Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Confidence & Oversight - The Money Go Round

Money is funny stuff. But I'm not thinking in comic terms at the moment. I'm pondering the "All-seeing-Eye" motif on our American one dollar bill. Money is a symbol of something, a convenience for barter or trade. Where there may be no easy swap possible among traders, an interpolation is facilitated by this metal or paper object which we "agree" holds a certain assumed value. What we put on these objects (money) is an expression of our faith in the power of contracts and obligations. But the Eye of Providence, as it's called, is something more.
The Founding Fathers (I guess the Mothers got left out) appointed a design committee to suggest alternative bill designs. The words Annuit Coeptis means "he approves of our undertaking" and Novus Ordo Seclorum means "new order of the ages." It was thought that the birth of the United States, denoted by the 13 steps on the pyramid (for the 13 original Colonies), and the date 1776 in Roman numerals, would be looked on favorably by the god head. The "seeing eye" has roots in both Western and Eastern religious iconography. 
It's always struck me as odd that the eye--our binocular, highly adapted 20-20 vision--which of all our senses is the most impressive, most useful, most developed, and least subject to distortion or misinterpretation, should have been thought the instrument of super-rational omniscience. If human beings can't trust their eyes, then what can they trust? The eye is our supreme empirical device, which when combined with our intelligence, has enabled us to walk "out of the jungle" and into a synthetic world largely of our own making. 
The Founding Fathers clearly believed, or understood, that their experiment in general enfranchisement and theoretical freedom was a watershed moment in the history of mankind. They believed that it was a unique event, a fulfillment of the aspirations of man since the beginning of recorded history. They saw the Enlightenment, and the advance of knowledge and science, as handmaidens to the liberation of peoples from the domination of ignorance, superstition, and unjust bondage. The combination of a free market, a basic tolerance towards expression and religious pluralism were the hallmarks of a new kind of political coordination designed to free men's energies and talents, towards a prosperity and variety of life. The symbolic representation of their optimistic confidence is right there on the one dollar bill to see and read. 
But the "agreement" which money symbolizes is a fragile compact. We all agree that our money represents a stable value which is the foundation of our confidence, our "faith in the full credit" worthiness of our nation. But as we fall deeper and deeper into real debt, that confidence gets tested. As we spend and spend to "save the world" or to "entitle" ourselves to better health care, we push harder and harder against the natural limits of credulity. Does anyone still believe that America can "afford" the debt it's piling up? Short of ruinous inflation, is there anyway our growing debt can be paid, as our national product--our real productive engine--continues to decay?                

Monday, September 27, 2010

Yesterday, the 49ers were trounced by the Kansas City Chiefs, a team they were picked to beat. They were outplayed, and outcoached, in every facet of the game. Aside from a touchdown scored in the last five seconds, they failed to reach the end zone. 
Last week, they played well against the Saints, and but for a few small breaks, they might actually have beaten them. But the pattern, the overwhelming evidence, now, seen in retrospect, of Smith's five plus years with the team, is that Smith isn't the quarterback to lead this team into contention. In fact, he never was. I've spoken about this before, but looking into the history, another disturbing trend becomes evident: Smith is a coach-killer.    

