Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail

Derrida

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

“Until We Long for What We Have”: William Corbett’s Re-Enchantment of the Ordinary


William Corbett opens his marvelous book about the painter Albert York on an appealingly modest note: “York’s paintings are so clear, so able to speak for themselves, that writing about them can feel superfluous, if not rude.” But of course nothing can ever fully speak for itself. Especially the obvious. The visual is undergone first as experience, second as interpretation. And so it is with poems, especially those we love and come back to over and over.

For several decades now, Corbett has been one of our leading men of letters – the phrase itself has been rendered almost extinct in this age of ubiquitous bloggery and relentless peer-review – but I use it here to indicate a breadth of range and a fineness of attention that once upon a time was the norm, rather than the exception. As poet, essayist, memoirist, art critic, literary historian, publisher and tireless promoter of other writer’s work, Corbett is – yet ought not to be – sui generis. But even if the present time were more thickly populated by writers of comparable range, he would still be a force to be reckoned with, in a category of his own.

Yet you would never know it. He is all but ignored by the mainstream publishing industry and to his great credit he has never courted that kind of attention. Instead he has carved out his own dominion, guided only by his peerless discernment and an unstinting devotion to the art. (Here’s my disclosure: my chapbook, Antiphonal, was published in 2008 by Corbett’s Pressed Wafer. A year later, he officiated at my wedding. The chapbook is still available. The marriage, alas, is not).

Corbett’s affinities are bracing and wide: Schuyler and O’Hara; Oppen and Niedecker and Bunting; Williams, Creeley, and Heaney, all celebrants of the everyday, of lived experience, of the moment as it flickers and disappears before our startled and bemused gaze. In this sense, all poetry is elegy, because it testifies to the disappearance of a moment just after it’s appeared. Corbett’s other major vectors are painters: Philip Guston and York, to name just two. His eye is always alive to the possibilities of voice and inflection, line and form, color and tone, to “the music of what happens,” in Heaney’s celebrated phrase. What happens in a Corbett poem is the experience of the everyday rescued from penury – re-enchanted. Because “the everyday,” as the definitive category of common experience, is precisely that site where we feel at once most at home and most alienated.

This is, of course, the very definition of modernity, as documented by writers from Baudelaire to Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Frank O’Hara. Its focus is not the macro but the micro; the thousands of tiny, barely decipherable (if at all noticed) impingements on consciousness made by the 24-hour carnival that is life in the here-then-gone now. Benjamin, who perhaps more than anyone else, was the chief oracle of this momentous shift in human awareness, put it this way, when describing his massive and unfinished Arcades Project: “To detect the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, individual moment.” One word for what happens when the crystal shines brighter than “the total event” is poetry.

The everyday is what we take for granted, the unassuming substrate informing inner experience. It is not the medium we move through, though, so much as the medium which apprehends us, shaping and afflicting us in various and unpredictable ways. The moods, whims, obstacles, frustrations, and oddments of experience and memory, the present and the past, braid the nexus of the everyday. It is not, as the term might suggest, merely evanescent, something to undergo and shrug off, but weighted with its own history, its public ties and its secret affiliations. In a very real sense, the everyday is what comprises whatever we mean by identity – among others, and within our private rooms.

As Terry Eagleton observes, modern theories of aesthetics come in to being at precisely the time when philosophy first recognizes that some form of response to the lived experience of the body becomes necessary. This response encompasses “the whole of our sensate life together – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of what takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world.” The sensate life forms the core of Corbett’s poetry. What we do. What we see. What we think. How we move.

Lapidary style is a phrase overly invoked by reviewers. What they usually mean is a kind of bejeweled yet skeletal prose. But Corbett’s poems are ones in which all excess has been pared away. They don’t shine for their own sake nor do they ever call attention to themselves. Such gestures would be flagrant fouls against the fidelity of perception. Instead they provide an irresistible and lucent rhythm: one you fall into and follow along. His best poems possess the rarest of gifts: a deceptively diaristic picture of the seemingly natural flow of thoughts as they lead from one perception to another. In this, Corbett follows Charles Olson’s urgent admonition, but in Corbett’s work these perceptions don’t move among a disparate array of history, science and the local, but within the common bounds of a life. Carefully constellated, they give the reader an accomplished form of immediacy that is at once utterly modest and thrilling. Corbett has taken to heart Basil Bunting’s stark injunction: “Pens are too light. Take a chisel to write!”

“Walking Basil” (not the poet, but a dog presumably named after Bunting) exemplifies this. I quote from part of it:

It’s not that I
want to be the man
bent to a reading lamp
or the woman with
a phone to her ear
but want that world
of domestic light
and hearth-order
home from work to wine,
cooking smells and talk
of events, ordinary
and renewable daily.
A world always more
intense in passing
colors knit like
a lamplit Vuillard
because we eavesdrop
and are enchanted
until we long
for what we have.

In this poem, the need to belong to oneself turns outward to the greater need to belong to an intimate order. The “reading lamp” (by which this poem was, metaphorically, composed) can’t take the place of the “domestic light,” the site where the gaze is directed from the page to the beloved. In this way, the ordinary transcends its own confines, becoming re-enchanted, that is, remembered, if remembering can be thought of as a kind of eavesdropping on oneself: the experience of being both outside the self and inside, too.

Poetry must be bicameral, or not at all. The ordinary, for Corbett, is where we live our lives at their most prosaic and intense, amid “cooking smells and talk/of events.” This poem, one of Corbett’s most powerful, recognizes that the power of enchantment is not so much otherworldly, as rooted in the texture of the everyday. To long for what we already have may be the most complete enchantment there is.

John Ashbery famously described the subject of his poems as meditations on the “experience of experience.” The differences between the two poets are large and yet an apt description of Corbett’s work might claim it as “the process of experience.” The distinction, and it’s a major one, is that while Ashbery absorbs and recasts experience into a circumambient hall of mirrors, simultaneously opaque and transparent, his poems always seem to fall back into themselves; however much recognizable territory one of them takes in, it is, finally, centripetal.

In a Corbett poem, the impulse to connect thrusts outward from the interior to the social. Not that his poems are somehow bereft of interiority. On the contrary, an undertone of contemplative melancholy runs through his work, early and late. These are just a few examples, grabbed more or less at random from his New & Selected Poems:

Already fall’s harsher
light cuts blown
leaf shadows into
sharper patterns

from “September Song”

Unceasing crickets
hold my ear this
second with their
rachet, rachet.
Will the field
fill again with
grackles who hunt
and eat them?

from “Melancholy”

My eyes smart. Huge trucks
shift gears down the avenue,
roar off with loads of rubble.
Sitting here holding my breath
murmur of traffic overtakes my ears.

“When I Read John Wieners’ Selected Poems”

The abiding note here is plangent. “September Song” not only nods to Kurt Weill. It belongs to a tradition of English song that stretches back from Edward Thomas and A.E. Housman to Thomas Campion and Edmund Waller. Masters of melody, all.

Unlike Ashbery, Corbett doesn’t chase down the fallen Romantic idol of a once exalted symbolic order, not even one dismantled by gentle irony. Nature is no longer Baudelaire’s forest of symbols, but teeming with William Carlos Williams’ things. Though often thought of as a New York School poet, Boston chapter, Corbett’s vision is really an Objectivist one. In the words of Louis Zukofsky, he thinks with things as they exist, directing them along a line of melody, especially when those things are the processes of thought: memory and desire, regret and yearning.

This austere practice yields a powerful and often tender illumination. It is a wholly personal response to the world, grounded in what Zukofsky called sincerity: the refusal of an easy, inert subjectivity in favor of a constellation of words that remain faithful to the poet’s process of perception. There is never any straining in Corbett after metaphysical certainties. He belongs to an American tradition that emphasizes how the work of seeing forms the basis of the poet’s ethical contract with the world around him.

In this sense, Corbett’s poetics exemplifies what the film critic Manny Farber called “termite art,” work that tunnels through its own boundaries, constantly dissolving them, shucking off any claims to Major Significance, just following its nose through an endless warp and weave of tangled words and images. Pound founded his poetics on Aristotle’s metric for aesthetic genius: “swift perception of relations.” This is the key quality of Corbett’s poetry and while it may appear “natural” and effortless, it is the result of a painstakingly achieved form.

In 2011’s The Whalen Poem, which is probably Corbett’s most singular achievement, the movement of thought is brought to an acutely bracing pitch and tempo. As a testament of late work, it belongs to the modernist tradition of fragmented anthem and elegy: a kind of latter-day "Briggflatts," a summing up, or what Bunting called “spiritual autobiography,” an account of the inner landscape and its weathers. Whalen proves catalyzing for Corbett. On the back cover of The Whalen Poem, Corbett offers a simple account of his process:

"I spent the summer of 2007 reading the galleys of Philip Whalen's Collected Poems. I was in Vermont and had the leisure to read slowly, ten or so pages a day. About halfway through the master's poems I began to write THE WHALEN POEM. I kept at it until just after Halloween. No book I have written, poetry or prose, has given me the deep pleasure I felt in writing THE WHALEN POEM."

What he takes from Whalen is a more daring form of parataxis, or what Whalen himself described as “a picture or graph of the mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is a history … and you.”

It’s typical of Corbett’s generosity in what is his most achieved work that it bears the name of another poet. Poetry, for Corbett, is always a conversation. His readings – and he is one of the finest readers I’ve ever heard – testify to this: they are interwoven with poems from other poets, some well-known, some all but forgotten. The Whalen Poem gains its tremendous power from the variety of experience it takes in, the ways in which things are noticed and notated, and from its paratactical flow.

In a typical Corbett poem, the ordinary slips into the uncanny and back again with remarkable fluidity. In many ways, The Whalen Poem looks back to Corbett’s first book, Columbus Square Journal¸ from 1976. That book thrived on a combination of celerity via juxtaposition and witty discursiveness. To cite one brief example, from the poem “Valse Not”:

Transience of all things
mutability odes
ruins something any
thing two step.
In college
I had a teacher
he wrote a book
One Man’s Meter
he sang Keats to
“you’re the cream
in my coffee”
and advised me
“Read a good book
after dinner every night.”

This is not only an apercu on the canon and its secular Talmudists, but the whole tradition of scholarly transmission, filtered by way of Tin Pan Alley, and pulled off with amazing compression and ease. Like the man said: “Dichtung=condesare.”

In The Whalen Poem, this process is accelerated, raised to an even sharper pitch. The book begins by invoking Proust in a joke about modernism and what follows takes its cue from that: a search not just for lost time, but the time of the present, too, with all its flooding impressions, its ephemeral worries and urgencies, and amid these, its contingent and extensive joys. It’s also a damned funny poem:

Clyde B. Tolson gave birth
To J. Edgar Hoover’s lovechild,
A masculine one, Tom Ridge!

As a delightful riff on Luca Brasi’s wedding wish to Don Corleone, these three lines comprise a seemingly offhand, yet trenchant, critique of our current political crisis and its inbred corruption.

Throughout the shifts in tempo are audacious, yet never jarring, moving from playful anecdote (Corbett, Ron Loewinsohn, and Michael Palmer trying to steal Whalen’s absurdly over-priced On Bear’s Head from the Harvard Coop just after Nixon’s first electoral victory) to moving meditations on mortality and the wages of both poetry and living.

Bly saw in his empty shoes
Two open graves.
Melodramatic? Not when
You’re on the road.
Thomas died there drinking
Shots, eating candy bars.
Auden, too. Vienna hotel
Room after a reading
Broken by the mighty
Pull of poetry
And “the chemical life.”
Is there another world
Truer beyond personality
And real life where
Poetry’s mother lode dwells?
And who can square
I want nothing at all
With I want it all?

Characteristically, Corbett poses this grave spiritual dilemma in the form of a question, rather than presuming to offer an answer. As Frost knew, the mortal stakes of poetry is both a serious business and pure play. This small (yet enormous) gesture by itself defines a metaphysical compass. To think with things as they exist. To dwell with the problems as they exercise us. Corbett’s sympathy for another poet – Robert Bly, grown somewhat pontifical by the time he wrote The Man in the Black Coat Turns – is generous. In a single phrase – “not when you’re on the road” – he zeroes in on the displacement, the risk, the exile, that poetry so often inflicts on anyone foolish enough to take up its call.

