Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Wednesday, 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

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.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

New York City Man (for Lou Reed)

And the stars have shut their eyes
and the earth has changed its course
and in the blink of an eye I am gone.

I am gone/I am gone
the water goes on, underground
it flows on

and the day does not change
nor the sound of the traffic
nor the apostles of noise
who carry the true burden

of song.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity's Pallid Rainbow

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity took my breath away, especially in the sublime opening scenes, where the astronauts undertake their tasks 600km above the dazzling surface of the earth in a series of ballet-like movements which the camera’s whip-like tracking orchestrates to utterly entrance the eye. The first ten minutes of this very tightly economical film of 91 minutes is a mini-tour de force.

Sadly, though, what starts out as a voyage into the possibilities of the beyond, becomes a very predictable survival story – riveting, to be sure, but anchored by the trite narrative arc of the triumph of the human spirit, as embodied by the ever-perky – but also immensely watchable – Sandra Bullock. The camera lavishes an unseemly amount of attention on Bullock’s buttocks – and the rest of her, as well, which is as perfectly sculpted as one would expect from a multi-million-dollar star. Call it eye-candy in space.

Richard Brody – in my opinion, the most discerning film critic in America right now – launches a devastating attack on the film in the online version of The New Yorker. His tirade is aimed at both the plodding humanist clichés of the film itself and the accolades the critics – like his colleague, David Denby – are lauding it with. In this fraternal sphere of mutual admiration, no real critical work can be done, according to Brody, and while I largely agree with his indictment of the film and its critical reception because it addresses a much larger problem, I take issue with his charge that it lacks any meaningful sense of interiority.

This clearly comes through in the back story scenes, where Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, the consummate veteran professional, unflappable in the face of crisis, drags out of Bullock’s character, the absurdly named Ryan Stone, her tragic history – motherhood, dead child, spiritual desolation – check, check and check. Cue grieving strings. The interiority is weak, yes; barely sketched out in the hackneyed way of many Hollywood movies, yet these characters do have inner lives, even if they consist of pure proceduralism and corny tics, as in Clooney's character, who listens to country music as he zooms about. The egregiously shameless and sentimental bait of the dead child smacks of the most cynical calculation, evidence of what Pauline Kael once called "contempt for the audience." One can easily imagine much more compelling arcs for both these characters. Instead they are reduced to components in a complex physics problem that also poses, preposterously, as a work of mourning.

Brody seems largely disappointed that Gravity is not 2001. But what film could be? Still, he's right – a huge opportunity was wasted here. Gravity is all technique and no soul.

The film goes downhill after Kowalski sacrifices himself to save Stone. The rest is simply a gripping procedural about a plucky-bootstrap-gal and Bullock is great in it. This is what she does best. (That, and zero-gee striptease, which, reader, seen in 3D, on an XD digital screen, is not totally a bad thing. But no, really, it is).

The film’s geopolitical logic takes over then, with Stone leap-frogging from the ruined American shuttle to the International Space Station and its Russian ship and from there to the Chinese shuttle, also a bit of a shambles thanks to the Russians setting off a chain-reaction of catastrophic space debris by blowing up one of their own spy satellites. Meet the new Cold War, just like the old Cold War.

Bullock manages not only to maneuver her way through this impossible crisis, but put behind her the devastation of her young daughter’s death. It becomes, in other words, not a story about the consequences of the colonization of orbital space, but one woman’s triumph over adversity. That she’s a) American and b) swiftly and shrewdly commands both Russian and Chinese space modules to splashdown in a final, over the top, rebirth, is not really worth commenting on. Except to say that anxieties about globalization and the precarious future of a totalized capitalist sphere of influence for which orbital space is both the actual and allegorical arena are the film's repressed contents. The entire network of international trade and exchange -- in other words, the world system, the totality of circumnavigated space -- is fragile, always poised on the brink of the next calamity.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Remembering Poets: Eileen Simpson on John Berryman & Charles Boer on Charles Olson

Memoirs about poets offer a particular kind of pleasure by affording a view of the actual person, in all of his or her neurotic quirks, the live human behind "the figure of the poet." The way these two aspects interact and are bound up with one another is endlessly fascinating. I’m thinking specifically about accounts of poets written either by non-poets, or former students. Though sometimes poets themselves are the best recorders of each other. I suppose the gold standard is Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Near the beginning of his account of the ill-starred Savage, he writes:

“To these mournful narratives I am about to add the "Life of Richard Savage," a man whose writings entitle him to an eminent rank in the classes of learning, and whose misfortunes claim a degree of compassion not always due to the unhappy, as they were often the consequences of the crimes of others rather than his own.” Edward Trelawny’s Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron is another exemplar. A somewhat ramshackle account of his brief associations with both poets, it has the gift of the gab. It entrances, even if much of it is made up out of whole cloth.

We could all make a list of our favorites, but the two that I’ve returned to most over the years have been Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth and Charles Boer’s Charles Olson in Connecticut. I must have read each of them three or four times.

Poets in Their Youth is sustained by a tone of consistent faith in youth's ardent aspirations and finely undercut by the melancholy of the failure and madness that often accompanies such Icarian passions. It's sensitively and lovingly written, a compulsively readable recollection by John Berryman’s first wife, the lovely and eloquent Eileen Simpson. Simpson is a sympathetic witness. She praises the beauty of these dashing young men, even while bemoaning their obsessive drive, their egotism, and their infidelities. Her account of young male poetic ambition at mid-century, when Eliot had become the unobtainable apex of cultural authority and everyone who mattered read The Nation, is exhilarating, but also cautionary. In the end, the totalizing ambition of these poets proves to be deranging; it pushes them all headlong into excess, betrayal, alcoholism and dementia. Still, it sparkles with the droll, mischievous wit that ran like an infection through these poets and critics. To give just one of many examples: "Out of the blue at a very proper dinner with people we didn't know very well, he'd [R.P. Blackmur] say in full voice [to Berryman] -- 'John, have you ever noticed that while many women have bottoms like cellos Eileen's is like a viola?'" And then these puckish "lads" would be off and running. Simpson was largely amused by such antics. But the narrative grows darker as Berryman sinks deeper into depression and booze, all of it leading up to his first masterpiece -- and their divorce -- "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."

