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Psalm for Kingston

_____If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
__________~Psalm 137

City of Jack Mandora—mi nuh choose none—of Anancy
_____prevailing over Mongoose, Breda Rat, Puss, and Dog, Anancy
__________saved by his wits in the midst of chaos and against all odds;
_____of bawdy Big Boy stories told by peacock-strutting boys, hush-hush
but loud enough to be heard by anyone passing by the yard.

City of market women at Half-Way-Tree with baskets
_____atop their heads or planted in front of their laps, squatting or standing
__________with arms akimbo, susuing with one another, clucking
_____their tongues, calling in voices of pure sugar, come dou-dou: see
the pretty bag I have for you, then kissing their teeth when you saunter off.

City of school children in uniforms playing dandy shandy
_____and brown girl in the ring—tra-la-la-la-la
__________eating bun and cheese and bulla and mangoes,
_____juice sticky and running down their chins, bodies arced
in laughter, mouths agape, heads thrown back.

City of old men with rheumy eyes, crouched in doorways,
_____on verandahs, paring knives in hand, carving wood pipes
__________or peeling sugar cane, of younger men pushing carts
_____of roasted peanuts and oranges, calling out as they walk the streets
and night draws near, of coconut vendors with machetes in hand.

City where power cuts left everyone in sudden dark,
_____where the kerosene lamp’s blue flame wavered on kitchen walls,
__________where empty bellies could not be filled,
_____where no eggs, no milk, no beef today echoed
in shantytowns, around corners, down alleyways.

City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
_____while the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted
__________down Babylon—Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I!
_____where they paid weekly dues, saving for our passages back to Africa,
while in their beds my grandparents slept fitfully, dreaming of America.

City that lives under a long-memoried sun,
_____where the gunmen of my childhood are today’s dons
__________ruling neighbourhoods as fiefdoms, where violence
_____and beauty still lie down together. City of my birth—
if I forget thee, who will I be, singing the Lord’s song in this strange land?


_______________________________________
Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of four books of poetry: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems, This Strange Land, a finalist for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Song of Thieves, and The Water Between Us, winner of the 1998 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry. For her poems, she has received awards and fellowships, including a 2013 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared in journals, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, UK, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and been translated into Spanish and Romanian. She lives with her family in Pennsylvania, where she is Director of the StadlerCenter for Poetry and Professor of English at BucknellUniversity.

TOWN GREEN: SOUTH ROYALTON

How long has it been since I lazed on a town green?
(Wistfulness, beware.)

A couple of square acres set with maple and crabapple.
(Sprayed, mulched, blooming impossibly early.)

Two gazebos, for bandstand and romance.
(Amo, amas. Gazebo, gazebae?)

Starched white church with a black clock-face.
(The time is what unearthly hour?)

Across the green, a train station where business begins.
(End of the line)

Before me, a cottage row; behind, a row of eateries.
(Who cooks in a chichi town?)

On its grass surface, not a weed or divot.
(No sliding tackles, scraped knees?)

From the highway, South Royalton seems tucked in timelessness
(a steeple crucifix, a gambrel barn’s weathervane)

like a storybook town one sees from a passing car, wishing
(fairytales were true)

fairytales were true, wondering how one gets there
(from here)

from here. Forty years ago, I’d have lain
(“loafed and invited my soul”)

here on a summer’s day, a college kid astride the season
(riding it, riding it)

tethered to greenness and leisure. Forty years ago,
(o lord)

o lord, in whose crossed steeple I do not believe, in whose name I cannot
(stop time)

claim hope or victory. Forty years, and my body still yearns
(for the idea of greenness)

for green.

_______________________________________________
Neil Shepard’
s most recent books include a full volume of poems, (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel (Mid-List Press, 2011), and an offbeat chapbook, Vermont Exit Ramps (Big Table Publishing, 2012) in which this poem appears. His new book, Hominid Up, is due in 2014 by Salmon Poetry Press (Ireland). The author of three previous books of poetry, Shepard founded the Writing Program at the Vermont Studio Center, and he taught for several decades in the BFA Creative Writing Program at Johnson State College in Vermont until his retirement in 2009. He also founded the literary magazine Green Mountains Review a quarter-century ago, and he is currently its Senior Editor. He presently lives in New York City and teaches poetry workshops at The Poets House and in the low-residency MFA writing program at Wilkes University (PA). Outside of the literary realm, Neil is a founding member of the jazz-poetry group POJAZZ.

These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.

–James Joyce, Ulysses [2176]

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, a translator and poetry scholar, has a beautiful essay accompanied by a selection of translations of the Belgian poet Jean Daive in issue 2.2 of continent. The sampling of work that Oei addresses all derive from his translation of Daive’s Narration d’équilibre: Antériorité du scandale, ‘Sllt’, Vingt-quatre images seconde (Paris: Hachette/P.O.L, 1982) and Oei is quick to mention that his annotations are not intended to present a “…meticulous overview of the different themes, lines, and figures traversing such a voluminous oeuvre. Rather, they form a set of comments that found their way to the margins of the word processing document while translating the work.”

j
Similarly, this note is being written to track a number of comments — ad-ornaments — lining the margins of the print-out of Oei’s essay that I have been reading for the past few weeks while in Berlin working on the preparation of a new issue of continent. This note is written as a divergent hearkening — a kind of hypertranscription of Oei’s essay — though, one that remains entirely convergent with the aims of Oei’s essay. Broadly, my interest in mapping differing readings of poetic texts in relation to earlier readings in the genealogical wake generated by those texts is meant to aim at a concept of divergence itself; certainly one of the notions at stake in the careful unraveling of the Sausserean sign Oei undertakes through readings of Lacan and Derrida, up to Daive’s subsequent work at the level of polysemy and meaning-making in his poetics. The moment we’ve decided that poetic language is one of the questions at play in our analyses, we’ve already ventured into the thickets: the divergent, unofficial matrices of semblance and association that we, in our listening, rely upon as orienting devices. The language of the unofficial is here meant to recall the orienting premise that Oei invokes to structure his investigations. Following in the footsteps of poetry scholar Judith Balso, Oei remarks his investigations as “depart[ing] from Wallace Stevens’ idea that if it is the case that philosophy represents the ‘official view of being,’ poetry can be defined as its ‘unofficial view.’” Just further on, and now approaching Daive, Oei begins his work by asking us to listen to three particular resonances of an odd term in Daive’s title, stating that, “[t]his unofficial being of poetry finds its materialization in “Sllt” (listen to slat, the suppressed ssst of the nocturnal visitor, but also the salut of poetry itself).”

In a sense my reflections will have not moved beyond these three resonances, however over-coded they become, as I aspire to listen to Daive by redoubling them, attempting to think the slat in the middle of translation, and trace three more associations out of profligate possibilities (listen to the curt sult, the double dashes // dividing and intertwining another couple, slit and silt).

1.) Sult (Norwegian hunger, as in Knut Hamsun), itself perhaps a starved and strained attempt to utter salt (with its etymological twin wit as evidenced in the Latin sal). Recall when Daive tells us that “eating is the phrase of here or speaking.” As interpretive maxims go, to keep your wits about you and take it with a grain of salt are both welcome, if not synonymous, reminders.

Already, keen readers may pause to wonder at a kind of metacommentary on a methodology that takes so many witty turns-of-phrase and novel fluctuations in meaning so seriously. Can a method of approaching texts that relies so lasciviously (a sultry, if not slutty way of cruising texts) upon their sonic textures be worth its salt? To what extent? Curious moments like Daive’s phoneme sllt, that we readers want to treat as a word, are, it’s possible, grains of salt in the cryptographer’s sense of the word– randomly chosen bytes inserted into messages prior to decoding to render certain forms of decryption much more difficult. Hard, indigestible bits meaninglessly resisting meaning and, just as obstinately, refusing to be brushed off so easily. To the notions of grains, specks, and motes, to which I am deeply attracted, I return at the end of this note.

2.) Now, with a non-verbal resonance, look at the Roman two-count graphic “II”, that slat that Oei comments upon and implicitly draws into its visual rhyme with the forward slash used to indicate a line break in poetry that has been transcribed without breaks / as well as the cut inaugurated by the image that the poetic text creates. If we follow Stevens’ designation of the unofficial view, it isn’t so hard to translate the language into Dickinsonian, as when she famously implores her readers to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. An analogy: Stevens’ unofficial view is to being as Dickinson’s slant telling is to truth. (And what of these italics, then? Perhaps a deeper, Dickensonian return to Derrida’s Faith and Knowledge is in order…).

Slant (divergence): We can also stay with the graphic slats and, recalling how Dickinson’s poem continues that “Success in circuit lies”, observe how easily they could be circuited into conversation with that most elementary grapheme of online societies and hypertext protocol: “://”, about which theoreticians of technology and poetics much more capable than I would doubtless have much to say.

3.) Lastly, the slit-silt couple that mirrors plays on the signe-singe couple that forms one of the strong bases of Oei’s text and out of which it’s analyses develop. For Oei’s reading of Daive, the simian (singe) that appears in the course of Daive’s poetry “dwells in the spot previously occupied by the Aristotelian sign (signe)”. Throughout history, sign-making has seemed to signify a certain distinction between humanness and animality, even while definitions of the former have retained an insoluble closeness to the latter (as we hear from old etymological stories about the letter A and Phoenician pictograms for oxen). Indeed, the notion persists into modernity. Says Oei again, “[w]hereas Stéphane Mallarmé imagined the sign as swan (cygne), caught on the white page, Daive focuses on the ‘unofficial,’ mischievous character of the sign, its nearly being human.” As Oei moves from the casting of the ape and the swan, through his cataloging of Daive’s signs – signs that are always “overloaded”, “ambiguous”, “polyvalent”, and “excessive” – it becomes abundantly clear the extent to which every term abounds in it’s resonances and in its role within poetry’s (pa)role to “say everything”. Indeed, every sign is an alloy — a mixture of others (allos-) — and this is perhaps an alternate answer to Daive’s question, “Why this transversal of the others like—”. With an understanding of language itself as alloy (or creole) and the utterance of the similitic like, the dam bursts loosing unfettered slippages; the metamorphoses that so easily displace the solidity of a Sausserean distinction between signifier and signified become dizzying.

a

Indeed, each irruption or fibrilation of the foil of poetic texts is a potential lime-twig (one of the myriad branches of Saussere’s tree, under which we find Mallarme’s swan and Daive’s ape) upon which otherwise unseen readings catch. A sensual assault (asllt?) or, if that term seems to hyperbolic, at least a snare, or a little spur (eperon), as in Derrida’s analysis of Nietzsche’s Styles (Eperons).

