Search Results for: tracks

“TRACKS” — poems by Lynn McGee

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TRACKS: Poems by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, 2019)

The New York subway system has recently been rebuked for its disruptive service far more than its inured administrative personnel are used to, and I am glad that I don’t have to depend on it to get to and from campuses in the New York City area, as I did back in the Fall of 2005, when I was working at Nassau Community College in Garden City (on Long Island); St. John’s in Queens; and Rutgers in New Jersey. That was a tough semester, and I had little time for anything other than teaching and sending off several dozen applications for work elsewhere.

The subway system in NYC, as well as the rail system that serves the “larger metropolitan area,” is a form of public participatory theater in which the riders and the workers are usually acting with a “less is more” approach. Tamped down emotions, no matter how intensely felt, are revealed obliquely, as if for a movie camera in which the director has called for a long close-up of one’s face. An awareness of this context can heighten a reader’s appreciation of Langston’s Hughes’s depiction of social space on the subway in Montage of a Dream Deferred. Along with Hughes’s book-length poem, in fact, McGee’s Tracks is the one of the best books to read after revisiting Blake’s “London,” the poem that establishes the template for the modern poet in the ever-accelerating urban milieu.

Many great poets and fiction writers (from Hart Crane to James Baldwin) have made use of the subway to heighten the subjective tension of their poems and stories, but few creative writers have made it the crucial trope of an entire book. NYC-based poet Lynn McGee’s TRACKS undertakes the challenge of recording some of her chance encounters on the subway system; her skill in doing so could easily be under-appreciated. For the most part, the diction is pared down; the line-breaks stay focused on enabling the reader to absorb her “depth of field” approach. These are poems that remind me of Robert Bresson’s films, and there is little in the way of higher praise that I could offer.

One outcome of reading these poems is their implicit reminder of the vicissitudes of others as they ride beside us. “Tracks” are also what is made by animals, including us, as we move across the ground. McGee’s personal losses, including that of a sister who died from a brain aneurism, are not of course visible to any of the people she takes note of on her subway trips, and yet it is the very tension between that the visibility of others in this book, and the hidden theater of her own personal sorrow that gives these poems an imaginative trajectory: the “tracks” delineate a cartography of a city as both as both one’s most intimate companion and most unappeasable antagonist.

This book of poems will not make you want to move to New York City, in the way that Frank O’Hara’s, Ted Berrigan’s, or Eileen Myles’s poems might prove alluring. Instead, you will find yourself looking around at all the ways you move about in any given day, and no longer regard the ordinary as too familiar to record in precise and evocative language. We might think of ourselves as not needing a reminder about the imaginative resources available in our daily movements, but McGree’s Tracks demonstrates that we overlook that which deserves our close attention far more frequently than we believe.

McGee’s book is available through SMALL PRESS DISTRIBUTION (SPDbooks.org) or through her publisher, Broadstone Books.

“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

“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

“Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counter-Culture” (PM Press; Australia)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

“If it’s not popular, it’s not culture.”
— Motto of the Popular Culture Association

Five years ago, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published an article I had written about Los Angeles-based novelist and poet, Joseph Hansen, who was one of the co-founders of the half-century old Beyond Baroque Poetry Workshop. I had written the article as a response to a request from one of its editors, Zach Mann, who had first become familiar with Hansen’s writing in one of my graduate seminars. The article remains an essential complement to the commentary in my literary history, HOLDOUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press).

I am pleased to report that the article on Hansen will be reprinted in a volume to be published in December in Australia, “Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counter-Culture.” Here is the ordering information. One can purchase an e-Book version, too.

“Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture”
SKU: 9781629635248
Editors: Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 9781629635248
Published: 12/2019
Format: Paperback
Size: 8 x 10
Page count: 336
Subjects: History-Pop Culture/Literature-History and Criticism

https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1012

FROM THE PM PRESS ANNOUNCEMENT:
Sticking It to the Man tracks the ways in which the changing politics and culture of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were reflected in pulp and popular fiction in the United States, the UK, and Australia. Featuring more than three hundred full-color covers, the book includes in-depth author interviews, illustrated biographies, articles, and reviews from more than two dozen popular culture critics and scholars.”

