Reviews - December 2011

An antagonistic paraphernalium

A review of 'Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations'

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations

edited by Clark Coolidge

University of California Press 2011, 328 pages, $29.95, ISBN 9780520257160

An antagonistic paraphernalium? The answer this time is to only walk these boards. As if that line were true to all possible picture. And above it, you at the last landing, but sideways in a clear structure of junctures, some standing. I’d have first to light my head. Then the stairway. Put out a ring. Throw fingers. Alarm the enclosure of panthers left out. […] When time for a dawn I sat and watched the walls come back. He said, Look, they’re still up. Now we can leave them. Now that the backside has joined its reverse in this place. And then even an ocean, and you’ll see it’s orange. Ponder is your thought then, between the raised stumps. — Clark Coolidge

 What I know I know I almost never use. — Ted Berrigan

What happens is what happens when you put the paint down. — Philip Guston 

Philip Guston speaks much like he paints. Invariably, whatever is on his mind to be said will be said. A dogged will to verbally expand upon his thoughts as they are forming, drawing out his own interests against those of questioners he often views more as inquisitors drives his conversational style. As he describes the act of painting, “You’re not making a painting. That’s assumed. What are you doing? You’re searching. And finding. And leaving. And searching and finding and leaving” (Guston, 115). Editor Clark Coolidge states in his preface that “Guston was a talker” (ix). During occasions of such talks as are gathered here, Guston is frequently found “finding and leaving” the subject of the conversation at any given moment as he chooses, where and when it suits him. In the role of artist on public display, basking in his own enamored glow, Guston shines like too few. He is a happy egoist and the role suits him. As Dore Ashton describes in her introduction, Guston’s “amusing feints and dodges when confronted with obtuse questioners, his wondrous bursts of language when he felt inspired, his sometimes playful contrariness, his satisfaction in being a provocateur, and his consistent preoccupation with serious aesthetic questions throughout his working life as a painter” are all on heightened display, making for terrific reading which completely entertains while offering a glimpse of the painter as an educationally eye-opening entertainer as well (Guston, 1).  

Enjoying the barrage of Guston’s wit and conversational sparring requires little prior familiarity with his work itself. The handful of reproductions — which are included, from the various manifestations of “style” Guston moves through — provide enough contextualization to keep the unfamiliar reader visually informed while at the same time hopefully encouraging the searching out of further primary evidence. Tellingly, that is what painting is for Guston: evidence. The leftover bits of an act committed, as in a crime scene. A painting is such proof of life, as Guston views it: “the canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury, and judge” (53). After Guston has moved on from working on a painting, he would have it, in addition to whatever else, possess an ongoing presence of energy exerted, “what is seen and called the picture is what remains — an evidence” (10).

Guston understands the painter to be the definitive subject of his or her own work: “There isn’t much I can say about the tendency to paint myself. I’ve always thought this characteristic to be natural in a painter” (9). This remark was first published in Art News accompanying his Self-Portrait, 1944 which does not in fact bear much of a resemblance to any photographs of Guston. As Guston moves on and his work changes, drifting away from figuration while continuing to evolve into abstract expression and beyond, so likewise do his statements regarding his art. By 1960, in an interview with David Sylvester, his antagonism over what to paint becomes the center of his concerns, “I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself” (Guston, 25). This remains a visceral challenge for Guston, an ever-intensifying quandary, as it is his “hope sometime to get to the point where I’ll have the courage to paint my face. But it is very confusing because sometimes that is what I am doing, in a more total way” (26).

In the 1950s, while working within the parameters of a recognizable abstract expressionism, Guston allows that he feels some elements of figuration do hold sway in his painting. Finally in his later work it is possible for objects to clearly begin emerging.

Six or seven years ago I began painting single objects that were around me. I read, so I painted books, lots of books. I must have painted almost a hundred paintings of books. It’s such a simple object, you know, a book. An open book, a couple of books, one book on top of another book. It’s what’s around you. (276)

The intensity of Guston’s pursuit is total as he seeks to achieve the means to paint the images he feels compelled towards. Guston continually approaches the brink of the ineffable, or the “enigma” (Guston 186–90). To have located it in a painting provides a momentary reprieve of the malaise which enshrouds him and is what makes for a painting worth keeping in his eyes. Instead of showing any signs of weakening as he ages, he continues looking to achieve what he doesn’t fully understand, that state of a thing’s existence free of its creator: “The only morality in painting revolves around the moment when you are permitted to ‘see’ and the painting takes over” (29). The object itself holds its own ground, self-defining.

At points Guston’s dominant personal philosophy towards art appears rather existentialist and doomed to solipsism in outlook, yet he refuses allow himself to be so egomaniacal as to not be wary of his own tendencies towards seeing art as an all or nothing enterprise.  

I don’t glory in my compulsiveness. A painter must be compulsive to paint. No one is forcing you to do it. An artist is driven to be free. I think it’s the devil’s work. You know damn well you’re dealing with “forces.” It’s hubris. We’re not supposed to meddle with the forces — God takes care of that. (307)

Guston’s friendships with other artists and writers are integral to his approach towards understanding art itself. As he says of his friendship with John Cage and the composer Morton Feldman, “in the fifties we were a kind of trio. I met Feldman through Cage” (77). Attesting how important it is to have that “one you can talk to” (78). The act of art may remain an individually arrived at moment but the exchange which only happens between such other trusted ones, even when at times it is adversarial, offers the opportunity for surprising revelation. Among the many highlights included in this gathering is an instance of roving banter between Guston and Feldman which contains many grounding moments as they square off.

