Friday, May 18, 2007

The Cry at Zero
Andrew Joron, Counterpath Press, 2007

Every once in a while a book comes along that is a threshold or a milestone. Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael was one (& continues to be) whenever one gets to it. (I first read it in the 70s probably 30 years after it was first published in 1947.) Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson was, in some ways, that for me when it came out in 1985. I was fascinated by it as much for its form and engagement with Dickinson as for its actual content. My Emily Dickinson is more poetics than it scholarship. The book is (almost) poetry in essay form. It is this category of discursive writing by a poet that I am coming to here. There are certainly many other examples (Nadja, In the American Grain, etc.) and I would be interested in others’ sense of what these books are for them. Right now, however, I want to say that I have found a new one of these important, enabling, intriguing and dazzling books in Andrew Joron’s The Cry At Zero.

In this collection of essays, prose pieces and poems (the title calls them selected prose), Joron presents his sense of the poetics of our time -- or at least one very persuasive version. Andrew (who I am happy to say is a member of this blog) is earnest and mystical and yet specific and even scientific in his discussion of the writing of various poets, of current events and of writing itself. As with the above examples of Olson and Howe (and necessarily in this category) he does what he writes about doing. He becomes what he beholds -- displaying a virtuosic array of chops as impressive as the often very impressive writing he discusses.

“What good is poetry at a time like this?” he begins in his essay “The Emergency” in which he thinks though writers’ claims to politics in the post 9/11 world. Another piece, “Language as Ghost Condensate,” begins “Does the way a poem is made have any relation to the way the world makes itself?” As you can guess, it does, and Andrew’s knowledgeable sense of complexity theory and emergence and how it relates to the action of writing (both as you write it and as it writes you (if I might paraphrase outrageously)) is intriguing and for me completely persuasive. In fact, I have long held something like this view, but dared not breathe a work of it to any but close friends for fear of being thought one of those chaos theory nuts -- but this is not like that. You might or might not go for it, but Andrew is wonderfully articulate in the way he presents his thinking about the emergence of language, and of poetry. You might not think you are “nerving the entangled ontologies of body and sky” with your work. But then you have to ask yourself -- what you are doing?

Clark Coolidge, Will Alexander, Nate Mackey and Mary Margaret Sloan are among the contemporaries discussed. Robert Duncan appears. Bataille, Breton and other surrealists are there, along with George Sterling (inveterate early San Francisco Tonalist) and, in fact, Charles Olson, among many others. Philip Lamantia and Barbara Guest are invoked as “my elders of mystery & imagination.” There is a lack of sarcasm and cynicism here that might make some readers uncomfortable, but this is made up for by Joron’s logical, deadpan approach, along with his mellifluous diction. Again, you may not agree that “Language allows the animal to literally jump out of its skin – and to land inside a new and starkly paradoxical body” but you have to admit it’s a cool idea.

Joron goes on, in the final eponymous essay, to assert a zero sum poetics that is a very compelling version of not only his own practice (and that of his close cohorts) but an interesting comment on the practice of anyone who engages in some form of (experimental, vexed but, yes) lyric poetry. It is a category of writing that has often appeared on this blog with a great sense of questioning. Is what Andrew describes what many of us are doing? I want to say yes, unequivocally, but my A Tonalist doubt undermines my inclination completely to acquiesce.

My slight resistance (or is it more like a frisson?) brings me to the question of whether A Tonalist is the same as Surrealism. This is a topic for another time perhaps (and surely many in these pages are not surreal) but I did find myself asking that very question when I recently read the new issue of Ur Vox. There is a commonality -- though the doubt and sense of ambiguity that are key to A Tonalist might make the celebration of the marvelous that is so important to surrealism difficult -- but I digress.

