Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Annals of LA: About Jay Cocks

In 1991 or so I was hired to do research on a film about Joan of Arc. I’d been working for James Cameron at the time, reading scripts. Mostly SF. Or novels like Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” which clearly had an influence, shall we say, on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

His wife at the time, Kathryn Bigelow, who’d just come off the now iconic “Point Break;” was going to direct. (Now iconic = early box office pretty low). It was going to be called “Company of Angels” but none of us knew that at the time. At the time it was just the Joan script. Top secret. Eyes only. Sinead O’Connor would play Joan. And maybe Keanu Reeves as Dunois?

(There’s a huge long story about that which must wait for another time – suffice it to say it was rather dramatic as these things go. Keanu was a sweetheart but in the heat of the moment, underneath the burning klieg lights, poor Sinead kind of lost her shit. I would have too. I don’t blame her at all. She’d just bit off more than she could chew. She was a champ though – a real trouper. Also she told me a poem I wrote about Joan made her wet. I nearly drove off the 405. She was probably just fucking with me but I loved it. She asked Jay to give her five classic films to watch: I don’t recall them all but two of them were “The Red Shoes” and “The Third Man”).

(So yeah I sat in my office in Warner Hollywood and became obsessed because that is the meaning of research and that ended up becoming my first book of poems ten years later, BURN. Thank you Joe Amato and thank you Charles Alexander. Another story for another time.)

Most folks don’t understand actors or what the art of acting is – about what it is like to live so close to your emotions. To put yr face on the line – to be so luminous and vulnerable and porous. Poets are the antennae of the race sd Pound. Wrong – actors are. They put themselves on the line in ways most of us would have a hard time imagining. As I tell my students, the close up is still the greatest special effect ever invented. Not sure they get it.

But as it turned out, as charismatic as she was, Sinead did not really know how to act. We put this sweet tiny woman astride an enormous Clydesdale on the soundstage at Raleigh Studios (the old RKO I think, where Welles shot Kane, across from Paramount and my beloved Nickodells, now gone). The horse was pure grade mega-fauna – srsly whose idea was it to order this fucking beast? But the horse was cool. I wondered vaguely about the wrangler—who would wield the broom? Not my problem.

In the event, things went south or sideways or some other undesirable direction. Just another day in the office.

But Jay turned out to be, out of all that welter, one of the rare and truly decent human beings I ever met in Hollywood. Or anywhere else for that matter. A genuine class act. (Leslie Whitney being the other one). (And of course Jay’s late wife, the amazing actor Verna Bloom, full of North Shore sass. I adored her).

Jay and I bonded over our mutual love of James Agee. Which startled me because in my innocence and arrogance I had already decided that screenwriters were clueless – lightweight epigones. Then I read a few scripts and realized, this shit is hard – it’s pure form. It must be as tightly constructed as a sonnet. It can kill you if you’re not very careful.

Over Jay’s desk (location undisclosed) hangs an enormous B&W photo of David Lean. It’s a production still from “Ryan’s Daughter.” Lean and his crew are struggling with a large light array precariously perched on a rocky coastline. He’s wearing a trench coat and the wind is whipping it around and like King Canute he seems to be commanding the elements to stop. The sea – yeah, the Irish Sea – is not hitting its marks. It’s epic. It’s heroic. It’s beautiful. This is how you make movies. You do crazy shit but also you look like David Lean.

It’s 1991 and we’re in a story meeting. Mulholland Drive, 90210, early spring sunlight streaming in, Richard Serra prints on the wall. Originals (KB knew Serra – and Philip Glass – and Mapplethorpe. From her days at the Whitney. There was a stunning BW photo portrait of her by Mapplethorpe that sat on Jim’s desk – I walked by it everyday and little by little I fell in love with it – or her – I could not be sure which).

But everything else is beige. The walls are beige, the couches are beige – I am slowly seeping into a sea of beige. It is inescapable. Even the smog is beige. A beige apocalypse. LA in the early 90s.

Kathryn’s enormous but very sweet German Shepherd Bodhi is lounging about. Bodhi would occasionally go into a barking frenzy and then the next door neighbor, a singer-song writer named Johnny Rivers whose chief claim to fame was having written the lyrics to “Secret Agent Man,” a song (and show) I loved as a boy, would complain. Loud and long. It got to be a regular thing. I was tasked with trying to mollify him. I did not succeed. Jay’s response was to write a hilarious parody of one of his songs. I don’t think KB was amused.

Kathryn and I are interviewing Jay for a bigtime screenwriting gig. We’d just talked to David Peoples (Blade Runner. Unforgiven) – David is great but yeah, no. KB did not dig him. He made a point of telling us that he hates flying so he drove – drove, mind you – to LA from Berkeley. I think this was what sealed his fate. He did not meet K’s threshold of cool. But then I was like, you can write scripts and live in Berkeley? I dropped a lot of acid in Berkeley. Some of it was actually real.

I am so in over my head I have no idea. I have this absurd amount of power. Except it’s not real power. That’s what fucks with yr head. It just looks like real power. And Jay is just so relaxed --- I think to myself this guy doesn’t care if he gets the job. He’s just sitting there with his legs crossed and he honestly does not give a shit. He’s from New York. He tells stories about writing film reviews for TIME. About meeting John Wayne and Kubrick. He is maybe the best raconteur I’ve ever known (the other being Anselm Hollo) – he has the journalist’s eye for the telling, colorful detail but he never goes on too long, never wears out his welcome. He doesn’t take himself or any of the Hollywood glitz seriously. He just seems hugely amused by it all.

