Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, August 6, 2010

Joshua Clover, _The Totality for Kids_

IN A BLURB on the back cover of Clover's second collection of poetry (2006), Charles Altieri describes the poems as "crossing the cool, allusive intricacy of Quentin Tarantino with the abstract, intense social passion of Walter Benjamin." I would put it slightly differently, as for me the poems cross the cool, allusive intricacy of Walter Benjamin with the abstract, intense social passion of Quentin Tarantino.

Now why am I being so snarky? What Clover's poems actually are for me is an occasion of sin, to wit, the sin of envy. He has obviously received an excellent education and fully profited from it; he possesses a wickedly witty po-mo ingenuity (this is the first volume of poetry I've encountered that has a subject index); he has impeccable radar for what is most interesting in popular culture (in the index, Ashbery and Adorno rub shoulders with Astaire and the Auteurs); his politics are well-honed, smart but slogan-less; on the evidence of this volume, he spends a lot of time in Paris. It's hard to read Clover without the continually nagging sense that one wants to be Clover.

One cheap and obvious cure for envy is to dislike and disparage the object of envy -- not so easy in this case, unfortunately, since Clover's poetry is excellent: witty, musical ("jotting in our daybooks, how beautiful, the armies of autumn"), self-aware. Can one even mock his relentless post-everything-ism --

The most awful thing
About the phrase "Every Germinal must have its Thermidor"
Is that one never gets to say so anymore
And really mean it.

-- when he has done a better job of mocking it than you ever will in the three re-shuffled versions of almost the same poem, "Auteur Theory," "Kantine," and "A Boy's Own Story"?

About that index, though. On what principles was it compiled? Stephen Rodefer is mentioned on p. 64, and the index dutifully records, "Rodefer, Stephen, 64." Then I notice the index entry "Phair, Liz, 28, 59." Flipping to p. 28, I find no mention of Liz Phair, but the poem is titled "Letters and Sodas" -- a phrase from "Fuck and Run," a standout song from Phair's masterpiece, Exile in Guyville. So, the index tracks allusions as well as plain references...cool! Sure enough, "Guided by Voices, 50" sends one to a poem using the phrase "glad girls," the title of a great cut on Isolation Drills.

What a gift to the source-seeking dissertation writers, if only, as in the 1940s and 1950s, dissertation writers still sought sources.

But wait. On p. 32, we read "The danger of philosophy is that the the mayor is weeping over Love Will Tear Us Apart (The last chapter where Aglaya gets it [...]," which ought to generate entries for Joy Division and Dostoyevsky and does, but then the reference to "Rue No Fun" on the same page (and on p. 16) generates no entry for the Stooges. WTF?! All right, perhaps this was just some trans-lingual pun. But then the phrase "doing the Strand" on p. 50, which has to be an allusion to Roxy Music, generates no entry for Roxy Music.

Worse is to come -- on p. 62, we read "Je me promène. Principalement, je me promène," yet neither the entry for Guy DeBord nor the entry for Michelle Bernstein lists p. 62!

Ah, well, back to square one for our non-existent source-seeking dissertation writers. Makes for a better joke, though, no? If giving a volume of poetry an index is an ingenious po-mo gesture, it's obviously even more ingeniously po-mo to make the index inconsistent, fragmentary, fissured, and misdirective.

Down, green-eyed monster, down...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rusty Morrison, _the true keeps calm biding its story_

WINNER OF BOTH the 2007 Sawtooth Poetry Prize (judged by Peter Gizzi) and the 2008 James Laughlin Award (judged by Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Smith), the true keeps calm biding its story obviously comes highly recommended. Were a prize mine to bestow, I might have kept looking, but the book compels respect and is worth reading.

One notices the volume's fixed form right away -- nine sections, each of six poems, each poem titled "please advise stop" and nine lines long (three sets of three lines apiece), line nine always ending "please advise," lines 1-8 always ending with either "please" or "stop." The poems are right-justified, so down one side one sees always a kind of column --



-- or some other combination.

