Friday, September 22, 2017

their merely being



The words HE and SHE in John Ashbery's Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid", 1975, could be swapped without trauma, or trauma only to those thinking of the original ballad. The natures of these two 'voices' are unstable – they could even be the same voice talking to itself – or a thousand voices, anyway - Ashbery said his poems occurred to him as conversations between voices. The selves of HE and SHE (if you try to imagine that they have them) are beyond your power of judgment. I think of Bridget Brophy trying to find a form for that state. The Jewish characters in Flesh are only bothered by their religion because people expect it to make them manifest themselves in certain ways; they are supposed to pin themselves down by accepting a Jewish cookbook from a relative. Ashbery repeats the shape of things answering one another but he doesn't have the things, only the structure of answering. The shape is is so simple, he tells you: just write HE followed by a block of text and then SHE followed by another block. His Landscape (After Baudelaire), 1984, written in dumb rhyming couplets. "When the storm rattles my windowpane | I'll stay hunched at my desk, it will roar in vain." Simplification is one method of tyranny, said G. Hill in that Paris Review interview everyone quotes. There is the Ashbery but that appears at the start of a line or a sentence with the contrasting states being somewhat nonsensical, undercutting, or strange, like the fruit that exist suddenly to make a point in the title poem of Shadow Train, 1981 ("but the strawberry" …): "To desire what is | forbidden is permitted. But to desire it | And not want it is to chew on its name like a rag | To that end the banana shakes on its stem | But the strawberry is liquid and cool, a rounded | Note in the descending scale, a photograph | of someone smiling at a funeral."

Robert Archambeau wrote about Ashbery in Prelude:

Describing Ashbery’s characteristic mode as the “Mallarmean sentence” [Fredric] Jameson tells us these sentences “unfold in a perfectly grammatical way and offer the syntactical part of the mind a set of operations which has no other identifiable motivation and which thus unexpectedly simply designates itself as pure operation, as pure syntactical process to be completed.”

No one can prove the but is right, nor can they call it wrong. Say the point after the but is like the trees in his early poem, Some Trees, 1956:

That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness

Brophy feels glad that the unsupported but takes away our right to invent the thing by giving it place, purpose, and meaning.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

it imposes on every light



Brophy's In Transit, 1969, is different again, completely otherwise from the last two books - now the voice is jaunty and Shandyish, aggressive but confiding, and the narrator is at an airport, which is the most direct expression so far of the vibrating between-place that Brophy inhabits or see herself inhabiting, especially when this narrator tells us that they are going to let their flight leave without them. There are two countries they could be in (one at the beginning of the flight, the other at the end), and they are doing as much as they can to ensure that they are not in either. Thinking this was going to place some worry on the flight crew, which I now pictured, I saw that I had been stimulated into adding non-existent things to the story (the doubly-imaginary flight crew was irresistible though, and I still observe them).

The narrator has forgotten whether they are male or female. Covertly trying to look at their own groin without attracting attention, they are foiled by corduroy trousers standing up in stiff folds. The clothing on their torso is also ambiguous. Now what? Brainwave! they think: I will go into a public toilet and remove my clothes inside a locked cubicle. But which set of toilets can they enter without attracting suspicion? They have mislaid their name, then they get it back but it is Pat. "Interlugubre," they say. "And what of me as a narrator?"

I am hateful to myself through claustrophobia. It is not a personality, this jellysac I can't break out of; it is a mere agglutination of physical characteristics. And must I for ever shew you everything, including myself, through this not quite transparent, this yellowed, wobbly, and probably distorting gelatinous envelope, myself?

I am weary of the limited permutations on predictable refractions which it imposes on every light I pass through it.

They predict that their physical identity, once they find it, will "murder" them. "It is for your sake I am seeking … the predestined masc. or fem. murderer, who shall destroy, by gobbling up, this 'I'." To be something is the equivalent of being murdered or self-betrayed (or of growing up, another voice would say, maybe one of those children's-book authors who end their stories with adulthood as death or implied death – Narnia -). You notice that In Transit changes after the narrator has figured out their sex. Eventually they melt off, and groups of people from different protest movements storm the airport, sabotaging the building, laying bombs, and playing rock music.

