Sunday, October 07, 2012

On Purpose or At Random: The Engineering of Fiction in Tim Parks's "Goodness"

Independent Life
In Tim Parks's novel Goodness, the narrator, George, designs an electronic game for his severely handicapped daughter Hilary, with pedals for her feet to press that turn on music and colored lights. Though she does activate the pedals and apparently enjoy the lights, he cannot tell if she is doing it "on purpose or at random." When given such a toy (nowadays commercially available, but not in the 1980s, when the novel takes place), children without developmental difficulties may begin with random button pushing, but they will quickly figure out which buttons produce which effects. It is not clear to George and his wife Shirley whether Hilary is engaging in this kind of trial and error, so purposefulness and randomness remain indistinguishable.

When George decides to try to burn down his house in such a way that Hilary cannot be rescued and will thus die in the fire without his being blamed for her death, he learns something about arson: "The most elementary secret to a successfully designed arson is that the fire must have only one focal point." The arsonist's goal is not to make intention and accident indistinguishable. He wants to disguise intention so that it looks like accident. Something done "on purpose" should look like it happened "at random." This is surely not the case with the serial arsonist who sets fires because he is mentally ill; usually, such an arsonist wants his intentions to be clear. But the one-time arsonist like George does not want to have his creation recognized as something created; it should look like it just happened.

Later, when George has set the fire after long and careful preparation, he finds himself upstairs in his burning house, where he contemplates the position he has put himself in: "This is the moment of truth I have so expensively engineered." The moment is "expensive" not because he has spent money on the act of arson but because of his "sacrifice" of his expensive house to his desire for a life without his handicapped child.

The "engineering" of a "moment of truth" is an excellent description of the writing of fiction. And the novelist's goal is the same as that of the arsonist who does not want to get caught: the "engineering" of that "moment of truth" in the story that leads up to it should not be detectable. For a work of fiction to be credible, it should look not purposeful but random, or its "moment of truth" will not be worth the "expensive engineering" of the writing process.

This is the implicit poetics of Goodness: fiction as an elaborate construction that tries to conceal its own constructedness. There are other types of novels, of course: the long-standing tradition of novels like Tristram Shandy that revel in their fictionality. But they share something with novels like Goodness: they, too, involve the elaborate engineering of "moments of truth," such as the epiphanies in James Joyce's novels. In fiction, a game that we play in order to have intense experiences, the writer may conceal it or flaunt it, or do a little bit of both, but no matter what, the fix is always on.


My previous post on Goodness is "Ruthless Realism and Cloying Sentimentality." Anyone interested in even more posts about Goodness (and soon other novels by Parks) should check out the blog for my current seminar on Parks's novels, which I am giving at the University of Basel English Department this term.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Click Here": Rae Armantrout's "Results"

Here is the first poem in Rae Armantrout's Versed (Wesleyan, 2009):



Click here to vote
on who's ripe
for a makeover

or a takeover

in this series pilot.

Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back

as results.


Click here to transform

into digestion.

From this point on,
it's a lattice
of ends
disguised as means:

the strangler fig,

the anteater.


I've developed the ability
to revise
what I'm waiting for

so that letter
becomes dinner

while the contrapuntal
of the Chinese elm leaves


The poem begins with instructions: "Click here to vote." You are sitting at a computer, and you can use the mouse and its clicking to participate in an online vote. The clicks of all the users will be tallied up in "the server" to produce results. This server is a classic "black box," its input and output clear, but its internal processes unknown. The voters apparently given the power to determine something must have faith in "the server" that is supposed to be "serving" their empowerment; in fact, at the very moment when they participate in the production of power, they surrender their power to that "server."

This is not a political vote but a trivial bit of entertainment; the voters here are being given a sense that they are participating in the production of a television show. Their votes will supposedly determine which character is "ripe / for a makeover // or a takeover." As a characterization of a maturation process, "ripe" naturalizes the highly technological voting procedure as organic growth, and the illusion of empowerment is matched by an illusion of naturalization.

All this is done for a "series pilot," which makes the whole thing even more trivial: it's not even an established series but just a test run for a new program. If this whole process produces "results," their object is trivial, their provenance is obscure, and the participants' empowerment is illusory, as is any sense that this highly technologized procedure has anything "natural" about it. This may not be explicitly about politics, but as a critique of the role of voting in the production of spectacles, it ends up also being a critique of the reduction of voting to a spectacle.

When the second section then begins with an echo of the first ("Click here to transform ..."), what follows is immediately subject to the first section's critique of "clicking." So the transformation that follows is as subject to doubt as the "makeover," the "takeover," or the processing of results by "the server." In the transformation here of "oxidation / into digestion," a chemical process becomes a biological process. As one feature of digestion is oxidation, this transformation involves making a process more complex when you "click here." The complexity thus produced is that of evolution: out of chemistry comes biology. In this version of evolution, then, life is created by a "click." But given the illusionary nature of "clicking" in the poem, this turns out to be a critique of one approach to the theory of "intelligent design," in which the "intelligent designer" sets things going but then does not intervene in the evolutionary process anymore.

So "from this point on," once "oxidation" has been transformed "into digestion," evolution takes place without further intervention, without any more "clicks." The "lattice" makes evolution a network rather than the familiar "tree of life," while also associating it with the "clicking" used to navigate the World Wide Web. If this whole lattice is read backwards from one point in time, then "ends" will be seen as being "disguised as means": evolved characteristics may look like "means" used by evolution to develop later ends, but they are actually "ends" in themselves, the "results" of a random process of natural selection without the will to transformation represented by "clicking."

The unusual forms of the two organisms mentioned emphasize the unintentional quality of evolution, in which the evolutionary "end results" at any given moment will look like they followed from earlier "means" that were actually also just momentary stages in a nontelelogical process. "The strangler fig" picks up on the image of the "lattice," as such plants create a "lattice" of roots and branches overlaying the trees they "strangle." The "anteater" evolved in a unique and unpredictable fashion in response to its environment, ending up with an especially unusual appearance. In both cases, the "just-so stories" of a popular understanding of evolution depict the shapes of organisms as the "results" of an interplay of "ends" and "means," but those stories and the "results" that they explain are as illusory as the spectacle of "voting" to produce "results" earlier in the poem. This second section, then, extends the poem's critique of the illusion of "results" to the common misunderstanding of the theory of evolution as a teleological process.

The third and final section is quite different from the first two. It begins not with the imperative "click" but with the first-person: "I've developed the ability ..." There's no dependence on a black-box here, or on a process that runs itself after an initial input. A first person takes center stage and engages in a process with a clear result, a positive product whose agent can legitimately claim to have produced.

Yet the ability the speaker develops is "the ability / to revise / what I'm waiting for." The confidence of the first line continues, but not as an assertion of agency as a source of power and control. This is an adaptive agency that adjusts to developments; the ability the speaker has developed is the ability to develop while "what I'm waiting for" changes. There is a result here, but it's about sidestepping the expected, about changing one's mind, and about doing so consciously, with a full understanding of what is going on. This first stanza of the third section shifts away from a critique of results to a depiction of how to escape the desire for results.

