Friday, March 18, 2011
AKA the Shiver of the Vampires
d. Jean Rollin
By 1971, French director Jean Rollin already had two films, Le viol du vampire (Rape of the Vampire) and La vampire nue (The Nude Vampire), under his belt. What's more, he had established a singular cinematic vision distinctly his own. One could draw connections perhaps to the serials of silent film director Louis Feuillade as well as more obtuse efforts by sexploitation directors such as Jess Franco and also the bande dessinee comic serials being produced in the Franco-Belgian market of the period, but Rollin's mixture of sex and surreal somnambulism stands apart. It is this very apartness that defines his work. True, these earliest of Rollin features are very much of their time, in a way unlike anything else in his oeuvre. The vampires hippies and psych rock scores date these first few films, or at least give them a retro flavor, but these psychedelic garnishes simply ornament a more profoundly ineffable center, one that is not beholden to linearity. These are films displaced in time, or perhaps it would be better to say that the time period they occupy is an amorphous one - call it memory. And as the time between their production, the late-sixties, and their present viewing increases, the otherness of these trappings only deepen the greater otherness at play. Kitsch is displaced as the camp bypasses nostalgia to stress another transcendence. Perhaps something inward.
These early films, floridly literate and tethered to Surrealism, are in direct opposition to the French New Wave which was then in vogue. Jean Rollin is a resolutely individual director, but he is not an auteur in the sense the French New Wave privileged. He is something else. And we must move towards what that something else is. It is easier to identify what Rollin's films are not. Rollin's work is just as out of step with traditional horror fare, with his preference for elliptical plotting and dreamlike pace, as they are with the art film. Is Alain Robbe-Grillet a possible analogy? Is Walerian Borowczyk? Maybe? Not quite? Where do these movies belong, then? Who is the intended viewer?
Rollin's third picture, Le frisson des vampires, known internationally as both Sex and the Vampire and the Shiver of the Vampires, continues to mine a twilight terrain between commercial exploitation and a profoundly personal cosmology. The film further stabilizes the tropes and tendencies first seen in Le viol du vampire, a movie Rollin has stated stands as a blueprint for his entire career. We return again to a place we never left. The hallmarks of Rollin's hermetic vision are present - Le frisson des vampires is replete with orphan girls and entourages of vampire hippies. Everything is illuminated in a garish, artificial lighting. It all ends, as is often the case with Rollin, on a deserted beach. The melange of late-sixties kitsch framing these images, as well as the uncharacteristically developed plot, fosters an accessibility uncommon in his oeuvre. But where does this supposed accessibility take us?
Is Le frisson des vampires a good introduction to the director's films? That's a difficult question, but perhaps the difficulty doesn't lie in the prospect of an answer, but in the question itself. Rollin's films work best as an accumulative whole. Viewed in totality, they compose a dream narrative of modular points. The viewer does not move in a linear fashion from point A to point B to point C, but from point A to an alternate point A to yet another possible point A. Sychronicities fall into place as if by accident, as inevitable as they very well may be. Is it even possible to truly first encounter a Jean Rollin film, or can the viewer only return to them again and again? The pleasure derived from his films grow as the viewer is further acquainted with the larger body of work and with Rollin's sense of le fantastique. A viewer divorced from a sense of the whole may become bored or disoriented, put off by stilted acting and an often dehabilitating low budget. A horror fan may get annoyed by the lack of gore. Another viewer, one accustomed to art cinema, may be dismayed by how the camera follows nude bodies with the same lingering gaze of pornography. Is this pornography?
The problem is that Le frisson des vampires possesses the signifiers of exploitation; it uses language developed by exploitation cinema to define itself, but employs this vocabulary towards a more personal vision. An exploitation director like Jess Franco falls more securely within the parameters of what the French New Wave classified as an auteur than Rollin, who I would argue does not. Perhaps this is because each of Rollins' films are on some level about their self-referentiality, the film's inevitable return to itself, while a Franco film simply returns to familiar tropes and themes on account of their director's personality and force of will. Jean Rollin's films compose a personal cinema rarely, if ever, seen outside of the arena of the art film. And such intensity of personal vision is uncommon even there. Is impractical, even there. But Rollin does not rely on the language which has been codified as acceptable for art cinema. And while this may be in some respect intentional, it is also circumstantial. An early film project of Rollin's was to involve French novelist Marguerite Duras, but was never completed as finances petered out. A collaboration with a recognized writer of the avant garde such as Duras, especially so early in his career, could have shifted any subsequent appraisal of Rollin towards a different demographic, towards what some would call a respectable canon. Instead, Rollin had to rely on the horror industry to produce his films. This perhaps worked in the favor of Rollin's pictures. Early shorts like Les amours jaunes, inspired by the poetry of Tristan Corbiere, are guilty of perhaps too earnest a literary pretension. The harsh realities which accompany such a profit-based industry as exploitation forced compromises of content and limited shooting schedules that, while they may have been pragmatically difficult to deal with, resulted in films of an unheralded dislocation and sense of the uncanny.
To a viewer familiar with the more severe minimalism of Rollin's later work, Le frisson des vampires may even seem over-stuffed. The plot may be simple; it involves three vampires' seduction of a young bride and her lover's attempt to halt the subsequent demonic transformation, but for Rollin such an involved plot approaches the baroque. The sheer amount of dialogue may surprise someone who has also seen the later Requiem pour un vampire, in which 40 minutes elapse before the first dialogue is even spoken. The resultant film is uncharacteristically extroverted, with an almost parodic playfulness and buoyancy. It occupies the space we expect a horror film to inhabit, but refuses to comply with expectations. The scaffolding which is the plot allows Rollin's moments of persistent image their incongruence and brilliance. When the female vampire played by Dominique descends from a chimney or creeps out from a grandfather clock, we are moved because these events are not addressed by the banalities of plot. The images exist as they are. The film is constructed like a carnival ride through a haunted house - the plot provides the tracks which the viewer moves along so that images may reveal themselves in succession. But the tracks exist on account of these image events. A successful viewing of the picture does not demand an explanation for what occurs. In fact, a better method of watching would be to actively divorce the images from the plot, to digest them within the context of how they relate to Rollin and his oeuvre, instead of how they relate to the plot or the confines of the film itself.
During a recent viewing of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, I was struck by just how thoroughly it subverts the tropes of the horror film. Von Trier interrogates the conventional usages of these tropes, and then reorients them towards another purpose, perhaps towards a reflection of their purpose. Jean Rollin's films, like von Trier's Antichrist, exist at a distance, or disconnect, from the greater contingency we can call genre horror or the horror industry. But Rollin exists at a different position in relation to horror than von Trier. Rollin is not a provocateur and while he is a consummately literate and intelligent director, he is not an intellectual director. Von Trier may be a ideologically anti-intellectual director, but only within the confines of his own particular intellectualism. The Danish director subverts the horror genre for other ends - Antichrist is the image of a horror film, rather than a horror film itself. Von Trier's Antichrist uses the horror film to approach the other, while the otherness of Rollin's films is their very dedication to the self.
Who is the ideal viewer of Jean Rollin's films? Perhaps it is Jean Rollin, or the image of Jean Rollin which the films present to the viewer - the Jean Rollin the viewer is willing to occupy.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Everybody loves bridges. They get you from here to there. Bridges are also beautiful things in and of themselves - to say nothing of the perspective gained while standing on one. New perspectives on old buildings.
