by James Pate on Apr.20, 2015
There’s an excellent new edition of The Journal Petra out now.
Work by such Montevidayo favorites as Kim Hyesoon and Lucas de Lima can be found there, along with many other great poems.
by James Pate on Apr.17, 2015
I’ve been meaning to post this for a while…Erica Bernheim has a fascinating review of The Fassbinder Diaries over at Verse. Here’s the first part:
Growing up in Italy before the internet, my sister and I maintained meticulous lists of the most ridiculous translations we encountered, translations that were neither literally correct literally nor entirely phonetic. Often, we noticed, there was a food element, something decadent, decaying, or simply just off: the local movie theater showing “Ratty and Ham” (instead of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”), “Porky Coolness” (a strange rendering of salsiccia dolce, or sweet sausage). Coincidentally, the pig—both as animal and symbol and consumable object—features heavily throughout The Fassbinder Diaries, James Pate’s 2013 collection of “filmic poetry.” Upon its publication, The Fassbinder Diaries received well-deserved attention from a number of readers and critics who praised the wide scope of Pate’s lens as well as the generosity of his allusiveness, the pop culture references made both familiar and ominous throughout the text. In a Montevidayo post, Johannes Goransson alludes to Pate’s formative years in Memphis, a city which evokes crime and decay and a specific type of Southern grittiness replacing the more straightforward gothic tropes. In this instance, as in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, realism can become much more horrifying than the imagined.
by James Pate on Apr.13, 2015
Entropy Magazine recently put up my review of Johannes’ excellent new The Sugar Book. The cover and design of the book reminds me of what a reviewer once said about Brett Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero — it’s like a “piece of black candy.”
Here’s the first part:
1. Poetry of the Planet
In his book on “cosmic pessimism” entitled In The Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker lays out what he sees as the three concepts that constitute our sense of reality.
There is the World, which is the zone where we act and interpret and perceive, “a human-centric mode of being.”
There is the Earth, which is “the world as an object” and encompasses “geology, archaeology, paleontology,” etc.
Lastly, there is the Planet, which is the “world-without-us.”
Planet is difficult to grasp, being non-human and against our humanist assumptions about history, meaning, consciousness (as Thacker points out, consciousness itself is simply a roll of the evolutionary dice). In fact, he argues, some of the best attempts to deal with the idea of Planet come not from philosophers themselves, but from what he calls “dark mysticism” and from the horror genre. Horror, in both literature and film, has often challenged the humanist World with various emanations of Planet, “expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms — mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck.”
I bring this up because Johannes Göransson is one of the major poets of this concept of Planet, and also because he often uses genre (horror, but noir too) to help convey this sense of the non-human. Poetry, of course, has long dealt with the nonhuman, going all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and some of the best contemporary poetry addresses these non-humanist realms. Lara Glenum, Joyelle McSweeney, Arda Collins, Feng Sun Chen, Rauan Klassnik, Ariana Reines, and Lucas de Lima all write powerful poems relating to Planet. Göransson’s particular focus is the intersection of the nonhuman with masquerade, or how the undermining of human-centric assumptions leads to a sort of ontological/political masquerade.
In Göransson’s poetry, there is no self-congratulation about being on “the right side of history.” History, having no human face, no Mind, and no anthropomorphic Hegelian Spirit, has no sides. There are only events. There’s only Los Angeles.
by James Pate on Mar.06, 2015
There’s a certain type of poetry that orbits around an on-going absence, giving the reader the sense of ghostly not-there-ness with images that are all the more vivid for the emptiness around them: trees, lone houses on wind-swept beaches, blackbirds among twenty snowy mountains. But this absence isn’t necessarily premised on loss. Rather, the absence can sometimes be based on a restraint that’s all the more mysterious for being so exact. If the poets of absence were on a sort of scale of formalistic experimentation, Wallace Stevens might be at one end and John Cage at the other. Strand and Lauterbach and Ashbery and Palmer would fall somewhere between them. And James Shea would have to be in that number, too. His brilliant new book, The Lost Novel, is haunted by absence in the way other collections are haunted by memory.
The first line in the first poem (“Thinking of Work”) emphasizes a brushing back, an act of clearance: “A brief storm / blew the earth clean.” It’s an appropriate line for a book that often seems to take place in an aftermath, placing the calmness after the storm and not before. Yet the poem is not an ode to this cleansed earth, but rather about how to carry on post-storm: “There was much / to do: sun to put up, / clouds to put out, / blue to install…” And this response — this nature shaping and re-shaping — is emblematic of the collection. For all of Shea’s close attention to the natural world, to the intricate details of leaves and “cloud-shaped stones,” his poems are less about a cohesive organic world and more about the aesthetics of nature. In “New & Selected,” he writes, “Best to begin loving someone / in the late fall or winter, when / nature will not outshine you.” Nature in both this poem and “Thinking of Work” is seen almost as a stage set, a phenomena that might “outshine” its actors.
