Monday, January 31, 2005

If It Gives Pleasure, It Must Not Be Serious

Anyone who was mildly rankled by Vendler saying there is no “major” thirty-something poet should take a look at Ashes for Breakfast, Durs Grünbein’s selected poems. I’ve been waiting five years or so to see a Grünbein volume in translation. He is Germany’s major younger poet and won its major literary prize at the age of 33. Born in 1962, he is roughly of my generation. Call him, then, Vendler’s exemplar.

I like Grünbein—I especially liked Rosmarie Waldrop’s translations of his early poems for The Exact Change Yearbook. But the very title Ashes for Breakfast telegraphs the nature of the cross an “important poet” must bear, and the translator’s comparisons to Joseph Brodsky don’t further endear me to the project. If the price of being an internationally recognized poet—perhaps one even in the running for a Nobel—is that I must forego the autonomy of the imagination to be the “conscience” of the race, or the voice of the zeitgeist, then no thank you and no thank you. And I feel privileged, for once, to be an American if our most marvelous poets like Connie Deanovich or Christopher Edgar don’t feel obliged to suborn their gifts to a “moral” vision.

Sure, Grünbein is East German—history weighs on those people, etc.; we have no history so we must borrow others’, cf. Godard. But if Godard’s right then aren’t I right?—forget Europe’s history; make your own damn poetry. The freedom (degraded word, but vis-a-vis art still relevant) is yours.

And I feel extra exuberant about this after seeing In the Realms of the Unreal at The Film Forum this weekend. Of course it is meaningless to say one would choose to be Henry Darger, but instead, one can use his example to throw the worldly efforts of the Vendlers and Grünbeins into perspective. And we can see that as extraordinary, as heartbreaking, as Darger’s circumstances were, it is possible to emulate him in spirit, placing the imagination at the center of our investigations — better that than be overly concerned with the brittle criteria of the “major” or “important.”

Thursday, January 27, 2005

...vs. my hate-love Vendler thing

Lest I sound like one of those cretins that populate the Buffalo Poetics List or Foetry, I must emphasize that, in a sense, she represents the kind of person I most would have liked to be, once.

She is the perfect representative of a prelapsarian view of poetry, such that I wonder if my hostility originates in a sense of betrayal -- that someone who could love Donne and Shakespeare's Sonnets could edit such a snore as the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry.

Like her, my gut reactions to poems are formalist and aesthetic. The problem with her is that she doesn't see issues of attitude, personality, and yes ideology as part of the formal apparatus. I am so totally a fallen poet! I guess I must be...the snake in the garden.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

My Love-Hate Vendler Thing

Today an article on Helen Vendler online at the Chronicle of Higher Education helps me clarify what I meant when I complained about the uses to which Elizabeth Bishop is put. Like most New American Poetomanes, I chafe at Vendler's insulated tastes. And yet.

There was a time when I, too, wanted to be Gerard Manley Hopkins. If I had discovered poetry as an undergrad, be it Williams or Brown or Iowa, et cetera, I might have formed a notion of poetry that was more contemporary, that cleaved to the language of my teachers, but no, I "discovered" poetry in abandoned textbooks at stoop sales, and what there was was Hopkins, Eliot, Stevens, not to mention Frost and Roethke and maybe WCW's "The Kermess." Pretty conservative. Pretty great. But by the time I left college with a degree in philosophy, I had lost God and acquired its poor substitute skepticism, and thus it became impossible to access the sublime as I had formerly known it. The sublime was sublimated, then, in a more deeply informed Modernism which opened me up to the New Americans. Like ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, I passed rapidly through the stages of Romanticism, death of God, Modernism, contemporaneity. I had no use for the contemporary poets Vendler championed -- from practically my infancy. If someone so steeped in the fiery language of Hopkins, Donne, Shakespeare, or Yeats could only champion the most bleached-out, angsty white upper-middle-class American poets, either she or I had to be seriously mistaken.

Let me indulge my class rage for a sec. After a few years in Boston and New York, you realize the deal -- that, while you always knew you weren't born into privilege, you had deluded yourself into thinking that you didn't want it anyway. That your desires weren't about Chanel suits, country houses, jaguars. Oh, but then you came to New York and met rich girls who had beautiful educations, the kind you dreamed of, and themselves moved quite naturally, smoothly, from Dalton to Yale to Princeton to great private school jobs teaching poetry to other smart, rich kids; or to tenured jobs -- tenured without a ripple -- in quaint, beautiful disciplines in universities while you & your own friends were hired as adjuncts, comp teachers, teaching to foreign students and single mothers trying to learn English so they could make it in American business.

(Well, Vendler came to her vocation back when girls, much less working-class Catholic girls like her, didn't often penetrate the upper echelons of academia, aka the fiefdom of white guys sinking softly into alcoholism, quoting Milton. ((Now imagine Susan Howe rewriting Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)) I appreciate Vendler's triumph.)

Academia's equation of education and tradition with upper-class mores finds its apotheosis in Robert Lowell, our own Rain King, riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux. Say you never "got" Lowell. Say lines like "the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons" and "giant finned cars nose forward like fish" always struck you as lame, quotidian, nothing like what you got from "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream" or "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Nothing like what you got from Barbara Guest's

"The Art Classes above the basement cafeteria clumped about and dragged things across the floor. 'Picasso's heavy easel,' murmured Arnholt. 'With Las Meninas on it,' shouted Pedersen."

(Suddenly the easel carries the real weight of figures, a la Moore's dictum; you feel their weight in your bones.)

No, you never got this from Lowell, but somehow he loomed over a generation, then over the second half of the 20th century, in the minds of those who really, really just wanted his princeling comportment, his aristocracy -- not an aristocracy of the imagination, but the real toad in the garden!

Ah, etiolated white people! Ah, timid poetry!

Friday, January 21, 2005

I Finished... novel today. Four years. Done. Now proofreading.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

America hasn't sucked the joy completely out of my life

When a friend and her boyfriend invited me and Steve to see the Pixies on their reunion tour, I declined, not saying why. After all, moms don't get out much, no excuses necessary. And when they do get out, or when I do get out, I stay in the neighborhood (every 45 minute ride on the F is another $10 for the babysitter). And when I do stay in the neighborhood, I don't attend loud shows full of 20-something hipster snots (like me 10 years ago, but without the pushing to get to the stage). My last such show was The Mountain Goats, and I nearly burst into tears when the opening act pushed on past 11 pm. I wanted to get home and go to sleep.

But the reason I didn't see the Pixies was because I was never enough of a fan to know all the songs and lyrics, and shows aren't fun for me if I don't know the songs. That's why it's doubly wonderful, since I love poetry about twice as much as I love music, to go to a poetry reading where I know the poet's work very well. I get rapturous. This week I downloaded mp3s of James Schuyler reading -- a rare and gentle thing -- and downright wept for joy. They are available at Upenn Sound. (Thanks to blogger Laurable).

There are plenty of living poets I feel this way about, but with everyone reading so often in New York not only is it less imperative to go out and hear someone (hell, they'll be reading again next season, so what's the rush?) but without the raison d'etre of a new book to orient and prepare the listener, one ends up hearing a lot of "new work" whether it's ready or not -- and whether the listener is ready or not. I cannot possibly be the only one who feels that this is a problem. I can hardly be the only person who thinks that reading series more often than not serve the curator, not the poets, and that implicit debts are bought and paid by participating in various series both as performers and listeners.

I say this both as someone who has read a lot in NYC myself -- feeling ill-served by many of them, to tell you the truth -- and a person who constantly feels she has to apologize for missing so much (parenthood or no parenthood, I'm not upholding culture!), and a person who hates when non-literary people sneer at readings. Like I say, they can be rapturous events.

In fact, I am going to make a special trip to Chicago in May just to see a reading by one of my favorite poets. I've been a fan of Connie Deanovich's for 8 years and have never seen her read, so when I found out she is scheduled to do so at Columbia College, I vowed I would be there. This must be the first time I've bought a plane ticket to hear a poetry reading. But the rarity of the occasion gives it urgency, makes it special.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Jam the White House Server!

Everyone, if you can't protest tomorrow, at least write Bush: Bush's email
is Cheney's is
a message to him tonight and pass his address along. Maybe we can jam the

I just sent Bush the following message:

Mr. Bush,

You are a murderer, a liar and a thief. I can think of few Americans who
deserve to serve as President of this country less than you do.

Magdalena Zurawski, SF, CA

Protest I Must

Ange, I too went to that inauguration protest and I saw the limo get hit with the egg. Michael Moore reminded me that I did in Fahrenheit 9/11. After all the war protests I could barely remember the inauguration until F 9/11. The rain was too strong for the rich to cheer their president on and so it was the protestors lining the streets. I only wish I could be in DC tomorrow. I'll be here at the SF Civic Center if only to say "not in my name." If you can't make it to a protest tomorrow protest by spending no money. - M

The Crack-Up

Four years ago, Maggie, I took a bus to DC with Lisa Jarnot to protest the Bush inauguration; little did I know what lay in store. I thought I was protesting a stolen election, a frat boy, a rich boy masquerading as the Biblical prodigal son; I thought I was protesting an evangelical Christian agenda and the dismantling of the New Deal.

Now, I am a mother and by proxy the murderer of other mothers' children. And of other children's mothers, viz. the photo in today's NY Times, and more where that came from at the BBC website. A family had run a checkpoint, so they say.This is what the American people endorsed -- "ratified" when they re-elected Bush, and I can no more "protest" his inauguration than I can drink the "hot coffee" Jake brings me in a little cup from his play kitchen set. So I guess I am swinging toward nihilism today. But a nihilist can still put her head down on her desk and sob.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Finally! A day to try to finish my novel. Instead I am checking my credit report and blogging! It is still permanently mercury retrograde in my life. This time the roommate bought a cat. I have cat allergies. She knew. I'm moving out. Hence the credit report checking.

This is the consequence of engaging in unpaid labor. Roommates. You have very few ways of protecting your environment. But I am four pages away from finishing this fucker and I promised I would finish by the inauguration. And well I have to protest Thursday at 5 so I better start typing.

Is there a word for that activity of doing everything except writing after spending days trying to get time to write?

Does this mean that Jake is almost 2? Has he been in office half as long as monkey-man our fearless leader?

Ange I have your collected Ginsberg and your Lift Jonas Issue but I think I told you that and you said to keep holding on to it. Is that possible?

Please everyone Creatively Visualize me finishing my novel on the inaguration.


Monday, January 17, 2005

A Door to the Stars Beyond the Tomb

I hope Ron Silliman says more about fatherhood tomorrow. The mother in me just likes to read anything about kids, but the feminist in me likes to hear men talk about their kids. One has only to peruse the Wesleyan book _The Grand Permission_ (by the way, if you are the person who borrowed this from me last year, I forgot who you are; please give it back) to conclude that women poets have nothing interesting to say whatsoever on the confluence of poetry, motherhood, and MATERIALITY. Few ladies of the Wesleyan canon even mentioned the economics of motherhood; and if I hear anything more about "balancing" I'm going to unbalance a drink on someone's expensive shoes at the next Barnard symposium.

The fact is, either the men have to be breadwinner and poet, which is heroic, or they have to be the dreaded "househusband" which is counterheroic and, in our current climate, brave.

Full disclosure: I have spent my entire adult life avoiding work as much as possible (temping, collecting unemployment, going to grad school...) but it was only with the arrival of my son that my husband has let me freeload. Freeloading as a poet has had a long and honorable history, which I won't go into here, but of course the feminist in me bristles at it, and I don't like any hypocrisy about it. I do 2 kinds of unpaid work, and I'm lovin it. Doesn't mean I'm a role model. Doesn't make me special.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Magster & the Angimal: A photo

Couldn't manage to put up a pic in our "profile" -- of us at that crazy bar in the Mission.

So our audience will just have to imagine it.

And Looked Our Infant Sight Away

Poor Jake, I thought at the time, but really: every new life is like the first fern after a forest fire, radically untouchable.

When I think about your visit back when he was nine days old, I get a little teary.

Contra beginnings, I was actually thinking about endings tonight. Endings of poems. I saw a PBS show about new research on "happiness," and the Princeton prof guesting spoke of people's inability to remember the duration of an emotional event: they mainly remember the ending, or their emotion at the ending.

This correlates brilliantly with people's experience of poems, of course. The ending is always overdetermined -- it drives me crazy. A reading John Ashbery did at MIT in 1997 (Dan Bouchard will remember this) of "Over 2,000 Ilustrations and a Complete Concordance" concluded with such a loud cliched sigh from the audience that in a fit of madness I wrote a term paper calling Elizabeth Bishop's soul "the damp gray of a Presbyterian church" -- !

I make a pact with you, Elizabeth Bishop. I have hated you long enough.

Did I really hate her? I hated the uses people made of her -- particularly in Boston.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Dark Times

I remember holding Jake in my hands for the first time and it literally was my hands because he fit into both my palms and needed no more and it was only days after the war began. I think for everyone America has changed deeply in the last few years and to bring a child into the world at that drastic turn must make it all the more real.

I don't agree with Duncan's isolation and I agree with you about people who don't vote. I just remember a pain in his being that was very palpable. I deep frustration that led him to a shutting down. Or that was my gut-level read of him.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Requirements for Interior Expensiveness

I drafted about five different replies to your post, Maggie, since my first impulse was to launch into arias-n-diatribes about Brown, classrooms, poetics, etc. etc. But I shouldn't get distracted. The refusal to watch the news, like the refusal to vote, feels too much like aristocratic dissociation to me. And this may not be a bad thing to save one's sanity. I'm interested less in saving my sanity than in not becoming a nihilist. I feel dangerously close some days. Everybody agrees we live in dark times; nobody can tell me how to comport myself in accordance with my nature. It's all about what side I'm on -- on the matter of God and Marx most of all. But I can't even commit to vegetarianism. I'm basically an aesthete without an adequate cultural context, chafing at having brought a child into this world where the only verities are power relations and the only certainty is death. Everybody I've talked to who dismisses this has no children of their own.

[5 minutes later] Maybe I just need to get back to nature?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Reply to Soft Bulletin

As an undergrad I had a Professor of German Poetry (Duncan Smith) who was a Marxist and had created the only exchange program between an East German University and an American one. He taught this unusual course where he didn't really care so much if we understood completely the words of the German lyrics. He more encouraged us to perform the poems for the class. At first this meant simply reading the poems out loud. He would have different people read the same poem and comment on the reading style and talk about what was missed by pausing or not pausing or accenting or not accenting in certain places. He believed we could understand just by hearing it correctly. By the time mid-terms came along we had to partner up and make projects out of these poems that became sensual experiences for the class. My friend Greta and I used Rilke's Orphues poem (of course, we were way into Spicer) and created some sort of blind labrynth for our class to walk through. The production involved dry ice. Another project (I can't remember what the point was exactly but I think it was connected to a Holderlin poem) involved a video we made of me walking on a winter beach with a metal detector. What I'm getting at is that Duncan refused to watch the news. He was probably the first person to show me that poetry was a way of looking. And to continue looking through poetry he stopped watching the news. In this he differed from my teachers who were actual poets. They seemed not so eccentric but studious practitioners. Duncan was more of a quirky uncle who gave you permission to play with poetry in a way that a writer wouldn't. For Duncan poetry was about creating a reality where everything was a poem. I remember him pointing out a way of seeing a particular matchbook as a poem. I don't know what I would think of him now that I am a skeptical self-conscious adult but there is a way that his class permitted us to really go head first into the existential questions posed by the lyrics we read. Or just by the act of reading poetry in this world. We really felt what was at stake in the poems. Philosophically and existentially. And this was directly related to the performance of them. The low-tech antics were crucial to freeing our imaginations to fully imagine what was posed by the reading. I remember being shocked when he told me he had several years earlier stopped following the news. He didn't read or listen to the news and he was frustrated with Postmodernism. He was in the Modern Culture and Media Department which was the Mecca of PoMo at Brown and he detested the way PoMo was debunking everything. I think I agree with him now more than I did then. There was a reverence he had for the poetry. He believed whatever motivated it was a real human (intellectual and emotional) need. It was not just about debunking ambigious syntax and coming up with the cleverest and most skeptical reading. It seems that rejecting the news was a way of rejecting a world view -- a skeptical world view. But often the poems he loved most were the ones that revealed a psychic fissure caused by the world outside the poem. He was one of the first people to point out to me that the German word for poetry "Gedicht" comes from the verb "dichten" which means to seal off. For instance if there is a draft in my room I get something to make my windows "dicht." A poem is something that is air-tight sealed-off from the outside. To dichten is to make something so. A poet is a Dichter. One who seals off. But over and over again he showed us in the poems that this wasn't true. There was always a fissure. It seemed that not knowing what was happening in the world was one way he tried to fend off many possible fissures.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A kind of soft bulletin

Creative Visualization – I may need some of that. If the flagrant immorality of the Iraq War weren’t enough to turn my hair gray, now we have 24/7 tsunami coverage, and the Mithridatic doses of agony I usually sip from others’ tragedies have passed the poison threshold, thanks to the new TV screens at the Prospect Park YMCA. There I am on the, what do you call it, “Elliptical” during a CNN broadcast of some little boy who held his sisters on his lap while they called “Mama” and drowned – and suddenly I’m like doubling over. Maybe I shouldn’t be watching this stuff? And yet there’s some “If I don’t watch it, who will?” existential despair about it all. A witnessing that may or may not be pointless.

