Friday, September 14, 2018

“along various” “dirty pathways”

Thinking of Scott G.F. Bailey’s suggestion that all books should be judged by the Four Humours, I tried it out.

Choucas, 1927, by Zofia Nałkowska, tr. Ursula Phillips
This Polish humanitarian Zofia Nałkowska brings characters from different nations together in a mountain sanatorium. All dispossessed in some way. They are afflicted with illness; they are afflicted with hatred for other nationalities. The narrator wishes that the suffering of the human race would end but it will not. Her observant resignation orients Choucas towards winter and decreases sweating. The choucas-birds, acting out a representation of the crowd inside the building, increase phlegm by removing heat from the humans and displacing it into the enigma of animals. The sincerity of the author generates a consistent, light black bile, but underlying warmth (quick feeling) improves the story’s health, removing digestion problems and clearing the bowels. Concealment piques the melancholy and keeps excessive phlegm at bay. Overall a hardy book though the liver is small.

Titan, 1800 - 1803, by Jean Paul Richter, tr. Charles T. Brooks
A prince’s proud, eccentric, excessive, unfortunate, sometimes secretly malicious, plotting friends and associates show him how to be a balanced person as he observes their personal disasters, e.g., dying, going mad, whatever. The author’s temperament is natively sanguine; we assume his hair was thick ditto urine. The aim, in spite of his constant airy digressions, is still ultimately phlegmatic. Titan’s desire for sanity rejects choler, melancholy, and dryness. (Counterpoint: should the habit of punishing other characters be diagnosed as choleric impatience? Could the digressions be described as fevers? This line of enquiry is not totally convincing.) Expect a shapely stool while reading.

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz, 2013, by Maxim Biller, tr. Anthea Bell
One of the real Bruno Schulz’s former students remembered him saying, “We [artists] can turn day into night and night into day. We may cover snow-capped mountains with luxuriant foliage. That is our, the artist’s, freedom, and such is artistic truth, which we can demonstrate through our works.” Maxim Biller’s Schulz doesn’t know anything about that. I think Biller would like his fanfic to be brunette and lithe with a fresh complexion like the stories real-Schulz wrote, but the calculations he goes through – the insertion of Schulz-facts and bits from the stories and the faithless strangulation of Schulz’s air-infused methods (the artist’s “freedom” becomes hallucination, people really are birds) – are too anabolic.

ULULU: Clown Shrapnel, 2007, by Thalia Field
Field’s tireless invocation of flexible performance (both in startling poem-text acrobatics and in the mutating characters) gives this book a healthy youthful physique, though the examples she uses (without violating them) are rooted in the first half of the last century or earlier – Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, 1895, 1904, Alban Berg’s opera adaptation, 1935, Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, 1929, the modernist-beloved circus structure – suggesting an attachment to the past indicative of melancholy. Anxious activity is tempered by a refutation of repressive internalisation that, while manifesting violently, has the potential to produce sound sleep. Both the sleep and the likelihood of heavy sweating can be read as phlegmatic. The book is addressed outwards, to the audience and the same audience in implicated in the activity (ULULU: You, Lulu), placing the sociable sanguine elements in a dominant position.

The Descent of Alette, 1996, by Alice Notley
Alette’s fate is to enter a receptive state that will reward her with symbolic advice and totems while she looks forward to an event that functions as some sort of summary and as an arrow to the reader. This is an essentially pre-modern way of regarding a narrative, redolent of Romance of the Rose, Dante, etc. There is a high degree of catabolic reactiveness baked into the text by the poet who breaks down her lines into bursts of words separated by inverted commas.

“I walked into” “the forest;" “for the woods were lit” “by yellow
street lamps” “along various” “dirty pathways”

Naturally the catabolic style can be identified as choleric, these bursts of artificial presence are like flames; at the same time it is vocal and sociable, therefore sanguine. (Is it in danger of consuming too much? Also, looking back at ULULU am I in danger of diagnosing all poems as sanguine?) Both of these values coexist unproblematically with the melancholy self-questioning of Alette. Imbalance enters when we think of phlegm. Readers should consider a cool, wet climate. Eat cheese.

Monday, September 3, 2018

according to a pattern drawn from a patchwork quilt

When you mention advertising of course you can't forget the way that Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage comes, after a while, to begin a passage with a sentence about some person or event you have not encountered yet, speaking about the thing as if there is already a large context all around it and filling you with the desire to be up to speed with the rest of your compatriots who are now standing around you, holding a discussion you are excluded from.

