Monday, September 29, 2008

Last Exit: Nothing

Keach Hagey, currently of Abu Dhabi, looks into my urban explorations in the Boredom issue of Last Exit. Keach has a great way with the constrained poetry of the news form. Consider this lead-in on the Beijing games that she got through the usually stodgy CBS: "Is kung fu a meditative path to enlightenment, or merely a really cool-looking way to deliver a beating?"

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Far We Fall

Best plans, first plans. I had originally intended for this project to be called Radiophonic Paterson, but then when radios ended up not as involved as I had originally planned (see early diagram below with schematics for 24 hr broadcast of the falls, electromagnetic capture and musication of EZPass signals), I decided to not confuse people with the name, even though I still thought of the project as deeply “radiophonic.” I was confirmed in my expanded use of the term while talking with Danny Snelson in Tompkins Square, late at night, while eating hermit crab pop-ems, the Japanese version of zero-nutritional-value food, yet more exact than a Twinkie, since you hold in your mouth the whole grammar of their carapace—dyed red, sprinkled with sesame, shellacked with sugar. Danny is an editor at ubu.web and various different projects and had in his bike bag a copy of Ronald Johnson’s Radi os—Milton’s Paradise Lost sous-rature, and an early example of the radiophonic technique of “writing through.” Why is this Cagean technique of transforming and recycling source material radiophonic? Danny mentions it goes back to the idea of poetry as a kind of “tuning in” that Jack Spicer talks about in his Vancouver lectures (I have a discussion of this in chapter 3 of Ether); I would think it also has to do with the way in which the text radiates or transmits, animated less by reproduction and affiliation, but by the noise that comprises (and compromises) a wireless connection. Sometime, just the thought-object of the radio is enough to inspire the wireless tune-in . . . that is, how great is it that “radios” is embedded in “Paradise Lost”? It’s as if Lucifer found his way out of the pit by setting up a radio shack in one of the less shielded rings of hell. Or that we find our way out of the sin of representation, its fallen form—which Milton seems to perform in his tortured elegant lines, as if his art reenacted Lucifer’s rebellion—into something more luminous, less guilty. I remember reading Paradise Lost over winter vacation when I was 18, and for a variety of reasons, becoming a little freaked out, longing for the Mediterranean sunshine even in the most blood-soaked lines of Homer and Virgil. Johnson’s blank space swarms with the knowledge of Milton’s empurpled empyrean of disimparadised ensinewed titanbodies, plummeting through the Luciferous ether. The connection is not lost, but barely perceived, screams through the sky now a whisper, a humm of static, a tinkle.
Danny is curating a panel on Radio Poetics as part of the Radio Festival at Ontological, October 16-18.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Word of the Day: Periplum

This past week at Conflux in NYC, I met Brian House, creator of the Yellow Arrow mapping project, who introduced me to the word "periplum" (click video link for definition). I'm surprised the term is not much mentioned in relation to Williams' Paterson, although, I also wonder how deep it's buried in the Cantos, and how long it took to harden into a concept that could survive its original context. After all, Pound didn't append each canto with a "word box." Any clues about the origins and trajectory of this term would be appreciated. One of Brian's projects is Periplurban: An Urban Experiential Dictionary, which was created with his students as part of a workshop at Columbia's School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Before the Whatsit, The Gist

