Saturday, February 28, 2009

More tales of the city

The neon's hard to read in this photo, but this is the facade of the Virgin Megastore, seen from across 14th St in Union Square; the store's closing down soon, another megalith falling away, which is maybe why the big V isn't working. so that the sign on the side reads "irgin." My friend Michael said he went in this store the other day, remembering back when he first went to huge music stores and liked discovering something new there, a feeling that couldn't be recaptured on this visit. It occurred to him as he left that going to a big music store was probably something he'd never do again. Not that it would be missed, exactly, but that it was something of marker in a life, when you notice something in the world changing. I've been thinking along those lines myself during these few days here, how clearly New York isn't the place I moved to at the beginning of 2001. Eight years isn't much in the life of the city, but how rapid the change seems in just that little while. Even in just this space. The Zen Palate on the east side of the square were we used to get takeout gone. The vast messy improvised memorials after 9/11, the days of people gathering in the square every evening. The hundreds of pairs of boots set out to mark the deaths of soldiers in Iraq (and that was thousands of deaths ago). My friend Marie at the die-in to protest the invasion of Baghdad, and how I'd planned to "die" myself but couldn't do it, not even as a gesture of protest. Some of the change seems beautiful: the booths and tents of the Green Market opening and folding up again, the procession of trucks of food and flowers, and the pet adoption fairs on the corners with the guarded or open-faced animals and their hopeful attendants. The guys with the big plastic jars you put money in for the homeless. That strange big bas relief sculpture on the south side of the square, which used to emit smoke or fog. The endlessly increasing numbers on that lit-up clock that stand for what?

No nostalgia here; it's the endlessly changing urban body. I go away for a while and the city does not miss me one bit, though in a day it lets me back inside again. Michael thinks we are probably better off without the Megastore, faded temple of possibility, monument to the idea that it was a good idea to have everything in one place. This might be the era for the microshop, the one-off, the smaller and more flexible project. What are we going to do with all those big old empty boxes?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Back on home ground

I'm in NYC for the weekend -- where else could this photo be? -- just to take care of some things here before returning to Stanford for my last three weeks. The oddest thing about returning to New York after seven weeks in Northern California is the most obvious thing: every surface here seems hard. In February the city's at its most angular, whereas Palo Alto's geometry is softened by leaves everywhere you look. So I walk around feeling something's been subtracted from the world. Here, as ever, it's people that are in the foreground: our faces, energies, voices, hurry, distraction, beauty, opacity...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Signs of the Times

On CNN's website today there was a little photo essay on bad economic times in New York; the pictures all happened to be from our neighborhood. It wasn't exactly news, as lots of the places pictured -- a Mexican restaurant, a magazine shop, a store that sold Fifties stuff -- had been gone a while, but there were some new ones, too. The pictures had the double effect of making me a bit homesick and also suggesting the strange emptying-out of public spaces that's going on around us. That was still on my mind when I walked to downtown Palo Alto, down to the drugstore, and came upon a shop going out of business -- the Z Gallerie, a place that sells flashy home accessories. Palo Alto is usually an arena of restraint and a certain social severity. I've been noticing lately that people go to some lengths not to make eye contact with one another here. New York has a reputation for that but it's actually not true; New Yorkers look at each other constantly. Paul's theory is that here in Silicon Valley people wish to appear complete, as if they need nothing, and to look in someone else's eyes might suggest you wanted something. Whatever the case, there was not much of that usual cool in evidence inside Z Gallerie; people were excited about the 75% markdown and considering big mercury glass hurricane candle holders, faux horn candelabra and waist-high glass vases in zebra patterns. People were actively jostling others aside and talking exuberantly about the merchandise. Whatever gloss the stuff once had by virtue of display seemed to have leaked out as it was pawed over and piled about. The one thing that didn't seem to be touched was a display of skull-patterned stuff in the back: plates, stemware, cereal bowls emblazoned with silvery-black skulls. Rhinestone skull napkin rings. embroidered skull napkins, skull placecard holders. It seems that skulls, in the new depression, are over and done with.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A night in Bodega Bay

A Quarter Past Money

Today the poem I've written for Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker's web project Starting Today has been posted on the site. It's a great idea: one hundred poet each write a poem responding to one of the first 100 days of the Obama administration. My poem's concerned with (what else?) money.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

You Need Syntax to Love

Richard Silberg of POETRY FLASH organized a panel at AWP called "Parallel Lines." It was concerned with the ways in which poets navigate the question of schools or camps. I'm really interested in this question because I dislike the idea of esthetic purity, and I'm always intrigued by what one can find out from poems that aren't like your own. So I thought I'd post here the talk I wrote for the panel, which is largely about my relationship to Brenda Hillman's poetry -- bracingly inventive work that's always an example and a spur.


