America is a fun country...


Franz Kline, Mahoning (1956)


[Image source: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/AmericaIsHardToSee?&artwork_id=13464&filter_id=24. The painting is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York]



America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large "chain" stores with their big friendly ads and so-called "discount" prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.  ... 



(From John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook , 1975)



The president in 1975 was the unelected Gerald Ford, who took over after Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Still, Ashbery's poem seems an eminently fitting welcome to the new era of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson.

Reading this today, it seems clear enough that the "higher prices" (where we might have expected "lower prices") are the price paid for indifferent environmental destruction. America is one of the most polluting countries on earth. In gross volume of pollutants, it is second only to China. But in per capita pollution, it's way ahead of China, and right up there with Australia and Saudi Arabia, the dirtiest nations on earth. (2011 figures from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Somewhat paradoxically, all three nations - USA, Australia and Saudi Arabia - have surprisingly high poverty rates; compared, for example, to European nations. Paradoxical, because it costs money to be a polluter. The main polluters are rich nations. But maybe there's also something about massive social inequalities that links with the unfettered burning of fossil fuels.


Child Poverty Rates in the USA:
http://www.globalpolicy.tv/shamefully-high-child-poverty-rates-in-the-united-states/?gclid=CjwKEAiAm8nCBRD7xLj-2aWFyz8SJAAQNalaZTjWr6OCAGwVLZdJKM2weFP_47VoVGU2SVj8xbgIZBoCmtLw_wcB


*

Ashbery's diatribe is not, of course, quite what it seems to be. Ashbery is having a lot of parodic fun with slipshod phrases like "so-called" and "cornerstones". Something is being performed here: it's an almost typical rant, contemptuous of "pious expostulations" and sentimental for "the little guy".

In The Vermont Notebook as a whole, Ashbery's country-bus rides lead to a direct critique of lazy distinctions between the rural/natural and the urban/artificial, along lines we might now associate with queer theory.

Christopher Schmidt writes of Ashbery's career preoccupation "to misrepresent the line between the natural and the artificial, and to recuperate what is normally deemed waste..."

(Christopher Schmidt, "The Queer Nature of Waste in John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook", Arizona Quarterly, Vol 68 No. 3 (Autumn 2012), pp. 71 - 102.)

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/486613/pdf )

And the theme of waste in The Vermont Notebook is picked up again here:

Brian Glavey: The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality and Queer Ekphrasis (Oxford University Press, 2016)

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CnyECgAAQBAJ&pg=PT144&lpg=PT144&dq=%22America+is+a+fun+country%22+ashbery&source=bl&ots=EjGpKcTeSv&sig=s9r6hYv_pD2ebVq33UcN4svB6NY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjD7MOfvvbQAhWqKsAKHa76BX8Q6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=%22America%20is%20a%20fun%20country%22%20ashbery&f=false


*

Reading Ashbery as an environmentally-concerned poet might seem rather ridiculous. But I expect we'll get used to it. As it becomes clearer that hard capitalism wants a trial of strength about the environment, we'll perhaps start to read a lot of things differently. We'll see that Ashbery's work, for instance, is linked in manifold ways, some rather obvious and some less so, with the things that are being wrested from all of us.



Douglas Crase and John Ashbery at Niagara
 in 1975


[Image source: http://www.douglascrase.com/newsletter.htm]


The story of Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland

by Michael Peverett




Cover of the printed book





"And lying soft enclosures gently died and overdied with story" (Landed gently, p. 63)

"Collected stories joined inside her body
At night she sweated language on her sheets" (All the buildings made of voices, p. 72)

"told each stories to make the time" (Circumference, p. 97)




It's customary to begin by saying that other readings are of course possible. In this case I might go a lot further. The present effort is more systematic than just a personal reading and can arguably be termed a wilful misreading, since it focusses on narrative and progressive aspects of a poem whose narrative progress, if any, is very much in question.

This reading takes its principal structural bearings from the eleven titled parts (I'll call them chapters) into which Tomorrowland (Shearsman, 2009) is divided:

1. The Argument. (TA)
2. It's all good. (IAG)
3. Treasure Island. (TI)
4. Sirens. (S)
5. Neptune's open mouth. (NOM)
6. Bulwarks. (B)
7. Landed gently. (LG)
8. A little history. (ALH)
9. All the buildings made of voices. (ATBMOV)
10. The body's charge. (TBC)
11. Circumference. (C)

I think it was exposure to the audio version of the poem that provoked my interest in the story of Tomorrowland. The transforming vocabulary, syntax and punctuation of Lisa Samuels' "new sentences" (to borrow Ron Silliman's term, originally applied to Bay Area prose poems) necessarily transforms story into quite a different thing from what it is in, let's say, a Conrad tale. Nevertheless, listening to these superb readings-with-soundscapes brought out what I was inclined to call a long-range narrative sweep. Here I want to pay tribute to that startling impression and I also want to encourage new readers to discover this amazing poem for themselves.



Cover of the double CD version of Tomorrowland


The audio version was first made available as a double CD in 2012 (you could try contacting the author if you want one). It's also available online at Penn Sound:


http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Samuels.php


It's arguable that the reading offered here leans far too much on the distinctness and progressiveness of the eleven chapters, while some other significant (though inaudible) formal features are for the most part ignored. Two in particular: the subdivision, marked by asterisks, of each chapter into up to five sections; and the fairly regular alternation of paragraphs with and without line-capitalization.

It treats the first chapter as preludial and the eleventh as postludial. It assumes that the sequence of chapters develops in a progressive and quasi-narrative manner.

As a consequence of its focus on narrative, it takes an interest in the four named characters, while acknowledging the fairly numerous other figures in the poem who are not named. To this predilection it may be objected that what we have here is not so much four characters as four structural principles, or even four multi-functional instruments that can only be grasped heuristically.

