Monday, May 30, 2005

Report to the Academy

I wish that I could explain my absence from blogging by way of an exciting narrative with multiple, shifting points-of-view, street-cred-building references and animals whose quaint way of speaking bears the heavy hand of The Censor, but alas I've spent most of the last week supine, reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembing, Deleuze's Difference and Repetition, and Wings of the Dove, or lamenting the beating that my favorites the Phoenix Suns are taking at the hands of San Antonio Spurs. Yet another reason to hate Texas: what state can have three playoff-quality basketball teams? One with lots of oil money. . . Kierkegaard says that I should both accept that they will lose tonight and hold on to the hope that they won't, marry Beckett's "I can't go on" to his "I'll go on."

There's that paradox again, the one that makes relaxation, or the absence of responsibilities, one of the most time-consuming endeavors one can pursue. As the temperature rises, more and more air percolates in between my thoughts; by mid-July I'm averaging a mere one or two perplexed, mostly empty looks a day. Until then, I'll be perusing the Library at Nothingness, a trove of writings on and by the members of the Situationist International. I haven't looked at any of this stuff since my undergraduate days in Lester Mazur's Decentralism class, and I'm thinking that it will help Toward a Pornography of the Sublime, which is at the very least getting longer. LA D->rive anyone?

Something ought to be said, and then retracted just as quickly, without as much as exposing one chink in the mosaic of armored silences which it is our custom to dutifully polish, about litotes in James, not only the rhetorical kind, at which he's certainly no hack, but the larger thematic or characterological variety, where, to take a cue from Josh, any positive emotion, thought or motive you can attribute to the characters is the result of a negated negative--the bad thing the person does not do or does not say, as Milly "was to wonder in subsequent reflection what in the world they had actually said, since they made such a success of what they didn't say. . . ." It's a dizzying and alien place to spend an hour or two, but what's amazing is how well James quickly sends me to finishing school, how quickly he teaches me to read the proper cues, or lack thereof. And his syntax is, as everyone says, a visceral thrill, as if the comma had become its own kind of word. A fun to place to visit, but I don't think I could live there--those impressionistic, beaten-gold interiors would give me a permanent case of vertigo.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

“It Looks Like War, But It’s Really Peacekeeping”

Despite or perhaps because of their reputation as fierce and skillful warriors, capable of repulsing on several occasions the Roman legions which fought them in the dark, spirit-thronged forests, the early Germanic tribes had no word for war. Was it this that gave them such courage, such bloodlust, this lack action edged out with brutal feints and parries? This quiver of related but not quite adequate poeticisms? Did the Romans so frequently lose because of their tendency to conflate war (bellum) with beauty (bello), fascinated by the aesthetics, the pageantry and dark iconography of bloodshed, which meant whether they liked it or not an ethics as well? In English, so many centuries later, we’ve resolved these problems situated at the twin headwaters of our language. We have many words for war, as many words as we have wars: on terror, on poverty, on immorality, drugs, of hearts and minds. Some of its synonyms are “biology,” “lungs” and “name.” Some of its practitioners are human beings, as if that absence, bouqueted by so much language, still in them militated toward that wall of molten limbs and skulls called law, begging to be charged against with armor-plated Leviathan bulldozers. Oh endless levy, oh my Levites. “And who in time knows whiter we may vent/ the treasure of our tongue.” As from the knitted brow of my uncle, persecution mania, and name a name for name drilled back all the way to Sanskrit, which it tears you apart to think. Bios in its divide and conquer, its primal discomfort fizzing away in the mitochondria. As if war were the name for the name we don’t have for war. It’s like trying to pronounce “heav’n” as one syllable. Lungs, the light organs; light which rips into the dark, repeating the big bang; a heaviness we leave our Privates stranded in.

Phew! I was sure the quiz would cast me as a Wordsworth!

William Blake
You are William Blake! Wow. I'm impressed. Not
only are you a self-made artist and poet, but
you've suddenly become a very trendy guy to
like. It's not that we doubt that you have all
your marbles, it's just that we're not quite
sure what you did with them to come up with
those terrifying theological visions. The
people of your time were nowhere near as
forgiving as that, and all your neighbors
thought you were a grade-A nut job. But we
love you, so rest happy.

