Commentaries - June 2008

Pieces at the 2002 show at the Jewish Museum, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art":

[] "Giftgas Giftset," three replicas of Zyklon B gas canisters in the colors, and bearing the logos, of Chanel, Hermes and Tiffany's.

[] "Prada Deathcamp" is a model of a concentration camp on cardboard from a Prada hatbox. The exhibit catalog on this: the artist "dares to observe Holocaust museums and their visitors from the position of a critique of consumption."

[] "LEGO Concentration Camp Set" consists of replicas of boxes of the children's building blocks, but the boxes bear photographs of models of barracks and crematoria. The catalog: this work shows "how such seemingly harmless items may pose serious psychological and philosophical questions about gender, sexuality, and childhood."

[] In "It's the Real Thing — Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," the artist digitally inserts a photograph of himself, holding a Diet Coke, into the foreground of a famous photograph of emaciated Jews in their bunks shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald. The catalogue: this work "draws parallels between brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture because it was the dominant paradigm, so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism."

Conservative columnist-pundit George Will was among those who hated this show, and in his column called "Exploiting the Holocaust, intellectually" he wrote: "A wit once said that everything changes except the avant-garde. But it does change. It gets worse." Be sure to read the rest of his essay.

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." Mark Twain wrote that. C. A. Conrad's book of poems (Soma)tic Midge proves that exactly the opposite (opposite in every element) is probably the truth. Eat what you must, and let the food fight it out on the outside. Fortunately for us, the outside is this writing.

The Faux Press of Cambridge, Mass., has published Conrad's chapbook, the first work in a series Conrad is writing under the general rubric "somatic poetics." Poetry of the body, by the body, maybe even for the body — although while the first two effects can be discerned in the writing, the latter of course can only be guessed from it. But I'm guessing this work has felt to the poet to be for the body also. Work that is done to the body.

In this sequence, Conrad writes whatever he wants under the vague (that is to say, only generally defined) somatic influence of foods of a certain color. To write the poem partly titled "distorted torque of FLORA'S red," he ate only "red foods for a day" — and in that instance subjected himself to the additional rule or compositional constraint of being "under the influence of" a red wig, worn a certain way.

So these poems are rule-bound — procedural poetry — but the effect is left to the reader to understand according to his or her belief (if "belief" be the word) in the idea that we are what we eat. To exactly the extent one believes we are what we eat these poems will seem specifically somatic.

The poems don't at all participate in the traditional symbolism of colors. The red (red food day) poem is not about love; the yellow poem is not about cowardice; the green poem is not any more verdant or natural than any of the others.

I dig rule-based verse at the level of the series/project, though sometimes less so at the level of the stanza and line in such a poem. But in (Soma)tic Midge I dig it sometimes at the level of the line as well. My mind is working all the time: this or that never-quite-explicable stanza always stands in some kind of relation to the poem's color, the food I'm imagining Conrad had to eat that day to write it. The juxtaposition doesn't keep the poem from going where it will go but commands alertness to juxtaposition — not juxtaposition of poetic elements set side by side and operating on same plane, but rather this: (1) words in front of you, "under the influence of" (2) the body consuming food of a certain resonant-but-not-symbolic color. The effect is hard to describe and I'm sure I have failed here. In the yellow poem, is the "something" in

might hinder this
emphasis of

all that yellow food — grits with butter, wax beans, bananas? Is "this" the poem that tries to stand against what yellow typically means? We ain't foolin' around. The poet who wrote those lines spent the day eating yellow food (enough to make me feel a loose bowel movement coming on) and, I should add, "while under the influence" of a yellow condom tucked into his left sock. Anyone who met C. A. Conrad that day wouldn't have known of the latter "influence"--it's between us, shall we say; we are let in on a close-by secret and I for one find myself under its strange influence too. I too "look under / pain and / find me."

As we move through these drastically colored days, the conditions seem to increase in extremity. For his blue day he subjects himself to the continuously looping sound of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velet." For white, the final poem, the food is at its most awful blandness (although I love turnips if they are pureed) and the ultimate bodily white — semen — is written on the poet's forehead. A life-embracing somatic twist on Kafka's notion of penal punishment. This final poem is devastating:

Dear Admiral White Pants
thanks for
the field
guide to

you make me the
belly who
birds push
through at last

White is war. It's also the color of the truce flag, announcing the withdrawal from the agonistic field. In C. A. Conrad's white (white food day) poem, the speaker is rebuked by a martial uncle who thinks his nephew would make a bad soldier, and we have no doubt by that point that he is right. But then again, think of the discipline required. That he's got aplenty. He takes over white — takes it over from the militarizers. Finally, in the end, in the final lines, white is in fact peace, as "a dove / lands but / I say nothing" and "no spell [is] / broken." We are back to the great traditions of poetry: the end of the poem is the coming down softly of language, swerving but with surprising grace, upon extended wings.


