Monday, October 31, 2011

The Vampire Squid

My past turns inside out,
Closing in around me,
Seamlessly folding inward.
As from a great height
I see myself undulating
Backward, flat black, shiny red.

Inside my cobalt blind eye
Saturn, sweet gyroscope
With your tiny loving baby moons
In consort, reclines.

The great generators
Are humming under the earth.
Come to take me down
To the secret factories
Where the eggs, glistening & wet,
Are set out in beds of ooze.

Extinct taxa, phylogenetic relic,
I am named: vampyromorphida.
My blue blood, bioluminescent mucus.
My webbed arms raised in alarm.
In the wordless depths of
Endless pressure, I glow
In fear or anger, invaginate
In self-transforming introversion.

Great Mother, Amnios, save me
From this terrible dream of myself.
Doomed template, karmic code.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Through the Locks

are for rowing,
oars, ears are for donkeys,

baskets for weaving,

are for winding,
twisting in rope-

for weeping, scraping,

is for
breathing, blowing

is for cutting,

water for water,
what is for

rust is
red, raw,

is for horses,

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ten Commandments - An Alternative Version

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against Giles County School Board to force the removal of a display which included the Ten Commandments, and to place a ban on further display of biblical documents.

The travel writer and filmmaker Rick Steves recently reprised his hour long tour of Iran, noting particularly the theocratic domination of all daily life and institutions in that country by the Shiite Islamic faith. Divisions within the Islamic faith itself have led to chronic sectarian violence throughout the Middle East. Americans tend to view these issues in terms of their non-Christian character, but the underlying message clearly is that religion in politics and governance presents many insoluble problems. The Founding Fathers, though clearly Christian in persuasion and habit, understood the dangers of installing any specific faith in the ruling body, and built secular protections against this in our documents.

People of faith can always be counted upon to lobby for the installation of their particular religious doctrine in official institutions and public affairs. They see a purely "secular" governance as a threat to the moral/ethical foundations of their beliefs. This is true whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, Buddhist, Shinto or whatever. Though tending toward Christian traditions and doctrine, America has managed to keep government and religion separate over the last two and a quarter centuries.

In Christian doctrine, the Ten Commandments are translated roughly as follows:

1 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain (swearing).
4 Observe the sabbath (on Sunday).
5 Honor your father and mother.
6 Thou shalt not kill.
7 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8 Thou shalt not steal.
9 Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife or any of his property.

This list is astonishing in its brevity, its succinctness, and its confidence. Imagine summarizing the comprehensive moral imperative to daily living in so few words! It's an impressive achievement, even if you regard its separate commands as outworn, or ill-suited to our times.

Each of us, I'd wager, has his or her own set of commandments, which comprise an outline of our personal code of honor and behavior. As an exercise in application, I offer this set of alternative commandments, intended to improve the world as we know it, and to extend man's time on earth for a few more millennia--a potential which seems, these days, to be a rapidly shrinking possibility.

If I were making an itemized pyramid of prescription/proscription for humankind, these would be the priorities, in a descending order of importance:

1 Thou shalt not increase thy number beyond the capacity of the earth where thou dwellest.
2 Thou shalt not foul the earth, or the water, or the air that thou sharest with all of god's creatures.
3 Thou shalt not place thyself above any man (or woman), nor shall thee bow down before any other man (or woman) in wretched obeisance.
4 Thou shalt not enterprise the general commerce as a means to make thyself rich beyond purpose.
5 Thou shalt not betray thine oaths and allegiances to others by lying or giving false witness.
6 Thou shalt honor thy spouse, and support thy charges and obligations before all other commitments.
7 Thou shalt not do violence to others, except in defense of one's immediate security and safety.
8 Thou shalt labor to bring about peace and harmony among men, by whatever gentle means.
9 Thou shalt strive to live a virtuous life by example.
10 Thou shalt be tolerant of difference among thy fellows, and strive to encourage all men (and women) to thrive.