“These are the novels that provided us with our guiltiest reading pleasures of the mid-to-late Twentieth Century. They are reviewed by the critics who understand them best, and who give us lively insights into the historical and social forces in play as they were being written.”
—Ann Bannon, author of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

“The Affinity School”: A conversation with poet Lynn McGee

9/1/19 (A palindrome of time)

Lynn McGee and I recently exchanged a set of questions about each other’s latest volumes of poetry, and the ensuring conversation has just been published.

Methods and Materials: The Sojourns of Affinities

As a “sneak preview,” I present our opening queries:

Lynn McGee: When I opened the padded envelope with The Headwaters of Nirvana: Reassembled Poems, I stood at the kitchen counter reading almost the entire book. I’m thinking now of the pivots and line breaks in “Vallejo,” the precise unfolding of images in “Eye Chart for an Orbiting Space Station.” Of course, I recognize many of the poems, like “Rules for Building a Labyrinth,” which you set into a letterpress pamphlet in the nineties. I also noticed some familiar poems aren’t in this new book, like the one about a roommate who leaves broken glass on the kitchen floor. I know your editors selected the poems for this collection. Did their choices surprise you? What are your thoughts on how to assemble a collection of poetry?

* * *
Lynn, I’d like to talk about the title of your new collection. While the cover art reinforces the image of public transportation, the word “tracks” also has the common association of physical footprints. In your poem, “Sign,” the opening image is of your perilous trudge through snow and ice, “feet deep in the prints of those who gone / before me.” On a literary level, one could think of any poet’s work as walking in a similar manner. Are there any particular poets who influenced this project?

* * *

I hope you find our answers to these and subsequent questions as tantalizing as I did upon re-reading this collaborative interview. I want to thank Lynn McGee for all her work on this project.

Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collections Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997). Her poems are forthcoming or appeared recently in The Tampa Review, Lavender Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Potomac Review, The American Poetry Review and Southern Poetry Review. McGee earned an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University, taught writing at private and public colleges and led poetry workshops in NYC public schools. A 2015 Nominee for the Best of the Net award, McGee received a Recognition Award from the NYC Literacy Center, and Heart of the Center Award from the NYC LGBT Center. Today she is a communications manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

Bill Mohr is the author of The Headwaters of Nirvana / Los Manantiales del Nirvana, a bilingual collection of poetry from What Books/Glass Table Collective, 2019. An internationally recognized poet whose work has been translated into Croatian, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, Mohr authored Hold Outs,The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011). He holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego and is a professor at California State University, Long Beach. Editor and publisher of Momentum Press, 1974-1988, his own poems, prose poems, and non-fiction essays have appeared in dozens of magazines, including Antioch Review; Blue Collar Review; Caliban On-Line; Miramar; Santa Monica Review; Sonora Review; Blue Mesa Review; Spot Lit; Skidrow Penthouse; and ZYZZYVA. His many anthology appearances and on-line reprints include POETRY DAILY; all three editions of Stand Up Poetry; as well as volumes such as Grand Passion; Wide Awake; and Coiled Serpent. His stand-alone volumes of poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982); Penetralia (1984); Bittersweet Kaleidscope (2006) and a bilingual volume published in Mexico, Pruebas Ocultas (Bonobos Editores, 2015). Mohr’s critical commentary, articles, and reviews have been published in Chicago Review; William Carlos Williams Review; Journal of Beat Studies; New Review of Literature; OR; IdeAs (Idees d’Amerique); and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His academic awards include a Visiting Scholar residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, as well as awards from the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Best Books of Poetry in 2018: Long List

Saturday, December 22, 2018

“If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving”

I have written in this blog about the Search Engine Generation and its relation to “The Information Age.” Lists have certainly proliferated as a form meant to shape how the “hunter-gatherers” of social media perceive their urban environment and strive to include their aspirations within ongoing legal disputes about identity, right, and obligations. (I owe the notion of the transmogrification of clusters of electronically embedded individuals into “hunter-gatherers” to Brooks Roddan, who wrote about it in his blog.) Books and lists of books are a minor part of that confluence, but no matter how minor a role books might be reduced to, they will persist; if books were to vanish — like some species whose evisceration left no wisp of a fossil record — I suspect that someone would “invent” them all over again. And I don’t mean something read on a digital screen, but words printed on paper, cut into pages, and bound in a way as to pose upright on a shelf. In part, this intervention derives from a public ambition: no matter how minor a skill literacy might seem, given its paltry rewards, those who band together to reinforce the poetics of literate consciousness can have an unexpected influence. As I have noted in papers I have presented at various academic conferences, Donald Allen’s anthology did more than serve as an ignition point for “post-modern” poetry. It also announced that a new front had been opened in the civil rights movement, in particular in regards to homosexuality and drug use.

