A MUST WATCH: Rashim Cannad: “An Inconvenient Truth”

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

On Sunday evening, the Victory Theater presented “BackStory: An Inconvenient Truth,” an evening of monologues by writers and poets that in some way invoked or alluded to Al Gore’s film of that title. I had gotten to know the work of this theater through being part of one of their shows about a month ago, in which the theme was “The Ten Commandments.”

While there was in particular one very memorable poem by Francesca Bell that made use of an oven’s pilot light as its central metaphor, the show-stopping piece on Sunday was a monologue by Rashim Cannad that should be watched by anyone who wants to understand exactly what is at stake right now.

ABOUT RASHIM CANNAD:

Rashim Cannad’s account of the birth of his first son and the challenges of raising him in a way that gives him a maximum chance of survival in a racist nation indeed speaks to “an Inconvenient Truth.” The problem described by W.E.B. DuBois over a century ago is still one that all too many Americans want to pretend will get sufficient attention if protests are peaceful. Well, yes, the protests must be peaceful if enduring change is to take place, but the protests must be relentless. There is no use to speak of compromise. There is nothing to compromise about. White patriarchy must surrender unconditionally. Only an unconditional surrender of power will suffice to begin to rectify the brutality of this nation’s patrimony. Period. Rashim’s narrative does not make this demand, but after listening to him I see no other option if there is to be any legitimate requital.

PRODUCTION DETAILS:

“BackStory is a bi-monthly evening of true stories, poetry, and flights of fancy produced by the Victory Theatre in Los Angeles. The theme is always the title of a classic play or movie. This show’s theme was An Inconvenient Truth.” Produced by Carl Weintraub and Adele Slaughter.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” written and performed by Rashim Cannad

Independence Day National Day of Protest

June 1, 2020

…. at which a National Day of Atonement Is Called For!

The precipitous collapse of the American economy is not a recent development. It is merely the avalanche that began with the revision of the U.S. tax code under Ronald Reagan’s administration. The massive transfer of wealth to the upper one percent, and especially to the upper one-tenth of that one percent has left a plurality of Americans in an extremely vulnerable position. The commonly cited statistic is that 40 percent of Americans do not have the immediate resources to address an emergency bill of $400. Many of them are “under the lion’s pawn” of credit card companies, who have operated with impunity the past three years. The average credit card interest rate is now 18 percent, compared to 12 percent a decade ago. One misstep by a debtor pushes that rate into the mid-20 percent range.

While the vehemence of the protests over George Floyd’s summary execution by a police officer will probably fade by mid-month, my hope would be that a massive, nation-wide day of protest begin to be organized for July 4th, which falls on a Saturday. The organizers of the peaceful protests that have taken place throughout this country this past week should demand that police officials meet with them and sign agreements about where the protests will be held and the security that will be provided for those protestors. The events should be held in areas removed from businesses and commerce, so that the police cannot move against the protestors using the excuse of protecting property. The police could then focus their energies, in fact, on those who choose to exploit the occasion by engaging in looting. The protests should be saturated with media attention that will record the activities of the minimal police force present at the events of the peaceful protests.

I am no doubt naive in believing that the factions of our society who hold the power of literal as well as economic life and death over the communities of color in this nation will allow such events to take place. They would prefer that this country return to “normal” as soon as possible, and that those of us who understand Floyd’s death as a call to the genocidal impulses of the white supremacism simply go away and be quiet. The “moratorium” of the Pandemic, however, has culminated in an instance too egregious to permit the “new normal” to gain pervasive legitimacy.

This nation will not begin to heal until it establishes a “holy” day of atonement; a national holiday marked with ceremonies and rituals in which we as a nation solemnly acknowledge the systemic ideological perverseness of our history and make efforts to atone for those errors. It is time for us to make use of our nation’s history. The vote to approve the Declaration of Independence took place not on July 4th, but July 2nd. I propose, therefore, that July 2nd be established as this National Day of ATONEment, in which ATONE is an acronym for “Americans Taking Opportunities to Nourish Equality.”

It would hardly make a dent in the disparities that have infected our nation’s consciousness as a political project, but until such a start is made, I see no hope for any eventual substantial transformation.

*. *. *. *. *. *

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “A Rush to Justice”

May 31, 2020

*. *. *. *. *

“What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.” — Kareem Abdul Jabbar

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-30/dont-understand-the-protests-what-youre-seeing-is-people-pushed-to-the-edge

*. *. *. *. *

Excerpts from two letters to friends:

“I am, of course, utterly dismayed by the death of George Floyd, and as I said in my blog entry do see it as another flare-up of white male supremacy feeling anxious at the loss of its symbolic power. The possibility that Trump might be forced to vacate the White House represents a diminishment of their stature that they find intolerable, and hence they believe they must make the African-American body submit to being garroted. The fact that another white man would replace Trump is not sufficient salve for the fragile self-esteem of these white males. The President must be someone who unabashedly regards the patriarchy as belonging entirely to the value structures of whiteness, and so this public execution of Floyd is meant to send a signal to black voters: think twice. This is what we would like to do to all of you.”

It falls on all of us who oppose the genocidal death threat lurking beneath the surface of American “democracy” to speak out now, and demand along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “a rush to justice.”

*****

“I fear that this all too familiar grim event in America that will only deepen the birthmark stain of racial oppression; I fear that a program of systematic redemption will not come to pass in my lifetime, and that this nation will only plunge into yet more egregious turmoil. On a different scale than the riots after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, Minneapolis is now undergoing its own “Twilight.” If you haven’t read that play by Anna Deveare Smith, then start reading it tonight.”

• *. *. *. *. *

Imagine this:

It is late at night in Weshington, D.C., and the President cannot sleep. He is so tired that he has stopped posting on Twitter. Into the Oval Office walks Little Richard, as palpable and jaunty as he was at the age of 25. “Mr. President, you look like you could use a little down time. How about some music?” And at the snap of Little Richard’s fingers, a grand piano replaces the President’s desk.

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” says Trump. “You’re going to play for me? What a photo op! That’ll show African-Americans whose side I am on!” As Trump’s personal photographer enters the room with a videocamera, Little Richard launches into the opening chords:

Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Wham-bam-a-neck-press-a-knee-stays-down

I know a Prez named Trump; his twitter’s like a pump
I know a Prez named Trump; his twitter’s like a pump
“Protestors are just greedy thugs —
They should be squashed like slimy bugs”

Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shoote
Wham-bam-a-neck-press-a-knee-stays-down

I know a dunce named Pence; who often takes offense
I know a churl named Pence, who often takes offense
When football players take a knee
And call for solidarity

Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Tutti Frutti lootee-shootee
Wham-bam-a-damn-mess-a-knee-stays-down

(I wish to acknowledge the NFL player Eric Reid as the person who first publicly called out Pence on his hypocrisy regarding peaceful protest:

https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/eric-reid-mike-pence-protest-tweets-nfl/qntol6b34h1p12sf70ntaemxy

“Strange Fruit” – and the Election of 2020

May 29, 2020

In the final two years of Barack Obama’s second term as President, the accelerated increase in unjustifiable police violence and brutality against the African-American population intertwined itself with right-wing, festering resentment at Obama’s success as a mainstream politician. In retrospect, it seems all too obvious that the deaths of Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown and Philando Castile presaged the popularity of Trump as a candidate: “Not everyone who voted for Trump in November, 2016 was a racist; but every racist who voted on that first Tuesday cast his or her ballot for Trump.”

