Migratory vernaculars

A review of Mark McMoriss's 'Entrepôt'



by Mark McMorris

Coffee House Press 2010, 90 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-56689-236-0

Once, we were told by word of mouth that Heraclitus of Ephesus spoke of a grotesque kind of order whereby he declared that: “War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.” Rather than deploring the inequities of the world, he suggests that perpetual conflict is a way of life; it gives us meaning, much as our own history of recent memory has been shadowed by the thrust and force of war’s traumas. In Mark McMorris’s new book of poems, Entrepôt, we confront a like darkness where “The melodious waves / of grass promise no sanctuary / except to the beetle and cicada.” 

McMorris’s poems are capacious meditations, investigations, critiques, and queries on the weight of history’s wars and traumas as they seem to enscroll a poetics and ethics on ancient parchment — scrolling that reaches forward toward a future readership. In Entrepôt, war is a threshing ground, a rumbling echo in an olive grove, an acre of light stained by blood and the mark of a pen. The poems challenge in as much as they bring a revivified reading to bear on the present; the inquiry into civilization’s centuries old quest for meaning through art and conflict remains attuned to the need for the poem to be a space where one may cross borders and boundaries. If the poems in Entrepôt arise out of a lyric accretion and ordinary vernacular, it is toward a nomadic flight of probing and investigatory thought.

In the poem, “Dear Michael (2),” McMorris writes: “The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit / is what exits from the wound it documents.” Further on in the poem, we read: “It is the source that makes the wound, the wound / that makes a poem. / It is defeat that makes / a poem sing of the light and that means to sing / for a while.” To speak of a source that wounds, thus necessitating an act of language, infuses a much needed renewal of the lyric’s potential to address and ruminate on what a wound might disclose. Here, as McMorris tells us, “the wound is deaf to what it makes.” In other words, the poem brings us closer to something like revelation, allowing the sequence of words their order and shapeliness to congregate around a vector of its own making. The wound that he calls forth is personal, communal, and historical. It is also a trope for the occult music that arises within a poem. The wound is between something; it is extraterritorial.

The lyric utterance transmitted throughout Entrepôt offers a rich matrix of provisional grounds that can be trespassed and negated. We are properly placed between a formal and experiential arc as the poems remain unfixed, as if they are always at the point of vanishing. As McMorris writes in “Dear Michael (3),” Just so / in any case it is true that I must speak / not only of speaking but of things otherwise unsaid / things and not their names, not the mood of a text / but the text burgled and naked to the wind, at risk / of dissolving as the rain falls, as the sea washes over it.” In these lines, there is an inherent tenuousness to the prospect of speaking and naming; a nagging doubt that what language carries through might fall flat. To speak in such a way is to recognize the potential for a poem to be a dialogic form that sets out to address something.

As McMorris shows throughout his major poem sequence, “Letters To Michael,” the poem as an epistolary event proposes a space where a reader might interact or hover above the interlocutor’s positioning within the poem. It’s not one’s voice propelling the poem forward, but a voluminous echo of overlaying voices straining for a dialogue to take shape. However, looked at another way, on a formal level, a letter is usually addressed to someone. While McMorris samples Michael Palmer in “Dear Michael (14),” “anemone, and the plasma of mud,” a line from Palmer’s “Letters To Zanzotto,” the letter poems in Entrepôt seem to be of a larger structure in which to invoke heterogeneous voices, rather than a singular address to one receiver. At times, though, we might very readily infer that McMorris, as with many other poets, is writing not only forward to a potential reader, but backwards towards previous texts.

The poems of Entrepôt enact the very framework that the title calls forth. An entrepôt is an “intermediary center of trade and transshipment.” In an interview with Rain Taxi in their Winter 2008/2009 issue, McMorris spoke of an entrepôt as “a figure for a space of transition,” and “a place that is between other places.” In this way, beyond the ideational, the poem itself becomes the formal enactment of an entrepôt. If McMorris’s poems resist any defining or absolute location and origin, a place on the map as it were, it is not to dislocate or unsettle the reader, but to enact a language practice where what is said, propositioned, declared, or questioned can reverberate in a meeting place. In “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” McMorris brings us “ever closer to an entrepot / where signals cross and cancel, or cross and multiply / bands of dark and transitory splinters of light.”

