Norman Fischer’s super-coherent overview of the book called Dementia Blog by Susan Schultz is a good way to begin: “Following the odd form of the blog, which is written forward in time but read backwards, it charts the fragmented disorienting progression (if this is the word) of her mother's dementia. Schultz sees through her family's personal tragedy to the profound social and philosophical implications of the unraveling of sense and soul: a deranged nation, so unmoored from coherence that it is unable to feel the difference between political rhetoric and the destructiveness of war.”
Leonard responds to the matter of Schultz’s discovery of dementia as poetic form and he quotes Schultz on this point: “Reverse Stein. Not insistence but repetition.” “Stein,” says Leonard, “who insists it’s not repetition, that there is no repetition” but Schultz reverses that, based on the neurological reality facing her. Is this repeal of Stein a “big breakthrough”? asks Al - to which Leonard replies that it’s not really a critique of Stein, because finally “this book honors a kind of indeterminacy as ethics.”
Jamie-Lee argues that for Schultz memory is community and the state of being without memory is isolation. In the post-Holocaust sense, we won’t understand, and cannot successfully convey, what we write down about the trauma we witness. Schultz nonetheless chooses testimony a mode, and blog as form, not so much because she believes in the efficacy of bearing witness but because she wants to be part of this community and to stave off remoteness.
Michelle follows this by wondering if we can understand such writing as lyric – as embodying the qualities of the lyric poem. How is Schultz “somehow both expressing something personal – relating it to herself, her mother turning into not-her-mother – and at the same time there’s the very public [function, so that] someone else with a mother with dementia might read this and relate. Thus there’s somehow that ability to both be lyrical and to be poethical at the same time.” Michaelle isn’t certain that the blog form is what makes that convergence possible, but she suspects it might be.
Al had already written about the book on his own blog, where he concluded, perhaps a little too cutely, that “[t]he illness is the medium” – and then pondered the project’s novelistic aspects:
As you read this work you go backwards into the daughter's recent past to a point just when the mother begins to lose a grasp on her past. Ironically, conventional novelistic progression is repurposed for the digital mode that would normally undermine it. As we move toward the end (the beginning: Susan's return home from a vacation abroad to deal with her mother's first crises), we arrive at wholeness. Not Pip realizing his realistic place in London, nor Emma right-sizing the world into appropriate family pairings, nor even Clarissa Dalloway's party bringing the whole fractured cast together, but a happy-ever-after that is a moment in time just before the decline begins. In the end are things as they were.
The book can be purchased through Small Press Distribution. It was published by Singing Horse Press in 2008. PennSound’s Susan Schultz page is here; she recorded nine sections, or blog entries, specifically for PennSound – including, of course, the two we discuss. For his radio show, “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” produced in the studios of KAOS-FM at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and made available through PennSound, Leonard Schwartz has interviewed Schultz several times. During the 180th show, he spoke with her about Dementia Blog and that interview is very much worth hearing along with this PoemTalk.
On PennSound’s Etheridge Knight page we offer single downloadable MP3 recordings of every poem Knight read at a memorable February 25, 1986 reading. The introduction to the reading was given by Gwendolyn Brooks herself — she who had long been an encourager of Knight. “Don’t let us lack hard rock,” she says at one point in this intro, addressing herself directly to Knight. She reminded her audience of a poem Knight had written in response to her very early poem, “truth,” in which she (as she reminded us in ‘86) had equated truth with sunshine. And Brooks read the opening lines of Knight’s “The Sun Came,” and then invited Knight up to the podium with the command to “open your mouth.” Open it he did, Etheridge Knight did, and along the way performed “The Sun Came” himself.
Is Knight’s poem a rejoinder or counterargument to Brooks’ “truth” in any sense? There is no easy answer to this question. For this episode of PoemTalk Al Filreis gathered Tracie Morris, Josephine Park, and Herman Beavers to talk through the relationship between the two poems and between these two poets. Enabled by Tracie’s sense of the lived authority of Knight’s voice (“the Joe Williams of modern poetry”), by Jo’s close reading of his performed meter, and by Herman’s attention to the jailed figure of Knight, we soon realize that Brooks invites a dialogue by way of a key religious trope, and that Knight has responded by figuring Malcolm X as Jesus Christ. Summoned by Brooks to testify about Jesus, Knight associates Malcolm with the end of darkness. Christian regret (we did not sufficiently know him until after death) sparks Knight’s angry, sad, sorrowful expression of our having “goofed the whole thing” — that our ears should have been, but weren’t, equipped to hear the “fierce hammering.” The sun comes. So Malcolm comes. Did the light of each or either reach the cell of the speaker? It seems that it did not (although the poem itself is our only evidence otherwise). Who comes? Mal (evil, danger, etc.) comes. (The way Knight emphasizes the repeated “MALcolm” makes this double sense clear.)
