Thursday, December 30, 2010

Poetry, Published In 2010

“Ooooo . . . what a lucky man I was!,” to borrow (and change a bit) the chorus of the catchy if portentous rock ballad from forty years ago – or to allude to the more rollicking movie title song from the same era. Yes I say yes: 2010 was an incredible shimmer-bonanza of poem-blessings, and I was lucky to read some of what was published.

Starting about a month ago, I began working up a list – similar to those I did the previous two years (click here for 2008 and here for 2009) – of the poetry (and poetry-related matter) that appeared this year and especially moved or interested me, or which for a particular reason deserved a special shout-out. All told, I came up with approximately seventy (70) such books (including chaps), poems, and other stuff, a total almost double the number I’d listed in last year’s annual round-up. To repeat, it has been an amazing poem-reading year.

I next put these books and poems into various categories, both of the type you might expect and others more personal: including Poetry Book(s) of the Year, Ten Perfect-Bound Poetry Books That Rocked, Ten Chapbooks That Rocked, Great Individual Poems and Poem-Sets Published On The Net, Great Poems In Print Magazines, Translation of the Year, Poetry Re-Issue of the Year, and Published-In-2009-But-Not-Actually-Available-Until-2010 Books of the Year.

And also: Best Collected Poems by Ex-Pats Who Lived (or Live) In Provence, Rae Armantrout New Poem of the Year, Heard-But-Not-Yet-Published Poem of the Year, Sound-Poem of the Year, NewWord Poems Book of the Year, Visual Poetry Book of the Year, Inter-Genre Book of the Year, Philip Lamantia Book of the Year, Poem-Set-to-Music Song of the Year, Stand-Alone Book of Poem-Proverbs of the Year, and Adapted-From-Shakespeare Poem-Book of the Year.

Plus: Recycled-Visual-Poetry-Publication of the Year, John Olson ProsePoem of the Year, Poetry-Appropriated-From-The-Law Book of the Year, PennSound Mp3 Upload of the Year, Silliman Blog Video-Post of the Year, Silliman Blog Link-List Lead-Link of the Year, New Poetry Blog of the Year, Bay Area Bookstore Poet of the Year, Joe Milford Radio Show of the Year, Death-Don’t-Have-No-Mercy-In-This-Land Poetry Book of the Year, Largest-Sized Book of Lineated Verse, Best Big Book of Prose Poems, Best Volume of Trans-Book Poems, Best Re-issue of Epistolary-Poetic-Prose-Novels of the Year, and etc.

I then decided to write substantively about each book or poem on the list, and do so in more detail than I’d done last year, when I tried to give each book in the annual round-up its just due. I don’t like bare-bones lists, and prefer to share the particulars of my enthusiasms.

Besides, writing about poetry in detail greatly clarifies and expands my responses to it, and thus increases my enjoyment of the work. Plus – and maybe this is a delusion – I believe detailed substantive responses to poetry may encourage others to read the poetry I’ve written about, and then maybe even write about it themselves. Finally, and this too may be a projection on my part, I feel detailed substantive responses may help the poet, and in some small way honor their work.

And so I set out to write something for the round-up on each of the seventy books/poems on my list. Each write up, as I envisioned it, would be similar to the posts you typically see here in the glade, except not as long. Each would include excerpts from the poetry, close readings, and carefully crafted appreciations. I even decided to write something for the books and poems I’d previously posted about this year in the glade, since when I re-read that poetry this month there were additional poems I wanted to discuss.

I had here at the end of December about two weeks off work to do this, a glorious stretch of stay-cation time, and so the reading of everything was done and the writing on individual books and poems began. It was but tremendously fun. I feel privileged to have had the time to read or re-read and think about all the 2010 poetry on my list, and to have written in detail about some of it.

However, and unfortunately, my annual round-up project this year ultimately has been, is, a – sigh – failure. Despite what I think was a diligent effort, I’ve finished the entries for only approximately one-quarter (!) of the seventy books and poems on my list, and completed portions of only about a quarter more. Given how the writing has gone, with individual entries taking considerable time and ending up several paragraphs to over 1,000 words in length, there is no way I can finish the 2010 round-up by year’s end.

In retrospect, this year’s round-up was doomed both by the number of books and poems I decided to include and my decision to go all-in on everything on it. That fact, plus about fifteen bucks, will buy me the next perfect-bound book of poems that strikes my fancy. In any event, there’s no big round-up this year here at the glade. Maybe I’ll be able to use some of what I’ve written – it amounts to more than twenty-five pages of single-spaced text – for future posts, which perhaps could focus on some of the individual books. Regardless, my apologies to all for not posting what I hoped I could.

That all said, the post-heading image here of Pegasus (an emblem for me of the wonders of poetry) demands that something be recognized, that an end-of-the-year honor be given to at least one publication. And so I will. It is a shame that anything in this glorious year for poetry should stand alone, but perhaps that is appropriate here, since even if I had managed to complete a full round-up the particular publication recognized below would have been the only one in the first, top-of-the-post, category. And so here we go:

Poetry Book(s) of the Year

Larry Eigner
The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner

– edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier –
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)

The Collected Eigner, four 8.75" x 11.25" volumes comprising more than 1,500 pages that contain over 3,000 poems plus substantial editorial matter, clearly deserves to be singled out as the poetry publication of 2010. These books dominated my poetry reading and writing this year. As you probably remember, after first getting the books in late February/early March I blew my stack about the decision to crowd the poems’ left-side margin so close to the page edges (see my posts here, and here); it’s a look that still bothers me, even after having become accustomed to it.

More importantly Eigner’s poems in the books, both the full expanse of them and in their individual marvelous details, also blew my mind. I devoured the books after first getting them, reading for long stretches every day and deep into the night on weekends, bookmarking pages and compiling poem-lists. Although that intensity has waned, I continue to read deeply and regularly in the books.