This list is biased towards the environmental priorities which seem uppermost in our consciousness these days. As we rapidly approach the precipice of total environmental degradation (on several fronts), our priorities appear clearer than ever. We're running headlong into disaster. If we don't (or can't) set our sights on manageable increase and use of resource, nature will solve the problem for us, by reducing our numbers drastically, and painfully, through mass starvation, disease or violent competition for dwindling sustenance. We all know what's needed. Only selfishness and laziness and complacence stand in our pathway. My ten commandments are designed to apply to our times.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Mars Expedition Photos - Anthropocentric Bias

The photos of the planet known as Mars from the Rover Mission (beginning in 2004) have provided us with detailed images of a place which men have been dreaming about for hundreds of years. The imaginative paradigm of the science fiction tendency has been to project human drama and visions upon alien contexts, sidestepping most of the major problems inherent in such possibilities. This is all innocent enough, unless considered from the point of view of how our attitudes about our immediate environment, and the lengths we might go to validate these fantasy visions, are affected by idle speculation.

Since the discovery of the "New World" and the spherical nature of the earth, humankind has been rapidly covering the planet with his kind, and exploiting her resources at an ever-increasing rate. Theorists in the environmental sciences have pointed out that our ecological ontology is based on a fallacy--that man is unconnected to his immediate environment (the earth), and that what he does carries no eventual significant risks with respect to the sustainability of our continued existence. They argue that the human race is part of a larger context--of a whole system of interactive, interdependent relationships, and that the disturbance of any part of this system has implications for all the other parts (of the whole).

What is humankind's destiny? We all tacitly accept the "inevitability" of man's increase, of his continued expansion over our planetary environment. It's regarded as our "birthright." But as large as the earth is, as vast as its resources may once have seemed, we now know that our ability to exploit them is efficient enough to upset many of the "balances" which have existed for millions of years, most of which, indeed, pre-date the development of homo sapiens as a distinct species. Our affect on the rest of the life on earth has been extensive, and profound. In just about three millennia, we have transformed the surface of the planet, driving many life forms into extinction, wiping out vast tracts of flora, and burning unprecedented stocks of oxides, fouling land, water and air in the process. It is commonly accepted that this process carries huge risks to our style of life, and could spell doom not just for us, but for much of the rest of the ecosphere.

Panoramic photo of Mars (click on the image to see it at larger scale)

But from a purely philosophical point of view, such visions contain assumptions about what humankind's place in the universe is, and should be. They're, in effect, all anthropocentric in their bases (or biases). From a purely rational point of view, everything we do is completely "natural"--there are no "natural" priorities. There's no law inherent in physics or environmental science which will deny the value of a "favorable" manipulation of our environment, as long as it does no permanent harm. But there is no such postulate that dictates that we support such a value, either. Morally, whatever we do on--or to--the planet we occupy is defensible, depending upon what value we place on it. If we place man at the center of the universe--an idea which was resisted for centuries, for instance, by the Catholic Church--we put the authority for deciding what is in our best interest ahead of any other consideration.

Environmentalists will argue that the laws that govern sustainability on earth are ultimately immutable, that no matter what lengths we go to to enhance our condition, we will come up against limits inherent in the biosphere. Nature itself shows us that balances achieved over time are much more persuasive, on the one hand, and fragile, on the other, than any technological interventions we might employ to alter or "improve" them. Our ability to exhaust resource, or to spew out waste, has been impressive over the last five hundred years.

In a crude sense, we have been entirely successful in facilitating our rapid increase and physical comforts through manipulation of the environment. But that success comes at an increasing price-tag. Science fiction writers (and, indeed, scientists themselves) have been imagining an expansion of man's "voyage" into the unknown as to some degree limitless, that as earth is gradually exhausted, we will venture out and explore, and colonize other planets in the solar system. Modern science tells us this is a pipe-dream, that the barriers to such extensions are far too great to be overcome, given the limits of our power over time, matter and distance. The scale of event in "outer space" dwarfs the human scale.

