A review of 'An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris'
The objective of a Baudelairian flâneur or Situationist psychogeographer might be described as the revelation of what’s hidden in plain sight. With their modern walkabouts, these conceptual strollers break free of the direct lines of commuter travel and instead happily wallow in an inefficient dawdle. A close cousin, the aspirations of constraint-based writing can be said to be the exploration of the “potential” literature created via similarly artificial detours from more traditional paths of composition.
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris was written by Georges Perec during a gray Parisian weekend in October 1974. The stated intention was to “describe … that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” A nonambulatory flâneur, Perec sets himself up at a cafe in Place Saint-Sulpice to do as his directive epigraph of Life: A User’s Manual orders us to do also: “Look with all your eyes, look.”
Of course the underlying joke of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is the absolute impossibility of exhaustively documenting any environment, however quotidian, or any instant of time, however short, especially with the beautifully linear and limited tool of language. While pretending a goal and attitude of rigor, Perec’s simultaneous assumption of futility colors the work with a shade of melancholic comedy — a cosmic joke with failure and constant loss as the punchline.
Take for instance his quickly (and quietly) abandoned categories from the morning of the first day: “Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things,” (which includes letters and numbers) “Trajectories,” (which includes the direction of the buses, and “Colors” (which are reductively plain, e.g. a “blue bag” and a “green raincoat”). These arbitrary categories slyly underscore their own arbitrariness (you could even say their own silliness). By beginning his project immediately with a feint at cataloging the infinite (e.g. trajectories) Perec initiates a one-person epistemological Laurel and Hardy routine.
Part of the comedy too is the Sisyphean cycle of trying, giving up, and then starting all over again. A poignant example of this occurs with Perec’s observation of buses through the city square. He’s constantly noting them:
The 96 goes to Montparnasse station (6).
A 63 passes by. A 96 passes by (11).
A 70 goes by, full (22).
In the middle of the work he interrupts to comment parenthetically:
(why count the buses? Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they
cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re
The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they
have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag
marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a customer to order a coffee instead
of a beer…) (22–3).
But then the following morning:
Buses pass by. I’ve lost all interest in them (29).
Yet soon enough he’s back to noting them:
A bus: “Percival Tours” (31).
A 96 goes by (42).
The 63 (45).
The 96 (47).
Constraint-based writing might also be described as the poetic residue of someone else’s thought experiment. So in addition to the re-realization of his chosen task’s impossibility, in Perec’s shifting categories and evolving real-time commentary, we’re also privy to other discoveries. For instance, due to Perec’s time-stamped headers, we get a sense of the speed of thought, at least of Perec’s, which feels both leisurely and focused. The reader gets, in other words, a very real sense of how long it takes Perec to write an entry so that, despite the noted impossibility, a rather vicarious understanding of Perec’s weekend is achieved.
Ultimately then the inherently doomed objective goal of exhausting a place in Paris leads us surprisingly to the successful portrait of a particular subjectivity. It’s a stunning and bittersweet act of intimacy and remembrance. For example in the following passage: the startling moment of Perec’s inclusion of the word “splendid.” Interrupting the stream of so-called facts, this simple adjective for a moment sights Paris pigeons uniquely through Perec’s eyes:
An 87. A 70. A 63.
Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange.
A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86.
The wind is making the leaves on the trees move.
It is one fifty.
SNCF parcels service.
The people from the funeral procession have entered the church
Passage of a driving-school car, a 96, a 63, a florist’s van, blue, which parks next
to the undertaker’s van and from which a funeral wreath is taken.
In splendid unity, the pigeons go round the square and return to settle on the
district council building’s gutter.
There are five taxis at the taxi stand.
An 87 goes by, a 63 goes by. (13–14)
This handsomely designed book from Wakefield Press also includes a moving translator’s afterword, which argues (thought provokingly if not entirely convincingly) that An Attempt can be seen as an “inverted version” of Perec’s masterwork Life: A User’s Manual. Certainly larger than its slim dimensions indicate, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is, in the end, less a strategically flawed urban snapshot than a mysterious and craftily unauthorized autobiography.