Also, Marty is his best friend.

Also, he loves movies.

KB and I had just read the script for “Age of Innocence,” (which was released later that year and subsequently earned Jay an Oscar nom) and we were over the moon about it. Later I asked him about it and he simply sd, with a modesty that I came to know as typical of him and truly unfeigned, “it was all Miss Wharton.” Yeah, sure it was, pal.

(The script is credited to Jay and Marty. But to my eye the only contributions from Marty seemed to consist of inserting directions for camera angles – how to set up or shoot certain scenes. Everyone knows this is the worst kind of amateur mistake in script writing. They’ll storyboard it later anyway and you are who to presume to instruct the director about camera placement? In this case you just happen to be Marty so it’s all jake.

The brief camera instructions are revelatory, though --- Marty, like Hitchcock and Ford, had worked out the visual design well in advance. He’s got the whole freaking movie already storyboarded. He sees it in its totality before a single shot has been taken. You start to learn to see how he sees – will this be a CU? An MCU? A tracking shot? What’s Daniel doing? Where is Winona? Like that).

I realize slowly that I am in high cotton. But only because I have just read Darryl Pickney’s brilliant hugely entertaining memoir of the same title. The chapter on his working for Djuna Barnes is priceless. I, too, am working with genius-level people.

KB leaves the room to "take an important call." From her phalanx of agents -- maybe Ken Stovitz at CAA? Maybe Paula Wagner in her black Armani power suit? Paula Wagner is formidable. I have great respect for her. She really knew her stuff. A great agent is like a great director or producer: a master psychologist. She can work the room. She can command the flow of the conversation, the very pulse of the room, the outcome of the deal. It’s an art form I suppose and even though I sometimes cursed them under my breath I realized they held amazing super powers. (On the other hand Jay had some very funny stories and quip about agents which I shan’t repeat here)>

Then there was that whole phone protocol thing: every call prefaced with a "please hold for a call from X..." Did I do that for KB? Yes, so help me god, I did.

While she is out Jay and I get to talking. He is so nonchalant, and just so cool and down to earth I find it easy to chat with him. Also, he pays me the major compliment – he takes me seriously – he actually wants to hear what I have to say. He is, as Ingrid would later say (her ultimate compliment) “no bullshit.”

Somehow we find ourselves talking about Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” I tell him I’ve just read it for another production company but though I love this book as much as anything in American literature I could not figure out how anyone could make a decent movie from it. The rural adventurism has a hook -- sure. But Agee comes off as a fawning creep and the best parts of the book, the stuff everyone loves, are the lyrical passages – “All over Alabama the lamps are out.” Or, “slowly they diminished along the hill path, she, and her daughter and her three sons, in leisured enfilade beneath the light.” You’d have to be a genius to make a good film from this book and anyway hadn’t John Ford already done it in “Grapes of Wrath”?

Later, after the Joan of Arc movie deal fell apart, I left LA, went to grad school, became a scholar of sorts and thought mostly about poetry and not much about screenplays. I moved to Boston. I got back in touch with Jay. We went down to see him in NYC where he graciously received us and then later invited us to come visit him and Verna at their beautiful home in Maine. We ended up honeymooning there and even though the marriage didn’t last I did write some good poems sitting on the deck of their guest home, overlooking a Maine fjord.

Over endless cappuccinos we talked about “The Wild Bunch” and “Random Harvest” and a bunch of other films I’d never seen before. He showered us with DVDs – almost all B/W Hollywood Golden Age classics. I was getting schooled, again.

I suppose at this point I should just state the obvious. If this sounds like a love story, it is.

CODA: Jim Cameron used to live in the house on Mulholland with Kathryn. You can bet he did not care about the beige. There was one personal trace of him remaining and it made me love him – a mimeographed four-paneled cartoon of some astronauts walking on a desert planet. I think it was dated 1965? This was exactly the kind of stuff I did back when I was a boy. I would look at it from time to time and think, “Emerson was so fucking right.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Remembering Ron Sukenick

NB: Jenny Dorn asked me to contribute this brief homage to "Square One" after Ron died. The journal name was a post 9/11 reboot of her late husband Ed Dorn's "Sniper Logic" which was underwritten by the University of Colorado. There were a lot of "qualms" going about in those days and still are, I suppose. A typical case of santicmonious CYA.

But here's to Ron. An inspiring figure. May his spirit continue to exasperate and provoke.

The first time I met Ron Sukenick it was to interview him in his home for the Boulder Daily Camera. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Fiction Collective, which he’d begun in 1974. My editor, Juliet Wittman, warned me that he was not a man who suffered fools lightly. Contrary to this ominous warning, however, I found Ron to be tremendously warm, gracious, and hospitable. That hour or so spent in his study impacted me in a way hard to underestimate. I’d just moved to Boulder from L.A., where I’d worked as a script consultant in the film biz, but where I’d also started up my own short-lived, renegade poetry journal. (Featured here, a great photo by Douglas Messerli):

When Ron heard about this, his eyes lit up. “You’re one of us,” he exclaimed. That feeling of acceptance provided a much-needed orientation to a larger literary landscape. Along with discovering and befriending Naropa poets Jack Collom and Anselm Hollo, my friendship with Ron helped to lead me out of my years in the wilderness and into a common conversation about the writing life, one that continues to sustain me today.

