A review of 'The Port of Los Angeles'
As Frank O’Hara wrote, “You don’t refuse to breathe do you.” As he implies, life in an urban environment requires a person to be absorptive, to breathe it in, to absorb all forms of toxicity into ourselves. Of course, O’Hara would be quick to remind us that the toxicity is precisely what we come to the urban environment for, because toxicity is exciting. Emotional toxicity is dramatic and narratively engaging; many forms of toxicity are pleasant to inhale, imbide, swallow, snort, or otherwise absorb; and the second-hand smoke of mass transportation and mass electrification is pernicious, pervasive, and essential to our evening plans. The insight that toxicity is the price of pleasure is what makes O’Hara’s poetry so characteristic of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s: O’Hara describes a world where our dearest attachments are a little bit poisonous, and all the more charming for it.
But Frank O’Hara never lived in Long Beach, California, where a new arrival might get advice like this:
when you get lost, just orient yourself by the refinery
when you get turned around, look for the port
you can see the cranes from just about anywhere
The poet Jane Sprague’s first full-length collection, The Port of Los Angeles, immerses the reader in the sights and signs of a city dedicated to throughput, a city where trucks and trains exchange containers with cargo ships. Whereas New York is presided over by monuments to commerce, civic life in Long Beach is overshadowed by monumental transportation infrastructure. Despite its nominal independence from Los Angeles, Long Beach is the site of LA’s port, where kilotons of goods from China and other Pacific Rim nations enter the US and are shifted to land transport.
We all might want to live in a city that was designed and administered for the benefit of human living, but how many of us do? Most cities (and certainly all large ones) are administered with the cash value of commerce in mind, and the urban population are either incidental or subordinate to these concerns. Jane Sprague’s poetry manifests anger and grief at this state of affairs. She meditates on the precarious lifestyle of incidental people, as well as on the commercial infrastructure that shapes her city’s public space. Oil derricks, cranes, yachts, and (of course) Ikea serve as symbols of alienation as well as economic facts that explain the indifferent landscape. Sprague grieves the city’s failure to be responsive to fundamental human needs, the toxic indifference of its administrative agenda. She writes:
the goods waited in their precious and stained ways
their ways of chipped edges and past fights
Sprague describes these same goods as “parsed into sectors or boxes of labeled and specific function or rooms of / disbursement.” Central to these descriptions is an assertion that the goods flowing through the port are “not indifferent.” This assertion springs from a need for connection, to find some way that our surroundings care about us, and by that means to dramatize a meaningful relation between citizens, their city, and the city’s business. In O’Hara’s work, this collective relation is figured in terms of toxicity; to him, urbanites were connected by a common willingness to be exposed to pollution. In Sprague, the connection is found in the underlying human value of goods. But this should not be misunderstood. For Sprague, the value of goods is not that they satisfy human need (human need is more like a constant, a sign of life, in these poems). Rather, goods announce the priority of human needs; each good represents a need which it is (in most cases) unable to fulfill.
Building on her equation of goods with needs, Sprague writes:
were we we or were we
mingling and all within our each
our metal porous borders
remembering almost nothing of what we told ourselves
whether we were Los Angeles Seoul New Orleans Beijing
whether we agreed or did not agree with the expansiveness of our we
The problem with this “expansiveness of our we” is its nonconsensual nature. The web of commerce imposed on her forces Sprague to recognize the humanity of distant others caught in the same web. And yet this recognition grants no power of action, is a form of conscience without agency.
Ultimately, Long Beach is a place of entrapment for Sprague, a place where human need is shortchanged or deferred. It is a place where the goods emblematic of human need arrive and depart, in a series of exchanges that damage the quality of life while providing little benefit to the residents. Of course, some consolations are available. Sprague writes:
California insinuates itself through our veins through our beds
through our children through the constant hump and suck of the
as the derricks continue to drill
we find ourselves called to Ikea again and again
strange comfort Scandinavian curves
On the very next page, Sprague adds “our child falls in love with Ikea and wants to move in,” reminding us of the limits of comfort, since, like the port itself, Ikea is dedicated to throughput. Above all, Sprague’s poetry is haunted by a sense that contemporary life can only be moved through, never inhabited, that imperatives of commerce take precedence over “our narrow beds full of sweat” and “our goods broken by anger and drunkenness.” Sprague suggests that we ourselves are the goods (in other words, that our collective need is the measure of what is good). In her analysis, our ability to conceptualize value has been frustrated by the very systems designed to satisfy us.
In response, The Port of Los Angeles seeks to define “the necessary / emotional architecture” to respond to a place where dead animals wash up on the beach each day. Other daily sights include:
a long thigh a long thick
finger of grease
spill leak from something …
eke out a living at the edge of such
layers of oil
one shiny magenta yellow blue
Refusing to become accustomed to the damage done, Sprague’s poetry is that of a reliable and demanding witness.
On pain, love, ekphrasis, and Craig Dworkin's 'Dure'
“It is extraordinarily enduring.”
— v. to last; to suffer continuously. Or, to harden. In good sense, to make sturdy or robust; to strengthen. Also, of things, to permit of, or be compatible with. Drawing from scar, from mirror. Verse formed from the heart’s tear. A letter that one is scared into. Afraid for. “We are nostalgic not for what we no longer have, but for what we never had in the first place, and what we never, at the time, thought to miss, or even notice.”
