Commentaries

One woman's garbage....

taking out, taking in, the trash...

Lara Durback, Greg Turner, Garbage Research 1: Hoarders and those resembling hoarders (Dusie/No No Press, 2011), unpriced — This little collage of found materials, original commentary, illustrations and sketches is part of Durback’s ethics of making, a commitment to recycling everything. To that extent, then, the subject of hoarding holds a mirror up to the found stuff that comprises this chapbook. The house of mirrors is a system of ecology here; feedback and loop are pertinent practices. And yet a large part of the commentary concerns the television program Hoarders, a show that focuses on those who withhold themselves and their “stuff” from circulation. Durback thus investigates the emotional toll — guilt and shame as effects of what we might be tempted to deem adolescent recalcitrance vis-à-vis obsolescence (a psychoanalytic perspective might see in hoarding arrested development at the anal stage….). However, as one of the primary vehicles of manufactured desires, television’s specular commodification of keeping, holding onto, reminds us once again, as does this chapbook, that obsolescence is the bread and butter of capital expansion and development. Referring to the size of a bin of her “things” given to her by her mother, Durback notes that “two of me could fit in there. It is a double coffin and time capsule.” The specular relationship between the coffin and time capsule points to the fetish, of course, but outside any psychoanalytic context, hoarding has (also) political, economic and social functions. Durback opens by noting that “hoarders” have special designations, as one sector of the marginalized, in Egypt and China. Durback notes that children are particularly adept at hoarding, a skill of survival: “Children do it. They have to.” The recent interest in trash as both a practice and ethos of poetics in our time suggests that Durback’s and Turner’s interests here are themselves the effects of a larger movement, if not quite the symptoms of a zeitgeist, among certain poets and artists (see, for example, issue 37 of The Volta).

Yona Wallach (June 10, 1944 – September 29, 1985)

In the June 10 Haaritz, Linda Zisquit writes: "Had Yona Wallach survived the breast cancer that she chose not to treat – and that ultimately killed her in 1985 – she would have been 70 years old on June 10. Wallach, a controversial diva of Hebrew poetry, attracted censure, admirers and lovers for her eroticism, blasphemy and experimental Hebrew. She is best known for provocative works with fluid gender boundaries like “Jonathan,” from her first book, “Things” (1966); and “Tefillin,” from “Wild Light” (1983), in which a female speaker imagines donning phylacteries in a violent sexual context." (Zisquit translated Wild Light, a selection of Wallach's poems for Sheep Meadow Press published in 1997.) (Tefillin are used in Jewish prayer: two small leather cases containing portions of the Torah , which are wrapped with straps on the forehead and the left arm.)

Tefillin

Come to me
Let me do nothing
You do it for me
Do everything for me
Everything I start to do
You do instead
I will lay tefillin I’ll pray
You lay the tefillin for me
Bind them on my arms
Play with them inside me
Pass them delicately over my body
Rub them against me
Arouse me everywhere
Make me faint with sensations
Run them across my clitoris
Tie up my hips with them
So I can come quickly
Play with them inside me
Tie up my hands and legs
Do things to me
Against my will
Turn me over on my stomach
Put the tefillin in my mouth a bridle bit
Ride me I am a mare
Pull my head back
Until I shriek with pain
And you are pleasured
Later I will pass them over your body
With unconcealed intention
Oh, how cruel my face will be
I will pass them slowly over your body
Slowly slowly slowly
Around your throat I’ll pass them
I will wind one end a few times around your throat
And tie the other to something stable
Something very heavy perhaps rotating
I’ll pull and I’ll pull
Until your last breath escapes
Until I strangle you

tr. Ruth Tsoffar
(from her essay "Staging Sexuality, Reading Wallach's poetry, which includes the poem in Hebrew)

David Antin: 10 for George

[The following is a new work by David Antin, commissioned for The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, Friendship, edited by Rachel Blau Du Plessis & scheduled for publication in a new & important series from University of New Mexico Press.  The over-all series, titled Recencies: Research and Recovery in Twentieth-Century American Poetics & under the directorship of Matthew Hofer, began last year with the publication of the collected letters of Amiri Baraka and Ed Dorn & promises more contemporary & modernist work in & out of series.  David Antin’s selected talk poems, How Long Is the Present, edited by Steve Fredman, will also be published by New Mexico, scheduled for later this year.]

 

                                                            1.

A young man has written a slim book of poems. He has sent the manuscript to an older poet whose poetry he admires. The older poet approves of the work and allows his approval to be printed in the book as a kind of preface. His name is Ezra Pound.  It’s 1934. The country is in a deep depression. Publishers are hit badly and are not promoting books by newcomers. The young man takes things into his own hands. He lives in Red Hook, which is the source of many of the book’s oblique images. It’s a working class neighborhood. But there is no work. He goes from door to door trying to sell his book.  He’s a handsome young man. He sells a few.