It’s difficult to sum up a career as varied and energetic as Ron’s. What follows is from my introduction for him at Left Hand Books in May 1999, at what I believe may have been his last public reading in Boulder. I have kept to the present tense because the work itself remains with us.

For over 30 years, Ron Sukenick has been a singular presence on the American literary scene. Radical novels like Up, Long Talking Bad Condition Blues, 98.6, Blown Away, Doggy Bag, and Mosaic Man have reshaped the way we think about the possibilities for a vital contemporary literature – one that takes up its position on the contested & ever-shifting border between postmodern configurations of the self and the iconography of pop media culture. He is also, let me quickly add, one of our most scabrously funny writers.

Sukenick’s fiction tirelessly reinvents the idea of fiction. As a pioneer of the poetics of resistance and disruption, he raised the stakes of the game to a new level, a level where, to quote from his book In Form, the task of the serious artist is seen as “a strenuous investigation into the laws of reality ... beyond the bounds of convention.” The imaginative power of art carries not only an oracular function, by which new categories of the real are disclosed; it also requires of the artist a genuine ethical concern, which Sukenick defines as “an obligation to the truth of things as revealed by formal thinking.” Both through his own writing, and through the establishment of his small press, Fiction Collective 2, and his literary journal, The American Book Review, Ron Sukenick has worked to insure that the revitalizing energies of a truly dynamic literary underground will continue to thrive – that is: to subvert, upset, shock, exasperate, bedevil, and electrify the complacent consumers of culture everywhere.

Beauty, we all know, is difficult. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Beardsley to Yeats to Pound. Part of the job for us now as writers is to re-think what Pound called “To Kalon in the marketplace.” How may beauty now relate to commerce? For Ron, it meant moving past the idea of beauty as a bulwark against mass culture. As he said in his interview with me: “Mallarme’s idea of the writer working to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’ was very elitist. I like the language of the tribe. Maybe the job of the writer is to muddy the language of the elite, to get popular language into literary language.” Ron did this with inestimable verve, cunning and flair. Vale, ave, baby.

Friday, April 26, 2019

AN ETHIC, Christina Davis (2013): Revisting a contemporary classic

N.B. Chloe Garcia invited me to review this marvelous book in 2013 for the Zoland Press website, which has gone dark. I've reposted it here with some small, but important, revisions which seemed right after some retrospection. It's a book that deserves to be more widely known.(Unfortunately, the blog format does not allow the preservation of indentations so some minor violence to Davis's precise lineation has occured).

George Oppen’s heirs are more numerous than one might suppose. Robert Creeley, Michael Heller, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Michael Palmer, John Taggart, Norman Finkelstein, Elizabeth Robinson, Julie Carr, Pam Rehm, Joseph Massey, and Graham Foust, among others, come to mind as poets who have registered his influence, either amplifying or re-directing it through an investigation of the poem’s rhetorical resources. But to call these poets heirs gives a false impression, for there is and can be no School of Oppen. What poets take from him is a commitment to form that expresses itself in a ruthlessness toward what language can be made to say. As Oppen puts it “Possible/to use/ words provided one treat them/as enemies.”

Christina Davis stakes a strong claim to this tradition and her new book, An Ethic, is written less in the shadow of Oppen than as a kind of posthumous collaboration with him – a dialogue with the older poet’s austere, epistemologically rigorous work. The whole point of Oppen’s poetics is to test the meaning of a single word, a single poem, to work out, as exactly as possible, just how much truth a poem can carry, the way a structural engineer might test a suspension bridge to determine its maximum degree of torque and weight-bearing capacity in a windstorm. For Oppen, it turns out that a poem possesses considerable tensile power, provided one applies the proper degree of estranging torque. In this sense, poetry is a bridge that must also resist being a bridge. Hence, the appearance, on the page, of poems that look both remarkably fragile and severely worked out.

Davis has taken up this difficult regime, but her investigations have less to do with testing the truth of what can be said, then with the desire of the poem to connect, to carry across that unbridged space between loss and memory, absence and presence, you and I, a kernel, a trace, a spark that persists. Oppen’s poetics of ethics is famously founded on what he called “the bright light of shipwreck.” Catastrophe: personal, historical, moral – and the failure of poetry, as well – produces the necessity for a poem that refuses an easy and morally inert subjectivity in order to see the true relations between the self and the world. The Objectivist term for this process, of course, is sincerity. Davis’ sincerity emerges out of personal catastrophe: the death of her beloved father, John. Many of these poems are harrowing disquisitions of the void that appears after the death of a loved one, the long absence and aching desire which persists. They are whittled down cries; spiky confrontations with elegy that honor loss by both admitting and resisting it.

What sets Davis apart from Oppen is the way her poems hover just an inch above heartbreak. The way she manages the lacerations of loss is precise, controlled, and subtle – this is what she takes from Oppen: a ruthlessness toward her own grief and it makes many of these poems, like “An Elegy,” quietly devastating.

Above all, beneath all,

in as many ways
as the spider has

known the wall,

I miss and am
member of you
and of that race the grass
grows thru.