A review of 'The Ministry of Walking'
In 2004, The Ministry of Walking rose out of the dust and snow in the conspicuously automobile-centric Calgary, where a group of artists were determined to undermine the car culture and find some cracks and crevices of pleasure/growth in the concrete of the streets. The website was started as a way for members to document the ideas that the group developed through walking.The project hopes to entice commuting Calgarian suburbanites, as well as people in other cities, to take on the slowed-down pleasures of urban exploration on foot.
When asked to write something about MOW’s website, I have to admit, I was a bit afraid it would be a set of highly developed plans to enliven the city and empower the populace with maps for a dérive. Happily I found the website was more of an unfinished master plan with only a few links and a downloadable Wander Guide. It comes across as though everyone from the Ministry is off somewhere else and not tied to the computer designing webpages that explain what one might find “out there.” After quickly coming to the ends of each of the pages in the MOW website, I decide to follow the links to the members. From one of them I come to this end:
Writing this now, I attempt to return to the link from which I stumbled on this text/graphic, to quote exactly which member lead me here, but nothing navigates me towards this page any more! I ask myself if the MOW website has been updated or if I had a unique experience? Luckily, I have proof of that journey because at the time I was struck by the absurdity of it and did a screen grab. Knowing this link has been lost to us now, I feel luckier than before somehow. MOW member Donna Akrey explains that the website is pretty much just one shoe. “You need to go find or already have the other shoe somewhere to make it work for you.”
Armed with MOW’s downloadable Wander Guide, “our latest tool in ongoing efforts to develop a meandering urban public (MUP),” I proceed with my research by deciding to take two actions: do a walk as proposed by MOW in each of the five cities I would be passing through in the coming weeks; and wander as a member of the MUP through my stacks and the internet in reaction to MOW’s scant website and what it proposes.
Of the eight suggested walks in the Wander Guide I am particularly drawn to two. The Seeking Silence Excursion recommends we “notice the change in sound throughout the transition between locations”; Stack Maneuver is more of a disruptive, blind negotiation of an urban center at lunchtime, where one is told to carry a stack of empty boxes in front of them. The second of the two makes me think of Samuel Beckett’s stage piece “Quad” where four people continuously navigate a square, never bumping into each other even though they are possessed by haste and their own routine. I go YouTubing to find it and am mesmerized by “Quad” but it makes me think of how my planned travels would also include train, plane, ferry, and shuttle bus. I speculate as to whether I can approach my walks in these terminals in the same MUP way? What constitutes an appropriate site for a walk?
from “City on a Roof – Rules of the Game” a non-copyrighted box-set catalogue of architects' reflection on urban development, during a conference in Groningen, Netherlands, 2006.
Jonas Mekas comes to mind for his reflections on tourists in the city. On Tuesday December 4, 2007, of his series entitled 365 Mekas tells us, “(The) tourist is a perfect example of someone who has reached a zen state of life. It does not matter what kind of food, good or bad, it does not matter, you just eat anything. And you don’t care what will happen to you, you know, so what? You are in a bliss of existence and nothing really matters, including yourself.” I suspect that Mekas’s tourist is already well underway to being a MUP although one is not supposed to want to be a tourist. According to the MOW Wander Guide however, locals can be guilty of the “Point-A-to-B” Syndrome, which is said to cause symptoms such as melancholy, alienation and fatigue and for this reason I decide to ask Corey Frost to go on assignment, and walk over to the Zebulon in Brooklyn, and drop off a copy of “Dwelling for Intervals” for Jonas Mekas. I send JM an email to tell him of the delivery (maybe he too will walk).