It is the measuring of time that causes each pain to remain.
The ekphrastic subject of Craig Dworkin’s Dure is a painting titled The Sick Dürer, created in the early 1500s with the assumed purpose of sending it to an out-of-town physician for a medical opinion. The small self-portrait shows the German artist Albrecht Dürer — nude from the waist up — pointing to a sickly yellow, circled area along the lower side of his chest. The painting is considered by medical professionals to be the first “pain map,” and is labeled with the phrase: Do der gelb fleck ist und mit dem finger drawff dewt do ist mir we, or, “Where the yellow spot is and where I am pointing with my finger, that is where it hurts.”
The Sick Dürer, by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), held at the Kunsthalle, Bremen. Copyright © 2004, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd.
The subject is pain.
The subject is language.
The subject is art.
The ekphrastic subject is pretense. Dressing, devise, disguise. “There is no poor subject.” Its purpose is “to mask more deeply operative structural elements, such as rhythm, parallelism, and juxtaposition … not only to hide but also to entice …” Shield, sham, charade. “A mask is something made to be passed through …” The subject of the poem is not purely material, or simply a slippery surface — but an opening for the eyes, for the mouth, for the heart or soul. Lure, allure, a draw. The revealing of a common “poetry of intellect.” An intersection of address. The gesture of pointing. A suppressed “it” — instead, a “this.”
History and tradition, part I
“The history of literature can be written as a history of its perennially conflicted response[s] to visual art.” Dure proposes an expanded sense of the possibilities of ekphrasis. The work indicates a relationship that is less concerned with a conflicted, challenged, or confrontational stance between visual art and language, and more interested in the aesthetic, intellectual, and thematic techniques suggested by a particular piece. There is no fixed, reliable “I” apparent (except as a grammatical exercise) — instead, his contemplation is a communal commune, a cacophony, and a clutter of quotations, appropriated texts, and references. An inhabiting of the I-thou relationship. The intention is, “not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work with writing … to meet in time … a kind of fusion.” Combine, join, yoke. “All real living is meeting.” The prosaic lines are spliced with definition, interrogation, poetic parcels. He moves quickly — fluidly, even — between history, theory, verse, quotation, innuendo, juxtaposition, rhythm, rhyme, complication, research, play, and contradiction:
Dürer’s treatise on ellipses is the first book of
mathematics published in German. Followed by a
fourth book of shadows, with chapters on the secrets of
vanish and converge. Sent, ject, jure. “Let none who
want geometry enter through these doors.” Sensual,
censure, sural …
… Cloud theory covers
the syntax of mists, a grammar of water vapor,
etymologies of rust. “The next step we must take is to
see in how many ways one thing is said to be in another.”
Dense, the text is sonically energetic, explosive, and exploratory. We hear “jure” rhyme with “door” and “Dürer.” Notice weather as pattern. We look for the relationships between “sent, ject, jure” — all missing the prefix “con” (“with”) — and all circling, in some etymological way, back to the poem’s possessed thinking:
consent (v.): to agree together, or with another, in opinion or statement; to be of the same mind; to agree to a doctrine or statement, [and] also to the author of it
conject (v.): to form the hypothesis, suppose; to forecast by signs, augur, divine, prognosticate; to contrive, devise, plan, plot
conjure (v.): to swear together; to make a privy compact by an oath; to form a conspiracy; to conspire; to invoke by supernatural power
We might interpret this spiritual, lyrical triplet as echoes of the poet “agreeing” with the artist, “forecasting” meaning through dissection of aesthetic qualities and gestures, or even “conspiring” with the visual artist toward a shared vision, an alternate version. The three-suffix set may also refer back to the previous fragment, and evoke issues of linguistic and visual meaning, confusion, shadow, apparition. Or, it may “divine” the following appropriation’s ominous warning. Dure demonstrates mathematical strategies, and language that is obsessively reduced to its lowest common denominators. The poem, at a rapid pace, leaves a series of clues, cues, ruses that when pulled apart provide entire, separate, and complicated threads, threats, thrusts of thought pattern. Read as a record of relations. “A surgery theory of grammar” that exposes “the sonic bones of the medium.”
Dure is not a “classical” ekphrastic poem. It is not merely “about” a painting. Dworkin resists the role of a ventriloquist — as someone who voices, mimics, or “speaks out” the concerns of the subject, image, genre, or artist. Nor does Dure work as only a “contemporary” ekphrastic work, or a “painterly poem” — one that “activates strategies of composition equivalent to but not dependent on the painting itself,” and, where, “instead of pausing at a reflective distance from the work of art, the poet reads the painting as a text, rather than as a static object …” Dworkin’s “particular relationship with the dead” urges the poem to conceive of “how many ways one thing is said to be in another.” If we imagine the history of ekphrasis as shifting from Classical to Contemporary to Conceptual — from “about” to “along with” to “as” — then Dure fits into the latter category. Dworkin’s poem is a creation for a form, of many tones, and one that recognizes that, “individual minds are not self sufficient, independent entities, but part of complex networks incorporating communities and objects.”
“Dour, hour, door.” “Hisp, molar, cusp.” “Draught, graft, grief.”
An accumulation, arrangement, range, display. Or, in other words, “Everything, right now, is nearer than you think.”
