Friday, August 31, 2007

stitches, sunspots

During this last quiet week in Sudbury Mass I went to a whopping two movies in the theater: "The Invasion" and "Sunshine." Sunshine is probably the easier to talk about, and was quite instructive in gaining a better handle on the pros and cons of a certain strand of wonderment sci-fi--think of 2001. I never had much use for 2001, particularly its clammy psychedelic vista of eternity as played by Lullabies from the Womb, but now I see what happens when you replace hermetic Kubrickisms with a ecstatic drenched quality typical of Danny Boyle: still the snag of Plot. Like Boyle's previous movies with Alex Garland a stately aura in the first few acts degenerates into Mansonland for the climax where the secret chthonic truth of heroism as a death cult wraps up the thesis. It's a tight but fairly conservative attitude as hippie peace leads to an open field leads to violence: Antonioni (Vive le!) deposed by Charles Manson.

Still, the violence here falls under the shakiest category of the movie, a gambit of "alone-in-the-universe-I-am-the-mad-king" seen previously in most sci-fi thrillers like Walter Hill's disavowed "Supernova" or "Event Horizon" to justify bloodlust for no good reason besides 'is that what people want?' Hollywood executivism. In other words, we have another chapter in the endless story of not trusting the image. And what stays with me, days later, from "Sunshine" is images and only images: Mercury seen from a near orbit, or the sun through filters as a giant, broiling orb. To see is to scorch: shades of Phoebus wanting to see the true image, or Icarus. And of the essentially suicidal nature of this mission to save the solar system, flying purposively into the sun. It has not been lost on many reviewers that there are shades of "Armageddon" here--plucky humans save the world through outer space know-how--but patriotism has been replaced with a kind of existentialist aestheticism. It is and it deserves to be because it is beautiful, which is what's best about art I suppose always.

Of course, then, the movie is also an allegory for movies, which is always interesting to see in movies: sitting in the dark hoping to see something gorgeously beautiful and dangerous. In any case it far transcends whatever broken idyll structure we might impose upon it.

The other movie I saw, interesting for entirely other self-conscious reasons, was "The Invasion," famously the subject of intensive re-shoots and re-imaginings that transformed an early cut perhaps based on claustrophobia and distrust into a schizophrenic movie that has no patience even for cause and effect (the editors in an attempt to shave blood from the stone of the film's running time, jumble up even something so simple as saying goodbye and getting into a car so that we have the whole rest of the movie seemingly happening at once). The strangely central image of the movie is of the muffler of a car, leaching condensation and exhaust.

It wasn't, in any case, possibly to describe this as a good movie per se, but it was fascinating watching something so utterly hybridized as a narrative, the stitches so obvious, and scars of editing so raw. I was almost made to think of it as an objectivist experiment in the undermining of story. A few critics snarked that the movie itself was the pod person sucked clear of personality, but it brought more to my mind images from John Carpenter's "They Live," where the magical sunglasses show you the truth behind ideology, the stories of capital as an alien with no skin.

And still there is personality here, even if it is a clash of middlebrow ideas--fascism begins at home versus technology as the saving grace from technology. The movie stayed with me a little like a cento or a found poem project reminiscent of Ronald Johnson's "Radi Os" which I was looking again at excerpts of when I found his out-of-print selected poems TO DO AS ADAM DID in Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge this week, an extremely happy find. It's interesting how Johnson's technique, whiting out his way through Milton, oscillates between trick and miracle, whispering the secret ecstatically and then being spoken past. You can hear through it but also hear it in and of itself. That is of course the brilliant double-ness of the title swept away from Paradise Lost: we have both a radius around which we are orbiting, radios tuning into the frequency of the transmission, and the radiant light-giving image somewhere close by of whatever sun is shedding light on this. So little saying so much.

Farrah claimed that our cat (living indoors with no experience of other cats and quite indifferent to the minks, deer, hedgehogs, chipmunks, dragonflies and goldfinches trotting past the windows here in the Sudbury woods) sees only us as giant leonine cats. I imagined a machine to generate the experience of voices interpretable by the technology of his little feline ears. Big lionish sounds, their cadence and melodies, murmuring and tintinnabulations. We can understand emotions behind language even with the words blotted sonically out. In "Sunshine" the possessed keep demanding less filters, turn up the sun.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Coming of age in the monoculture

After reading the mostly completed screenplay that I worked on in June, my sister recommended I see "Superbad" for its very strong parallels, allegorizing a bildungsroman story through the search for prohibited substances that turn out to reveal and destabilize assumptions as they offer entry into "adult" dangers and involvement. It is "universal" insofar as the story of adolescence is the story of going from the anxious outsider to the anxious insider. Like "Knocked Up", which has paved the way in terms of marketing and theme (both films derive from similar impulses in like-minded --ie the same-- people), the comedy is essentially mitigated because growing up means dealing with other people. Both stories move from a pornographic mindset into a social one and both feature male protagonists fondly/bitterly parting from mono-gendered viewpoints into more complicated, sexual one. As Joshua Clover pointed out very accurately in his recent blog about adulthood and Adam Sandler, the films equivocate between taking the new adult world as an improvement or a necessary evil towards perpetuating the Way Things Are. In other words, you were right to be afraid because now the only reason you aren't afraid anymore is because you've lost. Which is not exactly satisfying.