I love bridge comics. I guess another word for them would be ground-level, though no one uses that term anymore. Ground-level comics were a middle-ground, or is that a bridge, between the underground comix sold in head shops and the monthlies on the rack at the drugstore. Star*Reach, an anthology edited by Mike Friedrich, is a prime example of these ground-level books. Here you could find work by Howard Chaykin, Michael T. Gilbert and Dean Motter, all under the same title. A lot these guys, like Chaykin, did freelance for the big companies, while some, like Dick Giordano, would work as editors at those same big companies. The early Heavy Metal, back when it was still owned by National Lampoon, and Epic, Marvel Comic's answer to Heavy Metal, can be seen as two other examples of bridge comics. These comics pushed formal boundaries of the medium, while still staying within the trappings of genre.
But format often follows content, or maybe it's more complicated than one leading to the other. Bridge comics were often published as magazines rather than the smaller periodicals. This was to some extent tied into the restrictions of the then-mighty Comics Code Authority, which could not regulate magazines as it could standard issue comics. 'Love and Rockets' began as a magazine, sparking connections in my mind to the above-mentioned anthologies, to the Warren books, to RAW and Weirdo, and to the European Bande Dessinee albums.
'Love and Rockets' is a bridge comic. Or, 'Love and Rockets' was a bridge comic in the eighties, along with 'Cerebus' and 'ElfQuest.' But the work of the Los Bros. Hernandez has since become something else - I won't say something more, but something different. People don't compare it with 'American Flagg!' or 'Church & State' much anymore. But is that really a good thing? 'Love and Rockets' has found a shelf-life as a series of graphic novels, and like Neil Gaiman's 'the Sandman,' it has shifted its identity from a periodical series that has been collected to a series of collections that were once published periodically. These are the realities of the comics market, which is thriving, but in a manner unpredicted by those who used to swear 'Comics aren't just for kids anymore.' While the majority of 'Love and Rocket's individual issues were printed as standard comics, the first handful were published by Fantagraphics as beautiful, magazine-sized volumes.
In 1983's Love and Rocket's # 4, we get an exciting melange of early work by Los Bros. Hernandez. The book is bookended by installments of 'Locas' and 'Palomar' by Jaime and Gilbert respectively. Jaime's rapid development is incredible, as the Milton Caniff and Alex Toth affections are streamlined into a style distinctly Jaime's. Look at the party scene from '100 Rooms.' We can spot female wrestlers, cartoonish dictators and even a women sporting a jumpsuit out of Kirby's Fourth World!
Gilbert's page composition in 'Heartbreak Soup' is looser than his brother's. While Jaime often relies on tight variations of the nine-panel grid, Gilbert's pages sport fewer, wider panels. His composition also finds more room for the truly strange. Sometimes we'll only see the top of a character's head, or the head might even be cut off. Everything is rounded and I'm at a loss to find a comprehensive antecedent - maybe because there isn't one. I am reminded of Jacques Tardi, but with a far greater sense for naturalism. Maybe Jose Munoz as well? There is an architectural eeriness to Gilbert's artwork that approaches the surreal, despite the often earthy content of his stories. Gilbert's shadows are round blotches thrown against walls and dirt yards. Jaime is more likely to use tight shadows defined by their architecture - narrow windows or dark doorways. It's such a lovely aesthetic contrast that it's hard not to believe it's intentional on the part of the brothers. It's also one of the strong arguments for doing the legwork and tracking down these original issues - the reader can experience the interplay of the brothers' work against each other, rather than segregated into separate tomes.
Above is a scan of Gilbert's short story, 'Twitch City.' It is a jarring followup up to '100 Rooms,' which directly precedes it. The Locas epic closes with the skyline of a Latin American ghetto, complete with ragged antenna shooting from the roofs of block buildings. 'Twitch City' opens with a splash page clotted with futuristic skyscrapers all jagged light and shadow. It's a breathtaking transition - the sort that anthologies excel at.
From one city to another.
Gary Groth writes on the inside front cover that "Twitch City" follows in the tradition [Gilbert] began with "Radio Zero" in L & R #2, succinct but devastating commentary on the present hidden masterfully in a tale of the future." That reading strikes me as dishonest. Groth, especially in the early 80s, was prone to ham-fisted and bellicose editorializing. His attempt to position 'Twitch City' as a social parable smacks of an urge towards relevancy.
The Over-Boys, the neighborhood practice of going 'thermo,' president (Brooke) Shields, these are all hilarious red herrings masquerading as world-building detail. We get near-death visions of Frida Kahlo, bio-regenerative booster shots and teenage Nazi parties. What does it add up to? It all builds to a crushing malaise. to a dead time of emotion. Emico, our seventeen year-old protagonist complains "It's all getting so old... all that shit people do for kicks nowadays... it's getting worse, of course... that is, more boring than ever..." And the story ends with Emico having sex with the man-child she earlier saved from the Over-Boys, holding a bowl of cottage cheese and trying. "When I joined the force two years ago, somehow," she thinks, " I thought it would be different..." The final image is loaded, with a number of potential centers. My eye is drawn to the tears trailing down Emico's cheek, as well as the bowl of cottage cheese she awkwardly cups in her hand. But then we see Ito's hand in the lower left corner of the panel, flat on her stomach. It vitalizes everything that came before in the story - the estrangement, the boredom and the dread.
One of the delights of handling back issues is reading the letter pages. I wasn't even born until 1984, so the best way to get some sort of context for this work is via the correspondences and ephemera at the edges of the comics themselves. There are letters from both Scott Hampton, a talented artist with a Franzetta-influenced style who did some excellent work with writer Bruce Jones at Pacific Comics, and Bhob Stewart, who occasionally contributed articles to Heavy Metal in the early 80s when Lou Stathis used to provide (unpopular) music and arts coverage for the magazine. I was especially amused to find a letter from artist Steve Leialoha. Leialoha is an occasionally brilliant artist whose collaboration with Elaine Lee, 'Steeltown Rockers,' is a favorite of mine. 'Steeltown Rockers' is a charming teen comic sometimes reminding me of Archie, and sometimes reminding me of 'Love and Rockets' itself. I always thought the Leialoha of the mini-series was under the spell of Jaime's Locas work. I was glad to see that hunch somewhat substantiated.
Here is the cover to an issue of 'Steeltown Rockers.'
The letter pages on the whole speak more of Gary Groth and the mentality of Fantagraphics in the early 80s than it does of either Los Bros. Hernandez or 'Love and Rockets' itself. His responses are often curt and defensive. At one point he quips, "...things could be worse. We could hire Deni Sim to write our editorials for us." But then, Groth comes off every bit as insouciant as Dave Sim. And I get just as much of a kick out of reading vintage Groth editorials as do Dave Sims'. Groth explains Fantagraphics' "...editorial/ explanatory overkill may be a result of our perception of the direct-sales market as controlled by the four-color comics sheep and of 'Love and Rockets' as bucking this trend." Any early issue of the Comics Journal or Amazing Heroes is littered with such harsh soapbox-ranting about the 'sheep' who dare to enjoy their four-color funnies. But Groth does pinpoint one of the chief causes of such anxiety - the direct market. I could be wrong, but I'm assuming 'Love and Rockets' wasn't sold in the head shops that used to stock 'Dope Comix' or 'Bizarre Sex.' Instead, 'Love and Rockets' could only be found at the direct sales comic store, shelved next to Marvel's direct market titles like Micronauts or Moon Knight. It wouldn't be until the mainstream exposure and acceptance of cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes, Seth and especially Chris Ware that 'Love and Rockets' could be seen in a comfortable context. I can imagine a comic store owner being bewildered how to sell the book when the majority of customers can in on Wednesday looking for the latest issue of Dazzler. He should have just sold them both.
