A review of Carmen Giménez Smith's 'The City She Was'
We have the terror of collectivity. And then we have the joy of collectivity. Carmen Giménez Smith reminds me that frenemies lurk around the Hard Rock Cafés of any city. But she also reminds me that we don’t have to go to the mall alone to pierce our ears and I’m relieved. And when we return to our homes and look at our freshly pierced ears in our solitary mirrors, Giménez Smith’s poetry forces me to confront the fallibility of the self, how “the houses project their occupants.” Her poems are riddled with both acerbic acceptance and sincere longing for transformation, so they live in a constant or conflicted state of attentive revision. She writes: “We’ll live off the grid. We’ll live sort of off the grid and spend too much money on organic marmalade.” She writes: “Some of it will be true and some of it will test what we know.” Giménez Smith’s newly released fourth collection of poetry, The City She Was, tests what we consider comfort, how we approach or appreciate disguises, how we recognize forgiveness, and whether smugness is our nation state.
Comfort: If we’re comfortable with the familiar, the expected, then what happens when we become aware of the staid quality of existence? Giménez Smith examines this strange purgatory and illuminates the various voices struggling to decide, on a very basic level, how to live. In the titular poem, she writes:
The day is bare as white,
so I stay inside
lest the wind change me.
I sort my miniskirts to trade
with skinny girls at Buffalo Exchange.
Here, the speaker retracts from an outside that might inflict unwanted “change.” This possible, uncontrolled transformation contrasts the safe alternative of considering what clothing items might be out of fashion and ripe for exchange. Irony and sadness emanate from the recognition that trading attire could be considered “change,” but not one that welcomes the unexpected or is removed from the dictation of current trends. The decision is safe and it’s hard to resist safety. “This could get serial,” Giménez Smith threatens.
If we choose to read the collection as housing multiple voices, then Giménez Smith never fully sides with any particular speaker. If we choose to read it as one voice, layered through the complexities of human inconsistency, then we’re given a candid battle between will and awareness, need and excesses of desire, compliancy and risk. The poems that grow from discomfort abandon the familiar for a more startling adventure. In the first poem, “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts,” the speaker is defiant, confrontational, and explains, “Pills / made me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made me shaky.” In contrast to the prior excerpt, this narrator does not avoid a level of potential distress. The altering experience is worth the adventure, and the exposure to newness, to this modification, becomes the primary reason for engagement.
Disguises: Puppets, apartment ghosts, hair, and costumes embody and animate the emotional landscape of The City She Was. Giménez Smith investigates how much of the daily is artifice and whether deception and authenticity can simultaneously share space within this city. In “The Walk,” the female character recognizes the fakery but then becomes complicit to its puppetry:
That’s the way a walk renews —
she makes her way through
the imperfect city and discovers
how the world is people
with hand puppets. People who shiver
metal sheets for thunder,
and then she squints her eyes
to fuzz it more, to prettify.
She notes the people creating false interaction with hand puppets and the unnatural thunder booming from ground level. Yet, the discovery stagnates when she chooses to squint “her eyes / to fuzz it more, to prettify.” Disguise instigates denial.
In “Under a Wan Sun” and “The Grand Tour,” however, disguise is the springboard that enables invention. The first stanza of “Under the Wan Sun” begins:
Blue gets plucked from the dresser for today’s
costume. I’m feeling demure, so I want
the faux-priss of the opera-princess-drag queen.
If we’re dissatisfied with or feel trapped in a particular behavioral pattern, costumes offer a device to extricate ourselves from a pervasive mood. The speaker shifts from being reserved and shy to embracing a flamboyantly gender-bending stance. Freedom from expectation. “The Grand Tour” considers how artifice could actually evolve authentic love:
I want to be the thinking I invented last night,
but I’ve already run out of disguise.
Instead it’s some amour, plush velvet,
some pretending to read Proust. We’re propping
up the corpse of romantic love.
In this instance, disguise allows the rethinking of non-romantic love. After it “runs out,” the corpse comes back. When available, disguise offers the space for experimenting with a new, undefined kind of love, possibly one that can flourish when the energy of “propping up” the old is redirected. Giménez Smith asserts, “my costume, my itinerary,” and thus, the clothing’s performance transforms into a journey of unexplored territory.
Forgiveness: If we are to be forgiven, if we are to boldly ask for forgiveness, then to what are we admitting guilt? And do we need to distinguish the self from the other in order to ask this of someone else? Forgiveness is concerned with the boundaries of identity and how it permeates the edges of our temporal location to transform notions of the self. The poems of The City She Was confront the reader with the voice(s) of someone who recognizes and relishes a distinct selfhood, yet finds culpability in its behavior. Giménez Smith contradictorily admits:
I am blameless but not blameless.
I am pristine but not pristine.
I am hugged but not hugged,
all of us not hugged. All of us teem
with shame but most of all me …
These halting plaints remain basis
for the teeming discord I am,
a patient with a gram of mutiny.
If you’re changing the disposable diaper of your child then you might be an attentive mother but a bad environmentalist. If you’re helping a student with a paper after class, you might be a diligent and supportive professor but at the same time, completely forget that it’s your brother’s birthday and be a neglectful sister. We might be distinct, but we’re also inconsistent, complex, and ultimately many things at any moment, rendering us “a teeming discord,” “blameless but not blameless.” And importantly, we’re not alone in these contradictions. Yet, we have a limited perspective in that we do tend to prioritize the self both in negative and positive terms. As Giménez Smith writes, “All of us teem with shame but most of all me,” and in another poem, “Turn me in, offer me coffee, take me soup, and privilege my opinion.” Here, she captures what we are always asking forgiveness for: the desire to have our opinions privileged, to seek out and love those who show us this favor.
And through our love and kinship we inculcate others. Giménez Smith commands, “Whisper that secret name we learned from the movies. I’ll forgive you. / We’ll puppet voices and mug shots, and you can forgive and forget. We’ll bury our past.” In these suggestions, the language of pop culture creates bonds that either lead to forgiveness or the need to be forgiven. Costumes are the shovels that bury memory’s corpse. But then what happens in the present and the future?
I couldn’t stop describing my flaws to you as serious
and possibly fatal, but you darned every incision.
Which is to say
I can tell you everything that ever happened
because it’s already done. What about
what I am capable of? I’m afraid of the next day.
Candid fear and the possibility for revision mark the shift between the city she was and the landscape she can become. The speaker must figure out how to draw the blueprints for this new city with some, all, or none of the “darned” flaws. Capability is patience with “a gram of mutiny”; it reads as both/either a threat of continued failure and/or a fresh prospect waiting to be lived out through interaction.
Smugness: I’m not sure if I mean self-satisfied, in that these poems know the audience, wink at the reader. Or if they embrace the humor of pointing at the mirror. Or ironic insouciance that actually reveals a deep concern for how our language connects us. The City She Was constructs a skyscraper of tragicomic stanzas that towers over us:
“I stuffed his inbox with amendments and bloated metonymy.”
“I collected fancy pens / and yeah, I’m working on an article
about animé and Marxism”
“We deforest, we slay with biting humor, and wait for what is
offered in return. / It’s what we vow because we’re caught in
each other’s complex web.”
“You refer to everything through cinema, say, this is so Before Sunrise
or I had a Last Tango in Paris yesterday. You’ll blush. You’ll twist away.
Oh, the trash you’ll read in magazines as scripture!”
Is it more understandable to name the emotion you experience or name the movie that embodies a similar emotional atmosphere? Giménez Smith plays with mixing highbrow and lowbrow language to remind us how concentric circles of cultural referents shape identities and systems of communication. Maybe these are the modern versions of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems. They don’t exclude in order to show a picturesque world nor do they preach. Instead, they revel in all aspects of the contemporary, even the spirit-crushers: “the tiny babies and the IED-blown / leg” or “because of baby bear not finding mama bear.” O’Hara writes, “and my heart — / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” Giménez Smith echoes this sentiment when she claims, “my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto / any circumstance. Because it is mine it will always bleed … / I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.”
When I finished this collection, I realized that I wasn’t a tourist in this city, but a citizen (for better or worse or blood). Giménez Smith does not rely on us to discover the city she is now, but I think she asks us to consider our culpability and interconnection as we glide into the next moment. We must sit ourselves “alone / under the single bulb of self-interrogation.” And from this solitary place we can open: “You start as strangers with each one and they become a compartment in you with her habits and her sweaters, with all his stray bits: a Cornell box in you, the wreckage, each of the hims, the hers, the them.” Toward the end of the book Giménez Smith asks, “Is it okay to say Bible in here?” There is no answer. Does God offer an alternative to the self’s privileged opinion? This is one possibility. Regardless of where you place your faith, and how faith might center or decenter the self as a gesture to the Other, Giménez Smith encourages us to question the responsibility of location and where we’re situated in relation to others: the human voice, touch, literature, cinema, our wreckage, and the love habituating within.
When I read an acquaintance’s life writing, it seems an act of friendship not only because my experience and impressions of that person can be confirmed or amplified, but I learn new things and am drawn to consider how that person structures, omits, references cultural matters, politicizes, or not, their lives. What does the work as fiction do?
I met Bill Lavender in Madrid during 2005 after having accepted his invitation as visiting writer for the University of New Orleans International Program. It seems a prelapsarian moment — shortly upon returning to the states, the onset of the Katrina flood and destruction began. Toward the end of Memory Wing, post-Katrina and -BP disaster are referenced in despair:
and the whole big planet
teeming with birds and fish and mammals?
we could save it from the abyss
and all those species from extinction
but we’re not going to
we can but we won’t ought to be
our rallying cry the flag motto
and the poet turns to a simple paradise of feeling the sun’s warmth while lying in the grass as if it takes super-human strength to pull a tiny paradise from an overwhelming hell. But, as is often said, knowledge constructs suffering, and the greater arc of Memory Wing is a portrait of the artist as a young man — how he comes to know, how the three-part comedy of dying mother whose memory is damaged by dementia, dead father who had to be both overcome (“Father / führer / phallic ambrosial”) and incorporated, and his two sons’ birth; their utter embodiment and growth are all aspects of how Lavender articulates self-construction.
That summer of 2005 in Madrid also brought poet Susan Schultz to the UNO program, and, of course, her work on her mother’s dementia in both dementia blog and Memory Cards 2010–2011 series comes to mind. Though structured differently from Memory Wing, Schultz uses the blog format, going back in time to record daily observations of her mother’s loss of language, her children’s growth in language, and her reflections on ideas (as well as her own inability to remember until her mother’s death) results in a flood of memories of who her mother was and what made her interesting rather than those of a sad life growing ever more silent and inert.
My former teacher Raymond Federman frequently said that all writing is fiction, even history is fiction, and autobiography, too, especially autobiography. To me Memory Wing reads as a screenplay in the form of poetry: the text is a sequence of quatrains, and the diction is vernacular in lower case. A thoughtful telling, and often funny in the way being bad has its pleasures, the tone is good to hear and the ethical arc is believable. The work has the filmic convention of framing shots, first using the wing of the hospital — the memory wing — where Lavender’s mother lies speaking to the dead, not fully recognizing her son. In between, we are taken through Lavender’s memories of early years: rebelling against authoritarian teachers, a wonderful mythic snake he and another boy draped on a stick to bring back home:
it crossed the stick seven times the head
hung low tongue darting mouth opening when
anyone or thing approached momma called it
a coachwhip jet black down the tail
His other explorations led to physical punishment by his father, growing loyalties to his friends and tough lessons of betrayal — he is ashamed of not recognizing a poorer boy (later we see betrayals such as one friend “ratting out” another in a drug bust, sexual infidelities, loss of focus in some friends who had a chance at something), and a turn to the woods as his best friend, real parent, and scary presence:
running in the woods the woods the woods
were my best friend and they were the
scariest place they were where I hid and they
were what I hid from and then the wind of the
wing of something
passed over the house in the night
We are returned to the filmic framing devices: his mother in the hospital, his discussion with his dead father in part two over a log fire that doesn’t warm, and, in part three the intermittent address to his sons. In between the frames, we see and hear Lavender’s memory reconstructed, made alive. In each of three parts, we have Lavender’s experiences of sex, poetry, work, bikes or motorcycles, early reading, and literary teachers who are flawed but become more sophisticated as he grows, a few walk-on parts by well-regarded poets, C. D. Wright, for example. We also read of an early besting of his teacher to the delight of classmates as his earliest memory of what the “future” may be, his sense of audience as a challenge to power.
This is interesting because this figure is repeated later on. It appears in part two in the extended description that a friend, Brazier, gives of what it was like to attend his first Rolling Stones concert. A sequence that could stand on its own, too long to be repeated in full, it begins with Lavender and Jim Calhoun playing chess in a bar that becomes increasingly packed and loud, results in Lavender’s memorable win, then Brazier’s describing the audience that waited for the Stones to begin:
and the crowd gets quiet like it is a single
animal and it has pricked up its ears …
… close and hot and i actually started to
get a little scared felt the crush and smell
of the crowd drug-crazed ecstatic panicking
there was no place to run in case of emerg-
ency we were in this to stay it was as i said
the world itself and how does one escape
the world? and then i heard it a switch being
thrown it was click just like a regular
light switch but louder and one lone
spotlight came on on the stage right
over jagger’s mike and the crowd
hushed just like that just like that switch …
… like all these things were a single
sensation synaesthesia a single energy and that
energy was powering us all like
one heart was pumping
The audience is revisited at a Mott the Hoople concert:
signs and the arena full of smoke like some
giant pleasure dome and mott
carried us away the crowd awash
in mescaline floating above itself in a
skein of smoke and light
The lovely rebellious unity becomes politically extended as the challenge to the father-state, both as Lavender’s singular father’s “paranoid tomcat discomfort” and racism and as the collective father Nixon and the My Lai massacre created by the state:
on the hill above the stadium with our crosses
that spelled my lai when nixon’s helicopter passed
right over us and the crowd growled like
So in this sense the singular life is also the shared life, yet it is a different version from, say, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Though it’s easy to consider much of this as a screenplay, embedded toward the end is the contrast between a movie moment and life where “scenes take decades to unfold.” Even so, much does happen here in a moment: a turn to leave town that happens in a snap of the fingers, to travel, to consider oneself a writer, to understand the collective intelligence of an audience, to seduce or to sublimate seduction into a business hustle, to consider the relation of “memory to lies,” and this vision of the materiality of language:
as if to write were to build
something physical architectural that would
catch in the ground and hold while the river
ran by it
This leads to a powerfully written concluding sequence; he recalls a swimming pool game he played with his sons creating a current for them to swim against:
you might join arms and
encircle me like a gill net
but on every pass inexorably
i wiggled between you and got away
until he surfaces from this dream and sees “the little girl with your face,” his granddaughter, then concluding with the myth of the Cyclops and Odysseus, the wanderer, who is “No one.” And like all fishing around, all reconstructed selves, so much got away, yet so much is a material force to work against.
A review-essay on Jon Leon
In a culture in which unfreedom is the object even of the desire for freedom, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta may offer the disappearance of desire (in the paradoxical form of the immediacy of everything touchable) not so much as a solution — the book is anything but a commentary on celebrity culture or a polemic against the culture industry — but as a factual index of the total poverty of everyday life.
Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay Drink Fanta is a small, wordless book by the poet Jon Leon, published by James Copeland for his new Content series. Leon’s book is a series of black and white photographs of photographs and television screens depicting the actresses Zoë Lund, Elizabeth Berkley, and Lindsay Lohan.
First, there’s Lund, the B-movie virgin-whore of Mr. 45 and Bad Lieutenant (which she cowrote), who died (fashionably late) of heart failure due to cocaine. Next is Berkley, the child actress who played the enterprising libber Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell and later the opposite of Spano in the character of Nomi Malone, stripper protagonist of Showgirls. Finally, Lohan is the poster child for child-star syndrome who got her second break as Cady Heron in Mean Girls, but since then can only be seen vacant or crying in Us Weekly and on TMZ.
The first thing you notice about the pictures is that all of the images of Lund and Berkley are taken from movies (Lund in various roles, Berkley in Showgirls). The images of Lohan, on the other hand, are either paparazzi or personal photos; hers are pictures in which she is not a character but herself as celebrity. This difference is intensified by the fact that Zoë Lund and Elizabeth Berkley never look directly into the camera, always off to one side, while Lohan always looks straight into the camera.
