There’s been a lot of talk about the balcony railing lately. Is it up to code? Does it have a soul? What secrets does it hold? Does it have reality? Does it have anyone to blame but itself? What are we to do with it? Why does it have to appear at all? Personally, I don’t really care. It’s not our balcony. But as an external feature of the building we are to share in its fate and responsibility. In philosophy, this is called the problem of identity over time, or the doctrine of preformation. You may remember the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Well, this has nothing to do with that. This is an HOA situation. I feel the slow crackle of metamorphism. This is called hydrothermal alternation. I feel the clutch of the sublime when I say this. There is a balcony in all of us that develops by rumination. It becomes lost in its arabesques. Though perhaps it may be more accurate to say that it comes to itself in its arabesques. It honors the élan of its own extravagance. This is what gives the balcony railing its humor of increasing subtlety, of understatement and overstatement, of empirical dance and dynastic abstractness. Whenever I’m feeling parenthetical it helps to think of something prominent and wet. I think of the balcony railing. Its lucidity and inertia. The convivial curves of its filigree. There’s a certain implication involved in making an appeal to the vitality of carrots. It is, after all, a balcony railing under discussion here and not a catwalk. If this were a catwalk rather than a railing, I might mention decimals, or pylons. There are intermediates in protein metabolism that will serve as motivational tinfoil. Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities, said Aristotle. But did Aristotle have a balcony? Did Aristotle cook hamburger on an open grill? Did Aristotle own a single spatula? It is enough that the balcony railing strikes the eyes of the passerby with eloquence. Everything else is morality. No one knows what a belief is. No one knows what a truth is. We just go on pretending that the balcony railing has all the answers. And open our books and read.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
Poetry by Michael Donhauser
Translated by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron
Burning Deck , 2015
Michael Donhauser is new to me. An Austrian poet who lives in Vienna and began publishing prose, essays and poetry in 1986, Donhauser is a prolific and introspective writer. He’s a great discovery. Thanks to this new translation by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron from Burning Deck press, Donahauser’s sensibility and words have been made available to readers in English.
Donhauser, who has been strongly influenced by the French prose poet Francis Pongé, presents a language of semantic density and palpable phenomenalism. The goal of this language is not refinement; the goal of this language is concretion. Each line pushes toward an aggregation of thingness in word and object, a moment of concentrated stillness in which a fusion of language and object can occur. “For only in stillness will the peach come slowly to language, to flesh: fills itself with juice),” writes Donhauser in “The Peach.”
Of Things is divided into three main divisions based on the seasons (“Winter: Spring,” “Spring: Summer,” “Summer: Fall”). There are three poems in the first, five in the second, and two in the final division. These are long poems. They develop variously, quizzically, probingly. One feels, while reading these poems, a process of deepening focus which seeks to purify perception of presumptive bias and penetrate to the essence of things. It’s what Alfred North Whitehead described as “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.” This results in a language of syntactic compactness and vivid imagery.
In “The Thicket,” the first poem of this collection, penetrability and entanglement are presented as problems of language that are in no way negative but implicate qualities of plurality and interrelation. “That which is thought, as a web of relations.” The thicket becomes a vehicle for the unification of language and object, the fusion of conceptual feeling with physical nature. Contradictory sticks of thought enhance the semantic density: “Thus all movement is inhibited and engendered in it.”
Donhauser refers to a “transformation into sense” that echoes Husserl’s ideas of intentionality in phenomenalism. Husserl calls intentionality the “fundamental property of consciousness” and the “principal theme of phenomenology.”
Donhauser describes his process within the work. The qualia of the thicket - the way in which it’s experienced and conceptualized in consciousness - is integrated into the lines of the poem, into the anatomy of the work. “The thicket thickens…Together into a word.” An etymology follows: “Thick comes from Old English picce. Which means ‘dense, solid, stiff; numerous, abundant.” “Thus the thicket appears: thickened.”