Here I am, for instance, back in Massachusetts and passing along quite quietly not in the city. I've been continuing to explore Stephanie Young's excellent anthology Bay Poetics which makes me lonesome in a different way for the West Coast, if not old Brooklyn where I'll be within the week, I think. The anthology has a certain grab bag quality (the poets are presented in a mysterious, neither alphabetical nor thematic order) that accentuates a feeling of embarrassment of riches, which feels fairly accurate to the history and centrality of the area poetically, given that what we're talking about is somewhere between academic principality and willy-nilly subculture. I guess what it comes down to is that the people really, really matter. There is an energy in Oakland/Berkeley/San Francisco, or in Brooklyn for that matter, that is weirdly thinner up here in the Boston area, save for a few counterexamples holding down the fort. Or maybe I'm just insatiable.

Maybe that's why today I'm so excited about Laynie Browne's Daily Sonnets, one of which, a poem presenting itself literally in the context of vibrant literary community of readers and readings, appears in the Bay Area collection. I picked up Browne's book on the same visit and love what feels like a celebration of the capacious in this thickish series of poems. Browne uses elastic, punctuationless lines that flit between a sense of performed or lived experience and a more formal, visitation style. Its stutters are satisfying and continuous. The last two lines of the poem from the Bay anthology, "Sonnet while Listening to Kit Robinson Read," are

There is a surface you prepare
And a surface everyone sees

which kind of cuts to the heart of this question of public/private/preparation, doesn't it? Welcome to the world as seen through everyone else's eyes, except not.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

clarity, confusion, shock

I am writing this from out in Marin County, California where up on this mountain one can go days without seeing anyone. I've been reading CHARMED CIRCLE, an account of the agglomeration of artists and arties surrounding Gertrude Stein in Paris before WWI: hijinks and gossip and a lot of how-the-who's-who-knew-who's-who. The effect of this treatment of capital-c Celebrity and celebrity creation (the author James Mellow has one theory of how Gertrude Stein cultivated fame by maintaining links with successive generations of young literati) on me here in the gloriously empty meadows on the coast of the Pacific Rim is rather strange. What do you do with people? Coming out here I feel vaguely haunted by the San Francisco Renaissancers--Spicer, Duncan, etc--and then the Berkeley/Oakland circles that followed. As if it might be possible merely be being here as I write and transcribe work to be a San Francisco or Bay Area poet ipso facto.

And now similarly by Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire et al floating diaphanously around the Stein residence in Paris circa 1909. What is lost amid the scholarship of who did what when in Mellow's rather impressively exhaustive account of Stein -- who it turns out did live in Oakland in her adolescence, thus in spirit and despite her proud Allegheny PA lineage, setting her among the Northern Californians -- is how the connections happen. Her brother Leo goes off to Europe in a vague spirit of becoming an art critic, or a historian, or an artist as is hobnobbing with Bernard Berenson and Bertrand Russell as if this is merely a matter of course. And then the salons seem merely to materialize. I hope this is not merely some kind of class mystification exercise, such as in Apted's 21 UP when the maligned noble preps protest that a film of them at seven predicting the rungs of their ascents to Oxbridge turn out to be mostly accurate fails to capture the sweat, toil and sheer uncertainty of climb. As lawyer Andrew in the documentaries says not entirely convincingly "it all could have gone wrong." But what is wrong and how would you know if it were happening? In retrospect there are perhaps foggy recollections but essentially a narrative and one that is thus in its linearity, easy. This happened, versus could. And so they went to the studio of Pablo Picasso, about which she remarked...

