The Complete Poems of Howard McCord. Blue Creek, Ohio: Bloody Twin Press, 2002. 439 pages. $20, cloth.
A Complete Poems should be as resistant to tidy summation, to comprehensive review, as a life. The Complete Poems of Howard McCord is. In fact, this last sentence alone conveys enough, the heart of honest criticism, all that can and need be said about a book without belaboring its immutable essence, the very fact of it: The Complete Poems of Howard McCord is (and does its own speaking).
In the face of this, a reviewer might do best to step aside—it’s easy to avoid comment, and, in any case, I prefer my silence to the prattle I can generate when pressed to speak. Here, though, I can’t help myself. I’ve read a book, as if for the first time, fresh from the mystery of naming things, and I can’t leave its poems alone. Four months have passed in this way. I have learned names, shared meals, traveled and talked with them like a man long starved of company. It would be a violation of fellowship not to respond to their collective arrival in the world. Besides, they make sure friends—I want others to know them.
But where now to start the invitation? My copy opens to page 252, suggests that nothing, which is to say everything, is random. I may as well begin "In Iceland":
If there are wild men,
they love gently.
They wash their bodies
in streams we drink
from, and we do not
They hunt with the skill
of a willow moving to
the wind—one egg, one fowl,
one fish a day, and the sweet root
of angelica, which even
the clumsy may stalk.
If there are wild men,
you will know it
only by the snapped bleat
of a ewe some dawn,
or a bottle of good Polish
vodka gone from your tent.
Details may leap to mind at first: the fabulist’s authority, born of experience and wed to a wry, prodding smile (is the wild one here among us, after all?); the deceptively plainspoken skill that effaces itself in embracing all possibilities (witness the pun inherent in "stalk"); and a cool, detached urgency that seems to announce, "Reader, it’s only your life that’s at stake." (This craft deserves a separate treatment.)
Beyond all this, though, the poem, like the book itself, unfolds a map that calls me from its edges to the interior. It clearly knows the way, so I follow.
What I find lures out of hiding a self-exiled hermit cartographer at work: "The page is a mind’s track./Everything reveals. It is not necessary to read./Wittgenstein is folded in the limestone" ("Listening to Maps"). At work? Yes, but also always at play, here and throughout––Poe’s "Imp of the Perverse" walks the shadows of these poems, flashing on occasion to the foreground with a grimace shaped to reassure and shock in equal parts.
Necessary or not, I read on, desultorily, taking comfort in not needing a plan, led up and down each scarp by titles and the bright will of my compelled hand. Every page affords a finger-hold. When I slip, I trust my fall, get up. I’ve gone too far, too greedily, over new terrain to want to find my way back now.
After delight in "Longjaunes His Periplus" ("A chest of maps/is a greater legacy/than a case of whisky") and "Hunting Canaries With Robert Bly" ("I want the one, sd Robert/with the yellow eyes, the/eyes that wd be green if/his feathers were"), I land in the good, warm company of "The Old Beast Dead at Mainz":
The old beast at the stake
burns like wet velvet.
"I smell better
when I fart," he
shouts to the crowd.
Through the applause
his hair shrieks
like a halo.
"You may not believe,"
the old beast mumbles
at the smoke,
"but I’m due back
"I’ll resurrect as a raven-
bird, and bite your daughter’s
ass and tits in dreams."
"And what I get her with
will press you slow
along the throat
and never speak
and not be killed."
Do not despair.
Where Faust and Mephistopheles conjoin, the old beast arrives, trailing fire, anarchic brimstone, and the musk of eighty-proof lechery, as in this stretch of "Old Beast Talk":
The old beast curls on the stool.
His mouth is wet.
Bourbon is philosophy
at 8 a.m.
"I take my love affairs
like books," he says.
"When I did reviews, I read
nothing I could not praise,
and praised some things
I had not read."
The barkeep nods.
"So let it be with women.
I like to fool around a bit.
Winter’s the best for dalliance.
Young wives with dull husbands
watch the sky for signs, and I
I understand the worst beasts shoot first always, the best shoot from the hip. This one does both. His worldview preaches unity, leads him to treat the callow and the considered, not each according to its measure, but as one. He has no age, never misses supper (he knows how to find sustenance in drink). To show the way, he romps like a satyr reared on scotch, Job and Chuang Tzu throughout the eponymous cycle’s twenty-four poems.
Now I pass through "Peach Mountain Smoke Out," "Two There Are I Wish to Celebrate," "Li Po as Greek Kachina." I trust they chide me—each demands to be quoted in full. Next come "Julia at Nineteen," "More Physics." Now the "Jennifer," poems (all twelve titled "Jennifer,"), such as this, on page 257:
It is called Breaking
Out of the Ground
and it is done by
I have begun to see
a slim wise country lass
in the paper. The keys
of the typewriter
never strike her.
She walks through them
as though they were brambles
or monoliths, amused.
And at this point
I know it is called
Breaking Out of the Ground
and it is done by
I forge ahead, rest a while, return, following my own tracks set down perfectly inside those that lead me. I’m coming to have a sense of what drives me to walk, with or without direction, through these pages, wherever they may point. In any case, walking here, in the clarity of aphorism, narrative, epigram, the erudite, human company of one who makes and masters trails, has cleared my head. If I get lost in the wilderness, so be it. Let them call off the search. I plan to stay.
I want to list each poem, print them all, hold them up like a child raving in the first blush of discovery. I want to add my note of admiration: Look what I found! But that’s what the collection is for—to point, name, doubt, affirm, for everyone down here. Like Uncle Walt’s great Song, The Complete Poems of Howard McCord celebrates itself, the world, by unselfconsciously taking on the ten thousand things, blessing and damning (the old dualities) as it goes.
As for McCord the man, there’s no use in trying to track him. He’s up in the hills, blending into the rock, always one step and two thoughts ahead. If he wants to, he’ll find us. In the meantime, we’d do well to sleep with our eyes open and our vodka under the pillow. Better yet, we should simply keep the book open. McCord & Friends are throwing us all one hell of a party inside.
—Christof Scheele, Bowling Green State University
The Complete Poems of Howard McCord> is available from: Bloody Twin Press, 7570 Upper Twin Creek, Blue Creek, Ohio 45616. $20 cloth, $40 hardback, plus $5 shipping and handling.
A Product of Mind—hinge: a BOAS anthology
hinge: a BOAS anthology grew out of a series of semi-regular meetings by 8 writers, who spent their time together asking questions about the nature of writing and what it means to be writing once one moves out of school and into the day-to-day operations of the working life. What is the work that writing asks of us? And how do we work together to make the work of writing a burden that, when we share it, becomes the light in the sky, the light of literature?
(A word of caution: I'm skeptical about the notion of a collective—not because collectives don't exist, but rather because the idea of a new world that knows how to operate better than the one the rest of us are in tends to overshadow the main function of the book—what it is as a piece of writing, and, more importantly, what kind of writing it wants to be, what it will reveal to us by way of writing. So I want to steer clear of the danger of utopia, towards the reality that lives in literature— that which we are always about to know, what we are readying ourselves to learn.)
The light that shines in hinge is the day becoming night, where the time does not determine the time. The writing is multi-dimensional, operating both on the level of the individual poem (Stefani Barber, Erin Wilson) and the extended work (Jean Lieske, Elise Ficarra, Lauren Schiffman, Nicole Stefanko), while both Sarah Rosenthal and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa weigh in with 10-page pieces, part poem, part prose. There is an elasticity to the form here—not only because any form is valid, but also because the book makes the case that the singular, isolate form of an individual poem will not contain what needs to be said. Because literature is about the essential language, what needs be said, what cannot be held back once the words begin (where the world begins outside of itself – as Dhompa notes, "Irrevocable. Because it cannot be so."). But hinge also clarifies the point that language, for all the essence it is in literature, will not essentialize the world beyond it or crystallize the meaning of the world (or the collective in the world) for its own purpose. We cannot fully control language, but we can harness it by looking hard at it, by picking it up and examining its object-hood, how we as subjects can still make things, can still create multiple happenings through words, as words.
And hinge is a world within the world of language—not one where we do not live (or cannot live because we weren't there, a document of what we will never be), but one into which, once we are invited, we open our eyes ever wider before the words, fascinated by what we do not yet know how to read. The entire approach to genre in hinge fascinates—what makes a poem a poem and not a story? What makes prose behave differently than a poem? And do we even need to continue the discussion outside the genre? Because the discussion of genre is happening, but without the self-conscious act of saying anything about genre through addressing genre as if it were an object that, once one is outside it, stands for something that is not literature at that very moment. And hinge is inside, totally and completely within its means as a literary act.
The image of jazz, too, arose in reading, another example of time and light and genre twisting together to form something truly other—how, in a jam session, each soloist stands up and shouts, and, with the strength of their sound, creates the uniqueness to which only they are responsible, but which, when added up and contrasted with each of the other soloists, creates the collective for which they are all responsible (even the audience, who becomes part of the "they") if only until the music ends. Then it's back to conversation, maybe getting something to eat or swilling a drink before driving home to the silence and solitude to which we are all eventually given. In hinge what is collective is the contrast, the radical difference between the writings and the project each has undertaken. And each settles back into their own solitude (evidenced by the "working notes" that follow each writer's anthologized project.) For if each project relates, it is only by way of an intent towards language, to uncover it even further, to unleash it and reveal what is at its core. (Rosenthal: "she skirts utter despair through her ability to make hay of her conditions, to entertain herself through them.")
Is the entertainment what the writing contains, or is the reading entertaining the writing that keeps switching its modalities and codes? hinge opens the space for us to see what each codes says; hinge enters us into literature, where the space is always as hollow or full as the writing makes it; hinge is full of the space that literature, when given the opportunity to multiply itself, can become through the meaning of this same opportunity—to speak, and never to not speak, but never to not think of what it is to speak—and to want that, too.
(To order hinge: www.spdbooks.com; for more information on BOAS: www.crackpress.org.)
In his statement for the "Enough!" reading* held on March 9 at The Bowery Club, in celebration of O Books's anthology of the same title, Charles Bernstein proclaims the following:
"As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans."
At first blush, any poet alarmed by the imperial policies of the new national security state could hardly disagree: Of course poets should honestly follow the paths of their own forms of ethical and aesthetic response… Poets of all different stripes are doing so, in response to the coming war, in inspiringly multifarious ways… And truly, yes, it is harmful to dismiss discourses other than your own through presumptuous decree…
But it soon becomes clear that the real, unnamed target of Bernstein's cry of "Enough!" is not the moral arrogance of the Bush administration, but the "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages," as he puts it, of the thousands of poems appearing at Sam Hamill's amazingly popular Poets Against the War site. And when one realizes this and pauses to reflect on Bernstein’s brief manifesto, one wants to ask: Has there ever been, in the young history of 21st century American poetry, a moral decree more astonishingly blind to the ironies of its own arrogance? The moral righteousness is so obvious, in fact, that one wonders if Bernstein is not perhaps pulling a trademark funny one on his audience.
Alas, he’s quite serious. Quoting Bush that America's purpose is to achieve "results," Bernstein retorts that such authoritative decree "alone provides sufficient evidence to oppose his policies. What our America stands on, its foundation, is a commitment to process over results, to finding by doing, to thinking by responding. Solutions made outside of an open-ended process compound whatever problems we face."
Yes, indeed. But there's no room for "an open-ended process," it appears, when it comes to discovering the different kinds of poetry that might be fit and effective for the times—fit and effective for those different reading communities of citizens that make up our nation, not all of whom share Bernstein’s aesthetic tastes: For Bernstein, in fact, any poetic discourse against the impending war, if it is to be of value—or, even, if it is not to be complicit with the powers that be—must eschew the "language of social and linguistic norms" and demonstrate, instead, measures of "ambiguity," "complexity," and "skepticism" capable of exploring the ways such norms "are used to discipline and contain dissent"—as if these last three qualities were the exclusive domain of a particular literary current.
Those who have been following the discussion in "innovative" poetic circles about poetry's role in the current period should be able to see that Bernstein intends his statement, in part, as a response to Eliot Weinberger's talk of a few weeks back at the Poetry Project. In characteristically clear and pointed address, Weinberger reminded his listeners, not all of whom were happy to hear it, that nearly all great and lasting anti-war poetry (that of the Vietnam war, for recent and stirring example) is overtly political and written in language that approximates the "norm" (again, Bernstein's accusatory term)—a poetry, that is, that lends itself to ways of reading that are closer to the "norm" than those demanded by a poetics of abstract surface and self-reflexive speculation.
That this is so is quite simply a matter of history, and it's clear that this touches a nerve for Bernstein, since it runs directly counter to the claims of radical relevance that Language poetry has made for itself since Robert Grenier wrote "I HATE SPEECH". Indeed, the relative silence from old-guard Language poets in the present crisis (the younger "post-avants" they have often scolded for not being "political" enough are the ones now engaged in forging a poetics of activism) begins to suggest that their "ambiguous," "complex," "skeptical" and, increasingly, academically-contextualized poetics really has little to currently offer beyond prescriptive pronouncements like Bernstein's—pronouncements that fundamentally conflate ethics and aesthetics, and which, in so doing, preempt any idea of democratic dialogue and political unity within the multifarious poetic community. Thus does Bernstein, in his statement, show himself to be exclusivist and fundamentalist in his poetics, and—in his superior ideological dispensations—an ironic after-echo of the intolerant rulers he would oppose.
Times of quickening crisis famously clarify things previously obscured by cultural inertia. In this particular time, an "avant-garde" circle, long insistent of the vanguard nature of its theory and practice, is being shown to be more or less pulling up the cultural rear. And its members’ patronizing snipes against poets speaking out with courage and force are starting to sound like sour-grape complaints about being left behind.
To them, a simple suggestion: Enough.
* Bernstein’s March 10 post, titled "Enough!" can be found in the Poetics List archives, at http://listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu/archives/poetics.html