Trick of the Light

It is a poem ostensibly about deer feeding on roses. So you wonder how the ending came to be. How the lantern came to hold a place as an image for the house you grew up in.

And that which comes alight, the house you grew up in: sometimes it is a lantern small enough to carry before you in one hand.
We get to this ending after passing over some remarks on the beauty of the household versus the beauty of the field. And it seems with this lantern ending that the demarcation gives way. The light seems a thing of beauty belonging neither to household nor to field. And the question arises about who the light is for. Its illumination is limited by its size. This is not a beacon. It is akin to a spark. One recalls the story of the blind man given a lantern (see Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones). But there is no blind person here. No extinguished light. Just the miracle of metaphor whereby a whole house through imagination becomes palm-sized. All alit.

Hand. Lantern. House.

The poem is called "Folklore" and is collected in The Whole Night, Coming Home by Roo Borson.

And so for day 1083
30.11.2009

World Crossing Voices

Our narrator discloses:

Re-reading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages, on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong date.
This introduces a split into the fictional world. There is the sequence that the narrator relates and the fictional world he inhabits while engaged in this relating. The author could have chosen any moment to make this turn; he chose a place in the novel when the narrator-hero is beginning to experience hearing voices (like those that are broadcast through All-India Radio) and coming to the realization that he has telepathic powers (a rather special tuning). The split in the narration emerges nicely just as our hero is relating his own experiences in hearing outer and inner voices and his discovery via eavesdropping of the disjunction between what a person says to the world and what they say to themselves.

Our hero is Saleem in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Gifted/cursed. Now inhabiting a split world where historical dates deviate from the actuality of the fictional world ["my India"] (and not just from the actual world's chronology [our India]).

And so for day 1082
29.11.2009

Good Readers As Attuned Receptors

My copy of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs contains a book marker from The Bob Miller Bookroom which discretely below an engraving of a floral specimen displays a quotation from Emerson: "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book." Note that is the definite article that is used: the reader, the book (not a reader or a book). The bookmarker is placed in the chapter "In solitude, for company" where one can read this passage:

So whether you're participating in an online conversation or reading a book by yourself, your experience is a readerly one and a responsive one. The most significant difference is that reading a book is dialogically asymmetrical: you learn about the book, about its characters and perhaps its author, but none of them learns anything about you. I'm not convinced that this is necessarily regrettable: many of us should probably spend more time just listening, rather than insisting on being heard.
Jacobs goes on to ask "I belabor these points in order to forestall a simplistic conclusion that may be all too tempting in an age of social media. If 'social' is intrinsically good, then is not private experience intrinsically less good?" I understand that for the sake of argumentation there is some weighing. I understand that it is an entry point to the evident valuing of the quiet act of reading to and by oneself. I stress the "to and by" which get collapsed in Jacobs — I posit the possibilities of being read to (which still involves separate acts of listening, no matter how large the group). In any case, here is Jacobs on the logical precedence of the single subjective experience (prior to intersubjective sharing).
Reading too is, or should be, a moving between the solitary encounter and something more social. Even when the "more social" thing is just an entry in a private diary, it constitutes a step away from the silent absorption in a text, an attempt to account for and therefore make one's response more intersubjective, that is, connected to, interacting with, the experiences of others. To write a letter to a friend, or participate in an online debate, or join a book group, are all ways of seeking this social dimension of reading, which almost everyone needs to some degree. But I think I have to insist that these various ways of reading with others are not reading proper, but rather accompaniments to reading. They cannot substitute for the solitary encounter.
I leave you alone with this insistence. But underscore that every social act is accompanied by its own little aura of composure — there is a replication of solitary moments through the chain of social interactions. We need not loose sight that the solitary encounter is not a function of reading by oneself. It arises when we accept to receive, to allow ourselves to be read to.

And so for day 1081
28.11.2009

Subject Activity

Paul Chamberland The Courage of Poetry Translated by Ray Chamberlain.

The "I" here comes straight from strictest intimacy, from the most vigilant intimacy. On the other hand, one who pronounces the word goes superbly beyond the individual as he is forced to see himself in his reality, his opaqueness, his insufficiency. But he nonetheless enables me to reach him in the rarefied air at the summit where love, free love, overcomes the impossible in casting off all reservation and offers itself up to the miracle-working pyre. One must imagine this "I", this "subject", not as a person exactly but as a resonating center uniting all those who gather around it.
Straight from the strictest intimacy to the potency of poetry.
Only poetry, and all that surrounds it, allows me to live at the limit, standing fast in front of the voracious whirlpool, the black hole. I'm not anywhere other than where I am and I don't see any other way of being judiciously contemporary.
Limits give way...
[...] the suppression — not yet achieved — of the barrier dividing the it/I into the subject-and-object, inside and outside... It arrives there through the courage of emptying the representation — which is ever being reborn — that it offers itself. In its uplifting — seen as innate — it knows itself as an act of the world, not as a position of a (separated) subject.
A pyre. A whirlpool. A representation reborn.

