Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail

Derrida

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

Friday, September 24, 2021

On the Abuse of Beckett

Distinguished legal scholar and Obama appointee Cass Sunstein, of Harvard Law School, former spouse of the fabulous Martha Nussbaum and current partner of Samantha Powers, recently contributed a piece to the NY Times on "YOU BET YOUR LIFE From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation" by Paul Offit. You can read it here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/21/books/review/you-bet-your-life-paul-offitt.html

It's a decent, even-handed review, which he probably dashed off on a weekend, like we all do.

Sunstein is, as should be obvious,impressively accomplished. I recall reading some of his early work on constituional law when I was in grad school for purely personal reasons I no longer remember. But he was the real McCoy. Now that he's ascended into the upper atomsphere, he's taken to writing trendy books on trendy subjects, no doubt hoping to cadge a trendy prize like so many of his peers (thinking of you here, Stephen Greenblatt and Merve Emre). Isn't one Malcolm Gladwell already one too many?

He may be a brilliant legal scholar but his understanding of modernist literature is, to say the least, lacking -- as I hope I make clear in what follows. This is an expanded version of a letter I sent to the Times. I'm grateful to Sunstein for provoking me to think throgh the logic of Beckett's work, which I've been reading for the better part of 40 years and to which I always and inevitably return.

To the Editor of New York Times Book Review:

Cass Sunstein’s too clever by half hook for his review of “You Bet Your Life” is mistaken on two counts. Sunstein writes, “In his 1983 novella ‘Worstward Ho,’ Samuel Beckett wrote his most famous words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The history of medicine consists of trying and failing, trying again, failing again and failing better.” As anyone even slightly familiar with Beckett’s work can attest, his most well-known quote occurs at the end of the 1953 novel “The Unnamable” – namely, “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Despite the phrase “fail better” being co-opted by the tech-bros of Silicon Valley as a mantra for product development, it does not carry an aspirational message about a continual cycle of innovation. To the contrary, “fail better” signifies that the human condition will always be one of failure and that we must learn to accept it, to purify it, as it were, to commit to it fully since there is finally no escape, no alternative to the hopeless plight of our striving. There is hope; there will always be hope. But for Beckett the comedy of our predicament means that it can never be fulfilled.

“Fail better” is a spiritual vow, not a marketing slogan. Please make a note of it.

P.S. The thing about Beckett is that he never extinguishes hope. He makes it clear though that while its attainment is impossible, its fulfillment perpetually deferred, we can never not hope. This is our predicament. The central tension in his work derives from an appeal to hope and the recognition that it can never be fulfilled. This is why Godot never appears. This could aptly describe the films of Chaplin. In “Modern Times,” the film of his I know best, he fails spectacularly at everything he sets his hand to. Yet the final shot shows The Tramp and The Gamin jauntily walking off in the sunset to nowhere.

Failure thus becomes its own achievement, an end in itself, rather than something to be overcome. This is the source of the grim comedy that animates all of Beckett’s work. We are condemned to an utterly bleak situation – the comedy arises from the growing awareness of an surrender to that bleakness. This is why Beckett may finally be understood as a profoundly spiritual writer.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

FUGUE MEADOW, Keith Jones (Ricochet Editions, 2015)

Note:this review originally appeared in John Tranter's now defunct online Journal of Poetics Research.

Just at the outset of his career, American poet Keith Jones is already writing with the confidence and élan one expects from a fully mature writer. His scintillating poems are both demanding and vibrantly lyrical, steeped in the disjunctive complexities of the modernist legacy. His work so far, collected in two short, but powerful, books, demonstrates a deep commitment to the intricacies of the dissonant word and its multiple, fragmented registers of melos and meaning.

Jones’s first book, Surface to Air, Residuals of Basquiat (Pressed Wafer) was a finely textured response to the late painter’s work through a series of tightly symmetrical poems: three stanzas with two lines each, and a final couplet set off in counterpoint at the bottom of the page. Stark and antiphonally layered, they had the effect of opening up Basquiat’s methods in surprising ways, illuminating both his work and his life from a variety of angles.

Fugue Meadow, his latest book, is similarly keyed around another path-breaking postmodern artist, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry who in 1969, with drummer Ed Blackwell, recorded Mu, a double-album that many consider to have sounded the first notes of world music. The book is dedicated to recent victims of racial violence in America, Michael Brown and Eric Garner among them, making a direct link between the cruel inequities still visited upon black Americans and Cherry’s vision of a polyracial musical paradise. As Jones writes in the opening poem, the new still carries a revivifying power:

new down here new moss new spring grass this song
might as well feel this way this weave

this fold

Like Cherry, Jones is concerned with the weave and fold of sounds and words. How folding and refolding generates new sounds, new connections, a set of new possibilities for the poem. Or as Jones puts it elsewhere, in what might be a statement of the book’s defining principle:

We are a new theft
at the limit
of the borrowed

Poetic imagination thrives on theft. So the limit of the borrowed is also the threshold of the utopian still-to-come. The utopianism of Cherry’s music is announced in the album’s title – “Mu,” for music (and Fugue Meadow rhymes and echoes that with its first syllable); but also “Mu,” the legendary lost continent in the Pacific whose prehistoric destruction by geological cataclysm led to a vast global diaspora, a seeding of peoples and customs from India and Peru to Greece and Egypt.

Mu, like OM, might also be thought of as an attempt to represent the ultimate phoneme, the original sound which gave rise to all other sounds. Indeed, as Nathaniel Mackey, whose own “Mu” series derives loosely from Cherry’s music, notes in his preface to Splay Anthem, “any longingly imagined, mourned or remembered place, time, or condition can be called ‘Mu.’”