The first photographs of the Mars surface gave us an eerie sensation. They resembled nothing so much as the most barren places on earth--desert landscapes in which almost nothing could live, with little or no water, and as we know, no air to breathe, and temperature which would make any warm-blooded life form untenable. It was a confirmation of the folly of our science fiction dreams, that we might someday "colonize" Mars and conquer new worlds--in a real life version of Star Trek--"to go where no man has gone before."

The limits to interplanetary space travel, of a life beyond our immediate environment, are as real and determinative as the limits posed by the earth's biosphere. Reports about the earth's exploding population this week in the news, have underscored the concern which many feel about the crises coming just over the immediate horizon. We know that we can draw down the earth's resources of energy, water, space and air, as the frenzied hive of humanity devours them. But what is the point.

The Kaiser Medical Group tells us it wants everyone to "thrive." But does to thrive necessarily mean constantly to increase our numbers? If you wish to see what the effects of unbridled increase, accompanied by insufficient respect for requisite means to living, can lead to, go to Africa, to India, or to other parts of the poorest Third World lands.

In the imagination of humanists (anthropocentrists), mankind would endure, no matter what circumstances he found himself in. The first priority of any living thing is its ability to live, but the second has always been its ability to reproduce itself. Indeed, among some lower species (like insects), life only lasts long enough for mating to take place, before the death of the individual occurs--as if the only purpose to existence were to propagate. The life of any species--its numbers, its relative ease and duration--seems secondary to this primary tenet.

People are not insects, and our high brains have enabled us to conceive of, and to some extent realize, a different bargain with our environment than chance and the very slow adjustments of the Darwinian principle (evolution through mutation and incremental adjustments) would otherwise have permitted. But the laws which govern insect life are in principle the same that govern humankind. From an olympian perspective, humankind might indeed endure, as some kinds of insects (such as silverfish) are said to have, through the great upheavals of climate, asteroid impacts and other kinds of world-wide devastation. But the quality of such endurance is another matter.

The gargantuan irony of the cheesy science fiction pulp fantasy below--the vicarious imagination of some supernatural condition--sex in outer space!--is that our true destiny would always be our desire for sexual consummation. But sex itself now shows some signs of being rendered to some degree irrelevant. If sexual intercourse becomes unnecessary to conception, as in a very real sense it now is, then sex itself might become nothing more than a pleasant old-fashioned form of recreation. We're programmed--or, most people are--to mate and co-habit. But our higher intelligence may in the end find ways around even this most basic "instinct." The ultimate "sin" of humankind may be its ability to outsmart evolution and the limits of the biosphere. But in its present "transitional" state, there promises to be quite a bit of suffering and confusion. If the spaceman in the picture below takes off his space-helmet, will he suffocate for lack of oxygen? Is Eve seducing him into the most original of transgressions, or is she the ultimate evil spirit, intent upon his demise. Certain female spiders are said to murder and eat their mates immediately after consummation. Men--who needs'em?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Split Screen - Split Mind - Steve Reich's Piano Phase for Solo Performance

Here's a brief expedient meditation on Steve Reich's Piano Phase (for piano solo) [1967], played by Rob Kovacs in 2004. Reich is described as a "minimalist" composer, but this piece is considered to be "process music"--or the application of incremental variation between musical voices (voicings). You'll understand when you hear it.*


Fractal Dialogue

To process: If I begin speaking and you interrupt me there's a tension in which my continuing to talk "over" you disrupts the listening phase of your consciousness. You in turn are doing the same thing. Our brains are "trying" to hear what the other person is saying, but we're deliberately "tuning" the other side of the argument "out" because we want our side of the argument to prevail. A wind comes through an open window which we both feel as a slight "chill" on the hairs of our exposed arms. This distraction is minimalist. We're beginning to smile at the absurdity of our delight. It's a struggle of individual wills which depletes attention. Who's going to blink first? There's an open question which is like an open quotation . . . . Did you lose track of it? Did it fade into the abandoned chords of the argument? The joint acknowledgment is a celebration of the futility of human cooperation. Yet that's exactly what's going on. Bouncing ideas off an imaginary wall--like playing a part in a struggle with no fixed limits. A repeated figure could stand for a single person's characteristic "theme" played against another('s)--how they blend or augment into congruence then drift apart again. I was talking about a piece of music I'd heard. Like only paying half attention (when the roar overhead interrupted our exchange)--the thought got filed away and passed into deep background (memory).


