Category: Essays

Poetry and Memorability

Poetry and Memorability

Editor’s Note: Mark Irwin’s essay “Poetry & Memorability” originally appeared in The AWP Writer’s Chronicle: Volume 43, #3. Included in our reprinting is a short interview with Irwin, expanding upon and elucidating the argument below.

      “The artist’s task,” according to Kafka, “is to lead the isolated individual into the infinite life.” Certainly that would be an attribute to the memorable– but what else? In his essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger argues that art, in its origin, is a way in which truth comes into being. He says in essence that the function of art is “to push being out of forgetfulness.” For this notion he returns to the ancient Greek word “aletheia”: a (apart from) Lethe (the river of forgetfulness). In classical antiquity after people died they had to first cross the river of forgetfulness. According to Heidegger, art occurs in a phenomenal opening in which there is both concealing and revealing.

      The tension that occurs as the work of art comes into being might be best understood as mystery. Keats says in a letter to John Taylor that “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance.” W.S. Merwin on the other hand suggests that original poetry might be likened “to an unduplicatable resonance, something that would be like an echo except that it is repeating no sound” (Naked Poetry 271). Memorable works of art should seem finished to the eye, but unfinished to the mind and heart. Their closure, or lack of it, hopefully creates openings. This in fact echoes one of Kant’s criteria for the sublime: it is “to be found in a formless object,” or “by occasion of its boundlessness” which paradoxically makes its “totality more present to thought” (Kant 135).

      Mystery can be a form of vanishing, and vanishing brings things to life. A snake disappearing is often more memorable than one completely visible. In his painting Six Persimmons, the 13th century, Sung dynasty artist Mu Ch’I provides such mystery. Two central, dark persimmons are enclosed by two gray persimmons, which are finally bordered by two ghostly, partially formed globes. A testament to the stages of enlightenment, the more ghostly persimmons suggest that awakened, innocent state. Disappearance enlivens, and the vanishing is often a form we embrace.

Mu-Chi Six Persimmons

      Form and content are also obviously critical, but more likely than not, they are often used out of proportion: one overshadows the other. According to Frost, the form a poem makes is like “a piece of ice melting on a stove.” It “must ride on its own melting” (Frost 12). Form and content must use each other up completely. His comment suggests the uniqueness of form as it applies to its subject matter. This notion, however, of “using itself up” conjures something else, namely that a poem must be ultimately generous; it must give all of itself away as it marvels at the world. Perhaps this is why the work of art no longer seems to belong to the artist once it enters the public domain.

      Rhythm and meter can certainly make a work memorable, but too often they are appropriated, or plugged in rather than arising naturally from content, but when used in the latter sense they can “suspend the moment of contemplation,” as Yeats suggested, while they also allow visualization to rapidly congeal, whether the occasion be comic or tragic.

      Here is D.A. Powell’s “[who won’t praise green. each minute to caress each minute blade of spring. green slice us open].” Since Powell’s lines are extremely long, a note of clarification is critical. The poem runs four lines: two couplets in which the title is repeated as the first line; the title, however, is enclosed in brackets.

who won’t praise green. each minute to caress each minute blade of spring. green slice
          us open
spew of willow crotch: we float upward a whirling chaff. sunlight sings in us some glad

when we are called we are called ephemera. palpitating length of a psalm. who isn’t
          halfway gone
fatherless and childless: not a who will know us. dazzled afternoon won’t we widow
          ourselves away (Powell 36)

      This somewhat anonymous panegyric is all the more haunting through its psalmic repetition and a readiness to continue slowed by caesura: both natural pauses within the line and those punctuated primarily by the period and semicolon. The poem’s lyricism, wants to elide the periods, but forcibly stopped, conjures a paradoxical tone that reinforces the poem’s theme: the ephemeral nature of life, ever more so as it is sexually propelled (“spew of willow crotch”), but resonantly tragic here, since its author is HIV positive.

      The couplets suggest couples, just as the italicized “glad morning” teases us with its suppressed homonym “mourning.” The denied anaphora of “minute” (time) to “minute” (small), a trochaic to an iambic stress, gives a sense of cutting or clipping away at the vegetal world: “green slice us open.” In addition, just as the lyricism wishes to elide its caesuras, the poem’s end words, with the exception of the last, seem to stop but can also be read as continuous and thus provide more multiple meanings, especially between stanzas one and two, since the run on might imply “called home” in a religious sense, one of several sacred moments that are undermined by the notion of vegetal and bodily demise. The phrase “who isn’t halfway gone / fatherless and childless” heightens the tragedy of procreation, one in which the “who” is later and ghostily diminished in “know,” for gnosis (knowledge) was a too-late protection for the AIDS tragedy. The poem’s phrase “dazzled afternoon” heightens the male tragedy via the pregnant/ protective sense of the vegetal/mater/female world. The “who” and “know” of that line are sonically lost in the word “widow.”

      The psalmic tone, “who won’t praise green” is reminiscent of lines from Ecclesiastes and 1st Peter, “For all flesh is as grass,” many of which Brahms used in his German Requiem, however in Powell’s poem, the purposeful lowercase adds both a lightness and deep humility. Referencing “a song of mayflies” as subtitle reinforces both profane and sacred notions since the mayfly lives a protracted six to seven years in the larval, aquatic stage, one in which it dwells in stream bottoms before rising to the surface as a winged insect for one day. It then mates—often in several hours– then dies: “dazzled afternoon.” The use of brackets enclosing the title, along with a tight syllabic count of 21/22 and 25/24, often employing a series of monosyllabic stressed words struggling to rise as it were from the text, reinforces a notion of spirit separating from body.

      In the third section of Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances,” a series of sonnets, the speaker recalls (while the priest is administering last rites to his mother) an earlier scene in which he and his mother are peeling potatoes “Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.” The memory in the final sestet tempers the notion of death and allows the routine of peeling to become transcendent and more of a sacramental ritual than anything the priest might perform.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives. (Heaney 29)

      The juxtaposition of the forceful and clumsy (“hammer and tongs at the prayers”) with the more “fluent” and subtle (peeling potatoes together) is astounding because the fluency of “breath” and “knives” is both one of continuing and ending respectively, just as the potato, an underground root, is an image of death but also one of budding and regeneration. The more regular iambic pentameter of the penultimate line, suddenly broken with two trochees beginning the final line, reinforces a visual paradox with sound, for “her breath in mine” becomes one reversed from maternity: my breath in hers. “Never closer the whole rest of our lives” suddenly becomes imminently tragic, for little remains of her life. The sonoral aspect of the last line, as it struggles back towards iambic pentameter, implies a painful wishing to continue. Form and content use each other up completely.

      In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov notes that distinguished literature often presents its material in a tripartite sequence: magic, story, lesson. He supports this notion with examples from Kafka, Proust, Flaubert, among others. What he stresses, however, is the incantatory, magical opening that immediately entrances the reader. Nabokov’s formula seems certainly applicable to the other arts, especially poetry, for what is magic without immediacy and also an inevitability of the subject matter. Many poems exhibit immediacy, but very few present inevitability, a sort of “had-to-have-been-written quality.” Dickinson’s #465, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” and Mandelstam’s #393, “Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me, / Their strength is crumbling but they never miss,” certainly both exhibit this quality, and interestingly enough they both bear numbers instead of titles, as if their rush to existence precluded them.

      Myth, another aspect of memorability, often arises from inevitable actions that rely on magic. One recalls Orpheus’ descent into the underworld after his loss of Eurydice, and Pluto’s’ dictum that the poet would be allowed to take his bride, but “as he led her up / From where Avernus sank into a valley, / He must not turn his head to look behind him” (Ovid 274). Of course he does and loses her to shadow, here in keeping with the dreamlike character of myth, for Joseph Campbell tells us that “Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths.” Orpheus’ elegiac poems were supposedly so powerful that when he recited them the trees would bow down and the rocks move.

      Or one might recall the story of Actaeon, also from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where the hunter glimpses Diana, naked, bathing. As he continues to stare, Diana sees and splashes him. The hunter begins running away with his hounds but the water transforms him into a deer and he is devoured by his own dogs. The dream or nightmare often hinges on some divine wish or moral neglect, while the rite or ritual is forcefully present but its source is often mysterious and open-ended. We find this in Jean Valentine’s powerful “Door in the Mountain,” also the title of her New and Collected Poems.

Door in the Mountain

Never ran this hard through the valley
never ate so many stars

I was carrying a dead deer
tied onto my neck and shoulders

deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest

People are not wanting
to let me in

Door in the mountain
let me in (Valentine 25)

      Valentine’s wonderful myth seems to fulfill Nabokov’s observation of magic, story, lesson, the third aspect of which is wonderfully mysterious and open-ended. The first couplet begins in medias res and entrances the reader while opening up the domain of possibility through the repetition of “Never,” a negative qualification that will find positive and mystical fulfillment at the poem’s end. Story, or narrative, is introduced in the second couplet, though we’re not completely sure why the speaker is carrying the deer, other than in some rite of compassion. The third couplet

deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest

recalls the totemic quality of various American Indian dances involving deer hides worn in thankfulness of the hunt, yet here the moral implication seems to be one in which rescue and mourning become a divine rite of returning to a sacred origin. I say “moral”
because of the haunting fourth couplet.

People are not wanting
to let me in

      The breaking of this code or conduct involves a divine or originary plea, one that seems to reach back to the Godhead and allows the voice, its urgency and inevitability, to travel a great distance to the page.

Door in the mountain
let me in

The poem with its plea to the mountain, an archetypal threshold of divinity, is imbued with a deep and unorthodox religious aspect, one fundamentally hopeful in its very impossibility: that humans might not destroy the scared world from which they sprang. The poem is a metaphysical Yes swirling within a vulgar world of No.

      Yet what role does beauty play? Certainly it is part of magic. Perhaps the fact that beauty is useless in a practical sense provides its necessity. It is purely aesthetic, without materiality or objective, such that it seems apart from this world. Often, however, beauty can be purposefully not beautiful. –Perhaps because its beauty lies in the future? This is certainly the case with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Stairs, in which the beauty of the machine becomes that of the body, something earlier resisted in the Industrial Revolution. Nude Descending the Stairs is the plurality of machine-motion stilled, and in that stalling it is a future beauty dressing the human form.

      Certainly then, originality is part of the memorable. A work of art should be new, fresh, but not merely for the sake of newness, where much art loses its magic. The original must rise naturally out of its subject and the artist’s vision. This was equally true for Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Stairs in his time as it is for Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces in our time, a piece in which the hint of random violence and uncertainty today seems tantamount to the threat which the machine posed in Duchamp’s era. These pieces offer impact and resonance; both seem necessary for the memorable. Impact can be fleeting in a work of art, but resonance is more difficult to attain. Both works are also “anxious & tentative,” two terms which Peter Schjeldahl, a contemporary art critic, finds to be often synonymous with the memorable.

      Originality then involves a high risk of the self: the more of the self risked, the greater the possibility of its power. Risking the self means following the work where it wants to go, rather than trying to impose some order, for this engenders surprise, or as Emerson would have it: Mount to paradise by the ladder of surprise.

      In “On Art,” a piece written near the end of his life, Tolstoy argued that enduring art fulfilled three of several other qualities:

1. That the new idea, the content of the work, should be of importance to all people.
2. That this content should be expressed so clearly that people may understand it.
3. That what incites the author to work at his production should be an inner need and not an external inducement. (Tolstoy 54)

Tolstoy then continues to illustrate how art can fail through various and flawed combinations of these notions.

