Commentaries - November 2013
In my last post I discussed Vito Acconci’s concept of the “activist flaneur” and I mentioned how the figure of the flaneur is said to have originated with Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” Poe’s narrator, while engaged in categorizing the faces that pass his cafe window (using a particularly 19th century set of assumptions about character traits), is suddenly taken aback by a face that defies classification. He quickly grabs his coat and spends the night following the man through various crowd scenes, trying to determine what kind of man this could be. I won't give away the answer for those who haven’t read the story, but I’d like to make a connection between that act of following and several others — including Acconci’s 1969 “Following Piece.”
Acconci described the procedure of the work this way: “Once a day wherever I happen to be, I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street. Each day I follow a different person; I keep following until that person disappears into a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can no longer follow…episodes of following ranged from 2 or 3 minutes — when someone got into a car and I couldn’t grab a taxi fast enough… — to 7 or 8 hours — when a person went to a restaurant, a movie…” Acconci enacted this procedure for a month, and he recorded the details of each “episode.”
Ten years later the artist Sophie Calle performed her own extended following piece in Suite Venitienne. At a party in Paris, Calle meets “Henri B.,” who announces that he is leaving for Venice the next day. Calle also goes to Venice and after some detective work, figures out the hotel at which Henri B. is staying. She disguises herself and follows him through the city, photodocumenting along the way. The published account of this particular pursuit is part diary, part photo-novel, part investigative reportage.
In Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, an author named Quinn is mistaken for the detective Paul Auster. On a whim, Quinn takes the case and finds himself following Stillman, tracking his movements with the same details as Acconci. But Stillman’s movements are quite erratic and seem to have no logic to them. Once Quinn tracks the coordinates of Stillman’s walks on a map, he discovers that Stillman is tracing letters with his movements and spelling out a phrase.*
Each of these followings was performed with varying degrees of investment in the person being pursued. For Acconci and Auster, the subject of pursuit is random, and so we learn much more about the pursuer than the pursued in these cases. Auster’s detective, however, senses that a puzzle could be solved if he could understand the motivations of his mark. In this regard, he has more in common with Poe’s 19th century narrator, who eventually discovers that his “man of the crowd” has no existence outside of the crowd; the crowd is lifeblood. Such a plight resonates in the era of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We are all followers now. Which leads me to one last following piece: Geolocation by photographers Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman. The project begins by collecting and tracking digital breadcrumbs. Here’s their description:
“Using publicly available embedded geotag information in Twitter updates, we track the locations of users through their GPS coordinates and make a photograph to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text. We think of these photographs as historical monuments to small lived moments, selecting texts that reveal something about the personal nature of the users’ lives or the national climate of the United States. It also grounds the virtual reality of social networking data streams in their originating locations in the physical world while examining how the nature of one’s physical space may influence online presence.”
I’ve been trying to think of poetic projects that are analogous to this photographic digital following project. Although I’m not sure it’s a perfect match, the works produced by the Troll Thread Collective mine and recontextualize the language evidence of our virtual landscape in a way that allows us to follow (and see ourselves in) the crowd.
* If Quinn had been tailing Stillman today, a GPS tracker or an app like “Map My Run” could have made his transcribing a lot easier.
We are pleased to publish the first of five first readings of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin,” collected in Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011). The text of the poem appears below. It happens that Armantrout’s PennSound page includes a recording of her performing the poem: here is that recording. Jennifer Ashton teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2005) and edited The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945 (Cambridge, 2013). Her most recent article, “Poetry and the Price of Milk,” on the politics of contemporary poetry, can be found on nonsite.org, where she is a founding member of the board. She is currently at work on a new book, “Labor and the Lyric.” — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
First reading of “Spin,” by Jennifer Ashton
First: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which.”
Next (glancing quickly down to the last word of the poem): “That” … “there.”
I think to myself, the two together are like an answer to a question. “Which?” “That there.” The combination of the first word and the last forms a phrase that is strikingly idiomatic.
* * *
The email inviting me to participate in this exercise arrived while my husband and I were having a drink in a restaurant bar before meeting a friend for dinner (as it happens, the poet Roger Reeves).
JA: This should be fun. Look, the poem starts with “that” and ends with “there.” So it’s like the whole poem is a way of saying “That there!”.
WBM: Hugh Kenner used to call that the Jane cord. He said you could learn something about any text by looking at the first and last word.