Friday, February 4, 2011
by David Antin
Introduction by Marjorie Perloff
Poetry is parsed incrementally. We come to sense via the unit - how it is delineated, how it is twisted, how it harkens back to itself and its parts. This is the holographic sense of poetry, where each unit refracts and reflects the whole. Poetry then becomes a mechanism for referring to its own parts in a cogent and expansive fashion. The poem is a machine that manifests itself; it becomes a worker demon. David Antin's poetry constantly loops back upon itself in a series of games - his poetry is one at play. This play takes Antin's work to esoteric arenas most poetry shies away from. His talk poems just don't look like poems, but then, what are poems supposed to look like? Still, David Antin's talk poems are poems. They just don't look like what some people expect, that is demand, poems to look like. "Talking," his landmark 1972 book opens with the question, "If someone came up and started talking a poem at you how would you know it was a poem?" You would know because it's a poem. But Antin helps the reader along. Antin is known for his talk poems, but it would be more beneficial if we identify him and his work as Wittgensteinian. By looking at Antin within those perimeters, "Talking" becomes a bridge from the early work, such as "Meditations" and the mature talk poems. We then find that a bridge isn't necessary, as both facets of Antin's work form an integrated whole. There is a profound Wittgensteinian sense to all of the work, but the manner in which it manifests allows an entry-point. We find fractal units which accrue significance through repetition. The poem becomes an event.
When a poet privileges incident and occurrence to the degree David Antin does, the book, the published object, is also brought into focus. The book becomes an occurrence. The dimensions of the Dalkey Archive edition are wider than your average book, it feels like a musical score or a collected folio or facsimile sheet. The book is large and unwieldy in your hands - it's difficult to forget you're holding a book, and that vitalizes the reading experience. "Talking" only takes a single sitting to read. This brevity only accentuates the small dramas of the book. The first three pieces in "Talking" are "the november exercises," "in place of a lecture: 3 musics for 2 voices," and "the london march." All three can also be found in their entirety in Sun & Moon's collection of Antin's early writing. To reencounter them in the Dalkey edition of "Talking" is to discover new poems using the old words. The wider page dimensions suggest the words as notation, each phrase becomes a musical site. This is a score - recognize the themes repeating, enriching themselves and each other through that selfsame repetition. Marjorie Perloff, in her introduction to "Talking," points us to a revealing passage in "Culture and Value" where Wittgenstein states, "Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e., the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles." Compare this to science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany's similar idea of the text as a hologram seen in such short fiction as 'High Weir' - what a Wittgensteinian notion!
Both "in place of a lecture" and "the london march" pivot on the interplay of voices. The rolling of voice throughout "in place of a lecture" allows for comedy in its collisions. How does power relate to voice? Is hierarchy inevitable? The piece revolves around a dry scientific experiment investigating a farmer's claim that a whalebone "..was an extremely powerful instrument capable of detecting the existence of even small quantities of water." The scientific text is dry and authoritative. It is read by David Antin's wife, the filmmaker and performance artist Eleanor Antin. The authority of this voice is supplanted by David Antin himself and his wife as they respond to a recording of the above-described text. The interjections are mischievous, as Antin tends to be. There is a disregard for decorum and a stubborn iconoclasm. Both David Antin and his wife react to the first voice, but let us not forget that David Antin's voice is the first interruption - he is the one who asks "What was the farmer's name?" and initiates this interrogation. It is Antin the author who orchestrates the entire affair, not his wife. He is the author of "in place of a lecture" because of his authority over the text, not necessarily because he generated it. The scientific text was in all likelihood found by Antin. It is the very fact that he sabotages and deconstructs this text that we acknowledge him as the author of it. Antin attacks the lazy assumptions of the source voice, introducing indeterminacy and doubt through detail - what is the farmer's name, what is he wearing, how old is the doctor who supervises the experiment?
Specificity leads to complexity, and complexity invites ambiguity. He activates the piece. The scientific voice intones that "the statistical test indicates only the probability of a particular set of results upon the basis of the statistical hypothesis tested, namely that chance alone is determining the outcome." Antin makes the proceedings that much stickier. Generalizations must come from specificities. Antin's interrogative voice supplants the scientific voice as the guiding narrative. The story of "in place of a lecture" is not that of a farmer tested for clairvoyance, but of narrative being upturned, or perhaps the correct word would be sidelined. The interruption of narrative becomes the story of the piece.
If "in place of a lecture" is a farce, "the london march" is a comedy fighting against tragedy. David Antin interrupts his wife's humming with the question, or invitation, "ready to play?" Eleanor responds, "what shall we play for?" This is the central question, of course, of "Talking." Why, it's a central question of Antin's poetry. The stakes, ultimately, are not "...to play for a great crowd tomorrow? in London?" at an anti-war rally, or to play for "...natasha to be married so that charlie doesn't have to pay her alimony." Playing solitaire cannot directly effect events on either side of the spectrum - the political or the personal. No, the question is to determine what the playing is for. The interrogative act creates power, the power to recognize and cognate. "What are we playing for," is the question that allows Antin to supplant the scientific voice throughout "in place of a lecture," it's the question at the heart of "talking at pomona." The irony is that "the london march" is also about inefficiency and the lack of power, just as the poem is in some ways an empowering act. The piece is a transcription of the conversation Eleanor and David have while Eleanor "plays" solitaire for various stakes - how many people will turn up at the anti-war protest of the title. The piece isn't even the solitaire game in question, but only the shadows of the act - not even the recordings, but transcriptions of faded voice.
And the truth of the matter is that a solitaire game doesn't resolve anything other than a solitaire game. And the truth of the matter is that an anti-war march is not going to end the Vietnam War. Eleanor and David Antin's anxiety at their inability to move the center of history is a universal anxiety. Even if a center can be found, no single person could be found to move it. What Eleanor and David are playing for is some recognition of the thing. This is done by talking around a dilemma, as Antin does in regard to "the question of art" in "Talking at Pomona." A game of solitaire consists of the same repetitive act of accumulation, as each successive act redefines the limits of the whole. The intrusion of personal reminiscence into a piece ostentatiously "about" the war does the same thing the Antins' questions about details does in "in place of a lecture."
