See some of Ken Chen’s poems and find links to items mentioned in the podcast.
James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.
You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.
Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition. The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.
But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon” left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”
There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.
I was 14 years old when I read this poem. I found it in an anthology called New Poets of 1965, which I kept until it fell apart and no longer have a copy of. I did not know Robert Kelly’s work then. I did not know he was part of the first wave of deep imagists. I felt the twang of common ground in the somewhat Catholic imagery, and in my awakening sense of how Eucharistic reality might fit with my growing awareness of desire, my sexual desire. The poem made my horniness mystical, and my sense of the mystical twain with my passion–in all senses of the word passion.
I think what I like best about it is its ceremony, an almost liturgical feeling that moves as all good lyrical poetry moves on the precipice of the silly, the precious, and the absurd. I wore this poem out and memorized it, along with the Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets in the anthology, Kathleen Frazier’s poem in which she accepts her legs, and Gilford’s poem “The Abnormal is Not Courage.” 38 years later, and I still enjoy this poem, though now it does not come to me as a revelation, but as a memory of a voice I found true.
Poem for Easter
All women are beautiful as they rise
exultant from the ruins they make of us. . .
and this woman
who lies back
informing the sheets
has slain me with all day love
and now keeps vigil at the tomb of my desire
from which also she will make me rise
and come before her into Galilee
Rising I fall
and what does her beauty matter
except it is a darkness, sabbath,
where the church
everywhere comes together
to kindle one small light
the unyielding, the flesh,
The radio messiah
I know that my redeemer liveth
and he shall stand in the last days
up from this earth
Oh love, this hour will not let me name
They will say I make a sexual mystery of your passion
whereas we know, flesh rises
to apprehend one other mystery,
as the astonished lover’s eyes come open in his coming
to find that he is not alone.
Photography must be the most self-erasing of arts. The most self-effacing: it makes itself invisible. The texture of photography is invisible and it has an authority that’s so great as to seem not to be an authority, but just to be a natural state. It is just there. Of course we take photographs to be more than record, but to be, actually, evidence: they are not just most in line with our idea of actual truth, they are what we mean by the word and idea. The photography itself erases itself for us, and leaves us just the real.
Or so we think.
The photographic nature of photographs, the photographic qualities of photographs, the photographic characteristics and texture of photographs … they all evaporate before us. We can’t see them. They disappear for us and we see only the referred to, only that which is signified. The sign is see-through, the referential transparent.
A question I’ve been toying with, though: can one photograph in such a way as to make that invisible visible? In such a way as to make the photography part of the photograph? To show the texture of the thing, and not erase it, not embrace the “myth of photographic truth,” which is this invisibleness, with the photograph, but to acknowledge the mediation, induce meditation on the mediation — and even appreciate it?
Which is how I ended up taking pictures of windows.
Other arts, as much effort as there is to erase — ars celare artum — the texture is still there. It is observable even, to some extent, by the casual reader. The narrativistic nature of narratives, the painterly qualities of painting, the writerly texture of writing, the rhetorical texture of speech — all are noted, even by some unsophisticated readers, and are praised or bemoaned accordingly.
Even the concept of “reading” a photograph, in contrast, seems strange. The photographers we do know, commonly, the one’s we have heard of and have thought of as artists, are famous, note, either for shooting nature, where their technique is more or less ignored and considered incidental, as they “captured” what “was there,” or for posing the people they shoot, where this, and not the actual taking of the photograph, is considered the art.
Put it another way: amateur poets write poetry to express themselves, while amateur photographers take photographs to document their lives. We still basically always accept the idea of photography as promoted by Kodak so long ago with the slogan, “You push to the button, we do the rest.” That is, we think of photography as a mechanical act of recording the real, rather than as an art, as an act of seeing, and the mechanical, being mechanical and nothing more, becomes transparent to us.
Even criticism of the idea of photographs as truth generally tend to focus on manipulations, which reinforces the idea that photographs are truth, are supposed to be truth, and are truth unless they’ve been manipulated.
My real concern, here, with the invisibility of the photographic quality of photographs, with our allowance of the erasure and self-effacement, is primarily ethical. In that I think ethics is acts of awareness, requires the thoughtful attention that such erasure makes impossible, and that violence of all sorts, from ideology to acts of brutality, proceeds only from structural exemptions of our own innocence, that we are not culpable here, that what is, is natural, and normal, from the kinds of ethical “fourth walls” that assure us we are not involved. In this way, for me, analysis of these structural edifices is an attempt to be ethical.
With other arts, there are experimental artists whose work calls attention to its own texture: Abstract painters like Pollock and Rothko, for example, or even the Impressionists, and modernist literature, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, and the metaficiton of John Barth or the anti-novels of David Markson. Photographs can do this too and there are photographers, for example, Lee Friedlander, who have done this. Friedlander is known for shooting street scenes where his own shadow falls into the frame, making the invisible photographer a presence.
– Self portraits.
-Pictures that include cameras (e.g. self portraits in mirrors).
–Photos of photographers and meta photos. Mechanical failure photos (e.g. out of focus, over exposure, double exposures, etc).
