Friday, August 14, 2009

What color is the Schwitters (more, also and again)

This week I've been reading a wonderful new collection of "Merz Fairy Tales" by Kurt Schwitters. I found the book last weekend on the Recommendations shelf at Unnameable Books, which just relocated inside Brooklyn from Park Slope to Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights. (It's just down the street from the bar where I went to drown my sorrows after I left a notebook in a cab outside the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The best features of the new bookstore location are totally phenomenological, affecting the body and how it moves. For instance, in the small anthro-soc section in a corridor near the back, the shelf walls are so close together you have to walk backwards out of the alcove just to turn around. Then, in the backyard, the ground is lined with chunky gravel over some sort of acrylic drainage fabric that together produces this wonderful quicksandy crunch when you walk across, making rough sunken pits instead of foorprints.)

The Schwitters tales are pretty fantastic; I'm always a sucker for a sidewise-tragic renovated fairy tale, as in Henry Miller's "Smile at the Foot of the Ladder" or Pierre Louys or for that matter Jacques Demy's "Donkey Skin" and I am all the more excited now to discover that the Schwitters will be the first in a whole series of modern tales, from writers such as Apollinaire, Italo Svevo and Anatole France.

The Schwitters tales are wonderful in their inversion of fable logic, offering instead of morals a sense of the deep arbitrariness by which greed is sometimes rewarded, kindness and hostility both arrive often without pattern or context, and the worst way to make something happen is to try to, or worse, to try to try to. The tale that left the strongest impression on me is actually the first story in the book, in which a solitary swineherd, "serene and also content, but not happy" meets a writer who, to better offer the swineherd a chance at happiness, writes the peasant flesh and blood into his "masterwork" in order to cure his loneliness with the company of fictional characters. A sly remodeling of the wish-granting god or genii, the storyteller offers his own imagination as a basis for wish-granting yet, in pursuit of desire fulfilled the peasant only loses his serenity and contentment, romancing imaginary peasant maidens and contriving a secret identity as a son of an imaginary king. Then, worse, the swineherder bumps up against the limits of the writer's conventional imagination; even in the world of make believe, swineherd princelings should not dare to dream to marry mere peasants, lest they upset the very order of things. Ultimately the swineherd returns chastened to an imaginary reality where happiness is not so important, is only a sort of elusive construct, an absence that exists in the mind of a blithe twittering urbane bourgeois "illustrious writer", scribbling away at the masterwork that is capital, is hierarchy, a pack of diamonds symbolized greater than and less than (<>), a null set fairy tale, a tower of Babel.

In my writing I spend a fairly inordinate amount of time thinking along these lines about happiness and its varieties and its costs, personal and social. Perhaps happiness is not thinking about the future but if that is the case then the series of moments it allows string together only ex post facto meanings. Marjorie Perloff brilliants parses the broken mirror trail of hap-happening-happenstance-haphazard here as a way into Lyn Hejinian's great poem "Happily"; another Marjorie, Marjorie Welish, advising me about poetry a few years ago, told me to focus on events and how they happen. Read the times, she said a few weeks later. As in, I thought, How Happenings Happen, and For Real.

I was thinking about all this, funnily enough, as I watched the new Harry Potter film last week, the latest in this slow-motion maxillofacial maturation series in which, entering early adulthood, some of the child actors' mouths billow sidewise into rakish comedian snaggles while others upturn like jaunty hats, or stretch like nervous rubber bands, taut and slithery. (I've just shaven a three month beard back to choppish sideburns in the last few weeks so I am experiencing my own rediscovery of the over exposed upper lip. Mine is always more marginal than I ever remember though nonetheless very distracting!)