 

                                                            2.

George has an intermittent correspondence with Pound, who advises him  to go to France and gives him addresses of people to see. George and Mary visit a few of these writers and then decide to try to get a look at the country outside of Paris. They rent a horse and wagon and travel the backcountry for several weeks. Their agricultural vocabulary in French is greatly expanded.

 

                                                            3.

He’s in uniform now.  He’s old for a soldier but the Germans have broken through our lines by the Ardennes. He’s technically a rifleman but the lines are confused and he thinks he’s with the motor pool now. But he’s crossing an open space all alone and suddenly the Germans are firing mortar shells at him.  He sees a foxhole with two Americans. They’re waving at him to join them. He races across the field of fire and jumps into the foxhole. After nearly a minute of silence the mortars start up again. Then everything goes black. In the hospital he learns he’s wounded, the two G.I.s are dead and his war is over.

 

                                                            4.

The young man is now an older man. He lives in Mexico City now. He has a business there making furniture. He is good with his hands. He is on his way home from work. He will walk to the wide traffic circle where he will catch the bus home.  The bus has just finished taking on passengers and is about to close its doors but there is a portly little man in a business suit with an attaché case rushing after the bus, waving and calling out to the driver to wait. He arrives at the bus just as the driver closes the door. He pounds on the door but the driver starts to go. The little man takes out a revolver and fires at the bus as the driver simply pulls away leaving the little man standing in the street waving and shouting. Slowly the bus traverses the circle and approaches the site of the original stop where the little man is still standing in the street and the bus would have hit him, but at the last minute he leaps back onto the sidewalk and fires at the bus again. Once again the bus traverses the circle and this time climbs up onto the sidewalk after the little man, who nimbly skips aside and fires  again as he watches the bus drive away.

 

                                                            5.

In Mexico his business in high craft furniture is beginning to thrive. It’s a very small company with only one or two part time employees and he is the only artist designer.  Sometimes  he’s the only delivery boy. This day he has to get the chairs in a hurry to this high class mall. He loads the pickup carefully but is relatively uneasy. There is a strange lack of traffic. Something is going on. He comes back with a small package that he places under his seat. When he arrives at the mall there are large crowds of people carrying signs he can make nothing of. A big bearded man signals him to stop and leaps onto the running board. George slows down but shuts the window and keeps moving. The man addresses the crowd angrily and points to the truck. George stops the truck and reaches under       his seat and pulls out his package, from which he extracts a Colt 45 revolver and places it with exaggerated care on top of the instrument panel, starts up the truck and watches the crowd sullenly give way.

 

                                                            6.

It’s in Redondo Beach.  The war is over and George is sitting at a desk in a bank talking with a loan officer.  The loan officer is a pale, middle aged man in a grey suit.  He is looking through his wire rimmed glasses  at a pile of papers on the desk before him.  He straightens his tie and looks at George.  George is wearing an old corduroy jacket and a blue work shirt.  He has no tie.  “You see,” the loan officer taps the pile of papers with his showy fountain pen,”You really don’t have much of a credit record.”

“You mean I don’t owe anybody any money.”

“You could put it that way.”

“Look I have a small lot just big enough for an 800 square foot bungalow. Doesn’t that count as collateral?”

“Undeveloped land is not liquid. You have only1300 dollars in the bank, no permanent employment, and you want to borrow 25000 dollars.  “If I may say so, you’re not exactly a good risk.”

George suddenly shot to his feet and lunged across the desk, catching the guy by his necktie and dragging him across the desk, “Goddamn it, the U.S. government thought I was a good enough risk to keep its machines running while the Germans were shooting at us.”

It took two security guards to pull George off the guy. 


                                                            7.

“David, you all treat me like a contemporary, but I’m old enough to be your father.”

”I don’t know. I never had a father.” 


                                                             8.

After a reading of one of my early poems that featured a flood of similes, George remarked that he distrusted the word “like” for its too easy relation to an idea of truth.  I responded that I’d never thought of the word “like” in relation to an idea of truth. I thought of it as an icepick to stab into an otherwise muddy reality. George shrugged his shoulders and said somewhat ruefully,” I suppose I’m still a man of the thirties.” 


                                                            9.

While waiting for Elly and Mary to recover their coats from the crowded checkroom at the Guggenheim, George scanned the crowd and said to me, “You realize, David, ”we have the responsibility of being married to beautiful women.” 

 

                                                            10.