(Perhaps against Brophy's desires, the book here becomes very fixed to a certain decade.)

Looking at the totally different styles of Flesh, 1962, The Finishing Touch, 1963, and In Transit (as unalike as, say, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, and Arno Schmidt?), can I argue that Brophy spent the 1960s trying to defy the jellysac of "limited permutations"? Once again, as in the other books, she does not seem committed to the production of a good ending, not even a good wayward ending, as if endings confront her with the demand to be a professional, make something the way it should be, and she shies away from it, she is one of those legendary Muslim craftspeople who put mistakes in rugs; she has let you know that she is still there, that she is not an author, that she is not a nameable thing. So it is unsatisfactory and yet stubbornly thematic every time.

Since John Ashbery has just died I have been listening to him recite poems on Youtube, those Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1974, lines about "a wave breaking on a rock, giving up | its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape | The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty | as they forage in secret on our idea of distortion. | Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since | dreams prolong us as they are absorbed? | Something like living occurs, a movement | Out of the dream into its codification." Mirror was not Ashbery's favourite Ashbery and not mine either. Other people liked it, he said to Pennsound, in 2016 I think (the March 18 interview?), but he thought that was only because it was close to their idea of how a poem should look, or closer than most of his other poems anyway.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

let one's gaze slide



I read three books by Brigid Brophy, first Flesh, 1962, then The Finishing Touch, 1963, then In Transit, 1969. The first and second books were so different that I thought they must have been written years apart, but then I checked the dates and no.

The difference came down to the distribution of the atmosphere. In Finishing Touch all of the ideas are described by an archness that works as a kind of muting or gesture. You learn fairly quickly that

1. The two women you are reading about are teachers at an exclusive all-girls finishing school

2. They desire, and are sometimes desired by, their students

But the text is not direct. A group of girls passes by the teacher Antonia and it notes that

A butterfly sought the lavender grove.

A network of butterflies, flowers, and dresses is penetrated by the camp sharpness of the teachers' conversations and playful feints at toughness. Antonia bypasses the intoxicating nature of her madeira to describe fortified as "one of the strongest, most vibrant, almost bracing, of words" – (the author will not blatantly explain that madeira is fortified wine).

Brophy's sentences are broken up by ellipses, over and over again, by parentheses, by dashes, by side matters, by words in other languages – there is always some other issue that they want to talk about; there is always this gap that is filled invisibly.

She looked presidingly: from the indifferent face of Madame President's daughter (Antonia was sure, now, such girls were cold) to the baffled face of royalty, staring straight ahead as though air rather than the text could help her understanding, to the cross face of Eugénie Plash – Look away quickly (Heaven grant I am not to suffer a headache today), look back to the text, look down at … and thus, naturally, to let one's gaze slide off the text, slide off one's lap (pleasing though that was to look at), to alight …


The potential for betrayal by a student is so present and inevitable you feel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961, hanging over everything – also unsaid. Sebastian Groes in British Fiction of the Sixties: the Making of the Swinging Decade, 2016, believes he has found a buried Brodie reference in Flesh, but he may be taking it too far.

But Brophy is not fascinated by Spark's doom of humankind, more interested in the potential for a vibration between saying something and not saying it, or making woman-signs and man-signs about yourself at the same time, sitting in a pretty garden and waxing over strong, fortified features, or teaching 'finishing' when all you really want is to start something.

The conclusion of The Finishing Touch, like the conclusions of Flesh and In Transit, is not the cold, rooted convulsion it is in a Spark; it seems to be something Brophy only does because books have to end at some point: such is the nature of books, and she has to go along with it, but, personally, she would rather not do anything so pointed and forceful as make a finish. Let her go on vibrating; that's what she wants.Or let the vibration vanish in a way that makes the world happy without (somehow without) actually being anything like a halt.