Weirdly, given that I have no serious stake in the Harry Potter, this is the second post on my blog I am offering on the subject of a Harry Potter film. To be honest, each time I've seen one of these movies I mostly ignore the storyline and revel in the guiltily idealized boarding school ambience. The quality that I like best in the Potter films (and which this latest one evokes most of them all because the heart of the film is crushing adolescent angst instead of hero's quest and magical portent and general ology-ology) is of a precious momentousness of Happening that is both extremely slow and totally ephemeral. This is exactly the feeling of existing inside a big, almost but not quite benign institution: there are always very important things happening all over the place all the time but, no matter how many of these important moments you observe or take part in, there are other maybe more important moments that you are constantly failing to attend. You are following one schedule but you so easily could be following another -- and look, right on this calendar, here it is, here is what you missed, here is why there will be such terrible and wonderful consequences.

This was the also the quality I felt watching the naiads-meet-quantum geometry choreography of the Merce Cunningham company that I saw perform last week in Battery Park City, only days after his death. (Just this moment, finding this picture in the Times review of the performance, I discovered that a schoolmate of mine in high school -- which was not so much like Hogwarts, really -- is now apparently part of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.)

Cunningham's aleatory zen games of dice-rolling ensure that what you see is always a partial performance out of all possible performance permutations, and even in that partial performance one only witnesses a fraction of what is possible. I remember when I saw a performance a few years ago in which he'd collaborated with Radiohead and Sigur Rós at BAM; because of the dice throws determining the order of dances and musical tracks you could never witness the whole or "official" piece, only what happened to occur when a certain part of the music coincided with a certain element of the dancing. Taking this even farther to brilliant effect in the outdoor park setting last week, the dancers flitted between two makeshift stages to perform in which no matter where one stood, one could never see more than one of the two stages; one could enjoy the maths of dancers performing alone and in groups on oe stage but never forget that, just beyond one's peripheral vision, another stage was featuring an altogether different choreography at any given moment, a profusion of beautiful activity and forms.

You might choose one and then other at any given moment but always the choreography would include you, turning your head from side to side, not seeing it all, only a part. My friend Steven had told me earlier in the day, that this literally would be the last ever performance of the Merce Cunningham group since Cunningham had decreed that the group vanish with him. Judging from their nonchalant post-performance exit, I understood that the company would continue performing at least through a final months-long world tour. If I'd known I'm not sure I would have made the effort to hustle us downtown from Farrah's poetry reading earlier in the evening. I'm so glad I saw it though, and its non-continuance continuance seems even more appropriate: one last statement about lastness and the impossibility of one more, followed by one more.

I'm always a little baffled by the ritual of encores that always provide the coda to concerts; the audience knows on some level that, since the lights have not come up to reveal the ugliness of a utilitarian space that has been used utilitarianly, the concert is not over; the performer leaves the stage knowing they will come back; the encore is usually programmed in advance; the audience roars upon the performer's return knowing of course that this would happen and happen almost certainly regardless of their roaring; nevertheless the audience is thrilled that they have participated in making it happen; this thing that dooms the show to be almost over, though it is not over already. When the lights come on without an encore, though, despite it feels often to me in spite of this awareness s if something cheap has been foisted over, I have not been satisfied and who knows if I ever would have been satisfied but I am even less satisfied than I would have been in my otherwise state of dissatisfaction, without the encore, without more. Tomorrow night Farrah and I are going to see Alela Diane, one of her favorite, perform at a bar in Park Slope. Wonder if there will be encores.

Encore: In high school French I had trouble far too long with the word "encore" which for some reason lodged in my head in some mid-ground between 'more,' 'again,' and 'also.'

Encore: I was thinking during the Merce Cunningham show about what if one tried to live one's decision in life according to the Cage-Cunningham aleatory techniques, a roll of the et cetera dice. Then I realized, that's already how it is.

