Thursday, January 31, 2008

Yearbook (1.5)

Long Island patch of meadow–over 100 ant species. I just want to mess around and eat and sleep and read, not write papers and study difficult things like chickens and Dealing with Curved Relationships and parthenogenesis and fossil onychophorans and otoliths and phytoliths and sporophytes and gymslips–a new word from the English side of my Spanish-English Dictionary. A weird sign on the baby-change station in the bus-station restroom shows a line of three elephants holding tails in trunks: only the first has tusks; the second has long eyelashes, and the third is slightly smaller than the other two. Kenneth Patchen’s tiger’s boggled eyes contemplate from my wall into the room, stalking and understanding the supple clutter (of books and coats and boots and crap) all together, and it’s raining outside. Starlings in the yard, and a hunched violet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Yearbook (1.4)

I really think, next time I move somewhere I need to limit the crevices. I don’t know. I can’t control myself, I can’t get you out of my mind, I can’t give you anything, I can’t make it on time, I don’t care, I don’t like anybody that don’t like me, I don’t wanna get involved with you, I don’t wanna go down to the basement, I don’t wanna walk around with you, I don’t want you, I just wanna have something to do, I know better now, I lost my mind, I love you, I’m affected, I’m against it, I remember you, now I wanna be a good boy, I wanna be sedated, I wanna be well, I wanna be your boyfriend, I wanna live, now I wanna sniff some glue, I want you around, I wanted everything, I won’t let it happen. I would have called it beautiful. But I have a tanic headache and can’t stop thinking about the yellow ink and crocuses. And the scarlet-budded black-scabbed green branches are branches of city planning, explained in city meetings. Office supplies and urban horticulture, cosmetics, candy, mass transit and ant, cartoons and Norse mythology and Marco Polo and dry ice and the proliferation of new-money dachas in Russia: these should provide the terms of new poetic understanding.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I've been excited lately about Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire by Vlaminck

It often takes me a very long time to really hear or understand a poet who ends up meaning a lot to me. Whether it's the cumulative effect of many pages, or the sudden arrival of the right page at the right moment, it the past few weeks I've become conscious that I finally get Apollinaire. I'm pretty dense.

The book in which Apollinaire first appeared to me was not Alcools but a selection from the later poems (collected posthumously as Calligrammes) in a bilingual edition selected and translated by Donald Revell, called The Self-Dismembered Man. The decisive poem for me, my new favorite poem, was the second-to-last, "La victoire," an amazing elegy for the twentieth century which ended with World War I–the giddy, hopeful, magical, arrogant twentieth century of cubism and imagism, the zenith of "modernity." He had fought in the war, and was to die on Armistice Day, 1918. Victory meant returning home to find that the world in which his great early poems had been possible was utterly destroyed, that the discourse of the first, innocent modernism had been erased, and that language was undermined on either side by the smugness of victory and the scared reticence of shell-shock. Before the war Apollinaire had written the first poem to take the Eiffel Tower, or the airplane, seriously–as Whitman had written the first poem honoring the steam locomotive. Now he foresaw a future when trains and cities would become merely quaint, and when poetry, if it could exist at all, would have to resort to "an assortment of labial farts" and "only consonants no vowels" to refresh the language. Did he have to die after that, seeing his work stalled or finished?

Some excerpts:

Hard to imagine
How stupid and smug success can make a man
. . .
The old words are dying
Only habit or cowardice
Puts them into poems

They are invalids
Christ we may as well sink into pantomime
It works well after all in the movies
. . .
An assortment of labial farts could brighten the discourse
Belch often and at will
And what letter is it engraves the sound of a bell
Across our memorials
We have never loved the joy of seeing
New things with adequate intensity
O my sweetheart hurry


Dreading the day when the steam engine no longer
Thrills you
For your own sake look at it faster
The sanguine choo-choos
Will soon be gone
Only to become absurd and beautiful

I read this poem while riding the bus to work (going over the bridge with a view G.A. would have loved, of multilayered traffic on six other bridges), glancing constantly back and forth between the French and the English. It's amazing that a poem could move me so much on a first reading under those circumstances. Something about the angry sarcastic desperation of "Christ we may as well sink into pantomime" (literally more like "everybody better get used to muteness quick"), and "for your own sake look at it faster." But it's a strangely hopeful poem too, with all Apollinaire's giddy, vertiginous, floating sense of a new world coming into being, his recurrent emphasis on the "horizon." (A word which, Revell notes in a "Translator's Afterword", appeared in nearly all his late poems.)

