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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.

Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part Two (Yard Sales)

Two days ago, pianist Matthew Shipppublished a blog entry at The Talkhouseessentially excoriating Keith Jarrett: “I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension.” One of the points I’m aiming to make in this extended take on Jarrett and “the commodification of genius” is to evaluate the materiality of what Matthew Shipp understands as pretense: how is the reception of Jarrett’s music and of his image tangibly shaped by the production and dissemination of his music? What privileges his work? Pianist Ethan Iverson (who has interviewed Jarrett, and is an admirer) yesterday offered something of a rebuttal to Shipp’s critique – defending Jarrett’s virtuosity, for example, but also admitting something of Jarrett’s enmeshment in American capitalism and marketing hype: “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he writes. My aim in this series of posts – culled, as I mentioned last time, from an extended book chapter on Jarrett – is to assess how the spectre of value, its genius, attaches itself to his recordings, especially his much-lauded and best-selling Köln Concert. In the first part, I tried to set up an approach to the commodification of culture and of cultural artifacts. In this section, I’m focused almost exclusively on the concoction of value at yard sales, a site of vestigial counter-capitalism. I don’t really mention Jarrett directly in these particular pages, but my acquisition of an LP of his lies behind the whole essay. In the third part, I’ll deal directly with buying the album and with Jarrett’s relationship to American capitalism. In the fourth and final part, I’ll offer my own analysis of The Köln Concert, and its transcription. Here is part two, then, on yard-sales.
Saturday ought to be a day of rest. Instead, we used to get up as early as if it were a workday, but to shop. And not ordinary shopping: Saturday morning early is prime time for hitting yard sales.
It had become an early-stage addiction with us. We rarely missed a weekend, and had started to turn into what yard sale vernacular calls “early birds.” Usually a label applied to unscrupulous junk-dealers and avaricious collectors, the moniker comes from the obvious cliché about worms. Get to someone’s stash soon enough, you’re liable to unearth the dusty treasure you’d imagine you’ve been searching for your whole life, though you hadn’t realized, some personal grail of cast-offs; apocryphal stories of lost necklaces mistaken for costume jewelry and sold for a dollar, or of an unknown Van Gogh unloaded for five bucks, keep buyers motivated, anxious, hawk-eyed. You never know.
Most people, however, aren’t in it for big scores, but for everyday bargains. And what we find isn’t necessarily worth anything to anyone else; we have tastes and preferences, although those tend to be fluid, depending on what we think we need, or what we happen to like that day. I like old and weird records. Most people sell boxes of warped lps that have been in their attics for a decade: not usually a source for anything good. But every now and then I get lucky. Mostly it involves pawing through stacks of mildewed Billy Joel, Boney M. and Barbra Streisand, hoping for odd gems. It’s important to keep yourself open, since you have no real way of knowing ahead of time what might be available at a given sale. Some people — maybe half on a particular Saturday — run ads in the classified section of the Friday paper, but those are vague at best (“furniture, clothes, other good stuff”), and often misleading. One time we headed for a sale advertising a “HUGE [all caps] selection,” only to find four men smoking on a concrete patio around cardboard box that contained (no lie) a broken toy fire-engine, one badly dog-eared John Grisham paperback, and a crumpled flowery blouse still on a wire hanger. We asked no questions, left quietly. So, while its possible to go with specific objects in mind — and at our own garage sales I’ve been queried for everything from toy trains to Limoges (“no harm in asking”) — chances are you won’t find it. Personally, I like to let the sales shape my interests; often I never even knew I wanted something until I saw it.
Early birds sometimes get into trouble. Some people don’t like bending the rules. If they say a sale starts at nine, then no one gets to buy anything at 8:55. Ads say things like “No early birds” to ward us off, although in practice it usually doesn’t work. Some try to make “early birds pay double,” which seems like a more effective strategy. At a recent sale, the homeowner was adamant, and refused even to let potential buyers touch what he called his “merchandise” until the hour had come; he pulled clothing, pottery, frames, even cross-country skis from out of people’s hands, bellowing “No fair! No fair!” as he grabbed each article back. Naturally, the buyers were affronted (even if they were technicallyin the wrong). One woman muttered she wasn’t going to bother to wait, this idiot had lost a sale; but she didn’t actually leave, and ten minutes later owned a framed imitation Group-of-Seven print.
What Walter Benjamin once diagnosed as the “helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades” (Reflections 70) — a vestigial psychosis haunting the proprietors and capitalists of his Weimar Germany who clung to the slippery and indeterminate commodities as if values, both economic and moral, could somehow be stabilized, fixed — ghosts itself into the present day yard sale in the guise of rules and standardized “value.” This necklace or that vase, we’re be told, must be valuable, rare, worth something. Play fair or pay double — or maybe you won’t be allowed to buy at all. Such resolute assertions of order and such fixations on worth suggest much more than grubbing for extra cash, since the sellers at garage sales have no hope of recouping anything remotely close to the price they paid for an article, or, in the case of “antiques” and “genuine” curios, whatever they might sell for at a dealership. Money isn’t exactly the issue here, and has little to do with value. What comes into play through ascriptions of worth, in the process of reselling, is personal history, largely unreadable but nonetheless tangibly present. I am selling an object no longer of use to me, but at the same time continue to attribute value to it based on the history of its possession, what I got out of it and what I invested into it over the course of my time. What I did with it makes it valuable, not in Marx’s sense of “use-value,” since the person buying it has no direct relationship to whatever I might have done with it, and may never use the thing in the same way. (We once bought an old pail, for example, which we polished and painted and now use as an outdoor planter.)  Nonetheless, clinging to that object as a sort of aura, imperceptible to the buyer but colouring the object visibly for the seller, is the private history of its presence: a tack-hammer I used to hanging wedding photos in our old apartment, a t-shirt I bought five years ago at a jazz festival, a collar my first cat wore. The buyer isn’t necessarily purchasing these associations, and in many ways they vanish once the object is sold. (We have no idea who had our pail before us, where it might have been.) But a vestige of someone else’s nostalgia, a hopeless gesture toward fixity, assigns its price, even as it dissolves into the a-historical moment of the sale itself. Prices (and rules, and formalities) at yard-sales are temporary stays against confusion, an essential but futile attempt to cling to an un-archived past in the process of being released, unknit, let go. 
Garage-sale manuals and guide-books I have come across almost unanimously recognize the tug of what they call “sentimentality” in establishing prices, but they argue for the virtues of “objectivity” in pricing:
Emotion Has No Place in Pricing. It is vitally important that vendors not allow their emotions to affect pricing decisions. Completely objective judgment is necessary in order to arrive at prices within market range. Sentimental ties and family history of a sale item have no relevance to the price that buyers may be willing to pay. Stand back and ask yourself, “If I were a purchaser, how much would I pay for this?” Analyze the practical use of the item, then draw on your sense of what price might be reasonable and fair, not on your recollection of how dearly the item cost you. (Stratas 44)
Pleas for rationality and abstracted detachment such as this one necessarily appeal to what they call the “market” for a sense of both fairness and order, but the problem is that the market value of what this particular guide calls “clutter” (defined as “usable, practical surplus goods” as opposed to “junk . . . broken ugly decrepit stuff” [Stratas 23]) is far from simple to determine, and becomes — as this paragraph suggests — an impressionistic judgment call, hopelessly inflected by the discriminations of history and past uses that the author wants us ostensibly to avoid. How much would I pay for this? The full price, of course: I already paid just that. There is no yard-sale collectivity in a “market” like that of commodity trading or even retail sales. Setting a so-called reasonable price is an impossible task, since the structure and form of the rationality to which one appeals is far from determinate or stable. Even the idea of practical “use” offers no real standard, since, as Marx sagely points out, use-value is differential at best, at once flexible, indeterminate and local (cf.Keenan 125). How I use an object, how I value it, cannot be transferred to another buyer; uses do not coordinate, except in abstract exchange, at which point, as Marx writes in Capital, the only “objectivity” has become “phantom-like,” unrelated to the specific use or dinglichaspect of whatever it is I own (Capital1.128). (My wife and I had been looking for colanders. We already owned a good one, stainless steel, but heard they make good planters for geraniums.) We trade in spectres. Despite attempts at regulation and order that these guide and manuals tend to impose on the yard-sale, it tends to remain unruly, irrational; the only traces of fixity, the only determinants of value, are those trivial and personal emotions which paradoxically, as books remind us, have no “real” part to play in value itself. In practice, in our experience, all of these factors — what someone paid for a thing, how much it means to them — come forcefully into play during any driveway sales-pitch.