It is impossible to tell where Lohan in character ends and Lohan in real life begins. Instead of ending and insisting on this problem of an infinite series of representations without origin, Leon begins there, and thus his book is poised to break out of its po-mo short circuit through, as we shall see, a curiously ingenious method.
Take, for instance, the fact that the photographs are of other photographs or of television screens. The photographs of television screens have the same graininess that photographs of television screens have always had, giving them a sheen of naïveté. Yet I would argue that the tiredness of this kind of image (the innocent — though sophomoric — glee when one first takes a photo of a TV) is integral to the book’s success, assembling perhaps an aesthetic as abject and uncritical as its subject matter — not something filthy and pornographic, not the suffering body, but the banality and obsolescence of life lived after an apocalypse. It testifies to a half-truth that for us the only proper response to the total commodification of suffering and exploitation is the repetition of our masochistic desire for representations of meaningless suffering.
In that sense, perhaps, Leon’s photographs offer an alternative to the hedonism of the Ryan McGinleys of the art world. When the art world turns out as many Dash Snows as Hollywood does Lohans, it is no longer possible to seek refuge in the formal purity of serious art. At the same time, Leon’s photographs in their very form stand against the cynicism inherent in work of artists such Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who are unable and unwilling to imagine art as it exists outside of market forecasts.
In one way, Leon’s desire to have “everything touchable right now,” or as he says in an interview, to have “a Coke with Lindsay,” is a kind of longing for presence that belies his total inurement in the fashion system. At the same time, we can read Leon’s desire for authenticity as a simulation more pure in that it demands the nearness of things and images and the accessibility of celebrity, as opposed to the alienation of such a desire in the forms of fashion and advertising which reduces spectatorship to mere consumption. It demands inclusion not in the seductive spectacle of the fantasy (actually running naked through a wilderness of fireworks with beautiful naked twentysomethings) but instead in the ungrounded real of that fantasy — the fantasy as such.
This lends to Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay a kind of nihilism, one irreducible to the forced choice of McGinley or Hirst. But in general, this nihilism can be characterized more by resignation and surrender than by ecstasy and jouissance: a fascination with surface, a resignation to the present and the attenuation of utopian drive, and the painful inability to imagine an alternative, a pain reflected in the eyes of the women in Leon’s pictures.
The poor quality and uninspired form of the photographs tends toward an unassimilable triteness that refuses both the cynical game of Hirst and Koons, and the uninhibited free expression of McGinley and Snow (or even the gloss of Vice magazine).
It suggests that surrender is the current possibility for true artistic production in a culture where the only recognizable symbols of jouissance have either been trademarked by Levi’s or figured into the extensive portfolio of Saatchi & Saatchi. It is no longer possible to look at a Richard Kern photograph without kind of wishing you were looking at a Terry Richardson photograph instead or, better, Internet pornography in the privacy of your home. You can get all the gory titillation of Acker in online erotica and save yourself the slog through experimentalism. And yet, Leon’s book does not depict abjectness, and the abjectness of everyday life that is evoked by the insipid monotony of his photos lends the project something more ineffably interesting even though the photographs are themselves uninteresting.
Thus the upside of the book’s resignation to inauthenticity (its “surrender” to popular desire), insofar as that resignation is a hallmark of postmodernism, is that it is able to declaim the falsity of that inauthenticity from the real point of its resignation. This is especially true in the longest and most compelling part of the book: for the final sixty or so pages, the famous image from Showgirls where Berkley is shown licking the dance pole repeats, first just one per page, which is soon doubled and then quadrupled. It’s the total gratuitousness of pop culture cranked up by affectless indifference of lulz.
For instance, in the Berkley sequence, one gets the feeling that one is looking at the individual frames of that film, that one has gotten to the minutest level of granularity possible, that like a physicist, one is looking at the elementary particles of this pseudo-scandalous scene that everyone’s older brother talked about and that we all anticipated in reruns. At this microscopic level, where we would expect to find the very kernel of desire that would justify our seduction, we find only the mute repetition of the same.
The book insists upon the falsely true desire to have everything touchable — “false” because impossible and ideological, and “true” because that very falsity is the truth of desire. And the book is all the more illegible for insisting neither on the symbolic reversal inherent in appropriation and détournement nor on death’s potent and poignant negation (which is not a negation), insisting instead on a kind of pure positivity of consumption, on a horrifying dialectical reversal of the culture industry which creates a world so humanized, comprehensible only in terms of human consumption, that it has become entirely inhospitable to humans. It is also a world in which art imitates life only to the extent that it can condition that life, can influence its trajectory, so that a celebrity is predestined precisely to turn out a drug-addled wash-up continuously hounded by camera crews. Otherwise, he or she is judged an antiquated failure. It’s a process that cannot be countered by an ironic mash-up or a mandarin high/low distinction.
The book perhaps gives a new legibility to the false choice between popular art and serious art, which Adorno described as “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up,” namely that the choice between highbrow and lowbrow is not sufficiently combatted by a more fundamental choice between cynical enjoyment and critical fascination. In Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay, we find ourselves in a culture transfixed by the antinomy of desire, the misanthropy of its logic caught between the pain of living out the tragic plot penned by the culture industry and the inability not to desire or to free our desire from profit. Inspiring because uninspired, Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is neither an ironic collage of high and low culture nor a “so bad it’s good” recuperation of trashy libertinism.
It’s perhaps impossible to like this book, which exists almost as a negative space within the field of desire, but that might be the point (even if it’s not Leon’s intention). Could there be a work of art that is not likeable, that cannot be redeemed? Could there be a piece of what we call art that is not assimilable to desire, that cannot be mediated enough (by terms like “outsider art,” “pastiche,” “transgression,” “conceptual art,” etc.) ever to become fungible? It may be that the impossibility of enjoying Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is an index of the current impossibility of art itself insofar as its objects are immediately exchangeable and invested with both capital and desire.
Art in general (and poetry in particular) can nowadays only touch the real in its total failure, mostly because life, which should be real, appears only more artificial. And the real some artworks touch in their failure is in no way the real as that which is obscured by art’s artifice, but is instead the real as the real of art as an undecidable choice between theatricality and absorption (or, in Leon’s words, between the perception of life and life itself). The problem is not so much with their collapse, but with our continued insistence on their separation, or, as is sometimes the case with Leon himself, with the veneration of one over the other.
And that’s why I find it odd to see myself writing that Leon’s work, esp. Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay (perhaps contrary to Leon’s intention and certainly contrary to his characterization of his own work), is a kind of rejection of experience as a useful category for social change, where social change is predicated upon a change in consciousness. The poetry of failure, on the other hand, always finds its end in consciousness; it is an attempt to change or raise consciousness through some sort of radical experience — whether pornographic or apocalyptic. Its contradiction lies in being able to make a non-goal (failure, uselessness, waste) into a goal (social change). This return of the goal (in the form of utopia) comes about via an inability to think the desire for the real as a kind of non-desire or disappearance of desire (as in, the real of desire could not be something desirable).
It seems to me that contrary to all the fin de siècle decadence and Brett-Easton-Ellis-ness of his poetry, Leon’s form is essentially against desire and especially the desire for the real in the form of a nude model lounging in a hot tub or a cracked-out topless redneck in the pages of Vice.
That being said, one cannot ignore that, for the most part, Leon appears to be another poet-hedonist, calling as he does for the construction of “a total environment of total bliss,” which the poet-critic Dan Hoy reads as a call to “enable and induce the experience of the impossible.” But the image evoked by the content of Leon’s work is precisely the imaginary capture that ends in the limited capacity to think only in terms of desire and experience, not the impossible. And while that is the Leon which Hoy, and to some extent Leon as well, promotes, I think Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay is rather a more complex book than that.
The more interesting and telling aspect of Elizabeth Zoë Lindsay does not appear as a function of its content and only obliquely in terms of its form. Instead, the book “works” in that it is explicitly a book (an art book no less) circulating in the world of interchangeable commodities, except that its almost unassimilable crappiness ensures that it will occupy that world’s suture to the emptiness of being, the immanence of everything’s dissolution in everything else — what we might call “total bliss without experience” or simply “the impossible.”
