Reviews - November 2011
A review of 'Bharat jiva'
In the contemporary mythology that is rendered, critiqued, created and reflected in language. In the shape-shifting sand-sifting stance that is gerunds, malleable and didactic pronouns, economic prose-code syntactic snakeskin shed and swallowed whole adjectival smackdown. In foraging late-human detritus vocabularies is kari edwards and nowhere in the sentences and fragments and planets of bank deposit syllabics is everywhere. What we have is words and words fail
I can not represent myself … the whole impossible to represent (52)
and rise from ashes. Reconstituted and reinterrupted “a thousand times a day,” edwards’s words pile up, assemble, and skew our pop and dream rhythms that have been absorbed and contorted. That ole pat standard from Home on the Range becomes “where boredom is preferred over a discouraging word and the skies darken by day” (19). Bharat jiva is a collective individual unconscious. Consciously singularly communal. And always urgently ticking like the bombs we forget proliferate under fingers. If anything remains posthuman for future investigation into this past, could one book be that search? We are all a “heap,” part of a gyrating biology alive to die. Here is our subatomic anthropology, a broken patterning of cracked ceramic nouns on a dig. Artifacts in the act. Sacrificial individual, the rhetoric in broad time. But not the straight line. Caduceus quiver(er). Bharat jiva as hermetic bearer.
Centered prose columns alternate with staggered, fractured, sometimes centered lyric lines, then become bound again in authoritative right and left justified pillars framed in page space. Words twist within and finally unravel, fray at the edges at the ends and the book again releases into lyric spatial openness. Form as forum. Each word an origin. Pun. Enough skidding occurrences like “between tao and them” instead of now and then make our eyes seek and see what’s not but was and is almost, there. “[R]adio” in “ratio.” “[L]ies” and “files” cause the crypt word “flies” to appear before us. “[M]annerist destiny” absolute play on manifest. Not a yuk yuk pun. Real world word conundrum. Any oral urge might be utilized, undoing original use intention making firm the Wittgensteinian slip chain in our hands. In our eyes, the words flicker on the pages.
being able to only harness life through dead words (46)
Yet writing is “a lamp amid darkness / on lips of poor fruitless attempts” (47). There is a searching body, of the work, the speaker, the reader, but it is perpetually dying, “those buried alive,” the “prophets” eaten through with toxic caustic comment. Seeing and speaking is hurting if determined. From the book’s epigraphs: negate the will to live. Negate the body. “[E]veryone’s dying / everyone’s dying to die” (80). And yet a book of body (as) remains. In hand. Must.
yet, after loitering in morning’s death, in the
mirror glistening fragrant outside, amongst
mangled bodies and scattered twist ties,
unhealed from unheard names, I am called
back, repulsed, confronted, tormented,
laying in sleeping hands ready to snap. (33)
“[C]alled back” to life. Urgency in agency. Agency in urgency. Futility. “[T]o snap” to painfully come alive “trying to find the pleasure in everything moment, right there laying on the street staring to the sky” (63–4). Coincidence the Oscar Wilde connection? We are all of us in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars. We are all of us in a body, some of us seeking beyond “the clumsy ground” (103).
edwards seeks through writing. Seeks writing as writing to provide, perhaps become, what is sought. To atomize and make hyperreality upchuck itself molecularly to revisit a bottom line. Banking, marketing, culcha, metaphor on metaphor, the meter of advertisement tagged in the book (“yes, we have a winner … call 1-800- complete resignation”; 67). The language of owners proffered to be debunked. “[G]uarding against the onslaught of foreign ornamentation, language goods and skin color bar codes” (20).
Bharat jiva a penultimate comment on the banality and glimmering potential holdout of humanity. Philosophy of philosophy, planetary biological religious cosmic consideration afloat on the tension of gerunds manifesting without always an I, yet I speaks (“did I not say”). There is agency in the dynamic vibrational circumstances through an accumulation of modifying phrases that eventually land on a sentence’s subject, but not always and not definitively, and the subject transmogrifies through sediment layering accumulation.
in the face of “can’t read it,” against the
rules of suddenly perceiving enormous
episodes knotted in inexorable reason,
begging cat affection and flash formulas,
those surprise expressions through the
great stream of images, loving the right
place at the wrong time for the wrong
reason, long for another wrong reason
lost place long time lost longing, mulling
exacto knife dollar bills, interpretative
false ideology, drowning complaints,
latent aggressive scenic tedium, and […] (21)
“[I]n the face” modifies. “[A]gainst the rules” modifies. “[B]egging cat affection” — modifying. “[T]hose surprise expressions” are possibly the subject, the agency here, yet they are moving “through” and continue on “loving” and “long” and “mulling” but maybe not. Either the subject is immediately modified again or more likely is sliding moving. Then the accumulation of possible subjects so that none of them stands out as singular agent, they are all motivating forces ministering to and being modified by the adjectival phraseologies. Also, the subjects are not solid. “[I]nterpretative false ideology” is such a movable mover. Is the ideology capable of interpreting or is to be interpreted? Neverthematter, it isn’t true, anyway.
How to read this book in the face of can’t read it? Through a lens of contemporary writing situated within hegemonic globalized forces. Where does this book stand? To speak to this return to the title of the review: “another personal narrative burns to a heap of citations” (11). Appropriated writing (citation) now the rage in the current deluge of internetted everyone as broadcaster — what Jodi Dean and others call communicative capitalism. So a present-day urge toward construction through reiteration. Sustainable poetry — reuse to reduce. Conversation with other works. The frame as the work. Demonstrative. Contextualative? (Tzara, Rukeyser, Reznikoff et al. the predecessors.) Look many places in contempoetics and you will see the word commons. Seven billion of us and I suppose we must. Our tribe cannot simply move out of Africa for resources elsewhere to avoid conflict as it is said was the case for Homo erectus. Does this mean a surrender of I?
We continue to consider what it means to use personal narrative post-Language. Or still, say, against Language. (Against Against Expression.) Post-post. What it might mean to be an individual in the corrupted commons of language. How Silliman’s pre-Now call to constrain syllogism in writing conflicts with the problems Dean sees in the continuous enjoinder to contribute (“communicate”) in the media sphere. All accumulation, no discernment or reasoned argument. All “ands” — no “therefore” or “but.” Not communication or dialogue. Not even dialectic. Nothing absorbed for synthesis. Merely added to in an amnesiac stream of the 24-hour news cycle which replicates itself as readily as one can click the refresh button on the computer.
How and why in this cacophony to speak through an I that isn’t solely using personal minutiae (“celebrate the small things”) to attempt its reflection of something universal? How to be beyond individual epiphanic and yet one? Bharat jiva does not make nice self-help solipsistic discourse. Clearly voice forming sentence. Querying mind and tongue. It is uttered poetic rhetoric, yes, but more like therapy as ontology. A second millennium common era problematized enactment of speaking. Is the only way to an “impossible to represent” whole (if there is such a thing) to assert and risk hurt? To sacrifice oneself in and through the act of speaking? Or are we already compromised as body.
maybe a speechless idiot idol, feeling the
return, returns to the flesh, something sent
through the gate returns hollow, broke,
expansive, turned from no longer mind to
almost human. (37)
This, then, is the most personal and universal (we of flesh) of work. Vulnerable. To face and speak is to put one’s body on the line. In the “aftermath,” the book’s denouement, we are “expelled from injured paradise” The work is contemporary and more than of its moment. Post-apocalyptic and upper-Paleolithic. Or, perhaps, pan-Edenic.
