Reviews - August 2011

We have a choice

A review of 'To See the Earth Before the End of the World'

To See the Earth Before the End of the World

To See the Earth Before the End of the World

by Ed Roberson

Wesleyan University Press 2010, 180 pages, $22.95, ISBN 9780819569509

Ed Roberson’s newest collection, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, exudes an immediacy, an unmistakable sense of urgency in its simultaneous lament of and call to arms for the contradictory world we inhabit. In this, Roberson’s ninth collection, the Earth and the world are held up as rings of a Venn diagram, overlapping but not interchangeable, together representative of humanity’s existence: both shared and experienced very much individually, a communal phenomenology, a physical, public place in which the private dramas of our lives play out.

In his previous collection, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, Roberson meditates at length on the prospect of death in the experience of the individual, a personal shade always present, an ending haunting the story of one life entire. Here, however, Roberson preoccupies himself with the end of humankind in general. In the title poem of the collection, he chronicles “the world’s death piece by piece,” highlighting the difficulty of negotiating a relationship between the extremes of public and private, objective and subjective, past and future: “Some endings of the world overlap our lived / time,” he writes, “[…] the five minutes it takes for the plane to fall, / the mile ago it takes to stop the train.” Janus-like, these poems witness our personal losses and our “small human extinction,” irrevocably tying the two together. “Hunting the bear,” Roberson reminds us, “we hunt the glaciers.” In our individual deaths, we are heading toward the ultimate end of our species.

In this notion of the small and large bound up in one another, of one emblematizing the other — the deaths of individuals entailing that of species, the destruction of a species entailing that of a planet — we are reminded of John Donne’s Meditation xvii: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” Just as Donne’s writing does, the poems in To See the Earth Before the End of the World struggle with the role of the individual in the community and the corresponding, congruent role of the community in the world, temporally and spatially. Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it another way: “If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time.” To Donne, Emerson, and Roberson, the individual’s experience is emblematic of all human history, and vice-versa.

Roberson often works white space into his poems, suggesting lacuna in the text, the blank spots on the phenomenological map corresponding to unfulfilled human needs and desires. In “The World, Then,” Roberson contemplates “That lonesome whistle silence of / stars”— that is, the need for other people — whether it’s

Undoing or one motion through
The Milky Way folding its complexity? The dark drawer.
It’s over our head
But (a small thing) lose your balance,                                     you fall
into that dark shirt never pulled off                            your head.

In “String Drawer,” a poem from his previous collection, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, Roberson evokes the trail of string used by Theseus to navigate the Minoan labyrinth:

The saved string
     drawer     of snakes
            opens out of the stone
pile     at the end of the yard
that supplies

In both instances, he re-grounds the whole of nature — the eternal, the fantastic — in the quotidian, using something as simple, ubiquitous, and domestic as a drawer to encompass it. Whether it’s anguish that “wails from a simple single teapot” (“Teapot Boiling, How to Begin the Day”) or “a tree that has taken / a bullet from the civil war” (“What the Tree Took, on the Table”), Roberson uncovers the emotional shrapnel embedded in the material world by virtue of people living in it, simultaneously shedding light on the artifacts of the individual human life as well as those of an entire culture and civilization, the “fired clay jars. // Each note a jar with this thickness — / a fingerprint on the unseen inside / surface out— of the touch / of silence” (“Song”).

Roberson’s work comprises an elegant and perpetual memento mori, and in To See the Earth Before the End of the World he provides the reader with a kind of ontological landscape — life, death, apocalypse, and afterlife — as a reminder of one’s paradoxically ephemeral, local life and the more lasting, overarching effects it can have on the lives of others. Urging us simultaneously to witness the world, to remember it, as well as to preserve it for future generations, these poems illuminate the dim and uncertain reaches of the human preoccupation with life and its ultimate end. We “don’t / know how death counts the rings / from trees to clocks, / species to singled soul / at its hour,” Roberson writes, “or on history’s days we die all at once.” He teaches us that we know how to behave, we know how to preserve creation rather than destroy it, and that, ultimately, we have a choice — and further, inevitably, “hunting that bear, / we hunt the glacier with the changes come / of that choice."

Against elegy: Michael Palmer's Book of the Dead

A review of 'Thread'



by Michael Palmer

New Directions 2011, 104 pages, $15.95, ISBN 0811219216

“Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” is Michael Palmer’s Book of the Dead. The title series of his ninth full-length collection, these eighteen interlinked poems are not elegies in the traditional sense. Neither songs of lament, nor, strictly speaking, commemorations for the departed, they reconfigure the genre. In these extraordinary poems, among the most moving and powerful of his career, the dead appear as companions on the way, intimately joined to the enterprise of living. Thread transforms elegy into crystalline paleography — a writing before writing that is also beyond it. Here, the customary polarity between innocence and experience is reversed. Innocence is not what is lost; it can only be gained. It does not precede experience, but is produced by it. For innocence is not a category of purity outside the travails of experience, but a condition that is achieved only by passing through the sorrows of an arduous contingency. The poems in Thread amply testify to this. In “Transit,” for instance, the sight of Creeley’s final book, On Earth, spurs a mournful, yet consoling, recognition.

We’ve come

to the old
echoes again,
swallowed songs,
tongues of cloud and wind.[1]

The delicious image of a “swallowed song” rides on a cascade of vowels. The old echoes go with us, through us, speak out of us, again. So many of these poems feel like fragments of an overheard conversation. Nearly every one of them trails a ghostly double, beckoning us, in their uncanny incompleteness, to listen for further, unheard melodies. In “Fragment After Dante,” the first of a three-part series, the poet finds himself stranded in the realm of shadows: “And I saw myself in the afterlife of rivers and fields / among the wandering souls and light-flecked paths” (34). Amid the suffering of the dead, the greatest torment is to hear them speak, “chatting about nothing,” yet failing to understand them. The second Dante fragment resonates with muted pain.

