Tuesday, December 09, 2008

David Prater's "We Will Disappear"

David Prater's poems have a loose, casual, off-the-cuff feel, which does not preclude grace, poise, and charm. Many of the best elements that animate his We Will Disappear are elements which Prater has in common with Frank O'Hara. The most significant difference I can see is that of tone. O'Hara is light, bouncy, airy; Prater's poems are established as darker, sardonic, even ominous at times. Prater's veneer of post-modern ease and Pop knowing-ness mask what you might call, without undue exaggeration, a heart of darkness. There even seems to be a debt paid to Martin Amis; a sense of the corrosive, the embittered, the festering. This poem is called A Veteran of the Club Scene:

panic on the streets of south
yarra geez they shut us down
when i'm peaking it's a rip-off
shit's been cut with something
maybe brain juices? not mine
got the tip-off said get rid of
'em ages ago i loved to dance
though don't seem to have the
energy anymore i'm still here
propping up a legendary club
foot & nose patches stop the
bleeding bring on peace man
& another buggered recovery
whatever that means i forgot
my own name monday what a
bore youse young freaks just
don't understand we all need
a little helping hand to the
hot water dispensers if only
they'd mix it with cordial ah
those good old halcyon nites
hiya girls! ok sure hop in its
back to mine just let me say
you are you are a wonderful
repeat wonderful person yeah

If O'Hara handled this scenario (going to a club, picking people up, taking them home, with all the titillating scenarios/vignettes this implies), it would be a dance of joy. Notice the manner in which Prater undermines the scenario by expressing ambivalence, cynicism, and a feeling of unraveling loose ends: the first word of the poem is "panic"; Prater's drug-high is a "rip-off"; he doesn't have the energy to dance anymore; there is an issue of "bleeding"; he is "bored" by the "young freaks"; he has to call his picked-up (presumably one-night) friends "wonderful" twice, more to convince himself that they are wonderful than for any other reason. You could call this a poem of lost youth, only it would seem odd because the poem presents us with the poet in medias res. What we see is a tension between the poet's stream-of-consciousness and what the poet is actually doing (clubbing), and the fact that these two elements seem to be more-or-less at war. I find this compelling because it implicates, both directly and indirectly, the youth culture which encourages people to pursue childish fantasies, and to look for happiness in transient pleasures. If Prater were to preach or moralize, the poem would fall flat on its arse; because Prater is able to show not tell, his poem becomes valid social commentary. Prater's struggle becomes our struggle; none of us wants to get old, none of us wants to be boring. Prater shows us how "veterans" of the club scene (much like Baudelaire's veterans of pleasure in Paris Spleen) become trapped by their own attempts to keep up, to keep the party going. Search Poem #9 puts another spin on this ball:

search only in fucking
viewing in google page rank order
view in alphabetical order toto reviews
more interesting than the phonebook
comment (4) google fucking sucks?
thanks to whoever hit this site after
plugging google fucking sucks into
google lesbian adult image gallery
opposite a google unhurreidly trades
the sex stopping cum to an in-flight
perfect example article google removes
google removes DMCA offenders
by U.S. Marine I'm impressed!
by cow eater fan don't blame google
it's the fucking DMCA again!
google's swift removal of anti-scientology
sites is only a tip of the iceberg
search engines cannot test test test
anyway just as I was about to write some
brilliant fucking retort to the whole
google bombing fiasco ben goes off
and writes some lost canadians in a dark
dark place canada sucks i hate canada fuckin
canada fourth most relevant on yahoo
and google cached-- similar pages

What Prater offers us is again stream-of-consciousness, and once again there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved. We see how the Net has effected our Collective Consciousness, and what it is like to do something that O'Hara and his buddies never did; sit in front of a computer, absorbed in the endless melange of information, opinions, and saber-rattling that is the Internet circa 2008. "Fucking" in the first line clues us in that there is anger involved; who hasn't succumb to a fit of "Net Rage" at some point? Anger arises because ideally, it shouldn't be that way; as with "Club Scene," there is a moral undercurrent which implicates Western culture, and which again brings to mind Baudelaire (a most beleaguered and severe moralist.) Prater uses repetition and parallel structure ("google" appears in the poem eleven times, and opens lines 8, 13, 17, and 22) to create a mood of claustrophobic intensity, of walls closing in. As with Juliet Cook in Horrific Confection, this is a text tightly wound, tightly closed in on its own subject matter and, to quote Eliot, hard, curled, and ready to snap. The comfort and safety of "open" formality is done away with, because the circumstances being rendered are not open. This is full frontal assault; like Amis in Money, a barrage approach is deemed most efficacious. For those of us who live right on the post-modern edge, this feels more right, more apropos, more direct, and more pertinent than what has been standard in post-avant up to this point. Poets are eschewing "open" texts because poets are not leading "open" lives; the global economy is suffering, resources are scarce, chaos is just a step away. Prater's book is not comforting on any level except one: that comfort that comes when masks are stripped away and this essential truth, of how we are living now, is revealed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jean Toomer's "Cane"

