You’ve capped our discussion of Hejinian beautifully, having waded through and waited for clarity. There’s a really deep way in which you’ve parsed Hejinian’s manipulation of various “classicisms”—from the contemporary classic tradition of narrative interruption to the always already invented classicism of a figure like Ovid. Not to mention Scheherazade and all appertaining melodrama intrinsic to literary form.
What I’d like to think about today, in complement to your interpretations, is the extent to which The Book of a Thousand Eyes is, in a word, current. We’ve been discussing TBoaTE in relation to Kelli Anne Noftle’s I Was There for Your Somniloquy, and I’ll add another voice to the conversation—that of Jon Leon in his new book, The Malady of the Century. In his blurb on the back of TMotC, Wayne Koestenbaum describes the book as “a cold and funny porno-dystopia that ‘sends up’ poetry while also behaving like a strict modernist manifesto[,]” likewise, Bruce Hainley’s blurb describes the book as “R. Kelly covering Les Chants de Maldoror.” Put another way, TMotC is a high-low phenomenon, a book that’s explicit enough to require justification by comparison.
TMotC collects five texts by Leon, all previously released in limited edition. The first, a series of prose poems entitled “Drain You,” introduces Leon’s poetics of excess—“When I produce poetry I am responding to a God who touched me in a perverse way” (3). The second, “Hit Wave,” offers a grotesque prose long-poem that figures the implied poet as a bizarre combination, one part contemporary rap mogul/international billionaire, one part Jack Kerouac/Roberto Bolaño, one part Lord Byron, one part twenty-first century embodiment of gross Whitmanic indulgence. Eg: “I secured beauties for the screen tests, which were more fulfilling than sestinas” (19) & “A lot of people didn’t like me. Most of them were poets. They called me names like proletarian, idealist, romantic, handsome. ‘Fools’ I thought. Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour” (20) & “Toward the end of our conversation he brought up the distinction between academic cool and world cool. We both agreed that I was world cool” (22). Part three is, I’m pretty sure, a list of purposefully objectifying descriptions of images of female models, ranging from “Ciara” who “is another Elite model” (40) to “Elizabeth Taylor” who “is wearing the famous Cartier Love Bracelet” (42). The final two sections, “Mirage” and “White Girls,” reinforce Leon’s poetic mode, praising “Everything everything everything” (58) and claiming that “I need you to know the source of all value. It is here. It is in my waterbed” (66). The final poem, “Adults Only,” sums it up. I quote it here in its entirety:
They call me an American poetry bad boy. The groupie of the grotesque.
Because I move like a mist, seeking the border that seeks to contain
me. I stand at a metro platform, my life’s possessions in a bag the size of
an attaché, and catch the blowback of a life encased in the tyranny of
pulp. A pulp novel called Soft Thighs written for adults only in the year
of the stag. I throw down the book and finger the tear in my lamb’s wool
sweater. The sweater that smells like the jade room at a Korean spa, like
an ambience of finery worn by the whole of the zeitgeist.
Dear (r), I’m not quite ready to say that Leon’s masterful irony, cultural critique, & evocation of poetic tradition justifies TMotC’s aesthetics of objectification. (I’m not even sure Leon would want me to.) Even so, I think we can read TMotC as the self-proclaimed dark side of a coin minted in the moment and flipped by new voices (Noftle) and experimental poetic monarchy (Hejinian) alike—a coin imprinted with various incarnations of a question we’ve been asking. What is it about sleep or partial sleep? What is it about staying up all night? What does it mean to stay alive until morning? What is it about Scheherazade in the year 2012?
When he turned to book-length mimeographs, Jack Spicer called his prior, shorter poems “one-night stands.” Leon takes this idea to the extreme. With the exception of the longer narrative “Hit Wave,” his poems all contain some sense of having taken place at night, in a seedy state of partial consciousness and/or total inebriation. Figures flicker in and out of the poems, named and then discarded. The landscape shifts, at once juvenile and disillusioned, decidedly American and other, Eastern, global, in flight. The tonal setting is the unexpected but resonant counterpoint to Hejinian’s manipulation of the dreamscape as poetic form and to Noftle’s guiding trope of the sleep-talker overheard.
What is it about sleep? The question is here refigured: What does sleep hide from you? What does sleep protect you from?
Perhaps we can read TMotC’s list of erotic portraits, “Right Now the Music and the Life Rule,” as yet another homage to Scheherazade. Read in this way, RNtMatLR shows us twin grotesque interpretations of the Thousand Nights and a Night. In one, we see the palace bed before Scheherazade—a different woman every night, objectified and ultimately destroyed by the evil king. We see one-night stands in their most tragic and most mythic form.
Or perhaps we see Scheherazade herself. Perhaps, in Leon’s interpretation, it is not Scheherazade’s stories but Scheherazade who changes. The stories told over a thousand and one nights are not just life-sustaining stories, then, but actual life stories. Scheherazade shape-shifts, from anonymous to iconic, haute couture to pornographic. In this dark interpretation of the Scheherazade story, it is not the king, but Scheherazade herself who is defeated. Rather than a thousand stories, the queen must have a thousand eyes. Her stories exist to interrupt and/or to embody the inevitable narrative of her destruction. Her survival is both the triumph and the destruction of form.
My dear (r), it bears repeating: paranormal is the new normal. Asleep is the new awake. Scheherazade is the new Elizabeth Taylor. No. The old Elizabeth Taylor. We’re jotting down some of the terms, I think, of the current poetic moment. Now we just need to come to terms with them.