And she clasped my arm and said,
You, my son, who have lingered

too long among the dead, go
and return to the lighted shore

for those brief moments you have left. (35)

In a haunting image, the speaker’s face transforms “from old to young” as she vanishes. Memory’s dream of what-was mingles promiscuously with its hope for the Not-Yet. Throughout, Thread generously acknowledges that its every word is merely on loan from “the thief’s journal,” Palmer’s phrase, by way of Genet, for the floating para-text of unowned language. This is elegy against elegy: not a quixotic defiance of mortality, but a deepening awareness of it; a way to write into and out of finitude.

Thinking of the dead this way enables Palmer to do away with appeals to the cult of the personal and its fetish for the unique. “The dead” in these poems name an experience in which loss is only another form of continuity. They are always near and yet irreparably distant. In this way, the poem occupies a Rilkean angelic topos: it circulates freely between the living and the dead without making any distinctions between them. To speak the dead this way is to place them in an order of belonging beyond sentimental coercion. They remain strange and vivid; sheltered within memory, but also outside it; irrefragably singular.

Thread inhabits the melancholy landscape familiar to Palmer’s readers, a place where language ratifies itself by signifying its own failure. Written under the agonizing sign of Saturn’s slowness, they are harrowing in their humility and directness. Simplicity here is neither a reduction nor a retreat, but the earned complexity of a late style in a late hour. To call “Threads” a tour de force would only defame it. These “threads” are addresses, colloquies, homages — unanswered questions that concentrate Palmer’s concerns for his art as a site for making counter-meanings, those micro-resistances that push back against the crushing sense of moral fatigue born of loss, suffering, and slaughter.

The “stanzas in counterlight” bring together reflections on the possibility of art with poems to fellow writers such as Robin Blaser, Gustaf Sobin, Alexei Parshchikov, Roberto Bolano, and Mahmoud Darwish. In tone and imagery, the series calls to mind At Passages’ “Six Hermetic Songs,” his elegy for Robert Duncan and perhaps the inaugural poem in his Book of the Dead, though it seems he’s always been writing this way, “ahead of all departure.” With its prayers of intercession and spells for safeguarding the soul’s passage through the underworld, Palmer models his own funerary chants for Duncan after The Egyptian Book of the Dead, guiding the older poet into the afterlife of language.

Photos of Robert Duncan by LaVerne Harrell Clark via University of Arizona Poetry Center.

It’s worth dwelling on the Duncan elegy. “Six Hermetic Songs” begins with an epigraph, taken from The Book of the Dead’s chapter “On the Coming Forth by Day.”

Bring along the Makhent boat
for I have come to see Osiris
lord of the
ansi garment [2]

This ritualistic language sets the scene for the six sections to follow, each of which charts a stage on the soul’s journey through the hazards and judgments of the underworld in its progress back toward day. Here is the first poem of the series.

How did we measure
it says we measured up and down
from the sepia disk
to the crowded ship
of Odysseus

How did we measure
it says we measured
with a copper thread
from the plum flower
to the forgotten gift

Was the tain’s smoke
equal to song
the vein of cedar
to a pin’s bones
Burns each

earlier day
in its soundless weight
measured by the nets
of air
Go there.[3]

The haunting cadences of this solemn poem sound a plangent note, its clipped, roughly five-beat lines counting out a purposeful, liturgical insistence on the body as it remembers gravity, its weighted measure, kept whole by cedar yet dissolved in the “tain’s smoke,” the mist of song passing over a mirror as the last syllable is uttered. As Palmer frames it, measure (or metron) names a messianic splice for keeping time in the poem by interrupting it. The final — “Go there” — commands the dead poet to take passage in song’s “nets of air.”

The measure of the poem here is not made according to traditional prosody, but by what Palmer elsewhere calls the Laws of Forms, that responsiveness of “the poem’s eternal stance against passive subjectivity, against the given, on behalf of the unspeakable and the unheard.”[4] Duncan appears as the keeper of this measure, both by the example of his work and through his role as a guardian of ancient and esoteric knowledge. More than that, though, measure names the predicament of poetry as it confronts the limits of its own saying. In the third poem the older poet speaks, recalling his vanished life:

The calls and careless fashioning,

digits thrown like dice
I don’t think about that anymore

Send me my dictionary.
Write how you are.[5]

For Duncan, the arch-mage of postmodern poetry, the dictionary is nothing if not a book of spells, a grimoire by which the poet might conjure a world, or rather, a web of subtle connections between past and present, the vanished and the visible. The suggestion that Palmer’s mentor has entrusted him with his dictionary implies both the passing on of a lineage and a plaintive cry for the restoration of dear earthly objects, like the ones the Egyptians placed in their tombs to ease the dead’s voyage over dark waters. More than that, the dictionary signifies the limitless potential for bibliomantic conjuration, the thief’s journal par excellence.

The final poem of “Hermetic Songs” is a kind of summoning: a voice, calling over water, over distance, either in final farewell, or hailing return. 

The wrecked horn of the body
and a water voice

The horn of the body
and a slanted water voice

The notes against the gate
and the erasures of the gate.[6

H.D. (undated), via Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A complex set of echoes is put in motion here, recalling Duncan’s own “After a Passage in Baudelaire” (”Ship, leaving or arriving, or my lover, / my soul, leaving or coming into this harbor”), and back of that, the closing lines of H.D.’s Vale Ave (“I ask for this, the blessing of the Ship, of the ‘Parole,’ / in remembrance of the seven times we met”).[7] “The wrecked horn of the body,” like the Jewish shofar, names both an exalting music and the unyielding stuff of obdurate matter. “Six Hermetic Songs” closes with a set of interrogative affirmations, asking “Whose night-songs and bridges // and prisms are these.”

