Charles Bernstein, 'In a Restless World Like This Is'
In PT #21 we talk about a poem by Charles Bernstein written in 2002, published in World on Fire and eventually collected in Girly Man: “In a Restless World Like This Is.” As Marcella Durand informs the PoemTalkers, the title is taken from the lyrics of a sweet 1940s song, sung later by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, et alia. Why derive the title from so sentimental a source? Hank Lazer and Marcella each speculate: it’s the postwar thing, bitter-sweet, looking simultaneously forward and back, done with it but still needing the balm. Okay, but why now, here — why in this poem?
It’s a post-9/11 poem. Eli Goldblatt describes for us Bernstein’s initial written responses to 9/11, providing us a context for this poem's unstraightforward all-preamble going-nowhere-ness. Al asserts the obvious: the poem enacts the restlessness the speaker feels: linguistically, tonally, idiomatically. The “no” of the fourth line is one of those staring-over words, as is, of course, “well” in line 8. The poem gives us an alternative “way” or path from the (non)start of its opening to the (non)finish of its ending. It is the opposite of an A to Z poem. There is not a single direction, not a point, and, needless to say — ah, but we at PoemTalk say it! — that is its point.
Where are we going? What is going to happen next? Is it narratively possible to discern (“Not long ago” is story-telling phrasing)? Ah, but “maybe I dreamt it / Or made it up, or have suddenly lost / Track of its train.” If you decide you need to go “In one direction” only, you'll find — note the contorted, merged idiomatic language — that “you’ll / Have to go on before the way back has / Become totally indivisible.’ The final word, the PoemTalkers agree, is a national word — a term from the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America, yet a notion that counters rather than abets the concept of discrete parts, clear paths, moving along the road from regress to progress.
In a Restless World Like This Is
Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers--well, you can see for yourselves there's
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you'll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.
Our recording of the poem was made during a moving outdoor reading in September 2003 at the Kelly Writers House. It and all PoemTalk poems are available through PennSound.
We note that the phrase “World on Fire” is also taken from a popular song — of 1941. Here’s more.
As always, at the end, we gather some paradise. Marcella’s suggestion, which was omitted from the final edit, was one we are happy to pass along nonetheless: Tisa Bryant’s new book.
We at PoemTalk are grateful as ever to James LaMarre for his expert engineering and directing, and to Steve McLaughlin, our masterful sound editor.
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), 'Kenyatta Listening to Mozart'
“Kenyatta Listening to Mozart” is an early poem of Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. It was published in a periodical in late 1963 and we’re assuming — for the sake of our discussion, which gets into some political history — that it was written earlier that year. Our recording was made at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference held in the summer of 1964.
Mecca Sullivan, Herman Beavers and Alan Loney were our PoemTalkers for this quietly provocative — and perhaps brutally self-critical — poem. All four of us saw two political and aesthetic scenes, at least in the opening: “the back trails” of pre-Independence Kenya, and “American poets in San Francisco,” certainly standing in, at least momentarily, for Baraka’s two somewhat distinct concerns at the time: post-colonial radicalism, and the Beat aesthetic. One could say, not quite accurately — but helpful for starters — that this was a time when Baraka was making the move from his Beat nexus to world-conscious political heterodoxy.
Mecca and Alan discuss the apparently ironic juxtaposition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jomo Kenyatta, the Euro-trained anthropologist Kikuyu tribesman who helped lead the Kenyan negotiations with the British. Mecca wonders if, as elsewhere in his writing, Baraka is making Mozart as a cultural symbol susceptible to criticism in light of non-European struggles for basic freedoms. Is the “zoo of consciousness” the situation one finds oneself after one has separated and lost (“Separate / and lose”) or is it indeed endemic to the decision to cross aesthetics, share “in- / formation” (formalisms), and assimilate apparent opposites? Do we need to figure Kenyatta walking on the back trails, in sun glasses (a marker of “cool,” one of us says), wearing spats, in order to shake into being a real postcolonial anthropological notion? It’s not just “choice, and / style.” Well, it's that, but also more--for the “beautiful / categories” with which we discern what gets to be called beautiful are not necessarily things we should “go for.”
We’re grateful to Alan Loney for sidetripping during his U.S. visit from Australia. And as always we’re happy that Steve McLaughlin is our crackerjack editor and that James LaMarre does our engineering and recording.
Visit PennSounds Baraka page here. Our poem is here. Click on the image of the text below and you’ll see a larger, readable copy.
Bob Perelman, 'The Unruly Child'
At right, left to right, PoemTalkers Tom Mandel, Sarah Dowling, Rodrigo Toscano.
Bob Perelman began to write “The Unruly Child” using as a pattern Cesar Vallejo’s “The Right Meaning”. Vallejo: “Mother, you know there is a place somewhere called Paris. It’s a huge place and a long way off and it really is huge.” The Peruvian’s own mother had been dead many years at the time her son wrote the prose-poem, and it is a sad call back from late 1930s Paris (with all its politics, both fascist and antifascist — a tense scene in which Vallejo participated) to a lost Peruvian motherness — pre-self-exilic, pre-political.
The gesture creates a distance and a desperate emotion at once. “I want both modes of address to resonate,” Perelman wrote to us at PoemTalk before our discussion. “Vallejo’s heartfelt/estranged address to his mother is further estranged by my detourned quoting, but it’s heartfelt, too. Kind of a chiastic structure: heartfelt/estranged: estranged/heartfelt.”