”Mu” in this sense is less a piecing back together of lost fragments from some original whole, than a vision of a utopia-to-come. “Mu” represents a new global potentiality – the belated emergence of a world sound that is also, in Hegel’s term, world-historical, signaling through music Spirit’s coming into a new awareness of itself.

But where Mackey takes “Mu” as the basis for an ongoing mythopoetic series investigating the afterlives of diaspora, Jones’ focus is narrower; resolutely historical, a tapline into personal echoes and resonances evoked by Cherry’s powerful and haunting music.

BLACKWELL STUDIES /BLUE MOUNTAIN PLACE / HAVEN A FAR SHORE

I go in from Syracuse nude & with energy. to find the space: the infinite series:

the arc’s quiet math: “Do not disturb my circles”

I am painting the air within, tree-limbed, pointing to night. I will roll the infinitesimal /

soldiers fleeing what you sing, now we say lunar, the tuck of spirit, big bold nothing
obscure

launching a thousand ships, caves-in the halo of yr ceiling

after you, chance is measure, chance

is breath

With its wry punning on the drummer’s name and a series of academic books published by Blackwell this poem draws together themes of intuitive seeking and political resistance. In a poetry dedicated to an “infinite series,” one that impels soldiers to flee by its unsettling music, chance can be the only measure. To follow the music where it leads you – no wrong notes, only next notes. Only next breaths.

In an audacious act of confidence, Jones invites his readers to follow the poems while listening to Cherry’s music at a website the publisher, Ricochet Editions, has generously provided. Fugue Meadow produces a multi-collaborative site, one in which poet, reader, and music interact and form recombinant modes of listening. “To duet/a numinous/sound.” Jones’ exquisitely calibrated poems offer an annotated deep listening – the most through-going kind of attentiveness one artist can pay another: not translation but response. There’s an acute, almost micro-tonal act of hearing at work here. The poems fall fold over fold into further fold – a force-field of folds, reticulate, echolaic. One example will have to suffice. This is from partway through “[Track Eight 0’42”]” – which corresponds to Cherry and Blackwell’s sublime composition “Bamboo Night:”

5’54”. heart round peak, like hard nipple, one go upland, toward sky
to dance. to get new, to ground many in love.
say it twice. with yr feet.
love dance
map.

“Love/dance/map” – the simple circularity of this triad spells out an entire poetics. The root of the poem is in the rhythm of the music, in the dance, as Pound once asserted. Reading this while listening to “Bamboo Night” draws one into an intense erotic duet: flute and drum; love/dance/map, intertwining and playing off each other. While it’s not necessary to listen to Cherry’s album or even know it to appreciate these poems, some familiarity with it will open up Fugue Meadow to new levels of attunement.

A fugue meadow names both a musical structure and a field where rigid notions of cultural identity dissolve. To enter a fugue state is to carve inner time out of linear time – to be in time as time, singing it as its very transpiration and expiration, a breath consuming itself for the sake of withness and witness.

the sorrow with which it is twined

a vacating of loss in the kingdom of loss

a broader finite condition

rhythms linked to Mu’s vanishing

an inquest, an inquisitor’s kiss

Breath is everything for the trumpet player and the poet, the caesuras here marking the necessity of breaks, little ruptures, in the texture of the lyric that allow the lost fragments of sunken Mu a way back into song. Fugue Meadow accomplishes what we long for song to do: to lose our way in order to find it; to undergo exile as a form of home.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

MOVIE LOVE or, Seven Moments from the Ontology of the Cinematic Image


N.B.: I was originally asked to contribute this brief piece to Ken Taylor and J. Peter Moore’s web journal, LUTE & DRUM. The site seems to have gone dark, perhaps temporarily. So in the meantime, I am re-posting it here, as it ran.

In his famous essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” French film critic André Bazin lays out a powerful and deeply influential account of what sets film images apart from all previous instances of pictorial representation. “Only a photographic lens,” he writes, “can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation … the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” Bazin’s conception of the film image is almost mystical.

Not unlike Roland Barthes’s later notion of the punctum – the moment where the photograph pierces us, beyond mediation – Bazin envisions the power of the cinematic image as somehow impossibly liberated from the director’s framing, as though the lens itself were solely responsible for delivering us to the real. In our current era of blockbuster filmmaking, we’ve grown habituated to being bludgeoned by the gigantism of motion pictures.

Outside a few rare practitioners, like Terence Malick or Steven Soderbergh, the image has shrunk to an impoverished thing. Instead we are assaulted by massive spectacles of destruction, or what Bazin calls elsewhere “the Nero complex” of filmmakers obsessed with visual bombast.

The anti-cinema of CGI is used by most directors to obliterate perception, rather than tutoring the eye in how to see more deeply. But some of the greatest moments in the history of film derive their power from a certain withholding, a discretion of the camera, a holding back, or merely a sly bit of inference. At the same time it must be remembered that all filmmaking, even the most naturalistic (think Ford, Renoir, De Sica) is a form of special effect, and that the greatest special effect ever devised in the movies is still the close up.

Here, in no real order, are moments from a few of my favorite films, movies that I have watched over and over again, each time with a renewed sense of wonder at the possibilities of cinema.

Black Narcissus | Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | 1949

Perhaps the most erotic movie ever made? The vertiginous vistas of the Himalayas, the heavy virginal drop cloth of the nun’s habits against the outrageous, psychotropic palette of a jungle Eden – all these make for one of the most visually sumptuous experiences the movies have to offer. There are many scenes one could point to as singular.