Just what does it mean to say "I"?

And so for day 1080
27.11.2009

Remarking Remaking

She is a master of ekphrasis. Take her poem "Giocometti's Dog" in the collection of the same name. She has contrived to open by posing a set of negations (what this particular sculpture of an animal cannot) and turns in mid poem to reanimate the beast ("Giacometti's Dog is coming back / as a jackal") and concludes with bravura:

He's not your doggie-in-the-window.
He's not racing into a burning house or taking your shirt
between his teeth and swimming to the beach.
He's looking out for Number One,
he's doing the dog paddle and making it
to shore in this dog-eat-dog world.
The twists and turns of this particular poem are more complex and varied than I describe here. Suffice it to say that the skill displayed in these lines appears years later in a poem with a slightly different tone but an equally suggestive ending that leads one to think about species survival. In Domain of Perfect Affection there is a poem describing the aftermath of a forest fire in New Mexico. "The Dome Fire" adopts quotation from the words of a guide on a trip through Yellowstone to leave the poem to conclude on the hovering image of succession. The blackened Yellowstone gives way to
Rose and turquoise saturated mountain phlox
     and larkspur   It begins with the wildflowers
     she said and then the world comes back
She, by the way, borrowing another's words to recount the aftermath, to record the transformation of the blackened and scorched place, is the poet Robin Becker.

And so for day 1079
26.11.2009

Tuber Traces

Allan Cooper in Gabriel's Wing has a poem in honour of Seamus Heaney. It is a fine meditation entitled "Potatoes". After stanzas describing potatoes in all their concrete earthiness, the poem turns to a search for one word equally nourishing. It concludes with a geopolitical perspective.

A thin strand
leading all the way back to the Incas
rises in our planting.
The poem has approached this knowledge via a set of questions. The lines immediately preceding the conclusion ask "And what of the one word / we've longed for all our days? / What will we do when we find it?"

Another strand, different heritage: according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the children's counting-out rhyme that begins one potato, two potato was first recorded in 1885 in Canada. (Also attested by A Dictionary of English Folklore.) I don't believe that Cooper had these words quite in mind: "One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more. One bad spud!" But something tells me that Heaney would love to be counted: rot or not.

And so for day 1078
25.11.2009

Kept Company

Where he would use "ideology" I would refer to "dogmatism". I believe we all operate out of ideology whether acknowledged or not. Some ideologies are hegemonic; others, counter-hegemonic. In any case I like world views that promote the value of irony as a way to courtesy and good living.

Irony of this kind is the opposite of ideology, that bastion of catastrophic fixed meanings. As such, it is a virtue of the democratic imagination, an invitation to think differently, opt out, depart from imposed narratives, be a happiness delinquent. [...] The Spanish writer Gian Vincenzo Gravina: "A bore is a person who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company." Spending time with the right kind of book or teacher shows us the parallel definition. An ironist is a person who enhances your solitude with company.
Mark Kingwell from the Globe and Mail (31.08.2013) discussing the value of irony in the context of educational outcomes.

And so for day 1077
24.11.2009

Aiding Helpless Awe

He approaches this spot via negative theology.

We are lonely for where we are.
Tim Lilburn in "How to be here?" in Poetry and Knowing goes on
Poetry helps us cope. Poetry is where we go when we want to know the world as lover. You read a poem or write one, guessing at the difficult, oblique interiority of something, but the undertaking ultimately seems incomplete, ersatz. The inevitable disappointment all poems bring motions toward the hard work of standing in helpless awe before things. "The praise of the psalms is a lament," the old men and women of the desert used to say. Poetry in its incompleteness awakens a mourning over the easy union with the world that seems lost. Poetry is a knowing to this extent: it brings us to this apposite discomfiting.
Even with out the enumeration of shortcomings, even without the intercession of poetry, the statement "We are lonely for where we are" resonates. Where we are is not an easy place to attain.

There is almost two — the one we that is lonely, the other we that is. And there is that magical moment when the being is the moment of longing. When all is arrested.

Of course there may be a tiny displacement between being lonely for and longing.

And so for day 1076
23.11.2009

Writing Dream Taming

What kind of beast?

Part of the excitement inside this species of meditative act [poetic attention] is linguistic; it's the excitement of a tool which has hatched the illicit desire to behave like an animal.
from Don McKay's contribution to Poetry and Knowing edited by Tim Lilburn. And in the same collection, Patrick Friesen suggests that "Perhaps, learning to write poetry is like learning to dream." And Roo Borson explicitly links the two: "Writing is dreaming."