Cane, by Jean Toomer, is often regarded as the key text of the Harlem Renaissance; the book that started that particular game. Yet Toomer himself was, it was said, only one-eighth African-American. Cane never resigned himself to being black, or to being white; yet his book is predicated on a need to explore the dimensions, potentialities, distractions, frustrations, and contradictions of blackness in America (or, more specifically, blackness in the post-bellum South.) Many heralded Cane as the beginning of a great literary career (much in the manner that Emerson heralded Whitman); yet no sooner had Toomer created a new, hybridized, multi-cultural approach to literature, that expanded cultural and formal parameters whilst maintaining a grasp of humanity, than he abandoned this approach and retreated into a sterile pseudo-spirituality. To be fair, I have not read the "spiritualized" texts that Toomer concocted post-Cane; but there seems to be a uniform agreement that they do not achieve the diversity or cultural importance that Cane does. Cane is a book which crosses generic boundaries; there are poems, short stories, brief character sketches that incorporate many of the devices of prose-poetry, and all in a voice that walks a fine line between exuberance, wistfulness, and exquisite sorrow. I thought it might be interesting to try to parse a few of the poems in Cane. This is Reapers:

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds.
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

The juxtaposition of heroic, rhyming couplets, a la Pope or Dryden, with the subject being addressed makes a bizarre contrast: poverty, manual labor, and a synecdochic rat bleeding. It can be taken as an extension of the work done by Phillis Wheatley, who also used Neo-Classical formality to deal with issues of race, hierarchy, and injustice. Yet Toomer's own position in this poem is ambiguous; there is little "I", nor is there any editorializing to give a sense of how Toomer feels about what he is documenting. The only thing the "I" does here is to "see." As reductive as that sounds, the visual aspects of this poem (scythes, hones, hip-pockets, black horses) are strong enough to make the poem compelling, without a protagonist. The implied metaphoric comparisons between the reapers and the horses (both are black) are obvious; these are men that have been reduced to working in the field like beasts. Yet this poem was composed long after the American Civil War had ended; thus, what seems like slavery is not exactly that. There was clearly a discrepancy between the political reality (blacks having been emancipated) and the social reality (blacks still forced to do manual labor in the South.) This contradiction is merely the tip of the iceberg; Cane is waist-deep in such contradictions, which carry over into the North as well. A sonnet follows this poem, entitled November Cotton Flower, also written in rhyming couplets:

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

I read this poem as an extended metaphor relating to the condition of both blacks in the South, and the South in general. The South, as seen in Cane, has a moribund quality, a sense of lost grandeur, decayed beauty, abraded prosperity. As it appears here, the South is in its November, teetering on the brink of extinction. Of course, this is not literal extinction; but extinction in the sense that the South, as a region, is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Once the Civil War had "put the South down," the hauteur of Southerners was forced into a kind of permanent retreat. The November cotton flower is here connected metonymically with blacks in the South, who are now able to "love without a trace of fear," who live out yet another contradiction by growing and developing owing specifically to the South's general decline. Faulkner writes about the force of the past holding Southern whites back, binding and gagging them; Toomer assays the new freedoms that blacks have gained. The cotton-stalks that look rusty could be the old ways (including slavery), and vanishing cotton reinforces this; "dead birds" embodies the general stagnant stasis of the South as a region, and could also possibly refer to Southern belles, white women.

Again, these poems need to be seen in the context of Cane, as an entirety, for them to have their full impact. Cane hovers between these two poles, the decay of the old and the force of the new; and demonstrates how normal people learn to assimilate this contradiction. "Dead birds" in November Cotton Flower is reinforced by the character sketches that Toomer makes of women, like Fern and Becky. For its time, Cane was a very openly sexual book, and Toomer pictured the South as an eroticized realm, and I agree. We also get a sense of urban America from some of the short stories, but if Cane has an essence, it is in the small Southern towns which Toomer himself made a pilgrimage to before he wrote this book, and that he apparently never returned to again.

P.S. Mary Harju's The Fall on As/Is.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Eris Temple EP

The Eris Temple EP was recorded at the Eris Temple in North-West Philadelphia (52nd and Cedar) in 2007. Produced and engineered by Matt Stevenson. All songs by Adam Fieled except I'm In Love With A Girl by Alex Chilton. Drums on She Disowned My Life by Pete Leonard.

