Reviews - July 2013
Miranda Mellis’s survivable devastation
Mellis’s newest work in print, The Spokes, takes us on a fantastical journey into the unpredictable afterworld in search of a deceased parent, Silver, whose absence has left a pervasive sense of self-questing perplexity and a fierce thirst for history in her surviving daughter, Lucia. While Lucia’s journey of attempted recuperation provides the primary “plot” device of the story, like in all seriously delicious writing, there is on the one hand what “happens” and, on the other hand, all those indefinable, indismissable sensations that these “happenings” further evoke or induce. I refer here to those sallying waves of prescient feeling whose linguistic footprints and circumference are far more extensive, amorphous, and difficult to map. And which produce in turn all those uncapped psychosomatic landscapes that leave us hanging precariously in the balance while also providing us with necessary ballast against the precipitous drop-offs of everyday life. As Vladimir Nabokov has described it in his “Lecture on Metamorphosis”:
We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.
“To vibrate in answer” strikes me as a fine way to sum up the energetic aura of residual desires, questions, and nervous responses (meaning occurring in one’s very nerves!) that continue to hover in the reader’s body long after her encounter with The Spokes has come to a close.
In Mellis’s work, such bits and their variously patterned fittings (as Nabokov would call them) kite to the surface of the page not as events, but rather as fountains of inventive attention given to language itself as a form of experience and action. Responding to a section in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin which describes “a tablecloth as white as a layer of newly fallen snow, upon which the place-settings rise symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls,” the painter Paul Cezanne attempts to convey the strong forces of desire that Balzac’s words produced in him. “All through youth,” Cezanne writes, “I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of new snow … Now I know that one must will only to paint the place-settings rising symmetrically and the blond rolls. If I paint ‘crowned’ I've had it, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place-settings and rolls as they are in nature, then you can be sure the crowns, the snow, and all the excitement will be there too.”
And miraculously, as Cezanne endeavors it, so it is; the excitement is there, and it is elsewhere also. Just as when I am reading Mellis’s writing, I’m repeatedly struck by how acutely aware of and assiduous she is in her efforts to tackle a parallel set of aesthetic dilemmas that present themselves within her own chosen medium. I find myself swept up and wired into a state of lively surprise in response to the unique ways in which her dreamiest scenes are constantly anchored by an entourage of concrete bureaucratic banalities, while the mazes of concrete bureaucratic banalities that her characters encounter are electrically charged by the ceaseless intrusion of magical absurdities. I find that I often can’t locate the pulse of such episodes with my finger alone, because the whole horizon is pulsing. “I mean,” says Lucia at one point in The Spokes, “I couldn’t locate the mind, but I could echolocate it.” Similarly, although Lucia can’t ameliorate the circumstances in which she finds herself, she can coradiate in concert with them. And, as a reader, one quickly gets the sense that echolocation and coradiation may indeed be among the best and most prophetic procedures available to us; the text suggesting, if only indirectly, that we might learn infinitely more this way, that we might be buoyed upward by this limitation rather than thwarted by it.
The fantastical light of the highly materialist afterlife
It must be added however that, while remarkable, the gift of echolocation doesn’t necessarily always serve as a viable alternative or equivalent to the act of speech. And unfortunately, the lack of adequate language with which to articulate their state of affairs can sometimes make it nearly impossible for Mellis’s characters to understand the conditions that they are facing, let alone to transform them. As Lucia so aptly puts it, “those things that we can talk about are subjects subject to change: They change under discussion.” Lucia’s observation draws an important distinction between the richly evocative progressions of dialogue versus the more rote practices of mere dictation: the dialectic versus the autocratic. And yet, ultimately, following Silver’s disappearance from the lives of Lucia and her siblings, it is neither the presence of static reportage nor of discursive banter that leaves the family feeling so discombobulated and full of doubt. Rather, it is the reverberating silence, an occurrence that presents them with neither commands nor oral channels for negotiation.
Lucia in particular finds herself most singularly upset not because of having been haunted by Silver since her passing, but instead because of having been left entirely alone by her — without so much as a single Ouija board call out, a midnight door knock, or a non-climate-driven change in living room temperature. Mellis’s story emerges from this site of Lucia’s profound loneliness and the related dilemmas of self-definition and identity that this provokes. The narrative asks us to consider again and again: what are the kinds of recognition that we want from others and to what ends? What are the kinds of recognition that we tend to extend in kind? In this text, these questions thankfully never seem to get reduced to strictly philosophical and/or metaphysical inquiries, all the more since the afterworld that we enter, as we walk alongside Lucia on the sidewalk, contains subway stops, jello glops, and copious quantities of customs officials.
From within Mellis’s otherworldly environment of misplaced ferry schedules and peculiar bouts of jet lag, trying to draw a clear distinction between one’s self and one’s habitat is no easy task. Much like our own contemporary world, Mellis’s otherwise unfamiliar and invented landscapes are populated by odd combinations of: alienated functionaries who (wo)man the phones and read the mail; pervasive regulatory orders accompanied by impenetrable, but highly enforced, timetables; occasional heart-warming displays of unity on the front of lukewarm customer service; and a permanent hum of acoustic bustling caused by the “amnesiac hustle” of empty requirements for productivity. In a fashion that is unnervingly akin to our daily lived realities, there is the problem of far too much mandatory self-reporting and far too little individual self-determination, to leave aside altogether any and all prospects for collective realization of the same.
