Thursday, May 31, 2007

Report on Bruce Conner

REPORT, dir. Bruce Conner
16mm, b&w, sound.
13 min., ~ 9 sec.
~ 18936 frames

Something has happened — the audio track tells us as much — and what we see is interrupted by a chaotic scramble of images and text taken from film leader. Conner's title is a key: it lays out one of the film's primary purposes, and refers explicitly to the film's audio track, which presents recordings of live newscasts covering the events. At the same time, it recalls gunshots.

Bruce Conner's film, at once a found-footage documentary and an act of mourning, reports on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film often seems degraded: iconic images of the motorcade start and re-start, jump cut and broken. The mismatch between what we see and hear — or between the procession of images themselves — is jarring. We are interrupted by film-leader, blanks.

Everything centers on the film's blank spots. The filmic image — jump-cut newsreel of the Kennedy motorcade nearing Dealey Plaza — disintegrates at the most crucial moment in the film's audio narrative, the moment of murder. Images are replaced by "white expanses where we see hairs in the gate and wear and tear on the frames themselves," which, Matthew Wilder notes, are the film's "most startling moments" — they begin at the moment a voice on the audio track, having noted that "something has happened in the motorcade route," begins to describe the witnesses' panic in a tone equally panicked, breathless.

At this point, and for three minutes and twenty-three seconds, the film's diegesis is located entirely within its narration. A further replacement: the whitened screen becomes a strobing flicker of black and white frames, while the voice describes "a severe gunshot wound." Sirens, ambient sounds, sound like horrorshow Theremins. And the strobe doesn't sit still. Bruce Jenkins writes: "the rate of flicker begins to decelerate — shifting from its most kinetic and stroboscopic as the reporter from 'Mobile Unit 6' races to Parkland Hospital — to infrequent flashes, finally fading to darkness as the reporter arrives and is barred entry to the hospital."

This strobing of black and white makes the invisible blank visible, underscores its blankness, in its alternation of clear and black frames, representing both the absence of color and the absence of light. It employs the rhetoric, as Jenkins claims, of "those horror films where the monster remains offscreen and viewers are left to conjure up its unseen hideousness." As such, it is terrifying. It refuses, in its refusal to show, to allow violence to rise to the status of icon; this same act refuses to make us into witnesses, allowing the narrating newscaster to witness on our behalf. It points to erasure, and absence — not only the absence that is death, but also the inability of mourning to reconcile itself to the traumatic event.

The blanks are blindspots. As a historical document, REPORT covers the Kennedy assassination and the chaos and confusion of its immediate aftermath. The film was begun within days of the event, and updated and revised as history unfolded, as other reports (including the Warren Commission's) were begun and completed, over the next several years. According to Jenkins, eight versions were completed; only one is definitive. Or: one film was remade continually, as its author attempted to settle on a historical account satisfactory to the moment it describes. In many ways, Conner's film reports on reportage itself, on the gaps, absences, and erasures in the historical record. It investigates the contrast between history as it is lived — in the chaos of its unfolding, in its rupture — and history as it is rationalized and codified within and by social institutions.

[NOTES: In my emphasis on the role of the blank in Conner's film, I've focused exclusively on the first part of REPORT. This is not to suggest that the film's second chapter lacks interest. As Jenkins notes, the shorter second section investigates — through layering of newsreels, commercials, and audio — the mythology surrounding Kennedy: it is "an astounding exposé of the ways in which the media creates meaning, constructs messages, and ultimately controls information" that "implement[s] Barthes' advice that the 'best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn."

Bruce Jenkins' article, "Exlosion in a Film Factory: The Cinema of Bruce Conner," published in
2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II, is an invaluable resource on Conner's filmmaking in general, and particularly on REPORT.

Stan Brakhage's lecture on Bruce Conner, published in
Film at Wit's End: Eight Avant-Garde Filmmakers also includes excellent commentary on the film. Brakhage provides a detailed explanation of REPORT's genesis and the different shapes it took over the years of its production, as well as a thoughful discussion of the emotion elicited by particular segments.

Conner's REPORT is not currently available.

Olson and Rimbaud

Dearest reader:

Would it sound too weary of me to say that I'll just pick up where I left off yesterday? Good — then I'll jump in with both feet, as they say.

Like O'Hara's reworking of Rilke, Charles Olson's translation of Arthur Rimbaud's "Ô saisons, ô châteaux..." involves significant differences from its original. This much is indicated by its title, "Variations Done for Gerald van der Weile." The poem itself is in three parts, and is, as its title also suggests, less a serial poem than an accretion of revisions.

The first half — twenty-one lines — of Olson's first "Variation" bears no apparent relationship to Rimbaud's text. Instead, the poem begins as imagistic verse not unlike those of Pound or H.D. (or the poetry of Williams, Stevens, and Yeats, as Thomas F. Merrill notes): syntactically condensed lines arranged into stanzas of irregular length describe a pastoral scene onto which bursts tractors, busy as birds, bees. "The Diesel / does not let up pulling / the plow." The other sections of Olson's poem effectively constitute revisions of this passage: the Diesel and plow have dropped away by the second part, though the action of plowing reappears in the third. And so forth.

The business of translation begins in the poem's first part with a direct quotation, preceded with an open parenthesis and lacking quotation marks or circumflexes, of Rimbaud's opening line. What appears to be further quotation in an isolated one-word stanza — "Délires!" — is in fact invention, though it recalls Rimbaud's themes. The translation continues in the following couplet, and is, at its base, an accurate translation of the original: "Quelle âme est sans défauts!" ["What soul is without sin!"] becomes "What soul / is without fault?"

Where Merrill's interpretation emphasizes Olson's varying renderings of Rimbaud's fifth couplet ("Ce charme a pris âme et corps / Et disperse les efforts"), I'd like to examine his versions of the poem's second couplet. It is here that, in the first section of "Variations" becomes a variation on Rimbaud's text. "J'ai fait la magique étude," reads Rimbaud's original, "Du bonheur, qu'aucun n'élude" ["The magic study I've made, / Of happiness none can evade"]. Olson's text responds to, rather than translates, this: "Nobody studies / happiness." Not only does this move depart from translation in favor of direct address, it does so with a skepticism that would call the original text, in its sincerity and its romantic imagination of poet as seer, into question.

Questioning continues in the version presented in Olson's second variation. Here, the skepticism is replaced with necessity, and the truncation of Rimbaud's couplet is reversed: "can you afford not to make / the magical study // which happiness is?" Rather than opposing happiness with study, Olson here rereads happiness as a special category of study, one that cannot be refused. The lines are directed not at Rimbaud's poem, but at the reader, and the antagonism of the rhetorical question in part one is replaced with an imperative. And here versions of Rimbaud's couplet disappear from the scene, never to return.

[NOTE: I plan to continue this in the next day or two, as Olson's variant readings of another couplet from Rimbaud merit some commentary.]

[ADDENDUM: For "next day or two" in the above note, please read "indefinite future." It's not that I don't want to contine this, but rather that other ideas have intervened.]

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Aus Einem April"

Dearest reader:

I promised to write more about translation as departure — about poems that treat translation less as adaptation between languages than as occasions for a new work radically different from their original. I've already referred to Jack Spicer's After Lorca, in which Spicer uses translation as a framing device for a series of poems whose relationship to the Spanish writer's work is placed under the anarchic sentiment expressed in one of the American poet's open letters included within the text: "When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right."

