Archive for October, 2010

To Signal Earth

October 29, 2010

The night he died he sat on the bed amid
my drum museum and thought about that time
at Christmas, how we hiked up Vincent’s Peak
to Leo Hightower’s log cabin with a box
of cornflakes and pancake batter all ready-made,
but with no knives or forks to eat them with.

He thought about that patch of pumpkins we
found frozen in the snow up there, a whole field full
of hued orange snow, once bright, now half eaten
by skunks and ‘coons. Eau’ de parfum de melon.
Memory, Gramps, your new pied-á-terre. He smiled and
took out his teeth. He tapped my tin drum one
last time—my mother heard—to signal earth,
her mist, his wish, their presence, ours.
He died amid what pumpkins’ say when cut
apart, for it was Halloween that night, and all the timpani…
well, the timpani try to talk come Halloween,
you know , just as the pumpkins try to die.

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Chapel of Words

October 21, 2010

Again we see a cloud of seals—as if by their mating,
they join the land with the sea and sky.
Sit here, sir, on the edge, out of their sight.
Sit and let their words sit inside you.
In this darkness, they look like mounds of sand,
a crust that must form in the tides.

We of the Earthcutt, we
will bury a loved one here today
among this procreation.
We will ask it
to take its breath back,
its voice back, its words—that speak
so valiantly for him—back.

We will write his names. We will write the verbs
as the tides let us—in a kind of prayer
that unites the near-living with the near-dead.
We will continue to listen
even as the words empty,
as they crash inside the beach.
We know we lack body. We lack substance.
In what will emerge, we will find our place.

May the peace of our home
stay with you and your absent family.
May it stay in the sand.
May we bury the words we write right here—as
the sea will take all of us—
my friend, our many eyes, myriad friends.

Life is prayer.
The Earthcutt send you blessings.
We wash away.

The Halloween in Harlequin

October 17, 2010

Such thought—such thought have I that hold it tight…
W. B. Yeats, Oxford 1920

The Harlequin Circus comes back to Harlequin
each year for Halloween. The elephants,
the Flying Whistler Boys, some jugglers,
Madam Sosostris to read your palm to you,
Captain Mighty spouting mighty flames: all here
for one day only. They pitch a tent,
put on a show, we have a nice parade.

This Halloween in Harlequin the twins
will dress up as a circus clown. Ben will
be on bottom; Betsy up top, on his shoulders.
They’ve been practicing for weeks now,
I understand, so as not to fall.
Since the accident, Betsy can no longer walk;
Ben can’t be her legs forever, though.

Imagine you write a poem to find a subject
and all you find is this.
You write a poem to find a self and all you find is this one.

Betsy,
You are the gasp of air I can
only breathe one day a year. They say
you should have died instead of me.
They say I saved you on  a narrow skid  of road,
a clown in a town called Harlequin, a clown
for one performance only—
on a  beach full of breath,
O my chevalier!—

Ben, you should only
blame God when you’re ready to blame yourself.
A daddy is like a god, and
this daddy, he blames and blames and blames
enough. It’s more than I can say.
Your mom tells me you cry to go to sleep.
Let me try to find the ground for you, okay?
Just be Betsy’s little man a little longer.
Just keep the ghosts away another year.

This Halloween, this All Saints All Souls Day
and Eve, I’ll walk beside them on parade,
Betsy and Ben. I’ll catch them if they topple,
I’ll try to hold each  one’s hand.
Then like the one-day circus that I am
in the town of Harlequin, like
a clown made up of crippled kids, with crippled
little bones,
I too will leave—

We’re all here to give just one performance.
We pitch a tent,
put on a show.
We have a nice parade.

 

Landing

October 11, 2010

Spanner had spent a lazy summer swimming in
long circles in the tidal currents, in
the little sea between the barrier
island they now called Earthcutt Island and
the larger island, Long Island, itself
a barrier to horizon-forming North
America—
all of which he could now see, sitting shotgun
in a Cessna 173, set to
land in a land so blue it must be
his concoction….

