Friday, February 27, 2009

Celeb-Psycho-Stalker Apocalyprose-poem-letters

It’s a rare set poems that makes me ask – really, really ask:
What kind of sick-fuck wrote these things?

What kind of sick-fuck am I, for reading them?

and, most of all,

What kind of sick-fuck world do I live in?
Take all that and throw in genuinely frightening moments and, yes indeed, a few good laughs, and you have, I submit, a pretty special and very disturbing book: I No Longer Believe In The Sun – Love Letters to Katie Couric.

Here’s the set-up: poet Derek Fenner assumes a persona – a guy by the name of Derek – who writes a series of letters to a TV celebrity who happens to have the name Katie Couric (and one letter to one Matt Lauer). The letters show that Derek “loves” TV-Katie. “Loves” as in a sicko-stalker believed-via-delusion to be reciprocal sex-love, an all-consuming obsession (thus the book’s title: for Derek, Katie has replaced the sun). Derek’s also dangerously whacked in other ways, including idiosyncratic apocalyptic religious views, odd parents, and a plan to deliver terrifying mass destruction first to Cincinnati and then the world, with Katie and him (after the obligatory TV interview) taking refuge on an ark along with the liquid nitrogen-preserved semen and eggs of animals.

A disclaimer at the front of the book – which is called a “graphic novel” (more than half its 200 pages are taken up by black-and-white photos and drawings that reflect and extend the obsession displayed in the letters) – explicitly states that everything in the book is fictional, all people and events imaginary, and all resemblances coincidental. Such disclaimers are fairly standard, but the difference here is that the salient point – that the letters aren’t real – is repeated about six times over.

In emphasizing so strongly that the letters are fake, I think Fenner is both joking around and – by purposefully protesting his point too much – raising a possibility, however slight, in the reader’s mind that his letters in fact are real. At the same time though, the repeated insistence that the letters are entirely imagined was a smart move.

You see, most of the letters are convincing enough that if actually sent to – or presumed to be intended for – the “real” Katie Couric, they would EASILY justify a civil restraining order against harassment, or maybe even prosecution for criminal threats. Here are a couple sentences from one of the concluding letters of the sequence:
God, I want to fuck you so bad. [ . . . ] [¶] [. . .] Katie, save yourself by not ignoring me. Remember there is a time to live and a time to die and that all good things must come to an end.
The rear cover of the book, in fact, is given over almost entirely to a faux “Protection From Abuse” court order seemingly obtained by Couric against Fenner (click on image to enlarge in new window):

As stated above, parts of some letters are very funny. Of course, they shouldn’t be – stalking and threats ain’t funny at all – and breaking that taboo is part of the humor. So too are a few crazed closings to letters. Instead of ending with, for example, “Sincerely yours,” one of the letters closes, “Serve me with celery sticks.” And there are recurring comic moments involving a red thong, which Derek insists was sent to him by Katie. But the funniest moments in the letters are the ones I can’t explain, except maybe to suggest that outrageous paratactic psycho-leaps (with echoes of John Cage and Blaise Cendrars thrown in for good measure) can sometimes bring on rip-snorting belly laughs:
Christ got up on Easter Sunday – we all have to get up sometime. I could be fucking a micro-waved cantaloupe, but I choose celibacy which is a terrifying manifestation of the truth. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing to say; I often want to communicate this. And that ringing in my ears is the bell of existence. My desire for apples is the taste of God.
What stays with me most from Love Letters – and what was truly terrifying to read in them – are those parts of certain letters, mostly near the end of the sequence, in which Derek matter-of-factly tells Katie about the destruction he will wreak, or which he foresees. There are micro-organisms in water supplies, infectious diseases insinuated into malls and shopping centers, and specific advice about what do to when the atom bomb drops.

In the most alarming and chilling of the letters, Derek without preamble describes for Katie, one after another, how about a dozen people will die or first recognize that something is most definitely not right. While some of the scenarios are quieter than others, all terrify. Here’s the salutation, the first three paragraphs, and a section from near the end of that letter:
Dear Katie,

A short Filipino man in his early fifties, wearing a ‘Mike Tyson Bites’ t-shirt, in the Lawn and Garden section of Wal-Mart, has a runny nose, feels tightness in his chest, and is beginning to drool. His vision is blurring, and he begins muttering to his wife that something is wrong.

A broad-shouldered white male, 21 years old, is arriving at his job as a data analyst for Proctor and Gamble – he’s nauseous but blaming it on the sixteen Molson Ice he drank last night. He’s sweating profusely and has muscle cramps. He feels as if he may lose control of his bowels at any moment.
A 33 year old stay-at-home Soccer Mom is lying in bed with the shivers. She can’t control her jerks and twitches. She is fading in and out of consciousness. She feels as if she is going to suffocate. Her son is too young to come to her aid. He’s stuck in his crib, crying for his morning feed. Her husband is away on business for a foreign textile company. Her cell-phone battery died sometime in the night.
[ . . .]

A homeless man and his buddies have ignored their own fevers and mistaken abdominal pain for hunger. But it was the tiny red spots that appeared all over their bodies that got them bitching . . . . [ . . . ] The spots turned to blisters in a day and those blisters enlarged, filling with an opalescent pus, and when the eruption of those blisters split horizontally, it tore away from the underlayers. To make matters worse, the pustules became hard, bloated sacs the size of chickpeas, encasing their bodies in pus, making their skin resemble cobbled stone streets . . . .
In the middle of this letter, as the disturbing vignettes are relayed, Derek writes to Katie:
It’ll start off slow like that. Isolated incidents will gradually grow until it rocks the central nervous system of the city, county, world, and then humanity. Have you ever had a moment of complete fear?
I felt pretty close to such a moment, reading these imagined apocalyprose-poem letters of a psycho celeb-stalker. These letters – even with the plays for laughs – are very convincing, convincing enough that the fictional doomsday scenarios seem, I’m sorry, quite possible and even inevitable. Read Derek Fenner’s Love Letters and weep, perhaps. Read ‘em and get creeped, most definitely.

