Friday, September 19, 2014

Sontag / Ashbery


John Ashbery

Acceding to the itch to align without comment. Out of Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980 (2012), a note of 12 December 1977:
The formalist method: suitable for those ignorant of, or indifferent to, history. This, surely, is part of its appeal now. One doesn’t need to be “learned” to understand a literary text or a painting, only intelligent. One doesn’t need more than the work itself.*
And, a John Ashbery poem, out of A Wave (1984):
But What Is the Reader To Make of This?

A lake of pain, an absence
Leading to a flowering sea? Give it a quarter-turn
And watch the centuries begin to collapse
Through each other, like floors in a burning building,
Until we get to this afternoon.

Those delicious few words spread around like jam
Don’t matter, nor does the shadow.
We have lived blasphemously in history
And nothing has hurt us or can.
But beware of the monstrous tenderness, for out of it
The same blunt archives loom. Facts seize hold of the web
And leave it ash. Still, it is the personal,
Interior life that gives us something to think about.
The rest is only drama.

Meanwhile the combinations of every extendable circumstance
In our lives continue to blow against it like new leaves
At the edge of the forest a battle rages in and out of
For a whole day. It’s not the background, we’re the background,
On the outside looking out. The surprises history has
For us are nothing compared to the shock we get
From each other, though time still wears
The colors of meanness and melancholy, and the general life
Is still many sizes too big, yet
Has style, woven of things that never happened
With those that did, so that a mood survives
Where life and death never could. Make it sweet again!
* Compare with Sontag’s lines out of “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967):
Whatever the artist does is in (usually conscious) alignment with something else already done, producing a compulsion to be continually rechecking his situation, his own stance with those of his predecessors and contemporaries. To compensate for this ignominious enslavement to history, the artist exalts himself with the dream of a wholly ahistorical, and therefore unalienated, art.
And:
      Art that is “silent” constitutes one approach to this visionary, ahistorical condition.
      Consider the difference between looking and staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, “fixed.”
      Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare. Silent art allows—at least in principle—no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Trevor Winkfield


Trevor Winkfield, “Self Portrait,” 2001

Popping the top-knot up (briefly) to record some of Trevor Winkfield’s iconoclastic brilliance. Out of a piece called “From a Friend of Gerald Murphy”—collected in the indispensable George Braque and Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990-2009) (The Song Cave, 2014):
      To the question “Who or what has been blocking our view of Gerald Murphy and his ilk?” we need do no more than point our finger at Abstract Expressionism. For, like some garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation, the Abstract Expressionists have been accorded a reverential deference which, to some of us, now seems a mite slavish, if not downright unhealthy. As a group, they’re not that important, and should perhaps be given a status akin to that of the French Fauves, as a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic. However unwittingly, the movement (as opposed to individual members) now acts as a monolith diverting attention from those American artists who came before and those who came after, blurring what seems to me the cardinal virtue of American art: its championing of individuals rather than movements (which, in a nutshell, is the cornerstone of American civics itself). Dispensing with the monolithic viewpoint to treat Abstract Expressionism as an aberration might involve resurrecting the hackneyed comparison of American art to a “various field.” So be it, though we have to admit it’s a very unruly field, one in which a hodge-podge of ornery oddballs, disrespectful deadbeats and willful eccentrics demand equality with the giants planted among them. (In sweet revenge, several outsiders—Murphy included—have themselves gained giant stature, albeit posthumously.)
      Rambling through Western art—the only territory where I don’t have to flourish my learner’s license—I’ve not stumbled across a more idiosyncratic or a more persistent bunch than the Americans (though Italian Primitives of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries run Americans a close second in terms of bewildering variety and dogged determination). An unbroken chain spanning a century and a half, individualism is obviously the American tradition.
      To those who can’t put faces to names, tabulating some of American art’s wilder blooms might seem a futile exercise, on a par with affixing Latin tags to the daisy family. And though one could argue the livelong day the exact point of American art’s genesis, let’s imagine this florid cavalcade starting around 1850 with John Quidor, then wend our way via Albert Pinkham Ryder and John Peto to Louis Eilshemius, John Covert, Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield. Then past Florine Stettheimer, Patrick Henry Bruce and John Graham, pausing to admire our very own Gerald Murphy, then Charles Demuth, Ivan Albright and Arshile Gorky. No sooner have we left Walter Murch, George Ault, Alice Neel and Alfred Jensen, than Bruce Conner, Albert York and Jess hove into view. And that’s only one row, on one side of one path. A whole flotilla of substitutes could be made without lowering the temperature. With a little imaginative juggling even major painters can be slotted into the autodidact mold: Jackson Pollock, the drunk who dribbled paint! Jasper Johns, the man who fabricated flags from molten wax! Seemingly self-taught, coming out of nowhere, they’re all of a piece, and all more or less presented themselves as outsiders . . .
And, out of the wonderfully lively and astute exchanges recorded in How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion (Pressed Wafer, 2014):
. . . I must mention jigsaws, which taught me about collage, how to manipulate pieces to construct a narrative. In a literal sense, I learned how to put together a picture by finishing jigsaws. Another lesson they taught me was how to look at pictures closely, and how abstract—almost incomprehensible—large areas would often remain until the final two or three pieces were found and slotted into position. I had one jigsaw that reproduced a Constable landscape in which sky and cloud formed a large empty area at the top. I eventually figured out which way the brushstrokes flowed by examining the pieces closely, which gave me clues as to the optimum way in which I should line up the clouds. It took very careful looking, looking intently with my nose close to the puzzle’s surface, which is how I still like to look at paintings. Years later, much later, this slotting together of fragments, seeing things out of context supplied me with another idea as to how to really get to know a painting, particularly those paintings that cover large areas of canvas. It’s a device almost worth patenting! The first time I used it was in the Louvre, standing in front of my favorite painting, Jean Malouel’s The Last Communion and Martyrdom of Saint Denis, which he painted around 1415 for his patron, the Duke of Burgundy. Endlessly fascinating.
      Every summer when I visited Paris I’d go look at it—intently, or so I thought. But it dawned on me, after my second or third visit, that my eyes had been automatically focusing on what they’d been trained to focus on, the obvious targets: faces, hands, feet and costumes—all the shapes I felt visually comfortable with. To overcome this, on a subsequent visit I brought along my camera and, without looking where I was pointing it, I went over the entire surface, taking random snaps, using up the whole roll of film. When I got the photographs back from developing, their fragmentation, the random angles they’d been shot from, looking at some upside down—all this exposed an incredible number of details and interior structures that I’d previously been unaware of. Chopped up, it became a totally different painting from the one I thought I knew so well.
The quality of the attending. Refusing to be swayed (or assuaged) by the interfering static of the “surround”—be it pictorial or “social.” Observations worth applying to the literary field. Note, too, Miles Champion’s deft limning of a poetics of Winkfieldian drawing and painting:
. . . The first drawing of yours I saw was your contribution to the anthology for Schuyler, That Various Field, and I remember being struck by the fact that, while it clearly was a drawing, it didn’t look like one—its creator had clearly found an elegant solution to Duchamp’s “tyranny of the hand” while somehow retaining a sense of touch. I think flatness has a great deal to do with it: my first introductions to art were, like yours, all via reproductions in books and on postcards, and the first poems to really excite me were also decidedly flat, and cut with bland, non-poetic elements . . .
      Your Schuyler drawing seemed to share a quality with much of the poetry I was reading soon after—and as a result of—reading John [Ashbery]’s work: Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, Clark Coolidge (especially the run of books from Flag Flutter & U. S. Electric through Own Face), Larry Eigner—poetry that seemed more built than written, the words as building blocks, each flatly displayed in natural light, with no shadows or recesses in which the author as ego could grow monstrous. These word-bricks seemed to have little halos of space around them, negatives of the black outlines around the acorns, pipes and pea pods in your cover designs . . .