Now to muse a while even dream what type of animal hatches...

And so for day 1075
22.11.2009

Destabilizing the Unstable

These remarks about the novels of Philip K. Dick point to a dialectic.

[...] in these fictions where words are used to reveal the unreality of things and where things are used to reveal the instabilities of words.
from Chapter Seven "Turning Reality Inside Out" by Katherine N. Hayles How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics.

There is an interpenetration of words and things. But notice the syntagm that lays this out. Words reveal the unreality of things. Then things destabilize words. Of course in the "where" of the discourse, the two directions seem to operate at the same time, synchronously. Yet.

And so for day 1074
21.11.2009

Dreaming Mimesis

Robert Bringhurst in "Poetry and Thinking" in Thinking and Singing edited by Tim Lilburn.

But not to repeat. Mimesis is not repetition.

One way of answering that music [poetry as a music we lean to see, to feel, to hear, to smell and then to think and then to answer] is to sing. Humans, like birds, are able to make songs and pass them on. Human songs, like birdsongs, are part nature and part culture: part genetic predilection, part cultural inheritance or training, part individual inflection or creation. These are the three parts of mimesis. If the proportion of individual creation in human song is greater than in birdsong, that's no cause for pride, though it may be very good cause for excitement. What it means is that nature and culture both are at greater risk from us than they are from the birds.
This tripartite taxonomy cries out for a folding onto another spot in Thinking and Singing. In the same book in an essay by Zan Zwicky "Dream Logic and the Politics of Interpretation"
That is: I think all, or at least many, of us are aware of primary-process-structured thought, at least from time to time. As I observed at the outset, its products marble our daily waking life in the form of slips of the tongue, and jokes — which, unlike dreams, do not tolerate much in the way of secondary process translation. They also apparently visit us when we're tired, or moved, or, often, when we are confronted with certain kinds of spatial problems whose solutions may strike us as evident but difficult to reconstruct in words.
Zwicky's invocation of spatial problems makes me wonder if the mechanisms of dream work as identified by Freud (displacement and condensation) can be mapped onto the three parts of mimesis as identified by Bringhurst. It is evident that any attribution of causation be it genetics, cultural training, individual creation can be displaced and ascribed to one or both of the other two. In other words one or two of the three parts can be repressed in interpretations.

Condensation (one dream object standing for several associations and ideas) would involve some sort of fusion of the three parts. This is where Bringhurst's formulation of mimesis as an answer to the music of poetry may serve as an anchor point to the mapping we are projecting. The parts of mimesis respond through a sort of condensation to the various sensory modalities that guide our apprehension of the world, its music and its poetry.

And of course Freud identifies other processes in dream work. So there may be other ways to absorb the parts of mimesis into a practice of interpretation.

And so for day 1073
20.11.2009

Wish A Joke

I first encountered the joke in Jacques Derrida's quotation of it in his eulogy for Sarah Kofman. He announces it well in advance of its citation and thus builds up anticipation and tension which is released when he quotes Kofman's Pourquoi rit-on? Freud et le mot d'esprit. He offers up a retelling of the joke as a sort of posthumous postscriptum.

Two Jews, long-standing enemies, meet at the synagogue on the day of the Great Atonement. One says to the other [by way of forgiveness]: "I wish you what you wish me." And the other replies, giving tit for tat: "See, you're at it again!"
I found this quite hilarious. Others not so. It is even funnier without the intercalation of the phrase "by way of forgiveness".
Two Jews, long-standing enemies, meet at the synagogue on the day of the Great Atonement. One says to the other: "I wish you what you wish me." And the other replies, giving tit for tat: "See, you're at it again!"
To try and explain robs the effect of an infinite regression. Just try and explain why a recurring loop is funny, why a deadlock is seriously twisted.

Of course the moral edge of the joke is sharp and depends on delicate balancing: image of words as dangerous weapons is offset by words as superb defences. It is not just a good joke, it's a refined joke.

I wish the others that do not find the joke as funny as I do will some day experience the full force of the humour. Of course, I'm at it again.

The English translation of Derrida's words in honour of Sarah Kofman are found in The Work of Mourning.

And so for day 1072
19.11.2009

Bring on the bread!

Delicious translations.

spreadthefeeling.ca


dubonheuratartiner.ca
Simply scrumptious. I like how the French is a bit more specific on the sentiment that is being spread: happiness.

The corporation responsible for such word play is very successful in capturing the hearts of the peanut butter loving public. Care in its marketing is evidence of how hard they work at keeping top of mind.

