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)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour


“How did I know this city was made for love? How did I know your body would fit me like a glove? You’re killing me. You’re good for me.”

The first time I saw this film I was devastated. Yet I somehow came to think, naively, that it was pretentious, and even cynical, using the unspeakable atrocity of war as a mere backdrop for a love story. Seeing it again, after some twenty-five years, Hiroshima Mon Amour is more devastating still; time and loss have sharpened it. Pauline Kael famously panned it as a sop to liberal sensibilities, but the joke is on her. As so often happens in her prickly reviews, there’s a certain tone-deafness; the film itself is neglected in favor of scoring easy points on the smug self-regard of its art-house audience. But Hiroshima is not a film about peace, as Kael claims, but trauma and loss. It’s easy to understand, 55 years on, how she might have missed that, caught up in skewering both the adulatory reception given it by Dwight MacDonald and the sacred cows of Cold War sensibility.

The plight of the lovers, trapped in history, and the sudden impossible possibility of a resurrection (from what? from time itself?), elevates this film from a poignant account of a brief encounter to something else – the chance to redeem history’s shame and suffering. In nearly every frame, Emmanuelle Riva’s extraordinarily plastic face makes her the most beautiful woman in the world – beautiful, because so strikingly, hauntingly vulnerable, so deeply wounded and anguished by the ache for a love that still has the power to transfigure her again. In that moment – and this is the "magic" of cinema, that is, the way it cuts through time and space – she is every woman one has ever loved. Not a person at all, then, as the Architect says, but “a thousand women in one.” I can hear someone saying: but what about The Male Gaze? What about it? All cinema is about the pleasure of looking. If you don't get that, you don't get the mythic power of the movies. All the same, the great achievement of Hiroshima lies partly in how this romantic attitude is slowly dismantled so that Riva’s Actress becomes not a thousand women, but one: a singular suffering person, deranged by the memories of her dead German lover.

The lovers in Hiroshima are not so much doomed by their tragic pasts as by their hope for a future that hovers just outside their grasp. Both of them married, happily as they confirm to each other, they stand for an unspeakable truth, one that carries forward from Tristan and Iseult to Bringing Up Baby: that real love, the love of passion, the love of an incinerating spiritual flame, has nothing to do with marriage, cannot ever be sustained by marriage, has no chance of surviving marriage into something resembling permanence, and yet wills itself all the same into being through a reckless ardor, an unmasked devotion, an absolute nakedness before the other that renders everything else puny and insignificant, its sole justification asserted through a kind of majesty and delirium which cannot settle for anything less. The soul burns up in this kind of love. It asks to. For this is the damnation of secular transcendence and is its own theology, founded perversely on the same logic that underwrites the communal virtues of self-sacrifice and family. Love not as continuity, but entropy.

In his essay for the Criterion Collection edition, Kent Jones notes how revolutionary and influential Resnais’ innovations with temporal sequencing have been, liberating several generations of filmmakers to break with conventional narrative technique and play with a film’s sense of time and duration. To cite merely one simple example: the somber, lyrical, carefully matched montages of street scenes from Hiroshima and Nevers, each one cut on a slow zoom out to create a hypnotic continuity, the past reaching into the present, the present always contiguous with the past. This strategy is repeated at least one more time, in the late-night bar where the Actress reveals her tortured past to the Architect. (Is it a coincidence that each of them builds things in time, the one on celluloid, the other in brick and steel?). Duras’ fractured chronology lays bare the wounds of time: the way we live our lives continually in both the past and the present. This delicate interweaving gives incredible power to the Actress’ lament for transience: “I tremble at forgetting such a love.” For to forget is to become unmade oneself, dissolved, rendered invisible inside the relentless currents of history’s obliteration.

Redemption, if it is that, comes guardedly and provisionally in Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is not merely a case of amour fou blindly seeking to cancel all debts. For the film concludes neither with doom nor transcendence, but a collapse or return to the real as the two nameless lovers seem to see each other for the first time, re-naming the other after the sites of their natal traumas: “Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “Yes. Yours is Nevers. Nevers in France.” History is inescapable. It brands us all. As Cathy Caruth observes, “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own... history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.” Its apocalypse, if you will, is that history will always irradiate the self with the broken shards of its shattered landscapes, its intimate and inadmissible wounds, and the bodies of the lovers, revealed in all their beauty and humility – the smoothness of their skin, their unrefracted smiles, the shyness of their gazes – must carry it, haltingly, fully aware of both their own transience and the power of love to utterly surprise and devastate them.