The new thing that Apollinaire brought to poetry was a sense of spacing, a new semantics of silences, the hover between unpunctuated phrases, a new more breathless atmosphere that alternates between unprecedented speeds and sudden floating stoppages of time. One can't help thinking of him as an aviator. Now I start to understand him, I have to go back and reread Alcools. And I have a fat yellow Apollinaire on Art out from the library, maybe I'll get to that soon.

There is something very moving and also disturbing about Apollinaire as a war poet, loving the world no less lustily than before as he watches it destroy itself. The poems would be less sad if they were less funny–by which I mean, he never shrinks from feeling, nor does he let a rhetoric or a message emphasize one feeling over another simultaneous one. This is very rare, and I'm not sure how he did it. It's impossible for me to imagine comparable poems being written about our present war. (But I'm not sure why that is, unless its merely the appalling closeness and equally appalling distance one feels as a spectator of that "news".)

Hey, does anyone know whether Apollinaire read Whitman?

Apollinaire by Metzinger

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Yearbook (1.3)

Not making sense is for lovers. Glances into tiny restaurant offices. This kind of thing, this thing, this kind. The snow is turning to slush. The thing is though, the thing is is, the brain imagining the earth, the weight bouncing against the forehead and ringing on in the temples. “Invisible means you can’t see it,” the man on the bus explained. The barren faraway that registers and gets stamped and moves along becomes the air it moves in all day, a watermark of that air, but folded in a shoebox does not remain itself or yearn to travel home, but crinkles up, and slurpingly dissolves.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Helen in Egypt in Portland

Photo collage from HD's scrapbook. I pilfered it from the Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities.

On Saturday night I listened to and participated in a marathon reading of HD's Helen in Egypt, organized by David Abel for the Spare Room reading series. It was my first exposure to that text, other than a preliminary examination of the section I read aloud. The reading lasted about five hours. It was an extraordinary way to experience a text of that kind–a long meditative narrative which alternates terse verse chapters with almost equally hermetic prose explanations. I imagine reading it (to myself, mostly silently, over a period of days or weeks) will be a completely different experience.

For starters, the "plot" almost totally escaped me. I understood vaguely that it subverts the story of the Iliad, and unfolds that of Stesichorus's Palinode fragment, by inventing the adventures of Helen before, during and after the Trojan war in various locales, with not only Paris and Menelaus but Theseus and Achilles figuring as lovers or suitors, and with digressions about Thetis, Iphegenia and many others. Beyond that I couldn't possibly summarize its events or outline. What stood out instead: structure, music, images, recurrences. The book consists of three parts, each divided into 7 books, each subdivided into 8 chapters, each of which consists of a prose explanation and a poem in 3-line stanzas. At every level of scale the books is held together by varied repetitions: from the way the three sections fold over one another, each examining the same characters from a different viewpoint, focused on different themes, to the rhymes and other sound repetitions that link ideas in individual stanzas or chapters.

HD was clearly a poet who thought with sound: I imagine the difficulty for her was not in thinking up rhymes, assonances, consonances, mesmerizing strings of modulated syllables, but rather in toning them down, avoiding jangle, and emphasizing only the meaningful echoes. Classical names, which probably sound more alike to modern ears than to their original users, and tend to survive in more than one form, are a perfect ground for this kind of play: Helen/Helena, Eros/Eris/Paris, Amen/Ammon. This aspect of the writing shares an approach with 19th century philology, in its hunt for archaic word-roots that would literally rhyme across disparate languages and cultures; but here it is the sensuous ear that restructures the old matter, by improvisation and intuition rather than meticulous study. The poem makes connections very fast, and once made they become an abiding and essential part of the structure. There is a kind of pedantry in its tone, especially in the prose parts, but it is a visionary pedantry, a strict joy. 

I didn't take notes during the reading, and haven't looked at the text yet. But certain images, phrases, recurring objects stand out: "Wolfslayer!" "The indecipherable Amen script." Seven slats of shadow on the wall. "The turn of a Greek wrist." Someone looking at Helen over an expanse of charred wood. Veils. Sandals and sandalwood. Some absolutely amazing passages about ships, ropes, the smell of tar. The wooden or iron (?) horse. Bruised apples. A bowl of sand.