JA: The Jane chord? Is that a real thing? How’s it spelled?
WBM: J-A-N-E. It was invented by Jane Brakhage — the wife of the Canadian filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
JA: What about “chord”?
JA: Oh, “cord” like a string or a rope —
WBM: Yes, because it stretches from the beginning to end of the poem and it’s like the whole poem hangs on it, like it’s strung along a wire. Wait, what did you think it was?
JA: I was thinking “chord” with an “h.” Like the first and last word are the opening and closing notes from the poem, hit at the same time, as if you were listening to them being played together.
WBM: I never saw it written down, but I’m pretty sure it’s “cord” with no “h.” [Picks up phone, types in “brakhage jane cord.”] Nothing much comes up.
JA: What if you include ”Kenner”? Did you try typing “chord” with an “h”?
WBM: [Types “kenner,” adds an “h” to “cord.”] Here’s something, a letter from Hugh to Bill Buckley. It says “you calculate it by combining the first and last words of ‘any book by any mortal,’ and if it is ‘a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.’”
JA: So it is “C-H-O-R-D.”
WBM [reluctantly]: I guess so — if that’s how Hugh spells it in the letter. I’d sort of like to see the actual letter. I still can’t quite believe it. Ever since Santa Barbara, I’ve had this image of the poem strung along a wire and that was the cord.
JA: But even though “cord” and “chord” with an “h” are totally different, it’s actually not all that different if you’re just thinking about how the two words work for the poem. Oh, there’s Roger [my “first reading” will have to wait].
* * *
I start where I left off: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which” and “That” … “there!” Now I also see that two of the “which”s are paired with “nonetheless.” I also notice another vertical stack of three (“hit”) along the left margin in the section below.
So I glance again at the “which”s in the first section and notice the repetition of “dimension”-based words at the beginning and ending of the section: “That we are composed / of dimensionless points” and “which is a mapping of dimensions.” Taken together with the two intervening segments (“which nonetheless spin” and “which nontheless exist / in space”), it’s as if the first section offers up a framing or sandwiching device of sorts, with “dimension” words supplying roughly symmetrical top and bottom brackets, and the “which nonetheless” segments marking the roughly homogenous space between them.
Now I detect the homophonic pun, “mention,” contained in “dimensionless” and “dimensions.” I immediately think of the title of the poem, “Spin” (also notably repeated as the verb of the clause formed by the first “which”), and notice in the second section the pundit speaking of a candidate’s speeches (“The pundit says / the candiate’s speech / hit / ‘all the right points’”). The idea that the repetition of “dimension” might also be designed to invoke the noun or verb “mention,” with its associations of what is (or isn’t) said, hardly seems a stretch.
Now I realize that the poem’s first line begins with an assertion — “we are composed” — nonetheless “dimensionless,” and that we end the first section with a definition: “which is a mapping / of dimensions,” which in turn is subordinate to a subordinated clause. Heavily subordinated in fact, because it hangs on three earlier subordinate clauses. Moreover, the independent clause that should serve as the grammatical support of all four subordinate ones is nowhere to be found. Unless, that is, we read the poem’s title, “Spin,” as an imperative and treat it as an independent clause with an implied you as its subject and the first subordinate clause as its direct object: “[You] spin that we are composed / of dimensionless points …”
At this point, I still haven’t read the poem through, taking in every line.
Now, in doing so, I first hear its rhythms, multiple instances of the same stress pattern, vaguely anapestic (- / -- /): “that we are composed,” “dimensionless points,” “the candidate’s speech,” “hit / ‘all the right points’”, “’not hearkening back’”. The list even includes the last line of the poem (the stress placement might be ambiguous were it not for the italics of “there”): “and we say, ‘Look there!’” Considering that the second section of the poem contains the clearest reference to what we might call, based on the poem’s title, its subject matter (“spin” as in political campaign discourse), we can see how the poet’s establishment of this stress pattern works, by the end, to spin the reader’s ear into hearing things a certain way.
At the same time that I had been taking in the emerging rhythm of the poem in my first reading, some of my attention was drawn to the slant rhymes that operate in the first line of each section (“-posed,” “says,” “eyes”). At this point I want to go back to the beginning, to look for more aural and visual patterns, certainly, but now also to think about the relationship between the manifest subject matter of the poem in the second section (political “spin”) and its relation to the much more abstract workings of the first section, particularly the movement from “dimensionless points” to “a mapping of dimensions.”