In The Whalen Poem, such moments and details accumulate haphazardly, jostling up against one another: mortality, baseball stats, actors who’ve played Phillip Marlowe, a long account of an old war story told by his father’s oldest friend, dark musings on America’s wars, the sheer weight and evanescence of the quotidian – “Answered emails/Deleted spam/Paid AT&T bills” – all folded into a singular voice that seems to be now here, now nowhere, now everywhere at once, speaking to us in our own voice, if we could think with such speed and grace, addressing our concerns – about money, about phone calls, about meeting friends for drinks and the wages of a life spent devoted to writing poems.

All of these disparate things are linked together, not by narrative logic, but by an implicit faith that the trivial and the meaningful reside side by side in the mind; indeed, that sometimes the most trivial details are often the most meaningful – and vice-versa. That finally to make distinctions between the two is false—the ultimate instance of bad faith. Corbett finally is a pure phenomenologist. He takes things as they come, bracketing metaphysical speculation, in order to sing them along a line of melody. The act of perception is the meditation because when guided by melody it gives form to experience. The easy movement from one thing to the next is itself the most exact rendering of consciousness, its anxieties, its confusions, its appetites, its small, quickly vanquished, victories.

In The Whalen Poem, especially, an unhurried parataxis saves perception from the amnesia of the everyday by making the poem an experience of its own process. Not enshrined as an object of beatific contemplation but re-enchanted through a journey from immediacy to unselfconscious reflection: a sense of distances traveled measured against what’s been lost and what’s been retained. Corbett’s poetry continually moves inside this tension – between the now and the then – and breaks it down, turns it inside out, not to arrive at some impossible origin, but to undergo the process itself.

By eye, by ear
This field in front of me
Slopes to the lake
Looked at and over thousands of hours.
What do I see?
Goldenrod, white and purple asters –
It’s the last day of August –
Ferns brown and crisped,
Blackberry brambles, chokecherry,
Cattails, various nameless weeds,
Faded Joe Pye weed and aware
All I don’t see
What do I know?
Packing up to go home
Bucket of used-up inflatable kid toys
The field? Useless beauties
And discreet, will give up their secrets,
But not to me.

In this typically understated but mesmerizing pastoral interlude, the ordinary visible world induces an extraordinary humility. A scene seen many times is re-disclosed through a poetic gaze which finally must admit to knowing nothing but what little it’s able to take in. As the painter Frank Stella once quipped about his own work: “What you see is what you see.” But as with Stella, Corbett’s act of looking is not so much a call to minimalism as a rejection of abstraction and its metaphysical murkiness. “Don’t think: look,” is the title of one of Corbett’s books (the line is borrowed from Wittgenstein). He is not concerned with music for its own sake, or the vatic utterance that discloses the real to itself, ala Rilke. His poetics is rooted in an idea of language as a form of basic civility, an abiding faith in the poem as inherently social form of experience and cognition. The Whalen Poem closes with one of the most remarkable ends of any recent poem I can think of.

Is it possible
Emptiness has room
For all departure
& arrival?
Here’s a chocolate
Chip cookie bigger
Than your hand
Here’s another

Corbett dallies here with a question of perilously Rilkean import, though it also calls to mind Whalen’s lifelong practice as a Zen monk, who listened for the wavelength of emptiness. Yet as Corbett smartly comments on James Schuyler’s work: “Rilke believed in angels, that the real world is not here and now but in transcendent realms of the imagination he strove to enter. Poetry was one ladder and painting another. For Schuyler ordinary life is real life.” I’m not convinced this was what Rilke avowed. His angels may have appeared above the fray, but they deeply depended on the mortal and the fleeting, on that which dissolves, for their witnessing function. They are not Dantean at all, not confined to praising the eternal, but enmeshed with the real as much as we are. The current of eternity, Rilke’s word for the inner realm of the imaginal, is nothing unless it’s grounded here, in this world. There is only this life. There is no other.

Corbett’s response to the question he poses – is it a response? or simply a breathtaking and impeccable leap into the quandary of the transcendent? – is accomplished by an astonishingly deft shift in registers, from the formal language of his vatic query to the off-handed colloquial rejoinder. This shift offers a figure for the affirmative generosity of poetry itself, one that insists that the world is always more than what we think it is, and that the poem extends this promise by continually bringing us back into presence, to being alive, here and now, in a body.

