A review of 'Emergence'
It is no secret that, in general, Christianity makes today’s experimental American poets nervous. Considering that genuine religious conversation in this country has been hijacked by the evangelical bloc and their teabag-toting allies on the Right whose thinly veiled homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and militarism are accompanied by a WWJD bumper sticker, this generational rejection of the religious is unsurprising. And when we establish the philosophical foundations of a diverse American avant-garde — Marxism and subsequent theories of historical materialism, modern science, antiauthoritarianism, poststructuralism — we see not only an apparent incompatibility between religion and experimental poetry but a historical antagonism, a feud.
The avant-garde by definition exists in a perpetual state of apostasy — a denunciation or disaffiliation from the dominant thinking — and acts by way of taboo-breaking, iconoclasm, blasphemy. How can this mode possibly jibe with Christian institutions built on strict notions of hierarchy, piety, the orthodox? Can we infer that the poetic agonist, as defined within this tradition, is necessarily agnostic?
In theological terms, heresy differs from blasphemy. The former constitutes a reform, a change of approach or action toward religion that conflicts with dogma, whereas the latter amounts to a show of irreverence toward sacred persons, artifacts, or beliefs. In many respects, reverence is a requirement of the heretic; the wish for change is a wish for progress — a desire to improve upon, complicate, intensify, not tear down — and shows a deep commitment to one’s faith. And unlike blasphemy, which positions itself in opposition to the orthodox — the sacred held against the profane, its shadow self — heresy transcends dualities by offering up an alternative, a third way, a new form.
Thinking about the heretical, that which questions, complicates, disrupts in order to illuminate, helps form for me an entrance into the poems comprising Emergence, Fanny Howe’s most recent publication from the small British press Reality Street. The book collects poems originally published in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that are now largely out of print. Howe is an experimental poet and a Catholic. She is also deeply immersed in a long tradition of Christian history, theology, mystical literature, and heresy. In her prose meditations collected in The Wedding Dress, she discusses with acuity and enthusiasm influential yet controversial Christian thinkers such as Marcion, Meister Eckhart, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Simone Weil, and Edith Stein. Gnosticism, Quietism, Apophatic Theology, Thomism, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim thought all appear in her work as mooring points from which the poet casts her broad net.
The structure of Emergence maps a trajectory, the aesthetic evolution of Howe’s career over the past decades. It shows that Howe, at her core, is a poet of deep disruption — of complication — but also one of contemplation, which is to say, a poet for whom humility and reverence walk hand in hand with restless inquiry. Hers are poems sharpened by questions designed not to elicit totalizing answers from God or reader, but to dredge up new possibilities for both faith and poetry.
The mastery with which Howe uses the serial form deserves noting, not simply as a testament to her craft but also as the enactment of her worldview. In the essay “Bewilderment,” Howe ventures a prescription for the serial poem which “attempts to demonstrate this attention to what is cyclical, returning, but empty at its axis.” Howe’s emphasis on cyclicality, on circumspection, constitutes a poetic ethics. For Howe, both world and word are sacred phenomena to be revered. Her manifold processes of contemplation and questioning never transgress into blasphemy; they never breach the integrity of these sacred spaces. And like her forebear Emily Dickinson (“My Business Is Circumference”), to revolve around the sources of revelation — undiscoverable countries, axis-less — is to glimpse them without becoming overly familiar, to approach the divine without falling prey to hubris. This “Business” happens in how the language builds and recedes, how the sounds circle:
Walking to developmental old trombone — I —
seeking to be found —
inside time! — by one whose blues
seek by speaking tunes to
this specific city afternoon
of bread, fumes, and orange
nasturtiums — am, still, solo —
even the base of me being, unknown. (60)
In proximity to a larger American avant-garde, whether precursors in the New American Poetry or contemporaries and peers among the Language poets, Howe’s poetics are anything but dogmatic. Emergence shows us above all else how difficult it is to be certain of anything, especially of what our most sacred terms actually mean. World, self, God, word: all are subject to the contingencies of experience which, for Howe, are themselves a wild flurry of things coming into being by way of language, and consequentially coming into meaning. From “On Time”:
A daring blue heron
Hops into place
And a cloud
Sends showers down
Provoke endless patterns
Each thing is sewn into time, then
Having a child
Is the most extreme caprice
A smashing of space (13)
An incarnational understanding of grace in everyday experience is articulated here both philosophically and formally. The compression of the line (reinforced by the final utterance), the simplicity of syntax, the restrained diction, the taxonomic cataloguing: all condense into the revelation, “Some moves / Provoke endless patterns.” Here, I would like to define what I perceive as “revelation” or revelatory utterance in Howe’s work as an essentially religious conception as opposed to the poetic conceit of “epiphany.”