My main regret is that this approach rather neglects the close details of verse and text, because I believe it's at that close focal range that Samuels' poetry is most easily appreciated as the essential thing it is. However, I've already said plenty about that in two earlier pieces:


Review of Paradise for Everyone  (2005)

http://www.stridemagazine.co.uk/2005/Nov%202005/peverell.rev.htm

Review of  The Invention of Culture (2008)

http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/lisa-samuels-invention-of-culture.html


In compensation, and also to avoid the tedium of a poetry essay that doesn't contain any actual poetry, I've included a couple of extended quotations in their proper places.



*

1. The Argument.


The second difficulty is the sphere itself
As I plunk on an inclined plane

These are the opening lines (p.11).

They hint at the illustration on the book-jacket, Camille Martin's "Hieroglyphic Night". At least, that seems to show a figure plunking on an inclined plane, while in the distance we observe the rather troubled sphere of a moon.

Subsequently, the word "sphere" will make a number of what seem like quite important appearances in the poem.

"we need a bluet sphere" (IAG, p. 19)
"You see our love desire laughter whom / I recognize most thoroughly ensphered" (NOM, p. 38); "in flat spheres" (NOM, p. 42).
"as Jack unspheres on Fasti with a tender disregard" (TBC, p. 91)

Reading The Argument as a whole it's apparent that the "plane" of line 2 is also an airplane, e.g. "when the four bumps hit the ground" (p.12).

"Who have hanged peripheries so many years" (p. 11). The word "hang", throughout the poem, tends to suggest Jack, though he is not actually named until the third chapter, Treasure Island.

"We land to divination..." (p. 12). The primary narrative fact, especially in the first half of the book, is arrival. See also: "Well, initial" (IAG, p. 13),  "The crackling / Of fires will announce you found arrival" (TI, p. 28), "Arrival's song" (NOM, p. 38), "though it / thunderously keeps arriving" (B, p. 55), "Well it's been a week" (LG, p. 57).

With arrival comes the mild euphoria of those sensors switching on to a new terrain. "silly with excited premonitions" (IAG, p. 21). And especially in TI: "everyone was lovely over there"... "A curious newness in their eyes in love with acquiescent / Barriers"... "people are so perfect"... (TI, p.23).

"handmade try ... crux ..." (p.12).  Reappears as "a crux of handmade try" in IAG (p. 20).

It's noticeable that the last part of one chapter often preludes the next, and that's the case here. In this last part the surroundings become recognizably urban, and here we get our first glimpse of Eula:

"With Eula mobilizing narratives in a café" (p.13)

(WhatsApp-ing her friends, maybe)

[Eula] Eula is the most pervasive of the four named characters, appearing in every chapter but two (TIC), but not the easiest  to get your head around. (The other characters will be discussed when they first appear.) The name, in software licensing, can mean End-User License Agreement. Eula often tends to suggest to me power, technology and intellect. Perhaps "where we've come from" : Europe, LA. Perhaps us : the poem's author and readers. Yet Eula can also be associated with Maori face-marking (ALH, p. 65) and with the small-scale warfare said to be typical of tribal society (LG, p. 59). Eula is a real name, commonest in Spanish-speaking countries, short for Eulalia - "sweetly spoken" (Greek eu + laleo ).

*

2. It's all good.


This first full-length chapter is distinctly "metropolitan-inflected" (p. 15). "Thus both about the city we did stroll" (p.15).

Eula is the only character named in this chapter. But it's important not to limit the narrative to those four names. Tomorrowland is liberally strewn with pronouns (I, we, you, he, she) and these are considerably less random than in many experimental texts. Sometimes these unnamed characters are consistent enough to develop little quasi-narratives about themselves.  For example the "he" of  IAG p. 16, or the "man" of S pp.30-31.

But wait, could we have some help here? The book version of Tomorrowland (though not the audio version) contains some,  in the form of the epigraphs and, particularly, the page headed "Further Reading" - e.g. Marco Polo, Robinson CrusoeComus, and modern studies of cosmopolitanism and social space (the latter evidently relevant to IAG). Argentine author Julio Cortazar. Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book about teaching Maori children (B, LG, ALH). New Zealand author Janet Frame's only poetry book The Pocket Mirror. (Lisa Samuels' own emigration from USA to NZ around the time of writing Tomorrowland is a relevant background.) Rev. John Butler's Journals - New Zealand's first clergyman, he arrived there in 1818. Michel de Certeau - tactics (of subjugated individuals) in navigating everyday life. Henri Lefebvre - Critique of Everyday Life , the underdeveloped sector colonized by capitalism. William Henry Hunt (actually Burt) and Philip Grossenheider -  A field guide to the mammals. Consulting these books, or some of them anyway, would shed a flood of light on Tomorrowland; I'm sorry to say I haven't done so.

According to the back cover of the printed book, "Tomorrowland is a book-length poem of bodily transit and colonial forgetting". Inasmuch as this means the experience of arriving and settling in a new world, it makes complete sense; but of course the term "colonial" comes freighted with all sorts of serious political ramifications, and openly provokes a group of questions that every reader will have to tussle with. To what extent does Tomorrowland delimit its scope to the experience of the colonist - the explorer, trader, preacher, teacher, emigrant, tourist - and exclude the experience of the colonized?  For a poet who has grown up within western culture, is transcending that limit even possible? Would attempting to transcend it lead inevitably to something analogous to blackface? Does failure to transcend it constrain one's sense of what the poem, for all its marvellous ambition, can amount to?

This may also be the moment to say, what I keep forgetting to say, that there's a great deal of comedy in the early chapters of the poem. We're not a million miles from The Ambassadors here.