The "please" has a wide semantic swing between the "please" of authority pretending to be polite and the "please" of desperate pleading, and the "stop" an even wider one, sometimes the voice of authority, sometimes the cry of a victim, sometimes telegram-ese for a period. As "please" and "stop" both tend to ask/demand something of the reader, the recurring conclusion "please advise" always tends to leave the ball, so to speak, in you, the reader's, court. "Well?" the poems seem to keep asking, "Now what? Can you make any more sense of this than I can?"

What sense there is to be made has to be made from the ground up, for the strict rigidity of the form is matched by the near-perfect disjunction as we go from line to line, from poem to poem, from section to section. Details of interiors flash by, scraps of etymology, a glimpse of landscape, a wink of introspection, any number of arresting images ("a huge walled-off deity affixed at the edge of my outer life stop").

But a thematic pulse is established as references to the death of the speaker's father recur, as if the book were in a wide elliptical orbit around that death. But -- it occurs to me -- an ellipse has two foci. The death of the father is one, but there seems to be an unnameable other as well. Is the other the poem's self-imposed form itself?

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes...." Is that the key here? Everything comes down to Dickinson (or Wordsworth or Eliot) sooner or later.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Niall Ferguson, _The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World_

A BRISKLY READABLE account of where money, banks, bonds, stocks, insurance, the secondary market in mortgages, and hedge funds came from, obviously written for a lay audience, and a good thing it is, as I could hardly have made much headway otherwise. All we citizens need to know more about this stuff, but I for one feel at an enormous disadvantage. To me, as a humanities person, the processes of how credit flourishes and withers seems spectral and bewitched. No wonder Pound never emerged from the labyrinth.

Ferguison mentions several times in the book that he finished writing in May 2008 -- as if he knew enormously worse news was in the offing, as it certainly was.

Ferguson provides relatively little technical explanation (no equations) and a good many anecdotes, featuring among others the Medicis, the Rothschilds, the Scottish Widows, and George Soros. As an historian, he seems at his most comfortable and sounds at his most reliable when delving into origins.

When he turns to the contemporary scene, he's less persuasive. He takes a sickeningly indulgent view of the IMF and Pinochet's Chicago boys, for example.

Reading a book on the history of finance that has no equations is probably like reading a book on the history of music that has no musical notation -- which reminds me, I need to finish that Alex Ross book -- but for someone with my limitations, Ferguson's book is quite helpful. But how thick is his head if neither Naomi Klein nor John Perkins, whom he has obviously read, made no deep impression?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gary Rivlin, _Broke, USA_

IF YOU ARE sated with accounts of the upper-tier financial scoundrels and their derivatives, hedge funds, tranches, credit default swaps, and so on, but nonetheless still looking for insight into our ongoing meltdown, you should take up Gary Rivlin's trawl through the bottom feeders of our financial system -- the pawnbrokers, the folks who bring us pay day loans, the rent-to-own people, the instant tax refund people. The poor you will have with you always, as Jesus is reported to have observed, so what more reliable source of profit could there be than bleeding the poor?

Rivlin apparently started with the assumption that the pay day loan industry, dealing as it does with people who don't qualify for credit cards and whom ordinary banks disdain, was at least serving a real need. That assumption may have been what gained him access to Allan Jones, Billy Webster, and a variety of other smaller operators, who come to life in the book with a Dickensian clarity. Turns out, however, that the pay day loan industry generates enormous profits by urging its customers to take another loan at the soonest opportunity, to borrow more than they had originally intended, and thus keep them hooked up to the milking machine at APR rates of between 300 and 400 per cent, the interest eventually doubling or tripling the amount of the principal.

And then there are the predatory lenders -- the folks who kept the market in sub-prime mortgage bundles moving by urging home-improvement loans on people who had small ability to repay and often wound up losing their houses.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. It's not an impartial book, but it's well-researched and well-written, and all the evidence anyone needs that American hucksterism continues to thrive in every corner of the republic.