Monday, March 30, 2009


This seems to be the week for winding down the biographies of long-lived, long-winded Victorians. Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926) is probably best remembered for Travels in Arabia Deserta, perhaps the single greatest Briton's-eye venture into the xenophobic world of the 19th-century Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence of Arabia worshipped the book, & indeed found it so accurate & comprehensive that he used a copy as a kind of Baedeker during the military adventures that would fill The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

But Travels in Arabia Deserta is not merely an incomparable travelogue, but an eccentric masterpiece of English prose – an idiom which Doughty felt had only gone downhill since Spenser and Chaucer. Like his contemporary G. M. Hopkins, Doughty favors an out-of-the-way, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and constructs his sentences around Biblical, sometimes recondite cadences. As Andrew Taylor shows in God's Fugitive: The Life of C. M. Doughty (HarperCollins UK, 1999), Doughty came to value his poetry – he wrote a number of epics and closet dramas – over his travel writing: his memorial tablet reads "Poet, Patriot and Explorer," & it's in that order he hoped to be remembered. It's turned out much the opposite: Doughty's known as an explorer-writer first; a handful of experts (if that many) know his poems; and the less said about his bloody-minded boosterism of the Boer War and the First World War the better.

Taylor's a solid, businesslike writer, a veteran journalist who's spent many years in the Middle East. So while he does his best to do Doughty's poetry justice, a solid half of the book is taken up with an almost day-by-day recounting of Doughty's 2 years in Arabia. Many a time I was tempted to just chuck the biography and dive into Travels in Arabia Deserta itself – which, mind you, is not at all an improper response to a biography.

Best of all, Taylor manages to give a vivid if somewhat distant personal impression of one of the weirder of the great Victorian writers.* And he says just enough about the poetry to make me want to hunt up some of those antique volumes & plunge in – even if Pound & Yeats together made little headway: as EP recalls in The Pisan Cantos: "did we ever get to the end of Doughty: / The Dawn in Britain? / perhaps not..."

*Weird, I suppose, in a tameish sense, compared to the double-household-maintaining Wilkie Collins, the pedophilic Ruskin, the whip-fetishist Swinburne, & so forth.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


[photo: MS; photoshoppery: Amy Letter]

Poot! Spoo!
Makes Awful Noises!
Poke / Squish / Disgusting / Great Fun!
6 Smells:


[James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, ca. 1875]

The opening stage direction of Beckett's Happy Days specifies that the backdrop behind Winnie, representing "unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance," is a "very pompier trompe-l'oeil backcloth." Pompier? I muttered to myself like Krapp, then like Krapp scuttled off to the dictionary. Pompier is of course French for "fireman." L'art pompier, surely what Beckett means, is a derisive term for 19th-century academic art, salon art, art that puts a high premium on a certain notion of realism, and on a high degree of "finish." "Fireman's art."
John Ruskin saw Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold in June 1877 at The Grosvenor Gallery, & it so troubled him that he wrote about it in Fors Clavigera, the number dated 18 June:
I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.
There followed one of the best-known dramas of art history: Whistler sued Ruskin for libel; Ruskin, when the case went to court the following year, was incapacitated, or he would have given some doubtlessly memorable speeches. His attorney, cross-examining Whistler, elicited the following memorable exchange:
Attorney: Can you tell me how long it took to knock off that Nocturne?
Whistler: Two days.
A: The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
W: No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.
As Tim Hilton points out in the second volume of his monumental John Ruskin, the "only aesthetic issue of the trial," it emerged, was that of artistic "finish," the degree to which the artist worked over the objects represented on the canvas, removing the marks of his own hand – the rough brushstrokes, the paint-spatters, the hasty blocking-in of colors fields – until the canvas became a "window" to a represented world. Ruskin's old associate the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones testified against Whistler, as the Times reported:
Mr Edward Burne-Jones said that he had been a painter for twenty years, and during the last two or three years his works ahd become known to the public. Complete finish ought to be the standard of painting, and artist ought not to fall short of what for ages had been acknowledged as essential to a perfect work. The "Nocturne" in blue and silver representing Battersea reach was a work of art, but very incomplete... Its merits lay only in colour. Neither in composition, nor in detail, nor in form had it any quality whatsoever...
The trial's outcome was grim: the jury found for Whistler, but awarded him an ironical farthing of damages – and no costs. Ruskin's lawyer fees (£400) were paid by his many admirers; Whistler jauntily wore his farthing at the end of his watch-chain, but was bankrupted by his own legal fees.

