Friday, September 25, 2009
I reject the idea of growth when it is not a growth of pleasure (Anna Klosowska)
A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can enter through the lyre's strings?
Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is Dasein (Rilke, Sonnet III, altered Mitchell trans.)
In complicity with Samuel Beckett’s poem “Alba” and Dante’s Purgatorio, these remarks will explore the possibility of a poetics of vertiginously small places, whose radiant unreadability (re)produces a literary modernism with a medieval heart capable of flouting the lack which would prevent a certain queer mixing of persons, things, pasts, presents, literary spaces and ‘real’ places. Small, because of the formal elements of the poem; vertiginous and indeed optimistically radiant in the ensuing density and unreadability of its complicity with medieval material—what might have been appropriated as modernist purgatorial, paradisiacal, or alchemical (transformational) lack appears instead as the ease of giving-in to the allure of such a densely radiant place. In the place called to appearance by the poem, the reader is invited to plunge into a radiant black-hole where distinctions between medieval, modern, persons, things, language (and the lack supposedly governing them) are all replaced by the production of a small place.
and, for your reading pleasure, the Beckett poem in question:
before morning you shall be here
and Dante and the Logos and all strata and mysteries
and the branded moon
beyond the white plane of music
that you shall establish here before morning
grave suave singing silk
stoop to the black firmament of areca
rain on the bamboos flowers of smoke alley of willows
who though you stoop with fingers of compassion
to endorse the dust
shall not add to your bounty
whose beauty shall be a sheet before me
a statement of itself drawn across the tempest of emblems
so that there is no sun and no unveiling
and no host
only I and then the sheet
and bulk dead
Saturday, July 18, 2009
I am about to head off to St. John’s Newfoundland, a little ahead of schedule (so as to better take in Newfoundland) for the ISAS (International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, for you non-medievalist readers) New Media and Old English Workshop and then this year’s ISAS conference. I wanted to share here a little of what I am going to try to think about at the workshop, although I am sure that very little of it will explicitly make it into my specific thought and work, because my overarching concerns are much too large to deal with adequately in two days. The workshop should be great. Martin Foys (Virtually Anglo-Saxon, UP Florida) is running a theory section, and Daniel O’Donell is running a section on the coding that goes into to making electronic editions etc.—my friends Mo Pareles and Mary Kate Hurlery will also be attending.
Because I know this is going to get away from me—I will have tried to condense and re-write several times by the time I post I am sure—I will say first that hope to work with Exeter Riddle 67 (ASPR numbers), which is very badly damaged, to try to experiment with producing a platform on which editions of OE verse can be collaboratively produced, wherein editing, commentary (philological and otherwise), and translation could occur in more radical and opposition forms of contemporary scholarship and verse than what is generally seen. What is possible here practically is something I don’t know much about (and thus hope to learn here...), so I will focus now on the theoretical side.
My theoretical impulses arise out of rethinking media studies as it relates to poetry through the poetics of the 20th century Black Mountain School poetics. I want to attempt this, not our of arbitrary experimentation, but as a strategic move designed to disrupt and provoke a re-thinking of, at once, what might seem unrelated phenomenon associated with Old English verse. So my impulse ultimately arises from my dissatisfaction with how OE poetry appears in and is allowed to effect (both in terms simply of what is done, and in terms of how our discipline is policed for ‘acceptable’ work) a) contemporary scholarship b) contemporary poetics as a result (I’d propose) of its mediation in modern English by contemporary poets who perpetuate the poetics of expression of deep image and do not seek to disrupt or destroy the status-quo of possible imaginings of human language and in turn the capacities of the human imagination; and also what appears to remain the most widely accepted model of producing editions and working on manuscripts and their mediation—that is, The work of the individual (as if still the myth of the individual genius auctor covertly survives for Editors of medieval texts who make “final decisions” and find “final solutions” to cruxes in what thus amounts to this authoritarian and totalitarian poetics of edition—or policing the borders of the actual exchange of modern writing, be it scholarly or ‘creative’ with the past).
That OE verse is mediated in contemporary poetry should perhaps be rationale enough to consider how a particular theory of poetics would effect our theories of the mediation of OE verse; yet, additionally, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan lead me to re-think media not so much as ‘containers’ which deliver what they mediate and thus can be governed but as sites which arise out of and produce transfers of energy with the past, which, being open sites, produce and are produced by, collaborative efforts. Thus, with a black box around the theory for the sake of this synopsis, thinking mediation of Old English verse through the ‘Projective Verse’ poetics of the above poets becomes a way to think an alternative to two conservative practices of our discipline which emerge as linked in the end at least by what undoes them, if not by their shared relationship to a poetics of mediation in which media is a closed container that can and should be sealed by a single authoritative mind (be it by expertise or poetic transcendence, it does not matter).