I first started noticing the possibilities, though, of photographs that reveal the concealment, with Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window project. In the context of Sullivan’s blog, the photos function to reach out to the readers and give them the sense of being a part of something, and something global. Beyond that rhetorical function, though, I found them interesting. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but I liked, I knew, the limitation of photos taken from windows, the restrictions inherent in them, and started taking some myself.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielsilliman/4843786012/” title=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America) by What is in us, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4106/4843786012_d330d724a5.jpg” width=”500″ height=”312″ alt=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America)” /></a>
Pretty quickly, I decided that what I liked about those fist window photos was actually excluded from them. I liked the effect of the pre-existing frame, which was lost in the way I took the picture. I realized, kind of slowly that I was shooting windows in both directions, both in and out, and that I wanted, specifically, to keep the elements of the window: the frame, the glass, and that specific sense of space that implies (sometimes uncomfortably) that one is looking.
These photos I’m taking, I think, can work to establish a kind of imagistic stutter: the window works to repeat some elements of the photographs that are normally concealed, normally invisible, and because of the repetition, the photo can act to call attention to the photographic texture of the photograph. It’s these three elements that are repeated:
1) The frame: Photography is, first of all, an act of selection. Things are included, and things are excluded. The presence of a frame within the frame of the photograph serves to point to that, and it can act to make us aware that this is not a picture of the world, but an act of framing. There is, implied by the window, more there that we cannot see.
2) The glass: There is always a distance intrinsic to a photograph, and there is a lens between the viewer and the viewed. That glass is transparent, but when it’s made visible it acts, kind of dramatically, as a denial of access. It shows the barrier that was always there, and the distance, and that one does not have the thing, the reality. One is blocked in, in a sense, by the glass.
3) The voyeurism: photographs should make us uncomfortable. There’s a kind of viewing going on that’s more than a little invasive, more bold than ordinarily acceptable. There’s an objectification and a flattening that goes on with photographs, and that’s part of the characteristic texture of photographs, and a photograph through a window can remind us of the kind of invasion that’s happening here.
I wouldn’t say that I’m totally sure that what I’ve done actually works. It’s possible that I’m the only one who looks at these photographs and sees photography in them, sees them as making the normally-insivisibe photographic texture visible. It’s an attempt, though, to induce meditation on the nature of this mediation, to isolate the act of looking, to be more thoughtful about photography, and to show and point to that which is normally, in photography, erased by photography.
If we want to call Yahia Lababidi’s work since Trial by Ink fiction, we should do it for lack of a more accurate term. Like Trial, the following, titled “Underground Revisited,” exists between genres. We have an invented speaker and audience, and a steady flow of ideas and verbiage. But we don’t have a manageable Aristotelian plot, or any sort of substantial tension between characters (except for the occasional thrown shoe). This is man v. himself. Sounds more like a long poem. On the surface, “Underground Revisited” is a hardy homage to Dostoevsky, a stylistic parody, in the Hutcheon-esque postmodern (i.e., aesthetically and theoretically productive) sense of the word, that, as a good parody does, reaches beyond mere play with form, that says something about that form via repetition and imitation. Here, Lababidi continues the aim of his major work, namely, that of answering big questions. As he told me, literature hasn’t changed that much. It’s still people trying to deal with living in their own skin and among others in a society. That’s precisely what’s going on here. Notes from Underground is so timeless because it, as Dostoevsky’s novels so masterfully tend to do, poses fundamental questions about human existence. Lababidi is up to much of the same. His speaker, like Dostoevsky’s, is self-loathing, but attention-starved, deep-thinking, but obsessed with action. He feels trapped between personal codes of being, imploring his (in this case, literal) audience for advice and understanding. Both stuck and unstuck, he struggles to put one intellectual foot in front of the other. This uncertainty cuts to the core of what it means to participate in a discourse, but, more importantly, of what it means to try to get along in one’s own life.
by Yahia Lababidi
Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!
Tonight I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost myself. I do not lie.. now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame). It is important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves. Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal … particularly self-knowledge.
It is a wonder then that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers- when they are unable to identify with themselves. How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption). But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes. I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice. With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously – it’s enough that I do.
I’m sorry if you do not find the programmed amusing so far -I did not intend to depress you, I only meant to impress you- but the truth is that I don’t either. And, why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me! An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now. You know, the metamorphosis of others from friends to strangers is not so tragic, even if it occurs overnight. To become a stranger to oneself, until one no longer knows who they are … that is. Still, one ought not to be suspicious of change, for it might be the only constant. And if history books are littered with instances of hardened sinners becoming selfless saints, then why can’t a clumsy, careless clown exchange his costume for the cloak and crown of a sad, thoughtful philosopher? Just why not? But, it is not proper to discuss such matters with strangers. I can see you’re already uneasy. There’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy yourselves, individually and collectively.
