Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Thomas Crown Affair - Money Isn't Funny Any More

The Thomas Crown Affair [1968, United Artists/MGM, color], which is traditionally referred to as a "heist" movie, was in actuality a kind of romantic comedy with black comic undertones. The remake, not unsurprisingly, was a pathetic rehashing of the crudest, and least interesting aspects of the original story, not least (I suspect) because that first cast was uniquely suited to its purposes, and couldn't simply be transmuted, or re-adapted with new bodies in fixed roles. 
The Director, Norman Jewison, was already a seasoned movie mogul by the time he did this film--he'd been directing and producing work since the early 1950's--and he'd directed McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid [1965] just three years earlier. Jewison, it should be noted, wasn't a one-trick pony, having also done The  Russians Are Coming [1966], In the Heat of the Night [1967], Fiddler On the Roof [1971], and Moonstruck [1987].
McQueen, whose career had not kicked into high gear until The Magnificent Seven [1960], had built an impressive screen presence and career with The War Lover [1962], The Great Escape [1963], and The Sand Pebbles [1966], but he'd begun to be typecast as a macho action figure, a bankable profile, still dangerously limiting for a serious actor. Straying outside what was becoming his usual type carried risks. As originally conceived, Thomas Crown was a polite, refined playboy. Could McQueen bring it off? 
Faye Dunaway, McQueen's rival and love interest in the film, was just beginning as an actress, having only completed Bonnie and Clyde [1967] the year before, and whose career would not really blossom until the 1970's. Once again, improbable casting put two unlikely actors into a situation that few would have predicted could work. 
Outwardly, the plot is filled with fantasy. Thomas Crown, a spoiled, bored rich kid (banker) living alone (divorced) in a Beacon Hill mansion, decides to pull off a bank robbery, just for kicks, and to prove that he's smart enough to beat "the system." Traveling to Europe, he deposits the cool 2.6 million in cash in a numbered account in Geneva. Vicki Anderson [Dunaway] is brought in by the insurance company to investigate. Vicki immediately spots McQueen from among the suspects, and sets out to pursue him, instigating a romantic affair, which is complicated by the fact that she's convinced he's the guilty one. In due course, the "affair" becomes a complex fencing game in which both test each other's commitment to each other. Crown decides to pull off another heist ("I can do it again"), preparatory to disappearing into Europe, and as a gambit to force Vicki to choose whether or not to be his companion or turn him in for the reward. 
The filming, which was done on location in and around Boston, and in other areas in Massachusetts, has an authenticity which belies the hip cinematography--quite innovative for its time--which involved split screen projection, multiple frames, and a jazzy, flowery score by Michel Legrand that gave the whole production a brisk, up-to-date flair.  

The seduction scenes between Dunaway and McQueen were stylishly conceived. A game of chess, a romp in a dune buggy on the beach, a walk in the old Boston Cemetery. The sexual chemistry between these two, derived from their respective characters' mutual frisky approach to life, is the fulcrum which balances the film, between fluffy sexual dalliance, and the pursuit of crime/and criminals, which is the ostensible engine of the narrative. They're playing with each other, but the game is deadly serious. We know, on the one hand, that Crown is much too selfish and wayward to capitulate and go to prison--for love; but Vicki Anderson may wobble: Tommy's offer of a future of naughty escape into elegant decadence and devil-may-care tests her limits. Will she be a good girl, or join him in picturesque, existential rebellion? 
Coming, as it did, towards the end of the 1960's, the counter-cultural undertones may seem odd today. Did anyone believe that a Boston banker could harbor anti-social tendencies of this magnitude? Was Tommy's antsy-ness, his feeling "trapped" by a circumscribed social and economic strait-jacket a believable portrayal? Almost certainly not. What McQueen brought to the role was his fine sense of mischief, an elf-like mercurial spirit which lent the part gusto. Against his shrewd, suave assurance, Dunaway's stylish, fashionable feminine mettle and polite coyness and strategic persistence may have seemed pale. Dunaway was at the height of her beauty and polish at this point--she seemed almost like a platinum Scheherazade. 
In the 1930's, at the height of the Depression, American audiences were treated by Hollywood to visions of sugar-plums, as upper-classmen in tuxedos sipped cocktails and wisecracked to smart, felicitous ladies in furs, as New World royalty hobnobbed through penthouses and were whisked about town in saloon cars. In The Thomas Crown Affair, Vicki represents cheap, tawdry "new money's" envy of Tommy's olde world, settled, traditional accoutrements--his 200 year old mansion on Beacon, his beach house on the Ipswich Dunes, the Copp's Hill Cemetery in North End (where his forbears are undoubtedly buried), the staid, wood-paneled auction house, the polo match at Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, his personal glider, his Rolls, his giant corner office, etc. Audiences could see and appreciate all this splendour and insolent gratification, without the least sense of guilty pleasure, since Crown had come into his money the old-fashioned way (he inherited it), and he was now renouncing a way of life that inheritance had made incumbent. Tommy wasn't the typical rebel--the Marlon Brando of The Wild Ones [1953], or James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause [1955] and East of Eden [1955]--his rebellion consisted of a rejection of privilege, of the responsibility of wealth, of a duty implied in the capitalist social contract--politics, finance, charity, the courtesies of ceremony--all the things he finds tedious and passe. In this respect, The Thomas Crown Affair is decades ahead of its time, in positing a renunciation of wealth and advantage; and this was made particularly evident by the stilted remake of 1999 with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. By then, there was no longer any novelty about breaking the law: After all, crooked Wall Street Traders and investment bankers, drug lords and Mafiosi and Black gangstas had already become de rigeur in American cinema. Crime had long ago ceased to be a road to respectability. Who wanted to be respectable, for God's sake, when being naughty was so much more fun?
In Thomas Crown, Steve McQueen made contempt for affluence hip, and trendy. Underneath his trim, molded exterior there lived a stealthy panther of a creature, attracted not to authorized pleasures, but to guilty indulgence.                     
Tommy's personal crusade was against "the system"--not against injustice, innocent suffering, or rivals--but against the boredom of predictable, secure existence. McQueen's signature rascality, his Outsider's brash confidence, and ruthless pursuit of selfish fulfillment, was brilliantly elaborated in Thomas Crown. No longer merely the intrepid action hero bumping off devils and throwing over swooning maidens, not just the audacious stunt man risking life and limb to prove his upstart manhood. 

