Saturday, January 02, 2021

Le bateau ivre, part 2 by Karen Chamisso


 Mickey Mouse came to the new world

with his ancient paraphernalia

- a cauldron, a wand

boosted from the paleolithic.


The wilderness was full of strange forces

that Mickey could bind, but not understand.

Chop down all the trees, all of them

boil the Indians in the cauldron.


Around our tables we eat

good food, a peasant dream of calories.

Steamboat Willy takes the river down

to sell his slaves at all the river towns.


Will he ever be forgiven

for his innocence, that mouse?

He’s gone now. Died in a quagmire

of his own devising.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

My Emily Dickinson

 When I first started reading Emily Dickinson in high school in the 1970s, she seemed to be either a tame poet, good for holiday cards, or a morose poet of the kind satirized by Mark Twain in Huck Finn, Emmiline Grangerford, with her creepy sub-Poe fascination with funerals. She was the farthest thing from the wilder shore of Walt Whitman, I thought.

I read Dickinson as she was edited and domesticated, starting with her first posthumous editors, her brother’s lover, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It was only in the 60s that the wilder shore of Dickinson’s poetry started to emerge, beginning with the complete edition of her poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1960. Crucially, Johnson restored the dashes to the poems – which are to the poems what the axe was to Lizzie Borden. The dash, that punctuation interruptus, gave the poems back their sanguinary impulse. We could finally read Dickinson.
It is perhaps appropriate that it took one hundred years. I’ve been reading the Christane Miller edition(the poems “as Dickinson wrote them”) and the great book by Susan Howe – My Emily Dickinson. Howe’s book is in that rare vein of poet’s books – Williams In the American Grain, Zukofsky’s Apollinaire, Olson’s Melville – that shifts your vision. For Howe, Dickinson was the most radical poet of the 19th century. To make a comparison she doesn’t make – just as Georg Buchner seemed to invent the theater of the 1920s in the plays he wrote in the 1830s, so, too, Dickinson seems to have invented the lyric difficulty we associate with the poets of the end of modernism – poets as different as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich - around the time of the American civil war.
Howe adroitly inserts Jonathan Edwards into Dickinson’s intellectual background, and Emily Bronte as her true contemporary. One poet she doesn’t mention is Lord Byron.
Thomas Moore’s edition of Byron’s Letters and Journals was published in the U.S. in the 1840s. The letters were defanged, but the journals retained Byron’s characteristic skipping dash, for instance: “While you are under the influence of passions, you only feel, but cannot describe them, — any more than, when in action, you could turn round and tell the story to your next neighbour! When all is over, — all, all, and irrevocable, — trust to memory — she is then but too faithful.” Byron’s dashes, unlike Dickinson’s, have an aristocratic disdain for the mere plebe assemblies of rote classroom English. Dickinson, though, if she read Moore’s edition, would certainly have seen how they could work.
Of course, Dickinson was a pretty radical DIY type of poet, and may well have done without prompts. But I would love some genealogy of the dashes, on the lines of the way Guy Davenport, in his essay on Cummings in Every Force Evolves a Form, saw how Cummings saw the opportunity in the way Greek verses, as for instance Sapho’s, were published with scholarly apparatus in the Loeb Library editions.
"And when these early poems, none of which has survived entire but exist on torn, rotted, ratgnawn papyrus or parchment, are set in type for the modern student of Greek, such as Edward Estlin Cummings, Greek major at Harvard (1911-1916), the text is a frail scatter of lacunae, conjectures, brackets, and parentheses. They look, in fact, very like an E. E. Cummings poem. His eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses, and promiscuously embracing parentheses, can be traced to the scholarly trappings which a Greek poem wears on a textbook page. Cummings' playfulness in writing a word like "l(oo)k"-a pair of eyes looking from inside the word – must have been generated by the way scholars restore missing letters in botched texts, a Greek l[oo]k, where the 1 and k are legible on a papyrus, there's space for two letters between them, and an editor has inserted a conjectural
I think Dickinson unleashed is such a different spirit from Dickinson leashed that to read her poems in the normalized editions is not to see her at all. Compare:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

As compared to this:

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port, —
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
This is of course one of the famous poems. The referential strangeness – rowing in Eden? – is subdued, I’d claim, in the second version, just as the Wild Nights, a repetition that is divided by a repelling dash to create a sort of negative identity, is annealed in the double exclamation marks of the more conventional, the more romantic exclamation of the second version. The placement of the exclamation marks in the second version – and the erasure of the exclamation marks in the second stanza - seems, similarly, to take us to the stylistics of romantic poetry, rather than the asperities that Howe sees in the Puritan doctrine underneath the lines, asperities that tossing away the Chart makes more vivid.