But what I want to look at today is Frank O'Hara's poem, "Aus Einem April." The poem, unlike Spicer's After Lorca or poetic translations like Zukofsky's Catullus, does not explicitly announce itself as a version of Rilke's poem of the same title (English version here). In fact, Marjorie Perloff, in Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, avoids the term "translation" entirely, substituting instead "loose adaptation," and quoting Albert Cook's "de-'poeticisizing' [...] commentary." David Lehman, in an essay on postmodernism, calls it a "deliberate mistranslation," while Jonathan Mayhew uses the term "channeling."

My interest here isn't in challenging any of these other critics' accounts of the poem, but to draw the two texts into relation to see what is found in the contrast, and to illuminate O'Hara's methods, which include homophony, inversion, and invention.

Lehman's account of the poem addresses only the first two lines: he contrasts O'Hara's "We dust the walls" with Rilke's "Wieder duftet der Wald" ["Again the forest is fragrant"]. As I read it, Lehman wants us to see two things. He calls our attention explicitly to the contrast between the meanings of the two lines. At the same time, by quoting the original German, he points to a translation of the German sounds that is essentially homophonic, though with a few differences. Reading the letters as though they were English, O'Hara transforms the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ (w is named "vay" in German) into the voiced labiovelar approximate /w/; the result recalls Hollywood caricatures of a Germanic accent. And the contrast between Rilke's German and O'Hara's English finds the hint of a lisp in the transition from /f/ to /s/ in "duftet" and "dust." Finally, dropped syllables alter the meter, and bring what might have been rendered in the past tense — "duftet" as "dusted" — into the present. And from here, O'Hara's version of "Aus Einem April" abandons close homophonic play with Rilke's prosody, though select sounds are retained, most clearly O'Hara's "haven't you ever," which recalls and redoubles the German "aber" ["but"].

Much of O'Hara's "Aus Einem April" works from Rilke's text through a series of inversions. That a mirroring practice is at play is evident early: where Rilke implicitly contrasts his poem's "us" against the larks in the second and third lines, O'Hara not only equates the two, but makes the relationship explicit: "we are weeping larks." Words often become their opposites: softness becomes roughness, "empty" is made into "full," the "darkening glint of the stones" changes into "the hour of sunlight, early morning." And joyful connotations become adjectives of pain or sorrow — "soaring" becomes "weeping." The overall result of these inversions is that Rilke's motifs of ascent and rising succumb to gravity.

Donald Allen's endnotes to The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara identify only the title of "Aus Einem April" as having any relationship to Rilke. And, arguably, the most interesting element of O'Hara's version is the amount of it that is apparently absolute invention on the translator's part. By the fifth line, O'Hara has departed entirely, and Rilke's "aber nach langen, regnenden Nachmittagen" ["but after the long, raining afternoons"] corresponds with "Haven't you ever fallen down at Christmas?" It is not clear where Christmas enters into O'Hara's poem: it can not be regarded as an inversion of "afternoons," nor is it a literal reading of the weather patterns Rilke's poem describes. One possibility is that "Nachtmittagen" provided the occasion for a personal association on O'Hara's part, connecting Christmas with German carols. But if a relationship other than absolute departure — an abandoning of the attempt at translation — is at work here, it is hermetic enough to elude easy explanation.

This practice of departure continues through the end of the stanza: "neueren Stunden" ["newer hours"] shares its relative position within the poem — if little else — with O'Hara's "isn't that what the tree means? the pure pleasure," which can be read as extension of the Christmas motif introduced earlier. Traces of the original are carried across, but bits of even those portions of text are lost or found along the way, and so Rilke's "wounded" emerges, turned from adjective to noun, as "suicide."

Inversions, echoes, flights from the original. In O'Hara's version of Rilke, everything becomes a swoon. And the effect is dizzying: because so much of O'Hara's poem reverses the relationships articulated in Rilke's text, some of the content seems to have come full circle. In the end, though, it is difficult to tell for certain. Both poems close with images of stillness and nature:
Alle Geräusche ducken sich ganz
in die glänzenden Knospen der Reiser.

["All sounds duck entitely away
in the glistening buds of the brushwood"]

Nonetheless, in O'Hara's version this stillness is troubled by its inversion into turbulence, even if it is located "out there," at a remove from the speaker:

in the hour of sunlight, early morning, before the mist rolls
in from the sea; and out there everything is turbulent and green.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More — More! — Maddin-Mania!

Dearest reader:

You're still thinking about Guy Maddin, aren't you? I thought so! So I'll feed your hunger for more with links to some shorts, filled to overflowing with hypnogogic montage, subliminal edits, and subject matter both lurid and risque!

— - — - —

"Zookeeper Workbook"

Maldoror, or is it? Some things are put in the mouth for safekeeping: lightning rods and tiny crabs, finger-rings for fingers. A tyger is made in the space where light is not. Q: What does a eunuch eat? A: Anything he wants! // [This film is obviously related to Maddin's "Maldoror: Tygers," which I've never seen. The treatment for that film, published in From the Atelier Tovar, entangles Comte de Lautréamont's character within Shakespearean webs of enchanted and misdirected desire.]

— - — - —


"Boiler room boys" put their fingers places they should never go, enduring dares and daring danger! Nightmares turn to passions, as metaphors turn literal! And are those Cocteau's rubber gloves, attempting a pass through the camera lens? // But oh! those "sockets of fire!" // ["Fuseboy"'s soul-mate is "Sissy Boy Slap Party," the title of which is so utterly self-explanatory as to render further exposition of its humid harem themes not only redundant, but reductive. Watch an extended cut — the third of three versions — of the latter here.]

— - — - —

"Rooster Workbook"

"This little montage sequence was meant to be part of a longer film called Love Chaunt of the Chimney, but this latter film — an adaptation of Herman Melville's short story "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo," shot in 1997 — was completely lost, except for a few excerpts, when vandals torched my editing studio. When my editor John Gurdebeke and I decided to edit the few minutes that survived, we found that the spirit of the original feature-length film survived in the shorter piece — lots of ennervating sexual submission to the cock's crows, lots of filthy ash writhing — and that we just saved viewers a lot of time by submitting to fate and grieving no more over the loss of the feature" — Guy Maddin

[NOTE: All links are to YouTube, which means that these films might only be available for a moment or two.]

Monday, May 28, 2007

on Brand Upon the Brain!

Dearest reader:

I'm often afflicted with amnesia. So I can't remember if you've seen Brand Upon the Brain!, Guy Maddin's newest film. I can't recall if you've ever even heard of Maddin, or if you have already been infected with the brain-fever his movies spread. No matter — I'm going to talk about the film; you'll have to decide if you want it spoiled, or if you've seen it yet. I'll leave a dotted-line trail, as of breadcrumbs, to tell the wary where to wait, or skip ahead to safety.

In a sense, I'm ill-equipped for the task I've set out for myself here: I always need to watch each of Maddin's films twice, once to allow myself an overview of the ways its threads of plot, motif, and image work together to form its whole, and again to actually see the film, guided along by an Ariadne's thread of hindsight that keeps me from losing my way. They're too fevered and hallucinatory for anything less. Nonetheless, I charge ahead, knowing I do so half-blind...

Brand Upon the Brain, like Maddin's other films, eludes easy description. Like Careful it is, to use his own words, an "opera without singing." An especially operatic opera, certainly.

