Reviews

On drowning

A review of 'I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women'

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women

Editors: Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, Vanessa Place

Les Figues 2012, 455 pages, $38.00, ISBN 1934254339

A defining moment in the life cycle of any avant-garde movement is its declaration of aesthetic victory over the preceding team of textual innovators. These declarations of victory have proliferated over the twentieth century and into our own, ever since various modernist poets went to war against the previous century’s Romantic avant-garde’s elevation of ordinary vernaculars, “the real language of men” and “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility.” Each successive movement has claimed less and less material territory than the militaristic roots of the word would suggest.

From Marinetti’s announcement that Futurists just “want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice,” to Dada’s avowal that “DADA remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates,” the manifesto’s language shifts from that of violent revolution to a description of the highly personal experience of digestion. In its more recent iteration, the manifesto has emerged declaring a radical impotence, a refusal to lay claim even to the low-risk real estate of aesthetic conquest.

“It is not the job of poetry to solve the problems of the world, but to dumbly reflect them,” writes Conceptualist poet Vanessa Place, whose passive stance is echoed by her Conceptualist counterpart, Kenneth Goldsmith, who explains that “the best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read … my books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them.” Place and Goldsmith are the respective editors of I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women and Against Expression, two major anthologies of conceptual writing to come out within a year of each other.

The Conceptualist stance should surprise no one, as the harbingers of a socially critical avant-garde’s doom have been pointed out for years by such ancient voices as the Frankfurt school: “Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it … [r]ealistic indignation is the trademark of those with a new idea to sell.” This warning was sounded again by Peter Burger, and then by Paul Mann, and so forth.

Their warnings have long been that the more evolved the institutional support for an avant-garde, the less at odds the movement’s goals will be with those of the powers that be. Coincidentally, Kenneth Goldsmith read in 2011 as part of President Obama’s “Evening of Poetry” at the White House, in a group that included the rapper Common, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jill Scott, and the present poster-poet of mainstream lyricism, Billy Collins. Goldsmith wore a paisley suit and was later singled out for delighted mockery on The Daily Show. Stewart segues from a Clinton joke to an imitation of Goldsmith pinning together his blazer out of wallpaper.

The origins of Conceptualist writing are the subject of some debate. The movement is frequently framed by practitioners in terms of writing’s attempt to “catch up” to the conceptual movement in mid-twentieth-century visual art, exemplified in the work of Sol Lewitt or Andy Warhol. Oulipo, Fluxus, Cage, and the rest of Marcel Duchamp’s lineage are palpable influences. Writing that declares itself Conceptual typically privileges idea over content, and meticulous procedure over emotional expressivity. I’ll Drown My Book doesn’t answer any questions a reader might have about Conceptual writing, but provides an interesting site of discussion in its very resistance to Conceptualism’s aspirations to have no content, as well as its implicit motivation as a response to the male-edited, university-press-published Against Expression.

It would appear that the avant-garde has lost, at least, its etymological street cred as a site of art’s weaponized impact on society, but it is still a battlefield, and an art movement’s manifesto is still, begrudgingly or not, by definition a rallying cry to attract new members. As the language experiment du jour, Conceptual writing has come out against any thought of art’s potential to impact social change, to a sense of resigned institutional complicity, even within the workings of language itself. Vanessa Place describes her own practice as adhering to “the maxim of McDonald’s — provide maximum calories for minimum nutrition … Nada por nada.” Her claim is legitimated by her own work — a criminal defense lawyer, Place cleanly repurposes legal prosecution and defense documents verbatim in her poetry — but is completely contradicted by the work performed in the anthology of female conceptual writers she recently coedited.

The editors of Drown are hardly shouting up at the ivory tower from a cultural wilderness: Place’s work has been enthusiastically sanctioned by Marjorie Perloff (Florence Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California), the critic-kingmaker of the moment in avant-garde poetry. The other editors, Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Brown, and Teresa Carmody, are all in various ways well respected and established in that community. The anthology is not explicitly positioned as a challenge to the male-edited, university-press-published project of Against Expression. However, by choosing to put out an anthology of women writers and to call them Conceptualists, the editors assume a practical responsibility as curators. So, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women is an anthology of writing by women who, according to the rules of anthologies, because they are in an anthology of Conceptual writing, must be Conceptual women writers.

But the reader seeking a clearer definition of this movement will find herself mystified, as the paradigm that governs the works in this slippery, recalcitrant volume is that of discursion rather than commonality. Each contributor is given space, following her piece, to define her relationship to the Conceptualism in question, and the tone of these statements, to a large extent, is a questioning one, in which the writer asks whether her work actually fits under the heading of conceptualism. “‘Conceptual’ Writing Statement,” Sharon Mesmer titles the statement following her piece, while Kim Rosenfield’s statement cracks “Conceptual Writing Is: As If. The portrait of Conceptualism here doesn’t at all adhere with Place’s “nothing; in response to nothing.” There are a lot of somethings, which arguably, in proliferation, amount to nothing-ish but don’t have the high, clean gloss of Nothing.

Clearly, the Conceptual part of this anthology isn’t in the content. If there is a polemic in its pages, it makes its arguments in the very large (organizational) and the very small (minutiae and notes), not in the poems between. After all, it is still an anthology. So, starting big: the title seems to quote from Prospero’s last speech in The Tempest, in which the sorcerer renounces all his magical implements and powers, having realized all the trouble he’s caused in meddling with the natural state of things. In other words, he announces that he’s giving up on tricks and deception, accepting things just as they are. Prospero sees his “choice” about how to understand and operate within his reality as a black and white one (all magic or nothing). In fact, the editors tell us the allusion has nothing to do with Shakespeare and comes instead via the poet Bernadette Mayer, in her collection The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. The rough magic of the old male enchanter acknowledged and abjured, at once, this drowned book represents Prospero’s choice as nothing but gray area. The book offers so many definitions of Conceptualism that the act of definition becomes purely gestural, the concept ‘definition’ stretched to a self-defeating breaking point, the black and white of the procedural manifesto dissolved in a haze.

