Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Joyland

A new story from some Hound or other.

Lemon Hound on Tobias Wolff

"The line was endless." So begins Tobias Wolff's story, "Bullet in the Brain." I heard the story on the New Yorker fiction podcast and laughed myself right through my cardio workout for the day. No small feat: I am intensely bored by the gym and have taken to podcasting my way through. But even when listening to fiction, it needs to grab me in some way--either through language use, or palette, strangeness of tone, or narrative, voice, character. Given that the New Yorker offers a steady stream of narrative you can guess what offerings I usually have queued up on my iPod. But complicated feelings about narrative and fiction aside it is not without some pleasure. While I can in some way agree with Mary Burger's essay "All New Yorker Stories..." I don't completely.

But back to Wolff, known to many for the film version of his memoir This Boy's Life, perhaps more than anything, but also as editor of one of the most depressing collections of short fiction ever. I used it in a short fiction course a while back and it wasn't just that the stories were depressing, it was the sameness: confessional narratives, often centering around domestic abuse, child abuse, or abuse abuse. The publisher describes it as: "representing a reaction to the postmodern, self-conscious fictional attitude emerging from the Sixties. Realistic and convincing, these voices of the past decade and a half create a sense of kinship that remains with readers as insistently as do their own memories."

I understand, I was there in the 80s and yes, there was a need to pop that bubble of denial, but what a boat load of it we got. And the experience of reading so many in a row? It sort of dulls the impact of a story like Dorothy Allison's "River of Names." Not that there aren't some good stories in the mix, just all in a row like that, ack. The only worse compilation has to be Richard Ford's anthology of Best American fiction for Granta (though Denise Chong's anthology of Canadian women's fiction is also very thick, dark and syrupy). In any case, tainted as Wolff is for me after the latter experience, I wasn't having to read Wolff I was hearing T. C. Boyle read Wolff, and since I know Boyle to have some edges (okay, not real edges, but sort of edges), and humour, I was interested to see what he has chosen for his reading. (That's the trick, it's one writer choosing another writer that they love, or a story that they love, which is ALWAYS a good idea no matter how many times one wants to eloquently argue for the negative position).

The story features a critic caught in a bank robbery and it unfolds in two stages. The first starts and ends so quickly you can't quite believe it's over. Our critic, Anders, who has just walked into the bank, is a piece of work: sarcastic, miserable, critiquing everything that appears before his gaze. He is standing in line when a few robbers appear on the scene and begin to enact their "robbery." They aren't the sharpest bunch and Anders can't believe the cliched language they are using. Neither can he stop himself from commenting on it, "Did you hear that?" Anders said. "'Bright boy.' Right out of 'The Killers.'" You can imagine what happens when we get to the, "Something funny?" And "You laughing at me?" For Anders there is no longer any separation from his critical role and his life, but worse, there are no nuances in his critical stance either, it is all-negative, all-sarcasm, all-the-time. And of course, since he can't stop himself from critiquing the robber he gets a bullet in the brain.

But the story doesn't end there, rather it slows down. Once the bullet enters the brain Wolff shows us what he remembers and what he doesn't remember eking out a more subtle character, one that was perhaps even excited about the literature he has come to constantly deride. It's heavy-handed yes, but brilliant too. It has the pace and lightness of a George Saunders story--it just keeps unraveling and the nuances of the critics engagement with the world, the complex reaction to the details of youth and exuberance come back. It's those complex moments that offer us the richness in life, and when we come to anything ready to simply critique, or slot it in, we barely scan the surface of that which we encounter. Critical judgment must come swift and harsh, I heard someone quoting David Solway recently. Really?

Monday, March 30, 2009

And yes, it contains that word

Thanks to the Globe and Mail for pointing this out:

Erin Moure believes in poetry, do you?

"It can change my world. And does, and has and will . . . Anything that affects my body, that my body undergoes, also affects my writing. My writing affects my life (the vice versa) because I must do it, so I give up many other things. In my writing and in my translation, too, later on, I discover traces of my life, of my autobiography. Though I do not write autobiography."
Moure on the Globe and Mail book blog.
Publish Post

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Surface thoughts, Chelsea, Twittering: Notes Toward an Essay

New York is surface. It's art. This becomes clearer and clearer to me now that I am no longer living there. Art is what I pine for. Art gives me hope. Art dissolves my nostalgia for wild. Not for nature, or outdoors, but for a notion of some pristine form of it. New York is art. The environment is, sky excluded, entirely built. As far as the eye can see, in every direction, brick, glass, concrete, tar, metal, plastic, materials in some stage of transformation. Whatever trees are there have been planted and appear like bony wrists out of starched muslin. Whatever plants, greens, vines, have also been planted or have seeded themselves from some displaced soil trucked in from somewhere else. Those seeds, lifted on the draft from a bus, or a delivery van, a sultry Jersey breeze, take root in cracks, on the high line that runs parallel to 10th. Surfaces are fluid, and not just in the ground zero of Times Square. Money is a lubricant perhaps, but not only. Exchange. A certain jouissance is present, even in protest, and it sometimes seems even in death.
Here one could insert a meditation on the bodies of New York. Subject of a conversation with a fellow Canadian now living in New York who revealed a similar tension in her affections for the city. The way that bodies are used, are fuel. This is apparent in all cities. The nodding heads on the A train sleeping under the East River. An aunt used to tell me she couldn't look at churches, never mind enter them, because all she could see was the hungry bellies and broken backs that went into making them. For her the more ostentatious the architecture the more human suffering was it its root. All human projects have veins and skin. Some costs are more apparent than others. Some surfaces bear the scars, others bury them. Some structures ooze with hauntings, other gleam.

Today I'm thinking not of bodies, but the civic surface and how even in the ever-commercializing Chelsea, art is uncontainable. As thought is uncontainable. It affixes itself, is collaged, scratched and painted over, is marked and remarked, torn off and made again. How it integrates.
Bits of culture float into the mix. Pop culture references, advertisements.
The weather has its way. Rain. Wind. Another body rubbing up against the surface. Another image, everything from spilled soda, to vomit, to bird shit, gets in on the creation. The lines extend across sidewalks, hook up to construction pylons and meters, utility poles and light standards. Sometimes the appeal of Chelsea for me is simply these exterior surfaces, light lavishing itself on them, the city's lights responding, refracting, and of course my body and the technology strapped onto it, further extending the engagement, pooling lights, streaming. It is already clear that movement is the brush. I can stand still and frame, or I can whirl around with my camera, toss it in the air--play with the aperture, or simply be the technology, adjusting my pace, my gaze.
Sometimes the art is the best part, sometimes the light, the street, the faces looking out, or down, far outperform. Sometimes it's repulsive to hear someone say, Yes, twenty thousand is fine, and sometimes it's refreshing.
Bodies moving past, stopping or not, to look or pose inadvertently while smoking a cigarette or checking one's Blackberry.
Sometimes I walk away buzzing with new ideas. Sometimes insulted. But always with something to bump up against, always having been stirred.
I could be Twittering all of this to you. I could be, in chunks, dolling out my observations. Or, I could be experiencing it for its own sake. Or, like Stein and Woolf and the great minds of our last century, moving through it until I am full of my own stew, something larger, more connective than 140 characters. That is already what we have after all. It is the connective muscle in us all that needs flexing. Not shrinking. It is extended engagement. It is thinking our way through.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Elger Esser, Sonnabend and the Dussledorf School

Elger Esser is back at Sonnabend, one of the Hound's favorite Chelsea galleries. There weren't that many pictures in his recent show, and they were of varying intensity and not as gripping as the last show I saw, which was very moving in its grand stillness. Esser has been photographing large scale landscapes, richly detailed and luscious in their depth for some time now. Esser's photographs are of landscapes, sometimes buildings, but mostly shorelines, oceans, clouds--a very evocative, moody eye. Surprisingly there were also a few photographs from Candida Höfer and those proved to be the highlight.