[Cracks] "The garden faces by a crack uneasily in its palm" (p. 16). "Crack" is a word that comes up quite a lot, possibly in connection with the poem's interest in building-works:  "To mortar acts and build". At any rate built texture is an important theme of IAG.  Cf. "a subterranean crack" (p.21), "This would be historical enactment / Seen from the position of a crack" (NOM, p. 42), "where the cracks peeked through a glint of green" (B, p. 45), "oh laud that cracked-up paper" (B, p. 52), "my amanuensis following the crack over the rocks" (B, p. 52)

[Ships] "he builds the little ship we fly up..." (p. 16).  The dedication of Tomorrowland is "for honest dealing, and for ship goers". Ships are named and alluded to frequently throughout the poem. E.g. ""having landed their domesticated ships / with aches and prejudice intact." (TI, p. 26);  "a whole set  / life modelled after vacant ships whose keels lie / down in soft sand partly filtering..." (S, p. 29); "ship-arriving hollerer .... how does it feel / To own so many ships..." (NOM, p. 41); "when the boat comes in" (B, p. 48); "The ships piled in with separate rain, / Some from the sea and some from sky..." (B, p. 49); "disinherit the never merely boat again (LG, p. 61); "stave the boat" (LG, p. 62); "the midnight ship" (ALH, p. 67); "The boats are moralistic now" (ALH, p. 68). Nevertheless, the locales of the poem seem to me nearly always land-based, though coastal; we have almost no sense of being on a ship, but rather of having arrived from a ship.

[Birds and feathers] "Ohmygosh trees, flagrant birds..." (p. 18). Birds and feathers are frequent motifs in Tomorrowland.  E.g. "Big Bird... chorus of silent flitterings..." (p. 19); NOM, p. 42; B, p. 52; ATBMOV pp. 74-75; C, p. 97. For feathers cf B, p. 56; ALH, p. 65 (twice).


"we need a bluet sphere" (p. 19)

The bluets (Houstonia species) are small but pretty milky-blue N. American wild flowers, somewhat resembling old-world forget-me-nots or speedwells from the ornamental point of view.



Bluets


[Image source: http://www.wiseacre-gardens.com/plants/wildflower/bluet.html]


"Our Eula" (p. 20) matches the first appearance, in the following chapter, of "our Manda" (p. 24).

By the end of "It's All Good" we've reached a space that may not be quite so uncomplicatedly "all good", and are looking back and out to wilderness, a suitable introduction to the next chapter.


*

3. Treasure Island.


It begins with the "island gurney". Sounds like an animal or bird, but the only definition for "gurney" that I have encountered is a stretcher-trolley.

"Treasure Island" begins with the most sustained bit of island paradise in Tomorrowland. (Along with a crescendo of the traveller's euphoria that I mentioned earlier.)

This nature poetry is, of course, not left unproblematized; to an extent it arrogates what it doesn't own.

          While he takes his myth and puts it out there
          In the literal sense, over again incorporating oysters
          And their total inability to resist. (p.25)

[Manda] "our Manda sees inside the cells" (p. 24). The first appearance of Manda.  Manda is short for Magdalena in Croatian/Serbian, or short for Amanda in English. The character is maybe somewhat associated with childlike perception (as here) and domestic activity. According to Wes Tank's  radio talk about plans for a Tomorrowland movie (https://soundcloud.com/riverwestradio/21-00-00-to-be-continued), Manda is the trans-historical female and Fasti is the trans-historical male; he may have been told this by Lisa Samuels herself but I'm not sure.

On p. 26 "I fell in love with time's indisputable eraser..." begins a passage of a dozen lines or so that's closely shadowed, sometimes word for word, in (p. 49, beginning "I fell in love / With the moon's disputable mirror...").

[Jack] "Thus coastal disproportionate form is hanging Jack / Poorly for his unplanned sup while we watch..." (p. 26).  The first named appearance of Jack, who "plays death", according to the back cover of the printed book. Certainly Jack is associated with death and violence ("escalation's fury Jack" (ALH, p. 68)). It's Jack who is presumably referred to in "he hanged himself that's what he done" near the end of TBC (p. 93). The word or idea of hanging, passim,  tends to suggest Jack. Perhaps a jack tar. Or a flag. Origin: the old world: Protestant northern mist.

"If it weren't for Shakespeare we'd never have Jane Austen if not" (p. 27). Compare "If it weren't for whales we'd never have fishes if" (LG, p. 60).

The final part of TI focusses on ants.


*

4. Sirens.


"the atolls / (Neptune's mouths)..." (p. 31) Usefully glossing the title of the next chapter.

[Fasti]

          (A hundred years ago) the nerves of Fasti's feet
          Agree a doorlatch patiently apart
          My patrimony truly far from home in a necessary
          Curse... (p. 33)

The first appearance of the fourth named character. Like the others Fasti is a real name, though obscure (old Scandinavian). Perhaps more relevant, "fasti" are chronological lists of official and religious events (Roman, as in Ovid's Fasti). Generally he seems to me priestly. He's associated at various points with logs (in the sense of records, I think) and with astronomy. The "founding Fasti" suggests a pioneer patriarch. There's a relatively long quasi-narrative about him and his mother in the middle of ATBMOV.

[Latch] "Latch" (as in the lines above), is a word that becomes more prominent: in the second half of Tomorrowland (LG, p. 63; TBC, p. 85, 90; C, p. 96).


*

5. Neptune's Open Mouth.


The preceding chapter, Sirens, links to this one via its final line ("you dip your legs into your class just testing").  [Apart from its modern-cityscape and newly-discovered-tropical-island type locales, there is also quite a lot of educational loci in Tomorrowland ; such as this "class" (in one of its meanings), in which "you" is either a teacher or a student. Cf "warm and gentle schools" earlier on the same page.]

NOM is, unsurprisingly, watery. Water is associated with sex, birth and death. (The coupling of land animals involves a temporary, damp, private re-creation of the watery environment in which our far-distant ancestors lived out the whole of their lives.)