Taken as a whole, the letter-poems reflect an id-egoic male tight-twisted sex-religion-TV-celebrity-fetish-terror-apocalypse is clarity-fantasy, amen. Well, maybe not amen: more like, “so help me God.” Hamlet advised the players (III.ii.1-44) “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” Maybe Fenner has done just that, but does so by using a deranged fun-house mirror that in its distortions nevertheless still reflects what is actually there, or, even more, can because of its distortions show a twisted part of reality that normally is not seen.

End note on nomenclature: I consider the letters in I No Longer Believe In The Sun prose poems, even though they appear in a “graphic novel” explicitly stated to be a work of fiction. I think it’s fair to do so. I seem to recall that when they first appeared on the web four or five years ago, the letters were referred to as poems (but I admit I can’t find the dang things on to verify this). Also, I recently heard them recited by Fenner at a poetry reading, and at least one other person who heard him read the letters recently has called them poems (click here). By the way, when I saw Fenner read the letters at the Books and Bookshelves store in San Francisco, he in part became the Derek of the poem-letters by donning a well-used baseball/trucker’s cap that across its front had the name of Evel Knievel , the now-dead stunt dare-devil.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Epistolary Collage Prose-Poem Bonanza!

John Olson
Imaginary Letters

Introduction: Seattle’s John Olson has kindly agreed to allow here the first publication the world premier! – of the following five prose poems, collectively titled Imaginary Letters. The poem-letters are lexical experiments, and thus dear to my heart. They are also somewhat transgressive and perhaps even slightly scandalous. As Olson explains in an author’s note that follows the poems, these works contain both sentences he wrote and sentences taken from published letters and writings by others, including some he translated from the French. These Imaginary Letters, in other words, are collages of borrowed words and Olson’s own. The borrowed sentences are not specially identified, though the various sources are listed in a bibliography that follows the poems and Olson’s note. Enjoy!


Guy L’Estrange To William Wigglesworth

Dear William,

Greetings. I just received your considerable missile. And I agree. Your personality has nothing to do with you. Every time I see myself as I am I am staring into a cosmic mirror in which I see myself with my thoughts broken into nothing. The unbelievable in back of the head. You know what I mean? Something like asparagus, or exile.
          You speak of time as if time were an entity, a hard solid thing like a chair, or tuba. But let me tell you. I used to wash dishes on Times Square. That’s when I learned what time is.
          Time is a pulse. Time is inside you like a color. Like russet. Like pearl. Like indigo.
          Astrophysicists speak of time as being synonymous with space. How can that be? How can space and time be the same thing? The Hopi think of time horizontally, as a form of landscape. At least, that’s what I read in Benjamin Whorf.
          I think of time as a misunderstanding. A black eye in a black cloud. Or Gertrude Stein’s stomach.
          You must improve your penmanship; your writing is like the speaking of a child three years old, very understandable to its father but to no one else. When I want some oranges I will tell you; these are just apropos. It’s true. I have been brooding a lot lately.
          I’ll ignore these preposterous feathers.
          Why bother to say I detest liver and adore magnolia flowers?
          Yesterday the clutch on our car broke. It was an odd sensation. I went to step on it and it went ker-plunk. No clutch. Just a loose totally ineffective pedal. Which the French call a champignon. A mushroom. Because of the shape of their clutch pedals. Our pedal is not shaped at all like a mushroom. It’s not shaped like anything I can think of. It’s just a functional square-shaped thing made of rubber. With grooves in it. Thankfully, we were in a quiet neighborhood, on our way to French class. We drifted to the side of the road by a Baptist church. We locked the car up and went to class. Later Penelope phoned AAA. A tow truck was there in less than ten minutes. Towed our car to the local garage. Didn’t pay for a thing. Quite a good deal. A man and his son sat on the front lawn of the church and watched our proceedings with mild amusement. When the tow truck man was done getting everything hooked up we clambered into the front seat of his truck with him. I waved goodbye to the man and boy on the lawn. They waved back.
          You ask what I think about these days. I think about sidewalks and all their cracks and irregularities and the stories they tell. I think about fabulous beasts. Vast ancient empires. Beatitude. Redemption. Words. Words as inundations. Words as seething coagulations of mind.
          Visions. Chimeras. Ecstasies. Prophecies. Wraiths.
          Shangri-la. Xanadu. Cockaigne. El Dorado. Oz.
          If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, it is this sun drawn in yellow chalk on the sidewalk at 10th Ave West.
          Killer whales scratching their sides on the gravelly bottom of a Canadian sound.
          Buddhist monks in orange robes living with tigers in Thailand.
          “Kubla Kahn” is what got me curious about opium. And poetry. I remember reading it in high school. And the story about Coleridge getting interrupted by someone knocking at his door. Which has the familiar ring of daily life about it and the struggle to create in a world that is continually intruding with nagging little details like survival. Poetry and survival are at antipodes. I was a rebellious little snot at the time and that conflict between poetry and its chimerical pursuits and furry teacups and the soul-killing head-ache inducing necessities of the daily grind had tremendous appeal. I wanted, naturally, to take the side of the furry teacup. And caverns measureless to man.
          We can’t easily imagine another world, this one being barely visible.
          Have a jellybean. Here comes a tiger.
          Bill has been arrested and faces a jail in Louisiana for possession of narcotics and guns, etc.
          As for me, I’m still negotiating for the railroad job. I was turned down by the doctor in a physical for what I thought were phony reasons.
          For one thing, I’m not dead. Secondly, skeletons have no cocks.
          The building I sit in is a manifestation of desire, hope, fear, as I in my own person, all the world I see is filtered through water, skin, and jam.
          I am quite perplexed in a world of doubts and fancies. There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.
          It’s weird to think we were once in Manitoba.
          Our heads hurt from French. French grammar is diabolical. But pronunciation is worse. I come home with my tongue in knots and my throat feeling like a chunk of raggedy roast beef.
          Our streets are falling apart. It’s like driving on the dark side of the moon. Yet the mansions keep getting bigger. The restaurants more expensive. The food in the groceries more expensive. Bread is now approaching $4.00 dollars per loaf. And, of course, money itself is losing its value. People, particularly the business community, seem not to understand that money is linked, very strangely, to non-commercial values, as well as debt, tariffs, statistical noise and the consumer price index. Greed is a disease. Ironically, its first gangrenous outbreak is in the troughs at Wall Street. When the confidence men lose confidence in their monetary schemes, the money turns slimy as mildewed lettuce.
          All any of us wants is a simple life. A simple mind creates a complicated life.
          We went to my brother’s yesterday to pick up some boxes I had stored in his garage. My old .22 had corroded. I had it wrapped in a towel. I think that was the problem. The towel retained moisture. There must have been a lot of nickel in the barrel. Maybe I can have it replaced. I borrowed my brother’s truck. Listened to T Rex out on the freeway. “Get It On. Bang-A-Gong.” Remember that old hit?
          I’m developing a taste for solitude.
          The mind has its own rhythm and flow, which has nothing to do with nothing.
          Haven’t I sent this letter before in another life? And haven’t you received it?
          Take care.
          Your friend Guy.