P.S. I'm reading with Tom Devaney in West Philadelphia (Last Word) on October 10. See you there.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Andrew Hudgins: After the Lost War

It would be difficult to find a less progressive book than Andrew Hudgins' After the Lost War: A Narrative. The book documents the life of poet/musician Sidney Lanier, who fought for the Confederate Army before working professionally as a musician. Stylistically, the book is homely, linear, earthy, and shot through with a silver lining of mysticism. There is absolutely no reason that this book could not have been written and published in 1919, or 1909, or 1899 (it actually came out in 1988.) Hudgins is both conserving a bygone era and conserving a specific character that dwelt in this landscape. It is a fractured, embittered, war-torn landscape; yet the text nonetheless offers much in the way of sensual richness and narrative cohesion. For me, the most effective poem in the book is Burial Detail, which enumerates an experience Lanier had during the Civil War:

Between each layer of tattered, broken flesh
we spread, like frosting, a layer of lime,
and then we spread it extra thick on top
as though we were building a giant torte.
The lime has something to do with cholera
and helps, I think, the chemistry of decay
when slathered between the ranks of sour dead.
I know what we did; I'm not sure why.
The colonel had to ask us twice for volunteers;
the second time I went. I don't know why.
Even in August heat I cannot sleep
unless I have a sheet across my shoulders.
I guess we owe our species something.
We stacked the flaccid meat all afternoon,
and then night fell so black and absolute
it was as if the day had never been,
was something impossible we'd made up
to comfort ourselves in our long work.
And even in the pitch-black, pointless dark
we stacked the men and spread the lime
as we had done all day. Though not as neat.

They were supposed to be checked thoroughly.
I didn't look; I didn't sift their pockets.
A lot of things got buried that shouldn't have been.
I tossed men unexamined into the trench.
But out of the corner of my eyes
I kept seeing faces I thought I knew.
At first they were the faces of anonymous men
I may have seen in camp or on the field.
Later, as I grew tired, exhausted, sick,
I saw they were my mother, father, kin
whom I had never seen but recognized
by features I knew in different combinations
on the shifting, similar faces of my cousins,
and even, once, a face that looked like mine.
But when I stopped to stare at them
I found the soft, unfocused eyes of strangers
and let them drop into the common grave.

Then, my knees gave. I dropped my shovel
and pitched, face first, into the half-filled trench.
I woke almost immediatly, and stood
on someone's chest while tired hands pulled me out.
It's funny; standing there, I didn't feel
the mud-wet suck of death beneath my feet
as I had felt it often enough before
when we made forced marches through Virginia rain.
That is to say, the dead man's spongy chest
was firmer than the roads that led us--
and him--into the Wilderness.
For six or seven days I had to hear
a lot of stupid jokes about that faint:
folks are dying to get in, that sort of thing.
I wasn't the only one to faint.
You'd think I would have fainted for my father,
for some especially mutilated boy,
for Clifford or my mother. Not for myself.

In the hot inexhaustible work of the night
a good wind blowing from a distant storm
was heaven, more so because the bodies needed
to be wet, to ripen in moisture and lime,
to pitch and rock with tiny lives,
or whatever it takes to make them earth again.
Okay, I'm sorry for this, for getting worked up.
The thought that they might not decay
was enough to make my stomach heave.
Some men I've argued with seem to think
that they'll stay perfect, whole and sweet,
beneath the ground. It makes me shudder:
dead bodies in no way different from my own
except mine moves, and shudders in its moving.
I take great comfort in knowing I will rot
and that the chest I once stood on
is indistinguishable from other soil
and I will be indistinguishable from it.

But standing there, looking out of the grave,
eyes barely above the lip of the earth, I saw
the most beautiful thing I've ever seen:
dawn on the field after the Wilderness.
The bodies, in dawn light, were simply forms;
the landscape seemed abstract, unreal.
It didn't look like corpses, trees, or sky,
but shapes on shapes against a field of gray
and in the distance a source of doubtful light,
itself still gray and close to darkness.
There were a thousand shades of gray,
with colors--some blue perhaps and maybe green--
trying to assert themselves against that gray.
In short, it looked like nothing human.
But the sun broke afrom the horizon soon enough
and we could see exactly what we'd done.

Ultimately, humanity is what binds the history of poetry together. It is, I would say, humanity which Hudgins gives us, and humanity-in-text which needs to be preserved. Innovations change outward forms; allow us to understand reality in new ways; broaden our perceptions of what is possible; yet we, as human animals, will not be substantially altered by new aesthetic forms. Hudgins, in the creation of this book, invested all his cultural capital in the conservation of primordial humanity and humanistic interest, and, for me at least, it works like a charm. It makes most avant-garde poetry look shallow and fickle. That it could have been written in 1919 matters not.

P.S. I'll be reading at the Dreamscape Festival at the new Highwire in a few days. And some new work on Real Poetik.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

from "Chimes"


Our house on Mill Road was haunted by strange ghosts, strange ghosts and echoes. I awoke once covered in spiders and they were dancing and I couldn't get them off. Also a big round white light came into my second floor window, it shone there and dazzled me and screamed and my father told me it was a police searchlight and I believed him but he was wrong. I can see the light today and what it was doing was charging me and I was being prepared to serve in a kind of army and I am serving in a kind of army now; the light knew. I screamed out of deep recognition when I saw it and that was a spirit which haunted the house. Other echoes shone off the surface of Tookany Creek, which soothed but was of another world that was faraway and deep and that I couldn't reach even when I waded in it.