MF: Do you feel the miracle comes from the language?

PG: In terms of painting, you mean, the medium, the idiom of painting?

MF: Yeah.

PG: Alone? No, there’s no such thing as painting or drawing. I mean, if you’re in a certain state of shrinkage inside, then nothing will happen, you can’t make a line. Like Pascal said, a trifle makes us happy, deliciously happy, and a trifle makes us want to commit suicide. It’s the same way in creation. I mean, an inch of a shift and there’s everything to draw. You know, everybody experiences that. So what is the medium? There is no medium.

MF: There is no medium. But …

PG: But you. You’re the medium. (83)

Familiar repartee of this sort not only benefits Guston’s ability to articulate his own concerns but also shows how much he enjoys himself in conversation.

Poets are endemic to discussions of Guston. His own references are often quite literary: “Once, when someone asked me who I studied with, I told them I studied with Dostoevesky, Kiekegaaard. I studied with Kafka. When you read a man you have contact with his mind. I’ve always liked to be in a company, as much as I could be, of writers, critical writers” (75). Among his numerous friends are poets such as Clark Coolidge and Bill Berkson, who each take a turn as interviewer in this collection, as well as seemingly dissimilar poets as William Corbett or Stanley Kunitz. Poet Alice Notley remembers meeting Guston and how “he was very present and big and attentive. I became very conscious of how much space I took up as a body, how I stood, what I was wearing” (Alice Notley, “A Poet’s Tribute,” The World no. 41 (November 1984): 4–6). Guston immediately became for Notley a physical as well as mental and imaginative force; she continues to describe him as “another of those people who made me feel full stature, not diminished not under probation for any reason. Someone who would permit me to be a poet” (4). It is as if an element latent from within her own imagination has arisen and manifested itself as a real thing in her world, a furthering of potentiality within herself which she has been expecting and welcomes. Guston lives art and his words reek of it.

Reading these talks, it becomes clear that Guston desires his paintings enact a potentiality of their own as objects, a “living” world which is in fact a near to impossible situation. His descriptions border on realms of fantasy as he describes the paint seemingly to move to the eye; defying Newtonian physics; at times sounding as though he’s drawing upon string theory:

The ones that worked and that I kept, and by worked I mean kept on exciting me, kept on vibrating, kept on moving, were the ones where it is not just line. When it becomes a double activity. That is, when the line defines a space and the space defines the line, there you’re somewhere. (202)

As Notley describes her own personal interaction with Guston’s work, “There’s your plot and there’s their plot and they both keep changing. You again look at that picture and its plot’s changed again” (6). The painting takes on recognizable qualities which alter through time triggering changing reactions from within the viewer similar to the sympathy towards a familiar friend or family member during periods of tribulation.

For Guston, the art studio has at least the potential to be a community of created things in a state of mutual support. As he says:

I remember being very strongly aware of forms acting on each other. Putting pressure on each other, shrinking each other, blowing each other up, or pushing each other. I mean, affecting each other, as if the forms were active participants in some kind of plastic drama that was going on. I think I was aware of and strove for that. In other words, if a form or shape or a color, pattern, seemed inert to me, wasn’t acting on another form, out it would go. I felt uncomfortable with it. It wasn’t paying its way. It wasn’t doing its job in the total organism. And they’re doing all sorts of things. They’re walking, they’re holding each other up, they’re supporting each other. All sorts of situations. And I felt them to be true to my feelings at that time, in that they reflected, in a metaphorical way, human emotions. (154)

Negatively or positively, emotions such as friendship underlie the artistic activity. In this way art is a part of the natural human desire to be recognized and accepted or rejected by another much like one’s own self. This recognition binds humanity together and allows for art to have a supportive role to play in our communal bonds. As in the following anecdote about one visit to Guston’s studio Feldman shares during his conversation with Guston:

I went into his studio and there’s a whole bunch of drawings, and one particular drawing had two lines. It’s not important where they were. And Philip said to me, “It’s all rhetoric.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You see that line? And you see that line a little bit on top of it? Well, that line on top of it is talking into the ear of that bottom line, telling him its troubles. [laughter] (89)

How lucky it is to share one’s fate with somebody else. To get as far as possible beyond the isolation each of us understands all too well. More than equal to the task, Guston’s words, alongside his work, remain uniquely human in that immortal manner in which the sun and moon continue rise and fall day after day.

Dorothea Lasky, it’s unbelievable

A review of 'Black Life' and 'Awe'



by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books 2007, 88 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933517247

Black Life

Black Life

by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books 2010, 72 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933517438

I couldn’t sleep tonight so I started a new diary. On the first page I wrote the following quotation about Iceland, by Eileen Myles:

Most likely we travel to exist in an analogue to our life’s dilemmas. It’s like a spaceship. The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real and the solution to your increasingly absent problems is forgetting. To see them in a burst as you are vanishing into the world. Travel is not transcendence. It’s immanence. It’s trying to be here.

I love how Eileen always compares poets to astronauts. In August I moved to Buffalo, New York, where for five months of the year the sky turns an opaque, sour-milky gray. Dear diary, I’ve been trying hard to be here.