Eleven years before “The Great Whatsit” made its apocalyptic debut in Kiss Me Deadly, the more science-factual, tiny and (seemingly) less deadly glow of Marie Curie’s luminous “stain at the bottom of the retort” in Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie inspired Williams’ quest for the “radiant gist” in Book IV of Paterson. This 1943 movie comes from a more innocent time, when radiation was not accompanied by extreme atomic-age anxiety, and when a new type of romantic couple could be imagined under the pretext of scientific collaboration. . . . Or rather, we should say that romance is pretext for science, but without any sense of perversion or ill-faith. The film has all the sentimental pleasures of a 1940s “woman's film,” while conveying a disdain for sentimentality towards past knowledge, conventional attitudes, and romantic love. I guess this is the signature mix for these films . . . proto-feminism vying with the dictate to be a homemaker and nurturer. (Marie is told by her father-in-law that “women without babies are parasites;” coming from Henry Travers, who we know as the failed angel of It’s a Wonderful Life, it seems a little harsh.) Regardless, Marie and Pierre are one of the great nerd-couples of film.
It seems there are a lot of things about their relation that may have appealed to Williams’ sexual, as well as poetic, imagination. When Pierre proposes to Marie, he compares their bond to NaCl: “so if we marry on this basis, our marriage would always be the same, the temperature would be the same, the composition would be the same.” There are other numerous, more obvious ways that Williams probably saw his desires mirrored in the film. For example, the first scene he details in Paterson IV is a description of the film’s epilogue when this “frail stubborn eager woman who carried on her great work for a quarter of a century” walks onto the stage at the Sorbonne to receive her honors. The movie, after all, is about hard work. . . . really hard, unappreciated, but ultimately revolutionary work. When he writes this bit in Book IV, he’s already plowed through the geological cross section passage, can’t really see the end (which may be his own), and maybe suddenly remembers this movie that he must have seen in some dinky Paterson moviehouse during the war, on a rainy day before even Paterson I was completed . . . I initially thought that Williams went to the premiere with Greer Garson, which I think would have been great PR for both camps. Now that I look for the reference, that image was just a wishful misreading. When Paul Mariani says Williams saw Madame Curie with Greer Garson he must have just meant she was in the movie, not in his entourage (or he hers). No, it was probably just a Saturday matinee with Floss.
Some facts about radium: it takes 400 tons of Colorado ore to isolate 1 gram of radium. You can learn this in the DVD’s extra feature “Romance of Radium” directed by Jacques Tourneur and narrated by a guy who sounds like nothing more than an OTB cashier. Tourneur’s reportage is probably more in line with Williams’ poetics—it is stripped of melodramatic cues and distinguished acting. While every character’s performance in the feature reeks prettily of historical gravitas—that is, except for the cameo by Van Johnson, who seems to have unwittingly stumbled into history—Tourneur leaves the Curies flat and distant like half-tones from the C volume of the encyclopedia. Yet Tourneur still maintains a wonderment towards the subject, by moving into the more macabre and outré episodes in the history of radium. What the Mervyn LeRoy feature uniquely offers . . . and need I say that Williams missed an opportunity to reference LeRoy’s Golddiggers of 1933 rather than the social credit pamphlets in this section? . . . is a palpable sense of the extremities endured by the Curies, as they reduced tons of pitchblende by hand in a miserable shed, and without any sense of what they were looking for. So this film is for Williams not a merely a haphazard collaged reference, but a complete statement of his poetics from beginning to end. It is yet another clue that, for him, the “materiality of signifier” was not mere brute tonnage, more than just thing. The slow drama of working through tons of material is placed in the service of the discovery of a new form of matter, one that is not dead, but “alive, dynamic,” yet exceedingly rare. That this matter forms only a 1000th of a percent of actual matter—mistaken by the Curies as “extraneous” impurities because it did not fit the expected Mendeleev schema—is only more invitation to perceive material more clearly, without despair.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Which the theorem/with accuracy, accurately misses . .

Al Filreis on Williams' things.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008


Downtown Paterson, especially on a hot summer day, is a driving nightmare. However, I am feeling a little nostalgic for those packed streets, the slow crawl through that knot of intersections where buzz the mysterious commercial convergences between hip-hop clothiers, cellphone wallahs, dollarstore clerks, Peruvian restaurateurs. All more lively than the “dead” industry around the nearby Falls.
Before I left, I wanted to capture (with my Vidster) at least some small sense of one of the more disconcerting elements of this traffic pattern, the way in which pedestrians will walk right out into the middle of traffic—perhaps a form of territorializing, protest, or more simply, impatience. Even parents with baby carriages will make their way in front of slowed cars—of course slowing things down all the more—to get from exactly the point where they were to exactly the point they want to be. And for all that impatience, oddly enough, Paterson comes off as a city of flaneurs.
The soundtrack on the radio seems appropriate now in retrospect, but the sound of Paterson itself has more poetry. I felt almost embarrassed listening to NPR’s wistful, effortless version of poetry while crawling through the Williams’ hard-worked-upon source material as well as through the bodies of the actual hard-working themselves, “Who are these people (how complex/ the mathematic) among whom I see myself/ in the regularly ordered plateglass of/ his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?” I have no idea who Bob Edwards is interviewing, but the poet on the radio regales us with this bit of stellar scholarship: “You know Whitman was not an English professor. As far as I know, he didn’t have an office or tenure.” Gee, thanks. I’m sure if there were any poets on the streets of Paterson at the time, they would also be able to add that he wasn’t having no Sunday tea with Bob Edwards on the radio, either.

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