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.)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

and I knew that I must eat

Scott G.F. Bailey smartly follows my last post with two sentences about a chicken being eaten in a different story. The new bird comes from My Ántonia, 1918, by Willa Cather, a book I've never read but there are three copies of it at the Goodwill up the road so it must be on the curriculum at American universities. The lines he quotes are these: "While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o'clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six." This character, she has the mind of a French kitchen maid or pre-enlightened (if that's the word) upper-middle-class grandmother (Crevel, Babylon), I think when I read that, and then I look up the chapter and see the narrator is not a woman but a man or boy named Jimmy. The chapter seems interesting because nothing in it tells me why he is sighing. Nobody asks him to kill the rooster, as far as I can see, and he doesn't appear to know the bird personally, although that relationship might have been established in an earlier part of the book. Stop: maybe he has already been established as a chicken-killer and Cather knows she doesn't have to spell it out. All right, he'll kill the rooster, the little bastard. No wait, does the squawking mean the rooster is already in the process of being murdered? That's it: this is a death-squawk. Originally I thought it was just expressing itself. Oh I'm stupid. Whose rooster is it? "Cather takes predation and death for granted," writes Bailey. "The predator suffers, not the prey; the poor prey is fated to be relief for the predator, and there is only so far our sympathies should carry us." What a bitch this Willa Cather is, I think, which is interesting all over again because it puts me back in French kitchen labourer (Proust-Françoise) territory. World War II came about because of people like this Cather, I say to myself. Jimmy's sigh is offered up to his creator, the one who wants him to acknowledge his position of effort at the top of the food chain. The squawk was his last contact with the vital life-force of a unique bird, born in all its complexity from an amazing egg and going to all the trouble of eating seeds and muck for years only to die screaming at three o'clock so that this genuflecting creep can sink his teeth into him. Superbly horrible, looking at your watch. Is this rooster-slaughter inserted here to whet my mind for the anecdote Widow Steavens is about to tell Jimmy about Ántonia, who has been preyed on by a man in Denver? No one can mourn these birds innocently. "I am not a sign," rooster screams, "I am the present," but the predator sails on, seeing time ahead.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

the blood of the chicken

Reading René Crevel's Babylon, 1927, tr. Kay Boyle in the afternoon, I believed that a line about "the blood of the chicken we were supposed to have for dinner" on page thirty of the Sun & Moon 1996 edition truthfully depicted the unseen side of the ending of Voltaire's dialogue between a hen and a rooster, which I had read the same morning in a translation by Theo Cuffe. It was good to see that the other partner in the chickens' experience - the humans - was exactly the way the rooster had predicted, a group of offhand murderers. The grandmother of Crevel's repressive household is hoping that the blood in the kitchen is that of the bird, not that of the cook, who has been tied up by burglars. These thieves have stolen a bracelet of the Empress Eugénie's hair. Startled by the sound of Françoise slaughtering a chicken, Proust's narrator tries to reconcile the artistry of the family servant with the irritation of this swearing killer who abuses the animal as it fights for life. Montaigne, looking at cannibals, observes that we are capable of many versions of rightness and all of them can seem alien to one another. Crevel, regarding Proust, said that knowing about the switch from an Albert to an Albertine in Lost Time made him "question the entire book and reject certain discoveries the author presented to me along the way". This was in My Body and I, 1925, tr. Robert Bononno. As I was reading Babylon, however, I thought the teenage girl's interest in the muscles of sailors might belong to a gay teenage boy. "The sailor's lips must be soft in that square patch of tan," writes Crevel in My Body as he remembers himself feeling roused at thirteen by the sight of a woman in the street kissing a sailor. Writing about the sailor's colleagues, he says, "Their necks have punctured their jackets and in the opening the powerful flesh is victorious." People will be free to love without worrying about European social mores, he suggests in Babylon: they should abandon their marriages, they should not mind being naked, they should be unconcerned with reproduction. In My Body he puts all of this into the figure of himself and stands alone nude in a field feeling sensuously aware and erotic. Then he is ashamed, worrying that a shepherd or cattleman might see him. The cook in Babylon remarks that the family has dissolved like butter in a pan. Voltaire put the point of focus on the greatest sufferers, the chickens.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse

David Campbell's Evening Under Lamplight, 1976, begins with lyrical language and no dialogue: "When horses gallop at night, the sound is mysterious. There was Billy, frowzy with sleep, ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse. The frost, after a week of rain, had sharpened the hoof-falls. The horse's paunch creaked, and Billy was aware of the silence. He was aware of the cemetery on the dark ridge where the owls moped."

After a page and a half this lyricism vanishes and people speak ordinarily:

"It was easy, he said. "When Len's sick, I'll get the horses in every morning. You're only a girl."
"I'm older than you are."
"That doesn't count."
But Janet only smiled.

So on until the end of the book, though it comes back again a little in the last story while a settler in the bush is contemplating a fox: "The fox lived its own life and he lived his. And the gold trees grew from stone."* Most of the stories follow Billy the child, who is said by the introduction and the blurb to be a fictionalised version of Campbell himself (did Campbell ever say so or did he only let them believe it?), and the later ones tell you about men flying planes in World War II, where he himself flew planes.

Why is the entrance of Janet at breakfast like an ice age that cuts off an earlier way of life in the book?

David Malouf, who wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition, never lets dialogue get in the way of the contemplative-lyrical tone in his own books; he ploughs on through, and you remember the castaway in Remembering Babylon, 1993, meeting his compatriots in Australia after a long time with the indigenous people and getting his words confused so that he says, "I am a British object," instead of subject. And that has a penetrative meaning.

But the dialogue words in David Campbell do not try to have any kind of penetrative meaning. I don't think it occurred to him that they should have one, even though Malouf tells you that prose and poetry are one in the mind of a writer: they do not separate them: "it is the same world he is moving in … however different the demands of the medium he is the same man, bringing with him the same sensory equipment." And this is true because the dialogue in Campbell's poems is as plain as it is in the book – see Outback (No. 1) for example.

I wonder if this is part of his New Bulletin past, this Henry Lawson idea that the lyrical meaning in dialogue should be conferred through narrative events around the spoken language and not through the language itself, as at the end of The Drover's Wife, 1892, when the son says, "Mother, I won't never go drovin'; blarst me if I do," which makes a strong impact in light of everything that has happened. So that if people are lyrical it is not because you have rudely gone inside them and pretended to express their thoughts, but only because you have pointed to plain things around them which could be verified by other observers, though there are no other observers for you are the author, the only one who observes; and yet you are behaving as if there are observers who might accuse you of rudeness or lies, and so you are protecting yourself from the accusations of these non-existent people, the ones who know that Janet would not speak like the woman in the book I'm reading at the moment, who describes river water "spilling over the oar with a pure metallic lustre, like blood" (Narcyza Żmichowska, The Heathen, 1846, tr. Ursula Phillips). But if you can say that Billy on the nighthorse can feel inside him that "to his heartbeats the horses were suddenly galloping," then you can have him wholly and lyrically.

*When I say lyricism I am thinking of that kind of gold-and-stone language in which things are made of beautiful, solid substances and the characters' attention to small, distinct things like creaks is noted; everything is sensation and fluid but there is also a suggestion of eternity as well as attention to the way that a word like "ridge" sits against "moped."