In one poem Dorothea Lasky imagines herself “soaring in the black night as just a thing,” and somewhere else calls herself “star-filled.” Both lines appear in her recent manuscript Black Life (in which “star” and various forms of “sad” are probably the two most used words), but her writing has cast the radiance of real human presence against the immense loneliness of deep space for a long time. Like a Jeff Mangum song, her second chapbook Art for instance imagined “the tiny babies of the universe” who would “explode” from out of her womb. My friend Myung Mi Kim has written that “the practice of the poem is the practice of a radical materiality.” I completely identify with that. But because Lasky’s work carries forward an underrecognized, immanentist literary materialism of extreme presence, negative affect, and wild lyric impersonation (rather than a more myopic “materiality of the signifier”), I’m always disappointed with the way people talk about it.

One week this bitter winter I spent almost thirty hours transcribing an interview between Chris Kraus and Penny Arcade, recorded last June. It’s weird how transcription can blur into you, focus your attention on someone else’s voice so closely you absorb and internalize it. I wandered lost around an empty antique mall in Western New York sometime after New Year’s, thinking like Penny. In one place on the tape, she says this:

But I want to say, for younger artists … you know, because one of the things is that … you know, this has gone on for 20 years … people see me perform, they work with me, and I talk directly to the audience. Which was one of the things that I created, which now has like, you know, an actual academic name, which is “direct address,” right? And I started speaking directly to the audience because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene. And so I would talk directly to the audience. I understood that my relationship was with the audience. And so I developed that, and just got braver and braver and braver … because I’m a very frightened person emotionally … And so at any rate … a lot of younger people who’d work with me, they’d see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, “oh, I can do that,” you know? And they didn’t understand the level of integrity that you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because … it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk.

I copied Penny’s quote into my diary too. As a literary form, the diary is a kind of modality of direct address, except it’s not very risky because we usually hide them. Lyric poems can approach direct address, too, but the apostrophe itself usually proceeds from a secure and formal absence of audience.

Because her poems so dramatically reinhabit emotion, one of the most perfect lines Lasky’s ever written (from AWE) is “Conceptual art, you are dead / Language poetry, you know how I feel.” In a slow-learning poetry culture where the cool vacancy of writing based on these aesthetic currents of the 70s and 80s is still considered avant-garde, I think it’s taken an unbelievable amount of integrity for Lasky to make unironic and very public announcements like this one, or to say “I hate irony // I am only being real.” Although I’m friends with people who’ve misread her affective and unembarrassed realism as a kind of nostalgia, or “naive” (if put-on) reaction to things like Language writing and its attendant “critique of authenticity,” Lasky’s lines like these read so flatly because she’s not being defensive: her poems aren’t troubled by such poetics, but simply identify with an entirely different, more minor poetry/performance-art tradition (and one that’s never cared to promote itself with its own technical vocabulary). While she is thus endlessly confused by reviewers surprised at her “earnest sincerity” with the allegedly self-absorbed “confessional” poets of midcentury, for me Lasky has most in common with a stylistically diverse line of usually forgotten and mostly soulsick writers who’ve inhabited language literally, and risked using the poem as a kind of depersonalizing, radically signifying material. Reading Tourmaline and Black Life this morning, I think immediately of Arcade, Kraus, and Myles, Catullus, John Wieners, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, Tracey Emin.

Here is an entire poem from Black Life:


I am sick of feeling
I never eat or sleep
I just sit here and let the words burn into me
I know you love her
And don’t love me
No, I don’t think you love her
I know there are clouds that are very pretty
I know there are clouds that trundle round the globe
I take anything I can to get to love
Live things are what the world is made of
Live things are black
Black in that they forgot where they came from
I have not forgotten, however I choose not to feel
Those places that have burned into me
There is too much burning here, I’m afraid
Readers, you read flat words
Inside here are many moments
In which I have screamed in pain
As the flames ate me

Opposite the confessional, one signal ethic of Lasky’s writing is a spectacular disabling of lyric personality. What I mean by “depersonalizing” above is written here in the emotionally flat, anaphorically insistent way that Dorothea has lined up so many deadpan I’s along the left side of her poem. She begins declaratively sick of feeling, and then lets her own abject and disaffected persona unravel and self-immolate in line after line of negative emotion, until her sick-day poem finally burns bodily into and through herself. In other words, Lasky disables the affective singularity of first-person lyric enunciation by overinhabiting the form to a kind of self-destructive, nearly ontologic limit-point. As the poet is visibly consumed in flames, her body becomes a wild object, and her emotions a kind of impersonal energy passing through her. It’s an incredible twist Lasky is constantly pulling off, surely learned from her idol Sylvia Plath (who in a poem titled “Fever 103°” once wrote, “Darling, all night / I have been flickering off, on, off, on”). “Like love,” Lasky writes, “I so did contain many voices that weren’t mine.”

My favorite two poems of Dorothea’s are titled “I Just Feel So Bad” and “I Hate You.” “I Hate You” begins:

I have thought and thought about it
And I hate you
And what I hate about you most is that
You have no real understanding of the sublime
I hope the white light crushes in on you
And crushes everything about you

Although I suspect some people might read Black Life as a depressed departure from the perceived levity of AWE (which one reviewer characterized as “kind of like … getting chapped lips at a slumber party, after an intense round of Cyndi Lauper lip-synching/dance performance moves”), even Lasky’s more plainly wonderstruck poems have always been directly involved with the problem of writing presentationally about blocked and unglamorous emotions. In an interview shortly after AWE’s publication, Lasky tried to explain this dark underside to the book’s more clearly life-affirmative poems like “Poem for My Best Friend”: “I totally meant for the idea of awe to invoke a complex and terrible emotion,” she said.

