Sunday, January 31, 2010

Presence and Absence - 3 Poems on a Theme

Here are three of my favorite poems, all on a single theme, by Mark Strand [1934- ], Daniel Halpern [1945- ] and Donald Justice [1925-2004]. Each speaks, in its way, of presence and absence, in each instance the speaker's (or poet's) presence against the emptiness of an implied, or an addressed, sense of absence. Nothingness, as a quality one might go about describing, is a riddle--an imagined space within which presence might exist, or the lack of an agency outside one's sense of consciousness (of being itself), or as an audience of none, a projection into a void from which nothing returns. 
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.
We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.
--Mark Strand    
Strand's poem proposes an abstract "field"--the field of the poem, a literal field of grey grass perhaps, or an energy field. The self is both the literal body (and consciousness) of a single human being, moving across, or through, this field, a fluidity of air which surrounds it, and which closes in behind as he passes. The "wholeness" of the universe is a conception, a mental impression only made possible by a conscious observer, therefore wholeness can only be achieved through the literal vitality of a self-consciously moving being. But self-consciousness is a kind of absence, too: Non-being can only be imagined by a being with consciousness. The self's separateness--its "absence" within the greater field of the universe--conjugates its own mortality, its eventual effacement, "missing" forever after death. 
White Field
It is like standing beyond
a snowfield with a single
set of footprints across it
and you say, Those prints are mine
because no one else has ever been here.
All day the snow comes down,
all day you tell yourself what you feel,
but you remain in that place
beyond the snowfield.
Is there better proof
of your presence than
this open field, where you stand
now looking back across the white
expanse that is once more new to you?
As snow fills the places
where you must have walked,
you start back to where you began,
that place you again prepare to leave,
alone and warm, again intact, starting out.
--Daniel Halpern
Aside from a couple of quibbles--I see no reason for such "filler" lines as "and you say" or "all day you tell yourself what you feel" and I would put the lines "where you stand/now looking back across the white/expanse that is once more new to you" after "As snow fills the places/where you must have walked" closing up the space so that "This open field" [full-stop] leads directly into "As snow fills...."--this poem's a brilliant description of a common feeling or sensation many people have had.   
As in Strand's poem, this one addresses a "field"--a field of snow, which is continuously being replenished, or re-covered, by more falling snow--the sense of the passage of a mortal consciousness through the universal force field of matter, time, leaving a temporary trace, which is effaced gradually by the filling in of one's footsteps or passage, through the field, of an erosion or covering over, in the material flux. The brief evidence of having even existed at all, its fragility and temporariness, is vividly evoked. The sense of a cyclical rehearsal of the movement through time (and space)--"you start back to where you began"--rather like Eliot's circular reincarnation trope in Four Quartets--and the sense of an individual identity ("Those prints are mine/because no one else has ever been here") vouchsafed from eternity, but whose presence will eventually become an absence. 
Fragment: To a Mirror
Behind that bland facade of yours,
What drafts are moving down that intricate maze
Of halls? What solitude of attics waits,
Bleak, at the top of the still hidden stair?
And are those windows yours that open out
On such spectacular views?
Those still bays yours, where small boats lie
At anchor, abandoned by their crews?
The parks nearby,
Whose statues doze forever in the sun?
The stricken avenues,
Along which great palms wither and droop down
Their royal fronds,
And the parade is drummed
To a sudden inexplicable halt?
                                                      Tell me,
Is this the promised absence I foresee
In you, when no breath any more shall stir
The milky surface of this sleeping pond,
And you shall have back your rest at last,
Your half of nothingness?  
--Donald Justice 
Justice's poem is a much more complex effort, addressed "to a mirror" rather than to an imagined audience of reader(s). The mirror is almost a character, in the sense of an imagined consciousness of an other, in a blank dialectic of a single voice reflected off itself. The metaphors--the maze of halls, the attic, the bay views, the boats, statues and great palms in the parks and "stricken" avenues, the halted parade--all summoned to evoke a premonitory absence (of the poet), enumerate details which will continue to exist long after the conscious perceiver is departed. The other "half" of loneliness is the poet's own ephemeral reflection, the mirror's passive replication of his physical presence, his performance of memories of events and objects beyond (his) time, echoing in ever-multiplying symmetry, forever.               