So, how are these rules for yard sales, as sets of conventions or accepted forms of conduct, laid out? A number of books in circulation have codified them, but in my experience they tend to be a fluid etiquette, situationally determined. “Listen” to buyers, says one book; adopt “a cheery enthusiastic voice that communicates enthusiasm and fun”; “watch the eyes of browsers and buyers for reliable hints about their desires for sale merchandise”; don’t be offended by haggling, but also don’t give in too easily; “[d]emonstrate the excellent value that your prices represent by drawing comparisons with current retail prices. . . . Remind [buyers] that if they don’t buy the merchandise in question, the next person will” (Stratas 98-101). A garage-sale is a discursive formation, structured by conventional interchanges. Imagined values are traded, reinforced. A sale involves more or less a mutual bolstering of subject-positions, ensuring that the respective desires for a fair price and for some cool, semi-useful junk are both satisfied. “Negotiation,” exclaims one guide book, “must appear to be a win-win situation for you and the buyer!” (Williams 58). We need to “feel,” the authors remind us, that we’re getting a bargain, or that we’re receiving enough cash for our precious clutter. In most cases, haggling is socially acceptable at these events, even expected. Usually, things are priced with magic marker on bits of masking tape; we usually price our things a little high, anticipating some bargaining so that we’ll get more or less what we want for the stuff. (I never trust sales that have no pre-set prices on things. Often these types will turn to their friends, asking what they think something’s worth, or will give different prices each time you ask. Or else they’ll say, “make me an offer,” which is only infuriating. A lack of a price suggests a little too much self-serving fluidity. Sellers ought to know at least roughly what they something’s supposedly “really” worth to them.) With that general rule in force, price slightly high, the outcome can only be good. Either someone will be shy, and give you what you’ve asked, or else they’ll bargain with you, and you’ll get what you wanted anyhow. Plus, they’ll think they got a deal by talking you down, so everyone’s happy. We usually add at least a dollar or two, expecting to deal. Decorum wants maintaining.
Certain sellers can’t stand haggling, and are insulted if you try, as if their precious discards could possibly be worth anything less than they imagine. Typically, such types will insist that for (let’s say) a vase they paid three times what they’re asking in some exclusive Kerrisdale shop, or that since they’re grandmother knit the sweater they couldn’t take less than ten dollars. These always seem bathetic – rhetorical excesses – always implicitly posing the same question: if it’s worth so much, why are you trying to sell it at a garage sale? The discourse has its limits. Personally, I prefer people willing to undersell themselves, and not simply because I don’t want to spend much. The whole point of these sales, it seems to me, is to clear out your mess, to put the bruised and broken goods back into circulation, to re-cycle. Yard sales are interchanges, not profit-making enterprise. Like I said, you will never get anything close to the amount you paid for a thing, so why bother trying? Let things go. Experience bears out a peculiar truth: the sellers with the lowest prices often make the most at the end of the day, because they sell in volume. You keep your prices high, and you won’t sell much, and then you either have to cart all your dear crap back inside, or else call the Sally-Ann truck and give it all away to charity.
Yard-saling — and it is a verb, at least in this vernacular — also involves a form of interpersonal circulation. It isn’t only money or stuff that moves, but also people. The night before we’d go through the paper, copying out sale times and locations: we’d usually budget about 15 minutes per garage. After breakfast the next morning, usually by 8:30, we’d load our baby daughter into her car seat, and head out. (Her schedule sets our time-constraints, since she has to nap by 10:30. The baby actually enjoys these outings more than we do; she gets an inordinate amount of attention from all types of smiling strangers.) Using a map-book of the city we bought at the grocery store, we’d plot a rough course, coordinating start-times and locations. Usually, you have to choose a particular neighbourhood on the east or west side. Trying to do too many dispersed sales is only frustrating. And there are plenty of people who don’t advertise in the papers, which means you have to keep on the look-out as you progress around your circuit. Half the time, we don’t make it to the majority of the sales we’ve plotted, since our course has been interrupted and diverted by other possibilities: bristol-board posters on corners, clusters of balloons. There is a semiotics of garage sales, a code: certain kinds of signage catch your eye and draw you along. Come and buy, they plead like Christina Rossetti’s goblins, we’ve got good stuff cheap.
What happens, however, over the course of several weekends is that a certain spatial formation develops, a sense of the various negotiable routes through urban geography. You get to know the city, but not its landmarks, not at least in the touristy sense. What you start to acquire is the feel of particular areas, the network of lanes and alleys, driveways and paths that weave the place together as lived and living. Yard sales grant permission to cross property lines, to walk temporarily over someone’s lawn, through their gate, to traverse backyards and porches — some even let you into their houses, especially if they’re moving and want to clear out furniture. You meet people, certainly, and briefly discuss where a thing came from, or who made it, or what makes it nifty. But more significantly, you circulate yourself: you don’t have to buy anything, but you do have to cross boundaries, park in people’s back driveways, trample (oops) their flowerbeds, paw trough their junk. The semiosis here, as a sum of meanings generated, isn’t necessarily commercial, although it does hinge on the promise of goods exchanged; rather, what is produced, what’s signified, is a kind of subcultural spatiality, a sense of movement and arrangement that exists in the interstices of official channels (roads, storefronts, malls), rather than properly contained and demarcated by them. There are junk stores aplenty, and I have even seen a “garage-sale store,” which set itself up as a big garage sale, though nobody was fooled: this is where the stuff goes that the “early-bird” dealers buy; these are cast-offs converted back into goods, commodities, proper fare. Yard sales inhabit the space behind, around, between these sorts of operations, a harmless black market (since nobody would be silly enough to charge GST in their back yard) which tends to turn city blocks temporarily inside out, making the rear alley into an ephemeral store-front, and to re-map the ways in which the urban space is zoned, gridded, understood.
Urban planning is being temporarily upset, though not finally disturbed; it is subverted ephemerally from within by a species of consumption which it cannot quite recognize as proper, or reconcile wholly to the mechanisms of value and exchange that bouy up the urban economy. In One Way Street (1928), Benjamin commented on what he called “the decay of aura” in the contemporary world, a loss of immediate contact with originality or what he called the “cult value” of objects like works of art: “Just as all things, in a perpetual process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character while ambiguity displaces authenticity, so is the city” (cited and translated in Caygill 130-31). However, for Benjamin the urban experience, described here as loss, involves not so much a lamentable nihilism as a call to embrace a new fluidity, “the possibility of a new experience of space and time” (Caygill 131). When one attempts to apply a century-old analysis like Benjamin’s to the yard sale, however, one finds the terms curiously reversed: what these fly-by-night (or day) sales create is an unstable counter-urban space, one which sets itself against the fixities of urban commodification and the relatively stable networks of commerce represented by the grid of the city in our map-book or by the five or six day work-week to which we all adhere. Paradoxically, as we have seen, the yard sale also holds out the promise of a contingent and ephemeral aura in its pricing and sales practices, as the spectres of domestic and personal history dissolve into the exchange of used goods for a little cash. Homey sales offer a vernacular alternative to the false rigidities of urban consumerism and capitalism by simultaneously subverting that rigidity and offering the figments of a longed-for authenticity long since purged from the city’s form.