Shifting the metaphor slightly, we can easily imagine every sign as a slit in a garment that proposes to seduce us, marks a slit in desire, calls us to respond, and in doing so changes the course of our becoming. Daive notes the imperative nature of response itself when he writes that, “[…] we need to respond now. Responding, that is / continuing / and waiting, that is the return of the event. / In fact, it is like a lady, but it is different”. In terms that will be familiar to readers of Badiou, the seduction of encounters opens a path towards fidelity, through which the original encounter can be understood as a true event and the subject of the encounter can become constituted as a subject. Fidelity itself can be comported towards individuals, styles (or dispositions) of things as much as toward texts, ideas, or interpretations thereof.

But, I am taking this path to get caught on another spur, to hesitate not at the signe or singe, but at the tree that stands between them and which plays a central role in Oei’s excursus. It’s the tree, which I will remark here not only to cast again in its role as a genealogical symbol (“We will have children, trees. We will grow up / we will climb.”, writes Daives) and thus remember the genealogical readings that Foucault and Nietzsche insisted upon, but to cast a divergent ending in my reading of Oei’s reading. Through its nuanced and astute annotations, Oei’s text culminates in a meditation on the materials he has inventoried in Daive’s work and a reference to a sculpture by the German artist Joseph Beuys (FOND VII/2 [1967/84]). In the interest of repeating this movement anew and with a focus on the centrality of the, now thoroughly over-determined, figure of the tree I would like to recall another work by Beuys, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) – a work consisting of the planting of 7’000 trees, each paired with a basalt column.

t

 

Quoting Beuys,

“My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument’s two parts will never be the same.”

Now, in the interest of closing and moving hopefully not too far from Daive and his poems, I would like to suggest that this work by Beuys forms a compelling allegory for the kind of plasticity remarked upon by the philosopher Catherine Malabou as essential not only to the form of the subject in Hegel (where Malabou originally draws her analysis) or neurobiology (where Malabou’s work leads her), but to language itself (poetic language standing not for an instance of language but as a thoroughly recursive denomination for language and the plastic element within language itself, without which it could not be).

For Malabou the concept of plasticity designates a two-fold capacity; in the first instance it stands for the capacity of a material to change and explosively generate new form (as the discipline repeatedly remarked by Daive and Oei, neurology, believes neural pathways to be plastic). Deleuzian reading might think find themselves inclined to conjure the rhizomatic aspen as being a somewhat better suited oak for visualizing this kind of plasticity. In the second instance plasticity designates, in an affinity with the concept as it appears in the plastic arts, the vulnerability of a material to yield to irreversible forming (as Beuys’ stones can be changed solely through the subtractive forces of weather and carving). The simians are not only swinging from branch-to-branch generating new connections and arbitrary combinations in language, as Oei suggests. For Daive, and the materiality of my illustration, “The simians are sitting on stones / at the level of terrestrial / existence.” There is a degree of fundament, subject to being irremediably affected by sudden traumatic injury, degenerative disorders, aphasia.

Amidst so much talk about the plastic arts, plastic wrap, and plastic explosives we can, at the level of our texts also hear the philosopher Avital Ronell reminding us of something akin to destructive plasticity when she notes the confraternity between missives and missiles and remarks upon the small ideas that are planted in texts and go unnoticed for centuries before revealing themselves to be timebombs, detonating registers of meaning, relevance, and decisions once considered as infrangible (Meillassoux). Positions and perceptions are revised if not reversed and, in the interest of closing, I will turn once more to the image of the tree, now as an aid in visualizing what is at stake in these reversals, disruptions, and shifts of focus between myriad signs and significations. Overarching and attendant upon these concerns is the interplay between philosophy’s authorial edifices and what Oei, again quoting the poetry scholar Judith Balso names the “cracks and fissures of the metaphysical framework”, towards which poetic invention must be trained if it is to have political valence. Here, and in the interest of wrapping up, I listen to the Tibetan poet Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche when he writes, commenting on a photograph of a tree:

“Branches. We could view the trees as cracks in the sky, like cracks in glasses. We could adopt that change in perspective. The space that exists around you could be solid—and you could be only a hollow in the middle of that solid space.”

I find it hard to imagine a better description of the kind of perspectival shifts with regard to being that poetry seems so well-suited at facilitating.

But what has any of this to do with silt that last resonance of my original list? Silt- the material below the grain, where speaking of grains or kernels begins to lack any scalar sense (there is always a smaller element to prioritize), that forms the riverbeds for the rivers from which our simians, swans, and philosophers alike undoubtedly drink, will deserve to have much more said about it than I am able to say in this little postscript. As Oei remarks via Lacan and Freud on anagrams, there are unconscious repercussions for our couples such as signe-singe, slit-silt, or Lacan’s originary and slightly more complex arbre-barre. We choose our terms and they are thus consequent. If the Sausserean sign is always split by a (permeable) bar, then any procession of signs or slats is likewise riven by bars and slits. What I call silt is perhaps cognate with Oei’s slat, though in a direction distinctly it’s own. Whereas Daive’s slat (sommier) “contributes to the summation (sommer) of the phrases, series, and seconds—secundus— sequences and persecutions, marching and marking are separated and thus form names, words, albeit in a disowned way: aping”, silt would seem to point to what is visible between (and beneath) the slats; not a plank (like the one that we are perhaps walking) or that Tibetan sutras are traditionally inscribed upon, but still a support (as in a riverbed). Instead of contributing additively to summation, silt would seem to signify the end of a process of wearing down of phrases, series, seconds, and sequences into finer and less distinguishable grit – what is perhaps glimpsed when one’s perception of a tree is hollowed out through the kind of procedure that Trungpa Rinpoche seeks to effect.

In essence, and with continued attention paid to Malabou’s notion of destructive plasticity, silt names that composition of little elements, little dangers, at the level of marks “below” that of the letter, which persist within the sanctioned space of the poem and threaten always to overturn the meaning of that sanctioned space. Take, in closing, the example of the single, unremarked upon, apostrophe before the word ‘Cause in the first line that Oei takes as a starting point for his note keeping. What being does this initial apostrophe abbreviate? What word does it rend itself from? The obvious answer is that Daive’s text actually takes its first step with the slang version of “because”. “Be-”, of course, an abbreviation and hiatus of being in the apostrophe. While the philosophical freight of such a suggestion may not turn out to be extraordinary, to risk such a revision– to cast Daive’s text in the league of those that begin, „Because…“, that is, in the register of those that commence as responses to another– is to wonder whether there was actually a cause — a causa or Aristotelian aition — in the first instance, as Oei has assumed, or always just a partially effaced glyph (rendered indecipherable and disproportionate by the destructive plasticity of time itself) which we struggle, in our diligence and our care, to preserve?

Crooked

I wanted a crooked man.
I panned for a crooked man.
I tea spooned out

trenches until I dug up
my crooked man.
Now I have a corner

on a crooked man,
a crooked house.
I got crookider

And crookider,
out of whack.
Nakeder than cheese,

clothed with nakedness.
Tilt and spin,
I let in every draft.

No matter.
Nothing straightens
any of us out.

Nothing goes
according to plan.
Unless the plan is a crooked plan.

___________________________________________
Lee Upton’s most recent book is Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo).  In 2014 a collection of her short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, is forthcoming from BOA Editions.  She is a professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.

Photo credit: Cece Ziolkowski.
Copyright © 2013 by Lee Upton. Used with permission of the author.

Butch Geography
by Stacey Waite
Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-937797-25-7
Paperback, $16.95, 72p

“God made gender a plaything.”—Stacey Waite

Butch Geography is the first full-length book of poetry from Stacey Waite, award-winning author of three chapbooks and assistant professor of gender studies and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. The poems of Butch Geography explore gender as a role and gender as a body. In a voice both lyrical and narrative, they attempt placement and identification, and are both the reflection and the act of locating and understanding the other in our midst. But Waite isn’t trying for the diagnostic or the definitive. We see in these poems the conundrum of the human animal: as others try to place us—figure us out—we are trying to place ourselves, too. And in our efforts are all gradations of grace, error, and exasperation. By looking at the questions of gender Waite is able to ask the questions of self. As the title eludes, we are creatures who need guidance, who depend on our ability to navigate complexity and difficulty by reading maps and its indicators. Translated to the body, both physical and social, our attempts to know ourselves and the other are not so different, and often as problematic.

Several poems appear in Butch Geography entitled “Dear Gender.” This series ignites then sustains the momentum of the book, for these poems—some of the most uninhibited in the collection—grapple with the primary source of being and its relentless, impossible question: who am I? “Gender, I want you to turn me to chain. / I want to bleed you out without dying.” There is desire for constancy, for static nature, despite the contradiction of human fluidity, “bleeding” evocative of this, evocative of one wanting to reject that which gives life. And in another poem in the series: “Gender, rise out, an exorcism, from our too-scared skin. // Let us make the sounds we were never meant to make.” Is this not also a task of the poet, to exorcise with sound? Waite succeeds in the task, by creating a narrative arrangement that aids and allows space for the more concentrated, emotional movements in the book. So many things are done well in Butch Geography, and simultaneously, it’s staggering. And disarming. Waite’s dexterity with line and language, the confident movement between lyric and narrative, invokes faithfulness in the reader. We will follow this voice anywhere. “She knows better / than to cry so spits again. She learns / to live in halves.”

A map is useless, ambiguous, without names, boundaries, intonation, and direction. Despite a map’s simplification of landscapes—and therefore our simplified understanding of those landscapes—they help us navigate the strange and the unfamiliar. They also guide us efficiently through known roads. But we shouldn’t come to understand the map as authoritative. We must honor the landscape, foremost. Otherwise, we risk dogma, the naïve dependence on systems. “The doctor looks mostly at his chart. He wants me to disappear, to put back in order his faith in the system of things. He wants me to react correctly, to be ashamed.” The human animal, its body, and its idea of body are always in flux, “alive and inevitable.” Knowing this maybe doesn’t give us control or power, but better, a sense of empathy. We can see the other as strange and in that strangeness, see ourselves. “I carry this to our bed, / where each night the body / loses its memory, and / for a moment, is able to give.” This is not to be understated. Memory’s influence is startling and often upsetting. How are we to know and care for our own bodies when they are so infused with memories that bring shame and confusion? Is a body not geographical—a map of memory, impulse, and synaptic response? Waite is refreshingly, albeit cautiously, hopeful. “…survival, the anthem / of those places we’ve always been.”