Why these poetics? Already, in the 1940’s through the 60’s, despite what Charles’ Altieri called, in his early literary history “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” their “contemporary distrust of mediation,” a certain model of the poem proper to the so-called Black Mountain School abounded which offers an alterative way to think about the sites of mediation not as containers of information but as the locale of an exchange of human energies.[i] Some basic adding up of important dictums of the literary movement makes this clear. Over thirty years prior to Carolyn Dinshaw’s call for “getting medieval on—or with—your very breath,” a relation to the past in which “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future”[ii]—before this Olson called for poetry in which “History measures the intensity of the past by letting us see how past actions create energy for use by the presen`t”[iii]—in the sense of measuring is deeply connected to Olson’s own queer medium, the event of a breath which can hold in its measure of the poetic line the syllable, where the syllable is the queerly incestuous offspring of the brother-sister mind and ear,[iv] and the poem, rather than a medium containing a content, is a force of which we can only speak of “the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations).” That is, for Olson, the breathed line of a poem was to mediate the past in its meters not so much by containing and bounding off a bit of the past ‘contained’ in the medium, as pigment is contained in a painting medium such as oil or egg tempera bases, but as an event of mediation. As regards material, and especially literary material of the past, Olson’s line would change the terms of how a medium could be conceived by expanding its possibilities to include a specific locale and event (the utterance of a line of poetry and its effects) and what exactly out thinking of mediation is supposed to conceptualize. Such a medium is not vehicle or container but a wholly new thing, a site of exchange of (affective) energy—a site, a locale. Thus Olson’s poetics are of what he called “COMPOSITION BY FIELD” in which objects “are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.” Thus a poem as mediation of the past, if we still insist on poetry as a medium, occurs as a site of a transfer of affective energies with the past, just as Olson is willing to versify the emphatic fragment “to build out of sound the wall/ of a city” and be happy to “use that word [history] to stand for city.[v] Robert Creeley writes, thinking of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field, “The sense of that poem—that place” as a place [quoting H.D.] “I go where I love and am loved”, as ‘a very distinct and definite place, that poetry not only creates but itself issues from.”[vi] All of this is thus to bolster a much more succinct but expansive question governing my project: what is a possible poetics of Old English poetry in new media? How would poetics as the transfer of energy with the past issuing form and producing places productively displace our thought about the mediation of Old English in translations and digital editions? The poetics of mediation by Media Edition of Old English Verse and the translation of OE verse (which should probably be joined) who demand that the edition is not a sealed container to bring the past to you, but a site arising from and producing a transfer of affective energy with the past and thus must be A) a collaboratively produced site and a site producing collaboration so as to keep the transfers of energy going, the city built for and by the kinetic forces of collaboratively (not authorative-tarianly) reading, editing, and translating OE verse; and B) poetic, and radically so, which is to say, however much it risks verging on the impractical, not descriptive—as the descriptive too easily lends itself to the conceptualizing of the media as an accurate sealed container in the correspondence theory of truth. Kinetic force and not containment: “One breaks the line of aesthetics, or that outcrop of a general division of knowledge. A sense of the KINETIC impels recognition of force,” thus “A poetry denies its end in any descriptive act...Description does nothing, it includes the object—it neither hates nor loves.”[vii]
I have chosen a riddle with such MS damage because I hope it will leave a good deal of room for radical thought to go one in and around it, with its inherent potential to provoke speculative thought and demand incomplete and fragmentary editing and translating practices, alongside some work of speculation. This poem facilitates easily a first attempt of an edition desiring specifically to not be authoritative and ‘final’ in its solutions. How can a site of transfers of energy with the past arise as a digital/new media edition of Exeter Book Riddle 67 (ASPR numbering), which contains massive MS damage, making the process of editing difficult, much less the question of how to approach a translation? The apparatus must be set up so that it cannot be contained, nor its borders fuller policed, lacking an authoritarian structure—a gemot or a symbel and not a modern/capitalistic state—so there can be no final edition and thus no ‘final solutions’: a sort of multiplicity of scores for singing into place a heterotopia of scholarship under the guise of an edition of an OE poem. This would be one way, I hope, to facilitate an end both to the authoritarian model of editing, and to promote the mediation of OE verse in Radical Modern English poetry.
and, ps, I'll try to post some photo's of my own throughout and after the conference. I wanted to go to Newfoundland since I discovered it was a place while examining a globe in my third-grade classroom (that of Mrs. Loksa, Westerly School). So, dear north, don't let me down.
