“we know life is so busy, but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something we can never feel”

Cover Image

The opening of John Ashbery’s "Flow Chart"… 

 


                                 I


Still in the published city but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair, I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain
it might easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leaves the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent? We know life is so busy,
but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something
we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs
put up to warn us and as soon expunged, in part
or wholly.
            Sad grows the river god as he oars past us
downstream without our knowinghim: for if, he reasons,
he can be overlooked, then to know him would be to eat him,
ingest the name he carries through time to set down
finally, on a strand of rotted hulks. And those who sense something
squeamish in his arrival know enough not to look up
from the page they are reading, the plaited lines that extend
like a bronze chain into eternity.
                                           It seems I was reading something;
I have forgotten the sense of it or what the small
role of the central poem made me want to feel. No matter.

The words, distant now, and mitred, glint. Yet not one
ever escapes the forest of agony and pleasure that keeps them
in a solution that has become permanent through inertia. The force
of meaning never extrudes. And the insects,
of course, don’t mind. I think it was at that moment he
knowingly and in my own interests took back from me
the slow-flowing idea of flight, now
too firmly channeled, its omnipresent reminders etched
too deeply into my forehead, its crass grievances and greetings
a class apart from the wonders every man feels,
whether alone in bed, or with a lover, or beached
with the shells on some atoll (and if solitude
swallow us up betimes, it is only later that
the idea of its permanence sifts into view, yea
later and perhaps only occasionally, and only much later
stands from dawn to dusk, just as the plaintive sound
of the harp of the waves is always there as a
backdrop
to conversation and conversion, even when
most forgotten) and cannot make sense of them, but he knows
the familiar, unmistakable thing, and that gives him courage
as day expires and evening marshals its hosts, in preparation
for the long night to come.
                                 And the horoscopes flung back
all we had meant to keep there: our meaning, for us, yet
how different the sense when another speaks it!
How cold the afterthought that takes us out of time
for a few moments (just as we were beginning to go with the fragile
penchants mother-love taught us) and transports us to a stepping-stone
far out at sea.
                  So no matter what the restrictions, admonitions,
premonitions that trellised us early, supporting this
artificial espaliered thing we have become, by the same token no
subsequent learning shall deprive us, it seems, no holy
sophistication loosen the bands
of blessed decorum, our present salvation, our hope for years to come.
Only let that river not beseech its banks too closely,
abrade and swamp its levees, for though the flood is always terrible,
much worse are the painted monsters born later
out of the swift-flowing alluvial mud.

                                                        And when the time for the breaking
of the law is here, be sure it is to take place in the matrix
of our everyday thoughts and fantasies, our wonderment
at how we got from there to here. In the unlashed eye of noon
these and other terrible things are written, yet it seems
at the time as mild as soughing of wavelets in a reservoir.
Only the belated certainty comes to matter much,
I suppose, and, when it does, comes to seem as immutable as roses.
Meanwhile a god has bungled it again.
                                              Early on
was a time of seeming: golden eggs that hatched
into regrets, a snowflake whose kiss burned like an enchanter’s
poison; yet it all seemed good in the growing dawn.
The breeze that always nurtures us (no matter how dry,
how filled with complaints about time and the weather the air)
pointed out a way that diverged from the true way without negating it,
to arrive at the same result by different spells,
so that no one was wiser for knowing the way we had grown,
almost unconsciously, into a cube of grace that was to be
a permanent shelter. Let the book end there, some few
said, but that was of course impossible; the growth must persist
into areas darkened and dangerous, undermined
by the curse of that death breeze, until one is handed a skull
as a birthday present, and each closing paragraph of the novella is
underlined: To be continued , that there should be no peace
in the present, no sleep save in glimpses of the future
on the crystal ball’s thick, bubble-like surface. No you and me
unless we are together. Only then does he mumble confused words
of affection at us as the barberry bleeds close against the frost,
a scarlet innocence, confused miracle, to us, for what we have done
to others, and to ourselves. There is no parting. There is
only the fading, guaranteed by the label, which lasts forever.

This much the gods divulged before they became too restless,
too preoccupied with other cares to see into the sole fact the
present allows, along with much ribbon, much icing
and pretended music. But we can’t live with them in their day:
the air, though pure, is too dense. And afterwards when others
come up and ask, what was it like, one is too amazed to behave strangely;
the future is extinguished; the world’s colored paths all lead
to my mouth, and I drop, humbled, eating from the red-clay floor.
And only then does inspiration come: late, yet never too late.

It’s possible, it’s just possible, that the god’s claims
fly out windows as soon as they are opened, are erased from the accounting. If one is alone,
it matters less than to others embarked on a casual voyage
into the promiscuity of dreams. Yet I am alwaysthe first to know
how he feels. The inventory of the silent auction
doesn’t promise much: one chewed cactus, an air mattress,

a verbatim report. Sandals. The massive transcriptions with which
he took unforgivable liberties—hell, I’d sooner join the project
farther ahead, retaining all benefits, but one is doomed,
repeating oneself, never to repeat oneself, you know what I mean?
If in the interval false accounts have circulated, why,
one is at least unaware of it, and can live one’s allotted arc
of time in feasible unconsciousness, watching the linen dresses of girls,
with a wreath of smoke to come home to. There is nothing beside the familiar
doormat to get excited about, yet when one goes out in loose weather
the change is akin to choirs singing in a distance nebulous with fear
and love. Sometimes one’s own hopes are realized
and life becomes a description of every second of the time it took;
conversely, some are put off by the sound of legions milling about.
One cultivates certain smells, is afraid to leave the charmed circle
of the anxious room lest uncommitted atmosphere befall
                                                                   and the oaks
are seen to be girdled with ivy.

Alack he said what stressful sounds

More of him another time but now you
in the ivory frame have stripped yourself one by one of your earliest
opinions, polluted in any case by bees, and stand
radiant in the circle of our lost, unhappy youth, oh my
friend that knew me before I knew you, and when you came to me
knew it was forever, here there would be no break, only I was
so ignorant I forgot what it was all about. You chided me
for forgetting and in an instant I remembered everything: the
schoolhouse, the tent meeting. And I came closer until the day
I wrote my name firmly on the ruled page: that was a
time to come, and all happy crying in memory placed the stone
in the magic box and covered it with wallpaper. It seemed our separate
lives could continue separately for themselves and shine like a single star.
I never knew such happiness. I never knew such happiness could exist.
Not that the dark world was removed or brightened, but
each thing in it was slightly enlarged, and in so seeming became its
true cameo self, a liquid thing, to be held in the hollow
of the hand like a bird. More formal times would come
of course but the abstract good sense would never drown in the elixir
of this private sorrow, that would always sing to itself
in good times and bad, an example to one’s consciousness,
an emblem of correct behavior, in darkness or under water.
How unshifting those secret times, and how stealthily
they grew! It was going to take forever just to get through
the first act, yet the scenery, a square of medieval houses, gardens
with huge blue and red flowers and solemn birds that dwarfed
the trees they sat on, need never have given way to the fumes and crevasses
of the high glen: the point is one was going to do toit
what mattered to us, and all would be correct as in a painting
that would never ache for a frame but dream on as nonchalantly as we did.
Who could have expected a dream like this to go away for there are some
that are the web on which our waking life is painstakingly elaborated:
there are real, bustling things there and the burgomaster of success
stalks back and forth, directing everything
with a small motion of a finger. But when it did come,
the denouement, we were off drinking in some restaurant,
too absorbed, too eternally, expectantly happy to be there or care.
                   

