The "Corpse Language" of Geechie Wiley, Ezra Pound and HP Lovecraft (or The Necro-Media of the Image)

by on Aug.12, 2011

I’m going to return to some familiar themes, go back to my previous couple of posts about the death of poetry, plague stages and Art’s saturation. And I’d also like to again talk about the common trope of “accessibility” and “difficulty” in contemporary poetry and how the “gothic plague stages” (of Herzog, Aase Berg, PJ Harvey and others) totally don’t fit into this model.

In a comment to my last post, James made the good observation that it makes perfect sense for PJ Harvey to have invoked old-time American music in her vampirical, gothic phase of art’s saturation and masks (“Down By The Water”) because a lot of this old-time music is very gothic and perhaps even vampire-like.

Both James and I love this song by Geechie Wiley, “Last Kind Words”:



Like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (the unofficial poem of Montevidayo), it’s a poem about an epitaph, and it’s a song about degradation. Unlike Shelley’s poem, Wiley starts out with an epitapth: This song is going to relate her man’s “last kind words.” To begin with, these words are “If I die in the German War, I want you to send my body to my mother-in-law.” Why? Because she would give him a proper burial? Or as one last cruel criticism? To blame her for his death?

However, this is not the only “last words.” Wiley immediately moves on to another version of the first epitaph: “If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul, just leave me out and let the buzzards eat me whole.” This seems a very different demand than the first one! It’s also such an amazing sentence it totally obliterates.

Things don’t get any clearer as the song moves along. In fact they get more peculiar: “If you see me coming, look across the rich man’s field: if I don’t bring you flowers, I bring you…” He’s not alive? Or a vampire? Or he didn’t die at all? Why then is he walking so eerily across the rich man’s field?

More importantly, if he’s not bringing you flowers, what is he bringing? The lyrics are not clear, and the Internet seems full of possible solutions, even the possibility that Wiley intentionally “flubbed” the word, obscured it.

This obscure, mysterious song continues with a walk to the depot, and then the mother dying. It ends with this amazing verse:

The Mississippi River, you know it’s deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my baby from the other side
What you do to me baby, it never gets out of me
I’ll see you, if I have to cross the deep blue sea

Again, these might not be the “correct” lyrics. The song is pervaded by an obscuring effect, in part due to the degrading of the medium (old record), in part due to her singing style, and in part due to the fact that the lyrics are indeed very cryptic. It’s all very cryptic, and I don’t want to say that any one of these are more important than the other: they are all part of the obscuration effect.

We can say the poem is “cryptic” in both senses of the word. It creates a crypt of a kind (like Shelley) and it’s cryptic like a code.

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I am here reminded of Daniel Tiffany’s work, particularly *Radio Corpse*, in which Tiffany argues that “Imagism” and Ezra Pound’s later ideas was an attempt to rid himself of what he called the “corpse language” of Decadence and Victorian poetry (a language Tiffany in his upcoming book, *Silver Proxy*, relates to “kitsch,” “excessive beauty,” Romanticism and the Gothic), though soon enough Imagism became “Amygism” a “skittery” (to bring it up to date with Hoagland’s dismissive term), un-rigorous, feminine, and in fact kitsch/corpse language.

Here’s Tiffany’s thesis:

… the Image… is the centerpiece of Pound’s efforts to rid his work of an illicit – and obviously Decadent – infatuation with dead bodies and ghosts, which in turn sustains a poetic language exemplified by these figures. My revision of Pound’s aesthetic ideology proceeds therefore by excavating form the poetics of Imagism (and its immediate prehistory) a preoccupation with death and memory that impedes his formalist agenda. I argue not only that the modern poetics of “objectivity” (exemplified by the image) is constructed on the basis of Pound’s youthful experiments with “death” in poetic language, but that the essential negativity of the Image (its objectivity) is formulated as a cryptology, a poetics of decomposition and reanimation. The crypt of the aesthetic of the Image survives, moreover, into its political afterlife via Pound’s fusion of modernist practice and fascist ideology.