I was in the bathtub and I said my name over and over again until I forgot myself. The lights in the bathroom were on but I went deeper and deeper into darkness, and an empty void, and I heard my name as something foreign. I heard my name, and I truly was not, I was a null and a void, and I had no self to be. Then, slowly, I regained myself, but I did not forget the essential emptiness, the uncompromising NO that I found behind the quotidian YES of selfhood. This happened also riding in a car to Aunt Libby's, and listening to the radio I thought NOTHING ANYWHERE until NOTHING got so big I shut my mind down in fright, and my consciousness streamed mellower.


O, for American summers of ice cream, basketballs, hot dogs, softball fields. Down all the fields I ran, shirt tucked into shorts, playing capture the flag. Or, there I sat at the campfire, being told scary stories, feeling the magic of a small clan huddled, marshmallow soft in that realm: camp. Eventually I discovered sex, my sex, through the knowledge of a little girl who saw a big man in me. She held my hand and kissed me, and it was a deep wave of knowledge that left forever aftershocks rattling my walls with fire and thrill, frisson. Those lips were tender, were fevered, were forever cleaved to me in my imagination after that one night outside the Rec Hall, which was suddenly far away as Neptune. There was a brooding and a bittersweet and a knowledge of what can be achieved when two poles of being meet in the middle to kindle sparks. I held on to it.

P.S. More from Chimes on P.F.S. Post.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Poetry Incarnation '05: The Facts

Three years ago, a poetry event was held at The Khyber (Pass), a big pub/indie-rock venue in Philly. The event had a name: Poetry Incarnation '05, was previewed in the Philadelphia City Paper, and was presented by a multi-media artists co-op that I was running at the time, Philly Free School. We charged $5 that night at the door. There were precisely 70 paying customers. Thus, our net profit was $350. The Khyber, as is customary with big music venues, took more than half the money: $200, straight off the top. That left us with $150. There were thirty readers, which means that if everyone were paid equally, everyone would receive a righteous $5. Me and my fellow promoter thought that this was a little ridiculous and, considering that we each put a great amount of time and effort into the event, we split the $150 and each took home $75.

Though I have never been directly confronted (not once in three years), it has come to my attention that several people believe I have "stolen" money from them. I have, indeed: a righteous $5. If any of you would like to have this $5 returned to you, I would be happy to write you a check. You can send your mailing info to afieled@yahoo.com. That is, of course, unless you have already forced me to use the "block" function on Yahoo, in which case, get your less frank friends to send me the address.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

a term paper on Opera Bufa

This paper was composed by Stacy Blair, a graduating senior at Loyola University in Chicago. Many thanks to Laura Goldstein for spending two class days on the book, and having me lecture/read to the class on the third. Thanks also to Steve Halle for the lift into Chicago!

Opera Bufa: “Divertimento Giocoso ” or Coping with Absence?

Time, as a linear construction, tends to herd people into viewing their lives I in terms of memory, present sensual stimulation, and hypothetical premonitions. The English language reflects this structure by allowing us to speak in various verbal tenses, and narratives that employ multiple temporal settings can transport the reader or auditor into emotional states contingent upon a temporal location designated by the author. We construct our perceptions of the world based not only on language, however but also on images that elicit emotional responses and generate new thoughts or ideas. Memory works in a similar way, by cataloguing images corresponding to one’s emotional and physical state in the past, like a physical stamp on one’s brain that tries, then, to translate it into words. Memory, which can take such a strong hold on one’s perception, depends upon loss for its own creation, such that one must lose something in order to look back on in it memory. Poets have long been tackling the problem of forgetting and memory, coping with grief, mourning lost lovers or friends, and feeling out the concept of nostalgia through their work. In Opera Bufa, Adam Fieled builds an entire opera out of prose poems, weaving through it themes of sex, music, literature, and drugs, all of which become threads that attempt to explore this concept. His emotional release onto the page is a highly poetic form reduced to potent and poignant prose that describes losing as a means of artistic creation.

