Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cameras as metaphors

In John Fuller's latest collection, Pebble & I, there is a poem called "Small Room in a Hotel", which begins with this quatrain:

In this cool cube of marble
I am valid but invisible

As an image caught in a camera

But not yet reproduced.

This reminded me of another passage about photography that I recently came across, in "Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)" on the Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. (There are a bunch of videos of live performances of the song on YouTube, but mostly pretty low quality audience shots.) After a first verse about a demonstration, the second verse reads:

We left before the dust had time to settle,
And all the broken glass swept off the avenue.

And on the way home held your camera like a bible,

Just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.

And I stood nervous next to you in the dark room
You dropped the paper in my water,
And it all begins to bloom.

So what happens to how the taking of pictures is used as a metaphor when one moves from developing film to processing digital images? Fuller's quatrain could be digital, but the way in which an image in a digital camera has not yet been reproduced is quite different from how an undeveloped image waits to be developed in a film camera. And the Bright Eyes lyric is, in a sense, already out of date, since almost anyone attending a demonstration these days would have a digital camera in hand. So you would not have to wait to develop the pictures to see if "it held some kind of truth," since you could look at the pictures on the camera's screen on your way home.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cats of the Temple

A theme that runs through Brad Leithauser's poetry is the position of the mind in the world, or the relationship between the mind and the world. There are three moments in his 1986 collection Cats of the Temple that stake out the territory at issue here. The poem "On the Lee Side (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)" concludes with a description of the mind's desire to see the world as being there just for itself. Leithauser describes the mind (or this part of the mind) as an "elusive but unavoidable, queer / but predictable inner companion":

... who's
neatly, snugly sure

just how this splendid

show of weather's to be accounted for:

ingenious exhibitions exclusively intended

to entice and entertain him here.

From this perspective, the mind is sure that the world is there for it, as "irresistible grist / for the fabulist," as the book's opening poem, "Two Suspensions against a Blacktop Backdrop," puts it.

Here, the mind (or this part of Leithauser's mind) feels that the world is there for its delectation, but near the end of the book, this perspective shifts significantly. First, in "Seaside Greetings (Oki Islands, Japan Sea)," the penultimate poem in the book, after describing how "the crest of a bluff" looks like Japanese armor, Leithauser carefully considers that surprising similarity, and others:

Of course given the scale Nature has
to work with, all of these uncanny,

and often funny, resemblances

(the ancient trees

wrung like buxom women, whales
in the clouds, bights like laughing

horses' heads, potatoes bearing profiles

of generals

dead now for centuries) are

statistical certainties, nothing

more, and yet they do appease our

appetite for

play at the heart of things ...

The "ingenious exhibitions" of the earlier poem are now "uncanny ... resemblances" that are "statistical certainties, nothing / more"—and that line break after "nothing" briefly makes those "resemblances" and "certainties" into "nothing." That "nothing" then calls forward to the "things" of the next clause, the "and yet" clause that gives us something back from that "nothing / more": the satisfaction of a desire for play. The "ingenious exhibitions" may not be "ingenious" and they may not be "exhibitions," but the mind can still be appeased by them—not with meaning, but with playfulness.

The final poem in the book takes place in the same location: "On a Seaside Mountain (Oki Islands, Japan Sea)". At the top of the mountain, there are horses in a pasture, and the poem concludes:

The sun's pace
is perfectly theirs, and the planted ease

they are breathing, are breeding, in this place,

while not meant for us, lightens us anyway.

The "ease" of the horses is "not meant for us," but it "lightens us anyway." Again, the mind seeks something in the world, but in these last two images, Leithauser's "elusive but unavoidable, queer / but predictable inner companion" has been tempered by a realism that still leaves room for that companion to be "enticed and entertained." The world may not be "exclusively intended" for us—it may even be devoid of meaning—but it "appeases" and "lightens" us anyway.


A few lines I particularly liked from Durs Grünbein's new book Aroma:

Die Städte traumen alle voneinander. ("Corso Trieste")

"The cities all dream of each other": behind this evocative image is the simple fact that streets and squares in one city are often named after other cities, but that does not reduce but rather enhances the evocativeness of the line.

Dies ist der Platz mit den glücklichsten Tauben der Welt. ("Piazza San Marco")

"This is the square with the happiest pigeons in the world": I read this quick translation of the line to my mother, and she immediately knew which square it referred to. I had not told her the title of the poem!