It is at this point that the book neither represents nor performs, neither positively or negatively, but instead brutally and factually is that which runs perpendicular to desire — whether the cynical desire to have it all right now or the utopian desire to have it all later. It is something more horrible than any negativity, which however pure can always be appropriated dialectically as a misrecognized identity. Instead we get the book as a total positivity, as the fact of beauty, seduction, desire, and ideology prior to any distancing critique. It’s the horror of having “everything touchable right now.” Whether cynical or utopian, desire is always about deferment, whether the dissolution on possessing the object of desire (Lacan’s “ce n’est pas ça”) or the elevation of the object to a plane of total transcendence. Leon’s book is an affirmation of the fact that since you don’t get your desired object you still enjoy. It’s a new twist on the old, “It’s not the destination …”
Is this Leon’s intention? I don’t know. Is it successful? Maybe, maybe not. All I’m saying is that I find in it something more interesting than a project or a solution. Leon starts from the unnamable and impossible real of art, that which runs circles around art; his interest in decadence and exhausted libertinism is accidental. The real of art does not shine through the veneer of glamour, conspicuous consumption, and the commodification of the art world by a violent exposure, by hysterically pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, because the real cannot be an end, cannot be a goal, cannot be represented by a tittering manicule or a roaring J’accuse! Neither can it be the perpetuated fantasies of reconciliation and consummation crystallized in the image of rooftop hot tub as metaphor for utopia.
David Antin and Charles Bernstein
Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005
Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions
How does (or should) one regard the work of innovative or experimental poets whom one has been reading for nearly forty years? The question is, to be sure, something of a mare’s nest — not one question but several, starting perhaps with the old problem of whether the terms “modernism,” “avant-garde,” or even “art” itself are not inherently defined by term limits. The artist Lawrence Weiner once said: “When my work is assimilated into the art context, it will change something. I hope it won’t be considered viable living art in ten years. … As what I do becomes art history the minute culture accepts it, so it stops being art.” The short happy life of a gallery show trumps the relic at the Met. Or, alternatively, imagine a museum of contemporary art that periodically removed artworks from its holdings, repairing them not simply to a basement but to an alley where the recycling truck stops by on Mondays, perhaps to convey the remains to a salon des refusés. Naturally there is the issue of who decides when the time of an artwork, or of a certain way of producing such things, is up. Artists, curators, and dealers, not to mention critics and historians, have their variable templates. An elderly reader may not be the one to ask about the work of his or her contemporaries, unless one is in a retrospective frame of mind.
photo of Charles Bernstein and David Antin by their editor at University of Chicago Press, Alan Thomas
Here are two collections of essays by poets whose long and distinguished careers provoke (and even pursue) this terminal line of thinking. In Radical Coherency David Antin (b. 1932) gathers together his critical and reflective writings on art and poetry of the past forty-five years, opening a looking glass on the development of his own poetry during the crucial period of the 1960s and ’70s in which the experience of art (as Antin figures it) was characterized by the exhaustion of one kind of Modernism — the abstract or formalist tradition championed by critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried — and the recovery of another that required the reconceptualization of such matters as representation, narrative, and performance. This rethinking is basically the critical task that holds Radical Coherency together. Meanwhile, in Attack of the Difficult Poems, Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) assembles some of his recent writings on poetry and poetics, in each of which one nevertheless encounters the distinctive terms and concepts (“materiality,” “particularity,” “the ordinary”) that Bernstein has advanced over the years in Content’s Dream (1986), A Poetics (1993), and My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999). Indeed, one can read Attack as a companion piece to Bernstein’s recent retrospective arrangement of his poetry, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (2010), in which we can study both the diversity and consistency of his work from Asylum (1975) to Girly Man (2005), where the material of Bernstein’s poetry — “the transcription of spoken, everyday language” — proves to be formally open-ended for the simple reason that the everyday is not a style or a period but is made of vernaculars in a perpetual or anarchic state of innovation.
what I would like to talk about really
is a subject that probably doesn’t have a name. — David Antin, “talking at pomona” (1971)
Starting out in the 1960s, Antin’s writings on art include pieces on (among others) Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Robert Morris, and Alan Kaprow. Each feeds into a wide-ranging essay from 1971, “It Reaches a Desert in which Nothing Can Be Perceived but Feeling,” where Antin makes his case that Abstract Expressionism has long since run its course and that it is time to start the history of art over again, principally by developing a new concept (or at least defense) of representational and figurative art, not so much to reduce the artwork to its “aboutness” as to come to terms with such “nonformalist movements” as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Happenings in which the artwork is as much an event as an object — an event characterized by a recontextualization of things, images, and actions from the lower (popular, commercial, industrial) end of the cultural scale, or for all of that from the transient materials that keep ordinary life on its day-to-day course: “Light, Air, Water, Food, Heat, Shelter, Transport, Rest.” A good example of “material” art would be one of Robert Smithson’s earth projects like “Spiral Jetty,” a landfill that circles out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and which comes and goes over the years as the water levels of the lake periodically rise and fall. What is particularly innovative about staging of such basic materials is that the so-called artwork that results is no longer reducible to genre-descriptions or, indeed, to any description that is not local and contingent in its application. Definitions, categories, and distinctions evaporate before they hit the ground on which the artwork takes its turn.
Antin gives a nice twist to this idea in “FINE FURS” (1992), which describes an event in which he arranged for one of his poems to be written in the air by skywriters. For the record: “Skypoems are gone in twenty minutes” (302). The experiment, it turns out, is a form of iconoclastic protest against the institutionalization of “public” art (the kind that gets preserved in various urban centers — picture the Picasso in the Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago). “I don’t think public art installations should be permanent,” Antin says. “I think they should be wreckable. I think we should have a ceremony of destruction and remove them regularly” (303). Antin recalls that he once proposed this idea in a talk at an architectural college; his suggestion (“that the problem of architecture is not how to make it, but how to get rid of it”) was not well received (304).
In this same hygienic spirit Antin writes: “If we are to do something fundamentally meaningful we have to begin by eliminating the genres that have helped to trivialize our art. By this I don’t mean subgenres like ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture.’ I mean the distinction between the arts in general” (55). Robert Morris’s Exchange (1973), for example, raises the question of where or whether video art belongs in any inventory of art forms. The work is “a series of verbal meditations on exchanges of information, collaborations, and interferences with a woman, accompanied by a variety of images taped and re-taped from other tapes and photographs for the most part as indefinite and suggestive as the discourse, [which] goes on till it arrives at a single distinct and comic story of not getting to see the Gattamelata [a fifteenth-century sculpture by Donatello], after which the tape trails off in a more or less leisurely fashion. … The work is ‘boring,’ as Les Levine remarked, ‘if you demand that it be something else. If you demand that it be itself then it is not boring’” (86). Yet knowing exactly what the work is when it is just itself seems precisely what the work sets out to defeat. Recall T. W. Adorno on the Rätselcharakter of the modernist artwork: “If a work opens itself completely, it reveals itself as a question and demands reflection; then the work vanishes into the distance, only to return to those who thought they understood it, overwhelming them for a second time with the question: ‘What is it?’”
Just so, Robert Morris (b. 1931) appears to be the key figure in Antin’s thinking, chiefly because of his (Morris’s) capacity for reinvention, which is to say his anarchic resistance over several decades to any rule of identity. In “Have Mind, Will Travel” (1994), Antin traces Morris’s career from his abstract paintings of the early 1960s through his various experiments in minimalism, conceptualism, and performance art, culminating in his 1990 show at the Corcoran Gallery, “Inability to Endure or Deny the World,” which featured large assemblies of images “drawn from a mélange of art history, popular magazines, and older works of Morris himself” — images whose elusive significance “is further complicated by the elliptical texts with which they live in often enigmatic relation” (Radical, 116–17). For example, the exhibit included Morris’s “Investigations Series,” twenty-four graphic-on-vellum drawings, each of which is scored by a citation from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The drawings depict historical events and iconic figures — the Army-McCarthy hearings, a famous photograph of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their trial for espionage, even Jackson Pollock hurling paint at a canvas on the floor.