Guy L’Estrange To Albert Eck

Dear Al,

In answer to your last question, yes. Check under the counter. You should find the manual there among some old potatoes, apple juice, iron and Neptune.
          I hate the morning. I hate it when I wake up and look at the clock thinking I must have at least another hour before it is time to get up but no it is time now to get up. I make the bed. There is a man on the radio talking about meat. Mad cow disease. He says they aren’t inspecting cows the way the are supposed to do. They’re supposed to temp them. He related that the temperature is crucial in determining if a cow is acceptable or to be condemned. You never bring in a downer unless it is temped. If the temperature is over 103 degrees it is considered diseased. If it is below 97 degrees, its dying and is condemned.
          German submarines are small. All the little private thoughts you normally wouldn’t mention tend to spill out. It gets embarrassing. The situation is delicate.
          Thank you for sending me a copy of Sod. I look forward to reading it. I like the cover. Gutenberg hunched over a blue guitar. That’s perfect. It speaks volumes. There is a good article about the blues in this month’s Harper’s. Why does the blues seem so modern? I am sure the Elizabethans had the blues. The Sumerians had the blues. The Babylonians had the blues. Even people in Hawaii must get the blues. Take the Hawaiian guitar, for instance. Can anything sound sadder and more full of yearning than a steel guitar? Have you ever heard Martina McBride sing “Broken Wing?”
          Time we all got together and felt good again. Your letter made me think that doom sounds serious.
          Now what the heck is going on in Wichita?
          Jack calls drunk from Massachusetts. He wants to move to Florida. He thought of dawdling in Java and wandering islands toward India, or Hanoi, or China, I dunno. Wherever he goes in the world he finds the same discontent. And the children bounce up and down in the street all day on pogo sticks trying to keep warm.
          Jack says be sure to boil your water. Don’t buy rupees at the bank. Get them at the local black market.
          It’s getting harder and harder to find music at the music stores. Their inventories shrink and they don’t replace anything because all the young folks are getting their music off the computer and playing it on iPods. I’ve been looking all over for Mr. Lucky by John Lee Hooker.
          I don’t know where we are now. Yesterday we visited an old garden and stole some excellent figs. It made me think of Zola’s Paradou. The big rose bushes, vines, ivies, fig trees, olive trees, pomegranate trees with big fat flowers of the most vivid orange I have ever seen, hundred-year-old cypresses, oaks and willows, rock oaks, partially demolished steps, ogival windows in ruins, blocks of white rock covered with lichen, sections of wall crumbled here and there into the verdure, I made a great sketch of it.
          It got me thinking about chaos, pattern, how things do eventually come together, almost haphazardly, to form new objects, sensations, ideas.
          If all atoms were to have a particular figure, it would have to be atoms of an infinite grandeur, because each would, of necessity, be infinitely different, like the monads of Leibnitz.
          As it is true that each combination of letters does not form words that one would be able to pronounce or read, so the domain of natural things cannot form everything from everything, in other words the junction of no matter what atoms will not be able to produce any complex object.
          Why, I ask myself, aren’t the luminous points of the firmament any less accessible to us then the points on a map? In the same way that we take a train to Texas, Houston or Dallas, we take death to get to a star. What is certainly true in this line of reasoning is that in life we can’t take a train to the stars, any more than a dead person can take a train. In the final analysis, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible that cholera, pneumonia, malaria, or cancer should be a form of celestial locomotion in the same way that the steamboat, omnibus, and train are terrestrial modes of travel.
          What I have the hardest time believing is my own reality. I elude myself ceaselessly and do not well understand, while I observe myself acting, is that the one I see acting happens to be the same one who observes, and who, astonished, doubts that he can be the actor and contemplator all the same time.
          We can’t easily imagine another world, this one being barely visible.
          My mind rains words on a sheet of paper. They take root and grow into thoughts, big bushy thoughts, with flowers like madrepores, and fruit like grenades.
          I see a new world coming, way over the desert. Sand painting is mandala.
          Dusty boots and sweaty clothes are sweet in this climate.
          I wear Spanish boots, a gold earring, dance the Twist with young girls all the time, and roar about on my big red motorcycle.
          My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.
          Your friend Guy.