Perhaps then, love is a form of the weak messianic power. As Benjamin notes in the second thesis of “On The Concept of History”:

“The picture of happiness which we harbor is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection [Erloesung: transfiguration, redemption]. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol [Verabredung: also appointment] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.” (Translation Andy Blunden, from Marxist.org).

The plangent austerity of Hiroshima Mon Amour does not permit us to forget that claim or the secret protocol by which the past aligns itself to the present and the ever-imminent hope for some small measure of happiness which it might still contain.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Song in Praise of the Lord of the Mark


The Lord of the Mark rode forth with all his hosts,
horse-tailed helmets flashing and a forest of tall spears.
He got as far as Worcester and decided, um
this War against Sauron? Not really his thing.
He turned & descended on Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner
to watch the Patriots and Broncos wail on each other.
Muster the Rohirrim.

The Lord of the Mark rode forth in glory! Das right.
To Stop and Shop to be precise.
Looking for some of that totally excellent Tuscan wheat bread.
They were out. They’re always out.
What’s a King of Rohan gotta do around here?
I mean, I gave you people Helm’s Deep already.
Fuck it. Fell deeds awake! Ride to fire and slaughter.

The Lord of the Mark is a bit testy these days, to tell the truth.
First the freaking Dunlanders with their gimme gimme gimme
and now this whiny greaseball Saruman.
I mean what the fuck? I should have drop-kicked
his ass at Orthanc when I had the chance, bitch.
Nothing’s on TV.
The Lord of the Mark will ride! Forth Eorlingas!

The Lord of the Mark has no wife. Which seems kind of weird, really.
But Eowyn makes goo-goo eyes at Aragorn and for once
you wish he didn’t have such a Numenorean stick up his ass.
But once a shield-maiden always a shield-maiden, am I right?
Unless you happen to smite a Nazgul. Oh yeah.
The flowers in Gondor are lovely this time of year.
Begone, foul dwimmerlaik!

The Lord of the Mark has a new immigration policy:
more Ents, less Orcs! Bastards make a huge mess
and refuse to clean it up. What am I, the lord of welfare?
Still, they’re rather handy for target practice.
Memo to self: order that new armor from Amazon
worked with cunning shapes and shit.
Great heart will not be denied.

The Lord of the Mark has had enough, people!
Entreaties from loyal subjects? Ruling
with a firm but merciful hand? Am I not Theoden King?
OMG freaking Erkenbrand with his Powerpoint
presentation on next season’s wheat yield. Super-lame!
Cue spears clashing on shields. “I totally need a vacation,” proclaims the Lord of the Mark.

Ride now to ruin and the world’s ending.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Brief History of Gnostic Poetry


But where to begin?

Some Cro-Magnon shaman in Siberia. The high priestess of Ur. An adept in the temple of Thoth. The Eleusinian initiates.

Heraclitus? Probably a gnostic. (Parmenides, not so much).

Sappho could have been a gnostic for love, except she was already Sappho.

Iamblichus, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, those mad mystics in the Philokalia, Marguerete de Porete who was burned alive for her gnosis, Angela of Foligno, Meister Eckhart, Moses de Leon, and Judah Halevy. Also, the actual Gnostics, with a capital G, like Valentinus, who are confusing, but gave us a figure, a means by which we might conjure a way to align spirit with the despair of matter.

I don’t care what Ted Hughes says. Shakespeare was not a gnostic. Except in Lear and The Tempest.

But Paracelsus was and John Dee was. And Robert Fludd. And Jacob Boehme.

Henry Vaughan is a gnostic of eternity’s endless ring of light.

Kit Smart is a gnostic of cats, for they roll in their prank.

Traherne is a gnostic of Christ in the sweetness of all his centuries.

Blake is a gnostic of Blake and all his angels.

Shelley was a gnostic who sailed to the moons of Italy.

Keats got drunk on a ripe gnostic vintage before he was engulfed in a cloud of blood.

Novalis is a gnostic of the Night of the World.

O Holderlin is a gnostic of that blue abyss with the holy Iser running through it.

Could Hopkins be a gnostic? Like a kingfisher catching fire?

Herman Melville is a gnostic. He was burned in the darkness of the sea and the blind hills of Pittsfield and the whiteness of the unknowable.

Emerson is a gnostic when he says that the way of life is abandonment.

Poe is the gnostic who saw nature for what it is: a gaping hole ready to devour us.

Whitman is a gnostic of the open road and the electric body and the emancipation of song.

Dickinson is a gnostic of the white bone of the word.