Trevor Winkfield, “The Poet,” 2001

Trevor Winkfield, “The Student,” 1999

Trevor Winkfield, “Voyager II,” 1998
(John Ashbery: “. . . its effect is the same one a musical score offers a person with some ability for reading music—‘sight-reading.’ Each element in the painting has its precise pitch, its duration. . . . What's clear is that there is no verbal equivalent for taking in the picture, just as there is none for assimilating a piece of music, which is as it should be.”)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notebook (Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga)


Peter Matthiessen

Three contiguous movements out of Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (1975). With praise for its unmitigably spare weathers, its ferocious lovely banter:

The Eden’s course is south by east, 165 degrees, down the Main Cape Channel. Off to windward is the line of reefs: Half Moon Cay, Bobel, Hall Rocks, Cock Rocks, Edinburgh Reef, Cayo Muerto, known to turtlers as Dead Man Bar.


. . . forward of de cobberknife it tapers off. Dass where you shoot him, on de fall, just over de edge of his jalousies. One bullet dere kill a shark dead; eitherwise he don’t pay much attention. So dis tiger took dat bullet and head straight down and bury his head so deep in dat sand dat he were standin straight up, and his tail stickin out de water so you could snare it without ever thinkin about gettin wet. And dis were in ten feet of water.

Now dem big sharks dat you seen dere at Edinburgh Reef, dat is de turtle enemy. Big turtle now, shark got to bite him right to get him, and de turtle is very fast, so de shark try to dismantle him so he can go to work on him. Take a fin off or go for de head. But I seen many times dat when de shark bite de head off of de turtle, he give up den and go away. And dat is cause in my opinion dat turtle head is still openin and closin inside of de shark, de way de turtle do when you chop his head off.

Make him uneasy.

Make him uneasy, and he abondon dat turtle.

Byrum best remember dat on de day dat big shark come for him. Just keep dat big mouth workin when he bite your head off, Byrum, and maybe he leave de rest of you alone.

Dass a very good plan, Athens. Thank you.

And:

Rolling southward.

Lone white bird.

No, dat not a sprat bird—dat is a egg bird! Look something like a nightingale! De sprat bird has yellow bill and yellow feet!

You thinkin about de bos’n bird!

No, mon! Sprat bird! Dat one dere is called de egg bird cause dem goddom Jamaicans theft de eggs of it.

And:

The northeasterly trades continue, bearing away heat and humidity in a hard breeze; as the day wears on, the wind increases.

See dat? Comin back at us again! I hoped dat wind were done with us, but when I seen dat star, I knew dat it were not!

The men stare somberly at the green seas and the white sky of spring. The world is empty.