Guy L’Estrange To Toby Korzybski

Dear Toby,

I received yesterday your last note saying you were heading off to Damascus, Jerusalem, and I should write you in Haifa.
          Got bounced out of Havana, landed in lovely Prague and stayed a month.
          Visited Zukofsky in Brooklyn and played piano and sang. I came out high, bearded, wild-eyed, and laughing and crying at everything that moved.
          The weather is great. This place is more interesting and weirder to live in and happier than Paris at the moment for me.
          Gary’s down the street in the Hindu YMCA.
          I think wandering around outside U.S. does enlarge perspective. The world becoming true again. There was always something missing.
          I hardly trust any appearance anymore, statistical or intuitive. I’d rather drift and see.
          It is incredible that roads and lips are all part of the same reality. I see a storm crouching on the horizon. The skin of the tongue exposed to molecules of flavor, consolations of chocolate and milk.
          There is so much politeness on jets. How could it be otherwise? Can you imagine, I mean, if people behaved in such close quarters as they do in towns and cities?
          I need to visit the farm more often. Pigs are emotional animals.
          All the world smacks of materialism. The insolent smell of nail salons, dirt, flickering tongues of snakes. The rhetoric of this world is written in autumn colors and the smell of old basements. Yet music is everywhere. There is music in the nerves running up and down the spinal column. Music in ice cubes. The music of thought rolls around in onions of light. This is why I love rubber. Nothing fascinates me like black.
          Incidents of blue wedged between words like an eye.
          I went for a walk one night by the edge of the sea on a deserted beach. I have the conviction that if I stay here long enough I can disengage my personality. Color plays an important role.
          This is my world, such as it is. Largely a world of images. Tempests and waterfalls.
          Are you old enough to remember checking the tubes from the TV when the picture went bad? When the screen kept going up and up and up or down and down and down and you’d get up to fuss with the dial and nothing happened so you’d have to go in back of the TV and take all the tubes out and put them in a bag and take them to the grocery store to be tested? I remember doing that with my dad. I loved the look of those things. So smooth and beautiful on the surface, so intricate and strange on the inside with all those barely visible little threads and stuff. All the grocery stores and drugstores had TV tube testing machines. You’d put the prongs on the bottom of the tube in the right pattern of holes on the testing machine and a needle would indicate its strength or weakness or if it was just completely dead. If the tube was bad you’d go buy another one and bring it all back home and reinsert the tubes and turn the TV on and whammo, there would be Howdy Doody smiling at you or Sky King taking off in his twin-engine Cessna or Flash Gordon flying through space with his big tubby spaceship ejaculating sparks or Lassie barking at someone to quick quick bring help so-and-so is drowning or Dobie Gillis arguing with his father the grocer and you were back in business again.
          When I was in the mountains, in solitude, I was obliged to be in continual burning of thought as an only resource. That’s when I grew accustomed to the obscurities of my own silly head. And sought means to get it out and down on paper where it might assume light and scope and crumbs of knowledge.
          The rain is coming down in torrents.
          I’ve been feeling more acutely mortal lately, having had my 2nd colonoscopy. Four polyps & a coral garden. I’m always fascinated to get glimpses of my intestinal tract as the fiber optic camera travels through. It’s agreeably unsettling to be reminded that this is who I am: a mass of sanguine biology. Water, salts, lipids and enzymes.
          Thank goodness for clothes.
          Say hello to everyone at the picnic.
          Ceylon is lovely and cool and green.
          I’m wearing a bright red satin shirt hand painted by Paul McCartney. I feel like Zeus walking through Red Square.
          Like Blaise Cendrar riding a Brontosaurus up the Eiffel Tower.
          I was serious when I said I’d like to make it more of a regular habit to write more often. It’s good therapy. Releasing my mind on paper is liberating. But you need to write back.
          I wonder what Shakespeare wore? I like to think of him in tennis shoes, but I don’t believe rubber had become an English commodity yet.
          A film crew shot some scenes in the house next door to us last week. One of the crew members came over one night to borrow a drinking glass. I have no idea what the film director wanted to do with our drinking glass. Did Angelina Jolie’s lips come into contact with it?
          I wonder if any of this is of interest to you.
          They say Elizabethan women wore a roll or sausage of stiffened material known as a “bum roll” around their waist and under their skirts to hold corded hoops of wire or whalebone out and so accentuate a woman’s child-bearing attributes.
          It all comes down to onions. They should be deep purple in color and glistening.
          Your friend Guy.