That inspiration came later, in sleep while it rained,
urgently, so that lines of darkness interfered with the careful
arrangement of the dream’s disguise: no takers? Anyway,
sleep itself became this chasm of repeated words,
of shifting banks of words rising like steam
out of someplace into something. Forget the promises the stars made you: they were half-stoned, and besides
are twinned to no notion that can have an impact
on our way of thinking, as crabbed now
as at any time in the past. A forlorn park stood before us
but there was no way to want to enter it, since the guards
had abandoned their posts to slate-gray daylight
flowing into your heart as though it were a blotter, confounding
or negating the rare survival of wit into our century:
these, at any rate, are my children, she intoned,
of whom I divest myself so as to fit into the notch
of infinity as defined by a long arc of crows returning to the distant
coppice. All’s aglow. But we see by it that some mortal
material was included in the glorious compound, that next to
nothing can prevent its mudslide from sweeping over us
while it renders the pitted earth smooth and pristine and something
like one’s original idea of it, only so primitive
it can’t understand us. Meanwhile the coat I wear,
woven of consumer products, asks you to pause and inspect
the still-fertile ground of our once-valid compact
with the ordinary and the true. It wants out and
we shall get it even with decreased services and an increased
number of spot-checks, since all of it, ourselves included,
is in our own interests to speak up for and deny when the proper
moment arrives. Now, nothing further remains to be done except
to sleep and pray, saving the pieces for a slightly
later time when they shall be recognized as holy remnants of the burnished
mirror in which the Almighty once saw Himself, and wept,
realizing how all His prophecies had come true for His people
at last and no one was any wiser for it as they walked the wide
shadowless streets with no eyelids or memory when it came to
intersecting the itineraries of other, similarly blessed creatures
(blessed for having no name, no preconceived strategies
unless they lay underground, too unprofitable to dig up
until the requisite technologies had been developed some
decades down the road and nodding as though in acknowledgment of
an acquaintance one doesn’t remember yet is not sure of
having ever formally renounced either: was it on land or at sea
that that bird first came to one, many miles from the nearest anything?).

What we are to each other is both less urgent and more
perturbing, having no discernible root, no raison d’être, or else flowing
backward into an origin like the primordial soup it’s so easy to pin
anything on, like a carnation to one’s lapel. So it seems we must
stay in an uneasy relationship, not quite fitting
together, not precisely friends or lovers though certainly not enemies, if
the buoyancy of the spongy terrain on which we exist is to be experienced
as an ichor, not a commentary on all that is missing from the reflection
in the mirror. Did I say that? Can this be me? Otherwise the treaty will
seem premature, the peace unearned, and one might as well slink back
into the solitude of the kennel, for the blunder to be read as anything
but willful, self-indulgent. And meanwhile everything around us is already
prepared for this resolution; the temperature, the season are exactly right
for it all not to be awash with sentiments expelled from some impossibly
distant situation; some episode from your childhood nobody knows about and
even you can’t remember accurately. It is time for the long beds
then, and the extra hours to be spent in them, but surely somebody can
find something spontaneous to say before it all fizzles, before the incandescent
tongs are slaked in mud and the tender yellow shoots of the willow
dry up instead of maturing having concluded that the moment
is inappropriate, the heroes gone to their rest, and all the plain
folk of history foundered in the subjective reading of their lives
as expendable, the stuff of ordinary heresy, shards of common crockery
interesting only because unearthed long after the time had come for a
decision on what to do at the very moment they disappeared into timelessness,
one of innumerable such tramping exits that no one hears,
so long as they may be promptly and justly forgotten,
subtracted like the soul we never knew we had and replaced with something
young, and easier, climate of any day and of all the days, postmillenarian.

Just so, some argue, some still are
nurtured by their innocence, a wanton
formula a nursemaid gives them. They grow up to be slim,
and tall, but often it seems something is lacking,
some point of concentration around which a person can collect itself,
and be neither conscious nor uncaring, be neutral.
And when the pitcher
is emptied of milk, it is not refilled, but washed and put away on a shelf.
Conversations are still initiated,
haltingly, under the leaves, around an outdoor table,
but they insist on nothing and are remembered
only as disquieting examples of how life might be
in that other halting yet prosperous time
when games of strength were put away.
And each guest rises
abruptly from the table, a star at his or her shoulder.
For then, in smeared night, no blotch or defect can erase it,
the wonderful greeting you heard in the morning
and heard yourself reply to.

                                   But at times such as
these late ones, a moaning in copper beeches is heard, of regret,
not for what happened, or even for what could conceivably have happened, but
for what never happened and which therefore exists, as dark
and transparent as a dream. A dream from nowhere. A dream
with no place to go, all dressed up with no place to go, that an axe
menaces, off and on, throughout eternity. Or ships, lands
which no one sees, islands scattered like pebbles
across the immense surface of the ocean; this is what it is
to believe and not see, to implore dreaming, then to arrive home
by cunning, stricken and exhausted, a framed picture of oneself. The ads
didn’t tell you this, they were too busy with their own professional sleight-of- hand
to notice those farther out in deep water (" when such a destin’d wretch
as I, wash’d headlong from on board "), decorating the maelstrom with
someone’s (I wish I knew whose) notion of what is right, or cute.
Soon the dark chairs and tables stand out sharply in front of strange
green-striped walls, gulls circle in the sky, smoke
from piles of old tires set alight at strategic points throughout the city
sifts through the crack where the pane doesn’t quite join the sill—
is this, I ask you, a mute entreaty on the part of some well-intentioned
but shy deity meant to take the temperature of the lives being squandered
by the few left here below? Ask, rather, why the clock slows down
a little more each day, necessitating double, triple and even quadruple tintinnabulations
in order for its fundamentally banal intentions to be elucidated
so that one may settle down to enjoying the usufruct of the sparse,
shattering seconds, the while looking forward to retiring at ninety
on a comfortable income without rueing the day one first took up the odd
gambit that has projected us into a lifetime of self-loathing and shallow interests.
One lives thus, plucking a mean sort of living from the rubbish heaps
of history, unaware that the parallel daintiness of the lives of the rich,
like fish in an ocean whose bottom is dotted with the rusted engines and debris
of long-forgotten wrecks, unfolds; yes, " And I in greater depths than he ," I suppose,
yet it doesn’t help deliver one back either to the after all sane and helpful blank square
one is always setting out from, having in the meantime forgotten those other
precepts, sane and insane, that intrude as soon as one begins to think
about anything at all. It is always on the rim of some fleshpot briefly
mentioned in the Bible one is seen to squirm, a pinned worm, so that
one is pitted against others as against oneself: lonesome, hungry,
and a little bit thirsty until the day of doom universally misconstrued as a
time of relief and pillars of dust rising straight up out of the desert valleys
where one’s feet take one, and all that mythology of broken tracks,
jettisoned equipment, and the long-uninhabited wadi whose watering-trough
is merely mud now and a few puddles of camel-stale, materializes.

                    