It is as if they all have a Fiat!

There is, for example, the first sentence of Clear Horizon, 1935, the eleventh book, “Between herself and all that was waiting to flow in and settle upon this window-lit end of the great empty room, was the sense of missing Lionel Cholmley.” As if you knew Lionel Cholmley. You have never met Lionel Cholmley. Lionel Cholmley? Then there are three pages about Lionel Cholmley. Cholmley! He was worth knowing! Cholmley! He exits forever. “Having paid him tribute while pouring out her tea and getting back to the window-end of the long empty breakfast table, she bade farewell to Lionel Cholmley.” His radiation lingers – it is the idea of speaking without posing, intensified – “And instead of going to face down the room from the hearthrug, or to pose with the curve of the near-by grand piano, he remained in his place and said his poem as if he were a momentary spokesman, like a vocal testifier in a religious gathering, and, although his poem was heroic, his voice was only a little fuller and more resonant than usual, and quite free from recitational ‘effects.’ So that the poem prevailed …”

Soon afterwards, Miriam watches as a stranger rises in the crowd at a Lycurgan Society meeting, “slowly stammering out his simple words, annihilating the suave pseudo-Nietzsche on the platform,” and Amabel next to her says, “Mira! He’s real!” The man is not Lionel but he is a continuation; he is a Lionel-tentacle, and Amabel is the one who invents a new phrase for he is quite free from recitational ‘effects.’ The radiation is still there, spreading its ad of realness, so that soon (with the whole atmosphere presaging) Miriam will stop going to Lycurgan meetings and veer towards Quakers.

At the same time there is something buried, something muffled, as there was when her mother died and the book waved its hands obliquely, leaving open the possibility that you would not find out. That muffled-ness points to a world somewhere where everyone does things unexpectedly, for reasons you will never know (as though her mother had gone on holiday).

There’s a different form of radiation in Nanni Balestrini's Blackout, 1980, tr. Peter Valente, when the author springs some phrase on you and then repeats it on the next page surrounded by different lines and then maybe again in two pages until you realise it could occur in any place at all and still justify itself through radiant penetration. Honestly the poem has no way of saving itself from its lines. Nobody will veer anywhere; they are immediately present, because the line, “you persecute your persecutors with the truth” can occur after or before (as if on top of) the line, “meanwhile this occasion has unmasked all the petty tyrants who swore to me that they would eviscerate our friendship” (p. 26) or after or before the line “redirect your letters from Nice to Provence because tomorrow I’m leaving for France and who knows I may travel much farther” (p.27) until it is always unmoored – it always has the atmosphere of meaning something ... He put the poem together, says the editor, by “arrang[ing] the book’s text
according to a pattern drawn from a patchwork quilt with strips sewed at 45 degrees across a checkered base, developing a chart […] indicating which borrowed fragments would be placed in which numbered sections, in varying ratio depending on the cut.”
You are always waiting for a line-reappearance. It will be the same thing but in a new setting like a repeatable horror jewel. It is as if Lionel Cholmley kept coming back in as Lionel Cholmley, not as an anonymous stammering Lycurgan meeting man or as a Quaker or a statement from Amabel. What do monsters advertise, these M.R. James yūrei that stalk after you?

Saturday, August 18, 2018

taste, any taste, so long as it's strong

Reading the tweet by Robert Minto in which he tells me, us, that “increasingly I enjoy the aesthetic opinions of people with *a* taste, any taste, so long as it's strong and they're articulate. Those people are the ones who show you new ways to be" -- I thought, oh, advertising, we want advertising; we are unhappy when it manifests itself insufficiently, when the brand is not evident – this is bad for me -- I will never show anyone a way to be, my taste is very very little, I am less than a new car or a box of butterless butter – and if a person does not have a taste then they are not even flesh, they are cardboard. Even Frankenstein's monster had an opinion.

