Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

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 na├»ve 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.