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wunderkind Who Faded Away

Writing about the Beats last January 9th, I got to thinking again about Ron Loewinsohn, whom I stubbornly relegated to non-Beat status, primarily on the basis of his age (he was born in 1937, which would have made him only 20 in 1957, when his first work began to appear). A loyal follower of William Carlos Williams, whom he did his doctoral dissertation on at Harvard in the late 1960's, Loewinsohn was the wunderkind of the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950's, two years younger than Brautigan, and three years younger than Wieners. Mostly on the basis of style and notoriety, I think Brautigan belongs to a later generation. But Loewinsohn may be a special case. Strongly influenced by the character and suasions of the San Francisco Renaissance during the heady early days of the Sixties Psychedelic/Flower/Hippie era, he soon segued away from the risky life-styles of bohemia, becoming a traditional academic, eventually retiring as a professor of English at UC Berkeley some years back.
Loewinsohn was among the most visible young poets of his age-group in the 1960's and '70's, publishing a number of pamphlets and collections--notably those from John Martin's Black Sparrow Press--culminating with his Meat Air Poems 1957-1969 [Harcourt, Brace, 1970]--after which, he mostly fell silent, publishing a couple of short novels, and nothing since 1987; and, crucially, the rumored long study of Williams never materialized. 
Reading over the poems in Meat Air, I'm reminded that Loewinsohn was never an experimental poet. He derived his poetics from late Williams--the Williams of the Collected Later Poems--with an innocent appreciation of imagism, piquant observations delivered in a colloquial style, the sentiment ingratiating and warm. The opening lines of that collection:
The thing made real by
a sudden twist of the mind:
--summon the ghost of Williams at the outset. 
Was Loewinsohn an enfant prodige whose inspiration dried up in the academy? It wouldn't be the first instance of that. Perhaps the title of one of his best known titles "Against the Silences to Come"--is a knowing predictive, that he would one day fall silent. 
Loewinsohn's engagement with Williams seems trapped in a loop that was popularly regarded as the elder's American "roots" during the immediate post-War period. Randall Jarrell's introduction to Williams's Selected Poems [New Directions, 1949] laid the groundwork for an appreciation based on the picturesque/picaresque American Gothic populist vision of Williams, as a quaint indigenous imagist with mildly abstract pretensions. Spring & All--clearly Williams's strongest collection, and his most unified presentation of original aesthetic principles, was set aside in favor of Paterson (which was just being concluded at that point), and the charming descriptive portraits of citizens and urban decay linked to Thirties' social consciousness: The condescending reinterpretation of Williams as a gentle country physician, kicking Fall leaves in the Autumn of his life, a familiar avuncular figure of fantasy. Williams's immediate post-War reputation, in this respect, is rather like the neglect of the Objectivists (Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Niedecker) which occurred for reactionary political as well as critical reasons. Shortly after this, of course, Williams embarked upon the final stage of his career, proposing the so-called "shifting foot" of The Desert MusicJourney to Love and Pictures from Brueghel, with their characteristic three-stepped lines. But this last period would seem to have occurred posterior to Williams's influence on the post-War generation (Creeley, Blackburn, Levertov, Corman, Jonathan Williams, Dorn, Eigner, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, etc.), as if it had never happened, or had happened in a vacuum. By the 1950's, Williams was no longer at the forefront of the literary advance, having begun to suffer the debilitating strokes which afflicted him during the last decade of life. Perhaps it was only Creeley, among all those who had read and understood Williams's importance, who picked up on the jagged, zig-zaggy electric force-fields of Spring & All. Certainly, Loewinsohn picked up from Williams what he wanted and needed, but it wasn't the packed, elided cubistic constructions--"crustaceous/wedge/of sweaty kitchens/on rock/overtopping/thrusts of the sea"--of the 1920's, but the measured, balanced Williams of the 1930's, and it's in perfect evidence in this short poem from early on--
The pieces of watermelon
lying shattered
on the black pavement
resemble strange jewels,
jade & ruby clumped together,
but they're pieces of watermelon.
--which manages to combine the deadpan delivery of Williams's poem about cold plums, and the one about the green glass bottle fragments in an alley. The fact that this is a derivative of those works, suggests that Loewinsohn was content to occupy a subsidiary position in the outline of literary history, not venturing to alter either the message or the technique of the model(s). 
Despite the fact that Loewinsohn belongs among the figures of the San Francisco Renaissance and was included in Allen's New American Poetry [Grove Press, 1960], there was nothing essentially new about his work. His work was not political, nor formally adventurous. Like other contemporaries with a similar approach (like Blackburn, Levertov, Corman), he was satisfied with belonging to a group of subordinate followers of one aspect of Modernism, i.e., the early Pound/Williams Imagist "little machine made of words." No knowledge of history or music or perhaps even of prosody was needed--it might now appear to have been the least demanding of approaches to the occasional short lyric. Though Loewinsohn was precocious--the same age, for instance, as David Meltzer, and three years younger than John Wieners (poets who share a similar entree into the scene)--he was never an experimental writer, the way figures such as Ashbery, Olson, or Elmslie were. 
Most of Loewinsohn's poems that do not rehearse the imagist routine are addressed as traditional love poems, in the standard Metaphysical manner--i.e., we are safe and isolated from the world's confusion, and have no stake in its distracting static or decay. It may be seen that his adoption of an accomplished style locks him in historically to a specific niche, mid-way between the earliest examples of simplified Modernist declaration ("faces in the Metro--petals on a wet black bough") and the conservative post-War reaction of the Fugitives and the followers of middle Eliot, particularly the essays. Ignoring the Russians, the Williams of Spring & All or Kora in Hell, and the Objectivists--as if, indeed, these developments had never occurred--Loewinsohn and those like him were content to stand pat.  
Loewinsohn, though chronologically parallel to the Beat period (during its later stages of the 1950's and early 1960's) displayed no originality of vision or technique; and, as might have been expected, matriculated into the academy, taking his Ph.D. at Harvard and running out the string at Cal Berkeley--and, perhaps even more predictably, never publishing the obligatory book on Williams, and basically leaving the field in his mid-forties. 
What might Loewinsohn have accomplished had he pushed beyond the cliche'd homilies ("no ideas but in things") of late Williams? Wieners, Elmslie, Dorn, Guest, (or, had they lived, O'Hara and Spicer) were not content to repeat the Gothic American nativist speech mantra of the 1950's, and struck out into new territory. Even granting that their attempts may have fallen short of the mark, it's instructive to look at a diligent, though ultimately uninspired poet like Loewinsohn, to see where his choices took him.  
Any individual writer may experience periods of inspiration which exhaust themselves over time, leading either to repetition, or complete silence. In 1970, one might have previsioned Loewinsohn as a major figure in American verse, but that didn't happen. Already, by the mid-1970's, movements and developments in the avant garde were brewing, which would make even more irrelevant the icons and ideals of the decades of his youth, than they were when he adopted them.                

