27 July 2008

Break Time

Greetings WoW Faithful,

No posting around here until sometime the first week August. I'll be out of the country and out of pocket and out of touch till then. Three guesses as to what I'll be up (or down) to.

Jim H.

23 July 2008

Ur-Story: A Review of Netherland

If the theme-blog work we've been doing on Ur-story is to have any meaning, it must be applicable when reading novels. To recap: we've entertained the thesis that the essence of fiction has to do with the great grief and loss one experiences when confronting one's own mortality and the insignificance it entails in the greater scheme of things. Great literature, and in our case, great fiction involves the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the dark night of the soul. Of course, this response takes many forms—and we've looked at a few of these: myth and religion, tragedy, satire, comedy. And we've looked at some interesting takes on the sort of "objective correlative" employed to help us conceptualize, and, yes, avoid, confronting this essential understanding. Now, let's look at examples from contemporary fiction.

First, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. The novel begins in London in 2006 with a phone call to the narrator, Hans van den Broek, inquiring about the death of one Chuck Ramkissoon, a West Indean islander with South Indian roots who had been a friend of Hans's in New York.
"She tells me that Chuck's 'remains' have been found in the Gowanus Canal. There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder. ...It has been extablished that Chuck Ramkissoon's body lay in the water by the Home Depot building for over two years, among crabs and car tires and shopping carts, until a so-called urban diver made a 'macabre discovery' while filming a school of striped bass." (pp. 5-6)
The remaining 250 or so pages recap Hans's relationship with Chuck, a cricket referee and incipient promoter, both on and off the pitch and Hans's on-and-off relationship with Rachel, his wife, and Hans's love-hate relationship with New York (isn't everybody's?) and Han's attempt to piece together in his own mind clues as to who might have offed Chuck and why. The novel meanders, lingering like an endless test match on a languorous summer day. No mysteries are solved. A marriage dissolves and reintegrates, presumably on newly-negotiated terms. Characters make brief cameos, only never to be heard from again. Business sort-of goes on post-9/11. Immigrants from the sub-continent and the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe play cricket in New York environs, one assumes, to establish some connection with the sport of their youth. Though there does not seem much urgency to any of it.

Hans's response to the upheavals of 9/11 is to drift. Drift and reminisce. Even, at the end, with his wife and son gliding up and around on the gleaming London Eye, Hans is content to drift back in memory to an earlier Staten Island Ferry ride toward the Twin Towers with his mother which, in turn, reminds him of a childhood memory of pencils (but NOT wickets!?). It requires some patience on the part of the reader to un-nestle the Russian dolls of Hans's reminiscences. And the form of the story—told, as it is, mostly in first-person POV memory—puts us at some remove from the sensory perceptions of the narrator. To distinguish between the frame story and the nested stories, O'Neill modulates between present-tense verbs and past—this is an invaluable aid. O'Neill's descriptive language is lovely, and the tone he achieves is apt, capturing Hans's mood of drift and alienation not only from his surroundings, but from himself. Yet, there is a level of abstractness, a remove in the diction, that keeps the reader out as well. For example, the narrator, reunited with his wife and child, goes to South India (Chuck Ramkissoon's heriditary homeland) for a brief holiday:
"We flew to Colombo and thence, as travelers used to say, to the Keralan city of Trivandrum, which on a map can be found almost at the very tip of India. I was worried about Jake catching a strange Indian disease; however, once we were established in a simple family hotel colonized by darting caramel lizards and surrounded by coconut trees filled, incongruously to my mind, with crows, I was quite content. This was at a seaside place. There was a lot to look at. Women wrapped in bright lengths of cloth walked up and down the beach balancing bunched red bananas on their heads and offering coconuts and mangoes and papayas. Tug-of-war teams of fishermen tugged fishing nets onto the beach. Tourists from nothern parts of India ambled along the margin of the sea. Foreigners lounged on sunbeds, magnanimously ignoring the sand-colored dogs dozing beneath them. Lifeguards, tiny slender men in blue shirts and blue shorts, attentively inspected the Arabian Sea and from time to time blew on whistles and waved swimmers away from dangerous waters; and indeed on one occasion an Italian yoga instructor, a long-limbed male, became stuck in a web of currents and had to be rescued by a lifeguard who skimmed over the water like an insect flying to the rescue of a spider." (pp.220-221)
This is all very fine. Visual description of the highest order. Good for a travelogue, yet, but for the scantily-imagined whistle, it could just as easily come from a postcard or television show. My god, there's even an Indiana Jones-type map. There is nothing in that passage that convinces the reader that Hans is actually there or, better yet, puts the reader on that important beach. There is no sound of ocean wave, no call of crow (incongruous to his and our minds), no snapping of palm frond, no whipping of sand against seawall. One wonders how the flowers (if there even were any) smelled. The spices. The tradewinds. The rotting fish in the abandoned nets. The moldy fishing barks. The random cookfires. Those mangy, mewling (?) dogs. How did those (tiny) red bananas taste. The sweet-fresh mangoes. The newly-split coconut. What did the sand feel between Hans's crinkled toes—that on Long Island or Brooklyn or England's southern strands? How did the Christmas breeze tousle his hair, rattle the ends of his unbuttoned, untucked blue, Brooks Brothers' OCBD? How did the (in-)different sun strike his shoulder? These are the sorts of particularites that bring the reader in, and O'Neill simply nowhere provides them. And, hey, don't spiders skim across the surfaces of their webs to 'rescue' trapped insects?