The film's ideas sleep furiously: images are all staccato. They pant and they tremble. They hold their breath in anticipation. Voices float in from on the aerosphere, carried by emotion's waxy wings. They cackle and crumble — they crackle. Vaseline makes memories spit-slick and blurry. Searches are mounted to find them. Others — coated and covered over with paint.

Along the way, "nectarine" changes its meaning, is lapped up with gusto. Color fleetingly flashes — it flickers. (And, as an aside — it is forgotten by many who see it!) Rules are drawn, and designs dreamt up. Desires are disguised; others are pursued under the guise of others, of brothers. Gloves are there for the kissing, for undressing. Secrets yearn to be told. Rage rages, gasps are gasped, sotto voce. Rumania blushes on bellies — a map. Certain designs are dashed like hopes. Scientists invent inventions, while matriarchs rule, and repress, at telescope's reach. Vampires run rampant, if wingless...

— - — - —

[This is where I start to really read the film's "last pages" aloud... O! reader! take care to be cautious!]

Brand Upon the Brain! wants for easy coherence, but nothing about the film really wants it, either. Subplots multiply, but are often uneasy in their relationships with one another. ("One memory leads to another," the silent film's intertitles tell us, without articulating the joints between one memory and another.) Threads wind their ways together, becoming a tangle rather than knot. That's true of all of Maddin's films, even those that last less than a few minutes.

Within Maddin's fevered and nightmarish scenario, an orphanage is ruled by those with designs on the brains of their wards. The vampiric wardens steal "nectarine" with signet-rings from the brain-stems of the children, using the orphans to ensure eternal youth. Allusions abound, and the whole of it — this subplot, at least, though it is only one among many — can be read as allegory of the rhetoric employed by opponents of stem-cell research. I'm tempted to offer such a reading.

But such a reading seems overly simplistic. Maddin — remarking on the film's framing device, of an adult recalling his childhood ("A remembrance in 12 chapters") — suggests a more complex relationship between film and reality, referring to "the faulty models of the universe one constructs while trying to make sense of the world." And the film's status with regards to the world is further embodied, and further complicated, in the fact that it presents itself as autobiography. In an interview, Maddin explains further:
At the dawn of memory, one makes some wildly incorrect models of the world — these result in the almost narcotic magic of every new sensation being received incorrectly. Cause and effect are often flipped; new phenomena loom up hyperbolically and misleadingly; mysteries deepen instead of clearing up; everything is dreamy and wondrous! Truths are made more emotionally truthful by the mistakes and untruths.

To take up this approach is to reread the film's allusions less as allegory, as a one-to-one palimpsest of map and world, and regard them instead as points of departure, as occasions for invention. To reread the film thus is to see it as a variation or play on the rhetoric employed by those who oppose stem-cell research. Less a manifestation of the unconscious mind than a form of discourse analysis that revels in — rather than, say, critiques — a hidden and fabulistic level of the discourse, turning it not against itself but into its own ends.

— - — - —

[Here, my words become once again safe, even for the most skittish among you, O reader, readers, mine!]

The Village Voice describes the film as, if I may be allowed a loose paraphrase, just another Guy Maddin. There's truth to this: recurring motifs and themes from elsewhere in his oeuvre recur here as well. The characteristic lurid tone remains lurid. Repression and desire play between one another — and the latter bursts forth from its fetters — as before. What is queer about his cinematic vision is queer once again. But these repetitions are worth repeating, and as Maddin repeats them.

And though it may be that Brand Upon the Brain! is not his best — that award would be shared by Careful and Archangel, as well as the shorts "Heart of the World" and "Sombra Dolorosa" — "another Guy Maddin" is, as those in the know know for certain, no minor thing.

— - — - —

The savviest among you have by now already turned to the interview with Maddin linked above. Those that haven't should! For, there, our swooning auteur announces a future project, and confirms a rumor. The rumor, that he is working with John Ashbery, is exciting enough — and doubly so in its truth. But even more exciting is that the project will borrow its structure from Raymond Roussel's New Impressions of Africa, and thus promises this: that parenthesis will enclose parenthesis, and so on, ad infinitum.

[ADDENDUM: Watch the trailer here.]

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thou art translated!

Dearest reader:

Of late I've been listening to Caroline Bergvall's "Via." Her poem (and I prefer the audio to the visual text) consists of a ten minute documentary history of 48 English-language translations of the first three lines of Dante's Commedia. Taken together, organized alphabetically rather than according to chronology or a hierarchy, they work through repetition ("erratic seriality," as she puts it) to illustrate, if paradoxically, variation. There is a necessary recurrence of themes from one line to the next, but this sameness is undercut by a wild variety of rhythm and of lexicon that is surprising.

In the tangle of variant translations, "found myself in a dark wood" becomes "I was made aware that I had strayed." This variety multiplies meaning's different shades, and Dante's "mi ritrovai" yields "found myself," "found myself astray," and "found myself again." The "mi ritrovai" is imagined as wandering, and as a waking that recalls the swooning that concludes his meeting with Paolo and Francesca.

Where, as she notes in her remarks on the poem in Fig, concern for accuracy of transcription is central to Bergvall's work here, a parallel concern for accuracy of translation is not. Bergvall's repetition of variation doesn't raise the question of fidelity, and I'm tempted to rethink the notion of accuracy entirely, and to instead recall the etymology of translation, which is often rendered as "bearing across": the act that brings a text near. "Via" suggests we rethink translation in terms of its departure. Dante's text operates here as a point for such departure, from which variety "finds itself," even if that finding might be regarded as — even if it carries with it the implication — "astray."

This figuration of translation as departure isn't unique to Bergvall's treatment of Dante; it is in fact typical of a tradition of poetic (mis)translation. I plan to write a bit more about this in the next few days, so stay tuned!

Friday, May 25, 2007


When I hoped I
hoped everywhere and l ing er

— - — - —

voice in di c e he
a rar y s
rar y in a ction • Well

in direction of • leaves,
of wind vanes takes
w ing • flushed and mistaken

— - — - —

To curl the air

A ate
the cal m of the candy
a Arrow straighter Love

e cor re s

bre k in vers

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Checking in and out again

Dearest reader:

It's been a while, no? It's not that I've not been thinking of you. I've been busy — too busy to write anything of substance, though I have two or three things in the works. In the meantime, I will take a moment — and it will only take a moment — to answer all your questions.

Yes, I did change the heading that appears under the blog's title. And yes, the new heading is borrowed from an outside source. In this case, it's the first line of "Bold Soul Sister" by Ike and Tina Turner.

And now you know.

Let me close with a promise. I promise this: more posts of more substance than this one in the next day or two. I know, it's a long wait, but — hold your breath — it will be worth that wait.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Silent letters

Over at dbqp, Geof Huth has also weighed in with an interpretation of Aram Saroyan's one-word poem, "lighght." His reading — which he positions in contrast to mine, from Monday's post — emphasizes silence in its address of the doubled "gh" letter combination that is, in essence, the very essence of the poem:
The internal elongation of the word adds two letters, letters that are usually audible when read aloud in English, but letters which, in this case, are silent when paired together. The doubling of “gh” extends the silence within the word, and that silence represents the weight of light and its movement through space. No matter the number of gh’s added to the pwoermd, the center of it will always be silent, and light will extend itself continuously through space.
There's nothing I can really argue with here. In fact, I almost feel obligated to defer to Huth's expertise on the subject of vispo, minimalism, and one-word poems.