Which Major Romantic Poet Would You Be (if You Were a Major Romantic Poet)?
brought to you by

Monday, May 23, 2005

Still basically pissed off at Christopher Bitchin' for his niggling, wrong-headed review of the Johns Hopkins' Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism , a resource (networked, thankfully) I've found enormously useful as I've stumbled around in the dark, half-deserted places of lit. crit. and philosophy. I guess my beef should really be with the NYT Book Review, a publication that never ceases to bore me half-to-death and consistently fail to review books of interest. I've wasted a good deal of money on books that got good marks there. A glutton for punishment, I be, I suppose. Getting the marxophobic, Republocrat Christopher Hitchens to review this volume is like getting me to review The Encyclopedia of Paleontology. I'm not its real audience, only listening in, and to waste half a page quarreling with the usage of assert/argue is a waste of newsprint. Perhaps I'm missing an appropriate sense of humor. Were I in a different mood, perhaps his shocked tone that objectivity is "disputed; even denied" would strike me as funny. But there's really nothing funny about a writer invoking George Orwell to ultimately call for the censorship and policing of literary criticism--more of the "why can't they be accessible?" rhetoric we hear in the po. world. This isn't to say that I don't find some theorists unnecessarily obscurantist, but to singlehandedly wave away an entire discipline, as if everything worth saying could be written in NYT language, is absolutely infuriating. He seems to miss the fact that these thinkers aren't writing for, or responding to, a general audience, any more than people working on superstring theory are using the high-school algebra I still remember. With all apologies for the analogy syndrome.

On other fronts, I'm thinking of developing and marketing Good Book Toilet Paper (TM)--"Soft on your bottom, hard on your soul." It might really sell.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Report to the Academy

Just read some of the nice things that Josh is saying about me over in his part of the Blogger servers, and felt compelled to mention what a fantastic poem he has in "Kiosk/Stylus." It's a Manhattan poem that extends and builds upon the hard-won optimism and exuberance and joie de vivre of Crane's The Bridge, saluting Whitman as he disappears into a D.U.M.B.O basement, but that never forgets where and who and how we are, lately, and tomorrow too in all likelihood. By allowing himself some sprawl and fall, Josh has given us the clearest and most compelling and thrilling articulation of the concerns that we've watched him think through in blogland over the past couple of years, his quest for some sort of non-victimizing relationship between individuals, and I think that the urban pastoral spaces of Manhattan give him, and in turn us, some stunning glimpses of what that might feel and look like, even as "cadavers by chance and choice" remind him of what a long measurement he must make. The poem has all of the gymnastic, prepositional energy of Kevin Davies but also the wonderful collision of dictional registers that Josh is such a wonderful resource for--his language is always reaching back to the Romantics, the Metaphysicals, reaching across to Celan and Rilke. It's a vital poem, and I hope it gets the intelligent, open-hearted attention it deserves. And yes, sadly, in this line up, I think I play Eliot to his Crane. Of The Waste Land, Crane says, "good, of course, but so damn dead!"

So it was , indeed, a really great meeting we had yesterday, and an interesting pairing--my Los Angeles to his New York, even as his New York looks west to a Disneyland tucked into the N.J. Meadowlands and my Los Angeles keeps telling itself night-night stories about the rest of the country.


I've been absent from blogland for a little while, first because of an end-of-the-semester grading quarantine, and then because I am putzing around with this essay I want to write about Beckett, "semantic satiation," Twombly and some other folks but that is stalled right now as I wait for books to come in. I'm reading James' Wings of the Dove, the syntax of which keeps waltzing my mind around his litotic observations about human nature, or better said anti-nature, and his vertiginously described interior spaces. More, perhaps, on all of these things a bit later. Blonde Redhead and Nick Cave, too, and my friend Brook is in town, back from Berlin and on his way west.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Report to the Academy

A lovely reading at SOON the other night, if I do say so myself. Huge thanks to Josh, Karen, Theo and especially Aaron Tieger (formerly of Fishblog and editor of Carve), who produced an incredible broadside of Karl's and my poems, the front of which features various flarfish anagrammatizations of our names--reparable spank, preplan, rearbran planks, sparkler lark, sabre barrels. But all so violent? Thankfully, Aaron was kind enough to pull "rape" and "raper." You've got to take the whole onomastic name-as-destiny thing with a grain of salt, even some lithium carbonate, but I'm always thankful that, after the pot wore off, my parents decided against naming me Cosmos.