This highly aesthetic approach to nature is often seen in the poetry of absence. If nature isn’t a plenitude, then each image becomes not a marker of truth (spiritual or otherwise), but simply a sign, and the natural world itself becomes “an empire of signs” (to use Barthes’ phrase in a very different context). There are moments in the collection where this act of reading signs is explicit. In “The Phrase You Gave Me,” Shea writes, “I remember almost / nothing of what I’ve written, except / that it begins thusly: Crows seal the sky. / They speak of their suffering in long, distant sentences.” But usually the reading is implicit. In “Supervenience,” he writes, “Dusk approaches, wild geese overhead. / The mind can build upon the brain.” As the above lines suggest, Shea, like Stevens, is fascinated by all kinds of art-making, both literal and metaphorical, and, also like Stevens, he is drawn toward the paradoxes of this making. In “Poem By Tolstoy,” the poet writes, “For ten years or so I haven’t had such a wealth of images and ideas as these last three days. I can’t write, they are so abundant.”
The title itself hints at absence, too, though in this case it’s an actual loss: the lost novel. Is the novel “lost” as in left behind somewhere, and cannot be found? Or lost in the sense of the writer having lost the thread of the novel and therefore not being able to complete it? Or is the title meant to be literal, with “lost” being the theme of the book? (Of course, the fact this is a poetry collection and not a novel seems to also be at play — as if this “novel” is so lost it can no longer even be rendered or described in prose, and instead is referred to in a different form, marking yet another degree of separation.) All of these questions are implied by the title, and in the title poem itself.
There are nine sections in “The Lost Novel.” The first lines are addressed to an ambiguous “you” that might be the novel itself. “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” Not “I wrote to you” but “I wrote you”: implying that for the speaker the novel has be transformed, anthropomorphized. The following section gives us some of the names/titles: “Party of One. Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” Because this is a lost novel, there is no final name/title, only a list of possible ones. The next sections pick up on this fragmentation. In section four, the poet says, “Some chapters just sketched out, others quite filled in.” And later, in section six: “Chapters 6, 7, 8: / Develop character!”
Despite the injunctions, these fix-it notes to self, you begin to think that this novel — like a modern project grounded in its own failure and/or incompletion (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) — is a work that cannot be completed, that houses its own missing parts within itself. As the poet writes near the end, “I still have all my notes,” suggesting that though these notes will never lead to a completed novel, they continue to hold promise, the “still” being a wager against the impossible.
by James Pate on Oct.31, 2014
Not sure if this is a Halloween song exactly, but a great song anyway, and creepy as hell..
And here’s another great version, by Nina Simone…
by James Pate on Aug.20, 2014
Scott McFarland — poet, union activist, and video artist – recently created two amazing short films (Eight Questions and Entry) inspired by The Fassbinder Diaries. They’re eerie, nocturnal, and filled with the Freudian uncanny. It’s like Hitchcock being locked in an editing room with a million strips of Fassbinder film. There has been a lot on this blog recently about the emerging intersection between poetry and video art, such as the recent posts on Persona Peep Show, and to me it’s one of the most vital trends going on in the poetry scene right now.
Thanks to Scott for the great videos!
by James Pate on Jul.26, 2014
One of the strangest, most original books I’ve read so far this summer is Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights — strange because of its mixture of whimsy and horror, the quotidian (neighborhoods, tree-lined streets) and the sublime (a mountain that holds up the universe, a giant flower). The story is so simple it could be from a children’s book. A narrator moves through a mysterious series of scenarios (a neighborhood, red rooms with bizarre sculptures, parking lots that spread out for miles) in his effort to “talk about color.” He encounters a villain (an old man whose “soul is like a pitcher with all the water poured out of it”), a sort of love interest (E, who constantly appears from the upper branches of trees), and an incredibly unlucky friend (M, who seems to be on a quest, but we never know for what exactly). The narrator himself is young, curious, and amiable for the most part — except when he gets a job “carrying a flamethrower around the neighborhood, melting people.” But even that brief moment is so Dali-esque — “melting people” made me think of melted watches — that it’s hard to hold it against him. He’s continually good-natured, often using the word “nice” to describe the more fun things that happen to him. But his seeming innocence is never cloying. He’s too alert to the world around him, too aware of its dangers — as when the old man kidnaps E — to become overly cute.
