Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hank Lazer's "N 18 (Complete)"

Hank Lazer’s N 18(Complete) is an impossible book of poems. Written in serpentine longhand, they spiral across the page in calligrammes that challenge legibility. The difficulties and rewards in reading them is central to the question of their form, making that form the very subject of the poems and how the re-spell the possibilities contained in reading, for making meaning as we go, re-making it as we go over. At the same time, their playful inventiveness is inviting, creating an intimacy impossible to obtain otherwise. Over and beyond that, however, these poems continue the explorations begun in the exquisite The New Spirit.

In his essay “Thinking / Singing and The Metaphysics of Sound,” Lazer describes the processes behind the composition of The New Spirit as an attending to not only how we hear music, but how “thinking in musicality” might take place within the poem. N 18 translates this idea into another register – the proprioceptive circuit that is writing by hand, the establishing of hand-to-mind circuit that obeys its own laws of form and formation. In this sense, Lazer is following Duncan, when he writes to Charles Olson that the hand is also a form of hearing, an organ of perception and knowing no less than the ear.

“I have observed in myself a curious double note in hearing. There is a previous ‘hearing’ out of which the lines (or from which – as in sketching an object) are composed, written on the page. Then the central ‘hearing’ is in the hand. The act of writing seems to hold back, rein (Plato’s image of the horseman) – listen (?). But the important thing is that ‘hearing’ only comes as the eys relay the words seen from the designing hand – ”

[N.B. This letter by Duncan is from the Olson archive at U Conn, in Storrs, dated March 1954].

N 18 in some ways is an exploration of this tantalizing description of a reciprocal cognitive feedback loop. More than that, though, it explores the poet’s response to his slow and careful reading of Heidegger and Levinas over a period of several years, a time in which he also found his way more deeply and surely into what he calls “shapewriting.”

“The word G-d is an overwhelming semantic event
that addresses the subversion worked by illeity.
The glory of the Infinite shuts itself up in a word and becomes a being.”

Held lightly

“But it already undoes its dwelling
and unsays itself without vanishing into nothingness” <151>

This is a wholly inadequate approximation of one of the simpler poem’s as it actually appears. Imagine the Levinas quotes as the twin curves of a parenthesis running sideways along the lengths of the page’s margins. It’s that “held lightly,” floating on the horizontal axi between the quotes, that arrests the attention – breaking up the quote, questioning it, but also amplifying it.

Occasionally there are poems that are more or less straightforward, like this one, with its echoes of John Taggart:

back again
turned back toward
away say
then turned around
back being
a way to be

It’s impossible to reproduce the layout and typography of N 18’s pages. Suffice it to say they inscribe multiple figures – the labyrinth, the spiral, the wave, and others so complex and delightful that there are no terms for them, really. Each page is a portal of discovery and wonder. With Levinas and Heidegger as springboards, shapewriting enacts Lazer’s delicate, nuanced articulation of a post-metaphysical theology and the rich potentialities it carries for an innovative poetics that is polyvocal and decentered, but equally welcoming and affirmative.

Eric Hoffman's "The American Eye"

Robert Murphy's Dos Madres Press has been bringing out some amazing books over the past few years, among them several titles by Michael Heller and Norman Finkelstein, Don Wellman's A North Atlantic Wall, and Peter O'Leary's stunning A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure. One of their most recent is Eric Hoffman's The American Eye.

Hoffman, whose forthcoming biography of George Oppen promises to be a major event (and something many doubted could even be done), has situated these angular poems along the rough grain of American transcendentalism and pragmatism. They play beautifully with the language of Emerson and William James, torquing their pithy aphorisms into something provocative and strange. The second half of the book draws from Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. (When I mentioned this to Menand, his response was “interesting”).

But these poems are sharp-eyed and agile and teeming with surprise. In “The Vast Practical Engine,” Hoffman’s language takes on uncanny overtones of George Oppen and William Bronk, delineating a continuity between these latter-day poets of epistemology, their 19th century predecessors, and his own concerns for the poem’s powers of reticulated consciousness, fueled by the precision of the imagination.

the world is certain
yet we cannot know
for certain its certainty
is all there is
to be known

things happen
and Truth is a thing

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Cool of the Archive: On Gustaf Sobin

Reading in an archive is exhausting business. Like viewing paintings at a museum, saturation fatigue, as my friend Nancy Kuhl calls it, can set in quickly. It’s not just the difficulty of deciphering an author’s longhand script, in some cases, but the immersion in their life, their day-to-day concerns, along with the unavoidable sense of feeling like an eavesdropper. Beyond that, there is the larger experience of cognitive confusion that occurs when poring over reams of completely unedited material: so many envelopes stuffed with letters with no signposts for what to read first, or what might prove illuminating and what is merely a dead-end.