Interjections bring about a necessary wholeness. Antin's approach in "Talking at Pomona" is more elliptical than in the previously discussed poems. His very first statement is evasive - "what i would like to talk about/really/ is a subject that probably doesn't have a name...how you think about making art... how can you talk about it such a way/ that/ it will lead to making more art." And while Antin is directly engaging subject, he does so through expansive rumination. He talks about art, he talks about sculpture and what he doesn't want to say or address about sculpture, but what is Antin really saying? He dwells on a piece by performance artist Doug Huebler where the artist "...proposes that you apprehend a criminal and he offers the closed system/ if the work is bought/ if the criminal is apprehended the buyer pays for the apprehension..." How does this scenario, that of a performance artist in the 1970s, relate to anything previously discussed. Antin also describes how "...dennis oppenheim did a piece of work in which he managed to get some things harvested in a field...he arranged the field in such a manner as to correspond to the route between there and the place he was shipping the/ grain to..." Antin's response to the Oppenheim is polite, but nonplussed. It doesn't carry the same frisson as the Huebler piece.
Why does Antin praise the Huebler and criticize the Oppenheim? The Huebler performance piece "...verges on obscenity and triviality and/ the huebler is a very violent piece...," intimating that the Oppenheim isn't as violent, and therefore isn't as interesting. The Huebler piece is about pornography in art, about "...art as it [is] opportunizing over social/ human activities/ now it seems one of the problems here that's raised is the kind of conflict that exists between human value and the idea of art making itself as a career." AH! Now we're getting somewhere! More intrusions! The question isn't of art about art, but the dilemma of the intrusion of life into art and art into life. It is this collision that brings the absurdity and obscenity to the Huebler. This dilemma of intrusion is what makes Antin's poetry so exciting.
Consider the cover of "Talking," designed by David Antin. A series of photographs taken by the poet wrap around the book. In each photo, we see newspaper dispensers outside of storefronts. "Talking" was written during wartime, as made explicit in "the london march." The book is also written in the wake of the Antins' relocation from New York City to a sleepy California town outside San Diego where the only way you could tell a war was going on "...was by walking down the hill to check out the headlines in the newspaper dispenser in front of the post office or the local market."
The comedy of the world's upheavals as it tiptoes into our lives
Thursday, January 13, 2011
by Samuel R. Delany
With a new foreword by Kathy Acker
Desire doesn't follow compatibility, and no, the reverse isn't true either. But the two do collide, even in their respective deficiencies, and that is where difficulty arises. In his 1984 novel, 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' Samuel R. Delany writes about the collision of two men, one an illiterate worker with state-administered brain damage, the other an intellectual and cosmopolitan, a diplomat by trade - they are each other's perfect erotic objects to "point nine-nine-nine and several nine percent." This engenders consequence, not just for themselves or their immediate acquaintances, but for all of the galactic empire they live within. Such an alignment is a rare and perplexing thing, as desire usually runs afoul of the tenacity and conditions of reality. Delany's novel is very much a romance of the text. Yes, the reader is the one seduced. The romance of 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' of the book itself, ends abruptly and painfully, as romances sometimes do. The book was intended as a diptych, but its second half, 'The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, Of Cities,' was never to be. The relationship of which the diptych was a love letter to ended before the second half could be completed, and the gay NYC community which the book celebrated was also ending with the onset in the eighties of the AIDS epidemic. The conclusion of the diptych remains unpublished; it remains unwritten.
The first half is one of my favorite novels, my memory of it is a romance - one that never quite got off its feet and is all the more treasured because of that. The work of Samuel R Delany is, in a ways, the perfect literary match for me. I've always had difficulties synchronizing my interests - how do I reconcile my passion for reading and writing poetry, with my love of comic books, my affection with european sex and horror films, and my obsession with industrial and experimental music. How does it all fit together? Is it supposed to? Delany is a peculiar writer - his idiosyncrasies are his own. Delany is a difficult writer because of the bizarre nexus of his disparate predilections and tendencies. His contemporary, J.G. Ballard, also wears his obsessions on his sleeve, but Ballard was always good at giving them a sexy sheen. Either Ballard was such a keen observer of our word that he was able to first notice some recurrent cultural trend and subsequently have it dubbed 'Ballardian,' or by some force of will Ballard has been able to manifest his eccentricities into the flesh. And Ballard is an artist's writer. Delany is a writer's writer, or to make things even more knotty, he is a poet's novelist. Not an easy thing to be. I wonder if any one ever asked Kathy Acker, who wrote the introduction to the Wesleyan edition to 'Trouble on Triton' just what she thought of that. Reading Delany is the only time I can expect Fritz Leiber, Joanna Russ, Ron Silliman, Robin Blaser, Dick Giordano and Howard Chaykin to all signify.
And that means something to.
Claire E. Evans, at her exceptional blog, Urban Honking, ( http://urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/ ), puts Delany in his proper perspective. She writes "it’s kind of a Catch-22: to understand Delany, you have to be at least somewhat fannish, willing to let down your guard and accept that genre-specific content isn’t a sign of weakness. At the same time, you can’t be so committed to the genre that you would sell someone like Delany down the river for getting liberal with the rules." But, that's why I love Delany. That is why I love 'Trouble on Triton.' I have never encountered an author who manages to cogently articulate so many of obsessions and interests as Delany is, whether through his early pure SF period, his later more academically-oriented writing, or novels like 'Trouble on Triton' and 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.'
'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' 2004 Wesleyan Edition.
The protagonist of 'Trouble on Triton' is the unlikable Bron Helstrom, a former Martian prostitute who is now living on the small moon of Triton as a metalogicist. He resides in a co-op for males of unspecified sexual orientation, a place which in his society is often the dumping ground for people who don't fit in anywhere else. His neighbor is the elderly Lawrence. Lawrence is one of the few people who can stand Bron, let alone consider him a friend. He exlains to Bron that his alienation is because Bron is "...a logical pervert, looking for a woman with a mutually compatible logical perversion. The fact is, the mutual perversion you are looking for is very, very rare - if not nonexistent. [Bron is] looking for someone who can enjoy a certain sort of logical masochism." I've encountered some negative criticism of the novel which takes issue with Bron's unsavory character. But as Delany explained during a lecture on the book, some novels require you to identify with the protagonist, other novels invite you to approach them as a case study. Bron isn't a heroic figure, but neither is he a villain. He possesses the ambiguities of character which mark us all. But yes, he is selfish. And yes, he is a bit of a prig. Delany shows us that this isn't just a personal problem, but a cultural, or perhaps the right word is political, problem.
Bron comes from Mars. Mars is a world, which owing to its size and perhaps its date of colonization, is much more conservative and uptight than the more libertine and permissive satellites. Owing to their further distance from our point of origin, Earth, it is safe to assume their colonization comes at a much later date. In fact, Bron is shocked by the age of everything during his short trip to Earth. He passes "...buildings that might have been eighty, a hundred eighty, or eight hundred years old... [while] the oldest extant structure in Bellona was a hundred and ten years old; in Tethys, no more than seventy-five..." Bron comes from a relatively new world, Mars, but he comes from one still tethered to history and to an accumulated social convention. The satellites, owing to their recent inception, their lack of space and their distance from the mother hub of Earth, have fostered the privilege of subjective reality. it is because of this schism that Bron is unable to escape his neuroses on Triton. This is why the Outer Satellites are engaged in a protracted cold war with the Worlds.
Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia.'