Mellis’s characters find themselves constantly caught up in the grips of those countless “quotidian wars in miniature” that surround each person, mimicking as they do the larger psychoses of militarized globalism, rapacious capitalist exploitation, the pillage of the natural world, and the imperialist necropolitics of the nation state. In The Spokes, even the afterworld can’t relieve us of the painful frictions of these conflicts; if anything, it exaggerates them. The compulsion toward meaningless efficiency and ceaseless output is not diminished by death; it is amplified by it, especially given the fact that in the aftermath of fatality even the pretext of a nominal monthly wage proffered in pitiful exchange for one’s efforts has long since been subtracted from the equation. As a result, we finally get to see these mechanics fully uncloaked, in the total visibility of their absurdity and despair. “How much simpler life would be now that I was dead,” Silver recalls wistfully predicting, “No more feeling or feeding, hunger or rage. And no more patriarchy — no more of that five-thousand-year-old boulevard of crime.” Only, unfortunately, the boulevard doesn’t terminate at the point of morbidity. Even the fatal forces of gravity and sudden surface collision offer up no secret elixirs or solvents for Silver; she finds herself still waiting for a future message that might somehow relieve her of her burdens.
It could be argued that part of the art and the gift of fiction lies in the very fact that it allows us to experience certain volatile economic and social dynamics/burdens from a temporarily less than deadly position, if only for the reason that everyone in question is already dead. Mellis herself is well aware that off the page this is not always the case. Indeed, the myriad ways in which bureaucratic inanity and the obligations of conformity fester in constant close proximity to the realities of acute harm and human damage (if not outright massacre) are everywhere evident, even when the lines of causality cannot be easily or neatly drawn. Part of the additional opportunity of fiction then, and of Mellis’s fiction in particular, is that whereas in the actual lived realms of global geopolitics, the capitalist state tends to see people’s anger and frustration and, with the accompaniment of incredible displays of entrepreneurial prowess and the powers of political cooptation, subsequently hires still other people to teach “anger management”; in Mellis’s stories, there is room for unmitigated anguish and rage to alternately bubble up outright and be touched. Such emotions appear in blissfully unremedied rawness; they are fondled even, open to exploration.
Upon being asked to name a few of her favorite artistic or intellectual allies and inspirations, Mellis refers to her love and appreciation for Alexander Kluge’s dystopic sci-fi novel, Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome: a piece which, like Mellis’s own work, constantly couples the wildly visionary with the most undecorated domestic mundanities. In many of Kluge’s passages, the fantastical and paranoid future uncannily resembles, even directly samples from, the panicked and persecutionary present. As Mellis notes: “In Alexander Kluge’s novel, if locations do not conform to maps, in order to keep maps current and accurate, locations, places are destroyed. In this way, the territory is made to conform to the map. Do not our punitive policies, such as No Child Left Behind, our textbooks, anthologies and systems of canonization, forms of cultural cartography, have something of this tendency?” From this standpoint, both Kluge and Mellis can be recognized as mobilizing their prose in the name of a powerful counter-tendency, a means to rally collective concern and resistance against this obscene devotion to abstract forms. Both authors variously rail against those orientations of obedience which we have been socially instructed must be followed at all costs; they reject the celebrated elevation of data records and statistical logs which, once produced, are then deemed more essential to the system than the very life worlds out of which they emerge. How do we get beyond that, Mellis asks. How do we respond to real environments and real lives, in real time?
Post-traumatic automatism of the living and the dead
As readers, we were unusually lucky in 2012 to be able to pursue such provocative investigations not only through The Spokes, but also via Mellis’s most recent short story collection, None of This Is Real. The titular story of None of This Is Real likewise features a young adult narrator, named only O, who endeavors to find both a means of articulation and also compensation for the struggles and solitude that so mark his life. The tale further accumulates its remarkable density of inquiry from the dozens of other humans and animals who populate its pages and who are constantly confronted with significant troubles in their basic efforts merely to get their bodies taken seriously by others, let alone their thoughts. Indeed, in almost all of Mellis’s stories the idiosyncratic and vibrant characters who fill them are full of ideas, petitions, research projects, grievances, and proposals; it is not the prospect of generating alternatives that is the main problem, so much as it is the process of figuring out where or how or to whom to deliver said objections upon their completion, provided one intends to hold onto any aspirations of future success. The prototypical epistolary outcry — “To Whom it May Concern!” — feels all too poignantly and devastatingly futile in this context. To the concerned onlooker, it can sometimes be strikingly clear that the networks and infrastructures of support that O, Lucia, Silver and others are seeking throughout these texts don’t yet actually fully exist there; they must first be built before they can be accessed. Moreover, it is evident that this construction task is destined to be a daunting one, cluttered by substantial and numerous obstacles, if also kept afloat by tender hopes.