          Under the tide my legs are musical
          display on moonlit net  ... (Opening lines of NOM, p. 36)

Both the opening and closing parts of NOM are vaginal. Hibiscus and sea-anemone, shell and fold.

Within, the following set-pieces stand out:

5.1. A semi-emergent lyric called "Arrival's Song". That is, I should say at once, a dubious interpretation. The title words appear bracketed, as if introducing an embedded lyric, but the text that follows it isn't clearly demarcated or distinct from the rest of NOM.

It might strike the reader that "Arrival's Song" arrives a little belatedly. After all, we're five chapters in, aren't we? Isn't it a bit late for a spontaneous effusion?  That sense of a willed, even heel-dragging, performance is latent here.

And could there be the complicating hint of "A Rival's Song"? The pun seeming to be authorized by "a plea / a look a rival" (B, p. 54)

(Parallel to the Shakespeare sonnets about the rival poet, e..g Sonnet 86.)  In both an alienation effect, because lyric poetry is no longer associated with this activity that we're sharing now, but with that other person's activity (an unwelcome one, to boot).

5.2. A group of stories of a mythical or ritual type. These include a Metamorphoses-style account of a yearning lover turned into a tree, and a relatively long account of water ritual in the days immediately following a child's drowning and before the child's spirit is fully at rest.

5.3. The curiously impressive apparition of a woman, near the end of the chapter, "with hair the colour of microphones".

This is Ovidian-in-reverse. The woman appears to metamorphose out of a bird standing "gradually" on the beach*, moving its "mouth" side to side and casting off feathers. At the same time the statement that "the woman stepped out shining" suggests a bather emerging from the sea.

[* The stuttering standing of a bird, always ruffled by the startle instinct and apt to hop about a bit. Gradual:  gradually calming down, becoming less flittery. But also gradus = a step: still moving about.]

She has a shadowy audience of men, to whom the words "deferential" and "cautious" are attached.

The side-to-side head movement of the bird/woman is reminiscent of the robotic Eula in the closing lines of ATBMOV .  And this final section of NOM names Eula several times  (the only one of the four to be named in NOM).  So is this emergent woman Eula? That seems far too definite an identification. But the impression that Eula has a cybernetic aspect, part technical and part bird maybe, is pervasive.


"like Roosevelt or the moon..." (p. 40)  - probably has nothing at all to do with the notorious massacre of Moro people in the Philippines in 1906 ("President Theodore Roosevelt sent Wood a congratulatory cablegram..."). Here's the link anyway.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Battle_of_Bud_Dajo

*

6. Bulwarks.


A bulwark is a defensive fortification or rampart.

          We built the wall with stone by stone interiors
          Admiring fashion's fit with iron's wear
          And where the cracks peeked through a glint of green
          We stuffed it with the faces of our enemies... (pp. 45-46).

This defensive construction might be necessary, but there's paranoia and panic in blocking up those glints of green jungle with our nightmares.

This is the central and longest chapter, about double the typical length. With Bulwarks the poem becomes less innocent. A steadier preoccupation with colonialism begins here and continues through LG and ALH.

[Implements, in general] "diminished sovereignty / In the crude bath and plan raids .... does not hold its own / tradition bath nor subterfuge / umbrella as it falls..." (p. 44) This isn't exactly a motif, but there's a number of references in the poem to simple, old-fashioned implements, such as a primitive colony might value. Umbrella again, p. 52. The umbrella and parasol of TBC, p. 90. Knife, p. 49 and p. 53. Also the shovel (ATBMOV, pp. 80-81). The adze. (e.g. ALH, p. 65 "she took her tat / and adzed it through the rockface / of the boat she knew she'd go on"; ATBMOV, p. 82 "The world collects itself for you / an adze and scarf waft"). Ancient tool. There survive prehistoric Maori adzes that were used for woodcarving. "The pounding of the adze" (TBC, p. 89)  (unexpected use of an adze).

          Come come let us be hither let us not pretend we are not
          What we wot is the hintermost mortality can muster... (p. 46)

A call to order for the colonists, the double negative summoning "the not of widom" against the scarier "not" of the Other, "the night of savage-not-to-be". A call to national identity and apartheid.

"Hither": i.e. not "hither AND thither". No promiscuity of cultures here! (Compare "come thither" ALH p. 58, and "gone hither" p. 59)

"Hintermost": the context implying a sense of achieved superiority, the term itself implying essentialism and isolationism.

Though Manda resists this coercion the feeling of defeat, of personal identity being helplessly dependent on domesticity, on a bulwark preserving national identity, throws up its hands (p. 48). Patriarchal Fasti appears to inspire his colonist society and to hold it in check (pp. 49, 50, 51, 52, 53).

Manda's interjections, the "protesting soul",  instead proposes a rhapsodic inclusivity (p.47); these creative hungers are suppressed in the official culture, "because satiety / is its authorized appearance" (p. 48).

Peace is superficially restored ("Again, we are holding hands by the shore...") but the opposed elements jostle, gall, and attempt to co-opt each other, a conflict underlying the communal experience of the next few pages.

"That's the moon crept through the kauri tired". Agathis australis, a North Island conifer of great ecological and cultural significance. Once much exploited for its excellent timber (cf. "grand houses out of kauri", ALH, p.66).


Giant kauri at Waipoua Forest

[Image source: http://www.firstlighttravel.com/modal/sacred-waipoua-forest]



"I fell in love / with the moon's disputable mirror..." (p.49) begins a passage echoing TI p. 26.

"Fasti's quotient" (p. 53). The expression reappears in ALH, p. 69.

The last section of Bulwarks (pp. 55 - 56) tells a story about Manda teaching unruly children, colonial in character, and about a somewhat chaotic growth of urbanization. Children's education remains a preoccupation through LG and ALH.