This is the authority of poetry: to not only acknowledge our appetite for the sweetness and largesse of living, but to feed it. To say: here it is, take it. William Corbett’s work answers the question: what is art for? To praise. To acknowledge the pain of the passage so far. To say, this happened and it is still happening. And that that is all we may know of grace. Singular. Enchanted.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Memoriam Imre Kertesz


Perhaps what is most curious about Fateless, Imre Kertesz’s deadpan tour de force, is its insistence on the quotidian details of life in the camps, above all, on the purely subjective relationship to time as duration that the narrator, Georg, must adopt in order to survive. The novel’s minute, almost obsessive, and at times seemingly microscopic, but at any rate, purely local, devotion to the passage of time, to the deployment of one moment after another, in a strictly phenomenological way, not only accounts for the dry, almost austere, yet deeply compelling quality of a narrative determined to treat the worst sort of horrors; it also generates what might best be described as the outline for a rather startling species of clinical, situationist ethics.

Georg’s almost willfully indifferent, near-sublime, detachment from his surroundings, from his Jewishness, and finally from the notion of fate itself marks him initially as someone in the grip of the most profound alienation even before his arrival at Auschwitz. It is not mere adolescent anomie, however, but something more perturbing, and yet at the same, redemptive, if that is not too theological a term to use for a book so deliberately at pains to remove itself from even the hint of such attributions.

His stubborn persistence in not identifying himself as Jewish and his rejection by both Jews and his fellow Hungarians place him in a kind of ontological limbo which, far from being terrifying, actually endows him with a na├»ve resourcefulness nearly equal to his catastrophe. His assertion that “we ourselves are fate,” and his insistence that any moment could have brought about a change in conditions are expressions of a kind of instinctual messianism, one that is animated from the ceaseless and unpredictable recombination of events rather than through divine incursion.

Like Kafka, Georg’s secret is his avid embrace of a poetics of failure; a stance before events that does not inquire after a reason as to their cause, but only how best to get through them. This is fatelessness, and for Georg it is equivalent to a narrow, but nevertheless very real, form of freedom.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rachel Blau DuPlessis' "Graphic Novella"


Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ latest work, Graphic Novella, (Xexoxial Press, 2015) represents both a break from and a continuation of the work she began in her path breaking five volume long poem Drafts. Break, in the sense that new formal techniques are being explored; continuation because the key themes of Drafts are still in play, albeit in a more micrological vein.

In The Collage Poems of Drafts, an outlying, post-Drafts work, DuPlessis pushed into new territory, territory already implicit in the jagged jointures of Drafts. The Collage Poems (Salt, 2011) stakes its claims on our attentions through its enticing and uncanny melding of text and image, forging new collage-ideograms as part of its extra-verbal texture: a way to both embody the fullness of the word and at the same time, point beyond it.

Jack Spicer once wrote that a poem should be a “collage of the real.” “I would like to point to the real,” he remarked, “to disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” What’s missing from this mystical pop-Zen vision is that a poem is nothing, of course, without sound; indeed, a poem is in some ways nothing but sound. That is what constitutes the desideratum of its thingness, Spicer’s impatience with mimesis notwithstanding.

DuPlessis does not ignore this, even as she intervenes – cuts into – the word by way of the image. She, too, turns to the power of pointing, or rather, presenting clusters of images, not for commentary so much as a way to disrupt the intrigues of plot. The images offer a density not easily submitted to meaning. Rather, they are part of a plot for “cutting down the rays of the plot,” as she puts it. “Rewiring, rerouting, rewriting.”

The oversized format of Graphic Novella is designed to foreground both its amplitude and its skeletal anti-plot, which unfolds as a series of returns, re-visitations of past work and recursive reticulations of outrage and frustration against the systematic rendering of the subject’s increasing invisibility via the reifying properties of plot. Plot here might be understood more broadly as scheme, as in the universal scheme of capitalist culture to erase personhood. In contemplating the image of two Canon EOS 70 cameras (remember cameras?), the lower one inverted, DuPlessis writes:

The working conditions of being under the sun in the vast
and nimble spaces
of aggressive ruptures and attacks on civic coherence
are such that
cannot hold to one lens when the splay of directions
intensifies, when the twists of connection and misses get more grotesque
and garbled. As they do
round the clock. Insomniac almanac.

