Sunday, March 22, 2009

LATTA: CLARK | KEROUAC | ALLUVIAL DEPOSITS

To come across a blog that's not merely information, caster oil or any other pharmaceutical we desperately need but don't necessarily want. To encounter something else. What is a pleasure to read — that jumps and bumps with the same force rhythm speed differentiation and wildly shifting registers that first drew me as a young man to Melville, Crane, Hopkins, WCW, Pound, Olson, Loy, Howe &c — the big guns that made reading a pleasure and not a duty. Like throwing a record on the turntable or pulling a book from the shelf when one doesn't want to work. When one has had enough of work. This is Latta's Isola di Rifiuti. A blessing that strategically understates itself.

Latta mentions "alluvials" in a March 12 posting — a concept Kerouac appeals to when describing the work of Lester Young. Clark Coolidge later devotes some attention to this notion of the alluvial in Now It's Jazz. Like Pound's notion of the Luminous Detail or what Benjamin refers to as the memory that flashes up in a moment of danger, an alluvial is a deposit, a thing distilled, left behind, evidence or trace of prior movement. According to the OED alluvium are deposits of transported matter left by water flowing over land. Disparate and displaced elements of an interminably moving moment bent on echoing itself over and over — a moment that insists on announcing its already having happened but never as it happened.

The very idea of the "alluvial" — as it comes to us through Kerouac via Coolidge and now Latta — is itself alluvial: concept deposited and lodged, embedded and reproduced in dislocated discussions removed countless times from any discernible trace of a source. To drag a rake over a field of cultural production and measure the historically determinate confusion it yields.

Thoreau meditating on a railroad embankment (included in McCaffery and Rasula's Imagining Language):
When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.
That language, memory, the cobbled histories and perniciously convoluted forms of consciousness potentially operate as such. Alluvium as concept has perhaps the potential to be developed further and drawn into discussions of history, memory, consciousness and the unconscious. What comes to us through contingent arteries. Fractals. Broken bits. All things incompleat. Etc.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

AMIRI BARAKA | ED DORN & THE WESTERN WORLD

Amiri Baraka's essay Ed Dorn & the Western World arrived yesterday — the chapbook an exquisitely designed title brought out jointly by Effing Press and Skanky Possum. Edited and introduced by Dale Smith, the essay is a welcome intervention that points toward the ongoing importance of Dorn, Olson and Black Mountain to Baraka's poetics and articulates well with the work Claudia Pisano's been doing for the past couple of years with the Jones-Dorn correspondence. The essay was first delivered as the keynote address at the University of Colorado's Ed Dorn Symposium in 2008. But unlike a formal keynote talk the essay moves like a memoir fueled by Baraka's desire to mark the signal moments of his decades long and at times tense relationship with Dorn.

As Dale writes in his introduction:
Baraka has provided here a rare living document that presents dynamic motivations for ideas and actions that defined the period for him. The vision he offers is of strife, argument, and struggle to attain self-definition against the ideological positions that contested individual freedom of perception and speech. In an era where the heart and mind of the individual are under assault by every element of our so-called culture it is instructive to attend to Baraka's comments carefully.
The period Dale refers to extends from the late fifties, when Baraka and Dorn first began corresponding, through the nineties when their correspondence came to a gradual close. But the thrust of the essay concerns itself with encountering and responding to the west or westness, Baraka reflecting back on the way emerging crises specific to their moment but symptomatic of a more deeply seated longue durée forced him and Dorn to radically rethink their poetics and break from dominant cultural tendencies. As Baraka locates his own transition in the jump from Greenwich Village uptown, Baraka sees the transitional moment for Dorn embodied in his departure for the UK:
So that it was not just Jones journeying through the land of Blackness to become Baraka up through Harlem... there had been deep change in Dorn, but one that had been always sharp in observation, perception is poetry he said, brilliant in rationalization, and the use he made of it in poetry and in practice. The journey away from the states was to me, his own way of signaling the breakup of our camp.
Dorn bounces to England in 1964 to teach at the University of Essex as a Fulbright scholar — a moment that gives rise to much of Geography (1965) and all of The North Atlantic Turbine (1967), both first published by Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press. The years in England also see Dorn developing early drafts of what would later become Slinger. So what Baraka identifies as a break for both he and Dorn in the mid-sixties can be sensed to some extent through Dorn's early publication history, his first two titles coming out through Baraka's Totem Press (in association with Ted Wilentz's Corinth) in New York and the following titles published between 1964 and 1967 brought out by Montgomery in London. This break can also be located in the shifting form of the poems contained in Dorn's early collections, the shorter lyrical interludes of the first two books (The Newly Fallen and Hands Up!) giving way to much longer and at times far more ascerbic meditations. Where the lyrical character of the earlier work registers in large part as eulogy or playful celebrations, the work brought out in London through the mid sixties snaps and bites with a cantankerousness and cynicism commensurate with Baraka's increasingly militant position following the assassination of Malcolm X.