Drawing on WJT Mitchell’s essential book Iconology, Tiffany makes the point that a “verbal image” is not a simple thing; it is complicated by the fact that it is visuality mediated by language:

Thus I will argue that the modernist poetic Image is equivocally, but intentionally, nonvisual, insofar as it resists, contests, and mediates the experience of visuality, but also in its preoccupation with the invisible. Second, in its fascination with things characterized by a peculiar resistance to appearing, to visibility, the necrophilic dimension of the Image is a fundamental expression of objectivity’s inscrutable relation to fetishism.

Of course in his most recent book, Infidel Poetics, Tiffany has argued for the allure of the obscure, undoing the simplistic rhetoric of difficulty-vs-accessibility. And I think this line of thought can take us away from Silliman-vs-Billy-Collins type of discussions of accessibility and rigor into a different poetics; and that’s a poetics that I think both Wiley and Harvey is moving around in.

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An easy point about accessibility: if you look at the youtube comment stream for the Wiley video, you find the repetition of the words “creepy” and “haunting” – words that seem in league with obscurity – but it also features a lot of “heart-wrenching” and such terms – words you might expect to see on the side of “authenticity” or “accessibility.” This shows a very simple fact: the creepy and haunting can carry a lot of affect, the obscurity doesn’t impede the affect but produces it.

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In the work of great horror writer HP Lovecraft, you find a constant engagement with what one might call negative images. It’s part of what creates the spookiness of his stories, part of what gives it the cryptic quality.

In “The Nameless City,” the failed decrypting of the crypt actually takes place in a crypt under ground. I love this story:

To convey any idea of these monstrosities is impossible. They were of the reptile kind, with body lines suggesting sometimes the crocodile, sometimes the seal, but more often nothing of which either the naturalist or the palaeontologist ever heard. In size they approximated a small man, and their fore legs bore delicate and evidently flexible feet curiously like human hands and fingers…To nothing can such things be well compared—in one flash I thought of comparisons as varied as the cat, the bulldog, the mythic Satyr, and the human being…To crown their grotesqueness, most of them were gorgeously enrobed in the costliest of fabrics, and lavishly laden with ornaments of gold, jewels, and unknown shining metals.

Here he can’t “see” the mummies he finds in the crypt. He can’t make a proper “image” of them. It’s impossible to describe it: he can’t do away with the mediation of language, but in trying he creates this amazing, excessive description where these figures take on the appearance of all sorts of animals (including humans).

Then comes the tale about them told in hieroglyphics, which he’s for a while semi-able to interpret until he comes to the decadent end:

At the very last I thought I saw signs of an artistic anti-climax. The paintings were less skilful, and much more bizarre than even the wildest of the earlier scenes. They seemed to record a slow decadence of the ancient stock, coupled with a growing ferocity toward the outside world from which it was driven by the desert. The forms of the people—always represented by the sacred reptiles—appeared to be gradually wasting away, though their spirit as shewn hovering about the ruins by moonlight gained in proportion. Emaciated priests, displayed as reptiles in ornate robes, cursed the upper air and all who breathed it; and one terrible final scene shewed a primitive-looking man, perhaps a pioneer of ancient Irem, the City of Pillars, torn to pieces by members of the elder race. I remembered how the Arabs fear the nameless city, and was glad that beyond this place the grey walls and ceiling were bare.

Here it seems we get to a Geechie Wiley moment: the story becomes degraded, unclear, and even more mysterious. So mysterious in fact that the narrator becomes part of the story (soft of), art intricates him in its tales.

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Lovecraft’s prose (and even more his totally un-modernist poetry!) is full of what Tiffany calls “poetic effect” – a kitschy sense of “excessive beauty.” We might see in him an alternative to modernism, or an underbelly of modernism, much like the one Greil Marcus has found in “weird, old America” and the blues songs (which infected Bob Dylan and drove him to several episode of “plague stages”).