Encore encore: walking back home from the Merce Cunningham performance across the Brooklyn Bridge, I asked Farrah what she thought of the name "Merce." We play this game a lot, plumbing the Baby Name Wizard and thinking of unlikely names. (From our family trees, we often ponder our grandfathers, "Otis" and "Harmon." Harmon, mine, went by a nickname: Berl. Farrah mashes them up: "Otis Berl." "OB." "Obie.") I pondered the possibilities in Cunningham's case - Mercy? eMerson? - but Merce is apparently short for Mercier. I like the mixture of the tender-hearted and the magniloquent-transcendental in the pairing of mercy and Emersonian though. Merce also seems an American variant of Kurt Schwitters' school-of-one movement trademark, Merz. The Fairy Tales book I bought insists on the cover that these are "Merz Fairy Tales" (merz is highlighted in orange amid the other black font words); the introduction describes Merz as a sort of lower-register dada replacement after Schwitters' application rejection from Official Dada (snicker, shudder) on account of insufficient polemical sneering and an excess of jackets and ties. It appears Schwitters dreamed up the term Merz as a sonic glyph signifying this new logic, his call to reject perfectionism in favor of the attainable. Merz was a badge of alienated charm: "a smile at the grave and seriousness on cheerful occasions." Merz is also a parody of capital and art markets and merz-ish merchandising. According to the introduction, the inspiration for the word "merz" comes from the official Kommerzbank in Weimar Germany, the merz extracted so that it echoes with a smidgen of the German word 'ausmerzen,' to demolish, to annihilate. If Schwitters is for creative destruction, though, it is a soft apocalypse that pokes gently into the ribs, an apocalypse only of a wrong way of frowning. In the very engrossing introduction to the Merz Fairy Tales, the series editor Jack Zipes quotes at length a famous Schwitters poem from 1919 that I hadn't read before. I am awfully moved by the ironclad logic of these following lines:

Anna Bloom, red Anna Bloom, what are the people saying?

Prize question:
1) Anne Bloom has a screw loose.
2) Anna Bloom is red.
3) What color is the screw.

Blue is the color of your blonde hair.
Red is the color of your green screw.

That seems like the paradigmatic Merz syllogism: saying "I know, I know,": first ruefully, then sheepishly, then wolfishly. (Both Kurt and Schwitters are such toothy, lupine words in my mouth--total wolf, though maybe a dancing wolf.) In exile in England during the Nazi period in Germany, Schwitters wrote some of his last fairy tales in English. In one, he describes a painter painting a hyperreal three-dimensional portrait not on canvas but on the air itself. The painted figure hovers then blows away in the breeze as a onslaught of verbs: "He trembled and scrambled in the air, and he shivered and schwittered, like the air under him schwittered and shivered... Suddenly he grew quite thick round the middle, blew himself up, burst, and fell into pieces." According to the winking conclusion of this faux-bitter tale, the magical painter gives up his magical craft in the face of all this blowsy schwittering and "therefore, painters now paint plain, flat figures with flat brushes on canvas."

I snuck into a second movie after watching Harry Potter and watched the previews. It turns out there will be another film in the 'can't escape death' gotcha! series "Final Destination" which, instead of dutiful receiving a Roman numeral, will instead be the last last last, ie "THE Final Destination." I'm sure it will not be as beautiful as the claymation extravaganza "Coraline" of last winter but like it, it will be shown in 3-D using the new polarized lens technology that has been named, invitingly, RealD.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Spirals, Splinters

For the last very long time, insofar as a week and a half is a very long time, I've been driving west and northwest and west until finally today, when I finally drove down an on-ramp by a sign marked "EAST." Every few days on the road a truck loaded with perfectly cylindrical logs will barrel along and some splintery dust will come rocketing at the car, pelting the windshield with the noise of the near-shattering of shatterproof glass. Each time it comes I wince in a face that requires actual imaginary calamity - imaginary imaginary calamity will not do, which I learn when I try to reproduce the expression for Farrah. And luckily each time so far the calamities have been imaginary, and the windshield remains dingless, or at least as ding-free as it was when we left a seemingly long time ago to head out in this general direction.

