Friday, May 18, 2007

Susan Howe, The Midnight (3)

The Midnight, Parerga

It almost doesn't get started, like the inertia of inception, invention and inauguration is an almost lazy pleasure. We are, after all, in bed. It is midnight, more it is The Midnight, the meridian of meridians, absolute midpoint of total transition between the transparent daylight of prose and the obfuscation of nightly poetry. That each night when we go to bed we not only step into blank sheets but also into the blank sheet of the pre-poetic moment. The minute before midnight, the moment before the event of the momentary and momentous happening of the material word within the medium of the "page." We are in bed and we don't really want to get up but we have been lying there for hours now and it is simply not getting us anywhere, however Freudian it is to be held between the waking and sleeping state, susceptible to a daydreaming where our defences are down and the Id can walk amongst us with its growl and grizzle.

Like the endless delay of the writer. Lays out paper, sharpens pencils, makes coffee or tea, cuts nails, trims fringe, prunes roses, hacks down forests, answers emails and balances cheque book. Boots up laptop, agrees to updates, watched blankly as the loadbar hangs.

The pre-poem, the outwork or framing device, bracketing or parerga; parerga after Derrida is the work I am going to us here. If we do not know when the poem begins then we do not know when it ends, it may, contra Agamben, never end, which is the good news, but that may be because it is yet to happen, after Badiou and Nancy, which is bad. With the poem we are always exactly at the midnight hour, about to leave one state and enter into the next, sleepless and yet not wakeful. And if we cannot identify the limits of the poem, can we ever say that it is a poem, that we are in in? An affect only exacerbated by the rhythmic interplay in The Midnight between prose, poetry, prose, poetry, prose and poetry (and prose, both as Agamben argues must occur as soon as one exits the poem, but also because the paregon of the Illustrations index exists, is in bed with us, and it as prosaic as a chat between Habermas and Kant.)

Parerga enumerated meaninglessly:
1. The cover:
not the merely tedious reflection s of Drucker and McGann on the socio-economic presence of things such as bindings and alphabets, although that is all very well and it is not their fault if in the end these matters are tiresome, but the odd, sort of ugly, badly made collage of an image of Howe's mother or maybe Ellen Terry (feel free to write in) as Lady Macbeth, a piece of tissue interleaf and then a tranche of text.

2.The material ideological markings of the book:
here again we have Drucker and McGann's observations of how the book is already inculcated in an economic and thus ideological exchange with the copyright marks and so on. It takes 8 pages including a pointless contents page and a wonderful blank page before the work starts

are we there yet? Is it time yet. Will be count down to it. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5.... Two more pages only in this case actually only one page, indicating a habit we pick up of referring to a half page as a page. P.1 is not P.1 but part 1 of P.1, P.2 being the other part. As Saussure points out as regards the recto/verso of the page, one item doesn't not come without the other instigating a profound duality that is both intrinsic to poetry and a soporific gloom of thinking it must escape from.

4. Epigraph 1:
"Although a sign is understood to be consubstantial with the thing or being it represents, word and picture are essentially rivals", equating directly the issue of the page with Saussure's confidence on the anti-diremptory state of the sign which can know no dehiscence between signifier and signified. Lacan's great observation being that due to the bar between Sr and Sd, represented by the equation Sr/Sd, there can also never be any unity or congress between the two. And in any case in The Midnight should it not be Sd/Sr, daylight thing and midnight word? The very nature of the volta-face recto verso is that which binds the two ones together is also that which instills and impossible, inaugural and tragic separation. The day will never know of the night, waking can never partake of sleep.

5. Epigraph2:
"The counterfeit presentment of two papers...I am not asleep just leafing" as she describes the disappearance of the hymenic interleaf after 1914 the rustling of the retention of "proper stuff" in post-millennial poetics is heard as an almost spectral voice. We are at the very edge of the materiality of text: a semi-transparent, totally supplemental, now technologically meaningless, permanently external piece of stuff. What we once called words.

6. Image:
in a work as much about the break down between word and image and poetry and prose, this literary image in praise of stuff is apt to say the least. This is page 1 by the way but the poem is yet to start.

7. Collage:
Again low-tech and ugly, a really hand-made aesthetic, consciously not taking advantage of photo-shop to blend and perfect. Someone had a hand in this. Poetry, palimpsested and thus reborn, journalistic prose, truncated into poetry, small sample of a more complex texture. A perfectly inauspicious beginning.

