Commentaries - March 2009

Here is a note we’re sending around tonight:

Dear friends & colleagues:

Users of PennSound downloaded four million mp3 sound recordings and related media files in the past month. At this point, we are projecting fifty million downloads for 2009. This is far, far beyond what we expected when we created PennSound in 2003–04, and we’re grateful that the project is receiving such a positive response.

Al Filreis & Charles Bernstein, Codirectors
Mike Hennessey, Managing Editor

Middle of my long long day in the archive yesterday. Was told by a knowing-looking student that I could get a really good and strong cup of coffee at a funky cafe in the unrenovated basement of the U of Chicago Divinity School, and here I found an NCAA tourney-like bracket for gods and godly figures, presented on a chalkboard behind the counter. The Final Four: Buddha defeats David, Obama beats Moses. Final goes to Buddha. The whole place was swarming with divinity students. They were hepped up on the java, which really was as good as I’d heard.

The Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. On my own list of the top five most beautiful ugly buildings in the world, it’s number three. It’s a Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill building, completed in 1970. It stands on the former grounds of the great Stagg Field. (Think about that as a symbol of a university: Hutchins got rid of the football team in 1931 or something like that. Big controversial move. So build a library on the site — just to press the symbolic shift to academics — by 1935. Goodness knows, there were New Deal stimulus dollars around to do so, and Hutchins was a good fund-raiser. No**, get rid to the football program and then take forty years to build on top of it.)

** Of course there are probably 100 stories about why this makes sense. And wasn’t it under the stadium that the A-bomb research was first done?

Here's X. J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” published in 1959 or 1960. From the title we know that Kennedy was in some sense at least rewriting or reworking the image of Duchamp’s great early modern kinetic-cubist painting of the same name. I could go on and on about this poem as a 1950s-style poetical quietism. I won’t here. Maybe what one can say on this score will be obvious. Whereas in the Duchamp the subject position is everywhere at once (we are seeing the nude from all angles — she moves and thus our rendering of her must be dynamic), here we are watching her from below — down the stairs. (In porn-ish pics I believe this is called “upskirt.” Google that word and watch out.) From that vantage “we” her thighs rub together and although there’s “the swinging air” the image is static. We’ve seen her, spied her, rendered her. Her descent is likened (it is not itself but something like it) and then, in the final line of the poem, the motion is not motion, but has a definitive end. Her motions are collected into a shape, a metered and rhymed who-has-zoomed-who unmistakable shape. This poem about a painting about constant mimesis-defying movement ironizes that kind of movement.

Here you go:

Nude Descending a Staircase

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh —
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.

Episode #15 of PoemTalk is being released today. It’s twenty-five minutes of talk about a single poem — this time, a poem by Lyn Hejinian and the talkers are Tom Mandel, Bob Perelman, Tom Devaney, and myself. Take a look at the PoemTalk blog entry and find all the links you’ll need, including, of course, to the show itself.