Charles Olson in Connecticut, by his former student, Charles Boer (notable, among other things, for his glorious Projectivist translations of The Homeric Hymns) paints a similar picture. This warm, vivid portrait of the utterly alive and charismatic Olson in his final year of life also shows how completely tyrannical and manipulative he was (or had become). He is the house guest from Hell, yet poor Boer, to his infinite credit, cannot at first bring himself to dislodge this friendly, all-consuming overbearing ogre. Olson had an insatiable appetite for conversation. Which generally meant, his holding forth on a wide array of esoteric topics until all hours of the night while the hapless Boer lay prostrate with exhaustion. The memoir uses a device that is notably effective. It's addressed to Olson himself, usually referenced as "you," as in "It was so hard for you to go bed before four or five in the morning..." This gives the book a vivid immediacy, as though we were overhearing a dialogue between author and subject. Olson drives Boer to despair, yet throughout it all he continues to love and revere this great preposterous bear of a man who wants nothing less than a total resurrection of the human spirit, here and now.

There are many priceless and touching moments of Olson being Olson in this book, but one that immensely amuses me, I don't even know why, is of Olson's queer nocturnal habits. As Boer tells it:

"That night, and for many nights to come, you took large amounts of the refrigerator's contents to bed with you -- everything from a jug of orange juice, a quart of ginger ale, candy, a head of lettuce to a box of crackers, cheese and hard-boiled eggs ... you dumped everything on the bed. I remember well ... hearing you in the next room furiously turning the pages of the books, munching vigorously on the lettuce ... it went on all night."

This stuff is priceless -- and heartbreaking.

Boer manages, finally, to get Olson installed in a local motel, where he immediately charms the entire staff in his best Lord of the Manor mode. It ends, all too soon, in death. Olson, stricken with liver cancer, aghast, yet valiantly struggling to the end to pierce the veil, to come to grips with the essence of myth, as recorded in his last piece of writing, the fascinating and almost incoherent “Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum.” Charles Stein has devoted an entire book to decrypting this esoteric text, written, as it were, from beyond the grave. Olson’s folly, I suppose, was that he tried to embody the archetypal truths of myth in his own psyche. But that way lies madness. One cannot traffic so openly with such dangerous godly energies.

This memoir of a poetic genius is still the most moving I have ever read. It shows how his extraordinary magnanimity of spirit is complexly bound up with a certain kind of self-delusion. Olson was a mixture of PT Barnum and Homer. A showman/barker decrying the real spiritual shipwreck and urging us to look outside the bounds of the quotidian for the mythic reality of real renewal. He was a grand and noble soul and at the same time, a bit of a bullshit artist. Maybe that’s what was needed – and still needed. The prophet speaks in tongues. It is up to us to decode it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Wages of Taxonomy

I’ve been reading Robert von Hallberg’s masterful “book,” Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals¸ which appeared as the first part of Volume 8 in The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and Criticism, 1940-1995 (1996), edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. I place book in quotation marks since it’s not a stand-alone volume and can only be read by those with access to university libraries. I downloaded mine for free through Harvard and have printed out the entire thing. Yet while at 259 pages on type-set single sheets it would only make for a short book of only 130 pages or so, it’s nevertheless a full-scale work of sweeping literary history, encompassing and thoughtfully argued.

It’s rare that a work of this kind should be not only so eminently and pleasurably readable, but that its judgments and assessments of postwar American poetry over nearly six decades should also be so judicious and free of partisan axe-grinding. (It's a shame it's not more widely available, but cooped up in the vaults of the library). Not that Von Hallberg doesn’t occasionally reveal a glimpse of his own aesthetic and ideological biases and preferences. But overall his tone is remarkably free of cant even when his judgments of say, Charles Olson’s “Le Preface” (which he simultaneously derides and praises) are severe. Though I’m reading the chapters out of order (in typical fashion) and have so far only read “Avant Gardes” and “The Place of Poetry, 1995,” I don’t feel I’d be amiss in claiming that this is literary history at its best.

In the final chapter, Von Hallberg recalls that for Frank Lentricchia it was enough to name four poets as the most representative of the period from 1900-1945. Though he doesn’t elaborate, he’s referring to Modernist Quartet, a study of Frost, Stevens, Eliot and Pound (a version of which appeared in an earlier volume of the Cambridge series). It would be, he notes, much more difficult to settle on four similarly representative poets from 1945-1995. Historical conditions have changed significantly and the cultural dominants of the first half of the 20th Century have been superseded by numerous emergent trends, many of which have established their own dominance. The map of poetry is simply more diverse now and more complex.

(The real problem, here, is that it was already diverse then. Where is Stein,or HD, or Moore?)

But if one were foolish enough to try forming such a list, what would it look like? First of all, the numbers of poets would have to be expanded from four to six as an acknowledgement that the accomplishments of American poets can no longer be adequately described by the arbitrary but appealing smaller even number. One can contend of course that such lists themselves are clumsy tools for the work of literary history, that they tend to re-enforce existing hierarchies and hegemonies, that they are nowhere near subtle or flexible enough to map the territory. But just as Jameson claims that we can never not periodize, perhaps literary historians can never not make lists. They serve a specific set of needs both psychological and cultural. The logic of the list is that it organizes and makes stable a certain set of trends and developments, ideally enabling us to see them more clearly.

So who would the six most representative poets from 1945-2000 be? By representative I mean not the best, not those who have produced the most brilliant or enduring work, but those who have been the most influential, whose cultural impact has been felt more widely and lastingly than others.

A first provisional List of Six might look like this:

Charles Olson
John Ashbery
Amiri Baraka
Adrienne Rich
Jorie Graham
Charles Bernstein

This list gets at something, but it leaves out something too. It’s a more difficult business than I thought. While I feel confident about the first four names on the list since they’ve each acquired a sizeable body of settled opinion, and since each conveniently represents a major trend or school, I'm troubled by the fact that there’s no Robert Lowell here. So mark a spot for him. At the same time, when one gets to around 1980, the task becomes harder. Graham seems to deserve a spot if only because of her immensely influential stewardship of several generations of poets at Iowa. Yet I could make an equally strong case for Anne Waldman, whose program at Naropa has nurtured a whole left-hand counter-tradition that runs parallel to yet outside of the lines drawn by Graham. Bernstein is here, not because he’s a great poet (though he's wonderful and his provocations in essay form have done as much, if not more, to reshape the poetic landscape) but because his tenure at first Buffalo then Penn has likewise shaped two or three decade’s worth of poet-critics.