“Epiphany” consolidates, colonizes, a sequence of experiences into a thesis statement. The language ceases to be of primary importance to the writer; it’s the imagined greater “truth” behind the curtain we’re supposed to pay attention to as well as the resounding depth of feeling. The effect is loudness — Eureka! — and its sincerity seems doubtful, its depth predetermined. The epiphany never transcends the self. Where epiphany is momentary and complete, revelation by contrast is gradual and unending: it calls attention to the processes by which the truth it speaks of is revealed. To “reveal” does not replace what was hidden with what is now visible (such a movement would be epiphanic, because static). Instead, it leads the subject to a confrontation with a greater mystery. The epiphanic poem appeals to truth, while revelation creates it. In language (i.e., not behind it) is the only possible site of revelation, and in language we behold the object of experience itself transfigured. In this passage, “Some moves” refer to those of the heron, the cloud, but also of the poet, writing about them, or better, writing them into being, and also the moves of the objects-made-words-made-revelatory. The “illuminated surface,” to quote Saint John of the Cross, is essential to Howe’s understanding of what poems do to the world, the self, the word. In Howe’s poems, the world gets worded and ignites.
Howe’s work does not fall neatly into the materialist poetics of immanence espoused by many of her contemporaries. For Howe, the world is an ikon of the divine, both an emblem of God’s grace in the world as well as a constant reminder of God’s absence — the ikon, after all, is not itself God: “I stand to find a tunnel to look again out of.”(51) As a profoundly felt absence, the poem is, while a contemplative space, a performance of longing. Here, Gnostic theology seems to play a complicated role in Howe’s poems. One is never sure if the appropriate way to regard her worded world is with awe — the material surfaces illuminated for us by a light unique to grace — or with despair — all matter, all flesh a cage the spirit flags in, far from its creator. This tension, this anxiety, forms the center of many poems around which the language revolves, propelled by its own centripetal force.
“Suspended and sick, my body is the effect” begins the poem sequence “Walk to Work.” From there, the poem’s moves are steplike, paratactic. However, they are prevented from becoming mere stutter or staccato by a prosodic agility and an acute logic the poem invents for itself early on, where steps are conducted through negations of what has already been said, reversals, revolutions and revisions. This poetic via negativa navigates a vertical terrain scoured with switchbacks, where the path changes direction but does not cease to climb. Steep ascents and hairpin turns occur at the line’s end even as the poem constantly pitches over the breaks caused by internal punctuation:
The puzzle’s pulled apart becoming tattered and stranded.
Green came from yellow, families of birds and animals
were separated then divorced. A trustworthy man
identifies with the homeless. A trustworthy woman
forgives everyone everything. Two species
of human beat the weak into submission. Dualism
between master and slave, London and Dublin.
Few knew who they were or cared. More lived in
— those whose actions were service-oriented, whose mouths
were sealed after their words were endlessly amended. (37)
Alienation from God, from each other, from ourselves and from our language orients us around a zero point, a missing axis, and needs the long length of the line for full articulation. However, the short, compacted utterances thwart the flow of the energy the long line tries to mediate. In its architecture, the poem mirrors the irreconcilable antagonism between the physical and transcendent subject, a source of existential anxiety caused by their being forced to share the same space. Compression is not simply precision or acuteness of perception but also confinement. There are political implications here, as well. Howe is able to identify human and institutional causes for this suffering, this longing:
Christ victor, the glitter of a country galaxy
is lost in a brick city. I love to live
but decrepitude is an anxiety
(illness, slow motions) in a motherless society.
Institutions and their shadows dampen the wet asphalt
where light is not a source but a reflection. (39)
What is remarkable about these sequences is that Howe’s political and religious consciousnesses, though distinct, are constantly operating in a dynamic, shifting relationship.