Latest reports show that the government
still controls everything but that the location of the blond captive
has been pinpointed thanks to urgent needling from the backwoods constituency
and the population in general is alive and well. But can we dwell
on any of it? Our privacy ends where the clouds’ begins, just here, just at
this bit of anonymity on the seashore. And we have the right
to be confirmed, just as animals or even plants do, provided we go away and leave
every essential piece of the architecture of us behind. Surely then, what we work for must be met
with approval sometime even though we haven’t the right to issue any
such thing. There are caves and caves, and almost none
of them has been explored yet. That doesn’t give us much
to go on, yet we insistently cry that someone else’s rondo is already
being played, and that over and over, so howcome nobody does anything about it,
relaxes us in our shoes and tells us about bedtime? Surely, in my younger
days people acted differently about it. There was no barnstorming, just quiet
people going about their business and not worrying too much about
being rewarded at the end when it came down to that. No, we were wandering
away, too busy for such things, toward the altar,
or better yet into the nave whose fruit-and-flower
decoration led unostentatiously and facilely into the outdoors it
anticipated. No use just sitting around juicing the lemon
or the orange for that matter as long as one was intending to get up and play
again. And now that the time of reckoning nears, it wears a changed coat;
its color is brighter. No but there must be some structural difference as well
in the ordering of the colors and how they were laid on, only
no one can conceivably care enough about this to talk about it. Well I do
and can, but the un-nice fractions almost always assert themselves
above the din of this great city and I have trouble remembering
even my name until some passing girl kindles its fancy, what my name was
to me when I first began to think about other things. There is not postage for
this boredom either really so that it keeps
returning, might be said never to have gone away at all,
except for the media with which it keeps getting compared. I say, the other
reaches really tickle you, when you have a chance. And all this time
I thought he was only farting around disinclined to have a serious opinion
on anything, and even more so to give it vent or utterance. And my sight clears
for the first time in a thousand years and it’s true, I can see up ahead
where no one waits and the long flags flap and droop in the dust of sunsets
and so may it be forever and ever till we get it right. Mine’s isn’t the option to
show you how to escape or comfort you unduly but with a little time
and a little patience we shall make this thing work. Even though you thought
everything you touched was doomed to fall apart or not start, time has
a few surprises up its sleeve and deserves to be spat on for not having more,
or would, if it didn’t. Yet it does. There are promises clad with the finest
silk you can imagine and silver ornaments hitherto undreamed of, if only you can
match them with something of equal loveliness and curiosity from your own
secret collection. And of course this does take time, but in the end one
senses it more richly bedizened than ever before, and in line for a promotion
out of the ranks of futility into the narrow furrows of bliss and total sublimity
crystallized in good humor that took over early on in the century. Of course,
no one is aware of this. Yet. But give
everybody time, even no-shows, and it will all flow backwards, that
caparisoned night, a trial for some, and otherwise it all gets out
into your childhood and the beach that was its launching pad before
hunger and fears took over even as delight fostered the notion that
there was going to be enough for everybody, for children to pause
and have a happy home no one talks about anymore. Best to rest, sleep and laugh
about it to someone who no longer matters and then you’ll find that you are indeed
in it and have been all along, only that the show was on a kind of treadmill moving
at the same leaden pace as your jokes and ambitions, which is why you
never knew about it and therefore consented to come along anyway
on this dangerous outing to the very sources of time. Don’t
excuse yourself, nothing could.

I’ve never really considered telling you. And now. He hated
doing it—he wasn’t sure why. And so just as the mirthless sequel was being
disinterred, a feeling of rage came over him, but also of relief, because
you couldn’t do it now. They’re lost somewhere out there between the trees
and muck, besides all cars have them now. And the colorful glasses and telephone
are there; he came for a fitting. It was proper, and in its time. But no
matter what you do someone will be malevolent about it, and try to stop you,
though there is no stopping them. He came for the fitting and tried
it on and it fit, just like that. What a laugh. Oh yes she laughed out
of the closet I’ll be there in a minute dear. You see
how fond of him she was, and he, well he just took it,
like most things, change, pretzels. And she thought he was
so good at it it kind of faked her when the last windshield whizzed
by and it was all over as though in a rush. And as meat is sung,
and lips only slowly parted for the alphabet of night chimes to come
clanging down like an immense ring of keys, so with the gale-
whipped morsel, notion of itself, that dogs us and all humans, and we never
quite get out from under it, there is always a thread of it attached to you
and when you remove that, another one as though magnetized takes its place.
Begorrah it was dumb to be in the pit with him, for then the sentence …
But who knows what all they may have tried before, what
avenues exhausted before it was time to mend and really be the interloper,
and for all its sparks it was never considered dangerous.
Everybody gets such ideas on occasion, but here was the little shot-glass
of night, all ready to drink, and you spread out in it
even before it radiates in you. It doesn’t matter whether or not
you like the striations, because, in the time it takes to consider them,
they will have merged, the rich man’s house become a kettle, the wreath
in the sink turned to something else, and still the potion holds,
prominent. And you want to see it and to have it be talked about this way,
not drool aimless compassion. So on that night we were almost boarded up,
packed off to a vacation—where? Moreover no men heard of it,
only teen-age girls and male adolescents with fruited complexions and scalps,
who were going to make it difficult for one should an occasion arise.
                                                                                      But a funny
thing happened, none of us were around to count, all incommensurate with our
duties as we should forever be, and not wanting much training. The dark
was like nectar that evening, rising in the mouth; you thought you had never heard
so pretty a sound. Then, of course, quietism was again broached
and that soon, and quite soon the pink of the salmon ignited the whey
of the plover’s egg and the black of old, scarred metal; then, how it
feels relaxes one like a warm, numbing bath, and her argument, and yours,
and all of theirs—why, why not just consider, or better yet, just
hold, hold on to them? For the speed of light is far away,
and you, sooner or later, must return
to a deteriorated situation, and, placing your hand in the fire, say
just what it means to you to be connected
and over, and kiss the burning edges of the unfolded, stiff
card, and be unable to avoid doing anything about it or acknowledging it
when we have passed, when all is past.
                                               And why did
he, by what was he it? Why, we push our little tales around
and back and forth and so on
by which time it literally implodes , I mean by then he was settling in
and no one called his attention to it. In your repertory of groans is one
glottal one—you’ll feel the difference. And if it can’t liberate itself from us,
just turns to dust in the air floating with the kind of negative majesty one thought
one would not see again in one’s life. But I had the horn-we had a deal we agreed on, yet
no record of its existence is sketched, and I am all I am
in the meanwhile and 13,000 fucking miles away like a planter
on his porch. And so I am unaware of the flambeaux and, possibly, the stealth
that brought me here. And abandoned me—I—
I’m awfully sorry, big boy, but my plans concern George and his wife over by the other side
of the lake slipping into a nervous breakdown, and I, we, well as you know, we
sit here determined, not like the rind
of the melon but not liking to say anything about it into the miraculous dawn
that—gasp—gathers us into its stocking. A pervasive air about him of studious
lyricism avoided us, and he turned, ever so quickly, to the hen house, and off
in the open was seen running, and then, it’s so easy, was probably not recorded
except between the trees of a clearing. And who, what patron saint, will pick up
the pieces of the glittering lighthouse and restore us to them in a kind
of Roman calm, that we were meant for? And suddenly SHIT it’s the fire and
glass breaking everywhere—it’s as though you were never born but you must somehow
drink a toast to the small nucleus of watch-springs or confusion that
lords it over you now but will be less than an unconsumed coal among ashes, soon,
until the dryer’s fixed. And then all out and along the
cinder path that led so alluringly down to the bayou, all we can know is hope
and fevers for a coming tomorrow of saffron and moist rage under the corner
of someone’s hat that wasn’t meant to like you. Me, I
rest in the sun regardless. We saw a car drive on to the city that
is the password. Ice-cubes played tag up and down my spine. I’m
here to collect the reward. Obey my every command, no matter
how strange it may seem, otherwise we’ll have been banished before the judgment,
not know how fortunate we were in our old simplicity. Other vanished
zinnias were interviewed and nobody had anything, good or bad, to say about us,
which doesn’t cause any tears yet one wonders: what if one were back there again?
On whom might one rely? What distractions would be concocted for us
if we had strayed? And who is the baron that manipulates our daily lives
from afar? Why even depend on industry and innocence when rebellion is growing
in the ditch just outside? Who knows about us? Who ever did? Weren’t we
lying to ourselves when we thought we caught someone being just slightly
interested in us one day, and if so, whose fault is it? That we came
too late to an overgrown baseball diamond? And in the meantime shacks had vanished
without a trace from the face of the globe
and now the evening star was combing her hair at the attic window
and no one is to blame, just be calm, don’t
rush, it’s all over or soon will be or just was, in any
other language sufficient to tell it in—just like it was.