8. Finally, the title:
"For here we are here / B E D H A N G I N G S" Why the double deixis of here, here? We are not here as such, The Midnight is a time not a place, but instead we are within the deictic, linguistic place of the place as such. Post-Saussurean Mallarme effectively, where nothing will have taken place but the placement of placed within the linguistic grid. By the way here is the title of the poem, semiotically marked, almost up in lights, as close to humour as one gets. The equivalent of shouting in the bedroom at midnight. Shouldn't be allowed. It woke me up, Guess she would rather not be awake, after midnight, alone.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

JH Prynne, The Oval Window

For a couple of years I have dared to teach Prynne to my undergraduate students and am surprised how a poet reputed by critics to be so impenetrable and elitist is handled by them with the same mixture of insouciance, confusion and excitement as Carol Anne Duffy or John Ashbery.

One thing that can be said is that each time I teach The Oval Window more comes to light, as if each reading clears another layer of grime from the glass so to speak. Yet I have never conceded to an actual conclusive reading, the allegorical/political readings of his work he encourages and some of his disciples insist on. For me Prynne is not a crossword puzzle to be solved. Treat him like a jigsaw you have thrown away the box to so you have no final picture to pursue.

Below is the seminar plan I have been working from based on my selections from the poem. Note I don't begin at the beginning and I end before the end as the poem makes more coherent sense for my students that way. I think this is a good way to get into one of the most cohesive and beautiful English poems of recent times although it is only a beginning of course.

How to Read JH Prynne’s “The Oval Window”:

“In a recursive procedure, the method / of solution is defined in terms of itself.

Stanzas on 317, 321, 322, 323
Cycles: look for different uses of the word cycle, think associatively about cycles (things that turn around, high and low, circles, linear vs cycle, capitalism vs nature)
Capitalism: underline references to money and capitalism, what is his take on capitalism, what effects does it have in the poem, how does he use terms from finance in other, perhaps poetic ways?
Disjuncture: Prynne regularly interrupts a sentence either by a line break or sudden shift of direction. Identify three examples of this and the effects it has on your reading experience?
Stanzas on 330, 331, 332,
Cohesion: Prynne regularly uses the same kind of imagery or symbols, identify an example of such imagery recurring three or more times, what effect does this have on your reading experience?

Stanza on 339: The Happy Ending: “Calm is all nature as a resting wheel”

Standing by the window I heard it,
While waiting for the turn. In hot light
And chill air it was the crossing flow
Of even life, hurt in the mouth but
Exhausted by passion and joy. Free
To leave at either side, at the fold line…
Beyond help it is joy at death itself:
a toy harder to bear, laughing all night

· The window looks out onto the sounds of nature, the turn both the cycle and pun on the tern who arrives earlier
· Heat and cold now work in harmony, bridging the flow or life, money and time
· Life here is even, well balanced
· The mouth of poetry is wounded but because it has worn itself out with joy
· Having been cooped up in the claustrophobia of the poem we can go whichever way we want
· We are at the fold line, between poem and world, interior and exterior, nature and commerce, line and stanza, window and world
· What does it mean to pursue meaning in this way?
1. This is what poetry is, singular language
2. Meaning is performed going against instrumental view of language
3. Undermines the linguistic values of dominant culture
4. While seemingly closed, actually radically open-ended, empowers reader
5. It speaks for freedom, in language away from dictates of everyday discourse
6. Reinvigorates the language

Susan Howe, The Midnight (2)

In reading and teaching Howe’s work I always commence from an appreciation of the semiotic and graphematic elements of her work and find this invariably opens up the text to further understanding. The Midnight is no exception. From the very start of the poem with a fake frontispiece blurred by a false tissue paper interleaf, a frontispiece whose reverse or tain is also visible, the text rendered in mirror image, it is apparent that the visual is of equal importance to the verbal here.

A simple technique I often use when teaching Howe, indeed much postmodern poetry, is ask my students to first look at the poem without reading it. For example in “Thorow”, perhaps her best work and one of the masterpieces of contemporary literature, the simple exercise of looking leads one from the visual icon which opens the poem, through two types of prose, into recognisable poetry, ending with the remarkable three pages of palimpsest, anti-linear poetics.