Thus among young artists heartfelt sincerity chiefly prevails, coupled with insignificance of content and more or less beauty of form. Among older artists, on the contrary, the importance of the content often predominates over beauty of form and sincerity. Among laborious artists beauty of form predominates over content and sincerity. (Tolstoy 57)

He finally argues that the work, arising from some inner doubt, “should create a new and clear impression of reality” in poetry and the other arts. Perhaps what we should ask, however, is how many of them are new and clear?

      There are certain crises of our age that must be revealed, revisioned in a new dialect just as Duchamp revisioned the Industrial Era. In Ross Bleckner’s series of paintings, Architecture of the Sky, (1990–93), points of light are abscessed such that they resemble stars pouring from a constellation or the scintillate lights of a chandelier, but there is something odd in each canvas, as if an opaque shadow resided in each wrought point of light. In the catalogue, we later find that Bleckner based the patterns on Kaposi syndrome, a type of skin sarcoma found in AIDS patients.

      –Magic, story, lesson, and beauty tempered by a new sublime. Is it still possible?– Risk of the self pushing toward veiled truths. –Impact and resonance. In Jorie Graham’s “The Swarm,” the speaker (presumably in Italy) tries to capture the sound of vesper bells on a telephone so that a lover across the ocean might hear them. The title, taken from near the poem’s end, echoes The Aeneid (and the diasporic founding of Rome) through a technological swarm of beauty: church bells, their possibility and impossibility as information being sent through the transatlantic cable. The transformation of an entomological image (bees swarming from a damaged hive) to a religious, then finally a technological one (swarm of bell sounds), is a startling metaphor for the translation of beauty in a high tech age.

–the plastic cooling now—this tiny geometric swarm of
openings sending to you

no parts of me you’ve touched, no places where you’ve
gone—(Graham 57)

Here, transmitters of the sacred—church bells—are profoundly transposed yet survive as testament to a sublime in which the boundlessness and impossibility of an act makes it all the more “totally present to thought” (Kant 135). Here are the poem’s first five stanzas.

I wanted you to listen to the bells,
holding the phone out the one small window
to where I thought
the ringing was—

Vespers scavenging the evening air,
headset fisted against the huge dissolving

where I stare at the tiny holes in the receiver’s transatlantic opening
to see evening-light and then churchbells

send their regrets, slithering, in—
in there a white flame charged with duplication—
I had you try to listen, bending down into the mouthpiece to whisper, hard,

can you hear them (two petals fall and then the is wholly
changed) (yes) (and then another yes like a vertebrate enchaining)
yes yes yes yes (58)

      Language is made new and ravenous through its subject matter and how it is verbalized: “scavenging, slithering, charged,” etc. “Vespers” scavenge “the evening air,” while beauty is precariously transformed, revisioned, and made possible through a kind of technological swarm and diaspora of broken-down then recoded information. A new, troubling image of the Godhead is vested in the seeming, futile effort to salvage it: “headset fisted against the huge dissolving” until the affirmation triumphs over technology—the first feeble “(yes)”, then a series of them “yes yes yes yes” until the tentatives link and evolve, and the sound not only survives the chaos of ocean, but engenders a new species as the vertebrates enchain. Passion survives reason, technology distorting sound, our lives: “the white flame charged with duplication—.” The vision of the work forces us to change our own vision, or as Rilke suggests at the end of his “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “You must change your life.”

Memorable works of art seem to choose us; we do not choose them.

Editor’s Note: See our interview with Irwin, “Four Questions on Memorability,” also included in this issue, expanding upon and elucidating the argument below.

Works Cited

Berg, Stephen and Mezey, Robert. Naked Poetry. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Frost, Robert. Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Cox & Lathem. NY: Henry Holt, 1967.

Graham, Jorie. The Swarm. New York: Ecco Press, 2000.

Heaney, Seamus. The Haw Lantern. New York: Farrar Straus, 1989.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Random House, 1972.

Kafka, Franz. Diaries 1914-1923. Trans. Max Brod. NY: Shocken Books, 1976.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. J.C. Meredith. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. London: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mu-Ch’I. Six Persimmons.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Horace Gregory. NY: Viking Pres, 1958.

Powell, D. A.. Tea. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Tolstoi, Leo. What is Art? Trans. Aylmer Maude. NY: William Morrow, 1898.

Valentine, Jean. Door in the Mountain: New & Collected Poems 1965-2003. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

“No discernible emotion and no discernible lack of emotion”: On Tao Lin

“No discernible emotion and no discernible lack of emotion”: On Tao Lin

The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.
       -Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

i have moved beyond meaninglessness, far beyond meaninglessness
to something positive, life-affirming, and potentially best-selling
       -Tao Lin, “today is tuesday; email me on saturday”

With his two collections of poetry, you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006) and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Melville House, 2008), Tao Lin has provoked violently oppositional responses from his readers. John Gallaher argues that you are a little bit happier than i am “almost means something, then demands that it means nothing,” but that the feeling of an actual person “wanting and not wanting to be there, who couldn’t care less and is craving for attention” is what makes it “such an interesting book” (“Tao Lin” para. 1). To offer even greater praise, K. Silem Mohammed claims that it “may be the greatest book of poems ever written” (“Tao Lin” paras. 1, 5). Simon DeDeo, by contrast, begins his review of one of Lin’s poems by applauding certain aspects of what he sees as a new aesthetic: “a raw, associative kind of work that is struggling to lift poetry up out of…pretentious italics and historical references and put it back into some kind of living, breathing form,” but complains that this comes at a price: the tone that emerges is one that embraces a “macho, masculine, fuck you, attitude that is not only posturing, and not only aware of its posturing, but also smugly aware of its awareness of its posturing. In other words, it fails” (paras. 4, 5).

So what is it about Lin’s writing that provokes such extreme praise and vitriol? The feature that seems to draw attention in reviews is the tone expressed in the work. One reader claims that “Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play” which gives the poems “a tone of totalitarian sincerity” (Young, “you are a little bit” paras. 4, 7). This style, called by some “The New Childishness,”v has garnered attention for being at the forefront of a manner of writing that valorizes innocence or naiveté. Elisa Gabbert, for example, identifies this mode as “a ‘cultivated artful artlessness’ in tone employed by artists like Tao Lin, Joanna Newsom and Dorothea Lasky…this childish tone can be employed to great dramatic effect—creating ‘insta-intensity’…[and] tends to inspire love-it-or-hate-it reactions in people” (“If you don’t secure…” para.1). Gabbert argues that this mode might actually be a means of defending oneself against critique: “I’ve sung the praises of Lin and Lasky here before…[but] there’s something preemptively defensive about this Innocent mode—as though by announcing upfront one’s vulnerability, one could become invulnerable. As in, Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid” (para. 2). This characterization seems to recall DeDeo’s complaint about Lin’s allegedly “masculine, fuck you, attitude” as well. What this ends up looking like (although the above statements are all clearly responses to the work rather than examples of it) is an aesthetics of posture and stylization rather than authentic emotional expression; indeed, the antithesis of sincerity.

If the responses to Lin’s work are, more often than not, responses to a certain tone, it is important to understand what sort of tone this is, why it is being mobilized, and to what end. In a 2007 blog posting, Conn O’Brien describes a type of writing that corresponds closely to what seems to be happening in Lin’s poetry:

[T]here are two main styles in which a person can write—one is overtly emotional, while the other is neutral (or “dead-pan”). Here is the difference between the two styles: if an emotional writer wants to write about a sunset, they will say something like, “Conn’s face was bathed in the deep, dynamically-shifting fiery glow of the life-giving, untouchable solar body, as, all the while, the northern wind caressed his skin.” [B]ut a neutral writer would say something more like, “the earth rotated so that the sun was no longer visible to Conn.” The difference is that the emotional writer continuously makes moral and qualitative judgments about what they are describing, whereas the neutral writer only expresses what actually happens, without including their own judgments. (“Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit” paras. 1-3)

According to O’Brien, neutral literature or “dead-pan” writing is committed to representing the objective actuality of event rather than the subjective interpretation of that event. The essential difference between the two for O’Brien is a difference of value judgments: the neutral writer refrains from imposing his or her interpretation of value on the object or event that is being expressed, which in itself could be considered an act of assigning value to one’s own practice.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy defines itself by adopting what appears to be this neutral tone. However, Lin tests the limits of this method by deploying it to describe what could only be construed as emotional events, as in “eleven page poem, page one”:

i looked away from the computer with a slight feeling
of out-of-control anger; i saw you wearing a coffee-colored star-suit
there was a barely perceptible feeling on my face
that i was being crushed by the shit of the world
then i saw beyond the window to the tree, the house, and the street
the house and the street made mysterious binary noises
that negatively affected the tree’s immense happiness
i observed this neutrally, without falling out of my chair (17)

Rather than sketching a situation in which a speaker feels “out-of-control anger” and then responds to this anger aesthetically (i.e., writing it out), Lin chooses to sever the connection between the emotion and the supposed response to that emotion: the speaker considers his anger, wears the feeling externally (on his face), and though he views his surroundings as taking part in a larger scheme of oppositional forces (“binary noises,” happiness, anger), he observes—rather than reacts to—these events “neutrally,” without allowing them to affect either his demeanor or his account of them. This neutral tone is similarly employed in “fourteen of twenty-four”:

‘i don’t know anything’ is an irrational
and melodramatic pattern of thought
most emotional and behavioral responses are learned
while answering emails, according to empirical science
that was the day my philosophy
created between us ‘an enormous distance’
which i think we both knew was uncrossable
but looking at it was therapeutic
so i put quotation marks around it
in our time of suffering my poetry will remain calm
and indifferent—something to look forward to (91)

The speaker in both of these poems acknowledges his emotions (“out-of-control anger,” “suffering”) but chooses not to express them. Rather, he expresses the event of not responding to them, of choosing neutrality through, for example, direct observation of oneself (“without falling out of my chair”) or by deliberately calling attention to language usage (“i put quotation marks around it”). Moreover, the “voice” is flattened out in both of these instances, in part as a result of avoiding punctuation. Rather than helping the reader interpret “intention” or mood by offering linguistic signposts—exclamation points, question marks, periods to indicate syntax breaks—Lin chooses to leave off these directives.

This technique of omission is one of the ways in which Lin repeatedly presents us with overtly emotional scenes but refuses to present us with his feelings about these emotions; it is a paradoxical formulation of extreme emotional states expressed neutrally. His project seems to be to reveal himself to the reader, to show the reader the materials that make up his world and the thoughts that create that world, but to do so in such a way as to fail to dictate how the reader should feel about or respond to that world. His aesthetic question is how to render emotional extremes with the least possible amount of

In an interview with 3 A.M. Magazine, Lin discusses this technique. He chooses, even here, to distance himself from his own claims: “The tone I currently am writing in…is ‘neutral’ I think. I am writing it like a journalism thing maybe…‘severely detached’” (para. 21). And in the notes to you are a little bit happier than i am he writes:

you are a little bit happier than i am is I think a non-fiction poetry book. The narrator is myself, “Tao Lin.” I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings, loneliness, meaninglessness, death, limited-time, and the arbitrary nature of existence, maybe. (“Book Notes” para. 3)

There are two separate techniques being used here to, on the one hand, distance Lin from himself as the agent of actions and feelings depicted in the poem, and on the other, maintain a neutral tone in their depiction. The first technique involves the overt use of scare quotes, which calls attention to words and phrases as linguistic units or ideas rather than as given facts (“The tone I currently am writing in is ‘neutral’; ‘severely detached’”). He does this with his own name (“Tao Lin”), as if he is refusing to own the poem or commit himself absolutely to the role of author. By creating aesthetic distance of this kind, Lin avoids having to fully bind himself to any claim he might make in his poetry. These gestures are ultimately protective in nature, and recall Elisa Gabbert’s notion of “The New Childishness” as a way of defending oneself against critique (“Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid”). This resistance of one’s own authority reveals a strong ambivalence toward the idea of asserting any kind of absolute power over creative work in the face of what’s perceived as diminishing aesthetic resources.

The second technique involves the constant qualification of statements. He tends to make assertions (“I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings”), then undercut them by qualifying their accuracy (“maybe”), thereby destabilizing his own authority. This is evident in “that night with the green sky”:

it was snowing and you were kind of beautiful
we were in the city and every time i looked up
someone was leaning out a window, staring at me
i could tell you liked me a lot or maybe even loved me
but you kept walking at this strange speed
you kept going in angles and it confused me

and that hurts
why did you want me gone?
that hurts

i don’t know
some things can’t be explained, i guess
the sky, for example, was green that night (you are a little bit 9)

This poem refuses to commit absolutely to any particular claim. The speaker thinks the auditor is “kind of” beautiful, thinks “maybe” that she loves him or that “maybe” she was trying to ditch him, then moves into a set of repetitive questions (“why?”), and ends inconclusively, almost helplessly (“some things can’t be explained, i guess”). This qualifying diction is characteristic of the book as a whole, and as these vague phrases accumulate, we begin to form an idea about what sort of a project this is: Lin oscillates between assertions of truth and undercutting or negating those truths. Ultimately, this avoids absolute identification with any statement and widens the gap between the speaking subject and his material.

The oscillation between making and dissolving propositions, as well as the use of authorial diminishment as an aesthetic technique, ultimately reveals a defensive stance toward literary authority in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. However, Lin pushes this skepticism to its limits by rejecting his own power through particularly deflating linguistic choices. His commitment to both flat neutrality and emotional expression causes a rupture in the text, and the strain between the detached and the expressive is a defining feature of his work. When Lin’s content—failure of communication, of relationships, of social and commercial recognition—is coupled with his clashing techniques, the result is a body of poems that refuse to perform “successfully.” They intentionally resist notions of what counts as “serious” writing,vii asking us to consider what the official criterion of success is, or should be.

Lin’s work is also stripped of formal self-consciousness. Many poems leave in traces of the revision process, which turns the poems, in some cases, into the unselfconscious divulgence of the labor of poetry. In “my brother is vacationing on a mountain with his girlfriend and i found out from my dad,” Lin’s revision process is visible:

i am really happy and this is the truth
do you believe me
you don’t believe me
but i am
it is 1:10 a.m. and i am alone in my brother’s studio apartment and i just grinned
(it is 2:24 a.m. inside of this parenthetical and i am doing revisions on this poem and i am not that happy anymore but thirsty; but not thirsty enough to go and drink something) (you are a little bit 85)

The act of reading this poem seems almost voyeuristic. We are made privy to the parts of writing and revision that typically occur outside of the space of the “finished product”; but rather than erasing the evidence of process, Lin has chosen to incorporate it within the product, which gives this poem a temporal aspect beyond merely the act of reading. It is difficult to tell, though, whether or not this can be considered an act of choosing what to include or simply an act of avoiding having to make a choice.

While one could think about the above practice as essentially authentic, in that it reveals a commitment to exposing the messiness of craft, some elements of Lin’s aesthetic produce critiques focused on his poems’ lack of authenticity. In a scathing review of the poem “i’m tired,”viii Simon DeDeo claims that by using simple syntactical constructions and childlike diction, Lin is refusing to “directly confront the self: the articulate self” (“Tao Lin…”). But rather than imagining that the employment of such techniques produces a poetry of greater authenticity through embracing a regressive or childlike tone, DeDeo thinks it produces a poetry that’s ultimately insincere:

Tao’s verbal device—apart from the occasional apostrophe to the Pulitzer Prize or a snippet of telegraph-speak—is to ventriloquise the spoiled child, cursing and wailing alternately. It’s a ridiculous performance…there is nothing here but raw, embarrassing id—and, again, the ego looking down at it. And, again, the ego taking sideways glances at itself looking down. (para. 11)

Where some readers see Lin’s unselfconscious divulgences of interiority as signposts for an actual speaker, DeDeo sees the regression into childlike language as ultimately disingenuous.

In Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure,” we can see this sort of rejection as an instance of what the essay forecasts:

Critics…cannot often tell the difference between the incompetence of an old poetics and the virtuosities of a new poetics. Since the avant-garde relies upon subversive strategies of asyntactic, if not asemantic, expression, such writing often seems to resemble the nonsense produced by either the unskilled or the illiterate, camouflaging itself in the lousy style of the ingénue in order to showcase the creative potential of a technique that less liberal critics might otherwise dismiss as a fatal error…Even though such critics refuse to see the merits of, what must appear to be, a completely capricious act of wilfull [sic] failure, the avant-garde nevertheless insists that, by abusing the most fashionable instruments of great style, the poet can in turn highlight a new set of virtuosities that have, so far, gone unconsidered, if not unappreciated…What constitutes the precondition for failure in one style now becomes the prerequisite for success in another style. What we define as a mistake to be avoided is almost always the foresworn direction for some other more revolutionary investigation. (Part 3, para. 2)

What is at stake here is a longstanding question—how we can determine whether something is art or not—and more specifically, whether “bad” techniques can serve to revitalize stagnant art. These are questions that have been asked at least since the twentieth century was confronted with Dada and surrealism and later, conceptual art.ix The idea that the avant-garde is responsible for pushing the limits of what can be considered art comes with a risk, when the question of definition—what makes something art?—seems necessary to ask of those art objects that clearly do not seem to be performing in the ways we think they should perform. What I think is notable about this particular situation involving Lin and others is both its mode (childish discourse, sentimentality) and its motive or object of resistance (Language poetry and its second-generation adherents, the “post-avant”x ). But the desire to create art that deliberately fails by certain standards means that it intends to succeed by others. Lin describes you are a little bit happier than i am by saying:

If my book’s creation was explained as a theme park’s creation I would be building it and then I would build it wrong but the roller coaster materials would already be ordered and then it would have to be built or delayed 3-5 years and I would feel a lot of despair most of the time. When it was finished I would just want to sell the theme park to someone else, but I would think about one part of the theme park a lot, like the fish pond, and feel okay. It was really “a terrible process of despair” or something not unlike being in a relationship and like fighting a lot at night and “needing resolution” before going to sleep. I’m not really sure if this is all true. (Butler, “Tao Lin in Interview” para. 13)xi

What we feel here is a sense of exhaustion, not just with the postmodern or aesthetic possibility, but with the writing process itself, and once again, Lin deliberately weakens his claims by deflating them (“I’m not really sure if this is all true”). What has been expressed and described is immediately dissolved by its own qualification, and as a result, the art that Lin has been in the process of constructing is simultaneously obliterated as well.

Near the end of his essay on the “Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland poses a hypothesis concerning why younger post-avant poets seem to be drawn to a “skittery” mode that resists narrative coherence. The language Hoagland uses echoes the way Elisa Gabbert details the phenomenon of “The New Childishness,” whereby the poet assumes the stance of a child and gains power through a kind of naïve rebellion against a vague power, and Hoagland attempts to explain why this style is particularly prominent now:

We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous…We allow “experts” and “leaders” to make decisions for us because we already possess more data than we can manage…Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like—and is—an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. (“Fear of Narrative” 186)

The techniques of “failure” that Lin and others employ seem to reveal this “passive-aggressive… relation to meaning itself” in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. Hoagland’s characterization is striking in its acknowledgment of the Language poets as the original rebels-without-a-cause: and indeed, the acts of resistance that Language poets chose to perform mirror somewhat the acts of defiance we are seeing in this newly “sincere” aesthetic. However, the ways in which Lin and others go about undermining “meaning” or conforming to “a grammar of experience” include the deliberate appropriation of sentimental gestures and, in some cases, indirect rejection of post-avant techniques. Lin’s poetry moves against this contemporary thrust by risking explicit self-expression and forms of knowledge through privileging modes of discourse that are essentially sentimental at their core. When these techniques are coupled with a “failed” content, Lin refuses the possibilities of the “successful” poem and instead embraces a poetics defined by its own failure.

In a dialogue with Georges Duthuit, Samuel Beckett claims that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail”; that “all that is required…is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation” (125). By Beckett’s standard, what is required of an artist is that he make aesthetic failure productive of more than itself, to make “a new occasion” as a result of aesthetic obligation. The artist, both unable to make art and obliged to do so, perpetually exists in a sphere of impotentiality; but rather than shutting down the possibilities for art, a “new term of relation” is necessary. That new term seems to be emerging in the work of these writers.


i Burt, Stephen. “Sestina!, or, The Fate of the Idea of Form.” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 218-41. Here Burt notes a “miniboom” of poets writing sestinas, and claims they are drawn to the strict form as a way “to lament their diminished or foreclosed hopes for their art” (220). This form in particular is attractive, Burt writes, because its repetitive structure enables descriptions of “sorts of futility,” “the uselessness of verbal craft” or “art’s failure to find further use” (223-226). See also Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” (American Literature, 2004), in which he argues that “post-Language” poets are faced with the unique difficulty of writing “from within the presumption of totality” (599). This work “recognizes that even its awareness of the obsolescence of its materials, as a literary strategy, is obsolete” (597). See also Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure” (Poetry Foundation blog, 2007) in which he discusses the “doomed labour” of poetry (Part 1, para. 1).

ii Bök, “Writing and Failure” (ibid).

iii Beckett, Samuel. “Bram van Velde.” Proust and Three Dialogues. London: John Calder, 1965. 125.

iv I want to clarify how I will be using the terms “failure” and “success.” There are various ways one can talk about failure and its relationship to poetry: we can talk about 1) poems that fail (always a value judgment according to variable criteria); 2) poems about failure as such; or 3) poems about their own specific failures. It is these last two options which I consider most fruitful and which I will be discussing here. Like failure, “success” is usually a function of personal or public taste and tends to be determined by criteria dependent upon a work’s historical situation. In this context, I’m interested in success in terms of the choices these authors make to write a “successful” poem according to their own aesthetic interests, as well in as how these choices relate to broader criteria for success.

v I’m primarily referencing some discussions that took place on the Ploughshares blog in 2008 between Elisa Gabbert, Ana Bozicevic and others.

vi A similar aesthetic practice that involves neutral tone and paradoxical emotionality is evident in some of the work of Fernando Pessoa. About Pessoa Lin writes “I like The Book of Disquiet…I like his tone, I think it is ‘emo’ and sarcastic and ultimately playful, like I feel like he enjoys making jokes about how sad and bored he feels because he ‘likes’ his sadness and boredom to some extent, or at least thinks it is funny. Yes, I like Fernando Pessoa. He is probably the earliest writer who had that tone I just talked about that I have read” (“Not bored, neutral” para. 19).

vii Lin addresses this in an interview with 3 A.M.: “I really feel alienated from ‘serious literature’ or something…I think I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing” (para. 6). It seems here that “serious literature” or canonical writing is being characterized as inaccessible, and that Lin, though clearly assuming an unselfconscious stance toward his writing, is consciously trying not to alienate potential readers.

viii DeDeo could not have picked an easier target. This is really a bad poem: “i’m tired/ i’m going to eat a lettuce/ it’s stupid to make sense/ i don’t want to make sense anymore/ just let me type something and let it be good/ i’m tired/ i’m stupid/ i don’t care” etc. (Juked 2 Mar 2006).

ix I’m thinking here, too, of the more recent avant-garde movements such as Flarf and the related “Mainstream Poetry” (Michael Magee); the practices of direct transcription (see Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day), and more recent collections of collaborative poetry (Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Phil Jenks and Simone Muench).

x “Post-avant” has been a term in circulation since at least 1992 when Ron Silliman used it on his blog. Since then it has gained usage mostly in online venues and roundtable discussions (see Joan Houlihan’s debate on the avant-garde with Oren Izenberg, Stephen Burt, Kent Johnson, H.L. Hix, Joe Amato, Alan Golding, and Norman Finkelstein). Recently Reginald Shepherd has offered this definition: “[post-avant] are writers who…have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need…to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity…or a particular mode of proceeding artistically” (“Who You Callin’ ‘Post-Avant’?” blog posting, Poetry Foundation. 6 Feb 2008). There are a good deal of other defining characteristics which I won’t elaborate on here, but examples Shepherd offers of “established” poets in this vein are Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, and Cole Swensen; “emerging” writers include the likes of Laynie Browne, Noah Eli Gordon, and Matthea Harvey.

xi Lin’s comments on his novel are similar: “I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to ‘ruin’ my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to ‘ruin’ a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been ‘ruined’ in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also ‘ruined’ Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more ‘important’” (Rourke, “Not bored” para. 15).

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel, and Georges Duthuit. “Bram van Velde.” Proust and Three Dialogues. London: John Calder, 1965. 119-126.

Bök, Christian. “Writing and Failure.” Blog posting. The Poetry Foundation. 12 Sep 2007 through 28 Sep 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.

Butler, Blake. “Tao Lin in Interview.” Interview with Tao Lin. Keyhole Magazine. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.

DeDeo, Simon. “Tao Lin and Gabriel Gudding (joint review).” Blog posting. Rhubarb is Susan. 4 Mar 2006. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.

Gabbert, Elisa. “If you don’t secure your own mask first, you’ll just sit there stroking the child’s hair.” Blog posting. Ploughshares. 11 Feb 2008. Retrieved 21 Mar 2008.

Gallaher, John. “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am.” Blog posting. Nothing to Say & Saying It. 24 Jan 2008. Retrieved 14 Jan 2009.

Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006. 173-187.

Lin, Tao. “Book Notes- Tao Lin (you are a little bit happier than i am).” Blog posting. Largehearted Boy. 19 Dec 2006. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.

—. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2008.

—. you are a little bit happier than i am. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2006.

Mohammed, K. Silem. “Tao Lin, you are a little bit happier than i am.” Blog posting. Lime Tree. 21 Feb 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.

O’Brien, Conn. “Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit.” Blog posting. Rhombus Trapezoid Disaster blog. 17 November 2007. Retrieved 15 Oct 2008.

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Trans. Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Rourke, Lee. “Not bored, neutral: An interview with Tao Lin.” 3 A.M. Magazine. 2 Sep 2008. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.

Young, Mike. “you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin.” Blog posting. Cut Bank Review. 29 May 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.

Lawrence Weschler: Between Irwin & Hockney

Lawrence Weschler: Between Irwin & Hockney

Talking to Lawrence Weschler can be momentarily nerve-wracking. He seems to know something about almost everything, which I do not. And I become acutely, head-spinningly aware of this fact in his presence. But one quickly realizes that he’s open and enthusiastic about sharing what he knows. Damn happy to talk to you, in fact. He’s an avuncular Buddha with a museum of curiosities in his head. When he speaks about his passions, about what he finds to be wonderful, about the people he knows (there are many), the excitement becomes palpable; viral, even. He reaches back and forth through time and across borders, extracting political dramas and enhancing artistic revelations, seeing everything and forgetting nothing, finding connections where no one else has and setting everything alight. The world becomes smaller, more enthralling and accessible, and just as his interdisciplinary intellect is deeply engaged with the world, his unique narrative voice deeply engages his readers. He speaks in little explosions which set off chain reactions of amazement. No kidding.

A New Yorker contributor for twenty years, a Pulitzer nominee for 1995’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for 2008’s Everything that Rises, “Ren” Weschler currently divides his time between NYU’s Institute for the Humanities, the Chicago Humanities Festival, several publications as editor and author (including the Virginia Quarterly Review, curator at large for Wholphin — a DVD quarterly filed with rare and unseen films — and about a dozen other equally interesting things that you’d probably like to be doing too. His latest two books chronicle decades of conversation with two of the most dynamic artists and thinkers of our time, artists who themselves explode with originality and constantly question the way we see: Robert Irwin and David Hockney.

“Irwin has been incredibly important in getting people, artists in particular, to focus on presence as opposed to image, which tends to create these little hints of immediate marvel, and to privilege those marvels; And Hockney has made some of the great iconic images of our time. His painting is extraordinarily beautiful.”

My stunned silence paused the conversation here. It took a moment for me to realize that I was hearing first-hand accounts about artists I had admired for much of my adult life.

“In a way, the book titles really sum up their purviews and great contributions. For Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, that is, being present to this thing before you, shutting up, being quiet, paying attention and observing yourself observing and casting off all associations, which is the true art to him; And that Hockney has been so True to Life, even in the midst of incredible personal tragedies he has thrown himself in and embraced life continually, he has not despaired, he has not lost the savor of liveliness, and he lets you know this with his art. I guess that’s what I have to say about those two,” Ren laughs.

Through him, as Weschler excitedly points out in the opening of True to Life, the two artists have been arguing, though neither is likely to admit it.

“They’ve been having a fascinating conversation about what the task of art is right now, you know, if you take cubism seriously, which they both do. Both of them think of themselves as true heirs of cubism,” he told me, “viewing it as the most important ongoing project out of this ancient tradition, this historical art movement, and what’s funny is that they have constantly and fundamentally disagreed on what is at stake.”

It was funny to me that an argument about the importance of cubism was funny to Ren. It also made me wonder what wasn’t funny to him.

“For Irwin,” he continued, “cubism is the systematic flattening of subject: from Christ, (the king of kings), to this other king, to this burgher, to his maid, to her red shawl, to the color red, to the process of seeing red; the marriage of figure and ground, and thus the elimination of the painting itself. Hockney insists, however, that cubism was about saving figuration, saving painting, in fact, from photography, which falsely claimed to be able to accomplish figuration better and more objectively, though it couldn’t capture what was most important about painting: the existence of time, of multiple vantages which are more truthful to how we actually see the world, and the sense of lived experience.”

David Hockney and Robert Irwin have never parsed their opinions face to face, and Ren says it’s not likely that they will. “They’re seventy and eighty years old, respectively, and they are both in the prime of their lives, making their most important work to date and so incredibly busy. They are certainly very aware of each other, and that may be enough.” He’s taken to referring to them as matter and anti-matter, telling a story of when they were both in New York at the same time a few months ago, even on the same block. “I was just cringing. I was worried that they might run into each other and that would be it! The world would just end!”

In the early 1980’s while at UCLA, Ren was working on an oral history of Los Angeles artists when he came across an interview with Irwin, whom he had never heard of. Intrigued, he sent a note asking if Irwin had read The Primacy of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Irwin was at my door the very next day, and we basically had lunch together for the next four years. He just planted himself under this tree at the north campus library, and we would meet there sometimes three or four days a week.” Had they met any earlier, Weschler is convinced that Irwin would have had nothing to say to him, but at that particular moment Irwin was becoming intensely interested in reading philosophy, which happened to be one of Weschler’s specialties.

“It was fascinating to me that Irwin had, for the past ten or fifteen years, been working through this phenomenological reduction of the act of painting, and he was totally unschooled. He was just living it, but without any kind of philosophical method, and he was really very curious.” Weschler began to guide, to some extent, Irwin’s reading. Irwin, for his part, began telling Weschler stories about art and being an artist, and these conversations eventually led to Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, published in 1982. In February of this year the volume was largely expanded for re-issue to coincide with the release of True to Life, bringing at least the ideas of these two artists into close proximity.

That’s when the Irwin/Hockney/Weschler triumvirate began to coalesce. “After the book was published, I got a call from Hockney, who at that time I had never met but was certainly aware of,” Weschler said. “He invited me to his home in the Hollywood Hills and we had tea. It was all very nice. Then he told me that he had read the book and disagreed with almost everything in it, but said that he couldn’t get it out of his head, so he thought it would be a good idea to discuss the thing with me.”
They continued to talk, and eventually Hockney invited Ren to write a text for his new Cameraworks book, a collection of photo-collages attempting to squeeze as much meaning from the act of photography and the photograph itself, as he could. This was at a time when Hockney had come to a crossroads, as it were, feeling that he could no longer paint as he had up to that point in his career.

“He was a master of that kind of one-point perspective painting,” Weschler said, “but it felt like a straight jacket to him, and he basically spent the next 20 years — in his stage work, with the photo-collages, with his incredible scholarly pursuits about whether or not the old masters used optics, with his watercolors, with his fascination with Chinese scrolls, and with physics and so forth — trying to work through and wriggle his way out of that straight jacket of one-point perspective, which in fact we are all in.”

Weschler could get very worked up when digressing about being trapped in this straight jacket, voice cracking, ebbing, flowing, face getting red.

“Because of the photo-collage work, he has taken literally hundreds of thousands of snapshots, but it’s because he was trying to show what was wrong with photography. As he famously said at the time, ‘photography is ok if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops for a split second!’ but that’s not what the world is like.”

Ren continued, his voice going up in pitch as he became more excited, “He became convinced that cubism was an attempt to make a radical critique of this thing that was beginning to take over the world, which was this one-point perspective; whether with billboards, television, movies, or your computer screen, it all takes place in a narrowing tunnel of one-point perspective and holds you in it’s vice as if you were, in fact, a paralyzed Cyclops, whereas cubism was trying to imagine a world of multiple perspectives, of time, and finally, most importantly, he would argue, of space. Photography is very good at capturing surfaces but can’t capture space because space is something we encounter as we move in time.”

What Weschler wrote for Cameraworks was very consciously a refutation of the Irwin book, and no sooner was it published than Irwin responded to Weschler directly with a resounding ‘not true!’ having disagreed completely with Hockney’s take on photography and cubism. “Every time I would write something about one of them,” Ren laughs, “the other would call me up and say ‘no no no!’”

Irwin was infamous for his ban on the photographing of his own work, opposed to the fact that photos captured everything the art was not about (image) and nothing of what it was about (presence). Hockney initially found Irwin’s ban to be “fetishistic and preposterous,” though he later began to champion the idea, realizing that it was nearly impossible for someone to come across his frequently photographed work for the first time and with fresh eyes, instead recalling the poster, the book, the print of any particular painting.

Thus the volley began and continues to this day, nearly thirty years later, and though Hockney and Irwin seem diametrically opposed, Weschler’s ability to free-associate uncannily pinpoints the common ground in their disparate voices.

For example, Hockney refers to his new works, the immense nine-paneled landscape paintings of the Woldgate Woods of his youth, which seem to stretch out to the edges of ones peripheral vision, as figure paintings, though no figure exists in them. “You, the viewer, are the figure,” Hockney insists. The paintings would not be complete without the witness, the essential element, which is an entirely Irwin-esque position. Years ago, Irwin made a show of simply tying a line of string around a sun-kissed patch of grass, intent on pointing out to viewers that everything is art, that every detail, no matter how inconsequential it may appear to us, is worthy of our attention and at least momentary devotion. It is the importance of this human aspect, the human ability to perceive, to be present, where both Hockney and Irwin meet, and where Weschler is often most gleeful in his writing, frequently deploying exclamation points and a rapid rhythm which occasionally leaves a reader breathless.