I've been thinking a lot about these sounds of rupture and breakage, especially since we managed to my probably endless satisfaction to squeeze into a packed drive from Denver to Salt Lake City a mildly harrowing trip at near-dusk down unmaintained rocky desert roads to Robert Smithson's spiral jetty, on a remote inlet in the northern stretches of the Salt Lake. It was much more far flung than this very helpful web site seemed to suggest, requiring a solid hour of driving even after we made Brigham City on the interstate to get out to the desert hills we had to cross to find the site. I anticipated that the excursion would be lightly tinged with danger, a race with sundown that would at least put us at the jetty at the golden hour. Yet I hadn't imagined the extended slow-motion anxiety of the last few miles, after we'd passed the final cattle gate and had to weave the car gingerly between the rocks jutting seemingly tooth-shaped at the tires rolling carefully past until we gave up and got out, listened at the wheels for pops or hisses, and, satisfied there were none, went to hike the remainder.

The jetty hides from view until virtually the last minute, offering in its place around a previous bend in the trail a rectilinear industrial relic of a jetty, slathered enough with salt to make us squint and wonder if we were indeed seeing ghost spirals at its tips. There have been dark rumors for a while of a major new disturbance in the area - oil core sampling that could unsettle the soil and the ecology (in industrial ways that might nevertheless be very Mike-Mulligan-and-His-Steam-Shovel Robert Smithson-y) but all human action seems to be on hold for now. In addition, according to my book of photos of the jetty, there were years when it was submerged in the Salt Lake slurry water, others when it was caked in a weird salty pink a way back from the water. Right now, though, when we finally found it, around the next bend after the next bend, it was simply a brittle crust of causeway heading out where not-quite-beach turned into flats that got muddier and muddier until there was a shallow puddle of water on the edge of the jetty just as its curviness began. I think I must have imagined the jetty I think as existing out in deepish water but it seemed clear in reality that, if one was willing to get soggy shoes, one could fairly easily traipse in the wet furrows between the turns of the spiral.

For some reason, after I scrambled down the bluff to the salty shore where the jetty protruded, I decided to walk not down the rocks of the jetty itself but beside it in the sludgy damp silt. It was here that I made the astonishing discovery of the sound of the jetty - or at least the sound of the shore next to the jetty, of the layer of salt that coated the shore and coated the jetty such that being with the jetty meant interacting with it, interacting with the silent jetty through it. This noise, crumbling under foot, was a shimmering crackle, the sound of fissuring coming from all over, of crystals shattering not in one place but everywhere all at once, the shards tinkling and chattering against each other.

I have no idea if this was simply a wonderful synchronicity but I immediately thought of the wondrously scary Smithson piece at the Dia: Beacon that piles sheets of broken glass in the rough outline of an imaginary map of Atlantis. The piece in the museum seems to beckon, daring you to lose your balance and impale yourself upon it. And yet it is silent, the shards only mutely containing the memory of the surely loud violence of their smashing and shattering.

In a wonderful lecture I went to about Smithson at the Dia this spring, an art professor named Nico Israel turned from the spiny Atlantis glass pile to look out the window at the poisoned gray gravel plot that happened to lay outside, a flat expanse memorializing a former woodsy hillock where Nabisco once dumped the excess ink waste from its boxmaking operation before the factory became a museum. Rising in pitch, he pointed passionately at the two John Deere bulldozers plunked there, either because the rehab project had been completed and forgotten, or else the actual landscaping had not yet begun. It was an impeccably appropriate, Smithson-ish landscape, totally by accident. "John Deere, like deer," he proclaimed. The suddenly scifi-ish animal-shaped tractors' implied rumble, of course, silent.

