Archive for October, 2012

Nero and O'Hara and Johnson and one of many possible true accounts of talking to the sun…

by on Oct.03, 2012


[Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun is being released this week, so I thought I would write a brief account discussing one of many possible origins for the book. This second edition from Starcherone Books includes new essays by John Bradley, Edmond Caldwell, Richard D. Allen, David Hadbawnik, Mark Scroggins, Michael Kelleher, and myself.]

It is late 2007 or early 2008. Kent Johnson is in Chicago for a reading at Danny’s Tavern and staying with a friend who lives near the Belmont El stop, in an apartment that looks over at Lake Michigan. He is excited about the reading, having with him a group of new poems inspired by a late-night viewing of Fellini’s Satyricon (or maybe it was Caligula: the two films often blur in his mind), and yet he is nervous about it too. The poems, he thinks, might still be too rough, too weighed down by historical references. The morning of the reading, he paces the room, reading the poems outloud and practicing, something he rarely does and yet something he does do today, an act he sees as being one more sign of how nervous he is. The poems themselves are a startling departure. Gone are the references to the contemporary avant-garde, gone are the satirical asides about, say, O’Hara or Silliman. These new poems are strange little creatures, very stolid, almost Lowellian. In fact, yes, he thinks as he paces, Lowell is the secret influence here, especially late Lowell, the Lowell of History.

He makes some coffee, drinks it while standing at the window, wonders about what kind of poet he is becoming and what kind of person he will have to be in order to be that kind of poet. It is a hazy winter day. There are pads of ice on the beach and a light film of fog covers the sand and water. He thinks about how, in his youth, he wanted to become Petronius, who was (and is, though he rarely talks about the Roman satirist) his favorite writer. What would Petronius think of Lowell? Both were insiders, sure, and both were close to power. But could you really compare being Nero’s fashion and festival advisor to being the poet who refused an invitation from Lady Bird Johnson? The Roman had slept with his head on the bosom of evil, and it was impossible to tell from his scathing and lurid writings how he felt about it (and hence one reason for their greatness). Lowell to his credit refused to dine with power, refused to have his picture taken with power. And yet, Johnson thinks, we often know too well where Lowell places his head.

Johnson meets some friends in Andersonville for lunch. They eat Algerian crepes and split a pot of mint tea. Afterwards he walks over to the Swedish Museum across the street, and drifts from room to room, his mind seemingly both too busy and too vacant at the same time, as if some stranger was rapidly whispering strange ideas into his head, ideas spoken in a language that at times sounded like English and at other times sounded like Spanish, but which was, actually, neither Spanish nor English. (continue reading…)

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Oh, Bad Blues: Larkin, Plath, Donne, Bessie Smith, & The Metaphysical Dilemma of Radical Narcissism

by on Oct.02, 2012

The most important times to be awake are dawn and dusk, so that one might see both the open and close of the day; what happens in-between is insignificant, the abstract lyric – one need not be able to touch it to know that it was there. The edges of days create spaces in which form makes its demands upon the human participant: here is a beginning, here is an end; it’s up to you to fill in the rest.

The aubade is formally “loose” in that its parameters tend to be defined by the practitioner’s relationship to the concept of parting. Although traditionally, the purpose of the form is to address the beloved-other, aubades often become meditations on the dilemma of the body/soul divide of the speaker. The lyric takes the place of the physical body which cannot remain forever in bed with the beloved, and probably doesn’t want to. The meditation on time becomes a time-loop itself, serving to prolong the becoming-day not for the sake of more time with the beloved, but such that the speaker might revel in displeasure.



Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed” is an excellent example, wherein the speaker appears totally uninterested in his bedfellow. Here, the tragedy of parting rests in the terror of sound, the solitude of day; dawn does not cause the break, utterance does. The plaintive gesture of the first line, “Talking in bed ought to be easiest,” denotes the fact that, at this distance from coupled silence, under-painted in the poem as some Whitman-esque ideal of nature, to speak is to break apart one’s humanity.