The rest of this third and final section develops this shift from mechanisms that produce the illusion of results to an agency that relinquishes the need for that illusion. The second stanza introduces a letter-changing game in which one changes one letter in a word to produce another word, with some other particular word as a final goal. (As in this sequence: letter, latter, batter, banter, banner, tanner, tinner, dinner.) This may be a result that the person doing the puzzle desires, and such a puzzle does in fact generate an illusion of empowerment like that found in the first stanza, but it is an illusion that is recognized as an illusion from the start. Such puzzles allow for the assertion of agency without the risk of deception; they may be as inconsequential as internet voting about a spectacle (with its potential implications as a figure for politics), but the inconsequentiality is not hidden away inside a "server" that obscures the disempowerment of the agent.

The evolutionary images of the second stanza are also reworked here: evolution becomes "development," "revision," and "redistribution" that take place "gradually" and "contrapuntally." The strict determination of "results" in the first two stanzas is replaced by an emphasis on process and an image not of linear development but of the weaving together of line in counterpoint. This approach to development even allows "ennui" to be "redistributed" as one stops waiting for anything in particular and accepts what comes.

The poem's "result" is a depiction of an alternative approach to process that is not fixated on "makeovers," "takeovers," and "ends disguised as means." Still, such a result is subject to the very critique of results developed in the first two sections of the poem. From this perspective, the poem reads as if it were oriented toward the goal of not being goal-oriented. If it escapes its own critique of results, it is able to do so because "click here" is not "read here": the process of reading the poem to develop the implications of its critique of results and its proposed alternative to their illusions involves the reader as an active agent. When we read this poem, we are not just "clicking here" in an illusion of participation; we are engaging in a gradual, contrapuntal process full of revisions as we try to find our way from "letter" to "dinner." 

As depicted in this poem, the ambitions of poetry are vast. Poetry aims to displace the naturalized illusions of politics, society, and even religion not with its own naturalized spectacle but with the self-conscious and self-confident artificiality of the puzzle or the Bonsai tree (so often made with Chinese elms). In its puzzling quality, it takes the risk of becoming another "server" that obscures how its output is related to its input. But as the puzzle pieces fit together, it reveals itself completely. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Eleventh Rule

A list of "10 rules for students and teachers" has been making the rounds:

I checked to see if this was really by Cage because so many things floating around the net are misattributed. All too often, the attribution turns out to be wrong, and the supposed source clearly serves more as a marker of wisdom than anything else. I recently came across a "Chinese proverb": "A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." But that's Maya Angelou! 

In addition, these rules don't sound very much like Cage to me. Even if it does turn out to be something that quotes him (rule 10) and that he adopted as his own, the rules don't contain enough randomness to be typically "Cageian."

Still, it's a good list. I especially like Rule 1, which emphasizes that the place where learning takes place is important, as well as the role of trust in the teaching process. And Rule 9, which emphasizes the role of pleasure in learning. But perhaps Rule 7 is most important of all: "if you work it will lead to something."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September Rain

So here we are, three leap days later, and it's Tuesday again.


for Dieter M. Gräf

Past autobahn construction sites,

of traffic. Past television

atop Hessian hills. Past

soaring between sudden

kestrels hovering over

flocks of starlings

into roadside trees. Past a freshly

field of crows. Through the

of spray from asphalt. Through

of rain from overpasses. Past

starting and landing over the

of Frankfurt. Everything standing, even

medieval castles perched

on the passing bluffs.

by a car from Cologne — how the cathedral

and withstood the air

The rain

soon we'll be home, safe as

— 16-17 September 2001

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Point of Talking and Not Talking: Tim Parks, "Dreams of Rivers and Seas"

The following paragraph appears about three-quarters of the way through Tim Parks's novel Dreams of Rivers and Seas:

John felt clarity coming and going. It is pointless saying anything, a voice told him. The words were spoken quietly and convincingly, as if across a table in a quiet room where everything is calm and reasonable. It is pointless saying anything. John listened and saw at once how true that was. It was a wise voice. Talking is pointless. He hadn't really been listening to the girl, after all, had he? And she hasn't been listening to him. Why say anything? She just wants to take advantage of you. She's been telling you lies. Elaine had certainly lied. All the messages Elaine sends are lies. Text messages were invented for lying. John soon realised that. It's too easy. Then he was overwhelmed by an image of Sharmistha's body, her golden nakedness swam into his mind. She is right beside him. Her lips covered his. Her hair is on his face. And he started at the touch of Heinrich's hand. (322)

John James has been walking through Delhi at the beginning of a sandstorm. A young man who lives in London, he has come to Delhi without telling his mother, a doctor at a Delhi clinic for the poor, but at this moment, he has decided that he will go see her right away, despite the sandstorm, and he has left his cheap hotel to walk to her house. This is his second recent trip to Delhi; the first was a few months earlier, on the occasion of the funeral of his father, Albert James.

Three women are on his mind in this paragraph. First of all, he is accompanied here by Jasmeet Singh, a young Sikh in her late teens who was not only a pupil but also the mistress of his father's; she wants John to take her back to London with him. For a few minutes, they have been sitting in an unattended autorickshaw, waiting for its driver to turn up. After John hears this mysterious voice, he first applies its "wisdom" to his conversation with Jasmeet: here, "it is pointless saying anything" because neither participant in the conversation is really listening to the other. John wants Jasmeet to leave him alone, and, as John spins it here, Jasmeet "just wants to take advantage of" him. From this perspective, whatever she says has to be parsed as part of her attempted manipulation of him. But not all of what she says as the sandstorm rises is actually part of her attempt to talk him into taking her to London; in fact, as a Delhi native, she is trying to get the naive visitor to come in out of the dangerous storm. What she is saying is neither pointless nor manipulative; it is simply the attempt to communicate potentially life-saving information to John. John's observations about language are thus ironized by the situation; language -- and specifically conversation (in literary terms, dialogue) -- can be more than only "what the characters do to each other" (as Elizabeth Bowen put it in "Notes on Writing a Novel").

The second woman on John's mind is Elaine, his girlfriend back in London, who has been texting him incessantly in Delhi, despite his never responding to her messages. His train of thought runs smoothly from Jasmeet's "lies" to Elaine's, and then to a further interpretation of the voice's "wisdom": "Text messages were invented for lying." Unbeknownst to John (as well as to the reader, who will find this out in just a few pages), Elaine herself has just arrived in Delhi at his mother's house (as she thinks he is staying there). If John sees all of Elaine's messages as lies, his non-response to her messages has also been a kind of lie, as he had told her he was going to Delhi to see his mother, whom he has not contacted at all since his arrival in the city. Again, John's reflections on language's manipulative quality neglect its role as a provider of information, in which it is not "pointless to say anything."