A review of Kevin Varrone's g-point almanacs
Kevin Varrone has written a series of works entitled g-point almanac. An early installment was g-point almanac (9.22–10.19), available as a Duration Press e-book. Others include the 2007 g-point almanac: id est (9.22–12.21) published by Instance Press and 2010 g-point almanac: passyunk lost issued by Ugly Duckling Presse. The almanacs echo, record, build an encounter with language that is based first in an encounter with a shifting world, quite real in its slippery emotional geography. It’s satisfying to read the books as elements in an ongoing project, one that tours the weather and the city of Philadelphia and maps traces of intimacies blowing through it, gently organized in a Book of Days format.
Varrone’s poetry speaks to the notion of an urban ecological poetics, the lyric self in weather in city in song, a poetics that is simultaneously a philosophy of being in things: a phenomenological poetics, perfect for the urban contemporary. Being, in these books, is constantly in formation, determined by environment and intersubjectivity: fluid, shifting, live.
Among the most illuminating cycles in the series, clarifying the kind of topography of the mind developed in Varrone’s work, is “that worst part after,” which appears in the two earlier books. (Why not revisit that worst part after? We always do. We savor it.) But what is that worst part after? We read, and we fill in the blanks. The lyric reader is a builder of imaginary emotional landscapes. Varrone writes:
cities (are they?)
epiphanies of desiring
We are propelled, here with punctuation, but also with the desire the writing sets up, the blank spaces that allow us to open up the possibility of perceiving the felt. We are dropped into the next line, through more blank space, into
gaps & apertures, absences,
that worst part after —
Accepting the impossibility of completion, the poem reveals the gaps inherent in language, investigating this in particular at the site of experiences that are the most difficult to translate because of their emotional thickness: that worst part. Coming close to articulating the experience without actually articulating it. That worst part after — it hurts most in all its gaps and empty spaces. Varrone leaves blanks, then offers some signs:
— that worst part
left for science
g-point almanac (9.22–10.19)
The reader gets some resolution on this page — the after is “after romance” — a filling in of one blank. We understand the worst to be an emotional texture, and then we are moved back towards the body, hollowed, the “corpse / left for science.” Varrone is a poet capable not only of exploring the complexities of the lyric field — spreading the page wide with space, shifting through enjambment and expansive vocabularies — but of letting the poem enact an important philosophical moment: a moment where the language is at once embodied and lyric. The poetry moves through the pages without settling on a moment of profundity, yet guides us through a phenomenological encounter with both thought and world. It is therefore appropriate that these words echo in the Instance Press book, only condensed into one page with less white space, “this corpse” becoming “a corpse”, an indefinite object, at a remove, with less silent space on the page, less raw emotion (16).
Creating the world by perceiving it, as we do, the poem does not crystallize experience but continues the ongoing process of creation. The instabilities of the body in motion through which emotion winds and unwinds. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted, “We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive.” Varrone puts it slightly differently:
through versions of the city
beneath these versions
& say remember &
in the eyes of others
remembering looks like crying —
g-point almanac (9.22–10.19) (11)
The landscape of a book is the expanse of the page, often mostly white; the landscape of a book is the words, the punctuation, the sprawl and the spread of them. The landscape of poetry is still the words themselves, even their shape.
In g-point almanac: passyunk lost, the poems move through winter, following sometimes a daily journaling format through January, February, March. The book commences with the uncertainty of perception, a parenthetical lyric interpretive turn:
(a freckling effect across the sky)
undercut, informed by:
(what I mean is: sky’s frighted with false stars, adidas
across powerlines what I mean is chuck t’s I
g-point almanac: passyunk lost (13)
The book opens like this, and aptly so, for then the book the thought the language unfolds in this way, both suggesting and performing a kind of thinking that is simultaneously a way of seeing. In Philadelphia, a poet sees “round table. plastic chairs. propane grill,” the mundane stuff of domestic urban life. But this life never escapes its groundedness in the ethereal, so to speak. Does that ring ironic or absurd? All the more apt. This is a poetry that will not let us get away with cynicism and will not let us get away from lyricism. In the propane grill and the chuck t’s and other quotidian objects we find “the quality of silence / harnessed // for inelegant use” (68).
We, too, may have seen the way objects in the world collide with the mind, do violence to it. In Kevin Varrone’s work, birds:
there are birds that hover & those that take off at steep pitch. those that make
noise in morning & those silent at noon. things said & words after
words, as if in latin. a desperate octave of the throat. a tom waits song.
g-point almanac: id est (53)
An almanac is a collection of agricultural and meteorological information, but Varrone’s poems collect the information of poetic perception — a lyric Book of Days, a love letter, a Book of Loss. Nostalgic and documentary at once, with song throughout, it reminds us to listen better, often to the silence.
A review of 'Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto'
I have been going for walks since 1994 when I first moved to Montreal, long perambulatory explorations of back alleys, train yards, industrial wastelands and whatever neighborhood I found myself living in. So I was excited to hear of Stroll, as I’ve been interested in psychogeography for a number of years. I decided to take the book for a stroll …
I’m coming into Toronto from where I am spending the holidays with in-laws in Hamilton. The GO Train is the best way to arrive, the clicks and clacks of the rails warm and lulling as the train skirts along the lake past Exhibition and into the dark tunnels of Union Station. I’m leafing through the book, trying to decide which tour to take. I want to walk a route through areas I have never been, which would be most of Toronto. Plenty to choose from! But the season being dead of winter, I decide to go where it is most convenient. This is how I end up downtown.
Oh, glorious Toronto hot dog stands! Montreal has no street food to speak of. I watch the hot dog man score the hot dog to let out the juices, then grill it to barbequed perfection before dropping it neatly onto a fresh bun. To me, this is an essential part of Toronto.
As the man hands me my change, I drop most of it into his tip cup (thank you, he says, seeming surprised), and one quarter falls between my fingers, disappearing. I hope it didn’t fall into the pickles. I heap on the sauerkraut and the mustard, the things I like best on a hot dog, then wander off down Front Street, pausing to savor each hot, juicy bite. Hmmm.
Will I go down to the Harbourfront or over to Yonge Street? I look at the landscape to see how I feel. The Harbourfront would be to my right, where an underpass looks somewhat foreboding, not at all inviting. I decide to head over to Yonge.
Micallef starts his Yonge tour right at Lake Ontario, where he describes Captain John’s floating seafood restaurant. But how do I get to Yonge Street from Union? The lovely hand-drawn maps by Marlena Zuber help immensely, and there is a large, color foldout one at the back of the book.
One of psychogeography’s main methodologies, as described by Guy Debord and his Situationist cohort, is the dérive or the drift, and involves following one’s feelings (hence, “psycho-”) in response to the architecture and geography. A problem with taking a prescribed walking tour is the lack of spontaneity, for one is not able to “drift.” Of course, you could detour from the walk but then, do you try to get back to it or do you just wander? One could say that it matters not, for the book has already done its purpose, to get you out walking … (but then why read the book?)