Consistent with, and as a result of my reading of The Collected Eigner, I wrote posts throughout 2010 concerning (click on each clause that follows) the poems arising from the news (i.e., current events of the time), the poems with but one word per line, a poem that presents a scintillating variation on Rimbaud’s “Après le Déluge” (“After the Deluge”), and a poem with the first line “ah, so, yes” that’s wonderfully weird.

In addition, I presented (again, please click on each clause to go) a gathering of Eigner’s own words on his poetry, and another post collecting comments on his work written over the years by other poet-readers. I even wrote about (click here) the generous decision of the Eigner estate to offer, at essentially no cost, a complete replacement volume to correct an error which had deleted two poems (and my post also discussed one of the restored works).


Even with the regular reading of and writing on The Collected Eigner, I’m still discovering, or getting more deeply into, its many remarkable poems. In some ways it feels as if the fun here has only just begun. And so today I try to keep it going, with brief comments on a few other Eigner poems that seem to me to embody or illustrate important principles or characteristics of his poetry, or otherwise are appropriate to point to as part of this “Poetry Book(s) of the Year” post.

Recently, I’ve been appreciating again a core Eigner principle: that the world is full of incredible and often quite involved permutations and connections. Many of his poems bring in, reference, disparate matters that seem to demonstrate this principle. And so permit me to simply present one poem (# 1699, dated October 9, 1991 and found in Volume IV at page 1643), in which Eigner with characteristic good humor sets forth his views on the subject, and seems to say about it all that’s really necessary:

C o m p l e x i t i e s

    everything’s more or less
       rube goldberg

“everything’s more or less / rube goldberg”


My year-end re-reading in The Collected Eigner has also reinforced how much I love Eigner’s focus on the moment, and his ability to represent moments of perception, including shifting moments of thought in his mind, in his poems. In many of these, Eigner presents perceptions, basic actions, and/or events without adornment, to make a poem of a scene and/or a sequence of moments in time. Poem # 1326, written May 14-15, 1982 and found in Vol. IV at page 1457, is a great example of the type:






        the stars


Eigner here appears to be somewhere outdoors, and with just eight words provides enough detail such that we can only see, hear, and maybe even smell a bit of, what he perceived, with the placement of the words (one or two to a line, with spaces in between) marvelously heightening the effect of cinematic movement, as if we were watching a film projection with a blank frame inserted between each image. The shifts of vision -- the eyes first looking down, then up, and finally down again -- are marvelous

A sub-set of these poems that focus on a particular scene or sequence of moments are those to which Eigner adds within or as part of the sequence of perception some philosophical or speculative twist and/or assertion about the world. There are many such poems, but let me single out one – #1610 (April 25, 1987, found in Vol. IV at page 1590) – that seems particularly great. Here are its eleven (untitled) lines, presented (as were the poems above) in a Courier font with spacing that approximates what Eigner typed:

the autumn of my life, spring
        fever of my life
           life of the world
            with no end

               a train whistle
                   through the dark


                    only the armadillo
                               besides man
                                     has leprosy

                                   what goes on

Eigner in this poem begins by musing about both his aging self (he was about to turn 60), and – via a neat switch of the seasonal metaphor he began with – his continuing vitality (and note too that it was written just after the vernal equinox), which he then immediately expands to include the ever-continuing world. It’s a natural enough procession of ideas, with “life” obviously the center from which the three distinct thoughts arise.

However, after a double-space pause, a train whistle in the night arrives. It’s another distinct moment in time, one that interrupts the thoughts that came before. Yet the sound heard, via the implied movement of the train, also carries forward, or underscore, the previously presented notions of the never-ending world and the continuing vitality of the poet who lives in it. The whistle, in other words, comes in the poem as (probably) an actual spontaneous or unexpected event, but it’s also there for a reason, because it works as symbol or echo of the ideas Eigner’s writing about.

After another double-space the whistle via just a word (“again”) is heard once more. I love how that’s done with just the space and the single word. The pause-on-the-page seems to mimic the gap-in-time between the two soundings of the whistle. Further, the short-long syllabic structure of the adverb (“again”) may mimic the actual sound (e..g, “ong-oooong”) of the train whistle through the air. Even if that’s an overstatement, there’ss no doubt that Eigner here adds an auditory element, one that also has a strong melancholic tone given the cultural associations of the train whistle. Of course, this second whistle-in-the-dark is yet another distinct moment in time in the poem. I really sense here, with these back-to-back whistles, how Eigner must have been that night, moment-to-moment with his thoughts and the world around him.

After another moment passes – represented by another a double-space break – Eigner’s mind comes to another thought, and this one really surprises. Given what’s come before – the opening lines’ ideas about life and then train whistles – Eigner startles the reader with his three lines about armadillos, humans, and leprosy. The thought’s so unexpected and odd that I let out a guffaw when I first read it, and still think its pretty funny. I mean, who’d have thunk that would come next?

What’s Eigner up to? I think a couple things. First it’s an example, a deliciously one, of how the mind can sometimes work. Thought doesn’t always proceed as closely related ideas, as the first lines of the poem showed it could. Sometimes just about anything can pop up in the head, and juxtapositions that seem illogical are common. So yes, here now is something completely different: a thought about armadillos. That’s the way it rolls, or at least did that night, for Eigner.

At the same time, the armadillo / leprosy lines seem both particularly Eigner-ian and even appropriate here. Eigner’s thinking could be wonderfully different (I recall here Michael McClure’s characterization of him as a kind of astronaut who had the advantage of seeing the world from a perspective that the rest of us don’t get to see), and this particular matter probably was something he’d recently read and which he decided was of some significance. Plus, this odd-but-true fact is an example I think of what can and does happen in the – to quote the poem’s third and fourth lines – “life of the world / with no end” and thus isn’t all that out of place here. Of course, that the example Eigner uses is so idiosyncratic makes it all the more memorable and thus makes it – hey, what do you know – great poetry.