Beyond this grand convergence of artistic ideology, the artists even mesh in smaller and seemingly more fleeting ways. Irwin took Ren on a roadside hunt looking for specific types of grass that he wanted to incorporate into the Getty Garden in Los Angeles. During the same period, Hockney, finally back to painting, was doing spontaneous watercolor renderings of individual types of grass he would come across while out and about, carrying with him a small sketchbook for just that purpose.

Ren’s predisposition to such meetings, acting often as a kind of flux through which opposing forces collide or converge – as with both Hockney and Irwin – has informed his rich and unique body of work. For example, the title piece of his 2004 collection, Vermeer in Bosnia, illustrates a convergence between the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990’s and painter Johannes Vermeer in the 1600’s. Renowned for the tranquility and peace they exude, Vermeer’s paintings were actually created in the midst of religious persecution and unprecedented violence rained upon the Netherlands from both England and France over dozens of years, literally the artists lifetime. The through-line Weschler finds starts with a juror of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal’s preliminary hearings, who found himself constantly retreating from the horrors of testimony to visit Vermeer’s work, where he found emotional and psychic release and solace. Present and past flow from there in Weschler’s able hands, as both violent histories unfold and entwine, and it’s so undeniably compelling that it startles you awake, reminds you that life is saturated with connectivity, all the more important in an era where people tend to feel the opposite.

Acknowledging and expanding such associations has always been a part of Weschler’s outlook, going back to before he ever found his living in the written word. He likes to tell the story of how, when he was fresh out of college, a family friend who was a psychologist offered to help him figure out what he should do with his life by presenting him with a battery of tests. “There were these questions like ‘what would you rather be, an arsonist or a firefighter?’ Eight hundred questions! We did the Rorschach test and all kinds of other weird stuff. Apparently he (the psychologist) had never seen anything like it,” Weschler recalls fondly. “He told me, ‘this is not a good thing. This is going to give you serious problems in your life.’”

Looking back, Weschler realized that Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees was really an attempt to save himself from the chaos of such free and far ranging associations, as Irwin represents the exact opposite quality, sloughing off each and every association for the sake of pure perception. It was a valiant attempt, though it may be possible that even as he tried to deny this quality in his early writing, it insisted upon surfacing in his life. At the precise moment that Robert Irwin was craving philosophy, in walks Lawrence Weschler, student of philosophy. And just as David Hockney felt exiled from painting and began exploring the truthfulness, or lack there of, in photography, Weschler, also schooled in phenomenology, appeared with the Irwin book, which not only touched on what photography could and could not do, but examined a line of perceptual inquiry entirely similar to Hockney’s.

It could have been purely coincidental, or it could be exactly as it was supposed to be. Regardless, as Weschler investigates all the life around him and tells his stories, the people and places that enter his orbit tend to ignite, if they haven’t already, and though he’ll probably be the last to admit it, his enthusiasms and talents often fan those flames.

“In many regards, I would say that those two ways of being in the world are an intention in my work and in my life. On the one hand, just being open to the wild convergence, and on the other hand being able to say ‘shut up and tend to this, see what’s in front of you and leave your baggage at the door!’ I try to have both. At the New Yorker I used to say that I went back and forth between cultural comedies and local tragedies. Another way of looking at it is that I have a body of political writing and then separately, a body of what I call ‘Passions and Wonders,’ like Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder and Boggs Bills, which were a pair and designed to be read together, one as a deconstruction of museums, the other one as a deconstruction of money.”

Ren continued, “At the end of the day what really interests me is what happens when people catch fire, when they slowly come alive. And when it happens individually it can be kind of funny, as with Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder or Boggs Bills. And when it happens to a body politic, it’s enthralling. Take Poland and solidarity, for example (The Passion of Poland, 1984), and that incredible repression, if you think about it, is the attempt to extinguish that catching of fire. Solidarity was an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation, from which they invented the capacity to act as the subject of history rather than the object of history, which is literally grammatical transformation! Conversely, repression is the attempt to take people who have been acting like subjects and turn them back into good little objects, and that’s where torture comes in. And then you have resistance, the refusal to be turned back into an object.

“So “Passions and Wonders” is all about coming alive, suddenly being in the middle of your day and just catching fire, but the political writing is about that too. They’re both about the fervency, the necessity, and against all evidence, the possibility that it could work, that you can change, that you can make some kind of change. You can either crumble up and be destroyed under the weight of the world or you can respond by just throwing yourself back at it, and in some ways I think that both the Hockney and Irwin book are profoundly political, that one of the first things we have to do in order to change is wake up to how we’re sleepwalking, and that is what artists do. They wake up, they question, and they invite us to question as well. That is especially what these two artists do.”

Ren continued, “There may not be any reason for them to ever meet.” And with such an able conduit of information between the two artists, he may be right. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and True to Life not only describe the process of art making, but the process of communicating about and experiencing the world. They read as roadmaps of the evolution of the act of being, and it seems that when the travelers live as willfully and truthfully as Robert Irwin, David Hockney, and Lawrence Weschler, life and art cease to imitate each other. They simply converge.

You can view a selection of Hockney’s works here.
You can view a selection of Irwin’s works here.

Michael Mirolla’s Light and Time: Imagery, Language & Mystery

Michael Mirolla’s Light and Time:
Imagery, Language & Mystery

One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.
– Gaston Bachelard

Michael Mirolla looks into his art as into a language prism: light glances off many sides of the ‘object’ at once and time, particularly time, is what attempts to hold it still. They seem to work as artistic principles, informing and revelatory: the condition and product of the work itself. But as time lets go, the poem is left not just as a brilliantly light-refracted piece; it is also, in Stevens’s parlance, that perennially interesting “world [that] lives as you live/Speaks as you speak”, the demystified thing as it is. We are not left with just a lovely inscrutable artifact but an image, as Bachelard says, that “opens a future to language”. And as Mirolla says in Light and Time, “One toss and th’ impressions gone./Time is a vengeful puddle quick to dry/behind us.” (28); and a little further in the same poem, “And yes, th’ impression’s still there/where you left it/and, as you slip in, the sun/ rises on thick haunches” (32). Once seen, the poem, thing, impression is changed for ever, and always set afterward to reveal more significant properties and depths. 
Is this the Surrealist artist at work or word-dreamer of daring and verbal precision? A proponent for a radical Canadian nouveauté ? Or perhaps a neo-classicist at heart, a respecter and proponent of culture, language and literary influences? Michael Mirolla is a well-respected member of the Canadian writing community. Born in Italy and arriving in Canada at the age of five, Mirolla calls himself a Montreal-Toronto corridor writer because he spends so much time traveling between the two cities. He’s a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright. His publications include the recently-released novel Berlin (a finalist for the 2009 Indie Book and National Best Books Awards), and two short story collections—The Formal Logic of Emotion and Hothouse Loves & Other Tales. A collection of poetry, Light And Time, was recently published [ed. note: American publication date set for September 2010], an English-Italian bilingual collection of poetry Interstellar Distances/Distanze Interstellari and an Italian translation of The Formal Logic of Emotion.

So we certainly can’t read Light and Time, or an author as multi-versed in literary genres as Michael Mirolla, with pre-set notions of the poem in mind. And it won’t do either to restrict him to place, time, or any particular literary influence. He is a skillful practitioner of imagery, but I cannot call him an Imagist or even uniquely Canadian poet. If we want to keep the true constructive impetus of the work alive before us, we must see novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright as open as any artist (and as any literary oeuvre) can be to a global or even indeed a cosmological interest. Robin Blaser, in one of his many insightful entrances into the poetic process, exhorts poets to record both the music of the spheres and the “sound of the earth.” Poetry not consciously subjected to prescribed style or content is universal in Blaser’s unique sense.

Poetry is here venerated as among the highest expressions of human sentience and sentiment. And very much as if first principles or basic constituents of a cosmological poetics were primary, Mirolla begins with ‘light’ and ‘time’:

Light and Time
and time—
you know the two well
don’t you?
The empty heart of the tunnel
that beats against you
photon by photon
and chips away at the edges
     where you exist,
Given time
there’d soon be
nothing left
but light.

Mirolla’s is a unique type of impression-gathering that at first can reduce the object to a sum of pure visual or imagistic effects. The nature of poetry is never to lose sight of the object, the writer glued to it sometimes with an irrepressible tenacity, for whatever light illumines will soon strike the reader as a vibrant living presence. To turn the poem one way, held high in front of you, is to look for delectation and brilliance (poem as aesthetic object) but to sense also that something has been transformed in the viewing, whether the poem, object or reader. Mirolla does not just aestheticize his objects in the hope of turning them into traditional vehicles for a personal lyricism, the object that is read also envelops and unfolds, offering a wealth of phenomenal details.

In the case of “Light and Time,” the poem that frames the collection as a whole, light is in the end an eerie receptacle for darkness imaged as the “empty heart of the tunnel/that beats against you/photon by photon.” The effect on the reader can be hard-edged, too, since light and time are envisaged as objects that literally chip away at you. A similar sort of falling into the thing’s inscrutable heart after an extinction of metaphorical light appears in “Roman Sketch” where “Gravity sucks you down into/the tombs, the dry unlickable dust,/ a shimmer of molecule slipping/past molecule” (46). The entire poem is worth citing for the way both the dying light of imagery and allusion combine to bring the reader to the poem’s own lapse into a crazed memory of the past.

The old Carthage rises like bile in the throat
(‘tis a pieta she’s a whore).
There where the salt fell on fallow
dreams now grow:
Monstrous hands in dislocation,
eyeless angels stripped of wings
             straining for a glimpse
                            of paradiso-
still-life on the march,
City of eternal bilitus,
             sacrifice on the alterings of history.
What Black Mass has kept you afloat,
moored in barbaric legions?
gravity sucks you down into
the tombs, the dry unlickable dust,
a shimmer of molecule slipping
             past molecule.

             they keep digging you up again,
brushing back time
                       bit by bit
a spoonful a day
till you are all foundation
                                 propped up,
your kinfolk sedimentary
             numbers in catalogue:
till one asks not:
                       Can it survive?
             Is there enough cement
to keep the question from
                       being begged?

Describing Mirolla’s poetry as the mystery of illumined seeing is a necessary first step. The content of lakes, authors and paintings fall into the same void with reader. In “Crane Lake 1”:

We all speak of depth
as if the water mirrored something
more profound than the dragon-fly
that lands non-chalantly on your arm;
or the snapping turtle that hovers near,
its craggy face blowing bubbles
thru the lattice of sunlight, the gleam
of an ancient presence that ignores
all around it…even our god himself.
We all speak of silence
as if the momentary glimpse
of loon should make us hush
in awe. Should make us forget the rivulets
of a dying lamp pointed
at the tight core of our betrayal.
We speak of memory
as if… as if…

The object of the poem cannot be just the metaphor of “depth” and “ancient presences” as if that were enough nor is it a presentation of fragments of a landscape, “dragon-fly”, “water”, “rivulets” pieced together only and strictly in imagination. Speaking about Crane Lake as the poet’s traditional lake divests it of its ‘substantive’, irreducibly real nature, that more vital something to “make us hush/in awe”. The depth we have come to the poem for soon reduces to the empty “silence” of language or retreats into “memory,” where all we have is the stammering language of “as if,” when instead of a lake, there is only a sinister immersion into the “the tight core of our betrayal.” Note the inadequacy of figurative language to get the memory exactly in line with the passing of a friend in “Snap: On The Death Of A Friend”: the experience of a passing recorded, between the intrusive ‘snaps’, “like bed-sheets stiff with starch/like the smell/like the smell/like the smell of me” (40).
How much can literary first principles help us understand Mirolla’s treatment of other objects? Light and time are more limitations than ways to unpack the poem, or rather conditions that can only be impossibly met. As they should be. Mirolla seems to be trying to unpack a negative mystery so that the poetry becomes self-reflexive in the way contemporary art turns the inscrutable imaginative eye on itself as much as it does on language, content, and style.