And so for day 1071
18.11.2009

Softly Going

Recently I noticed that the almost ubiquitous "to do" of list fame is a homophone for the French "tout doux" which translates back into English as "all soft". It also reminded me of the kinship between French and Italian: where the French would say "doucement" or gently, the Italian would say "piano" or slowly. English would say "gently" or more often "careful".

It strikes me that to accomplish all on a to do list one must go gently and apply slow methodic action in order not to be overwhelmed. That is going slow is in effect speeding up. Also purposely slowing down requires discipline (it's the opposite of going soft; it requires rigour) and that this is the secret of successfully accomplishing all that may pile up on a to do list. Softly, step by step...

And so for day 1070
17.11.2009

Occupy Richmond Hill


I have been thinking a lot recently about Occupy Wall Street.

I like the time consecrated to deliberation. It takes time to disentangle want from need.

I have also thought that part of the slogan is about occupying in the sense of keeping busy. That is setting idle hands to work. Labour has intrinsic worth. This a lesson that was taught to me by my mother who passed away recently. And labour is not the same as toiling.

Riding home from her funeral, the point about valuing everyone's contribution was brought home to me. I don't drive. My nephew does. Indeed he earns a living as a mechanic but he is very much the arm-chair philosopher and loves to bounce ideas around. We got to talking about the economics of hybrid, electric and diesel. Especially how the environmental footprint of electric batteries is enormous.

He told me that Henry Ford's cars were originally designed to run on hemp oil. Big oil investors in his company squashed the idea.

I have been thinking about Toronto too and what occupation looks like in this city.


Toronto is very involved in a project of salvaging suburbia. And I wonder if one of the ways that can be accomplished is through resurrecting Henry Ford's hemp oil dream. Legalize pot. (Why should you be sick to partake of its healing properties?) Suburbia represents a vast untapped land resource for growing oil.

Institute a four day work week. Not to create an extended Sabbath but to create a day given over to corve, a day where neighbours can come together to share labour i.e. garden. (only a small percentage need to devote themselves; the others can engage in other activities)

Surely somewhere in the writings of Gandhi are to be found an economic model of how suburban hemp farming can work.

We already have municipal collection of garden waste for composting. The system could be adapted to pick up hemp from small suburban and city producers.

We already have a custom in Toronto of people setting out recyclable bottles for scavengers to pick up. Hemp pick up could function in a similar fashion.

Cheap and clean energy.

The wealth of nations can keep business occupied.  Wealth is created by citizens.

If this sounds like the pigs beneath Bartertown in Beyond the Thunderdome. It does. It is also inspired by a cross between Jane Jacobs and Clay Shirky. And of course McLuhan is in the mix.

What is a global village without its agrarian revolution?

And so for some day in the future

Latencies and Cadence

Tim Lilburn in the preface to Thinking and Singing has this phrase which I lift from an enumeration of other phrases and leave to stand alone: "lifting to the tongue latent things". Out of its context I would have its latencies serve as a lively echo to this section from Dennis Lee's contribution ("Body Music: Notes on Rhythm in Poetry") to the collection of essays by various voices. Early in Lee's essay this section incorporates some of the key technical vocabulary from his essay but lays it out as a poem in itself.

I'm drawn to terms like these.
         Prosody as sonic improvisation. Polyrhythmic form. A kinetics of meaning: clenched, a galumph, then wash of a liminal segue. Forward momentum; lateral gusts. Kinaesthetic knowing. Trajectories in audio space. Scoring the energy spoor. The rhythmic manifold. A poetics of voice in motion. Cosmophony. Body music.
For a different mode or cadence, go backwards, body music, cosmophony, a poetics of voice in motion, the rhythmic manifold... dropping from the tongue.

And so for day 1069
16.11.2009

Hand Off

In a poem that rings the changes between "hang on", "hold on" and "hand on" there is a concluding openness in the lines that brush up against attachment to confer upon the reader a line without punctuation that suspends the imagination, leaves it hovering over it knows not what, word or world. From "Where Things Come Together" in A Possible Landscape by Maureen Harris...

What I mean to tell you.
Naming is another way to hand on.
In this country anything
I think it is vital to the experience of these lines that the verb tense is inflected to the present or even the future — what I mean to tell — and then the present reasserts itself in an almost timeless manner with the strength of the copula in defining what is naming. And then the whole thing explodes and the periods gone in the last line make in a retrospective move the other previous periods provisional so that a hind sight sort of enjambement inhabits the lines each handing on something to the next and abolishing the full stop and making it into a pause.

Harris gives us more of the delightful acute attention to small words in a play on somewhere/somehow at the conclusion of "Emblem" in the same collection.
only a choice of directions and I am going some
how at every moment I am still going on somewhere —
There is no moment in which I am standing still.
And here a period closes the poem but we know that it doesn't mark a standing still but leaves a strong mark of arrest for the "no moment". The period is still a stop but the "I" escapes in a movement all its own.