Francis Towne (final line, p. 56): English watercolourist, d. 1816. Long neglected, now admired. Refers back to the educational project of p.55: "books with articles about watercoloring".

*

7. Landed gently.


"Landed gently". This was the name of a book by Alan Hunter (1957), featuring his character Inspector Gently. Hunter in turn may have intended a pun on "landed gentry". So might this chapter ("disinherit", "heir apparent", "inheritance"...). But more important, probably, is the recurrent appearance of "gently", e.g. in the the passage quoted below.

The themes of children and education continue from B. Colonialism too. Considerable energy on the theme of civil restitution for colonial wrongs. And blood, and the natural. At one point (p. 62), four lyrical paragraphs begin with the word "Naturally"...

"war-torn ways" (p. 58); cf. "the war-torn country" (p. 59). Possibly referring to the permanent state of small-scale warfare said to be typical of tribal societies.

"Admonishment's a windy task that someone / takes eventually rectangular in buildings and a tithe..." (p. 59). In ALH this is more drastically developed as "Society's a way of having to be cleared / we very soon gave way all admonition / to the punt..." (p. 67).

The "Naturally" lyric, part of which follows, reflects on the network of past generations, sex and reproduction, comrades lost in shipwrecks, among other things.


           Naturally we no longer hear that sound even when our
           radios are far up into space with limbs triumphant in
           the voice of the woman is the care she cedes to no-one
           naturally climbing the next within the eggs she lays and
           hatches in each other this structure is an ornamental
           seizure for the Fasti caught in hatches own allure, his
           hard and clement fissures never so certain as

           Naturally what is lost is what we'd have to yield our
           names and call sister brother mother father child, sea-
           tender, mind-brooder, sand-counter, bird-leader, herd-
           endurer, leaf-gatherer, whale-shooter, immigrant youth,
           sober sustainer, free baby, world-renouncing dreamer,
           cloud-watching post-successive non-accreting brain-
           inveigling doom-calm yeay-say sad-eyed so-it-is-one

           Naturally such matters move in waves, and the bodies
           of those heaped through the water bump gently, sad
           if you say so, your broken heart is latched to their
           interiors, sad if you know so, the lands are moving
          slowly toward away each other tending arguments
          against the gentle trees that stir in books we hold with
          winds upon our faces from the buildings sway

(LG, pp. 62-63)

[The audio version of Landed Gently is also on the companion CD to Emily Critchley, ed. out of everywhere 2: linguistically innovative poetry by women in north america & the uk (Reality Street, 2015).]


*

8. A little history.


The theme of history had been forecast in the previous chapter (p. 60).

"the leopard island" (p. 65). Three more references on pp. 65 - 66. This is almost a narrative, featuring Eula.

[Meter] "The primary formal note is the interrupted iambic", announces the back cover straight-facedly, and that's perfectly true of Tomorrowland as a whole. But ALH, more than any previous chapter, is progressively invaded by a more insistent and stricter rhythm: the pulse of tetrameter, pointed up by lots of rhyme and near-rhyme. And this becomes a feature of the later chapters, for example at the end of ATBMOV and  in parts of TBC. In general my impression is that these stricter metrical incursions signify a crisis or breakdown.  They substitute for, yet do not conceal, chasms in human discourse.

"and bridge of anger to Hokianga" (last line, p. 71):  Hokianga harbour, with its giant kauri trees, celebrated as the birthplace of the Maori nation, is 3 hours' drive north of Aukland.


*

9. All the buildings made of voices.


          One never sees so much as through a shutter

(opening line of ATBMOV, p. 72)

Talking about the view through a window, and hence recalling the opening of LG. With a glance, too, at photography.

"At night she sweated language on her sheets" (p. 72). Recurrent themes of ATBMOV  include sweat, buildings, construction and languages. The themes are inter-connected, with literature and building intermixed, e.g. "This sort of narrative city is what it's all about" (p. 74).

"hark the tui rises with perfume" (p. 73). (Perfume, and stench, will become insistent features in TBC, the chapter that follows this one.) The tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) is a passerine bird endemic to New Zealand, a member of the honeyeater family. "..a tui sang his three notes and laughed and sang them again" (Katherine Mansfield, "Prelude").



Tui



[Image source: http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/tui. Photo by Cheryl Marriner.]


Unexpectedly but appropriately, the second section of this highly-built chapter (pp. 74-78) breaks forth into extended narrative, or the nearest that Tomorrowland ever gets to it.  The story concerns Fasti, his attempts to orient himself, what he is "supposed to know", limits on what he can see, his mother's grave and his sense of isolation from her, a persistent failed quest that becomes a deportment and cannot be sustained indefinitely  ("But Fasti would be young only so long ...")


[Tā moko] The tattooed facial designs of Maori culture turn up in the poem as the woman "with blueprints on her face" (ATBMOV, p. 75) and as "our blue-stained faces revealing us as / planful admonitions" (TBC, p. 91). Less certainly, "the family carved its ink along its flesh to remember" (S, p. 30); "Then Eula took to etching ink into the hide as well" (NOM, p. 41); "Eula is a caring carving ... she took her tat and adzed it through the rockface..." (ALH, p. 65).


There's a perceptible quickening of tempo in the later chapters.... a sense of urgency, haste, multiple actions spinning out of control.  As in the first word of the passage below.


          Meantime at the mast camp Manda stirred
          the bones sighed for country
          the rearranged consent was on a paper
          bottled carefully for the occasion and extracted
          from the ground on which she fled
          seine or wood, feigned for the burial

          Such marching is as adamant as your life
          sewed stitched arrayed, loaded with wrong ideas
          stove in your head, warrantless possessions
          following each other heel on keel
          as you dance amidst the rainsocked plot
          your muddy mind could grow on
          while you gorgeously palaver all the mindsets
          close and closer to your own -- come hither hard imagined
          hard to say in this life, the blank stuff of 'knowing'
          no closer than anyone is likely to accede --
          bland parleys, blind missives, stoked defences
          piled one on one until (we reach the pinnacle
          fair minded nation state whose every desire's to
          please those waiting selves who stroved
          and borrowed just to be asked ...


