Monday, January 21, 2008

JEAN GARRIGUE: A Fitness of Things

Jean Garrigue’s "Amsterdam Letter" partakes of a number of ancient modes in the writing of poems, two of which are indicated in the title, the letter poem and the poem of travel, both of which received considerable impetus in the poetry she came to as a young poet. Pound’s "River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter" revived a kind of poem that certainly thrived in ancient China, though of course that particular poem was written not by the traveler but by the one who stayed at home. The letter poem may have gotten its impetus from Petrarch’s invention of the sonnet, a form that mixed description of the loved object with appeals to her. It also owed something to the dedicatory epistle poets wrote in the Renaissance hoping to secure patronage from the wealthy. "Amsterdam Letter" represents a sub-category of this genre in that it is addressed to no one, meaning everyone, in the manner of a journalist’s letter from a foreign capitol, Edward R. Morrow’s from London, say, during the Blitz.

Travel gave the writer an opportunity to report back on the marvels of distant lands, as in "Amsterdam Letter." A non-fictional genre originally, which still thrives, it also gave structure to the novel in its early days as the examples of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby Dick would indicate. Poetical traveling, though perhaps begun in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, would have to wait for Wordsworthian rambles, journeys to Renaissance Italy conducted by Browning and, in Garrigue’s day, the post-World War II Fulbrighter who, having fought in Europe, returned after the war to study the culture he had tramped over only a few years before in uniform. Jean Garrigue had the additional desire to travel in wanting to recover as much as she could of her European, particularly French, heritage. In such poems as "Pays Perdu" and "Cortege for Colette," she did just that.

"Amsterdam Letter," however, is one of many (and one of her best) celebrations of travel alone. Her first publication, Thirty-Six Poems and a Few Songs, included "From Venice Was That Afternoon." Other poems followed, including "Swiss Altitudes," "Primer of an Italian Journey," "Soliloquy in Pere Lachaise," "For the Fountains and Fountaineers of Villa d’Este," "Discourse From Firenze," the whole of Chartre, and Prose Poems, "French Country Circus," "The Water Wheel by the River Sorgue," "St. Sulpice," "Of a Provincial City," "Country Junction," "Song for ‘Buvez Les Vins du Postillon," "Cannes," "The Grand Canyon," "Song in Sligo," "Grenoble Café," "Beaucaire," to which I would add "After Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs" and "On Going by Train to White River Junction, Vt." The little girl who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1920's wanted desperately to see the world, and a poem like "Amsterdam Letter," as we’ll see, was giddy with delight at what for her was the newness and particularity of that place.
"Amsterdam Letter" also participates in one of the most ancient of poetical practices, the list. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in The Odyssey to the present day, the list has served many poets well as an underlying structure. E.B. Browning’s "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," for one. Garrigue’s letter begins,
Brick distinguishes this country,
And broad windows–rather, rectangles
Of wide and glittering scope--
And cabbages.
Cattle a specialty, and cheese, storks–if they are not all dead
Or abandoned–and flowers, oh, flowers!
Some say as well, quick humor.
Brick, windows (rectangles), cabbages, cattle, cheese, storks, flowers and humor. A capricious list, but that will be the form that her "delight" takes in the poem, reminding us not so vaguely of that other Manhattanite’s celebrations of the city, Frank O’Hara. Garrigue, for all her travel, was a lifelong citizen and resident of Greenwich Village, coincidentally once a part of Nieuw Amsterdam. "Amsterdam Letter" ends with another list, this time of words she was taught the Dutch versions of by an"old Frisian lady," "Horse, sky, cow, tree, thank you," followed by the two large abstractions that emerge from her experience of Amsterdam itself which come to anchor the poem, namely, "Beauty, and love." I take this as a small but serious correction to Keats’s famous ode, love replacing truth in his short list of "all ye need to know."

Garrigue’s poem, of course, is written in free verse with lines ranging from four to twenty-one syllables, a liberty with line-length that mirrors the wandering and distracted delight of her attention. But, rather than producing a poem that operates at a purely sensuous level, seeing, smelling, tasting only what is put immediately before her, she draws past–perhaps the word is "through"–such experiences a series of observations that reflect an enlarged, abstract sense of what the good life contains. Out from behind a surface arbitrariness emerges something resembling an essay on right living, one conducted in an abstract and formal diction that contrasts with the concrete imagery of the poem. Beginning with the word "distinguishes" in the first line, we are gradually introduced to features of life in Amsterdam that make it highly civilized. The windows of line two are said to be of "wide and glittering scope," a quality that one could easily apply to many aspects of life catalogued here. The old Frisian woman becomes a model citizen of the city in being "affable," "amusing and helpful." Even the cab driver proposed to her, an act she likens to a "specimen of humor." The sky is "dense, heavy, fragrant," the water "rich." While the gabled houses are "sedate," the bicyclists, six abreast, "skimming around corners like swallows," display quickness, as the Dutch do humor, and quietness. "How quiet they are! Even the trolleys!"