Perhaps, to be generous, it's part of an authorial strategy to induce in the reader the sense of drift and alienation his narrator experiences. Of this, we cannot say. We can only say we wanted to be closer to Hans's compelling experience—just as Hans ultimately desires to be closer to his family—and were precluded. Still, drift, alienation, anomie, and wistfulness are appropriate and acute modern responses to the realities of what we have called the Ur-story. And, on this basis, we can give Joseph O'Neill's Netherland high marks. One wonders, though, whether the bloated, manacled corpse of Chuck Ramkissoon is sufficient stimulus for this response: Hans doesn't seem to muster much energy or emotion in response to this 'image' (a couple of overseas phone calls to the police detective in New York), so why should we? We did, however, want to learn more about cricket after reading this novel, and promptly found a match to observe in suburban Atlanta.

22 July 2008


"The sentence, through you, seeks its form, and its form is the endeavoring of a desire, the outline of a feeling, the description of a perception, the construction of a concept, the dreaming of an image. ... So the sentence, in search of its birth, is passing through the company of writers the writer has stored like so many bars of soap, barrels of pickles, sacks of coffee, candles connected by uncut wicks. It wants a rhythm the way infants need feet; it hopes for a satisfactory rhetorical shape; it curses its bad luck and low-class diction; it likes to hum a tune as it rolls along. ...A description is an arrangement of properties, qualities, and features that the author must pick (choose, select), but the art lies in the order of their release—visually, audibly, conceptually—and consequently in the order of their interaction, including the social standing of every word. ...Of course most sentences need not, nor should, be built like a museum or a palace, but built they will be, well or ill or so-so, and their paragraphs, like towns they partially comprise, will also be commodious or cramped—a Paris Texas or a Paris France. ...my final example of some of those aspects of writing whose neglect, in favor of the famous 'plot' and 'character' and 'moral aim,' has so often fatally damaged just those prized factors. The 'image' is the element I mean: the sudden transformative lens through whcih a commonplace can become as mesmerizing as a religious mystery." Wm. H. Gass, "The Sentence Seeks It Form," in A Temple of Texts p. 275, 279-80, 285, 286.
Well, I guess I can pack up my bags and go home now; my work here is done. jk.

17 July 2008

Criticism Near and Far

Our journey finds us today musing over the nature of criticism. Our launching pad: Guy Davenport's "Narrative Tone and Form" in The Geography of the Imagination:

"Narrative voice (tone, attitude, confidence) is as characteristic of its epoch as any other style. We do not, however, live in an epoch; we live between epochs. Literature, once a river defined by banks, is now a river in an ocean. Johnson and Voltaire read, or looked into, everything that came from the presses. A scholar's learning nowadays is certified by the ignorance with which he surrounds his expertise. It is therefore almost impossible to tell if the twentieth century has a style variously perceived by a variety of sensibilities, or the greatest diversity of styles known to cultural history."