What emerges from Antin’s portrait of Morris is the figure of “a restless, ironic and intellectual artist who engages with whatever surrounding discourses happen to interest him and leaves them as soon as they cease to interest him” — someone very different from the more settled artist (Antin mentions Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt) “whose works consist of a single stylistic gesture that is allowed to unfold over a wide field of manifestations” (Radical, 119). Morris is, whatever else he is, a “nomad” — a term that recalls Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of nomad aesthetics in which the work of art is serial or segmental, made of “lines of flight” rather than parts subsumed by a whole. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari regard nomad art as distinctively American rather than European in character in the sense that the nomadic work is “rhizomatic,” like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, rather than an “arborescent” totality like Mallarmé’s Grande Œuvre, in whose formal principles every possible poem is already implicated. At the same time, however, nomadic art is nonexclusionary: at the level of the “local and contingent,” that is, in the absence of any “universalist claims” or taboos, there is nothing that cannot be counted as art, unless it is just that which persists in work after work as a single-minded and predictable “trajectory of intention” (Antin, Radical, 100). Hence the virtue of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings — “colloquial” events in which “triggering concentrated, self-conscious reflection on any action undertaken, say vacuuming a floor or brushing one’s teeth, will become a way of making art” (149).
The idea is to guard against “persistence” (100–101). In “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in Modern American Poetry” (1972), Antin notes that “For better or for worse, ‘modern’ poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset” (170). But by the 1950s this principle had been displaced by the closed forms that characterized the poetry of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke, among others. Antin locates his own beginnings as a poet with (or near) the “return of collage Modernism” in the work of Charles Olson, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, and the New York School, whose “enlarged repertory of possibilities” (185) produced the return of the long poem, that is, the serial poem that has neither archē nor telos but is always in a process of departing from itself — “beginning again and again,” in Gertrude Stein’s famous description of open form. It was, Antin says, “the specific claim of modernism to be finally and forever open” (Radical, 162).
The question is whether “finally and forever open” isn’t an oxymoron, or at least a kind of endgame in which things eventually fade to black. Antin cites passages from Olson, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg with considerable affection, but he finds ways to hold himself apart from them: as he says in a conversation with Charles Bernstein, he felt closer then (and now) to Jackson Mac Low’s “performance poems” and John Cage’s “Lectures.” Likewise, in “Some Questions about Modernism” (1974) Antin emphasizes the paradox of “collage Modernism,” namely that it was generated by a “hostility to arrangement” that “led some artists into a hostility to collage [itself], because they saw collage in terms of its multiplicity of pieces. They reasoned quite correctly that if there are pieces there is arrangement, and all arrangements, no matter how ‘random,’ are apprehended as some kind of order, because randomness is conceivable but not perceivable” (Radical, 213–14).
To which Antin decisively adds: “Personally I share this distaste for ideas of arrangement and I don’t think anyone can be very interested in doing collage work now, mainly because of the predictability of its effect” (214). Indeed, for Antin the real importance of “60s Modernism” was not so much its recovery of the principle of collage as its “neo-Romantic sensibility,” which included, among other things, “the underlying conviction that poetry was made by a man up on his feet, talking” (194).
All of which leads Antin to his title piece, “Radical Coherency,” a “talk poem” from 1981 in which Antin responds to the question of why in the early seventies he stopped writing a poetry made “in accordance with what I would call collage strategies” in favor of the talk pieces he’s doing even now, several decades later (227). Antin’s answer takes the form of an anecdote in which he recalls the day he took his mother to Sears to help her buy some shoes, when suddenly it came to him that Sears is a vast labyrinthine arrangement of disparate articles — a “simultaneously incoherent coherency” (235) — pleasurable in its way but in this case a state of affairs in which his mother grows increasingly uncomfortable: “I want to go home,” his mother says, a line that serves Antin as his cue —
now I one of the
reasons I abandoned collage which is organized something like sears
by and large and while it is sometimes entertaining or illuminating to
consider this kind of organization to inspect the parts from which it has
been assembled and speculate upon the discourses from which they might
have been taken to restore the missing parts or merely take pleasure in
the juxtaposition and collision of these fragments of otherwise unrelated
or arbitrarily related things (235)
In the end what came to interest him, Antin says, was (and remains) something more self-reflective: namely, the kinds of coherency that develop “out of the way the human mind works as it faces the exigencies of everyday life” (236).
Specifically, what Antin wants to know is how the mind works when it’s not doing mathematics or playing chess or, for all of that, making art. Doing Dada cutups and assembling them now one way, now another, certainly counts as a way of making art. But Antin finds a more compelling challenge in trying to make sense “out of someone’s most conventional narrative” (Radical, 237) — an anecdote, for example, which is a form of vernacular storytelling that circulates at the level of everyday life rather than at the level of grand narratives that gather things together from some end-of-history standpoint. Narrative at the level of contingency is a radical form of coherency, which is neither a logical construction nor an aleatory assemblage but an account of events that, however they ramble or drift, have the virtue of “mattering” to somebody (262).
This is the upshot of Antin’s “The Beggar and the King” (1995), which is an attempt to construct a conception of narrative that goes against the grain of narrative theory, whether the classical Aristotelian version in which things come to term for a reason (plot), or the more dubious structuralist idea that all narratives are rule-governed systems whose events matter less than the relations that synchronize them into something intelligible. Antin gives brief honorable mention to Paul Ricoeur’s phenomenological conception of narrative, and even borrows Ricoeur’s idea that “reconnecting subject positions across the gulf of change is what constitutes the formation of self.” But his own standpoint is that narratives (when they work) work like dreams insofar as dreams are narratives that cannot help mattering to us — imagine a dream that the dreamer does not find absorbing in the course of its development, however fragmentary or bizarre it might be. For “the goal of narrative is to make present, not to make intelligible, and a dream is nothing if it is not a making present of an anticipated future and a remembered past in which we always have a definite stake” (Radical, 263). Against a whole army of eminent philosophers of narrative (Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre come to mind), Antin’s final line of his essay is an emphatic thumb in the eye: “Narrative explains nothing” (270).
Naturally one thus looks for some connection between Antin’s dream-model of narrative and his talk poems, which are frequently elusive replies to questions that appeal for an explanation. For example, “what am I doing here?” (1973), one of Antin’s earliest talk pieces, is (like “Radical Coherency”) a response to a request for “some sort of statement” about his work. As it happens, “what am I doing here?,” like most of Antin’s talk poems, is filled with anecdotes, and anecdotes are, in the nature of the case, true stories, in contrast to parables like the one about the beggar and the king in Pedro Calderon’s seventeenth-century play, La Vida es Sueno [“Life is a dream”], which Antin offers “as a poet’s refutation of Aristotle” because its plot “makes nothing experientially intelligible” — nothing, that is, except Antin’s thesis about narrative (Radical, 236). Anecdotes are not so much explanations as instances of something that is the case, as in Antin’s story in “what am I doing here?” about a story told to him by his unfortunate friend from work, Candy, in which she recalls an absurd moment that terminates a possible love affair just as it appears to be getting under way:
could she have on her mind with such a story? what could it
have meant that it happened to her? and i realized that this
was the major structure of her life she had in fact described
the existence that she lived
Just so, in Antin’s talk poems, anecdotes are ways of thinking by examples rather than according to logical procedures. Anecdotes come into play, as Wittgenstein would say, when explanations come up short, as inevitably they do. Recall Wittgenstein’s idea that logic “seeks to see to the bottom of things,” whereas “[w]hat we want to understand [is] something already in plain view” (§89) — as, for example, when trying to “explain to someone what a game is.” In such an effort, one “gives examples,” not in order to show what games have in common, but to supply something like a narrative experience of game-playing, making it present as a form of life (§71).
This is the line that Antin follows when it comes to the question of how to think about poems and artworks in the absence or misfire of criteria of identification. In “Stranger at the Door” (1987) Antin recalls that this was the question that he and Jerome Rothenberg confronted in their magazine, some/thing (1965–68), when taking up poems as divergent as George Brecht’s Dances, Events, and other Poems, Jackson Mac Low’s Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances, translations from Aztec and North American Indian poetic traditions, John Cage’s “Lectures,” and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. What this heterogeneity of examples generated was a rethinking of genre in terms of Wittgenstein’s concept of resemblances within a large and expanding family, where “the basis of inclusion was affiliation with any subgroup within which a new candidate shared a fundamental feature” (Radical, 253–54). What is crucial here is that for Antin “a fundamental feature” is not a formal marker that situates a work within a class but a productive force — one might call it, after Marcel Duchamp, an “obstacle placed in the path of the mind, temporarily checking it or forcing it out of its former path and compelling it to seek some partial realization” (Radical, 140), or, after John Cage, “an instigation of the mind to the solicitation of experience” (Radical, 254), on the theory that “what you most desire in life is the capacity to attend to no matter what eventuality” (337) — which is what a “talk poet” needs when, as in Antin’s practice, he is someone who seldom settles beforehand what he’s actually going to talk about when he gets to his feet.