Sometimes the weather matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sales will have “rain dates,” just in case: usually the Sunday. But for those of us with garages, a little precipitation means nothing. It may keep a few customers away, but then again the dedicated yard-salers will brave almost anything up to a gale. Your sign is your promise: if you advertise, people will expect you to sell, and will turn up whether it’s raining or not. Once, we held a sale in our friends’ kitchen, since the yard was too wet. I think more people trapsed over their linoleum than might have shown up if the sun were shining (in which case many would likely have gone to Jericho Beach instead of to our sale). Benjamin offers a little allegory of rain and money in One Way Street, the text I’ve been citing:
Money and rain belong together. The weather itself is an index of the state of this world. Bliss is cloudless, knows no weather. There also comes a cloudless realm of perfect goods, on which no money falls. (Reflections87)
Benjamin’s perfect world is a realm where goods may be exchanged, acquired or traded without the intermediary of money, without the bothersome abstractions of exchange values, trying to decide what is worth what, and how you might even form such equivalencies in the first place: a central and vexing problem for Marx. Bliss is plenitude here, but in his and our fallen world, the world of ambiguities, inauthenticities and tarnished auras, exchange takes on the chaotic uncertainty of weather. The “rain or shine” promise of the yard sale, however, proffers perfected exchange that disregards weather, and ignores the complex objective variables of commodity trading; values are assigned not on the basis of what Marx might call “abstract human labour,” the universal “spectral” standard by which, for instance, we can determine how many hammers are worth a shovel, and so on: – the leveling quantification of money. In the Grundrisse, Marx gestures toward this universalizing property, which at the beginning of the first volume of Capital he was later to hone into his theory of “abstraction” in commodification and exchange:
the proportion in which a particular commodity is exchanged for money, i.e. the quantity of money into which a given quantity of commodity is transposable, is determined by the amount of labour time objectified in the commodity. The commodity is an exchange value because it is the realization of a specific amount of labour time; money not only measures the amount of labour time which the commodity represents, but also contains its general, conceptually adequate, exchangeable form. Money is the physical medium into which exchange values are dipped, and in which they obtain the form corresponding to their general character. (Grundrisse 167)
What you pay, for Marx, is determined by how much work, quantified by money or pay, goes into that object, roughly at least. But yard sales detach themselves from such quantifications; money is still used, and still obtains its value on some level from human labour, but what is being exchanged has nothing to do with the production or exchange of manufactured goods. The second-hand objects are wholly detached from their making, and value emerges somewhat arbitrarily from the sense of what an object might be worth, not in terms of its use or its cost or the labour that produced it, but (as I have been trying to claim) through the personal, domestic, dissolving history which that object momentarily signifies. Michel de Certeau refers to this individual imaginative reading of places or objects as a “poetics” which cuts against the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities” which corporate structures and institutions tend to reserve for themselves (Certeau 106). This is a private form of association, a creation of value that cannot be subsumed by the absolute equivalences and the leveling abstractions of Marxian exchange value, since if it were shared it could possess no tangible value as a commodity. (The commodity, Marx writes, is a “born leveler and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself” [Capital 1.179].) My “stuff,” as George Carlin notoriously joked, might be your “junk,” and vice versa. Personal value is relative, fabricated, poetic. Only at the moment of exchange itself do such values, as they dissolve or evaporate, become luminous. You can have no access to what an object means or has meant to me, but at the moment it changes hands, the object bodies forth that unreadable history, which makes it worth something. For a series of instants, in other words, as each purchase takes flight, the yard sale offers what Benjamin calls bliss, the ephemeral moment of pure exchange, unmediated even by abstract constants of value like money: uncommodified. It is interchange prior to the economies of value, outside those terms. And it is fiercely imaginary.
In Marx’s terms, the yard sale appears to operate as a return to early, pre-capitalist forms of barter and exchange, where money is only phantasmagorical or imaginary:
The first form of money corresponds to a low stage of exchange and of barter, in which money still appears more in its quality of measure rather than as a real instrument of exchange. At this stage, the measure can still be imaginary . . . . From the fact that the commodity develops into general exchange value, it follows that exchange value becomes a specific commodity; it can do so only because a specific commodity obtains the privilege of representing, symbolizing, the exchange value of all other commodities, i.e. of becoming money. It arises from the essence of exchange value itself that a specific commodity appears as the money-subject, despite the monetary properties possessed by every commodity. In the course of development, the exchange value of money can exist separately from its matter, its substance, as in the case of paper money, without therefore giving up the privilege of this specific commodity, because the separated form of existence of exchange value must necessarily continue to take its denomination from the specific commodity.  (Grundrisse166-7)
The yard sale, however, need not be understood as a historically displaced feudal economy, or as a throwback. Rather, the symbolic form entailed by monetary exchange in these contexts has simply shifted away from the notion of labour central to Marxian conceptions of value. Instead, the symbol becomes detached, slippery, personal. Value is ascribed and exchanged not as a function of the universal constant of money, but in fact traces out the symbolic formations that give rise to money in the first place. In other words, what yard sales represent is the process of commodification itself rather than the interchange of preformed commodities leveled by a particular monetary scale. The yard sale returns us to the imaginary fabrications that underlie the valuing of money, the emergence of its symbolic power; money, Marx argues, cannot be if it is to have value merely a “symbol” or “the arbitrary product of human reflection” (Capital 1.186), not an “imaginary” value (185), but must encrypt “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187). Yet despite his work to objectify that labour, to shift from mere arbitrary symbolization to a kind of direct embodiment, Marx remains, as Thomas Keenan points out, at a loss to identify that universal object materially, and must fall back on abstraction: “Nothing —  at least, no thing —  is left, it seems, certainly not the fact that things are the product of labor” (Keenan 112). Marx himself confirms this reading in the first pages of Capital: “[The concrete forms of labour] can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (Capital1.128). But what this means is that (again, as Keenan points out, echoing Derrida, Laclau and others) a “phantom-like objectivity,” as Marx himself writes, is all that remains to ground the objectivity of exchange (1.128): “In the rigor of abstraction, only ghosts survive. The point is to exchange them” (Keenan 115). But such an interpretation, fostered by Marx’s own rhetoric, undoes the possibility of objective value, and converts value itself into purely imaginary work. What happens at yard sales, against the grain of the objective values traded as commodities on the actual marketplaces of the city —  malls, institutions, stores —  is an intensification of that ghosting, whereby value itself becomes purely spectral (as if such a thing were possible, since spectres are by definition liminal, impure, creatures neither here nor there, bodies which both are and aren’t). The process of re-symbolizing value, of remaking commodities in the different imaginations of trader, buyer, seller, participant.
It seems appropriate then to defer to the jumbled notes of the Grundrisse in this case rather than to look to the more chisled political economy of Capital. Marx’s earlier work, as Thomas Kemple points out, has a kind of garage sale style: “It is by now a commonplace for readers of Marx’s writings to remark upon their fragmentary, scattered, and condensed aspects, their overall roughness and incompleteness, and thus the difficulty of making sense of them” (Kemple 11). Marx himself wrote to Engels as he was in the midst of composing his notes that “The devil is in that manuscript (it would be a fat volume in print) everything is jumbled up together like beets and cabbages. . . ” (53). The point is not that the Grundrisse is a failure as a treatise, though it most certainly does not cohere, but that it traces out a process of philosophical formation. It is a negation of the economy of the book itself, writing across and against conventions of economic logic even as it acknowledges and accepts them. Garage sales offer parodies of commerce; one garage-sale manual even concludes by suggesting that monthly sales could be held in unrented spaces at local malls, as if to convert the domesticated detritus they feature into renewed and renewable consumer goods (Williams 88). At garage sales, real money is exchanged for real goods, just as in malls or on commodity markets; but the nature of the value attached to those goods and the symbolic worth of that money are far from clear-cut. Value itself is thrown into question by the arbitrary, imaginative jumble of the sale table. What yard sales offer, like Marx’s manuscript, are themselves what Kemple calls “mediatized fictions of the market,” an exchange which foregrounds the mediating contrivances of its own making. Yard sales turn commodification against itself, even as they revel, sometimes playfully, sometimes frustrated, in its contingencies and pretenses.