The line that ends the poem – “what goes on” – is an observation or assertion that is yet another distinct thought or event, I think the seventh in the poem. The phrase obviously echoes or re-frames the ideas, posited in the poem’s opening lines, of the forever-proceeding world and Eigner’s continuing energy. And of course, the absence of a terminal period reinforces the ongoing-ness of it all. Indeed, the poem as a whole, with its series of instants or moments of thought and time, and its left-to-right as movement on the page (or screen here) is itself an example, a marvelous one, of “what goes on”.

“[...] // a train whistle / through the dark // again // [...]”

“ [...] // only the armadillo / besides man / has leprosy // [...] ”


Another Eigner poem – # 220 (written July 4, 1968, found in Volume III at page 854) – can in its entirety be re-purposed to serve as a near perfect capsule review of The Collected Eigner:

beautiful books

   again and again it’s

       the complicated world

Yes, in honor of the Eigner’s poetry in the Stanford volumes, I’ll say that his words in this poem above are just about exactly right as a capsule review of these books, and with that I hereby bring this post, and this here glade in 2010, to an end.


The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading (part 4) The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner

The Wonderful Weirdness


“ah, so, yes”

Among the superabundance of sensational poems in The Collected Eigner (Stanford, 2010) are those that even amongst the uniquely Eigner-atic energy are so particularly idiosyncratic that all the reader can do is stop in the name of what-the-heck-is-this.

And so today the glade, in this the ninth – yes, ninth – post here this year on The Collected Eigner – presents the wonderful weirdness and puzzling (indulge me please) perplex-osity of one such “what-the-heck-is-this” Eigner poem. Known (since it’s untitled) by its first line – “ah, so, yes” – the poem was written in early September 1987 and is found on page 1600 in Volume IV of the Stanford edition. Here’s the poem, in a typeface (Courier) and spacing roughly equivalent to Eigner’s:

    ah, so, yes

      that’s where things leave you ,
           full of abstractions






                        . . .

                        . . .

                     mer can

                    jdeo crt


May I count or more precisely point out a few of the marvelous oddities here? How about the opening line? That is an unusual poem-starter for sure. It seems to jump us right into a three-part moment-in-time comprised, one after the other, of an instant of (1) recognition (“ah”), (2) logic-connection (“so”), and then (3) some certain conclusion or affirmation (“yes”). The line presents this series informally, even conversationally, and it perhaps is all entirely internal to the mind of the poet. Most amazing, the thought process all happens via three simple, monosyllabic words and a bit of punctuation (and the two commas, with their pauses, make it feel, marvelously, as if Eigner’s cogitating, his turning of the gears between the ears, happens right there on the page).

After the line break, Eigner in the following two lines delivers the conclusion he has seemingly just reached:
      that’s where things leave you ,
           full of abstractions
Of course, the use of the “you” here raises the question of who’s being addressed, with the further question being what “things” have left that person, in Eigner’s mind at least, “full of abstractions.” It was at this point that I happened to turn to the endnote for this poem, wherein it’s stated that on the typescript of this poem Eigner had written:
“this on a card to Bernadette Mayer, 9/8/87, a while after she sent me her book, Utopia [United Artists Books, 1984] . . . Sept. 8 too. Oh yes . . . new york city, i.e. [re: last line].”
A-ha, I concluded from this endnote, “ah, so, yes” responds to Mayer’s book, and in that way it’s not unusual at all. As I wrote in my post (click here) about his version of Rimbaud’s “Après le Déluge”, there are dozens of Eigner poems that arise from or were inspired (he sometimes said “occasioned”) by other people’s creative work. And so, being the curious sort, both about Mayer’s work (which I enjoy), and this particular Eigner poem, I went out and found then bought then read a copy of Utopia.

Bernadette Mayer
(New York: United Artists Books, 1984)

Reading Mayer’s book – interesting as that was – did not immediately or entirely clear up the perplexity of Eigner’s poem. Part of that may be that Utopia itself is an extremely odd duck. It’s a mostly prose collection, with approximately twenty different works, that mainly features writing by Mayer but also includes a few contributions from others (e.g., Hannah Weiner, Charles Bernstein, and Anne Waldman). There’s also, and this is yet another mark of its unusualness, an index so detailed and lengthy – it covers seventeen double-columned pages and contains well over 1,500 entries to the book’s 130 pages – that it’s a piece of work itself.

Utopia is also different in the sense that its writings don’t provide any easily stated view or even views about the subject suggested by the book’s title. There’s no straight-line narrative or critical examination of the concept, and while utopia is mentioned and discussed somewhat in some of the twenty or so pieces no over-arching or even competing directions or possibilities seem apparent in the sum of those parts.

As such, I cannot explain what Eigner means when he suggests in “ah, so, yes” that “abstractions” are what Mayer is left with in her book. Unless I’m just being dense and have overlooked something (which is possible, feel free to suggest the same in the comment box here), this perplexing suggestion by Eigner is a key part of the “what-the-heck-is-this”-ness of the poem. Of course, the “abstractions” that “you” are left with might refer to what is left for a reader of Mayer’s book (including Eigner himself). This possible ambiguity is yet another facet of the “what-the-heck-is-this”-ness.