(ATBMOV, pp. 79-80)


*

10. The body's charge.


This is the last of the main chapters (excluding the preludial TA and postludial C). That finality is announced with the opening words, distantly recalling the first line of TA.

          The second volume planned to make a method
          Of her spells and be someone entirely different collapsed
          (though she rankled trees) the fragile jeopardy stripes
          Were all along reverse of what she wrote
          She found the stripes grow down her back she reached
          Over her shoulder held the skin and pulled and
          it would not release, not go at all

The theme of an abandoned plan continues and the body is the blocker of such projections.

The poem (typically evoking Manda at this point) now enters a body-centred, helpless, sensation-centred, field.

Rest, sex, love, washing, swimming, dissolution, death, mouldering. Somehow all held together in the single word "pulcherous". (p. 86)

All this is in marked contrast to the civilizing efforts to build in time and space that concerned the previous chapter ATBMOV, typified by its calendrical stargazing and pyramid roof-terrace.

"The body's charge" -  the charge is 1. an electrical energy, a potential energy / actual cavalry  2. an indictment, accusation. (especially on p. 88)  3. A freight, responsibility, maybe an unborn child. ("Manda's swell" p. 89).

The sudden return of Jack:

            We'll lift it up and bury us as
          orange and woody sprites become recycled selves
          in bricks and troves, in scarves and trousers
          lollipop specters nuzzling each other as the decades
          pass entranced -- the shade compels the body to follow it
          as Jack unspheres on Fasti with a tender disregard
          for the dictates of his person, ....

The burial follows swiftly.


*

11. Circumference.


This epilogue begins playfully but is soon conflicted, fragmentary and defensive, the opposite of triumphal anyway.  None of the four named characters make an appearance. The pronoun "I" is insistent.

                                                    I don't think
          you really want the end you're diving for... (p. 95)

Circumference's iterations of sweeping, singing and ringing sound like a lyric that fails to reassure and is jangled by an alarm-bell. Only in the last couple of lines does some sort of stability ensue.

          tested -- every ringing was the next we -- told each stories to make
          the time -- it was so fine, under the conditions and -- we were all we
          were there right -- each other trembling, our clothes symbolic travesty
          underneath our tremble chest were waves --

(pp. 97-98)




underneath our tremble chest were waves --


NOTE


Zoë Skoulding wrote about Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland and Gender City in her 2013 book, Contemporary Women's Poetry and Urban Space: Experimental Cities.  In the Introduction she writes:


"Acts of looking have been a recurrent interest in my discussion, particularly in relation to the panoptic overviews of mapping and surveillance. Notley, Samuels and Carol Watts, particularly, engage with various forms of resistance to vision as a form of control, asserting the poem as site of perceptual and embodied disobedience." 


That seems a useful corrective to the various acts of mapping attempted here. Tomorrowland is in many respects unmappable by design.












Gale Nelson, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011)

by Michael Peverett








I wrote a piece about Gale Nelson's poetry before:

"Mac Low's diastic process (in Gale Nelson's stare decisis)" 


but when I wrote that I didn't know that he had just published a new book (Burning Deck, 2011). It turned out to be a spectacular one.  Here's one of its 64 poems. 



THEIR VOCAL SOUL DIN


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 


(p. 23)


The basic thing to know about these poems is that their vowel-letters (A,E,I,O,U) follow a predetermined sequence. The sequences are taken from eight famous Shakespeare passages. This poem follows the vowel-letter sequence of Orsino's speech beginning "If music be the food of love, play on...". (The title "Their Vocal Soul Din" follows the vowel-letter sequence of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.) 

Nelson explains all this in an engaging afterword. He also explains how the groups of poems (eight for each of the eight Shakespeare passages), instead of being presented one after the other, are intermixed by following an ancient "knight's circuit" around the 64 squares of the chessboard. (Thus the sample poem I've quoted, though it appears as the twelfth poem in the book, is in fact the third poem in the eighth group. 



al-Adli ar-Rumi's knight's circuit, used to order the poems


But once we start to read the poems, we realize that this afterword is very far from explaining everything that's going on. 

To use the terms of diastic verse, Nelson tells us everything about his seed-text, but he tells us nothing about the source-text...

The reasonable assumption, then, is that there is no source-text (in diastic verse, a source-text is a reservoir from which all the poem's vocabulary is taken). 

OK, so maybe there's no source-text as such. But the more we examine these poems, the more we come to realize that their verbal contents have some very strange features. The protocol described by Nelson is not so stringent as the protocol for true diastic verse, which virtually rules out personal expression. Following a prescriptive vowel-letter sequence is doubtless quite taxing, but it would allow the author some meaningful expression. Nevertheless, it's apparent that what's going on here, though it often makes a kind of sense, is certainly not the poet just "talking". (This is what happens when talk ends.)

I've slipped down the screen, so here's that sample poem again:


THEIR VOCAL SOUL DIN


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 


This particular poem is obsessed with three-word phrases that take a similar form: "thread's lost shine" "doom's best glint", "trout's first stave", "sand's moist star".  (Generally, the -st suffix plays a very large part in these poems.)  

Readers familiar with the book will recognize one or two other characteristic features, too. That word "venom", for instance.  This is one of the words -- there are quite a few of them, once you start to look --  that show up just a little bit too often for it to be accidental. ("Best" and "better" are others.) 

Then there's the recurrent emphasis, both in structure and content, on vocal but not necessarily verbal sound: "vocal", "din", "cries", "sing"... 