Yesterday evening I accompanied my husband to his firm’s annual winter ball. We made small talk with a woman from Litigation and her date, perhaps the only African-American man in the room, whose savoir-faire struck me. Then the inevitable “What do you do?” revealed that he hosts a cable TV show. “We don’t have cable,” I said at one point, politely exculpating myself for not recognizing him. But my husband did, and said excitedly, “I just saw your show over Christmas, and you took a caller who complained that your guests are too conservative.” (Yes, he remembered that caller.) “Since the election, I feel the media are embracing conservatives—is this true? Is the media afraid of the Republicans?”

Of course not, the man explained: there were equal numbers of liberals and conservatives on the show, and the network employed a cadre of people just to keep statistical track of how many liberals, conservatives, blacks, Hispanics, women, etc. participated, so they could be balanced.

Steve pressed his question though, and the man did admit that since the Republicans did win a second term, they felt emboldened to argue their agendas more aggressively.... I grew more and more disengaged, staring off into the cavernous room with its massive pillars and chandeliers. His expressions, both facial and verbal, were of such a blandness that if this were a movie, his manner would scream *technocratic treachery*.

The conversation didn’t go anywhere, of course, because nobody was seriously going to challenge him. He was an insider; we were all elites, drinking champagne at a company event. Last September at my in-laws, I briefly saw another show on his network wherein a young author was giving a talk on why humanities departments were superfluous at public universities and should be abolished. I didn’t linger there, bearing witness to this atrocity, because it was going to give me a stroke. And I knew not wasting my money on cable TV was the right and good thing, and the money I saved by doing this would go toward books and the time I saved would go toward reading them, and this I would wish for everyone, categorical-imperative-like. But what cut through my moroseness last night was this: as this man and his date detached from the clique, walking away, he called back his parting shot: “And you really should get cable. It’s worth it.” This animated my drinking for the duration of the ball.

Friday, January 07, 2005

New Year, Rainy Friday

The California winter of rain is here, has been here, and gives the impression that it will never not be here. And I am here in the bedroom of a pleasantly empty house with the pup sleeping soundly at my feet. It seems that I my at last return to myself.

The year ended in a series of minor disasters that lasted weeks (inaugurated by the Republican win)and included four car breakdowns and $500 worth of repairs and a possible cancer diagnosis for the pup (that turned out to be nothing but an abscess cured by antibiotics but like the car it took several visits to professionals and a couple of break-downs to diagnose and over $500).

But I have hope for the coming year, especially with Percy's clean bill of health and the "Creative Visualization" book I got right before Christmas. I am imagining that everything is good, so that it will be good. Try it. It doesn't cost anything.

As for poetry, my friend Aaron Kunin called me the other day. He's on his way to Montreal for a few days and wanted to get in touch with a local writer. He's one of my favorite people to talk with. He and Ange. He's read every book and seen every movie and teaches classes like Color in Film. Not like the difference between Black and White and Color but the way a color or colors are used in particular films. He has several great poems in the 3rd issue of NO: A Journal of the Arts. My favorite goes like this:

Girl and Reptile

and girl turns toward
the accident with
an expectant look

as if it had been
a deliberate
attempt to gain her

attention (her tongue
wiping the shredded
inside of her cheek)

and would you eat the
apple (again she
finds herself on the

phone yelling at a
stranger) I would peel
and core the apple

yes little brother
(her face contorted
and her tongue pressing

against her cheek caused
it to bulge) you shall
have an apple too

The flatness of the language -- the cleanliness of the language -- doesn't take any attention away from the surrealistically banal scenario. Almost like a David Lynch domestic scene rendered in poetry. A private violence lurking beneath the surface, in the mouth. An incestuous Adam and Eve though the title implies that the boy is a different species. What if The New Yorker printed this on the same page as the latest Seymour Hersch article? Wouldn't poetry then be contemporary and relevant, finally, obviously so?

Good to be back.

-- M