The midnight is similarly a book to look at. The interchange between prose and poetry across the sections itself sets up a rhythm, while the use of images in the prose is a notable feature with echoes of the work of Sebald, perhaps the contemporary writer most companionable to Howe.

More specifically in looking at “Bed Hangings” I indicate the role of the boxes here, which in fact are the stanzas located one per page, floating in the very centre of each page. They themselves become squares of woven materials and thus the valences of bed hangings. Here the synonymity between valence and valance is at its most heightened, revealing, I feel that the material contains the message a complex of ways, some familiar, others surprising.

Once one concedes that the poem consists of a series of poetic boxes, which themselves are valances around a square, four poster bed, (see my thoughts on 4 in poetry) themselves woven out of lines of language and then the whole patchworked together into one large fabric or texture, not only is the form much easier to conceive of and comprehend, but the relationship between cutting edge 21st century postmodern poetics and the traditional craft of weaving provides both comforting history and familiarity to the work.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Thirsty Poems, Introduction

I have now posted all of the poems from my first, unpublished collection Thirsty Poems (1995). Quite a few of these were published and have indicated where. Thanks to those editors that showed an interest.

I wrote these well over ten years ago now while living in Poland, Dublin and London. Not sure what to make of them now, they certainly seem a very long time ago and lacking a full understanding of what poetry is and can do. But full of energy and enthusiasm all the same.

There are thirty poems in the collection overall and this will be the only place they are all available in one place. If you want a word file with the whole thing in one document, email me and I will send it on to you.

From Thirsty Poems (last work)

in there

in there is the rustle, the rustle is the bait, the vortice.
on leaves, what’s left of storm, weeps on veins.
open up the vista, let billowing go bellowing.
creatures, I am obsessed with obscene, impossible, creatures.
in there is all we have left to work on
with, where my intention monkey-shined with the happening.

dalmated polkadots dance archipelagos on the parquet

in there is the rustle, the rustle is the bait, the vortice.
from the twitching bough, extrapolate my twitching heart.
where the hind’s hindquarters draw you in.
berry factories burn off the fuel that they can cobble together.
are you intrigued yet, are you, are you intrigued?
in there there is another chance to spree, to see.

emasculated transvestites prance amiably in civvies

on leaves, what’s left of storm, weeps on veins.
you heave! you retch! you tight! you ululate!
not too much to go on for the weather detective.
nice to see the system throbs as much as it misses a beat.
come by, stop by, drop in and see me, see:
in there must also accept the courtship of what’s out there.

crewing key-hands jig in full in jerseys

open up the vista, let billowing go bellowing.
the claustropheme tells us more about the internal exiles.
it’s a happiness of sheets to the wind in starch.
hoping the thorn will end, the root give way, the clearing!
I went too far to the west, too near to the east,
in there sported a plume that swished against the enclosure.

hardened helicopters jitterbugged jealous territories

creatures, I am obsessed with obscene, impossible, creatures.
how can we talk of outer space when we know not our inner space?
in the colony the distended abdomens must be groomed, kept cleaner.
the vaulting is the cavorting mixed up with an arachnid.
I am the piteous mask pressed up against the gorse bars
in here there are so many options its all left out to go stale.

left handed lepers plier into a pile and cry

in there is the rustle, what’s left of the storm, billowing, impossible creatures.
how can we talk of outer space when we know not our inner space?
it’s a happiness of sheets to the wind in starch.
nice to see the system throbs as much as it misses a beat.
from the twitching bough, hindquarters draw fuel that they can cobble together.
in there is all we have left to work on
in there is another chance to spree, to see
in there must also accept the courtship of what’s out here
in there sported a plume that swished against the enclosure
in here there are so many possibilities:

polkadot, transvestites, key-hands, helicopters, lepers.
the dance, the prance, the jig, the jitterbug, a ballet.

