Thursday, February 24, 2011

Carving Holes In Space

the whole of poetry is preposition, poetry by Claude Royet-Journoud, translated by Keith Waldrop
La Presse, 2011

“Between air and water, there must be the preposition,” Royet-Journod remarks on page 42 of the whole of poetry is preposition.

Why a preposition?

If preposition echoes proposition, the accident is a congelation, a commingling of word and world. What exists between subatomic particles? Space. Between modulations? Waves. Between spring and fall? Renewal. Between your legs? Temperature. Between knowledge and ignorance? Mystery. Between muscles? Arteries. Between words? Life.

And death.

Prepositions are dead serious. They are to space and time what nails are to the joining of wood. The world is prepositions. The world divides into prepositions.

Prepositions are propositions. They propose multiple interpretations of action and space.

A poetry of prepositions is a poetry of action and space. A theatre.

A poetry in which the words, as the stage directions of the theatre, point to places where the actors should stand, and make suggestions toward their attitude and dress.

A poetry in which a crime has been committed, for which there are clues, and signs of violence, but no body. No corpse.

A poetry in which syntactic associations and mercurial transitions lure, absorb, and elude our penetrations.

We are detectives. Detectives in a book. The totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

Because there is no body. In order to the find the perpetrator, we must first find the victim. We must follow a set of clues. Of signs. Of objects. Of movements. The choreography of the situation. Or, in the words of Wittgenstein, “Objects are what is unalterable and substantial; their configuration is what is changing and unstable."

i.e., prepositions.

The proposal of poetry as an artifact of prepositions implies a level of abstraction consonant with Aristotle’s metaphysics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. It follows a previous collection of poetry with a similar title: Theory of Prepositions (La Presse, 2006), also translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and to which it might aptly be said to function as an “aphoristic complement.” “The evocation of the preposition is not without its homage to Louis Zukofsky,” (I am gleaning this from the publisher’s blurb on the back of the book), “a poet central to Royet-Journoud’s work; they share a deep affinity for the particular, and beyond that, for the actual particulars that compose our days, and for the delicate tissue that binds them.”

This is true. “Felt deeply,” observed Zukofsky, “poems like all things have the possibilities of elements whose isotopes are yet to be found.”

If it is the Higgs boson that converts energy to matter, than it is prepositions that convert objects into theatre. What is changing and unstable is the medium - the display - of drama.

On the outside walls of the physics building at the University of Washington are 30 cartouches, each featuring an equation of pivotal importance to the understanding of the physical universe. There is Newton’s Law of Gravitation which describes the gravitational force, F, beween 2 masses, M1 and M2, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Hertzspring-Russell diagram which shows the relation between the stars and their absolute magnitude. They appear to be some form of mathematical haiku in which representations of the world as ascetical as possible, denuded of any metaphorical coloring or rhetorical flourish. Of course, the formulae deal in quantity and magnitude; they have nothing whatever to do with human perception, with the interphase between neuron and impulse, inner and outer, language and consciousness. Mathematics is a language of logic. Stark, blunt, consummate logic. And yet there is a beauty, an unmistakable eloquence to the nakedness of mathematical representations. It is this level of stark neutrality that I find in the work of Royet-Journod. A neutrality so neutral it becomes noumenal.

Unlike mathematical inquiry, Royet-Journod is very much alive to the quirks and vagaries of human perception. He deals in qualities, not quantities.

But the neutrality, the soberness is important. He does not like metaphor, assonance, and alliteration. Describing his writing process, he says “Later, when I already have a few pages of text, a sketch, I begin to work on the language, neutralising the text. How? By tracking down and suppressing metaphor, assonance, alliteration - to see what narrative emerges - what appears, embodying this language within a language.”

He quotes Jack Spicer: Metaphors are not for humans.

“The trick is to be literal (not metaphorical),” he remarks on page 15. “To weigh,” he further elaborates, “the language in its ‘minimal’ units of meaning. For me, Eluard’s line, The earth is blue like an orange, tires, dragged down by an overload of meaning. Whereas, for example, The wall behind is a wall of chalk, by Marcelin Pleynet stands, and continues to stand, I think, by its every exactitude and, taken of course in context, paradoxically, unfixed in meaning, thus holding for anyone an abiding fiction.”