But that would mean rereading.
And that would require further discussion. I find myself thinking about something one of my own graduate teachers, Allen Grossman, often said at the beginning of his seminars: “We are here to engage in a conversation. Poems, after all, are meant to be discussed.”
* * *
Rae Armantrout, “Spin”
That we are composed
of dimensionless points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
which is a mapping
The pundit says
the candidate's speech
“all the right points,”
hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”
Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!”
On November 12, Lydia Davis gave a talk at CalArts culled from her forthcoming collection of stories, Can’t and Won’t. Davis has been recording her dreams, writing them down, and working them into fiction, then engages the inverse: writing lived experience as dream, as absurd occurrence. Maurice Blanchot’s mise-en-abyme, Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day and Days as Night, and Alain Badiou’s Being and Event all featured prominently in her musings on the porosity between waking and dream life, fiction and nonfiction, the lucid and the irrational. Blanchot’s desire to experience writing as experience, and Badiou’s event, of disappearance and consequences for Being and subject, in particular, collide. The writing subject disappears as such at the moment of writing, as one attempts to capture the reality without real convention to get at the experience of human thought. Through dream and through thinking in multiple languages, Davis makes palpable the absurd pleasure and impossibility of translating the mind's work with words. How close she feels the phenomenon of reading and of dreaming are, as ‘suspension of disbelief’ and the near-shutdown of the prefrontal cortex, the planning and logic center of the brain, bear relation. The brain exercises differently in reading and in dream; Davis suggests, as others have, that experimentation in writing is calisthetics for the reading brain, making it grow. In one piece, Davis’ left hand is a subject in itself, separate from her, with its own experience, with predilictions and habits born in another time and space, in another country. This is real. Davis accounts for it. Many in the audience, as she spoke, understood, with that mix of familiarity and discomfort that comes from accepting illogicality. Hallucination as a natural state of readerly conjure, perhaps organizationally, syntactically induced by withholding, manipulating the expected order. Nouns and verbs fall on odd notes. A peculiar action is not the final scene, the punchline of a dream. Instead a return to “normality,” whether smooth or abrupt, is what makes the uncanny resonate. Davis studies her own dreams and in so doing learns a new language that she in turn applies to her approach to prose. She extracts this language, too, from Flaubert. In his letters, she found passages of floating travelogue recalled from nights peering through carriage windows and recounted to an addressee as if through the fog of sleep. Davis culled and translated these passages—linguistically and formally—into a liminal space between the lived and the conjured, what we might call story, but what Davis is reluctant to definitively name or categorize. Instead, the pleasure of uttering mind, tongue and pen converging, is the point. The language of dream, of the absurd, is staccato, in short sentences. Space and time contract, the difference between place and subject, place and body, shrinks, exchanges, becomes transparent, transfigured. A panel of judges denied Davis an artist's residency, citing the ‘laziness’ of her writing, her over-reliance on contractions. Can’t instead of cannot. Won’t instead of will not. How contraction in language cost her the gift of time, and yet its precise rhythm is the vehicle of her writing, how she approximates the experience of time in the mind itself.
