Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Michelle Taransky's unromantic Romanticism (Sorry Was In The Woods, Omnidawn 2013)

Dear (r),

Sometimes the news is just terrible.  Sometimes you have to read Lyrical Ballads for the ballads, & think about the kids in "We are seven" & "The Last of the Flock" & "The Idiot Boy" & "Old Man Travelling" & think about how unromantic Romanticism can be.  Last night in this mood I read Michelle Taransky's really truly striking Sorry Was In The Woods.  I obsessed about the pun in the title (can I call it a Lyrical Ballads-style juxtaposition?) which is to say: sorry, I was in the woods, gone fishing, out seeking inspiration, out surrounded by nature; but also, sorry was in the woods, sympathy was in the woods, apology was out in the woods, that's where I found it.  There's a play on woods/would, too, a pun that's reminiscent of Liz Waldner's Dark Would (the Missing Person), so: efficacy, agency, desire, if only.  Unromantic Romanticisms.

Written under the sign of some "bad" (in a good way) & late & very late modernists--Stein & Zukofsky & Perelman et al.--the poems included in this collection are generally titled by enigmatic sentences & fragments, variations on a theme.  Taransky's genius take on the Whitmanic long line is to fold it into visually short-line poems by employing clunky words that accordion out beyond the page's limit:

I am looking for a language
With a word that means
We must see it all
Differently: the accounting
For their symptoms
When we are calling it a day
Using the wage to mark
Our place as the place
That makes crimes
Build an own shelter
Out of arguments
Facing past

That's the poem "SORRY IN THE WOODS WHERE" (20) in its entirety; when the first real short line comes at the end, we realize just how extensive the verse has been, the letters lined up like trees, their lines extending.  When the book occasionally breaks into prose poem ("take the place the plan of where we will meet at the end of the season" (63)) it only reinforces the effect/affect of run-on & runaway ("we cannot live on that/narrator thinking cause is caused/and no other way to consider/forests being said and/saying look, and looking, looking at the/forest now, what do you see now/isn't it different now" (67)).

The sympathetic sprawl of the sorry & the woods & the woulds compiles, by accretion, an unromantic Romanticism.  Let me call this a new lyrical ballad:



Complete the work
To travel to the woods
They have abandoned

Your favorite details
Distinguished from the fire

Parts of burning
Burning the neighbor

And the neighbor is guest
Who is a messenger who is

A large house with windows for doors
I am going to the woods

And I am nightward
The night is waiting

To say it more than
You are asked to

To call the way to the woods
The main woods the settled

Woods a woods that were
A smaller place than now

The pacing is that practice
Landing the forest onto the field

Children in the woods by the pond
Measuring the breadth by their bodies

One crying in this wilderness


Yrs ever,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Epistolary Review: Debts & Lessons, Lynn Xu (Omnidawn 2013)

Dear R.,

I know you're generally unfond of poems about poetry but I think you'll rather like Lynn Xu's Debts & Lessons. Caveat lector, though. A lot of these poems are about the process of their own making; fortunately, they're also about other things. "The prayer exists," Xu writes,

because it is positioned. In that presence
wherein the heart is expressed. Wherein sound is incident to the heart
exists. I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me. (13)

A parsimonious poet but not an ungenerous one, Xu presses declaratives to their limits, until they state more than facts, until they approach the quality of aphorism. Aphorisms are sometimes portentous (Ars longa, vita brevis) & sometimes light & witty ("Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we cannot resemble.") ; Xu's most aphoristic lines run the gamut. The first section of a sequence called "Our Love is Pure" might give you a sense:

This autumn is a dream. I fell
Into the sea. Through the French trees. My heart
Became a suite in the Carlyle, compels you
To undress. (17)

This asymptote to aphorism is, at once, one of Xu's greatest strengths as a poet & also--because it's so distinctive--the thing that might blind you to some of the other things worth paying attention to in this collection. 

For one thing, there are the translations & bilingual poems of the "Night Falls" sequence, which marry English & Chinese characters in a way that emphasizes the kinds of deft maneuvering involved in any act of translation: "Maybe it is dishonest/This poem" (45), Xu writes, & then, later: "In the world/There is no pain, no loss, no dishonesty! No emptiness from exhaustion" (51). The world that a language can be to us--how easy it is, though--to find that world lost or changed, other than what you had thought it. 

In such a world--a world that is many worlds, a translated world--you might navigate by poetry--be guided & crushed by it at once--& this, in a way, is the real force of Xu's title: Debts & Lessons. The phrase comes from Marcus Aurelius; this is a collection that (quite literally) wears its literary inheritance on its sleeve. Look for Eliot ("Marie. Hold on tight" [23]), Shakespeare ("These pearls that were your eyes" [27]),  & Marlowe (I am not hell. Not dead. [31]) in paraphrase. There are others I'm not listing but that's the general idea.