Unable to persuade those in authority to either address their basic needs or to mend the lack of connection they feel in relation to their surroundings, Mellis’s figures find instead that the only viable option lies in learning to address, listen to, and fend for one another. This requires some painstaking work on their parts to startle each other from the diverse range of solipsistic compulsions and obsessive drone-like behaviors from which they suffer. God knows that on certain occasions it can be so hard simply to even open one’s mouth and moan, let alone to mutter and/or to hear the mutters of others. The further act of striving to make sense of and to take in earnest the content of what is muttered, thus involves yet another order of commitment altogether. Sometimes no order whatsoever — be it higher or lower, formal or obtuse, committed or lackadaisical — prevails; indeed, it is as if no enunciation that currently exists can even begin to clarify, let alone to salvage. In the case of “None of This Is Real,” such moments of relentless sucker-punching sometimes require that the narrator O, having been utterly emptied of any language of his own, simply take another’s word for it, giving himself over to and trusting the diagnoses of others in those instants when the circumstances leave him incapable of generating his own. Though as O does so, he also stores inside himself a deeply seated well of doubt. “What is told to me about the future of my body,” O asks, “can I believe it?” Is it wise to?
Be it wise or unwise, the fact remains that Mellis’s characters are frequently dependent upon others for confirmation of both the most crucial and the most superfluous details of their own lives and origins. This actuality is experienced, by each person in turn, as a concurrent source of paralyzing trauma and acute relief. “We don’t possess our selves you know,” Silver says to her daughter Lucia with adamant feeling. And as readers, we sense that at least one part of the emotionality that Silver displays in this exchange comes from her gratitude concerning the roles that natural and chance operations have played in relieving her of some of the weight of cumbersome ownership. The prospect of maintaining a “pure” proprietary relationship to personhood proves to be as false or impossible as that of encountering a “pure” laissez-faire capitalist economics or a “pure” map of seamless plate tectonics. However, the mere identification of any relationship’s basis in erroneous precepts or outright phony assumptions doesn’t, unfortunately, in and of itself negate the reality of its felt consequences. In the face of this upsetting and laborsome distance between accrued knowledge and lived experience, it’s no wonder that some people should seek out and succumb to the availability of far more repressive, but also comfortingly more definitive, arrangements. “If nothing else,” the compensatory platitude runs, “one always belonged to the state.” However, as O and his mother (who makes her living as a medical test subject) each independently discover, “for some the state weighed less than a feather, while others it crushed.”
On our own recognizance
Last summer, while seated within a peculiarly angled nook of a modular wooden barn assembled from a 1920s Sears & Roebuck home construction kit, I found myself reading in quick sequence not only Mellis’s work, but also Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). In the course of doing so, I was particularly struck by Thoreau’s diaristic description of the events that followed his one night of confinement at the local jail upon conviction as a war tax resister. In his concise report of those post-release moments, he writes:
When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand [to visit the shoe cobbler], and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, — for the horse was soon tackled, — was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen [emphasis added].
I have to admit that when I finished reading that specific paragraph, I could do little more than lean back, my face frozen in half-smile and half-sneer, and whistle a nostalgic “if goddamn only.” In today’s modern urban landscapes of surveillance cameras, ID scanners, electronic data tracking, facial recognition devices, and GPS monitoring, Thoreau’s quickly achieved removal from any and all vestiges of state oversight feels nearly akin to impossible. And such facilely accomplished escapes of this kind are not easily performed in the invented worlds of Mellis’s contemporary fiction either. Rather, the people whom we encounter in these stories tend to be a bit more uniformly “crushed” as it were and don’t necessarily have access to the options of an elsewhere-bound or horse-drawn carriage ride at the ready in order to remedy their disparagement.
In the face of these arguably fiercer and more ubiquitous displays of state force and oversight, however, the quality of said inhabitants’ resistance also tends to be fiercer, more clever, more mobile, hardier. It exhibits a deeply situated, if not always equally enactable, belligerence to the very logic of power. In the words of Emma Goldman, ““The mere fact that these forces are legalized by state statute laws, sanctified by divine rights and enforced by political power in no way justifies their continued existence.” Or, alternately, but with notable parallels, as expressed in The Spokes: “She [the passing stranger] looked up at me [Lucia], surprised, and asked, ‘How can I continue this way without knowing?’ I said, ‘Why do you think you need to continue this way?’” And so there it is, the essential question of Mellis’s texts and the enormous gift that they offer to us as readers in our encounters with them: the opportunity to foundationally ask not only “why?” but “what if not?”
Subsequently, we are left with a sense of anticipation that should our struggles and our research succeed, our victories over complicity and over mindless obedience will be substantial ones. We may find ourselves in the presence of a good bit more than a tasty berry cobbler to be thankful for; rather, we may have significantly cobbled an enormous beast that has been bearing down — with inexorable, if also under-acknowledged, pressure — upon each of our lots and a hell of a lot of our backs for quite some time now. We may even be so lucky as to achieve, if not freedom, then at least a shower of reprieve from our current grievances and a small, but fighting, chance at real collaborative discovery.
In The Spokes, we repeatedly see the character Lucia’s frenetic motions as she clamors to achieve a measure of belief in a cosmo-vision of clear causes and effects but is not to be granted it. Lucia wants what she is facing to be reducible to those things that she has induced and thus can also eliminate. “Was my invisibility the result of some thing I had failed to do?” Lucia asks, adding, “I had yet to learn the laws of recognition here.” Unable either to be seen or heard by her mother Silver when she first arrives as an adult into this purgatorial afterworld, Lucia comments, “It was not the first time in my life that I was invisible in a public place, if one can say of the afterworld that it is public.” Here Lucia has, without a doubt, stumbled onto one substantial and mighty insight. For there are indeed so very many ways for people to be made invisible or, conversely, to make others feel that way; perhaps even as many ways as there are for people to be recognized or to make others buzz in the wake of their own recognition.
Those delicate ankles wherein capacity and debilitation collide
If recognition as a process of communication can convey approval or sanction, permission or denial, validity or erasure, then our physical bodies are perhaps just as double-edged in their potential. In “None of This Is Real,” the narrator pauses at length to ponder the fact that the fatal flaw of Achilles should be located in precisely the same anatomical quarters as Hermes’s tiny foot wings. Debilitation and unexpected aptitude are found to emerge from one and the same site of flesh. To my mind, The Spokes closes, if only by soft inference, on those fantastical winglets, on the efforts to try and find them. It comes to a finish not on severance (on tendon-ripping), but on the prospect of flight. As Mellis describes it, the organs or environments from which such levitations could conceivably occur are “easily localized, but not easily remediated.” Our collective imaginations and blueprinting skills have been substantially dampened and dulled by too much rebuking and the failure to leave or step outside the frames of logic that have been handed us. “What are the ancient dead like then, the pre-capitalist, the pre-clock-time, the pre-imperial dead?” Lucia muses. And while it should be readily admitted that any “true” contact with these earlier histories is impossible, as well as fraught with all manner of problematic ideological nostalgias, it is perhaps for that very reason that it must all the more be tried. Not so as to falsely fantasize returning there, but so as to at least refuse to continue from exactly where we are now.
In Jonathan Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the central characters finds the occasion to explain, “One morning I awoke and understood the hole in the middle of me. I realized that I could compromise my life, but not life after me. I couldn’t explain it. The need came before the explanations. It was not out of weakness that I made it happen, but it was not out of strength either. It was out of need.” As I see it, the characters that Mellis creates also operate from that nebulous space between weakness and strength, between certainty and the paralysis of doubt. And, of course, the reality is that we compromise our own life and the lives to come after us nearly all the time. Indeed, in the current habitus of life on this continent and elsewhere, it is infinitely harder to document those actions when we don’t compromise future life, than those actions when we do. For this reason and more, Mellis’s figures can never get rid of those holes.
Accordingly, it could be argued that in Mellis’s fiction there is often surprisingly little evidence to show that optimism is warranted; however, at the same time, there is also surprisingly little evidence to show that it is illusory. By optimism, I do not refer to merely pedantic wishful thinking; I mean something more like unfettered attention to the earth’s materials. In Mellis’s words: “Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.” Sometimes the impossible is simply that obstacle of another survivable devastation that we find ourselves once again smack in the face of. The grace then of Mellis’s art is how, in the wake of this, it surprises us with the discovery that not only can we still move, but we may want to have a dance party. We may want to destroy our files. We may want to get really close to something and to press outlandishly hard against it, to discover what shifts and resistances persist within that dangerous gift of proximity. The internationalist avant-garde artist group, the Situationists, once made posters that said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s heads and one day they will come out.” One day, the posters seemed to imply, these ideas will be shouted. In Mellis’s own stories, we as a society have not yet managed to reach the point of shouting — such a collaborative mass display of belligerence to actual conditions still hovers at an arm’s distance; it still requires further cultivation for incarnation. But certain individual figures within these tales are uncovering promising incipient forms for their words, acts, and ideas, and some of them are even finding company. There is a sense that they are gathering their forces … and ours.
In the same lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis with which this essay begins, Vladimir Nabokov writes: “Unless we see them [the characters] in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.” We are lucky that in Mellis’s work the enchanter never once takes leave of us. Or as O observes during one of his many eccentric encounters with a very singular self-taught divinator: “Wherever she touched [me], she left a trail of froth.” Mellis’s work happily leaves one like that also: frothed-up, vibrating, keen to discover.
A review of Tony Leuzzi's 'Radiant Losses'
In his new collection Radiant Losses, Tony Leuzzi writes poems that are not only universal in topic and emotive power, but also very personal. Poems such as “Now” explore the physical and emotional connections between men: “The / less / he was / and the less / I was the more we / disappeared behind bodies not / our own …” In the last stanza of this poem, Leuzzi’s speaker reaches a metaphysical realization: “But / now / with you / I can’t think / of anyone else / hell! I can’t think at all! Your skin / against mine / my flesh, your flesh, the immediate this” (53). In these last lines, a unity has been achieved: sexuality is more than simply raw substance; it is divine and now.