The idea of motherhood, for example, a figure that orbits within Howe’s entire body of work, has political, personal, and mythical valences that speak to one another. In her essay “Catholic,” Howe writes, “For some persons, meditation, contemplation, prayer indicate that there is an emptiness already built into each body and it is that which (paradoxically) makes them feel at home in the cosmos.” Her remarks speak not only to the paradox troubling her poems — feeling at once the presence and absence of God in the world and the fate of having to infer a presence from an absence — but also to an emptiness which is our lot and which, therefore, finally unites us as a body politic of the stranded. Here that emptiness is both the hollow the body makes for the soul and also the empty womb the mother fills with another. This emptiness suffuses the world with meaning, and it is a human condition the title poem sequence holds in delicate balance:
The dark night of the body
(alone) is heavy and dense
its fright swallowed in daylight,
like a story re outer space or ghosts.
But with you it puts me up against
your fortress, fast, where my limbs
and heart swing onto yours,
and I pray in a pair
we will mount the arc
to the void, and not be flooded apart. (18)
Howe invokes Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” and by doing so creates an inhabitable space that is a site of self-interrogation, self-mortification, but also of potentially mystical encounter. In my reading, Howe’s poems understand the body in a similar way, as a vessel capable of both experiencing and inflicting pain, but also capable of being inhabited by both God and lover.
Howe’s poetry participates in a common trope of mystical literature: to blur the distinctions between the languages of erotic passion and religious encounter. In doing so, she ties the idea of sex to corporeal agony which again has social and political ramifications: “Four bodies, fallen / into an amalgam frieze, / all young black girls, are felled / by the clasp of a mean man’s hand”(20); however, there remains the possibility that in sex, in the hands of another body, lies the stranded body’s chance for salvation. Like a mystical encounter, sex obliterates the self, obliterates the duality of self and other, and creates the third term, the novum, the newly born:
Love between a couple
of men and women has a strange
momentum, witness the long suffering
of many children born
in one flash. (26)
The risk of sex is equal to its potential reward, which is the same as the soul’s negotiation between the body assigned to it and the world illuminated by God’s simultaneous presence and absence. We lose track of the addresser and the addressee of this sequence, for somewhere in the loop they became either the same entity or persons entirely new: “When you are gone, I go on // but when you return, I’m full of / questions, as if // I didn’t understand everything.”(19)
Emergence is vatic utterance — which Howe shares with Dickinson — the prophetic voice which is serene yet moved enough to speak, concerned yet composed. It is the voice of the contemplative which needs the breadth of the serial form to traverse its “dark night,” to retire all possibilities for unmediated encounter with world, God, and word. Emergence does not offer a clear answer — certainty is never the target — but clear vision, an ear fine-tuned to the whisperings of the unknown, and a touch that is delicate and sure. Emergence enacts one of Howe’s favorite Muslim prayers: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” Howe is a poet who has achieved a new dimension above the nexus of the American avant-garde, a heretical dimension which seeks to blaspheme neither poetic form nor religious discourse, but to deeply imagine both, defying the incompatibility of religion and poetry, and reinvesting word with wonder.
A review of '100 Notes on Violence'
One reason to be celibate is this: you can die. When you are not bound by particular loves, you are freed to love whole peoples, or places. You are freed to become a tree-sitter, say, or Óscar Romero. The great sorrow when Norman Morrison lit himself on fire outside Robert S. MacNamara’s office wasn’t the war in Vietnam, it was that his fifteen-month-old daughter had just been in his arms.
Becoming a mother or father binds us more surely to the common good, even as it tears us away. We want clean and abundant water for our children, yes, and will work for it, but if there’s just one cup left, we’re likely to steal it, too.
Julie Carr’s 100 Notes On Violence is the book of a thinker bound by particular loves. There is Ben; there is Alice; there is the baby whom her sister calls “unavailable,” “By which she seems to mean / beloved” (109). The speaker is ringed with them, “Feet like little suns,” and breathing them, “wet sky: an infant mouth on mine” (1).
Such tenderness turns Carr (who often appears in these pages autobiographically) both toward and away from her “wroth” and the world’s. “I’ve been thinking about what I can’t look at,” she writes (7). Seeing is joined to thinking throughout 100 Notes.
The idea is to write a book ‘about’ violence. ‘What kind?’ ‘The close-up kind. Because I cannot write the words ‘school shootings’ into the little search box (24).