And so for day 1068
15.11.2009

Tangelo Tangents

Pedlar Press has done a lovely job with the books by May Chan The Fifth Girl and Dried Tangerine Skin with design by Zab (who introduced the Rubber Bit typeface in the headings to Maureen Scott Harris's Drowning Lessons). In the Chan books I like how the Chinese ideographs fit spaciously in the line with the Roman characters. As well the shape of the page with its generous leading accommodates the short lines — the white space complements it doesn't overwhelm. This is especially important in poems that rely on small gestures. Take for instance this excerpt from "Tangelos" from Dried Tangerine Skin. My quotation here doesn't do justice to the two-page spread and the breaking at a crucial point into a second column.

'Tangleos
have a knobby protrusion
at the stem
and their beautiful deep
orange - red skin
is
easy to peel
and their flesh
[page break]
is sweet
yet langy.'

Langy?
And the poem continues on the same page but in a column over to the right
Tangy.

'Having
a sharp.
distinctive flavour.'
The sharp distinctive flavour of the word play with "langy" echoing the "tangelo" subject/object would be lost without the typography. The column shift acts like a reboot which charts the poem into other tangy tastes (the poem continues with a description of the tangy hot sauce at a fast food Mexican restaurant chain) and still on the tip of the reader's tongue is the near relation of "l" and "t".

And so for day 1067
14.11.2009

Weaving Wonderment

Roger Scruton. Xanthippic Dialogues. In one of these dialogues, Xanthippe is weaving a tapestry depicting the late Socrates and is engaged in conversation with Plato. She is also an adept weaver of words. Take for instance this summation of several threads:

Plato: You rebuke me, Xanthippe, and rightly.

Xanthippe: Not at all, Plato. I wish only to return you to the path on which you proposed to guide me. For now I see the end of our journey before us. This thing that I have called personality: is it not revealed in the universe itself? 'Everything is full of gods,' said Thales. Every place invites our worship, and every created thing looks upon us as a face may look, with an invitation to dialogue. Our world is enchanted, and that is why we take pride in our condition. Reason, freedom, personality — this thing that distinguishes us from the rest of creation — puts us in communion with the gods. There lies the truth of the story that I told to Socrates: in everything there is judgment, and personality abounds in the world. Certainly, therefore, our destiny is distinct from the destiny of animals, and far happier than theirs.
The faculty of imagination infuses the world with a type of pantheism which becomes the basis for the truth of our ethical being. I like how the course through all this is by the working of enchantment. Also how this Kantian bent can accommodate a hard core materialism.

And so for day 1066
13.11.2009

Mask and Style

Julie Phillips. James Tiptree Jr.: the double life of Alice B. Sheldon.

For a woman, a pseudonym can be a way of getting published at all, or of avoiding public disapproval. "George Eliot," for example, put some distance between the respectable novels and the "fallen woman," Mary Ann Evans, who wrote them. "Currier Bell" put distance between Charlotte Brontë and the words of poet laureate Robert Southey, who told her that writing "cannot be the business of a woman's life." A male name can confer a power and authority, in the eyes of the reader, that a woman might not have as herself.
Consider also the case of Doris Lessing as Jane Somers.

And then consider, the construction of identity generally.
In other words, those experiences which are normally regarded as the special property of an individual, such as one's treasured memories, are here treated in much the same way as they are in Blade Runner, that is, as the very matter from which the individual is actually constituted. [...] Deleuze redefines experience in terms of effects and relations, or better, hecceities, which for Deleuze means that experience is individuating. So what is a hecceity? Simply put, it is a nonpersonal mode of individuation. For our purposes, though, probably the best way to think of it is in terms of style.
Ian Buchanan. "Introduction". A Deleuzian Century?.

And so for day 1065
12.11.2009

The Origin of Furniture

Aislinn Hunter in her contribution to A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory develops a conceit comparing a poem and furniture.

I believe when we read a poem we enter a room. A room fashioned by the poet from his, or her, own life, from a sense of the fragmentary world, from a preference for certain kinds of language, certain kinds of furniture.
It just so happens that I was also reading John Terpstra's Naked Trees close to the time I was plunged into the essays of A Ragged Pen. There is a moment in the deciduary sequence that the narrator comments on a group assembled around a table for dinner. In "Headiness" our narrator likens the legs of the table to the trunks of trees, and even at one point "wanted to say that I saw a crown shaken by the breeze" when "everyone burst with laughter". This sensitivity to the traces of the wood in the furniture is played out in the conclusion to "Prunus serotina" where veneration borders on fetish worship.
Wandering through the ranging shades of Black Cherry; the cream, fawn, chocolate, rouge. And its figured grain, an inner life exposed. See. Feel how smooth. Voyeur to this flesh of wood you're privileged to touch. Privy to the naked lives of trees.
Poem, furniture, tree, each demands attention. Each act of attending places the body and its store of preferences in contact with what has grown and invites some musing about those growth conditions that led to what is beheld and held.