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When I say that poetry is “dead”, I am by no means saying that I don’t like poetry. I am very much interested in the “corpse language” of poetry and what we might find there.

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Final autobiographical note: As I finished college in the mid-90s I was getting really sick of poetry; I felt really isolated from it, like it had nothing to do with what I was interested in. On the one hand the anti-kitsch rhetoric of folks like Perloff and Silliman (which I read and had to work my way “through” in a lot of ways); on the other hand, the oppressive “accessibility” poetry (which bored me to tears, which I didn’t want to “access”).

My way “back” into poetry was largely through old folk songs, horror movies, the kind of gothic culture described by Greil Marcus in “Dead Elvis” and “Weird, Old America,” Basquiat’s spectacular corpses, Aase Berg’s gothic fantasias (Aase, by the way, has spent years and years working on a Swedish translation of Lovecraft’s complete writings), and by returning to a lot of writing that first involved me in writing (surrealism, decadence, Genet etc). So if it feels like I’m repeating myself, it’s perhaps for this reason. Ie I’m arranging the furniture in The House of Usher because that’s where I like to be.

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Also, it’s amazing that Pound looks so much like James Pate in that picture!

    J

  2. James Pate

    Great post…The Wiley song is one of the most haunting pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and you have a fascinating reading of it here.

    Griel Marcus has an essay where he says he hears the line you quote above as “The Mississippi River, you know it’s deep and wide, I can stand right here and see my face on the other side.” To me it sounds like “face” too, tho. “baby” makes more sense since the phrase “I can see my baby on the other side” was a popular blues image at the time.

    Of course, it might be Wiley sings the word in a deliberately ambiguous way. As you point out, all these meanings create a complicated effect: in fact, “baby” and “face” overlap in some odd way. As if the speaker’s (dead?) lover is a double of her own self…

  3. Lara Glenum

    I think I want to rewrite the House of Usher through the lens of the sister. All those knocking noises will be her obsessively jerking off.

  4. Jared

    Johannes,

    Really like this:

    *This shows a very simple fact: the creepy and haunting can carry a lot of affect, the obscurity doesn’t impede the affect but produces it.*

    I like that this signals a move away from the all or nothing, pulling the decadent together with what is the mainstream’s preoccupation with reserve and control, both kicking and screaming maybe, and maybe that accounts for the energy of a Lovecraft that you (and I think a lot of people, including myself) found otherwise lacking in poetry. So I agree, to the point where I think you’ve put your thumb on something I’ve long sensed but have never articulated in a way that felt satisfying, probably because caught up in the accessibility/authenticity debate, the primary frame of reference going. Opens up a nice space for poetic praxis (or maybe more than that, maybe genre praxis, as connected with your other recent posts…?) and not just a theory to nod one’s head to.

    I’d never have thought to bring Wiley, Pound, and Lovecraft together. Amazing constellation, though now with it in front of me, it seems obvious! Kudos!

    @James, I also get a connection between “baby” and “face.” I wonder if it is because one of the main experiences we have with babies is holding them with our faces close together (thinking esp. of young infants here), and then I also think of “babyface” and all of the many connotations there. Interesting…

  5. Johannes

    Yes the face/baby creates a vertigo-ish effect of scale and distance.

    Johannes

  6. Derek White

    i heard (with volume low because it’s early morning)…”if I don’t bring you flowers, I bring you a hoe to dig.” Whether it’s “a hoe to dig” or “ho to dig” though is subject to debate.

  7. “Pretty” and “Enchanting” Poetry & Heather Christle - Montevidayo

    […] thought this was interesting because it’s similar to the argument I’ve been making: How the “hard” and “authentic” rhetoric of people from way back to Pound, […]

  8. Brad

    John Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay about “Last Kind Word Blues” (called Unknown Bards) where he nails the line as “If I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal.” I think he’s got it.