Here's a passage from a poem in Brenda Hillman's LOOSE SUGAR:

    Early life was a looseness;
    even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
    to love.

    Still, there is a "leaking" when we try to put things together.

    As a bowl starts out being a bowl, the not-bowlness
drains out of it. Later,

    form is not something we remember doing, like being born.

Many of the poems in this book are interested in the beginnings of life, in where the spark of soul comes from, and in early experiences of sex in which one encounters those sparks again, when "they put/ their summer stars inside you." We were loose before we were formed into ourselves; Lacan talks about the ways in which the infant experiences the body in pieces, a dismembered (and unremembered) self which is only assembled with the coming of language, the notion of a "me." Taking form, becoming the subject of a sentence, Hillman adds, is necessary in order to love; you can't do that except by being bound to other elements. But, something's lost when an identity is found: the self hardens into a form and excludes other things, and taking form becomes transparent to us, a given we can't see, like being born.

But being a poet of multivalence, of a certain kind of "looseness" that lets meanings multiply and resonate next to each other, Hillman also seems to invite us to read this as a passage about poetry itself. Listen again:

    even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
    to love.

Fragmentation by itself isolates elements, keeps language in suspension like grains of sugar in a bowl. Love gets made -- in the sense of connection, sexual or otherwise -- when one part can act upon another, forming unions, fragments arranging themselves into the sense of sentences. But there's a rub:

    Still, there is a "leaking" when we try to put things together.

    As a bowl starts out being a bowl, the not-bowlness
    drains out of it.

The hazard of making meaning, forming a sentence, is that as you tie the bits of one together, you've left other bits out. A sentence -- like a line -- is a means of organizing disparate elements, and every sentence or line excludes far more than it can include; that's its nature. And pretty soon, that sentence or that line starts to seem a fixed thing, the only way you can mean, when, in fact, as Hillman tells us:


    form is not something we remember doing, like being born.

The form of the language we make, the form of poetry, becomes transparent to us, we may not remember that form is something we do, something we choose again and again -- too easy to tumble into the long sleep of habit.

Brenda Hillman and I became friends in 1969 or 1970, in a creative writing class taught by Mrs. Christensen, at Rincon High School in Tucson, Arizona. Brenda was a year ahead of me. I was intrigued by how smart she was -- she read Russian novels, and had a kind of glamorously vague long-haired boyfriend named Paul, and lived a few blocks away from me. I remember hearing that her family had put up a Christmas tree, and found the unadorned fir so handsome that they put no ornaments on it all, which seemed to me also a kind of glamor, to do something unexpected like that in the name of beauty. I wrote a poem in our class that Brenda loved. I gave her the only copy of it, on purpose; she folded the poem into her wallet and carried it there for many many years. long after we were out of touch and living on opposite coasts.

But I get ahead of my story. Brenda graduated and went off to college in California; I left high school when I couldn't stand it any more and signed up at the University of Arizona, where they didn't find out for a while that I had no high school diploma and didn't seem too worried about it when they did. I went right to the poetry workshops, which I loved. We read a very specific group of poets, who were writing the fashionable poems of the day. They were neo-surrealists, or the later flowering of deep imagists, and they were largely men: Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, and my teacher Richard Shelton. I very much wanted to write in this mode, but it wasn't because I wanted to imitate them, but rather a larger matter than that: I thought that's what poetry was. We did not read, for instance, Robert Lowell, or Mina Loy, to name just two of a great number of poets who'd have thoroughly messed up our parochial vision of the art.

I think it would be unfair of me to blame this narrowness entirely on my teachers. As young poets, we wanted to be where the action was; we sensed a current of energy; we loved the intensity that one felt when the young James Tate appeared on campus and read his dreamy, incendiary poems. We wanted to be part of something, which is probably always a characteristic of young artists.

We -- and here I mean myself and a dozen friends -- lived in a more Balkanized esthetic culture than would quite be possible today. My students have friends in and out of writing programs all over the country; they read blogs and poetry websites; they are very savvy as to the platforms and intentions and principles of all sorts of poetic projects. We were more bound by geography, and by the influence of strong teachers who had built poetry cultures at particular schools. As a result, our reading -- and our poetic practice -- was far less eclectic.

Esthetic purity is like housing/shopping/recreation areas built under the aegis of New Urbanism. I was in one of these in San Mateo the other day; the Whole Foods, the coffee bar, the apartment buildings, even the bridges over the fake canal, everything's sort of Tuscan in aspect, and it's all olive and muddy khaki, it's a completely designed world, and in truth even if it were well designed it would be unbearable, because there's no life-giving clash, no frisson of difference. All orderly equals no fun.


