Commentaries - February 2012

'The Last to Leave'

Dirk Van Bastelaere (Photo by Krystof Ghyselinck, 2005)

In 2005 Tony Frazer's UK-based press, Shearsman Books, published a selection of poems by Dirk Van Bastelaere. They were translated from Flemish by Willem Groenewegen, John Irons, and Francis R. Jones. Dirk Van Bastelaere is a postmodernist. I read the book, The Last to Leave, and found its polysemy and pace enthralling. To me these poems seemed made by an intertextualist in pursuit of the limit-experience. Here was a poet who was unfastened and fast. He was influenced by John Ashbery and by Gertrude Stein, and often referenced contemporary art and culture - films, pop songs, literature and so on - an aspect that apparently led to his being attacked for "intellectualism" by critics in Flanders.

In 2008 Dirk Van Bastelaere caused some controversy in the Flemish poetry scene with Hotel New Flanders, a large anthology of sixty years of Flemish poetry that he co-edited with Erwin Jans and Patrick Peeters. His poetry operates in flux and it seems that he sees anthologies similarly. He wrote in the introduction to Hotel New Flanders:

Know what is happening in your heart

Why Robert Penn Warren irks me

Here is a poem by Robert Penn Warren called “Tell Me a Story”:

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

This poem, which was required reading somewhere along the line, always irked me and I never bothered to think about why. (By the way, I saw and heard Warren read in person in maybe 1979 or 1980, at the University of Virginia, although I don't think he read the irksome poem. He did read “Bearded Oaks” as an encore and received a prolonged standing ovation.)

Why am I irked? I listened to a discussion of the evolution of Warren's racism (see below) and then I knew a little more about why.  It’s the absolute way in which northward movement is naturalized. It happens, the young southerner doesn’t see it, can’t see it, won’t see it, and the logic (it’s a certain season and “therefore” they go north) is fixed. Sure, in the poem he's a young boy and so “I do not know what was happening in my heart” we ascribe to innocence and inexperience. And yet this is not the kind of northern migration that one will ever actually come to know by experience; it’s a priori true. There's a dishonesty here in the slight implication that later one will know what is in one's heart.

Later Robert Penn Warren, who had been a racist, thought of himself as a reformed racist.

Stacy Doris, American poet: 1962-2012

New EPC page

photo © Isabelle Levy-Lehmann (July 17, 1997). may not be rerpdouced without permssion for photographer

Stacy Doris EPC page: obituary and tributes

Determined dared done

Outside and inside the book

Choir singing Christopher Smart, "A Song to David"
Choir singing Christopher Smart's "A Song to David"

Determined dared done 

Every time I read a manuscript that I am going to publish, before I know I am going to publish it, I am enthralled, but I am also outside the book. I am a reader, someone who receives the projection, i.e. the carry-over, as Olson put it, all the way over to that reader. I may lose myself in some sense, possibly even be close to some sort of rapture, but I am raptured by the other; it is not me.

Stein has this effect to an extreme, i.e. reading Stein is not to be included in the book or text, but specifically to be excluded, to feel the object of the work as an other, and to love it (if one does, as I do) as such. Stein may be best appreciated for texture, structure, word unfolding to other words, cognitive dissonance giving way to sensual delight. But again, reader as outsider.

When I make a book, i.e. imagine type and set that type, purchase paper, cut paper, enact design on paper, enact ongoing design in book as a sequence of multiple picture planes (as defined by renowned book artist Walter Hamady), with the intent that such planes are connected with the meaning of the book at hand, i.e. that matter and meaning are at play with each other, either in synch, or intentionally akimbo in some way. Yes, then I am INSIDE the book.  I don’t generally read the book at this stage; I have already given myself over to an understanding that allows an action; or to a less-than-complete (because isn’t it always less than complete?) understanding that initiates an exploration in materials, space, time. And then the book is finished, or, as Christopher Smart writes at the end of A Song to David, “DETERMINED, DARED, and DONE.”

At this point I am entirely outside the book again. Yet it is in part I who have released the book into the world.