This tension between "greatness," however measured, versus the range of influence, which is more easily demonstrated, goes to the heart of the vexed question plaguing efforts at recent literary history. Olson, Ashbery, Baraka, and Rich all answer to major movements: Olson, for the post-Poundian New American Poetry, Ashbery for the incursion of European surrealism with postwar New York; Baraka for a second, more politically radical Harlem Renaissance; and Rich for a similar forceful resurgence of feminism. Lowell occupies an odd middle-ground. His swerve, in the late 50s, from the Eliot-Tate-Ransom brand of Catholic modernism to Williams' wide-open secular poetics has defined what we've come to think of as the mainstream.

Graham and Bernstein belong on this list, I would argue, because they are the most prominent heirs and proslytizers of modernism, via their respective positions at Iowa and Buffalo. Graham carries forward the metaphysical densities and aspirations of Eliot; Bernstein, the ludic play of Stein and Zukofsky. The former invests in metaphor, the latter in metonymy, and I wonder really if this isn't all that marks the divide, finally, between the so-called mainstream and the so-called avant-garde.

Part of the difficulty in forming a representative taxonomy is due to the broader changes in academic institutions that have taken place since 1945. I mean, of course, the professionalization of poetry. Von Hallberg addresses this in light of Joseph Epstein’s observations in his 1988 essay, “Who Killed Poetry?” This is old news, but it’s still relevant. It’s hard to disagree with Von Hallberg’s conclusion: “many undistinguished writers manage now to earn their living teaching in creative writing programs of colleges and universities.” (Here I silently grind my teeth as I think on mediocre writers who beat me out for jobs).

When columnists decry, as they do with calendrical regularity, what happened to poetry? what they are really lamenting is the alleged grab-up of poetry by the cult of experts (i.e the New Critics, and then the rest of us), which is itself a phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of the Cold War’s bogus economy of meritocracy. Poetry, according to this account, was whisked away from a hungry public (say who?) and embalmed within the groves of academe, where it sheltered behind walls of esoteric jargon and elitist ambition. All of this has been debated to death for some years now, with much anguished hand-wringing and elegies for the fall of poetry.

This process can be summed up in a word: “gate-keeping.” None of Lentricchia’s poets ever held an academic position, with the irregular exception of Frost, who was the nation’s first poet-in-residence at Amherst, but seems not to have wielded any larger influence beyond having the library named after him. Of course, Pound aspired to being the ultimate gatekeeper, even as Eliot actually achieved it, while Stevens remained indifferent to such crass ambitions.

But has gate-keeping gotten a bad rap? Can’t a gate-keeper also be a gate-opener? Certainly both Graham and Bernstein have lived up to the cultural demands of this role, in their respective aesthetic spheres of influence. The problem is that these spheres are always already determined by the iron logic of the institution. And that logic, vestigial though it is, has been dictated by Cold War strategy: in a word, containment. Whether from Iowa or Buffalo. Both are subducted into the State which funds them, no matter how they may rail or protest or transgress. This is a problem poets have yet to address successfully.

All lists are unsatisfying. They rely on a scale of hierarchies. On what are finally crude distinctions of inside and outside/us vs. them. To give one simple example: where are the visionary poets in my schemata? Where is Duncan? Or Lamantia? Or Mackey? Or Anne Waldman? Or Jay Wright? But these practitioners of trance, political or erotic, are simply not mappable onto the culture-at-large. Which is just as it should be. In the end, lists are a form of hysteria, as DeLillo says. They don’t merely try to settle the past, but the future as well. They are predictions of the impossible.

As scholars, we cannot not make lists. But as poets, we should just ignore them and get on with it. Unfortunately, when one is both a poet and a scholar it’s not quite as simple as that, and that is big part of the problem of what’s happened to poetry.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Power of Negation in the American Novel

Now that the obnoxious new pseudo-documentary gilding Salinger’s woebegone lily is out, this seems apt enough, though I wrote it back in 2010.

When JD Salinger died, Adam Gopnik wrote a spirited, if rather glibly positivist, apologia for his place in American literature in The New Yorker’s "Talk of the Town" section. Singling out Catcher in the Rye in particular, he elected it to a troika of American letters, setting it alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. For Gopnik, evidently, the symmetry of this grouping is non-pareil. Each novel presents the struggle of the man-child to come of age which, of course, means learning what it means to be disillusioned. As with the man, so the Republic? Twain and Fitzgerald get no real argument from me, but Salinger has always seemed grotesquely over-rated; a minor satirist masquerading as Dostoevsky.

If I had my druthers – and in this blog, I do, reader – I would nominate an alternate troika: a darker, more perturbed vision of the loss of innocence. Moby Dick, Nightwood, and On The Road. In place of narratives of guileless innocence corrupted or betrayed by experience, I would substitute tales of darkness and perverse desires for deranged orders of transcendence. Of baroque language over so-called plain speaking. Of the radical abundance and darkness of experience over the paucity of disappointed affirmation. Each of these works places a premium on the power of negation in a way that Gopnik’s bland choices do not.

As Adorno insists, “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.”

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

(Read at our wedding, 6/14/2009, by the Reverend Mr. William Corbett)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Only Angels Have Wings

In some ways this is just another piece of Hollywood hokum. It asks to be liked a little too much. But the often creaky stageyness of the script, bristling here and there with delightfully flippant banter and period sangfroid, by Jules Furthman, who would go on to co-write, among other classics, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, transcends its genre-bound conventions, through the extraordinary charisma of its leads, a bitter, cynical Cary Grant, and the ineffably luminous Jean Arthur, whose face is held in such loving close up it’s practically theophanic. Above all, though, it’s Howard Hawks’ superlative direction that lifts this story to a level of melancholy sublime that epitomizes the wages of modernity. Those wages are paid out in trauma and the failure of the human body to adapt to it. In some ways, this film looks ahead to the “maximum effort” of the pilots and crews in Henry King’s 1949 Twelve O’Clock High. It’s an allegory, in other words, about how the codes of masculinity struggle to conform to the pressures of the machine age.