I’ll choose just one: Sister Ruth (the exquisite Kathleen Byron) as she’s becoming unhinged by her lust for Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the local agent and all-round hunk. The scene is sunset: drenched in otherworldly, beatific light. Sister Ruth’s face is a study in brooding madness. An Indian boy has just entered her chambers with a glass of what he calls lemonade, though it looks like milk. Sister Ruth’s disdain chases him from the room. Suddenly she hears voices, and swirling, rushes to the window. Below her, in the courtyard, her superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), and Mr. Dean, are conversing. We cannot hear what they are saying. After a moment, Ruth frantically chases through the halls of the monastery (a former seraglio) to catch further sight of them. Because of the high angle, they assume, in her gaze, a conspiratorial air.

The scene ends with Farrar and Kerr stopped on a terrace above a frightful abyss, with Kerr pouring her heart out, and Byron, blown against the latticework, spying down upon them – an infernal triangle. All this while Kerr stands stiff and straight, her face a play of wry, sad, ironic reflection. As a subdued pastoral score plays over the scene, she tells Dean about her lost love in Ireland, about why she entered the order, about how she found peace – and about how, on coming to the Himalayas, all the old ghosts are stirring up. “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing and the air from being clear as crystal, and I couldn’t hide the mountain.”

Amazingly, nearly all of “Black Narcissus” was made on a sound stage at Pinewood. Shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff (who rightly won an Oscar for his work), with art direction (or what would now be called production design) by Arthur Junge, it glows with a profane radiance. As a triumph of artifice and the power of color and light, there’s nothing else like it.

The Third Man | Carol Reed | 1949

Graham Greene once remarked that he thought audiences simply wouldn’t sit still for the long closing take in Reed’s masterpiece. When he saw it, though, he changed his mind. The scene is Vienna’s cemetery, where Harry Lime has been laid to rest yet again, this time for good. On the way to the airport, Major Callaway (Trevor Howard) and Joseph Cotton’s fool for love Holly Martins pass Harry’s old lover, Anna (the sublimely aloof AlidaValli) walking the long road back. Martins insists Callaway let him out. “Be sensible, Martins.” “I haven’t got a sensible name, Callaway.”

He hoists his duffle and saunters over to a wagon loaded with wood to wait. Anna is a dark tiny figure dead center in the background, moving ever so slowly toward us. Reed shoots her straight on, at about shoulder height, with Cotton in the left foreground, staring vacantly at nothing. Anton Karas’s somber, melancholy zither score seems to conjure the brittle leaves falling from the nearly denuded trees. It takes about a minute for Anna to approach Holly and when she does, she pays him not so much as a glance. There’s only one cut, near the start of her walk: Callaway’s slightly disgusted over the shoulder look at Martins before he pulls away.

After Anna finally passes him, Martins shakes loose a cigarette, lights it, and disdainfully throws the match to the ground. The audacity of Reed’s decision to hold that shot for so long, defying expectations, stretching out the tension, underlines perfectly Greene’s bitter world view. In the age of disaster, there can be no happy endings. “Poor Crabbin,” Greene closes his short novel. “Poor all of us when you come to think of it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8Njr-jbj2s

Close Encounters of the Third Kind | Steven Spielberg | 1977

In my SF film class, I screen this scene of a pilot’s near collision with a UFO to illustrate how much tension can be generated using the most minimal of means. This short sequence, early on, lasts only 3 and half minutes. You can watch it at the link below.

There are several things going on here. First, the conduct of the air traffic controllers as they try to wrap their heads around the unprecedented. This is Spielberg at his most Hawksian. Even in the face of the impossible, the controller’s professionalism never wavers. The dialogue is mostly technical: questions about the UFO’s appearance (“the brightest anti-collision lights I think I’ve ever seen”) and instructions on what kind of evasive maneuvers to take (“Area 31 maintain flight level, break, Allegheny triple four turn right 30 degrees.”)

Second, the camera almost never moves. There are three or four momentum-building quick pans to the right and back to the left, which allow extra players to converge into the tight frame already established, and a few cuts from the master shot to a close up of the radar screen but that’s it. (Ingeniously, one of these shots gives us the air traffic controller’s face reflected in tight close up in the green abstract geometry of the radar scope tracking each flight. Face to screen – a brilliant image of movie watching itself).

That frame begins with two controllers in it but by the end of the scene contains six or seven men, all crammed into the same visual space. Talk about traffic control. At one point Spielberg takes a page from Robert Altman, using overlapping dialogue: the timing and the sound mix are flawless.

Third, the entire incident is depicted solely through a radio conversation between the tower and the pilots, with only the sharp green lights of the controller’s radar screen indicating action. All the tension of the scene is built on what we don’t see. This tension about the Unseen, a staple of 50s monster movies, is maintained carefully, like a well choreographed striptease. Spielberg’s staging is masterful here. (There are approximately 20 cuts in this scene. Nothing fancy, nothing extraneous or showy). Not long ago, Soderbergh paid homage to his brilliance by setting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to the soundtrack of “The Social Network” and deleting all the dialogue. Who else would think to do that? You can view it at the link below. The results are astonishing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXiCKn1HCR4

http://extension765.com/sdr/18-raiders

Bringing Up Baby | Howard Hawks | 1938

Scripted by the great Dudley Nichols, this may well hold claim as the apogee of screwball comedy. Which is saying a lot, considering Hawks’s other entries, “Ball of Fire” and “His Girl Friday,” or Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Lady Eve,” to name just a few. Cute meet: the hapless paleontologist David (Cary Grant), in full tux and tails, comes to a posh restaurant looking for his wealthy patron, Mr. Peabody, when Susan (Kate Hepburn) dressed in a slinky, shimmering silver outfit, literally trips him up with a martini olive. Comedy ensues.

As the slightly spastic Dr. Lehman advises Susan: “the love impulse in men very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” What follows is not just a classic comedy-of-misunderstanding, but a barely masked sexual frenzy in the form of slapstick. First Hepburn rips Grant’s dinner jacket as he tries to exit up a stairway. “Oh, you’ve torn your coat.” Then Grant steps on Hepburn’s luminous gown, splitting it open up the back and exposing her lacy under garments. Grant frantically tries to cover up her exposed derrière by clapping his phallic top hat over the tear. As symbolic fucks go in the Code era, it doesn’t get better than this.