Except there's something in this interpretation that doesn't satisfy me. It's not that the interpretation is wrong; it is, in fact, more likely that my reading — or sounding, rather — of Saroyan's poem is off-base. Nevertheless, the interpretation misses what is for me a crucial mark: namely, that the poem is absolutely confounding. It was when I saw it for the first time, maybe ten or eleven years ago, and it is when I see it today. The poem presents itself first as problem, as impossibility. And, to my mind at least, reading the doubled "gh" as an extension of the silence in "light" reduces this crucial aspect of "lighght."

It's its strangeness — the problem the poem presents (itself as) — that I was attempting to apprehend with my attention to sound on Monday. It isn't that any of the sounded senses I suggested are particularly satisfying — and, in fact, none of them are, as I mentioned in my earlier post. But they point, or I meant to point through them, to a dynamic the poem itself relies on: that it troubles the act of reading on its most fundamental levels. I might have approached the poem in another way, without referring to phonetics, and noted that it compels us to stumble on that — the ghostly "gh" — which we, in English, pass over in silence. Silence here as stammer.

In the end, it's that the poem — read as sound, as word, or as image — doesn't settle into the visual and sonic puns of "eyeye" that makes it the more satisfying of the two texts. It's the same, for me, with its meanings: I want the poem to resist an interpretation as lucid as the one Huth suggests, if only because it seems to tame "lighght" too much.

[NOTE: For those not in the know, "pwoermd" is a term Huth created specifically for neologistic one-word poems such as "lighght" or "eyeye."]

Monday, May 21, 2007


Ron Silliman's blog post today finds him discussing the work of Aram Saroyan. In so doing, he closely examines two one-word Saroyan poems originally published in 1968, in a book that is either untitled or eponymous, depending on how you read its cover.

The first of the Saroyan poems in question, reprinted here in its entirety:


And the second, also in its entirety:


Silliman argues that the first of these is the better poem, noting that the latter "just sits there on the page doing not much of anything." In contrast, he judges the first poem "effective" in that it "calls up the double-image element involved in stereoscopic vision," which connects, and fulfills, the poem's use of the "graphic elements of language."

But exclusive attention to these poems' graphical components ignores — as Silliman does — their sonic dimensions. I'm not interested in disagreeing with Silliman, of course; his attention is focused on the visual by the parameters of his essay, and particularly by his comparison of Saroyan with Grenier. Rather, and nevertheless, I want to look at other ways of reading the poems to investigate them differently.

Read aloud — with an "eye" to its sound, rather than graphical presentation — the poem takes on, through homophony, a variety of other possible meanings. "eyeye" sounds the affirmative: "aye-aye." Or it can be read as "I I" — a doubling of the personal pronoun that, in turn, might be regarded as a doubling of the self, as in a split consciousness, or as an expression of plurality, of "we," taken as a union that does not suppress distinct subjectivity. The latter might, in turn, be read to recall Olson's "polis is / eyes," which relies in part on the eye/I/aye homophony for its meaning. And we could take this further still, substituting one homophone for each of the "eyes" that comprise the poem: "I aye," or "aye I." Operating in this fashion, "I eye" and "eye I" are also possible, as are "aye eye" and "eye aye." That some of these formulation defy grammatical conventions seems of little consequence, as we are dealing here in the realm of pun, rather than of sentence structure.

As I read it, there is no apparent connection between the poem's voicing and its visual appearance. I suppose we could look towards a reconcilitation by taking up the homophonic play between "eye" and "I," to return to Olson's statment, and suggest that we read our multiplicity, our condition as "we," in terms of stereoscopic vision, suggesting a more-or-less commun(al)istic and affirmative conception of society that emphasizes the ways we work together. But this seems, at the moment, a bit of a stretch — though I stand to stand corrected, of course.

The meaning of "eyeye" proliferates upon its utterance. "lighght" confounds its sounding. Where the former works through pun, the latter presents itself in terms of the impossibility of even the most fundmental form of interpretation that is reading aloud. It is not clear at all how to voice the poem's doubling of the silent "gh." Nevertheless, possible solutions come into view, despite its presentation: we could recall that "gh" indicates that the "i" is a long one, and draw the vowel out, effectively doubling its length. Or we could read the poem as a homophone for "light" — read the poem as a rejection of logocentrism, that is — and rely on the assumption that its difference from the conventional word exists solely on the page. Or we could recall that earlier versions of English in fact sounded the "gh" combination as the velar fricative /x/ (as in German "nicht"). This in mind, we could return to this sounding, drawing it out to honor its graphical doubling, or perhaps allowing the first "gh" to silently lengthen the "i" sound, and voice its second manifestation as either /x/ or the /f/ into which the former transformed prior to the completion of the "taut-taught merger" (as historical phonologists term the evolution of words like "taught" towards homophony with words like "taut").

As in "eyeye," puns begin to suggest themselves with these last possibilities. We can move between a short and long "i" while voicing the "gh" as /x/ or as /f/ to find: "lift," "licked" or "lick't" (if we allow a slight mispronunciation of /x/), and "liked," as well as the neologistic "lifed," which we might interpret as meaning "lived." And these might be superimposed upon the ambiguities that the conventional word "light" allows: when divorced from syntactic context, the word fluctuates between adjective and noun. And the varying meanings of "light" as adjective inhere as well.

None of these puns is, for me, as fulfilling as the working together of meanings in "eyeye." And each is somewhat unsatisfying, inasmuch as it solves the problem with which we are presented when we first look at "lighght." The very difficulty of sounding the poem reminds us — in a way that the ease of "eyeye" does not, because it moves this difficulty to the background — that one way of thinking ambiguity, uncertainty, and undecidability is in terms of impossibility. And the impossibility of reading interests me, not least because it problematizes the dominance of voice in our culture. But also because it confounds the most fundamental levels of interpretation. The verb "to read" means to interpret, but before it means interpretation, it implies a sounding that "lighght" has certainly complicated. Or, to return to Silliman's phrasing, "lighght" "sits there on the page," but doing so is doing something.

[NOTE: if you decide to read UbuWeb's reprinting of Saroyan's text, be aware that they've misspelled "lighght" as "lightght," a fact Saroyan has mentioned here. I mention this not to prevent the accusation that I've misread the poem, but to point to the difficulty of even transcribing the poem — a testament to what we might, variously, call its confounding poetics, or its poetics of impossibility.]

[ADDENDUM: There's another sense in which "lighght" does more than "sit ... there on the page." Silliman clearly intends to describe the poem qua poem — as it is on the page, if you will — but "lighght" has another life off the page that is worth mention. The poem became part of a decades-long controversy when it was discovered to have been awarded an NEA grant. "lighght" is regularly referenced in critiques of government arts subsidies, though usually without mention of its author, and has been referenced in the Senate as recently as 1997, by such luminaries as Jesse Helms (according to Saroyan) and John Ashcroft (according to the Congressional Record).]

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Prosodic bodies

Dearest reader:

You keep coming back for more on Robert Kocik, don't you? Don't try to hide it — I've seen the report from Google Analytics. It's okay — I keep coming back to him, planning to write more. This will also allow me to elaborate on, and further develop, ideas I mentioned to you earlier.

"Every feature that is not meaning is prosody," Kocik writes in "Stressogony." An invitation, here, in this inclusive definition of "prosody": to acknowledge the limits of signification and reference as models of meaning, and to attend instead to gesture, to sound-as-sound, to the materiality of textual production (font choice, texture of paper, etc.). To attend, in other words, to that which exceeds meaning.