A tedious schoolmaster might mutter to himself that an Antin “talk” is more rhetorical than poetic insofar as it is an improvisation backed by an inventory of topoi — a vast range of subjects to which Antin has already given thought, or which is simply part of his personal, cultural, and philosophical experience, and from which he selects material appropriate to whatever situation or audience is at hand. Rhetorically, inventio is not formal innovation; it means finding (from all that has been said) what has application in a particular case. As Antin himself says about the materials of improvisation: “There is no such thing as ground zero for any human being who hasn’t suffered brain damage. For any performer there is always some complex of past, future and present relevancy conditions that makes the notion of complete spontaneity an absurdity” (325).
Accordingly, the most productive way to read Antin’s poetry is not through formal analysis but to follow the recurrences of certain signature topics — a good example of which, given Antin’s aesthetic disposition against permanent artifacts, is duration, which makes a telling appearance in an early poem, “Definitions for Mendy” (1967), an elegy on the death of a friend in which duration is implacable, like a tombstone:
is a stone
it is a fact
it does not move …
it is smooth
the water does not wear it away
it wears the water away
it is a fact
it does not mean anything
it cannot tell time
Again, in “how long is the present?” (1978) Antin says that he takes the question of the present “very seriously as a poet,” because, for one thing, talking is one of the things that, unlike a piece of architecture or a poetic text, moves along in the present as the present itself moves, beginning again and again, in contrast to an entretemps or between-time of interminable attention, as when watching a game of chess. Likewise the experience of pain, whether physical or mental, fastens the present to an intensive point. Antin recalls how time stopped when one day he severed his finger in a car door — an experience that he then contrasts with “the scraping aching tedium” of having the severed piece surgically reattached:
there is no feeling more appalling to me than lying on my back
being ministered to while im helpless I have the feeling
of such complete irrelevance of having become some
kind of object (tuning, 99)
(For some reason, an art museum’s restoration of an old master comes to mind.)
Later, in “durations” (1983), Antin explores the several varieties of duration — that of art objects, museum visits, and air travel, this last of which (in an anecdote about a flight from California to Dallas) entails multiple and conflicting forms of time depending on how and where one directs one’s attention, whether toward the landscape passing below, or toward the monologue of the fellow in the next seat, or in recollections of things past. During his flight, Antin says, he recalled his anxious experience of waiting when his wife and son failed to make it home one evening — an experience of non-arrival that he recalls still once more in his telling of it, such that “durations” becomes the story of several durations, the duration of which will itself contract as time goes by:
as I go on living this duration will get
shorter and shorter as I think of it next month or next
year and I may be able to summarize it in my mind in a
matter of seconds till maybe I lose it altogether as an
image and it contracts to the point where it will hide
behind a phrase or a name from which I can only call it up
by chance with the right password and then only in the
act of telling that may turn it into a quite different
experience and duration
Appropriately, Antin concludes “durations” with an anecdote about his visit to his mother and mother-in-law in their retirement community, in which he observes the narrowing of an elder’s memory to a present that lasts hardly longer than one of his Skypoems. Art objects may endure, but duration itself is not an object, although, as a topic, it can be transported to new contexts, which is basically how a talk poet stays on his toes.
I imagine poetry … as that which
can’t be contained by any set of formal qualities. — Charles Bernstein, “Optimism and Critical Excess” (1988)
Attack of the Difficult Poems is a collection of essays, reviews, formal lectures, position papers, and comic turns, this last represented by Bernstein’s concluding text, “Recantorium (A Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp, after Kafka)” (2008), a paper presented at a conference on “Conceptual Poetry & Its Others” in which he “apologizes” for his famous attacks against “Official Verse Culture,” with its premium upon self-expressive and transparent verse forms. In fact, on close reading “Recantorium” becomes an apology in the classical sense, namely a defense of Bernstein’s long-established position that “the reinvention, the making of poetry for our time, is the only thing that makes poetry matter. And that means, literally, making poetry matter, that is, making poetry that intensifies the matter or materiality of language — acoustic, visual, syntactic, semantic” (Attack, 30). Recall these luminous lines from Bernstein’s “Lift Off” (1979):
HH/ ie,s obVrsr;atjrn dugh seineipocv I iibalfmgmMw
er,, me”ius ieigorcy¢jeuvine+pee.)a/na/t” ihl”n,s
Or “Amblyopia” (1987), which ranges haphazardly from the lyrical —
There is neither matter nor form, only
smell, taste, bite — eyes
hide by their disclosure. There
is only substance — structure — twin
fears of an unduplicating repetition:
the sandstorm of grief, the presentlessness
of distribution. As farfetched
ministers to its own resolve
purpose alone is the proprietor
of the poignant, vesture of solace’s
lazy haze. (132)
to the satirical —
And Now …
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS TIME
TO STOP THINKING AGAIN …
Texton introduces the Whipmaster Valorizerᵀᴹ
Just when you thought you were stuck in the same
old shopworn anxieties and tired-out guilt
feelings, the Whipmaster Valorizerᵀᴹ has arrived,
revolutionizing the psychopoetics industry. (136–37)
In “An Interview with Manuel Brito” (1997) Bernstein explained that his poetry is “a mix of different types of language pieced together as in a mosaic — very ‘poetic’ diction next to something that sounds overheard, intimate address next to philosophical imperatives, plus a mix of would-be proverbs, slogans, jingles, nursery rhymes, songs.” In the present volume he characterizes this as “The Art and Practice of the Ordinary” (2004): what he is after, he says, is “an understanding of the social uses of language and the different registers of vernacular language. … What I am trying to do in my own writing is to produce an experience of language as social material, evoking, in the process, material facts about language and rhythms within language that each of us knows as well as our own breath or the thud of our heart or viscosity of our saliva” (Attack, 178–9).
“Standing Target” (1980), for example, is a ten-page assembly of lovely (if edgy) lyrics, together with paratactic arrangements of words and phrases, random citations, words falling Mallarmé-like across an empty page, inventories like the following —
Neurological impairment, speech delay, psychomotor
difficulties with wide discrepancies and
fluctuations, excessive neurotic fears and compulsive
behavior, a diffuse hostile attitude, general
clumsiness, confused dominance, poor fine motor
coordination, asymmetrical reflexes, aggressive,
callous, arrogant, excessive inhibitions,
rebellious, suspicious, attention seeking, erratic
friendship pattern, overexcitable in normal situations.
— followed hard upon by found texts of this sort:
As President and Chief Executive Officer
of Sea World, Inc., David DeMotte is
responsible for managing all aspects
of the Company’s operations at Sea
World parks in San Diego, Aurora,
Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and the Florida
Keys. A native Californian, DeMotte,
and his wife Charlotte, enjoy hunting,
fishing, and tennis in their spare time. (Whiskey, 58–59)
The difficulty here, supposing there to be just one, is to explain how it is that a found text (David DeMotte was in fact one of the founders and longtime executives of the Sea World Corporation) becomes a parody of itself when printed in a poem rather than, say, in a newspaper, newsletter, or corporate flyer. One argument is that an “experience of language as social material” is inherently comic for reasons that Mikhail Bakhtin laid out in a famous essay, “Discourse in the Novel” (c. 1938), which contrasted the serious, unitary language of the classical poet (a court figure) with the motley discourse found “on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, [where] the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing … the ‘languages’ of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face.” In other words, one way to escape “Official Verse Culture” (“poets, scholars, monks”) is to situate oneself in Bakhtin’s “history of laughter.” Bernstein is happy to place himself in this context. In “Poetry Scene Investigation: A Conversation with Marjorie Perloff” (2003), he says: “One of my obsessions has been to include — fully and faithfully (or is it faithlessly, I always get those confused) — a set of Henny Youngman-style jokes within a poem” (Attack, 247).