Byrum Powery Watler, aged thirty, Athens Ebanks, aged twenty-nine. Out of the Cayman Islands. Common names for the royal tern (found in A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies): sprat bird, gullie, gabby, egg bird, gaviota real, pigeon de la mer, oiseau fou, mauve, foquette. Peter Matthiessen, talking with Howard Norman (c. 1999) about writing Far Tortuga:
. . . I was fascinated by the problems of how to present that tropical world, the hazed sunlight, the strong trade winds, the old ship, the sea, the almost Chaucerian language of those turtlemen, unchanged for centuries. I wanted to experiment with silences and space—I mean quite literally the extent of white space on the page between incidents, monologues, songs, wind gusts, squabbles, the shudder of the hull in the rough weather, everything. More than anything I’ve done, perhaps, Far Tortuga was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky. When you fix each moment in all its astonishing detail, see its miracle in a fresh light, no similes, no images are needed. They become “literary,” superfluous. Aesthetic clutter.
And, out of an earlier conversation with George Plimpton:
      Far Tortuga is based on a sea turtle fishing voyage off Nicaragua: tortuga is the Spanish word for sea turtle, and sometimes refers to a cay where green turtles are found. . . . I was moved by the stark quality of that voyage, everything worn bare by wind and sea—the reefs, the faded schooner, the turtle men themselves—everything so pared down and so simple that metaphors, stream-of-consciousness, even such ordinary conventions of the novel as “he said” or “he thought,” seemed intrusive, even offensive, and a great impediment, besides. So from the start I was feeling my way toward a spare form, with more air around the words, more space: I wanted the descriptions to be very clear and flat, to find such poetry as they might attain in their very directness and simplicity. In fact, I can only recall one simile in the whole book. And eventually, I attempted using white space to achieve resonance, to make the reader receive things intuitively, hear the silence in the wind, for instance, that is a constant presence in the book.
      In Japanese sumi painting, in a drawing of a bamboo stalk, the brush moves upward, leaving a white space between strokes to suggest the nodes of the bamboo that separate sections of the stem; it’s the emptiness that brings the rest to life. Similarly, the emptiness and silence represented by white spaces set up reverberations in what is written. . . .

Friday, November 22, 2013

Uncollected Barbara Guest


Barbara Guest, 1920-2006
(Photograph by Charles E. Manley)

Rummaging lately through a number of (largely) New York School journals, I turn to thinking about Barbara Guest: what would a “complete” Guest look like? How many “uncollected” Guest pieces exist? In The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (2008), strict inclusory parameters:
The poems collected here include all of the work that Barbara Guest had elected to publish in book form, along with the handful of poems she completed after her final book, The Red Gaze . . . It was her stated wish not to include in this book any poems published in magazines or journals but not subsequently collected in one of her books . . .
Though, too, in a 2008 number of the Chicago Review (Vol. 53, No.4 / Vol. 54, No. 1 / 2), Catherine Wagner offered (with a short commentary) five “uncollected” Guest poems: “Snowstorm,” “Savon Pompeia,” “Virgo Place,” and “Days”—all previously unpublished—with the somewhat lengthier “Configuration”—out of Mother No. 5 (1965). If I stumble across another five uncollected Guest poems in my (rather haphazard, meaning not particularly “Guest-oriented”) reading, and note (rather effortlessly) the source of some likely others*—I begin to think there’s a sizeable oeuvre out there unrecovered. So, some Barbara Guest findings. Out of the number of Intransit called “The Andy Warhol–Gerard Malanga Monster Issue” (1968):
Wells Fargo

Of all earth’s chargers
Wells Fargo you are one of the last.
You take from West to East
my small percentages
of poetry.

I watch your wagon on Park Avenue.
I have seen your insignia
on the stairwell of a neighbor painter.

                         I know you
from the ledge of a serious plane flight
when one of your daughters flew
with me: we laughed over
                         the Rockies
where we were lost in the bright
                         snow flakes.

                         Wells Fargo
I entrust another emigrant to you.
A love solemn as Dover Beach.

                         His iambics
                         will not startle

Riding the canyons to San Francisco
Another out of Intrepid:
Non Est . . .

Nothing more to say, Catullus,
            you have walked away

                                   from the green room
                                      "       "     dark room
You have turned your head
                                   from the clam beds

                                            Catullus!

You must be hiding!

                                   I do not know the address
                                   of your villa
I do not know the fiddlers, the caterers
                                   or those space girls
who sang of those women
(now they’re wringing their hands)

I am a visitor who reads magazines
                                   in one language
And another:
Eunice Poem

How can I sleep
when the name of the woman I am
                              thinking of
is Eunice

I have written her name
                              on the pillow
and spoken to her in Czech

How many dreams are lost
                              when people turn out the light
like the Peoples Republic
                              where everyone snores

                              Eunice!
you are walking fearlessly
                              on the sidewalk
I am trembling as I beg for sleep
                              that was promised me on Monday

World why won’t you let me have my love
World with all your machinery
and your new non-sectarian names?
Out of the Daisy Aldan and Richard Miller-edited Folder (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1954-55):
Poem

One says quickly many things to himself,
“Time passes. I am not loved, feared. Am afraid.”
These phrases happen frequently in public
Where everything is so charged with unknown,
Inexplicable community opinion that the brain,
Or the heart, depending upon one’s choice,
Cannot always account for itself as a target,
Or as the slayer, but like weather continually profound,
Finds itself either raining or fair.
This particular day I remark,
“In the city what one walks on is the same.”

So when single greens assemble a tree
And there is one man in that factory who can paint
For fifty years a rose, another innocent
Who will spend his life drawing the horizon line
And a friend who is incapable of perspective,
Then landscape appears. In time begins again.

