Greenberg studies a Kenneth Noland

What is the proper way for an essay to begin? What if it’s short, without sources, and on a blog? What if it has a lede?

Clement Greenberg was an art critic and thinker working in the Unites States in the middle twentieth century, and I bring his name up because of the idea he helped foster known as medium specificity, which stresses the accountability of a work according to the characteristics of its given medium—for instance, that a painting should exhibit skills and awareness of the two-dimensional plane, of color, maybe, rectilinearity. Equally, in which case, a painting should not rely on the characteristics it shares with any or all other mediums—say, story. It is an idea that compels the rise, in painting, of Abstract Expressionism, abandoning representation of three-dimensional objects (people, streets, birds, flowers, etc) and, altogether, the three-dimensional plane, in favor of emphasis on flatness, line and color. A painting should not have a subject other than itself, one might say.

Greenberg described this notion as it was situated historically in his essay “Modernist Painting,”which I have taken from Art in Theory: 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood:

“Realistic, illusionist art had dissembled the medium [of painting], using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledge only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly…
…The Old Masters had sensed that it was necessary to preserve what is called the integrity of the picture plane: that is, to signify the enduring presence of flatness under the most vivid illusion of three-dimensional space. The apparent contradiction involved—the dialectical tension, to use a fashionable but apt phrase—was essential to the success of their art, as it is indeed to the success of all pictorial art. The Modernists have neither avoided nor resolved this contradiction; rather, they have reversed its terms. One is made aware of the flatness of their pictures before, instead of after, being made aware of what the flatness contains. Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism’s success in doing so is a success of self-criticism.”

The applications of this thinking to poetry are myriad and profound, ranging from a defense of the rejection of narrative to the experimental use of word placement on the page, but I wish to apply this idea to something a little broader and more ambiguous, which is our contemporary state of curatorship.

To be sure, I am speaking of the media deluge through which we swim and, more specifically, our behavior within that deluge. On an individual level, the media landscape can take many different forms, weighted toward densities of and emphasis on different types of media. For one person, the deluge is full of news. For another, funny videos. Another, recipes. And for most us it exists behind all of that in advertising, in a murmur of Helvetica and The Rule of Thirds, from which there tries to jump something that wants to ride your mind back into significance.

While these agents have arrested our attention for a long time, what is new is their sheer abundance, the technologies and motivations we have toward recording, collecting and delivering them. History is no longer something to remember but something to simulate. Or more importantly, it is something to organize.

The burden of this task is answered in the immediate by the concept of medium specificity. As I said, I believe this burden is new, and part of the excitement in the information age, in the industries that have sprung up within it, is the feeling that all the worlds treasures have just washed up on your own private shore. The first thing we must do is name its constituents and parts, and we do that by understanding kinds and the characteristics that define them. We put the rings in a box and hang the necklaces on a branch. If it were a painting, we would decide so because it is flat, rectangular, and with line and color. Our first act is a metaphysical one, a categorization. Our second is evaluation. We choose our finest of each.

We are surprised into these tasks, but even in this beginning stage come under threat. We do not know what characteristics are true definitions, and, I think we err. After awhile we begin to see, not forms, but themes, and the themes become seductive, in the end, the exclusive reason we choose to watch, read, listen to, or look at something.

Let me tell you something about me. I like giraffes. I think they are funny looking. I have several figurines in my house. I have a documentary. I have shopped for giraffe stuff. Such behavior, in moderation, is an amusement of the privileges we have. But it has an insidious force. When I am shopping for giraffe things, when I see them in shops, I do not see the real objects of the world. I see a giraffe. I am no longer capable of proper judgment.

There is a reason we have this inclination. The tension between theme and form is a tension precisely between the mind and the universe. The mind finds form too pixelated. There are simply too many forms in the universe, and it overwhelms our ability to assemble a plan. To help ease the data load, the mind creates themes, personal relevance, narrative. I like giraffes not because of their form, but because of there place as part of my identity—they are something I express about myself, and that is a theme. Perhaps the theme.

This is the environment into which the media deluge swims, and the media deluge is the inhabitant that most demands our ability to see its forms. That we wish to order things according to who we are, what we say we like, what we support as politics or ideology, even what we support as aesthetics, is natural and not without its virtue. But such themes make the qualities of a form less present to us, and we lose our rigor. We lose the capability of judging a piece of media, a message, by its quality, by the seriousness of its attempt, by its legitimacy within a field, its appropriateness. We stop seeing that it is a message at all.

The true danger of this oversight is that we relinquish control. We are set to amass in demographics, regions, in audiences and trends. We react softly to the deluge and let it shape us so long as it promises to show us who we are. Perhaps it will take us somewhere good. But we won’t know, because we won’t be able to see it.

Nick Demske (Modern Poet Series)Nick Demske by Nick Demske
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic exploration of the profane, abject, and vulgar via forced sonnets that feel rather like a corpse being stuffed back into a live body. One of the best displays of the excising of language, based on language cliches, ephemera (advertising, phone messages, etc), and their frenetic reworking–language as excrement, the sloughed off. Not to mention a study of onanism, a more physical-feeling solipsism. Julia Kristeva eat your heart out. Paired finely with moments of startling imagery and sound: “Cup full of athlete, / Spilling. Huffing mouth-to-mouth at a carrion / Heap, petting these bunnies to pieces” (“Whether My Head Or This Wall Will Be first To Surrender”)

On the negative slope, either the poet or the reader gets a little well baked in this. Not sure the commitment to the form and mood and even the theory sustains the entirety of the collection. Or maybe I’m just TV-A.D.D., but I found myself getting eager to finish as I approached the end. Subtle issue–collection is still worth every penny you pay.

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Hung in the Air

I was hoping to do a post about some recent conversations I’ve had about the curatorial work our contemporary condition requires of us, and I hope to do that, perhaps next, but this other issue has been frequenting my lunches with Jay, and I feel closest to them now and would like to share a few of their inquiries.

I want to talk about time. It’s a complicated subject, no doubt. It’s complicated specifically with a number of entryways, but I want to cut through as much of this as I can and get down to this: we are all going to die. I don’t mean each of us, individually, in scattered hospitals or nursing homes at whatever our “chosen”…”time,” but rather, that we are all going to die collectively–humankind, is going to die, perhaps all life on planet earth, is going to cease existing, and there is an increasingly solid agreement that this is going to happen sooner rather than later.

To me, and to many, the likely cause of this death will be environmental destruction. But in the past, especially, ten years, a very clear and present ( :) ) paradigm has shifted. Let me list quickly for you a number of items that have occupied recent thought:

1. Increasing awareness of our extremely complex and absolutely devastating practices against our planet and its ecologies. This has just been posited.

2. A severe economic crises that threatened (threatens) the entire mechanism that moves our people and resources around and within one another.

3. Similarly, a move of the centers of production as far to the other side of the world as possible. The fallout, good and bad and otherwise.

4. A holy/culture war. Several fronts. Foreign and domestic.

5. An explosion in information and computing technologies such as to create an “information age” or a “knowledge economy.” Subsequently, an intense media saturation, an overturn of entire communications behaviors and institutions, and lastly a satisfaction we have, perhaps, never known, at least in terms of abundance.

These are all well known concerns, and not all are bad. But the question I am very tempted to ask is if the combination/proximity of these concerns are, not, without, but with very little, precedence. I think most would say yes and agree that there is a sizable angle of change pulling beneath us.

I don’t mean to be getting incapacitatingly freaked-out, but rather to steer these emotions toward a subject we all might profit from understanding better, which is how the sense of change and the risk of its failure disrupt our sense of time.

Let me tell you a “when my Grandfather died” story, which goes like this:

When my grandfather died, I had a hidden joy. Not for his death, his death terrified me–rather, for the disruption it caused. I was out of school for about a week. Every boy loves to be out of school, but there was more to this. I was out to be among people and to talk and think. I thought of my Grandfather’s life. I thought of his death. I thought of my parents’ death, and of my own. And packed around this in sheaths were the wet days of that week. All the ceremony, the family, the eating and stories pulled fine threads through the week and held it there as though up, briefly, to be observed. In this suspension, action is impossible. Of course, there is much to be done with a funeral, which is something I do not understand because I have, thankfully, never had to manage one. But everything else that tugged me forward with the promise of letting me touch it sat idle, in an eddy, limning the gate through which I eventually returned to my life from that interim. Every death I have been near has caused this reaction, but more so, every significant change. Surrounding it are these days.