It was a very cozy event in an extraordinary apartment full of books and records. Many voices, and some variance in pronunciation. A few comic moments, as are bound to show up in a work of such high rhetorical style and such abstruse matter. It testifies to the work's richness and complexity on multiple levels that while in some sense it almost completely escaped me upon first listening, it was at the same time an utterly enchanting experience. A bit like coming out of a movie with no notion of the plot, but marveling over the special effects.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yearbook (1.2)

But you seem to’ve found me the common home of all my obsolete manifestoes and tentative loves, works in imitation and panic swims, by water and boulders there, gone sawmill and unused tracks grown over with blackberries, Queen Anne’s lace, imperialist Scotch broom, beer cans, kingfishers, rusty bolts, asters, a punk masterpiece painted over with municipal beige, and, with the turn of summer, wooly mullein spearing up tall as a tall woman. Went through 5 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of shoes, and finally dad’s rubber boots today. “Moving over the face of the waters.” Blake sticks to the limitations of the human––“portions of eternity too great for the eye of man,” a cloud as man, a flea as man, god as a boy. Such a strange ungrounded cleverness when she starts doing things! Now, idiotically, humiliatingly, I seem to have lost the scarf Michaela made for me––either at the library or on the bus. Last night she sang me the song she wrote about emptying the jar into the water.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Guy Davenport to James Laughlin, 2/3/1993

"The whole business of the cubists has always been wrong in the public (and critical) mind. It is actually close to Ez's ideograms: Braque trusts us to recognize a violin by a few details of its parts, just as Ez can work in a poem with a single Anglo-Saxon phrase, or suggest a landscape with the wind through an olive tree. Braque was painting a particular culture (French middle class, that reads newspapers, drinks apertifs, plays a musical instruments, and has well-ordered houses with furniture)."

Monday, January 7, 2008

Davenport/Laughlin Letters

Guy Davenport was a huge, essential part of my education. I was 18 when I got his GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION out of the library, and had never heard of Olson or Zukofsky––or Ives or Tchelitchew (his own half-French half-German transliteration from Russian) or Ronald Johnson or Jonathan Williams or any of these crazy names he kept popping up with. I liked Joyce and Stevens and Mandelstam, but, slow learner that I am, I thought Pound and WCW were boring! Suddenly the world was much more exciting and overwhelmingly big. I gave his stories another try (having backed off from them the first time), and fell in love. The man could make botany sexy, and ancient Rome almost attractive! Since then (seven years almost), he gives me insomnia every time I read him, dependable as coffee. It's a strange psychosomatic reaction: a combination perhaps of the remembered excitement "upon first looking into", the contagious enthusiasm he brings to his subjects, and the competitive envy it all stirs up in me for his zippy energy and erudition.

James Laughlin, as the publisher of New Directions, played an equally huge part in my skoolin once I finally did get around to hearing Pound and Williams and all that. So I couldn't resist buying a copy of GUY DAVENPORT AND JAMES LAUGHLIN: SELECTED LETTERS, edited by W.C. Bamberger and published by Norton (despite the odd feeling it gives me to read the private correspondence of the dead). It's a delight, a record of kindness exchanged over decades of deepening friendship, and also a random anthology of randomly marvellous anecdotes. Literary gossip is seldom this much fun.

"1 Sept Birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who used to keep framed on his wall a letter from Rand-McNally: 'We are returning your manuscript as we do not feel that the public will be interested in a white man raised by apes.'" (GD)

"You're so right about Nabokov. he had beautiful manners but his blood was icy. One day that summer when he was staying with me in the mountains of Utah he came in for dinner and told me that he had heard what sounded like groaning in Grizzly Gulch. What was it. He hadn'e gone to investigate because he was chasing a lepidopteroid he had never seen before. Next day some hikers found the body of an old prospector who had fallen in the steep gulch and cracked open his head and bled to death." (JL)

"I'm almost through vol 4 of Parkman's history if Canada and New England––5 to go. The church had its own ideas about geography, so the first bishop of Montreal (or was it Quebec?) was designated Bishop of Arabia Petrea, of which Canada must be the other side. Not quite as whonky as Columbus' suspecting that Peking was somewhere around Atlanta. Speaking of Coumbus, I've explained the colon that begins PATERSON all sorts of ways (Europe: America) until it dawned on my feeble mind that Christobal Colon is that gentleman's real name. Keeping to the formula pater: son." (GD)