In the car today we've been listening to a book on tape of Jonathan Lethem's GIRL IN LANDSCAPE where an alien landscape of another planet is peppered with tiny, almost invisible deer, observing mutely from the shadows, preternaturally able to get out of the way. (They are called household deer, which would make a great band name if it isn't one or five already.) Outside the car a few times, heading east from Vancouver across Canada as we listened, we saw actual deer in the gully beside the highway. Farrah has taught me a driving game that, like poker, only reveals expertise after hours and hours of play: every time you see a horse, you say "zip" and get a point. Two horses, "zip zip," two points. More than three horses, "zap!" and 10 points. A graveyard near the road, "bury your horses!" and best of all the other players lose all their points: back to square one, back to the shore. Weirdly, but to the good I suppose for safe driving purposes, there are no penalties for mistakes. If, in your brisk peripheral vision traveling at 110 km per hour on the road to Kamloops, you misidentify as a herd of horses a herd of cows in cloud shadow, that's okay. You can shout a "zip zip" two lonesome deer on the other side of a barbed wire fence, no problem. "Bury your horses," still, is brutal and puts you on the lookout not only for jolly populated farms but also for cemeteries which, next to the interstate usually through a hedgerow are always lonesome and gray, a peppering of broken old stones. It is strange to be so attuned to graveyards, so elated to point one out, even just a tiny churchyard under one weedy weeping willow.

Walking across the pan of salt, I also thought of the sound ice makes, breaking. I remember my dad and I, an unseasonably warm day after a cold snap a few winters ago, taking a canoe out on the Sudbury River outside Boston to row in the open water between two raised and sinuous furrows of blocked out ice. As we disturbed the water, our wake would flood up from time to time onto the ice and the sheets would cleave in huge cracks with an unfamiliar, soprano keening. I started working on a poem a couple years ago that included this noise and as I wrote the creaking violence became transmuted willy-nilly into the crumple of an ice bag as it sags under a warm tap in the kitchen sink. Deer become household deer, ice becomes household ice. Enormous and unassimilable is assimilated.

From the trail coming in, the spiral jetty is deceptively small; Farrah stayed on the hill at the overlook with her camera and reported my near-disappearance as I threaded my way along the flats on the strand. From a distance, it might be the whorl of a fingerprint, an artist marking his canvas, leaving the mark on the scene of the crime.

The fancy glass plates my parents had when I was growing up had a ridged spiral on the underside, an opaque swirl of glass winding towards the center. Hairline cracks in these plates must be virtually invisible which is why, a few years ago, my mom scrubbed at one in the sink after dinner one day and put here finger right through, cutting deep into the flesh and partly severing the nerve. For many months she had a button sewn to the tip, stretching the nerve back out from where it had sprung itself back down into her finger; even now long after the button was taken off and the nerve repaired there is a odd buzzing when she touches a certain patch of skin just right just wrong.

On my fourth finger of my right hand I have a strange, subtle dimple that runs across the tip and then bifurcates into a teensy scar where the finger was smashed between two bowling balls at a third or fourth grade birthday party and then put back together miraculously. My piano teacher deftly negotiated the plaster cast on my arm as it was healing by teaching me the complicated left hand part of a melancholy Bach partita where all the important melodic action was in that hand, bouncing over the other.

I have never been fingerprinted but it surely would show up as a distinguishing characteristic; really, I am simply lucky that it healed, that it could have been put back together. Smithson might have labelled the pile of broken glass on the museum floor Atlantis to declare the glass irretrievably broken and the irretrievably broken glass beautiful. The spiral jetty is not really a jetty in the sense of a breakwater or a dock, though when I was researching the possibility of swimming in Salt Lake, I read a posting from someone who insisted that they had taken a wonderful dip in the water off the tip of the spiral. Whatever you do, articles I read admonished, do not get the salt water in your eyes - it is seven times as salty as the ocean and will burn terribly. One might want to rub it out with ones fingers but they too will be so salty as to only make it worse. The thing to do if you do is to suck the salt off your own fingers before you try to rub it out.

