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.

We
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,



(r)