Monday, June 26, 2006

Bukowski: Born Into This

“as the spirit wanes, the form appears.”
—Bukowski, “art”

So I watched the dvd of the Bukowski: Born Into This documentary the other night, and I have to say it was amazing. I’ve always liked Bukowski, and probably in the last year or so I’ve even liked him more and have been rereading a lot of his books. Some people still criticize him because of his drinking and so forth, but it really doesn’t matter how much he drank or what kind of image he projected if his writing is good, and his best work only seems to increase in greatness over time. Virtually nobody could write so simply, so spare, yet pack language with meaning, beauty, and ugliness. It looks deceptively easy, which is why most of his imitators come off as such rank amateurs.

So really there was no way I wasn’t going to like this film, unless the director John Dullaghan turned out to make some sort of major mistake – but he didn’t. He uses all kinds of great footage, from different time periods, in color and b&w. It’s moving photographs, juxtaposed with texts and readings and interviews, films within films, a solid, classic documentary style. The pacing was perfect. Even the use of “sincere” U2 frontman Bono worked out alright; it was done sparingly and tastefully, and he didn’t seem pompous at all here. Of the other famous interviewees, Sean Penn was really good. Of poets, it was especially nice to see Jack Micheline. (I wonder, though, why the “sexily” posed model photoshopped into the picture on the cover?)

I liked the ongoing segments of Bukowski driving around East Hollywood in a beat up VW Bug with a cracked windshield, filmed on what looks like early videotape, and he’s got an Iron Cross hanging from his mirror to remind himself of his German heritage. The scene of him in the bathroom of the house he grew up in, demonstrating how his father used to beat him, and the way it was framed looked like Kubrick. Bukowski crying as he reads the poem “the shower” was a sudden shock, heart-wrenching actually.

The scene from the Barbet Shroeder tapes where Bukowski semi-attacks his girlfriend (later wife) Linda Lee is unflattering, but it was good to know that there was no whitewashing going on in Born Into This. I had seen this segment before and was wondering if it was going to be in. It had to be, and it was. And the other side of all of that is here too – the Bukowski who could write “the bluebird.” But I think another thing his detractors dislike is the cult of personality involved, the autobiography. I suppose for some people it forces it to be an issue of whether you like the man you perceive Bukowski to be, and some just don’t. Fair enough. But I certainly would’ve had a drink or eight with him if I’d had the chance. This film isn’t quite like being there, but that’s not what is required. It is “like” watching a really good documentary.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Geoffrey Squires, Lines (Shearsman)

Shearsman has recently published Geoffrey Squires’ new poem Lines as an e-book (available for free by navigating the previous link). I personally have been pretty dubious about e-books, preferring the feel of the real printed book, as physical object, the crispness of the page, the smell of the paper and binding, and all of that. But this is one publication which is really suited to the format, so much so that I think something would be lost if it were not read onscreen in PDF form. When you set it up in the Single Page view, fitted to your screen, it almost seems like the lines (the title is apt) shoot across the page, and the effect is great.

The lines themselves are sentence fragments which seem to fall back on each other, echo themselves, sometimes becoming two, occasionally three or four. I could almost liken it to sculpture. They are sculpted, meant to be seen with the eye just as much as they are meant to be read with the brain. But the chopped-up construction makes the brain take them in differently than it would in reading “regular” poetry.

I can’t say that I understand what it all means, and probably it doesn’t mean much in the literal sense because what we are presented with is essentially detritus, what is left of sentences when they are broken into their constituent parts, with many of the less pertinent words discarded. But what seems to be going on is that Squires is somehow trying to break through to the structure of language, rather than using language to describe an idea, or descry an image, etc. At the same time it is poles apart from the more nonsense aspects of some experimental/avant-garde poetry out there, and maybe surprisingly to some it is quite pleasant to read. To give a short quote would not do the work justice, so I highly recommend checking it out for yourself.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bloomsday, 2006