But she does. And she looks.
Are we all voyeurs now? Who are we when we no longer acknowledge that some sights are too full of awe for any old glance to receive? Carr’s book invites these questions of how and when we look at others’ suffering. Too often, the practice seems to numb and inure:
I read my materials and I wanted
to fuck. Therein I found
the pleasure principle, therein I found
there was something new: I began to see
bodies as split
under their clothes they can be torn
like paper dolls.
There was something else: I wanted to
hold my baby so that none would
hurt her (76)
Note the hopeful line break: “I began to see.” Note its grotesque fulfillment: “bodies as split.” Note that this practice of seeing does not move the speaker beyond the natural bonds of family; she wants to protect her baby, not yours. The human mass — composed, like books or dolls, of papery stuff — is general: “they,” the “materials.” The particular is what comes into urgent relief. So Carr investigates violence close to her Colorado home, and she works to bear the stories of students and friends and neighbors. Still, there is this scavenging.
“Every researcher a predator,” Carr writes (92). She proceeds about her research (and this is a poetry of it) by essaying — like Montaigne’s, Carr’s writing is “on” something — and she proceeds by lists and loops and catalogs, elision, apostrophe, quotation, collage, and fragment. The interruptions here seem as mimetic of the life of a mother, and the nature of “googling” as they do of their splintering subject.
Much is delivered in the written equivalent of a patient’s flat affect. Notes (from, for instance, Barbara Guest, or the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System) fuel her notes. Motifs (mint leaves, notebooks, guns) reify with each repetition.
There is longing everywhere. In this note, the longing is laced with delight; it soothes like a sleep-charm:
Lie down little girl, little laugher, little clown
couchwise or in the sea
Festooned like wind by rain, like the inside of an orange
Lie down little girl, little laugher, little joke
Sometimes, as though she must usher children through a menacing place, and it is up to her to make of it a lullaby or game, Carr sings:
Never been to Texas, never been to Spain, never been to
Holland, never been to Maine (19)
Elsewhere, she reenacts fights:
Often, though, the reality recorded is one of beauty both sublime and ordinary; there are pools, and birthday parties, and kneaded bread. “Sun on rooftops. Sun in blue. Hissy happy foam” (74). But what troubles the skin of such hours, and what seems more real—the “Aryan Defense League,” the “Confederate Hammerskins,” the inventory at “Gunaccessories.com”(13, 15)—is often unreal in the old sense of reality as something experienced. When the speaker’s days are separated from her drip, she gets nervous: “Where’s my plug-in? Where’s my piece of charge? My grid?” (53)
Carr writes from a post-post-world, which is our world, where you can drive to “the Nature Store” (10). Even the good one means to do (re: buy) is violent, and violence, or the possibility of violence, constitutes an atmosphere. It is harrowing: there are the meth addict’s starving children, left to eat wallpaper glue. It is epic: “Korea, Iraq, Beirut” (95). It is domestic: “A family had a special anger room, a room to sit in and count” (94). It is done by words, and by various and inventive means like “motorcycle torture.” It is dreamt; it is funny; it is plain bad luck. Spills and mishaps result in violence. Bodies are maps of places to suffer violence, “whereas my vagina. whereas my nipples. whereas my eyes” (74). Behind each scene sits its specter: “My girl climbs a tree: a man in a car watches her” (27).
Even what would seem innocent is duplicitous. Pushing one’s face “into the air beside the river” does violence to “that broken cold air” (11). The book’s opening declaration, “It won’t snow again—it won’t,” is as much a mid-March celebration as it is our warming age’s lament (1).
Violence—like love, or God in others’ accountings—is over and in all:
what is violence? the narrowest hinge between lovers and lamps?
trashcans and trains? music and muscle? (35)
It is a hinge; it is the hinge (of tones and notes), opening only onto itself. Imagining a graceful exit by suicide, if illness were to make her a “great pain to others,” Carr is stymied because she’s read the studies of the violence this violence does to the children of the dead (101).
The completeness of this vision can be devastating and convincing, but sometimes this reader was reminded of her stint in a book group with a Marxist—was it all class struggle, really? Every last story?