But let us consider that the hanging of President Obama in effigy at a major college football game in 2016 was just the culmination of a long sequence of outright disdain for him by racist operatives. Ask yourself: how many death threats did Obama receive in the first two years of his first term? How many death threats did Donald Trump receive in his first two years? The disparity in the numbers of threats leads to a fairly obvious conclusion: the hostility towards African-Americans evident in the recent deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery is simply a continuation of a pattern of violence and intimidation that shows no sign of letting up.

I don’t believe that Floyd’s and Arbery’s deaths and the growing likelihood that a white man (Donald Trump) and his coterie might lose their grip on power are merely a coincidence. The deaths of Floyd and Artery reflect the anxiety of white supremacist power caught in the crossfire of historical change. These same people are terrified that the next President is someone who is considering an African-American woman to be vice-president. Just the thought that an African-American woman — let’s hear it for Stacey Abrams! — might become vice-President is enough to send these people into a frenzy. Among many other matters, they rightly fear that an accounting will be demanded for how the Pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color and how that report might lead to radical changes in the health care system.

This is the “context” for the deaths of Floyd and Arbery.

While the recorded videos of their deaths gain the most traction in social media, I would urge us to pay even closer attention to the voices of the day-to-day struggle for dignity in the African-American community:

“For those of you who are tired of reading about racism, trust me when I say this — I’m tired of writing about it.” — LZ GRANDERSON

“Strange Fruit” …. and counting

George Floyd — May 25, 2020
Ahmaud Marquez Arbery — February 23, 2020

*. *. *. *. *

Alton Sterling — July 5, 2016
Philando Castile — July 6, 2016
Gregory Gunn, 58 — February 25, 2016
Samuel DuBose, 43 — July, 2015
Brendon Glenn, 29 — May, 2015
Freddie Gray, 25 — April, 2015
Natasha McKenna, 37 — February, 2015
Walter Scott, 50 — April, 2015
Christian Taylor, 19 — August, 2015
Michael Brown Jr., 18 — August, 2014
Ezell Ford, 25 – August, 2014
Eric Garner, 43 — July 17, 2014
Akai Gurley, 28 — February 11, 2014
Laquan McDonald, 17 — October 20, 2014
Tamir Rice, 12 — Nov. 22, 2014
Yvette Smith, 47 — Feb. 16, 2014
Jamar Clark, 24 — November 2013
Rekia Boyd, 22 — March 21, 2012
Shereese Francis, 29 — March 15, 2012
Ramarly Graham, 18 — Feb. 2, 2012
Manuel Loggins Jr., 31 — February 7, 2012

*. *. *. *. *

FURTHER READING:

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-death-of-george-floyd-in-context

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

The Death of George Floyd, in Context by Jelani Cobb. May 28, 2020

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-death-of-george-floyd-in-context

In this article, it should be noted that Mr. Cobb cites another death at the hands of police officers that deserves our scrutiny:
“Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old African-American E.M.T., was shot to death in her apartment by officers who were conducting a drug raid at what her family said was the wrong address.” This kind of thing happens in Los Angeles, too.

*. *. *. *. *. *

https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html?fbclid=IwAR0UogXbfxBtzroR2MHaezKwQVo_TbMCR3Vo3U2oOgyq3M82xIj79xUOiKY

https://theundefeated.com/features/george-floyds-death-mother-was-not-there-but-he-used-her-as-a-sacred-invocation/

*. *. *. *. *

Just in case anyone wonders whether the right-wing think tanks and their associated publications have not been engaged in a not-so-covert operation that attempts to rebut the critiques of the predatory surveillance of African-Americans, here’s a very recent example of their efforts. If only someone had the legal authority to force Ms. Mac Donald to watch — non-stop – a tape loop of George Floyd’s death! Four straight hours! Then a lunch break, and four more hours. I doubt it would change her mind about anything, but if she were allowed to invite friends over to watch with her, it might be interesting to have a documentary film crew on hand to record the conversation.

https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/white-cops-dont-commit-more-shootings/

There Is No Epidemic of Racist Police Shootings
Heather Mac Donald July 31, 2019 1:54 PM
HEATHER MAC DONALD is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of THE DIVERSITY DELUSION.

“The Alphabet” by Ron Silliman (a review from ten years ago)

This review of Ron Silliman’s THE ALPHABET was published around ten years ago in Paul Vangelisti’s magazine, OR, which issued from the Otis College of Art and Design. My thanks to both Paul and Otis for their support over the years.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *

Efficient detail: an essay on assembling and re-assembling Ron Silliman’s
The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008, 1062 pages)

“what is a road but drainage, a city but an encrustation of debris, latching onto itself, growing, coral or guano?”
“Jones,” 137