“The transformation into sense intended throughout Donhauser’s thicket works by a “repeated multi-layeredness: multilayered repetition.” We get tangled in letters. We get tangled in syllables and webs of words. The poem works against the “tendency of language to initiate conversations that digress into groundlessness, that after just a few steps become thoughtless, hold forth unopposed.” This is what thicket does: it solidifies in resistance against a social reality that is now largely corrupted by inattention and superficiality. The technocracies of Europe and the United States have had an impact that have scaled upward exponentially in the last several decades since Of Things was first published. Print media has been switched to digital media. We live in an age of spectacle and celebrity culture. It’s now common to see the majority of people in public spaces engrossed in mobile phones, utterly oblivious to the world around them. Poets such as Donhauser present work that encapsulates a resistance: “I communicate my rebellion to the thicket,” he says. He ends on a euphoric note:
No Briar Rose.
A Briar Rose.
(I walked down the wide suburban street into the city under the glowing evening sky with its blackbird calls, along cars parked every now and then on the curb, and I felt an extreme lightness deep inside me, as if all my decisions were as correct as much as they were rescinded.)
As if the thicket
For a moment
Had cleared, lit up deep within.
In “The Marsh Marigold” (Sumpfdotterblume in German) Donahuser makes a pointed reference to the genitive case: “In language: in the genitive quality of things.” “I mean,” he states in a line further down, “poetic language in its relation to things.”
A genitive construction is a type of grammatical construction used to express a relation between two nouns, generally the possession of one by another, as in “Shakespeare’s garden.” The dependent noun modifies the head noun by expressing some property of it. In the phrase “marsh marigold” marigold is the head noun and marsh is the modifier.
Donhauer’s grammar has other idiosyncratic features. He likes fragmenting things in phrases, such as in the following lines:
I do not speak.
In order that yellow be like that.
Be that of the meadows.
In suspension over the meadows.
Concentrated at the meadow’s edge, at the edges of the meadows.
In the ditches, at the banks of the rivulets.
Concentrated in the shadows like that.
Beshadowed, off to the side, near the water.
Yolk-yellow, word for word, silent.
The effect of this is destabilizing. A fully formed sentence presents a fully formed world. This is not the intent here. The world is not fully formed; the world is in flux. We are confronted with a pluralistic metaphysics of process. We are given alternatives that are not conjointly realizable as fixed units but are, instead, fertile transformations of composition and decay. The phrases have a stripped down quality. They feel bare, unadorned. They’re often divided in the middle by a colon in a manner not too dissimilar from the caesura in Norse poetry.
This tendency is notably effective in “The Gravel.” Here it is stated variously, and contradictorily, that gravel “speaks multiple dialects: similar to rain,” and that the gravel does “does not speak: it does not articulate.” Gravel is defined as “a loose aggregation of small water-worn or pounded stones.” The key word is ‘aggregate.’ We all know what it is to walk on gravel, or hear car tires moving over gravel. There is a speech there, the aggregate sound of crunching. Donhauser (speaking on the behalf of gravel) presents a variety of ways of conceiving the material world. With a little time the gravel “makes us aristocratic. / (No reason to hurry now: we’re walking among words.) / It makes us aristocratic auditors of our steps.” “It tolerates all manner of mutuality, even the murderous kind.” “…gravel makes us self-forgetting: self-possessing.” “It sends us back to the materiality of our steps.” “Every step appears originary: every step.” “Language is an entertaining wasteland. / (My passionate entertainment: the gravel /… All syllables are similar and different. / (As well as mixed together with petals, cellophane, leaves.)”
Donhauer, like Ponge, intends a poetic by which the reader is implicated in the genesis of his or her world. To make us “aristocratic auditors of our steps.” “Though also fitted with a mute attentiveness. / (A sensibility that listens more than interprets.)”
Saturday, May 7, 2016
I hear the voices of men talking outside. The English language groans under the weight of its history. A metaphor seizes the conversation and moves it back and forth. It becomes olives.
I know I’m getting old but that’s no excuse. Balloons are phenomenal. I can’t help it. The charm of running fulfills the longitude of hope. Blood circulates through these words. Can you see it? All those cells and plasma. Proteins, glucose, mineral ions, hormones, albumin.
My favorite Rolling Stones albumin is Yolk. It was never recorded.