2001: A Space Odyssey | Stanley Kubrick | 1968

We first see a shot of deep space, without any context. Then a title card: “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later.” The slow mournful chords from the adagio of Khachaturian’s “Gayane” come up. Slowly, from the left side of the screen the nose of the Discovery pushes into view (in reality, the camera is tracking backwards along the length of the 18-foot model). The globe of the living quarters is at first cut off at the top, as if it’s too big to fit on the screen. A move that George Lucas would lovingly copy ten years later in the opening scene of “Stars Wars” and that has been emulated by numerous SF films, including James Cameron’s “Aliens.”

(Probably the best homage though is Brian De Palma’s underrated “Mission to Mars,” which features some amazing swirling, inverted zooms through space ship windows along with balletic shots of floating bodies in space, what Annette Michelson calls, in still the best essay on “2001,” “the structural potentialities of haptic disorientation as agent of cognition”).

The ship moves forward, stately, imperturbable. The globe’s volume is echoed in procession by the smaller radio array of the AE-35, a satellite dish mounted on the fuselage. Finally the engines hove into view – and we cut to a reverse angle so the ship is now moving past us from the front still left to right. Then cut again, to a middle distance shot in which the ship, seen from its side, stretches across the screen. In every shot, it fills the screen. Time elapsed: roughly a minute and a half. In that time we are transported by the eerie floating alien grace of interplanetary flight, a new form of the technological sublime.

The Limey | Steven Soderbergh | 1999

“The Limey” is a classic revenge picture and one of the best “sunshine noirs” of recent vintage. Wilson, an English thief fresh from prison, has come to America looking for his daughter, Jenny. Soderbergh has described this film as a combination of “Get Carter” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” And it is. The opening sequences manipulate time brilliantly. Is Wilson just arriving in LA? Or is he on the return flight to London, musing about all that’s occurred? The first lines we hear, while the screen is still black, are Wilson’s, played by a loose, Cockney-slanging but wire-coiled, Terence Stamp: “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me about … Jenny.”

But it’s not until the film’s climax that we realize these are the last lines he speaks to her killer, the sleazy record producer Terry Valentine (the perfectly cast Peter Fonda). Through an intricate series of cuts, past, present, and future fluidly overlap till the difference is erased. Wilson, brooding on the plane (Stamp’s shriven skull – stark, solemn, and hallowed); Wilson smoking on his dingy hotel bed; Wilson buying guns from two teenage gangbangers in a park. Interspersed with these are repeated scenes of Wilson striding determinedly in slow motion along a sundrenched brick wall, dressed all in black.

Soderbergh shoots the scene from a distance, at a low angle, so that Wilson appears small against the industrial background. The classic law of thirds composition is slightly distorted here: the thin strip of asphalt and the concrete base of the building appear as one level; the massive red brick of the windowless wall another; and the washed out blue of the sky, cloudless and remote, as the third. He’s a small figure, almost puny – but utterly determined to wreak his vengeance.

My Darling Clementine | John Ford | 1946

The anecdote has taken on the sheen of myth. When asked who his favorite filmmakers were, Orson Welles replied: “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

In the mid-1940s, Ford made three of his greatest films, each of them documenting the rituals of isolated and embattled communities trying to survive at the edge of the frontier. Taken together, “Clementine,” “Fort Apache” and “They Were Expendable” evince his devotion to the cultural logic of Manifest Destiny.

In “My Darling Clementine,” his heavily romanticized version of the Wyatt Earp story, civilizing Tombstone involves more than the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It also takes a “dad-blasted good dance,” as Russell Simpson, part of Ford’s stock company, puts it. Ford liked to say that his two favorite things to shoot were horses at full gallop and couples dancing. The dance in “Clementine” begins with a ritualistic walk as Henry Fonda escorts Clementine (Cathy Downs) down the boardwalk to the town church, which is nothing more than a wooden platform and the scaffolding of a belfry. In the distance, the townsfolk can be heard singing “Shall We Gather at the River.”

Ford shoots this scene with great solemnity and circumspection, the camera discretely tracking the pair at a middle distance as they stay framed inside several receding rectangles formed by the boardwalk, the wooden awning, and strips of sunlight and shadow. They could almost be walking down the aisle of a medieval cathedral. The couple pauses at the edge of the crowd. Downs glances over at Fonda expectantly, while Fonda, looking as uncomfortable as a man can when called upon to do the chivalric thing, removes his hat, fidgets with it, then finally tosses it aside. “Oblige me, ma’am?” he almost whispers. As soon as they mount the platform, Simpson calls a halt to the music, crying out, “sashay back, and make room for our new marshal, and his lady fair!” What follows is a moment of pure joy as Downs and Fonda perform a high stepping waltz, surrounded by a clapping crowd. Fonda’s stiff-legged, stork-like dance step would be laughable, were the expression on his face not so radiant. Ford’s orchestration of this seemingly simple scene is flawless: one of the truly great moments in American film.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TCbWu1PhLU

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Annals of LA: About Jay Cocks


In 1991 or so I was hired to do research on a film about Joan of Arc. I’d been working for James Cameron at the time, reading scripts. Mostly SF. Or novels like Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” which clearly had an influence, shall we say, on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

His wife at the time, Kathryn Bigelow, who’d just come off the now iconic “Point Break;” was going to direct. (Now iconic = early box office pretty low). It was going to be called “Company of Angels” but none of us knew that at the time. At the time it was just the Joan script. Top secret. Eyes only. Sinead O’Connor would play Joan. And maybe Keanu Reeves as Dunois?