“Velcro mind in a Teflon world.”
–“You” (part X), 911

If the publication of The Age of Huts (University of California Press, 2007) reinforces, yet once again, Ron Silliman’s crucial role as a poet, critic and anthologist in shaping and defining the various articulations of Language writing, the long-awaited arrival of The Alphabet provides a complementary chance to look back on the origins of Language writing, and assess the accumulating significance of Silliman’s life-long project.1 Although Silliman achieved very early success, publishing his work in the mid-1960s in well-established literary magazines such as Poetry Northwest, by the beginning of the 1970s, he had dedicated himself to reviving segments of the avant-garde in American poetry in a rigorous manner that linked up critical theory, cultural critique, and a poetics that gave precedence to marginal canonical figures such as the modernist prose poet, Gertrude Stein, and Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky. Three decades later, clocking in at over 1,000 pages, Silliman’s The Alphabet establishes by the sheer magnitude of heft its eligibility to be compared with many shorter, but similarly daunting, long poems of the modernist and post-modernist period. The list is more substantial than the majority of critics of contemporary poetry suspect, and I intend to leave the comparisons of the merits of The Alphabet to proportionate projects by H.D., Pound, Williams, Crane, Olson, McGrath, etc., to their elucidation. My assignment in this essay is primarily limited to an examination of some of the structural features of The Alphabet and an initial chance to evaluate its efficiency as a long poem.2
Sometimes, faced with a monumentally sized project, the most feasible start is with an obvious, straightforward definition: An alphabet is a sequence of letters that can be combined in various ways to produce entities called words. In part, through his invocation of this armature, Silliman shares with several other progenitors of Language writing a desire to emphasize the description of this process as the central material feature of the social mediation that language entails. As the title of Silliman’s book suggests, this book-length poem is made up of sections that can be combined in multitudinous permutations, each of which would yield a distinct conjuncture. “Language poem: may require some assembly” is one of dozens of notations throughout The Alphabet that refer to what Silliman characterizes as an instantiating “moment” of avant-garde poetry, though its impact has lingered sufficiently for at least one critic to claim, mistakenly, that Language writing is the longest-lived movement of 20th century American poetry. Invoking the dreaded disclaimer attached to children’s toys about to be unwrapped on holidays, this quip would also remind alert readers that “assembly” is actually not an option when it comes to the purpose of Language writing, which always implies an audience whose “assembly,” in holding a mirror up to language, is a response to the “form and pressure of the age.” If Hamlet’s advice to the players about the purpose of playing implicitly addresses the audience, Silliman is even more acutely dedicated to reminding the reader of the contextual ramifications he embeds his writing within, and to destabilizing the reader’s perceptual experience of language: “The specificity of the avant-garde audience is sociological” (111). The sudden appearance of an italicized “of” may be one way in which Silliman is reminding his reader that the assembly of his audience will require at least as much effort and commitment as is needed to assemble the imbricated meaning of that apparently impetuous accenting of “of.” Or perhaps not. Enabling a reader to gauge her or his specific relationship to “the avant-garde audience” might well be one of the unintended side-events of Silliman’s The Alphabet. As one assembles the sentences in The Alphabet, how does one know if one’s assembly of the words is what Silliman intended?
“The cheap orange plastic of the road gang’s vest – they trudge along the tracks. Someone’s left a coffeecup atop the mailbox. This is about my emotions. Silhouettes of gulls backlit by the sun (bay invisible thru the polluted air. Motorcyclist on the sidewalk – how come, in the cold air, her breath doesn’t fog up her face shield?” (“Ink,” 103).
What I have just quoted seems to be a representative sample of Silliman’s pointillistic prosody. Details are palpably invoked amidst claims (“This is about my emotions.”) that come closer to being the kind of ironic disclaimers that fueled the antagonisms of the Language poets’ peers in the 1970s. All too often, I would argue, the opponents of Language writing let their emotions get in the way of comprehending not only the subtlety of Silliman’s imagery, but how efficiently the materiality of his ideas is compressed into vivid interrogations of referential consciousness.
I first spotted Silliman’s writing in Michael Lally’s anthology, None of the Above, but did not find it especially intriguing work. His four-page poem, “Berkeley,” hardly seemed to compare in quality to the level of work being done by an elder poet such as Tim Reynolds, or sagacious Los Angeles poets such as Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, and Jim Krusoe, let alone poets whose work I regularly saw in the pages of Invisible City (Christine Zawadiwsky, Ray DiPalma, and Leslie Scalapino). Reading Ketjak, however, proved to be an entirely different experience. Written in 1974-1975 and published by Barrett Watten’s This Press in 1978, it still seems to be the best single piece of work Silliman has ever written, and it remains a tantalizing and invigorating poem, easily the equal of Spring & All, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Holly Prado’s Feasts. “Poets to come, justify me,” Whitman pleaded, and Silliman has far more in common with Whitman than most readers suspect. In addition to framing their life-time projects as ever-expanding entities, both Silliman and Whitman challenge the boundary between poetry and prose, and both revel in seeking out and incorporating into their poems the most ordinary details of quotidian life.
Ketjak was followed by Tjanting an even longer book-length prose poem, which also forms a portion of the huge poem, “Ketjak,” of which The Alphabet is the culmination. Encompassing 26 different distinct movements, almost all of which have been published previously, The Alphabet required several decades to complete. Details in the poem have an uncanny relevance. Here’s a sentence from “Demo,” written between 1980 and 1981: “At Smith-Barney, we make money the old-fashioned way: we steal it.” I read that sentence on September 30, 2008 as I was listening on the radio to the so-called “bailout” proposals being foisted on the American public. The arrogance of capital, so perfectly captured in Silliman’s parody of an advertising line, seemed freshly palpable as banking institutions in this nation managed to up the ante, with an almost unfathomable amount of duplicity, in record-breaking time. It was nothing short of a hostile take-over of the public treasury. Another instance of Silliman’s commentary remaining relevant would be the way the recent release of the biopic, Milk, gives an extra edge of bereft sarcasm to his lines:
Oliver North
is the man
Dan White always wanted to be. (513)
Having been written over a period of almost 10,000 days and nights, The Alphabet registers both small and huge alterations in the social landscape:
Next to me on the airplane is a woman with a long pair of scissors, cutting coupons she’s torn out of old papers, trimming the edges with great exactness, placing them carefully in a box too small to have held shoes which she’s placed in the lap of her sleeping husband, while I wonder at the wisdom of sharp objects in a vehicle proceeding at 600 mph.
Other changes are at the nominal level and are not necessarily adhered to throughout The Alphabet: “What once were mudflats we now call the wetlands” (117). In the last section of The Alphabet, “Zyxt,” however, “mudflats” prove to be more contumacious than one might have anticipated (“shore birds still in the mudflats”) (973).
Throughout all these changes, however, The Alphabet more than occasionally provides an implicit simulacrum of hanging out with a witty acquaintance, a self-described “first generation / mallie” (“What,” 857) with whom you stop in front of a restaurant and glance at a Health Department warning posted near the entrance. “Eminent ptomaine,” he quips, and one smiles. But rarely does surprise, that all too neglected emotion, generate anything resembling sustained laughter. A “Spell Czech” (679) kind of wit happens with the regularity of California’s seismic turpitude. The needle on the Richter scale is always already jostling, and The Alphabet is a thousand pages of squiggles and abrupt shifts. Those who expect a culminating jolt will be disappointed. Very mild chuckles are outnumbered by barely audible titters. One yearns at a certain point for a good, sustained laugh, but a poetics in which “Verb tense and sentence length are all you need of narrative” (364) will have a tendency to career a little too often in the direction of amusing patter. Much of Silliman’s wit aligns itself with parody, and popular songs often provide the template: “My name is Captain Greysquirrel and I go which way the wind blows.” (“Paradise,” 421); “Tie / a yellow ribbon ‘round the hot crime scene.” (WHAT, 857); “This is the dawn / ing of the / age of / blanched asparagus” (VOG, 675), or “The yellow rose of praxis” (974). As Silliman observes, though, “the middle of the century seems a long time ago,” and I wonder how many readers will finish this poem without wishing they could have access to an annotated edition. To that extent, Silliman’s long poem is didactic in the way that Pound’s Cantos attempt to be.
If anything surprises me about The Alphabet, it is Silliman’s comment in his “Notes” at the end of the book: “I suggest to new readers that they start with What, which was first published by The Figures press.” Why Silliman would direct a reader to “What” remains an utter puzzle to me, unless somehow he believes that “What” is more “accessible,” and that readers should be eased into an acquaintance with what might prove to be more daunting poems in The Alphabet. (“It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers.” — “Albany,” 1). Perhaps, after decades and decades of hard work and public readings and talks, Silliman has finally grown weary: “O.K., folks, you want enlightenment, but you don’t want to work too hard. Start here.” Perhaps, behind Silliman’s suggestion, is the quiet sigh of a post-structuralist Boddisatva, which I have not detected. In any case, I see no reason whatsoever for new readers not to begin with the new version of “Ketjak” in The Alphabet. I put this “Ketjak” in quotation marks because at this point it is not a separate poem, as the prose poem Ketjak (1978) is. This “Ketjak” is an expanded version of the original poem, adding in words that are not in the original. In popular music terms, one could think of it as an expanded version of a song – the EP re-mix.
Yet if Silliman seems unable to gauge what might prove most interesting to a first-time reader, and errs on the side of accessibility, it might be because some of his readers have overheard rants about Language writing (“Language poetry is puke, sez Black Oak Books”), and Silliman’s poetry in particular, such as a review of Paradise that Silliman quotes towards the end of Non. “Paradise is too disjointed to work on any level. It is not a novel; there is no plot, no characters, no beginning, no middle, no end. There are, granted, recurring motifs, but they seem to be present only because the author’s pen ran dry, and he filled it back up with the first old phrase that came to mind. Perhaps it is intended to be one long, rambling prose poem, with images splashed across the image like a Jackson Pollack painting.” The irony of quoting a review so replete with overdetermined misapprehensions seems somewhat self-defeating, but it does enable me to puzzle ruefully over the obstacles many readers deliberately seem to set up between themselves and writing that engages in anything that resembles experimentation — an odd situation given that the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses is just around the corner.3
So where is one to start, especially if one is a casual, or very young, reader of poetry? In his weblog, Silliman has written about his excitement in encountering William Carlos Williams as a young teenager, and I have no doubt that aspiring poets in the next couple of years will find in portions of The Alphabet the confirmation of her or his raw intuition that writing poetry (which is different from “being a poet”) is an endeavor worthy of the indignities that are certain to come. In addition to “Ketjak 2,” my favorite sections are “Lit,” “Manifest,” “Oz,” and “Under”; any of these would be a viable starting point for a reader who resists starting with “Albany.” But in terms of resolving the question of where to start, perhaps the answer is that, no matter where one starts, if one reads enough of The Alphabet, one will begin to notice recurrences of phrases and images. Often these citations are of the writing of philosophers or poets, such as Wittgenstein: “The world is whatever is the case.” Later on, that proposition is demolished, “The world is what is the vase,” which then is flung and shattered, only to resurrect eventually as, “The world is all that’s in your face” (“Non,” 350). In between, another variant serves to launch a passage that could be taken as representative of much of The Alphabet’s impetus:
“The word is all that is your face. Shit, boy, wipe yo’ mouth, you got chocolate smeared on your beard like dingleberries on a hairy ass. Sparrow’s shadow travels up stucco wall. Problem of drought etiquette: whether or not a friend’s house, to flush. The Nortonsville dead are for the most part Welsh, recruited to the Black Diamond coal fields of California, suffocating for low grade or in the 1870s, five towns no longer visible even in abandonment, house moved elsewhere (to Antioch or Concord), hawk in a low glide over the dry hills, tombstones chopped under a grove of cypress, tho from down the hill, facing north through the valley, you can see the Sacramento River right at the point where the delta ends. The quality of mercy is not strange. Foggy, pronounced “fodgy” – the purpose of intimate nonsense, babytalk among lovers, is to articulate a space apart. Your turn to have the car today. . . . Seamy ontics. Bright rug atop pale carpet. Parsley in a pot. Thin wire mesh of screen before fireplace. Ich bin ein Satz. The opposite field. Desperately seeking Godot. Well, I was hoping you were writing something about this delicious dinner I just cooked you. Digestion recollected in tranquility. Smoke spills from the holes of the barbecue’s lids. Dents on my car hood from where crack dealers sit on it during the day time. How do you spell agapantha? Trimmed tree, as hard-edged as the patio it lines. Unheated pool on a cool day. Mao cap with a logo – this one reads “Tsing Tao.” Young man carrying a bicycle up the flight of stairs. What does not charge is the will to charge. Marilyn Monroe had six toes on her left foot. A net sack for thistle seed, intended for finches, hanging empty, swinging in the soft breeze. Hum of motorscooter’s engine as it shifts down to climb the hill (“Non,” 345-346).