Sometimes when faced with this kind of uncertainty or perplexity when reading a poem it’s best to just read on. The lines that follow, either directly or by providing additional context, can sometimes shed light on if not totally illuminate something that had been baffling or hidden. And so after the couplet in “ah, so, yes” that asserts the conclusion about “abstractions” Eigner writes:




and oh my don’t these lines, especially on a first reading, just seem to add to the “what-the-heck-is-this”-ness quality of this poem!? I mean, some of the “words” here don’t even look like words: except for “animality” they aren’t going to be found in any dictionary and appear to involve idiosyncratic spellings or lexical coinages.

These four latter lines/words, after decoding (by which I mean staring at them for a good bit, trying to figure out what was going on), reveal themselves– at least I think they do – as Eigner-made nouns that denote or refer, as does “animality,” to taxonomic classifications or ranks related to humans. These classifications proceed, top-to-bottom in the poem, from the more general to the more specific: animal, chordates, vertebrates, mammals, and finally primates.

Notably and significantly, the suffixes Eigner uses here, both actual and invented (“ity” or the variants, including “[i]sm”) act to make more abstract the classifications (e.g., chordates) which are themselves abstractions. So as it turns out these lines do indeed reflect on, even serve as examples of, the “abstractions” that Eigner believes the things in Mayer’s book leave you with.

But then there is the puzzle of how the listed taxonomic ranks relate in particular to Mayer’s Utopia. Again, I can again only guess. Eigner possibly, maybe even probably, was spurred to list these classifications by a single phrase that appears almost at the very end of one of the twenty works in Mayer’s book. Specifically, at page 103, in a piece titled “The Fish That Looks Like A Bishop” – a delightful imagined dialogue (styled a “debate” by Mayer) between various and ever-shifting historical and contemporary figures – is a statement (in the voice of Giordano Bruno, the Italian Renaissance philosopher, mathematician and astronomer) that includes the phrase, “and all the land animals and all their types and forms.”

That phrase, I think, can rightly be read as the generative force for Eigner’s taxonomic listing. But while that seems right, it remains a puzzle why Eigner, out of all things in the 130 page book, seized upon that one phrase. Some mysteries here, I think, can’t be solved.

And as such, let’s once again keep moving with the text, and take another look at the rest of Eigner’s poem, which continues (and ends) with:
                        . . .

                        . . .

                     mer can

                    jdeo crt

Here again it’s fair to say that Eigner’s lines initially baffle, except of course for the endnote’s explanation (quoted above) that the final three letters (spread over two lines) refer to New York City. As for what’s going on in the other, preceding, lines, I again have a hypothesis to suggest. Eigner’s ellipses signify omissions from what might otherwise be including on the taxonomic list, while the “words” that follow are further sub-categories, types or kinds of humans: “[a]mer[i]can” / j[u]deo c[h]r[is]t[ian]. Now I’m not sure whether the order of classifications is exactly perfect here (wouldn’t the latter precede the former?), but arguably it works and in any event nothing else seems plausible.

So that’s almost a wrap here, I think. The poem, after it’s very effective you-are-right-there-in-the-moment-with-Eigner opening line, suggests that things in Mayer’s book leave you full of abstractions, and then proceeds to list, as a sort of object example, abstracted or abbreviated taxonomic classifications relating to humans, from the most general (animality) down to the most specific, New York City, where Mayer lived at the time.

Of course, a further question is what Eigner means to connote with all this, including in particular the string of classifications which in the main are oddly or incompletely spelled, is another layer of what-the-heck-is-this-ness in his poem. Is the presumably intentional difficulty here a reflection of Eigner’s own difficulties in coming to terms, in puzzling through, Mayer’s work? I think that’s might be exactly what’s going on, given that Eigner sometimes wrote that he found L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing difficult, even as he admired and read deeply those writers (as they deeply read and admired him). If I’m right, then the object-lesson in difficulty in Eigner’s poem is one very special poetic mirroring of his readerly response to Mayer, with that mirroring as wonderfully weird, intelligently idiosyncratic, and excellently eccentric as “ah, so, yes” is as whole.


The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner
Volumes I, II, III, and IV
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bruce Conner . . .

. . . an In-The-News Round-Up!

Bruce Conner
circa 1980
(posing in front of one of his paintings)
[photograph by Chris Felver]

As you might have guessed from previous posts – one of which (click here) is entirely about him, and others which reference his work (click, for example, here) – I hugely adore the work of Bruce Conner, the great artist in a variety of media who died in 2008.

My deep fascination and love for Conner’s art all came about because of poetry. I’ve previously written about some of the mid-1960s collaborations between Michael McClure and Conner (click here, please, and scroll down to reason # 7), but I think my first hit of Conner was the Conner designed and illustrated (with a black-and-white photo of one of his assemblages) cover Philip Lamantia’s Destroyed Works (San Francisco: Auerhahn Press 1962) –

Destroyed Works (San Francisco: Auerhahn Press, 1962)
8.5" x 7"

– and one of Lamantia’s poems in that book – “The Bride Front And Back” – concerns Conner’s assemblage/sculpture THE BRIDE, a rendering of Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham in detritus, stretched nylon, and wax:

THE BRIDE (1960)
36" x 17" x 23"

Lamantia’s poem blazes in response to Conner’s Havisham vision. Witness the final stanza:
WHAT SECRET DRUGS in her womb?
What watches out of her toenails tied to atomic submarine breasts?
Who’s torn her open in the dark turkish skyscraper ATLANTEAN PRIESTS
                          The Christians have slaughtered themselves!
The reflective and refractive energy in this assemblage of mantic/manic (including the super-heavy use of capitals) lineated observations and questions made me – maybe would make anybody – curious about the artwork which inspired it. And so Lamantia’s book and poem, when first experienced (the memories fuzz, but it was in my mid-20s, around 1980), first rang the Bruce Conner bell.