Werbung macht müde. ("Aroma," XXII)

"Advertising is exhausting": Or perhaps "wears me out," but Grünbein is, as usual, more general than personal. The title poem, "Aroma", is a 53-poem sequence about a year spent in Rome at the Villa Massimo. Looks like a nice play to stay:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Übersetzerhaus Looren

Literary translators looking for a good place to finish up a commission might be interested in the "Translation House Looren" in Switzerland. There's information about residency for a "working stay" at the house here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Day's Announcement

Here's a poem from Brad Leithauser's Curves and Angles that made me burst into tears (with my own father mostly fit but still worse for wear after two strokes in the past five years). Looking at it again, I am particularly struck by the two different meanings of "gone" in the first two lines.

If you like this one, there are several more at the link if you click the book's title above.


The family’s hope? That he was too far gone
to notice she was gone. But when he asked for her
for four weeks running, it didn’t seem quite fair
to reassure him with—She’ll be back soon.
So when, pale blue eyes jumping in his head, he said
again, Nurse, where’s my Meg?, as if she were a stranger
(her, his own Bridget, sixth child and sole daughter!),
she told him—Poppa, listen: Momma’s dead.

The news plunged deep into that drowned brain.
He bowed his weighty head. She took his hand—
Had she made a mistake? Could he understand?
. . . Maybe, for when he raised his face again,
he wore a look of rationality triumphant:

I knew it. Otherwise, she would have come.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fishing for Amber

Ciarán Carson's Fishing for Amber contains several passages that indirectly describe how the book works. Here's one:

For one thing leads to another, as it does in Holland. The cities, by means of canals, communicate with the sea; canals run from town to town, and from them to villages, which are themselves bound together with these watery ways, and are connected even to the houses scattered all over the country; smaller canals surround the fields, meadows, pastures and kitchen-gardens, serving at once as boundary wall, hedge and roadway; every house is a little port, in which you might hear stories from the seven seas. One can drift from any place to anywhere. (152-153)

While reading Fishing for Amber, I kept thinking of W. G. Sebald's books, so I was pleased to come across a reference to St. Sebald in Carson's Shamrock Tea (which I read immediately after reading Fishing for Amber). But when I was done with both these Carson books, I no longer thought of Shamrock Tea as being "Sebaldesque"; it ends up being quite different than anything Sebald wrote (except perhaps Austerlitz, which, like Shamrock Tea, is held together by a continuous narrative more than any of Sebald's other books, or than Fishing for Amber).

Instead, it is Fishing for Amber that actually feels Sebaldesque, with one significant difference: Sebald's work is very melancholy, even pessimistic, while Fishing for Amber uses similar associative techniques (encapsulated in the quotation above) but takes a much different kind of pleasure in those techniques, not the pleasure of melancholy that pervades Sebald but a pleasure in how full of wonders the world is. There is darkness in Carson as well (otherwise, the books would not be interesting), but the experience is of pleasure most of all, while in Sebald, the darkness is foregrounded, and the joy of reading his work comes in spite of the darkness, as it were.

In both Fishing for Amber and Shamrock Tea, Carson repeatedly contemplates paintings, especially Dutch paintings (the Arnolfini Double portrait by Jan van Eyck plays a crucial role in Shamrock Tea). But it was his description of a Vermeer painting in Fishing for Amber that struck me most, in part because I had just read another description of the same painting in Michael Donhauser's Nahe der Neige. Here's Carson on the painting:

... one of the essentials of comfort for a Dutch lady was the vuur stoof, a square box open on one side to admit an earthen pan filled with embers of turf, and perforated to allow the heat to ascend and warm the feet; it served as a footstool, and was concealed under the dress. The use of it was rarely dispensed with, whatever the season, indoors or out—the citizen's wife had it carried after her by her servant to church or at the theatre.

This, indeed, is the object depicted in the lower right corner of Vermeer's Woman Pouring Milk ... She's pouring white milk from a red earthenware jug into a brown glazed bowl and there's a loaf of bread in a wicker basket on the table and a lidded pitcher and other bits of broken bread on the tablecloth. (99-100)

What struck me was Carson's emphasis on the "vuur stoof" in his description of the painting, in contrast to his merely passing mention of the bread on the table. Donhauser emphasizes the bread, and mentions the stove only in passing:

Der Raum, worin das geschieht, ist ein Neben- oder Zwischenraum, der nicht wirklich als Küche erkennbar ist—es hängen da ein Korb und ein Messingbehälter, ein Stövchen steht auf dem Boden ... die Magd, die schaut nicht auf, sie bereitet ein Gericht namens Wentelteefje, wofür Brot gebrochen wurde und wofür die Magd nun Milch in eine Schüssel schenkt; das Brot wird dann etwa eine Stunde in der Milch eingeweicht werden ... (19-20)