And so for day 1064
11.11.2009

Mad and Human

May Sarton's narrator reports on a character's reaction to her father comparing her to an aunt known for her artistic talent but also locked up. The character reacts initially with disavowal and then with a kind of grudging recognition that Aunt Ida was as the character emphasizes, human. Between the two reactions is a portrait of Aunt Ida. Here is Hilary's recollection:

When she had calmed down, Hilary felt shame, she had spoken cynically and without compassion of an old woman whom she loved. Aunt Ida had given her her first pair of opera glasses; she had talked to her as if she were a human being, not a child; and when she had been locked up ("Aunt Ida is very ill," she was told, "and in a hospital"), Hilary at twelve had felt real grief. The old woman had tried to commit suicide — this fact oozed out somehow from under the pretenses. Then she was buried alive, and one more item was added to Alice Frothingham's lists of "things to do," the weekly visit to McLean with books and flowers, with paints and canvases, for there had been times when Aunt Ida moved from depression to elation and could for brief periods paint again. Hilary had not been allowed to see her. Perhaps they imagined that insanity was contagious.
After this review Hilary manages to say to her father, through her tears, that she loved Aunt Ida and would be glad to be like her, an assertion capped by the emphatic "She was human."

The figure of the artist on the verge of madness, taken up by the intensity of feeling so necessary for the production of truthful art, comes to haunt the novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the twelve year old cut off from a beloved aunt becomes a story that is "dangerously close to the surface again" for the old woman recollecting her life. May Sarton doesn't just set this as a set piece of a scene, she doesn't settle for reportage. The recollection induces an interior dialogue where Hilary, our protagonist, chides herself and turns her thoughts to the question of mourning one's parents. She wanted parental recognition; she wanted them to be proud. She comes to realize
You can't break the mould and also be consoled for breaking it, old fool! Be realistic — every book you published must have caused them embarassment and dismay. Yet the cry that escaped her lips, as she searched for the handkerchief in her pocket was, "Mother! Father!" Does the mourning for parents ever end? she asked herself, blowing her nose, and resting her eyes on the quiet green light in the room. Searingly, excruciatingly private, this pain, yet she suspected that it might be the universal condition. Children have to hurt their parents or die, have to break themselves off, whatever the cost, even though the wound never heals.
And Sarton has her character circle back and young Hilary reminds old Hilary (note the temporal flow involved in the recollection of the wisdom of a younger self) that she did not break down like Aunt Ida, that she kept going. And on it goes as Mrs. Stevens prepares for an interview ...

And so for day 1063
10.11.2009

Night Falls Darkness Rises

Maureen Scott Harris. Drowning Lessons

distance stands up around me
It is a perhaps puzzling assertion until one makes the experiment oneself. Looking down at one's toes, sensing the short distance, slowly raising one's head to peer above the tree tops and the roof lines into the sky: distance rises... and it is the precision of this language that makes one stop and consider
Birch trees — thin spirits — glimmer
and dissolve as darkness rises from the ground
stretching in its turn till it stands and fills the sky.
One trusts the poet. The description is apt. Shadows gather in the underbrush while the light continues to play overhead. Darkness rises.

It is because of such precision that one trusts the poet and becomes open to the observations captured in the ghazals: "We forget some things, lose some, throw some away". Memory and the passage of time is like a landscape where darkness rises and distance stands up.

And so for day 1062
09.11.2009

Abbreviated Derive

Joseph N. Riddel. The Turning Word: American Literary Modernism and Continental Theory. In the context of discussing Charles Olson provides a neat explication of poem as "field".

A poem composes a "field" but an "open field," and may function like a musical text to direct but not quite determine a performance.
It is this notion of performance allied to the concept of "field" that animates in part Riddel's conclusion to his essay on Stein and Bergson. He quotes from Stein's Tender Buttons, a section called "A Centre in a Table".
It was a way a day, this made some sum. Suppose a cod liver a cod liver is an oil, suppose a cod liver is tunny, suppose a cod liver oil tunny is pressed suppose a cod liver oil tunny pressed in china and secret with a bestow a bestow reed, a reed to be a reed to be, in a reed to be.