Typically, audiences may have wished that this cock-eyed love affair could end up in heaven, but logic dictated otherwise. In one scene, Tommy and Vicki are lying in bed while he smokes a cigar, contemplating his next bank job. "I can do it again," he boasts. Vicki, frustrated and looking for a compromise that will allow them to stay together, asks "why?" "The system," he replies, "me, and the system." "But why?" she insists. "It's my funeral. You're just along for the ride." This declared sense of fatalistic power, expressed with an infernal resignation, transcends the moral universe beyond which even someone as pragmatic and courageous as Vicki can't follow. Tommy has crossed a line, not just in the society he inhabits, but in the movie universe of allowable outcomes and choices.


When Tommy betrays her confidence, in the end, leaving a note that allows her--if she chooses--to join him in Switzerland, or to keep his Rolls and the loot from the 2nd bank job, as he snoozes on his trans-oceanic flight back to the Old World culture, we realize they have, in effect, now both relinquished not only the possibility of love, but of the fruits of the American Dream.

America was founded upon (or later expanded to include) the principles of economic opportunity, of the equality inherent in an ideal classless society in which race, gender, creed, color, religion, and national origin would not be a basis for prejudicial exclusion. Our laws are designed to enforce (sort of) these principles, to insure a level playing field in the pursuit of happiness (and wealth and fame and power). The Thomas Crown Affair deigns to suggest that this paradigm is flawed; that, beyond success and ultimate means, there lies a further boundary of contention, in which the experience of life's potentiality is played out on another field of mastery, where you make the rules up as you go along, where the limits are determined by one's imagination and guile. 

For such individuals, love, the natural affection which men and women feel for each other, may become a casualty, may, in the end, signify nothing more than the camaraderie of team spirit, of mutually interested parties, willing to betray each other in the final gambit. The chess game which the two play symbolizes the rules of the dirty little game, the inevitable romantic interlude, and eventual dissolution. As an avatar of selfishness which Thomas Crown stands for--McQueen's lone wolf profile--who lives by his own code of honor and dignity and physical exhilaration, whose playthings are women and toys and other people's money--there's no better example in the history of cinema (except, perhaps, Cary Grant's Mr. Lucky). "Money isn't funny," he says at one point in the film. He's right.    


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sam Abell - National Geographic Stylist to the Nth - Some Captions