I decide to ask MOW members to answer a few questions about the origin of The Ministry of Walking and their role in it. From their varied answers I find discrepancy about exactly when it all began and who was involved. Members are apologetic for the out-of-date state of the website; emphatic about it having no connection to the Ministry of Silly Walks (a Monty Python skit); and several tell me they are suffering from foot ailments but are still walking, albeit with different shoes. Most members continue “the walk” as part of their everyday and artistic practice but proof of this is on their individual websites and blogs rather than back at The Ministry. I want to reassure them that they are really doing enough, but it's too late as suddenly I am privy to a slew of group emails among the members promising each other more shows, auctions, actions, interactions … in short, more paths.
Jorge Luis Borges from “Labyrinths” 1964.
I ask the members of MOW if maps and games are related. Kay Burns answered:
“They can be I suppose, but I would have to say I haven’t experienced any map-related games that enhance my experience of a place in any kind of profound way. Having said that, I think the idea of maps as some kind of “truthful representation” of place is maybe rather game like — in terms of possible deceptions, exaggerations, and disjointedness. Don’t forget, maps spelled backwards is spam – think about what that means!
The five cities and the results of my research are as follows:
Rotterdam — I want to follow the shifting bricks and sand of the mammoth construction projects of the inner-city but instead I am struck by the revolving doors on all corners of every intersection.
Amsterdam — I (happily) find myself lost again — inadvertently on MOW’s Spiral Walk.
New York — With an almost-fifty-year-old dandy and a twin, we give up all recommendations and are absorbed by that elusive other and bridges, simultaneously shooting from three different heights.
Toronto — My travel suitcase drags behind me like a reluctant dog, the streets stretch in front of me like a lapping tongue. Sunshine and a stiff shoulder.
Montreal — Old haunt new ghosts. I buy some new shoes in Little Italy. Day does too.
Two weeks later, back in Rotterdam, Iva Bittova from the Czech Republic is in town performing. I have just bought a ticket when she arrives with her violin in a backpack. She asks at the kiosk where she will be performing and then turns and compliments me on my new shoes. I want to give her one.
What works so well about the MOW website is that it doesn’t really give much. This open project draws you to the ends of a few short routes on the website, only to shove you off with no obligation to call home or check in later. It is a collection of loose beginnings, as though the members met there to discuss how to start and then left the page/site, to be engrossed in their own urban undertakings. Having departed from the original directives so many years ago, a few members lovingly send a postcard home from time to time (a video or still image with some text). The rest happens off the page, underfoot, in our heads, and in the collaborative spaces between.
From Christopher Dewdney’s “Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night” 1974.
A review of 'A Reading: Birds'
little red leaves / down to bare words
Both the name of this publisher and the first line of the book’s single poem answer each other, in their two four-syllable joinings of language to the natural world. But the words in the book are not so bare, sewn into covers whose outer life consists of light blue and white geometrical patterns that alternatively make me think of abstracted patterns of clouds and a weaving together of the world. Cranes and flowers grace the inner covers, and in the poems, a weaving of words, with little abstraction, though indicating a great and perhaps mystical geometry of nature.
The cranes flying through the fog, out of the sun into the
open valley to feed, with ducks and geese and tundra
swans, the flocks so numerous in the old days they say the
sky was darkened for hours with their passing. (9)
Always, in this book, words as well as birds. The passage above ends,
The legendary, nearly mythical abundance of that time, how to say
it or see it or imagine that time. (9)
first printing of A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen published by Little Red Leaves' textile series, February 2011
“That time” is, at times in this lovely (in all ways) book, ancient, or prehistoric, or the time of the author’s youth (which can also be mythical in one’s mind). Seeing “the great central / valley of California [summer the first time I saw it, men tossing watermelons hand to hand into / a boxcar on the siding: Modesto?]” (7).