As on this day, under this colonial sky
I pitch my tent in Central Park
And after the massacre
Entwine my arms upon the statue of my general
And weep for what is lost.
Finally, out of the Peter Schjeldahl and Lewis MacAdams-edited Mother: A Journal of New Literature (No. 6, 1965):
Prefaces

Wrrite thatt lline
         the beasts rruning
and quail as were
         ffeathers

Twice
I think the novel should begin here
                  Three pairs
                  and a roop
Someone should put us together:
                  The laugh
                                     knock door
                  foresight

                  Flush as bush
And         nd
We are          re
A few notes. The sheer oddity of the “Wells Fargo” modifiers—“ledge of a serious plane flight” or “small percentages / of poetry.” Is “love solemn as Dover Beach” meant to call up Matthew Arnold’s grave tonal registers (think “tremulous cadence slow” or “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”)? With “Non Est . . .” and “Eunice Poem”: a tiny series of apostrophic outbursts indeterminant in tone and intent. The purported heroics of the “charger” (“charger” like “steed” or like “bank”?)—delivering “from East to West” those “small percentages”—can only be mock-applauded (hence the wry “I have seen your insignia / on the stairwell of a neighbor painter”), just as the opening “How can I sleep . . .” of the “Eunice Poem” can only mock-lament: too pure in its saying to be simple verity. (See, in the Folder “Poem,” that lovely vacillatory heart—“itself as a target, / Or as the slayer”—that, “like weather continually profound, / Finds itself either raining or fair . . .” Lines that call up the ending of Frank O’Hara’s “My Heart”: “you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.”) The sheer leisurely turnings of Guest’s sentences in “Poem” recall, too, some of John Ashbery’s sentences, their way of matter-of-factly turning back to look themselves over, readjusting publicly (and with nonchalance) their private freights:—“These phrases happen frequently in public / Where everything is so charged with unknown, / Inexplicable community opinion . . .” (At the point Guest writes so marvelously of how “single greens assemble a tree” one is thrown back to Ashbery’s great precursor Wallace Stevens—I am thinking of the lines of “July Mountain”: “Thinkers without final thoughts / In an always incipient cosmos, / The way, when we climb a mountain, / Vermont throws itself together.”) “Prefaces”: am I right to read it as something of a misfit in Guest’s work? Oddly recalling Clark Coolidge, or, too, the sometimes broken, stuttery écriture of Susan Howe. Again the possibilities kept open: is “rruning” read ruining or running, is “roop” troop or rope?
* See, possibly, a piece called “Hands” printed in Ted Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry (Vol. 1 No. 5, 1963) and “Looking at Flowers through Tears” and “Strum Night” in C: A Journal of Poetry (Vol. 1 No. 9 (1964). See, too, a poem called “Travel Talk” printed in The Nation (June 3, 1961).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Ashbery’s “The Coconut Milk”


John Ashbery

Continuing (deuxième fois) the New York School tradition of recouping the fugitive—for use—I’m thinking of Ted Berrigan’s reprinting of John Ashbery’s Semi-Colon-printed “Hoboken” in C: A Magazine of Poetry No. 10 (1965) and Peter Schjeldahl’s reprinting of Ashbery’s play “The Coconut Milk”—it, too, originally seeing print in the ephemeral Semi-Colon—in Mother: A Journal of New Literature No. 7 (1966).* “Copy of a Copy” (1963) work, what Ashbery himself called “a kind of activity that leaves / No room for anything but whispers . . .” Schjeldahl’s note regarding the source of “The Coconut Milk” reads: “two 1955 issues of Semi-Colon”—David Kermani’s, in John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1976), with its “([1956?]),” points to the difficulty of dating with certainty any of the John Bernard Myers-edited Semi-Colon sheets. Here’s the Ashbery piece (copied out of Mother):
The Coconut Milk

Scene I. Mountie headquarters. Lieutenant Roger Scott and Cora, a beautiful spy, are kissing and feeling each other. Captain Rockshaw is seated at a desk.

Scott
      Are string beans tasteless?

Cora
      Not one to save ivy, are you?

Scott
      Why not? Let’s dance.

Cora
      We’ll not get far in this glow.

Scott
      I’m all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them. I’d like to fly too, but I can’t. Besides, this isn’t a hostile hospital. Look at that wallpaper.

Rockshaw
      You must find out who last had the coconut milk,
      Save these moments till next year.

Cora
      Oh dear!

Scott
      Hey! Don’t scream. I could radish you but these whiskers would kinda get in the way. Be careful of the Big Wig. And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach. Don’t asterisk him to nozzle before the lipstick comes off on the coconut ice cream tray. You know the ways these traitors stand in need of your five library books. The cautious desert rats. Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.

Rockshaw
      You have heard of the coconut milk and
      How it induces those who live near it.

Scott
      There’s no use imagining things are always as wonderful as they are right now. They are always hammering. They are always hammering at us.

Rockshaw
      Please go. Take whatever you need and get out of my sight.

(A storm demolishes the building. They are outside in the snow.)

Scott
      I guess my nickel-plated didacticism didn’t do too badly, eh?

Cora
      Darling, you’re too eager. You’ve got to leave these politicians time for lunch. Some day you may be better off than they, though out in the cold. Promise me to quit next time.

Scott
      Their droppings are shit. I’ll eat it.

Rockshaw
(dead)
      Doors are banging inside me.
      All day I have swung.
      Is it an armored pantheon?
      Is it for good? No, I am old. Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page.
      I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten. I would like a bag of plums.
      Manhattan extra. A job on the rococo porch. The heart that eats dead nuts.
      See, here it comes withering. Extraordinary for a taxman. And I thought him so
            deaf too.
      The sky light, the Hollywood sails wither like an arm.
      Another finicky notion dispossessed.
      Well, now to bottle my speech and sell it.

Cora
      Oh, dear! I can’t pay either!

Scott
      I cared for you, carrot. Why has he turned over?


Scene II. A tulip bed in Holland, Michigan.

Louise
      I’ll douse these warblers with galoshes and then—it’s off to the ferns!

Johnny Appleseed
      Do you have a kind song for a near tidbit like me, Master Old Lady?