We all need an oasis. I don’t say Venice by accident. I say it with meaning. I say it with fire.
My take on life is largely geographical. We are products of place. Genius loci.
I’m amazed by the persistence of religion. Tornados howl, volcanos erupt. People die. Children die. But belief in a supreme Being persists.
A man holds a baby in a small room. The room is crowded. Lightning bleeds at the margins. We sometimes let our grief get the better of us. But that’s ok. Everything considered, the tears we shed are expressions of an interior region that defies all description.
The old wrinkled bark of chestnuts have the appearance of wizards. Trees are phenomenal things.
Phenomenology is the study of the structure of experience and consciousness. The stool coughed when I squeezed the pillow. This is called Noesis. Noema is the ideal content of the noetic act. The Noesis is always correlated with a Noema, or hawk.
The painting of a little table hangs above our bed. It’s a print of a Matisse painting. Until I speak, I inhabit a cocoon of words. The sky is curved like an emerald. The piano flutters with music. The world continues to spin. The reverberation of illusion counters the specter of reality. Jewels embedded in a controversy of silver.
I taste my legs when I go walking. Just like Sir Toby said. My legs do better understand me, sir, than I understand what you mean by bidding me taste my legs.
My legs taste like slush. They’re slushies.
The syllables blossom that create a crackle. There’s a trembling in the curtain and I can hear it rain. The symmetry of my belt buckle warrants the practice of paleontology. I have the lucidity of a hernia. I sometimes see a little yellow in the fire of phenomenology. I collect bells and chimneys. I graze on the quirks and quarks of language.
My memories of California are dramas of remorse and handcuffs. I bring things into focus. I need a box office for these simulacrums. Every time I mention Ralph Nader everyone scatters. The cat knocks over a lamp. What has taken place feels like it’s about to happen. I love a good paradox now and then. But this boil is bawling bowls of purple rain.
I’m never completely surprised when I discover that certain people don’t like me. It’s not that I’m unlikable. I don’t believe I’m unlikable. Maybe sometimes I’m unlikable. I have a hairdo like a helicopter. I’m grateful for grapefruit. I have a name for my chair. I call it Smack. Smack the Chair.
Pound for pound language is a bargain. Syllables distill ideas. There’s a kind of light that can only be found in darkness. Language is good for that. English is good for that. French is good for that. Cherokee is good for that. And so are Norwegian, Japanese, Maori, Panjabi, and Sanskrit.
And so on.
Italian, Urdu, Tagalog.
The memory of the planet is implicit in sandstone. That’s how the wind speaks. The seashore brawls with the ocean. The night gets dressed in a gown of black silk. People burst out of the nightclub.
This is the story of my evasion.
I’m a wildcat. I can skulk in silk, too.
Who doesn’t like to splash around in water?
The hospital is never a pleasant place to visit, but you have to admit it’s pretty interesting.
So many different injuries. So many different diseases. So many different languages.
Is there a perfect expression for anything?
Pain is the hardest to grasp. Pain will tell you anything. Anything but what you want to know. Nothing here is polished. I say it like I feel it. And it never comes out right.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Capitalism is destroying the planet. Even the pop is stale. Nobody knows what to do. It’s too huge. I agree with the countryside. We should just let capitalism go. Here in Seattle, capitalism thrives in curves and weird architecture, like the embryonic forms downtown for the new Amazon offices. They look like something out of Alien, a drawing by Neill Blomkamp.
It’s always damp in Seattle. Gray and wet. Remnants of color nourish the glow of dials. The charm of language awakens in nitroglycerine. Things tremble, then blow up. It’s very cool.
I have little regard for fashion. I do like my new shirt. It has a small breast pocket divided in two. One part is just large enough to fit my reading glasses case, which Roberta gave me, a pretty envelope in silky fabric with multicolored, feathery patterns, and a very narrow opening for my pen to slip into.
Here we are waiting for the bank to open. And here we are at Pacific Place. The escalator is deliciously promiscuous. Anyone can get a lift out of it.
Descending is never as much fun as ascending.
Mohair fulfills an important function. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’s very soft. Life is full of conflicts and fire so that’s a very good thing. I stand around mumbling soliloquys. It’s what I was destined to do.