Clearly Ruskin was on the wrong side of history on this one: the future would belong to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and so forth, & highly "finished" art – whether pre-Raphaelite or otherwise – would become the province of Socialist Realism and Norman Rockwell, both complex & highly interesting traditions universally poo-poo'd by art criticism.

But I still find myself fascinated by, even hankering for, high "finish" in artworks, even in artworks that are strictly speaking non-representational, "abstract." Not sure I buy the old epic narrative of abstract expressionism baring the souls, the psyches, the unconsciouses of its practitioners. Or that I'm interested in it. I'm interested in the evidences of painstaking craft, toil, reworking – even if that toil is paradoxically in the service of effacing itself & producing a "casual" surface. Maybe I have a kitsch streak: I prefer Puvis to Monet, Tom Phillips to Jackson Pollack.

Allen Ginbsberg: "First thought best thought."
Me, to workshop: "First thought (usually) crap."
My student Michael: "First thought lunch; second thought crap."
Just finished Tim Hilton's John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale, 2000), an enormous brick of a book that just gets sadder & sadder as it nears its inevitable (it's a biography, after all) end.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kit Robinson: The Champagne of Concrete

The Champagne of Concrete, Kit Robinson (Potes & Poets, 1991)

More expansive & formally various than Ice Cubes, the last KR book I read, yet also more funny, more testy, more politically acute. A wonderfully quirky, slanted set of observations of American corporate life. If Dilbert were taller, handsomer, had a penchant for memorable verbal formulations & social critique – & if he weren't a comic strip character – he might be something like the Kit Robinson of this volume. "The world is the case / It's a brief case." The book's almost too smart for me to diminish it with a "great fun."


Peter Cole: Things on Which I've Stumbled

Things on Which I've Stumbled, Peter Cole (New Directions, 2008)

Cole is an acclaimed translator of Hebrew & Arabic poetry. I was nuts about his 1st 2 books, Rift & Hymns & Qualms. This new one strikes me as more straightforward, more 1st-person – but still terrifically impressive. Plainspoken wit, lots of gestures towards traditional form, a questioning but always humble mysticism, drawing as much on Muslim as Jewish sources. A number of savage, bitterly funny critiques of Zionism. The long, dazzling title poem is Cole's wanderings through the materials stowed in the geniza – "a storeroom that holds worn out and discarded Hebrew texts" – of a Cairo synagogue, now held in Cambridge. A brilliant & haunting collage of bits & pieces, ritual texts, love poems, letters, everything. "Strange how I've become a modern / poet of a medieval kind – / making poems for a different diversion, / as they point toward what's divine."


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

who's listening?

Undine is right in the comments box on that last post: 500 words a day is probably plenty, if they're the right words – & if one can manage to squeeze out that much, day in & day out. But then there's the inevitable question: who is one writing for?

Over at Say Something Wonderful, Eric has been musing on the issue of audience – who reads what we write, & for whom do we write it in the first place? And I've been casting a cold eye over both my CV & a table of contents I'm playing with for a "selected odds & sods" volume, & wondering much the same thing. Despite my whining in the last post, while I still lament how hard writing itself is, I suspect I've published way too much. Or at least that too much of what I've published has been published for the wrong – read career – reasons: it's been published, that is, with no clear idea of an audience save for the committees who read annual reports & measure progress towards tenure & promotion.

My CV includes a bunch of items – encyclopedia articles, reviews, etc. – that got written for no other reason than that someone asked me to write them & then offered to publish them. Does anyone actually read these gigantic literary reference guides? I wrote these pieces – not all of them, but too many of them – in a kind of vacuum, not knowing or questioning for whom they might be useful. They filled lines on the vita; there's some good writing there, and sometimes some decent thinking (some of it recycled from earlier work), but for the most part my heart was somewhere else.

The first Zukofsky book – LZ & the Poetry of Knowledge – was a revamped & expanded version of my dissertation, & it shows. Okay, so the thing gets cited once in a while in Zukofsky circles, but I honestly have trouble looking back over it, all of that stilt-walking prose & convoluted argumentation. It deserved its ambivalent reviews, even tho as I read them I could pick out the precisely the ideological & scholarly axes each reviewer was grinding. (Tho one of my most treasured possessions is a 4-page letter from Guy Davenport, reading his way thru the book with pencil in hand & saying such nice things that I blush to think about them.)

