These Poems, She Said: Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst
Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst read together at Green College, at the University of British Columbia, on Wednesday, March 20, in the late afternoon: the last event in this year’s Play Chthonics series. I was set to introduce them to the 40-odd people who had come to hear them in the Graham House fireside lounge – a capacity crowd for a poetry reading, for that intimate space – and Jan reminded me about one of the first times we had met, which was in a two-term graduate seminar led by Don McKay at Western in the fall-winter of 1986-87. She was teaching philosophy at Waterloo, I think, but would come weekly down to London to audit the Monday evening class; her Wittgenstein Elegies had been published by Brick Books earlier that year. I was a master’s student, and was just getting underway writing what would turn out to be a thesis on the poetry and poetics of Robert Bringhurst, which McKay was supervising. The seminar was called “Poetry After 1945,” if I am remembering right, and each week was focused on a different book, a different poet – chosen, I’m pretty sure, not for any particular thematic or ideological reason, but because Don was interested in them, and he thought that theirs were poems that we ought at the very least to know about, to know: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and selected poems from Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, others. One guy in the seminar was keen to do something with Sylvia Plath. (I remember also discovering, through Don, Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River that year.) And, near the end of term, Don had put on Robert Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons.
I don’t know what had drawn or what was drawing me into Bringhurst’s work at the time, whether I had picked it out from McKay’s syllabus, or found it on my own and then taken the seminar to hear more about it and to encounter those poems more fully. There was something that spoke to me quite forcefully and seriously in those days, from Bringhurst’s writing, something important. And he was also one of the few poets I had discovered who had a rigorous interest in philosophy, in thinking. What caught my ear was that Bringhurst didn’t ever merely namecheck Heidegger or Levinasor the Pre-Socratics, never merely rehearsed Zen traditions (via Gary Snyder) or First Nations mythtelling; he took these inheritances up with a keenness, a self-awareness and a deliberateness that I had never met before, and he did it not simply in but through poems, as poetry. Bringhurst aimed to have his work converse, materially and essentially, with what Kinnell called(in his brief “Prayer”) “whatever what is is.” Later poems would make this conversation more formally explicit – his “Blue Roofs of Japan” had just appeared in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, Bringhurst’s just-issued collection from McClelland and Stewart. The way I remember, it was this kind of poetically-informed conversation to which I hoped that seminar aspired.
By the start of second term, after I had been working at Bringhurst’s books for some time and with the in-class discussion of his poetry fast approaching, I was certainly aware that both McKay and Zwicky had been somehow more directly and closely implicated in his writing than I might have realized at first (although I knew McKay knew Bringhurst personally, and had sent him a few questions on my behalf about sources for poems). “Sunday Morning,” from Pieces of Map, is dedicated to them both, and suggests a kinship of thought and approach – around listening, around wilderness, around alterity and ontology – that Bringhurst characterizes as an interest, an inter-esse, in “the musical density of being.” Their poetry, in many and various registers, aspires to sing, to attain the condition of song. They were concerned, in the late 1980s, to reactivate a particular trajectory of the lyric, its noetic intensities.
So, what happened in the seminar was: one of the assignments involved presenting a close reading of a poem. I had chosen to examine Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” partly in response to an emergent line of questioning in the class around gender politics. Bringhurst placed the poem first in his selected, to enact a distancing irony, and to suggest a self-awareness about the contingency of the seemingly sculptural monumentality, the mythic reach, of the texts that followed:
These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
who would leave his wife and child because
they made noise in his study.
[. . .] These are the poems of a man
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. (Selected Poems 75)
The gesture at Plato isn’t just a philosophy joke about an authoritarian metaphysian’s aversion to the erotic. (It’s worth comparing Zwicky’s recent Plato as Artist, which recuperates an alternative Plato.) Bringhurst creates a miniature Socratic elenchus, replete with self-deprecating irony. Uncharacteristically for Plato, however, the interlocutor in this poem is female; the text’s antithetical manoeuvres, shifting from iterated critique to discomfited reaction, both sustains the authority of the male poet’s voice – everything remains filtered through him, and he is the one who affirms, at the poem’s close, that the woman’s voice has spoken “rightly” – and also dismantles any grounds he might have, other than a kind of empty verbal aestheticism (“You are, he said,/ beautiful”), to claim argumentative high ground. He sounds like he wins, but he can win only by losing, since the love he craves entails receptive openness rather than the abstract and detached rhetorical management of a well-turned phrase or line. In the seminar, I think it was difficult for me to hear the conflictedness at the core of the poem, and instead I focused only its apparent claim to rightness, its mistaken feel of surety. This reading, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Jan, and she told me so. What she valued in the poem wasn’t any feint of attention or pretense of listening, but a deliberate, intentional disavowal of ego; the poem, for her, in the white space that slashes through its penultimate line on the page, opens itself to what remains otherwise, to its ungovernable outside. (As I write this, I don’t think those would have been Zwicky’s terms; this is me, I’m sure, re-casting her critique. But however she put it, her point was a good one.) She argued.