One of the best qualities about Green Lights, I think, is the power of the imagery: it often borders on the psychedelic, but not in a clichéd way. More like the dreams and visions of Rimbaud (especially Illuminations), Angela Carter, Jack Smith, Harry Darger. As the narrator describes one bacchanal: “All of us were wearing masks. Mine was white with narrow eyes and red paint on the front. The music of us glowed like something better than sound. It was breaking through boundaries. This is the greatest thing, to be in each of us.” Only a few pages earlier, there is a giant flower “at least a hundred feet tall.” The narrator winds up swimming in a lake he finds inside of it. Muntz’s spectrum is often in cartoon colors, forming in cartoon shapes, and like some cartoons, the images have their own screwy logic — scenes leap acrobatically from other scenes.
A few years ago, I remember reading a book review — I can’t remember of what book — but the reviewer said it was a children’s book written for adults. It was meant as a compliment, and it could apply to Green Light as well. It’s filled with lines like “E was looking at a flower. Then she held it up to the sun for a second, until it caught on fire.” It’s a book that tries to lure us to some fresher, less hidebound, less “adult” was of thinking, perceiving. It’s a book of radical, subversive innocence.
by James Pate on Jun.13, 2014
1) Sara Tuss Efrik and Mark Efrik Hammarberg’s Persona Peep Show starts off with a close-up of lips inviting us into the video. The close-up reminds me of the famous shots of Isabella Rossellini’s mouth in Blue Velvet. The invitation includes phrases such as “Come to me,” and “It begins now” and “Are you ready?” The video seems to be asking us to become the “you” who is such a central figure in the piece, a “you” that also seems to be the speaker’s “me,” that which is in me which is deeper than myself, as Zizek might say, or, inversely, a “you” that seems wholly other, alien, like the revenant figure with green hands and red sneakers that wanders through the woods halfway through the video, beating tree-trunks, humping them, placing masks on large broken branches and swirling them around. Or the “you” in the early part of the video that is simultaneously doll, Adam and Eve, and Frankenstein.
2) Persona Peep Show is an incredibly visceral work, and, as such, I can imagine it making some parts of the American poetry scene uncomfortable. It’s easy to imagine the standard criticisms: it’s too grotesque, too image-based, it’s too pleasurable (in a funhouse sort of way), it doesn’t properly “critique” or distance itself from XYZ. Its use of fairytale is anachronistic, and therefore conservative (God forbid we should ever disturb the laws of Hegelian-inflected historical linearity). And yet this video makes such criticisms seem old-fashioned and academic. As I’ve written about before on Montevidayo, there is a strong contemporary tradition in the art scene of masquerade, theatricality, excess, color. Jack Smith, Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney, Ryan Trecartin. And a film like Persona Peep Show is very much related to that sensibility.
3) After the mouth, we see a woman getting dressed in white, and a green face speaking about the dresser. The face says such things as “Are you going to a party?” and “You dress up white because we’re playing a game today,” and “You’re full of shit.” The split screen (green mouth, woman dressing in white) emphasizes both the notion that dresser and speaker are one, and the possibility that the speaker is watching the dresser. The words emphasize this sameness/difference: the speaker says, “You’ve always wanted to be a copy. Of yourself. A copy.” It reminds me of those various narrators in Beckett’s The Unnamable who morph into one another, a voice talking about another who eventually becomes the voice too.
4) Steven Shaviro: The real is not abolished when interpenetrated with artifice or reduced to its own resemblance so much as it is affirmed in its residual subsistence (the image as trace) and its irreducible surplus (the image as embellishment). The cinema’s icy exaltation of surfaces, its capture of people in a state of “pure objectivity,” and its subjection of all images to the indifference of the “pure look” — all this precludes any radical destruction or negation…In Warholian simulation, images and traces rise repeatedly from below, rather than being imposed once and for all from above…all this implies a multiplication of physical presence, rather than its effacement. The anxiety about image — fear of an empty image, a hollow simulation — is really an anxiety about authenticity, no matter how much it might be dressed up in theory. Persona Peep Show is not a work searching for authenticity, but a video of “This. This. This.”
5) As in the scene where a figure wears a series of gothic masks, and with the appearance of each mask says “This. This. This.”
6) “You’re faking it.” “That’s just a copy.’ “That’s just a toy.” “I am nurse Alma.” Then the image turns X-ray green, with the witch-like figure stuffing a small balloon into its mouth.