As if constructing the verbal equivalent of Watts Towers, Silliman folds popular culture (Desperately Seeking Susan) with the elusive titular figure of Becklett’s existential classic, labor history, quirky trivia, a baseball term, and a hidden haiku (subtract “intended for finches”). One also notices, of course, Silliman’s alteration of “the will to change.” He makes constant use of well-known lines by other (mostly male) poets, ranging from Robert Duncan (“Often I am permitted to return to a method” is Silliman’s variant) to Charles Olson, Lew Welch, Ezra Pound, Cesar Vallejo, and William Stafford. William Carlos Williams is a frequent source, both in what is almost immediate juxtaposition —
The dissent beckons
as the assent beckoned (514)

The dissent bickers
As the assent battered
Harmony.

Is a kind of
Deceivement. (515)

as well as what is quarreled with (“the pure products of America”) at considerable distance (pages 32 and 951). In addition to quotations, similar situations repeat themselves in the course of The Alphabet, though it is difficult to tell if they are distinct instances, or merely the same situation being described in more detail the second time. “Two deaf persons signaling to one another simultaneously” make a cameo appearance in “Ink” (107), but the final sentence of “Of Grammatology” in Vog could be taken as an elaboration: “At first I notice only that the two young men are speaking to one another in sign language, so only gradually do I begin to notice that they’re also flirting” (595). While parallels and resemblances impel the assembly of The Alphabet, the re-assembly of the poem is the genuine task of pleasure, especially as one begins to notice how certain words revolve through the poem. In part two of one of the shorter poems, “Skies,” for instance, Silliman braids together the verbal equivalent of a sculptural environment by James Turrell through a semi-anaphoric, barn-dance dosey-do reiteration, each pairing responded to with hemispheres of grace notes.
Blood & glass:
Muscle & blood:
Root & muscle:
Stem & root:
Base & Stem:
Mound & base:
Level & mound:
Bent & level:
Weary & bent:
Wild & weary:
Young & wild:
Sturdy & young:
Flowering & sturdy:
The stitching and counter-stitch proceeds through a list that includes plants, domestic objects, conveyances, and minerals. The sequence concludes by circling back to the beginning, with glass, window, and curtain completing the turn:
Glare & glass:
Steam & glare:
Mortar & steel:
Shingle & mortar:
Porch & shingle:
Drainpipe & porch:
Clothesline & drainpipe:
Window & clothesline:
Curtain & window:
Shadow & curtain:

“ Gradually, the poem begins to circle itself,” Silliman notes, but this gliding vortex becomes more visible when one takes note of the end words in the short poem that makes up “Quindecagon”: bench, black, boy, chairs, fog, friends, harmony, pose, round, screen, stone, sun, table, weighted, will. If one integrates this round into the above list, this congregation of keywords, in alphabetical order, would read: “air, angled, babytears, base, bench, bent, black, blood, bows, boy, brazen, brassy, brooms, buckets, bunches, canes, carrots, chairs, caught, conceived, considered, cosmos, crips, culture, curtain, drainpipes, dry, dump, dust, elevators, flakes, flaming, flickering, flowering, fog, friends, frosted, garden, glare, glass, gifted, glistening, harmony, heads, high, iron, jasper, level, mildew, mortar, mound, mulch, muscle, overturned, overwrought, pints, porch, pose, quartz, rhodochrosite, root, roped, rot, round, screen, shadow, shady, shingle, sifted, silver, slush, soot, spotted, snow, soot, sought, staked, steam, stem, stone, strained, striped, sturdy, sun, system, table, tourmaline, umbrellas, vests, walkers, weary, weighted, whisks, white, wild, will, window, young, yellow.” Reading through this list, I’m reminded of Michael McClure’s “Personal Universe Deck,” a method of selecting a list of words with intimate imaginative associations. If not directly influenced by McClure, who taught workshops about this deck during the early 1970s, in setting up a rotating field of invocations, Silliman in his youth seems to have absorbed some portion of this practice. Whatever the case might be, the words cited in the above list appear far more frequently throughout The Alphabet than their normal reoccurrence in written or spoken language. Although Silliman cautions that “there is no privilege in an end” (NON, 329), the above list of words modulates the incremental shifts of detail in that they tend to appear, at the very least, towards the end of a poem, or at a turning point. In “Garfield,” for instance, which consists of 21 paragraphs of 21 sentences each, here is a passage almost exactly at its mid-point:
The air is cool, discounting rain. Such difficult constructions serve to put me off balance. High-pitched tight farts vs. feigned cough. The cactus’ despair. I took the names out. Thick patch of babytears in the damp behind the tree. Slice the rind away from the meat. Take a bunch of vitamin C. Marketing the Cube with using the name. Because a balance is struck in this decentered freedom a soft black dog can sleep on the porch. The separateness of the lines in stanza.”

