The Opulence Notebook

1. Geology

In one of his books on geology, John McPhee observes that geologists tend to specialize in the kinds of terrain where they grew up. So the Swiss, who spend a lot of time among mountains when young, end up being structural geologists. And the Dutch, who live in a place where water and land are constantly battling each other, end up being sedimentology geologists. And because, of all places, Cincinnati has treasuries of Ordovician fossils in its hills, geologists from Cincinnati tend to be paleontologists.

What is behind that moment when the artist realizes… that doing one kind of art or another is the necessary piece of her life’s fulfillment?

As for poets and their original landscapes, maybe there is a case to be made for the same correlation. After all, in the same way that first novels tend to be thinly-veiled autobiographies, many poets in their early books often write about the places where they came from: think of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, and countless more. As Annie Dillard wryly points out in The Writing Life, “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” Dillard is being hyperbolic, of course, but there must be some truth to the firsthand-ness that we experience only as children, and how that original perceptiveness gets imprinted before self-consciousness starts to muddy our ability to uninhibitedly see the world. What is intriguing to me, though, is how artists become artists at all. What is behind that moment when the artist realizes — whether she is eight years old or sixty-eight years old — that doing one kind of art or another is the necessary piece of her life’s fulfillment? The idea that an early trauma wounded the artist into her art — this seems plausible enough, given the wreckage that seems to define the early lives of many artists. But the idea of art as compensation is also too grand, and doesn’t speak to the experience of many artists. I don’t feel wounded in any way, but I do feel continually dazzled by the world, and it is that dazzlement I try to transcribe in my poems. Nor do I feel that I became a poet because of the places where I lived during my most formative years: my first ten years in the Philippines, and then the years in Oakland prior to going to college. In my life as a poet I often feel like that guy you see in the park or at the beach with his metal detector, picking up tiny bright things, often useless. My poems often feel like collections of those bright things, even if I know that in the heart of that vaguely crazy guy wielding the metal detector, a kind of vocational principle is passionately in play.

2. Radnóti

Forced March

Forced March: Selected Poems
BY Miklós Radnóti
BY George Gömöri AND Clive Wilmer
(Enitharmon, 2004)

For weeks, I have been reading Miklós Radnóti. Specifically, two books: Forced March, a collection of his late poems, translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer, and Camp Notebook, a book that reproduces in facsimile the final notebook Radnóti kept, with translations of the poems by Francis Jones. A quick sketch of Radnóti’s story: in the early 1940s, when the Germans took Budapest, Radnóti was made to do repeated stints in various labor camps; on November 9, 1944, while on a forced march from a camp in Serbia back to Hungary, he was shot along with 21 other prisoners; a year later, the bodies were dug up, and Radnóti was identified by the notebook of poems in his coat. He was thirty-five. At the time, he had already published some books, and had some repute in Hungary. The early poems were modernist, but increasingly became more classical in temperament as Europe darkened towards World War II. The late work is rigorous in form and acute in thematic clarity; the diction is plain-spoken; the sensibility is anxiously morbid and resignedly serene by turns. The poems are situated more or less in a pastoral mode, though in their gloom anticipate the “majestic black” that Paul Celan would deconstruct and describe in his poems. Radnóti’s poems are at the end of the world, Celan’s are notations on the aftermath.

From Radnóti’s “Seventh Eclogue”: “You see? As dark comes on, the barracks and the grim oak fence, / Girded with barbed-wire, dissolve: night soaks them up. / Slowly the eye relinquishes the bounds of our captivity / And the mind, only the mind, can tell how taut the wire is.” There is intense irony in that title, “Seventh Eclogue,” in the way the pastoral gets aligned with the vagaries of the camp. The bucolic world of the one couldn’t be farther away from the horror of the other. And yet there they are, running on parallel tracks in the poem: the world, as always, moving from day to night to day; the prisoner’s mind, snagged on its bits of knowledge and its delusions. The world of night looks free, but the mind knows the limit of the wire: “I write this poem here, in the dark, just as I live, / Half-blind, like a caterpillar inching my way across paper.”

