Archive for July, 2012
The State with the History of Extermination, Disenfranchisement, Suffering and Fraud
Florida is an American state where Disney World is. It was claimed in 1513 by Ponce DeLeon as he searched for the fountain of eternal youth—he named it Florida for its floweryness. It took three wars and a few hundred years to finally exterminate the Seminole Indians from this land ( exterminate from the Latin, ex-terminus, push over the border) so that, in the 20th century, it could become a haven of real-estate fraud and delinquency, boasting of the greatest percentage of foreclosures in the US in 2008. Its Republican governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 despite the fact that the company of which he was CEO was convicted of 14 felony counts of Medicaid fraud and made to pay the government $600 million dollars in fines. By some estimates, Rick Scott has attempted to purge nearly 200,000 suspected “non-citizens” from his state’s voter rolls; 80 percent of those forced to prove their eligibility are Black or Hispanic.
AND The Prettiest Name…
Florida is also, according to Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force. The poem begins:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water, (continue reading…)
I’ve got a million things to do but I can’t keep from reading Kim Gek Lin’s wonderful novel-in-prose-poetry China Cowboy.
Unfortunately, one of her family’s victims is an American ex-con/soybean farmer/child abductor who sticks around Hong Kong following the assault, and one day La La never comes home from school. Maybe Ren, a.k.a. Bill, a.k.a. William O’Rennessey, is really the devil incarnate, or maybe he’s just one of the devil’s many agents on a confused, globalized earth circa 1989. He is certainly an updated (and actually American) Humbert Humbert whose version of the coveted nymphet is called a “la la” (with a lower-case L). China Cowboy’s heroine is just one of many la las in the world, an unlucky abductee who’s bribable by sugary cereal, plastic microphones and flouncy skirts. And Ren is a man who will do anything the voices tell him—assuming aliases, squirreling away la las in remote corners of the country, wrestling with his own delusions of grandeur and multiple personalities. In China Cowboy, “Hell is red carpeted stairs lined with plastic runners smell of wicked shit”—a particularly cheap and Americanized evil. Ren “goes all the way inside,” and La La never comes out—smuggled through the port of San Francisco, sequestered in a shoddy Missouri cabin, serially raped and, finally, poisoned.
A while back Lucas and I quoted an interview with C.Dale Young; Young wrote to me and argued that we had not interpreted the quote in the context; so I thought it would only be fair to provide a link to the full interview. Here it is.
This is the quote we quoted:
I return to that quote often because I don’t know exactly what beauty is, and I firmly believe one cannot know it without the juxtaposition of the ordinary. Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. (continue reading…)
These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope. - Proust, from Swann’s Way
Last summer, I watched Andy Warhol’s Dracula (aka Blood for Dracula) for the first time in about a decade. The previous time I’d seen it with Johannes back when we were room-mates in a mouse-infested house in Iowa City. And the time previous to that, I was a high school student in Memphis, living in a crack-infested neighborhood where gun fights and police helicopters were a common occurrence. And my reaction to the film every time I’ve seen it has been fairly consistent, despite watching it under incredibly different circumstances. I think it’s brilliant. One of the best horror films ever. And one of the best films from the 70s.
And yet I also always have a second reaction: by the standard of most films, I know Andy Warhol’s Dracula is not very good. The acting is stiff (with the exception of the great Udo Kier, and the cameos by Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski). The film is boldly careless with historical consistency: for example, though the film is set in Italy in the early part of the 20th century, one of the characters (Joe Dallesandro) has a contemporary New York accent. The characters are not complicated even by grade B horror films standards. They have as little back-story as figures in a landscape painting.