Radiant Losses explores other erotic possibilities. In the poem “Today,” Leuzzi addresses the games played in seduction by telling the reader about the Cavalier poets and describing the rituals of attraction and seduction: “But they were men who pined for girls, / who teased the locks of chambers free.” Leuzzi sets up desire with a sense of urgency: “let’s do this now before we die” (16), suggesting the carpe diem theme of the Cavalier poets’ work. However, there is also irony in that statement: oftentimes what we so desperately want is spoken of and written about in tones that are lighthearted in order to hide our passion and desperation.
Two recurring themes in Leuzzi’s collection, longing and regret, are intertwined with each other and with the book’s title. It is not difficult to see how the title refers to loss that takes on the power of radiance through so much longing for an unrealized or lost love, event, or emotion. In “Joe Brainard,” Leuzzi’s speaker regrets that what is so obvious to him in retrospect was not so obvious to him at the time. He ends the poem with a luminous description of what he found through his regret: “I / re / member / this I re- / member that, and each / time the phrase appeared there was this / magic, pure and simple, a cold raindrop on my skin” (45). The poem reminds us of the way this longing for spiritual fulfillment helps us endure personal losses and regrets.
Leuzzi describes the interplay of emotion and intellect in “At Albright-Knox, 2003.” Through the purity of language and the unfolding of a vignette, the poem reveals how emotions and intellect are so closely aligned. The setting for this poem is a room that contains “nine abstract expressionist paintings.” To the uneducated eye, abstract expressionism is merely chaotic design. To critics and lovers of this style of painting, these works create both emotional and intellectual discovery. The speaker sees someone he desires, and the interplay is electric as the two figures look at each other, although briefly: “as if one’s undivided gaze / was a hand caressing the taut skins of canvases” (43).
Leuzzi leads us word by word and syllable by syllable into each poem; the poem’s vignette style further teases us with the simplicity of the idea, laying it all out very logically. However, by the last line of the poem, Leuzzi gives us the full emotional impact of the poem’s meaning. For example, in “Log Cabins,” Leuzzi moves the reader through a consideration of the gay Log Cabin members of the Republican Party. His last line contains the central image of the poem: “save a few huts collapsing in the wilderness” (41). Everything that Leuzzi had written up until that point points the reader to this conclusion; in some ways, it almost reads like a syllogism.
A poem with particularly powerful use of imagery is “On Ribera’s La Mujer Barbuda,” in which we see a series of images: “but a stout man with sturdy hands / and one enormous breast suspended from the center // of / his /chest like / a swollen / gourd soon to be plucked / and hollowed, then carefully strung / with gut for the lyre, on which a bard might weave weird tales” (49). The interpretation of visual art through language art tantalizes and gratifies that sensory need which many poets have to sustain themselves and to “weave weird tales.” It is an interesting and rewarding exercise to look at a piece of art or listen to music and rewrite the sensory images and feelings as a poem, and Leuzzi does this also using music as his muse in “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Impromptu.’” He uses the same tightly controlled style of other poems in which he slowly leads the reader into the situation of the poem, beginning, “In / F- / minor / begins with …” The first stanza ends, “swift as the pitter of kittens / across linoleum, patters like a little boy …” The poem builds in energy with more syllables that then move quickly to a conclusion. The music takes on the persona of a little boy, who changes his intent as it moves through the various movements, and surprises the reader with this ending: “surrenders arms to air and asks for cake” (47).
The language in this collection contains tightly controlled emotion hidden beneath more obvious meaning. Leuzzi uses compression to create emotional power that expresses itself as “radiant losses.” As a poet, I am also searching for the banal parts of life to be translated into those radiant moments and losses.
A review of Peter Gizzi’s ‘Threshold Songs’
Besides referring to an entrance, the word “threshold” signifies the lower limit of an observable phenomenon; take grief, for example. I know when grief arrives, but when is it gone? More likely, grief just dissipates and never goes away entirely and at some point maybe we cease trying to measure it. On the other hand, a threshold is a crossing. When I was twelve, my parents added a room onto our small house, and the builder suggested ash for the thresholds. Ash, he said, had been thought to keep out evil spirits. Once you’ve crossed a threshold, there is no going back; you have been irrevocably changed. What’s more, it’s possible to consider every moment of your life in these terms, and so those moments become — sometimes intolerably — charged with the weight of all of our histories, hopes, and desires.
A threshold, though, is also a singularity, the point at which a function takes an infinite value. That is, in a sense, the upper limit of an observable phenomenon; as in, what is the limit of our perception? In the case of grief, this question might be better stated: how much can we take? In “Analemma,” Gizzi writes:
now that you’re gone
and I’m here or now
that you’re here and
I’m gone or now
that you’re gone and
I’m gone what
did we learn
what did we take
from that oh
now that you’re here
and also gone
I am just learning
that threshold (16)
The way the lines break here enacts the reaching of the words themselves as they tendril out into thoughts, and thoughts are risks. I feel myself asking myself whether I’m willing to think about these things. What is “here” and what is “gone”? And, perhaps more significantly, what does “learn” mean in this context? The word “threshold” gets invested with the weight of all of this, because the threshold is the place where one feeling becomes another feeling, where we go from being okay to not being okay. Or we weren’t okay before and we won’t be okay again, but the terms have been altered.