Kafka is a gnostic of infinite delay, otherwise known as grace.

Lovecraft is the true gnostic of the deep weirdness of alien gods and the bottomless abyss of time.

Pound began as a gnostic, moving the souls of the dead through the facets of the phantastikon. But he burned his days to the ground. Still, “All things that are are light.”

HD stayed gnostic to the end, singing of a light inside the seashell that was Helen’s ear.

Hart Crane, tormented by gnosis he sang Atlantis from ruin to America, then he laid him down in his watery grave.

Lorca is a gnostic of duende, where the silver coins sob under moonlight on the road to Cordoba.

Yeats, a Celtic gnostic. Chanting of Fergus and Byzantium and translunar paradise.

Jung is a gnostic of the alchemical rose and the dead speaking from the drowned book of dreams.

I want to say Franz Rosenzweig was a gnostic, but really, he was sui generis.

But Walter Benjamin is the gnostic of the city and its ruins and the always-coming, always delayed arrival of the messiah.

Andre Breton was a gnostic of Freud and the revolution of the dream with all its dragons and all its fountains. Paul Eluard was a gnostic of Alphaville.

Simone Weil was a gnostic of affliction.

James Agee was a gnostic of the poor and the soft summer nights of Alabama and his own deluded alcoholic beatitude.

Camus? Possibly an existentialist gnostic of Algerian sunlight and shadow and the hunger for justice and of a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Stevens is a gnostic of the dandelion and the summer lawn and the ghosts of angels thronging drunk in the late light of New Haven.

(Harold Bloom, you are a pompous honorary gnostic, second-degree).

Duncan is the master gnostic of the way of the rosy heart and Venetian tones and the sweetness of Dante and the Orphic logos that enfolds the dream of the calyx in its golden fever.

Spicer was a gnostic of Spicer and of Lorca and King Arthur.

Blaser was a saint of gnosis who sang about the imago & laughter.

(Olson, maybe, was a huge gnostic of history who didn’t even know it).

Gustaf Sobin is a gnostic of the steppes of Provence and the antique glory of its Neolithic ruins, its Roman light, its ladder of endless syllables.

Rene Char is a gnostic of the chthonic beauty of dawn and its streaming erotic arrows.

Ronald Johnson is a gnostic of angelic birdsong and the psalms of Adam that are still singing.

Philip Lamantia is a gnostic of lysergic radiance and of vibrating at unheard of wavelengths.

Kerouac is a gnostic of the dark car crossing America all night long for brotherly love.

Ginsberg is a gnostic of wanting to be fully alive amid Blakean visions and whirling sutras and the simple compassion of one person for another.

Coltrane is a gnostic of the Church of Pure and Broken Sound, a river of it, unending.

John Taggart is a gnostic of Coltrane and the staggering punctum of logos.

Gerrit Lansing? Gnostic of Gloucester, mystic first class. Ken Irby? Gnostic of Kansas. I’d follow his harp anywhere.

William Bronk is a gnostic of the light & music of the mind and the real and its teeming air and its dark fish.

Henry Corbin. Henry Corbin is a gnostic of the Sufi angelic orders and the panoply of a spiritual geography that remaps the man of inner light.

Octavio Paz is a gnostic of the labyrinth of eros, of the sun stone and the tree within.

Mark Rothko is a gnostic of the impenetrability and transparency of color, of horizon as the chapel and saturation of the eye.

Shouldn’t Kenneth Rexroth be a gnostic?

And DHL, who spoke of the person as the very end of creation, a flower that disappears into the underworld, who carries the blood of the wings of birds and the venom of serpents, complex and contradictory, surging toward its own center.

Edmond Jabes is a gnostic of deep exile and the silence of the word. Michael Palmer is a gnostic of the estranging logos.

Nate Mackey is a gnostic of Dogon sound and Trane and the stutter-step vocable of what the priestess utters as she strips off her last umbra and sings us into trance.

Anne Waldman is a gnostic of Buddha, Greenwich Village chapter.

Creeley is a gnostic of being Creeley. Dig it.

Alice Notley is the dark gnostic sister of my dreams, the fantastic threatening to become real, which as Zizek says, is what we otherwise call nightmare. Hold me.

Yves Bonnefoy is a gnostic of Douve, who runs wild across the page of the poem, her hair on fire, her hair swept out to sea on a stone.

PKD is a gnostic of addiction and paranoia since only by such despair and negation and the hungry nihilism of the enslaved soul can one be free of the tyranny of the system.

Doris Lessing is a gnostic of Shikasta, the Broken, and the Signature which once was shining in men’s eyes but now grows dim.