Well, what I expect from a tour guide is knowledge of history and architecture. Micallef does a good job at including healthy doses of both on his tours, though I was always expecting more. Every time I saw something of interest, I wanted him to have also noted it, but of course, this doesn’t happen.
For example: As I reach Yonge Street, I am surprised to see the Hockey Hall of Fame there, as it wasn’t mentioned in the book. Instead, Micallef describes the Sony Center on the southeast corner as “a perfectly modern performance venue.” The Hockey Hall of Fame didn’t register in Micallef’s emotions? I’m not a hockey fan or a sports fan in general, but as with any icon of tourism, I have to stop and gawk. Like everyone else around me, I take a picture.
Turning the corner, I peer into the lobby where the entrance to the Hockey Museum is, and am surprised to see this space-age Christmas tree hanging over a fountain.
I’m compelled to enter and take more photos, alongside crowds of tourist families. The building is quite impressive, and there are these strange lights that look to me like floating Mickey Mouse heads.
Part of me protests, no, I’m a flâneuse (the feminine form of flâneur), not a tourist! But really, what is the difference? It’s only a slight readjustment of attitude! I have a camera, a guidebook, and I’m looking up at the buildings.
Micallef describes the area between Front and Richmond as “a concrete canyon,” with no particularly interesting pedestrian experiences to offer. The one building he notes is One King West, which is best seen from more of a distance, as its thin silhouette will attest. I crane my neck up to discover that I can barely see it.
But speaking of looking up at the buildings … I was astonished to find the unique juxtaposition of old and new architecture, everywhere I looked on Yonge Street! In fact, some of the old, stone buildings looked as though they had contracted some modernist virus that turned them into metal and glass.
I’d never before bothered to walk in the “touristy” areas of Toronto. I wander up Yonge with all the other families and couples through the capitalist display of wealth and glamour. The stores are mainly retail chains you can find anywhere, but it’s easy to just wander in a daze. Micallef has a good deal to say about the history of Yonge Street here: its big-city cliché moments, its glory years of tawdry spectacle, the early gay bars like the St. Charles Tavern and the Parkside Tavern that no longer stand, the Colonial Tavern where “jazz greats from Gillespie to Holiday to Brubeck played,” the grisly murder of a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy that prompted the cleanup of the street, and the eventual decline of Yonge. It’s a good read, though there’s nothing to look at in connection with it.
Micallef then takes us back to the present: “So where have you gone, Yonge Street? Walking along, it’s hard to find a drink in reasonable surroundings, and the good bands and DJs don’t play here anymore. The center of the strip now would appear to be Yonge-Dundas Square, probably the most controversial bit of real estate in the city … On humid nights, the air glows hundreds of meters into the sky around the square, as if filled with electrified neon” (22).
Arriving at Yonge-Dundas Square, I feel like I am in a smaller, less-crowded version of Times Square, obviously intentionally so. It also reminds me of Las Vegas, which looks almost run-down in the daytime, but is spectacular at night. I actually like the glitz, but in the light of day, the electric billboards aren’t as impressive against the grey, winter sky.
I note the diagonal crosswalks that I haven’t seen in any other Canadian city. How very megalopolis it is, like Tokyo, like London!
I drift around the Square for a while, looking at the holiday decorations and avoiding the young people giving away samples of synthetic cake. At this point I am beginning to get cold, so I decide to switch tours. Micallef follows Yonge Street all the way up into North York, past the 401 highway.
I consult the map and happily discover that Nathan Philip Square and the PATH System are only a few blocks away. The wind seems to blow colder and harder as I make my way from the crowds of Yonge Street to what I expect will be a fairly deserted City Hall. I arrive to the sounds to children screaming in delight. The ice rink is packed today.
I wander around the Square, checking out the space-age City Hall that I glimpsed once on an episode of Star Trek: The New Generation. It is surrounded by construction.
Micallef notes that there is a Henry Moore sculpture, which I find tucked away between scaffolds.
There are also portable washrooms behind the skating rink, strangely called “comfort stations.” This reminds me of “comfort women,” a euphemism for women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II. Of course I know this is unintended! But there you go, that’s what I thought of.
I’m really cold now, and the indoor PATH System sounds quite appealing. The PATH is a “twenty-seven-kilometer-long network of underground passages and tunnels that connects over fifty downtown buildings” (63). Micallef describes it as “Toronto’s version of Paris’s arcades, ‘a world in miniature’ where philosopher Walter Benjamin wandered in the 1920s when trying to understand that city. At first glance the PATH is a fairly generic shopping mall, but the impressive sum of its parts and the people who populate it make it remarkable. As you walk through it, the stores start to repeat like the background in a cartoon chase scene” (64).
Now how do I get to the PATH? There are numerous stairways leading below, but it seems that these are leading to a parking lot (each whimsically labeled with Canadian fauna).
Micallef notes that City Hall is connected to the PATH, so I head in. Walking down the stairs to find the PATH, I find myself in what is considered its worst stretch, the very parking lot that I was trying to avoid. The supposedly car-free PATH goes through a parking lot? I’m a bit miffed that I wasn’t warned about this. As a flâneuse, I generally avoid dark-ish, underground parking lots as not the best place to be drifting around. However, the door locks behind me so that I can’t reenter City Hall, for some unknown reason (as I could easily get in above ground).
I see another woman wandering around, looking for the exit and talking on her cell at the same time. I spot a yellow striped road that should get me outta here, and I look for the woman but she’s gone in the opposite direction.
Cautiously, I follow the yellow striped road through the parking lot until I reach the basement of the Sheraton, which then quickly becomes mall-like, but the most deserted mall I have ever seen. Most of the stores are still closed for the holidays, and I spot only the occasional couple or family wandering through.
Without people to populate it, the PATH feels unremarkable, maybe even unsafe. I’m tired now, too, and I just want to get out. I exit the underground at the first opportunity and head back towards Union Station. My strolling here is done.
Now, I still live in Montreal, and have never lived in Toronto. My strategy in approaching Stroll is thus an outsider’s perspective. Walking in your own city, even if you go to places you have never been before, means walking with an accumulation of memories that make the city your own. It’s different when walking in a city that you don’t live in. I mention all this because Stroll is written for Torontonians; Micallef’s walking tours are based on his columns in the Toronto paper Eye Weekly. His narrative voice addresses the reader as “we” and assumes often that our points of reference are the same. For example, Micallef begins the walking tour “Spadina” like this:
Spadina is a strange word. Say it. Spa-die-nah. Now repeat it a few times. You’ll soon wonder how we use it in conversation without pausing in curiosity. Yet we say “Spadina” easily, and it means “Toronto” just as much as the Ojibway word it’s derived from, Ishapadenah (the word has various spellings), which means “hill” or “rise in the land.” To get a perfect view of the street, climb the Baldwin Steps at Davenport, stand next to Casa Loma and look south over Toronto and the southern, downhill length of Spadina … to its glittery, skyscaper end. It looks as if somebody cleared a wide swath of land through Toronto to make the street — the “spine of Toronto” as the late writer Matt Cohen called it — and, in a way, that’s true. (152)
Now, passages like this one make me want to go there and see it, regardless of whether I fit into his “we.” But one’s psychogeographic response to the city changes according to such identifiers as race, gender, height — all things that predict different emotional responses to, for example, a dark, underground parking lot. Micallef acknowledges this in his introduction, a “Flâneur Manifesto,” but I would have appreciated more awareness of it within the actual tours.