(There’s a huge long story about that which must wait for another time – suffice it to say it was rather dramatic as these things go. Keanu was a sweetheart but in the heat of the moment, underneath the burning klieg lights, poor Sinead kind of lost her shit. I would have too. I don’t blame her at all. She’d just bit off more than she could chew. She was a champ though – a real trouper. Also she told me a poem I wrote about Joan made her wet. We were on a pickup truck, sitting thigh to thigh and I nearly drove off the 405. She was probably just fucking with me but I loved it. She asked Jay to give her five classic films to watch: I don’t recall them all but two of them were “The Red Shoes” and “The Third Man”).

(So yeah I sat in my office in Warner Hollywood and became obsessed because that is the meaning of research and that ended up becoming my first book of poems ten years later, BURN. Thank you Joe Amato and thank you Charles Alexander. Another story for another time.)

Most folks don’t understand actors or what the art of acting is – about what it is like to live so close to your emotions. To put yr face on the line – to be so luminous and vulnerable and porous. Poets are the antennae of the race sd Pound. Wrong – actors are. They put themselves on the line in ways most of us would have a hard time imagining. As I tell my students, the close up is still the greatest special effect ever invented. Not sure they get it.

But as it turned out, as charismatic as she was, Sinead did not really know how to act. We put this sweet tiny woman astride an enormous Clydesdale on the soundstage at Raleigh Studios (the old RKO I think, where Welles shot Kane, across from Paramount and my beloved Nickodells, now gone). The horse was pure grade mega-fauna – srsly whose idea was it to order this fucking beast? But the horse was cool. I wondered vaguely about the wrangler—who would wield the broom? Not my problem.

In the event, things went south or sideways or some other undesirable direction. Just another day in the office.

But Jay turned out to be, out of all that welter, one of the rare and truly decent human beings I ever met in Hollywood. Or anywhere else for that matter. A genuine class act. (Leslie Whitney being the other one). (And of course Jay’s late wife, the amazing actor Verna Bloom, full of North Shore sass. I adored her).

Jay and I bonded over our mutual love of James Agee. Which startled me because in my innocence and arrogance I had already decided that screenwriters were clueless – lightweight epigones. Then I read a few scripts and realized, this shit is hard – it’s pure form. It must be as tightly constructed as a sonnet. It can kill you if you’re not very careful.

Over Jay’s desk (location undisclosed) hangs an enormous B&W photo of David Lean. It’s a production still from “Ryan’s Daughter.” Lean and his crew are struggling with a large light array precariously perched on a rocky coastline. He’s wearing a trench coat and the wind is whipping it around and like King Canute he seems to be commanding the elements to stop. The sea – yeah, the Irish Sea – is not hitting its marks. It’s epic. It’s heroic. It’s beautiful. This is how you make movies. You do crazy shit but also you look like David Lean.

It’s 1991 and we’re in a story meeting. Mulholland Drive, 90210, early spring sunlight streaming in, Richard Serra prints on the wall. Originals (KB knew Serra – and Philip Glass – and Mapplethorpe. From her days at the Whitney. There was a stunning BW photo portrait of her by Mapplethorpe that sat on Jim’s desk – I walked by it everyday and little by little I fell in love with it – or her – I could not be sure which).

But everything else is beige. The walls are beige, the couches are beige – I am slowly seeping into a sea of beige. It is inescapable. Even the smog is beige. A beige apocalypse. LA in the early 90s.

Kathryn’s enormous but very sweet German Shepherd Bodhi is lounging about. Bodhi would occasionally go into a barking frenzy and then the next door neighbor, a singer-song writer named Johnny Rivers whose chief claim to fame was having written the lyrics to “Secret Agent Man,” a song (and show) I loved as a boy, would complain. Loud and long. It got to be a regular thing. I was tasked with trying to mollify him. I did not succeed. Jay’s response was to write a hilarious parody of one of his songs. I don’t think KB was amused.

Kathryn and I are interviewing Jay for a bigtime screenwriting gig. We’d just talked to David Peoples (Blade Runner. Unforgiven) – David is great but yeah, no. KB did not dig him. He made a point of telling us that he hates flying so he drove – drove, mind you – to LA from Berkeley. I think this was what sealed his fate. He did not meet K’s threshold of cool. But then I was like, you can write scripts and live in Berkeley? I dropped a lot of acid in Berkeley. Some of it was actually real.

I am so in over my head I have no idea. I have this absurd amount of power. Except it’s not real power. That’s what fucks with yr head. It just looks like real power. And Jay is just so relaxed --- I think to myself this guy doesn’t care if he gets the job. He’s just sitting there with his legs crossed and he honestly does not give a shit. He’s from New York. He tells stories about writing film reviews for TIME. About meeting John Wayne and Kubrick. He is maybe the best raconteur I’ve ever known (the other being Anselm Hollo) – he has the journalist’s eye for the telling, colorful detail but he never goes on too long, never wears out his welcome. He doesn’t take himself or any of the Hollywood glitz seriously. He just seems hugely amused by it all.

Also, Marty is his best friend.

Also, he loves movies.

KB and I had just read the script for “Age of Innocence,” (which was released later that year and subsequently earned Jay an Oscar nom) and we were over the moon about it. Later I asked him about it and he simply sd, with a modesty that I came to know as typical of him and truly unfeigned, “it was all Miss Wharton.” Yeah, sure it was, pal.

(The script is credited to Jay and Marty. But to my eye the only contributions from Marty seemed to consist of inserting directions for camera angles – how to set up or shoot certain scenes. Everyone knows this is the worst kind of amateur mistake in script writing. They’ll storyboard it later anyway and you are who to presume to instruct the director about camera placement? In this case you just happen to be Marty so it’s all jake.

