Archive for November, 2009

Ken Babstock — Airstream Land Yacht

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 30, 2009 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Remember in poetry when you used to be able to get credit for a mind that moved in interesting ways? Now it’s just incessant talk of markets, markets, markets . . . how do you get a reader to swallow so that it can move like crap through a golden goose? Or you might measure who’s got the biggest one with demographic studies that seek to prove how Americans have moved beyond the word and are now looking at the pictures. Perhaps the loss of this form of valor is due to the fact that in the U.S. we no longer make anything and this fact can make us hope we can market our way out of our own mess.

However, in Canada, there seems to still be a focus on that which is more interestingly wrought, for which the gold standard is not what is most immediately accessible to a larger market. At least that is the case with Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht. Finally, after so many poetry books on the American market designed to capture the attention of this group or that group, we have a book, a major prize finalist at that, which forsakes the saleable niche and aims for the big questions again. The star of Babcock’s book is consciousness, and Babcock pushes his star to the point of breaking, and to the point of many other adjectives: crystalline, shivering, blackness, coated (in oil), off-and-on monitor, blackly stumped, Imperial. For Babstock it is almost as though the will to cerebrate is the will to live itself.

In the title piece, which appears towards the end of the book after many dense ruminations and hyperdriven narratives, Babcock equates an antique Airstream trailer to that of his consciousness. His consciousness is his Airstream Land Yacht.

Airstream Land Yacht

Where in the world to go, to go?
          O where in this world to go?
This big old wagon’s slos, it’s slow.
          My beautiful wagon’s
                    slow.

It shines a silver sheen, though,
          its silver sheen a-glow,
This silvery ovoid’s sturdy, ho!
          metallic armadil-
                    lo.

Born in nineteen six-and-oh, and Oh,
          she’s factory clean.
Awesome to behold but slow, but slow;
          she’s sort of like a
                    brain.

She’s sort of like a model brain, no?
          Just sits there unless towed.
And a constant need to unload, to forego,
          what we couldn’t take or
                    know.

The intimation in this piece is that his consciousness is too big and bulky to make a streamlined path through the media debris. It hangs on to places develops wind resistance in all the meaning it tries to extract. This year’s model of consciousness is much more stripped-down. It moves quickly enough to keep with the traffic, and there is very little storage for those who are inclined to stop at garage sales to load up on ephemeral bits. In fact, you can often watch like with the Prius, the progress of its mechanical function take place on the screen.

Or perhaps Babstock is making a comment on the state of consciousness in general which is just not built to keep up with the barrage of information of the everyday, the cutting from one application screen to another screen, the absorption of thirty different commercial contexts in an hour, then still needing room to pack in the news. How many sites have you surfed since you started this paragraph?

Though this is just the sad tale of the medical profession speaking. When I ask my programmer brother, he feels that the human brain is definitely designed for speed.

Yup. This is your brain. This is your brain on Internet hyperlinks. How fast can your brain move from context to context? Do you think it was designed to move that fast? A doctor says no. A software designer says yes.

Babcock seems wired for speed and possesses a good sized hard drive, but I like how he handles recall errors, errors of slippage, such as in his delightfully funny address to Christian (no doubt Christian Bök). Towards the end, of “Think, Pig” (the title itself cribbed from Beckett) he writes:

something he could
in good faith call
a project which might
take me years but
would leave me
in good stead with
certain people
in Buffalo, I said
Christian do you
remember Abraham
and Isaac and that
terribly sharp cleaving
instrument and
the talking shrub?

That “terribly sharp cleaving instrument” is, of course, a knife, and the fact that he “forgets” the name of this weapon, an item that would most likely sharpen the focus of attention on it, makes the poem even more of an immediate gesture. One attends to the speech act quality of the poem. It also reminds the speaker of the brain’s fallibility, both the speaker’s and presumably Bök’s (or God’s as the case may be). Whatever the case, we know from Gödel that any system (in this poem’s case, an algorithm-driven infinite loop of page references) is incomplete. It is incomplete because the system is unable to successfully refer to what is always outside of it. The brain can’t keep up with its context.