You sir, the one with the divided nature, can enjoy yourself twice, or thrice, or however many times you are unable to identify with yourself. I, on the other hand, shall continue exploiting my selves. Why? Because I am an entertainer, first and foremost, and I am not to forget that ever again, if ever I hope to become a human being, secondly. What does he mean by that you might ask, if I permit. You see, I am not altogether human. Humane, yes. Human, no. But, how can you see? If you could, then it would not be a curse and, I am cursed. Cursed to find differences where there are none, and to ignore the differences that exist. I am the abominable one. Really, it’s a shame. No doubt you came counting on being amused, astounded with witticisms perhaps, and, instead you have been abused by being made to witness a savaging, of one abusing himself. Perhaps I should recite you some sublime passage from one of the unassailables, those immortal untouchables, and charm you with the breadth and width of my learning…
I apologize, again. I’ve merely forgotten my place, that is all. Yes, in deed to forget one’s place is most certainly all. It is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. And, I have done so, repeatedly. But, believe me, when I say that I do so against my will. I am the victim of a virus which deforms and defiles and destroys. No, I am not that. I am the virus itself. So, lest it prove catching, I ask you all not to listen too closely. My origin is unknown, my destination unavoidable. In a void, able. I am. In a void, I am able. Inavoidiamable. There, that is something at least. If nothing else, I have given you a new word: “inavoidiamable”. Now, tell me where you have heard such a thing? Nowhere, I am sure, for I have not heard it before. I’m sorry, that is another fault of mine, that I can not imagine. To assume that you have not heard of a word simply because I have not is arrogant. To not imagine, that is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. The fact of the matter is, I have tried to concentrate on the world within to the exclusion of the world without, for some time now. That is why I cannot imagine. But, I have only tried, and failed. All along I was aware of -no, I impatiently awaited- the world without. And even when my vessel began to sink I only waited aboard, bored, not to learn a lesson in survival but so that I might tell a tale later. Not share, but tell a tale, like the sole survivor of a shipwreck. No, like the soul survivor…
Honorable ladies and gentleman, I have a confession to make: I have no soul! None whatsoever. And it is very likely that, due to disuse, I stand to lose my body soon. For, just as Evolution suggests that we lost a tail for which we had no use, I am to lose a body I cannot use. Already, I have witnessed my soul silently slipping away from my body, disgruntled and disgusted, unable to play another (false) part except the one written for it -whose language I could not, or did not want to decipher. Since then, I have forgotten my place as I’ve said. I have borrowed from other souls, much finer, nobler, than the one I do not possess; and, I continue to do so even now. In exchange, I have loaned myself, only to realize I was over-drawn and artificially propped up on bounced reality checks. That is why I must stand here, and you must sit over there. I must not allow myself to get any closer to you; it would not be fair to either of us. So, please, do not approach me; do not answer my questions; do not even look my way, lest you pity me. You may however, ask me questions -although I feel obliged to warn you: I have far more questions than answers
Yes, madam, you in the corner without a blouse. What is it you wish to know? No, I do not own clothes, anymore. That does not mean we are the least bit alike. You do not wear a blouse for a reason, no doubt, not because of doubt. You have either forgotten to do so, or you have chosen not to for some ridiculous reason. Or, perhaps you are poor and cannot afford one. In short, you have a reason. I have none. You have conviction. I have none. You have a belief in something or other: be it a Cause, or your Self. I have none. There are others like you: counterparts, representatives, similar specimens. I am not even like myself.
Yes, sir, in the front row, in the middle. What? How dare you say you are in my position when we do not inhabit the same imaginative universe? I have accessed regions of my soul you do not possess. I have traveled landscapes of the mind you cannot fathom. I have had rarified sentiments you are not entitled to. What do you say? You want concrete evidence. With all due respect, sir, I am not a construction worker! I do not deal with the concrete. It is the abstract I traffic in. But, if you must, I will give you clear and irrefutable reason why we are not in the same position. You, sir, are comfortably seated. I am standing, always, and uncomfortably at that. What’s more is that you are in the front row; I need not say where I am, but it most certainly is not there. Finally, you are in the middle, balanced, moderate. I, my good man, am an extremist. I would sooner be beneath that seat in the farthest corner than exchange places with you. I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my oath, to myself really more than anyone else: to empathize. Believe me, I do not mean what I say; if I did, I wouldn’t feel the slightest need to say it. It is but an act, though I am not an actor, per say. I can only act offstage, before close acquaintances or distant friends. Still, I ought to at least try and act naturally. Really, it is only that I’m in love with my own voice. I am like the bird that, seduced by her song, cannot stop singing throughout the seasons and catches her death of cold in winter, if not of exhaustion beforehand. No, I am not in the least like a bird. The bird is as beautiful as its song. I am as vile as my venom. I apologize; I shall not lapse into such extravagant indulgence again.
Thank you, sir, for throwing your shoe in my face. I don’t deserve it. You are far too kind and considerate to throw only one shoe. Really, you show such restraint. Yes, madam. You, without the arms, in the arms of the furry fellow. Well, what about Love? Yes, by all means, I believe in it. What it does not create in us, it compliments. It is perhaps the last of the miracles. Its chief allure is how unrealistic it is, and yet how senselessly we pursue it. Then, when we think we’ve found it, how senselessly we chase it away. What is that you say? Oh, no! No, my good lady. You have entirely misunderstood me, and I’m sure that is a fault of mine, since those who are consistently misunderstood must be to blame somehow. No, I do not believe in the possibility of love in my situation. I very much feel I am denied this possibility. Unless, of course, I were to find one who were constructed, and then deconstructed, in a similar vein. And, frankly, I don’t think it at all possible since I’m doing all I can to avoid looking for, or being found by, such a non-person. I say: I will never fall in love and, I don’t. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now, tell me, who says there are no more prophets when there are prophesies? Just as, who says there are no more miracles when there exists even the idea of Love? I tell you, whoever says anything at all has spoken too soon, for they are bound to discover the inverse truth -sometime after- perhaps when it is already too late to benefit from it. That is why it is best to say nothing, or else everything, if one possibly can. Personally, I never mean what I say when I say it. I might mean it tomorrow, or yesterday. But, never today. That is why I feel that the only thing I cannot endure more than being misquoted is being quoted at all. It is simply maddening. You can quote me on that. Actually, please do. It would do me a great deal of good to have my words echoed by strangers. It might even restore my faith in humanity, and bring me to embrace the person who uttered those dear, dear words. Yes, sir, with the broken spirit. What is it?
