Three Poems

Poetry / Oliver de la Paz

:: Labyrinth 79 ::

The boy in the labyrinth imag­ines he is an orphan. He imag­ines the sur­face dwellers exist with­in a com­pass of their lives. In the world above, inter­nal nee­dles steer them towards a loca­tion which they per­ceive is a sta­tus of the mind. The mind, pli­able. An idea splits from the cen­ter like veiny vec­tors on the under­side of a leaf. The boy pre­tends to turn a leaf over. Dew drips into the creas­es of his hand. His lone­li­ness is an incor­ri­gi­ble thing. Things seem more brutish and sheer. Above, the peo­ple walk out of doors. Their minds dwell with­in their own pos­si­bil­i­ties. The sun­light fills their iris­es leav­ing the boy lone­li­er still.

 

:: Labyrinth 82 ::

The boy in the labyrinth feels water run beneath him. He can­not speak of what he feels, only that the syn­tax of the water fills his elas­tic mem­o­ry up to his eyes—events in rela­tion to the fail­ure of his voice, hav­ing wan­dered silent­ly for so long. And in the chill, the dark thick­ens into the thick­est vel­vet. The pitch of it, soft, and the light slosh of his feet in the water urges him for­ward. The dark is the tex­ture of fur and the cur­tain slides back. He is in the the­ater of his skull. And in the the­ater of his skull, the half-bull snorts its sonata. Day after idiomat­ic day pass­es. The bull-man’s hum charges ahead of the wave inside the boy’s brain. Every­thing the boy feels is intol­er­a­ble and per­sists.

 

:: Labyrinth 83 ::

The boy in the labyrinth under­stands the bull’s per­sis­tence. Talk to me, he thinks. He nev­er hears an answer. Noth­ing fills the gram­mar he desires except the labyrinth’s elab­o­rate hoax­es. A door opens into a wall. The wall con­ceals anoth­er wall. Beyond that, spent flow­ers in need of dead­head­ing in some place above. A chasm. A riv­er. A rud­der­less song about the after­life. About time. To the boy, the sur­face world is so spent. He is tired of dreams and the red string’s dye sluiced through his hands. The stage of the boy’s mind is devised into lobes of mean­ing. None of which he can see. None of which the beast sees unless he were to eat the boy. An intol­er­a­ble end, the boy thinks. One more silence. One more closed clos­et door.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I start­ed writ­ing these prose poems in 2012, short­ly after my old­est child was diag­nosed to be on the autis­tic spec­trum. Much of the ini­tial writ­ings were my attempts at try­ing to under­stand his sen­so­ry pro­cess­ing issues—how many of his sens­es were extreme­ly height­ened. Some­how I thought of the Theseus/Minotaur myth. How the feel­ing of being lost in a vast maze must be sim­i­lar to what my son must be feel­ing as he attempts to fil­ter what’s hap­pen­ing in the world.

I’ve writ­ten about 100 of these lit­tle prose vignettes, so in a way, I’ve con­struct­ed my own labyrinth. In many ways this sequence has devoured me as the Mino­taur had famous­ly devoured so many young. I tend to work in long sequences, most­ly because it’s far more dif­fi­cult work­ing from noth­ing than hav­ing mate­ri­als at the ready.

For this sequence, I chose to have a refrain/form with­in the open­ing sen­tence of each piece. Gen­er­al­ly (though there are excep­tions) the first sen­tence of a piece is a direct response to the last line of the piece that pre­ced­ed it. I want­ed to cre­ate a big panora­ma. Rather than hav­ing the labyrinth wind around hap­haz­ard­ly, I imag­ined it coil­ing in con­cen­tric cir­cles. At the cen­ter of all the cir­cles is the Mino­taur and the Minotaur’s nest.

I haven’t decid­ed whether the boy is The­seus, an unnamed sac­ri­fice, or some­one who will find his own way. I sup­pose those deci­sions will come as I con­tin­ue to write. I am pret­ty sure, how­ev­er, that I’m not fin­ished writ­ing about the boy and the Mino­taur.

 

Oliv­er de la Paz is the author of four books of poet­ry: Names Above Hous­es (South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001), Furi­ous Lul­la­by (South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (Uni­ver­si­ty of Akron Press, 2010), and Post Sub­ject: A Fable (Uni­ver­si­ty of Akron Press, 2014). He co-edit­ed A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Per­sona Poems (Uni­ver­si­ty of Akron Press, 2012), and co-chairs Kundiman’s advi­so­ry board. He teach­es in the MFA pro­gram at West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty.

Three Poems

Poetry / Joseph Massey

:: Turned ::

                    A notch
                    at the top of the mountain—

                    the eye
                    without a thought

                    threads the sky through.

                    How hours take

                    the stain of hours
                    and hold beneath their glare

                    these things arranged
                    to resemble a season.

                    Summer’s hum and lag.

                    To walk into it—

                    breathe the frequencies
                    that knot the air, another

                    animal baffled
                    to be an animal.


:: Curtains ::

                    No silence
                    in the house.

                    No house
                    in silence.

                    Something’s
                    always

                    mumbling,
                    stridulating

                    into dust—
                    the drift

                    of it—
                    which is

                    not a
                    song.


:: On Migration ::

                    A split glyph
                    drags south
                    over a parking lot.

                    The suction
                    of dusk.
                    We watch it

                    wrest
                    margin
                    from margin.

                    Your face
                    in the half-light.

                    The aphasia
                    of the shape

                    of your face
                    in the half-light.

                    Autumn
                    embalms
                    the hour.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Turned”

After twelve years of liv­ing in an almost always tem­per­ate and fog-thick micro-cli­mate on the coast of Hum­boldt Coun­ty, Cal­i­for­nia, I returned to the East Coast. I’ve been star­tled by the sea­son­al shifts, some­thing I for­got about after those years of liv­ing where there are only two long, slow pseu­do-sea­sons: sun (with equal parts fog) and rain (with even more fog).

Sum­mer on the East Coast in par­tic­u­lar rat­tled my ner­vous system—somewhere between affla­tus and dread—and this poem is a record of that response. The vibra­tion of the sun, the heat, the raw stink of earth with­in it, ren­dered me par­tial­ly thoughtless—just anoth­er ani­mal.

Cur­tains”

As Wal­lace Stevens put it, “Silence is a shape that has passed,” but it’s not an inhab­it­able shape—there’s no such thing, any­way, as silence (ask John Cage)—and yet the house, the room, any space at all, any utter­ance, any form, depends upon it. This poem was an attempt to locate silence and is acti­vat­ed, I hope, by its fail­ure.

On Migra­tion”

Death is not final. Only park­ing lots.” —Jack Spicer

 

Joseph Massey is the author of Areas of Fog (Shears­man Books, 2009), At the Point (Shears­man Books, 2011), and To Keep Time (Omnidawn, forth­com­ing in 2014). His work has also appeared in var­i­ous jour­nals and mag­a­zines, and in the antholo­gies Vis­it­ing Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Car­los Williams (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2011) and Haiku in Eng­lish: The First Hun­dred Years (W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 2013). He lives in the Pio­neer Val­ley of Mass­a­chu­setts.

Three Poems

Poetry / Elizabeth Arnold

:: Gone ::

          after Lorine Niedecker

Dig dig into black earth.

For the seed,
for stone. 

Something  

green. 
Alive, or only 

seeming to be living?

A greenish sprout maybe
looking weak,

the glow worm letting off its

thin green light,
or a stone light enters,

emerald or jade

—that’s thought to form 
only under a seabed needing 

pressure to emerge,

milky like the worm 
whose light comes 

from inside. 

                          My love was 
deep

—deep as what he seemed to be at night?

Seemed lives long. 
Night traveling 

at the speed of light. A was 

he is now
on the

Passing Years River.


:: Hope ::                           

                            And a 

door slammed
then cracked open,

still moving 

a little bit toward me
—not to let the chaos in 

but the 

air going 
so slowly 

from the wild sudden world of you, 

or the you I thought was—
everything of what slowed down

seemed to want to 

stay.
                            Just as 

the valve repaired will

with its closing 
more completely at every beat

make the blood flow 

calmly
out of the frantic heart

and then 

a hand squeezed, not gripped,
so there’s a-

nother it seems

opening, the petals 
freed of the mechanical 

(though floating) 

movement 
of a time-lapsed camera’s works

—nothing forced, 

never a jerked 
blooming’s 

dying on the stem.


:: Going ::

On the interstate north of Yulee  
late, the streetlights gone and my headlights reaching

only an inch or two at that point

before the flash of the warm-brown deer hides, 
a little group grazing 

so close to the highway’s edge 

my breath stopped, this breathing I do, 
where the road skirts Okefenokee swamp, the yards there 

of white sand kept raked to warn the rattlers off,

when out of nowhere came 
the blessèd tail-lights of a semi, the red dots growing 

as I close, don’t know 

I’m being ferried into the now now, going 
without fearing I can’t see. 


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I saw the deer in “Going” many years ago while dri­ving down I-95. I always cel­e­brate when I’m past Savan­nah, because that means I have only two hours to go until home—Jacksonville, Flori­da, where I grew up. I’m tired by that time though, hav­ing dri­ven nine hours or longer. It’s almost as if the high­way car­ries me, puts me in a med­i­ta­tive trance-like state.

Sen­tences have a sim­i­lar effect as the high­way on the mind, espe­cial­ly long com­plex ones. “Going” is all one sen­tence. It flows along until the lit­tle shock at the sud­den appear­ance of the deer graz­ing too close to the road, which caus­es me to become aware not only of my own breath­ing, but also of how odd it is that any­one breathes, which in turn leads to a fuller aware­ness of what it is to be in time, which is to not know any­thing real­ly, or at least this is my feeling—i.e., the state of being “fer­ried into the now now,” the largest dis­cov­ery of the poem. Exist­ing right in the present moment is the clos­est we ever get to knowl­edge. My fear of hit­ting those deer, com­bined with the dila­tion of mind from being on the road, led to knowl­edge.

The sec­ond two poems, “Gone” and “Hope,” both about a most­ly unlucky love affair, also ride a com­pli­cat­ed syn­tax down the page. But in these poems the move­ment is a lit­tle bit jerky, with phras­es divid­ed by peri­ods instead of com­mas, for exam­ple. This hap­pens, I think, because the expe­ri­ence I try to depict in these poems is new, and less benign than in the dri­ving poem, caus­ing great uncer­tain­ty, dis­trust of self—I was reg­u­lar­ly lied to. But deeply in love. It was like being blind, and the oth­er one watch­ing, tak­ing advan­tage.

I first saw glow worms in Vir­ginia. They’re like fire­flies but the “blink” is slow­er. The worms were in mud, trea­sure hid­den by the earth. 

Just as the human heart is, along with all our oth­er organs, hid­den from us. And what the heart stands for. In either case, even when it’s fail­ing it’s a mar­vel.

 

Win­ner of an Amy Low­ell trav­el grant, a Whit­ing award, and a Bunting fel­low­ship, Eliz­a­beth Arnold has pub­lished three books of poet­ry, The Reef (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press,1999), Civ­i­liza­tion (Flood Edi­tions, 2006), and Efface­ment (Flood Edi­tions, 2010). Her fourth book, Life, is due to appear from Flood Edi­tions in June, 2014. She is on the MFA fac­ul­ty of Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and lives out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Yuri, in a Blue Dress

Fiction / Rebecca Adams Wright

:: Yuri, in a Blue Dress ::

04:03:24

Today is the day 100 crip­ples the alien over­lords.

***

05:05:17

She descends the stairs inside the chrome sphere with the oth­ers, rank and file. She presents her palm to the palm-scan­ner and her eye to the iris-scan­ner and the cleft of her body to the labi­al-scan­ner. She walks nude through the sphere’s nar­row inter­nal cor­ri­dors and a series of advanced dig­i­tal imag­ing sys­tems. She takes the brit­tle black pill an alien gives her and cracks it in her hand. The sound of nine­ty-nine oth­er num­bers crack­ing their pills at the same time is the sound of a steel ship rend­ing. Nanobots swarm over her body. These bots keep her warm and allow her to breathe on the planet’s sur­face, but they also keep her tame. If she tries to rebel in any way, they will lock. She will be trapped inside their armor with her­self.

***

06:16:45

One hun­dred human beings exit the sphere and array them­selves before the great undu­lat­ing swath of the alien army. They stand on ground so hot and scarred that with­out the nanobots it would melt the skin from their flesh and the flesh from their bones and their bones last of all. The sun ris­es over a denud­ed atmos­phere and burns in black­ness. Earth is dead and flak­ing. Earth is a Hiroshi­ma shad­ow.

***

06:17:53

The alien com­man­der, as it does every morn­ing, deliv­ers a kind of instruc­tion­al talk to its sub­or­di­nates. One of the num­bers is always killed dur­ing this talk. As far as 100 knows, there may once have been a mil­lion num­bers. Even a bil­lion. It is pos­si­ble that every per­son on Earth was spared the plan­e­tary eco­log­i­cal holo­caust and impris­oned in the sphere like her­self, just for the pur­pose of being stabbed or flensed or flechet­ted or liq­ui­dat­ed dur­ing one of the commander’s talks.

If not for the killing, the instruc­tion would be silent and dull. The aliens do not speak in a range that humans can hear; the commander’s voice reg­is­ters to 100 only as a jumpy and uncom­fort­able feel­ing in her mus­cles.

***

07:39:08

The talk has end­ed with the cre­ma­tion of 22. The aliens stir his ash­es with a kind of glow­ing plas­tic stick. If any­thing is gleaned from this, 100 is not aware of the les­son. But she is still alive. The nanobots march her away from the vac­u­ous yel­low eye of the sun and back into the pro­tec­tion of the sphere.

***

07:50:36

100’s nanobots are scur­ry­ing off her limbs and into their ster­il­iza­tion recep­ta­cle. She pass­es back through the dig­i­tal imagers and into the patrolled cor­ri­dors. She is about to get her chance.

***

07:50:37

One of a hun­dred thou­sand alien sub­or­di­nates stum­bles on—does it mat­ter? The aliens can trav­el faster than light. They have the tech­nol­o­gy to move through time. They pack unimag­in­able weapon­ry into a sphere for con­quer­ing worlds. They like to put big things in box­es. The sub­or­di­nate drops a sin­gle palm-sized machine onto the ground and 100 instinc­tive­ly picks it up

 

06:16:45 (-)

and 100 stands before the alien com­man­der. 22 has not yet been liqui­fied, but 100 has been gone a long time. The commander’s mouths move and she feels twitchy inside her mus­cles. The alien ges­tures to its expan­sive army in a way that even a human can com­pre­hend.

No,” 100 says, “there are not only one hun­dred of us against you,” and here come thun­der­ing the armies of 1876, 1918, 1580, 1066, 2078, 1209, and more—hordes of mount­ed Sioux and Ger­man fox-hole infantry­men and Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors and Nor­man invaders and Amer­i­can Lunar rifle­men and fierce-faced Mon­gol cav­al­ry with their hair float­ing in the near-vac­u­um of this rav­aged Earth and their bod­ies pro­tect­ed by clones of the very last nanobot retreat­ing from 100 in a nonex­is­tent future. 100 attacks with the weight of human his­to­ry

 

07:50:37

and a Greek pha­lanx and some Con­golese free­dom fight­ers with AK-47s are crush­ing the last pla­toon of alien sol­diers at the exact moment when, of course, 100 is not around to catch the machine as the alien sub­or­di­nate stum­bles in a nonex­is­tent present

 

07:50:38, also for­ev­er

and, because 100’s armies were plucked from cru­cial moments in a nonex­is­tent past, this past was changed and a sequence of events occurred that led to her, Yuri, stand­ing here right now in a blue dot­ted dress on a road above a swath of wav­ing green rice. She smiles into the mid­dle dis­tance at a man named Kojiro who is pick­ing his way through the crop to her side. She inhales the scent of grow­ing things that flows down from the moun­tains on a late spring breeze because no aliens have ever arrived at all. There is no com­man­der with unin­tel­li­gi­ble twin mouths. Or per­haps there is, but it has nev­er plot­ted a course in its death-bear­ing sphere to this blue-skied, agrar­i­an plan­et now called Aarde, which is won­der­ful

 

06:16:45 (-)

but 100 stands before the alien com­man­der. The commander’s mouths move and she feels a rest­less twinge inside her mus­cles. The alien ges­tures to the mys­te­ri­ous palm-sized box in its hand, a ges­ture 100 does not com­pre­hend.

What are you say­ing?” she asks. Yes­ter­day 22 was pressed to death between two glassy rocks—is she today’s 22? She sweats inside the nanobots that con­fine her. “Is that some sort of weapon?”

The alien’s mouths smile in a mock­ery of human con­de­scen­sion and the com­man­der rais­es the box

 

04:03:24 (-)

and today is again, for the first time, the day 100 crip­ples the alien over­lords.

***

05:05:17

She descends the stairs in the chrome sphere with the oth­ers, rank and file, a bee spi­ral­ing in cir­cles inside an alien hive. She presents her­self to the scan­ners.

***

06:16:45

One hun­dred human beings exit the sphere and array them­selves before the great undu­lat­ing swath of the alien army.

***

06:17:53

The humans stand frozen in their nanobots. The alien com­man­der is engaged in a ruth­less instruc­tion­al exer­cise.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Yuri” was my response to a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­ap­point­ing SF/action film in which I watched a bunch of white, male char­ac­ters shoot their way through an alien inva­sion in a vari­ety of flat set­tings. The movie offered no char­ac­ter­i­za­tion for the pro­tag­o­nists, no moti­va­tion for the inva­sion, and no attempt to com­ment on the vio­lence por­trayed. With “Yuri” I knew I want­ed to try to find a way to tell a sim­i­lar­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic inva­sion sto­ry that nonethe­less addressed the com­pli­ca­tions of meet­ing bru­tal­i­ty with bru­tal­i­ty. (I didn’t think it would hurt to offer up a female per­spec­tive on such an expe­ri­ence, either). This sto­ry was also a struc­tur­al experiment—I want­ed to dis­cov­er if it was pos­si­ble for me to tell a char­ac­ter-cen­tered nar­ra­tive inside a series of short, sharp, non-chrono­log­i­cal scenes.

Orwell’s 1984 was a strong uncon­scious influ­ence on this work. The con­clu­sion of “Yuri” is bleak, but I’m not at all sure that means Num­ber 100 has failed to resist. Though her attempts to over­whelm the alien force with mil­i­tary might have cer­tain­ly failed, the unlike­ly pock­ets of paci­fism her actions have opened in Earth’s his­to­ry allow her, like his “thought­crimes” have allowed Win­ston Smith, a tran­scen­den­tal and human­iz­ing moment. In that one place out of time—or in the loop of time—Number 100 has a name and a home. She has love. She is a per­son. Human dig­ni­ty in the face of help­less­ness and hor­ror is a top­ic I return to often in my writ­ing, and I hope “Yuri” suc­cess­ful­ly rais­es ques­tions about the mean­ing of such dig­ni­ty under the shad­ow of aggres­sion or impe­r­i­al force.

 

Rebec­ca Adams Wright is a 2011 grad­u­ate of the Clar­i­on Sci­ence Fic­tion & Fan­ta­sy Writ­ers’ Work­shop and a for­mer Zell Writ­ing Fel­low. She has an MFA in fic­tion from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and has won the Leonard and Eileen New­man Writ­ing Prize. Her sto­ries have appeared in Amazon’s Day One and in Dai­ly Sci­ence Fic­tion mag­a­zine, and her non­fic­tion has appeared in Children’s Lit­er­a­ture in Edu­ca­tion.

Two Poems

Poetry / Jennifer Perrine

:: Humility | Pride ::

In the dark before dawn, in the drawn-out
heart of August—month made to impress
my skin with its lack of restraint, no shame

in its salt-sweet sweat, its scrub of chiggers—
I lay in the cleared field, arms lifted, hands
pressed against the sky to catch the shower

of stars that were not stars, but lofty rocks
spun from space, incandescent with friction,
that swept me with streaks of light, glitter

strewn on my body’s parade, holiday
celebrating this first moment I knew
the worth of witness, the use of my shy,

watchful self, who loved being low, treasured
how I, too, was a small speck sent whirling
in surrender, a mote of brilliant dust.


:: Envy | Kindness ::

My hand pressed to her stretched skin,
her full belly turns a key

without a room, climbs ivy
through my empty insides, vines

that twine this trellis of need.
I lower my eyes, green seed

germinating in my veins,
blood pumping with little knives,

the thousand cuts of this Ides
made of each mother I’ve seen,

from paintings of gravid Eve
to my own mom, with seven

kids, to this dear friend who sends
me sonograms. I deny

to her the screech of this vise
winding tight at her joy, sink

my keen howls in an inky
deep. For her I unspool skeins,

knit blankets, stay by her side
at doctor’s visits, devise

a surprise shower. Still I
can’t stifle this yen. I kiss

it, cradle it, hush its din,
cries that echo in the den

where nothing grows, nothing dies.


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve always been per­plexed by ways of nam­ing our expe­ri­ences through oppo­si­tion­al lan­guage. Some of my ear­li­est child­hood mem­o­ries are of stan­dard­ized tests that asked me to iden­ti­fy my race and demand­ed, in dire bold let­ter­ing, that I Choose Only One. If my par­ents claimed dif­fer­ent racial iden­ti­ties, was I white or was I a per­son of col­or?

Lat­er, I’d come to rec­og­nize the same lim­i­ta­tions when asked to state my gen­der, my sex­u­al­i­ty, my socioe­co­nom­ic class. Where were the both/and options? The places of neither/nor? Where were the words that spoke to how I under­stood self and world—as flu­id, dynam­ic spaces where sud­den shifts might occur, where bound­aries are at best murky, at worst out­right lies?

***

For sev­er­al years, I’ve been writ­ing poems explor­ing con­cepts of sin and virtue—a lit­tle patience here, a lit­tle wrath there. Last sum­mer, it occurred to me that, like so many oth­er sup­pos­ed­ly dis­crete cat­e­gories, sin and virtue slip eas­i­ly into one anoth­er. Any expe­ri­ence I can remem­ber or imag­ine that might speak of sin can eas­i­ly mutate into one that also embod­ies virtue, and vice ver­sa.

Poetry—reading it, writ­ing it—always brings me back to truths that, in the desire to be like or to be liked, are often eas­i­er to for­get. Poet­ry reminds me to attend to the world, and when I do, I remem­ber: Noth­ing stays in a sta­ble state.

 

Jen­nifer Per­rine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), win­ner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Read­ing Award in Poet­ry, and In the Human Zoo (Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah Press, 2011), recip­i­ent of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poet­ry Prize. Per­rine teach­es in the Eng­lish depart­ment and directs the Women’s and Gen­der Stud­ies pro­gram at Drake Uni­ver­si­ty in Des Moines, Iowa. For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it her online at www.jenniferperrine.org.

Two Poems

Poetry / Stephen S. Mills

:: A History of Marriage ::

I.

My parents married in October, 1973. 
Fall in Indiana. The smell of burning 
leaves. Browns. Oranges. Reds. 
The world shrinking down, preparing 
for winter—dying. 1973. The same year
Richard Nixon said, I’m not a crook
to a crowd in Orlando, Florida,
and the American Psychiatric 
Association removed homosexuality 
from its list of mental disorders. 
The same year of Roe vs. Wade 
and the opening of the World Trade
Center. A year of change. In October, 
my mother stood in a wedding dress 
white as Indiana winters. My father 
in a tuxedo beside her. Friends 
and family gathered. A minister 
presided. Vows were taken. It was 
a wedding that set into motion a life. 
A family. A bond of two bodies. 
One man. One woman. It was the same
year Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles sold 
for two million dollars, and a gas shortage 
closed stations on Sundays leaving 
everyone desperate for a full tank. 
It was October, 1973. Leaves
on the ground. Fall in Indiana. 

II.

There were days when we mimicked 
them. When you got down on one 
knee, a ring in hand. When yes I said 
yes I will Yes. When we bought 
wedding magazines, made guest lists,
thought of color combinations. 
There were days when our Midwest 
upbringing made a wedding, legally 
recognized or not, seem to matter most. 
There were days when you felt like 
a husband. Like my father. Like 
a shadow of a life I was meant to have.

III.

Brides magazine says June is the month 
to marry. Sunshine. Flowers in bloom. 
The world exploding with new life. 
A new start. My sister married in June, 
1997. I was 14. She was 19. A young 
bride like my mother. Again in Indiana. 
1997. The year Timothy McVeigh 
was convicted of murder in the Oklahoma 
City bombing and Princess Diana died 
in that car crash. Our faces gathered 
in TV light, crying for a woman we didn’t 
know. A princess that wasn’t ours to have. 
Sylvia Plath also married in June. 
June of 1956. She’d only known Ted 
Hughes a few short months. 
She was in awe of him, his poetry, 
his drive, but that didn’t end so well, 
did it? 1956. The same year Jackson 
Pollock drove drunk and crashed his car, 
killing him and his current fling—not 
his wife. My sister never read Plath
or Hughes. Never stood before a Pollock.  

IV.

There were days when we hated them.
When we despised the wedding 
invitations in the mailbox, the gift 
registries, the bachelorette parties 
at the gay club, the girls bouncing 
up and down with pink plastic penises 
on their heads, which made us wonder 
if they’d ever seen a real one. 
There were days when we felt evolved. 
Our couple-hood our own. 
No wedding required. No paperwork.
No public announcement. Then there 
was the day I slipped my ring off 
my left hand and onto my right. 
Our symbol. Our sign. Not theirs. 

V. 

Grace Kelly married the Prince 
of Monaco in 1956. She never acted 
again, but is best known for her roles 
in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder 
and Rear Window. She died in a car 
crash the same year I was born. 
1982. The year William Bonin 
was convicted of being a Freeway 
Killer. One of three. He admitted 
to killing and raping 21 young men 
and dumping them beside the California 
freeway. Sometimes with the help 
of his friend Vern. He became the first
person in California put to death
by lethal injection. People say January 
Jones who plays Betty Draper on Mad 
Men looks a lot like Grace Kelly. 
Beautiful. Blonde. Betty marries Don. 
A picture perfect couple. Spoiler Alert: 
it doesn’t last. Raymond Burr, 
another 1950’s actor, who played Perry 
Mason, had two fake marriages 
and then a real one, which he annulled 
a few months later. The time of year 
doesn’t seem to matter in that case. 
Summer? Fall? The dead of winter? 
Later he met a man. They grew orchids 
together. Fell in love. Grew old. 

VI.

There were days when we spoke 
of leaving. Of moving to Canada,
Spain, South Africa. The poster boys
of marriage equality. There were days 
we felt defeated by our own desires.
Our bodies moving in different 
directions. There were days we 
accepted the beauty of our love. 
Our choices. Our rules. There were
days spent with other men. Nights
in other bodies. Sometimes together.
Sometimes alone. There was the day
we separated love and sex and placed 
them in boxes beside the bed. No longer 
needing approval. There were fights
in the bright sunlight of our apartment
and in the shadows of night 
where fights are meant to thrive
and eventually die. Then there were days 
when we could only bear each other. 
My body on your body. The world 
outside desperate to define us. 