"Flaubert has learned to make things articulate." [Does he use 'articulate', here, as verb (such that 'things speak') or an adjective (such that the things tell us something)? Probably the latter. Either way, he's succinct and correct.]

"The style of Kafka is a marriage of Flaubert and the folktale. The beginning of Amerika is good Flaubertian prose, restrained and objective, right up until the second sentence, which describes the Statue of Liberty. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven. That is the most brilliant imaginative touch in modern literature." [I'm buying.]

"I see a pattern here: a movement from assuming the world to be transparent, and available to lucid thought and language, to assuming (having to assume, I think the artists would say) that the world is opaque."

"The radical change in twentieth-century narrative is of form. There has been a new understanding that literature is primarily literature and not a useful critique of manners. And there has been a vigorous search for new patterns to the novel."
And he proceeds to discuss the architectonics of the contemporary novel, citing O. Henry's lost Cabbages and Kings and Paul Metcalf's Genoa. (This is a topic we'll reserve for another day, hoping to bring Gass and some others into the mix.)

Then we find this, an essay by Morgan Meis over at The Smart Set. He is an editor at one of our favorite venues: 3 Quarks Daily (though sometimes I feel I need at least 5 or 6 to sustain me). Meis draws the distinction between two 'styles' (let's call them) of criticism: distanced and close-in. The Kantian tradition calls for distanciation, top-down, objective evaluation of the work of art based on a set of stated criteria; we suspend our emotional involvement in the story for the sake of arriving at an aesthetic judgment. The other trend lacks rules and addresses each work on its own merits: "Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work." Close and far. These are the choices Meis confronts. He opts for the close-in view.

The problem with Meis's view of closeness gets you a department of, say, Madonna Studies alongside your basic Bach Studies, or comparative comic books alongside Gide and Camus and Sartre. We at WoW have nothing against relativism per se; in fact, our usual attitude is something on the order of 'the more the merrier.' How then to deal with the problem of standards, objectivity? In our last couple posts we've framed the issue somewhat differently: Is criticism the bacteria in the stomach of the leech or is it in the business of delimiting the presentation of consciousness in the work of art?

To take Meis's dilemma at face value, we think Davenport was on to something. None of us is a Johnson or a Voltaire. Or a Coleridge or Pater. Or even a Wood or Kermode (see Frank's delighted review of James's How Fiction Works here). We are exposed to vast amounts of 'art' (often disguised as entertainment or advertisement) every day. There is so much of it we have to limit our own consumption—hell, I can't even read every so-called 'great' novel coming down the pike. So we pick and choose the things that entertain us, the things we like. Each of us is a critic, of sorts, and can say that we like something or we can identify with it in some way. And if we don't like it, we can vote with our feet or our remote control or our pocket book. Our opinions are what they are maugre our degree of ignorance. Each of us has standards; they simply haven't yet been articulated. Perhaps it is the critic's task to articulate the standards at play in the enjoyment of the specific work of art before her and to compare it with like-minded works and differentiate it from others based on the standards at play. This assists the lover of, say, "Die Hard" or The DaVinci Code (book or movie, take your choice) or "Sleepless in Seattle" or The Nanny Diaries (book or movie) in locating other works he might find enjoyable. This is the function of, say, the music genome project and its website, Pandora, in the field of music: identify certain attributes (instrumentation, beats per minute, poetic lyrics, melodic, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus structure, etc.) of a given piece of music and then locate and suggest others that share some portion of those same attributes. This is primarily a descriptive function. After all, there are good commercials and bad ones, good pop songs and bad ones, good thrillers, romances, chick-lit and bad ones, good commercial TV shows, movies, plays and bad ones, etc. They succeed or fail on their own terms. Viewers, readers, listeners get out of these works what they bring to them. There is, thus, a certain solipsism, uncritical self-affirmation to Meis's view.