0! My God … my goodness! What a startling question. I don’t quite know how to respond, or if I ought to at all. It is important to refuse to answer certain questions, on principle, since one can’t speak lightly about absolutely everything. But wait. I’ve already answered your question indirectly, which is the best way to answer any difficult question, anyhow. Your answer is “my God… my goodness.” The two are interchangeable for me. No, they are not. That is far too simple an answer to such a complex question. Certainly, I believe there is injustice and there is imbalance; there is evil and wrong doing; there is sickness and suffering; poverty of the body and spirit. How then can I, or any intelligent, seeing human being say that God is all good, or even that there is a Heaven and a Hell? He is not all good. Rather, He is all: good and bad. If we are created in His image, therefore it should follow that He is capable of greater good, and bad, than we are. We are limited, He is limitless. ‘The greatest leap of man’s mind is to realize its limitations.’
What’s that, sir, you say about heaven and hell? I have not made myself clear on that point? Does that mean I have been clear on all others! Please, see me after this is all over and explain it to me, will you. Yes, heaven and hell, there’s no denying them. Only not in the next world, Heaven and hell are here. Every Day is judgment day. If you go unrewarded in your life, then, you must be good; and that, in and of itself, is your reward (and punishment). Yes, it is all absurd and senseless, particularly for the sensitive few who would like to believe otherwise.
Yes, Miss, with the bookcase on your back. One must think everything and do nothing? Are you suggesting then, learned lady, that thinking is not doing? Now, you must be sounding like me to amuse me. But, believe me; I am not amused to hear you repeat such things when I do not fully believe in them myself. I may amuse myself with such folly, you may not. You dishearten me. I did not think it possible to influence persons before and, I do not still. We receive only the stations our antennas attract, which is why we should keep our antennas out at all times in the hopes of picking up all of our stations. Otherwise, I cannot persuade you of what you do not already believe in the dawning of your knowledge. I cannot awaken in you what is not dormant. I cannot plant a seed where there is not fertile soil. And that is why it disheartens me that you should be like me in any way. Not that I feel I have affected you, for if you had not heard my words now, it would have been any incident or accident later that would have stirred you to those words. Yet, I wish it were not my words, and that you had heard them elsewhere. You are far too clever to join the daily increasing ranks of the overfed and undernourished. That is what it means to be overeducated. But, it is not a fault that cannot be undone (sadly, it takes far longer to ‘unlearn’ than it does to learn, just as it is nearly impossible to ‘unsee’ what one has already seen). It can be achieved, however, and I am living proof of it. Although, perhaps “living” is too strong a word. Still, I am proof of it, nevertheless. You must not quote any more of those journals or ‘important’ authors, however. Or at any rate, if you must, then do so with some feeling. Where is your passion? Without it, you are merely a corpse with a borrowed mouthpiece, an ass carrying a bookcase, that is all. Intellect without sentiment is a cold, concrete structure without either doors or windows. Structurally solid, it is uninhabitable to the occupant, and impenetrable to the passerby.
Yes; the elderly gentleman with the black tears and the soil in his hands. No, sir, I could not possibly make light of your grief. What you hold in your hands is the Body of God. Yes, the Body of God is not invisible, it is Nature. How can we be in awe of one and not the other? It is the land, the sea, the air and the Infinite Universe. In which case, Humanity must occupy God’s nether regions. I apologize, that was careless of me … but not thoughtless. And, I’m not sorry. I do see the stars in space as His upper body, which can only mean…. God is not dead. Nature is independent of us yet, we are dependant on it. It goes about its natural cycles as it did before we came to be and, will continue to do so long after we cease. We have not tamed nature, we have only maimed it: with electric blades and metal claws that pierce, tear, torture and spoil the air, the earth and its waters. Or what we call: travel. And, then monstrous machinery that devastates and contaminates its skin and soul. This we call: the cost of our living. And, next to those weightless clouds, Industry has contributed their own leaden clouds to choke the skies. Yet, we shall pass and It shall remain, majestic and mysterious, mocking us who have named it and so think we have known it. So, sir, I share your grief. For all our private and public worlds -and the monuments built to honor our accomplishments, thought forms and inventions- we are no more than a passing intervention, insignificant in the laughing eyes of Eternal Nature. Yes, Nature is God, and to be natural in thought and deed is divine. I, however, cannot be natural even when I sleep, or view nature except with envious eyes in my waking hours. There is no hope for me. But surely you, young man with the clear glass eyes, can see that it is not too late for you to be saved, provided you do not grow any further.