I've tended to flit around butterfly-like, writing tons of polished conference papers that went over well at the time, that had people saying "when are you going to publish that one?" – but then never getting around to doing anything with them. There, on my hard drive like the snows of yesteryear, are dandy embryonic essays on Alasdair Gray, on Robert Sheppard, on Stephen Jonas, on Sir Walter Scott for God's sake. I just never got around to doing anything with them – I was distracted by teaching, by parenthood, by the latest commissioned piece, by whatever. And perhaps I never imagined an audience for those papers beyond the 6 or 12 people who heard them the 1st & only time.

Oddly enough, the extended periodical pieces into which I've put the most blood sweat & tears – the big essay-reviews for Parnassus – are the ones I wrote with the clearest audience in mind (Herb Leibowitz & Ben Downing, the ruthless blue-pencilling editors – and beyond them, Eric himself, who righteously slapped down my pretentious academese early on in our friendship, for which relief much thanks), & simultaneously the ones that have gotten the least response. I've never written a Parnassus piece on a subject for which I didn't feel passionately: either passionate enthusiasm (Ron Johnson, John Matthias) or passionate ambivalence (Anne Carson, Theodore Enslin). And line for line, they're my best slices of writing. Nonetheless, aside from some gentle remonstrances from Ted and a nice remark or two from John, those essays seem to have fallen into a void.

I spent a lot of time thinking about audience in respect to the LZ biography; I wanted to write a book that would appeal to someone other than the 250 people who came to the Columbia LZ centenary celebration, or the 100 who'd read LZ & the Poetry of Knowledge. I wanted to write a book that would introduce & open up LZ to people who'd heard the name but kept confusing him with Bukowski. I wanted, I sometimes told myself, to target the New Yorker readers who thought they knew something about contemporary poetry but hadn't read past Robert Lowell. I was pretty disheartened when my editor decided that he should allow the book its "scholarly tone" – a tone I was precisely trying to avoid – & even more irritated when one blogger called the book "every bit as stiff as the author's portrait on the dust jacket" (ouch!). But the bio did provide me something I hadn't gotten before: for a while, a pretty steady stream of readerly feedback, most of it positive; for once, I felt like I wasn't writing into an empty room.

Once upon a time I wrote an essay on Ian Hamilton Finlay for the folks at FlashPoint; it was written out of nothing more than enthusiasm for his work. I didn't have a job at the time, & I didn't expect that piece to help me get one. John Tranter at Jacket picked it up & republished it. Heaven help me, it may turn out to be the most-cited piece I've ever written. I'm still rather proud of it, even tho I can see its shortcomings all too clearly. I just looked back it, in fact, & realize that when I finally get around to writing that Finlay book, the essay's ideas may be at its core – but every single sentence is going to have to be revised. I'm no longer interested in writing for an audience that will abide that sort of turgid, tangled prose.

The work that is closest to my heart – my poetry – may have evoked the least response at all. There may be 12 people out there who'll click on a link to read a poem by MS – and yes, I know them all by name, I think. (Anarchy dropped off a cliff into an abyss of indifference, so far as I know – tho I have copies, if anyone's interested.) But the poems are for me, or for an idealized reader whose sensibility is awfully similar to mine; and on some level, I suspect that's how many poets work, trying to create the poems that they themselves would want to read & be surprised by, & let everyone else listen in if they so desire.

Monday, March 23, 2009

the hard stool

Nearing the end of Tim Hilton's big 2-volume Ruskin biography, which grows more & more melancholy, & that's in addition to the usual deathwatch of the final 50 pages of a life-story. But even as he sinks into madness, isolation, depression, etc., Ruskin still seems able to keep cranking out the prose.*

On the other hand, just read a review of a new George Steiner collection – a mere 28 of the one-hundred thirty-four pieces he published in the New Yorker between 1966 & 1997. And that's in addition to all the other essays, reviews, & books he was pumping out during that period.

And recently, thru the magic of Facebook – which rapidly seems to be supplanting many of the purely social functions of the blogosphere, for better or worse – got back in touch with a woman I knew in high school, who after various adventures has landed happily married in Ohio, dealing rare books & writing fantasy/romance novels. By my count, she's turned out 6 full-length novels over the past 3 or 4 years, each of them clocking in over 100,000 words. She blogs engagingly about her own writing, & details the interplay of plotting, drafting, editing, etc., and comes up with the (for me) eye-popping number of between 7000 & 9000 words produced per diem.