* One useful analogue would be this Pendulum Wave ("The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjust so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations. When all 15 pendulums are started together, they quickly fall out of sync--their relative phases continuously change because of their different periods of oscillation. However, after 60 seconds they will all have executed an integral number of oscillations and be back in sync again at that instant, ready to repeat the dance.") The entropic decay of energy which was set into motion by the initial release (against the pull of gravity) is depleted at an exact rate of decline. It's a beautiful demonstration of mechanical deceleration.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wessel's World

Talk to me.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Actually, any picture is worth five thousand words, at least. Photographs may seem more specific, and less flamboyant than paint, which is difficult to apply, hard to control, and may take years to master to any serious degree. But what makes a photograph powerful is at least as hard to explain as what makes an effective painting. We want to take so much for granted with photography, perhaps not realizing that the phenomenal qualities of different kinds of photographic processes determines to a very large extent how we think about images made from light sensitive materials, and what they may tell us about our conception of the process of exposure--not simply in the technical (scientific) sense, but in the sense of what we think we see in those images--what they may tell us.

Henry Wessel has been able to build a body of work which lives on the edge of discomfort--visual discomfort. But it's a subtle kind of edginess, not the head-on, over-emphatic, sentimental exaggerations of most candid photo-journalism, or the heroic, hieratic imagery of monumental objectification inherited from the Wagnerian thrust of early Modernism. Wesssl's work starts out cool, something is happening, and you think you know what it is. There is an immediate, abiding emptiness and slackness of condition in his relaxed, California landscapes along the shoreline, or in the older suburban neighborhoods, which is initially open, but which on closer examination begins to seem less accidental, more specific, maybe even a little eerie.

I always think this man looks a little like Gerald Ford, for some reason--something about the squareness of the back of his head. In any case, the photograph seems peculiar, not just because the man is standing in a full business suit on a sandy beach, but because his specific posture seems more studied, and directed, than appropriate. The "nothing" which we know about the picture's narrative isn't clarified by anything within it, so we're left holding the metaphorical bag, as it were, of the photographer's intent. The relation between his right hand, and the fall of his seamed trousers creates a tension, but this tension is not related to anything within our frame of reference.

The reason things seem to fit in the world is that they exist within a context which has a history, or a future, and a presence which links them to that continuity in time. In Wessel's work, this linkage is removed, leaving things floating in a limbo of purposelessness which is both liberating and disquieting. And we like this unsettled quality. It seems to allow us to stare at objects with an abstracted calm and sensual ease which is vacated. There's a studied aspect to his images, which invites our participation, but which carries no message or overbearing weight. All of the care and tedious attention that go into making these hedges the perfect shapes they are, is made irrelevant by their removal from anything ulterior. They belong to what they represent, but they're not going anywhere. They don't do anything. It's a balanced static, perfectly at rest, organized and held in place.

When people appear in a Wessel picture, they're not related to our presence. They go about their business without any self-consciousness or shyness. In the work of Robert Adams, or Louis Baltz, the emptied-out architecture of tracts or bulldozed land or industrial detritus, carries a hard purpose: It's repulsive, summoning your indignation and sense of creepy autonomy--and technically razor-sharp (no blurriness, no failed vision); but in Wessel, we know there's no heavy moral purpose at work. There's a settled-ness, a moment divorced from implication and desire. As much as we may try to place the picture into a context with inertia or propulsion, they don't animate. They're stuck in time.

The accidental quality of reality, of the way things don't fit, is ironically evoked by the improbability of congruence. Three juniper bushes leaning in almost perfect symmetry doesn't heighten our sense of the inevitable. They're not this way to any purpose, to please us or delight us or confound us. They're just that way because of the way the wind blows. They're accidents that yield no other meaning.