It has long been my contention that jackals,
unlike other denizens of the epistemic forest, are able to predict
the future of metabolizing some kind of parasite that grows on other people’s
children and devours them. The eyes are a profound cobalt blue, accepting
of moral dilemmas and sprouting proverbs
slowly, like crystals,
but no, not innocent ,
and not lacking in character. Twenty years ago, you will recall, the eyes
thought they made a difference, were glazed, forgetting and impudent,
relieved of parenting. Arenas were quite happy to comply
though a little bewildered. At first at least. One very chewy advanced proposition
seemed to falter, then faded into the background noise, but—here’s the thing—
continued , to this day. Bald and bleeding. I don’t like it, no one
is obliged to, everyone may bon gré mal gré ignore it, yet it peaks
and in so doing has its say. The manageress was adamant, but I had the horrible idea
of prolonging beyond night and dawn one’s predilection for quoting old
dispatches and getting into hot water, and then? The sullen bathroom
question lasted, I was too far out into it, out of pocket, plus the by no means negligible
question of my own comfort to be decoded, and all other arguments
suddenly collapsed, like a dream of homecoming. How stung my myth;
my dream wasn’t over, we were only such a dream. By this time all the caissons
of power had been turned inside out anyway; it was considered correct to despise it
and rightly so, but how often can one shamble
back to the vegetable gunk and still retain at least a superficial appearance of contrition?
As often as the clock seems to say I love you and boulders
turn in their sleep and sigh and the cat is forever running away. It took
two weeks to lead up to this. The stores are quiet now.
I say lie down in it. I already asked Santa about it.
And then, you see, it became part of our cultural history. We can’t ignore it
even though we’d like to, it’s so mild and hurtless. And you thought
you had it bad, or good. With as many associations as that
to keep thumbing through, one winks at the legal filigrane that penetrates every
page of the mouldering sheaf down to the last one, like a spike
through a door. Somebody dust these ashes off, open
the curtains, get a little light on the subject: the subject
going off on its own again. Yes but if home were only light
sliding down darkened windows in rivulets, inhabiting their
concavities and generally adapting itself to the contours of what is already there,
one could understand that,
lie back on the stiff daybed shading one’s eyes from
omnipresent bleary dawn that acts as an uncle’s remonstrance: do this
not for me or for yourself but for your mother the way an empty circle
of daisies seeks to promote plausibility and is simultaneously too distraught
and ashamed to articulate the siren call crisply and sinks, it too,
into the foam of reliably not taking itself seriously. I wish you well darling always
especially days when the gray pain lifts for a moment like fog trapped under
a layer of warmer air, then sags definitively not knowing what to do
with itself or about anything. Days when the pointed freshness of forests
above the snowline
can consider itself numb, when the friendly gurgling of rills talks
back and one listens but never heeds
that desire for perfectability. Hey, it was here only a moment ago
I think or somebody misled me, as sometimes happens, yet with as many
associations as that some of it is bound to come down, to crumble, to be reduced
to a vexing powder but natural like dust, and that
within all our lifetimes. Local businessmen bristled. New painless
methods were introduced but somehow made it all thick and rubbery, an unwanted anthem.
No one said it. Care was off and running, the divorce courts
overflowing for once, and no one was going to take issue, dispute the power vacuum
that was walking around shaking hands, acting for all the world like a candidate.
But you feel it don’t you? How come nobody
has anything nice
to say, I mean you striped ball, even for a testimonial dinner on a commercial, then they all
run back, must have been a mistake. Yes, we have it here.

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anselm kiefer’s “your golden hair, margarete”

 

 

Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980
Anselm Kiefer (German, born 1945)
Watercolor, gouache, and acrylic on paper; 16 3/8 x 21 7/8 in. (41.6 x 55.6 cm)


In the early 1980s, Kiefer made more than thirty paintings, painted photographs, and watercolors that refer in their titles and inscriptions to the Romanian Jewish writer Paul Celan’s "Todesfuge" ("Death Fugue"), a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he exiled himself to Paris until his suicide in 1970.

 

Celan’s "Death Fugue," widely read and anthologized in postwar Germany, is set in an extermination camp. Its narrative voice, in the first person plural, is that of the camp’s Jewish inmates who suffer under the strict watch of the camp’s blue-eyed commandant. Singing "your golden hair, Margarete / your ashen hair, Shulamith," the narrators contrast German womanhood, as personified by Margarete, to whom the commandant addresses letters at night (she is named after Goethe’s heroine, Gretchen, in Faust), and Jewish womanhood (Shulamith was King Solomon’s dark-haired beloved in the Song of Songs). Here, as in most of Kiefer’s Margarete works, the German heroine is depicted only by the synecdoche of her "golden hair," in the form of sheaves of wheat in the countryside.

 

"Anselm Kiefer: Your Golden Hair, Margarete (2000.96.7)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kief/ho_2000.96.7.htm (October 2008).

 

 

Paul Celan, “Death Fugue”

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling

he whistles his hounds to come close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he orders us strike up and play for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margeurite

your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play

he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue

jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margeurite

your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland

he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then in smoke to the sky

you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland

we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink

this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue

he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete

he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air

he plays with his vipers and daydreams

der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete

dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

 

 

(Translated by John Felstiner)

 

satire and pathos in geoff nicholson’s the hollywood dodo

an englishman in hollywood

stylistics and the novel of terror and violence

comparing the prose styles of don delillo’s mao II and bret easton ellis’ glamorama: delillo’s prose is set at the french new wave’s medium cool… bret easton ellis’ is all product placement & camera eye

“man is a crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten”

edward dahlberg on hart crane among the american expatriates in inter-war paris:

The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.


 

After leaving Italy I returned to Paris — to the Dome, the Select, and the Coupole. There was no place else to go. One night I sat at the Coupole until three in the morning with Hart Crane and the quondam surgeon Djuna Barnes describes in Nightwood. The doctor told tales of underground sins on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco that were as fabulous as Ophir. He spoke of tars habited as women and with such names as Hazel Dawn and Eve Fig, Eve signifying the serpent and Fig being the symbol of the womb. When I left the Coupole the surgeon held my hand closely in his and, telling me what innocent teeth I had, made a proposal which I declined with punctilio.

 

Shortly afterwards I had occasion to talk again to Hart Crane at the Cafe de Deux Magots. He had sorrows buried twenty thousand fathoms deep. At twenty-nine he had marine gray hair, a face that was as harmonious as Pythagorean numbers, and the frosty eyes he had ascribed to that other mariner of American literature in the marvelous poem, "At Melville’s Tomb." Both Melville and Crane were boreal men seeking the mild trade winds. They were water poets. Melville sought to steep all the ills of his life in the gore of a warm-blooded mammal, the whale, and Hart Crane leaped from a ship, while returning from Mexico, to give himself to the sharks.

 

Let those who flee from bitter men consider this: Melville and Crane were gentle, cold men, wrapped in seven layers of gall, but with souls that are as tender eating as young pullets.

 

One afternoon Crane asked me to go with him to the atelier of a friend. There I found myself in the midst of an altercation, and I was startled when I heard Crane say: "Eugene, dear, you ought not to talk to me in that way." He wept, pushing me aside so that he could rush out into the dusk of Paris. His friend gave me his coat saying, "Follow him, or else he will catch cold." I pursued Crane through the twining streets of Montparnasse, his coat dangling from my arm. At one of the ponts on the Seine I reached him. He stooped to arrange one of his garters, and turning his suffering face toward me, said: "I guess you think I’m immoral because I am homosexual?" I had already read White Buildings, easily his best work, as well as The Bridge in manuscript, which he had asked me to do, and I felt that such a poet could not have faults.

 

Helping him get into his jacket as though I hoped this might be a carapace in which he could hide, I left him; he would always be naked, for only those who are in perpetual want can enter the kingdom of feeling. He returned to his hotel room, and I walked alone down the Boulevard Raspail, thinking that the greater part of our morality comes from a lack of self-knowledge; does not man love his own ordure though he is disgusted at the sight of another’s?

 

What a disorderly animal man is, and how wretched pleasure makes him. Many have died coughing, but not without having derived some marvelous sensation from it. Man is a species of crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten.

 

This was the time when the Parisians held every American responsible for the tragic execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. One evening at the Coupole Hart Crane was drank and began roaring: "Down with France." He was standing at the bar when the waiter behind the counter douched him with seltzer water. Had the waiter known that Hart Crane was the first poet of his country, he might have been even more savage.

 

Crane threw a lump of traveler’s checks on the counter and, after looking about him, picked up a chair to hurl at the bartender. Then three gendarmes arrived; the defender of the honor of France had called the police. When Crane turned toward the door and saw them with clubs in their hands he ran toward them swinging the chair. I stepped between Crane and the three police, knowing that these warped guardian angels of the state would take him to jail and there beat and mangle him, as was

done some months later.

