Friday, December 29, 2006

Sperm Counts

Children of Men is bloody tremendous. Julianne Moore doesn't cry once, sadly, but she does positively glow with mournfulness. She has a small stud in her nose, which means she's a revolutionary. Most of the revolutionaries are either non-white or have facial piercings or dreadlocks or smoke joints and listen to The Beatles, which is useful for disinguishing them from the compliant and herdlike Britons inured to the even more herdlike refugees in cages lining the tracks where the train cars pass, themselves cages. Bare life, yes. And something is happening to the animals which isn't explained really well, horses burn stifflegged in jumbles in the otherwise familiar English countryside.

If you see this movie in the theater, I advise sitting as far back from the screen as possible. The handheld shots in the beginning of the movie palpate in seasickmaking unease (a prolepsis of the final shot, which I won't disclose); the camera rocks and rattles, and as far I can remember almost everything is out of focus except a thin band in the midground which usually includes the talented Clive Owen and the incredible structure of the bones of his face (see above). Lots of action in corners of the screen, which are always open, unprotected. But, as the content of the film becomes more horrifying in itself, the form itself ceases to do the work of suffering and making suffer.

Because of, perhaps, the incredible improbability of this film's combination of Christian messianism, new age bubbleheadedness, and your standard revolutionaries with guns (it is, yes, an X-mas film, stress on The Cross, folks), this film is a perfect negative of the world we now live in. A town on the English coast becomes the West Bank . London is Baghdad with carbombs. Guantanamo everywhere. And as is always the case in good sci-fi, the future can only be future by quoting the past--hence the revolutionary hopes circle around music from The Summer of Love, although there is, like, three-seconds of Aphex Twin somewhere; hence three-wheeled motorcycle taxis belching smoke; hence the wormhole of the holocaust threading the movie's set and costume design. The kinds of empty and fear-soaked domination, the animalizing of people, the racist imagos that drift in the air like the Pink Floyd pig featured in one particularly memorable scene, all of this has left me rattled because, well, I know that this is where I live and that I'm a part of it, that I have no way to resist it. In nearly all respects this is the movie that V for Vendetta might have been had it not gotten sucked into the pop-psychology of The Painful and Personal Past. This is featured here, too, but avoided for the most part. Neither banished nor allowed to dominate.

The central premise of the film, that humans have ceased to be able to reproduce, will, I am sure, be much and helpfully discussed in the future. For now, I would suggest that we take it allegorically-- I would suggest that this is about what is happening in the developed world with the higher and higher number of hours members of the middle-class spend interfacing with some kind of technology, the alienation from our aching and poorly-postured or gym-disciplined bodies. But it is also, isn't it, an awareness of the incredible pointlessness of capitalism after some unspecifiable point in the twentieth-century, the failure of those swarms of liquid capital to find something productive to sink their teeth into--a factory, say, or soybeans. Well, the needs of the world's poor don't really produce the kinds of profits that companies want, and, in the end, aside from enough money for healthcare and childcare, clothes, decent food and a place to live (none of this pays), I don't really need any more shit. It's just gadgetry: IPod's designed to break after two years, flat panel televisions, etc., etc. There's nothing to produce. So, investors become increasingly speculative and cannibalistic. Hype and real estate. But war pays, and war opens markets. That 15% rise in the Dow this year? It's all tanks, the Mills of China, and Viagra Falls. Onward, ho.

And so, what then? Well, in this film, this is how chances stand: a stoned old hippy (who has my name) and his copy of the I Ching , a former "activist" who is now surviving as a quiet and apolitical member of the middle class, a white woman who is leader of the revolutionaries, and a number of revolutionaries of South Asian or African or Arab descent who turn out to be bloodthirsty traitors. Oh, and I almost forgot, the great hope in the form of the radiant Afro-British pregnant woman (who the white people help to safety). As a model for social change under tyrannny, sound familiar? Also Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior. You'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Feverish Laziness


"A puppet, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king."
----R.I.P The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

What do you think, what percentage of the music you listened to in the last week would have been impossible without him? For me, at least %70, maybe more. Maybe not Charles Ives, but Clipse and The Velvet Underground, Blonde Redhead, that Diplo mash-up and all of the other stuff, yep.

Time, plenty of time, but also an absence of things to say, or perhaps only an absence of saying.

Quitting smoking (too many -ings) for the first time in, oh, since the hospital month twenty years ago [that will end the things you don't know about me broadcast]. And so "I" disobeys "me"--an em-dash separates 'em-- more than usual.

