Sunday, July 29, 2007

Celluloid Poetry (Moritsugu, Anger)

Here's the trailer for Jon Moritsugu's Mod Fuck Explosion (1994), a bizarre synthesis of teensploitation classics like West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, with Quadrophenia, as filtered through the works of John Waters.

London, the female lead in Mod Fuck Explosion, is an obvious homage to the lead from Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment. The key scene in Moritsugu's film — where "key" refers to its aesthetic impact, if not its relevance to the plot — in which London walks through a room decorated entirely in raw meat, can be understood as a rewrite of portions of Anger's short piece.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


The best scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville: Une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965).

Your voice, your eyes, your hands, your lips... Our silences, our words... Light that goes, light that returns. A single smile between us. In quest of knowledge, I watched night create day while we seemed unchanged. O beloved all, beloved of one alone, your mouth silently promised to be happy. Away, away says hate; Closer, closer says love. A caress leads us from our infancy. Increasingly I see the human form as a lovers' dialogue. The heart has but one mouth. Everything by chance. All words without thought. Sentiments adrift. Men roam the city. A glance, a word. Because I love you, everything moves. We must advance to live. Aim straight ahead towards those you love. I went toward you, endlessly toward the light. If you smile, it enfolds me all the better. The rays of your arms pierce the mist.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Anthological development

In his discussion of Poet's Bookshelf, the on-going series edited by Peter Davis, Ron Silliman quotes Fanny Howe's list of books that were "most essential to [her] as a poet." Unusual for such a list (at least in my experience of them) is her mention of several anthologies. Among a wide range of authors, Howe mentions "Jerome Rothenberg’s America: A Prophecy, The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Brown, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, Moving Borders, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan, and Early Celtic Poetry. "

Howe's list reminds me of the importance of anthologies to my own early development as both a writer and reader of poetry. More than any single work, or individual, a few anthologies provided me with an understanding of the poetry's history, and opened the field, as it were, to its range of possibilities. The following books, acquired at the end of my high-school years, or (relatively) early in my college days, were indispensable; they are organized, to the extent that memory is accurate, in the order I acquired them.
Postmodern American Poetry, ed. Paul Hoover

Poems for the Millennium, Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris

From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990, ed. Douglas Messerli

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein

Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium, ed. Rothenberg and Joris

It is because of these books that I spent my freshman year at college identifying myself (yes, publicly) as a Dadaist, that I discovered "Language-oriented" poetry's strange and foreign-seeming surprises, that I first read Gertrude Stein. For the first time, I read poets who talked about writing in terms other than mere "personal expression," who thought poetry could, and should, do more than convey emotion. Excerpts in Messerli's anthology and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book inspired me to spend quite a bit of time seeking out Tina Darragh's on the corner to off the corner before finally finding it, what seemed an eternity later, at the Sun & Moon Press shop, where Douglas Messerli told me that it was the last copy, as he reminisced about making it. &c.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still Moving: Richard Serra

It's tempting, in thinking about the Richard Serra show at MoMA, to talk about the pieces in terms of risk. Some works foreground their own toxicity, even if not as explicitly as does Gutter Corner Splash: Late Shift, and even though this foregrounding may not be intrinsic to the work, but rather to SFMOMA's warning signs. Others loom ominously over — and, in one case, directly above — the museum-goer, threatening a terrifying noise and even more devastating loss of limb and life. And in each case, there's a temptation, at once offset and encouraged by plexiglass partitions, not only to touch, but to push, perhaps as part of an investigation into their sturdiness and monumentality, both of which are offset by the sense of a more fragile equipose and balance upon which the sculptures are built.

In the large-scale pieces, this interplay of temptation and risk manifests itself as attraction and repulsion, where I mean these terms not in their merely aesthetic senses (i.e., desire and disgust), but in terms of physics. I am drawn closer to those corners where steel arcs overhead, but seem to be forced back. Where Serra's tendency to foreground experience seems to demand a personal, rather than objective response, this "forcing back" seems, paradoxically, not to be rooted in subjective fears, but in the physical property of magnetic repulsion, as inexorable as the earthward pull of gravity that allows for the carefully balanced dialectical synthesis of weightlessness and mass that allows for the work's existence.

Or, to put it another way, the experience of Serra's sculptures is an experience of activity, of interaction among and between objects.