What came out wasn’t just a corrective for me. More importantly, it was the sense that there were real stakes here, that something in this poetry mattered. And what mattered was the honing and the intensification and the acuity of thinking, of thought as an exacting, lyrical unknitting of selfishness, of self. That debate about poetics wasn’t just a remedial exercise, but an enactment of this rigorous openness, one that takes itself seriously. “Knowing, not owning” as Bringhurst puts in what he then called “Thirty Words,” which he would incorporate into his “credo” in later editions of his selected poems: “Praise of what is, / not of what flatters us / into mere pleasure” (Selected Poems 159). Neither Zwicky nor Bringhurst takes this demand lightly; poetry is careful, serious business, and since that evening seminar in 1987, I have tried to learn from and through their work – and I continue to do so – to correspond with, to be responsive to and responsible for, that care.
|Robert Bringhurst Reading at Green College|
The Play Chthonics reading, for me, reactivated this commitment to a poetry that matters. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky presented principally new work, but their tactics and idioms were still closely and thoroughly enmeshed in the kinds of lyric thinking they have been practicing, in their distinctive ways, for decades, and for which I have, for decades, admired them. Bringhurst read from a set of what he called “language” poems, works that have little to do with idiomatic American experimentalism, but addressed themselves to the foundational becoming, the ontological pluralism, that he has pursued throughout his career. Zwicky’s poems, by contrast, focused elegiacally on the essential unknowability of things, on lost connections and on gaps and silences. But her poems also distill their music from that loss, a music that wants to draw out some of the human resonances with a world in which we are all implicated, to converse openly with the unvoiced plentitude of what we are not, which is also what we are. At different points, both she and Bringhurst coincidentally described encounters with a heron as an image of this attentive address.
After the reading, I picked up a copy of a CD that Zwicky had recorded (in June 2011) called, simply, Jan Zwicky Reads. I have been listening to it off and on for the past month. As at the live reading, I find that as I listen certain of her lines seem to hang in the air, to resonate: “that bare light not yet sweet with birds.” Zwicky’s melopoeic technique, her mastery of the phonemic music of language, evident here in the audible meshwork of consonants and gently modulating vowels, is more than “sweet” craft; what inheres in these voicings – I’m sure that’s the right term for this lyric practice – is more than the mere pleasures of listening. Zwicky offers in small, in lines such as these, a musical elenchus, a negation (“not yet”) that highlights the hiatuses and epistemological uncertainties that poetry seeks to bridge, as metaphor, but also construes as its substance, as its inevitable shortfall, again as metaphor, as approximation, as asymptote: a version, I’d say, of what Bringhurst has called, translating Paul Celan, “the caught light’s closeness / to audibility” (Selected Poems 143). The sweetness Zwicky’s poetry seeks out is never the sugary or the saccharine, but is consistently a resonance, a harmonic sweet spot, where the disparate textures of an unclosed world can briefly, barely, touch and argue, catch and hum, collide and sing.
A Short Take on Barry Long, Freedom in the Air
Freedom in the Air is a powerful suite for quartet, improvised to accompany a projection of iconic, historic photographs (by James Karales and others) of events in the American Civil Rights movement. A group led by trumpeter Barry Long, and including saxophonist David Pope, bassist Joshua Davis and percussionist Phil Haynes, performed the music at the Campus Theatre of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on 23 February 2012; the performance was recorded on video, which can be viewed online through the university’s website. The compact disc or download is available for purchase from bandcamp.com. It’s a great recording, well worth buying.
The music is ekphrastic; sounds are keyed to visuals, sometimes providing auditory allegories – as in the fifth section, “Fifteen Minutes in Birmingham,” when the racial violence depicted in the photographs draws discordant, harsh responses from the players – but more often acting as reactive contemplation, a kind of aural commentary. For musical source material, Long draws on spirituals and protest songs, many of them from African-American religious and social traditions from the southern states, many of them performed by participants in the marches and protests to which the images bear historical witness. (Two pieces come from elsewhere than the American public domain, but both are deeply enmeshed in the civil rights soundscape: John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” – posthumously issued on his album Cosmic Music – and the song that provides the suite’s title, “Freedom in the Air” by Bernice Johnson Reagon.) Watching the video, you can see how attentive to and how focused on these images the members of the quartet remain, throughout the performance. The photos act not so much as score but as timbral palette, setting the tone.
Without the visuals, the music still works incredibly well, but as a meditative rather than a contemplative tone-poem. Things open with Long solo on flugelhorn, intoning Reagon’s melody as an autumnal taps, framing what follows from the quartet in a largely elegiac register. The music on the whole is consistently measured and self-aware, rarely venturing beyond a medium tempo, but it’s also deeply evocative, entrancing, awash in genuine pathos. I have been trying for a few days to think of an analogue for this group’s sound, and the closest I can come is, perhaps, Paul Motian’s trios with Charles Brackeen (whose firm, deliberate tenor saxophone tone David Pope sometimes seems to echo). Phil Haynes’s drumming can occasionally be subtly unruly, gently but firmly disrupting easy agreements. Collectively, the quartet tends to refuse sentimentality or nostalgia in favour of a lyrically incisive and open-eared historicism, giving difficult episodes in a shared national past a present-tense relevance, a contemporaneity. Improvisation creates a set of contingent segues between what’s been done and what still happens, and invites us to consider, to reconsider, how negotiating these cultural challenges can vitally matter to us even now, especially now.
The manoeuvres between the contemplative and the meditative, between the reactive and the expressive, that this performance undertakes can be better addressed, I think, by looking at the video, and paying attention to the intensity of the musicians’ focus – how they themselves look at the on-screen images. Three of the four members of the quartet are academics, and two hold doctorates: I mention this fact to suggest that, if this music is to be understood as scholarship, there is no sense of clinical detachment or analytic objectivity here. The historical engagements they undertake are, instead, consistently creative, vital and moving. It’s also worth noting – although it’s a bit presumptuous on my part – that none of the musicians appears to have a visibly African-American heritage; given that they are playing through such thoroughly racially-inflected terrain, they might tend to be positioned as outsiders or onlookers. But Long’s point in presenting this music, I’d say, is to suggest that we are all – regardless of where we might think we come from or how we look – implicated in this cultural history, and that we need not only to be self-aware of that enmeshment, but also to actively negotiate our social subjectivities, building communities not necessarily through unproblematic identifications – such as similarities of appearance or background – but through our encounters with difference, with our own inherent differences. Barry Long’s music makes one such set of encounters sing. The video ends with a minute-long spontaneous silence that the CD can’t include, but it’s also one of the most powerful musical moments in the performance: a space of thoughtful, respectful exchange onto which this fleetingly profound music opens, helps us open.
Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect
Here is the principal part of the text of a fifteen-minute conference paper I delivered in September 2007 at the University of Guelph, speaking at the colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, entitled that year “People Get Ready,” and focused on the community-building and political engagements of improvised musics.
Fred Ho wants a music that speaks, and he wants to speak through music: “The music,” he writes, meaning for the most part jazz-derived improvisation, “has to and will embody messages, either explicitly (in the form of lyrics and/or song titles) or implicitly (in the sound and in its spirit).” To start out, I think, there are at least two things to note in such claims, of which Ho makes many. The foremost is almost unremarkable for its transparency, as it’s probably intended to be: Ho writes and speaks about improvised music as much as he composes and performs. The series of manifestoes, polemics and mandates that he has delivered, in essays and addresses over the last two decades, are instances of musical embodiment, not just statements about what he thinks his music does, but language forms representing the state to which his own music aspires: it wants to say what it means, directly and transparently, to its audience, “the people.” Second is a stylistic and grammatical point, really, a feature of his characteristic language that tends to be read back, by listeners of various persuasions, onto his music, often as stridency or brashness: Ho’s language, if we mean to treat it as in any way poetically shaped, is inevitably cast in an imperative mood. My question today, which I want more to pose than pretend definitively to answer, is how concretely music works toward what we might take for meaning. I want to take Fred Ho at his word. Can a baritone saxophone solo, for example, of the sort you’re hearing now, be said to speak? [Fred Ho’s arrangement of “Naima” was playing in the background, as I presented.] How does music aspire, beyond obvious programmatics, to the condition of speech? What exactly is being declared?
Jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker has written, perceptively and with a somewhat troubling accuracy, that
There are many musicians throughout jazz history who have been labeled revolutionaries, but that’s usually because of their musical accomplishments. Fred is a revolutionary who uses jazz as his medium.
The presumption, coming out of Ho’s work as much as Shoemaker’s well-attuned audition, is that sound can carry political and social meaning directly, formally; that revolution isn’t a trope but an aesthetic practice, enacted both for and with audiences. Ho describes the reaction he wants from listeners as akin to those of a child, who can “be both spellbound and revolutionized” by a given performance; music at once enthralls and enables, two countervaling states of raised consciousness – piety and critique, mimetic wonder and diegetic detachment, in a sense – that inhere in his populist claims. To play for the people, if you think about it, is both to invite mimicry and to call for unruliness, to refuse that same invitation. How, if music means to speak, can “people” be empowered by the cultish image of the inspired soloist, by his polemic force, exactly to speak out, not to be silenced by the verbal or expressive force of that declaration?
There’s a deeply embedded formal contradiction here that speaks to the nature of a musical politics, and to the ways in which music operates, I think, as a cultural pedagogy, as instruction in democratic or revolutionary forms of critique. In a talk at the triennial conference of ACLALS on 19 August 2007, Henry Giroux spoke with some dismay about what he called “the politics of disposability” among American young people, calling for a renewed and hopeful cultural pedagogy, following Paolo Freire, a radical futurity that dignifies people “so that they can become fully free.” This is Fred Ho’s vocabulary. Not only is it necessary to foster critical engagement among students with the cultural materials in which they find themselves immersed, teaching how to “read critically,” but there is a pressing need, Giroux argues, “to prepare students to function as critical agents capable of understanding, engaging, and transforming those discourses and institutional contexts that closed down democratic public life” (119). They need to take part. Despite his deep suspicions of aesthetics, which he suggests is tainted by “the residue of nostalgia and elitism” and also “seems particularly out of date, if not irrelevant” given the pervasiveness of a largely debased popular culture (are there echoes of Adorno here?), Giroux insisted on moving beyond critical thinking toward enabling students as “cultural producers,” as makers, as co-participants. But what do such arts sound like? Should we still be cautious of aesthetics, given the barometers of taste and technique that tend to manifest in such contexts? How do we face up to the demands of a democratic or popular art, of its audience? We’re negotiating a tension over the declamatory and the formal here: the expressive and the well-made. Addressing the rigour of our engagement depends, if you think about it, on a set of standards against which the openness of that participatory dynamic mitigates.
Fred Ho’s music operates, I think, on versions of this tension, negotiating the uncertainties and challenges between naïve, expressive directness and aesthetic detachment. As a composer and improviser, Ho has pursued remarkable and effective fusions of Asian heritage and folk forms with African-American avant-garde jazz, and many of his ballets, operas and suites – as extended idioms adapted from their “legit” Eurocentric counterparts and re-imaged as culturally porous, collaborative events – have been realized in complex, poly-dimensional, multi-media productions. These structural and conceptual pluralities have become hallmarks of Ho’s creative enmeshment in the unsettled and unsettling irresolutions of his diasporic cultural status, as an Asian-Pacific American. Difference and contrariety are, in Ho’s work, not problems to be resolved but constitutive elements through which liberation, both as a raising of consciousness and as tangible political transformation, might be sought. At the same time, Ho openly acknowledges his debt to the social polemics of Black Nationalism of the 1960s. His work as a writer (represented, for example, in his contributions to the anthology Legacy to Liberation, 2000) remains seemingly bound up in identity-politics and Marxist apologetics, an often fiercely uncompromising discourse that appears, as I’ve noted already, stylistically and theoretically at odds with his radically destabilizing musical practices. At the same time, if you’ve been able at all to listen to the baritone solo and now to his arrangementof John Coltrane’s “Naima” playing in the background, you realize that his music, on the surface, is not premised on inaccessibility or difficulty, consistently, but repeatedly seeks out – through riffs, repetitions, allusions to popular idioms – to involve listeners in its unfolding. The baritone solo, while offered up as an extension of the lineage of Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, doesn’t aspire to Gunther Schuller’s musicological complexities or to radical serialism. Similarly, Ho’s admiration for poets such as Amiri Baraka or Kalamu ya Salaam appears to have much more to do with the verbal directness of their political interventions, with their emphasis on declarative immediacy, than with their linguistic or formal innovations. The title of the suite from which this music is taken bespeaks the politics of verbal directness and transparent engagement that Ho craves: “Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes.” Meaning, while at issue, wants to be denuded equivalence, unmarred by subtleties or doodads. The lyrics by Ann T. Greene, Andrea Lockett and others for the suite, a pro-feminist anti-patriarchal work commissioned in 1993 by WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) and BWARE (Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange), pull no punches. While resolutely opposed to sexual violence, the work, for Ho, has its roots in reactive physical confrontation: “My mother is a survivor of domestic violence, and as a young teenager, I physically fought my father to stop him beating her. I now see this as my first
revolutionary insurrection and challenge of patriarchal authority.”
Still, when Ho asks, in a recent artist’s statement, “how does music free us?” he draws attention to sonic texture and to poetic structure as inherently, crucially political, focusing our ears on how that challenge occurs, physiologically and consciously, rather than simply what it might be about. Ho’s apparently naïve preference for uninterrogated declamation – what some critics have dismissed as crude stridency – actually involves him, along with his listeners, in a difficult dialectic, a deeply rooted tension over the nature and practice of expression itself: of the interconnections between doing and saying. Paul Gilroy’s discussion of jazz and diaspora in Against Race – where he argues for “new possibilities and new pleasures” enabled by the fundamental dislocations of diasporic non-identities – provides a starting point for re-thinking Ho’s indebtedness to racial nationalisms, and for a more careful and attentive reading of his mesh of sounds and words. Coming to Gilroy might seem problematic in this context, given Ho’s overt attachment to what Gilroy dismisses as raciology, but Ho’s frequently discussed but still largely uninterrogated adherence to black nationalism – particularly as a non African American – finds one of its moments of coherence in the context of diaspora. How can a Chinese-American seriously compose a Black Panther suite, for example? There’s no reason why he shouldn’t of course, but the racial politics explicit in this work certainly trouble that allegiance, although trouble is exactly, I think, what Fred Ho might be about.
Working to define “the distinctiveness of diaspora poetics” (335), Gilroy cites Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka’s (1967) poetic formulation of “the changing same”:
This changing same is not some invariant essence that gets enclosed subsequently in a shape-shifting exterior with which it is casually associated. It is not the sign of an unbroken, integral inside protected by a camouflaged husk. The phrase names the problem of diaspora politics and diasporic poetics. . . . Invariably promiscuous, diaspora and the politics of commemoration it specifies, challenge us to apprehend mutable, itinerant forms that can redefine the idea of culture through a reconciliation with movement and dynamic variation. (“Diaspora and the Detours of Identity” 336; Against Race 129-130)
James Clifford, among many others, criticizes this formulation inasmuch as it tends to abstract and to diffuse collective political and social agencies, the possibility of there even being a “people”:
diaspora discourses such as Gilroy’s refuse to let go of a “changing same,” something endlessly hybridized and in process but persistently there-memories and practices of collective identity maintained over long stretches of time. Gilroy attempts to conceive the continuity of a “people” without recourse to land, race, or kinship as primary “grounds” of continuity. What, then, is the persistent object of his history? How to circumscribe this “changing same?” (Clifford 320)
This is a serious issue for a version of what I’ve heard here start to be called social aesthetics, I think: how effective to locate and to speak to a popular audience.
Ho’s recording of John Coltrane’s “Naima” (1998) – with lyrics by poet and journalist Andrea M. Lockett – offers listeners an opportunity to address Ho’s deliberately conflicted relationship to the radical sixties, and also suggests how a dynamic critical relationship between Ho’s work and his multiple cultural and musical heritages – what he names a practice of radical respect – has the potential to enact a model for new and liberated human communities, an arduous and challenging idealism he calls, following Sun Ra, embracing the impossible.
stones that need not: Short Take on Colin Stetson & Mats Gustafsson
I’m starting out this post on my mobile phone app while waiting in line for Red Cat Records to open on this April Saturday morning for Record Store Day. So it seems like an appropriate occasion – standing iPhone in hand to pick up some new vinyl – to write about the copy I received by mail-order, yesterday, of the Rune Grammofon LP stones, a live recording of an improvised duo performance at the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival by saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Colin Stetson. It was their first meeting in this configuration, although both have played for years in similar alt-music circles, and seem to share a sensibility for mixing post-punk and avant-jazz in their playing. They also both have a well-established thing for low horns: on this occasion, Stetson plays alto and bass saxophones, Gustafsson the tenor and baritone. The concert itself was fairly brief, a 45-minute set at a packed Performance Works (there was no admission charge) on Granville Island, on a Sunday afternoon in late June. And I was there, too.
The four pieces on the record – which clock in between five and twelve minutes each – have been titled retroactively, and presumably by the Swedish Gustafsson, with fragments “inspired by” (adapted from?) the poetry of his compatriot, the modernist Gunnar Ekelöf: “stones that rest heavily”; “stones that can only be”; “stones that need not”; stones that only have.” I don’t recognize the references, but I don’t know Ekelöf’s poetry well enough, not at all. But even as a set of post hoc cues, the titles not only lend the slightly-edited set on record the feel of conceptual coherence, which it actually has, but also suggest something of the improvisational aesthetic at work here. I haven’t been able, with a cursory search, to locate any of the source-texts for the titles, but stones are a recurrent image in Ekelöf and are associated with enthropy and death, a trace perhaps held over from his early-career “suicidal” poetics, as in these lines from “The Sea is the Greatest Sculptor” (translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg):
The sea and death
There is no stone so jagged
the sea won’t rub it smooth
or grind it to sand
But I don’t hear in the duo’s music either lapidary patience or worried foundations. The emphasis on low fundamentals, the long drones and overtones with which the first and longest track on the record begins for instance, gives way to tongue flutters and plunked finger-pads, vocalized growls and arpeggiated counterpoint: interruption and cross talk, as much as the meditative convergence of lines. The music is essentially dialogic, but that conversation is driven by antithesis as much as it is by accord, the verso of Ekelöf’s poetic, his “Non Serviam,” a biblical phrase which can translate a duplicity, a contradiction, meaning both I will not serve and I will not transgress, an amalgam of refusal and deference. Or, as Ekelöf frames this disavowal poetically, as a fraught relationship to identity and belonging,
I am a stranger in this land
but this land is no stranger in me!
I am not at home in this land
but this land behaves as if it where at home in me!
[. . .]
I cannot live in this land
but this very land lives like venom in me!
A version of this admixture of contrariety and ecstasy informs Stetson and Gustafsson’s interplay. The second track moves through echoes of Harry Carney-like Ellingtonia to sonic gesticulations at Roscoe Mitchell‘s angularities. The stuttering upper partials at the opening of the third cut recall Pharoah Sandersin Coltrane’s “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” while fragments of a Mancini-like caper theme cycle through the fourth. The music is live, in situ and a little noisy; people murmur, a child speaks, other music from a distant outdoor stage thumps softly underneath one piece. But the duo only seems to draw more energy from the hubbub. They take possession of their bandstand, committed and aggressively vital, making the place speak, making it happen. Not as homecoming, no, but as an evocation of creative estrangements, the coincidence of resonant differences: the audible collisions of what need not and can only be.
Short Take on Brad Cran, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Jay MillAr
Nightwood Editions launched a trio of new poetry books in Vancouver tonight, with readings to a packed house at the Western Front. Publisher Silas White introduced Jay MillAr – himself a poetry publisher, helming Book Thug in Toronto – as one of the country’s underappreciated talents. MillAr set up half a dozen poems from Timely Irreverence by noting jokingly he’d seen a Green Day concert a few days ago and had now found a proper punk-inspired stance for reading poetry.
|You can still see a little of the Green Day-inspired stance here.|
MillAr’s writing foregrounds a wry self-awareness: most of the poems thematize themselves as poems, as avowedly contingent verbal artifacts (as in the title poem: “I’m tinkering with these lines . . .”). Another preoccupation in his work seems to be with collisions of representation and violence, as in “More Trouble with the Obvious,” where in a kind of dark comedy of innocence he describes how “kids” turn found objects into imaginary guns, which still – as mundane alchemies, blurring creativity into threat – have the potential to “blow you away.”
Elizabeth Bachinsky’s poems from The Hottest Summer in Recorded Historyhave a lighter touch, but draw on a similarly intensive, if playful self-consciousness, setting formal detachment and poetic “craft” (“Eliot was right, it’s useless to describe a feeling”) against confessions of personal investment, of getting her feelings hurt:
To dislike this poem, to dislike me.
[. . .]
Astonishing. Poets like this word.
I like this word. I’ll use it again. Astonishing!
How could you not like me? Not like this thing?
She reminds me at times of Colleen Thibaudeau, with her fearless attachment to expressive particulars and to the pleasures of major-keyed melodic diction. As with her other books, Bachinsky’s range of forms (from villanelle to sonnet) is impressive; her reading of the mono-rhymed “Nails” was a highlight (check it out, get the book).
Brad Cran read a set of four poems dedicated to Gillian Jerome. These, too, are personal pieces, but very different in tone from Bachinsky’s. Some of the pieces in Ink on Paper have developed into what Cran has characterized as essay-poems: long-lined, longer texts that combine a narrative plainness (“It was days before Halloween . . .”) with almost journalistic descriptions of personal history and contemporary politics, like open letters, cut through with occasional moments of melopoeic density: “Fear beat in our chests like second hearts.” These are poems designed to communicate, without pretense or highfalutin obscurity: civic poems. Moving and provocative, they work so well when read aloud.
Never Be Touched Enough
This morning, writer, DJ and Poetry Is Dead editor Daniel Zomparelli posted to Facebook a snapshot of himself lecturing – at Pecha Kucha Vancouver, on April 11 – in front of an unnaturally large PowerPoint slide featuring the front cover of a trade edition of Suzanne Somers’s only poetry collection, Touch Me. The photo garnered a slew of likes, mostly from people who seemed to regard the image as a kind of playful meme. But Zomparelli takes Suzanne Somers’s writing seriously, as poetry. And I want to think about why he might be right, because I do, too.
I own a hardcover copy of the first edition of Touch Me. Along with my Bruce Springsteen mirror and my Sex Pistols coffee mug, it’s been one of my prized possessions, for years. I’m not sure where or when I found it or bought it – probably in a remainder bin at Zellers, although it’s not struck or marked as a cut-out. I can’t imagine I paid full price, but it looks like I might have. At first, I must have thought of the book as a joke buy, but in the last decade, as it sat unblinkingly on my office bookshelf, I have come to think of her collection of poems as significant, and as worth reading properly, fully and well.
To take these poems seriously, to take Suzanne Somers at her word, you need to learn to read in a mode that the poems can support. While they present themselves as intimate, confessional lyrics, it soon becomes apparent that they will buckle and wilt under even the slightest pressure of a close reading, of trained formal scrutiny. But they’re not meant to operate as what Cleanth Brooks would have called, in the decades of his influence, the decades leading up to their publication, “well-wrought” literary artifacts. Touch Me is a key instance of what early 1970s, post-Jonathan Livingston Seagull American popular culture would have understood as aspirational self-expression: “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way” (Richard Bach wrote this, somewhere in the second part of his groovy fantasia). Furthermore, it’s impossible to separate poetic text from its intentional frame, from Suzanne Somers’s nascent public persona, her unabashed desire for celebrity, to make herself known, as human commodity.
Pages of the book are interspersed throughout with black-and-white images (re-textured to resemble canvas) of Somers in various wistful and contemplative poses; this isn’t, or isn’t only, a faux-naiffeint of authorial presence, but it also openly describes how that sense of intimacy can be simultaneously authentic and constructed, at once a fully-fabricated persona and the real “me” of the title, almost touchable. “I could be all those things for you,” she tells an absent lover in “Some Other Time,” or tells us as his reader/stand-ins; the line mixes the artifice of role-play with erotic candour and intentional deference—and she sustains herself, in these poems, for “him” (often, but not always, Alan Hamel, who appears in two of the photos), and, as his surrogates, for us.
The poems always, always direct themselves at concocting privacy: “I like the gentle quiet loneliness of being alone.” The redundancy here is all-too-obviously awkward – again, it bears repeating that these poems will easily crumble under too close, and to my mind too unfair, an analysis – but as a refrain it overstates the outcome that all of her poetry craves: a fiction of proximity. The untutored, off-the-cuff bathos of many of her lines – “House plants have a way of invading my privacy” – only further reinforces the sense that we keep drawing closer, poem by poem, to her unguarded self.
Wikipedia dates the publication of Touch Me at 1980, on the crest of Somers’s success on Three’s Company, but the book actually first appeared in 1973, when she had had only a handful of small roles and cameos in film and had been a regular on the TV show Mantrap. More to the point, in 1970, just prior to the composition of Touch Me, she had done a nude “test” photo-shoot for Playboy, but had refused to be photographed for the magazine the following year; those photos were eventually published in 1980 by Playboy, in response apparently to Somers’s repeated public denials that they even existed. Significantly, her disavowal of such intimate images points up the fakery, the constructedness of an all-too-close, masculine scopophilia, exactly the same sort of desire – to be looked at, and to be touched – that her book of poems unerringly affirms. Touch Me, it’s worth noting, contains a satiric poem “The Model,” which offers an extended critique of her exploitation (“The smiling girl obediently transforms . . .”) by the erotic image-mill.
But her acknowledgement that such representation, in word and in image, inherently offers falsehood and deception, is counterposed in a poem fittingly titled “Lies” to the ability of the body (“my hands, my mouth, my caress”) to deceive; corporeal “lies” are worst of all because they mark not simply an artifice but a failure of connection, a hiatus: “And now I know something is over.” The denuded body can still obfuscate and play false, but in candidly confessing her failure, Somers restores a vestigial connection with her readers, as if we were sharing a secret, her small shame. By admitting that her body lies, she strangely reaffirms its truth.
This is a kind of celebrity apophasis, a disavowal that nonetheless delivers, or at least implicitly claims to deliver, what it withholds. And it’s a confessional marketing tactic that Suzanne Somers has used throughout her working life, a tactic that a severely negative review of her failed 2005 one-woman Broadway career retrospective The Blonde in the Thunderbird (a reference to her cameo in American Graffiti), made abundantly clear:
Ms. Somers is undoubtedly sincere in her desire to bare her battles with insecurity and shame in order to serve as a model, and perhaps a healer, for those whose therapy cannot be subsidized by the sale of Torso Tracks. [. . .] Liberally laced with the bland jargon of self-help books, her story proves the peculiar truth that a victory over low self-esteem often comes at the price of a swan-dive into narcissism.
Maybe so. But it’s this inversion of “The Emperor has no clothes” – a baring all that leaves her fully veiled, publically private – that has informed her self-presentation since Touch Me first appeared. “This is a book,” it says in the one-page introduction, “about touching—about human hands and arms, eyes and mouths, lives and memories, all the instruments of touch.” Well, only in so far as Suzanne Somers can present herself as common, as typically human. “Touch me,” the title poem concludes, “For I was made to be touched. / I can never be touched enough.” This kind of self-making, this auto-poiesis, both depends upon and mitigates against that commonality; we know, after all, that what we’re actually touching, holding, is a book of poems and pictures, a surrogate. She can never be touched enough because she can never be touched at all.
The echo, hardly deliberate but real enough, is of the Biblical Noli me tangere, “Touch me not,” which the unascended Jesus says to Mary Magdelene (John 20:17), caught in a post-Easter hiatus between flesh and light, humanity and transcendence. In The Space of Literature (1959), Maurice Blanchotconverts and rephrases this distancing imperative, a metaphysical disavowal, into a figure of what constitutes literature per se, Noli me legere, “Read me not”:
La même situation peut encore se décrire ainsi l’écrivain ne lit jamais son oeuvre. Elle est, pour lui, l’illisible, un secret, en face de quoi il ne demeure pas. Un secret, parce qu’il en est séparé. Cette impossibilité de lire n’est pas cependant un mouvement purement négatif, elle est plutôt la seule approche réelle que l’auteur puisse avoir de ce que nous appelons oeuvre. L’abrupt Noli me legere fait surgir, là où il n’y a encore qu’un livre, déjà l’horizon d’une puissance autre. Expérience fuyante, quoique immédiate. Ce n’est pas la force d’un interdit, c’est, à travers le jeu et le sens des mots, l’affirmation insistante, rude et poignante que ce qui est là, dans la présence globale d’un texte définitif, se refuse cependant, est le vide rude et mordant du refus, ou bien exclut, avec l’autorité de l’indifférence, celui qui, l’ayant écrit, veut encore le ressaisir à neuf par la lecture. L’impossibilité de lire est cette découverte que maintenant, dans l’espace ouvert par la création, il n’y a plus de place pour la création — et, pour l’écrivain, pas d’autre possibilité que d’écrire toujours cette oeuvre.
Pardon the long quotation, but what Blanchot is getting at is pretty close, I think, to what Suzanne Somers manages to articulate, in a more popularly pitched and less obviously “literary” text, as the stuff of poetry, of her poetry: the paradox of touch, which Blanchot characterizes as an impossibility of and within reading itself, a kind of persistent secret, the remains of a refusal to be remaindered, to demeure: a fleeting horizon of experience, however immediate and however publically private it might appear.
Time Pressures: Short Take on Roscoe Mitchell with Tyshawn Sorey and Hugh Ragin
Roscoe Mitchell’s new, eponymous album on Wide Hive records presents him, as composer and as improviser, in shifting configurations: in a trio with himself on saxophones (alternately sopranino, alto and bass), Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey at the drum kit; in duo (on flute and alto sax) with Sorey, who switches to piano for two of the three tracks; and solo with a set of percussion miniatures, played on what in his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago used to be called “little instruments,” which would include everything from small tuned gongs to found objects. The album is sequenced as an extended palindrome, solo-duo-trio-[solo-trio-duo-trio-solo]-duo-trio-solo, creating an interlace of varying sound-textures while also suggesting recurrence, a cyclical symmetry.
Mitchell’s solos all involve delicately a-metrical plunks and tintinnabulations; he has recorded similar percussion pieces on previous solo projects, but here they feel artfully succinct and carefully realized. Striking his tabletop array of wooden blocks and metallophones with compact sticks and mallets, he produces fleeting, irregularly cadenced clusters of pulses and beats. Time takes on a certain plasticity in these brief performances, as Mitchell alternatively presses toward and draws back from an implied downbeat, a centred measure that never quite arrives. Time hangs between counted and uncountable, openings and distensions, small extemporaneities, spaces. His saxophone tone is always fully-blown, reedy and firm, but his pitch – like his rhythmic sense – often seems to skirt around its centres, as he deliberately manipulates micro-pressures of breath and embouchure to stretch and pull the notes just slightly sharp or flat, creating subtly thrumming layers of detuned harmonics. This plasticity is a hallmark of Roscoe Mitchell’s sound, as I hear it, his improvised lines pushing and tugging at their audible edges.
Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming develops a similar kind of temporal openness, and his sense of auditory space recalls for me some of the work of Paul Motian and Jerome Cooper, and – perhaps echoing a little of Roscoe Mitchell’s early Old/Quartet sessions – Phillip Wilson. I love his playing here, working a middle zone between pulse and arrhythmia. His piano is also compelling; his touch can be hard, but Sorey uses what could potentially be taken for an underdeveloped pianism to great advantage, treating the piano the way maybe it should be treated, as percussion. On “A Game of Catch,” he starts by thrumming and plucking inside the instrument, working the interstices of Mitchell’s melodic fragments. But I especially like his playing on “The Way Home,” where he develops waves and surges, dispersions and clusters, that feel reminiscent to me of Sam Rivers’s piano forays with his trios and with Dave Holland. Sorey’s playing evinces a compellingly nascent rhythmatizing – texturally, a marked contrast from his Morton Feldman-influenced “Permutations for Solo Piano” on his 2007 release That/Not (although, as sound conceptualists, both Sorey and Mitchell are not that far removed from Feldman’s interest in resonance and refrain, what a recent article in The Guardian called “the substance of sound”). And Hugh Ragin is excellent throughout the record, drawing on sonic vocabularies developed in his Sound Pictures for Solo Trumpet(Hopscotch, 2002, a CD that featured his own compositions as well as a suite by Wadada Leo Smith). A master of free improvisation, Ragin evokes at times in his tone and attack the clarion spectre of Louis Armstrong, at others the more laser-like inflections of Lee Morgan: his playing is that fine, that good. I could listen to him all night and day.
Centripetally and centrifugally, convergent and divergent, the music of Mitchell, Sorey and Ragin explores the elastic and uneasy verges of time present, wanting to make its ragged limits sing.
Fred Wah Speaking, and a Little “Ayler Music”
Thanks to Fred Wah, who gave a very fine and intellectually poised talk yesterday afternoon—“Permissions: TISH poetics 1963 Thereafter – ”—as the 2013 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture here at the University of British Columbia. He described the emergence of his own poetics alongside the founding of the mimeographed poetry journal TISH by a small group of student poets, studying with Warren Tallman and Ron Baker, among others, in the English Department here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (The history of TISH is by now fairly well documented: see work by C. H. Gervais, Eva-Marie Kröller, Frank Davey and Keith Richardson. Those young poets—George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah—would go on, along with others associated with the group including Daphne Marlatt, to have substantive impacts on English-Canadian poetry and poetics.) Wah’s title, “Permissions,” alludes to the first poem of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field (1960):
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is. (Duncan 7)
Wah suggested that Duncan’s visit to UBC in the summer of 1961, following on the publication of The Opening of the Field, offered an opening for him into a set of poetic possibilities, and presented “a place of first permission” in as much as it directed his thinking toward place, and seemed to offer him permission “to engage the local,” to turn to his own locale, Vancouver in 1961, as viable source matter for poetry. He remembered the impact of Duncan reading this specific poem at the university that summer. (Extensive audio of three lectures at UBC by Robert Duncan, delivered from July 23 to 25, 1961, and attended by Wah, can be found hosted on the Slought Foundation website, in a cluster curated by Louis Cabri; Cabri has edited Wah’s selected poems for Wilfred Laurier UP. The Fred Wah Digital Archive provides open access to essential materials, ranging from manuscript to video recordings, from throughout Wah’s body of work.)
His lecture traced a trajectory of concern in his own poetics, over the course of at least 50 years now, from place to face to race, as he put it, coming to his more recent interest in cultural hybridity. But at all points, he suggested, he remained attentive to particular figurations of opening, with Duncan’s text serving as locus (non) classicus, coalescing in the “space of [creative] equivocation” marked by the hyphen, an equivocation between permission and restriction that gives rise to certain uneasy formal traits in his writing. He referred to the impact of Gary Snyder’s innovative diction (in “Riprap”), of Robert Duncan’s “tone-leading of vowels,” and of Charles Olson’s projective verse, a “poetics yet to be found out” in which prosody served as a musical, generative tool. I don’t want to give the wrong impression; most of Wah’s talk was historical and anecdotal, and he occasionally drew out members of the audience (such as W. H. New) who had also been studying at UBC at the time. But I think I was drawn, as I listened, to the more technical and formal claims Wah made, his disclosures – sometimes in passing – about how his own ear for language works. Jazz improvisation, he suggested, “flipped him into poetry,” and as in jazz, he liked to play around with the music of words. I asked him afterward during the question period if he could elaborate a little, and he said that he understood improvisation “as a way of questioning assumed structures,” drawing analogies in particular with the capacity for chafing at the strictures of composition (and overly careful composure, perhaps) in the awkward excess of “the long phrase, the long ad lib.” (“I never did do well at composition,” he admitted.) A trumpet player himself, he referred to Miles Davis and Chet Baker; I understand the subtle instabilities Wah suggests he hears in both of those players’ phrasings, although I’m not sure about the length of their lines. In any case, the sense of the poetic line as interrogative breath seems to me to be crucial here, and something at the core of how Wah’s writing happens.
I first came to Wah’s poetry in the early 1980s when I was an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario. I found a copy of his Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh (fresh and unopened from Coach House Press) on the shelves in the Weldon library, and I remember what struck me most were the indentations and spacings of the poems on each page, their typographical shapes. What caught my eye, too, was what I recall as a reference to Albert Ayler, to “Ayler music,” in one of the texts. I was getting deeper and deeper into Spiritual Unity and Vibrations and Witches and Devils at that point, and here unexpectedly, surprisingly, was someone writing poems that emerged, somehow, out of that open listening. It had been years, but before Wah’s talk I tried to search out the phrase, to find where it came from. It wasn’t, it turns out, from Wah’s book. It’s funny how lines can blur. I re-located it in George Bowering’s introduction to an earlier selected poems from Talonbooks, Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek (1980):
What the referential-descriptive mind sees as disorder (Chinese or Ayler music, for examples) is really part of another order. & not a competitive one, either.
So Wah is essentially a musician. He does not write fiction because his aesthetic is not geared to construction. (Once, trying to build a cabin, he put the hammer thru his front teeth.) Rather his muse urges continuity, making a line of music that disappears as it goes, like mist thru the branches. He blows solos that derive their meaning from their con-text (see how many of his poems are “letters” to other poets), in the whole forest of the composition. With others he conspires to sound our world.
He is the most musical of us all. (Loki 17)
The disorder-order dyad, which Wah reframed yesterday in his talk as permission-restriction, still obtains in his thinking, and Bowering’s intro is replete with resonances and flares (although he doesn’t quite anticipate the “bio-fiction” of Diamond Grill, and he makes Wah’s partial “Chinese” background seem a little too unproblematic). But when he says that “with others”—and Wah is, preeminently, I’d say, a poet of shared and open alterities—Wah sounds our world, sounds us out and sounds out to us, I think Bowering has it exactly right. And it’s this improvisational word-music, which some of us years ago thought we might have heard in a kind of generative relation to Albert Ayler, that Wah continues to pursue, and to make happen.
Some Books I Cited
Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: Grove, 1960.
Wah, Fred. Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek: Selected Poems. Vancouver:
– – -. Breathin’ My Name With A Sigh.Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1982.