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Ghost Gives Up the Ghost

For those born in my generation--the post-War, Baby Boom Generation--there was no more important writer than J.D. Salinger, no more important book than the novel The Catcher In the Rye [LIttle Brown, 1951]. We weren't the first generation to have read the book with wonder and delight, and we wouldn't be the last. If memory serves, I was given a copy as a birthday present when I was in the ninth grade. The book, at least in those days, was considered a trifle risky for teenagers, since it contained a fair amount of scatology, and a scene involving a prostitute (woo, sex!). Nevertheless, it became a part of the mythology of my adolescence, as it did for millions of other kids, then and since, and the author, and his work, were of immeasurable importance to my sense of literary taste, for a long time. Like many of his fans, I "wished the author [had been] a terrific friend of [mine] and [I] could call him up on the phone whenever [I] felt like it." What was it about the novel that made us all identify with him (the Author), what generated such implied intimacy? 
Indeed, it seems to have been just such intense curiosity and invasive pressure that drove Salinger into a sort of psychological "bunker" for most of the rest of his life, ultimately insulating himself inside a suburban Connecticut residence, rarely venturing out, granting no interviews or contact with his readers or critics or celebrity hounds; and refusing to publish anything for the last 47 years of his life. Revelatory memoirs by his daughter and a girlfriend did nothing to assuage public interest in the most potent issue surrounding his life: Had he indeed continued to write more fiction, and would there ever be any additions to the modest canon of works whose popularity and sales continued to be as strong as they had 60 years earlier? Did Salinger leave works, and instructions to his heirs or administrator, about how they might be published?  
Salinger came to maturity as a writer in the 1940's and '50's. Even at its best, his work is very much bound up with the social and literary milieu and issues of that period. Not to speak of its style--mostly in evidence in the short stories--which looks quite dated from this perspective. This fact, combined with his determined seclusion--from the world which might have continued to inspire more fictions--would suggest to me that the deterioration of his subject-matter--the descent into the mythical Glass family, which must in some degree be understood in terms of Salinger's own biography--leads only to dead ends. If indeed he continued to write, what might his attention focus on? Having receded into a small town monastic life-style, what might he have been expected to produce, unless, like Thomas Merton, he speculated about religious isolation, or, like Cozzens, continued to imagine a world that had evaporated decades before?
The bargain Salinger had made with himself required that the value he placed on the purity of his own soul, his own precious inspiration, would demand a repudiation of the vitality and complication of human intercourse. If fame and prosperity and the public's vicarious fickle sentiments were loathsome, Salinger refused to fashion a persona that could deal with these unwanted influences, refused, that is, to compartmentalize himself in such a way as to preserve that part of himself (his talent) while fending off the worst aspects of a media-obsessed world.
In the end, of course, Salinger wasn't the sort of fellow most of his fans would have wanted to know, or know much more about. A man with follies and failures and sacred private obsessions, worried about his health, and the condition of his soul. A man who eventually had let his anti-social tendencies dominate him to a degree that he had lost his grip on reality, relentlessly chasing down publishing pirates and literary carpet-baggers, protecting his precious little franchise of copyrights against all enemies. 
It was a sad ending to a career that had begun so marvelously, with a unique miraculous 1st person narrative, and a handful of revolutionary stories. The public will always have the works, but the man, who tried desperately to disappear into his own myth, has himself passed into history.   

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Things That Used To Work

Back in the olden days, when Archie Bunker was young and things may have seemed simpler, certain products designed for the masses really really worked, and people took them for granted. There have been novelty books devoted to signature products which became standards of quality and efficiency, popular beyond their originators'--or inventors'--wildest dreams. Branding sometimes accounted for the product power--like Heinz catsup (or ketchup)--but occasionally, a product is so perfectly conceived and/or constructed, that it's inimitable, or so clear in its construction that a patent or copyright seems superfluous.
But capitalism has its dark side, as everyone knows. A successful product can become too successful; or a manufacturer, in a misguided attempt to improve on an already very good thing, may change an ingenious design, believing that it's indestructible, only to discover how fragile that original bright idea was. Sometimes it's best not to toy with perfection, especially when it's simple.
Here are three things that used to be useful, reliable, and relatively cheap. 
Kleenex--whose name has now entered the lexicon as a synonym for soft facial tissue--was invented during WWI as "cellucotton" for use as filters in gas masks, and for surgical dressings. By the time I was growing up in the 1950's, Kleenex tissues, in their signature "pop-up one-at-a-time" boxes, were ubiquitous in America. What did we ever do without'em? They pulled out one at a time, were two- or four-ply, and were always folded, flat, soft, smooth, and absorbent. They were a miracle product; everyone used them. The company marketed them in regular size boxes, and also in jumbo sizes, and the "count"--the number of tissues in each box--was "guaranteed" (200, or 400 tissues to a box). Ads even showed people pulling them out and counting them one by one. Today, Kleenex, owned by Kimberly-Clark, still rules the tissue aisles, but it's come under pressure from cheap competitive brands. 
Is Kleenex today the same product it was in the 1950's, when I was just a sniffly kid with nasal allergies? Well, unfortunately not. Some while back the company began to mess with the pop-up design of their dispensing boxes. Calculating that they could no longer expand their market share, they began to figure out ways to cause people to use more tissues than they needed. If only one popped up reliably each time, how could they "persuade" people to use more? The research department abandoned the clever design that allowed individual tissues to be pulled easily one at a time, and instituted a plastic flange, which made pulling each tissue out more difficult. Either the tissue would tear in half, or separate its ply, or would pull up three or four tissues with it. In addition, the "pull" edge of each tissue would often recede back into the box, forcing the user to poke a finger inside to try to get a purchase on the next tissue to "start" the sequence over; but they cleverly hid the edge of the next tissue along the edge of the next on the pile, instead of in the middle. What always happened when you tried to pull a new one out, was a pile of four or five in your fingers. 
Second, they abandoned the guaranteed tissue count on the individual boxes, and figured out ways to stack the tissues so that they could pile fewer up to fill the old sized boxes. Imagine what their research department spent their time experimenting with. How to stack more inefficiently, how to defeat users from taking just a single tissue off the pile. And how to disguise these new tricks by advertising the changes as "improvements" in the product!   