Tolkien is a gnostic of Sauron. Think about it.

Pynchon and DeLillo are gnostics of the radioactive sublime.

Leonard Schwartz! Leonard Schwartz has given us the gnostic word itself, vibrating at uncanny frequencies, where "all must find itself in loss."

Peter O’Leary is a gnostic of the incarnational vision, vouchsafing the wren & the theocentric order.

Joe Donahue is a gnostic of earth’s light, dissolving, and Sufi theophanies and the metaphysics of sound.

Norman Finkelstein presides at the gnostic wedding of Zukofsky’s lyric & the mysteries of the Kabbalah.

Ed Foster is a gnostic of the American schism, steeped in occult histories.

David Need is a gnostic of the lost visionary tradition that weeps for its own destiny.

Robert Archambeau is a gnostic of Peter O’Leary and the resignation of the poet who makes nothing happen always.

Mark Scroggins claims he is not a gnostic so we must accept him at his word. But then there's this, from Ruskin, "The greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something... To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.”

Patrick Pritchett is a gnostic of the numinous ache of an empty logos for a word that burns. I pity the fool.

Andrew Joron is a surrealist gnostic of the pure radiance of zero.

Will Alexander is a gnostic of the irradiant splinter of luminous plasma which folds between dimensions and is the crown of creation’s quantum foam.

Lissa Wolsak breaks breath into syllables and into the impossible charity of gnosis. Try to follow her.

Elizabeth Robinson is a gnostic of the apostolic bees who make us see the visible world, laden with honey.

Elizabeth Willis is a gnostic of this form because she made it and also of the thrilling perversity of film noir and the prismatic flowers of Saint Darwin.

Fanny Howe is a Catholic gnostic. She prays for the song of words that will not end our suffering, but instead plead for its admittance into tenderness.

Susan Howe is a gnostic of ancient New England lake shores and the mysteries of pain whirling out of Melville and the uncanny serenity of Stevens.

I think Charles Bernstein is a gnostic, but that way lies heresy.

(Barrett Watten says he lost his gnosis in a cornfield in Iowa. If found, please return to him care of the Grand Piano.

Peter Gizzi is a gnostic because he writes his poems for God.

Maurice Blanchot is surely gnostic, yes? When he writes about disaster and when he says that sometimes, nothing is a really cool hand.

Derrida is a gnostic of khora. And of specters. And of justice. May the Baal Shem Tov remember the words of the prayer or else remember that they are lost forever.

Rilke and Celan and Mandelstham wrote hymns to the gnostic in which spirit gets shattered wide open and is not avenged but submitted to still further tender unraveling.

Beckett wrote the book of the ruins of gnosis. To fail at failure is all we can do now. Spirit’s nothing. Nothing’s spirit. A voice that comes to one in the dark. Go figure.

“I pray gnosis that I may be free of Gnosis” said Eckhart.

And Thunder, the Perfect Mind, who said: “I am the one who has scattered … who can number me? I am the one who is Lawless and governs all Law. I am unlearned and yet you still come to me.”

And what of good David Jones, who spake for all damaged souls? “To groves always men come both to their joys and their undoing. Come lightfoot in heart’s ease … find harbor with a remnant.”

These are the remnants, here at shore’s edge. Re-gather them. Begin again.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ode: That a Cat Be Great-Souled (& That Men are Fools)


after Hugh MacDiarmid

for Oliver Nelson-Nelson

My gold cat is to the sun of suns
as a finch is to its branch
or the mirror to an empty room.
He shines undisturbed when no one watches
and repletes the air with feline grace
unperturbed.

My gold cat is a feckless lord, a god
among the lesser orders who rules
by paw, by purr, by shining mien.
His blinking eyes shutter his renown. His frown
unmasts and scatters the unwary hand.
Fools approach at their peril.

My lord of cats is a great light to mortals.
He stalks the everlasting question
that lurks in the next room and the one beyond.
Always at rest and always melodic, he quests
for the simple totality, the nap of its legend
its stars entranced.

After the hunt what can follow?
To start up in wrath or roll in his prank?
My cat of cats is a light above all others.
His heathen eyes burn through walls
and pounce at dangling string. They are my sweet
owners nor are there others.

My fawn-light cat is to all else
as the meaning of life
is to green-grass. Run past water
past cloud, past tree. On bent knee
you too shall join your prayer
to his mighty purr.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Book Meme or, A Brief Stratigraphy of My Reading


for Bruce Holsinger, who asked for it

N.B. An earlier version of this was posted here, but I realized it was neither completely forthcoming nor sufficiently accurate, though “accurate” at this distance is a matter of interpretation. Now read on.