And, in the next breath, a dialectical turn: "in a fully prosodized world" — that is, a world properly attentive to everything outside the bounds of signification — "there is no feature that doesn't have meaning or can't be made to mean." That which exceeds meaning would seem to have returned as meaningful. But this return is a return with a difference; it has already passed through the first proposition.

To move these contradictions towards synthesis, then, is to note a suppressed pun at play here: what exceeds — exists beyond — meaning is simultaneously an excess — an abundance — of meaning. Once we allow ourselves to become aware of meaning's limits, we become aware of the potential for meaning that inheres in everything. Or: all is meaningful, but that meaning occurs outside the economic models (signification, reference — communication, even) according to which we typically regard meaning.

Kocik's concern is with imagining language otherwise, as initiative, rather than representational (mimetic) or presentational (performative). If his initiative language is attentive to its own "carnality" (as I used the term a while back), it also attentive to its function as incarnation: of knowledge, of "voices from the most distant past." As initiative, language is "that which is requisite for all things to appear."

What interests me here — in the final synthesis of meaning's excess and excess of meaning, and in incarnation — is ethics, particularly in terms of language's tangibility. Roland Barthes, in A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, writes:
Language is a skin: I rub myself against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.... I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.
Add emphasis, underscore "caress": Barthes' emphasis on skin rather than flesh — a subtle distinction, but nonetheless fundamental — allows us to apprehend language not only as (mere) pleasure, but as touch. And, as Susan Stewart has noted in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, touch involves a reciprocity that complicates and undermines — it presents itself as vertigo, as instability — the conventional binary relationship of subject and object, of self and other:
One hand or the other can be subect or object; one "I" or the other can take the position of the "you"; one speaker or the other can become the listener — indeed, each is waiting upon the other, anticipating the other.

But a poem is not contact with the other — Barthes' description of language aside — in the same way touch is. Rather, we might return to Barthes, to his account of the amorous gift, which shares with language a sense of "contact, sensuality: you will be touching what I have touched. A third skin unites us." The question, then, is how to regard the poem as this "third skin" without, in so doing, limiting the poem to expression between individuals, between lover and beloved.

As I read it, Kocik's idea of a prosodic body — in its insistence on initiative, on reading meaning's excesses — opens the potential for poetry (or prosody, as he would have it) to be conceived in these ways.

[Sources: "Stressogony" and "The Prosodic Body" by Robert Kocik. A Lover's Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses by Susan Stewart.

Thom Donovan, over at Wild Horses of Fire, has also addressed the connection between Kocik's work and ethics.]

Saturday, May 19, 2007


not, or no fit er for
t he h ear t

this: as in ease, as
in Her same was Surrender

to return, to tear

up • of a bird: gloomily, to yield
to d well • with the wings

up • is not elegant
do-si-does, does she?

And how close she clings
and how

how • with rapture melt e

[From a sequence I've been working on for some time, entitled "In Very Variant." The challenge here was to adapt the form to the layout necessitated by Blogger, which doesn't allow for a scatter of words across the "page." Sources include Merrian-Webster's 10th Collegiate.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

To hazard (a chance meeting)

Dearest reader:

I like to leave off and then I like to return to what I've left. What's interesting about this return is that what I've left never seems quite the same as it was. John Cage's performance of "Water Walk" on I've Got a Secret is a meeting between the avant garde and a sitcom, as I wrote yesterday. What interests me now, in this different (and stormy) light, is the complexity of the performance's juxtaposition of the avant garde and the televisual.

As Joan Retallack explains in "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2," Cage's aesthetic practice aims towards a "heightened awareness" that "delight[s] in the graceful, anarchic harmonies of nonintentional configurations of sounds and sights." Cage notes (and Retallack quotes): "Music is about changing the mind — not to understand, but to be aware." There is for the composer a social goal, of "bring[ing] about some kind of change" that is at once political and ethical (these two categories are not separate for Cage).

For Retallack, this is best described by "the French notion of jouissance, a playful erotics of informed sensuality." Roland Barthes' formulation of jouissance (for which, of course, there is no adequate English translation) regards it as fundamentally different from mere pleasure in that it is based in transgression and rupture. Jouissance does not "content" us. Jouissance "discomforts" and "unsettles ... historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language," as well as meaning.

The jouissance in Cage's "Water Walk" comes from its invitation for us to rethink our daily lives: it encourages us to regard quotidian objects as musical instruments, to think about the range of sounds that could be produced by a pressure cooker, a vase of roses, etc. And it further suggests we rethink assumptions regarding the categories of noise & music, of the everyday & art. That the arrangement of musical objects resembles the set for a sitcom's representation of domesticity — that I'm inclined to call it a set at all, rather than an orchestra, or instrument — invites us, given that the piece was scored "for solo television performer," to rethink televisual representations of domesticity. This is the subversion his performance performs: by bringing the avant garde to the space of game show and sitcom, Cage encourages us to listen to the slapstick's slap, and to rethink it as composition.

At the same time, Cage's composition is attended by a great risk. Writing an radical avant garde composition for television confronts the danger that the radical message might be overwhelmed and subsumed by the medium. Instead of encouraging the audience to actively rethink their relationship to television, the composition might be reduced to nothing more than slapstick comedy, worthy, despite the (playful) seriousness with which the show's host frames the performance, of no more thought than a particularly unusual episode of Leave it to Beaver, a show noted neither for its radical transformation of consciousness, nor its critique of our society's bad habits of thought.

I assume Cage was aware of this risk — it's just that I'm not sure the performance survives it intact.

[Sources include two essays by Joan Retallack: "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2" and "Poethics of a Complex Realism," both in her Poethical Wager (U. of California Press, 2003). I also used the Richard Miller translation of Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text, published by Hill and Wang (1973).]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"If you are amused, you may laugh..."

Dearest reader:

Our comrades at WFMU have posted an incredibly entertaining — and touching — video of John Cage on an episode of the game show I've Got a Secret back in 1960.

He performs "Water Walk," a composition scored for "solo television performer," and played on a variety of instruments, listed in a whisper into the ear of the show's host, and displayed on screen for the at-home audience:

a Water Pitcher
an Iron Pipe
a Goose Call
a Bottle of Wine
an Electric Mixer
a Whistle
a Sprinkling Can
Ice Cubes
2 Cymbals
a Mechanical Fish
a Quail Call
a Rubber Duck
a Tape Recorder
a Vase of Roses
a Seltzer Siphon
5 Radios
a Bathtub


According to the John Cage Database, the piece's score consists of diagrams showing a floorplan for the layout of the above objects, a partial sequence of actions to be performed with said objects, and the instruction: "start watch and then time actions as closely as possible to their appearance in the score."

I assume that it is obvious why I consider this interesting — but why did I describe it as "touching"? Two moments in particular strike me so:

• When the host, after stressing that Cage is "take[n] ... seriously as a composer," says to the composer: "inevitably — these are nice people, but — some of 'em are gonna laugh. Is that all right?" To which Cage replies: "I consider laughter preferable to tears."

• Cage's adorably goofy grin at the conclusion of his performance.

Cage's statement about his preference for laughter over tears — which I take to be representative of a significant facet of his work — gets almost as big a laugh as some of the most delightful and surprising moments of the performance itself, and allows the composer to graciously and gracefully demonstrate that experimentation and humor are not incommensurate. As Joan Retallack explains in "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2": "According to Cage the proper response to art is 'merely' to delight in it with heightened awareness, to experience the reflexive humor of the figure/ground shift."