Here, yes. Like suffering in the first noble truth of Buddhism, life is violence, the truth of violence, violence exists (and other translations). Wisely, Carr implicates all of us in all of it. But there seems no way to conquer violence. To try to do so is cute, or impotent, sentimental, or naïve:
Annie was a Buddhist and wouldn’t kill a bug
so the bugs killed all the plants when my mother went away (18)
We’re trapped. Prayerful hopes are likely panicked wishes: “Dear child, // simple, simple, easy, easy, quiet, quiet, still” (19). And “There is no place outside the world" (27). What light there is is “frail” and sabotaged:
A secret camera take a poll. Frail stars spill into the dark (12).
“Violence,” Carr writes, “is everywhere” (48). When, from a porch, on an early fall evening, watching their children and their children’s friends play, her husband questions her assertion, they are soon interrupted by two strangers asking, “Have you seen a body? … [I]n a garbage bag?” Carr’s repeated response is: “Go away" (48).
One response to violence is that. Another is to turn off the news.
What if a death in your neighborhood were the only gruesome story you’d heard this week? What would now be irresponsible civic behavior—what, you’re not following the floods in Pakistan?—was how people lived. And there are hopeful possibilities in being so provincial. The scale is human. You could know and name and grieve the dead. You could walk with the searchers; you could bury the flesh. But these Notes aren’t from a world that can be reeled back or turned off. And—bound by love—they aren’t from a world that is easy to leave.
Is art an antidote to the violence Carr records? Is mothering?
“There’s the useful mother and the useless one,” Carr writes (15). Most of the women on death row, she notes, are there for murdering children. In a section where Carr and the speaker are conflated we read, “Even the man who climbed into my window and came very close to raping me did not hurt me so much as my mother did when she said she hated me” (83). Mothers are not necessarily harbors, then.
So what about words? Carr has built a “cupboard” of them (103). They seem least able to overcome or escape their subject when they are most moored to common usage and what we call “sense.” They are best able to make a way to an un-obliterating hour or world, when they’ve been marred, or played prestissimo, or translated back into barbarous sound. Yes: the logic we sufferers need is sonic. The poem’s words begin to point us out and elsewhere, when, if those same words were typed into a search engine, they’d be returned with more customary suggestions or alternate spellings, and when, if heard in a business meeting, in some vastly carpeted place, they would seem like some sort of “break.”
“I want a horse and I am a horse … I want a horse and I am a horse,” Carr repeats, beautifully. “I want one and I am one … Want, am” (59).
It’s living. It’s breathing. This horse, this horse. It will not shoot you. Ride.
A review of 'Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis'
The whole world broods upon one answer.
Every living being mulls over the response.
Resting his weight on one foot
By keeping that leg straight for now, while
Slightly bending the other knee (9)
To open a book of poetry by placing the “whole world” in a subject position would seem as the most unfortunate of all possible beginnings. And, to be sure, there are many beginnings out there from which to choose. Such a choice portends just the opposite of what John Ashbery and David Shapiro call, in their blurbs of Portrait, Jullich’s “precision.” After all, one could neither begin less precisely, nor make a less decisive choice of how to begin. The “whole world” is not really a choice at all, but a delay. The opening subject holds in suspense, puts “on tenterhooks,” the matter of whether the book is to begin at all.
It is in just this way that Jullich “speaks out” (ek-phrases) from Michelangelo’s David, whose contrapposto posture he proceeds to describe (“Resting his weight on one foot”). This marble statue, as we well know, suspends the young man who would be king at the very, just the very, moment of decision: he will step toward Goliath. His first step is always just about to be: as Jullich writes in a later poem, “constantly, always ‘about to’ — about to occur” (22). David’s choice is made, but he has not begun. And so Jullich commences his precision, in a book whose language is as rooted as it is fleeting, with “bated breath” even as it is in the movement of speaking.
If Jullich’s Portrait should be called precise in its diction, its precision lies in its continuous redundancy. The tautology of the book’s opening two lines are, for a third time, recapitulated two stanzas later: “There’s no one who doesn’t ponder that antiphon” (9). This technique of rephrasing runs through the entirety of the book, inverting the poet’s range of selection into a progression down the page. At times, the reader will need to wait for pages to reach a line’s antiphon, as with the description of David given in the second stanza of “Tenterhooks”:
His hips and legs are turned
In a different direction from that of
His shoulders and head. (9)
These lines are then called back to twenty pages later in “Chi con la vista ancide I circustanti”:
The horizon line of his pelvis is
Angled against the sum of his collarbone. (30)
By presenting the range of selection from which he has to choose and refusing to make that selection, Jullich reformulates precision as excess. In this excessive diction, Jullich alludes to the tautological praises of the Davidic psalms, as in Psalm 117:
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Give Glory, all you peoples!