Let's think back. Smith was drafted by Mike Nolan. NFL Drafts are not rocket science, but pro-organizations take great care with their selections, even though they know it's really a crap-shoot, because of the amount of money involved, and because of the consequences of wasting high draft picks (awarded on the basis of reverse performance). A great draft can yield star performers at key positions, and improve the fortunes of a troubled franchise in just a year or two. When Nolan was considering his choice--to choose a highly rated quarterback to form the nucleus of a passing offense--he had limited options. After 20 years of glory--the Niners compiled a record of 246-113 between 1981 and 2003--San Francisco was in a strictly re-building mode, having gone 2/14 in 2004! The storied franchise was in the doldrums and needed a saviour. Montana...Young...Garcia--those great years had been built around a brilliant passing game, executed by talented, quick quarterbacks who responded well to pressure and could improvise effectively on the field late in close games. As anyone who follows the game knows, in pro football, the quarterback, whatever his surrounding "cast" may be, constitutes about 90% of the potential success or failure of any team. The quarterback dictates the pace and style of the offense. A pro quarterback who can't pass accurately, under pressure, will never succeed in the NFL. 49er fans had been spoiled by 25 years of superior--even championship--quarterback talent. 
The 2004 NFL draft wasn't "rich" in quarterbacks. Only two stood out: Alex Smith, from Utah, and Aaron Rodgers, from Cal Berkeley. Both had had comparable years in their last two years, leading their teams into post-season bowl contention. Smith had the added attraction of being an excellent student. Mike Nolan, the son of another San Francisco coach, Dick Nolan, was, if anything, even more stern and iron-jawed than his father had been. His press conferences were stiff affairs, and he was known to demand total obedience and cooperation from all his players. In selecting Smith, Nolan was reported to have been swayed by Smith's dedication and malleability: Smith was a man who could follow orders, who could be counted on to memorize his playbook and keep his thoughts in order, both on and off the field. He was a model citizen, as well as a disciplined player. This was the quarterback Nolan thought he wanted. But things didn't go the way he planned.
In Smith's first year, he completed only 51% of his passes, threw for a single touchdown while being intercepted 11 times. The next year was slightly better, at 7-9, and Smith made what seemed like significant progress, completing 58% of his passes, and throwing for 16 touchdowns while throwing as many interceptions. It wasn't great stuff, but it looked like the kid was improving. However, in 2007, in a September game against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith injured his shoulder. During the next few games, back up QB Trent Dilfer was given the starting job, and eventually journeyman Shaun Hill took over towards the end of that season. Serious conflict broke public after Smith's aborted attempt to return to play beginning in October, a stretch during which his quarterback rating and performance were near the bottom statistically. Nolan, after three years of failure, needed a scapegoat for his own inability to produce a winner, so he accused Smith of dogging it, of blaming his poor performance on injury. Smith, in retaliation, openly challenged Nolan's opinion in the press, insisting that his injury had not healed. As it turned out, Smith was right, his treating physician recommending surgery at the end of the season. Smith missed the whole of 2008, the quarterback duties being shared by J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill that year. After week seven, Nolan was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary. 
It could reasonably be said, I think, that, despite his injury plagued seasons of 2007-2008, Smith's failure to mature into an effective quarterback was the primary cause for Mike Nolan's failure as a head coach to bring respectability to the franchise. Some blame may lie with Nolan's combative handling of his prima donna during a difficult time, for both of them, but Smith's decision to go public with his feud regarding his injury would become the final nail in Nolan's coffin, though the actual effect would take a while come to pass. Nolan's investment in Smith--his hand-picked successor to fill the void created when Garcia left after 2003--proved to be his undoing. 
Starting out the 2009 season, Singletary tried to create competition among his quarterbacks, letting Shaun Hill and Smith duke it out for numero uno. Despite going 3-2 after five games, Singletary decided to let Smith, the younger man, the hope of the franchise, try to establish himself once more as the team leader. Smith took the team the remaining 11 games, going just 5-6, with his wins coming against poor teams such as the Rams, Lions, Bears and Jaguars. His stats were deceptive--under pressure, he usually folded, throwing interceptions or becoming flustered or confused behind the line.
Despite his sterling college record, Smith's performance in the pros has lacked luster. He rarely seems to be in control of his players, and there's a sense of weak conviction, as if he had no confidence. His passes often sail wide, or are thrown too hard, as if to compensate by forcing throws into tight coverage. When he rolls out, he rarely sees the open man, and usually "dumps" the ball off to a running back. There's a sense, too, of mental detachment, as if he were not quite completely involved in the action on the field. 
Meanwhile, after subbing under Brett Favre at Green Bay for three years, Aaron Rodgers stepped up in 2008, becoming a star performer. His touchdown to interception ratio, total yards, and overall rating are head and shoulders above Smith, who continues to struggle, in this, his fifth active season. Much has been made of the fact that Smith has had to deal with a succession of offensive coordinators, that he hasn't been allowed to become "comfortable" with a single, integrated system. The Niners have employed four offensive coordinators in as many years: Norv Turner (2006), Jim Hostler (2007), Mike Martz (2008), and Jimmy Raye (2009-10). Turner left to coach the San Diego Chargers, but Martz was fired for no reason that I could see. As the genius offensive mind of the St. Louis Rams in their glory years, he was 53-32, taking his team to the play-offs four years out of six. But I doubt whether the changing game plans can be used to excuse most of Smith's failures as a player. The team's defense has been vastly improved; the running game, except for yesterday's debacle, has worked just fine. Under Singletary's preferred ground game approach, really very little is asked of the quarterback: 175 yards of error-free medium range passing should be adequate. Smith isn't being asked to dominate with 3 or 4 hundreds yards of wide-open spread air attack. Yet he still has trouble. Even against Kansas City, which doesn't possess a great defensive squad, he looked ineffectual and confused.     
This year, everyone is saying, let's see, finally, whether Alex Smith can find the inspiration that has eluded him all his pro career. He deserves just this one last chance to prove himself. Singletary, a strong, stern disciplinarian just as his predecessor Nolan was, has trouble admitting mistakes, and tends to stick with ideas and commitments long after they've outlived their use. Here's my prediction: If Singletary doesn't jettison Smith before the end of the current (2010) season, I doubt whether he'll survive. Smith brought about--directly and indirectly--the demise of Mike Nolan. If Singletary doesn't see the light, he could find himself broken on the same wheel. Alex Smith is never going to be a good quarterback, much less a great one. But Singletary might end up taking his inspiring, powerful personality elsewhere. So far, he's shown himself to be a poor judge of coaching talent, picking the ineffectual, bumbling Jimmy Raye to run his team's offense.; it was announced this morning that, in an apparent flurry of concern, he's fired Raye. 
The 49ers glory years were built upon a foundation of offensive innovation under Walsh; for years afterward, his continued influence upon player and coaching selection informed the management choices of the franchise. But Walsh is dead, and the caravan moves on. 
Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go back to the drawing board. I always thought Hill was the kind of quarterback Singletary admired: A blue-collar sort of guy, not flashy, but reliable, careful, deliberate, tough. But Hill is gone. Whatever Singletary chooses to do, his solution for the quarterback problem will determine his fate. Either he gets rid of Smith and gets a better one on the free-agent market, or he swallows his pride through another losing season, hoping to get a high enough draft pick in the off-season to bet on another college phenom!                                            

Ted Greenwald -- 30 years later

Back in 1979, I published Ted Greenwald's Common Sense, effectively a selected poems up to that point. The money to do it--I was just a struggling poet myself at that time, plugging along in a government job which I always thought would be a temporary gig, but which continued for another 22 years--came from the National Endowment for the Arts Small Publishers grants program. (Full disclosure: I've been officially opposed to government support of the arts for at least the last 15 years, despite my once having been a beneficiary, albeit for publishing, not for my writing.) Ted's collected poems was one proposal in my grant application, and it turned out to be one of the best projects I've ever undertaken. Up to that point in time, Ted had only published short mimeo pamphlets--which was the medium of the day--and I thought his work deserved the sort of professional presentation ordinarily accorded primarily to mainstream poets. We agreed on terms, and Ted encouraged me to "edit" his collected works from his previously published books. This wasn't very difficult. Ted's work was consistent and clear, and chronology as a guiding principle of organization didn't seem to be an over-riding concern. We were both happy with the resulting collection. Appearing concurrently with Ted's other major collection that year, The Licorice Chronicles [Kulchur Press, 1979], it lent greater authenticity and legitimacy to his reputation, as an "underground" poet to be reckoned with.       

From my first exposure to Ted's work, I realized he was an "original,"--in the words of Ezra Pound (referring to the young George Oppen)--a writer whose ideas were "not gotten out of any other man's books")--a writer who invented his own literary (or non-literary) contexts, and whose style met the demands of a personal vision which he shared with no one. Some writers are original by design or mastery of will, others simply are ineluctably, undeniably themselves, sans any premeditated compulsion to pretend to be anything they aren't. There was never anyone who wrote the way Ted did, and there may never be. He's the genuine article: A poet with a voice and a way of seeing the world that is unique.  

