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digression

For years I was practicing trans-disciplinary methods without anyone telling me, but now that the experts have discovered this sort of pont-consciousness (what I always called building bridges between disciplines). They are already defining it, and making it rule bound and snot-assed for academic consumption. So I am for the motley, and for what I will call cone scenting, and the experts will deride my definition.

Any real learning is contingent upon judicious digression. Digression in so far as it does not favor method driven process always meets with derision and censor. That’s how you know it is good digression.

Trans-disciplinary studies appear on the surface to favor pont-consciousness, but it is far from any real motliness because, far from wanting leaps, it wants dogged and processed focus between disparate disciplines: This means it wants to extend specialization into the realms of inter-disciplinary discourse where it does not belong. In short, it wants to ruin pont-consciousness by making it a specialized new discipline under the guise of branch learning. It wants to take the intuitive and kill it by algorithmic methodology. I was, at first, excited by trans-disciplinary studies. I am now afraid of it. So let me point out my premises:

1.Cone scenting is what a dog does when he seems to meander from side to side down the street. He keeps the scent central and fixed, by making a kinetic “cone” around it. The scent of true learning is that which favors a meandering–a dog’s nose.

This avoids what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity–a training so fixed on one thing and a method of seeing that no adaptation or flex is possible. In so far as trans-disciplinary studies seek to be respected for focus and methodology (in order to be seen as respectable) it fails miserably at good cone scenting. it rules out meandering–and that is a fatal error.

2. True learning occurs when both connects and disconnects are seen as equally provisional: nothing joins or adheres fully, and nothing is so disparate that it does not share some sort of baseline connection.

This allows both for fishing in wild streams (finding the connection between a blue jay feather and a rock on Mars) and questioning the methodology of the given and the categorical–which is, to me, the true aim of education: to enable a mind to intuit connection between disparate things (new metaphors, new bridges) while at the same time being able to intelligently question the structures and edifices built upon old metaphors of the categorical that may no longer suffice. Trans-disciplinary studies insists the disconnects be yoked together by a methodology. It is no more a friend of intuition than any other system. It believes system can replace judicious accident and the cultivation of continual and ongoing stumbling. Stumbling is the essence of discovery and learning. I see here, as with all pedagogy tied to power, the lust to remove ability and replace it with motion-study and mechanics. This would kill what I have been promoting all my life rather than aiding it.

3. Connections between disparate fields, methods and ways of seeing the world must remain undetermined to the degree that they do not become merely another form of determinism and authoritarian non-thinking. In effect, most of the meandering must be left as meandering with a “perhaps,” a strong perhaps attached.

I read Belly’s “St Petersburgh,” and listen to Ethel Merman sing “I Had A Dream.” I go for a walk and discover a blue flower with a yellow center growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. I find out it’s a day flower–native to China. I go home and play the piano for an hour. I do not try too hard to make a connection between these wildly disparate acts and experiences. I trust that the cone might yield a true scent between them sooner or later. I gather and I trust that gathering is, in and of itself, a worthwhile thing. One day, I make an analogy between the eco-rhetoric of invasive species (day flowers are invasive species) and the right wing rhetoric against immigration: this leads me to a contemplation on the dangers of any concept of purity. Ethel Merman’s imperfect but unforgettable voice is contrasted with the now fully trained, fully undistinguished “Broadway voice” of academic theatre programs. How is difference made uniform toward a “purity” or tyranny of semiotics: the Broadway voice, the slam voice, fry voice–all the indicators of meaning and power. How is the unique samed and butchered on its way to mass consumption? Now I have a broad idea called the concept of the pure and I can write several chapters on purity–including one which looks at the language of purity in speeches by radical left eco-anarchists, and radical right wing anti-immigration advocates. I can find the common ground of seemingly opposed forces, grounded in ideas of “purity.” This is not how trans-disciplinary study works. Trans-disciplinary study insists that connections be found right away. It has no patience of faith, no rigor of perhaps.

4. The dog chasing its own tail loses the yard.

In this sense all systems are utterly consumed in and with their own methodology or in and with their own process. This is what Santayana called occupational psychosis. Academics are very intelligent. They know bridges must be formed between disparate forms of learning and disciplines, but they attempt to build these bridges with materials of jargon and protocol that are antithetical to the very idea of bridges. They try to hammer in a nail with a blowtorch. Again, the thing is to leave the methods and standards home and believe that one is moving “toward” a standard and methodology–the toward is always more vibrant and thought provoking than the at. To be at a standard or method is to be fixed–to be without flux. It is comfortable. people love being comfortable. Nothing kills learning more efficiently than fixed “methods.” They offer a necessary obstacle. The true value of most academics is that it offers a worthy obstacle to learning which one, if one is so inclined, finds brilliant ways to overcome.

In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.

Mathews likes wandering off the topic (or, really, having no real topic, no subject of discourse), a familiar strategy of Ashbery and other New York poets with whom he is associated:

For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.

But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.

Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.

That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:

There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.

All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.

How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)

Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:

When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.

Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.

And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:

Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .

. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror

of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.

It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:

. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell

of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .

Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.