...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Saturday, August 28, 2010


HOLY SMOKES! Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Cello Concertos in A Major (Wq. 172), esp. the third movement, and in A Minor (Wq. 170), esp. the first movement, are spectacular. This is music to be alive to. (Currently listening a 1995 recording from Naxos records.)

Also: Television. When I was a college d.j., we had two go-to songs to play when you needed time to leave the studios and get to the restroom across the hall: King Crimson's "In the Court of the Crimson King" and Television's "Marquee Moon." I always enjoyed, though I didn't pay close attention to, the Television song, but I recently purchased the album that shares its name, Marquee Moon, and it's terrific. Everyone praises the guitar playing on it, so it's nothing for me to say, Everyone's right. Bach is in tray one of the CD player with Television in number two.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Future

More remarkable photographs here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Song of the Week: Sweet as They Come

Old. Misgivings (re: the recording, not as much the song). But free. (Nice horn breakdown.)

Song of the Week: Worlds Gone

One of my favorite recent pieces of music that we've made. It's the second track down (follow the church, which is an image of a stunning edifice located in the stunning Trona, CA--a place too weird to believe but in person).

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important
beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

Sentence Fragments as Convention

In the preface to the book review I posted below, I wrote that the heavy use of sentence fragments marks the writing as dated. This is probably not a fair claim, since what fragments amount to is a convention, like any poetic convention: slant rhyme, pentameter, sprung rhythm, juxtaposition, synesthesia, etc. It's just that this type of writing feels particularly prevalent at this moment--on Facebook, in blogs, in journalism, as well as in poetry and prose--and it seems to me played out. But that might simply be a matter of taste. There are certain types of singers--or better yet, certain kinds of singing--that I don't like. My disliking it oughtn't be understood as some universal judgment on it, he wrote with great obviousness. But there's also that terrific experience when a convention you don't particularly care for is used in a way that surprises even you. It's then that the work and convention meld in some way I find thrilling. (I like that feeling--in art, at least--of being wrong. It seems to better define the parameters of what I know and don't know.)

If this all sounds unformed, it is. I'm simply trying to understand why I don't buy certain kinds of writing. A sentence fragment, as a thing, is not something I object to. A well-placed fragment can be devastating. In some poetry, all we get are fragments, which in their broken-up quality carry great emotional resonance. And maybe, since I've been reading Ovid in translation and Keats and Melville lately, I'm feeling partial to the "completed" sentence. I still feel, though, that there's an over-reliance on the fragment, that it's an easier way "out" of vexing compositional, or editorial, even aleatory, predicaments, and that somehow it feels like a tic, an unexamined habit, more than anything else.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia, by summer lightning; at his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till some one touched him, when he fell.

- "Bartleby"

The French Exit

[The following is a review written for a publication that, b/c of my own laziness, had to reject it—I missed the deadline! Anyway, I’m posting it here for archival purposes, and for the few readers who sometimes wander by. There are two things I didn't put in the review b/c they simply didn't fit: 1) Stylistically, the book relies heavily on a habit in contemporary poetry—the dramatic sentence fragment—that marks, for me anyway, the much of the language in it as dated. 2) The book feels pretty pleased with itself. Having said that, there’s no question Gabbert is a smart and very talented writer, and people much more accomplished than me have praised the book as an excellent collection of poetry. I’m not merely being self-deprecating. I’m saying that any review should be taken w/ a very large grain of salt.]

Look no further than to Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, or the comments section of an online article, to see that public discourse is coarse and getting coarser, driven by often illogical statements serving larger, often all-too-incoherent agendas. And I’ve had more than one experience—with students, with family, even with strangers at the grocery store—where what seemed to me a harmless utterance of greeting or preference is scanned for ideological bias. The world of poetry is no less fraught. How can you work in this lonely art and not consider the risks of being dismissed as a Quietist on the one hand or as an obscurantist on the other? Even worse is to be labeled with the appellation “Third Way” or “Hybrid,” those poets wanting it both ways and thus having it neither way. It's enough to make you want to simply refuse—to refuse conclusions, arrivals, or any clear allegiance.

Elisa Gabbert, in The French Exit, appears to take this path of refusal. A key method for blazing it is, oddly enough, through making declarations. Sometimes these serve humorous conceits—“You will be woken by the chirping of the birds, which is the sound of their egos escaping their bodies” (“Ornithological Blogpoem”)—and sometimes self-definition: “I don’t want to apprehend the unknown” (“Day Trip with Spires”). To reverse the old writing-class maxim, these poems “tell” instead of “show,” but what they tell remains veiled, to the reader and, quite possibly, to their speaker as well.