:: Slicing Limes for Dustin ::

          “and what does it mean
          if he tells his wife she’s unpleasant or dull
          and what
          does 
          it mean
          if his wife takes sleeping pills or walks
          in front of a car?”
                    —Diane Wakoski, “Slicing Oranges for Jeremiah”

And what does it mean to stand in a kitchen
slicing limes for cocktails?
Limes for Dustin?
For drinks we will consume
which will make us happy for a time
then horny
angry
sleepy
depressed
and maybe
if we are lucky 
fully alive for just a second?

And what does it mean 
that we can’t eat as many limes as we want?
That we can so easily get sick 
on the citrus?
Stomachs aching?
What does it mean to care 
for a sick person?
To wash his body?
Comb his hair?
And what does it mean 
for a body to show signs of stopping?
Or for a mind to get confused?
To regret an action?
To do the things it never thought possible?

What does it mean 
to stand here
taking care 
of you
taking care of me? 
To find comfort in this knife 
puncturing the bright green skin
of a lime?
Green balls of light.

And what does it mean to fall in love again
and again 
with limes in drinks
and the cutting board 
smeared with pulp?
Or to go out into the city 
and dance
with other bodies? 
To be on display?
To have more drinks with sliced limes?
Limes cut by other hands
by other men
in other places.

And what does it mean for an old queen to say 
we don’t live in the real New York?
That it’s gone?
Dead?
That somehow only one person’s experience 
is real?
And what does it mean 
to never want to be that old queen?
To never be that jaded?

And what does it mean 
that we stood outside
the Stonewall Inn and drank cocktails
with limes
on the day the Supreme Court 
struck down DOMA?
Was that not real?
And what does it mean to only look backward?
To always be longing for another decade?
Another time?

And what does it mean for two men
to be protected 
under the law?
To call each other husband?
And what does it mean to know 
that if we ever want to leave 
each other
it will have to be official? 
Paperwork goes both ways. 

And what does it mean to become 
a housewife voluntarily?
To slice limes for a husband?
Limes for Dustin?
And what does it mean to be married
yet remain queer?
Remain two men in love?
Bonded together?
What does it mean?


 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I start at the begin­ning. The very begin­ning. Mean­ing most of my poems have a title before they have a body. Titles inspire me and dri­ve my poems. Some­times I’ll have a title for weeks or months before it becomes a poem. Even­tu­al­ly, if I’m lucky, the title leads to a body, and then through a long revi­sion process, I have a poem worth send­ing out into the world.

Pop cul­ture also fuels most of my work. I use pop cul­ture like oth­er poets use mythol­o­gy or reli­gion because it serves a sim­i­lar pur­pose. It helps make sense of our lives. We con­nect to what we see in movies or on TV or what we hear on the radio. We see par­al­lels in our own lives. My poems explore those con­nec­tions as well as our con­nec­tion to cur­rent or recent events. The news or media often fac­tor into my work.

In “A His­to­ry of Mar­riage,” I’m attempt­ing to make sense of the idea of mar­riage through my expe­ri­ence as a gay man view­ing my family’s mar­riage his­to­ry as well as the mar­riages of lit­er­ary fig­ures, artists, and actors from the 1950s and 60s. I jux­ta­pose the “hap­pi­ness” of mar­riage with many ter­ri­ble things that hap­pened in each year. This poem is the open­ing to my new col­lec­tion forth­com­ing from Sib­ling Rival­ry Press in Sep­tem­ber of 2014. It sets the stage for the book and all of these fig­ures reap­pear in some way in the poems that fol­low.

Out­side of pop cul­ture and the media, I’m also pulled in by oth­er poets and inter­est­ed in how I fit into a broad­er lit­er­ary land­scape. This can be seen in my poem “Slic­ing Limes for Dustin,” which is indebt­ed to a Diane Wakos­ki poem. This poem also explores mar­riage and what it means to be a gay mar­ried cou­ple.

Both of these poems serve as good exam­ples of what I believe poet­ry is capa­ble of doing. I strive to make poems that use famil­iar things in unex­pect­ed and inter­est­ing ways. I also nev­er want to bore my read­er. Hav­ing a poem of mine called “bor­ing” would prob­a­bly be the great­est insult.

 

Stephen S. Mills holds a MFA from Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. His work has appeared in The Anti­och Review, The Gay and Les­bian Review World­wide, PANK, The New York Quar­ter­ly, The Los Ange­les Review, Knock­out, Assara­cus, The Rum­pus, and oth­ers. He is also the win­ner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poet­ry Award. His first book, He Do the Gay Man in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es (Sib­ling Rival­ry Press, 2012), was a final­ist for the Thom Gunn Poet­ry Award and won the 2012 Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Award for Gay Poet­ry. He lives in New York City. Web­site: http://www.stephensmills.com/.

What Specter Haunts the Sen­tence We’ve Cre­ated?

 

Nonfiction / Janice Lee

:: Narrative as Conceptual & Cognitive Process
or
What Specter Haunts the Sentence We’ve Created? [i] ::

In a dream I can see the hori­zon line behind the trees, orange-green in their autumn stu­por, heart beat­ing in the vapor­ized chill of the air, and an echo that says some­thing along the lines of part­ing as nar­ra­tive. This is all part of a larg­er strug­gle with the var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions of nar­ra­tive, its diverse con­no­ta­tions, and reac­tions in rela­tion to my own per­pet­u­al and per­sis­tent writ­ings. Here we strug­gle too with the recog­ni­tion of the wall, the lim­i­ta­tions of a project, the pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions with ghosts, or even, the haunt­ed ver­sions of our­selves. Does one detect an almost adver­sar­i­al stance against nar­ra­tive, or at least, against par­tic­u­lar def­i­n­i­tions of nar­ra­tive (because to this day, and for me at least, there doesn’t seem to be a def­i­n­i­tion we are com­plete­ly sat­is­fied with)? There are shifts, points of ref­er­ence mov­ing from phi­los­o­phy and phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy to biol­o­gy and neu­ro­science. And through these var­i­ous lens­es, we may or may not glimpse a more pro­found under­stand­ing.

What stands is that nar­ra­tive, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a sur­mise full of long­ing and pos­si­bil­i­ty and a con­demned rel­ic of inten­tion­al­i­ty, should be thought about from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, mul­ti­ple minds, mul­ti­ple suns with vary­ing grav­i­ta­tion­al fields that coex­ist with at least the imag­ined trans­paren­cy of ideas and gazes. We imag­ine the evanes­cent impres­sions of poet­ry comin­gling with the phys­i­o­log­i­cal blue­prints of the brain’s inner work­ings.

Cog­ni­tion does not “hap­pen” or reside sim­ply in the phys­i­cal brain. Cog­ni­tion is an ecol­o­gy, and literature—including narrative—is only one of the envi­ron­ments that sus­tains this ecol­o­gy. What of nar­ra­tiviza­tion, and, as such, issues of trans­la­tion and prob­lems of time, both at the objective/scientific lev­el and at the lev­el of sub­jec­tive human expe­ri­ence, indi­vid­ual as well as col­lec­tive? How­ev­er, let’s not pro­long the cru­ci­fix­ion of the author, nor resurrect—yet again—the “read­er.”

Der­ri­da writes:

Who is it that is address­ing you? Since it is not an author, a nar­ra­tor, or a deus ex machi­na, it is an “I” that is both part of the spec­ta­cle and part of the audi­ence. An “I” that, a bit like “you,” under­goes its own inces­sant vio­lent re-inscrip­tion with­in the arith­meti­cal machin­ery. An “I” that func­tion­ing as a pure pas­sage­way for oper­a­tions of sub­sti­tu­tion is not some sin­gu­lar and irre­place­able exis­tence, some sub­ject or life. But only rather moves between life and death, between real­i­ty and fic­tion. An “I” that is a mere func­tion or phan­tom. [ii]

Today, I’d like to place my faith in a third mem­ber of this trin­i­ty: the ephemer­al, con­tin­gent and iden­ti­ty-less being that exists in the motion between the author’s hand(s) and the reader’s eye(s). A being, there­fore, not pure­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal or imma­te­r­i­al; rather, a being ful­ly pos­sessed of a map­pable phys­i­ol­o­gy but gras­pable only with the com­mu­nal inten­tion and inte­gra­tion of many suc­ces­sions of ideas.

These are thoughts pieced togeth­er from a series of con­ver­sa­tions with col­lab­o­ra­tors Joe Milaz­zo and Lau­ra Vena, under the guise of Stro­phe. Per­haps just a sense of curios­i­ty drove our efforts, or an attempt at shed­ding the skin of the pre­vi­ous century’s future. In a col­lab­o­ra­tive text, we wrote togeth­er:

Pos­si­ble nar­ra­tives are defined by an increased par­tic­i­pa­tion in the nar­ra­tiviza­tion of a piece, as the inno­v­a­tive text will seek to atom­ize the sub­ject, grant­i­ng the read­er some new notion of their own embed­ded sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. [iii]

We dis­tin­guish here between nar­ra­tive and nar­ra­tiviza­tion. Nar­ra­tive as orga­ni­za­tion, coher­ence; and nar­ra­tiviza­tion as an inevitable cog­ni­tive con­se­quence of tex­tu­al inter­ac­tion, or the cog­ni­tive process itself result­ing in an inter­ac­tion with/within nar­ra­tive. (Our dis­tinc­tion too is inspired by David Antin’s def­i­n­i­tions of nar­ra­tive and sto­ry, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to the pres­ence of “stakes” in nar­ra­tive). [iv]

We fur­ther explain:

The atom­iza­tion is for the pur­pose of refraction—like pro­ject­ing a cone of light through a dense cloud of dust, only to learn how that light bounces around and reveals the dimen­sions of all the dis­parate bits of “noth­ing” that seem to make a whole; the read­er has an increased aware­ness of the inten­tion­al­i­ty of the work, see­ing nar­ra­tive as pos­si­bil­i­ty.

This is not such a rad­i­cal recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of nar­ra­tive, but a con­sid­er­a­tion of nar­ra­tive and nar­ra­tiviza­tion, like Badiou, in terms of epis­te­mol­o­gy rather than ontol­ogy, in terms of phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy rather than nar­ra­tol­ogy. This recon­sid­er­a­tion is also a recon­sid­er­a­tion of nar­ra­tive not sole­ly as a lit­er­ary con­cern, but as a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal one, a neu­ro­log­i­cal one, a cul­tur­al one, an evo­lu­tion­ary one, an emo­tion­al one, an empa­thet­ic one. I want to under­stand you. Let me under­stand.

Pierre-Jean Jou­ve:

Poet­ry, espe­cial­ly in its present endeav­ors, (can) only cor­re­spond to atten­tive thought that is enam­ored of some­thing unknown, and essen­tial­ly recep­tive to becom­ing. [v]

We cre­ate the way we live, and in a dream, some­one tells me that part­ing is the way of nar­ra­tive. Is nar­ra­tive an exer­cise in free­dom? In death? In empa­thy? What kind of a begin­ning does nar­ra­tive offer, haunt­ed by a ghost that cues the ges­tur­al fusion of idea with lan­guage, the ghost that speaks as a deno­ta­tive and con­no­ta­tive appari­tion hid­ing in a text that is buried alive? [vi] What do our lives tell us about our dreams?

Nar­ra­tiviza­tion has the poten­tial of reveal­ing the essen­tial excess of human expe­ri­ence, this engage­ment pos­si­ble as one’s own sub­jec­tiv­i­ty nav­i­gates toward apo­r­ia: the impass­able, untra­vers­a­ble, inar­tic­u­lat­able, indis­cernible, con­tin­gent, and non­tran­scen­dent. The apo­r­ia is a philo­soph­i­cal puz­zle or a seem­ing­ly insol­u­ble impasse in an inquiry, often aris­ing as a result of equal­ly plau­si­ble yet incon­sis­tent premis­es, the state of being per­plexed or at a loss.

But we need to want to go there, into that most dif­fi­cult and rare radi­a­tion of simul­ta­ne­ous con­fu­sion, bewil­der­ment, amaze­ment, pain, suf­fer­ing, life, death. I dri­ve to the Salton Sea on a sum­mer day, 115 degrees, the stench of putre­fac­tion, too many dead fish float­ing at the sur­face, piled on the rocks, bones, aban­don­ment, relief, sub­li­ma­tion, the bur­den of pas­sion or a sim­ple nuance of see­ing. I feel alive through death.

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of nar­ra­tive is the poten­tial to offer a lit­er­ary enact­ment of the kind of con­scious­ness that dri­ves the dream of indi­vid­ual sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. In oth­er words, the read­er must con­struct his or her own phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal self-mod­el dur­ing the process of read­ing. It is indeed a ques­tion of phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, of knowl­edge, of one’s place in the world, the cre­ation of a nar­ra­tive that does not ignore the inher­ent and nec­es­sary qual­i­ty of nar­ra­tiviza­tion for human under­stand­ing but rather push­es a nar­ra­tive aes­thet­ic that allows and inspires read­ers “to view their ide­o­log­i­cal embed­ded­ness with fresh eyes.” In oth­er words, the read­er gains some notion about their posi­tion as a sub­ject in the world, rec­og­niz­ing their own ide­o­log­i­cal embed­ded­ness as narrative’s pos­si­bil­i­ties allow us to con­front our own mod­els of expe­ri­ence. It’s as if, in a nar­ra­tive, one could actu­al­ly gaze into the space between two mir­rors and not have your own head block your view of infin­i­ty. Rilke echoes, “Sud­den­ly one has the right eyes.” [vii]

Late­ly has been a peri­od of mea­sur­ing against loss: the loss of my moth­er, of time, of life. The way I inter­act with time and space and language—what exper­i­men­tal writ­ing prac­tice becomes, for me, is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of ghosts. I see ghosts every­where, espe­cial­ly in the mar­gins of altered texts. Ghosts scur­ry across the tracks of my mind, leav­ing foot­prints on the mar­gins of well-trav­eled mem­o­ries, but nev­er creep­ing out into the open. What is regained through loss? What is lost through excess? How do we think in terms of lan­guage at all?