Time and memory give way to a presence of all-time, “Standing there in the air.” (13)
Remember, though, in this book that presents and invokes both the real and imagined natural world, the consciousness of writing such a world, the task is not just to see and note the birds but to say them, and not to say them only as an individual, but as part of the human “we.”
croaking out of the sky (5–6)
In such saying, we partake of literary imagining, noting, and questioning the natural world, from William Blake’s “Little lamb, who made thee?” (14) to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “I caught this morning morning’s minion” (13), whose very movement of syllables — sprung as they are — calls to mind the flight of birds, particularly its sometimes sudden change of direction.
How does one catch a bird?
While Dahlen may not share Hopkins’s quite literal sense that the birds and all the world are “for Christ’s sake,” she manages to suggest the possibility of spiritual presence, a thisness that humans may only approach, or hang onto, in words, in language.
Finally as much as about birds, A Reading: Birds is about us, the humans, who are often stuck outside.
we voyeurs peeking
through our glasses
them with lists and
cameras the birds
their exotic rituals (12)
Yet collecting them in lists is not getting there, to the heart of the matter, to the meadow of first permission (as Robert Duncan, another great California poet who invokes childhood memories, might have it). We need all our words, all our imaginings, to get there. We need humility in the face of the natural world. We need to listen, as to the mourning dove.
Softly, thinking of its story,
why does it mourn. Listening. (17)
An endnote to the book presents a story told by the Yurok people of northwestern California, about how the mourning dove came to have its particular call. This tale too is an imagining that catches the bird in its words.
In writing about the work of Beverly Dahlen, I think too, as with observing the birds, I should remain quiet, reading and listening. She is a marvel to apprehend, in all her words. Why?
because they sing
because they fly
A review of 'Lovely, Raspberry'
Serious is the name of a former contestant on Flavor of Love. Serious is a misdemeanor. Serious means grave or somber, which Aaron Belz’s second poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry, is not, or it can mean thoughtful, critical and earnest, which the collection is. More importantly, it’s a pleasure to read.
The poems don’t trumpet intentions of grandeur, but through their brightness, musicality, and richness of imagery, they invite connection in an idiosyncratic way. Concern for the reader is never abandoned. Empathy-sans-pandering is the book’s signature style.
Belz’s poems aspire to please, yes, but slyly, self-consciously, personably. Some are conspicuously set up as jokes, such as “the one about the ectoplasm and the osteoblast,” wherein these characters are sitting at — where else? — a bar, discussing their private lives. Getting to know each other better, the osteoblast asks:
Why are you the outer relatively
rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually
held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a sol?”
And the ectoplasm is like, “Wow, that is such
an awkward question.”
The bartender interrupts to take their beverage order, recommending a fresh keg of the new brew:
They both break into fits of laughter. “Oh my gosh!”
says the osteoblast, “Dead Buy is a German-style
Maibock that’s deep honey in color with a malty
aroma, rich hearty flavor and a well-balanced finish.
Now does that sound like the kind of beer we drink?”
The biological facts of these absurd characters reveal that cytoplasm makes up the outer layer of a cell and osteoblasts are responsible for bone formation. If you choose to probe this angle, the poem discusses differences in nature and behavior; it can be interpreted as a parody of the struggles of selfhood. Or, it’s simply a thrilling bon mot about temporary social allegiances and awkward attempts of fumbling towards intimacy.
This choose-your-own-depth layering is the most striking feature of Lovely, Raspberry. Light surrealism contributes to this effect, as does the conversational tone, dry humor, and queasy punch lines. In another poem, “i met katharine hepburn for cocktails last night,” the speaker is imbibing with the late, great actress. Hepburn has developed a tremor, however, resulting in a headshake to nearly every question or proposal, ranging from drink offers to sexual solicitations.
In Belz’s poetry, interactions are regularly misunderstood, expectations are shot down and unpredicted situations rise from the ashes. We never do discover Hepburn’s intentions. These poems inhabit a world where every confession manages to be both serious and not, balancing on a razor’s edge between froth and deep melancholy. “I kissed her cheek one time when it came my way,” is how the poem closes, on a note of uncertainty, of grand gestures swept aside, of affection swiped but quickly returned.