The poems of Butch Geography are subversive, deconstructive of culturally dominant paradigms, but they also challenge our individual response to those paradigms, prodding readers to examine our own constructions as well. Waite moves us beyond one-dimensional stereotypes and pigeonholes. The people populating these poems are intensely human. Through a voice that is at once humorous, poignant, and tragic, we are offered an enriched way to see each other.

Let the poems of Butch Geography be a guide. Waite, with generous hospitality and rare humility, will lead you into intimate and unfamiliar landscapes, and once there will help you see yourself in the strange.

Faggot

As when a word lifts unexpectedly
________________________or implodes—
you had meant to say maelstrom but now
interposed between you and the open world,
male storm (no one would think to give a sex
to it, so were unready)—that was its arrival,

_____________________________fire
that didn’t act as one sheet but gathered
separately as flames around some common matter:
call it a heart, make this a Catholic scene, only the thorns
are missing unless they lie, like everything else,
beneath this oil-slicked water now risen, now ignited, as we are
ignited—like faggots thrown at the sinner’s feet
as he shakes, as he shouts It was only for love, as when all words abandon . . .

__________________________________
Rickey Laurentiis
was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the recipient of several fellowships, including the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St Louis, where he received his MFA. The author of the e-chapbook, Whipped, (Floating Wolf Quarterly), his individual poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Callaloo, Fence, jubilat, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, Oxford American, Poetry and other journals.

At Dashanzi

798, also called the Dashanzi Art District, is Beijing’s premier art community. Since it formed in the early 2000s, a number of Western art dealers and corporate entities have set up shop here, and a few of its first tenants, including Ai Wei Wei, have become a powerful force in the art world.    IMG_4787a

My visit to 798 in February 2013 confirmed this description. Walls and light posts are plastered with exhibition billboards and fliers. Weird public art proliferates.  For example, in the first three courtyards closest to the entrance, there is: a resin statue of a scorpion, an airplane wing embedded upright in the ground (its engine looking much like an unblinking camera eye) and a 7 foot tall cement man bound in rope, BDSM style. Spray paint stencils and graffiti coat the exteriors of buildings, buses, and signs.  Street sellers hock potatoes and fur pelts as fashionable visitors wander in and out of galleries and cafes, snapping photos.  In short, the site bears all the tell-tale semiotics of frenzied artistic and commercial production consistent with international art communities like SOHO and Chelsea.

Still,798’s current role—part art-zone, part shopping center—is relatively new.  East German architects originally constructed the site as an electronics factory in the 1950s, and until its insolvency in the 1970s, 798 was a paragon of the state-run worker commune. Outside of the storefront facades and the self-consciously asymmetrical, iceberg-shaped gallery at the center of the district (whose presence seems as new as it does out of place), most of the architecture in 798 looks original, and it’s easy to imagine the site as it was 50 years ago.

East Germans in Beijing: Building Factory 718

IMG_4914The Danshanzi Art District in northwest Beijing, architecturally speaking, is a modest endeavor (perhaps unsurprising for a factory). The site is a rectangular compound arranged on a grid. It is composed of thick, horizontal buildings made of plain red brick. It has unadorned walls dotted here and there with a few windows, arranged in uniform blocks.  The avenues are wide and open. The public squares feel tiny and intimate.  Pipes and vents of all colors and ages reach between buildings, supported by metal gantries.  Some poke up from the ground, releasing steam into the street. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty unassuming space, one that follows its own iterations of style in an absolutely unconscious way. Even today, with its contemporary art veneer, it still looks more like a place where you make or build things rather than sell them.

The district is a favorite subject of contemporary articles on urbanization and gentrification because of its shift from an industrial production space to a creative development area, an unusual occurrence in China. The story of 798’s construction, operation, decay, and revival parallels a broader story of changes in the modern urban and cultural landscape of Beijing.

 

*******************

798 is a smaller subunit of a much larger factory complex called 718. It was one of a number of projects initiated by the Communist government after their victory over the Nationalists and their subsequent consolidation of power in Beijing. It’s part of a Mao Zedongs’s incredibly ambitious proposal to industrialize China, after two decades of civil war and nearly two centuries of political and economic decline.

Mao envisioned a future China that outgunned Britain in steel production and a new modern capital whose sky would be populated with a “forest of smokestacks.”  The journalist Jianying Zha notes (somewhat sarcastically) that when Mao came to Beijing, there were only 15 architects there, and less than 5 of them knew how to construct a three-story building.

It was the Soviet Union, initially, that made the realization of Mao’s urban plans possible. Though they may have spitefully IMG_5911destroyed their coal-mining factories in Manchuria in 1946 to keep them out of Chinese Communist hands, by 1950, they’ve changed their mind. By 1951, there are 156 Soviet projects in the works, in Beijing and across the country.

Factory 718 would become project number 157, initiated by Premier Zhou Enlai.  He requests an additional factory to produce electronic components specifically for the People’s Liberation Army. The Soviets lack the necessary expertise, but they arrange a meeting with their electronics supplier, the head of the East German government, who agrees enthusiastically to work on the project. Between 1954-1964, a total of 300 East German experts traveled to the site to cooperate with Chinese construction workers and engineers, as thousands of tons of materials made their way from Germany to Beijing by way of the trans-Siberian railroad. At its completion in 1957, the “North China Wireless Appliances Friendship Factory” covered 500,000 square meters and had 7 separate operating units.

The East German and Chinese construction groups, with minimal interference from their Soviet overseers, made an excellent team. Both countries understood the necessity of making much out of little; both were in the process of rebuilding and were eager to reboot (or in China’s case, establish) their industrial sector through any means necessary; both worried greatly about the ability to withstand foreign attacks.

The East Germans built 798 with all of these things in mind, and it’s apparent in certain aspects of the architecture. While the Soviet leadership initially disliked the undecorated, sparse German design and demand something more “historical” (whatever that means—most likely something that bears more obviously the mark of Soviet domination through kitschy entablature), the Germans refused; records of their conversations with Soviet and Chinese leadership, luckily, show the detailed case the East Germans made for the particular components of their design.

Consider, for example, the oddly Romanesque-looking arch supports, with their massive interior buttresses, that line the inside of some of the larger factory spaces. (It is an odd effect—the buildings look like they’re leaning backward and resting on their haunches.) Why this odd design? Presumably, because it’s much stronger than walls simply built perpendicular to the ground and topped with a triangular prism of a roof  (the Germans repeatedly insist that they’ve designed the factory this way to ensure that it will survive an air raid—something they certainly know a little bit about.)

Consider also the humble type no. 500 red bricks used in every warehouse and wall.  This particular type of brick was not available in China, but the East Germans insisted that without it, they could not guarantee the integrity of the design in the event of an 8-magnitude earthquake. To solve this problem, the Germans built factories to make them.  (Factories producing factories in an infinitely recursive fashion—this is the ultimate modernist dream.)  They then proceeded, according to a former factory worker, to test the psi of every single one. When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the neighboring province of Tangshan a few months before Mao’s death in 1976, one can only assume the German team felt particularly validated.

Reform Follows Function: Ideology and Urban Policy

In the creation of a new Beijing, both construction and destruction were necessary. When Mao moved to transform Beijing into a socialist masterpiece, a “proletariat-peasant metropolis,” his makeover was brutal. The hútòngs, distinctive alleys with dense, infinite recursions of space, were destroyed en mass, as were the city walls and gates; hundreds of teahouses, temples, and residential courthouses (sìhéyuàn) were also systematically bulldozed. Why was this? Jiaying Zha suggests that, from an entirely aesthetic and symbolic perspective, Beijing couldn’t function as the capital of communist nation in its existing state; she calls the city walls, for example, symbols of the “feudalism and claustrophobia” that Mao was trying so desperately to purge from the city.  They were too much of a reminder of the old ways, of rigid imperial hierarchies, of out-of-touch emperors and stale customs, of decadence and decline and luxury. The city needed to change because Chinese people needed to change too, in the way that they thought about one another and the way they lived together.

IMG_4728Architecture and urban planning worked in an advisory capacity here, attempting to engineer social behavior from the top down. There is no better example of this (at least, that still remains intact from this period) than the state-run factories, 718 in particular. Like many other Soviet-built factories of the time, 718 was intended to be an entirely self-contained entity; each unit included residential, commercial, and work-spaces for its respective denizens. This is in contrast to the previous division of space in old Beijing, in which living and commercial quarters were kept distinctly separate.  In communist Beijing, the basic of unit of cultural, spatial and social organization was no longer the neighborhood, but the factory.

This is why 718 is more than just a factory. It is supposed to be a site for both work and play, for sleeping and eating, for new communal identities to form and thrive.  While the compound has a distinctly utilitarian vibe, its form seems patently aware that its function is not only mechanical, but human too.

*******************

At first, it’s hard to identify just what about the complex (outside of great care put into its construction) makes it seem so livable, so pleasing to look at and walk around in. The original site didn’t have much in the way of decorative effects, save the red Cultural Revolution slogans added to the interior walls in the late 60s.  Maybe it’s because the East German design, while sparse and practical, is also incredibly livable, human-sized, and intimate. Rather than trying to overwhelm you with the grand authority of the state (perhaps the goal of Tiananmen Square, a former imperial garden) 798 is trying to amuse and comfort you, to be the proverbial Matissian armchair for the worker at the end of a long and tired day.

Perhaps the best illustration of the designer’s ambition to create a space that is both beautiful and functional (both human and machine, and in that way an ideal “machine for living”) is the silhouette of the factory roof in the main square, often described as “saw-toothed.” These buildings, in addition to a few others within the compound, are capped by a series of what look like sawed-off barrel vaults.   The red brick portion of the roof completes about 60 degrees of a circle before it terminates in a slab of paneled glass. From the inside, this forms a gigantic hall, a long wedge-shaped prism that now functions as a gallery space, but was formerly the main factory floor. From the outside, the structures make a scalloped pattern that chunks up the skyline in a pleasing, whimsical way.

This feature is a particularly creative solution to a relatively banal problem. The factory spaces required lots of natural light; the north-facing skylights filter in angled sunlight, bright enough to illuminate a space, not so direct as to overwhelm. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the Germans designed these skylights, which look so much like open-mouthed sea bass, without a hint of humor or pleasure in architectural oddity merely for its own sake.