In the years since, Ted has continued to publish, and by now must have well over a thousand pages of published work(s). 
Two books I found recently at SPD in its Berkeley warehouse--In Your Dreams [BlazeVox, 2008], and 3 [Cuneiform Press, 2008], confirm that Ted's as busy and inventive as he was when I "collected" him thirty years ago. 
I've referred to Ted before in print as an "urban primitive"--a term which for me captures some of the rawness of the life of the the big city streets, while implying a sophistication that encompasses his brilliant appropriation of middle-brow speech (language) for the purposes of high mimetic. Ted, who began publishing in the mid-1960's, was a "Language Poet" years before the Language Poets even knew they had a name, or an identity. They naturally adopted Ted as a comrade-in-arms, even though, in point of fact, Ted was too elusive a quantity, too original and genuine an artist, even to need a literary association to define his importance. Ted discovered language poetry technique(s) before most of the Language Poets had graduated from college. This may sound somewhat argumentative, until you realize that talent may not always "rise to the top" in this country, where publicity and promotion usually constitute 4/5's of the public's apprehension of any writer's reputation. That's as true in academia, as it is in New York publishing circles, or in the underground network of the avant garde. 
In any case, Ted has turned his attention in recent years to longer works. Ted's shorter poems usually function as the pirouette of a single turn, but in the longer poems he works out complex patterns of incremental repetition and variation, playing off phrases which are augmented by the changing focus of attention. Greenwald has always stuck stubbornly with his daily speech, seeing in it a key to the meaning of his rhythms, obsessions, fascinations. He burrows inside these, explicating them based on a personal code, which then becomes a part of what is happening/falling apart. The changing reorientation becomes a series of subtle adjustments, each of which opens or disintegrates before our eyes. In Your Dreams is a long (247pp, 79 72-line poems) series of meditations set as centered lines, all of which are capitalized, without any explicit punctuation (periods or commas).

Carving living darkness
Guard down
Run out of paint
Carving living darkness
Run out of paint
Stand looking
Carving living darkness
Guard down
Stand looking
For what?
Personality under glass
Stand looking
Personality under glass
Back to where?
Stand looking
For what?
Back to where?
Conversational lyrics
Handheld romance
Back to where?
Handheld romance
Needy talking about
Back to where?
Conversational lyrics
Needy talking about
Tissue loneliness
Vanity glue
Needy talking about
Vanity glue
Belief waa waa
Walk the floor
With the ceiling
--and so on. The order of the lines here is ABCACDAEDFGDGHDFHI...and so on. What this incrementally shifting recurrence does is create a dialectic in which individual phrases are interlocked, but never "return" to a beginning. Life presents us with millions of obsessive little lyrical formulae, most of which never recur in quite the same way twice. What these strictly organized rehearsals do is record the shifting preoccupations of the mind, in language. Each phrase, in the mind, has a characteristic rhythmic and denotative identity, a resonance which spins in place, undergoes slight change, then is replaced with another. We are always subconsciously "trying phrases out" for size, like pairs of pants in the changing room of a department store. "Does this fit?" "How do I look?" "This plastic security device is really heavy." Such phrases then become a part of the process of living, or of thinking through the poem itself. 

Does this fit?
Trying phrases out
Replaced with another
In the mind
This plastic security
Become a part of
      Does this fit?    
I don't know that anyone has ever written a work quite like this one. John Giorno used to write poems that were repeated sentences, broken up into different lengths, but he wasn't experimenting with the transformations of individual phrases and conceptual relationships the way Greenwald does. Ron Silliman works with/through repeated phrases in a similar way, but his separations are much wider and meant to queue thought rather than, as with Greenwald, the mental jingles which are toyed with, with such obsessive, curious, precious determination.
Greenwald's style depends upon the rhythmic triggers that set unconscious thought processes into action. The poems become echo-chambers; or function perhaps as a "ghost tracking" of stray particles in linear accelerators. The particles are phrase units, sometimes familiar, sometimes not, which get stuck in the conveyor and spin or wobble there for a second, then are swept along the belt towards memory's ultimate warehouse. Such metaphors from physics or industry fail to account for the multi-contextual frames the poems set up. Their origin may be wholly synthetic (born in the imagination), zooming in on the air waves, or may derive from some interaction in the "actual world" of street talk, the human commerce of the everyday, pushing along or waiting in line, hurrying through the yellow semaphore before the surveillance camera clicks gotcha!   
Ted's poems have never been referential in the usual sense, but exercises the mind plays, balanced between need and hooky, crisis and cure, distraction and the sweet spot of contact. Ted's poems are about what it feels like to be inside "Ted." An amazing place, no question. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Epitaphs & Testaments

The need to define the parameters of existence, to put the stamp of finality on one's sense of the essence of human life, to characterize the
gist in a few, carefully weighed, sentences, has always interested compilers of collections of quotations. Such compendiums are as often as not the repository of forgotten chestnuts, either too familiar or too obscure to be compelling.
Here are two such quotations, each perhaps just a bit long to fit into the the typical brief homiletic formula, but interesting nonetheless. The first, by William Saroyan, was the preface to his Pulitzer Prize winning play The Time of Your Life [1939]. Saroyan famously turned down the Pulitzer, saying he thought that commerce should not infect creative arts.         
                                                                    In The Time of Your Life
In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.
Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart.
Be the inferior of no man, or of any men be superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret.
In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. 
--William Saroyan [31 August 1908 - 18 May 1981]
The statement is interesting for the somewhat politically incorrect sentiments it contains. Particularly, the business about the taking of life. Americans are typically ambiguous about such matter-of-factness regarding violence and death. Our largely protestant, secular culture, urges peaceful resolution, and humility in our relations. But we've fought our share of wars, and have usually been able to reconcile our religious teachings with the call to duty. Still, Saroyan's comment doesn't limit the principle to war; he clearly believes that there may be times when, defending oneself, or someone else, killing is necessary or unavoidable.
Robert Traver, the pen name of John D. Voelker, wrote both fishing books and straight fiction. A judge in private life, he retired early on the strength of his earnings from his runaway bestseller Anatomy of a Murder [1958], which was made into a movie [1959], to spend more time fishing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.             

                                                                     Testament of a Fisherman
I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don't want to waste the trip; because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters; because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant - and not nearly so much fun.
-John Voelker (Robert Traver, June 19, 1903–March 19, 1991)
Because I share Voelker's love of fishing, this statement serves as a very useful kind of excuse for the pursuit of a pastime that may seem, to the uninitiated, to be an elegant way to waste one's time, like golf or needlepoint. The fatalistic pessimism--"I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time"--may seem like a bad beer commercial phrase, out of context, but the promotion of such virtues, to which trout may "respond"--"quietude and humility and endless patience"--seems an expression of an admirable civility, against the "posturing" and false "importance" of our daily commitments. It always puts me in mind of the camaraderie which obtains among friends on the water, in those still moments between the stirrings of interest or action, when sportsmen feel that sense of liberation of feeling and surmise which characterize the relaxed mind.  

Friday, September 24, 2010

More Thoughts on Internet Identity

One of the strangest things about the internet--and blogging--is its enormous reach, and the personal vulnerability (or nakedness) of one's presence on it. Like all forms of media projection, it facilitates the creation of a specific persona. Soon, virtual visual interaction is coming, allowing users to watch each other--literally to look into each other's real physical space--while spending time online. Whether or not people choose to allow this kind of exposure will depend upon a number of factors. Privacy as it has been thought of in the past will have to be revised. 
We already know that much of the world is "under continuous surveillance" by cameras and hand-held devices of various kinds. As technology penetrates ever further into our personal space(s), we continue to lose privacy, to lose the anonymous (incognito) physical sense of being inside our personal envelope, secure, secret, contained. 
The satellite mapping devices and street-mounted address programs allow us to look at private addresses (at street level) and down upon neighborhoods throughout the world. 
It occurred to me a few days ago that people I've known throughout my life--starting right out with my early childhood, following me all along the roads and byways of my adulthood--could all, given a half-way efficient computer, and an internet connection--see exactly what I'm doing, what I've become, and what I think. It gave me pause. Perhaps unexpectedly, I've only been able to establish any kind of contact--however brief--with just a handful of these people. That seems odd. I was in a high school graduating class of over 500. It's true that I can only remember the names of perhaps 20 people on dead recall, but I'm sure I'd be able to "identify" many, many more if I saw their pictures with the names. And yet, they're hidden out there in the world. Many of them must be dead, many have moved into remote parts of the globe, many have fallen into obscure, hopeless backwaters. 
But many of them probably don't wish to revisit their pasts, and even with the venues that now exist--such as high school alumni websites--their curiosity about the fates of those whom they started their lives with, is simply absent. Either they don't want to evoke their past(s), or they're too embarrassed to expose themselves to view. It's strange.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking: Do I really want people to know this stuff about me? Maybe there's something exhibitionistic about it. Maybe it's a juvenile craving for bland forms of ersatz "friendship" and pointless contact. Yet the great majority of people I meet here are strangers, people whom I will almost certainly never meet in person, and whose lives will never intersect in any other way, in any other place. It's like having a wide correspondence with a regiment of aliens. Who ARE these people!?  
They're just like you and me. Or, maybe not. I always think of the phenomenon of my own birth as a combination of weird accidents. The same could be said of most of our life contacts. They're accidental. In some small villages of the world, the inhabitants may spend their whole lives in close proximity to just a handful of individuals, many of whom are relatives. In the modern world, with its portability, mobility, anonymity, loneliness, disconnection, the only glue that seems to keep people connected is family, and even that frequently breaks down under the pressures of work, dislocation, and generational disapprobation. 
I don't know where this is all leading. Am I looking for something here? Why do I write these brief essays and personal accounts? Who am I trying to reach? Who do I think cares about all this? Am I my only true audience?           

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bicycle - Whence & Whither

When I was a child growing up in the 1950's, most kids had bikes. Boys more than girls, I suppose, but any child who wanted one could get one. I got my first bike for my 8th birthday, a great big wide-wheeled green monster with a beeping horn, bell, front and rear fenders, a riding platform on the rear, and a spring suspension on the front wheel. It was pretty heavy. We lived in the suburbs of a small Northern California town, Napa, and typically we were allowed to ride around in the neighborhood without supervision from a very early age, and by the time I was 10 I was riding all over town on weekends or during the Summer. When I was 11, I took a job as a paper-delivery-boy, 110 papers seven days a week, roll-em up and pedal around an eight block area. That lasted four years, and by the time I gave it up, I was already in high school. That was my first real job, and it taught me a certain application and duty from an early age. I think in some respects it might have been better if I had spent a little more time socializing and traveling in those years, but we were so poor we could hardly have afforded much real recreation. It was both a way of earning an allowance, and of getting good regular exercise. My heavily-muscled thighs testify to that. In those days, the narrower-wheeled "Schwinn" bikes were a novelty; eventually the wider-wheeled bikes would disappear entirely, only to be "re-introduced" as "trail bikes" and "off-road" wheelers later. Today, there are many variations, even fold-up versions which commuters can carry onto trains or busses.  
I mention this because bicycling seems more and more to be at issue today. When I was a boy, grown-ups didn't generally ride bicycles. In America, bicycles were for kids. Almost no one rode bikes competitively, or as a sophisticated recreation, the way they do today. People didn't commute on bikes. Bike racks were confined to school-yards. If you'd suggested to either of my parents that they ride a bike, they'd have thought you were nuts. 

But today, bicycling is growing in popularity, for a number of reasons. Automobiles have never been cheap, and the price of operating a four-wheeled vehicle is becoming comparatively inconvenient, especially in (bigger) cities--not least because of the cost and inconvenience of storage and temporary (or longer term) parking. 
Eastern Seabord cities weren't originally laid out for motorized vehicular traffic lanes, but have had to be adapted. In the Midwest and West, most towns and cities grew up during the advent of cars and busses, as well as rail, and hence are in fact designed primarily for automobiles. With the rise of two-wheeled vehicle use, natural conflicts of access and right-of-way have begun to occur. In California where we live, they've begun to create "bike lanes" between the automobile lanes and sidewalks. This has put additional pressure on parking. 
In principle most people favor bicycling as an alternative to automobile usage, since it's cheaper, healthier, cleaner, and lest wasteful. In Europe and part of the Third World, bicycles are much more ubiquitous. You can see the consequences of widely expanded bicycle use in places like India and China, where the streets are clogged with them. In cities where this occurs, major safety and congestion issues have developed. I'm not sure why it should be, but bicycling seems to encourage a flagrantly cavalier attitude towards rules of the road. 
When I was a kid, most people didn't get their bikes licensed, and laws governing usage were typically ignored. Today, in California, helmets are required by law, something we would have thought quite unnecessary in the 1950's. But today, bicycle riding is serious business. 
Though as I say public opinion is generally in favor of encouraging cycling, there are a number of problems associated with their increased usage, and they're only going to get worse. Controversy has heated up over the last few years in West Coast cities, involving militant advocates of expanded bicycling lanes and bike parking. In cities where parking has already become quite difficult, further restrictions on automobile access and parking are regarded by the business community with a raised eyebrow. 