The sonic pattern of this poem achieves an exquisiteness that is in no way precious: the sense of breath and space, the rhyme of “all” with “wall” (as if to say that what was once experienced as unity now suffers a barrier); the spider as a hand, running over that wall, blindly knowing it through touch alone; and finally, the sharp cut of “am/member,” invoking both the call to remembering and its sundering.

This is a strong collection, but not every poem quite hits the mark. “Addendum,” for instance, comes across as somewhat awkward: “Who was it said: ‘AND//is the greatest/miracle’? Praise//be his/her name.” Perhaps Davis has in mind here a particular “him” – William James who, in A Pluralistic Universe, observed that “and” is the word that links everything to everything; it escapes closure; it deifies our efforts to forge a totality. “The word ‘and’ trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes.”

In the moving and completely marvelous “Big Tree Room,” perhaps the central poem in the book, the sense of continuity and rupture is rendered in a series of deceptively transparent meditations on death and re-birth. Their complexity is totally earned:

It is hard to keep remaining whole
as for the leviathan to stay
surfaced is hard.

It is hard, and therefore, a task to keep remaining.

We have not been born
in a while

Though wrenched from context, lines like these are nevertheless delicious with paradox, defying easy parsing. They invite us to face the size of loss, all the while maintaining a faith in language to equip loss with a meaning – to be born, after a while, after the task of grieving. Or is it under the sign of grieving?

An Ethic consists of two parts, the first of which is given over to elegy, while the second looks beyond to the world of ongoing, present-live connections. The hinge joining these two is the knowledge that the dead do not sever us from them the present, but bring us more closely to it. In both sections the questions driving the poems’ urgent predicament is the need to recognize both worlds: the dead and the living. This work of seeing is arduous because it also demands coming to account with loss without recourse to easy forms of consolation. This is what it means to create an ethic.

Davis prefaces her collection with a quote from Oppen’s legendary Daybooks: “An ethic an ethic: ethos …/what other words can be found? Awe perhaps.” But Davis excludes what follows, for Oppen goes on to conclude that awe “is not ethical.” What to make of this? For one thing, it seems to me that Oppen here is insisting on the clearest possible definition of his terms, a process of continual refinement evidenced in both his poems and his journals and letters. To confuse awe, an essentially theological category of affect, with ethics, which must, among other things, adjudicate the precise differences and relations between things, would be to submit to a kind of heresy or distortion. Yet there’s a suggestion in Oppen that perhaps awe is what produces ethics, that it’s an enabling condition. For awe is also a measurement: it marks the distance as well as the nearness between the perceiving subject and the other. It is as much a witnessing of that distance as it is the experience of undergoing the humility it imposes.

The greatest philosopher of ethics in the 20th Century, Emmanuel Levinas, asserts that ethical relations do not derive from first principles based on preserving the rational pursuit of self-interest. It is far more radical than that, he claims, based rather on proximity and the demands the other’s immediate presence places on me before any codification of law or custom. Ethics, then, is a form of hospitality: a welcoming of the stranger as guest. The poem as an ethic is the primary mode of acknowledging what Levinas calls the “there is” (il y a ), that which, even after the witnessing “I” has been subtracted, remains, demanding attention.

In his essay on Levinas, “Should Poetry be Ethical or Otherwise?,” Gerald Bruns makes a “distinction between language as kerygma and language as contact, where the one predicates something of something (this as that) while the other is an event of sensibility or proximity in which the visible is no longer an object of consciousness … but is an impingement or obsession.” The poems in An Ethic move back and forth between these two nodes, shuttling from proclamation to touch as if to say the one is the other, only by touch may I proclaim you.

The book begins and ends with poems entitled “An Ethic.” Both are magnificent. The first begins:

There is no this or that world.

One is not more or less
admitted. Into the entirety

One is invited
and to the entirety
one comes.

The line breaks are the syntax, as someone said of Milton. Each pause, each hovering, with an air of omen or premonition, freighted with enormous silence, marks the care by which the poem proceeds and defines the very insistence of each instant that must answer to the call of an ethic. The final poem closes with a quote from Thoreau: “What do you see?//One/world at a/time.” This may be the only real ethic – to see this world as it is. Here and now.

Throughout An Ethic, Davis maintains a deep humility before the visible, the tangible, its wreck and its promise. This humility is the sign of an extraordinary openness and vulnerability, a willingness to be porous to the currents of the moment, the heart, the earth. This is tricky business, because unlike Oppen, who was a hard-headed materialist, Davis, finally, carries an ecstatic, Emersonian outlook. She wants to be overwhelmed, to be carried away in the flood. For the spiritual landscape these poems move in is deeply sensuous. Their apparent modesty is deceptive and should not be mistaken for a lack of scope. “Flock” exemplifies this. It smallness does not prevent it from being called masterful.

But she was glad to be looking

and them not
always to arrive

was like

love is
love of

a future

Here all the promise of living is contained in awkward grammar (“them/not always”) and a spilling of line breaks; the delay of each one’s arrival is the lived moment of the poem – messianic, that is, always on the way, never quite arriving, an acknowledgement that the future is always the horizon we speed toward even as we know it full well to be bounded by finitude. The future is always about possibility, including the possibility of the loss of possibility. This is one reason we have poetry.