The works here are divided into four categories: Process, Structure, Matter, and Event, which are each further broken down into five or six subheadings. The subheadings are descriptive or metaphoric, not prescriptive to the processes employed (“prescriptive” here meaning referent to a set of rules, thus explaining the process by which the work was created). The most recognizable mainstays of conceptualist practice (things like neo-Oulipean formal constraints and purist appropriation) have their place in this choir, the techniques. The overall effect is quite the opposite of that coldly objective, voiceless gloss which is typically associated with Conceptual writing: the book looks positively Dionysian, with little to no clear criteria for the choice of what goes into the categorical slots. Nada Gordon and Katie Degentesh, both of whom restrict their poems to text found online, clearly belong in the Structure (appropriation) category, but mightn’t Mette Moestrup’s readymade and Jen Bervin’s collages fit equally well in Event and Matter, respectively?

The challenge of presentation is the central riddle of any anthology, of course, and as a form anthologies are notoriously slippery. Still, for a movement whose ostensible ethos is to present such a clean, impenetrable surface that the reader is denied point of entry, isn’t this crazy quilt format counterproductive to Conceptualism’s aesthetic goals? How are we to read the categories, or understand them, when we haven’t been given proper instruction! When compared to Against Expression, which is clean, unified, and seminar-ready, Drown is a hot mess. But perhaps the excessive framing gives us a clue: in asking every contributor to offer her own definition, or list of dissatisfactions with the term “Conceptual,” are the editors letting us know that they’re in on the joke?

Structurally, the anthology’s intention could be read in a generous spirit, modeled to some extent after écriture féminine, in its privileging of cyclical, nonlinear textual organization. Such an anthology might please Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray, with its frayed and fragmented multitude of perspectives, rather than a uniform “masculinist” formalism. To put it another way: resistance to an “easy read” is legible as a feminist gesture. The discourse has no center, and this is admirable, but don’t start the party yet. While this isn’t your instructional handbook of Conceptualism and/or your poetics seminar syllabus, the absent center isn’t just a whirligig; it’s an absent lyric subject, who, in many of these pieces, seems eerily to reappear. Vanessa Place, in her afterword, writes, “do I consider all the work within this anthology to be conceptual writing? Yes and, more naturally, no.” Here perhaps she gives us an answer as to the question of how to read this volume, and the answer is neither, or, whichever. The one whose job it is to make sense, according to Place, is the reader, “who is the thinker who is the village explainer, given that this one is also the village.”

The question remains as to why the categories of Conceptual and female writers need overlap. In her introduction, Caroline Bergvall makes a compelling case for the two as linked due to the “existential dilemma” of female writers being inextricably linked to the impulse towards Conceptual writing in the late twentieth century. Beginning with a consideration of Kathy Acker’s practice (the negation of her own voice through plagiarism), Bergvall writes that this literary mode is “a way out of a societal status quo that must silence or symptomatize the female, minoritarian or differential writer.” She points to the feminine-conceptual connection, arguing that “conceptual methods paired with psychoanalytic and specifically feminine investigations have provided an ideal combination to seek out the somatic, cognitive and symbolic bases for language and gender development.” Whether or not we believe the argument that gender fundamentally influences the way we experience and use language, the idea is certainly an appealing way to understand this book’s chaotic, unwieldy energy.

The anthology frequently explains itself as an ameliorative action against a history of exclusion. In her introduction, Laynie Brown writes “the book began for me with the problem of the under-representation of women, particularly in key moments when movements begin to take shape … it is often at the stage of anthologizing that numbers start to shift so that women are not adequately represented.” The desire to be represented, to be historically heard, is echoed in a number of the works here, for example Juliana Spahr’s Influence & Originality: “to hell with the Black Mountain poets even though they had taught her a lot.”

On the one hand, this book seems to wants to follow Spahr’s sentiment: to hell with what they taught us; let’s mark our own territory. On the other, the book suffers from a pronounced uniformity: the individual statements are all written in a default theoretical prose style, a symptom that this avant-garde’s discourse is already comfortably couched in the institution of the university. The knee-jerk use of academic jargon is pervasive in other realms of the arts and culture industry (wall text, anyone?), but rarely are so many examples of this form placed side by side. These statements on poetics, which follow each writer’s work, are in many cases elucidating and enhanced by the sophistic language. Nonetheless, they evidence an implicit truth about the state of this movement, and of the poetry industry in general: most jobs in the field are academic, and the reception to one’s work will generally be tempered by the reaction of academic criticism. The book doesn’t endorse this tendency without self-reflexivity: both Laynie Brown and Caroline Bergvall explicitly address discomfort with demarcated movements and schools in their editorial introductions. Bergvall writes, “the conceptual poetics collated in this collection are filled with the meandering troubles of the term itself, as much as by the suspicion many female writers have harbored for its historical umbrella and initial propensity for exclusionary models.” Bergvall is pointing out that historically, the term “Conceptual” has been connected with the agenda of the male-dominated art world, and that the term “Conceptual writing” was brought to the public eye by a core group of men (including Goldsmith and Dworkin) whose influence remains primary.

However discontent its residents, any anthology, or movement for that matter, is by definition exclusionary. Poetry, contentious as its factions may be, is still a very small world. Many of the writers here are connected through clearly traceable links that are social, pedagogical, poetic-professional, or in several cases romantic. These connections are visible in the representation of certain schools (Black Mountain for Spahr, Kathy Acker, and Lee Ann Brown, for instance), or in the contributor’s references to one another. Jen Bervin’s piece, a collage of Susan Howe quotes, is 250 pages before Howe’s own contribution to the anthology, while Judith Goldman quotes Joan Retallack at a distance of roughly 200 pages. As Place quotes her fellow conceptualist, Craig Dworkin, “movements (like nation-states) are perhaps better defined by principles of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Place acknowledges that exclusivity is built into a movement, without Bergvall’s “suspicion,” and this anthology certainly reflects an exclusivity. However, the brand of exclusion is more social than aesthetic, as this is obviously an interlinked community, and perhaps the choices of whose work to include were motivated more by social commonality than by ideological or aesthetic agendas.

