Sunday, October 1, 2017


I'll try Kate's Six Degrees of Separation game because Whispering Gums vouched for it. This month* she asks you to start with June Chang's Wild Swans, 1991, which I may or may not have read. If I did then I have forgotten everything. I am in the same position as everyone who has done nothing more than look at the cover – I know the author describes a number of interrelated Chinese women. Probably there are no swans. Chang submerged the bird in the human, delivering a coup de grace insult by naming her book after the animal she savagely dissolved. I realise I could run now into J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, 1967, a book in which a human wishes he could dissolve into a bird. Instead I want to mention Joseph McElroy's Women and Men, 1987, because I think I will forget it as completely as I may or may not have forgotten Wild Swans. As I was reading I wanted to finish so that I could start forgetting it. By the end I was only continuing so that it wouldn't stay with me. Women and Men proposes constant interconnections. The mysterious boy who hitched a ride with you in your smalltown American childhood is the same man who asks you for a lift when you are an adult living in New York. The unexpectedness of the connection is pleasing, confirming that life is strange. Magical Native Americans attach you to both the past and the future. No one is really alone and the stuff of life is not chronological but simultaneous or time-interflowing. The author's sentences often try to replicate that idea of overflow by running and bursting with a kind of gabble, spreading his interest onto details - telling you that Jim was on specifically a Bermuda beach when he saw "shadow-rays over the ocean" – or that the chocolate bar in someone's past had a name – (Stephen King does that too) -

Upon the sinking of Sarah's teeth into the outer-skinned chocolate of the Clark bar on into the honey-colored brown-sugar-crumble inside you would not build a broken marriage, or a self-destroy scenario either.

An opera-singer's father is tortured in Chile. We are not directly introduced to that figure of immediate pain, the ghost of everything the book does not want to look at, a person for whom interconnectedness is less important than his own isolated flesh, who cannot be reprieved even for a moment by identity of a chocolate. McElroy, unlike Dickens, doesn't see interconnectedness laying a holistic responsibility on people. There is no smallpox, death, guilt, disfigurement, or anything else like that, there is invention, progress, and stimulation. The brand of chocolate is interesting and so is the sprite-boy. Meanwhile the tortured man invents nothing.

There is one phrase in Women and Men - "it might be an exciting death coming his way" - that suggested the tone of a different author, maybe Beckett, though the impression didn't last longer than that sentence. The last Beckett I read was Mercier and Camier 1946/70, a story with two names in its title, like Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1881, a book mentioned by name in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 5, 2016, the last thing I read by that author.

*Thanks to international time differences I posted this on September 30th, in spite of the date under the title.

Friday, September 22, 2017

their merely being

The words HE and SHE in John Ashbery's Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid", 1975, could be swapped without trauma, or trauma only to those thinking of the original ballad. The natures of these two 'voices' are unstable – they could even be the same voice talking to itself – or a thousand voices, anyway - Ashbery said his poems occurred to him as conversations between voices. The selves of HE and SHE (if you try to imagine that they have them) are beyond your power of judgment. I think of Bridget Brophy trying to find a form for that state. The Jewish characters in Flesh are only bothered by their religion because people expect it to make them manifest themselves in certain ways; they are supposed to pin themselves down by accepting a Jewish cookbook from a relative. Ashbery repeats the shape of things answering one another but he doesn't have the things, only the structure of answering. The shape is is so simple, he tells you: just write HE followed by a block of text and then SHE followed by another block. His Landscape (After Baudelaire), 1984, written in dumb rhyming couplets. "When the storm rattles my windowpane | I'll stay hunched at my desk, it will roar in vain." Simplification is one method of tyranny, said G. Hill in that Paris Review interview everyone quotes. There is the Ashbery but that appears at the start of a line or a sentence with the contrasting states being somewhat nonsensical, undercutting, or strange, like the fruit that exist suddenly to make a point in the title poem of Shadow Train, 1981 ("but the strawberry" …): "To desire what is | forbidden is permitted. But to desire it | And not want it is to chew on its name like a rag | To that end the banana shakes on its stem | But the strawberry is liquid and cool, a rounded | Note in the descending scale, a photograph | of someone smiling at a funeral."

Robert Archambeau wrote about Ashbery in Prelude:

Describing Ashbery’s characteristic mode as the “Mallarmean sentence” [Fredric] Jameson tells us these sentences “unfold in a perfectly grammatical way and offer the syntactical part of the mind a set of operations which has no other identifiable motivation and which thus unexpectedly simply designates itself as pure operation, as pure syntactical process to be completed.”