When you read the section called "Lullabies," you'll find that this erudition becomes explicit. Each poem in this penultimate sequence is dedicated to a poet. Here's Shelley's lullaby:

For what offense
The grave drew near
No crew remembers me
I felt the final inch
Around my feet the sea
No more a child
Did take me for its bride. (57)

As you've probably already noted, Xu's poem offers us a version of the text of Shelley's death set in a sort of pseudo-Shelleyan tetrameter. Compare, for instance, this speech from Prometheus Unbound, Shelley at his most marine, most tetrametrical: 

A rainbow's arch stood on the sea,
Which rocked beneath, immovably;
And the triumphant storm did flee, 
Like a conqueror, swift and proud,
Between, with many a captive cloud,

A shapeless, dark and rapid crowd,
Each by lightning riven in half:
I heard the thunder hoarsely laugh: 
Mighty fleets were strewn like chaff
And spread beneath a hell of death
O'er the white waters. I alit
On a great ship lightning-split,
And speeded hither on the sigh
Of one who gave an enemy
His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Full of slant rhymes & allusions to the poet's premonitions of death by sea, Xu's lullaby is a tribute to Shelley's life (or death, really) & forms--often fused together by his admirers--& also an attempt to work through how those forms might be of use in the contemporary moment. It is, in short, an explicit acknowledgment of a debt & also a lesson of the variety classical rhetoric would call imitatio: the emulation or rescripting of some work of art meant to help the student understand how her source material works. Xu's poetic practice is, in many ways, predicated on imitatio, not as rote repetition, but certainly in contradistinction (ironically, perhaps, given her referent here) to the Romantic cult of originality. For Xu, craft matters a lot & part of what this collection wants to do is show you how craft is historical, how, in the end, originality, in its most diluted version, can be a bit of a canard, a way of dodging the past that you must labor in the knowledge of always. (The final sequence, about which I will say little, except that it comes the closest to being a confessional one, makes it very clear that this labor of remembrance is obscure, difficult, & constant: "Our blindness which poetry/Then forgave" [83]). I admit I find this way of thinking about craft refreshing in light of some recent posturing about the tyranny of the original, though I could see why you wouldn't. Debts. Lessons.

Reminded, suddenly, of a line in O'Hara's Ann Arbor Variations, which I had always thought of as more Homeric than Shelleyan but is of course both: "We are sick of living and afraid/that death will not be by water, o sea." But of course, O'Hara is also one of Xu's salutary tyrants. Her lullaby to him recalls his epistolary bent:

Dear Frank. I am writing you a letter with nowhere to send it. We've taken a room in San Felipe on the Calle de los Claveles. Separating the bedrooms are fifteen paces covering the length of our courtyard. Purple jacarandas seesaw above us and in the street, blouses dissolve like lozenges to release the natural color. At night we are carried out with our noses missing. (59)

Noses do go missing sometimes don't they. These days I mostly want to spend all my time indulging my own epistolary bent. I don't, of course. (Of course I don't.) But sometimes you find yourself sitting up a-nights, still waiting for December. Even when it's already begun. Pernicious habit, waiting, hard to stop once you've started. ("Bend not to my knowledge," Xu would say, "[f]or I have divided all my seasons with you" [66]). I just want to tell everyone I see: I am not asking you to wait for me! Say you will wait for me.

What are you waiting for?


Monday, November 19, 2012

Unsourced Tricks of Light: It Becomes You (Dobby Gibson, Cont.), The Poems of Octavio Paz (trans Eliot Weinberger; New Directions 2012), the World, the Worldless (William Bronk; New Directions, 1949)

Somewhat blurry anatomy of an analog epistolary review

Dear R., 

We rarely get a look at one another's handwriting these days, for obvious reasons, & so it seems to me weirdly, intimately descriptive to see what shapes are made when a person puts pen to paper. Not to make a fetish of the Objekt or anything but I suppose I have a rather naïve attachment to the notion of graphology--for what is the analysis of handwriting, in the end, but an investigation of the traces of motion, the marks of where a body has moved in space & how, its tendencies, its sense of depth, matter, dimension, pressure? Like sound, handwriting is a sort of touch at a distance. My amateur analysis of yours--though clouded by all kinds of preconceived ideas--confirms your basic generosity & sense of balance. What I mean is: Friend! I am glad you are well! It is cold among the birches, thanks for the delightful postcards.

 Fig. 1

Like you, I found Dobby Gibson's most recent collection really enjoyable. It Becomes You is full of cautions: "When the minders finally speak to you,/don't look them in the eyes./Their headlamps are blinding" (55). "Stepping out into the snow, you feel cold./Then you become cold" (61). "You have no idea where/you're going to sleep tonight" (18). One might be tempted to shrug off these little advisements with irritation did they come from a poet less obviously good-natured, less clever, less precise, so very much in want (for his own sake) of a well-intentioned person to provide a few unambiguous confirmations & denials. "I wondered whether I was being given/a compliment or a warning," he writes on being told his life is one of "shocking continuity" (17). "Real people don't wait/for the quotation marks for the dialogue to begin./I thought about saying to my dinner guests,/already defeating my own argument" (69). I do like, on occasion, a poet who can cavil so definitively. Gibson's skill is just this. His embrace of hesitance, how he makes mistakes & tells you about it so maybe you'll be warned--or complimented at the very least. How he says "you" & means "I": 

The triumphant aliens wander
what's left of Wall Street
as you sit there just long enough
to read a few peculiar names
from the seemingly endless credits stream
out of some invisible bond
of courtesy and curiosity
before you emerge back into the street light
to carve your own likeness out of thin air,
one you'll never recognize long enough 
to call done. (92)

Yes, he will write a poem called "40 Fortunes" & yes, you will believe all of them.

My reading these days has been of the new old variety--Octavio Paz in the Eliot Weinberger translation, recently revised by E.W. & reissued by New Directions (2012). I'll mark first a few amusing incidentals: 1) The little card in my review copy, which reads "COMPLIMENTS OF ELIOT WEINBERGER" (this followed by a few modest paragraphs of the translator's ars poetica). Compliments of Eliot Weinberger! Why, thank you. 2) The list of E.W.'s collaborators on the title page: Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, & Charles Tomlinson. May we all have such marvelous co-translators, dear R.!