And why the pastoral mode? According to Gömöri and Wilmer: “For a man writing at the very edge of survival, whose finest work flowered in conditions of intellectual darkness and moral anarchy, the expression of thought and feeling within the clear but flexible order of the Latin hexameter came to seem a moral act.” In this reading of Radnóti’s classicism, the classicism is a kind of nostalgia in the midst of a chaotic, beleaguered time. But in his introduction to Camp Notebook, George Szirtes cites a Hungarian scholar, Laszlo K. Gefin, who argues that “Radnóti’s use of Virgil is primarily sardonic.” In this latter reading of Radnóti’s classicism, the recourse to the classical mode is meant as a necessarily camouflaged critique of what was going on around him. The modernist had never gone away: it had put itself into old clothing.

Radnóti’s last poem, “Postcard (4),” was written on the back of a label for a bottle of cod liver oil. He must have run out of notebook pages, and it wouldn’t have escaped his ironic notice that he was writing one of his darkest poems on scrap paper. Here again, something like the sublime meeting the ridiculous. The product is described as “Cod Liver Oil Preparation,” the brand is “Jema,” and the label exhorts, “Your Medicine.” The label was inserted into his notebook. The poem is dated October 31, 1944:

I tumbled beside him, his body twisted and then,
like a snapped string, up it sprang again.
Neck shot. ‘This is how you’ll be going too,’
I whispered to myself, ‘just lie easy now.’
Patience is blossoming into death.
Der springt noch auf,’ rang out above me. Mud
dried on my ear, mingled with blood.

3. The Amaryllis

The English and Philosophy Building on the campus of the University of Iowa is ugly. Built at a time when the student unrest of the 1960s might well have been in the minds of its architects, the building looks like an enormous brick box that should be a prison facility or an FBI building. Or, at the least, it looks like a building where one of the hard sciences is taught. Instead, it was where I learned about ambition in poetry. The building, in fact, stands on the green banks of the Iowa River. Nonetheless, the severe solidity that the English and Philosophy Building has in my memory matches the hard lessons I took from the place. We might as well have been doing physics in there. The sort of physics, anyway, that had these for its coordinates:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here on can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

As Jorie Graham explained it, in the graduate seminar on modern poetry that she taught on Wednesday afternoons that fall in the English and Philosophy Building, the role of the reader in “The Waste Land” was being re-defined in ways it had not been done before. One read “The Waste Land,” she said, to undergo a process, rather than merely reading to interpret the text’s representation of the world. As one read Eliot’s difficult poem, one had to suspend one’s rational apparatus in order to experience the poem as ritual. In the block above, the ritualistic repetitiveness of the passage’s music was thrillingly in tension with the malaise being described. The poem’s speaker seemed to have beauty and music on their side, even as that speaker’s sensibility became more dissociated. The “auditory imagination” of the passage was doing deep work, and gave the wasted land being traversed by the speaker a musical brilliance. Graham, as she talked that fall about Eliot, Berryman, and Dickinson, noted the intellectual unrest the reader had to embrace in order to read these poets. But she also pointed to the emotional rewards that these poets ultimately gave. Their poems were not difficult for the sake of intellectual exercise; they were catalysts for experiences which tested our emotions. “Emotions are the escape,” Graham said of the stark emotions in Eliot’s poem, “even if they’re also the prison of the self.”

I was finally understanding… what that gasp of speech meant. To be the poem, to enact in one’s self the disorientation and the rescue in a great poem — this was a profound lesson.

Until that seminar session on Eliot, I wouldn’t have been able to say that I had read his poems with any real appreciation. Until then, in those early years of my life as a poet, I had formed deep affections for the work of Frost, Bishop, and Heaney — whose poems’ surfaces were certainly more legible than Eliot’s surfaces. But Graham made me see in Eliot that how I read his poems mattered as much as what the poems said. I was supposed to be the protagonist of these poems, as much a protagonist as the speaker in the poem. “Be thou me,” I remember saying to myself after that class meeting, walking to the bar with my classmates in the November dusk, remembering the invocation of Shelley’s speaker to the west wind. I was finally understanding — as I had not, when I first read “Ode to the West Wind” in an undergraduate class on Romanticism — what that gasp of speech meant. To be the poem, to enact in one’s self the disorientation and the rescue in a great poem — this was a profound lesson.