While all this discussion of form-follows function, the elevation of the worker, and the creation of livable machines might sound familiar, it’s worth pointing out that this structure wasn’t actually designed by the Bauhaus (the progressive German architectural school terminated by the Nazis in 1933). In terms of materials and style, there are few comparisons to be made here.  Architects like Mise Van der Rohe were famous for working with volume, and not mass; Van der Rohe defined the quintessential Bauhaus-inspired building as a glass skin hung on a steel frame, plastered with stucco on the inside—glorious and white, radiant and lifted. 798, by contrast, is horizontal and heavy. Its red brick masonry is the definition of mass and not volume. Where contemporary Bauhaus was cinematically stark, Dashanzi is stolidly plain.

Still, one gets the idea that Walter Gropius’ ghost implicitly approves of the project. The structure absolutely fulfills and realizes Gropius’ greatest vision for the Bauhaus (somewhat ironically, outside of a Western European context)—that its architecture would operate in service of a great class transformation. For a time, 798 oversaw such a transition in China.

The Socialist Utopia that was

798 was a total space built by a total state, meant to fulfill completely the requirements of a life. Into this comprehensive environment, then, the most privileged of China’s factory workers and engineers went.

In its first iteration, 798 seems to have been a success, from both a social and economic standpoint. For nearly two decades, 798 served as the model of a centrally-planned, government run, self-contained industrial center.  Workers had furnished housing IMG_4793aavailable at 1/30 the price of their wages; their children enjoyed free public education, and their families had access to some of the best medical and dental care in the country.  Grainy black and whites from the 60s show happy workers congregating for group exercise and nurses petting the heads of babies at 798’s daycare center. In 798, recreation also played an important role.  The site boasted basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams, literary clubs, swimming pools, a stadium, a theater, a library with books in both Chinese and German, and an orchestra that played revolutionary hymns and Western music.  I even saw an image of one man doing an Evil Knievel on a German motorbike.

What was propaganda and what was reality? From an outside perspective it’s hard to judge. 798 was in many ways the ideal exception to the general rule of reorganizational failure and poverty in Communist China. Part of why 798 received such generous resources and became a flagship of model factory life was because it produced some of the most valuable (and top-secret) products in the country.  When a U.S. U2 plane was shot down in China in 1962, it was workers at 798 that reverse-engineered electrical components found on board (like an insulator) and began producing them for the PLA and for the North Korean military.  (Though this is a bit speculative, some writers suggest that 798 was also where the components of China’s first nuclear bomb were created.)

If indeed 798 was ever the socialist utopia it promised to be, it did not last. While workers at 798, due to the selective and important nature of their trade, were shielded and isolated from many of the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and in particular the Great Famine, a radical shift in economic policy under the reformist and moderate leadership of Deng Xiaoping would knock the factory from its privileged state position. Like many state-run enterprises, 798 (and its larger encompassing unit, 718) was essentially insolvent by the mid 90s; over 2/3rds of the work force had been laid off and only one of the original 7 factories, factory 750, was still operational.

Unsustainable as it was, though, 798 was for the Maoist regime a cultural ziggurat; it did not represent the de facto reality of what the country was or necessary would be, but echoed its highest ideals and aspirations. Perhaps Factory 798 was in some ways a huge performance piece, a “culture zoo” that displayed the ideal version of a Communist system, and that became less and less viable as the country struggled with internal divisions, poverty, and the heinous outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. It was, as so many great artworks are, an exercise in articulating not what a society is, but the way in which it sees itself.

Mao is not the only 20st century world leader to find in modern architecture the promise of social reform on a massive scale. Like many other contemporary modern leaders in Western countries, Mao absolutely believed in the transformative power of spatial planning; unlike modern leaders in the west, he had the state power behind him to compel people to realize his vision, in which material reality, social organization, and national ambition merged into one harmonious society, pointedly directed at the future.

798: Factory and Art

How did 798 shift from its previous life as a model socialist electronics factory to its present iteration, an arts and culture center that garners increasing international attention? There are, of course, many unromantic and incredibly practical reasons for this transition, having to do with such boring and obvious things as real estate markets. Jen Currier and Rene Dekker both note, with a touch of irony, that the same market reforms that consigned factory 718 to obscurity, emptying it of its workers and devaluing its property, are what allowed artists to develop it at relatively low costs into an aesthetic enclave in Beijing.  The low per-square foot cost to rent was key. Also important: high availability of light, massive high-roofed spaces that function dually well as studios and exhibition spaces, and the orientation of the district far away from the city center and (at least initially) reasonably far away from the watchful eye of Chinese sensors.

Still, convenience aside, it’s clear from reading descriptions from some of the artists and culture workers who were instrumental in the repurposing of the site that there’s more to it than that. Berenice Angremy (2006) of Thinking Hands, an architectural conservation group in Beijing, summarizes it in this way:

“It was very obvious that this area could be where contemporary culture could develop. It contained an architectural testimony to an industrial past that was absolutely very precious, and that’s why we wanted to have an art district here.”

In China, a generation of artists born in the 30s and 40s worked in the factories alongside their parents and peers; they remember the transition from a state-centered economy to Deng Xiaoping’s socialist market system. They witnessed the end of a shared vision of classless prosperity and a culture that glorified the worker. Small, wonder then, that this same generation of artists continues to be preoccupied with factories as culturally resonant spaces and aesthetic objects. There are several 798 artists, including Sui Jianguo, Huang Rui and Xu Yong, who have worked part of their lives in a factory (Huang at a shoe leather factory, Xu at a needle factory).

IMG_5883Sui Jianguo in particular has an interesting history.  He was the head of the sculpture department when, in 1995, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing moved from Wangfujing to another electronic component factory nearby.  Two of his sculptures are here at 798. The first is a three-tiered red mesh cage with dinosaurs inside, probably from his “Made in China” series. The second one is the Diskobolus. The copy I see tucked away in a back courtyard, acting as a doorstop shows a thinly-smiling Chinese in a business suit winding up to pitch a discus; Sui’s most famous version of the piece, however, currently on exhibition at the British museum, is a stony-faced Greek, nearly a perfect copy of Myron’s ancient sculpture, wearing the iconic Mao suit.

Lately, Sui has been making copies of the suit itself, signifying (by his own admission) that “the Chinese people have not yet taken it off. “

*******************

798 may not longer be the center of experimental avant-garde art and culture in Beijing (that title may go to the districts of Caochangdi and Songzhuang); it may fast become a commercial center for aesthetic commerce and speculation, a hub for the international art community in Beijing, and drive out local talent (indeed it may already have, as climbing rent prices have meant that few artists can afford to have residences there). Still, at the moment it serves a dual purpose, allowing Chinese artists and denizens of Beijing to communicate with a complicated past—part industrial, part idealistic. There’s a historical resonance here that is different from the Forbidden City, so neatly sanitized and so clearly a feature of a distant and far removed era. 798 preserves a past-present, a history still on the heels on contemporary China that haunts the memories of its citizens. It stubbornly carries into the affluent present memories of building industrial Beijing, of the construction of state ideologies and their equally rapid dismantling.

CANARY

I held my canary out for you when you said your canary felt a little droopy.

Your canary was a ruby drop in my frosty glass of canary.

The canary between us grew for many days.

I wanted to fight the canary, but you held me back.

The officer shot the unarmed canary on a canary I used to walk down every day.

When you touched the canary underneath my knee, a balloon filled with canary in an eastern corner.

The sound of unmarked canaries overhead frightened the rural hospital.

The president has never commented publicly on the controversial canary program.

Can you remember where that canary was that we tried so many years ago?

Oh, that canary feels so good—just like that.

The canaries carry electricity to our houses in even smaller canaries.

When the activists passed out yellow canaries I took one and read it.

A canary is born every 8 seconds.

I log onto the large canary to check how my canary is faring.

When I go to the supermarket, I check the codes on the canaries to make sure they are not genetically modified canaries.

Many canaries suffer.

She pressed a thumb into my muscle and all the canary was released into me.

When I went outside I saw the sky. It was filled with canary.

You held the canary up to my face. You vibrated the canary at a new frequency.

You said the best time for canaries was 11:30 am.

___________________________
Emily Skillings
is a dancer poet poet dancer.  Recent poetry can be found in No Dear, Bone Bouquet, Lingerpost, Stonecutter, La Fovea and Maggy. Skillings dances with Saifan Shmerer, the A.O. Movement Collective and The Commons Choir (Daria Faïn and Robert Kocik). She lives in Brooklyn, where she is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist poetry collective and event series. She is a co-curator of the Brooklyn reading series HOT TEXTS with Krystal Languell. On July 25, 2013, she and her collaborator Lillie De will perform their dance theater piece (being fluid and knowing what to fill) at Dixon Place.

EVERYONE LIKE HER

I just had a little of your chocolate
and now I’m wild with desire
for more chocolate
it goes right to the discomfort
sweetens it I think.

The moon’s on
a short white leash
and what happens
to everyone
happens to you.

You’re gonna die too.

I’ll make you a tape
to play
when you say my name
slowly
like I’m stupid
like dogs are stupid
like the homeless are stupid
you’re always calling
everyone stupid.
And you are kind of
a lunk
big medium
mind.
I’ve been tuning you out
since I was a sperm
That’s why I can’t listen well
all your talk
you made it vulgar
to speak
talking in your sleep
when the fear cartoons play
talk when you wake up
talk
talk
hate is real
it’s an actual thing
and I really do
I hate you.

_______________________________________________
Leopoldine Core was born and raised in Manhattan. Her poems and fiction have appeared in Open City, The Literarian, Drunken Boat, Sadie Magazine, Big Lucks, iO, Harp & Altar, The Brooklyn Rail, Agriculture Reader, No, Dear and others. She is a 2012 Fellow at The Center for Fiction and at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her chapbook Young Friend is forthcoming from Perfect Lovers Press.

Gregory Orr is famous and has won major awards. John Smith is a retired high school teacher from New Jersey who is a poet, well respected locally but unknown otherwise. Orr has blurbs from such luminaries as Albert Goldbarth, Ilya Kaminsky, and Naomi Shihab Nyef. John has blurbs from poets who have won grants and are well thought of, but not exactly headliners. I was asked to review Orr. I chose to review Smith. So why am I putting them together?