What's at stake in Cage's performance is recontextualization: the sounds we ignore and treat as background are shifted to the foreground when re-presented as music. It allows us, along with the live studio audience, to recognize our world as melodic rather than noisy. We laugh because we are delighted; we are delighted — and I'm paraphrasing Retallack here, if loosely — not only because what we see and hear are unexpected, but because our expecations and our understanding of a false music/noice dichotomy are troubled.

Cage's performance of "Water Walk" — and it is important to remember that it was specifically created for a televisual context — complicates the matter, adding another shift between figure and ground. As I watch it for a third time, I'm struck by the ways the performance works within its medium. The layout of instruments/objects resembles an absurdly cramped apartment in which bathroom, kitchen, and living room overlap, and Cage's movements between the various objects recall those of C. C. Baxter in The Apartment. Add the laughter of the live studio audience, and the avant garde — framed by the show's host as serious, as "controversial" and as recipient of reviews "not entirely favorable" — finds common ground with slapstick sit-comedy.

[ADDENDUM: if WFMU's format doesn't work with your internet-watching contraption, here's a YouTube link. Now you can no longer say I never gave you anything.

Joan Retallack's "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2" is available in her
The Poethical Wager, published by U. of California Press in 2003.]

Monday, May 14, 2007

[To look, to stand]

To look, to stand — a place
where pause is made, or

where one stands nearer. How
closely, near touching, tangles:

silver than — danger
than — foster than — harbor

than most dearly and troubled.
None that say swollen. None

that say whistles. None that
say wand'ring. None that say

bramble, and none
that say nothing at all. No —

slipped and squalled and no
nearer than that.

[ADDENDUM: My use of this blog has demonstrated that I'm unable to leave a poem alone once I've put it up. As such I've decided to start recording my edits — like errata slips, but where the errata described are my own, rather than a publisher's.

In this instance:

• the last sentence (in the final three lines) was added a few minutes after publication.

• the positions of "harbor" and "danger" have been reversed

• in the last sentence, "No" was earlier "O."

• line breaks have been revised; the end words before the afternoon of 5/14 were:
is | nearer. | tangles: | foster | dearly | None | wand'- | none | slipped | that.]

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The mouth, that "channel of vocal utterance"

Mouth, from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1889-1991)

— - — - — - —

[An excerpt from Vocal Sounds by Edward Search (1773):]

If on pronouncing u psilon you change to "au" you will find your under jaw drop, and your lips expand in a nearly circular form; if from thence to "o," you will find the corners of your lips draw in so as to turn into an oval; if to "u," you will find the orifice still more contracted, and the lips a little thrust forwards, the tongue in all these three operations lying close at the bottom of the mouth; if from thence you pass to "a," the lips at the corners will widen so as to form the long diameter of an ellipsis, the jaw remaining as before, and the tongue rising and spreading a very little; the transition thence to "e," is effected only by raising the hinder part of the tongue in the manner you did for an "h," and that to "i," by throwing the tongue into a convex, corresponding with the hollow roof of the mouth.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Pay Attention!

Dearest reader:

Do you remember "Walking & Falling" by Laurie Anderson? You can find it on the album Big Science, if you've forgotten. And I hope you will want to remember by the time you finish reading this letter to you.

It's a song I've been interested in for some time — since I was in college, since the century before the one in which I write today — and that I think informs, and may in fact have sparked, my attention to the activity of language. Her lyrics don't deal with speech or its organs, but do deal with the minutae — the unconscious minutae, that is — of quotidean action, in this case, walking. Her analysis of the mechanisms of walking deal in paradox. Furthermore, it suggests faith, not of a religious nature (though this may in fact inform her account), but of a more material variety:

You're walking. And you don't always realize it
but you're always falling,
With each step, you fall forward slightly.
And then you catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time.

The simple act of walking, something most of us do without reflection, turns out to involve rescue, and defiance of gravity.

What's at stake in this — and I know that's what you want me to tell you, now — is attention, which is, for me, one of the primary goals of poetry. Not mere awareness; attention is more careful. And not research — though attention doesn't preclude, or reject, a scholarly approach, and is in fact the basis for good examples thereof — but rather the heightening of awareness of the relation between self and world, where world can refer to the material around us (in the most literal sense of the world material), and/or the social orders that shape our consciousness.

If awareness is fundamental to critique, it is also key to concern, which is, in turn, the basis for ethics. And awareness of activity in particular reminds us that the world is not static. It is not adequately described with nouns, but with verbs.

[P.S. — If Anderson's emphasis on the body's action fascinates you as it does me, look also at Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget. Or listen to it here.]

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Dearest reader:

The aspect of evolution that makes it interesting — as a model of (natural) history, of change, and of being — is that it rejects the following ideas: design, progress, linearity, and conclusion. That is: evolution doesn't assume a pre-existing plan, nor does it assume that a given moment is necessarily an improvement over those that preceded it, or with which it shares its space. It doesn't presume that a particular development is final, that it constitutes a "coming into its own" or a "maturity."

All of this is to say that this blog is undergoing an evolution of sorts. It's beginning was clear, and clearly stated a design. But this design — to write a poem a day for a month — built into itself its own endpoint, which has passed. The blog has exceeded its own purpose, its own plan. And yet it persists.

As good evolutionary scientists, we can't know how this evolution will unfold, and we can't say with any certainty that it improves upon its earlier variety. We can't know if its new traits are evolutionary dead-ends, and we don't know what changes to the environment will alter the blog's needs, or what specific adaptations may be required.

We can only observe; all else is speculation, like staking a claim, or playing the futures market. It's an act of faith I'm not willing to participate in at present — the risk of "OR BUST" is too significant. So we'll stick with observations. We can observe an increase in the number of letters written to you, dear reader, have increased. We can note that the blog's focus seems to be poetics, rather than poetry. And we can observe that the blog no longer presents a new poem every day, though some do persist. They seem to be, for the most part, vestigial. These poems might have no function but to occasionally break when sat upon too hard, or to become inflamed and burst.

I, for one, look forward to that explosion.

ADDENDUM — It is worth note, as part of this report on the state of the blog, that This Cruellest Month is the first Google hit for the following phrases:
- French postcard meaning
- ixnayed and ogled

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Addendum: Honolulu

So we hula-hooped and longly. Lurking
in a circle. I um and I rained, ixnayed and

Flip the front flap slip-and-slides across
the flingers.

Everything is tell-tale, goaling along
smoothly along. Was neither strained nor
sliding, nor golden, nor hackneyed and
flushed. Sidled up and down. Everything
was meteors after midnight.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Appendix (the letter L)

L, as in:
salt. battle. sold. saddle. coolness. channel. lily. loose. shield. feel. real. reel. ideal. deal. vial. vile. would. alms. salmon. half. talk. folk. trouble. handled. struggling. awfully. pool. fiddle. like. canal. fall. full. tell. bell. foul. fool. prowl. growl. foal.

— - — - — - —

[From An American Dictionary of the English Language, by Noah Webster (1828):]

L, the twelfth letter of the English Alphabet, is usually denominated a semi-vowel, or a liquid. It represents an imperfect articulation, formed by placing the tip of the tongue against the gum that incloses the roots of the upper teeth; but the sides of the tongue not being in close contact with the roof of the mouth, the breath of course not being entirely intercepted, this articulation is attended with an imperfect sound…

— - — - — - —

[From "The Poetical Alphabet" by Benjamin Paul Blood (1879):]

L is the chilling and polishing letter…. L, by itself, makes all clear, lucid, placid, liquid; it is the polish of glow, gleam, glide, glassy, glance, glitter, etc. The l lends the cold, metallic quality to the solidity of lead; it gives lustre and ring to silver, as the r roughens and darkens iron.