A reader of this review, at this point, can look back at the first sustained passage I quoted (the one beginning: “The cheap orange plastic…”), and perhaps experience the same quiet shock transforming into discreet elation as I did back when I was revising an early draft of this review. I couldn’t believe that a passage, which I had picked more or less at random, also turned out to have several of these “keywords” (air, sun, vest). Once this circularity is noticed, a line such as, “Stalk to me. Sunflower bends, weary of its own weight,” which appears four lines from the end of “Oz,” takes on an exponential tensile strength, acting much like a cable on a suspension bridge. “Words without which every other word feels trapped,” Silliman comments, and in repeating – as if it were an elaborately syncopated chant – certain words, Silliman expands the “single point of contact” (953) that each word in the text “represents” and amplifies the context without which, he argues, the use of anything, including words, simply ends up concealing power and the meanings it accrues to its hierarchical predications. The choice of “angle” to be one of the “single point(s) of contact” in The Alphabet’s final line (“The angle of my pen as it brushes this page”) reminds the reader of the materiality of writing as an emancipation project, and nudges the reader to consider the angle of the eye and page.
One additional set of repetitions involves personal tensions that might well be autobiographical. Silliman’s continuously pulsating juxtapositions generate a sensation of an internal control group at work that is moderating a very polite panel of talking heads. On one hand, The Alphabet takes note of melancholy social stratification: “At what point do you realize that you will rent for the rest of your life?” On the other hand, The Alphabet contains propositions that prove difficult for the poem as a whole to substantiate. “Emotion is only an ideological commitment stated (felt) irrationally – irrational because overdetermined (there’s a conflict)” (Demo, 30). While one could mount an argument in support of that proposition (and the early days of Language writing seemed to emphasize a deliberate elimination of emotion from the writing, except whatever fondness one might possess for grammar, evident in “Silliman for Lieutenant Grammarian”), details that seem to refer to the author’s life point to a persistent emotional struggle.

When I’m mad at you (as,
at this moment, I would seem
to be) it is not (directly)
your actions to which I
react, but how, rather,
I am put back in touch with
this old permanent storm
within.
(“Oz,” 401-402)
The frequency with which Silliman mentions his father, who abandoned his mother at a very early point in Silliman’s childhood, would lead most readers to suspect a link between “this old permanent storm” (Oz,” 402) and the father’s callous dereliction of his first family. “Against this quiet, all the anger I feel still at never having had a father. Now that I have lived 5 days longer than he ever did” (“Oz,” 384). His father, of whom Silliman says he has not a single photo, was killed in a horrific industrial accident: “blown by the explosion four storeys into the air, third degree burns over eighty percent of his body” (“Ink,” 106). Knowledge alone proves to be an enduring trauma. “Our emotions tint / The filtered world,” Silliman argues, but what does the filtering: description? ideology? emotions themselves? Silliman points to a crucial emotion, trust, in articulating the relationship involved in the verbal composition of imagined consciousness:

Hot sun glares down over the slow traffic.
Thighs ache for muscle’s sake. A word in the hand
speaks to the bush. Shells of sunflower seed
litter the gutter. Between writing and speech
lies the process of translation. Advantage
is like a sigh but with a purpose,
a party held in your honor. Everyone
at the reading knows one another
but you. Flavored seltzer. Mind
over batter. The fist is but
a fetal position for the hand. Gladiolas
on a long stem. The social contract
between writer and reader demands trust:
distance not absorption, is the intended effect.
(“What,” 858)
One will note in this passage the recurrence of words from the core list (sun, glare, muscle, stem) prior to the qualification that Silliman imposes on the connotations of “trust,” which he asserts can only be maintained by distance. Since trust frequently engenders some measure of intimacy, the question of how to avoid absorption as an unintended side effect remains unanswered. By writing, “I am not interested in description, but detail, transforming…” (“Oz,” 474), Silliman seems to suggest, through the non-stop refocusing of attention, that a reader might find, in the undulating liminality of transformation, the trust needed to sustain attention. Again and again, like an indefatigable detective, Silliman returns to the primal stomping grounds of the hemidemisemiquaver of the instant before appetite can identify its target (“We bend / web end” – “Zyxt, ” 992).
In addition to an overoptimistic estimate of an audience’s generous patience, Silliman’s trust in the most ordinary instances of human perception is both a source of immense strength and more than occasional weakness. In reading The Alphabet, I am reminded of Jean Epstein’s cinematic goal: “I want films in which not so much nothing happens as nothing very much happens. Have no fear, misunderstandings will not arise. The humblest detail sounds the note of drama that is latent.” 3 The Alphabet contains many passages of vigorous language and memorable detail, but all too often, especially in the final 400 pages, one feels that one is having one’s attention called to something that is not worth noticing, or at least that the language used to call attention to the perception is not worth one’s devotion. “At the service / station / a man in a brown / jumpsuit / slowly waves / a customer into / the proper bay.” A certain kind of monotony sets in, rather like someone having the same kind of pancakes every morning, 365 days a year. At a certain point, latent drama does not have to become blatant, but Silliman’s preference for minor details finally wears out my welcome.
Perhaps Silliman does not care if a reader decides that an old joke is one too many (“I pick up the paper to read the latest lies”) and puts his poem aside. I can’t say that I would scold anyone who did not finish this poem. “Whoever lives by the aphorism dies by the cliché” appears on the same page as, “Returning in the rain from the old brick bank to the car, I realize that I forgot to feed the meter, had scurried right past it in my hurry to stay dry, only to have gotten by without a ticket, little gift of fate.” Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg were equally self-indulgent in presenting extracts from their diaries, and while their audiences tolerated it with good humor in public, I wonder how long they actually leaned and loafed on their living room floors, mulling over the pertinacity of such an anecdote to the imperatives of their circumstances?
Ezra Pound observed that “the general reader(‘s) job is to enjoy what he reads and to read what he enjoys.”5 I would argue that this chiastic rule of thumb has nothing to do with the so-called difficulty of the writing. One can enjoy a difficult poem; in fact, it could well be the process of untangling the difficulties that makes the reading enjoyable. As The Alphabet concludes, I don’t find myself wishing it were longer. Details confine their choreography to the trampoline of redundancy, and while they may not stop transforming altogether, they all too often mumble to themselves in a variant of post-modernist self-hypnosis. At those points, and they become more plentiful as the poem gets longer, The Alphabet stalls and runs the risk of appealing primarily to what Pound called “a specialist’s interests.” Even as a specialist, with some demonstrated interest in the avant-garde, I need more bounce for my buck.
Silliman has announced an even longer poem, The Universe, as the follow-up to The Alphabet. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he is one of the hardest working writers around, and I have no doubt he is capable of writing a longer poem than The Alphabet. “Marooned on a planet of slackers” was his recent rejoinder on his blog to an inquiry about how he manages to accomplish so much. To make this new long poem more enjoyable, I would urge him to make the difficulties more playful. What exactly is the role of the subjunctive in his imagination? I would prefer more metaphor and fewer puns. The proportion of compelling metaphors to clever puns is weighted heavily on the latter’s side in The Alphabet. One reasonable question, of course, involves whether there is actually a need for another long poem by Ron Silliman. If so, it would have to be radically different in content to make it worth the trek. It’s possible that he has at least one major new question to ask that can only be delineated in a poem that is 1,500 or 2,000 pages long. Writing a poem that long simply to find out if one can discover such a question, however, is perhaps a less than auspicious equation.
In the past, Silliman has proven to be an exceptionally articulate and provocative theorist, and his new project might be best served by an essay or two in which he discusses what urgent surprise is missing in The Alphabet that so desperately requires its enunciation in The Universe. Perhaps a set of playful alternative autobiographies (a concept hinted at in The Alphabet) interspersed with biographical research might yield the chorography of a labyrinth that rewards its spelunkers in proportion to the effort. “Can I trust this poet?” each reader has a right to ask, and she deserves a sincere answer. In general, the avant-garde is the province of the young, and it is not exactly blessed with a reputation for appreciating sincerity or trust. Perhaps Silliman could continue to change that reputation. How much of a contribution his next long poem could make, in terms of intermingling ineluctable form and innovative content, to the avant-garde will depend on how much he is able to redefine “trust” so that it re-organizes every point of contact with the distant intimacy that has marked his writing up to this point.