I was also disappointed to find that, while the Situationists — the originators of the term “psychogeography” — were “trying to strike a blow against capitalism and society” (as Micallef puts it in his Manifesto), Stroll takes a lighter view. But why divorce the historical context from the project? There’s a great opportunity here for political or social commentary, for an updated dérive that motivates involvement on a deeper level than “simply getting excited about a place.” A tourist observes, but a citizen engages and interacts.
Stroll’s tours are not really very psychogeographic then, if one is going to use that term. Although there are plenty of stories, histories, and interesting facts, I wanted more than a tour. I wanted more of Micallef’s own emotional mappings, more engagement. However, the writing does provide many interesting places to start, and getting to know your city might make you think about what it means to live in a city, and to be a citizen.
CUNY Graduate Center
Thursday April 12, 2010
Louis Bury: Do you want to eat a little?
Corey Frost: No, we can eat while we talk. Even though it’s not stolen, I think it’s appropriate. I’ve been thinking about how much we’re imitating their process … Like that quote you sent me — which was from where?
Bury: Oh, the Dave Hickey quote? Do you know of Dave Hickey?
Bury: Tayt found this pamphlet at St. Mark’s Bookstore, a transcript of Hickey’s course lectures on “L.A. Noir.” He’s an art critic, apparently, who’s known for being sort of a renegade cowboy, you know, does whatever he wants to do. At any rate, the quote was about how whenever he discovers something artistic that really moves him or fascinates him, the first thing he wants to do is talk to a friend about it. It’s a very Beat thing — that kind of exuberant conversation.
Bury: And I think that’s an interesting model for what we’re trying. But in a way, the conversational ideal never gets met. I think the movies are a pretty good example …
Frost: Right. You walk out of the theatre, and then you’re expected to talk about it. And I always have a hard time.
Bury: Yeah, right, that’s exactly it. Actually engaging with the thing in conversation, the engagement tends to be superficial. What’s the first question everyone asks? “Did you like it?”
Frost: Which is shallow. But the problem … you know, my relationships with other people who, sort of, read and write for a living, often don’t revolve around reading and writing. And maybe the problem with living an intellectual or artistic life is that you can never entirely have the pure intellectual or artistic life that you think you should, because you’re stuck in the world.
Bury: Yeah …
Frost: But what’s so great about Jon and Andy’s conversations, actually, is that they seem to have a friendship that allows them to … not bypass the mundane, but somehow manage to transcend it. But I don’t know how much that’s an artifice after the fact.
Bury: Or, or — did you say “artifice”?
Frost: Yeah. I mean, how much …
Bury: Touched up, and made to … It’s hard to know.
Frost: And not to interrupt, but …
Bury: No, I like, I like being interrupted.
Frost: We should explain what we’re talking about.
Bury: Oh yeah.
Frost: So, this is a review of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s book from Ugly Duckling Presse, Ten Walks / Two Talks. And, um … what?
Bury: Well, it’s kind of, what we were just saying about when you go to a movie and you say, did you like it or not like it, I think we’re kind of resisting that impulse, although …
Frost: But I feel like if we were … because it’s a review, if we just said up front, is this a good book or not, then we could have a lot more freedom to meander after that.
Bury: Well …
Frost: Is it a good book?
Bury: Yeah, I think it’s fantastic. But, uh … what do you think?
Frost: I think it’s a great book. It does what I think poetry is most valuable for, which is — it’s not a book that I just enjoyed while I was reading it — it’s a book that made me enjoy other things more after having read it.
Frost: You know, it’s a book about walks, and about observation …
Bury: about New York City …
Frost: and walking here to meet you was more enjoyable …
Bury: yeah, no, it’s a book about conversation, too. And it contains a small selection, as I understand it, from larger works. The ten walks come from Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks. And the two talks come from their project, Conversations Over Stolen Food, which, I don’t know how big it is, but I’m imagining it’s pretty big.
Frost: They keep speaking of it as a project that’s sort of ongoing.
Bury: Andy told me once that he had decided — I don't know if has stuck to this resolution — that he would continue the Sixty Morning Walks project for sixty more years.
Frost: That’s being optimistic about your life expectancy. It’s difficult to interpret this book outside an understanding of their relationship — which comes through very clearly, because even though Andy wrote the ten walks, and the two talks are a conversation between Jon and Andy, I feel like the whole thing is a dialogue. Even in Andy’s walks, it’s as though he’s talking, and I imagine that the audience is Jon.
Bury: That’s interesting. What’s your sense of their relationship? Maybe I look at Jon and Andy’s book, and their friendship, and, you know, I romanticize it.
Frost: I look at it with a certain degree of envy, for sure. But also, I mean, it’s interesting that they have chosen to be a writing duo. They do all these things together.
Bury: Yeah, I was going to say — it sounds like in your mind they’re kind of insepar —
Frost: Well, on several occasions I’ve asked Andy to participate in something and he’ll always say, well, can I ask Jon? Which is just something that you don’t usually encounter in poetry circles. People are egotistical enough usually that that’s not an option. And I find it really interesting.
Bury: It may imply a lack of egotism, but I think there’s also an advantage to it, in that artistic worlds can be hard to navigate. And having someone who is a go-to person, a natural built-in support, is a really — I don’t want to say clever way of doing it because that makes it sound preplanned — and one thing I like too, while we’re romanticizing their relationship, is that they started out just as friends.
Frost: Yeah, it was a random meeting. This was not in the book — I don’t remember now where I heard it, but there was an apartment that they ended up staying at, at the same time, and, uh … they were both sort of crashing without paying rent, and one of the actual roommates left for the day and both of them basically decided at the same time that they would commandeer the bedroom so they could sleep in the bed. And so one of them went into the room and found the other one there, and it was … the start of a beautiful friendship.
Bury: I didn’t know that story.
Frost: It’s interesting, too, that it starts with this story of … I don’t know if they actually, you know, accidentally crawled into bed together like a “Three's Company” plot, but peppered throughout the book there’re all these kind of …
Bury and Frost [together]: … homoerotic …
Frost: … overtones, of, you know, sharing beds …
Bury: … staying over until four in the morning … dancing around in their underwear …
Frost: Yeah. “We danced in my kitchen the other night. At least I was down to my underwear.” Which is delightful. I don't want to make too much of it, or suggest that this is odd somehow, I mean, I’d like to think that this is how male friendships can always be, regardless of sexual orientation. There’s a passage, too, where they move away from a group of men who are being too macho, with too much testosterone.
Bury: Yes, that seemed important. Like they were reluctantly among the cast of Jersey Shore.
Bury: Do you watch that show?
Frost: I’ve never seen it, but I have absorbed it accidentally through the media ether.