Tom Mandel, a second-time PoemTalker and an old colleague of Perelman, wanted (at least at first) to stave off theoretically sophisticated readings and to talk of the poem’s speaker as Perelman himself: Bob the witty talented impatient poet, Bob the literally unruly son. In its late-70s/early-80s political context, the poem risked being deemed mere bourgeoisified radicalism; but on second much-later thought, it seems to succeed in tracing the deformed social development of the political son of the American mother who learns the language by refusing to learn its “right” meaning.
Thus the term “unruly” is crucial to all this poet's pajama play: a certain energetic conception of language has a politics. Sarah Dowling helpfully discusses the word “desirable” in connection with Marathon Oil. “If you’re the unruly child,” Sarah notes, “you have to ask questions as to why it [Marathan Oil] is not desirable.” What values inhere in that skepticism? What do they do to the nostalgically summoned mother? “The unruly child,” adds Rodrigo Toscano, “is a place for language to shake out in periods of instability, a transition from one historical moment to the next. And it seems to want to reset the terms under which he is willing to talk politically. He’s trying to renegotiate how he’s going to be a hostage to representation.” Tom Mandel heartily agrees with that. In the poem, we have this directive: “Learn the language. / That beautiful tongue-in-cheek hostage situation.” (It’s a 1979/80-ish poem and the situation is of course the American Embassy hostage-taking in Teheran.)
“The Unruly Child” was published in To the Reader (1984), an early Perelman book, and then reprinted in Ten to One, his book of selected poems. He recorded this poem for PennSound’s Studio 111 series in 2004, offering a brief comment on each poem recited. Before reading our poem, he mentions that To the Reader was the first book in which he regularly “used the present political landscape for subject matter.”
The mother, memory, and language socialization are common themes for Perelman, returning in full force for the recent book The Future of Memory. Here a few lines from “To My Mother”:
people are real, me
too, and I know
the real one goes
cold at the end,
it's written into the
pen stroke I or
body or language uses
to divide knowledge. Before
teaching me social location,
you died and undid
the difference between now
Here is the recording we used for this episode, part of a session with students in which Perelman read poems, commented on most, and took questions. And here, below, is the text of “The Unruly Child”:
Lydia Davis, 'A Position at the University'
PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’ “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story – in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy – that difference – creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.
Here is a link to PennSound’s Lydia Davis page, and here is a link to the recording of her reading “A Position at the University” at the Kelly Writers House in 1999. And here is a link to the text. At left, left to right: David Grazian, Jessica Lowenthal, Adrian Khactu.
The director and engineer for this episode of PoemTalk was James LaMarre, and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. We’re always grateful to Mark Lindsay, too, who on this occasion bailed us out of some sort of technical difficulty, major for us, minor for him.
Rodrigo Toscano, 'Poetics'
We know one poet who can bring Kim Jong-il, Montezuma and Maggie Thatcher — and us — together to the table. It’s Rodrigo Toscano, and more specifically the Rodrigo Toscano who wrote the poems collected in the book Platform. The word “platform,” Al notes in this newest PoemTalk episode, suggests something programmatic, something being contended overall. And one plank, as it were, of this platform is — for Toscano — the relatively light (comic, playful, quick) poem “Poetics,” suggesting an aesthetic program, maybe even an ars poetica. Taking this titular cue, the PoemTalkers this time, Randall Couch, Linh Dinh, and Emily Abendroth, sought to piece together the ranging geo-political references, heard the many different registers, tried to place them in a musical idiom, and either concluded that the “Psycho-Acoustic[…] / Jangling” makes a beautiful sound and has a special political force or that the jangling, while beautiful, puts the platform’s meaning just out of reach. Al, Emily, and Randall take the former view of the poem, while Linh, in a dissenting mood, takes the latter.
That musical idiom is jazz. The political import of “Pyongyang” — the jarring disharmonious pesty capital of North Korea, an uncooperative element in any poem — leads us in one direction. But its sheer sound sounds more like jazz than communism.
But it does...
flips the whooole session
on its head
and dash out
“In Walked Bud” is a Thelonious Monk piece (made into a soundy poem by jazz-minded Amiri Baraka). The session is what we call a gathering of jazz musicians somewhat improvisationally making their special noise, always a greater aural whole than the parts alone. The poem is a geopolitical session. The lexicals brought within range “clash,” yes, but they also “dash out”: appearing off the scale, as Pyongyang does in almost any so-called postcommunist discussion, and yet crazy musical 14ths can be worked just right to produce “perfect fifths / effects.”
If you like this poem, it’s because Toscano helps you imagine that the improvised postcommunist joint can start hoppin’ and that a poem is just about the only place, for now, where such a “real summit meeting” (jazzworld phrase for bringing together just the right [blues] elements) can take place.
Really? Does Rodrigo Toscano really want Margaret Thatcher to join in — “as guest / jew-harp / soloist?” Sounds like a good deal of mockery there. But if she does join this performance of a Postmodernity Rag, notwithstanding the “formative / contradictions” of the European Union remaining “unresolved,” we are left in the end with a reminder that we are all implicated. Postmodern political life makes a “ho’” of itself, just as Maggie does, just as we do. Emily Abendroth comments on this: can we like or accept one aspect of postmodern life but keep clear of and unimplicated in the rest?
You got the microphone now, so…let’s hear it. From the platform, your oration might begin: “A specter is haunting poetic discourse…”
Here’s our PennSound recording of the poem, made in Buffalo in November of 2001.