In “Pinocchio’s Gnosis,” Gizzi writes, “Sure it’s a nice day. A splendid day when joy met doom, the entire forest wept” (31). Here is threshold-as-meeting, and the forces coming together are as disparate as joy and doom. Storms are formed by the crashing together of opposing atmospheric forces, and though those forces may be locally relieved by the release of the storm itself, they still exist as themselves again in other places, and again, later, in the very same place. Might we see a storm as an entire forest weeping? In the same poem, Gizzi writes, “This body only lasts for so many days. It’s got a shelf life. It’s got time-lapse, time-based carbon life. There’s you and it and now you are it” (34). When the body meets the mind, it happens in the body, and certainly there are storms.
In the fourth section of the poem “History Is Made at Night,” Gizzi writes, “Gmail / invites me to ‘go visible.’ / Is being invisible not enough? / A kind of vow like poetry / burning the candle down” (69). The shift from visible to invisible, happening even as it does here in the mediated space of Gmail’s chat function, is another kind of threshold. The word “invites” feels generous; the world is out there waiting for you to go visible. But then how do we deal with all of the problems of communication? Here we have poetry “burning the candle down.” What is the candle when it burns down all the way? In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville said “I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg.” He was frustrated by a paradox; no one wanted to hear what he wanted to say, but he was unable to say anything else.
This paradox is similar to the paradox inherent in lyric poetry; that we are compelled to sing what is ultimately an interior expression. In “Apocrypha,” Gizzi writes, “I found I was over and singular yet many, the many and the singular, the many and the evolutionary, the many in the grain. Many more” (54). If every individual is singular, then to be singular is to be like everyone else. The one intermingles into the many. In the very next sentence, Gizzi writes, “Who in hell am I writing for?” In the ninth section of “History Is Made at Night,” he writes, “That the biology / that composes I / is shared with I” (74). It’s a beautiful notion that comes close to answering the previous question. To write is to compose, so biology — the world — writes us. In return, we write back. The poem “Bardo” ends, “And if I say the words / will you know them? // Is there world? / Are they still calling it that?” (77). This “you” gets expansive if we think of it as the possible world out there, where we hope to commingle our confusion and bewilderment with a little bit of understanding.
In the book’s final poem, “Modern Adventures at Sea,” Gizzi writes:
I wonder if I am
up to this light.
These ideas of order
and all I feel
the avenue. (82)
Ideas of Order, of course, is the title of a 1936 collection of poems by Wallace Stevens, a collection that includes the beautiful poem “How to Live. What to Do.” These two sentences are how Gizzi ends Threshold Songs. The questions of how to live and what to do are important ones, and poetry often feels like an answer that makes sense. “I wonder if I am / up to this light” is a thought which is right at the crux of being a person. There is this voice, and we don’t know if it is inside of us or outside of us, and we wonder if we are up to the impossible task of expressing it. This voice is the preoccupation of Threshold Songs and really of all lyric poetry. In “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” Stevens writes, “At the earliest ending of winter, / In March, a scrawny cry from outside / Seemed like a sound in his mind” (534). Gizzi writes:
When lost at sea
I found a voice,
alive and cresting,
and rising. To drift,
digress, to dream
of the voice. Its
grain. To feel
its vibrations. Pitch.
Its plural noises.
To be upheld
in it, to love.
Whose book lying
on that table?
And where does
come from? (84)
The question is enormous and exists at the threshold of song itself. “These ideas of order / and all I feel / walking down / the avenue” (83) is all we are, and one way of living is to cross the threshold of saying any of it at all.
A review of Kristen Case's ‘American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice’
This review of Kristen Case’s 2011 work of literary scholarship, American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe, will not be a review at all. That is, it will abjure, as it pleases, summary, synopsis, critical narrative, argumentation, and contextualization in an effort to respond to the book’s provocative closing question: “What sort of writing becomes possible if we relinquish the myth of scholarly apartness?” (141).
answered the door went to the gym changed Ethan’s diaper felt guilty that I don’t read or write
Frame 1: “Given the plausibility of other readings of Emerson and Moore, on what ground do I defend the critical narrative I have fashioned? The only plausible answer seems to me, on no ground: for it is precisely groundedness that Emerson, in his commitment to onwardness, deprives us of” (Case, 40).
as much as I’d like watched too many episodes of The Big Bang Theory had several epiphanies
Frame 2: “Like The Iliad lying open on Thoreau’s desk during his first summer at Walden, these texts [Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Thoreau’s Kalendar] ask not to be read so much as lived with” (119).
To live with a book means more than just allowing it to linger, visibly, in your presence, but to do so with the ambitious intention, however unlikely to be realized, to return to it as a resource again and again. In other words, living with a book, as I have been doing with American Pragmatism these past several months, entails, in some fundamental sense, not-reading it, letting it lie dormant, in potentia, so that you might better discover alternate uses for it in your life.
that turned out not to be epiphanies at all loaded and unloaded the dishwasher bought a tight-
Frame 3: “In ‘The Fixation of Belief,’ [Charles Sanders] Peirce defines ‘inquiry’ as the process in which ‘the irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief,’ suggesting that inquiry is motivated not by an impartial desire for truth, but rather by the need for ‘a firm belief … whether that belief be true or false’” (139).
