Reviews - June 2012

A review of 'Just Kids'

Just Kids

Just Kids

Patti Smith

Ecco 2010, 304 pages, $27, ISBN ISBN 978-0066211312

Raised in a poor but loving family in New Jersey, Patti Smith wasn’t happy with the range of opportunities open to her after high school. Artistic and strong-natured — she played the General in her games with her brother and sister — she got into trouble with an unwanted pregnancy, gave the baby up for adoption, quit her factory job, and took a bus to New York.

Her memoir Just Kids is a love story, a kind of American La Boehme. Within a few weeks of her arrival in New York during the summer of 1967, she met a male counterpart, a former choirboy from a strict Catholic family from Queens, Robert Mapplethorpe. The two lived in poverty together, scrounging money for food and sleeping in borrowed apartments, before finding enough work to set up their own tiny household. At the same time, each recognized and nurtured in the other the artistic gene in its early budding.

Just Kids gives the lie to Robin Williams’s famous quip that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Smith remembers photographically (we learn that she didn’t do drugs) virtually every item she and Mapplethorpe wore, both of them budding style mavens. They made a pact to keep each other safe — if one was ill, intoxicated or otherwise down, the other was designated guardian. While working briefly for the Fillmore East, Mapplethorpe got her a comp ticket for a Doors concert. She writes:

I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.

In 1972 Andrew Wylie, Victor Bockris, and I collaborated on a literary press, Telegraph Books, and published Smith’s first book of poems, Seventh Heaven. At a photoshoot to publicize our venture and its dozen or so writers, Smith’s fluency and ease before our photographer, Berry Berenson, startled me. While the rest of us stood around in various degrees of literary introspection, this slight woman in black stretch pants, Capezios, and an oversized tee shirt was like a cross between a street urchin and Mick Jagger, and at the same time managed to charm everybody.

Just Kids contains cameos of sixties stars including Janis Joplin, Kris Kristopherson, Jim Carroll, Viva, Bobby Neuwirth, Harry Smith, and Sam Shepard in the downtown environs centered at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, but what sustains the book’s strong emotional current is Smith’s love for Mapplethorpe, even as their lives move apart. They worked side by side together — she on poetry and drawings, he on drawings and collages — and slept in one another’s arms. Smith eventually found a regular job at the venerable Scribners bookstore on Fifth Avenue.

Having discovered photography, Mapplethorpe gradually acceded to his homosexuality, eventually finding a patron and partner in Sam Wagstaff. “Patti, do you think we lost ourselves to art?” he asked her a decade later as he was dying of AIDS.

Beginning with portraits of her, he quickly evolved a high definition photograph that embraced a wide range of subject matter, from flowers to male and female nudes to portraits of celebrities, babies and children, to images of gay men, often in S&M scenarios, which brought him fame and notoriety. What all of these photographs have in common is that each is scrupulously posed and lit. He also did sexual self-portraits in both macho and femme personae. Coming after Diane Arbus and a contemporary of Nan Goldin, he combined their gritty adventurousness with an artfulness that recalls Irving Penn. Long a painter and collagist, he seemed to attain mastery virtually overnight in his new medium.

More or less in tandem with him, Patti Smith achieved punk rock stardom, married a fellow musician, the late Fred Sonic Smith, and the two raised a family in Detroit.

The firsthand accounts of the 1960s have been surprisingly few. Two writers, both a decade older than the young who created the epoch, have been the dominant popular commentators, Joan Didion (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Just Kids, written in the retrospect of Patti Smith’s own sixties, changes that. She was there.

The trial of Elizabeth Willis's 'Address'

Address

Address

by Elizabeth Willis

Wesleyan University Press 2011, 86 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7348-3

When asked about the voices that spoke only to Joan of Arc during the second session of her trial for heresy on February 22, 1431, she answered in Middle French a statement transcribed by the English-financed court in Latin that Anne Carson translates to English as follows: “The light comes in the name of the voice.”[1] By beginning her recent collection Address with the poem “Address,” Elizabeth Willis addresses the selfsame syncopation in our present constitutions. Willis’s first poem “Address” begins as follows:

I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer (1)

From the beginning, Willis mangles proportion by using a form encountered in standardized tests to arrive at iterations of belonging. The first line “I is to they” sets up the succeeding anaphoras by disrupting scales used to evaluate intelligence today. Because of the trace of a sentence unit in the capitalization that marks the beginning of utterances, one can read the first three lines in two other ways:

I : They :: River : Barge
I : They :: Convert : Picket line

I is to they as river is to barge as convert to picket line

By using the Aristotelian format in the first version, “They” can be understood proportionally to “barge” and “picket line,” and they can function as infinitive phrases for the characters of “I,” “river,” and “convert” simultaneously taking place. With the omission of “as” in “sinker to steamer,” the fourth line functions as both a development of the “I is to they” analogy and an end to the sentence unit. A sinker (fishing tool) and a steamer (kitchen appliance) are analogous in that they are both inventions that displace water and use the end rhyme “-er” to render their root verbs (i.e. “sink” and “steam) into inventions. By thinking about the line “sinker to steamer” in terms of water, one can read the narrative gesture in the rise of water from the sinker to water’s evaporation from the steamer by way of “to,” which is present in all four lines.