7) The film leads us further into the haunted woods, into the funhouse of convex and concave mirrors. There are no words spoken in the last minutes of the video: images shake, morph, dance, sway, a figure with three breasts appears at times, the screen doubles, one side mirroring the other side, until near the end, when the witch-like face appears again. The video is unabashedly influenced by sci-fi films, horror films, B-films. Like Smith and Trecartin, Efrik and Hammarberg purposely play with low-budget effects, effects that 1) give us a democratic, anyone-can-do this feel and 2) are a kind of fuck you to the cult of elegance and good taste (and all the class implications that tend to be the DNA of that rhetoric) and 3) a blurring of art and life since we’re constantly aware, via these low-budget effects, that this isn’t some seamless, airless work of perfection. It’s the guerilla-filmmaking approach to poetry-videos, a pixelated El Greco-ian vision.
by James Pate on May.23, 2014
Of the twenty or so books I picked up at AWP this year, Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud is one of my favorites. I’m not usually a big fan of novels/poems/stories about drug addiction. For every Naked Lunch and Jesus’ Son and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, there seems to be plenty of works based on the redemption narrative. An addict goes through shit, hits a series of bottoms, and eventually makes their way to at least a fraction of light. For people dealing with addiction, I can see why such narratives are wanted, even needed. I don’t think there’s any doubt they can play a crucial role.
But with writers who downplay the redemptive model (like Gloeckner, Johnson) or don’t use it at all (Burroughs) the addiction becomes (to use a phrase Johannes and Lucas have discussed in various posts) a sort of ambience, an aspect of the aesthetic landscape. The Christian mythos of darkness leading into light is taken out, or at least made less of a factor. We’re left with works that instead become like recording devises, Warholian cameras, where everyday life in all its fucked-upness plays out in its own haphazard, digressive way.
Escoria’s book is very much in that later mode. Characters move through the years, get sober and then dramatically non-sober, age, think back on their childhood, their adolescence. The last story, “Trouble and Troubledness,” has a sentence implying the speaker does eventually get sober, but the struggle is left out. And this is also only one character. Though every story is told in the first person, or close second person, the individuals are different — or so they seem, since their personal histories can appear so contrasting. We never know if the others escape from their situations or not.
To me, these stories seem less about drug addiction than existential pang, a keen sense of isolation reinforced by the use of the first person, so that every story seems as if it were being told to a stranger, or to the narrator’s own self in a dark room. Because of this, some of the most luminous moments in the stories are some of the most seemingly low-key. In “Reduction,” the narrator says, “I spent the days after the appointment staring through the bedroom window, out at our view of the alley. Sometimes the haze would turn the sky scarlet at sunset and the birds would perch on the power lines in blackened silhouettes, but usually I must admit that I was staring at nothing at all.” (The addition of “I must admit” here — which implies a break in time, that these are events truly in the past — is an example of how precise Escoria’s prose is through the book.)
Black Cloud made me think of Bolaño’s troubled, isolated narrators, especially the one in Antwerp and those in Last Evenings on Earth. Like those characters, Escoria’s narrators lack self-pity despite their circumstances, and they talk with a calm assurance, not so much telling stories as simply describing moments in their life. Also, Mary Gaitskill, especially Veronica. Like Gaitskill, Escoria can write about parties and drug taking and twisted relationships without it ever seeming clichéd, or done for shock value. These aren’t bloodless ciphers: her narrators have a fevered, beating pulse as they move through these worlds. As the narrator says in “Mental Illness on a Weekday,” “As explosive as I feel, it is nice, too, because I feel like I’m holding a secret. I will sit here and brace myself, my knuckles white as my insides burn, and no one will know this fire.” The line also implies the fault-line that creates so much tension in the stories: the artful, calibrated prose paired with the explosive subject matter.
Anyway, this is a great book. “Heroin Story” is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. If you’re into Johnson or Gaitskill or Gloeckner, you’ll love this collection. (Side note: the author has made several fascinating videos to go along with the book — they’re like music videos for the stories. They can be seen on Vimeo.)
by James Pate on Apr.18, 2014
Markets predate capitalism. Capitalism is better understood as designating a society that subordinates all processes — notably the metabolism between humanity and nature, the production and distribution of goods and services, the function and composition of government, and of course, market exchange — to the private accumulation of capital. — Benjamin Kunkel
Occupy Wall Street says / yes to spectacle./ Yes to virtuosity. / Yes to transformations / And magic and make-believe. — Scott McFarland
I’m a big fan of David Foster Wallace — I tend to think of him as probably the best American fiction writer of his generation — and yet there has always been one aspect of his work I’ve disagreed with: the theme of irony versus sincerity. We see it in some his interviews, and it’s a shaping force in many of the stories in Hideous Men. Irony, here, seems incompatible with sincerity, with an expression from the truer aspects of the self. As Wallace said in one interview, irony becomes the bird in love with its own cage. In some of the stories in Hideous Men, there is a constant attempt to undo irony, to take off the multiple masks, to approach the reader as a naked self (fully aware that this self might be a mask too, and not free of manipulative impulses).
But I don’t think there has to be a divide between irony and sincerity. As the Narrator says in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, sometimes we are at our most sincere when being at our most ironic, even mocking. For example, the scene where the Underground Man is waxing sentimentally about family life to Liza, the prostitute he has just slept with. Though the Narrator is performing, and deliberately trying to make Liza uncomfortable with his sentimental visions, he also realizes, as he goes on with his speech, that he is moved by it: he is performing, and yet caught up in his own performance (“I was so carried away by my pathos that I began to feel a lump forming in my throat…”).
And what could be more sincere than Swift’s Modest Proposal? Or Voltaire’s Candide? Works dripping with acidic irony. Godard is one of the great ironists in film, and yet it would be strange to argue he doesn’t have deep-seated political beliefs, or a “sincere” vision of a better world.
by James Pate on Jan.11, 2014
Daniel Borzutzky has a new chapbook called Data Bodies. Daniel is of the Montevidayoian stripe through and through: his work is visceral, theatrical, political without being self-righteousness, and often moves with a frantic energy. His last book, The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat Books), was a fascinating exploration of the political brutality that underlines so much neo-liberalism. Borzutzky is well-known for his translations of Raúl Zurita’s work, and Bodies seems to take into itself both the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile and the corporatism of modern-day America, though places and people go largely unnamed in the work. The new book is, as the title suggests, about data, information, surveillance, networks. It is also about bodies and shit and hair. As one of the opening lines says, “We harbor data and we harbor the carcasses and we try to keep the two sets of information separate.”
But Daniel’s chapbook is about merging the two, dramatically. There’s always a Foucault-ian element to Daniel’s work: for him, history is about how bodies are controlled and regulated and sometimes brutalized. As he writes in “Non-Essential Personnel,” “We sit in our cubicles and sanitize our hands.” This is a very lively chapbook, full of an anarchic, comic spirit that’s a good reminder political poetry doesn’t have to be leaden and humorless. The book is out from Holon, a sister publication to The Green Lantern.
by James Pate on Jan.09, 2014
1. One of the things images of heaven and hell have in common is that both are static. As David Byrne sings, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” But hell is like that too. In Dante, the lustful ones will always be caught up in wind, Judas will always be in the pit of hell. Only on earth and purgatory is movement possible.
But what if earth is seen as static too? This is one of the principal motifs in Janice Lee’s book Damnation. As Jon Wagner says in his introduction to the book, the landscape in Lee’s Damnation is frozen, unmoored from chronology and redemption and progress. As he puts it, a place “without redemptive return.” It is, I’d argue, materialist not in the Marxists sense, but in the Robbe-Grillet sense. A world thick with things that exist beyond our desire to conceptualize them and fit them into narratives. As Lee writes early in the book, “Outside, the thickness of air, like a heavy silence or constant din of angels’ whispers.” There is a long tradition that portrays the world as a static sphere: Beckett especially, but also Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Francis Bacon, Guyotat, the harsher novels by Duras. A place of mud, rain, and repetition.
2. The title is taken from the 1988 film by Bela Tarr, though the book as a whole is inspired by all of Tarr’s work, as well as Tarr’s frequent collaborator, the novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I haven’t seen any of Tarr’s films — I’ve been meaning to for years — but I have read quite a bit of Krasznahorkai, a writer with a style so precise and his own that any imitation of it verges of parody, much like Faulkner or Woolf or Proust. One of the great things about Lee’s book is the way she keeps away from this danger. The spirit of the novelist is there, but not the letter. The enclosed, rotting spaces he is famous for is present, but Lee’s Damnation has a sensibility of its own, being heavily fragmented, with the emphasis on landscape and dialogue often spoken in a sort of no-place. If anything, Lee’s worldview is even more claustrophobic than Krasznahorkai’s, who has the sweep of narrative to carry us along.
I kept thinking of Guy Maddin’s early films while reading Continue reading “Janice Lee’s Damnation” »
by James Pate on Nov.21, 2013
Lina Ramona Vitkauskas posted a fascinating review of The Fassbinder Diaries the other day on her blog. I really like the way she relates the book to film theory and to specific qualities in Fassbinder films. Her excellent book of poems entitled A Neon Tryst, which I reviewed here a few months ago, is also about film, using the medium as a way of conjuring further poetic ghosts…