After having seen and enjoyed his artwork for years, I met Conner in the mid-1990s, after a screening of his films in Berkeley. I brought along and asked him to sign my copy of Destroyed Works, which had been previously signed by Lamantia. Bruce agreed,

and there probably aren’t many double-signed copies like that around!

Anyway, that brief moment with Lamantia’s book – Conner remarked on how much he liked it, and of course I did too – began what soon enough became a close friendship between Bruce and me. We lived in adjacent neighborhoods here in San Francisco, and for the next almost fifteen years we talked and saw each other often. Occasionally I accompanied him and his wife Jean at out-of-town exhibitions, taking personal vacation time to experience installation work (Bruce was always heavily involved in the details) and to have some fun. As do many others, I have my share of “Bruce Conner stories,” but those will have to wait for some other day.


Fast forward now, if you please, to the last 30 days. Bruce Conner is two years dead and gone, but his work most definitely lives. The convergence in the news and elsewhere over the last month of notices and appreciations of Conner’s work, indicating its continuing vitality, have been – with a tip here to the style of Lamantia – ASTONISHING. Consider the following, and please do click through the link(s) “beneath” much of what’s mentioned below:

Between November 10th and 23rd, The Film Forum in New York City each day presented Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage, a double-program featuring 17 of Conner’s independent, experimental, and mostly very short movies, made between 1958 and 2008.

the poster for the New York Film Forum program


To have most every Conner film shown twice-a-day for two weeks in Manhattan was thrilling enough. But there’s more! The critical response to the Film Forum program ran my brain-track off its sprocket! Now, Conner’s movies have always been well-received, and his first, A MOVIE (1958) long ago was selected for The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the breadth and depth of the very positive to glowing reviews last month was something else. Among those weighing in were writers published in (click on each source or pull quote to read the full review):
The New York Times: “There is plenty of pure pleasure to be had from these films, for the eye and the heart as well as for the brain.”

The Village Voice: “Bruce Conner (1933–2008) was a film artist who changed the game with his first movie, titled A MOVIE (1958).”

ArtForum: “Conner’s reputation as a maker of still images—assemblages, collages, photographs, drawings, and paintings—has taken off in recent years, but it is his moving-image work that cements his place among the innovators and masters of twentieth-century art.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Conner was an epic poet and philosopher of the form, turning the very concepts of "epic" and "form" inside out.”

Time Out New York: “endlessly rewarding . . .”

Cinespect: “. . . noteworthy is Conner’s ability to play with hyperactive editing patterns or even very slow ones . . . ”

Capital: “Conner wasn't an essayist, but a visual musician . . . rhythms and melodies convulsing right on the screen.”

Idiom: “Conner’s contributions to film are, in very real sense, undeniable . . . his early explorations, sampling and remixing have become mainstream, even traditional, in film and video.”

Slant: “Conner was a 'fuck this' artist, not just for savage cultural criticism lightly guised as celebration, but because of the myriad ways in which he offered it, shifting style as soon as it bored him. [ . . . ] Conner's films are still essential.”

The L: “ . . . extraordinary in terms of serving up eerie resonance and offering satisfying and complex sound-image conjunctions.”

The AV Club: “Even now, film students regularly get their minds blown by Bruce Conner’s first major work: the 12-minute 1958 short A MOVIE . . . .”

and the (believe it or not) New York Post: “an excellent way to discover or revisit Conner’s mesmerizing and influential filmmaking.”

a still from Conner’s THE WHITE ROSE (1967)
(this seven minute film documents the removal of
Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting from her apartment;
per The New York Times last month, it is “as powerful
an evocation of love and loss as Hollywood has ever given us”)


Also last month, Conner’s LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-1967 / 1996, an edited-in-the-camera proto-psychedelic romp set to a trippy Terry Riley soundtrack) was featured by Ron Silliman on his blog the day before Thanksgiving (and after you click through here please do take Ron’s advice and view the film full-screen).

a still from Conner’s LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS (1959-1967/1996)


At Christies in New York City on November 11th, a set of small collages made in the 1960s by Conner from old reproductions of engraving collages, and formerly in the collection of Dennis Hopper, was sold for just a bit under, er um, a half-million dollars, approximately ten times the pre-sale estimate. Oh my!

an untitled Bruce Conner/Dennis Hopper collage (6.5" x 5.5")


A November 22nd post on The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog reported that a Conner installation (I believe the work is THREE SCREEN RAY, a magnificent projected movie triptych) was recently purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Conner’s long-time Los Angeles dealer, Michael Kohn, who brokered the sale, calls it “the pinnacle of success. Now at the museum, there’s Rembrandt, there’s Vermeer, and there’s Bruce Conner.” Oh my again!

installation view # 1 of THREE SCREEN RAY, a film triptych by Conner

installation view # 2 of THREE SCREEN RAY, a film triptych by Conner


Also last month, European reviewers continued to enthuse about Bruce Conner - The ‘70s, a large exhibition of drawings, paintings, prints, film and other work currently on view at the Kunsthalle Vienna. Click here to read an appreciation published about ten days ago, in Italian, if you please. For a video with many views of the installation, along with narration (in English) by the two Austrian curators, click here (and let it load).

88" x 37" [life-size, of Conner himself]
currently on display at the Kunsthalle Vienna


Finally – and this is a nice way to end it, as it brings Conner together with a poet – the Bureau of Public Secret’s amazing on-going project to republish Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly San Francisco Examiner newspaper columns exactly fifty years after they first appeared happened last month to print the one from November 13, 1960 in which ol’ Rexroth discussed . . . yes, indeed . . . Bruce Conner!

Set out below in full are Rexroth’s four paragraphs on Conner. They are breezy yet sharp in the classic Rexroth style, but also entirely spot-on in terms of what he conveys about Bruce. For those outside the Bay Area, the “Upper Fillmore” mentioned in the first sentence refers to a section of a street here in San Francisco; in addition, the Batman Gallery mentioned was one of a few short-lived but important (almost fabled) showcases for new art here in the early 1960s. Okay, here’s Rexroth on Conner, almost exactly fifty years ago:
On Upper Fillmore, in the heart of the new high-toned Bohemia, the Batman Gallery has opened with a bang. The owners are fine people, the decor is original and effective, the place is crowded — opening night it was jam packed, and best of all, the pictures sell. And well they might. They are by Bruce Conner, a young man full of beans.

Mike McClure introduced me to the work of Conner when he was still in school somewhere in the Middle West — paintings with that certain umja-cum-spiff that is the only sign of a truly original creative talent. A few months later I was being shown around Joe Pulitzer’s collection in St. Louis. In his bedroom and study where he could get the most good out of them were the oldest favorites and the latest acquisitions.

“Aren’t those by Bruce Conner?” I asked. He had seen them in the window of an obscure gallery some place in the sticks and gone in and come out with them under his arm, convinced that here was a significant painter. I was the first person he had ever met who could give him any information about Bruce. There they still are, I guess, with the Pissarros and the Gris’s. This is the response Bruce’s work seems to elicit from all people of sensibility — “This is the real McCoy.”

I think the best things he does, in the long run, are paintings and drawings. The wax sculpture, like the famous Baby in the highchair [blogger’s note: it’s actually titled CHILD and is now in the collection of the New York MOMA], and the corpse stuffed into a packing box, and the three-dimensional collages hung up in torn nylons, are what the nineteenth century called “machines” — gallery art, designed for immediate effect. There’s no doubt that they have that. He’s oddly nineteenth century, this young
enfant terrible, a traveler from another time. In the last analysis, his shockers are moral criticisms of contemporary society, and from, really, the point of view of the sylvan utopias of William Morris, just as the visions of his sensitive drawings are close to those of William Blake and Odilon Redon.

Kenneth Rexroth, circa 1960
in front of his Scott Street flat, San Francisco
photograph by Jonathan Williams


Further information about Bruce Conner can be found in the New York Times obituary, published days after his July 7, 2008 death, and in appraisals or appreciations published shortly thereafter in the Times (by Manohla Dargis), San Francisco Chronicle (by critic Kenneth Baker), and ArtForum (by film scholar Bruce Jenkins). The second page of the last article, quoting the often contradictory and wide-ranging labels that critics and commenters pinned on Conner, is especially engaging.

Another way to get further information about Conner is to take a look at the photograph that follows. I do not know who took it, but I call it “The Great BC” or “The Artist as Prestidigitator.” It surely conveys the magic energy in the hands, mind, and eyes of Bruce Conner:

Bruce Conner, at the CineVegas Film Festival, June 2004


Friday, November 26, 2010

cat and mouse . . .

. . . and poetry!

Monica Youn

(Tribeca: Four Way Books, 2010)
[6" x 9" - 69 pages]

Monica Youn’s Ignatz first came to my attention in early August, when in an interview Rae Armantrout said she’d recently received and enjoyed the book. On that, I immediately bought it. For me, it’s usually a smart move to follow such leads when given by poets, especially from those I think write tremendously themselves.

So, for about three months I’ve been reading Youn’s book, intensely. During that time, Ignatz was announced as a National Book Award finalist. Even better for me, on November 12th Youn (who lives and works in New York) traveled to the California College of the Arts (CCA) here in San Francisco, and I was able to hear her read from and answer a few questions about her book.

Ignatz presents an initial challenge, one that will require some to do a bit of work, if learning about a classic piece of American creativity can be called work. The book’s title (a proper name, one that is also repeated in the title of 35 of the book’s 39 poems (and which shows up within many poems as well)), comes from a newspaper comic – George Herriman’s Krazy Kat – that was last regularly published more than sixty years ago. More than that, the dynamics of the Krazy Kat “story line” provide the animating core and frame for the poems.

Now Krazy Kat (1917-1944) remains cherished by comic aficionados, and is often acclaimed as a high spot of daily newspaper strips. But I think its current Q Score (a measure of familiarity and appeal in the culture at large) is relatively low. Ignatz ain’t Mickey (or Minnie), Popeye (or Olive Oil or Bluto), or even Little Nemo, to name a few better know old-time comic characters.

Youn’s use of an old-time and probably obscure-to-many comic to anchor and animate her collection probably doesn’t attract lots of readers, and it is definitely unusual. However, that’s part of what makes Ignatz so singular and marvelous. I figured she must deeply love Herriman’s strips (she so confirmed when I asked her earlier this month, before her CCA reading), and as W.B. teaches, “Exuberance is beauty.” By putting Ignatz (and by association all of Krazy Kat) center-stage, Youn tries to infect us readers, or at least those unfamiliar with Herriman’s work, with her enthusiasm.

A short note in the back of the book explains the basics of Krazy Kat, which can also be found on-line. Here are the barest essentials, excerpted from Youn’s fuller summary:
The strip is set in Coconino County, Arizona, and stars Krazy Kat, a feline of indeterminate gender and mutable patois. Krazy is hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse, a rodent of criminal tendencies, who, in turn, despises Krazy and whose greatest pleasure is to bean the lovelorn cat in the head with a brick. Krazy interprets these missiles as tokens of reciprocated affection, and the cat-mouse-brick-love cycle recurs in almost every strip.

Ignatz, the book, similarly spins around intense interpersonal desire and obsession. The poems are mostly (though not exclusively) written from or consider the perspective of Krazy Kat, or more precisely, a Krazy Kat, a character or person (female gendered in Youn’s poems) who deeply desires someone else. In the poems, the someone, of course, is Ignatz; a few poems also deal more specifically with his obsession, to bean Krazy.

