Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Trouble with Masculinity, or, Recent Movies

On Late Stallone

The pseudo-melancholy of late Stallone in recent films like The Expendables and Escape Plan points to a shift in how aging American masculinity is represented on the screen these days. Where Sly used to stand as an exemplar of the Reagan era “hard body,” as Susan Jeffords put it, he has now cannily reinvented himself as a new kind of iconic figurehead – the aging hero, battered by loss, yet still determinedly loyal to his comrades and his code, fighting the good fight against insuperable odds or a corrupt system or regime. Physically he has become even more beautiful, that is, more ugly and battered. The voice has dropped even lower – every word is uttered basso profundo, as though he had found a way to reduce the Book of Genesis to the intonation of a few monosyllables. Stallone’s perpetual hangdog features – the drooping eyelids, surrounded by scar tissue (real or make up?), the thick sensual mouth, often wrapped around a cigar – have become exaggerated with age and signify a comfortably if grotesquely nostalgic view of American manhood post-9/11. He no longer asserts his dominance directly, but instead asks us to take him in, a stray dog buffeted about by the radical changes to the cultural status of maleness. “Save the Dinosaurs” might be his bumper sticker. His leathery carapace acts as a kind of armor – both deflecting danger and making him, by dint of all his wrinkles, even more vulnerable. Poor Sly – always so forlorn and laconic.

In these late films he has come into his perverse own as an exemplar of minimalism. Not unlike two other genuine masters of acting minimalism in cinema, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, he has found a way to turn his liabilities as an actor into his greatest asset. Rocky and Rambo were figures whose besieged grandeur derived from how the system they trusted in betrayed them. This is the core of the Stallone brand and he has figured out how to keep selling this decayed aura through the current form of weak cultural anxieties. But the real genius of Sylvester Stallone is that he has become the high priest presiding over his own funeral. The Expendables is a plea for the utterly dispensable.

The New Robocop

The new Robocop lacks the razor-sharp satirical edge that made Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film such a delight. It also lacks the pathos. In the original Robocop Murphy, as he begins to reclaim his humanity, finds himself devastated and utterly alone, his wife and son having been told he’s dead. His predicament is more than one of the usual anti-hero’s existential alienation – having lost both his family and his very body he’s condemned to a posthumous existence. He is a man who has outlived himself.

The new Robocop, rather absurdly, yet cunningly, places family at its emotional center. Instead of recoiling in horror from what her husband has become – a mere stand-in for himself, a grotesque remnant, straight out of a horror film – the wife (played by Abbie Cornish of the appealing, defiantly upturned nose) adopts a fiercely loyal “stand by your man” attitude. What’s compelling about this approach is that the idea of Robocop has been made over into a rather effective allegory about returning vets who’ve undergone traumatic injury or prosthetic surgery in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a palliative Robocop. It offers the impossible dream of redeeming both the shattered body and the families who have been broken apart by ten years of useless war in the Middle East.

This is emphasized in two key scenes: the first, before we even see the unveiled (and grossly dismembered) Robocop, who is now little more than a head and a pair of lungs, is set in a clinic where a guitarist with a prosthetic hand magically learns how to play again (the music is Joaqin Rodrigo’s “Concierto for Aranjuez,” a clear signal to NPR-liberals). The second takes place in the closing shot of the film, where the reunited family stands resolutely inside their doorway as the camera dollies back, standing tall together, come what may, even though the hero/father is permanently maimed, imprisoned in a monstrous metal body, incapable of anything but feeling the harrowing absence of human touch.

The romantic appeal of the new Robocop is that no matter the damage inflicted by trauma, by the state, by technology, by the colonization of the body, there remains some spark of soul and humanity that cannot be subdued. This is the stuff of Hollywood and humanist dreams. Spirit will always triumph over fate. But as Jake Barnes more astutely surmises at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Monday, September 1, 2014

SONG X: New and Selected Poems

I'm very pleased to announce the publication of SONG X: New and Selected Poems, just out from Talisman House Publishers. SONG X collects work from seven previous books and chapbooks and one artist's book, co-produced with Charles Alexander and Cynthia Miller and released in a very limited edition. With the earliest poems dating from the mid-90s, SONG X gathers over twenty years of work, much of it in the tradition of the gnostic postmodernist lyric, from books that are either out of print or hard to find. It also includes a generous offering of new poems.