Look to the south. The sky and sea were as blue as
he could imagine. He could see the beach
where he’d parked his car. He could see
a ‘family’ of kayakers along the coast.

Spanner is a collector of collective nouns.
A ‘flock’ of seagulls—or a ‘cloud’ of seafowl—flew
into the ocean’s deep emptiness.
That ‘family’ of kayaks is his invention,
sure, floating there among the weeds.
But look again—this time
he sees a ‘congeries’ of currents that
must have been there all along—
for the air and ocean can be nothing
but this congeries. We swim
in it, we float in it.  We live and try to live
in both. ‘And don’t you forget,’ Spanner would
tell the boats below, if he could,
 ‘you can die out there, die
before you find the land, swept out to sea…’

The kayakers wave hello. The Cessna tilts
its wings as if to say,
Hello to all above. Hello to all below.
And hello to Earthcutt Island—so savvy here today—these beaches,
the sand horizon, the makeshift runway
where they will land—

Yes, he could be here today, Spanner could,  just as
the congeries could again lift its collective breath,
in brief, as Spanner breathes, to breathe again…              
It could.

For John Lennon (9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980)
‘Picture yourself on a boat on a river…’

The Muse of Extension [1]

October 8, 2010

As such October comes along and we open
the few windows we have less and less and wait
for our wind chime to play the same tune that
it played yesterday. We know it won’t, though.
Might as well ask the prism to reflect
the same sun through the same window the same
as same can be…the same as July…

Why, in July the sun was vivid as the clouds
that never seemed to rain…

Why, July’s sun damn near killed everything it
could touch.

In Harlequin we bred no grain this year,
no grape, no apples, and the berries, the birds all ate,
of course, and flew away, shitting the seeds
too far north for us to ever find.

They say it’s fire we should blame. They say it’s fire
that has tied us to the ground. That it’s just a pointing. Not
the real source. That it stops us all from flight.

But we could never fly—
it’s only babies can.

As such each October we open a few windows up
so our collective kids, like bats…
like bats baptize the air, spread wings.

Little cherubs, they think for just a minute
how this land below
could not be a home for good, forever, but
for just a minute more
and ask please, please to hold the string.
Hold it taught, tight, see me fly!

And so we watch as they frolic up there and fill
our windows with amazing sights:
A harrowing color, a sky-scape, kites.
I love to see the babies try to extend
the station we call home. It’s almost as if they fly
around up there and learn almost to speak.

We know they don’t, though.
And finally when they do come back to land, we fold them
in our arms again and finally all to sleep,
to sleep.

Oh, Hello, O Hollow One

October 6, 2010

 

(…starts with something from Psalm 79.)
Pour out Thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known Thee,
and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon Thy name.

…for you can spew anything out of that mouth
of yours, Dave, goddamn you can.

Trust me, the fireworks—the fizzle-works—will
remain dry. They will explode…
sure, in adoration, sure…
but puppy-puke is more the like.

And you can manifest Being,
as if it were being-in-the-world itself,
as if your hobble to the highest cliff
was emblematic—
proclaiming, prognosticating…
Big man, Dave,
trailing daisies and dandelions
as if seeds and pollen would stifle the score of ages.

(Some say the Hollow One, unarmed, will be in attendance
tonight.)

Just you wait…
His hatred is like a bean.
He will break your back, Dave.
The cattle paths, tits, dung for food,
maybe even his precious sanity, sanctity,
will sputter to power, for he knows not only you,  Dave,
he knows the pornography circulating in your name.

(The rest, shout.)

Our innocence will remain intact for years.
Our virgin will clean her tits
and once again walk the cow paths to prattle alone.

Oh you can spew anything out of that mouth
of yours, Dave, goddamn you can.