How perfect that Youn’s poems about desire and obsession repeatedly (let’s say obsessively) evoke a comic that Youn herself really, really likes and which itself obsessively (day after day, for decades) riffed on the desire and obsession. It’s almost mirrored mirrors mirroring mirrors, or something like that. While such an approach risks gaudiness, Ignatz isn’t that way at all, mostly because of Youn’s considerable poetry-writing skills, several examples of which are set out below.

The poems in Ignatz, while centered on desire and obsession, are not just love poems, at least not as traditionally conceived. To paraphrase what Youn said at her CCA reading, the subject matters addressed and presented are “weirder” (I think she used that word) than just plain old romantic longing. Krazy’s desires are never fully, entirely, happily, or even at all fulfilled, and yet the hope, the want, goes on and on. The poems thus explore and depict what happens when longing (to get cheap about it) just gets longer and longer, when attachment is frustrated or the desired connection interrupted.

One key idea is how such desire or obsession can render a person, to quote from “Ignatz Recidivist,” “helpless / helpless / hopeless.” There is also in Ignatz plenty of the twists and turns of desire and obsession, including the idealizing of the other, the imbuing, for example, of him/her with heroic or magical qualities. As perhaps you yourself know, such emotions and thoughts can get mighty strange (and yet still be streaked with moments of beauty).

A most excellent example is “Ignatz Pacificus,” a poem early in the book in which the fevered imagination of the Krazy-character outlandishly re-casts her desired one as she rides on a passenger train on the Southern California coast:
Travelling backwards on the Amtrak Surfliner,
Ignatz is firelord of the Pacific, CEO

of the thermal inversion, true husband
of the Santa Ana wind. Observe his hands,

sowers of wildfire, hovering over the wave-
embroidered armrests, see the tray table

fruitlessly offering up tidbits to his gaze.
Seven rainless months have sensitized the vast

reticulations of his concern, he is each black ash
that infiltrates each kitchen windowscreen,

he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.
This short poem moves effortlessly line-to-line and couplet-to-couplet, an effect largely resulting from Youn’s concise language, varied enjambments, and judicious use of repetition and variation (“of the” in the second couplet, then “[o]bserve” followed by “see” in the next complete sentence), and “he is each” in the final couplets). I love here how out-sized (“firelord,” “CEO,” “true husband / of the Santa Ana” as well as “vast reticulations of his concern”) Krazy makes the object of her desire, a status also reflected in how “he” then shows up in every detail she sees or imagines (“each black ash” and “each ember).

And then there’s Youn’s final image in this poem, which I repeat from above:
he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.
Yow! I see and hear that image, even feel the heat of its fire and the cool water too. In Youn’s lines, the krazed idea of the desired one as a force of nature, fragmented and vaporizing and thus ultimately unattainable, seems indelible. I also love how a quintessential emblem of SoCal life, the kidney-shaped pool, is paired with another immutable characteristic of the geography, and how both of these observed details of a time and place (and ditto here the Santa Ana winds and the thermal inversion) are reformulated into the frame of the poem.

“he is each ember hissing its defiance
on the blue surface of a kidney-shaped pool.”


The poems in Ignatz are written in a variety of forms, from half-page prose blocks to (in one instance) a single couplet. Some of the most intriguing – and there are four or five such poems, spread throughout the book – are presented in numbered or otherwise marked off sections, with juxtaposition and allusive (sometimes elusive) images the key (though not only) energizers (Rae Armantrout is the contemporary master of this approach). Here’s an example of this type of poem from Youn’s book:

       Once more an urge; once more a succumb.

Even as a lawn
or tree

is more attractive
when configured

as individual

than as
a seamless




the rubber

replumps itself.


The pin
pokes through

the black

and scratches
the bottom

of the pan.


All the unseen

of the night
click open,

a blue-violet
pour down

a fretless throat.


There can be no
launch, only


in this elastic
This is crackerjack, in part because a precise line-by-line or even section-by-section parsing, let alone one for the poem as a whole, continues to elude me even after repeated readings and plenty of thought. The poem begins with a suggestion of a simultaneity or close equivalency (“Even as . . .), but the thing happening at the same time, or which is being suggested as having very similar qualities, is not stated. Presumably, the suggestion stated – that specific arrangements entice more than the general – refers to why Krazy particularizes Ignatz.

The the second section of the poem then brings an abrupt shift, with its curious “Asbestos interlude” and equally curious suggestion of a some type of slow re-load or regathering of energy: “the rubber / button // replumps itself.” This bewitches me, and each of the poem’s other parts, and especially the transitions between them, do the same. The next-to-last section probably is in this regard first among equals:
All the unseen

of the night
click open,

a blue-violet
pour down

a fretless throat.
This is yet another unforgettable image from Youn. It suggests some unencumbered full-on surrender to dream-desire, sensuous but also reckless and dangerous (think of chugging, or even worse, gavage). This section is a powerful little machine of words, of almost psychedelic intensity (particularly the “blue-violet” (implied to be a liquid) in the (also implied) black of “the night”), that is huge in its scary beauty.

“a blue-violet / pour down // a fretless throat”


To switch gears somewhat, here are the first thirteen lines of “On Ignatz’s Eyebrow,” a poem that directly concerns Ignatz’s obsession, his anger towards Krazy, but how that emotion also eludes connection, and can dissipate between thought, action, and its object. Think here, if you please, on how you may have sometimes felt when intensity has left you in a lurch, or has had its spell broken (the poem, as seen immediately below, begins with the lower case, seemingly mid-sentence, as if we are right in the lurch):
the way water is always rushing between a ferry

and its dock in that ever-present gap where

the rush is the speed of the water and the rush

is the sound of the water and the water is

bitterly cold and is foul in its bitterness and

the gap is irreducible space and time and

is the ache felt by the ferry in the cold

of its iron bones which will never clang

against the framework of the dock

in the satisfying clash of solid surfaces because

the gap is where such satisfaction helplessly

dissolves . . .

