Put your left foot in, etc.

Darlings! I suppose I never really said I wouldn’t post more than once a week, but I’m trying to take care of a few things and wanted to let you know about stuff that’s happening.

1. Check out the blogroll. I’m going to be adding a number of things there shortly.

2. Got poems in Washington Square and Tryst. Hooray! Not out for awhile, but it’s news to me! So you can buy me a drink later. I’ll update things in the ol’ pubs page later on.

3. Been over to Side A/Side B lately? Yeah, nothing new there. I haven’t abandoned it. Just lazy, got many other things going on (yeah yeah yeah). But I promise a new playlist soon.

Mmm, that’s pretty much it. What are you thinking about?

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Close Reads – One Tanka by Masaoka Shiki

Last week we looked at “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” and I have to admit it turned rather into an allusion fest, which was or was not all that useful to you, myself, or the poem, if that isn’t too vague. While Harvey’s resistance to straight allusory reads in that poem is a factor in the poem itself, I decided I’m going to skip the Wikipedia this week, partly for the sake of my own laziness, but also because I do have some small belief that we should be just as fruitful bringing the knowledge we already have. And let’s make it short and full of wonder, shall we?

Tanka. The sort of “completed sonnet” of the “incomplete sonnet” that is the haiku, if we mix syllables up for rhyme. But that’s just confusing. Tanka is haiku with two seven-syllable ending lines, so it’s a syllabic poem that runs 5-7-5-7-7. It’s a full house of a poem, as it were. Now I don’t know if I’ve cornered you in a room at an MFA party sometime in your life, but if I have, then you’ll know that I much prefer tanka to haiku. It has that added je ne sais quoi that only a poem of slightly greater length can have. And one of my favorites? Masaoka Shiki. But I’ll be damned if I tell you who he is—all I can do is mention his name again: Masaoka Shiki. Oh and to mention that I was reading Walter Benjamin’s essay on Proust this afternoon and find the parallels in Proust’s and Shiki’s lives a bit startling—well okay, maybe not, but it might be useful for you to know that both men lived around the same time and both completed their most well known work bedridden with chronic lung diseases. But I’ve already said too much! As most tanka go, this dude’s untitled. But do read it, among many other great tanka, here. Because I’m such a badass (okay, because Makoto Ueda is such a badass) I’m also providing the romaji.


wakaba sasu ichi no ueki no shitakage ni kingyo akinau natsu wa kinikeri


tree with lush leaves
at an outdoor fair
giving shade
to a goldfish seller
as summer begins


What I really find so lovely about short poems is how they work against a kind of linear read. In Harvey’s poem last week, one couldn’t resist watching how the poem progressed, how it posited, made variation, and changed its mind. Here however, since the poem can only accommodate the unveiling of a single scene, the reader is more apt to treat it as a static entity, perhaps, a linguistic mind-painting. And by apt I really mean that—a linear read is certainly still plausible. But this is rather the effect of short poems and not specific to this example.

What we have in this scene is an exquisite layering of realms and, linearly, a very straightforward movement of the eye downward and, in a flash, outward in a total view. If it’s your first read of the poem, you might imagine the tree from the natural viewpoint of one standing, perhaps in an adjacent clearing, looking at the leaves—a horizontal landscape. However, further reads, a knowledge of where we end up, drastically changes this viewpoint to one under the tree, looking up, presumably as the leaves sway with ginger motion in the slight breeze. The effect of this is powerful—we “wake up”in the poem on our backs. Now that could just be my read, but I think this cinematic effect is common enough (watch Lost ever?) that I’ll hazard a guess and say many others would share this read with me. Much in the way the goldfish is underwater, we are under the tree—see what I’m saying? The tree brings this underwater realm, one, if not foreign to the human reader, certainly dangerous, unnatural, to him, to his realm. And this is huge—to me—the point of the poem. The compelling quality of this, in the most concrete way, is the atmosphere it evokes. The sound of the outdoor market, of the seller as he calls out his goods, is to us warbled, muted, the larger effect of which is a distance between the reader (viewer, listener) and the scene before him. This is an exquisite tension. As the language starts and we wake into it, we realize we have waken into both sides of sleep: reality and dream. Don’t you ask yourself: is this poem a dream? Because it has dream’s qualities. And yet, the clarity and simplicity of what it describes seems real enough. This is further evidenced in the way the cognizant beings are equally layered—as much as we respond to the goldfish seller’s presence, so to, we respond to the presence of the goldfish. The mind, in the poem, is in both locations, under the tree and underwater. Or, perhaps, the goldfish mirror the others in the market, whom we don’t see directly, in their mass presence. Either way, Shiki deftly draws both the physical and mental environments of terrestrial and aquatic realms into a single description.