Serra's "Verb List Compilation" reminds us that the art object exists as the result of actions performed on materials — a simple truth of any work of art, but rendered in the sculptures at simplicity's extreme, even if their scale comes, in turn, to complicate the notion of simplicity. The list, especially when drawn in relation to static objects, recalls the assertion made by Adam Smith and reiterated by Noah Webster, that all nouns were born as verbs. "[T]he verb," the lexicographer asserts, "is primarily the root of most words, probably of all — from the verb are formed nouns; and from these nouns are formed verbs." Elsewhere, he writes: "Motion, action, is, beyond all controversy, the principal source of words." Put into practice, this shows the lexicographer to figure action as meaning's foundation:
The human body is named from shaping, that is, setting, fixing, or extending, and hence sometimes, the general name of the human race. The arm is a shoot, a push, as is the branch of a tree. A board, a table, a floor, is from spreading, or expanding, extending. Skin, and bark are from peeling, stripping, &c.

This theory of language, which opens possibilities for thinking things otherwise, is especially relevant to the experience of Serra's art. And his list of verbs should have been printed, in a font as large as the pieces' scale, on the wall of one of the galleries. To recall the list is to foreground not only the pieces' genesis, but their presence. To see these works — and especially the larger ones — is to experience mass as energy, as force.

That is to say that Serra's pieces are not "action sculptures" in the way that Pollock's are "action paintings" — not the result of action, but actions performed and ongoing in the moment of their viewing. For their stability is rooted not in movement's opposite, but in its equipose, in tensions carefully set one against the other, such that the museum's title for the survey of its film collection, Still Moving, might have been better applied to these sculptures.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


The most difficult — and thus most compelling — of the poetic dance-scores in Mac Low's Pronouns are those in which the grammatical subject is "nobody."

27th Dance — Walking — 22 March 1964
Nobody does any waiting,
& nobody has an example.

Does nobody give gold cushions or seem to do so,
& does nobody kick?


& nobody's seeming to send things or's putting wires on things —
nobody's keeping to the news.

At least nobody ends up handing or seeming to hand snakes to people.

There's a level of punning at play here — "no body" engages in the physical acts described — but more importantly an interpretive difficulty. From the perspective of the dancer, the question of how to follow these instructions takes the form of an impossibility. On the one hand, "nobody kick[s]" could be represented via a dancer not kicking, doing anything other than kicking. And, from this angle, the instruction seems to open itself to a nearly infinite range of possibilities, proscribing only one action.

But how to distinguish, in performance and for an audience that may not have Mac Low's text at hand, an instruction like "nobody's seeming to send things" from an instruction that simply dictates the activity that is taking place? It is not enough to simply perform an activity other that "seeming to send things," as it does not embody the instruction, and thus does not interpret the instruction to the letter.

Of course, its possible to approach such an instruction as providing precisely such a degree, nearly without limit, of interpretive freedom, but the fact that these proscriptive instructions co-exist with prescriptive ones (stated in the positive rather than the negative) suggests that a clear distinction should be drawn between the two modes, in order to fully and truly perform interpretation...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Something else

In a comment on my last entry, Kasey rightly points out a connection — one I had not thought of myself — between the refusal of specificity I've been talking about, in texts by Mayer, Spahr, and Anderson, and Jackson Mac Low's Pronouns — A Collection of 40 Dances — For the Dancers (1964; reprinted w/ revisions in 1971 and '79). What strikes me, as I return to a set of poems I've not looked at in some time, is how differently (again) this refusal works in a different case.

— - — - —
The laws governing textual interpretation are the laws of an authoritarian regime which guide the individual [i.e., reader] in his every action, prescribing the ends for him and offering him the means to attain them.
— Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader

As scores for dances, the Pronouns take up what may be the most imperative and authoritarian of forms, one that demands that the reader conform his/her body to the will of the author. Where this would be loathsome to Mac Low, it is anathema to the text. Mac Low's demand — and, as Eco points out, the demand still exists, and in such terms — is that the reader "find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line of the dance-poems they choose to realize." That is to say that we are dealing with an open text, and with a social relationship of a different order.

"Something" comes to trouble the "authoritarian regime" in the Pronouns. Through its indefiniteness, Mac Low performs a crucial refusal, presenting an interpretive problem, leaving the interpretation of that "something" up to the reader. As dancer, the reader is allowed to specify where the author does not, is given a "very large degree of freedom of interpretation," as Mac Low puts it. The word, then — and alongside "anyone," "whoever," and the verb "to seem" — as a sort of blank.

[S]ome damage something foolish,
& some seem to be generally like clocks are,
& some see danger
while letting something be made the same as something simple,
but some send a warm thing by spoon over a slow one.
— Jackson Mac Low, "20th Dance —
Going About Between and Through
Unserious-Seeming Goings-On."