These two photographers are not unalike in terms of their interest in representing vast spaces, stillnesses, the pomp of abscence, not to mention their lineage. Höfer is a photographer who has been documenting empty space for several decades, but her space is interior, Esser's exterior. They are both former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher's--two German photographers who have nurtured a whole school of photography including people such as Andreas Gursky, Andrea Robbins & Max Becher, and Jeff wall. The Becher's were famous for photographing industrial spaces (but I do recall also seeing a series of grain silos by them for example). They were interested in lines, in architecture. I say were because a quick google of them for this post tells me that that Bernd Becher passed away in 2007.

This is the group of photographers that seem to have compelled Michael Fried to write his recent, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. They are artists that use painterly compositional techniques, that engage with history more explicitly perhaps than others. There is also a sense of theatricality, but more urgently these are artists that are documenting human intrusions and interactions with landscapes and cultures.

Here is a blurb from an earlier 2007 post on Höfer:
I am haunted by "Architecture of Absence," the Candida Höfer exhibit I saw last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The large format images resonate with human potential--their emptiness speaking somehow to that potential. There is no nostalgia, no sorrow, but rather a revelation of intention, of expectation. Entrance ways, libraries, museums, theaters--all reverberating with human presence, despite the absence of human form. As if the hands that created the forms, and placed the forms, and picked up and put down the forms, were hovering there. And perhaps it is scale: the grand canvas, the sheer number of objects she is able to include. The images become a kind of cabinet of curiosity. Then there is light, the way Höfer courts it as it falls through space
While I don't think that Jeff Wall or Edward Burtynsky see themselves as explicitly political provocateurs, they, like Hofer and the Esser, the Bechers and Gursky, mirror our human landscapes, scars, and seeing, back bigger and more profoundly than other artists--and poets--seem able to do. Sweeping statement I know, but not having read Fried's book yet, I can already say that I will be agreeing with his argument--broadly. I don't think I buy the part about painting taking an aesthetic retreat, but I do buy that photography matters. It really matters now.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Erin Moure reads Myung Mi Kim

from Myung Mi Kim, And Sing We


      If we live against replication

      Our scripts stricken

      Black ants on tar: ponderous pending change

      Fabled voices, fabled voices say to us


      And this breaks through unheralded ––

      Sardines browned to a crisp over charcoal is memory smell

      elicited from nothing

      Falling in that way

      Um-pah, um-pah sensibility of the first grade teacher, feet firm

      on the pump organ’s pedals, we flap our wings, butterfly wings,

      butterfly butterfly, fly over here

      Once we leave a place is it there

      p.14, Under Flag (Kelsey St. Press, Berkeley, CA 1991)

What is it to feel at ease in a country? To immigrate but not be whole-heartedly sure about American hegemony? One poet whose work addresses the perils, confusions, joys of immigration experience without sentimentality, and with daring in language, is Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim of San Francisco. Her Dura (1998), The Bounty (1996) and Under Flag (1991) are all book-length poems of intricate musicality where forms juxtapose, build, form and de-form. But even a small glimpse shows the patterns and tensions she provokes.

In Kim, one finds muscled particles of speech, of American: harsh nouns such as (in another poem) “crab grass.” Though her work is philosophical in its searches, it’s always rooted in concrete language – not fleshed into “images” or “stories” but used as hard vocabulary. “The pump organ’s pedals.” It’s as if language is philosophical and must abscess to be concrete. The nodes of taut nouns are hurts aching inside language’s “fabled voices.” Abstraction is, in Kim, at the heartbeat of human continuity; I love this about her. “If we live against replication” is set against words of such fibrous real density, yet simple on the surface: “black ants on tar,” “sardines browned to a crisp.”

What is it to learn a new language? To learn new names for things? To see things and acts you hold precious be altered in this new language? To see your particularities vanish in it. The immigrant is a butterfly, learning new gestures for the stricken scripts — and Kim conveys in her depths and resonances, the feeling of being stricken, of voices struck off and out, but also beginning, divining and probing memory for what it still holds in the face of fierce change.

How does place make human subjects of us? Where can the “fabled voices” settle? Myung Mi Kim’s work urges us not to take the vast movement of the individual across space and culture lightly. In her work, so much “breaks through unheralded.” Into hurt, but also joy.

__

Erín Moure's most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)... her translation of Chus Pato's m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tony Oursler at Metro

Cell Phones Diagrams Cigarettes Searches and Scratch Cards
28 February - 11 April 2009

Tony Oursler, whom I first posted about back in 2006, has another show up at Metro Pictures, and again, it's a wow. He is an artist who applies voice over or soundscapes as he projects moving images onto objects. The gallery was packed, as it was the first time I saw Oursler, and filled with little sounds of delight. Coming in out of the bright sun into the dark gallery one is immediately met with the following cigarette forest:
There is an accompanying sound track of the wheezy inhalation and crackle of a chain smoker (a sound this viewer knows intimately). The photo doesn't do the room justice--the projections onto the columns blink and crackle as if one is in a smoke-filled room, the sound creeping up one's neck like a slim grey mink.

The next room has the following set of faces in descending order, opining and expressing:
There is also, in this room, a talking Lincoln on a $5 bill, and several other smaller objects. "Purple Browser" a panel of collage and acrylic paint with a small screen embedded was particularly surprising. Given the scale of this show what is even more surprising is that there are so many levels of engagement here, and so many variations of mixed media.

The next room has on the floor a series of those scratch and win lottery tickets as in the short video below. The frenetic scratching comes to feel like many small mice scratching at the wall...a sensation that replicates the desperation of those waiting in line for their lottery tickets. It's a particularly depressing image, one that Oursler nails.