In her recent volume Ugly Feelings, literary critic Sianne Ngai notes that the Kantian sublime (with which memorable sections of AWE as well as Lasky’s later and uncollected hatred series seem fascinated) is “perhaps the first ‘ugly’ or explicitly nonbeautiful feeling appearing in theories of aesthetic judgment.” Ngai also recites one of the philosopher’s own more lyric definitions of the affect: an “Astonishment that borders upon terror,” and a “dread” and a “holy awe” which terrifically “seize” the feeling person. Although Lasky’s hilariously deadpan and radically literal verse has absolutely nothing to do with the modified “stuplimity” that Ngai later suggests using to consider the recalcitrant texts of poets like Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, and Bruce Andrews, I think Ugly Feelings still shares a tight, revisionary affinity with Lasky’s work for the way both exclaim the literary legitimacy of feeling badly. “All poetry that matters today has feelings in it,” Lasky writes in one place in Black Life; and in another, “Whatever you do don’t feel anything at all.”

Have you ever heard Dorothea read? She shouts the poems. It’s stunning. To remind myself that I was still alive on cold morning drives to TA freshman comp courses on a campus with very ugly architecture this winter, I listened to Ready to Die by the Notorious B.I.G. almost every single day. Usually, I would play the sixteenth track over and over. It’s un-be-liev-able / Biggie Smalls is the illest! It’s great because this posturing sendup of Biggie’s own fantastic lyrical prowess is the next to last song on the record, and then the last one is all about self-loathing and suicide. In another interview, Lasky once said, “I’m very concerned with how power occurs in a poem.” Besides Biggie, I’m unaware of any writer who has inhabited Charles Olson’s performative kinetics of “projective verse” to such an embodied extreme as she has. In high school Lasky competed the 3,200-meter long-distance run for her outdoor track team, and when she read in Buffalo last February she had to pause between verses of shouting AWE, AWE AND LOVE to ask a girl in the audience for a Gatorade. Maggie Nelson has recently written that Eileen Myles’s naked incorporation of private and metabolically charged lyric disclosures into scenes of live performance has worked to “transform the boundaries of what kinds of claims on public space a female poet can make.” When Lasky deadpans loud lines like Identity politics are bullshit, or I have to be protected / because I am so afraid, she further extends this same stage into what Thom Donovan has called a form of “biopolitical theater.” Within it, the poet’s startling voice creates an affective, material immediacy between herself and the audience that riskily opens the room up to an unprecedented sort of anti-identitarian, emotional access to her writing.

One sad thing about being in graduate school is that all your friends are basically adults, and successfully settled in normal, monogamous couples. Do you know the way that being surrounded by couples can make you feel excluded from all love? On nights this year when my married friends weren’t going out, I would usually stay in and read Dorothea or write her emails and dote on my cat, Winston. I discovered Lasky’s work about two years ago, after reading one of CAConrad’s inspired, inimitable rants on the UB Poetics List. A graduate student somewhere had blogged about Dorothea’s “infantile” and supposedly unfeminist answers to the Proust Questionnaire in a YouTube video (really), and Conrad fumed back that “Dorothea Lasky needs no one’s permission to act one way or the other. Those who actually read her poems understand exactly how and where she stands in the world. In 100 years when the rest of us are forgotten there will be Lasky.” The moment I read AWE I felt he was right, and when I opened the manuscript for Black Life this spring I smiled to see that one of the personas she’s invented to flicker through these days wears the tough-poet posture as well as Conrad does. One of the best poems in the book ends like this: “I give up / But it is a sweet giving up / Knowing instead I will be the best poet that has ever lived / While all those people in love / Will simply die in one another’s arms / While I will die in the world’s arms.”

Her poems are so good they make me gasp.

July 2009
Moon in Cancer


An earlier version of this review appeared in ON:Contemporary Practice 2.


On Chelsey Minnis and CAConrad



by Chelsea Minnis

Wave Books 2009, 120 pages, $14, ISBN 978193351741

The Book of Frank

The Book of Frank

by CAConrad

Wave Books (second edition) 2010, 176 pages, $16, ISBN 9781933517490

CAConrad is the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. — author’s bio

This is a cut-down chandelier …
And it is like coughing at the piano before you start playing a terrible waltz …
The past should go away but it never does …
And it is like a swimming pool at the bottom of the stairs … — Chelsea Minnis, Poemland

What a trash
To annihilate each decade. — Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”

The argument

As these epigraphs so clearly emblematize, Art is asphyxiation; annihilation; anachronism; inebriation; something “cut-down”; something shoplifted; like trash, it makes more of itself; like the past, it should go away but it never does. Like a cough, it doubles up or doubles down on terribleness. It preempts itself by making multiple knockoff versions of itself; it is never sufficient because it is always more than enough. Through perverse excess, Art trashes conventional value, reassigning it to odd and ill-made receptacles which inevitably can’t hold; the chandelier is cut-down; asphyxiation has a baby; Art leaks and spills Art.

Drunk on Art (which is to say, poisoned —) the Artist can’t hold its liquor (which is to say, Art). Not all the vats upon the Rhine / Yield such an alcohol! — ED. Art spends its money on the wrong things. Art spends it all. Art eats breakfast at Tiffany’s: eats the book: like starvelings, the star and starlet suck words rather than speak them with queer pretty prostitute mouths: which is to say, unconvincingly; the ching-chong landlord has buck teeth taped to his teeth. Art speaks in teeth and not words. Art eats conflict, does a violence to violence, wears conflict diamonds in its teetering wig. The starlet eats tulips from beneath the Nazi boots. Moon River. Queer, syrupy tune. Art goes hungry on reverse clock time, Art’s record played backwards. The forehead of the exploited child splits, leaking Art. Moon River. Art is snaky like a trickle of blood down a child’s forehead or a Moon River: inside out peristalsis: it makes something present that makes something else disappear; that is, value; that is, time; something that should go away but doesn’t; sticks around, deformed and denatured and contaminating; dark matter. Artists are the life forms that live in Art’s gut; Art sheds Artists contaminated with Art; Artists are host-beasts that carry Art’s germs through the biosphere, their front legs trotting, their back legs galloping. Shitting Art like dew or conflict diamonds.