So what, and where, is that essential poem we seem to be always anticipating and never getting? Its opalescence and timelessness, in fact? Light and time seem to unravel the more we rely on them for a sense of textual stability. Mirolla himself can pose the question as “What certainty? What dense core?” (17) because I suspect that each poem is its own unique way into the elusive heart. And the heart seems to lie somewhere between “the ghost” and the “flaxen-haired body” (16); between the “green boat” and its occupant “who can’t wave back” (77); between words and flesh (17); and also between road kill and all the signs in Nature that should have alerted you from the beginning: like a mourning dove’s crucifix, or trees “strain[ing] against their leashes” (79).

In every poem an object, dancer, rower, road kill and then its lightless, denuded form as the poem that leaves us only with Rilkean mystery. Perhaps the poet’s enjoined the reader “to play with words/like a whistler in the dark.” (30), sensing the impossibility of giving the poem whole to us.

To Franz K.
Tubercular swimmer in the o’er-
brimming soup, let me throw you a line.
We have voyaged together in short bursts
like DNA but you’ve outstripped me
now, diving beneath the fetid waves
without cease, only to surface again
with the swollen worm firmly between your teeth.
Severed antenna from a long-lost sense,
you held it tight, held it accountable.
And it wasn’t enough that it tugged at the human
in you – how could it have so misunderstood?
I, on the other hand, friend to the shattered
light, the crystal blossoming, have flown
towards a sky full of glass tinkle and
laughter, the intense magic of daily events.
There, I await you, dangling a thread
like a viral infection before your eyes.
Yes, it’s a desperate re-creation—
lacking cruelty—but you will reach for it.
Won’t you?
Gaunt scissors dipped in red

The poem can only approximate its object, imprisoned in the light of bewitching vision itself. A register not of synthesis but of the essential irreducibility of language to its object, as if the poem itself could only be “shattered/light” and nothing but that. Language can’t connect to the subject, poet calling it “a desperate re-creation”, and if it tries to the effect is as absurd as trying to throw a life line to a drowning Franz K: a Kafkaesque impulse to revel in the improbabilities (or absurdities) of making the poem a vehicle for meanings. Even at the close DNA level (and what can be closer?) kinship between poet and literary ideal is too impossibly unreal. Life lines, in Kafkaesque style, metamorphose into viral threads, and implements of writing into “[g]aunt scissors dipped in red”.
Now light and time, stripped of purely metaphysical functions, are agents of a new opening to language, reconfigured on patterns of incongruities and asymmetrical viewing that mark the true experiences from which the poem arises. Looking at “Le Repos Du Vieillard” is not to see rest but a portrait of imminent death, skillfully delineated in shade and tones as though we were looking a surrealist painting; a transformation of stillness and finality of life into ghastly insect body and of the place of death (“a house of cards”) itself into Tartarean hell.

The snow falls calmly on a house of cards.
All the windows sealed. Eyes of smoky marble
shutter the thoughts in the parapets like minds-
flakes drying as they tumble. Rest in the moment
neglected ghosts break down the narrow door
and the candles on the bedsides

put themselves out. They strain to move
each other on limp machinery and collapse
among the chairs that clutter the room.

     When I was young, he says,
     they nailed me to the floor
     and watched me ripen.
     Now, my movements are stares
     through smoke-filled eyes.

Foreign hands have gripped her iris.
She crawls in the cellar dense with sand,
looks for the nipple of gas her breath can ignite.
Snow hisses in recoil. Like a sun-flower,
the house turns creaking on its joints.
Inside, they are busy stroking chairs.

Perhaps “figurative surrealism”, as the postmodern scholar Christopher Butler uses the term, best fits Mirolla’s portrait in verse. To read the poem “Le Repos du Vieillard” is to see that “Only that subject matter is valued which is tragic and timeless” (Butler 17). Everything in the old man at rest and its delineation in language suggest that the last hope for a true representationalist piece may have been dissolving into nightmare of non-representational (modernist) art. But since the poem isn’t based on a real painting, the point is only conjectural.

And, of course, Mirolla’s poetry does not stop at just a slowly fading hope. Not in this new transfiguring language of darkling meanings where light seems to give shape only to sinuous Kline bottles, and air itself “moans when invaded” (42). Metaphor can empty itself out and leave the reader following the insect’s trail to sense. “The day is a slow beetle” in whose head a day of mortal living is reenacted (21). Mirolla also refers to similar “beetle dreams” in “Blind Alley.”

A classical author like Prudentius, known for purity and asceticism, becomes a foreground to the poet’s portrait of the quintessential Etruscan garden, as in “The Garden.” Or the dying light of day “at the deep end/of the garden” can be imaged as “the silent dog…slashing across the moonbeam throat,” surrealistic pairs of the same object if ever there were any. Again for the effect in Mirolla’s poetry of such wonderfully asymmetrical poetic elements as ‘garden’ and ‘silent dog’, the whole must be intuited:

In my garden, Prudentius might have
written, the fruits never ripen. Splotches
of pensees, swirls of non-meeting, girligigs
that spell Might-Have-Been. The tomatoes lust
for actuality, some mouth-like leech-like
appendage to suck their sweetness dry.

Instead, a world of infinity-minus-one.
The grapes bleed onto my forehead; roses
sway sentient – a moment of poetry? –
but no earthly grip can feel their prick.
Suffer, baby, suffer. In my garden.
Prudentius just might (possibly) have said,

the lukewarm breasts of a maybe woman
swelled for a second. Was it my fingers
or the telltale wind from a world I
imaged? Did it matter? No barbarians’
horses can trample this: my garden.

The still air has changed forever.

It is interesting to note the many ways the poet tries to imagine the unimaginable, know the unknowable as if it were just a whisper to him from some ghostly outside place (35). Or even a lie is “essential geography,” said to reside just below the heart, that turns into “the mauve outline of a lamb caught high in the gorse” (33). Light and time seem to have been tricked into authoritative roles they can’t handle, descrying the abject inability of even the world’s own most formidable supports to reveal things free from strangeness and parody. How else to account for the startling asymmetry of language and “the mauve lamb” expression?

Data De Facto
Only from the unbidden will ‘things’ come clear;
only from the margin will the centre be found;
only from re-vision will the spectacle unfold.
Reverse the prism to see the light;
undo the machine to regain your limbs.
 But the opposite of complex is not the simple
and ill-logic won’t cure what ails us.
The frozen fields just beyond our doors
aren’t devoid of life. They’re only waiting
for the right time.
What comes from the unbidden is the blackbird’s wing;
all the margin tells you is: Yes, you are here;
the spectacle holds up its own mirror,
bloody at the edges.

Mirolla can now enumerate some of the ‘givens’ (data) of his work in an attempt to save it from the ravages of poststructuralism. “Data de Facto” is a good place to end our entrance into Mirolla’s poetry because of what it acknowledges: namely, both the radical disparities of a world to which poetry must approach and the essential mystery lying at its core. The unspoken references to Derrida (“margin”) and Debord (“the spectacle”), this century’s leading intellectual polestars, are telling and well-timed. The reader cannot call forth ‘things,’ because things are already there, already variously set in the intertextual weave that language has become. The complexity of the poem means envisaging the appearance of sudden (delightfully paradoxical) ‘newness.’ How else to refer to the staleness of old friends as “Zeno upside-down” (52) or even Los Angeles as an outmoded “parable of the world” (50)?

And if we lose the center to a too self-illumined spectacle (as is the effect of reading most experimental writing today), it is all the more reason to refocus or even shift perspectives a bit (“Reverse the prism to see the light”). Mirolla leaves us with a view of the poem as at best a “de facto” product. Not the mirror but the mirrored, and not so much surface reflection as depth undistracted by chimerical light. And as for time, it is no longer to be resisted. As Jack Spicer says in After Lorca: “Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.”
Imagery and language, however valuable in themselves, really cannot be seen as anything but limitations of the poetic craft. Approximations at best. But there is no mistaking the centrality of the object in Mirolla’s poetry, its “Quint Essential” lucidity, and depth and mystery:

Rasp-tongued train scraping blue sky
across the backsides
of rusted frames

Pagan mountains the scarred templates
for an aching distance
the repetition of desire

Languid barn buckled to its tired joints
besotted timbers sighing
in a mudslinger wind

Flint-eyed sun flaring in its long journey
to signal the end
the frozen passages

Air earth water fire: a hand rising
amid the corn husks
a hand sinking…

Unlike a lot of experimentalist writing in Canada, there is a traditional reverencing for object and narrative voice that cannot ever be open to the charge of housing sexist or imperial sentiments (a rhetoric most Canadian academic readers still employ). Here poetry is neither pop-collage nor the site of multiple discourses nor a specimen of any of the experimentalist credos responsible for some disastrous writing within the past few decades. Has it ever become unfashionable, then, to speak with “God’s Language” (76)? Has the impetus to that sort of poetic scope and intention been beaten out of the literary psyche? Perhaps nobody has dared as courageously as Michael Mirolla to restore the (almost religious) mystery of reading and the integrity of poetic experience itself, transient and brilliant as an evaporating “puddle”:

Awakening: there are puddles
everywhere; images of time that reflect
for a moment and then evaporate
with the sun.
                         god’s language only
is spoken here.

Blaser, Robin. The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser. Ed. Miriam Nichols. Berkely: University of California Press, 2006.
Butler, Christopher. After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Mirolla, Michael. Light and Time. Clinton, ON: SkyWing Press, 2008.
Jake Spicer. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Photograph: Poet on Dust Jacket, Richmond, Virginia 1996

Poet on Dust Jacket, Richmond, Virginia 1996

No writing can give me this certainty.
– Roland Barthes

I. The Photograph

There was a time when all I wanted was to understand a poem and a photo the right way. That time has passed. My desire has not. I know I will fail continually. So, I write.

I have this black-and-white photograph of Larry Levis. It’s nothing special; it’s not mine. It’s on the dust jacket of his last—posthumous—book, Elegy. But there is something authentic to it, something lacking occasion, extravagance, pose, artifice…. He’s wearing a dark blazer, and a light striped oxford shirt. He’s sitting, I think. There’s a certain pensiveness to the way his shoulders slump, the way his whole person seems to lean or bend with interest in—or is it fatigue with?—whatever he’s thinking, whatever’s being said to him or by him at that moment. Interest or fatigue? I can’t tell. Either way, there’s a melancholic current running through his meditative, mediating gaze.

Yet there’s also something indefatigable in his expressionless expression. Wrinkles burrow under his eyes and along his forehead. The heavier bags nestle under his left eye. He’s looking squarely into, then through, the lens. There are streaks of white in his gray hair; his black mustache is salted with gray. His barely-open mouth offers a slight under bite, his jaw protrudes a little, as if he’s just finished mumbling, “OK, let’s get this over with…”, maybe thinking there’s somewhere else I need to be….

Behind him is a small, modest yard with a white stone wall separating one’s property from another’s. Have I been there? No. I’ve tried, in my mind, to sit on that wall. Far back to the right, I can almost make out part of a garage. Would that have been my studio apartment? A huge maple or oak or sycamore, blurred, hovers like a flock of bats or linnets over his head. The entire composition—its composure—tilts left. Is it the yard, or is it his posture? Is it the world, or is it the man? Which way has the camera—the photographer—angled it all?
The longer I look at it, the more I feel myself begin to slide a little down the yard, off the dust jacket‘s margin, out of the story, into the out-of-focus, the infinite cleavage where Imagination begins. I get dizzy, but nothing’s happened.