Many of the works in this volume don’t quite fit the brand identity advertised on Drown’s cover. Kristen Prevallet’s piece is essentially a flaneur-like record of her walks around Brooklyn, the Conceptual stakes of which are unclear. Jen Hofer’s hand-sewn quilts of paper are essentially collages. Without it being a question of the quality of either of these pieces, their inclusion should have been exegetically backed up by the editors. Other writers are excluded that ought not to have been, many of whose work actually does operate within Vanessa Place’s orthodox definition of Conceptualism to the letter, such as Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Holly Melgard, or Kristen Gallagher.

At a post-reading Q&A at the Poetry Project in St. Mark’s Church in October 2012, an audience member asked Vanessa Place why she had felt the need for an anthology of Conceptual women writers. Place responded that she simply wanted Conceptualism to be taken seriously as a movement, and felt that any serious literary movement needed an anthology of women writers. While probably tongue-in-cheek, this comment does imply that the proposed reading of this anthology as an embodied feminist critique is probably idealistic. Yes, of course, the idea of a gendered form is old-fashioned and callow, but the idea that balancing the representational scales in order to appear legitimate is the best that we can hope for now is just depressing. Perhaps there’s something pragmatic and positive in this possible future of the avant-garde as more like political lobbying than aesthetic and social revolution. After all, these sorts of strategies — of strength in numbers, in the ritual performance of a unified front — have worked in political revolutions, so why shouldn’t they work in an aesthetic one? Perhaps, along with the rejection of the Romantic lyric subject, we have also rejected the notion of the naïve artist in favor of the cynical artist, a strategic purveyor of manifestos and intramural social networks.

Caroline Bergvall writes of two principal ways, two main avenues, by which Conceptual poetics can avoid “production fetishism,” meaning selling out one’s lived experience in favor of uniformity, which in turn connects to the totalizing pressure of capitalism in art, and the ensuing institutionalized avant-garde. The first of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to constantly examine the means of one’s own intentionality. The second of these avenues is engaged disengagement: a willingness to accept the laughable obsessiveness of one’s intent in the face of the consumption machine. Bergvall’s formulation here, while playful, is the anthology’s most earnestly self-reflexive contribution, lightly addressing the pressures of innovative aesthetics, the utopian project of an anthology, and the future of the artist in the institution.

What is ultimately fascinating about this anthology is the enigmatic way in which it fails. The anthology resists the reader, resists its own structure, remains engagedly disengaged. If this book is supposed to be a strike in the conceptual campaign, why doesn’t it adhere to the operating principles of the movement? After all, if your movement claims its only intended conquest is an impenetrable, reflexive aesthetics, then the book should perform that function as an object. Or, if the book’s messy sprawl and haphazard structure is meant to be a social, communal gesture, why not say so? In other words, the book fails to function either as a conceptual art object, which would be a tautology, or as an anthology, which would be a collection of works arranged to appear as if based in a common aesthetic goal. This failure, however, if not wholly deliberate, has great value in revealing the conflicts and competing interests in this, as in any, avant-garde movement. The lack of editorial restriction allows the fissures to show in an anthology ostensibly meant to portray a unified front, and these fissures let the book communicate more about the state of the avant-garde, and about writing as women, than a polished nonexpressive text ever could. The poet Kim Rosenfield has one of the last entries in the volume. In her statement on conceptualism, she writes: “IT IS A WORLD OF MIRRORS. IT IS A USELESS AND OBSCURING FICTION THAT THERE IS A WORLD.” This book aligns itself in title with a movement that privileges an idea over content, yet the volume itself is much more concerned with content than the representative idea. As a result, the mystifying effect of the individual works is subsumed by the mystifying question of how to read the book, and where to find the commonalities or to understand the categories.

Perhaps Conceptual practice, and the multitude of its pursuant manifestos, is most effectively communicated to the reader at large when understood as a return rather than an advance, as a ritual engagement with language as a material imbued with innate meaning. In his remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (a response to James George Frazer’s anthropological study of magic and religion), Wittgenstein critiques Frazer’s study as epistemologically flawed, for failing to engage in an intellectually satisfying way with his subjects’ rituals due to his incomprehension of language’s magical and symbolic nature. On Frazer’s construction of projected meaning on rituals he didn’t understand, Wittgenstein writes, “Compared with the impression which the thing described makes on us, the explanation is too uncertain. Every explanation is after all a hypothesis.” By explaining a multitude of rituals simultaneously, the book evades any hint of evangelism, an admirable feat for any anthology, especially one so full of manifesto.

'It feels like painting a larger picture'

A review of 'Try a Little Time Travel'

Try a Little Time Travel

Try a Little Time Travel

Natalie Lyalin

Ugly Duckling Presse 2010, 20 pages, $10,

As the title poem of Natalie Lyalin’s Try a Little Time Travel makes clear, this book is not concerned with telephone booths or Tardises, but rather with “time travel” as a mental process. The reader is exhorted to “Close your eyes, // And think, Grandmother, / I’m coming to you, live!” (6). In these poems, time travel becomes a method of inquiry, of digging through the shifting sands of memory and desire to discover imaginary truths about imaginary pasts and futures. Of her own journey in “Try a Little Time Travel,” the speaker reports:

I learned:
I was not evil,
Fjords made a screeching sound when formed,
G-d is not vengeful,
My uncle smothered someone in an open field. (7) 

This collection of heavy biblical lessons is something of a surprise at the end of a poem that began by glibly encouraging readers to try time travel “instead of sexing / one night,” and that along the way entertained the pop-culture commonplace about whether it would be advisable for a time traveler to kill Hitler. But these shifts in register are part of what makes these poems interesting and what allows them to cover so much ground. In the poem “Burn, Burn, Burn the Air,” for example, a flippant, matter-of-fact tone makes a startling juxtaposition with the grim subject matter: 

       Anyway, we went

Walking. The galaxies tried to part us. We were then 

Pardoned for the war crimes. It was only after that we

Lead them to the mass graves. With some gravitas we

Dug for survivors. There were none, so they hanged us!