 McMorris’s poems are truly a wonder of imagery, sound structure, and intellection; his poems make evident the fact that “the mind is bottomless.” There is a particular gravity to the lyric utterance weaving its way throughout Entrepôt that is of and beyond its moment. It is as much grounded in modern tradition (McMorris draws on Yeats, Stein, Hugo Ball, and others) as it is grounded in classical texts, history’s scholiasts, and the “tin-cup goliard.” From the poem “Three Aspects of the Name”:

The gospel tells us that tradition flows like a river
to irrigate the soul, from origin to the fringe
of reason. It is the thing you can’t avoid belonging to
just as the sea cannot escape mingling with water.
The voice of tradition is ours, or else we are empty
forms cast aside like husks from a coconut grove
able to lie in the sun but not to speak of the havoc
of hunger, or so the philosophers aver, in their moods.
The history of the tribe is fixed within the orbit
traced by the name in written records. Nothing else exists.

The tradition that McMorris is speaking of here can be read as a larger invocation of how identity is made up of a series of sedimentations from the past. Read in more local light, and in a closer reading of McMorris’s imagery, tradition as enounced in “Three Aspects of the Name,” involves a struggle as the speaker “encountered a ghost, my name.” The unspecified name is from “a violent clan of laborers, / men given to dance in the costume of underworld spirits / who took ship with the merchants from the Gold Coast, and blew / ashore in the Latitudes of Weeping.” The speaker’s recalling of the past is closely bound with “events best left to the whistle of tree frogs at night.” While tradition for McMorris is unavoidable, it is also fraught with the memory of colonialism and the challenges present in the act of salvaging a postcolonial identity free from the bonds of colonial rule. Rather than the poem being a site of critique or a potential utopian space, McMorris calls us into the song, where an “untethered polyphony” becomes the currency of the poem.

 In the magisterial poem, “Auditions For Utopia,” McMorris imagines the potential for a utopia that begins with a propositional setting within a room that is covered with a mural. On one wall “there is a scene of naked olive bodies / and giant ferns, bodies like ferns and ferns / with the aplomb of the forest.” To set up the imagery of opposition, the second wall shows the “polis in smoky industrial affray, the emblems / of feudal lord and banker and sea captain / in stately parade underneath the parchment heaven.” In order to reconcile these two competing images, the former image has to be dematerialized “to become the prehistory of advertising perfume: / languorous beaches kissed by a glittering sun / where industrialists repose in the elbow of a cove.” McMorris brings us to the very impossibility of there being any kind of utopia that might arise under these conditions. Further on in the poem, the notion of utopia is further expanded upon: it is not a place on a map that one can point to; it is not a place that one arrives at by conscious choice.

Threaded throughout this poem, there is a nameless African boy who dances on the shore of the beach where the “ancient dance of the waves and torchlight” embody the very negation of traditional life that was revealed in the first mural. The boy, who is described as a “miracle of teleported motion,” is also a countermeasure to the surrounding tensions inherent in the Caribbean setting the poem in situated within:

The boy was content to dance himself
bizarre and unreachable as he seemed
to us, almost invisible, in touch
with secret chords and the generations.
He did not have a name. The dance
passed through the slash of the waves
to become a visible present tense
wholly of action in that small frame.

Not only does this boy seem as if he has been transported to this location through a mental process, but through his fluid dance, there is something almost otherworldly about the way he carries himself through time and space. Perhaps there is an inherent innocence that can be attributed to the state of childhood, or conversely, the boy becomes a larger figure for a lost time and memory amid the island’s history of plantations and the chronic behavior that comes with such an oppressive social matrix. Echoing the impossibility of attaining a utopian state, the poem “Inescapable Country,” locates us within pastoral Jamaica. This is another site, rich with natural beauty that recalls a violent history. The speaker of the poem writes: “Something about pastoral calms / the violent heart, wherein desire / takes form in the visible world. // Bending a corner, you see it green / as it once was and will be then / and always with the mind’s deceit.”

