Saturday, July 31, 2010

. . . the night time is the write time . . .

Christine Hume

(Denver: Counterpath Press, 2010)
[8.25" x 6" -- 87 pages]

Christine Hume has been word-sparking via poems for more than a decade now, and alas, the fire got to me only a few months ago.

Not that I blame myself too much. Heck, I don’t even know, or know well enough, the work of poets who live just a couple neighborhoods away. Hume lives and works in Ypsilanti, half-way across the country. The vastness of poetry, even just in America, is (to be circular) excellently vast.

But now I’m fully engulfed, white-hot, blue-tipped, five-alarm style, in Hume’s writing. I thank Andrew Joron, who this year included a paragraph on Hume in the seven-page Afterword of his re-published (and thus updated to include the most recent decade) survey, Neo-Surrealism: or the Sun at Night (Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999).

Based on Joron’s heads up, I bought Hume’s new collection, Shot (see above). The book alternates poems in prose and lineated verse, and all of it blazes. Yes, its fires are wild (Joron compares her energies to Lautréamont and Michaux). Here’s a scan (so please excuse the fuzziness of the image) of the book’s first paragraphic poem in prose:

This poem is of and/or from the night, as are many (maybe all) in the book. The night and the mind, the mind of the self, the psychological self. The first line here strikes me as an invitation to an adventure:
I looked in all eight directions then spread out my tiger’s skin.
Now that’s an expansive view, and a response to it (the spreading of the tiger’s skin), that is immediately alluring, and was even before I grokked the Buddhist allusions. Via this opening, Hume – the voice of the poem, which I take to be her – gets it going right away.

And where Hume goes, comes quick: by the second sentence, in which she orients us to what she’s looking at (“the inner shore”) we (she and her readers) are on the way in: deep in.

I hope you read the poem as I do, or at least enough to groove on the marvelous poetry that comes hot-across and off the page:
-- the repetitions (six) of “mental” that set an overtone, or drone-tone (think trance), especially early (see the third sentence);
-- the almost dreamy though more than a bit unsettling mix of its main sets of images:
          -- those centered on or related to water (“shore” / “lake” / “sea” / “wet” / “captained” /
             “tempest” / “harpoon”);
          -- those connected, or which Hume connects, to “the moon” (“that outlandish
              organ hanging in the sky” / “the distant human pupil”/ “that orb”);
          -- those connected to violence or confrontation (“muzzle” / “aimed my automatic” /
             “harpoon” / “quiver” / “heavy steel helmet” / “fist me” / “beat it” /
             “force it”/ “I battered it”); and
-- the way those main image sets are filigreed – is that right, or is “further jumbled” the better term? – with various other images ( e.g., disorganized hands, “tightrope,” “glass knob,” “diamond cave”), pivot points, including:

                                                                      The moment rotated,

(love how the line breaks there) and near the poem’s end a delicious surge of the sensual and playful that (just-like-that and more-than-a-little shockingly) turns frankly and even dangerously sexual:
                                                                      [. . . ] If I could tongue out
    its creamy mouth. If I could tickle it and bounce it on my knee. If I

    could dress it up. If it would fist me, if I could force it.
[. . . ]
And then there’s what “Self-Stalking” is all about. This hit me hard, maybe because I needed a reminder, a poetic lesson, of the importance and power of that which – yes I think it true – we all have within: the id.

Ah, the id!

Yes, let us page Dr. Freud here, and why not? For all that’s come down in the 70 years since his death, Freud’s ideas and theories, at least this one, are still vital. Sure, it’s Psychology 101 but then again 1 + 1 = 2 is even more basic than that (think kindergarten arithmetic) and yet there’s no doubt simple truth turns much of our universe, yes? The same’s true, I say, about the dark, unorganized, mostly inaccessible part of each of our psyches.

In “Self-Stalking” Hume tells of, shows, enacts the drive, the need that arises, perhaps particularly in the dark deep of night, to see, to know, to become, that hidden cauldron of the inner self. I love how the mix or jumble of imagery (detailed in part above), mimics the unorganized id energy, and how there is plenty else that one can match to classic features attributed to it.

However, the truly beautiful thing in “Self-Stalking” is the repetition, over the final eight sentence of the pronoun “it.” It’s pretty obvious, especially on re-reading and yet doesn’t seem overdone (perhaps because the earlier repetition of “mental” conditions the mind / ear to repeats). This is pretty incredible because there are a dozen uses of the pronoun, including the possessive, in those lines.