Louise
      I recognize you, Appleseed. Tell me, Johnny, what are you doing in this territory? I thought apple roaming was more your specialty.

Appleseed
      For decades I roved the central and Oscar states exploding the apple. Gray twigs at times seemed to me a dark background. Twilit bears and stylish silhouettes of wolves posed personal problems. It was hard to outwit the shit. Often ants would come seeking my advice. I became known as The Grasshopper. Then it was winter, and I had no store to live in. For some reason there were apples on the trees, but these danced on the dark boughs far above me and would not come down. I, who had done so much with my lowly contraptions, slept between two rocks, relegated among the pigs, prigs, dried-up leaves, and other malcontents of the ground. Sometimes I would walk far into November in my bare feet. I was the first snowplow. My toes left bloody marks on the snow, redder than the apples I used to tease people with.

Louise
      I remember you, Appleseed! You thought it a crime to kill any living thing. As a consequence, the birds devoured most of your seedlings. Even grafting was somehow wrong to you, thus your orchards yielded an inferior fruit, hard and pithy, poor in color, shape and size. It is doubtful whether any of them is still under cultivation.

Appleseed
      Then I take another path. Old factories, old toilets couldn’t buy my damp awareness. I look forward in joy and translucence.

Louise
      Perhaps some other bug will bite you.

Appleseed
      It is madonnas of Japan.

(Coconut Milk enters.)

Coconut Milk
      Skiing past I noticed this station.
      Is this the deserted entrance? For why
      Have adults shorn the ground so low?
      Oh well. I'll look back, and my thanks.

(She goes. They gaze after her.)


Scene III. A dark street. Scott and Lieutenant Raven enter.

Scott
      Over the billows of the North Sea
      I have limped ably to near your hand.

Raven
      You have no ticket but perhaps I do not care.

Three Stars
      We are optimists!

Rockshaw
(on a cloud)
      You must free the executioner.

Raven
      Shunted we know not where.

Scott
      Are you a living English girl?

Raven
      The days do not fit around the space they were intended for.

Scott
      Why do you sit and moon?

Raven
      Surely no other has given so visibly of himself. I am like you, that’s why. Did your mother ever ask you where you’d gone?

Scott
(aside)
      So cool in the grove. (aloud) Hey you, remember the quizzical tents?

Raven
      Snarl it. I'm leaving. (He goes.)

Scott
      Alone in cool filth.

Clouds
      We’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes.

Scott
      Better to be asked back than to go corking, hat in hand, across the sandy ball. Or are they men? She’s asking for it. I’ll unleash every ounce of phantom and maybe by the time the barmaids get done chanting everything will be loose and I’ll be able to balk the Norman modes.
      Still, I wonder will I ever be trampled? A disc flung clear of the sun, it smiles and is behind me. There’s no chance to be clean.
      I’ll average and in some existing way take over the real, bad fun.


Scene IV. Bar at the Folies Bergère. There is deafening conversation.

First Man
      Quiet! Summer
      On this wall painted with fox heads.

Second Man
      Has the Coconut Milk arrived yet?

First Man
      No.

Second Man
      Fur heads! Who will do that act?

First Man
      She may be the last one in, sir.

Second Man
      I don’t care for that. Get me the ship in the sea.

Cora
      Whew! Let me put down my bag on this stool. It’s been a gala day, a rag day. Goodness knew what bargains blew in the back stair when we sat tumbling. I thought of you. I thought you were a colored shape, only the color kept running away from the edges. I remembered a thing you said. It doesn’t matter since we’re all here. What does matter is that we are unlike ourselves.

Raven
      It’s been a day of specialties. I campaigned against the honor of a can from two until three o’clock.

Cora
      The odor! We must do something expensive. Like really sitting. I had planned a surprise.

Raven
      Your color couldn’t be faster.

Cora
      I meant as a kind of heaven.

Raven
      It’s been a thirsty day, hasn’t it? But all troubles come to an end or some kind of difficulty. So you may turn out to be something, something hard to find. Am I your traitor? Kindly saw away from Father Time there. (Rockshaw walks by.)

Rockshaw
      I’m glad you are part of my table.

Cora
      I’d like something liquid and transparent.

Raven
      In a moment the camera will be here.

Coconut Milk
(sings)
      Often you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.
      We spoke with our ears. “It’s the yearning, the unsure steps which tie us in knots.” The steps return. They make a lake of us. Someday men will come to untie the knots. Meantime we swoon on.
      I’m serious, and I’m very angry. The fragile words, they creep out from the void, and they too have words leaner and more like men. Night has many stones to roll over the O’s. The time is ripe for ridiculous peaks.
      Someday I will say this. Now I’m lying on my plateau. Morning to night photographers come. Hardy perennials have me off to Cythera to bathe in the light. I relax in my great lateness.
      Exciting? Sure. But that not the only unlikely treat. Someday the hair will come . . . the ice . . . the rise . . . the great funny beast . . . (the light swings off). Let me explain!

Announcer
      Sweet dream-people, that is all.

Louise
      Was it all?

Scott
      We’ll never know. Oh, have the artists asked you?

Louise
      Oh no. You see, I was to have been a bride-to-be.

Scott
      Well?

Louise
      Well?

Cora
      Have you thought of leaving? I have your gun. The tulips are about to fall anyway.