Heaven knows, I don't aspire to be John Ruskin; I'm not sure I'd want to be George Steiner (Guy Davenport: "well, his grad students are awfully erudite, aren't they?"); and (writing) fiction just isn't my bag (cf. Josh Corey's recent posts thereon). But I do wish writing weren't such a painful, slow process. I was enormously thrilled recently when I managed to knock out my last 3 projects in relatively rapid, 1000-2000 words-per-day bursts; but I wish I could sustain that momentum for more than a week or two. "Lying fallow" is one thing; constipation is something else altogether.

*Remind me to start blogging my way thru Ruskin again sometime soon.

Friday, March 20, 2009


The last of this spring's thesis defences went down this afternoon, & went well. As the typist in the poem says, "that's over & I'm glad." I hasten to add – a far more pleasant experience than the typist's.

The provost at Our Fair University has been doing this thing with tenure & promotion cases the past couple of years; he doesn't reveal the results of the university committee's vote except in a face-to-face meeting with the lucky candidate, & then he teases about for a few minutes, cat-with-mouse-style, before letting one know whether one's made it thru the latest hoop or not. (In my more sullen moments – which are usually the accurate ones – I read this as management asserting its life & death power over labor: it certainly has little to do with the ideally democratic organization of the classic university.) Anyway, it looks like I'm on track to be a Full Professor by the end of the semester. I've passed thru the department, college, & university committees, & now the provost has recommended my promotion to the president (largely a pro forma gesture). Celebrations in order, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


So I just sent off my latest Parnassus piece to be typeset, after going over the editors' edits – maybe 200-250 of those little Word bubbles over 25 pages. And it's not like my prose is so bloody hopeless in the first place, it's just like that at a place where they really edit. Everyone ought to do some writing for real, dedicated editors sometime; it does wonders for your prose, your argumentation, the clarity of your thought. Most academic editors don't really edit: they just select, & then touch up around the corners after they've accepted something.

Busy week so far – a thesis defence yesterday, then going out for drinks with a departed & much-missed pair of colleagues; Thursday's Beckett seminar tackles Endgame & Adorno on Endgame – some fun! – & then there's a student club reading Friday at which I've been invited to read, & at which I might or might not be able to read. Plus lots of house-related busyness.

But Parnassus is out of the way, at least until the next deadline heaves into the 2-month visibility zone. So I can buckle down to my next essay project. I've decided to be very Mayhewian (Mayhevian?) about this from now on: strict word counts, at least 500 words per diem, crap or otherwise. I've been a very lazy wastrel all these years, & it's time to make something of myself.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Ara Shirinyan's Your Country Is Great: Afghanistan–Guyana (Futurepoem, 2008) is great fun, even if it's not one of those books you want to devour in a sitting. Shirinyan feeds the phrase "[a country] is great" into Google (with quotation marks, so he gets precise appearances of, say, "Barbados is great"), then constructs poems out of the results. Great fun, and telling: for Afghanistan, you get lots of appearances of "the need for X in Afghanistan is great"; for other countries, it's more like "diving in the Bahamas is great," or just plain "France is great."

I'm terribly perplexed, tho: is this Flarf or is it Conceptual Poetry?

For a lark, inspired by Susan Schultz's Google results for "unfortunately, Susan," I entered "Mark Scroggins is great." Alas, zero results. Same for "Mark Scroggins is okay." At least "Mark Scroggins sucks" only got one result: "Mark Scroggins sucks! After 6 games, he is all the way down in 13th!" on the "" forum. I'm guessing that's my alter ego, MS the professional bowler.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

post-spring break

This is the 1st week here after spring break; my students – some of them at least – seem rested, enlivened, reset. Me, I'm wondering where it went, & why it left so few positive marks on me. In short, behind & exhausted: par for the course. Of course, this might be the aftereffects of this evening's Beckett seminar (Godot) for which I forgot my "talking" notes, & ended up trying to reconstruct them on the fly, in the process realizing just how painfully aphasic I can be when I haven't enough sleep.

And it's thesis defense season around here, so I have acres of lovely poetry & prose by wonderful students demanding to be read & thought about – no, I'm serious, it's good stuff, but where will I find the time to do it justice?