These material amusements are what they are; the poetry 

 Fig. 2

is another matter. The Poems of Octavio Paz is a weighty bilingual edition that stretches from Paz's first First Poems (1931-1940) to his last Poems (1989-1996). I think me this card be a little small to cover a work of such amplitude (even a series of such little smalls would fail, I think, to close the gap). I might praise this amplitude--Weinberger's flexible adaptation of Paz's line--the green waves & the black-green nights of Oaxaca & the twittering of green & the leaves of rain--the movement from book-length manuscript in high register to the compact, nearly Imagist stanzas of some of the late haikus...

I might praise these things with just cause & tell you that yes, of course you ought to read Paz & of course you ought to read Weinberger's Paz & of course I hope you will. But today is a day for small, carved things, not sweeping summations, so I will not exceed my brief. I will tell you instead where I think you ought to read & take it for granted that the mass of the thing will, like a dense star, exert enough gravitational pull to bring you to it at some eventuality. 

I spent the most time, I think, with Sunstone, a long poem from 1957 (also one of the poems Weinberger, in his career as Paz's translator, has labored over longest.) At this point in his life--the time of writing, I mean--Paz, born in Mexico City, was in his forties, having just finished a stint as a diplomat that took him from New York to Paris to India to Tokyo to Geneva, then finally back to Mexico. It's clear from his writings that he had been thinking very deeply about Mexican identity. (The title Piedra del Sol, translated by Weinberger as "sunstone," refers to the stone calendar of the Aztecs, which measured the year from Venus to Venus--the planet's

Fig. 3

...conjunction with the sun, that is. There's a fascinating [though esoteric] way in which the poem actually mimics that calendrical structure, moving through at least a year's worth of matter before ending where it began, with the riverrun-past-Eve-&-Adam's-from-swerve-of-shore-to-bend stanza that Weinberger renders as

a crystal willow, a poplar of water
a tall fountain the wind arches over
a tree deep-rooted yet dancing still,
a course of a river that turns, moves on,
doubles back, and comes full circle,
forever arriving (145 & 175)

Hesperus is Phosphorus, dear R. The morning star is the evening star & both are the planet Venus, sometimes called Lucifer.) 

One of Sunstone's  most profound concerns is the question of how to feel about the systems in which we are enmeshed; for Paz, time and identity are two of the most intractable of these. That time's arrow is what it is when you look at it one way--"time can never/turn back, the dead are forever/fixed in death and cannot die" (173) & yet that all times are implicated in one another, that "the day is immortal, it rises and grows,/it has just been born, its birth never ends" (177). That Socrates can cry "Crito, a cock for Aesculapius, I am cured of life" (171). 

Our lives are finite but always within a historical pattern that seems infinite, cyclical, & frightening & hopeful by turns because of these things:

Moctezuma insomniac
on his bed of thorns, the ride in the carriage
toward death--the interminable ride,
counted minute by minute by Robespierre,
his broken jaw between his hands
Churuca on his cask like a scarlet throne,
the numbered steps of Lincoln as he left 
for the theater, Trotsky's death rattle 
and his howl like a boar, Madero's gaze
that no one returned: why are they killing me? (171)

 Fig. 4

It is not, perhaps, entirely incidental that Paz included Sunstone in a 1958 collection called  The Violent Season.  In Sunstone, violence is, in essence, seasonal. Recalling the 1939 Nationalist Siege of Madrid, Paz sets against "the sirens' wail and the screaming" "two who took off all their clothes and made love/to protect our share of all that's eternal,/to defend our ration of paradise and time" (161). A recurrence of desire, for Paz, acts as a reminder that not all recurrence is the recurrence of atrocity. "[T]wo bodies, naked and entwined, leap over time, they are invulnerable" (163). The poem dreams of a recurrence--a dawn--"where I am you, we are us,/the kingdom where pronouns are intertwined" (177). Utopia! One wants to ask how a diplomat can be so gorgeously, eloquently, irrevocably naïve. & then one remembers he is a poet & wants to weep! 

Something else in the new-0ld line that has been the source of much pleasure & interest. The poems of William Bronk, especially a collection from 1949 called the World, the Worldless (New Directions again). Here's a little bit: 

Loew's World

Possessed of a world, however popcorn, real,  
however candy-coated, the children parade
the aisles and whisper up the air, more
interested in their persons, their concerns, 
the night's adventures, the sensuous amplitudes
and less in what they have no need to find.

We in the dark, beset by love and fear, 
as by a kind of weather without terrain,
suffer the unsourced tricks of light, as when
at night in the summer, heat lightning thrusts
from the dark
a world which was not and is gone.

are disturbed to find so much similitude.
This unreality is one we know:
the actual is no more real than this.
I turn in my seat for the reassurance of you,
your substance, which is there. Wanting a land
for our weather, a world of solid shapes, not one
the light made, we think to leave,--for where? (32)

 Fig. 5

The "Loew's" of the title is not the Maharal of Prague but the chain of theaters founded in 1904. I've got a weakness for poems about going to the movies, which is really to say a weakness for Frank O'Hara. Not that Bronk is really much like O'Hara. The debt to Stevens is obvious & there's a filigree of Frost in his studied vernacular turns. Maybe a bit of the reticence of Bishop...I fear me I'm sounding like a Pitchfork review! Just trying to work through the preoccupation, as it were. Wanting, too, I suppose, to see Bronk's "worlds" ("Conceded, that all clocks tell local time/conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound/and fill a space; conceded, we make a world" [5]) as a window onto some stray ideological-poetical current careening through the late forties & early fifties in the American landscape: a mania for abstraction, objects as abstractions, essayistic discursion in which the sentence, as much as the line, is the functional unit...a species, obvs., that coexists with lots of other kinds of poetry in that mid-century moment. But not, I think, a species easily explicable in the usual terms, the tales anthologies tell, the narratives of schools: Beats, Confessionals, New York School, Black Mountain School, San Francisco Renaissance. Bronk published alongside many of the poets we'd think of as belonging to these movements but he seems to have been perpetually on the edges of them all. He appears to have had a shocking proclivity for gorgeousness; it seems to have gone along with the penchant for abstraction. I can see how it might make you suspicious, 