Curtain
A few notes. Some kind of “bottom” surely provided by wry surrealist antics (“all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them”), what surely ought to be “amenable” after nearly six decades of Ashbery & Co.’s use of such. What, though, remains, refreshingly, somewhat intractable: “And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach.” So we note echoes, preambles, moot assailable pertinences, what any reading delivers. Is there a tiny cockeyed mocking of Eliot, a likely target (“All day I have swung. / Is it an armored pantheon? / Is it for good? No, I am old.”)? Is there a little quasi-existentialist gibbering (in lieu of) profundity (“The days do not fit around the space they were intended for.”)? (Or something of a campy Huis Clos atmosphere to the recklessness of the proceedings, borne along with syntactical malarkey, logic’s trapdoors sprung open—or shut: “Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.”?) Too, there’s Ashbery’s tremendous ear for the demotic, the way we humans must needs Hoover up the idiomatic against the ineffable void (I must be thinking here of the O’Hara lines: “To be idiomatic in a vacuum, / it is a shining thing!”), so: “some other bug will bite you” or “now to bottle my speech and sell it.” (Isn’t Cora’s remark, “We spoke with our ears,” ref and testimonial to one of Ashbery’s own modi operandi?) “Coconut milk”—at once a kind of MacGuffin (“You have heard of the coconut milk and / How it induces those who live near it.”) and somehow reminiscent of somebody like “Little Buttercup” out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore: “I’m called Little Buttercup, dear Little Buttercup, / Though I could never tell why . . . I’ve treacle and toffee, I’ve tea and I’ve coffee, / Soft tommy and succulent chops . . .” &c. Coconut Milk, too, sings and implores: “Often you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.” Years and fun. If the clouds in the mock-allegorical talking landscape (that, too, of a silent film—the only place one encounters “Mounties”) of “The Coconut Milk” announce “We’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes”—a poem called “Viewers Will Recall” in Ashbery’s Quick Question (2012) begins, “We gathered the threads into an equation.” And ends with a warning: “Stop it, you’re listening to me.” (So the sly defiance of anything beyond its own constructedness: Rockshaw: “Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page. / I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten.”)
* Mother No. 7—co-edited by Lewis MacAdams—contained, too, Ted Berrigan’s notorious fake interview with John Cage (“Interviewer: Do you think it is better to be brutal that to be indifferent? Cage: Yes. It is better to be brutal than indifferent. Some artists prefer the stream of consciousness. Not me. I’d rather beat people up.”) and several of Kenneth Koch’s invented South American “Hasosismo” documents and translations (“Hasosismo is difficult to illustrate, since by its very nature it tends to cover its own tracks”), with poems and prose by Ed Sanders, Bernadette Mayer, Tony Towle, John Perreault, Frank Lima, Jim Brodey, Dick Gallup, Michael Brownstein, John Giorno, and John Wieners, among others. Drawings and paintings by Joe Brainard. Cover by Mike Goldberg.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ted Berrigan and “E. A. McGregor-Plarr”


Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983

Out of Tom Clark’s one-shot magazine Ice (the penultimate number in the mimeo’d Once series out of Essex, England circa 1966-7—Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Vice, Spice, Slice, &c., each flagged with the sterling imprimatur “no copyright no nothin”), Ted Berrigan’s “Blueprint for a Poem to Be Written Spontaneously in the Act of Reciting It to Me and at Least Three Others”:
Title:           (The name of the last book (not poems) you read or
                            are reading / or of the last movie you saw, or
                                  any movie you really want to see, or book
                                        you want to read but haven’t yet)

Dedication:           (To:   any female not present)

Line 1   (any line from some poem, not your own, that you like)

         2   (sing any line from a folk song you can sing)

         3   (any apologetic explanation (e.g. Eng. equiv. of “Pardonne” etc.)

         4   (look at one of the audience and say something sarcastically
                    personal to them. Don’t use their name)

         5   (recite either the alphabet or the numbers 1 to 26 slowly and with
                    heavy sarcasm)

         6   (any line from one of your current poems (not this one))

         7   (a one line critical judgment on the previous line)

         8   (say something as if you were just proven right about something
                    you knew to be true but that others doubted)

         9   (any four banal phrases (e.g. “guess I’ll hit the hay”). Clichés!)

       10   (any line from a movie . . . imitate the actor or actress)

       11   (any seven or 8 words you want, to be said in absolute monotone)

       12   (any phrase to indicate that the poem is now finished)

       13   (ask someone present (not me) how they liked the poem)

       14   (ignore them as soon as you ask. Say something very pompous, then
                    sing the line from the folk song, used above, then try
                    to make up a spontaneous good line quickly).
A kind of petulantly wayward send-up of what I think of (in the New York School context) as “Kochean” poetic constraint systems, somewhat overly filigreed. (Recall Koch’s note in Locus Solus II regarding the Ashbery / Koch “Crone Rhapsody” piece—itself a send-up: “written according to the following requirements: that every line contain the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, and a famous old lady, as well as the word bathtub; furthermore, the poem is a sestina and all the end-words are pieces of office furniture.”) Berrigan’s note of anti-constructivism here—if it is that—is a shaggier sort of tomfoolery, with a snickering not entirely untenderly disposed toward all it snickers at, homely in its fun, and direct.* The “Blueprint” is printed with what is likely Berrigan’s own exemplary rejoinder, signed “E. A. McGregor-Plarr”:
Two Serious Ladies