“Insomniac almanac” might serve as the motto for the 24/7 cyber-culture we live in now, with its ongoing destruction of time and solitude, a new kind of seasonal calendar in which all seasons are reduced to an empty sameness.

The poem-essay’s major tone is interrogative and in this it follows Drafts; the poem as inquiry and investigation into memory, cultural constructions of the self, and the possibilities of language to resist or unsettle such constructions. Graphic Novella undertakes a kind of auto-textual archaeology, exhuming the fragments, shards, and bones of abandoned writing and, by way of subjecting them to intimate scrutiny, re-constructing them, in whole or in part.

Arrests. Burn-out. Wrong decisions. Rectitude. Rigidity. Premature summaries. Presumptive entitlement. Loss of focus.

Has this begun? Well, a process is accelerating. Forget “art.” Paper scraps. Commodity pix. “Flat waste.” A few notes perhaps.

The sense of loss, of the struggle to reconnect with origins, or rather, beginnings, false starts, pervades this book-length poem. When is a start real and when does it fail its promise? This is the dilemma of every writer and DuPlessis has made it her central concern in this labyrinthine poem, privileging process over product.

“Forget art,” she admonishes herself and the reader. If you came looking for pretty here, you’re in the wrong place, bub, though many lines ring with a crystalline vibration. In the wasteland of commodity culture, the poet must become a bricoleur, focusing not on unified vision, but on the scraps and fragments left in that culture’s wake – a detective of the whole. This is the fate of late modernism. Shoring up is hard to do.

One gets the sense that in composing Graphic Novella DuPlessis created the collages first, then wrote her commentaries on them. This impression is reinforced by the book’s layout, with the images occupying the right-side pages and the text laid out on the left. If we were to think of this as a bilingual (bi-visual/textual) work, the relationship between the two would be that of collage cluster translating original text. Yet this isn’t quite right either. The poem forces us to read in reverse, as it were. And commentary is too blunt a term to describe the interaction and dynamic tension between word and image. It’s a more oblique, sidelong process – inviting and forcing the reader to take in the image first, then read the text, then turn back to the image, then re-read the text. The very acts of reading and seeing are thus the actual subject of the poem, an intricate mesh of post-mortems. Perhaps, the poem seems to suggest, all readings are post-mortem. But if they are, they are also resurrectional, a calling up of the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned, as a way to bear witness, or as DuPlessis wittily puts it “withnessing.”

The poem closes on a haunting provisional note: “looking for/a page that cannot be turned//because it is inside the page.” These lines are spread out between three mysterious photos of unknown strangers, dressed in their Sunday finest, gathered at some event decades ago. They stare back us as we stare at them. What is it that is inside the page, then? Not essence, not resolution, but the desire for another page. Each page has the potential to open a narrow messianic gate through which another word, another image, another page, might slip.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Ornette Coleman


Mourning Song
for Ornette Coleman

A song crowned of crows.
A fold of notes inside a rose.
Notes broken on the road.
White horn, hover lower.

Grammar of sound
sung a crow tone low.
Broken vowels hovering
above the horn’s road.

Over a field a lone
crow flies low.
Song not gone.
Song still blown.

Horn’s tones
at dusk blow
shelter from the rust.
Each note a road.

No compass
of chords. Only
horn’s ache.
A crow moon aloft, forlorn.

Go with a stone’s throw.
A "moment’s gnosis"
making prayer
from dark chords.

There is a law in what I play.
The shape of chords to come.
Earth horn re-homed.
A white horn blows alone.

Under low stone
deep groan of horn.
A chord is nothing
but the sound of a man.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Robert Adamson's "Net Needle"


Australian poet Robert Adamson’s work is nowhere near as well recognized in America as it deserves to be. The author of twenty books, beginning with 1970’s Canticles on the Skin, and including most recently The Goldfinches of Baghdad, The Kingfisher’s Soul, and Reading the River: Selected Poems, he has also won every literary award his country can bestow on a poet, among them the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and The Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (also published by Flood).