My proclivities as a photographer tend towards the abstract, and to landscape specifically. Brett Weston is my hero. But I like all kinds of photographic imagery, and I like to think I can appreciate worthy efforts far afield of my primary focus.  
One star in the pantheon of National Geographic freelance photo-journalists is Sam Abell. Abell's images--taken from around the world, in a wide variety of venues, in many different kinds of assignments--transcend the documentary purpose of most of his contract work, achieving a metaphysical quality which puts them among the finest of its kind.  
I'm not religious by inclination or education, but I feel--and I'm certainly not alone here--that Abell's images bespeak a spiritual insight that informs his vision, allowing him to probe deeply into space and across perspectives to find telling conjunctions, silences and messages hidden in likely, or sometimes very unlikely, places. The ability to see, to see effectively, and to capture such images is like a gift. It can't be taught, but those who understand and appreciate it share a common bond, a joy and awareness akin to an almost spiritual experience.
Not that this kind of experience is limited to apprehensions of the sacred, or great beauty, or tenderness, or awe. This ability may be expressed as a vision of utter emptiness, or surreal dislocation, or gaunt forces, even ugliness. Lewis Baltz's work, for instance, very successfully conveys the technological purity and abstraction of mindless elaboration, or rampant, stoned exploitation; his images are "ugly" but also quite beautiful examples of what they are--they inhabit the stark alienation of their subject(s).
But Abell's imagery is much more gracious and salutary than this. His color images, selected (one suspects) from a vast bank of opportunistic snapshots, cover a wide range of possible ways of seeing the world, both wild and tame, both crowded and barren--wherever, as it must happen, his travels may take him, on assignment or just out in the world. Abell's work is both vicariously shrewd, and also, in other moods, contemplative and patient. For the alert, watchful photographer, there are many such moments, though the chances of capitalizing on them are never great. The "decisive moment" may be as elusive in nature as it is in human society. 
I've chosen a series of images from his book Stay This Moment [Eastman Kodak, 1990], an early monograph of his work, to illustrate the range and style of his imagery. 
The photo at the top is an example of the effective framing of geometrically severe lines, contrasted against an isolated human presence, which both emphasizes the severity, and softens and balances it: The picture is a conversation between--a teeter-totter or scale on a fulcrum--only a momentary, fleeting instant, but held in serene tension. The cool white stone (or concrete), and pale lavender of the wall are perfectly suited for the mood of the impression.         

The palette of oranges, a lovely rusty, junkiness pervades the industrial weathered exteriors, within which the obscured, screened-in view of a man in a window seems an ambiguous presence. Whether or not he "belongs" in the picture depends upon conditions and information which the viewer lacks. Sometimes picture compositions are so peculiarly intriguing that we may have difficulty making sense of their simple structure, or significance. Aside from the beauty of the color of the surfaces, this composition is one of those instances.      
People on trains seem to be moving in a different reality. They're moving and we're still, or they're still and we're moving--either way, we seem separated from them. What we see through the windows, as they pass, or pause momentarily, may be as casual, or interesting, as what the passengers see as they look out at the passing world (and us). The beauty of this image works on several levels--literally--as the lines of metal car-siding, blue, striated, grey, reddish-orange, which sandwich the band of "human" activity seen though the height of the windows, and the "business" part of the car, the machinery of the wheels etc., underneath. These strong horizontal bands suggest the inertial movement of the train, of which this one, arbitrary segment is an integral part. The variance of human activity--the passngers in one window, the busman in another, suggest the distinction of roles, each window a view of delegated identity. The flatness of the plane is rigidly pictorial, two-dimensional. The segmented portion of the train we see suggests an infinite series, a journey through time, one frame of which (like the window frames) we are given to observe.            
A mirror suggest quietude, water on the smoothed surface of a lake, a recreational access, caught in the early hours of dawn, before morning shivers, a perfect reflection. Steadies the eye and the mind. The breath held, thought stilled. 

Here the stillness, of a confined space, metaphorizes fragments of vertical bars. The implication of confinement, of a circumscribed compass, drearily reflected off random shapes of puddles, makes a pattern that is unsuspected, worrisome. The space may be no more than a simple entry room, or basement floor, but the photograph only offers what's available for viewing. Abell's tricks sometimes are gratuitously selective, basking in an unearned gratuitous limitation. This is part of what makes such image-making exciting, but the risk is always at the edge of cheat.  

I've seen many images of hands, some quite like this one. Hands are expressive, especially when aged, bearing the scars and use of decades. Hands are the mind's calipers; they tell stories, they tie knots, they commit crimes, they make love. Yet they are innocent of all blame. They are amazing.

One of the goals of photojournalism, is to get as much "happening" in a picture as possible. Near and far, the whole frame, action, interaction, accident and intention, opportunity and organized saturation. As an example of this kind of total involvement, the branding action out on the prairie is textbook: Three planes of activity, moving simultaneously, including the stationary observer on the left, the hand holding a red plastic pail on the right, the sequential character of the tasking--chasing, catching and branding--the variety of textures, the dark blue of the cloud in the background throwing the whole scene into a darker, subdued, mood, the matter-of-fact going-about-their-business of real contemporary cowboys. It's all a ballet of action, stresses of movement, syncopating parts moving in a random unison, a fine chaos of discordant gestures captured, like the calves, in a perfect picture. 

This is blue, or a blue in which the whole universe is contained. A blue so deep, so intense, so saturate, so mythic, it encompasses generations, millennia, worlds. The studded belt is a spell, as great as the Milky Way. 

