Friday, January 29, 2010

Representing Amy Lowell


You are ice and fire,
The touch of you burns my hands like snow.
You are cold and flame.
You are the crimson of amaryllis,
The silver of moon-touched magnolias.
When I am with you,
My heart is a frozen pond
Gleaming with agitated torches.

by Amy Lowell

What is it about this poem that seems both to invite us inside of it, but also remind us that we cannot ever fully enter that inside?

I feel a similar (though never less thrilling) surprise every time I read the first line of this poem: "You are ice and fire." The certainty of the speaker alarms me into recognition, into agreement. As if: "How could you not have known this?" It is perhaps the speaker's proclamation "You are [...]," which is repeated three times, that lures the reader into certitude. We believe, or rather, we trust Lowell's speaker.

And yet, who is "you?" Who is the "you" relative to the "I" of the last three lines? The opal, some other?

Syntactical certitude echoes across layers of representation (though never phrased as metaphor or simile): "You are [...] The silver of moon-touched magnolias." You are not the moon. You are not the magnolia. You are the reflection of moon on magnolia. You are neither objects. You are what happens between them. "My heart is a frozen pond / Gleaming with agitated torches." Dear Amy, is it really so cold there, beside the opal? From where do these (your?) torches "gleam?"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whitman's Lines

As I tumble and stretch through Whitman's 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass (LOG), I find myself unable to dismiss the differences between my Library of Congress edition (which includes the 1855, titleless, LOG) and the "original" manuscript, available online.

To say that I draw differences between the "original" and "replica" seems already to place myself into boiling water. Above, I've posted a photo of, first, the original 1855 manuscript as Whitman himself printed it (Whitman was believed to have set at least 10 pages). And below, a photo of the Library of Congress' (LOC) printing of the 1855, "first," edition. The obvious difference (although surely there are others) between the two is line break. Whitman's print (and here we must mean the text that Whitman's own hand pressed against) runs the line beginning with "Have you reckoned the landscape [..]" to the word "painted." The LOC print runs the line to "that." It's best to realize this by glancing above...

Initially, this seemed of little consequence, but as I finished up Whitman's first edition earlier today, I felt this "difference" (if one eventually decides to call it that) a rich territory to explore. Labeling this as "difference" helps us ask a). what makes a poem a poem (line break?); and b). if the LOC print is supposed to exist as a replica of Whitman's "first" print, then could this issue of line break obliterate (at least in part) its status as such?

At the moment, I'll respond to my own question in the following way: On the one hand, the varying line breaks seem enough to suggest to us that the LOC edition presents one with a particular version of LOG. But there is a way in which we can say that this version (necessarily implying departure, I think) is uniquely tied to Whitman's 1855 print not through difference, but similarity.

Whitman's lines constantly refuse their margins. Perhaps if Whitman could have done it so, LOG would have been a scroll stretching sideways. In this way, the LOC printing of LOG presents to us (in the way in which its lines differ from Whitman's original manuscript) the problem of genre and medium that Whitman's work seems so deeply self-conscious about. Presentation happens through particular mediums, the printed book for example. The page is not limitless, as Whitman shows us when he is forced to break a line only when the margin itself makes him, when the physical, material limitations of the medium forbid the endless stretch. Here, then, one might suggest that the LOC printing of LOG reminds us of and represents us with the very concerns Whitman himself wrote into and about when composing LOG. Leaves of Grass "took substance and form so that it might be" printed in a book, a book whose materiality would ultimately depend upon the particular printing conditions of a particular social world.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Above's a picture I snapped while walking with Sadie along the trail in Princeton. With a camera phone, the world always appears and appears photographic. Most of time, I try to resist the temptation to snap because I'm bothered by the frame's reduction, the lens' relative focus. But these frustrations point backward toward the assumption that the world can be seen without a modulating lens. That before the eye, the world is rendered, in itself as itself. But the eye, too, is a lens, though this is old news, and because the relative quality of a lens depends upon lightness and darkness, what is the picture other than another attempt to create for ourselves a landscape that has always in some way appeared before?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Betrayed by Television

When on the morning of January 14, 2010, NBC and Fox aired their regularly scheduled programs, one would have thought that whatever world these networks speak to or from was unaffected by the recent quake in Haiti. Where Kathie Lee & Hoda devoted five minutes to running aerial coverage of the damage, after which they moved on to discuss the unrelated "scoop," Fox and Friends moved right into their interview with Freddie Prince Jr, quizzing him affectionately on just how he manages his challenging role on the fox-run TV show "24."

A world of a different kind waited for those who chose to listen to NPR (National Public Radio) on the days following the Hatian earthquake. The program focused on the earthquake by oscillating between responses from the site and responses about those responses here at home.

