Commentaries - August 2011
This post presents recordings inspired by the life and work of the musician and composer Arthur Russell. A limited edition collaborative chapbook written by CA Conrad and Thom Donovan called Arthur Echo (Scary Topiary Press, 2011) addresses Russell’s haunting and beautiful recording World of Echo. In this excerpt from the co-written introductory statement, the authors describe their process: “While house sitting for friends in Philadelphia we collaborated on the following (Soma)tic exercise, playing Arthur Russell’s CD World of Echo on repeat on all five floors of the house. We moved from floor to floor from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., taking scheduled breaks for food, conversation, and checking in for further fine tuning of the (Soma)tic maneuvers.” Conrad and Donovan read the entirety of their chapbook (with the exception of the two introductory statements) on February 8th, 2011 at the Zebulon Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Listen to CA Conrad’s section of Arthur Echo.
Listen to Thom Donovan’s section of Arthur Echo.
Arthur Russell was known for creating music in various, seemingly disparate musical genres. Conrad and Donovan’s collaboration evokes Russell’s sense of multiplicity in their heterogeneous response to his work. Conrad’s piece adopts a slightly more embodied individual perspective while Donovan’s work tends to tap into a sensibility of ambient assemblage. In Donovan’s introductory notes he writes: “We also spent much of the nine hours improvising lines with a set of books I had brought with me from NYC to Philadelphia, many of which were of a holy, metaphysical, or medical import.” When one listens to Russell’s World of Echo, it’s impossible to miss the confluence of these elements. One hears an instantly identifiable but transitory voice moving through an equally porous instrumental atmosphere. The voice and cello weave in and out, endlessly emanating, accreting, and decaying. The chapbook’s design (Conrad’s poem on the left pages of the first section facing an equal amount of blank right pages, and Donovan’s poem on the right pages of his section following an equal amount of left blank pages) creates a similar experience of utterance and delayed silence, of singular presence resonating with the discourses of larger communities.
Kevin Killian’s reading from the launch for EOAGH #3: Queering Language in Philadelphia in 2007 begins with a piece called “Norwegian Wood” and concludes with the poem “Is It All Over My Face?” which touches upon a brief affair Killian had with Russell in the late 1970’s. The title comes from an Arthur Russell (under the moniker Loose Joints) disco song of the same name, which Killian briefly quotes/sings. I loved the way Killian stops casually throughout the poem to provide a micro-anecdote or to add a piece of context here or there. Killian brings out different aspects of Russell and his work. His half-joking skepticism of Russell’s Buddhism and the way he emphasizes the obvious sexuality of the song’s title provide further vantage points from which to consider Russell and his work.
Watch Killian read “Is It All Over My Face?” in a video recorded at the University of Maine at Orono in 2008.
Listen to the song “Lucky Cloud” from World of Echo.
Listen to the song “Place I Know/Kid Like You” from World of Echo.
Listen to one version of the song “Is It All Over My Face?”
More work by Noah Saterstrom here.
More cordite 35: Oz-Ko
Since the proliferation of internet magazines it seems there has been a corresponding proliferation of visual poetry. I'm not sure why. That colour reproduction isn't a money issue is perhaps one, and that we have stopped seeing the visual aspect of text in print. The internet wants to be a movie. One aspect of reading visual poems online is that of movement and perspective. I'm not talking about flash poems or other dynamics such as hypertext, but the way we might view an ostenisbly static work, like Sebastian Gurciullo's 'Pattern Recognition 2' (above), published in cordite's Oz-Ko issue.
As the title suggests, there are two patternings to recognise. Reading it as given, with my eyes and browser, I recognise that it's text, but discerning letters requires peering: getting close to the screen. Zooming is a better option. As the image is enlarged it moves, slowly veering to my right, the shaping of the text becoming obscure, the text itself like a parody of cinema: becoming clearer at first, and then looking more hand-made at the maximum zoom. The other pattern is that of some kind of plant. I'm not sure if factual or fictional. It presents as fictional (and textual!). To me it looks like a tree with the structure of a flower. We might then think of the patterning of wallpaper, of wallpaper, or other design's abstraction of plant image or structure. But there is another possibility: that of a tree and a flower's recognition of each other.
Jordan Scott’s blert, simply put, is a book about stuttering that stutters. Which in fact means that it is anything but simple. blert is a mouth that mouths me as I mouth its phonemes with my mouth. It is intensely physical, clinical and my mouth becomes both hyper personal and treacherous.
“Imitate: frazil ice. Say clacra, frazil ice, clacracla.
