Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

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 and the brash, sensual Dominique Tipper. 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 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. But 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!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


ORPHIC NOISE, my fourth full-length collection of poems, is now out from the inestimable Dos Madres Press, whose husband and wife publishing team, Robert and Elizabeth Murphy, have made a truly beautiful book.

ORPHIC NOISE is available exclusively through Dos Madres' website. If you want to support the valiant work of small presses, please order only through them.

The first lines of Patrick Pritchett’s brilliant and beautiful new book suggest this world as his Eurydice, lost but not lost, “its noise a form of shelter.” A world to be recovered not only in the language translated from that noise, but allied in memory with contemporaries both living and dead. His poems and homages meditating on love, family and craft create and define “the hope of being lit.” They have empowered this poet to a deep, granular, attentive listening in which “every streetlight’s a comma longing to complete the supernatural grammar of the sentence.” – Michael Heller

Orphic is Greek for “torn apart.” As might be a husband and a wife, a mother and a son, a body and a soul, and much, much else in this grieving and beautiful book. As readers, we are not on the road to Sunderland, ‘where everything is empty,’ we’re already there, sundered ourselves by the losses we hear of, with only the poet’s ‘spell of holding’ to keep us from the absolute dark. From the distance, here, between belonging and the void, an extraordinary music rises. This is such noise as Whitman knew, this is the noise that Patrick Pritchett brings, doing so with intimate dignity and stricken wonder.
Joseph Donahue

The Angel of the Real
i.m. Mark Strand

The one we all finally see, came down prosaically.
Here it is, he said. And opened a book filled
with the sayings of the afterlife
quaint protocols for arranging the final predicament.

To think, for instance, as a cloud thinks
moving swiftly over green water
or tilting at the bark of an oak scarped
above a field, knotted with chthonic crevices.

The part that is broken must get said over again.
An elastic song to the angel that
gestures at ripeness but signifies decay.
The lens of my poem darkens with cataracts.

You told us about absence, but now you are not here.
Blank as an angel’s breviary
your words fade into prismatic noise.
Their secret speech splicing silence to itself.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The State of Poetry Lists in 2016, with Special Reference to Small Presses

This is not a “best of” list since the very idea of ranking books fetishizes the new and builds obnoxious hierarchies; it also reinforces spurious notions of critical omniscience. Most year-end Best Of lists ignore the vibrant word of small press poetry publishing. They’re less about critical acumen than the dominant market forces of Big Publishing and the ways in which the circulation of the eternal same flourishes thanks to the alliance between publishers and the press.

It depresses me when I read a review of the same middlebrow lackluster poetry book (Sharon Olds, anyone? Merwin? Rita Dove? ) over and over and over in The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NYRB, LRB, etc., when there's no mention of two of our greatest poets: Peter Gizzi and Michael Palmer, each of whom brought out works of astonishing beauty this year. This is why a review publication like Rain Taxi is invaluable for its devoted attention to the small press scene, where so much vital literature is being published. The public relations machine of Big Pub exists to produce a monotonous conformity of taste and a banal chorus of critical yea-sayers who seem incapable of or unwilling to consider books not published by the major houses.

So “best” poetry is perhaps a meaningless category, finally, when so many reviewers, from David Orr to Dan Chaisson, seem to write in an echo chamber. The fact is, as Steph Burt noted a few years back, there’s too much poetry appearing in any given year for any critic to take in and far too little of it that comes my way. I wish, for instance, I’d read Daniel Borzutsky or Monica Youn, or David Lau, or Ocean Vuoung, or Don Mee Choi – but my time and money are limited. I can’t pretend to have been aware of more than a very small percentage of the work circulating through this year’s poetry sphere. This list simply represents books (many of them, I confess, sent to me by the authors themselves) which I found brilliant; works that challenged the boundaries of what poetry can be. And nearly all of them were published in the invisible world of the small press.

Probably the most diverse and intriguing list I've so seen far appeared in Entropy Mag. It's populated with poets whose work I admire and a great many younger ones I'd like to check out. Almost all of them were published by small presses so at least someone out there is paying attention.

N.B. Of the 21 published titles here, only two appeared from major houses -- FSG and Norton -- (unless you count New Directions, which makes three). Three of the publishers have brought out books of my own: Pressed Wafer, Spuyten Duyvil, and Talisman, though that didn’t influence my choice in any way.

Lists, as Don DeLillo once remarked, are signs of "cultural hysteria." He is not wrong. Nevertheless, they're rather fun to write.

The Ratio of Reason to Magic | Norman Finkelstein | Dos Madres Press
Archeophonics | Peter Gizzi | Wesleyan UP
Of Beings Alone (complete) | Lissa Wolsak | Tinfish
Day for Night | Richard Deming | Shearsman
Falling Awake | Alice Oswald | Norton
Poesis | Rachel Blau DuPlessis | Textile Series
Lay Ghost | Nathaniel Mackey | Black Ocean
The Laughter of the Sphinx | Michael Palmer | New Directions
Poems Hidden in Plain Sight | Hank Lazer | PURH (France)
Exile’s Recital | Andrew Mossin | Spuyten Duyvil
Spool | Matthew Cooperman | Parlor Press
The Sampo | Peter O’Leary | The Culture Society
Ask Anyone | Ruth Lepson | Pressed Wafer
Memory Cards: Thomas Traherne Series | Susan M. Schultz | Talisman House
I Rode with the Cossacks | Bill Corbett | Granary Books
Fugue Meadow | Keith Jones | Ricochet
Self-Portrait as Joseph Cornell | Ken Taylor | Pressed Wafer
Dianoia | Michael Heller | Nightboat Books
Sowing the Wind | Ed Foster | Marsh Hawk Press
House of Lords and Commons | Ishion Hutchinson | FSG
Gap Gardening | Rosmarie Waldrop | New Directions
You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior | Carolina Ebeid | Noemi
Ravenna Diagram | Henry Gould | Lulu Press
Song of the Systole | Matthew Gagnon (ms.)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

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

N.B. This essay first appeared in Let The Bucket Down, Issue No. 2, 2014. My thanks to editor Joe Torra for inviting me to write on Corbett's work.

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 naïve 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.