Guy L’Estrange To Chauncey Depew

Dear Chauncey,

You’re lucky you live in Maine. I had a tough time getting to sleep last night. After the fireworks blasted off the Space Needle, the Neanderthals across the street partied all night. They had a woofer going boom! boom! boom! boom! till well past three in the morning. I know because I got up to go to the bathroom and saw it was 3:30 and figured I could take the earplugs out. My ears were itching. I took them out. But not only were the clowns across the street still going strong, but our neighbors upstairs, Fuckwad and Twinkle Toes, came home, stomped around, ran gallons of water, crashed and banged and buzzed the hallway buzzer. I put in another pair of earplugs.
          What baffles me is that these people are able to carry on like that with no thought whatever that they might be bothering someone. Given, it’s New Year’s Eve, but not everyone enjoys the privilege of sleeping in the next day, some people have to work, and some people are simply old and tired and want to go to bed. They’ve seen enough New Year’s celebrations to stuff a woolly mammoth. They don’t care if there’s a change in the calendar. They want to go to sleep.
          Another thing that baffles me is that the people right next door don’t complain. What’s up with that? Maybe it’s the fear of guns. Penelope has a co-worker who has an 18 year-old son who complained when some guy stepped in front of him in a line at a dance club. The malefactor took out a gun and shot him five times. It’s a miracle he survived.
          These are definitely different times. Fall of the empire. No doubt about it. Next thing we’ll see wrestling events turn into gladiator bouts. With real swords. And real blood and guts.
          Was the wild west like this? Probably. Maybe that’s why so many people dug Sarah Palin. The woman was a complete imbecile, but she represented some fundamental dysfunctionality about the American frontier. Killing and skinning animals. Shotgun weddings. Religious intolerance. Hatred for intellectuals. Disdain for the wilderness, except for its resources. Gold and oil.
          I do believe, however, that Buffalo Bill was pretty progressive. He was a close friend of Sitting Bull. I suspect Jesse James was fiercely anti-government & right wing. He was probably racist as hell, too.
          Billy the Kid was just silly. A dopey kid with a lot of potential. Just liked to chase women, sing songs, and get into gun fights.
          Wyatt Earp I suspect was a moderate Republican. He seemed always to be looking for some way to get rich. Wild Bill Hickok was probably some weirdly eccentric form of Libertarian. I do know in 1876 there was a big national strike & a progressive populist movement called the Greenback Party. I think Wild Bill would have been partial to that.
          The books arrived last Wednesday, via UPS. Now comes the hard part: trying to get the public to buy them. So I can become fabulously wealthy. And move to Tahiti. And grow potatoes & pineapples.
          Fat chance. U.S. is 49th in world literacy. Ouch!
          We’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing. Have you met any of the locals yet? Have you had an opportunity to go to any readings? Any inclination to go to any readings? Is it snowing yet?
          I think you are right to refuse any medical treatment other than the laser treatment. I think western medicine is founded on a wrong-headed premise that does not acknowledge death as a natural part of life.
          I am certain if you are your own physician your stomach will resume its proper strength and then what great benefits will follow.
          I have just returned from a drive to the bottom of the hill. I go down at 4:15 p.m. or so to pick up Penelope after she gets off work. I went tumbling down the hill in our Subaru dodging potholes and fissures the city never repairs this part of Fifth and the city looked beautiful rather ethereal in winter mist with a little glow of day still in it and the hard-edged heroin addict contrary rock of the Velvet Underground in the CD player.
          I park in an underground lot. There are paintings on the walls of eggs and candles and tulips and lettuce and big oak wine barrels and a field of lavender. There is also a barn surrounded by a grove of trees with bales of hay dotting the foreground. A cheerfully rural dirt road leads to a gabled white house. Penelope says an old woman tried driving into the little dirt road depicted in the barnyard. She thought it was real. Hard to believe such people drive and vote.
          Above are pipes running everywhere and a ceiling of crumbly plaster that looks curdled like cottage cheese, white lines painted on the cement floor, car doors slamming, people getting on and off the elevator, grocery clerks helping people carry groceries to their car or rounding up grocery carts, engines humming, metal groaning, a headache beginning to cloud the inner weather of my head. I brought Le Mystere de la chambre jaune by Gaston Leroux to read while waiting for Penelope. I changed the CD. Velvet Underground popped out. I put in Honkin’ on Bobo by Aerosmith. Penelope arrived. We drove to Safeway to pick some medicine at the pharmacy. Safeway was packed. People everywhere. Day before Halloween. Penelope says her store has been very quiet. This is a worry.
          Your friend Guy.