The pain map
Dure searches for pain’s location — in language, love, and art. In the mind and body. Each of the poem’s difficulties is incorporated by the text’s inquisition into the nature of pain. Yet, we are reminded that “nature abhors a fact” — and are left with an unrelenting amount of complications and questions. Textually, formally, these ambiguities become the loose shadows and transformative shapes of a map. The traced — plotted but not permanent — geography of hurt. We ask: can a body become sick with love? (“Love is put to the test, pain not.”) We ask: can drawing explain where each ache originates? (“But what sort of doctor would diagnose a sketch?”) We ask: how does one gesture to the true source of pain, or the speech to explain? (“Can this sort of pointing be compared with pointing to a black spot on a sheet of paper?”) And — we must ask — what is pain’s relationship to belief? “Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe … I’ll carry my ideas out yet —” “I am a sick man … I am an angry man … I don’t understand the least thing about my illness …” “One drop more from the gash / that stains your Daisy’s / bosom — then would you believe?” “You see he does not believe I am sick.” “A strange sickness came over me, such as I have never heard of from any man …” Dure questions art’s bond to proof. And proof’s boundaries. Does a picture of damage make it true? Might physical harm ignite in the mind? And — importantly — does Dure’s chorus intend to bear Dürer’s pain with its attention? To say: we believe you, that you ache. We make art of the heart’s scar — and it forms a mark. “Our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame … rapture, love, ambition, indignation, and pride, considered as feelings, are fruits of the same soil with … pleasure and … pain.”
The question arises: why did Dürer not write a letter? The drawing certainly took more time to compose than a note. Did Dürer believe that an image would more genuinely convey pain, or invoke sympathy? That a drawing could hurt the viewer, or that it could invoke a relevant phantom physical sensation? Distress, struggle, suffering. Agony, anxiety, apprehension. An apparition. The question becomes a ghost: what won’t the word hold? What might a gesture say better? The painting — appropriated by Dure — shows that a pain still endures within the inerasable circle that Dürer is destined to infinitely point to.
Everyone can read a circle. It forms a zero, an “oh!” or an “Element of Blank —”
“What is important in what we must call a work … is not exactly what one has before one’s eyes but the stimulus that this sign provokes in the mind of the onlooker. The worth of a work of art does not come so much from what its creator condensed in it through his talent and experience as from the unexpected resonances and harmonics that it sets loose in the reader or viewer.”
Sound, form, song
In Dure, the intense, tangible rhyme — as well as attention to sound and cadence — is what produces a physical room to move around in. A body. Sound creates time, time creates space. “The more we move into space, the more we recognize its vastness as it expands before us, helping us to understand our own smallness and producing an attitude of humility.” Space is an integral quality of concept. Short bursts of rhythm punctuate Dure with, “the lexical significance of a snare drum snapping out a flourish before the reader’s execution.” Staccato consonants create breaks — crags, gaps, streams — as well as certain strange tonal variations, textures, grains. “The poetic function is not to produce new writing — we have too much already — but to force us to see what the language environment we live in looks and feels like, to make it strange.” “Every force evolves a form.” The poem is rich with resonance, materiality, echo, and honed lines intricately woven among various tones and histories. Importantly, Dure resists the temptations of strict constraint, and as with the painting or body to which it refers, it admits flaws, rawness, error by refusing absolute or pure structure. The democratic nature of its song denies firm ruling by unbreakable poetic law. It moves within individual organic boundaries, and has an “ecological sensibility.” “One recognizes that a work has style if it gives the sensation of being self-enclosed; one recognizes … the little shock that one gets from it or again from the margin which surrounds it, from the special atmosphere wherein it moves.” A poetic envelope. A free song in form.
there is free song
a free weaving of many songs
song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a
blending of wavy pitches
History and tradition, part II (self-portraits)
Contemporary experimental ekphrasis began as Ashbery did it. One of the distinguishing traits of Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror was that “Ashbery advertise[d] his sources.” In Self-Portrait, he quotes and converses with scholars and art critics — “he draws into the poem his experiences …” For Ashbery, poetry is “a conversation … we are constantly in.” “How many people came and stayed a certain time, / Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you … / Those voices in the dusk / Have told you all and still the tale goes on …” In Dure, the poem takes over, an engine fueled by community. Text is prized over author, placement over original meaning, and materiality over the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Dure refuses to present the poet as a solid, omniscient being. “Against the glazing of the cased display, my reflections on the pane distort, and throw back my image in shivers.” The “I” is in threads, loose ends, feathers. “Dure … replaces the expression of subjectivity that is still central to Ashbery by a written record …” The overwhelming variety of participating sources includes bits, pieces, puzzles of philosophical texts, poems, diaries, medical journals, dictionaries, sculptures, musings. Figments, fragments, tangents. “Poetry is never a personal possession,” and in this poem there is no private property. Quotations and allusions are not prominently cited within the text — instead, almost-anonymous voices appear, creating a multitonal, multidimensional, democratic work. A work without designated ownership of language. “E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.” The obligatory citations are listed in the final pages of the book; however, we are not required to flip to the end for footnotes while reading. The language prioritizes procedure and process, not the author. “The mode of Dure is … transplant.” From transplant, to transformation, to transcendence. Each voice resuscitates its original urgency, and collaborates with surrounding calls in surprising relationship. “In appropriation of texts, in subsistence on the words of others, even from the contemporary world, imagination must have its proper position, because only imagination can return the texts to life.”