The list of enviable qualities goes on. The "bravura" of carved animal heads, the "elegance" of panels, "the clear meaning" of glass. Bravura, elegance, clarity of meaning. What more could there be in such a world of perfection?
...that delicacy of manner, that responsiveness to many,
That prevalence of what seems self-possessed, contained, and easy--
Not only that, but the Dutch are "Amiable conversationalists...
Who by a manner suggested
What I have no word for--
Unfeigned it is and unblighted,
That "generous, free disposition"
That so strongly confirms
A fitness of things.
Here we enter Shakespeare’s great romance of love, Twelfth Night, where Olivia corrects the vain, curmudgeonly Malvolio (act I, scene v) to remind him of the greatest of human dispositions, one which if practiced widely enough "confirms/ A fitness of things," as Jean Garrigue found it in the city of Amsterdam. "There by the water beds/ And the ancient, calmed passions of their reflections," she (re)learned the meaning of not only beauty and love, but of calmed passions, bravura, elegance, amiability, sedateness, quickness, all summed up as a fitness of things.

"Amsterdam Letter," in other words, becomes a grid on which Garrigue can bring together a real place and her sense of a personal utopia, the real and the ideal. Notice, though, that the speaker is only a visitor to this place and that she does not speak the language. She is, in fact, the merest initiate to its secrets and, without saying it in so many words, must be content with a brief encounter, however insightful and intense.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

ending and stopping II

Strange how a subject once entered turns up around the next corner.

From C.D. Wright's COOLING TIME: AN AMERICAN POETRY VIGIL(2005): "I am not sure of where it is I am going. Important, I believe, to resist finality in one's own work while assiduously working toward its completeness." And, "Closure can be avoided by as many strategies as can beginning. 'Endings just drag me,' Miles Davis said in a DOWN BEAT interview."

Not being sure where one is going, but going. What is it Eliot says in FOUR QUARTETS? Does he say it in the QUARTETS? "Fare forward. The rest is not our business." Stopping is a part of continuing, just as sleep is.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Davenport, still life, the image

Finally got around to reading Davenport's OBJECTS ON A TABLE, his study of still life in art. As always with Davenport, the writing is lively and the learning is vast and often arcane, assembled as one would a collage. He seems uninterested in constructing historical narrative, believing instead that the past is present and can be cherry-picked at will. So, his scholarly procedure is analogous to those artistic procedures he admires most and considers most modern.

"The art of our century is that of collage, involving quotation, parody, cultural inventory. Collage is by genre and by strategy the art of the still life, which begins as a duplication of reality in an image [Aristotle said art was an "imitation" of reality. The same thing?], grows into an enduring depiction of symbolically interacting objects in the service of one sentiment or another..."

"We can see this spirit of recycling forms and subjects in literature's propensity to follow Nietzsche in his saying that, human nature being unchanging, the same things must happen over and over again." Other bon mots include: "Reiteration is a privilage of still life denied many other modes," i.e., conserves its subjects and forms better than other modes. "It is an art that is symbiotic with civilization." Early in the book, he speaks of doing "iconographic inquiry," of which of course he is a dazzling master. But, this would seem to validate art especially (only?) as it reiterates the past, echoes it, alludes to it, cites it. As I said, art resembles and, in its extreme forms, becomes a kind of scholarship, preserving by reiterating the past. Such art is implicitly conservative, in all senses of the word. For Davenport still life is the highest form of art because it is so traditionally self-reflexive, more so than other modes. Self-relexivity in art ("recycling forms and subjects") keeps the past alive. So, when it comes to modern art, he praises first (only?) what is old in it, not what might be new. But, as Nietzsche said, human nature is "unchanging." Nothing is new. Rather, what is new is old (made new).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ending and stopping I

Part of what kept me away from such a spongiform tablet as the blog was the gathering sense of not knowing what to do now. An odd shoe to be putting on after 50 years of scratching and scribbling. I suppose it has to do with some sense of age or, rather, some sense of bringing a thing like a life to some conclusion. And, as soon as said, the idea wilts, exposes its mold. I've said for years about the poem that you can bring it to an end or an ending, or you can stop. Stopping implies things that make sense, greater sense, than ending. I think Lyn Hejinian is a little harsh when she complains in "The Rejection of Closure" of "The coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry," but I understand the fatigue of being always tied to what we often find in music, the need to pull out all stops and blow the listener away with crashing, clashing chords and drums. She calls the similar thing in poetry a "negative model, with its smug pretension to universality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth....however pleasurable its effects, closure is a fiction, one of the amenities that falsehood and fantasy provide." This from her headnote to the essay in THE LANGUAGE OF INQUIRY (U. Cal. Press, 2000) , p.41.

And, too, stopping is more natural to human endeavor. Outside of the track race, that is. Stopping is what we do when the energy goes away. And the return to energy does not always connect smoothly (or at all) with what preceded it. We are energy transmitters, and most of us pick that energy up from various places, happy to do so. We chase it down for as long as we can, and when it gets away, which I think it almost always does, we let it go. If we're smart and whether we like it or not, that is.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Merrill Gilfillan's UNDANCEABLE

Called back, as Emily said. From what? I hardly know. Sorry, bloggers. Will try to do better.

Anyway, I stumbled into M. Gilfillan's latest a month or two ago, published by the excellent Flood Editions. Not exactly new, being a book of 2005. But timeless, as the muses say. Full of his cryptic ellipticals strung out on a vaguely western twang. His verbal metier is southern midwest, really. A slow focussed interest in what's in front of him of note, but with little (other) reference to his self. No interest in elegy. A low-riding humorous affection for the genuine, human or natural, which is out of the way. Hints of Dorn.