American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3
a feature on bringing out-of-print materials back into view, including essays by Penn's own Danny Snelson on Craig Dworkin's Eclipse -- now on-line at
http://eclipsearchive.org/ Here is a pdf of Snelson's full article.">http://eclipsearchive.org/
Here is a pdf of Snelson's full article.
Lost & Found
Kyle Schlesinger's Introduction to Focus: FACSIMILIE (again)
Jed Birmingham's "The Archive of Interzone"
Danny Snelson's "Archival Penumbra"
Steve Clay's "The Dig" (on Granary Books reprints)
Brad Freeman's on the reprint of Johanna Drucker A to Z
Megan Paslawski's "Publishing's Restorative Properties"
The poet's novel
In “Composition as Explanation” Gertrude Stein writes: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” .
Lydia Davis is a writer who is a great influence and inspiration to “everyone,” when everyone includes readers of experimental fiction as well as a myriad of poets “doing everything.” Davis is a master of short fiction and extremely short fiction, as well as a celebrated translator, novelist and poet.
At a recent reading at Bryn Mawr College, Davis addressed the audience at first by noting the grandeur of the room. She said, “I’ll just stand here and be impressed for a while.” And that is exactly how the audience regarded her, standing before dramatic windows and reading short and very short works from her forthcoming book titled Can’t and Won’t. At one moment dramatic lightning lit the room and she paused in her reading to note that she had not brought an umbrella. Davis has the ability to take a simple detail which appears to be drawn from the repetitive nature of the quotidian and to magnify its associations and triggers therefore launching the mundane into the grim, surreal, comic or philosophical. For instance, here is a very brief story, titled “Housekeeping Observation” which I hopefully copied correctly as she read:
“Under all this dirt the floor is really very clean.”
Davis hints at the life observed, often from a somewhat detached analytical distance, but her subtext points to the hidden, the unseen, the elephant in the room, embarrassment, anger, awkwardness, failings of personality and the body, ambition or personal slights. Often reading her work I think, this is what the writer says to oneself, in the privacy of one’s room, later, after interactions have taken place. Hers is the voice which pleads or conceals, complains, consoles or neurotically traces patterns. In the surface of her works is a fluid accessibility in events, voices and locations. The reality which she probes is not obliquely suggested, it is always right there, immediate, so that in reading there is a simultaneity in effect. Her insights often shock or entertain with a direct and unexpected honesty. The clean floor is always right under the dirt right under our feet, but how often do we consider it? The dirt could be a metaphor for the work it would take to remove it, and this aspect of effort, of the difficulty of honesty or wakeful human consciousness could be a revelation. Peeling back layers required to reach any clarity about human behavior, or the way the mind works, is possible, and yet we see in the picture presented that it is a daunting and endless task. At the same time, it is just dirt, or unglorified dirt which is offered. The dirt is real dirt for a reason. In other words, there is nothing purely ornamental or gratuitous about it. We aren’t just imagining this dirt. We, the reader, stand upon it openly, whether or not we are aware of it. Davis keeps reminding us where we stand, what we stand upon and how our foundational assumptions and predicaments influence our interactions with others. Her work appears effortless, while in the same breath chronicling travail.
Here is another of the very brief forthcoming stories, though I did not get the title.
“Now that I’ve been here for awhile I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”
This statement seems fitting to describe many positions, and particularly at this moment, my fascination with the poet’s novel. Perhaps a poet comes to a place in his or her writing life where in order to say with confidence that one has never been here before, a switch is required, a movement to prose. Also, inside any poet’s novel is the experience Davis describes, of both an initial dislocation, then familiarity which creates a textual dwelling, and also the sense that the text is entirely new.
Both of these short works could be called poetry, are categorized most commonly as “short fiction” and at the same time they gesture toward the poet’s novel. How long must a novel be? Can a handful of words encompass a novel? More to the point would be a question: how short can a novel be? Are there edges, boundaries, limits to the form? If so, who is able to break them and how?
Back to Stein: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing it.” Many novels fail to provide the depth in acuity in much of the shortest works by Davis.