Recently, the book meme has resurfaced and is making the rounds again on Facebook. Somewhat to my annoyance I was tagged by a good friend. I plead my beloved cat’s medical crisis (it's touch and go) as an excuse for my churlishness. But it’s fun to read other people’s lists and see which books shaped or still haunt them. And it’s prompted me to compile an annotated list of the books that formed my spiritual blueprint, as it were, the Arnoldian touchstones. The book meme lists I’ve seen generally fall into two categories: childhood nostalgia and intellectual coming-of-age. As my title implies, this list is a little of both – a road-cut of my reading. If textuality is in some sense spirituality, then we are shaped by the logic of the looking glass and Lacan was right, just not quite in the way he thought, since what we see when we read novels or poems are the struggles and lives of others, multiple, strange and bewitching.

Proceeding more or less in chronological order:

Fantastic Four, Nos. 45-75

I sometimes think that more of my basic worldview was shaped by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko than by almost anything else, including the Catholic Church – the heady combination of utopianism, cynical swagger, and the sublime was irresistible. I poured over these comics like they were illuminated manuscripts, which of course they were.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I first read this in 8th grade. The pace of adventure and the sheer strangeness and delight were thrilling, but it was the sheer music of the names and lineages, which pile up like so many Homeric epithets and the overpowering sense of elegy and melancholy that suffuses the quest of the ring, which as I see now, is the ultimate Freudian symbol of Lack. Though really the books seem to be about the repression of dangerous pleasures and the need to regulate them. LOTR is profoundly conservative, really – in its appeal to some primal Christian myth, in its rejection of modernity (for Tolkien, the real evil seems to be the Industrial Revolution. In this, he is not unlike Blake). After many re-readings, the stout, but frolic, yeomanry of the various Hobbits begins to wear considerably. But the theme of Earth as a slowly fading paradise is powerful and the deep sadness of the Elves, their melancholy sublime, forms the core of the work: immortals who are doomed to see the world change and decay while they themselves do not. Exquisite, when not drowning in sentiment.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Yes, but is it science fiction? Dune’s messianic will-to-power and damnation is incredibly seductive. The stuff about ecology seems a mere gloss, something tacked on to make the Dream seem real. This is really a novel about the rise of an Actual Overman who is one part TE Lawrence and another part Timothy Leary and how he suffers the torments and pangs of ascending to Total Vision and Power. As such, kind of disturbing, but Herbert continually undercuts it by showing the price that’s paid. As SF, it’s an odd duck though. Really more of a late medieval Crusader romance and finally, a rather underrated piece of counter-cultural postmodernism in a Maslovian vein. I would add to this genre Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which is a cross between the Bhagavad-Gita and Raymond Chandler, and HP Lovecraft’s masterpiece “Shadow out of Time” – the ultimate fantasia on Gnostic alienation. Add as well Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (which Chip Delany and I agree is the single best SF novel ever written) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, first read in grade school and only many years later recognized as belonging to the Stapledon line of Uplift novels. SF as secular theology.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke

Read first in the M.D. Herter Norton editions with their funky geometric covers. I cannot overstate the impact of these poems on me when I was 18, 19. Vatic and utterly committed to vision as such, they have never been far from me, even as I have fought to shake off their influence. Rilke essentially invented his religion – chthonic hymns to Heracleitian flux and transience and the spiritual power of haecceity. At the same time, though, I’ve come to recognize, in John Berryman’s immortal words, that “Rilke was a jerk.” He unscrupulously used the women in his life to support his own, abandoning his wife and child, to hole up with various decaying aristocrats. At its worse, his poetry is precious and claustrophobic: the work of a puer aeternus. At its best, it is sublime and radiant. He is the great poet of innerness, solitude, the Open, and death.

The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound

When I was a freshman at San Francisco State, the late Scott Wannberg read out loud, in a mangy dorm room, Canto 81, and that changed my life forever. I’d never heard such music before. It reached after everything. Whatever I’ve done since has been some kind of pursuit of that moment. I had no idea, of course, what any of it meant. Who Waller and Dowland were I would soon discover, combing through the library, while ABC of Reading propounded Pound’s argument that after Chaucer English poetry had drifted into a doldrums that only Wyatt’s Petrarchan verse rescued it from. I didn’t even recognize that Pound’s deliberate archaisms were archaic. Nor did I know what was at stake in the poem – how it represented Pound’s intransigent faith in Fascism. But the sense of someone at the end of their tether, the search for redemption and forgiveness amid the ruins was deeply moving, along with the yearning for the unobtainable Earthly Paradise.