But none of these images actually does the show justice--you need to go and see it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emily Carr on Mary Ruefle

My husband and I were arguing about a bench we wanted to buy and put in part of our backyard, a part which is actually a meadow of sorts, a half-acre with tall grasses and weeds and the occasional wildflower because we do not mow it but leave it scrubby and unkempt. This bench would hardly ever be used and in the summer when the grasses were high would remain partially hidden from view. We both knew we wanted the bench to be made of teak so that it would last a long time in the harsh weather and so that we would never have to paint it. Teak weathers to a soft silver that might, in November or March, disappear into the gray hills that are the backdrop of our lives. My husband wanted a four foot bench and I wanted a five foot bench. This is what we argued about.

from "The Bench" Mary Ruefle
As I enter the third decade of my life, I find myself increasingly concerned with margins, both literal and abstract: margins of the page, margins of the body, margins of experience, margins of memory, margins of canon, margins of genre, margins of expressive possibility. Which is not to say that I want to speak from the margins or that I think margins are particularly essential to the articulation of female experience. Rather, I am learning, from innovative poets like Rosmarie Waldrop, Joan Retallack, and Juliana Spahr, to think more critically about myself as a woman, to worry about how the female subject is constructed as feminist, and to wonder how the label applies to my life as well as to my work as a poet. I am trying to decide if I want to participate in the project of moving the margins inward, or if I think it is more hopeful and generative to consider difference from 'within' as well as 'from' a mainstream that is becoming increasingly harder to locate.

I am also, particularly with the recent publication of Cole Swenson and David St. John’s American Hybrid, intrigued by the idea of the hybrid: those poetries that cultivate the fertile middle ground between, around, and despite the increasingly hopeless division of carefully crafted, conventional poems that “make sense” and formally experimental, avant garde ones that don’t. As a woman struggling to define her particular vision of the social role of poet, I am most interested not, however, in Swenson’s and St. John’s theory of the hybrid, but rather in the poets whose work they see as exemplifying “the avant–garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry… while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience” (Swenson xxi).

I am, for example, particularly and pleasantly surprised to find Mary Ruefle, whose poetry inspired much of my work in my late teens and early twenties, included in the anthology. Ruefle is, for me, a pleasant childhood memory: I associate her work with a thoroughly “normal” period in my life, during which identity, experience, and memory were all stable, immutable, given, and I had no notion of what it might mean to be feminist and, likewise, no desire to engage in subversive acts of language. I was particularly drawn to Ruefle's “The Bench,” a prose poem that revolves on the axis of the lyric I/eye of an elderly—or middle-aged at least—wife who disseminates her marital strife into tidy, carefully wrapped packets of meaning, thus making the real world not merely possible but, more importantly, understandable. As a prose poem, “The Bench” is conventionally narrative, relating the story of a man and a woman who want to buy a bench to put in the part of their backyard that is a meadow of sorts. He wants a practical bench while she argues that the true function of the bench is imaginary, and thus any practical function—such as how many people might sit on it—is irrelevant. On her five-foot bench, “which was always empty, nothing had come to an end because nothing had begun, no one had sat down, though the bench was always there waiting” (31). He, in contrast, sees a four-foot bench “always with two people sitting on it, two happy or tired people… happy to have reached the end of some argument, tired from having had it” (30). After speculating as to a third, non-existent bench, she reluctantly agrees that while “the four foot bench reminded me of rough notes towards a real bench… a five foot bench was like a fragment of an even longer bench and I admitted it was at times hard to tell the difference” (31).

Though the bench symbolizes—not surprisingly—the inherent and perhaps unresolvable differences between her point of view and his, the couple, finally, reach a compromise that is, literally, utopic: they come to imagine a fourth bench, only a foot long, “a miniature bench, a bench we could build ourselves, though of course we did not.” This bench, which is the same as the third bench, meets both of their expectations and thus replaces the actual bench that they had intended to buy. As a young woman, I was grateful to this conclusion for its simplicity and accessibility, its sense of a definite and proper ending. At the time, my parents' relationship was suddenly and quickly deteriorating, and the poem offered a glimpse into a less chaotic world, a kind of mirror world onto which the real world might be transposed, its swerves re-articulated into meaningful patterns. Nearly a decade later, when, now a wife and a burgeoning feminist, I return to Ruefle it is with a sense of nostalgia, of a lost and better past. I expect to be comforted by her work. I expect a respite from the difficult, yet exhilarating ellipses, parataxis, and palimpsest I am reading in Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles. Unlike more experimental women writers I have been reading and admiring from a distance for the last five years, I do not think that Ruefle will help me to think through, over, around, and beyond my struggle to decide what kinds of public conversations I want my work to generate. I think of Ruefle’s work as a pause, a breath, a bathtub text I will read at the end of the day, after I have spent too much time thinking about too many unanswerable questions, and it is a comfort to lapse into narrative conventions: a man, a woman, a bench.

So it happens that I am surprised by Mary: surprised to see her amongst the poets collected in American Hybrid, surprised that her 2008 publication, The Most of It, is neither lyric nor narrative in the conventional sense. While some of the poems (“The Bench,” for example, is reprinted) bear the trace of the lyric I/eye whose genius is the ability to articulate the movement of the mind from uncertainty to transcendence, the majority of these prose poems resist closure, celebrate multiplicity, speak at a skewed angle from the familiar, and address language's failures to ever fully grasp all of it. “If All the World Were Paper,” for example, addresses the increasingly relevant questions: why read and why write? What makes reading and writing matter? The poem juxtaposes pretending to read and write against actually reading and writing, comparing the former to a landscape “unrolling as featureless as a plain and… you are the antelope, scared to have been born under such dismal skies,” and the latter to the feeling of birth, when “I am seized by a feeling of frightening abundance.. as if the sun had strayed too close, or one among us drifted too far...” I can only wonder if it was a drift or a swerve or a plunge that brought Ruefle from the coherent voice and formal clarity of “The Bench” to the non-linearity and open-ness of “If All the World Were Paper.” Regardless, I am, once again, grateful. It is a privilege to grow with, rather than out of, a poet I adored as a younger, more innocent woman. It is heartening, moreover, to see that the margins are not where you thought they were, that radical acts in language are in fact possible from within as well as from without.

Works Cited
Ruefle, Mary. The Most of It. Seattle: Wave Books, 2008.
Swenson, Cole and David St. John. ed. American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. New York: Norton, 2009.
__
Emily Carr is writing a book of poetry, to loot to hew & Eden, that explores happiness from ecocritical and feminist perspectives. “the story will fix you it is there outside your &,” a lyric sequence from this manuscript, will be published in Toadlily’s Quartet series this fall. Emily also has chapbooks forthcoming from Furniture Press and above/ ground press. Her critical work appears in HOW2 and Jacket.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tony Oursler at Metro

Here's a teaser...it was a bonanza weekend in Chelsea. Tony Oursler, an artist that I've noted here before but not with exceptional enthusiasm, was definitely a highlight. More over the week (or so), on Oursler and several others. Meanwhile launch. Greetings Toronto.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sure to see art and Aunt Gertrude

Do come if you are in the city. Looking forward.

Lisa Robertson & Sina Queyras
Friday, March 20, 6 pm
The City University of New York Graduate Center
Room 9204
365 Fifth Avenue (between 34th and 35th Streets)

Or in Toronto Sunday night.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Henry, Thomas, Bill

Bill, Thomas, Bill, Thomas, Henry, Matt, Bill, Michael, Michael, Michael, Zach, Zach, Paul, Henry, Thomas, Michael, Anonymous, Matt, Bill, Don...

Are women allergic to comment streams?