I've been poking & prodding at a few projects this week: how long, & how substantial, would a collection of my fugitive essays & book reviews be? Turns out pretty damned long – around 100,000 words, even leaving out the real crap. (And ignoring the more relevant question: who'd be mad enough to publish such a thing?) And I've been looking at my poems, moving them around, thinking about sending out a book manuscript. But most by golly most pleasurably, I've been painting. Found a canvas in a closet that I'd prepared a couple of years ago, lines all drawn for the filling in, & then found a little combination paintbox (cheap acrylics)/easel some holiday had brought me. So I sat down and painting, & took deep, sensual pleasure out of laying paint down on canvas with a brush. I have a tiny bit of talent, a knack for drawing & painting that was one of my consuming obsessions back in school. If I'd kept at it, I could have been perhaps not a real artist, but someone who did art for a living. Most of it's faded with decades of disuse, but I can still squeeze a little thrill out of making marks on a field once in a while. (This one I think I'll finish; it's all gold, orange, black & red, a iconic chessboard on a Vorticist background, with Tom Phillips-like text bubbles – from Scott's Fortunes of Nigel – floating in the center.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

felix dies natalis

& while I almost missed it, it seems that Culture Industry has quietly entered its fifth year of (more or less sporatic) existence (initiated, that is, back in March 2005). Thanks for dropping by; once I find some time to breathe, I'll try to do some actual thinking.

(Pozzo: Stand back! [Vladimir and Estragon move away from Lucky. Pozzo jerks the rope. Lucky looks at Pozzo.] Think, pig! [Pause. Lucky begins to dance.] Stop! [Lucky stops.] Forward! [Lucky advances.] Stop! [Lucky stops.] Think!)

Charles Alexander: Near or Random Acts

Near or Random Acts, Charles Alexander (Singing Horse Press, 2004)

A shy, unassuming charm to this volume; the 1st half is 70 7-line, 5-word-per-line sections, the second half a further run of such poems, this time interspersed with Alexander's notebook entries & notes on the manuscript & compositional process. An "opening-up," as it were. The parallels of the 1st 70 poems – "near or random acts" – with Zukofsky's 80 Flowers are obvious (Alexander himself makes the connection in an author's note at the end): the word-count constraints, the quotidian nature of much of the material, (sometimes) the allusions. But Alexander's aren't LZ's hyper-dense nuggets impacted history, philology, & allusion, whatever inspiration he may have taken from Zukofsky's last completed work. Instead, they're rather airy, highly musical units, suffused more often than not with a quizzical wonder at the spectacle of the poet's growing young daughters. A rather rare thing for me lately, & a very welcome one – a book of unabashed & enthusiastic love.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Anne Portugal: Quisite Moment

Quisite Moment, Anne Portugal, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck, 2008)

A slim but delightful chapbook. A series of 14 9-line poems, each with a single 3-line footnote. The trick here – as in the title, which wants to be or once was "Exquisite Moment" – is that the first letters or syllables of each line seem to be missing, leaving a fertile lacuna for the reader to speculate on what came before, to fill in the blanks. As in "sing in the bedroom" ("cursing in the bedroom"? "musing in the bedroom"?):
end came
digiously strong
retched out on
ton bedsheet
"Bedroom" gestured erotica to me – maybe that's my bent* – but here it's infected, distempered by the loppage of words, "stretched" to "retched," "touch" (?) to "ouch." I can't imagine the procedures Rosmarie W. went thru to find English "equivalents" for the original French.

*my favorite of the "footnotes":
the Swiss well
it's their Swiss bent
love Switzerland

Monday, March 09, 2009

what to read next?

Today the UPS-person delivered the carton I'd shipped from New York Thursday, containing mostly books of poetry, mostly acquired at the Strand:

Charles Alexander, Certain Slants
Jenny Boully, The Body
Thomas Fink, Clarity and Other Poems
Allen Grossman, Descartes' Loneliness
Paul Hoover, Rehearsal in Black
---, Totem and Shadow: New and Selected Poems
Devin Johnston, Aversions
Geraldine Kim, Povel
Garrett Kalleberg, Some Mantic Demons
Joseph Lease, The Room
Aaron McCollough, Welkin
Jill Magi, Threads
John Olson, Echo Regime
Bob Perelman/Francie Shaw, Playing Bodies
Donald Revell, A Thief at Strings
Chris Tysh, Continuity Girl
Elizabeth Willis, Meteoric Flowers
C. D. Wright, One Big Self

So, what to read next? (After, that is, going over my talking points for Lolita?)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Pogues in south Florida

You needn't have known me long to find out that I'm something of a rabid Pogues fan, have been for the past 20-odd years or so. Strangely enough, I've never seen the band in concert, tho I did catch singer Shane MacGowan on his tour for The Snake back in 1997 or so – a disspiriting show, in which John Doe of X opened to a frankly uninterested crowd & Shane himself delivered a 45-minute, slurred & disoriented set.