Inebriate of air am I, / And debauchee of dew, / Reeling, through endless summer days, / From inns of molten blue.

Dickinson-Artist, this little tippler, drinks, as they say, to excess. She is never full, because there is a hole in her. But she is saturated, then supersaturate, she reels, she tilts. Time is denatured, that is, made hypernatural for her, summer supersaturated with itself, shits an endless titrate, inns of molten blue which she also drinks and leaks. (In Poemland, “I’m so drunk I’m seeing toy bats …” (50))

A cut-down chandelier

What kind of mother is Art? What kind of child can it make for itself from trash, from shatters? Minnis’s poems form no body, not even a girl body.

If you want to be a poem-writer then I don’t know why …

It hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute (15)

In the first line, the “then” refuses to mate with the “If” to make a conventional conditional statement. “Then” doesn’t follow from the previous clause so much as reject it, blanks out into not knowing: “I don’t know why” which then (paradoxically) double-blanks itself out with an ellipses. Like anorexia, it’s as if this thought cannot blank itself out enough and so inevitably underscores itself instead. Or like a cutter, scores itself, that is, scripts itself. So Minnis’s long poem exists in pieces, shreds and banners or snips that seem to poke up out of the skin of the page and want to subside into mystery but somehow only emphasize their long tails (the past should go away but it never does …). Every phrase is obsolete by the completion of its utterance, yet can’t leave the system. Unable to evacuate, it becomes a poison to the text (should go away but it never does …). Therefore it forms a modality that tends always toward Death. That’s how this four line sequence ends:

Nothing makes it very true …

Except the promised sincerity of death! (15)

Here the withdrawing ellipsis and the flourishing exclamation point have opposite but in both cases self-defeating (that is, self-killing) effects. The ellipsis wants to erase itself but overstates itself; the exclamation mark wants to voice sincerity but is so posed as to voice artifice. Both punctuation marks miss the mark. They overshoot the mark. They are divorced or sprained or autistic to the syntax of the lines, which is nearly autistic to itself, which is to say, inward directed, yet present in the world, unable to remove its symptoms from the world’s stage. A child prostitute’s puff sleeves which hurt, but hurt what? (“It hurts”), making a parody of presence to mark absence, the location of absence both gestured at and covered up with the exaggeration of something else. There is no selfsame body beneath those puff sleeves, no arms to hurt. Only an “It” and a “likeness”, exploited by Art for its ability to be like something else. Or we could take this line to mean that writing poems is like wearing the painful dress of the child prostitute; out of date, wrong sized for what you are pretending to be; exploited by some Other; that Other is Art.

It’s worth noting here that the “I” arises in Minnis’s poem in order to mark the site of non-agency; like her exclamation point which marks where sincerity is not, “I” marks the site where agency, thought, organized, individual consciousness is not. This emblematizes Art’s perverse way with valuation and devaluation. A line reads, “If you are not weak then I will start to feel like I have had enough of you …” (2). In this line, a quality (strength) is described by its double negative (not-weak). Minnis exploits her habitual conjectural “If/then,” a weak causality which can barely do its job; the “then” clause doesn’t attend to or follow on the “if” clause so much as reject it, drain away from it. Meanwhile the second clause, “I will start to feel like I have had enough of you” itself has a seesaw motion of rising and falling, draining and accruing, a future starting out, “I will start to feel,” a past piling up, “enough of you,” and past and future mysteriously linked around the fulcrum of “like,” an inverse (perverse) likeness. “Enough” is indexed to so many drainings and accumulations and conditionals and negatives that it hardly feels like an absolute value or location. Especially as it too is now discarded as the sequence continues:

But if you are weak …

Then this is a poem because it squeezes you …

It is a shimmer like flushing sequins down the toilet …  (2)

Here the first ellipses suggests not silence as the absences of sound so much as a fullness of wordless gesture than takes up the whole next line: an inarticulable masturbatory fantasy on the white tiled bathroom floor. The poem returns to reward “you” with a “Then” which “squeezes you.” “It is a shimmer,” Art must exploit the world in order to articulate itself as a likeness, this time a likeness to “flushing sequins down the toilet.” Sequins instead of money; not something valuable, but something chintzy, decorative; trashing trash; Art’s redundant gesture; saturating the line with itself. Now the little ellipses turn optical, like sequins or a sequence making a spectacle of its trashing itself, flushing itself down the white porcelain toilet of the page, the readerly eye as a receptacle for the image, the hole in the toilet as the receptacle for the sequins, the hole of the page as a receptacle for the words, the world as the receptacle into which Art shits itself. Art says to its receptacle, “This is a chain for you, babe … / Babe, it goes around your throat …”  (8)


This is like someone who pawns your minks …

And it is like a squandered money-gift …

This is the magic syphilis! …


There is no need for the truth …

Like scythes that cut through prom gowns …  (80)