Whatever I saw on NBC and Fox news on the morning on January 14th bothered me. I was betrayed by the television, or by its networks. As cell phone companies and XBox reinvented the way in which their technologies could be used, TV networks proved themselves defunct. And yet, it's so difficult to say that TV networks are defunct given the role FOX News, CNN, and even NBC played in the 2008 presidential election and its following months.

There is perhaps nothing more troublesome than the "statement of purpose" one particular network released and aired prior to and beyond the 2008 election. Implicit in the "Fox Nation" is the understanding that such a nation stands against other nations (and undoubtedly other networks viewable on the same machine) that threaten this "nation's" principles. The difficulty in accepting Fox Nation as a legitimate and "fair" nation comes only when one realizes that the "nation(s)" Fox stands against are domestic TV networks and a domestic political party.

Given a networks desire to create a nation out of and in itself, I'm fustrated that these network nations decided to push the crisis in Haiti aside in order to dish about Kathie-Lee's life and Freddie Prince Jr.'s acting career. So then: Is not defunction always a choice?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Had there been a time when order was simple periphery, we remembered it on this morning.

Because the ground was too stubborn to wake from a bottomless January freeze, the soil bit my shoes and Sadie's paws (though she didn't seem to mind). With the new snow dusting, there was no way to see those dirt trails that had been formed from years of feet racing toward the outer limits of farm. In this hour, before the snow could melt, walking would follow no trail. In this way, not even our eyes would suggest that they knew we had or had not walked the dirt months or years before.

But the other bits of landscape would remain familiar. We'd pull ourselves beyond the rows of christmas trees, the overturned tomato and squash soil, and the soybean fields persisting as themselves still if only by the wavering weight of themselves as sticks.

It was morning and the fields were bright. Everything was there: in contour. And what of the ground peeking through?

We walked, and walked, ran. So nice to be there with Sadie, whose presence easily helped me re-member my memories of walking along the dirt paths on hot summer days, picking and tending to grown and growing plants under a deep summer sun.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Of course the sidewalk makes room for trees

On a walk down the main street in Princeton this morning, I was glad to take note of the trees lining the road. With the help of my walking companions, I couldn't help think about this location of the "natural:" trees in boxes of stone, standing beside slabs of concrete, roots invisible yet assumed, and (the aura that trees can't help but project) all the certainty of their permanence.

One wonders: did the town grow around the tree, or was it the other way around?

When I see trees all rooted up, on their way some place in the back of a truck, I wonder about their origins and the soon-to-be illusory glow of origin that will no doubt surround even their thinnest branches after they've reached their new homes.

Monday, January 4, 2010

In honor of the christmas trees lining the sidewalks

—William Carlos Williams

Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
—go up in a roar

All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the green
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash—

and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed become
a landscape of flame

At the winter’s midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their green

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need, and over
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of small
white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log's smouldering eye, opening
red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow's
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where

small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for them
and knocks down

the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Who is a Language Poet?

What of a "language poet?" Could be any other? For what material does a poet work with if not language? Could there be any other kind of poet?

In his essay "Semiology" Vincent Descombes discusses the propensity for structuralism to describe language as "code:"

"We have just seen that structuralism, in the semiological sense of the term, is based on the comparison of human language to a code of communication. But this comparison makes light of one obvious difference: a code is constructed, while a language is not. To construct a code we require a language." (From 1980 book "Modern French Philosophy" pg 102)

must always use the material of language (the first-order “code”) in order to suggest that a (ancillary) structural system exists. We cannot say that one is not a language poet: for the material through which one communicates any poem is itself an already "coded" (perhaps "invention" might work here, but only if invention can free itself from the expectations of its own system) linguistic system with its own structure and governing principles. Descombes also remarks:

"The code, and not its emitter, decides what shall and shall not be pertinent. If language is a code, it is language which speaks each time that the speaking subject delivers a remark, of whatever kind. Speech is not a gesture which renders the meaning of the experience, "still dumb", into verbal expression, for dumb experience has no meaning by itself. Meaning appears with the signifier, or with the first opposition between "yes" and "no" [...] The meaning of the message is not the meaning of experience, nor is it the meaning experience would have, prior to all expression, if this were possible. It is the meaning that experience can receive in a discourse which articulates it according to a certain code--that is, in a system of signifying oppositions." ( pg 98).

Structuralism would suggests that we are helpless in the face of a language that speaks us. We are condemned and erased within it. It is not that we do not wish to mean, but rather that the language fails to let us mean as ourselves (as if a self could exist within this system). And yet (!), if the possibility of invention exists, language is no mere code but rather a collection of roaming (potentiating) signifiers.