We pick, we poke, we prod. “The fingertip testing its sensation, and that lack, with an unreciprocated pressure …” We assess the spoil. “The scar, in essence, is simply the deformation of any particular breaking the surface of its abstraction …”
The rhythm of our breath in verse. The pulse in hands; the measured heart. What does one do with love but worry it? What does one do with art but mark it?
“If a scar is always a citation, are citations, themselves, always scars?”
“The assumption is that Dürer drew it for a consultation with a foreign physician: the page examined, and passed, through the post.” Hoping for a note of diagnosis. A seal of approval, a crease, or an address: Dear Sir, I see you. Dear Sir, I respond with solution. Medicine, alchemy, antidote, remedy. But what kind of letter — returned — cures? (“I’ve got a cough as/ big as a thimble — but/ I don’t care for that — / I’ve got a Tomahawk / in my side but that / don’t hurt me much, / <If you> Her Master / stabs her more —.”) After all, during the time it takes to wait for reply, the sore might restore itself. As does the medical patient or the eye’s attention, Dure demands the art of patience. “Wait! Is it not yet time for my pain-killer?”
Time heals all wounds, we learn, and correspondence ruins. “There is any difference between resting and waiting.”
In the The Sick Dürer, we begin to wonder why no clear cut is detailed; no absolutely alarming harm is apparent, or forefronted. The painting presents, instead, a region of injury, a vague area of ache. The poem, too, presents options. “It could be the frontispiece to a lost treatise on the melancholy of anatomy.” Or: memory, exercise, paranoia, error. The result of sleepless nights, pining, hypochondria, fear. Fear of health, bad news, the muse. Fear of mortality, disease, passion, doubt. “[Fear …] causeth oftentimes sudden madness, and almost all manner of diseases, as I have sufficiently illustrated … [it is] digression of the force of imagination … fear makes our imagination conceive what it list, invites the devil to come to us …” It is possible, of course, that Dürer’s drawing was never opened, not received, that it remained unread, unaddressed, alone. “The greater the distance, the clearer the view.” “Time, sensitive, materials.” Perhaps the image risked to relay another process.
Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in 1913 a journal of forms #4 and is reproduced in Jacket2 with permission.
Sources and Notes:
“It is extraordinarily …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1.
“—v. to last …” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “endure.”
“We are nostalgic …” Craig Dworkin, Dure (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004), 25.
The Sick Dürer, Albrecht Dürer, 12cm x 11cm, watercolor, 1509–1521 (possible dates). Additional details from the British Medical Journal, December 2004.
“Do der gelb …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 1. (Dürer.)
“There is no poor …” John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, And His Work,” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 99. (Rauschenberg.)
“to mask more …” and “a mask is something …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject” (presentation, Conceptual Poetry Symposium, University of Arizona Poetry Center, May 2008).
“poetry of intellect …” “The Ubuweb: Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” ed. Craig Dwokin, 2008.
History and tradition, part I
“The history of …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.
“not to explain …” Susan Howe, interview, in Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews, ed. Edward Foster (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1988), 50.
“All real living …” Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribner, 1958), 11.
“Dürer’s treatise …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 6.
“consent …” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “consent.”
“A surgery theory …” Gregg Biglieri, press release (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004).
“the sonic bones …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject.”
“not merely ‘about’ …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.
“speaks out …” Ryan Welsh, University of Chicago Glossary, s.v. “Ekphrasis,” 2007.
“painterly poem … contemporary …” Michael Davidson, qtd. in James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.
“particular relationship …” Cecilia Vicuña, interview by David Levi Strauss, in Cloud-Net (Art in General, 1999), 21.
“how many ways …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 6. (Aristotle.)
“individual minds …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject.”
“Dour, hour. Hisp …”; “Everything, right now …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 7, 11, 16, 23.
The pain map
“Nature abhors …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4, 25, 16. (Appropriations from: David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein.)
“Sick! Sick! …” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1910). (Italics in the text are mine for this and the next four entries.)
“I am a sick man …” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (New York: Norton, 1989), 3.
“One drop more …” Emily Dickinson, The Master Letters, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 32.
“You see he …” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973), 10.
“A strange sickness …” J. C. Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 162.
“Our mental life …” William James, “The Emotions,” in The Principals of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 467.
“Element of Blank —” Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 323.
“What is important …” J. H. Levesque, in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10–11.
Sound, song, definition
“The more …” J. Scott Bryson, “Find the Way Back: Place and Space in the Ecological Poetry of Joy Harjo,” Melus 27, no. 3 (2002): 171.
“the lexical …”; “A surgery theory …” Gregg Biglieri, press release (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004).
“The poetic function …” Kenneth Goldsmith, cited in Marjorie Perloff, “Conceptualisms, Old and New,” 4.
“Every force …” Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form: Twenty Essays by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987).
“ecological sensibility …” Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 17. (Wendy Wheeler.)
“One recognizes …” Max Jacobs, “Commentary,” in Poems for the Millennium, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 1:3, 115.
“there is free song …” John Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 2.
History and tradition, part II (self-portraits)
“Ashbery advertise[d] …”; “a conversation …” James A. W. Heffernan, “The Museum Goer in The Mirror: Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait,’” in Museum of Words, 169, 174.
