Friday, August 24, 2007

Because I've Been Reading Lots of Ange Mlinko Poems

Announcing my trip to New York got me thinking about how much I love the neighborhood where I usually stay when I go there these days, where one of my oldest and dearest friends lives, in a swaybacked, tilting edifice that will soon, if it's not condemned, collapse, taking with it the rest of the doomed neighborhood. Barricaded on three sides, more a cul-de-sac than a neighborhood, it’s not very well known, even among friends who’ve lived in NYC for decades. Recently, he tells me, one of the many, ancient out-buildings on the property collapsed, and the tenants, knowing that they lived in some of the very last affordable apartments in all of New York City, rented a van and quietly cleared away the debris before it alerted the no-doubt senescent, probably fictitious, owners to the perilous state of suspension in which the building proper stood. The property abuts a vacant lot of dead cars and other gorgeous detritus the exact dimensions of which I've never been able to gauge, so overgrown is it with the kinds of prodigious trees that no-one bothers to remember the names for. Perhaps it's infinite, that lot.

Behind this property is a first-five-minutes-of-a-horror-movie gated mansion with many once-elegant vehicles parked on its premises, and behind that you can see the open tanks of the sewage processing plants they like to put in these neighborhoods. Anywhere anybody I know who lives in New York lives is always within olfactory range of one of these. And, behind the mansion, the barracks and officer’s housing of the Naval Yard. Or, depending on which way you look, the projects.

In the other direction, far too close actually for an encounter with the industrial sublime, there’s a Sheeleresque power plant that, on hot days, in summer, emits the kind of noises a power plant might make if it thought it were imitating a sick cat. The heat waves roiling off it are entertainment enough for drinking on porches.

But then, the neighborhood itself, the neighborhood proper, is cobblestone streets, 19th-century storefronts, and street names that bespeak a vanished world of small merchants and craftspeople and other non-existents: Gold St., for instance. It’s Whitman’s Brooklyn, and indeed, his beloved ferry is only a few blocks and one-hundred twenty years away, where it meets Crane’s Brookyn, on the other side of the two bridges.

So, it’s a dialectical image, this neighborhood. The smaller, picturesque scale of the 19th century, seemingly livable only because of the patina of time, meeting smack against the inhuman, definitively unlivable dimensions of the 20th. Rendering both parties, once tragedies, farcical. And between them both, home. Except that, everywhere, in every direction on the horizon these days, the new farces: the gentrification-lesions, the sleek speculative highrises of 21st-century Brooklyn come to end this little détente of the dialectic. If the timing’s right, the sound of the trucks on the BQE bouncing off their shiny, echoic and life-resistant surfaces makes it sound as if they were whispering to each other more gossip about Frank Gehry.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Book Release/Reading

It seems like it might be now neither too early nor too late to announce that I'm having a book release/reading for Starsdown in Brooklyn, at the Pierogi Gallery, on Sept. 10th (come at 6:30, reading at 7:30). With Jeffrey Jullich.

Since any city is better than no city when writing about a city and living in the country, it just so happens that I wrote much of the book in Williamsburg and across the river and north in Greenpoint. I'm happy, then, to share it there.

So: come. It'll will get you prepared for the next morning when you will wake up and realize that it was six years ago that neoliberalism and neoconservatism found the perfect opportunity to work out their differences, make a pact on the floor of the Oval Office, marry their contradictions and play goodcop/ badcop unto our interminable ruination.

Pierogi Gallery: 2000 Gallery, 177 North 9th Street in Williamsburg (Bedford stop on L train).

I'll be in town from the 6th until the 11th. I'm excited to catch the Richard Serra show at the insanely overpriced Mausoleum of Modern Art. I'll probably be at the book party for American Poets in the 21st Century on the 8th at the BPC and J-Clo's reading in Bryant Park on the 11th.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Anne has very insightful things to say about Starsdown (and Mike Scharf's terrific For Kid Rock Total Freedom) over at Odalisqued. It may not be a review, but it is un rêve, vu . . .

It is true that the book is partly about money, a phenomenon which, despite all of my distasteful reading of texts that talk about capitalism as if something else were possible, I still do not understand even a little bit. I realized (again) how little I understood money when Noah asked me, on the way back from his swim class, where the quarter I had given him (because he's into bald eagles, not as payment for goods or services received) came from. "That, as it turns out, is a very long story. "

Tonight, before bedtime, instead of the stories I make up while lying on my back next to his crib (about owls and allosauruses and deinonychuses and little boys named Noah), we're going to start with Capital Vol. I.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I keep forgetting things. Along with Kasey's post, one of the things that got me going on this line of thought was the following quote from Jameson's afterword to the terrific Verso book Aesthetics and Politics (1977), a collection which has the salutary effect of leading one to recognize how many current arguments merely recapitulate those between Ernst Bloch/George Lukacs or Adorno/Benjamin in the context of early 20th-century modernism and the avant-garde:

For when modernism and its accompanying techniques of 'estrangement' have become the dominant style whereby the consumer is reconciled with capitalism, the habit of fragmentation itself needs to be 'estranged' and corrected by a more totalizing way viewing phenomena. In the unexpected denouement, it may be Lukacs--wrong as he was in the 1930s--who has some provisional last word for us today. Yet this particular Lukacs, if he be imaginable, would be one for whom the concept of realism has been rewritten in terms of the categories of History and Class Consciousness, in particular those of reification and totality. Unlike the more familiar concept of alienation, a process that pertains to activity and in particular to work (dissociating the worker from his labour, his product, his fellow workers and ultimately from very 'species being' itslef) reification is a a process that affects our cognitive relationship with the social totality. It is a disease of that mapping function whereby the individual subject projects and models his or her insertion into the collectivity." (212)

Many will, I'm sure, recognize how this early formulation presages his later work on postmodernism, not to mention his contentious reading of the status of the fragment in Bob Perelman, a reading which someone once dubbed (who was it?) "the primal scene of language poetry."


The link to the SPD page below was broken. It works now. And for some reason, my e-mail was not displaying in my blogger profile. But that's fixed now too, I think.


Also, how awesome is Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures? Along with Harryette Mullen and the obvious ones like Shakespeare or Joyce, one of the best all-time punsmiths. (Sadly, I see that ECLIPSE has removed its pdf edition in advance of a reprint from Barque Press. I suspect that the availability of the former would diminish sales of the latter not at all, if it did not, in fact, increase them. What do others think?)

"Pass me a little of that petit pain."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Estrangement and Comfort

I'm a bit late on the uptake, but I wanted to note how useful I found this post, of Kasey's, about the constitutive tension between, on the hand, the negative, estranging (ostranenie or verfrumdungseffekt) aspects of contemporary poetry and, on the other, its will to presence or immediacy (projective or breath-based poetics, for instance). I do think that, in post-45 American poetry and poetics there is an unexamined conflict between a poetry of immanence and a poetry of artifice. Unexamined because, due to other similarities and values, writers who work one end or the other of this spectrum tend to get run together in the great hagiographical encyclopediae of our day. It's worth saying that an attention to these differences might--like Hejinian's sense of "experiment" as a relation to the real--allow for diagonals and diagnostics that cut across the quietude/new American binary.

But more importantly, the post makes me realize that I might not have expressed as well as I wanted to one of my points vis-a-vis Juliana Spahr's The Transformation. That is, I think that there's a kind of habituation curve to negativity in poetry, a process whereby the initially estranging or alienating technical effect--the fragment, for instance--becomes either strangely comforting or, alternately, gets so subsumed by mass culture, as to become somewhat toothless. The Dadason Avenue problem, we might call it. In such a moment, without an attempt at reinvention or an acknowledgment of the changed conditions, the mechanical continuance of such techniques becomes either amnesiac or cynical.

My sense is that Spahr understands her post-New American audience well enough, and is at least partly directed to that audience enough, that she realizes that a poetics of simplicity, referentiality, honesty, that at the same time continues to employ some of the stylistic markers of "fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax," will, in its own way, really fuck with people. She creates an especial estrangement for readers who have become habitutated to estrangement, readers for whom there has been a kind of ostranenie saturation. For example, in the aftermath of 9-11, while the characters in the book are in New York, Spahr notes this curious reversal with a tone of optimism: "And they began at this time to think of the poetry that used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on not as a radical avant-garde break but as the warm hand of someone they loved stroking their head, helping them to relax the muscles in their head and inviting them to just close their eyes and relax for a a second with words of someone else. This feeling somewhat answered that constant question about the use of the avant-garde in a time like this" (188).

At first glance, I find this formulation completely inadequate, a sentimentalized notion that sells poetry short. And, of course, this is precisely what I'm supposed to feel. Indeed, by feeling that way, by attending to the balance of both estrangement and comfort within the book, I have fallen right into the trap-of-sorts that the book has laid for me. I do not think it is incorrect to assert that this is an extraordinarily strategic book, one that understands its readership well, and one that seeks to work with and against it. And it's precisely Spahr's acknowledgment of the conditions (embarrassing to many, I think) of her readership that allows her to do what she does. Has any poet ever so cannily worked the dialectic of comfort and estrangement? Maybe Stein's deterritorialization of the spaces of comfort and domesticity in Tender Buttons.

I use the word "canny" as my own strategic move, for I think that Spahr's work is quite close to Freud's essay on the uncanny. Both writers have a remarkable sense of the dialectic whereby the familiar (heimlich) is repressed and returns as something uncanny (unheimlich), but uncanny precisely because it retains elements of the familiar. You can see this dialectic at work in the changing political conditions of the move from Hawaii to New York that I mentioned in the earlier post. It's worth saying that this is the kind of effect that those whose accounts of poetry are entirely technical or impressionistic (which is, to say, 4/5 of all poetry reviews) will never take the measure of.

While I do hesitate to open a can of assvagina in a studiedly neutral post, this may be the key to the work that elements of the "cute" do in some Flarf, where, amidst all of the estranging verbiage and allusional range, the cute serves the same purpose as the familiar/comforting does above. For a brilliant reading of this exact issue, check out Sianne Ngai's essay "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." (If you have no JSTOR access and want to read it, e-mail for a pdf). I love to steal from the institutions of High Theory! Death of the author, put your money where your mouth is!

Monday, August 06, 2007

I am an author

now available for purchase through SPD. Alternately, you can save a few dollars and buy the book from me directly (e-mail is above). Review copies are also available.

Jasper Bernes’s magnificent and multi-layed first book, Starsdown, emerges to take the measure of the last American city as its physical space collapses into specters and marks, where “the sky is a swimming pool,” and the signs and stars keep switching places. Beneath Los Angeles’ glittering, flat surface, the blurring of utopia and ruin: this book animates the profusion of irreconcilable vernaculars and histories that the city’s “pastel-washed meta-burglaries” have contrived to make disappear. In Bernes’s vision, hardboiled and crackling through the post-Pynchonian circuitry, the bars are named The Regrettable Incident and the cry is for “Socialism or Barbie.” Here Walt Whitman and Walt Disney, Adorno and Ice-T, gumshoe noir and Divine Comedy meet in the parking lots and derelict spaces that Nathanael West once described as “a Sargasso of the imagination.” An archaelogy of futures past and futures to come, Starsdown improvises a poetry which stands finally as actual invention and possibility: “a field the discovery of which / might mean a / Northwest Passage cut right through every home, car, tower / fear monumentalizes.”