For many years now I have had a deep fascination for Royet-Journoud’s work, beginning with The Notion Of Obstacle, which was initially published by Gallimard in 1978, followed by a translation by Keith Waldrop published by Awede in 1985. I find this strange, since my own proclivities are the opposite of his. I revel in metaphor, assonance, and alliteration. I get drunk on language. On verbal delirium. Hallucination.

But like anyone else, I get tired of my inclinations, and inclining elsewhere is always a tonic solution. A splash of cold water to the face opens our eyes.

An astute riddler, Royet-Journoud calls writing a craft of ignorance. And means it. He puts the phrase in italics: craft of ignorance.

What does he mean? I have always assumed writing to be the opposite: a craft of knowledge. We write about what we know. Knowledge is what you know, said Gertrude Stein.

“A writer’s immobility puts the world in motion,” remarks Royet-Journoud in the first section of this collection, “A Craft Of Ignorance (Notes and fragments from interviews).”

To the extent that we hold our gaze still, things move. Thought, as well, exists only with regard to a halt which is empty. Joë Bousquet wrote, this paralysis has carved a hole in space. To write is to carve that hole in space. Everything takes off from immobility, from the effort of attention that is also a corporeal effort. The tightrope walker has the same problem; he tries to bring together movement and rest, to find perfect equilibrium. The writer’s desk is in the mind, a matter of knowing when to stop, of starting out aware that there is no beginning. Writing is a craft of ignorance.

Perhaps one could also say “writing is a craft of attention.” And that the purest way to see anything is by way of an empty mind, the no-mind of Zen, wu-hsin, a quiet awareness of whatever happens to be here now. “Seeing into nothingness - this is true seeing and eternal seeing.” “Even if it is nothingness, it is seeing something.”

“Where does the poem begin?” he asks on page 12. “What is there before the first line?” This can be answered, in part, by the above paragraph: nothingness.

But this is glib. Each poet will have their own personal reasons for beginning a poem: a love of language, a captivating image, a passion for oysters, for psalmody or Bach, for propositions, for prepositions, for collective bargaining; the drone of a cello, the bark of a Chihuahau; a red-tailed hawk or compound eye. It may also be an acute sense of nothingness. Each can answer in their own way what was there before. It is clear, where Royet-Journod is concerned, that this may be answered by the generous number of poets and authors to which he alludes throughout this work: Anne-Marie Albiach, Emilio Araúxo, Saint Augustine, Paul Eluard, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Marcel Jousse, Louis Zukofsky, Kierkegaard, Daniel Oster, Roger Lewinter, Claudine Cohen, Charles Bernstein, Jean Daive, Robert Bresson, William Carlos Williams, Nietzsche, Michèle Cohen-Halimi, Ezra Pound, Joë Bousquet, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

“I borrow as much from Revelation,” he avers, “as from Bescherelle, from Simenon as much as from the Roman de la Rose, from Lola as from Saint Augustine or Hallâj, from an old lady jabbering in a café in Clichy as from Merleau-Ponty, from a guy walking along muttering to himself as from Geroges Gougenheim or Wittgenstein.”

As for the ending of a poem, “It exists when recognized, as we ‘recognize’ a body in the morgue. Something frightening and strange. It’s when that snaps off. You recognize something absent, withdrawn just at the moment the poem is anonymous enough for you to sign it.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cursed Poets

The Cursed Poets, edited by Paul Verlaine
Translated from the French by Chase Madar
Green Integer 91, 2003

Cursed poets: what a marvelous phrase.

What poet isn't cursed?

Cursed with the need to write. To invent. To make something bewildering and strange. With words.

With air. With breath.

With rejection slips and unpaid bills.

Cursed with a mind-numbing job when the need to write is desperate. Imperative. All consuming.

