Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Memoriam Imre Kertesz

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rachel Blau DuPlessis' "Graphic Novella"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Ornette Coleman

Mourning Song
for Ornette Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Robert Adamson's "Net Needle"

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

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

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

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

a feathery
sussuration –
half song,
ratchet, or
a snake’s
the roof
of its
mouth –
a smoker’s
exhalation –
in the grapevine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

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

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

or had lost

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Work Isn't: On Philip Levine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Remembering Anselm Hollo

Homage to the Raven
i.m. Anselm Hollo

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

Time to get with the program!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Poetry Roundup 2014

This is not a “best of” list since the very idea of arranging yearly readings fetishizes the new and builds obnoxious hierarchies; it also reinforces spurious notions of critical omniscience. Most year-end Best Of lists are less about critical acumen than the dominant market forces of Big Publishing or Hollywood studios and the ways in which the circulation of the eternal same flourishes. It depresses me when I read a review of the same middlebrow novel over and over and over in The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NYRB, LRB, etc. 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 produces an overwhelming and monotonous conformity and a banal chorus of yea-sayers. Anyway, I don’t spend my time on all that. It’s not so much that I’m a snob. I just a have a different set of priorities. So “best” poetry is a silly category, finally. There’s too much poetry in any given year to take in and far too little of it that comes my way. I can’t pretend to even have been aware of a very small percentage of the work circulating through the poetry sphere. A few of these titles were not published in 2014 but this is the year I discovered them, so they’re new to me.

Robert Adamson | Net’s Needle | Flood Editions

Ed Barrett | toward blue peninsula | Pressed Wafer

Daniel Bouchard | Art + Nature | Ugly Duckling

Amy Catanzano | Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella | Noemi Press

Thomas Devaney | Calamity Jane | Furniture Press

Joseph Donahue | Red Flash on a Black Field | Black Square

Rachel Blau DuPlessis | Interstices | Subpress

Joel Felix | Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die | Verge

Allen Grossman | Descartes’ Loneliness | New Directions

Fanny Howe | Second Childhood | Greywolf

Pierre Joris | Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 | Black Widow Press

Pierre Joris | Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry | FSG

Hank Lazer | N24 | little read leaves textile

Jackson MacLow | Complete Light Poems | Chax Press (Jan 2015)

Joseph Massey | To Keep Time | Omnidawn

Jennifer Moxley | The Open Secret | Flood Editions

David Need | Rilke’s Roses | Horse and Buggy Press

Fred Moten | The Feel Trio | Letter Machine

Jeffrey Pethybridge | Striven, the Bright Treatise | Noemi Press

Karen Randall | Extruded Gilgamesh: an introspection & Inanna: of the Entangled Ligatures & the Dearth of Thin Ink | Propolis Press

Claudia Rankine | Citizen | Greywolf

Robert Seydel | Songs of S. | Siglio/Ugly Duckling

Harvey Shapiro | A Momentary Glory: Last Poems | Wesleyan

Lissa Wolsak | Of Beings Alone | Nomados

Jay Wright | Disorientations: Groundings | Flood Editions