The way things look from certain places in the city always suggests a randomness brought about by other intentions--so what we see, say, through a window on a certain floor, was never planned by anyone, except in a general sense. Architects like views, but most views are the residue of necessary choices, rather than the product of deliberate preference. And skylines are perpetually changing. The beauty, here, the layered perspective and counterpoint of massing and texture, is perfectly fitted into our gestalt of the moment. Yet we have no place to go with it. It's a toy of the mind. A giant interlocking puzzle of hopes and dreams and mistakes and confused material enjambments. And it's absolutely gorgeous.

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. But it also resists formal symmetry, at least of certain kinds. The chances, we say, of three palms lining up into a sensible arrangement is as unlikely as the chances of being dealt a royal flush. What we may call an aesthetically pleasing substitute for the deliberate symmetry of advance planning is the delight in finding one in nature, like finding a four-leaf clover. Four leaf clovers are an odds-makers delight: 1/10,000 !!

But post-Modernism has never been about symmetry. What most catches the jaded eye now is the unbalanced, the truncated, the lean, the distorted scaffold of expectation. The way things pull to their own stasis is often more compelling than what they were supposed to be, or do. Buildings and trees and animals escape from the barriers and pathways laid down to contain them. We will demarcate one precinct of the world as under the control of our resolve--a small one-bedroom bungalow, for instance--and spend the next 30 years watching it be transformed. But along the way, we live in it, we live on the ground--a founded-ness which is both reassuring, and an entrapment.

In the post-War years, the building boom caused an explosion in the construction of tidy, optimistic little places like this one. Its evident hygienic, peppermint, vanilla, trimmed simplicity is like a little space-ship to nowhere. This little house is unashamed, modest, careful, decent, but small-minded. It knows its place. It's not going anywhere, and it doesn't dream of leaving. It's happy just as it is, and that's usually how a Wessel photograph feels.

Monkeys have always been a favorite subject of photographers. In fact, animals in the zoo--no matter what kind--are as delightful to photograph as the people who come to look at them. The animals are looking at us, too, unless they've become so inured to their immediate surroundings that they've ceased to understand it the way they do when not captive. Wildness includes the ability to relate to one's changing environment: When it is fixed and hemmed-in, a certain irrelevance drops down like a curtain. I don't know what kind of animal lives in this cage, but that's rather beside the point. It's a house--not unlike some of the houses which Wessel has spent so much effort photographing elsewhere--but with the cyclone fencing surrounding it on all sides, it takes on new meaning. Metaphorically, Wessel may be telling us that the little house we live in, like the white one just above, is as locked and enclosing as a cage. And the slanted cyclone fencing may serve the same function as the curb of a sidewalk, separating the stepped layers of the public from the private. Wessel isn't an invasive artist--he's not looking to pull away exteriors, uniforms of the personal. But there's a vacancy, an emptiness which inhabits all his pictures. People wander in and out of them, but they're not important, except to themselves. And our curiosity in them is ephemeral--we don't really care what happens to them--that's not what it's about.

If there's a loneliness in Wessel's work, it's the isolation of the photographer, who's happy just to have the opportunity, the chance, to move through this quiet, unruffled, but slightly empty landscape of structures, forms, perspectives. There's an extinction of human sentiment in a picture like this one (below), in which the mated, identical queen beds in an empty bedroom, occupy a temporary place in the lives of . . . whom? They're like a scene from a Whitman Sampler.