Back to Brenda. Decades later, I am no longer a neo-surrealist and neither is anyone else (though neo-neo-surrealism is on the horizon). I read Brenda's DEATH TRACTATES and I can't get the book out of my head; something about the interiority of that voice, as if one's witness to thinking, the thinking happening in the language as it unfolds. This is hard to talk about: what I mean is something like that the thinking doesn't seem to happen outside the poem, or before it; it's not like the thinking is represented but rather like it's happening, right now, in the language, on the page. I love this. I love how alive it feels. I love that there's a poem which represents the sounds of birds by a chain of commas, just , , , ,

I see Brenda for the first time in, well, thirty years. She tells me about that little scrap of poem that she carried around with her till it fell apart, and how the voice in that poem, something about the sound of it, was useful to her in DEATH TRACTATES -- it seemed to suggest a kind of mode of speaking.


No one would mistake one of my poems for one of Brenda's, or vice-versa. We are to some degree exemplars of our opposite coasts; you can hear behind her poems Duncan and Olson and Projective Verse; you can hear behind mine Lowell and Bishop. But these are broad generalizations, and they're never as interesting as the complex braided strains of real influence, which is always polyphonic. Recently I came across this passage from a book by Joe Eck on garden design, and it seems perfectly appropos:

Every esthetic decision is in part the product of influence. We see gardens we have liked and others we have not; we have noted effects that pleased us and others that seemed contrived. All that history of looking and judging, of liking and resisting, is what we bring to the making of a garden. The precise blend of conscious decision and inchoate memory, or the rational with the deeply felt, amounts to our personal style.

So with this sense of complexity in mind I want to read my poem, Flit. It's a poem interested in collective consciousness -- how groups of creatures like fish or bees seem to think all together, or act in concert. In this case it's a group of black-capped chickadees. I think Brenda's example is in some ways guiding my hand in this poem.

First off, there's a word here that is not a word but simply a clutch of punctuation; it's intended to represent the sound a bird would make noticing you, if you could hear that. Second, the birds here are, as she says in the poem where I began, fragments, but they seem to be coming together into a syntax. So my thinking about the flock inevitably becomes thinking about language as well. Perhaps most importantly here, I wanted to make a poem that seems less the refined artifact of thinking than something closer to immersion in the process of being conscious.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Festival of Perfect Silence

I learned today that DOG YEARS is coming out in Estonia, an unexpected event which led me to realize that I didn't know a thing about Estonia, either in terms of geography or culture or language. So I've been reading up on it; it sounds cold, delightful, and small; there are only 1.4 million Estonians, and the language is related to Finnish. Reading a list of cultural events this year in the largest city, Talinn, I discovered that this month is the Festival of Perfect Silence, which is being held by the Estonian Philharmonic. I could have done a bit more research to find out about the program, but I like imagining the Festival so much that I'm leaving it at that.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dynamic Repose

This Boddhisatva is one of the attendant spirits in a splendid gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, and as we're getting ready to leave town this morning I'm thinking this figure represents exactly a position I'm longing for: it strikes just the right balance between the energetic and the restful; it's somehow contained and about to spring into action at once.

In the same room, an upright stone Buddha seems entirely still, and the weight of it makes it seem as if it's just falling more deeply into itself, a massive center of gravity anchoring everything around it. But in this figure, that tilt of the head and the angle of the arms makes the Boddhisatva (if that's indeed what he is -- maybe a guardian spirit?) seem turned outward, attentive to the world.

Attentive but entirely centered, the figure makes me think about the double meaning of the word "poised," as in "still, graceful" and as in "poised to" -- about to spring or leap or speak. It's this doubleness that makes this figure so magnetic. (Especially after attending a conference with thousands of writers.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A poem for this moment

This is a tiny excerpt from Thomas McGrath's long poem, LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, PARTS I AND II, published in 1970 by The Swallow Press. It may be 39 years old, but it couldn't be more timely.

In New York at five past money, they cut the cord of his sleep.
In New York at ten past money they mortgaged the road of his tongue.
Slipped past the great church of song and planted a century of silence
On the round hearts' hill where the clocktower the cock and the moon
          At a quarter past money in New York a star of ashes
Falls in Harlem and on Avenue C strychnine condenses
In the secret cloisters of the artichoke.
                       At half past money in New York
They seed the clouds of his sleep with explosive carbon of psalms,
Mottoes, prayers in fortran, credit cards.
                       At a quarter to money
In New York the universal blood pump is stuffed full of stock
And at Money all time is money.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh

On Friday afternoon, at the AWP Conference in Chicago, I'll be talking with a group of poets about the work of Thomas James, whose book LETTERS TO A STRANGER has been reissued as part of the Graywolf Re/View Series I edit, an inprint devoted to restoring nearly-lost books of contemporary American poetry to print. The book was first published 35 years ago, but it's remained a ghost presence in American poetry, largely because of devoted readers who kept teaching and talking about the poems. Here are three stanzas from one of the book's central poems, a monologue spoken by the "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesoneh XXI Dynasty":

I remember how I died. It was so simple!
One morning the garden faded. My face blacked out.
On my left side they made the first incision.
They washed my heart and liver in palm wine --
My lungs were two dark fruit they stuffed with spices.
They smeared my innards with a sticky unguent
And sealed them in a crock of alabaster.