Now we are back up against the Rockies but thousands of miles away from the Spiral Jetty, days later, heading the other direction across North America and finally I have a free night in Salmon Arm, BC, to write all this down. As I was getting ready for bed earlier tonight, I slipped on the strangely canted Holiday Inn Express shower floor and gave myself a bruise on my back and my elbow but, very luckily, I broke nothing and am basically unharmed. Earlier, yesterday, Farrah called me a klutz when I leaned in to kiss her on the back of the neck in the morning and accidentally bonked our heads together. (Klutz comes from a Yiddish word meaning "wooden block, lump," which is to say, unbreakable.) I do this sort of thing a lot but I suspect everyone does. My grandfather, before I was born, heard a noise downstairs when he was in the shower and slipped in his rush to get out and fell straight through the glass shower door.

Someone told us that they heard that the spiral jetty had been recently worked on by some people perhaps from the Dia foundation or some other interested party, stones added to recuperate the years that surely must be wearing away at the jetty even in the still edge of the lake. When I visited the wild horses ("zap") of Assateague and Chincoteague Island off Virginia a few years ago, I read how a channel dug through further north, near the Delaware-Maryland border, was slowly eating away the the sandbar and would eventually threaten to erode Chincoteague itself, sending the salt out to sea. Repairing the spiral jetty seems both wonderful -- if it weren't still there, I could never have visited it -- and also somewhat Sisyphean. The salt seems endless and timeless but the wind comes in across the water. And then there is that possibility of real industry coming into the bay of the lake nearby, drilling for oil.

A drawer between the two front seats in our car grows fuller and fuller with receipts from gas stations, as we fill the tank about once a day, watching the mountains get humpier, then flatter, then sharper, then humpier. (My car gets pretty good gas mileage, though for some reason it demands 90+ octane.) This is all extraordinary luck, though there is no such thing as luck. The little bruise on my back is already healing.

On the spiral jetty website, the Dia reports that, as of February, the oil drilling requests were on hold as the gas exploration company undergoes corporate reorganization due to falling oil prices. Even so, the update continues, the firm anticipates that they will indeed resubmit the application to drill in the future.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Can't get there from here

I've had a romance with the idea of contemporary opera ever since classical music survey courses in high school, where like (us) American (oy) history weirdly ending during WWII, with the modern and the contemporary still synonymous, our classical music trajectory headed like a river towards a delta, a heady stream becoming an illegible tangle. (Or going underground the way streams do when they hit the beach--revealing how the beach is always secretly already the ocean.)

So contemporary opera is maybe like spelunking under the sand--buried to the neck perhaps like David Bowie in Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence which I never saw but which image made a massive impression on me in my childhood book of film directors, second only to the stuffed corpse in the rocking chair from Psycho, which page I would flip past as quickly as possible just to be safe. I won't suffer you the actual image.

In any case, being a contemporary classical opera composer, perhaps even more than being a poet--who at least has all the tools available to work in rebel quiet--always seemed to me a kind of noble King Canute figure, turning back the waves, perhaps on the self-same riverine beach at twilight. First you have to get all these people, with all these esoteric and perhaps ill-advisable skills (see, opera voice), together and build this romantic non-romatic gadget, new but not new but not not new. You have these trouble spots, better-than-popular or almost-popular-but-strange or pretentiously-antiquey, and then maybe you end up like J. Alfred Prufrock anyway, getting your pantlegs soaked.

In the last day I flew over a whole lot of water at sunset--chasing the dusk for what seemed like four hours before emergency landing in Halifax with a sick passenger--and spent some of the time, when I wasn't gobbling Richard Stark Parker novels out of print in America but still available overseas, thinking back over John Adams's Doctor Atomic, which Farrah and I saw while we were in London over the weekend. It's determined moderny synth and chord bang minimalism, people singing in English with supertitles while wearing lab coats and ties plotting atomic bomb tests in 1940s Los Alamos underneath expensive sets with fancy quiet dolly-walls rolling delicately about the stage. The fact that the walls comprised bookcases of physicists like periodic table-tableaux, so much the better. The music was predictably kind of both what I was hoping and not hoping for, minimalism gone percussive with occasional melodrama. I was left thinking about melody and connective tissue, particularly after I read an over-the-top review that called the aria that Robert Oppenheimer sings to the words of John Donne's Batter My Heart sonnet the greatest since Puccini. I can't speak to Puccini but I kept wondering why John Adams had the singer stuck up in the rough and ragged bellow-opera range, and why the director had Oppenheimer actually battering himself in the chest and staring out into the middle distance like Celine Dion. I love the concept of the collage of poetry and memoir and politics that Adams and the librettist, Peter Sellars, cooked up but I worried about this notion of poetry. I don't think it is what Oppenheimer meant when he said he liked John Donne, anyway.