No, most certainly not! You should not wish to grow like me, mine is a malignant growth. I speak since I am not at peace with my silences. My words are elaborate because my thoughts are unclear. You speak with such simplicity and sincerity. Why you would want to emulate me worries me immeasurably and reminds me of the poisonous charm of words. Please, not another word or I shall expose myself! I must forget all that I am to be happy, you must only remember it. There is no use denying that yours’ is the superior state. Do not think that because you have the knowledge of happiness then, I must have the happiness of knowledge. Happiness and Knowledge are not to be wed in my world. For the feeling person, Ignorance is Happiness; and for the thinking person, Happiness is Ignorance. This I know. Ignorance on the first, simple, and natural level of existence is the prerequisite for Happiness, while on the second, more complex (hyperconscious) level of existence, it is the contrary: Happiness is considered Ignorance. But there exists a third level where Happiness and Knowledge can coexist. The selfless few who arrive at this state are those who ‘see the world steadily and see it whole’. But, I’ve already spoken ad nauseam on where I stand in relation this notion…
All of a sudden, I realize I am weary with fatigue, and I’m sure you feel the same. Thank you for your patient audience. What’s that? One more question? What a terrific trick that is you are performing, sir! Or, is it madam? What do you say? It is not a trick, it is a talent? A gift from God? No, I beg to differ. Look where you are seated, my dear ma… friend. The seats by your side are vacant, though there is a shortage of seats. You are all alone. Lately, I am of the opinion that a talent is not a gift but a curse, or at the very least, a hindrance. Any remarkable ability, as such, which differentiates one from the herd, that is talent, true. But, as a result of it, you will not be viewed with tenderness and understanding; and perhaps as a result of it, too, you will not be able to view others with tenderness and understanding. You call that a gift? No, I must differ with you. I must be allowed to leave, now. I am too tired to continue this charade any longer. Also, I have already said too much although, to some of you, it might seem like I’ve said nothing at all. Whatever the case … Honorable ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.
Wait! Don’t go…. I do not wish to be alone, anymore. I have nowhere to go. There, I have said it! And I have said it with neither trembling lip, nor quivering voice. I have said it rather bravely and matter-of-factly; because in fact, I do have enough energy to continue. I have to have enough energy to continue. And, sir, when I am done -when I am truly over and done with, and no longer of any use to anyone- then you may throw your other shoe in my face. In fact, please, do so now, I cannot stand the suspense. Thank you! Now, where was I before I so rudely interrupted my selves? Oh yes, talent is a curse. Yes, I’m sorry I stand by that. Forgive me, but I cannot take any more questions. Why? Because for every question of yours I entertain, I ignore one of my own. So, the format shall continue to be question and answer; only I shall be asking the questions and answering them. And, it shall be better this way for all of us. Believe me. But, please, stay a while longer. I require your presence for inspiration. I’m afraid if you leave, my muse shall, too. Also, if you stay, I promise to be more honest than I have been before, within the confines of the impossibility of honesty, of course.
What then, is the impossibility of honesty? Simply, it is to say that complete honesty with oneself is impossible and, with others improper. What one can do however is to bridge the gulf between what is said and what is done. (Perhaps also between what is thought and what is said). That is the utmost extent of honesty anyone can afford. How very polite of you, sir, to nod so understandingly while I am speaking. Really, manners are everything. Manners and Morals, and all the more so if they are natural (and not the product of some pretentious finishing school). More than anything, manners simultaneously express respect and self-respect; and morals enforce them. Which brings one to ethics. What of ethics? Can ethics exist outside of society? Absolutely! One is ethical for one’s sake. In fact, not only do ethics exist outside society, they exist only outside of society, since the ethics within society are simulated and inauthentic. For God’s sake, ethics exist outside of organized religion, as well, which accounts for the irrefutable goodness and non-judgmental stance of some atheists. All that is well and good is not found without, but within, irrespective of whichever club one is a member of. It is important not to lose sight of that in one’s lifetime, just as it is important never to lose sight of one’s death during one’s life.
What do I mean by that? “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” To realize the day shall come when one will lie beneath the earth they tread upon, and to realize that day may be tomorrow, is very wise indeed. Such a realization either endows one with a sense of urgency or futility. As always, the answer lies not in the middle, but in the continual excursion to either extreme. Yes, the senselessness of life and the senselessness of death, that is what one should preoccupy oneself with. Nothing else is of the least importance, other than Art, but certainly not Science. What a bore Science is with its relentless insistence on evidence and proof and, how unrealistic that is. There is no proof, and there are no guarantees! Proofs of purchase and guarantees accompany appliances, not us. Which is all the more reason never, ever, never, to lose sight of death or attempt any number of ways of maintaining a firm foothold in the quicksand that is life. Make no mistake, we are sinking, and we shall all soon be submerged. There is no avoiding it. Why the startled look, how could you have thought otherwise? Or had you simply not thought? Still, that’s no reason not to live because you must die. There is life to live for, and Art. What is Art? It depends on whom you ask: the artist, or the public. To the artist, Art is the act of clearing his/her throat to find a Voice, silencing the voices in their head, and luring from it’s lair all that is secretive or mysterious. It is the act of dressing the invisible, of giving Form to the formless. And, only by becoming a slave to Art can the artist ever hope to master Life. To the general public, Art is a beautiful translation of the transition that is Life, rendering it more possible to endure. But, Art is not reserved to artists alone (and many artists are poor artists at that). Some people live artfully and fill their lives with art, while others artfully live and fill art with their lives. Ultimately, to burn brightly with one’s own Art, that is the purpose of life, if indeed there is one.