The first four lines of the first poem in Address initiate the ethical gesture of “to” akin to sounding out “address,” where “to” initiates an element of scale, recognition and action between positions and formal encounters with addressees. By utilizing iterations of analogy within the rhythms of poetry, the collection creates arguments in conflict with its own sense of scale in order to arrive at what Peter Gizzi develops as “a vortex of dissent” in Jack Spicer’s sense of community:

In many ways, dissent is Spicer’s utopia. Since a community of heterogeneous members could never live in agreement without becoming a tyranny, it seems the only hope would be to value instead its disagreements, to see arguments as progressive, and to create a context for heterodoxy.[2]

In the engagement with current poetic record and its heresies, Address arrives at an environment fraught with an argument it creates by also refuting it. It uses names relentlessly over its voices to think about the anxiety of inheritance over influence. In this way, the names in the collection are used to take account of the sonic and historic structure each poem creates and willfully disobeys with others, so every poem titled “Poisonous Plants of America,” which alphabetically incorporates plant names like April fool, Bear’s-foot, Bog-onion, Devil’s-apple, Dog parsley, Doll’s-eyes, et cetera, echoes a poem titled “Species Is an Idea” with couplets that develop the conflict in incorporations of plant and name:

All this reflection
amounting to shadows

Ink eats the page:
It’s Chemistry against the Forest (11)

In the two couplets, the conflict one reads into the poem on the page is seen in how the poet’s act of reflecting (read: writing) about a forest destroys a forest in order to mass-produce the poem. With “Chemistry” and “Forest,” the capitalized nouns are mock species that establish a history of its being used or sounded out inasmuch as they also pertain to the materials in which the poem is rendered readable. One can return to Anne Carson’s translation of Joan of Arc’s response to think about Address and “address,” where Joan of Arc’s light came to mean how it comes with how we come to know it. Or, we can turn to another poem from Address titled “The Oldest Garden in the World” for the selfsame configuration:

A body that fulfills its face
carries into day
what fades behind it. (25)

The arguments of Address exist in the lines, “Of this was told / A tale of our wickedness. / It is not our wickedness” (i.e. George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”), with the relentlessness of the rivers of Rappahannock, Danube, Nile, Niagara, Loire, Cher, St. Lawrence, et cetera and the poetic closure of et cetera (i.e. John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”). This vortex comes to a head in the collection’s two long poems “The Witch” and “Blacklist,” where examples of analogical argumentation are brought to its uttered ends:

The Witch

A witch can charm milk from an ax handle. (19)

[…]

When all the witches in your town have been set on fire, their smoke will fill your mouth. It will teach you new words. It will tell you what you’ve done. (22)


Blacklist

Sarah Wilds, Deliverance Hobbs, and Dorcas Hoar were witches. (56)

[…]

I have personally known witches whose voices seemed to rise out of a hole in the earth as if it were a mouth.

Hannah Weiner saw words — like the Apostle John — and if she is not a saint, she is a witch. (60)

“In Strength Sweetness,” the last poem of Address, is made up of lines that use the slash (/) as a final turn on its mode of argumentation:

in the wind / an inky air

in the air / finchness

in the ink / a stone (61)

[…]

in your anger / a harbor

in your harbor / a boat

in the boat/ open sea (63)

The slash (/) functions as the mark used to harvest the ethical turns in the collection’s dissent. The act of slashing connotes a violent motion similar to how it functions as a punctuation mark (i.e. caesura, abbreviation, solidus, et cetera, et cetera). In “In Strength Sweetness,” this unsettling multivalence becomes a fault line that recognizes the discontinuities in its uncapitalized nouns. Similar to names and their voices, nouns carry the conflict in their history (read: etymology) through the discontinuities created by conflict’s erasure. In this way, the slash (/) also functions as choice (i.e. “or”) and the line break of poetry translated in prose, where the poetic is arrived at through the engagement between its own echoes and a reader’s translation of these echoes. It feels inevitable that Address ends with the possibility of going out of ourselves and our addresses by harnessing materials from our discontinuities into an opening: “in your anger / a harbor // in your harbor / a boat // in the boat / open sea.”

