Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Carla Harryman, _Adorno's Noise_

IN THE BACK of my mind, I kept thinking this was part of a series that also included Alice Notley's Grave of Light and Richard Greenfield's Tracer.  This notion is plainly wrong, as the three books come from three different publishers, but the coincidence of their sharing conspicuous design elements (all were designed by Quemadura) led me to think of them as three faces of a unified project.

(Quemadura=Jeff Clark, I believe, himself an excellent poet. Is it a sign of the times that one can make a more reliable living designing covers for books of poetry than one can by writing them?)

Beyond the similarity in design, I felt a shared atmosphere--mainly in the closing, more-recently-composed pages of the Notley (which is a selected poems), more in the indoor than in the outdoor poems of the Greenfield, but all the way through with Harryman--an atmosphere I feel like attributing to the Mordor-like gloom of the second Bush's second administration, the mood created by the perception that suspicion, meanness, and ignorance were getting the last word too often, that the nation one must perforce call one's own was weighing darkly and leadenly on the rest of the world, that resistance was urgently necessary yet doomed to the futile emission of quickly extinguished sparks.

Adorno's Noise is actually the first whole book by Harryman that I have read, although I've been seeing her work here and there for a good long time (e.g., since In the American Tree). It was published in 2008 by the Essay Press and is a "next American essay" sort of essay, hybrid in genre.

It was not doing a lot for me in the early going, I confess, despite its obvious intelligence and urgent commitment, perhaps because the cloud of oppression I tried to describe above sat thickly on the book, but the section titled "imagination is inflamed by women who lack imagination" seriously hooked me--it had the intelligence and the commitment still, but also seemed to be deploying a technique I am going to call fugal, generating a formal energy that seemed to break up the miasma.

And I fell hard for "Beware of seeking out the mighty." Harryman takes the rhetorical turn, "In doing x I am not doing y," familiar from many political speeches in which some gesture or other is carefully distinguished from some gesture the politician does not want to be associated with ("In withdrawing this proposal we are not caving in to cynical criticism, but rather..."). With this simple device she launches on several long chains of distinctions-by-negation that mix détourné clichés, humor, confession, and observation into an investigation of how writing attempts to intersect with intelligence and urgent commitment--not always successfully, but the attempt matters.

The final section, "Headless Heads," also impressed me--a high-wire juggling act involving William Blake, Robert Smithson, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, Roberto Tejada, and some friends of Harryman's identified only by initials. The title kept making me think Bataille and Acéphale were the key to the whole thing somehow, but the connection, is there was one, eluded me. Definitely made me want to read more Oe, though.

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