[i] The Black Mountain poets has an interesting attitude toward the page which shares a certain nearness with medieval reading styles, that is to conceive of the page a sort of musical score rather than the poem itself, and thus not truly a mediation of the poem, but a tool which allowed the poem to be performed, thus “One wants to write the poem, put it, as ultimately one would say it; the page is his means, not his end. If we grant that poetry must be relegated, finally, to what the eye can read, then we have no poetry” (Creeley, “A Note On Poetry,” Quick Graph, 27). Much as OE verse which, because of its shape on the page without punctuation or spacing, much be sounded out to be read, the Black Mountain Poets’ work must be sounded out on account of its spacing on the page as a score—another problem media theory cannot fully account for despite its sophistication re: digital media: “It is the advantage of the typewriter [and how much more the laptop and web browser!] that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had...[so that] any reader, silently or otherwise, [is able] to voice his work,” “If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, and equal length of time...” (Charles Olson “Projective Verse” (see below) 618).
[ii] Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 206.
[iii] Charles Altieri, 130.
[iv] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, Ed. Paul Hoover (New York: Norton, 1994): “I say the syllable, king, and that it is spontaneous, this way: the ear, the ear which has collected, which has listened, the eat, which is so close to the mind that it is the mind’s that it has the mind’s speed...¶ it is close, another way: the mind is brother to the sister and is, because it is so close, is the drying force, the incest, the sharpening...¶ it is from the union of the mind and ear that the syllable is born. ¶ But the syllable is only the first child of the incest of verse...The other child is the LINE. And together, these twos, the syllable and the line, they make a poem.”
[v] Charles Olson, Causal Mythology (San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1969), 19.
[vi] Robert Creeley, “I’m Given to Write Poems,” in A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and essay, Ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), 63.
[vii] Creeley, “To Define” in A Quick Graph, 23.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I hope, eventually, to avoid entirely the construction of a narrative around, before, or behind my poems. The commentary will grow up, an apparatus around them, well before the poems themselves are written, spreading like a system always equidistant from every point in the writing, but shaped nothing like a sphere or a circle; accompanied by and producing theories connecting writing to everything.Tomorrow I will have written the poem beginning a secret most marvelous, a riddle.
a secret most marvelous:
teeth and claws
most humane mode
of being drawn towards
un-rest. & as for
counting the faces
of the screened...
The poem is in four stanzas, with a good deal of enjambment. There are two sentences, the second of which does not complete its course before an ellipsis. The first sentence is an announcement of a most marvelous secret, and the second consists of a digression.
secret: “What is the interpreter to make of secrecy considered as a property of all narrative, provided it is suitably attended to?”[i] What are we to make of secrecy or the secret as something which is not but rather is generated. What indeed if secrecy appears not in narrative, but in a radiance which resists narrativization? Or, rather, is there any hope for such resistance? For, “there has to be trickery.”[ii] Frank Kermode may speak of the “radiant obscurity of narratives”[iii]; but is there not some hope not only in the seeking of the “divined glimmer” that one perceives as ‘behind’ the fabric of the text, but rather in the manufacturing of a secret which radiates as it undoes itself as a secret? Then, even if “Hot for secrets, our only conversation may be with guardians who know less and see less than we can, and our sole hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance, before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us,” and even if that the momentary radiance is a fiction anyway—none of this threatens the optimism of the riddle. most marvelous: the marvelous here radiates as the expenditure of its secret, not as the intentional concealment thereof so as to effect a flight from the world. The marvel of the riddle is to pull one into the text in such way that the text wears a hole in itself and one winds up back in the world because of following a marvelous radiance. And the marvel? there was nothing there to begin with. teeth and claws/ most humane mode: perhaps an addendum to Frye’s modes as an (Aristotelian) category of literature. The teeth and claws of the riddle that bites back, of the claws scuttling at the bottom of silent seas which occasionally beat out a rhythm that churns into a maelstrom without intending any such thing. These are the teeth and claws of the ‘creatures’ of high modernism with a certain “image-breaking enterprise,”[iv] associated with a lineage of certain of Eliot’s poems, Samuel Beckett, Dostoevsky, Kafka, the late Pound and the late H.D., and even certain of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and others usually seen as so serious and abysmal, as provoking primordial anxieties. But, equally, these teeth and claws are for pleasure and delight. And such a modernism, in tune with the radiant medieval of the poet and theorist Dante whose quotations provide epigraphs for this new work, also, and first, could be re-understood as turning to expose the human to a more intense and radiant pleasure: scratching nether-regions and biting exquisitely—clawing away at the image not just to pull back and expose an abyss, but also to kindle the ruin of the image into a burning radiance. drawn towards/ un-rest: “Our time calls for an existence-Art, one which, by refusing to resolve discords into the satisfying concordances of a telos, constitutes an assault against an art-ificialized Nature in behalf of the recovery of its primordial terrors. The most immediate task, therefore, in which the contemporary writer must engage himself—it is, to borrow a phrase ungratefully from Yeats, the most difficult task not impossible—is that of undermining the detective-like expectation of the positivistic mind, of unhoming Western man, by evoking rather than purging pity and terror—anxiety...to drive him out of the fictitious well-made world, not to be gathered into the “artifice of eternity,” but to be exposed to the existential real of history, where Nothing is certain.”