There is a neu­ro­log­i­cal tran­scen­dence (as poet Will Alexan­der would say) at work when we inter­act with poetry—the ideas that voice them­selves when the let­ters shed their phys­i­cal traits. From a col­lab­o­ra­tive text with Will Alexan­der: 

Exis­tence is only present between two divine mark­ers, hands pound­ing out a shape from wet clay. We are born from noth­ing, die into noth­ing, or, this noth­ing that is unde­fin­able, unar­tic­u­late­able, these events that book­mark our phys­i­cal exis­tence and so in dai­ly lives we humans find our­selves con­stant­ly reach­ing towards the divine, the oth­er side, a dif­fer­ent ground than that of the tram­pled pigs and rot­ting organs. Plant vibra­tions even attest to our sen­si­tiv­i­ty, to the con­stant rise and fall of ten­sions. Prayer is not a rit­u­al or action but a hand reach­ing into the ether in an attempt to touch some­thing. Some­one is bang­ing at the door and we don’t know to answer it. Some­one is climb­ing in through the win­dow and we don’t see it. In the dis­tance, a bell starts to toll… [viii]

Nar­ra­tive is reach­ing. Nar­ra­tive is remem­ber­ing, even through all the excess mud. Nar­ra­tive is the attempt to move for­ward when there is no rea­son to go on.

Badiou speaks of the inter­ven­tion which is the reader’s inter­ac­tion with a text, the par­tic­i­pa­tion in a kind of “active read­ing” that opens up a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty, rather than clos­ing in on a sin­gu­lar nar­ra­tive. A sto­ry is most often a sto­ry about “some­thing,” a some­thing that rarely includes the plu­ral­i­ty of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and con­scious­ness them­selves. Who was I before this text? Who am I today?

The “event” here refers to that which can not be dis­cerned, the con­cep­tu­al frame­work that exists out­side of lan­guage, the point at which one’s mind is most open-mind­ed, “a rup­ture in ontol­ogy, a being-in-itself—through which the sub­ject finds her real­iza­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with ‘truth.’” [ix] Or, the shad­ow of nar­ra­tive his­to­ry, a tex­tu­al­ized séance, and a “phan­tas­mo­ge­net­ic center”—that “point in space so mod­i­fied by the pres­ence of a spir­it that it becomes per­cep­ti­ble to per­sons mate­ri­al­ly present near it.” The ghost lives in and is alive in writ­ing, and the text is the site of its con­ju­ra­tion and acti­va­tion. Who is haunt­ing whom?

Per­haps this influ­ence of the spir­it of the text and the ghosts of the inex­haustible labyrinths of time even eras­es the “I” we hold on to so dear­ly. Could we go as far as Lichtenberg’s pro­pos­al that instead of “I think,” we should say “It thinks,” as we say “It thun­ders” or “There is light­ning.” Or as Borges relates, “There is not, behind the face, a secret self gov­ern­ing our acts or receiv­ing our impres­sions; we are only the series of those imag­i­nary acts and those errant impres­sions.” [x] Per­haps this pos­tu­lates a dif­fer­ent sort of pre­ci­sion than the one we seem to be build­ing. Too, though, as Schopen­hauer declared, “The world is my rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” and so I per­sist in the awful vast­ness of knowl­edge that is yet to be unit­ed.

We’re talk­ing too of the “blind spots” in Derrida’s gram­ma­tol­ogy, those stress-points in the text where read­ers are forced to con­front them­selves and their rela­tion­ship with the ide­o­log­i­cal project the text presents, those “blind spots” around which all else in the text revolves, the read­er encoun­ter­ing a rein­scribed truth through the nar­ra­tive con­text of the text, a con­text that becomes part of the larg­er, strat­i­fied con­text of the “world” at large. Or also, as Paul de Man puts it: “[T]his is the point at which lit­er­ari­ness, the use of lan­guage that fore­grounds the rhetorical…intervenes as a deci­sive but unset­tling ele­ment which, in a vari­ety of modes and aspects, dis­rupts the inner bal­ance of the mod­el and con­se­quent­ly, its out­ward exten­sion to the non­ver­bal world as well.” [xi]

I want to con­sid­er Carl Jung’s the­o­ry of synchronicity—that there are moments in space and time where and when the phys­i­cal world becomes a text to be read and inter­pret­ed, where and when the event is struc­tured not by casu­al net­works of mat­ter but by sym­bol­ic ref­er­ences pro­duc­ing mean­ing. Jef­frey Kri­pal relates these process­es of writ­ing and read­ing to para­nor­mal process­es, coin­ing the phrase “authors of the impos­si­ble.” [xii] And it is this reach­ing for impos­si­bil­i­ty that for me unites the “beyond” haunt­ing meta­physics and a per­son­al writ­ing prac­tice.

In a text, there is so much that is unspeak­able, but also the words of so many voic­es echo in the “just beyond.” In the search for a con­crete “I,” we slip, waver, stare at the moon, and make assump­tions. A lim­it­ed view locates ghosts in the past. But it is more pre­cise to say that their roots lie in the future, in a read­ing not yet real­ized but being real­ized present­ly. This is the dream: that the ges­ture of tomor­row becomes ani­mat­ed by the inten­tions of now’s many, that the inves­ti­ga­tion of today’s world influ­ences the words of an exces­sive­ly omnipresent future. I artic­u­late my love for you and with the words some­thing becomes fixed, some­thing is utter­ly lost, some­thing is utter­ly regained. I both fear and work toward with all my being the abil­i­ty to artic­u­late, to express.

Nar­ra­tive is the ghost speak­ing on the thresh­old of being. The mate­ri­al­i­ty and lit­er­al­i­ty of writ­ing become the foun­da­tion for the revenants that haunt our texts. There are ghosts in writ­ing every­where, offer­ing hope or glimpses of apoc­a­lyp­tic cog­ni­tion. I will write some­thing. One day I will die.

It is the cog­ni­tive estrange­ment that aris­es out of encoun­ters with ghosts that brings about cog­ni­tive change, the para­nor­mal as instiga­tive, nar­ra­tiviza­tion as under­stand­ing, under­stand­ing as the cre­ation of mean­ing, the begin­ning of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.

          Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,
          Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
                    —Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)
                              [Translation quoted in Borges: “A New Refutation of Time” [xiii]

 


Ref­er­ences

[i] Title of post on HTMLGIANT by Christo­pher Hig­gs (Feb. 23, 2012): http://htmlgiant.com/random/what-specter-haunts-the-sentence-weve-created/.

[ii] Der­ri­da, Jacques. Cit­ed in Appel­baum, David. Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Con­ju­ra­tion. New York: State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2009.

[iii] As yet unpub­lished col­lab­o­ra­tive text by Jan­ice Lee, Joe Milaz­zo and Lau­ra Vena titled “On Pos­si­ble Nar­ra­tives, Nar­ra­tive Pos­si­bil­i­ty, and the Pos­si­bil­i­ties for Nar­ra­tive.”

[iv] Antin, David. “David Antin, On Nar­ra­tive: The Beg­gar and the King.” Pacif­ic Coast Philol­o­gy 30.2 (1995): 143–154. Rpt. in Poems and Poet­ics. http://poemsandpoetics.blogspot.com/2010/06/david-antin-on-narrative-beggar-and.html.

[v] Pierre-Jean Jou­ve. “La poésie est rare.” Cit­ed in Bachelard, Gas­ton. The Poet­ics of Space. Boston: Bea­con Press, 1994.

[vi] Lee, Jan­ice. “The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book.” Dear Nav­i­ga­tor (Spring, 2011): http://blogs.saic.edu/dearnavigator/spring2011/janice-lee-the-ghosts-of-ill-drown-my-book/.

[vii] Rilke, Rain­er Maria. Let­ter to Clara Rilke. 10 Octo­ber, 1907. “Intro­duc­tion.” The Note­books of Malte Lau­rids Brigge. Trans. Bur­ton Pike. Cham­paign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2008.

[viii] Alexan­der, Will and Jan­ice Lee. The Trans­par­ent At Wit­ness. Solar Lux­u­ri­ance, 2013.

[ix] Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliv­er Feltham. New York: Con­tin­u­um, 2006.

[x] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refu­ta­tion of Time.” Select­ed Non-Fic­tions. Ed. Eliot Wein­berg­er. Trans. Wein­berg­er, et. al. New York: Pen­guin, 1999.

[xi] De Man, Paul. The Resis­tance to The­o­ry. The­o­ry and His­to­ry of Lit­er­a­ture, Vol­ume 33. Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1986.

[xii] Kri­pal, Jef­frey. Authors of the Impos­si­ble: The Para­nor­mal and the Sacred. Chica­go: The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2010.

[xiii] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refu­ta­tion of Time.” Select­ed Non-Fic­tions. Ed. Eliot Wein­berg­er. Trans. Wein­berg­er, et. al. New York: Pen­guin, 1999.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

One does not write for the plea­sure of it. It is a mis­er­able task, find­ing words to describe events, to express feel­ings. The brain and the heart have nev­er been so incom­pat­i­ble. Lás­zló Krasz­na­horkai writes about being “[c]ondemned to look, yet at the same time to be deprived of sight.”* This is the con­stant state of writ­ing, the thresh­old between san­i­ty and insan­i­ty, between know­ing every­thing and know­ing noth­ing, between absolute mis­ery and hell and pure desire and love. Writ­ing exists because lan­guage fails. Because lan­guage always fails, we write and we keep writ­ing. My friend Joe Milaz­zo and I talk about fail­ure in writ­ing. The great­est works of lit­er­a­ture are mag­nif­i­cent and bril­liant fail­ures. And those works con­sid­ered “suc­cess­ful” today are dull, bor­ing, agree­able. Joe tweets: “If it’s a suc­cess on its own terms, it’s a fail­ure, albeit a mag­nif­i­cent one. If it’s a fail­ure on its own terms, it’s a suc­cess, just not a very inter­est­ing one.”** Fine, I say. I accept the wager and fate of fail­ure. My goal, then, will be to fail as absolute­ly and mag­nif­i­cent­ly as I pos­si­bly can. This is the most I can hope for.

* Krasz­na­horkai, Lás­zló. “About a Pho­tog­ra­ph­er.” Trans­lat­ed by George Szirtes. Music & Lit­er­a­ture Issue 2. Spring 2013.

** Milaz­zo, Joe. @slowstudies.

 

Jan­ice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daugh­ter (Jad­ed Ibis, 2011), and Damna­tion (Pen­ny-Ante Edi­tions, 2013), an obses­sive response to the films of Béla Tarr. She cur­rent­ly lives in Los Ange­les where she is Co-Edi­tor of [out of noth­ing], Reviews Edi­tor at HTMLGIANT, Edi­tor of the new #RECURRENT Nov­el Series for Jad­ed Ibis Press, Co-Exec­u­tive Edi­tor at ENTROPY, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She cur­rent­ly teach­es at CalArts and can be found online at http://janicel.com.

Instead

Poetry / Thomas March

:: Instead ::

There is no need to note
the pointlessness of things,
the grave utilities
of chemicals—the blood—
of all those things to come—
the wracking, wretched things—
the burning and the bile—

no—someone else will know
them all eventually
and better than you know—

no—testify instead
not of the life to come
but of bacon, the taste
of fried chicken. Speak of
chocolate—of all such things
so much farther away—
if you cannot 
		          say nothing.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem began in a mas­ter class with Marie Howe at Poets House in New York. We were asked to think about forms of express­ing nega­tion. These poems about what the dying require of the liv­ing were at the ready, as I had been strug­gling since March, when some­one essen­tial to me died of can­cer, to find a way to express what I was learn­ing about grief. I am still learn­ing about grief. It unfolds. But I was ready, then, to con­sid­er what I had learned about how best to be use­ful and hon­est before death, by being present through the many stages of that ill­ness.

When some­one you love accepts the ago­niz­ing task of dying—by which I mean to say that they come both to face the inevitabil­i­ty of the death while also wrench­ing from each day its avail­able hope—you real­ize soon enough that there is noth­ing more that you can do. There is an urge to be use­ful, to offer advice, to say the com­fort­ing thing. But there is no easy way to know what that thing is. Every­one involved is engaged in a process of release, release with­out relin­quish­ing. The dying release the attach­ment to the phys­i­cal, to the known. The liv­ing, if they can bear it, release the need to be wise, to be use­ful in ways that are no longer use­ful. And as we do these things, we strug­gle, too, not to relin­quish the very con­nec­tions that have brought us togeth­er in the first place—shared loves, shared visions, under­stand­ings.

Friendship—love—accustoms us to being of use in so many ways that are no longer help­ful, from the triv­ial to the essen­tial: giv­ing advice, return­ing calls, val­i­dat­ing, shar­ing out­rage, exchang­ing gifts, pick­ing up the check. There is no bal­anc­ing of the ledger, once dying begins and there are no more din­ners, no more birth­days, no more dai­ly out­rages, only the one. It is easy to for­get that being present and atten­tive has been the essence of every thing we have active­ly done. And it is the one thing that, in the end, remains most use­ful.

Pres­ence requires and bestows a grace of its own. To love is not to flinch, even and espe­cial­ly at the sight of hor­rors and heart­breaks pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­in­able. The soon­er we real­ize that we have no advice to offer for this thing we can­not pos­si­bly understand—that what is hap­pen­ing and what is to come are equal­ly beyond our ken—the soon­er we can be of use again, by acknowl­edg­ing suf­fer­ing, allow­ing ques­tions to remain ques­tions, bear­ing wit­ness.

 

Orig­i­nal­ly from Spring­field, Illi­nois, Thomas March is a poet, teacher, and crit­ic who lives in New York City. He is a recent recip­i­ent of the Nor­ma Mil­lay Ellis Fel­low­ship in Poet­ry, award­ed by the Mil­lay Colony for the Arts, and an Artist Grant from the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter. Twice a final­ist for the South­west Review’s Mor­ton Marr Poet­ry Prize, he is fin­ish­ing his first col­lec­tion of poet­ry, as well as a full-length play, Unbe­com­ing. Recent work appears or is forth­com­ing in Assara­cus, Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Review, Chelsea Sta­tion, Con­fronta­tion, Kin, and RHINO. His crit­i­cism has appeared in Amer­i­can Book Review, The Believ­er, New Let­ters, and oth­er jour­nals.

Sonnet (8)

Poetry / Nikki Wallschlaeger

:: Sonnet (8) ::

                   

                    Do not feed the negativity machine
                    it gives us light, beautiful signs of blight
                    We should all be oyster joyous & keyless
                    When we have our geometries managed
                    And the intersections waiting on tables
                    showing us how to be better at patience
                    We can feel a little now when the mayors of
                    The dead have taken care of the layering
                    Before the next afterparty is born
                    That we are going to be abundantly
                    Pleasant & quiet on a payday afternoon.

                    
                    “We’re only human,” says guidance counselor.
                    “When you accept yourself, everyone wins.”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Form is every­where & it’s use­less to deny it, so I like to play with the illu­sion of hav­ing con­trol. This is from a series of son­nets that I’ve placed into small build­ings, but since the bank owns the build­ings that I move in, I am only pay­ing mort­gage. We have an under­stand­ing. The son­net has agreed to the task of my sub­ver­sions, that the secu­ri­ty guard is on a per­ma­nent lunch break so we can get inside. A win­dow that is open on the top floor? A claw in the paint­ing? These are my micro-vic­to­ries against hege­mo­ny.

 

Nik­ki Wallschlaegers work has been fea­tured in DecomP, Esque, Word Riot,
Spork, Like­wise Folio, Horse Less Review, Sto­ryscape Jour­nal, Coconut,
Bone Bou­quet (forth­com­ing, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Lau­ra Gold­stein), and oth­ers.
She is also the author of the chap­book THE FROGS AT NIGHT (Shirt Pock­et
Press) and the chap­book, I WOULD BE THE HAPPIEST BIRD (Horse­less Press), as well as Asso­ciate Poet­ry Edi­tor at Coconut Poet­ry. She lives in Mil­wau­kee,
WI, and you can reach her at www.nikkiwallschlaeger.com.

The Drummer

Fiction / Jamey Hatley

:: The Drummer ::

In all but the worst weath­er, the Dea­cons held court where Elder Road dead-end­ed into Horn Lake Road. By the time most of the neigh­bors in Walk­er Homes head­ed to work or school, this flu­id assort­ment of old men and younger laze-abouts were already installed at their post in the shel­ter of a huge oak that is old­er than Walk­er Homes itself. While the rest of Walk­er Homes ate break­fast, the Dea­cons sipped from tall beers or pint bot­tles of bour­bon con­cealed in brown paper sacks. As those who were work or school bound passed, the Dea­cons sipped and shout­ed cor­dial greet­ings. There were com­plaints about the Dea­cons drink­ing out on the street, their lack of ambi­tion bring­ing down the neigh­bor­hood, but we came to depend on them for their reg­u­lar­i­ty and gos­sip. This dai­ly meet­ing, reg­u­lar as tax­es, we called the con­vo­ca­tion. It was this reg­u­lar­i­ty that left the Dea­cons the only wit­ness­es to Clif­fus Bobo’s last hour on earth.

It was so blue-black dark that morn­ing that the stars burst through the canopy of the Dea­cons’ oak like daz­zling unreach­able fruit.  Clif­fus Bobo, new­ly retired from the Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion depart­ment, made his way toward them from the Gap, his white hair almost iri­des­cent in the moon­light. The Dea­cons didn’t reg­is­ter this as strange. The space between 113 and 115 Elder Cove had always been a shortcut—first to the woods that still lay to the back of Walk­er Homes, and lat­er to Turn­er King’s work­shop. Since Turn­er King’s infant son died in 1968 (the same year that oth­er King was killed in Mem­phis) he was a vir­tu­al insom­ni­ac. From late at night to ear­ly morn­ing he could be found in his shed, wood­work­ing or weep­ing to WDIA on the radio. The space right between night and morn­ing was when the res­i­dents of Walk­er Homes stopped to ask for a few dol­lars until the next pay­day or to bor­row a tool.

Hey, Chief!” they called out to Clif­fus Bobo, who was dressed in his uni­form from the san­i­ta­tion depart­ment. The Dea­cons had only shak­en off sleep enough to tum­ble to their places under their oak, so none of them recalled that Bobo had final­ly retired just a few weeks before.

Doc­tor! Doc­tor! Where your car? You head­ed to work?”

You not broke down, are you?”

Bobo! Wake up! Mane. You okay?”

Bobo steadi­ly made his way toward them with­out ever show­ing any sign that he saw or heard them. When he reached where Elder Road dead-end­ed into Horn Lake, right in front of the Dea­cons’ oak, he stepped off the curb with­out so much as a glance in either direc­tion. The Dea­cons thought for a moment that he was com­ing to join them, but instead he made a crisp turn to their right and con­tin­ued on his way.

The hell?”

You think he sleep?”

Walk­ing?”

Peo­ple do all kind of shit in they sleep.”

Maybe we ought to catch him.”

Catch him. Catch him? Negro, you got a net?”

Watch him, then.”

The Dea­cons fol­lowed a few paces behind him. Bobo kept a live­ly pace until he final­ly came to a stop at the cor­ner of Mitchell and Third Street. At first they thought he was wait­ing to cross the street, but the light changed sev­er­al times.

Still, Bobo wait­ed.

The Dea­cons wait­ed, too.

Clif­fus Bobo kept look­ing straight ahead of him. The lone­ly whis­tle of a train sound­ed in the dis­tance. Out from under the leafy canopy of their oak, the Dea­cons could ful­ly appre­ci­ate the map of pierc­ing lights above them and the moon heavy and full, watch­ing, wait­ing with them. A breeze twirled itself around them, bring­ing the heavy scent of white flow­ers, jas­mine or maybe gar­de­nia. One of the Dea­cons closed his eyes and with a deep breath filled him­self with the mem­o­ry of a woman whose neck smelled exact­ly like this friend­ly breeze. For an hour or so, not a sin­gle car passed and it seemed to the Dea­cons that anoth­er car might nev­er trav­el down High­way 61 again.

It was all very pleas­ant.

The Dea­cons broke out their bot­tles and passed them around. To shake off the melan­choly of the smell of the woman’s neck (she was long-dead, any­how), the Dea­cons got down to their usu­al busi­ness.

Them locusts tear­ing up y’all’s yard?”

Locusts? This ain’t Egypt.”

Who says it ain’t? Mem­phis was in Egypt. The O-rig­i­nal.”

That right?”

Yes, it is right. In the B-I-B-L-E. Some of us can and do read, thank you very much.”

Cicadas.”

What­ev­er you call ‘em, them thangs crawl­ing up from under­ground and climb­ing up the trees. That tree right by the Gap is full of them. And I tell you this, that lit­tle King girl was out there just star­ing at them.”     

That lit­tle girl is a haint, I tell you. I know you ain’t sup­posed to say it, but she just give me a chill all the way down in my bones when I see her. Look. She always watch­ing you out that win­dow with them eyes. Ain’t nat­ur­al.”

Lots of folk stare. Star­ing is just look­ing. What’s wrong with look­ing?”

You think just cause she a kid she inno­cent, that she free? I saw her yestid­dy just star­ing in that tree. With a note­book. And she keep some kin­da big book. Books too big for her. Some­thing just ain’t right with that. Not right at all.”

Well, she is a lit­tle spooky.”

That ain’t her fault. She gets it hon­est. You can’t blame her for her peo­ple. You don’t get to choose your peo­ple.”

I don’t blame her for her peo­ple. But that don’t mean that I don’t watch out. I’m not like Eve and just going to let a snake get me in my own gar­den if I can help it.”

Clif­fus Bobo just peace­ful­ly wait­ed. He smiled at the Dea­cons and they took this as a sign that he was com­ing around.

Well look at that.”

I’ll be damned.”

Whoa, stop baby.”

 A thin wall of lazy fog closed across Third Street like a cur­tain. The Dea­cons split up to inspect the fog. It was only about the width of a cin­derblock, but almost opaque. They laughed and stuck their hands through the fog, grab­bing for each oth­er and mak­ing rude hand ges­tures. One poked his head through to the oth­er side like he was peek­ing in a win­dow. Anoth­er danced across the street, let­ting the fog con­sume his cen­ter until he was just wig­gling arms and legs on either side of the fog.

While the fog trans­formed the Dea­cons back into chil­dren, Clif­fus Bobo took three ele­gant hops into the cen­ter of the south­bound lane of High­way 61 and con­tin­ued his wait­ing. The Dea­cons aban­doned their indi­vid­ual posts for the side of the fog with Bobo. Once they were all assem­bled on his side of the fog, Bobo stretched his arms wide and fold­ed him­self into a deep bow. An exhaust­ed soul singer’s third encore.

The noise was so great the Dea­cons expect­ed some­thing huge was coming—a train deposit­ed in the mid­dle of the road or the watch­ing, wait­ing moon crash­ing down from the sky. The careen­ing wail of brakes seemed to explode the fog, reveal­ing a Chevy Bel Air sta­tion wag­on. The plane hood orna­ment of the Bel Air was less than an arm’s length from Clif­fus Bobo when the dri­ver swerved into the oppo­site lane, over­cor­rect­ed and final­ly crashed into a light pole.

Only after the car made impact down the road did Clif­fus Bobo start to lift from his bow and fall—gently, ever so gen­tly back­ward like a can­di­date for bap­tism, into the wait­ing arms of the Dea­cons.

Lucky moth­er­fuck­er!”

When the police arrive, the Dea­cons will leave out that they laughed. That they were daz­zled by Bobo’s lithe grace and ele­gant strut. That they had been applaud­ing when he took his bow. That when he lift­ed his arms in tri­umph they had laughed so hard they had to clutch their hearts. That until the stunned white man stag­gered over to them and shook his head no no no no, did they real­ize that some­thing was wrong. This the Dea­cons will leave out when they try to explain it. 

The white man broke the brim of his fedo­ra in his hands again and again. A live­ly trick­le of blood trav­eled from a gash on his head down his face. He could not stop shak­ing. The Dea­cons assured him that his car didn’t hit Bobo, but even he did not seem to trust them.  He took them in with his icy eyes and stum­bled across the street to the pay­phone. The Dea­cons start­ed to hate him right at that moment because not a sin­gle one of them had thought to call the ambu­lance. Only then did one of them leave to go get Bobo’s wife. The Dea­cons formed a tight clus­ter and took turns hold­ing Clif­fus Bobo up. Across the street, the white man made tele­phone calls and paced.

The police couldn’t make much of the white man or the Dea­cons. There was no trace of any fog by the time they arrived. The old man’s body was cov­ered with scars, but those were scabbed over, already ancient. The dri­ver was a stranger, but white, and the police were famil­iar enough with the Dea­cons to know that they were almost always in some stage of intox­i­ca­tion. Each of them had been locked up for hold­ing in the col­ored week­end jail on Horn Lake. As each one told the sto­ry the oth­ers added a flur­ry of head nod­ding and “yes, shole did”s. The Dea­cons were used to being mis­trust­ed, so they often added so much to any tale that their lies and truths were indis­tin­guish­able. “What hap­pened? What hap­pened?” their neigh­bors asked. The Dea­cons were sick from their lack of answers.

The Dea­cons had dis­cov­ered that the dri­ver was employed as a drum­mer, one of those trav­el­ing sales­men who roamed from town to town. The Drum­mer spe­cial­ized in ladies’ cloth­ing and acces­sories and was head­ed to Mis­sis­sip­pi. He had a rack full of the lat­est sum­mer fash­ions hung on a rod across the back­seat of the now ruined Bel Air. He was a tall, rangy white man with pomad­ed hair and such bumpy, ter­ri­ble skin that the Dea­cons will lat­er mar­vel that the man could even shave with­out slic­ing his face up. The Drum­mer suf­fered a bust­ed tire, a bent rim, and night­mares for the rest of his life over a man who he hadn’t even hit, much less killed.

The Drum­mer walked back to his vehi­cle. The light pole was cracked and now leaned pre­car­i­ous­ly over the Bel Air. After sev­er­al tries, the Drum­mer wrenched the door open. It made a sound like a wound­ed ani­mal. He dis­ap­peared into the car save his legs stick­ing out of the door. As the Dea­cons watched, they willed the pole to snap, to seal both the Drum­mer and their laugh­ter inside of his car for­ev­er. He final­ly emerged with some­thing that looked like black wings cloaked over his shoul­ders. The glass fix­ture from the light pole crashed to the ground and missed him by inch­es. Even the cops star­tled. One of the ambu­lance men sti­fled a curse, stamped out his cig­a­rette in the street and lit anoth­er one. The Drum­mer didn’t even glance back.

The Drum­mer lum­bered back up the street toward the grow­ing crowd. He seemed to be favor­ing his left foot now, and the gash on his fore­head was bleed­ing through the ban­dage. Still, the Drum­mer con­tin­ued on. The neigh­bors gasped when they real­ized he was head­ed toward the new wid­ow. Lat­er, they will be thank­ful that Gladys Bobo will nev­er know that she was stand­ing in the same exact spot that her hus­band did before his final strut. The Dea­cons watched the Drum­mer shuf­fle up the street and were thank­ful that Turn­er King and Rab­bit Grace were there with Mrs. Bobo. The Dea­con who retrieved her will rest a tiny bit bet­ter than the oth­ers since he had the pres­ence of mind to stop by Turn­er King’s house first (even if it was to post­pone his own ter­ror). Walk­er Homes kept their eyes fixed on The Drum­mer because you can nev­er tell what a white man could do. When the Drum­mer turned to face Mrs. Bobo, they saw that his black wings were actu­al­ly a can­vas gar­ment bag. The Drum­mer stum­bled a bit and Rab­bit held out his arm in warn­ing. The Drum­mer leaned his ruined face toward Gladys Bobo’s ear. Even those clos­est couldn’t make out what he said. Gladys Bobo blinked but did not seem to answer. They both trem­bled.

The Dea­cons want­ed to pun­ish the Drum­mer for exert­ing so much effort to avoid hit­ting the man that was as good as their fam­i­ly. They want­ed to pun­ish the Drum­mer because he had proof of his efforts—a destroyed car and ban­daged head. They want­ed Gladys Bobo to slap the Drum­mer because they were so busy laugh­ing at Bobo’s grand luck that they didn’t even know he was dead until the Drum­mer shook his head no, no, no.

The Dea­cons want­ed the Drum­mer pun­ished because even with his ter­ri­ble skin he was free to dri­ve all around the coun­try with the rack of col­or­ful dress­es that allowed entry to all man­ner of women’s spaces. Because those women laughed in his pres­ence and asked him advice about their under­things. Because those women held out their love­ly wrists for him to spray with per­fume. Because for the Drum­mer, the soft smell of white flow­ers on a grace­ful neck was not a just a dead mem­o­ry, but his life. Because these women fussed over him and fed him and thought of him fond­ly.

Only fond­ly.

The Dea­cons felt the slap for the Drum­mer twitch in their own hands. Their own faces throbbed, wait­ing. The Drum­mer snatched his mis­shapen hat off his head and draped the bag across his arms like a bride he was about to car­ry across a thresh­old. The Dea­cons wait­ed for Mrs. Bobo to throw the bag into the street or for Rab­bit to punch the man in his teeth. Mrs. Bobo blinked past the Drum­mer into the inter­sec­tion and slow­ly took in the shape draped in white on the stretch­er. When she was done, with some effort it seemed, she set­tled her gaze on the Drum­mer. He lift­ed his iced green eyes from the ground to meet hers. With his face in full view now, the Dea­cons were shocked to see that the Drum­mer was wait­ing for the slap as well. The Dea­cons knew the Drummer’s face because it was also theirs, lurk­ing in the mir­rors they tried to avoid. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When­ev­er my moth­er saw a car with a cloth­ing rack full of prod­uct stretched across the back­seat, she would say, “That per­son must be a drum­mer or some­thing.” My par­ents are from Mis­sis­sip­pi, so I just assumed it was some sort of coun­try slang. Not until I was an adult read­ing William Faulkn­er did I see “drum­mer” in print, used just as my moth­er did, as an old-fash­ioned term for trav­el­ing sales­man. As I wrote the scene of Clif­fus Bobo’s acci­dent, the car came to me through the fog and I saw it clear­ly. I had been hold­ing on to that image for most of my life, and now my drum­mer had found his place into my work. The first draft of this scene came out in a sin­gle burst, which is very rare for me. It felt more like watch­ing than writ­ing. When I fin­ished the scene, I looked out of the café win­dow and saw a mini-van with a rack of clothes stretched across the back­seat wait­ing for the light to change.

 

Jamey Hat­ley is a native of Mem­phis, TN. Her writ­ing has appeared in the Oxford Amer­i­can, Torch, and Long Hid­den: Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion From the Mar­gins of His­to­ry. She believes in the heal­ing pow­er of sto­ries and sweet tea.

Three Works

Art / Gail Buono

From the artist

:: Account ::

The three pieces of mine cho­sen for this issue rep­re­sent an intrigu­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion: each reveals a vary­ing stage of devel­op­ment, so to speak, from ethe­re­al (“Ora­cle I”) to dimen­sion­al (“The Ora­cle Observes”) to sym­bol­ic (“Por­tal to Steam Pool”). These works on paper are made by dif­fer­ent process­es, from mono­type with col­lage ele­ment, to col­lage ele­ments indi­vid­u­al­ly mono­print­ed and assem­bled, to a dig­i­tal over­lay of images.

I came upon the sphinx image dur­ing my wan­der­ings on the grounds of Ver­sailles. It was one of four sphinx sculp­tures (each with a unique face) adorn­ing a por­ti­co, sur­round­ing what I refer to as a “tryst” place (i.e. a hexag­o­nal, one room, enclosed struc­ture, entered through mul­ti­ple French doors). I was imme­di­ate­ly drawn to the sweet­ness of this sphinx’s face, and con­sid­ered her to be a per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tion for my con­tem­pla­tive Ora­cle. I’ve placed her inside this archi­tec­tur­al struc­ture, as I have imag­ined a shrine at Del­phi would be.

In “Ora­cle I,” uti­liz­ing the mono­type process, the ele­ment of chance and mys­tery play a large role in the out­come, as it does in the Sphinx’s nature and inter­ac­tion. In “The Ora­cle Observes,” pho­to­graph­ic and abstract ele­ments encir­cle the Ora­cle in her deci­sion-mak­ing process. Final­ly, in “Por­tal to Steam Pool,” the Ora­cle is rep­re­sent­ed by the 12-point­ed star.

I have com­bined pho­tog­ra­phy and abstrac­tion in my print­mak­ing and col­lage work for many years. More recent­ly, the dig­i­tal prints weave an abstract rela­tion­ship between my land­scape pho­tographs and imagery from my paint­ings, depict­ing dual real­i­ties inhab­it­ing the same space/time con­tin­u­um. They cre­ate a sense of being por­tals that open to new meta­phys­i­cal worlds.

 

Gail Buono received a BFA in Paint­ing from The School of Visu­al Arts in New York City. She is the recip­i­ent of two paint­ing fel­low­ships from the NJ State Coun­cil on the Arts, as well as a “Dis­tin­guished Artist Award.” Her work has been exhibited/collected through­out the U.S. and in Europe. She has lived/worked in San­ta Fe, NM since mid-2006. To see more of her work, please vis­it her web­site: www.gailbuono.com.

A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem”

Criticism / Andrew Epstein

:: “Uh, Philosophy”: A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem” ::

Over two thou­sand years ago, in The Repub­lic, Pla­to famous­ly referred to the “ancient quar­rel between phi­los­o­phy and poet­ry” as part of his argu­ment for ban­ish­ing poets from his ide­al soci­ety. If it was already “ancient” then, clear­ly the vibrant, some­times heat­ed dia­logue between poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy has a long his­to­ry. Over the course of two mil­len­nia, this con­ver­sa­tion has tak­en many forms. Philoso­phers, for exam­ple, have fol­lowed Plato’s lead and sought to dis­tin­guish their own mode of inquiry from poet­ry, or even to ele­vate it above poet­ry as a high­er pur­suit. They have also approached poet­ry philo­soph­i­cal­ly, in terms of aes­thet­ics, seek­ing to define and under­stand it as a dis­tinc­tive genre and human activ­i­ty. Or they have longed to emu­late the free­dom, cre­ativ­i­ty, and elo­quence of poet­ry in their own field. For their part, poets have drawn con­trasts between poet­ic expres­sion and philo­soph­i­cal thought, often priv­i­leg­ing poet­ry in the process. Or they have made claims for their own medium’s abil­i­ty to be a potent vehi­cle for philo­soph­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion, or have wished for poet­ry to share the rig­or, pre­ci­sion, and grav­i­tas of phi­los­o­phy.

Obvi­ous­ly, this is a long and com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry, and the list of poets who engage philo­soph­i­cal themes, or whose work can be dis­cussed in terms of phi­los­o­phy, is near­ly end­less. Few poems, how­ev­er, address phi­los­o­phy as explic­it­ly and suc­cinct­ly as “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” a poem by A. R. Ammons, writ­ten in about 1959, and pub­lished in the col­lec­tion North­field Poems (1966). In fact, Ammons’s poem is a potent exam­ple of one of the most recent man­i­fes­ta­tions of this old debate: the emer­gence of what I refer to as “the phi­los­o­phy poem.” This is a type of poem, writ­ten by a wide range of poets in the 20th and 21st cen­turies, that makes the con­ver­sa­tion between poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy explic­it. A “phi­los­o­phy poem” not only explores philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems, but direct­ly address­es phi­los­o­phy as a field, depicts the act of read­ing phi­los­o­phy, or takes pains to con­trast poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy. Such poems fre­quent­ly men­tion par­tic­u­lar philoso­phers by name, quote from philo­soph­i­cal texts, or address spe­cif­ic ideas and con­cepts from works of phi­los­o­phy.

At the same time, such poems rarely seek to present a straight­for­ward trea­tise on philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. For exam­ple, Ammons’s poem is delib­er­ate­ly slip­pery and con­tra­dic­to­ry, wind­ing its way through syn­tac­ti­cal­ly com­plex phras­es, doubts, hes­i­ta­tions, self-cor­rec­tions, and para­dox­es. As such, it embod­ies an essen­tial fea­ture of the broad­er cat­e­go­ry of “the phi­los­o­phy poem”: such works are not designed to func­tion like an essay or schol­ar­ly argu­ment, but rather to play out ideas in motion, to dra­ma­tize intel­lec­tu­al debates and prob­lems, and to chart how a mind might grap­ple with such ideas and their effects upon our lives.

The phi­los­o­phy poem moves to the fore in the mod­ernist peri­od: it can be seen in innu­mer­able poems by Wal­lace Stevens, like “To an Old Philoso­pher in Rome” (about George San­tayana) or “Descrip­tion With­out Place” (with its ref­er­ences to Niet­zsche), in William But­ler Yeats’ “Among School Chil­dren” (with its reflec­tion on Pla­to and Aris­to­tle), W. H. Auden’s “In Mem­o­ry of Sig­mund Freud,” or Del­more Schwartz’s poems “In the Naked Bed, In Plato’s Cave” and “The Ghosts of James and Peirce in Har­vard Yard.”

In the peri­od since World War II, “the phi­los­o­phy poem” has flour­ished to such an extent that it seems to con­sti­tute a mini-genre all its own. With­in this mode, poets appeal to phi­los­o­phy direct­ly in order to take stock of spe­cif­ic philo­soph­i­cal ideas—often new or fash­ion­able ways of thinking—and to wres­tle with the impli­ca­tions of those con­cepts. Robert Hass’s cel­e­brat­ed response to the advent of post-struc­tural­ism and decon­struc­tion, “Med­i­ta­tion at Lagu­ni­tas” (1979), is exem­plary:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies. (4)

Along­side this well-known exam­ple, one could place a whole array of poems, like John Ashbery’s play­ful poem “My Phi­los­o­phy of Life,” which begins:

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough 
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea – 
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, 
it involved living the way philosophers live, 
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? (73)

Ashbery’s ram­bling, half-seri­ous inves­ti­ga­tion turns on the lines “then you remem­ber some­thing William James wrote in some book of his you nev­er read,” ulti­mate­ly becom­ing more of a trib­ute to “the gaps between ideas” than phi­los­o­phy prop­er.

The phi­los­o­phy poem varies wide­ly in terms of form, sub­ject mat­ter, theme, and philoso­phies and philoso­phers addressed. The mini-genre ranges from Richard Wilbur’s “Epis­te­mol­o­gy” to Robert Creeley’s “Read­ing of Emmanuel Lev­inas,” from Ann Lauterbach’s “Pla­ton­ic Sub­ject” to David Shapiro’s “The Counter-Exam­ple” (which responds to Got­t­lob Frege), from Philip Whalen’s quo­ta­tions from Her­a­cli­tus in “Sour­dough Moun­tain Look­out” to David Lehman’s “Wittgenstein’s Lad­der” or David Kirby’s med­i­ta­tion on decon­struc­tion in “Dear Der­ri­da.” It includes, as well, any num­ber of book-length projects, like Ros­marie Waldrop’s encounter with Wittgen­stein in The Repro­duc­tion of Pro­files or Susan Howe’s with Charles Sanders Peirce in Pierce-Arrow. Over the past decade or two, such exam­ples have seemed to mul­ti­ply, includ­ing recent poems like Erin Belieu’s “The Body is a Big Sagac­i­ty” (which address­es and responds to Niet­zsche), Ari­ana Reines’ riff­ing on Alain Badiou in “[Try­ing to see the pro­por­tion­al rela­tion],” and Ana Božičević’s “About Niet­zsche.”