One can see this impetus again in the prevalence of independent presses in the list of recommended books of poetry on the website, Entropy. Although long established publishers such as New Directions, Penguin, Milkweed, Graywolf, and Omnidawn make appearances on Entropy’s list, Entropy’s chorus is permeated by enterprises such as Timeless Infinite Light; University of Hell Press; and Entre Rios Books. Entropy’s list is compiled from suggestions by a large group of its reviewers, and I have serious doubts that every reviewer who contributed to the list has read all the books on the list. I myself only recognize a minority of the poets whose books are on Entropy’s list; on the other hand, the lists drawn up by gatekeeper reviewers such as Dan Chiasson, Elizabeth Lund, David Orr, Adam Morgan, and Michael Robbins have more familiar names, and
here is a list of books I concur with these readers as deserving our sustained attention:

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) EL

Ghost Of by Siana Khoi Nguyen (Omnidawn)

Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert by Mostafa Nissabouri, Edited by Guy Bennett, Translated by Guy Bennett, Pierre Joris, Addie Leak and Teresa Villa-Ignacio (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions)

Wade in the Water – Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Jyesoon (Tranlated by Don Mee Choi) (New Directions)

At Your Feet by Ana Cristina Cesar, edited by Katrina Dodson (translated by Brenda Hillman and Helen Hillman) (Parlor Press)

Feeld by jos Charles (Milkweed)

Lo Terciario / The Tertiary Raquel Salas Rivera (Timeless Infinite Light)

City of the Future by Sesshu Foster (Kaya Press)

New Poems of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdich (Graywolf)

Like by A. E. Stallings (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave)

Surge by Etel Adnan (Nightboat)

Be With by Forrest Gander (New Directions)

I do wonder, however, how an outstanding book of poetry such as Brendan Lorber’s If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving did not make a single one of these lists. I want to make it clear that in nominating Lorber’s book as the collection that most renewed my imagination this year that I have no personal connection with him whatsoever. I have never met him, or talked with him; in fact, I had never heard of him until I noticed his listing on SPD’s catalogue intrigued me enough to order it.

Lorber worked on the poems that appear If This Is Paradise,… for 20 years, and that patience no doubt accounts for book’s captivating sinuousness. What I can’t figure out is why others seem to have shunned this book. Of course, maybe other critics didn’t deliberately neglect it. I wish I could have public assurances from all of the above named critics that they inexplicably somehow missed this book, or that they actually read Lorber’s book and consciously rejected it as inferior to the books they nominated. One way or another, it would be good to know. I’m not convinced, however, that they did read it. It’s just a hunch, but books are just as subject to misfortune as any human life.

How else to explain the absence of books from these lists by poets who do fall within the domain of my acquaintances or friends? Surely the above critics read at least two of the following titles:

Wobble by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan)
Strata by Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn)
Another Way to Play: Poems 1960-2017 by Michael Lally (Seven Stories)
Sidebend World by Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh)
Shell Game by Jordan Davis (Edge Books)

In truth, I wouldn’t bet much money on it. I suspect that not a single critic, who contributed to or compiled the lists I have referred to, read more than one of the books I have just nominated. l hope you don’t let their preferences hinder your interest in encountering poets who deserve standing room only audiences. It was, in fact, a pleasure to see that Michael Lally received that kind of reception at Beyond Baroque recently.

In the faint hope that my blog might nudge someone who in turn would nudge someone, who in turn etc., I would like to nominate two books in advance as worthy of these critics’ consideration: Tracks by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, January 15, 2019); and Every Ravening Thing by Marsha de la O, which is scheduled to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in April, 2019.

I fear, though, that it is no more likely that they will read this pair of books than it is likely that they got around to reading the following books in 2017:

The Zoo at Night by Susan Gubernat
Enter Here by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang

Verbal assurances will not suffice. I understand that it’s impossible to publish a review on every worthy book, but casual claims will not suffice to verify familiarity with these books. An e-mail in which they wrote at least one friend and commented on at least a pair of these books would serve far better in establishing that West Coast poets are getting a fair hearing. Until then, the incredibly minimal presence of poets based in Southern California from the lists of prominent critics elsewhere leaves me seriously skeptical as to the comprehensive scope of their annual reading. I am grateful that Sesshu Foster is getting his much deserved recognition, but that is such a token gesture towards this region as to be laughable.