American cities have been designed to accommodate movement primarily through automobile usage. The American suburb paradigm was posited on the prevalence of the car. Attempts to force people out of their cars, and into public transportation or onto the streets, on foot, have been largely unsuccessful. Inner city planning has misapprehended the European pedestrian model, creating downtown wastelands in some cases, where no one but bums and delinquents go to loiter or kill time. The mercantile core of our cities was not helped by the design initiatives intended to "revitalize" our cities by forcing cars away from the city centres. 
If anyone thought seriously about the actual effect that widespread adoption of the bicycle in American cities might have, enthusiasm about the bike might be muted. Bicycles and automobiles sharing the same street is a recipe for problems. The more bicycles there are per block, the more dangerous things generally become. On a typical day, one may encounter a half dozen bicycles pedaling along the right-hand edge of the road. Imagine what it might be like if that number were to increase a hundred-fold. Navigation by bicycle is typically less controlled laterally than with cars, and when several bikes are lined up, they can effectively take over a lane. Then there's the matter of safety. For each additional bike on the road, the stakes go up. Many bikers seem to regard their unfettered right of way as a cardinal virtue, mocking or sneering at traffic, violating every principle of courtesy and every rule of the road. Most laws governing bicycle use are designed to protect the biker, who is nakedly exposed to every kind of physical hazard, with or without a helmet. There is something about the casual, recreational quality of bike use that encourages riders to think of biking irresponsibly. 
I won't live to see the death of the automobile as we have come to know it, but it seems safe to say that, even with the transformation of fuels which will doubtless occur in this century, the four-wheeled vehicle isn't going away. One must view with trepidation the coming impacts of increased mixed-use vehicular thruways and streets in 21st Century American cities. My guess is that bicycling will become less and less fun; and driving in town will become very hazardous indeed.          


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Meet Soo-Mee, our new male Siamese

Meet Soo-Mee. He's our new male Siamese kitten who joined the family on July 3rd (born on April 4th). We lost Lottie in January, to breast cancer (which spread to her lungs), and our other two Siamese needed a third member to recapture their social balance. We got Soo-Mee from a regular breeder in Marin County, and he was raised with sensitivity and lots of human handling in a quietly supportive household.   

We have preferred the traditional apple-faced Siamese, over the show-worthy pointed-faced hybrids. Soo-Mee is an odd mixture, with a classic "pointed, curved" head shape--narrow eyes, and very large, triangular-starred pointed ears. That's him on the right in the photo above. Unlike most Siamese males, his personality seems altogether docile and trusting, and he possesses none of the feisty combativeness--at least not now--so characteristic of the type. 
Siamese typically live between 12-19 years. I may not outlive Soo-Mee. Following a pattern we started 35 years ago, each cat is named after a coffee or coffee mixture. Sumatra's abbreviated name, therefore, became Soo-Mee, which sounds as if it might belong to a panda. 
So these three, Mocha, Cocoa and Soo-Mee now happily co-exist with us in a symbiotic relationship whose rhythms follow the schedules of our days. Soo-Mee is somewhat less affectionate than Mocha and Cocoa, but with time he may come to "adopt" us as his life companions. People make the best pets.    

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Autonomous Submission

                                               By Garrett Staughton     
The world divided by itself equals zero. Ice caps evaporate into void. 
I arrive bearing the evidence for a conviction.   
Embedded logic shifts along fractured intervals.  Inside white walls, insulation spontaneously implodes. 
Lead doors.    
The smallest seizure may be undetectable.   
I break my gold-rimmed glasses, throwing them on the pavement.  This is not a gesture, but a sign.   
Each paradigm supplies its own analog.   
Returning to a point preceding his birth, he finds prehistoric structures in an advanced state of decay.    
We're temporarily experiencing technical difficulties.
Irritability is a tic. Surveillance systems track our every move.
I stands for something.   
You make a wish. The world waits breathlessly for your decision.
The typographer's dummy. Duh. Duh duh duh!!!
Distorted vowels, frayed towels, sleepless owls, flabby jowls, wooden dowels, feral yowls. Making it up as it goes along, he sings his onely song, going going gong.
A snoring.   
Form follows function.  Stairway to the stars. 
Hostile precincts of the countryside are camouflaged as landscape. Morale is high.
Clouds approaching from three directions.
The roots of the tree snake along underneath our presumptions.  Thought is insidious, impossible to kill.   
Repeat after me. 
Birds chirping to define territory and secure mates, we hear as pure song.  Coffee cools in the cup.   
Contamination occurs at all points. Black dust seeps in under the floorboards. 
Age dates the slugger.     
The young king’s tomb spills tokens through a hole into a plastic tray.  London Bridge is falling down.  
Driving a golden spike through Ford’s mercenary heart.    
We greet the nuclear blast standing atop the tallest building in the metropolis, arms spread, awaiting armageddon like the ghosts of Babylon. 
Meaning fizzles in a random dance.  Sky colors awe the summer crowds.
I intend a contradiction.
Moon looks down on a black lake, a tar puddle surrounded by flickering gas fumes.
An Alabama drawl softens the spoon.  
Drones are the pornographic metaphor for the jack-off culture of intuitive leaps: frustration leads to premature ejaculation.    
Jackhammers gunning for gas lines, break through the city water main, transforming the street into a Harlem fountain. 
In early youth, the learning curve levels off.
This is a poem.
Universe in the shape of a canoe.
Traveling in a train, we walk backwards toward the caboose, arriving at the engine car. 
He killed his puppet.
Outcome determined by chance operations.
Sheet glass windows sheer diagonally along crystalline fault lines. 
You don't have to think about breathing.  Someone has brought in the paper.
Imagine that women can read your thoughts. 
See Rome and die, but don't forget your health insurance card.
It's the afternoon commute, traffic reports and the evening news concluding the number of dead in Afghanistan. Sunset blood red.  
The effect can't be duplicated. You had to be there. 
The general bristles and his little finger twitches. Tanks rumble down Main Street to make their point. 
Competing factions grease the hand-organ.
Matter is arrested light. The tunnel is sealed off. 
Beltway rusted shut. Impressions are conveyed via our nerves.
Each object defines its use; we carve up the consequences.

Billboard at the end of the world--Zeppelin's upside down... 
Can you imagine something that wasn't there?
Bowsprit's rather yar. America wins Nobel Peace Prize!
Salt flat one inch above eye level. Black stripes on white roadway lead to....
It's so easy you could do it in your sleep. Examples are virtually everywhere.  
Identity is a disguise. Someone's knocking at the door. 
Check the sub-cats and then lock up before you leave. 
Familiar mascot's a crash-dummy with a prosthetic arm.
Not funny, McGee.
You are directed to appear. Everyone is writing mysteries.
The level of statement is exactly proportional to the sentiment expressed.
Audience clicks and hisses. Orchestra omits third movement.
Now I'm being serious. What's the matter?
Haitians reading bar codes. Mountains of dead batteries.

Flash cards pop up along the horizon-line.

Any part of the grid is not more compelling than a chocolate milkshake.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Alex Smith - Here We Go Again

It's difficult to define what makes a winning combination of skills and traits in a successful NFL quarterback. It's not about intelligence, certainly, and not about raw physical talent. Luck may be involved, especially in the early part of a career, when a slow start may relegate a highly rated college prospect to the bench. Great quarterbacks may flower in their third year, or in their 8th--there's no scenario that holds true for every individual. 
A few observations may narrow the parameter: Successful QB's in the NFL had better not be short in comparison to their fellows, since the difficulty of looking over tall NFL lineman precludes ordinary visual access to the patterns of weaving receivers and defensive backs down field; a short man will have extreme difficulty overcoming this. 
An ability to "read" defenses, and to intuit the movements and tendencies of your receivers and backs, is also crucial. Preparation and focus are important, since most of the decisions a QB makes once the ball is snapped must either be memorized and automatic, or be made instantaneously, almost without thinking. 
Finally, there are two indefinable qualities which winning QB's possess. The first is a determination to overcome odds, to press forward against adversity and repeated failure. The second is a coolness or control under pressure. Neither of these two key elements can really be learned. Courage, and the ability to block out distraction and stress, are probably a genetic inheritance. Joe Montana had them. When the game was on the line, a level, concentrated, dark mood came over him. He was able to put on mental blinders, and devote 100% of his attention on the problem at hand, picking spots and improvising serially, down by down, to maximize the potential yardage in each situation as the end of the game wound down in a sequence of increasing risk. 
After having watched Alex Smith over five seasons (he was out for the whole of 2008 with injury), I've come to the conclusion that Smith doesn't possess these crucial qualities as an NFL QB. I previously said on this blog that he isn't the answer to the 49ers' Quarterback Problem, that he would never bring the team to contention. But I would go further now, after watching him in the first game of 2010 against the Seattle Seahawks (which the 49ers lost 31-6). I don't think the 49ers can reasonably expect to win any game in which he's the starter this year. Next week, the Niners take on the champion New Orleans Saints. 
I can still recall seeing, in person, the 49ers crush the Saints under Steve Young a few years back, 38-0 in the New Orleans Superdome. In those days, the feckless Saints, under Mike Ditka, could hardly make a first down, much less a touchdown. But that was a long time ago.
Now, these teams are so unevenly matched, it's hardly a contest. I would bet a spread of 14 points in favor of the Saints; yet they might win 56-0! 
In the NFL, the importance of talent at the quarterback position can't be overemphasized. It accounts for 85% of a team's success. It's safe to assume that in the NFL, even the poorest teams have the best talent available. But a bad quarterback can make a whole team underperform, dragging it down hopelessly into mediocrity. This is what has happened each time the 49ers have gone with Smith. He's tall, he's very intelligent, he works hard, he shows courage in the pocket, but he doesn't possess the determination and coolness under pressure that are the pre-requisites for ultimate success over odds.  
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Smith isn't the answer. The 2010 season will be a bust. Until we can find a decent replacement for Smith, the Niners will not be competitive, either in their division, or in the league as a whole. The man has to go.                     

The Giants in 2010 - a Year of Ironies

The 2010 year for the San Francisco Giants has been a year of ironies. Thinking back to an earlier era--one which I lived through as a youngster just beginning the long road of devotion to the home team (which had arrived, with much fanfare, in 1958)--I'm reminded of another string of young rookie phenoms who came along in quick annual succession during the 1950's and '60's.
Today's young stars are appearing with the same frequency, and (one hopes) with the same eventual flowering of success.
In 2007, Tim Lincecum came up to the Bigs, with the highest expectations imaginable. And he didn't disappoint, winning two Cy Youngs in succession (2008, 2009). In 2008, a chubby, effusive young Venezuelan Third Baseman named Pablo Sandoval arrived, knocking balls all over the park and endearing himself to fans, affectionately, as "The Panda," hitting .345 and .330 in his first two years. In 2009, a highly touted young catching prospect, Buster Posey made a quick visit to the Show, and this year has precociously taken over as starting catcher, prompting the departure of veteran Bengie Molina (traded to Texas on July 1st). Each of these three wasted no time displaying their talents, and all three are now front and center, budding stars for a young team on the rise.
50 years ago, almost the same phenomenon took place. In 1958, a very young (20) Orlando Cepeda arrived from Puerto Rico, winning Rookie of the Year honors. In 1959, a very tall, lanky, soft-spoken Alabama boy broke in, going 4 for 4 (including two triples) against Robin Roberts, winning the ROY award himself. Then, in 1960, a smiling, cheerful pitcher from the Dominican Republic arrived; he started more slowly, but eventually went on to have six 20-win seasons. All three of these heroes made it into the Hall of Fame. 
Cepeda, McCovey and Marichal were each instrumental in bringing a Pennant to San Francisco in 1962, the year they lost the Seventh Game of the World Series when Bobby Richardson caught McCovey's screaming liner in the final inning, closing the door on the Giants last, best chance at a Series win. 

It's been 55 years since the Giants won it all, and those of us old enough to remember 1962, as well as 2002, are growing impatient with the passing of years. The arrival of these talented youngsters in 2007-2008-2009 gives us hope for a brighter future. 
This year both Sandoval and Lincecum have suffered setbacks. Timmy lost some velocity on his fastball, and experienced periods of wildness. He seemed hittable in August. Pablo, as passionate and emotional a player as you could imagine, has been swinging wildly at balls off the plate, over-anxious and impatient. Had either one of these two performed up to the level of their accomplishments of last year, the Giants would almost certainly be games ahead in the National League West Division by this time this year. But the quick development of Posey--who seems at moments to be almost like the reincarnation of a Johnny Bench or a Mike Piazza--has actually carried the team, almost single-handedly at times, on his young shoulders, for days at time.
History doesn't repeat itself, at least not exactly in the same way. Certain patterns may emerge which are similar, even eerily reminiscent. The arrival of Lincecum, Sandoval and Posey, the three of them, all young, all filled with promise, all raring to go from the get-go, feels just like things did in 1960, when another young Giants team (albeit with a resident super-star, Willie Mays) was going through a serious re-building stage, fueled then by the sudden influx of Central American and Caribbean talent. 
We can at least pretend that the same success that followed the arrival of those earlier Hall of Famers, may visit this team again, half a century later.      