Not saying anything also comes up in John's memory of a young Indian woman, Sharmistha, with whom he went to bed a couple nights earlier, only to break off his foreplay with her because her impotent boyfriend, an older German man named Heinrich, touched John's foot. Sharmistha had not said anything to John about the unusual nature of her relationship with Heinrich, who apparently always watches her when she has sex with other men. In this scene, she obviously assumed that John would not agree to let Heinrich watch; it was not her speech that manipulated John, but her silence.

John agrees with the voice that "talking is pointless," then, but the interactions alluded to in this paragraph (with Jasmeet, Elaine and Sharmistha) all undermine that conclusion. As a provider of information, language is more than manipulation -- and silence can be as manipulative as speech.


That's a nice resonant conclusion, but there's one point in the paragraph that I want to pursue further for a moment: "Text messages were invented for lying." Ever since Destiny, Parks has explored the impact of mobile phones on fiction. In that novel, Chris Burton is unable to use his mobile because his charger in his lost luggage. In Rapids, the characters on a kayaking holiday in South Tirol constantly send texts back to friends and family in England. The "unreality" of the holiday, which I discussed in "The Delirium of the Real Thing," is highlighted by one teenage girl's sending of texts to her boyfriend back home within minutes after kissing one of the boys on the kayaking trip. In Cleaver, one reason the title character goes into the mountains in South Tirol is to get out of range of mobile-phone signals. And Parks's most recent novel, The Server (which I will be writing about soon), takes place in a meditation insitute where mobile-phone use is forbidden. Not only that, the participants in the meditiation retreats are not told that they will have no access to their mobiles during their ten-day vow of silence. Here, the silence of the organizers on this point is as much a tool of manipulation as the silence of John James in his silence at Elaine's numerous text messages to him.

In any case, there is a study to be written on the representation of mobile phones in Parks's fiction. It could begin with a consideration of how his works from before the mobile-phone era would look different if the plots were shifted to a few decades later. Cara Massimina, for example, is the tale of Morris Duckworth, a hapless expat English teacher in Verona whose kidnapping of, or elopement with, the Massimina of the title would not work at all in a mobile-phone era. Again and again in his work since Destiny, Parks has directly confronted the problems mobile phones raise for plot by making them central to his plots, just as they have become essential to the lives of so many of his readers.

Friday, September 07, 2012

"The Delirium of the Real Thing": Tim Parks, "Rapids"

Almost at the end of Tim Parks's novel Rapids, Vince, a character who has slowly emerged as the story's focus, decides not to return from his kayaking holiday in South Tirol to his job as a chief financial officer at a major bank in London. He reflects on the relationship between the holiday world and the everyday world: "Was it that all life until now had been a tired spell, from which he was suddenly released? Or was it this situation that was snatching him from reality?" (243). Here, the boundary between "all life until now" (his life back in London) and "this situation" (the kayaking experience in Italy) is identified as a boundary between the real and the unreal. This is made explicit by the second question, which identifies "reality" with the everyday existence his choice is "snatching him from." But retrospectively, it is implicit in the first question as well, in which the "tired spell" of routine is seen as something to be "released" from. From this perspective, one is enthralled by routine, in thrall to it, and the decision to not return from the holiday is a liberation into reality, an escape from the deadening enchantment of the everyday.

The idea that everyday life is not "real," while a kayaking holiday is "real," is articulated again and again in the course of the book. Early on, Clive, the head instructor on the holiday, says that "when you spend time by the river and on the river, you can't help but understand how dull and squalid a lot of so-called civilised life is" (15). When Vince's kayaking skills begin to improve, he senses it by noticing a change in how he thinks: "Never had his mind thought so intensely and lucidly" (132). And this intensity and lucidity is "the delirium of the real thing" (149).

But even here, the boundary between reality and unreality (holiday and everyday life) can flip, as in another of Vince's reflections a few pages later: "He was impatient for the parenthesis of this holiday to be over, so he could know how he really felt" (159). The intensity of the holiday experience now seems like unreality, like a parenthesis, and only back in London would he be able to identify his "real" feelings, not the heightened feelings of kayaking. Even Clive's distinction between "dull and squalid" life and the intensity of the river is inverted in his girlfriend Michaela's memory of an idea of his: "Well, Clive always says, the trouble is, after the high of getting away with it on the river, nothing has really changed. It isn't a real risk" (227). Michaela's conclusion is that "these sports are something you do instead of life" (240). The sporting experience, no matter how extreme it is, is not unambiguously "real." 

Vince summarizes this tension a few lines after the passage I began with: "Or each state was a form of enchantment, worth as much or as little as the other" (243). Here, both the everyday and the exceptional have their own "enchanting" character, and Vince reaches for an understanding of them that no longer privileges one over the other in a manner that cannot help be unstable. The intensity of the exceptional may seem more "real" than the everyday, but as long as the latter is also called "the real world," then the contrast will remain unstable. Whether "the real thing" is life at home or an adventure elsewhere, it will remain a "delirium."

(I also wrote about Rapids once before: here, in one of my earliest blog posts.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ahnen und Ergründen

Since I have so many books of poetry that I can barely imagine reading them all, I have started reading the first poem in every poetry collection I own. In each case, I make a little note about whether the poem makes me want to read the rest of the book or not, and in a few cases, I have begun blogging about these "first poems." The first two cases were my recent posts on poems by Fleur Adcock and John Agard. The third poem that I read in this project and wanted to blog about is the poem by Henning Ahrens below. I tried writing my comments in English, but it was too complicated, so I've written this post in German. (And no, I don't want to translate it into English. At most summarize it, perhaps, if anyone is interested.)

Now that I've mentioned the project publicly, I'll have to see if I continue ... In any case, here's the German discussion of Ahrens's poem "Montag, du":


Hier ist das erste Gedicht aus Kein Schlaf in Sicht von Henning Ahrens (Fischer 2008).


Die Maus liegt da, von der Falle erschlagen.
Das Kätzchen schleckt die Milch vom Teller.

Ich schau auf dem Boden nach, suche im Keller,
durchstöbere Schuppen und Wäschekammer,

aber du bist verschwunden. Die Puschen
im Flur sind noch fußwarm, dein Mantel

riecht regennass, und in der Dusche
liegen drei dunkle Haare. Das Kätzchen,

inzwischen gesättigt, schlüpft schnurrend
in mein Bett—o Mann, mir war immer

blümeranter ... Ich lösche die Lampen,
stolpere unterbelichtet durchs Zimmer,

ahnend: Man kann nicht alles ergründen.
Aber am Freitag werd ich dich finden.

Der vorletzte Vers dieses Gedichts lebt von der Spannung zwischen "ahnend" und "ergründen". Stereotyp kann man das so auslegen: es gibt Gefühle (Ahnungen), die nicht rational zu erklären sind, und wenn sie rational erklärt werden, dann sind sie keine Gefühle mehr. Dieses Gedicht zeigt aber mit seinen Bildern, dass Gedichte eine solche stereotype Gegenüberstellung untergraben können.