No one can prove the but is right, nor can they call it wrong. Say the point after the but is like the trees in his early poem, Some Trees, 1956:

That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness

Brophy feels glad that the unsupported but takes away our right to invent the thing by giving it place, purpose, and meaning.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

it imposes on every light

Brophy's In Transit, 1969, is different again, completely otherwise from the last two books - now the voice is jaunty and Shandyish, aggressive but confiding, and the narrator is at an airport, which is the most direct expression so far of the vibrating between-place that Brophy inhabits or see herself inhabiting, especially when this narrator tells us that they are going to let their flight leave without them. There are two countries they could be in (one at the beginning of the flight, the other at the end), and they are doing as much as they can to ensure that they are not in either. Thinking this was going to place some worry on the flight crew, which I now pictured, I saw that I had been stimulated into adding non-existent things to the story (the doubly-imaginary flight crew was irresistible though, and I still observe them).

The narrator has forgotten whether they are male or female. Covertly trying to look at their own groin without attracting attention, they are foiled by corduroy trousers standing up in stiff folds. The clothing on their torso is also ambiguous. Now what? Brainwave! they think: I will go into a public toilet and remove my clothes inside a locked cubicle. But which set of toilets can they enter without attracting suspicion? They have mislaid their name, then they get it back but it is Pat. "Interlugubre," they say. "And what of me as a narrator?"

I am hateful to myself through claustrophobia. It is not a personality, this jellysac I can't break out of; it is a mere agglutination of physical characteristics. And must I for ever shew you everything, including myself, through this not quite transparent, this yellowed, wobbly, and probably distorting gelatinous envelope, myself?

I am weary of the limited permutations on predictable refractions which it imposes on every light I pass through it.

They predict that their physical identity, once they find it, will "murder" them. "It is for your sake I am seeking … the predestined masc. or fem. murderer, who shall destroy, by gobbling up, this 'I'." To be something is the equivalent of being murdered or self-betrayed (or of growing up, another voice would say, maybe one of those children's-book authors who end their stories with adulthood as death or implied death – Narnia -). You notice that In Transit changes after the narrator has figured out their sex. Eventually they melt off, and groups of people from different protest movements storm the airport, sabotaging the building, laying bombs, and playing rock music.

(Perhaps against Brophy's desires, the book here becomes very fixed to a certain decade.)

Looking at the totally different styles of Flesh, 1962, The Finishing Touch, 1963, and In Transit (as unalike as, say, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, and Arno Schmidt?), can I argue that Brophy spent the 1960s trying to defy the jellysac of "limited permutations"? Once again, as in the other books, she does not seem committed to the production of a good ending, not even a good wayward ending, as if endings confront her with the demand to be a professional, make something the way it should be, and she shies away from it, she is one of those legendary Muslim craftspeople who put mistakes in rugs; she has let you know that she is still there, that she is not an author, that she is not a nameable thing. So it is unsatisfactory and yet stubbornly thematic every time.

Since John Ashbery has just died I have been listening to him recite poems on Youtube, those Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1974, lines about "a wave breaking on a rock, giving up | its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape | The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty | as they forage in secret on our idea of distortion. | Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since | dreams prolong us as they are absorbed? | Something like living occurs, a movement | Out of the dream into its codification." Mirror was not Ashbery's favourite Ashbery and not mine either. Other people liked it, he said to Pennsound, in 2016 I think (the March 18 interview?), but he thought that was only because it was close to their idea of how a poem should look, or closer than most of his other poems anyway.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

let one's gaze slide

I read three books by Brigid Brophy, first Flesh, 1962, then The Finishing Touch, 1963, then In Transit, 1969. The first and second books were so different that I thought they must have been written years apart, but then I checked the dates and no.

The difference came down to the distribution of the atmosphere. In Finishing Touch all of the ideas are described by an archness that works as a kind of muting or gesture. You learn fairly quickly that

1. The two women you are reading about are teachers at an exclusive all-girls finishing school

2. They desire, and are sometimes desired by, their students

But the text is not direct. A group of girls passes by the teacher Antonia and it notes that

A butterfly sought the lavender grove.

A network of butterflies, flowers, and dresses is penetrated by the camp sharpness of the teachers' conversations and playful feints at toughness. Antonia bypasses the intoxicating nature of her madeira to describe fortified as "one of the strongest, most vibrant, almost bracing, of words" – (the author will not blatantly explain that madeira is fortified wine).

Brophy's sentences are broken up by ellipses, over and over again, by parentheses, by dashes, by side matters, by words in other languages – there is always some other issue that they want to talk about; there is always this gap that is filled invisibly.