But I feel we are now perpetually in this state, even as we push forward and design and build and trade. Perhaps it is even the exact opposite, that the present feels to us unloosened and gliding the convection of our activities. Because of our prolonged cues. It is the environment in which we live. Perhaps I speak mostly for myself, but it is a sense I have felt from my peers as well, and the best I can describe it is as  a kind of despondence, an acceptance of a much more limited set of ambitions. I do not need to speak about the dangers of this kind of state of mind, but I do feel it necessary to say how unfortunate it would be that we cannot use all the good we have made, not only to rescue ourselves but to realize something better, simply because of our lack of will.

Popping in after awhile for a short review:

Chronic: PoemsChronic: Poems by D.A. Powell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this, and I did at first. His talent is irrefutable, and when I felt him in more designy shoes, as in the more formalist poems in the opening pages, I connected more. But once he started engaging his subject matter, mostly, environmental and health devastation, I found the poems to move much less certainly, much too conscious of and forcing themselves toward the larger thematic concerns of the collection. Perhaps I’m biased against strong subjects in collections, but I’d almost rather read an essay than poems on these topics.

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Modern Life

Modern Life: PoemsModern Life: Poems by Matthea Harvey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a bit of a rush, but I want to get this quick review off to you. Modern Life is the third in Harvey’s collections of poems and is most notable for the two sections, “The Future of Terror,” and “The Terror of the Future,” which anchor the book like two firm columns running through this seven sectioned collection. Please pick up a copy at Graywolf. Like much of Harvey’s work, the book as a whole is extremely organized, with a parallel section structure that runs roughly like this:

The Future of Terror
Art section I
Robo-boy section
Art section II
The Terror of the Future

Poems in the TofF and FofT sections follow a similar rigid organization, as Harvey describes in the notes: “the poems “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” were inspired by making lists of the words in the dictionary between “future” and “terror.” They are not strict abecedarian poems because they are not acrostics, but they do mimic the abecedarius’s alphabetical footsteps. The words “future” and “terror” act like “A” and “B”–they were the markers that mattered.” And one feels this alphabetical counting strongly, moving forward in the TofF section and backward in the FofT, which has this cumulative, somewhat bewildering effect on the reader’s sense of time, especially as we seem both in some imagined future and some imagined present. This is the core strength of the collection, I believe, in that Harvey seems to accomplish what so much science fiction cannot, by bringing her strange universe and her strange futurism to a very private level in the reader. No doubt, Harvey is characteristically challenging, colorful, and witty, and any reader thinking this collection to be a critique of the War on Terror is right only insofar as Miami is representative of America (thanks Jay!). TofF speaks, mostly, from a soldier’s point of view, and FofT speaks, mostly, from a citizen-in-maybe-post-apocalyptic-world point of view (what better place than these parentheses to mention that the sense of apocalypse in this collection is very sophisticated–perhaps, that it’s not even post-apocalyptic or dystopian, but some caffeine-addled dream of the mucus-drenched entanglement of the two). Here’s a taste of The Future of Terror, from “The Future of Terror / 3,” which has my favorite image in the collection, though I will not get to it below (why not here: “Periodically, we started projects: one man / made dents in the shape of stars on the inside / of his P.O. Box with a Phillips head screwdriver.”):

Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi. Even armed with invoices,
it’s human nature to proceed inch-meal.
We were a sad jumble of journeymen and here’s
the kicker: a few of us had never been love.

And here from “Terror of the Future / 9″

The teacups tied to strings along the walkway
stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing.
We shook talc onto our tastebuds
and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed,
until night blacked them out like a giant
malevolent Sharpie.

While the projects of these two sections provide the most ostensible place to go for meaning, they are not in fact what I most enjoy about this collection. Like many things, I think there are many great moments in these poems, but too often I feel the form a bit clumsy, and while I like stepping alphabetically up and down the aforementioned feeling this evokes, I prefer Harvey when she is a bit freer to design her poems according to image. Which, let me mention, Harvey is a design poet, something I like to fancy I am. I don’t mean she’s a formalist by any means, but time and time the meaning I get out of her work is a direct result of the way she designs things, her counterpoints, juxtapositions, transfigurations, etc., and, if you would be so kind as to remind me next week, I’d like to get into this idea more thoroughly: poetry as design (as opposed to poetry as testament).

The geometrically true center of this collection is in the Robo-boy poems, and as the blurbs on Graywolf’s site suggest, this is very involved in this sense of fragmentation, of being in-half, a monster, half-human half something else, missing something, etc. Robo-boy, by the thorough involvement by the poet in hashing out several poems on him, develops the strongest sense of character, and in this way is perhaps the lightest reading of the book in the clarity of concern the poems have. He’s somewhat hapless and pitiful, but loveable and very relatable in pretty standard ways–we all feel his sense of estrangement, his robot-among-humans confusions. But by no means are these feelings limited to this group of poems. Rather, they are extremely pervasive throughout the collection and, I think, the strongest meaning in the book, our collective contemporary state of estrangement, both from the governing principles of our societies and institutions, and, sadly, from each other. Hence the title Modern Life and not Future Life.

Harvey has a great accomplishment regarding this latter notion, in that, throughout the remaining prose poems, she is able to write pieces playfully surreal, creating what feel almost like installations on the page, and others that are much more deeply personal, direct addresses, matters of romance, perhaps, or certainly intimate human connections, which are especially prevalent in the closing section, whose emotional tenor is satisfyingly amped. The variation makes for peppy reading.

Let me close this by giving two examples of the prose poems, the first being this kind of “installation” poem, and the latter being this more intimate one. From “Waitressing in the Room with a Thousand Moons:”

The moons desperately want to circle something, so when a dish comes out, they dive-bomb it, bump into each other and a dusting of moon-rock falls into the food. They know the plate won’t be a planet. We’ve been here for centuries and not once has a planet come in. I guess they do it just-in-case. Having lived most of their lives too close to everything, their sense of perspective is poor.

And, “You Know This Too,” in entirety:

You Know This Too

The bird on the gate and the goat nosing the grass below make a funny little fraction, thinks the centaur. He wonders if this thought is more human than horse, more poetry than prose. Sometimes it’s hard not to abandon the whole rigmarole of standing at the counter–using a knife and fork to politely eat his steak and peas–to go outside and put his head in the grass. But what his stomach wants, his tongue won’t touch; what his mouth wants, his stomach recoils from. Through the restaurant window he sees flashes of silver and pink in the river. It’s so clogged with mermaids and mermen, there’s no room for fish. And under the bridge, a group of extremist griffins, intent on their graffitti–Long Live the Berlin… The spray paint runs out and while they’re shaking the next can in their clenched claws, the centaur spells out Wall on his napkin, and sketches next to it a girl in sequins getting sawed in half.

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Cyborg (creative commons)

So I have been working out this poem, which is part of a series of lyrics, where the speaker’s central concern is a desire to become a monster. It’s slightly off territory for me, not so much that it is macabre or sci-fi or anything like that, but that the speaker must, in order to want monstrosity, be a lovely fellow indeed.  He is a public speaker (something I do, oddly, write a lot about, though I am not much of one myself) and it’s pretty much gold and wind pouring out of his mouth all the time. I suppose some of this is beside the point, but my question for you is, do you ever feel any kind of desire like this, to be a monster? Try and think for a minute beyond childhood fantasy or the slightly more adult desire to have, say, special powers, some kind of hybrid prowess, like a cheetah’s speed or a bird’s ability to fly, or, as evidenced by this rather creepy picture , mechanical (hydraulic) strength and computation, and try to think of some moment where you have more desired to be so fully off the grid that the very nature of your body is in question.

To me, this is true monstrosity, a discomfort with oneself, a feeling of a foreigner controlling parts of you. This doesn’t really sound all that pleasant, really, ever, and as I was working this poem out I was asking myself a lot about the legitimacy of the speaker’s want. A lot of it is wrapped up in this want for ruin, to break out of the palace, and in some instances of this in mythology a kind of monstrousness gets evoked by the hero (the Buddha was a prince, and you could say his enlightenment was the introduction of some foreign element, something that made him less human, which, of course, is up for debate). But I still don’t think a desire for ruin, for change, necessarily lead to this idea of the monster. What does, however, is drama, and let me caveat that I am about to define the monster in an extremely loose way. Loneliness, isolation, ill-feelings, etc., are all marked by a kind of imbalance, in whatever form, and here there is a strong correlation to the monster, whose oversized or multiple arms or incredible strength or infrared vision or whatever else throw him straight through and beyond the standard deviations (digression: what I find so compelling about a character like Frankenstein is this attempt at becoming human, and that what keeps him from being so is not so much one given thing but a serious of very subtle errors or constraints that accumulate into one egregious whole. Frankenstein is really just a bit tall, square, and dumb, but that is enough to keep him from being human), and perhaps when we feel “out of sorts” ourselves it is precisely this sort of feeling that we are having, this being acutely marginalized, this being so beyond the reality we see around us that we can’t possibly be a natural inhabitant. So we feel monster sympathy, Frankenstein is lovable, as is WALL-E, as is Spock (okay maybe not lovable). We sympathize because they are outsiders, by their very nature, and we have flirted with that sort of permanent banishment, at least in the way we feel we are treated. I guess there’s also this whole uncanny valley thing, but damn it that’s for another time–what I really came here to show you was one of my favorite Lorca poems. Pick him up anywhere, really (feeling link lazy), though this translation is W.S. Merwin (I guess you should now the poem is by Lorca of the Federico García variety). I think the relevance to all this monster banter will be apparent.


Cancion del Naranjo Seco

Córtame la sombra.
Líbrame del suplicio
de verme sin toronjas.

¿Por qué nací entre espejos?
El día me da vueltas,
y la noche me copia
en todas sus estrellas.

Quiero vivir-sin verme.
Y hormigas y vilanos
soñaré que son mis
hojas y mis pájaros.

Córtame la sombra.
Líbrame del suplicio
de verme sin toronjas.


Song of the Barren Orange Tree

Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.

Why was I born among mirrors?
The day walks in circles around me,
and the night copies me
in all it stars.

I want to live without seeing myself.
And I will dream that ants
and thistleburrs are my
leaves and my birds.

Cut my shadow from me.
Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.

Hello hello! I know–totally cliche, this absence. But listen, promises are like water; and many things have been happening out there among the parked cars and trees and things. I hope this still finds you, in whatever place you are.

Let me tell you, I got married. Twas lovely and deep and long, and I’ve been travelling and generally on a hiatus, but let me cut right to it: I’ve also been watching a lot of BBC Life and Planet Earth, and the long affairs I’ve had in their various wildernesses brings me to our engagement. Here is a clip from Planet Earth, an immense landscape and drama.

My question: Planet Earth and BBC Life bring vast audiences amazingly remote and unique phenomenon in stunning (as the parlance goes) hi-definition, technologically advanced media. Unlike some of Attenborough’s other nature programs, Planet Earth and BBC Life are in fact relatively thin on really detailed information about biology and ecology, opting instead for what feel like constant introductions to some of the most unique and artful and dramatic events and individuals on the planet. I think this is a very intelligent approach, and I think this because I think it is savvy and fits exactly today’s audiences’ needs. I know much of this is another conversation about the difficulties of something like Infinite Jest, where the hi-def and the dazzling in mass media are narcotic inhibitors of some other, more wildly enriched, deep and clear and true existence (stunning indeed). But where most, in my mind, manifestations of this trope provide no real other alternative than something, at best, imagined, or more often relegated to a small sect of either enlightened or simply unwilling individuals and their microsociety (think of any dystopian sci-fi), BBC’s groundbreaking programs not only provide an absolutely real alternative, well, they are completely about them. Now the content here varies. One can certainly say, if having watched any of the features on the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea, that the subject perfectly folds into the medium’s “dazzling” qualities. And maybe this is why such features, specifically, are the most widely known–because the subject of them is so well married to the medium. But when I watch that wolf hunt, I feel something different, that immense landscape, the cold and the wind and the absolute shortness of time–and that is its own kind of reassurance to me. I envy that landscape for its simplicity, its blunt rules, even as I feel them most deeply because of the abundance of the world I live in and the access it provides.  It’s a feeling that I recognize, that comes to me in books, but more so, anytime, basically, I am alone and out of doors. And above that, all of this, content and desire, tastes and opinions and associations and the wonder of it all and having to make one’s way through. So I hold these nature programs as one of those things, as a unit in my cultural currency, even as I am conscious that my literateness and sophistication bely a world that has little difference from the animals I watch, in both’s subjection to vicissitudes, the take and have taken. So I am left with a peculiar sense–that I am glad for the candy and glad for the lesson as well, but also, that I am hopelessly lost, that both must always come paired. It’s a question of authenticity as it exists as a noun, free of that which it describes. I suppose.

Or perhaps the real irony is that, if you are conscious of the high technical quality of these programs, you are also conscious that such advances mark a very particular point in time, ours, now, when no doubt nature is in peril. This could be, in essence, a funeral. I don’t think we want to think this, and I’ll leave it at that–as the great problem not by BBC’s programs, but certainly brought forth through them. In the end, I think we are better for watching such testaments, that they might, indeed, live within us, be something that amazes us still.


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