What figures within the coil
tortoise and Bennu bird

lotus and hawk
palette plus ink-pot.

The Bennu Bird is the Egyptian phoenix, a figure associated with rebirth in an afterlife, while the lotus signifies “the divine splendor that belongeth to the nostrils of Ra,” that is, to the body’s breath, its divine measure.[8] The final image is of the poet composing himself with his familiar ink-pot in the resurrected life, writing beyond the ending.

I’ve revisited “Six Hermetic Songs” at such length because “Thread — Stanzas in Counterlight” so strongly echoes and carries forward its concerns. In the manner of Duncan’s own Passages, these poems ask to be read together, across their separate volumes, as parts of a single work. The first and twelfth poems in the series glow with the same kind of heraldic language that marks “Hermetic Songs.”

Nighthawk and sun-bird
beauty of the world      beauty of the world

How can one write      beauty of the world? (75)


Nighthawk and sun-bird
Who will tell of it

Shore’s eyelid, earth’s rim
light from extinguished stars

bathing us
in time’s wake

time’s long
stream of slaughter

and song
Some love

the one more
some the other. (87)

Thread is lambent with such figurality. The recurring figures of the bird, the fountain, the book; of Babylon, the moth, the lovers — these are ideas as character, emblems of a spiritual imaginary that supersede and amplify the earlier work’s immersion in linguistic metamorphology. Utterly transparent, they militate against concretion, yet their very clarity renders them enigmatic. They carry over Palmer’s analytic lyric into the key of allegory.

In these poems figurality is the idea of form itself. The ideal of correspondence so dear to Baudelaire migrates from the hermetic notion of a mirror that reflects the heavenly in the earthly and the earthly in the heavens, to the fructifying dissonance between word and thing, past and present. Loss prefigures redemption, of course, but only as muted whispers from the realm of ghosts. A devoutly secular alchemist of the word, Palmer invites traffic with the transformative powers of the strange, even as he confutes all claims put forward on behalf of a tyrannical spiritual orthodoxy. 

Tenses of the present, Mahmoud, the (im)possible
present, infinite presents threading
now forward, now back. Amidst the
shattered symmetries and scattered fictions,
between actual river and imagined shore,
actual breath of wind through the frayed (91)

The present is the infinite — expansion of the actual into the imagined, the imagined into the actual. If there can be no final truth, or if it is only and already imperfectly figured through language, the dream of alteriority nevertheless persists, in large part because language is structured to imagine its own outside. As a system for shaping interiority by organizing experience, its logic is geared to continually surpass and subvert its own boundaries. Language is thread, and nothing but — weaving, unweaving, reweaving.

The idea of the thread runs throughout Palmer’s poetry, integral to his project for building “threads of speech and constellations of sound … rather than a single, unitary voice.”[9] The opening of “Baudelaire Series” attests to this, speaking of “the mechanism of the larynx / around an inky center / leading backward-forward // into sun-snow / then to frozen sun itself / Threads and nerves have brought us to a house.”[10] And further on in the same poem we find the Palmerian locus classicus:

What if things really did
correspond, silk to breath

evening to eyelid
thread to thread.[11]

What marks this chain of likenesses is their unlikeness. Baudelaire’s dream is accomplished, not by an intimate metaphysics, but through a language of dissimilarity. Thread’s allure as a constellating trope, its ability to articulate a grammar of correspondence between unlike things, forms the core of Palmer’s conception of language and its polymorphously perverse power to link by way of dissonance. If silk is a synonym for breath, then evening imitates the action of the eyelid, closing over the field of vision. “Thread to thread” promises an exact equivalence, a braiding of identical things. Yet the necessity of repetition casts a shadow between the first and the second instance of the term. “Thread to thread” invites connection, but the slippery preposition can equally signal a gap.

To thread, then, is to work midrashically, for these poems take up Palmer’s abiding concerns with the necessity for dispersing the subject and the concomitant counter-struggle to preserve its singularity, if only as a remnant. In Thread, the figure of the book appears as a messianic object, braiding together now with then, here with there, in a suspension of time where the words of the dead are spoken as one’s own even as the dead speak through the lips of the living. This bewitched chiasmus in many ways defines Palmer’s project, his desire to dissolve and connect, forget and remember, to “add yourself jubilantly, and erase the score,” as Rilke puts in Sonnets to Orpheus. Only in this way can the poem resist succumbing to mere introspective reverie.

Late style in Palmer is not the willful intransigence Adorno admires in Beethoven’s final works. Rather, it is a deepening of themes, a move toward a radical simplicity, a return, in other words, as in a sonata, to first statements, in the key of clarity. In a 2006 interview with Ken Bullock, Palmer describes the trajectory of his poetry as “moving a little bit away from radical syntax into the mysteries of ordinary language, in the philosophical if not every day sense. It probably looks less unusual on the page. And I’ve been interested in the infinite, ingathering potential of the lyrical phrase — not confession, but the voicing of selves that make up the poetic self, from Greek lyrics to the Italians, to modern poets like Mandelstam.”[12] These are the same concerns that have marked his strongest work all along, most notably “Baudelaire Series,” which according to Palmer investigates lyric from Hölderlin on. But if Palmer has moved away from explorations of linguistic syntax, he’s taken up in turn the serpentine syntax of dreams, whose logic is a yearning for a replenishing otherness, as in “Broad Waking.”