I was on the way back home from a talk I’d given up at Sonoma and I thought I would drop in on George. We used to be neighbors back in Brooklyn, but we hadn’t seen much of him or Mary since they’d moved back to San Francisco. So I called and Mary said he’d definitely be there.  I thought he looked pretty much the same, healthy handsome and tanned from spending the summer on the water up around Maine.  He was in good form, telling a series of stories with a droll and understated wit.  He got into a story about driving with Armand on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which was as usual choked with cars, but moving briskly.  Armand was in the fast lane going at a pretty good clip but keeping a reasonable distance behind a black Mercedes when a bright green Porsche with a Yale sticker on its rear window suddenly cut in front of us and the driver waved apologetically and turned on his left turn signal as Elly gave him the finger. George paused, rose in mid story and went to the refrigerator to take out a bottle from which he filled each of us a shot of bourbon and then went on.  Armand gunned his engine and drew up alongside the Porsche, rolled down his window and yelled, “What are you? a historian?” I cracked up until I noticed that George while telling the story had very neatly poured our glasses back into the bottle and was replacing the bottle in the refrigerator.

New Dark Age

(with apologies to Donald Revell)

A patch of sky
somewhere in southern Spain...

Ed Roberson, The New Wing of the Labyrinth (Singing Horse Press, 2009), 83 pp. $15.00—The last section—part 4—of Part One is titled “at the ends of the earth.” I can’t help but think of Roberson’s recent, and magnificent, book, To See the Earth Before the End of the World. The reversal of earth and world in these titles portending absolute limits is, I think, one way to think about the devastation of life after (near) death that suffuses this book from five years ago. Depression, mania and suicide occupy the thoughts of Roberson’s narrators in what has to the darkest book of his I’ve read. As the title poem and cover photo suggests, this is a record of failure, a grounded Daedalus, a rescued Icarus, as noted in, for example, “Deep Song”: “the body left/shocked    surprise of/weakened    of part of/of different    not all/alive    but left.” These poems have the somber resignation and world weariness that Tennyson captures in his bleak “Ulysses.” Roberson’s narrators are no “idle” kings but their idylls arrest themselves in the paralysis of utter speech, mere talk. Having survived the mirage of conquest, the “desert of decency” (“none of us got tenure, none of our partners stayed/around, some had to hire police to find their kids.”), the narrators nonetheless survive, perhaps beyond their own “relevance” (it’s important to recall that Roberson began his career during the Black Arts Movement), bewildered by anachronisms other than (just) themselves. In a few early poems in the book a narrator records his sense of paralysis with a phone: “On hold in my hand/my disconnection wants to know/if I just said goodbye/or am I about//to say hello…” Unable to decide, “The line of/question still open,” the narrator, like the line, “still alive,” is “Janus” incarnated: “future past both go/blind like this: eyes open, with//the head in the middle…” Yet perhaps no poem records the narrator’s sense of indecision and paralysis better than the single stanza “The Depths of an Old Wrong.” Here are its first few lines: “He doesn’t know why he/doesn’t know what it is/that he doesn’t want who/he doesn’t know…” Here are narrators, figured as black males, stunned to discover that their tried-and-true demeanor of angry silence is reflected back to them by white indifference (“A small residue from each/of all the crowds/you’ve ever been alone in/has collected in your throat…”) and hostility (“White people in the office think that/if   you’re not around them/you’re not around.”). New Wing of the Labyrinth pulls no punches, offers no false consolations. It is a riveting testimony to the price of not dying, to living on, for a while.

In audio practice X

Funk's SoundBox 2012

Funk's SoundBox 2012 logo
Funk's SoundBox 2012 logo

As partly told in a previous commentary, I spent time in Portugal in February 2013. Recordings I made during the visit consist of the files presented on PennSound, a series of ambient tracks in Porto and Buçaco, documentation of the proceedings of the Poesia experimental: materialidades e representações digitais colloquium at University Fernando Pessoa, and my "Seminário Transversal" for the Materialidades da Literatura seminar at University of Coimbra. At the tail end of the excursion, proposals to submit work for the Electronic Literature Organization’s Chercher le texte conference (Paris, September 2013) Virtual Gallery were due. Mulling over what to propose during course of stimulating days in Portugal, being wowed by PO.EX’s documentation style and possibilities of making new work within the context of documentary work, I decided to propose compiling recordings I made during the previous year.

My proposal description for Funk’s SoundBox 2012 simply stated, “In this multi-track interactive application, users will find ambient sounds, discussions led by some of the most influential figures in the field of digital writing, grand improvisations, audio play, and more weaved into a single sonic projection.” For years, I have made abundant recordings, but had never thought to package and produce them for public consumption in any organized way or with such focus.

Once the proposal was accepted in May, four months of various intensive types of labor followed. Closely reviewing all the recordings—which consist of ambient sounds, discussions led by (and between) digital writers/scholars/students, musical improvisations, studio play, readings and festival performances, &c.—for content, making selections, and preparing (i.e., ripping and mastering) 427 unique audio files and then converting them to .mp3 takes a long time! Such work is interesting research on many registers, and not without vast moments of tedium, which I usually welcome as time for contemplation—though it involves at least partially a type of split attention because one always needs to pay mind to technical, temporal, and other production components.