In Minnis’s Poemland, value is always something which empties itself out; the mink is pawned, the money-gift is squandered. Yet that trashing, that expenditure which makes a trinket of everything also makes an ornament of everything. “The magic syphilis! …” Art is over-marked, the amorous disease which trashes the body, reworks the decisive gesture as jerk and tremor (exclamation point AND ellipses), decorates the brain with lesion, converts the world to Art. It comes from traffic with prostitutes, and, “Like scythes that cut through prom gowns,” it wants to make another version of itself, a knockoff, a trashy horror-movie version of its would-be grand themes. “Oh, I walk in the red wool corset dress and carry the machete …” (98); “Poetry is my fondest stunt … like standing on my hands in a dress …” (98).  Personal experience, even traumatic personal experience, prized materium of the first-person lyric, is here yet one more emblem or trinket of comparison for Art to wear on its chest: “To enchant someone meaninglessly … /Is like getting insulted and kissed by your writing instructor…” (24). The disturbance of each line break with ellipses or flagrant exclamation points; the excessive blank space between lines as if the lines have been denatured and cannot hold together in the natural body of a continuous thought; the way thought cannot run the circuit of the line breaks but rather keeps interrupting itself and tickishly picking itself back up (“This is like”; “And it is like”), marking itself as likeness and metaphor and never the thing itself — all denatures and dysfunctions both speech and thought, the supposedly distinctively human activities which the lyric is conventionally taken to mime. Minnis’s work suspends the suspension of disbelief in the lyric itself, and thus in speech, and thought, and thus in humanness and the prestige of being human:

Everyday I behave as though I am a human being …

And it hurts me to do it …

It is egotistically exhausting!

This is required to look like a poem … and to read like a poem …

But it’s really just some incomprehensible money …  (63).

As she elsewhere concludes, “This kills the prestige! …” (106). When value systems are demolished, when the signature activity of value is to drain, scab, leak elsewhere, and leave behind little track marks of statement, exclamation, ellipsis, the entire denatured landscape cannot amount. Beauty does lie around here, though, like an arm, dislocated, or in pieces, divested of prestige, “like a cut-down chandelier.” Or elsewhere, the line is extra-saturated with beauty which can’t leave the system, which “should go away but it never does,” it supplies a toxic swimming pool of itself at the bottom of the stairs. “It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom … / While holding on to a handle attached to a wall …” (38).

CAConrad is the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.

What kind of mother is Art? What kind of child can it make for itself from trash, from shatters? CAConrad provides us an allegory for this in the form of his author’s bio. This Artist-son is born from Death, into Death, a very lowdown and ignoble Death (“white trash asphyxiation”), one that isn’t heterosexual (doesn’t involve two parents), doesn’t have a human body, a presence that’s in fact an absence (the absence of oxygen). Born into Death and Absence, the “son” enjoys an inverted version of life, a life with no center, on the margins, “along the highway,” selling trashed cut flowers and shoplifting, activities which continue the logic of exploitation and non-sustenance, but also of an improvised existence.

In The Book of Frank, CAConrad recasts this birth; he makes a cast of this birth; he casts a new son from it; like Warhol, he generates counterfeits and multiples; like Warhol, these images start to resemble one another, to enjoy a paradoxical life in and as Art that totally replaces the horizon line of conventional biology, temporality and experience. Like Poemland, The Book of Frank “trashes” value, but unlike Poemland here a countervalue is allowed to accrue, albeit erratically, from poem to poem in the figure of this continuous, if paradoxical, character. Where Poemland denatures the convention of “continuity” among successive lines on a page, The Book of Frank makes unconventional use of the two-page spread, especially in its first section. On one such spread, on the left side of the page Frank’s mother prefers her miscarriages, jarred in formaldehyde, to her “live” boy. She remarks, “you are too big for a jar my child / you will betray me the rest of your life” (4). On the right side of the page, an alternate version of the relationship is imagined, in which rejection inverts to nutriment, “milk pours from the sky,” “the countryside is comfortable and burping,” “Frank naps on the lawn / smiling” (5). Art redistributes the dynamics of the “real” relationship in a fantastic landscape; but the inversion also requires that the landscape itself will acquire the qualities of bodily vulnerability which attach to Frank: “with tomorrow’s sun / gutters will / curdle and / sour.” Even Art’s improvised, counterfeit consolations have an expiration date.

Art’s counterfeit reality is the space in which Frank improvises an inverted existence; another poem in which the Mother “hollers” at him for pretending to be a bird, concludes:

he pecked bugs off the ground

the rooster led him
behind the hen house (6)

The improvised dynamic of Frank’s fantasy life also allows him to participate in an alternate morality, a happy seduction/exploitation at the hands of “the rooster.” The definite article here is important: Frank is the asphyxiation casting these other personages from his own trashy material. The rooster is “the rooster,” the one commanded by Frank to appear and molest him, rather than “a rooster.” In Art’s (and Frank’s) double world, the poles of agency and victimhood are not as clearly separable as they are in the brightly lit nation to which we pledge allegiance each morning in the schoolroom.