All I’m doing is gazing into a gaze. His gaze, the gaze of a dead man. I want my vertigo to be symbiotic, but I never met—and never will meet—Larry Levis.

My gaze is my only story, and my story is a desire to glimpse something beyond the margin…a margin that, maybe, has no end.

Maybe that’s what Roland Barthes means when he says at the end of chapter 1 in Camera Lucida that “[s]uch a desire really meant that beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that photography existed, that it had a ‘genius’ of its own” (3).

That feels right.

But what I find myself doing is not looking at the photograph of Levis at all. To tell the truth, I’m grieving everything outside of it.

I don’t know where this photograph was taken. It could be anywhere. Maybe it’s Levis’ backyard in Richmond, Virginia, the last place he lived. That yard in Richmond, Virginia…that was a place I was to have poured him some Scotch—call it Oban—on some spring or fall afternoon. He would hand me back some poems, his sprawling, looping script offering an image here, a cut there….

I’m doing it again.

That’s not the story at all. I don’t know what the story is, and I never will.

So, I write about it.

But each time I write about it, I move further and further away from whatever the photograph’s story is. What, then, am I moving toward?

My own last photograph.

II. The Moving Picture

The elegy for the self is one of Barthes’ obsessions in Camera Lucida. Painting (photography’s parent) and cinema (photography’s child) are, for Barthes, too reliant on artifice; there is always the implied (or not-so-implied) “once upon a time.” The elegy, then, in painting and cinema is made up: it‘s make believe. But, when we enter a photograph, particularly one of someone deceased (and beloved):

…the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric; and in the case of animated beings, their life as well, except in the case of photographing corpses; and even so: if the photograph then becomes horrible, it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing. For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”), the photograph suggests that it is already dead. Hence it would be better to say that Photography’s inimitable feature (its noeme) is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects ) in flesh and blood, or again in person. Photography, moreover, began historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality. Here again, from a phenomenological viewpoint, the cinema begins to differ from the Photograph; for the (fictional) cinema combines two poses: the actor’s “this-has-been” and the role’s, so that (something I would not experience before a painting) I can never see or see again in a film certain actors whom I know to be dead without a kind of melancholy: the melancholy of Photography itself (I experience this same emotion listening to the recorded voices of dead singers). (79)

Barthes differentiates photography from cinema for one simple and vital reason: in photography, we supply the story.

In cinema, the story is spoon-fed to us. The probability in getting the story “right” in cinema is exponentially higher. Relative to the potential infinity held within a photograph, the experience of movies is shorter. Movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end…however elliptical…. We may be lifted by an image—say Streep’s Sophie at the very end of Bakula’s adaptation of Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, that ghostly, desperate, gorgeous visage—into melancholy. But the image passes us by. The film has to end. We’re forced to move on. At the end of the images, when the credits begin and then resolve their slow ascension, the projector clicks, its blue beam of light cut, and we too have to rise from our seats and go somewhere else.

But with a photograph, we stay seated at the table forever. The melancholy, nostalgia, and ecstasy are ours because we have created it. In cinema, the melancholy belongs to the actors, the director, the cinematographer…. We catch, in cinema, melancholy only by deflection—by orchestrated chance—in a predetermined amount of time (two, three hours) and space (a twenty-by-forty foot silver screen).

In a photograph, we are melancholy, we are desire—we are implicated by—are in—the story simply through gazing. The only limit of story with a particular photograph is the mind.

In cinema, we can’t die; any death we might endure is strictly metaphoric.

In photography, our death is confirmed. In photography, our desires are ratified.

And that’s the problem: photographs hold us, quite literally, up to our mortality. We want to speak, but it’s too late. We’re struck dumb in our attempts at articulating the story.

Or, we get it right by dying.

III. Some Sources & Theories

“This is not really a problem,” says Mieke Bal in the introduction to the second edition of her Narratology (3). Bal contends that there is no the story. And I want to believe her. She says, “One should not expect to actually be able to say that the corpus consists of all narrative texts and only those texts which are narrative. For one of the first problems in advancing such a theory (of narratology) is the formulation of characteristics with which we can delimit that corpus. Although everyone has a general idea of what narrative texts are, it is certainly not always easy to decide whether or not a given text should be considered narrative, partly or wholly” (3). A bit later she says, “The textual description obtained with the aid of this theory can by no means be regarded as the only adequate description possible. Someone else may use the same concepts differently, emphasize other aspects of the text, and, consequently, produce a different textual description. For reading is an activity of a subjective nature” (4).

So, Bal might say to me: you worry too much; what you’re fretting just isn’t; an ideal reader doesn‘t exist. And I’m reminded of Cleanth Brooks: “There is no ideal reader, of course…and I suppose that the practicing critic can never be too often reminded of the gap between his reading and the ‘true’ reading of the poem. But for the purpose of focusing upon the poem rather than its reactions, it is a defensible strategy. Finally, of course, it is the strategy that all critics of whatever persuasion are forced to adopt” (Leitch 1368). Truth, then, is a position: something posited, assumed, laid down; something dealing with fact, an affirmation; it’s an attitude, a posture; and, the etymology says, it’s also something unqualified. Brooks is an idealist hiding a scientist’s white jacket. He knows, perhaps, that he will fail. He doesn’t, however, believe it.

Brooks confirms my failure as a reader. He also confirms my process as a writer. Could it be that I desire failure? Wolfgang Iser says no. The process I’m engaged in is what he calls the “virtual text,” the treaty reached between the text and its recipient:

Central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its recipient. This is why the phenomenological theory of art has emphatically drawn attention to the fact that the study of a literary work should concern not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. The text itself simply offers ‘schematized aspects,’ through which the aesthetic object of the work can be produced.

From this we may conclude that the literary work has two poles, which we might call the artistic and the aesthetic: the artistic pole is the author’s text, and the aesthetic is the realization accomplished by the reader. (Leitch 1673-74)

This is a fine middle ground, an air-tight compromise. It feels just right. Too right. I cannot deny the existence of the artistic pole: the Levis photograph is right there, and the poems are lying beneath it. But this aesthetic pole is something Iser himself doesn’t seem convinced of: “A text cannot adapt itself to each reader it comes into contact with. The partners in dyadic interaction can ask each other questions in order to ascertain how far their images have bridged the gap of inexperienceability of one another’s experiences. The reader, however, can never learn from the text how accurate or inaccurate are his views of it” (Leitch 1675). Ergo, there is no aesthetic pole; there are only as many aesthetic poles as there are configurations of what Derrida calls the gramme: not even the letter, but the single stroke that, for instance, crosses the T in this Pertpetua type face.

To constellate each gramme is, perhaps, quite literally an astronomical project, “that greatest of all/ Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda/ Of the stars, that fact….”

There was a time when I all wanted was to understand a poem and a photo the right way. That time has passed. My desire has not. I know I will fail continually. So, I write.

IV. The Poem, & Some Tools

My ambitions and desires to get it right arrest me under the increasing shadows of Bal and Brooks and Iser and Barthes…. I’m still looking at the edge of the shadow where the Levis photograph sits. A shadow grows over it. Soon enough, the photograph and I will be under the same shadow; this is the mortal motion: the horizon pink and bleak, the penumbral swell of dusk as quiet as always. But, I’m thinking, not yet. I open Barthes again: “…I had perhaps learned how my desire worked, but I had not discovered the nature (the eidos) of Photography. I had to grant that my pleasure was an imperfect mediator, and that a subjectivity reduced to its hedonist project could not recognize the universal. I would have to descend deeper into myself to find the evidence of Photography, that thing which is seen by anyone looking at a photograph and which distinguishes it in his eyes from any other image. I would have to make my recantation, my palinode” (60). I begin moving. I walk to the shadow’s edge. I pick up the book. I read the poem again:

       Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967

       I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
       In front of you on this page so that
       You won’t mistake him for something else,
       An idea, for example, of how oppressed
       He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
       Grapes from a row of vines. The band
       On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
       He would remind you, just a hatband.
       His hatband. He would remind you of that.
       As for the other use, this unforeseen
       Labor you have subjected him to, the little
       Snacks & white wine of the opening he must
       Bear witness to, he would remind you
       That he was not put on this earth
       To be an example of something else,
       Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to
       Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,
       Is not to be used as an example of anything
       At all, not even, he would add after
       A second or so, that greatest of all
       Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda
       Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.

I’m responding to a language text—the poem—and a visual text—Johnny’s photograph—mediated through that language text. I see things in the language text, and I hear things in the visual text. I’m filling gaps in the language and visual texts while simultaneously creating new gaps.

Initially, I see two things at once: first, the poem, the words properly arranged on the page; second, the photograph of Johnny Dominguez. Initially, the latter is more opaque than the former; but it’s the poem’s project to reverse all of that.

Similarly, I hear three things at once: first, the poem as Levis would read it (I’m remembering his reading voice in another poem and am translating into this poem); second, the poem as I read it aloud to myself; and third, Johnny’s “chaste way of saying things.”

The levels of possibility confuse and overwhelm me primarily because “Photograph:…” is a poem of insistence. The poem desires its monad: the right perception of Johnny Dominguez. But in my initial reading, I see and hear five separate but related actions. I want only one interpretation, the right one; moreover, the poem insists I have the only interpretation. I turn back to Bal; she promised “an instrument with which (we) can describe narrative texts” (3). Perhaps with her definitions, I’ll be able to dovetail my simultaneous and sometimes incongruous moments of illumination borne by the twenty-lines of this poem. Here is a crucial portion of a vital paragraph in Bal’s theory of narratology:

A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof. A story is a fabula that is presented in a certain manner. A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors. An event is the transition from one state to another state. Actors are agents that perform actions. They are not necessarily human. To act is defined here as to cause or to experience an event…. It is…useful to examine the text separately from the story. Since ’text’ refers to narratives in any medium, I will use this word with an emphasis on the structuredness, not the linguistic nature of it; to keep this in mind I will use it interchangeably with ‘artifact.’ (5-6)

This is a good start. But there is more. Bal unpacks some these definitions into more definitions: “The fabula, understood, as material or content that is worked into a story, has been defined as a series of events. This series is constructed according to certain rules. We call this the logic of events” (7). And there is time, which “has a hypothetical status: in a fabula the events have not ‘actually’ occurred, or at least, their reality status is not relevant for internal logic…. Furthermore, events always occur somewhere, be it a place that actually exists…or an imaginary place…. Events, actors, time, and location together constitute the material of a fabula” (7).

Who pieces all of this together? “A choice,” Bal says, “is made from among the various ‘points of view’ from which the elements can be presented. The resulting focalization, the relation between ‘who perceives’ and what is perceived, ‘colours’ the story with subjectivity” (8). The focalizor performs the focalization. There are two types of focalizors: character-bound (inside the fabula) and external (outside the fabula).

Now I’m faced with a difficult choice, and it is a choice: do I cling to my desire to read the poem and see the photograph in the right way (as the poem’s words and Johnny Dominguez’ gestures and words-never-spoken in the poem demand)? Or, do I fall in line with Bal when she says: “it is both impossible and useless to generalize about…the author‘s activity…,” e.g., intentions, ambitions, etc. (7). I’m using Bal’s tools. Do I turn them against her? Can I turn them against her?

There was a time when I all wanted was to understand a poem and a photo the right way. That time has passed. My desire has not. I know I will fail continually. So, I write.