“How many people …” John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Penguin, 1972), 71.
“spontaneous overflow …” William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800).
“Against the glazing …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 17.
“Dure … replaces …” Marjorie Perloff, “The Pleasures of Déjà Dit: Citation, Intertext and Ekphrasis in Recent Experimental Poetry,” in The Consequence of Innovation: 21st-Century Poetics, ed. Craig Dworkin (New York: Roof Books, 2008), 267.
“Poetry is never …” Susan Howe, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart,” in The Birth Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press,1993), 147.
“E pluribus unum …” Barack Obama, keynote address, 2004 Democratic National Convention, Boston, MA.
“The mode of Dure …” Marjorie Perloff, “The Pleasures of Déjà Dit,” 267. (Antoine Compagnon.)
“In appropriation of texts …” Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003), 6.
“The fingertip …”; “The scar …”; “If a scar is …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4, 12.
“The assumption …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 2.
“I’ve got a cough …” Emily Dickinson, The Master Letters, 26.
“Wait! …” Samuel Beckett, End-Game (New York: Grove, 1958), 35.
“There is any …” Gertrude Stein, “Identity a Poem,” in Poems for the Millennium, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 1:3, 47.
“It could be the frontispiece …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 20.
“Fear causeth …” Robert Burton, “Fear, a Cause,” in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Longman, Reece, and Co., 1832), section 2, part 3, no. 5.
“The greater …” W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (New York: New Directions, 1995), 19.
“Time, sensitive …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4.
A review of 'A Community Writing Itself'
The literary interview is a genre whose value is as likely to be taken for granted as it is ignored. Yet at their best, interviews with writers can be unique sources of knowledge. More casual than scholarly essays and often less packed with specialized vocabulary, literary interviews, when done well, can cover quite a range: information about writers’ lives and feelings about their lives; precise details about composition; essential historical context for thinking about writers’ works; chances for writers to talk about what they think their writing has most essentially explored.
A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area manages to do all these things. It’s an insightful, serious, and entertaining collection that makes a significant contribution to understanding what has been going on in Bay Area writing for the last forty years. But it’s not just for readers interested in Bay Area literature. It also engages many aesthetic, social, political, and cultural questions that are national and global in scope.
A Community Writing Itself opens with a detailed yet compact introduction whose first twenty pages summarize nicely the history of Bay Area innovative writing, including its nineteenth-century roots in such nonconformist figures as Mark Twain and Joaquin Miller. The introduction’s second part highlights what Rosenthal sees as the most commonly recurring issues in the interviews.
The first part reads like a well-designed encyclopedia entry. It’s in the nature of encyclopedic summaries that people can quibble about this or that characterization, as writers like Ron Silliman and a few others have already done, inevitably, with this book. But Rosenthal’s history is solid, marking most of the key moments in the poetry of the region.
That said, little of the introduction’s information will come as news to anyone well read in the history of Bay Area writing, which means that the summary is perhaps most useful for readers still learning about that history. Still, Rosenthal’s introduction is as good a summary of Bay Area vanguard literature as has yet been written. And the key themes she highlights from the interviews make useful guideposts that hardly exhaust what the writers say about those themes in the interviews.
The only potentially significant problem with the introduction is not so much that this or that stitch is dropped or ever so slightly misrepresented as that the introduction seems more targeted at uninformed readers than the interviews. Rosenthal, like all excellent interviewers, has read closely and well the work of the people she interviews. The resulting conversations often examine the writers’ work and lives with the close analysis skills evident in the best critical writing. While it’s not necessary that readers of A Community Writing Itself know the work of the interviewed writers as well as Rosenthal, many insights in the interviews depend on having some understanding of these writers’ works. The issue is less one of the quality of either section of the book than of the mismatch between them. However, even for an informed reader, the summarized history of Bay Area vanguard literature is a pleasure.
Many of Rosenthal’s questions come from her responses to specific books or to lines in the work of the writer being interviewed. The specificity of Rosenthal’s questions lend themselves to informative responses, ones that at their best are unexpected and surprising. There is something of a formula to Rosenthal’s interview approach, which usually moves chronologically through specific books and historical moments and finally arrives at questions about Bay Area writing communities. On the whole, the formula is a fine one, but Rosenthal is also varied and nimble enough in her interplay with those she interviews that it rarely seems like the interview is following a checklist.
No matter how excellent one’s questions, interviews are rarely more interesting than the people being interviewed. One thing that A Community Writing Itself shows is the impressive range of interests and knowledge among Bay Area vanguard writers. Rosenthal has done an especially good job of arranging the order of the interviews to highlight differences, with each interview working as a juxtaposition to those before and after it.
Kathleen Fraser talks a great deal in the collection’s first interview about the emotional, intellectual, and cultural struggles behind the creation of her books, struggles which all concern gender. The conversation moves geographically between Fraser’s experiences as a cultural outsider in Italy and as a woman in the Bay Area who worked not just to establish a distinctly feminist poetics, as well an academic and cultural environment in which feminists could be heard, but also to create any recognition whatsoever of the significance of gender to literature. The Bay Area is rightly considered one of the most progressive cultural environments in the US, and it’s important to remember that even in that progressive environment, as little as forty years ago there was no institutional support, and even little personal support, for women writers.