The referent of the pronoun “it,” revealed by Hume only in the first and last of the eight sentences that close the poem, are “that orb” and “that moon.” Of course, “it” – aka “that orb” and “that moon” – is the id, or so I believe. And the way that pronoun works here is, once again, beautiful. It’s perfect first because Freud’s German “das Es” (which long ago was and ever since has been English-ized as “the id” is literally (and perhaps should always be) translated as “the It.” I find the latter, literal term far more mysterious a way to refer to this dynamo of our psychic structure. Hume’s pronouns return us, repeatedly, to “the It.” She pounds “it” here, drum and even shaman style, and to me all the “it” and “its” alone are transportive.

But also consider the consequences of how the pronoun “it” so closely parallels in sound and spelling, but does not precisely match, the word (“id”) most commonly used to describe this key element of our mental world. The repeated pronoun in this way perfectly embodies what happens in the poem itself, with Hume trying to get to, to become, her id, but not quite making it. Both the “it” / “id” dichotomy, and the essence of what happens in “Self-Stalking,” reflect the psychological truth that self-stalking, the hunt for the id, can never be entirely successful. The id will always remain apart, its instincts, drives and impulses never to be fully held or embodied.


Shot includes approximately three dozen poems in total. I’m not going to light up others here as above, but must say they all burn hot from the deep night from which they come. I think here of “black fire,” the evocative term that turns up, among other places, in Paradise Lost, Jewish mysticism, theosophical speculation, Wuthering Heights, gemology, the poetry of Philip Lamantia, as well as the perhaps expected fire-science.

What I will do here is leap around some in Shot, licking flame style, so as to give off a bit of its brilliance and energy. The poem after “Self-Stalking,” for example, the unpunctuated 31 verse lines in verse “Induction” (think both initiation and the electromagnetic process) begins:
Stitches and liquid morphine cannot keep it closed

Lunar halo runs circles more hollow than forgot

Steel birds fly from clocks

Striking the same hour in rounds

A freak disease tears across the vista
and later includes the almost anthemic lines (at least if you explore the dark):
Between your deserts and escaped stars

Messes of radial spoils steal on you

Lunar halo casts your face in harassments
The language here is charged, with a neo-surreal unstoppable wound and then an epidemic, plus (even in these brief excerpts) the “circles” and “rounds” and “halo” (times two), with of course the image of the moon carries forward “that orb” of “Self-Stalking.” The poems’ other two dozen lines are just as memorable.


Five of the prose poems in Shot, located in the second half of the book, are written in clauses separated : like that : or this : with colons. I’ve come to learn (having picked up her two previous full-length collections) that Hume sometimes favors this device. It’s a good one.

Colons in punctuation, depending on context, can suggest different relationships between the words or phrases so connected (e.g., syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive, segmental, for example), and the same is true of the similar sign used in logic and mathematics ( “such that,” “extends into,” and/or “inner product of”). And so in Hume’s poems, there’s a kind of rush opening up or unfolding in which you’re never sure of what the phrases might do, or not to each other, which of course opens them up even further. Here’s an example, the opening I’ll call it paragraph of “Continuation Room”:
Expect bewitched frequencies : a tongue to be there : bees bedded in
what we said : yellow pulls across the ceiling : twice sensitized : daisy
inside the bedside clock : tangent touches : flare at the window : one
greening itself
Love that – sight rhyme, is it? – “bees bedded” and for that matter the four times “be”shows up in the first line. And yes, here were are again in bed, with the bedroom clock a locus of mystery.


And now here’s a short poem-in-prose, one that I will let stand alone, other than to say holy Eve what an imagined animated (or is it animating?) anima, what a powerful representation of an inner self, or an aspect thereof, that deep in the night you may believe you direct but who actually seems to command you:


The final line of the final poem in Shot is:
I wake up missing want.
That’s one heck of an appropriate closing, I think, in that it correctly suggests that what has come before book-ending waking is of the nocturnal, and that what the dark of night was marked by were feelings and desires (“want”) as experienced in the mind.

I recommend Shot highly, especially for those times at night when you are too long awake or maybe oddly up, when the mind and you and the dark seem the only things around, and the mind and you and the dark get going in some sort of lacerating almost heart-stopping sometimes ecstatic sometimes lacerating rush of thought and beauty and language.



Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Eigner Errata

The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, Volume III
[The Corrected Replacement]

Shortly after Stanford University Press published The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner earlier this year I pointed out – among other things – that a particular page had been mistakenly repeated, and that as a result two poems were missing. I’m pretty sure I was the first to write about, and maybe the first to notice this glitch, found at page 1074 in Volume III.

The two “missing” Eigner poems, I am happy to report, are now available. Available, actually, in no less than three ways, with one of those options a full-on replacement volume that bespeaks a remarkable devotion to the poetry and book-object that is The Collected Eigner.