A negative commerce, a form of commodification that resists the reifying pressures of the commodity, flourishes in the front lawns and back lanes of our Saturday neighbourhoods, as we go to rifle through cartons of musty, useless textbooks and card-tables stacked with mismatched cutlery, dust-bunnied macramé and broken ceramics, elbowing among the shifting gaggles of neighbours and strangers, scrums of hawkeyed second-hand dealers and ravenous bargain hunters, who mass in yard after yard, trampling shrubs as they rummage through cardboard boxes. After a few weeks, we even begin to recognize certain faces. Garage-sale people appear to be creatures of repetition and habit, making their rounds in vague community, drifting with apparent abandon through the same restrictive orbits, a cloud of chaotic particles loosely bound by their strange attractors. (I know one guy named [withheld], but I “know” him only because he seems to like the same sort of records I do, and so I’m always trying to beat him to sales. When we meet, we eye each other a little suspiciously, though I try to be friendly. “Hey [withheld],” I say, and then I show him the cool electro-acoustic John Cage LP I just found, or he shows it to me, if he got there first. Then we nod and try not to scowl.) Some oddly competitive instinct seems to nudge me gently into the fray of single-minded, full-blooded consumers jammed around a picnic table of used books, a feeling that I’m missing something over there, amid that pile of coloured glassware, that everyone desires, the thing at which I really ought to get a better look. Whether I actually need it is immaterial; the need is always generated in the hungry, gently seething morass, as we mill through piles of hand-me-downs; you have to listen carefully, pretending to be considering a moth-eaten shirt while actually cocking an ear to catch the sotto voce asides of some couple whispering about a cookbook, or someone admiring a broken Victrola, or two children pawing a carton of figurines for the really good ones, whatever those might be. Keeping your ears open is crucial; you have to hear what’s hot, and you have to be fast. Garage sales are pure desiring; possessing isn’t really the point, since most of what you buy is junk anyhow, and will probably end up in your own sale a few months later. What seems to matter is the chase, the process, the act of exchange. The experienced garage-saler, suddenly seized with want, spotting across the grass a kitchen gadget he or she just has to have, keeps silent — saying anything would alert everyone else to the desire, and the object could easily be lost — and, firmly but quickly, strides over and stakes a claim. I have watched many times how subtly such need arises: objects of no consequence become ardently wanted as soon as someone else simply hints that he or she might buy it. For me, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s inevitable: I begin by feeling detached, but soon lose myself in the general drive to acquire whatever it is, a dozen different and tacitly-coveted objects for a dozen potential buyers, to fill that uncertain lack that can never really be filled since it inevitably can’t say precisely what it wants. It only knows that it does.
I have plenty of first-hand true-to-life takes about the value of holding your tongue. I like, as I said, to buy old records. 78s, in my experience, usually run a dollar or two, no more, and people generally have no idea who the artists are. Most have, justly, faded into obscurity, and many scratched lacquer discs of Scottish marches and third-rate big bands are hard to see as worth much at all (unless you don’t care, and simply like the look of “old” discs). So, if you’re sharp, you can sometimes find things people don’t know they have. I bought a Hot Lips Page record for a dollar, which remains one of my prize finds to this day. And I almost had a few others, but for my big mouth. A man was selling an old Victrola: it still worked, and he’d had it refinished, so he was asking a hundred dollars for it: not exactly yard-sale pricing, but you never know. In the cabinet, however, were about ten old 78s, which he said he wanted to keep with the player but was willing to sell separately. “How much?” I asked, not really looking at what they were. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “what do you think they’re worth?” Replies like that, as I said, are always annoying: he ought to have known what he wanted for them. (If ever asked such a question, always reply “fifty cents,” or less. The seller will react by letting you know what he or she really expected.) And then came my big mistake: I looked at the labels. They were original pressings of Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, and a late Louis Armstrong with Sid Catlett on drums. “Wow,” I said, foolishly, aloud, “these are amazing. Originals.” A cult value of which the seller hadn’t even been aware suddenly kicked in, and the price became ten dollars each. I couldn’t afford them, and we left. Never show your hand.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part One

In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
         The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)

For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
      So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
         More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
2011. Print.
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
         Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,
1984. Print.

Sound Tracks: Elizabeth Bishop and Lavinia Greenlaw

This is the text of a colloquium presentation I gave for the Department of English at UBC on 16 March 2012. Please pardon the formality of the MLA style — I decided to put it up on the blog rather than on academia.edu because of its autobiographical content, because of its closely contemporary subject matter, and because it’s still underdeveloped as an academic paper. There are probably also a few formatting glitches; my apologies, I’ll try to correct those. I hope it’s of some interest.
When I try digging through swelling shelfloads of criticism and secular hagiographies that, by her 2011 centenary, have become associated with Elizabeth Bishop, it starts to sound like those of us who read her, and who try to read her “straight through,” have a pressing and symptomatic need each to have our own particular Elizabeth, to craft from her work a genetics of voice to which we can belong, as recombinant latecomers. I want to explore one such attachment today, through the poetry and electroacoustic work of Lavinia Greenlaw – or maybe two such attachments, including my own. It seems to me, though, that it’s important to acknowledge that while many poets have been and continue to be reclaimed, repurposed and tentatively canonized, Bishop forms a particularly crucial case, if for no other reason than her writing practice assiduously troubles and even resists such claims, such figurative colonization, with its deliberately dislocated and dislocating geographies, – or, perhaps better put, with its careful unmooring of what Bishop calls “the family voice / I felt in my throat” (Poems 181).
We’re told Elizabeth Bishop disliked the sound of her own voice. She “read her poems with reluctance in public,” writes J. D. McClatchy in his notes for Random House Audio’s The Voice of the Poetseries, “and she loathed being recorded” (9). She also typically refused permission to tape her readings, although recordings made for Robert Lowell in October 1947 when he was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (a post for which he would recommend Bishop two years later) provide some source material for this audio compilation, officially issued for the first time only in 2000, after extensive pleas by editors and admirers to Bishop’s reticent estate. Listening to her awkward, plainspoken delivery and to the audible traces of her anxiety, Bishop’s pronounced distaste for her own untrained verbal performances seems justified enough. In a letter to Joseph Summers sent from Halifax, Nova Scotia in August of that same year, Bishop refers disparagingly to “records I made for [Jack] Sweeney” at Harvard in 1946, which she hears as “pretty dreary” (One Art 149). Conversely, she praises Sweeney’s recordings of Lowell, whom she had just met through Randall Jarrell in New York in May 1947: “they aren’t at all professional, but they are extremely good in parts.” Lowell’s own invitation to record her reached her in September, just after her second sojourn in Nova Scotia. Their correspondence had begun in earnest that summer, with Lowell following up on a review by him of her North & South, and, more significantly, responding enthusiastically to the publication in The New Yorker of Bishop’s Nova Scotia poem “At the Fish-Houses [sic],” which had appeared in the August 9 issue: “The description has great splendor,” he writes, “and the human part, tone, etc., is just right” (7). That very human, tonal restraint is clearly also what Lowell hears in Bishop’s voice, and his invitation – which he politely asserts she doesn’t have to accept – is coupled to a plea that she might “oust some of the monstrosities on [his] list” of overblown poets he feels obliged to record (8). The recording session did take place some time on or around October 17, and Lowell enthuses in a letter to Bishop on November 3 about the excellence of a number of her readings:
I’ve at last heard the records and some of them couldn’t be better – “Faustina’s” the best I think, but “Sea-Scape,” “Large B. Picture,” “Fish,” and “Fish-Houses” are wonderful too. “Roosters” is swell in places and not so hot in others. Anyway you’ll get them in a few days and can judge. (11)
Lowell goes on to apologize for some technical shortcomings in the recordings themselves, and laments that “perhaps they won’t do for publication,” which in fact did not happen until the 2000 audiobook. The reasons for his enthusiasm aren’t ever made clear; nevertheless, I don’t think he’s just being polite. There is something poetically remarkable about these awkward, inadvertently suppressed records.
