Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip_

AFTER READING THIS, I was so floored that I decided that I needed to read it again before I wrote about it; having re-read it, I am re-floored, and capable of but three paltry observations.

1. I notice from the copyright page that the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council provided "generous assistance" for this volume. So why does the NEH never pony up for anything this good? Hmm?

2. I love it that the book has an index of first lines.

3. The passage on pages 86-87 beginning "I shall offer a short allegory" is about as good as assessment of the state of poetry occurring within a poem as I can think of. Up there with "East Coker."

That's about all I have, pitiful though it is. In my alter-identity as a pop-punk songwriter, however, I decide to compose a sort of cento of the book.  The music owes a large debt to the Damned's "New Rose," so my tribute to Lisa Robertson is simultaneously a tribute to Brian, Rat, Dave, and the Captain.  Here it is.


“Like a boy blowing from a tree”
“Docents stroked my milky ego”
“I strewed, I strove, I swelled all night”
“disappeared / into Architecture”
“and then the sea and then the air
and then the upper part ignites”
“Then everything begins to dilate”
“which is a god mixed with what we can want”

From the get-go, I was in your grip--
The day I read your Magenta Soul Whip.

“We call this food, and it fabricates us”
“Where erupts the morning’s catalogue”
“Your failures are no longer sacred”
“’None of the forms feel big enough’”
“I said I didn’t know what thinking is”
“I met a dog who collected doubt”
“Fashion determines empathy”
“’Soon there will be only society’”

As Robert Hunter might say, it was a short, strange trip,
The day I read your Magenta Soul Whip.

“A lady’s reach must exceed her grasp”
“A rubric is a thick red earth”
“I will put them / In a bande dessinĂ©e”
“They are only animals”
“I shall offer a short allegory”
“loading bays and stilted awnings”
“Might there be a motion that is not itself”
“My fidelity is my own disaster”

Proud to be part of your readership,
And now I’ve read your Magenta Soul Whip.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susan Howe, "Vagrancy in the Park"

AS A LONGTIME subscriber to The Nation (23 years and counting), I would not say that I read it mainly because of what it does and has done for poetry, but I am certainly grateful nonetheless.  There is a poem or two most weeks, usually quite good ones, plus the essays of Ange Mlinko, and this week (the November 2 issue) a great essay on Wallace Stevens by Susan Howe (drawn from a forthcoming collection of her essays, it appears).

Not only is the essay vintage Susan Howe--a distinctive hybrid of local history, personal history, aesthetic appreciation, and deep engagement of one writer with a crucial precursor, worthy of the author of My Emily Dickinson--but I am glad to have a reaffirmation of Stevens's power as a poet, given that he gives contemporary readers plenty or "urggh" moments of the WASP male complacency variety.

Howe does not get into Stevens's "urggh" moments, which is okay with me, because I know, as an admirer of the likes of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, that there is really no good apologia for the many little dog turds one will be occasionally stepping in as one reads Yeats, Pound, and Eliot; any defense will just spread the mess further. About all you can do is say, "yep, that's there, too." The rest of what's there, though, is the real thing, and Howe's essay gets at a lot of the real thing in Stevens. Not that she is avoiding what is difficult--that last passage of the essay, on "The Irish Cliffs of Moher," is wrestling with some angel.

So, thank you, Susan Howe, and whoever (Mlinko? John Palatella?) decided to find to find give eight pages of The Nation to it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, _Between the World and Me_

JUST SO YOU know, LLL is no johnny-come-lately to Mr. Coates, as you can see for yourself by our May 27, 2011 post on The Beautiful Struggle. Happy to report, though, that the praise that has come Coates's way for this new book is merited. If you were wondering whether you should read it, the answer is a definite yes.

I'm not sure about the invocations of James Baldwin that accompany almost every discussion of this book, though, starting with the back cover blurb from Toni Morrison herself: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." This sounds badly off the mark.  For one thing, Baldwin died in 1987, approaching thirty years ago, and given the work done since 1987 by (for example) Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Charles Mills, Patricia Williams, Percival Everett, and one Toni Morrison, one has to wonder...what intellectual void? If the Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American letters, what we've had since 1987 is a golden age squared.

Oh, I know. Blurbs are blurbs. They are not meant to be scrutinized. Still.

And yes, it is true that Between the World and Me consciously follows the example of The Fire Next Time: an open letter to a 15-year-old African American male, a no-punches-pulled assessment of the racist society that the young man was born into and will have to somehow find a way to be an adult in. And like Baldwin, Coates is especially good on the willed obtuseness of "white" America, the people he calls the "Dreamers," deludedly believing that the United States and its culture are their own unassisted creation, when evidence that African American labor and imagination shaped that culture are everywhere one is willing to look.

But...when I think of Baldwin, I think of his moral clarity certainly, but I also think of his gravitas, that music in his prose that came from being steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the occasional cadences of the church, of black preaching. Coates's music is nervier, more staccato, more jabbing.  It has its luxuriances, too, but they are the luxuriance's of a tagger, not the baroque flourishes of Baldwin.

In a word, he does not really remind me of Baldwin at all. Which is fine. We've got a Baldwin.  Let Coates be Coates.

I loved, for instance, the sections on Howard University, or "Mecca," as Coates calls it. They made me think how terrific it would be to have a Howard novel, as Brideshead Revisited is an Oxford novel or This Side of Paradise a Princeton novel. And Coates is the person who ought to write it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _Rousseau's Boat_ and revisiting _R's Boat_

CHAPBOOKS REMIND ME a bit of the era of the EP era, and the recurring possibility that one or more of the songs on an EP might reappear on the band's next LP--were there grounds for resenting the band's expecting you to buy the same song(s) twice? I usually felt better--rewarded for my loyalty and attention--when no duplication occurred. On the other hand, was there a problem with having "Talk of the Town" on the second Pretenders album?  Not really. It sounded great both places.