The vibration is there in Flesh but it only exists as individual points that the author makes for you to identify one by one and subsequently connect. You hear that Marcus loves Rubens' women, and then, later, when he has become plump, pleased, and sensuous, he looks at his body and says, "I've become a Rubens woman." So he is both of these points; the thing that looks and the thing it looks at. But his Rubens is not in the manners of the language that creates him and nor is his sensuality or his fat. Flesh is reasoning its vibration instead of feeling it while Finishing Touch is both thinking and feeling. That was what gave me the initial impression that Brophy had finally found out what she was saying. On reflection I don't believe this is true. But I think she knew more about what she was saying. She might have been using Jean Brodie as a guide, to focus herself.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

there are different versions



"Plenitude" is a word that I came across in a 1995 interview between Craig Dworkin and Lyn Hejinian, who was (at that point) talking about Gertrude Stein:

… the Making of Americans, in which she categorizes different kinds of people and then realizes that oppositions don't work; she abandons the Making of Americans when she sees that there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them. That's something that contemporary physicists can deal with, but contemporary literary critics are driven crazy by that degree of plenitude and then they blame Stein.

Hejinian's 2001 book, A Border Comedy, is 218 pages long, divided into chapters, and through the length of the text she often tells very short stories - sometimes realistic anecdotes, sometimes fairytaleish ones – not trying to present them as if they are components in some larger fictional story (as Schmidt does in Atheists) - though they are always contributing to a larger body of thought.

They never seem to be inevitable.

The driving suggestion of the larger poem-thought is really in that one line: "there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them."

At times the stories are set in their own paragraphs, with headings or titles, e.g., The Tale of the Raven on p. 32, and The Plot Unfolds, on p. 76. "The experience of activity must entail episodes," she writes at the start of Book Eleven. Hejinian is a poet who tells you the rules she is operating by as they are being demonstrated by the medium that includes them. Within the poem she is never wrong. Elsewhere she tells a fictional story about rapists who sneak into a dormitory at a girls' school and fall asleep on the spot without committing their crimes. No reason is given. This is where the anecdote ends. One of the "co-existing ontological possibilities" has made itself known by breaking through in the least likely place. "To measure something | One must hunt its intersections," she writes. (Is an ending the place where a story intersects most decisively, cleanly, and obviously with everything that is not itself?)

She hunts but what does she find? The slipperiness of intersections seems to haunt her. What is the connection between the story of the flying woman and the transparent tree in The Plot Unfolds? The plot unfolds to a point where it seems about to develop and then it stops. Is that the joke? It doesn't do anything but perform an unfolding action. Two or three things are described and joined together. If this is what it takes to "measure something" then what is measurability? Someone ("a teller") relates the story of a bird, "Who once shared her many anxieties […] she cut off his head | Then she plucked him and turned him into soup | Soup or soot – there are different versions | Some mild, some vicious, some lewd." The intersection of the bird with the violence done to it keeps shifting. Then there is not one bird but many? Then where -

(Hejinian's language is typically formal rather than colloquial – "lewd" not "rude" – she maintains a distance, and you note that these things in her language "vibrate" separately or toy with "borders" – they do not merge, mesh, mix, or become indistinguishable from one another – so borders and separations exist, she feels, but how …)


Sunday, July 30, 2017

when it is snowing, the valley is black, p. 42



Plenitude, now, to start with; Schmidt using plenitude of stories in Atheists as a means of expansion, and then Frisch's Geiser using a multiplication of stories as a form of displacement. Old and forgetful, Geiser tries to get his meaning outside himself. He pins these pieces of paper to the walls and looks at them. (Could you suggest that the situation in reverse would characterise youth for Frisch: a man without accoutrements, independently explaining himself in a well-connected series of words?) Clear thoughts and memories have been replaced by physical gestures. Geiser cuts books apart and goes for walks. That's how he tries to discern himself. He keeps trying to put himself outside. These are his calculations or proofs. But the spaces between the gestures are still unarticulated. And the paragraphs the reader sees in Holocene are set apart with white space between them: the effort you make to cross those spaces and fix the book together is made visible by the gap on the page. Frisch's way of apportioning things might remind you that running paragraphs together mentally is an effort, even if it normally seems natural and effortless because you are such a good reader. We're all heading for Geiser-land, when the pause will be a real danger. You forget in pauses. Even now you say, "I walked into this room to fetch something and now I don't remember what it was." Geiser notices the varieties of rain, then the book reflects that at least it is not snowing. A gap passes and it is snowing. The white space is a passage of time with nothing in it but struggle and drowning. Geiser turns the stove on in one paragraph, the white space comes, and ping, the danger of forgetfulness tries to overwhelm him. His stroke at the end of the book attracts an abundance of words from other sources. He has chosen them but they are not his own. They're followed by that landscape description but for the first time he is not in the landscape. Even the body of text that usually contains him does not have him in it any more. He is gone in more than one way. It is an extra-final wiping-out.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