Fig. 6

that particular combination. Maybe a touch of what Gillian White would call lyric shame. I'm speculating, of course, but where can one speculate if not in a postcard, where there are space, validity, & pleasure but also the salubrious check of the finite? (Even in series!) Well, I'll just have to get around to Bronk's later collected poems (out from Talisman earlier this year) & the selected poems as well (New Directions again). Operating, as yet, on vague intuitions & a patchy data set. Our perilous lot! & Bronk! What a name!

Saw a dramatic reading of Anne Carson's Antigonick last week (We reviewed it, you'll recallearlier this year.) Carson played the chorus; she read as prologue a note on her translation written as a letter to Antigone, at least I think it was. I did, much to my regret, wander in a little late. Well, anyway, this correspondence, well anyway, that's us--

up in the Magellanic clouds, sending a few postcards home,


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Postcards from the Storm: Chris Pusateri, Common Time (Steerage Press, 2012) & Dobby Gibson, It Becomes You (Graywolf Press, 2013)

[Transcription: Dear (r), At first the storm was sublime, gloomy & frightening & called for "Goblin Market" & Halloween candy & wine.  Now the rain & wind are gone & we're stuck in the particular ennui of a long power outage.  Here's what I'm reading by candlelight... Common Time, Chris Pusateri (Steerage Press, 2012)--I've been thinking about text & index, recently, which points to this fascinating & peculiar little book.  The [contents] section provides a map of  poem fragments spanning the collection, a meditation on enumeration as narration, accretion as collection.  It's a community of texts in the Spicerian sense ("a mind a brain made plural/a crowd of breathing t-shirts//[there's no accounting for memory]" (4) that's also romantically/Romantically insistent on the singular--"People wouldn't understand/but a person might" (16).  The book's Modernist influences are varied: "narration is the second lie.  The first is the story it describes" (63, c.f. William Carlos Williams); "we shall not want/as we walk, we/as we are when we" (66, c.f. Oppen); "And shit is mercy,/Democrats are Republicans/DC is Disneyland/& my ass is a hat" (42, c.f. O'Hara).  When Pusateri asks, "Do you think we'll ever get around to having that/talk?" (79) these influences come together to interrogate the index of modern poetry, & what it might point to.

Also~ I just started reading It Becomes You by Dobby Gibson (Graywolf Press, 2013) & I'm just going to go out on a limb here & say this is The Best Book of Poetry to Read When Stuck Inside After a Storm on a Dark & Chilly Night.  (r), I know you avoid domestic epiphanies but the book's poetic treatments of fatherhood, marriage & Minnesota are too pure, fresh, true & fun to miss & it's not just that these poems are full of snow & birds, malls & TV & the last bites of food, though it is all of that.  The poems entertain & warm & surprise, which is a lot when it's late & the power is out.  "Beware of the wolves.  They've been raised by wolves" (44); "it's the/whales who have been/watching us all along" (3); "when the aliens finally do land/and decode the Greek/sticked ALL CAPS across the asses/of our sorority sisters' sweatpants" (18); "I whisper to the ghost" (34).  (r), aren't we just this sort of poetic creature?  In any case I'm glad poetry is a lo-tech creature comfort: "poetry will survive./If only in the form/of poetry's mere memory of poetry" (18).  I hope this finds you safe & warm.  More anon, R]

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our Aesthetic Categories

You'll see the cute, zany & interesting everywhere after reading our (r)'s brilliant review of Sianne Ngai's latest work, out from Harvard University Press:

"By indexing the kinds of feeling-based judgments we make in our daily lives, Ngai opens up questions about how emotions can act in social contexts more generally, how our private experiences might shape our political and economic discourses."

Ngai leaves us thinking about cuteness, zaniness & interest in recent poetic experiments...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

oonavent: Poets House & Omnidawn NYC

The oonaverse converged last night at Poets House to attend a reading & celebration for the always imPressive Omnidawn.  Some of our favorite poets shared 6-minute micro-readings, calling the soirée a family reunion of sorts.  We were honored to be the paparazzi in attendance!

Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan with fall galleys!  Thanks Omnidawn for all you do!

Gillian ConoleyAaron Shurin & Michelle Taransky pose like the Kardashians.  (We pick up a review copy of Taransky's forthcoming book & are totally psyched!)

Michelle Taransky & Richard Meier are luminous.  

Norma Cole speaks of maps & bees, Bin Ramke & Myung Mi Kim listen.

It Girl Kelli Anne Noftle & Bin Ramke strike a pose!