Because Ammons’s poem “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” so point­ed­ly and play­ful­ly reflects on the act of read­ing phi­los­o­phy and shows a speak­er think­ing his way through the impli­ca­tions of cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal ideas, it encap­su­lates many of the fea­tures of the phi­los­o­phy poem and seems to antic­i­pate its flow­er­ing over the ensu­ing decades. It is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that Ammons, of all poets, would write such a poem, as he is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered one of the most overt­ly philo­soph­i­cal of con­tem­po­rary poets. Much like Wal­lace Stevens, who devotes his entire body of poet­ry to rumi­nat­ing on the rela­tion­ship between imag­i­na­tion and real­i­ty, Ammons’s poet­ry end­less­ly weighs, tests, and pon­ders the dialec­ti­cal ten­sions between a set of inter­con­nect­ed bina­ries. In Willard Spiegelman’s words, “Ammons tells us over and over that his main theme, per­haps his sole one, is the rela­tion­ship between the one and the many, and this old pre-Socrat­ic dichoto­my, along with vari­ants (inside ver­sus out­side, up ver­sus down, cen­ter ver­sus periph­ery, free­dom-verg­ing-on-entropy ver­sus sta­bil­i­ty-turn­ing-into-impris­on­ment), is his obses­sion” (112). In poems, inter­views, and essays, Ammons announces that his poet­ry is one long med­i­ta­tion on the nag­ging philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of how to rec­on­cile uni­ty and diver­si­ty, the gen­er­al and the par­tic­u­lar, abstract ideas and con­crete par­tic­u­lars.

How­ev­er, in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” Ammons address­es phi­los­o­phy qua phi­los­o­phy even more explic­it­ly than in most of his work. Here is the poem in its entire­ty: 

I understand 
   reading the modern philosophers
that truth is so much a method
       it’s perfectly all
right for me to believe whatever
   I like or if I like,

nothing:
   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
       at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules:
they say I can 
       prefer any truths 
whatever 
   suits my blood,

blends with my proclivities, my temperament:
   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
       as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
   synthesis
from them all, so that
       philosophy is
a pry-pole, materialization,
   useful as a snowshovel when it snows:

something solid to knock people down with
   or back people up with:
I don’t know that I care to be backed up in just that way:
       the philosophy gives clubs to 
everyone, and I prefer disarmament:
   that is, I would rather relate

to the imperturbable objective
   than be the agent of 
“possibly unsatisfactory eventualities”:
       isn’t anything plain true:
if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky:
   (but I must be moved by what I am moved by):
they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
       must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks):

they say, too, I must halter my fancy
   mare
with these blinding limitations: 
      I don’t know that I can go along with that either:
for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out:
What are facts if I can’t line them up 
       anyway I please
and have the freedom
   I refused I think in the beginning?  (95-7)

By wrestling with the pre­cepts and con­clu­sions of “the mod­ern philoso­phers,” Ammons speaks to issues that res­onate through­out a broad range of twen­ti­eth- and twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry poet­ry. For instance: do we have access to any objec­tive real­i­ty? Does “truth” exist, or only par­tial and con­tin­gent truths? What are the con­se­quences of embrac­ing the anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism and rel­a­tivism that char­ac­ter­izes so much twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry thought? What would it mean to accept some of the new, per­haps unset­tling ideas drawn from recent phi­los­o­phy and theory—to live with them, as both a writer and a per­son? Can one—especially if one is a poet or artist, or per­haps a philosopher—find a whol­ly mate­ri­al­ist or empiri­cist philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of the uni­verse sat­is­fy­ing? What is the rela­tion­ship between philo­soph­i­cal inquiry and poet­ic expres­sion any­way?

The poem sug­gests Ammons’s uneasy rela­tion­ship with phi­los­o­phy itself. Even the title “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” with its slangy stut­ter­ing, seems designed both to evoke and then under­mine the idea of “a phi­los­o­phy” (as in “let me tell you about a phi­los­o­phy I read about”). With that ini­tial “uh,” Ammons seems to iron­i­cal­ly under­cut the valid­i­ty, the effi­ca­cy, the grandeur of phi­los­o­phy as a pur­suit. In the end, the poem seems to pull away from phi­los­o­phy itself in favor of a kind of neg­a­tive capability—an accep­tance of not-know­ing, an embrace of the con­crete sen­su­ous world, that Ammons pre­sum­ably asso­ciates with poet­ry (as opposed to “phi­los­o­phy” prop­er). Ammons artic­u­lates a sim­i­lar idea about the inutil­i­ty of philo­soph­i­cal truths or absolutes in anoth­er well-known ear­ly poem, “Grav­el­ly Run”: “no use to make any philoso­phies here: / I see no / god in the hol­ly, hear no song from / the unbro­ken weeds: Hegel is not the win­ter / yel­low in the pines” (56).

How­ev­er, as I will sug­gest, Ammons’s atti­tude in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” may be more com­pli­cat­ed than it appears at first. As Lau­rence Lieber­man observes in one of the few dis­cus­sions of this poem, Ammons is “an orig­i­nal philoso­pher in his poet­ry, though he often parades in the guise of poet-as-anti-philoso­pher” (315). “In ‘Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,’” Lieber­man notes, “he cuts deep­er into the sub­ject the more he pre­tends, with grace­ful offhand­ed­ness, to dis­miss its impor­tance.”

But by doing so, Ammons does not real­ly wash his hands of phi­los­o­phy entire­ly. Instead, he seems to throw his lot in with one par­tic­u­lar branch of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy with great impor­tance to poet­ry: Amer­i­can prag­ma­tism. Indeed, I read Ammons as a poet deeply invest­ed in the Amer­i­can prag­ma­tist tradition—the lin­eage that stems from the more ground­ed and skep­ti­cal side of the many-faceted Emer­son, moves through the thought of William James, Peirce, and John Dewey, to mod­ernist poets like Wal­lace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Mar­i­anne Moore, down to the “New Amer­i­can Poet­ry” of the 1950s and beyond. In recent years, many crit­ics have exam­ined the influ­ence of prag­ma­tism on mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture, and espe­cial­ly on Amer­i­can poet­ry. Fol­low­ing the lead of Richard Poiri­er, crit­ics have argued for pragmatism’s impor­tance to mod­ernist fig­ures like Hen­ry James, Stevens, Frost, Moore, and Gertrude Stein, to the African-Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of W. E. B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Ralph Elli­son, and Amiri Bara­ka, to the jazz and blues tra­di­tion, and to the post­war poet­ry of Frank O’Hara, John Ash­bery, David Antin, Susan Howe, and oth­ers. [1] But Ammons has been absent from those dis­cus­sions, and his abun­dant con­nec­tions to prag­ma­tist think­ing and poet­ics have been over­looked by Ammons’s crit­ics, who have more often viewed him as a nature poet, a lat­ter-day Roman­tic and tran­scen­den­tal­ist. This is a par­tic­u­lar­ly strange omis­sion giv­en that Ammons’s obses­sions, even his vocab­u­lary, are often strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those at the heart of the phi­los­o­phy of William James and oth­er pragmatists—the “one and the many,” monism ver­sus plu­ral­ism, the nature of atten­tion and per­cep­tion, the impor­tance of the local, small-scale, and mar­gin­al, and so on.

Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” is a fair­ly ear­ly Ammons poem, one that catch­es him at a tran­si­tion­al moment as he strug­gles to leave behind the mys­ti­cal, vision­ary poems of his ear­li­est work and moves toward the more prag­ma­tist out­look he would soon adopt. As they turn away from the uni­ty and final­i­ty of a monis­tic out­look and accept a uni­verse of flux and diver­si­ty, Ammons’s poems reg­is­ter a deep ambiva­lence about both the gains and loss­es of such a view. For exam­ple, in the poem “Guide,” he acknowl­edges the dan­gers of any uni­fy­ing or total­iz­ing view of the world: “you can­not come to uni­ty and remain mate­r­i­al: / in that per­cep­tion is no per­ceiv­er: / when you arrive / you have gone too far.” But he also notes that this recog­ni­tion is “the sin you weep and praise”—it is an unset­tling wis­dom, one that makes the speak­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly “glad and sad.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” Ammons stages an inter­nal debate about prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy and its con­se­quences. It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing, then, that the anti-philo­soph­i­cal ges­tures one finds in “Uh, Philosophy”—its impa­tience with phi­los­o­phy itself—are actu­al­ly quite sim­i­lar to char­ac­ter­is­tic moves of prag­ma­tism, which has often been described as “anti-philo­soph­i­cal” because of its empha­sis on avoid­ing the pit­falls of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic inquiry. Thanks to what the neo-prag­ma­tist philoso­pher Richard Rorty sees as its “post­philo­soph­i­cal” atti­tude about the field itself, prag­ma­tism has often been seen as a way of doing phi­los­o­phy with­out phi­los­o­phy.

To return to the poem’s open­ing stan­za, when Ammons refers to mod­ern philosophy’s atti­tudes about “truth,” “method,” the will to “believe” in what­ev­er one wish­es, and rel­a­tivism, he imme­di­ate­ly ges­tures toward key words and con­cepts of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, and espe­cial­ly to buzz­words from the prag­ma­tist lex­i­con. It almost sounds as if he has just read and set aside James’s chap­ters on “What Prag­ma­tism Means,” “The Will to Believe,” and “Pragmatism’s Con­cep­tion of the Truth” (with its argu­ment that prag­ma­tism “is a method only” and “does not stand for any spe­cial results”), or per­haps a more recent text in dia­logue with prag­ma­tism, like Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Ammons invokes the prag­ma­tist pref­er­ence for plur­al truths and its skep­ti­cism of monism and absolutes. At the same time, he also echoes the famil­iar (and much debat­ed) neg­a­tive char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of prag­ma­tism as envi­sioned by its detractors—that it is lit­tle more than a blithe endorse­ment of a pro­found rel­a­tivism, a phi­los­o­phy that holds one can believe what­ev­er one wants or even noth­ing at all. The poem acknowl­edges that such a stance may be lib­er­at­ing, but also recoils from this per­haps trou­bling notion and its ram­i­fi­ca­tions:

   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
	at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules.

Ammons again echoes some of the terms used to define, and at times crit­i­cize, prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy as an out­look which calls for us to respond to the world pro­vi­sion­al­ly, and to view “truths” as mere­ly expe­di­ent (“what in short is the truth’s cash-val­ue in expe­ri­en­tial terms?” James famous­ly asks).

To explain fur­ther the idea that truths grow out of the flow of expe­ri­ence rather than exist­ing eter­nal­ly on some ide­al plane of uni­ver­sal truth, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous descrip­tion of expe­ri­ence as a “bloom­ing, buzzing con­fu­sion” we must nav­i­gate moment by moment:

   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
   synthesis
from them all.

From these mod­ern philoso­phers, Ammons says he has learned that “phi­los­o­phy is / a pry-pole, mate­ri­al­iza­tion, / use­ful as a snow­shov­el when it snows.” Although Ammons presents this in a some­what neg­a­tive­ly charged man­ner, prag­ma­tists have always argued that phi­los­o­phy should be a use­ful tool, to be employed in our every­day lives, rather than con­sid­ered a final answer that ends our quest for answers to irre­solv­able meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions.

Not­ing that phi­los­o­phy can also be used to “knock peo­ple down with / or back peo­ple up with,” and that “the phi­los­o­phy gives clubs to / every­one,” Ammons claims, “I pre­fer dis­ar­ma­ment.” In this way, the poet pulls back from the fray, the free-for-all quar­rels of philo­soph­ic debate in a post-“Truth” con­text. “Isn’t any­thing plain true” the poem won­ders rather poignant­ly. Well, no, the prag­ma­tist would answer, not if you think “true” means some last­ing, per­ma­nent qual­i­ty inher­ent in an idea or thing, rather than some­thing that hap­pens to an idea in the course of expe­ri­ence.

Ulti­mate­ly, Ammons’s poem seems to reel with queasi­ness, the ver­ti­go that comes from accept­ing the anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy:

if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky.

The speak­er is pal­pa­bly, phys­i­cal­ly dis­com­fort­ed by the recog­ni­tion that he has no pur­chase on plain truth, noth­ing to hold on to. All that mod­ern philoso­phers (like James or Wittgen­stein) can offer us, Ammons sug­gests, is empiri­cism and expe­ri­ence rather than eter­nal ver­i­ties or gov­ern­ing abstrac­tions. What such an anti-ide­al­ist out­look demands is an atten­tive­ness to the ever-flow­ing, ever-chang­ing nature of a world defined by flux and chaot­ic dynamism:

they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
	must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks).

Here, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous def­i­n­i­tion of the prag­ma­tist:

He turns away from abstrac­tion and insuf­fi­cien­cy, from ver­bal solu­tions, from bad a pri­ori rea­sons, from fixed prin­ci­ples, closed sys­tems, and pre­tend­ed absolutes and ori­gins. He turns towards con­crete­ness and ade­qua­cy, towards facts, towards action and towards pow­er. That means the empiri­cist tem­per reg­nant and the ratio­nal­ist tem­per sin­cere­ly giv­en up. It means the open air and pos­si­bil­i­ties of nature, as against dog­ma, arti­fi­cial­i­ty, and the pre­tence of final­i­ty in truth. 