First, both inhabit the same generational orbit: Nam, eastern spirituality mixed with a dose of overcoming the dark spots through mindfulness, meditation, a sometimes didactic sense of wisdom that would not be out of place at a weekend retreat on Rumi. They do not draw their powers from decorative displays of language, and tend to have some of the traits inherent to the deep imagists, to Bly and James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but Orr is more sparse, less likely to let his lines breathe in an expansive form of pontification. Smith is more likely to experiment—even with shaped poems. He does not have a reputation to live up to and can be less confined in the competing poem of his name. Orr is confined to Orr. To his credit, he is trying to break free and I see this book as being the awkward manifestation of a voice change. But to the poems:

The River Inside the River: Gregory Orr

The River Inside the River is divided into three parts, the first being a sequence of meditative poems on Adam and Eve in the garden,(and, to an extent on exile as a form of growth and the superiority of becoming over mere being). The second part is a meditation on the “city of poetry” (sort of Orr’s gloss on the Kingdom of God, and Williams’ the city as poem) and the third section is a sort of culmination of the two previous sections. The title of the book should be a tip off that mystification and simplicity, the simplicity of mystification, and the mystification of simplicity are going to be a huge factor. Forget reading previous Orr. If we judge this book by itself, there is much in it that is part of the didactic-self-empowering- pocket wisdom market. Someone who fell in love with Gibran or with the messages in Rumi, or with the spiritual transports over nature in Mary Oliver might not be at all troubled by this book, except that Orr—the part of Orr that is a good poet—knows better. Inside his comfort zone (and this is definitely a comfort zone poetics for intelligent white middle class baby boomers who want to congratulate themselves on their evolved selves) there lurks a book-saving sense of affliction. This would make those who traffic in spiritual uplift fault the book. For me it is the one thing that saves The River Inside the River from bombast and the self-help section of the supermarket.

Orr’s comfort zones never succeed in being wholly comfortable. They fall apart. There is a shrillness, a shrike among the wild geese as to who is impaling the butterflies to a thorn. This is not negativity. This is the real truth teller in Orr. There is also a false “truth” teller who is a more artful version of Kung Fu .The real truth teller broaches trouble that cannot be tied up in a neat spiritual bow of epiphany and put out with the recyclables. Poets who traffic in either positive or negative energies are not often worth reading: rather, Orr, at his best, offers the sort of trouble Stephen Dunn, another wise poet, suggests we should always keep on our road to being too pleased with ourselves. But before I get to that saving grace let me quote a little from a poem in each section and tell you why it annoys the bejesus out of me:.

From the first section:

With their embrace
They chose
Each other
Which is
to choose death.

This is bad Gibran and it is faux mystical. Adam and Eve now inhabit a “choice” culture” but this choice that is death will, by the laws of yuppie epiphany, be superior to eternal life because after all, becoming is always better than being; and, in addition to choice, our culture is a sort of whore for endless flux– Faust’s striving, but with a dose of eastern equivocation to keep it from being ferocious. I’m giving these lines too much credit here. What really annoys me are the enjambments which cause a sort of stage whispery feeling, an unnecessary pause between “they chose,” and “each other”. This is language reduced to summing up, language which seeks to have no flourish except in the spaces, the caesuras of the white space which, for me, happens to often in such poetry to be effective any longer. This contrivance gives everything a falsely hollowed hush. Written out as a sentence, one can see it as a fairly plain statement:

With their embrace they chose each other which is to choose death.

I understand that, according to Harold Bloom, this is a new spiritual age in which wisdom literature is waging a comeback, but where’s the rhetorical majesty, the eloquence, the form rather than the mere information of wisdom? How do we keep a poetics of spirituality from being a fucking fortune cookie on steroids?

Anyway, that’s in section one. In section two, there is more memoir-like narrative, more Wordsworthian prelude and confession about Orr’s catastrophic origins (he accidentally shot his brother and killed him as a child). Here, one might expect the poet to fully be conscious of his era: on how we are hung up on self because we no longer really have any confidence in it. We lust for serenity because we are detached from our violence by drones, and video games, and the fact that there are always immigrants, poor whites and blacks to fight our police actions while we buy new yoga mats. Occasionally someone shoots up a school and we never tie it to ourselves. How could it be us? Unlike our parents, we don’t scream or shout. We are protected by our violence, our casual viciousness by the cult of the cool, the mellow, the politically correct the suburban disaffection. When all that fails, we go camping, and re-connect to the earth. How nice.

I have admired much of Orr’s work in the past, and I expect him to get at that fly in the soup not to spoil the soup, but to make it honest. All soups, even the soup of eternal truth contain a certain percentage of insect parts. Here, in the second section, he writes:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost.

Thanks, Mr. Divine comedy. What he says in this poem is: “you can’t count on any guides. You have to risk discoveries you can’t predict. Otherwise, you’re only half alive”.

OK…risk, choice, self, uncertainty, these are the basic wisdom tropes of the baby boomer .Generation. Generation X answers them with a sort of knowing nihilism. Generation Y embraces a sort of sociopathic code of bon homie (one of the traits of true sociopaths is a kind of easy, breezy charm and a sense of nothing personal, dude). Of course, I’m nut shelling generations, and I don’t think any of this is wholly accurate, but neither are these too easily uttered forms of wisdom. Right after this poem, Orr has a beautiful section, more ecstatic, less self consciously wise, and more surrendered to a high level of lyricism (and the image of the white flag brings that home)::

White flag
of the city–

No ensign
of surrender.

I love this. This little and perfect moment is too rare. This is cryptic and lyrical and resists the sound of the fortune cookie. As a kid, we would add “in bed” to all fortune cookie statements. Let’s apply this to my previous quotes from Orr:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost (in bed)

With their embrace
they chose
each other
which is
to choose death… (in bed)

.

I am not trying to trash Gregory Orr. I think he has written a superb body of work, and has influenced two generations of poets for the better, but this is a comforting of the already too comfortable. It has none of the ferocity, and embattled engagement with the spirit found in the best mystical and devotional traditions. The River Inside the River, while well-crafted and engaging in parts, does not have the wicked sense of humor one finds in the great midrash poems of the late and ought to be better known Enid Dame (her book Lilith and Her Demons is decidedly not preachy, though it is wonderfully wise). I am pissed off because, for a culture that says “it’s complicated” about everything (thereby dismissing all further discussion) the comfort zones of easy wisdom poetry seem as simplistic as self-help books, and the hypertrophy of telling our truths seems to have precluded the eloquence and decorative might with which we tell them. But this stuff sells, and I would not be shocked if this won some major awards. Here’s my problem with the intentional lack of eloquence: “Death be not proud, nor honor long,” has the weight of rhetorical eloquence behind it. My grandmother saying: “never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” has imagination and colorful speech behind it. If she changes that to: “It might be a mistake to marry a short man with many insecurities,” then is this really the same message? Does it have the same flavor, or sinew, or the sheer joy of the figurative behind it? Hell no. It is neutral and devoid of figures and decoration, and this might be my biggest qualm with this sort of spiritual schtick: not that its truths are too easy, but that their utterance has no spice and is as bland as a fortune cookie.

From the last section:

The beloved came,
then vanished.
Nothing beautiful stays.

Tell me why stating the obvious in incremental bits of information with the drum rolls of white space, and the caesuras of conjunctions and parataxis, makes such statements poetry? Nothing gold can stay has the glamor and eloquence of invention: nothing beautiful stays is mere statement. This third section is the best in the book because in it, Orr is most unsure of his epiphanies, and his summing up manages not to be a cozy summing up, but there is still much of this nutshelling wisdom and it creates a strange effect, the effect of a haiku master who thinks himself profound. The poems seem brief and spare, yet long winded and preachy; they seem too close to the Dali Lama’s ghostwritten self- help books, and the self-esteem movement, and forms of 12 step. If these spiritual traditions do not find themselves a meter making ground in some language tested by full aesthetic rigor and doubt beyond the obvious , then to what art do they aspire? If they aspire to the artless, they are certainly getting there.

Putting these qualms aside (and I am willing to admit that it may just be my discomfort with aphorism and my own generations love affair with its self-satisfied “seeking’) there are moments in The River Inside the River where Orr’s gentle and sad humor and his sincerity and simplicity win out. He can be wry and self-effacing, like Stephen Dunn. He can be dark when it is necessary. He can, in his love poems, give up the wise man for the ecstatic. At such moments his language seems neither derivative nor simplistic. If he did not believe his own mottos too readily, or if he arrived at them honestly (writing toward the truths, rather than the poems being excuses for the truths) I might feel better about being told “nothing lasts.” It might not bother me to be clobbered over the head with truisms along the lines “of change is the only constant”. (Orr never literally says this, but it’s one of themes of the book). I don’t mind when Whitman expounds the obvious to me. Whitman has the whole of the biblical and oratorical tradition behind him. Orr’s imaging tradition eschewed rhetoric and literary conceits over a hundred years ago– before Orr was born. It is stripped of eloquence and literary devices and often comes off as mere statement or image. If I had not read Rilke, and, yes Gibran when I was 12, and if I did not have the sonorities of the King James Bible and an entire literature of proverbs, koans, Emerson, and, on the more equivocal side, Jabez and Celan and Kafka, I might be more well-disposed to these poems. But, to me, (and I will probably get called bad names for this) the overall effect of Orr’s book is to send us back to those greater works and to anger me that the devotional poem in terms of contemporary poetics is perilously close to new age positive thinking. Telling people how to live and be at peace is a multi-billion dollar industry. Do poets have to do it?

Finally, to be fair to Orr, I grew up loving MR Cogito and the far from always wise predicaments of Paul Zimmer’s poems. I believe Orr’s tradition rules out slight-of- hand verbal tricks as being somehow phony and dishonest. Also, Orr is not a poet of rhythms. He believes in flat out telling as a test of sincerity, I take my cue from the imaginary philosopher Carlos Stir: “you can’t fake sincerity; it’s already fake.” What saves this book is the young child still at the scene of the shooting, the one who has not “learned” and for whom becoming is the only hope of escape from being. When Orr comes anywhere near this sort of “unknowing” he is a wonderful poet. Otherwise, he’s a guru, and I shoot paper clips at gurus from my desk (when they aren’t looking).