Guy L’Estrange To George Jellicoe

Dear George,

Last night I saw the ghost of Jackson Pollock. He was rummaging around in our refrigerator. I got up because I was thirsty and had a headache. I was not in a mood to talk to a ghost. Anyone’s ghost. I simply nodded, and he stood back, glowing by the stove. I rubbed my eyes, cleared my throat, and asked what death was like. He said it was black. The most beautiful black he had ever seen. Only he could not see it. When you’re dead you don’t experience anything. You can’t. Because you don’t exist. But what about this, I asked, this ghostly presence of yourself, where did that come from. He paused. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t have an answer for you.”
          I went back to bed.
          You asked about the line between prose and poetry. I see poetry as blood, prose as a bone.
          Prose is written in a crowded room. Poetry is written alone.
          You tell me never to despair. I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying. Truth is I have a horrid morbidity of temperament which has shown itself at intervals.
          I think in intervals because to do otherwise is presumptuous.
          I’m trying hard to be totally conscious of this time and place, of you, and every sentient being, especially toads.
          Remember Matisse’s goldfish? It hangs in the hallway now, across form the closet and its smell of car wax and rags and old coats that have weathered many a winter and mountains of shoes and old boots with long laces and thick military soles. There is something nostalgic about closets and their odors. It is the realm of the discarded. Photo albums. Ribbons of old celebrations.
          I think “what is thinking,” what is that use or motion of the mind that compares with the wetlands, the names of the dead?
          What could any of us done without azaleas, or plaid?
          April is behind the refrigerator.
          Penelope is getting better and better at making mashed potatoes. This is harder to achieve than you may think. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Potatoes, salt, butter, mixer. The electricity comes from God knows where. You’ve got to blend these things perfectly, or the product is too watery, too lumpy, too bland.
          I am free to spread these words because they are derelict, walnut, and habitation.
          I frequently lose myself in abstraction. Forgive me.
          I feel like walking out of here and spending vast sums of money. I want to buy the Bank of England. I want to buy roses and pink cushions and fancy cars and palatial mansions with luscious blue swimming pools and swans and peacocks and pearl-handled jackknives and rare books and exotic antiques.
          All I need is money.
          A necklace of skulls and fingers.
          A question is the best beacon towards a little speculation.
          How does a thought go from being a thought to being a sequence of words? Isn’t thought composed of words to begin with? Is it possible to have a thought that does not involve words? Have I ever had a thought that did not involve words? I can’t remember. What if a thought is composed of numbers? Is that how physicists and mathematicians and engineers think? Are equations poetry? Calculations? Symbols? Pictures? Camouflage? Nasturtiums? Cushions? Oblivion? What if the thought, such as this thought, is soft like flannel, feels soft in the mind, or warm, like a bowling team in the heat of victory, or a parakeet? What we see of the world is the mind’s invention. Which is why I’m afraid of the dark.
          O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts. Intrepid blackberry feastings. The strange fragrance of gasoline. The lure of opals. Leaves glistening after the rain. A small boat engaged with the current of a small mountain stream.
          Nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.
          Here it carries its silence, the regular singular tree that murders grammar.
          I salute the banana I am about to eat, the Christmas cactus by the window and the volcano hats on top of the bookcase with their pipe-cleaner flames. The chair supporting all the hats and bags and clothing and purse and the temperature of the room which is a comfortable 68 degrees. The rain outside glistening in the shrubs and the light allowing me to write these words and the muscles in my fingers and arm and nerves and perceptions and language and chocolate and wood. I think of these things as events, not objects. Energies which have somehow mysteriously acquired mass to become a carpet or shiny candy wrapper or cat or finger or TV remote or coffee table or shrug or rug or rune or dune or spoon or dishwasher of rattling dishes. Sensations are simultaneously specific and vague. Exquisitely specific. Ethereally vague. Somewhere in there is a thought. Waves of light in the head. Sounds on the tongue.
          What I want you to see is another lovely and inexplicable thing.
          Oboe. Meat. Vowel.
          An oboe in the meat of a vowel. A vowel in the meat of an oboe. Meat in the vowel of an oboe.
          Vowel upon vowel upon vowel.
          Consonants integral as arthropods.
          I find great comfort in the radio.
          The pharmacist was in a good mood today. That’s always a relief. I’m always nervous about picking up my medicine. Don’t know why. Does anybody know why they feel the way they do?
          I am free to spread these words because they are double knit, hard rock, and scintillating.
          Bob Dylan is a wizard.
          A wise chair in a bombed house.
          Write soon.
          Your friend Guy.


A Note on Imaginary Letters, from John Olson:
I’ve always enjoyed works such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Pound’s The Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, William Burroughs’ many novels in which he employed his cut-up technique, Clark Coolidge’s Smithsonian Depositions, and Paul Metcalf’s prodigious oeuvre, ventures in which works from other sources have been collaged to create a new work. Isidore Ducasse inserted direct quotations from an 1853 encyclopedia of natural history for Les Chants de Maldoror. Hugh MacDiarmid composed much of his 700 page poem Cornish Heroic Songs for Valda Trevlyn (subsequently in part published as In Memoriam James Joyce) by transcribing “long passages from obscure travel and science books, reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Herman Melville’s letters, the writings of Martin Buber, [and] Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger.”

In my Imaginary Letters I wanted to create a single voice from a multiplicity of voices, a fictional personality addressing fictional personalities on a loom of interspersed snippets gleaned from other letters, sometimes a novel or essay. The warp and woof of contrasting articulations. Appropriative writing is a common practice. Language itself is a hodgepodge of miscellaneous sources. Nothing is written out of a void. All writing is a form of grafting and cross-pollination. Like Metcalf and others, I did not want to encumber these Letters with footnotes, but preferred to credit my borrowings in a bibliography.


          Gide, André. Les faux-monnayeurs. Paris, France,1963.
          Ginsberg, Allen. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Philadelphia, PA, 2008.
          Ginsberg, Allen and           Snyder, Gary. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Edited by Bill Morgan. Berkeley, CA, 2009.
          Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. Cambridge, MS, 2002.
          Sollers, Phillippe. Sur le matérialisme; de l'atomisme à la dialectique révolutionnaire. Paris, France, 1974.
          Van Gogh, Vincent. Letters de Vincent Van Gogh à son frère Théo. Comprenant un choix de lettres française originale et de lettres traduites du hollandaise par George Philippart. Paris, France, 1975.
          Whalen, Phillip. The Collected Poems of Phillip Whalen. Edited by Michael Rothenberg. Middletown, CT, 2007.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Shout-Out for the 2/17 KWH Silliman Celebration

“These Are a Few of My Favorite Things”
(in the Alphabet)

Living as I do about 2,800 miles from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House (KWH), I’m not going to make the celebration for Ron Silliman and his the Alphabet that’s happening there this coming Tuesday, February 17th. But I (and so too can you!) will be watching on live streaming video, via the KWH site (click here), starting that day at 6:30 p.m Eastern (3:30 Pacific).