Take these lines from “Blogpoem the Litany”: “The people need more opiates, or less. / One way or the other they are not satisfied.” And here’s “Poem with a Threat,” which I quote in full:

Columning storm cloud, natch, dead bird.
My fear of X is worse than X,

more scary. What am I wearing?
The less I recognize myself, the less

I contradict—scratch, feel contrary
to my mirror image in the “pool of grief”

down there. No one would ever say that.
But I may say “puddle of despair.”

Finally, the concluding lines of “Poem with Negation”:

Toward the definition,

untoward the meaning. I run
through the emphases—

It doesn’t mean anything.
It doesn’t mean anything.

It doesn’t mean anything.
It doesn’t mean anything.

“Toward the definition” and “untoward the meaning”: Like the majority of what’s in the book, each of these has the word “poem” in the title, reminding us that what we’re reading are, in fact, poems (as defined at the top of the page), even as the words comprising them, as the lines readily claim, don’t add up to anything.

Early in the book, Gabbert describes the landscape as “supersaturated with meanings. / With meaningness,” and part of what her work embodies is the anxiety of the moment, of being overwhelmed and alienated by a speeded- (and speeding-) up society. Wordsworth described an affliction of an “almost savage torpor,” caused by political upheaval, the growth of cities, and the “craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” (What would he have made of the 21st Century?) For him, poetry was to defend and preserve all that’s good in the world, was to carry forward with it “relationship and love,” and it would do this by using the language of common men and the subjects of common life, reminding readers of a shared humanity. Even as his diagnosis remains sapient, his prescription has come to feel quaint, as much of the Romantic project has, in the face of lightning-quick change and rampant ecological destruction. This may explain why poets like Gabbert retreat into their own heads, describing the distorted view of the world perception affords, like the backward, very limited vision provided within a camera obscura (which happens to be the subject of one of her poems): It may not be an accurate picture of things, but it’s mine. A blurb on the back of the book makes this very point, describing the work as “obsessively interior.”

It’s the poet’s interior whim (and whimsy) that leads her in “Blogpoem w/ Ellipses” to contemplate what happens to holes—like the dent in her car—when they “die,” i.e., are fixed: “Their cemetery / sure would seem a waste / of space.” Halfway through, the poem marks the end of this reverie by (you guessed it) ellipses before moving into a description of what could be called morbid torpor:

I’ve started practicing
creative apathy. Can’t
spend all day in transit
among various funerals.
Everybody’s got the
same epitaph anyway:
Was alive. Is Not. Tried
To Save Life Thru Not
Caring. Died Bored.

You read a poem like this and see what Gabbert’s up to. The radically different halves of the poem, lightly connected by death-industry terms, suggest that any move a poem makes—even when it seems meaningful in some “organic” sense—is, in fact, arbitrary. The fact of death makes it so, reducing everyone, and every human act, to a kind of “living” funeral. One way to face that awful situation is to practice “creative apathy,” “not caring” as a means of self-preservation, but the gravestone makes concretely clear that the strategy doesn’t work. What, then, to do? The only vital alternative, the only pathway to life, to waking up, is “desire,” and even that’s circumscribed: “My desire / flaps and beats against the walls / like an idiot bird trapped inside the flue” (“Camera Obscura”).

The image brings to mind Ron Silliman’s recent poem-in-progress, Revelator: “Desire, / Desire is the answer, hunger / never rests.” What gets a person, or what gets Silliman, up every morning to work, is the same thing that gets the geese up “each dawn / now for decades circling lake.” Desire orders a being’s existence and gives it agency, but only if it has an object, and though Gabbert does indicate one now and again—most touchingly in the final poem, when she asks of her brother, “(If he’s mine, / why can’t I keep him?)”—the poems in this book often seem willfully object-less, making a piece like “Poem with Intrinsic Music” stand out by contrast:

Empty tennis courts of autumn,
the landscape wants to appropriate you

like fallow cortex, the brain over-
turning itself: A blind woman has no use

for sports, but the cells could go
to memorizing Bach—the cello suites,

the overtures.

Say those lines out loud. The title of the poem winks at us, its author showing us she knows this is recognizably “musical” writing, but that knowingness attacks its very real beauty and sense, as if Gabbert wants to apologize for giving to people a pleasure they go to poetry for. You want to say, Yes, we’re all masses of mixed motives, and Yes, meaning often feels more a product of the interpreter’s perspective than of any (ugly phrase) “objective reality,” but art this self-consciously, showily aware betrays a lack of faith, if not in the poet then in the reader. Her misgivings are stated more directly at the end of “X”:

I want to lie on the top level
of an empty garage, to be close

to the sky as I lose my mind—
I’m afraid. I’m afraid

I’ll feel pretty

The cleverness of these breaks seems meant to blunt or hide the fear these lines really allude to, which is not of transcendence but of the means of getting there: escaping, or “losing,” one’s own mind. A poet must engage that fear, I think. She’s got to risk looking like a fool.