The novel is subtitled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia," in deference to Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed,' Le Guin's novel is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia." Delany read Le Guin in the course of his revisions and added the subtitle to encourage a discourse between the two books. So what is he trying to say about utopias, or heterotopias as it is? Delany quotes Foucault, who says utopias "...afford consolation; although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the roads to them is chimerical." But Delany sees utopias as limiting lens for a novel of ideas. A utopian novel, though founded upon some chimera, resolve matters into this and that. The novel's imaginary science of metalogics has two goals, "...one) the delimitation of the problem and, two) an exploration of the interpenetration among the problem elements in significance space." Metalogics is founded upon the permeability of ideas. Bron explains "Language is parametal, not perimetal. Areas of significance space intermesh and fade into one another like color-clouds in a three-dimensional spectrum. They don't fit together like hard-edged bricks in a box." Utopias are built of just such hard-edged bricks. "What makes 'logical' bounding so risky is that the assertion by the formal logician that a boundary can be placed around an area of significance space gives you, in such a cloudy situation, no way to say where to set the boundary, how to set it, or if, once set, it will turn out in the least useful." Bron may have made a career parsing significance as parametal, not perimetal, but his cultural upbringing comes from a place, Mars, which positions itself into just such 'utopian' strictures. Bron's world view is constructed out of some pretty hard-edged bricks.
The Outer Satellites are not a utopia, but a heterotopia. These can be seen as disturbing, threatening even, "... because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy 'syntax' in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and opposite one another) to 'hold together." But a heterotopia is also simply a technical word for a sex change. Bron undergoes just such a procedure in the closing chapter of the novel. She believes this operation will be an elementally transformative one, but Bron remains Bron. Other than the obvious physical ones, the most conclusive changes are the shifts in character which Bron initiates. Bron changes in these small ways, such as in her word productivity, because that is how Bron thinks a woman should behave. The values Bron assigns gender are fixed, even if Bron's gender may fluctuate.
The original 1976 Bantam edition, simply titled 'Triton.'
Bron's conflicted desire for the Spike, a brilliant director of micro-theaters, spurns on many of his decisions throughout the novel. The micro-theater performance she leads him into, and their brief sexual exchange a day afterward, offers Bron an opportunity to step outside his fixed reality. The Outer Satellites encourage their citizens to foster subjective realities, but Bron's fabrication is ultimately dehabilitating because he insists upon its immobility. He returns to his fixture, and in turn alienates the Spike, just like he does everyone else. He tells her, upon their first encounter that "...to meet a new person here in Tethys is always like entering a new city?' He said that before." Bron forgoes the vitality of the new for a simulation of novelty.
Delany visualizes 'Trouble on Triton' as a sort of SF prologue to his 'Return to Neveryon' Tetralogy. Both works engage the concept of a Modular Calculus, Delany's conceit of a logical system by which, essentially, any problem can be solved. Let us look at the book's publishing history for some context here. 'Trouble on Triton' follows close on the heels of 'Dhalgren,' perhaps the greatest success of Delany's career, both commercially and critically. The sheer ambition of the work of this period, 'Trouble on Triton,' 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' and the Neveryon books, provide us with some of the most stunning work done in the SF and Fantasy modes. But the promise of these brilliant novels was cut short due to circumstances. Bantam, Delany's publisher, refused to publish the last of the Neveryon books, and prompted a withdrawal on Delany's part into academia. Delany has never turned his back on SF, but these novels are the last time he worked within the boundaries of the industry. Delany came into SF as a prodigy - a dangerous entry if there is one.
An omnibus pairing 'Trouble on Triton' with Joanna Russ' 'The Female Man,' which was also selected by writer and editor Frederick Pohl for the Bantam SF series, along with Suzy McKee Charnas' 'Walk to the End of the World.'
SF grandmaster, Isaac Asimov, in an introduction to the Hugo Award-winning short story, 'Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,' provides an excellent summation of Delany's liminality. Asimov, while granting the brilliance of Delany's writing, can't seem to shake a certain distress. Delany, as anyone who has read his excellent essays would know, is a voracious polymath. This is in direct opposition to the more codified convention of SF. The Science Fiction industry is a room, it is the enclosed area of the convention space - there are no windows. Mind you, I am speaking of industry here, not genre. Asimov writes that "...for years, we science fiction writers; we warm band of brothers and sisters; have entered this field as our specialty. It was 'our thing,' it was what we did. Often, if we were driven enough, we graduated to broader fields, but even then (as in my own case) we had lingered long enough to know that science fiction was our home, our only true literary home." But Delany, of course, best fits in with Delany.
Though he was not a member of the social circle constituting the New Wave of Science Fiction, Delany could be said to share many of their tendencies. And Asimov, as the old guard grandmaster, if a generous and diplomatic one, has his careful reservations about this new wave. Asimov, as astute as ever, writes "...the day has come when writers, without necessarily feeling a tight identification with the field, choose to write science fiction because of the liberty it gives them; the opportunity to speculate and experiment beyond anything possible in any other genre." Why, that sounds like Delany, who has often stated that SF is "... richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmatic organization. [He] feels it is richer in much the same way atonal music is richer than tonal, or abstract painting is richer than realistic."
Delany never abandoned that richness of genre, nor has he ever wished to, at least not like his peer Philip K. Dick apparently desired to 'get outside of the ghetto' with his mainstream novels like 'Confessions of a Crap Artist.' Samuel R. Delany's work remains SF, whether or not it retains genre signifiers, much as is the case with JG Ballard, or in the fashion that the writing of Jean Baudrillard can be called science fiction. Asimov wonders if writers like Delany "think of themselves as a science fiction writer. Is this their home - or just another hotel room?... he reached the top so easily that he may have had no sensation of passing through." Delany never abandoned science fiction, but perhaps the SF industry abandoned him.
Monday, January 10, 2011
by David Antin
Not thought, but thinking.
We spend so much time grappling with thought itself that we often shortchange the process of thinking. An impenetrability congeals somewhere in that interzone between the noun and verb. Thought becomes a hardened pit of matter - an indigestible irritant that potentially stands in the way of fluent thinking. We become tangled in the physicality. Poet David Antin's career walks towards the boundaries of thought as he privileges the act of thinking. He breaks up the ice and facilitates the splendor of motion. Action. Antin is best known for his talk-poems, an engagement with performance-poetry that spans the majority of his career. These performances are suffused with charismatic arrogance, easy erudition and musicality as Antin talks his way around any variety of subjects. His art is one of approaching a subject. The emphasis of these performances are on poetry as event, rather than the physical sanctity of the book. Occurrence. While a great many of these talk-poems have been subsequently transcribed, the book remains a thing apart in Antin's career- the performance retains its time and site specificity. Some of his talk-poems have indeed been published in books like 'talking at the boundaries' and 'tuning,' but a great majority of them have not. Sun & Moon's collection, 'Selected Poems: 1963-1973,' is a surprising pleasure as the early books aren't so much alternate routes as preliminary soundings towards the later work. That they are books remain a primary distinction.
Antin tells us he "...doesn't usually reread [his] past work once it's published...," probably for much the same reason he moved away from poetry readings towards poetry talking. If poetry readings remind him too much of returning to the scene of the crime, then what of the book? And what is the poem? A murder? A body? Or the murder weapon? In this early work Antin attacks the book as the site of occurrence. We see a clear conflict between process and thingness in these first couple books. Antin offers that "books have a very definitive appearance. My books anyway. Because I tried to make them that way. And i spite of the fact that there is a sense in which the work of poetry is an ongoing process, a book is a self sufficient object, obdurate even, as it gives decisive shape through selection and ordering to a cluster of attitudes and ideas, enclosing them in a definite space and time." The later performances create a more specific space and time, while these early works allow a modular space and time configuration. The collection ends with the majority of 1972's 'Talking,' providing an organic bridge between the early and the mature work.