Coming soon to oona: Eliot Weinberger's new translation of The Poems of Octavio Paz (New Directions), Kent Johnson's controversial work of investigative criticism, A Question Mark Above the Sun (Starcherone Books), & oona heads to Berkeley for the Conference on Ecopoetics.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

stuff we like

we heart Angela Hume, & we love Omnidawn perhaps more than it is natural to love a press, so naturally this gladdens us.  (& such great finalists, too!  here's a remarkably good chapbook by Matthias Regan.  enjoy!)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Red Meat

How did we miss this?!? Perennial oona muse Anne Carson is releasing a sequel to Autobiography of Red, her 1999 verse novel about a little monster with red wings. (It's called Red Doc >.) Here's a bit from the blurb:

Anne Carson brings the red-winged Geryon from Autobiography of Red, now called "G," into manhood, and through the complex labyrinths of the modern age. We join him as he travels with his friend and lover "Sad" (short for Sad But Great), a war veteran; and with Ida, an artist, across a geography that ranges from plains of glacial ice to idyllic green pastures; from a psychiatric clinic to the somber house where G's mother must face her death.

Suddenly, the wait 'til 2013 seems very long...

Monday, September 3, 2012

we all wear the same paperbacks as hats

Aw shucks!  We're giddy to see our very own (r) on The Page, where you can follow a link to these gorgeous prose poems in InDigest.  A bit of normal paranormality for your long weekend, perhaps?

Friday, August 31, 2012

READING POETRY IRL: Michael Field: The Poet (Broadview Press, 2009)


Here’s a late 19th-century poem by Michael Field that we’re reading IRL:

A Girl,
     Her soul a deep-wave pearl
Dim, lucent of all lovely mysteries;
     A face flowered for heart’s ease,
     A brow’s grace soft as seas
     Seen through faint forest-trees:
     A mouth, the lips apart,
Like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze
     From her tempestuous heart.
     Such: and our souls so knit,
     I leave a page half-writ —
        The work begun
Will be to heaven’s conception done,
        If she come to it.

IRL means a lot of things right now.  First of all it means in a shared Google doc where we can co-author in real time but, unfortunately, without the immediate comfort of Garamond (our favorite font).  IRL means while boiling tea for water with the whistle off & glancing over our shoulders to make sure the kitchen hasn’t caught fire.  While discussing other things also.  While packing boxes.  While unpacking boxes.  (We’re both moving but we’re on opposite ends of the project.)  While also looking at a weird tax form.  & the dog runs over.

But then, the poem.  How many girls are in it?  It’s a poem of divisions & obfuscations.  The soul both dim & lucent & then only of mysteries.  The ease seas seen trees...the progress of syllables, the doubling of words (sea/see) & the doubling, the conflation of different elements of the body (like an old Renaissance blazon & have you seen The Tudors?)...the brow, not the eye, sees, or seas.  And then the body fractures in two—the lips part, the heart is in tempest, and suddenly the souls are two, two souls knit together.  “I leave a page half-writ —/The work begun/Will be to heaven’s conception done,/If she come to it.”  Is this a romanticized emblem of a woman, or a scene of two women writing together?

Onycha, Isla Leigh, Arran Leigh, Henny, Henry, Heinrich, Sim, Puss, All Wise Fowl, Erinna, Messalina Garden, and my Love were only a few of the names that Michael Field had for himself. It wasn’t that he had multiple personalities or a bad case of narcissism; it’s just that the grammar here gets a bit tricky. “Michael Field” was the pseudonym of two English poets and dramatists: Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) & Edith Cooper (1862-1913) but, more than this, he was a third entity: an expression of their unity as artists, lovers, & friends. Cooper was the daughter of Bradley’s elder sister Emma. When, after the birth of a second daughter, Emma Cooper became an invalid, Bradley took legal responsibility for the young Edith. As Edith grew up, Bradley encouraged her interests in poetry & ancient languages. By the 1870s, maternal affection had turned to desire, to which poetry sequences like Long Ago (1889; inspired by recently translated fragments of Sappho) and Sight & Song (1892; poems about paintings) would later attest. After attending University College, Bristol together, they decided to set up house (they came from a wealthy family, which gave them an unusual degree of financial freedom). The arrangement would last until Cooper’s death in 1913.

The name “Michael Field” was a way of figuratively combining their artistic identities by literally combining their nicknames. Out of their galaxy of endearments, they picked two—Edith was often called “Field,” & Katherine “Michael”—& smushed them together. Their early collaborative work as Michael Field, a verse tragedy called Callirrhöe and Fair Rosamund, made quite an impression upon its publication in 1884. (Up ’til then, their only published work, a volume of poetry, had appeared under the names “Arran & Isla Leigh,” possibly a hat tip to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a verse novel.) The critics—who included Victorian luminaries like Robert Browning & Walter Pater—loved it—until Browning carelessly outed Bradley & Cooper as Field’s creators.

Suddenly, Michael Field’s reviewers started to argue about the overheated imaginations of aging spinsters & to worry about things like whether it was Cooper or Bradley—or someone else—who was “really” responsible for Field’s work. Bradley & Cooper continued to compose dramas, poems, and letters—& to circulate among the voluble & volatile members of the Aesthetic set. (Their acquaintance included Oscar Wilde ((yes, we know!)), the poet George Meredith, the critic Bernard Berenson & a bunch of other famous-in-the-nineteenth-century types.) Arguably, their greatest collaborative accomplishment was the joint diary they kept from 1888 until Edith’s death from cancer in 1913 (though Bradley continued to write journal entries until her own cancer-induced death in 1914). The way Bradley’s handwriting gives way to Cooper’s—or Cooper’s to Bradley’s—within the space of a line or a paragraph is a physical testament to the intensity & complexity of their relationship. Something we find particularly fascinating is the way they use the first person, switching from the singular subject “I” to the plural “we” within the space of a single paragraph. Take this entry from 1888:   


On Wednesday May 9th we were asked to visit Mr. [Robert] Browning . . . Ardently . . . he spoke of the Sapphics, expressing special interest in Tiresias wh. he had once himself thought of treating. When I remarked I wished he had treated it—he said “No: it ought to be treated by a woman.[”] He said to Edith he liked the 2nd series of poems even better than the first, & prophesied they would make their mark. But he refuses to write a preface. We must remember we are Michael Field. Again he said:—Wait fifty years.  

