A review of Louis Bury's 'Exercises in Criticism'
Early this spring, I perched on top of a table (it was the only space left) to hear Fred Moten talk about “Blackness and Poetry.” The room was teeming with poets, critics, academics, and students. At the end of the talk, a question about the contemporary “mania” or “fetish for rule-based constraint-based poetry in a lot of poetry circles” was asked. More specifically, Nada Gordon wanted to know what this contemporary mania for rules might be a symptom of. Another way to ask this question may be, what does the phenomenon that Louis Bury calls the “recent efflorescence of American constraint-based writing”(18) mean about us?
Moten answered that the constant making and breaking of constraint is something important, which we do all the time — sometimes on the fly and at other times systematically. “We’re always doing that,” Moten explained, but a problem comes with “the monopolization of the capacity to impose constraint or to make the rules.” He argues that when constraint-based work is done right, we all take part in the architecture. In discussing NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a constraint-based conceptual poem, Moten explained that procedural elements are placed on readership and community. With Zong!, Moten describes that when he taught the book, what became crucial was the “process in which we got together to try to figure out how to read the book. But then it turned out that what we had to do was get together to figure out how to get together to figure out how to read the book.” Moten makes it clear that this undecidability, this indeterminacy, this need to collaborate, is not “infinite regress.” This is the same process of rule-breaking and -making; it is “intellectual life.”
In his new book, Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint, Louis Bury takes part in the rule-making and -breaking of constraint-based works in order to, to use Moten’s words, “figure out how to read” these works. More precisely, Bury’s book is part of a recent trend toward using creative-critical techniques to write about procedural poetics. His Exercises in Criticism develops a book-length academic argument about Oulipian and contemporary constraint-based forms while also creatively experimenting with those very forms.
Oulipian literature is potential literature (Oulipo stands for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or potential literature workshop, which began in 1960 in Paris) that uses rules and forms — often referred to as constraints, but also as generative devices, or procedural structures — to liberate its authors from other rules of which they may be less aware. For Oulipo, constraint helps us see that the words that just happen to come to us are also mediated by the constraints of personal histories and pathologies, societal notions of what makes literature, and the rules of grammar and conventional forms. Of course, the recent surge, even “mania,” for constraint-based forms in North America must be doing something different than fighting the same midcentury battle against bourgeois notions of inspiration and genius and the limitations of grammar.
Bury argues that contemporary North American writers have transformed the “apolitical literary exercises” of Oulipo “into a form of cultural critique” (13). To execute this argument, Bury acknowledges the personal, performative, and bodily aspects of both constraint-based works and criticism as a whole. Each of these elements of argumentation is woven throughout the book in formal and thematic ways. The book is divided into very short chapters, or “exercises,” which fall under the larger categories of “Anticipatory Plagiary,” “Oulipo,” “Post-Oulipo,” and of course, “The Clinamen.” Each “exercise” takes on a specific work of literature and employs its constraint to write about it.
One of Bury’s central claims is that contemporary North American writers use Oulipian practices to work through a sort of loneliness and depression that is a standard part of the experience of late capitalism. This critique of capitalism is a major divergence from the collaborative practices of Oulipo and what Bury considers their “supper club” ethos (323). The fact that Oulipian practice is taken up as a symptom of isolation also, Bury claims, charges literary constraint with new political possibility. Where the limits on options and creations of mazes may have been about an apolitical escapism for the original Oulipians, authors like Harryette Mullen, Daren Wershler-Henry, and Joan Retallack perform constraint to navigate the excessive consumer options available to us. These options at times serve as “available cultural material” and at others feel like an oppressive and “vast field of cultural detritus that surrounds us” (17).
Bury states it clearly in his lucid introduction: “The recent efflorescence of American constraint-based writing was no accident, but, rather, a response, even if unconscious, to prevailing anxieties about freedom and choice in our current historical moment” (18). In other words, most of the constraint-based writing that surrounds us critiques excess, and the aesthetic trend itself is a navigational tactic in the era of too many options. The other part of Bury’s argument — that isolation and depression is the prevailing response to excess — is illustrated when we catch glimpses of Bury’s depressive state. As Bury’s therapist reflects back to him toward the end of the book, “you’re talking about ways that you kind of feel more comfortable keeping yourself apart” (303). Bury explains that constraint-based practices of today are exercises that we do alone in order to create and perform a feeling of safety around us, or, in order to control and limit one aspect of the uncontrollable and the limitless historical moment.
Why is there a therapist’s office toward the end of a book of criticism? Another of Bury’s central arguments is about the personal nature of literary criticism in general. Bury claims that personal interests, experiences, and pathologies are always bound up in works of scholarship. For this reason, he argues that blatant “inclusion of the personal might be a more honest way of doing it” (24). Indeed, we sit in on a therapy appointment, are afforded a sneak peek on Bury’s feelings about masturbation, learn about his earliest beard hair, and perhaps most shocking of all, in a total relinquishment of the performance of critical mastery, Bury writes that if he had wanted to study Oulipo itself — rather than North American poetry that uses Oulipian practices — that he could not have done it because his French is not good enough. All these indulgences are in service of the larger project. Bury was a PhD student during part of the writing of the book (a transcript of his dissertation defense is in Exercises in Criticism, too) and now he is an academic.