In Only Angels, this notion of sacrifice is transferred to commerce and the expanding trade in global communication networks – namely, airmail. The pioneering spirit of St.-Exupery shadows this film. Books like Night Mail (about flying in Argentina) and Wind, Sand and Stars (on the perils of early aviation over the Sahara) set the tone for Only Angels, with their emphasis on grace under pressure and the high hazards of this radical new form of extending man’s physical universe.

This is where Hawks’ genius for what drives men working under intense pressure comes in. For him, the job of carrying airmail is charged with an existential demand: either live up to those demands, or fail nobly. Caving in to fear is a fate worse than death. It exiles you from the community. Doing the job, right, and with a certain devil-take-the-hindmost sense of honor, defines the meaning of manhood. It's not Roosevelt's "The Strenuous Life," but it's not far from it either since so many of Hawks' code heroes are only playfully ambiguous. Their real duty is to uphold the social order. In its depiction of men who live on the edge, Only Angels seems made as a tribute to the calamitous trauma of the First War (with a nod to Hemingway, whose “To Have and Have Not” Hawks would later adapt, brilliantly, with Furthman working alongside Faulkner, as a sort of coda/companion piece to “Casablanca”).

All the classic Hawks themes are here: the codes by which men in crisis live – their cynicism, their camraderie, their crude tenderness. The wrenching death of dedicated men (Joe and the incredibly sweet Kid, so memorably portrayed by the great Thomas Mitchell) and the redemption of a fallen character like the one played by silent star Richard Barthelmess, who’s paired with an incredibly young and feisty Rita Hayworth. The job of carrying the mail becomes infused with a higher moral purpose – the continuation of culture itself, and of course, beyond or concurrent with that, the propagation of a ruthless spirit of capitalist and imperialist expansionism, which the film obfuscates by linking this expansionism to ideas of individual valor and accomplishment. Thus the groundwork for establishing a global communications network is yoked to the thing it most endangers, subjective agency. The will to bravery, the ideal of self-sacrifice for the larger or common good, is simply a means to a larger corporate end. Such considerations have no place in Hawks' films. They seem to exist in a timeless, mythic place, unanchored from history.

Only Angels, in its very title, points to the problematic of asking men to lay down their lives impossibly for the higher call of the transcendent, which in this case, is serving the cause of the system. Yet it valorizes that sacrifice by making noble heroes of The Kid, of Joe, of Cary Grant, and the game, but finally subservient, Jean Arthur, who gives up her independence in exchange for kowtowing to Grant’s overwhelming and over-literalized phallic power – the crude miniature airplanes the film fetishizes over and over, emphasized by the very large pistol swinging from Grant’s hip throughout the picture.

Having said all that, I still love this film and always will. Jay Cocks once told me that for him a lot of Hawks had badly dated. He may be right. Hawks is more rooted or mired in his time than someone like John Ford. Though many of his films have a loping, graceful quality to them, they can also come across somewhat stilted. Still, how can His Girl Friday or The Big Sleepor Rio Bravo be dated? (Actually, this last one has worn a little for me). Nevertheless, I will always carry a deep affection for Only Angels Have Wings, which conveys the power of what it’s like to risk everything on a chance and a dare. Hawks' vision of the job of the pilot is both mundane and poetic. Charged with the task of delivering the mail in often dangerous conditions, his pilots adopt a nonchalance that masks, or rather expresses, a deep romanticism, a way of reclaiming the labor of the individual from the job itself. They know full well what it may cost them, but they do it anyway. This may be a myth, but it's a powerful, maybe even a necessary one to combat the alienation of modernity.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Against the Prime Directive as Such

Of the many often delightful, but sometimes merely exasperating, absurdities bedeviling Star Trek, past, present, and still to come, surely the greatest is the Prime Directive. This doctrine of non-interference by the Federation into the affairs of less-developed cultures aims to protect those planets from future shock. It’s anthropological hindsight raised to the level of state policy. Within the context of the shows and movies, its purpose is to provide an always available form of conflict. Kirk or Picard must weigh duty, read as the submission of the individual to the state, against compassion, which elevates the individual over the state. In this way, the state’s true ideological interests are best served by reinforcing the cult of the individual as the Highest Good while insuring that that cult is always already subsumed by and subservient to the logic of institutional power.

As originally conceived in the 1960s series, The Prime Directive would appear to be an allegory about American interventionism during the Cold War; specifically, Vietnam. The Directive makes the series unique perhaps in the SF genre. For by and large, the vast majority of novels and films about star-faring cultures run counter to this notion. The whole point of being an interstellar culture is to dabble in the affairs of others, especially if they are less developed. This is borne out broadly by everything from Smith’s Lensman series to Clarke’s 2001 to Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series to, most recently, Scott’s Prometheus.

In 2001, as well as other novels by Clarke, notably Childhood’s End, consciousness is so rare on the galactic scale that, when found, it must be nourished, rather than allowed to suffer the hazards of chance. Lessing follows a similar line, portraying the benevolent Canopians as midwives to lesser, struggling species, setting out to bring them along and instill in them their own high moral values, but failing in that mission more often than not. The whole series is a critique of empire and its tragic colonial wages. A film like Prometheus gives us a darker, gnostic view of alien intervention, with the Engineers merely tinkering with lifeforms across the eons, in much the same way we might experiment with bacteria or mice. The point here is that the genre repeatedly generates drama and high moral stakes precisely from staging what happens when higher races engage openly in colonial or technological policies of intervention. (Iain Banks’ Culture novels consistently explore this theme in what I’ve called elsewhere the sub-genre of “science fiction after Auschwitz”).

The Prime Directive is noble in a touchy-feely New Left sort of way, but what it leaves out is central – how do starships get built? In other words, what’s notably absent in Star Trek is any mention of the enormous giga-tera-peta-economy required to sustain such a society. Is it a post-scarcity one? That hardly seems likely. "The Original Series," "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" all allude to interstellar trade, albeit vaguely, and in the case of the lattermost, through the anti-Semitic trope of the Ferengi. The building of starships and the maintenance of a vast interstellar trade organization still seems to operate under a capitalist paradigm of plenty and lack.