Cursed with lunkhead relatives who mock your efforts at something with absolutely no monetary value.

Cursed by the abrasions of an industrialized world hostile to the quest for beauty.

Cursed by the vulgarity of capitalism and vapidity and merchandising and Lady Gaga.

Cursed, most of all, by the seductions of the ineffable. The sublime. The mystic. The transcendental. The nebulous and vague.

The first time I heard the phrase “cursed poets” I was 18 and living in California, attending school at San José City College. It was 1966. I had been experimenting with amphetamines and LSD. Heavenly Blue Morning Glory Seeds. I was living on next to nothing, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with two friends, and the draft board was breathing down my back. I was infatuated with Rimbaud and Mallarmé and Baudelaire. French symbolism. Exquisite sensations. Hallucinations. Synesthesia.

I lived and breathed French symbolism for the next several years. It was a perfect fit. I despised the world. I immersed myself in the luxuries of the mind. The voluptuous billows of unbridled reverie. The exotic spices of the symbolist stratosphere. Baudelaire’s poem about the albatross who is mocked by the vulgarians of a frigate as it waddles awkwardly about on deck but assumes an awe-inspiring grace when it takes flight became my personal allegory.

My interests diverged into dada and surrealism, the New York School of poetry, the objectivists, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, even Middle English lyrics and balladry for a time, and my singular devotion to French symbolist ideals diffused into capillaries and eddies of varying and often contradictory value. And on the worldly plane, alcoholism, depression, and menial jobs. Toilets, insomnia, and meager paychecks.

Thus it was that, some 45 years later, as happily adjusted to the world as I might ever be, I streamed France Culture’s Poème du jour avec la Comédie-Française which, for a week, was devoted to reading the work of the poets featured in Paul Verlaine’s anthology The Cursed Poets (Les poètes maudits).

Wait a minute, I thought. An anthology? Cursed poets? Paul Verlaine? I had never heard of such an anthology.

I googled it up. Lo and behold: The Cursed Poets, Paul Verlaine, Translated from the French by Chase Madar. Green Integer, 2003. I emailed John Marshall and Christine Deavel at Open Books instantly and ordered a copy.

The little book arrived within a few days. A heavily mustachioed Verlaine adorned the cover. Deep, soulful eyes looked out from a bald dome of a head. “Assembled from articles published in the journals Lutèce and La Vogue,” Madar remarks in the introduction, “the full version of Les Poètes maudits was first published in 1888. The little book helped build the reputations of the poets; it also helped fortify Verlaine’s own renown, and finances.”

Verlaine would have been 44. He had been desperately poor, living in slums and public hospitals, drinking absinthe in the cafés when he could afford it. Rimbaud, with whom Verlaine had long lost touch, was living in Harar, Ethiopia, trying to maintain an export enterprise, dealing in ivory, coffee, and guns. If asked about poetry, Rimbaud would sneer, spit, shrug his shoulders, evince utter disdain.

Verlaine includes six poets in his collection: Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villiers De L’Isle-Adam, and Pauvre Lelian. Rimbaud and Mallarmé are well known. Corbière a little less known, perhaps best recognized as a pivotal influence on T.S. Eliot. Some may be familiar, too, with Villiers De L’Isle-Adam, who was the model for the central figure of Joris-Karl Huysman’s seminal novel, À rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature), 1884, a gay, aristocratic aesthete named Jean Des Esseintes. The novel, which ran contrary to the conventions of naturalism, does not have a plot; it is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, whose refined tastes and unorthodox pleasures puts him in conflict with bourgeois society and causes him to retreat into an ideal world of his own creation. It is narcissism at its most brilliant and heroic, if narcissism may be considered heroic.

À rebours
became the ultimate example of decadent literature. It reveled in values that were antithetical to commerce and industry: daydreaming, drug abuse, hermeticism, complexity, art for art’s sake non-utilitarianism, phantasmagoria, a curious blend of Thanatos and Eros (libido and death), and unabashed hedonism.