The air smells of rain. As always.
I hold my hand out to you. Please take it, and shake. Good. Now we can proceed.
The room walks through itself. Orchids appeal to my sense of exaggeration. I’ve seen people play softball. I know what softball is about. But what are orchids about?
Most experience is improved by eclairs. My cuticles are built on a principle of rumbling. Thunder wrestles the sky into submission. The sky crawls under the bed. All the engines are humming. You can feel them vibrate in the mattress.
Nothingness is never a problem.
Have you ever lived on a farm? Gravity sculpts space into tractors and chickens. Everything stays where it’s put, or clucks or rumbles. The hills are like magenta crabs.
There’s a certain serenity that can only be found in conservatories. This is because the glass is sometimes frosted, sometimes not. The orchids are mesmerizing this time of year and the epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants. They’re common in rainforests, hotel lobbies, and long sentences. As for music, the octave is most compelling when it’s been spun from codeine.
I have grouse in my eyebrows.
The poem is a device whose subtleties appeal to states of heightened awareness. I become aware of things that float and things that hang, things that magnetize and things that procreate. I find myself in possession of muscle and blood. Bones, too. Lots of those. All fitted together nicely.
Can I sit in your car? I look good in blue. And I can’t enter Hamlet without a suitcase.
I often reflect on what it is to have a body. Things get especially sticky at night. The candle burns, the shadows dance. Unbridled ink sparkles with incident. I seem to be everywhere that I go. I’ve got to fill space with something. The crisis that is language has made a big splash. I feel savage as a coastline. A branch of apple blossom chuckles silently. Even the hills are doing somersaults.
Let me linger a while at the edge of your ship.
Writing permits me to understand concrete. If I bend to look at it, I’m careful. There’s nothing more awkward then bending. Bending requires more effort than growing orchids. But this is arguably a matter of drinking, not descriptive linguistics.
Light peppers the ground. It’s quite pretty. A little mutation is a good thing now and then. No crab is an ordinary crustacean. The carousel sparkles in the Parisian rain. I’m often amused to see people laughing when they work. The whole idea of independence is mostly empty. You can take it or leave it. As for me, I sigh for the lack of wisdom. I’ve always had a problem with my nose. I’m allergic to money and I don’t like it when it runs without me.
Pepper bears a certain similarity to palaver. Both season the gustation of foam.
The thermometer has a coherence similar to squeezing things. I gaze at the bubbles forming at the surface of my pot of boiling oatmeal and think about knots. How many knots are there? The becket hitch joins a rope to a closed eye. The dogshank is a variant of the sheepshank and is also called a pouch knot. It can be thought of as a bowline in which the bights pass through a Z-folded middle part and come back to form a grip on reality, which is slippery, and large, and gets in the way of daydreaming.
Costco is a disturbing place. So much of everything. How can this planet support such grotesque quantities?
The escalator endures its endless voyage. The heat of a fire in an old castle feels healing and perpetual. I’ve never been to Corsica, but I imagine that living in Walla Walla, Washington, is different. I have a feeling Corsica is averse to speed bumps. Virtue is a hard rotunda to maintain. Most of the time, I need a philosophy of friction inflated with laughing gas to function. I like constructing postulations based on the color green. I like to sit and reflect. Perceptions leave furrows of thought in the void that is space. Some words are already in flight.
Late at night, when the train pulls through Missoula, you can feel it vibrate in your bones. It’s a good feeling. Woof and warp are aspects of weaving. Feeling works the same way. The bistro attracts the fiber of conversation and the woof and warp of life is woven in chromosomes. I’ve employed this elevation for obvious reasons. I make bookmarks based on storms at sea. Poetry is always in crisis. I imagine a country of high mountains and warm people, thought interlaced with thought, and come up with the beauty of dereliction. You won’t need speed bumps for that. Coffee is reinforced water. Grace divides into steps. Rise, and take those steps. Take them as you will. Just imagine, once again, what it’s like to live in Corsica, if you haven’t been to Corsica, and if not Corsica, well then, there’s Walla Walla.