Adamson came up the hard way, through a school of brute knocks, spending many of his teenage years incarcerated (as related in his powerful memoir Inside Out). It was in Long Bay Penitentiary he first discovered the works of Shelley and fomented the audacious desire to become a poet. Later, he found Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and in time became friends with both Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley (his poem to the latter, “Inside Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems,” from The Kingfisher’s Soul, is essential reading). This led to both poets traveling to Australia for memorable events. Duncan’s visit inspired an entire chapter, “Eros,” in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello.

These singular acts of generosity mark Adamson’s own work as well. His poems sustain themselves on a remarkable wavelength of deep receptivity to what Duncan called “the ability to respond.” For over 40 years now, Adamson has been writing incredibly supple lyrics whose investments in the romantic imagination are perfectly balanced by the precision of his investigative focus on both the inner world of memory and desire and the outer realm’s thrilling ornithological kaleidoscope.

Net Needle, his newest book, is a work of extraordinary vibrancy. A mixture of autobiographical recollections from Adamson’s youth – moments from prison, learning the craft of net making from the local fishermen – along with powerful “versions” of celebrated European masters like Trakl, Reverdy, and Rimbaud, and a continuation of his life-long attentions to the fantastic birds of Australia, these poems hum with a precise music. I don’t think I’ve read another poet so intimately attuned to the ways of the avian. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental in these highly detailed accounts of birds, no reducing them to symbols of human ambition and failure. They live their own enigmatic lives in Net Needle, as in “Harsh Song”:

Afternoon’s
pulse,
a feathery
sussuration –
half song,
soft
leather
ratchet, or
breath
forced
through
a snake’s
throat
across
the roof
of its
raked
mouth –
whispered
sounds,
a smoker’s
thick
exhalation –
bowerbirds
in the grapevine.

The delicacy here, the astonishing discretion, owes something to William Carlos Williams, perhaps, but is entirely its own, fully realized and miraculous. Because discretion lies at the heart of witnessing, as the poet knows. And in Adamson’s poems, nature’s mysteries are never forced into the open, never uncovered by a pile-on of qualifiers; rather, they come into being through a form of intense attention. To enter into, rather than unmask, the flight of the kingfisher, or the kookaburra catching snakes, is the poem’s desire. These acts of poetic restoration occur on a small scale, but generate an enormous and enlivening eco-poetic charge, one that places Adamson squarely in the company of John Clare, Lorine Niedecker, and W.S. Graham.

Adamson is never vatic, though. His concentrated gaze condenses from myriad details an uncanny and beautifully faithful image of how all these things vibrate and flow. Not mere images then, but the procession itself, these poems offer a marvelous lightness and ease of perception. They seem to float alongside as well as within their subjects, joining language to vision.

Net Needle weaves together a luminous directness with a hard won simplicity. It gives us the very grain of the English language, its exacting measures, its eschewal of adornment, its rhythm that is also a way of seeing, as Zukofsky knew. For longtime readers of Adamson’s work, the re-lineation of “The Kingfisher’s Soul” will delight and move. The poem has opened out. Can a kingfisher have a soul? Or rather, is the soul a kind of kingfisher, diving fiercely above the river, a missile of incarnate desire, a ravenous muscle that drives bright plumage into flight, into love?

In the old days I used to think art
That was purely imagined could fly higher

Than anything real. Now I feel a small fluttering
Bird in my own pulse, a connection to the sky.
Back then a part of me was only half alive:

The poems in Net Needle are so fully alive they fly off the page. And some of them, like “Net Maker” and “Spinoza,” are as perfect as any I have ever read. What is a “net needle’? Simply a device for repairing a fishing net.

Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell ...

they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,

or had lost

Whether loved or lost, the net re-gathers it, without judgment. The net is woven to sift everything and cherish it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Work Isn't: On Philip Levine


Philip Levine’s death last week has prompted, for a poet, that is, an unusual number of public tributes. I’ve read several in the NY Times and heard two separate eulogies on NPR. My pal Robert Archambeau has written a very eloquent elegy for Levine at his blog. All fine and well, but neither Mark Strand nor Allen Grossman, both of whom died last year and both indisputably finer poets than Levine, received this kind of attention on their passing. Of the three of these, Grossman was the Master. But his work is difficult, full of gnostic intricacies, compared to Levine’s prosaic banality and sentimentality. The poet of work, he’s been called, for mining a brief period of time in his life, before he spent over 30 years teaching.