The Palm at the End of the Mind, Wallace Stevens

The little paperback edition, with the large green lettering, was a portal to magic. Harold Bloom and Steven’s daughter, Holly, edited it and it remains the primary gem, better somehow than the Collected, the entrance to the master’s labyrinth of dream and disquisition. I gave my perfectly preserved copy (white pages, no spine damage) to my junior Jillian last summer when she professed love for Stevens. How could one do less? To share Stevens is to share a world. These poems have never stopped inspiring me, since I first read them in a shack-like apartment in Huntington Beach, three blocks from the Orphic surf.

On The Movement and Immobility of Douve, Yves Bonnefoy

Its actual title was the more prosaic “Selected Poems” and I no longer recall the name of the translator but it was published by Tony Rudolf’s Cape Editions in the U.K. and I loved those crisp, compact editions. This one had a pinkish cover. Sadly, an old girlfriend ran off with mine many years ago. Though I’ve since acquired many different editions of Bonnefoy’s work in translation, in every used bookshop I enter I always search for it. This book is written at a peak of sensual visionary breathlessness that is astonishing. There’s nothing quite like it.

The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner

My friend Stephen and I drove up from the O.C. to the long-since defunct Westwood Books in LA (where I also discovered Susan Howe and Clark Coolidge) and I seized on this tome, which I bought for $4.95 and still own, in the hope that it would explain everything. Reader, it did. This is the book that inspired me to become a scholar. It just took a bloody long time.

The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris

Kent Jones has paid fitting homage to this most cherished and contentious of film criticism books. My copy, purchased, I think, at Dutton’s on Laurel Canyon, was designed by the great Milton Glaser, who himself is a kind of postmodern artist. This book is almost a work of poetry. It opened my eyes, not just to films, but how to write about films. It’s a book that continues to teach, provoke arguments, and finally, praise film as the aesthetic form of modernity par excellence. Sarris’ brief entry on Max Ophuls says everything about why art matters (though he was wrong about Billy Wilder, as he later had the generosity to acknowledge).

Lyrical and Critical Essays, Albert Camus

Like everyone else, my first Camus was The Stranger, in high school, courtesy of the lovely and inspirational Mary Ann Frazer. Two years later in college, I read The Myth of Sisyphus, and the effort it took me to grasp Camus’ engagement with the history of Continental intellectual history was some kind of breakthrough for me. But it was the “Lyrical Essays” that smote me and pierced me to the heart, with their evocation of a landscape of exile and belonging, sensuality and alienation. One of the masterworks of 20th Century literature and a continual spiritual touchstone, unsparing in its honesty and integrity, its commitment to an austere form of beauty .

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

I saw the Howard Hawks movie first, with Bogart and Bacall, and then found a green-spined Penguin edition at City Lights with a stark b&w still photo cover from the film. That copy has long since gone the way of the dodo, but it’s been continually replaced with numerous editions over the years. I rank Chandler with Fitzgerald and Cather and Faulkner as one of the major stylists of 20th Century American literature. And of course, Hemingway, whose shadow Chandler writhed under and I think successfully dispelled. Phillip Marlowe is not the answer to life’s problems, but his noble cynicism makes the dissonance of modernity endurable.

To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

I was going to list The Waves, which I think of as Woolf’s supreme achievement and a greater novel than Ulysses in its feeling for the very quick of life. But I read To The Lighthouse first and I must acknowledge it as a book of wonder and dismay and affirmation that impressed its poetic energies on my young soul. Everything seems to be in it. The desperate yearning of blind youth and of middle-aged femininity and the continual rush of the past into the present and the sudden terrible but achingly slow obliteration of time. It is the book of all our secrets and it is sublime.

A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Unavoidable, really. But cliché, as Alfred Jarry observed, is the armature of the absolute. So I am, or was, or still am, some kind of Catholic. So I read this book as a blueprint for self-creation. So did a million other impressionable young men. So I never could quite live up to what Stephen mapped out in those fabulous and arrogant last pages. So the beauty of Joyce’s poetic prose dropped into my soul forever, like a toxic flower.

