Tag Archives: dog ear

Erica Baum’s Sightings

I wrote some time ago about Erica Baum’s ‘Dog Ear’ and now an intriguing outfit called onestar press published ‘Sightings’ in 2010 which sells at 35 euros but can also be downloaded as a pdf.

Before we go any further I think I’d better describe my current feelings about conceptual work. Kenneth Goldsmith has defined conceptual poetry as material that’s more interesting to think and talk about as an idea than it is to read. I can see how this might apply to some of Goldsmith’s output although I do remain an occasional but avid reader of his ‘Traffic’.

I’d like to draw a distinction between this kind of ‘pure’ conceptualism and the kind that does start from a conceit (in the sense that Spenser used it in the letter to Raleigh) but consists of work that can and should be read as well. The work of Vanessa Place falls into this category and I’m making the same claim for ‘Sightings’.

I’d also like to make a case for appropriation, i.e. the practice of using already produced material as the text for the poem. In some circles this is also frowned upon because it undermines the notion of the poet as the solitary creator of carefully crafted and original lines. I think that this misses the ‘point’ and doesn’t give sufficient weight to the process of selection, it also carefully avoids the fact that all poetry is an echo of the poems that have been written in the last three thousand years and that some of our very best poetry is soaked though with what has gone before.

This is what Baum has to say about ‘Sightings’-

Prose poems depict witness descriptions of ufo encounters. Figures and shadows loom suggestively. Newsprint collages attest to the variety of odd occurences. Is the evidence of an alien invasion all around us ? The transparant and elastic meanings in ‘sightings’ suggest a transformation of ordinary facts, an absurdist archaeology of the everyday.

To produce an ‘absurdist archaeology of the everyday’ is an ambitious goal and I’m not sure that Baum achieves it. What I do know is that the juxtaposition of words and photographs of words and photographs that may or may not depict ufos seems to be a very successful way of saying complicated things about the uncanny and about the way things come to an end.

The most accessible parts of the text are the prose accounts of ufo sightings. I am old enough to recall a time when such events were treated much more seriously than they are now, particularly in the US. It seems to me that this kind of fevered paranoia was a neat ‘fit’ with the cold war angst about the ‘red menace’ presented by the Soviet Union. None of the accounts here appear to have any kind of ‘literary’ merit and read as authentic- the tone is reminiscent of the media reports of the time.

Of course, extra-terrestrials can be considered to be the ultimate Other in that we can attribute to them any attributes that we choose but these aren’t descriptions of alien life forms but of the craft that carry them- which have been the focus of conspiracy theories ever since. It may just be my optimistic perspective but I find it hard to conceive of a film like ‘Close Encounters’ having the same success now. UFOs aside, the other textual material relates to phrases and parts of phrases photographed as if the pages have been placed in a filing cabinet. Some of these phrases are only partially visible which means that a few are difficult to read. It is possible to read the legible lines as verse, albeit absurdist verse-

That Trouble
falling into a ravine of moths or butterflies
us inside a space meant to evoke packed with
stars that wobble under the influence of

Their are other photographs depicting what appear to be the edges of books so that parts of images and text are visible. Other images are of clouds, shadows and what might be ufos.

So, what I’m trying to say is that this is the kind of collection that might be labelled as ‘conceptual’ but also has serious and thought-provoking content. Here we have a series of points being made about the way we have thought about and imagined the strange / Other and the relationship between cognition and only partial or occluded phenomena. There’s also something about the end of things in this post-analogue, post soviet world.

Incidentally, the ubuweb site has a collection of Baum’s earlier stuff in pdf- I’m particularly fond of ‘The Naked Eye’ and ‘Card Catalogue’ both of which are equally startling but in very different ways.

Poetic difficulties

Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:

“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”

This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:

For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.

Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.

And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:

So this must be a hole
Of cloud
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment

Over the whole town,
Its scenery,whatever
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge

I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?

Jacket 2, Vanessa Place, Erica Baum and Caroline Bergvall

Jacket 2 is now live and continues the excellent work of John Tranter and co. I considered the original incarnation to be fairly essential for those of us who take an active interest in contemporary poetry and criticism even though I have ranted in the past about some of the more pretentious contributions on Prynne.
So, I approached Jacket 2 with a mixture of trepidation excitement. The launch issue dispels any concerns that I may have had. There is an interview with Caroline Bergvall whose “Meddle English” I’m currently reading, a feature on Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear” which I wrote about last years and an exchange between Divya Victor and Vanessa Place which features “Statement of Facts” which I wrote about on arduity last month.

My relationship with Ms Place is becoming more complex which is a good thing. I first came across her stuff in the last issue of the Cambridge Literary Review and didn’t like it much but liked the idea (conceit) behind it enough to work out the reason for my dislike. I then came across “Statement of Facts” on Ubuweb and was staggered and thus goaded into writing the ‘conceptualist’ page on arduity. I was then alerted to the recording of her reading at last year’s cross-genre festival and became a complete convert- as in this woman can do no wrong and even when she is wrong it is still a wrong that I’m happy to defend.

The exchange in Jacket2 embodies much of what I disliked about the earlier version. There is mention of Bataille, Arendt, Kant, Adorno and others as if to add some notion of academic credibility but which has the effect of deterring most interested readers. The exchange isn’t as revealing as other interviews that Place has given mainly because this has all the insiderist smugness of the conceptualist coterie. There are some interesting points made about appropriation and about the function of text and speech that give me further food for thought and anything that brings Place’s work to a wider audience has to be a good thing- even though I would have been deterred by this without some prior knowledge.
Place makes some really good points and then makes some others that sound good but aren’t – arguments about authenticity and appropriation aren’t the same as ‘lies and truth’ and I’m not sure that lies are the opposite of truth in this particular context even though it sounds right.

I think that I’ve said all that I need to about “Dog Ear” except to note that I’m now of the view that the spectral “Card Catalogue” is probably the better work.

Caroline Bergvall takes language and the visual representation of language very very seriously but her work isn’t either sombre or portentous. Having read the interview in Jacket I wish I’d gone to see her Southampton show (I had the opportunity, it’s quite nearby and I wanted to see it…) when I had the chance. “Meddle English” is, as you’d expect an extended riff on all things Chaucer mixed in with bits of Russell Hoban and some earlier stuff that’s probably a bit too close to the dialogue from “A Clockwork Orange”.

I am however very fond of “Untitled” primarily because it uses a kind of repetition which is masquerading as notation. Here’s the last two lines of the third stanza:

piano ALL horns WITHOUT ONE GUT horns bass TRYIN horns MAKEITREAL
horns bass piano BUT COMPARED TO WHAT horns bass

There’s also an instance of repetition in “Goan Atom (Doll)” but I want to save that for the next part of the slow poetry manifesto. The interviewer is a bit fawning and doesn’t really ask particularly searching questions but it’s certainly a good introduction to the work and the thinking behind it.
One final point, before we get any further can they please fix the navigation- something even vaguely usable would be an enormous improvement on the current offering.