Entrepôt as a whole presents a rigorous poetics, in terms of thinking about the formal concerns that might be imbedded in a poem. Again, from “Anaphora of Shadows (11x11+33),” we are told “the poem goes ahead of us and waits.” In “Dear K,” the closing poem of the book, the speaker says “The poem inclines / to restless thought: the night relentless / the heavens unimaginably vast.” In these lines, the poem becomes much more than a depository of materials in flux. Here, the poem is a bearing. It is not just a formal procedure, but a site where things that wouldn’t normally to be placed together are suddenly brought into a dialogic structure. If McMorris’s wielding of language recalls that of the mythmaker in an alchemist’s lab, it is because he finds a variety of forms to push the bounds of thought to a new lyric intensity.

To experience a broadcast

A review of Lisa Samuels's 'Mama Mortality Corridos'

Mama Mortality Corridos

Mama Mortality Corridos

Poems and drawings by Lisa Samuels

The Holloway Press 2010, 54 pages, $200 NZ, ISBN 0986461814

Traditionally, in Latin American culture, a corrido is a narrative song about the daily life, oppression, or history of a particular community. It is often used during moments of great tumult and transformation, like revolutions. The corrido is both a social and artistic act, written to capture a moment or energy during a significant event — or, even, to convey secret political messages to faraway audiences. In other words, to hear a corrido is to experience a broadcast — to be thrust into the middle of someone’s radiation where exactness or meaning is obscured by rhythm and lyric. But the aura of a corrido, its feeling, is strong and lingering.

To read Lisa Samuels’s latest book, Mama Mortality Corridos, is to be similarly positioned in a state of heightened reception. The book’s rich and fleshy language, accompanied by a selection of Samuels’s two-toned drawings, titillates the senses and forces them alert. These Corridos act more like dreamscapes than political messages, as they scavenge bits of language, earth, desire, sorrow, and violence; for example, the first poem, “Envoi,” opens with scene that seems to have spun out and fractured from another world:

Waking without refreshment, no shine to, no mirror
images. Lopsy tide, then, and the list of
friendly rape in the dreams. My hovers
feet and solves the constant world

Published by Holloway Press in 2010, the collection is an art object. The color of cream and terracotta, the book resembles an artifact of the desert — sunburnt, rich, and full of mirages. The abstract landscape drawings littered through the book are composed of simple figures and shapes depicting their own internal narrative. The images are enigmatic in the way they interconnect — each drawing depicts a shape or body-like figure appearing to travel across a certain horizon — but are equally primal and elemental in their ability to procure a tonal message — transition, desolation, peace. The drawings signal both movement and stasis with simple lines and composition and, despite their simplicity, the images appear to carry a heavy code inside them — much like the corrido itself. Horizon, sun, and body invoke the cycles of life, how they weave into each other, and, like the very title of the book, Mama/Mortality, how two ends of a spectrum are gracefully intertwined.

page spread from Mama Mortality Corridos  via Holloway Press

The poetry provides a distinct dynamic to the images — similarly primal but more unrestrained and frenetic. The poems swing wildly through words/worlds — English through Spanish, modern through the historical (many of the poems are composed of old corridos, anthologies, other poems, etc. The last poem being totally evocative of this mélange — a cento of C. S. Pierce.) Nothing acts quite like itself or remains intact — especially her phrases, which are constantly looking out to shatter their own logic and keep meaning spinning. Verbs chase nouns which chase other verbs. From the above poem, “The Visitor,” we find “anyone approaches for better face / are really good at needle be familiar. / the story fell on the table near / my head a person suppresses moans.” Aside from the mystery of the unnamed visitor, who oscillates from “anyone” to “you” to “she” and the indeterminate tense, the perspective is dizzying and operates like churned fragments of the chaotic in-between. I can’t help but think of the dead, of ghosts and how their passing may resemble its own restless corrido.