But back to the question of possible rebuke. Herman hears some counterargument in Knight, Tracie less so. One of those rare disagreements on PoemTalk. The discussion among all four is at its most interesting here, and there’s some good talk about Brooks’ sheer power and pull as a poetic personage. Finally, Herman summarizes this segment of the discussion as follows, speaking in Knight's voice: “I’m honoring your influence by taking it in a direction that you would not take it.” It = the problem of the instance of the sun; the possibility of radical opportunities.
For an event held at the Writers House on November 7, 2001, Jena Osman composed a new poem — one might say thus that it’s an occasional poem. The occasion was given the overall title “Finding the Words” (as in: how can writers find words to bespeak a response to 9/11?) and Osman’s poem was “Dropping Leaflets.”
Here is verbatim what Osman said as she introduced the poem at the Writers House: “The title of this program is ‘Finding the Words.’ Every day I look in the newspapers. I keep sensing the presence of what's not being told... ‘Help me come up with a strategy to get through this white noise.’ I don't have that strategy, except to call attention to components of that white noise so we can hear it for what it is. In the spirit of Marianne Moore, who often incorporated what she was reading into her poems, I’m going to read a piece made of words I found when I read transcripts of press conferences given by Bush, Ridge, Rumsfeld, and Cheney in the last few days. I read the transcripts, printed them out, I tore them up, and then I stood on a chair, and then I bombed my office floor with them as if they were leaflets and the leaflets told me what to do. So this piece is called ‘Dropping Leaflets.’”
The text of the poem is given here. It was published subsequently in a book, An Essay in Asterisks (Roof Books, 2004). The recording made on November 7, 2001, is available on Osman’s PennSound author page and linked here.
Al Filreis convened Mark Nowak, Emily Abendroth and Jessica Lowenthal to talk about this poem and more generally some aspects of documentary poetics. They considered, among other things, what happens to such a historically specific writing when some of the context fades as a memory — and whether the aesthetic qualities of the poem become a primary impression. And yet the poem’s rhetoric — if that's the right term for a poem constructed of found phrases — speaks to the very question of how we can make ourselves heard in all the centralizing, nationalistic white noise at such a moment.
For this episode of PoemTalk, we took the show on the road — to Chicago — where David Pavelich hosted us at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, a favorite haunt of an archive-obsessed Al Filreis over many years. (The Modern Poetry collection includes, of course, the papers of Poetry magazine up until 1962 or so, among other gems.) Thanks to David for hosting us! We were joined by Don Share and Judith Goldman, and we talked about two poems, one written through the other: H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” and Jennifer Scappettone’s “Vase Poppies.” Here’s H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” (1916):
Amber husk fluted with gold, fruit on the sand marked with a rich grain,
treasure spilled near the shrub-pines to bleach on the boulders:
your stalk has caught root among wet pebbles and drift flung by the sea and grated shells and split conch-shells.
Beautiful, wide-spread, fire upon leaf, what meadow yields so fragrant a leaf as your bright leaf?
The range of Bruce Andrews’s work is fairly well represented by the recordings available on his PennSound page. The earliest recorded reading we have dates from late 1977, the most recent (as of this writing) is from 2008. Generally it is true that PoemTalk’s format – the choice of a single short poem for which a recording exists – will tend to misrepresent the whole of the poet’s work. Fortunately it’s not the aim of PoemTalk to represent the whole, but to have a good and earnest listen and look at the single instance along the way, Having done this 35 times in this series, we find, mostly to our surprise, that tenable general statements of a poet’s mode and aesthetic disposition do come through the back door of low conceptual expectations. Surely that’s what happened here, when Tan Lin, Chris Funkhouser, Sarah Dowling and Al Filreis took on a single poem from Andrews’ sequence called Moebius. Moebius was written in the late 1970s but not published until 1993, when a chapbook appeared from the Generator Press in Ohio. On November 10, 1977 Andrews came to the Ear Inn in New York, performed at a reading alongside Ray DiPalma and Michael Lally, and gave us fine readings of many of the Moebius poems, including “Center,” which is the piece we discuss in PT35.
First we found something we took to be unusual in Andrews: the emphasis on distancing goes along with a tone of softness and wistfulness (as Sarah suggests), perhaps even vulnerability notwithstanding the aggressive idiom (“I make the rules here”). But soon we sensed we were seeing the Bruce Andrews we would know from later works. Naturally one asks if the speaker of these masculine phrases--all this deliberate 70s guy talk--is an individual, a single subject. No, Tan Lin suggests, the poem’s phrases comprise not those of an individual speaker but identify the language production we associate with a particular kind of speaker. So the poem is a meta-statement on how language is generated and that, in turn, constructs a kind of identity, although that identity is never really offered. As Chris points out, the poem feels like an aggressive encroachment on the white space of the page. The poem, spiraling down the page, forces one to think of a moebius shape which claims centrality (has a center but yet doesn’t quite). Such a claim, because of the moebius, will seem repeatedly arbitrary, and so does the normative standard for the discernment, by socio-linguistic cues, of a fixable speaking identity, and so that (the emptiness of that effort) is your center. (Which is to say: what center? why are you looking here for one?)