Just as CAConrad’s own biographical sketch gestures towards a complicity in exploitation, so there is an unstable complicity in these poems between Frank and his parents. The mother, we learn, enjoys cartoonish double vision, a vision that allows her to see “the devil in every room / twirling his asshole / cooking small rodents / masturbating in Father’s E-Z chair” (8). This vision frightens Frank when he assumes it by stealing his mother’s eyes; but this very action allies him with her, allies violence and vision. Frank, after all, has similarly violent or obscene visions; in some poems Art converts violence to a violet, or magically saves a life, but in others, violence and the violence of rebirth in Art continually restates itself:

Mother breaks Frank’s paint brushes

forces his head
through canvas
“FRAME ME!” he shouts
“FRAME ME! take the copyright
from God! FRAME ME!” (19)

Here violence is constitutive; like asphyxiation, here Mother-Art is violence, she gives birth to Art by forcing his head through canvas, forcing him in and through an artistic medium, a medium she is also destroying in this act — that is, trashing. Yet Frank is the son of asphyxiation; death-giving-as-life-giving; he converts the violence to a violent self-iterating phrase; he asks to be remade as Death’s son, as Art’s son — that is, as Art. “FRAME ME!” he shouts three times, that magic number.

While the Mother and the Son struggle to birth and rebirth Art, the Father is cartoonish in his inability to fix value on his son; he first misreads his son as a cunt-less daughter, then becomes confused:

Father was confused

which was Frank?

which the five
dollar bill?

the pornographer’s smile
s      t        r      e      t        c      h      e      d
the room            (11)

In the perverted stakes of the Book of Frank, even the witch-like Mother can’t fix Frank’s bodily form; nor can the Father fix his economic value. Instead Frank enters into another arrangement; the pornographer’s approval is a welcome, is a source of wealth; acceptance as a sexual commodity stretches the room, makes a roomy place for Frank. At the same time, Frank defines himself in terms of a total abnegation of value, a willing expenditure akin to his identification with miscarriages which paradoxically produces milk from the sky:

“when I die” Frank prayed,
“I will never return

if I must
it will be as
it will be as if I had not” (17)

Here the declaration that “I will never return” is met with an implicit command to return, just as he returns again and again to The Book of Frank itself. As his relationship with his mother emblematizes, the relationship to Art is in fact a commandment. The blank space in his utterance counters his own utterance, so he next tries to erase himself by voicing overstatement, a paradoxical multiplication of negation: “it will be as / abortions / it will be as if I had not.” Resourceful under Art and Life’s commandment, Frank improvises a “likeness,” an “as if” which reinvents himself as a negative infinity (“abortions”) even as Art forces him to be reborn and reborn in these poems.

As Art’s son, Frank has a nimble relationship with Death, crossing its borders, as he himself is Death. The book is riven with motifs of crows and carrion eaters; “when Father died / Frank was found / straddling him / his crows picking the seven / gold fillings” (31). This recalls Chelsey Minnis’s invocation to Death in Poemland, which is also a willingness to be bodily remade as a dead thing, as Art:

I am a vile baby …

Look, death, I have so much delicious vulture food within my chest cavity … (28).

In Poemland as in The Book of Frank, to be Death’s baby is to be Art’s baby; to be Art’s victim, but also its food; the way it comes into the world; to give birth to the Art that gave birth to you; to be a vessel and what comes out of the vessel; to be continually shedding something, Art, even as Art sheds the Artist, makes a son out of impossible non-ingredients. No value could cohere in a non-system like this, a backbreaking, self-digesting, self-gestating, cutting, immolating, imbricating system, certainly not the values of self-authenticity, self-sameness, self-worth, certainly not the value of self-expression, rendered here a complicated ventriloquist’s script of quotations and self-quotations:

“I love us with the wig,” Frank said
“it makes our voices change

you wear the wig
and ask my lips
to find you in the dark

I wear the wig
and track you
with my tongue

the wig uncombed!
the wig a fire of curls!
‘the wig completes the head?’ you ask
‘the wig completes the head’ I say”            (62)

So the Artist born of Artifice, Asphyxiation, Violence and Death wears Death’s wig and scripts Death’s lines; plays the (false) role of Death; has incestuous sex with Death; trashes the “natural” body, the “natural” family, the “natural” timeline; dwells in paradox; in limitless negativity that does not reverse itself to become a positive; but sons; “one night / the dog / dissolved / with Frank,” […] “Frank with child / at last!” (116-117); generates artifice and perversion, counterfeit and copies; an ouroboros of exploiters and exploitation which blots out conventional economies of worth and value; a radiant black horizon of expenditure where the voice makes a fake voice of the voice; where multitudinous, queer, perverse, or misanthropic voices fuck up the family romance; “a room full / of lesbian / ventriloquists / threw their voices”(Frank, 80); anachronism, marginality, deprivation, violence and pettiness; but a radiant wig, a wig on fire!:

It is like being slapped in the face with a stack of dollar bills …

I like it like glitter drums! (101).

Humanitarian strategies for ecosystem stabilization

A review of 're : evolution'

re : evolution

re : evolution

by Kim Rosenfield

Les Figues 2009, 100 pages, $15.00, ISBN 1-934254-08-8

In correspondance surrounding this review of Kim Rosenfield’s re : evolution, James Sherry relayed his excitement at the potential for publishing a “collaborative review in a collaborative technology.” Jacket2 is pleased to present that review, composed by Sherry and E.J. McAdams employing the track changes function in Microsoft Word.  [click on any image to enlarge]

This is not a book of surfaces

A review of 'The Book of Beginnings and Endings'

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

by Jenny Boully

Sarabande 2007, 128 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9781932511550

The Book of Beginnings and Endings by Jenny Boully is a deceptively straightforward book that poses a number of fascinating questions for the literary imagination to grapple with. Although the book is ostensibly made up of just what the title implies, beginnings and endings, when an entire book “consists” of beginnings and endings, it necessarily brings up the question about what a beginning or ending actually is, since, from a certain perspective, beginnings are not beginnings if they do not have endings, and vice versa. As a result, especially during a first reading, one has the desire to assert that the texts in this book are not really “beginnings” or “endings” at all, but simply fragments, and that there is something overly stylistic in claiming to make a book entirely of beginnings and endings. After all, why not tie up the syntax; bring those “beginnings” to a close? But the reason for the eponymous formal assertion becomes clearer and more powerful the deeper one reads. For this is not a book of surfaces, and the confusion and discomfort of a reader’s initial confrontation with these abbreviated chronologies is at the heart of what is at stake in this intriguing work.