So Melancholia for me is a fable about truth-telling at the end of civilization, or at least a certain type of civilization, and a meditation on the inevitability of chaos. Trotsky said that the first characteristic of a really revolutionary party is to be able to look reality in the face. And it seems so simple to say capitalism and patriarchy are destructive to us, let’s begin building something else, but neoliberalism won’t allow that discussion. And rather than an escapist apocalyptic fantasy in which technology may save us from The Ending, or in which the actions of the hero allow the human ego to survive, Von Trier gives us a truth. Frued’s idea of melancholia as a pathological response or a generalized form of mourning is accepted here as a basic part of the human condition, one that we repress. But I think the film is against repression and it’s certainly about letting go of harmful illusions. Though it’s not completely cynical. Yes, each of us will end. But the last act that Dunst’s character engages in is to make a piece of art and embody it, to make of her life a shamanic performance. And to make art of her life in the face of her impending disappearance – not art for the ages, the ego, to outlast our bodies, but art to deepen our most truthful experience of now – that’s the project. Maybe it’s cynical that Dunst’s character is in her element in the apocalypse – the closer the destruction comes, the less (continue reading…)
Archaisms, imports, and neologisms also help renovate and overhaul the language (with significant implications for how to translate or re-translate the text into English). Words like “stalagstomite,” “quillering,” “uneons,” “vibribrates,” and “strame” induce feelings of ever so slight disorientation, foreignness, and defamiliarization. They remind the reader that words from every register will be deployed, and still new words will need to be invented in order to adequately render certain experiences that, like birth and breastfeeding and motherhood, seem to defy typical modes of representation and defy the possibility of organizing certain kinds of consciousness in language at all.
“I think of Byzantium, not as a historical location but as an imagined one, a sublime decaying one, a supersaturated one in which gold and garbage fumes pours out of every orifice, a stinking glamorous temporary eternal.” – Joyelle McSweeney
“At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of the cadaver is also the strangeness of the image.” – Maurice Blanchot
Did I write about Lana Del Ray yet? I don’t think so, but I’ve thought about it plenty this summer because I’ve been listening to her record constantly (and when I’m not listening to it, I’ve been listening to my young daughters’ rendition of it, nothing like a 5 and a 2 year old shouting “I’ve got summertime sadness” over and over): Death, Art, Beauty and Decadence.
Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated by Katherine Silver). New Directions. Castellanos Moya is great at the convoluted sentence. Many critics have talked recently about the long sentence: how, by undercutting scene (dialogue stated in quotation marks, descriptions of gestures, clear physical settings), the long sentence often closely braids together mind and world, consciousness and materiality, and in some hands resembles un-punctuated stream of conscious writing. David Foster Wallace, Bolaño, Vollmann, Bernhard, and others are well-known for their ability to carry out the tight-rope walk of the unending and usually highly qualified sentence. (Of course, there’s a long history of this. Proust and Faulkner also could keep a sentence running for pages.) One of the things I like about the cascading sentences of Senselessness is the writer’s ability to attune those sentences to his main character’s growing sense of paranoia. Here, the long, feverish sentences are expressive of an obsessive, feverish mind.
The plot is incredibly simple. A writer in Latin America is hired by the Catholic Church to edit a manuscript detailing the horrors carried out by the military against a number of Indian villages. He grows increasingly suspicious of everyone, and becomes more and more convinced the military has him in their sights. By the end of the novel, he is on the verge of a breakdown, a break down foreshadowed by the very first words of the book, which are “I am not complete in mind,” though the words are from a villager and not the writer. And yet, despite the somber material, the novel is mostly a comedy. A hellish comedy in the darkest of colors, but still a comedy. The main character is not a liberal humanist, as might well be expected, but a petty, ragingly sarcastic individual who continually ends up in predicaments that seem like X-rated scenes from a Chaplin film. He’s not wholly unsympathetic (part of his mental strain comes from his job, which requires him to spend huge amounts of time reading about atrocities) and yet his suffering through the narrative never elevates him to a heroic status, nor does it cast him into that all-American (that is, North American) role of the victim. The writer is an enraged neurotic to the end.
Many years ago, I heard Salman Rushdie say at a reading that he often tries to write material that seems tragic as comedy, and vice versa. Senselessness is a great example of that against-the-grain approach.
Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada, edited by Bill Friend. Shearsman Books. It’s tempting to read this book as a novel (or maybe a “nonfiction novel”). For a collection of literary essays, the book is teeming with anger, hurt feelings, stark admiration, confusion, and dread (dread of the inauthentic, that is). One of my favorite essays is by Forrest Gander. In his “Review of Doubled Flowering; From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,” he actually carries out a close reading of one of the poems, and then asks the simple question (though one lost in the more abstract debates in this book): Is this poem good? His own answer is yes. (Ron Silliman also famously admired Araki Yasusada before the hoax came to light.) And Marjorie Perloff has an excellent essay arguing that the Yasusada manuscript is a kind of new Ossian, and that just as the Ossian hoax led some readers to look at the medieval with a de-familiarized eye, so the Yasusada manuscript might lead some readers back to post-WWII Japanese poetry with an eye less captivated by shopworn notions of authenticity.