They hanged us in the brightest spot of our youth. (2) 

With this juxtaposition in mind, the line about killing Hitler becomes more than a cliché. This series of quasi-comic reversals (being pardoned for war crimes before revealing graves, digging in graves for survivors) delivered in straight-faced, declarative sentences is strongly reminiscent of Yiddish nonsense tales for children. For example, the opening lines of a Yiddish story called “The Pain in the Neck” are designed to delight children through their continuous flow of contradictions: “Once upon a time there was a very rich poor man. He had no children except for nine daughters. His oldest son took it in his head to go to the fair.”[1] Lyalin brings this comic structure closer to the theatre of the absurd, turning the real impossibilities of the Holocaust into grim entertainment. 

Families figure prominently in these poems as a form of “time travel” in themselves, their generational structure linking the past with the future. A poem called “I Had This Hair When My Dad Was Alive” begins with seven relatively coherent lines reflecting on a past in 1980s Poland, when “it was hard to find boots and stockings” (14), then careens forward into thirty-nine relatively unconnected lines that loosely share a theme of life’s transitions, suggesting a contrast between the past’s existence as pat stories and the chaos of the present. But if the past is story, it’s also fantasy and guesswork, making it not all that different from the future. In addition to fathers, uncles, and grandmothers whose lives are half remembered and half imagined, there are a lot of babies and children in these poems. In a poem called “To All My Babies,” the speaker apologizes to her eerily and nonspecifically plural “babies,” who seem almost insect-like in the way that they’ve scattered to the winds. And in “All the Missing Children Go to Florida,” Florida is imagined as both haven and mother to the children on milk cartons, who roost in trees and taunt those who would bring them back to their homes, boasting about their alligators, orchids, and “the stench of [their] / Swamp hearts” (5). In both these poems, the speaker imagines a future for children whose fate she cannot know as a way of comforting herself in their absence.

What Lyalin’s first book, Pink and Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books, 2009), accomplished with invention, this chapbook does with increased focus on cohesion and coherence, which invites from the reader different emotional responses. The mothers, lovers, fathers, grandmothers, uncles, and children who populate these pages all seem to understand that the insight into one another provided by all this mental “time travel” — these memories, dreams, fantasies, and projections — is no less real for being imagined.

 


[1] “The Pain in the Neck: A Nonsense Tale,” in Yiddish Folktales, ed. Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 35.

Translation's lucky hand

A review of 'Fortino Sámano'

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem)

Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy

Omnidawn 2012, 200 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-1890650674

To grasp this amazing book — this doubled and redoubled book — is indeed to hold a lucky hand. To read the words of Hogue and Gallais translating Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy is not just to devour a long poem. It is also to receive a device for reading poetry and for exploring the possibilities of lyric address, for opening spaces in and between two languages, French and English.

We are first confronted with the book’s title, two words that mean nothing in French or English, Fortino Sámano. Latinate, they could point to a name, index an individual life, though at first I am not sure it is a name I am reading. In English, the words seem to go beyond language.

Impossible to translate, they arrest me.

Inside the book, the poems of Virginie Lalucq offer us multiplied, shorn, angulated words: a trenchant and repeated déclic that is at once the image of a man about to be executed, the images of a poem in the process of its own summary execution, and images of us reading the image-poem. In Fortino Sámano, there is no photo shown, no “representation,” no passport provided. Here, execution is also creation, and the executory process suspends the sinews of the poem between writer and reader in a productive space beyond that of mere expression.

Poet Virginie Lalucq does not execute alone. Just as the translation of her work into English is doubled, by two translators, the book itself is doubled, has two authors. We even read the poems twice before the book ends: once, as Lalucq, and again when philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy executes his lyric reading of her poems, a beautiful and nuanced reading of work that, paradoxically, refuses what we often consider to be lyric values.

The name Fortino evokes luck and power, and Lalucq’s and Jean-Luc’s names also, funnily, echo luck. Fortino Sámano, man and name, offers us su mano, pointing to the fortunate power of the hand at work in creating the unspeakably aphasic parts of poetry, using what is at hand. In the poems, the image of the man smiles, exchanges pronouns with us, puts us in his spot against the wall of execution and makes us own the “I” that the poem is speaking.

Lalucq’s work contains great défis — challenges defying translation — in lineation, rhythm, in the transpositions, say, of adjective-noun (English) and noun-adjective (French) that underpin each language’s structure and conveyance of power. Then, Gallais and Hogue confront a redoubled challenge: to translate the lyric overflow of Nancy’s reading of Lalucq’s poem, to make Nancy’s text work alongside Lalucq’s in English, as well as in French.           

Translators know that translating quotations (and here Nancy quotes the entire poem!) inside the work of another author is not easy. You can’t always use a previous English version of the quotation, because what was important in it to the one who quotes may have been stripped away in the standard English version. To translate it again means creating a foreignness that insists on the provisionality of all translation, context, readings, executions. Out of this, somehow, Gallais and Hogue create a version of the poem that works in both its roles.

Fortino Sámano is poetry in translation that pushes my own relationship with English into a new place of questioning, and that refuses the process of legitimation that so often goes hand in hand with translation, a process that often unwittingly seeks poetry from other languages that reflects, or can be translated as reflecting, values already embedded in American poetry. Fortino Sámano brings something new into North American poetries, not just in the line or in the stanza, not just in the image or its refusal, but in the structure, tension, and extension of the poems as book as well.