The Lord’s love for us is strong;
The Lord is faithful forever.
Here David’s redundancy constitutes an offering of the excessive expenditure of his speech, wherein voice becomes the poet’s sacrifice (“let my prayer be like incense”); it also exemplifies that gratuitous naming which is to be found around any object of affection. When Jullich takes the marbled David as his object, he erects his redundancies as columns, surrounding the artificial body in a verbal “loggia” (“In Florence they would build an entire / loggia around him, if he were made of marble”). In so doing, he demonstrates the necessity of the artificial, the denaturalized, and the “masked” as the basis of discourse as well as desire.
The redundancy of the human body marks a central concern in Jullich’s Portrait. And whereas sculpture can present in art a one-to-one relationship to the human body, this human body will always appear in poetry as a circumlocution. Jullich powerfully captures the tension wherein the body will at once be poetry’s origin and its secret. Jullich’s preoccupation with the articulations of the body, both in terms of its anatomy and its movement, courts an object whose arrival is as necessary as it is impossible. In “Terpischore,” titled after the muse of lyric poetry and dancing, Jullich obsessively phrases the contours of the “kinetic” human foot as though, with enough words, a real foot may alchemically appear:
the arch of the foot — might never equal
the sole of the foot, its heel,
in being the first body part put down
onto earth since time immemorial —
as we say “limb” for both tree branch and leg.
The bedroom slippers wait for the toes, the ball
of the foot descending off the edge
of the mattress, a wax figure melting. (16)
And just as we say a doubled word in “limb,” so too Terpsichore’s Greek spoke a doubled melos, which meant both “limb” and “song.” This derivation of poetry from the parts of the body (e.g. dactyl, “finger”) is never beyond Jullich’s attention. But in focusing not upon the animated body as much as on the frozen, mimetic body of art, Jullich interestingly questions whether the de-melodized, written text must likewise derive from a secondary, static body.
The disease of roots — the foot having to “plant” itself as a limb, which seems altogether gratuitous to the human person — is for Jullich as much an embarrassment to the body as it has become to the poet. And what was once the Adamic shame of genitalia is instead transferred onto the concupiscent desires of the foot:
A carpet covers a floor as if it were obscene
pornographic floorboards;--every rug a fig leaf (16)
Indeed, the real scandal of Michelangelo’s David is not that the biblical hero is stripped naked, but that his foot should still rest on the ground. So too while reading through Portrait, I am struck with unease, scandalized even, by the over-groundedness that indicates over-determined poetic speech. And it is just this determinedness of his language, his historical mythology, his haunting ancestrality, that Jullich converts into kinetic motion. For just as the moving foot must be the planted foot, so too the rooted word must be the moving, the intractably moving, word.
An orangutan transfiguration — a pygmy synonym
For the handcuffs and chains
Of their gender, race age, sexual orientation, would
Stop the from growing downward, tentacles of roots (12)
The pygmy synonym incapacitates the poet by the monstrous specter of its independent volition, establishing roots where he wishes he had none. The terror, which is also the rapture, of confronting the self-moving creation (we cannot help but remember) is just the fortune of mythology’s most famous pygmy, Pygmalion, whose affection for his own marble statue brought it to motion before him.
Jullich’s ability to invoke and be laid subject to the uncanny motion of his own poems result in a work that is radically punctual and postponed; it has been made, but is always about begin. The reader will continually wait for his poems to go one way or another, observing their kinetic rest, left standing “for now.”
Michael Gottlieb and the praxis of essay
Are there passages I have marked, underlined, annotated, or starred in Memoir and Essay to return to, to quote, to point out to others? Insofar as the narrative evidences personal knowledge and judgment regarding others whom I have known and cared about, I want to hold it and let go of it at the same time, I want to know and to forget. Insofar as the narrative lets me know about the life, career, thoughts, and feelings of Michael Gottlieb, whom I have known for over 30 years but never as well as I’d have liked to, I want to retain everything.