Davis' talk intensified my current revistation of Ana Hatherly's Tisanas, which blend poetry, prose, fable, Buddhist koan, chronicle and philosophical meditation into tight little sachets Hatherly calls “neo-prose,” “near-herbal teas,” and “proto-tonics.” Hatherly, also a painter and filmmaker, says the teas are “an attempt to salve the wound between thought and dream,” and they use a number of strategies, cinematic, painterly and poetic, to do so. Each “tea” chronicles an event, featuring characters ranging from pigs to keys to islands to serpents. The tisanas are an ongoing project, questioning the idea of a “finished” work, and stand instead as “eternal objects.” As of 2006, Hatherly has published 463 tisanas in Portugal, her native country. Perhaps a third have been translated in English, but only about fifteen translations have been published. The tisanas often begin with a period, a full stop, and a lower case letter. Perhaps this is a way of contracting time, action and scale, converging it onto a single point, the beginning of a proto-tonic event, a call to focus or attention to mark the experience of writing. In Tisana 262, the author appears as “a blind man who is given a short, cold pause to see by.” Other tisanas seem to perform this as a textual strategy as well as philosophy. How shall we hear this full stop before seeing the event that succeeds it? As a breath? A click? A rise in texture, like a curb between street and sidewalk? The numbering of the tisanas apparently does not reflect the order of the writing. Hatherly refuses the spirit of the system, preferring instead Umberto Eco's “fruitful disorder.” Yet the groupings of teas do yield a sense of continuity without forfeiting the dreamlike quality they possess. Entering another language transforms reality syntactically, something Lydia Davis well knows. In Tisana 47, above, I wandered for a time into Portuguese to experience Hatherly's near-herbal tea for myself. I cannot vouch for the quality of my translation, but in not-knowing came a new solidity in recognizing the (il)logic embedded in language, and a vigorous shedding of my own syntactical habits in the dusk of another’s sonic, sense-making and sensory reality. “At issue here” says Maurice Blanchot, “is a translation or a transcription of this project into the language of the night, not its implementation; and the anxiety is not provoked by the discovery of the disquieting realities that might be gathered in one's innermost depths, but rather the motion of looking into oneself and seeing nothing but the contraction of a closed, unlit space.” In contrast to the anxious discovery of a private abyss, what Hatherly and Davis show in the looking and sounding into oneself is that contractions, of verbs or prose, space and time, create illuminating distance without distance.
The person sleeping under the chair,
is he the children of the person who made the grand house?
The Reason the Person Inside Looks like a Deformed Invalid
I am standing in the shadow of a lace curtain,
that is the reason my face looks vague.
I am holding a telescope in my hands,
I am looking through it far into the distance,
I am looking at the woods,
where dogs and lambs made of nickel and children with bald heads are walking,
those are the reasons my eyes look somewhat smoked over.
I ate too much of the plate of cabbage this morning,
and besides this windowglass is very shoddily made,
that is the reason my face looks so excessively distorted.
To tell you the truth,
I am healthy, perhaps too healthy,
and yet, why are you staring at me, there?
Why smiling so eerie a smile?
Oh, of course, as for the part of my body below the waist,
if you are saying that area isn’t clear,
that’s a somewhat foolish question,
of course, that is, close to this pale window wall,
I am standing inside the house.
Things like littlenecks,
things like quahogs,
things like water-fleas,
these organisms, bodies buried in sand,
out of nowhere,
hands like silk threads innumerably grow,
hands’ slender hairs move as the waves do.
A pity, on this lukewarm spring night,
purling the brine flows,
over the organisms water flows,
even the tongues of clams, flickering, looking sad,
as I look around at the distant beach,
along the wet beach path,
a row of invalids, bodies below their waists missing, is walking,
Ah, over the hair of those human beings as well,
passes the spring night haze, all over, deeply,
rolling, rolling in,
this white row of waves is ripples.
The World of Bacteria
bacteria are swimming.
Some in a person’s womb,
some in a clam’s intestines,
some in an onion’s spherical core,
some in a landscape’s center.
Bacteria are swimming.
Bacteria’s hands grow right and left, crosswise,
the tips of their hands branch out like roots,
from there sharp nails grow,
capillaries and such spread all over.
Bacteria are swimming.
Where bacteria live their lives,
as if through an invalid’s skin,
a vermilion light shines thinly in,
and only that area is faintly visible,
looks truly, truly sorrow-unbearable.
Bacteria are swimming.
Body half-buried in sand,
still it’s lolling its tongue.
Over this invertebrate’s head,
pebbles and brine rustle, rustle, rustle, rustle, flowing,
ah so quietly as a dream flowing.
From between the sand and sand that go on flowing,
the clam again has its lolling tongue flicker and flare red,
this clam is very emaciated, I’m saying.
Look, its rubbery entrails seem about to rot,
and so when sad-looking evening comes,
sitting on the pale beach,
flickering, flickering, it lets out rotten breaths, I tell you.
The One Who’s in Love with Love
I painted rouge on my lips,
and kissed the trunk of a new birch,
even if I were a handsome man,
on my chest are no breasts like rubber balls,
from my skin rises no fragrance of fine-textured powder,
I am a wizened man of ill-fate,
ah, what a pitiable man,
in today’s balmy early summer field,
in a stand of glistening trees,
I slipped on my hands sky-blue gloves,
put around my waist something like a corset,
smeared on my nape something like nape-powder,
thus hushed assuming a coquettish pose,
as young girls do,
I cocked my head a little,
and kissed the trunk of a new birch,
I painted rosy rouge on my lips,
and clung to a tall tree of snowy white.