Davis’ previous work, Forth a Raven, was infused with a fierce spiritual longing that threatened at times to overwhelm its slender architecture. What she has taken from Oppen is a stringency; a steely quality to temper the ardor. The yearning for connection that marks her earlier work has become more palpable due to loss and grief. These poems are utterly urgent and often harrowing in their immediacy, in the demands they make on us to listen, to become present. Davis does not title her book “Ethics,” but An Ethic: a particular, deeply individual set of relations and of seeing grounded in the singular opening up to the approach of the Other, even when, or especially when, the Other is a ghost. What an ethic requires is a response, a turning toward the other, not out of rational first principles, but because a call has been issued and it cannot be ignored. Ethics then is always an event of the impossible – a wholly new response generated to the unforeseen. This is the poem. This is the second life it gives us.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

TEN -- Jennifer Firestone

Jennifer Firestone’s Ten (BlazeVox, 2019) is simply and elegantly conceived as a series of interconnected poems, adhering to the procedural rule of ten lines each. Firestone’s playful, at times capricious sense of lyric is on beautiful display here as the logic of the lines shifts in unexpected and delightful ways, making intricate connections between disparate registers and in the process unfolding the complex seams and ligatures which link the outer world to the inner. Within the restraints of the ten-line procedure these poems amaze with their diverse range of formal turns and the experiences they map out. With their sometimes flat, affectless end-stopped lines that verge on or subvert or actually are aphorisms, these poems produce an uncanny force field of unexpected pathos.

“It becomes dark, fear of what a day has held.
Some balcony plants live. Yet old ones
have more character. They’re austere and stable.
Portioned nature aware of its limitation.
Is that truthful? Or what one has just is.
Can even be nice. Why need to compare.
Let me stay with sight.
The bird dove into a pine. My mind
says, nest. She vanishes
for so long.”

Firestone has a consistent gift for ending these poems on a note of quiet astonishment or surprise. This is chamber music, but it often carries a symphonic surge. Each poem proceeds by little leaps of cognition – assembling an array of sensible data on the fly – that feels natural and right but are also acutely rendered observations of the lived world. “She vanishes/for so long.” Here the enjambment accomplishes the work of re-cognition, attesting to the fact that nothing finally can speak for itself – everything we see must be spoken for.

You can read more about and order TEN here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Remembering Kathleen Fraser, 1935-2019

NOTE: I was invited by Stephen Motika of Nightboat Books to contribute this brief tribute to a lovely festschrift his press put out in 2017.

Dear Kathleen,

If I were given only one word to describe Kathleen Fraser, it would be “ebullient.” Kathleen, my dear, you are a natural dazzler – not in the egomaniacal blowhard sense of so many major writers, who can’t rest till they’ve sucked all the O2 out of the room. No, your ebullience is just that – an actual and very welcoming overflowing, a kind of ecstatic invitation to share in a continual conversation, one constantly renewed by some fresh perception, some vivid sense of surprise. This is not to say that you aren’t also a rascally Scottish imp. One never knows what you’ll say next. So it is with your poetry. It radiates from a deep concern with the most audacious inquiry. Radical lyric – a sense of experiment as investigation – has always marked your work with its boldly magnanimous spirit.

My first encounter with you, Kathleen, was in 1975, in your poetry workshop at SF State. That didn’t work out so well. First there was the fact that I was an utterly lousy poet, more enamored of Keats than O’Hara (whom I’d never even heard of that point). And second. Well, second, your kindness could not recall me from whatever drug-induced redoubt I’d withdrawn to. We did not meet again till some twenty years later, when, as chance would have it, we both found ourselves in Boulder, Colorado, in the backyard of Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Anselm Hollo, standing on line for Naropa’s catered chow. I remembered you instantly, of course – how could one not? From that moment on, a delightful and immensely gratifying friendship was struck up. But it was more than that, of course. Kathleen, you mentored me. Not just by graciously giving me pointed advice on my work and then blurbing my first real book, Burn, or generously securing an invitation for me to read with Jeanne Heuving at Canessa Park through the good offices of Avery Burns, but in so many other ways, too.

Case in point. About ten years ago I succumbed to the delusion that I was falling in love with a poet of our mutual acquaintance. I was married at the time and so I turned to you, Kathleen, for sage advice, advice, naturally, that was spot on and that I utterly failed to heed. More importantly – in a tradition that has been largely lost, I think – you have, perhaps without even knowing it, counseled me on how to live.

I think some of this comes through in our exchange of letters, collected and edited by Jennifer Firestone and Dana Teen Lomax in their wonderful "Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community." I wince a bit now whenever I re-read them. My contributions to the conversation are shot through with grad school wonkiness, while yours overflow with lessons in how to see. Your letters are refulgent with the most enticing details of lived experience – the color of light on a brick wall, or how a painting struck you. I felt humbled by this exchange. It taught me a lot – which frankly I’m still absorbing. But the generosity of your gesture I take to be typical of you: the invitation to enter into a conversation. The dismissal of hierarchy. The sense of acknowledgement in a shared life in poetry and the commitments it entails, the demands it makes, the rewards it gives.

How adequately to express my gratitude to you, Kathleen, for all the largesse you’ve so casually strewn my way? I’ve written about your work several times, trying to articulate just what it means to me and its impact on the larger cultural landscape. So I’ll close these remarks with links to our collaboration and an excerpt from my piece, “White Blink,” written for Jacket 25 (2004) as a response of your extraordinary poem, “WING” (first written, as I recall for Linda Russo's journal, "Verdure").