My favorite moment came with a little melodic motif that Oppenheimer's wife sang, in a scene of the two of them half-connecting at bedtime, over the line "Am I in your light?"-- wonderful the mixture of the casual apologetic and the flirtatious and the jealous in this response to Oppenheimer's reading/working in bed. After hanging out on a note for a while, the melody lilts up a step, which I learned in high school music theory was kind of a paradigmatic motion for coherent melodies: incremental, contained, tense, unpredictable. The step move says, things connect but we don't know what they connect to. Most of the sung melodies in Doctor Atomic, on the other hand, were huge superimposed leaps that seemed to exist in a plane of their own over the orchestra, involuted logics that meant you had to pay attention to the ideas in the language because the music just kept saying, hold on for dear life. Which maybe makes sense when you're talking about exploding huge bombs and, according to Doctor Atomic, the Manhattan Projectiles weren't totally sure they weren't going to set the entire atmosphere on fire and flash-fry the whole planet. Real, yes, touch and go.

All this talk of connections and half-steps and links makes me think of another very good text I came across recently, the Eula Biss prose poem essay in the latest Harper's (I think it will be in her new book) that retells the early battles over the erection of telephone poles across the country. Who would have imagined that there was once such institutional resistance, with sheriffs and town councils and vigilantes alike sawing down poles as fast as they could throw them up. Biss describes how there was literally a stalemate until linemen were posted up at the tops of poles day and night till the system was on and sawing down an active telephone line was a felony. Then, suddenly, everywhere was connected, and not the way that dirt roads could connect, the way pavement connects, a constant stream that delineates space between as islands. That's maybe one version of melody and Eula Biss, who connects the idealistic pole raising with its darker use as the gallows tree of the lynching, maybe suggests some of the problems with this idea of connecting everything, everywhere.

A brilliant cultural environmentalist who I always meant to study with in college but never got around to it, John Stilgoe, talks in a great book called Outside Lies Magic about how you can literally feel and hear the electricity getting grounded near poles, and how, along roads, the domesticated and crew-cut trees, set back to a polite distance from the pavement, is a relic of a fairly radical credo: to protect the line. There's this phenomenal road near my parent's house in Sudbury called Water Row where, for maybe a third of a mile, the road runs without a telephone line and the trees literally swallow the road, so it wends this way and that, part of the forest, not apart from it. It makes me think now of a wonderful bit of sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, at Storm King Art Center, where an uncommonly obliging stone wall respects the ecology--winding between trees rather than colliding with them, and then running down into the middle of a pond rather than insisting on dredging up its own thronelike berm. After all, who minds getting a little wet.

One of the stranger things about the road map is the way it is a story about connections and a story in which everything does connect. I remember at first in New York, riding the subway from neighborhood to neighborhood, it felt like nothing was linked, like there were only litttle islands of knowledge. Now, all it is for me is knowledge, a big splattery ab-ex canvas. And out in the country, the roads connect to the town roads which connect to the city roads. It's this one uninterrupted bead of asphalt you could land a plane on. Over the ocean, the roads wonderfully end. You can't get there from here. Somewhere underwater there's a pipe vibrating with information but the water is all just little waves that don't talk to each other. It's like when you get close to a waterfall on a river; you can hear it, but the water doesn't seem to care. The previous trip I went to London, I wrote in a poem I like to think about, "Not everything is connected." It's a threat as well as a consolation. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The New Vague

