Tuesday, January 13, 2009

STL #80:"I Find My Surface" (Robin Blaser)

I know enough of Robin Blaser to associate him with Jack Spicer, but that's it. In his 5 NAP poems, all dated 1956, I find a poet sensitive to the natural world and his mortal body's relationship to it. He speaks in a tone of disclosure--a 'listen, I've got something to tell you' frankness that avoids overtly 'poetic' effect. For example, "Now let me give you this experience./We change. No lies."

Of the 5 poems, all invoke some animal. He chooses less anthropomorphic animals like fish, snakes, and birds. 3 of the 5 mention (human) skin and 2 mention breath. Skin and breath are both interfaces between himself and the natural world, between the surface where his internal depths meet the external world. Skin meets the air where human warmth butts against the chill of the where; breath takes in that cold air, warms it, and turns it back. Blaser shows us that skin in like breath in "Poem by the Charles River." On observing the dead fish floating on the surface, he writes "I see them stretch the water to their need/as I domesticate the separate air to be my/breath." In the tradition of the Romantic Sublime, the outer world inspires introspection. In observing that "These fish die easily" he implies the question, 'do I?' He implies that question, but stop shorts of asking it, instead focusing on the act of interpretation: "I find my surface in the way they feed."

He shows that breath is like speech (another surface, or interface, or limen) in "Herons." I don't think I can excerpt the poem effectively to show him make the equation, so here it is complete:

I saw cold thunder in the grass,
the wet black trees of my humanity, my skin.

How much love lost hanging there
out of honesty.
I catch at those men who chose
to hang in the wind
out of honesty.
It is the body lies with its skin--

Robed in my words I say that the snake
changes its skin out of honesty.

And they
hanged there with some symmetry
died young
like herons proud in their landscape.

Now it is age crept in, nobody younger knows
the quick-darting breath is
our portion of honesty.

I don't totally know what to do with the poem, which has some echoes of Shakespeare (sonnet 74) and Pound ("In a Station of the Metro" and "Mauberly") but following through my equation (skin=breath=language or surface=interpretation) helps. At the beginning, there's something to observe, which is both nature but some how the self (so maybe the self situated in nature). Whatever it is, is "my skin." The object of perception then shifts from something of the natural world to something that seems political, men hanging from trees killed because of their honesty. Since the historical context might suggest lynching, skin takes on a different sense. In the center of the poem, skin and speech are equated: "Robed in my words I say that the snake/changes its skin out of honesty." Skin is linked with honesty, a function of speech, and in the end honesty is explicitly linked with breath. (This reminds me of Pound/Olson/"Objectivist" axis linking the poetic line with the breath and with the measure of sincerity.) The interesting thing that I'm grasping onto as I work through this idea of surface or interface being the equivalent of expression. Poetry, as honest language, happens on the skin.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

STL #79: 2008 in Review

I'm going to combine two things I did at the end of last year: recap the year in reading and semi-quantitatively review the music I listened to most. Almost all the music I listen to is computer-mediated, so I actually have a record (obscure pun) of what I listened too, but the reading list is based on spottier records and recollections.

First, the reading. As before, anything with text is eligible, but the list is still pretty traditional--more novels than I would have guessed. The list is presented alphabetically.

  • 1968. A captivating cultural history of the year change coalesced in cities across the world: New York, Mexico City, Prague, London. The most remarkable passage in it is a RKF's quote on the GDP: "Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans." The world, obviously, has changed again since then.
  • Anna Karenina. The big book with which I started this year. A expanse of vision in the best tradition of the novel. The only comparable novel I read this year was Adam Bede.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8. The serial comic of the year in a year that was not great for comics (at least for me). I enjoyed JSA (not for the non-initiated) and the current New Krypton storyline too. In more ambitious comics, DMZ intrigued me, though it's nowhere near as fully realized as Y: The Last Man, which wrapped up this year.
  • The Dew Breaker. Much better than I would expected. The fractured narrative reflects the trauma and instability of the characters' stories.

  • fivethirtyeight.com. The best political horserace blog. It's stats-savvy analysis (the guy has a background in sabermatrics) got me through to election day.
  • For Your Eyes Only. I read books by most of the stable of suspense writers I go back to: Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and the excellent Tenth Man), Allan Furst (Red Gold), Simenon (the one Monsieur Hire is based on) Peter Abrahams (the one where the douchey pool guy goes "A million sounds right") among them. This real surprise was Fleming, a precise and even sensitive writer. There's a unexpectedly moving bit where Bond, a killer of man, meditates on his trigger finger.
  • I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets Transmissions from the semiosphere that had been racing into outerspace since 1941. This book pulled the visionary art back to the present.
  • The New American Poetry 1945-1960. An ongoing project.
  • Of Human Bondage. While Adam Bede should take this spot, I have a nostalgic yearning for the days when a long book like this could just unspool--one day in the life of Philip Carey after another. A sequence of first sentences of chapters gives you the idea: "The day broke gray and dull. It was a week later. When they reached the house Mrs. Carey had died in--it was in a dreary,respectable street between Notting Hill Gate and High Street, Kensington--Emma led Philip into the drawing-room. Philip parted from Emma with tears, but the journey to Blackstable amused him, and, when they arrived, he was resigned and cheerful.Philip came gradually to know the people he was to live with, and byfragments of conversation, some of it not meant for his ears, learned a good deal both about himself and about his dead parents."
  • "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" I single out this short story because it brief and compelling. Quite unexpectedly, Ursula K. LeGuin was the author of the year. I read six of her sf & fantasy books this year, and I discussed her work briefly in STL #76. So many sf writers of the 70s are fascinating--I realized after reading 1968 that they turned their speculative skills to contemplate the culture rupture of the time. Le Guin fascinates me because the framework of her speculation is the social sciences. "Omelas," for instance, is an extrapolation of the practice of tribal practice scape-goating, while her Earthsea books build a folkways of magic and just as Left Hand of Darkness invents an alternative sociology of sex.

Honorable Mention:
Persistence of Vision by John Varley (another compelling 70s sf artifact); Poem of a Life (wish this had been published when I was working on my dissertation); Master and Margarita; (So unlike Tolstoy of the preceding generation); Writing is an aid to memory (I posted on this in STL #64). Elizabeth Willis's Turneresque (maybe I'll expand on this sooner.

The work of the Planet Money podcast, starting with its genesis on the This American Life "Giant Pool of Money" episode, should get special mention for making the economy not only comprehensible but fascinating.

On to music, but briefly. Like last year,
I used play counts of music acquire in the last 400 days to determine what should be on here, then used my judgment to finalize it. I mix single tracks with albums and present them in no order whatsoever.

  1. "Bar Woman Blues" Jenny Lewis
  2. "Aly Walk With Me" Raveonettes
  3. "Bye Bye Bye" Plants and Animals
  4. "Dr. Carter" Lil Wayne
  5. Stay Positive The Hold Steady
  6. "Tiger Phone Card" and "Seeing Hands" Dengue Fever
  7. Jukebox Cat Power
  8. "Becky" Be Your Own Pet
  9. "I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me" Annie
  10. "Swimming Pools" Thao
  11. She & Him Volume 1
  12. "Time to Pretend" MGMT
  13. For Emma, Forever Ago Bon Iver
  14. "Murder in the City" Avett Brothers
  15. The Stage Names Okkerville River