But let us start at the beginning. At the very least let us start at the beginning of this collection. So many of these poems are about beginning - the very start of the process and how even that moment is an ambiguous, or is it arbitrary, one. Antin writes "this is probably the beginning/ don't you think it was the right place to begin?/ well what would have been a better time?/ if you can tell when it's about to begin how can it be the beginning?" The poem is encircling questions of perception and of boundaries. Beginning is something we do, and someplace we are. As Antin's later poetry 'talks' the space, this early poetry writes the space in comparable fashion. Distinctions blur as we fail to conclusively grid the question.
In 'Code of Flag Behavior' Antin sheds the vestiges of the image-centric lyricism he explored alongside peers such as Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly. The earlier image-poems were, at Antin's own admission, "...more decorative than meaningful and incapable of addressing the kinds to things that were coming insistently to [his] mind then." These things coming to his mind were language and politics - not necessarily two separate subjects, but a braided reality Antin wanted to directly engage, not through the writing, but through the act of writing. But the act of his writing pushes Antin out to the poetic boundaries. Science and technical writing is utilized, as is a warm vernacular, a speaking grammar, untouched by most literary writing. An acrobatic pragmatism is always at play, as Antin works through words in a thrilling praxis.
David Antin once said that if Robert Frost was a poet, he didn't want anything to do with poetry, but if Socrates was a poet, and if Wittgenstein was a poet, then we would consider it. By calling Socarates and Wittgenstein poets, we safely move poetry away from the static thingness earlier mentioned in regard to 'thought.' Poetry is an action, not a codified litany of verse and meter, it is how we think, not what someone thinks it has to be. Antin's writing moves away from stasis and ornament and towards motion and investigative thinking - "a few facts are better than much rhetoric." Writing becomes a conversation of means. He writes, "...they brought their problems to him and he always decided both sides were exactly half right." We are now in the terrain of process as revelation, perhaps more appropriately a constant revealing, as "... the main thing was to make them a ritual." That it is ritual acknowledges process, but there is something more at play - ritual predisposes a certain formality.
A scientific praxis, as noted above, becomes apparent. Antin collapses the perceived divide between scientific thinking and poetic, that is artistic, thinking. Scientific terminology and found detritus, such as an alphabetical list of the words most commonly misspelled by high school students, provide startling passageways owards poetic thinking, rather than away from. The narrative of these poems is totalizing - rolling and continuous as thought. "Everything is relation to a days work/ should be written up/ copied down/ fractionally and ideas." Thought introduces arbitrary boundaries to concepts; thought leads to a gridded reality. But an overlap is natural to thinking. Scientific modes of thinking are related to aesthetic modes, but both are only metaphorical aids as the act remains amorphous.
Part III of Antin's book 'Definitions' is "...pretty much an arrangement of words taken from a translation of Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations.' About the words - nobody owns them - not Wittgenstein, or the translator, or me - and anyone who wants them is welcome to use them again." Antin is not only saying that words are not owned, but that words are meant to be used. An unused word is a dead thing - a word is defined by its use, and is not some inert sculpture. Antin asks, borrowing the question from Wittgenstein, "how do words refer to sensation." We use imprecise, overlapping terminology to allow some sort of communication of sensation via language. By saying "...observing your own grief... what do you use to observe it? a special sense? is it one that feels grief? do you feel different when you observe it? and what is this grief you are observing is it a grief that is there only while you observe it?" In 'Novel Poem,' Antin writes "...it was part of his intention to rob words of their power..." The words themselves give way to Antin's wording, as he creates a continuous space. Antin is placing these words, one's he acknowledges were once positioned by Wittgenstein, in addition to an unnamed translator and by Antin himself, within the specified body of the book. They were used in Wittgenstein's 'Philosophical Investigations,' but that does not make them off-limits. The words are also used in 'Definitions.' Antin is inviting the reader to use them as well - use them anywhere they see fit. Anywhere the words fit, and words can fit anywhere.
A process is utilized to generate much of the work in David Antin's early book - the act of the writing remains privileged. We read a piece like 'the November Exercises' as the afterimage of the writing exercise used to create it. 'The November Exercises' were an activity initiated by Antin and the words are only what you are reading as a result of that act. But this leads to subsequent acts, since "to hear about it is to cause it to happen." The text of 'the Separation Meditations' was created as Antin read through a history book, "...reading and writing quickly through the footnotes and continuing forward, taking a phrase here and a phrase, sometimes a word, there, working swiftly to make my kind of sense."This allows a roughness, which in turn resists the completeness of a piece. As with Antin's use of Wittgenstein, the reader is a participant in a layering of language. We are reading 'the Separation Mediations,' but we are also reading the footnotes to the book Antin was reading, and yes, we are reading Antin's reading. Which is, after all what you are doing if you visit my blog - reading my readings of different books, rather than the book itself; criticism of a fashion, but readings more importantly. "The point," Antin writes, " is that the discourses are treated as matters of language without regard to their substance." A scientific methodology clings to the text - "1. attack an argument/ 2. assail an opponent/ 3. reading/ 4. omitting." But here a scientific method of attack is divorced from the specificity of a problem. We are reading the method, but also the omission of a subject other than itself, or of the act. By dating 'the November Exercises' and notating the times each section is written, we position writing in time. This, again, adds layers. We encounter the time specification of the act of writing as we are engaged in the time specification of the act of reading. One may even later introduce a further time specification of the moment of thinking about the text. Does this create a three-dimensionality?
I will hold off on any in-depth discussion of 'In Place of a Lecture' or 'A London March," works which again confront us with the knotty actualities of time. Expect me to engage these pieces soon when I look further at Antin's book 'Talking.' In the last entry of 'the November Exercises,' Antin writes that 'the instruction book gives a false impression of a real picture. Everything you expected to handle with patient acceptance is now speeded up and scattered. Relax, hold onto the steering wheel and pretend that you're driving." The reader may not be writing the text in any actuality, but we can almost stretch the conceit to a fruition.The act of pretending is still an action, and that is a very real thing.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
by Samuel R. Delany
'Nova' is very much a novel "about" things. Katin, a young college graduate looking to write a book of his own, records countless notes of "aboutness," yet is still in search of a subject. He doesn't realize that the very story of the novel is his subject. Katin must order this diversity into a manageable whole. The subject of his novel is the novel. The reader is faced with the same challenge in 'Nova.' We find within it a galaxy of potential meanings and possible thematic centers, each with a distinct gravitational pull. But gravity remains relational. Is the novel about the Holy Grail, or more specifically, the Grailquest? The Tarot? History and its motion? The role of transportation in economic and cultural functions.? Is it a transliteration of Melville's 'Moby Dick?' Or is 'Nova' about the novel itself, its mechanics and the consequences of its telling? You can make a case for any of the above, but why privilege one vantage point to the detriment of another? Find your own way through these rich veins of meaning. 'Nova' accumulates themes about it, creating a dizzying diversity. Is the novel thematically decentralized, or does it rather possess multiple centers, each one interacting and communicating with the other? What does this communication consist of? What does it sound? 'Nova' is starbound, hurtling towards its own solar body just as the obsessed captain Lorq Von Ray and the motley crew of his starship Roc race toward theirs, constantly pursued by the one-armed Prince Red and his sister, Ruby. But 'Nova' isn't bound within one solar system, or even a single galaxy. This is a novel of intergalactic plenitude, despite the single-minded focus of Lorq Von Ray and the omnipresent pull of his star on the verge of going nova.