Slant from the poem’s mouth
Atlantis arrives, the cries
of children arise, the dance
begins, perfect circle of the
squared poem, its cardinal
points, stillness and motion
and the singing against time,
the dancing in time,
the ringing in our ears,
the silence as the waters rise (47)

The oneiric landscape rises, a figural domain porous with primal interiority. Closer to Gennady Aygi (another poet honored in this book) than George Oppen, it hews all the same to the Objectivist credo of austere minimalism, the sense that each word can be arrived at only through patient struggle. Late style in Palmer is a slow concrescence, an exactitude of means.

Gennady Aygi image via Beijing Language and Culture University.

Along the corridors
of the invisible world, Raúl,

gardeners raise such flowers
as need no light

such flowers
watered by voices

as need no eyes
to be seen. (79)

In this poem to the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, whose most well known work, Purgatorio, recounts the nightmarish imprisonment the poet suffered under the Pinochet regime, the invocation of “the invisible world” where “flowers need no light” but are instead “watered by voices” for the eyeless, attests to the necessity of an inner, allegorical landscape where poetic language can still radiate, free of tyranny and oppression. “The invisible world,” one might say, is the place where disaster is rewritten in a language that translates suffering into the spectrum of recognition.

Similarly, the poem to Robin Blaser attends to the intimate undertow of a poetics that knows all it says is said in the shadow of its own vanishing.

The moth, Robin,
we’ve both learned
at different times
from its motion, a
quantum of nothing
could we say,
dusk to dark morning
before full day,
a battering of wings,
night notes sounding
beyond our extinction

Moth verges on and merges with mouth, an image of transience and longing fluttering in its “quantum of nothing,” a figure for speech “sounding / beyond our extinction” (81). But this is a sounding that also utters hesitation, each comma starkly denoting the pause of breath in a poem that otherwise refuses final punctuation. Narrow constructionists, the kind of readers who’ve made idols of Sun or Notes for Echo Lake, might deride these slender poems as a falling off, but I find them incredibly moving. They represent the distillation of a lifetime’s attendance to the nuances of a luminous art written under the sign of shadow.

What Palmer accomplishes in this book is the meaning of being haunted, poetically – the way a poem burrows into us, becomes an intimate part of our psychic life. Haunting in this sense is not some stubborn refusal to move on after grief. Rather it is an active form of melancholy, a rejection of the proscriptive hygiene for mourning and its insistence on the palliative. It is not a morbid keeping open of the wound, but a preservation of the dead as a still vibrant field of interior force. Far from memorializing loss, it incites recognition. For loss to be loss it must abjure closure. The coda-like lyric for Gustaf Sobin poignantly bears this out.

Gustaf, under earth
by the tiny grave-pits
Merovingian words we
speak by the plague wall
by the house of the suicide
by the Mount of Winds
sits the low house of stone
lies the silk-maker’s house
thread spun and gone.
Words are the distant home. (92)

The enjambed syntax performs a liturgical rite, redeeming spirit in a house of words where melodic frequency is attuned to estrangement’s deeper belonging, its “distant home.” The sense of desolation is powerful here because so carefully modulated. It’s consoling, as only the bleakest measure can be.

This thread of threnodies calls to mind, of course, Duncan’s Great Companions, a theme noted by Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his perceptive review of Company of Moths. In that book, a trend that has always marked Palmer’s work, but which only moved to the fore in At Passages, became more pronounced — namely, his shift to a distinctly bardic register. This shift has gone largely unremarked on, though Norman Finkelstein gives a good account of Palmer’s relation to Duncan’s poetics in his recent On Mount Vision. What does the bardic in Palmer look like? As I’ve already suggested here, it partakes of a heraldic vocabulary, a secular typology that inverts the polarity between thing and word. Here is the sixth poem in the series:

It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book.

In the palm garden at night they set fire to the book

and read by the light of the book.

Syllables, particles of glass, they pass back and forth in the dark.

The two, invisible - transparent - in the book,

their voices muffled by the book.

It is the role of the lovers to be figures of the book, the

illegible book,

changing as the pages turn,

now joined, now clawing the fruit from each other’s limbs,

now interlaced, now tearing at throat and vein,

then splayfoot, then winged, then ember,

as the music of the book,

rustling through the palms,

instructs. (80)

“To be figures in the book,” even as it burns, even as its burning illuminates the words on its pages, is to guarantee the promise of “the invisible world,” where the poem is continually remade through a kind of doubling , echoing and re-echoing in a gallery of citations and counter-citations. The book, Palmer understands, will always be “illegible;” its burning at once a source of illumination and obscurity; a figure of music alternating between the “splayfoot” and the “winged,” and written in an alphabet whose transparency is only the others side of the invisible, “the muffled.” It must be that which, even in its plain saying, remains hidden, a zero of logic “rustling through the palms.” The book as music. Perhaps this is what I’ve been trying to say here all along.

And I’ve said nothing about the rest of the book. Scattered with the kind of amusing bagatelles Palmer has always written, the highlights of the first section, “What I Did Not Say,” are the three series, “The Classical Study,” “Say,” and “Aygi Cycle.” The first of these features a playful figure called The Master, a kind of trickster male muse who calls to mind both Duncan himself and his Master of Rime: “The Master of Rime told me, You must learn to lose heart. I have darkened this way and you yourself have darkend. Are you so blind you cant see what you cant see?”[13] Gnostic endarkenment subducts the poem into telluric currents of language. Or, as Palmer writes, it’s a game “where silence matters / above all, or do I mean sound?” (6).