So then the Prime Directive becomes an empty category of liberal intervention by way of non-intervention that’s symptomatic of such Great Society projects like the Peace Corps, CARE, and UNESCO, to name a few. What’s key here is the idea of “value.” The Federation seldom reverts to vulgar gunboat diplomacy. Instead, it’s main tool of persuasion is to present itself as the exporter of an unquestioned free market individualism. And since no interstellar culture could continue to thrive without expanding its potential future trading partners or else exploiting them to acquire reservoirs of raw material to fuel their expansion, these values stand in for the logic of capital. (This is the driving concern of Alastair Reynold’s very good Revelation Space trilogy, in which the internecine Dawn War is waged between starfaring cultures for the all too scant mineral resources available to them).

Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for Star Trek was “Horatio Hornblower in outer space.” Thus the spectacle – straining credulity, yet visually and dramatically exciting – of starships firing broadsides at one another at close quarters under poky human command, instead of super-fast computer-controlled combat waged over far vaster distances and at far greater velocities. It's a romantic vision that keeps intact the dominant illusion of capital, which is this: that it's people, rather than systems, which design and regulate our welfare.

There’s a lot made in the latest installment, “Into Darkness,” of ST’s peaceful mission. But in fact it’s always been a military organization. The crew of The Enterprise may be Boy Scouts, but they are colonial Boy Scouts all the same. The utopian idealism of the Prime Directive is just a smoke screen concealing the ruhtless logic of the market, whose final goal is to colonize the entire galaxy under the flag of unfree enterprise

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Image of the City - Copley Square

Copley Square in Boston, where the Boston Marathon always finishes, is one of my favorite urban spaces in the world. The skyline is defined, on the west side, by the squat but dignified Boston Public Library, with its Victorian-era bronze statues of feminine virtue perched on thrones and its roll call of the illustrious names of humanism (DaVinci, Agassiz, Rousseau) carved into the building’s façade. Across from it, and just to the south, separated by a generous swath of the square itself, rises the shiny and bewitching splinter of I.M. Pei’s Hancock Tower (which a student of mine at Northeastern once wrote a first-rate paper on).

In between sits H. R. Richardson’s magnificent Trinity Church, a kind of happy Gothic fin de siècle folly that’s all Romanesque curves and spires. And just across from that, on the south side of the square stands the elegant Fairmount Hotel, a place where Ingrid and I, back when we were grad students and poor as mice, occasionally repaired to for martinis at the fabled Oak Room, a Boston institution, where they serve them in carafes plunged into smoking buckets of ice.

Just around the entrance to the old library, on Boylston Street, outside the steps to the inbound Green Line T Station a perpetually happy guy hands out copies of The Metro, a nationally syndicated free paper. He’s like the Mayor of Copley – he always makes you feel welcome, no matter how crappy the weather or how tired you feel at 7:00 am.

Oh, and there’s also a CVS and a Panera’s.

I feel inexplicably happy whenever I walk through Copley Square. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Early morning or late at night. Bright sunny day or total Nor’easter shit show. It’s a space that invites you to look; to be part of the city and join in its cosmopolitanism. A space that asks you to take it in, but which never overwhelms you. It’s perfectly scaled. Large enough to inspire a sense of delight, but small enough to make you feel that what makes a city great is the way it creates a sense of intimacy amid such impersonal structures. For me, it embodies the essence of city living – the hustle and bustle, the dirt and the grime, the greenery and fountains and stone, the mad dashing taxis and the vibrant assortment of street people, office workers, skateboarders, and beautiful women, but also the richness of a detailed and intricate and somehow serene place.

A great part of its charm comes from what Boston architect and MIT professor Kevin Lynch outlined in his famous 1960 book, The Image of the City. Copley Square, to use some of Lynch’s seminal terms, combines in a lyrical way such features as landmarks and paths, while acting itself as a major node -- all elements by which we make our cognitive maps of complex urban environments.

Above all, I love the layers of architectural styles on view in Copley, the way the old butts up against the new and the new reflects and enhances the old. Pei’s tower shimmers like a mirage from the future, while Trinity Church’s rosy stone incarnates a nostalgic dream of the past. This, I think, is the good modernity.

Walking through Copley Square makes me feel a bit like Frank O’Hara. The Frank O’Hara who wrote, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” that “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

Well, yes, this is an emergency.

And yes, the whole world is in a state of emergency. And yes, Boston is not Baghdad, is not Kabul, is not Aleppo. But right now, it’s bleeding.

And right now I could really use a blade of grass. And since there are no more record stores, a bookstore would do very nicely.

I’ve always thought marathons were absurd and preposterous events. Expressions of the cult of excess, they seem to exemplify the metastatic logic of capital, promising spiritual liberation through grotesque labor, engulfing its participants in a massive spectacle that has just a little too much of the air of martial rallies of the 20th Century for my comfort. A product of the same era that gave us Teddy Roosevelt's exuberant (not to say hysterical) paean to masculinity and nationalism, "The Strenuous Life," (which we're studying just now in a Harvard course on the cultural logic of Manifest destiny), they purport to celebrate such civic virtues as sacrifice and dedication and the triumph of the individual over the odds: avid displays of endurance and athleticism which the ancient Greeks would have found bewildering since arête depends on moderation and balance. To say nothing of the fact that each time a marathon is run, it reinforces an unconscious Orientalism by marking the victory of classical Greek Civilization over the barbarian East.

Fortunately, as if to counter my Adornian pessimism, Dave Zirin has written a very moving article, at The Nation on the first woman to have run in the Boston marathon, Katrine Switzer. It offers a potent account of why sports matter.

And anyway, I’m not sure I think that way anymore.

Because maybe such an event is how the religious has migrated into the secular. And maybe the celebration of the communal and the absurd transcends any critique. But above all, because we can’t allow ourselves to live in a world where a bomb is more powerful than a footrace. Or a poem.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Place of Poetry or, The Narcissism of Small Differences

Either in a spirit of homage and renewal, or else gently deflating mockery, the editors of the March issue of Poetry asked four poets to “update” Ezra Pound’s now seminal “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of its first appearance in their magazine. It’s a nice idea. And a testament to the lasting influence of Pound, whose The Cantos, has Basil Bunting wrote, bestrode the 20th Century like the Alps. “They don’t make sense,” yes – but, “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.”

The sharpest of these updates is by the neo-Conceptualist poet and provocateur, Vanessa Place. Place has a distinctive sense of literary history and a good instinct for how to go for the jugular, even if the intervention she stages turns out to be just the sound of one poem clapping.