Author Michael Gottlieb (left) and reviewer Steve Benson.
Memoir and Essay breaks into two pieces, one of which is incontestable — “The Empire City” is a narrative of his life in New York over many years, a life with which I was only occasionally and marginally acquainted — and another that provokes argument at will — “Jobs of the Poets” is a philosophical and social inquiry regarding matters pertinent to any writers who might choose to remain economically viable as persons in American culture while continuing to write and seek readers, especially if their work is not intended for mainstream marketing.
Having written that, I then did begin to write in the margins and underline and draw arrows in the text of the remaining fifteen pages I hadn’t yet read. Most of the book I’ve read last thing at night in bed, close to sleep, but the last part I read in early afternoon in the shade of a huge maple, my son’s terrier leashed to one leg of my wooden chair, with the pencil. The book works either way. It’s a “must-read.” You don’t have to read it, but I was glad I had put everything else aside to read it first.
The “essay” comes second, after the “memoir,” and bears no ostensible relation to it, although they share concerns with the interface of the problem of a remunerative career and the development and sustaining of a poet’s life and practice. The “essay” is written in numbered sections. Each section, about one page long, begins with a question or set of questions in italics, and then these are responded to by discussion that typically launches other, related questions.
Like the “memoir,” the “essay” is what it says it is; the memoir is obviously a memoir, and the essay is, exactly, an essaie — a trial of various concerns and ideas, elaborated and interrogated and brought to judgment, although for the most part the matters are not ultimately decided.
The “memoir” and the “essay” are both written in pieces that could have found a different sequence but this sequence works well, and both are written in a style that, to my mind, suggests that the writer is not looking back but focusing on what he is trying to say, so that the writing seems to me unstudied and spontaneous, at times garrulous or inexact or roundabout but authentically presentational and aiming toward candor and justice. Notes at the end of each of these two parts indicate who read and commented on the manuscript prior to final edits, and nevertheless the writing is marked by occasional errors in idiom or punctuation that can startle a former proofreader like me but that also mark the text with the materiality of an event in one life, putting something down on paper, however mediated by technology and the counsel of friends.
During the year that feels like ten years, or the ten years that feel like one, that have just passed, I’ve written and published a book made mostly of works entirely in the interrogative, as is much of “essay,” and I’ve written and published dozens of pages of memoirs relating to my formative years as a Language poet in an urban culture shared with other Language poets, so I am interested in what Michael has attempted and what he has come up with in this work at hand. I also prepared and presented a lengthy public talk about careers in the arts back in 1978, in the city I lived in with the other Language poets, which a few years ago I presented online in audio with transcript, notes, and a handful of the completed questionnaires that I circulated as research at the time. So Michael’s way of working and his concerns here have been on my mind, though I had not read any of this work before its publication.
I had been busy with that writing and presenting, with a full-time job and developing family, with marginalized activities like exercise, peace-and-justice work, and meditation, and I hadn’t gotten around to reading this work of Michael’s in draft form, though I could have. How other responsibilities interact with what one takes to be one’s responsibilities as a writer of poetry is a major issue in Michael’s book; it circulates through and ultimately determines the arc of the “memoir,” even more than do the emergence and atomization of the New York Language school or the shifting ethos and demographics of the city itself, and it is the urgent concern of the “essay.”
Although this is an engaging and intriguing narrative to read for tactfully lancing vignettes about prominent figures in that group of writers, it is not primarily about them but about choices made, fallen into, and discovered by a young man no longer a boy and becoming a writer. Its emphasis is on how an unanticipated set of possibilities discovered in some printed matter and the persons coordinating it provoked a re-set of life priorities, and the enthusiastic, diffident, capricious, and insidious ways that initiation played out in this person’s career as a resident of particular homes and neighborhoods, as a writer, as a lover of other persons, and as a participant in the life that art takes on in New York City.
Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education are forebears Michael doesn’t try to emulate but must have learned from. His approach is contemporary, casting off each literary posture when it does not eschew them altogether. His “memoir” is not set in the twenty-first century but makes a palpable effort to address its reader within these times, while conscious of their difference from the 1970s, in which most of the action takes place. It will interest all those who want to think about how these things work and don’t, and how their functions and dysfunctions may change over time.