Imitate: muskoxen. Say flafra, muskoxen, flafrafla.” (Jordan Scott, blert)
I imitate and my utterance “fails.” Or does it? For how can an utterance fail or succeed. Doesn’t an utterance just utter? Don’t all mouths approximate the sounds of other mouths? And yet we place so much judgement on accents, speech discordances, lisps, stammers, stutters, even pitch and gender. In these judgements we fable, much as the fables of cures for stuttering that blert dissects:
“The chichara has to sing inside the mouth… You will learn to use your mouth.” “You will lunge your thorax unto spring… You will sing like the birds.” “If you wish to become an eloquent speaker, you should bury the hyoid bone of a lamb in the wall of your house.” “You will learn to eat your grasshoppers.”
In blert, I stutter stratospherically, stumble and stomp through the mouth’s mandibles. I maw guttural. Grate gobbles until a mutter is me and my mouth is mouthful; morsel meat present. I do not grieve its presence; I gratify. Groan globules of syllabic sense. Gust gists. Glottal.
Recently, Scott created an NFB Interactive Documentary, Flub and Utter: A Poetic Memoir of the Mouth, where viewers can interact with poems from blert. The website creates various layers of reading (process and procedure) and allows the user to manipulate or “change directions” within a poem by clicking on words that portal into other discussions and interactions.
Jordan Scott is the author of Silt (New Star Books, 2005) and blert (Coach House Books, 2008). One of his current projects is a collaborative project with Stephen Collis, DECOMP (see my commentary on Collis). In 2009, he began, with Jason Christie, RespondencyWest, a literary salon in Vancouver, modelled on Margaret Christakos’ Influency series in Toronto. In January 2011, he presented blert and gave a talk on disfluencies and interrogation procedures at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival. He lives in Vancouver. To hear and watch more of Scott’s work, visit his website.
Building the internal ark with Will Alexander
The caption to Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of migrating snow geese reads: “Nearly 300,000 snow-geese arrive from their nesting ground in the Canadian high Arctic to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early autumn. They feed sixteen hours a day on a type of cotton grass to build fat before they start their long migration south to places like New Mexico (my home), California, Texas, and Mexico. During spring and summer months nearly ninety species migrate to the coastal plain from all six continents to nest and rear their young, to molt, to stage, and to feed. In my mind through migrations of these birds, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gets connected to every land and oceans of the planet. For several decades, the United States Government has been pushing hard to open up this coastal plain to oil and gas development.”
Banerjee’s Arctic images (which have become ubiquitous in media about climate change) are balanced with attention to the life ways, opportunities and challenges of the peoples most closely tied to the Arctic ecosystems (Gwich’in, Inupiat). His own personal politics as an artist who has forsworn the financial speculation of the gallery system, extending his “art” into a range of political engagements, also adds to the meaning of his images. Above all, this image speaks to the fact that every person, and every species, on this planet is connected to the fate of the Arctic ecosystems, in part through the epic migrations of species like the Snow Goose.
We also live in a time of epic human migrations. By 2050, the U.N. projects, the global population will peak at 9 billion, and that same year, more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. We crossed the halfway mark (more urban than rural) in 2007.
In Somalia right now, the worst drought in 60 years, combined with one of the most dangerous political situations on the planet, has already killed 10,000 people and put 500,000 children on the brink of starvation. These people cannot migrate into the cities: their rivers have been diverted and those who try to escape imprisoned. Whether or not extreme weather patterns can be linked to human-induced climate change (globally the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998), we cannot deny that the triple whammy of bad weather, neoliberal global economics and fundamentalisms of all stripes are not working out for large swaths of the human population, let alone other species.
We have experienced an irreversible loss of innocence in regard to the weather. Nowadays, the weather offers tenuous neutral ground, at best (same goes for “nature,” even if cute nature posts on Facebook still rack up the “likes”). Whatever one’s approach to ecopoetics, it probably begins with this loss of innocence.
A typical “deep ecology” metaphor compares humanity to a “cancer” on the earth. Consider instead the poetry of Will Alexander, who actually wrote his way out of a cancer diagnosis. Today I read “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” presumably written while he was undergoing chemotherapy. Alexander’s poetry (along with his artwork and his performances) answer to the post-innocence state of nature on a planet convulsed with human change. It is a poetry of migratory, global, cosmographic scale, charged with the “stamina of wandering”:
like the Guajiros in Columbia I fish
& I sustain myself like civet
like an ominous & “ubiquitous jackal”
. . .
which allows me commingling with my astral kin
the bartered salt from the Bilma Oasis
or the breadmaking skills of the “Gaduliya Lohars”
or my magic cousins the Akuriyos
drinking gruel from a lion’s belly
while droning over cups of pure lava
The speaker of Alexander’s poem, a kind of post-Nubian Ancient Mariner, pursues a “loxodrome,” or rhumb line, an imaginary trajectory on the earth’s surface, cutting all meridians at the same angle.
as I wander
I travel across the core at eclectic meridians
never canceling my wavering
my magnetic “failure to observe”
Poet Charles Olson seems to have believed in a basic human tropism (after anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, amongst others), which he expressed in a letter to Ed Dorn about the poem “Migration in fact” (from The Maximus Poems) : “that the motion of man upon the earth has a line, an oblique, northwest-tending line.” Pursued indefinitely, a loxodromic course would spiral toward the pole, as the meridians converge.