Dieser vorletzte Vers beginnt mit "ahnend" und endet mit "nicht ... ergründen". Das Ergründen erscheint aber zuerst im Gedicht (ab dem dritten Vers), das erst später (ab etwa dem elften Vers) mit dem Ahnen anfängt. Ab dem dritten Vers sucht das Ich das Du. Die Suche führt "auf den Grund", in dem sie immer in die Tiefe und in abgelegene Plätzen im Haus führt: Boden, Keller, Schuppen, Wäschekammer. Das Ich "ergründet" also das Verschwinden des Dus, indem es auf verschiedene Arten auf "Gründe" geht. Die Zeilen sind eine Beschreibung des Ergründens und gleichzeitig eine poetische Darstellung eines Auf-den-Grund-Gehens.

Nach der Feststellung, dass das Du tatsächlich nirgends zu finden ist, sucht das Ich nach einer Erklärung für sein Verschwinden und findet Spuren von seiner Anwesenheit in den Puschen, im Mantel und in der Dusche. Alles deutet darauf hin, dass das Du erst vor kurzem verschwunden ist, aber sie lassen keine Erklärung zu, was mit ihm passiert ist. Wenn das erste Teil dieser bildlichen Ergründens eine räumliche Erfahrung des "Auf-den-Grund-Gehens" darstellt, erscheint hier das Ergründen mit der "Fusswärme", dem Geruch und den drei Haaren in der Dusche als eine körperliche Erfahrung.

Nach einem kurzen Intermezzo mit dem Kätzchen kommt eine poetische Darstellung des Ahnens: "Ich lösche die Lampen, / stolpere unterbelichtet durchs Zimmer". Das Ahnen erscheint hier vor seiner expliciten Erwähnung am Anfang des nächsten Verses (bzw. des letzten Zweizeilers) wieder als eine räumliche und körperliche Erfahrung (der Dunkelheit bzw. des Stolperns), die gleichzeitig eine Selbstentwertung mit sich bringt: man fühlt sich "unterbelichtet"—unfähig also, die Situation zu ergründen.

Bevor das Gedicht also zu der Schlussfolgerung über Ahnen und Ergründen kommt, hat es schon die Bewegung von Ergründen zum Ahnen in der Bewegung vom Ich durch das Haus poetisch dargestellt. Nur danach wird die Ahnung festgestellt, dass ein vollständiges Ergründen nicht möglich ist. Die Bildlichkeit des Gedichts beweist aber gleichzeitig das Gegenteil: mit poetischen Mitteln kann man Ergründen und Ahnen gleichermassen darstellen, und somit die Spannung zwischen den beiden sowohl ausnutzen wie auch aufheben. 

Aber die letzte Zeile fängt mit einem "Aber" an, das gleichzeitig das "aber" am Anfang dieses Satzes ist, ein "Aber" gegen diese Auslegung von Bildern von geahnter Unergründbarkeit und ergründeter Ahnung. "Aber am Freitag werd ich dich finden" ist nicht "Ahnung" sondern eine Feststellung, als ob das Ich eigentlich wissen würde, dass das Du nur von Montag bis Freitag verreist ist. Erst kippt das Gedicht vom Ergründen ins Ahnen (das aber durch seine Bildlichkeit auch ergründet wird), dann kippt es "aber" wieder in die Sicherheit von dem, was man weisst, und nicht nur ahnt.

So liegt der Schluss nahe, dass das Gedicht doch die beschriebene Situation "ergründet". Nach dieser Lesart bildet das Gedicht ab, wie man doch "alles ergründen kann", wie man eigentlich sicherer sein kann, als man ahnt—und wie Ahnen selber eine Art Ergründen ist. Aus dieser Sicht hat die Lyrik eine ungeheuere Kraft, die hier gefeiert wird: mit ihren eigenen Mitteln ergründet sie den Graben zwischen Gefühlen (Ahnen) und Vernunft (Ergründen), indem sie die beiden Seiten des Grabens verbildlicht. Rationale Erklärung kann genausogut in Bildern dargestellt werden wie die Gefühle, die sonst als das Thema für Lyrik verstanden wird.

Aber es muss noch einmal ein Aber her, da diese Lesart Maus und Kätzchen ignorieren muss. Man kann die Abwesenheit des Dus ergründen, indem man genau liest, wie das Ich die Situation beschreibt, und zum Schluss kommen, dass das vollständige Ergründen durch die Poesie doch möglich ist. Aber die tote Maus und das Kätzchen sind der Ausgangspunkt des Gedichts, und das Kätzchen erscheint später wieder. Die Tiere sind so beschrieben, dass man sie nicht als Bilder des Ahnens lesen kann. Aber sie sind auch nicht als Bilder des Ergründens zu deuten. Die tote Maus in der Falle, das Milch schleckende Kätzchen, später das "inzwischen gesättigte" Kätzchen, das "schnurrend in mein Bett schlüpft"—diese sind keine Bilder, die in der Spannung zwischen Ahnen und Ergründen zu verstehen sind. Die Bilder, die mit dem Verschwinden des Dus zu tun haben, sind alle innerhalb dieser Spannung auszulegen, aber das Gedicht als Ganzes enthält diese anderen Bilder, die der berauschenden Macht dieser Lesart widerstehen.

Wenn das heisst, das man nur ahnen kann, warum Maus und Kätzchen hier überhaupt vorkommen, dann ist man wieder beim Vers gelandet, womit diese Auslegung angefangen hat: "ahnend: man kann nicht alles ergründen." Damit hätte man aber die Tierbilder doch ergründet ...?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Talking to Plants

This is the first poem in John Agard's Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2009):


Always talk to your plants.
Sit back and watch them flourish.
Good advice. Of course we presume
that all plants speak English.

Speak slowly, watch them bloom.
If necessary shout each syllable.
Their little ears are ready vessels
for a shower of the Queen's vowels.

Never mind if it's a China rose
or an African violet.
Better yet, recite a bit of English lit.
See abundance spring at your fingertip.

So I spoke like an Oxford don
to my wilting rhododendron.
It wilted more. As for my drooping shrub,
my words only seem to draw more slugs.

O plants, what is it that makes you grow?
I watch my immigrant neighbour's patio
with a sense of distant envy.
Tell me, plants, must I address you in Punjabi?

My first approach to this poem is quite simple: Agard makes fun of "talking to plants" by considering various issues about how to go about doing it (the appropriate language and volume, for example). It's a neat bit of mockery of a rather silly idea.

Given that one person who is associated with the idea is Prince Charles, this poem also takes a poke at him, whose speech is relatively close to "the Queen's vowels" (though not necessarily the same as that of an "Oxford don," who may or may not be from Britain these days). This part of the poem's humor is taken further by the contrast with the "immigrant neighbour," who is a better gardener than the speaker. That is, the poem touches on issues about what it is to be British, and what characteristics the British can be said to have. The immigrant speaking Punjabi turns out to be more connected with the environment he lives in than the speaker is, with his efforts to speak like the elite. Agard, himself an immigrant from Guyana, turns this poem about a silly idea into a serious reflection on identity, nation, and location that disrupts the standard conception of the relationship between those three categories.


