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Monday, February 16, 2009

Next Objectivists Recent Meetings & Latest Work

The Next Objectivist Workshop meet twice this last week. On Thursday, 12 February Guest Objectivist Michelle Taransky, visiting from Philly, led us in a discussion of Louis Zukofsky’s “Mantis.” Much was learned, or at least it felt that way to me. I was particularly thankful to the group for helping me to see what gets done in the poem through the “thoughts’ torsion” produced by juxtaposed fragments of speech in lines like these:

“Banks, ‘it is harmless,’ he says moving on—You?”

“Call spectre, strawberry, by turns; a stone”

“And hands, faked flower, —the myth is: dead, bones, it

Was assembled, apes wing in wind: On stone,”

In the context of the sentences in which they occur, the meaning of these words is colloquial, relatively straightforward, and subject to no more than the usual amount of poetic compression and metaphorical thought. Nor is the subject or form particularly “difficult.” Both the form (a sestina) and the poet’s subject—a preying mantis on the encountered on the steps of a subway are entirely conventional.

But within these conventions, Zukofsky allows a whole second universe to reveal itself because he insists upon thinking objectively. He allows his thoughts to flow along patterns of meaning that do not reside in the I-self, but extend its being into chains of eventuality—halos of metaphor as we find them out there. Language at play in fields of experience. The imagination.

My experience of the poem began with our observation of the sestina’s simple form. Six words end the first stanza: “leaves,” “poor,” “it,” “you,” “lost” and “stone.” These are repeated as the final word of each stanza according to a pattern of substitutions. The sestina’s particular form of attention—its formal calling as it were, where calling is a calling out—asks us to notice the last word of each line.

In Zukofsky’s version, this formal urgency we encounter in the last word of each line spreads through the rest of the line, producing lines full of single word phrases: “spectre, strawberry,” “stone,” “hands,” “flower,” “dead, bones, it” etc. It is of course this interest in the singularity of words that Zukofsky declares when he gives his epic poem the ultimate one-word title: “A.”

In “Mantis” Zukofsky’s interest in the singular focuses attention on the production of ideology within ordinary experience. Each word is like a mantis on the subway stone—phenomenal to the extent that one attends to it. You can either notice the mantis or not notice it; if you do, the longer you meditate upon it the more it reveals.

In the first of the above-quoted lines, the singularity of experience is contrasted to the commercial flow that incites transformation from one object to the next. Flowing through the line we find a question about the material connectedness between objects produced by money: Watching the hustle and bustle of the crowded masses, Zukofksy observes that

“Even the newsboy who now see knows it

No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone,

Banks, ‘it is harmless,’ he says moving on—You?

Where will he put you? There are no safe leaves

To put you back in here, here’s news! too poor

Like all the separate poor to save the lost.”

Paper makes money, money makes stone, stone makes banks, the poet reasons, following the torsions of thought one finds in “rock/paper/scissors.” Everything is contained within everything else because the flow of money links quarry (or farm, as Michelle does in her poems) to bank.

And these linkages occur in the dimension of ordinary experience, too: the selling of papers makes money for the newsboy, bringing him into direct contact with the “banks” of stone against which he leans. And there is nothing but stone around him—no leaves into which one might “put” the mantis “back in here.” That which brings us together—the banks of stone and the commercial banks—leave us without shelter; bewildered in our humanity, we lack the resources to bear the collective pain each carries for all within all.

And this, in Zukofsky’s view, is common knowledge—“Even the newsboy” understands this. The problem is not one of understanding, but of attending to what one understands to happening. The problem is deciding what counts as news. For the newsboy, the mantis is not news: “‘it is harmless,’ he says, moving on.”

Here is the structure of alienation for Zukofsky: we are caught up in that set of particulars that makes up the news of the marketplace, unwilling to step out of our roles in the drama of the day. It is a conventional poetic theme: a cosmos in the grain. There is nothing but this world of particulars, and there is nothing to be done but rearrange what one pays attention to. The mantis is most often the “You” that occurs regularly at the ends of lines. In the above passage, it also refers to the reader. “it is harmless,” the newsboy says, and then, with a dramatic dash—“You?” The poem is asking us—what do you think?

Its not hard to decide not to pay too much attention, despite what one knows. & so ultimately it comes back to the “You” who might “build the new world in your eyes, Save it!”

After a very insightful discussion of these and many other topics, we began construction of our own objectivist sestina. The first draft (the Next Objectivists do not regard any of our work as finished; poems are on-going experiments for us) appears here:


Dollar crumbles off, the city lights that

Kill the shadow—it’s necessary so

By sunrise certainly this dusk will end.

It’s shadowed, dusty, musty, fussed over as they tower . . .

High tide. Pratt Beach spits. Rock. Paper. Bone.

Bones that flow under the sweat of her.

Specifically, our family ate bones & bones are sweaters.

So the sweater stumbles, ignores the thermostat—

Carved ivory crescent, smiling cat, striated bone

That obliterates the obvious. Keep always what you sew.

Lights swallows attention. The Tower

Complainer, artificer, all that’s left at day’s end.

Start is the line, broken at end

Unraveling like yarn—dust the sweater.

Three pyramids: fever climbs the tower:

One for water. One for milk. At that

The city sweats tickets, beggar tries to sow

There where the tower held bone.