It is intensely personal to watch Bury take on the “exercises,” which make up the bulk of the text. After a one-page meta-critical paragraph or two that describes the work he is engaging and the constraint he will use (these sections are labeled “Context” and “What I was Trying to Do”), we experience the success and failures of this bold style of criticism along with Bury. The way he executes the exercises is inspiring. The exercises are so inspiring that it feels strange to write a review of Bury’s book without engaging in some of the principles of his task. For this reason, I scatter elements about my life throughout. Even the first couple of sentences of this paragraph — with their level of self-consciousness about the criticism they perform — owe much to Bury.
I don’t know Bury, though I feel strongly that I could. I see that we have “17 mutual friends.” Now I am thinking that I should see if he is on Twitter. He’s on Twitter. I’m now following him on Twitter. Neither of us tweet much though.
Bury’s treatment of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa is honest about the difficulty of Roussel’s text — I feel a kindred recognition in Bury’s description of Roussel’s method of nested parenthetical digressions as a form of “hurtling the confused reader” back and forth (39). Bury’s chapter about Roussel sets out to experiment in parentheses and footnotes in order to avoid ever getting to the point. Yet Bury’s exquisite performance of parenthetical digressions — convincing as a mimetic critique in and of itself — does get to the heart of Roussel’s book after all. New Impressions of Africa is, Bury argues, “a text about the exoticism of digressions … a text about the lure and perils of the unknown” (45). Of course, as soon as he arrives at this insight, Bury’s writing begins to zoom back out. The chapter resists expanding on this assertion. Rather, it challenges the reader to insert an essay on this topic within a parenthetical of its own. The trick, of course, is that Bury’s “exercise” has argued exactly this point: we finish this section knowing quite well the aesthetic of the aside and the type of reading that digressions suggest. It is a playful but diligent reader who wades through the text — the same reader who may click link after link on a Wikipedia article, circling through pages and pages about “tableaux vivants,” “iconography,” and “Frida Kahlo” in order to return, ultimately, to finish the end of the entry about Raymond Roussel.
In the preamble to a reading of Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-ups, Bury gives us this gem: “If the medium is indeed the message, then the message of so many of these chapters seems to be that I want to be a medium” (111). The process of writing literary criticism is engaging with the multiple texts you take as your object; Bury channels these texts, he lets them speak through him and also with him. This is an open and generous mode of engagement. In the same section, he shares another secret of literary criticism, which, because of the “cut up” constraint Bury is performing here, is presumably written partly by Bellamy and partly by Bury: “Criticism must necessarily hear the boiled skull in your voice when what the critic performs is competence, expertise dismembered” (116). Bury’s writing does not perform “competence.” It is full of captivating attempts and fascinating failures, and it ultimately adds up to a critique of expertise that goes beyond dismemberment. It is expertise chopped and diced.
His chapter about Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, “The Exercise and Oulipo,” reveals Exercises in Criticism’s design. Like Queneau’s text, Bury’s exercise here is to rewrite the same content in multiple different styles. The “styles” that Bury chooses to take up range from “Gertrude Stein” to “Morning Talk Show Host” to “Postcolonial,” and it is here that we glimpse the multiple academic lenses and frames that the book employs. His glosses on “reader response theory,” “New Criticism,” and “Marxism” function the way mandatory dissertation footnotes might — they situate his criticism within a discourse — but in a delightful, pleasurable way.
An argument about conceptual poetry as criticism is also an important part of Bury’s critical model (35). Bury sees the gesture of conceptual writing as performing the work of criticism. His chapters on conceptualists Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place show this somewhat, but the argument is brilliantly made through Bury’s own altered poetic text “To the fact, to the point, to the bottom line (on my grandmother)” in the “Clinamen” section of the book. “To the fact” is a gorgeous stand-alone work, based on the notebooks and interviews of Bury’s grandmother, a Jewish-Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor. The piece is almost entirely in Bury’s grandmother’s words; we learn about a food shortage in the Jewish ghetto, and how she was separated from her family because she “could pass for a Polish looking girl” (233). Her personality comes through in thank-you notes, letters, documents, and journals. Here Oulipian-style exercises begin to erupt in otherwise unlikely places. The reproduction of a page in her notebook called “negative,” presumably notes for improving her English, catalogs words that begin with the prefix “in” (273). The list goes on and on in columns: “injustices / injustice / insecure / insensible / insensitive …” By the time we get to “inert,” we see that Bury has done it — performed conceptual writing as criticism as personal expression as critique of Oulipo.
Bury’s argument about the ways in which constraint-based practices implicate the body is the most exciting to me, and it is the one that remains the most latent — the most potential, to use Oulipian terminology — in the text. Bury designates the chapters “exercises” to “evoke the term’s corporeal dimension” and to suggest that “literary constraint has bodily implications even if only by analogy” (15). Sure enough, along with Bury’s personality, his body comes into view in this book. We learn that, when he is writing, he has to “go to the bathroom more often than usual,” for example (159).
He is not the first to make an argument about the connection of constraint-based practices to the body. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young use a “slenderizing” technique from Oulipo in their essay “Foulipo” to suggest an active feminist practice in the use and perception of constraint. They ponder why most language-constraint-based works have been written by men, and also why feminist performance art from the same moment as Oulipo has not had a larger impact on current aesthetic trends. The essay makes a robust argument about feminist reading practices for literary constraints.
When I read this book, I was in the very final stages of a literature PhD program, just like Bury’s speaker. One of the chapters of my dissertation deals precisely with the ways in which literary constraint has bodily implications and bodily constraints have literary implications. In the chapter, I examine feminist body art and also Oulipian practices. More largely, many of the issues that interest Bury interest me. For example, techniques of conceptual writing that could also be construed as criticism interest us both. I had previously read most of the works that Bury discusses in his book, but not all of them. I write briefly on New Impressions of Africa in a different chapter of my dissertation; I have taught Harryette Mullen’s work every quarter since I started creating syllabi; I haven’t read Doug Nufer (I wouldn’t voluntarily admit that at a party, but Exercises in Criticism puts me in the mood for spilling it).
In his effort to depart from Spahr and Young’s essay, Bury writes that a dichotomy cannot be made between the body and constraint; rather, “with the notion of the writing exercise, a tantalizing analogy between language and the body underlies Oulipian practice” (66). I’m not sure that Spahr and Young would disagree. However, their writing is about the female body and its lack of representation in constraint-based work. Bury’s body, even as it is represented in the text through all kinds of “tantalizing analogies,” is not a female body. It is perhaps the typical artist’s body — or critic’s body — represented more fully and completely as such. In this way it is, as Bury hopes for, more honest than most criticism.
For example, though he “gropes” and “attempts to spread his seed freely” in his work on Harry Matthews’s text, Singular Pleasures, this is the one section of the book where constraint seems to entirely disappear. The generative device used dictates that colons appear in every sentence in this section, and the punctuation is remarkable. But it is not restrictive or constrained. The piece recalls Vito Acconci’s Seedbed in which Acconci loudly masturbated under a ramp in a public gallery space (1971), or Nam June Paik’s Young Penis Symphony, a performance of artists pushing their penises through a large butcher paper, making holes and patterns (1962). These works critique the liberated or “free” persona of the male artist, able to spread his fertile creativity uninhibitedly. Bury’s exercise does not recall works about bodies under constraint like Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, where she underwent a diet to “carve” her body and documented it in nude photographs (1972), or Marina Abramović sitting on ice for predetermined amounts of time (1975), or Adrian Piper’s Catalysis I, where Piper inhabited crowded public spaces after her clothes had been soaked in cod liver oil, vinegar, rotten eggs, and milk (1970). In fact, Antin, Abramović, and Piper’s works would not be useful to Bury’s argument because they are not about excess of choice, but about lack of choice — they are about the real, material, patriarchal constraints of the everyday. These works certainly perform a critique, but they perform a critique of ideology. They perform critique of lack — lack of recourses, lack of options, lack of possible representations — not of excess.
When Bury writes about the work of Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, and Dodie Bellamy, I hear echoes of the feminist tradition of integrating the body into the work in a very material way. Mullen’s “damning enactment of language’s inherited — and largely hidden — biases” (117), for example, may be part of this tradition of ideology critique.
Though Bury doesn’t mention feminist performance artists of the 1960s and ’70s, or their tradition of what could also be considered constraint-based work, he does engage a discussion about the ways that gender and identity imply or disavow certain forms. In fact, his critique of a type of purely representational gender politics is exciting. Bury shows that analyzing a text “based on what’s missing from it” — his example is the question, “why are there so few female members of the Oulipo?” — could continue ad infinitum. Sure enough. He performs this possibility in the chapter “Absences, Negations, Voids,” in which Doug Nufer’s novel, Negativeland, is appraised by its lack of ice cream trucks, sherpas, and positive thinking. Bury may be arguing that instead of this never-ending expression of lack, we should attend to what is there, and in this case something like a clever critique of masculinity may be in order.
But the chapter “Cultural Politics, Postmodernism, and White Guys: Femininity as Affect and Effect in Robert Fitterman’s This Window Makes Me Feel,” the place where we expectantly (myself, excitedly!) look for such a critique, the technique seems to suggest that arguments, or academic critiques of any kind, are interchangeable. In this section, Bury performs a mash-up of academic articles from JSTOR and Jane Tompkins’s “Criticism and Feeling.” The end result is a sort of uneasy caricature of academic feminism. I wonder what I am missing, because it seems to me that the possibility for the type of brilliant helpful work that Bury gestures toward with his critique of representational gender politics comes from this world of academic feminist criticism. This mash-up shows that nothing is outside the boundaries of ludic creative-critical play — but unlike the other sections in Exercises that also show this, “Cultural Politics” does not slyly reveal that the argument was there all along.
Bury’s critique of masculinity actually arrives in “One should not try to go over the limit,” the section of the book that prints a questionnaire that Bury wrote for his father, with his father’s answers. Here we see his father’s reluctance to analyze his feelings or experiences — his father leaves blank questions like “How come you never tried to teach Emily and me Polish” and “Discuss a sublime experience you have had” and “What is the nature of our relationship.” The white space below each question seems aggressively uninformative. Bury’s father believes in limits and composure. In Bury’s therapy session, he describes his father as shy (295), but in the questionnaire Bury’s father appears pointedly guarded. This is tied to Bury’s confession in therapy about how masculinity works, that “men are supposed to be silent and stoic and strong” (299).
As Bury ruminates on his sense of being a writer as a way of being in the world, we can’t help but wonder how this notion of the silent and strong writer plays out within the argument of Exercises in Criticism. What does this sense of being a writer — a strong and silent one — mean for constraint-based practices? It has something to do with the loneliness that makes us feel alone. This is the writerly, strong, lonely silence that separates us — and it is undeniably masculine. Thus Bury’s critique of masculinity is bound up in his writing, his body, and the personal aspects of his life. And for Bury, the honest way to go about making the argument is not to talk about what is missing — but rather to discuss the excess on which each one of these aspects of the book relies.