My second approach to this poem involves how it does its work. Its five quatrains are quite regular in shape, but they never settle down into an established rhythm, nor do the end-rhymes establish a pattern like ABAB or ABBA. It does have a shape, though, that one could even imagine writing further poems in. It involves the pattern of words that develop the poem's "argument." The basic frame of the pattern involves the words "Always" (in line 1), "So" (13), and "O" (17): first comes a description of a situation (with "always"), then comes a consequence of the situation (with "so"), and then comes a final commentary on the situation, in the form of an exclamation (with "O"). This could be an exercise in a writing workshop: use these three words as the starting points of three parts of a poem; the parts need not be the same length. In fact, it's important here that the parts do not have the same length: insofar as this poem is a joke, it depends on its comic timing for its effect, and the brevity of the last two parts (the last two quatrains) is essential to its timing.

The first part of the poem's argument has internal details that are important as well: the expressions "Of course" (3), "Never mind" (9), and "Better yet" (11) relate the parts of the description of the situation to each other. In fact, they make it clear that calling this the poem's "argument" is perfectly appropriate; these are, after all, the kinds of phrases that one might use in an argument (or a speech) to develop one's points. Again, this could be the basis of a writing exercise (whether a poem or an essay): begin three successive points or perspectives with these phrases.

The argumentative structure of the poem thus looks like this (with a few more things highlighted that I have not discussed):

Always talk to your plants.
Sit back and watch them flourish.
Good advice. Of course we presume
that all plants speak English.

Speak slowly, watch them bloom.
If necessary shout each syllable.
Their little ears are ready vessels
for a shower of the Queen's vowels.

Never mind if it's a China rose
or an African violet.
Better yet, recite a bit of English lit.
See abundance spring at your fingertip.

So I spoke like an Oxford don
to my wilting rhododendron.
It wilted more. As for my drooping shrub,
my words only seem to draw more slugs.

O plants, what is it that makes you grow?
I watch my immigrant neighbour's patio
with a sense of distant envy.
Tell me, plants, must I address you in Punjabi?


A third approach to the poem involves looking at some of its verbs. Among others, the first stanza contains "talk," "watch," and "speak." The rest of the poem runs through variations on talking and watching: "speak," "watch," "shout," "recite," and "see" appear before the turn at the beginning of the fourth quatrain, many of them in the imperative (appropriately, since this is a set of instructions, and instructions are often given in the imperative). If the seeing theme is not as explicit in the last two quatrains (only "watch" in line 18 is a verb of seeing), the speaking theme continues to be central with "spoke" (13), "tell" (20), and "address" (20).

All this relates to the poem's titular theme: talking to plants. When one talks to plants, one wants to see results. More generally, the poem considers speech and language as having possible effects, as working a bit of magic, as it were. The content of what is said to the plants is not as important as the fact of saying something at all, and the possibility that the act of speaking can produce the desired effect. From this perspective, the poem is about "how to do things with words." And how one does things with words is related to social, political, and cultural hierarchies: it is the voice of authority (of "the Queen's vowels" and an "Oxford don") that is supposed to be able to produce the desired effects, along with "a bit of English lit."

Yet the poem undermines this authority; after all, the "proper" voice does not help the plants "flourish." Only Punjabi appears to do so—an underprivileged language, at least in a British context. Still, the poem does not privilege Punjabi as some kind of mystical "other" that actually does have the magical qualities attributed to language by the idea of talking to plants. If Punjabi were being celebrated here, it would ruin the joke by reducing the poem to a bit of exoticism.

In the end, it's necessary to remember that the poem is primarily making fun of talking to plants. By extension, it also makes fun of the beliefs behind the hierarchies it touches on: the royal family as privileged figures, contrasted with immigrants; the Oxford don and English lit as representatives of privileged culture; prestigious varieties of British English contrasted with Punjabi, an immigrant language. Insofar as these hierarchies represent sites of sociopolitical tension, the poem does not propose ways to resolve such tensions. Instead—to use a Britishism—it takes the piss out of the idea that they can be defused if we just figure out the right way to talk about them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"They don't know that we know"

This is the first poem in Fleur Adcock's collection Looking Back (Oxford, 1997).


That's where they lived in the 1890s.
They don't know that we know,
or that we're standing here, in possession
of some really quite intimate information
about the causes of their deaths,
photographing each other in a brisk wind
outside their terrace house, both smiling
(not callously, we could assure them),
our hair streaming across our faces
and the green plastic Marks and Spencer's bag
in which I wrapped my camera against showers
ballooning out like a wind-sock
from my wrist, showing the direction
of something that's blowing down our century.

Who are "they"? Either they are famous people, or they are relatives of "us"; otherwise, "we" would not know the intimate details of "their deaths." The latter is more likely, as famous people might actually expect people a hundred years later to remember them; hence, they would "know that we know." So "they" are quite likely "our" ancestors.

The present tense in "they don't know that we know" is quite striking; a more straightforward version of the sentence would be this: "They didn't know that we would know." It's possible to object to that formulation; after all, people at least hope that their descendants will remember them, will be on familiar terms with them, will know "where they lived." But of course that hope is different than knowledge; to rephrase it again: "They couldn't know for sure that we would know."

The double present tense that Adcock actually uses, though, collapses a century into a moment of simultaneity, as if we and our ancestors live in the same moment, separated only by knowledge and ignorance: we know the rest of their lives, and all that has happened since, and they don't. This knowledge is vague in the poem; at two key moments (in lines 4 and 14), specifics are absent, replaced by "some" and "something." The "intimate information" is not specified, nor is the implicitly more public information "that's blowing down our century." In the frame of the poem (the first five lines and the last line-and-a-half), information is referred to but not spelled out.

In contrast, the scene involving "us" that begins in line 6 is much more specific. Even as "we" take photographs of each other, the poem itself becomes much more like a photograph, with the visual details of the terrace house, of hair and faces, and of the elaborately described plastic bag. The house and the wind in "our" faces are images "they" might have experienced when they lived here; these images confirm the double present tense that connects them and us. But the plastic bag separates ancestors and descendants, as something the former would not have known. The camera is more ambiguous, as cameras were invented much earlier in the 19th century, but the camera of the late 20th century (even if not yet digital) had become an object with quite a distinct set of associations than it would have had in the 1890s. Even though Eastman Kodak was founded in 1889, the personal camera was certainly not yet an everyday object back then, the kind of thing anybody would have had available to take along when going to look at "where they lived." (Marks & Spencer, by the way, was founded in 1884.)

These traces of social and technological development put some content into the distinction between then and now made in the conclusion by the phrase "something that's blowing down the century"—it is a century of plastic and images. The very vagueness of the phrase makes it somewhat sinister, too—it is the "long twentieth century" in which the world of the 1890s was rent asunder. This undertone, combined with the wind, connects the poem with Walter Benjamin's Angel of History (see part IX of "On the Concept of History"), its back turned toward the future, its wings caught in the wind blowing from the past, the ruins of the past piling up in front of it.