Replication folded and folded and folded makes a series. Corners turned in, triangles, diamonds, layers of woven thread. Like skin. 

Lines may seem to merge into haze. The mathematical precision of receding templates. "Those capable of arresting thought at a point demanded by history thus enter the stillness of perspective." 1 
In Zen, the arrangment of objects in nature is seen to possess a magical property, like a mathematical equation which is very difficult to decipher. Carp (goldfish) aimlessly cruising the murk, circumscribed by the limits of the imagination, within which a flower opens. There are six things, placed at random within a rectangle. Can you guess what the riddle says?

A delicate balance between the decorative nicety of the sensuous touches of green, played against the half-nude man barely perceived behind a screen door. The textures are seductive, and our curiosity (or perhaps apprehension) about the man is balanced by the opacity, the obdurateness of the wall. 

A zig-zag of neon tubing seen from another angle creates a kind of kinetic tracery, protean--bug-like, nervous, energetic. Surreal penumbra, gravitational pull, the electric Z of raw light.

What the eye thinks it sees is an organization of contexts, and assumptions based on previous experience. If we see snow, we must associate ice. If we see sun, we think red spectrum. Cool blue signifies absence of heat, unless other queues (clues) tip us off. A sign floating at the edge of an apparent expanse of ice may suggest an ice-taxi. Ice taxi?? Leafless trees, igloos. We may be on another planet. Except this is Greece, and a man's face may appear black in the white-out of the sun's continual flash. 
Perception is a trick. Getting behind the presumptions of how we see and feel isn't easy. We may only catch glimpses. But they're there, if we only can find them, be alert to their presence


1 From "Act", in Wittgenstein's Door, by Curtis Faville, Tuumba Press, Berkeley, 1980.  

Dover Beach 100 Years Later

Below is a photo of a young Anthony Hecht [1923-2004], one of the lights of the post-War period in American poetry. In a generation of traditional versifiers, Hecht was one of the best, but he also transcended the strict forms which he so masterfully employed, in getting at subject-matter than really cut deeply, and personally. 
I think what most impressed me when I first read him, in 1968, when I got a copy of his The Hard Hours [Atheneum, 1967], was the evident tension between the propriety of his formal approach, and the strong, frequently sarcastic, even bitter emotion which informed it. (This was also a quality I noted in Edward Dorn's work, though in Dorn, the formal properties were less restrictive, albeit no less compelling.) 
The "Quietist" tradition, as Ron Silliman has characterized it, of young poets "proving" themselves through imitation of traditional forms, as a process of apprenticeship to being approved for publication and acceptance within the official literary community, probably explains in part why poets of the generation of Hecht--i.e., Wilbur, Lowell, Jarrell, Schwartz, Plath, Bishop, Simpson, Justice, etc.--all began as formalists, despite having, in several cases, enormous burdens of subject-matter, which would under other circumstances, perhaps have produced novels or straight autobiography. 
In Hecht's case, he had seen quite a bit of action in the European Theatre during WWII, and was among the first to witness the Nazi concentration camps--experiences which, by his own account, led to a nervous breakdown in 1959, requiring three months' hospitalization. The weight of that personality convulsion is evident throughout The Hard Hours, a book that feels, in every respect, like the unburdening of a terrific weight. American poets during the 1960's underwent a somewhat notorious crisis of conscience and revaluation. Those who, like Lowell and Hecht and Simpson and Bly, had begun their careers as devoted formalists, heavily influenced by Eliot and Yeats and Auden, performed a kind of public immolation, in which strict forms were burst open to admit the confessional flow of previously forbidden private feeling into the work. The experience and weight of this feeling was presumed to have overwhelmed the medium.
In Hecht's case, the phenomenon did not seem expedient or masochistic. The ironies and valorized emotional extremities of his verse in The Hard Hours appeared to bear a genuine relation to lived experience. 
The confessional approach to poetic composition is commonly held is disrepute these days, though there is little doubt that much of the best poetry in history has been about personal feeling and experience, even if transmuted through convenient personification and dramatic narrative.
Our modern attitudes may seem sophisticated and open-minded, compared, say, to those of 19th Century poets, though, carried to a limit, such presumed openness and tolerance may indeed be nothing more than crass, glib dismissal. Hecht's re-version of Arnold's famous anthology-piece Dover Beach sets up a dialectic between Victorian, and popular Modern, attitudes about love and mortality and belief. Though Hecht's poem is not one of my favorites of his, it demonstrates some of the qualities of his work, which in my view save it from the flummeries of academic versifying, out of which tradition he had originally emerged as a voice.                                