First, a pdf of the missing page can be downloaded at the publisher’s website (click here to see it). For those who prefer a more elegant insert, a copy of the page printed on paper matching that used in the book can be obtained via request from Stanford (click here for details).

Finally – and this is the holy 1940 portable Royal Typewriter news here, and not only because was announced in the last two weeks – those who bought the books can if they like send their copy of Volume III, plus ten bucks, to co-editor Curtis Faville, and receive back a corrected replacement copy in which the “missing” poems have been restored to their rightful place on the page. The Stanford website (click here) has the specifics about how to get that done.

This replacement volume – a result of re-setting the repeated page, then re-printing and re-binding a 600 page clothbound book – must have cost thousands of dollars (think about the supplies, and the manufacturing expense). Given that doing this resulted in all 3,000 plus poems now being included in the books, at least for those who obtain a replacement, I must say that doing a full re-do represents a devotion to Eigner’s poetry, and to the books, that is remarkable and glorious.

The Stanford website, in explaining how to obtain the replacement book, emphasizes that neither the publisher nor distributor can handle the exchange and do not maintain an inventory of the corrected Volume III. From this, you can deduce that they had nothing to do with the new Volume III. Instead, I’m told that Larry Eigner’s literary estate underwrote the corrected reprinting of Volume III, to remedy a fault which occurred in the final proofing of the text for the printing company. May all poets and writers have executors with such devotion to the work.


One of the two “missing” poems – and again they are available on-line (click here) – is a short, five-liner (Eigner # 625, dated January 8, 1973), and may I suggest you take a look, as it is interesting, arising both from place and – maybe – poetic practice:
       Energy’s not here
    now things look cluttered
      after convenience
         there is no design
        i.e. claustrophobia
As with many Eigner poems, this one’s a moment (or two or three) of (and/or in), time: a record in words of thought as it proceeds. This particular poem-moment seems on one level to directly concern Eigner’s actual workspace, at the time it was written: the glassed-in sunroom / front porch of the lower level duplex at 23 Bates Road, Swampscott, Massachusetts.

I understand that Eigner was something of a pack-rat and not particularly well-organized, with the latter tendency no doubt partly related to his palsy, which limited whether and/or how easily he could reach spaces and move things around. A photograph taken later in life (after his move to Berkeley) suggests how his workspace could be, with much paper and all not in good order though relatively within reach:

The poem set out above, with regard to the thinking reflected or documented concerning the work area, is straightforward: without Eigner bringing his energy to the place, the clutter – a byproduct of his method of keeping things easy (“convenience”) – dominates to the point of claustrophobia. Given Eigner’s mobility impairment, I trust highly his statement of the fear of having no escape and being closed in. But despite his particular circumstances, the feeling documented seems universal. We’ve all sensed – haven’t we? – how tiredness or other lack of mental sharpness results in that feeling of trapped hopelessness.

Can this poem also be read, on another level, as a self-critique of a particular (though not specifically identified) work? Is it, almost paradoxically, an inspired presentation of what had been a moment or three of uninspired poem-making? I don’t know, of course, but everything in the poem that could be read as concerning his work area could also apply to a poem that Eigner wrote that, to his mind, didn’t make it.

In this regard, I’m especially intrigued by the “after convenience / there is no design” phrase. Eigner himself said with regard to his poetry, “everything on the page matters” and was known to take great care – despite the challenge of the palsy – to precisely line up or array letters, words, lines, and spaces.

If Eigner in a particular instance did not have the creative or other energy to bring off his exacting, carefully considered approach – if he put the words down, let us say, without design and just did what was convenient – surely he might see the resulting poem as claustrophobic clutter (the poet caught in a creative corner). This interpretation of the poem may be a stretch, but I like thinking of “Energy’s not here” as “about” both a physical place (and thus by extension any place) and a poem (and thus many other poems, by Eigner and others) that never made it.


This post is the seventh I’ve done concerning The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (click on each phrase, if you’d like, to read the previous posts, which concern: the margins, my struggle with those margins, a gathering of poet-reader responses to Eigner, a gathering of quotations from Eigner on his work and poetics; Eigner’s poems-from-the-news, and his poems-with-lines-of-but-one-word). I’ve at least one more to put up, and it’s one I’ve written in my mind at least, concerning one or two, I guess it may be, of the more unusual poems in the book.

You know, it puzzles and disappoints me that after what I’d call only a bit of attention early on, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner – especially discussions of the actual poetry in the books – appears to have fallen off the literary map. I guess maybe people are busy. At least I hope that’s what’s going on.

