That Obscure Object

“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly
Soulless wobble . . .”

Giraffe_portraitThese lines comes from my poem “The Various Silences Lie in Shadow.” I chose to include this poem as part of my reading in Farmington, Maine—though it is difficult to read—because of this collapsing giraffe, whom I shall call “Wobbly” (in light of my recent post). I had noticed Wobbly when reconnoitering the venue: a local bookstore filled with kids’ books, toys, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. Wobbly Giraffe is a representative of the exact object I had in mind when I wrote “Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly / Soulless wobble . . .”  To see Wobbly do just this, view his star turn here.

When I wrote these lines I believed I was creating a clear image, and that the reference to “thumbing from below” was enough to lead any reader to a memory of this common, strangely cruel, toy. But, when driving back to Orono from Farmington, Steve told me that, until he saw me use Wobbly as a prop during my reading (adding humor to a distinctly unfunny poem) he had no idea what I was getting at. The image was obscure. Which leads me to wonder, how many other “clear images” have I written with nary more than a nod to some past sense-experience with an object now totally obscure?

Without the experience of this object, how might a reader understand what it means to be “thumbed from below”? Could it be read as making reference to Hart Crane’s lines in “Chaplinesque”?

Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,

Why do we locate social acceptance and aesthetic judgment in the thumb? Thumbs up, thumbs down. To thumb one’s nose at something or someone. Why are our opposable thumbs also oppositional?

Moxley_UMF_2015-03-05_Elf
At Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers.

 

A Friend in Boston

Me and Dan in front of his new home in Arlington
Me and Dan in front of his old place in Somerville

How stunning to realize, as I begin to think about the poetic company that Dan Bouchard has afforded me, that he and I have been writing to each other for twenty years! When we began our correspondence, I was living in Providence, he in Boston. Lee Ann Brown, whom he had looked up following a tip from Lyn Hejinian, introduced us. A little while later we met for a second time at an after-poetry-reading party at Peter (Gizzi) and Liz’s (Willis). Because they lived across the street from Steve and me, it was easy to invite Dan up to our apartment and give him a bunch of Impercipients. I had put together six issues to date; Dan’s work would appear in the seventh.

The oldest letter I can find from Dan is dated May 15, 1995. “It’s been nearly a month since we spoke on the phone,” he says, “I wanted (finally) to write something to let you know I was serious in suggesting a correspondence.” This was the pre-Social Media equivalent of a “friend request.” (At the time, most of us didn’t even have email.) That first letter also mentions that “a year ago to the week” he had finished his MA at Temple and left Philadelphia. I too had finished a graduate degree the previous year, my MFA from Brown. We were in that precarious post-graduate-school phase, trying to figure out how to be poets and continue to participate in a dialogue about poetry. I had resolved to stop writing for a solid year and concentrate on reading instead. Starting a correspondence with Dan was propitious, for if his letters to me were various in material and method—typed, handwritten, on anything from fine stationery to lined notebook paper—they were consistent in their record of Dan’s passion for reading. In that first letter he wrote that, due to moving apartments, his “Tenuous (indeed, strenuous!) reading habits” had been “shattered.” Despite which fact he includes a lengthy discussion of Oppen’s work and mentions reading Silliman’s New Sentence, in addition to autobiographies of “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. These last choices attest to Dan’s interest in American labor history. This interest led him to interrogate something he’d just heard about in reference to writers like Philip Levine called “work poetry”: “I was in Philadelphia last weekend and had the chance to see many students from the Temple program. Two talked with me about what they called “work poetry . . . [t]he inflection of their voice[s] when saying “work poetry” made it sound like a genre, if not a movement, and I was hesitant to suggest that maybe it’s poetry with ‘work’ as a subject matter.” I love the clarity of this insight. It is the sort of “emperor’s new clothes” observation that Dan excels at. I can’t say how many times I’ve been agonizing over some poetry-world kerfuffle only to have Dan cut right through the nonsense.

Though I didn’t often make copies of my letters, [Read more…]

Poems of Christmas

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood (see "Mother Night")
Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood

George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:

. . . But who escapes
Death

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
By now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .

“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?

The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it [Read more…]

Author Function

Author_Name_Tag_Miami_International_BookfairBrowsing bookstalls at the Miami International Book Fair I blow the dust off a tempting copy of a Spinoza Dictionary. Too expensive. I turn to the bookseller, a wizened man with white hair jutting from the sides of his head. “You run a local shop?” “Yes.” I feel so grateful to see old books among the many stalls selling shiny new “bestseller-style” hardbacks. I exchange a few niceties with the bookseller, who is a bit standoffish until he notices the name tag hanging around my neck. “Oh, you’re an author,” he says, suddenly attentive. “Yes, I suppose I am.” As I move on to the next stall, he stops me. “Wait, just wait a minute,” he says, “I want to write down your name. Just in case.”

At the Miami International Book Fair, the “Author Function” hung awkwardly around the neck of the living poet. It swung by a cord and served as a magic key. It let her into the Author’s Lounge, where there was free coffee and vats of Cajun food, printers, posturing, none-to-subtle name tag gawking, and “who’s who” gossip. Young smiling volunteers treated anyone with an author’s name tag like royalty. After events authors were lead to outdoor tables in order to sign books for adoring fans. This part of the “author” charade deflated rather awkwardly as, following our event, the other poets and I stood ignored next to our “wares.” No one was buying, or even browsing. The well-meaning volunteer asked us to sign one book each. Just in case.

If, in Backyard Carmen, I wrote that the idea of “audience” makes me uncomfortable, the whole charade surrounding the “grandiosity of authors” just makes me embarrassed. I realize that the Miami Book Fair generously hopes to promote literary culture in part by treating authors as stars—but as Foucault articulated, the Author Function does not come about by an act of “spontaneous attribution”— such as hanging a tag with the word “author” around the neck of a poet.

Which brings up another question: is a poet an author? Authors have authority, but do poets? The Author Function is necessary in order to place works of literature within “juridical and institutional systems” (Foucault again). In other words: to know who to hold accountable or to accuse. Is this why I prefer some distance from the site of anyone reading my work? As if I—the flesh and blood person—fear I’ll be held accountable for the spectral self, the uncanny “function,” which somehow managed to write poems and then point the finger at me . . .

“What do you mean by poet?” the tribunal of the underworld asks Orpheus when he claims he’s a poet, not a writer. “Écrire sans être écrivain,” he replies. “To write without being a writer.” Or, I would add, an author.

Backyard Carmen

Not long ago, Steve and I were invited to join a taskforce charged with growing the audience for the Metropolitan Live in HD opera broadcasts at the Collins Center for the Arts, UMaine’s largest performing arts venue. We are, sadly, the youngest members of this taskforce by some years. In addition to being primarily drawn from the senior set, the typical audience for the Met Live in HD amounts to about a hundred people, which not only looks scant in an auditorium of 1,500 seats, but has the director threatening to cancel the broadcasts altogether—a worrisome prospect to those of us who regularly attend. The largest audience was 270, for a broadcast of Carmen with Elīna Garanča in 2010.

Callas_CarmenSaturday November first the Met is broadcasting Carmen again, this time with the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Steve, in hopes of interesting the students taking his course on the Lover’s Discourse, spent some time finding alluring YouTube clips from Carmen, including a wonderful Muppet’s sound-poem version of the Habenera. From his report, few students seemed moved to interrupt nursing Halloween hangovers with initiation into this alien art form. All this Carmen talk reminded of my own history with Georges Bizet’s classic, which was my first exposure to opera, enhanced by a Maria Callas recording given to me by my mother. As I wrote in The Middle Room: [Read more…]