I should find a thought and espouse it ... I will be angry at texts that do not feature farts. There is a manifesto in that. "Farts are part of LIFE," I write, "why are they not ALSO part of literature?" Every piece of text must have at least one anal utterance unless it is an academic paper: those I will excuse. I write, "A fart is as intimate as we can be with the divine element, Air, and does not the position of the emittance indicate a relationship also with Earth? Throwing open the skylight we establish a deposition to the ground. Nearby there is Water." I’ll follow this up with water wisdom of some kind -- quote: Shelley, Percy B (do you pron. this Bish?): "A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight." A Defence of Poetry, writ. 1821, pub. 1840: posthumous. Everybody will be impressed but we want something more contemporary. Adrienne Rich, why not. "I have always wondered about the leftover | energy, water rushing down a hill | long after the rains have stopped," use that, from For the Dead, found in (as in, I opened the book and looked for the word "water" because the title sounded as if it would lead to water) Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971 - 1972, pub. 1973, "Co-winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, 1974." Water: done and sounds unassailable. Water is life and poetry. Fire, I don't know -- fire? I could fuzz something about the energy of life being essentially multiplicitous, composed of opposites and contrasts and everything in the middle, therefore firelike as well as waterlike (n.b., this connection to the convincing earlier extrapolations about water will be worth half the argument right here) and this energy runs through all of our bodies but especially through the anal-neighbourly presence of two clumps that do not pick anything up* or transport us anywhere and instead hang there with energy popping through the fat "as a flame leaps (leapeth sounds better? too pretentious?) between gum trees, therefore FIRE, the plump arse is a natural HOTBED, plural units cry out for transference and fire transfers itse" ... no, I dunno about Fire. I think I could get away with it though.

* there must be someone with good musculature who could do this.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

root sprawl

Closing Susan Wheeler's meme, 2012, I looked at the title and saw -- because the mindset of a poet was still in the process of dying away inside me after reading, so I saw thoroughly for a moment, very rainwashed I was … -- I realised it said me, me. Reading an interview with Wheeler I decided (although she never says so or even mentions the word "meme"*) that me, me was unintentional "in spite," I thought, "of the incredible relevance of the word "me" to a publication that spends its first twenty-seven pages reporting the words of a character who does nothing but aim remarks at other people." "You get down off your high horse, young lady," the person says, and you realise she has to be the poet's mother. The daughter never talks back – she says nothing – no one in the poems speaks except the mother. "Years later," you think, "when her mother was dead, she wrote these poems." Why did I think the mother was dead? Because the poems don't seem to wonder if she'll read them. Later the interview confirmed it. I don't think you're ever not aware that this act of recording is an act of talking back or of somehow having her mother. Anyway, the daughter is being quiet and not-quiet. You can't say the same for the other people the mother speaks to, "Ray" and "Dan." "Ray, don't make it too stiff," she says. The poet has chosen not to have them, only her mother. And of course you're looking at these lines and thinking, "That's too perfect, that's not an accurate recording, it's an act of reconstruction based on some memory or impression of the mother" who was, according to the interview, full of slang.

Robert Polito: Your pleasure in our random, fleeting, and lost slang is palpable. How did you come to this absorption in vernaculars?

Susan Wheeler: God knows, as my mother would have said. I’m beginning to get an inkling, as I’ve been writing a series of poems that use her idiomatic expressions—she grew up in Topeka, and had a strong portion of Pennsylvania Dutch as well, but who knows where she got phrases like “busier than a cranberry bog merchant.”

The mother was the outstanding slang-unit in the family. She was the one the daughter wanted to have. Wheeler even writes down statements that are not slang. "Go ask your father," is not a distinctive phrase but there it is. Somehow these lines are balancing the slang in the poet's mind, or she remembers her mother saying, "Will you take the broccoli out of the freezer," in a manner so amazing that it occupies the same place as slang when she writes it down. It continues the scolding tone. Her mother saying, "broccoli out of the freezer," was a memorable sound. Wheeler likes "broccoli" and "freezer" together. The two words have the same lengths but different personalities. "Language poetry," you think. You remember other poets who do this without their mothers being in the poems: Lyn Hejinian, you recall. Gertrude Stein herself has given Wheeler the strength to tell the whole world forever that her mother once mentioned broccoli and freezers. Or maybe the mother never did, but she has now. "A cushion has that cover," writes Stein in Tender Buttons, 1914, and a century later Wheeler utters, "broccoli in the freezer." But Wheeler has a different space in reality. The reader is convinced that once there really was broccoli in the freezer. They do not believe there was a cushion. If there was once a cushion then Tender Buttons has annihilated it. Even though cushions are as real as broccoli.

Stein's friendship with Picasso swims up. The half-secret grid in a painting like Ma Jolie, 1911-12, annihilates the woman figure. It is like shredding a tree and drying it into flat paper. There does not have to have been a woman. Allegedly it was the artist's girlfriend Marcelle Humbert but you do not need to believe in her. Wheeler, you realise (as you think of the Picasso), resists the ideal of complex flattening when she puts lines in a daughter-thinking voice at the centre of each poem, as though she is summing up some impression she had in the days when the mother was scolding her. "Avocados, toothpicks. Coleaus, root sprawl. | The diffident glints of a late-day sun," she recalls. I notice I didn't think of this earlier as the poet speaking ("no one in the poems speaks except the mother"). These lines are not uttered. Immediate publicity is not their form, as it is with speech. Real people might walk around asking, "Will you take the broccoli out of the freezer?" but they do not come up to you and say, "Avocados, toothpicks. Coleaus, root sprawl," with that careful punctuation. You would be disquieted, unless they were answering a question. "Susan Wheeler, what do you remember from your childhood?" you ask, and she replies, "Wallpaper, striped. A slippery floor." You assume these objects were given to her without asking.

*I have a memory of another interview in which she did say the word meme.

Monday, April 23, 2018

something of no apparent importance

Why should anyone like Phyllis for being a lump of rudeness that presents itself as a thing you can’t solve at a level where everything else is being solved instantly? I don't know why; it is as if she is sticking up for herself, "Like TISM," I think, "but their songs are all about their own irritated shame, or tall poppyism if you want to put it another way” --- “but it is preferable to the opposite”? (“Is her surname Tine?” joked someone this morning when I told them I had been reading a book with a Phyllis.) Chateaubriand’s little vase sticks up from the scene without an explanation when he could have said, for example, "it must have been the sound of some cavity in the ship filling with water." Why does Glanville want to bite the letter-writer’s hand in Charles Grandison? Where does Grandison come from? Where does Clarissa come from? She is a little vase, filling up. From another angle she is Phyllis. In the final part of the Temps Perdu, Proust tells you he has spent seven volumes interrogating a sensation that Chateaubriand remembers twice.

What profoundly modifies the course of their thought is rather something of no apparent importance which overthrows the order of time and makes them live in another period of their lives. The song of a bird in the Park of Montboissier, or a breeze laden with the scent of mignonette, are obviously matters of less importance than the great events of the Revolution and of the Empire; nevertheless they inspired in Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre tombe pages of infinitely greater value. (tr. Stephen Hudson)

He mentions Nerval and Baudelaire.

I was seeking to recall those of Baudelaire's verses which are based upon the transposition of such sensations, so that I might place myself in so noble a company and thus obtain confirmation that the work I no longer had any hesitation in undertaking, merited the effort I intended to consecrate to it …

A thought says, “If those sensations are of “infinitely greater value” than the rest, then what if you made the entire book out of them?” What if there was a treasure box with no gaps between the treasures? But then Volker Schlöndorff reads your treasure box and the primary lesson he remembers is that he wants to make Swann into a movie and his costume designer takes Robert de Montesquiou’s grey suit out of the portrait by Giovanni Boldini and puts it on Jeremy Irons and you are back to the old drawing board, as the cartoon alien says

Saturday, April 14, 2018

the multiplication of his failure all over the world

About two months ago (I haven’t checked) I told Twitter I would say something about Eleanor Dark's The Little Company. Everyone already knows that Dark wrote The Timeless Land, 1941. Little Company is different, not set historically but at the beginning of the 1940s, only a few years before it came out in 1945. It was set when Land was published. None of the Company characters bought the other book, however. They didn't hear about it.

Setting? Sydney, Outside Sydney, and the Blue Mountains: bushland, house, and waterfall.

People? Debating their positions on current events. What does it mean, World War II? What about Marxism? How should Australian society evolve? They fight overseas and water the lettuces. "A democracy without faith [in itself] is just a machine without power," thinks the novelist Gilbert Massey. The mental disturbance that stands in the way of his next book is a symptom of radiant global trauma.

He would not allow himself the easy mistake of seeing it of seeing it merely as a personal problem; of setting it aside; of saying, "How small a thing, how trivial in the face of a crumbling civilization!" He knew very well that the immobilisation of the creative mind was one symptom of that crumbling, and that the multiplication of his failure all over the world was no small and unimportant matter.

Dark was in one of those Leftist intellectual groups that gave a grounding to the Sydney Push; in Gilbert Massey you have a feeling for how they might have seen themselves or fantasised themselves: reasonable, serious, flawed, flawed but trying not to be in denial about their flaws, thinking about them instead. He is her Charles Grandison, her good man. (Saying this, you realise that Samuel Richardson was an alien.) Gilbert is self-reflective; he builds a fire so that he can think about his past for five pages (p. 15 – 20). His habits are useful to the author, that mercenary parasite. Gilbert's wife, Phyllis, whom no one can stand, never does anything like that; she is not one of the pre-Push people. She is resentful, petty, selfish, emotionally obtuse, frustrated, miserable, inattentive, intellectually stupid, vacantly respectable, provocatively dependent, passive-aggressively submissive, horrible, and an orphan. For her, Dark has put together a set of qualities that no author's lead characters will ever want to like. Alice Notley would not put her in a poem, even though she is obdurate.* Dorothy Richardson's Miriam would tell herself consciously not to be like Phyllis.