Look, Charles Bernstein’s dream, shared in February, of The Collected Eigner getting reviewed in The New York Times and the subject of a long article in The New Yorker (click here and see the answer to the next-to-last question) may be far-fetched, but it’s not too much to expect something from poets who have the books and are Eigner readers. In this regard, I’d enjoy the reading the perceptions – even if “only” about a poem or two – of, let’s say, Ron Silliman, Geof Huth, and Jennifer Bartlett (though she’s dropped out of the blogosphere, it appears), among others. Eigner’s too little known. One way that might change is if we share our enthusiasm and responses to the poetry, out loud and in print.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Couple by Caples

Avid Diva is a is a tiny pamphlet reproduced from, or made to look as if it was reproduced from, a typewritten (not word-processed) manuscript. For me, it’s a lo-tech, high-time poetry production.

Avid Diva is a single poem – 18 tercets on a half-dozen unnumbered pages, with each line having between three and five words – that serves up a riff on the muse or a related source of inspiration. Here are the first three lines:
avid diva, visit me
dispense divine advice
o radiant deviant
And right in these lines, right away, you can see, you can hear, what makes Avid Diva a particularly fun whirl-o-words, a hoot-‘n–holler of a read, and one that must have been a kick to write: its heavy use of words that include the letters of the poem’s palindromic title.

In particular, as the poem proceeds it’s the letter “v” that repeatedly rings. Yes, the letter “v.” I count 87 instances of that letter in the poems 54 lines, and there are only two lines in which the letter does not appear.

Now, other letters are as common, or far more frequently used, as “v” (look, for example, at all the “i’s” n the lines quoted above). But there’s something about the letter “v” that makes it pop, that perks up the eye and echoes hard in the inner ear. Here’s an example, a tercet from the poem’s second page, in which Caples describes some of what happens when the diva and/or “addictive desire” hits him hard:
my valves go viral
my values on vacation
my vultures counterclockwise
And here are another two tercets, from further along in the poem, in which Caples gets very particular with what he wants from the avid diva:
invade my ventilation
shaft and fill my vats
with quivering liquid

video my elvis selves
in silver levis swiveling
vote in my next erection
Crazy, yes? And a lot of that wildness comes from how the “v’s” dominate with their (borrowing here from Benjamin Paul Blood’s The Poetical Alphabet) vehemence and vigor, and then, secondarily, from how the mind starts looking for other letters (the “e’s,” for example, in the last tercet quoted above).

Caples has long played in sounds and echoes – see in particular the two page “Silence License” and the 17 page tour-de-force “Four Tune” in his most recent full-length collection, Complications (Meritage Press, 2007), and Avid Diva fits well in his on-going poetry-carnival.

The fun of Avid Diva, including its va-va-voom of “v” energy, brings to mind Johann Huizinga, and his 1938 book Homo Ludens.

Huizinga in Homo Ludens suggests that humans (he uses the now archaic “man”) are players as much as makers (Homo faber) and thinkers (Homo sapiens). “Play is older than culture,” he insists, and “the fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He beautifully explains:
Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.
There’s a chapter in Homo Ludens titled “Play and Poetry” in which Huizinga convincingly asserts that poetry is a “play-function,” that it “proceeds within the play-ground of the mind.” In the chapter’s first paragraph, Huizinga comes right out with it, stating that poetry:
. . . lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage and seer belong, in the region of drama, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.
Goo-goo ga-ga, baby! Shake that rattle and pass the sippy-cup, I wanna read some poems! Poems such as Caples’ Avid Diva, in which the fun reigns supreme.

And now, as a stellar comedic troupe once put it, for something completely different:

Caples’ Quintessence of the Minor – Symbolist Poetry in English, just out from Wave Books, is an approximately 13,000 word essay, spread over 42 single-spaced pages. It concerns Caples’ love of certain minor poets, and includes a discussion of the necessity and value, particularly for poets, of grooving hard on those other than the widely acknowledged great achievers. He cops to a habit of pursuing the obscure, but also insists:
As a poet, I feel the need to see what else has been done, besides what everyone already knows. For a poet, I think finds much food for contemplation in the minor, imperfect, sometimes even the bad poet; you find things that have been attempted, that have failed or turned out ridiculous, but that yet seem like intriguing possibilities for further exploration, that might yield great poetry if handled differently or even simply more competently.
By far the bulk of pamphlet is taken up by Caples’ survey of Symbolist poetry (and some of its prose) in English, both British and American. Almost three dozen poets and writers are discussed, some briefly and others in a more extended manner. The latter, natch, include those that Caples finds the most interesting. Chief among these are Lionel Johnson (religious-mystic poems of “passionate sincerity” that show a “greater control of rhythm and lineation” than his contemporaries), Vincent O’Sullivan (“magnificent” prose weird tales), Francis Saltus (uneven but whose most striking works have “both a level and a type of imagination seldom met with in nineteenth century American poetry”), Adelaide Crapsey (inventor of the cinquain, “superior in imagination to the majority of symbolist poets in terms of sheer versification” who also impresses with her “attention to minute detail”) and Samuel Greenberg (“exalted enthusiasm” and “a profoundly poetic turn of mind”).