It plays over the radio. We heard bone—

Bone or stone. Who could tell in the end

& so you say—it ends—sew & sew

Although its chill absorbs all philosophies, he, still naked, becomes blind by it—he as sweater—

That same measure of waste that

Finest contrail split by a tower.

The Mayor coveted the salt tower

Fighting for new marrow in the bone

Breezing along the bone-lit path, the phrase of that

Happenstance that falls down at the end.

It was a family sort of Cosby sweater

Haze on haze split plush—full moon dusk—so.

While the walls were being built just so

Great lakes turn matter into tower

And lights embered the space and on the bench a sweater.

Malnourished—yes the sky was, you see it’s bone.

Your eyes can’t will it, or change that.

And in the end it was the end.

Chicago’s moon as brittle as bone.

Chicago’s dusk-covered moon is that.

Next time sober so this interruption won’t end.

The following Saturday evening, 14 February, the Next Objectivists met to read and discuss Michelle’s work. Michelle read from her new manuscript, “Barn Burned Then,” a beautiful collection of lyrics that move along lines of metaphor between two poles: “Barn” and “Bank.” The figurative connections between Barn and Bank construct a story with an eternally displaced center, to create a kind of secret history—a family trauma, but one belonging to no single family, although iterated always in particulars. In this way, Michelle’s poems responded to the crises of our new depression as it began to unfold in and around Iowa City, where she lived during the latter days of the books’ composition.

Here is an all-too brief selection of Michelle's poems:

Barn Burning, An Eclogue

For those who say it is enough
Of the farmstead, not falling

Rain come last to bed and tearing
White sheets into small armies of animals

Where this keeper’s concern meets
Old thrasher in the shed

Its keyhole patterned
After a breast and the calling

A lake we had built
Filled with response

A response then

Respond, respond with a weed to
The flames stopped to

Track a doe

I don’t know how
Barn is like grave

Matter and matters
Like a silo missing its torso the
Barn’s reading rooms

Forgetting-weeds mirror what
Was kept in the safe, same as others
Have divorced a few apple trees with no ideas

About red
As if it has two mother

Languages— they are the bad pruners
The unhorse
Crediting the no

(Previously published in Denver Quarterly)

Building the Bank, Asking

Who called the bank

The bank of

Grave the bank

You asked for praying


When she handed us the bill her hands were
Hands of a farmhand

It’s good to have the image in mind.
At the bank.
Farmed stoppages
Selling a model townscape
Confrontation of milk and made
Never less resistance
To read the entire deed at once
Left for the vultures
Crime seen by one-
Eyed barn owl I caught
To keep the farmscene
Unlike a name
Changing to tender

(Previously published in 88)

Bank Branch

State of fall
I mean fall

Saying a season
Is not an only answer

Probability of rotting
That permits

Door-keeper as well
As the door he left

A teller never their
Worries about

The red horse &
Folded into threshold

Glass statement
Promising I won’t see you anymore
A likeness

Here fixing causes that dream
To be about a bank

A blood-like retreat
From root
For trust

Going to war

Changing brother is

Going to get there

(Previously published in 88)

Michelle explained the origins of many of her poems. While working and reworking the relations between barn and bank, she used her poetry to collect and generate emotional textures. "and the calling / / A lake we had built / Filled with response," Michelle writes; in these lines, reminiscent of Michael Palmer's work, the search for meaning--a finding and a making--is the poem's "calling." The poem is a scenic, calm, ordinary place--a idyll lake--that reflects (or, potentially, loses within itself) responses the work.

Michelle explained how she developed poems the responded to traumas that were not ‘her own,’ which caused some distress among her classmates and teachers over the years. Michelle used the experiences that occasioned by responses to the poems to create dramas that appear within the poems. For example, she described a number of the lyrics as “revenge poems,” explaining that they contain semi-secret “replies” to various fakers she’s encountered. (Michelle told us who she was arguing with and why.)

In these poems, as in Zukofksky's, many words are "pivotal" or "hinge" words in the sense that their meanings are multiple and interlocking. Syntax rotates along the axis of meaning, bifurcating and looping back upon itself, so that multiple connotations resonate at once. This is what Pound called the "dance of the intellect" among words; in Michelle's work its often signaled by dense patterns of repetition:

Who called the bank

The bank of

Grave the bank

You asked for . . .


When she handed us the bill her hands were
Hands of a farmhand

In each passage, the repetition of one word puts that much more weight on the others, such that, for example, "Grave" responds to the field of meanings generated by the banks that surround it--the bank of the grave is the edge of the dread pit, and "grave" also describes perhaps the most commonly imagined tonal register of the Midwestern bank (a sober, even somber place), but we hear also "gave the bank [what] you asked for." The grave that takes becomes the gave that gives.

Similarly, in lines like "From root / For trust" the ear, trained in the subtle shifts in meaning that Michelle's writing calls to our attention, gets "From root / For rust" as well. And in that little shift--the subtraction of a "t"--the cherished story of economic collapse in the heartland is encapsulated. Once the repository of the nation's "trust", the bread basket of America has become a rust belt. That story is also in these poems, as they explore the ocean that resides between BArn and BAnk.

Thank you Michelle Taransky! The Next Objectivists salute you!

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