When I was a boy, as I say, in the 1950's, the old  Volkswagen Beetles--which were originally designed in Hitler's Germany in 1938, were still being made and sold around the world. Good old German engineering. They were so cheap to purchase, to drive, and so simple to build, and so easy to fix, that you could have wheels for a fraction of what those big, extravagant gas guzzlers cost, and cost to run. But in those days, gas was cheap, and America was grooving on conspicuous consumption, and "planned obsolescence"--a phrase that was first used in the 1930's, but didn't come into common parlance until the 1950's--to mean products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style--was coming into its own as a corporate strategy. Maybe Volkswagen was so modest and low-key, it just passed under the radar. For whatever reason, Volkswagen stubbornly stuck with its design, making only modest changes and improvements over the decades. It stayed in production, essentially unchanged in its basic format, until 2003, when it was replaced by the "New Beetle" (which went into production in 1998, and is now manufactured in Mexico, instead of Germany). The New Beetle is much more expensive than the old one was, and has many modern "improvements" which make it not only more expensive to purchase, operate and fix, but--like most modern automobiles--nearly impossible to diagnose and service without a computer analyzer and a 6 month course in model specific maintenance. The New Beetle is no longer "the People's Car" but a sophisticated sport sedan with all the attendant complexities and problems associated with those kinds of vehicles.    

As a part time bookseller, one of my indispensable tools of the trade is an HB graphite pencil, and a Staedtler white eraser. When I began using Staedtler erasers, out of frustration with all the old kinds of erasers I tried, even the more exotic kinds found in art supply stores, I found Staedtler erasers to be not only more effective (by far) in removing pencil entries on endpapers and text pages, but longer lasting as well. They were the miracle erasers I'd always dreamed of. They didn't smudge, they didn't leave a residue, they didn't tear the paper easily, and they had no odor and seemed to last indefinitely!  The only small problem was that they were a trifle weak, and had to be kept inside their cardboard sheath, but this was actually an advantage, since the sheath made it easier to exert even sidewise pressure in the sweeping motion of use.        
I don't know when it happened, but one day I noticed that the new Staedtlers I'd bought seemed different. The white rubber seemed stiffer, and less granular. Then I noticed that the box labels boasted that the "new, improved" versions were "latex free!" Having bowed to the adverse publicity surrounding the allergic problems associated with latex gloves--whose use has mushroomed in the medical profession in the new era of AIDS, Ebola and threatening pandemics (the "new plagues")--Staedtler ruined their old product in an effort to seem politically (or perhaps medically) correct. 
I still use Staedtler erasers, Kleenexes, and drive a 1974 VW Beetle. My wife and I are now on our third "New Beetle." 
I was never an amateur mechanic--in fact, nothing would bore me more than getting under the engine of my car and having grease drip on my face. Staedtler still makes the best erasers, except they're not quite as good as they once were. I still prefer Kleenex, though I often swear with frustration, fumbling with the box, trying to prize single tissues out, usually without success (ending up with a wrinkled wad). 
Once upon a time, things seemed more reliable. Products were manufactured to work, and to last, and to be basic and simple to operate and easy and cheap to fix. Alas, those times are gone. Now, if you decide to design something, you have to watch your margins, and play every angle. I just wish Kleenex would go back to their old nifty boxes, guaranteed to contain 200 sheets. I wish I could still find genuine German VW carburetors, instead of Brazilian knock-offs which don't work. 
I must be retro, like the products that no longer are sold. How much longer will I be able to continue driving my beloved Bug? How much longer will I avoid the clinics and the young physicians lying in wait for my expensive infirmities?    

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Austere Hedonism of Luis Barragan


Creative architects often lavish their most innovative first efforts on their own properties. Lacking an inspired client, at the beginning of their careers, they are often obliged to be their own entrepreneur, out of necessity. Often, the clearest expression of an architect's vision is an early work, done with no restrictions or distractions of program. Luis Barragan is a special case. Self-trained, a native Mexican without access to high-end corporate clients, he nevertheless came under the influence of early Modernist figures and styles--including Corbusier, whom he came into contact with following study as an engineer, during the 1920's.  

Mexico is a poor country, and this may explain in part why there were so few commissions for its country's greatest architectural genius. But Barragan's signature originality--the way he was able to interpret European Modernism, to adapt its superficial effects to his indigenous nativist cultural milieu--will always perhaps remain a mystery. 

Barragan's minimalism--so-called, I would wager, because those who formed a cursory appreciation of its stunning and slightly unreal qualities could think of nothing better to call it--was the adaptation of a very few simple principles to the materials and setting of his own Central American architectural traditions.
Recognition came late to Luis Barragan [1902-1988]. It wasn't until his 72nd year that the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of his work. The Barragan house, which is the ostensible subject of this blog, was built in 1948, when he was in his mid-40's, and most of his surviving projects were constructed after that date--      

--which may account for the confident solidity and strength of his work. It looks and feels like the realization of a fully formed intellectual position, which has absorbed the best of the Modernist tradition--not just Corbusier and Gropius and Mies and late Wright and Kahn and Johnson and Loos and Neutra, but Gaudi and Portman too--and come out the other side with a purified distillation of a vision of space and color and passionate living that are uniquely his, as well as belonging to Mexico.  

Earlier [post for April 8, 2009], I admired the color and joyful exuberance of Frida Kahlo's textile designs, which spoke to her Indian artistic roots. Barragan's application of the same qualities of bright pastel, broad, stark strokes, and a certain linear cubism, fall well within one's sense of the possibilities of a New World tradition of design, drawing on peasant traditions and simplicity, while incorporating some of the most sophisticated elements of Modernism's acutely abstract austerity. 
Barragan's house, which has been photographed many times, from many angles, adopts the visual language of de Stael and Corbusier's surburban villas, as well as the heroic aspects of mathematical concision and elegance which characterize the best of the Modernist projects, applying it to stucco and walled interior courts and gardens in a way that is familiarly equatorial (in its semiotics). 
The Barragan house is among the most revolutionary and beautiful man-made spaces in the world, and has inspired much interesting post-Modern interpretive dialogue.       

Friday, January 22, 2010

This One's on Me - A Winter Cocktail

When Winter's at the door--as it has been for the last week here in the Bay Area, the third in a series of tropical drenchings having just passed through, dropping several inches in some places--you feel the need for something to warm the cockles of your heart, and keep your cojones from shriveling.  
Here's my latest concoction, a Winter Cocktail that suggests the bracing freshness of new snow powder, with a spicy sweet undertone.
3 Parts Gin
2 Parts Peach Schnapps
1 Part Banana Liqueur 
2 parts fresh squeezed lemon juice
Shaken hard and served up in a frosty cocktail glass.  
A favorite accompaniment to cocktails is salted pistacios roasted in the shell. Open each cracked shell with your nail, or pop'em in your mouth and split them there. The green nut's one of the classic treats.    

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paper Moon - A Nearly Perfect Evocation of Depression Era Dryness

At the height of the American Great Depression during the 1930's, official unemployment figures rose to as high as 30%. Especially hard hit were farmers, since the Dust Bowl--severe dust storms following decades of over-exploitation of the vast prairie lands of the middle of the country--occurred hard on the heels of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and widespread bank failures, which further exacerbated the debt obligations of landholders throughout the Midwest, Southwest, and South. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, and ended up migrating North and West to the cities. The plains states became economic wastelands. It's in this context, amply documented in the 'Thirties by such famous photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Walcott, Ben Shahn, Berenice Abbott that forms the visual backdrop, thematic context, and basic subject-matter for Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece of  'Seventies cinema, Paper Moon [Directors Company, 1973, black and white]. 

Starring Ryan O'Neal, and his young daughter Tatum (O'Neal), with parts for Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman and Randy Quaid (as the hick Oakie who leg wrestles with O'Neal), the film was a critical success, though somewhat under-appreciated at the time. Like Bogdanovich's earlier Last Picture Show [1971], it employs a High American Gothic trope, which is about equal parts nostalgia, social commentary, and tragi-comic small-town blues, to make its point. 
The beautiful stark, black and white cinematography [Lazlo Kovacs]--it was shot mostly in remote Kansas and Missouri locations--is like the third character in the narrative, wherein classic perspectives, empty streets, seedy storefronts, and vintage automobiles compete for attention. Outwardly a period road picture set in the mid 1930's, about a traveling man named Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neil), a small-time hustler who will play any angle for a couple of dollars in his pocket, the story opens as he agrees to escort the daughter of a now deceased lover to her Aunt in Missouri. Slick Mose' quickly meets his match in the tough half-pint little Addie Loggins [Pray]. Little Addie is tough as nails, and a lot more savvy than Mose' is. At every turn she outsmarts and outmaneuvers Mose' in a way which is a sheer delight to watch. Tatum O'Neil gives an Oscar performance (which she won). Madeline Kahn (What's Up DocBlazing Saddles), in her second film ever also delivers the goods as Miss Trixie Delight, a lady of independent means, who meets up with the pair and sees her own angle. Every character in the film seems a caricature of some version you've seen in an original 'Thirties movie, from the hotel clerk, general store lady, country bootlegger, train-station master, black teen-aged maid, to the minister, the bible customer, and the deputy sherif. The grim realities of Depression Era economic conditions drive the sense of desperation and sad piety which underscore the hopelessness and loneliness which threaten to drag everyone into perdition. 
As the story unfolds, we come to realize that not only are Mose's suspicions that Addie is his real daughter probably correct, but that they're natural partners and soul-mates. Like some cock-eyed old married couple, they may betray and taunt one another, but their affection for each another is undeniable. Tatum O'Neal's precocious and charming performance is the equal of her Father's, and their scenes are like watching a smooth comedy team in action.    
Combined with the gorgeous period settings, are period music and radio shows, like Amos N Andy, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Ozzie Nelson--all those tinny, ingratiating high-pitched voices coming through scratchy speakers. The world of 1930's mid-America is un-sophisticated, and unassuming. There's a sort of forlorn, forsaken quality, as empty as the long, lonely desolate perspectives down windy Main Streets and the straight RR tracks out of town. These characters aren't out to explore the West, in search of a New World, and their prospects aren't bright. They're just hoping to get along in any way they can. Moses Pray is a part of the troubled society of which he's a symptom, but he's also separate from it, and he and his presumptive daughter are like a miniature Bonnie & Clyde team, terrorizing Kansas and Missouri with a small-time Bible hustle--a bleak landscape, chalky and sooty, where good and evil may appear as cartoon caricatures of themselves, and little children learn a little larceny before their ABC's. Addie and Mose' have only each other to fall back on, their friendship is the only glue that keeps them going. Otherwise they're just lost souls, adrift in the Great Depression, trying to get along. "Let's have another cup of coffee, let's have another piece of pie" [goes the jingle], or "it's only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea" sang the radio, as Americans sat beside their floor-standing radio sets, in rapt attention. Is it possible to be honestly nostalgic about a time when things were as difficult and hopeless as mid-Depression America? Was it a better future they imagined, or just a little amusement to pass the time of day? What did Fibber McGee have stored away in that closet?              