Johnson, O’Sullivan, Saltus, Crapsey, and Greenberg. Do you know them? Well, if you do, you’re a more experienced and exploring reader than I am. Of these five, only Greenberg is familiar to me, from a mini-rave on his poetry in a 1976 essay by Philip Lamantia.

Quintessence of the Minor is smart and well-written; regardless of whether the subject-poet gets a couple sentences or a couple pages, Caples’ discussions are careful, nuanced, personal, and opinionated (including saying when he finds certain poetry “boring and misguided”). This all – the exploring, the reading, the comparing and weighing, the writing and revising – must have taken him years. Here’s a combination of erudition and initiative, in the service of poetry, that’s edifying and fun.

As an example of what Caples’ does in his essay, consider his discussion of a particular sentence –
“It is thought that gives memory the charm of desire.”
– that he singles out from Samuel Greenberg’s short prose autobiography. His explication or appreciation just sings:
This . . . sentence in particular captivates me, though I have no
clear sense of what it means. Or rather, it seem like it could
mean a variety of things. Its hazy logical relationship between
“Thought” and “memory,” and its seeming tension between the
concepts of “charm” and “desire,” permit all manner of expla-
nation, none of which do it real justice. And yet it feels like a
perfect disposition of its four nouns, arrayed with epigrammat-
ic force. I imagine Greenberg had something definite in mind
here, but its compressed expression is the stuff of pure poetry . . . .
Quintessence of the Minor in this way vibrates with its author’s enthusiasms and curiosity. This thing’s contagious! When Caples says something interesting about a poet or work – and again there are a lot of names and specific titles mentioned – you’ll want – okay, it made me want – to check ‘em out. For this reason, a collection by Johnson, Crapsey’s Verse (1915), O’Sullivan’s prose tales, Saltus’s comic poems (written under the nom de plume Cupid Jones) and a few others are on their way as this is being posted. I’m looking forward to some fascinating poetry-and-prose reading, and have already re-read Greenberg here at home.

In short, Caples’ pamphlet, with a list price of five bucks, is a bargain, but once you read it you’ll likely find yourself spending a few or even many dollars more, either at the used book sites or for gas or bus fare to and from the library. So caveat emptor, and have at it!


Garrett Caples


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dorothea Lasky’s Project

Dorothea Lasky
Poetry Is Not a Project

(Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

This pamphlet is small (5" x 6"), short (24 unpaginated pages, including six entirely given over to title or section headings), and beautiful to behold. Its blue covers with embossed (yes, embossed!) title, author and press names (the latter on the rear), and illustration, are gorgeous. And the book’s hand-sewn too. The folks at Ugly Duckling sure can make a damn good-looking book.

The purpose of Dorothea Lasky’s pamphlet is to convince you that poems are intuited, and that poems that are projects – those in which “everything is set out before [the writer gets] gets started” – are (and here I condense a bit) “pretty boring, at best,” have “nothing to do with poetry” and “may actually be very toxic to the very notion of poetry.” She explains her views in a four-part essay. Each section is between a page and one-half to four pages long. There’s generous spacing between the lines, so it’s a relatively quick read.

Lasky I think deliberately keeps her text short and the presentation airy, so as to more effectively present her didactic prose. Not a bad strategy, but here what she writes, the criticism she levels at poem-projects, is absolutely and entirely unconvincing. As in stop, do not pass go unconvincing.

But you knew I was going to conclude that, didn’t you? I just celebrated Joan Retallack’s new book, which focuses on poems largely made from methods, methods determined in advance. I’ve celebrated plenty else that has a similar generative heritage, including Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports, Nathan Austin’s Survey Says, Susan Howe’s Poems Found in A Pioneer Museum (scroll a third of the way down the page there), and Clayton Eshleman’s “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” his poem-project concerning The Garden of Earthly Delights.

And I could go on (I must go on). Someday I need to rave – long and loud and clear – about Jackson Mac Low’s French Sonnets (Tucson: Black Mesa Press, 1984; 2nd edition Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1989), a book – forever young – of pre-determined method poetry. Mac Low’s project systematically substitutes, for the words of certain Shakespeare’s sonnets, the words found at the tops of pages in the English section of a French-English dictionary. And so,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
the opening line of Sonnet XVIII, becomes:
Shamefulness Hymn companionableness thanksgiver tissue a summer-wheat’s dead?
and reading that I just laugh, and hard, and think too, and then think and laugh again and every time I re-read it (and the lines that follow, of course) Mac Low’s poem renews itself. There’s always more or something else to “see.” And that's how it is with every poem in the poetry-project, the poetry-project for the ages, that is French Sonnets.