When I asked Davis about divisions between poetry and prose, and between short fiction and the novel in her own work she replied “I don’t label ahead” (meaning she does not decide before she begins to write what genre she is creating) and noted that she thinks of her work as a “continuum” indicating that these boundaries between genres and forms are for her somewhat fluid, and not something she considers while she is writing. She said “the material determines the length.”
When she was asked her why she writes “short fiction” she invoked the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan and his homage to Zukofsky, the point being that the title of his poem is three words and the poem itself is only one word, “the.” 
In Stein we find “A sentence which is in one word is talkative.” And “A paragraph without words.” .
Davis also noted that while working on her translation of Proust she spent long days toiling over the Proustian sentence, so in her own work a the time she “reacted against it a bit,” and “decided to see how short” her works could be and “still have them have substance.”
2. Edwin Morgan, “Homage to Zukofsky,” Scottish Poetry Library, http://www.spl.org.uk/poetry/poems/nine-one-word-poems.
[Reprinted from Underlight, published 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse]
In Contact with the Ground (Personal Sun)
I needed to match our feelings, mine and the other living things.
May I tell you how this became deadly without polluting you.
I reached out for the dog that lay on the downed wire that led to
I put the wrong things in my body till my skin extended to harder
Practiced the sacrifice. Bought a gun.
All this brought me closer to the ground,
which I learned was inert.
I chose a suitable room.
But isn’t the whole plot a forest of suicides since Christ is hung on
My discovery, my watering descent.
Each soul to the quick.
God’s center in this gutter, your reading glance.
The circumference, maybe nowhere. Flaws in the windows.
Not strictly joy, when I reflect on creation.
The light of knowledge just leaches through vapor.
All deals double back.
The soul whatever, even if turning somehow occult.
The mouth has potential but even closed it holds nothing in
Mouths are more like rings than openings. Rings are groans.
Whatever I’ve done to harm you is the idea of men and women.
I’m trying to sound out the beginning so I can stand it.
How miserable, you lamented, is the soul that depends on a soul.
Having not yet noticed the problem’s reflection.
Is there a badness in you like a pruned branch. That’s tough.
Think of the soul in bigger, rougher shapes.
Rough soul.The hawk wants a mate, so does the man, the lion,
says the beast.
This is one way to self it out.
Messias can mean measured. Always found wanting. Quell.
To kill or well out like water.
We feel something divine most under gravity and say yes, whatever
This was the window shade drawn. That was an open one.
The burden of responsibility for your desire almost becomes my
I do adore the flaws near fitting. Narcissus blistering the surface.
The record is complicated enough to include sacraments of abuse,
but no one says so.
Lord, make me large so I can see you in your smallness.
Barking like crazy at the threshold.
Fear of getting stuck makes the soul aware, forlorn.
The messenger, he ran; he took on need and got hanged. Sticking
Her look says no amount of permission can overcome the law’s
The window bounds everything, and all threats are announced.
Measured in a friend and jackal, our evenings narrow, but friends
Permit these stops as the reed still quavers higher. Observe small
minutes. Even if this means more defilement, unlatch the top
again and put your face in the steam.
Not a failure of the tongue; what the mouth cannot encompass
with every organ and orifice.
We are trying to make do with this dross, this sweat of the sun.
The tree branch a warbler. The incisor that’s plugged in the hide.