Villiers De L’Isle-Adam is also the subject of Edmund Wilson’s essay Axel and Rimbaud, the eighth and concluding essay in his collection Axel’s Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature Of 1870 - 1930. “Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s ‘Axel,’ which was published in 1890, is a sort of long dramatic poem in prose,” remarks Wilson, “which, as it was the last thing Villiers wrote, sums up and gives final expression to his peculiar idealism.”

Count Axel of Auersburg is a young man “of an admirable virile beauty,” with “a paleness almost radiant” and “an expression mysterious from thought.” He inhabits, in an atmosphere half-Wagnerian, half-romantic-Gothic, an ancient and isolated castle in the depths of the Black Forest, where he has given himself up the study of the hermetic philosophy of the alchemists and is being prepared by a Rosicrucian adept for the revelation of the ultimate mysteries.

It will be easily seen that this dreamer of Villier’s is the type of all the heroes of the Symbolists, of our day as well as his: Pater’s contemplative, inactive Marius, the exquisitely sensitive young men of his “Imaginary Portraits”; Laforgue’s Lohengrin, who, the night of wedding, shrinking from union with his Elsa, turns his back on her and embraces his pillow begging it to carry him away -- his Salome, “the victim of having tried, like all of us, to live in the factitious instead of in the honest everyday”; the Hamlet of Mallarmé’s posthumous drama, “Igitur,” who is the only character in the play and does nothing but soliloquize. And, above all, Huysman’s Des Esseintes, who set the fashion for so many other personalities, fictitious and real, of the end of the century: the neurotic nobleman who arranges for himself an existence which will completely insulate him from the world and facilitate the cultivation of refined and bizarre sensations; who sleeps by day and stays up at night and whose favorite reading is Silver Latin and the Symbolists.

André Breton included Villiers de L’Isle-Adam in his Anthologie de l’humour noir, a short story called “The Killer Of Swans” (“Le tueur de cynes”). In this story an old doctor named Tribulat Bonhomet learns that swans sing most beautifully just before they die. He decides to find out for himself, and goes to an old sacred pond amid the shadows of some ancient towering trees, a favorite haunt of a group of swans. During the day, he watches as twelve or fifteen of the birds glide languidly over the mirror-like water. Regarding, above all, the male black swan that watches over them, as he sleeps in the sunlight. At night, the black swan holds a small stone in his beak which, at the slightest alarm, he pitches forward with his long neck into the middle of the other swans as a warning.

One night, the doctor puts on some long rubber boots and a large impermeable coat and goes wading into the pond. He waits all night for the right moment to kill one of them and hear the coveted death song. At one point he has to scratch himself, and the sound causes alarm among the swans, but not hearing the signal of the stone, linger in exquisite anguish. When, at last, the light of the morning star glides over the tree branches and illumines the outline of the old doctor in the pond, the black swan hurls the stone. But it is too late. The doctor manages to kill two or three of the swans, strangling them with iron-gloved hands. The doctor hears their death song and clambers to the shore where he lies until sunrise in a voluptuous torpor.

The symbolists had a special romance for death. Death was not only a final exit out of this world of banality and materialism, but it was itself inherently beautiful. People turned pale, languished in a crepuscular somnolence before releasing their final breath. Dying had a certain majesty to it, whatever the actual condition, old or young, rich or poor, anonymous or renowned, of the person dying. We all ascend to a throne of sorts before we leave this world. Heaven veils us with an aura of sublime nobility.

Verlaine included one woman in his collection, Marceline Desbord-Valmore, who, Verlaine remarks, “is worthy of figuring among our Cursed Poets because of her apparent but absolute obscurity, and it is our imperious obligation to speak of her at length and in as great detail as possible.”

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was born in Douai, a sub-prefecture in the Nord department in northern France, June 20th, 1786. This makes her a precursor to the French Symbolist school. She published her first work, Élégies et Romances, in 1819. John Keats was still writing. The spirit of romanticism was strong. “Religion Christless, Godless -- a book sealed; / A Senate, -- Time’s worst statute unrepealed -- / Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day,” wrote Shelley in his sonnet “England in 1819,” underscoring the mood of change and inflammation, yearning and agitation that imbued the air of Western Europe at the early part of the nineteenth century. If “religion Christless, Godless” has modern resonances, it goes to show how the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Marceline was also an actress, playing Rosine in Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville and the Opéra-Comique in Paris. She retired from the stage in 1823 and later became friends with Honoré de Balzac. He once wrote that she was the inspiration for the title character of La Cousine Bette.