But it's in thinking through how he and Dorn each approached an idea of the west that allows Baraka to point toward a deeper continuity in their individual poetics and their enduring friendship:
The moving out to investigate the real West the Westness of us, that is the real openness, freshness, innovation of America the promise is to finally see that this promise has been the threatened future of this world.
Or as he says of Dorn's west:
...the West for Dorn was not just the western part of the United States but that is how he got to the bigness of the whole West. That Western World that Europe claims and has never been.
Or as Dorn says himself in "Song: Europa" (Geography):
The brutality of your frankness
has come to me
inches at a time,
and so slowly the pain marches
through the veins of my soul
with the heavy step of a migrating herd
tramping out the vintage
Just as Baraka's early work as Leroi Jones tends to enjoy more critical attention than the poetry produced after the transformation into Baraka, Dorn's Slinger tends to be read in isolation from those poems produced before and after, dislocated from the broader field it emerges out of — a field of work Baraka suggests coheres to some extent through Dorn's lifelong investigation of the west as both an interminably broken promise and a space of possibility.

Friday, March 13, 2009

MICHAEL CROSS | IN FELT TREELING | WORKING NOTES

In a recent review of George Albon's Momentary Songs Michael Cross writes, "When I’m really listening to Oppen [not Albon], I find it difficult to read anything without demanding that each word, each lone phrase... call into question the ground it has just established." The same set of demands Cross places on each word, begging each to self-reflexively investigate the conditions — the consequences — of its own call to being no matter the poet, are demands we can responsibly place on his own work. At even a quick glance, In Felt Treeling announces itself as a careful project that unfolds with a keen awareness of the material force of language and the need to develop a language that might adequately respond to the present cultural moment.

On the level of form, the work is a libretto — a form that immediately calls attention to the intersection of text and sound, poetry and music. Libretto. Libro. A relation to the book — a text-based semantic construction that, in Cross' appeal to the form, rigorously thinks its complicated relation to sound through sound. Presenting In Felt Treeling as a Libretto reminds us also that the composition of such work typically resides not with a composer but with a poet, one working in collaboration with a composer or with a prearranged composition. And it is precisely the character of this working with embedded in the libretto form that calls our attention to certain signal words and phrases that recur throughout the work, particularly the words "yield" and "cede":

a smith / wrought burlesque
handsome and to yield / and yield alike
forthright / cede
thy static / chatter there
a useless slag / of villainy

Vengeance. Process of inquiry. Accountability. This is the figure of Eumenides speaking. In Felt Treeling: a libretto — text containing both stage direction and dialogue. Here there are three characters: Eumenides, Lavinia and Forest. Eumenides = Furies. Lavinia of the Aeneid, Titus Andronicus — of another source or perhaps a conflation of these instantiations of the figure. A language of the pastoral ("petals to the ground," "beneath the sycamore / drew crystal to the wood," etc) courses through the work suggesting Shakespeare's Lavinia — and it is this Lavinia, raped and silenced in order to preserve an order of force operating both through and beyond legitimate forms of power, that allows us to think the multiple forms of "yielding" and "ceding" the poem grapples with.