Here is Arnold's poem in full--

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Anyone who enjoys poetry
will find Arnold's poem a billboard of familiar cliches, softened somewhat by an earlier style of address, and the Victorian pieties which threaten, at all points, to render vivid emotion and direct gesture, helplessly enervating and hesitant. The poem's relaxed, nearly conversational tone disarms us with its apparent frankness, but its underlying prim inhibition is guarded--indeed, that aspect seems to undermine the whole sentiment of the poem. What exactly is Arnold saying in that last stanza, anyway? 
That, since the universe is unfriendly, and mankind's history is marked by strife, and "faith" is ebbing, we ought to be "true to one another." A Victorian interpretation of such truth-ful commitment might be honesty, or directness, or frankness. A Modern interpretation might find other kinds of implication. 
Here is Hecht's reactive "version" of Arnold's little theatre piece, published about a century later--

   The Dover Bitch

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, 'Try to be true to me,
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.'
Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is, 
She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
Before I see her again, but there she is, 
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d' Amour.        

This may seem a little crude, at first glance. (Actually, this brand of harshness, or deliberate gaucheness, is a quality one finds often in Hecht's poetry, which is one of the aspects that saves it, at times, from being merely decorative or showy.) Hecht posits a little dramatic scene in which Arnold's poem is seen as an address to "this girl" whom the present Author "knew." The voice of the poem comments disdainfully and condescendingly on both this imaginary Arnold, and his companion. Arnold wants to bed this girl, but she's impatient with his pretentious poetizing, his attempt to yoke her into his quaint literary apostrophe, when all she's really been led to expect is a little affection, some comfortable travel time, and perhaps some sexual diversion. These are, at our remove, 40 years later (since Hecht published his poem) undoubtedly unprincipled and politically incorrect imputations. 
And yet, given our cynical tendency to see or to imagine the worst in people, especially uptight, proper Victorian gentlefolk deliberately concealing their carnal desires under a veneer of classical wit or noble sentiment, it might not be too outlandish to propose (or impose) a modern archetype, if for no other purpose than satire or comic relief, upon an otherwise familiar setting. Hecht frequently uses Modern trite attitudes in contrast to time-tested wisdom, distancing himself as Authorial figure in order to facilitate a dramatic trope--which, after all, is what Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Woody Allen do. Which may serve to soften our indignation a bit, when we realize that the "voice" of Hecht's poem is not in any sense to be confused with direct address. It is, in once way, as curiously removed from the "reality" of the situation as Arnold himself may have been. If, then, Arnold's "true to one another" is meant to suggest nothing more than that in order to bed this lady whom he has brought down to the coast, he must first work himself up into a suitably dignified state of mind.
In summary, Hecht's poem seems to be a kind of sarcastic naturalistic dressing-down of traditional costume-drama, an updating of the stale Romantic ideal of forsaken love, in which bestial tendencies are reconciled with staid morality. Hecht's deliberately crass "take" on this trusty old Victorian warhorse may be nothing so preposterous or ill-conceived than a burlesque upon cynical contemporary attitudes. In our im-moral age, in which "Faith" has retreated even farther down the shingle, than it had in Arnold's day, we are certainly no less bestial than people were in Victorian times, though our pretensions may be a bit less decorous.                          

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bracketing Time - Two Books to Dream By

In 1959, Philip Whalen (shown in the photograph below, with Allen Ginsberg, at a somewhat later date) was just 35. He'd been a key figure in the Beat Scene in the Bay Area for some time, since settling there a decade earlier, following his military service in WWII, and the taking of a degree at Reed College in Oregon, where he met his friends Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. (He'd read, with Ginsberg, Lamantia, Snyder and McClure at The Six Gallery in 1955). Nevertheless, he hadn't published much by this time, partly owing to a native shyness and general modesty of disposition.

By 1959, Whalen more than deserved a book, and the fledgling printer Dave Haselwood (who would later be joined by Andrew Hoyem), who had just started his Auerhahn Press a year or so earlier, offered to publish Philip's first real book (there had only been four broadsides done previously of PW's work).           