The dance of human movement, of the flow of forms across the surface of the temporal, from one body to another, in a coordinated, choreographed ballet of variability and contingent impulse, is perfectly rendered, perfectly staged. As we move through Wessel's world, we stop and go, think, or stare idly out to sea, or across the street, or we cut diagonally across the mall parking-lot, mapping our errand, strategizing the quotidian. Wessel's world is one part of our world, and the two intersect. We can see ourselves here, but it's not our best moment. Most of our lives are composed of such segments, just going about our business, getting along, making do. Wessel owns this part; he's made it his domain.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jones Very Early & Late

LeRoi Jones's (Amiri Baraka's) career has been a lightning-rod for the plight of the marginalized Black African American Writer in America, for the last six decades. His biography reads like an improbable fictionalized cartoon of a man beset by a series of florid delusions, no one of which seems to fully account for his resentment, suspicion and violent hatred for American behavior and government policy, and he has repudiated or repented many of his radical positions over the years.

What are the implications of acting-out a sequence of intense criticisms, over a long life, spitting out vituperation and provocative sneers in an agon of impotent rage? For a man of his impressive intelligence and intuitive creativity, such behavior may seem like the romantic indulgence of wounded genius, and in much of his early poetry, this is precisely the stance that predominates. The persona of his early poems gives a very clear picture of a man committed to an honest expression of his dilemmas and preoccupations, in the years before his personal life had undergone the contorted dislocations which he himself would largely orchestrate.

Jones's first book, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . [with four dots, please, the ellipsis implying, in this case, that its author was going metaphorically to take his own life, or to exorcise some part of his own nature in the course of the writing] [New York: Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1961], was self-published (Totem Press was his concern). Jones's next collection, The Dead Lecturer [New York: Grove Press, 1964] is omitted from his Wikipedia entry, which would suggest that he's disowned it completely. But Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . probably still continues to count in his personal sense of literary identity, since it clearly enunciates many of the frustrations and indignations which would animate him for the rest of his life.

Reading Preface, now, fifty years after it was published, one is impressed not only by Jones's rhetorical flourishes and directness of address, but by his ability to convey the ambiguity of his plight as a Black Man making his way in the literary world of the dark post-War years when prejudice and marginalization of difference were at their height. Hypocrisy reigned everywhere in those days, particularly where it wasn't even acknowledged. Jones could see how the official accommodations open to him would neutralize the shame and guilt and rage he felt towards himself. This conflicted persona is the sub-text and subject of nearly all his early poems.

One Night Stand

(For Allen)*

We entered the city at noon! High bells. The radio on.
Some kind of Prokofieff; snaring the violent remains of the day
in sharp webs of dissonance.

We roared through the old gates. Iron doors hanging
all grey, with bricks mossed over and gone into chips
dogs walked through.

The river also roared. And what sun we had
disappeared into the water, or buried itself
in the badly pitched tents of the wounded soldiers.

There, also, at the river, blue steel hats glinted
on the sparse grass, and brown showed through
where the grass was trampled.

We came in, with our incredulousness, from the north.
On steely highways from the marble entrails of noon.
We had olives, and the green buds locked on our lutes.

Twisted albion-horns, rusted in warm rain, peasant carts,
loud black bond-servants dazed and out of their wool heads,
wild shrubs impecuniously sheltered along the concrete,

Rumble of the wheels over cobblestones. The green knocked out.
The old houses dusty seeming & old men watching us slyly
as we come in; all of us laughing too loud.

We are foreign seeming persons. Hats flopped so the sun
can't scald our beards; odd shoes, bags of books & chicken.
We have come a long way, & are uncertain which of the masks

is cool.


*Allen Ginsberg.

In seeking to sort out the options and opportunities for himself in the world of the American 1950's, Jones sounds a confused jumble of tendencies. At this point in his life, language is both a means to the liberation of his lyrical gift, and a perceived compromise. In a style that seems to owe much to Ginsberg and Duncan (and behind them, Whitman and Crane, perhaps even Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen), he sings with a seeming confident note of his own good-natured, but occasionally guarded, enthusiasm of his camaraderie with fellow (white) poets.

"We have come a long way, & are uncertain which of the masks/is cool." Were truer words ever spoken? The poems in Preface are like a cry of despair, of unresolved aspiration--to discover in himself, or his milieu, an adequate adjunct to the muse's diadem. Jones was still putting together the pieces of the mosaic of that record of Black Culture in America which had been bequeathed to him. For starters, he had Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, both conflicted de-facto Uncle Toms who had made their peace with White America, as exemplars. The Jazzmen were better heroes. They hadn't had to define themselves in terms borrowed from the slave-owners' archive. Jazz belonged to Negroes, to African American descendants; it was their music, appropriated by the White media culture, but still surviving intact, in an under-current of deep blue mystery, Louis & the Duke, Parker & Coltrane, Miles & Dizzy, Monk & Mingus.

The Bridge

(# for wieners & mcclure)

I have forgotten the head
of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2
bars, down the street, seeming
to wrap themselves around my fingers, the day,
screams in me; pitiful like a little girl
you sense will be dead before the winter
is over.

I can't see the bridge now, I've past
it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out
along the cold insensitive roads to what
we wanted to call "ourselves."
"How does the bridge go?" Even tho

you find yourself in its length
strung out along its breadth, waiting
for the cold sun to tear out your eyes. Enamoured
of its blues, spread out in the silk clubs of
this autumn tune. The changes are difficult, when
you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords

of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises.
Sifting in, down, upon your head, with the sun & the insects.

(Late feeling) Way down till it barely, after that rush of
wind & odor reflected from hills you have forgotten the color
when you touch the water, & it closes, slowly, around your head.

The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place,
you feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the
bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you,

(when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through
unmentionable black.

"The changes are difficult, when you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises. . .it is me, & I have forgotten, all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you, (when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through unmentionable black." The bridge here is a symbol in the way it had been for Crane, though for Jones/Baraka, it signifies a bridge to nowhere, or at least an unclear destination, fraught with uncertainty, and risk. Jones seems completely vulnerable in these lines, these poems, and that honesty and raw sensation is what makes them good. Rather than cauterizing his pain and presenting a hardened mask to the world at large, he throws out his cry of despair with unabashed candidness. "I've forgotten the head of where I am."

from Vice

. . .

Asked to be special, & alive in the mornings, if they are green
& I am still alive, (& green) hovering above all the things I
seem to want to be apart of (curious smells, the high-noon idea
of life . . . a crowded train station where they broadcast a slice,
just one green slice, of some glamourous person's life).
& I cant even isolate my pleasures. All the things I can talk about
mean nothing to me.

This is not rage. (I am not that beautiful!) Only immobile coughs
& gestures towards somethings I don't understand. If I were lucky
enough to still be an adolescent, I'd just attribute these weird
singings in my intestine to sex, & slink off merrily to mastur
bate. Mosaic of disorder I own but cannot recognize. A glass stare.

Resolution, for the quick thrust of epee, to force your opponent
cringing against the wall, not in anger, but unfettered happiness
while your lady is watching from the vined balcony, your triumph,

& years after, you stand in subways watching your invisible hand
bring the metal to bear again & again, when you are old & the lady,
(o, fond memories we hide in our money belts, & will not spend)
the lady, you young bandits who have not yet stolen your first purse

the lady will be dead.

And if you are along (if there is something in you so cruel)

You will wonder at the extravagance

of youth.

This is dramatic writing, with flexible elaborations and taut expedient poses. Jones teeters on the edge of a resolution, conceived in the terms of a (for him) pointless antinomy. How to achieve a meaningful and manly d├ętente with the prevailing power-structure, while subsisting in the daily stay of mortal execution. There are words for what he thinks to say, but will not say them. There are ways out, but the words are only placekeepers for his energy.

In Jones's work--especially the early poetry in Preface and The Dead Lecturer--you have the feeling of a man out of time, late to the party, too young, too old, too predictable, too strung out, too careful, too impulsive, too extreme. But it was precisely that degree of excess that he longed for, and in the ensuing decades would lead to the radical gestures of presumed commitment that would define him. He had to vanquish the tendencies in himself that felt wrong, but what he should put in their place was a question. He would be unable to resolve the contradictions between his art and his place in the world--to discover how one could serve the other, to enable him to make himself into a whole man. That has been Jones's tragic destiny.