[And here let me just say that the term “update” is nothing if not problematic. It implies that the grain of literary intuition is somehow, like, software, amenable to patches and upgrades. Does anyone think Keats’ letters need updating? Of course, Pound himself was the all-time updater, constantly quibbling and quarreling about how aesthetics is adjudicated. This is one reason he’s such a juicy figure to lampoon. Yet he took the long view in a way almost no contemporary poet can do – not because they lack the ambition or the imaginative scope, but because “the pictures got small,” as Gloria Swanson puts it in Sunset Boulevard.]

Place’s poem is entitled simply “No more,” a rather Poe-like anaphoric refrain that performs a more melodic version of Pound’s blunt “don’t,” as in “don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs.”

It’s a great conceit, to make a list poem of admonitions, and in a mere twenty lines Place manages to condemn or cast aspersion on nearly every mode of contemporary poetic practice while maintaining a kind of shining rhythm. The not-so-secret, if still unspoken, center of all this censure is, of course, her rather shopworn theory of neo-Conceptualism. But hey, what’s a over-indebted, under-leveraged First World avant-garde to do?

Some of her lines are quite funny:
“No more children pimped out to prove some pouting mortality.”

Take that, Laura Kasischke! Or maybe its real target is the women anthologized in books like The Grand Permissions, or Not For Mothers Only. In fact, no one, or no school or proclivity, seems to escape Place’s machine-gun splatter effect. “No more Gobstoppers: an epic isn’t an epic for its fingerprints.” I have no idea what this means – maybe an injunction against big baggy Olsonian-isms? – but I like it.

And I was particularly thrilled to see that my own overdetermined, retro-modernist bent was taken into account, weighed, measured, and found wanting.

“No polyglottal ventriloquism.” That’s actually pretty good.

It’s rather fun to play at this sort of game. If I could add an extra line to her poem, it might run something like this (and here I’m quoting from Place and Rob Fitterman’s manifesto, Notes on Conceptualism): “no more treating the written word as a figural object to be allegorically narrated.” Or, “No more uber-prolix theory sprach playing at actual intellection; no more vocabularies in search of a sentiment.” Or “No more Althusserian/Jamesonian critiques of late capital.” And “No more vulgar secularism that forgets that language is always already the sacred, that is, the communal.”

Place never quite puts her cards on the table. The closest she comes to advocating on behalf of the kind of poem she wants to see (and it’s an impoverished aesthetic that wants all poetry to be written one way only) comes in the final line: “No more retinal poetry.” Which I take to mean, no more scopic regimes of subjectivist appropriation. No more naïve affirmations. No more banal series of prosaic descriptions rounded by an epiphany, as Marjorie Perloff once damningly wrote of Philip Levine’s work.

The arguments poets have about poetry have always fascinated and energized me. My class at Amherst College, "Poetry and Theory," was conceived of as a way to engage the poetry wars that have consumed and animated everyone from the Imagists to the Language Poets (we didn't have time to touch on Flarf or Conceptualism). But these turf wars invariably remind me of Freud's observation that those groups which share the most in common are also those most likely to find reasons to dispute the stakes of ownership, which he described as "the narcissism of small differences."

I'm not convinced Place's poem is an outright rejection of all the positions she decries. If it is, it's incredibly myopic and finally, self-defeating. By rejecting any idea of a Republic of Letters, it works against itself. Because the problem with a poem of polemic denunciation like this is that it inevitably ends up enshrining the very thing it sets out to condemn. The poem of condemnation becomes, ironically, a poem exalting the very thing it objects to. The stern injunction of “no more” fades away into a kind of white noise and what’s left ringing in the ear is the descriptive clause, whether it’s an example of the poetics of expressivism or constructivism. “No more lines on the luminescence of light” (the poem’s first line) is not about “no more,” but the word “luminescence.”

Such is the logic of litany or anaphora – even when it aims to censure, it leads back, by melody or cadence, to a fractured form of praise.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reaching for Justice

I resisted Lee Child’s suspense novels initially because on first, casual perusal they just seemed too airport-y, too simplistic, without any of the bravado or poetic terseness I associate with the genre that runs from Hammett and Chandler and MacDonald through Parker, Burke, and Connolly. (Pelicanos belongs in this tradition along with Ellroy and really, just too many to mention; but these are the key figures, for me, at any rate).

Reader, I was wrong.

My conversion experience came about not through Child’s diamond chip prose (yes, he can write) but oddly enough through the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, Jack Reacher, based on One Shot. The movie is good. Damn good, in fact. Far better than the tepid review the second-stringer from the Times gave it. Cruise is dynamic and utterly convincing as Reacher. The pacing and plot logistics are deft and the supporting characters are sharply drawn, always key in any kind of atmospheric thriller. Moreover, the film is notable for the way it gives a backstory and dimension to the sniper’s targets: mere collateral damage, they are given a voice and a fleeting touch of pathos, which is one of the motive forces to the whole Reacher series.

From there it was easy. I picked up One Shot and devoured it. And was surprised by how much of the plot mechanics Chris Macquarrie had filed down into such a pointed script. I chose the next few at random: Bad Luck and Trouble (excellent); Nothing to Lose (promises a lot, and sadly, fails to deliver); The Affair (kind of exquisite, except for the grotesquely symmetrical ending); and The Hard Way (my favorite so far; superlative on all levels: plot, tone, characterization and setting).

So what is it about Reacher? Much has been said, by Child and by critics, about Reacher as a sublime fantasy icon/fetish—the giant lone wolf avenger, unbeholden to no one or no thing; his grim, monastic, ascetic bent; roaming the country, owning nothing and owned by no one, yet always true to the highest ideals of his training and his own, hard-wired code. And that’s true. His interiority is both less and more complicated than say, Marlowe’s or Bosch’s. He’s not tormented. He’s not even really self-reflective. Except that he is, in a very pragmatic way. He kills only when necessary and so when he does it’s less about vengeance and more about keeping some kind of metaphysical absolute in the balance: Justice, writ large, but served small, and without remorse.

He’s a consummate professional, in the Hawksian manner. His training is itself a kind of metaphysics, a way of compensating for contingency. Most importantly, and true to the tradition of the genre, from Chandler on, he is a champion of the underdog, the oppressed, the crushed; a knight errant for whom violence is just the other side of the equation that produces and safeguards compassion.