More to the point perhaps is the question of what actually counts as “difficulty” in the first place. The problem with “Official Verse Culture,” after all, is not just that it makes for easy reading; it reduces composition itself to a course in basic mechanics. The most compelling pieces in Attack of the Difficult Poems — “Invention Follies” (2006), for example — suggest that, when it comes to difficulty, poets themselves are the first responders or, in a classical sense, the first line of defense in poetic communities “where innovation, the new, ingenuity, and originality, perhaps even more than the aesthetic, are vexed terms, jinxed, perhaps ironically, by their own history” (Attack, 33). Bernstein’s idea, much like Antin’s, is to focus on what presents itself in the moment at hand: “What’s needed,” he says, “is a transvaluation of the concept of innovation, so that we can think of innovation in a modest and local way, as responses to historical and contemporary particulars — as situational, not universal. More like the weather — and one’s everyday adaption to it — than like the forward march of scientific knowledge. … Innovation is a constant process of invention in the face of the given” (34). And what is given is, first of all, language, which for Bernstein is structured like the weather, that is, a turbulent complexity refractory to concepts and rules, an environment that cannot be brought under control or reduced to instrumental operations and results. Whence Bernstein’s fluid poetics: “Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that’s what I want from it, what I want to say about it just here, just now (and maybe not in some other context)” (My Way, 41–42).
“Poetic innovations,” Bernstein says, “are often noisy, messy, disruptive, disorienting. They do not form a neat line with the innovations of the past” (Attack, 37). Witness, for example, the possibilities opened up by digital technology, which liberates the alphabet from its typeset incarnations. In “Every Which Way But Loose” (2002), Bernstein says that, given this technology, “writers become language environment designers — textual architects — who need to foresee how the texts they write will be brought to life in particularized enactments. This entails anticipating the inevitable variances made by the different systems on which the work will be displayed. It also allows for creating variants in the configurations of the work: for example, randomizing the sequence of a hypertext so that each time it is viewed it is read in a different order” (Attack, 85). Bernstein doesn’t give any examples, but one can refer to the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac’s theory (and practice) of “digital” and “holopoetry” to get a sense of what he has in mind. Digital poems, for example, are still material, but are raised to a higher (“hypertextual”) power, as in Kac’s “Tesāo”:
Eduardo Kac, “Tesāo” (1986), first shown in 1985 on the Minitel Network, a precursor to the Internet. Reproduced by permission.
Whereas “holopoems” occupy different dimensions entirely. As Kac explains in an essay on “Holopoetry”:
Holopoetry belongs to the tradition of experimental poetry and verbal art, but it treats the word as an immaterial form; that is, as a sign that can change or dissolve into thin air, breaking its formal stiffness. Freed from the page and freed from other palpable materials, the word invades the reader’s space and forces him or her to read it in a dynamic way; the reader must move around the text and find meanings and connections the words establish with each other in empty space. Thus a holopoem must be read in a broken fashion, in an irregular and discontinuous movement, and it will change as it is viewed from different perspectives.
Think back here to Antin’s objections to persistence, architectural installations, and the tombstone duration of poetic texts. The holopoem is something like a self-innovating system, except that it requires the performative intervention of a reader whose passage through the multiple (third and fourth) dimensions of the poem changes it into something else — something that is nowhere except in the reader’s present. In Bernstein’s terms, it’s hard to imagine a more situational form of innovation or a more local and contingent form of poetry.
In the nature of the case it is virtually impossible to “cite” a holopoem in a printed text. Kac’s Media Poetry provides some excellent photographic illustrations, and one should also visit Kac’s extraordinarily rich website, as well as the videos of his digital poetry available on Ubuweb. The question is whether holopoetry can also incorporate the dimension of sound, which is the poetic material in which Bernstein seems to take the greatest critical as well as poetic interest. Much the best piece in Attack of the Difficult Poems is Bernstein’s “Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics” (2006), which expands the “social field” of vernacular, colloquial, and ideolectical poetry to include an extraordinary range of historical and cultural examples:
One way to trace this [social field] is to take the representation of speech in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s African American and Claude McKay’s early Jamaican dialect poems and run that against Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics for Show Boat (“Ol’ Man River”) or DuBose and Dorothy Heywood and Ira Gershwin’s more supple lyrics for Porgy and Bess (“Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy”), James Weldon Johnson’s early song lyric “Under the Bamboo Tree” and his later sermonic textualizations in God’s Trombone, Fanny Brice’s Yiddish schtick monologues (or Groucho Marx’s Euro-ethnic ones), the virtually “Objectivist” blues of Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton, and the transcriptive works of Sterling Brown; or contrast these with the more fluid poetic vernacular of William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, and the rebarbartive anti-assimilationism of Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The.’” (Attack, 133)
“Nowhere,” Bernstein argues, “are the innovations of both assimilation and disruption more compelling than among the Second Wave Modernists, poets and comics, lyricists and blues artists born between 1889 and 1909” (136) — thanks in good part to the new technologies of the phonograph record, the microphone, and radio. Bernstein gives us some excellent pages on James Weldon Johnson’s “Under the Bamboo Tree,” Paul Robeson’s performance in Porgy and Bess, and especially the great blues artist Charlie Patton, who “overlays his singing with various noise effects that interrupt any continuous melodic production: talking, grunts, inhalations, interjections, improvisatory rather than formulaic repetitions, variations, extensions, and rephrasings, incommensurable switches of tempo, pitch, volume, and tone” (150).
Let me conclude on this noisy note by citing Bernstein’s “Theolonius Monk and the Performance of Poetry” (1988), with its argument that the corporal presence of sound matters as much to poetry as the semantic, social, and literary contexts of the poet’s language. The conceptual coherence between Antin and Bernstein on the importance of making art present hardly needs to be underscored at this point, although the two have debated the formal nature of the sounds that poets make, with Bernstein inclining toward, and Antin against, the analogy of music. Thus Bernstein:
To perform a poem is to make it a physically present
acoustic event, to give bodily dimension — beat — to what is
otherwise spatial and visual. Poems, no matter how short,
necessarily involve duration, & writing as much as performing
is an act of shaping this durational passage. In
performance, it becomes possible to lay down a rhythmic
beat, a pulse, that is otherwise more speculative or tenuous
in the scoring of words on a page. For me, this pulse is
constructed around “nodal” points of pauses or silences or
breaks — a point I want to put as technically as I can to
distinguish this from notions of breath or speech rhythms or
other notions of an unconstructed or unimposed reading style. (My Way, 21)
Notice that this reads at first like a conference paper with intermittent linebreaks, but after a pause Bernstein “performs” the kinds of pulses, beats, or “nodal” points he has in mind:
performances, I’m interested in employing
several different, shifting tempos
& several different intonations (voices)
& spin around these nodal
points. These blank spaces —
intervals — serve as ful-
crums for making audible
the rhythmic pulse & phrasing
played out, at the same
the syntax of the language (that is, cutting
against expected breaks of the
grammatical phrase or unit of
breath). Given these interests, the sound I am
not simply that of a
person reading words
in any “straightforward” way
as if a
the piano, with slight
pauses creating unexpected
spaces between words, allowing phrases
to veer off into
unexpected sequences of wobbling
no more take for
granted how to do this than I assume
or prosody of a
poem I am
writing, it is a highly constructed, albeit
improvised process, based on choosing
from a variety of different tonal,
rhythmic, & phrasal possibilities. (My Way, 21–22)
In his introduction to Close Listening, a collection of essays by various hands on the acoustical and visual performance of poetry, Bernstein called “for a non-Euclidean (or complex) prosody,” for the point is not so much to produce patterns as to break them, “creating unexpected / spaces between words” and “unexpected sequences of wobbling / sound” — recall Antin’s stand (or move) against “persistence,” or Robert Morris’s “nomadic” itinerary through the art world, or Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, in which an everyday human action confounds its identity by being performed out of context, framed by an alien environment, as when brushing one’s teeth on an urban street, or staging a piece of theater without an audience.