"I hear the motion in these stirring poems as radiant spans of thought, 'the Auto-Graphic gesture of becoming.' A reader will experience the recurrence of a most ancient way of being lost, a world stranger, a visitor here, an X who travels in one long single take. For Pritchett, the word is the sign of a divine spark that must be continually fueled by more thought. Not cinematic: secret. The poems unveil an orange glow behind loneliness, a color beyond erasure." --Fanny Howe

"Patrick Pritchett's Song X takes its title from the classic free jazz album by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman. And like the music on that album, Pritchett's poetry seeks to wrest itself from the inherent materiality of its making so that it may achieve an impossibly pure spirit of lyricism. As the poet declares, 'this is the beauty that smites the city,' a visionary assault that comes 'In the asterisk that occludes or names each event.' Song X contains a generous selection from Pritchett's earlier collections, including Burn, his daring 'doxology' on the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, and Gnostic Frequencies, a work that as clearly reveals the antinomian and acosmic impulses that are shaking up contemporary American poetry as any I might name. To read Pritchett is to walk upon 'the ground / that undescribes you.' And that is holy ground." --Norman Finkelstein

"Patrick Pritchett is an exceptional poet. His revelatory Song X is a gift of life and years and gives up many joys and lived private truth. He is not afraid of beauty and its formal intellect in the estate of song. It's great to have this essential gathering of his work, it's a great book." --Peter Gizzi

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On "Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke"

David Need's masterful translations of Rilke's late work in French are now available in an exquisite edition from David Wofford's Horse & Buggy Press. The artist Clare Johnson has produced a series of interstitial, stand-alone ink drawings which add a whole new dimension to the poems and Need has provided a beautiful autobiographical meditation on what Rilke means to him -- and us -- as an afterword. This is one of the most sensual books, in every sense -- spiritual, erotic, and tactile -- that I've come upon in some time. I'm delighted to have been asked to contribute, along with Joe Donahue, a blurb, which you can read below. It's also a substantial contribution to the vast body of Rilke scholarship and translations in English.

"Rilke sang of actual roses, the tangible incarnadine flower, not some abstract Platonic ideal. In these intimate and luminous translations from his post-Elegies work, written in French, David Need rescues Rilke from the cult of New Age positivism, restoring his uncanny mystery, his harrowing commitment to dwell along the perilous and empowering borderline between inner necessity and a manufactured world of dead objects. The realm of Rilke’s roses is chthonic and immanent. All aperture and cusp, fold and further fold, the flesh of the rose’s petals permits both a bantering playfulness and the most profound experience of evanescence and fragility. Because they die into themselves each day, Rilke’s roses are always undergoing loss and transformation; they are his highest allegories for praise and finitude, Orpheus and Eurydice conjoined. In the classic Rilkean gesture, they are always departing, always arriving – the impossible moment of plenitude and emptiness, Celan’s niemandsrose – the poem that knows itself by knowing no one. Or as Rilke has it: 'no one’s sleep beneath so many lids…'"

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Blunt Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow – a highly entertaining if overlong mix of preposterous metaphysics and uber-meta-cinematic technique – is when, all is said and done, the most elaborate cute-meet and courtship film perhaps ever made. It’s also a movie about how a novice version of Tom Cruise, wimpy and unsure of himself, learns how to become the unstoppable professionalized Tom Cruise. In other words, a kind of boot camp for stardom.

The logic of the film is the Mulligan – a golfer's series of endless do-overs. (I should know; once reader, I did golf. Badly). This produces a kind of philosophical slapstick that is very amusing and a subtle if not sufficiently elaborated critique of the working of capital and everyday life. You have to wake up. You have to go to work. There's always some guy yelling at you to pick up the pace. Repetition, as Adorno might say, is the lynchpin of capital, the human body reduced to a machine performing the same tasks over and over.

Cinematicaly, it works because it’s entirely consistent with, indeed, evolves out of the principles of montage. A logical inference of causation or association is established by simply cutting from one image/scene to a parallel one. The audience fills in the gaps. The gaps -- both cinematic as well as narrative -- consist of jumps in time. The script is smartly constructed; as Richard Brody remarks, it's "Groundhog Day meets Saving Private Ryan" (which is probably just how it was pitched, I imagine).