“The Ancients Did Not Think of Themselves as Ancient.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Several years ago I discovered the website EarthSky.org, which keeps me up to date on the latest explorations of Mars and other planets, as well as recent hunches about the origins of the universe. Today, I saw the following posting in which researchers are speculating about the astronomical purposes of cave art:

Prehistoric cave art suggests ancient use of complex astronomy

Reinterpretations of cave art have been part of the discourse of avant-garde poetry for several decades, primarily due to the extended labor of one of the most important poet-editor-translators of the past half-century, Clayton Eshleman, who has led the way in contemporary poetry in exploring the imaginative implications of cave art for contemporary civilizations.

You can read an interview with Clayton Eshleman, published in 2009, at:

http://www.bookslut.com/features/2009_01_013889.php

A short review of Juniper Fuse appeared in the New Yorker (March 14, 2004):

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/03/15/juniper-fuse-upper-paleolithic-imagination-and-the-construction-of-the-underworld

Finally, should you wish to have an aural equivalent of a quick palate-cleansing, here is a soundtrack you might enjoy. Perhaps “the ancients,” with ears less deafened by electronically magnified soundtracks, could hear a version of this as a Winter Solstice approached.

Listen as Saturn and its moon interact

“Lady Bird”: Winesburg, Ohio Palimpsest

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Note: For some inexplicable reason that I cannot fully account for (other than end of the semester exhaustion), an earlier version of this post entitled itself as “Lady Day” instead “Lady Bird.” Perhaps it reflected an aversion to the name chosen by the lead character. I have to confess that the entire time I was watching the film I kept asking myself why a young woman would choose a name that evokes a presidency mired in one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) stood by and watched her husband and his political cronies empower Pentagon bureaucrats to go forth and drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in Europe in World War II. Ironically, in terms of the film, when “Lady Bird” visits the grandmother of another character, she sees a poster of Ronald Reagan in the old woman’s home, and says, “You’re kidding?” I feel the same way about the protagonist’s name.

A.J. Urquidi, the fine young poet who wrote to point out my gaffe, responded to the above comment with the following observation: “I sensed a political dread underpinning quite a few scenes. Ultimately, the film’s protagonist wants to be called Lady Bird as she fetishizes objects and concepts that sound “cool” even though she doesn’t know their true meaning or history. Since she begins every interaction/moral lesson in a state of ignorance/complicity, maybe her abandonment of the “Lady Bird” moniker by the time she starts her new adult life symbolizes the fulfillment of emotional maturity needed to move beyond the connotations of First Lady Johnson’s bad name (much like the maturity reached by the protagonist of Winesburg).”

And now for the main event:

The Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach is a throwback to the days before the television industry and its successors caused the average cinema outlet to shrink to the size of the average vintage clothing store. I’m not sure how the place manages to stay open, other than its owners enjoy having an expensive hobby. Quite frequently, there are less than a half-dozen people at a screening, which makes it slightly awkward when something is laugh out loud funny and you end up hearing your amusement going for a roller coaster ride in hundreds of unmuffled cubic feet.

Lady Bird certainly has its funny moments, and enough poignancy to make it appeal to those who vote for the culture industry’s annual awards. No one, though, on the critical side seems to have noticed one of the most obvious debts the story owes: Sherwood Anderson’s one-hit wonder, Winesburg, Ohio. I teach the book as frequently as I can at CSU Long Beach, especially since it is no longer required reading in high school. The switch from a male protagonist in Winesburg to a female protagonist in Lady Bird is matched by a parallel switch in the parental figures: in Winesburg, the father is strong and the mother is weak. In Lady Bird, the mother upbraids the daughter relentlessly; the father is the one who wants his offspring to escape.