As it turned out, Graham’s directive on how to read Eliot was also a guide on how to read her poems. In Iowa City, Graham was a figure who struck many of us as formidable and generous by turns. She was an ordinary woman — you saw her at the market, or driving an older Celica in town — who had an extraordinary presence. Her generosity, whether explaining Eliot in the seminar or analyzing one of our poems during workshop, had an unyielding quality about it. Unyielding in the sense that what she gave us felt like knowledge that carried a set of demands. Or not “knowledge” exactly, but a desire to know, to know further into the phenomenon in front of you. Speaking once about the opaque moments that at times arose in truly ambitious poems, Graham said that there are times in life when you can see, you can remember, but you can’t know.

It was this thwarted knowing that I kept encountering in Graham’s poems as I read them that semester, noting how the largeness of her poems were coincident with the largeness of the poems she admired. Where in Bishop I had admired how painstaking description finally arrived at an understanding of some kind, in Graham’s work there was only the painstaking process of description. Where in Bishop I saw how the objectivity of any described thing ultimately crystallized in the light of the poet’s subjectivity, in Graham the competing subjectivities within any one consciousness themselves became the poem’s subject. Graham’s poems may have begun with the ordinary flower — or the errand to fetch a leotard, or the noise of traffic heard from a window — but they ended up in the spin of a metaphysical vertigo:

The self-brewing of the amaryllis rising before me.
Weeks of something’s decomposing — like hearsay
growing into this stringent self-analysis—
a tyranny of utter self-reflexiveness —
its nearness to the invisible a deep fissure
the days suck round as its frontiers trill, slur
— a settling-ever-upward and then, now,
this utterly sound-free-though-tongued opening
where some immortal scale is screeched —
bits of clench, jolt, fray and assuage
bits of gnaw and pulse and, even, ruse
— impregnable dribble — wingbeat at a speed
too slow to see — stepping out of the casing outstretched

Here, in the opening passage of her poem “Opulence,” Graham proposes that the rhythms of mind — of thinking — generate a gorgeously sweeping music. With their volatile thrusts, hesitations, and reconsiderations, Graham’s is a poetry of new duration. In “Opulence,” it is not so much that an amaryllis is ushering its blooms into flower, but that a viewer’s mind has been ignited into actively inquiring desire. And it is a desire, moreover, that is willing to sacrifice the formalizing conventions of writing in order to follow, to wherever it may go, the path of the original ignition. Not that Graham’s poems are without form; rather, their forms have been distressed and made to accommodate the energies of thought. Syntax, line, stanza, shape: it is all newly reconfigured. “No genuine form occurs,” Graham said in an interview, “without the honest presence of chaos (however potentially) in the work. Form, when it has power, is form wrenched from its opposite. I happen to favor work in which the potential (or posited) power of chaos is great. Because I believe it is so in the world.” Which means that, in the imperceptible progress of an amaryllis blooming, even silence has its own roaring: “the four of them craning this way then that according to the time / of day, the drying wrinkled skirts of the casing / now folded-down beneath, formulaic, / the light wide-awake around it—or is it the eye— / yes yes yes yes says the mechanism of the underneath tick tock—.”

4. Beauty in Photography

In one of his essays on photography, Robert Adams asks the question: “Are all important pictures beautiful?” Then he brings forward an example, by way of getting to an answer: “For instance, there is Robert Capa’s photograph of a Spanish loyalist, fatally wounded a moment earlier, falling to the side of the 35-mm frame. It is as vivid a synopsis of violent death as has been produced in our century. But is it beautiful?”

The Capa photo is iconic. On the left side of the frame is the soldier in a white shirt and light pants, his body flung back just at the moment of the shot’s impact. His rifle is still in his right hand, but is already slipping away from the relaxing hand. The soldier’s chest — a vulnerable expanse of whiteness — is thrust out as the force of the shot pushes him backwards. His body is in the middle of a wrenching governed by the laws of physics. He is wearing something that looks like suspenders, with packets of ammunition attached to them. We cannot fully see his face, given the tilt which his head has taken in his backwards fall. The composition of the photograph is undeniably beautiful. The right side of the photo and the sky above are filled by a moody cloudiness. The light on the hillside, where the soldier is falling, is strongly slanted: it is late in the day or early in the morning. If the photo were in color, that hillside would be the color of gold.