Her poetry is remarkably romantic, full of religious yearning and contemplations about death and the afterlife. There is a feeling of pantheistic beauty, of the world of nature being permeated with divinity, although the mood of her poems is quite often sad. The greater one’s sense of the sublime, she seems to suggest, the more painfully aware does one become of the shortcomings of everyday reality. The world of commerce is, by contrast, noxious in the extreme.

Here, for example, is her poem “Fileuse,” which is sandwiched between two short extracts from Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder based on the poems of Friedrich Rükert.
Here, also, is a link to a reading on YouTube.

un will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn

La fileuse file en versant des larmes
Sur son lin choisi s’inclinent ses charmes.
Le fil oublié glisse de ses doigts,
Et ses chants d’oiseaux tremblent dans sa voix.

Sa quenouille est là toute négligée…
Oh! d’un jour à l’autre on est si changée!
Quoi! plus une rose à son front rêveur!
Qu’est-ce donc qu’elle a? Je crois qu’elle a peur...

Elle était hier au banc de l’enfance
Avec ses fuseaux pour toute défense;
Mais le soir l’enfant ne les avait pas
Quand quelqu’un dans l’ombre a suivi ses pas.

Personne aujourd’hui ne la voit plus rire.
En si peu d’instants qu’a-t-on pu lui dire?
Ah! pour qu’elle file en versant des pleurs,
Il faut que dans l’ombre on ait pris ses fleurs.

Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And now, the bright sun rises
As if nothing happened during this night!

The spinner spins while pouring tears;
She impresses her charms upon her flax.
The forgotten thread slides through her fingers,
And the songs of birds tremble in her voice.

Her distaff is utterly neglected…
Oh! One is so changed from one day to the next!
What! No more rosy bloom on brow of this dreamer?
What, then, does she have? I believe she has a fear…

It was yesterday upon the bank of her childhood
With only her spindle for defense;
But one evening the child had nothing
When someone in the shadows followed her steps.

No one today sees her laugh anymore.
In those fleeting instants what might one have told her?
Ah! In order that she spin while pouring forth tears
It is necessary to take some flowers.

A little lamp is extinguished in my tent.
Hello, oh joyous light of this world.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sublime And Odd Is Mutable

Now to lip indulge feeling. Gleefully to that pushed turmoil. Impairment the respectable hooked with loaves. Tiger unofficially grace to it. Grid by stirring bloom with lamp black. Pull from phenomenon smack a glow. Physiology begins jellyfish that soaked an opened fall. Energy to parabolas to paraphernalia. It might be sophisticated to bubble the scratch to this chiaroscuro.

But to echo an anguish is consonant. The drive always explains Picasso. Strength hurled together with vital Quixotic struts. Bulb thing anything amazes the railroad.

Fantasy you hold between ceremonies. When planets caustic copper that coast will drip. Suppleness is the snow wherein a proverb initiates ooze during gantries. To assemble a passion requires more keys than floods. The infinite is embarked on stars. The garments cry nerve smears later than an erection. Pack words in images because the palette is in proposal and the energy is clean and wild.

Cubes touch because the robins frequent cartwheels. Source is seeing is crucial hoses. Grow wrinkles for a friendly inflammation which is cracks. Strong coffee moistens the garden. Rescue the blaze with marks of up. Bleeding is abhorred in sweat and engine. The orchard fluttered or excused a nebula. The café moaned to its heart with steam. Incision by action increases the reticence of unraveling.

The luminous odor in leather gets lingered. It echoes from the bite in personality. Circumference is like what that metaphor does in a garret. That is to say the audacity of tea is imposed on your gifts and the science of this is talking.