C. A. Conrad's PennSound author page includes links to free downloadable mp3's of many of the poems this chapbook, as well as from his more recent book, published by Chax, called The Book of Frank."

George Lichty (1905–1983) was an American cartoonist, creator of the daily and Sunday cartoon series Grin and Bear It (starting in 1932). His drawings skewered both excessive capitalism and Soviet bureaucracy. Scenes in his cartoons were often set in the offices of Soviet Russian commissars, who typically wear medals and five-point stars labelled "HERO." He collected these under the title Is Party Line, Comrade! and published a book of them in the 1950s, which I read a few years ago.

My favorite in the Is Party Line, Comrade! series is the cartoon I've reproduced above. The sign at upper left reads: "Commissar of Music Culture (People's Div.)" Another sign reads: "Musicians of the World Arise! / Make Sour Notes."

A composer has entered the office, giving the commissar his latest composition. The caption reads:

"Is symphony I am composing from glorious sounds of Soviet industry, comrade commissar ... the din of hammers, the clash of machinery, the roar of furnaces, the groans of the populace ..."

Let's leave aside the final phrase — which is over-the-top hilarious. But short of that: when I first looked at this cartoon and read the caption I felt that something was not quite ideologically clear about its satirical base. The sort of Russian artists who would have created an assemblage of hammer noises, machine crashes, furnace roars, etc., had long been run out of the party, silenced, sent away or indeed killed. The finger-wagging composer here is a gone-to-seed, latter-day constructivist or Russian Futurist — gone from the scene of the 1950s Lichty believed he was satirizing, or had never yet seen the light of day in Soviet Russia (a musical collagist, a John Cage figure). The closest Lichty might have come to the music of industrial ambience would have been indeed ... right here in the U.S.

Of course I said all this, above, having ignored the final phrase — which after all is the punchline. So Lichty did know what he was doing politically. My point is merely, I suppose, that Is Party Line, Comrade! is full of lines that were far, by then, from the Party.

And, anyway, the sound of the groaning populace could be heard at nearly any performance by John Cage in the same period.

Robert Hillyer, known now (if at all) because he led the attack against Ezra Pound in 1949, was more generally an enemy of modernism. He wrote a regular column called "Speaking of Books." In the August 3, 1958 piece he noted the revival of interest in Alexander Pope in the 50s. From there he went on (for the nth time) to celebrate the timelessness of poetry. He observed — as if this were evidence rather than an effect of such a belief — that on his on bookshelves he arranges his poetry books in alphabetical rather than chronological order. All his other books are arranged chronologically. The alphabetical arrangement of poetry permits him to see and derive pleasure from the ahistorical juxtaposition of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Conrad Aiken, such as William Plomer and Ezra Pound. William Plomer and Ezra Pound!? Say what?

There it is again: the bright line separating poetry from everything else.

Yet there's a glint of arbitrariness in Hillyer's otherwise natural history of poetics. Plomer and Pound share in common nothing but a first initial. Now that's language, not meant as Hillyer would normally like, but there only on his shelf at home. In the hard-fought poetry wars (Hillyer was a battalion chief on the "we mean what we mean" and "great poetry is timeless" side), this is one of those moments of ideological crossing I cherish. The Plomer-Pound connection, made of a personal alphabetical fiction, is more something I imagine someone like Bern Porter would find on his shelves.

Anne d'Harnoncourt died suddenly last weekend (after coming home from minor surgery). She'd been the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 and was admired by pretty much everyone.

Many readers of this blog will know of the great, great Arensberg collection of early 20th-century modernist work (sculpture in particular) and thus of the amazing Marcel Duchamp pieces in those rooms at the PMA. Anne d'Harnoncourt was an expert on Duchamp and a tireless promoter of his work and centrality to modernism's strong (and postmodernism's obsessive) anti-art impulse.

NPR has made available a 9-minute interview with d'Harnoncourt conducted by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Here it is.