I say let’s get the party started now! I put the Alphabet on my list of 20 great poetry books published in 2008, and have also previously written about the puns in the book, particularly in the poem titled Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect. But there’s plenty more to be said, as one should expect with a lifework (almost 30 years in the writing) that has 26 separate poems that collectively run for more than 1,000 pages.

Here then, in the words of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein tune – and inspired by the driven melody of Coltrane’s take on that song – are a few of my favorite things in the Alphabet:

Words Gone Wild!
(the first section of LIT, pages 225-227)

I’ve previously described the Alphabet, and I think fairly, as a parade of superbly done “be here now” particulars. I’ll add that most of the particulars seem to have – or can be imagined as having – arisen from a specific place-time locus. Silliman’s Under Albany (Salt Publishing, 2004), in which he provides the “back-story” (my term) to each of the dozens of sentences in Albany, the Alphabet’s first poem, certainly shows that actual events underlie those words. I believe Silliman could provide a similar narrative backdrop for just about every sentence or line in the Alphabet’s 1,000 plus pages.

Except I don’t think he could do that for the first section of LIT. The words and sentences of that section seem mostly entirely unhinged and unleashed from references to actual events, unleashed from the written parade of particulars that is so much of (and so wonderful in) the Alphabet. Check this out:
Tattoo ducktails (entire stock must go) river the ferny glade’s ionic duplicates, hand-sewn or virginal as a Chinese jacket, to the tonsorial rhodochrosite splendor, capital M, marketing vacation nights. New model of transfer point sarcasm between aspects of aerial geology autism and neo-heliocentric gestalt, 3 ring punch, hollow shallow pillow, a bird in the sandwich, a dog in the rocket, my hair fading like a morning shadow, is more than you can sip through that straw in your nose, the carbon overdue and those chimes bleating.
That’s but two of numerous similar sentences in first section of LIT. The sentences of that section (some are but a word or a few, some lengthy, as above) strike me as a type of free-jazz-jam prose-poetry, with facets of surrealism, nonsense, the baroque and who knows what. Such writing ain’t the mainline of Silliman’s work, far from it, but it’s great and perhaps especially memorable precisely because it’s so different.


The Fart Dream
(a paragraph in Zyxt, page 961)

Yeah, I know: I write “fart dream” and suddenly it’s an episode of the TV cartoon South Park, an inane Howard Stern stunt, or some idle memory from sophomore year gym class. Yet the fart has a long and almost noble literary history, what with Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” and numerous appearances in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, among others.

Silliman’s contribution to the literary history of the fart comes in a long, amazing paragraph near the beginning of the Alphabet’s final poem. In that paragraph, Silliman sets out a stunning – and insanely detailed – dream that begins with our fair poet bathing “in a large tub in an even larger ballroom in the middle of some reception, everybody dressed to the nines . . . .” There’s no way to convey here the hilarious shameful horror that ensues. Suffice it to say that the dream ends with “the room entirely blue in a dense fog” with only the poet “left to tell the tale”.

This fart-dream, I insist, is not just hilarious and well-told, but central to Silliman’s poetics. Yes, you read me right: the fart-dream is central to Silliman’s poetics. In a 1985 compilation of “Poetics Statements” for a Vancouver colloquium, Silliman wrote (note: emphasis added):
I know that I distrust lyricism, and am wary of irony. Both strike me as critical stances, but ones that enable a poet to evade taking any alternative positions affirmatively. I much prefer mistakes, just as I do a poetry which is capable of stumbling in public and letting out farts. What is more deadly than a poem which seeks to be told it’s beautiful. Yet nothing irritates me more with my peers than how many tin ears seem to keep banging at the piano. Oh, and how few responsible readers there really are.
The fart-dream of Zyxt, I assert, is an object-lesson par excellence of Silliman’s embrace of mistakes, transgressive approach, and rejection of beauty as the ultimate value in poetry.


The Street Trash of San Francisco
(Jones, pages 113-137)

I’m pretty sure I could write a blog post a day for a month about the various poems that evoke – engrave in the mind through words – the landscape of Northern and Central California. There’s Robinson Jeffers’ renderings of Big Sur, Pt. Lobos, and Carmel, William Everson’s poems about the ground-hugging winter tule fog in the Central Valley and drought and fire in the Santa Cruz mountains. There’s also Kenneth Rexroth’s many poems set in the High Sierra, or those of his set in the Devil’s Gulch side canyon in Marin County’s Samuel P. Taylor Park, and Robert Duncan’s poem with the lines about a storm pouring into Stinson Beach from the Pacific. Etc. etc. etc.

Silliman’s place in this Northern California poetic landscape history is of a different character than those mentioned above, but just as important. Silliman in Jones – a poem named after a street in San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin district – goes after and gets not the natural world, but the true human urban scape.