She looked presidingly: from the indifferent face of Madame President's daughter (Antonia was sure, now, such girls were cold) to the baffled face of royalty, staring straight ahead as though air rather than the text could help her understanding, to the cross face of Eugénie Plash – Look away quickly (Heaven grant I am not to suffer a headache today), look back to the text, look down at … and thus, naturally, to let one's gaze slide off the text, slide off one's lap (pleasing though that was to look at), to alight …

The potential for betrayal by a student is so present and inevitable you feel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961, hanging over everything – also unsaid. Sebastian Groes in British Fiction of the Sixties: the Making of the Swinging Decade, 2016, believes he has found a buried Brodie reference in Flesh, but he may be taking it too far.

But Brophy is not fascinated by Spark's doom of humankind, more interested in the potential for a vibration between saying something and not saying it, or making woman-signs and man-signs about yourself at the same time, sitting in a pretty garden and waxing over strong, fortified features, or teaching 'finishing' when all you really want is to start something.

The conclusion of The Finishing Touch, like the conclusions of Flesh and In Transit, is not the cold, rooted convulsion it is in a Spark; it seems to be something Brophy only does because books have to end at some point: such is the nature of books, and she has to go along with it, but, personally, she would rather not do anything so pointed and forceful as make a finish. Let her go on vibrating; that's what she wants.Or let the vibration vanish in a way that makes the world happy without (somehow without) actually being anything like a halt.

The vibration is there in Flesh but it only exists as individual points that the author makes for you to identify one by one and subsequently connect. You hear that Marcus loves Rubens' women, and then, later, when he has become plump, pleased, and sensuous, he looks at his body and says, "I've become a Rubens woman." So he is both of these points; the thing that looks and the thing it looks at. But his Rubens is not in the manners of the language that creates him and nor is his sensuality or his fat. Flesh is reasoning its vibration instead of feeling it while Finishing Touch is both thinking and feeling. That was what gave me the initial impression that Brophy had finally found out what she was saying. On reflection I don't believe this is true. But I think she knew more about what she was saying. She might have been using Jean Brodie as a guide, to focus herself.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

there are different versions

"Plenitude" is a word that I came across in a 1995 interview between Craig Dworkin and Lyn Hejinian, who was (at that point) talking about Gertrude Stein:

… the Making of Americans, in which she categorizes different kinds of people and then realizes that oppositions don't work; she abandons the Making of Americans when she sees that there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them. That's something that contemporary physicists can deal with, but contemporary literary critics are driven crazy by that degree of plenitude and then they blame Stein.

Hejinian's 2001 book, A Border Comedy, is 218 pages long, divided into chapters, and through the length of the text she often tells very short stories - sometimes realistic anecdotes, sometimes fairytaleish ones – not trying to present them as if they are components in some larger fictional story (as Schmidt does in Atheists) - though they are always contributing to a larger body of thought.

They never seem to be inevitable.

The driving suggestion of the larger poem-thought is really in that one line: "there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them."

At times the stories are set in their own paragraphs, with headings or titles, e.g., The Tale of the Raven on p. 32, and The Plot Unfolds, on p. 76. "The experience of activity must entail episodes," she writes at the start of Book Eleven. Hejinian is a poet who tells you the rules she is operating by as they are being demonstrated by the medium that includes them. Within the poem she is never wrong. Elsewhere she tells a fictional story about rapists who sneak into a dormitory at a girls' school and fall asleep on the spot without committing their crimes. No reason is given. This is where the anecdote ends. One of the "co-existing ontological possibilities" has made itself known by breaking through in the least likely place. "To measure something | One must hunt its intersections," she writes. (Is an ending the place where a story intersects most decisively, cleanly, and obviously with everything that is not itself?)

She hunts but what does she find? The slipperiness of intersections seems to haunt her. What is the connection between the story of the flying woman and the transparent tree in The Plot Unfolds? The plot unfolds to a point where it seems about to develop and then it stops. Is that the joke? It doesn't do anything but perform an unfolding action. Two or three things are described and joined together. If this is what it takes to "measure something" then what is measurability? Someone ("a teller") relates the story of a bird, "Who once shared her many anxieties […] she cut off his head | Then she plucked him and turned him into soup | Soup or soot – there are different versions | Some mild, some vicious, some lewd." The intersection of the bird with the violence done to it keeps shifting. Then there is not one bird but many? Then where -