a distinction be made



Reading Man in the Holocene, 1979, by Max Frisch, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, after Arno Schmidt's The School for Atheists, 1972, I thought about the additional pieces of text that had been made part of each book, the side-columns and footnotes crowding to and fro in Schmidt, and then the boxed horizontal inserts that came evenly and plainly between the paragraphs in Frisch.

In Schmidt the swarming appearance of the inserts makes the 'main' text a combative partner with the side text; they are two equal things muscling one another around. It is all aware that it is in a book, and it also knows that outside this book there are others.

In Holocene the inserts have been chosen by the character Geiser, who is cutting up his library with scissors. Now the main text seems closer to the kind of writing that is 'like real life' because these snippets about dinosaurs, animals, historical episodes, and topographical features are things existing in an implied world, as cuttings exit in life; they are not the same material as that world, in the way the Atheists columns are. There is a kind of strictness in Holocene: one thing is in one place and the other is separated from it, and you notice that the theme of the book is disintegration, age, and collapse, but the form goes steadily on. Geiser has probably suffered a stroke by the end. He can't tell us about it but one of the cuttings lets us know. "Apoplexy," it reads, "commonly known as a stroke, is a sudden loss of brain function …" After the apoplexy cutting there is a passage about the world continuing as usual. "The village stands unharmed. Above the mountains, high up in the blue sky, the white trails of passenger planes. The scent of lavender …" The world and the cuttings are both commenting on him obliquely in different ways.

But they don't attack him directly; I notice that, nobody attacks him. Though over in Schmidt, people are slapping and kissing their flesh. Geiser is losing his ability to make necessary changes in the world. The moment when he almost leaves the hot plate on is worth a mention. He is losing his memory. Going for a walk in the woods, he exults when he tells himself that no one knows where he is, alone like this, independently, proving that he is still a capable body controlled by a knowing mind; the words, "The ascent is laborious," are followed by the phrase, "just as he expected," as he confirms his good judgment to himself. "Geiser knows that it is four hundred meters up to the pass."

"I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over¬whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information," wrote Lyn Hejinian in her introduction to The Rejection of Closure, "potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening."

In the essay itself she wrote:

"The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curiously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to boundedness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a distinction be made between inside and outside, between the relevant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out.

Schmidt responds to this impulse by constraining his encylopaedic impulse to literature and stories: his Kolderup is another Prospero. But his "response to the world" within this constraint is enormous and playful – if Kolderup is Prospero then his daughter is a Shamela rewriting of Miranda. Frisch quotes other books (which Holocene credits in a bibliography) but there is no sign that he expects you to have read them, or that he thinks you might be interested in consulting them afterwards. Holocene uses them to refer to itself and it leaves them as they were; there is no subversion in its attitude towards them – they are discrete ...

The dinosaurs in Geiser's excerpts are being regarded with a sort of judgmental efficiency by the writer of the scientific text, who in this context might as well be immortal. The human being who walks into the woods is happy when he thinks that no one knows where he is, as if there is a danger that he too might be glanced down upon by someone listing facts about him, or calling him "terrible" and his survival "amazing," as the science-writer does.

If the dinosaurs knew that they were being talked about like this then they also might try to assert themselves by escaping down a forest path so that none of their neighbours, family members, or anyone else would know where they were - thwarting the writer who wanted to make these books out of their memories.

Possibly the dinosaurs and the man would roam together through the Swiss woodland trying to navigate the bridges.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

like every autobiography



I don't trust my essayist; they're too selective, they're bouncing across too many years and too few books, they had their hypothesis worked out too tightly before they began, and they're too much in love with it. They're completing an assignment, that's the trouble. The essay would have to be called Music in the Work of Lyn Hejinian to narrow it down but even then, what value does that have? I was aware of myself picking out selective quotes; I didn't care; it took nothing at all.