 

Gathering together all of his traveler’s checks, I asked him to give me  all of his money too, which he meekly did; I feared they would be lost or stolen from him. The gendarmes stood by as I got him into a cab. The following day I returned everything to him.

 

What little I had done for him had mitigated some obscure pain in me, for that part of us we do not use for others clogs our fate. I had been an inmate of an orphanage hi Cleveland when Hart Crane was a soda fountain clerk in his father’s fancy ice cream parlor in that city. Crane’s establishment was on Euclid Avenue, Plutus’s boulevard in Cleveland where John D. Rockefeller and Charles M. Schwab had their great mansions. On the rare occasions when I walked down Euclid Avenue, which smelt of Lake Erie and the windswept money of Troy, I wondered whether I would ever be rich enough to buy one of Crane’s ice cream sodas.

 

Later, when I returned to America, I saw him a few times at his apartment on Columbia Heights which overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge, that stygian iron symbol Crane thought represented the energy of Terra Incognita. There was always a gallon of whiskey and a pile of Sophie Tucker records near his bed. By then he was a fissured Doctor Faustus, burning up in his own crucible of lusts. He ran mad for sailors on the wharves of Lethe at Red Hook, and was beaten to pieces many times in lurid Greenpoint saloons. He complained to me that a street Arab he had taken to his apartment had stolen most of his clothes.

 

There was a brief and hapless sojourn in Mexico, and one feeble attempt to recover some moiety of Aztec ritual, the old Quetzalcoatl rubbish, for more poems. His whole salt grief lay in those tedious calms between books. He was certain that his powers had ebbed and he feared more than anything else, as Melville had, that he would drown in shoals. A poet is dead when he is not writing, and only a spectre of another age and clime when he is. Writing is done in a moonlit sleep; Isis, Jacob, Joseph, Melville, and Hart Crane were fed by the moon, for of such ore are dreams made.

 

His life was tragical Dadaism; it was absurd superficially. After his riotous nights in Paris he spent a summer at his father’s resort: Crane’s Canary Cottage, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was so embarrassed when he gave this address to friends that he rented an anonymous post office box.

 

The last ironic days with his mother cannot be overlooked either. An epicene sister of science and health, she was not averse to flirtations with her son with whom she went dancing when they were together in California. With a mother who was a Christian Science Agrippina, no wonder that Hart Crane knelt before an iron leviathan, the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.

 

 

—from Edward Dahlberg, Alms for Oblivion, University of Minnesota, 1963

 

camilo jose céla on the novel: “to rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths”

The Novel as Concept

 

by Camilo Jose Céla

I

On occasion, I have compared the process of making a novel with the process of having a child. The concept is not really original and may even be pedestrian, vulgar, and commonplace. I don’t say it isn’t. Still, to have a child, just as to have a novel, to write it, a set of circumstances must occur, for without them neither child nor novel can be produced. Savants, those who pass their idle hours combining substances in retorts or staring through a microscope or pouring over blurred palimpsests, have children in the same way as foremen on cattle ranches, the same as stevedores or bus drivers. If anyone proposed to make an analysis of a child and determine its desirable parts for combination in a laboratory, who knows what would result? Perhaps stock for soup, or shoe polish, or even dynamite, but as for a child, not likely …


It’s the same with the novel. If a Spaniard, a German, a Russian can put together the necessary ingredients, count on the required circumstances which no one can enumerate, and put their minds to the task, they can produce novels, perhaps magnificent novels. If they were to imitate the savants, they would be lost; the laboratory technician may not engender a viable child, but he can turn out utilitarian objects; novelists-a-la-savant can only produce aberrations.


The life of a child, however short it lasts, completes a cycle: the child is born, grows, dies. In addition, it cries, laughs, sucks a teat, wets itself …


In a letter, a friend tells me: "A novel is the description of a complete circle, an enclosed horizon of life, with no void spaces, just as there are none around us." This friend is quite right: the cycle may be closed—by the death of the child or the end of the novel—but it cannot be interrupted.


To speak of the novel is like speaking of the sea. The novel simply needs to be written. Dogmatic pronouncements are useless.


There is no point in trying to fit it into a Procrustean bed. And no one should forget its inexhaustible sources—of action, of aesthetic beauty, of sustained interest—sources with names like Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal. Divagations and lucubrations are of little value here.


Proust wrote: "Une oeuvre ou il y a des theories est comme un ob jet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix." Proust knew whereof he spoke: it would be frightful to give birth to a child who, instead of causing a fuss and setting up a din, as natural law requires, stood up in his cradle and pontificated: "O parents and brothers: the economic theory of free competition …" Such a child would deserve capital punishment.


A novel has no business expressly defending anything, absolutely anything at all. It will inevitably be seen that it plays some part in life, but those novels which are known to be, before they are opened, intent on defending this or attacking that, are devoid of any importance whatsoever.


The nursery of proletarian novelists which the Communist Party nurtured with a view toward overawing the Western world came to a sterile end, a blasted crop even though the Russians are exceptionally gifted for developing the genre. The great writers of the nineteenth century, who developed and came to fruition under the twin scourges of persecution and imprisonment, a very poor environment indeed for the production of luxury goods like the novel, were never bettered or even equaled by the Soviet hacks whose names are already forgotten—not even by Gorky, the best of the lot.


The concept of the novel must come from within, like the taste of a pear or the odor of a flower or of the sea. It cannot be severed, separated, or cast aside like an orange peel or a banana skin, for therein lies the danger: that the whole will be thrown away with the parings.


It is difficult indeed to conceal the scaffolding of a book from its reader. But it is a necessity. In the novels of Pio Baroja, if we take as an example the most noteworthy and most universal of modern Spanish novelists, we never stumble on the joints or the scaffolding, however much we turn the work about, hold it up to the light, or sniff around in general. For the body of Don Pio’s work is like a seamless tunic, without stitching. It is spawned—just as a boy-child or a girl-child is born—altogether and once and for all.


In contrast, let us mention Valle-Inclan, Don Ramon with his goat’s beard. His plots are more obvious than protruding ribs. What about this plank sticking out here? That board is Barbey, the French writer. And this other protrusion? That belongs to Casanova, the gentleman-writer. And so on … The fact that Don Ramon manages to emerge triumphant simply implies genius, something a bit apart from the point we are making.


The novel requires a gut truth, a whole-bodied verity, one which has been digested and redigested by the author. The novelist by rights should have four stomachs, like oxen. Thus equipped, he would constantly be ruminating his gut truth, and his book would always be well born.


Balancing acts are not permissible in the making of a novel, because if the author ever loses his balance, he falls into the abyss and breaks his neck. The great lacuna in the history of the Spanish novel, which stretches from the time of the writers of the Generation of ’98 until … until when, O Lord? … is filled with castaways who tried balancing acts.

II


A starving man is more sound in his reasons than a hundred men of letters.


It would be convenient to know, so as not to lose ourselves in a labyrinth whose secret key we do not possess, something about the function of literature. It would also not be amiss to find a way of weighing the worth of literary ingredients, of determining the soundness of the building materials with which we are working. While we are about it, why not plumb, within reasonable limits, the rarefied nature of the writing profession itself? We might then be in a position to guess whether the art of the novel is some kind of scientific paradox or if it is instead a manifestation of wondrous chance—of a pure, if truncated, kind of stern destiny.


To Carlyle’s way of thinking, writing is the greatest miracle of man’s imagining—perhaps simply a miraculous curse. For Goethe, it seems a laborious way of relaxing, perhaps a form of relaxation which will let us die wearing the frightful grimace of a person succumbing to overwork.


A writer’s singular office may be compared to a disappointing game of blindman’s buff: the principal actor dances in desperation before a chorus of invisible and phantasmagoric spectators. "To write is to arouse interest, but the interest we manage to arouse may be no more than a tiny bell tinkling in a great desert waste, and it may make us forget the blindfold around our eyes and prevent us from properly assessing the materials with which we will have to work: that is, the prose which will give only a poor idea of things, and the poetry which will yield only an inexact notion." Thus spoke that tormented and blindfolded Spaniard, Angel Ganivet, who committed suicide in the Dwina River.