Next to me next to a folder, next to a folder some waiter, next to a folder some waiter and re letter and read her. Read her with her for less.
After the quotation, Riddel coasts away...
Can this reading be read? In "sum," as a sense? Or does it dispatch the cogito? Disperse the sum? Stein's button, her "reed" is a pen not in hand. it is the folded letter, the mark that makes writing both more and less. It is her fold, the clitoral signature of an American and modernist writing that always already exceeds the categories or genre that allows us to read it masterfully. As a question of grammar, a questioning of grammar, it works within the empty categories of time-space, and thus of Bergson's instrumental language, as a "circular diminisher" (SW, 503), like a writing coming from the future, from the "wrist leading." Both "less" and more, this writing to be is the American identity — a "cod liver," like some c.o.d. that will demand a future payment, more or less. For as Stein repeatedly said of America, how many "acts" make a "play" — "three" at least, or more, to contain "four" saints at least, that excess of "time" which is a dimension not yet calculable.

[SW = Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein ed. by Carl Van Vechten (1972)]
The first move is a translation across languages. The English "sum" as the Latin "I am". It appears to be an echo of homophonic translation (see classic examples in Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Râmes by Luis d'Antin van Rooten and in Zukofsky's Catulus). It is however more a homoscopic or homographic relation: the sounds don't match; it is an appeal to the eye. A further appeal to the eye is the translation by spacing that introduces periods between the letters of "cod" to render it as "c.o.d" and expanded to "cash on delivery".

I invoke the fold to retranslate the c.o.d. to a set of Latin words: pecunia in traditio. And step two: create an acronym: P.I.T. And now translate by substitution (p for c, i for o, t for d) [for more on substitution methods see those employed by bpNicol in "Translating Translating Appolinaire"].
It was a way a tay, this mate sime sum. Succise a pit liver a pit liver is an iil, succise a pit liver is tunny, succise a pit liver iil tunny is cresset succise a pit liver iil tunny cresset in china and secret with a bestiw a bestiw reet, a reet ti be a reet ti be, in a reet ti be.

Next to me next ti a filter, next ti a filter sime waiter, next ti a filter sime waiter ant re letter ant reat her. Reat her with her fir less.
Filters ... operations. Reading the reading. Cached cash.

And so for day 1061
08.11.2009

Pranaam

In this collection of short stories it is the short anecdote that leaves an impression — a little jolt of satire. The narrator pretending to be an intern at Vogue wittily reports that Anna Wintour has had a skylight installed above her office so that she can wear sunglasses all the time. We know this is a fabrication but it is the stuff of urban myth; shared as gossip and liable to spread notwithstanding our unreliable narrator. Rahul Mehta our author has in one of the stories a set piece that warns in postmodern fashion that the author and the narrator are not the same person and that this distinction is all the more evident when the narrator reports being a writer.

The earlier stories in the collection read like realist tales told of course in the first person. The first is about a tense relation between grandson and grandfather, an incident with an outburst, and the traditional marks of respect.

When I go downstairs, my father asks if I did pranaam, and I say yes.
We readers know this to be a lie. Just prior to the question and response we are given a description from the perspective of the I-narrator.
Now, I don't approach my grandfather. I don't know whether he is crying under the covers. I stand in the doorway another minute, watching him, and then I leave.
Pranaam involves touching the feet of the person. There is no feet touching. Is there another form of pranaam? Is there some kind of respect? It is a question that haunts the whole collection: who and what is worth respect if the narrator cannot respect himself? An answer comes in the last story where the narrator decides to address his parents in a moment of truth telling but the moment is off-stage so to speak. It is announced but not related. It is yet to come. So we have in one story a lie to a father, in the other an opening up to the parents. These are of course different narrators and different stories. However, it is a persistent theme — respect tied to communication — one of the middle stories reports on this move by one member of a couple having a tough time:
Taped to the fridge is a note: "You'll probably be asleep by the time I get home," it says. "We should talk soon."
And like many of the other stories in Quarantine the outcome is left in suspension. Pranaam for the reader is left incomplete. Readers are constructed as untouchable or quarantined. Uncontaminated by the fictions of truth.

And so for day 1060
07.11.2009

Consolations

To round out Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, his editors added notebook material. It is material that is impressionistic and not fully worked up in its argumentation. Take for instance this bit which leaves me puzzled.

Larkin good on fear in "Aubade," with implied reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either.
I am in favour of consolation. I am no tough guy. Consolation can arise from facing the inevitability of death.

In my reading Philip Larkin's poem is more indifferent. One stanza ends with the observation that
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
I take my cue from fiction. Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane has its narrator remark
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.
It is possible to achieve this insight as an adult without recourse to a story of recuperating the wisdom of the child. Hitchens himself does this in several brave passages of Mortality. His unflinching gaze and steadfast moral stance inspires. However it is the sometimes small asides that provide valuable moments that act as inadvertent signposts to consolation. Consider the remarkable friendship with Dr. Francis Collins who crops up numerous times in this short book. Collins, a man of faith (and a man of science), is credited for not recommending prayer to the terminally ill atheist. There is relish in the retelling of this, this small thing.