This priv­i­leg­ing of facts, the close obser­va­tion of con­crete detail, and atten­tive­ness to the con­tin­gency and flux of expe­ri­ence become the hall­marks of Ammons’s poet­ry from this point forward—a stance crys­tal­lized most suc­cinct­ly and mem­o­rably in Ammons’s most famous poem, “Cor­sons Inlet,” which he would write soon after “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy”:

        I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory: 
	still around the looser, wider forces work:
        I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening 
scope, but enjoying the freedom that 
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
        that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk. (151)

With­in the realm of “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” how­ev­er, Ammons is less com­fort­able with the notion that “there is no final­i­ty of vision.” He balks at the idea that expe­ri­ence and facts must be revered above all else; the stric­tures of such a world­view seem too severe, too con­strict­ing. These philoso­phers, he avers, insist that “I must hal­ter my fan­cy / mare / with these blind­ing lim­i­ta­tions: / I don’t know that I can go along with that either” (96).

How­ev­er, the stance Ammons chal­lenges has more in com­mon with the car­i­ca­ture of prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy pre­sent­ed by its crit­ics than with prag­ma­tism itself. James dis­tanced his own stance from the “buga­boo empiri­cism” pragmatism’s “tra­di­tion­al ratio­nal­ist crit­ics” charge it with being—an out­look that “is accused of chop­ping up expe­ri­ence into atom­istic sen­sa­tions, inca­pable of union with one anoth­er” (Menand 133). James’s pre­ferred mode—which he called “rad­i­cal empiri­cism” to dis­tin­guish it from the buga­boo version—was actu­al­ly designed to avoid the dan­gers of an atom­istic view of the world as a mere col­lec­tion of dis­con­nect­ed facts. Rad­i­cal empiri­cism, like Ammons’ lat­er poet­ry, takes into account the con­junc­tions and rela­tions between things, by hon­or­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of expe­ri­ence as well as its dis­junc­tive­ness.

In “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” Ammons, like James, seems to reject the idea of a phi­los­o­phy over­ly reliant upon facts and con­crete obser­va­tion. Even more so, he cel­e­brates his own reluc­tance to go into bat­tle armed with the blunt “club” of phi­los­o­phy in the first place:

for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out.

The pas­sage mix­es self-dep­re­ca­tion with a touch of self-con­grat­u­la­tion. While the speak­er admits that he, in his stu­pid­i­ty, may not have got­ten very far yet in answer­ing the big ques­tions of life, he has also had the good sense to not try—to resist the promis­es of instru­men­tal rea­son and goal-direct­ed phi­los­o­phy, and to opt, instead, for being a poet: one who is, as Keats famous­ly argued, “capa­ble of being in uncer­tain­ties, mys­ter­ies, doubts, with­out any irri­ta­ble reach­ing after fact and rea­son.”

In the end, he seems to ele­vate the imag­i­na­tive free­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty of the poet over the intel­lec­tu­al com­bat of the philoso­pher:

What are facts if I can’t line them up 
        anyway I please
and have the freedom
  I refused I think in the beginning?

At first blush this sounds like a defense of poet­ic license and cre­ativ­i­ty and a final dis­missal of phi­los­o­phy. How­ev­er, as Lieber­man observes, Ammons iron­i­cal­ly ends up pret­ty much where the poem began—upholding the “free­dom” to believe what one wants to believe (to line up facts as one pleas­es). As the poem itself notes, this is the very stance that he ini­tial­ly attrib­uted to mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and “refused” at the start of the poem (or at least that he thinks he reject­ed ear­li­er). [2] By chart­ing all the para­dox­es and uncer­tain­ties of the speaker’s dia­logue with him­self, the poem depicts a trou­bled mind, one that is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sus­pi­cious of and attract­ed to the lessons of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy.

Although at this stage he remains guard­ed­ly wary of the con­se­quences of prag­ma­tism, Ammons will return again and again to its lessons, and become much less anx­ious about their ram­i­fi­ca­tions. For exam­ple, in the long poem “Hiber­nac­u­lum,” from the lat­er 1960s, Ammons is decid­ed­ly more com­fort­able assert­ing “my phi­los­o­phy” than in the ear­li­er poem:

I hope my philosophy will turn
out all right and turn out to be a philosophy so as
to free people (any who are trapped, as I have been) 

from seeking any image in the absolute or seeking
any absolute whatsoever except nothingness:
nothingness far from being failure’s puzzlement,

is really the point of lovely liberation, when
gloriously every object in and on earth becomes just
itself, total and marvelous in its exact scope. (379)

This pas­sage, like the hymn “Amaz­ing Grace,” sug­gests the speak­er once was blind but now can see: he used to be trapped in a fruit­less search for the absolute, but now has found a phi­los­o­phy that has released him from that quest. This phi­los­o­phy has taught him, as he hopes to teach oth­ers, to find “love­ly lib­er­a­tion” in a view of the “noth­ing­ness” that char­ac­ter­izes the world. As in many Stevens poems, like “Evening With­out Angels,” “On the Road Home,” or “The Lat­est Freed Man,” where human beings see the uni­verse de-divinized and are there­by freed to embrace its sen­su­ous par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, here Ammons sug­gests that once the quest for “Truth” is relin­quished, the world becomes a glo­ri­ous riot of par­tic­u­lar details, each valu­able in its own right. This phi­los­o­phy, which sounds an awful lot like prag­ma­tism, “allows free­dom to fall / back from the thrust of the absolute into the world // so man­i­fold with things and beings: the hol­ly­hock, / what a mar­vel, com­plete in itself: the bee, / how par­tic­u­lar, how noth­ing­ness lets him buzz // around…” (380).

Ammons’s direct con­tem­pla­tion of such philo­soph­i­cal themes paves the way for the wealth of more recent “phi­los­o­phy poems” that I dis­cussed at the out­set, which would include Charles Wright’s “Read­ing Rorty and Paul Celan One Morn­ing Ear­ly June” (1995). Wright, like Ammons, tries on a philo­soph­i­cal con­cept, again drawn from prag­ma­tism (in this case from the neo-prag­ma­tist philoso­pher Richard Rorty), and weighs its impli­ca­tions for how we view the uni­verse around us:

If truth is made and not found,  
                                                                    what an amazing world 
We live in, more secret than ever,
And beautiful of access….

If sentences constitute
                                                      everything we believe,
Vocabularies retool
Our inability to measure and get it right,
And languages don’t exist.
That’s one theory.  Here’s another:
Something weighs on our shoulders
And settles itself like black light
                                                       invisibly in our hair … (10-11)

Both Ammons and Wright, like Stevens before them, respond to prag­ma­tist ideas about truth, lan­guage, and per­cep­tion, and exam­ine how they might change our expe­ri­ence and under­stand­ing of the sen­su­al, con­crete world. If there is no such thing as tran­scen­dence, no sin­gle expla­na­tions, no com­plete per­cep­tion or absolute truth, it is less cause for despair or nihilism than for ela­tion. Poets fueled by the insights of prag­ma­tism often resem­ble Stevens’s “Lat­est Freed Man”—“tired of old descrip­tions of the world,” he woke up one day and “escaped from the truth,” only to dis­cov­er “every­thing being more real,” “every­thing bulging and blaz­ing and big in itself” (187).

By dra­ma­tiz­ing an expe­ri­ence of “read­ing the mod­ern philoso­phers,” by chart­ing his own turn toward a poet­ry of plu­ral­ism and rad­i­cal empiri­cism, Ammons’s “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the ancient quar­rel between poet­ry and philosophy—a con­ver­sa­tion that has ani­mat­ed Amer­i­can poet­ry for decades and con­tin­ues to trou­ble and ener­gize the poems of our moment. Hav­ing absorbed the lessons of prag­ma­tism and oth­er mod­ern, anti-foun­da­tion­al­ist philoso­phies, Ammons begins to move beyond the old scheme in which it is philosophy’s job to strive for eter­nal truths, absolutes, and cer­tain­ty, and poetry’s to pro­duce noth­ing but imag­i­na­tive creations—or what Pla­to dis­dained as fic­tion or lies. Once phi­los­o­phy has relin­quished the quest for cer­tain­ty, and the two fields are no longer seen as dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed, poet­ry becomes an impor­tant vehi­cle for weigh­ing philo­soph­i­cal ideas and test­ing their real-world effects. The con­tem­po­rary “phi­los­o­phy poem”—like prag­ma­tism itself—is freed to explore new ways for us to come to terms with a world in which “truth is made and not found.” And what an “amaz­ing,’” mirac­u­lous, abun­dant world it is, “more secret than ever, / And beau­ti­ful of access.”

 


[1] For exam­ple, see Richard Poirier’s The Renew­al of Lit­er­a­ture and Poet­ry and Prag­ma­tism, Jonathan Levin, Ross Pos­nock, Tim­o­thy Par­rish, Joan Richard­son, Frank Lentric­chia, Lisi Schoen­bach, and Paul Grim­stad. For recent stud­ies that focus specif­i­cal­ly on prag­ma­tism and Amer­i­can poet­ry, see Andrew Epstein, Michael Magee, Ann Marie Mikkelsen, Raphael Alli­son, and Kacper Bartczak.

[2] Ammons’s lan­guage is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to Mar­i­anne Moore’s in this poem (as are its odd­ly shaped stanzas)—more so than most oth­er Ammons poems. Specif­i­cal­ly, Ammons echoes the themes and lan­guage of “In the Days of Pris­mat­ic Col­or” (which sim­i­lar­ly med­i­tates upon “truth” and longs for “plain” ver­i­ties: “com­plex­i­ty is not a crime, but car­ry / it to the point of murk­i­ness / and noth­ing is plain”). Fur­ther­more, the twisty, strange syn­tax and final rhetor­i­cal ques­tion sound a great deal like the end­ing of “Crit­ics and Con­nois­seurs”: “What is / there in being able / to say that one has dom­i­nat­ed the stream in an atti­tude of self-defense, / in prov­ing that one has had the expe­ri­ence / of car­ry­ing a stick?”

 

Works Cit­ed

Alli­son, Raphael. “David Antin’s Prag­ma­tist Techno­pho­bia.” Jour­nal of Mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture 28.4 (2005): 110–134.

Ammons, A.R. Col­lect­ed Poems: 1951–1971. New York: W. W. Nor­ton, 1972.

Ash­bery, John. Can You Hear, Bird. New York: Far­rar, Straus, 1995.

Bartczak, Kacper. “Prag­ma­tism and Poet­ry: The Neo-Prag­ma­tist Dif­fer­ence in the Dis­cus­sion of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry.” Prag­ma­tism Today 2.2 (2011).

Epstein, Andrew. Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies: Friend­ship and Post­war Amer­i­can Poet­ry.  New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006.

Grim­stad, Paul.  Expe­ri­ence and Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing: Lit­er­ary Prag­ma­tism from Emer­son to the Jame­ses. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013.

Hass, Robert. Praise. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1979.

James, William. The Writ­ings of William James: A Com­pre­hen­sive Edi­tion. Ed. John J. McDer­mott. Chica­go: U of Chica­go P, 1977.

Lentric­chia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Fou­cault, William James, Wal­lace Stevens. Madi­son: U of Wis­con­sin P, 1988.

Levin, Jonathan. The Poet­ics of Tran­si­tion: Emer­son, Prag­ma­tism, and Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Mod­ernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Lieber­man, Lau­rence. “Of Mind and World: North­field Poems by A. R. Ammons.” The Hud­son Review 20.2 (1967): 315–321.

Magee, Michael.  Eman­ci­pat­ing Prag­ma­tism: Emer­son, Jazz, and Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alaba­ma P, 2004.

Menand, Louis. Prag­ma­tism: A Read­er. New York: Vin­tage, 1997.

Mikkelsen, Ann Marie. Pas­toral, Prag­ma­tism, and Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Pal­grave, 2011.

Poiri­er, Richard. Poet­ry and Prag­ma­tism. Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 1992.

—. The Renew­al of Lit­er­a­ture: Emer­son­ian Reflec­tions. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Pos­nock, Ross. Col­or and Cul­ture: Black Writ­ers and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Intel­lec­tu­al. Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 1998.

Par­rish, Tim­o­thy. Walk­ing Blues: Mak­ing Amer­i­cans from Emer­son to Elvis.  Amherst, MAU of Mass­a­chu­setts P, 2001.

Richard­son, Joan. A Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Prag­ma­tism: The Fact of Feel­ing from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge UP, 2007.

Schoen­bach, Lisi. Prag­mat­ic Mod­ernism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Spiegel­man, Willard. The Didac­tic Muse: Scenes of Instruc­tion in Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Prince­ton: Prince­ton UP, 1989.

Stevens, Wal­lace. The Col­lect­ed Poems. New York: Vin­tage, 1954.

Wright, Charles. Neg­a­tive Blue: Select­ed Lat­er Poems. New York: Far­rar, Straus, 2000.

 

Andrew Epstein is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies: Friend­ship and Post­war Amer­i­can Poet­ry (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and Atten­tion Equals Life: The Pur­suit of the Every­day in Con­tem­po­rary Poet­ry and Cul­ture (forth­com­ing from Oxford). His essays have recent­ly appeared in Con­tem­po­rary Lit­er­a­ture, Los Ange­les Review of Books, Wal­lace Stevens Jour­nal, and Jacket2, and he blogs about the New York School of poet­ry at Locus Solus.

 

Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor Christo­pher Find­eisen is a Ph.D. can­di­date in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Chica­go. His dis­ser­ta­tion exam­ines how a par­tic­u­lar genre of lit­er­ary narrative—the aca­d­e­m­ic novel—helped to restruc­ture shift­ing ide­o­log­i­cal agree­ments about the mean­ing and social func­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion across the 19th and 20th cen­turies. A select­ed chap­ter of this project—“Injuries of Class: Mass Edu­ca­tion and the Amer­i­can Aca­d­e­m­ic Novel”—is forth­com­ing from PMLA.