Silliman wrote Jones by (in his words, from an endnote) “looking at the ground for a year.” What Silliman saw, and put in his poem, is as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, and the summer fog, though not usually celebrated and in fact most often ignored:
Loose fluffs of cat fur, gray-white in the parsley, suggest an old fight – on the walk, a scrap of roofing shingle, through which sticks a rusted nail. Headlights’ reflections stretch out atop the rain-slick asphalt – illumined nightworld in mid-morning. Pale brown tip of a crushed cigarette butt – blind fibers (mashed) jut out.
That’s three sentences out of 25 pages filled with similar observations. Silliman brings us pigeons, “smashed and flattened” styrofoam burger boxes, oil stains, empty bottles, crumpled paper, and much, much more. In these accretions of observed and conveyed details, Jones transmutes diurnal detritus. It’s an awesome example of how attention paid pays off poetically. And as I said, it rightly belongs in any discussion of California poetry of place.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Poetry From the Law (part two)

M. NourbeSe Philip
(Wesleyan University Press, 2008)

M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! is filled with poems made of words taken from a court decision, just as are the poems in Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

But despite the shared method, NourbeSe Philip’s and Reznikoff’s poems couldn’t be more different. Here’s a case – a joyful one – of wonderful poetic variation even when the “idea” behind the writing (the mining of court decisions) is the same. May it please the Court, and thank the muses, not all poet-lawyers (NourbeSe Philip, as was Reznikoff, is one) write alike.

In Testimony, Reznikoff used about 450 court decisions to write that same number of poems (one poem per decision). In contrast, NourbeSe Philip in Zong! uses a single court decision to create about three dozen poems: 32 short ones (each one or two pages in length) four long (each between 15 and 50 pages), and a single visual poem that’s several pages long.

The poems in Testimony and Zong! also differ, and profoundly so, in how facts are used. Reznikoff took facts from court decisions and made concise and clear narratives about what actually happened. In contrast, the poems in Zong!, because the court decision used as the source text only touches upon the central events which gave rise to it, concern a “story,” to quote NourbeSe Philip’s words from the book’s long endnote, that “cannot be told.”

More specifically, the source text used in Zong! is Gregson v. Gilbert, decided in 1783 by one of England’s highest courts. The decision concerned an insurance dispute. The owner of the Zong – an ocean-going ship – bought insurance to protect his cargo in case it was lost. At sea, all the cargo – according to the ship’s owner – was lost due to perilous conditions resulting from a longer than anticipated voyage. The shipowner filed an insurance claim for the lost cargo. The insurance company, however, refused to pay. The shipowner then filed a lawsuit. In the Gregson v. Gilbert decision, the court ruled in favor of the company.

The twist here – the staggering, sickening twist – is that the lost “cargo” was human beings, and the way in which that “cargo” was lost was decidedly murderous. The human beings were 250 African slaves who died for “want of water” (to quote the court decision) or because they were (said to) have jumped or (by explicit admission) thrown overboard.

The court decision (which Zong! includes in its entirety as an appendix) doesn’t make much of these shocking facts, mostly because in the late 18th century it wasn’t that shocking. As the insurance company argued, “[m]any instances have occurred of slaves dying for want of provisions . . . .” Thus, the court decision does not discuss the lives of the 250 dead slaves, the particulars of their deaths, or the specific actions or collective guilt of the ship captain and crew who killed them by not providing water or throwing them overboard. This is the story that, to use NourbeSe Philip’s construct, cannot be told (because there is nothing in the court decision about it), but must be told.

Zong!, then, is an extended exploration of just how inadequate the court decision’s language is to what NourbeSe Philip rightly believes is the essence of the story the decision actually, though sub silentio, embodies. The book is also an exergonic excavation, and an expansive expose, experimental exposition, extractive expropriation, extraordinary expatiation, and exemplary expedition as well.

The first part of Zong! contains 32 one or two page poems, each of which consists of words taken from the court decision. Typically, words are spread all about the page, usually in an arranged fashion but forsaking the tyranny of the left margin or stanzas. Here’s an example (please click image to enlarge in a new window):

This poem uses common poetic devices – repetition, line breaks, word arrangements – to marvelous effect. The repeating of the phrase “suppose the law” and the word “not” neatly frames both the ideal and the reality in this particular court’s failure – and perhaps the failure of much of law in general – to address central truths. I also love how the blank zone in the center of this poem creates a space for the words in the two columns to resonate-volley between each other. That space also gives room for thoughts and ideas to grow and bounce about in the mind of the reader.

After these shorter poems, Zong! becomes something altogether different. Having exhausted her poetic possibilities using the words of the court decision, NourbeSe Philip decided to use that source material as a lexical storehouse, breaking up the court’s words to form – anagram style – multitudes of other words. It is these new words which are used in the book’s longer poems.

In forming these new words, NourbeSe Philip’s imagination knows few bounds. Lists included as appendices show words from more than a dozen languages, as well as long lists of animals, crew members, food, and the like, all of which she poetically imagines being on or used on the slave ship.

But even with these made-words, the story still cannot be told. The longer poems contain no clear narrative. In fact, in the final couple of long-poems, the new-words often break apart themselves, with letters and phonemes separated by blank space, a line break, or both. Here, as an example, is one of the approximately 45 pages of the section titled “Ferrum” (again, please click on image to enlarge into a new window):

The breaking up of words, of course, emphasizes their thinginess, and gives the reader plenty of opportunities to fill in the blanks, to make her or his own words and meanings. On my poetic-dime, it’s tough to imagine a better combination than foregrounded lexical surfaces with indeterminate sense.

All the constructed and broken up words also reflect the extent to which NourbeSe Philip explored the potential of her source material. The book’s end-note, a combination diary, philosophic meditation, and explication of the work, indicates that she worked for years on the Zong! project. I deeply respect such sustained attention, both in lawyers and poets.

End note: Penn Sound includes a file (click this sentence to go to it) of NourbeSe Philip reading a number of poems from Zong!.