 

Even That Indigo by John Smith

John Smith has long been a poet whose work I was glad to see in some of the local New Jersey magazines, or here and there in an anthology or two. He is a narrative poet. He is far more likely to stick to the particulars of a moment and let them imply a truth or realization rather than springing a truth on you. He is less a wisdom poet in the way of Rilke and more appreciative of the minute and the perfectly observed detail in the way of Robert Francis (though he does not have Francis’ sense of form). Like Orr, he is in his sixties. Like Orr, he has some of the tendencies toward epiphany, meditative nature lyric, sex as mystery, and a touch of the new age peculiar to baby boomers. His book is not a high concept of interconnected poems. It is a collection held together by recurrent interests: his past, his family, the experience of Nam, the possibilities of finding peace within the small detailed encounters with nature. Consider his meeting up with a possum in the poem, Stumbling Around In The Light:

Something wasn’t right.
I could tell by the way it wobbled
across the lawn, midafternoon.

Fat head the cat knew it too
and kept back, pretending to lick a paw
each time the Possum stumbled.

The uncertainty is fearful uncertainty. The detail of the cat “pretending” to lick its paw is a perfect projection of the speaker’s own diffidence onto the cat. The poem moves from fearful uncertainty to conjecture (kids might come. Perhaps the speaker can kill the possum with a shovel) to a gentle and empathetic realization that, perhaps (an important word) the Possum is no more close to dying or dangerous than the speaker (the wonderful thing here is that the speaker had just considered bashing in the possum’s skull with a shovel). Stumbling Around in The Light has the close detail, and particularity, I admire in reading Carolyn Kizer’s great poem about her encounter with a bat, or

her great blue heron poem. It is working out from observation to epiphany, but the epiphany is not certain; it could be erased in the next moment. Rather than stating that everything is tentative and transient, Smith puts us in the place of the tentative and the transient.

In speaking of minor and major poets, one can either mean lesser or greater in terms of craft or make a distinction between a poet who lives for each individual poem and a poet who must be read and judged at his full scope. Smith is a minor poet in the best sense. Orr is a major poet who has some of the faults of the major: he has given up keenness for scope, and when he is not at his best, the scope is distorted for want of clarity and the keenly observed. Smith does not have to imitate Smith as Orr has to compete with Orr, and so he can screw around with different palettes, dabble at being present in different ways. John Smith is not a competing poem with John Smith’s poetry. There are thin lined, and long lined poems in Even That Indigo. There are poems that undulate and alternate between short and long lines. Smith does not have a “look.” He is not branded. The least arbitrary aspect of Smith’s line is that he either writes stichic (no stanza breaks) in the narrative style of Bishop and Levine, or he writes in stanzas of varying lengths (what Milton called Aleostrophic stanzas), and so his poems do not have a spatial identity– a fixed look. He does try a shaped poem (no title) which refers to a painting of geese by Escher. It’s not bad except it is somewhat gimmicky (I am growing cranky in my old age and have a hard time not finding almost all shaped poems gimmicky), but it is still a decent poem. This brings me to the flaws if any of this book:

Smith isn’t taking many risks beyond the well-wrought and well-crafted poem. While in depth, the poems do not go outside safe water, and stay clear from any risky currents. The crafted detail, the economical observation that implies rather than states is easier to pull off than a grand statement or a series of “wisdom” poems. For when the grand gesture fails and the mystic moments are all clichés of shadow and dark and stone and ash, then nothing is worse—nothing more worthy of contempt; but when these grand gestures are pulled off, when the mystification and rhapsody work (as with the best of Whitman, as with Neruda), then I gladly trade in my Robert Francis’ Cedar Waxwings for Whitman’s Sixth part of Song of Myself (though I may miss the waxwings). Smith’s poems in Even That Indigo are from a school closer to Waxwings than Song of Myself. It is a poetics that does not trust any major claims, that believes God is in the well wrought details. In most of his poems, Smith is a splendid successor to a long and honorable tradition of truly observing nature, an unsentimental narrative poet: Not as florid as Dickey, not as controlled and thereby heartbreaking as Bishop, not as intensely singular in his seeing as Schuyler, not as wounded or in need of embracing the wound as Orr, but with his own virtues of humility, intelligence, and singular wonder. The final poem in the book, Cicada, might give an indication as to why I would recommend Even That Indigo over Orr’s latest work (though not over Orr). I do not think Smith the greater poet, but, at this point, he does not have the weight of his oeuvre to contend with, and is thus at greater liberty to play. In this final poem in the book, Smith is saying essentially the same thing as Orr, making the same case for the eternal within the transient, for intensity, for becoming rather than being, for the joy and passion of becoming. But I believe Smith earns the epiphany. I leave you with the poem:

Even if we could live forever,
what if we still grew old and gray
as the dusk? What if we shrank
into the top soil of the night
and woke whining for the sun
with voices so shrill and small
only termites could hear them?

I’d rather crawl from the earth blindfolded
and drag my grimy shell up the side
of the whitest tree I can find,
rather scream like a match head on fire
than smolder and never die.
I would split open my spine
just to fly for one season.

The open sound of French

Even the sound of French is open
And the children find me very interesting to look at
It is as if I am a TV show or supper
All my pretty babies who paint the winter chests
With red and gold and green

It was on the afternoon
In the small wooden town
That I was so mired in my act of jealousy
I did not pay attention
To the beauty of the dark church in front of me

And now you ask me
To meet you in a park after dark
Well it is too late too late
I am already flying

__________________________________________________________
DOROTHEA LASKY is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: THUNDERBIRD (Wave Books, 2012), AWE (Wave Books, 2007) and Black Life (Wave Books, 2010). She is also the author of five chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Laurel Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and Boston Review, among others. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and also has been educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and Washington University. She has taught poetry at New York University, Fashion Institute of Technology, The New England Institute of Art, Heath Elementary School, and Munroe Center for the Arts. Currently, she lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.

The Food Pantry

Don’t have to go to the food pantry anymore.

Got a job
bringing people to the food pantry.

____________________________________________
Dave Roskos is the editor of Big Hammer Magazine & Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books. He lives in his home state of New Jersey where he works as a Life Skills Specialist in the mental health field. His most recent chapbook, INTENSIVE CARE, was published by Black Rabbit Press in 2010.

I.

How can we define the philosophy of pragmatism?  What is the relationship between the philosophy of pragmatism and the poetics of John Ashbery?  Is there one?  Ken McClelland cites Cornel West’s citation of C.I. Lewis as “being one of the best characterizations of pragmatism ever formulated” (Opening Truth 12).  Lewis writes,

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. (qtd. in McClelland 12)

McClelland goes on to comment that, “with the words, ‘the justifiable ends of action’ in mind, we clearly see that pragmatism’s philosophical impulse is inextricably tied to temporal consequences, with the idea that the future is of ethical significance” (12).  McClelland then cites Dewey’s essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in a long block quote, an excerpt of which reads, “The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic” (qtd. in McClelland12-13).

This notion of the universe “in the making” and “in the process of becoming” might resonate with readers of John Ashbery’s poetry, a practice of art that, in the able and nimble hands and mind of Ashbery, is constantly in flux, in process, suggesting a seemingly irrational “lack of coherence” that in Ashbery, as William Watkin writes, “does not deny a lack of cohesion” (187).  As Watkin points out,

it is almost always the case that within his poetic units the semantic short-circuiting at the level of coherence is made up for by the two key factors of cohesion which often serve to undermine thematic semantics: lexical groupings and syntactic process. (187 my italics)

This “processual aesthetic” of Ashbery’s poetry is later described by Watkin as “a process of putting down and moving on” (214).  And it is this process of becoming, noted by Dewey in terms of a characteristic of the future, and therefore in terms of the primary orientation of the philosophy of pragmatism, that Ashbery embodies in his poetic praxis.  Ashbery’s work is a radically open-ended language game (language games in the plural seems more appropriate), that seems to give one the experience, through language, of the future in the immediate process of becoming, of things beyond our awareness coalescing, forces turning and tuning up, like a great orchestra just about to begin, as we sit at the edge of our seats and experience

The great, formal affair[…]beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. (Ashbery 427)

Better yet, as Ashbery himself has said, first quoting an essay by Borges entitled, “The Wall and the Books,” then commenting on it,

‘Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights in certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed or about to tell us something. The imminence of the revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.’ The imminence of a revelation not yet produced is very important and hard to define in poetry and probably is the source of some of the difficulty with my own poems. But I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose to spare myself or the reader the difficulty of that imminence, of always being on the edge of things.  (qtd. in Hubbard my italics)

“The imminence of a revelation not yet produced” is a remarkable formulation for describing the process of the future unfolding, and it is what I hope to signify by the term the “pragmatist sublime.”  Such a phrase (“the imminence…”) conjures images of openings, or landscapes glimpsed, waterfalls or canyons, suddenly or slowly, possibilities rising up with inexhaustible and astonishing energy, potentials parting like curtains to reveal further potentials, more dazzling drawing rooms, a hall of mirrors of what-may-come-next.  This is the world of Ashbery; and it is also the world of William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, who wrote in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (a book that David Herd has called “a guidebook to American poetics before and since” (13))

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest.  You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.  It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.  (28 his italics)

“Pragmatism,” James writes a paragraph later, “unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (28).  The same can be said, of course, for Ashbery’s poetry, and also for our experience, when we are more sensitized to it.  Indeed, it is one of Ashbery’s greatest virtues as a writer that, in the way which Gunter Leypoldt describes Martha Nussbaum’s take on Henry James –  “moral intelligence….understood as a heightened perception of complexity…[an] ethical progress [becoming] a question of improving our aesthetic powers of discrimination” –  Ashbery augments our powers of feeling, perception and imagination, placing us more immediately within the variety of contexts which constitute our world (Leypoldt 146).  Ashbery, like both James brothers, makes our experience more powerful, more intense, more interesting, more enriching.

This is what David Herd means when discussing Ashbery’s “poems of occasion” – the notion of the “defining Ashberyan ambition” being “to write the poem fit for its occasion,” or “to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing” (7, 10).  It is the idea that currently, as I type, there are more than ten books situated in various alignments on my desk: books about the New York School of poets, books about Richard Rorty, books about Ashbery, and three books in Spanish, one of which I have to translate for a Spanish exam in order to graduate from my master’s in English program at the University of Toledo; there is an orange washrag near the books, a knife coated with stale hummus, a phone peeping out from behind a stack of articles; there are trees outside the window, their leaves, to paraphrase Ashbery in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” “yellowed by the sun”; the sounds of cars driving on the road in front of my apartment, the refrigerator in the kitchen humming, a guitar leaning against a bookcase, etc.  All this is part of the “occasion” of which I write right now (not to mention the culture(s) of everything in my apartment, lurking behind or afore everything, making everything somehow a part of a disjointed but connected picture) – and it is this richness and plurality of detail that Ashbery, more than any American poet (with the exception of Whitman, Ashbery’s primary Bloomian precursor), drenches his poems in and with.