Fraser’s experiences contrast usefully with Robert Glück’s discussion, in the next interview, of the day-to-day political and cultural struggles of Bay Area writers and communities, most significantly through the 1980s. Glück describes vividly the often hotly argued differences between Language poets and New Narrative writers, many of which had to do with differences between straight and gay political concerns. Glück makes clear that the literary elements of those discussions didn’t take place in some New Critical vacuum. Instead, the discussions happened in the context of larger questions of local and global power structures in which Bay Area writers were and are enmeshed.
While both Fraser and Glück have worked against white male heterosexual power and approaches to literature, and have made crucial efforts at creating communities open to alternative approaches, those similarities play out very differently in the interviews. Glück discusses innovative ways of describing persons and their struggles with each other, while Fraser focuses on textual mechanics that allow her to portray various types of voiceless, partially voiced, or multiply voiced dynamics in terms of the physical space of the page.
The interviews that follow expand this range of concerns, and a review like this can mention only some basic ones. The late Barbara Guest, in perhaps her last interview, is understated and even minimalist in her discussion of poetry’s involvement with the worldly and the spiritual. Brenda Hillman takes up intriguing connections between mysticism, religion, science, and geography. Nathaniel Mackey elaborates at some length on the historical and cultural framework for the unique mythology that has continued to grow larger over the course of his books. Michael Palmer takes up the important question of how to keep literary experimentation from becoming its own self-defining historical niche removed from the problem of engaging people not already involved in experimental writing communities.
Stephen Ratcliffe and Leslie Scalapino (who, sadly for all of us who knew her or her work, died while I was writing this review) have a great deal in common in their self-aware attempts to define phenomenologies not limited to conventional notions of culture and perception. Ratcliffe focuses on the moment and dynamics of perception itself, while Scalapino, fascinatingly and ambitiously and in a troubled way (trouble she acknowledges and courts), tries to lodge perception and culture in a physical condition in which the primacy of any framework must always be questioned by other ways of being and seeing.
Elizabeth Robinson talks thoughtfully about the resistance she encounters to being a Christian poet who is at the same time refashioning Christian and literary traditions for new needs, although her interview left me wondering where specifically Robinson’s work takes up Christianity as such more than as a broad, generous sense of the sacred and the spiritual. Juliana Spahr talks about race and gender and the complicity of all US poets in power dynamics larger than themselves.
In the book’s final interview, Truong Tran discusses the way his work has moved between telling stories that he feels are of crucial cultural or personal importance and a more experimental fragmentation that acknowledges limits on storytelling and representational writing. He talks insightfully about ways of portraying information that don’t claim more absolute ground for that information than he has.
While knowing these writers’ work will help readers of A Community Writing Itself, informed readers create a further difficulty for the dynamic of an interview. Interviews always run the risk of writers saying no more than the things one might expect them to say. It’s important that an interview add to the information already known about a given writer, whether through new perspectives or, just as crucially, moments of surprise, when even informed readers might not have seen the remark coming.
Often enough, the interviews in the book provide no more than the pleasure of the expected, but one of the best things about A Community Writing Itself is that there are many genuinely surprising moments, when writers answer questions in unexpected ways that may even startle themselves and can certainly startle readers who think they know what they’re going to get.
Camille Roy’s interview, one of the most energetic and to my mind successful in the book, works so well because of Roy’s willingness to go against the grain of accepted experimental conventions. Perhaps the most surprising moment in the book comes when she says,
Sometimes I think men can relate to what I’m doing more than women can. I think women, because they feel frightened, have a desire to live in a world that is safe. (260)
Similarly noteworthy are moments in Leslie Scalapino’s interview when she becomes, if not quite embarrassedly self-conscious, at least aware that the way she writes and talks could easily veer into chaotic incoherence if she isn’t careful:
I wanted the writing to be itself attention … so that the writer wouldn’t forcibly exclude anything, and the reader would let it come in, but the writing would also be very clear and attentive so it wouldn’t be crazy-making. (277)
This is something that’s very hard to describe. It’s as if the dreams that you have at night are in the day, and there’s no difference between night and day, because the dreams are projected out in front of you and you can see them going on in the space that is the day. I couldn’t say that in any other way. (284)
In a laugh-out-loud moment, Truong Tan reports:
As a writer of color and also as a gay writer, I’m not supposed to have abstract thoughts. I’m supposed to tell the story and convey the experience. (324)
And Kathleen Fraser talks about the circular reasoning that for many years kept women writers from being studied in academia:
[H]ardly any women writers could be considered as sufficiently ‘major’ because not enough critical scholarly work had been done on them. But since students weren’t encouraged to read, do research, or write papers on these writers, it was a catch-22. This was the norm in universities across the country. (53–54)
One important question about A Community Writing Itself goes unanswered. Although Rosenthal notes her intention was always to interview twelve writers, because “that number would allow me to include a range of poetics within the Bay Area experimental community,” it’s not clear how she chose which writers to include (46). While many of the writers are longtime Bay Area residents, others, like Juliana Spahr, have come there more recently and produce work which is not necessarily connected to the region or its writing community.
Also, there’s an unfortunate tendency these days for significance as a writer to be judged by academic success. While academic status by no means determined all of whom is included in the book, I wondered whether it was a major source of Rosenthal’s selection process, since many, although not all, of the most successful Bay Area academic writers are included. The notable absence of two of the most well-known Bay Area vanguard writers, Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, neither of whom is an academic, makes the question seem pressing. Some comments from Rosenthal about why she chose who she did would have helped avoid possibly unfair speculation.