But Adcock's poem is not as ark about the progression of history from past into future. There is a wind blowing, but it is "brisk," not stormy and threatening, and we are smiling (and "not callously"). And as line 2 suggests, "we" are not wholly separated from "them" by time; in fact, the poem as a whole traces the complex ambiguity of being both connected and separated at once. We do not see anything that specific when we look back, but it is also not ruins that we see. The Angel of History may be around the corner, and even the aura of Benjamin's understanding of photography might be hovering around the pictures taken in the poem, but the present is vivid here, both in itself and in its relationship to the past.

"Where They Lived" does not deny that the "something" of the last line has a sinister side, but it does not reduce the century to that. We know things they don't know, but our knowledge of their ignorance does not make their world either a ruin or even something to be nostalgic about. We are here, sympathetically aware of the past, while also enjoying the present, as the time in which we live.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ruthless Realism and Cloying Sentimentality

The following is the first paragraph of the chapter "The Good Samaritan" in Tim Parks's novel Goodness. It appears about two-thirds of the way through the novel. George (the narrator) and his wife Shirley have a seriously handicapped daughter, Hilary, who cannot speak and has hardly developed beyond infancy:

January 1988. Hilary is five. Feeding her this morning, I thought: 'We get less change out of her than one would out of a three-week-old puppy.' I alternate between this ruthless realism and cloying sentimentality. The girl is so constipated that sometimes we have to hook a finger into her anus and lever the turds out. Shirley does this. I simply can't.

Like many a novel's narrator, George does not always have a very accurate vision of himself, but here he is right on target: he does swing between a "ruthless realism" that asserts his clear understanding of the world's difficulties and a "cloying sentimentality" that would conceal those difficulties in favor of an easier perspective.

The "change" he would like to "get out of" Hilary refers to childhood development: a puppy would develop faster than Hilary would. Since George had not wanted to have children, the reference to a puppy also recalls couples who stereotypically get a dog when they are "not ready for children." But what he and Shirley actually have to "get out of her" is her constipated shit, and it is in terms of shit that the contrast between realism and sentimentality is most fully realized here.

In a sense, "realism" appears here in the very fact that shit is mentioned at all, and it becomes "ruthless" in the explicitness with which George describes the "levering out" of the "turds." In contrast, George's "sentimentality" is somewhat concealed, only becoming clear in the final contrast between Shirley and himself: it is not both of them ("we") who do the dirty work but just Shirley. George wants to be a "ruthless realist," but when it comes to shit, he "simply can't" handle it.

The "realist," then, is beaten by the sentimentality his demonstrative "ruthlessness" is meant to combat. In his memoir Youth, J. M. Coetzee writes that "ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn." (See also this post.) Here, in Parks's novel, "ruthless realism" also ends up looking like a trick, and a relatively easy one at that: if you make a nasty joke and talk about your handicapped daughter's shit, then you are being "ruthless," even if it is your wife who actually cleans up the mess.

The "realistic" and the "sentimental" are also literary categories. Chronologically, the "sentimental" novel came first, in the eighteenth century, while literary "realism" emerged in the nineteenth century. In a simplified version of literary history, "realism" trumped the "sentimental" precisely by being "ruthless" rather than "cloying," and that is precisely the tendency of the "trick" of "ruthless honesty": it aims to produce a "realism" that trumps feelings.

But the slippery nature of this "hard trick" is clear in this passage. George plays tough, but is not really tough enough to face up to the challenge posed by his handicapped daughter. From the perspective of Parks's novel, the history of the genre is not the replacement of the sentimental by the realistic; rather, fiction "alternates" between the realistic and the sentimental. "Realism" would like to be "ruthless" enough to defeat "sentimentalism," but its tricks are never-ending attempts to conceal its own sentimental side. Let's talk tough about shit, but someone else has to actually dispose of it -- and the people who have to do so are those otherwise dismissed as "sentimental."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


A little something from Walter Benjamin's essay on Kafka, lifted from here:

In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter's bench; and so each spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. "I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn't have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish". The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. "And what good would this wish have done you?" someone asked. "I'd have a shirt", was the answer.

A wish expressed through a story.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friend of the Devil

My band Human Shields made a video last night of "Friend of the Devil" in memory of Jerry Garcia, who died on August 9, 1995. In our practice room, with the bookshelves in the background.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Apollo Killing the Cyclops

I like a bit of comedy when I visit an art museum. Such as this picture, one of four frescoes at the National Gallery in London, Domenichino's "Apollo Killing the Cyclops," with a dwarf in the corner peaking out from behind a painted curtain, as if the fresco were a painting of a tapestry:

Or Jan van Huysum's "Flowers in a Terracotta Vase," with its wonderful detail of a fly so realistic that one could think it was a real fly that had landed on the painting:
It's down on the pedestal of the vase, slightly left of center. Here's a closeup of it:

Monday, July 09, 2012

Paintings with bookmarks

When I visited the National Gallery in London last month, I found myself fascinated by minute details in paintings. One type of detail that kept coming up was the bookmark, as in this painting by Lorenzo Lotto:
Holbein the Younger's portrait of Erasmus features not only a stunning depiction of a glass container but also another book with a bookmark in it (in the upper-right corner):
A book alone is apparently not enough to mark a figure as being a humanist (or what we would today call an intellectual?); it takes a bookmark to show that the person is an active intellectual.

Two poems at Hobble Creek Review

I have two poems up at the Hobble Creek Review: "Eagle (Letter from My Aunt)" and "Rain from Cloudless Skies." Thanks to Justin Evans for publishing my poems!

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Lammas Hireling as poem and film

Filmmaker Paul Casey made this striking movie of Ian Duhig's equally striking poem "The Lammas Hireling":

The Lammas Hireling from Paul Casey on Vimeo.

And here's the poem:

After the fair, I'd still a light heart
and a heavy purse, he struck so cheap.
And cattle doted on him: in his time
mine only dropped heifers, fat as cream.
Yields doubled. I grew fond of company
that knew when to shut up. Then one night,

disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife,
I hunted down her torn voice to his pale form.
Stock-still in the light from the dark lantern,
stark-naked but for one bloody boot of fox-trap,
I knew him a warlock, a cow with leather horns.
To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow,

the wisdom runs, muckle care. I levelled
and blew the small hour through his heart.
The moon came out. By its yellow witness
I saw him fur over like a stone mossing.
His lovely head thinned. His top lip gathered.
His eyes rose like bread. I carried him

in a sack that grew lighter at every step
and dropped him from a bridge. There was no
splash. Now my herd's elf-shot. I don't dream
but spend my nights casting ball from half-crowns
and my days here. Bless me Father for I have sinned.
It has been an hour since my last confession.