Lasky’s pamphlet, her critique of poem-projects, would be unconvincing I think even if you do not share my enthusiasm for method-poems. Her discussion of her views just doesn’t make it.

The weakness of Lasky’s explication is perhaps most profound in the second section of Poetry Is Not A Project. That section’s titled “An Example,” and Lasky heralds its arrival by putting the sub-head all by itself on a separate page:

Lasky then begins the section with two sentences that I found very, very promising:
Reading this, you are probably looking for an example right now of what the difference is between a person who is conducting a project and a person who is writing a poem. That’s fair – to want an example.
After some elaboration, Lasky repeats her point in a stand-alone, single-sentence paragraph:
But perhaps a real example would be good.
And by this point I was excited as heck. I really was, and I think any reader would be. Lasky sets it up, repeatedly, to really get into it. Three times she says she will make her point about poem-projects using a real poem, an actual poet. A specific, particular, on-the-page example, to provide in prose, in support of her views, an object lesson of Dr. Williams’ “no ideas but in things.”

But nope, and what a let-down. Lasky’s “example” is as sharp as a deflated balloon. She names no names. There’s no poem or poems, no specifically identified poet(s).

Instead she refers to “an acquaintance” who “happened to be a poet” and was “working on a project where his goal was to go to “the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day.” As it turned out, Lasky “did not like” the poems. It seemed to her that “everything that mattered was in the idea” of the project.

This is not okay by me, not in the least. ¿Dónde está la carne de vaca? Lasky provides only an airy nothing, a thing unknown. Her double-vague “example” – no poem, no poet – doesn’t convince me, and I can’t imagine it convincing anyone, of much of anything. No saxifrage splits the rocks here.

Lasky in this same section then hedges, big-time, on her dismissiveness of poem-projects, and it really gets confusing. She writes that many of her idols in poetry “used projects as generative forces” in their poems. She mentions her love of, among others, the “experiments and exercises” of Language, surrealist and Flarf writers. She insists that in these projects, “the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing. If a project does not get to a real poem, then it is not important to your work because it generates nothing. The problem I’m pointing out in this pamphlet is that just because you have constructed a project does not mean you have written a poem.”

This all leaves my head spinning. In failing to get specific, then backtracking on her critique by saying that a poem-project’s okay if it results in something she calls “a real poem,” Lasky’s already deflated balloon sinks to the bottom of a muddy puddle. It makes me want to drop her a short note.
Dear Dorothea Lasky:

Name names. Say which poem-projects have “nothing to do with poetry”, and which are, to again use your term, “real.” Argue with particulars to show which poem-projects are “pretty boring.” Illuminate via details your view that poem-projects are “very toxic.” Wake up, please, and smell the saxifrage.


Steve Fama
Until these or similar suggestions are followed, dear readers of the glade, I must advise that you just move along. There’s nothing much to read in Poetry Is Not A Project.


But there’s one more thing, and it’s important. I think Lasky herself writes poetry that is a project, and that her project – which happens to be one of the oldest in the poetry-book – sets out about as much before she starts writing (is just about as restrictive, in other words) as any other project that she criticizes.

Do you know what I mean? I’ve read Lasky’s two large collections, plus one of her chaps, and her project is undeniable. Take a look at Black Life, published earlier this year by Wave Books. In the poems of that book, the pronouns “I” and “my” and “me” dominate. Dominate.

“Ars Poetica,” one of poems in the book, may be particularly (though not especially) spectacular with regard to personal pronouns, but wow is it telling (especially given its subject matter). Its 30 lines include 29 personal pronouns. Similar is “Tornado,” another in the book and which The New Yorker published in February. In its 30 lines, “I,” “my,” or “me” appear 23 times. Here are the first-person pronouns from these two poems, lifted from the text and arrayed as prose:
I me I I my me my me I I m my I I I I my my my I my I my me I I I I I.
I I I my I My I I I I I I I I I my me I I I I I me I.
Get the idea? (Extra credit if you answer with the homophonically appropriate “Aye, aye.”) The first person in these poems, by the way, is not the slippery sort sometimes (often) encountered in, say, John Ashbery’s verse. This “I” channels, reflects, is, the (quoting now from Poetry Is Not a Project) “internal world” of Lasky, her “self” trying to connect with, the universal.