Erin Moure on Andrés Ajens

from Andrés Ajens, Most Intimates Mélange

      iii. zu den Stimmen

      von Estremadura

      at this rate, inti-

      midated in cochabamba?

      at this rate

      a lean day away from santa cruz

      saint ignatius & co.,

      face to face

      at this rate, igneo- (chiñihue),

      my date in concepción, more or same?

      no pasarán.

      p.12 Más íntimas mistura (Santiago de Chile: Intemperie, 1998),

      tr. E. Mouré

Translating poets is a task of absolute listening, and has taught me endlessly about mystery and paradox in poems. Poetry is able to sustain dense layers of reference, and that it never gives up its references fully is part of what lets us touch mystery, the “incommensurate.” We just have to let ourselves wonder, instead of feeling we must “get” everything. If that were the case, we’d have to reject even Shakespeare and the Bible! (Not to mention politics and our tax returns.)

This poem, from a full-length collection by Chilean poet and essayist Andrés Ajens, brings us a southern view, one that our northern-hemisphere cultural biases often can’t help us “solve.” The poem works by using multiple echoes – to other poets, events current and ancient, aboriginal cultures (“inti” is ayamara for “sun,” “cochabamba” quechua for “land of marshy lakes”) – in two colonial languages: Castilian and German.

Geographically, Chile is South America’s western spine, its Extremadura. Yet many of the poem’s places – Santa Cruz, San Ignacio, Cochabamba – are in Bolivia, as if to face Chile, one has to leave it. Concepción is in Chile; it’s not so easy to leave one’s conception! Non-geographic meanings are here too: santa cruz is “holy cross,” the crusading catholic religion; St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits who so permeated life in the Americas during early colonization. Concepción echoes the immaculate C but also one’s own.

Also crucial are echoes in words: witness “intimidated” and “mydated,” “ignatius” and “igneo.” And the original “no pasarán” is translated (A’s idea!) by “no pasarán.” The words unaltered, for the cry of Spanish republicans defending Madrid, “they will not pass,” has not passed. Ajens cites it, however, not from Spain but from the great German-language poet Paul Celan’s “Shibboleth,” the last lines of which form Ajens’ title: “to the voices/ of Extremadura.” Ajens’ poem addresses, then, the voices of his own country, his Extremadura. And “Extremadura” also echoes, in Spanish as “extreme duress.” Hard voices.

There’s another echo of exile and war in Ajens’ original Spanish: “allende santa cruz / san ignacio & cia.” “Allende” means “beyond,” but this English word-choice loses the name of Chile’s president killed in Pinochet’s 1973 coup. “A lean day away from”... keeps the sound of “allende” and still leans beyond the holy cross (whose religion has traced such bitter paths, just ask native peoples... and now it’s beatifying Pius IX, whose limitations are known!) and from St. Ignatius’ company.

At this rate, the poem asks, in this way, given the world’s odiousness, is one’s own conception just “more or less” or “more of same”? And the poem answers: No pasarán. Its resistance is clear. Even when barred, “under erasure,” the poem’s powerful password and rallying cry can’t vanish.

___
Erín Moure's most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)... her translation of Chus Pato's m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Yawn

Is anyone else getting really, really bored by all this talking around poetry?

Katherine Parrish reads Lisa Foad

    After all, it’s easy to fall. The difference between the things you want and the things you don’t want is slight. You can have anything you want. You just have to believe that what’s happening is what you want. You just have to believe that what you want is what’s happening. Or else the entire landscape lifts.

    “Between Our Legs”

    Lisa Foad

    Exile Editions 2008

I expect a story to describe an event. If a text announces itself as story or fiction or narrative, I look for an event- or least for eventishness. I look for something to have happened.

I suspect this is a fairly common expectation.

“Between Our Legs” undermines this expectation. We are about to be told what happened by someone(s) who aren’t sure what happened. Or how it happened. The essential question of who did what to whom IS this story. And in revisiting this question, as the details unfold, we are invited to consider what’s at stake in determining what happened, and just how what happened gets determined or indeed remains indeterminate.

This much we can tell- two young women, presumably young teenagers, Sophie and Glo, meet two young men, Miles and Winston, and “do it.” Twice. But what was “it” exactly? Well, sex, obviously. But just what just what happens in a sexual encounter can often be an ambiguous affair. Was it what Sophie and Glo wanted? When they were wanting what they were wanting, was that it? Did they do it to themselves? Or was it done to them?

This ambiguity is announced in the title. Would I read the title differently without knowing what I know of the author, without bracing myself for the abject when I hear Kathy Acker cited as influence on a blurb on the book cover? Between our legs should be a site of pleasure and desire, and I do read this. But I also read it with anticipation of bad things happening. Inappropriate touching. Between our legs. Under my thumb.

Between our legs- between whose legs? Between Sophie & Glo’s legs? Between Sophie and Glo and Miles and Winston’s legs?

The space between our legs also gapes like the open mouth that is the night in this volume, where everywhere desires are not met, and hunger, and ache, and thirst, and need dominate.

I brace myself, and read on.

                .

There is a section before section one.

This is the prologue? In it we are given a signal. A television signal. A sign. A test pattern. I brace myself.

Sentences are short. Diction simple. Clear.

“Between our legs, we hold the difference.”

This, I think, is important.

I read as female. I can’t not. How can I not?

“How did it happen? We’re not really sure. How did what happen? We’re not really sure. At first we waited. And then we waved. We saw them and we stopped waiting and we started waving.”

Stevie Smith’s poem crashes into my mind:

“…Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.”

Are they waving? What happened?

Was what they were waiting for inevitable? Were these the only choices - passive victim or active co-conspirator in their own drowning?

1.

“We had our hair tied back. Thick shiny twists that hung like commas. Punctuation suspended- we had it tied up in our hair. Punctuation suspended- along with disbelief.”

The girls pretend to know. Punctuation suspends belief. Now is the time when the fantasies become dangerous. Pretending to know is treacherous.

2.

They prepare for it. Apply deep purple lipstick that makes their lips look “fat and swollen, like hammered out thumbs.” The assonant low short u vowel sound darkens the tone of this eerie image: smudged, thumbs, guns, fluttered.

This clearer foreshadowing of violence is quickly followed by the girls’ first insistence “We did it- we did it. We did it ourselves.” If you are an agent, you can’t be a victim. If you are a subject, you can’t be an object.

A lawn signs say Keep Off. No human will say it in this story.

3.

The feminine gets lighter and fluffier in proportion to the dark, slick violence of the masculine. The girls dust themselves in gold glitter, while fluttering feathers float around the flash-back of Glo pinned against the bathroom door by a sleazy boyfriend of her mother’s. Gold dust everywhere.

4.

“The breeze swirled its way round our bare legs, up through our mini-dresses and around our necks. Our teeth chattered, Our nipples poked through the thing cotton.”

Oh, the vulnerable flesh of exposed thighs on a bleak Canadian night. How cold we have all been.

5.

“We tried not to want the things we wanted: to look nice; for someone to look at us nicely; for someone to worry because they cared; to not care either way. No way.