Then there's the coastal, marshy, grassy landscape and the fishing, here and in almost every poem ("spool", "crab-lamp", "trout"). I like to imagine that the poems breathe a damp and breezy Rhode Island, where Nelson lives (he teaches at Brown University). That's probably a naive idea. These poems are not descriptions of nature. 

But they do, for all that, have a texture that persistently recalls nature. As we can't help noticing in the season of leaf-fall, nature too is habitually patterned, and the patterns are formed, like fallen leaves on a path, by multiplication of chance events. The Oulipian and aleatory procedures deployed by writers like Nelson generate these natural patterns, too. How many I couldn't say. The longer I looked, the more I seemed to find. 











The Dovre slate mill (Aase Berg)

by Michael Peverett

Dovrefjell, with Musk-Ox



[Image source: https://www.nasjonalparkriket.no/]





In Dovre Slate Mill


Maneuver the body across deep traps, across water-clogged holes and open wells. across the animal's wet fur with terror in my neck-frenzy. Sharp branches strike and lash blood-needles against my finger-skin my face of blue enamel against naked nettle fibers. On the other side of the smeltery at the edge of the murky lake there I see Zachris move too close to the shaft. I move closer to the head even though chains clang dull metal against the febrile radula. Here runs a clear underground border a fistulation toward Mare Imbrium. I thrust the muscle latch toward the machines that throb there in the wound. What evil can happen to you what evil can happen to you here near heavy waters. In the smithy the Daude choir's tortured tracks shrieking against sharp spits. Chitinstaffs, porphyry, cold coal crystals. And my stiff hands cupped, and my stiff hands cupped around the surface of your black cranium.


I Dovre skifferkvarn


Manövrerar kroppen över djupa fällor, över vattenfyllda hål och öppna brunnor, över djurets blöta päls med skräck i ryggens hets. Vassa grenar slår och snärtar blodbarr mot min fingerhud mitt ansikte av blå enamel mot nakna nässelfibrer. På andra sidan smältverket vid randen av den dunkla sjö där ser jak Zachris komma schaktet allför nära. Jag rör mig närmare mot huvudet trots kedjor klanger matt metall mot den febrila radulan. Här går en tydlig underjordisk gräns enfistelgång mot Mare Imbrium. Jag stöter muskelfästet mot maskinerna som bultar där i såret. Vad ont kan hända dig vad ont kan hända dis här nära tunga vatten. I smedjan Daudekörens pina skenor skriande mot skarpa spett. Kitinstavar, porfyrer, kalla kolkristaller. Och min stela händer kupade, och mina stela händer kupade kring ytan av ditt svarta kranium.


Aase Berg, from Mörk materia (=Dark matter) (Bonniers,1999), with English translation by Johannes Göransson (from Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg, Action Books, 2005).

This was Aase Berg's post-apocalyptic second collection of poems (in Sweden, the book is often regarded as in dialogue with Harry Martinson's 1956 sci-fi poem Aniara). Born in 1967, Berg is one of Sweden's best-known younger poets. She has now published seven collections, she also writes for the national newspaper Expressen.

One of the ideas I took from reading around this poetry is about a two-fold conception of nature: one side facing towards us, acculturated and interpreted through culture; and the other side facing away, the "dark matter" that exists in crushing solidity but beyond identification and beyond the possibility of acculturation. But it seems important to add that in Berg's poetry nature is not separate from the body. She is not a landscape poet; everything is within.

Dovre

Name of a village, region and mountain massif in central Norway. (I think I remember reading that Berg has Norwegian ancestry, but I might be mistaken.) The famous Grieg tune known in English as "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is really called "I Dovregubbens hall".

The meaning of the source-word dofr is disputed but the best guess is that it relates to a deep cleft or gorge.  In this poem, it's apparent that the journey is into the earth.

skifferkvarn ("slate mill")

In Swedish the line between standard vocabulary and coinage is fuzzy: the agglutinative nature of the language naturally tends to produce coinages and re-coinages, and Berg's poetry makes heavy use of this. This particular word had been used (rarely) before, for example in a history of artificial fertilizers to describe a gypsum-crushing machine. In this case the important thing is perhaps the crushing of form and identity (the distinct thin layers of slates; books, screens, images; the picturable, the nameable).

Mare Imbrium

The largest crater on the moon (it's the Man in the Moon's right eye); resulting from a catastrophic planetary collision 3.8 billion years ago. The collision was so traumatic that its effects can also be seen at the diametrically opposite point, on the moon's dark side. Berg's poem is strongly aware of geological time-spans. Other poems in the sequence refer to Lemuria (hypothetical ancient continent) and Purgatorius (the original primate genus).

Daudekören ("Daude choir")

Daude is a Norwegian variant, especially in compound words, to the standard word død ("death").


Brief biography of Aase Berg:
http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/27827/Aase-Berg

Three other poems from Mörk materia, with English translation:
http://www.actionyes.org/issue1/berg/berg-printfriendly.htm

A selection of other poems (Swedish only) from the period of Berg's involvement with the Stockholm Surrealist Group, including six from Mörk materia .
http://www.surrealistgruppen.org/poeterna.pdf

"Sälformen släpar skinnet -- om naturen i Aase Bergs tidiga diktning"
Interesting dissertation (in Swedish) by Johan Attfors about nature in Berg's two earliest collections,  Hos rådjur (=With Deer) and Mörk materia  :
http://www.diva-portal.se/smash/get/diva2:782085/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Johannes Göransson's excellent essay "'Antibody': Aase Berg's Grotesque Poetry and the Swedish Welfare State", in Transnationalism and Resistance: Experience and Experiment in Women's Writing ed. Adele Parker and Stephenie Young, can (mostly) be read here:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=IUQjAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=dovre+berg+sjolin&source=bl&ots=UhU7ZxWklX&sig=cgURTaU5TOj4SpVCMWHTNlxkpE4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiwvrOdvqXQAhUkDcAKHeS4DfAQ6AEIHjAA#v=onepage&q=dovre%20berg%20sjolin&f=false