Brody is right, too, when he points out that Doug Liman, the director, missed a chance to explore the script's implications of a truly harrowing existential crisis: what it means for a person to become unstuck in time, ala Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, or Traven in Ballard's "Terminal Beach." Pilgrim's journey becomes a martyr's progress, but Traven grows deranged. Cage's name indicates his predicament: the trap of endless resurrection, which is also the dilemma Stanislav Lem (as well as Soderbergh) investigates in Solaris. Instead, Edge of Tomorrow is content to revel in its nested doll/maze-like plot about continual reiteration. This is the logic of FPS games. But it also mimics the film production process -- next take, better take/fix it in post -- and indeed, the marauding aliens are called, for reasons that go unexplained, "Mimics."

But the end result of repelling the alien invasion and its lotus-like hive mind, glowing beautifully at the bottom of a flooded Louvre like a mammoth Damien Hirst installation, is only to serve as prelude for Cruise’s na├»ve, shirking Major Cage to learn how to become a fitting match for the Angel of Verdun AKA Full Metal Bitch, played with cut-throat aplomb and glistening deltoids by Emily Blunt, a blue-eyed beauty who suffers no fools as she wields an enormous carbon-fiber blade like some avenging Valkyrie. "The Angel of Verdun," of course, is a famous sculpture by Rodin which, if memory serves, Geoff Dyer writes about in his wonderful book on World War I memorials, "The Missing of the Somme." So "Edge" is also a film about star-crossed lovers and destiny and all that rot. To win the war, the hero must learn how to win the heroine. The rest is not silence, but explosion.

The credit music for Edge of Tomorrow should have been Chrissie Hynde's sardonic "Like in the Movies," (from Stockholm): "the audience goes home satisfied/because nobody really died." I went home satisfied, in a Hollywood popcorn sort of way, even though the film annoyed me no end. It's impossible not to compare this film to Cruise's last SF outing, the vastly inferior "Oblivion." Both hinge on replicating the hero through multiple iterations; "Oblivion," via clones, in "Edge," through constant re-births. Has Tom Cruise (who's better here than he has been in a long time) acquired some kind of ironic distance on his own image, offering us a commentary on stardom's emptiness? Or has his vanity metastasized, achieving some kind of infernal Omega Point of the image, disappearing up its own fundament?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

For Allen Grossman

Sad news today from Norman Finkelstein: Allen Grossman (1932-2014) has died.

I don't remember how I first came across "The Ether Dome." But its extraordinary mixture of melancholy and the prophetic voice mesmerized me. Here was a poet who defied the trends of the post avant-garde by unapologetically owning the obligations of High Modernism, yet who also seemed unclassifiable, embracing the vatic visionary mode in an era drunk on shallow irony. His work was both sublime, heated by the hellish furnace of history, and at the same time risked a raw sentimentality that somehow always felt earned.

My professor at Colorado, Jeffrey Robinson, first introduced me to Grossman's magnificent and bewildering manifesto, "The Sighted Singer" (he'd studied with Grossman at Brandeis). Grossman's sheer generosity to the idea of poetic voice, articulated so precisely and humanely, astonished me. Though I recall being deeply annoyed by his praise for Elizabeth Bishop and his complete ignorance of Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedekcer. Well, "nobody's perfect."

Grossman was unabashedly hieratic. His great gift -- maybe his greatest? - was the way in which he acknowledged and honored our mortality. He was a poet of tremendous humility. A poem was a field charged with eros and with the sadness of its own fragility. Out of this came work of the highest lyricism:

"Stars are tears falling with the light inside.
In the moon, they say, is a sea of tears.
It is well known that the wind weeps.
The lapse of all streams is a form of weeping,
And the heaving swell of the sea."

from "The Woman on The Bridge Over the Chicago River"

And here is the galvanizing first sentence of "The Sighted Singer," brimming with the challenge of futility and transcendence.

"Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing."

What else can one add?

Here's my hasty, off-the-cuff elegy. Logos is cultural, and therefore, transient. But poetry, poetry, one hopes, goes on to infinity...

The Broken Tower
i.m. Allen Grossman


How we lived
how we bathed
how we wept

outside the homes
for our own
lost names?

A name is a cloud.
It burns
its own grave.

Someone said
“rain.” Someone
said this rhyme

means pain
except that in song
it lifts us

& we stand
outside time
laved by the light

the impossible

There is no
outside nor any
inside either.