That something might be called their resonance, though I have to be careful to define what I might mean by that term, which seems odd in the context of Bishop, and of these readings. Jo Shapcott describes hearing Bishop read in a “deep rich voice” in the late 1970s at Boston University, but this is surely a combination of mistaken memory and a desire to heighten the posthumous heft of Bishop’s “strange, precise, profound poems” – their poetical depth (113). Profound seems to me precisely the wrong word for what Bishop does. Bishop’s voice, based on the surviving tapes, was never especially deep or rich, but always reticent, diffident and withheld. (Ruff a bit more kindly attributes this shyness to a combination of anxiety and asthma, but I hope it’s clear that it’s not my intention to criticize Bishop for reading poorly or for being somehow shallow: on the contrary, I want to pursue the poetic rightness of what she does achieve.) This hesitancy was a hallmark not simply of her speech, but of her poetics: “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it,” she famously tells Lowell in a letter of 21 January 1949, after she herself had, with characteristic reservation, assumed the poetry consultant post at the Library of Congress two years after him. Voice acts both as a harbinger and as a disavowal of self, of what it is to be and say an “I,” an Elizabeth: to speak oneself into external being. As James Merrill among many other has noted, Bishop’s “I” – especially insofar as it remains implicated in personal history, in memoir – models what feels like a formalized disavowal, a writerly reserve:
I think one saw the possibilities, perhaps through Elizabeth Bishop, where “I” could be used with the greatest self-deprecation, humor, a sort of rueful sense of “Well, yes, I did this, but you know what to expect of me.” (Neubauer 85-86)
Deeply suspicious of both the confessional and the expressive, Bishop does not consistently retreat into the detachment of craft, but tends instead to dwell poetically in the tense uncertainties between bios and graphē, the written and the lived.
The year 1947 is significant for understanding the specific genetics of Bishop’s voice, what Michael Donaghy calls her “accent” (Shapcott   ). The summer and fall of that year would see the second of her return visits to Nova Scotia after the death of her mother, trips that would provide Bishop with raw matter for many of the poems and stories she would write until her death in 1979. In the final lines of her New Yorker poem, “At the Fishhouses,” she writes herself – distanced a little into a “we” that collects her enunciative I and the readerly you – into what becomes a maternal, liquid and lapidary Atlantic physiography:
         It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
         dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
         drawn from the cold hard mouth
                  of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
                  forever, flowing and drawn, and since
                  our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown. 
                             (Poems 64)
“I have seen it,” she tells us, “over and over, the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones” (63). Hands and tongues, she says, are not so much nursed on saltwater as burned by it, marked by its hard indifference. Bound to our historical and genetic limits, we are incised by but also finally lost to oceanic depth, to “what we imagine knowledge to be” rather than what we can in fact ever know. Brett Millier, like Shapcott, falls into clichés of profundity when he describes Bishop’s first visit to Nova Scotia – involving visits to Halifax-Dartmouth and to Cape Breton – after the death of her mother:
From the many notebook entries of this summer [1946], and the poems that grew from those notes, it seems clear that the trip [to Nova Scotia] was both deeply disturbing and deeply significant to Elizabeth in ways that it would take her years to articulate. (Millier 181)
Poems such as “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton” had their origins in these notebooks, and certainly do speak to Bishop’s tenacious attachment to Nova Scotia as her genealogical locus. Under her yearbook photo from Vassar College, for example, Bishop lists “Great Village Nova Scotia” as her home, while in fact she had lived there only from age 3 to 6 with her maternal grandparents. As Lavinia Greenlaw puts it, “while [Bishop] is justly celebrated as one of America’s most important poets, it was not America that formed her.” Greenlaw – whose poetic enmeshment in Bishop’s work I will soon come to – recasts “At the Fishhouses” to explain the internals tensions within Bishop’s poetic voice, as an effect of cultural genetics, of what Bishop herself might calls the “question” of how she travels, and the complexities of rootedness and uprooting:
The young Elizabeth stayed with her grandmother for just three years but retained her connection with Great Village all her life. Nova Scotia is the setting for many of her best poems, and its geography of vast skies and wild Atlantic coastline is present as a sense of being on the edge of something deep and dangerous into which she might disappear and into which she might want to – an ambivalence that is one of the most striking aspects of her writing.
The hyperbole here, while perhaps warranted by the occasion of an effusive book review, is wholly out of step with Bishop’s poetic, although we can certainly hear the echoes of the ironically-framed sublimity at the close of Bishop’s poem (as well as the falling from the world that informs “In the Waiting Room”). Greenlaw isn’t wrong to affirm that Bishop’s writing is marked by Nova Scotia; but if you have ever been to Great Village, you will know that it is hardly a place of vast skylines or wild coasts. (These stock-phrases sound more to me like the figural language of Canadian tourism.) The disturbances, instead, are much more closely personal and, importantly, accentual.
         In a 1947 letter to Lowell, Bishop remarks – coincidentally, in a paragraph immediately following a description of having herself recorded “like a fish being angled for with that microphone” – on the “strange rather cross-sounding accent” of Cape Bretoners, a hybrid of something “Gaelic,” “Scotch” and “English,” she thinks (147). What I hear in Bishop’s voice on those Library of Congress records, after her return from two summers in Nova Scotia, aren’t anything so overt or so strong as those Anglo-Celtic brogues, but I do hear the pronounced and, to me, self-evident traces of time spent in the Maritimes. Her voice obviously – obvious, perhaps, to anyone who’s from there – migrates and shifts through an inconstant array of East-Coast inflections. When I first heard these readings, I thought Bishop sounded like my grandmother, who comes from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and of whose voice I have a cassette tape, still. There is something in the way that both Bishop and my grandmother pronounce their Rs, pulling the rhotic slightly back, swallowing it just a little, to create what linguists call, if I’m not mistaken, a rounded retroflex approximate – which is a fancy way of saying an east-coast R, an inflection that among others you can still hear in recordings of Bishop.
I have to pause here to tell you a story, a story about me. My reading of Bishop has an even more personal angle than its link to my grandmother’s recorded voice – it connects to my own colloquial speech genetics, too. Here is my story. I was presenting a paper at a conference at UC Santa Cruz – the American Pacific Southwest – in December 2009. The paper was on the poetry of Charles Simic and its relationship to the music of Charles Lloyd. At one point in the talk, I discuss Simic account of hearing Thelonious Monk play in a New York bar. At the end of my talk, I took questions, of course, anticipating discussion of improvisation and aesthetics, or the complex relationships between music and poetry. A younger colleague of mine put up his hand and asked: “Are you from Nova Scotia?” I was a bit dumbfounded – “What?” “Are you from Nova Scotia?” he repeated: “you said baerr.” Apparently, despite a continent of distance and a good two decades of life elsewhere, my mouth still betrays my adopted origins. It’s been ingrained, coded into my tongue. So too, I think, it might be with Bishop. Leaving Great Village at six, she never can shakes its inflection, shoring against her embouchure.
Lavinia Greenlaw is one of a number of younger British poets who claim Bishop as an influence. She has written numerous reviews of Bishop’s work, has produced a audio documentary for BBC Radio 3 on Bishop’s childhood, and, perhaps most significantly, has directly repurposed and reworked a number of what you might call Bishop’s keywords into the core of her own work: “Questions of Travel,” “The Casual Perfect,” and others. But Greenlaw is more than a fan, and “influence” is hardly the right term for her relationship with Bishop’s work. Greenlaw has remained a decidedly London-based writer, but her interests tend to gather around resisting the genetic determinants of her Anglocentrism. Her voice characteristically oscillates in her writing, a crucial ambivalence that has frequently been misread by reviewers of her work as hesitancy, between where she comes from and where she’s looking to, between the way she speaks and what she hears.