Four from Thirsty Poems


I am in too deep this time this thing
defeats me. in as much as it elevates no
I did not read up on conditions in all the usual sources
unheedful—of grape vines, of sooth-sayers—I
walking down the steep incline moss-grass
seeks to trip me crossing rock-beach breaching sand.
true. the plaintive in sight of the jelly fish
—water colour splash; violet, cerise, blue, blue-bottle, blue—
was plaintive enough, upending on the level strand me

these past four days—
men, in anoraks, ginger beards, tiny pups
replete with their pink erections—sounds from the wind negotiate
fat haunches of cloud hatch a brief peninsular of cliffs
like a mushroom the anorak is returning. his beard, on fire!
he staggers, he sings, he assails with his shanty
beaches his vessel on to my vessel
—the caravan shimmies, the portaloo shakes, the portacabin turns to stars—
released the scent of burning butter tweaks the air after
all, who can predict the fall of objects? contacts is what it’s about in
this game, gingerey whiskered, chance too is elective.

as darkness falls we hand-in-hand we go down we
on jelly-fish strand with out buckets and with out spades
for each we plan that watery grave but high
tide abortions abroad! alone. alone. on. on
a jelly fish free silver of strand
no-beard consoling and he come sailing back. it—

french chateau: golden artefacts

disease, pestilence, decrepitude,
lung explosion, pleurisy
nature here gets to be so extravagant and so gauche

I should never have hooked up with friedrich an
unstable character if ever I saw one those
things he said, messing with my mind like a wanker

a golden artefact ikon, of stability? the
white wooden rockin’ chair wide based, scrolling,
detail, white-abandoned on the chateau patio

decadence lead to a second transmittance.
blockading we are dying here, starving out of our
minds! easily disease is our intellectual equal.

friedrich rocked malevolently on the morning of it
fingertips arched nostrils flaring paper left unread I was
wrong I never should have doubted friedrich, a

man of genius he is and of persuasion, a real trooper
those last words he gasped, holding out, they linger on:
“disease, pestilence, moy-der!” we are letting nature take his course.

mmm. will I? will I sell the king louis chateau or keep it on me?
yes, to sell it off and take the cruise but keep the chair, a golden
time’s artefact, stability glimmering. comfort fading into evening.

our candidate!

so, are you just going to lounge there all day, upset, like massimo in his jungle palace all petrified and alone by being subordinate to the pleasure of a suitcase abandoned in the marble lobby?

or, are you not just going to lounge there all day, upset, like massimo in his bungled palace all putrefied and alone by being subordinate to the treasure in a suitcase left unattended at the station arch?

the closer you get to it the more you
want to run from it I know it’s alright it’s
that’s right let it go let it all come out but;
also, pull yourself together and stop snivelling and
step right up there, like a pencil, slap your
soepoena on the desk and ring that bell!

the more the missive is allowed to hog the stage door with its replies and requests, these fulfilments and dockets and invoices/invitations, the more we think we need you (its hideously unmanly rulings are frankly an affront to...)

the further you get from it the more you find you
love it and you get dizzy there, and sick like a
dog is sick on the petitioner’s shoes that’s right
mister, love is like that and you are right to shun my
comfort and my arm and choke back tears don’t give way to
the dogged sentiment of all of it, hey, skulk back there,
here, like a paint brush mislaid, and dousing the sound with a cloth

the carp pool franchise scandal, in full!

a man would watch a bird catch a bird
would lean and think thoughts
forgive leszek his part in the
carp pool franchise scandal,
a woman would watch a fish snag a fish
would crouch and feel feelings
forgive aszka leszek’s part in the
carp pool franchise scandal.
a frog would leap and thus be growing wings
in this world where thinking it will make it so

in a cavity in a forest one
lethal ancient beast is born
with prehensile capabilities
one thousand million years in abatement
shivering in depleted layers of bodies fat,
a man might shake a stick at it
a woman might cast a glance a stare
a frog will smile and make for itself a friend in
some world where thinking it could make it so.

aszka and leszek break for the borders of their convincing and convoluted alibis showing to be a sham poisonous carp will forever dwell in filth on their mutual conscience there is blood on their hands (actual blood, metaphorical hands) washing clean in the liminal swamp, y’know, where the eviscerated amphibians aspire and scream.

to be continued...