Only the stellar
dust that makes
of the Void

a body and from
a body's garments

What song is this?
If I forget thee, O
my vanishing

then what song is this?
To become the green
doom of pastoral

on the bridge of the Messiah?
To insist that
the poem breathe?

There is no word
for death because every
word kneels before

its open grave.
Pray to the amen
that no one says.

Outis, Shalom.
The word for hope
is bridge or nothing.

Passage to a book
made by dust
to be read by dust.

Remember this.
How words are dust
without any end.

There is no end
but what dust will whisper.
Begotten and forgotten.

Murmured without
end. Murmured without

Monday, June 16, 2014

Will the Real Poet Laureate Please Sit Down?

The Library of Congress has recently announced that Charles Wright, 78, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, has just been appointed our newest poet laureate. Quoted in the NY Times, Wright seemed a bit dazed and confused – and yet disarmingly spot on. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do!” But like a good American, once he’s told, he’ll do it, he says. He raises a good question, though. What “is” a poet laureate?

Fortunately, I think I have an answer. And it’s not good. The office of the American poet laureate is an evil plot to pervert poetry. It's like when the GI Joes are betrayed by their own President, who secretly works for Cobra, and must turn to Bruce Willis for salvation. In this case, Bruce Willis is played by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein once and for all hilariously skewered the sanctification of poetry in his brief essay, “Against National Poetry Month as Such.”

Not to get all self-righteous, but poetry is not like vitamins, it should go without saying. Poetry is, um, like thinking: it’s dangerous. Or as Camus once put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Robert Kaufman put it best when he described poetry's job as one of making "thinking sing and singing think."

But more than that, the idea of an office for an American laureate epitomizes a certain hubris: it's symptomatic of the desire of empire to suborn all cultural production to its cause.

Now it’s not that Charles Wright is a bad poet. Far from it. Though when it comes to the laureateship, good or bad has nothing to do with it. Twenty years ago or so, when I was first learning my craft as a poet, I found Wright inspirational. He’d absorbed both Pound’s tessellated lines and Montale’s wry irony and combined them into something powerful by drawing on his Appalachian heritage. But what started out as distinctive and new soon decayed into mannerism. In a word, he became soporific. For some years now, a Wright poem has pretty much had the same effect as a shot of Nyquil. I'm sure Wright himself is a charming affable fellow and his work in "Black Zodiac" remains powerful for me. My point here is not to run down Wright or any previous laureate - even though I can't help but fantasize would it might be like if say, Anne Waldman was named to the post. The thing is, Anne Waldman already is our poet laureate and has been for some time now. Which is kind of my point here.

My problem is with the whole idea of the office itself. In the 90s, Robert Archambeau wittily satirized the post of the Poet Laureate by calling for the installation of an “anti-laureate.” He nominated instead my old friend and mentor Anselm Hollo and the choice could not have been better made. Anselm went in abhorrence of prestige, of officialdom, of baboonery. He was the most learned man I ever met. But he was also the most gracious and down to earth. His hearty laugh punctured every pretension.

Way back in 1989, when I was just a wee sprite tilting at windmills, and before I'd ever met Anselm, I wrote a half-cocked, spirited polemic against the Poet Laureate post in a little journal I was editing. About six people read it. I offer it here as an appendix, for what it’s worth.


Poetry’s place in the public eye has never been an easy one to define. Since the time of Socrates’ interrogation of the supercilious Ion, poets have been viewed by most of the general public somewhat askance, as if metaphysically suspect, or worse, ungainfully employed. Plato was never shrewder, or closer to Stalinism, when he declared that the ideal state, in order to function smoothly, i.e. without dissent, should run all the poets out of town. Kierkegaard summed up the situation with his customary sting: “And men crowd about the poet and say to him, ‘Sing for us soon again’— which is as much to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful.’”

Recently, Congress has experienced a yen for such “music” and to that end has created, through its Library, the post of poet laureate. This position grew out of an older one: Consultant to the LOC. The laureate stands in relation to poetry as the Doric columns of Washington stand in relation to some marmoreal ideal of Western cultural glory. While the intention to honor poetry’s role in American life is laudable enough, this act seems little more than window dressing. It is inconsistent, to say the least, with America’s strong individualist and populist traditions. What would Whitman say?