Adams says that to judge the Capa photograph purely on its compositional beauty is a “distortion” of the value of the image, which is to record a man’s death. Adams then says: “What Capa’s photograph shows is a truth — a common, terrible, and therefore important truth. But again, does this mean the picture is beautiful? Is Truth Beauty and vice versa? The answer, as Keats knew, depends on the truth about which we are talking. For a truth to be beautiful, it must be complete, the full and final Truth. And that, in turn, leads me to a definition of Beauty linked unavoidably to belief. For me, the truth of Capa’s picture is limited; it deserves, therefore, some lesser adjective than ‘beautiful,’ some word suggesting the partial truths occasionally recorded by heroic journalists.”

I’m with Adams, but only up until the last few sentences of the above passage, when he begins to slip into a murky conceptual soup that seems to place the Capa image into a lesser category of accomplishment because Adams sees only a “limited” truth in the photo. In Adams’ line of thinking, the photograph — the product of a journalistic moment’s unplanned opportunity — is less beautiful for having been unplanned. It is maddening, that the language Adams brings to the Capa photo distorts the complexity of the image, a complexity clear enough to anyone who looks at the photo for even two minutes. The photo is viscerally powerful and also aesthetically superb, both. And so you have to ask, what does Adams mean by the limited truth found in the photograph? Isn’t every photograph necessarily a limited composition, a limited truth, taken from the world? When, later in his essay, Adams speaks glowingly of a New York evening scene by Stieglitz and a pastoral scene by O’Sullivan — seeming to privilege these images over the photo by Capa — Adams’s categorizations come undone. Having taken the difficult trouble of using Keats’s terms to help him, Adams only ends up tying himself into knots — one more adventurer helplessly tangled in Keats’s impossible conjecture.

5. Beauty in Painting

David Sylvester: “Max Ernst tells how his father, an honest man, painted a picture of his garden from which he left out a tree for the sake of the composition, and was afterwards so troubled by this untruth to reality that he went and cut down the tree.”

6. On Knitting

There is this sentence from To the Lighthouse that I love: “Not liking to think of him so, and wondering if they had guessed at dinner why he suddenly became irritable when they talked about fame and books lasting, wondering if the children were laughing at that, she twitched the stocking out, and all the fine gravings came drawn with steel instruments about her lips and forehead, and she grew still like a tree which has been tossing and quivering and now, when the breeze falls, settles, leaf by leaf, into quiet.”

Virginia Woolf says in her diary that writing is about putting words on the backs of rhythms. The sentence above is that idea in action. The sentence has three dependent clauses before the subject shows up; after the subject clause, three subsequent clauses appear, further modifying the subject. The three dependent clauses point to mental activities: “Not liking,” “and wondering,” “wondering.” But the later three clauses are grounded in tangible sense: “the fine gravings came drawn… about her lips,” “she grew still,” “and now… settles.” The first three clauses are organized as participial clauses: “Not liking,” “and wondering,” “wondering.” And the last three clauses are organized by the stringing-along of that workhorse conjunction and: “and all,” “and she grew,” “and now.” On either side of the independent clause in the middle of the sentence, the clauses are as carefully organized as they are dramatic.

The core of the sentence is the clause “she twitched the stocking out.” Everything before and after that clause is elaboration. A different writer would have had just the plain core — but this is Woolf. And it needs saying that the sentence itself enacts what Mrs. Ramsay is doing in the sentence: she’s darning a sock. The sentence, then, is a piece of knitting. And more, “she twitched the stocking out” denotes the only concrete coordinate in a moment that is otherwise very fluid, that is happening in the mind. In the first three clauses, we are in thinking, in the final three clauses we’re in metaphor. Mrs. Ramsay begins in fretfulness and ends in unabashed poetry. And in the middle of all that, the plainness of what she’s actually doing: “she twitched the stocking out.”

7. Classicism

For years I admired Agnes Martin’s paintings without having known much about her. The simplicity of her abstract planes, the Shaker-like minimalism, the modulated soft colors — these spoke of a hard-working gaze and an even harder-working hand. Martin would have seemed an artist only of precious sensibility if, over the years, she hadn’t stuck so obsessively to her vision, which replicated itself in painting after painting.

Reading the volume of Martin’s writings only confirmed the drivenness that’s the soul beneath the paintings’ serenity. Martin was an unforgiving whip to herself. Her paintings are so modern that one expects her to speak from an avant-garde position. Instead, the theme one discovers in the writings is her repeatedly affiliating herself with a classical posture towards art: “I would like my work to be recognized,” she wrote, “as being in the classic tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art can not possibly be eclectic. One must see the Ideal in one’s own mind. It is like a memory of perfection.”