(Hejinian's language is typically formal rather than colloquial – "lewd" not "rude" – she maintains a distance, and you note that these things in her language "vibrate" separately or toy with "borders" – they do not merge, mesh, mix, or become indistinguishable from one another – so borders and separations exist, she feels, but how …)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

when it is snowing, the valley is black, p. 42

Plenitude, now, to start with; Schmidt using plenitude of stories in Atheists as a means of expansion, and then Frisch's Geiser using a multiplication of stories as a form of displacement. Old and forgetful, Geiser tries to get his meaning outside himself. He pins these pieces of paper to the walls and looks at them. (Could you suggest that the situation in reverse would characterise youth for Frisch: a man without accoutrements, independently explaining himself in a well-connected series of words?) Clear thoughts and memories have been replaced by physical gestures. Geiser cuts books apart and goes for walks. That's how he tries to discern himself. He keeps trying to put himself outside. These are his calculations or proofs. But the spaces between the gestures are still unarticulated. And the paragraphs the reader sees in Holocene are set apart with white space between them: the effort you make to cross those spaces and fix the book together is made visible by the gap on the page. Frisch's way of apportioning things might remind you that running paragraphs together mentally is an effort, even if it normally seems natural and effortless because you are such a good reader. We're all heading for Geiser-land, when the pause will be a real danger. You forget in pauses. Even now you say, "I walked into this room to fetch something and now I don't remember what it was." Geiser notices the varieties of rain, then the book reflects that at least it is not snowing. A gap passes and it is snowing. The white space is a passage of time with nothing in it but struggle and drowning. Geiser turns the stove on in one paragraph, the white space comes, and ping, the danger of forgetfulness tries to overwhelm him. His stroke at the end of the book attracts an abundance of words from other sources. He has chosen them but they are not his own. They're followed by that landscape description but for the first time he is not in the landscape. Even the body of text that usually contains him does not have him in it any more. He is gone in more than one way. It is an extra-final wiping-out.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

a distinction be made

Reading Man in the Holocene, 1979, by Max Frisch, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, after Arno Schmidt's The School for Atheists, 1972, I thought about the additional pieces of text that had been made part of each book, the side-columns and footnotes crowding to and fro in Schmidt, and then the boxed horizontal inserts that came evenly and plainly between the paragraphs in Frisch.

In Schmidt the swarming appearance of the inserts makes the 'main' text a combative partner with the side text; they are two equal things muscling one another around. It is all aware that it is in a book, and it also knows that outside this book there are others.

In Holocene the inserts have been chosen by the character Geiser, who is cutting up his library with scissors. Now the main text seems closer to the kind of writing that is 'like real life' because these snippets about dinosaurs, animals, historical episodes, and topographical features are things existing in an implied world, as cuttings exit in life; they are not the same material as that world, in the way the Atheists columns are. There is a kind of strictness in Holocene: one thing is in one place and the other is separated from it, and you notice that the theme of the book is disintegration, age, and collapse, but the form goes steadily on. Geiser has probably suffered a stroke by the end. He can't tell us about it but one of the cuttings lets us know. "Apoplexy," it reads, "commonly known as a stroke, is a sudden loss of brain function …" After the apoplexy cutting there is a passage about the world continuing as usual. "The village stands unharmed. Above the mountains, high up in the blue sky, the white trails of passenger planes. The scent of lavender …" The world and the cuttings are both commenting on him obliquely in different ways.

But they don't attack him directly; I notice that, nobody attacks him. Though over in Schmidt, people are slapping and kissing their flesh. Geiser is losing his ability to make necessary changes in the world. The moment when he almost leaves the hot plate on is worth a mention. He is losing his memory. Going for a walk in the woods, he exults when he tells himself that no one knows where he is, alone like this, independently, proving that he is still a capable body controlled by a knowing mind; the words, "The ascent is laborious," are followed by the phrase, "just as he expected," as he confirms his good judgment to himself. "Geiser knows that it is four hundred meters up to the pass."

"I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over¬whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information," wrote Lyn Hejinian in her introduction to The Rejection of Closure, "potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening."

In the essay itself she wrote:

"The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curiously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to boundedness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a distinction be made between inside and outside, between the relevant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out.

Schmidt responds to this impulse by constraining his encylopaedic impulse to literature and stories: his Kolderup is another Prospero. But his "response to the world" within this constraint is enormous and playful – if Kolderup is Prospero then his daughter is a Shamela rewriting of Miranda. Frisch quotes other books (which Holocene credits in a bibliography) but there is no sign that he expects you to have read them, or that he thinks you might be interested in consulting them afterwards. Holocene uses them to refer to itself and it leaves them as they were; there is no subversion in its attitude towards them – they are discrete ...

The dinosaurs in Geiser's excerpts are being regarded with a sort of judgmental efficiency by the writer of the scientific text, who in this context might as well be immortal. The human being who walks into the woods is happy when he thinks that no one knows where he is, as if there is a danger that he too might be glanced down upon by someone listing facts about him, or calling him "terrible" and his survival "amazing," as the science-writer does.

If the dinosaurs knew that they were being talked about like this then they also might try to assert themselves by escaping down a forest path so that none of their neighbours, family members, or anyone else would know where they were - thwarting the writer who wanted to make these books out of their memories.

Possibly the dinosaurs and the man would roam together through the Swiss woodland trying to navigate the bridges.