Karl read beautifully, with a Berrymanian application of precise and accurate pressures to individual words. Tempo, volume, a circumpsection before silence, all of these came together so that you could hear each and every pun, or in some cases hear yourself not quite getting it, which is the feeling I get and enjoy getting and not getting, incidentally, when I read Matthea Harvey's zany, delicious Sad Little Breathing Machine.

The humor in Karl's poems--by turns delicate, Kaufmanesque and then body-blow hilarious--primed the audience to pick up on the less frequent and less overt humor in my poetry. A truly great night, one to enshrine in increasingly fictionalized self-presentations for sure. I think I may have learned, finally, to accept and even enjoy compliments. Insults are next. And I found four people to look at mss.!

Here's the intro that I wrote for Karl:

One of the most annoying things that you can ask me about is audience—that is, to and for whom I write. Partly because I’m not sure I believe in audience and partly because like most good American-style humans with a persecution complex, I want everyone to admire me. But when I’m doing the work, when I’m writing the poem, if there’s anyone listening in on the process, anyone in my study, it’s probably Karl Parker.

When I first came to Cornell to do an M.F.A. in poetry writing seven years ago, I was keenly aware of how very little literature I had read, having subsisted on a Spartan diet of a few dozen creased and stained books. With Karl, I found an intensive-learning-program in literature and a sensibility and a mind that I could put faith in. I read Wittgenstein. I read Joyce. I read Beckett’s Trilogy. I could trust his sensibility, because I knew that for him this wasn’t a day-job, that literature was where he lived, that it was as necessary as air. Perhaps our connection has to do with the fact our given names both have similar derivations—a Karl is a person of common or low-birth, a churl if you will, and a Jasper is a rustic simpleton or hick. Our names can both take an indefinite article. For example, Wordsworth has the following lines: “He was a carl as wide and rude /As ever hue-and-cry pursued.” Or this one from 1898—“there were a lot of ‘Jaspers’ sitting around the stove, chewing tobacco and telling lies.” So, I could trust my inner hillbilly to his inner Scotch peasant. [Insert essay on the philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers here] Neither of us, I think, felt at home in the barrenly empirical world, and we recognized in each other this shared transience

I would rather read Karl’s poetry than just about anyone else’s, One of the virtues of these poems, one of their many immediately appealing qualities, is their humility—a humility that risks humiliation, and homelessness, and which realizes that only by admitting to such can it allow for the home-making, transformative powers of poetic thought. The speaker of these poems—a Karl or, if you will, a Jasper, whose inner autobiography belongs to any of us willing to suffer its little children and animals—resembles, in his humility, the Shakespearean fool or self-parodying stand-up comic or Beckettian protagonist whose errancies and misprisions give the lie to our prefabricated illusions. Their persistence in the face of folly is wisdom, and a home in homelessness. His poems achieve this by stressing utterance over reference and performance over recollection. Like Wittgenstein’s investigations, they start with the smallest and most basic of materials, and by troubling them reveal profound problems and profounder possibilities. They “make little airholes in doubt.” To read his poems is to read a primer on how to Houdini one’s way out of the tightest of spots, “through the holes, more than happy.”

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Advertisement for Myself

For those of you in Ithaca and environs, come and see me read this Saturday with Rennaissance man, flaneur and poet of everything that might still always matter, by way of everything that hopefully won't: Karl Parker.

Presenting innovative and small-press poetry in downtown Ithaca.(usually) Second Saturday of (nearly) every month.State of the Art Gallery, 120 W. State St.

Jasper Bernes and Karl Parker
Saturday, May 7 7 pm.
Jasper Bernes was born in Southern California in 1974. He studied at Hampshire College and Cornell University and currently teaches English and creative writing at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His poems appear in such journals as Barrow Street, Canwehaveourballback?, NoTell Motel, MiPoesias and Seneca Review. A selection of his poems can be found in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his girlfriend, Anna Shapiro, and their son, Noah. In the fall, he will enter the Poet Protection Program at UC Berkeley. He also maintains a blog, Little Red’s Recovery Room (

Karl Parker teaches freshmen at Cornell and inmates at Auburn State Correctional Facility, having recently received an MFA from the New School. He was awarded the 2004 National Arts Club Literary Committee Scholarship for Poetry and nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2005). Parker’s poems have appeared in Spoon River, Fence, Seneca Review, Downtown Brooklyn, notellmotel, mipoesias, gedanken-strich, canwehaveourballback, and elevenbulls.