The Importance of Music for Girls, Greenlaw’s disco-punk memoir, begins with an account of her own near-death at age 4 when her mouth was accidentally pierced by a length of bamboo garden cane: “It could have affected your speech,” her mother tells her, “by changing the shape of the roof of your mouth” (3). Voice is both determined and deformed by her domestic, maternally-governed backyard. I want to claim that the difficult vagaries of Bishop’s accent, its complex dislocations, help to explain something of Greenlaw’s fraught lyricism and her attention to the displacements of public, performative language. Greenlaw’s shape-shifting elocution involves a recombinant genomics that synchs her to a poly context in which the dislocations and displacements of recording technologies come to inform how we sound ourselves.
Greenlaw’s poems resonate with Bishop’s, or perhaps alongside them. “Millefiore,” a lyric from Greenlaw’s 1997 collection A World Where News Travelled Slowly, thematizes resonance – as the sympathetic material attunement of molecular glass with intensified sound – but also recovers a fractal sounding, a version of the disavowed recorded voice that I have been tracing in Bishop’s poems. “Millefiore”’s dedication to the Scottish poet Don Paterson, who happens also to be an accomplished jazz guitarist, suggests that Greenlaw wants self-consciously to re-frame an ars poetica here, but a poetics that is at once intermediate and multimodal, aspiring conditionally to the feel of vocal music. The glass eye described in the lyric is “vitreous not ocular,” externalizing its opaque substance rather than pretending to be an organ of vision: neither poor prosthesis nor crafty fake. The inherent fluidity of glass – which as the long viscous drip of cathedral windows remains us, is not solid but a silicate liquid – allows the eye to hold rather than transfer the light of “everything,” but also enables it materially to oscillate, and Greenlaw imagines the eye recreating the ceramic texture of millefiore, an interlace of a “thousand flowers.” Despite its lyric trappings, this is not the visionary sublime, but a material registering, a sonogram, of someone’s artful voice: that is, it’s a glass phonograph. The inscribed sound-waves are apparently unplayable, vibrating senselessly in a dysfunctional skull socket. But in registering the limits of that listening, of what’s knowable, in the lyric textures of her poem, Greenlaw produces what she would later term an “infinite [as in, non-finite?] proximity,” a collision of the immediate, embodied auditory and the mute, representational visual at, and in, the virtual surfaces of poetic text. In her review of Exchanging Hats, a posthumously-published collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings (which Greenlaw calls “poems made in pen, ink and water”), Greenlaw takes Bishop’s seeming lack of painterly technique, her uneasy primitivism, more deliberately as emerging from Bishop’s poetics of disavowal: “The wobbliness of it all is her argument with what the eye expects, how the eye wants to tidy up what is really seen.” Both Greenlaw and Bishop have sometimes been castigated for a forced formalism, a willful tidying up; in fact, the work here dwells not on the well-turned artifact, but in the argument itself with form, what David Kalstone presciently names Bishop’s “becoming a poet,” rather than ever her claiming actually to be one.
The open-ended discovery of an unsettled and unsettling poetic voice is mapped as a kind of mistaken listening, a creative misprision, in an episode from Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, in which she outlines her first encounters with recorded music, specifically Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. As a child overhearing her parent’s music, she admits that she can’t quite make out the words to “Lay Lady Lay,” which she hears as “lay, lay, delay.” This goofy distracted mistake becomes foundational to her own work as a poet – with the book open in front of us, we overhear, at a silent remove, the moment at which she first feels her way toward a poetic re-making of language, its resilient fluid stuff. There is also a specific lyric temporality, its “delay” – her own version of a Bergsonian durée– that can only come from not understanding Bob Dylan, not hearing him correctly. Significantly, there is also a peculiar genetics of accent at work in her description. She transliterates the surreal nonsense that she hears in Dylan’s lines: “brass bed” becomes BRA SPED. Admittedly this isn’t IPA, and I’m putting some undue pressure on the accuracy of her transcription of her own audition of the song, but Dylan does not say or sound out “BRA,” ever, in the song. In a peculiarly throaty falsetto, he sings with a nasally Midwestern American accent something like “BREH.” I don’t mean to criticize Greenlaw’s ear at all by nitpicking this way; what I do want to notice is that she overlays her own London accent onto Dylan’s voice – she hears her own inflection, herself, re-sounded on Dylan’s very strange, idiosyncratic vocal performance. She has Dylan intone, like a slightly posh Londoner, BRAWSS. This imposition might be understood as antinomian, as reciprocal to the traces of Nova Scotia we can detect, liminally, in Bishop’s 1947 recordings. Greenlaw’s accent goes in the opposition direction, expressed rather than impressed. But it nonetheless re-casts that wobble as reciprocity, as give-and-take rather than determinism – regardless of what trajectory any tidy closure might follow.
I have taken too much time already, and there are numerous significant collisions and collusions with Bishop in Greenlaw’s poetry, but I want to conclude with a brief description of a recent electroacoustic project undertaken by Greenlaw at two railway stations in England, Manchester Picadilly and London St. Pancras, called Audio Obscura. Greenlaw created two audio installations which recorded the random chatter of travellers on their way through a rail station; that chatter was then edited to script and re-recorded by voice actors, and the resulting audio tracks made available for listening (on personal audio players with earphones) to passers-by in the stations in which they originated. In a print version of the transcriptions, which have been aggregated and shaped into fragmented lyrics, Greenlaw asserts that she has mined a kind of verbal DNA, caught in passing, and distilled a poetry that exists between vox populiand the solitary lyric voice. The resulting pull between close attention and diffused distraction, she suggests, enacts the subjective becoming of poetic voice, as its texts “hover between speech and thought,” or “somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said” (6). The texts themselves, as concatenated fragments, incline toward the legibility, the sense, promised by a poem – they look like poems – but finally resist hermeneutic finality:
Most of us don’t set out to scrutinise those around us or to listen to their conversations yet we find that faces, gestures and phrases stand out and are remembered whether we like it or not. Things catch our attention because they raise a question and fail to answer it. We are left in suspense. (4)
Those unanswered questions derive for Greenlaw directly from Bishop’s questions of travel, which Bishop distils into one key interrogative in her poem: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” (Poems  ). Home becomes unheimlich, dislocated and disturbed in under Bishop’s scrutiny. Or, in Greenlaw’s hands, interstitial, transitional. Her set of glosses on William Morris’s Icelandic journal, also published in 2011 alongside Audio Obscura and The Casual Perfect, involve Greenlaw taking up phrases from Morris’s prose and writing her way across and through them, not so much as explanation or expansion, not footnoting, but to recognize the intersubjective disturbance, the wobbles, of travelling. For her, Morris offers
the document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys: the tensions that set in once the decision has been made, the hope that something will keep you at home coupled with the fear of missing your plane or boat or train, the realization that you are dis-equipped however much luggage you have brought along with you, the dropping of habits and co-ordinates, the ease with which you cobble together new ones, and the point at which you stop travelling and start heading home. (xxiii)
 That turning point, that peripety, is where the voice, both for Bishop and for Greenlaw, feels its way into audibility, into view.
Books and Such
Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2011. Print.
– – -. Exchanging Hats: Paintings. Ed. William Benton. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. Print.
– – -. One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Greenlaw, Lavinia. The Casual Perfect. London: Faber, 2011.
– – -. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. London: Faber,
1997. Print.
– – -. Audio Obscura. East Anglia: Full Circle Editions,
2011. Print.
– – -. The Importance of Music to Girls.  London: Faber,
2008. Print.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with
 Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.
Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.
Shapcott, Jo, and Linda Anderson, eds. Elizabeth Bishop: Poet
         of the Periphery. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2002. Print.
“Sweeney, Jack and Maire.” Archival Finding Aid, University
Travisano, Thomas, with Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air:
 The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and
Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
2010. Print.

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
or finer
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.

A Windy Boy and a Bit

[This is another review essay that never made it into Canadian Literature. I delivered a version of part of this text as a paper to the Dylan Thomas Society of Vancouver in October 2003, I think.]