We were holding it, this longing, between our legs so no one would see. Yet someone saw.”

This grim truth- female desire must be hidden at all costs. Own it, and you’re a slut, inviting anything and everything. Deny it, and you’re a victim.

Now the boys see. And they speak. They see how the girls stomachs look like they’d “been hollowed out.” Like “they were barely there. Like something was missing: drive or care. Like they’d give up easily.”

Miles and Winston didn’t give up.

6.

And the girls, in turn, feel brought into being by the weight of the boys. And then the girls fell. Girls fall down.

They insist: “there was nothing to fight.” And the awkwardness of this repeated phrase draws attention to itself. Not “there was nothing to fight for” (they’d give up easily) or “there was no reason to fight,” (hands tied behind their backs), or “there was no one to fight (they really let us go.)

There was nothing to fight.

It is nothing that they are fighting. They bring nothing into being through the struggle. Give it substance. Am I making too much of this?


7.

    “We’re not really saying much. We’ve got not much to say. Did you do it? Yep. Did you do it? Yep. We did it. Who cares? Did it hurt? We won’t say. We won’t even ask. What’s that on your face. It looks like blood. Who cares? Let’s talk of other things. Let’s not talk at all.”

How does this story work? The same way that we tell ourselves that “the difference between what we want and what we don’t want is slight.” Through repetition and uncertainty.



How did it happen? How it what happen? The dominant narrative voices, the young women, Sophie and Glo tell us over and over again what may or may not have happened. Yet their insistence and need and repetition create uncertainty. They protest way too much. Are the interruptions from Miles and Winston more authoritative? They, themselves, are uncertain- the girls’ purple lips could be stained with lipstick, or blood. Through repetition, they also reveal their need for a particular event to have occurred. Does the story as a whole determine what happened, the balance of represented perspectives weighed?

But a story does not weigh itself. And “what happened” exists in the space somewhere between narrator, text, and reader. Between our legs, if you will. Only you can construct what happened. And, like Sophie and Glo and Miles and Winston, you will probably construct it out of your own need for some things to have happened and some other things to not have happened.

    “You just have to believe that what’s happening is what you want. You just have to believe that what you want is what’s happening. Or else the entire landscape lifts.”

_____________
Katherine Parrish learns about how we read stories from her students at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto. She researches digital poetry and poetics through her studies at OISE/U of T. She is a contributor to the Agora Review. She has a Rock Choir. She likes bugs. Her website is here.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Ah, suburbia

We've come a long way from Bill Owens' initial photo essay on suburbia. Over in British Columbia, the big, sprawling suburb of Surrey, a Hound childhood haunt (Guildford Mall parking lot above) continues to mutate and as we can see in Brian Howell's photo essay in Geist Magazine, puss and spurt. Surrey has always been problematic.

Are we buying the gurlesque?

An interesting essay by Laura Glenum on a subject that in some ways relies on the suspicious or skeptical response by those it purports to be speaking about. The Gurlesque I mean, and the gurls. Here she uses Sianne Ngai's wonderful essay "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde":
The proper name for the domain of girly kitsch might be, in critic Sianne Ngai’s terms, the domain of the Cute. While this may seem the least harmless, least provocative of aesthetic categories, Ngai thinks otherwise. In "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," Ngai suggests that violence lurks implicitly in the aesthetic of the Cute. Ngai notes, "The formal attributes associated with cuteness — smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy — call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency" (Ngai 816). And further, "In its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is often intended to excite a consumer's sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle" (Ngai 816). Cuteness is, of course, the realm of pre-pubescent girls and their small, furry companions, and if cuteness speaks to an exaggerated difference in power — “names a relationship to a socially disempowered other” — the relationship of owner to captive pet is the relationship par excellence that illustrates this phenomenon (Ngai 828).
It does make me want to read more from the poet in question.

Dodie Bellamy pushes the envelope a little further in her piece, "Girl Body". For the record, the Hound is not buying the gurlesque. At least not as something that brings us forward in any way.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Buckley, Boully, Bervin ongoing reading notes

The Laundromat Essay, Kyle Buckley

Thinking here, these very intimate lines, this “slow grind of feeling,” that is a poem. Or as Buckley says, “in the slow grind toward feelings.” There are connections in this text. Connect the dots yourself, the reader is “forced to pause” as we all are, at bank machines, at the next thought. Again, the pages turn, the poet—for this is poetry is it not?—builds “bridges out of each grammar.” This is an inhabitable book, a warm voice, a curiosity that is not shimmering with polish, but shimmering with process:
Moments of narrative are presented that have an ambiguous relationship with each other…The narrative almost hangs together but it is also in a perpetual state of correction. The architecture of the city, the digressions of the narrative as well as the narrator’s ongoing never-finished conversation culminate in one long poem tht carries the echoes of the failed poems within it. Culminate might be the wrong word, as the failures of narrative are the very productions of the poem… (56).
The poem as essay snaps at its own tale. Thinks itself forward. “I have this and much more to tell you,” our narrator says again and again. There is an urgency here that this reader responds to. This is not a book of singular poems. This is a book of stretching. Of inquiry. Of real emotional and intellectual risk: “Your glass face. Such that those small muscles around your moth and eyes shine quite specifically. It’s not so much that you said I should leave as it was this statue of a pool of shining water…” (62).
This reader is pleased with the sense of having her ear whispered into. The tumbles are not line breaks, they are lines reaching out, like some organic spreading. If poems are seasons this is spring, this is something very tender taking root. The difference, as Stein says, is spreading.

Nets, Jen Bervin

I have been working on a post concerning Jen Bervin’s Nets which is a poetics in way, of erasure, but more importantly a poetics of visibility, of making oneself visible in the great screen of literature and dialog about literature. This seems to me an essential element of a feminist poetic where women are still, at every turn, marginalized voices in public discourse—public poetics being perhaps one of the more perniciously conservative spaces in the contemporary world. This is not the case in textual representation—clearly women are publishing at a great rate. But are they being discussed? That’s quite another matter.

Making visible is not only a feminist intervention though. We had K. Silem Mohammad's interventions with Shakespeare's sonnets, and we've had Harryette Mullen's "Dim Lady," (okay, my students did not readers of LH, but I include it for you below). I do a class on sonnet interventions, but who can keep up? How many ways are there to reinvent the sonnet? To interact with Shakespeare's sonnets?

Here is Mullen's version of Sonnet 130 followed by the original.

Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's spe-
cial at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid paper is
white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys,
dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen table-
cloths in Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such pic-
nic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouth-
washes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my
main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I'm aware that
Muzak has a hipper beat. I don't know any Marilyn Monroes.
My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh,
my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any
lanky model or platinum movie idol who's hyped beyond belief.

--Harryette Mullen
from Sleeping With the Dictionary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun--
Coral is far more red than her lips' red--
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun--
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such rose see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heav'n I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.