Samuels certainly seems to be signaling us to a place of passing, if not exactly death — corrido echoing the sounds of its false English friend, “corridor.” Looking at the poem titles (“Envoi” “And passing by a corner” “The Visitor” etc.), it’s obvious, a transition or voyage is taking place. This idea of passage/passing is a similarly significant element to the conventional corrido — as they signal a passing of knowledge between peoples or a passing from one era to another. In Mama Mortality Corridos the passing, the movement between involves a new physics, where the trans(ition) itself changes and transforms the message or object. From “Homily”:

That’s a short middle crawl when I
was dropping my ideas on the pavement
and you picked them up. Given
to triadic points of view you hallucinate
self-import, as though ships could bring you
back remotely. I held and dropped you
senseless as at first

Despite the constant transformations in subject or syntax, these poems are so peopled, so full of the (once) living that I’m forced to consider the human body: the footprints on the land Samuels draws in her images, or the suggested violence upon it. (“She with the berry juice creeping up her legs”). These bodies are not quite whole or there, and I wish I knew more about them and not just the bones they’ve left in these poems. Though, that too seems a crucial point for Mama Mortality Corridos — knowing and coming to are part of the same spectrum that forgets and denies. This circularity is expressed in so many of the poems, and so eloquently in “Monkey” where our speaker writes/drives in circles becoming the car, the radio, the bed, the desire, and back to itself in what seems like a memory or dream of a moment that’s gotten caught in a new type of gravity.

It’s a wild corridor Samuels has created. If the world could be caught before one goes spinning into the grave, it would look like a passage from these Corridos. “She turned to shells those / into blues blue sheels / the water turned to air / and blew heels trembling.” It’s a vortex of a book — and a really delicate one, where we cannot “quite touch the bottom” and probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

Antenna openings

A review of 'Late in the Antenna Fields'

Late in the Antenna Fields

Late in the Antenna Fields

by Alan Gilbert

Futurepoem 2011, 120 pages, $16, ISBN 9780982279830

Alan Gilbert’s first full-length collection of poems expands on the notion of “creative resistance,” explained in Another Future (his 2006 study of poetry, art, and postmodernity) as a commitment to “hope without holding play as an end in itself.” Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem, 2011) pursues this resistance by relating a large swath of cultural and personal phenomena, thereby arresting the endless spillage of images and tropes that so often compose the chaotic drift of postmodernity. Gilbert doesn’t let the formal elements of his poetry dictate creative logic. Form turns out to be but one imaginative possibility of a poetics that often stresses the performative over the literary. The “fields” of his title suggest not only the wide and disbanded twilight horizons of contemporary culture, but also provide a sense of larger creative fields — an array of discursive possibilities in which form adheres to other cultural (and rhetorical) elements that situate ethical procedures. Neither purely formal in their actions on the page, nor conceptually designed for an imagined audience’s required submission, a committed cultural performance gives these poems a somber and solitary edge.

A reader, however, must look hard to find differences in Gilbert’s writing from the experimental procedures used by other contemporary practices associated with a visible avant-garde. Gilbert theorizes this difference by reflecting on audience in Another Future. If the “open text” is truly open, he argues, “then why is it supposed to function in the same way for all readers, however different their backgrounds? As British cultural studies audience response research reiterates over and over again, different audiences respond differently to different cultural products; they even respond differently to the same cultural products at different times.” Responding to Lyn Hejinian’s definition of an “open text” as something “open to the world and particularly to the reader” and that, importantly, “is generative [of meaning] rather than directive,” Gilbert agrees that a “closed text” like an advertisement can provide “conventional modes of communication [that] negate dialogue and reassert more forcefully than ever an author’s authority and dominance over the reader.” Somewhere between both closed and open texts, Gilbert seeks a theory of writing that resists “mere” models of communication and the manipulations of desire associated with closed texts, but that also acknowledges a more complex ethical relationship between author and audience. An audience, however, needs something to grapple with, something that provokes their reflection, invites curiosity, drives them to action, or to better comprehend the world at large. What the closed text/open text discussion brings up, however, is a way to theorize relationships in texts between diverse parties of committed participants. Whether it’s the transparent emotional charge of lyric poetry or the self-interfering procedures of Dada or Oulipo, discourse is situated for an audience that is already shaped, in large part, by cultural regimes, ideological divisions, personal histories, and institutional affiliations. For the poet concerned with audience, writing is necessarily relational, reflexive, and frequently tested in its authorship to understand how words perform for others.