Sunday, November 4, 2018

Interstellar Revisited

Rev 11.29.18

(N.B. This film came out in the fall of 2014 so I offer these belated and decidedly mixed observations for what they are worth. That semester I was teaching my freshman seminar in SF to a very brainy and willing bunch of students at Harvard. Thanks to the university’s generosity I was able to take us on a field trip to see the film at the Boston Commons theater. This entailed a 20-minute ride on the T or Boston subway from Harvard Square to Park Street. One concerned student asked if it was safe, which prompted some gentle ridicule. It’s not a wormhole, dude. I’ve seen “Interstellar” three times now in its considerable entirety. It improves on each viewing, even as the things that first bugged me persist. Especially the Matt Damon bits. And please filmmakers dealing with dire emotional predicaments, could you refrain from using Dylan Thomas as shorthand for your character’s inner states? I’m looking at you, Soderbergh’s “Solaris.” But then, as he notes with disdain in “Contagion,” “blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation”).

INTERSTELLAR might just as easily been named “The Melancholy of Extinction.” For every scene is haunted, whether by a diegetic ghost, in the figure of Matthew McConaughey’s intrepid astronaut, Cooper, or by the ghostly prospect of a future earth depopulated of humans.

Like Nolan’s baffling and preposterous Inception, which my students who never read Freud loved, this film about redeeming lost love is also about making films – in particular, about creating scenes of visionary intensity that only films can give us. Christopher Nolan is a big believer in the Gesammtkunstwerk, or Total Work of Art, an all-enveloping spectacle that transcends its vulgar circus underpinnings to deliver the viewer to an experience of the cinematic sublime. The problem is that his ambition is not always equal to his skill.

Film scholar Steve Dillon calls this self-reflective turn of films “the Solaris effect,” (which he analyzes at valuable length in his book of the same name). Dillon argues, rightly I think, that since Godard, films have and must signal their mediumicity, their status as films. He examines the work of Spielberg, Soderbergh, and others, using Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (“one of the most profound cinematic dreams ever conceived”) as a kind of baseline. As he notes, “Classical Hollywood cinema is typically characterized by “invisibility” and “transparency,” by a continual refusal to acknowledge that the film is actually a film.”

Self-reflexive filmmakers like Nolan and Soderbergh, taking their cue from Resnais and Roeg, foreground the element of time with elaborate editing schemes so that past and present are intermingled and confused. “The Limey,” which Soderbergh jokingly but accurately called a blend of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Get Carter” offers a particularly striking example of this method. In other words, contra Bazin, every moment of a film is a special effect, whether it uses a long, unbroken take with a stationary camera or the seamless eyeline matching of continuity editing.

Just as “Inception” ostensibly probed the microcosmic level of the unconscious, in which memories are nested like so many Russian dolls, (it’s memories all the way own, dearie) in search of some abiding emotional center, so “Interstellar” explores the macrocosmic labyrinth of the black hole. Ever since these hyperobjects, as my old prof Tim Morton dubs them, were discovered, black holes have exercised a fearsome grip on the imagination. They mark the limits of presence itself, since beyond the event horizon all matter ceases to exist. Their size, their power, their mystery, place them not so much on an astronomical scale, as on a quasi-theological one. A black hole is nearer to Meister Eckhart’s Godhead than anything in the measurable universe.

With “Interstellar,” Nolan has remade “Inception,” or revisited the same obsessions. Both films stage the rescue of an impossible lost love (whether wife or daughter); both are dependent for their resolution on a dazzling swirl of montage, a conjoining of unreachable, irreconcilable ends in the name of love, which exceeds its mortal boundaries to achieve a Dantean scale, a truly cosmic force. As Anne Hathaway’s passionate Dr. Brand puts it, “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Hathaway delivers her lines with great conviction and a rhetorical flourish that lends the scene a pseudo-scientific proof. Are we capable, in fact, of perceiving love as transcendent? Or is it just wishful thinking?

It’s a wonderful movie moment; it sweeps us up in her intensity. But it raises the eyebrows of every skeptic in the audience. What is love, one might say, but an ideology grafted onto a mammalian impulse? And how can it transcend space and time except through the perishable artifacts of art and memory? Nothing lasts. That might be the Nietzschean motto of art, could it speak for itself.

Before he heads out for the Great Unknown, Coop remarks that “Once you're a parent, you're the ghost of your children's future.” It’s an improbably grim, self-aware and melancholy observation to make, but no less true for that. This moment gains incredible poignancy once he’s gone through the wormhole to a distant a galaxy and falls afoul of relativity on Miller’s planet, where due to time dilation minutes equal years. The three astronauts (only two survive) get back to their orbiting ship to find that Donne’s exquisite line about “gold to airy thinness beat” might be a only a metaphor after all. Coop accesses his stored messages: all 23 years worth. Every single one of them is from his son (a minor, underdeveloped character). At the very last, a grown Murph comes on. She radiates a fierce recrimination that is an integral sign of her love for her father and her rage at his absence and betrayal. Coop’s emotional response is devastating. And this really is the heart of the film. The father’s grief and remorse visibly signifying the ineluctable alienation that time subducts us all into.

And yet, it all feels a bit of a cheat. Nolan creates the entire film as a way to take the hero (and us) into the impossible heart of the black hole. The ultimate unfilmmable event: like depicting infinity or the land of the dead. The whole point of the film is to demonstrate its own enormous cinematic ambition, to bring us into the tessellated layers of a montage-vertigo, just as “Inception” did. It’s all about the medium; about what film can accomplish; about representing the unrepresentable.