Of course teaching is work and hard work, too, if very different. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two I did my share of hard labor on shop floors, on assembly lines, in a shipyard and a paint factory and behind broiling friers. So I know what “work” is. I also know the kind of work that involves long hours spent behind a desk, grading papers, analyzing insurance data, writing code, or reading screenplays. For Levine work seems to take place only in an industrial sphere. It’s the work only men do. Or used to. Is there any mention of the domestic labor women have done for ages in a Levine poem? I’d like to know, sincerely, but I seem to have sold off all his books, alas.

Radio producers and journalists know a meme when they see one: here’s a poet who wrote about work – the idol before which all Americans bow down to and worship – and he wrote about it in simple, straightforward language. He wrote about it in a way that elevated the worker and praised him for his stoicism and his wounds. He wrote about it in a way that was not too far removed from a WPA or WWII propaganda pamphlet. “Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?” He wrote about the alienation and suffering of a certain kind of work – labor in Detroit’s car plants, shop floor environments my father and his friends worked on – and he wrote about it with a certain pathos but without ever managing somehow to offer any powerful criticism of the forces that kept this system in place.

When Levine’s The Simple Truth came out in 1995, I gave it a glowing review, comparing him, grandiosely, absurdly, to Francois Villon, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet. This gaseous praise merited a prickly letter to the editor from Anselm Hollo and marked the beginning of our friendship, along with a transformation of my views about what poetry is. Which became for me a different kind of work than what Levine undertook.

Marjorie Perloff is still right. Levine represents Exhibit A in how experience gets ground into poetry through the most simplistic formula. A string of descriptive anecdotes rounded out by an epiphany? At least, that’s how I remember her famous and very accurate put-down, How can a poet claim to write about work and not critique the system that enslaves men and women everywhere? Jeremy Prynne, for all his bristling apostasy and hermeneutical obscurity, is a greater poet of “work” than Phillip Levine ever was. Because Levine, finally, was not a poet of ideas – a notion he would no doubt gladly ascribe too. His own work ethic blinded him to the reality of work.

His famous poem “What Work Is” is not about work as such, but a valentine to his brother, an aspiring opera singer. There’s some overcooked irony about a Jew wanting to sing Wagner in it, too, but finally it’s a poem about discipline and aspiration rather than work. A poem about wanting to escape the jail of work for the freedom of art. The scandal of Philip Levine – and the reason for his lionization – is that he has no clue what work is. To read a Levine poem about work gives one the impression that workers suffer because of mysterious unnamed forces or mere human malice and caprice. Work degrades the soul, demeans the person, exhausts the body. That’s what work is. Levine gets part of that right -- how work strips a person of their dignity -- but has no idea and has never bothered to ponder why work is. This failure to probe deeper mars his late poetry considerably, yet has managed to endear him to many readers. Still, in his early work, in books like Names of the Lost, for instance, he was capable of striking a powerful and elegaic tone.

Post-script: after further reflection and reading some thoughtful comments by readers of this post on Facebook I've toned down the rhetoric in this entry, which was needlessly harsh, and revised it somewhat. My overall point is not to castigate Levine for bad poetry -- though his late work does suffer from mannerism -- but rather a kind of bad faith. If the subject of a poem about the travails of work only portrays its sufferers as downtrodden figures deserving of our sympathy, without condemning the system that produces that suffering then these figures become mere fetishes, stand-ins for dishonest emotion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Remembering Anselm Hollo


Homage to the Raven
i.m. Anselm Hollo

“And now what time is it”?
asks the raven at the end
of the world.

Time to get with the program!

Here on planet Earth
the program demands
we transmit every message
through the fraying vocab
for belonging.

But look, says the raven.
I, too, am frayed.
Fading into the inky
blackness of my wings
where song is a structure
for the ruins of time

my croak a kind of white
melody ascendant
the spiral glyph of M31
its arms of light
a cosmic call sign
flashing plenitude
& emptiness.

“Like Marx or Helen’s ankles
at the gates of dusk”
quoth the raven.

Adios, all you “guests of space”
soon to be remanded
to an infinity of un-
troubled dust.

But my poems refuse
to get with the program.
They will destroy
entropy forever.

from SONG X, Talisman House, 2014
first pub. in SPOKE 2.1 (2014)