I haven’t yet gotten to the point that I could say “my Emily Dickinson” – but Howe is definitely an aid.

Monday, December 28, 2020

On not wanting to be like X


There is an attitude that is at the base of great English comedy, from Twelfth Night to Wodehouse. It is the moment when judgment – moral or aesthetic – shifts to the register of competition. To judge that a thing is bad is a philosophical task, but in the novel of real life, we more often judge that a person is bad. We more often think, that is, about how we don’t want to be or function like X, and create a negative figure out of that moment of negative choice. Those are the figures, in essence, that we compete with. And often, the badness of the figure becomes stronger than the reasons we hold an act or a function to be bad. Out of this comes snobbery and wounded dignity. The latter emerges from the moment in which we are squeezed between the figure that represents ‘how we don’t want to be’ and something that upsets our judgment about how we don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a liberal academic, or a poser, or a fan of country music, or a supporter of  Donald Trump, etc., etc. translates into a satisfying comparison with liberal academics, posers, fans of country music, supporters of Donald Trump, etc. At least I am not X: This is the moral stance of the contemporary hero.

Sketching out this aspect of moral life, it points to a problem in the way sociologists mapping out our positive identifications as a primary property of the modern subject. That’s an idealistic stance. Dis-identification is just as important.

It might seem like the logical endpoint of “how we don’t want to be” is enmity. But the origin of the enemy is in combat, and there is always something mortal about enemies. You wish your enemies dead. Your enemies wish you dead. Whereas dis-identification is more about edging away from people, and the horror that it wishes to avoid most is: being surrounded by. Being surrounded by Republicans. Being surrounded by anti-war types. Being surrounded by lefties, righties, pinkos, rednecks, yahoos, jerkoffs, feminazis, dittoheads. Whatever. To be surrounded by cuts off the ability to edge away. Terrifyingly, to an outsider, one can be identified with the crowd of ‘how we don’t want to be.’

This is where English comic writers come in – where in French literature, the thousand meannesses of everyday life are treated as though they have a certain grandeur – think of Lisbeth’s revenge in Cousine Bette – since the French have a genius for enmity, in English writers, those meannesses are filtered through the comedy of wounded dignity or snobbery, since the English genius is for edging away. Dickens, of course, is the first writer who comes to mind.  In lesser novelists this comes out more directly.  E.F. Benson’s Mapp novels, for instance, all fasten delightfully on the town of Tilling, a sort of suburb for the aspiring, and here meanness, hypocrisy, invidious comparison and snobbery are very foundations of village life and the source of the thousand and one differences between a general mask of amiability and a sudden and brutal dislike lurking just below the surface, and most apt to emerge during a game of bridge. Tilling is a town of retirees, mostly, on limited incomes, but with high social standing. And of course it is picturesque, a tourist spot, and the perfect place to make the most of a limited income.

I should say that there is another English tradition that is closer to the French, and it extends from Ben Jonson to Evelyn Waugh. In this tradition, the humor of edging away is treated as a weakness, and the claws are on display. The perfect novel of this type is Waugh’s Handful of Dust, which ends, logically, with the savaging of Dickens. Waugh’s unapologetic snobbery was called “dark humor”, which simply means that it dispenses with the key ingredient of English humor, the comedy of edging away, for the comedy of the brutality of circumstances. One can’t imagine a Wodehouse novel featuring a man prisoner sawing off the head of a prison chaplain, as happens in Decline and Fall. Or Wodehouse giving a funerary send off, all piss Pater,  to one of that novel’s great characers, the teacher/scoundrel/pedophile, Grimes:

“But later, thinking things over as he ate peacefully, one by one, the oysters that had been provided as a 'relish' for his supper, Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr Prendergast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realized, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb. Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories—fire, brimstone and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel-swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters?

Sunday, December 27, 2020



Love come out, I said, and fight

I’ve got the gloves, I’ve learned the pace

- Honey child, I’ll uncork my right

And land you on your bitchass face.


The cutgal in my corner heart

Said, that bitch is for the taking

Follow my plan from the start

And we’ll see who’s faking.


Straight up, take her every blow

And bury it in your body.

And by round ten she’ll start to show

She’s grown old and flabby.


The bell went off:  I was fifteen

And then it  rang every year or so.

Although at thirty, in between

2 lovers, I almost fell to her strongest blow


And  almost lost it to an opened vein.

At last at forty, the strategy

Paid off. Tired, limping with pain

Love fell, leaving me on my mattress free.


I turned to bow to the cheering crowd

- but they had long left and the silence was loud.

- Karen Chamisso


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...