Now (and perhaps I’m too into Proust and Baudelaire now, via Benjamin)–what in our cognitive existence is most like dream and reality mashed together? That’s right: memory. So, going along with our previous responses, we ask, is this then a scene being remembered? And of course, don’t even attempt to answer that. The important factor in this question is the introduction of time. I mentioned before that this poem is static, but I also mentioned that I didn’t really mean that. And the tension in my equivocation is precisely because the poem follows a similar sort of tension. Time as it moves regularly is stalled, distended. But time as it moves within the mind is still at pace. What I mean by this is that we don’t really imagine the scene ticking away as we are taking our time (and luxury) in uncovering it. Think of the squeaky, warbly, herky jerky start of an old film, or if you start a record with the stylus mid-song. The song, or film, doesn’t seem to move independently from us (like an underground river we periodically have access to), but rather, it seems to cohere, in static form, and then move independently. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. This is what the poem does: it has to cohere before it lands on the running wheel of time, and only then can its gears lock with time’s gears and begin to rotate itself, etc. In another sense, the scene only has the appearance of moving through time; it is in fact us who are moving—and this lends a sense of simultaneously moving and not moving. Okay, perhaps this is all for naught. Let’s just look at the translation: no real active verbs. There’s “giving,” but that suggests a continuous state and not action. The real action fails to take place until the last line: “begins.” Ah ha! And what begins? Summer! A mark of time! Now, the significance of it being early summer is deep, not to mention that the beginning of summer is in fact isolated to this one moment, as though someone just turns summer on, here, in the market. The largest thing I consider with this is that, for the poet, this goldfish seller is a kind of traditional mark of summer, which relegates the statement of the poem to an assertion of ceremony. I’m not really all that interested in this, though you should feel free to be. What I’m more interested in is how we are shaken out of the timeless, dream/memory realm the poem has pushed us to inhabit into a realm of time, of inexorable time, exemplified by the changing of seasons (note that I’m avoiding the dogmatic seasonal rules of tanka and haiku). In a way, the poem kicks us out of itself. And it’s jarring, truly—one might as well get interrupted by a car alarm (isn’t this a sweet thought: the alarm of time. Go ahead and title your next poem that, I won’t care). There’s no real grand statement with this—I find the act of juxtaposing these elements, the realms, and time and eternity, satisfying enough, but let me just posit one thing: they are not in antagonism. Rather, just as the goldfish can be found in the jar, which can be found in the stand, which can be found under the tree, etc., these eternal moments, these pauses of scene, can be found all throughout time itself. One just needs the right kind of seeing, the right sense of one’s presence and the presence of everything around.

Close Reads – “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” by Matthea Harvey

Now I’ll admit that this week’s poem up for a close read isn’t the sort of poem that lends itself to people’s hearts or the fulcrum against which they decide to change their lives, become moral, good mothers and fathers and citizens of the universe, but then, I think it’s pretty clear this poem has no interest in such a place for itself. This poem does not comfort me, but I choose it because I think it is earnest in a different sort of way, as a kind of study, perhaps, of poetics and the limits of what can be gestured, etc. I wrote recently about Matthea Harvey and mentioned the book in which this is found, Sad Little Breathing Machine, as “a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers,” and I hold to that for the all the value it has. When I was thinking that thought, I was really thinking about this poem, and I hope to make you really believe me by the end of this post. What is great in “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” is how apparent the structure of her transfiguration is, how this theme re-instances itself over and over. While I would usually say such repetitions should move through variations that describe an arc of change in the speaker, I can’t really say that this is what Harvey is attempting here—that her speaker has been changed necessarily. Rather, I think of this poem much more as a kind of questioning, perhaps, unveiling, of the complexities the speaker has with her reader, the complexities of their (our?) relationship. Okay but I’ll get into all of this. Please buy this book here. Shall we then?


To Zanzibar by Motorcar


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain

I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temple

My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things–mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where

the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical

& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


So, the title—it hits first with its anachronistic tone and diction, this oldschool, let’s call it British (unfair, but you’ll see why I bring this into it shortly), “motorcar,” and the gleeful, almost insouciant declaration of adventure, but then it hits quite quickly again with the sonic proximities of “motorcar” and “Zanzibar,” which really secures the joke, an albeit outdated, wordplay kind of joke (ahem, anachronistic)(and O, Zanzibar isn’t exactly accessible by motorcar, at least not car alone). Of course, if we really think about Britain and Zanzibar and, I guess, the entire history of post-colonial Africa, this might rub us as a bit insensitive, but let me assure you this doesn’t go unaddressed, if you don’t see it already. What is really significant, to me, is this sonic wordplay, and let me just come out and tell you that this whole poem is about parallel existences and experiences. Already in the title we have the sonic parallels of the two main nouns; we have the suggested parallel of Britain and Zanzibar; and, perhaps most seriously, we have the parallel of the light-hearted language and the serious subject (the collapse of colonialism). O and what do we get next?


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain


That’s right, couplets! When I read this line I can’t help but hear the echo of another joke, which has many iterations, but is essentially “In America, money owns people,” or “In America, jeans wear you,” and so forth. I’ve puzzled over Regensberg for a little while now and can’t come up with anything conclusive other than the fact that Germany was another colonial contender and entered into a treaty with Britain over Zanzibar, though this treaty, as far as I can tell, was preemptive—Germany never had anything to do with the place. Whatevs, so the cloud left the mountain, which is code for “the curtain is lifted on the drama,” in this case, the drama of landscape as we traverse it. Now, the cloud is slightly anthropomorphized, but I’ll be damned if I have time to think about that. Also, “vain” and “vein,” as in rivers, circuits, roadways, if youknowwhatImean? But MOVING ON:


I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temples


“Crinolines” kind of hides in equal, uncertain possibilities. It establishes the speaker as a woman, prolly, of the nineteenth century, and her attempt at undermining her fabric (ahem, her social place) is in vain due to the fabric’s stiffness. That’s a pretty simply metaphor to understand, but let me also posit that crinoline gains its stiffness, historically, with a warp and weft of differing materials—hmm, kind of like a parallel. Ah but what I think is way more important in this couplet is the fact that the speaker is not in fact located in Regensberg, what with “sand” and “temple” and all. And so we take the suggestion that she is in fact in Zanzibar already, thinking of Regensberg, and here we get, to me, the central parallelism to the poem—the parallel locations of imagination. Zanzibar is the destination in the title, but in the poem, that destination seems to be Regensberg. With that established, we move deeper into her current location and her kind of state-of-affairs:


My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things—mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where


This is pretty standard fare—we are introduced to the act of looking, and we sweep briefly around her environment. Of course, she complicates this by showing us only very small things, and this lends us a sense of her deeply private existence there. She sees only that which her faculties can accommodate, but doesn’t it just so happen that both those things, the furtive mouse and the twitching pansies, are things that appear afflicted. The symbol of the mouse moving quietly behind the walls is so established as a symbol of an oppressed people she might just come out and say it, except for the fact that these lines are much more ostensibly about shape (like, of the eye). Here are the other parallels: eye/eye-shaped; mouseface/mousehole; pansies/palsy; flickering/twitching, with the larger parallel of mouse/pansy. While the remainder of the poem continues in this vein, with an unrelenting display of parallels, this section is especially concentrated around really visible parallels, largely, through the repetition of word and sound. This is where her theme tackles language itself, and this is the clearest presentation of the technique to the reader, the one that most immediately demands our attention. It’s a kind of climax and marks a significant shift in the poem, which ends up being one from a concern about the speaker’s situation to that of Zanzibar itself, as a locale:


the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical


I’m breaking the excerpt at an unfortunate place to maintain the strophe, but what the hell. So, we have now shifted from “My eyes,” to “Where…are common,” a shift from the self to the place, and once again it’s handled in a fairly conventional fashion, describing cultural behaviors and norms and, I suppose, their historic context, the “rebels” and “15th & 16th parallel.” Now the inclusion of “rebels” feels almost perfunctory—it really is her duty to be clear about this aspect of the location—but again the odd thing is that she in fact testifies to its absence. This kind of coincides with the fact that Zanzibar is not, in fact, located between these latitudes, north or south. So what are we supposed to do with that? Have we again shifted to a different location, just north or south, where there is peace, or, at least, where rebels do NOT lurk? Is she alluding to the “red line” 16th parallel of Vietnam? Oh my God is this about the Cold War? The short and long answer is that we don’t know, and while this might strike us as her evading a difficult subject (for any number of legitimate or illegitimate reasons), I think she is actually getting at something deeper, which is better seen, perhaps, by the fact that she has also shifted, in this section, tense. We are now in the present tense, and while this seems relatively natural grammatically, since we might take these descriptions as unchanged, mostly, by time, as characteristics of this place (versus the cloud that left the mountain, or her eyes that “took” things only during the period of her stay), it also raises an interesting narrative question (and makes the title work again!). Perhaps the title is in the present tense and her description of being “outside the temple” is in the past, SO, her call for adventure (in the title) is in fact a call to return. She remembers this place and has decided to go back. This makes for a more compelling story—we assume she has some kind of unfinished business, that she has reason, but isn’t it just like poetry to give us just a taste of that and no finisher? Again, we really can’t be certain; we are living in conjecture. But before I get ahead of myself let me finish the poem out:


& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


I have to think that this ending is quite purposely ugly. It is in a mode of antagonism rather than one of rapture, seduction, and this tone, even as it can be read, again, as jocular (she’s “pretending”), strikes me as quite serious—it makes no apologies for itself, and, we assume, it exhibits this strength to empower its subject. My point in all of this is that the speaker refuses clarification. How do you delineate something by freezing, by making no action at all? It’s a kind of protest. And what I think she is protesting, ultimately, is the folly of history. We don’t know if the rebels are there or not; we don’t know if she is there or not; we don’t know if this is a land of flickering mouses, palsied, ruined flowers, or if it is a land of kisses; we don’t know if it is a squint against something (pain? light?), a squint of pleasure (as when people kiss), or a squint to sharpen one’s view toward something of importance; and we certainly don’t know if the children are symmetrical as they stand in the street or as they lie in a mass grave. By going through all of these confusions, we get to see what the action of history is like, how it hides and confuses, how it makes ghosts that haunt the perfect weather. The poem then really, truly, becomes one about vision, what we can see, in the brief moment when the cloud has left the mountain, or when the mouse appears in the mousehole, etc, and how this operates in relationships of otherness, the parallel existences at either side of power.

The Throaty, Slightly Moist, Definitely Blackholish Suck of December, OR, Corporations Are People Too

O I have so many things to tell you since we were apart, and most of them have to do with it getting dark out earlier and how incredibly unprepared I feel for this holiday season. Can we just skip this year? It seems the older I get the less enthusiastic I am for these shenanigans, which makes perfect sense, since Christmas  used to mean tons of new things and a solid week to sit in my house and enjoy them. Now I mostly drive from suburb to suburb, coordinate dinner and drink meetups with in from out friends, spend endless hours comparing prices on gifts, etc, my god, I’m boring myself even as I try to make this remotely readable. Point is, I have never really felt the end of year so acutely.

I have a little theory cooking, which is partly Walter Benjamin, perhaps, and partly my own thievery from somewhere else, that all that is left (perhaps ever was?) in the phenomenal world is design. A language free from meaning! Baudrillard? Well I’ll have better sentences for you later.

What I really want to talk about this week is a little thing I like to call irony, which is also another installment of the as yet unlaunched tag “Lunches with Jay.”

Here’s what Jay said, and please take these quotes as suggestions of authenticity: “I was digging through the amendments of the Constitution the other day and noticed this interesting thing. You just think about this. The 13th amendment outlawed slavery, right, mid nineteenth century, ‘neither slavery norinvoluntary servitude, bla bla bla, shall exist in the United States’–right, got that. Now just a few years later the 14th amendment comes around and, while guarunteeing some basic citizenship rights for like, real people, also, post hoc, laid the law for corporations to be considered people as well. This is largely known as corporate personhood, and the most famous ruling for this is Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Do you see what I’m saying? There is a contradiction in the amendments. Corporations are owned by people, shareholders, so in a sense, they collectively own a ‘person,’ and isn’t this slavery?”

Okay I’ll admit I looked some of this up, but I thought this was a soapy little nugget of interest. Now I make no sincere claims that this is a blog on constitutional law, and I’m sure there is an entire discourse I’m missing here (I recognize this whole corporate personhood thing is hotly debated), but I wanted to take off from where Jay and I had to end our lunch, exactly as he raised his questioning voice at the end of “slavery,” and ask a follow-up question.

This has more to do with the creation of corporations than it does with their citizen status. I smell a little story of intrepid ingenuity. So it goes like this: I can’t have a physical slave? Well, then I’ll make an abstract one. It will work for me, make me money (as a shareholder); it will both produce goods for a market and be goods for a market, same as a corporeal (ha!) slave. And it will do all these things as I order it to.

Now my point is not to convince you that corporations are slaves in total, but to use what are clearly similarities to look at this thing I mentioned early. Namely, the shift from the physical to the abstract, by means of technology. In this case, the technology of shareholders, percentage ownerships, and those ownerships being traded as commodities themselves. I’m sure there are four hundred books I’ve never read that are about this shift, but, like most things in this blog, I’m just coming to it right now, with you, while you are at work or wherever, and can we just sit and ponder it for a second? In many ways, and this might be Marxist, this might be our greatest accomplishment in the surreal, since it essentially takes our most base necessity, that of production, and throws its various identities and shapes to the discretion of a sort of meta-market, a market that guesses at its actual market. See what I’m saying?  Do not fear the robots in science fiction. Fear the ones we’ve already made.