Setting aside the issue of whether one can identify and, then, describe the attributes of a great work of literature (and, believe me, this is a whopper of an issue) (or, for that matter, of film or piece of music or painting or dance), we believe there's more to the critical function than mere description. Description stops at the level of identification and subjectivism: "I liked that book because I could identify with the protagonist and could sympathize with her. It resonated. It touched me where I live. It reminded me of that other book I liked." Beyond that, though, is the matter of interpretation. Is this part and parcel of the critical function? We believe it is. What's more, this is the area in which we found James Wood's How Fiction Works most lacking. But what, precisely, is interpretation? What criteria, if any, can we expect any reliable interpretation to have?

It's fair to expect any interpretation first to do the work of description Wood lays out in his book—Meis's option. This is the necessary minimum. Any interpretation must plausibly incorporate these elements; it must be compatible with them. In the great novel all of the elements of fiction should work toward a coherent end and that interpretation will be most powerful which utilizes more of these features in framing its view. There are also some critical norms. They are not set in stone. They change over time and from culture to culture. The descriptive enterprise doesn't tell us whether a work is good or great with respect to, say, the tradition or the canon or serious contemporary standards—it only tells us if it succeeds on its own terms. For example, we might say a Madonna pop-song is a really good example of a pop-song and succeeds because it's listenable, danceable-to, and has a good beat. But, where does it fit in the tradition of musics that include, say, Gregorian chants, Bach oratoria, Beethoven's late quartets, etc.? This question applies in analogous form equally to The Firm and Invisible Cities, The DaVinci Code and Midnight's Children.

But what are those extratextual critical standards? Is it, as Wm. Gass has postulated, the Test of Time? If they are in constant flux, how can we nail them down? And once we've done so, how do we weave our descriptive work in with them? Harder still: How do we deal with the sui generis novel?

This is by no means our last post on this issue.

15 July 2008

Ur-Story: Models of Consciousness

Roger Scruton is a smart man, a philosopher. Here, he casts the problem of atheism vs. theism rightly, but draws an unwarranted conclusion. He says:
This strange universe of black holes and time warps, of event horizons and non-localities, somehow becomes conscious of itself. And it becomes conscious of itself in us. This fact conditions the very structure of science. The rejection of Newton’s absolute space, the adoption of the space-time continuum, the quantum equations – all these are premised on the truth that scientific laws are instruments for predicting one set of observations from another. The universe that science describes is constrained at every point by observation. According to quantum theory, some of its most basic features become determinate only at the moment of observation. The great tapestry of waves and particles, of fields and forces, of matter and energy, is pinned down only at the edges, where events are crystallised in the observing mind.

Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects – a face, a dream, a memory, a colour, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the ‘subject of consciousness’, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside. But these traditional ‘solutions’ merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by re-describing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus – be it a soul, a mind or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
Being conscious of our own consciousness, knowing that we know, does increase our yearning for transcendence. Sets us apart from the world. After all, isn't this the true basis of existential alienation? How can we reconcile this 'awareness mechanism' we perceive ourselves to be with the objective world of tables and chairs, moons and stars, atoms and quarks, etc.? Scruton believes this question obviates the scientific answers and necessitates the religious ones (even if those religions themselves remain primitive and uncivilized and un-Enlightened).

We, on the other hand (from our avowed agnostic POV), find the search for the understanding of consciousness to be at the heart of our Ur-story theme. Think back to the Gilgamesh: his great grief over the death of his boon companion, Enkidu, led him to embark on his epic quest for immortality. This is the hero quest for the 'why' of existence. Why are we born to have happiness and love and adventure only to suffer loss and, eventually, our own death? What happens to us, emotionally, when we become conscious of our own extreme mortality? How can anything in this life (this mortal veil, this natural world) explain something so profound as coming to consciousness and its ultimate extinction? [This is a question Godel modeled from a logical point of view about the foundational axioms of mathematics, as did the later Wittgenstein with respect to languages in general.] But, more than this, this is the great Ur-story of fiction (as it has come down to us from epic poetry and tragedy).

Agreed, then. Consciousness makes no sense in the scientific scheme of things. Yet, that does not necessarily imply the religious answer Scruton proffers. Fiction creates models of consciousness for our delectation; recall this:
"..the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospections, irrelevancies removed, so that into the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances—just as, in the lab, we need more observation than fervor, more imagination than lust—there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. ...It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about..."[Wm. H. Gass, "The Book as a Container of Consciousness," in Finding a Form, pp. 348,351]
What's more, 'realistic' fiction attempts to preserve a semblance of the world as we found it—accurate depiction assists in isolating and modeling consciousness for our inspection (though 'magical realism' and other forms of experimental fiction provide alternate inroads to an understanding and modeling of consciousness the value of which we make no pretense to evaluate here).

And, perhaps, this answers the somewhat inflammatory question from our previous post about the value of criticism: criticism on our Ur-story model would be the enterprise of comprehending and evaluating the metes and bounds of the various models of consciousness set forth in the works of fiction under scrutiny: a consciousness of consciousness, if you will. Somewhat nobler an enterprise—more attractive, say—than the double-parasite model, eh?

14 July 2008


J.L. Austin says of fiction and poetry: "These are aetiolations, parasitic uses, etc., various 'not serious' and 'not full normal' uses. The normal conditions of reference may be suspended, or no attempt made at a standard perlocutionary act, no attempt to make you do anything, as Walt Whitman does not seriously incite the eagle of liberty to soar." How to do Things with Words (104)

[etiolated = weak, pale, feeble
perlocution = an act of speaking or writing that has an action as its aim, such as persuading or convincing]

Whence, then, criticism?* It is parasitic on this parasitic form. It feeds only on the text of the fiction; comments on language that, overtly by definition and tacitly by admission, has no purchase on reality in either a descriptive/correlative sense or a persuasive one. Is the enterprise of criticism, then, the bacterium in the belly of the leech? Do two wrongs (two texts divorced from reality) make a right, or do they carry us farther away, insulating us even further from our target? What credibility can the critic have when faulting fiction for a lack of 'realism'?

Just asking... It seems the nature of fiction is always under discussion in the blogosphere, though never the nature of criticism.

* We're not now going to get into the whole Derrida/Searle debate that ensued after Austin's provocation on this point and animated any number of Anglo-American philosophy departments. But, speaking of 'not full normal' and soaring eagles and parasitic, for your listening pleasure we give you the former Attorney General of the United States of America:

13 July 2008

Great Summer Read

The new Harper's Magazine (Aug. 2008) is out. So much good reading, so little time: a must-read article by Thomas Frank previewing his new book, The Wrecking Crew; a story by another of our favorites, Marilynne Robinson, "Jack", excerpted from her new novel which is supposed to be out next month(!); a review of a Henry James bio by the ever-irascible William H. Gass; an excerpt from an early story by William Gaddis (true dat!); short pieces from Ben Marcus and George Saunders; plus so much more. And, as ever, the indispensable "Index" and "Findings" features. Well worth the cover price.

09 July 2008

Ur-Story: Taking Stock

One of the problems of theme-blogging, as opposed to random postings in response to whatever is forefront in the mind, is that sometimes you reach a dead end or cul de sac. The reasons for this are many: you feel the pressure to fit the next post into the pre-set framework, or you feel you have to do more research—and it better be original, or you feel pulled to different ideas and you don't want to break up a thread, or you need some distance to gather your thoughts for the next post, or you're afraid you're getting off track, etc. ... Probably all of these (and more) have slowed down my posting over the last few days. Apologies to my readers.

Here's a quick summation of where we are on this Ur-story theme-post: We're trying to get at something essential in literature and more specifically fiction. We're asking the question: what, if anything, can we call the Ur-story at the base of all fiction? We started out looking at some Biblical stories—the Jahweh saga, the Edenic myth, and the ancient story of Job—and intuited that the story at the foundation of Western religion involved explanations of the sense of loss and grief (a lost estate, a lost relative, the loss of everything) at the base of our emotional experience. [It would not be much of a stretch to extend this out to the Avram/Abraham story: the sacrifice of the son to propitiate a distant god (anticipation of a loss which, as a fact of life, the god demands) and the birth of faith (per Kierkegaard), the Israel/Ishmael story and the loss of patrimony at the foundation of religion, etc.) We extrapolated this out to the theoretical basis of Christianity: fallen humanity owes God a great debt (our immortal souls) because of His great grief at the voluntary sacrifice of His only heir; this subsumed the problem of theodicy because, we surmised, "evil" and its cause were great religious fictions brought in to try and explain how these overwhelming existential feelings of grief and loss originated. We took a quick look at the Gilgamesh epic, often mentioned as the Ur-hero (in Joseph Campbell's terms), and found that his great quest for immortality grew out of his grief at the loss of his erstwhile rival and true friend, Enkidu. Aristotle, likewise, provided a "sentimental education" by instituting the emotions of pity and fear as the aim of tragedians in treating this dis-ease. Joyce, after bringing the epic of tragedy to the realm of the ordinary common man, introduced the comedic response to the problem (in this, we have to take him at his word—I have read the book, or at least my eyes have passed over every word of the text of Finnegans Wake, but that's not saying I understood or comprehended any of it. It was more an act of devotion than anything else. I'll say this: the commentaries help). We then revisited Hamlet and proposed that this classic incarnation of the Ur-story—and its subsequent interpretations—was ground zero for the debate over literary "Realism". Not irrelevant poetic and fictional asides (Ammons in particular) showed us that garbage, as phenomenon and symbol, might provide an appropriate "objective correlative" in the specifically American (post-modern) tradition for dealing with this Ur-story of loss and grief.

This is where we stand. More will follow.

03 July 2008

Ur-Story: More Trash Talking

By popular demand ;-) and because I like it, but mostly because I believe he gets its: more Archie:

dew shatters into rivulets on crunched cellophane
as the newly-started bulldozer jars a furrow

off the mesa, smothing and backing down:
flattening, the way combers break flat into

speed up the strand: unpleasant food strings down
the slopes and rats' hard tails whirl whacking

trash: I don't know anything much about garbage
dumps: I mean, I've never climbed one: I

don't know about the smells: do masks mask
scent: or is there a deodorizing mask: the

Commissioner of Sanitation in a bug-black Caddy
hearse-long glisters creepy up the ziggurat: at

the top his chauffeur pops out and opens the
big black door for him: he goes over a few feet

away, puts a stiff, salute-hand to his forehead
and surveys the distances in all depths: the

birds' shadows lace his white sleeve: he
rises to his toes as a lifting zephyr from the

sea lofts a salt-shelf of scent: he approves: he
extends his arm in salute to the noisy dozer's

operator, waves back and forth canceling out
any intention to speak, re-beholds Florida's

longest vistas, gets back into the big buggy
and runs up all the windows, trapping, though,

a nuisance of flies: (or, would he have run
the windows down: or would anyone else have:

not out there: strike that:) rightness, at
any rate, like a benediction, settles on the

ambiance: all is proceeding: funding will be
continued: this work will not be abandoned:

this mound can rise higher: things are in order
when heights are acknowledged; the lows

ease into place; the wives get back from the laundromat,
the husbands hose down the hubcaps; and the

seeringly blank pressures of weekends crack
away hour by hour in established time: in your

end is my beginning: the operator waves back
to the Commissioner, acknowledging his understanding

and his submission to benign authority, and falls
to thinking of his wife, nee Minnie Furher, a woman

of abrupt appetites and strict morals, a woman
who wants what she wants legally, largely as a

function of her husband's particulars: a closet
queen, Minnie hides her cardboard, gold-foiled

crown to wear in parade about the house when
nobody's home: she is so fat, fat people

like to be near her: and her husband loves
every bit of her, every bite (bit) round enough to get

to: and wherever his dinky won't reach, he finds
something else that will: I went up the road

a piece this morning at ten to Pleasant Grove
for the burial of Ted's ashes: those above

ground care; those below don't: the sun was
terribly hot, and the words of poems read out

loud settled down like minnows in a shallows
for the moment of silence and had their gaps

and fractures filled up and healed quiet: into
the posthole went the irises and hand-holds of dirt:

spring brings thaw and thaw brings the counterforce
of planted ashes which may not rise again,

not as anything recognizable as what they leach
away from: oh, yes, yes, the matter goes on,

turning into this and that, never the same thing
twice: but what about the spirit, does it die

in an instant, being nothing in an instant out of
matter, or does it hold on to some measure of

time, not just the eternity in which it is not,
but does death go on being death for a billion

years: this one fact put down is put down
forever, is it, or for forever, forever to be a

part of the changes about it, switches in the
earth's magnetic field, asteroid collisions,

tectonic underplays, to be molten and then not
molten, again and again: when does a fact end:

what does one do with this gap from just yesterday
or just this morning to fifty-five billion

years—to infinity: the spirit was forever
and is forever, the residual and informing

energy, but here what concerns us is the
manifestation, this man, this incredible flavoring and

building up of character and eclat, gone,
though forever, in a moment only, a local

event, infinitely unrepeatable: the song of
the words subsides, the shallows drift away,

the people turn to each other and away: motors
start and the driveways clear, and the single

fact is left alone to itself to have its first
night under the stars but to be there now

for every star that comes: we go away who must
ourselves come back, at last to stay: tears

when we are helpless are our only joy: but
while I was away this morning, Mike, the young

kid who does things for us, cut down the
thrift with his weedeater, those little white

flowers more like weedsize more than likely:
sometimes called cliff rose: also got the grass

out of the front ditch now too wet to mow, slashed:
the dispositional axis is not supreme (how tedious)

and not a fiction (how clever) but plain (greatness
flows through the lowly) and a fact (like as not)

A.R. Ammons, Garbage, part 5

02 July 2008

Ur-Story: An American Ur-Take?

garbage has to be the poem of our time because
garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the
errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and,
anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic: I'm a

hold puncher or hole plugger: stick a finger
in the dame (dam, damn, dike), hold back the issue

of creativity's flood, the forthcoming, futuristic,
the origins feeding trash: down by I-95 in

Florida where flatland's ocean- and gulf-flat,
mounds of disposal rise (for if you dug

something up to make room for something to put
in, what about the something dug up, as with graves:)

the garbage trucks crawl as if in obeisance,
as if up ziggurats toward the high places gulls

and garbage keep alive, offerings to the gods
of garbage, of retribution, of realistic

expectation, the deities of unpleasant
necessities: refined, young earthworms,

drowned up in macadam pools by spring rains, moisten
out white in a day or so and, round spots,

look like sputum or creamy-rich, broken-up cold
clams: if this is not the best poem of the

century, can it be about the worst poem of the
century: it comes, at least, toward the end,

so a long tracing of bad stuff can swell
under its measure: but there on the heights

a small smoke wafts the sacrificial bounty
day and night to layer the sky brown, shut us

in as into a lidded kettle, the everlasting
flame these acres-deep of tendance keep: a

free offering of a crippled plastic chair:
a played-out sports outfit: a hill-myna

print stained with jelly: how to write this
poem, should it be short, a small popping of

duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home
late, losing the trail and recovering it:

should it act itself out, illustrations,
examples, colors, clothes or intensify

reductively into statement, bones any corpus
would do to surround, or should it be nothing

at all unless it finds itself: the poem,
which is about the pre-socratic idea of the

dispositional axis from stone to wind, wind
to stone (with my elaborations, if any)

is complete before it begins, so I needn't
myself hurry into brevity, though a weary reader

might briefly be done: the axis will be clear
enough daubed here and there with a little ink

or fined out into every shade and form of its
revelation: this is a scientific poem,

asserting that nature models values, that we
have invented little (copied), reflections of

possibilities already here, this where we came
to and how we came: a priestly director behind the

black-chuffing dozer leans the gleanings and
reads the birds, millions of loners circling

a common height, alighting to the meaty streaks
and puffy muffins (puffins?): there is a mound,

too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and

shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind
strengthened by what it strengthens: for

where but in the very asshole of comedown is
redemption: as where but brought low, where

but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we
discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:

where but in the arrangements love crawls us
through, not a thing left in our self-display

unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of
new routes: but we are natural: nature, not

we, gave rise to us...

A.R. Ammons, from Garbage part 2