“Mr. Fibitz” begins with a resolute divulgence:
I no longer say that my beer
has “head”; I say it has a foamy
top. I say these is a goodly froth
in the uppermost portion,
that it seems almost whipped.
No, I don’t say that my beer
seems “whipped” or that it has
“head,” even as I never ask
if people are “coming.”
“I am having a big party —
are you coming?” seems
horribly confusing to me.
While this may be perceived as — and indeed, is — a series of mildly bawdy jokes, Belz here puts pressure on the representational nature of language. Stanza breaks add tension and wit. We regularly recognize double, even triple, meanings to simple diction, just as we might in social exchanges. Belz’s craftsmanship has a light touch, but serves to problematize the very effort to communicate. As with any salty humor, it’s impossible to please all readers, but Belz sallies forth with impressive audacity. It is precisely his piquant love of humanity that disallows boredom.
So the poem continues, rising in action and stakes. After dissecting various terms, the appearance of — what else? — a donkey, the title character Mr. Fibitz heightens the play. The narrator explicitly does not (and by explication, of course, does) refer to him as an “ass,” which he does not “mount,” in avoidance of the phrase, “ride / some ass.” In the end, the narrator admits:
for the listener, and the listener
is whom I care about. However,
sitting erect on Mr. Fibitz I do feel gay
happy enough to ride him for hours —
it’s just no longer what I say.
The listener is whom he cares about, emphasized by the singular repetition of that word in one tidy line. That’s why the speaker is willing to don the rodeo clown’s costume, flag down the danger, reveal misunderstandings and affections, and yet distract you from their violence, all in a colorful rush.
Lovely, Raspberry begins on a tender note, gently but with a direct apostrophe, reassuring his readers that they are not irrelevant:
You expect me to tell you about the interior of the room
in which I’m typing this, and connect that to my feelings
but I’d rather tell you about the interior of your room
and use that as a symbol for something less abstract.
Actually, here’s a better idea. Let’s put our heads together
and try to think up a third room unknown to either of us
The poem clarifies the importance of the relationship between reader and writer, and the emergence of a third element. Call it intimacy. Call it independent meaning-making. But such a triangulation amends Joseph Conrad’s old equation that, “one writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader.” Lovely, Raspberry, for whatever its connotations, is an audience-driven book that takes great care to use imagery and voice to make connections through text.
“Reinventing the Wheel” describes a paradigm in which two characters switch bodies and temperaments. The addressee becomes “taller and less confident, / with a shopkeeper’s eye and shiny skin.” The speaker, in turn, transforms into “what I had wanted to be, / a pensive, slightly overweight woman / with a knack for arcane geography.” The poem continues, swelling from plainspoken description to a nearly-satiric, pulpy-romantic conclusion:
Will we be happy as our new selves?
I ask myself as we lean back with brandies
on a moonlit night; I think we will,
I think to myself, though I’m thinking it as you,
and you’re looking down on me as I would,
as if at any minute I might steal something,
but still not knowing what is in my mind —
a peninsula where it rains but never snows.
The ability to turn a phrase unexpectedly while refraining from overtly disjunctive syntax is one of the chief feats of this book. Enjambments roll out to a tempo of continual rerouting. In this poem, the close repetition of “thinking” indicates both the sincere interiority of relationships and a baroque joke; in fact, estrangement becomes the punch line. The ending is left ambiguous, because these conundrums — identity, compromise, suspicion, the lure of greener pastures — don’t have a neat resolution. We must look away, towards the surrealism of the situation, towards lovely, maudlin details (“brandies / on a moonlit night”), towards a mental geography where feelings precipitate and ideas are fluid.