— - — - — - —

[From "A Checklist: The Alphabet of the Mind," by Velimir Khlebnikov (1916). Note that Paul Schmidt's translation of this material, necessarily relies on transliteration from the Cyrillic alphabet of the author's original Russian.]

Л [L] is the conversion of motion from motion along a line to motion over an area transverse to it that intersects the path of the motion. L = the square root of -1. Lob [forehead], laty [armor], lyzhi [skis], lodka [boat], let [flight], luzha [pond] (the motion of weight), lava [cavalry charge], i.e., a laterally extended formation.

— - — - — - —

[From Khlebnikov's "Let us consider two words" (1912):]

L indicates that the distance between the comprehending mind and the object comprehended has decreased: the object leans toward or clings to [l'net] the individual.

L is the motion of a point that derives from its own force.

The active voice, where the actor embraces [l'net] the action is based on the letter l of let [lift, flight]…

So les [forest], which reaches for the sky and arbitrarily increases its distance from everything immobile, from the perceiving consciousness, independently of that consciousness, begins with the letter l…. So we can establish l as a marker for self-instigated motion toward an immobile point.

The letter l everywhere begins words describing self-initiating actions that cut through what surrounds them.

L refers to those motions where the cause of motion is a moving point.

L is the reduction of distance as an action caused by the force of a motionless body.

— - — - — - —

[From "The Warrior of the Kingdom," also by Khlebnikov:]

Л [L]—the uncontrolled movement of a great force of freedom (time past).

[A set of addenda to yesterday's post, designed to give a sense of the range of approaches to language's carnality, and to the symbolism that can be applied to a single sound.]

Monday, May 7, 2007

Language's Carnality (a French postcard)

Dearest reader:

I was hoping — hoping against hope, I suppose, as my hope came to no fruition — that you were also planning to attend the reading/talk held by Robert Kocik and Jonathan Skinner at the Peace on A reading series in Alphabet City. Since I failed to see you there, I assume you failed to attend. Of course, assumptions are sometimes wrong: you may have sat in the back, behind me, towards the kitchen. You may have left the room before I turned around. I, often a failure at the art of recognizing, may have failed to understand your face as familiar, as yours, dear reader, dearest mine. Maybe this is so, and maybe you saw what I saw, heard what I heard; this is my hope.

I bring this up now, in this peculiarly still silence, because some of Kocik's ideas were relevant to — gave voice to, if we can say such a thing without sounding our naïvety — some ideas I've been too exhausted to formulate or raise since we spoke last, last week. I mentioned then that "I often start with sound." I mentioned, and you, as in a silent response, raised your eyebrows into little question marks. I should not — and I'll admit it now, and in no uncertain terms — have used the term "sound" simply, as though it could mean what I wanted it to mean, as though it could mean more than it means. I meant more than mere sound, something more than the rush of syllables. I referred to "labiodental fricatives," "sibilants," and "the liquid L," drawing upon a linguistic vocabulary, as though doing so could speak for me.

This linguistic vocabulary interests me, with its attention to language's sound; I hope it will interest you, too. It gives voice to the qualities of these sounds we use when we mean. And it, in certain cases, at least, describes the manner with which language's sound is made. "Labiodental fricative" describes not only a noise distinct from other noises, human-made and meaningful; it also describes the manner in which the sound is made. Here, we draw teeth to lips, and breathe across the space — a space that is not created, per se, but obstructed. There is a scrape to the sound we draw as an F or and f. And we can give voice to this breath, as when we hum v's vibration into air.

"Isn't it remarkable" — Kocik asks this in "The Prosodic Body" — "that the acoustic fact 'd' can build diverse meanings while tapping at the same place on the alveolar ridge and sending forth the same frequency with the same physiological impact time after time?" When he asks this, Kocik touches on the ideas that I've been trying to explain to you for days, and that I am telling you now, right now. Kocik's desire is to situate meaning within each of the sounds that constitute language — to reinvent (for it would necessitate a reinvention) our understanding and use of English to allow us to regard each of these sounds as meaning-full, even before they are built into words. But I'm rushing ahead of myself, into a terrain better saved for a later letter...

What I am trying, by citing Kocik's work, to remind you — and what he is explaining in a vocabulary different from the one I am able to fully employ — is that meaning, at least inasmuch as it exists within language, is located in the body before it is located anywhere else, be it page or mind. But I'd like to — and I'd like to do this without detracting from Kocik's assessment of sound, if that is possible — shift our attention from the sound itself to those actions that precede and facilitate and allow the sound to come into being. He calls 'd' an "acoustic fact," but I'd call it a physical one first.

Call it langauge's carnality. Perhaps you know what I mean: before syllable or sound, before an explosion of the breath can become phoneme or letter, the tongue's tip flips from teeth to the alveolar ridge, raised and bony just behind those pearly whites, before it drops down so its back can raise and close the throat while the mouth is already closing to let breath — which has been a part of this process from the beginning, and through to the end — hiss. Tongue back up and down again, so lips can close and explode outward like a gasp in reverse and miniature... Feel, don't hear, what Dante says. Read silently, even. You need not read his Italian correctly — mouth it: "Quando leggemmo il disïato riso / esser baciato da cotanto amante, / questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, / la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante."

Let me give you another example — Noah Webster's definitions, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), of lip:

LIP, n. [Sax. lippa, lippe; D. lip; G. Dan. lippe; … L. labium, labrum; It. labbro; Sp. labio; Fr. levre; Ir. clab or liobhar; … It may be connected with W. llavaru, Ir. labhraim, to speak, that is, to thrust out. The sense is probably a border.]
1. The edge or border of the mouth. The lips are two fleshy or muscular parts, composing the exterior of the mouth in man and many other animals. In man, the lips, which may be opened or closed at pleasure, form the covering of the teeth, and are organs of speech essential to certain articulations. Hence the lips, by a figure, denote the mouth, or all the organs of speech, and sometimes speech itself.

LIP, v.t. To kiss.

Webster's "at pleasure" seems crucial, if not to his purposes, then to my own. Lips slips from the liquid to an explosion of breath, eases in a relaxed and hissing rush. I've suggested you — or I, or we — call this pleasure language's carnality. And, in so calling it, shift attention from sound to the activity — fleshy, muscular, breathy, and tooth-sharp — by which language is made. And, in so calling it, identify a locus of physical pleasure that, in my estimation, is located outside of meaning. Locate it on meaning's hither side; place it prior to meaning. This pleasure is meaning's, and language's, excess. What I mean is this: that this carnality — this pleasure of the flesh — happens before meaning takes its shape, as sound or as process of signification. The pleasure in language's carnality does not return to, nor is it reduced by, the utterance that produces it. It's insistence on — or striving for, or what have you — meaning does not detract from the experience of this pleasure. It is not bound by the economy of communication, though it is at once essential and intrinsic to our speech.

I locate poetry at this interstice of body and language — of flesh, sound, meaning.