Exercises in Criticism is not the only recent work to attempt to answer Nada Gordon’s question in Fred Moten’s talk. And it is not the first to use rule-making and -breaking to do it. Bury’s book is part of a contemporary constellation of creative critical work on Oulipo and Oulipian practices, including Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012), editors Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011), and editors Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim’sThe /n/oulipian Analects (Les Figues Press, 2007). All of these works deviate from standard scholarly or academic form in their discussion of constraint-based texts, and each book has an important claim to make about the form and ideology of criticism more generally.
The /n/oulipian Analects is a collection of papers and presentations from noulipo, the conference which took place at CalArts in Los Angeles in 2005. Like Bury’s book of exercises, this collection of essays focuses on the legacy of the Oulipo among Anglophone writers, rather than on the French group themselves. The form of the Analects is like a labyrinth, with all the essays, talks, and questions alphabetized by title or theme. Want to find the book’s copyright page? Look under “C.” The effect is something like Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa — it takes a diligent, albeit slightly irritated, reader to follow an essay through the Analects — but when one does, the result is like a conversation, which spirals forward. It allows the reader the role of interlocutor, making connections and networks within the materials. Bury’s book is indeed more systematic in comparison. I have never been to one of those “boot camps” in public parks, only watched them with curiosity while eating at picnics or taking strolls, and reading Bury’s exercises feels a little like this. We are transfixed by the exertion, but we don’t take part in it.
Among other creative and scholarly essays, Spahr and Young’s “foulipo” was written for the conference and printed in the Analects (it also included a performance in 2005). The essay is also included in A Megaphone alongside several other “enactments” by Spahr and Young that are scholarly and creative, action-based, political, and academic.
The most recent of this constellation, Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, which focuses on French Oulipo, suggests a pleasure-based, reader-centric understanding of Oulipian practices. To this end, like Bury, he exposes that the object of his critical work is deeply personal. Unlike Bury, he doesn’t perform any constraint-based exercises in the book. (He does perform these types of exercises elsewhere — as a member of Oulipo, he writes constraint-based fiction, and creates constraints.) The project of Many Subtle Channels is friendly and pedagogical: Levin Becker argues that constraints — thinking about them, looking for them, creating them, employing them — make us better readers as well as better writers and he explains their use, function, and history to that end.
Exercises in Criticism is different because of its book-length focus on recent Oulipian forms. For this reason, it could replace the now almost twenty-five-year-old Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry by Joseph M. Conte, the major and traditionally scholarly work about constraint-based forms and practices in the US. Bury’s book is thrilling for its exercises, which are like distinct essays that illuminate an individual work. In this way, it is not quite a book of sustained criticism. Conte’s book, though academic in form, likewise feels this way; in the typology it creates, each category of serial and procedural form is fairly disparate. The other collections I mention above celebrate the partial, the fragmented, and the piecemeal. Indeed, this could be a characteristic of constraint-based works — they resist overarching argumentative claims — and this quality of Bury’s book shows that he’s in on the secret.
If recent constraint-based literature — texts by Mullen and Fitterman, for example — “critiques excess by farcically enacting it,” as Bury claims it does (19), Bury’s Exercises seems to do as much for contemporary criticism. In his avoidance of “monochrome argumentation” in his treatment of Roussel, his attempt at becoming a medium for Dodie Bellamy, his love letter to CAConrad, in his 330 pages of thrilling endeavors at getting to the point, we get the sense that a crucial part of the argument is the sheer heft and sprawl of the work itself. Part of the argument is the very performance of these exercises, and we delight to watch.
1. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “Foulipo,” in A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays About the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-Pants-and-a-Machine-Gun Feminism (Oakland: ChainLinks, 2011), 31–42.
A review of Lisa Robertson's 'Cinema of the Present'
Lisa Robertson’s epic, nothing-quite-like-it Cinema of the Present reads and screens like its title. I daresay it is a textual film. On paper. But moving. You often hear about “poetic” or “text-films” but on film. But what about the opposite? Films on paper. After you’re done reading it you will feel like you’ve just watched a film. The images will come back to haunt and unhaunt you over and over. You’ll remember and then you’ll remember you just read a book, not a film. Robertson has written a majestic long-poem-film on paper that disrupts in real time our perception of the everyday — the subconscious thoughts, the thinking without thinking, the seeing without seeing — it’s all here, in intonating rhythm, making readers crack open the undercurrents of the seeming banality of normative life — and behold the wondrous thought-form journey to epiphany that Robertson takes us on.
To “read” (or view?) this book is not unlike (thrillingly) “reading” a film. It’s an astonishing feat — the book reads as a film that is always present, never past. You blink and the next line takes you to the next frame. A concrete, often surreal image appears and then a thought or feeling that you, the viewer, might have — in your subconscious — deduced from the image. Lines alternate between italics and normal type.
A gate made of photocopies, photographs, computer prints.
Irony was both your mother tongue and the intimate science of your future. (8)
Italic lines like the one above often feel like a dreamy film frame — purely visual. Then another line invokes feeling, mood, or thought. I felt gripped in my own private movie theater, reading but not reading, seeing but not seeing but imagining the images behind the words while reading, without thinking, but thinking. I was watching a text-movie-film in the eternal now — what an exhilarating ride.
