
that they're separate houses with little life going on in a parlor
divine in a bed she said
not a poem but a rapture
to put the title "poet" on any application
we draw the blinds for intimacy on the couch so that the insane inmates can't
even in daylight I wonder how far you can see in a home
metonymy is a brilliant linguistic tryst the corporations have usurped
and we rifle through the list of presses because they've mixed with the poems the
critical essays on Mina Loy and Mayakovsky
an enchanted action between the fingers
how do you go about naming a child with lists and a sound that follows them in the
playground and the employer's mother
the two-year old love to twist her mother's hair while nursing
now she tears her own out
a quirky simulation of comfort
the habits of families reading William James
moving to another room in a home to see what time it is
where's your hand
there's your hand
Jack in a sleeve makes it a hand
you can draft a poem and you can draft a son
surely it will rain today
the bridge of matter upon which petit-bourgeois theatre is love
matrix of the extraneous
the paper truck driver delivers paper items to the psychiatric institute twice a
we are funny in the morning chewing suspender with growls
arranging the stuffed animals for effect
the gerund is a spectacular temporal conveyance
its repetition sounds like a rock song beginning with you
your brilliant poem "politics" enacts that product of supression
labeling a poem political because it contains information that wasn't meant to be
a weak-kneed excuse for irrelevancy like Reznikoff's "Holocaust" which I still
haven't finished because it's terrifying
and that's political
not finishing it because it's terrifying
not gentle like Shoah
giving you over eight hours to gentrify the silence
my dad says they nicknamed another pilot in Vietnam "Animal" because he ate the
heart of a raw one the Americans had hunted for real meat
I thought that sounded like a movie
he said the man died in a mission he was supposed to have flown
to rescue Americans in helicopters
Alex is building a simple machine for science called "the fish-on-the-floor-
feeder" for lazy fish who'd rather not swim to the surface
the lyric circumscribes evidence attenuates the reader's location
Mayer's letters tack a temporal language of fertile bother to the fore
I write this in my least favorite penmanship in a blue spiral notebook
you tell me why it's a poem and I'll braid your hair while you're in early labor to
keep it from distracting you
or for how you might need to be touched indirectly
I know Jack is hungry when he takes the jamjar our of the pantry and puts it on the
footrest of his highchair
a red glass hunger flag
I do think of myself as a southern poet
which is mute unless you write about Atlanta real estate moguls
or gothic Dickey-esque placemats
yesterday they chased one of the inmates down the street on foot in cars
a passel of professionals seeking to recover their charge
what happens to friends when they have children it narrows because constant
can't hop on out to see you
no naps after coffee
no deposits of great gulps of time together
as least not for a while
Alex wrote I love you like the largest angel in heaven
padding parts of years with endeavor
abutment of the household river
a dynamic of scavenging poetics
the threshold of the civic is the mother
the domestic is a political spine and cultural conveyance
"a family is tenderness"
a family isn't always tenderness
to reign in what feels like flickers of me
Alex says what kind of fate did you get mine's throwing confetti
equivalent of a baby
equivalent of a parent's eye
all the medical pamphlets say labor and childbirth but labor is childbirth
like a sentence can't happen without the verb the work
Oppen's verbs are rare and usually forms of "to be"
To be in labor is a separate being human like being born or dying
"the syllables of trees"
there is a grammatical parallel between the infivitive and pregnancy
(see Mayer's letter lists)
when you trace your birth to your mother's body
can you imagine that presence of mind
the hours spent considering you in an abstract and in relation to some idea of
what would it have meant to her in a dress or winter day
how different maybe from your own maternity clothes shopping
the relevant need to surpass the state
reach a finish to meet you
but the horse's foal is cleaned too
and the dainty spider's eggs placate the ledge
a gestational space like the poem's
accompanied by the days
and the visitors
everything else is passing while a "human abstract" is a fringe in the mind
passing through you even as it's made