The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

How did I ever come to read this unholy book? The first sentence was like lightning and like poison, which I paraphrase here: “The only real task of any writer is to create a masterpiece.” I fear this is not what our MFA programs are churning out these days. And it’s a bad, bad thing to read when you are a callow 21 and entertain the delusion that you might actually have a masterpiece in you. But among the many pleasures, some few of which I understood, there was also this:

The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

St. Mawr, D. H. Lawrence

This was the first thing I ever read by DHL, besides the Selected Poems edited by Rexroth (whose introduction deserves its own place on this list), that really grabbed me. I didn’t understand two-thirds of it, as I realize now that I teach it. And my freshman at Amherst, especially the female students, often write staggering responses to it. It blows their minds, even after I’ve pointed out all the humbug. But for me, it was not the feminism of the novella that spoke, but its other half, its twin, I suppose, the wild chthonic nature worship, heathen and dark, ruinous and resurrectional. Lawrence was an obsessive, even tendentious, writer, but like HD and Pound he longed to invent his own religion by throwing over modernity all together in pursuit of the mad pagan Dionysian energies that technology was destroying. No one seems to read him anymore, but I will always venerate him, cock-eyed and half-assed and all. And I would add here Studies in Classic American Literature, too – still the most penetrating and hilarious book ever written about American writers.

On The Road, Jack Kerouac

When I was in high school, a girl I thought I was in love with gave me a copy of The Dharma Bums. It was sweet and golden and light as a feather. But then I found On The Road. Again, we enter the territory of cliché, but this book was a firecracker going off in my brain. It didn’t just speak of liberation; it lived it. There are two kinds of readers, I’ve come to feel – those who value the shallow cynicism of Catcher in The Rye, where Salinger masquerades as a cut-rate Dostoevsky, and those who dive into the Dionysian excess and confusion of On The Road. Kerouac, as Luke Menand says, was writing about the loneliness of men; their melancholy desire and inability to connect. But it’s also about darkness and a perverse Blakean longing for forbidden experience, for deranged orders of transcendence. For radical abundance over the paucity of disappointed affirmation. It schooled my soul. What more can I say?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Best Poetry of 2013


It’s not quite accurate to title this list “The Best of.” For one thing, I never start any year with the idea in mind to compile a comprehensive sampling of American poetry. But calling it “My Favorite Books” somehow lacks gravitas. And let’s face it, we all like year-end “Best of” lists. So this, then, is a random assortment of books that gave me great pleasure this year. I reviewed two of them, Imago, and An Ethic, and intend to review a third next year (The Unfinished). But unfortunately I don't have the time to annotate this list. Probably the most notable are the first three titles, which collect work long unavailable by some of our major poets. The appearance of the Ceravalo and the Lamantia are particularly exciting, while Bernstein's Recalculating is perhaps the finest thing he's done so far. Likewise DuCharme's The Unfinished. Alfred Starr Hamilton writes from a very strange and beautiful planet and GC Waldrep's complex music is a wonder. And someone really should publish Keith Jones'amazing meditation on Cy Twombly, sigh loop echo.

N.B. An earlier version of this post inexplicably omitted what, for me, is The Book of the Year, namely Robert Duncan's Collected Later Poems and Plays. Peter Quartermain's work editing the two volumes of Duncan's poetry and plays has been nothing less than heroic and lovers of Duncan owe him a profound debt of gratitude for his meticulous care and his, as usual, brilliant essays.

The Collected Later Poems and Plays, Robert Duncan | U Calif Press

Collected Poems, Joe Ceravalo | Wesleyan

Collected Poems, Philip Lamantia | U Calif Press

Elegies, Muriel Rukeyser | New Directions

Under The Sign, Ann Lauterbach | Penguin

Recalculating, Charles Bernstein | FSG

Imago, Matthew Cooperman | Jaded Ibis

An Ethic, Christina Davis | Nightboat

At The Point, Joseph Massey | Shearsman

Urban Tumbleweed, Harryette Mullen | Gray Wolf

The Unfinished, Books I-IV, Mark DuCharme | BlazeVOX

The Inside of an Apple, Joshua Beckman | Wave

A Motive for Disappearance, Ray Ragosta | Burning Deck

Odyssey & Oracle, Jenn McCreary | Least Weasel

Videotape, Andrew Zawacki | Counterpath

Susquehanna, G.C. Waldrep | Omnidawn

A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, Alfred Starr Hamilton | The Song Cave

Rilke's Roses, David Norton Need | will be published next year

sigh loop echo Keith Jones | ms.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