Throughout Fieled’s opera, he remembers past lovers and the loss of physical objects, but he continually highlights the arbitrariness of the “what” that is gone, profiting from a focus on the expression engendered by absence. Afterall, the first line of his poetic musical score reads, “Losing is the lugubriousness of Chopin.” (5) By equating “losing” with an interpretation of Chopin’s style he transforms the concept of absence into the great work of an infamous composer in six words. Fieled underscores the importance of what comes from the emotional reaction caused by deprivation rather than the object or feeling originally lost: “It is simply bereavement that leads us here, to these images.” (16) Loss engenders these “images” that eventually lead to new thought, creating inventive juxtapositions and fresh concepts. He goes even further by drawing attention to his own creative process and his reconfiguration of mourning when he says,

What has been lost thus far? It’s just tar on a highway, bound for ocean. Or, it’s the migratory flight of a carrier pigeon. It is all things that move and breathe, coalesced into sound…It is octaves, repeated in a funhouse mirror until a decibel level is reached that a dog alone may hear. I am the dog that hears, the dog that conducts, the dog that puts bones on the table. (50)

In this citation, the poet refers to himself as the ramasseur of the fragmented pieces created by loss. He “conducts” the broken pieces into poetry to be put onto the table for the public to digest.

Furthermore, Fieled directly mentions memory, saying that it is “as sweet as reality” (59) and then relates the two of these to dreams. This statement disregards any difference between the past and the present in terms of experience and one’s emotional state. His comparison to dreams, then, links them all together through their capacity to provoke strong emotional experiences and vivid imagery. However, he separates the dream world from the others by saying, “I have learned to what extent dreams are real. They may not be solid as a cast-iron pot, but they are enough.” (59) But enough for what exactly? Here Fieled suggests that dreams suffice as inspiration for artistic expression. A few, short lines after, he sums up this theory of creation in stating, “It is the hour of feeling, when singing must cease.” (59) Here, “the hour of feeling” refers to the present, profiting from the woman he finds himself next to in order to experience the moment as the present. However, as he states himself, these privileged instances of living in the present moment exclude the possibility of creative release; during these moments, “singing must cease.” In one of his other poems in which he references the power of imagination, he says, “I know that I had to dream an opera to really sing. I know I had to dream singing to really write.” (54) The poet’s creativity cultivated in this dream world derives directly from the concept of losing control. Once his subconscious eliminates all barriers constructed by reason or rationality, Fieled really starts to sing.

Opera Bufa bulges at the seams with drug references to describe an elimination of control. Cocaine and mescaline dispossess users of their governance over their own visual faculties, causing hallucinations and amplifying all external stimuli. This state of being induced by drugs parallels the dream state that Fieled exploits for tapping into new creativity. Drugs, however, grant extended access to this alternative existence in which one’s subconscious yields to consciousness, whereas the dreamer forgoes all control involuntarily. Fieled references the prevalent drug culture of the psychedelic rock scene in San Francisco during the 1960’s and 70’s to infuse his poetry with this theme: “stay where shadows press themselves in upon you. Stay with the purple riders and their sage buttons.” (16) This is the first drug allusion of Opera Bufa, and boldly opens the doors for others to follow. His mention of “purple riders” adorned with “sage buttons” points directly to the band New Riders of the Purple Sage, a country rock band that emerged from this drug and music culture of California in 1969. The term “purple riders” describes users of a mildly hallucinogenic aromatic herb found in Southern California commonly used in Native American ceremonies. Though Fieled makes this insinuation early on in his work, he picks up the thread again towards the end when Maria Callas says to him, “We are all purple riders” as she slowly exhales a ribbon of smoke. Though the author also mentions the use of cocaine, this theme of hallucinogenic drugs is more tightly weaved into his story as he openly associates it with Maria Callas, one of the narrator’s inspirations, his former lover, and the woman who performs his Opera Bufa.

In addition, the poet dissolves boundaries signifying binary opposition to destroy conventional associations and meaning. Many images created by Fieled seem cryptic, and the reader must often wrestle the sentence into some sort of submission from which he or she can draw any digestible meaning. For example, he says things such as, “The history of popcorn is a minor third that can be squelched by intense bed-thuds,” (31) or “keep your pug-face for the aesthete tax collecting slobber-heads.” (28) He also tests one’s logic by using such hypothetical reasoning as, “If you were a cup of finished ice cream, I’d be a brown-eyed moon-goddess.” (11) These lines disorient the reader and also reflect on Fieled’s own state of mind during the creation process. In describing his own style, Fieled says, “As for fluorescence, those crayons were always my favorites anyway. If the color is off, it’s because my set collapsed, if not into nullity, then into plurality.” (54) He tears down the blatant contrasts separating nullity from plurality and life from death to create a space in between, seemingly void of sense and control, from which poetry and song spring forth in abundance. He says that “song cannot be spared when life and death adhere,” (56) and it is within this grey space that Fieled writes. Inside this space, in which everything seems arbitrary and undeterminable, people create new connections between words and images, create new meaning, and better understand themselves.