That book would become Memoirs of an Interglacial Age, a very tastefully done, unusually large format (for a poetry book--8 3/4"x11") collection of poems, 49pp, with woodblock cover illustration by Robert LaVigne. There weren't many copies printed, and it's uncommon outside the inventories of the rare book dealers these days. 
Whalen's compositional style, derived in part from his exposure to the teachings and example of Lloyd Reynolds--the genius calligrapher of Reed College--an experience and influence he shared with Gary Snyder--both of whom used wet-ink pens for the rest of their lives--was to compose his poems in notebooks, by hand. Typically, his poems would be divided by lines or stars, and words of different sizes and positions would be employed. This might have become the despair of traditional printers, but Haselwood mediated the transition to distributed print fonts creatively, establishing a format which would be used throughout Whalen's career. 
The small press tradition of the Bay Area in the 1960's, and after, valued the text: "The first & final consideration in printing poetry is the poetry itself,” Haselwood wrote in 1960. “If the poems are great they create their own space; the publisher is just a midwife during the final operation & if he has to do a lot of dirty work that’s the way it should be. Contrary to what a lot of people including publishers think, publishing is not a gentleman’s profession, it is the profession of a crook or a madman." Aside from the "dirty work" of somehow scrounging up enough bread to pay the press and paper costs (not to mention the rent), the "poetry itself" should dictate the terms of its realization as material text--a key priority that was understood, then, though occasionally, in our relentlessly expedient and slap-dash capitalist culture, something we tend to forget. The pleasure and delight of Whalen's early book, so lovingly produced by Auerhahn Press, was a talisman of a time and place, not forgotten by those who lived then. 
Another important Bay Area pressman, Clifford Burke, who ran the Cranium Press in San Francisco beginning in the mid-1960's, the author of, among other things, Printing It: A Guide to Graphic Techniques for the Impecunious [Bookpeople: 1981], knew and treasured the Whalen book, as many of us did. A wonderful example of the synergy which takes place when art and technology (albeit a somewhat outmoded craft, surviving on proverbial shoestrings of patience and sacrifice and love) join to make the perfect object/artifact. 

And Burke didn't forget. Over the years, he dreamed of producing books like those early Auerhahn editions, and the dream didn't die.                  
When I first heard about the Desert Rose Press edition of Whalen's new book Some of These Days [1999], I called Burke in New Mexico--where he had moved in the early 1990's, to concentrate on the production of fine press poetry broadsides, cards and books--to inquire about availability. Burke was genial and welcoming, and explained how the publication of this new book--which was one of Whalen's last books while he was still alive (he died in 2002)--was a celebration and commemoration of the earlier Auerhahn book, which he (Burke) had always admired and regarded as a standard to aspire to.      

This new book was his homage to Whalen, to the memory of the earlier book, to that time, and to the perpetuation of a living tradition, of commitment to an ideal.  
One of Whalen's greatest gifts was in addressing matters of the greatest import and complexity, in the most ordinary language, and tone of voice. Was it audacity, to think that mulling over the everyday cares of a quiet life would constitute high art? If any writer could be said to have taken to heart the example of William Carlos Williams's injunctions to write in the accents of our ordinary speech, it would be Whalen. Who but he would think to publish the canonical "Self-Portrait From Another Direction," in which the most casual of meditations turns cosmic, a trip on three levels, complete with rueful anxieties and generous honesty?         


One of the simplest, sweetest things about Whalen's work is its self-deprecation, as dramatized embarrassment, all flubs and snubs and pomposities showing, all the while shrewdly patient for the telling revelation, the almost missed flicker of mysterious phenomenon at the edge of consciousness. 

Now that Whalen's collected poems is out, the earlier individual books may seem to have lost some of their luster.  But for those of us who value the model collection, a sequence of pages, say, encapsulating a specific segment of time, 50 pages or so, these kinds of books are the very lustrum of artistic endeavor. 
These two books bracket the career of an important Bay Area poet of the post-war period, both as discrete writing, and as gifts of the craft of printing. The history of such books, their making, their significance, their beauty--mustn't be forgotten. Clifford Burke's edition of Some of These Days rounds out the romance of a time, a place, and the practice of a craft, as memory, recalled, rejuvenated, reinvented, relived. Alive.     

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Editing Eigner's Collected Poems - Considerations [Part III]