“that ever-present gap where // the rush is the speed of the water”

In Youn’s lines the words swirl and churn, creating what I’ll call eddies of language. This action primarily stems from repetition (e.g. rush, water, bitter, the gap, ferry), the alliterative circlings of ache, cold, clang, clash, and dock, and the absence of any punctuation that would pause or stop the energy. I feel, reading these lines, as if I too am stuck betwixt and between, just as the words describe. This is an electrifying and effective use of repetition and sound. American poeetry in recent decades has plenty of stellar examples of electrifying and effective use of repetition and sound -- I think of the best of John Taggart’s Loops (1991) or any number of Ted Enslin poems in Nine (2004) -- and Youn’s poem is a worthy addition to this stylistic sub-genre.


In my copy of Ignatz I’ve bookmarked, in addition to the four poems quoted in whole or in part above, more than a dozen others, each of which has something remarkable that I’d really like to tell you about. There’s also the book’s overall structure: it’s divided into four sections, each of which casts Ignatz as a different archetype (the beloved, the hero, the villain, and the fugitive), with each section also having an associated landscape (e.g., the desert, the coast) and similarly starting with a song (a short lyric in the voice of Krazy) and ending with a poem concerning the death of Ignatz. Plus there’s the idea, an important one, of how constrained creativity -- Youn’s fitting of everything here into the Krazy Kat framework -- spurs innovation and imagination.

This blog post, alas, cannot get into all the poems or facets of Ignatz. However, since I am -- as you probably have noticed -- more than slightly obsessed with the book, I must mention and discuss a few more poems.

“X As A Function Of Distance From Ignatz,” which at eighteen tercets over almost three pages is one of the longer poems in the book, presents an account of a leaving from the beloved, the immediate consideration of whether to go back, the turning back, and a return by Krazy (referred to only as “she”) to Ignatz (“he”). The exclusive use of the pronouns in the poem universalizes the intense pull of desire it depicts. It could be any of us.

Most remarkable in this poem is how Youn details what happens between the two characters, and what those particulars suggest. There are five separate instances, and each is parenthetically mentioned, of “she” opening a particular door, and then for each a subsequently mentioned (again in parenthesis) of her closing those same doors (to wit: the door of the room where the two are as the poem begins, the front door of the building where he lives, the door of cab that takes her away, that same door when she stops the cab and gets out, and the door of the building where he lives when she returns). There are also, as “she” moves about, seven specific notations of exactly how far away “he” is at various moments (the distances a range from twelve inches to seven hundred feet).

All the opening and closing doors, I think, suggest the cyclical nature of some romantic involvements. More generally, and most powerfully, these details of repeated actions and the precise mapping of the distance from the beloved show just how compulsive obsessive attraction can get. Or is that how obsessive compulsive attachment can get? And yet as weird as it all is, there is an undeniable emotional charge when the “she” in the poem, having left her love, decides to turn back, having the cab in which she’s riding away stop so she can get out and go back. Strange and troubled as such helpless / hopeless devotion can be, there is still a power to giving in, to following the desire. To quote Blake again, “Enough! or Too much.”


Another amazing poem is titled “Springes For Ignatz” (a springe is a snare designed to catch a small animal). Its 23 lines alternate couplets with singles, and sets out a series of observed details that Krazy, the one who desires, believes will trap the one that she wants. Here are the first ten lines, which should give you a pretty good idea of how the poem goes:
Corrugations, leaf litter,
a palm-sized blaze.

The leer of each boulder,

each mask
of white lichen.

The lopped branches

of the pines black
and reaching,

and the woods softly clicking,

with fringed holes.
The idea of this poem seems pure poetry: that the desired one might be caught via numerous details brilliantly seen and rendered in words. There are at least a dozen observed particulars in the lines quoted above, and there are about the same number in the thirteen lines that follow. Every one of these, and particularly “[t]he leer of each boulder,” catches my attention, makes me stop and think and read again. This phenomenon raises the question of just who or what is desired here. True, the poem can be read, as is the case with most others in the book, as Ignatz standing as a desired person in a romantic or love relationship. But it also seems to me that Ignatz here might be the mind of the reader, with the Krazy / the voice of the poem being Youn herself. If so, Youn has got me, and good.


The final poem I’ll present from Ignatz is yet another great one, “Semper Ignatz.” It’s relatively short at nine lines, and concerns a moment of terribly frustrated desire, although as suggested by the title (“Semper” is Latin for“always”) and as indicated more directly in the poem itself, it is common to experience moments of thwarted love and disappoint. Here it is:


How could it have been other

than abrupt
when as ever

in media res Ignatz remarked,

Sometimes            I don’t            like
fucking.                 Whoosh!        A billow

of white cambric sheets the scene,
through which her nipples glow dully,

taillights                in snow.
This poem explodes with its report of Ignatz saying, “Sometimes I don’t like / fucking.” The precise reasons why he rejects sex, rejects it apparently even while doing it, aren’t made explicit, but the impact on Krazy couldn't be more tellingly put. “Whoosh!” and “billow” indicate that the disruption is almost atmospheric, as teh air seems to leave the room (I both hear the sound of that, and see Krazy clutching her chest, gasping for air) as the bedding that presumably held the two lifts away. The scene then turns chilly as deep winter in the North, and it feels very real. Youn’s last line, a metaphor for Krazy’s just barely still turned on nipples beneath the thin sheets in the freeze-out of desire thwarted and rejection, is one I’ll remember, in awe, for a long, long time.


Monica Youn