The brief camera instructions are revelatory, though --- Marty, like Hitchcock and Ford, had worked out the visual design well in advance. He’s got the whole freaking movie already storyboarded. He sees it in its totality before a single shot has been taken. You start to learn to see how he sees – will this be a CU? An MCU? A tracking shot? What’s Daniel doing? Where is Winona? Like that).

I realize slowly that I am in high cotton. But only because I have just read Darryl Pickney’s brilliant hugely entertaining memoir of the same title. The chapter on his working for Djuna Barnes is priceless. I, too, am working with genius-level people.

KB leaves the room to "take an important call." From her phalanx of agents -- maybe Ken Stovitz at CAA? Maybe Paula Wagner in her black Armani power suit? Paula Wagner is formidable. I have great respect for her. She really knew her stuff. A great agent is like a great director or producer: a master psychologist. She can work the room. She can command the flow of the conversation, the very pulse of the room, the outcome of the deal. It’s an art form I suppose and even though I sometimes cursed them under my breath I realized they held amazing super powers. (On the other hand Jay had some very funny stories and quip about agents which I shan’t repeat here)>

Then there was that whole phone protocol thing: every call prefaced with a "please hold for a call from X..." Did I do that for KB? Yes, so help me god, I did.

While she is out Jay and I get to talking. He is so nonchalant, and just so cool and down to earth I find it easy to chat with him. Also, he pays me the major compliment – he takes me seriously – he actually wants to hear what I have to say. He is, as Ingrid would later say (her ultimate compliment) “no bullshit.”

Somehow we find ourselves talking about Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” I tell him I’ve just read it for another production company but though I love this book as much as anything in American literature I could not figure out how anyone could make a decent movie from it. The rural adventurism has a hook -- sure. But Agee comes off as a fawning creep and the best parts of the book, the stuff everyone loves, are the lyrical passages – “All over Alabama the lamps are out.” Or, “slowly they diminished along the hill path, she, and her daughter and her three sons, in leisured enfilade beneath the light.” You’d have to be a genius to make a good film from this book and anyway hadn’t John Ford already done it in “Grapes of Wrath”?

Later, after the Joan of Arc movie deal fell apart, I left LA, went to grad school, became a scholar of sorts and thought mostly about poetry and not much about screenplays. I moved to Boston. I got back in touch with Jay. We went down to see him in NYC where he graciously received us and then later invited us to come visit him and Verna at their beautiful home in Maine. We ended up honeymooning there and even though the marriage didn’t last I did write some good poems sitting on the deck of their guest home, overlooking a Maine fjord.

Over endless cappuccinos we talked about “The Wild Bunch” and “Random Harvest” and a bunch of other films I’d never seen before. He showered us with DVDs – almost all B/W Hollywood Golden Age classics. I was getting schooled, again.

I suppose at this point I should just state the obvious. If this sounds like a love story, it is.

CODA: Jim Cameron used to live in the house on Mulholland with Kathryn. You can bet he did not care about the beige. There was one personal trace of him remaining and it made me love him – a mimeographed four-paneled cartoon of some astronauts walking on a desert planet. I think it was dated 1965? This was exactly the kind of stuff I did back when I was a boy. I would look at it from time to time and think, “Emerson was so fucking right.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Remembering Ron Sukenick


NB: Jenny Dorn asked me to contribute this brief homage to "Square One" after Ron died. The journal name was a post 9/11 reboot of her late husband Ed Dorn's "Sniper Logic" which was underwritten by the University of Colorado. There were a lot of "qualms" going about in those days and still are, I suppose. A typical case of santicmonious CYA.

But here's to Ron. An inspiring figure. May his spirit continue to exasperate and provoke.

The first time I met Ron Sukenick it was to interview him in his home for the Boulder Daily Camera. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Fiction Collective, which he’d begun in 1974. My editor, Juliet Wittman, warned me that he was not a man who suffered fools lightly. Contrary to this ominous warning, however, I found Ron to be tremendously warm, gracious, and hospitable. That hour or so spent in his study impacted me in a way hard to underestimate. I’d just moved to Boulder from L.A., where I’d worked as a script consultant in the film biz, but where I’d also started up my own short-lived, renegade poetry journal. (Featured here, a great photo by Douglas Messerli):

When Ron heard about this, his eyes lit up. “You’re one of us,” he exclaimed. That feeling of acceptance provided a much-needed orientation to a larger literary landscape. Along with discovering and befriending Naropa poets Jack Collom and Anselm Hollo, my friendship with Ron helped to lead me out of my years in the wilderness and into a common conversation about the writing life, one that continues to sustain me today.

It’s difficult to sum up a career as varied and energetic as Ron’s. What follows is from my introduction for him at Left Hand Books in May 1999, at what I believe may have been his last public reading in Boulder. I have kept to the present tense because the work itself remains with us.

For over 30 years, Ron Sukenick has been a singular presence on the American literary scene. Radical novels like Up, Long Talking Bad Condition Blues, 98.6, Blown Away, Doggy Bag, and Mosaic Man have reshaped the way we think about the possibilities for a vital contemporary literature – one that takes up its position on the contested & ever-shifting border between postmodern configurations of the self and the iconography of pop media culture. He is also, let me quickly add, one of our most scabrously funny writers.

Sukenick’s fiction tirelessly reinvents the idea of fiction. As a pioneer of the poetics of resistance and disruption, he raised the stakes of the game to a new level, a level where, to quote from his book In Form, the task of the serious artist is seen as “a strenuous investigation into the laws of reality ... beyond the bounds of convention.” The imaginative power of art carries not only an oracular function, by which new categories of the real are disclosed; it also requires of the artist a genuine ethical concern, which Sukenick defines as “an obligation to the truth of things as revealed by formal thinking.” Both through his own writing, and through the establishment of his small press, Fiction Collective 2, and his literary journal, The American Book Review, Ron Sukenick has worked to insure that the revitalizing energies of a truly dynamic literary underground will continue to thrive – that is: to subvert, upset, shock, exasperate, bedevil, and electrify the complacent consumers of culture everywhere.