Some might say this kind of personal lyric has been done to death over the last how many centuries, but no, I think such poems can still burn, if done right (and I’ve written enthusiastically about such poetry). But regardless of that, these “I, me, my” poems are a project, make that a Project, and Lasky couldn’t be more devoted to it.

It puzzles me to no end that Lasky refuses to acknowledge that she has a poetry-project. She instead insists that hers is an intuited “wild party” poetry that arises from the “realm of chance.”

Say what?!! Hold on! Let me say it again. The personal lyrics that Lasky writes are the oldest poetry-project going. This poetry-project constrains and limits her verse no less, and some might say even more than, any pre-determined procedure. It restricts the energy and voice to a certain pitch and focus and requires, in poem after poem, all those personal pronouns, which anchor everything within their self-centric radii (and dig how that plural form reflects the subject here!).

Acknowledged or not by Lasky, her personal “I, me, my” lyric approach pretty much means that pretty much “everything is set out before [she] gets started,” very similar to the way it is in the poem-projects she criticizes. As such, she ought to be careful when she suggests that poetry-projects might be “very toxic to the very notion of poetry.” Compare or consult here the pot and kettle, the goose and gander.


The colophon of Poetry Is Not a Project states that Ben Fama guests edits
the Ugly Duckling Dossier series in which the pamphlet appears.
Although we share the same relatively uncommon surname,
Ben and I, so far as I know, are not related.

Not that there’d be anything wrong with that!


Sunday, July 4, 2010

When in the course of human events . . .

The Fourth of July – a day that commemorates a collective approval of words arrayed on paper declaring freedom from imposed authority and allegiance to individual liberty – seems a mighty fine time to celebrate a certain kind of poetry. Wild. Rebellious. Free.

Ladies and gentleman, on this Fourth let us parade fireworks around about Joan Retallack’s Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / (New York: Roof Books, 2010). Here’s a book o’ poems to wave the freak flag wide and high: a poetry full of an independent and revolutionary spirit.

Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / presents a selection of 17 previously published texts, with half-dozen of these previously uncollected (meaning you need this one even if you have all of Retallack’s books). The focus of this selection, as the first word of the title states, is on the procedural. The procedure that predominates is the method based on borrowing: all but a few of the poems bring in language taken from and/or found in some other written source, although usually goodly amounts of Retallack’s language comes into those same poems too.

In the two-page text “N Plus Zero”at the back of the book, Retallack explains why she – and why we all should – use procedures. It’s a lively, tight, provocative, and persuasive ten paragraphs. It makes the case for de-self-centered work, explaining among other things how dialogic alterity, the elegaic, humor, and the poetic (“an extreme noticing of how language works in the illuminated space-time brackets of a composition”) come into such writing. Plus, even if such work “can’t fix [our] culture-wide entanglement with short-sighted narcissism” it “may present significantly alternative sites for making meaning.”

I discuss below a bit about two of the poems in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d /.


“Earth     Heaven     and     Hell” (the spacing there follows Retallack’s) is a poem from Circumstantial Evidence (1985), Retallack’s first book. As the title suggests, it’s a romp through the cosmos, real and imagined, the actual and the mental. No straight line meaning comes through, at least to me, but the human condition, both as “flattened by gravity” and “Environed with the Tongues of Fire” seems central here.

The poem’s a collage or assemblage, alternating stanzas of three lines of words of Retallack’s with a single line, italicized, that begins with the interjection or noun “O” and then has the titles of three magazines. An endnote explains that Retallack found and took the magazine names “from a subscription form attached to ‘College Rule’ spiral bound notebooks in the early 1980s.”

I imagine Retallack at the time used the notebooks to write in and – there you go – and she decided to use what was there (the subscription form) to make a poem. The effect of throwing the ‘zine names into the mix is jarring, sometimes funny and often a fecund source for memory and associations, including with the “original” (non-found) Retallack text. Here are three pairs of three line and single line stanzas, taken from a bit after the middle of the poem:
where are the crisp sounds of everyday life
if the world ends next week
we will no longer be prophetic

O Family Handyman      Antique Monthly      Field & Stream

on razor thin nights a black brim
widens the sky a welcome relief
pastimes of pleasure and pain

O Saturday Review      New West      Money

knees knocking like Hamlet’s of course
scrabbling on the floor with Lear
flying into the eye with Amelia Earhart

O Black Enterprise      The Runner      Sea
Associations explode in these lines, for me. At the top of the excerpt, the phrase “everyday life” suggests the English title of Raoul Vaneigem’s classic situationist text. Against that allusion, and the potential shut down of the vatic that follows, the first line of ‘zine titles, which evoke skilled crafting, the bygone, and the non-human world seem – well, what? Here’s where discursive explication must stop. As Clark Ashton Smith once wrote, “explanations are neither necessary, desirable, or possible.” Or Tristan Tzara: “What we need is works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding.” With Retallack, it’s the disjunction, the points (and there are many) that disconnect the rational, where one’s own creative dialogue, even if unspeakable, must be heard.

