Friday, September 24, 2010

"Catch Back The Quantity": Our Prose Now, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, and the Poetic novel

"The tear of wine is still in his cup to catch back the quantity of its bereavement" wrote Djuna Barnes in the Watchman, What of the Night section of Nightwood. That single fragment catches me (to speak of "catch back the quantity". . . ) and the layers of implication in this combination of words astonishes me. I will not go into these layers here. I will offer that, while parts of Nightwood (the Plainfield book sale edition I now have touts Nightwood's successful run at twenty-eight printings [so far]) are not in my normal line of content, the language does tell me a lot about where I know my roots to be.

As some readers will in Che., I have picked through Barnes' text pages at a time. For me, reading is about what's potent there. (The physical object of the original book [small and thick for a side pocket, purple--but with minute splatters of ink] is another thing to behold, aroma and care. . . something that grace gifted age and handling; even that book I have opened sparingly, perhaps a bit like a special garment, with purpose.)

As a side note, it's liberating to identify the still-present typo [page 82, "And why. . . "] in New Directions' twenty-eigth printing (as if the minor technicalities of production don't matter: Let us bring your attention to the content, beneath and inside the word.)

Try giving your ear and tongue to this, by--of all fluidity!--Mr. T.S. Eliot: "One is liable to expect people to see, on their first reading of a book, all that one has come to perceive in the course of a developing intimacy with it. . . What one can do for other readers. . .is to trace the more significant phases of one's own appreciation. . . For it took me, with this book, some time to come to an appreciation of its meaning as a whole." This, remarkably, is from the New Directions introduction to Barnes' Nightwood. He begins to clarify: "In describing Nightwood for the purpose o attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would 'appeal primarily to readers of poetry.' This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little." Here's how the master poet Eliot continues, in prose, about Barnes' "prose":

"I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language [blogger's aside: perhaps this is where I got the "astonishing"--though it feels apt] covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term 'novel' has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes's style is 'poetic prose.' . . . A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." This was thoughtfully composed in 1937.

What happened to the reader between 1937 and, say, now? The reader of popular fiction in 1937 faced many of the same overwhelming choices readers confront (or ignore) now. The reading population since the industrial printing press has been sold and educated on a mass market of theme and type, character and rhythm, text and context, content and form. But here in Nightwood, another century forward, there are voices and perceptions--phrases and words--in the tribe that spark, astonish, echo, repeat. . . and pick for their instruments and tune a vibe that is potent, that is now, that we enliven (even in our pause to accept it) ourselves and each other to the blast of reality or to the sublime of a reverie and insight we have found there. May the goodness continue.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pushed Buttons: Che as friend or foe; the book is not a wall but a gate.

Have you yet been blinded by a word? There have been times the sight of a name has made me sick. In Dublin, Ireland, it was 1984, as my friends and I could not believe America would accept more and more restrictions (in education, particularly) from President Reagan—a bully leader, we felt, who appeared to have little sympathy for anyone who couldn’t rise from struggles without help (those dying from AIDS, or those raising a family on a welfare check, or students trying to pay for four years of an education themselves). In recent past years it was difficult news whatever followed “W” and “Bush.” There was a human story on the other end of it, someone who was suffering unnecessarily as a direct result of a strident decision—and things were not going to work out so well for them.

What is the good reason why those who would be friends, great friends, attending each other’s births, birthdays, memorials and holiday vacations, consign sides—the dispute over a split hair’s width of supposed idealistic entrenchment—cannot admit a place of mutual sympathy over three letters? If the same letters were found in a Chinese alphabet they’d be uttered in forty different ways, yes? and each way would offer a new meaning. Since when must we destroy curiosity in order to preserve our strict identify, line-drawn-fact-of-opinion, our suffering?

If you’ve ever felt you’ve been on the outside of things—the norm, the popular, raise, place, merit, a culture, economic expectation; if you’ve ever been on the downside of social security affording not meds or your own bed, if you’ve ever identified with the homeless, heard the news of the family place burning down to the ground to nothing—well, then, you know the beat. Our chambers keep a tight muscle. Love and forgiveness begin to express the common language, through any context.

Che, El Che, is an icon and opinions are strongly divided (to understate the unfortunate fact) as to the degrees to which he may have been “terrorist” or “saint” at any measurable point in his living. I invite you to the Wikipedia site, which reflects edited collected scholarship in an array of evidence and assertion ( We find the words attributed to Susan Sontag: Che’s “goal was nothing less than the cause of humanity.” Of course, the family members of any victim of violence could understandably take issue with “[an act of] the cause of humanity” taking the life of their loved one. Yet do we reasonably argue with one who noted the icon’s “inspiration for every human being who ever aspired to freedom”—particularly when the human being saying that was Nelson Mandela? Freedom is difficult for any extreme, but to one who has been oppressed and then imprisoned (a matter of speech, too) there must be at least some sympathy for the links between struggle and liberation.

Text, and any art that won’t destroy a human being in the mortal and ontological sense, is sad paranoia’s gift-elixir and candor’s masterfully ordinary muse. Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift relieve us of time’s baggage, if we are open to reading the same stars together—one by one, in awe.

So how do we “inflect” ourselves/our breath/these syllables mono or many so that we do not invite reactive rejections of our observations, unique in rhythm and melody, especially in a tide of text that seeks love and forgiveness?

Singer Richard Shindell’s song (using the same three letters that challenged my reader even before a page was turned) describes a man imprisoned longer for, it would seem, carrying in his wallet a photo of his girlfriend who is wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt.

Perhaps it is not the rebel’s violence we celebrate (it cannot be), perhaps we celebrate power to the powerless by voice and by raised fist that declares: We are human beings and we will live humanly, not by force or dictate. Perhaps it is the notion of the underdog against brutal inequity. There are brutalities across class, economies, cultures. Each should be questioned.

My Che. is about observation, texture, sensuality, image, musicality, gesture, invention, evaluation, imagination, dream, people, friendships, renewal, joy, recognition, struggle, fruition. The novella Che. is an invitation to kindle your sensual relationship with a world of your making through language. Where there is a blood stain, we pause. Where there is tide on clear days we become thankful for what tide has brought .

The poetic is never too tightly bound in prose as to prompt wars (and if it does, it becomes something else, something it never was). The poetic encourages matters of loving where there had previously been dispute. The poetic leaves you in a space for astonishment, where love takes place.

Twenty-three years ago I donned a beret, in India. A friend I’d met in Hyannis had worn it in the India national touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. In Bombay, he thought I should wear it while hanging on to the back of his motorcycle (I suppose to keep us out of trouble [the idea being I might pass for a police officer as we sped along]). Of course my father, a Marine—now in his 80s—introduced the concept of men in hats and uniforms when I was a boy (he became a teacher, and: a Veteran For Peace). Twenty-four years ago I began wearing a beard (before I met Ginsberg, before I ever thought about Che in these terms). And, yes, I own two “Che” t-shirts, neither of which revels in any particular version of the history of El Che, Che Guevara.

Yevgeny Yevhushenko—whom I saw and met at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater panel and reading last week (I’ve posted video of Yevhushenko reading, in a unique but poetic presentation—made possible only because I could not see the man himself: . . Yevhushenko (interesting that there is hush in the middle of his name. . . ) said, while describing the soccer game between Russian soldiers and German soldiers after the war, “It Is Never Too Late For Forgiveness.”

Don’t you ever build a wall between you and the gifts of words in expression. Nothing is worth that coldness and isolation.