This, to me, epitomizes much of Babstock’s work in Airstream Land Yacht. The brain that can’t keep up with its context, but oh how it miraculously tries and it does manage to contextualize a damn sight more than most). It is that kind of effort that keeps me coming back to read individual poems again and again. In his miraculous efforts he covers enough ground with the trace of his consciousness that I want to wind back through the coils of his language to arrive at how Babstock’s compressed language extracts its funky localized meaning at the same time it hammers away on its superstructure.

In one of the “Explanatory Gaps”(there is one for each section: Air, Stream, Land, Yacht) Babstock writes:

Explanatory Gap

Would Form, Colour, and Motion please report to Area 17
where you’ll be met by Memory and Recognition. An unbroken
field of light is uninformative. The cracks,

the jinks, what won’t cohere or blend but bends, fissures,
                    falls to the field
or becomes figure. A visual percept is degraded light.
We all like to sound important. I was convinced I’d actually loved

by a hot tinny pain spreading downward from the sternum. She
                    was gone, though,
by the time the evidence appeared, and I’d moll around the train ditch
of an evening, reading German dictionaries and pulling
                    loosened spikes

from the tie braces, designing industrial versions of croquet.
                    Home shot:
through the St. Louis Arch to the CN Tower. Oil derricks and
                    wrecking balls.
I had no friends for a time. Whether

it happened or didn’t it felt as it did and affected the weather. I
was being fleeced, still I paid
for entertainment. It helped feel worse, and worse was where

lovely numb wet its tongue. I sucked it like a strip of dripping lamb—

From the moment where the brain is administrating its sectors to the bulk of the poem where the speaker is opening and closing many doors that lead to a variety of information holding pens, I, as reader, arc through with him and invest myself in his diet of images and anecdote and emotion. It is particularly exciting how this rich blend avoids becomiong twaddle (which is what happens when I often try to enter into this Friederike Mayröcker-like mode). It suggests that everything might get into the poem but it doesn’t. there is still a highly selective attention occurring. It is an attention that is also perfectly at ease with reflecting on itself, not an easy trick to accomplish without the bugaboos raising their heads and intimating a kind of navel-gazing going on.

The title of the piece helps in this regard. Even though it is willing to provide such an abstraction as “a visual percept is degraded light,” the poem has no pretensions about explaining anything. The explanatory gap is the place where this poem happens. It is the place, presumably, where Babstock places his poetic faith in serving as the locus for his work. It nods and nods and nods but never reveals.

Myself, I had an intense desire to order an gyro after reading this poem.

Another thing that I admire about Babstock’s writing in this book is how adeptly it follows the creed of the old Black Mountain School in its edict that content gives rise to form rather than form bringing about content. There is a lot of variation of form in Airstream Land Yacht. From this I can surmise that Babstock waits for his content to congeal in a manner that his consciousness apprehends, again making (his?) consciousness the star of the book. He describes this himself in an interview with CBC Radio’s “Words at Large”:

I start with a few words that make a particular noise, then I go in search of others. As I’m searching for the others, I try to be simultaneously allowing the new ones and those initial ones to inform me of some kind of appropriate patterning device or guiding principle so that they don’t simply dissolve into a meaningless verbal porridge like this sentence…

Similar to many poets, Babstock allows his play [“Sometimes making is play, only that” from “Found in a Sock Monkey Kit”] to be his constitutive method, and then he assembles his various “outtakes” into an “appropriate patterning device or guiding principle.” The organizational impulse comes after, and it is guided by his trust that he will be able to find that organizing impulse afterwards. That kind of confidence that he will find a way to organize his tangle of threads (or it will find him) makes the book a pleasure to read as well. there is no style fatigue that one often finds with highly cerebral poets who find a particular method and then grind it out through the course of 60 to 70 pages.

In Airstream Land Yacht we find the architecture of sonnets, variously end-rhymed (or near-end rhymed) poems, a poem that grows and grows its end-rhymed lines [“Subject, with Rhyme, Riding a Swell”], a poem with open six line stanzas that ends with six aphoristic couplets, [On the Dream of union Ceasing”], a stanza mimesis where the first stanza looks, sounds and feels like the first with a few variations but produces a a very different meaning [Epochal”], dialog between texts of Kierkegaard and a hog raising manual, and a list poem of brief instructional language [“A Setting To”], as well as others that are too hard to classify.