What then, is the greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows? Desistance. To recognize one’s passion and not pursue it: to realize and refuse. Ignorance is bliss, to ignore is heresy. In which case, I must be damned… But, never mind me. Please, never mind me; I mind me enough as it is. Anxiety-ridden and doubt-driven, I am. I wonder: if one forgets about themselves, will they be forgotten? I don’t know. I know I don’t know. I also know endless self-scrutiny is fruitless. To concern oneself constantly with the endless possibilities of one’s growth, and in which direction is, as sure a way as any, to stunt one’s growth. But what can one do? We are not free … to do anything. We are free, but not Free. We suffer from a restricted freedom. We are free, from within a cage, yet we are also given a key -not to the cage, of course, but to ourselves. This way, we have the possibility of being free, to surprise others and ourselves. But, the true surprise is how hesitant we are to act. And when we do, just how helpless.
Excuse me, may I ask you a question, sir? What is the difference between you and that horse you are riding? There’s no need to take offense, an answer will suffice. No, I mean other than that it is an animal, and that it is mounted, since both of those conditions apply to the human condition. What do you say? There are no differences, then? No, sir, you are mistaken, again. There is one; one difference you have overlooked. The difference between you and your horse is that his blinders are removable. What do I mean by that? Just that his blinders are external and can be discarded; whereas ours are not and cannot. Don’t be so surprised. We all wear blinders which determine what we see and what we don’t, and accordingly, what we respond to and how. Some of us only see what is ahead of us, while others only see what is around them. The rest of us are looking at our noses. I do not see anything since my eyes are not in accord. But, I promised not to discuss myself, further…
How much time and energy we exhaust discussing ourselves, as though we were existing beings when, in truth, we are merely symbols. Collectively, we are a physical manifestation of the complex character of Creation, that is all. For, just as Nature is the Body of God, all of Human Nature is His Soul. That, I believe, is why we are here -to act and interact in such a way as to make manifest to Him the possibilities of His Being. But, this is not a solemn sermon -much as it may sound like one- since I am not in the position either to be solemn, or to present a sermon. Perhaps, I should speak of something else, then. How about aesthetics and insects? Yes, insects and aesthetics, it is. And, 0, what a frightful emphasis in our infinite vanity do we place on aesthetics!
You do not agree? Look at the cockroach. Now, look at how you recoil in horror! Look at your lips, upturned in disgust, and how your eyes long to recede to the back of your skull. Now, look at the ladybug, and look at your delight. Look at the fly, now, look at the butterfly. What is it about appearance that allows us to dismiss creatures so carelessly, and approach others so eagerly? What do we know of the nature of the black beetle that depicts it as any less loveable than the lady bug, or the butterfly? It is not harmful, nor is it lacking in usefulness; it only commits the unpardonable crime of not being pleasing to the eye. Likewise, why am I addressing myself to the attractive members of the audience, the more visually arresting of you? Is it because we assume, somehow, that Beauty is a kind of benediction, while ugliness expresses varying degrees of sin. Or, is it more superficial, but more meaningfully revealing, than that? I don’t know. Whatever the case, it is a temptation that must be avoided. No, that’s wrong. Can you tell me what is wrong with that sentiment? I’ll tell you. Temptation is not to be ‘avoided’, it is to be resisted. To be present and resist, not to distance yourself and avoid, that is noble. But, I have nothing in common with nobility. I tremble before temptation. I must avoid it, since I’m not strong. Okay, sir, you may now throw your other shoe in my face; I am over and done with. You already have? Very well, then, I shall exit unclimactically. At least, it is closer to the Truth that way. Thank you again and, please, remember me in your prayers.
Thin Kimono is a book of mistaken identities: a hallucinogenic wandering through a cocktail party the night before the invention of the internet. The party is populated with individuals you may or may not know. Your wife is a slightly altered version of herself. There are horses, but even they have become something else. Michael Earl Craig’s acupuncturist is here too. She tells us her “speakers are hidden in the jade plant” (The Bad Clown) We get the sense she is struggling not to become evil. We know there must be separate rooms, separate poem-rooms, but even with titles, often the only sense of demarcation comes from the turning of pages. This is particularly true in the book’s second and smallest section, which is reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer’s “A Plate of Chicken” in that the section is comprised of short 8-line segments separated by asterisks (“A Plate of Chicken” is divided into 7-line segments). Also like “A Plate of Chicken,” this section employs an uncanny use of dissociative observation as lens for self-reflection.
The innervated spatula, it
feels things even you don’t.
In 204 a couple humps briskly
like Great Danes, it’s textbook (had heard
what was probably a shoe hit the wall
with some force). We dream of perfecting life
somewhere else. In space, let’s say.
Wearing Erik Satie stretch pants.
We are invited to enter the rooms of his characters, to observe their strange habits and quiet respect for the divinity in objects, and then we let them pass back into an interaction we can only assume continues to occur after our leaving. “The nitwit danced with the congresswoman/ at the spring picnic,” Craig writes in “Poem.” As a reader I take solace in the knowledge that this dance continues even once I have closed the book and replaced it on my bookshelf. I’m equally glad to know that couple in 204 will be humping eternally, briskly.