      to Sarah Burgess

She fell beneath the tree, and breathed in pants.
He’s my man, but he done me wrong.
Sorry folks, that one got away from me,
You fat slob there with the tight pants!
Abcdefghijklmnopur—I mean q—rstuvqxyz
And the heaving corpuscles of the sea . . .
“Corpuscles”—change that to “radiators,”
I knew it ought to be “radiators” when you came all over “corpuscles”!
Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or
                    you’ll never know what hit you!
Wait—those horsemen—I think it’s Nevsky,
Grim, stately, prim, tactile, utter, dead and serene. The End.
Well, what’d you think of it? I thought it was totally great! He’s my man, but he
                    done me wrong, serene among the beans.
“Likely” Berrigan. It’s a “vexed” thing (comme on dit), the identity of E. A. McGregor-Plarr. I suspect there’s a whole untethering study to be made of the pseudonymously-printed collaboratory pieces of the early years of the second generation New York School “era.” If “Two Serious Ladies” recalls both Berrigan’s hero’s Frank O’Hara’s Jane Bowles-reading cowhands line out of “Collected Proses”—“Would you pass me that copy of TWO SERIOUS LADIES over there on the bunk” under the title “In the Ranchhouse at Dawn”—and Berrigan’s own late and identically titled piece (“That’s all / one life needs— / Two serious ladies.”), and if both the tough-guy joshing of “You fat slob there with the tight pants!” and the trademark Berriganism** “totally great!” sound like Berrigan (I’m thinking of something like the one-line “Salutation” out of the 1988 A Certain Slant of Sunlight that reads in its entirety: “Listen, you cheap little liar . . .”), other lines “toss off a proud anonymity.” What to do with the ostentatiously pumped-up line “the heaving corpuscles of the sea” beyond noting (and reveling in) its pretense? Seemingly no other “corpuscles” in Berrigan’s works (and no “radiators”). No “Nevsky.” Did Berrigan collaborate with someone to construct the exemplary “Blueprint” piece? (Oddly enough, in Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories (1980), in a story titled “Love and Death,” a character named Bob Bunny’s “life-blood flows in round veins that are conduits through which gurgle the aerated products of the various parts of his arterial system. There is a bubbling, a foaming; a spuming, spraying surf of red corpuscles.” “The heaving corpuscles of the sea?” A Berrigan / Clark work? I doubt it.***) (The subsequent line of clichés—“Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or you’ll never know what hit you!”—recalls perfectly some paragraphs out of “Furtive Days,” a prose piece Berrigan wrote with Ron Padgett.****)

Turns out, Tom Clark printed another piece by E. A. McGregor-Plarr, earlier, in Thrice. With work, too, by Padgett (translating Max Jacob), Joanne Kyger, Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Gael Turnbull, Charles Olson, Gerry Gilbert, Clark Coolidge, Harold Dull, and Clark himself, among others. Here’s the piece:
An Ode

The monogram on the cigar box says Picador,
and above the monogram there is a horse
with no legs and a rider with one and a spear
and a striped cape and much apparent force,
and this is the picador, of course.

W. D. and H. O. Wills are the manufacturers of Picador.
It is a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Gt. Britain
and Ireland Limited. But from the box it would appear
the man on the legless horse, with the spear, is from Spain,
and this is the picador, and he gives me a pain,

for how does one explain to oneself this picador
of Spain on a box of stogies of Imperial
Britain? On top of the picador’s spear
there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul
being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl

from left to right of the box as I shake it; the picador
tramps through the gorse of hashish
bits and parched papers blindly to appear
to me as if the insect he would smish
with a stroke of his picador’s pic.

The bug leaps up to the top of the box of Picador
Cigars and crimps on the lid
for safety. He is the color of ancient beer.
He is not blind but the not wounded
picador is worse off, he is blind and dead.

Toward the word “Limited” strides the horse of the picador.
Somewhere in the drear, enormous house
of Time the tradition of pic’ing these wee fear-
in’, tremblin’ things has passed like the drayhorse. Heraldic, extinct, the picador stands to remind us

the tiny grey and brown races are enormous in picador-
ish bitterness as the toot and roar
against the sides of the tired bull of all that one held dear.
It is at least a year and it might be more
since I bought this box of Picador, and the glor-