Beyond the vigilante stuff, though, what appeals about Reacher is deeply mythic, I think. When I think of what other character he is like in literature I come back to Odysseus. Like the man from Ithaka, Reacher is never at a loss. He is the cunning man, the master of wily stratagems, the one who can see all around every angle, every hazard, every dire situation. No one can get the better of him. Not for long.

Unlike Odysseus, though, he is not driven by the journey home – to nostos – but by a thirst for dike – for justice. It is not the pleasure and comforts of the domestic which compel his actions, but the hunger to avenge the wrongs done to those who are incapable of defending themselves. He is, in the most direct way imaginable, an agent of liberal social activism.

Just as gratifying, Reacher’s pursuit of injustice carries a powerful critique of the US military and American foreign policy. That’s the real genius of the series (and of his last name, too). That such a seemingly dark, foreboding, vengeful figure could be a force for progressive thought, rather than a conservative bulwark, reaching into the dark, repressed places created by the security state, is deliciously satisfying.

As an ex-MP, Reacher is the conscience of a nation’s stricken military. He answers not just to a perennial need for superhuman derring-do, ala James Bond, but to the severe demands placed on masculinity after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the devastation of 9/11. Not to collapse into reactive barbarism or Cheney-ism, but to stay true to some core ideal of justice. Though discharged, Reacher is still on the job – more so than ever, in fact, since he’s not hung up by bureaucratic chickenshit. He’s still policing the excesses and derangements of American military action, representing what is most honorable about that tradition: a code of idealism and a caring for the innocent.

Maybe I go too far. Maybe this is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy. No such posture exists or can possibly exist. No one can redeem the cold-blooded rapacity of policy-makers or the pathologies of the warrior caste. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to think that someone like Reacher is out there, restlessly roaming the roads, inexorably righting the wrongs.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The New Gnostics

N.B. – This was intended to be my introduction to the two panels on New Gnostic poetry at the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture after 1900, but for reasons of time and a failure of frayed nerves – the fear that the whole thing was overdetermined and that I would end up standing in the docket, accused of neo-Catholic recidivism by my elders – I decided against reading it. Robert Archambeau has posted a wonderful and as usual very perceptive account of the panel and some of the offsite discussion it provoked and Ben Friedlander on Facebook has made some smart comments which need addressing, some time when I have the time. But for now there’s this:

Why gnosticism? Why now?

One of the most difficult things in writing about the re-emergence of a gnostic poetics is having to continually backspace to override MS Word’s (MS Logos?) auto-correct function, which insists on capitalizing – or is that historicizing? – “Gnostic.” I call it the small “g” problem. Because the new gnostic poetics I’m trying to describe has to do with dethroning the tyranny of the majuscule. Gnostic has become such an elastic term, used to describe such a wide swath of writers, often as different from one another as say, Poe and his evil double, Emerson, that it threatens to lose its usefulness as a meaningful category.

Though Gnosticism’s heretical beliefs about an alien god and the struggle to attain spiritual knowledge was quashed by the 3rd Century C.E., its perturbing legacy continues to speak to a profound yearning for alternate modes of poetic epistemology which neither the pieties of Iowa nor the heterodoxies of the Grand Piano can answer to. It has influenced modern thinkers and writers from Carl Jung to H.P. Lovecraft. For Harold Bloom, modernist gnosis includes writers as diverse as Kafka and Hart Crane, while Hans Jonas finds strong affinities between the Gnostic conception of the world as exile and Heidegger’s existential phenomenology and the thrownness or Geworfenheit, of Dasein. “Gnosis,” as religious scholar Elaine Pagels observes, “is not primarily rational knowledge … we could translate it as ‘insight,’ for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself.”

This trend toward a contemporary gnostic poetics owes its origins to several distinct vectors: the Heideggerian/Derridean Destruktion or deconstruction of onto-theology and its weird quasi -reconstitution through dispersal, differánce, and the trace; the linguistic turn and its emphasis on the materiality of language; and the continuing commitment of poets aligned with the tradition of high modernism and the New American Poetry to an avant-garde aesthetic.

The idea of gnosis persists because it offers a powerful tool for counteracting the disenchantment and alienation of the world. It is a response to a specific historical moment that is less about reviving the tenets of an ancient and problematic heresy then about using the tropological resources of that heresy to produce a modernist gnostic horizon.

What stability the term retains, however wobbly, is still enough, I think, to address a postmodern poetry that contains both avant-garde and spiritual commitments. The idea of a new gnostic poetics derives in part from the recognition that one branch of modernism was all along deeply invested in and reliant on heterodox spiritual systems (Yeats, Pound, H.D.) which have been consciously carried forward by postmodern poets like Duncan and Mackey, and in part on the idea of a post-secular religious turn, or the return of the theological repressed. It subscribes not only to the idea that, in Marjorie Perloff’s words, language has become “the new spiritus mundi,” but to the continuity of a strong visionary mode in American poetry, as outlined by Peter O’Leary in his recent essay, “Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry.” “Apocalypse and other forms of sacred expression unbind love from material desire, freeing it to embrace the unknown and the unspeakable … apocalyptic poetry, then, is language charged with the kerygmatic power to reveal sacred reality, in history and beyond it.”

Such enthusiasm threatens violence to the Gnostic by trying to recontextualize it within the horizon of gender and the body. It's a kind of anti-Gnostic gnosticism. Or maybe I just like to have my cake and it eat it too.

What’s important here is that small “g” gnosticism strives to reverse the perverse polarities of the Gnostics by reclaiming the body’s centrality for both history and ideas about spirit. In this view, the material is not the site of exile and the soul’s imprisonment, but of messianic intervention.

The new gnostic poetics is not a system then, but revives the idea of spiritual knowledge as a way to contest system. It designates a group of fellow travelers committed to a poetic agon in which the articulation of spiritual values is rooted in the material world and therefore integral to articulating the terms of a redemption worked out solely within the ruins of history and the disjointedness of everyday life through a visionary experimental poetry.

Of course, We Serious Academic Types also enjoy fine dining. Here's two gnostic Men in Black at the Mayan Cafe (Norman Finkelstein and Yours Truly).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged by Julia Bloch to take part in the viral meme called "The Next Big Thing." This isn't really next, since the book's already out, and it's hardly big -- but hey, it is a thing, and that's not nothing.