A poetics of documentation lets Gilbert shape his writing as performances on the page designed to invite readers to speculate on larger cultural phenomena, going beyond the concerns of the author, the situated conditions of the audience, or even the aesthetic formal possibilities of the text. What’s at stake in documentation for Gilbert are large cultural referents and how they interrelate in poetry with his own creative and introspective life. He challenges the turn to language by drawing on cultural phenomena that have been distributed through diverse discourse situations, and his recontextualization submits new perspectives for readers to consider. An ethics of investigation and documentation adheres to a writing task that manufactures possibilities, critical awareness, and new representations of the complex mashups of cultural hybridity.

Despite his concern with material culture and its uneven distributions, Gilbert constructs a voice, or voices (often pushed to limit points of flatness), that readers must accept, puzzle over, question, or even resist. It’s the voice of the hip and artfully aware global (Western global) citizen, performing various modes of subjectivity in a process that documents contemporary cultural discourse through multiple perspectives. In “Coolant System,” the constructed ethos of the poem adheres through a steady voice of reportage:

Some people are awake in the middle of the night.
Some are at the bathroom sink rinsing and spitting.
There’s a PowerPoint presentation for just about
anything, and a personalized ringtone to alert us
when the war is calling — it’s the sound of beds
being dragged across an orphanage floor.

The amplification of imagery moves attention from mundane toilet routines to the effects of war, mediating this move through the ubiquity of PowerPoint, a tool of business communication. The steady stitching of imagery arrives through a subjectivity that never rises above the material image to mediate or comment on what’s passing. Instead, it seems almost medicated, submerged in an evenness of appeal regardless of the near terror the poem invokes. “The next ice age,” Gilbert writes, “will fill the rivers with antifreeze. / It’s the midway point of a sugar packet’s half-life, / spoonfed in timelapse with porn made to order. / I still briefly pause when I hear an airplane flying / low.”

While it’s sometimes difficult to fully appreciate how Gilbert’s theoretical claims for poetry differentiate his writing from other contemporary practices, the work provokes readers to consider a wide array of cultural material. In “Go Solar,” for instance, he writes:

Cartoon characters don’t age, they get canceled.
A lifeguard missed the shark attack while reading
the articles of impeachment. After years of enduring
such a fucked-up situation, the question of blame
became relative, and longevity gets more difficult
to spell. Is the context going to be love, the impossible
imagination of mourning quickly?

While provocative images wind through the poem, the sharp, paratactic turns and the unmediated movement from cartoon characters to shark attacks distract from the more compelling question the stanza offers. This is followed, however, by a striking assertion of shattered feelings and derailed memories in the contorted subjectivity of the projected author:

Some of my best friends are machines tracing dust
back to the body, the night to the sun searing
a massive oil spill scooped from backyard swimming
pools with spatulas and patched with hair dryers
applying decals advertising the local speakeasy
serving a rubbed-off shine backed by a bucketful
of teeth.

The long, unbroken sentence, along with the tension of figures of decay and commodity culture, move the poem from undifferentiated images of cultural diffusion toward a more passionate claim about how change or loss is comprehended in a postmodern context where nothing remains still, and where decay and the loop of memory both compete in the eternal renewal of commodified forms. In “Spitting Image,” Gilbert pursues a critical vision of Western culture through a pronounced syntax that draws close the imagery governing his imagination. Poems like this are distinguished for their attempt to organize perception according to unsentimental, but nonetheless emotional, tensions. The extended sentence, and the childhood significance of the “you-said / I-said” / tire swing” situate the juvenile culture Gilbert is critical toward, while also exposing a voice, however constructed, that can’t help but seek order out of the chaotic spam of contemporary life. He writes:

All the toxic runoff
drained into a green pond
behind the house
where the you-said/I-said
tire swing slowly
pulls loose from
its timber moorings
whole it’s nighttime
with the windows open
in any kind of weather
eroding skeletons
pushing up through
carpets and tack strips,
because love is what
undoes us.

The cliché of “love is what / undoes us” is amplified in the next stanza, where Gilbert announces, “I’m a collection / of flesh and implants / dropped in the mail / each day to the hummed / Miss America pageant theme song.” By organizing competing tropes of subjectivity in his poems, Gilbert is able to use clichés that take on new significance in the arrangements of the poem. In a period where irony and cliché often form the basis of communication (consider all those Super Bowl adverts, built on clichés and cheap sentiments that reinforce the loony notions of who “we” are), Gilbert’s critical inventory and redistribution of commodified imagery let him perform subjective experiences in order to disclose relations that evolve in the hybrid drifts of contemporary culture.