I don't have anything to add to these two descriptions; I just enjoyed the (Sebaldesque?) coincidence of reading them both within a few days of each other, as well as how each author emphasized one thing while only barely mentioning the other, so that the two descriptions end up wonderfully complementing each other.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Introduction to the Songs of Innocence and Experience

I read this just now on the Poetry Foundation iPhone app, and I don't think I've ever been quite as aware of just how brilliant the poem is. And then I found it in all its illuminated glory at and thought I'd share it with you. A perfect example of how complex simplicity can be.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"World's greatest bass line"

I put a link to my post about The Smiths on my Facebook profile, with this comment:

The Smiths as "the commodification of the critique of commodities." Oh shut up and dance! :-)

That led a friend to say, "What difference does it make?" And that reminded me of this story: It was sometime in the mid-eighties. I was at a party at Synergy, a co-op at Stanford, and the band was playing "Mystery Achievement," by The Pretenders. Jack Sayers was on bass, but I don't remember which of the specific bands he was in that was playing that night (Missy and the Boogiemen; The Heptiles?). And while that killer bass line was throbbing along, I found myself next to my friend Paul G., and I said to him, "World's greatest bass line!" And he agreed. A few moments later, I asked Paul, "Do you think the bassist knew it was the world's greatest bass line when he came up with it?" And Paul stopped dancing for a moment and said something like, "That's the question, isn't it? Did Rilke know how good 'The Duino Elegies' were while he was writing them? Or was he just writing them, so caught up in the act of creation that he did not think about how good they were? Does the genius know when he has produced a masterpiece?"

And then we went back to dancing!

"The Smiths"

Simfy listening: The Smiths, The Smiths

My joke about The Smiths and The Cure back in the eighties was that I liked their guitarists, but not their singers, which was not a problem with The Smiths, with Morrissey on vocals and Johnny Marr on guitar, but was a problem with The Cure, with Robert Smith on guitar and vocals. In either case, it came down to that I was impressed by the bands but found the singers so annoying that I could not stand them.

Over the years, I've come to like The Cure after all; the turning point was probably the use of their song as the title song of the brilliant film Boys Don't Cry. But I've still never gotten into The Smiths, nor been taken with Morrissey as a solo artist. But Simfy led me to give their first album a listen while running recently.

The first thing I noticed is that Morrissey's voice does not annoy me as much as it used to (though I still don't like it much). In contrast, Marr's guitar work doesn't seem as impressive as it once did! (Perhaps I need to listen to later Smiths albums to get what I remembered.) While running, I began to ride a train of thought that took me back in several ways: the eighties fans of The Cure and The Smiths felt spoken to by their music and by their lyrics of disillusionment with the world, even despair at its emptiness. And this album does communicate such feelings effectively—the paradox being that such feelings derive at least in part from dissatisfaction with the consumer world but their artistic expression takes the form of consumer goods (albums). So there I was, jogging in 2010 and, as if I was back in the eighties, thinking about "the commodification of the critique of commodities." At the same time that I was off on this high-falutin' philosophy trip, I was also struck by how funny Morrissey can be, in his deadpan way, as in "Still Ill":

For there are brighter sides to life,
And I should know, because I've seen them
But not very often ...

Back home, listening to the end of the album, I was drawn back to Morrissey's lyrics by a line from "Suffer Little Children": "Manchester, you have a lot to answer for." This made my digression away from the album seem very appropriate, what with Manchester having to "answer for" the global commodity capitalism it was, in many senses, the birthplace of. It was not a surprise to me that The Smiths generated such a train of thought; I had always recognized them as a band worth taking seriously, despite my dislike of them. And this round of listening to their first album does make me want to check out the rest of their catalog, as well as at least a bit of Morrissey's, even though I doubt I will become a big fan.

(Note to Smiths fans: By now I know that "Suffer Little Children" is not a critique of capitalism but a response to the Moors murders, so you don't have to make fun of me for not knowing that!)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Ian Seed, "From a Long Way"

Here's a poem from Ian Seed's Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman, 2009):


Sometimes I asked: how do I reach
this truth? Each time I was surprised
by the pictures they painted of you
as if day or night could be framed.

So I stepped out and journeyed
not to learn your secrets but to see you
tying your shoe laces beside the path
which cuts into the mountain as it climbs.