It might sound easy — write a poem like a film script. While this long poem is not exactly a standard screenplay per se, the prospect of it reading as an experimental-poetic film script is exciting. To truly create a cinema of the present necessitates a reading of the present. Robertson has challenged our purported reality and has created lines that create images that create thoughts, all while feeling like film frames are rolling by. As with a real celluloid film rolling, I was hesitant to put the book down as it felt like pausing the film (which is not the best thing to do as the film might break or stretch or screech) and then when I picked it up again, I found myself “rewinding” the images to get back to my spot. To create a film out of words that are never past, only present so it’s never past (to channel Stein) is testament to someone with an extreme capacity of mental imagery. That is, like a director. Robertson has directed a film of words, and once you start reading you feel like you can’t stop the film.
Reading Cinema of the Present is like the book’s introductory quote by French structural linguist Emile Benveniste: “One must allow for chance discoveries always possible in this vast domain in which the investigation has not been systemically pursued.” Starting with its slow-build repetitious lines — in various manifestations — we experience chance discoveries in Robertson’s film poem. We haven’t systemically pursued them per se, except to pick up this book. Like the back cover image of a quote from the book — “your pronoun thus leaks” — a nod, perhaps, to Benveniste’s work on pronouns (and the distinction between with and without context) — you are driving this film. You are brought in with YOUs. Many yous. You are pulled along — not sure what’s in store, but the poem keeps shifting and turning in ways unexpected, even for poetry. It sounds and feels and reads like a traditional hymn, a slo-mo marching band tune, an experimental film, a record on loop.
Reading Cinema of the Present, like viewing a film — our eyes close — between the lines — like strips between frames; it’s reminiscent of avant-garde filmmakers like Dorsky, Frampton, Brakhage — each image or phrase resonates as a film frame, and something else is happening besides just the images. The images in Cinema of the Present make sense in their accumulation of individual “frames.” I was hooked from the first line, hypnotically. It all made sense in a seeming unsenseness, never felt past, because after all we are in the cinema of the eternal present. It’s not easy to pull that off. How do you keep writing and a reader always feeling in the present? The idea about the present is — is there any present? — as many thinkers before us have asked because once we recognize it’s present, it’s not. So it takes a Herculean effort to create, as Robertson has, a true version of the present via the cinema of words, in the present. Robertson’s line order makes readers feel as if they were thrust back into the moment, a present moment again and again and again, so nothing gets past (yes or no, pun intended), a perpetual present of presences is what Robertson keeps us in. I could reread this again and again like a favorite record and never get bored and constantly “see” new images, like a dream where I forgot the plot, but it’s there in my subconscious, and each new “seeing” pulls another memory or thought from the deep substructure of the brain.
This book mesmerizes from the beginning: as the reader begins to “get into” the poem, they are hit, visually and textually, with “gates” of every type — in between lines of images — and unlike any gates we have seen before. There is indeed an invisible gate before every book, whether we think we are unlocking a gate or not — before reading. As we start this “cinema of the present” we are confronted with “a gate made of photocopies, photographs, computer prints” (8) and “a gate made of photocopy” (8) (among many other gates) — which turn upside down of course the usual gates. When Robertson brings in the “you,” you are implicated. We start with a question for you, “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?” (5) and for the rest of Cinema of the Present, she proceeds to answer. We continue to encounter gates made with things you can “go through.” So is it a gate? — can we ever really go through a poem? Can it permeate us? What would it be like to go through a “gate made of photocopy?” — would all the words from the copies magically enter our heads?
Later we read, “all you wanted was a little bit of accurate description in which to disappear” (9). I felt I had disappeared in Cinema of the Present’s images, in the description. The “you” begins on page 10 and one of the earliest lines with it — “your face was pure query” (11) — is how I imagine the readers of this work. We come back to the pronoun — “an unbeknowing expands in your pronoun but it feels convivial” (11), and we see ourselves in Robertson’s images and mysterious, philosophical statements, and it feels a bit ominous, but also feels just right.
Certain lines meta-comment on the book itself and give it new meaning — “and then you recline against an image” (14) — reclining against this book of images, absorbing and falling into them with our own memories. And then “you were being internally photographed” (14), a line I love because it feels like what Cinema of the Present is about — each lined image or thought or feeling seems it could be something from our own internals. Then Robertson reminds us, cloyingly before you hang on too much to the above, “but you did not disappear to yourself” (15). The complicated notions of self — what is self, memory, nostalgia, déjà vu — are all tampered with here; indeed if the lines of the book could be a photographed chronicle of the subconscious, you would still be aware of who you are and wouldn’t disappear totally in the images.
What’s striking about Robertson’s cine-poem is its mix of language poetry without any of the annoyance or criticism that still occurs nowadays from poets scolding that form. Robertson also brings in everyday language that is deceptive in its simplicity. It’s not simplistic. But it’s as the title is, present. Not pretentious. Not only in the poet’s head, not the bad kind of dense. The good kind of density is here, and that will keep you grounded with the author’s images. She notices what photographers and filmmakers notice:
As for the scrappy parking-lot trees, you are full of tenderness for the feminine in them.
What’s natural, what’s social, what’s intuitive? (17)
And then, on the flip side, Robertson is acutely aware of, and comments on, the limitations of words:
As for the serial description …
You now no longer use better words. (17)
Yet words are used here, in serial description, but not as mere words, not as mere description — and succeed in something else — images, thoughts, feelings. Of course, Cinema of the Present is completely comprised of words vacillating between italics and regular text, and I hear sounds: echoes, second-guessing, persistent questioning. Cinema of the Present sounds like an orchestra of the undercurrents of the everyday. Further, Robertson writes:
At the edges of banality, there is sensing.