In “The Neighbor,” one of the book’s most defiant and arguably self-aware poems, a dinner roll falls off the dining room table. “It [rolls] across the room and [passes] through the doorway into the bedroom and the door [slams] shut behind it.” Nothing about this act is portrayed as being out of the ordinary. To the contrary, we feel a very natural loss at the roll’s leaving, as though we, the non-participatory readers, have done something to cause it to throw a tantrum. After all, this particular poem is about us: about Craig’s inability to imagine us as anyone other than exactly himself, and of course about our inability to fulfill that expectation. Perhaps we feel an affinity to the roll in this poem because Craig has chosen the roll to represent our interests. While reading, there is always a recognition that we cannot enter the poem unless we are written into it, and so, like ghosts, we posses for a moment the body of the dinner roll and storm indignantly out of the room.
As with the proems of Francis Ponge, the objects in Thin Kimono are imbued with a kind of duplicitous consciousness. However, where Ponge’s objects come across as insecure and terrified of the softness that is contained within them, Craig’s objects appear at times in a state of revolt against the very human hands that created them. In “In The Road,” Craig tells us of a dream where he is shoeing a horse.
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air. My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.
Even the blood here becomes an object capable of acting of its own volition. And again, similar to the proems of Francis Ponge, there is a moment where the interior comes to the surface, transforms itself, and covers “like a glove” the exterior. The blood in this instance is no longer an extension of the body but has become more an extension of the hammer that has revolted against the body. The objects have overtaken consciousness. Our grasping at them will lead to our own demise. Here is a very clearly stated desire to turn away from our tendency toward possession of material goods and into a world of endless metaphysical fulfillment, the lucid dreamstate where surrealism and realism and absurdism all coexist.
These poems occur in the space between the stirring of consciousness and the awakening of reason, when our unconscious perceptions of the objects and characters that embody our lives are still dripping in the semiotic fluid of dreams and of language. In short, it’s a very fun book to read, and one that leaves you feeling more inquisitive and excited about the earth’s occupants (both sentient and non-sentient) than when you opened it. Craig’s poems are as layered and thick as a well-made baklava. They are equally accessible, rich, and nutty. “THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET [THEM].”(Bluebirds) Also like baklava, they taste more of the Country Marm’s kitchen than of the Hostess factory, more of the earth than of the machines we have created to destroy it. As with so many of the books put out by Wave, this one is quirky, intelligent, and entertaining, with leaps that sometimes require a great effort in the suspension of disbelief. I for one am glad to go there, glad to learn of the disparities that can be stitched together by consciousness, and particularly glad to again crack the form I have built around cognition. I hope this book does the same for you.
See some of the poems Colin reads in the podcast and find links to items discussed during the interview.
The first poem I ever loved was The Raven. Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”
Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives. But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.
A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings. These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.
they told me a surgeon sat down in the hospital morgue
next to your body.
He yelled at the aide to get out.
His two sons had been your students.
–me, too, little-knowing–
I’m always, my young fathers,
out in the air, loving you.
Water to water.
Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book,Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass, just out from Copper Canyon Press. Her previous collection, Little Boat was published by Wesleyan in 2007. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.
I like art museums. I’ve been to the museums and frequented museums in every city I’ve ever spent any time in. Seeing Jackson Pollock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was like a religious experience, a moment of revelation, and I saw what I never could have seen in the art book reprints and cheap, dorm room posters of Pollock’s drip paintings. The Howard Finsters at Atlanta’s High Museum are amazing. Toledo has a surprisingly good museum, for a little industrial city, and Portland has some really good examples of American painting, including Albert Bierstadt‘s Mount Hood, and George de Forest Brush’s paintings of Native Americans, including The Sculptor and the King. I got to see Gustav Klimt‘s work in Vienna, and discovered and immediately loved HAP Grieshaber‘s woodcuts in a castle that’s been converted into a museum on the edge of the Bodensee.
I worry about museums, though. They can add a seriousness that weighs a work down until it’s dragged down to the ground. They can add a weigh that’s like chain mail on a sparrow. Sometimes the seriousness and officialness, the somber formality of a museum, means art is void of joy.
And joy is good in art.
Art can be light, and it can be fun. It can convert one into a child with surprise, and I like art that does that.
I like art that’s like a sudden laugh. Art that’s unexpected joy.
The thing that bothers me about museums occurred to me when I was in a museum. I was in the one in Philadelphia, the one with the famed “Rocky Steps” — by any measure one of the best museums in the US — and there was a group of people standing around one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. It was the bike wheel that’s attached, upside down, to a kitchen stool. A couple of more people were peering carefully at the plaque where the title of the work, which is the most self-obvious title in the history of art titles, was duly inscribed. The whole scene was very somber. People weren’t stroking their chins and saying in faux foreign accents, “very interesting,” but they could have been.
Then, walking away, I heard a woman say to her friend that she just didn’t get it. “It’s just a bike wheel,” she said.