[v] Such is the riddle for which there the only solution is its own burning up. The addition of pleasure and radiance to this formulation of William Spanos is perhaps necessary after the years in the interim between when this work appears as beginning as the moment of assessing and praising a disruptive modernism since “The Western structure of consciousness is bent, however inadvertently, on unleashing chaos in the name of the order of a well-made world,”[vi] suggesting that the cost of a resolving well made anything is simply too high. Because, crudely put, a well-made thing and things done in the name of the well-made, the resolved, the solvable, comfort the western positivistic mind, Spanos calls for the anxiety-evoking.[vii] The riddle is, the wonder would be, to take pleasure in and make pleasurable the production and experience of an art that un-homes the human with ease—that infinitely frustrates the detective without losing a certain radiance. The trouble with being entirely ‘post’-abysmal is that the “Urgrund, the primordial not-at-home” is “where dread, as Kierkegaard and Heidegger and Sartre and Tillich tell us, becomes not just the agency of despair but also and simultaneously of hope, that is, of freedom and infinite possibility.”[viii] And the problem of being purely negative and abysmal: the pleasure of falling, the ability of some to experience the riddle whose answer is both everything and whose answer does not exist as a radiance all its own. the faces of the screened: me, us, you, we, them, she, he, us, you, me, we. Totally unaccountable, various answers to the riddle. Various subjects on which any candidate as solution to the riddle reports.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Paths to the radiant abyss: Tomaž Šalamun almost ends one of his poems with the simple line “My hands shine.”[i] Another such jewel arises from a poem which, being very brief, is easily quoted in full: “A book of photographs:/ A tale of the perfect lover.// Learn from the eye of others.// God is my reader.”[ii] Thus the poet makes friends with readers of his poems. I would offer this next poem, beginning but if i offer you, a missive, in the spirit of such work which would allow a re-thinking of the ground of connection and time:
but if i offer you
make for the little seam
& it’s true,
if only because
a flag of your blood
on your palm
i heed you
with a feather, on
any: a queer creature of two-syllables. Any used substantively is commensurate with a certain evasion of description proper to the transfer of energy that the missive must entail as well as the particular efficiency of this two-syllable word: bright as a small flag of blood itself and pluridrectional in its potential travel down the lip of the poet. As something offerable, the energy of two tiny syllables is potentially immense, for “It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and mater, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on. With this warning, to those who would try: to step back here to this place of the elements of and minims of language, is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.”[iii] For Charles Olsen, the syllable is the product of the incest of the brother mind and sister ear.[iv] any any any brother or sister breath listening any as offered the thing itself issues from the little seam: as the very tiniest beginnings of the abyss—the seam or split in the fabric—perhaps here even still stitched together so close, so there it is. The little seam: a little leverage for the horns growing in the breast of the human, ready to take on the cosmos as un-mixing with h/er/is proper person, as confined into the correct syntactic slot and the slip where those creatures—yes, even creatures consigned to hell in Dante’s Commedia—appear and verify the urgency of the missive: “How uncertain when I said unwind the winding, Chiron,/ Cross of Two Orders! Grammarian! from your side the never/ healing!/ Undo the bindings of immutable syntax!// The eyes that are horns of the moon feast on the leaves of trampled sentences.”[v] a flag of your blood: “It’s that when I see you/ I bleed a little,/ into the teacup and into the wren’s nest”[vi]; this is what you might say when the energy of the syllable bursts up through the tiniest seam, when a tiny bit of a medieval poem bursts into your own present through the cracks in the surface of the syntax. It is thus as this flag blood that famously, Beatrice can speak as her own missive or signal within the poem such that the speaker might heed her famously. Beatrice: as for Dante, a warning as if a storm warning flag, poking up through the seam through the centuries. A little flag of a syllable beats out its queer warning. Olson teaches that “I say the syllable, king, and that it is spontaneous, this way: the ear, the ear which has collected, which has listened, the ear, which is so close to the mind that it is the mind’s, that ir has the mind’s speed...¶ it is close, another way: the mind is brother to this sister and it, because it is so close, is the drying force, the incest, the sharpener...¶ it is from the union of the mind and the ear that the syllable is born.”[vii] Thus, be-a-tri-ce, four syllables, compacted by the mind and pushed out from the heart into the breath of the projecting line, at just the right moment, from the past, makes for the queer warning to any Dante of the 21st century, flagging down the ear with the single syllable blood, and then the single syllable heed. The mind, getting medieval, becoming syllabic, hearing its own incest with the past crack the surface of a syntax and allow the effects of the line to arise, wherein “the descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second...because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into the poem. Any [and there is that word again] slackness takes off attention, that at crucial thing, from the job in hand, from the push of the line under hand at the moment.”[viii] on/ the hunt: Beatrice, hunting boar, like Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Beatrice is unlike Bertilak’s lady, who hunts the knight Gawain. The push of Beatrice’s line should be likened to the energy of Bertilak’s dog’s, pushing up enough air for breath that in her wake (for, consider the syllables at play in such a line as this: “The howndez that it herde hastid thider swythe”[ix] [the hounds that heard it hurried there forcefully]) that we might—in the space of the commentary on her bright and forceful flag—“much speche” here “expoun/ of druyes greme and grace.”[x]
[i] Tomaž Šalamun, “a ballad for metka krašovec,” in A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, trans. Michael Biggins (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2001), 65
[ii] ibid., 66.