Grebe the pavement at the bazaar. The friendly infinite studies its predicament in vapor and stars. Consider wading through its inches. And Max Jacob. And seminal racks engaged in pluck. A pain pyramid must unlock the artist and exceed the stitches of a cloak of amaryllis. The blonde can joke unearthed by lure and grasp.

The panic device will pin the next beauty until it is compelling. Never crack syntax over an energized sneer. Mohair doesn’t green it and paradigms don’t induce stoves to bring food to a physical pulse. Cocoon astronomy in a handstand. Put a zipper on the drizzle. Mortgage your confusion. Then glue the rain with a tube of art. Necessity’s grapefruit is tomorrow’s pharmaceutical. The opium sparkles in the fields.

The granite phonograph was corners like a symptom that hums. Stuff in a dimension as orange as a rascally expectation. The bug is an abstraction in boxing. It is frequented throughout the armchair.

Obscurity turns yellow on a blue twig. And the result is loads of physiology. Two books, three tables, and a sack of morning.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Throbbing Actualities

The Imperfect, poetry by George Tysh
United Artists Books, 2010.

Marin Mersenne, the 17th century musical theorist and member of the Franciscan order who is recognized as the Father of Acoustics, and who preferred the lute accompanying a solo voice to all other musical instruments, believed in the perfection of imperfection. He stressed the idea that the purity of musical intervals (the distance in pitch between two notes) was not only relative, but dependent on context. If perfection is static, a state of final completion, imperfection is a dynamic condition, a ghost seeking flesh, a body of sound seeking temperament and fiber.

Sound is nothing if it is not heard. Music is alive and transports the soul of the musician to the ears and souls of the listeners. This, in essence, is imperfection. The irrational, the strange, the fragmentary, the elliptical are as necessary to the living being of a work of art as are the intervals and semitones in a piece of music.

The same principle obtains in poetry. The interaction between invisible thoughts and visible emanations may be described in terms of vibrations. What Whitehead terms “actual entities” in which there are no gradations of importance. The connections between matter and the dynamics of inner consciousness are inherently imperfect as there can be no completion. There is no such thing as completion. “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off space.”

Hence, the more fragmentary and elliptical a work tends to be, the more it stresses these underlying principles. Such is the work of Tysh’s The Imperfect. The interplay of the interpretive possibilities of the whole utterance, or poem, constitutes an interanimation of words in a living organism. In other words, an experience. “Throbbing actualities.”

The poems in The Imperfect are small. They repose on the page lightly, entities of soft phenomenon, nuggets of gnomic seduction surrounded by space, the white of the page. “Link,” a poem of five lines, seeks what Mallarmé termed as a condition of music, a sense of the beyond magically produced by a certain disposition of words.

The best is behind us. Lumps of grace
imparting to urine the smell of violets,
the contents of a hallway seen through doors.
Holistic ass, organic member, nutritious putrefaction,
the fuck of death.

“The best is behind us” is a prosaic beginning; “Lumps of grace” contrasts sharply with its elliptical predication. We intuit muscle, human bodies in coitus, rumpled sheets, rumpled flesh. The acrid smell of urine, combined with the smell of violets, which are sweet, and which many people find redolent of the Victorian period. ‘Holistic’ is a new age word to my mind, holistic medicine, holistic dentistry, holistic vet. There is also a nice pun here, in relationship to ass. The word is pertinent, since it refers to the idea that all the properties of a system (biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, geographic, genetic, etc.,) cannot be explained by its component parts alone. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Nutritious putrefaction” is a nice paradox. It reminds me of the nursing logs in the forest, great hulking trees that have fallen and in their rotting nourish a diversity of fern and fungus and new trees.

“The fuck of death” is my favorite line. It has the sound of desperation to it, but also a jubilant, I don’t give a fuck kind of triumphalism, and a slightly onomatopoetic excitation.

There are nine sections of poetry in this collection, small, intriguing entities whose outward style alters in form occasionally, ranging from free verse words dispersed on the page `a la Mallarmé’s “Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hazard” to the more structurally formal pieces in the section titled “Aperçus désagréables (for Ron Padgett).

The latter are constructed in stanzas. The first, “Unforced Landing,” focuses on the business of airline travel.

The bleached runway
and its faded terminal
remind our anxious passengers
of a scene they’ve seen somewhere
outside in the gleaming unprocessed air of
freely coming and going.

And the muffled static
of what passes for music
(actually a timeless performance of jazz)
is dimly perceived through tinny earphones
and of no more than symbolic relevance
to their poor tired ears

Welcomed as they are to a tarmac
stained with memories of a thousand
voyages under an unblinking sun
or clouded in a flash by showers
from which there is no shelter,
their common implacable destination.

Although this is one of the more transparent pieces in this collection, the pathos and associations of this poem are very complex. The jazz that is so dimly perceived through the little earphones provided by the airlines that is so tinny to the fatigued traveler as to be no more than “symbolic relevance” underscores the sensation of alienation that is such a hallmark of our era. The disconnection, the buffering, the array of conveniences, all comprise an environment that ultimately deadens, yet soothes and lulls as it deadens. The final line, “their common implacable destination,” gleams through all this technological sophistication with the implacable force of a knife blade. The illusion of freely coming and going is starkly revealed by the glare of the sun, and the initial bump of the tires on the tarmac when the plane lands and reverses the thrust of its engines.

Yet, there is a great deal of beauty revealed in these lines. They evoke a familiar world and give it an unfamiliar richness, excite, through their slightly oblique references, the interest of novelty. They seek, the in the image of "gleaming unprocessed air," the immediacy of experience. They encourage us to perceive our perceptions, make us aware of our perceptions. Awakens us, as Coleridge once phrased it, "from the lethargy of custom."

Tysh captures the mood of landing in a plane, a moment of passive reflection. The aisle is too crowded to get up. We gaze out of the window, study what is below.

Which is chiefly the tarmac.

“Stained with memories of a thousand / voyages under an unblinking sun” converts, metaphorically, the tarmac into a Talmud of airborne pilgrimages.

A poem titled, simply, “Heart” achieves a remarkably vivid effect in just six lines, using a combination of rhyme and line spacing.

the outline of a soap dish
on a shelf in the pink

evaporates this morning
in the bathroom I think

of it

That “beating” at the end, so remarkably palpable, is emphasized by its unexpectedness and dissonant incongruity following the rhyme pattern of ‘pink’ and ‘think.’ It dangles, at the end, a pendant reminder of mortality, transience, and a touch of the sublime.

A throbbing actuality, to be sure.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Computer Hell

I dread setting up a new computer. I will cling to the old computer for as long as possible. Even when, as with an old car, one thing after another begins to fail and visits to the repair shop grow increasingly frequent. I cannot stand the idea of letting go. “You may risk losing your hard drive,” the technicians tell me, “and everything on it.” Novels, letters, reviews, prose poems, essays, diatribes, rants, grants, laments and jeremiads, all lost, lost irretrievably, gone forever. “Do you want to risk that?”

Of course not. But won’t there be symptoms? Vomiting and diarrhea? Bloating? Blackouts? Whining? High pitched bowel sounds? Uncontrollable sobbing in the middle of the night?

Yes, there may be symptoms. But there also may be nothing. No symptoms at all. It will just die. Wheeze. Give up the breath. And go blank.

Or, you may get whacked with a virus, or some form of malware, for which your computer is too slow, too obsolescent to defend against. “We can work on your computer," say the technicians, "add more memory, some fans, a slightly upgraded security system, but one way or another, you are doomed. It simply is not worth it to work on a computer this old.”

“This old?” I cry with incredulity. “It’s only eleven. It’s still a child.”

And the technicians laugh. “Eleven is old, my friend. Your computer is ready for the Smithsonian.”

Capitalism thrives on obsolescence. The quicker something becomes obsolescent, the quicker the consumer is out the door to go buy another product. Spend more money. Computers, in other words, are capitalism’s best friend.