The refusal of specificity in Mac Low's Pronouns does not lay social structure bare. That is to say that Mac Low's particular deployment of this refusal is not descriptive — a la Mayer's, Anderson's, and Spahr's similar refusal — of social arrangements. Rather, it is constitutive of new social organizations, both on stage and, more crucially, between author and performer/reader, in Mac Low's treatment of text as itself a performance not only of a dance, but of a social dynamic. To use Eco's terms, the refusal of specificity embodied in Mac Low's "some," "something," etc., works as an invitation, in this case to dance.

Leery of overstating the freedom afforded and created by such a text, Eco notes that this "invitation offers the performer the chance of an oriented insertion into something which always remains the world intended by the author." That is to say that the text always returns itself, so to speak, to the author, who remains "the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had always been rationally organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development." In light of these caveats, we might think the Pronouns — which are inseparable from Mac Low's poetics, and devoted to propositions of equality and democracy — in terms of mutual responsibility, in which deliberately "vague" terms and enthusiastic deployment of choices indicated with "or" create a dynamic and collaborative engagement in the production of meaning and the creation of an artistic work.

Who is saying an idea,
& whipping?

Then who is doing something with the nose or getting something

by attraction,
& who is making things new?
— Jackson Mac Low, "22nd Dance —
Saying Things as a Worm Would"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The "something" thing

I did something to someone in one way so that he could do something to something, then I did the same thing to the same person in another way so that he could do something else with this same thing, then I did that thing a third time, this time to the thing in the same ways I had done it to the person and this time I gave the thing to the person and then I did it again to more than one of the things so he could do something to them in one way up to a certain point, then for the fifth time I did it to something that could be used to do something to the thing which was his and finally I did it for the sixth time to something in the other way so that it could do something with the thing:
— Bernadette Mayer, "Moon in Three Sentences"
0 to 9, no. 5 (Jan. 1969)

It is Mayer's refusal of specificity that interests me most. She opens with defamiliarizaton, by removing specificity to point towards underlying structure. We don't, upon reading this, know who did what to whom — and our uncertainty is underscored by the recollection that "I" is itself a shifter, that it points only towards the voice of who speaks it, rather than to a particular individuated consciousness or actor. And though the "I" is uncertain — though both its status as shifter and the prohibition against the intentional fallacy underscore its uncertainty — it is tempting to read this passage in terms of, if not as autobiography.

Mayer's refusal of specificity recalls (to my mind, at least) and extends upon the conclusion to Berrigan's sonnets, in which "Someone / is having a birthday and someone is getting / married and someone is telling a joke." And her play with, and effacement of, the autobiographical also calls out to Lisa Jarnot's own "Autobiography" (from Ring of Fire):
I didn't sleep with anyone for six months until I met X. While I was sleeping with Y I also slept with Y's girlfriend. While I was sleeping with Y's girlfriend I also slept with S and T. During the six months between sleeping with Y and sleeping with X I spent a lot of time with K. I never slept with K but J slept with K and Y's girlfriend and also with S. After leaving Y and before meeting X I didn't sleep with anyone for six months.

But in the beginning of "Moon in Three Sentences," we don't even know what was done: whatever action "something" points to can apparently be done both to people and to objects, but the term is complicated by the appearance of a "something else." There is, in fact, a Stein-ian play on the word "something" in Mayer's poem — it refers to objects and actions. "Thing" also refers to an action: "I did the same thing." It is as though Mayer points to the limits of the conventional, if not technical, definition of a noun as "the name of a person, place, or thing," reminding us that a thing can also be an activity, and perhaps suggesting we rethink the distinction between material object and action.

What we're left with at this point in Mayer's poem is a two-fold structural analysis, that examines grammar and syntax while it also reports on a set of interpersonal relationships. Because of the complexity of the poem, it isn't clear which of these levels of interpretation is to be taken as literal, and which as metaphorical: are we looking at grammar as though it were personal? Or is it the personal that, under scrutiny, reveals itself to be structured grammatically? Is there a difference? With such abstraction, does metaphor simply become a way of playing between to "levels" (but that term is too hierarchical in itself — "dimensions," maybe?) of meaning?

The poem's next section is less satisfying, inasmuch as it resolves these questions, provides an answer to the riddle at the same time that it reconstructs what has proceeded as riddle in the first place:
I brought you here to round this moon
I brought you round to hear this moon
I brought this moon round here to you
I brought you moons to round to here
I brought this here to round your moon
I brought this round to hear this moon.