IMAGO for the fallen world


Matthew Cooperman’s 2011 STILL: Of The Earth as The Ark Which Does Not Move was an incendiary book of poems, a harrowing late modernist jeremiad trembling with the vehemence of its perceptions. It took its place alongside the work of Amiri Baraka and Cooperman’s old mentor, to whom he paid homage, the master assassin of bourgeois pieties, Ed Dorn. The book was stunningly laid out, with a mix of typographical fonts drawn from commodity and pop culture, as if the poem was simultaneously invaded by this language and trying to metabolize it. Interleafed with the poetic sequences – each one titled “Still:” – were pages of bold white text on stark black backgrounds, a kind of photo-negative, with disjointedly laid out quotes from Hart Crane, Harriet Tubman and Paul’s Corinthians, among others. They interrupt and stitch the rest of the book together rather like prayers of intercession or warnings to the reader. The whole book is a three-tiered reticulated marvel, with the chant sections hinged by calmly meditative passages, as in “Still: Fighting.”

HubbleVox II: I am Super Nova X and Nebula Y, and the prophecy of heat death Chant:

“On Donner, On Blitzen, On Hellfire, On Humvee!”

in a cell
on a tank
what lightning said
hunger comes only
after rain the
bright clear embellishment
of writing today
is time’s space
and dead’s dance
hazel green finches
in every flower
on which to
sing sing all
prisoners want presence

This finely leveraged mix of polemic and pastoral both invites and estranges the reader and it’s a tension the book maintains throughout.

Cooperman’s career has been fascinating to watch unfold. His first book, A Sacrificial Zinc, (2000) was an accomplished debut of journeyman work, filled with sensitive reports on experience, yet not really all that distinguishable from a great deal of other poetry being produced by his generation. 2006’s DaZE signaled the beginning of his shift away from a certain kind of graceful, well-behaved poem to the exploration of more daring formal possibilities. The poems of DaZE draw from experience, but they take place in the land of language. With Still, Cooperman has parted company with grace and is swinging for the fences, something that very few poets these days have the ambition to undertake, content either with fussy experiments of a bankrupt avant-garde, or the Jim Tate school of goofball sublime, which only Tate really knows how to bring off. Jena Osman’s recent Public Figures is a strong example of work that pushes through the boundaries of what a poem can do, combining images and text to produce a powerful critique of social space, military idioms, and the political unconscious. But where Osman’s characteristic surface tone is starched and clinical, denuded of affect, Cooperman’s surges with intensity.

Now comes Imago: for the fallen world. Imago continues the thrust for the vitals of late capital begun in Still and can be read as a further opening of the same field; not a sequel, but a fresh attack along the same vectors. It’s an audacious work in every sense, its pitch ranging from the colloquial to the elegiac. Written in collaboration with the visual artist Marius Lehene, Imago complicates and enriches its critique of the decaying moment with gorgeous and disturbing full-color images on nearly every page. The full effect is difficult to suggest. Imago is really two books in one, two parallel and overlapping formal structures that complement, interrupt and re-align each other at every stage. The juxtapositions generate a swirl of impressions that are entrancing, but also unsettling. To give one brief example, from “Still: Policy”:

Utopia: is a virus I am anxious to be rid of. I move to
many addresses to begin my true discovery. We are
always looking back and the real day is all in front of us.
Given is a word to a more developed world, a flag we fly,
and we possibly in it.

Lingis: what gifts give us is the ability to give gifts.

Facing this poem on the right-hand side is one of Lehane’s images: what looks like a treated photograph, possibly painted over, or possibly a water-color, taken from above, of a crowd of robed and hooded figures, mainly women, standing on a pier. The crowd occupies a narrow strip in the foreground, while the majority of space is dominated by rippling water. A small boat pushes its way into the frame on the lower right side. The perspective is flattened. Are these people refugees? Religious pilgrims? Or merely waiting for a ferry? Cooperman’s facing text suggests that the dream of a utopian social order must allow greater mobility. Movement, arrival and departure, is essential to a new kind of nomadic structure, one that abjures fixity, because the desire for utopia must always be more important than utopia itself. And yet, the need for fixity runs deep. To travel by water is one thing. To be like water quite another.

Cooperman and Lehene’s work fulfills one of Adorno’s injunctions about late modernist aesthetics in the age of perpetual crisis and disaster: “Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.” The “many addresses” of Imago refuse to be unified into a single location. Utopia, to paraphrase William Gibson, is always arriving; it’s just unevenly distributed. It is nowhere and everywhere, a ghost stalking the perimeter of desire. This wild, insurgent, chaotic and disturbing book keeps asking the question, “can you hear me now?” As Cooperman writes, near the end of Imago, “the body is a call in the dark.” The whole poem is a straining to listen to that call and form some adequate response.