“Aygi Cycle” stands apart from and alongside of “Thread.” These ten short poems are a kind of prelude to the longer series. Here Aygi is refracted through the lens of Oppen and Cezanne. The fragility of a single word becomes the very source of its power. It does not attempt to mean, since meaning is too fraught a task, only to persist somehow before its own imminent disappearance. At that wavering boundary line, the indeterminate zone between affirmation and negation, the word hovers, as in the Cycle’s fifth poem:

Within the small poem time
and tales of the preening gods
among the sliding stars

and love’s silent
mirror held up
to the crimes of war

within the small poem (58)

As the tender of silence and smallness, Aygi watches over the garden of ruins, where renunciation opens the portal to the field of the other. In Palmer’s reading, Aygi makes of childhood a space for “entering into awareness and into speech.” His Aygi is brought into conversation with Oppen’s elegy for Reznikoff, where the poem is written “in the great / world small.” Another thread woven, glimmering.

In Thread the dead are not the departed, but those who go along with us. Asymmetrical, they map the jagged experience of living onto the impossible promise form makes to spirit. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the soul is made ready to pass judgment before Osiris before it can “come forth by day” into a second life. The poems in Thread are that second life, the small place, as in “After Hölderlin,” where, concealed from day, abiding in silence:

One must wait
to draw a night song from these names,

the then and the now, the dark and light
as they alternate, just out of reach. (41)


[1] Michael Palmer, Thread (New York: New Directions, 2011), 65. All subsequent page references will be placed in parentheses.

[2] Palmer, At Passages (New York: New Directions, 1995).

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Palmer, Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New York: New Directions, 2008), 80.

[5] Palmer, At Passages, 33.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches (New York: New Directions, 1964), 77; H.D., Vale Ave (Redding Ridge, CT: Black Swan Books, 1992), 76.

[8] The Egyptian Book of the Dead, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge, 20, 263.

[9] Philip Dow, 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate (New York: HBJ, 1984), 341. 

[10] Palmer, Sun (Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1988), 9.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Interview with Ken Bullock, April 7, 2006.

[13] Duncan, Roots and Branches, 170.

This other thing the kids are doing

A review of 'Museum of the Weird'

“A student recommended Mary Miller’s Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.”

So begins a post (“This new thing the kids are doing”) by J. Robert Lennon on the now-defunct blog Ward Six (curated by Lennon and his wife, Rhian Ellis, for just under four and a half years).

The post isn’t so much about Mary Miller as it is about, as the title suggests, “this thing.” 

“It’s partially a McSweeney’s thing,” Lennon writes. “And it’s also kind of neo-Carverian. It’s minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it’s selfconsciously [sic] odd.” 

He says Amelia Gray does it too.

Gray’s new collection, The Museum of the Weird, is, indeed, representative of a certain kind of contemporary fiction. It’s a fiction that maybe couldn’t have stood a chance of flourishing before Youtube and Twitter. Before LOLcats. Before the Internet really took off. Yes, one story here, “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency back in 2006, but there’s something else going on here, too, something more.

In one story, “The Darkness,” an Armadillo named Betsy and a Penguin named Ray sit in a bar and drink and talk:

“I fought the darkness,” says Ray. 

“Neat,” says Betsy.

It’s not really an allegory, and its ending doesn’t suddenly recast what came before it, throwing it all into a new light. Really, it’s more like an absurdist joke — the comedic work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, or of Zach Galifianakis, comes to mind before anything else.

Another story, “Fish,” begins like this: “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia.” She leads with the punch line and then builds a world around it. It’s sublime for its not meaning anything.

Yet Lennon’s critique of this kind of work is understandable: he says it can seem

“precious, or random…like a night spent smoking pot in your sister’s apartment with her grad school friends. You know they’re smart, and you know you’re as smart as they are, but you don’t understand a thing they’re saying. It’s not for you: it’s an insider code.”

The trouble with this kind of reading is that it overlooks the humor, or perhaps simply doesn’t get the joke; misinterprets it as something more earnest — because that’s what Gray’s doing when she writes a story like “The Darkness,” or “Fish”: she’s telling jokes, she’s playing tricks on us.

But there’s this other thing the kids are doing that Lennon doesn’t talk about, and it’s something that Gray does in this collection, too. Her story “The Movement,” begins with this fragment: “The end of an,” and then has three paragraphs about Joseph Stalin’s funeral. The pattern continues: “What they provide and how they function (present day)” followed by a relatively coherent paragraph. Gradually, a story emerges, but it’s buried beneath a choppy form; another story, “Thoughts While Strolling,” does this too. It’s something that calls to mind the works of Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis. Indeed, the influence of both writers is all over this collection. In “The Cube,” for instance, a mysterious cube appears in the middle of a town and, much like Barthelme’s famous balloon, serves as the vessel through which contemplation can occur. 

But even at their most humorous, Barthelme’s stories gesture toward something bigger — the non sequiturs aren’t just meant to be funny. If Barthelme is an influence here, then his influence is a mixed blessing, for his legacy, really, is most visible on some of the weakest links in this collection — stories in which Gray jettisons tradition altogether and revels in the fragmentary, in the inscrutable. Whereas humor in Barthelme is a means to an end, Gray’s humor, at its best, is the end. It can seem random, yes, like a night smoking pot, but that’s because it is. When it works, it is.

The standouts in this collection are those that behave just as you’d expect them to, yet leave you in a place that you weren’t expecting to be left. They almost operate like practical jokes — luring you in with clean, unadorned sentences and then plodding along from one paragraph to the next. If you’re not paying much attention you can lose yourself in the structure and just kind of float to the end, only later realizing that you’ve been had — tugged along through a story without any real conflict or resolution to speak of. There’s something about Gray’s humor that simply is, and therein lies the beauty of this new thing the kids are doing.