What should Western poets do in a period where the intensity of the daily barrage of advertising, the paucity of public display and speech, and the transfer of regional labor practices to global network centers disorient and disturb relationships to cultural or political practice? If postmodernity is a mashup of prior forms, renewed forever in a freeform universe indifferent to all claims of truth, should a poet imitate the state of things? Find forms that compete or criticize her world? Or develop ironic poses and distancing techniques that preserve the poet even as she manipulates the book markets that necessarily reproduce and distribute the formulae of perception for others. In an era of rapidly increasing authorship, the notion of audience comes into question. We’re all producers, all authors of our insightful experiences and perceptions. We read as thieves and judges, in quick, predatory bursts, because this is how one survives. Knowledge and communication perhaps seem inconsequential compared to the perceived circulations that give shape to our social imaginaries.

The Sophist, Gorgias, famously announced the impossibility of knowledge and communication. Even if we could know something, he argued, it would be impossible to communicate what we know. We’re left with an endless game, at play in linguistic discourse, appealing by whim to others based on the drug-like elixir of language. Plato’s response to this dilemma was to pursue a kind of ethics over communicative force. What are the responsibilities of the writer to a text or to an audience? Late in the Antenna Fields, with a similar set of concerns, attempts to organize a poetics that is ultimately ethical and committed to reinforcing strategies of perception in readers. How are we to respond to proliferating cultural formations, a globalized economy, and decayed regional experiences? If knowledge or truth is relative, and language unstable, what does poetry provide to make itself useful and permanent on the cultural landscape? Gilbert’s performance of social weirdness and contrast lets him interrupt the endless flow of things with focusing incidents that vocalize old fashioned human feelings of anxiety, fear, hope, and desire. Unfortunately, the subjective voices and performative utterances often strain the register they intend to critique — a present in need of more ample vision and creative action. A poem must still have life, even if the cultural phenomena that contextualize everyday experience circulate with dull and steady certainty. The poem can’t replicate this without losing its abundance or its evocative potential. “Sometimes,” Gilbert writes, “the only weapons are words during / a trip to the quarry with its mine-disaster machines / slowly scraping // along the edge of commands that some Americans / have for other Americans, a cracked / ruler drawing attention to chalkboard maps and / framed pictures.” In a dizzying succession of images, Gilbert seeks to order his puzzle of relationships, and to characterize cultural experience in the early twenty-first century imaginary. This ambitious art doesn’t always come together, but with other new books (I’m particularly thinking of Farid Matuk’s This Isa Nice Neighborhood [Letter Machine Editions, 2010]) Late in the Antenna Fields, with its set of major concerns, attempts to organize a poetics that is ultimately ethical and committed to reinforcing strategies of perception in readers.

The enlightenment of bushes and grasses

A review of 'Ghost Snow Falls Through The Void (Globalization)'

Ghost Snow Fall Through The Void (Globalization)

Ghost Snow Fall Through The Void (Globalization)

by Tenney Nathanson

Chax Press 2010, 130 pages, $17, ISBN 9780925904881

In Tenney Nathanson’s most recent work, a practice of intertextual poetics is exacted as a form of revenge upon the stupidity of recent American history. That is, with an arsenal of acquired “inarticulateness” and aphoristic sign-offs, Nathanson deals with the war, the economy, and our impending doom. Through the course of the book, Nathanson continues throwing himself against news stories, narratives that stupefy. Yet he manages to return to some degree of sanity, balanced between Zen practice and the pleasures of the American poetry he both teaches and torques over the course of this book. Notables include William Carlos Williams, Crane, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, and Whalen, among others. Nathanson’s face began cracking open in “Home on the Range” and it has not stopped (“I’m Rilke now my face cracks flows and morphs”).

The book reads as a diary of reactions to the news of the last decade. Nathanson’s treatment of his source material feels singular in his quotation and grafting of the news into the American literary canon, a feat he repeatedly achieves to work up a wry commentary of subjects like air pollution in New York after 9/11 and how Whitman might respond to the situation.