“Now have thy children entered into their habitations. And nationglad, camp meeting over, to shin it, Gov be thanked! Thou hast closed the portals of the habitations of thy children and thou hast set thy guards thereby, even Garda Didymus and Garda Domas, that thy children may read in the book of the opening of the mind to light and err not in the darkness which is the afterthought of thy nomatter by the guardiance of those guards which are thy bodemen...”
FW, 258

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Catherine Walsh, City West (Shearsman Books)

Catherine Walsh’s City West (2005) is one long poem, composed of three sections. Before turning to the book itself there’s some background which I’d briefly like to discuss. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to see that my article about “the Wild Honey poets” was hyperlinked in a post on Robert Archambeau’s blog. Archambeau has written about certain experimental Irish poets, Catherine Walsh among them, in his essay Another Ireland (1997). My piece (which I published in The Burning Bush 5, Spring 2001) dealt with many of the same writers. Archambeau’s recent blog post challenges the myth that British poets are generally conservative and eschew experimentalism, and he also here mentions “a similarly pervasive myth about Irish poetry.” I published my article over five years ago, at a time when Irish experimental poetry was really not as well-known as perhaps it may be today, and I was to an extent echoing Archambeau’s own Another Ireland article where he identified a conservative Irish “nationalist-regionalist tradition” and wrote that “Irish experimental poets...have survived in the shadows of near total obscurity, with virtually no support from the institutions of Irish literature...” Before Trevor Joyce’s with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold was published in 2001, and almost universally fêted, a majority of readers in Ireland were still largely ignorant of any such experimental movement, though it has been there for a long time, as both myself and Archambeau before me wanted to show.

Catherine Walsh is one of the loosely associated group referred to above. Her earlier work, Idir Eatortha & Making Tents (1996), is much heralded in certain circles but probably less well-known to a wider audience. The new book, City West, is a powerful confirmation of her talents, yet the current blurb on the hardPressed poetry site (a quote from Tim Allen of Terrible Work) still kicks against the pricks, the pricks in this case being the “institutionalised avant websites etc.” more than the mainstream institutions that Archambeau was concerned with. Perhaps, as with Trevor Joyce and Randolph Healy, it will take a “Collected Poems” before Walsh becomes more widely read even by “avant” audiences. But to be honest, her poetry is probably not for everybody – it can be difficult and obscure. Too many people are afraid of obscurity, apparently don’t have confidence in their own powers of cognition, and shrink from the work involved in trying to read someone like Walsh. So I wonder if maybe the attempts to popularize “experimental” poetry in this day and age, be they Archambeau’s, mine, or anyone else’s, are ultimately limited by this fact. Should anyone be worried about it at this point?

In any event, you certainly can’t approach Walsh the same way you would a lot of familiar, (let’s say) lyrical poetry. She works in long, open forms instead of self-contained poems. Rather than declaiming, she constructs her work as if with building blocks. Except these blocks are not physical objects, but words which represent ideas or syntactical units of language. Not unlike Healy in this sense, Walsh’s poetry is scientific, a poetry of inquiry. This is most evident in the second section of City West, “Tangency,” in which for example she writes,

      problem thinking

      due process leading circulatory
      thought deemed consequential

      grinding halt

      should one place be better to stop
      than another [...]

      why should stopping
      not involve another part
          of due process...

Other times her writing is a dense wordscape, approaching the way that an abstract filmmaker like Stan Brakhage might employ quick cuts and flowing successions of images:

      arresting thought forensic
      pile         glitter far out
      on ocean                   migrating
      dissolution       removal       resolution
      placement       sensational fare
      on             ah here get off of that
      arrested       thought       frantic
      pine       bitter forgotten

Sometimes Walsh strips it down to a series of single words whose relations to each other are not immediately apparent, and where the real purpose might be in the patterning on the page, the effect gleaned in the act.