Words, says Nancy on the last page of his piece, are always démesurés — “unmeasurable,” but also beyond measure, disproportionate, excessive, unruly. And in the mouth, they do run backward to aphasia, as the book’s epigraph (Jacques Roubaud via Rosemarie Waldrop) advises us before we begin.

How then can we read at all? A face, an image, a memory, a poem? Lalucq’s creation insists on this question, on its cut and fracture. Nancy addresses the question as well, by reminding us what poetry can do: “The poem gives words a common measure, which reading recalculates each time.” He ends by insisting we read the poem aloud, starting with its title: For-tin-o Sá-ma-no. The poem overflows now into our own vocal apparatus; we execute it out loud.

 


 

PS: Three wee remarks (no translator can repress a few remarks) that don’t diminish my love of this book. 1) There is a second photo of Sámano, at the execution wall, also taken by Agustín Victor Casasola on January 12, 1917, seen on this site just below the photo that Lalucq saw. 2) The Breton verb “disac’her” is in dictionaries: here we are told that disac’her means dépanner, in the sense of faire avancer, débloquer, to get something going again, get over a breakdown or obstacle. As well: [x] Disac’her : vb. (de disac’han) vider un sac, sortir d’un bourbier, débloquer, finir par dire sa pensée. It’s in the Vocabulaire du breton d’aujourd’hui, by H. J. Gouélian, Editions Jean-paul Gisserot, 2002. And here: disac’hañ: (v) s’ébouler; débloquer, dépanner, décoincer. 3) To write a poem, or to read an image, concludes Lalucq, is a difficult harvest from steep terrain using a faucille, which is a sickle, a one-handed instrument that lets you cut while leaving one hand free to grasp what’s cut. With a “scythe” (as Hogue and Gallais have it), a faux, both hands must grasp the tool; the swinging would be precarious on a slope and the cut stems, the harvest, would cascade out of reach.  

A walking proposition

On Pam Rehm’s 'The Larger Nature'

The Larger Nature

The Larger Nature

Pam Rehm

Flood Editions 2011, 71 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0981952086

Pam Rehm is a poet whose work consistently abounds with a quiet intensity. The nature of this intensity might best be described, as in her opening poem, “Another Dimension,” as an “evident immersion / in another dimension” (4), a “diligent seclusion” being the necessary beginning to such an immersion. This other “dimension,” a way of being, thinking, and observing, is a space imagined by Rehm where words fail, or at least present limitations, for “Stepping among the primary questions / the body is altered attention” (1).

Rehm’s newest book of poems, The Larger Nature, formally continues the spare lyricism that has marked her previous books from Flood Editions. Rehm’s poems courageously employ an unadorned sparseness recognizing limitation rather than deprivation; their manner is austere, negotiating sight, the eye, with a spiritual diffusion: “Your vision will alight / the fire to create // a continual source / of sustenance” (13). Indeed, it is the prospect of vision that impels the lived life of Rehm’s poems for a reader, at least this reader. It is a vision whose desire is a necessary and difficult cultivation. The poems emerge from a genuine and searching rigor, like a monk’s hermeneutic: “It is the road to ardor / wrought through uncertainty” (19). In another way, the poems’ austere manner and searching register reflect an unspoken vow towards poverty. The austerity of spirit and observance seems a value the poet cultivates from the depths of the questions and inquiries that surface into a form of attention. And it is in this kind of rare attention that Rehm is that speaker, unafraid of considering the provenance of the human soul and the heart. 

In the poem “I Followed, I Found, I Went Down,” the speaker makes silence an object of attention: “I uncover his trail / what is really there // Searching and waiting / I keep close to him —” (17). If silence is a stranger, it is also a stranger, for Rehm, who might provoke her heart to some kind of transfiguration. After all, as Rehm catalogues silence’s status and objecthood, he is a presence to be pursued: “He is the hawk / He is the ten-mile walk / and I follow his fear // He is alone / He is the insatiable eye / the sky flows out of / to keep the birds near” (17). Rehm cultivates the very possibility that silence is a kind of altar by which one listens; it is a necessary condition to uphold and cultivate as a meditational space.

Rehm’s lyricism borders on being awestruck by the eye’s ear. In sight there exists a quiet listening; Rehm listens to her earth in solitude, in an almost religious ecstasy, and wanders the fields of her geography, all the while open to being woven by the strands of her immersions into the natural world. In a retreat to nature, there is freedom that cannot be replicated by our immersion in society: “I wend down the street / take a detour through leaves / to emulate freedom / from traffic, crowds” (67). Here, recognizing that nature is a site of opportunity, a place to immerse oneself, the speaker posits that the act of retreat into the natural world might equal the silence of the “land’s mercy” (66). It is as much a perception as a striving to actively dwell in the house of nature with its comings and goings. In this dwelling there is intimacy. There is a retreat into the natural landscape, as well as a retreat into the mind’s cavernous spaces.

Just as in the natural world, or just as Rehm’s local environment demonstrates metamorphosis and flux, we are beings whose identity constantly experiences shifts and changes. But in our private space of housing a body, flux is arbitrary. In her poem “Identity,” she writes: “Thinking between / the apartment and the street // how easy it is // to change / one’s mind” (7). And the poem that follows, “Continuity,” reads in its entirety:

What survives scatter
insists upon the power to rise

Seeds dropped from mouths
or spit a distance
sprout

remnants that become
something else

Something other than
permanent

 attachment (8)

 In Rehm’s use of a seed as a metaphor for transformation, we are able to see how her thinking asks the reader to consider that the ways in which we exist in the world are amorphous rather than stable. There is also the quality of chance embedded in transformation because there’s no underlying promise that a particular object or way of thinking will continue to thrive in its physical or mental environment. Rehm proposes, though, that those traces of the seed that do “survive scatter” are wholly opposed to becoming calcified by permanence. They continue in an uninterrupted process of new connections being temporarily fused. 