Now I want to tell you about Jen Bervin's Nets. For a little movie about Bervin's book check out this link from Webdelsol and you can find an essay on Bervin here. What Bervin does can be compared to heightening or rubbing away rather than writing through (a la Jackson Mac Low). It's a technique that I used in Teeth Marks--chiseling away the dull bits from a conventional narrative poem of my own to allow for a fragmented version of same poem to emerge. Here Bervin takes several dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets and rubs away at them revealing her own poems. The result is exquisite. Here is one of my favourites:
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty
towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with
loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,

Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate

That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose

But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

There are several others in Jacket magazine in a review by Philip Metres. I keep stalling this post for one reason or another--the latest being an incredible issue of The Capilano Review on the poetics of erasure (see below) that includes some work from Nets...

The Capilano Review, 3.7

Not surprisingly Bervin appears in the recent TCR issue on the Poetics of Erasure with an essay by Clint Burnham. Poets include Erín Moure, Stephen Collis, Mary Ruefle, a.rawlings, Sarah Dowling, Derek beaulieu, Louis Cabri and others. Particularly fond of Collis’ offering from “365 Sonnets / Destroyed.” One such sonnet, titled, “Sonnet expressive of the creative process (into which doubt creeps) is a photograph of a sonnet written out on a piece of paper and then word by word, stapled or crossed out with a staple. The stapler at an angle on the top right of the page. These are fun, thought provoking, and beautiful (as is Collis’ The Commons, which I really need to comment on).

Rebecca Brown makes use of a novel Called The Mortal Storm which she paints out leaving the words she chooses to make her poem sequence titled “The Mortal.”

What child can be
healthy if a mother’s heart is against her man?

I have nothing against
girls—though life is hard for them, as you will find.

Taken out of context—the materiality of the text in which they were embedded, the lines don’t lose, but gain strength it seems to me. They are visual poems in the original making—the act of painting over and then engaging in collage unifies the poetic sequence, as does the poem that emerges:
Grief

bowed her head
her empty heart

mother

was dead.
Similar to Bervin's work, James Arthur's "Diatribes" make use of text by Al Franken. On a page of prose concerning "Whitewater, and the Clinton impeachement" we get:
who
lied so much
can be trusted now.

payoffs

tricks

conspiracy
lies innuendoes

did you know

?
? did you know

? did you know

duffel bags filled with coke
?
Before I could write a sentence I drafted poems by asking my siblings what a word meant and then cutting it out and adding it to my pile to be reconfigured. I don’t recall how I kept track of what the words were, but once I knew them and cut them out of the newspaper I could then shape them into whatever order or pattern I wanted. There were few books in our house, and magnetic poetry kits were yet to be invented. It was empowering to communicate through a physical, external medium, and as a pre-literate child I was longing for composition. I was already narrating my life, knowing I needed to articulate the many layers of feelings, the disconnect between what was said, and what was done; between how my mother perceived the world, and how my father did, how she described a situation and how I saw it, etc. Words were precious: saying them was not good enough. I needed to harvest them and rearrange. To that end I got caught lifting mail from a mailbox down the street. Perhaps I was looking for different pods of language? Intimate language? Direct mail language?


What is the difference between how we amass the vocabulary we will construct our texts with? What does it mean to be original? What is the difference between expanding one’s vocabulary and harvesting a word horde? This seems one of the crucial questions of contemporary poetics.

Jenny Boully, The Body: An Essay
A different kind of erasure, Boully literally erases "the poem" offering instead a process of thinking about poetry that becomes the poem in footnotes. Or, as Christian Bok suggests:
Like the Oulipian work Suburbia by Paul Fournel, a novel composed of nothing but its own apparatus and footnotes, The Body draws aesthetic attention to the peripheral topography of the page, analyzing the poetics of a neglected, miniature genre that often escapes scrutiny because its functionalism renders it too marginal or subaltern to warrant either artistic emphasis or literary analysis.
The blank space above where we expect the "poems" to be, and by poems I mean what we visually encounter when we flip through the pages of Poetry Magazine *, for example, is at first shocking, but quickly becomes very, very soothing. We give ourselves up to the footnotes; we take in information not so much as Twitters, but as bon bons. They gather sweetly. The poem coalesces, or reassembles.

In the Boston Review Stephen Burt suggests the text is an "exploded memoir" or
a book-length prose poem, with bits (not much more) of narrative and essayistic analysis poking out through its attention-getting conceit: Boully’s poem consists wholly of footnotes, about 160 of them, arranged at the bottom of pages left blank at the top. “Everything that was said was said underneath,” note 1 explains, and as we continue we discover the concealed emotions and the retrospectively-articulate thoughts of a bookish young woman’s collegiate and post-collegiate years, including her studies in film and ancient Greek, her stage experience, and her potential affair with an older man.
Gimicky? I don't think so. And in a world of poetics that seems now to have moved into a battle of single poem versus long poem, polished poem versus poem in process, thoughts tucked in versus thoughts untucked, these poets seem to be in the very thick of the conversation. Innovative yes, but not only. all three narrative voices are engaging, and even as they subvert narrative they pull the reader along, perhaps even too easily...at least that's how it feels after dipping in to Ariana Reines' The Cow. But that's up next week alongside Kimberly Johnson's new book, A Metaphorical God.
_______
*Even as the magazine transforms before our eyes.

Spring Releases

Good Lord! Look what's coming our way--and this is just a sampling of the titles that grabbed me. Will I ever get to the list I have already lined up?

Frederick Seidel, Poems 1959–2009, FSG
Nazim Hikmet, Human Landscapes From My Country, Persea 2009
Rae Armantrout, Versed, Wesleyan 2009
Anne Carson, An Oresteia, Faber and Faber 2009
Cole Swenson, American Hybrid, Norton 2009
Nancy Holmes, Open Wide a Wildnerness: Canadian Nature Poems, WLU 2009
Peter Quartermain, Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe, Cambridge University Press, 2009
Erin Moure/Chus Pato Talá Shearsman (UK) / BuschekBooks (Can)
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1, 1929-1940, edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge University Press.
Liz Bachinsky, The God of Missed Connections, Nightwood 2009
Karen Solie, Pigeon, Anansi 2009
Robert Bringhurst, Ursa Major, Gaspereau 2009
Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963,
Emily Schultz, Heaven is Small, Anansi 2009
Place & Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009
Jessica Grant, Come, Thou Tortoise, Knopf 2009 (Natalee Caple)
Carla Gunn, Amphibian, Coach House, 2009 (Steven W. Beattie)
Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Penguin 2009 (Steven W. Beattie)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval, U Pitt Press, 2009 (Evie Shockley)
Hoa Nguyen, Hecate Lochia, Hot Whiskey Press, 2009 (Evie Shockley)
Helen Oyeyemi, White is for Witching, Penguin 2009
Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man, Cape 2009

I need to start a list to offer a compelling argument for simply heading toward what's exciting in the world. And more ways to think about the current crisis economic and otherwise.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Erin Moure reads Norma Cole

from Norma Cole, Conditions Maritimes

      Here we are talking about the playful

      handling of an object

      the negotiation with an imagined acceptable

      That the poem is a toy

      with the structure of insomnia

      That garden being lit thus saved

      just to know and not have

      in local practice

      given up that control

      “in your dreams”

      That time, that spiral marrow

      (the space between shoulder blades)

      that hyphen without reason

      lashed to death by virtue=reason=virtue

      (the reason between knowledge and fact)

      I wash my feet

      before going to bed

      contrafact: one complete thought

      p. xxv, Contrafact (Potes and Poets Press, Elmwood, CT 1996)

Toronto poet Norma Cole has been active in San Francisco for twenty years, and comes to poetry with a painter’s eye and translator’s ear. In her work, meanings unfurl and gesture, resonate, play emphatic and contrapuntal gamings with language’s fluency. She uses longer forms where the music of several structures can reverberate in ways that are often conceptual, minimal, where narrative is holographic, almost. Construction frameworks are visible, and language shifts, is not always mellifluous. As well there is always a strong probing of notions of responsibility and space: our responsibilities as humans to one another in social space.