“City,” the first section of the book, I found to be somewhat more immediately accessible, you might even say playful. On p. 10 she juxtaposes two columns of similar but slightly different poems, versions implying other versions, also implying that other sections could equally have their own alternate (but here unwritten) versions. Finitude is undermined. Elsewhere (pp. 17-19, for ex.) rhythm is to the fore (it would be interesting to hear this section read out loud), and the reader will also discern scenes of teenage revelry and the stark underside of the city. But more so than the actual scene or remembrance, it is the process of perception and memory that concerns Walsh: “static unreal knowing / another memory linking / experiencing dreaming no / knowing knowing knowing...”

Section three is “Plane,” where this process of perception is further scrutinized, an overt awareness on Walsh’s part of the book medium:

      the time I really thought I was writing
      ‘a book’ that got to me more than any of the
      knowing full well who knows I thought

I really liked pages 66-69, about the city and the night – the phrase “anarchy of the flesh” is great – and then the overheard fragments of speech and the unmistakable Dublin accent: “hey you how woz?...” A passage in Irish which comes toward the end, apparently co-opted from elsewhere, seems to be an ironic statement of intent: “léiriú atá I [sic] gcuid de na scealta seo ar / an teannas idir an seandearcadh / dúchasach agus an meon nua-aoiseach...” (“many of these stories focus on the / tension between traditional native ideas / of the world and more modern ways...”). As City West closes, the tension between the writer and a putative audience surfaces with Walsh jokingly imagining the compliments – “(we liked your story so / much” – and then proceeds to sign off: “had a lot of fun / but it’s time / to go...” The little interplay of voices here is a nice touch. What a great book. I look forward to her next release, and hopefully someday that “Collected.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Longhouse review

Bob Arnold has written a very nice review of Mercury, the Dime, on the Longhouse site. It appeared in March, but I only discovered it just now. Since it’s so short, I hope they won’t mind if I copy and paste/post it below:

Michael S. Bengal [sic], Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery : a highly attractive, pocket-size glossy marvel of a book, with poems to sweep you up from a San Francisco early 90s feeling in an era more Sandburg than anything Beat. A sure footed Americana celebration, “Past the Western frontier / lay the Great Plains, / multitudes of Americans—” I always love a poet who loves his country in Whitmanesque multitudes.
~ © Bob Arnold
March 5, 2006

Thursday, June 01, 2006

“Is fada liom oíche fhír-fhliuch”

Following on from my previous post, here is my own translation of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille’s “Is fada liom oíche fhír-fhliuch” (c. 1710), which was published in the Summer 2002 issue of Translation Ireland. The poem has been translated many times before, including by Thomas Kinsella, and Michael Hartnett, and I don’t claim to top them. I will say that translation is in many respects arbitrary, the subjective way that one person might render another’s poem into a different language, at a given time. Kinsella’s version of the first line and title as “The drenching night drags on” (in An Duanaire/1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed) is probably the best – but I like “sopping night” too. As with Kinsella, I have not attempted to replicate the metre of the original poem, which would most likely come off seeming artificial in English. Every strategic decision implies a trade-off, however. The above photo is Muckross Abbey, Killarney, where Ó Rathaille (†1729) is buried.

Aodhagán Ó Rathaille

This Sopping Night
(translated from the Irish by Michael S. Begnal)

This sopping night seems endless—sleepless, snoreless,
without cattle, means, sheep stock or horned cows;
a storm on the wave nearby has unsettled my head,
and I was not raised to eat dogfish or cockles.

If he still lived, the patron king from the banks of the Laune,
with his following by his side—they would understand—
and if he still held sway in that gentle, sheltered, harboured haven,
my poor people would not stay in the bleak district of Duibhne.

MacCarthy, strong and ferocious (who despised fraud),
MacCarthy of the Lee (imprisoned without parole, enfeebled),
MacCarthy, king of Kanturk (in the grave with his family)—
there’s desolation in my heart: no sign of them at all.

My heart withers in my chest, my body weakens,
those heroes were never stingy whose right it was to rule
from Cashel to Clíodhna’s Wave and over to Thomond,
their towns and their lands have been plundered by foreigners.

O high wave down there roaring loud,
my mind is overwhelmed with your screeching—
if help were ever to return to bright Ireland
I’d shove those bitter howls right down your throat!