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Looky-Touchy-Feely - The Atomized Bombs of Jessica Smith [Part III]

 [This post is a continuation of two earlier ones on Jessica Smith's book
Organic Furniture Cellar.]
Part III: The Poems
It would be difficult to imagine a trade edition poetry book--particularly a first book--published before 2000, which included a long, dense, somewhat apprehensive essay by the poet herself, documenting her sources, her influences, her intentions, and the proper manner in which to read the contents, following a 7000 word Forward. Yet Jessica Smith decided to present her work, self-published, in just this way, taking the opportunity to declare her aesthetic principles and methodology, much in the manner a serious graduate student might approach her graduate degree thesis. Indeed, Ms. Smith's essay, or Forward, to Organic Furniture Cellar [2004] seems very much a kind of professional academic obligation, a proof and application to the world of poetry at large, that she had arrived, was prepared to be recognized, honored, and rewarded with praise, and perhaps a handsome assistantship at a comfortable Eastern Ivy League edifice. Organic Furniture Cellar was the tender, but the essay was the clincher, the very definition of a proposed entitlement, the passport to the avant garde poetry scene. Without the official approval implicit in the acceptance of the manuscript by a major New York or University Press publisher, Smith's first self-published book was intended to serve as an efficient short-cut to the game, by-passing the turnstiles of taste and orderly recognition, the benighted reading public's oblivious irrelevance. 
As the generations of structuralist and post-structuralist waves break over the shore of post-War American culture, the text itself has become increasingly irrelevant as well. Cultural criticism, which purports to trump mere aesthetic objects, taunting their probable audiences, dissecting their assumed deficiencies, and weaving ever more complex webs of ratiocination and dialectical machination, now bids to become the repository of a dissolving fabric of meaning itself, in a grand end-game of multiple interpretations, incestuous cross-fertilizations of mediated, relativist exchange. As the text recedes into impertinence, exegesis replaces art; and justifications and analyses of content and form supersede composition as the very aim of literary enterprise.
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Jessica Smith graduated from SUNY Buffalo in English and Language Theory (studying under Charles Bernstein), then spending time in Northern Europe for two years, ultimately earning a Master's Degree with a thesis entitled Sonic Territories: Deleuze and the Politics of Sound in Kafka and Duras. Currently she is studying library science while teaching writing at her Alma Mater. 
Smith's whole orientation, then, has been inside the academic sphere, where the meanings and functions of texts derive primarily from what can be expressed about them--their commodity-existence, their value as objects for description and de-construction--rather than through their use as texts for consumption as pure art; under the decadent sophistication of the contemporary graduate workshop system, where budding writers and artists are taught to master models of performance and style, honing their careerist skills in an increasingly crowded and competitive professional market-place. These twin trends--the hyper-critical inflation of textual assessment, and the alienation of the writer from her probable audience--has created a hybrid artist-type, committed to a narrowly defined profile of avant garde textual eccentricity completely divorced from a probable audience, with a relentless dedication to self-promotion along purely theoretical lines. In other words, a writer devoted to the production of a text whose only purpose is its potential for the parasitism of analytic regard--its only raison d'etre
Ms. Smith is the quintessential expression of this role model. Still only 31, she is anxious that we should know that she has won two poetry prizes, has had her work published in a number of obscure literary periodicals, that she has editied a poetry journal herself, has had some of her work set to music, runs a blog, twitters, has had her work "exhibited" in America and Europe, has had work translated into foreign languages, and edits a series of pamphlets and monographs, and assisted in the editing of a woman's broadzine. The resolute emphasis on a curriculum vitae, fraught with honors and deeds and recognitions, various and eclectic, is indicative not, however, of a precocious proficiency of talent, but of a naked ambition, to be seen and noticed, to impress and brag. 
All of which serves to put one on immediate guard as to the actual nature of Smith's accomplishments as a writer. It is certainly one thing to build an academic career out of textual analysis and critical skill; but quite another to demonstrate a lyrical or formal genius in the production of specific, original works. There's an ironic disconnect between what she puts on the page, and the hemorrhage of explanation that flows down over the poetry, obscuring it, diluting it, and ultimately replacing it with extravagant claims for its formal achievement. After 7000 words of Forward, in which Plastic poetry is promulgated as the latest incarnation of High Late Modernism's marching procession of Greats, one might be forgiven for having exaggeratedly high expectations, for anticipating nothing less than a masterpiece, from its self-proclaimed Priestess of Liberation.                                                      
*Before addressing the poems proper, I should point out one error. In her Forward, Smith says "If you turn to the glossary of Swedish words in the back of Organic Furniture Cellar," --but there is no such glossary that I could find. Perhaps she originally intended to include one, but either forgot, or decided not to have one. Given that only a handful of the poems is written in foreign language (Swedish), my first impulse was to wonder why she included them at all--with or without a glossary. Why not simply translate them into English, instead of leaving them in, unreadable and untranslated? It seems like an obvious oversight.            
In order to talk about the poems, it will be necessary to resort to an expanded display link, since Smith's pages are 1) too large [with small type face] to reproduce, 2) use parallel conflicted half-spacing of lineation, and 3) use a font (Garamond) which is not available on Google Blogger (and even if it were, the poem are too large spatially to fit into the blogger window). Hence the reader will need to link on each of the two URL under each displayed text page image to see the expanded version in a separate users window (which may then be viewed concurrently with the commentary). As I noted previously, the font size in the book is much too small, barely readable, but there is no immediate remedy I could think of to display the text.
It may be that on a theoretical level, no reading of any text is the ultimate, uniquely correct one, but Smith carries this notion to an extreme limit in insisting (in her Forward) that there is no proper entry point into her separate poems. Spatially, they may, for instance, be read traditionally from left to right, or they may be read right to left, or bottom to top, or in any order one might choose. However, this is only a ruse, since she declares that she intends to disarm the reader by thwarting his reading progress (from memory, the "old-fashioned" way). In effect, what this means is that a reader will begin to read each poem from the upper left-hand corner and proceed by means of the usual left-to-right progress, encountering various road-blocks and unexplained hazards and non-sequiturs along the way, until he either exhausts his patience, or arrives at the bottom of the page (in a state of advanced confusion). 
Each of Smith's poems is like a scattered, unorganized outline of fragments, all of which might have been intended for inclusion into an organized sequence of language (paragraphs, stanzas, constellations of words...). The reader is given no clue as to how these fragments might be organized, nor what--in many instances--they refer to. If the poem is meant, as Smith claims, to refer to something out "in the world" then that something must first be filtered through Smith's deliberately disorganized arrangements or unorganized impressions (or as she says, her "memory" of experience). In the poem "Passage," below, there are a series of numbers--74, 400, 14, 15, 615, 101, 910, and 830--which are not explained. Are these the numbers of roads, the times of day, or some other increment which the reader is supposed to "invent" for his own amusement? Mountains, traffic, crickets, flowers, kisses, fingers, sunsets, dandelions, bulbs, a city, sugar/cotton/snow, cultures and shoulders--all of which occur as proximal fragments of a greater whole, whose inter-relationships are unspecified, remaining docilely inert and disconnected. There are the colors red, and white. The mountain is red; the snow and sugar and cotton are white--this is important information. There is humming, and undulating, and clicking, and cropping up, a covering. Something is magnetized, something is littered, something is unreclaimed, something is inescapable, something remains. We have no idea what the underlying circuit-board for all these things is, because it is hidden beneath the surface of the poem's display. 
Perhaps, like a child, we could be allowed to move the separate parts of the poem around--as with a puzzle or a scrabble board--into probable relationships, that could actually make some kind of expedient sense. But Smith has already thought of this, no doubt. We can't ask of her that she perform this function, because that might serve to confirm our expectations about how to "read" her work, and that's just old-fashioned nonsense. The "mnemonic mapping" which she is striving to make could never be attained by organizing these constituent fragments into a meaningful whole. If we try to put lines together, we may have some limited success: "distances/are magnetized, they/push us away, they/repel." "Bulbs like cotton bolls like/white flowers/they crop up/never/the same." "Distances sadly/inanimate/unreclaimed/whiteness." "White over everything as if it fell from the sky/like sugar like cotton like snow like dandelions/the undulating/complex of/insensitive whiteness." "Rhizomatic network of memory." Etc. 
What a reader is faced with here is a mess. The vague, disorganized flock of words, the reader might suspect, could be rearranged in any of several approximate formations, none of which would be any more instructive, or syntactically informative, than the one chosen. The potential generative, dynamic propulsion of syntax is ignored, in favor of a mobile of mildly suggestive parts, none of which is compelling in itself, to tilt our attention towards a determined effect. Since none of the fragments tells us enough about the experience to which they seem to refer, we have no way of interpreting them, and so they lie, elusive, unrecognized, categorically flat.                                       

