Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Lichen, The Giants

Brandon Downing
Lake Antiquity
(Fence, 2009)

A man and a horse jump over a fence of wooden railings. The man is dressed for a fox hunt. His coat is blood red, its tail extending out in a sharp triangle illustrating speed and force of intent.

The man has a little mustache which gives him the look of crisp, masculine deportment. The horse is muscular and brown. Its forelegs curve graciously downward. Its mane and tail are braided and its bridled head shows no emotion.

This depiction of a fox hunt is not a particularly good painting. It seems to be a magazine illustration, perhaps from a children’s storybook, or perhaps an issue of Horse And Hound.

Above the horse and rider, imposed over a background of soft hazy clouds, are three narrow blocks of paper, no doubt clipped from a magazine, presenting a discrete series of phrases: “one who could set down, Dying for Love,” “character of the divers ages of Love,” and, a little further down, “the Age of violent attractions of Love.” At the bottom of the page is a single block of paper with two lines of text: “Forward and back Love’s electric messenger rushed/ from heart to heart, knocking at each.”

There is no logical connection between these fragments of text and the picture. They may have been clipped from the same magazine, or clipped from something entirely different. The choice and arrangement of these texts on the page have a blithe, tenuous, arbitrary relation with the horse and rider, at once suggesting and evading a semantic linkage. Not present, but vividly imagined, provoked, insinuated, aroused, are the reveries of the reader, whoever that may be, and however inclined and receptive that person may be to zones of imaginary drama.

The page on which this collage appears is from Brandon Downing’s enormous Lake Antiquity. A little smaller than your standard coffee table book, Lake Antiquity is as full of reverie and discovery as the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. The title does tend to suggest something along the lines of a wilderness area, though one leaning decidedly toward the arcane than the Arcadian. The cover illustration, for instance, shows a little red-capped dwarf looking out at a series of geysers in a 19th century engraving. This is clearly not Yellowstone, nor Iceland, but a geography of the imagination.

Lake Antiquity is a very close cousin to Max Ernst’s collage-novel La femme 100 têtes (loosely translated as “The Woman With One Hundred Heads,” or “Hundred Headed Woman”), but with some salient differences. Where Ernst relied exclusively on 19th century engravings, Downing has included a large variety of graphic media: cartoons, advertisements, posters, home interior magazines, textbook illustrations, children’s drawings, banknotes, circulars, cookbook recipes, stock certificates and single blocks of colored paper used as background for the clipped texts.

What I like best about this book, is that it is a book. It has heft. It has a pleasant smell. Its texture feels smooth in my hands. I can take it to the couch and lay down and peruse it without the annoyance of pop up ads and a page that is slow to scroll down on my computer screen.

I also very much like its hallucinatory gusto. The worlds represented on its glossy pages are sirens of visual seduction, calling you to enter their domain and spend some time noting their flora and fauna, expand the bounds of your imagination, drift, explore, meander. The drama on the page is taking place in the theatre of your mind. It is a universe of illusions and shadows. Waterfalls and raging elephants.

On pages 92 and 93 are juxtaposed two similar scenes. To the left, a small boat of people, sitting in neat rows, their backs to the viewer, travel on a misty stream. They are surrounded by luxurious green foliage, ferns and tall trees whose roots are partially exposed and resemble the legs of leviathans. There is something subtly discordant about the scene, something unidentifiable that gives it an hallucinatory aspect. At the top and bottom are two thick black margins whose impenetrable bands enclose and frame the scene. It is a deeply absorbing scene. One can feel the thickness of the humidity and smell the mingled odor of decay and growth. One feels like shouting, “hey, where are you going?”

To the right, is a more obviously assembled, but no less mysterious, jungle scene. What appears at first glance to be a 19th century engraving is, in fact, a seamless combination of elements derived from other engravings done in a similar style. A forest of cycads and tall, deciduous trees crowd a space of eerie, primeval beauty. A small amount of sunlight diffuses through the confusion of tree trunks, branches, and leaves. It is a testament to the skill of the engraver that the effect of this diffusion is so natural, so actual. Two men in 19th century hunting costume occupy the far right corner amid a tangle of large ferns. One of them stands, his rifle pointing downward. The other strides forward, toting his rifle on his shoulder. In the lower center, a woman, dressed in what appears to be Tibetan costume, sits on a mass of foamy white material, holding a baby. A man to the immediate left, dressed as a monk with large floppy sleeves, walks out of the forest, his arms upraised, as if in alarm.