The diaries have a lot of moods: sometimes they’re psychological drama, other times they’re more like a travelogue (Cooper & Bradley did a lot of traveling, particularly in Europe) or a social calendar. Often they’re a little tedious in the way daily writing can be. But they are always, always intensely social, not merely in the way they speak to the relationship between Cooper & Bradley but in the way they situate that relationship among the complicated networks of late Victorian society. (Cooper & Bradley aren’t without precedent as a high-profile same-sex literary couple: the Ladies of Llangollen, frex, a pair of Irish spinsters who ran away together & settled in Wales, where they would play host to scandalous poets like Byron, Shelley, & Wordsworth before he got terminally respectable.) Because they are so concerned with the social—who visited whom, who thinks what about so-and-so’s new poems—Michael Field’s journals are one of the best records we have of women performing personal & artistic intimacy within a community. & the way intimacy between women gets performed in a social space is maybe what’s most interesting here—not, of course, to discount the power of the erotic relationship from which much of that intimacy no doubt derives. Bradley & Cooper were uniquely close, it’s true, but their work as Michael Field (although irreducible) makes a great starting point for considering how women—queer and otherwise—perform intimacy right now, especially as artistic collaborators, especially in the overwhelming social noise of the information age. (Did we mention we’re on Twitter?)  

In the first episode of HBO’s Girls (created by Lena Dunham) we get Hannah & Marnie in a bathtub debating who gets to see whom naked. It’s a way of establishing intimacy among female friends that seems to play with that weird Hollywood trope of pathologizing friendships between women or maybe pathologizing lesbian desire (we’re not sure which) by showing girls bathing together (See: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. See: Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You.).  & Dunham’s characters are intimate, even if they’re not always kind or even very good friends to one another. We’re interested in this bathtub scene for two reasons: 1) it shows just what a limited vocabulary TV & film have for talking about intimacy between women & 2) it tells us something really discomfiting about how ill at ease we are when watching other people’s displays of intimacy.

Let’s talk about that second point. This is the first of many scenes in Girls that shows us that, though intimacy may not be awkward for the ones involved, it’s almost always awkward to witness. In fact, one rubric for measuring the success of representations of intimacy may be to ask how awkward they are for the viewer, how well they walk the line between inviting observation &, at the same time, making an external audience aware of its exclusion. This may explain why it feels somehow voyeuristic to read Michael Field’s journals: they’re a performance, sure, but it’s not necessarily a performance meant for you, the reader. Cooper & Bradley were performing primarily (though maybe not solely) for each other there, whereas their plays & poetry were explicitly written to be read by others.

(& by the way we should ask you--do you love Girls or love to hate Girls because as far as we can tell those are the only two options.  & if you hate it did you watch it in spite of hating it or because you hated it?  & when is season two coming out? We, in general, hated to love it, or just loved it, you know, for what it’s worth.)  

This brings us to another point about cliques & coteries & why they interest us so much. They have a dark side: at first they seem to be about inclusion, people banding together to handle something or do something or think about something. But, at some point, & often from their inception, cliques are about who they exclude, who gets to sit at the table with the popular kids. & when the stakes are higher than that—when they’re about who gets to speak & how often & what counts as art in the first place—that’s where the ethics of clique-making & breaking get really complicated. Which speaks to the passionate critiques of Girls as exclusive, narrow, racist, anti-sex, & even misogynist. True, Girls is attempting, on some levels, to satirize the economic privilege of its cast, particularly in the character of Hannah Horvath; many have pointed out, however, that the cast is made up of the wealthy, white daughters of celebrities, which somewhat lessens the bite. It’s a fair complaint, especially in light of the title: do you have to be white & well off in order to count as a girl &, when you finally grow up, a woman? As the Michael Field example shows, money can buy women the space for artistry but maybe only specific kinds of women. &, in any case, Bradley & Cooper took a male pseudonym in part because they wanted critical approval—that is, the approval of their privileged, male audience. “Michael Field” was, in some ways, a subversive performance of intimacy, but it was also an attempt to gain access to the boys’ club. (Even the in-group has in-groups.) The case of Girls—both the show & the conversation surrounding it—highlights our cultural insecurities about watching others be intimate, whether it’s the “good” intimacy of affection or the “bad” intimacy of cronyism. It embarrasses us or it makes us jealous or else (often rightly) angry about the injustices of exclusion. & this is why artistic cliques & coteries are something we really need to think about in a larger context—they tell us both about how we make communities through art & also how those communities have failed to be inclusive enough or honest enough or wise enough & also how we might be able to do better. In short, we have intimacy issues.

Interviewed in Marie Claire (we read it on the plane), Caitlin Moran alludes to the loose narrative structure of Girls, which seems to stress, formally, the show’s reliance on creating a sense of intimacy observed: “It doesn’t see women as massive makeover projects.”  We keep hoping to encounter representations of intimacy—& especially intimacy between women—that withhold their prescriptions & their judgments about how an intimate relationship should look. In an essay called The Rejection of Closure (1985), American poet Lyn Hejinian (we love her) quotes Hélène Cixous: “A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending [...] There’s no closure, it doesn’t stop.” Maybe the problem with representations of intimacy between women is that they haven’t been specific enough, generous enough, capacious enough, inviting enough, & daring enough to show an intimacy that doesn’t rely on bathtub clichés or easy moral judgments, an intimacy without boundaries, as strange & profound & difficult as it is IRL.