A practitioner's commitment to principle in art

A review of 'An Art of Limina'

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

An Art of Limina: Gary Hill's Works and Writing

By George Quasha and Charles Stein

Ediciones Polígrafa 2009, 640 pages, $75, ISBN 9788434310421

Perhaps astonishingly, I had never watched a video by Gary Hill before reading this book. Luckily, the book is designed to keep the work of Gary Hill open, so that when I finally did encounter the videos (all the single-channel work is now online at, I was not burdened by the outer husk of a reified interpretation. On the contrary, it seemed that I was seeing each piece in multiple dimensions, making connections with the text and — in many instances — continuing along my own path. An Art of Limina is an invitation to keep seeing the work anew, even to those for whom it actually is new.

For authors George Quasha and Charles Stein, the works of Gary Hill are decidedly not new; the book primarily comprises essays written on the basis of thirty years of collaboration and dialogue amongst all three artists/poets. As Quasha remarks elsewhere, “It takes a life to be known.” But knowledge and time hold a particular significance for the authors, and neither makes claim to any definitive interpretation based on privileged access. Lynne Cooke’s foreword rightly emphasizes a tension between different modes of historical allegiance: Quasha and Stein are noted to consistently elicit concrete precedents while simultaneously distancing themselves from general trends in criticism and art history. This is an important acknowledgment, but its significance can only be understood in conjunction with the authors’ own relationship to the artist.

Gary Hill, Incidence of Catastrophe (1987–88). Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

An Art of Limina is not a book “about” Gary Hill in any conventional sense, which is one way that it departs from more traditional art criticism. The distinction between “interpretation” and “the further life of the work” — a trope that recurs with remarkable frequency across a range of otherwise divergent essays — offers an explanation for the tension noted by Cooke in the foreword and situates the significance of their project as a poetics. “Further life” is functionally defined as “an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself … projects through its own instance,” which contrasts with interpretation viewed as definitive account and/or assessment in art historical discourse (9). As a “further life” manifestation of the work of Gary Hill, the book is performative at every level, meaning that it is as much a reflection on its own process as on the art to which it explicitly refers. In other words, the authors implicitly evoke (without discussing) the nature of their own work as much as the art of Gary Hill, which is why it is impossible to say anything about the one without reflecting on the other. (It’s important to note that the book is also a factually definitive account of the works discussed, to the extent of correcting errors in a previous catalogue raisonné.)

The “principle complex,” which is laid out in the prologue to frame subsequent text and recurs frequently throughout, serves as a theoretical basis for the book’s pervasive self-reflexivity. In distinguishing “principle” from “concept,” the authors explain that “[u]nlike a concept, a principle is never defined by the work, of which there can be an unlimited number; there is no definitive instance” (93n). Whereas conceptual art is oriented around an external (or previously formulated) standard and is often fully realized with a single manifestation, principle-based art is an organic creation that develops from a ground of open potentiality. The two terms are not dichotomously opposed, but while principle-based art manifests unlimited possibility, conceptual art without a core principle is an effective dead end.

The “principle complex” comprises three inseparable principles, which together can be aspects of a practitioner’s commitment to principle in art: axiality, liminality, and configuration. As a functional definition, the “axial” is defined as “the conscious, radical self-alignment that liberates identity/work into its unknown further possibility” — the principle of dynamic orientation by which an art action is realized as a singularity within a given context/medium (38). Although the true dynamism of this principle is difficult to capture in a single sentence, it has much to do with the commonplace experience of personality maintaining certain integrity across various contexts and interactions; and it applies equally to a body’s efficient mode of operation in space-time.

Directly linked to axiality, the “liminal” implies “a conscious choice to work at the edge and accept the energetic advantage of precariousness” (45). The reappearance of the word “conscious” is no coincidence; liminality, in this specific usage, involves recognition of the processual embodiment of principle (which is never contained within a given body) and operates in that “between” space where axis is assuming particular orientation.

Finally, the “configurative” is a “textualization in process,” the weaving of a particular orientation with its own internal consistency (56). Developing out of previous art historical conceptions, the configurative is an essentially performative response to the realization of radical potentiality:

If traditional representational art is “figurative,” in the sense that it seeks to capture the “figure” — the structure and shape — of the object it represents; and if art that moves away from the figurative is “abstract” (in the precise sense of “drawn away from”); then later art that allows a non-referential yet identifiable image to form anew can be thought of as con-figurative or re-configurative. (58)

Configurative works depart from a postmodern absence of perspectival view with an anamorphic shift in perspective; now that freedom of form is a familiar concept, the question is no longer one of depicting our world, but of creating possible worlds. If figuration is a word in a sentence and abstraction explores its grammar, then configuration follows from the possibility of infinite sentences beyond the first. As such, conscious awareness is equally important for the third term in the complex: “When we become aware of this event of configuration … we are rendering the world-weave accessible to reconfiguration” (ibid). An axis opens to the conscious participant, who is now free to perform its further life, and a new word enters a language.

Gary Hill, Wall Piece (2000); single-channel video/sound installation. Video projector, strobe light and strobe controller with steel
floor mount, two speakers, one DVD player and one DVD (color; stereo sound). All images courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.