[iii] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology, Ed. Paul Hoover (New York: Norton, 1994, 615.
[v] Robert Duncan, “The Structure of Rime VIII,” in The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1960), 70.
[vi] Kane, “Suppose What Is Left Behind,” 48.
[vii] Olson, “Projective Verse,” 615.
[viii] ibid., 616.
[ix] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, line 1424.
[x] ibid., lines 1506-1507.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
The Western structure of consciousness is bent, however inadvertently, on unleashing chaos in the name of the order of a well-made world. If this is true, contemporary literature cannot afford the luxury of the symbolist, or , as I prefer to call it, the iconic literary aesthetic nor of its "postmodern" variants. For ours is no time for psychic flights, for Dedalean "seraphic embraces," however enticing they may be. Neither, for that matter, despite its more compelling claim as an authentic possibility, can it afford the luxury of the aesthetic implicit in the concept of the later Heidegger's Gelassenheit (that receptivity which might disclose the Being of Not-being and thus the sacramental at-homeness of the non-at-home), the aesthetic of "letting-be" or, perhaps, of letting Being be, that Nathan Scott seems to be recommending in his important recent books, Negative Capability and The Wild Prayer of Longing. For, in the monolithic well-made world that the positivistic structure of consciousness percieves--and perceiving, creates--it is the Detective who has usurped the place not only of God but of Being too as the abiding presence and, therefore, has first to be confronted.Where does this line go before Shakespeare? Perhaps a number of writers are going to end up for various reasons on both sides of the line. Margery Kempe for being disruptive, but for having such a conventional narrative and submitting to the amanuensis, perhaps not. Julian, yes and no. The formal aspects of Langland's allegory--yes! spinning wildly out of control and dreams being accounting! But for his signature MEDIEVAL view of kingship and institutions, perhaps not. As for older material--the language of the Old English Riddles seem ripe for disrupting consciousness and knowledge in relation to poetics. What if guessing the right answer is not even secondary? Historiographical impossibility if one asserts the alterity and homogeneity of the middle ages. If not, capacity for a new historiographical poetics of modernism continuing in the 20th century.
Our time calls for an existence-Art, once which, by refusing to resolve discords into the satisfying concordances of a telos, constitutes an assault against the art-ificialized Nature in behalf of the recovery of its primordial terrors. The most imeediate task, therefore, in which the contemporary writer must engage himself--it is, to borrow a phrase ungratefully from Yeats, the most difficult task not impossible--is that of undermining the detective-like expectations of the positivistic mind, of un-homing Western man, by evoking rather than purging pity and terror--anxiety. It must, that is, continue to inconoclastic revolutionbegun in earnest after World War II to dislodge or, to be absolutely accurate, to dis-occident the objectified modern Western man, the weighty, the solid citizen, to drive him out of the fictitious well-made world, not to gathered [and I, Dan, re-cite this allusion for Eileen Joy] into the "artifice of eternity," but to be exposed to the existential realm of history, where Nothing is certain. For only in the precincts of our last evasions, where "dread strikes us dumb," only in this silent realm of dreadful uncertainty, are we likely to discover the ontological and aesthetic possibilities of generosity.