One of the nicer aspects of working on the Collected Eigner edition was the inspiration I derived from sharing time with an amazing, and unusual consciousness. Editors who labor for years over the work, or the life, of a single author get to know their subject very well. This isn't always a blessing; authors aren't always the nicest people, and authorship doesn't necessarily make people happier, or companionable personalities. 
In the case of Larry Eigner, we were privileged to entertain a mind, an imagination, which was highly original, unpredictable, but emotionally easy-going. In all the ways in which it counts, Larry was a born writer. For some years I used to speculate--a natural tendency I've thought--about the degree to which Larry might have done something else with his life, had he not been born with what is commonly regarded as a physical "affliction." But after a while, you begin to see that disability is just a variation, a different given fact of existence; a disabled person's life doesn't exist as a separate, perpetually alienated entity; it just is, in the necessities it presents, in the rituals and rhythms of its endurance and occasion. Seen from this perspective, Larry's life work as a poet simply presents as the use and opportunity of a given life. 
There is a tendency to associate the condition of the life, with some aspect or other of the work. I once had a conversation with Marvin Bell, one of my poet-instructors at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, in the early 1970's. "What do you think of the work of Larry Eigner?" I inquired. "Well, he's okay, but you do know, don't you, of the condition from which he writes?" "Yes," I replied, "but it's fascinating work, don't you agree?" What Bell was saying, of course, was that Eigner's work was somehow compromised, formally, or emotionally, by the restriction of his physical life, that the range of possible kinds of experience to which he had access was limited, and therefore, somehow, suspect, not fully formed, disabled. I used to wonder to myself, to what degree this might be true. 
Poets whose work is difficult, or strange, or eccentric may cause us to ponder, to what degree the condition of a given life produces, or informs various kinds of difference, in their work. Do some people have eccentric minds? How about Ashbery, or Coolidge, or Eigner? Does the original quality in their respective compositions suggest that they literally "see" the world, or hear language, or experience reality, in a strikingly idiosyncratic way? It may seem so, at times. Psychology, as a discipline, is largely based on the empirical observation of behavior, or of the products of behavior and performance. 
People whose perception, or expression, of the world seems strangely different, may suggest that they possess special powers, or some unique experience or radical viewpoint. In the history of psychology, there are instances in which people who had undergone some kind of trauma, or misadventure, were changed in some remarkable way. Society's attitude towards difference--especially difference as an expression of some kind of "damage" to a presumed physical or psychological norm--may color our apprehension of the meaning of originality, or of unconventional behaviors or formalities. There's a temptation to think of highly original artistic or literary works as having almost a clinical interest. Sylvia Plath, or Robert Lowell, or Marianne Moore, or Ezra Pound, for instance, may be considered as producing works whose originality and intriguing power are the result of an abnormal vision of phenomena. 
One of the hallmarks of any great creative artist is originality, though the degree of such originality may vary according to the case. A great work may be the result of the brilliant appropriation of a given form, or it may arise out of a formal innovation, which is either an ingenious insight, or a canny manipulation. We tend to associate a powerfully original voice, in literature, with a special aptitude or gift, which is then nurtured in the crucible of a specific life context. Writers who manage to produce compelling works usually possess an original view of reality, which is then expressed in an original, effective way. They see. And then they exploit this vision through a mediation with a form, i.e., language. 
Larry Eigner's life story begins with an "accident," a difficult birth event in which his cranium is squeezed by the obstetrician's calipers during emergence. This determines in large measure the course of much of his future life. He's "perfect" in the womb, but he's also "perfect" once he emerges into the light and air of separateness. He is whole, though his physical body and motor skills, are compared to "normal" individuals, compromised. Still, he is what he is, just as each of us is, as defined by what our native capabilities are, at whatever stage of life we may be. Life is, in one sense, a series of accidents, of various kinds. Life is also an accident of consequence, of context, of the culture and conditions into which we are born. 
Larry grew up in a close-knit middle-class Jewish household on the New England coast. His parents cared deeply for his welfare, and sacrificed selflessly on his behalf, to bring awareness and possibility and opportunity his way. They nurtured him and provided a setting compatible with his potentiality. In due course, with the realization that he suffered no mental impairments, he was allowed to develop intellectually, and to establish an identity through language, which transcended what were regarded as obstacles to his social and personality development. We tend to regard Larry's identity as four parts language--poetry writing, and epistolary exchange--and one part "real" first-hand experience--in other words, we tend to regard such a fate as a kind of loneliness, or segregation. 
For anyone so located, so placed, the immediate reality is practical. Existence differs to the degree of one's perceived dependence, reliance upon, a given set of supports. But the supports are the given set of parameters which any of us lives inside of. 
How would one in Larry's circumstance differ from that of someone in a more "popular" condition? For one thing, there are longer periods of solitude. Unless one is confined in an institutional setting, in which enforced commonality and interaction prevail, the freedom to speculate, to meditate, to read and think and cogitate, might be many times greater than that afforded to an "active" unimpeded individual. 
It is probably useful to observe that the single most important factor in the formation of Larry Eigner's life--and the formation of his qualities as a writer--was this prolonged gestation of semi-enforced solitude for the first half of his life. People may voluntarily choose this kind of almost religious devotion and retreat from the profane intercourse of the outward life, but to assume it as a natural condition may seem perfectly natural, perhaps even inevitable, to one so placed. 
So there is nothing inherently propitious in the events of Larry's life which may be said to have facilitated it. Larry Eigner was a man who would not live the life his brothers Joe and Richard did, would not "grow up" and matriculate to college and career and family living. This was a given. What he would do was explore the field of literary composition, an opportunity afforded by time, materials and support--which were supplied by his family, his parents. 
But there is nothing "in" this context, this background, that necessarily leads to the life of an artist, or indeed of a creative individual at all. That must come from the interaction between the aptitude, the circumstance, and the stimulation. Whether or not Larry had been born "normal" or impaired, his aptitude would certainly have enabled him to appreciate the phenomenon of language, and creative writing as an endeavor. Had he grown up "normally" it's probable that he might have followed a different creative pathway, leading from the polite, "greeting card" verse of his adolescence, to a craftsmanly, but traditional, kind of poetry-writing, perhaps not unlike that of William Meredith or Stanley Kunitz. 
But the conditions of his existence decreed otherwise. My surmise is that Larry's physical condition cannot be held as a simple causation leading to the aesthetic proclivities he showed; on the contrary, I would suggest that it was his long, quiet days of enforced meditation on the enclosed porch of his parents' home in Swampscott, which led him to write the way he did. Countless hour on hour spent watching the sights and hearing the sounds of a quiet suburban neighborhood, seeing the day's progress, the shadows moving, the birds passing by, the time slipping unremarkably under consciousness of change. Stillness. Echoes. Isolated events. Interruptions. Catalog of small occurrences. The mental chess game of artistic solitaire.
Larry's comfortable isolation--as opposed to those more notorious, difficult kinds of isolation, such as monks, and prisoners and wilderness explorers experience--enabled him to work through the layers of mental habit and preconception which cover our neurological gestalt, masking perception and a sense of vivid being in the world. In addition, his sense of the passiveness of his situation, a perceived inability to "effect" event or consequence in the world, led to a compensating expansion of the intuitive. A coincident frustration with the pace of his procedure--of the slowness with which he was able literally to record the sequence of his perceptions in sentences and "clusters" (stanzas) on the typewriter--encouraged an ability to summarize, abbreviate, and imply, efficiently. The combination of 1) a sense of passivity (physical isolation)--a prevention from bodily involvement and effect--2) a frustration with the retardation of the means of recordation, and 3) long blocks of uninterrupted time within which the mind--freed of the distraction of engagement--could focus on otherwise "empty" experience--produced a poetry, or an approach to the poetic "moment," that was in many respects unique and original within its historical context.
In other words, Larry's disability was in no sense an active generator of literary genius. But the circumstances of his condition established the parameters of a setting, within which an apprehension of the possible uses of time, materials, and imaginative perception could be organized and directed toward an integrated poetics of transcendent awareness. Thus, disability is neither a defined limit, nor an inspiring measure in his work. As an identity in the world, his station (his condition) is not definable in such terms. In the end, Larry created his own identity, of necessity, in the world, through his work. This was both difficult--in the sense of overcoming obstacles of one kind or another--and easy, since much of what he was given to do as a writer seems to have come naturally to him. He was a born writer, but this aptitude was enabled by circumstances largely beyond his control. 
By acknowledging the unique quality of his work, we're not honoring disability, or the courageous overcoming of barriers and impediments. We're celebrating a mind. 