This is our kind of girl talk.

Works Consulted Besides HBO’s Girls:

Katherine Bradley & Edith Cooper (ed. Marion Thain & Ana Vadillo). Michael Field: The Poet. Broadview Press (2009) [A Girl-125; Journal excerpt-233].

Martha Vicinus. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press (2006) [98-108].

Caitlin Moran interviewed by Roberta Bernstein.  “How to Be a Woman,” Marie Claire (August 2012) [106].

Hélène Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” in Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981), 53.  Quoted by Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure” (1985), published many places including The Poetry Foundation website. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Of place & panic

For you, two beautiful things:

1) Bob Hicok's A poem of place in AGNI online ["I'm tired of trying to say things about stars"]


2) Rusty Morrison's essay, Poetry & Panic, in the current issue of Pleiades ["The leap, the deep step, that the reader is taking with the poet into the poem may seem dizzying, but the process of following such steps may be wonderfully instructive, even if the arresting interfaces between ideas may initially induce in the reader what I am calling panic" (123)].

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why write body?

Back in January we reviewed Angela Hume's Second Story of Your Body, & now we're pointing your browser towards her statement of poetics/exploration of poetry & bio/politics in the August issue of Evening Will Come.  We're keen on lyric theory here in the oonaverse, & so always interested to see the l-word reimagined/recontextualized/reinvented by contemporary poets.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sleep is Dangerous: An IInterview with Kelli Anne Noftle

Dear (r),

I have recently movedhomes, states, time zones.  Many of my books, by accident or impulse, have changed residence as well.  You see, I shipped my library to my new address via media mail.  The boxes were searched, and then hastily repacked.

When I opened the boxes, I found about half of my original books, mixed in with a number of books belonging to other people.  Gone was Lyn Hejinians The Book of a Thousand Eyes; in its place was a tome extolling the powers of a praying wife.  (As if to prove this point, aforementioned prayerful wife has telephoned, having discovered my Hejinian.)  Ive acquired several analyses of business ethics and a romance novel.  Kelli Anne Noftles I Was There For Your Somniloquy is nowhere to be found.  The postal servant suggested I call the dead letter office.  I was unaware such a place existed outside of a Spicer poem.

Tracing this literal movement and loss of text has been a near-perfect exercise in the normal paranormal, a concept that has obsessed us for the past several months, a phrase we coined while discussing Noftles poetics of (now literal) disappearance.  Thus, for oonas very first iinterview, it seemed fitting that we ask the luminous Kelli Anne Noftle to join us in a virtual salon to chat about cheesecake, surrealism, & sleep.  I do hope someone will listen in.



(r): Hello!

Kelli Anne Noftle: Hi!

R:  Greets!  K.A.N., we are just star-struck & pleased as punch to have you here.

(r): This we are!

R: We thought we'd start with a round of introductions...what should we know about you?

KAN:  You should know that interviews intimidate me and that I'm currently in bed with my laptop and a bowl of cheesecake!

(r):  A woman after our own hearts.

R:  I was just choosing my snack in fact...chamomile tea & dark chocolate are the order of the day.

KAN:  Wow that sounds delightful.  (r)...Where are you?  What are you snacking on?

(r):  Currently in a cozy apartment in Brooklyn, New York. In front of me are a cracked blue & white bowl filled with Ranier cherries & a postcard with a photo of Nina Simone. (& my laptop of course!)

KAN: Holy wow.  That is poetry.

Someone just gave me a postcard of a hologram of a jellyfish...probably my favorite thing in the whole world right now. All I need is some Nina Simone and cherries on my cheesecake

(r):  I'm imagining all three of us in a virtual salon in which are all of these things (chamomile tea & dark chocolate as well).

R:  It seems quite fitting to begin by chatting about the normal, since we're hoping that you may be able to help us think about the paranormal, or the normal paranormal.

KAN:  Yes, I was thinking about your "normal paranormality" and this idea of "domestic science fiction" - maybe you could explain that idea to me.

(r):  I'm going to honor the charms of the ordinary by talking a little bit about where these terms began.  Normal paranormality, is, of course, R's coinage but it comes out of the same matrix as domestic science fiction, which is something we've been thinking about for a while. The first time I can remember our throwing that term around was late at night after watching a very slight but appealing movie that took the search for romantic love & imposed this wonderful & ridiculous science fiction premise on that very tired old quest. The movie wasn't really concerned with being scientifically plausible but it was very concerned with being emotionally & socially plausible, which is why (I think) we both liked it so much. The science fiction conceit elevated the clichés of the romance; the best of the character stuff made you forget entirely about how ridiculous the "science" was.  Normal paranormality takes the surreal, the startling, the uncanny as its premise--but it inverts it.  It draws you always back to what is ordinary, usual, ingrained in habit.
One of the things that so struck us about your poetry, K, was how you managed to make the normal reveal itself to the paranormal (& yes, I think that's the right order of things).

KAN:  Yes, okay, I recall you using the phrase "naturalization of mystery" which pleased me greatly.

R:  The normal is the surprise.  I think we were talking about coverings & un-coverings, obfuscations & revelations.

KAN:  And of course, specifically, in relation to sleep.

(r):  Absolutely.


R:  Let's talk about sleep...I mean, it's the ultimate normal paranormal experience, right? It's a paranormal experience that happens every day.