With this in mind, An Art of Limina can be read as a manifesto of sorts — the performative rendition of a poetic principle. The authors state as much explicitly in Preliminaries: “That makes this in some ways a work in realizing a general poetics shared by the three of us — that is, a poetics as the working principles of a time-based art, one that pertains to language and a range of visual, auditory, and electronic objectification” (8). And since the principle is simultaneously named and operative, a descriptive passage about a piece by Gary Hill without reference to the authors’ work is illuminating on this account:

This [voiceover] might even be heard as a manifesto declaring a radical new realm of video synthesis, except that the utterance itself belongs to happenstance on the same plane as the developing imagery.… If in the apparent tug of war between word and image the words threaten to overwhelm the video with over-positive interpretation, it is equally true that the images and the process as a whole reclaim what is being stated verbally and refuse to be dominated by the concepts with which they are, nevertheless, in perpetual interaction. Virtual dialogue supplants any inferred polemic. (123)

Although the original context is incommensurate, the same proportions delimit Gary Hill (as video) and George Quasha and Charles Stein (as voiceover). The authors are proposing a critical discourse in dialogue — a mode of speaking with principle-based art and that, in the process of naming, configures the latter’s axis within the consensual medium of language: “the meaning of the image is given by the word, the meaning of the word is given by the image, and together an intimate and significant gesture is performed” (284n). Rather than the closure of conceptual interpretation, their aim is to resonate with the artwork on principle, opening it to ever further associations of kinship: “the premise [is] that the work is never complete — that the distinctions that a work makes are never definitive, but that they are always generative, and that … efforts at definition don’t limit the way a work comes in but encourage continuous beginning from it” (517). And since, as I have argued, the nature of An Art of Limina is self-similar (i.e., the parts resemble the whole), the same dialogical relationship is evident within Gary Hill’s works themselves. The authors remark:

[W]e ourselves are the extended medium of the piece.… Perhaps we should speak of resonance, that is, how an articulated impulse resonates in us, what it continues to do inside us, what it gives birth to in some complex sense that cannot be conceptualized outside of the work’s continuing process. In this sense Gary Hill’s way of engaging with Blanchot, Heidegger, or Bateson is not to discuss, illustrate or comment on these sources but to resonate with them — is not, indeed, so much an intertextuality as an extended textuality, a further life. (200)

Thus, rather than making a video “about” Blanchot, Gary Hill’s video coperforms with Blanchot’s writings by aligning with them on a structural level, elaborating a shared context whose expansion furthers the reach of all contributions and constantly redefines the field.

This review is thus, optimally, an instance of such resonance. In fact, I had the same reaction to An Art of Limina as George Quasha experienced when first encountering Gary Hill’s Happenstance: “Happenstance was like a read-out of a part of my own brain, because it proved something I fantasized was true, that in the deepest sense a poem is an animate force that is active in all of the mind’s projections, visual/aural/tactile” (479). After musing for years about the potential of art to declare context and create worlds — art that “radically orients and reorients space, time, language, thought, even dreams and visions … simply by declaration” — I was astounded (259). George Quasha and Charles Stein have accomplished something that I have long dreamed about: a book that simultaneously embodies and offers a core vocabulary for an entire species of radically performative art. It is an ambitious project, which is reflected in the book’s encapsulation of their thirty years of shared experience.

An Art of Limina has profound ethical and political implications reaching far beyond the delimited fields of art history and poetics. In awakening to the existence of thresholds/limens, we replace “the hypnosis of automatic signification and consensual interpretation” with the discovery and development of complex new orders of human reality (331; 399). This awareness of reconfiguration and its potential opens new orientations of being in the world, and “to model the relationship between thought and world, language and sense … is by that very act to change the intuitive context of the way we think of the world, thus to change the world itself” (292n). Rather than blind indoctrination into an existing symbolic context and consequent exposure to gross manipulation, performative art emphasizes the ethical responsibility of conscious involvement as “art-beings who exist in relation to more or less continuous projection of our own event” (261). (Corporations are already remarkably well versed on this point; see Leadership: Theory, Application, and Skill Development by Robert N. Lussier and Christopher F. Achua, who write frankly on “the process of culture creation, sustainability, and renewal” [370].) Further, the poetics explored here is profoundly democratic; while the significance of conceptual art is often constrained to a select few, in principle-based art “the images carry within their own graphic qualities and sequential structures everything necessary to bring the viewer into ‘initiation’” (227). Perhaps “invitation” is a more suitable word — a call to further the life of the work.

The poet's novel

A review of 'Leaving the Atocha Station'

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner

Coffee House Press 2011, 186 pages, $15.00, ISBN 9781566892742

Some poets transition from poetry to novels rather in the spirit of an enlisted man joining the officer corps. Denis Johnson comes to mind as someone who turned from poems to novels without looking back; even more prominent is the case of Michael Ondaatje, whose best fiction, I think, still has a foot in poetry (Coming Through Slaughter, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid). Others, like Stuart Dybek and Charlie Smith, may continue to write poetry but nevertheless have passed on, have risen or fallen to the identity of the fiction writer.

The rarer and more interesting cases, to my mind, are those poets who write fiction but remain poets. Joyelle McSweeney has written two novels, Flet and Nylund, the Sarcographer; but because their prose is often strange, calling the sort of attention to itself that prose fiction rarely does, they don’t sacrifice the eccentricity of poetry. Better known is the case of Roberto Bolaño, who began as a poet but became famous as a fiction writer. As far as I can tell from the one volume of his poetry that I’ve read, the world is entirely justified in esteeming him only for his fiction; yet he thought of himself as a (failed) poet and I persist in thinking of him that way, for the strange anti-eloquence of his writing and his hilarious grim persistence in writing always only about poets and their rancid idealism.

Flet by Joyelle McSweeney (Fence); Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (FSG); Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage)

I suppose that’s really what I’m talking about here: those poets who write fiction as a bid to enter the center of literary attention that novels nominally occupy, versus those who, through temperament or incompetence, are destined to remain ex-centric.