“[N]ot addicted to a foolish consistency” arrives as a phrase that succinctly communicates Nathanson’s relationship to his source texts. The book balances on this statement, particularly when covering election night, admiring the Obamas on stage while simultaneously mulling over our country’s economic prospects. Agony and ecstasy share the same breath as Tenney Dickinson breaks in over the radio:

a gap making the air softer

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —

I’m not sure where the dashes go
or the butterflies, or banks of flowers at noon is that what it means
they have all gone into the what?”

Impersonation counterpunched and opening into a florid metaphysic, unashamed stylistic wandering through brambles of medi(uh)age. This poem contemplates its nows, zigzagging in and out of literature past and present (“pour a wind / that can learn to forget”) into our present state of alarm (“the closest the president will ever get to saying / with his helmet tucked under his arm / “‘of course I like it’”).

Ghost Snow is a demonstration, a true glug-a-thon, where the glugs are ticking and tracking the dumb dumb dumbing Americano political scene and mediascape. Nathanson reveals himself huffing hatred guised as political commentary and it’s enough to send even pacific Tenney (he who worries about the appearance of brandishing a squirt bottle at a pet kitty) into a blind rage before quieting down (“let it go,” he says under his breath), coming to rest on scaffolding built by Hart Crane (“adagio of islands … bind us in time”), and granting himself a reprieve from neocons. 

And then Emily Dickinson is introduced to child slavery. Whether it’s Tenney Dickinson or Emily herself floating through the news, it’s so good. I don’t care if it’s her double. That is, chainmail immediately precedes supply chain politics and prepares us for

               I offer the Gods
this Carmen Miranda banana hat for the void
yours truly United Fruit

Nathanson manages to show us the last 5 years in American history at the very moment it filters through him so that we are not reading Tenney ex post facto but as he is receiving the news:

In the Tenney mirror the alienation drops quickly into a weighty sadness, a
             diffusing tenderness like an old familiar wound, then nothing at all,
             even the what is that heart that still sees them in the dark dropped

              into the big no pool

Moved then mostly scared as I am welcomed by Nathanson into the “commodious vicus of recirculation,” scared because of what it portends for our ability to read with any sense of where or when. Welcome to the age of search terms, living off the soggy phrasing of Newt Gingrich’s bomb of a novel (1945) and lightly passing over Iraq’s cultural disintegration. The interruptions separate this book from other poetries attempting to hold the same discussion. Nathanson dubs the problem “the overstaid fraction.” And so the interweaving goes on and on: Sonoran desert, Iraqi desert, and the UA Modern Languages bathroom and voila, the fraction vacates a little into Tenney Freud’s floaty time.

I don’t think Nathanson a.k.a. “my personal ratchets are in pretty good working order” is particularly worried about holding the reader’s attention. The book isn’t a crowd pleaser. The book is a crowd. Nathanson’s setups and breakaways are not pranks. Whomp. More like preservatives, so that his ruminations on the fate of American culture don’t stiffen up too quickly. Nathanson’s enemy is rigor mortis, and he knows how to wiggle out of that without forgetting what he’s saying (I’m just saying). Nathanson teaches imitation to his poetry students, and this book surges through imitations, set up by the question, “What is the character for Tenney?” It could be Tenney O’Hara breaking the tedium of the day with a glass of papaya juice and back to work. Or Tenney Bush: “I am the country’s first MBA President.” Tenney Frost and Tenney Crane are pretty good too.

That’s the high stuff, the pyrotechnics. In between explosions, there’s silencio tucked into the poem, with sentences like “the palm tree clattering shaking loose its birds, skeining away toward the mountain like gum.” A set of folds enlivens this writing practice fused together by an attention that’s diffuse and buzzing (“thinking splayed out like a Chinese scroll made of mud”). The word of the day is panoramic. Yes. And absurd and tender and incisive, as the book goes tromping and transgressing through our idiocracy to find out where the evil of the year goes (thanks Tenney).

An antagonistic paraphernalium

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

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations

edited by Clark Coolidge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MF: Yeah.

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

MF: There is no medium. But …

PG: But you. You’re the medium. (83)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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