The reader will likely think about many things that are not on the page, including concerns of impoverished and unemployed people, people of other countries and social ecologies, women and minorities, who are largely absent from these pages. The reader will also ricochet from the page toward reflections on her or his own experience, his or her ways of handling ethical problems, her or his rationalizations and doubts and reconciliations with the choices he or she has made. The text as presented is in no way authoritative, except in that only Michael could have written it; the reader will find much to complain of, to second-guess, to object to, and to regret.
I enjoyed the qualities of the writing even while I edited them and adjusted them in my mind, and I felt warmly engaged and compelled and at times thrilled by the narrative, in my identifications and differentiations from the speaking mind and the life detailed. The book appears written from the vantage point of appreciation of the possibilities of such a participatory reading, and to invite analogous revelations from others of their experiences of discovering, exploring and surviving alternative poetry scenes.
The value of its publication lies in its potential to enter into and encourage a discussion, the collective debate and interrogation that is more than ever underway within the larger-than-Language contemporary poetry community, concerning the social praxis around poetry and the implications of socially constructed ideas of community, systems of behavior, organizations of labor, analyses of linkage, options within interdependence, and evaluations of responsibility. These concerns are argued here in the representation of an individual life replete with wishful hopes and nagging misgivings that confront one another unforgivingly to generate more than the sum of their parts.
A review of 'Visiting Wallace'
Visiting Wallace, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan with a foreword by Alan Filreis, is presented as a collection of seventy-seven poems “inspired by the life and work of Wallace Stevens.” That’s problematic, because Stevens mostly hid his life in his work. An elegy by John Berryman included in the book puts the matter this way: “Ah ha & he crowed good. / That funny money-man. / Mutter we all must as well as we can. / He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s / wits, though, with an odd // … something … something … not there in his flourishing art” (10). Henry’s judgment is the greatest strength of this book: criticism, regularly hedged and guarded, can benefit from the candor that writing a poem often fosters. I share Henry’s mixture of wonder and suspicion at Stevens’ sustained posture “that he does not wound.”
More than that, though, I appreciate the way that Berryman and a few others make demands on Stevens that scholars can’t and critics mostly don’t, yet. Adrienne Rich’s “Long after Stevens” argues with the coldness of “The Snow Man” — Rich gives an image of a “locomotive pushing through snow in the mountains” and describes a landscape in which “snow defies the redefinition // of poetry” in which a woman gets down from the train to “lick snow from bare cupped hands,” finding herself “searching toward a foreign tongue” (109). The poem takes seriously “the nothing that is” of Stevens’s poem. Rich gives it its place and continues searching, too intensely experiencing her relation to the earth to accept alienation as wisdom.
Finnegan’s “At the Casa Marina” and Edward Hirsch’s “At the Grave of Wallace Stevens” also seem to me to explore the limits of the way Stevens used poetry as a hiding place, in reflections on death. There’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with mortality in these poems, but also with Stevens on mortality. Finnegan tests the claim of “Sunday Morning” — “death is the mother of beauty” — and Hirsch tests the “distance” of Stevens’s later poem “Of Mere Being.” They’re poems that engage with some of the disquieting aspects of life that are, at most, eerily muted in Stevens’ work.
If the strength of the book is its critical exploration of Stevens as a poet of experience, what should one call its approach to Stevens as a philosophical poet? Inevitable and mostly unfortunate. Martha Ronk, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer and Forrest Gander pay a visit, each of them with big-idea poems. Stevens’s philosophical poems — and that probably means all of them — sometimes seem like they are written on mirrors, so strangely do they situate depth. With the exception of Howe, the admirable and skilled philosophical poets appearing in this collection seem too serious for the occasion. One asks oneself the purpose of their visit.
Inside-jokey poems abound, including John Ashbery’s spoof-homage, “Some Trees,” and Carl Martin’s “No Sop, No Possum, No Jive,” Jeremy Over’s “A Poem Is a Pheasant,” and Mark DeFoe’s “Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds.” The humor is not unsettling — even DeFoe’s poem uses humor mostly as charm — and the poems establish a sense of community that might be called familial: comfortable and unwilled.
That’s also problematic about the book. Stevens’s social world was small, and the social world of his poems can be worse than small. Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” is a troubling poem for a lover of his work — perhaps too troubling to be framed as a matter for criticism to approach alone. But there’s no mention of that poem here. So I propose an un-neighborly visit.