Perhaps... Wait. Let us interrupt our communication to take a moment to reflect on the close of that word — perhaps the way the mouth draws to a close after perhaps widening to let the breath flee in an h, only to spring open again for s's slip, perhaps a surprise. Perhaps we cannot let our attention to this carnality get the better of us. We cannot live out our days in this trembling. Like Dante, we must swoon — not "as if in death," but into meaning.

[ADDENDUM: I've made a few alterations to this entry, as the mood has struck, and as I have decided certain elements have merited minor modification and/or addition. I've also added an appendix that examines, through the work of several writers, a single verbal sound, both in terms of the physiology of its pronunication and its (potential and speculative) symbolism.]

Saturday, May 5, 2007

from a very Valentine out of season


some L does two does it twice; bar r—a sucret—you
have a secret. double, then miniature slips [of paper].
a breath, a breath and a vocal breath: coming up, for
air. does


intreat>A’lure>intice : com –pell/-e hither spel’t
in k, but with face turned—as january. 1. Silence; 2.
Secrecy [sting of pearls. . .help, help]; 3. Pleasur
inornat. (/[L]ike this): sugared catch’s reflect light,
pierce together flesh (a mystery ’s viewed thro’

[These weren't new the other day when I put them up. They weren't new when I deleted the post by mistake. They are new now, somehow.]

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Difficult pleasures

I'm sure that I'm a bit late in realizing this, but /ubu editions has a new series of reprinted and/or new books available in .pdf format. For those not in the know, each of the three series provides a sampling of avant garde and "post-avant" writing. It's a good way to familiarize yourself with the terrain, if you're in need of a field guide. For free. Or to read something within a tradition that already feels cozy, if that describes you. Also for free.

I haven't had a chance to peruse any of this as thoroughly as I'd like, but will do so soon; I'll likely comment a bit here...

In the meantime, check it out!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A letter to you

Dearest reader:

Maybe we met last night for a drink. Maybe you were too shy to talk to me at all, preferring instead to blush, or to avert your gaze. But it could be that, after one drink had turned to more-than-one drink, you asked me to comment on the poem I posted for May Day. Maybe you were curious — about why I didn't comment on my process in writing the poem, about why I didn't list sources, about whether this failure to comment represented something about the process by which poem came into being. Maybe. Maybe, you thought, it's a more conventional poem than my others?

Whatever you meant, I didn't answer. I'm sorry if you were offended. But I resolved — silently — to wait and answer the question in the public of writing, which I'm doing now, and which you're reading now, too.

Let's start by saying that, in a sense, you're right — the poem is an off-the-cuff improvisation. It's not a procedural poem. I didn't begin writing it with a set of rigid rules and source texts from which the final results were shaped, or built, or sculpted, or held together with tape and glue. But before you get ahead of yourself, lean in close, so I can whisper something else in your ear: I also didn't begin by saying "I want to write a poem that says...," or even (in this case) "a poem that means..." Nor was I trying to convey a particular emotion or feeling. I'm sorry if I mislead you then, so I'll say now that the poem isn't a communique, memo, manifesto, love letter, or declaration.

Now, I say "improvisation" — you hear "stream of consciousness." But that's not it, either. (Isn't it funny how our attempts to communicate are always marked by misdirection, by crossed signals, by breakdown?) Call the poem's process "stream of idiom," maybe, or "stream of discourse," if you want. I'm not committed to a particular label, here. But I am trying to trouble assumptions — not yours, but our culture's — about writing's roles and functions. Let me explain: we usually assume that using language implies communication, don't we? And that communication, in turn, implies that the phrase or sentence or line begins with a particular and stable author, who is trying to tell you something, like I'm doing now, or to get you to submit to his or her wildest and most moist fantasies.

Rest assured — this poem doesn't want those things. It's activities are located within, and relative to, its language, not its author. There's no hidden message that I buried there for you to diligently decode or unravel.

Like I said, the poem — the one we're talking about, not "the poem" as a category — is neither a communique nor a love letter. Nor did I begin with set rules or specified sources. So how did I write it? Gertrude Stein somewhere talks about enjoying "the feeling of words doing as they want to do." The act of writing as letting words, for want of better words, do things. That has a lot to do with it — I've learned quite a bit from Stein over the years. So I often start with sound. I like the way its patterns thump and thud and slide and roll. Lately, I like labiodental fricatives and sibilants, and the ways they mix with the liquid L. So I sound out, remembering that "to sound" is also "to measure."

Then, I borrow. I know — I didn't list sources, so you thought there were none. I'll list them now, so you can see: American-English idiom, transcriptions of the hand movements in the ASL lexicon, shamelessly bad puns and homophonic translation, William Shakespeare, and things overheard on the television. I should also say that, either despite or because of my love of sound, I mishear quite often. I miscopy, too. And I didn't begin with a plan to use these sources — that's why I didn't list them. I picked them up, objets trouvés, as I found them, and moved on to another scavenger hunt, and me without a map to retrace my steps. Even if you needed to know, even if our very lives depended, I couldn't always tell you where I trouvé-ed 'em.

Dear reader — dearest — I can imagine the look on your face, right now, as I write these things. Because facial expressions are sometimes keys to the innermost thoughts, I can guess at what you're thinking right now. Maybe you think I mean to say that I reject meaning, or poetic meaning. But I don't. What I am saying, though, is that I don't write a poem with the intent of conveying a particular meaning. Meaning, in the sort of poems that I have been writing for the past while, is more like an experience than a message; it's a collaboration between you, reader, and the poems themselves. An ethics of reading, if you want to call it that, or an unfolding process. Like origami in reverse, if you want to be cute.

It's the same with feeling. If it makes you feel any better, I can admit that I feel quite a bit when I write. Surprise, pleasure, a sort of melancholy we might call "sweet sorrow." Whole ranges of emotion, Tehachapis and Alps of feeling. Like Stein, I feel, and like the feeling of, "words doing as they want to do," and so I let them do. And I feel my tongue in my mouth — and that matters, too. But I don't mean to make you feel anything. It's not that I don't care, dear reader. I do. It's just that I'd rather you tell me what you feel when you read. That's a collaboration, too, and a process. Sunsets don't want us to feel anything, they don't mean to make us sentimental, or melancholy. They don't want us to fall in love, or to make our hero ride horseback into the west. But they do, and we do.

And that's what I do.

[A lotta lottery]

A lotta lottery, Kemosabe! Gotta they go and they
stop. So hundred I gotta burn my life. Forgot a lot
of earth, forget a lot of this. Make my shoe size,
shoe-sized shoe ain't gonna do my time, but you
do. A blah-blah-blah wish that sings.

Open up and open wide — six or seven words I
used to know in syllables and spades. Two times
the notion — two times the two and twice. It's a
good got, my paper — it was turned around and
weighty. Over there and over again.

Yeah, I could've swollen a sure surrender, a short
shot. Heat up the blow-drier, I'm on my way home.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


All's as well. Seashore meets the horizon and
Descartes smiles. Wide as miles. Cooler fridge
spells disaster, a type of flower that either is or
is not edible, depending on your hover and how-
ever. Slight of a slow block holds the rain off.
We're backs and sidled. Remember that every
floor pushes downward.

Lonely is a special kind of rolling — a tuck-and-
roll, with a twist. An x twirls at the side of the
eye. Or you could break your ankle and lose your
mind. The hands burst apart — something bright-
ly shining. Sometimes, we collect flowers from
hissings and eros. See — trouble!

[It's May Day, so it's time for a parade! Roll out your nuclear missles and your cults of personality...]