These elements alone evoke strange doings and portents. But the strangest feature of this scene looms above the seated woman to the immediate right: the colossal peg box and scroll of a stringed instrument, cello or bass viola, its tuning pegs protruding like arms, rises from the ground like a strange religious totem or idol. The head of a lion, a baleful expression on its face, is mounted at the very top. In the far lower right, below the two hunters, is the caption: “Two Storms.” Does this refer to the two hunters, or the woman and the monk? Does it suggest the conflicts between the fictive and the real? Is it meant to suggest Bergson’s dualistic notion of clash and conflict between life and matter? The enigma is as fertile as the forest in which it resides.

Lake Antiquity is full of scenes like this. Flipping its pages is like wandering the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. It just seems endless.

The single blocks of color one finds on a few pages in this collection provides an arena where one can concentrate on the text alone. On page 124 are two blocks of color, one white, one black, of identical size paired on a light green background. Upon each are presented a poem consisting of very short lines, phrases from magazine clippings assembled in patterns emphasizing a great deal of space between each cluster of words. “aërial,” begins the first, “the small grey particles/ they meet on a field,/ The moonlight lays a white hand on it/ O God!” This cluster is followed by a small cluster further down; “roarings of/ little ones/ the lichen/ the giants/. Still further down (much further down), is the phrase “’At his hotel.’” The last cluster begins, “sight of the room/ radiant/ frenzies/ foully/ lucent/ give it language.”

The poem to the right, on the black background, is constructed in a similar fashion. “of tourists,” it begins, “in morning darkness/ I know/ they can freeze/ [space] “I speak of myself,/ I heard of you/ in your breast/ tripping down/ in supreme toilette [very very large space] ‘Gradations appear to be unknown to you,’/ and the meshes/ or one of the gaunt hotels/ I/ just finished.”

The two poems evoke a sense of crisis. The highly disjunctive character implicit in their construction pierces the surrounding space with a poignant materiality. Oblivion haunts them. Threatens to engulf them. Their worlds are fragmentary. Volatile. Giddy. Disconnected. One suspects that the source text from which these clippings have been taken are more coherent, but far less evocative. The mind instinctively creates narratives and meaning where at best there are only clues. This is what makes collage so enchanting: we are at liberty to concentrate on a scene and enlarge it indefinitely. Hence, that marvelous phrase: “the lichen, the giants.” Pure perception occurs when we are placed outside of ourselves. How does that happen? When linearity is minced into rattles and escalators. When all relatedness has its foundation in the relatedness of unfettered, living immediacies of becoming. Collage awakens the potentialities of intuition, breeds fumaroles and fissures, jets gushing out unceasingly, of which each, falling back, is a world.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Parade Sauvage

Joanna Fuhrman
(Alice James Books, 2009)

Last Thursday Roberta and I went to attend the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona staged in the Seattle Center Theatre. As soon as we entered the Seattle Center fairgrounds and headed in the direction of the Center House, I noticed something missing: the Fun Forest. The area it had formerly occupied, a zone sandwiched between the Center House and the hideous Experience Music Project building, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which, from a distance, resembles a cross between a plane wreck and the bear house at the Woodland Park Zoo, was sadly, pitiably, eerily empty.

The Fun Forest had been a small amusement park. Nothing remotely on the scale of Ohio’s Cedar Point or Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, the Fun Forest had something eccentric and slightly seditious about it. It was small, but had a dimension all of its own, much like the amusement park in Rumble Fish, with its louche seductions and voluptuous deliriums. The rides were nothing to write home about: a modest roller coaster called a Windstorm with 1,430 feet of track mounted 59 feet high and a maximum speed of 30 mph, a gaudy Pirate Ship that swung back and forth, a contraption called an Orbiter that consisted of articulated arms radiating from a central rotating axis, and a few other rides calculated to stir the senses and lighten you of your money. In its later years, the Fun Forest had grown woefully moribund. The bored teenagers hired to operate the rides outnumbered the customers on a ration of five to one and spent most of their time doing their nails or text-messaging friends. This was sad to see. I remembered the Fun Forest from days of the World’s Fair in 1962 when it was jammed with people and crackled with hormonal energy. If you watch It Happened At The World’s Fair closely, you will see Kurt Russell in the Fun Forest, aged 11, kick Elvis Presley in the shin, and ask him if he’s drunk.