But where the ambiguity of the poem is resolved, and where this resolution is a bit disappointing, the poem turns back in on itself, redirecting us in the final line to the beginning, and turning "Moon in Three Sentences" into a self-generating text.
Then I tried to explain what I had done so far.
The effect is to return us to the grammatical play, and to reassert the structure as primary, as that which underlies the specificity, reframing the resolution as an extension of this deeper structure, which is in turn positioned as an "explanation," despite the fact that it "explains" less, at least in terms of what a conventional understanding of "explanation" would allow us to expect, than that which follows it.

[See also my discussions of Laurie Anderson and Juliana Spahr, which deal with similar approaches in writing, and are, really, of a piece with this.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"At Night the States"

Not at all new — it's on Exact Change Yearbook, which Peter Gizzi edited a dozen years ago — but I've returned, by way of PennSound, to Alice Notley's 1987 reading of "At Night the States" (mp3).

And I'd never before heard the recording of her introduction to the poem, excised from the Exact Change version, in which she explains that the poem was her first attempt at anaphoric repetition, and that it is an elegy for Ted Berrigan. In this prefatory commentary Notley describes finding, in a writing process that proceeds from what becomes a stock phrase, a sense of possibility.

This is borne out by the poem: as it rushes past, almost too quickly, the phrase's meaning shifts, expands the potential of its signification, as Notley draws on the varying senses that attach themselves to the words that constitute it, and finds curious correspondences between states of mind and of the "Montana. Illinois. Escondido" that close, as "the states where what words are true are words, not myself."

[NOTE: My brief quotation of part of Notley's poem is based on the recording, and not on the print version. Inaudible, or only partially audible, elements of formatting (punctuation, line breaks, the Notley quotation marks) are not present for this reason.]

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Perhaps No One Will Notice Them"

"I had sweet company / because I sought out none"

As Kristin Prevallet notes, Helen Adam's collages are "strikingly simple." She writes:
They combine two images — a beautiful man or woman, and a creature. And this combination results in a ironic playfulness that teases the viewer to wonder: are these collages a form of self-portrait, a projection of this woman's deep fears mingled with her repressed desire?

For Prevallet, this simplicity must be read in the context of Adam's contemporary, Jess, whose collages create complex fantasias, interconnected and complex worlds that can only be read as allegory or as metaphor. That is, taken as a whole, a Jess collage cannot be interpreted as mimetic; it's closer to the allegorical narratives of Breugel the Elder's paintings of proverbs, or to Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights."

In contrast, aside from their surrealistic play with scale and with nonsensical juxtaposition, Adam's collages often imitate the quote-unquote mimesis of perspectival photography, even where they refuse to practice it. In a way, they can be regarded as fakes, closer to the use of composited landscapes in early photography, or to the practices of matte compositing or the techniques of Georges Méliès' fabulist cinema.

"Perhaps no one will notice them"

At the same time, there's nothing really simple about these, as Prevallet is well aware. In the second of the two pieces illicitly reproduced above, the caption contextualizes what is presented before our gaze; indeed, lacking the caption, the opposite interpretation would be available. And the text, which works alongside the image to evoke advertising copy, produces a complex tension that does not quite resolve itself. It initially works as a delightful critique of the fashion/glamour industry, inverting the importance of being seen, of being "noticed," of transforming one's self into the gaze's object. What might seem a bizarre manifestation of haute couture ("bats are the new black," or are "in for spring") is turned into a source of shame.

But this shame — this desire for one's unpleasant aspects to be obscured — is precisely that which advertising relies upon in its pitch. Adam's apparent inversion, which might almost be a critique, ends up recapitulating the logic of advertising, perhaps laying its mechanism bare, but no more so than do ads that hearken to, and construct, notions like the "heartbreak of psoriasis." That isn't to say that the latter meaning doesn't still imply critique, but that its a different form of critique. And it isn't entirely clear to me where we stand in relation to this message, what position it constitutes for its reader, or what meaning it produces for the image.

To complicate things further this tension is unresolved: the sense of shame implied by the caption is so thoroughly belied by the delight of the collage itself... Why wouldn't you want everyone to notice your bats?

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Like Juliana Spahr, whose brief discussion I mentioned before, Rob Stanton centers his reading of Peter Gizzi's A panic that can still come upon me (reprinted in The Outernational) on the prevalence — a use that seems to have become a study — of the word "if" in Gizzi's recent oeuvre.

As Stanton notes, Gizzi's use of the word in "Château If"
invoke[s] an ideal state, somewhere nearby in which poet, reader and world would be in perfect alignment, meaning would become transparent and true communication could take place
Similarly, Spahr's reading thinks this "beautiful 'if'" in terms of an opening of possibility, remarking on its effect — within consciousness, rather than merely the semiotic space of the text — is generative. The word's capacity adheres not only to meaning, but to a larger creativity that carries with it the potential to reshape the world in terms of, and by way of, imagination.

Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language figures "if" in precisely this way. Pointing perhaps at the activity of its generative dimension, Webster thinks the term not as conjunction, but as verb. And he argues for this conception of "if," comparing it to our use of the words "grant," "admit," and "suppose." To this end, the lexicographer establishes a parallel between "if John shall arrive in season, I will send him with a message" and its counterpart, "give John shall arrive; grant, suppose, admit that he shall arrive, I will send him with a message." His definition concludes by proposing "if" as prayer, as wish, as hope: "The sense of if ... is ... cause to be, let the fact be, let the thing take place."

At the same time, Stanton notes that there is a darkness to Gizzi's use of "if." He locates a tension in the irresolution of A panic's phrases, in their refusal to turn to the closure of "then," and in the uncertainty that attends Gizzi's use of the term. "If our wishes are met with dirt," he notes in A panic. But this tension, this irresolution, inheres in the word's meaning itself. Webster's second definition is cryptic — "uncertain or not" — but its illustrative quotation, borrowed from Dryden, clarifies: "Uncertain if by augury or chance." "If" points to what cannot be known, to what cannot be resolved with any surety.

Thus, the optimism of "if" is bound up in a sense of irresolution. Possibility, "if" reminds us, is always fraught with and complicated by the possibility, perhaps equal, of its failure, or at least of the hope not being answered. To read these together, to read "if" as embodying this tension, is to read it as a sign of contingency. "If" reminds us — as a conditional — that the world is interdependent, that this depends on that. That is to say, whatever follows "if" is "not absolute," that it, as is noted in Webster's Revised Unabridged (1913), "must exist as the occasion or concomitant of something else."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Idea of North

Download Glenn Gould's Idea of North here. The piece, a documentary produced for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, consists of the voices of five people discussing the Arctic and sub-Arctic "northern third" of Canada.

Rather than presenting the interviews separately, Gould weaves and layers them, inventing and exploring a contrapuntal form derived from the composers Gould studied before he left live performance for studio art. In places, this is not particularly different from today's radio broadcasts, voices drawn, via mixing board, into a dialogue. Elsewhere, voices overlap into polyphony, into a babble from which distinct phrases emerge, are picked up by other voices, echo.

In its documentary relationship to testimony and to place, as well as the polyphony of voices, common ground is shared with Charles Reznikoff, Chris Marker, Charles Olson, Susan Howe, others.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Once trilobitten, twice

As always, Steven Fama provides comments (which see) that send me back into something I've said — and not seen — in an earlier post. This time, he responds to my too-brief commentary on Coolidge's poem, taking up the discussion of "torque" at Kasey's blog that returned me to the poem in the first place, and redirects torque to bear on the poem's sound, rather than its syntax and grammar.

In particular, he notes that the poem is built around rhythms, like drum-beats, in bursts of three, and connects this to the etymology of trilobite, "three lobed." And a surprise that the OED refers this etymology, in its gloss of the Greek λόβός, specifically to the earlobe, as though suggesting just such a way of reading the last line of Coolidge's poem.

We might extend this approach, shifting our attention from rhythm to tone. Thus, we'll notice that the poem's first line is similarly built around a repetition of three Os, each of which represents a distinct sound. The long o of code recurs in ohm, and twice in trilobite. Two of the words in the second line — a and the — have indeterminate/variable pronunciations, their doubling allowing for a total of three vowel sounds.

Given its lack of grammar, the first line does not invite a particular rhythm, suggesting that we stress its syllables almost evenly, allowing only for orange's second syllable to provide contrast. The "third line," itself broken into three (after Williams?), similarly resists determining vocal stress, but its visual "descent" points to the scansion of trilobite. And puns emerge, as trilobite's dactyl (evocative of another prehistoric creature) waltzes out to the cymbal (symbol?) crash of the terminal s.

Monday, July 2, 2007

What does trilobite do?

An untitled poem, from Clark Coolidge's Space (1969):
ounce code orange
trilobite trilobites

Of which Kasey writes:
Even in the absence of a clear grammatical structure, it is still difficult not to read even abstract linguistic assemblages of this sort on the model of normative syntactical connections between words. One might read the first line as three listed nouns in a series, or alternately one might treat ounce as subject, code as verb, and orange as object...

For whatever it's worth, I find it easier to make a "clear grammatical structure" out of the last line. While it initially seems a repetition of a noun, first in the singular and again in the plural, I read it as consisting of a singular noun and an intransitive verb.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A painful shadow

Sombra Dolorosa (dir. Guy Maddin)