In all of this variation one might hear Babcock underscoring his objection to Bök’s insistence on a single rigorous form. his method is to be highly unmethodical.

Further in that same interview Babstock describes the tool of poetry as:

Think of a compact case or powder kit for the mind. Small enough to carry around and helps deal with blemishes, imperfections, swellings that mar our pictures of ourselves and the world. Only it’s not always about improvements to the reflected image

Poetry as putting on make up, another metaphor, but one that assumes a “fatigued” self in the morning barely able to cobble oneself together before the whole project falls apart by noon.

In this way, Babstock seems to be making a model (the male counterpart to putting on make-up) of himself. In a poem that uses this metaphor for talking about the construction of the self as well as comment on his poetic project, “Scale Model”

Scale Model

Tricked out in phantom gear, I imagined myself
          perfected, at least made better to the extent
that I wanted nothing more, and could hurt no one—
          which is when the world disappeared. Or
the world’s model displayed under glass with figurines
          passing through parks and purchasing things
and boarding trains at dawn then transpiring, shattered
          or melted, receding back into the far hills
of the false. The story of Stories Connected, and I
          among them, constructed of them, a notch in the wood
of what’s happened, wound down to a farce, just
          a face extemporizing the facts and making a meal
of what it had felt like to be. What had it felt like?
          I remember a latch on a low gate; a kiosk on a platform
that smelled of diesel and grease; a rowboat blown
          into reeds and the oars in the oarlocks; remember
my flesh on the flesh of another but limbs needed
          moving and the air needed stitching with words, or
just murmurs, it all demanded doing and seeing,
          removing the black box of immediacy to its place
on a shelf near a pot of dahlias gathering dust and
          dying. Alone now, in the glow of an Imperial mind,
I curl to the chilled sense of being other; am bench, bolt-
          hole, view of the Baltic coast, brother, or crayon set,
want to be implemented, bent to, used inside
          the watched life lived—

“Used inside the watched life lived.” That says it all. Babstock very often uses the things he watches and sees through media (as well as his direct experience) as grist for the mill of his own actions. Experience and his media diet are conflated. Where does one begin and the other end? They appear to be continuous, contemporaneous. He has bridged the great divide that plagues the American scene between those mediatized poets, whom Silliman refers to as the post-avant and those experiential poets, whom Silliman refers to as the school of quietude. Babstock’s world is boisterous and smart, but it does not pursue its own end so that it might live one day serve as great intellectual achievement that may live on in the annals of glory at SUNY-Buffalo.

Babcock describes his writings in Airstream Land Yacht as multi-vocal poems which curiously end up sounding even more like himself. Yes, one feels the stitching but in doing so, one is even more assured that a singular consciousnes has weaved them all together and is talking at you.

It is the immediate removed (“to a shelf near a pot of dahlias”) only to be fed back into immediate experience after it has been filtered through the various sieves of books, emotions, stories, dictionaries, films, instruction manuals, travel brochures, conversations, etc. It is experience writ large with all its distractions and imperfections. He establishes the truth of his poetic project this way.

Each section of the book seems to provide poems that might be derived from “Air,” “Stream,””Land,” but in the last “Yacht” section Babstock seems to spend a lot of time on cruises. Or at least he imagines that he is on them. Most of them seem to depart from Schleswig-Holstein and ruminate on or react to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic is the ominous force that is shaping lives.