*. *. *. *. *. *

Ron Silliman was born in 1946 and educated at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or editor of several dozen books, including The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press, 2008). His most recent book of poetry is a bilingual edition, English & Italian, Il quaderno cinese / The Chinese Notebook, translated by Massimiliano Manganelli, from Tiellici Editrice’s Benway Series in Colorno, Italy. Last year also saw the publication of The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Letters: Selected 1970s Correspondence of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman, edited by Matthew Hofer & Michael Golston, from the University of New Mexico Press in Albuquerque, plus two chaplets, Five Poems I Did Not Write and Season of the Which from Happy Monks Press in Wilmington, NC. Among Silliman’s other literary projects is the anthology, IN THE AMERICAN TREE. Silliman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and shelters in place south of Valley Forge.

For a brief overview of his work, see:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ron-silliman

Bruce Andrews: “Fluorescent Butch Wax”

The cliche about the Language “school” or “movement” is that the poets involved had committed themselves to a program of non-referentiality and that anyone who reassembled the expectations of vocabulary and syntax could produce a “Language” poem. I recollect seeing more than a few examples of such poems produced by those whose antipathy to Language writing verged on paranoia. One problem with their attempts to satirize Language writing is that their examples undermined their intent. “Where’s the meaning in this poem?” they would ask, assuming that because they had let go of their usual anecdotal recollections of some biographically based memory as the basis for a poem that they had destroyed any semblance of meaning. On the contrary, the possibilities of meaning had only shifted their contexts, but following up on the implications of those new thresholds would have required more intellectual work than they were willing to engage in.

I dip back into my recollection of a particular period in the Anthology Wars (early 1980s) as a preface to today’s meditation on a set words in a poem that I heard Bruce Andrews read many years ago: “fluorescent butch wax.” In the accelerated collage of images I heard Andrews reading, this one instigated a startling moment in which ideology’s pomp and circumstance got punctured with all the suddenness of the “b’loop” of Basho’s frog.

Let’s start with the sound: I’ve always heard “butch wax” as a single unit, or at least compressed in its pronunciation to be equivalent to “jump-start.” The approximately similar duration of “fluorescent” and “butch wax” keeps the shimmer of the signifiers tugging at each other in a kind of motionless spinning; there is a subtle rhythm that makes the right hand of vowels and the left hand of consonants strike a harmonious burst on the keyboard.

If the sound catches our ears, it is the summoning of the chronotope of time and place that stirs the suspicions of the mind’s heart: the 1950s classroom in which all the insidious propaganda of a militaristic nation-state was fomented by the willing naive accomplices of teachers and educational administrators. Fluorescent light is, of course, artificial, and its presence as a modifier is meant to problematize the performance of gender signified by “butch wax.” The hyper-masculinity that this product represents is equivalent in its artificialness to the light that enables students to read the narratives of history (the Revolutionary War; the Civil War, etc.) that are supposed to reinforce the students’ ideas of citizenship. White citizenship. Butch wax was a product associated with white males. Check out the website for baseball cards for this period if you want the full crewcut monty of race and gender.

Pound’s image of the crowd in the metro used vegetation to congest its apparitional aura. Andrews conjures up the apparition of pedagogical ideology and reveals the theatrical context of the performance needed to prop up its tenuous legitimacy. In a room glistened with this patriarchal power, no doubt is permitted or recognized. No hands are raised, other than in obedience. Language writing was in direct opposition to the collaboration with power that so much of mainstream poetry represented in an anthology such as “The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets.” Anyone who thinks that the Anthology Wars ended in the early 1960s is not paying attention, nor are they reading at a level beyond that required in a classroom lit by fluorescent butch wax.

For those unfamiliar with this hairstyle, I recommend the following site:

Butch Wax

*. *. *. *

In contrast with my reaction to “fluorescent butch wax,” I direct the reader to:

http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/andrews/about/dworkin.html

Michael McClure (1932-2020): The Exemplary Mammal Patriot

“I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE”: In Memory of Michael McCLure

“The mind, Ferrini,
is as much a labor
as to lift an arm
flawlessly.”
— Charles Olson, THE MAXIMUS POEMS

Of all the Beat poets, I felt most personally comfortable in the presence of Michael McClure, with whom I had the good fortune to study in the 1970s both as a poet (at Squaw Valley) and as a playwright (at the Padua Hills Theater Festival). Although very different from Brecht, McClure is as rare as Brecht in being both a masterful poet and playwright. As a playwright, I remember in particular the productions staged by the Company Theater in Los Angeles, both when it was based in its first space on Robertson Blvd. as well as other venues. At the former, McClure’s “Spider Rabbit” still caroms in my memory for the intensity required of the actor. As an antiwar play, it possesses a macabre gaiety of insolent logic that if administered universally might serve as a vaccine to the madness of state-mandated murder. I hope that McClure’s plays are someday gathered in a massive volume so that The Beard, which gets an inordinate amount of attention due to its legal travails, can be read within the larger context of his theatrical work.

As a poet, McClure remains one of the few original members of the Beat insurgency in San Francisco not to have been welcomed into the Academic canon. It’s possible that Rita Dove write McClure and asked him what poems he would like to represent his work in the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, but I doubt it. The story I heard was that Ginsberg’s estate asked for too much money to reprint his poems, and therefore (along with Plath) was not included in that anthology. Dove’s anthology is an above average endeavor in representing the variety of American poetry, but it is very weak in the area of Beat poetry and replacing Ginsberg with McClure would have given the book a respite from the flush left versification that warehouses that volume’s poems.