I don’t consider myself an archive scholar. Mostly, I just read poems in books that someone has edited, then try to think of some things to say about them. My previous trips to read poet’s papers – to Durham, Northumbria, where Bunting’s papers are kept, and to Storrs, CT, to read Duncan’s letters to Olson – were stimulating, but they never opened up new avenues for the kind of analytical writing I do. At best, they offered the possibility of an alternate life where I would reinvent myself as the editor of obscure poets’ correspondence. Which could be enormously useful to say, about seven people, but probably even more thankless than what I’m doing now.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, thanks to the gracious hospitality of Richard Deming and Nancy Kuhl, who put me up for the night, I spent a total of about seven hours at Yale’s Beinecke Library, an elegant cube of a building, reading through three out of ten overall boxes of Gustaf Sobin’s correspondence (the entire archive of his papers comes to 48 boxes). I had no firm notion of what I was looking for other than the possibility of locating some connections between Sobin and some other poets I’m writing about, chiefly Michael Palmer and John Taggart.

I was disappointed with respect to the latter, who only wrote to Sobin once (about rights for some translations of Rene Char), but the Palmer letters were quite marvelous, though I have no idea what, if anything, to do with what I gleaned. There was a real sense of connection, through the work and the care and demands of the work, that linked these two (though Sobin’s letters to Palmer are not included). It was a privilege to read them and out respect for Palmer I won’t quote from them here except to note one poignant remark made after his 41st birthday: “Some things at least I can appreciate more. I won’t list them, lest they disappear.” (That single word, “list,” in Palmer’s spidery hand, gave me some long minutes of puzzling out).

There are also some gems from one of Sobin's literary executors, Andrew Joron, who writes, in 1999: "isn't the system of language itself finally to be understood as an Ur-terrestrial toponym?"

The most amusing exchange, from 1956, occurs between Sobin, still a student at Brown, and Ezra Pound, still incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s. Sobin writes to the older poet as a “very deep admirer” and asks if he can visit and, if possible, bring him some him of his poems. Pound’s typewritten reply, on a postcard, is terse:

“you will have to give proof of preparation,/& a list of what you object to//before I can spend time on you/let alone kindergarten lesson// Yrs. E.P.//also some personal reference would be helpful//why should ANY man take time away from informative reading?”

Sobin’s cheeky response is priceless. He begins by stating that he has no list of objections. Instead, he submits a list of things he loves. These include “my fiancĂ©, swimming at Paraggi, Canto 90, and Campari bitter and ripe olives.” There’s no indication if the trip to D.C. was ever taken. I suspect somehow that it was not. But if it was?

In the 1980s, Sobin, already in dialogue with his publisher James Laughlin at New Directions, offered to help Laughlin with preparations for a film about Pound, much of which was to be shot on location in Provence. The exchange between the two is animated, with Sobin supplying a special map that links Pound’s sacred sites to the Michelin map for Provence. He also prepared, after combing through The Cantos, an extensive list and breakdown of the poem’s many allusions to troubadour culture. It runs to several pages, single-spaced. I’ve requested a PDF of this with a view toward augmenting my argument, made in a recent talk given at Orono, about Sobin’s discrete silence regarding Pound’s influence on his work.

There’s no mention of the film’s final fate. At several points, Laughlin complains about the work schedule set by the director, Lawrence Pitkethly, both on the set and in post-production. I suspect these aren’t really in earnest. Either that, or Laughlin simply had no idea about the kind of hours that go into production, which can easily run to 15 per day. In 1982, a screening of some 13 hours of unedited footage takes place at Yale in the hopes of securing the film’s purchase by the archives. But I have yet to verify if the film is at the Beinecke, or if still exists in some form, or if it was even completed or shown anywhere. (Pitkethly also directed several episodes of the PBS/Vendler series, “Voices and Visions,” including the one on Pound).

N.B. A quick Google search indicates that a 90 minute film, "Ezra Pound: American Odyssey," did in fact appear in 1988. The NY Times called it a "standard biographical documentary." Presumably it is more or less the same as the Pound episode in "Voices & Visions." So much for the mystery -- and my research skills.

The Laughlin correspondence is extensive and full of mutual warmth and regard. Sobin’s file contains the New Yorker profile of Laughlin, entitled simply “Jaz.” Their friendship survived New Directions’ draconian decision to drop Sobin from their list (apparently his books weren’t making the grade: sales of 1000 over two years). That was a tough letter to read and must have been even tougher to write, much less receive. Yet even as Laughlin’s health failed him (he'd suffered a stroke) and his eyes started to go, he remained the ever supportive friend and erstwhile editor. The last letter from him is dated January 28, 1997. He died later that year, in November; Sobin included a print out of the NY Times online obituary. The feeling of loss, of the end of a conversation, is palpable.