On the other hand, “Interstellar” is a meditation on how film can defeat time to achieve the triumph or reconciliation of love. Montage conquers time itself by splicing together disparate moments into coherent units of narrative. It’s an allegory about what art can do, about why we have art at all. That it’s awkward at points and sentimental; sometimes poorly plotted (the sequence with Matt Damon as the stranded astronaut could have been cut with no loss to story and a considerable gain in thematic unity) does little to detract from the force of its emotional thrust.

“Interstellar” is masterful, rather than a masterpiece. But its scenes of grandeur are so palpably rendered that we are carried along by their feckless surge. Part of Nolan’s aim, of course, is to out-Kubrick Kubrick: a hopeless task, but he gives it a good try. The movie’s most sublime scenes only call to mind “2001;” they don’t come close to surpassing it. Yet the same kind of imaginative daring is evident and that is thrilling in an era when clodhopper films like “Avatar” bludgeon us with “message.” The most intelligent SF has gone small – it’s all chamber drama: “Ex Machina,” “Her,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Arrival,” (which mixes cosmic awe with some truly uncanny aliens into its bittersweet time-loop redemption).

Nolan’s desire to reaffirm humanism, defined here by the persistence of human presence in an indifferent universe, is heroic, if naïve. His concept of mortality and love carry an earnest weight of melancholy. Yet the film wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In Nolan’s black hole mysticism, loss never really need be confronted because time always loops back around and our loved ones are never really lost. The sequence in which Coop enters the black hole tesseract to find himself in a bewildering Borgesian library of fractal infinity is beautiful, yet absurd. The scene is gorgeous but strains credulity. “I was your ghost,” Cooper tells Murph later. Nothing is ever really gone. If only.

Cross-cutting across the effects of time dilation Nolan conjures an impossible continuity between memory and desire, then and now, the living and the dead. This is the real meaning of the title, “Interstellar,” which seems to have baffled Vivian Sobchack’s otherwise penetrating essay in Film Comment. To be “interstellar” is to submit to time dilation. This may be the only film that’s ever dealt with, however mawkishly and unevenly, the ways in which Einstein undoes Proust. Immensity destroys intimacy (a theme tackled with great ingenuity and yes, humanistic affirmation, in Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”). Nolan probes the borders of these stakes, only to shy away from such an inhuman revelation. The film’s touching resolution is movingly affirmative. Coop bids farewell to an elderly Murph, then flies off to rejoin Brand. Love will keep us together. Ansible me, maybe.

The film took criticism from some quarters when it was released for what was perceived as climate change fatalism. Why make a film advocating the abandonment of the Earth in favor of some jazzy f/x? But these critics missed the point. What “Interstellar” offers is a rich, romantic vision of our longing for continuity and connection. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, it dares to uphold the idea that the flesh and the bonds which link us surpass the indifferent forces of the larger world we live in. If it fails, it’s because it can’t quite imagine how real loss compels us to build a future after trauma. It never shows us the enormous price paid for the Great Leap Forward. Instead, it posits that hoariest of Hollywood tropes: the happy reunion. The earth may shrivel into a dried out husk and brave men and women launch into the abyss on a quixotic quest to save it, but only by the magic of editing, not logic, do they overcome the odds in the end.

Nolan is a visually audacious filmmaker gifted with an overabundance of talent. He’s a classic case: someone whose vocabulary is in search of a sentiment. Even “Dunkirk” demonstrates this – a fabulous armature of equipment for expression but absolutely nothing to say beyond cliche – and Sobchack brilliantly gets to the heart of Nolan’s fixation with time, evident since his debut in “Memento,” when she writes that:

“Fully aware that cinema is, itself, a time machine, he has expanded—and compounded—the relativity of space-time and its effects by layering them in the multiple dimensions not only of Interstellar’s narrative but also of the film’s overall structure and its immersive mise en scène. Simultaneously, all three play out the tension between “intimate” and “exterior” space-time and, in the film’s moving final third, resolve—by unifying—their different immensities and seemingly incompatible values.”

And yet – relativity. Human value, human love, the entire scale of human social structure. None of it can survive relativistic effects. Another way of stating this, I suppose, is to simply say, that if you introduce relativity into your story, there can be no happy endings. One can only ponder how Kip Thorne’s input was considered then discarded in this regard. But while science has its own iron laws, a story must abide by a different set of formulae. “Interstellar” provides us with the essence of SF: it imparts a genuine sense of wonder. The images the film gives us are transfixing. They are not the story, but they do a kind of work that the story can’t.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE EXPANSE, or “Remember the Cant” (as in the nefariously destroyed ice hauler space ship, The Canterbury)

Finally catching up with the SyFy channel’s THE EXPANSE, which first aired in 2015, and is now available on Amazon Prime. I’m currently consuming about two a day, trying to pace myself – about halfway through at S2:E4. It’s easily the best serial SF drama since "Battlestar Galactica".

Unlike BSG, though, it’s committed to a hard SF realism. No FTL or jump drives. No vagaries about galactic coordinates. It all takes place in-system, on an interplanetary scale (distances which we still cannot begin to comprehend) between the Inner Planets and the Outer. And aside from a realistic storyline about space-faring Mormons, there’s no religious mumbo-jumbo, no poorly conceived red herrings about polytheism.