The Pogues, who've been performing "reunion" tours with their classic 8-member lineup over the past 9 years or so, were scheduled to play at this weekend's Langerado Festival in Miami; I wanted to go, but didn't want to pony up the massive ticket price, so it was almost a relief when the entire festival was cancelled. Not good for the Florida music scene, certainly, but it relieved me of a big financial dilemma ($150 for one band). Shane & the boys, however, seem to have already booked their tickets & shipped their gear, for about two weeks ago I discovered they had rescheduled to the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre (dig ye olde Englishe spelling, typical around here), where we saw them last night in all their aged glory. (Promotion could have been a bit better – the turnout was frankly pretty embarassing, giving rise to Spinal Tap in Marineland jokes in the half hour before the band took the stage.)

Shane is as drunken & disoriented as ever: he began the set by with a bit of slurred raving about how glad he was to be in "Miami, My Mammy!," & quoting (I take it) some lines from Scarface. He moves like an old man needing hip replacement surgery, paunchy, his cheeks sunken from his lack of teeth. One could understand only every 3rd of 4th word of his between-songs banter. But his singing, while worlds away from the magnificent bellow of the band's heyday, was remarkably assured. And the band itself is better than ever. Okay, there's a suspicious number of shaved pates among the band members; and sure, they've more or less become an "oldies" attraction, since they haven't written any new songs since 1996: but they have a wonderfully rich repertoire to draw on, & played a scorching set of selections from their five classic MacGowan-fronted albums. As players, they're sharper & more precise than ever.

I was particularly taken with Terry Woods, the cittern/mandolin player (picture above, in the band's heyday). Woods was brought into the band in 1986, for the EP Poguetry in Motion; he was about 10 years older than the other members of the band, having played in a number of 1970s folk-rock outfits (he was with Andy Irvine & Johnny Moynihan in the influential Sweeney's Men, and a founding member of Steeleye Span). Woods brought a level of instrumental competence to the group, especially in playing the tunes & ornamentations of traditional celtic dance music, far beyond that of most of the rest of them: where the Pogues had been an accordian-driven group, now they were an accordian & cittern-driven outfit.

The cittern fascinated me when I saw it cradled in Woods's arms on the photo from If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and when I heard him play it. (Woods's "cittern" is an 8-stringed, 4-course instrument, tuned an octave down from a mandolin – it's essentially identical to what in current circles is called an octave mandolin or Irish bouzouki.) I had to have one, & had to learn to play it. Which I sort of did, & still do – I now have at least 3 citternish instruments around the house, and can bash out most of the Pogues's repertoire in my own fumbling fashion.

At 62, Woods remains the linch-pin of the group: if anything, his playing is even more fiery & exciting than it was back in 1989. He's an inspiration to all balding, aging bouzouki players everywhere. And the Pogues, I'd say to anyone who's in the neighborhood for their upcoming Atlanta, DC, Boston, & New York shows, are better in person than they've ever been.
For true analites, the set list, in blurrily remembered order:
Streams of Whiskey
If I Should Fall from Grace With God
Turkish Song of the Damned
A Pair of Brown Eyes
Repeal of the Licensing Laws (an instrumental, Shane's first break)
The Broad Majestic Shannon
Cotton Fields
Bottle of Smoke
Tuesday Morning (sung by Spider Stacy, Shane's second break)
Sunnyside of the Street
The Body of an American
Lullaby of London
The Sickbed of Chuchulain
Thousands Are Sailing (sung by Phil Chevron, Shane's third break)
Sally Maclennane
A Rainy Night in Soho
Dirty Old Town
Greenland Whale Fisheries
Poor Paddy
The Irish Rover

Joseph Donahue: World Well Broken

World Well Broken, Joseph Donahue (Talisman House, 1995)

Back in the mid-90s, someone in middle Tennessee was regularly funnelling review (?) copies of new Talisman House, Sun & Moon, & Coach House books into a stall in an antique mall in Nashville, where I would come by a couple times a year & buy them all. I remember checking out with Joe Donahue's World Well Broken, anent which a blue-haired woman working the cash register commented to a friend, "Looka that – 'world way-ull broken' – well, it surely is, isn't it?"