I really wanted to say, “exactly!” I could be wrong, and maybe some disagree, but to me, for me, Duchamp’s work is hilarious. I like Dada and early Salvador Dali specifically because it’s so unserious. Lobster phones are funny. Signed toilets are funny. I don’t think you’re supposed to “get it,” but just supposed to laugh. This is a ridiculous situation we’re in, being human, and to “get it” is to laugh, at least sometimes. The hush of a museum can make that hard, though. It all seems so high art.
If I had a bike wheel screwed in to a stool in my apartment, I think it would be fun, sometimes, to just give it a whirl. I think that’s the point, and I think it’s too bad that sometimes, in museums, the presentation of the art what makes it great.
To some conservative tastes that silliness means the art is not art. It doesn’t strike the right tone. Yet, I find that the ridiculousness of this art is liberating. It allows me to see things in new ways, and think about things in different ways, and always makes me want to go out and create. Which means, for me, it does exactly what I want art to do.
One of my favorite sculptures is Leo Sewell’s Rolling Suitcase. There are personal reasons for this — I used to live right by the airport, so close the airplanes would fly about 50 feet overhead, the jets overwhelming everything with their roar, and I could drive by the sculpture every day — but I love the fact the whole idea of the permanent installation is art as surprise. The suitcase is made out of old road signs: INTERSTATE, and STOP, ONE WAY and WARNING CHANGED SIGNAL AHEAD. If you sit outside the airport and watch people as they wheel their suitcases from the parking garage to the Delta counter, sometimes they stop and stare at the sculpture, sometimes they laugh, or point, or sometimes they take pictures.
I got to talk to Sewell, once, and ask him about the suitcase. He said he liked the idea of his art at the airport because he liked the idea of art as unexpected. People don’t go to the airport expecting to see art; they’re in a rush, with things to do, and they’re thinking about their ticket and boarding pass and passport. They’re hoping the line won’t be too long and the security check will go smoothly and they’ll get off the ground on time. And then, right there, in the midst of all those practical worries and everyday concerns, maybe they’ll see the giant suitcase made out of road sign scraps, and maybe they’ll smile.
All of Sewell’s work is like this, fun and inspiring, full of the joy of a kid at the dump. I think it’s great:
I wouldn’t want to suggest that art should never be serious. I find Cormac McCarthy more compelling than almost anything, and I love Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. I think Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a work of genius and find I cyclically need to re-read the part of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 that most people found too violent to bear. Whether dark or light, though, I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.
Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.
If all art does is make us stroke our chins and say in somber tones, “very interesting,” then art isn’t worth it to me. I worry, sometimes, even though I love museums, that what they do is lay this hush down over art, smothering it with the kind of officialness. A formality. There’s something about the space, the lighting, the tone of the presentation, that can, too often, be inhibiting instead of liberating. It’s as if the art communicates its own artness, and the aura of high culture, and we’re ensconced in that like bugs in amber. There’s something about it that makes it so we can’t laugh, even though, look, it’s a bike wheel on a stool! Even though, look!, the title of this work is “Bicycle Wheel,” and it’s not even the original one, like that would matter or be extra special, it’s a replica!
I still love museums. There’s all sorts of really amazing work I never would have had access to, without them. In a world without museums, all the Vermers and Rembrants and Twomblys and Picassos would be owned by the rich, and I would have only ever seen photos in books. Without museums, and their guiding idea of democratic access to art, a person like me might never have been exposed to great art at all.
I’ve also learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland:
If anyone wants to say what Theo Jansen’s doing isn’t art, then I say let’s all give up art and do what he’s doing instead. It would be, I think, a wonderful thing to see his giant bug-devices centipede-stepping up the beach, wings aflutter in the wind from the sea. We wouldn’t have to “get it.” There would be no hush or stilted seriousness, but I think if I was walking one way on a beach, and Jansen’s art went walking the other, then I could rightly say, “this is what it’s like to be alive.”
I think it’s a plausible mission for artists to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit, to steal from something Kurt Vonnegut once said. I think it’s good for art to surprise us, and that might be the only way to make us appreciate what it is to be human. If I had to name a living artist who pulled that off, I might reply, “Leo Sewell and Theo Jansen did.”
I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.
Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”
We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:
I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?
I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.
One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:
No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.
As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.
Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:
Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.
Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.
Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:
My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.
Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:
The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Filled with dead
That won’t stay
When I die,
I won’t stay
On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.
A song cycle of David Shapiro’s sonnets called Unwritten has been written by the great young composer Mohammed Fairouz and will be played at Carnegie at Recital Hall on March 21st. Word on the street is that David Shapiro himself may play the coda.
See the poems Solmaz Sharif reads in the interview and find links to some items discussed during the interview.
Once I Walked Out
Once I walked out and the world
rushed to my side. The willows bent
their willowy necks, tossed green hair hugely.
The hawk cried by the well.
The crows kept counting their kind.
Once I walked out and the sheep
bleated with sensitivity, touched
black muzzles to the grass.
I was followed by dogs, by flies,
by horses both curious and spiteful.
The field of beans worked its sums
under green, the corn licked the air to haze.
I said goodbye to the house
with its sagging porch, attic hung with bats.
Goodbye braided rug, rabbit hutch, corn popper, copper tub .
The green world greened around me—
Virginia creeper, crown vetch, thistle, mullein, sumac.
I was full in my limbs, my laugh, pinkish skin.
I swung my arms, pulled air into lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew,
bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage which received the Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.