I am slow to admit defeat. But the time came when our old computer was simply not performing the tasks we required. Vitally important things, like watching YouTube videos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Trips down memory lane. YouTube is my umbilicus to the past. Lose YouTube, I lose my past. The Kinks. Count Five. Sam and Dave.

And so we went shopping for a new computer.

There is nothing in life as demanding and arduous as setting up a new computer. War, maybe. War is pretty bad. But setting up a new computer is at least as maddening as trying to convince a Tea Party fanatic that the govmint they so despise is the same benevolent institution providing them with their Social Security and Medicare checks.

The twisted logic of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is not nearly as convoluted and bewildering as the process involved in getting a computer to work.

Kafka would shake his head with a mixture of jealousy, wonder, and simple awe.

The tangle of cords alone is enough to give anyone a heart attack. All the connections. Doodads. Terminals. Ports. But on top of the jungle of hardware are all the acronyms and jargon: DSL, BMP, DLL, DSL, DTD, DMA, FLOPS, GPU, OLAP, MPEG, OCR. Nor does it help to find out what these initials actually stand for: Bitmap, Dynamic Link Library, Digital Subscriber Line (this one turned out to be important), Document Type Definition, Direct Memory Access, Floating Point Operations Per Second, Graphics Processing Unit, Online Analytical Processing, Moving Picture Experts Group, Optical Character Recognition. And so on. This is not a language I understand. It is as foreign to me as Kirghiz, or Rajasthani.

Nor do the diagrams and symbols help. Quite the contrary. They are as mystifying as the symbols on the dashboard of an alien spaceship.

It became quickly apparent that I was out of my league. I managed to get the tower up and running (hurray!) and after finally discovering that there were no buttons on the monitor, that it operated by touch, the symbols of which were on the side of the monitor and were virtually invisible, the screen came on. But the speakers were not putting out any sound and I still had no idea how to set the printer up. It did not have a wire, other than the power cord. How did it connect to the computer? Roberta handed me a CD. “What do I do with this?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she responded.

The next morning I called the technical support crew at Staples, where we had purchased our equipment. This was a Saturday. Alex said he would be available in the afternoon. This came as a huge relief. Alex was affable, understanding, and very quick to hurdle all the obstacles I had encountered, the biggest of which was Speakeasy, our Internet server. Speakeasy requires reregistration when you set up a new computer. It was such a joy to hand Alex the telephone as soon as the tech support person at Speakeasy began riddling me with questions about our router, as if I had just graduated from M.I.T.

The really illuminating aspect to this saga came in the interval between bringing the old computer in and waiting for the arrival of the new computer, a period of four days. We discovered that we did not miss having a computer in the house. We enjoyed the quiet. We enjoyed being free of checking our email every half hour, clicking away like mice in a behavioral experiment hitting levers and buttons for a pellet of food. We had more time to read our books. We felt disconnected from a world that had gone completely insane with electronic gadgetry.

And I actually enjoyed visiting the library in order to get online and check our email and take a peek at my blog. I did not particularly enjoy sitting elbow to elbow with people and the lack of privacy, or using a keyboard after someone had just sneezed on it, but I did like the feeling of being able to have my cake and eat it, too. I liked being able to access the World Wide Web without being stuck in it. I liked the feeling I got when I logged out, got up, grabbed my hat, and left. I enjoyed the walk home. And, once home, I liked the feeling of detachment. A home, after all, is a haven, not a panel in Dilbert.

Had those four days expanded into four weeks, however, I am sure I would have felt differently. I am sure I would have longed to have a computer in our house again. Access to the Internet just inches away from the couch. French radio. YouTube. Wikipedia. Blogs. Poetry and rants. Maps and malamutes and mandolins. Paraboloids nomographs and tidytips.

The world.

Or at least a virtual facsimile of the world. One in which the past, the present, and the future are all mingled in a screen of pixels.

A youthful Mick Jagger singing “Under My Thumb.”

Janis Joplin singing “Ball And Chain” at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967.


Caught in a web.

And aren’t we all, one way or another, caught in a web?

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.