Bury: My own little mini-theory of it is that it’s in many ways the apotheosis of the genre. And this won’t be as much of a tangent as it appears, because I think there’s actually a relationship between what Andy and Jon are doing recording themselves in these various ways and let’s call it a post-Real World era, or YouTube era, in which people are increasingly, I don’t know if they’re comfortable, but they know what to do when they get in front of a camera. Although I think their appropriation of such a trope — Andy and Jon’s — is very different.
Frost: So you think this book might be a kind of highbrow reality poetry?
Bury: I mean, that makes it sound a little … I don’t think that’s their intention at all. I’m saying it’s in the air. It’s of a piece with what goes on in the day-to-day world, with how young people experience being represented or watched or existing in the world.
Frost: But the difference, of course, would be the writing.
Bury: Right. The talks are a form of writing, but in the David Antin tradition of spontaneous and improvised and oral. While the walks are more conventionally written.
Frost: I mean, Andy’s technique was basically walking every morning and then coming home and writing about what he had seen.
Bury: Yeah. For sixty straight weekdays he took a sixty-minute walk around Manhattan and then came home and wrote sixty sentences about that walk. Mostly sort of describing what he saw, how he felt as he saw it. I see it as an exercise in observation. There’s a George Perec quote in Species of Spaces where he talks about observation … he’s sitting in a café in Paris, being very French, looking out on the square, saying he wants to observe the everyday. The concept he comes up with is the “infra-ordinary” as opposed to the extraordinary. He says, “the newspaper headlines tell me nothing of what's going on in my day-to-day life. How do I transcribe that and capture that?” And so he says, in order to do that you have to set about it “slowly, almost stupidly” … And I find that a really, uh, suggestive notion. That in order to observe things better — particularly the familiar — your observation needs to dumb itself down. And slowness as a value is something I’m fascinated with. Walking is a slow activity, particularly in a world where information can be accessed so quickly.
Frost: Mm. One of the things I like most about Andy’s writing is that it’s very tentative. You see it especially in the talks. He never says anything definitive; he’s always looking for the confirmation of his partner. The conversation itself is mostly questions. It’s perhaps less evident in the walks, where Andy’s writing it himself, but it comes through in the way things are expressed. [Searches through book]
Bury: You have an example?
Frost: Not an example, but this is a line that I felt expressed the essence of what he is trying to do in the walks. It’s just the end of a sentence. It says, “I wanted to know this world with me walking through it.” It’s not just “I wanted to know this world,” it’s the interaction of the world and me.
Bury: Yeah, no, I would agree with that. I would also say that the unit of the sentence, in this book, is really important. That seems to me very much the unit of organization.
Frost: Yeah. I think the walks in particular are sort of a very good advertisement for prose poetry.
Bury: Mm-hm. And I like the way its lyricism sneaks up on you. He’s never straining after poetic language. He’s not using … To my ear, it doesn’t always sound high poetic, but there are these really unusual or awkward locutions that become utterly riveting.
Frost: I absolutely agree. It’s almost as though the poetry comes through accidentally, because basically there’s a pragmatic attempt to record observations, record the walks, while the talks are themselves literally recorded, but accidentally poetry comes through.
Bury: I think what you just said is important, about accidents. There’s that moment in one of the talks, when they’re walking, and one of them says, “by ‘culture,’ I mean near-accidents.”
Frost: That was a great line. He says that learning to drive in a parking lot is not a luxury of space, it’s distance from culture. You need to get away from the possibility of colliding with other people in order to learn to drive — which means you need to get away from culture.
Bury: But I like the idea … you described the book, kind of in passing in an email, as producing an aleatory effect. I’d never thought of it as aleatory in a strict, “Oh, well I’m using chance, I’m flipping a coin or rolling a die,” but the structure allows for these really fortuitous accidents. In a way, constraints are a handy mechanism for producing accidental poetry.
Frost: Yeah. And just having to interact with someone is a constraint in itself. I was going to say … I wanted to compare it to My Life, the Lyn Hejinian book, which they mention in one of the talks. Because in some ways they’re in the same genre. I mean, Ten Walks / Two Talks is basically an autobiographical book.
Bury: And My Life is also a book where the basic unit is the sentence — and there are some quite remarkable ones in there — but they feel very engineered. The sentences.
Frost: Yeah. But I don’t know, this whole question about allowing poetic accidents to happen, you could just argue that poetry is always accidental. You can’t really engineer great poetic lines. You have to try to make room for them to happen.
Bury: There’s something in what you’re saying that made me think that Andy and Jon’s talks are very much practiced. And by that I don’t mean they’re rehearsed. It’s kind of like teaching — the more you do it …
Frost: It’s a skill.
Bury: Yeah, exactly. In other words, some of it is accident, but in a weird way what they’re doing through their artistic exercises is training themselves to talk …
Frost: They are highly trained in having conversations, over stolen food, with each other. It’s like an Olympic sport — a very odd little activity, but do it consistently enough and you become very good at it.
Bury: Yes. It’s an interesting question, though, one that I think is raised by Antin’s praxis also. Okay, I’m going to record myself giving a talk or doing something mundane. You run the risk, when you operate that way, of narcissistic self-indulgence. And I think collaboration with others is a way of avoiding that pitfall.
Frost: You know, the book kind of highlights the fact that — people don’t think about this much perhaps but it’s obvious to anyone who has a friend — that each person has a personality, but there is also a personality to relationships.
Frost: And this relationship, between Jon and Andy, has a particularly quirky and entertaining one.
Bury: Yeah, yeah, no, I agree and I mean, it’s an underutilized … I mean, I think there’s such a thing as conversational knowledge, right, knowledge that’s kind of superficial and fleeting?
Frost: And this is what David Antin manages to produce that I mean … it’s surprising to me that more people don’t use his technique because ideas, um, you know, seem to come so much more easily in a conversation, especially a good conversation, than when you’re sitting by yourself.
Bury: In a way, the life of books sort of lives in conversations or what use you make of them. And the other quality I associate with conversation is a kind of nostalgia for the fact that you’re going to forget it.
Frost: Yeah, it’s ephemeral. But it’s easy to think that what you’ve said is brilliant if you can’t hold on to it.
Bury: Yeah, that’s the experience of, you know, not being able to sleep and getting up to jot down some brilliant note. And the next morning it’s rubbish.
Frost: Yeah. But, ah, to provide a counterpoint, because we’re sort of nudging towards this concept of collaborative thinking as so much better … looking at the ten walks in the book, which are an individual’s attempt to record something in writing, there’s not a lotof name-dropping. But in the two talks, which are collaborative, other texts come up and other writers become a part of the conversation. They spend a lot of time talking about Plato, and they …
Bury: Like the writing-speech hierarchy.
Frost: mention poets like Claudia Rankine and, um, Rosmarie Waldrop, and then they mention …
Bury: Have you read the Rankine book?
Frost: uh, Thoreau and Emerson. Yeah, that’s great.
Bury: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I had never heard of it, but picked it up after reading Ten Walks.
Frost: And then in the more individual, you know, personal observations, where Andy writes about his walks, that name-dropping doesn’t exist. And maybe for me there’s something a little bit sad about it, that when you’re talking with someone else you need to, um, approach ideas through names.