V. Line by Line

Bal’s definition of focalization helps me hear and see more clearly the multiple levels of perspective at work in the poem and in the photo. But I’m still not sure if it will crystalize into a monad as the poem demands. “Focalization,” Bal says, “is, then, the relation between the elements presented and the vision and that which is ‘seen,’ perceived” (142). Or, focalization is the tacit expression of the relationship(s) between voice and object, spoken and spoken to/about/for. Levis’s focalizor presents his vision of Johnny Dominguez; simultaneously, he refuses expressing Johnny’s vision. For the poem‘s focalizor, speaking on behalf of Johnny would be a violation of the most grave order: this would be one more imposition of silence upon Johnny by a supposed more powerful entity. What pulses at the core of the poem is, finally, possession: possession of identity, vision, and self…which is to say, power. Power….

Is that what I want, power? Control? The right reading? Possessing it? Maybe it will be helpful to map the fabula, “or the series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors” (Bal 5), of the poem. Maybe descending line by line narratologically, I’ll begin to know—see and hear—Johnny and the focalizor, their circumstances, and their desires.

The title: Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967

With the very first word, I’m confronted with two narrative texts: a poem and a photo (as I’ve mentioned above). I don’t yet have a story (which precludes fabula, events, and actors). Following the colon is “Migrant Worker.” I’ll stop there. A series of events unfolds:

A. Johnny’s birth, somewhere other than the United States (most likely Mexico or central America, but this cannot be proven by this poem), circa 1900-1952.
B. The focalizor’s birth (Levis), September 26, 1946, Selma, California to parents who own and operate a grape farm in southern central California.

Johnny leaves Mexico for the United States in search of work at an unspecified time. Implicit motivations for this relocation—this exile—for Johnny are harsh economic conditions in his native country, promise of employment in the United States, and potential reunion with friends and family.

Johnny finds employment in or near Parlier, California sometime before or in 1967.

Someone takes a photograph of Johnny as he is working, or resting while working.

The focalizor discovers the photograph at an unspecified later date.

A. The focalizor meditates on the photo.
B. Levis composes the poem.

The poem’s title drops me, first and foremost, into memory. The title is rich in chronology, location, and politics. I see a migrant worker, or a farm hand who is perhaps one social wrung above a slave. I see a tiny corner of Selma, California, which is somewhere in the brutally hot San Joaquin Valley. And I’m in 1967, an American 1967, a time before me, when revolutions (sexual and political, e.g., “free love,” civil rights, Vietnam protests, Caesar Chavez’s labor reform movement, etc.) and experimentation (chemical, intellectual, and artistic, i.e., psychedelism, deconstructionism, deep imagism, etc.) are given as a backdrop for this frozen moment of the poem/photograph. Using Bal’s terms, the title, then, gives me a slow-down (photograph, time frozen), a summary (migrant worker), and a scene (Parlier, California). Levis, with these details, presents his certain way of seeing things; this is his certain angle, his focalization, which is rooted in historical fact. It’s real, conjured by the imagination.

Line 1: “I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here…”
I’m, indeed, in the relative present. There‘s a line break; it‘s a poem: the narrative text is still a poem. But is it still a photograph? The focalizor says “I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here,” not “I’m going to put the photograph of Johnny Dominguez right here….” Is the photograph implied from the title (absolutely), or is the focalizor reaching for a literalness of character within Johnny (absolutely)? There must be some critical distance for the focalizor and the reader from this turbulent historical backdrop. (This poem was published in 1997, I’m reading it [again] in 2009, and it was most likely written some time between 1991 and 1996.) The poem’s tense—emphatically, imperatively, insistently present—introduces me, then, to an approximate distance of thirty years: “I‘m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here….” Where was he all this time? What has ostensibly transpired in those thirty years since the photo was taken, as well as the unidentified amount of time that transpired before the photo was taken, play equally crucial roles in understanding the poem’s—that is, the focalizor’s—focalization. The white space between the title and first line contains a duration replete with political and personal ramifications, which unfold about me as I work through the poem. This is also the poem’s first event: the focalizor turned actor has placed the photo on the table, the desk, the mantle…something has just moved into view without me asking….

Line 2: “In front of you on this page so that…”
The focalizor/actor complicates—enriches—the fabula by specifying his mode of story: “In front of you on this page so that….” The focalizor/actor reminds us that this is a poem: a linguistic, grammatical, and musical (that is, rhythmic and sonorous) presentation of a visual and historical story—Johnny‘s story—the photograph. Which is frozen, yet has motion because of the focalization. The focalizor/actor’s meditation, what Bal calls the “interjacent layer, the ’view’,” creates this paradox (146). I’m being debriefed, as it were, on History: personal, public, political, economic, among its other components…all at once. In other words, I’m seeing Johnny for the first time…

Line 3: “You won’t mistake him for something else,…”
The focalizor/actor has assumed a judgment from me. This offends me, perturbs me. I haven’t had a chance to (mis)understand what I’ve just seen. But, this must not be the first time the focalizor/actor has shown this photograph. He has, quite possibly, witnessed reactions—how many?—that have denigrated Johnny into…

Line 4: “An idea, for example, of how oppressed…”
I’m still in the margins of the photo itself, but I can feel the focalizor/actor dragging me from it and into history. Johnny was oppressed? How would I know from looking at the photo? I may never know, I may never have that luxury of making my own interpretation…because the focalizor/actor ensures that I don’t. The word “oppressed” furnishes a new layer to the fabula: this is an event simmering with political ramifications. I think of Marx, Cesar Chavez, of class struggle, of industrialization, of exploitation, and of violent revolution. I think of Benjamin’s last two sentences in his twelfth thesis on the history of philosophy: “Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of the enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren” (260).

Line 5: “He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless…”
The next event of the poem…but it’s not an event proper. It’s the past catapulted to the present via the poem/photograph. Johnny was picking grapes; Johnny is picking grapes. Simultaneous fabulae, chronologically—diametrically—opposed. It—the grape picking—happened back then…and it’s happening right now. I’m dizzy again. I turn to Barthes: “This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence…I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is the catastrophe” (96). Johnny is now an actor. Johnny is also frozen, in the photo, to an eternity of picking grapes for…what?…twenty-eight cents a pan?

Line 6: “Grapes from a row of vines. The band…”
This line provides the location, perhaps outside the margin of the photograph. Until now, the focalizor/actor has kept me within the rectangular piece of paper. I am moving, slowly, somewhere else.

Line 7: “On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,…”
Johnny’s hat, Johnny’s sweat…these are what Barthes would call the punctum: “very often…a ‘detail,’ i.e., a partial object. Hence, to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up” (43). The sweat is more piercing to me than the hat. The sweat signifies the labor, the bodily aches, and the psychological exhaustion. I’m imagining my life as if it were Johnny’s. And I’m terrified. I’m no longer myself entirely.

Line 8: “He would remind you, just a hatband.”
Johnny speaks…but through the focalizor/actor. This is a crucial transference of thought. I’m in the mind of Johnny now, provisionally. It’s all mediated through the focalizor/actor. And the hatband, my sympathetic stylet, is “just a hatband.” It’s not the symbol that terrifies me. Nor is the sweat signifying hard, manual, cheap labor. It’s the sweat, Johnny’s sweat.

Line 9: “His hatband. He would remind you of that.”
Possession. Anger. Hostile reminders. A lifetime of labor, disappointment, poverty, exile, rage…. It’s the emphatic, italicized His. And it’s the repetition of the reminding, as if I’ve already forgotten, as if my mind has drifted, so quickly, elsewhere…back to my own self-pity perhaps: “He would remind you of that.”

Line 10: “As for the other use, this unforeseen…”
The focalizor/actor takes the fabula’s reins back for a moment. He divulges for me all the events I’d imagined, made up, but never saw firsthand. The focalizor/actor takes from me the symbol of sweat on the hatband. My imaginings were incorrect and wrong. He takes them back for Johnny. He takes me back to the poem/photograph’s title, to the hours, days, weeks, months, years picking grapes in the California sun. He takes me from my mind and puts me back in the poem/photograph.

Line 11: “Labor you have subjected him to, the little…”
This confirms my shame. The focalizor/actor knew what I was thinking before I knew what I was thinking…because he has seen it all before. This is my event of shame. This is the moment I begin to change.

Line 12: “Snacks & white wine of the opening he must…”
The fruits of Johnny’s labor. The side dish and spirit served at gatherings for the middle and upper classes. And Johnny bearing witness to his own photograph by way of the poem. The always-out-of-reach-but-always-gleaned grapes…Johnny’s disdain for grapes must be, by now, ineffable, perhaps pure. I am outside the photograph again. I’m picking grapes again. But he must pick them, he must…

Line 13: “Bear witness to, he would remind you…”
Johnny speaks to me again. The focalizor/actor speaks for Johnny again. Neither of them says anything new. They’re repeating themselves. They’re vigilant. They’re angry. They’re becoming the same person.

Lines 14-15: “That he was not put on this earth/ To be an example of something else…”
On a metaphysical level, I’m longer looking at the photograph; I’m no longer reading the poem. I’m composing the first draft of my obituary, and I’m making very tentative and frantic plans that ensure that I won’t do hard, menial labor for the rest of my life. On a very literal level, I’m insulting Johnny Dominguez beyond apology. I’m ignoring him, the individual, the man, the Mr. Dominguez. Because I am frightened. My fabula has taken over, and in a moral sense, that’s a mortal sin. Johnny is not an example. He is a man, a man equal to me and me equal to him. I must be reminded of this, of who he really is…. This is…

Lines 16-17: “Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to/ Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,…”
Johnny speaks austerely. And it’s his stare, his posture, and his composure that speak. Which is to say that it’s the photo that’s speaking, my gaze into the photo I’ve never seen, my imagination now properly informed—reminded four times now on how and what I should think, feel, see, and hear–and reformed. The focalizor/actor wants me to get it right. After the initial shock and shame I feel, I begin to see not a symbol, not a sign, not an inscription, not an angel blown backward into the future, not the puncturing detail of sweat. I don’t even see a poem/photograph anymore. I begin to see a man. That is the event. That is getting it right.

Lines 18-22: “Is not to be used as an example of anything/ At all, not even, he would add after/ A second or so, that greatest of all/ Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda/ Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.”
I’ve not separated these last five lines for a few reasons. First, to catch the crux of their thrust requires unity, not fragmentation. (Of course, that could be said for the entire poem.) The crux is clarity. Objective, verifiable, irrefutable clarity. The achievement of clarity on part of the reader is the event of the poem. The reader is transformed. The reader, all along, has been a primary actor in the poem/photograph. I, the reader, am being addressed, confronted, challenged, chastised, ridiculed, reminded, and finally, transformed. Not Johnny, and not the focalizor/actor. Still, this poem/photograph is not “about” me. This poem/photograph is about one man, Johnny Dominguez. That fact. I don’t know his life. I’ve gathered clues. I’ve felt things for him and for myself. I’ve seen and heard and almost tasted. The event is the epiphany. The epiphany is the event. The photo is taken away, and I’m left with my memory of it. It will fade.

There was a time when I all wanted was to understand a poem and a photo the right way. That time has passed. My desire has not. I know I will fail continually. So, I write.


So what if I’d gone to Richmond to study with Levis? I would have an entirely different image-repertoire. And it would be finite. But my imaged vignettes—histrionic, melodramatic, right—are untamed, open. Pleasure passes through them. These vignettes will be generalized, what Barthes calls “de-realized,” maybe because they have yet to be realized and will always be on the cusp of realization. They will, someday perhaps, become authentic. Authentic as Johnny Dominguez.

My desire to get it right is nothing more than a confrontation with my own mortality.

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, second edition. Toronto: UP Toronto, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on the Art of Photography. trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Hoad, T. F., ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: UP Oxford, 1986.
Leitch, Vincent B., Cain, William, et. al. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Levis, Larry. Elegy. Pittsburgh: UP Pittsburgh, 1996.