In this image-breaking enterprise, therefore, the contemporary writer is likely to find his "tradition," not in the "anti-Aristotelian" line that goes back from the Concrete poets to Proust, Joyce, and the imagists, Malarmé, Gautier, and Pater, but in the "Anti-Aristotelianism" that looks back from Beckett, Ionesco, and the Sartre of Nausea and No Exit through the Eliot of Sweeney Agonistes, some of the surrealists, Kafka, Pirandello, Dostoevsky and the "loose, and baggy monsters" of his countrymen, Dickens, Wycherley and--with all due respect to the editor of the Daily News--the Shakespeare of King Lear, Measure for Measure, and the Ironically titled All's Well that Ends Well, in which one of the characters says:They say mirales are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
For the medievalist, or the poet who would listen to the medieval, it is a question of a historiography not interested in detecting what happened--in providing the solution, but of dividing the medieval to disturb the modern (so, of course, the both and of the continuity with the middle ages that the students of modernism the american academy still fear in almost any case because of its former association with a desire to affirm a continuity of christianity at the expense of the hard won virtues of humanisms in the renaissance--a la C.S. Lewis--; and the discontitunity associated with a Neitzschian 'genealogy' a la Foucault where history is not for knowledge but for cutting--a paraphrase I owe to former instructor at Pittsburgh Mark Lynn Anderson...again, both and on these counts). How does the medieval disrupt the well-made world, tear an abyss in its veil, in a way that burns with an intense pleasurable radiance, and not only with anxiety? What are the enticements of unhoming that the medieval can offer the modern, as a practice of modernism that I would like to continue today? And, where have these lovely statements and demands for poetics gone? And let medievalists start telling the poets what to do.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
We drew near; and there were persons in the shade behind the rock, in postures people take for negligence.
And one of them, who seemed weary, was sitting embracing his knees, holding his face down low between them.
“O my sweet lord,” said I, “look at that fellow: he appears more negligent than if Laziness were his sister.”
Then he turned to us and gave us his attention, shifting his face up a bit along his thigh, and said, “Now you go on up, you are so vigorous!”
Then I knew who he was and the pain that made my breath still come somewhat quickly did not prevent my going to him and when
I reached him, he barely raised his head, saying: “Have you seen clearly how the sun drives his chariot over our left shoulder?”
His lazy movements and his brief words moved my lips a little; then I began: “Belacqua, now I do not grieve
for you any longer; but tell me: why are you sitting just here? are you waiting for a guide, or have your old habits claimed you again?”
And he: “O brother, what good would climbing do? for the angel of God sitting on the threshold would not let me go in to the torments.
First it is necessary for the heavens to turn around me outside here as long as they did in my life, since I delayed my good sighs until the end,
unless prayer helps me first, which must rise up from a heart that lives in grace: what good is any other, since it is not heard in heaven?”
And already the poet was climbing ahead of me and saying: “Come along now: see, the meridian is touched by the sun, and on the shore of ocean night already covers Morocco with its foot.”
(Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio trans. Robert M. Durling, Oxford, 2003, Canto 3, 106-139,)
Dante’s Belacqua here is an old friend. Unlike others in Purgatory, his laziness is paradoxically sanctioned and while he may be-moan it, Belacqua remains a point, for the poet, of bemusement, who smiles at(?) him. But Dante, I do not think, has much admonishment for the lounging pilgrim who remains still not quite in purgatory itself. Ironically, the lazy one cannot go and lose his evil laziness by decree of God! A figure of the humorously proto-purged, of the comic, of the one languorous—of poetic ease (Durling and Martinez’s notes call him “a kind of parody of the contemplative live, of which an important part is study of the heavens”—and a good deal of Canto 3 is devoted to cosmology and geography, and Belacqua is observing the movement of the spheres...). But of the modern?
And here, Beckett’s Belacqua, heads to a party brimming with medieval scholastic allusion: with a constituency of the ‘intelligentsia’ who discuss the Wife of Bath, among them a paleographer, on named the ‘Man of Law’ as his moniker for the narrative, one—who B. meets on his way there—is a French poet of a troubardourish sort “a high brow bromide of French nationality with a diabolical countenance compound of Skeat’s [yes, that’s right folks, Skeat mentioned in the highest of high modern literature, oh this is just too good!] and Paganini’s and a mind like a tattered concordance [italics mine]”; there is a reference to the Philologists Grimm, and a femme fatale of the party whose name is, of all things Alba. While the medieval allusions specifically populate the party, ironically, the medieval is inhabiting the modern all along in Belacqua himself, an odd sometime-suicidal bicycle-loving “creature” (Beckett uses this word) who literally dreams in French and likes eating toast so burnt it will hurt his mouth when smeared with the most stinky blue cheese imaginable while on his way to study—that’s right—Italian by way of reading Dante with an old female scholar he imagines as his own private Beatrice in-the-\flesh. And, he even likes reading the Paradiso. Belacqua has just been physically reprimanded for unknowingly (in a drunken stupor) throwing up on a policeman’s shoes:
Suddenly walking through the rain was not enough, stepping out smartly, buttoned up to the chin, in the cold and the wet, was an inadequate thing to be doing. He stopped on the crow of Baggot Street bridge, took off his reefer, laid it on the parapet and sat down beside it. The Guard was forgotten. Stooping forward then where he sat and flexing his left until the knee was against his ear and the heel caught on the parapet (admirable posture) he took off his boot and laid it beside the reefer. Then he let down that leg and did the same with the other. Next, resolved to get full value from the bitter no’-wester that was blowing, he slewed himself right round. His feet dangled over the canal and he saw, lurching across the remote hump of lesson Street bridge, trams like hiccups-o’-the wisp. Distant lights on a dirty night, how he loved them, the dirty low-church Protestant! He felt very chilly. He took off his jacket and belt and laid them with the other garments on the parapet. He unbuttoned the top of his filthy old trousers and coaxed out his German shirt. He bundled the skirt of the shirt under the fringe of his pullover and rolled them up clockwise together until they were hopped fast across his thorax. The rain beat against his chest and belly and trickled down. It was even more agreeable than he had anticipated, but very cold. It was now, beating his bosom thus bared to the mean storm vaguely with marble palms, that he took leave of himself and felt wretched and sorry for what he had done. He had done wrong, he realized that, and he was heartily sorry. He sat on, drumming his stockingbird heels sadly against the stone wondering whence on earth could comfort spring, when suddenly the thought of the bottle he had brought pierced his gloomy condition like a beacon.