With the exception of Girassol studio recordings made directly to my laptop (with which I use an external M-Audio Fast Track Pro sound card), all of the recordings for the project were made in .wav format (44100 Hz) with a 24 bit 96 kHz handheld device (an Edirol R-09HR, made by Roland) directly to an SD card—via which files were transferred to the laptop. I used Ableton Live 8.2.8 to master the .wav files, which I then converted to the Web-compatible .mp3 format with Adobe SoundBooth. Since the audio content of the projects amounts to approximately twenty-four hours of material, I spent many days sequestered in Girassol in order to get the result I sought and achieved. With more than sixty contributors—including prominent figures in a range of fields, such as John Cayley, Mary Flanagan, Nick Montfort, Vanessa Place, Joan Retallack, Alan Sondheim, and many others—the process of seeking permissions, posting preview files, and sending updates were not trivial tasks either. Having an assistant/intern, or even a small team, to help out would have been useful. Yet because it could be made a priority (thanks in large part to Amy Hufnagel), I managed to accomplish what I set out to do—though doing these tasks on a project of this scale as a solo act is inadvisable!

Fortunately, as I began to design the interface in August, a most unexpected thing happened. Planning to use Flash software to construct the interface, I contacted my friend Jim Andrews (whose program dbCinema I've performed with) with a question about using Flash’s audio (in particular, regarding code for sound-embed buttons). Andrews used Flash for audio projects for many years (see Nio for an example), and I knew he would be a helpful consultant. I did not expect to have an elaborate engagement with him about it, or that he—once hearing the premise of what I wanted to do—would spend time authoring examples of how my designs could be implemented through a combination of HTML5 code and JavaScript. We thus ended up collaborating on the project’s premium attribute—its “version Stereoeo”—which interactively hyperlinks all of the vocal and musical tracks included in the most complex of three interfaces I designed. (The other versions, named “Table” and “Inventory”, allow users to play multiple files by individual contributors and an index for downloads, but not the ability to play multiple files by any contributor at the same time). Being fluent in HTML was certainly helpful, because once I had a general understanding of how the code Andrews provided worked it was not difficult to author necessary additions.

My intent was to permit users to mix and match sound tracks with verbal tracks. Andrews’s code structure functions perfectly for the task. I/we were able to create pull down lists for both types of tracks, and enable users to activate (and deactivate), as well as adjust the volume and timeline tracking for any number of tracks in each category. Possibility and play in such re-mixing often delivers surprising juxtapositions (or textual chaos, depending how you use it) and expands the project in a way presenting one sound file at a time would not. I would not argue that all archives should be presented thus, only wish to suggest that such components can have utility and offer fine alternatives to the norm.

Notably, at the same time I reached out to David Jhave Johnston with similar questions regarding the SoundBox audio design, because I have tremendous respect for what he did with Flash in his work MUPS (Mash Up PennSound) in 2011-2012. Johnston ultimately sent me all of the code for MUPS, with instructions on how to implement it with my files, though I did not pursue making another iteration of the materials beyond the Andrews version. The spirit of collaboration evident in my dialogs with Andrews and Johnston was inspiring and helped support SoundBox 2012 enormously. I also appreciate that several contributors–particularly David Clark, Roberto Simanowski, and Stephanie Strickland—closely engaged with their recordings and selectively refined the content; their attention to detail adds refinement to the project.

My original plans were altered and developed into an application that was easier to produce, more effective in affect, and quite easy to use. I cannot think of a way I could be more pleased by the end result, other than to say—as I do in notes that accompany the project—that a fully annotated set of “liner notes” for each file would be a positive addition.

My notes further divulge a backdrop to the story and approaches one can take with what I have put together. I explain that the project captures, “many different voices and sounds travelling up and down the building and involvement of a year. The content is creative, critical, and other; the selective process of its production, too, is a creative and critical endeavor” and posit my, “hope to see many more examples of this type of scholarship emerge in the Digital Humanities as time passes”.

Funk’s SoundBox 2012 was, thanks to my NJIT colleague Andrew Klobucar, nominated for a 2013 Digital Humanities Award in the category of “Best use of DH for fun”. It did not win the award, but certainly many more people were (and continue to be) exposed to the work as a result of the nomination. During the winter 2014 Polar Vortex I repurposed some of the code Andrews and I devised to create Funk’s SoundBox version archival (We Press, 2014), which appears (for simplicity’s sake) to be a uni-track construction, but in fact users can play with multi-tracking by clicking on the box with my name on the upper left corner of the screen.