Beauty, we all know, is difficult. Tinker to Evers to Chance. Beardsley to Yeats to Pound. Part of the job for us now as writers is to re-think what Pound called “To Kalon in the marketplace.” How may beauty now relate to commerce? For Ron, it meant moving past the idea of beauty as a bulwark against mass culture. As he said in his interview with me: “Mallarme’s idea of the writer working to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’ was very elitist. I like the language of the tribe. Maybe the job of the writer is to muddy the language of the elite, to get popular language into literary language.” Ron did this with inestimable verve, cunning and flair. Vale, ave, baby.

Friday, April 26, 2019

AN ETHIC, Christina Davis (2013): Revisting a contemporary classic


N.B. Chloe Garcia invited me to review this marvelous book in 2013 for the Zoland Press website, which has gone dark. I've reposted it here with some small, but important, revisions which seemed right after some retrospection. It's a book that deserves to be more widely known.(Unfortunately, the blog format does not allow the preservation of indentations so some minor violence to Davis's precise lineation has occured).

George Oppen’s heirs are more numerous than one might suppose. Robert Creeley, Michael Heller, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Michael Palmer, John Taggart, Norman Finkelstein, Elizabeth Robinson, Julie Carr, Pam Rehm, Joseph Massey, and Graham Foust, among others, come to mind as poets who have registered his influence, either amplifying or re-directing it through an investigation of the poem’s rhetorical resources. But to call these poets heirs gives a false impression, for there is and can be no School of Oppen. What poets take from him is a commitment to form that expresses itself in a ruthlessness toward what language can be made to say. As Oppen puts it “Possible/to use/ words provided one treat them/as enemies.”

Christina Davis stakes a strong claim to this tradition and her new book, An Ethic, is written less in the shadow of Oppen than as a kind of posthumous collaboration with him – a dialogue with the older poet’s austere, epistemologically rigorous work. The whole point of Oppen’s poetics is to test the meaning of a single word, a single poem, to work out, as exactly as possible, just how much truth a poem can carry, the way a structural engineer might test a suspension bridge to determine its maximum degree of torque and weight-bearing capacity in a windstorm. For Oppen, it turns out that a poem possesses considerable tensile power, provided one applies the proper degree of estranging torque. In this sense, poetry is a bridge that must also resist being a bridge. Hence, the appearance, on the page, of poems that look both remarkably fragile and severely worked out.

Davis has taken up this difficult regime, but her investigations have less to do with testing the truth of what can be said, then with the desire of the poem to connect, to carry across that unbridged space between loss and memory, absence and presence, you and I, a kernel, a trace, a spark that persists. Oppen’s poetics of ethics is famously founded on what he called “the bright light of shipwreck.” Catastrophe: personal, historical, moral – and the failure of poetry, as well – produces the necessity for a poem that refuses an easy and morally inert subjectivity in order to see the true relations between the self and the world. The Objectivist term for this process, of course, is sincerity. Davis’ sincerity emerges out of personal catastrophe: the death of her beloved father, John. Many of these poems are harrowing disquisitions of the void that appears after the death of a loved one, the long absence and aching desire which persists. They are whittled down cries; spiky confrontations with elegy that honor loss by both admitting and resisting it.

What sets Davis apart from Oppen is the way her poems hover just an inch above heartbreak. The way she manages the lacerations of loss is precise, controlled, and subtle – this is what she takes from Oppen: a ruthlessness toward her own grief and it makes many of these poems, like “An Elegy,” quietly devastating.

Above all, beneath all,

in as many ways
as the spider has

known the wall,

I miss and am
member of you
and of that race the grass
grows thru.

The sonic pattern of this poem achieves an exquisiteness that is in no way precious: the sense of breath and space, the rhyme of “all” with “wall” (as if to say that what was once experienced as unity now suffers a barrier); the spider as a hand, running over that wall, blindly knowing it through touch alone; and finally, the sharp cut of “am/member,” invoking both the call to remembering and its sundering.

This is a strong collection, but not every poem quite hits the mark. “Addendum,” for instance, comes across as somewhat awkward: “Who was it said: ‘AND//is the greatest/miracle’? Praise//be his/her name.” Perhaps Davis has in mind here a particular “him” – William James who, in A Pluralistic Universe, observed that “and” is the word that links everything to everything; it escapes closure; it deifies our efforts to forge a totality. “The word ‘and’ trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes.”

In the moving and completely marvelous “Big Tree Room,” perhaps the central poem in the book, the sense of continuity and rupture is rendered in a series of deceptively transparent meditations on death and re-birth. Their complexity is totally earned:

It is hard to keep remaining whole
as for the leviathan to stay
surfaced is hard.

It is hard, and therefore, a task to keep remaining.

We have not been born
in a while

Though wrenched from context, lines like these are nevertheless delicious with paradox, defying easy parsing. They invite us to face the size of loss, all the while maintaining a faith in language to equip loss with a meaning – to be born, after a while, after the task of grieving. Or is it under the sign of grieving?

An Ethic consists of two parts, the first of which is given over to elegy, while the second looks beyond to the world of ongoing, present-live connections. The hinge joining these two is the knowledge that the dead do not sever us from them the present, but bring us more closely to it. In both sections the questions driving the poems’ urgent predicament is the need to recognize both worlds: the dead and the living. This work of seeing is arduous because it also demands coming to account with loss without recourse to easy forms of consolation. This is what it means to create an ethic.