This notion of the occasion, written about wonderfully and helpfully by Herd, is what William James also intuits with astonishing insight, returning our thought back to us with Emersonian “alienated majesty,” when he writes in his deservedly famous chapter in Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,”

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.  Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists [Ashbery might say poets as well] overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water [the occasion] that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,- or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. (255)

Therefore, as James writes earlier in the same chapter, “The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought” (252-253).  James, like Ashbery, redescribes the climate of our mental environments; in so doing, he gives us, as Ashbery does, a more nuanced, more complex, richer sense of who we are and how we are.  James, like Ashbery, enlarges us.

II.

So how do James and Ashbery achieve such a powerful effect?  How do we understand the consequences of this effect?  The answer to the former question is, of course, their language; for, as McClelland has written, “Experience is linguistic top to bottom (and side to side).”  (Opening Truth 20)  The answer to the latter question demands that we now introduce the figure of Richard Rorty, a neopragmatist whose work sheds incredible light on Ashbery’s poetic praxis, just as Ashbery’s poetic praxis embodies those pragmatist doctrines as mentioned above, just as James’s work sheds incredible light on Ashbery.  But what is it, more specifically, about Rorty’s philosophy, or even his vision as a thinker, that elucidates so well what Ashbery is doing, or Ashbery’s vision as a poet?  More concisely, How does Rorty’s revolutionary philosophy help us understand Ashbery’s revolutionary poetry?  What does it mean to write revolutionary poetry or philosophy?

Let’s begin with what many have deemed an important aspect of Rorty’s thought: his notion of metaphoric redescription as inquiry.  What is “metaphoric redescription as inquiry”?   Christopher J. Voparil writes,

Under different names this work of redescribing was a part of Rorty’s thinking since his earliest published work, where he calls attention to the fact that “any metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological arguments can be defeated by redefinition” – the pihlosopher’s ability to “change the rules” of the game largely by altering the relevant criteria. (33-34)

This approach, Voparil continues, “looks to the imagination, rather than to inference” in order to recontextualize, a process that is “not unlike what takes place in Kuhnian periods of revolutionary science” (34).  And seismic shifts in culture, Kuhn and Rorty might say, happen not through logical argument, but through a different style of imagining and imagination, that reweaves contexts into new, revolutionary tapestries.  This has much to do with James’s notion of temperament, as well as Harold Bloom’s notion of the agon of influence.  James writes in Pragmatism,

The history of philosophy [and poetry] is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments[…]Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament.  Temperament is not conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusion.  Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. (8-9)

And Bloom, whose lifework might be said to be involved with developing a thickly pataphysical and Freudian account of the process of metaphoric redescription, writes (calling redescription “revisionism”),

Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction [redescribing] that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretationThe history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (30)

The notion of redescription thus allows us to somehow hold in our minds the paradox that there is no precedent for a Shakespeare, a Whitman, or an Ashbery, just as there is no Shakespeare, Whitman or Ashbery without the tradition they inherited.  The same can be said of other world-changers, figures like Einstein or a Darwin; or as Rorty writes,

Hobbes did not have theological arguments against Dante’s world-picture; Kant had only a very bad scientific argument for the phenomenal character of science; Nietzsche and James did not have epistemological arguments for pragmatism.  Each of these thinkers presented us with a new form of intellectual life, and asked us to compare its advantages with the old. (qtd. in Voparil 35)

But redescription, as Voparil points out, is not just a “method of inquiry”: citing Rorty, he writes, “’speaking differently, rather than arguing well,’ on [Rorty’s] view is ‘the chief instrument of cultural change.’ In a word, redescription is political; redescriptions have the power to change our minds” (35).   Here is Rorty, writing about redescription in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (9)

An awareness of this method is an awareness, Rorty might say, of the contingency of language –  that language has no intrinsic nature – and therefore of “a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (Contingency 9).

III.

            We find this sentiment – that intellectual and moral progress happens as a result of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – articulated over and over in Ashbery’s poetry.  In fact, I would hazard the argument that, in the terms of William James, metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s “voluntary thinking” a “topic or subject about which all the members of the thought involve” (259).  James goes on to write in his Principles that

Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet will with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensively active and determinate psychic way.  Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap.  To fill it up is our thought’s destiny.  Some bring us nearer to that consummation.  Some the gap negates as quite irrelevant.  Each swims in a felt fringe of relations of which the aforesaid gap is the term.  Or instead of a definite gap we may merely carry a mood of interest about with us.  Then, however vague the mood, it will still act in the same way, throwing a mantle of felt affinity over such representations, entering the mind, as suits it, and tingeing with the feeling of tediousness or discord all those with which it has no concern.  (259)

Again, notice how James, through his own metaphoric redescription, enlarges our understanding about what our individual interests mean, how they feel, how they operate within the idiosyncratic consciousness that forms the matrix of our deeply private selves.  This is exactly what Ashbery achieves in his greatest works, for his poems make redescription their content, even as their form and process enact redescription as their primary way of unfolding.

Metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s earliest “self-portrait” in Some Trees, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” where he writes,

Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. (14)

It’s in “Illustration,” also in Some Trees:

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves.  (25)

The sense of the new replacing the old can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, in “White Roses”:

So put away the book,
The flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers that are beginning to shoot up about now.  (66)

And the sense of the contingency of language can be found at the opening of “A Last World”:

These wonderful things
Were planted on the surface of a round mind that was to become our present time.
The mark of things belongs to someone
But if that somebody was wise
Then the whole of things might be different
From what it was thought to be in the beginning, before an angel bandaged the field glasses.  (83)

We find the sentiment that there are no neutral starting points for thought in “The Eccliast” in Rivers and Mountains: “There was no life you could live out to it end / And no attitude which, in the end, would save you” (135).  And perhaps one of the most famous of Ashbery’s “utterances” in terms of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies can be found in “Clepsydra,” in a passage which reads,

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment:  (140)

But these are only fragments; and what we find, when reading through Ashbery’s ouvre, is that these are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pragmatic temperament that shapes the poems in such a way as to suggest, in the unfolding of the poem’s inner logic, the redescription of what it means to be alive through a new vocabulary replacing an old vocabulary.

Quickly, What was the old vocabulary?  That depends on the critic.  Bloom would say Stevens and Whitman; Ben Hickman would say the English tradition; David Herd cites Randall Jarrell’s description of Robert Lowell’s poetry as

the coiling violence of its rhetoric, the harsh and stubborn intensity that accompanies all its verbs and verbals, the clustering stresses learned from accentual verse, come from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.  (qtd. in Herd 33)

Herd goes on to write that,

The way Ashbery, along with O’Hara and Koch, solved the problem of not being Lowell was by reading widely in pursuit of alternatives, revitalizing American poetry as they did so – and in the time-honoured fashion of Whitman, Eliot, Pound and Stevens – by absorbing influences from elsewhere, France and Russia in particular.  (35)

It does not concern my study here to delve too deeply into the impact of the French and Russian influences on Ashbery, as this has been chronicled elsewhere, especially in the work of Herd in regards to Pasternak’s influence on Ashbery.  But I do want to stress that Ashbery is almost abnormally preoccupied with change, with what progress might mean, with the way in which change and progress and difference happen through metaphorically redescribing the world.  To look at this issue more closely will require closer readings of the poems throughout his oeuvre.   For the sake of this essay, I will be focusing on Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees.

IV.

            If the majority of Ashbery’s work is concerned with the way in which the future, like a horizon, spreads out before us, (though we do not know which direction it will take us in), then we might say that each of his books presents various strategies for conveying this feeling to us aesthetically.  In Some Trees, as Catherine Imbriglio has pointed out – though in the context of “closeted spaces” as opposed to the “revelation not yet produced” – this feeling is often transmitted via the notion of reticence, silence, and secretiveness – or, as David Shoptaw writes, “Some Trees is as remarkable for it excludes or slights as for what it represents” (19).  Since we don’t know what the future will bring, it follows that we must be, to some extent, reticent, silent or secretive – reticent, because we don’t know what will happen, and therefore do not want to overstep our boundaries, not necessarily in a fearful or quietist way, but certainly in a vigilant way; silent, because perhaps in our silence we may become more attentive to what is about to happen; and secretive, the etymology of which suggests a hiddenness, and therefore an awareness that the future itself is secret, is hidden, is somehow magically undisclosed.  This hiddenness has less to do with the cryptic way in which Some Trees “encodes a gay network of friends circulating among enemies and possible informants” (Shoptaw 20), and more with the cryptic nature of the future itself.  Thus we read, in “Two Scenes,” (a title that itself betrays a reticence about being too specific, about naming; as Shoptaw points out, “nearly half [of the poems in Some Trees] indicate the form or mode of their poem” (19)):

I.

We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The way was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”  (3)

For a long time I have wondered about the first line of the first poem in Ashbery’s first published collection: “We see us as we truly behave”.  It troubles me, because Ashbery strikes me as such an anti-essentialist, an anti-foundationalist, a la Rorty, who would therefore be uncomfortable with notions such as Truth or a monolithically true perception.  Therefore, I do not read the line as Imbriglio does, as “one totalizing visionary moment,” such a phrase being, as I deem it, an unhelpful oxymoron, as a visionary moment, according to Ashbery, would not and cannot be totalizing (279).  I’d like to suggest that we posit that “to see us as we truly behave” is a way of saying, “when we are oriented towards the future, wondering what will happen to us, then we can “see us as we truly behave”, as most people are acting in such ways that suggest they are aware of their future and are making decisions in the present to realize what they hope for in the future.  Going along with this interpretation – which implies that, even if we are oriented towards the future, we do not and cannot know what it will bring – is a sense of child-like wonder and magic in the poem, an almost forced naiveté, an enormous Joseph Cornell-like innocence.  “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” we hear, and “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table”.  Furthermore, “Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny”, and “For long we hadn’t heard so much new, such noise.”  Each line works with the lines before and after to create a tapestry of novelty, of exciting things occurring which are hard to place.  The notion is repeated in the second stanza, in which we read,

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.  (3)

Ashbery is calling our attention to the unprecedentedness of the future, and he is conveying this notion to us through language that redescribes this feeling in a new way.  The poem ends, “As laughing cadets say, “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”  I do not read this line as suspiciously as Imbriglio does, as signifying a secrecy necessary because of Ashbery’s homosexuality, although I do find such a reading compelling.  Nor do I read the poem, as Marjorie Perloff does, as a kind of fantastical polyphony of dream-logic – i.e. “Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject” (252).  Again, Ashbery’s poems do suggest, as Perloff has written, the logic of a dream; but here it is a matter of emphasis; and I wish to emphasize that his poems also suggest, with a florabundance rarely exhibited, the multifariousness of conscious lived experience reflecting on the future.  (Of course, this reflecting on the future is also a kind of dreaming; and in that sense my argument dovetails with Perloff’s.)  The evening can be interpreted, then, not as a metonym for dreams, nor as a metaphor for a pernicious shadowy presence of homophobia, but rather as a trope for the future, when the darkness suggests a wide-openness, commensurate with the sublime expansiveness of contemplating a future that is already somehow happening, all the time, though in some ways unbeknownst to us.