Geology & Human Nature

Coastal cliff erosion is as old as the continents and oceans which surround them. The seaside aspect available from steep over-looking cliffs has always had appeal to people, and real estate with ocean views, or private "exclusive" access to surf-abutting property has traditionally resulted in high valuations of developments at or near the shore.
A typical real estate developer has never seen a property that didn't have potential for "improvement," and seaside property building permits are coveted near the top of all potential candidates for land use. Developers and real estate investors hungry for new projects, and the city and county jurisdictions (equally hungry for residual tax revenue, jobs and expansion) which facilitate their business, tend not to think in the long term. Exploitation is eased by ignoring the potential problems which any site is likely to present, whether it's tidal influx, erosion, creep, subsidence, unstable landfill, or proximity to flowing water. Developers will build on any kind of soil, even sand, if they are given official permission, and there are always naive and trusting buyers for any kind of property, no matter how steep the risks of damage or devastation might be. 
In poor countries, like Haiti, for instance, large populations of needy often end up living in poorly engineered developments, such as hillside shantytowns, on land otherwise unattractive for convenient use. In rich countries, or in popular recreational watering-holes around the world, exploitation of fragile landscape occurs for more deliberate purposes (principally for profit). In the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California, for instance, in the last few decades, people have begun building homes in the middle of large conifer forests, where wild or man-made fires periodically get out of control.
Humans are rational creatures, which means that they will do things for no reason other than what occurs to them at some extremity of abstraction in their minds. Even with the best of motives, they will do things that are injurious to themselves, as well as to others. But deliberate, blind self-interested motivation almost inevitably causes harm in some way. We live in a district which is described by professional soils engineers as a "slide zone." Having lived here for over 30 years, I know exactly how the ground underneath the houses on this hillside behaves--this is first-hand empirical observation, augmented or supplemented by some research into the area geology and easily available history. The ground in this area moves West, or downhill, at the steady rate of between 1/4" and 3/8" of an inch per year. This doesn't sound like much, unless you begin to think how that adds up over time, and what such a constant, unstoppable traction might cause to streets or housing foundations. Additionally, even though the ground moves at a steady pace, it does so unevenly, which means that it's moving across and up in some places, while it's going across and down in others--not unlike any geologically turbulent surface. Houses in the area get bought and sold a little faster than in other, more stable, areas, for obvious reasons. Despite this, new potential home-buyers want to believe that affordable houses do exist, and that what they can't see with their eyes, probably doesn't exist, or is a trivial footnote to the real advantages of owning a piece of choice real estate--any real estate!--as a long term investment and the delights of owning your own home. You can tell people about the slide zone, but they will look at you with suspicion. One of my neighbors, a friendly and optimistic fellow who trades real estate and even carries loans for other buyers, bought a home near us, with the intention of making extensive additions and improvements to it. Which he proceeded to do in due course. I warned him about the creep, how the slow movement tended to upset the best-laid plans of home improvements, but he just looked at me quizzically, and marched straight ahead with his plans. Now, some years later, with his tilting retaining walls, and cracked wall-joints, he's still too stubborn to admit he might have made a mistake, or too embarrassed to acknowledge the fact.  
I relate this anecdote to underscore the quality of false hope which often drives people to make wrong decisions, even when common sense (that discredited body of folk wisdom) is telling them that something is very wrong. It's almost as if people want to be deceived. Show people a cliffside property just a few feet from the edge of a steep cliff composed of sandy, poorly consolidated sedimentary particulate, and they will steadfastly allow themselves to be persuaded that this would not only be a dramatic, inspiring place to live, with the bracing sea air and changeable marine views, but that it will be safe and secure forever, from the encroachments of water, air and wind erosion.  
Apartment complexes constructed in the last 40 or so years, close to the edges of steep cliffs (in some cases to as much as 25 feet of drop-offs) along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, were inevitably tempting fate. In the end, no one wants to take responsibility for making such bone-headed decisions as to allow these kinds of structures to be built. Insurance companies would rather not know, engineers are always ready to underestimate risk, permit departments are always ready to be persuaded by optimistic cautions, real estate sales people are always careful to write themselves out of the liability equation, and buyers are always longing to be convinced that "the experts" have given their blessing, and why would otherwise well-meaning and responsible people need to "lie" about something so important as whether your new house is likely to fall into the ocean within a decade or two? 
Do people like the ad execs working for Chevron Corporation want you to believe that they support energy conservation and a clean environment?  People do.  Do people who want to build and sell you houses constructed where no houses should ever be built, expect you to believe them when they tell you everything is just wonderful, even when they know in their hearts that this is a very white lie?  People do.
But what does it prove? In the end, it proves that people will do almost anything to make a buck, up to and including taking your money to convince you to do something that is very wrong and dangerous, not just for your pocket-book, but for you personal safety. 
Meanwhile, the local Bay Area television stations have been reporting on the latest "erosion" crisis in the town of Pacifica (an aptly named town if there ever was one), south of San Francisco. The photo above shows the precipitous situation of a large two-story apartment complex perched on the edge of an eroding cliff. The owners of the property have asked that efforts be made to "stabilize" the cliff, to avert further decay of the ground beneath their floor foundations. Coastal erosion isn't really very complicated. A website mounted by the California Coastal Commission here, explains the relatively obvious facts regarding the angle of repose, and the kinds of soils that are likely to result in long term erosion along coasts. It should be perfectly obvious, even to a five-year old, that piling (at great expense, as it turns out) large blocks of stones at the foot of this big, sandy cliff, isn't going to prevent its ultimate collapse. The engineers who okayed the project, and the people who built and sold these properties, also knew it. There's a reluctance on everyone's part--including, for some reason, even the local media's--to admit the inevitable, that this property, and others like it, are doomed, and that the best option is to evacuate them, and ultimately demolish them, before they fall right onto the beach below. 
What's most astonishing is the credulity with which society: 1) pretends to be concerned about the plight of people who so knowingly and naively bought into an eventual disaster, and 2) refuses to learn from its (or other people's) mistakes. With global warming, there's the growing suspicion that in the long run a lot of the seaside development human kind has built is doomed anyway. With a 20 year time-horizon, you can make perfectly rational stock-, and maybe even cock-eyed real estate, investments, particularly if you don't plan to be around when the shit hits the fan. Maybe I've underestimated the cynicism of developers and residents. Maybe our time horizons have shrunk to more manageable proportions. Do people consciously accept that living for the moment justifies buying real estate that sits on the edge of unstable cliffs?  
Maybe people do.      