The Tall Ships Docked in Kiel Harbour

for Don Coles

Norwegian, Russian, Polish, Estonian.
A spectral mist had curtained the port and spread,
silken, dewy, over the crosded park grounds.
Can we say spectral or even mist, wasn’t
it more like a greased, Baltic fog? We can say
the masts appeared broken, occluded at times;
the water that slapped the low stone rampart
could be heard clearly but relied on inference
to be known or to be there, or, looking back, at the very
least, the edges of things went grainy, lost
substance, and shivered; mothers with kids
in their care sampled baked sweets or nudged hand
crafts on display tables then sank away into
enveloping dampness from which cries of
where are you carried through a muffled din—
No, this would have reached us as
Wo bist du and could we really have
isolated a phrase like that, being new to a tongue?—
An area roped off for children held rough-
hewn, log play-structures, the bark left on so they
looked ribbed and reptilian; metal boxes strapped
to lamp poles spat out cigarette packs if you
thumbed in the coins. We might have thumbed
in the coins. The masts, when they split
the slate-coloured veils, leaned and rattled, or
knocked against parts of their rigging, and small
triangular flags hung limp from the upper reaches
where the masts narrowed. Gulls landed—or terns
landed—on the crosspieces where the sails were
furled and tied like camping gear. It might have
rained, as our feet were soaked through, and we wanted
not to be where we were, but felt also an internal
pressure, like a note left for oneself in a home one
has yet to move into, to look, to take in the thick
beams of each building, the docks buried in fog,
the cider smell and steam from steel vats, the layer
of beaded wetness on things and the people who
handled those things: cups, wallets, paper containers
of food, rucksacks, umbrellas, the odd camera or
brass-handled cane. The ships lumbered away, sniffing
each other’s sterns; someone’s future warmed into
high resolution as love’s rags clapped in a weird wind.

The project is as rudimentary as any creative writing teacher could make it. Scene description. But it is so exquisitely visualized and intensely perceived that the scene is possibly more alive than if one visited it. Babstock goes beyond surfaces, but with the subtle inclusion of the speaker in the scene, “the we who might be thumbing the coins” and whose “feet were soaked through” that by the end of the poem the “someone” whose “future warmed” is almost assuredly a member of that group, that couple. The scene transforms the speaker. It is heartbreakingly rendered and mined for its hidden value. It seems to me a great object study in what can be wrung out of what is essentially a still life.

Oh to be so patient so as to let the scene come to oneself the way Babstock has done in this piece.

Then a few pages later we get “Compatibilist” [3:34] with its interest in compatibilism, the idea that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive entities in the world. Babstock is not afraid of the overtly philosophical, the big idea. It is a marvel how he can do so much else. As readers we should be obliged to take of this kind of weighty territory as well, territory that too frequently poets in the US fear to tread, or if they do, they do so ponderously. I guess they still grow ideas in Canada. Here in the US we just sell rock stardom.

I will be dipping into this book for a long time I feel. Every time I pick up the book and read a few pages I am indebted to its author for his ability to recharge my own instincts to write. He keeps it thrilling, and I encounter Easter eggs on every page. It is hard to encapsulate within one small space such as this the freshness that is contained in this book. Airstream Land Yacht is certainly one of my favorite books of the last several years.

But probably we should give Babstock the last word on his oeuvre in Airstream Land Yacht:

The Lie Concerning the Work

Most were written at home,
some done away,
a few in a bar,
one inside his head.

Many had a tendency to roam,
some felt grey,
a few went too far,
that last refused to be read.

—Victor Schnickelfritz

Brian Teare Sight Map

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 17, 2009 by Victor Schnickelfritz

More often than not, Brian Teare’s Sight Map presents a diffuse scrim of language that is resistant to any easy ascertainment; it is meant to be slippery and quizzical — ineffable. This is how Teare consistently approaches language in its many tears and fissures, its inadequacies and insufficiences (especially with respect to knowing some deeper and spiritual part of the self. The effect reminds me of how one might blow paint through a straw to produce a map of colored effect on a piece of paper. I also imagine Teare creating a similarly constructed map of vision and image. He blows it through a straw to have it land in Rohrschach fashion on the page, creating this book.

Clearly, the tour de force in this book is the first piece,
“Emerson Susquehanna”
. The poem is constructed from a quote that is derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal in 1834. The first section is “When we have lost our God of tradition” where the abstractness of God is seemingly substituted for a much more experiential one. Even the ritual’s surrounding God have been emptied and replaced by a mother braiding the hair of the speaker’s sister. The word in its old abstract guise seemingly makes little sense.

The second section “& ceased from our God of Rhetoric”. In this section Teare’s language hints at the ineffable quality of God as though it had become a mystical word whose utterance immediately deconstructs its referent. The word is seemingly a way to pry at the spiritual notion of God. However, like in the first section, even the rhetorical construction of God is too diffuse to have any apparent meaning. When the speaker says, “birds / without names / fly anyway /ceaselessly / up the ladder” he intimates that in place of the construction of God there is only animal instinct.

Finally, in the “then may God fire . . . with . . . presence” section, the speaker is underscoring his allegiance to the notion that the experience of God manifests itself in the present moment and no mediated form of that, be it language or symbol is sufficient to capture that notion. Even when one is transfixed within that experience (like “a photograph / in a bath of chemicals”) the presence of God is fuzzy and only becomes more refined with more time, more experience of doing battle with the ineffable spirit. The mind has a hard time approaching the spiritual. One takes leave through action, becoming animal.

I was intrigued by Teare’s notion of the spiritual being depicted as so fragmented and fluttery. I wondered if he wasn’t playing with a more traditional sense of the spiritual as more contained and continuous, if in the choppiness of experience there might be another sensibility of the spiritual. So I asked him this when he came to Sacramento for a reading recently. Teare cited Dickinson as his model for one who might apprehend the spiritual as a fragmented experience and not a holistic one. God comes to him and Dickinson in shards, little experiential info-bits, as if it were a breakfast cereal that one consumes spoonful by spoonful. But Teare also pointed out the longing for spiritual truth is always there, that this desire for spiritual truth is continuous but that access to such a truth is highly contingent. He pointed out that in the days of Emerson that one was more certain about the spiritual truth one had derived from experience compared to today, where doubt is the centerpiece of much of our spiritual experience. Dickinson’s refusal to embrace and covert to the truth of religious experience is what makes her work so moving and powerful.

A sense of the ineffable dominates Sight Map. Teare’s language is almost always gentle and carefully rendered. It is diaphanous, a strange beast of highly cerebral and stylized writing that longs for a ground in experience, often touching down there (but not for long).

Frequently, the main tension in Teare’s work is between nature and textuality. The speaker writes down observations of the natural world only to bridge those observations with textuality. This is a world built of the natural element, the text and the contemplation that joins the two together (with the ultimate goal of rooting that tension in a real live animal body). The movement to this goal can be seen in the following poem:

Embodiment

(White Birch)

how a birch shirks its skins : strange
grain of the language of prayer : to disturb
words addressed to where God is is
what writing is : alphabet alive beneath
the alphabet so far into whiteness
each mind to itself creation come crawling
matter out of nothing : always
longing inquires at the threshold a question
unanswered : what once overheard the talk
of God became matter : ask the birch
did the soul have a choice :

When I asked Teare if he felt he was “cheating” Emerson of his sense of continuity in apprehending transcendent spiritual truth, he responded by reading this poem. As far as I can tell, it is a rather cryptic response. However, the speaker asserts that “to disturb words addressed to where God is is what writing is”. From this I sense that creating a disturbance (particularly in the visual field) is an element of genuinely convening with the spiritual, experiencing spiritual truth.

Throughout the book there is a strong sense of scatter and shifting of the visible. Perhaps this due to the fact that large portions of the text were compiled from Teare’s notebooks when he went on his walks.

“the poems began in the pocket-sized journal I took with me on walks, and no one who’s writing and walking at the same time can keep his or her notes left-justified and of regular length.”

The notes jotted in this journal are then disturbed or upset throughout the book. In “Lent Prayer” these observations are upset by etymological ruminations and sentence place-holders.

Lent Prayer

The way prayer is root to precarious : two crows creep
the steeple. Not winter

not spring. Given a chance
a season out of season will write

bastard pastoral, elegy
full of errant splendor and spent sheets of sleet, rain all spondaic

and unrelenting. Pallid nouns look familiar
but they’re dead :

after thaw, after crocuses, even tulips : new snow, and robins
caught on a border without name, lost

to a scrim of frost, dozens
dead, each a lace of lice. the way soul has

no certain etymology, how weirdly what’s rootless goes
wrong-like, fog

erasing syntax that holds
nouns in the sentence called landscape, looks like : streetlight tree

snowdrop stray-cat tow-truck leaves sidewalk snowmelt : except
what’s visible

shifts, wind
arranging things,

the neighbor’s lit window gone down the block like a dog
off its lead.

Textuality is the counterpoint to the natural world. [Note: this is the same way that the concept of God is interrupted by the rhetorical construction of God in “Emerson Susquehanna”]

However, by the end of the first section (each section is given the title of a specific latitude and longitude) the interceding textuality has given way to the interceding bodily experience. The beloved appears, and the ecstasy of the body begins to serve as the counterpoint to the speaker’s beautiful natural elements.

In Section Two [42:53:6 N, 71:57:17 W] the influence of the Poetics of Field becomes even more apparent. Earlier in “To Be Two” large blank spaces were surrounded by brackets as if to suggest that what belonged in that space was unable to be rendered, unable to be articulated. In Section Two the words on the page become even more sparse. The majority of the page is blank. The sections of “Morphology” appear to be slowly melting icicles as the reader’s eyes run down the page like water. The poem’s subject appears to be its form. The notebook fragments are forced into the shapes that Teare devises.

Perhaps the most interesting piece in this section is “Long After Hopkins” which is pure nature meditation and its effect on faith. Hopkins’s ecstatic faith is addressed in the line “Faith / what is it / abides, what’s left of pastoral / but unreality.” The speaker in this poem asks “what principal / animates the natural”, and the answer to this seems to be a kind of Taoist force that has an entropic, if not violent, streak.

Section two concludes with a long poem “Pilgrim” comprised of many short prose pieces which rely heavily on the nature journal to carry the poem. Occasionally, the prose sections are interrupted by a stray moment of articulated doubt or a brief fetish with a word. If “Morphology” attempts to portray nature’s forms in words, then “Pilgrim” is short little footsteps of the devotional traveler whose final image delivers the speaker kneeling in any kind of weather.

Section Three explores the appointment with the beloved as an accessible substitute for the religious ecstasy of God. “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus” establishes this from the outset in the first section, “ I walk inside memory of his / movements inside me, and it is this fullness most resembles my experience / of God” this line appears twice in the poem, and it hints at the disturbance of fucking within the natural realm. The fucking has taken the place of the meditation on textuality that interceded earlier in the book. Indeed, when Teare mentions fucking it seems like a sharp contrast to the rest of the piece which is meditative and longing. At first I thought this a flaw of the poem, that it was not handling its transitions very adroitly and was using the fucking to serve as a contrast to the gentler language in the piece. But after a few readings I began to see that the fucking was supposed to be jarring, disturbing. If Teare is coming at spiritual truth through disturbance of the natural realm, then this fucking is just part of the program.

One wonders, though, if the word fucking isn’t already too loaded with the ability to jar. My first reading of this piece saw the fucking presented to shock the reader out of the complacency of the beauty of the language of nature that surrounds it. Stravinsky counterpoint (think Rite of Spring). Perhaps I am just hypersensitive to the word fuck in a poem, which seems strange to me because, in general, I love the act of fucking, but the word in print — not so much. I think I might have issues.

“Genius Loci” relates more juxtaposition. This time it is the tranquil bucolic natural world with its short sparse lines full of observation in parts 1 and 3 buttressing section 2’s manic and overactive long line that is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s eyeball kicks. The commotion is section 2 is subordinated to the slower, plodding contemplative sections of 1 and 3. The life of the body is surrounded by the life of the mind and the visible world during the walk through nature. The sense of place is the real focus of this piece. Adapting to one’s immediate environment is the kind of genius that Teare explores.

The last poem of the book is “An Essay To End Pleasure” where the beloved is absent and the speaker must inevitably recreate the beloved from memory. The mind focuses on the small instances of physical pleasure, “the voice / full-throated with noticing; the mind / precise.” As the speaker departs the scene, it is as though he is drinking the scene up one last time before he leaves the pleasure it has given him. He is just one more migrating bird who will leave to populate some other environment, just as the “new bird” will take his place where he had been.

Teare’s language in Sight Map is extraordinarily beautiful throughout the book. It is is lovingly crafted and displays some gorgeous nature imagery throughout. The plain details are as exquisite as are his more ornamental ones. Occasionally, they are rescued by a retinue of disturbances, each disturbance a minor portal to spiritual truth. This is an odd mechanism to achieve a spiritual aim, but Teare has invested in it with Dickinson as his spiritual guide. I’m not sure if I’d want to hunker down with ol’ Emily in order to breach the religious ecstatic, but Teare ventures there and makes a satisfying offering.

—Victor Schnickelfritz