In losing control and sacrificing reason, Fieled actually gains control over his own creative style and the structure of his work. The opening sentence in which he mentions Chopin establishes the poet’s theme and perspective that he will tease out during the fifty-nine poems to follow. He relies heavily on the concept of absence and its multiple contributions to the creative process in the first quarter of his opera before he enters into other themes. In his first poem, Fieled says,

What’s lost might be a sea shell or a tea cup or the bloody scalp of an Indian; it hardly matters. When you are lost, the heart recedes from exterior currents, too much in sync with itself, its groove vicissitudes. Each encounter, rather than revealing new rhythms, is experienced as a clangorous din, a pounding…to push the heart deeper and deeper into pitiless darkness…We squirm within ourselves to the sound of the Devil’s opera bufa. (5)

He disregards what sends him into this “pitiless darkness” to focus on the experience he lives once there. Fieled plants the seed of an idea that should slowly blossom in the reader’s mind through their experience with his work and returns to the original concept in his final poems. Eight poems from the end, he begins an “inventory” of what is lost, of what remains, and of what has been gained. A few poems before that, he says, “What has been lost thus far? It’s just tar on a highway, bound for ocean,” (50) lines that provide deeper reflection upon an idea that was similarly stated in the first lines of his work. In using this structure, Fieled has created a strong thematic foundation that circles back on itself, and he fills the middle with layers of relevant ideas, juxtaposed colors and images, and a stylized imagery presented in a simple, yet very rich and highly poetic style.

You can also read a review of Opera Bufa by Laura Goldstein in moria poetry.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Karen Volkman's "Spar"

Karen Volkman's Spar came out in 2002; and can, possibly, serve as a "gateway text" into a world in which the High-Mod ethos becomes contemporaneous and relevant (Neo) again. Broadly speaking, it is a book of lyrical love poems, that straddles several genres and sub-genres: prose poems, sonnets, projective verse, poems in couplets are all assayed. What feels important to me about Volkman's book is that there is a heightened quality to the language, a fineness, that is exquisitely wrought and that is sustained for the duration of the book. It creates tension and dynamism in an arena (love poetry) where laziness and calculated redundancy are the rules. Here we see Volkman emerge with a bit of Gertrude Stein-like poesy:

What, I said, noise, I said, is you, are you, all? Yes scream yes shriek yes creel yes bawl. Yes hum, clink, boom, chink, slap, scrape, wail. But is, I said, noise, I said, something to nothing, is noise flight to fall? Is blue noise to black, or scorch to sow? Atom to vacuum, or Please to No? Riotous wave to staid shoreline? Cardinal to crow?

Or horizon to axis. Or exile to in. Barbarous tongue to true language. Me to him.

Melopoeia here is used instrumentally to serve an affective aim: to create a sense of the possible distance, possibly unbridgeable, between two people. In post-modern poetry, this language would be rendered in such a way as to suggest a sort of self-sufficient quality; it would be presented as a linguistic thing-in-itself. I like the multi-dimensionality that Volkman creates with language that can be taken on two levels: as a thing-in-itself (a la, also, Tender Buttons), or as something metaphoric, illustrative of a broken-down affective bond. It is this multi-dimensionality that could, possibly, be a hallmark of Neo-Mod, just as it is a hallmark of the original Mods: Stein, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens and the rest of the High-Mod crew (though it has been presented to me that Williams is not "really" a High-Mod, an anti-designation I am still wary about).

Part of the charm of Volkman's construct involves a formalist impulse. I would think that Neo-Mod would involve a certain degree of formalism, as all movements do; a "movement" in art, after all, is nothing more and nothing less than the projected and actual creation of new forms. Volkman uses an older form, the sonnet, but bends its contours to her own specifications. This is called Winter Abstract:

Call me no one, candle abandoned.
From black lots, black columns, dimensions,
scattering wind. It's been a long time here,
the reflected essences of backyards,
photos freezing in your past. And less. And less.
Wouldn't promise but I swore,
love, adventure,
kept the best of our fractured animus,
when you close the door on your nurture--
cure on ice-- the most protected picture
once radical, now quest. Dear heathen,
your magnet is nomad, do not ask
for more malignant fires, benigner poles.

A case could be made that the lapidary quality of this prosody is regressive, but I disagree. The metric irregularities and both implicit and explicit fractured quality on offer here remind me of H.D., Zukofsky, Niedecker, and other second-wave Mods, who all doted on metric irregularities as a way of adding "edge" and attractive "splinter" to their constructs. "Heathen" is indicative of something highly unusual (in our milieu) about Spar as a whole: the conflation of secular love with religious (albeit sometimes pagan-religious) impulses. This is the kind of territory that H.D. doted on, but that post-modern poetry will not touch. Yet, Volkman's slant is contemporary, while also aiming for, and often achieving, the exquisite.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wordsworth and Pleasure