They chat back and forth about mutual favorites such as Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton, and Anne Carson. Laughlin records the deaths of his son and wife and the destruction by fire of his library, while Davenport's life comes across as consisting mainly of evenings reading by the hearth, with cat and throwrug, and chats with comical Kentucky neighbors. ("Van Gogh came up in a conversation the other day, and my interlocutor said, 'He's the one that bit off his ear, wasn't he?'")We learn that "Medieval ink was oak gall and soot," that Mae West ("whose only straight line was the handle of her parasol") was Mondriaan's favorite actress and Barbara Hutton was Wittgenstein's, and that "In Theokritos' fifth idyll a goat is eating something. You look the word up, and Liddell-Scott says 'a plant eaten by a goat in Theoc. Idyll V'." There are new authors to look out for, like Robert Bringhurst, Elinor Shaffer and Avram Davidson. Besides this there is a lot of (entertaining, well-written) pedestrian exchange in the later letters about publishing matters and health problems, a good deal of repetition (it's good to remember that even the whizbang eggheads have only a few obsessive ideas and are prone like the rest of us to inadvertantly repeat ourselves), and enough old-timey offhand sexism to be irritating.

This book is edited down from a much larger corpus of letters, and there are a lot of gaps. I wish I could read the complete letters, or failing that, a more generous selection of random thoughts and trivia and anecdotes from Davenport, even at the expense of the exchanges on publication matters. I also wish that more of Davenport's illustrations had been included (as it is, there is only one: The Queen of the Netherlands reading Pound's translation of Confucius, "the gift of Heer Jaap Laughlin, whose split trousers she once repaired with the royal sewing kit on a ski slope of the Alps," ––see JL's EZ AS WUZ--attended by a greyhound out of James Thurber.) GD was a top-notch doodler, and there are a lot of tantalizing references to his drawings.

The friends exchange gripes about Norton anthologies (GD: "Back when I used to keep office hours, i used to amuse myself correcting the idiotic footnotes to poems in them."––JL: "My chief objection to the Norton anthologies is that they've never put one of my verses in them."), and it's amusing that this Norton publication tooo contains a preponderance of inconsistent and mostly unnecessary footnotes: Bamberger explains jokes and puns to us and offers some rather odd capsule biographies: Wittgenstein is "one of the twentieth century's most logically astringent philosophers" and Klee "a Swiss artist whose primarily abstract works were said to convey the feeling of dream images." Of course I appreciate these notes when they tell me things I don't know, so I'll try not to grumble. But I must add that there are a lot of entirely gratuitous [sic]s throughout the text, even for perfectly correct spellings, as in "Aleksandr [sic] Solzhenitsyn." (Props to Mark Scroggins for eschewing the [sic] in his new Zukofsky biography!) The index however is excellent, and I can only hope that more things of this kind will be edited and published. Kenner/Davenport letters? Zukofsky/Davenport letters? I'm ready with prying eyes.

Yearbook (1.1)

Having neglected our best superstition, I get up at 10:06 and do make coffee. “What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears.” I finally have a nice black pen, see? In the movie Things That Are Not Themselves these ghosts will appear in firm, perky human bodies, mouthing lines like “Nobody knows what stained glass looks like any more”; “Look out: Car!”; “I just love bats this time of day, don’t you?”; “Forget Nebraska”; and doing ordinary things in a funny way, in the rhetoric of American lovers, like cigarettes for breakfast, or like in chess when suddenly you begin to move the other person’s pieces. In every city visible signs of change are everywhere, so many fires.

Peaches and Bats 2

This is the blogging or blauguant arm of Peaches and Bats, a yearly (maga)zine of mostly poetry, published by Sam Lohmann in Portland, Oregon. The new (second) issue of the magazine is now available. It features poetry by Elizabeth Robinson, Colin Beattie , myself, Arthur Sze, Jeanne Lohmann, Lindsey Boldt and Robert Kelly; interviews with Robert Kelly and Dan Beachy-Quick; art by Lauren Likely and Michaela Curtis-Joyce; and this letterpressed cover by Eliza Davenport. You can buy it in Portland at Reading Frenzy or Powell's; in Olympia at Orca Books or Dumpster Values; online at or by emailing me.