Right now I am surrounded by fog blowing in off the ocean that is impenetrable laterally but through which the sun beats down. Despite the cloud cover one can get a sunburn. Perhaps this has me meditating on the obscurities. But a little clarity to wrap up:

I learned about CHARMED CIRCLE first in an aside during a class at Columbia on the '50s martinis-and-madness circle of Lowell, Berryman etc. taught by Liam Rector. Liam was caustic and open-hearted, aphoristic in a slightly orotund but also endearing way. He insisted on the depth of shallowness, repeatedly attacking a culture unwilling to embrace "look-ism," taking joy of gossip and diaries and private photographs and such. A necessary corrective perhaps to too much serious seriousness. Not that Liam Rector wasn't serious, but he liked to play. I just learned from Ron Silliman's blog that Liam died yesterday, news that is shocking and sad. I remember Liam decrying the latest puritans and pondering the difficulty of locating the current indefensible intolerances that are not without but within. For him it was possible we were living in invisibly situations of inquity and bad relation that would only become obvious in retrospect, or through a bracing encounter with perspective. Liam was I think always in search of this breath of fresh air.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Me versus me

Last night, half inspired by somewhat recent reading from THE GRAND PIANO memoir, I started reading aloud bits of Zukofsky's A to Farrah. I haven't before spent much time on the poem overall and was drawn to section 22 (the source of a well-remembered group reading from the 1970s in the bay area) where the poem suddenly switches gears into quasi-Latin/Elizabethan drama, repelete with characters out of Plautus or somesuch--A dramatis personae leading the way. Farrah referred to the changeover as 'disconcerting,' a comment which I think unpacks a certain set of assumptions about poetry and the 'lyric' having to do with the voice being A voice or at least Assumed Voices, the line containing a certain set of materials existing in a certain plane vis a vis the rest. And by contrast this move - one might call it "experimental" though I suppose the experiment must have passed a while ago from the preliminary findings stage to peer review - seems to explode such readings and demand a constantly replenished reading, as if such useful things as genre had not yet come into existence. Still, what does it DO for the work to move like this? I think of the Circe chapter from Joyce's Ulysses for an analogue and I suppose the experience of reading a screenplay as novel (Farrah has shown me a YA novel doing just this) might cause similar parallax reactions, concretizing the language while at the same time destabilizing this character-colon effect. Just words? Just peoples?

I picked up a copy of Paul Killbrew's newish, pretty chapbook Inspector vs Evader at McNally Robinson a few days ago and was very struck by the similar principle of re-evaluation line by line, as Killebrew constructs the long poem out of interlocked but not necessarily contiguous voices in a series of end-stopped lines coinciding with but not necessarily equal to sentences. What is the difference between the line and sentence? Who is it now? I sometimes feel that tug when writing: you press the enter key and everything can be different now. Cliche: this is the first day of the rest of the sentence. And yet there's all this baggage. (I remember, after meeting Paul Killebrew at a reading last year I ran into him a few weeks later in the Jetblue terminal at JFK, though not specifically in the baggage claim...) His book is I think a bit about the question: what am I doing and what do I do now. Which is a good question to be asking yourself or having someone ask you. (But which is it? How would you tell?)

In the Simpsons movie which I just got home from seeing, there is a very funny scene when Homer slogs endlessly by himself through a wasteland, tireder by the step, monologing like a Beckett character: "I can't go on I must go on Shut up No you shut up I can't stand you" etc. My father, with whom I've been on exhausting bike and ski rides countless times, was practically hyperventilating with identification. And who was Homer talking to when Homer was talking to Homer? I imagine the screenplay, just as I read Paul Killebrew's also funny chapbook. Aloudness counts for something; printed pages are very, very flat.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Test of Test of

At Jacob Riis Beach on Rockaway Beach my reading was Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry, demanding in its attempt to sever assocations from the process of reading by (in its first and third sections) omitting author and date data while demanding the reader judge the work: in other words, discovering or setting criteria. And at the same time as it appears to suggest that while this criteria might seem personal, there is also strongly, in the second part of the book where Zukofsky offers glosses and attributions, a right answer and a wrong one. To be lured by music to the elimination of sense is a bridge too far, and to be prosy and unimaginative equally wrongheaded. And so one founders on the shores of objectivity, though I found surprisingly that when I was struggling it turns out, qua Zukofsky, it is for a reason. It is not the poetry that is to test me, but, for Zukofsky, that I am to test the poetry. The outcome is moral, and to be shared.

Riis Park is like so much of New York the vision of Robert Moses hewn out of the private city and a robber's consensus. To celebrate it is to celebrate the vision of populist accessibility (the largest parking lot in the world at its time) but also the tyranny of vision. It is a matter of confidence (it must be done) but also conspiracy (we do it for them, il duce, etc). Which is, ironically, precisely what Zukofsky sets out to avoid in his criteria, which thematizes greed and power in its rendering of good poetry while setting a silent thumb on the scales. (Rachel Blau DuPlessis is very insightful on this in her essay on Zukofsky at Jacket.

On the beach I read for a while and then went out in the waves, which I could only body surf so far without getting sand in my ears. ("There is no Atlantic Ocean")