Thursday, March 27, 2008

On A Clear Day, You Can See Secaucus

Sometimes the farther you get from Paterson, you wind up there anyway. Last month while I was in Brussels, I took an unplanned trip to the Palais des Beaux-Arts, not knowing that therein was an important inspirational source for Williams, turning up in, among other places, Paterson Book Four. “I salute/ the man Brueghel who painted/what he saw—" (224) I think the weakest parts of Paterson are Book Four's references to “high” art, precisely and paradoxically because Williams wasn’t writing “what he saw,” or rather that “what he saw” was once or twice removed. This is perhaps why, while in Belgium, I didn’t take heed that I was being pulled into a Paterson vortex at the other end of the world. It makes sense that Williams would have been drawn to Brueghel’s penchant for painting birds instead of holy revenant, his decentering of the Nativity to include the ahistorical bustle of the masses. There’s an interesting point in Book Four's description of a Brueghel Nativity that feels like Williams has had it with the word, that he’s envious of the innocence of paint, since he describes “a Baby/ new born!/ among the words.” And these words are equivalent to the (s)words present: “Armed men, savagely armed men/armed with pikes, halberds and swords/whispering men with averted faces/ got to the heart/ of the matter.” Their knowledge seems to pale in the face of the “Baby (as from an/ illustrated catalogue/ in colors).” (here there is almost a Joseph Cornell-type fascination with the image rather that what might be interpreted as a snarky reference to pop culture undermining it.)
The Palais des Beaux-Arts seems haunted, as does Williams, by the break that Brueghel makes from the representational practices of the past and the move towards the everyday. I seem to have fallen into the right frame of mind as soon as I entered—bored with paintings of biblical events and smirking patrons, I was looking at how different painters dealt with the sky. I thought that, by determining where these painters mapped transcendence, I could easily tell if they were a court toady, a closet alchemist, or an outright heretic. And these questions come from whether one sees gods as bejeweled floating bobble-heads or rather as something implicit in the whole picture. There’s a big pay-off for this in Palais des Beaux-Arts, because the argument extends from Brueghel and Bosch up through the surrealists (e.g. Yves Tanguy’s “Avion;” Magritte’s “The Secret Player;” and Dali’s addition to the history of "Temptation of St. Anthony" paintings . . . I had entered, in a sense, into the museum for the history of the UFO). So when I came to Brueghel’s "Landscape with Fall of Icarus," which Williams writes about elsewhere, I had the full effect. Looking into the golden-milky sky—that seemed like it held something of import—I kept on asking myself “where? where?” A shepherd looks skyward, bored; the worker in the foreground keeps to the plow. The “humor” of the painting lies in the fact that hapless Icarus’s fall has not been registered, and is a minor element of the composition, the “splash quite unnoticed/this was/ Icarus drowning.”

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It Goes Without Saying . . .

Friday, March 07, 2008

No Ideas but in Receipts

So now’s the time of year when my kitchen card table slash dining room table slash occasional desk takes on yet another role, piled with receipts and envelopes and tax forms for weeks on end. I now have the phone on speaker mode, waiting for an answer to a question about form 4562, as the IRS’ hold music ping-pongs between Waltz of the Flowers and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for over a half-hour. The receipts range from those that are tiny and abstract—something you’d get from a cash register at an old grocery store—to veritable scrolls containing ads, legal boilerplate, color logos, and the name of your clerk. There are also those pieces of paper that were once receipts, but it seems that they were printed with disappearing ink—perhaps in cahoots with the IRS. What does this have to do with Williams, you ask? As you can see in this June receipt from Pilot Travel Centers, LLC (Store 255, Milford, Connecticut), in addition to purchasing 1 Toast Peanut Butter crackers ($.30) and 1 Snyder Sourdough Nibs pretzels ($1.29), I purchased an alphabet of reflective truck decals to spell out a familiar Paterson aphorism.

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