In a way that may or may not be connected to the above concern, decorum and restraint often dominate the book’s tone. Rosenthal is deeply polite to those she interviews, and if she’s never reverent, she certainly never overly presses on potential sore points. Still, many of the interviewed writers do mention contention within the world of writing and elsewhere, and Rosenthal is glad to discuss those issues. Her take on literary community hardly comes across as pollyannaish. Besides, the gender and class implication of decorum are complex. It’s too easy to fall back on cliches that in fact conflict: rougher energy is associated positively with working-class openness but negatively with masculinist swordplay.
Along with Michael Davidson’s classic The San Francisco Renaissance and the more recent Stephanie Young–edited Bay Poetics anthology, A Community Writing Itself is destined to remain a major text for those wishing to know about Bay Area vanguard writing. Its role as an overview remains uncertain; it succeeds more as a way for readers to deepen their knowledge about that writing than as a way to get introduced to it, although the conversational tone makes the book more accessible than a scholarly text, so it can’t be ruled out as one way for readers to get started, perhaps in tandem with reading books by the interviewed writers.
Ultimately of far more importance than the issue of when readers pick up the book is how much A Community Writing Itself tells us about what Bay Area writing was and continues to be, and about how Bay Area writers react not just to each other but to the world. On those topics, the book is as indispensable as any that currently exists.
images of A Community Writing Itself contributors from http://www.acommunitywritingitself.com
A review of 'The Orphan and Its Relations'
As Elizabeth Robinson shows in her collection The Orphan and Its Relations, it is possible to unloose the primal loss of the orphan and apply it to all losses — from a strip of fabric to a tooth to a father to one’s humanness — so that the world becomes a nexus, contrarily, of loss. Although it’s easy to define what it means to lose an object, or perhaps another person, a generalized state of loss is a contradictory and ambiguous entity, one which is difficult to describe or assess — for with the separation intrinsic to loss come benefits, such as individuality and independence, and with them the state of loss dissolves, its sorrows transfigured.
The collection’s opening poem, “Critique of the Orphan,” presents a vivid snapshot of this ambiguous net of loss. A child in a playground calls for her absent mother: “‘Look at me, Mom!’ / The words reverberate across the blank playground” (1). The child “picks up the absence” (of her mother) and, like all children venturing to know the world, “puts it in her mouth.” But mother isn’t absent entirely from the poem or from the child’s consciousness; mother is a kind of double self, and when she, “who does not exist,” speaks she repeats her daughter’s request, “Look at me.” The need for the other extends both ways between child and mother, and in doing so causes the boundaries between the two to slip. At the end of the poem, the child will swallow the mother, thereby swelling and extending “the gap in her throat” — the gap suggesting the absence of the mother, but also reconstructing the child’s throat through which words form and reel out. The child’s ability to speak is enlarged by her loss and through the ingesting of her memory and desire for her mother.
“Brothers” opens a series of poems that use Biblical references but that focus on the familial within those iconic references. The names of the brothers, Cain and Abel, are presented as a vocal merging: “If you put our names together, it spells something like ‘cannibal’” (15), which in turn conjures the word “voracious.” Although one brother is gone, he remains within the survivor: “one inside another inside another inside another inside another.” Their union is multilayered and subterranean. In the course of the poem the brothers morph into Jacob and Esau, twins, one close on the other’s heels in birth, and also locked in a similar struggle for separation and dominance.
In the poem “The Pietà of Cosme Tura” the narrator of the book, whose consistency throughout makes the “I” identifiable with the poet, is struggling with a rotten tooth, which even when pulled out can be felt, so deep is it a part of her body: “A phantom tooth grew in its place and ached as much” (33). Interwoven with this small personal drama is the image of Mary in the Italian early-Renaissance painter Cosme Tura’s Pietà. Mary has become a “she” whose skirts drape unbeautifully: the folds fall awkwardly over her lap like the large-boned body of her son, heavy with death. In her meditation on the painted image, the poet reveals the motivation behind her study of loss: “I believe what I am trying to do is record a history of the scant. / Record what relation beauty has to privation, scarcity, departure” (34). In doing so Robinson reveals her belief in the numinous transformation of what is lost — “In my theology, when one thing is taken away, another thing has the right to come in and replace it” (34). This “right” of replacement describes a yearning for a balanced and moral universe.
The formal equivalent of these replacements is easily discovered in the repetition that occurs within these primarily prose poems and throughout the overall structure of the book. Images appear and reappear as motifs throughout. The lost tooth, the open mouth, the flow of sea water. In the poem “Mermaid” (81), the surfaces of the world and a woman’s body lose their boundaries: “skin absorbs darkness” … “The skin on the water gives way,” and as a consequence the woman, who has lost her humanness, re-forms, metamorphosing into a mermaid, a less-than-human, mythical being: “Her sturdy legs absorb each other, greening.” The boundary between humanness and the surrounding natural world dissolves, but it begins with the dissolution of parts of the physical body. This change isn’t about legs transforming into a tail, rather it’s about losing separation as it is described by the individuality of limbs. Robinson’s imagery, not only in the variability of its repetition but also in the poet’s unusual interpretations, is always startling and inventive.