Of course, Bernstein’s idea is that for a performance poet an audience is essential to the corporal existence of the poem, even if only in the reading of it. For reading is a form of collaboration, one not basically different from that of a translator’s — perhaps especially in the case of “homophonic” translations in which the reader, not understanding the meaning of the original, simply renders the sound into English, as in Bernstein’s translation of his own “Johnny Cake Hollow” as “Empty Biscuits”:
Johnny Cake Hollow
Xo quollen swacked unt myrry flooped
Ceylon’s ox slaked Mary’s gourd
One hardly knows what more to say. A line from Gertrude Stein rings in one’s ears: “his words made a sound to the eyes.”
1. Cited by Willoughby Sharpe, “Lawrence Weiner at Amsterdam,” Avalanche 4 (Spring 1972): 71. See David Antin, “Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See,” Artforum 46, no. 1 (September 2007): 156, a retrospective exhibition of some of Weiner’s work at the Whitney Museum, 2007–2008.
2. Recall the story of Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a drawing by Willem de Kooning, which he later exhibited as a kind of monochrome. Interestingly, Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953) is owned, but not currently exhibited, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
4. Antin, Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 55–57. See Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), for a spirited defense of artworks that locate themselves within non-esoteric (popular, commercial, waste-product) spheres of material culture.
5. The Daley Plaza Picasso has recently been upstaged by a piece of pop-sculpture on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, namely a statue of Marilyn Monroe, or more accurately a statue of an iconic image from one of Marilyn Monroe’s films, “The Seven-Year Itch.” As it happens, the Monroe piece, erected in the summer of 2011, will only be allowed to stand until the spring of 2012.
7. See Terrie Sultan, ed., Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris (Washington, DC: The Corcoran Gallery, 1990), the volume of essays and reproductions that accompanied the Corcoran Exhibition, esp. Barbara Rose’s essay, “The Odyssey of Robert Morris”: 6–10.
8. Compare this to Morris’s “Blind Time IV: Drawing with Davidson” in Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993–2007 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 41–50, graphic works on paper with citations from the work of the philosopher Donald Davidson. See also, in this same volume, Morris’s “The Art of Donald Davidson” (1995), 51–60.
9. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 19. Cf. Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics: Essays (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).
13. Antin began doing his “talk poems” in the early 1970s. His most recent talk pieces appear in john cage uncaged is still cagey (San Diego: Singing Horse Press, 2005), the title poem of which is reproduced in Radical Coherency, 331–43, and i never knew what time it was (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). Still more recent is “hiccups,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 754–67. Naturally, given Antin’s objection to “persistence,” some will wonder whether these poems are not a performative contradiction. Meanwhile, for the fun of it, see Charles Bernstein’s poem, “From Talk Alone You Don’t Get a Poem” in With Strings: Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001):
It’s your turn, Roger. The whole world’s not nuts!
You earn your eye and the vastness vanishes
under the brick of an oily blanket,
only the doodles don’t dare crack the count-
ing houses. Setting in motion something like
actuarial imbrications (hor-
tatory lamentation), as if bal-
looning bulbs. Say slither in the case of
presumptive hitherance—you know, the
tuck around the tootle, mickey mousing
with the last brass lunge. There are barbells in
the pantry, second shelf above the sag,
then a pound or two later all alone
with just your motor bike for a conscience.
I’ve two of those & a speaker for a
14. See William Burroughs, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.”
16. The spirit of Gertrude Stein rather than Freud or any dream-theorist inhabits Antin’s conception of narrative. Recall “Composition as Explanation”: “In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives. … In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present, although naturally I had been accustomed to past, present, and future, and why, because the composition around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present” (Selected Writings, 517).
when i was asked what I wanted to talk about before i came here
i picked up the telephone in san diego and bill miller
from the Philadelphia art museum spoke to me on the phone
said “what are you going to talk about?” and i had
about five seconds to decide (talking at the boundaries, 27)
24. Listen to Bernstein’s “performance” of “Amblyopia” on PennSound.
27. See Bernstein’s “Comedy and the Politics of Poetic Form”: “For I am a ventriloquist, happy as a raven to preach with blinding fervor of the corruptions of public life in a voice of pained honesty that is as much a conceit as the most formal legal brief for which my early education would seem to have prepared me. If my loops and short circuits, my love of elision, my Groucho Marxian refusal of irony, are an effort to explode the authority of those conventions I wish to discredit (disinherit), this constantly offers the consoling self-justification of being Art, as if I could escape the partiality of my condition by my investigation of it.” A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 223. Henny Youngman (1906–1998) was a stand-up comedian famous for his one-liners (“Take my wife, please”).
31. Bernstein composed this poem in response to a symposium on the music of the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Contrast Antin, in his essay on “the return of collage Modernism”: “It is possible that the weak point of this whole group of poets — Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Bunting, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, etc. — is the metaphor of music itself, for the music they have in mind is based on a relatively conventional organization of pitches and accents” (Radical, 185). Where Bernstein and Antin come together is in their preference for the music of John Cage, with its openness to the sounds (commonly known as “noise”) that animate everyday life.
Raised in a poor but loving family in New Jersey, Patti Smith wasn’t happy with the range of opportunities open to her after high school. Artistic and strong-natured — she played the General in her games with her brother and sister — she got into trouble with an unwanted pregnancy, gave the baby up for adoption, quit her factory job, and took a bus to New York.
Her memoir Just Kids is a love story, a kind of American La Boehme. Within a few weeks of her arrival in New York during the summer of 1967, she met a male counterpart, a former choirboy from a strict Catholic family from Queens, Robert Mapplethorpe. The two lived in poverty together, scrounging money for food and sleeping in borrowed apartments, before finding enough work to set up their own tiny household. At the same time, each recognized and nurtured in the other the artistic gene in its early budding.
Just Kids gives the lie to Robin Williams’s famous quip that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Smith remembers photographically (we learn that she didn’t do drugs) virtually every item she and Mapplethorpe wore, both of them budding style mavens. They made a pact to keep each other safe — if one was ill, intoxicated or otherwise down, the other was designated guardian. While working briefly for the Fillmore East, Mapplethorpe got her a comp ticket for a Doors concert. She writes:
I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.
In 1972 Andrew Wylie, Victor Bockris, and I collaborated on a literary press, Telegraph Books, and published Smith’s first book of poems, Seventh Heaven. At a photoshoot to publicize our venture and its dozen or so writers, Smith’s fluency and ease before our photographer, Berry Berenson, startled me. While the rest of us stood around in various degrees of literary introspection, this slight woman in black stretch pants, Capezios, and an oversized tee shirt was like a cross between a street urchin and Mick Jagger, and at the same time managed to charm everybody.
Just Kids contains cameos of sixties stars including Janis Joplin, Kris Kristopherson, Jim Carroll, Viva, Bobby Neuwirth, Harry Smith, and Sam Shepard in the downtown environs centered at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, but what sustains the book’s strong emotional current is Smith’s love for Mapplethorpe, even as their lives move apart. They worked side by side together — she on poetry and drawings, he on drawings and collages — and slept in one another’s arms. Smith eventually found a regular job at the venerable Scribners bookstore on Fifth Avenue.
Having discovered photography, Mapplethorpe gradually acceded to his homosexuality, eventually finding a patron and partner in Sam Wagstaff. “Patti, do you think we lost ourselves to art?” he asked her a decade later as he was dying of AIDS.
Beginning with portraits of her, he quickly evolved a high definition photograph that embraced a wide range of subject matter, from flowers to male and female nudes to portraits of celebrities, babies and children, to images of gay men, often in S&M scenarios, which brought him fame and notoriety. What all of these photographs have in common is that each is scrupulously posed and lit. He also did sexual self-portraits in both macho and femme personae. Coming after Diane Arbus and a contemporary of Nan Goldin, he combined their gritty adventurousness with an artfulness that recalls Irving Penn. Long a painter and collagist, he seemed to attain mastery virtually overnight in his new medium.
More or less in tandem with him, Patti Smith achieved punk rock stardom, married a fellow musician, the late Fred Sonic Smith, and the two raised a family in Detroit.
The firsthand accounts of the 1960s have been surprisingly few. Two writers, both a decade older than the young who created the epoch, have been the dominant popular commentators, Joan Didion (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Just Kids, written in the retrospect of Patti Smith’s own sixties, changes that. She was there.