But my two favorite essays are by Jenny Boully and Dan Hoy, both who use the Yasusada controversy as a diving board for their own thought-experiments. Boully in her essay prints the “levels of reality” in the Yasusada manuscript only to find the whole thing “lost in the ‘layered clouds’ of authorship/creation.” And Hoy ends his essay by asking the provocative questions: “Can we exist without making dreamworlds of our suffering? Is our horror our gift to each other?”
Helsinki, by Peters Richards. Action Books. This is book is like a piece of dark chocolate candy with some hard-to-pin filling inside. The collection has an Ashbery-like whimsy at moments (“There is a place in Helsinki called Timocharis / with baleful hills and baleful ditches”), and there is also something of Joseph Cornell’s miniature universe-building (“I came upon this handsome older man / his head was crawling with loam and minotaur lice”), but Richards takes his influences and runs with them into expansive, glittering new territories. The poems are entirely un-punctuated, and yet they are not stream-of-conscious: the diction is, more often than not, a bit elevated (“Sometimes I do wonder is Julia a rethought / sensual being feigning nature eclipsing smell”). But I found that mixture — the slightly formal diction and the lack of commas, periods — oddly exhilarating, as if an Elizabethan poet had decided to write out a series of visions before forgetting them. And in fact Robert Herrick appears (as a young girl), as does Julia, of the Julia poems.
The poems are filled with things approaching and vanishing, and the poet wanders from one landscape to the next. In other words, with perpetual movement. In one poem we are told “a slug is coming towards me / dragging its rail of glister and shine,” and in the very next one the poet states “the star wasn’t guiding me at all / it was leaving / me I was being left behind.” Or: “When I came to it was a place impossible to distinguish from the place in my sleep.” And: “By the time we reached the stable it was that time / of year when the sun wobbles free of its namesake.” Where is the poet going? What is he searching for? Or is he trying to escape? And yet, on another level, these questions don’t have any real meaning for this book, no more than they do for Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came or Blood Meridian. Helsinki is a brilliant book of mutations, with foreground and background, landscape and figure, constantly maneuvering, slipping into and out of one another.
For weeks now I’ve been meaning to write about Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., which was recently re-issued by New Directions in a new translation. But the Internet, global warming, and my post-MFA job are seriously wearing me out this summer. I’ve felt as gooey as the white insides of the cockroach that stains Lispector’s book. And yet, my summer reading has helped stave off cosmic depletion. Right after finishing The Passion According to G.H. in Portuguese, I read Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal. Both books have startled me, at least in momentary fits, out of slothlike malaise. What I’ve found invigorating about the power duo of Lispector and Genet is how each writer presents monstrosity as an ethical drive in itself–as a way of becoming and transmutating not out of whim, choice, or design but a need to flourish, gleam, and romantically subsist.
And here’s another review link. Seth Abramson writes very insightfully and explosively about Joyelle’s Percussion Grenade.
Percussion Grenade, Joyelle McSweeney (Action Books, 2012). From its opening importuning–”The pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud–a-LOUD!”–the reader of Percussion Grenade is prepared for some kind of single-stage explosive anything. What arrives, instead, is a rocket-propelled everything. This is a big book: materially, conceptually, thematically (if we find theme in concept), and in all its fully-realized, near-fully-realized, and half-abortive ambitions (if we find ambition in rubbed-raw courage). What begins in a gesture toward the permissive forms of received tradition (McSweeney begins with a query: “Is it ok…”) soon becomes a neo-Whitmanesque self-admonition (“I loaf and invite myself to lock and load”). And it’s this latter prescription that Percussion Grenade spectacularly fills; McSweeney’s often breathless, always ecstatic war-cries (up to barbaric yawps) veer wildly toward the edge of sanity and then Thelma-&-Louise it past that edge into a combustive abyssal vacuum. Which is, finally, where Percussion Grenade lives: within a fiery con-fusion of unsafe, unpretty soul-grindings that at once occupy the liminal spaces before, within, and after an explosive crash. One would call this fearless poetry if doing so would not wrongly insinuate that these poems in any sense acknowledge fear. This may be the first poetry collection this critic has encountered that beggars description; it is to be experienced, to be heard, to be felt hot on the cheek–not spoken of quietly in the indoor spaces of polite company and (self-)serious literary criticism. Highly recommended. [Excerpt: eight pages from Percussion Grenade (click "read it now" at link)].
Abramson also makes some interesting arguments about where we’re at in American poetry. For example: