Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Recklessness of Not Being Mistaken - Foust's Mouth

A phrase I'd written in one of my poems from the 1970's occurred to me in my meditation on what Graham Foust's writing is doing, and how one might go about trying to describe it: "The recklessness of not being mistaken," and two more--"jiggle foci" and "setting up your exceptions." 1 In my previous note on Foust's To Anacreon in Heaven ("Foust N'est pas Foutu") I hinted at what his methodology is.

Though I'm still not sure I'm qualified adequately, yet, to define his aesthetics, I think I have a better grasp of it after reading A Mouth in California [Chicago: Flood Editions, 2009]. What I've finally come to see is that Foust's poems--unlike those of Wallace Stevens or Jack Spicer or Robert Creeley (figures whose influence on Foust seems to me justifiably obvious enough not to require any further ramification)--are rather like adapted rehearsals for probable poem structures. Think of a poem as having two valences:

One dimension might be rhetorical formulae which defines the structure of a sequence of words, divided into exigent phrases, sentences, in a certain order.

The other dimension might be the presumed "content" of what the poem consists of as its conveyed essence ("meaning").

In one sense, this distinction is nothing more than Olson/Creeley's old "form is nothing more than an extension of content" saw. But that precept assumed that a poem's function contained an identifiable content, which could be seen in relief against its actual formality--form and content weren't identical; instead, content was like a body pushing out against the elastic sac of the poem shape, pushing forward into space--the body, gestural animus.

But suppose the rhetorical structure were separately conceptualized, as if a possible poem, with its rhetorical structure intact, were instead applied with contradictory fill-ins--an "argument" constructed out of wrong words, non sequiturs, and absurd distributions and ratios?

The resulting specimen might look, superficially, very like one of the poems from A Mouth in California. Which might account for the force which Foust's poems employ, without in any way limiting the range of implication of his assertions, or the total effect they exert.

Spicer showed how the contradictory turn at the break of a line could yield happy, unexpected surprises of violent sense. Life's often violent, and painful, and Jack's poems were often little mine-fields of dangerous discovery, stepping into dog shit or on a bomb that vaporized your piety. Wake up, stupid, this poetry's frightening stuff! Little clusters of jeopardy, so we sing them in the dark.

On Form for Haggard

your "Long Black

depends so much

mistakes: a missed

"the curve nobody

--p. 66 A Mouth in California


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens 2

Framed through the rhetorical cliché of the canonical Williams conceit, the structure we're "hearing" is not the imagined content--of the message of the Imagist joke--but the expectation of the phrases--locked or twisted or re-processed through a misapprehension of the original occasion. It could be a kind of irony, or humor, or homage, or imitation, or revisioning, but the virtual essence of the original is its structural integrity, not its content. Structure decays along the logarithm of its weakest connections, so each time the mind recalls it, its rhythmic scaffolding is subtly altered. We could, in like measure, exert a willful disruption. Spicer himself toyed with the Red Wheelbarrow--

A Red Wheelbarrow

Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance.
For their significant. For being human
The signs escape you. You, who aren't very bright
Are a signal for them. Not,
I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
Their significance.

--Jack Spicer

Any form, divorced from its virtual content, might be taken for a blank. This is the rehearsal of which I spoke earlier. Twelve dancers on a wood stage block out the moves in a complex interaction of bodies in space. None has a separate identity as such, all are anonymous physiques, leotard'd metopes. Scan the lines, diagram the sentences. What's "left"?

So write your own ticket, to wherever. Nothing depends upon a yellow bulldozer splashed with tar against the blue barrier. Parenthetically, the mood of such a constant defamation of certainty might be a delicious irony, or simple bi-polar disaffection.

Los Angeles

Loss of faith is

growth is faith. The only critique
of paradise is paradise.

Be there drinking,

our shared throat shallow in all
direction, then nothing.

In this particular

version of everywhere, a movie equal to
and other than

our memory disappears.

We imagine wanting. And here, our wanting
is at its most tangible. The movie turns

into itself. What not for?

--p. 38 A Mouth in California

My point here is that the rhetorical structure of the sequence of phrasings constitutes the musical propulsion of the poem, far in advance of its putative comprehensions. Each phrase prefigures its own possible outcomes, which may be confirmed, or denied by the speaker. In Los Angeles, "loss of faith" may be contradicted by "growth [as] faith"--since both kinds of ethical regard may be imputed from the same evidence. In Los Angeles, faith in growth may be construed as loss of faith. But the two phrases are placed in opposition through breaking of line, as well as the impact of a run-on sentence. The only critique/of paradise is paradise is a logical formula in language, whose tautology mimics its own ostensible meaning. Paradise is a horrible place, a denial of the illusion of its original, underlying meaning. Equal to and other than yawns open as cinematic space, so that what we want's flattened against a celluloid escape-route. Everywhere is never particular, but always an abstraction of a probable extraction, an extradition from life. But the flat reality of Los Angeles is anything but. Let's check out the mall.

If I've convinced myself that Foust's poems are dry receptacles for the uncertainty or insecurity of propositional formulae, what is the implication of the weird landscapes he constructs for his meditative inquiry, his self-styled auto-rendition? Give them anything, but don't tell them what they want, says the functionary in Le Carré's classic Tinker Tailor. Each subtraction may be a little victory over the obvious. Behind every avatar is a ghost. Can a set of substitutions be salvaged by a can of resolution? People do. Inside this echo-chamber of secrets hide charged particles of wisdom, unrecognized at first, difficult beyond belief to capture, once thought only to be a rumor; whose existence, once confirmed, caused a major shift in the structure of our thinking about voids.

The thing to remember is that nothing is truly accidental in Foust's lyrics. If nothing is quite what it seems, the guardedness which characterizes our common skepticism could be expressed in ways that challenge official power. Like Armantrout's license with certified meaning, Foust's idiomatic trashings of established intercourse are like valient pitched campaigns against the inevitability of a pointless death. If you want to know me, you must accept me on the terms of my own resistance, my objections, whole and entire.


1. First quotation from "Rotterdam," and the next two from "Star Root"--two poems from the collection Stanzas For an Evening Out, Kensington, L Publications, 1977.

2. In browsing this poem on the net, I discovered in several instances that the poem was punctuated with a period at the end. This, I'm sure, is incorrect. The correct version has no period at the end.


J said...

The only critique/of paradise is paradise

Interesting, nearly...but izz "is" really a poetic term?? The anglo irregular for To Be rates as one of the fugliest sounds in the lexicon IMHE. Moreover, as with many in the miniatures school, this person offers grand generalizations that have little to do with political reality, even if clever or occasionally eloquent. Doesn't really capture Ellay either---think....Chandler writing of Santa ana winds, and moider....West's Day of the Locust....Kerouac in LA. Pynchon's fragmented spectacle ,or PK Dick. or even Bukowski however beastly

Poets are mostly cheats, Sir F. As with say Rabbi Olson---(in KO's case he doesn't just lie about literature but about what he takes to be politics and philosophy, along with his mysterious crony DeLater, sort of an Aynnie Rand on meth)

Anonymous said...

Foust has a new chapbook out from The Song Cave: