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“So many small things I still want to see”: Elise Partridge and Robert Lowell

The expanded edition of Elise Partridge’s remarkable collection Chameleon Hours (2008) reprints poems from her first volume, Fielder’s Choice (2002), including a brilliant set of four brief dramatic monologues based on lectures given in the last year of his life by Robert Lowell, lectures Elise Partridge attended and for which, she notes, she “took detailed notes on his remarks about nineteenth and twentieth-century writers.” Her poems are much more than reiterated transcriptions of Lowell’s classes, or ventriloquisms of his voice. They trace their way through a mesh of intertexts, expanding Lowell’s own iterative method in Notebook 1967-1968 (1969), History (1973) and other of his late volumes, colliding elocutionary rigour with colloquial immediacy to create a vital admixture – characteristic of Elise Partridge’s finest work – of the confessional and the objective, of the personal and the formal, of the serendipitous and the exacting.
Most of the poems in Chameleon Hours are elegies: meditations on loss, on the art of losing. They draw their passing, brief intensities from a heightened awareness of lived material detail, of “small things,” that comes in the wake of absence. Robert Pinsky praises this practice as her “art of noticing”: “Absence and failure are described [in Elise Partridge’s poetry] in a way that takes pleasure in accuracy: a considerable and original accomplishment.” Her poems, for me, evoke much more than mere pleasure, much more than an enjoyment of pretty craft, and her accomplishment is more than considerable: the crisp particularity of her characteristic line engenders a keen pathos in restraint, and unflinchingly confronts the hard expressive limits of her own mortality—“pretty or not,” as she puts it. In “Chemo Side Effects: Vision,” one of her pieces that Pinsky singles out for praise, she notes how there are “So many small things I still want to see”; the modulating vowels distilled from the long-I—the withdrawing, observant subject at the heart of this particular line attenuated into phonemic shivers, ī becoming ah-ee, then lightly drawled into aw and ĭ and braided through commonplace consonants, s’s and m’s and t’s—produce a palpable set of articulated, glassy shards on the teeth and tongue, small bursts of sense. Vatic wonder, under Elise Partridge’s pen, doesn’t so much diminish as gain a tensile acuity, a closeness.
Her Robert Lowell poems recall not only Lowell’s voice and approach, his recurrent plea for “the grace of accuracy” as he writes in one of his last poems, but also the voices and recalibrated transcripts, the “notebooks,” that fill in his absence, his retreat; she also gestures at Elizabeth Bishop’smemorial for Lowell, “North Haven,” which describes Lowell’s meticulousness as a compulsion to revise, to “derange, or re-arrange” his poems obsessively, a reflexive craft arbitrarily halted only by his sudden death in 1977. Partridge took classes with Lowell that same year, and her poems are in one sense gatherings of some of his last words. Day by Day, Lowell’s last collection, also appeared in 1977; its final poem, “Epilogue,” acts as a contingent self-elegy, in which Lowell laments what he hears “in the noise of my own voice” as a “misalliance” between imagination and memory; the last lines gesture forward, with a caveat, at this unsatisfied poetic desire, his “want to see,” to keep noticing:
                    But sometimes everything I write
                    with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
. . .
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name. (Day by Day 127)
The recalcitrant egotism and decrepit masculinity that persist in Lowell as “poor passing facts” of his existence are gently shifted in Elise Partridge’s reimagining of his lectures; like History, each poem takes up the biography and the voices of other poets, here Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman (twice), but has Lowell tease out moments in all three of fraught grandeur, when they could each be “operatic” or “awfully eloquent,” and when their robust poetic authority, their masculine assurance, is undone by “something . . . personal.” When Partridge has Lowell recall that Williams thought Crane “was all rhetoric,” the chain of spectral, layered voices at once resists poetic heightening and aspires, despite itself, to a feeling of living presence, of spontaneous immediacy that exceeds the limits of its own cleverness and craft: “And often rhythmical musical things / aren’t good, they’re padding for not feeling” (Fielder’s Choice 74).
The verbal music that Partridge characteristically seeks is perhaps closer to Elizabeth Bishop’s version of Lowell than to Lowell himself; in a 1964 note, Bishop asks for an art—I want to say a poetry, but she doesn’t—that consists in “some intimate, low-voiced, and delicate things in our mostly huge and roaring, glaring world.” Against heightening, Bishop wants the “delight” of exacting “living” diction; in “North Haven,” she catalogues local flowers, capitalized as if each were given a proper rather than a generic name, “Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch, / Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright” (Poems 210). In the poems of Chameleon Hours, Elise Partridge deploys a related tactic around “souvenirs of the world,” building tenuous recollected cascades of words—as in the last lines of “Thirteen,” looking back on backyard gatherings of teenage girls:
                  And before we bounded off Kate’s trampoline
                  our teams were redivided:
                  pretty or not.
                  Earthward, staggering, reaching, reeled, thirteen.
(Chameleon Hours 6)
Part of her poetic gift, derived from Bishop but hardly derivative, is her capacity to frame a lightly dissonant clash of sound and texture as aspirant lyric, as an approach to the condition of song that delights in its almosting, its edgy shortfall, reaching. (Like Bishop, too, she has a thing for birds.)
         “Four Lectures by Robert Lowell, 1977” voices this shortfall, in its opening description of Hart Crane, as a gibe at idealism: “He’s taunting you with paradise.” Discussing Crane’s “Repose of Rivers,” Partridge’s recollected Lowell locates a poetry in the dissolution of memory:
                    The river speaks the poem;
the river’s washing out to sea
like your own life—the river’s doomed,
all childhood memories, washing out to sea
to find repose.
This last broken cadence approaches an iambic scansion, but that rhythmic surety dissolves both in the looseness of Lowell’s everyday speech (as if his talk were nearly but not quite subtended by metrical tics from his poetry) and in the refrain-like repetitions that suggest a mind feeling its way forward into words. The poem itself, like the other three “lectures” here, is also thoroughly reflexive, and we feel Lowell’s words diffused through the filter of Elise Partridge’s ear and hand, as she reconstructs his voice against the washing-out of whatever it was or is that speaks this poem, that refuses to let it repose in tacit oblivion. Against the plain speech he seems to value in Williams’s “The Yachts,” her Lowell laments how “anything beautiful” goes “trampling over all / it doesn’t notice.” Close attention and artifice are at odds in this conception—“[b]eauty’s terrible,” he tells us—and yet he values (as opposed to Crane’s seductive “thunder and obscurity”) the beauty of “careful description.” Care, in Partridge’s lectures, amounts to an unobtrusive reiteration of what she thinks she heard, what she write down.
And yet, each of Lowell’s talks is re-lineated by her, as if to discover the poems lurking behind the everyday in his recollected words. Re-appropriated, and then sculpted rhythmically and spatially into contingent poems, his texts become what he calls, in the third lecture (a reading of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) a “loose writing,” enacting and negotiating a tension between form and formlessness, mastery and relinquishment:
                           The beginning’s all one sentence, highly
                   organized musically, but loose writing,
                   as Whitman practiced. Tempting to scan; you can’t.
What Partridge gives us is the work of formation, of revision, an organization that wants but also refuses closure, that tempts us with a poetic monumentality, a Whitmanesque vastness, that its improvisational looseness inevitably belies. Just as Lowell’s epilogue functions as self-elegy, so too do each of these four poems confront the spectre of the poet’s own death:
                   “’Goodbye My Fancy’ he intended as
his last poem . . . you’re too sick to write your last
poem, when the time comes. Clear and elegant —
except for some of the language, and the meter,
it could be seventeenth-century.
Your eyes water, reading it.”
The layered quotation marks suggest the complex embedding of voices, but also point to an understanding of the poem as a lecture, as a reading of other texts. Clarity and directness, as virtues of descriptive facticity, of an attention to small things and poor passing facts, are both enabled and impeded by poetic line. But for this particular Lowell, what matters isn’t so much the airless perfection of form as the loosened vacillation between craft and sense, what Elise Partridge confronts in her poems as an essential human want, as wanting still to see.
I can’t help but hear her own difficult confrontations with cancer and with mortality, through which she writes the poems of Chameleon Hours, each one becoming something like her last, as it addresses its own passing, but still—as she has Lowell say of Hart Crane—“unusually full of life.” In a valediction, “Farewell Desires,” she asks the “Goddess of discards,” her muse of loss, to
                    let me be a waterfall
pouring a heedless mile,
stride barefoot over the drawbridge
to the plain road.
The gift of Elise Partridge’s poetry, one of its many gifts to her readers, is its careful affordance, its clear- and open- and watery-eyed encounter with a world replete in visionary plainness and casual miracles (“Seems supernatural, doesn’t it?”), awash in the small flashes that like her we still want to see.

                        Books to Read
Elizabeth Bishop, Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 
         2011.
Robert Lowell, Day by Day. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 
         1977.
Elise Partridge, Fielder’s Choice. Montreal: Signal Editions, 2002.
– – – , Chameleon Hours. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2008. 

Equality as Listening: Maya Angelou and Dave Holland

When I heard about Maya Angelou’s passing last week, I also realized it had been a while since I had listened to Dave Holland’s setting of her 1990 poem “Equality,” two versions of which he recorded with his quartet (one with vocals by Cassandra Wilson) on his 1996 album Dream of the Elders. This group – with Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba, Eric Person on alto and soprano saxophone and Gene Jackson on drums – was a transitional band for Dave Holland, articulating between his two great quintets – the second of which would retain Nelson at its core. I’m not sure if “Equality” remained in the later quintet’s book, but I do remember hearing an instrumental version of the song when this quartet played Vancouver (at the Van East Cultural Centre) in June 1997. I remember how Dave Holland stressed that the tune was composed around a Maya Angelou poem, that her text made a difference as to how he felt his music could be heard and understood. The booklet for the ECM disc offers a “special thanks to Dr. Maya Angelou for permission to use her poem Equality, and for the inspiration and clarity of thought that her work gives to this world.”  

Maya Angelou’s work has a specific relationship to American cultural memory. It strives for clarity, for declarative resonance and public audibility. “You declare you see me dimly,” her poem “Equality” begins, ironically presenting intersubjectivity (in this instance, what will soon emerge in the poem as a gendered imbalance of power) as a longing for claritas. Her poem wants bright mutuality and distinctive, distinguished exchange.  Poetry, as self-attentive speech, meant for Angelou overcoming dimness or obscurity with demonstrative surety. Her writing enacts and invites, maybe even demands, a certain practice of shared listening that is at once responsive and responsible. Its verbal music can be simultaneously plain and arch, colloquial and poetical, convolute and direct; listen to the counterposed diction in a line from “Equality” like “You do own to hear me faintly . . .” As a form of public speech, her poetry satisfies conventional, base-line expectations (around rhyme and rhythm, for example, or around occasionally abstract diction) about what a poem ought to look and to sound like. Her poems seem to be woven from her own personal moral fibre, from her principled example: the poet, in this conception, preaches what she practices, and writes what she lives. “I go forth / alone,” she declares in the composite voice of “Our Grandmothers,” “and stand as ten thousand.”
Still, for all its emphasis on aspirational greatness and empowerment, her poetry also repeatedly recognizes its own shortfall. The uncompromising capital-P full-stop artistic power to which she lays claim in her poems – she isolates the term as a single-word sentence in the last line of “Love Letter”: “Power.” – relies on a potentially problematic assertion of self-mastery that risks replicating the oppressive social and cultural discursive machineries it seeks to overturn. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recognize and respect the historical and societal circumstances out of which Angelou’s fierce voice emerges, her proud and defiant assertion of African-American women’s heritage and language against racial and sexual oppression. Speaking truth to power, particularly on behalf of the disenfranchised, ought not to be constantly compelled to interrogate its own essentialism, and such self-directed skepticism genuinely risks undermining and diffusing the political efficacy of its challenge, and of falling into unwelcome compromise: “You have tried to destroy me / and though I perish daily, / I shall not be moved.” But the firmness of Maya Angelou’s poetics, of her declarative mode, also entails acknowledging and confronting the ethical risk around a speaking subject who might declaim without listening, who offers up a language of refusal without reciprocity – even given the obvious imbalance of power and the self-evidently just demands for expressive space, to make herself heard. What she risks in writing is very real in two senses, then, as she balances the demands of self-actualizing pride and of ethical deference. And Maya Angelou says so, too. “When you learn,” her composite grandmother intones to her cultural children, “teach. / When you get, give.” Against the sculptural stridency of her lines, Angelou also repeated counsels herself and her readers to engage in an open-armed and reciprocal humility. “Enter here,” she intones, inviting her ancestors, but also her readers, to converse with her, to listen but also to be listened to.
She frames her elegy for “Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield” with a gesture at the contradictions that inhere in representative greatness, in the work of exemplary self-expression and racial or community solidarity:
          When great souls die,
          the air around us becomes
          light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
In this set of foreshortened lines, she traces the emergence of a stricken hiatus, manifest “briefly” at a moment of subjective crisis within that collective “we” when those artists and figures (in this instance, of creative black masculinity) in whose names and images we have invested, as a community, are suddenly absent. In coming days, with the unfolding of shared grief, Angelou promises that those absences will soon “fill / with a kind of / soothing electric vibration,” but this instability is enacted, in the present tense of her poem, as a claritas – a declaration – that simultaneously wounds and salves, a “hurtful clarity.” The nascent refrain in these lines, “briefly,” affirms through repetition its own sure-footedness while bespeaking a fleeting contingency, a briefness.
Elsewhere, she describes this attentive and unsettling reciprocity as a collision in the voice of the private and public, of lyric and polemic, of self and other, as a form of mutual listening:
                  Listening winds
                  overhear my privacies
        spoken aloud (in your
        absence, but for your sake).
I think that this dynamic and shifting balance of humility and power, of surety and openness, in her lines (notice the gently fractured line-breaks in what I’ve just cited, for example) is one way of understanding what she calls “Equality.” The poem employs an 8787 syllabic stanza pattern derived from hymnals:
                  Yóu annóunce my wáys are wánton,
                  thát I flý from mán to mán,
                  but íf I’m júst a shádow tó you,
                  cóuld you éver únderstánd?
(The “but” in the third line is an anacrusis.) This fixed rhythmic form – “the rhythms never change” she states twice in the poem – has been associated with the public traditionalism of Angelou’s poetry. Christopher Benfey, in a succinct entry on Maya Angelou in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, notes how “[t]he strength of her lyrics, with their unashamed and passionate use of iambic rhythm and full rhyme, lies in the combination of blues and gospel traditions with strong emotional and political insight.” The performative rhythm of her verse, however, both here and elsewhere, tends to be trochaic rather than iambic, a rhythm that’s at once instantly assertive and recurrently elegiac, as each two-syllable unit begins on a strong stress and then briefly falls away. “Equality” takes as its subject the oppression of women by unresponsive and callous men, and the indices of race – unless we take her stanza form as inherently African American, which it isn’t – are much less in evidence than Benfey’s reading (which seems to rely on cultural stereotypes) suggests they might be in a Maya Angelou poem. The poem’s refrain – “Equality, and I shall be free.” – certainly echoes the public discourse of the civil rights movement, but the “equality” she seeks is presented as a balance of erotic power. It’s worth noting, too, that despite the nominal, declarative pressure that the chorus asserts, pronouncing the word ”equality” on its own as a gesture at enacting it verbally, that balance is also pulled slightly askew by the tacked-on modifier, a phrase that looks to the future rather than affirming an achieved present. Within a shifting braid of pronouns – you, I , we – the voice calls for equality, rather than attaining it.
But it’s also worth remarking that equality, repeated within a choric sentence fragment, becomes dynamic rather than discrete; it’s contingently, “briefly” attained in the process of speaking or singing the poem. Dave Holland’s recording has the syllables of “equality” attenuated and stretched in the lower registers of the singing voice, either Cassandra Wilson’s warm alto or Eric Person’s alto saxophone. The setting is built on a looped, largely unchanging slow-tempo phrase in Holland’s bass – a “line” that picks up on the trochaic lament of Angelou’s own line. Holland’s firm touch, his technically assured and rhythmically forward style on the double bass, also seems to me to correspond to what I have been calling the declarative surety of Maya Angelou’s verbal style. (Choosing to set this particular poem, Holland also arguably enacts an interracial dialogue and a masculine response to Angelou’s female cry.) Steve Nelson’s vibes provide an Afrological sound texture to the performance, echoed by Gene Jackson’s mallets on his tomtoms, which for me also recall some of Max Roach’s playing (behind Abbey Lincoln’s vocals) on “Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his Freedom Now Suite. The collective performance of the quartet, with or without vocalist, enacts in the give-and-take between extemporaneous freedom and ensemble cohesion a formal, polymorphic analogue to what Angelou calls “equality”: a motile balancing act among disparate voices.
That the music inhabits a kind of resonant hiatus is not to suggest that it is diffident or tentative, but rather that it opens itself up to contrapuntal subject positions, a version of what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the “listening” of (not to, but of) music itself: “alteration and variation, the modulation of the present that changes it in expectation of its own eternity, always imminent and always deferred . . .” (Listening67). I hear a version of the futurity of Angelou’s claim that “I shall be free” in Nancy’s withdrawing eternity here. Nancy insists on the selflessness of this kinesis, but between Holland and Angelou we have more like a partiality, and inclination of open-eared selves, a conversation. Although Angelou declares she will not be moved, in fact to move – in both its affective and kinetic senses – is precisely the interchange toward which “Equality” strives, toward which its imperatives incline us:
         Take the blinders from your vision,
         take the padding from your ears,
         and confess you’ve heard me crying,
         and admit you’ve seen my tears.
         Hear the tempo so compelling,
         hear the blood throb in my veins.
         Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
                   and the rhythms never change.
The eternal return of those figural drums marks a demand to be heard: that the private interiority of the voice’s pulse, a somatic beat audible we’d imagine only to herself in her own ears, might become liminally audible in the grain, in the wide long held notes, of the singing voice, in her open vowels. When Cassandra Wilson sings these words, they turn into an invitation to reflect on how we engage in attending or listening to music, on how we actively and deliberately open our eyes and ears to attend to a shared humanity. And they also, tonally, allow us briefly and approximately to access, across the tympanums of our own open ears, the palpable textures of her breath and pulse. Equality is Maya Angelou’s name for that temporary intimacy, that contact, that touch.

Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Abstract)

This is the abstract/proposal for a paper I am set to give at the Vs. Interpretation colloquium and festival on the improvisational arts, which is taking place in Prague in the Czech Republic on July 17-20, 2014. The colloquium is supported by the Agosto Foundation, and keynote speakers include George Lewis and Pauline Oliveros. The original theme for the colloquium had to do with “improvising across borders.” I am aiming to extend my own thinking about the intersections of improvisational practices and the poetics of listening by addressing the work of Taylor Ho Bynum and Nathaniel Mackey. So here it is:

Released in November 2013, the multi-format set of recordings of Taylor Ho Bynum’s innovative composition for improvising sextet, Navigation, both culminates and continues his fascination with the interfaces between the extemporaneous and the written, the scripted and the performative. Separate LP and compact disc versions of the work are paired with different fragments of text from poet Nathaniel Mackey’s experimental epistolary novel Bass Cathedral, a book that Ho Bynum has recently said, for him, is probably the best writing about music he has encountered. Earlier compositions by Bynum, such as his suite Madeleine Dreams, have not only used prose fiction as libretto, but more tellingly have striven to address sonically and structurally the complex and often fraught relationships between the musical and the diegetic, between sound and sense. Navigationtakes up Mackey’s own address to this interface, sounding what Mackey understands as creative discrepancy, an expressive troubling of formal and cultural boundaries. Name-checking both Sun Ra and Louis Armstrong, Mackey has noted what he calls a “play of parallel estrangements” in improvised music and in poetry, arguing that music “is prod and precedent for a recognition that the linguistic realm is also the realm of the orphan,” that is, of the limits of sense, a liminal zone of both orchestration and letting go. Ho Bynum’s recordings pick up not only on Mackey’s thorough enmeshment in jazz history, but also on his intention to pursue the expressive potential of language and of music at their textural boundaries, at moments of troubling contact between divergent worldviews, or between dissimilar social and cultural genetics. Composing using what Mackey calls m’apping – a portmanteau splice of mapping and mishap, pursuing what Mackey calls the “demiurgic rumble” of discrepancy, improvising across the gaps between careful craft and unruly noise – Ho Bynum conjures a hybrid and collaborative music that blends the complex Afrological heritages of jazz performance style (audible in Navigation’s network of gestures to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, to name only two key forebears) with graphic scoring techniques derived from Sylvano Bussotti or Wadada Leo Smith, among others. If improvised music, for Mackey, represents – and represents precisely – what defies descriptive capture in language, what eludes ekphrasis, then the music of Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet aspires to invert that representational effort, to take up the discrepant aesthetic tactics of Mackey’s writing and to assess how the written (as graphē, as graphic score) can approach and test the expressive limits of making music happen. Taylor Ho Bynum’s compositions for improvisers offer exemplary instances of how to negotiate creatively the boundaries between text and sounding, and suggest a means of addressing, too, the graphic work of other composer-improvisers, including the work of Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Barry Guy

Wanting Poetry: James Franco’s Frank Bidart

As if to excuse their obvious clumsiness in awkward reflexives – by claiming in poem after poem that it’s intentional, that it’s the smart aleck work of a trained persona; by casting himself as the pretender-poet and self-proclaimed emperor of ice cream, clothed in his own thinly-veiled, simulated nudity – James Franco keeps trying to profess that his poems aspire to the condition of poetry: not only that they’re the work of a deliberate and crafty wannabe, but also that this neediness, this craving for legitimation, is in and of itself enough evidence of something approaching technique to have us take him seriously, to get him. “There is a fake version of me,” he writes, “And he’s the one that writes / These poems”:

                  He’s become the real me
                  Because everyone treats me
                  Like I’m the fake me.
I mean, it’s not just that, throughout Directing Herbert White, the emperor has no clothes, or that he coopts the role of the mythically honest boy who’s willing to say so, even about himself, but more that he makes out of his obvious and self-evident fakery, out of the contrived self-fashioning that concocts and informs the persona of a semi-notorious Hollywood lothario named “James Franco,” a set of patently fake poems, and that this fakery might just be sufficient, if it’s repeated enough times, to be aesthetically interesting, to be artistic. “He wrote the poem,” he says of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in “Acting Tips,” “And then the poem wrote him.” Maybe it’s not the real Allen Ginsberg or even the poet Allen Ginsberg whom Franco’s describing here, but his own theatrical version of him, the alienated poetic genius he pretended to voice in a film: “In Howl I played Ginsberg, / And I was all alone. / My scenes were speeches / Given to an unseen interviewer . . . .” That line is a great one – “He wrote the poem / And then the poem wrote him” – and, ignoring the fumbled break, you can hear how the iambic cadence and the neatly turned chiasmus – both very un-Ginsberg – combine to firm up a certain sense of craft, of verbal mastery. That sense is fairly temporary, however; it’s really the only remarkable line in an otherwise flaccid and meandering text. But it does point up a potential that constitutes a genuine thematic centre for Franco’s largely ingenuous work: his want. He wants both to write and to be written by poetry, by these poems.
         Robert Polito sycophantically (there’s no other word for it, sorry) quotes this same line as evidence of James Franco’s genius when he introduces him at a reading and launch for the book in Chicago on February 19, 2014, alongside Frank Bidart, who’s obviously chuffed to share the stage with a celebrity who clearly idolizes him. (The title piece from Franco’s collection describes Franco’s efforts to make a film from “Herbert White,” the famous opening poem in Frank Bidart’s first book, and is also dedicated in part to the senior poet.) Franco, Robert Polito says, has become the “gifted filmmaker who aspired to be a poet,” and whose films aspire to the condition of poetry. In the staged interview that precedes brief readings from both Franco and Bidart, as well as a screening of Herbert White, Franco describes his trajectory toward legitimating himself artistically by pursuing a set of MFAs in film and creative writing more as a crisis of self-confidence: “I want people to treat me like a writer and not look at me as an actor writing,” he says. Now, these are just offhand remarks, and it won’t do to put too much critical pressure on them, but it is worth noting how concerned with likeness and with appearance he is in just about everything he says in this interview.
His poems, it’s not hard to see, obsess about overcoming the mediations of masking, of persona, by offering us a feint of candour, glimpses of the actor behind the actor, partial transcriptions of an imaginary episode of Inside the Actors Studio:
                  And I talk about my feelings
In the most intimate way.
It’s like I’m talking to the people
In the theater, as if they’re all my friends,
And I’m telling them
Everything there is to know
About me.
Any glimmer even of an artificial intimacy, disappointingly, is belied by the prosaic flatness of the style here, lines so “like” plain speech as to lose almost any sense of line at all. A voice that wants to produce a poetic version of Stanislavski’s magic if seems only capable, at this point, of an “as if” more Wayne’s World than anything else. “Dear James,” he writes to himself from an imaginary fan in “Film Festival,”
I don’t understand your festival. You were so great in Freaks and Geeks, why don’t you stick with that kind of stuff?
Viewers and readers, he’s suggesting, are impeded from understanding him (and his collection, for which I take this imaginary “festival” to be a trope) and from intimacy with his personal genius by the inflated expectations of fandom and by their attachments to what he has done rather than what he is trying to do, artistically. “And I’m my biggest fan,” he also says, suggesting his own ironic codependency on the very celebrity he’s trying to undo. But the humility—the negative capability— necessary to sustain this dialogue requires an actor’s practice of listening (something akin to the ways in which he describes himself listening to recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl, to  “get down Allen’s / Cadence” – and the feint of intimacy, being on an imaginary first-name basis with the poet, is also a tactic of Franco’s worth noting here), a practice of listening that the poems themselves show very little evidence of attaining.
Ultimately, as an interested reader and as a fan who genuinely loved and loves James Franco’s Daniel Desario, I feel a little cheated by a smugness pervasively offered to me in the guise of TV friendship, and by the lack of any perceptible, viable latches for my fandom. Flashes of an unregenerate and puerile misogyny, in a monody appropriating Lindsay Lohan’s voice or when he describes his encounters with underage girls or when he refers to the actress Michelle Williams as Heath Ledger’s “woman,” are symptomatic of what, all his self-excused fakery aside, must be a basic lack of self-awareness, an understanding that seems to me to be crucial both to the making of poetry and to concocting workable, if artificial links between him and his readers, his purported fans. Calling Hart Crane a “guy that [sic] could fuck sailors” and then noting how when he wrote “ ‘A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,’ / He meant himself” is to counterpoint a sublime, even overdone lyric complexity (Crane’s, I mean) with a banality made ridiculous by comparison, sure, but it’s also to acknowledge a kind of intertextual straining, however short it might inevitably fall, to intersect with the contingently momentous, with the passing greatness of The Bridge, and to hear what Hart Crane is trying to articulate in these lines, to hear their poetic effort. I want to glean a sense, from his own poems, that James Franco does in fact strain to listen, if only a little.
         That said, I also think it’s very important not to, well, throw out the Franco with the critical bathwater. There are some worthwhile moments in these poems that, sometimes despite themselves, still merit thinking through. On April 19, Lemon Houndpublished “As James Franco Knows,” an ironic paean by Vanessa Place to the poetic naïveté Franco seems to epitomize:
As James Franco knows,  / 
Poetry makes me feel
 / like I can create whatever I want, because / 
all you really have to do is express
 / what you feel / 
emotionally and physically / 
and how this affects
 / the world around you
The knowing humour of this piece – and poems like this do get a laugh, I’m sure, at readings – troubles me, not least because it simply recasts the unrequited prosaic smugness of Franco’s many poems as Place’s snide pretentiousness, and doesn’t really offer up anything, well, poetic in place of her replicant dismantling of poems that don’t really stand up all that well as poems to begin with.  What seems self-evident, too, is that Vanessa Place’s Anne Carson-looking ribbon of lines isn’t any better poetry than Franco’s—which is maybe the point, and maybe why no better-crafted language emerges by her poem’s close. (Anne Carson is for me a writer who manages to transfigure banality by colliding textual and cinematic form, something Franco would clearly like to be capable of. However, Place’s piece doesn’t do any such transforming, either; it just rides blithely roughshod over Franco, doing nothing more than exploit his celebrity, his name-recognition.) It’s not that I’m trying to defend James Franco’s work against Place’s snark; it’s that I think defending him would be pointless. Franco’s poems don’t need to be satirized; in many ways, they do that well enough on their own. Rather than attack or parody James Franco, I think it’s much better to ask and to pursue what kinds of cultural and poetic work his poems actually do, or maybe want to do.
         I want to finish up by focusing on two moments in James Franco’s poems, both of which gain resonances from the February 19 reading in Chicago. The first moment involves the opening line – lines – of “Ledger,” his elegy for the actor he says he never knew, a metonymy of our own unknowing relationship to him, as readers: “I’ve tried to write about you. / I didn’t know you.” Evacuated of adjective or image, these flatly discursive hemistiches assemble into a slightly off-balance Alexandrine, which lends them a lightly magisterial finitude. Almost accidently, the poem launches with a firmness of purpose that belies the hesitancy it appears to worry over. At the end of the February reading in Chicago, Frank Bidart chooses to read this poem aloud, offering Franco’s text a performative imprimatur. More than that, Bidart’s measured reading lends the poem, at least at its outset, a density and, well, a grace after which the remainder of the text can only blunder: “I wrote a poem about you before, / Back when you died, / But it was coded and unclear . . . .” In fact, it’s not clarity that’s absent, but a sense of craft – not code, not abstruse virtuosity, but mere deliberateness – that Franco keeps hinting at and then missing. But, glancingly, as Bidart’s obliging elocution makes clear, craft occasionally still happens. And it happens, moreover, around his declarations of having tried, of what I am suggesting are his moments of straining. The most interesting poem by far in the book, is the title poem, a set of journal entries (more like prose fragments) around the making of the film version of Bidart’s dramatic monologue. There are, of course, many more moments of awkward literary naïveté: Franco seems to discover Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” for the first time, and notes its famous allusion to Paradise Lost (“Myself am Hell . . .”), an out-of-character “reference” that “Herbert White” appears to make at the end of Bidart’s piece—all of which has the poem totter a bit close to becoming a first-year undergraduate essay. Still, Franco’s “Directing Herbert White” becomes an extended meditation on audience and persona, on interpretation and misprision, that’s worth at least a second look. “Sometimes,” Franco concludes, “I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world,” distilling the slippages of mask and voice into a syntactically tauter and sonically more coherent sentence (notice the assonance here, for instance, the looped long i’s) than he has managed up to that point to pull off. It’s as if, for a moment or two, line and poet begin to coincide, to listen to each other. And they coincide, too, in a line that thematizes both spectatorship and desire, to look and to like.
         Frank Bidart’s sense of line, and the prosaic character of his own poetry, is much more resonantly complex, involuted. His Herbert White, distanced from himself in the act of murdering a girl, perceives “Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.” The genius of Bidart’s work, the genius of this first poem in his first book, is his capacity to catch a vestigial pathos, a trace humanity, in a voice that remains self-consciously repugnant, and to do so – Richard Howardargues, in his introduction to Golden State, an essay James Franco also “references” in his on-stage interview with Bidart and Polito – in a poetry that remains essentially prosaic:
Prose . . . is the basis of Frank Bidart’s prosody, his organization of language to suit and serve his need, which is his quest: a poetry in search of itself. (viii)
You can feel Bidart’s need in the displacement of commas in the line from “Herbert White” I’ve just cited, in its distanced, displaced articulation of a self approaching a line, a poetry of resonant flatness. Franco, too, wants such a poetry, and writes about that pervasive want. At times, he catches in his own awkward slippages something like Bidart’s affective prosody, his aspirant line. Honestly, I hope he keeps trying.

Reading Out Loud Together, with Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Renee Sarojini Saklikar

I’m sincerely grateful to Erin Fields, Melanie Cassidy and Trish Rosseel of the UBC Library for inviting me, Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Renee Sarojini Saklikar to read beside the fireplace in the commons on the main floor of the Koerner Library yesterday afternoon. It’s a great venue: students are coming and going, and there was a tangible energy coming from the big room that made for a really wonderful event. I didn’t manage any photos, and my audio recorder jammed out, so I don’t have any archive-worthy material to offer here, but I can at least give a few impressions to make up for my lack of documentation.
         Renee started things by reading a reminiscence about her time in the former Sedgwick and Main libraries at the university, framing some of her experiences of cultural marginalization and of the negotiation of language and accent, and historicizing her account around a year – 1985 – that she said she regards as a kind of talisman. She held up a page filled with a repeatedly-typed date, “June 23, 1985,” which she described as a mantra emerging from the bombing of Air India Flight 182; her book, children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood, 2103), from which she read a set of elegies and fragments “from the archive,” focuses on the complex tensions between bearing witness to lost lives and the fraught absences left in the wake of atrocity. One line describing a seven-year-old girl killed in the bombing powerfully enacts this tension and, despite its brevity, stays with me whenever I have heard Renee read: “Her name was [redacted]”— a life remembered and withheld simultaneously, a collision (as I think I heard her put it in another piece) between tears and terror.
         Elee read poems from her manuscript Serpentine Loop, a collection that employs figure skating as its key trope, reading the skating body, as Elee put it, as “a primary site of language.” She could skate, Elee told us, before she could speak. The blades of her skates inscribe and describe, as she remembers tracing out loose figures on the ice, “a string of unclasped pearls” that also form in four unclosed cursive loops the letters of her given name. She read “School Figures,” a poem that locates delicate resonances in the interstitial spaces between figure and figuration, scribing and script:
Voices are low yet perforate the liminal

zone between silence and song. Each one of us is alone

with something to do: trace a shape of infinity,

perfect the line we know dissolves under water and steam.
(There is audio of her reading this poem on the Radar site, linked above.) Her poem “Who You Are By What You Recognize,” comprised of an alphabetical list mixing figure-skating and military terminology, was for me both lyrically evocative and brilliantly disturbing.
         My own set list for the reading went like this:
                  Embouchure
                  “Hot Lips” from Embouchure
                  “Blue and Boogie 1: Blue” from Ammons
“Small Time Georgic IV (Meat Bees)” – a little local Nova Scotian transplanting of some Virgil
I meant to read a piece for Ted Hughes, called “Slug F**k,” but it got dropped by accident.
         Since the recorder didn’t work, here is an audio version of the piece from Ammons, with my colleague – the superbly excellent Geoff Mitchell – doing his modernistic improvised boogie woogie piano thing along with me. Thanks to everyone who managed to come out, and again to the library folks for putting it all together: I had a great time myself.

Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"

We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
         I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
         The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
And it
didn’t
take
long
for
the
words
to
slow,
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
Too
far
to
walk
to
any
where
from
here.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.

Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape.  The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.

Alias Fonds 1,2 (Justin Bieber Has Collapsed!)

Recent news items about Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami (where he was charged in January with DUI and with drag racing) and about his subsequent mugshot, as well as earlier reports – to which I had access, like millions of others, via Twitter – of him vomiting milk during a performance and of him collapsing on stage at a concert in London, seem to offer opportunities to interrogate the collision of the body and image, of self and celebrity, and of lyric and media.  And to get a little wordy. I have ended up producing two texts, which I’m calling “Alias Fonds.” The headline for the report on Justin Bieber collapsing in London, when it appeared on a Twitter feed, read like a phase-shifted snippet from a Frank O’Hara poem, which set the composition of the first part in motion. I also overheard a conversation in a coffee shop at the time between two people I took for graduate students in actuarial science. The second part draws on the lyrics of a typical Justin Bieber song, mashed up with Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, some high school chemistry, and media reports on the arrest. There’s a lot of bent replication. The texts of the poems can be read here.
         Justin Bieber started out with homemade videos on YouTube. I’m no Bieber, of course, but the homemade audio is meant to gesture at these origins. There is only natural reverb, for instance, on the voice: no effects. I play the instruments – a baritone ukulele and a student-model Yamaha trumpet – and I programmed and sequenced the drum machine (a DM-1 cloned on an iPad) partly to reflect the 5-on-4 metre of the first section. (The second section shifts the rhythm a little, but it’s still there, ghostly-like.) I intend the trumpet loops to be an homage to Bill Dixon. The two poems were written in the space of about eight months. The recordings happened from October 2013 to March 2014. So there you go.

Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball at Play Chthonics

Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball read yesterday evening (that’s Wednesday, March 19, 2014), for the last installment of Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings at Green College at the University of British Columbia. It was a real pleasure to host them in Vancouver.
Before the reading, they graciously stopped by my undergraduate course on contemporary poetry and discussed their poetics with the students. The course focuses on British, Irish and Scottish poets, but they each lent a welcome Canadian presence to the class, giving the practice of writing an articulate immediacy that was both inspiring and provocative. Natalie Simpson spoke about the impact of Gertrude Stein and Lisa Robertson on her work, and described her own technique as associative and extemporaneous, building poems from sonic and phonemic echoes within and around text. Jonathan Ball talked about his interest in horror writing, and suggested that poems can act as trauma generators, pushing both readers and himself into new and surprising aesthetic relationships with language and with image. He said that he conceived of poems not as individual lyrics – he confessed to abandoning the lyric some years earlier – but as larger-scale sequences or books.
         At the reading, later, Jonathan Ball went first. He read from his collections Clockfire, Ex Machina and The Politics of Knives. “I noticed,” he said between poems, “I tend to use knives a lot.” He likes the idea of a poem as something that should cut you, engage you, to produce some kind of “ontological uncertainty.” He talked about the poem providing source-matter for, and also consisting in, the re-mix. And he suggested that poetry often inheres in moments of the loss of direction.
         Natalie Simpson read poems from Thrum, her collection forthcoming in April from Talonbooks. “Language,” she said, “is a likely state,” pointing up an aural and syntactic mesh in her work that seem to consist in sets of strange attractors. “Our form,” one of her poems declares, “is buffeted.” Her poems entangle listeners in a kind of attentively close sidewinding, a careful distraction. We find ourselves, as another of her lines has it, “adrift in plainsong tasked with swim.” At least, that’s how I heard it.

         Thanks to both poets for a terrific reading. And thanks to Green College for their ongoing support for this series.

Profane Listening: Teaching Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments

In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne famously cautions his beloved to keep composed and quiet – like a dying “virtuous” man – as they part from one another:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Rarefied, sinecured, privileged and private, their bond differentiates itself, at least as far as the poem’s speaker is concerned, from “[d]ull sublunary lovers’ love.” Refurbishing clichés of neo-Platonic idealism, Donne labours to distinguish their joys from vulgar heterosexual desire – his opening conceit enacts, literally, a mortification of the flesh – by linking love parasitically to a form of spiritually-ascendant class mobility. That elitism, moreover, is tied directly to a contradiction built into the poetic speech act: he’s telling her not to tell, creating an exclusive circle of two – speaker and listener – as his poem’s contingent public domain. Or maybe even a circle of one, himself, since the poem’s success depends wholly on whether his audience, the beloved interlocutor hailed by his lines, is even willing to listen, and to be correspondent to his desire, to do as he tells her to. There is a doubled model of listening articulated through the poem that seems to me to hinge on what its reader, its audience, is inclined to do with its profanity, its repurposing of the sacred for its own persuasive ends. Donne’s inflated coinage “profanation” casts our inner ears back, I think, to the word’s Latin etymology: the verb profanere (to desecrate, to violate, to make unclean) suggests being outside or before (pro-) a temple (fānum), which at least implicitly prods its listeners to consider the ersatz sacredness of this or any poetic text: how metaphysical, how hermetic, how divorced from this world, can such words ever be? The hyphenated compound nouns (“tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”), while presented under prohibition, also make audible in their clashed, clumped consonants (rfl, dsn, stsm) the very – and very human, embodied – noise that Donne wants to suppress. The poem tends to profane itself, I mean.
         I am teaching The Commitmentsby Roddy Doyle  this week, and part of the reason I have started off with this excursus through Donne is that the novel is one of the most profane and noisy texts I have encountered. Reading excerpts and examples aloud in class, in public, activated some shame in me that’s most likely connected both to my own well-spoken intellectualism – despite common sense and academic privilege, it still felt a bit wrong and even a bit dangerous to utter all those “fucks” and “shites” and racist epithets in front of students – and to a hackneyed moralism circulating around how we listen to popular music, which is arguably the governing trope of the book as well as the focus of my course (and I’m thinking of how iTunes, for example, labels its downloaded songs, based on assessments of the lyrics, as either “clean” or “explicit”). The Commitments, at its heart, is an explicit, expletive text.
         It’s hard to gauge student reactions sometimes, but this class on the literature of popular song has tended so far to be a bit quiet, and who knows exactly why. Faced with reading Doyle’s novel, however, I can imagine they might feel a little shouted down, and a little affronted. In the book, as the band is cobbled together and starting to rehearse, they’re presented as Jimmy Rabbitte’s students. The book opens with Outspan and Derek asking for Jimmy’s musical advice, a moment that leads directly to the formation of The Commitments:
                  —We’ll ask Jimmy, said Outspan.  —Jimmy’ll know.
                  Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music. He knew his stuff.
Jimmy is the discursive centre for this particular configuration of Barrytown, this orchestration of their disenfranchised urban space, their north Dublin, and the vocabulary, the knowledge, in which he trades and which constitutes his cultural capital, is pop music. Jimmy, it’s worth noting, doesn’t play an instrument (well, none of them do, at first, except maybe for Joey The Lips Fagan), and he never performs on stage with the band; his music consists of talk, and his way of organizing the band involves giving lectures, correcting and managing what they “know” about and what they can learn through African-American soul music: “They loved Jimmy’s lectures,” the narrator tells us, although it’s not always clear that Jimmy has any more privileged access to Black music than anyone else. Even Joey The Lips’s stories of playing with Otis Redding, James Brown and just about any other “name” in R & B canon seem like a mix of fiction and wishful thinking; he claims to get a call to play with Joe Tex, but after he leaves Jimmy remembers that Joe Tex had died in 1982. When Joey The Lips confesses that “The biggest regret of my life is that I wasn’t born black,” the insurmountable disconnect, around race, between the given and the made, between provenance and aspirational self-fashioning comes crashing to the fore. The learning project in which Jimmy has the band engaged is doomed by its inherent dislocations, by its insurmountable, racially marked otherness. If “soul is community,” as Jimmy and Joey both contend, the success of their common project, the outcome of their commitment to any “real” provocation to social or cultural transformation through what Jimmy keeps calling “sex and politics,” remains inexorably out of reach.
         They can’t help but profane their lofty goals. The alteration they want to bring about by singing about “real” love is framed, as in the Donne poem, by the negation of overwrought, mundane clichés and by the evocation of a transcendent ideal – an African-American idiom that inherently resists the idioms of both saccharine top-of-the-pops and Irish folk: “—All tha’ mushy shite abou’ love an’ fields an’ meetin’ mots in supermarkets an’ McDonalds is gone, ou’ the fuckin’ window. It’s dishonest, said Jimmy.” But performing covers of James Brown or Wilson Pickett hardly seems any more honest, any closer to the lived realities of Barrytown: “— It’s not the other people’s songs so much, said Jimmy. —It’s which ones yis do.” Connection and commitment means finding material that somehow speaks to their experience, and for Jimmy, that speaking means a felt connection at the level of a pre-articulate viscerality, something he hears, for instance, in the rough “growl” of Declan Cuffe’s voice. Jimmy links this fleshy throatiness both to James Brown’s thoroughly sweaty, embodied performance – the grain of his voice, an association mired in sexual stereotypes around black masculinity – and, compellingly, to the band’s obvious inability to get beyond imperfect mimicry of that style; their cultural “politics,” inured in an experience of pervasive alienation, seems best represented by their failure to represent themselves musically in any idiom. Everything is imperfectly borrowed, mistaken, and troubled. In Jimmy’s bedroom, listening to the record of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,”the complexities and complicities of musical and racial appropriation emerge in a mix of sacrilege and idolatry, in a prose that both mimes what it hears and disrupts any easy mimesis:
         —Funk off, said Deco.
Outspan hit him.
Jimmy let the needle down and sat on the back of his legs between the speakers.
—I’m ready to get up and do my thang, said James Brown.
A chorus of men from the same part of the world as James went:  —YEAH.
—I want to, James continued,  —to get into it, you know. (—YEAH, said the lads in the studio with him.)  —Like a, like a sex machine, man (—YEAH YEAH, GO AHEAD.)  —movin’, doin’ it, you know. (—YEAH.)  —CAN I COUNT IT ALL? (—YEAH YEAH YEAH, went the lads.)  —One Two Three Four.
Jimmy positions himself dead-centre, as if to co-opt the sonic space of the recording, to claim it and manage it. The French-Joycean punctuation of dialogue with em-dashes tends to blur the distinctions between voices, to create a polyphonic overlay, a palimpsest. The identification of Jimmy with James manifests itself not only spatially but also in the collision of idioms from different “parts of the world”: James Brown’s sidemen aren’t Irish “lads” in any sense of the word, and when James Brown says “you know,” the point-of-view implicitly shared with Jimmy, the fella in the novel who, more than any other, presents himself as in the know, is both shared and dismantled; it’s worth noting how the transcription of the words in interrupted by editorializing and by typographical juxtapositions,  but also how the original record itself involves call-and-response banter that cuts across and disrupts closure. That disruption is also audible in the textures of the transcribed words:  “— GER RUP AH——“ they hear James Brown intone, abrading his words in a manner not too far removed from Donne’s noisy consonants. 
         If this record, though, is about affirming rough and vital cultural energies (YEAH YEAH YEAH), if it’s about the “politics,” of movin’ and doin’, Jimmy’s listening remains caught in a dynamic of negation and difference: “—No, listen, said Jimmy.” Making black music more “Dubliny” – by substituting, for example, the names of the stops on the DART line, moving North toward Barrytown, for the improvised train stops up the Eastern seaboard of the United States, tracing a kind of second-hand root for post-Civil War reconstruction, in James Brown’s improvised words for “Night Train” – enables what Jimmy wants to call “Dublin Soul” to be born, but those words also offer a fragile and finally untenable amalgam, as the band breaks up before it’s able to make even its first single on “Eejit Records,” and as Joey The Lips comes to realize that “Maybe soul isn’t right for Ireland. So I’m not right.” Their music, in its wrongness, is inherently profane, monstrous. But it also attains, in passing, in rehearsal, a kind of nascent greatness:
By now, The Commitments had about a quarter of an hour’s worth of songs that they could struggle through without making too many mistakes. They could sound dreadful sometimes but not many of them knew this. They were happy.
Though they’re unable to hear themselves, to “know” themselves for what they are – even when “[t]hey taped themselves and listened” – they still embrace the rough misprisions and imperfect “Dubliny” slippages and derive a happiness, a profane joy, in the struggle to connect with each other. The agonof music making, the profane and profaning effort to play together, forms a contingent community within that difficult nascence: “There were mistakes, rows, a certain amount of absenteeism but things were going well.” If the point seems to be not to put too much weight on the inevitable failure of their awful, unruly, “racialist” appropriations, neither is it to overlook or sanitize their offenses. Rather, we’re meant to bear witness to the possibility of creative coexistence, of producing a shared, poorly-recorded, mistake-ridden music that manages still, in its noisy and troubling way, to enact a poetry.

Catriona Strang and Christine Stewart at Play Chthonics (Audio)

This is an audio capture of a reading last night (Wednesday, 15 January 2014) by Catriona Strang and Christine Stewart at Green College at the University of British Columbia, as part of the Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readingsseries. There were a few minor tech problems with the recorder, so the beginning minutes of their reading were unfortunately lost; the recording fades in with Christine Stewart reading from a collaborative piece written for the Institute for Domestic Research, which presents their shared poetic methodology (I think it’s called “aleatoric alchemy” at one point in the text) for collective, collaborative research practice. The piece finishes with a declaration of openness – “We do not come to terms. We abound.” – that signals a key shared interest in practices of listening. Christine Stewart suggests at one point that listening might be understood as a way of reading, or of being read, and Catriona Strang’s poems consistently inclined toward loving intensifications of attention, toward keeping things open: “Imagine,” she writes to Proust in Corked (her forthcoming book from Talonbooks), “all my conclusions are tentative.” Christine Stewart read from Virtualis, her collaboration with David Dowker published by BookThug in the spring of 2013. She also read from a text on Paul – joined by another collaborator, Ted Byrne, who happened to be in the audience – and she and Catriona Strang traded poems, reading each other’s work, to conclude the reading itself. On the recording, the reading is followed by an extended conversation with members of the audience about their poetics.

Sincere thanks to Green College, UBC for their ongoing and generous support of this reading series. Copyright for the recordings remains with the artists.