And to write novels, to "novelate"? To novelate is to die step by step on a dusty road leading nowhere. And to go down smiling, the better to please the world’s lurid tastes, the better to endure its mockery, all the while being beaten while fending off the Tyrians, who play with a stacked deck because they are not allowed to lose, and taking additional blows from the Trojans, who jump into the ring bearing arms forbidden by all codes of honor because, according to the laws promulgated by themselves, their side must always win.


To write novels is to uproot oneself, to venture forth carrying one’s roots in the air above one’s head, and to let oneself be cut down by the first fool one encounters without a show of resistance and in the full knowledge of one’s own ignominy.


Today it is not enough to possess a purely artistic understanding of the hara-kiri involved in novelating. A genius may raise his particular science to the heights of art, but the artist lacking genius may be merely a fraud, a dealer in contraband. It’s for the likes of the latter that literary prize contests are organized: fraudulent novelists write novels with a thesis—proletarian novels, inspirational novels, redemptive novels, sex novels—and the host of nonsense books that are invented for the stultification of man, who was once called, in happier times, the measure of all things.


The novelist does not know where he is going. The same is true of the north needle on a compass. The novelist allots himself a certain amount of terrain, applies the technology he has mastered, and awaits to see what he produces: if it’s a boy he’ll know by its lap, likewise if it’s a girl; if it’s bearded he can call out San Anton, if not, he can speak of an Immaculate Conception.


Science, like life or death, does not allow subterfuge. Art, like love, does. Thus, for the latter, fraud is a distinct possibility. The point is to avoid, with a measure of precision, concepts as such, and also to avoid confusing love with alterations in the nervous system. No novelist would ever think "to tell a book by its cover," and neither would he confuse an underground tuber with its leaves, for he must begin by knowing what leaves are and what a tuber is. George Santayana affirmed that the function of literature is to convert events into ideas. This conversion or transformation, be it understood, cannot be attained by exclusively artistic means, or by purely intuitive, nondeliberated means, which would amount to the same. The present crisis in literature is due to the inability of the novelist to dominate modern technical means. Beyond Faulkner’s interior monologue, for example, which can be carried on through talent alone, there rises, like a giant mountain, the terra incognita of strict objectivity. Objectivity in itself is a difficult bone to gnaw, especially with the teeth provided by art. Nevertheless, if the novelistic genre is not to atrophy, science must sooner or later sink its teeth into the matter.


Today’s novelist should surely give up his affair with the likes of Madame Bovary and turn his attention to a Lazarillo, the archetypal picaro of the picaresque. The novel should no longer concern itself with the amusements of featherbrained housewives, maudlin dreamers who whore around, in body or soul, at the far corners of provinces. Such things as hunger and bad faith are still prevalent, as is the wretchedness of the servant with a hundred masters.

To rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths: that is the business of the contemporary novelist, assuming he does not want to go into cold storage, where, as with multicolored cats at night, all things are a monotone.


If it’s all a matter of killing time—a role assigned literature by all its detractors and a goodly number of those who cultivate it—everything we have said is superfluous. Still, something greater may be involved, though it have so many names we dare not name it with any one name.


The art of novelating is clearly, more clearly each day, seen to be an affair of two or three world novelists who work with energy and faith above and beyond the orbit of art. In physics, the same was true with Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and even true before them.


Ortega’s figure of a divine somnambulist no longer serves. That time is done. In the field of the novel, the seer exchanges his walnut wand for a radar installation.


All this does notmean the death of the genre. It may represent its birth. In Galdos’s time the novel was still in its intrauterine stage.

 
 

—Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. First Published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, issue 4.3 (Fall 1984).

 

CAMILO JOSE CÉLA, born in Spain, has published over fifty books of fiction, criticism, and travel writing. His novels include The Family of Pascual Duarte, Hive, San Camilo, and 1936. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989.

 

jack spicer—”poems should echo & reecho against each other..they cannot live alone any more than we”


 

The City of Boston

 

The city of Boston is filled with frogheaded

flies and British policemen. The other day I saw

the corpse of Emily Dickinson floating up the

Charles River.

 

Sweet God, it is lonely to be dead. Sweet

God, is there any god to worship? God stands in

Boston like a public statue. Sweet God, is there

any God to swear love by? Or love—it is lonely,

is lonely, is lonely to be lonely in Boston.

 

Now Emily Dickinson is floating down the

Charles River like an Indian princess. Now

naked savages are climbing out of all the graveyards.

Now the Holy Ghost drips birdshit on

the nose of God. Now the whole thing stops.

Sweet God, poetry hates Boston.

 

 

By Jack Spicer, in the Spring/Summer issue of The Massachusetts Review. Spicer, the author of seven books, died in 1965 at the age of forty. Found among his papers, this poem was written circa 1956. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer will be published next month by Wesleyan University Press.

 

—from Harper’s Magazine, July 2008

 

More Jack Spicer, from www.poemhunter.com:

 

Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIII

         

Hush now baby don’t say a word

Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior. The third

Joyful mystery.

If the mocking bird don’t sing

Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring

The diamond ring is God, the mocking bird the Holy Ghost.

The third

Joyful mystery.

The joy that descends on you when all the trees are cut down

and all the fountains polluted and you are still alive waiting

for an absent savior.

 

 

Fifteen False Propositions Against God – Section XIV

         

If the diamond ring turns brass

Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass

Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams

going on a picnic together when they were all students at the

University of Pennsylvania

Now they are all over seventy and the absent baby

Is a mirror sheltering their image.

 

 

For Mac

         

A dead starfish on a beach

He has five branches

Representing the five senses

Representing the jokes we did not tell each other

Call the earth flat

Call other people human

But let this creature lie

Flat upon our senses

Like a love

Prefigured in the sea

That died.

And went to water

All the oceans

Of emotion. All the oceans of emotion

are full of such ffish

Why

Is this dead one of such importance?

 

 

Thing Language

         

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises

Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry. The ocean

Does not mean to be listened to. A drop

Or crash of water. It means

Nothing.

It

Is bread and butter

Pepper and salt. The death

That young men hope for. Aimlessly

It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No

One listens to poetry.

 

 

A Red Wheelbarrow

         

Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever

It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

For their significance.

For their significant. For being human

The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright

Are a signal for them. Not,

I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not

Their significance.

And yet more Jack Spicer, from http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/spicer:

 


A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance

 

What have I lost? When shall I start to sing
A loud and idiotic song that makes
The heart rise frightened into poetry
Like birds disturbed?

I was a singer once. I sang that song.
I saw the thousands of bewildered birds
Breaking their cover into poetry
Up from the heart.

What have I lost? We lived in forests then,
Naked as jaybirds in the ever-real,
Eating our toasted buns and catching flies,
And sometimes angels, with our hooting tongues.

I was a singer once. In distant trees
We made the forests ring with sacred noise
Of gods and bears and swans and sodomy,
And no one but a bird could hear our voice.

What have I lost? The trees were full of birds.
We sat there drinking at the sour wine
In gallon bottles. Shouting song
Until the hunters came.

I was a singer once, bird-ignorant.
Time with a gun said, "Stop,
Find other forests. Teach the innocent."
God got another and a third
Birdlimed in Eloquence.

What have I lost? At night my hooting tongue,
Naked of feathers and of softening years,
Sings through the mirror at me like a whippoorwill
And then I cannot sleep.

"I was a singer once," it sings.
"I sing the song that every captured tongue
Sang once when free and wants again to sing.
But I can sing no song I have not sung."

What have I lost? Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron’s edge.
Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.

 

The Unvert Manifesto and Other Papers Found in the Rare Book Room of the Boston Public Library in the Handwriting of Oliver Charming.  by S.