And so for day 1059
06.11.2009

Sheets

J.D. McClatchy is both an editor of James Merrill's poetry and the author of an homage "Ouija" (in Hazmat) in memory of the American poet. Reading the two poets back to back I am fascinated by their treatment of the figure of the sheets on a bed. Take these concluding lines from McClathy's "Happiness" as an instance

Now all we have are shapes on the sheet,
yours doubled over, mine clenched and released.
And the lines remind one of the twisted syntax of Merrill's lines in "Walking All Night"
Somebody's shape a sheet
Unwinds from slowly tosses in our moonless heat.
And the figure of sheets makes another appearance in "The linen winds and wrinkles like shed skin" from "A Survival" by Merrill. Both poems by Merrill are collected in The Country of A Thousand Years of Peace.

And so for day 1058
05.11.2009

Joining the Transformative Listening

So I read "venerable" for "vulnerable" towards the end of "Perspectors/Melancholia" in Lisa Robertson's Nilling: "Resistance is the vulnerable utopia of inwardness" and in so doing I enact or some part of me plays out what Robertson had noted earlier in the paragraph that begins "Melancholy is big contemplative utopia." and in which she observes

Transformation may include decay, multiplication, reversal, inflation or minification, fragmentation or annexation, plus all the Ovidian modalities.
One of my favourite modalities is juxtapositon. And so from an essay later in Nilling about the "Disquiet" that is ever present and is a source of continuity and change
But a retreat into the present's inconspicuousness is not asocial; thinking moves in the replete temporality of other thinkers, listening moves among other listeners, continuing on paths others have taken. This is a present also.
BTW prospecting for "perspectors" one comes to this definition "The point at which the three lines connecting the vertices of two perspective triangles concur, sometimes also called the perspective center, homology center, or pole."

And so for day 1057
04.11.2009

Great Beginnings

James Merrill Nights and Days "Violent Pastoral"

In the short space of four lines Merrill paints a dynamic picture and set the stage for bonding both creatures into a single arresting image.

Against a thunderhead's
Blue marble, the eagle
Mounts with the lamb in its clutch:
Two wings, four hooves,
And by poem's end we can only hope, in the contemplation of this hybrid of wing and fleece, to be like the shepherd "Still looking up, who understood / And was not turned to stone."

And so for day 1056
03.11.2009

Name Game

The "Tuesday" section from Lisa Robertson's The Weather is punctuated with women's first names and the question where they are. Some bring to mind the feminists Ti-Grace [Atkinson] Gloria [Steinem] Shulamith [Firestone] and others remind one of writers Violette [Leduc], Grace [Paley], Christine [Brooke-Rose] and Emily [Dickinson] but this is not an exhaustive list of women from the past; there are other names such as the Kathleen who may be a young women in process of becoming known...

Days heap upon us. Where is our anger. And the shades darker than the plain part and darker at the top than the bottom. But darker at bottom than top. Days heap upon us. Where is Ti-Grace. But darker at the bottom than the top. Days heap upon us. Where is Christine. Broken on the word culture. But darker at the bottom than the top.
It is the dark brooding atmosphere -- the getting in touch with anger -- that put me onto this track and the succession of Valerie [Solanas] and Patty [Hearst].

And so for day 1055
02.11.2009

Ritual Returns

I like to view this description of ritual and the effects of reenactment by Israel Scheffler in In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions as a syntagm, a progression.

The marking out of ritually commemorated events helps to define a temporal matrix, and reenactment elaborates it further by articulating an ever-expanding ritual tradition. Concomitantly, reenactment serves also to form a conception of community. For the performers of past ritual replicas constitute a body of actors to which present performers relate themselves through reenactment and, hence, indirectly to one another. The community thus defined bears not only common bonds to the past but also common orientations in the present and outlooks for the future. Thus, an organization of time, as well as of the space occupied by a historical community, is facilitated. [...] we have to do with a cognitive ordering of categories of time, space, action, and community.
I wonder about broadening this description from ritual in its religious sense to repeated gesture generally. Time: I have written and read yesterday, I do so today and hope to do more tomorrow. Space: I have published bits and pieces in a given venue at regular intervals. Action: each published bit is an intervention that welds quotation and commentary into an exploration of what remains to be said. Community: here the mark of a question is raised. Community is not an outcome. It is the prerequisite for the ordering of time and space and the permitting of allowable action. Dialogue of the Dead is a form of contemplation that virtulizes community. So can we say that ritual arranges the passages between the virtual and the actual?

And so for day 1054
01.11.2009