Wednesday, May 13, 2015

New Marks Are Made

Back into the pages of Leaves (1855) recently and once again I’m taken by the space Whitman attempts to carve out.  He asserts a priority of the “demonstrable” over the “mythical”, claiming that “mark[s]” are made “out of any times!” 

Could be today.  Could be in a garage, basement, or “upper room”.  Could be over a diner [sic] table.  Could be through the slog of devoted work -- or the luck of happenstance when x variables coincide at a given time and place.

Could be just about anywhere, anytime, or not, but often when people head in the direction of narrative or myth, compelling as it is, they can miss the material and spatial.  There is a literalism or minimalist documentary orientation that can slip from mere archiving into a sublime.

That’s part of what Whitman’s up to as he makes lists of observations of life in America.  The empirical slides into the liturgical, not of yesteryear but of What’s Happening Now.  As he puts it, it’s not “as if…what has transpired…in North and South America were less than the small theater of the antique or the aimless sleepwalking of the middle ages!”

When Whitman talks about “America” or “Americans”, he’s talking about a new way of being human that isn’t limited to a particular geography, ethnicity, or government (though it may be in or from the Americas that it emanates) – because he talks about a certain way people tend to be here:

“Their deathless attachment to freedom…their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy…the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors” – where the President takes his hat off to the people and “not they to him”…and “these…are unrhymed poetry”.

Wittingly or not he’s making a case for what makes America not only rooted in the Enlightenment and Romanticism but also in ways of life that existed on these continents prior to Columbus (see Charles Mann’s 1491). 

I think of an ecstatic energy, Whitman’s “roughs”, the “nonchalance”, and “the tremendous audacity” that still somehow works hand in hand with “wonderful sympathy”.  It’s like Iggy Pop meets Carl Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard”. 

Now after what people call America has been in full force culturally for many years, it can start to sound like a blast from the 19th century past when he exclaims that we need not constantly turn “east” for our inspiration:  “As if it were necessary to trot back generation after generation to the eastern records!” 

Though now if you go east from Europe toward the Americas, you end up at the Pacific Rim and back around again to Africa and the Fertile Crescent.  Then again as people from all around the world come and go, new marks are made.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Craving for “Poemness”

I’ve been reading Andrei Codrescu’s A Craving for Swan, specifically, a short piece of lyrical prose called “Bear with Me” that questions how much “bearness” remains within the black fur and red sinews of the twentieth century bear. Codrescu expands upon Soviet writer Andrei Bitov’s question: “Isn’t It strange that we make more and more books with fairy tales and pictures about wild rabbits and wolves and foxes, and that we make fish and reindeer and teddy bears out of rubber . . . [that our] children already live in a world where there are thousands of times more toy animals than there are animal animals.” It all makes me wonder how much “poemness” the twenty-first century poem delivers.

At the risk of sounding reactionary, sometimes late at night, plagued equally by fatigue and restlessness, I worry that there’s not much poem left to our poems. I long for that encounter with a stanza that arrives dressed in its blue collared oil-change shirt or even its Walmart smock, a stanza that has watched Jerry Springer once too often, that might share a place in our collective consciousness with some jive Avengers sequel, but a stanza that somehow, in its own unique post-post modern way sings, Oh “Westron wind, when wilt thou blow / The small raine down can raine.”

An unrepentant Platonist at heart, I have to admit that I feature poetry as being out there, out with the wind and rain. In a 1976 interview in Skywriting, the late Russell Edson gets at where poetry just might be: “If the image can stand on its own, then you’ve externalized it. But there are poets, I’m not going to mention any names now, whose very painful poetry seems to depend on their existence.” I like how complex the notion is, what might stand, who might notice, and that process only hinted at by the verb “to externalize.”

                               – G.F.A.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reality Riffs

I've been thinking again lately about worlds we compose in our minds vs the "real world out there". Once we get into human symbol systems (technically “sign” systems according to the semioticians), all or many bets are off in terms of limitations based upon coherence with empirical reality.  And since sometimes, perhaps often, the whole point of engaging in some symbolic worlds is to deviate from, replace, or largely defy reality, then no surprise, they do.  It’s possible to enter a symbolic world, engage in its rituals and lingo, follow its codes and experience the affective – and sometimes intellectual – payoffs that they may facilitate.

I think of the reality defiance of Cervantes's Don Quijote, the composed worlds within composed worlds as in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, or the riffs and intonations of Iris DeMent in both word and sound.  Video games apply.  Live music concerts or what's between your ear buds. We step across thresholds of structures and do what would be very funny things with our bodies that within that context make absolute sense.  And, then again, "the real world", "mind", and other lingo like this, important as they are, are also abstractions.  The "real world out there" is already "in here", and we're riffing and intoning them how we do as we do every moment.


Monday, July 14, 2014

“Mr. & Mrs. Duck Dinner”

I’ve been reading Russell Edson’s “Mr. & Mrs. Duck Dinner” and realizing just what a hit American arts and letters took when we lost Edson this April. The prose poem challenges the ordinary as it commits to a novel scenario:

An old woman with a duck under her arm is let into a house and asked, whom shall I say is calling?
Mr. and Mrs. Duck Dinner.

It’s not allegory, exactly. It’s not dark humor, exactly. But it is, as it is nowhere else in literature, an interspecies couple who hire themselves out as a duck dinner. “My husband will need plucking; I can undress myself” announces Mrs. D. “We’ll have the kitchen girl defeather your husband,” offers the butler. The absurd? The farcical? I taught this poem recently, and we all agreed that it’s a scene a certain British comedy troupe would have made short work of. The Python crew, however, would have missed the pathos, quickly cutting to Terry Jones nude at the piano as soon as the weirdness started to loop back upon itself.

Edson doesn’t take the easy way out here. In spite of – perhaps because of – the absurdity, we get the wiriness, the hurt. I suspect it’s the civility with which the woman carries out her unusual task that breaks my heart in the end. She carries out her duties within the erudition that comes from too many servants, too much culture, too many careful ways of saying things. There are those who can hire out just about anything, and the rest of us who endure our lot. There are intimacies that need to be addressed and worked out. When the whole business of defeathering and “rather pretty” kitchen help gets addressed, our heroine reminds us that we’re not fooling around. We’re all “professional duck dinners.”

                                                                                                   – G. F. A.