Aase Berg

[Image source: http://www.
expressen.se/kultur/bocker/aase-berg--uggla/]




Two Poems by Frankie Basweld



transfers here

so het and not
even able to
watch the news
for another
round of illuminations
dead line a trudge of
this place you took
to be your own
is either a
fortress or a
grave sight
making sickly
and with
out clear defence

man at
the sleeping business
man at
the back hear
what I say
what I guess
what I say
what I hear
you guess what
what I say

channel already
wind swept
acute pressure your stop
that silence how about
that
that moment or
amount obscured
squeezed and pressed
along to your stop
tell that to
a factory reset
and finger
print partial
commentary

what will they be

when the speaking stops




Hail and Ride

fine you
want to
talk ab
out it
so let’s
talk ab
out it
how ev
ery bro
is in
love with
a cop
or a
bureau
crat and
how this
thing is
even
devas
tating
for their
health liv
ing life
through these
remark
able
junctures
in time
with all
its let
ters grow
ing to
thick nubs

there is
no saint
for this
partic
ular
sickness
there is
no neat
reprieve
on the
hill

steady
the hand
that ails
you stead
y and
set it
to work
in the
instance

there is
only
the love
of old
smiley
with his
firm grace
and voice
of pages
flutter
ing there
is some
thing like
cata
strophe
that affirm
ed in
the wa
ter or
blood of
this bus
iness frowned
at its
fatal
distor
tion a
landscape
as plain
and un
ceasing
as you
like

we have
all marked
that card
of con
fronta
tion we
have all
fatal
ly togg
led  that
switch what
business
was it
of yours
to be
gin with
what busi
ness was
it of
theirs

there was
an end
and now

Two Colonized Sonnets by Sonnet L'Abbé



XCVI

Some say that it was a conspiracy, that fault lies with Grayson for plugging that bitch’s dorky game, that the wanton Quinn traded ass for good press. Others named Sarkeesian as harpy they’d most like to disfigure. 4chan pysched itself a lynch mob. Touting ethics (ahem) in video game journalism, trolls made extreme sport of bombarding their fellow gamers with hacking attempts and threats of assaults. Gamergaters loved the idea of a feminist conspiracy. The image of vindictive, plotting feminists hatching “communist” machinations (not in smoky rooms, but in the lefty, vaulted halls of disgruntled academia) to destroy macho gamer identity motivated haters. They resorted to harassing women, giving the finger to safe space. They profaned the Depression Quest developer’s name, gutting her basic sense of safety, doxing the “social justice warrior” so that she fled her own domicile. People bullied Wu as well, suggesting her kids would be murdered after she was choked and raped at her home address. Even a year later, tormentors continue hating, sending Wu their fantasies about slicing her genitals and defecating into her mouth. How can such ruthlessness be translated? Anonymous douches will forever troll forums, expressing things they’d never murmur in daylight or to a woman’s face. Always flamers will abuse comment. The images of hate: what cliché! My sonnet suffers, repeating such worn, flaccid fabrications. No poetry can lyric lifelike a bully’s ambition, or metaphor the feces they would have us ingest. Literary books can’t translate hate’s boring words. Manly gazers play games, fight realist fights, shoot virtual people. Cheerleaders are welcome, especially if they count as women the industry loves. But developers without penises wield the strength of virtuality, like leviathans boys are trained to behead. Brutality does not stop the girl-love that, like a feminist pansexual Cthulhu, rises from the subreddits. As Yuggoth sprouts its zombielike fungi, the minecrafty feminine rises; Mother Hydra games oospores into the wet dreams of Super Mario Brothers.




XCVII

Hooboy, what a hellish week. Give me aww imagery: kittens in knitted radish hats, charming baby capybaras wrestling celery from bunnies, kittens in furry costumes that disguise them as purple koalas, furry costumes on ferrets that style ferrets into little ferret-lions. Gifs of capybaras wearing cowboy hats, ferrets squeezing themselves beneath doors, attractive penguins fearlessly twerking their tails, knitted pairs of socks unhanding a panda. Tiny human babies are also effective: I can aww hard at two month-olds dressed as caterpillars, metal babies rocking Sabbath “Paranoid” onesies, babies-as-green-vegetables, wary newborns who peer out from Batman swaddling. Give me baby ferrets this time curled in palms, or venturing blindly from a water glass; give me tumblrs of lambs tenderly nestled with micro piglets. Show me tarsiers emailing,  auks stumbling, bichons growling from their rich moms’ Birkin carriers. Please, that I might bear in good spirit the ways entitled old men unburden themselves, post gifs of athletic black prima ballerinas’ sick jetés, winding women, more winding women shaking booties as feminist intervention, the epic eyerolls responding to some dude’s ceaseless oratory, the talk-to-the-hand flips, the ab fab duo slurring dahling, the First Lady asking: turnip for what? Beyoncé’s made Lemonade out of some men’s bunk; let her black ops meme hope formations, however ephemeral, into my social enduring. Some fathers’ dominions feel ruined; support for some trumped up troublemaker ascends. The image’s pleasures wait on them, too: here’s Obama in photoshopped thobe; here’s unicorns and rainbows ironically photoshopped over a jewy Bernie Sanders. Dems and Republicans don’t mean to unite over tiny baby feet held by muscly Adonis-men, or gifs of dalmatians wearing antlers. But there’s something about a dressed-up llama; it cheers the absurdist and believer. To save myself, on loop I’ll keep playing that sublime videowhere around the living room glides the cat, wearing the shark’s fin costume, riding a roomba.









Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran


Two poems - click on the links to download the full poem as a pdf:


The Choir Included Some Familiar Faces















"The choir were not as one about the history
of the singing alphabet..."





In the Days of Lee Harwood















"A trail of bookmarks, a trail of postcards..."


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