But some day we will pour out thy wrath like men—
for we are like the life—
like beasts from the same storm.

De Dicto, De Re

October 4, 2010

I found this old picture of James Schuyler
in a book I got from the library.
I guess it was like a bookmark.
He’s sitting in a rocking chair in a little garden
and he’s looking pretty good today, thanks,
fresh pressed khakis, a new cardigan that
he’s trying on just to try it out, you know?
He’s got a nice view of a nice garden.
It’s October, though, so the plant life is
all dying off—like in that poem he wrote
—what’s it called?—Korean Mums.
Eternity is part of dying. Look.

*

Somebody wrote the year 1963 on
the back of the picture. Then, in big block letters—
DA DO RON RON RON, DA DO RON RON.
Kind of brings you back, right? The Crystals,
the summer of ‘63. Da Do Ron Ron
was their biggest hit. I met him on a Sunday
and my heart stood still.
It had a good beat,
and you could dance to it. Somebody told me
that his name was Bill
. Music for kids.
—da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron—
Bet you can’t even say it without singing it.

*

So poetry is like a song, is it?
Take, for example, Schuyler’s Korean Mums.
It hovers over us like an owl in
a barn: the dogs are barking, the
music is playing, Bob and Darragh are painting in
the barn, I am scribbling…
‘The Airedale snapped its neck
and left it lying.’

James, dogs have killed owls for centuries.
Here’s a lesson.
You can understand a statement
either in terms “of what is said” (de dicto)
or in terms “of the thing” (de re).
You can see it in the sunlight as
it screeches through the woods,
or you can see it as it forms the words.

So, James, please send us another poem,
post-haste—
The sunlight needs to be transformed
into a big hand so prehensile that it grabs
too many words, gobs of them…

This one needs to say, ’Your certainty is certainly misplaced.’
It needs to say: De dicto, de do ron, de do re re.

Okay?

Adorning the Rock (3)

October 1, 2010

Adorning the Rock (1)
Adorning the Rock (2)

Seventy years Later

The first section of The Rock (is ‘canto’ appropriate here?) starts off so bleakly that the temptation is to skirt its title. Stevens was seventy or so when he wrote The Rock. It is obvious that he is writing about his life, and the first line—‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive,’—does rather grab you away from that title. So puzzling. But use ‘seventy years later’ in a sentence. ‘Wallace set out to be a lawyer at a very young age. Seventy years later he was one of the most renowned legal minds in the world.’ ‘Wallace was molested by a pedophile as a child. Seventy years later…’ If we are contemplating anything here, we are contemplating a complex grammatical situation. The phrase ‘seventy years later’ does a lot of work. It establishes a point in time seventy years ago which has relevance to this day. It then travels those seventy years to look back on this past time, assess its significance. Of course, what he is looking back on may not be a thing (‘Rosebud’) it may be a process or the passage of time itself, or the significance of that process, that passage of time.  And all this, it seems to say, can only be understood ‘seventy years later’. Not bad for three words.

Refine that: The understanding that ‘seventy years later’ brings is a different understanding than what was possible ‘seventy years ago’. Three score and ten is the traditional, biblical life span. You get your seventy years to understand what you can in this world, Plato be damned. Understanding is a process and it’s bound to time. Understanding is bound to you, your ‘self’. Coming to understand ‘time’ and ‘self’ are some of the things you understand with the self and time you have. What you understand of time and the events and processes of your life, you understand afresh and anew with each drop of your life—as you live in time. (But how long is that ‘drop’? A drop may just be on the short side of time, not quite after the tick, not quite before the tock. A nanosecond is too long.) You stop understanding when you die. Significance, meaning, knowledge, poetry are all bound up in that seventy years.

Stevens drank. It is not difficult to see him sitting at the end of the bar, grumbling the opening of The Rock to some unassuming soul. ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive.  Regard the freedom of seventy years ago. It is no longer air. Even our shadows no longer remain…Absurd. The words spoken were not and are not. They never were.’ Bah, humbug.