ious brown smell of victory here is not of Picador.
Again the O’Haraesque title. Is it the dopey sass of “this is the picador, of course” and “this is the picador, and he gives me a pain”—a sort of refrain casually abandoned—or the insouciantly wise-guy rhymes (hashish / smish / pic and enormous house / drayhorse / remind us) that make me suspect “An Ode” is an unidentified and uncollected Berrigan work? Little sense of collaboratory ruckus here: for all its untempered, vaulting fun (“Somewhere in the drear, enormous house / of Time”, “the glor- / ious brown smell of victory”, “He is the color of ancient beer”), it reads “of a piece.” Both in its seemingly offhand rhymes and jaunt-contrary rhythms (“there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul / being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl”), and in its sly humor (“the tired bull of all that one held dear”), “An Ode” recalls Berrigan’s “Peace” (out of the 1970 In the Early Morning Rain) with its lines like “The days’ usual aggressive / contrary beat / now softly dropped / into a regular pace / the head riding gently its personal place / where pistons feel like legs / on feelings met like lace.” And (ending): “It’s a pleasure / to meet one certain person you’ve been counting on / to take your measure / who will smile, & love you, sweetly, at your leisure. / And if / she turns your head around / like any other man, / go home / and make yourself a sandwich / of toasted bread, & ham / with butter / lots of it / & have a diet cola, / & sit down / & write this, / because you can.”
* A difference: Berrigan’s “Blueprint” is largely designed to trigger a poetics grounded in speech, its improvisatory impertinences, its roughs and eruptions. That against, here, Koch’s (and Ashbery’s) concoctions of writing. Berrigan’s O’Hara / Williams lineage making itself clear, and maybe scowling a little against what might be conceived as fussiness or unnecessary rigor. Recall that in the “Notes” to Bean Spasms (1967), the book of Ted Berrigan / Ron Padgett collaborations, Berrigan writes, simply: “Most of the time we made up rules but sometimes we didn’t.” And: “Sometimes friends who came by would write a few lines.” And: “It wasn’t the new thing, we didn’t even invent the idea, and we didn’t think we were being revolutionary. It was just what was happening and fact, still is.” Humble, casual, direct. With a curious addenda:
      I forgot to mention that although both of us had done collaborations before we ever saw Kenneth Koch’s marvelous magazine anthology of collaborations, LOCUS SOLUS II, much of the momentum for our future collaborations was generated by its appearance.
** See the end of Lewis MacAdams’s piece “Big Ted” in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (1991):
. . . Ted saying “Totally Great.” That’s when I want to stop. When he was filled with joy. “Not ecstasy,” he cautioned once, “joy.” That’s how I like to think of Ted, Pepsi in hand, army pants, lumberjack shirt on, orating. “Totally great,” I can hear him saying. I still feel great when I hear him saying it out loud, right now, in eternity, “Totally Great!”
*** Out of Clark’s Late Returns: A Memoir of Ted Berrigan (1985):
      I wrote to Ted asking for poems for The Paris Review, of which I was then poetry editor. He sent “works” (as he called all writings in poetry or prose) by the bunch—his own, and collaborations with other writers (Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Tom Veitch, Bernadette Mayer, Peter Schjeldahl). In rolled big chunks of his enigmatic cowboy novel, Clear the Range, composed by crossing out and replacing words in a pulp Western, as well as dozens of poems. . . .
      The generous overflow of Berrigan poems and collaborations, as well as many works by fellow New York poets whom he’d alerted about my interest, went into the series of “one-shot” mimeo magazines (Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Ice, Slice, Nice, etc.) which I was simultaneously editing from the University of Essex. Many were the pill-bright, fluorescent-lit nights I spent alone in the empty institutional buildings, typing stencils, grinding the mimeo, collating and addressing envelopes to the hundred poets Ted was putting me in touch with. . . .
**** Out of Bean Spasms. Delivered deadpan of one “Naomi”:
      She’d die with her boots on. A little preparedness goes a long way. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Keep your chin up. Keep your powder dry. You know which side your bread is buttered on. Don’t blow your top. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Put your nose to the grindstone. You’re up against it? Don’t take it lying down. Stand up and be counted! Be a man! You’re not licked till you think you are. . . .

Thursday, October 31, 2013

W. G. Sebald (Stray Notes)


W. G. Sebald, 1944-2001

W. G. Sebald, out of the “Foreword” to A Place in the Country (2013):
There seems to be no remedy to the vice of literature; those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it, even at that critical age when . . . one every day runs the risk of becoming simpleminded, and longs for nothing more than to put a halt to the wheels ceaselessly turning in one’s head . . .
Sebald’s root uneasiness with writing, its tendency towards an unthwartable graphomania. Recall the squib out of Sebald’s Unrecounted (2004): “This writing paper // smells / like wood shavings / inside the coffin.”



Or the lines out of The Rings of Saturn (1998):
Everything is on the point of decline, and only the weeds flourish: bindweed strangles the shrubs, the yellow roots of nettles creep onward in the soil, burdock stands a whole head taller than oneself, brown rot and greenfly are everywhere, and even the sheets of paper on which one endeavours to put together a few words and a sentence seem covered in mildew. For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane.


A line, found in a notebook, regarding a story of how wrestlers “must maintain vigilance against swollen cartilage in their bruised ears, and drain such with a needle unless they cauliflower.” Writing’s way of siphoning off the hurly-burly, the excess.



Of the unstoppable Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, out walking, made notes on playing cards for the Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (1782), Sebald writes in the essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan . . .: On the occasion of a visit to the Île Saint-Pierre”:
      Although Rousseau was by no means idle as an author in the few weeks he spent on the Île Saint-Pierre, in retrospect he nonetheless came to see this time as an attempt to free himself from the exigencies of literary production. He talks of how he longs now for something other than literary renown, the scent of which, as he says, revolted him from the very moment he first got a whiff of it. The dégoût Rousseau now felt with regard to literature was not merely an intermittent emotional reaction but something that for him always went hand in hand with the act of writing. In accordance with his doctrine of the formerly unspoiled state of nature, he saw the man who reflects as a depraved animal perverted from its natural state, and reflection as a degraded form of mental energy.


A mordant phrase out of Sebald’s essay “Why I grieve I do not know: A memento of Mörike”: “a different kind of mountebank career from that of writing—that rather vicarious vice whose clutches those who have once embarked upon it rarely succeed in escaping.”



Seemingly fatal burgeonings partout. Out of Sebald’s “As Day and Night . . .: On the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp”:
The photographic image makes a tautology of reality. When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, writes Susan Sontag, he shows that there are people in China and that these people are Chinese. What may be true of photography, though, is not necessarily applicable to art. The latter depends on ambiguity, polyvalence, resonance, obfuscation and illumination, in short, the transcending of that which, according to an ineluctable law, has necessarily to be the case. Roland Barthes saw in the—now omnipresent—man with a camera an agent of death, and in photographs something like the relics of life continually giving way to death. Where art differs from such a morbid affair is in the fact that the proximity of life to death is its subject, not its obsession. Art deploys the deconstruction of outward appearances as a means of countering the obliteration, in endless series of reproductions, of the visible world.
To stop writing: “a means of countering the obliteration, in endless series of reproductions, of the visible world.”

Eight of Hearts, with jottings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
(One of the twenty-seven playing cards found with the unfinished manuscript of
Les Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire at the death of Rousseau in 1778.)