Suffice it to say that The Cry at Zero, beautifully put out by the new Counterpath Press, is an essential text by a great writer at the height of his powers.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Topia: Toward a Meditative Atonal Manifesto

A Report from The Center For The Study Of Uncertainty And The Marvelous

The greenwood and the dry pleasantly
talking woodyard there stood colder getting
that we stood in the work and air,
November above the valleys, hemlock
out of the thicket buzzing the fur
pulling the saw
through what was to become agriculture, music—

Morning backtracks my daughter
walks herself to sleep a thicket of commodious dreams
Friday or Burlingame if the weather cools
the word and its appendages
will blot the world and its sounds
the play of the familiar
reaches a stern top in the blue sky
stop Friday buzzing eyes
crossed out stop delicate cowboys like me
if it’s not too hot or even in a steely mood
stop but don’t still the hips
or as if embalmed in the punctured invisible
stop abstract remembrance, abstract moon-sheath stop
the fullness a bruise abandoned and back again
to what occurrence goes there to finally stop—

There it is said eloquence charms intensity
on a blue hip or an orange bruise
wherever it is clear
is not thoughtfulness—
it is a rue of heaped photographs, flooded sight
or the mindless harmony of days promised off

So out with all the “rent is due”
the has-always-gone-ons
moths, for example, where months would do
or how the map would become the territory only
if the territory went native and atonal
for years doing nothing but the mouth open
not moving, feeding off the pattern’s fear
fractures the light as a gesture
times time-as-motion tonight moisture
the moon full of bright address
all this runs beneath the where the
at home in the nostrils our only windows
lit to bed adapting the burning abrupt
as if in the last scene just trying to stand
brightness and you still have no evidence.

Empiricism is brief as the building around us
provided inspired data, that high lonesome shimmer
off the snow pack lower now than in the last ten years
higher than all the towers you’d prefer described
presence blanches lassitude
write about how you didn’t swim
when you knew how to
or how amid a total lack of depth
you rode the tides mountain high
where you stood and knew the distinctions
and approaching anyway the shadows
people became accustomed to sunsets,
lather, narrative no matter how,
no matter how long the terrain has been in these parts
a chthonic lather skewing the curve
the evocative at once abundance and the grave
breeding mosquitoes on numb arms
resting amid the hammering
and the matching
amid the weight of the charts
nothing happening for half an hour
then a monumental pause sluices the deafness
scattered across the snow
waist, neck, ankle the only questions
against how deep confusion, preposition, conjunction
or how evidence could ever stand on its own,

“But how long has this been going on?
How long has the other done your breathing for you?”

As if around the surrounding instability movement
opposed phatic space
or how all at once silence is total momentum
graphically deep sonically hollow
inside a little rough, unproven
it repeals the transparencies
cluttered sunsets, empty stomachs
competition obviates complexity
but complexity is decision under exuberance
just as tone is place never location
the colloquial use of poetic
especially loss and its redundancies—
for example mid-afternoon hopped up on
the never-now and the always-almost
so that the almost-always has to be atonal
a deft bard lifts almost everything
but here among the atonalist gloaming
competing transferals, temporarily space
there was never morning nor mooring
no daughter walking herself to sleep
just the hardwired drift gently homeward
between the rifts and flaws in the smudged directions

Nota bene:

The Center for the Study of Uncertainty and the Marvelous is an offshore, anti-Malthusian institution located in the Bermuda triangle. It is dedicated to championing judgments and decision-making under conditions of overlooked abundance. The Center contends that on any given day, what is unknown is both more plentiful and more momentous than the known, especially scholarship and fame. Under the motto “Context is the witness” it mobilizes on behalf the spontaneous reassertion of history, especially that subset commonly referred to as “the imagination.”

Standard Schaefer is chief anti-archivist, promoting the import of the unread over the read and the neglected virtues of boredom. Most days he can be found in the basement among the stacks and shelves. Just follow the string of black swans trailing behind him.

He submitted this document for atonalist status with the proviso that it be immediately suppressed, thus enhancing whatever significance it cannot currently suggest.