The setting of Delany's ninth novel is an intergalactic future redolent with the trappings of the space opera subgenre of science fiction. Delany would return to settings of similar scope in later novels such as 'Triton' and 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.' Here we see him already comfortable with an intergalactic setting; his future is one rich with racial cross-pollination, and the bio-cybernetic extensions we have since come to term post-humanism. Mankind has colonized the stars and now inhabits three distinct galaxies - Draco, the Pleiades and the Outer Colonies. Delany is, as always, conscious of class within the cosmic. Place is of the utmost importance, whether it be within a class hierarchy or spatially on a world or within a galaxy. 'Nova' is about place, or how we define location in the face of vastness. On Earth, for instance, "...it took the same seven/eight minutes to get from one side of the city to the other as it did to get to the other side of the world."The novel follows Lorq Von Ray as he attempts to pull seven tons of Illyrion from the center of a star as it goes nova. Illyrion is trans-uranic element which makes star-travel possible. This would render space travel easy, and by that I mean cheaper.
First Hardcover edition.
The hierarchy of the three galaxies balances upon transportation and its costs. Lorq Von Ray's father explains that the galaxy of "... Draco was extended by the vastly monied classes of Earth. The Pleiades was populated by a comparatively middle-class movement. Though the Outer Colonies have been prompted by those with money both in the Pleiades and Draco, the population of the colonies comes from the lowest economic strata of the galaxy." He goes on to add that "the combination of cultural difference... and the difference in the cost of transportation is what assures the eventual sovereignty of the Outer Colonies." As mankind has expanded across three galaxies, could each galaxy now be seen as a potential "center" of the universe? Whose universe would we be talking about? Maybe the miners of Illyrion who are predominantly non-white? Or the mostly caucasian and generally conservative inhabitants of Earth and other Draco satellite worlds? Lorq Von Ray speaks for the Pleiades, while Prince Red represents the interests of the Draco system. But despite their different points of origin, both are from the privileged class are are perhaps more similar to each other than to the common man within each galaxy. This breeds peculiar affinities between the two men. The novel hinges upon relation as we investigate what it is that makes Lorq Von Ray and Prince Red both similar and disparate.
'Nova' is the last novel of Samuel R. Delany's first phase, a prolific period of six years spanning 1962 to 1968 in which he published nine novels of more or less "pure" science fiction. These novels easily fit in with the New Wave of Science Fiction then in vogue, a movement defined by Harlan Ellision's anthology 'Dangerous Visions' and remembered for its explorations of the further reaches of genre. Delany's next novels, 'Equinox' and 'Dhalgren' would not be published for another five years; they usher in his middle period, which flirts with pornography in addition to SF, and displays a more openly discursive tactic. There is a reliance upon plot at play in 'Nova' not seen in the those later novel. Its 'boy adventure' plot anchors one's reading and provides a scaffold on which to drape more archetypical figures. Though one is in danger of oversimplification, 'Nova' can be seen as the summation of Delany's first period. It is the last novel written in which Delany seems to consider it a given that he is a 'science fiction writer,' future work would be more promiscuous.
SF Masterworks edition.
The voyage of the Roc is not half as importantto the novel as its voyagers. Delany never forgets people, whether in the context of SF adventure or critical theory. The cast of the novel provides an organic extension of Delany's meditations. One does not exist for the other, rather, one is the other's mirror. Aside from Lorq Von Ray, Delany introduces us to a diverse array of the three galaxies' inhabitants. The Mouse is an orphaned gypsy from Earth. The previously mentioned Katin is a Harvard educated intellectual also hailing from the Draco galaxy, but coming from a markedly different social strata. Sebastian and Tyy are representative of the Pleiades system, since while Lorq also hails from that galaxy, his sphere of reference is one of power and wealth. The twins Lyncecos and Idas come from the Outer Colonies, where statistically one in three individuals, in this case their brother, works in the Illyrion mines. Lorq explains the class differences at play to Katin: "There are ways Tyy, Sebastian, and myself are much alike. In those basic defining sensibilities we are closer than you and I... Some of our reactions to given situations will be more predictable to each other than to you. Yes, I know it goes no further... You're not from Earth, Katin. But the Mouse is. So is Prince. One's a guttersnipe, the other is... Prince Red. Does the same relation exist between them as between Sebastian and me? The gypsy fascinates me. I do not understand him. Not in the way I think I understand you. I don't understand Prince either." Here we see fascination at play. How does fascination relate to understanding?
Fascination is not the same thing as understanding, one doesn't necessarily lead to the other, but it may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship between two disparate and otherwise unreconcilable beings. In his later novel, "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand," Delany argues desire is what bridges the chasm of difference; it may enable a contract. A bridge is not an understanding, but a tool which allows opposites and transitionals to relate in some capacity.
Understanding is also undertaken via work. Labor, as I've stated elsewhere is important to Delany. The twenty-third century philosopher and psychologist, Ashton Clark - a nod to weird fiction giant Clark Ashton Smith, argued that "if the situation of a technological society was such that there could be no direct relation between a man's work and his modus vivendi, other than money, at least he must feel that he is directly changing things by his work, shaping things, making things that weren't there before, things from one place to another." This manifests in 'Nova' through the five cybernetic sockets surgically implanted into almost every one, save the neurologically handicapped such as Prince Red and hold outs such as a few itinerant gypsy tribes on Earth.The cybernetic sockets are prescient of cyberpunk's machine/human interfaces - such as the net jacks implanted into the cowboys in William Gibson's 'Neuromancer.' Yet while cyberpunk often adopts dystopian trapping, Delany's futures are as optimistic as Asmiov's or Gene Rodenberry's. Delany presents us with avenues of utopias. A utopia is fostered in the short story "We in Some Strange Power's Employ..." via a worldwide nexus of free power and information, while in 'Nova' a similar future is arrived at through the implantation of sockets, but in a broader sense, through a revolution in labor that finally addresses the issues of Industrialization.
My personal favorite cover. Despite the hard-SF trappings of the painting, the layout and font convey an austere beauty missing from either the garish psychedelia of the first edition or the bland nicities of the more recent Vintage reissues.
At various points in 'Nova,' students and intellectuals across the three galaxies complain that despite the utopianism enjoyed by all, something is missing, "...there seems to be a certain lack of cultural solidity..." Katin argues this isn't the case. People who make lament the lack of cultural solidity are wrong, "...they're all just looking for our social traditions in the wrong place. There are cultural traditions that have matured over the centuries, yet culminate now in something vital and solely of today." Mouse, who accrues and appropriates the ornaments of various societies for his own use is the canvas upon which the tensions of the three galaxies are acknowledged and mediated. Mouse represents, rather, a new totalism.