One out of three.
At the edges of sensing, no solution.
You had thrown yourself into risk without recognizing the act for what it was. (18)
This entire work could be a “sensing” — under seemingly banal images and thoughts: there’s “something” there. Have we guessed right? But when we sense, does it always bring an answer? Not always. You keep going and going. You continue on, whether thinking or not. We view the banal imagery that Robertson provides, but with her “sensing,” she makes it poetry. Such banality, in its accumulation, is not. What about all those parking lot trees we never paid attention to? Robertson asks, “how do you conserve the memory of these actions?” (27). Cinema of the Present’s treatment of memory is both subtle and front-and-center — like the poem itself — “how else do you construct a pause in cognition?” (28). This line suggests this poem itself is one entire pause in the quest of cognition of the world around us — wrap your head around that; a full poem is a pause — a moving pause — in the quest of cognition. Wow. Which leads me to another line —“and you had a conceptual sensation” (32) — which is the feeling I just had — which is what this entire poem leads you to when you finish. It blasts open any tidy definitions of the word “conceptual” in all of its untidiness. By the end of reading Cinema of the Present, “instead you’ll synthesize time” (33) and will have “left a wake of linguistic sillage” (39).
I come back again and again while reading the book to: what would it mean to do a cinema of the everlasting present — where we never dip into the past? Does the past guide the present or factor at all? This is what Robertson’s lines eventually take me to, and it’s an ethereal feeling. Taking the ride into? Onto? Through? Robertson’s Cinema of the Present could be that extended moment in the form of a contemporary epic poem, that, I “saw” as a book-film. Robertson’s “cinema” is astounding in that it works as moments of images but also thoughts that the reader-viewer of such imagistic text can “see.”
Each line, each sequence seems to do away with preconceived notions of the image or thought or feeling presented. In the end, “memory and the present are not in opposition” (43). Robertson has managed to make both appear simultaneously without a glaring dichotomy, and it’s a trip. They are seamed as one, because aren’t we using memory all the time to be in the present, as oxymoronic as that sounds? The poem is both surface and depth, screen memory and memory. After all, “the present is all with you” (51). There’s an internal music here, a rhythm that loudly sounds in the-text-on-page-silence. You hear it and feel it and can imagine a gospel chorus singing the lines in italics, and a projector screening the images in lines between behind them. Being “in” this book, “you are thrown headlong into transcendent things” (53). That’s what these images are — not static, not solely concrete, but transcendent. By the end of the poem, I predict, “only the rhyme of discourse transforms you” (54).
By the time you are done with this book, it’s true — the everyday discourse has been made poetic and without you fully knowing it, you will have been transformed. At some point you might ask “what if language is already beyond itself?” (73). In a sense, this language goes beyond “just” language to something deeper than thoughts, deeper than “now.” You might find — “very simply like this you disappeared into the interval” (61) — that interval of suddenly understanding the words without thinking the words. In the end “you had wanted to believe that language needs us to witness its time” (59) — that is what we have done here with Cinema of the Present. What we are doing as readers and Robertson as a writer is “annotating the idea of a long elastic present …” (94).
I dare our fellow experimental film communities in Canada and the States to make a feature-length film solely from these lines. We’ll have a meta-meta textual film. A film that was text to begin with. Then a film existing from the film as text as final celluloid film. I even dare such filmmakers to resist using text in the celluloid film. Your mirrored cinema of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. Moving image, moving text, never past, look in mirror, revelation (repeat). After all, Robertson says, “You think this place could be wordless” (90) — in the end we will be left with images and thoughts, no words: a cinema of the present.
May 11, 2013
Adventures of Pi made me think a lot about Detroit.
As you know, I was born in the Motor City. I am child of the auto industry. My grandfather worked as a draughtsman for American Motors. My mother worked in Lee Iacocca’s secretarial pool at Ford. My father worked at Ford, too, in the leasing division. I remember him bringing home these shiny adhesive Mustang logos when I was a boy. I stuck one to the shell of my pet turtle.
We moved to California in 1971.
I remember returning to Detroit for my grandfather’s funeral in 1977. That was the first time I ever experienced death. There may have been an open casket, but my memory of the event, which is entirely fabricated, is of my grandfather lying on his back in a dark suit on a long white pedestal topped by a clear plexiglass box, almost like something you’d see in an art gallery. I think we may have visited my grandmother one or two times after that.
I returned alone in the late nineties. I was working on a collaborative artist’s book called The Box Project. I drove around Lake Erie for three days, stopping in each city to collect objects to bring back to Buffalo and place in the boxes we were making. I picked up a rusted scrap of steel and a shard of glass in Detroit.
I remember riding the People Mover that afternoon. What a strange trip that is. You can’t enter or leave downtown, you simply ride around in circles, just high enough to see into the windows of the enormous buildings and realize that they are all empty.
I also visited Old St. Mary’s Church in Greektown, where my parents were married in the summer of 1967. The ceremony took place in the middle of the riots. On the day of their wedding, tanks flanked both sides of the church. Much to the chagrin of my father’s Brooklyn Irish relatives, alcohol had been banned from public events, so the reception was a bit of a dud.
I was born in October of the following year.