Whenever I think of the book I think of Phyllis. I like Phyllis. She is so anti-.

You would grit your teeth at Phyllis. Phyllis would be in torment because you were gritting your teeth. There would be an unbreakable sense of pain everywhere. Phyllis wants to break and she cannot break. Only other unbearable, insensitive people would like Phyllis. But there are so few of them in the book. Leaping off a suicidal waterfall she lands on a close jut instead of dying. "She had bungled it," thinks Gilbert. "Poor Phyllis." Phyllis is a kind of excess in life: she is not needed, she is a failure, she is the one really insoluble flaw, no Pushes can cure her. "The stem of the vessel cut through the thick mass of waves with a hideous crash, and, at the helm, torrents of water flowed away eddying as from the mouth of a sluice. Amid all this uproar, nothing was so alarming as a certain dull, murmuring sound, like that of a vase filling." (Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1849 – 50, tr. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos)

*I'm thinking of Medea in The Songs and Stories of the Ghouls and the desert woman in Culture of One (both 2011).

Saturday, March 24, 2018

everything you need to know

I asked a Nebraskan if the descriptions of the countryside in My Ántonia sounded true. She said she had never read Cather but now she was remembering a book called Sarah Plain and Tall, 1985, about a woman who migrated to the central grasslands from the Maine coastline to marry a farmer whose wife had died. Within a few minutes she had recalled another childhood book, A Dog Called Kitty, 1980, the story of a boy who is bitten by a dog with rabies. The anti-rabies injections he receives are so agonising, the Nebraskan said, that he learns to associate dogs with pain. Some years after the rabies attack he bravely shows tolerance to a stray dog who comes to eat with the cats on the farm where he lives. He slowly recovers from his fear and learns that dogs can be a source of pleasure. One night when the pair of them are lost in the wilderness because of some cows, this dog, Kitty, has his intestines ripped out while he is saving the boy from coyotes. That part of the book is so horrifying, said the Nebraskan, that you are in tears because you think the noble animal is dead, but then you turn the page to the last chapter and they are walking along a road together months later with the dog healthy and peppy and you are happy again for a few moments until a piece of a building site adjoining the road falls off and Kitty is fatally crushed. Later, she added, they made us read Where the Red Fern Grows, 1961 as well, because they hadn't finished with us yet.

Old Yeller, I said, to show that I knew what we were talking about, though I hadn’t read any of the books and nor had I seen Old Yeller. I pictured a child going from Kitty to Red Fern but now, instead of sadness, when the dogs die, she thinks for the first time: this is genre. From then on she is in luxury, as, one after the other, all of the dying fictional dogs she comes across become new pieces in a resplendent puzzle. What habits are they teaching us, I wondered. Growing up, learns the Kitty boy, means that you can stop feeling your pain and start seeing it in other people instead. So the narrator of My Ántonia sees the pain of actually marrying Ántonia and being stuck in Nebraska forever, thrust away from him so forcefully that it lands on a man from Vienna. (I still have not read My Ántonia, only the closing chapters.) But this intelligent building site in A Dog called Kitty knows us well.* You notice it is not like an animal in that it will not let the writer make it suffer pain. Its strength is respected. The building will probably still be there when the boy dies of old age. For the rest of his life it will stand there saying, I killed Kitty. The rabid dog vanished from the boy's life and so did the coyotes. But the building endures and he has to put up with it. So much for flesh, says the building.

*After I had gone through all of this in my head I looked for some reviews online and found out that other adults were not interested in the words "building site" when they were describing Kitty's death. They preferred the word "pipes." One of them was specifically interested in "oil-pipe." This is their entire review:

The dog doesn't get killed in the heroic fight to save the boy. He dies in the next chapter, when an oil-pipe pointlessly falls on him. Those darn oil companies, eh?

This tells you everything you need to know.

(Amazon Customer, November 26, 2011)

(Kitty was written by Bill Wallace, Sarah by Patricia MacLachlan, and Red Fern by Wilson Rawls.)