"Literature is my Utopia. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book friends." --Helen Keller                                  

Editing Larry Eigner's complete work, which spanned over half a century of productive activity, Robert Grenier and I delved more deeply, exhaustively, into the chasm of one man's sensibility, sense of the world, than is very often permitted, or likely. In Bob's case, this included living with, and serving as custodian to, Larry, for over a decade. Our sense of the condition of his writing life was intimate, and comprehensive. In many of the ways in which it is possible to "breathe with" or to accompany another (writer), we shared that with Larry--in my case, primarily through the experience of reading his life work, from day to day, year to year, end to end. 
The habitual address--the dailiness of Larry's approach--incorporating the minutest quotidian event--the minutiae of chore and instance and delight--gave to Larry's work the illusion of familiarity and immediateness, which is one of the miracles and strengths of his poems. Through his work, he was enabled and empowered, rather than being the victim or helpless object of fate. It is not as a "wheelchair" person that Larry's example encourages and heartens us, but through our experience of an ingenious mind. 

When I was a boy, my stepfather used to take me hiking up on Mt. St. Helena near Calistoga in the Napa Valley where I grew up. There was a stone tablet in the shape of an open book, commemorating the site where the novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson lived briefly during 1880, spending his "honeymoon" with his new wife Fanny in a bunkhouse at the abandoned mining camp up on the mountain--an experience he would eventually write about [The Silverado Squatters, 1883]. The old mine shaft was still open in those days--an old cinnabar mine, if I recall correctly--and the hole went briefly at an angle before turning directly down into a dark cavern. I knew Stevenson had been the author of Treasure Island, and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which we read. That a British Author of world renown should have spent time in this little rural area seemed improbable, and joyous. 
Could I even have begun to imagine, then, that one day I would end up editing the work of an avant garde (disabled) poet in Swampscott, Massachusetts, who, just then was beginning to publish his work in little magazines like Origin and Black Mountain Review? How strange!