(Samuel Beckett, “A Wet Night,” More Pricks than Kicks, in Samuel Beckett: The Centenary Edition, Vol. IV,129)
I should note that we first meet Belacqua in the story “Dante and the Lobster,” which opens:
It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti of the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. She shewed him in the first place where he was fault, then she put up her own explanation. She had it from God, therefore he could rely on its being accurate in every particular. All he had to do was to follow her step by step. Part one, the refutation, was plain sailing. She made her point clearly, she said what she had to say without fuss or loss of time. But part two, the demonstration, was so dense that Belacqua could not make head or tail of it. The disproof, the reproof, that was patent. But then came the proof, a rapid shorthand of the real facts, and Belacqua was bogged indeed. Bored also, impatient to get on to Piccarda [since when is Belacqua impatient? only, only with Beatrice! and who else would dare!]. Still he pored over the enigma, he would not concede himself conquered, he would understand at least the meanings of the words, the order in which they were spoken and the nature of the satisfactions that they conferred on the misinformed poet, so that when they were ended he was refreshed and could raise his heavy head, intending to return thanks and make formal retraction of his old opinion.
(Beckett, “Dante and the Lobster,” More Pricks and Kicks, 77)
Beckett’s Belacqua is in fact a student of Dante. So much that the language here has him learning from Beatrice as much if not more than Dante himself, having the advantage of a text to go over and over and his Italian tutor, as opposed to just Beatrice’s oral instruction, however blissful and blessed. That is, Belacqua is a kind of anachronism delightful to the kind of literary history I like—the kind I want to uncover as the literary history proper to a moderism with a radiant Middle Ages at its heart.
For Dante, Belacqua should not be in the Paradiso learning from Beatrice at the same time as Dante—who would have B. still lazing around the very bottom of purgatory. Perhaps, of course, by the time that Beckett and 20th century Ireland have come about (one with medievalists and paleographers and philologists!), Belacqua (chez Dante) will have made it at least up in the conical realms and perhaps all the way to the blessed city. Yet, in that case, he should certainly not be stealing bicycles and walking stinking drunk in the rain in Dublin. His conversion is lazy and late, but how can we possibly have so much ease, so much reluctance to give up on the worldly that it might even leech out into a 20th century version of himself? Well, praise, for the trans-historical Belacquas! For, Beatrice and Dante are “there” and only “there.” Not, “there in the text” but “there.” In the text, but the only text at the moment—the text of Belacqua, and in that one they are just ‘there.’ Also, Beatrice “shewed” all of her arguments—but in the very same past tense of the general narrative itself. She may have ‘shewed’ them to Dante, but then she also shewed them to Belacqua during the time of this narrative here! Huzzah for the poetics of anachronism! Huzzah for Belacqua, the scholar of ease! He takes off his shoes and raincoat, un-tucks his shirt, drinks, and eventually will show up to the party anyway. In the words of a David Byrne song I heard performed last night for free in Prospect Park:
And then I look over and see Marge, my cat, dearest Margery Kempe-cat, who understands Dante, and Dante’s Belacqua, better than me, perhaps than Beckett, and just about anyone save maybe Franco Masciandaro—the soft sleepy lazing anti-purgatory of ease and pleasure, a purgatory under erasure, behold:
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
It has been determined by certain experts that there is ghost at work in this new work—in the poems or in the commentary? W.H. Auden’s poem “Family Ghosts” ends with the lines “and all emotions to expression come,/ Recovering the archaic imagery:/ This longing for assurance takes the form// Of a hawk’s verticle stooping from the sky.”[i] In each movement to recover the work to come, to imagine the recovery of it, one who is on the ground might feel a gravitational pull from elsewhere arriving at, or emitting from, the writing body. A text may likewise be haunted.[ii] Such moments turn us again to the origin of these poems and when they work as either lacking agency in time and space, or as multiple in their agencies. Nevertheless, some attendance to or cultivation of the text might better invite the ghosts to, felicitously, further compromise the agencies of these texts that are already not mine.[iii] There must be a work of conjuring, some ritual (and yet one proper to the writing of poems and commentaries and not to religions!). Thus, Auden would later write of Iceland: “Europe is absent: this is an island and should be a refuge, where the affections of its dead can be bought/ by those whose dreams accuse them of being spitefully alive.”[iv] So ‘friends’ arrive to work on a book from various times. We hide nothing from each other. We un-hide each other. We resolve to write a series of warnings. This poem, which begins all 500 breastplates, is a riddle caught up in the work of spectral un-hidings.