Belz’s poems are driven equally by anecdotal content and language play, as if our capacity for verbal invention can lead to more beautiful surprises in our lives. And for many readers, it does. Even the title, Lovely, Raspberry, was nipped from the found juxtaposition of his daughter’s shoebox. The color was raspberry; the make was labeled lovely. The title is, once again, a site for double meaning, one in praise of a natural phenomenon, one naming a sputtering noise whose intention — flirtation? contempt? — is contingent.
Belz is a generous writer whose work is indiscriminately influenced by John Donne and Mark Twain, Odgen Nash and John Ashbery, Richard Brautigan and Wallace Stevens.
Lovely, Raspberry proves that a worthwhile reading experience does not require research or obfuscation. In short, Belz is refreshingly unpretentious, just a nerd who loves words and is, at turns, confounded and delighted by the nature of utterance.
A review of 'After Jack'
Many young poets tend to reveal the love affairs they have had with their ancestors to greater or lesser degree in their work. Ezra Pound’s early poetry, to take just one example, is full of bent knees and kissed cheeks for a variety of influential predecessors, from Rossetti and Browning to Swinburne and Ernest Dowson, not to mention the trouvères and troubadours. This is a wholly natural phenomenon, and not to be tut-tutted by anyone unless the obeisance turns into a lifelong devotion that prevents the poet from developing into something sui generis. At a completely different level, poets among and since the high modernists have often used another text or writer, as Joyce did Homer and Pound did Propertius, for a purpose far beyond influence or imitation. Duncan and Stein, Spicer and Lorca, even the Zukofskys and Catullus, comprise writerly doublings that produced highly original and compelling texts that are, in fact, about love before they are about anything else. (“Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case.”) But then influence is about love too (“an affect, wild often / That is so proud he hath Love for a name / Who denys it can hear the truth now.” That’s Pound in Canto XXXVI of course, imitating and reimagining Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega.”)
Garry Thomas Morse’s After Jack exists somewhere in this territory — part homage, part rewrite of older texts, part confession of love and influence. Like all confessions it is a bit embarrassing at times, a bit sacramental in a gushy sort of way. (Those readers who know their literary history know Spicer’s connection to the British Columbia poetry world. He gave a series of lectures at Warren Tallman’s house during the 1965 Vancouver Poetry Conference (since published), not long before his death — and his “great companion” Robin Blaser emigrated to Canada in 1966 to teach at Simon Fraser University, bringing with him the aesthetics of the Berkeley Renaissance and the cult of the serial poem.) After Jack follows The Collected Books of Jack Spicer relatively closely, transforming and translating Spicer’s actual words at times, riffing on and dancing outside the source text at other times. Just as Spicer used, abused, and transfused poems by Lorca for his book After Lorca (1957), Morse takes Spicer’s own work in the same spirit of alchemical transformation, conversing with his source texts in a number of different ways. The base text is sometimes very much in evidence, as for example in the opening poem. Spicer’s was called “Juan Ramón Jimenez” and began:
In the white endlessness
Snow, seaweed, and salt
He lost his imagination.
The color white. He walks
Upon a soundless carpet made
Of pigeon feathers.
Morse’s is entitled “Clarence Malcolm Lowry,” and begins thus:
Ecstasy in the white
pages of nards, salt
& spunk unlimited
White, the sheet
is moulting black
The “Jimenez” piece is one of the genuine Lorca poems in Spicer’s text (others were made up or combined genuine translation with Spicerian originals), so by turns the “Lowry” poem is Morse transforming Spicer translating Lorca addressing Jiménez (Spicer did not put the accent in the Spanish poet’s surname, but Lorca did), with the additional reference to the author — British by birth, but British Columbian by adoption — of Under the Volcano. This manner of reading, with the Spicer (at least) open on one’s desk, helps one to follow Morse’s process. All the same, Morse has pointed out in an interview with Ken Norris, that Spicer himself was anxious to emphasize that his Lorca workings were “transformations” and not “translations,” and this applies equally to Morse’s own work, mutatis mutandis. Having the base text immediately to hand will nevertheless help one to a certain degree with the poems in After Jack.