I love amusement parks. I love them for their noise, their strange seductions, and their unabashed extravagance. They are magnificently vulgar. They are unbridled and profligate. They are radically empirical. They embody the spirit of poetry. The velocities, the chrome and splashy colors, the hilarious distortions, the chaos, the turbulence, and underneath it all, holding them together and powering them, an engineering of great ingenuity and balanced forces. Torque, tensility, angular momentum. Mass, relativity, quantum leaps. Sonnets, quatrains, free verse, sestinas, omoioteleton, canzones, spondees and sprung rhythms, are all elements and devices in the cerebral amusement park that is poetry.

Which brings me to Pageant, a recent collection of poetry by Joanna Fuhrman. Fuhrman, who lives in Brooklyn, is in the tradition of poets such as Ron Padgett, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. That is to say, hers is a poetry full of bizarre images, excitements and enthusiasms, handsprings and conversational aplomb. Reading O’Hara, one quickly gets a sense of someone who really enjoys the city, needs the city, needs it for its diversity and culture, its dynamic idiosyncrasies, its bombast and talking and hilarity. Pageant is a good title for this work because it is full of whirlwind reflections and verbal spectacle.

“I devoured every radio/ eating the wires,” she writes in “The Summer We Were All Seventeen.” “I hooked my veins to the electrical current/ and wrote emails to Gilgamesh twenty-four hours a day.” The appetite for life is palpable. It helps explain why some people become poets. Need to be poets. We have rock ‘n roll. Thank goodness for rock ‘n roll. And Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik. That’s the kind of energy we humans need to burst out of ourselves, transcend the deadening purviews of the routine and mercenary and banal, and live intensely, bombastically, unreservedly. The reference to Gilgamesh is apt. It is Gilgamesh who, after all, travels through the perilous darkness of the double-peaked mountain to find the soul of his dead friend Enkidu. Passions this enormous are the stuff of poetry.

“And Yes, I Would Like Another Ghost-shaped Truffle,” is set at a proofreader’s Halloween party, and becomes a reflection on genital piercing: “A woman across the room dressed like a sexed-up pirate/ is talking about genital piercing, the stuffed parrot on her/ shoulder shaking at her every word, and I am feeling a little/ repulsed at the thought of her clitoris or any clitoris exposed/ under the red light of the highway piercing parlor, all the strangers/ in the dim waiting room turning the pages of celebrity magazines/ hearing her yell out, and yeah, I know my revulsion is not/ a very compassionate emotion -- and I remember once seeing/ the number of Americans who are into genital piercing/ and thinking that there are more people who are into genital piercing/ than read contemporary poetry or read any poetry --- “ Fuhrman’s reflections here took me a little by surprise, but they strike a chord because she is touching on something that I find strangely disturbing, young women who are not content with one or two tastefully positioned tattoos, but who tattoo their entire arm, and make of it something freakish and ugly. To continue my earlier trope of poetry-as-a-form-of-amusement-park, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island Of The Mind, Fuhrman is exploring a level of vulgarity that has lost its more Felliniesque earthiness and gusto, lacks the more refined decadence of the French Symbolists, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysman, and has lapsed into a heavily commercialized narcissism, a kind of shopping mall paganism. It is like making a sudden leap from the poetry of Rimbaud’s “parade sauvage,” to the craven, tabloid escapades of Britney Spear’s shaved head, Paris Hilton’s infantile scribblings in jail, or garish bling bling of this week’s rap star.