A Windy Boy and a Bit: Dylan Thomas at Full Volume
When I was fifteen — in tenth grade in Truro, Nova Scotia — poetry started to matter to me. What held me was the built-in abstraction of any poem, what I took to be its inherent difficulty — something that appealed to my pretenses of alienated sophistication, one of the worst of teenage vanities. Small town adolescence creates a dire need to believe in your own young genius. You end up driven by palpable faith in your unheralded yet overwhelming significance, and you’re pushed by cosmic injustice to be, for a flash, “famous among the barns,” singing tragically in your local chains.
Late in that school year I horned in on a song by Pete Townshend, longstanding bard of teenage wastelands, a song I thought nailed my predicament dead-on (from Rough Mix, a record he made with Ronnie Lanein 1977): “I want to be misunderstood, / Want to be feared in my neighbourhood. / I want to be a moody man, / Say things that nobody can understand.” Well, maybe I didn’t want to be feared, but at least found out, remarked for my cryptic and appallingly contrived bitterness. The poetry I liked — and I was very particular about it from the get-go, although I’d barely read enough of anything — resonated with what I thought I absolutely knew, the crux of my goofy, half-baked intellectual machismo. I craved poems with a kind of latter-day masculine bravura, perhaps to offset what I wrongly assumed were the frailties of artistic work, and I wanted hard and strident voices to make their way into my breaking, pubescent croak.
So, there were three writers to whom I gravitated immediately. Robert Frost’s formal elegies, his temporary stays against confusion, bespoke an untenable paternity setting its teeth against its own inevitable collapse: it was heavily Oedipal, and I heard in Frost’s arch lines a way to wrestle with the laws laid down by all the fathers, my own or anyone’s. (For Christmas that year, my mom and dad gave me A Tribute to the Source, a Frost selected with misty New England photographs by Dewitt Jones; I couldn’t ever get past “Buried Child,” and still can’t.) The second of my triumvirate was John Newlove. I had found his selected poems, The Fat Man, in the high school library, and their chiseled ironic edges cut at the world the way I thought I wished I could, grimacing through the hellish existential manhood of his Samuel Hearne. (I had also asked for a copy of Newlove for Christmas, but the cashier at the bookstore sold my mother Irving Layton as a substitute, telling her it was “the same sort of thing.” Not exactly. Although Layton’s “Cain” — a poem of restrained father-son violence — is still one of my favourites, for some reason.) And then there was Dylan Thomas.
I bought a used copy of Thomas’s Dent Collected Poems from the “Nu to Yu” shop. I’d also saved some money from my summer job as a boxboy at the IGA, and bought Quite Early One Morning — a scrapbook of reminiscence, poetry and radio scripts — and, probably the first book I can say I really valued as a book, as an object: a sandy-colouredNew Directions hardback of the 1930s Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud. This rough and unready Dylan had a sprawling immediacy that seemed especially ripe in my own meager time and place. He had remained suspended on the page young enough to be relocated to small town Nova Scotia, I think, because of the way those obscure and elitist performances, an adolescent brashness finding and wagging its tongue, tended and still tend to lift themselves out of history, out of context — even, or especially, as the material aspect of those unfinished holographs in scribblers, tends to reassert those very limits. These books unknotted and then retied their lacings, and became Truro poems, teenage poems: mine.
For me, as for many readers, Thomas’s recorded voice offered a form of verbal religiosity, of spirit possession; the man himself long dead, his speech could nonetheless carry forward from the spiral scratch of a phonograph track to animate and stir our tenuous present. I found a Caedmon double-album of Thomas readings in the Truro public library, and kept renewing it. (I had recently progressed from the Junior to the Adult card, a major shift in borrowing possibilities.) From this compilation, however, I found I leaned toward the later poems of ecstatic resignation, flush with fractured verbiage and hobbled by overripe nostalgia; the spittle-cloyed choruses of “Lament,” the hawk- and curlew-heavy upheaval of “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and the chiming, verdant bluster of “Fern Hill.” Harper Audio has issued Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection, an 11-CD set gathering all of Thomas’s spoken-word recordings released by Caedmon. Thomas’s records, as many will know, were both the foundation and the mainstay of Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney’s Caedmon label, which went on to release some of the most significant recordings of poetry and prose in the mid-twentieth century. Thomas also recorded a number of poems included in this set both live and in the studio for the CBC at Vancouver in “late May 1952,” as the notes to the collection point out, when he was on the second and last of his two reading tours of the West Coast. (This date, however, remains problematic; according to some sources, Thomas read and recorded — in conversation with Earle Birney — on 6 April 1950; his second appearance in Vancouver was on 8 April 1952, and he was not likely here in May of that year. Surviving letters and postcards place him and Caitlin on a ship at sea that month.) The transplanting that I managed to effect as a teenager, carrying Thomas across time and the Atlantic into my own embrace, retooling “Wales in my arms” for Canadian reception, was already ghosted into the recordings themselves; his voice had already arrived here, only to take flight again into the false eternal present of the stereo lp.
The Caedmon Collection reproduces in CD-sized miniature the covers of Thomas’s albums. As anyone who collects records knows, their particular material presence, their 12-inch square glossy cardboard, matters a lot, and the Caedmon compilation gestures at this nostalgia, in a conveniently reduced format; you can hold all the transcriptions of Thomas’s voice, his digitized remains, in your hand. This wan materiality emerges in Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Bookcase,” from Electric Light. In his lyric, Heaney eyes the coloured spines of his books, and remembers not merely voices but encounters, intersections, coursings; the thickness of paper and binding melds with the poems themselves, their verbal textures:
Bluey-white of the Chatto Selected
Elizabeth Bishop. Murex of Macmillan’s
Collected Yeats. And their Collected Hardy.
Yeats of “Memory.” Hardy of “The Voice.”
Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens
Off a Caedmon double album, off 
                                           different shelves.
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
“Do Not Go Gentle.” “Don’t be going yet.”
Unlike the Heaney of this reminiscence, or Thomas, I was never much of a drinker — in fact, when I was wearing a groove into “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I remember being more often than not strangely prudish; poetry seemed to fill the same selfish gaps as Heaney’s Irish whiskey might, that indulgent loneliness every boy wants to pickle in — but I know exactly what he’s writing about here: the poem that wants not to fade away, to keep going, even as it manages to sustain nothing but, nothing much more than, its own bald longing.
In “Dylan the Durable?” — the interrogative title is significant, and suggests much of the unresolved duplicity of “The Bookcase,” where the invitation to stay that remains largely unanswered — a 1991 lecture reprinted in part in his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Heaney reads in Thomas’s villanelle a formal reflex “turning upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution”:
The villanelle, in fact, both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.
While Heaney seems keen to fall into step with mid-century mythopoeic interpretations of Thomas — the Biblical archetypes, books of nature and Blakean contraries that saturated the first flush Thomas criticism — he nonetheless finds the vital instability at the core of this thoroughly formalized not-yet-an-elegy. But where Heaney abstracts and generalizes this uncertainty into a thematic of “youth and age,” the poem is actually more specifically gendered: it is about fathers and sons, a refusal to relinquish the bond to his father, even as it takes up the poetic work of fathering, of parthenogenesis: the poem itself, rather than merely producing formal analogues, rages against a deathly, stultifying parental stricture even as it affirms, in that contradiction, a fierce and fatherly imperative. And it performs that rage, most famously, in the contradicted doublet of its penultimate verbs: “Curse, bless, me now.” The child, as Wordsworth says, is now father to the man; Jacob and Isaac exchange places, and then trade again, in the urgent pleading of Thomas’s blasted prayer. This demand, as simultaneous question and plea that refuse not to be put, seems to me best grasped as adolescence. It cannot accept its dutiful forms, and chooses defiance of the paternal in order to affirm its surging and unruly life-force that drives its green age, even as it wants only to inhabit those forms for itself, and discovers itself blasted and made dumb by childishness. It wants, like all adolescents, to be both adult and child at once. If we scan Heaney’s selected essays, we discover too what is obviously a need for poetic maturity and respect — he tends to write only about the poetry of Nobel laureates, Harvard lecturers and old friends, to position himself within a kind of transnational academy — coupled with a pervasive nationalist pastoralism, all those Irish vowel-meadows where he ran and the peat-bogs where he dug in his youth. I don’t mean to deride Heaney, but instead to point to the necessary and vital adolescence of what he does. And to use such a claim to look back, and forward, at my own willfully unresolved reading practices.