As Jed Rasula’s survey of American poetry anthologies demonstrated, anthologies are the reputation-making sifting agent of literary stature within the Academy. A quick consultation of the appendices provided by Rasula in The American Poetry Wax Museum confirms my recollection of McClure’s absence from mainstream anthologies in the 1980s. The pivot towards a safe, commodity-based poetry with a professional aura was epitomized in that decade by the Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets, very few of whom — if any — would be inclined to encourage their students to read McClure’s poetry. It was not just his practice of centering lines of poetry on the page that would probably put them off; rather, I suspect that they wouldn’t willing to acknowledge his adamant themes of anti-patriarchal hierarchies. “I AM A MAMMAL PATRIOT,” demanded implicitly that we take sides, and it was easier to ignore the ecological choices that McClure proposed than to accept the necessity of listening closely to his poems. McClure was one of the first poets to write in an ecological mode (“Poisoned Wheat”) as well as to speak openly about drug experiences in his poems. It is not just a coincidence that McClure disappears from the rosters of anthologies in the 1980s, the era in which the President’s spouse insisted that young people should “just say no” to drugs.

In addition, because anthologies are disinclined to print long poems, but prefer to emphasize the short, anecdotal lyric poem, some of McClure’s very best work has gone unrecognized. “The Antechamber of the Night” is a great poem, one of the best of the past century. When was the last time you saw it in an anthology? Or for that matter, listed in an anthology as “recommended further reading”?

Perhaps no other poet I have ever read has had an imagination so alert to the recuperative powers of proprioceptive empathy. At the same time, McClure had an “ear” for the language that made mellifluousness seem a natural component of consciousness while also having a luscious eye for visual detail; McClure painted images that were as buoyant as the best of William Blake’s verse.

My comments might make it seem as if McClure had only a “minor” standing in American poetry, and I certainly don’t want that inference to be made. Among those whose imaginations are embedded in discourses outside of the often provincial concerns of university presses, McClure was a major poet of the 20th century, and he had not one but two “selected poems” that attempted to account for the respect his work engendered. In the second of these pair of volumes, Leslie Scalapino’s quirky choice of McClure’s poems in Of Indigo and Saffron made a crucial intervention in emphasizing the gestural embodiments that make McClure’s poems an event in the cosmos of becoming. Of the poems I wished she had included is one I first encountered as a broadside produced in 1966 by Dave Hasselwood (1931-2014). It begins:

I KNOW NOW WHAT I DID NOT KNOW BEFORE
that to stand with the instrument with the arms
thrown outward…

In a body of work that stands apart from the avant-garde and yet remains utterly committed to in its reiterations of visions worthy of the Romantic tradition that fuels the so-called “experimental,” McClure remains an exemplary inspiration for anyone in need of a transformative encounter. “I MAKE A SCULPTURE OF THE VOICE,” he says in the penultimate line of Hasselwood’s broadside. The sculptures of his poems await our extended arms, too, and a grip that extends from fingertips to ears.

“Fucking Peasants”: An Alternate Ending to Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday”

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The spring semester is almost over; in addition to finishing my assessments of M.A. exams, I’ve turned in grades for two of my classes, and am starting to read the seminar papers by my graduate students in “West Coast Literature after World War II.” However, I’ll be teaching a compressed course in the first summer session, which starts in less than two weeks, so there is not much time to catch up with unfinished projects this spring. On the “finished” side of the ledger, I am happy to report that Eileen Aronson Ireland’s first book of poems will soon be out from Brooks Roddan’s IFSF Publishing. I have more or less served as the unofficial executive editor of her book the past two years, doing everything from collating the poems electronically and transmitting them to the book designer, proofreading the text, tracking the revisions to the poems, securing blurbs, writing an introduction, and finding a cover photograph and other visual material, on top of serving as an intermediary in other ways.

The mid-week movie screening turned out to be Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, which proved to be a disappointment except in the acting. Himesh Patel is pitch-perfect in generating the essential disparity between his character’s actual talent as a musician and songwriter and the flamboyant nuances of popular music as produced in a collaborative effort such as The Beatles. The songs, for the most part, still resonant with their original charisma; Patel does an exceptional job at being the latest version of a cover band. If his career as an actor ever falters, he won’t need a day job. He could skip the costume changes. In his hands, the songs dispense with the need for period ornamentation.

The script of Yesterday, however, is another matter, especially in the last half-hour. While the use of John Lennon’s song, “Help” as a song to comment on the predicament of a sincere plagiarist becoming an international success is a wise, if fairly obvious, choice as textual irony, the story not only ignores the ethical implications and consequences of plagiarism, but comes close to rewarding its perpetrator for his appropriation. Plagiarism is just another plot device in a late-blooming coming-of-age story. Yeah, just what we need right now in at atmosphere of permeating misinformation.

While watching this film, I thought once again of Norman Klein’s emphasis on erasure as an essential part of the “social imaginary.” What gets erased in Yesterday is John Lennon’s acrid rebuke of “phony Beatlemania” (as the Clash termed it in a song that must have had its lyric replaced in the search engine efforts of the film’s protagonist). It would have been a far more honest assessment of the impact of the Beatles’ music to end the film at Wemley with “The Dream Is Over,” followed by “Working Class Hero”: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

And indeed we are, if we succumb to the superficiality of this film’s interrogation of cultural work.

“A Painter of Our Time” by David James

A little less than a year ago, a painter named Lance Gravett had his paintings exhibited for the first time in over 30 years. They were only up for one weekend, and I myself did not get a chance to see them in person, but it turned out that one of my oldest and best friends, the poet and scholar David James, had written a poem for Gravett as well as some artistic commentary inspired by his memory. With David’s permission, I share this material with you and urge to type Gravett’s name into your browser and follow the links.

IN MEMORY OF LANCE GRAVETT

*. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *. *

A Painter of Our Time

by David James

X–you know his real name–was initially a neo-realist, so I guess he went to school in the mid-seventies. He probably studied with someone who studied with Robert Bechtle or John Salt or Ralph Goings, people like that. His early paintings were unremarkable, all variations on your basic “old car outside a diner in the mid-west” routine. I’ll just tell you about one of them. It was of a Chevy Biscayne, coming in diagonally to half-fill the picture-frame with its hood. It was meticulously painted with intricate reflections on the chrome and in the window glass. Two things distinguished it. First it had a “For Sale” sign in the passenger window. I read this as referring to both the car and the painting, and so expressing a wry recognition of the latter’s own commodity status, not exactly resistance to the compromises of neo-realism and its collusiveness in what was clearly becoming a reactionary art world, but perhaps a self-consciousness about them. The other thing was the color. The car itself was a kind of pukey green, a real fifties pastel, but since it was rusting, the green was eaten away in spots and generally edged with brown, so it looked like the paint was coming off both car and canvas.

I mention this one because it came to my mind whenever I saw X’s later work, the work that made his fortune. These paintings moved me strongly, even though I was not sure whether they too were not compromised, whether the various sublations they mobilized ever really worked. I used to argue about them with my friend Stephen Eisenman. He was clear in his understanding of what, following Adorno, he called “the echo of their untruth,” but I could never get my position satisfactorily worked out. I always hedged by saying that all good work didn’t have to be politically correct.