The Orphic was Mallarmé’s coefficient for poetry’s future (“The orphic explanation of the earth, which is the poet’s only duty and the literary mechanism par excellence”), and one can sense its presence in Yeats, D. H. Lawrence (“The earth’s long conical shadow is full of souls / that cannot find the way across the sea of change”), Pound, and others, including of course Jack Spicer. That which is Orphic in Spicer — what the critic Catherine Imbriglio has categorized as “descent, lament, dismemberment” — sometimes becomes more obscure in Morse’s transmutations. Lorca’s “Debussy,” for example, which Spicer translated fairly literally, becomes “Wagner” in Morse’s reimagining (a seemingly odd transmigration of composers if the reader doesn’t know music history, and a complicated one if he/she does), with other correspondences being equally strange. For example, where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow came between the frogs and the stars, Morse’s is “ack- / nowledged master of stars” (the syllabification itself is unusual), and where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow moves over the water “like a huge / violet-colored mosquito,” Morse’s “moves / like a violet knish.” “Knish” seems like a typical out-of-left-field LangPo word choice, strange and annoying, although Morse is likely taking a swipe at Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The following pair of lines (“A hundred crickets / want gold to go up”) could also refer to Wagner, gold being the central issue of contestation in The Ring of the Nibelungs, though it’s still a peculiar sentence taken literally. A lot of the sentences in these poems, taken literally, strike me as odd, although often they are tied back to Spicer or Lorca and the linguistic context mitigates their weirdness. Whether poetry has any responsibility to be literal is in any case not a question that concerns Morse in the least. (“Feeling goes on behind the words Were / the naked words enough for you”). In his conversation with Ken Norris, Morse says that poetry largely is esotericism in his view.
Morse’s transformation of After Lorca includes letters from him to Spicer, unpunctuated (apart from commas) pieces of an aesthetics presented as the words of a lonely poet writing to a dead master (“that beautiful loneliness so necessary to poetry”). He worries at the relationship between the real and the poem, as Spicer did (“the poet’s whole universe is just a merle blanc, a snowy raven, a nonexistent thing which strives to live”), but he worries also about criticism’s tendency to “murder to dissect” (“I can’t bear to see them dissect you”). The poems and letters as a whole comprise not so much a critique of Spicer as a recontextualization of his concerns and, only sometimes, his actual words. The fifth poem in “The Book of Percival,” for example, bears no relationship to the Spicer equivalent and is clearly composed in twenty-first century-speak, despite its Poundian allusion (“bitch” and “slut” surely come from the opening lines of Canto VIII):
What are you doing here
I have never seen you so
Lucid. Are you going to
Get smashed. This is a
New program. Translation
“Bitch” “slut” “fierce”
Can confuse the
Lucid. And they
Suck the fucken
Life outta ya
Spicer’s “Letters to James Alexander” by contrast sit visibly in the control room behind Morse’s “Letters West,” which, he has said, were written as he was moving back to the West Coast from Ottawa and are addressed to no one. These poems still contain examples of self-conscious overreaching — eg. a line like “I hang around like a favorite mug and try to avoid the chicanery of faux-Delftware” — but in many ways they are the most accessible and most moving pieces in the book. Instead of brittle propositions like “Language / Is / Immediate / Heat / Loss” or “taste me for the itinerary of eternity,” Morse speaks more directly in sentences such as “I am returning to spring and rain and fog and shiny new trains. I am returning under a layer of exquisite ignominy. I am returning to bright hues and the tuberlike promise of regeneration.” (“Exquisite” is a little too self-absorbed, but still…) When Morse cuts off the sentence in section 14 that begins “No one knows better than I do how lonely,” you trust that he deserves the deep feeling in a way that is not always true in After Jack. The conventions of Language Poetry sometimes tend to turn every bit of language into an example of the egotistical sublime, and it is good to finish Morse’s book with the sense that he has extended his work beyond such self-conscious invention.