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Three More From Thirsty Poems

“and there arose the power of the glittering phrase”

unable to live our lives the way we wanted to we
were freed up to live our lives the way we wanted
to. no. unable to live our lives the way we wanted to we
moved on to living them, the way, we felt, we should. no. un
able to live our lives the way we wanted to for
reasons, pretty good reasons we lived in a diagonal fashion
we lived out the fiction of those lives we always wanted to
but before, because out of straight living we
were banned from living we were not able to live
our lives, the way, we wanted, wanted to want to
do so we lived those other lives, lives of the
others lovers who we also, ironically, were.

from then on:
we retire from living
why should we why shouldn’t we?
it is like one day to look at the sky and what you do see
is that your whole life’s course fulcrums on
the weather and the smell and colour and taste and touch and smell of
cut flowers, wholesome is the porridge of these mornings
twice as dull. we started over.
changed my sex and sexuality
kissed openly what previously was despised
slept around
swallowed sperm
licked vaginas
had a time.

taking up the unfinished work of before
approaching along a different, less previous, street
with desperation and respect so as to
they let us back in again with little fuss
we get shut up in their unpleasant drawing rooms
and gagged on soft stale biscuits that
our lascivious aunt and uncles forced on us
then we came home on the minor canal
that drained beside the access road
rushed down, got caught in the refusal of pools
in amongst the larvae heaving their loathsome tails
and ducks alighted to eat down some un
able to live the life we previously thought we could and
how clammy to feel the water suddenly suck on you
we plunged right in ruining our piebald golf shoes.
the pool ran over in the yard.

“do you realise that we’ll never see each other again? now I’ve written it down, do you realise what it means? do you understand, do you understand? they are hurrying me and it is as if they had come to take me to my death.”
cross and re-cross the room.
walk down the garden.
look out at night, see.
the fox, the orange glaring.
consider this city to be beautiful which it is.
buy square-toed shoes.
buy african art if you must.
buy bad tea and throw it away.
get on a train, literally.
travel on that selfsame train.
get off again.
worry about the deteriorating state of your clothes.
by all means do so
fraying, fading in the hot wash.
bleached here by cold suns.
never get a chance to own agate; to own pearls!
move on from this to see.
how the world is gotten diminished.
now that renewal is not attainable.
collect stones on the memories of your beaches.
cry over the gas canister, and
all that it means to you.
look disapprovingly on the one.
way ring road and must you.
relive the after taste of their “peasant” cuisine.

I am not sure anyway if suffering really suits the bourgeoisie
that the proof should be placed on the varnished wood
side by side by side with however lovely the sound
is and if you are after the subject just try to
dominate it then don’t, no point in finding the
right way to say it after all of this and
if you do you don’t in where the point is
clumsily put the point is put at last and left
at that...unable to live but living it anyway

at litton mill

at litton mill there
to raise issues relating to
an inheritance
lax sun on the pool
fires a jewel then is gone
rocks have it,
fronds shield it from invaders
generic birds nest it
why not me?

the weeds current occupancy
fans out like hair
combed by the algae groomed by the silt
whilst my sleazoid advocate
slimes up to daddy
petitioning, petitioning
no work for real men
mill widows have it
economic downturn
still keeps hold of this one thing
industry values it
where’s my share?

the charg├ęd air on the grass
will trespass all it can spare

a litton mill, alone
to deputise no more
re: my inheritance
in lieu of previous ignorance
daddy has it
the mill orphans die for it
the power of the wye
displays it.

I’ll settle

space travel gets easier

“solar winds and how lovely that sounds.” better still
to always cling to the effigy press faces to
the points of forgiving in the chest fabric in
hale the compulsion of mustiness and does not the
very idea of fur-lined-lungs (about your lungs) love.
the effigy for all its good good nature love. the effigy
for being elastic, and soft and beige make love.
with the effigy bray promises into its earless ear.

wax deposits

space travel gets easier the second time around soon
you must leave the effigy to burn and not even
salvage the rag in which you might wrap your
fish-gaping face gaping. and blot out the smoke of this sun to
always have with you along with all your other fetishy
bits: a favourite pen, a compass, lint backed old stamps.

farm abroad

the spacemen’s immortal words, “ooee golly, it’s unreal.”
there should not ought to be a surrogate totem a
couch brought over stitched up of a similar fabric whose
fallow legs; too much time spent crouching in
damp environs and subsequently falling love with
quiet, muted people who seize you in an embrace
effigyesque. “getta grip voyager the age’s spirit spent.”

a nylon take on silk

the sea of tranquillity, how lovely that sounds
and even the moon is made of the strain in nylons
stuffed with the rags as those which are the comet’s tail......................