Heaney mentions no Canadian (and very few commonwealth) writers, and we could hardly expect him to. Or maybe we could. But he does provide a hinge into a more localized nationalism, one that inheres not in artificially stabilized cultural thematics, a Canadian-this or Canadian-that, but in its own ardent instabilities, an adolescent discomfort that is not to be overcome but embraced. This sweetly duplicitous craving permeates Albertan (now Mexican-resident) Murray Kimber’s illustrationsfor Fern Hill (from Red Deer College Press), the middle volume — from 1997 — in what now appears to be a trilogy of work commencing with his brilliant 1994 collaboration with Jim McGuigan, Josepha: a prairie boy’s story, for which Kimber won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration , and concluding with The Wolf of Gubbio, a retelling of a legend of St. Francis of Assisi by Michael Bedard, published in 2000. But where both of these texts are narrative, and lend themselves to a kind of captioning, as events from story are depicted by brush, Thomas’s “Fern Hill” has, at most, only shards of plot, and coheres musically rather than descriptively, in the relative abstraction and obliqueness of time remembered, a blurring of present recollection and past recollected in incantatory pastoral surges: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” Temporal modalities collide in this famous opening gambit, interlocking the immediacy of the poem’s writing, the jetztzeit of that conventional “now,” with its historically orchestrated and orchestrating subject, “I was.” Kimber intensifies this interlace of here and there, now and then, both in the arrangement of his sixteen illustrations and in their subject matter.
Kimber’s work focuses on two principal figures, represented in two small watercolour cameos that frame the main text: on the title-page, he offers us the head and shoulders of a prepubescent boy, rendered in reddish fleshtones against a purple wash; on the recto of the last page, facing a page-sized reprint of the complete text of “Fern Hill,” he sets his counterpart, a patriarch in tweeds and cap, whose open eyes and quiet pinkish smile suggest a knowing serenity. This final image echoes the first illustration, apposite to the first three lines of the poem, which shows the same old man, now rendered in light blues with oils on canvas, but now with his eyes closed and mouth gently crimped. Kimber’s intention is to suggest the poem’s tenor of reverie in age, despite the fact that Thomas was in his early thirties when he wrote it, and to link memory both to aestheticized wonderment — the “darling illusion” of recollection as Charles G. D. Roberts once put it — and to pastoral vitality; the green apples that decorate the old man’s red scarf (their tones in sharp contrast to his pallid complexion) displace the real apples of those sagging boughs onto textile pictorial, past life sustained as lovely wearable art. In the second illustration, we see this capped figure walking, but now the boy and a horse run forward from him, surging right toward the next page of the book. The palette, too, shifts from blue to peach, yellow and deep green, as the present is revived in “the heyday of his eyes,” that splendid driven vision.
Kimber’s fourteen oils (not including the watercolour miniatures) form a visual sonnet, structured in a nested frame. The image for the first three lines, the solitary face of the dreaming man, are recapitulated in the image for the last three, the same figure, now shown head to toe in the middle ground walking alone with his bare feet in the surf; the second image — man, boy and horse — is replayed in the second to last illustration, where these three figures are rejoined, although now to close the loop as we go “riding to sleep” under an equine constellation, the forward push of the former image moderated by dark purples, as man and boy, his old and young selves, walk homeward hand in hand, their backs to us as they depart across the pasture into a shadowed, moonlit farmhouse. Thomas’s poem, though highly formalized, bears little resemblance to a sonnet, but Kimber’s visuals nonetheless uncover a version of the form, dividing the first and last stanzas in three, and the remaining four stanzas in two (grouped mostly in clusters of three or four lines, with no illustration crossing between the existing stanzas). In effect, Kimber’s illustrations surround a core octave, made up of four pictorial pairs, with two tercets or triptychs, creating a recursive envelope (3-[2-2-2-2]-3) that, as I’ve already tried to indicate in my description of the opening and closing illustrations, affirms a fixed architecture. The strong outlines and lapidary textures of Kimber’s figures confirm this essentially sculptural, even monumental tendency to his style, an effort I think to stay the mutable, and to arrest the ragged arc of time. Recurrent motifs — farmhouse, ladders and fences, a married couple holding hands or standing kissing, burnished barns, even the vertical trunks of trees — solidify this stasis, a circularity that emerges from the almost obsessive repetitions of motifs and even whole phrases in Thomas’s poem: “green and golden,” “nothing I cared.”
Simultaneously, Kimber energizes this visual torpor, the viscosity of his oils, with diagonal flashes and unresolved tangents: river flow, shooting stars, floating drapes, running horses that refuse to be contained by borders or grids. This kinesis, too, comes from Thomas’s poem, in the ungraspable syntax of the third stanza, for example: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass.” The run-on, thematized in the poem itself, distends and stretches Thomas’s closed, formal architecture like so much verbal taffy.  Time, though chained and bound, sings excessively, testing the tensile bonds of poetic enchainment. Kimber’s paintings embrace what Thomas appears to understand as the creative push of memory, the force that drives his green age, in their lovely dehiscence, as they catch at the fraying of time itself, at the doubled assembling and dismantling that inheres in the sustained “now” of the image.
So, this is much more than a children’s book; perhaps the music of this sometimes confused and difficult poem would attract a child’s ear, though the nostalgia of the text itself is fully that of an adult. It is best thought, perhaps, as an adolescent work, the text and visuals hovering between the child-like wonder the writer craves and the deathly adulthood he wants to refuse. It is a fine and engrossing work of male desire, of longing.
Kimber’s work is also mindful of its history; his landscape style echoes primarily the post-impressionists, especially Paul Cézanne’s rectangles and triangles, although his green forests clearly draw on Emily Carr’s vortices and his fields on the horizontal plains of Illingworth Kerr (perhaps something of a carry-over from his work on Josepha ). His portraits fuse the blue ovals of early Picasso with the ripe colours of Frederick Varley, I think.  I’m not suggesting that Kimber’s work is derivative, nor do I wish to claim that he has merely Canadianized early European modernism. Rather, like my own youthful transport of and by Thomas, Kimber’s paintings position themselves in a kind of negotiated middle, resolutely of this place and yet thoroughly conscious of their own displacement. Thomas’s poem, Welsh though Fern Hill itself may appear, actually takes place nowhere, or rather in the many imagined nowheres of memory from afar. It can’t quite be grasped, but can only be, to take Pete Townshend out of context, misunderstood, misprised and, as Heaney suggests, respoken at full volume, reintroduced into your own place and time. Just as the poem would have time stretched into the present, and across it like a screen, so too can Thomas be reimagined, remade in the crucibles of eye and ear, as he and you and I go running together “out of grace” and into a world where, however much unheard, we can still somehow sing.

Short Take on Tim Daisy & Ken Vandermark

Found a copy last week of Light on the Wall, a double LP by Tim Daisy (percussion) and Ken Vandermark (reeds), recorded as a duo and both solo in Poland in May 2008, and issued on Laurence Family Records. The sound, both live and in the studio, is excellent. You can really hear Daisy’s distinctively open sense of space in the live duo set; Vandermark offers a set of solo “Etudes for Jimmy Giuffre,” but to me their duos not so much build on Giuffre’s chamber-ish conceptions, as recall duos by another Jimmy, Jimmy Lyons, with Andrew Cyrille–not that there is anything derivative in this music, but rather that both are thoroughly cognizant of their position in an emergent sense of a building tradition of forward-thinking sonic experimentation, the extemporaneous edge where the performing present takes up its audible pasts: a historicity of the avant-garde, coming on. That, and it’s a great record.