Lots of excellent reading, though. So perhaps, after a few months of hearing myself talk too frequently, the intake/outtake valves are just switched. About a hundred pages into Against the Day, and so far nothing but everything, too many names, theme webs and the torch of narration passed from character to character. Anarcho-syndicalists (distinctly far from any poetics) and the Archduke Ferdinand. Secrets about secrets about nothing. I've been thinking that what I love, or one of the things I love, about Pynchon is one of the things I love about Notley--that digging around the interred structures of the left-behind (preterite is Pynchon's word) of history and worldsystems, the lumpens and enthusiasts and ghosts come too early or too soon or both or not at all. And a willingness to keep tossing out language until something catches--the zinger somehow shifting the magnetic orientation of all of the merely ecumenical language, the cliches, the schtick. Go in fear of nothing written, they say.

Read Inger Christensen's Alphabet (recom'd/mentioned by Johannes, who has been, despite our disagreements, an excellent source of recommendations). I love the furious horizontality of it, its refusal of spurious nature/culture borderlines, and the way that the language of absolute north turns both utopian and apocalyptic. Images of natural harmony and the total absence of life whipped into a kind of emulsion. For what is more harmonious than nothing, really? The whiteness of the summer sky: a wintersummer. I remember thinking a great deal about what the particularities of summer light-- corrosive, diffuse, blindwhite--could do in Bergman's B&W films, and how far it is from any of the valences that light takes on in American films post-noir. Sort of a similar thing here.

Also another recommendation by way of Johannes:--Monica de La Torre's translation of Gerardo Deniz's poems. [It's worth mentioning that the two Lost Roads books I have--this one, and Kamau Brathwaite's Trench Town Rock--are beautifully, lusciously produced, advocates of the plain style chap be damned. And yet, still relatively cheap. How do they do it?] As for the poems--baroque, decrepit, concupiscent, one side of the mouth talking to the other side about how best to address the snorkelists in the audience. Echoes of Vallejo, too, to my ear: the latinate, scientific diction, the rhetorical podium-effects. Insistence on the body, on the base and material. Pathos of the classifier, the lepidopterist, trying to de-shambles nature in the middle of a war, Shambhala it, alakazam! When I came across this passage, with the wonderful phrase "feverish laziness," in Michel Foucault's lectures "Society Must Be Defended," I couldn't help but think of Deniz:

After all, the fact that the work I described to you looked both fragmented, repetitive, and discontinuous was quite in keeping with what might be called a "feverish laziness." It's a characteristic trait of people who love libraries, documents, references, dusty manuscripts, texts that have never been read, books which, no sooner printed, were closed and then slept on the shelves and were only taken down centuries later. All this quite suits the busy inertia of those who profes useless knowledge, a sort of sumptuary knowledge, the wealth of a parvenu--and, as you well know, its external signs are found at the foot of the page. It should appeal to all those who feel sympathetic to one of those secret societies, no doubt the oldest and the most characteristic in the West, one of those strangely indestructible secret societies that were, I think, unknown in the early Christian era, probably at the time of the first monasteries, on the fringes of invasions, fires, and forests. I am talking abou the great, tender and warm freemasonry of useless erudition. (4-5)
This is also, of course, a quote about Pynchon.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fresh Cuts

How weirdly and unsettling quiet (gasp!) the poems in Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale are. Rather than emphasizing the fissures and seams between phrases and the various places and discourses they come from, the poems throw everything into making their material, and their speaking subjects, as coherent and as unified as possible: line breaks fall on grammatical grooves, the vocabulary-field of each poem is fairly small as compared to other Flarflist productions, punctuation is normative rather than disruptive, lines per stanza (check). I imagine her (and of course this is my made-up narrative about the writing of the book) as less attracted to the shiniest or weirdest types of vernacular that comes up in her searches than to the ways that bits of everyday or ordinary language can fit together; in this, the poems tell us a great deal about the kind of work that certain discourses, and certain syntactical and rhetorical structures, do in and of themselves, apart from content, apart from who's speaking. Of course, the poems are often hilarious, and by comparison with other books of poetry, filled with all sorts of discomfiting chance meetings of skunk cabbage and "twitch products" in a Holiday Inn. But there are fewer proper nouns and super-specific idioms here than in recent examples of the genre. And this seems important, this pursuit of an impossible coherence in a set of poems about, in my reading, the way that psychiatric questions (not to mention internet search strings) impact the kind of things we can or do say before we even begin say them. There is (as I have been thinking lately) an affective intensity that comes from speed and from noise and excess. A great deal of the poetry I most value is of this sort. But then there is also an intensity that comes from a stilling, from refusing to shout. The intensity, perhaps, of Warhol's _Screen Tests_, where a blink of an eye or a muscular twitch in the cheek can have all the impact of an alarm. Dissonance by other means.