Curiously, we never seemed to need a laureate until the Reagan Administration, steeped in a faux populism concealing a latent royalism, took office. As with so many other brainchildren of that Presidency, this one, too, reeks with the nostalgia for Empire that has been legitimized into an agenda. With the right hand, the State makes provisions for an official wreath in the Muse’s name; with the left it reduces drastically the already feeble budget it has grudgingly allotted to the arts.

The idea of a laureate invokes a less complicated time, when poetry could be yoked to political ends without thought for what was said by the poet, or what the government did. Tennyson wrote a coded critique of the British involvement in Crimea. But Richard Wilbur, who served an abbreviated term as our second laureate, produced nothing more than the dismal cantata “On Freedom’s Ground,” a work quite inferior for a poet of his stature and a far cry from his earlier “Speech For The Repeal Of The McCarran Act.”

It is frankly embarrassing for poetry when one considers that the commissioning of this poem coincides roughly with the drafting of white papers by the State Department for the invasion of Nicaragua. Yet Wilbur is hardly to blame since the poet is no more privy to the machinations of State than any other citizen. The laureate’s post should be abandoned for no other reason than this, as it forces poets to assume the awkward onus of complicity with government policy. Moreover, the requirements of producing occasional verse are seldom conducive to a poet’s writing at his or her best level.

The truth is we need a poet laureate the way we need a Miss America.

Or as Derek Walcott put it in his interview with Bill Moyers on “A World Of Ideas”: “One of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire.” This being the case, we must carry, in Walcott’s phrase, “the responsibility of empire.” American poets have been slow to respond to this challenge, despite the outstanding example of a small group of them during the Vietnam War.

What Walcott was getting at is what most poets [even Charles Wright] have always known all along. Political language mutilates meaning. It suffers drastically from rhetorical and ideological dislocation. Reagan has called the MX missile, capable of killing millions, “the Peacekeeper.” George Bush, we know, is seemingly unable to utter a complete sentence in ordinary conversation. His fractured syntax only too well represents the disjointedness of our leadership.

Poetry, despite the cynicism of Auden, who realized what Oppen had already figured out, that poetry can make nothing happen because it is not and can never be the language of policy, nevertheless can play a decisive role in the rejuvenation of language. It can rescue it from untruth because it can name things otherwise.

The only laureate is the one with no name.

Monday, May 26, 2014

O, Godzilla!

The new "Godzilla" offers all the pleasures and warnings which the old Godzilla offered, spun neatly to speak to the same concerns and anxieties that drove the original: atomic energy and the environment. Yet it turns out to be not so much a parable about eco-crisis, but another recruitment film for the Armed Forces. Godzilla 2014 is deeply suffused (is that the right word?) by images of military competence. Men in camo running around urgently speaking the language of “sitrep,” which in Hollywood parlance has become the new “we’ve got a situation here.” But “Godzilla” is not quite so obvious or egregious as “Battleground LA.” It’s not just another allegory about Iraqistan, even if some of the most impressive shots are ones where giant naval warships flank Godzilla’s even more enormous dorsal sails as though it were the latest weapon in some bizarre biogenetic arsenal. This odd alliance – American naval might with an ancient alpha predator – manages to both deplore and celebrate post-9/11 American hegemony.

The director, Gareth Edwards, pays homage to the original in other ways by returning Godzilla to his ponderous suitmation-style, digitally rendered of course, but its lumbering movements make it appear both more organic and vulnerable to the attacks of the MUTOs, which themselves are nice nods to the King of the Monster’s old foes like Mothra and Rhodan. There’s a weird pleasure to be had, too, in watching superb actors like Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Sally Hawkins gape in simple astonishment or horror at green screen spectacle. It’s like being present at a master actor’s workshop. Their reaction shots show that the greatest cinematic special effect is still the close up.

There are, for a summer blockbuster about colossal scale, moments of odd grace. Juliette Binoche is one of them, of course, but she dies in a noble self-sacrifice before the end of the first act and it's our loss. It’s in the third act that Edwards stages something very unusual for a disaster film. In the midst of the carnage the monsters inflict on San Francisco (for once, New York is not the target) an elite squad of soldiers performs a HALO drop. As they fall in slow-motion through a burning sky the camera cuts to a long shot – tiny specks hurtling down through fire and smoke – accompanied by Ligeti’s “Lux Eterna.” It’s another homage, of course, to a master even greater than Godzilla. Startling and eerie, it’s as though the film jump-cut from blockbuster to art house – a moment of pure audiovisual beauty. No monsters. Just a very lovely end of the world.