Davis prefaces her collection with a quote from Oppen’s legendary Daybooks: “An ethic an ethic: ethos …/what other words can be found? Awe perhaps.” But Davis excludes what follows, for Oppen goes on to conclude that awe “is not ethical.” What to make of this? For one thing, it seems to me that Oppen here is insisting on the clearest possible definition of his terms, a process of continual refinement evidenced in both his poems and his journals and letters. To confuse awe, an essentially theological category of affect, with ethics, which must, among other things, adjudicate the precise differences and relations between things, would be to submit to a kind of heresy or distortion. Yet there’s a suggestion in Oppen that perhaps awe is what produces ethics, that it’s an enabling condition. For awe is also a measurement: it marks the distance as well as the nearness between the perceiving subject and the other. It is as much a witnessing of that distance as it is the experience of undergoing the humility it imposes.

The greatest philosopher of ethics in the 20th Century, Emmanuel Levinas, asserts that ethical relations do not derive from first principles based on preserving the rational pursuit of self-interest. It is far more radical than that, he claims, based rather on proximity and the demands the other’s immediate presence places on me before any codification of law or custom. Ethics, then, is a form of hospitality: a welcoming of the stranger as guest. The poem as an ethic is the primary mode of acknowledging what Levinas calls the “there is” (il y a ), that which, even after the witnessing “I” has been subtracted, remains, demanding attention.

In his essay on Levinas, “Should Poetry be Ethical or Otherwise?,” Gerald Bruns makes a “distinction between language as kerygma and language as contact, where the one predicates something of something (this as that) while the other is an event of sensibility or proximity in which the visible is no longer an object of consciousness … but is an impingement or obsession.” The poems in An Ethic move back and forth between these two nodes, shuttling from proclamation to touch as if to say the one is the other, only by touch may I proclaim you.

The book begins and ends with poems entitled “An Ethic.” Both are magnificent. The first begins:

There is no this or that world.

One is not more or less
admitted. Into the entirety

One is invited
and to the entirety
one comes.

The line breaks are the syntax, as someone said of Milton. Each pause, each hovering, with an air of omen or premonition, freighted with enormous silence, marks the care by which the poem proceeds and defines the very insistence of each instant that must answer to the call of an ethic. The final poem closes with a quote from Thoreau: “What do you see?//One/world at a/time.” This may be the only real ethic – to see this world as it is. Here and now.

Throughout An Ethic, Davis maintains a deep humility before the visible, the tangible, its wreck and its promise. This humility is the sign of an extraordinary openness and vulnerability, a willingness to be porous to the currents of the moment, the heart, the earth. This is tricky business, because unlike Oppen, who was a hard-headed materialist, Davis, finally, carries an ecstatic, Emersonian outlook. She wants to be overwhelmed, to be carried away in the flood. For the spiritual landscape these poems move in is deeply sensuous. Their apparent modesty is deceptive and should not be mistaken for a lack of scope. “Flock” exemplifies this. It smallness does not prevent it from being called masterful.

But she was glad to be looking

and them not
always to arrive

was like

love is
love of

a future

Here all the promise of living is contained in awkward grammar (“them/not always”) and a spilling of line breaks; the delay of each one’s arrival is the lived moment of the poem – messianic, that is, always on the way, never quite arriving, an acknowledgement that the future is always the horizon we speed toward even as we know it full well to be bounded by finitude. The future is always about possibility, including the possibility of the loss of possibility. This is one reason we have poetry.

Davis’ previous work, Forth a Raven, was infused with a fierce spiritual longing that threatened at times to overwhelm its slender architecture. What she has taken from Oppen is a stringency; a steely quality to temper the ardor. The yearning for connection that marks her earlier work has become more palpable due to loss and grief. These poems are utterly urgent and often harrowing in their immediacy, in the demands they make on us to listen, to become present. Davis does not title her book “Ethics,” but An Ethic: a particular, deeply individual set of relations and of seeing grounded in the singular opening up to the approach of the Other, even when, or especially when, the Other is a ghost. What an ethic requires is a response, a turning toward the other, not out of rational first principles, but because a call has been issued and it cannot be ignored. Ethics then is always an event of the impossible – a wholly new response generated to the unforeseen. This is the poem. This is the second life it gives us.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

TEN -- Jennifer Firestone


Jennifer Firestone’s Ten (BlazeVox, 2019) is simply and elegantly conceived as a series of interconnected poems, adhering to the procedural rule of ten lines each. Firestone’s playful, at times capricious sense of lyric is on beautiful display here as the logic of the lines shifts in unexpected and delightful ways, making intricate connections between disparate registers and in the process unfolding the complex seams and ligatures which link the outer world to the inner. Within the restraints of the ten-line procedure these poems amaze with their diverse range of formal turns and the experiences they map out. With their sometimes flat, affectless end-stopped lines that verge on or subvert or actually are aphorisms, these poems produce an uncanny force field of unexpected pathos.

“It becomes dark, fear of what a day has held.
Some balcony plants live. Yet old ones
have more character. They’re austere and stable.
Portioned nature aware of its limitation.
Is that truthful? Or what one has just is.
Can even be nice. Why need to compare.
Let me stay with sight.
The bird dove into a pine. My mind
says, nest. She vanishes
for so long.”

Firestone has a consistent gift for ending these poems on a note of quiet astonishment or surprise. This is chamber music, but it often carries a symphonic surge. Each poem proceeds by little leaps of cognition – assembling an array of sensible data on the fly – that feels natural and right but are also acutely rendered observations of the lived world. “She vanishes/for so long.” Here the enjambment accomplishes the work of re-cognition, attesting to the fact that nothing finally can speak for itself – everything we see must be spoken for.

You can read more about and order TEN here.