The irritation: how books matter in our private lives squares too infrequently with how they get written about in both popular and, especially, scholarly discourse. The belief: that private, unsanctioned usages of books can, with judicious tailoring, contribute to, even shape, the public discourses about them, rather than it always happening the other way around.
fitting t-shirt and felt good acted inconstant poached some chicken reminisced about cheesy ’90s
Frame 4: “During the period of time in which this text was conceived, several important facts pressed themselves upon my experience: US-led airstrikes killed hundreds of Afghan civilians, many of them women and children. My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer now so common in her region that her doctors strongly suspect an environmental cause. I learned that my father’s Parkinson’s disease was likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. I moved to a small house surrounded by woods. I had two children. Certain of these facts, the illnesses of my father and mother-in-law, for example — remain behind the text, unannounced in my writing, but shaping in important ways my understanding of human beings’ relations to the places they inhabit. Other facts — US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, my daughter’s birth — have intruded so suddenly and so thoroughly into my thinking that I found rendering them invisible to be impossible. By allowing these facts to surface in my writing, I hope to enact, rather than simply describe, a pragmatist conception of knowledge” (xv).
“Scholarly apartness”: not only distance from one’s object of study, but also perhaps, more insidiously, the condition of being riven, pulled apart by an alienating methodological stance. At bottom, scholarship is a private supplication dressed up as — transformed into — a public service.
horror films with Shari and Jen felt buoyed by a reading ate exclusively from the bland side of
Frame 5: “By allowing these facts to surface in my writing, I hope to enact, rather than simply describe, a pragmatist conception of knowledge” (xv).
In both the form and content of her readings, Case places continual emphasis on poetic and philosophical enactments, a term of deep value for her. Hypothesis: enactment, always somewhat histrionic, edges philosophic discourse toward poetry.
the menu had my first book accepted for publication went to therapy hammered and nailed things
Frame 6: “The accepted prose style for literary scholars, [Charles] Bernstein writes, is characterized by ‘an insistence on a univocal surface, minimal shifts in mood either within paragraphs or between paragraphs, exclusion of extraneous or contradictory material, and tone restricted to the narrow affective envelope of sobriety, neutrality, objectivity, authoritativeness, or reanimated abstraction.’ Bernstein concludes that this rigidity of form, which he calls ‘frame lock,’ is derived from ‘what might be called the rule of the necessity of paraphrase[:] the argument must be separable from its expression so that a defined message can be extracted from the text’” (92).
I herein offer no messages about American Pragmatism separable from the histrionic gestures by which I am trying to deliver them. Why the necessity of histrionics: because nothing calls attention to itself — to its status as artifice — more than bad acting.
acquiesced to sleep on occasion lost 10 lbs. then stopped counting started posting again in online
Frame 7: “Describing relations is poetic work. It involves the continual search for a form” (41).
What’s difficult about writing a review in a series of discrete frames is not producing coherence but resisting it. Howsoever you edit and splice it, the reel wants to spool a narrative.
poker forums even though I don’t play anymore grinned wryly sleep trained Ethan i.e. stood by
Frame 8: “To begin, a confession: I am a trespasser in the territory of philosophy. I come by way of poetry” (xi).
Explanatory confession: my own dissertation-turned-book, due out next year, also takes up questions about the intersection of the scholarly and the personal, albeit in less scholarly ways than American Pragmatism. Another confession: Kristen and I were classmates at the English Department of the CUNY Graduate Center, an incubator of quiet poetic insurrection.
and helped him cry torn picnicked in Central Park shaved my head even on days I couldn’t be
Frame 9: “As James contends, our philosophy is less a matter of intellectual position than it is of temperament” (45).
Temperament: For all its wide-ranging poetic and philosophical erudition, American Pragmatism leans heavily on the work of a few literary critics, principal among them Joan Richardson, Case’s dissertation advisor. I consider such self-elective fellow feeling poetic in nature: just as Allen Ginsberg hailed as his predecessor William Carlos Williams, who himself hailed Whitman, scholars do the same thing — even more so, in fact — but cannot, for reasons of decorum, easily acknowledge or romanticize it in the way their artistic counterparts can.
bothered read American Pragmatism in enthusiasm bursts and regretted agreeing to review it in
Frame 10: “I cannot separate the thinking that writes itself in these pages from the snow, from the waitress, from my daughter, whose future is a story I can’t tell” (94).
Despite Case’s suggestive insistence that she can’t separate her personal experience from her academic thinking, the book’s structure in fact performs just such a separation: the brief experiential interludes, whose function is not so much to relate her experience to the poems she writes about as to assert repeatedly that such a relation is necessary, feel, by and large, orthogonal to the straightforward academic argumentation that comprises the bulk of the book. I point out this oil-water separation descriptively, without value-judgment, to call attention to the way the book works to “destabilize the boundary between argument and form, thought and feeling, philosophy and poetry” from within the bounds of scholarly discourse and not, like most books with similar ambitions, from without: an infinitely harder task.
between practiced pleasantry with several doormen and the regulars at the gym tickled Ethan
Frame 11: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an ongoing activity, not complete action” (19).