The question the poem relentlessly thinks over and over again is one of gender and its relation to force. But there's the role of language in figuring gender: "useless slag," "wrought burlesque," "debutante," "pasties." On the terrain of gender class difference lends itself to shoring up a zero sum game. But what is it to "yield" and what is it to "cede"? To yield to power is perhaps not to give up power but to accept its terms, allowing it to legislate and effectively determine relations (viz Lavinia's attackers — and later her father — ape the contours of power, yielding to it but not ceding it). And what is it for Lavinia to yield and what does she have to cede beyond the character of a living always already subordinate to the force of those that unknowingly yield to the demands of power? What would it mean for those that yield to power to cede force? Even Eumenides — the Furies — operates by way of an ethics of vengeance registered in an economy of force.

Force. The Forest. A character without dialogue. And a forest is not a ground. An undisclosed narrator discloses the character of this Forest to us. And the character of this persona too is imbricated in a discourse of force and is perhaps force itself or the spaces of relation through which force moves. The narrator tells us:

(desiccate too tied yield
a tint in berths
the upper wealth enlaced
a sanction
vines the more still
virus in the grass

For this Forest, the space within which Eumenides and Lavinia move, the question of yielding is also central. Desiccate. To be desiccate. Lacking in spirit. This too tied yield — possibly an ability to yield, to defer, to renounce the demands of force. Forest itself, the space through which we move, is itself complicit. A form of contagion resides in the grass (recall Burroughs' remark: language operates like a virus).

Like Zukofsky's 80 Flowers or Hopkins' "Harry Ploughman" the poem involves a relentless play of torsion and tension at the level of sound. The insistence on non-normative syntactic formations calls one's attention to sound first — to signal words and phrases and their ability to generate latent but unremarked meanings through a commitment to turning, twisting, reconfiguring. Through the poem familiar words unfold again and again into strange formations and specific narrative contexts such that we've no choice but to reconsider these familiar words and attend to them more carefully, considering the consequences and potentialities embedded in their material force.

As ever, I may be grossly misreading the work. But the book is unsettling. The questions it pursues. The work is difficult — the narrative architecture of the work disclosing just enough to make demands on the reader that work which completely jettison's narrative structure typically does not.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

OBAMA ON ORGANIZING

After reading a Huffington Post article my wife directed me to, I find myself deeply shocked, a little puzzled but nonetheless euphoric. When is the last time an American president openly — publicly and in unambiguous language — defended the right of workers to organize? Yet shortly after taking office Obama publicly insisted:
We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.
This must be some sort of cruel joke, a let-them-eat-cake remark, a statement launched into the world for ironic effect. But the joke — one unbelievably hard to swallow after the last thirty years of unrelenting antiunion rhetoric — is that this isn't a joke. While I remain deeply skeptical of the Obama administration's strong ties to Chicago School economics and corporate interests (i.e. Obama's National Security Adviser James Jones, like Condoleeza Rice, also has deep connections to Chevron) it's difficult not to be pleasantly stunned and — after the shock — deeply grateful to hear such a statement. Although the conversation around labor and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is grounded in the homogenizing rhetoric of an American middle class, any insistence by an American president that workers have a right to organize after the destructive outcome of the 1981 Airtraffic Controllers strike is momentous.

The call for a strong labor movement from federal government, a force otherwise openly antagonistic to labor — in conjunction with memory of the corruption of the past eight years and the collapse of the economy — may if nothing else signal the emergence of new forms of consciousness in the US that can create the conditions for an order of change that refuses the destructive myth of a middle class and the principles of a market system rooted in the absurd logic of endless accumulation. Wow. A red letter moment.
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ADDENDUM: Spoke too quickly — foolishly seduced by the unacknowledged possibilities embedded in Obama's call for a strong labor movement. Earlier today Obama endorsed merging teachers' pay with a merit system measured by student performance — a system that would place the burden for success on teachers, effectively holding individuals rather than systemic crises accountable for the succes of students. The call for a merit-based system suggests that the conditions of poverty are in no way connected to the cognitive performance and academic success of students. A by-the-bootstraps Chicago School approach to education.

Obama also expressed a desire to further support and ease restrictions on charter schools — and here it's important to recall the centrality of the charter school system (the privatization of public education) to Milton Friedman's vision of education in a successful market-based economy. Here too Obama's loyalty to the fundamental principles of Chicago School economics pierces through the strategically deployed messianic rhetoric of hope, struggle and patience. Disappointing but not surprising.