Frost: So that you’re not talking about ideas directly, you’re talking about so-and-so writes that and so-and-so writes this.
Bury: In a way, the names come to stand in. But I know that, at least for me, I never have felt self-conscious about doing it. It’s just an easy kind of synecdoche for a whole set of ideas.
Frost: Well, that’s how it’s justified, as, you know, shorthand for something that would take a long time to explain otherwise.
Bury: Yeah, and that we probably couldn’t explain on our own. I’m suggesting the reason why names function this way, with such authority, is that we retain so little of what we actually read. It’s part of the danger of our methodology, in a way, because we’re mostly going from memory and therefore risk being in some way superficial.
Frost: I think that’s absolutely true. That’s kind of my problem with the naming convention. I mean it’s a problem only in this sense, that it provides authority, or credibility. I mean, imagine this book, Ten Walks / Two Talks, written by someone who didn’t have a graduate education. Okay, so the book has Hiroshige prints on the cover and the blurbs on the back say it’s like a modern day Basho and they talk about Wittgenstein, and you know … imagine this book written by someone who doesn’t have access to all those markers of cultural status.
Frost: Then it’s basically just someone walking through New York and describing their experiences and then getting together with a friend and talking. In essence, the book would have a lot of the same wonderful interesting things going on, but it would not have the same credibility with the social circles that will read this book.
Bury: Right, and those markers perhaps make it harder, or less likely, for the book to be read outside those social circles.
Frost: Yeah, exactly. I mean, for someone who isn’t familiar with avant-garde poetry and classical philosophy, even just on the level of name, it’s just distracting.
Bury: But the other side of that, I think, is that, in a way, this book can’t come into existence — you can disagree here, cause I’m not sure I believe this myself — this book can’t come into existence without that sort of art-historical, philosophical framework. In other words, you have to be conversant in Plato, know about the speech-write …
Frost: Well, do you really have to or does it just enhance it? I mean …
Bury: Well, I’m suggesting that it’s a byproduct. I’m suggesting that to conceptualize the project in the first place you would probably have this kind of background.
Frost: You don’t become a conceptual artist …
Frost: unless you have sort of, in some sense, passed through Modernism already. On the other hand, on the third hand, you know, I feel like you could have an interesting conversation that was just names, just tossing names of writers and artists back and forth because they stand in for so much. The name of a writer becomes a term that has connotations and denotations that just go so far down.
Bury: Oh, I completely agree. And we might think too of, you know, Gertrude Stein …
Frost: Speaking of names.
Bury: … in this context, right, where the act of naming, a poetic act, has to do with loving the thing, with caressing it, with addressing it. But you can spot the people, who when they invoke a name, they’re kind of wielding it like a baton. And then you can spot the people, and I would list Jon and Andy among them, who say it out of reverence.
Frost: Uh-huh. I mean, I don’t know if it’s reverence, exactly, but I — to put the record straight, I admire the way Andy and Jon use names. When they bring up, you know, the Phaedrus, or when they talk about Diogenes, they’re doing it because they’re excited by the ideas.
Bury: Yes. That’s what I mean by reverence. Not that they worship Plato.
Frost: Yeah, right. But that it’s in service of, um …
Bury: their intellectual-artistic … joy.
Frost: Yeah, joy, exactly. Let me tell you about one of the most influential statements I’ve heard during my career here at the Graduate Center. We were talking about Charles Olson and whether or not he is given his due recognition. And someone suggested that, in order to ensure that new poets read him, they said, “Maybe it’s enough to say his name over and over again.” And at the time, and still, I thought to myself, that’s so ridiculous … there’s something so fascistic about it, I guess, like just … you know, impose this name on people and that’s going to be enough to make them understand, in some way.
Bury: I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but I think that’s an accurate description of how familiarity typically works in various spheres. It’s the process by which someone makes a literary name for themselves, or becomes Lady Gaga.
Frost: Yeah. But at the same time, I have to admit, superficiality allows you to cover a lot of ground in intellectual conversations. Of course people put careers into analyzing Olson, but then he gets assigned a meaning. If you read everything he ever wrote, which would take some doing …
Bury: I’ve read a fair, I’ve read a fair, I mean I’ve read The Maximus Poems.
Frost: Uh huh. And what did you take away from them?
Bury: I remember like two or three lines. This whole, you know, uh, sound itself being “neoned in.” Uh, “kill, kill, kill those who advertise you out.” And those are from, like, the early — “Polis / is eyes.”
Frost: Right, and maybe those are valuable lines. I guess what I’m saying is a poet like Charles Olson comes to represent particular ideas. That’s not to belittle his importance, because his body of work therefore represents something important in our culture. But it’s enough, you know, I don’t have to explain those ideas, I just have to say, “Charles Olson.” Because at a certain point you need a system of shorthand.
Bury: And in a way, what we’re suggesting is a very Olsonian idea, cause there’s that passage, which I’ve always found very suggestive, where he says that the postmodern condition is one of quantitative overload. And I mean, if he felt information overload in 1950 …
Bury: I mean the dismissive way of putting it would be we’re boiling authors down to catchphrases. That, you know, the Beats are, “First thought best thought.”
Frost: Yeah, it’s a very sort of first-year literature class kind of approach to ideas.
Bury: Well, I think what’s interesting is we’re suggesting the opposite, in a way, that you build up, you spend years of study, you develop this literary intellectual sophistication …
Frost: So you have the ability to boil it down to the essence.
Frost: But, so, the nice thing about this book …
Bury: Yeah, heh.
Frost: … actually, is that it’s the best sort of interaction with that preexisting economy of reference and economy of cultural status, because there is name-dropping going on in the book, in that they acknowledge their debt to previous writers like Lyn Hejinian …
Bury: But it’s so …
Frost: but it’s just natural, I mean, these are two people who have become immersed in a certain culture and they’re enjoying it, you know, they’re making use of it.
Bury: Yeah, and I think that they sort of straddle that tension between careerism and pleasure.
Frost: Yeah, that’s interesting, because, you know, Andy, in the conversations, and actually, in the walks as well, there’s a few repeated references to Andy’s job hunt.
Bury: I don’t even remember that.
Frost: It’s not an explicit theme in the book but I think that it does address, you know, how do you deal with careerism? Because careerism is something that’s inevitable to some degree, not just for academics, but for poets. It forms a big part of poets’ lives in the twenty-first century.
Frost: Whereas Jon seems a little more of a wild card. He’s sort of the Neal Cassady figure in this book. Part of what makes the book so compelling is the reality — uh, I won’t say TV — the reality poetry aspect of it. It’s a glimpse of a friendship; it’s a glimpse of experience, the walks …
Bury: And those glimpses can be exciting. I think it helps that there are no tropes or conventions to this literary genre. It’s different from reality TV in that we don’t know what to expect.
Bury: Maybe there are a few parallels with Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy. One would be the voyeuristic parallel. I think it’s fascinating, you know, to see what this artist is doing in his loft or what they’re doing when they’re having their conversations.
Frost: Dancing in their underwear.
Bury: Yeah, yeah, there’s that appeal. And we’re flirting or skirting gossip, too, at points. Actually, it’s one thing we haven’t talked about, but it’s important to the book in various ways, and important to literary culture in general. Kenneth Goldsmith’s notion is that canon formation is purely a matter of gossip.