As the eighties set in, X’s training in neo-realism stood him in good stead. Following the revival of melodrama that made jerks like Robert Longo blue chip, he started painting people under various kinds of duress or terror. But they all had something extra. The first one I liked showed a couple of shadowy figures in raincoats, plotting under a lamppost. I can’t see it too well now, but I remember it could have been a scene from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It was painted in a dark, metallic blue, something like the color of the mohair suits Ray Charles used to wear around the time he was secularizing gospel music. It had a general feel of depression and violence, but running across that a weird exhilaration. He called it “Conceptual Terrorists.” I liked the pun.

He did several more in the same vein. Men in danger or anxiety, mostly in blue, highlighted or cut through with streetlamp mercury. But then he started juxtaposing this melodramatic realism with areas of virtually straight Frankenthaler or Olitski color field. I know that pastiches and quotations of previous eras in art essentially floated eighties’ painting, but these didn’t seem arbitrary rip-offs like David Salle or Julian Schnable. Rather than just jamming references together in an abrupt, collagist, ungrammaticality, these works very deliberately constructed meaning from one part of the painting to the other. The articulated compromises of the one mode supplied the preconditions of the other and vice-versa, so that the painting became the scene of translation between what otherwise were two mutually incompatible –and incomplete– languages. It was as if he had found a way of reclaiming the idealism of the color fielders by narrating the man-in-nature cosmic location through the dangers of modern social life. Let me just describe one. I think it was the first in which this synthesis was fully articulated.

The canvas was about eight feet tall and four wide, essentially one square on top of another. The bottom half showed a corpse being handled into a police van and a man being arrested. It was at night and evidently one macho artist had wasted another in a warehouse district on the wrong side of the tracks. The internal light of the wagon illuminated a long slash all down the guy’s gut. The scene was lurid and gross, with shadowy police uniforms standing around. But in the top half of the painting–almost like a paradise the unfortunates below might ascend to–floated this soft field of pale green edged round with a fleshy earth tone–the green and rust from the neo-realist Chevvy! Again the relationship between the colors was more than formal. It was as if the paint were slipping off the canvas to reveal something more fundamental, or as if maybe canvas couldn’t hold paint any more.

X completed this painting just around the time he was having a studio show. I don’t know if it was a studio sale; I doubt it could have been since the melodrama paintings had been well known for three years or so and the combination paintings were beginning to get heavy-duty critical attention. Maybe it was just a show for dealers or friends. But in any case, he stood this painting in a corridor off the main studio and put a notice on it that said it wasn’t for sale. I remember seeing it, half-covered with a sheet. I looked at it briefly, but without giving it much thought I went in to the party.

The next time I went to his studio it was there with maybe a dozen more, all with essentially the same structure. But what was new about this series was that in the interim, he had realized that the “not-for-sale” notice was not something outside the picture, but rather inside it. And in that border-zone between the top and the bottom of each painting –between heaven and hell– he had stenciled in the sign: THIS PAINTING IS NOT FOR SALE.

The rest you know. They were thought to be very hip and the museums all wanted one. He sold them for a lot of money and then quit the whole art-world scene. He started making small oils, sublime landscapes and sunsets, which he gave away to friends.

As he did so, his practice came to resemble that of Lance Gravett, who was torn apart by the tensions this tale illustrates and in whose memory I wrote it.

The Eyes

(for Lance Gravett

The chief practitioners of seeing
these days are cultic
Most rigorous in the finesse
of their cultivation, they are
our only true epicures
but awed by their inexorable pursuit
of more exact discrimination
we forgive them this excess

For the rest of us
the eyes are a neglected function
largely theoretical
made gross by Xerox
& the instamatic clickery
of fotographers who are without doubt
our least interesting seers
They remain useful
only as a kind of starter
for the profound narcosis
of tv & like the nose
they will soon be obsolete
a life support system
unnoticed till it fails

But by then
there will be nothing left to see

Robert Mezey (1935-2020)

Thursday, April 30th

Yesterday evening, having learned of Robert Mezey’s death, I wrote the one person I knew for whom the news would involve the kind of sadness that only a lamp and a chair with soft cushions can begin to bring solace. While Mezey first became known as a poet in his mid-twenties, it was an anthology he co-edited with Stephen Berg, Naked Poetry, that made him far more visible to a generation of young poets on the West Coast. It was the first post-World War II anthology to have the first three featured be individuals associated in a significant way with the West Coast: Theodore Roethke, Weldon Kees, and Kenneth Patchen. Other West Coast poets in that anthology included Gary Snyder and William Stafford. In addition, Denise Levertov had taught at UC Berkeley for several years; among her students was Rae Armantrout.

While I had already begun assiduously reading Roethke and Kees by the Fall of 1968, I knew nothing of Patchen’s work, for he was not talked of at all in any undergraduate course I took. Mezey’s inclusion of a poem such as “The Orange Bears” was a revelation to me, the first of many I owe to Mezey’s poetic wisdom. Mezey went on to edit a second edition of Naked Poetry, which reflected the impact of feminist impatience with anthologies overstocked with males. Among the poets included in the second edition, Muriel Rukeyser’s inclusion was a rare acknowledgement of the value of her work.

I had first heard Robert Mezey read at San Diego State College in the spring, 1968. Allen Ginsberg had read there, too, in the academic year 1967-1968, and so had Philip Levine. For a twenty year old aspiring poet who was off to a very late start in learning about contemporary poetry, these readings helped catch me up and provided an enduring example of how a reading could make a memorable poem even more enduring. Mezey read a love poem that had as its central image of a bottle of drinking water that he was bringing to his wife. The poem lifted itself to my lips, and to the heart of my lips.

The last time I heard Bob Mezey read was at Beyond Baroque. Suzanne Lummis, of course, was there, too, and we both savored hearing him read his poem about Orpheus and Eurydice. I don’t remember whether he read “Hardy,” which is one of my favorite sonnets of all time. He didn’t need to. The poem has already perfected itself in the afterglow of its first encounter, years ago. I believe he read “Beau Jack,” which is one of Suzanne’s favorites, for equally profound reasons.

Mezey worked on behalf of poetry far more than most poets who win the “Poet Laureate” award from a city, state, or this nation. His second anthology, Poems of the American West, contained work by a large number of poets who have worked in the years since Naked Poetry first appeared to justify its emphasis on poets west of the Mississippi. In particular, I was grateful for his praise and advocacy of a poet I published both in my magazine, Momentum, as well as issuing a full-length collection of his work. Dick Barnes’s A Lake on the Earth remains among my personal favorites of my Momentum Press project, but it was Mezey who got behind a posthumous edition of Barnes’s poetry. He was also the essential mediator in getting the work of Virginia Hamilton Adair (Ants on the Melon) into print.

The obituary in the LA Times is a fairly reliable account of Mezey life. The one detail that seemed slightly off was its assignment of Mezey’s renewed commitment to formal poetry as a return to roots occasion that took place “close to the end of the century.” In point of fact, we poets in Los Angeles knew of this shift back in the early 1980s. It was at that point that the poet and editor Lee Hickman published some of Mezey’s “Couplets” in Bachy magazine, which was published by Papa Bach Bookstore.

I don’t need to lit up a candle in Bob Mezey’s memory. The one he lit within me has never gone out.