What is the working title of the book?
Gnostic Frequencies. Though for most of the time of its composition it was called "Doctrines of the Subtle Body," after a weird and wonderful little book by GRS Mead. Mead was Madame Blavatsky’s secretary in the Theosophical Society though he was no slouch or flake, but a serious scholar of Greek who translated many of the key Hermetic texts of antiquity. It was Mead who invited Pound to give his talk on “Psychology and Troubadours” to the Society in 1915, which is where Pound first articulates his theory of the phantastikon, a concept which provides much of the underpinning for Gnostic Frequencies.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The pleroma, naturally. But more specifically from a perverse desire to create my own religion. To inquire into what religion in a post-secular, post-metaphysical age could still mean or better still, say. Something that could answer to a need for a poetic liturgy, though I often think of the poems as emerging from and addressing the ruins of liturgy. Gnostic frequencies speak to the poem’s way of knowing, of tuning in to the weak transmissions still emanating from theology’s ghost.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry, liturgy, hermeticism, heresy, theurgy, ecstasy – in that order, more or less.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a silly but delicious question, because as Frank O’Hara once quipped, few poets are better than the movies – Hart Crane being one of them. Crane incidentally is one of the hidden tutelary deities of the book. The first part of Gnostic Frequencies follows an imaginary scholar of the Alexandrian library named Ariel and because she played Hypatia in a recent film I have a hard time seeing anyone else in the role but Rachel Weisz, though I think either Jean Arthur or Natascha McElhone would be equally dreamy, I mean, great. Ariel’s correspondent and lover (it’s not really clear if they are lovers but I think they are) is the 3rd Century Plotinian philosopher Iamblichus, who really ought to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Or Steve Buscemi. I have a hard time keeping those two apart. Part 2 features a who’s who of poets from Yeats to HD to Duncan so they must all be played by themselves. Or Robert Downey Jr. Part 3 would either feature the seraphic ghosts of logos, chanting of what’s passed, passing, and to come, or late Robert Mitchum. If he's unavailable then John Garfield from the final scenes of "Force of Evil."

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
As I write in the Afterword: “Gnostic Frequencies is a poetic essay that treats semiology as though it were a species of shamanism and shamanism as a branch of semiotics.”

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first garbled transmissions occurred in the spring of 2004 and the final revisions made in 2012.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A deep longing for a wild extravagance of the word. That, and the usual suspects: high modernism, hermeticism, Robert Duncan, HD, Erza Pound.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Readers who crave clarity will go a-begging, but lovers of the mystery of logos will find welcome.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Spuyten Duyvil is my publisher.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:
Norman Finkelstein (maybe), Joseph Donahue (who knows with that guy?) and Paul Eluard as he is channeled by Anna Karina in Alphaville.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Theories of Lyric

At last month’s MLA conference in Boston, Stephen Burt appeared on a panel convened by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, the editors of the forthcoming collection of essays, The Lyric Theory Reader, which also included Rob Kaufman and my wife, Ingrid Nelson. Burt opened the panel with a dazzling account of lyric that focused on its locodescriptive properties. The examples he cited were plentiful, indeed, encyclopedic, ranging from Whitman to Housman to Larkin, Olson to Pound and C.D. Wright, and delivered at a breathless, slightly manic pace that was rich with references, but somewhat short on argument.

Burt’s straightforward, not to say, reductive, thesis was that lyric arises from the specificity of place. Because I stand in this place here, and feel this feeling, I can connect myself imaginatively to someone else who may have felt the very same feeling here a hundred or a thousand years ago.

There’s something very appealing about this. It speaks to the very real power of lyric to save the person speaking from oblivion, as Allen Grossman might put it (and indeed, Burt nodded to him): to project a human voice across time and reach out to another through what is essentially the ability to imagine that other. Lyric, by this account, becomes a kind of empathy. It’s certainly why Catullus or Tu Fu still strike us as our contemporaries. As Pound put it, in 1912, “All ages are contemporaneous.” But to say so risks collapsing those ages into the present moment, flattening out significant differences. Benjamin warns against the narcotic of historicism, by which the present doesn’t actually see the past as something distinct, but reduces it to mere heritage, yoking it to its ideology.

Among his examples, Burt argued that “The Pisan Cantos” represented the summa of Pound’s poetry precisely because of how they draw on the locodescriptive. But while their pastoral power is considerable, as fine as anything EP ever wrote, they are not notably different from say, “Canto XX,” his extraordinary evocation of Provence as the earthly paradise, modeled after the closing sections of The Purgatorio.

But the real source of pathos in “The Pisan Cantos” comes from the way Pound moves back and forth in time, contrasting his current abject state of defiant, yet humbled, incarceration to his glory days in pre-war London. It is a measuring of things lost, and a life’s work misspent. Among other things, “The Pisan Cantos” lament the unfulfilled promise of modernism. They may be named for a place, but their affective power comes from analepsis and recollection. The flashbacks to London, to Ford and Lewis and Yeats, all offer images of the poet contemplating his past with regret and asking for a kind of forgiveness that is mingled with a bitter refusal to acknowledge his greatest error – supporting Fascism. "The Pisan Cantos" are prison poetry, written with the example of one of Pound's heroes, Villon, in mind. Their subject is time and its wreckage: "dove sta memoria" runs the recurring refrain -- where is memory to be found?

An account of lyric which hinges on the locodescriptive can’t be made apart from the temporal. For the real work of the locodescriptive is not only, I think, to provide the details of place in their granular specificity, but to make those details capable of traveling across time. The horizontal axis of place must intersect with the vertical axis of time. As Sharon Cameron observes in her book, Lyric Time, lyric is also a working through of time; poems can be considered events in time, both in the sense of the time it takes to read them, which in effect causes us to experience time differently, and in the sense that they play with temporal sequence within the line, the stanza, even, I’d say, the syllable. Lyric, Cameron writes, is what arises out of “a contradiction between social and personal time…the lyric both rejects the limitation of social and objective time, those strictures that must drive hard lines between past, present and future, and must make use of them.”

The locodescrpitive lyric is nothing without either an analeptic movement toward the past or a proleptic movement into the future. As Heidegger said of Dasein, lyric poems might be thought of as constituted by and through time. A lyric poem is a kind of time machine: it gives us a concentrated form through which we might experience time, both as duration and evanescence. This is how lyric rescues the speaking voice from oblivion.