Frost: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
Bury: There’s also the appeal — and maybe this happened more to me with Soliloquy, but it happens a little bit with their conversations — you then perceive yourself perceiving your own conversations in a slightly different way. You’re more aware of their rhythms.
Frost: Yeah, how much are you analyzing or thinking about this conversation you and I are having right now, in terms of, is this like the conversation depicted here? It’s sort of the tragedy of representation in a way. Because once something is represented to you it becomes harder to experience that thing in an unmediated way.
Frost: It also struck me, because they talk so much about New York and Andy’s walks happen in New York, did you get the feeling that this is — ah maybe this is a cliché way of approaching it — but that this is a book that could only happen in New York?
Bury: I thought you were gonna say, “Did you get the sense that this is a New York book?” Because, if the question is, could this only happen in New York? Well …
Frost: Then, no.
Bury: Heh heh. Yeah, case closed. No, but actually, I’ll try to make that argument briefly and say that New York, more than most other major American cities, is deeply concerned with walking.
Frost: Yeah, yeah.
Bury: And that’s part of its rhythms, so maybe you could go on walks in Madison, Wisconsin, you could do it in Los Angeles. But one question I asked at the end of my essay on Sixty Morning Walkswas, I knew Jon was going to continue the — not Jon — Andy was going to continue the practice for sixty years in Wyoming, or at least that’s what he said, and I kind of wondered what would that do to the practice? That’s such a different milieu.
Frost: Well that’s, I mean, the walks here are so much about human interaction. He doesn’t really have many conversations with people while he’s walking, it’s very, um, individual and contemplative, but there’s so much eye contact.
Frost: And commenting on people’s actions and the way people interact with each other. There was this passage where he sees this woman, I think he describes her as an Asian woman, and she’s wearing a …
Bury: … bowler hat, and she needed his gaze and he delivered it.
Frost: Yeah, exactly. “She needed my gaze and I delivered it.” What is that? And there’s this passage near the end also, just one page that’s a very lyrical description of why it’s fun to walk in New York City. They’re dialoguing and Andy says that he doesn’t have a destination so he’ll go down side streets when necessary, and Jon says, “Sure I love in this city the constant dialogue between drivers and pedestrians. It also …” And then Andy, “And let’s say delivery men.” Jon: “Exactly.” Andy: “Street vendors.” Jon: “What great …” Andy: “And hangers out, hangers about on the street.”
Bury: Heh heh.
Frost: “Yet another great …” “Men, moving carts.” “Go ahead, yeah.” “Yeah, you feel this great sense of cooperation. Also of smoothness, I find.” “I’d experience panic in a calmer city early evening hours when I’d just snap.” And they talk about how movement and continuity is the norm in New York …
Frost: and how people sort of expect that from each other, and how if you pause then you’re causing inconvenience to the other people around you.
Bury: And within that exchange, heh heh, when Andy keeps interrupting Jon, and he says, “And street vendors” and he just gets carried away with the list … he can keep listing things and gets carried away with it. And here you become aware of the artifice of the transcription, because as you were saying that, I was chuckling throughout, right?
Frost: Yeah, ha ha.
Bury: But now if we were to render that, if we don’t cut it, how do you, I mean, have me go “hee-hee” as, you know, you can’t.
Frost: Heh, well, we’ll have to try, but — I think that one way that I you and I fall short in terms of trying to imitate their style in doing this review is that we’re being polite and waiting for each other to complete our thoughts.
Bury: That’s possible.
Frost: We’re having a conversation in which, you know, I say something and then I pause and then you say something. Whereas they’re really having, it’s almost like there’s two conversations going on, overlapping. That’s part of what makes it so fun. You’re really watching the dynamic of how their conversations fit together.
Bury: Yeah, there is a sense in which their conversations in particular, the streams of dialogue are like billiard balls colliding …
Frost: Well, you know, I’ve had friends, I mean it depends on the dynamic, but I’ve had friends where …
Bury: But see, you just interrupted me there, right?
Frost: Sure, sure.
Bury: But you didn’t think, I didn’t think of it as an interruption.
Frost: Well, some interruptions are not — I’m doing air quotes here — some interruptions are not really interruptions because you can sense when someone’s …
Frost: … done with his thought and winding down. But I’ve had friends where I had a conversation with them and we’re literally talking over each other. And you’re both absorbing and producing content at the same time and it can be a lot of fun. But then the content becomes less important, it doesn’t matter whether you get exactly what the person is saying, it’s just the interaction.
Bury: It’s the exchange.
Frost: It’s the exchange, and the motion and the, um, just the excitement. It’s like a contact sport.
Bury: A-heh, a-heh.
Frost: You’re sort of — it’s like running together.
Bury: So the motion they describe as being inherent in New York is very much present … there’s like a kinetic energy …
Frost: It’s in their conversation.
Bury: to their conversation.
A review of 'Not Blessed'
So Delilah cuts Samson’s hair and the Philistines gouge out his eyes. Captive, his hair grows back, his strength returns, he is summoned to the temple to provide amusement, and then the business with the pillars. How, specifically, does Samson, eyeless in Gaza, make his way to his appointment?
Parallel translations of Judges 16:26 in whole or in part:
“Samson told the young man” (GOD’S WORD ® Translation, 1995)
“Samson said to the servant” (New International Version, 1984)
“Samson said to the young servant” (New Living Translation, 2007)
“Samson said to the young man” (English Standard Version, 2001)
“Samson said to the boy” (New American Standard Bible, 1995)
“And Samson said unto the lad” (King James)
“And he said to the lad that guided his steps: Suffer me to touch the pillars which support the whole house, and let me lean upon them, and rest a little” (Douay-Rheims Bible)
“And Samson said to the lad who held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house resteth” (Darby Bible Translation)
What is the effect of reading the various translations of the verse in succession? — Who or what rests? Who suffers? What does the servant, young man, lad, boy, look like? What does he feel for Samson, how does he hold his hand, and what does Samson feel for him, being held by the hand, being led, his steps guided, again and again?
Though he never finished it, Ralph Ellison accumulated at least 2000 pages of a second novel. Posthumously edited, condensed, and published as Juneteenth, the publication obscures what its editor describes as the revisions, reconceptions, entirely rewritten and reworked scenes surrounding a black preacher and his light-skinned protégé turned race-baiting senator. Such inclusion of the repeatedly written and rewritten scenes might have loaned more weight to a scene in which the protégé recalls and cannot let go of, can no longer push away the question — “do you think that little boy got killed? …. What I mean is, do you think old Samson forgot to tell that boy what he was fixing to do?”
Jorge Luis Borges perhaps understates the case in a prologue to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “He was unusually preoccupied with Abraham’s sacrifice.”
excerpt from Not Blessed, via Les Figues Press
Harold Abramowitz’s Not Blessed is an eighty-one-page preoccupation with an uphill scene in twenty-eight parts, one for each day of February. There is a boy and some kind of doppelganger on a parallel trail, a grandmother, a hunter, a police officer, a hint of scandal, notoriety, fame, resentment, a future, and a sense of mistranslation. It is an ambiguously worrying story. Where Kierkegaard’s Johannes’s initial difficulty in reconciling the story of Abraham, beginning with four attempts to tell it at the beginning of Fear and Trembling, leads to something of a rich affirmation of the knight of faith, Abramowitz’s story, also a literary walking uphill, grows in its repetition ever more ponderous as we come to suspect we will never arrive. At eighty-one short, clear pages, it should be, but is not, a quick read.