It is not simply imagery, however, that repeats as motifs throughout the book, but also the structural forms of relationship. As the arc of the book moves through childhood, adolescence, love, and death, modules of relationship repeat, and as they repeat they also change, giving the book’s philosophical argument the action of growth and development. The motifs of the murderous sibling and the ambiguousness of his actions reappear in the poem “Crow & Robin” in the form of the construction worker who asks his coworker, “Have you ever killed a man?” (82) and the three-and-a-half-year-old brother whose play with his sister is enigmatic and perhaps slightly bad: “Griffin running up the empty sidewalk looking back over his shoulder. As though, I think with amusement, there was someone following him” (87).
These repetitions of the motif of the sibling are coupled with Robinson’s thoughts about the struggle between a crow and a robin. The crow “had forced itself on another bird’s home,” and as a usurper takes over the role of Cain and Jacob by assuming another’s life and in the process obliterating that other. This struggle bears resemblance to the condition of the orphan, for in the relationship between parent and child the orphan becomes the synecdoche for survival. Between those in close relationship, in which each individual loses parts of his or her identity to another, the weaker — the least formed as an individual — is required to surrender a larger share of separateness and self. Whether the orphan is responsible or not for his parents’ death, his life has usurped theirs and taken over the future and all its potential. Those are the orphan’s losses and gains.
The relationship the poet wants with the distant “you” of the poem, though, is not the same. For her, merging with the other is not a question of loss of self or individuality but rather a gaining of new understandings of what it is to be human by inhabiting the thoughts and sensations experienced by another, the “you”:
I think about you. Rather I imagine that I am you. What would you make of the ragged peonies, and why hasn’t the neighbor cut them back as they die?
From inside your body, how do peonies smell? I am embarrassed by the limits of imagination. That is, how my desire fails as empathy and settles into voyeurism. (83)
So there is another side to merging with the other, one that enhances understanding rather than demands loss and surrender of the self. In the poet’s world where lost things are constantly replaced, this impulse to take over the other is the basis of human empathy. Our psychological loss as humans is not of our selves merged into each other but, rather, of our selves’ inability to merge in thoughts, emotions, and sensations so that our understanding of each other is complete. In Robinson’s world, the orphan’s relations are legion.
Elizabeth Robinson reading from The Orphan and Its Relations via PennSound:
On the tenth anniversary of the Electronic Poetry Festival
I’m completing this book having recently participated in the 2011 E-Poetry Festival. For my own part, as a performer, I assembled a panhemispheric musical group named grope uSurp, comprised of other multimedia artists and friends attending the festival; Lucio Agra, John Cayley, Stephen Cope, Andrew Klobucar, Siew-wai Kok, and Eugenio Tisselli joined me onstage. One of our pieces, proposed by Cayley, remade a Neil Young lyric (“Albuquerque”) that was particularly apt to the gathering. In one verse Cayley sings, “I’ve been flying / through the code / Words are starving / to loose their hold” (E-Poetry). This sensibility happened to echo observations presented in my talk at the event (“Bearing the Fruits of E-Poetry: A Personal Decennial View”), which describes how my 2001 E-Poetry band “9 way mind” strove to emphasize language in its performance, whereas this year’s band’s preparations largely focused on using MIDI technology to compose images and language interactively — a transition indicative of the aesthetic course the field as a whole has taken. In the period between the first (2001) and most recent E-Poetry festivals, a shift in the prominence of language occurred. Authors present language — indeed, each work discussed in this book and at the Festival features words — but verbal components are today fully balanceable with mediated components. In programmatic compositions such as those permitted by computers and on the WWW, words hungrily invite, and may require, extratextual supplementation to thrive. In this new poetic paradigm, words do not surrender their power, but share it with other expressive elements. Reading now happens on multiple registers.
I anticipated attending E-Poetry might bring apprehension, a type of crisis to my research — that a new slew of dynamics might be unleashed, deviating beyond contexts I consider for the genre. They did not. New applications, tools, and skillful, energetic combinations of forms presented at the Festival were all very exciting. Yet I left E-Poetry 2011 charged with understanding, with a sense that digital poetry, as presented on the WWW, has reached a necessary plateau. A stage replete with exploration and variations of form that test and perpetually reestablish boundaries. A juncture at which the essential points of departure are — while variable and interchangeable — evident, that will remain in place as long as the technologies supporting them are upheld. Inevitably a new phase will arrive, and the dynamics identified in this study will fold into new dynamics held by shifts in hardware, software, and network technology.
What conditions will incite movement away from this particular epoch? Presumably it will include device-based developments, a trend which may have already begun. As portable devices move away from the PC/laptop model, creative applications developed specifically for global satellite networks, made with tools not congruous with those used for WWW production, may change the face of digital poetry. Proprietary delivery mechanisms (i.e., hardware) already prohibit viewing entire swaths of work germane to digital poetry at present (e.g., Apple refuses to enable use of Flash players on iPhones and iPads). New devices may or may not be inclined to incorporate technologies compatible to those used on today’s WWW, and the likelihood of tomorrow’s devices rendering today’s processes and productions obsolete is near certain.
We have enjoyed a specific and special moment in the genre’s continuum, more than a decade of its arrival on a global, multimedia computer network. Its ephemerality — knowing E-Poetry as such will not be here forever — encourages me explore what works consist of, and show ways of reading them.