The reader must enter her work like a swimmer into water; only after the swim can you say the lake was or was not cold, was deep, was weedy or dropped off, precipitous.

Here the aim is not to “represent” a world or give us truths or beauties, but to offer contrafacts, leaps and dis-junctions, particles that reverse, coalesce, echo. To Cole, such poetic attempts as “naming a world” would ring false – what does naming do, after all, but cement some possibilities while ignoring others?

But how does the poem, then, work?

The excerpt above has a regular motion, apart from the slippery positioning of the repeated word “that.” Here, poetry itself is a toy, a playful handling, a negotiation with what we imagine is acceptable (how often we are reduced by our failure to imagine!). It keeps us awake, as insomnia does – by repetitions and jags of perspective, shifts. It lights gardens. Dream control is not given up “in local practice.” We hold time in us. And “that,” as a particle of vocabulary, how it shifts in syntactic role! If the contrafact is “one complete thought” so the poem’s fact is perhaps: several and beckoning.

The key to such work is not that old query “what does the poem mean?” (it means: language is great joy!) but how does it awaken possibility? How does it amaze or interlock or call? Ask these questions of Cole freely; her work is rich and refractory, as life is.

_______

Erín Moure's most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)... her translation of Chus Pato's m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rae Armantrout

Complex systems can arise from simple rules…
Rae Armantrout.

The world of poetry is changing, or perhaps the mainstreams are finding their edges. Thanks to folks like Michael Silverblatt.


Past posts from the Hound on Armantrout include on Cheshire Poetics, on Next Life, and Up To Speed.

Montreal Launch, Queyras, Robertson Tierney

Um, call me biased, but I think this will be fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gary Barwin on Merrill Gilfillan



A NAP BY THE KICKAPOO
by Merrill Gilfillan


What a face
on that barred owl
dead beside the road --

Rolled it over to see.
Round, jolly, cowled. Lightly
concentrically ringed.

The calm cosmonautical
with the simian fey.
Fox sparrows
sing. "We hated to be apart.

Even for five minutes."
The dreams come down --
Extra! Extra! --

from the cedared hills
across scant pasture
and April brambles

to the leaky
treehouse on the knoll
beyond the stream.

from The Seasons Merrill Gilfillan, Adventures in Poetry/Zephyr Press ($12.50)

This is one of those poems that, because of its perspective and intensity, makes the natural seem hyperreal or maybe surreal, certainly full of symbolic or near mythic significance yet permeated by a very real and present emotionality.

The owl, rolled over, is like a body. The anthropomorphism of “jolly” and “cowled” makes the owl the body of some kind of monk. I wonder about "lightly/ concentrically ringed" – the phrase comes off as clumsy. What might this point to—it's round, but then, being dead, is somehow misshapen, clumsy, even though it is fey? I do like that "simian fey" line. I think that's Tina's older brother. Her younger sister is Auto De La. The concentric and the cosmonautical. I’m put in mind of the roundness of the space helmet. The owl travelling on a celestial voyage to that place of perpetual mouse-coloured twilight where owls’ souls fly after death.

"We hated to be apart." It is a lovely moment. Is that the narrator or the birds? Birds calling to each other is like that. "We hated to be apart." We need to be together if only in this song which spans trees. A delicate, touching anthropomorphism, I think. But it works both ways. We are like fox sparrows. Our memories, our shared childhood rituals call to each other across our different lives, across time, even if treehouse leaky with forgetting, regret, and the dreamy imprecision of napping reverie. “We hate to be apart.”

"Extra, extra!" Dreams as news. I like the idea. I initially questioned the phrase. I know it is supposed to be jarring. It is different than anything else in the poem and is followed by carefully nuanced lyricism. At first it seemed a bit clichéd and banal here; however upon further consideration, I like its modulation of the overall lyricisms of the poem, its rupture of the reverie. I’m ready to hear it as the news of dreams waking the narrator, like a flock of birds diving low overhead, dream birds flying into the leaky treehouse of the mind. Dreams and memories are news that stay news, even if they’re only ‘human interest stories.’

This is, in one way, a simple poem (the narrator sees a dead bird, then has nap in treehouse – or maybe the dead bird is part of the dream) but it also has a range of other aspects inside it. The loss/nostalgia of "we hated to be apart" brings us to consider the death of the owl as paralleled by the loss, or even death, of a lover, sibling, friend, or maybe just a return to a youthful treehouse and the remembering of a past loved one which seems to come from the cedared hills, from the world itself

Owls are always a rich symbol or image, whether of wisdom, knowledge the supernatural, or death. This particular owl, being both cowled and cosmonautical, has otherworldy resonances yet has the pathos of a victim face down on the side of a road. The turned-over owl looks up with a face that is both other yet affecting, both calm and fey, cosmonautical and simian, moon allusive and animal real, which I’d say, is as beautifully subtle and nuanced definition of memory, loss, regret, and dreams as one is likely to find by the side of any road.

A few years ago, Stuart Ross and I began a short-lived listserv called “Poem Chomsky” to discuss our reading of specific poems. Sometimes, encouraged by Richard Huttel, our small group of intrepid readers sent in poems without the author’s names on them in order to explore the meaning of context and expectation. Stuart contributed the poem from Gilfillan a poet from Colorado, who I’d never heard of (Stuart included the poet’s name.) The above, cleaned up for public viewing, developed from my response.
__
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. His music and writing have been published and presented in Canada, the US, and overseas. He received a PhD in Music Composition and was the recipient of the KM Hunter Foundation Artist Award for his writing. Seeing Stars, a YA novel, was a finalist for both Canadian Library Association YA book of the year, and an Arthur Ellis Award. His poetry includes Outside the Hat and Raising Eyebrows (both Coach House) and, with derek beaulieu, frogments from the frag pool (Mercury) His fiction includes Doctor Weep and other strange teeth and Big Red Baby. The Briefcase Hand, a new poetry collection, is forthcoming from Coach House. Lives in Hamilton, Ontario and teaches music at Hillfield Strathallan College. He can be found at garybarwin.com and serifofnottingham.blogspot.com

See my conversation with Gary Barwin here and my review of Frogments here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Do you remember Rio?