Sound—a compass point for thinking, writing, speaking to get bearings in a more-than-human world—is the magnetic north of ecopoetics, and Alexander knows this. His poetry vibrates in the aural, a realm of proximity, contact, interpenetration and continuity. Alexander’s semantic resourcefulness and combinatorial ingenuity effect, across the irruptive nature of the imagery, a mesmerizing pattern, the lines of which sometimes seem to spiral around “masculine” (monosyllable) and “feminine” (trochee and dactyl polysyllable) end words.
nightly disembarking into a restless butane garden
like an ambush fish
or an Anarhichas Lupus
without “ventral fins”
& very dangerous to handle
Alexander introduced his performance of “Provisions for the Higher Ozone Body,” at the 2011 MLA Offsite reading, by pointing out that humanity, located “on the Orion Spur,” at the edge of the Milky Way, is a “species on the edge.” I would say that most poets writing today might agree with this assessment, though what it means for their practice of poetry will vary widely. For Alexander, it means that “we’re on this planet, and we have to start to build an internal ark.” This recalls for me biocentric social critic Eileen Crist’s notion that we might have to focus less on species preservation and more on becoming “island preserves of animality.” Given our disproportionate effect on the planet’s ecosystems, “saving” other species may be directly related to our ability to imagine them, and to our capacity to save ourselves. As Alexander puts it in “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome”:
& my trawler
& my living on this ark
a kinetics that transcends
that obviates withdrawal
that perpetuates explosion through variegation
. . .
& so I’ve named my trawler Monoceros the Unicorn
at random times I’ll call it Ophiuchus the “Serpent Holder”
Alexander’s Glossary notes that Ophiuchus (a Milky Way constellation) “represents Aesculapius, a son of Apollo and a mythical healer, holding a huge snake (Serpens)—a symbol of regeneration.” (This image also connects with the loxodromic sailors’s meditative beheading of sea snakes.) Alexander combats “dark persistence in metric euthanasias,” “biometric reduction,” “stultification at the core of bloodless discourse,” and “inclement mythos/ which invades the body as cellular ruination,” with poetry’s explosive variegation, its “prolific argumentation” and “turbulent infinity,” its concern with “the ubiquitous/ the simultaneous/ the vast interior instinct for the pelagic.” Regeneration is sinuous, multiplying of nuance, while the reductivism that still rules humanist discourse (including its “avant garde”) leads to inflammation.
I no longer inflame myself with singular diagnosis
with boldness sought by inflammatory dicta
Ecopoetics: multiplicity, simultaneity, collapsing of interior/ exterior boundaries, restless migratory intelligence. Not retrospective elegy but a proleptic healing (Aldon Nielson has called Alexander’s a “yet more projective verse”). An uncanceled wavering and a “brimstone fire” of focus, unflinchingly alert to the vast sentient suffering, also to the astonishing resourcefulness and the yet unimagined forms of life on this planet at the edge of the Milky Way.
Alexander’s nuanced attention to the signatures of the constellations, to the topography of the Indian Ocean, and to the language denoting its exotic flora and fauna, as much as his attention to the medical language of various pathologies, communicates an ability to navigate the continuum between body and planet, outside the humanist psyche, with language that we might call ecoliterate—if the “eco” didn’t imply an at-homeness that doesn’t quite rhyme with Alexander’s Fortean universe. I’m interested in the extent to which this poetry might help us to rethink ecopoetics from within an optics, and an acoustics, not governed by margin/ center, alienated/naturalized binaries.
Gianini [the “invasive spectre” of Alexander’s poem] when he appears
telepathically alerts me that I’m quarantined from the living
that I’m an isolate medium of negative exchange
but he can’t describe blennies
or how a rockfish inflates
or how tragically garnered instants evolve from the abyss
The difference between nature poetry and Alexander’s coruscating verse is like the difference between municipal recycling and the broad mental, cultural and social shift necessary to overcoming the systemic cancer (whether of body, society and/or planet) that seems to have beset human relations. A friend of mine recently spoke of her (so far successful) battle with breast cancer as a matter of locating and dissolving blockages, restoring flow. Alexander’s therapeutics direct “fiery avian transmixture” at the biometric blocks, the stultification and euthanasia, the repetitive myths enslaving the capitalist psyche to a biocidal course—to unlock global connections the snow geese remind us of, when they drop their wild poetry upon the muds of March. Applying pressure where the internal ark begins, in the human imagination, Alexander’s Afro-futurist errancy enkindles a language scaled to the challenges we face.