all 500 breastplates
off-kilter and combat
distillery run amock
no help my netizen,
a passbook of
no levers left anymore.
The various fragments appear to consist of at least five different utterances, perhaps from difference speakers. Or, there is no need to construct a narrative or a speaker, and the words are not spoken, but just jumble themselves on the page or the screen. The poem is in four stanzas. Consider this the best way to divide the utterances, or don’t.
breastplates: the radiant armor of a minor hope when all of the bloodlines are cut and a language is dulled by an infusion of combat readiness. Such was the trouble of a young Perceval in Chrétien de Troye’s poem by the same name. The young boy mistakes Chevaliers for God, Demons, and Angels.[v] distillery: see Samuel Beckett on Dante: “His conclusion is that the corruption common to all the dialects makes it impossible to select one rather than another as an adequate literary form, and that he who would write in the vulgar must assemble the purest elements from each dialect and construct a synthetic language that would at least possess more than a circumscribed local interest.”[vi] But is a distillation necessary to get to the message of a missive as the solution to the riddle? or, if it is “distillery run amock,” then is the problem of distillation one which cannot help eliminate the need for breastplates? Such distillery would need to occur in a transparent caldron, of a flame pleasurably bright. The help for the netizen (see next comment) in language must burn just as brightly as the radiant screens on which we plot drone attacks on Afghanis from Nevada, and yet we still find ourselves in terms of purgatorial distillation is that peculiar modern condition which Beckett found in Joyce: “neither prize nor penalty, simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged.”[vii] Distillation as purgative in the modern world, as refining and purifying heat, is thus akin to the failed attempts of alchemy. And even there, so often the search for the stone is more important than the transmutation it would produce. netizen: this word advertised on the back of the dusk-jacket of the Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary 10th Edition, in 1999, along with netiquette, spammer, face time, echinacea, fusion cuisine, feng sui, and velociraptor.[viii] Thus the word registers as among a group which, when taken together, collect the bright hive of the internet as the radiantly new along with—among others—a notably ancient reptile so that what is caught in between are the mundane practices of human communication and food as their own luminousities. This is important to study of the work of this poem if one is to present the proper passbook and take her place among the shinning radiant breastplates of the first stanza. These breastplates are hanging from the sprouting antlers of this poem and most of the others in this work. free greetings: Do not mistake greetings for transparent communication. The greeting of this poem is only the entrance into its commentary, which, though ‘below’ the poem as you now read it, might be just as well taking place into the unhinging between the paratactic syntax of free greetings with all its plenitude and the assertion(?). no levers left anymore: with is announcement of privation. This is the roomy dwelling space for our friendship in this poem—the space in which you or a literary ghost my be invited to take up an abode, such as a speechmaking Beowulf beginning to send a missive to his own friend, Hrothgar, in wearing perhaps not a breastplate but a byrne (mail-coat) such that it is well-displayed as a smith’s work.[ix] Such a space, like Beowulf’s missive, is in the this riddle itself and the room bounded off by its syntactic turns and gaps , radiant as the armor of its speaker, fearful or courageous. no levers: here the lever is not a phallus, nor is it to be related to the phallic elevator lever about which the elevator operator has to complain in The Great Gatsby to Mr. McKee to “keep your hands off the lever”—to which McKee replies, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”[x] We lament, with the rise of the digital, the loss of the mechanical in our dwelling spaces, and would attempt to re-insert the mechanical into the secret of a poem’s radiance so as to not lose its memory. Without a level to pull, how can we unlock the mechanics of any riddle? Even if a digital inscription on the passbook of free greetings implores you say what I am called.
[i] W.H. Auden, “Family Ghosts,” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 41.