When my first book came out, Ted Pearson introduced me to James Hart, who invited me to read in Detroit at the Woodward Line series, which is run by James and Kim Hunter. I was happy to see Kim appear in your poems. The last time I read there, Kim let me sleep at his place. I remember eating cereal in the morning with his family before driving back to Buffalo.
I am not sure where I am going with this. I started to write something pretentious like, “We live in the ruins of America.” Then I deleted it. Then I guess I just wrote it again. I have felt that way at times. I don’t think there is a city that has suffered as badly as Detroit during my lifetime. Buffalo is right up there, though, if you are keeping score.
When I first moved there, I was shocked at how empty it felt. Like everyone had just walked away one afternoon. It felt haunted, even more so when later I saw photos of Main Street at the turn of the twentieth century. The city had streetcars and the sidewalks bustled with people going about their business.
Where had they all gone?
I have been sitting on this letter for ten days since I wrote that question. Each morning, I open the document, reread it, make a few corrections. I keep asking myself if that is the end of the letter, knowing it is not. It needs a coda.
It’s nearly summer here in North Haven, Connecticut. My mother is visiting for the week. Yesterday, we tore out the shower in our bathroom. In the evening, we lit a fire in the backyard fireplace and roasted marshmallows. Then we watched Mad Men. Then we went to bed.
Adventures of Pi rests on the desk next to my laptop. I am pretty sure the cover photo is the same one you use for your Facebook profile. I remember you are standing on a beach somewhere, the ocean at your back. You are wearing a turquoise shirt with a collar. A small wave breaks over your right shoulder.
March 17, 2013
I read Western Practice last night after watching Wong Kar Wai’s first film, As Tears Go By. It wasn’t a great film, but it contains flashes of brilliance that hint at things to come. This has been my habit lately. Give the baby a bath, put her to bed, eat dinner and watch a movie with Lori, read poetry while listening to music, climb into bed, read from a novel, go to sleep. I don’t remember what I was listening to when I read your book. It was either BBC Three or Blue Mars Cryosleep ambient radio.
I couldn’t help but marvel at your sense of space. The poems are so wide open. The words drift across the page like so many SoCal housing developments. I thought about Olson, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” I admire this kind of writing for the simple reason that I find it impossible to do myself. I have tried to write in an open field, to right-justify, to stagger my lines and stanzas, but I always end up back on the left margin.
I lived in California as a kid. My parents owned a house in a sleepy little suburb called Los Gatos, which I am told is now the heart of Silicon Valley wealth. It was just a suburb in the early seventies. My parents often used to joke that they could have retired on the proceeds if they had only stayed an extra ten years.
We moved back east when I was seven-and-a-half. That was 1976, the bicentennial. I never understood why they made that move, only five years after we had moved to California from Michigan. I asked my mom not too long ago. She said that they were Easterners and that they weren’t comfortable with the loose California lifestyle of the early seventies.
They voted for Reagan.
I can remember being in a car with my mom listening to the radio in 1976. She told me that we were voting for Gerald Ford and that we did not like Jimmy Carter. After Carter won, I can remember my father saying that Reagan was going to be the next president. There was something almost religious about the way he said it, like this was the second coming.
Anyhow, all of this added to the feeling of disorientation I felt while reading Western Practice. All that open space terrifies me, as if all the fears my parents had sown had started suddenly poking through the soil. My eyes drifted around the page, looking for a place where things didn’t feel so, uh, western. I found it when I got to the poem about Harry Partch.
What a great poem. I first heard of Partch when I was in college. My friend J. had graduated early to start graduate school and was living in a studio apartment on Jones Street in the West Village. I looked the address up recently on Google Maps. The whole building is a bed and breakfast now.
J. was the one among our group most tuned in to things avant-garde. While we were reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, he was reading Foucault, Derrida, and Kristeva. One time we listened to the entire performance of Diamanda Galas’s “Plague Mass” while sitting on the floor of his apartment. It gave me nightmares.
When we listened to Harry Partch, J. talked about microtones and all the different instruments Partch had invented and how he had discovered a realm of sound that Western Civilization had suppressed for centuries. A few years later, I went to see a performance of Partch’s instruments and compositions at St. Ann’s church in Brooklyn.
They played the Ptolemy and the Chromolodeon and the Quadrangularus Reversum. They played the Boo and the Eucal Blossom, the Koto and the Crychord. They played the Gourd Tree with Cone Gongs, the Zymo-xyl, and the Spoils of War. A man with the deepest bass voice I have ever heard sang from Partch’s hobo opera while rising up and down on an instrument resembling a bellows.
My favorite was the Cloud Chamber Bowls — pyrex carboys from the UC radiation laboratory, once used for cloud chamber experiments, that hang on cords from a heavy wooden frame and are played with mallets. There was something beautiful and apocalyptic about those bowls. They made me think of actual clouds and the echo of church bells, but also of mushroom clouds and the thunder of death.
Anyhow, I have to run. I have only a little time to write each morning before I go to work. It was great eating lunch with you and Jonathan Skinner in the Sheraton at AWP a few weeks back. I enjoyed talking about your job and my job and Jonathan’s job. My salad was pretty good, but I have to admit I was lusting after the French fries the two of you got with your Reubens.
At one point I looked over your shoulder and saw Derek Walcott and Yusef Komunyakaa sit down next to each other at a long table on the other side of the lounge and wondered what they were talking about. Probably their jobs.
I really wanted one of those French fries. I guess I should have just asked for one.