 

The Unvert Manifesto

1.      An unvert is neither an invert or an outvert, a pervert or a convert, an introvert or a retrovert. An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.

2.      One should always masturbate on street corners.

3.      Unversion is the attempt to make the sexual act as rare as a rosepetal. It consists of linking the sexual with the greatest cosmic force in the universe  Nonsense, or as we prefer to call it, MERTZ.

4.      Sex should be a frightening experience like a dirty joke or an angel.

5.      Dirty jokes and angels should be frightening experiences.

6.      An unvert must not be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or autosexual. He must be metasexual. He must enjoy going to bed with his own tears.

7.      Mertz!

8.      All the universe is laughing at you.

9.      Poetry, painting, and cocksucking are all attempts of the unvert to make God laugh.

10. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

11. Sidney Mertz was the only man ever arrested for drunken driving of a steam locomotive. He is now the bartender of the American Legion bar in Jackson, Wyoming.

12. Jews and Negros are not allowed to be unverts. The Jew will never understand unversion and the Negro understands it too well.

13. An unvert loves only other unverts. He will, however, consent to perform an act of unversion with almost anything except lovers and mountain lions.

14. God loves God.

15. Mertz must be applied to sex. People must learn to laugh into each other’s gonads.

16. God is an unvert.

17. Sex without love is better than love without sex. Sex without Mertz is never better than Mertz without sex. Nonsense is an act of friendship.

18. The larger the Dada, the bigger the hole.

19. Nonsense, Mertz, Dada, and God all go to the same nightclubs.

20. So does Graham Macarel.

 


Excerpts from Oliver Charming’s Diary

 

October 31, 1953:
    "I must unvent someone named Graham Macarel. He should be about seventeen or eighteen and have a large Dada. I can use him as the hero and victim of my Mertzcycle . . ."

November 5, 1953:
    "Laughed all day. The elements of imagination are exhausting as Hell."

November 23, 1953:
    "It was more successful than I expected. He is beginning to become mythical. I saw him today and he told me that he is taking a course in his art school in which he has to clip examples of racial prejudice from Tarot cards and give their exact date. His art school’s name is the California School of Fine Flowers. His teacher’s name is S. We talked for awhile and I am already beginning to destroy his universe. . . . Method is everything."

December 1, 1953:
    "Love must only be applied at the wrong time and in the wrong place. It must be thrown at the unsuspecting like a custard pie made of poison . . . Nothing destroys Mertz more than custom. Nothing destroys it less than treason."

December 7, 1953:
    "I return to Graham Macarel. (Note – I must be sure to call him Mac. Graham reminds the uninformed imagination of crackers.) He has become a combination of a Boy Scout and a depth charge. He appeals to the primitive sources of nonsense and despair.
    I suspect that his teacher, S., is secretly an unvert  or, at least a spoiled unvert. Something is going on between S. and history. I wonder if Mac realizes that an unvert is an agent of Kubla Khan."

December 9, 1953:
    "’An unvert is an angel of Kubla Khan.’  that’s what Mac said to me last night in the men’s room of the Palace Hotel. At the time he said it he was . . . which is certainly Dada if not Mertz."

December 10, 1953:
    ". . . suspects . . ."

December 18, 1953:
    "It is Christmas vacation at the California School of Fine Flowers. S. was in the bars last night, very drunk. I think he is planning to unvert somebody."

December 19, 1953:
    "I had a conversation with S. late last night. He was again very drunk. ‘Why did you have to invent Graham Macarel?’ he asked me angrily.
    ‘I thought it would be good for your poetry,’ I answered.
    ‘Why didn’t you invent syphilis instead,’ he asked contemptuously. So yesterday I invented syphilis. Today I am going to . . ."

December 22, 1953:
    "S. is in Los Angeles."

December 23, 1953:
    "To appear as human among homosexuals and to appear as divine among heterosexuals . . ."

December 24, 1953:
    "Nobody remains in this city and I have done all my Christmas shopping.
    The Dada in painting is not Duchamp. The Dada in poetry is not Breton. The Dada in sex is not De Sade. All these men were too obsessed with the mechanism of their subject. A crime against nature must also be a crime against art. A crime against art must also be a crime against nature. All beauty is at continuous war with God."

December 25, 1953:
    "Merry Christmas, Graham Macarel."

December 26, 1953:
    "It continually amazes the unprejudiced Mertzian observer that even the people who struggle most against the limits of art are content to have sex in ordinary academic ways, as if they and their bed-partners were nineteenth-century paintings. Or, worse, they will change the point of view (top becomes bottom, male becomes female, etc. etc.) and think, like the magic realists that they are, that they have changed something.
    Everybody is guilty of this – from Cocteau to Beethoven."

December 28, 1953:
    "A sailor asked me last night what the unvert thought of Kinsey. I told him that we held that Kinsey was a valuable evidence of the boredom of un-unverted sex  that ordinary sex had become so monotonous that it had become statistical like farm income or rolling stock totals. I told him that Kinsey was the Zola preparing the way for the new Lautréamont.
    It is remarkable how even science fiction has developed no new attitudes toward sex. The vacant interstellar spaces are filled with exactly the same bedrooms the rocketships left behind. It is only the unvert who dares to speak Martian in bed. I wonder if Kierkegaard had wet dreams."

December 29, 1953:
    "How The Zen Masters Taught Sex To Their Disciples – such a book would be the most useful book a man could publish. Sex is a metaphysical experience. Zen taught that man can only reach the metaphysical by way of the absurd. No, absurd is the wrong word. What is the Chinese for shaggy-dog story?
    The book should be illustrated pornographically but the general style of Mad Comics. It should have a blue cover."

December 30, 1953:
    "S. is in town again. I saw him at the Black Cat. He looked confused at all the lack of excitement around him, as if he believed that a holiday was like a snowstorm and people should notice it.
    We began discussing homosexuality. I, by bringing in subtle pieces of unvert propganda, and he, embarrassed and overintellectual as if he thought, or rather hoped, that I was trying to seduce him."
    ‘We homosexuals are the only minority group that completely lacks any vestige of a separate cultural heritage. We have no songs, no folklore, even our customs are borrowed from our upper-middleclass mothers’, he said."
    The trouble with S. is that he doesn’t understand Martian. I must tell him about the time . . ."

December 31, 1953:
    "I rebel against the tyrrany of the calendar."

January 1, 1954:
    "My analyst is teaching me French."

January 2, 1954:
    "S. says that it is inconsistent for an unvert to have a psychiatrist. He does not understand unversion. The relationship between the analyst and the patient is the firmest and most hallowed, if the most conventional, sexual relationship in the modern world. This is precisely why it must be shaken. It is our task to experience and unvert all sexual relationships."

January 3, 1954:
    "Sometimes, in moments of depression, I think that all this talk of Dada and Mertz is merely the reaction of the unsuccessful cocksucker or artsucker who doesn’t understand beauty when it offers itself to him. Witness Western civilization or the bar last night . . ."

January 4, 1954:
    "Now that I have Graham Macarel, S., and a psychiatrist, all that I need is an angel. One cannot, however, safely invent an angel . . . Lot was the last person to safely invent an angel. He was bored with his lover, with their children, and with all the inhabitants of the immense and sandy Turkish bath that they were living in . . . He invented an angel and then everybody had to kill him . . . Everybody had to kill him not because the angel was as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb (which he was) and not because the angel was beautiful as a Florida hurricane (which he was), but because the angel was a stranger and it is always the habit of Jews and homosexuals to kill strangers . . . They almost caught the angel once in Lot’s chimney, and a sailor once managed to catch hold of its groin as it was disappearing into a broom-closet, but soon fire and brimstone were descending on the town and Lot was walking with his lover along a deserted road on the first range of foothills carrying a packed suitcase . . . The lover looked backwards, of course, to make sure that the angel was not following them and was immediately turned into a life-sized salt statue. It is very difficult to suck the cock of a life-sized salt statue or to sample the delight of sodomy with a pillar . . . Lot left him there and trudged onward alone, with an angel on his back.
    I must take warning from this. There are some inventions even sex does not make necessary."