Rehm’s poems don’t begin with a concrete realization; rather, they carefully grope towards a way of existing in the world. While much might be made of our daily, modern clatter, our rich and cacophonous human activities and their attendant language acts, Rehm’s poems seem concerned with crafting and proposing an inquiry of what may very well confound our immediate understanding; that is, Rehm lingers over and invites her reader into an activity that necessitates the act of listening, as if poetry, and its ancient calling, demanded anything less. Her poetry begins with an inherent skepticism in language, in words, that they can make their mark. She acknowledges that “The imagination struggles // Words intensely aware of / distance bowing to distance” (35).

Throughout The Larger Nature, the act of walking is offered as an activity where one might exist and think with the evidence of things we live among, both animate and inanimate; it is also a practice, an activity as old as the poem, where we might dwell. In perhaps a revealing line from the “Depths of the World,” we read: “Faith is underfoot” (54). And in the same poem, Rehm announces that “I have become one / possessed / to walk the earth” (55). Walking is a form of movement; the act of walking is almost as individual as its walker. From “Another Dimension,” we read: “Walking on all fours / it is bold to reach an animal capacity” (2). And further on in the same poem: “A lane, a journey / every footstep” (2). For Rehm, the foot in motion, treading the earth, opens a space for something to happen. It is an act deeply rooted in traversing distances, physical, emotional, and psychical, to be in pursuit of a depth realized within one’s capacity for reflection and from one’s attendant relationship to the materials outside one’s consciousness. Rehm’s serial poem “The World’s Welter” begins: “Perhaps there are many ways / to be at home in the world // I know this is the torture / of the imagination” (34). Then, further on in the poem, Rehm writes that “Out of the turbulence / of this world’s welter / I’d feel better // walking” (38). For Rehm, walking is almost akin to a monastic retreat; it provides the space for reflection, where “For as long as possible / our lives plumb the depths // the whole fragile edifice” (38).

As in her previous books, Rehm continues to bring the reader into even sparer territory; a territory affixed to thinking’s joy, terror, confusion, and uncertainty. She mines a metaphysical depth, which meditatively unpacks the distance between the phenomenal world and individuality. In the poem “Grace,” Rehm asks: “What / would we be without // gravity and the silence / of a single needle on a // pine tree; each one, an / entire emblem for the whole” (32). With characteristic attention to those larger questions, Rehm pursues the vitality of living just off the grid. Her poems restlessly confront the imagination’s power to both make and unmake a world, a space to inhabit, while also negotiating the tenuous reaches of perception.

Whether in the taut, quickly descending lines down the page, or the white space surrounding her words and lines, she proposes new insights into being in the world as perceiver, crossing a risky boundary between spirit and matter. How many poets can get away with declaring, “The earth connects to the soul” (3) or “I can imagine the body / embroidered to the soul” (5)? If Rehm is a poet of deep abstraction, her poems ask us to reacquaint ourselves with such a word as soul, which almost seems passé to our modern sensibilities. At the heart of Rehm’s poems, a longing sense for a navigable homeland carries an abiding wager to her work. This wager is altogether a vital sign that poems matter, that poetry still has a job to do in making our dwelling-place in the world legible.

“To bind the mind / to the ocular” (68) is perhaps one of the undergirding, ecumenical statements that serves as a coda to Rehm’s The Larger Nature. In poem after poem, Rehm alights on the distance between sight and perception, how we attempt to bridge that gap. For all of Rehm’s exhilarating and probing engagement with abstraction, she is also the committed observer of the natural landscape, the walker that declares “I shall read the Earth // I will clasp it // I will put on / the image of form” (52). Earlier on in the same poem, “The Depths Of The World,” she admits: “Now I write / with the perception of walking // a wanderer losing / the trail” (48). Rehm’s terse phrasings, her formal spareness, sound the depths of walking through this world in the hopes of finding some refuge, some labyrinth that can be measured. 

Ongoing 'Planisphere' notebook

At right: John Ashbery. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

Planisphere

Planisphere

John Ashbery

Ecco 2009, 143 pages, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-06-191521-5

1.

People are much too free with the phrase “a great book of poetry.” They think if the book has ten really good pieces in it then it’s a great book.

They don’t talk that way about albums. For it to be a great album it can’t just have some hits. You have to consider the not-hits, too. I wanna say: If you simply skip over the not-hits with no regret whatsoever, you can’t really call it a great album.

Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs has twenty, maybe thirty jewels. Plenty of the not-jewels are more or less unintelligible. Yet you regret skipping them. Somehow they contribute something to the overall presentation; you never wish ’em away. Shakespeare’s sonnets — same thing. Heaven knows one does pick up these books and skip to the best stuff. But one regrets it.

Now compare all that with, for example, Yeats’s The Tower. There, you have plenty of hits, but you skip over the other stuff quite, quite gladly. It’s boring. You have to assign the not-hits to yourself like homework. I do, anyway. Planisphere, meanwhile, is almost exactly the reverse. The hits are in rather short supply — but you really do wish you could take in the whole thing, every time you read any of it.

Trying to pick out anthology pieces from Planisphere would be like trying to take excerpts from a CD of whale songs. You don’t put that stuff on for five minutes.

And actually, you could say this is a large part of the nerviness of Ashbery’s work. He has dared — for fifty years  — to be supremely unportable.

2.

On the other hand, if an editor were prepared to concoct an Ashbery “Selected” in total defiance of any and all expectations — principally the expectation that such a collection ought to contain {pieces representative of the poet’s oeuvre as a whole} + {a more or less even distribution of poems, starting with Some Trees and ending with Planisphere} — if, I say, an editor could forget about all that, he or she could deliver an Ashbery hitherto unsuspected by his detractors, and, to a lesser extent, unsuspected by his admirers.