A Stray Note, Sometime Called “Runout Groove”
The little chirruping birds (the Wren, and the Robin)
This one is like the dogs by the sea in Aesop
who cannot get at a floating corpse and therefore
try to drink themselves a path
They sing a meane; the Goldfinch, the Nightengall, they joyne
in a flowing stream water rolling on water
over a stable bed fleeing and pursuing
and driven by the following drawn by the former—
same stream, waters ever-changing
in the treble; the Blacke bird, the Thrush, they beare the tenour;
this one is like Gryllus, the boar who prefers it
to his prior infirmities, the law’s push-
pull, the reason’s civil argument,
order into which unlikeness obtrudes, always
while the foure footed beasts with their bellow sing a base
and the beasts are like children, they think this
is happening, not familiar,
not triumph, hardship, thing I’ve done wrong
and the man stands there strumming strings made from another beast’s gut;
the young boy in his lawn smiles making a sign
across his throat; from this line goes all difference,
an opening that’s easy to recognize
[NOTE. In McCollough’s fifth book it is clear again how his work calls up sources & resources that expand while they almost deny the personal nature of the work that the work also proclaims. Of all this he writes: “As the titles of the ‘Preliminary Notes’ poems might suggest, I was thinking about the Alchemical tradition during their composition. My actual notes from that time indicate an engagement with the work of Thomas Vaughan (brother of poet Henry Vaughan) and also with pseudo-Dionysius. I was already deep into the writing and rewriting of the manuscript for the book that would ultimately be called Underlight but which was under the working title ‘Rough Soul.’ Although it’s probably true that all of my books are about ‘personal magic’ at some level, or about trying to work magic on the world and the self from my own isolated garden, “Rough Soul”/Underlight is especially personal. The book is a house. It’s my house with the traumas, recoveries, and ecstasies marked in ways that are often obscure, and the ‘Notes’ poems offer the reader some tips about the rules of the house. I’ve always been drawn to Medieval/Early Modern micro-/macro-cosmological descriptive vocabularies. My house is a cosmic house. So, the ‘Notes’ poems are meant to offer tips about the rules of the cosmic house. The genius of the place is the Hebrew letter ‘Bet.’ First letter of the Torah. Number 2 in gematria. The letter with which the creative act can take place (as it does in Torah: ‘Bereshith’).The place for creation. House. ‘Rashi points out that the letter is closed on three sides and open on one; this is to teach you that you may question about what happened after creation, but not what happened before it, or what is above the heavens or below the earth’ (pseudo-Dionysius). The book questions and rejoices in what’s happened since creation as a way to feel out what might be above or below it. The seed is in the ‘Notes’ poems.”]
I’m going to start simply by telling the story of the banner image for this commentary.
Anna Everett was a young woman from Washington, D.C., who moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1970s to live with relatives while finishing her high school education. As a new student, she was sent to Lafayette High School, which was only then being integrated. If you’ve read about the integration and bussing battles of that era, you can well imagine the challenges she faced. There weren't attacks on school buses by angry mobs as in Boston, but there were groups of white parents picketing the approach to the school and making it abundantly clear to the small group of black students that they were not welcomed by all. With all deliberate speed, Everett set about making her mark at Lafayette. She joined in school community theatrical productions, and soon enlisted her cousins in the drama. Then she set about painting this image on the interior wall of the school. Even that was a politcal process — the school administration expressed worries about the depicted blindness of the iconic figure, didn’t know whether to push their young student more towards traditional views of Justice or the thwarted welcome of Liberty. In the end, she produced a figure that weighed welcome, that simultaneously promised and withdrew liberty, as if figuring a little known fact about Ellis Island; it was a scene of intake and expulsion. While some entered America through those portals (often undergoing a change of name in the process), others were imprisoned and expelled. Justice, the mural seemed to say, was at best a metaphor.
I had often heard this story over the years and was amazed to learn from a later Lafayette student that the mural was still on that wall decades later. While in Buffalo for a residency at the Poetics Program arranged by Steve McCaffery, I stopped by the high school, and with the staff's permission took this photo. Time and white flight have wrought changes upon Lafayette and upon its surrounding neighborhood, and the mural itself is flaking slightly on the crown, oddly enough in the very space where visitors might be imagined looking out across America to see how liberty and justice for all is faring these days.
Reconceptual isn’t truly a word, though if education writers keep insisting on using it we may one day find it in our dictionaries. The reintegration of Lafayatte High School was/is a project of reconceiving. Everett’s mural was the product of a young artist reconceptualizing America and her own work under the political pressures of her day. In the time of her painting, conceptual art had a purchase on the attentions of American critics and artists, if not many high schools. Poetry has reconceived the conceptual, we are told.
Adrian Piper, we need you, again.