After reading William Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads innumerable times, I believe I have spotted an angle which has been scarcely touched before. Wordsworth uses the word pleasure 25-30 times in the preface. The fact that the preface is only twelve(ish) pages long makes this significant. There is also some irony in it; few people think of Wordsworth as a poet of pleasure. That honor usually goes to Mr. John Keats, who emphasizes the body, the non-cognitive (post-cognitive), sensual richness, heavenly prosody, O for a draught of vintageetc. It turns out that Wordsworth was as intent on "imparting pleasure" as Keats was, but the major difference seems to be this: Wordsworth associated pleasure with thought (specifically, thoughts occurring in a certain associative relation to each other); thinking, in Wordsworth's self-created aesthetic milieu, leads to satisfaction, which inverts Keats' "tease us out of thought" dynamic. He is tracing the primary laws of our nature, and we may gain pleasure through thoughtfully deciphering them. Here he is, cogitating at Tintern Abbey:

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

Tracing primary laws is tied here to the figure of Wordsworth himself; and the law has to do, evidently, with using the mind instrumentally as a kind of digital camera, to let images impress themselves on it, so that they might be memorized, stored, and hauled out in due course when the appropriate occasion arises. "The picture of the mind" is more than a cognitive construct, but cognition itself is given pride of place; it is the enabler for pleasure to enter consciousness. How different is Wordsworth's conception of sensation than Keats, whose wonted gestalt sensibility is more present-minded, prosody-sensitive (to Keats, Apollonian), less conservative, and less bound to processes abstracted away from physical reality. Here, Keats visits the cottage of Robert Burns:

My pulse is warm with thine own Barley-bree,
My head is light with pledging a great soul,
My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal;
Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
The meadow has tramped o'er and o'er-
Yet can I think of thee till thought it blind-
Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name-
O smile among the shades, for this is fame!

Pleasure comes from unmediated physicality; thought, in Keats' conception of pleasure (and melopoeia), is something in the way, something often futile. Yet, I am unaware that Keats made any special mention of pleasure (beyond its chiasmus, in art, with intensity) in his famous letters. Wordsworth is the Romantic with the overt pleasure principle, and it is quite curious, considering how convoluted his conception of pleasure seems to have been. Somebody could (and probably will) take this in a New Historical direction, and demonstrate why these two established representatives of two generations of British Romanticism had such widely divergent conceptions of pleasure. Notice the essence of the difference; Wordsworth wants to craft pleasure for the reader; Keats actually experiences pleasure first-hand in the poem;  which is then transferred, hopefully, to us, to be absorbed by osmosis, via richly detailed prosody, and (as) a direct experience of Keats' visionary frisson.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy

Alain Robbe-Grillet died last year. He was the first and among the most famous of the "New Novelists" produced by France in the second half of the twentieth century. Jealousy is a short novel that some take to be his masterpiece. It was roundly panned when it first came out, but eventually came to be seen more kindly. What's pictured above is a map of the plantation house where the novel takes place. "Taking place," where Robbe-Grillet is concerned, is sort of a misleading phrase; Jealousy winds, folds in upon itself, repeats parts like a piece of music, deliberately doesn't cohere, and leaves us pretty much in the dark, so that non-linearity becomes not only a feature of the text but a distinguishing characteristic. That is what, for me, makes it exciting; Robbe-Grillet uses non-linearity the way Jimi Hendrix used the electric guitar; as a kind of mechanical mistress, a way to create a sense of stasis that is not static, sight that is not vision, affect that has no concrete correlative. A... is the muse of the text (if we can posit that there is a muse for the text), a beautiful woman, the implicit protagonist's wife. He suspects that she is having an affair with Franck, a neighbor who also owns a plantation. All the incredible sexual tension happens in a perpetual ellipse:

The hand with tapering fingers has clenched into a fist on the white cloth. The five widespaced fingers have closed over the palm with such force that they have pulled the cloth with them. The cloth shows five convergent creases, much longer than the fingers which have produced them.

Only the first joint is still visible. On the ring finger gleams a thin ribbon of gold that barely rises above the flesh. Around the hand radiate the creases, looser and looser as they move out from the center, but also wider and wider, finally becoming a uniform white surface on which Franck's brown, muscular hand wearing a large flat ring of the same type comes to rest.

Robbe-Grillet was apparently interested in creating objective prose; interiority, conventional psychology and character development were deemed passe. When Roland Barthes writes about Robbe-Grillet, he emphasizes "sight," the visual dimension of his work, that what we see (visualize) is what we get. However, it is part and parcel of Robbe-Grillet's peculiar magic that by being entirely objective and ocular, he manages to imply (and create by implying) everything else: character, interior detail, psychology, affect. It is in the dynamic tension between a streamlined surface and a convoluted, whirlpool-like depth that Robbe-Grillet achieves solidity. "Reading the surface" allows adequate pleasure, in and of itself; Robbe-Grillet is the most detailed novelist this side of Marcel Proust (though the details are invariably outward and objective); but a reading that does not acknowledge a subterranean level of activity would, I think, be missing part of the point.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Being Taught, and Teaching