(I am reminded, however, of one of the Appendices to DUNE, where Frank Herbert, writing a future history, meditates on how actual interstellar travel would disrupt and remake religious belief. “The first space experiences, poorly communicated, and subject to extreme distortion, were a wild inducement to mystical speculation.”) For that matter Norman Mailer gets down to it in Of a Fire on the Moon. “It was conceivable that man was no longer ready to share the dread of the Lord.” Nevertheless, it’s good to recall that what made BSG great was the way it tackled terrorism, intolerance, class, genocide, and you know, the nature of humanity and all that shit.

"The Expanse" obviously borrows a great deal from Alfred Bester’s groundbreaking 1957 novel, "The Stars My Destination," which as all SF readers know, pointed the way for the New Wave and cyberpunk. Bester imagined a future world ruled by transnational and transplanetary corporations and indeed, the bad guys in The Expanse are a corporation called Protogen, a deliberate echo of the villainous power in Destination, the Presteign Corp. The elite badasses of the Martian Marines in the show are straight out of Bester’s Martian commandoes. Earth vs. Mars, vs. the Belt and the Outer Planets, ditto. There are other allusions and debts as well, ranging from PKD’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (the basis of both Total Recall movies, with their savage depictions of deep space miners as exploited proles), Heinlein’s "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (Luna to Terra: fuck off) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian Mars trilogy. There are even a few nods to Alastair Reynolds (for Fred Johnson, “Butcher of Anderson Station,” read Nevil Clavain, “Butcher of Tharsis” -- that’s on Mars, for you landlubbers).

"The Expanse" features any number of first-rate performers, including the wiry, jangly Thomas Jane as a somewhat shopworn noirish cop and the brash, sensual Dominique Tipper as a conflicted Belter named Naomi Nagata. Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal, is terrific as well: a true-born Martian of Middle Eastern descent who talks with a Southern drawl and is not only an ace gunship pilot but knows how to cook too. But it’s Shohreh Aghdashloo, the distinguished Iranian-American actress, who steals the show. There's more than a touch of Orientalism to her costuming. But she's a player whom the other players obviously respect and fear. And she gets shit done. In the role of Chrisjen Avasarala, an ambiguous Realpoiltik U.N. deputy under-secretary, she turns in the most layered and compelling performance of the series, as well as the sexiest. Her every appearance announces itself with a flourish of silent trumpets. She is stateliness itself, reader. Regal, imperious yet human and compassionate. Ruthless and cunning and almost telepathically brilliant in reading motive and trying to stop an interplanetary war. She out-Galadriels Galadriel and I could listen to her read the phone book all night, if they still made them.

"The Expanse" starts out trodding what feels like familiar ground, esp. in its Outer Belt settings. They owe a good deal to Paul Verhoven's set design for Mars in "Total Recall." But they are to a purpose: investing the viewer with care for each new character as they are introrduced as well as mapping the complex and treacherous political terrain of a 23rd Century that is a far cry from the utopian post-scarcity scenarios of "Star Trek" or Iain Banks' Culture novels. Gradually the political intrigue, noirish elements, and thrilling space battles are very quickly turned to fresh account. And as the mystery begins to unravel, we catch alluring glimpses of a very cool and very disturbing Novum: the alien or extra-solar MacGuffin called the protomolecule.

Before he died, Stephen Hawking, whom the world press tends to treat as some kind of cosmic savant, delivered a set of rather standard alarms about possible future hazards for our species that were treated as oracular pronouncements but are commonplaces for SF readers. One of them had to do with the necessity for humanity to extend itself beyond one planet, to colonize other planets and whole systems if it is to survive. But The Expanse, despite individual acts of heroism, shows just how vain and futile such a notion is. Putting Whitey, or anyone else for that matter, on Mars – on Ceres, on Titan, on Europa, on Proxima Centauri -- merely replicates the forces of enslavement and privilege that already dominate human history here on this planet. What good is reaching for the stars if all we do is spread our toxic brew of cruelty and dispossession across the incalculable reaches of deep space? Since SF has such strong roots in Utopian ideology, as Jameson has shown, one hopes that the series finale might offer some kind of transcendent outcome. Season 4 will be here soon. Stay tuned!

Post-script/spoiler alert!: having finally viewed all three seasons I can only reiterate my enthusiasm for "The Expanse." The momentum of the whole first 2 and a half seasons comes to a very satisfying climax in S3: E6, "Immolation." Jules Mao and his evil scientist brought to justice, along with the conniving Errinwright; Avasarala triumphant; and the greater purpose of the protomolecule revealed (or at least strongly hinted at). After that, the series pivots to a much vaster, well, expanse -- a nice nod to "2001" and seemingly galactic in scope. A bit of momentum is lost with a tedious revenge subplot, but no matter.

My pessimism about humanity acting as an interstellar virus is confirmed by James Holden's grim remark played with understated heroics by Steven Strait) that the protomolecule's evolution into a Stargate only invites "another blood stained gold rush." The final episodes give the beleaguered Belters, those gritty working class heroes, their moment in the spotlight. Esp. Cara Gee's slinky, stoic, cynical, but deeply loyal, Drummer, who emerges as one of the standouts in a cast that is remarkable for how many strong female characters it boasts. "Beltalowda!"