William James reminds us how the memory of an insult often hurts us more than it did when first delivered. It grows heavy with us. This is about the obsession with a story. Pondering, like essaying, if traced to its material root, denotes weighing, and also deliberation — ponder the path. The walk of Not Blessed is, generically, a ponderance.
Its preponderant effect is not one of juxtaposition but of accumulation. It seems less to be about repetition, or even repetition with variation, than an overlaying tramp of a sort. Visually, it is less a Warhol silkscreen, an Elvis (Eleven Times), than something like Corinne Vionnet’s superimposition of hundreds of tourist photographs of world landmarks, providing an effect of vague and ghostly margins over a deepening but now supernatural subject.
Walking the same road, part of it well worn, but on this day he walks further than he has ever walked. We get a few constant and sure returns. We will always be walking away, and we will never get too far, we will vary a bit, we might see the other boy. We might understand this dispute with the policeman, the nature of our notoriety and our scandal, our fineness and prominence, but such answers cease to matter — that they’re there becomes somehow comforting and sure.
The book is a constitutional. It has a discipline and it’s good for you; it’s done once a day on the cleanest month that gives us a perfect moon cycle. It has the language of asceticism, detached and appearing to lack vanity — “exercise kept him healthy, trim, and fit,”
There is a correlative to what is called muscle memory in the approach to paths, a habitual understanding of steps, of where to go, where to step, where to dip the leg, feel for a click. You walk from bed to bathroom every night in the dark, and while you cannot recount it now, you’ve never counted the steps, you don’t quite know or can’t tell me what all gets in the way, why you slow down and where, what you’ve stubbed a toe on, what side the light switch is on, whether it’s inside our outside the bathroom door, but you actually know it well enough habitually.
Abramowitz repeats the walk but confuses the muscle in his pronouns, his historical placement, his degree of formality, his verb tenses.
Consider some of the tellings of one recurring incident in a selection of chapters:
1. I came across a policeman who did not recognize me. But I am my grandmother’s grandson and I have lived in the village my whole life, I told the policeman. The question I should have asked was, who are you?
2. […] a policeman suddenly appeared. The policeman, seeing a young boy alone, was immediately concerned for my well-being. The policeman took me by the hand and asked me my name and where I’d come from. I’d grown up in the village, and this exchange with the policeman came as an almost complete surprise. After all, I was one of the sons of the village, later to become a relatively prominent figure.
3. Suddenly a policeman emerged from the forest. The policeman approached the boy. The policeman asked the boy if he was lost. The policeman asked the boy his name and where he’d come from. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. His grandmother was one of the finest people the village had ever known. He himself would grow up and become a relatively prominent figure. He would, in fact, give the village its first measure of notoriety. How could the policeman not know who he would grow up to become.
7. He was almost to the edge of the forest when he suddenly saw a policeman standing in the middle of the road. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. The policeman spoke gently to the boy. He asked the boy his name where he’d come from. At first, the boy was very angry that the policeman pretended not to know who he was. His grandmother had lived in the village her whole life. The boy would grow up to become a famous and well-respected figure. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. He spoke to him quite gently.
13. I then remember hearing leaves crack and heavy footsteps behind me. I turned around and saw a tall policeman. The policeman asked me my name and where I’d come from. At first I was relieved, and then I was angry. My grandmother had lived in and around the village her whole life, and I could not believe that I should be taken for a stranger by this tall policeman. Surely he must have lived to regret his mistake. The policeman would have to lie over and over again to avoid telling the true story of our meeting that day by the lake. I would, in fact, grow up and become a relatively famous man. I would, in fact, bring the village its first measure of notoriety.
21. The policeman slung the boy over his shoulder, in the manner of a sack, and carried him home. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry.
24. Suddenly, a policeman emerged from the forest with freshly killed game slung over his shoulder, in the manner of a sack. The policeman approached the boy from the opposite end of the road. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. The policeman asked the boy his name and where he’d come from. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. How could the policeman not have recognized him. He would grow up to give the village its first measure of notoriety. His grandmother had lived in the village her whole life. The policeman would eventually pay for what he’d done. He would have to lie to his friends at the tavern, he would have to lie to his family. One day the policeman would have to change his story. He would have to lie about what had happened that day in the forest.
In A. K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” about the tellings of the story of Rama, their transposition and reflexivity of one translation upon another, the way that later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings, Ramanujan provides a favorite example from the sixteenth century.
[In this telling,] when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out: “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?” That clinches the argument and she goes with him.
“There is a version of events that will haunt us even in our darkest hours.” Not Blessed seems also about the utter untestability of recalling a story, an incident, how we saw it, what we felt of it, what it did to us, what we remembered at the time, what memory was like before such a dream, such an incident — the impossibility of verifying a dream.
Maya Deren wrote of her film, Meshes of the Afternoon that it was “concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons.” The subconscious, she writes, “will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” In this way, Not Blessed attempts to elaborate the formality of the eulogy.
The iterations are also an accumulation of threats. Deren’s Meshes — a curved road, a telephone, a breadknife, oblique disfigured reflections in the knife and mirrored face of the hooded figure, exhausting disorientations in what is really a short piece even when considering all its variants — tires us. The accumulating Mayas, asleep, at the window, translucent in the window’s reflection, watching out the window yet another Maya chase the elusive figure, the last Maya then climbing the stairs to join the others and we await the next iteration — knife, stairs, key, path, stairway to the left. Abramowitz’s Not Blessed gives us a kindred exhaustion.
Iteration is dangerous in literature. It suggests that prophecy is not ingenuous. It suggests lifelessness — “the lifeless iteration of misunderstood doctrines and rites, which kill the soul” as Sarah Austin translates Leopold Ranke’s History of the Reformation of Germany. The ingeminate tale of a boy walking from his grandmother’s house feels scandalous because of its rehearsal and search for the right words that don’t exist because it must all be a lie.
This unusual preoccupation with what we can recognize as a scandal is at the heart of Not Blessed — also an unusual attention to the minor and marginal small triggers of a scandal that emerge prominently because of the form Abramowitz’s book takes. Whatever is new in each piece catches us. Abramowitz takes his book’s title and epigram from Jeremiah’s complaint, where, lamenting that he was born, he curses not his father, not God, not his mother, but the man who brought his father the news that he was born — the unusual preoccupation of a prophet with a newsman. Jeremiah is accused for a false prophet bringing the bad news of Israel’s impeding enslavement, and bitterly walks the streets with a yoke on his neck to mock his own people who will not hear him.
The repetition of Not Blessed, in its mix of mythic languages — old fishing village and the wisest of women coupled with a dishonest boyhood in the backseat of a car — makes us attend ever more vaguely to the nonrecurrences in each telling, and these will not leave us alone.