March 28, 2013
Dear Mikhail Epstein,
When I first pulled PreDictionary from the shelf, I glanced at your name and skimmed your bio. My mind registered the following facts: your first name was Mikhail; you had come from Russia; you taught at Emory University. Your last name did not register. I started reading the book.
At some point, I must also have recalled the name of another Russian émigré writer, Mikhail Iossel. I don’t know the other Mikhail, but we are “friends” on Facebook, which is probably the logical explanation for this elision. The next time I was at my computer, I decided to look you up on the Internet to see what else you had written.
I searched for “Mikhail Iossel.” I read his bio. Some of the cursory details are similar to yours. You came to the US in 1990. He came to the US in 1986. He writes in English, you write in English (and Russian). He teaches at a university, you teach at a university. The fact that he did not teach at Emory bothered me, but I thought maybe I had misread something.
It didn’t matter that the book had the name “Mikhail Epstein” written in large white letters on a green band emblazoned across the cover. My mind registered “Mikhail Iossel,” and so I was reading his book. It took several days for me to overcome this blindness and realize that you were not, in fact, Mikhail Iossel. You were you, Mikhail Epstein.
I suspect we should, in the spirit of your work, coin a word to describe the phenomenon of temporary mental blindness to the visual presence of a word caused by a false association with its meaning, the registration of which triggers an inability to read the word on the page before you.
I was thinking that “wordblind” might be a possibility. I looked this up. “Word-blindness” is sometimes used in place of “alexia,” a loss of the ability to read caused by lesions on the brain. My spell-checker tells me “wordblind” is not a word. Maybe in a few years it will be.
I once coined a reflexive verb in Spanish. I volunteered for a year in Ecuador working with children in Quito. One of my duties was teaching physical education to third graders. For an hour each morning, I had to keep them occupied with physical activity. Our classes took place in a concrete courtyard behind the school.
One of the games we played was crab soccer. The children would sit on the ground, feet facing forward, palms on the concrete, fingers pointing behind them. They’d use their knees and palms to raise their torsos a few inches off the ground. I would throw a ball among them and they would play soccer while in the crab position.
At first I found it difficult to order them into this position because my Spanish was a little weak, so I invented a verb. The word for crab in Spanish is “cangrejo.” The word I coined was “cangrejerse,” which means something like “crab yourself” or “make yourself like a crab.” The first time I blew my whistle and shouted the command, “Cangrejense, niños!” they immediately understood my meaning. I was proud.
I have yet to find the term in a Spanish dictionary.
“ ” made me think about a course I took with Charles Bernstein in graduate school. One night after a poetry reading — I think it may have been by Gerrit Lansing — we all went out to a bar in Buffalo called Gabriel’s Gate. The food there was awful, but the beer was cheap and they had free popcorn, so it was a good place to drink after a reading.
Charles said he had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach in the fall called “Blank.” I asked what he meant. Were we going to read books about nothingness or emptiness or space? He said no, that his idea was to present a blank syllabus and ask students to fill the semester in themselves. The course would have no reading list, no theme, no direction. We would spend the semester, as it were, filling in the blank — or not filling it in. I thought it was a hilarious and inspired idea.
When the fall semester began, a new crop of students arrived with whatever artistic and intellectual aspirations and expectations they’d brought with them. These apparently did not include a sense of humor. While those who had been around reveled in the play and fun of “blank,” the new students rebelled. They wanted a reading list. They wanted a theme. They wanted a direction. They wanted homework!
The arrival of this group of rebels was the moment the fun of grad school ended for me.
After I finished reading PreDictionary, I wandered around the house thinking about “ .” There was a full moon that night. On my way from the living room to my bedroom, I stopped by my office to plug in my laptop for charging. The moon shone brightly through the glass doors that connect my office to the brick patio in the backyard. I decided to step outside.
I climbed the three steps up to the patio and stared at the moon through the trees. Several tall white pines separate our property from the neighbor’s. I had to peer through the crisscrossed branches to catch a glimpse of the moon. It looked small. Given how much light it was giving off, I would have expected it to be bigger.
I shuffled left, then right, then forward, then back, before I found a spot where I could see the whole moon, unobstructed. I held myself in place and stared at the shining orb. I thought about Mandalas, which made me think of Jung. I wondered if I stared long enough whether I would hypnotize myself or have an out-of-body experience.
Then I started to think about all the “ ” around the moon. The white disc began to waver. A kind of purple corona, a trick of the eye, appeared around it. I shifted left. A small twig obscured my view. I shifted back right. Same thing. I stepped forward, backward, left and right again, but I could not find a clean view.
I tried the opposite. I stepped two steps to the left so that the trunk of a pine blocked my view completely. The light shone against the backs of the trees, throwing them into silhouette. A large limb that had fallen during a hurricane hung in the crotch of a limb about two-thirds of the way up the tree. It became a crucifix. I thought of the scene in Stalker where the writer makes a crown of thorns and places it on his head.
I stepped to the right. I could see the moon again, but I still could not find an unobstructed view. I turned my back to the moon and faced the house. The shadows of the trees danced along the walls. A square of light glowed to my left: the bathroom window. My wife lay soaking in a tub on the other side. On the white blinds covering my daughter’s bedroom window, the shadows of the branches bobbed up and down.
I looked at the stars and I thought of all the “ ” between them. I started to feel a chill. It was mostly quiet. I could hear the hum of cars on the highway in the distance. I took three steps down from the patio, slid open the door. I heard the cats scatter. They must have been watching the whole time.