Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All Her Teeth Were Ideas

The other night, while reading "Berenice"--Poe's zombie thriller of dental surgery gone horribly awry--I was reminded of WCW's admiration for flowers with the power to break rock:
"Thus it will appear that, shaken from its balance only by trivial things, my reason bore resemblance to that ocean-crag spoken of by Ptolemy Hephestion, which steadily resisting the attacks of human violence, and the fiercer fury of the waters and the winds, trembled only to the touch of the flower called Asphodel." Poe's wholly fictitious "Nubian geographer" serves as an authoritative stand-in for his own fascination with alternative geographies and other ultima thule. It may be that these territories are less exotic and closer to hand, as can be seen in a picture of grass growing up through curb concrete in an essay by Jonathan Skinner in the new eco language reader. This image, from Cecelia Vicuna's Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water, is an example of what he calls the "third landscape" of "critical corridors and buffer zones" (24) where there is a proliferation of growth that humans can't match to their system of needs. Accordingly, for him, the job of what one might call "ecopoetry" would be a poetics that "attend[s] to the untended as the untended, essentially leaving it alone" (46-7). Whether Asphodel's powers are actual (like the saxifrage) or metaphorical, I don't know enough to say. Ginsberg calls the Asphodel both mad and cultivated, Williams seems to use it precisely to reflect upon how things "tend" (towards the untend or unintend), and "the sea/which no one tends/ is also a garden." I'm dealing with my own "third landscape issues," since a lovely wild vine on my fence was mysteriously cut overnight--suddenly something seemingly "out-of-control" became a locus of variety of exterior forces. I won't go into the whole tangled narrative that evolved out of this intervention, but given that I'm in a weird intersection where I live, on the one hand, next to an inland forest, but on the other next to an airstrip and industrial zones, and, as well, in a neighborhood which has garden walks (which to me have always reeked of a form of neighborhood surveillance and control of landscape aesthetics), these mini-struggles are bound to occur. I can't even start to articulate how that constant image of the plume of oil coming up through the water in the gulf is impacting (no, beating up) my ability to conceptualize these issues. I have tentative plans to talk with Jennifer Scappettone about her work delivered at the Rethinking Poetics conference, which circulates around such issues. And maybe, also back to the gulf. Thalassa!

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Monday, June 21, 2010

--the museum became real

The best way to experience the Cloisters is to get locked out. I had gone to the Cloisters on a Monday, and while I know museums are usually closed then, someone assured me it was open, and I thought maybe it had some kind of special not-closed-on-Monday status. I prefer word of mouth to digital confirmation, especially when traveling, and here is where it gets me. However, while circling the base of the hill (a drumlin? a roche-moutonée?) I noticed that the striations of rock poking up through the grass were almost identical to those at Garret Mountain. Perhaps, in Williams' imagination, these rocks formed a secret continuum between places, a continuum which disturbs or challenges the creation of human artifacts. The way they came through the surface, it seemed similar to Zizek's description of the Real in Looking Awry, as that undifferentiated substance that is sometimes encountered in science fiction tales in which the edge of the phenomenal world or simulacrum is reached or broached. The Cloisters itself is a mass of organized rock on this undifferentiated, unorganized surface, although there seems to be a continuum, a redundancy even between the museum and its hill. For Williams, the bare rocks speak as "the thing itself," rather than the museum (although what would it mean that the "museum became real," if not this continuum or infinite regress of redundancy that challenges poetic distinction?) Yet I can imagine also that, for him, he is celebrating what one heroically fashions out of the bare rock, and, consequently, what it contains, "her trophies of action and instruments of pleasure"(94). In some ways the unicorn inside the Cloisters is an enviable excrescence when compared to similar artifacts in Garret Mountain's Lambert Castle, a haven for union-busting, nouveau-riche excess rather than monastic withdrawal. Reflecting, perhaps, on these related places, connected during his lifetime by the George Washington Bridge, he says in the beginning of Book V that "Here/ Is not there,/ and will never be." Yet, toward the end of the book he switches this insight up to a less despairing "Anywhere is everywhere." In some ways, the continuity of rock may facilitate the latter interpretation. Yet, when one finally enters the museum, its unicorn tapestries have as a background feature an image of a city in the distance, very much like the way New York City looks from the top of Garret Mountain. If Williams is imagining the unicorn as "I, Paterson, the King-self," and if the city in these tapestries is linked to the forces of civilization that try to trap and kill the unicorn, then is he indicting NY with the murder of the unicorn, or cities in general (since this city in the tapestries can easily, in this dialogue between doubled spaces, be Paterson itself)? And how does this book twist and explode the "man like a city, woman like a flower" equation, if Williams sees himself as the unicorn persecuted by violent group think of cities; or does it rectify it as the overriding theme since it brings in the overlapping symbolic systems of the tapestry's thousand-flowered background and the virgin Mary, with Williams emulating a Christ-like figure?

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