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Born from the Head - Larry Eigner's 1st Published Poem in 1952

According to Irving P. Leif's Larry Eigner: A Bibliography of his Works [Metuchen, New Jersey, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989], Larry Eigner's first published poem--aside from a number of juvenile pieces published prior to age 14--appeared in the fugitive little magazine Goad #3 [Summer 1952], edited by Horace Schwartz. Schwartz was a connected participant in the literary world of the Bay Area in the 1950's and '60's, who knew Rexroth, Kees (both he and Schwartz had come from Nebraska) and many other local figures, and briefly ran a bookstore in San Francisco. Goad lasted for four issues, and also published early work by Creeley and Ferlinghetti (his Prevert translations). 
Larry Eigner had been a precocious youngster growing up in Swampscott, Massachusetts in the 1930's and '40's, publishing rhymed historical poems and greeting-card quality verse in local newspapers, and juvenile magazines [Child Life] as a boy. Confined to his parents home due to severe cerebral palsy, his contacts limited to correspondence with magazine editors and friendly poets, he nevertheless was able to fashion an unique, experimental style that would be the hallmark of his work for the rest of his life. Published here in image format, from the original periodical--the copy of which I found quite by accident at a local library book sale some years ago--it's in equivalently spaced typewriter face. Larry was not able to write efficiently in long-hand, and so taught himself to type, using only his thumb and index finger. His explorations of the spatial format of the typewriter depended to a significant degree on the precision afforded by the typewriter's equivalent spacing to locate his lines visually on the white space of the page.        