We find this same reticence, secretiveness and silence evident in “Popular Songs,” which ends,

There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy.  But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them.  And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.  (4)

Here, we might say that “the face” is a trope for evening, for the horizon of the future, for it is a metaphor with, again, a certain wide-openness, a vastness that suggests the power of memory, feeling, imagination.  (“Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination” Ashbery writes later, in “The Recent Past” (136)).   There is no way to prevent “this” – perhaps a pronoun referring, in its ambiguousness, to the ambiguity of the future – just as there is no way to live a life without disappointment.  Everyone is aware of the powerful dangerous imminence of the future, but some, as Ashbery writes, “carry a secret / Better,” perhaps implying that for some, this awareness leads to powerful creations.  But why the metaphor of the theater and acting in the last line?  What does this calling our attention to artifice have to do with an awareness of the imminence of the future?  Perhaps our very secretiveness makes us actors and actresses, acting a certain way on the surface, though all the time we are “nursing some private project” (Ashbery 125).

Ashbery’s reticence does not only manifest itself in lines that directly refer to the word “reticent,” such as the end of “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” where we read the oft-cited, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, always gives more than it takes” (428).  Reticence is part of his overall strategy, as Imbriglio points out, and can be found in his willingness to supply us with details of a narrative, combined with his unwillingness to fill out these details into some kind of totalized story.  We see this reticence about narrative in “Popular Songs,” a reticence about filling in the gaps, or the way in which gaps are filled; and we also find it in “A Boy,” a poem whose suggestiveness is far more powerful than its completeness.  We also find it in “Album Leaf,” where Ashbery asks three questions –

What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?

What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And the bingo tables?  (12)

without directly answering them.  Even in a poem like “The Instruction Manual,” where the narrative we are given, the picture of the world, feels somewhat complete, the poem is written in a tone of such ferocious irony that it is very difficult to read the overall picture of the poem as in a way a serious attempt at capturing totality.  We might even say that Ashbery’s reticence plays into the astonishment of his images, for what makes Ashbery’s images so dazzling is their imaginative unexpectedness, their visionary unprecedented-ness, which seem to be the reward for being reticent, for waiting, and therefore exhibit the other side of reticence, which is boldness, courage, the willingness to adventure, to manifest in the greatest possible way the beauty of one’s own idiosyncratic character.

This reticence, which translates at times into the shocking novelty of Ashbery’s images, can be found in a wonderfully memorable way through Ashbery’s “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Pasternak that reads, “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered early and apparently without great difficulty” (13).  “Picture” is divided into three sections, and the first one begins,

Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas.  “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered.  But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.  (13)

The first stanza oscillates between images of reticence, wonder, and silence, combined with a cartoonish form of violence.  Genevieve, who appears like a cartoon character, is punched “in the pajamas,” yet she is so taken by some “previous ecstasy” that she “releases thoughts” (assumed to be either words or cartoonish thought boxes) “like little hats.”  Then Genevieve speaks, and mentions another trope for the future, an eclipse (perhaps the “darkness [falling] like a wet sponge”); a change in behavior on the part of Dick; and then a silence on Genevieve’s part about being punched.  After we hear that Genevieve exhibits her own style of reticence, perhaps out of wonder at the “handsome jewels” given to her, we hear that “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”  The images are juxtaposed so strangely and suddenly, there is a hilarious absurdity of the poem that seems to muffle the fact that the poem is also exorbitantly silent and almost abnormally reticent.  For what better way of expressing unexpected silence than the implacable image of monks “in a far recess of summer” playing soccer?

The second stanza then takes these themes of reticence, wonder, and silence, along with the tonality and modality of cartoon violence, and changes into a meditation on re-description (“So far is goodness a mere memory / Or naming of recent scenes of badness”) which varies with a tonality and modality of fantasy (“as dirty handmaidens / To some transparent witch, will dream / of a white hero’s subtle wooing, / and time shall force a gift on each”).  This makes sense philosophically, for a radical orientation towards the future will carry with it an emphasis on the imagination, since the future itself (“moral and intellectual progress”) is largely a product, Rorty might say, of what we imagine in the present.  Yet a radical awareness of the future also has its costs, which we find out in the third stanza, where Ashbery’s philosophy of “acceping // Everything, taking nothing” seems to lead to an almost morbid trauma, where silence and revelation, like Elizabeth Bishop’s experience in “In the Waiting Room,” take on traumatic hues.  In this situation, Ashbery imagines his past self as a “pale and gigantic fungus,” perhaps a metaphor for a certain kind of sickliness owing to a constant vigilance pertaining to what may come next.  Yet the poem ends on a note of re-description again, where “only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  This suggests that only as new vocabularies replace old vocabularies (“lost words”), can we begin to imagine our aspirations and what these aspirations might lead to.

Shoptaw reads this ending differently.  He writes,

Virtue, so the saying goes, is its own reward.  For Ashbery, however, virtue is rewarded only retroactively, in the fame of published poems in which the past is irrevocably lost and recaptured: “And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  As Proust says, in what becomes another encrypted moral for “Picture,” “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”  (28)

Yet I cannot help but feel that the locus of meaning for the last phrase in the poem pivots around the meaning of “lost,” which Shoptaw seems to interpret as something missing or absent that consequently produces nostalgia in the speaker, a nostalgia that allows the speaker to create or imagine a poem out of its longing.  It’s really a matter of emphasis.  Shoptaw does, importantly, draw our attention to the fact that Ashbery is not only a poet concerned with the future, but also one fascinated by nostalgia, by the past.  Yet for all Ashbery’s interest in these matters, the ending of “J.A” has less do with nostalgia (“the light of lost words”) and more to do with dead metaphors (“the light of lost words”), which is to say, more to do with an emphasis on imagination than memory.  I also wish to add to David Herd’s potent interpretation of “J.A.,” when he writes of the poem as “the self-conscious product of the various influences that constitute its aesthetic background” (45).  Yes, the poem is that, but it is more as well: a meditation on the influences that helped to create it, as well as a meditation on the contingency of language itself, whereby virtue can be re-described as “stubbornness,” and a “comic version” of oneself can be designated (with irony) the “true one.”  Perhaps our best interpretation of this ending comes from James Longenbach, who writes, “’Truth’ is not undermined by these realizations; it is reconceived [or re-described] by the adult Ashbery as a contingent quality even as his former self, frozen in the photograph, continues to think of it as permanent and unchanging” (92, my italics).

What is clear from all this is that pragmatism, as a philosophy oriented towards the future, and therefore towards an undisclosed, disclosing open-endedness, can be used in helpful ways to interpret the challenging but rewarding poetry of Ashbery.  Thinkers like William James and Richard Rorty, as well as John Dewey, must be used to help us understand Ashbery’s important, influential, amazing poetics.  For as Ashbery’s ouvre develops, we find new strategies, new genres, new ways of discussing the aesthetic power of the “revelations not yet produced.”  And the more we can understand how Ashbery helps us to reach this remarkable pragmatist sublime, the more we can begin to understand what Borges called the “perhaps, the aesthetic reality,” (though one cannot help but feel that Ashbery would change this to “perhaps, an aesthetic reality”).

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  London: Oxford UP, 1975.  Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry.  New York: Palgrave, 2000.  Print.

Hubbard, Will.  “In Which We Enter the Double Dream of Spring.”  This Recording.com  27 April 2008.  Web.  10 May. 2013.

Imbriglio, Catherine.  “’Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery’s Some Trees.”  Contemporary Literature 26. 2 (1995): 249 – 288.  Print.

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Volume One.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.  Print.

James, William.  Pragmatism and Other Writings.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.  Print.

Leypoldt, Gunter.  “Uses of Metaphor: Richard Rorty’s Literary Criticism and the Poetics of World-Making.”  New Literary History 39.1 (2008): 145 – 163.  Print.

Longenbach, James.  Modern Poetry After Modernism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

McClelland, Ken.  “John Dewey and Richard Rorty: Qualitative Starting Points.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 44.3 (2008): 412 – 445.  Print.

McClelland, Kenneth A.  “Opening Truth to Imagination: The Pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty.”  Diss.  Brock University, 2006.  Print.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.  Print.

Shoptaw, John.  On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.  Print.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.).  The Rorty Reader.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  2010.

Watkin, William.  In the Process of Poetry The New York School and the Avant-Garde.  London: Associated University Presses, 2001.  Print.

Like I Said

Okay, so it’s Sunday. I didn’t
go to church. I’m an Irish Catholic,
I know about sin, but I was tired and
just didn’t feel like getting dressed.

On Thursday night, I fell and broke
a slat from the garden fence. My
hip still hurts – the bruise is as big
as my Yorkie’s head.

That would have been enough, but
this morning the vacuum coughed up
a hairball and quit. The only food in
the fridge is a bearded yogurt.

The washing machine refuses to spin.
There’s no clean underwear left, so
I’m not wearing any. Like I said,
I was tired; I didn’t feel like getting

dressed, so I didn’t go to church and
abdicated rights to all that grace.
I put on a pair of dirty jeans, a dirty
shirt, and sat outdoors all morning.

I did nothing but talk to my dogs,
watch squirrels, and wonder what it
might be like to nibble Prozac from
Johnny Depp’s lower lip.

(From What Matters, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2011)
_______________________________________________
Adele Kenny is the author of twenty-three books (poetry & nonfiction) with poems published in journals worldwide, as well as in books and anthologies from Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. A former creative writing professor, she is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet. Among other awards, she has received two poetry fellowships from the NJ State Arts Council and the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry. Website:  www.adelekenny.com Blog: www.adelekenny.blogspot.com

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70′s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.