Three of the four poems in Rousseau's Boat appear again in R's Boat, but it was worth revisiting, I decided. For one thing, there were a few revisions to ponder. For another, looking at the chapbook made some aspects of its successor's project more apparent, particularly its minuet with the idea of lyric subjectivity. Rousseau's Boat has a somewhat higher concentration (my impression; I did not tabulate) of  first person statements than R's Boat, and so it became more noticeable that some seem to be distinctly referring to Robertson ("It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year"), some seem deliberately fantastic ("I had the body of a woman as far as the hips; below sprang the foreparts of three dogs"), and quite a few could apply to almost anyone or even anything ("I'm just a beam of light or something").

The book conjures an "I," but you don't know that it's an "I" that has a name and a postal code. At the same time, it's not an "I" that seems utterly detached from the world of birth certificates and street addresses.

Both volumes have the same final poem, which seems to be comparing the text to a dropped scarf--and having read the poem in the chapbook, then the full volume, then the chapbook again, the penny finally dropped for me, and I thought, oh, as one can choose to drop a scarf, and it will take a certain, perhaps beautiful shape that one has participated in the creation of even though one did not foresee or design it, so one could compile a text of first person statements using some arbitrary or aleatory principles that somehow actually did approximate autobiography in some unforeseen, unintentional way--

Like the negligent fall of a scarf
Now I occupy the design.

--so now I should really read R's Boat again. Or get out Extended Play and listen to "Talk of the Town."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _R's Boat_

EVEN THOUGH THIS begins in a distinctly Robertsonian vein--we have a section that might be a dialogue between speakers only partly attending to what the other is saying (first-person statements in roman type alternate with first-person statements in italic type), followed by a section that might be a dialogue between two voices, but in this case two voices within the same mind--by the time I reached the third ("The Present") and fourth ("A Cuff") sections, I kept thinking of H. D.

More precisely, I kept thinking of Trilogy, where we get fine-grained representation of the phenomena of a particular moment of a particular place on a particular day, but at the same time a deep mythological perspective (via, as usual with H.D., Greek myth, but also Egyptian myth and the gospels), and behind that a pressing external crisis (e.g., the Blitz in "The Walls Do Not Fall").

The parallel is not all that close, I admit. Robertson does mention Lucretius, Macrobius, and Babylonian coverlets, but does not convey the sense, as H.D. sometimes does, that these ancients are more present to her than the present. Contemporary anxieties press ("If I reason I am not the state's body") but diffusedly. So what is it?

Something in the voice? The sound of I-have-to-figure-this-out? The evocation of the past in the section called "Utopia" (actually more reminiscent of The Gift than of Trilogy), its statement, "This is one part of the history of a girl's mind"? The willingness, in the section titled "Palinode," to cast a cold eye on the whole preceding undertaking?

Certainly that last one. The best modernists were already post-modernists insofar as they sensed and responded to the fissures in their own project: Four Quartets, Stanzas in Meditation, Drafts and Fragments, and (to my mind) Trilogy.

Or maybe it's when she writes, "I'm not done with myth yet".

Or "Form is not cruel".

But you really ought to read this because, however much she reminds me of H.D., she nonetheless always sounds like herself:

Whatever girl dares to read just one page is already a lost girl, but she can't blame it on this book--she was alreday ruined.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Greil Marcus, _The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs_

NO LIGHT CLAIM on my part to say this is Marcus's best book, because Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic were force fields that profoundly altered the trajectory of my listening habits, but his best book it may be, simply because of the amount of ground it can survey without being even all that long, eleven ordinary-length essays, the whole thing coming under 300 pages.

The title is apt even though it may mislead the inattentive. These are not rock and roll's ten best songs, ten most famous songs, ten most influential songs--they are reasonably well-known songs, some were big hits, but there is no "Satisfaction," "Like a Rolling Stone," or anything else likely to wind up on a VH1 countdown. Instead, we have ten core samples, ten lightning-in-a-bottle moments when some gaggle of young musicians in a recording studio discovered something in a song that until then maybe not even they knew was there.

Marcus's ability to discern these moments and then write of them evocatively is uncanny. And unique, I daresay. And then there is his ability to contextualize them by drawing on an extraordinarily deep and sensitive understanding of the history of the genre.

I can imagine someone glancing at the table of contents, discovering with dismay that no song by the Beatles or Bob Dylan is included, and giving the book pass.  That person would miss out on three essays-within-essays--one on the Beatles' ferocious cover of "Money," one on their briefly re-discovering an old joy as they play Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" during the slow-motion trainwreck of the Get Back sessions, one on the pinnacle that is "A Day in the Life"--that are altogether more powerfully insightful than any of the enormous, exhaustive Beatles tomes that occupy several sagging shelves in my house.  Same for Dylan, the Stones, the Pistols, etc--all the people you think ought to come in to the discussion do, eventually, in unforeseen and always illuminating ways.

And of course Marcus knows, as anyone ought to know, that the living line of the music after the 1960s passed not through the Eagles, Bon Jovi, or any other of the innumerable platinum-selling pretenders, but through Joy Division, the Brains, and...yes...Christian Marclay.

Even the footnotes are better than most books about rock and roll.

That eleventh essay? It imagines the career Robert Johnson might have had had he survived whatever killed him in 1938.