Lately, I've been feeling pretty fortunate. I had two books come out last year, both in the fall, and, little more than six months later, both of them are being taught. Beams has been used by several students in an undergraduate English course at a conservative college (Wofford, Prof. Jennie Neighbors) in South Carolina. They have taken the thing apart, in a search for what motivates, animates, and designates avant-garde (post-avant) poetry. The students were given a choice of a plethora of texts, and they chose mine. I have befriended one of them on Facebook, and corresponded with the professor, a delightful person with an adventurous spirit as regards literature. What an affirmation! I think of it as luck, mostly. Opera Bufa is going to be presented to a class at Loyola in Chicago this summer. One of the things I'll be doing in Chicago in June is speaking to, and reading for, this class. Again, just good luck, happy chance. I can only hope that this luck, this feeling of my books actually doing something in the world, continues, and give thanks I've been in the right place at the right time.

Also, this goes to show that not all academia is mired in provincialism. This was my first semester teaching, and, though the syllabus was not of my choosing, I tried to be as heterogeneous in the way I presented the material as possible. I taught John Donne alongside my friend Chris Goodrich (specifically, his poems in Ocho #11), Twelfth Night alongside Tom Stoppard, and hit the students with a John Keats chaser after a long day of George Herbert. It is my hope that me and all my friends will continue to transform academia to the point that it is, or can be, genuinely edifying, a realm in which legitimate literary discoveries can be made. Next semester I teach Comp-not much I can do with that- but I am going to try nonetheless.

P.S. There is an interesting review of Beams up in Galatea Resurrects #9, turned in by Argotist Online editor Jeffrey Side.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Whatever Happened to Arthur Rimbaud?

At a certain, early stage in my poetic development, especially my State College years, Arthur Rimbaud was a pivotal influence. Answered Prayers is a testament to that. I had, at one point, entire chunks of A Season in Hell memorized, and would spout them off at readings. Yet, not at Penn, or New England College, or Temple, has Rimbaud been presented to me in an academic setting. Come to think of it, Baudelaire and Verlaine haven't put in an appearance either. What gives? Aren't the Symbolists an interesting crew? Don't they have something substantial to offer? Upon re-reading Season in Hell, after many years, the simple answer is yes. Rimbaud's little manifesto is a fascinating melange of dynamic oppositions, animated by his distinctly adolescent (but compellingly incisive) sensibility: saved/damned, historicized/ahistorical, mad/sane, individual/socially involved. Rimbaud uses oppositions to crack open his own tender psyche like a nutshell. He both exposes the essential frailty of self-schemas and gives us an opportunity to watch him construct an identity-in-text right before our eyes. Construction of identity is really what Rimbaud is on about here:

I inherit from my Gaulish ancestors my whitish-blue eye, my narrow skull, and my lack of skill in fighting. My attire seems to me as barbarous as theirs. But I don't butter my hair.

I loathe all trades. Masters and servants--all--peasants, base.

I am the slave of my baptism.

I am not a prisoner of my reason.

Why is Rimbaud not being taught? My guess is that he is being taught: in France! There is a sort of provincialism endemic to academia which I am only now noticing. Schools tend to stick to the literature of their country, which is a rip-off, but there you are. Nonetheless, it is delightful to me that a text which I haven't read in years still has the power to transport me, especially since most of what I read back then I can't stand now. Our era puts great emphasis on identity construction as an aesthetic issue. The dialectics of the Deconstructionists, especially, would seem to be quite germane to Rimbaud's investigations. He deconstructs himself, and the thrill is in watching him put himself back together again.

P.S. I have some sonnets from When You Bit... out in Otoliths and in No Tell Motel.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Roland Barthes, from Death of the Author

Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as hitherto was said, the author. The reader is the space on which all quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader's rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give language its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Klimt's Judith: Turning the Tables

This is Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt. Art critics have accused Klimt of being merely decorative, but what I like about this image is that it subverts the patriarchal, voyeuristic gaze we often see in pre-Modern representational art, in presenting a Biblical woman, as direct and uncompromisingly bold as Manet's Olympia, challenging and seducing us coterminously. There is, in her gaze, a primordial power, and it's difficult to miss the fact that she's holding the head of Holofernes in both hands. Olympia is brash but unsophisticated; Judith is more multi-layered, and the one small breast revealed through her gossamer gown can come to seem like a radically sexualized equivalent of Mona Lisa's half-smile. You could also make a connection to Shakespeare's Dark Lady; though the position of the painter in relation to Judith is not clear. Judith refutes standard notions of female beauty; she is not voluptuous; yet the coolness of her expression exudes sensuality, knowledge, and power. In short, it would seem that in creating Judith, Klimt turned the tables on himself and his dominant and dominating masculinity; here, it is an empowered woman who rivets his gaze, and his objectification is tinged with awe rather than condescension or aggression. Among other things, an invitation to ekphrasis.

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