As Sobin wrote to Laughlin, on May 24, 1993: “Palliative, that’s the word. Isn’t that what poetry – and irises – are all about?”

The most vivid correspondence that I came across – and this is one of those things that can surprise you in archive research – was Eliot Weinberger’s. The force of Weinberger’s personality is electric in his letters – there are seven fat folders full of them – which begin in the 70s and go through the 90s. He comes across as a consummate bon vivant, witty and sharp, with a gift for piercing pronouncement and razor-sharp satirical gibes at the expense of the inflated. And he made me want to read the mysterious Karin Lessing.

Many of Sobin’s responses are collected in this file, often given over to detailed instructions for the proofs of his complicated poems that would appear in Weinberger’s journal, Montemora. As Sobin writes, “the proper placement of a word can be as significant, as crucial, as the word itself.” It’s clear that not only Weinberger’s great care as an editor, but his investment in a certain kind of poetics, was of great importance for Sobin, a real source of nourishment. Montemora supported, he writes, “the breath of the letter, the spark that instructs the shadows.”

Weinberger’s support obviously was instrumental for Sobin. What it gave him was hsi first real moment of recognition. Which, finally, may be all the reward a writer can really hope for. As he put it in a letter of April 28, 1977: “I’ve been living here, Eliot, on a slab of wind, for over ten years, writing, writing, writing. That the words finally carry. That you hear them, is great recompense.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Report from Orono 2012-The Poetry of the 80s

There were many great moments at the just-concluded 2012 Orono Conference on The Poetry of the 80s. I’m being kind of partial here, of course, but I think the panel I organized on Michael Palmer, “Estranging the Logos,” with brilliant papers by Richard Deming, Peter O’Leary and Norman Finkelstein kind of rocked the house. I’m normally pretty unflappable (Editor’s note: actually not true, but it sounds good as a lead-in) so I stayed cool as I saw the room gradually filling up. At least 50 people, I’d say. Even Marjorie Perloff’s presence didn’t ruffle me since I’d rather counted on her coming.

But reader, when I looked up as I started my introduction and seated there, several rows up, right at eye level, I saw Nate Mackey, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe, gazing down at me with a cool, implacable Olympian calm, I confess, my heart quailed. I mean here I was, claiming with a straight face that the 80s were Palmer’s decade. I was too rattled to improvise in front of the poetry gods, so I just stuck to script and plowed on. No one remembers the introductions to these things anyway and the panel was so exciting it really just didn’t matter. By the time we got to the Q&A I was myself again.

I’m not going to set out in detail even a summary of all the talks I heard. That would require a Herculean effort. I’ll just mention some of the quirkier highlights and pleasures.

The glamorous Star Black orchestrating a madcap photo op with about 20 or so of us, including Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, in the University’s student union after lunch.

Aldon Nielsen and I cheering when we watched the cable news feed of the SCOTUS ruling. Throughout the conference Aldon wore two hats. But not at the same time.

Chatting with the charming Donna Hollenberg about some of the juicier bits in her forthcoming biography of Denise Levertov.

Laura Moriarty fondly recalling Michael Palmer’s early mentorship.

Pen Creeley, period.

David Need lying supine on a bench outside Corbett Hall reciting from Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight.

My Freudian slip in the Gustaf Sobin talk where I called Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage” “The Ruined College.”

Alan Golding’s Colbertism, in his Armand Schwerner talk: “hoaxiness.”

Charles Bernstein reading his heart-rending translation of Goethe's "Der Erlkonig."

Susan Howe holding up a copy of Lee Hickman’s magazine Temblor, at her plenary reading.

Marjorie Perloff declaring, as a respondent to a panel, that San Francisco as a literary scene was “over.” And Kevin Killian saying, “I could talk your ear off about that.”

Kevin Killian in general, but especially his deeply moving plenary talk about AIDS.

A major critic stating flatly that In The American Tree is just unreadable anymore.

Talking theology and Duncan with Peter O’Leary.

Talking Sobin with Joe Donahue.

Talking trash with Bob Archambeau and Grant Jenkins.

Keith Tuma’s sly sense of wit.

Talking Ed Dorn, Baraka, and Naropa with old Boulder friend Joe Richey on the drive back down to Portland.

Nate Mackey brandishing his cane as he strolled by Norman Finkelstein, Joe Donahue and myself and threatening to whack us with his “ugly stick.” Which conjured up the cover of his From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, with its image of a flute terminating in a hammer head, and which, of course, I took to be a classic instance of gnostic contagion.

That was my Orono conference, in part. And I missed a lot, especially at the after-hours poetry readings.

Huge thanks to Steve Evans, Carla Billiteri, Ben Friedlander and Jennifer Moxley, for making it all happen. Bring on the 90s!