I can't transcribe this poem since my blog servant doesn't permit equivalently spaced face text characters. But I've approximated it below, in order to demonstrate some of the problems faced by anyone seeking to duplicate or imitate the arrangements and alignments of any text set in an equivalently spaced format.
           in the blackout
waiting for death, wanting sleep
and the walls had nothing more to reflect
                      the sea
a shock wave
  and fliers a mile away
were planes of another country
Afterwards the sun came round
and they say how
two stars will collide    
As a result of the variable widths of individual letters in proportional faces--an m is always wider, for instance, than an i--the horizontal increments of proportion are always changing the relationship between letters along their vertical axis. For anyone seeking to align precisely words and stanzas in relation to each other, such constantly shifting proportional adjustments present a barrier, since every alternative proportional face differs to some degree from every other one, depending upon design of the individual letters. With equivalently designed letters, occupying a uniform horizontal increment of space, there is no variation in the relationship between letters (and hence, words of equivalent numbers of letters). 
The design of words and letters in space begs the question: If composition involves using words as if their only function were external to the material text, then the material text must be regarded only as a casual, gratuitous convenience, a kind of repository of words in a certain order. As typographic practice and design change over time, the underlying existence of the non-material text acquires a shadow identity. If the non-material text is not fixed to a material realization, then where is it? Since Gutenberg, writers have been fashioning texts without precise conceptions of what their ultimate form may be. They have, in effect, relinquished perhaps the most important creative element in the realization of their art, namely the making of the finished form of their work on paper. 
But does it really matter whether or not the material text is an exact "copy" of what the writer wrote? Most would say not, choosing to regard free-hand texts, typewriter texts, or notebook "poem-texts" as intermediate steps in the process of translation of idea (expressed as sound or thought in language) from head to hand, and ultimately to the available technology of print reproduction. Traditionally, the translation process has involved a passage through an editorial membrane (editors, copyreaders, type and book designers). This passage--or these passages--have involved issues of taste, expense, potential readership, storage, popularly accepted usage (like spelling and punctuation), etc. In other words, the realization of a material text has involved the participation and judgment of a number of different hands, each of which exerts a formal influence on the potential finished materially realized text; has involved, in fact, a distorting, post-compositional, alteration of the original creative act. 
But again, does it really matter whether the letters in a poem line up vertically or not? Well, for a poet like Larry Eigner, it apparently did. If, as is common still in Asia, the original text exists as a brushwork or hand-made copy, the issue of fidelity to the original work becomes much more problematic. Is there a relationship between a contemporary interest in presenting unmodified texts to an audience (or reader), and the known examples of pre-technical, Medieval or Ancient, pre-codex manuscripts? The earliest examples of Sappho's verse exist only as papyri fragments, upon which hand-written texts survive. Prior to mechanized printing, the only way a material text could be known was through possession of the original manuscript, or by way of copies, made either by the artist, or by someone else.
In a given language, each letter should always be itself (though even this prescription is subject to augmentation in certain languages). In oral literature, a text is fixed only in the memory of the speakers or listeners. In material text, the language is set according to principles of design--in other words, letters are aesthetic products (or objects), just as paragraphs, or stanzas, or paper and paper dimensions, and bindings, etc., are, and have always been. 
In the case of an artist like Larry Eigner, for whom the free expression of the design of the material text was not a luxury that nature had granted to him, he was obliged to use (limited by) the available technology of his era. The typewriter was his metaphorical brush.
Looking at the poem strictly as a content, it's interesting to note that the ostensible setting of the poem is the London Blackout and Blitz, documented for example in the photographs of British Photographer Bill Brandt. The horror of enforced confinement has as its obvious simile the Author's own metaphorical confinement to a wheelchair, inside the enclosed porch in which he conducted his writing activity. The sense of detonation, or blast, is ingeniously captured by 
                       the sea
a shock wave   
which conjures up concentric wave patterns in water, visible from a great height--a fascinating image! Then, the leap of consciousness through the reference to the sun--the emergence from the underworld of the bomb shelters into the light of day, among the living--ultimately to the astronomical event (suns colliding--could this be a reference, perhaps even unconscious, to the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) reads like vintage Eigner. What's perhaps most astounding about this poem is that it's the work of a 25 year old isolato, without practical access to forward ideas of composition or the visual arts, except through a few books--and that the style he employs, is nearly identical in most respects, to the style of all the work he would produce for the next 40 years! What works that he might have seen--in or before 1952--would have prompted this formal approach to the page?                          

Monday, January 18, 2010

Elegy For a Pretty Cat - Farewell, Lottie

Since our only child, Randall Matthew Faville, died in an autombile accident at the age of 26, we've increasingly depended upon our Siamese cats for companionship in the household. Pets aren't a replacement for people, but they do have quite individual personalities, and they are very domestic creatures, clean, usually fastidious, and often affectionate.  
Lottie was the youngest of our three Siamese cats. We bought her in 2001 from a professional breeder in a small town just east of San Diego, with the thought that we could breed her with our male Mocha. But it soon became apparent that Mocha had problems in the equipment department, and after an operation, he no longer could qualify. We considered spaying Lottie at that point, but decided against it, not realizing the potential health issues that might cause down the line.  
In February 2009, Lottie was diagnosed with breast cancer, which appeared as three small nodes along her upper left rib-cage. I looked up the diagnostics on Google and discovered that her prognosis was poor, at best. Following a second operation in late October to remove large masses from her chest and left underarm, which we did basically to disencumber her for greater freedom of movement, we knew the end was not far off. A second opinion by a spiffy high-tech clinic in Rohnert Park, Sonoma County earlier in the year confirmed that she wouldn't live much longer. 
Our other two previous older Siamese (and Burmese) cats had both died at home, and we thought it better to let her do this, too, rather than engage in further invasive treatments with the accompanying discomfort and fear. The cancer in due course moved into her lungs, making breathing increasingly difficult, until the crisis arrived last night and this morning, when she died in her little round cushion-bed, as we sat and watched. 
Lottie was a special little lady. Rather than get into her sand-box, she would perch on the edge and do her business. She always insisted on being at the highest place in any room, and would only eat on counters or tables, where she could keep track of everything around her. In her hormonal heat, she loved being rubbed on her back and head, and would roll over delightedly with her paws in the begging position and purr. She would climb up on my chest in bed, and tap me lightly on the chin, demanding love, or would jab her nose up under my arm, trying to snuggle in. She would make a characteristic "chirp" sound when she wanted your attention, but her range of conversational tones and sounds was broad, and you never were quite sure what each new utterance was intended to mean. Of the ten cats I've owned in my life, she was the sweetest, and gentlest of all. 
It broke my heart to see her go. If I'd thought we could have done anything to extend her life, I'd surely have chosen to. Like all animals, she suffered silently, and resolutely, not believing, until the last seconds of her breath, how close death was. 
Rest in peace, Lottie. If there is a heaven for kitties, you're certainly there now. Bless you, sweetheart, and good-bye.