My favorite moment in the film is at 7:10, when one of the cattle pees.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Severed Head in Tim Parks's "Destiny"

In the following paragraph from Tim Parks's novel Destiny, the narrator, Chris Burton, is in the office of one Doctor Busi, the director of a clinic where Burton's schizophrenic son Marco had been confined until his recent suicide. At the beginning of the novel, Burton and his wife (an Italian) had been in London, where they heard the news of Marco's death. The novel presents Burton's train of thought as he and his wife head back from London to Italy (where he has lived most of his adult life while working as a journalist). The paragraph is typical in its abrupt, often unmarked shifts through various levels of narration and Burton's introspection. In particular, two issues are distracting Burton from his conversation with the doctor: first, he has just learned that he had been offered a pardon for tax evasion, but the deadline has already passed; secondly, the doctor's office in the villa the clinic is in has the remains of an old fresco on the wall. At the beginning of the paragraph, Busi mentions Burton's adopted daughter Paola, whose testimony about Marco's violent behavior towards her and their mother had led him to be confined to the clinic:

Your daughter was a frequent visitor, Busi acknowledged. He had been getting round to this, he said, but it seemed important to consider the nature of the deceased first, to clarify the question of suicide. Please do sit down, Signor Burton, Dottor Busi said. You are understandably fraught. Actually, I had imagined that at this point your daughter would have told you about all this. I wasn't aware you didn't know. But it's quite straightforward. Your daughter was a frequent visitor, Signor Burton. Marco was her brother after all. However, we, the staff here, in liaison, I might say, with Dottor Vanoli, since he has a longer experience of the case than any of us, agreed with her, your daughter, and her husband, that it would be best not to let you know of these visits, since it was felt your wife might intervene in some way. She might not approve. I sat down. Paola hadn't said a word. She was hiding things from me. I had been offered a pardon, I thought. A pardon! But the deadline has lapsed. We were concerned about your wife's reaction. I watched Busi speak. I face prosecution. The fresco must have been one of those jumbled crowd scenes where a saint is martyred. There was a head by the doctor's left shoulder. A woman's hand, a man's head. Will they pursue me if I return to England? Then on three occasions recently, Busi said, when we felt Marco was stable enough, we allowed him a day out with your daughter, if and only if accompanied by her husband, of course. I stared at the supine head. As I said, we agreed that these outings would be strictly confidential as it was clear that given the animosity between various members of the family this development might upset someone, Marco's mother in particular, and perhaps prompt her to intervene in some way, or even to return to Italy before the experiment of your absence had been properly explored. It was impossible to say whether it had been severed. Our assessment was that that experiment was yielding results. In particular, I should say -- perhaps it was just the broken surface of the fresco -- your daughter was concerned that your wife would feel that in taking Marco out she was deliberately exposing him to situations which would put her in a position to make false accusations that he had assaulted her. How real that convoluted worry was, I don't know, but under the circumstances and given what happened in the past I felt it wise to accept your daughter's request for confidentiality. (pp. 172-173)

"The broken surface of the fresco" includes a man's "supine head," but it is "impossible to say whether it had been severed." The fragment of the fresco that is left does imply something about the fresco as a whole ("must have been one of those jumbled crowd scenes where a saint is martyred"), but the part cannot be taken as standing for the whole. The "severed head" becomes a figure of the impossibilitiy of metonmyic reading, in which the interpretation of part of a work allows one to draw conclusions about the whole of a work. This paragraph, then, cannot stand for the whole of Destiny. The metonymic reading of details cannot provide a reading of the book as a whole. In its attempt to use individual details of the work to stand for the whole, close reading must fail.

This is reinforced by the paragraph's emphasis on the clinical interpretation of the schizophrenic. Just as Burton cannot draw conclusions about the fresco on the basis of the "severed head," Busi can only speculate about his patient, Burton's son Marco. The symptoms of schizophrenia represent tantalizing fragments that imply the whole "scene" without actually fully presenting that scene. 

Still, a metonymic reading of this paragraph as a depiction of the failure of metonymic reading falls prey to a simple paradox: how does this metonymic reading escape the critique of metonymic reading? But this paragraph is not a "severed head" that is all that is left of the novel. A metonymic reading depends on the "unread" parts still being present; they must still be there as potential confirmation of what one is claiming about the part one has focused on. My discussion of the paragraph began by contextualizing it; I filled in the absent details that make it possible to make sense of the paragraph. This metonymic close reading is not so critical of its own method after all.

The paragraph's overall structure confirms this. The juxtaposition of details from the dialogue with the details of Burton's thoughts also creates a metonmy that leads one to read from the part to the whole: the details interact suggestively as if they might belong together after all. The problem of Destiny is finally not that there are too few details in a "broken" fresco but that there are too many details. It is the surplus of detail, not the lack of detail, that prevents close reading of selected individual details. The diagnosis of schizophrenia through a reading of a set of fragmentary symptoms (of "severed heads," as it were) may be subject to the critique of interpretation figured in Burton's distracted comments on what is left of the fresco, but the novel as a whole is not.

A metonymic reading of a fragment, then, can only follow convention, what one expects to be the case ("must have been one of those jumbled crowd scenes"). But the problem of a metonymic reading of a complete work lies elsewhere, in the excess of detail that could be drawn into an interpretation, and in the necessary contextualization of those details in paraphrases like the one that began this discussion.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fleet Foxes

"Helplessness Blues," by Fleet Foxes, is an impressive record with a rich sound full of harmonies and unusual arrangements of instruments. It is good enough to be disappointed: why does it leave me cold? Perhaps it celebrates its sources too openly, too proudly: a late-60s psychedelic folk sound I associate with Donovan, Fairport Convention, or the Incredible String Band. "Lorelai" even explicitly cites Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," specifically "Fourth Time Around."

These are all great sources, so this might well grow on me. And the wild saxophone on "The Shrine/An Argument" shatters the sweet sounds with dissonance. In short, a recognizably brilliant album that still falls short of truly moving me, though I'm still hopeful that it will. (Hat tip to DMB.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Christopher Reid's sheep

I went to the first show that Katy Evans-Bush writes about here. In fact, those are photos she took with my iPhone. Christopher Reid's variations on the form of "Baa, baa, black sheep" inspired me to write one for him. His didn't have titles of their own; mine does:


Hey there Christopher,
have you any verses?
Yes sir, yes sir, 
three good curses.
One for Abel,
and one for Cain,
and one for the evil twin
who lives in my brain.

It's a cool form to play with. Similarly, I occasionally write poems whose stanzas have a form I call the "wheelbarrow," after "The Red Wheelbarrow," which is actually quite structured: three words in one line, one line in the next, new stanza, repeat:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

There's a visual pun here, too, in that the three-one structure makes each couplet look a bit like a wheelbarrow.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Talking Heads

James Verini's "The Talking Heads Song That Explains Talking Heads" describes how "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" exemplifies (and marks the end of) the brilliant series of songs and albums that Talking Heads produced from 1977-1983. I recommend the article to all Talking Heads fans, and the band to anyone young enough to have never heard (or perhaps even heard of?) them.

Verini appears to be young enough (he refers to "the late nineties" and "when I went to college" in the same paragraph) to not understand something important about Talking Heads: for a certain kind of person who was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, they were the ultimate band. What kind of person? Going to college, somewhat intellectual, a bit left-leaning. And they were the only band that everybody agreed about, in this sense: if there was a stereo war going on at a party (with people going over to the record player, or later CD player, and arguing about which songs to play), there was one perfect solution: put on Talking Heads and everybody would dance.

But Verini is also right about something: no matter how present the band was in the early 80s, those born later often have not heard of them. I have finally gotten over being surprised when the most musically literate of my students (the ones who are in bands; the ones who write music criticism for local papers) not only don't really know Talking Heads but in some cases haven't even heard of them. I simply tell them to check out this band as something to look forward to, and when they do, they report back to me, and they inevitably say something along the lines of, "Oh my God, how could I have missed these guys?"

And last but not least: you gotta love the lamp:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My reading at LEX-Icon in Mulhouse, June 10, 2012

I had the pleasure of reading at the Ballades event that concluded the LEX-Icon conference in Mulhouse on Sunday, June 10, 2012. The reading was organized by the indefatigable Jennifer K. Dick; she invited over a dozen poets to be part of a mobile reading that went to a variety of locations in the city. My reading took place in the middle of a square outside the Mulhouse offices of the Parti Socialiste.

At the last moment, I decided to begin with a bit of Ernst Jandl, "fünfter sein", followed by my translation of it. If you know the poem, you know that it's easy to memorize!

That got me good and warmed up, and from then on, the adrenalin carried me through the reading. Since I was doing an open-air reading without a microphone, I made a point of speaking as loudly as I could without shouting. That was quite exhilarating; it felt good to put my full voice into the poems. I wonder how that would work indoors with a microphone.

Here's my setlist:

1. fünfter sein (Ernst Jandl)
Ernst Jandl, who could not be there, sadly
2. fifth in line (my translation of the Jandl; I didn't sing it, though!)
4. Expat
5. City
6. Slide
7. Cabinet d'Amateur

Many thanks to Jennifer for inviting me and to all the other poets who read for making it such a wonderful afternoon! I'm definitely interested in doing something similar in Basel, with a mobile group of poets wandering around reading! And I might well steal Jacob Bromberg's idea of crumpling up each poem after reading it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Kind of Times Are These

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!

(Bertolt Brecht, "An die Nachgeborenen"; Brecht reads it here)

What kind of times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many atrocities!

(Bertolt Brecht, "To Those Born Later," my translation)

The "conversation about trees" that Brecht refers to in this poem from the 1930s has often been associated with poets who were then writing about nature rather than about the "atrocities" taking place even before the Second World War began. In this (entirely justified) reading, Brecht is setting up an apparently exclusive alternative: write about nature, or write about politics.
Adrienne Rich's 1991 poem "What Kind of Times Are These" (video here) takes up Brecht's imagery directly both in its title (a translation of "Was sind das für Zeiten") and in its concluding lines:

… why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Brecht addresses "those born later"; in contrast, Rich addresses her contemporaries: those readers or listeners who "still listen." This first phrase seems like praise of the addressee, but what follows has a critical edge: "talking about trees" is a lure that is "necessary" to get "you" to listen at all. In a reading of these lines in terms of the reading of Brecht sketched above, a "conversation about trees" becomes a way for a poet to trick someone into thinking about "atrocities" rather than a way of avoiding doing so. Writing poetry about nature, here, does not exclude writing poetry about politics; in fact, "in times like these," only poetry about nature can engage the listener in such a way as to get poetry about politics heard at all.

Unlike Brecht, who mentions trees only once, and only indirectly ("a conversation about trees" and not the trees themselves), Rich actually does write about trees. In keeping with the poem's conclusion, the first stanza already makes a move from trees to politics:

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

Rather than politics in general, this is a history of a "revolutionary" politics engaged in by "the persecuted." It is also a history of failure: the path of the revolution "breaks off into shadows"; the "meeting-house" for the revolutionaries was "abandoned." In this light, the odd formulation that "the grass grows uphill" makes sense: the revolution is an uphill battle with many setbacks and many obstacles.

The obstacles to revolution include the atrocities referred to by Brecht. The "disappearance" of South American leftists during the 1970s and 1980s may only hover in the shadows of Rich's first stanza, but the idea of someone "being disappeared" by the authorities appears explicitly at the end of her second stanza:

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

The reference to a "Russian poem" comes quite unexpectedly; is it the "mushrooms" or "the edge of dread" that is supposed to make it necessary to insist that we "not be fooled"? Along with her use of Brecht's poem for her title, Rich's note to the poem includes another reference: the juxtaposition of "truth" and "dread" echoes the conclusion of W.S. Merwin's translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam: "the earth’s moving nearer to truth and to dread." It's not the mushrooms that might have been "Russian," then, but the "dread." 

So this is not Russia, where Mandelstam was "disappeared"; nor is it a South American military dictatorship whose actions led to the coining of the transitive sense of "disappear" (usually in the passive voice as "Jorge was disappeared last week"). For some American readers, all the words describing this "place between two stands of trees" might well have pointed to such an "elsewhere," a country whose distance from the reader's own makes it easy to condemn. But this is "not somewhere else but here"; this is "our country," which we readers cannot distance ourselves from.

Still, the poem does not name the country in question. The author's name and biography tell us to think of it as the United States, and that specificity is very important to her work. At the same time, the lack of specificity is important to the poem itself, because it does not allow non-American readers to distance themselves from their own countries' atrocities, their own societies' "ways of making people disappear."

In the third stanza, Rich makes her lack of specificity explicit by refusing to identify the place in question:

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

If Rich told us where this "paradise" is, the specificity would relieve anyone from "somewhere else" of responsibility for the "disappearances" the poem refers to. But this refusal to identify the place also protects it from capitalist exploitation, even if the attempt to do so has already failed, just like the revolutions that left the "ghosts" behind at the "crossroads." After all, if she knows who is going to "buy it, sell it, [and] make it disappear," then her concealment of the location of this place will not actually protect it from "development."

For Brecht, a poem "about trees" is a poem that is explicitly not about politics and "atrocities." Rich implies that a nature poem can be a way to draw people into a consideration of politics. But in this third stanza, she makes clear that a poem "about trees" can also be quite explicitly political. The first two stanzas understand politics in terms of revolution and political history; this third stanza criticizes how capitalism aims to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold; in the process, the small "paradises" that can be found in out-of-the-way places are "disappeared."

This reading of the last line of the stanza in terms of political economy can be complemented by an "environmentalist" reading. By the late 20th century, after all, it had become clear that "a conversation about trees" might well involve speaking about "atrocities," as landscapes all over the world are destroyed in the name of economic progress. In this light, Rich's poem completely overturns Brecht's stark distinction between nature poetry and political poetry. Nature is not just a tool to get people to think about politics, as the final stanza implies with its variation on Brecht. In fact, nature itself, commodified and potentially "disappeared," is already as much a site of politics as any "revolutionary road" or "meeting-house" for "the persecuted." 

Feminists in the 1970s insisted that "the personal is the political," and much of Rich's most famous poetry explores the implications of that claim, which challenged the idea of the private sphere as an apolitical space. "What Kind of Times Are These" extends this challenge by implying that "the environmental is also the political." And it demonstrates how a "political poetry" can address the full range of politics while still being a poem "about trees."