As far as aubades go, this one feels cold, blanketless – where is the joy in the agony, where is the longing? It creates itself through the speech-act, just as “the wind’s incomplete unrest / builds and disperses clouds in the sky.” Plath’s “April Aubade,” though hung with more troubadour bling – “snowdrop stars,” grass-garlanded lovers – plays a similar trick, draping the skeleton of daybreak’s despair only to arrive at the conclusion “Again we are deluded and infer / that somehow we are younger than we were,” an eerie echo to Larkin’s “Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.”

Which raises the question – if the act of longing is what creates the despair, if it can be avoided through silence, and refusal, why write the poem? Because being-alive requires that the sun continues to rise. The poem, then, can function only as an inadequate container for the petulance of the troubadour lover upon the realization that they must, at or just after dawn, rise, and sing, that it is impossible for the singer to make any utterance in the presence of the beloved. Or, the wand’ring minstrel cannot wander chained.

Beauty, then, in the aubade, functions like Donne’s “rags of time” in “The Sun Rising,” draped by the dawn upon the constant-moment just before the morning’s first speech – a punctum. Metaphor serves to create systemic traps or arms for keeping the lovers in.

In Donne, Plath, and Larkin, the self is paramount, the lover almost entirely absent. This is intentional; the serenade, the aubade’s opposite, is meant to be sung to or for the beloved, whereas the aubade is meant to be whispered through the crack in the door just at the moment of escape, an indecipherable scrawl upon the beloved’s day. This forced silence, in that the beloved must never hear the aubade for it to take its effect, is an act of violence.




Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” shows us the view from the other side, the body of the beloved which has been “taught” to bear the silence of the lover for the sake of continued partings, the agony of which are the soul’s only respite. We arrive at The Blues because the impending day is always-already shrouded in lack. The only certainty is that other burnt-end, twilight, which brings with it the promise of yet another agonizing dawn.

It would seem, after a study of the aubade, that the poet’s destiny is untenable loneliness, to lie with a lover for the sole sake of feeling the sadness of parting; the purpose of feeling the sadness is to sing of it. Love, then, becomes not about the other, but an act of radical narcissism; a means to Art.

This is not a new thing, although it’s a prevalent theme in so much new poetry, which is internet-y as it is “confessional” and has troubadour aspirations. That the fleeting loneliness of any given self should be important is a ruse that contemporary language allows. The flat affect of poets like Andrew Durbin and Steve Roggenbuck ascribe an importance to that which is common. There is not the urgent sense, as in Larkin and Plath, that without the utterance, or form’s container, the I of the lyric will self-destruct; rather, the self is already obliterated, chopped up and sifted through a sieve such that any loneliness, any lyric-I, could be the same.

What makes the metaphysical dilemma special, if not unique, is that it exists in the space just after the effort and before the completion of the tear. The body and soul are not yet rent, but they are somewhere in the midst of that process. What emerges from the ongoing rupture is delicate, baroque vomit, an undeniably human substance, the existence of which is totally outside bodily limits.

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Semen, Film, and Story-telling: History as Media in Reactions in Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”

by on Oct.01, 2012



I wrote a draft of this post a while ago, didn’t publish it, and forgot about it; but  Johannes’ post, “The Violent Pollution”:  Carl-Michael Edenborg’s Parapornography  made me decide to bring the draft back to life, to get it involved in this conversation I’m excited about.

The following passage from Edenborg’s essay is where I saw the connection between Parapornography and my reading of “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” by Roberto Bolaño.

“The moving images of bodies that rubbed against bodies broke away from the games of identification and projection and moved into a new productivity. It was no longer his penis, her vagina, his sperm, her sighs, her breasts, his buttocks. There were anemones, surfaces without inside, uneven condensations of information and time…they were more real than the homogeneous phantasms that usually accompanies the bloating of the sexual organs, the materials of pornography.”

What I find interesting in this passage and another sentence Johannes quoted– it [Parapornography] can “extract endless excitement from the same skin flap” — is the recognition that there are “more” than the materials/ elements that compose a pornography in Parapornography.  However this sense of “more” is different from  transcendence in the sense of “the sculpture of Madonna is more than  a block of marble” ; what creates this sense of “more” is not that there is something sublime that cannot be fully represented above the materials, but that these materials/elements are in undulation, or if I am to put it in the word I used for my original draft “motions of reaction”. (continue reading…)

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