This post is for Farrah, who like a Wild West homesteader knocking pressure-treated fence posts into the ground before the surveyors come with their railroads and organic certifications, has just started her own blog which is wonderfully like and unlike her. In her newbie zeal she has been encouraging me to get back in the game, and as if to join the chastening chorus I just got an email about a poetry reading next week in Brooklyn that included the following bio line: "blogs actively at..." Lest I blog inactively:

This post is also, necessarily, for insomnia, which I now suffer out of jetlag on holiday and for the location in which I am located, in a city so fanciful it threatens to tear down pragmatic notions of what cultural projects are possible; even as the snow-globe relic of itself it seems at the border of fiction. In fact it feels like it vitiates such distinctions: dream and non-dream, rational and non-rational. So this post is then also for vitiating distinctions. Yesterday I spent the evening with tired feet tromping over bridges in a Harlequin mask.

Tonight, however, while Farrah has been typing away I have been catching up on last month's magazines and was fascinated by the (vitiate-able?) distinction that the New Yorker a few issues back seems to enact between two visions of fiction in an unintended contrast of articles, one a plummy and leonine profile of Ian McEwan, the other a bit of squinty spelunkery into the early works of Donald Barthelme. McEwan seemed to me to come off as a kind of lacquered alien -- not Martian, more pod-man -- ostensibly invoking Freud as a source of his violent surgeries of books, but exclusively the supposed-to-know doctor who endoscopes diagrams, not muddles of squish. The article seems to raise the specter of a link between rationalism and psychopathy, and is almost parodic in its antispectic vision of the novelist as bricklayer (though, wonderfully, we discover that, unlike his late-discovered journeyman half-brother. McEwan is a terrible actual bricklayer). Unsuperstitious, McEwan happily divulges his unfinished, even unwritten plots, reads pieces from scenes, seems even to view scenes as scenes at all, essentially detachable pieces that require different attentions.

I remember being once naively shocked at the notion of moviemaking as a checklist of necessary images, the mantra do we have the shot, as opposed to, what are we going to do today. As a poet I feel often like the latter is how I write, like these literal labyrinth streets here in city-land that may require indecent backtracking past the next canted corner. I'm constantly creating and honoring vestigiality, which seems weirdly beside the point to McEwan's happies and unhappies. Barthelme, on the other hand, seems vaguely kindred with his collage-ist grin. My favorite quotation in the article has Barthelme cri-de-coeuring grungy language like a refreshing raw egg plopped in a whiskey shot: "The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will that it's being poorly done."

Barthelme is presented in the article as a blurry post-modernist but, in a very tricksy rationalist way, the article anatomizes post-modernism to reinforce modernism, to mean it will never go away not ever again: dream the baby dreams about peek-a-boo fragments. The article, in which New Yorker is necessarily both frustrating foreground and background, reminded me of an argument that I had with the idea of Barthelme when I first read him, and this odd firewall that keeps his work apart from the similar thrust of poetry I most appreciate to chunk up its sentences and knock them against each other. (The bad brickworker once again, I suppose, but better.) The problem, I keep writing about these days, is whether people in stories are necessary to people or to stories. Is the story just public relations, suppository with sentences inside? Is it the expectation of a difference that needs to be torn down? Yes, tear down that wall, Mister - or Signore - Whomever, equals a pile of bricks.

In this city of watery places I'm tempted to another metaphor, wandering up and down streets in search of a bridge, and there is no bridge. In Jim Henson's movie Labyrinth a big sad fuzzy creature (Barthelme, possibly inspired by Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup: "The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.") produces a howl of despair and woe that magically raises empathetic rocks from the squishy depths that the protagonists may cross. There's something there in that quizzical relation between the wail of surrender and the exit ex machina. There's this science of putting it all together and then, there's something else.