I will say that I’ve fallen hard for the final lines of the excerpt above, with the two Shakespeare allusions, each paired with a striking image of fear or struggle (“knees knocking” and “scrabbling on the floor.” respectively), followed by the surreal “flying into the eye with Amelia Earhart,” a line that seems to suggest that vision or insight is a trip on which we’ll all vanish, something that seems terrifying and exactly right at the same time. Particularly against this final image, the ‘zine names that follow, the connotations of the words and phrases that make up those titles, seem especially associative, and of course the final “Sea” in that way pairs perfectly with Earhart.


Another doozy of a poem in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / is “Steinzas in Mediation” (it first appeared in Retallack’s 1998 collection How To Do Things With Words) The title and much of its guts riffs on “Stanzas in Meditation,” the 150 page poem written in 1932 by Gertrude Stein (it was first published in its entirety by Yale in 1956 [see image above]). The stanzas in Stein’s poem, to quote John Ashbery’s essay on the work from approximately a half-century ago:
are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as “where,” “which,” “these,” “of,” “not,” “have,” “about,” and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.
Retallack’s poem has 15 sections and a concluding coda. Each of the 15 section has two distinct parts: a steinza (yes, I’ll continue the pun, and why not, it’s a good one) of between five to nine lines made almost entirely of Retallack’s own words, followed by a steinza made up of the first words of Stein’s lines in a particular numbered section of “Stanzas in Meditation.”

As such, this poem just as the one discussed above has a mix of “original” and appropriated text, with a generative tension created, and an adventure launched that would otherwise not be taken, by the disjunction between the poet’s more personally composed text and that authored via the pre-determined procedure. Of course, the procedure here – the taking of words directly from “Stanzas” – also serves as a full-on tribute by Retallack to Stein’s work..

Here’s the first section of Retallack’s poem. It begins with seven lines of her own words which are then followed by a roman numeral (indicating the section of “Stanzas in Meditation”) and then six lines made solely from the first (and thus capitalized) words of the each line in the first section of Stein’s poem:
There are are there instances of this in every era
A new dispersal of the subject
Or that there shall be a complete fragment
Or that the fragment shall be
As if the is reflects is the
While is the place they were
Between sometimes or what would begin in there here

I And But That In
That But Whatever It And
They But That In Not
In All But Or Not
Made Made Lengthened But But
All Kindly
Retallack’s own composed text (the seven lines) has an obvious and strong Steinian flair, with its repetition (“are are” kicks that off) and heavy mix of pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions (a similar mix is found in Retallack’s collage of words from “Stanzas in Meditation”). I think it was John Olson who called such lexical units the “cogs and gears” of language, and the first thing about this poem is how interesting and fun it is to read these lines slowly, to watch and listen as this particular machine made of words as it moves across and down the page.

I’m not going to offer an over-arching reading of “Steinzas in Mediation,” or even suggest much substantively about the section set out above, for much the same reasons I didn’t with the previously discussed poem. But who can deny the fascinating mirroring in the first section, in its first four words (“There are are there”) and then a few lines further on “the is reflects is the” (with that one being funny to me in that Retallack tells us what it is we see as we read). And who might resist the lines concerning “the fragment,” particularly the potential of (paradox alert) “a complete fragment”? Retallack’s poem – and it runs for a bit more than eight pages, with each section as rich and weird as the one set out above – presents unsolvable mysteries that both compel repeated readings and almost guarantee fresh delight.


Among the other procedure-poems in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / are those that take language from The Annotated Mother Goose, an essay by atomic physicist Neils Bohr, a poem by Barbara Guest, books Retallack once culled from her personal library, a work by Jackson Mac Low, a treatise on Archimedes, and a book presenting a timetable of historical events. It’s heady, egg-heady stuff, and Retallack’s own composed words aren’t cotton candy either. She follows her own way, always has. This is an independent poetry, wild and free, and today, the Fourth of July, I celebrate and commemorate it, big-time, here in the glade.



The magnificent fireworks image repeatedly adapted above
is a photo by the East Bay-based Scott Rivera:
read about his technique and see more of his work
here, in the new not-for-profit The Bay Citizen.


For another sort of
Declarative Poetic Fourth
please click here
for the glade-post of a year ago:
Rosmarie Waldrop’s fabulous
“Shorter American Memory
of the Declaration of Independence”