My brain was next. A pointed instrument
Hooked it through my nostrils, strand by stand.
A voice swayed over me. I paid no notice.
For weeks my body swam in sweet perfume.
I came out scoured. I was skin and bone.
They lifted me into the sun again
And packed my empty skull with cinnamon.

They slit my toes; a razor gashed my fingertips.
Stitched shut at last, my limbs were chaste and valuable,
Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey.
My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart.

Jemutesonekh speaks from the perfection and stasis of death, outside of change. In a way she's a figure for the work of poetry -- in which feeling, perception, thinking are given form and stilled within the frame of language a poem creates. To become a poem, to become a voice, is to last, if you're lucky. And the poems of Thomas James are proving to be enduring acts of preservation.

(Rigoberto Gonzalez, Tracy K. Smith and Mark Wunderlich will join me in reading and talking about Thomas James' poems on Friday.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Elements of Garden Design

This is a passage from Joe Eck's ELEMENTS OF GARDEN DESIGN that seems entirely applicable to poetry:

"Every esthetic decision is in part the product of influence. We see gardens we have liked and others we have not; we have noted effects that please us and others that seemed contrived. All that history of looking and judging, of liking and resisting, is what we bring to the making of a garden. The precise blend of conscious decision and inchoate memory, or the rational with the deeply felt, amounts to our personal style. Everything is to be gained from knowing precisely why one likes this or that element of a garden, why one chooses this or that line or shape..."

Venice (CA)

Paul did a great reading tonight at Good Luck, a bar in Silverlake with a faux-Chinese feel -- lots of red lacquer and dragons on the ceiling. It's a wonderful place for listening to literary readings, unusually quiet, and the audience really takes the readings in.

So we've spent the weekend in L.A., at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the great meta-museum in Culver City; at the somewhat derelict Culver Hotel, with its handsome lobby and decrepit rooms (well, ours is anyway); on Abbot Kinney in Venice, watching the beautiful and beloved dogs being taken out for shopping and brunch; walking out on the Venice Pier on Washington Boulevard (see the photo above) and going to the terrific Small World Books; driving our rented bronze Prius -- leg room! the pleasure of environmental responsibility! -- down the light-washed canyon of Sunset Blvd at night through West Hollywood.

Around the corner from Good Luck is the Vista Theater, a fantastic art deco moviehouse, and below is a shapshot of the ticketbooth -- gilded, covered with heiroglyphics, like a sacred entrance to the temple of illusion. Lotuses are etched onto the glass of the doors on either side. Tonight they were showing The Wrestler.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Senior Discount

The other day I went into the Goodwill in Menlo Park, where I found a shirt and a sweater. When I took them up to the register, the woman behind the counter said, "Senior?"

I said, "What do you mean?"

She said, "Senior discount?"

I said, "How old do you have to be?"

She said, "Fifty-five."

I said, "Well, I am fifty-five."

But she must have noticed the look on my face, because she said, "You look young," and then gave me the ten per cent discount.

I know that the store clerk was looking at me casually, and she was, after all, offering to do me a favor, but I have to admit I walked back out onto the sidewalk feeling weak in the knees, as if she had, with no warning, punched me. Had I just crossed some threshold? Nobody ever asked me if I was a senior citizen before.

Being older is one thing; the character and dignity and depth of "older" doesn't bother me a bit. I'm attracted to older men, and I like being one, and a number of the most vital and interesting people I know are older than me.

But being "senior" is something else entirely. Golf carts, planned communities, irrelevance, cuteness, triviality, retirement, hobbies: I refuse senior, I hate senior.

One friend in his seventies is a strapping and energetic weightlifter with a boyfriend a third his age. Another is a beautiful and vibrant single parent in her sixties. I know marvelous poets in their seventies and eighties, deepening their work, following where their practice leads. I wish that this knowledge weren't shoved aside, at least temporarily, by the ridiculous category into which I tumbled while buying some secondhand clothes. So that I suddenly felt thoroughly used and ready for the Goodwill bin myself, which seems to be in some insidious way what that category is intended to do: separate one from real life.