Do you remember that wave of environmental awareness that swept the world in the early 1990s? I can't quite figure how we got from there to fifteen years of absolute greed that has left us, globally, in such peril. Perhaps this last quarter century really has been about grabbing what one could while there was still time. But I remember this moment. Severin Suzuki's speech is making the round on facebook.

Text can be found here.

So now what?

Happy Birthday


Apparently Barbie is 50 today. Here are a few shots from a vacation she had on Toronto Island with a few friends. The latter photo from a series titled Barbie Reaches Out in which Barbie interacts with all things bright and natural.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lemon Hound on Jon Paul Fiorentino

HYPERMART MYSTERY SHOPPER REPORT #2942
Cashier: Jonny.
Store: 157
Did employee express a warm and friendly Hypermart greeting?
No.
Did employee ask if you had a Hypermart credit card?
No.
Did employee mention the Hypermart points promotion?
No.
Did employee mention any pertinent cross promotions?
No.
Was employee helpful?
No.
Was employee polite?
No.
Did employee display signs of functional intelligence?
No.
Was employee well-groomed?
No.
Did employee have his shirt tucked in?
No.
Did employee wish you “a hyper day?”
Yes.
Additional notes:
This cashier was extremely rude and asked to have sexual intercourse with me and/or to abuse drugs. He gave me his phone number and I felt personally threatened by his insistence. He told me I would have dreams of him and that he would grow on me “like a fungus.”
Final mark:
10%
Recommendation: Immediate dismissal.
At first I wasn’t sure who the mystery shopper was, because I tended to make such offers frequently, but the “like a fungus” line was the tip-off. I save my A material for people I truly care about.

“So, Jonny? What do you have to say for yourself?” Mr. Hardman asked.

“Oh shit, Mr. Hardman. I know who this mystery shopper is! This is a setup! I can prove it!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, Mr. Hardman. I would bet my life that this mystery shopper is a young woman, around my age, and her name is Chastity.”

Hardman paused. “How did you know that?”

“Well she was my first love. And I broke her heart. Like seriously broke the fuck out of it! You know, Mr. Hardman, I’m like Captain Kirk when he beams down to some planet and starts making out with a hot alien lady and the alien lady is all ‘Why are you pressing your lips against mine?’ And Captain Kirk is all, ‘It’s a custom from Earth.’ And the alien lady says, ‘Please, custom me again.’ I’m like that. So anyways, we were dating and she got all clingy, and you know me, I like to ramble and stuff so it wasn’t a match for me. I had to cut her loose. Now she’s trying to exact revenge! Don’t let her jilted heart ruin my Hypermart career, Mr. Hardman!”

Mr. Hardman was silent. Then after a few tumbleweed moments, I was told to stay away from Hypermart for a couple of weeks. A kind of unpaid probation. I swore to myself that I would take the opportunity to hunt Chastity down and ruin her life, unless she called me and wanted to screw around or something.

I always had wanted to fit in – everywhere, with everyone, in every situation. But Hypermart changed things. I was simply too disgusted with what had happened to my strip mall and to my life. It was like I had been demoted from person to Hypermart employee. I had never done a great job in any capacity, but I worked extra hard to be the ultimate slacker when it came to my Hypermart duties. I know this resulted in a string of horrible evaluations, and conclusions about my intelligence or sanity. But I discovered something by having to listen to these constant claims that I would never succeed. It turned out that I did possess one very important quality: defiance. Whenever faced with the cruel judgments of people like Chastity Neufeld or Mr. Hardman, I would remember the following mantra: I do not want to thrive in YOUR world.

(excerpt from Stripmalling originally appeared on Joyland.)

I worry about Jonny. He is so tender. So flutterish and vulnerable to the winds of market, public opinion and climate change. He pours his all into everything he does. Then he drains it. It's a simple formula but it works for him. We on the sidelines can only watch in wonder and worry. I know he really wants this book to work so it wasn't without enthusiasm that I read it when he thrust it upon me in the halls at Concordia. I admit I had it out for him for a while. He often snarls at me. I know he means well, but it's hard not to be offended. And when we read together the first time back in 2006 he wrote in my book, Keep writing, you show promise.

Not that I would hold a grudge. But what will he do if the book fails to be everything he wants it to be? What will he do if it's a success? It was with all of this anxiety that I made a cup of tea and sat down on my sofa and cracked the spine of Jonny's book. The novel opens with a warm-hearted account of Johnny Carson, shag, a sad alcoholic grandparent, failed dreams and immigrant anxiety--in other words, it's a Winnipeg tale, and a familiar one. Not in the literary sense of familiar because we rarely see these lives depicted in fiction (At least not until they've been well-groomed into more respectable southern Ontario kinds of characters with grit and resolve), but in the, hey, I recognize that shag sort of familiarity.

It's a classic tale too. And very compelling. How does one get out of the world of the strip mall? The never ending cycle of teen pregnancy and lost youth? And where, in the many dead end towns in Canada, does one find dreams? In fact my tea was cold before I realized I was half way through the novel and I'm not proud of that fact. I have a lot of serious reading to do and this felt like I was cheating on my own standards, but the truth is I wanted more. I thought about the book affectionately after setting it down. There is a lot going on in this novel and much of it disturbingly familiar. This made me feel slightly less old than I feel these days (being around 20 somethings takes it toll), but it also reminded me of so much wasted youth, the small town and/or suburban dramas of skimming cash from the till, trying to find a bottle, and trying to maintain one's dignity in a world with so few options, and fewer still with a one-size fits all label.

But then I had a wave of panic: should I really be identifying with such a loser?

Now that's the difficult part because there are so many kinds of losers and not all of them real losers. There is the faux loser, the poser loser, the louche loser, the locusious loser--okay, I made that last word up and I'm sticking to it because it sort of fits the big-hearted and yet narcissistic character at the center of the center of all the Jonny's that make up this book, each of which has the great, great, skill of being able to laugh at himself. And that's another thing about reading this book, everything seems a little hysterical and prickly. Suddenly I recall the dried pine needles in the shag months after Christmas that lodged themselves into your back as you rolled around, laughing about nothing because you were either a/ high on sugar, or b/ high on pot or c/ high on being high. Say what you want about the wasted youth of suburbs and strip malls, but they can get inventive about getting high and finding places to have sex.

I don't know what I was expecting with this novel, but I have to say that it took me by surprise. I had to reluctantly put it down half way through, but I finished it off the next night, and with a good deal of ensuing laughter. Oh, that Jonny, I found myself saying, and not just because he's the kind of guy you want to pinch the cheeks of if you're an older, she-dog like me, but because it's a wacky and very well-meaning portrait of the loser in us all. It's not Slum-dog Millionaire, it's Made it to the Main. It's a Canadian triumph. It's not pretty, but it's a great romp. A funny, funny romp.

Lemon Hound's bite is apparently worse than her bark. Opinionated, but not without charm, she is a regular blogger for Lemon Hound, and is sometimes unleashed, and sometimes stopped short. She currently lives and works in Montreal under the ever present shadow of Jonny. She will attend his launch tonight, and she will try not to giggle at inappropriate moments.