World Well Broken, aside from the opening "Opiate Phobia," entirely leaves behind short lyrics in favor of more expansive things. "Spectral Evidence" is like a course in hauntology, the ghosts of Maya Deren & Harry Smith popping up at every turn. "Christ Enters Manhattan" is tremendous, the Second Coming imagined as a horror movie scripted by William Blake & directed by Luis Buñuel.


Joseph Donahue: Before Creation

Before Creation, Joseph Donahue (Central Park Editions, 1989)

I try not to lend books myself; my own copy of Joseph Donahue's first book, I admit with only a little shame, actually belongs to my grad school friend Patty Chu, lent to me more years ago than I care to admit. She's not gettting it back, I'm afraid. So I've known Joe's work a deal longer than I've known Joe himself. There're some great short poems in here (I'm partial to "Lou Reed" & "Adam, In Hell") but the standouts are the long, multi-part pieces like "Transfigurations" & "Crania Americana," in which you can see Donahue's characteristic limpid mysticism beginning to emerge from a more familiar, more ordinary "American Surrealism." "Purple Ritual" is a gripping collision of childhood memories of growing up in Texas, the poet's early observations of President Kennedy, and an imagining of Lee Harvey Oswald strangely conflated with the singer Orpheus: the JFK assassination, perhaps the nearest recent history gets to real live Greek tragedy, a persistent textual ghost haunting much of Before Creation.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Gertrude Stein: Tender Buttons

Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein (1914 – any number of editions, this time thru in the Vechten-edited Selected Writings)

Too long – a couple of years at least – since I've reread this one , long enough for me almost to forget what a fantastic Wunderkammer of delights & surprises & puns & rhythms & implacably sensible nonsense this little book is. There should be centenary celebrations all over the world for its birthday 5 years hence, for it's as fresh now as the day it was first printed. It makes most of last century's American poetry, from the early LZ & Oppen down thru Black Mountain, the Beats, & much of the post-avant scene, seem immediately dated. Not irrelevant, mind, & not less than valuable – but dated.


Peter Gizzi: Periplum and other poems

Periplum and other poems, 1987-1992, Peter Gizzi (Salt Publishing, 2004)

Much earlier work than what I've read of Gizzi before. Trying on various voices, various idioms, all with some success. I love the almost Ashberyan discursiveness of "Deux ex Machina" & "Hard as Ash," tho I'm perhaps drawn more immediately to the fragmentary notations of the chapbook-length Music for Films. (Brian Eno gives this one its title, an album I've played so many hundreds of times times on vinyl that I've never felt the need to buy the CD – every note is there in my memory.) Nods to Spicer (of course), to Duncan. Is Peter Gizzi the preëminent male love poet of his generation? A fair bet.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

C. S. Giscombe: Prairie Style

I've just gotten back from a quick "spring break" week in New York, where the girls spent scads of time dabbling in the snow & I spent lots of time shivering. Not a busy week, in literary terms. Ran into Bruce Andrews on the subway for a quick moment; had dinner – a busy, chattering, family-style affair – with Mike Heller & Jane Augustine. But I did make it down to the Strand one late evening, & a large carton of slim volumes of contemporary verse should be UPS-ing its way towards Florida right now. For the nonce, I'll content myself with blogging some of the books I've read over the past couple of months but haven't gotten around to inserting:
Prairie Style, C. S. Giscombe (Flood Editions, 2008)

Cecil Giscombe & I go way, way back – too far back, it seems these days – to when he was a whole lot younger than I am now. I knew his daughter when she was a prelingual toddler (there's a poem dedicated to her in Anarchy); now she's graduated from college. His poetry just gets better and better, as he works steadily & slowly (Prairie Style is only his 4th collection), but more & more perfectly. The African diaspora across the Great Plains, with conceptual side trips to Canada & Jamaica. Foxes & trains, both of them quick, intelligent, & indigenous. A soft, persistent, imperative, ironical voice, telling a tale of the tribe; but more specifically telling – as has always been Giscombe's obsession – telling the phenomenology of particular places. CSG is to the midwest what Stevens was to Key West, Bishop to an American's Brazil, Olson to Goucester. (Olson, frankly, is the only direct influence on Giscombe of those three hat-plucked names.) The only thing I miss here, in these beautifully sculpted, eye-brow raised prose poems, is CSG's peerless sense of the line.