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 ...?