KAN:  Yes and it's also a loss of control...where we allow the subconscious to take over...Sleeping with both eyes shut is something relatively new (in evolutionary terms)- something only terrestrial mammals do, right? Most reptiles and birds sleep with half of their brain still fully conscious.

R:  So sleep = vulnerability, an adaptation.

(r):  But weirdly an adaptation that makes us, in some ways, MORE vulnerable.

KAN: Oh yes definitely - like I said, it's a loss of control and that's quite frightening...I'm obsessed with sleep - like you mentioned in your review I regard it as an observer rather than active participant.  I feel like my reptile brain is still active during sleep - that split brain behavior you see in somnambulists - and I suppose this relates to how I approach poetry too - my writing process.

(r): Say a little about that, your process.

KAN:  I think the minds are in dialogue.  A friend and I were at a bar last night discussing what he calls "parallel poetics" - is that a real term?  I'm writing about sea slugs and also describing my relationship with a lover but not drawing overt connections or metaphors.  Not saying that one thing stands for the other, simply discussing them at the same time.
(r):  I love this. The yolking together of one thing & another without over-determining the relationship.

R:  It makes perfect sense...remember what Freud said about dreams...Something can be multiple things at the same time.  It's a poetics of mutual inclusion.  A sort of dreamworks.
KAN:  Yes, I love that you mention Freud - I thought of his essay on the uncanny when you spoke of the reverse uncanny earlier and also in your review.

(r): He haunts us.

KAN:  Back to your domestic sci-fi...I did live with a somnambulist many years ago and some of the parasomnias I observed inspired me to write most of the poems in my collection.

(r): Really? That's so fascinating.

KAN:  His worst parasomnia was sleep eating.  He would devour my Ben & Jerry’s and totally forget about it the next day.

R:  How terrifying, not to remember.  But at the same time, eating late night ice cream out of the carton--such a normal, almost banal crime.

KAN:  Yes, and many people do it apparently.  Waking up in a pile of candy wrappers with no recollection is pure paranormality.

(r):  There's an element of terror there...

KAN:  Speaking of, his night terrors were no fun either...enacting a nightmare, screaming, pointing to the window, all completely in his sleep.

R:  It seems to me that we're categorizing the ways in which sleep terrifies--there's the vulnerability of the sleeper to the outside world, to the inside world, and to the possibility of one realm permeating the other.

KAN:  I started researching somnambulism and parasomnia and the poems evolved from there.

(r):  So you consciously thought about them as existing in some sort of constellation, as a sequence, I mean.

KAN:  Yes and always with that element of fear - of the outside world but also of the internal, perhaps more so.

R:  Can we talk about slugs for a moment?

KAN:  I went to a lecture on the mating habits of sea slugs back in 2008.  Basically, Nudibranchs know how to party.

(r):  May we all have so satisfactory an epitaph.

R:  Why slugs & sleep? I ask because we've talked a little bit about sleep & how different beasts sleep differently, & you referenced your "reptile mind."

KAN:  That was actually something i struggled with - how do the slug poems fit with the sleep poems - how would it all become a collection?  I believed I had at least 3 different books here, not 1...but I think readers make the connections necessary - like the "parallel poetics" - these 2 separate subjects working side by side but also in a dialogue together - under the umbrella of sleepwalking? I'm sleeping but a the same time I'm watering the plants and making pancakes - it's all happening in one poem or one collection...the mutual inclusions as you mentioned before...and there is the ocean - the ocean & the unconscious & sleep & when I wrote the slug poems I was also dating two people at the same time and believed I had fallen in love with both of them simultaneously, I was interested in a dialogue about the otherness of other creatures, this kind of complexity and multiplicity and polyamorous behavior seen in slug life (slugz4life) but coupled with intimacy and longing - how to navigate between these.
(r):  The topics of sleep & slug life (not to be confused with thug life) might seem, at first, to diverge pretty widely. But what seems to me to link them is the way you've founded your poetics on these questions of process.

What is the experience of observation like? What do you do when the distance it seems to require collapses? What kind of processes (biological or otherwise) are left?

These all seem to me questions that persist throughout the collection. It makes me wonder if these are the same kinds of questions that animate your songwriting. Is there a continuum there or do you feel that your music takes place (parallel poetics style) in a separate sphere which ought not to be directly compared?

KAN:  Observation is how it all happens ("exiled from the self" as I believe you put it so perfectly in your review)- the distance collapsing is just too frightening, like letting go of the control necessary to allow sleep (I'm an insomniac if you haven't guessed by now).
R:  You mentioned your album-in-process, which is sleep-related. Can you tell us more about that?

KAN:  This new album is more ethereal and ambient experimental stuff veering away from the verse chorus verse structure.  There is a white noise (sleep machine) next to my bed with settings such as "waterfall" "rain" "summer night" "ocean" "rainforest"...currently I'm writing songs around the sounds, layered under and over those white noise sounds (or pink or brown noise, what have you) my sleep obsession continues in the form of music.

R:  A wise teacher once told me, "honor your obsessions."  I think it's a good artistic credo to have.

KAN: Agreed!

R:  Thank you, KAN!  This has been illuminating.  I'd been thinking about the normal paranormal as a question of perspective, when perhaps it's a question of process--of organic processes, even.  Now let's all go get some sleep, if we can face it...

Perhaps someday our virtual salon will be a real salon, complete with requisite cheesecake.

(r):  Let us make this a life goal.

KAN:  That would be grand.  I'll bring wine too.  And lavender for the chamomile.  And sleep machines for the sleepless.