Yesterday, while I was still squinting into the strange light of the comment that "globalization is so passé" I encountered, in the comments cave of Ron's blog, an escapee from The Valve, who thought that all poems made from cut-up bits of other language have the same meaning: ie, that we here readers are very confused and sad solipsistic citationeers and pasters. There are numerous problems with this argument, not least of which is assuming that poetry is about the construction of meaning and the transmission of authorial inten-yawn!-tions. It's also true that if the anonym (well, he practices what he preaches, huh?) whose redaction of the scholarship of Walter Benn Michaels is right there's only about five things we can say to each other (one of them clearly the following evasive action taken by students who are afraid of literature: but, then, can't you just say anything about it? What did Sophocles really mean?) The answer is no: there are an infinity of numbers between 0 and 1, but 4 isn't one of them. But, more importantly, what my remarks on Degentesh's book show is how collage is not simply, not only, a negative process: "cut-up" in this sense is misleading, for if cutting only were what a Dada poem, or a Berrigan poem, were about, it would not be a poem, but the instructions: cut up this thing (in which case there is still "meaning" in the "this thing". Even "cut up everything" has meaning, as long as everything does). Poetry of this sort is also constructive, as much a "cut-up" as a "put-together." And the forms of putting-together are nearly infinite. If the sign-o-phobic want to call this "intention," that's fine by me; if they choose to think of it as the indication of a wider field of expression and experience, even better. In any case, Degentesh says it better than I can:

As a Youngster I Was Suspended from School One or More Times for Cutting Up

Everyone knows about Dallas
and its acts of terrifying gorgeousness

a chef in a tall hat piping meringue
discussing the "brain drain"

dropped a slab of concrete on his left foot
before being lured to the guitar

doesn't recall details of cutting up friend
to create fake masterpiece

when Dorrington came home unexpectedly and found
flight atendants ready to undergo radical surgery

I've been cutting up Vipers more and longer than anyone I know
the severed sea bream head washed down the river on a chopping board

The class batted it around in a bloodless little battle of the sexes
and I just started branching out to dogs and cats.

The boar is cut up and the hounds are fleshed.
So far we've concentrated on the whole hog
a popular euphemism for saying that someone doesn't like
our size and age differences

Like cutting up and depositing the body of a camel
in the drawing of a dinosaur head
and sewing it to other stuff like duck or squab
or radioactively contaminated tools and equipment

I sat on the back of our sofa listening eagerly
constantly at my dad's side fishing
going to the local coin shop with my dad
in small-bore slow-fire events

paths only modern-day Cowboys or Indians would travel

Slice off both sides close to the seed to create two halves of
The Moon, which rises while the men are cutting up the whale carcass.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mike Davis' Planet of Slums

Of all the many, many devastating statistics and descriptions in Mike Davis' "Planet of Slums" (the article from New Left Review, available here, not the book of the same name)--for instance, that "[t]he labour-power of a billion people has been expelled from the world system [into the informal economy]" or that [the Gini coefficient of .067] was mathematically equivalent to a situation where the poorest two-thirds of the world receive zero income; and the top third everything"--it's this one (which conveys, somehow, both the real desperation of urban poverty in Africa and the limits of empirical knowledge) that I couldn't stop thinking about today:

With even formal-sector urban wages in Africa so low that economists can't figure out how workers survive (the so-called 'wage puzzle'), the informal tertiary sector has become an arena of extreme Darwinian competition amongst the poor.

Obviously, he's excellent at showing how all of this is the result of IMF and World Bank policies in the 80s and 90s. But there's also an excellent comparison of the situation in Asia, Africa and Latin America now with urban poverty in the late 19th century, as well as a provocative account of Pentecostalism (which started in Los Angeles)in Latin America. Now I look forward to reading the book, which should be out in paperback soon, if it isn't already.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reading Notes

Having read a great deal of less-than-thrilling criticism on O'Hara in the last month, I wanted to put a good word in for Lytle Shaw's recent monograph, FO'H: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa, 2006), not only because I think it's valuable, but also because it speaks to some recent and not-so-recent blogification about that dread term community. In all honesty, I expected to dislike this book, expected a biography with lots of extra words, if you will.