Then there’s Ben Lerner. A ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, Lerner, a one-time recipient of Fulbright fellowship to Spain and the author of three generally acclaimed books of poetry, has just produced his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It’s about a ferociously ambitious and successful younger poet from Topeka, Kansas, albeit one who is not yet comfortable with or fully conscious of either his ambition or his success, on a Fulbright-like fellowship to Spain. His Adam Gordon is as transparently autobiographical as is Bolaño’s Arturo Belano, and at the same time both alter egos are presented to the reader through veils of irony and self-loathing.

In his first-person narration, Gordon presents himself to the reader as an almost entirely dysfunctional human being, preserving a semblance of autonomy through the use of various drugs, prescribed and otherwise. It is not at all clear whether we are supposed to respect his poetry or not — a few samples are presented that do nothing to defy Tony Hoagland’s persistent denunciatory motto, “the skittery poem of our moment.” Gordon himself doesn’t respect it but Teresa, a Spanish translator and one of two attractive women that he finds himself entangled with, respects it enough to want to translate it and publish it in a handsome chapbook edition, a reading from which at a gallery in Madrid is the culminating event of the novel.

Lerner even goes so far as to give Gordon his own nonfiction thoughts; as a note on the copyright page tells us, “The novel includes, albeit in altered form, a reading of John Ashbery’s poetry that first appeared in my essay, ‘The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy,’ published by boundary 2. He also does not fail to remind us that “Leaving the Atocha Station” is an Ashbery poem (one of his most obscure, which is saying something); Ashbery, and the world of poetry Ashbery has bequeathed to us, haunts the book. For much of the novel Gordon is preoccupied by his lack of fluency in Spanish and his attempts to use that lack of fluency “to preserve the possibility of misspeaking or being misunderstood, and to secure and amplify the mystery” that comes with language that fails to be fully communicative.

Poetry books by Ben Lerner: Angle of Yaw (2006), The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), and Mean Free Path (2010)

The consonance of this with poetry, in its deliberate obscurity, its refusal to be “about” anything, is entirely deliberate and forms the major theme of the book: the failure to be present to oneself or to others, in one’s own life or in History writ large (the most significant event in the book is the 3/11 Madrid train bombings, the aftermath of which Gordon witnesses). Language, or rather language’s failure, finds the pathos in this travesty of alienation, even as Lerner finds comedy in it; as Gordon reflects at a poetry reading he gives, “I told myself that no matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.”

Gordon/Lerner may intend this as cynicism, but like any display of cynicism there’s a bruised idealism at its center. “If I was a poet,” he thinks later, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” If one is a bad poet, a false poet, that does not injure Poetry’s eidolon; much harder and more adult is to accept that poetry, like any art, can fail as often as it succeeds, and as a human being one can be part of that success or failure and bears the responsibility for trying.

So we have here again another portrait of the artist as a young man, which like Joyce’s novel displays a good deal of irony toward its protagonist without completely disowning either his idealism or the writer’s own ambitions, albeit in a negative, almost Gnostic form.

I can’t decide yet whether this novel constitutes a bid for centrality — if Lerner will now be leaving the Atocha Station of poetry for the maculate shores of fiction — or if its obsessive focus on poetry and failure will consign it to eccentric status. It’s quite funny, I should say — in his self-inflicted humiliations the protagonist reminds me of nothing so much as an intellectual Larry David — and there’s some interesting if lightly milled grist for considering Gordon as an archetypal self-involved radical artist from “the United States of Bush.” How archaic already that designation seems, another sign of American innocence as inexhaustible destructive resource; as Gordon remarks in one of his endless attempts to sound deep without actually committing himself, “The proper names of leaders are distractions from concrete economic models.” The fatuousness of this, even in its truth, damns the helpless self-regard of the beautiful-souled American Left with withering effectiveness.

In an interview with his friend Cyrus Console (who also turns up as a character in the book), Lerner speaks of Adam’s predicament in terms of aesthetic position: “the virtual possibilities of art are always in a sense betrayed by actual artworks.” What fascinates me is how the positions virtual and actual (terms, Lerner tells us, taken from Allen Grossman) roughly correspond to the two genres under consideration here. Poetry, at least modern poetry, in its fragmentation, its gesturality, is the quintessential art of the virtual: it suggests, Gnostically, the withdrawal of the numinous from the space of the poem. The novel is a creature of the actual, even in its greater physicality as object (a distinction rapidly eroding); as young man, I thought to write a novel, like reading one, was in some way to participate the real. (Fantasy novels, oddly, for me always bridged the gap: their worlds were not real but painstakingly actualized, even as their endlessness, their tendency to trilogize or series-ize, dovetailed back into the virtuality of the always-incomplete. This is why I halfway hope that George R. R. Martin doesn’t finish A Song of Ice and Fire, to preserve some speck of the virtuality the TV series had devoted itself to shredding. End of digression.)

“I promised myself, I would never write a novel,” Lerner’s protagonist says — or is his promise really a dare? Poetry perpetuates adolescence through its refusal to actualize: a poem in itself is like a young man dawdling his way through college, refusing to declare a major or propose to his girlfriend, refusing to commit, to engagé. This is the pathos of poetry, even to the point of “Pathetic!” But it’s also the source of poetry’s great reserve of utopianism and hopefulness, even when, tonally, it despairs. Oh I’m sure there’s a poetry of the actual as well, akin to what Robert Van Hallberg calls “civic” poetry so as to distinguish it from the Orphic. But if the former is more grown-up, more resigned, it lacks I think the power to shake the heart that comes with the Orphic. The tragicomic valley of hesitation between them is where Lerner’s novel is located.