Jed Perl claims in an article on Cezanne that “The truest classicists offer transcendence without catharsis.” What Perl means by this transcendence is perhaps something like what Wordsworth meant, declaring in his “Intimations” ode that to him even the “meanest flower” brought thoughts “too deep for tears.” Wordsworth, schooled in his own mortality and the immortality of nature, arrives at a “faith that looks through death,” an equanimity beyond merely cathartic emotion, beyond tears. Given Perl’s formulation, in the work of these classicists what seems to be the achieved characteristic is an alertness that outdistances tragedy and all its busy feeling. The classicist, by this definition, has a Bartleby dutifulness that is also a kind of hauteur. Roger Fry, in his Cezanne study, has a description of the young artist that could stand as an image for that Bartleby figure: “So far indeed was he from possessing any sort of hide, that his fellow students nicknamed him ‘l’ecorche,’ the man without any skin to protect his sensitiveness from the strokes of fate and the malice of his fellows.” Agnes Martin is in this same line of being and ambition: the cool wisdom and the formal fanaticism, haunted by perfection.

8. Inada

At the university in Tacoma, Washington, where I teach, I sometimes offer a course in Asian-American Literature. During the week that we study the writings that emerged from the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, I take the students on a field trip. We drive about ten minutes down Highway 512 to Puyallup and the Puyallup Fairgrounds, which was the site of an assembly center where Japanese Americans from Washington and Alaska were held before they were transferred to more permanent camps. From April to September of 1942, more than seven thousand evacuees were held in Puyallup. The assembly center was named Camp Harmony.

The lesson, of course, is a basic but crucial one: the past disappears. And when we read literature, we read literature in the context of that disappearance.

Today, the fairgrounds are still actively used. One weekend there is a cattle show, another weekend there is a spring fair. When we visit the fairgrounds, however, there’s usually nothing going on. The place is like a ghost town, or a seaside town at the end of the summer. There is material evidence of life, but no life itself. And no evidence of the seven thousand people who had to live in that place for four months. The students and I walk around for a while, and after fifteen or so minutes of wandering around, I begin to feel the students’ boredom. I can imagine what they are asking themselves: what are we doing here? what does this place have to do with the literature we’re reading? The students had believed they were going to see something — some kind of proof. Instead, they have taken a field trip to a place that contains absolutely nothing.

The lesson, of course, is a basic but crucial one: the past disappears. And when we read literature, we read literature in the context of that disappearance. In two of his books, Legends from Camp and Drawing the Line, the Japanese-American poet Lawson Inada does something that no field trip to Puyallup could ever generate in the students’ minds: he restores the past, he proves that the past existed, that it was bright and true. Here are some lines from his poem “Camp,” keeping in mind that when Inada and his family were in the Amache camp in Colorado, Inada was a boy of six or seven:

It got so hot in Colorado we would go crazy.
This included, of course, soldiers in uniform, on patrol.
So, once a week, just for relief, they went out for target practice.
We could hear them shooting hundreds of rounds, shouting like crazy.
It sounded like a New Year’s celebration. Such fun is not to be missed.
So someone cut a deal, just for the kids, and we went out past the fence.
The soldiers shot, and between rounds, we dug in the dunes for bullets.
It was great fun. They would aim at us, go Pow! and we’d shout Missed!

What is remarkable about these lines is the way we are brought into the kids’ naive jubilation, even as we are also made to understand the dynamics of war between a country and its own people. The kids and the soldiers are just playing, but they are also playing out the absurdity of the larger conflict. What this passage should also remind us is that the experience of the camps was far more layered than the received images that we think of when we think of that time period. As we get farther away from a historical moment, that moment often gets reduced to the equivalent of a historical sound-byte, an entry on Wikipedia. But like other writers who have written about dramatic periods in history, Inada’s writings are like a time capsule, in which kids and soldiers in a Colorado camp are always at play, always enacting the farce of historical and political forces.

9. Coda

Federico Garcia Lorca: “My whole childhood was centered on the village. Shepherds, fields, sky, solitude. Total simplicity. I’m often surprised when people think that the things in my work are daring improvisations of my own, a poet’s audacities. Not at all. They’re authentic details, and seem strange to a lot of people because it’s not often that we approach life in such a simple, straightforward fashion: looking and listening. Such an easy thing, isn’t it?”

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