A fine samizdat project for some enterprising young citizen.

(I recommend including “The Youth’s Magic Horn” from Hotel Lautréamont, and “… By An Earthquake” from Can You Hear, Bird. From Planisphere: “Default Mode.”)

3.

Actually, now that I think of it, another way in which Ashbery is quite portable is on the level of the individual line or ‘bit.’ Nothing easier than to gather neat buttons at the button store. Here’s a grab bag:

I’m barely twenty-six, have been on Oprah
and such. (2)

Call me potatoes and soap.
Call me soap and potatoes. (10)

They were living in America further gone into teats. (17)

Ow. In fact ouch. (44)

Refusing to admit
something is the matter with you is like taking
a life. There are no witnesses. (46)

You say your cunning comportment
is artless? Well then so am I
for containing you, champ. (54)

A love like self-love
upgraded to “pastoral.” (68)

Alongside, something was running.
It had a note in its maw. Hey,
give me that, like a good animal.
That’s fine. Now get lost. (89)

[…] and the boy stands at attention, distracted,
in the sexual chapel surrounded
by correct, cream-colored leaves. (92)

The playoffs — don’t get upset. (96)

He was a very mobile person throughout his life,
instrumental in helping promote the Indians. (98)

What about poisonous sea snakes?
I know one. I bet you do. (107)

Then it’s back to basics, or in
my case forensics. What doesn’t
dapple you makes you strong. (107) 

Or ask Leporello. (107)

It was time to drink,
and drink they did until the heavens reopened
and the stars were raked into a pile. (115) 

Why what a lovely day/street/
blank canvas/pause/orb/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! (119)

So we’ll go no more a-teething. (125)

Claymation is so over. (130)

Here as I have erected
to do is a baseball bat. (132) 

It wasn’t meant to stand for what it stood for.
Only a pup tent could do that. (133) 

If tact is a mortal sin
we shall not miss. (135)

The above nosegay was not created casually. Those twenty-one items were culled from a batch more than three times that length: a comprehensive transcript of all the passages that are neatly underlined in light green ink, in my copy of Planisphere.

Anyone who has read the book is bound to view the above selection with a pleasant combination of recognition and bewilderment. Anyway, about half the time R. reads me choice bits out of his copy, I think Ah?? Now how did that get by me?

After all, though, it’s not too hard to figure that one out. Book’s a forest litter.

4. Some common objectings to Ashbery — answered

OBJECTIONS

(a) Doesn’t all this allegory and code on the subject of poetry-writing itself get a bit wearisome after a while? I mean, it’s not like he’s saying anything bold. And it’s every other poem.

(b) The persona of this book — gentle, quirky, finicky, likable, 100% harmless in every way — don’t you ever get sick of the coyness of all that, the self-satisfaction?

(c) Aren’t seventy or eighty percent of these diction oddities just a bunch of honors-dorm humor?

A stupor like sheep’s nostrils
chases the ground. Day arrives with a thwack
and is left to sit all day. (129)

I’ll have a mustard coke. (134)

  — and so on. —

ANSWERS

(a) When people object to poetry about poetry, it’s usually because they don’t like the specific attitude being struck. Anyhow, in my experience, the same readers who reject Ashbery’s devotion to writing about poetrywriting never seem to mind it when, say, Hafez or Han Shan relentlessly handle the exact same theme. The difference is that those two guys never do anything but vaunt poetry’s powers. Meanwhile, Ashbery is a relentless skeptic, both of the art in general and of his own stuff in particular. Which is the very reason he is attractive to some readers. 

(b) Is Ashbery coy and self-satisfied? Take the case of Ashbery’s references (supposedly much multiplied since Flow Chart, 1990) to his own can’t-be-very-far-off death. Ashbery always handles the theme in exactly the same tonal register:

I guess I must be going. (2)
Now it was time, and there was nothing for it (6)
Don’t forget to write! (64)
I was halfway out the door anyway (70)
There is nothing like putting off a journey (75)
Yet one says, so long (81)
I’ll be on my way (99)
I have to go (108)
Well I can’t stay (129)
We’re moving today (130)
We’d better be getting along before it gets dark (135)
Soon it was time to choose another climate (139)

 Now, obviously the tone here is appealing. Modest, inoffensive, quotidian — and above all, reconciled. (He even has a poem here that begins, “As virtuous men float mildly away. …”) And the question isn’t even whether all this is a sham or not. It’s whether there’s an unseemly self-amusement/self-satisfaction evident.

Say it is a sham. A fantasy of going gently into that good night. As fantasies go, it’s not ignoble. The poet is led away to the common slaughter, his eyes wide open, his mind somewhat fuddled, his mouth full of neither fulsome blessings nor thrilling curses. He says merely Bye now! and Que sais-je?

Sounds like as good a way to go as any. The obnoxious thing would be if Ashbery were rubbing that ideal up the reader’s snout. Certain people can’t help but take it that way, depending on how strongly they think it’s the wrong fantasy. If your aesthetics of deathbed speeches calls for Shakespearean oratory (of one form or another) or zoinks of Zen cold fusion, then you’re bound to feel like Ashbery’s trying to score a point off ol’ Shakespeare or whatever. 

In other words: “self-satisfied”? Sure, if you like. But if you say the li’l guy routine is a smarmy put-on, I say unto you: Examine your conscience. I bet your objection is more to li’l guys than to put-ons and smarm.

(c) Diction oddities and honors-dorm humor. Now, here I’m happy to admit Ashbery’s sense of fun does not do it for me, a whoppin’ percent of the time. Phrases like “mandrills on the turnpike” leave me cold, cold. But there is a very great difference between being left cold and being provoked to the kind of rage represented by a certain familiar illustration from Through the Looking-Glass

That’s how I used to react.