If it hasn't been done already, someone should write a study of such eight-line, two-quatrain poems with a hinge between the quatrains (here, a causal hinge with that "so"). One approach to such a study would be to consider how the form created by the lines interacts with other patterns created by the words. The most obvius one is that the first quatrain has two sentences, while the second only has one, and the poem's three sentences get longer and longer. Here's another pattern, highlighted in bold:

Sometimes I asked: how do I reach
this truth? Each time I was surprised
by the pictures they painted of you
as if day or night could be framed.

So I stepped out and journeyed
not to learn your secrets but to see you
tying your shoe laces beside the path
which cuts into the mountain as it climbs.

I could imagine other poems making the exact same argument, but with different themes, Sometimes something happens, each time it had this feature, as if ... So I did not something, not with one intention but with another.

Or there's this shape, too, now highlighted:

Sometimes I asked: how do I reach
this truth? Each time I was surprised
by the pictures they painted of you
as if day or night could be framed.

So I stepped out and journeyed
not to learn your secrets but to see you
tying your shoe laces beside the path
which cuts into the mountain as it climbs.

The first pattern is the shape of the argument; this is the argument's content, but one could imagine a poem that addresses the same issues in the same order with the same words while having a different shape. The interaction of the sentences, the quatrains, and the two patterns I highlighted work together to establish the poem's emphasis on pictures and seeing over against truth and learning.

Both these patterns within the lines are striking, of course, in that they "stop," as it were, before the final two lines. These lines are the only ones in which there's no shifting around, no contrast, no staking out of territory—just the image being seen "from a long way." "Secrets" and "truth" are rejected, then, in favor of a picture, of something "seen"—not by them, but by the poem's speaker. As Seed writes in the prose poem "A Cry Permitted": "There is nothing you need to understand. Shake hands and surrender to another vision." (For some reason, both when I wrote notes on Seed in the back of the book and when I typed this up, I first produced "version" there instead of "vision.")

(For another example of the shifting, contrasting, staking-out-of-territory style of the first six lines of Seed's poem, see my quotation from John Gallaher here.)

Friday, October 08, 2010

Mozart's Third Brain

Göran Sonnevi's Mozart's Third Brain (translated by Rika Lesser) is a long poem of a restless, dissatisfied mind pondering problems ranging from the global to the most intensely personal. Here is all of an unusually short section that struck me (LXXVII):

Not in vain do you give me your rose The transparent forms
are reborn; from them everything arises All leaves, birds
All the images Growing quickly, quickly destroyed

I will not let you down A flower opened your heart
Now you open mine, again, with your rose, shining dark red
The yellow pollen from eternity's sunflower falls on the table

This recalls the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets, while also being utterly independent of Eliot as it shifts rapidly between image and abstraction. (Eliot hovers in the background at other moments throughout the book, as does Wallace Stevens; I kept hearing echoes of "The Man with the Blue Guitar.")

A passage from the previous page (section LXXV) seems to me to represent how this poem works. This does not contain any of the specific references to events of the time of the poem's writing (early to mid 1990s) that pepper the poem (especially the genocides in the Balkans and in Central Africa), but it is otherwise exemplary of how Sonnevi thinks and writes:

... I pledge allegiance to the contaminated
world, such as it is, in its luminous right . . .

What sort of imaginary community do I seek? Which one
is active, est agens, within me? I project the collective Sade!
The collective Mozart! As if there were no difference!
Summed up in the Gödel-face, dark Beneath the real Gödel's
shy gray shadow In which group do I seek protection? Whom am I
excluding? Which flame of self-forgiveness consumes me?
Societies float gently, like ashes An architecture of smoke

I love the first sentence quoted here, which reminds me of Greg Brown's wonderful song "Two Little Feet": "It's a messed-up world but I love it anyway."

Sonnevi addresses this "allegiance to the contaminated / world" in more specifically political terms later in the poem: "The right to say no is the basis of democracy But only within the matrix of / a deeper yes" (section CIX). There's a philosophical point here resembling Nietzsche's insistence that one must affirm all of existence in order to affirm even one moment of one's life. But the political point is even more startling: democracy provides a space for dispute, for negation, for expressing a choice between options—but it does not (and cannot?) provide for the rejection of that space itself. You have to affirm the system of democracy in order to "say no" to some issue within that system. More specifically, you have to say yes to the result the system produces even when you do not like the result.

That's why I get very angry about claims that one's taxes should not be used to pay for things one doesn't agree with—whether the claim that school vouchers should be provided for private school or that pacifists have a right to refuse to pay taxes because of military spending. (An example from both sides, but it is usually "conservatives" who ask for the right to be exceptions to the system, in my experience.) — That's not a point about Sonnevi's poetry, but it shows how far his work takes you when you follow its leads.