Late Style

Just before he died, Edward Said became interested in an idea Theodor Adorno used to describe the music Beethoven had written just before he died. Adorno called it ‘late style’.

Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself…isolated too from sense by loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by excerption, they could understand anything at all.

What Adorno actually meant by late style can be a little difficult to pin down.  Said’s attempt to do so is called ‘Timeliness and Lateness’ and is reprinted in a book Michael Wood put together after Said died,  On Late Style: The late Edward Said on the late Theodor Adorno on the late Ludwig Beethoven’s late style. Where is the Mad Hatter when we need him?

Of course some artists get to transcendence in their old age. They achieve wholeness and harmony. They synthesize their knowledge, their experience, and their wisdom at the end of their life. Think Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Verdi’s Falstaff.  This is some of the greatest art man has made. (Steven Jay Gould, when asked to suggest something to put in a space capsule chose Bach’s Mass in B minor. ‘Tell them it’s the best we’ve done.’)  For these artists all the contradictions have been worked out. A harp is playing in their respective heads. Life is worth living; I can die content; and so can you.

Nice work if you can get it.

The other side of the coin is the late style that Adorno thought he found in the deaf Beethoven. Here the contradictions most definitely have not been resolved. Music is produced that is characterized by dissonance and discord; music that’s petulant, bitter, acerbic; music that’s sublime and blunt by turn. Middle class certainties are mocked and lampooned; death has no redeeming qualities.

His late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as catching fire between two extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity.

Late style can be seen in other artists as well. Said gave a course at Columbia on late style that included such notables as Richard Strauss, Mozart, Glenn Gould, and Thomas Mann. If you’ve read any Adorno, your credulity will not be tested when I tell you that most demanding of late stylists was Theodor Adorno.

Extreme Late Style

Okay, this is interesting. Late style has the artist mimicking his own discontent with, on the one hand, the pettiness of middle class life, and, on the other, with the utter force majeure of death itself. But we know life is unfair; we know we are going to die—we do know these things, right?

Adorno commands our attention further because he perhaps was a late stylist all his life. His prose was always ‘as catching fire between two extremes’. Said thinks:

Adorno uses the model of late Beethoven to endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as preparation for or obliteration of something else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.

What?

What Adorno does is theoretical—that is his construction isn’t supposed to be a replica of the real thing… The location of Adorno’s writing is theory, a space where he can construct his demystifying negative dialectics.

Synthesis is at issue. The late stylist can’t quite get there. And, yes, we can talk of synthesis in terms of Hegel. The artist can construct his thesis, he can construct his antithesis—but …he can’t quite find a way of melding the two.

That fragmentariness will result seems obvious. But one also finds one’s self, how shall I say, up in the air, in a space of one’s own, a space…well, is it theoretical space? One way to think of synthesis in the thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis process is to see it as a return to earth. The synthesis is where reality comes in.  Said seems to think, for example—and he was a far closer student of Adorno’s work than I shall ever be—that Adorno wasn’t so much interested in describing what Beethoven’s music was actually like, but rather he was constructing a model. Models are useful in that they help us look at the world; they do not—strictly speaking—describe the world. Adorno was constructing in his own elaborate way—Said uses the word ‘mandarin’—the same thing Wallace Stevens was constructing—in his own mandarin way. Stevens called this thing the Poem.

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own, and much more not ourselves.
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

A little tip about writing poetry

Poetry doesn’t describe anything. Have a little ‘poetic’ experience on the bus? Fine. Just don’t try to describe it in a poem. Gary Snyder gets it right: Lay down these words/ Before your mind like rocks. (Like rocks, not like The Rock.) Poems are constructs of words. Their relationship to the world is not one of description.

I am the necessary angel of earth,
since in my sight you see the earth again.

Write the poem first. And then see if you see the earth in its light—or in its shadows.