What made me change? That’s easy. I stopped thinking Ashbery was grinding an axe with that stuff. Making a point. Mocking expectations. Being deliberately lame. These days, I just figure he thinks all that stuff is swell, and I calmly disagree. 

I still have Tweedledum-style meltdowns from time to time, but latterly I reserve that kind of thing for situations where I have to listen to the dorks defending the yaks and the thwacks and the mustard cokes by recourse to high-sounding words and philosophy.

(This is actually a deep point about misplaced dislikes of Ashbery. Gotta take care not to hate him when you should be hating the people who smack their silly lips over the worst parts of him.)

5.

TWO BITS:

(a)
Pol. What is the matter my Lord.
Ham. Betweene who.
Pol. I meane the matter you reade my Lord.
Ham. Slaunders sir; for the satericall rogue sayes here, that old men haue gray beards, that their faces are wrinckled, their eyes purging thick Amber, & plumtree gum, & that they haue a plentifull lacke of wit, together with most weake hams, all which sir though I most powerfully and potentlie belieue, yet I hold it not honesty to haue it thus set downe, for your selfe sir shall growe old as I am: if like a Crab you could goe backward.

(b)
MRS TEASDALE: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
FIREFLY: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. 

These are samples of bewildering nonsense. Which is not to say there isn’t any sense there. In fact, it’s almost all sense. It’s just strange.

What exactly would have to be left out from those bits to make ’em into Ashbery poems? And what would need to be added? I feel like if I could put my finger on that, I’d really have something.

I think most of what stops the Hamlet and Groucho bits from being Ashbery poems is the jiu-jitsu aspect. In both cases, an affront is being prosecuted, quite single-mindedly. Ashbery would never do that. He only allows bitchiness or obnoxiousness to show their heads for half a second.

You know something?
I don’t care. (12) 

— and the like.

But even if we leave out the aggressive energy, the Groucho/Hamlet things still have too much forward momentum to count as Ashberian. Their logic doesn’t zigzag any old way; rather, it spirals upward and comes to a point, like a sundae with its cherry. The cherry is not ice cream; crabs have nothing to do with it; where did that phonograph needle come from — and there you are. It’s the “and there you are” effect that makes Hamlet or Groucho quite distinct from the author of Planisphere.

Ah. To make a poem that might pass for genuine Ashbery, you have to create speed without momentum. The associations have to move as rapidly as they do in the material quoted above, but they can’t seem to be tumbling downhill. You can have an exciting ending, but it has to come out of nowhere. Or seem to. 

Naturally, the above principle is violated occasionally by the master himself. But when he does so, he produces a poem that would never win a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest. Wouldn’t even make semifinals.

(Young poets should take heed. For many and many a magazine does indeed operate almost exactly like a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest.)

6. 

Occurs to me to mention: people need to stop talking about Ashbery’s poetry like it mimics the way people think. I mean, I guess it does, in a sense. But.

Here, look at this famous thing out of Hobbes:

For in a Discourse of our present civill warre, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman Penny? Yet the Cohærence to me was manifest enough. For the Thought of the warre, introduced the Thought of delivering up the King to his Enemies; The Thought of that, brought in the Thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the Thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for Thought is quick.

In that sense, yes. Ashbery mimics the flow of, etc. But real free associations don’t have anywhere near the kind of verbal body that the poems in Planisphere have. When one is ambling through one’s day, washing dishes, unloading the car, one’s thoughts are like a muddy river on which a few twigs and sticks are being pulled along. Those are words and phrases. The river itself is something else again. If one were to translate the whole river into language, it would look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It certainly wouldn’t look like a Planisphere poem.

I say this with some heat because I have heard Ashbery explained ten billion times in terms implying that the justification for his procedures lies in the way they reveal something about how consciousness operates. As if that’s why he’s good! But how uninteresting Ashbery would be if his explainers were right about him. To me, the exhilaration of the thing is not that it mimics the flow of consciousness; it does something much better. It mimics the flow of a superhuman consciousness. 

This is the thing it has in common with the Hamlet and the Groucho bits. Nobody could make all that stuff up at that speed in real time. If a person pulls it off to the depth of twenty seconds, he or she is said to be in rare form, “on a roll,” and so on. You wanna run off and write down what they said.

7.

The speed of the associations is its own thing. It doesn’t need defending under color of mimesis. But there is one thing about Ashbery’s poems that really is wonderfully mimetic of ordinary mental operations. The strong — and indeed unignorable — presence of banality. Ashbery has found a hundred good uses for that.

I’m reminded of Auden on the subject of Boswell’s journals:

When we read Rousseau or Stendhal or Gide, we are conscious of artful highlights and shadows, and keep asking ourselves, “Now, just what was his secret motive for confessing this or recalling that?” But when we read Boswell, the character presented is as complete and transparent as a character in a novel by Defoe or Dickens; we cannot imagine there being any more to know than we are told.
          Take for example, the following extract:

When I got home, I was shocked to think I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature. I determined to do so no more; but if the Cyprian fury should seize me, to participate my amorous flame with a genteel girl.

An ego-conscious writer like Stendhal would never have allowed himself to write phrases like “the Cyprian fury” or “my amorous flame”; he would have reflected, “These are clichés. Clichés are dishonest. I must put down exactly what I mean in plain words.” But he would have been mistaken, for everyone’s self, including Stendhal’s, does think in clichés and euphemisms […]. 

Auden’s defense of cliché is limited to its deployment in self-portraiture: diaries and the like. He prizes it as evidence of honesty, authenticity. But that’s not what I’m saying about Ashbery. I’m saying Ashbery’s insistent use of phrases like “I kind of liked it, though” and “it was so nice outside” represents THE thing his poems have in common with normal thought. NOT the speed of association.

When it comes to speed, the poems are analogous to thought. The banality, on the other hand, is the thing itself. 

 

A previous version of this piece first appeared in January 2010 on Digital Emunction (now defunct).