The desire to leave a “small” town is an old device for a bildungsroman. In fact, one wants to hand the heroine of Lady Bird a copy of Lucian’s autobiographical sketch, “My Dream,” in which he portrays himself as a youngster who regards the pragmatic approach of parental guidance as dead-end futility. Attuned to such a classic impulse as the desire to want more than others believe you are capable of, the lead actress does a fine job of oscillating between her revulsion at other’s self-imposed limits and a slightly incredulous naivete in terms of romance. It’s a layered role, since it involves more than a touch of the picaresque. As one critic observed, the picaro all too often succumbs to the temptation to lie, and “Lady Bird” as a young woman learns its consequences. Finally, I would note that one slight problem with the film is that the actress seems too old for her role, although her adamant commitment to her part overcomes that disparity.

It is harder for the setting to make up for its supposed deficiency. Sacramento, in 2002, hardly seems like “the sticks.” Granted, it undoubtedly has its class divisions. “Lady Bird,” as the heroine calls herself (in the manner that a very young girl bestows the name of “Tandy” on herself in Winesburg), chafes under the humiliations of coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.” But is coming from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento really as much a disadvantage as coming from a similar standing in Bakersfield or Hanford, California? Or Imperial Beach, in 1965?

I can empathize with “Lady Bird,” though she seemed not to be aware of how lucky she was to have a counselor at school to talk to about going to college. Maybe the counselor was condescending, but at least someone thought she was capable of going to college. No one said a word to me about applying to a college when I was in high school. When I got my high school diploma, my name was not on the list of graduates who had received a scholarship to go to college. I had not applied for one. No one at my high school thought that I merited such assistance. If I had to describe myself as someone in Lady Birdy, I was much closer to “Lady Bird”‘s overweight sidekick, who of course is not invited to the prom.

Instead of a community college, though, I ended up at a small Catholic college in Moraga, California. How I ended up going to St. Mary’s College for a year and a half is one of those inexplicable somersaults in a life for which fate and free will alone cannot account. In retrospect, both “Lady Bird” and I had a prophet at work in a writer whose masterpiece deserves far more attention than it gets these days.

“Our Country Seems So Far Away” by Harry E. Northup

Our Country Seems So Far Away

Our country washes itself with grief
Our country celebrates division
Our country brags about class
Our country continues war indefinitely
Our country refuses to cross the aisle
Our country right or wrong or left behind
Our country scolds minor rock throwers
Our country the church of middle ages
Our country chips away at Mount Rushmore
Our country jumps off Pikes Peak into the Royal Gorge
Our country does not cross the Continental Divide
Our country says John Milton who, Edmund Spenser who
Our country builds railroad tracks over its pastoral poets
Our country denies horizons, clean rivers
Our country never misses a chance to go abroad & destroy
Our country kills civilians abroad & at home
Our country washes its football jersey with blood of the flag
Our country crosses borders with drones
Our country celebrates a vision of cruelty
Our country cut a cross in the heart of death

9 29 17
Harry E. Northup

Magra Books: To Italy and Back

Chalkboard August Harmony
(Chalkboard near Fourth Street and Temple Avenue, Long Beach, CA)

August 27, 2017

Paul Vangelisti and John McBride were among the most productive editors and publishers of the golden age of small press publishing in the 1970s. The proliferation of MFA programs since 1980 has unfortunately all but erased recent literary history: how MFA program were barely worth mentioning to the majority of those committed to a life as a poet in the mid-1970s. The notion of a “career” as a poet back then was laughable. The production of books and magazines on an antinomian basis was quite serious, however; in fact, that’s all that mattered.

Vangelisti and McBride not only published dozens of books through their imprint, Red Hill Press, but also over two dozen issues of Invisible City, a magazine that deserves to have its entire print run issued in a single full-length volume. The magazine came out on newspaper-size sheets of paper, and although the paper stock is of very high quality, any scholar having to work with two or ore issues at the same time can find the process of notating comparisons a bit cumbersome. It’s a project that a university press (such as the University of California press) should undertake at some point, although it may unfortunately have to wait until the copyright to the poems expires. Fortunately, on the whole, the poems that appeared in Invisible City are exceptional examples of writing that will still hold up in another half-century.

As well as being a prolific and internationally recognized poet, Vangelisti is an inveterate publisher. At Otis College of Art and Design, he founded Seismicity Editions, as well as a pair of magazines, New Review of Literature and OR magazine. He will be retiring from Otis at the end of this coming academic year, but he has already launched another publishing project. Magra Books is a chapbook project, printed in Italy, that will come out on a steady basis as a quartet of chapbooks. In any given increment, all four will have the same color stocks for their covers. The first quartet had a pale blue; the second, a quietly luscious orange that teased the shadows cast by a nearby embankment of red clay.