In flores para los muertos ["flowers for the dead"], we get pretty much the same kind of thing. Except that here, individual words are broken up into separate letters which may be re-combined in various possible ways, but to what purpose? "Con" might combine with "viv" and "i" and "al" to form convivial; or does con combine with stant to form constant? What does the possible discrepancy between alphabetical parts tell us about anything? "Cannot be a poem" certainly tells us something concrete! There is some kind of jeopardy going on--fear, could be lethal, fear again, violence, fear again, and again fear. What the impetus or etiology of this fear might be, we are not told. Perhaps it's the Day of the Dead. Then, again, perhaps it's the day I got drunk (clinking glasses) and missed you. The refusal to specify what the hints and pointers imply, gives rise in the reader, either to a suspicion of a kind of hesitancy on the part of the speaker (what Katherine Anne Porter called "the look of the runaway in her eye") or a kind of petulance, a reluctance to acknowledge that the speaker (the poet) has no resonant response to experience, that her experience finds no medium, no analogue in her sensibility which could inspire her to memorable utterance. Or, perhaps, faced with the materials of her craft, she is simply clueless about how these might be shaped into a mental narrative or a diverting design. Who can say? 
One of the advantages of removing lyricism--any semblance of a sequential logic or development--from the poem--is that there is no gradient for comparing the relative success or failure of any rhetorical flourish. If Ms. Smith lacks the lyrical inspiration to write interesting poetry, the simplest solution is to posit a style that is utterly without music, without plot, without formal organization. Offered up as latter-day quasi "concrete" experiments in "visual" arrangement, and buttressed by a complex series of analytical definitions, such exercises can mask an initial incompetence by throwing out a blizzard of dogma and speculation. This is a potentially devastating indictment, but one I find myself reluctantly sensing here. 
                                                                                  floras para los muertos

I think that much of what Smith discusses in her excessively long Forward could be said about any of several different examples of post-Modern verse. It might be applicable, for instance, to the work of Clark Coolidge. But the comparison would stop right there in its tracks; because in the work of Coolidge one has, despite the departure from denotation and referentiality, considerable demonstration of skill with language, of the joining and organization of parts, and of whole regions of lavish, connotative blurring, tortuously involved association, varied resonance and expansive internal landscapes. 
In Smith's work, no reading is correct, because nothing in the poem has been deliberately formed. Randomness replaces deliberation, and meaning escapes down the drain. In addition, all readings are non-reflexive, and hence impersonal, autonomous, and indeterminate. Language is exploded into atomized bombs, scattering meaningless fragments of matter. Trying to read her poems is like wandering across a scene of devastation following a detonation; the material, once constituted into use and shape and coherence, is blown apart. We have to start from scratch, picking up the pieces, piling up the rubble, building everything from the ground up, by hand, scraping together fragments, starting over. Practical knowledge at a premium, know-how and energy required. Careful planning. Hope.       
I think Smith is ultimately fooling herself, if not her readers. Compositional experiments--such as choosing words from matrices of pre-existing text, or yoking discrepant segments of language into new arrangements--can be mildly diverting. Ronald Johnson's R A D I O S, for example, or the work of Dick Higgins, or John Cage's experiments with indeterminate performance. But poetry which opts out of the lyrical mode to explore synthetic applications exterior to the medium will inevitably lack substance. Words can be separated from their function, but without that function, they're just things. The trick is in putting them together. Organic Furniture Cellar is an embarrassment, perhaps most astonishingly because its author is an acutely intelligent woman. Alas, she's been mining fool's gold.