Part of the success of the book is its definition of coterie as both a concept within the poems and a milieu where the poems are written--a mosaic of proper names (and places, and vanished or vanishing particulars) as well as the friends and contempories with which these names never quite match. Shaw is particularly good on the way that O'Hara's sidelong, spatial notions of poetic influence (and his eccentric choices of predecessors) uncouples him from the family romance of "Tradition and the Individual Talent."Needless to say, it's a useful counter to the genealogical post-its over at Dad's place. Obviously, it's difficult not to read the genealogical model as hetero- and the coterie one as homo-, but Shaw doesn't overstate this point, and he's careful to show how Auden, for instance, buys into the heritage model late in life. The following citation is nicely representative:

He recodes alliances by replacing the organic and fixed social model of the
family with a contingent and shifting association of friends. He recodes
filiation not merely by refusing to produce offspring but also by refusing to be
one. O'Hara's attempt to exit the filiative model of the Great Tradition is
coincident both with his cultivation of obscure, often campy, genealogical
precedents and with his frequently heretical readings of canonical authors. (29)

Which, of course, begs the question, which Shaw doesn't really address, of why O'Hara becomes the founder, then, of a new tradition (or anti-tradition). Why, then, the New York School (if you believe this exists, as I tend to believe)? Why does this particular writerly mode have such legs? The answer, I suppose, is that in refusing to be an heir to a particular tradition, he refuses to let you be one either--no Oedipal complex because: no parents. The house is ours. Don't listen to me.

But then, of course, there's the dark side of coterie--here exemplified by Pound's circle at St. Elizabeth's. I do wonder, though, if this doesn't understate the way in which the celebrity of the outsider tends to follow these kinds of networks whether one wants it to or not.

The best chapter in the book (and strangely, the one I'm most uncomfortable with) is his reading of O'Hara's art writing alongside "Ode to Willem de Kooning." He's quite convincing in showing how O'Hara's writerly performances of active, proximate engagement and identification with painting debunks some of Greenberg's and Michael Fried's claims about the immediacy and self-enclosure of AbEx painting, as well as preparing the way for the neo-figurative paintings of his closer friends, as well as early proto- pop art like Rauschenberg's. I'd always thought that the relationship was between O'Hara and painting was sort of overstated, but Shaw convinces me here. But what doesn't work in this chapter, despite everything that does, is what doesn't work in almost every other piece of O'Hara criticism I've seen: that is, a unwillingness to be critical. In the end, almost everyone except for Roland Barthes (ventriloquized by Bob Perelman) makes Frank into a hero. So, when Shaw starts to claim O'Hara distances himself from the macho primitivism, and the search for wildness, of AbEx painting, I'm less than fully convinced. Thank god O'Hara could read those French poets, I say. Somebody needed to. But all of that exoticizing of blackness, the valences of "Africa" in his poems? I think it's important to call that out--ambiguous and perhaps well-intentioned as it often is-- especially seeing that so many of today's poets (in the search for some kind of functional negativity) are looking to reinhabit (recolonize/decolonize?) "the wilds" with a bit more political consciousness. There are great examples of this and, well, some not so great ones. And no doubt, some regrettable but unavoidable part of modernism starts with a encounter with the racial other. All I'm saying: I never fail to cringe when I read the lines "There are several Puerto Ricans on the Avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." And so it is with a certain amount of satisfaction that I read Barthes (a.k.a. Perelman) responding to this particular moment: "Ah, Mr. American Imperial Artist, you were so happy, in your walks, in your world." It is a poetry that admits its own fallibility, no? We could give it that.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I hope to be posting here a bit more in the next month or so now that I've finished my two-years of French in six months gauntlet. Write to me in French! I need the practice.


As for the incredible volume of spam that manages to get through UC Berkeley's e-mail filters, while at the same time mining my subconscious/clickstream for consumption patterns (Viagra, Xanax, Poker, Software, Guns, etc.), it now seems likely that a disgruntled member of the Societé des Flarfeurs, banned during the first round of purges in the early months of our new dispensation, is now living in Dubai in a floating, 1:10,000 scale model of 1960s San Francisco where she is feeding the entire Sun & Moon backlist to a network of 75,000 Commodore 64s named either Paris, Texas or Parataxis. Or Bill Luoma. She estimates we'll meet maximum bandwith in five to seven days.

Fair subspecializes homely cashbook / Daisi cares happy plagiarism
Staley dictates sore grant / Davina demises moaning lamb
Katee plasters young experimenter / Fair strives stormy promptness
Gutenberg chains grotesque garrote /Walden morsels thoughtless opus

She's working on early Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. The Faerie Queen is next.


Graffiti of the Month: U.S. Out of Elevator

Last month: what you be is what you are [Wittgenstein: What makes my image of him into an image of him? Not its looking like him!]