Still: what higher compliment could be paid scholarship than that, in its Talmudic intensity, it epitomizes the ongoing, the incomplete — the asymptote. Perhaps my favorite moment in American Pragmatism comes when, at the end of a chapter on Emerson and Moore, Case acknowledges the cogency of several prominent counternarratives baldly contradictory to the critical narrative she has just spun, without in any way trying to refute or otherwise diminish those counternarratives: one of the more bracing interpretive moments I’ve ever come across in a work of scholarship.
and wondered how other times it could feel so hard braised a verb or two only used ice for guests
Frame 12: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an on-going activity, not complete action” (19).
When I speak, in grand terms, about how books matter in our private lives, I’m not sure what I have in mind — how do they matter, exactly? — but I can say with some confidence, after a decade of monastic slumber from which I am just now beginning to wake, that a book, once read, only begins to work its effects slowly, unpredictably, over long periods of time, and not in any immediate, daily way. Why I read: because, of course, it is pleasurable, and because that pleasure is the most reliably time-released one I know.
breathed without giving it any thought went grocery shopping again and again kissed Shari and
Frame 13: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an on-going activity, not completed action” (19).
Practice also entails an unavoidable measure of reluctance, the state of performing an action not because you’re motivated to do so at that exact moment but because you believe its forced repetition will be good for you in the long run. Poetic practice, so fraught in relation to the daily, is one of the few practices canny and capacious enough to turn practice’s seemingly less desirable attributes into a strength, a fundament, of the art.
was still in love puttered on the Internet went to Bed Bath & Beyond way more than I cared for
Frame 14: “To construct a book is retrospective work, a sorting through of the work done, to see what has accrued” (Don Byrd, Charles Olson’s Maximus, qtd. in Case, 165).
How I am constructing this review: by sorting through my notes with disciplined whim. What has accrued: a series of misgivings, poetic in nature, about accrual’s presumed palpability.
sorted and qualified the laundry settled into the rhythms of my new apartment building pretended
Frame 15: “To regard a text not as an object of inquiry but as part of a process in which we participate involves an ethical as well as an epistemological shift. It involves a new relation to the world” (120).
An ethical shift: from a relationship of accumulated mastery to one of, well, anything, really — pleasure, boredom, curiosity, indifference, frustration, excitement, confusion, rapture, gratitude, libidinous political overload. An epistemological shift: from philosophic knowledge to poetic knowledge — from settled exposition to unsettled enactment, onwardness.
I was OK without fooling anyone made my students laugh did not stop to contemplate duration
Frame 16: “Throughout the writing of this book I have been haunted by the persistence of two facts — the intimate, almost-voiceless reality of motherhood and the (to me) frighteningly distant, dangerously abstract reality of war” (123).
Given how I’m acting out in this review, I feel as though I should include some further mention of the personal stakes for me in writing it, some telling anecdote about my reading life that explodes like a depth charge in these otherwise abstract seas, but few, if any, opportunities for riveting private detail have presented themselves. Why I read: because the experience is at every moment about me and yet I can remain comfortably in the background — subordinate, inessential — to the content’s gripping furor.
took sluggish notes toward a book on gyms practiced selective conviviality slept in unfractured
Frame 17: “In the pragmatist epistemology, meaning is generated through the interaction of mind and world — it is made. Knowing is not a passive activity, the mere beholding of an object by a perceiving subject, it is a kind of work, a by-product of active engagement with the world” (16).
All scholarship involves active engagement with the world, involves poiesis, construction, imaginative leaps. The difference, quite simple, lies in the extent, usually considerable, to which the work’s creative and personal dimensions have been muted in the end product.
sky flirted to make the day feel better read magazines upon their arrival and never again picked
Frame 18: “As Dalia Judovitz contends, the exile of poetry (and more broadly, of aesthetic experience) from philosophy in Plato can be understood as philosophy’s founding gesture” (28).
“Inside” and “outside”: always only ever coordinates for longing’s provisional orientation. What American Pragmatism’s longings have clarified for me: less so than even philosophy, scholarship, cool and pure, cannot brook the misfit, the medial, the messy — the everyday.
them up unlocked the front door diagrammed desire along Shari’s thighs couldn’t bother to cook
Frame 19: “Reading is a name for one kind of engagement with the world” (120).
What sort of writing becomes possible when we relinquish the myth of scholarly apartness? Almost any sort of writing — almost any sort of engagement with the world through reading — becomes possible: almost any, that is, but scholarship itself.
the broccoli began watching soccer again contemplated if I could ever truly contemplate suicide
Frame 20: “It is remarkable to me the way it sounds — rereading these pages — as if a single voice is speaking, at a single point in time. Writing, or scholarly writing, at any rate, is deceptive in this way” (40).
Onwardness, its task: to point up deception by abetting it. To don so many masks that onlookers can’t help but realize they are party to a masquerade.
boiled and peeled eggs for Ethan listened on repeat to Brian Eno exulting in climactic waves