I will end with “A Question.” “Is one still kosher/ if they replace/ part of your heart/ with a pig’s?” jokes Fuhrman’s mother, “about her upcoming/ aortic surgery.” I am not Jewish and in no way able to answer that question, or even if there is an answer, or requires an answer, but it sure gets you thinking. Fuhrman concludes this little poem with a wobble: a pain in her heart “like a working class/ fashionista/ fake leather/ stilettos/ wobbling up/ the subway’s/ broken/ wet/ escalator.” Life is not a residence, but a riddle. Nobody gets out alive, as they say. And as for the meaning of it all, there is probably no answer for that either. We are all in this life for a brief while, along for the amazement, along for the ride.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Addictive Sounds

Last night on the radio I heard an interview with Martin Lindstrom. He researched the ten most addictive sounds to Americans. He divided them into three categories: branded (advertising) and non-branded taken together, branded exclusively, and non-branded exclusively.

The top ten non-branded sounds are a baby giggle, vibrating cell phone, ATM cash register, “Star Spangled Banner,” sizzling steak, “Hail to the Chief,” cigarette light and inhale, “Wedding March,” “Wish Upon A Star,” and the “Late Night With David Letterman” theme.

This is disturbing. Are Americans truly this shallow and dull? No wonder Sarah Palin gets thousands of dollars for a public appearance.

These are not sounds I find compelling, much less addictive. I’ll go along with the sizzling steak. The sizzle of a steak is a syzygy of addiction -- grease, pan, and meat in a culinary conjunction of overpowering seduction -- but not one I would list in a top ten list of sounds I am most drawn to, obsessed with, or fascinated by.

They would be Dolly Parton doing push-ups, “Gimme Shelter,” ghosts juggling bones, moonlight crashing through a window, hot water percolating through freshly ground coffee, a masturbating headlight, my favorite emotion emerging from my mouth in the form of a sentence, my favorite emotion emerging from your mouth in the form of a sentence, an angel sneezing a galaxy, a mosquito hiccupping after drawing blood from an Alabama Republican.

Not that any of this matters. One person’s parakeet is another person’s basilisk.

Today I encountered spring for the first time this year. Spring is a full symphony of ensorcelling resonances. This consists of a dog barking (briefly, thank goodness), the refrigerator humming (a good feeling to be reassured that the United States is still functioning, still producing food and getting it into the grocery stores, making electricity, though fucking everything else up, like health care and a decent income), sonnets gestating in the minds of poets, robins chirping, and however the sound of sunlight permeating the atmosphere might be imagined, or perceived. In other words, today it is mostly very quiet. A soothing, delicious quiet.

I would have to put silence at the top of my list of addictive sounds. The silence of deep black space. The sheer volume and voluptuousness of it. Pure morphine.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ruskin And Rust

John Ruskin would have liked our windshield wiper. The one to the right, on the passenger side. It has begun to rust. There is a patch of rust on the hinge; it is a bright, lucent cinnamon. It catches the eye, and one wonders if it is beautiful or not. If it is something requiring repair. You decide it is beautiful and does not require repair.

Ruskin liked rust. This is what my wife Roberta told me. She showed me the passage in the book she is reading, On Art And Life:

You all probably know that the ochreous stain, which, perhaps, is often thought to spoil the basin of your spring, is iron in a state of rust: and when you see rusty iron in other places you generally think, not only that it spoils the places it stains, but that it is spoiled itself -- that rusty iron is spoiled iron. For most of our uses it generally is so; and because we cannot use a rusty knife or razor so well as a polished one, we suppose it to be a great defect in iron that it is subject to rust. But not at all. On the contrary, the most perfect and useful state of it is that ochreous stain; and therefore it is endowed with so ready a disposition to get itself into that state. It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfills its most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead.

She was right. Ruskin really liked rust. Liked it because it awakened reveries of dissonance and paradox, deviation and irony.

Which brings me to life. What is life? Here is a paragraph swimming with words. Teeming with words. Does this mean the paragraph is alive? Yes, it certainly does. I don't know how television works but I do know how paragraphs work. They boil the mind like water. They open like drawers. They grow into willows at the cemetery. Just as the stars pause before dawn. And French happens to a sumac. And four women bathe in a river in West Africa singing songs to keep the crocodiles at bay.

Is consciousness a product of emotion? Is consciousness rust, or stainless steel?

Consciousness is a personality clinging to one's being. Picasso sitting in a chair. Swimming and silver. And most certainly rust.