In its most visible textual condition, The Book of Beginnings and Endings is comprised of fifty-two “beginnings” and “endings.” The length of these texts seems to be largely determined by the size of the pages upon which they are printed. The “beginnings” almost always break off midsentence at the very bottom of the paper, while the “endings" almost always begin at midsentence at the top left corner of the paper (although the “endings” do not always go to the end of the page — their end points seem determined more by syntax. Nevertheless, like the “beginnings,” they are never longer than one page.) So what are these abbreviated texts about? Many things, as it turns out. Some of the texts seem like excerpts from essays in literary criticism, some from texts of prose poetry, some seem to be cut from edgier descendants of naturalist writing, and still others even seem like confessions, or personal recounts of love or a favored rumination. But these texts, incomplete as they are, are not unconsidered. On the contrary, Boully’s language is dazzling, and there is not a word that does not feel certain.  

Most of the sections are markedly dense, often conjuring huge worlds or sensations within the space of a few sentences.

In order to make art, we triangulate our thoughts from the body, to the otherworldly, and then to the worldly (i.e. parchment and pigments, the materials with which to accomplish the transcription of the physical representation of the invisible or metaphysical existences that live above and beyond our earthbound view). Think then of the Biblical verse that states, “I am

But of course there it ends: a deeply considered meditation on the palimpsestic orders of artistic production evaporates right in front of us like footprints in the sand. But it wasn’t the water that came in and washed the trail away. If we look behind us the footprints are still there, leading right to where we are standing. It is only what was “yet to be said” that is gone, or that was “never-there-to-begin-with.” So what happened? Well, it seems our expectations tripped us up.

The “endings” function rather similarly. Instead of starting somewhere and then breaking off, the endings seem to arrive from someplace that the reader has not been privy to, thus forcing the reader, sometimes infuriatingly, to have to guess at what may have preceded these moments. Although the beginnings may never have been finished, the endings, by contrast, feel as if a whole world is lurking somehow behind these textual terminations. However, during the course of reading this book, something happens to the effect of these chronological gaps, and the initial feeling that the texts are unfinished is instead replaced with a sort of realization (or even a more sanguinary resignation) that the “unfinished” parts of the texts are not at all unfinished, but merely obfuscated from the reader’s view. It is a resignation induced by textual boundaries, but it is also a resignation that every human being knows only too well in their own lives: the limits of perception, the limits of knowledge. Indeed, it is the same limit on life, the same type of chronological abbreviation that is insisted upon by death: every situation is fleeting and temporary; every moment in life is a constant reminder of our own unyielding inability to perceive anything beyond mere abbreviations of experience. It is like watching a city pass by through a car’s window: you see snippets of thought, faces and movement, and you contextualize them as best you can. But you can never know the childhood of the man walking along the sidewalk; you can never know the path the bird took before it perched atop that tree branch. It is a truly remarkable thing to realize, as you move through the pages of this book, that not only are you reading about life’s haunting lacunae, but through a poignant formal allegory, you are actually experiencing the same sense of longing, loss, and frustration as you do during their vital counterpart. The “missing texts” come to feel less “missing” and instead more like the ghosts lurking on the other side of every door one never went through in life.

So too do I keep espying lunamoths, a familiar sliver of an old moon, a letter I had thought I had long since discarded, the dress I will never wear, a certain photograph, the signpost that spells out what never was.

In addition to the portions of “missing” text, the extant text of the various “beginnings” and “endings” are suffused with residues, situations of bereavement, ulterior storylines, and absence in general. In one of the “beginnings” titled “The Care and Repair of Books,” the narrator suggests that one of the primary functions of bookshelves is not to hold the books, but rather to act as a sort of columbarium for all the receipts and ticket stubs that one inserted in the books in the past, thus “containing our lost lives, our former selves.” In one of her “endings,” Boully writes of an artist who has offered a monetary reward for a journal that the artist had lost earlier in life. It turns out, however, that the fact of this journal’s ever having existed at all is suspect, thus presenting an affecting situation of a woman longing for something she believes was once real, but which may never have really existed. Another “ending” focuses on the heartwrenching image of a mother gorilla mourning the death of her child by screaming for days on end “moans of lamentation” across the jungle, causing a far-reaching “collective mourning.” Poignantly, the mother guerrilla’s pain is described as being directed not only at having lost her child, but also from knowing that — echoing the textual allegory of the book’s “missing texts” — “there is a whole vast and infinite universe of which her tiny organism, so insubstantial, will never know.”

It would be possible to read this text — especially in light of the reading I have presented here — as being a stark, pessimistic view on life’s (or literature’s) ability to present the sort of wholeness that people are accustomed to looking for in narrative. But tragedy should not necessarily be seen as depressing. Although this book does not offer the type of psychological assuagement readers may be accustomed to from “chronological completeness,” neither is it a harsh antithesis to the Aristotelian narrative. Instead, Boully finds something of a middle ground between those poles, offering an emotional, trenchant prose and a charged, structural metaphor to mine the richness of time’s intransigent mysteries.