This utterly unknown dog follows me,
shabby, limping on its hind leg, a crippled dog’s shadow.
Ah, I do not know where I’m going,
in the direction of the road that I go,
roofs of tenements are being pelted pelted in the wind,
in a gloomy, empty lot by the road,
bone-dry grass leaves are pliantly thinly moving.
Ah, I do not know where I’m going,
a large, organism-like moon is vaguely afloat ahead of me,
and in the lonely street behind me,
the tip of the dog’s thin long tail is dragging on the ground.
Ah, no matter how far, how far I go,
this utterly unknown dog follows me,
crawling along the filthy ground,
behind me, dragging its hind leg, a sick dog,
distant, long, sadly terrified,
at the lonely moon, howling afar and pale,
an unhappy dog’s shadow.
[NOTE. Although poetry & illness were not the same for him, there was a constant interplay between them – a dialectic from which he emerged as one of the early poets moving the old language into new directions. Writes his translator Hiroaki Sato about his initial volume Howling at the Moon: “A collection of poems written at a time when literary diction was being replaced by everyday language, it deliberately blended the two and the effect was unsettling enough to make the words themselves appear poetic.” Hagiwara’s own view of himself was of “a half unconscious automatic machine” in the process of creation. If his concern was with psychological states as a kind of obsessive self-exposure, the formal vehicle was one of “rhythm” as the “new” in poetry might now allow it. Unlike Pound’s call for a return of poetry to music, however, Hagiwara’s poetics brought that whole relation into question. Thus he wrote of his own practice: “Through the free verse form the poet has been able to freely reveal the perfect rhythm of his ego for the first time. When it broke every unreasonable restraint and escaped from the bondage of music, poetry for the first time was able to discover its legitimate route and construct the ‘music of words’ in the true sense.” Toward similar ends his work displays a mix of elevated & low language, along with a range of syntactic irregularities that force the mind out of its normal channels.” (J.R. with Pierre Joris in Poems for the Millennium)
A full collection of Sato’s Hagiwara translations will be published shortly by New York Review Books.]
by Will Alexander
A beacon beaming rays through the mists of an inclement realia not unlike a lighted mount above a sequestered alabaster grove. This being Beyond Baroque, a refuge for imaginal practitioners. Not a mirage mind you, but a living amplification of language, operative since the latter '60's, prior to all the poetic bureaus and seminal presses of the present era. It pioneered, took chances, paved the way as an alchemic hive, as a living poetic habitat.
Not a mirage, but a three-dimensional facility, housed in the old Venice City Hall, constructed circa 1908. As stated, it remains a poetic refuge, but more than a refuge, it is a zone where poetic combustion transpires. Certainly not a space which appeals to the psyche of technocrats, or to poets buffered by disposable income and unwarranted status. It is a place where mud can withdraw and smolder, where the imagination can alchemically teem, and is given the liberty to blaze.
As its Poet-In-Residence I have never been hounded by a sub-surface gravity herding me into zones of conventional expression. Never has there been ideological susurration shadowing my choices of individual readers or my predilection concerning the selection of readers or in construction of collective events. Which is increasingly rare in an era of state sponsored surveillance, in an era in which the general mind is super-imposed with extrinsics, all the while hounded and at the same time comfort driven.
Beyond Baroque remains a Foundation fortified by the bones of integrity, an integrity not unlike an organic inherence, running as an unbroken lava from its founder George Drury Smith to its current Director Richard Modiano.
Workshops for the poet, the novelist, and the screenwriter all gratis. Which remains diametrically opposed to an active commercial tenet concerned as it is with draining one's personal coffers. Instead, at Baroque there is concern for sustainment of the long term, of the irreplaceable elements in one's creative spirit.
Baroque's motto: "a place dedicated to the possibility of language." Because of this dedication it retains its hardscrabble demeanor, its take no prisoner approach to comfort, in spite of the passivity which now brokers the fuel of the bourgeoisie personality.
Its presence is like a grace conferred upon the Los Angeles region, and beyond that, a subliminal icon bending its rays like a seminal wind encircling the planet.