January 5, 1954:
    "No angel as yet. I wonder if I could steal one. By a bit of clever propaganda I have arranged that Mac will have to report on angels to his history class. This should bring things into focus.
    Mac asked me about angels yesterday  whether I thought they really existed, what they did in bed, etc. etc. I told him that very few people under twenty-five had angels at all. That they were like a kind of combination of Siamese cats and syphilis and for him not to worry if they occasionally tugged at his pubic hairs. He was still uncertain: ‘How can I find any chronology in it?’ he asked plaintively."

January 6, 1954:
    "There is a morning when it rains in the corner of everybody’s bedroom."

January 7, 1954:
    "My psychiatrist, Robert Berg, considers that it is his duty to unvent angels. It must be understood that unvention is as different from unversion as psychoanalysis is from poetry."

January 9, 1954:
    "Mac tells me that he saw an angel resting in a tree above his art school. This must be the angel we have been waiting for."

January 10, 1954:
    "I have seen it too. It is a bearded angel, small as a bird, and answers to the name of Heurtebise. S., being what he is, pretends not to believe and says that it is only an owl or some unlucky night creature. He says that he is sorry for it."

January 11, 1954:
    "The angel keeps screaching in the tree. It is behaving more and more like a bird. We are doing something wrong . . . Perhaps it isn’t our angel."

January 12, 1954:
    "I am gradually able to have the most Mertzian sexual…

 

Three Marxist Essays

 

Homosexuality and Marxism

 

There should be no rules for this but it should be
simultaneous if at all.
  Homosexuality is essentially being alone. Which is
a fight against the capitalist bosses who do not want
us to be alone. Alone we are dangerous.
  Our dissatisfaction could ruin America. Our love
could ruin the universe if we let it.
  If we let our love flower into the true revolution
we will be swamped with offers for beds.

 

 

The Jets and Marxism

 

  The jets hate politics. They grew up in fat cat society
that didn’t even have a depression or a war in it. They
are against capital punishment.
  They really couldn’t care less. They wear switch-blade
knives tied with ribbons. They know that which runs
this country is an IBM machine connected to an IBM
machine. They never think of using their knives against
its aluminum casing.
  A League Against Youth and Fascism should be formed
immediately by our Party. They are our guests. They are
ignorant.

 

The Jets and Homosexuality

 

  Once in the golden dawn of homosexuality there was
a philosopher who gave the formula for a new society
"from each, according to his ability, to each according
to his need."
  This formula appears in the New Testament  the
parable of the fig tree  and elsewhere.
  To continue the argument is fruitless.

 

 

Second letter to Federico Garcia Lorca

Dear Lorca,

When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

It is very difficult. We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-leved and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.

I yell "Shit" down a cliff at the ocean. Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word will fad. It will be dead as "Alas." But if I put the real cliff and the real ocean into the poem, the word "Shit" will ride along with them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and oceans disappear.

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, "See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!" What does one do with all this crap?

Words are what sticks to the real.We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.

I repeat  the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.

Love,
Jack

 

 

First Letter (from Admonitions)

 

Dear Joe,

Some time ago I would have thought that writing notes on particular poems would either be a confession that the poems were totally inadequate (a sort of patch put on a leaky tire) or an equally humiliating confession that the writer was more interested in the terrestrial mechanics of criticism than the celestial mechanics of poetry  in either case that the effort belonged to the garage or stable rather than to the Muse.

Muses do exist, but now I know that they are not afraid to dirty their hands with explication  that they are patient with truth and commentary as long as it doesn’t get into the poem, that they whisper (if you let yourself really hear them), "Talk all you want, baby, but then let’s go to bed."

This sexual metaphor brings me to the first problem. In these poems the obscene (in word and concept) is not used, as is common, for the sake of intensity, but rather as a kind of rhythm as the tip-tap of the branches throughout the dream of Finnegans Wake or, to make the analogy even more mysterious to you, a cheering section at a particularly exciting football game. It is precisely because the obscenity is unnecessary that I use it, as I could have used any disturbance, as I could have used anything (remember the beat in jazz) which is regular and beside the point.

The point. But what, you will be too polite to ask me, is the point? Are not these poems all things to all men, like Rorschach ink blots or whores? Are they anything better than a kind of mirror?

In themselves, no. Each one of them is a mirror, dedicated to the person that I particularly want to look into it. But mirrors can be arranged. The frightening hall of mirrors in a fun house is universal beyond each particular reflection.

This letter is to you because you are my publisher and because the poem I wrote for you gives the most distorted reflection in the whole promenade. Mirror makers know the secret – one does not make a mirror to resemble a person, one brings a person to the mirror.

Love,
Jack

 

 

Second Letter (from Admonitions)

 

Dear Robin,

Enclosed you find the first of the publications of White Rabbit Press. The second will be much handsomer.

You are right that I don’t now need your criticisms of individual poems. But I still want them. It’s probably from old habit – but it’s an awfully old habit. Halfway through After Lorca I discovered that I was writing a book instead of a series of poems and individual criticism by anyone suddenly became less important. This is true of my Admonitions which I will send you when complete. (I have eight of them already and there will probably be fourteen including, of course, this letter.)

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us  not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never by fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. This is where we were wrong and he was right, but he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is – but not in relation to a single poem. There is really no single poem.

That is why all my stuff from the past (except the Elegies and Troilus) looks foul to me. The poems belong nowhere. They are one night stands filled (the best of them) with their own emotions, but pointing nowhere, as meaningless as sex in a Turkish bath. It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of all of us) and it ruined ten years of my poetry. Look at those other poems. Admire them if you like. They are beautiful but dumb.

Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.

So don’t send the box of old poetry to Don Allen. Burn it or rather open it with Don and cry over the possible books that were buried in it  the Songs Against Apollo, the Gallery of Gorgeous Gods, the Drinking Songs  all incomplete, all abortive – all incomplete, all abortive because I thought, like all abortionists, that what is not perfect had no real right to live.

Things fit together. We knew that  it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is nver to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.

This is the most important letter that you have ever received.

Love,
Jack

 

 

"This ocean, humiliating in its disguises"

 

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Nothing.
It
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

 

 

Sporting Life

 

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
     don’t develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
     transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
     burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
     punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet

Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
     in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
     a champion.

Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
     scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
     invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
     them.

The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
     counterpunching radio.

And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
     know they are champions.

 

Six Poems for Poetry Chicago (poems #1-4)

 

1

 

"Limon tree very pretty
And the limon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon
Is impossible to eat"
In Riverside we saved the oranges first (by smudging) and left
     the lemons last to fed for themselves. They didn’t usually
A no good crop. Smudge-pots
Didn’t rouse them. The music
Is right though. The lemon tree
Could branch off into real magic. Each flower in place. We
Were sickened by the old lemon.

 

2

 

Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot
     and then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
     good.
The past around us is deeper than.
Present events defy us, the past
Has no such scruples. No funeral processions for him. He died
     in agony. The cock under the thumb.
Rest us as corpses
We poets
Vain words.
For a funeral (as I live and breathe and speak)
Of good
And impossible
Dimensions.

 

3

 

In the far, fat Vietnamese jungles nothing grows.
In Guadacanal nothing grew but a kind of shrubbery that was
     like the bar-conversation of your best best friend who was
     not able to talk.
     3
Sheets to the wind. No
Wind being present.
No
Lifeboats being present. A jungle
Can’t use life-boats. Dead
From whatever bullets the snipers were. Each
Side of themselves. Safe-
Ly delivered.

 

4  

The rind (also called the skin) of the lemon is difficult to
     understand.
It goes around itself in an oval quite unlike the orange which, as
     anyone can tell, is a fruit easily to be eaten.
It can be crushed into all sorts of extracts which are
     still not lemons. Oranges have no such fate. They’re pretty
     much the same as they were. Culls become frozen orange
     juice. The best oranges are eaten.
It’s the shape of the lemon, I guess that causes trouble. It’s
     ovalness, it’s rind. This is where my love, somehow, stops.