 


 

1. Anne Carson, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” A Public Space (2008), 7.

2. Peter Gizzi, ed., The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Connecticut: University of Wesleyan Press, 1998), 97.

'An endless, polyglot failure party'

A review of Robert Fitterman's 'Now We Are Friends'

Now We Are Friends

Now We Are Friends

by Robert Fitterman

Truck Books 2011, 126 pages,

Founded in 2009, Truck Books is “a small press specializing in contemporary experimental writing in the avant-garde tradition” which focuses on “works that focus on a variety of objects from vernacular languages to social and information systems, production systems and capital flows.” They have published five books to date (four of which are listed on their ordering page), each of which is available as a free pdf or as a printed edition sold on a sliding scale.

Their editorial mandate focusing on “social and information systems” belies their dedication to conceptual writing siphoned from the gushing falls of the internet into seven-by-seven-inch square-bound editions of bottled information.

Robert Fitterman’s latest volume, Now We Are Friends, builds upon his previous volumes in the Metropolis series, most particularly his Sprawl: Metropolis 30a (Make Now Press, 2010). In each volume, Fitterman has placed increasing distance between his work and the traditionally poetic in favor of the language of malls, consumer sites, discussion groups, Facebook, and blogs as he mines “our” “daily” “language.”

Fitterman’s oeuvre has been dedicated to defining the new poetic pastoral as the suburban mall (and, in later volumes, the Internet). For, as Sidney exclaimed,

Does not the pleasantness of [the Internet] carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling?

With Now We Are Friends Fitterman has turned to populating that new Arcadia with his own brand of lazing shepherd constructed from the same corporate language he used to sculpt the shepherds’ fields.

In October 1969 Vito Acconci performed “Following Piece,” in which he chose a series of strangers, followed them through their daily activities, and transcribed their movements. With Now We Are Friends Fitterman “follows” a single random person across the digital fields of the Internet, allowing the personal flotsam of a single person’s life to accumulate into a rhizomatic biography.

Fitterman chose, at random, the euphonious name “Ben Kessler” as the basis for his poetic exploration of online identity and tracks him through his Twitter feed, his “my 10 favorite iPhone Apps of 2008” post, his Tweetdeck reviews, and any other online flotsam of Kessler’s public Internet profile. As Fitterman continues to mine into Kessler’s public Internet appearances, the manuscript begins to envelop “other” Ben Kesslers. When egosurfing — Googling your own name — or responding to Google Alerts — how many of us have had the uncanny moment of reading an entry about another internet denizen with the same name as ours? Just as our individuality has become performed through online testimonies, archives photographs, and abandoned dating site profiles, so has Ben Kessler become intriguing only as one of a platoon of identically named laptop-wielding Internet-addicted individuals who feel their skills are best used commenting on which fictional character from a video game or comic book they would most like to eat a sandwich with.

Ben Kessler’s identity begins to blur when this flotilla of Kesslers interrupts the narrative by discussing “keeping Faith in times of transition,” the pratfalls of being a “freelance permaculture teacher,” and warning that

designers who strive for success should prepare themselves for the challenges of doing creative work in the middle of an endless, polyglot failure party. (52)

That “endless, polyglot failure party” (which ominously describes many of the literary salons and poetic endeavors happening today) becomes weirdly overpopulated with the further introduction of a choir of “Ben’s friends” and “Ben’s friend’s friends,” each of them listing their favorite films, their online biographies, their “five things other should know about [them].”

As a coda to the text, Steve Zultanski has “followed” Robert Fitterman through information provided by Fitterman’s own family. Listed are his favorite colognes, his ex-girlfriends, information on his parents and brother, dedications and inscriptions Fitterman wrote in books given as gifts, his pet’s veterinarian report, and mundane notes left to his wife, poet Kim Rosenfield. Zultanski also interviews Fitterman’s daughter Coco (who provides a screenshot of Fitterman’s computer desktop).

What dates Acconci’s “Following Piece” as a cultural antique is its dependence on physical space (as we have online profiles we have long since abandoned and “friends” we’ve never interacted with) and on the transcription of a single follower (as Facebook has made us each the cult leader of our own band of followers — “friends” who follow our movements and respond to every flickering change in our “relationship status”) in a single social space. With Now We Are Friends, Fitterman gathers the diverse portraits of a single digital everyman, Ben Kessler, and presents to us a portrait of our new digital Willy Loman.

Now We Are Friends Ben Kesslers us all. Fitterman exposes the digital flatness of the language of our friendships, our relationships, our jobs and hobbies, our passions and interests. The details of our lives, as mundane as they may be, are not only constantly observed, they are constantly recorded — we are constantly on display, hoping we’ll hear that now we are friends.

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