Mouse, who ironically suffers a speech disorder which he manages through playing a sensory syrynx, facilitates communication in others. The sharing of information and customs via communication and transportation - offered conveniently and affordably. Mouse enables an elemental communication between those he encounters through his syrnx playing. Lorq Von Ray does so by providing cheap Illyrion, the heretobefore incredibly rare and costly element essential to intergalactic travel. Katin does so as well; he provides dense columns of information and cultural context for the characters, and through them the readers. In this sense, Katin is also a reflexive version of a common SF trope - the info drop. A peculiarity to the genre is the virtue of the info drop or dump, the unloading of a large chunk of information in raw exposition. Delany's treatment of this convention is loving, while remaining bemused - the other characters in the novel often become impatient with Katin's long-winded explications. Is such blunt exposition an effective method of communication? Or, Delany asks, is the opening of avenues through which communication may, or may not, occur more beneficial? Lorq and Mouse enable such streams to flow, and allow a revolution of here to there and back again. The transportation of humanity and information spins the web upon which we hang our archetypes and our holy grails.
Monday, December 20, 2010
edited by Donald Allen
"The body is real and all real things perish. Augustine discoverd in the City of God, unrealities, fantasies, mere ideas, can never be destroyd. Soul is the body's dream of its continuity in eternity - a wraith of mind. Poetry is the very life of the soul: the body's discovery that it can dream. And perish into its own imagination." - Robert Duncan
Fifty years on, we approach Donald Allen's seminal anthology, "the New American Poetry," not as as assault upon the stalwarts of canon, but as an epoch-defining machine of canon-building. Allen stratifies the 44 poets anthologized into five, at times arbitrary, locative centers. This effects a geographical gravity to the groupings; Ron Silliman in his discussion of the anthology points towards this unspoken hierarchy. The selections privilege Black Mountain poetics, followed in preeminence by the "S.F Renaissance," the Beats, the New York School and finally to non-localized "Independents," many of whom could conceivably be placed within the four central groupings. Yet while we can debate the merits of these groupings and their inevitable failings, credit must be given to the anthology for stressing the importance of community and place within the poetic discourse. Allen writes in his afterword to the 1999 edition, "... at the time, I tended to think of the poets in terms of communities." Yes, problems arise. Individuals without the privilege of residing near geographic hotbeds may as a result be pushed to ideological fringes and be consequently branded outliers. Looking back on "the New American Poetry" from the vantage point of 2010, the myopia of Allen's gendered and race-based lens is startling - of the 44 poets included, a scant four are women, while LeRoi Jones is the sole non-white contributor). Any appraisal of the book must consider these deficiencies, but how does one resist becoming mired in such a deficit?
Earlier Grove Press Edition
Criticism of the anthology's indiscretions must take stock of history. We must place "the New American Poetry" in its historical moment, as well as identify its relevance to us today. Poetry today is an invisible possibility - it remains disturbingly absent from the mainstream. I stopped by the Barnes & Noble in Syracuse recently and had difficulty finding the Poetry section - it was eventually located in a corner over by Music Reference books and Arts & Crafts. Let us not speak of the selection available at most bookstores when one finally finds the poetry section! But at the same time, it is incredibly easy to log online and order volumes of poetry either directly through the publisher or through a host of third-party dealers, to say nothing of the wealth of free material available via the Electronic Poetry Center. We are the lucky ones. In 1960, this anthology presented readers unable to hunt down issues of Yugen, Black Mountain Review or Big Table with their first exposure to many of these poets. But if the anthology provided many readers with their first exposure to the 44 poets included, we must acknowledge that due to Allen's omissions, the book perpetuated the myth of a white male-dominated field.
This is the popular criticism of "the New American Poetry," but such criticism must not suppose we are writing from an inevitable place of progress- a better clime. The contradictions and errors of the anthology are glaring, yes, but they must be recognized as ongoing difficulties. The problems of the anthology are problems which persist. To assume we exist in are era without gender bias or racial exclusion is naive, if not downright dangerous. An outright condemnation of such omissions in "the New American Poetry" is in danger of exacerbating the ugliness of our contemporary landscape by refusing to admit that such prejudices are ours as well as our forebears. How do the prejudices of 1960 mirror our own?
Allen's original compositional intention was "... leading of with recent work by William Carlos Williams, H.D., e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound and Waillace Steven..." and finally focusing on 24 new poets following a selection of "bridge" poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and Louis Zukofsky.This original semantic favors a through line of influence. Instead of explicating how the new generation skates upon the ice of influence, the published anthology, by omitting these elder poets, in effect breaks the ice. This is the new thing, prefigured by Williams in particular, but typified, yes, unified, by its very newness and youthful vitality. The volume is presided over by Charles Olson, who leads off both the poetry and poetics sections and also garners the largest page count of all poets compiled.
The anthology can be seen through the lens of Olson's theories on a projective verse. Olson privileges "...the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader." I would argue that not only does Olson's concept of projective verse influence how syllable, word and line are positioned within many of the poems of the anthology, but that we can look at the positioning of the poets within the anthology itself as indebted to projective verse. Allen argues towards the poetic landscape of 1960, that is, of a 1950s poetry poised to undergo the new reactions and ventures of the 60s, via the placement of these poets and their poetries on a greater field. We return to Allen's insistence on a location-based order. This field is an abstract, the nebulous matter of a poetry landscape, as it is also literal - America as a physical space hemmed in by two oceans. Art must acknowledge geography, yet not be confined by it. Let's quickly look at location in other mediums. We can observe how Power Electronics and Industrial music finds a national identity whether in England, Italy, or Japan, or how the particulars of national funding and politics colors the film industry outside of the box factory of the American Hollywood paradigm. Allen's above-quoted statement on his tendency to think geographically is prefaced by an admittance that "... there was much movement between the coasts..." At their worst and most insoluble, the groupings of the anthology enforce a biased hierarchy, but if we allow these boundaries to become diffuse, the dance of poetries becomes apparent.
Location not only emphasizes the identity of a mapped territory, but provides exegesis on the relation between spaces. We need look no further than the debt the New York School owes to French writing. Kenneth Koch in his biographical note writes "... since I didn't read French very well but managed to be very excited by French poetry anyway, I began to try to get the same incomprehensible excitement into my own work." Remember the moment in Frank O'Hara's "the Day Lady Died," when he buys "... an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days..." Like the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School revolved around a large urban space, but so much of the community's flavor and vitality derived from the interplay between disparities - a cosmopolitan promiscuity.
Grove Press Edition, via Ron Silliman's blog
"The New American Poetry" is not only important because of the major poets contained herein, but also on account of its placement on a hinge of history. Allen presents the 44 poets as following in the Pound/Williams (and we really should add Gertrude Stein to that axis) tradition, but we also see the errant proclivities seeping into the greater landscape. The five groupings are imprecise - influences accrue and expand. It would be impossible to compile such an anthology in 2010. In the interim, an effusion of poetries and poetics have exploded drawing upon disparate and dizzying influences. As the identity of Americans has shifted, and as boundaries have taken on new meanings in the Electronic age, we find ourselves moving towards greater and greater complexities. "The New American Poetry" exists at a turning point, a final point where such a task was at least conceivable, if not executable.