The poets featured in each set will be familiar to readers of Invisible City and OR magazines. You can find out more information about this project at the website for Magra Books: http://magrabooks.com.

FIRST QUARTET (January, 2017)
Martha Ronk — The Unfamiliar Familiar
Ray Di Palma — For a Curved Surface
Dennis Phillips — Desert Sequence
Marcus Valerius Martialis — Epigrams (translated, with an afterthought, by Art Beck)

Of this quarter, I would especially recommend Beck’s translations of Martial’s epigrams. Beck’s “afterthought” is hardly as casual as the word usually connotes; as an epistolary poem, it uses the cumulative tone of the translated epigrams as a surfer uses an ocean swell, and the resulting glide initiates us as honorary members of his extended family.

Many poets associated with Los Angeles don’t actually write that much about living here, but Martha Ronk embeds herself in this city with quiet candor and rueful compassion for everyone who must endure the casuistries of daily life here. In examining “loss, its flannelly familiarity,” Ronk explores some of the same insinuating wrinkles that bunch up around the domesticated ordinariness of the partially suburban. Her poems in this collection remind me of Dick Barnes’s collaborations with Judy Fiskin. Indeed, “The Unfamiliar Familiar” contains a sequence of poems about photographs of houses, so there might be an influence. In any case, “Twilight Tracks House #3” is one of those rare poems where the rhythm and the images left me hungry to absorb the poem entirely, which is to say that I longed to memorize this elegaic aubade to the keen pitch of having its syllables roll around in my consciousness like sated lovers about to be aroused again. Ronk’s chapbook concludes with poems I remember seeing recently published: a set of homages to Raymond Chandler’s classic novels about Los Angeles.

The late Ray Di Palma’s writing consistently contributed to the dialogue in Los Angeles and on the West Coast from the early 1970s onwards through his appearance in Vangelisti’s sequence of magazines, starting with Invisible City. This chapbook is a fine example of a collage call-and-response between the epigrammatic titles and sardonic clarification.

Dennis Phillips has been writing long poems for a half-century. Of all the poets I’ve ever met in Los Angeles, he is the one who most benefits from having his poems heard with as much duration as possible. As if to urge us to do so, the poems in Desert Sequence are assigned to a quintet of voices, the first of which acknowledges in a prose poem that this chapbook is part of a larger project, Mappa Mundi.
“Here. Hold this open for a long minute because we both know it’s about to go away.
If this is a map then all maps are maps of the world and any sentence is a narrative, but:”
In Phillips’s absorption of the desert’s map in the conjunctions that follow, we are given important cautionary reminders about the cartography of the imagination.

SECOND QUARTET (July, 2017)
Gillian ConoleyPreparing One’s Consciousness for the Avatar
Robert Crosson — The Price of Lemons: Or; Some of the Worst Movies Ever Made
Corrado Costa — The Dodo or The School for Night
Paul Vangelisti and William Xerra — Toodle-oo

I have to confess that I’ve always had some hesitations about Conoley’s poems. While moments in her poems have usually caught my attention, some aspect of her associative logic would inevitably throw me off course. Perhaps, finally, I am beginning to acclimate myself to her distinctive cadences. Oddly enough, it isn’t the title poem of her chapbook that delivers this entryway, but rather “Life on Earth” and “The Right to Be Forgotten.” If I were putting together an anthology of outstanding recent poems, this pair would easily make my short list.

Robert Crosson’s memoir of his life as a young aspiring actor and modest success is one of the most charming and candidly droll accounts of being an artistic ephebe in the early 1950s. It’s the perfect counter-balance to read, after watching your favorite film noir.

Corrado Costa’s Th Dodoreminds me of Ionesco’s early plays, and in all the right ways.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Toodle-oo‘s meditative lyricism (or should I say “its lyrical meditation”) is that it refuses to make the least effort to seduce the reader. To no avail, for I could not help but succumb to the primary gravitational force of the poem: the candor of the immediate. In identifying that factor, it’s crucial not to confuse “the immediate” with “spontaneity” — that trompe l’oeil of mid-century avant-garde nostalgia for some Dionysian avatar. This poem follows much more subtle, actual scents, and as I read, I breathed deeply, slowly, releasing the agitation of my ordinary day.