They continue their essay by pointing to a line the poet riffs on several times in My Life, 1987, "The obvious analogy is with music as with words." See p. 128 in the 2002 Green Integer edition I have here, for instance. Pointing to the autobiographical nature of My Life, they write, "The connection between 'music' and 'words' was a recurring theme in Hejinian's inner life, both as a child and as an adult. The 'words' being described in the lines adjacent to 'analogy to music' in Life are often uttered aloud" - and – then they back themselves up by quoting the one in which young women are taught to "murmur" clearly when they speak, but I can't find the page. The line on 128 has, "little dialogue, heard on the street. Baby! baby! baby!" just before it but that's not as good. They go on: "- though of course 'words' can also mean the written word. We may observe that she often tries to find a descriptive word to accompany the invocation of sound, 'murmur' (Life), 'percussion' (Aide), and so on." This "often" is a handwave but they hope you buy it.

"Noticing that she repeats the line in several different, dissimilar contexts, we may suggest a further twist: that Hejinian is critical of her own habits, that she believes this connection between words and music is mechanical, reflexive, and perhaps unexamined and unworthy.

'Repetition may function as a medium of sneering.

'Music for her always has a form. It is constrained or defined by some quality: loudness, suddenness, gentleness, etc. 'How long is that ball – of sound,' she asks in Life (p. 164). Looking at the explanatory statements she has made in reference to her own poetry, we see that form, in her mind, has a possibility of meaning that goes beyond arrangement. Yet arrangement, definition, is essential. To disconnect one line from another recreates the form of death. (Unfollowing.) Music 'speaks' by shape and form. Both means of utterance, music and words, are essentially communicative, pointing to vital meanings beyond their surface existences as print on a page or noises. There are times when we can see her test the ability of words to suggest meaning through their rhythmic qualities. 'Repercussion' coming four lines after 'percussion' in section 16 of Aide, for example, is a sign for the text to abandon strict dictionary meaning for something closer to scat singing: 'bit scrap of that roll broom.'"

I'm hesitating here because the essayist has actually written, "Playing with words" next to their red underline at this point in Aide although they also identify "roll broom" as an "instrument;" and "keys of nicety" in the previous line has "of music" written in the margin next to it. If the broom is an instrument then they're not drawing conclusions about scat singing, though. Go back and get rid of the Aide reference. Instead the essayist finds "and though the parrot speaks but says nothing this has the impact of an aphorism" on p. 7 of Happily, 2000. That seems useful. Then they look for the page in Life where the poet says that different countries have to find their own words for the sounds that cats make, but this is not necessarily a prelude to music-making … I don't know where that is, myself, and I'm not even completely sure that it appears in Life and not some other book, but the essayist discovers it successfully. I congratulate them.

They tell you something about the notion of form being complicated by this inclusion of animal-noises. "In these two excerpts we can see the poet grappling with the integration of animal-noise into the comprehensible lexicon of human-noise. The integration takes place when the animal sounds are recreated in human-oriented descriptions," they write, and then they look for more nonhuman creatures to back up their point.

Eventually they come across birds again on p. 52 of Happily: "words, birds, words birds blurred, birds in words […] The birds' words | might have been love laugh loss toss long – isn't | every explanation like every autobiography […] sentimental?" Now they can say that Hejinian is expressing an awareness of the effort she makes, as a human, to integrate the animal sounds into human form-understandings, etc, etc, the absence of animal-meaning in her "sentimental" human-meaning, the devouring nature of autobiography, swallowing everything into itself, etc, etc (should they write something about the falcons, eagles, goose, etc three years after Happily in The Fatalist, 2003?), but I am distracted by the list after "birds' words | might have been" because it has made me think of Miss Flite in Bleak House and her list of bird names, Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. On the Happily page above "birds' words" there is a line fragment that reads, "He personifies the literature of the West;" on p. 54 there are the words, "Christmas tree." They take on a new meaning.