Thursday, September 29, 2011


I didn't think I would make it, but I pulled things together and found myself at my number one ticket for the fall - Kurt Schwitters' Color and Collage, at the Berkeley Art Museum. It's an incredible show, with two sides, or perhaps it's one show of incredible collage with a very cool supplement. In the end, not exactly what I expected, but I'll quit foreshadowing and try to explain.
Color and Collage is Schwitters' first single-artist retrospective held in the United States in 25 years. It features primarily collages (which he would refer to as drawings, paintings, or Merz) from the Berlin period, where he spent most of his career, moving to Norway in 1937 (read: fleeing the Nazis), and there are just a couple pieces from this period, and then leaving Norway for London, where he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1948. There are a number of London pieces, and, like Norway there are surprising differences between each period, Norway I would call the stark difference, save for that it is so underrepresented (so few works survive), it is probably a stretch to make any generalizing claims about the Norway work.
As you should now, in each locale- Berlin, Norway (Oslo? - I'll check later), London- Schwitters built into each of his living spaces an incredible architectural collage, which he called Merzbau. The first two were destroyed, the London Merzbau I believe still exists. I had thought that this exhibition was an actual reconstruction of the London Merzbau, but it in fact only includes a replica of the Norway Merzbau based on photographs. This replica of Merzbau doesn't end up being as impressive as my dreams- it's more informative than aesthetic, with scraps from the photographs that the Merzbau replica was based on included architecturally. These documentary insertions give some idea, I guess as how to compare the replica to the original (the replica is clearly more spare), and in some ways it comes off as quaint. It is, however, um, very cool. We are given a into into the end-point of Cubism.
Schwitters, just for the record, does seem to have Merzbau as integrally related to Cubism, btw.
And the dialogue between the two (thinking of the early Picasso and Braque with the single train ticket or newspaper fragment pasted into an oil painting, ending in the Merzbau's haunting subconsious of white paint, angles, and fragments- detritus from art and life) is incredible. The suggestions of the realtionship between Schwitters, or Merz (as he referred to his one-man movement) and other art movements is also telling.
In the mid-twenties, Schwitters became close, at least briefly to El Lissitzky and Theo Van Doesburg (Constructivism and DeStijl represented in these figures). There is a three-dimensional (I should say more three-dimensional, as most of the Merz pieces are more or less three-dimensional) piece called "Merz 1924,1. Relief mit Kreuz und Kugel" (Relief with Cross and Ball), where you have the cross, really a fragment of a grid coming from the wall, almost a half foot deep, in grays and black, hugging a red ball. Above all of these is pasted a fragment of an imagined surface, what appears to be an architectural sketch of solid and broken intersecting diagonal lines on a beige paper, which appears like a fragment of an imagined surface, suggestive of skin, or a surface unrefined. This is the more typical Merz in this fragment, placed above the "perfect" academic skeleton of deStijl.
Schwitters' collages of detritus refuse the vainglory or artists of excision (Pound, Broodthaers, myself) off their subjects. Was this, were these collages a long mediation on, or following, Picasso's sticking of a train ticket onto wet paint? Did Picasso grow weary of glorious art, knowing that he could "lower" his art with this gesture and still be praised for it? There may have been a formalism or structure in those first Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, but it also may have been born there.
Schwitters' pitting of "sense against nonsense" is an analysis, or a celebration of art and its edge, the ledge where art is overlapping with happenstance. The interest seems to be something beyond chance, or beneath it. Merz is perfectly impure. It may contain some formalistic superstructure, some "design sense" but the details of the piece will resist it. One possible reading of the Merz collages are as examinations of the design principle, abstract formalism, undermined by the elements of the units of collage.
In "Iockere Vierecke" (loose rectangles) there is a horizontal crease, a the trace of a fold not quite halfway down the collage, which reminds me of Courbet's "Burial at Ornans," which I saw at the Musee d'Orsay in 2006. The Burial at Ornans was also apparently folded twice, causing the museum lighting to create a glare on the upper portion of the painting (which is one of the largest paintings I have ever seen), making it very difficult to see. This crease, in Schwitters' collage, does not so much contrast with as appear to be a nuanced evolution from the nail he would drive into a collage, in his words: "so as to produce a plastic relief apart from the pictorial quality of the paintings. I did this so as to efface the boundaries between the arts." With the crease here a step further is taken. A quality, as a nail or frame is a quality, showing itself thru light, apart from the ages, a-temporal, reflecting the clumsiness of the hand without the necessity of intentions, though also without the necessity of that intention's lacking. It runs thru the various papers, scraps, that compose Iockere Vierecke, and is reminiscent of others, of wrinkles in the individual scraps, which suddenly appear to be deltas or the confluence of rivers, running alongside the mountain range the crease appears to be in this light, before it all turns back to garbage.

remove the appearance
of human intention
and then remove the
apparition of natural
the result is not of
the world but is one,

all, a new but not
recent, built neither
on the back of man or
nature, which break
with the idiom

create connection
if possible between
the world

play off sense
against nonsense
producing a third)

no pictures allowed in here

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Last night I saw Sarah Dougher's musical rendition of Leslie Scalapino's Fin de Siècle, presented as a part of PICA's TBA festival. The composition was arranged for five voices, piano, and a small ensemble (I can't find a list of what composed that small ensemble, though I recall percussion, cello, trombone, possibly violin and trumpet). I saw an early iteration of this at the memorial for Leslie Scalapino last February, which consisted of a fragment, one or two movements, of the first of the three plays that make up Fin de Siècle, for voices and piano.
I am not very familiar with Dougher's work, that is to say I am not outside of these two performances I have seen over the last nine months. I have some knowledge that she has a background as a singer-songwriter, but she also has done arrangements of poetry by Robert Duncan and William Stafford. That information, which is to me a particularly interesting collage of a creative background, informs the different aspects that mark this production of Fin de Siècle. I was often reminded of early choral music, Arte Nova, and certainly more contemporary musics in the dissonances, but most of the dissonances in the piece were not tonal. Rather, there are flatnesses, but I'm not sure they didn't mirror Scalapino's language, which, in Fin de Siècle, truly reflected her horror at the contemporary world, in all her (Scalapino's) inability to communicate it. Lines like

the construction worker says
the person being murdered
being in that section is understandable

communicates, absolutely, a weariness on the part of both herself and the rest of us at the end of history, that flatness communicated in

we haven't changed any
from the time of Genghis Khan
we have a
fin de siècle

The flatness to her observational language needs a dissonance to mirror it, and it is surprising that Dougher seemed to look before and after modern music to illustrate it, in early choral music, and to some degree in indie rock, as often passages would be puncttuated by little flourishes on the xylophone. I'm sure it was more effective than I'm making it sound, in fact what Dougher and her ensemble brought in the marriage of "high and low" musics, what came out in the Third Way of it, was one of the most interesting aspects of the performance. I was particularly taken in by long expressive asides from the trombone.
One last element that I think is crucial: how do you carry, or choose not to carry, Scalapino's voice as it exists beneath her work. I understand to get to the meat of Scalapino's difficult syntax Dougher wrote out, re-wrote, Fin de Siècle, to get a sense of it, which I'm sure was absolutely necessary. I myself wasn't able to penetrate her written work until hearing a recording of her reading, which left me mesmerized, and also understanding something different about the work. Scalapino uses a caesura in her line that is very particular, and not easy to get the meaning or music of. It is not completely unlike Creeley, slicing open clauses, because one can and generally does not, which opens up a statement, in the way the poets called Language would open one up, to the reading of statement itself, its meaning and its musics.
Though rough around the edges, I enjoyed Dougher's Fin de Siècle. It is rare that a great, and especially as experimental a poem or poet gets treated, in a traditional but not derivative manner, and I look forward to the next.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Raisin Bran in the Sink

A few years ago, I was talking with J---- about form. He was embittered towards formalist poetics, or perhaps this notion of a poem with a particular shape, toward which the poet would direct his or her language, and the poem was the result of that language taking shape in the repeatable form. Interesting enough the poets invoked in that conversation, when I really was still making my survey of "what was going on right now," that those poets have been those I now return to again and again.
At the same time, a few years ago, browsing the independents, having received the issues of SCORE magazine that introduced me to so much of this strange edge- I came across rOlling COMBers by John M. Bennett (Potes & Poets). If I was at this point looking for language acts and events at their strangest, I was piqued. Bizarre fonts, even more bizarre handwriting ("writhing"), a dramatis personae of combs, foam, and stains, a mise-en-scene too aware of the mess of ink it is the remains of.
There are a few different "forms" at work, vaguely similar shapes or tendencies to the event that groups the language together. Sometimes it's word-parts capitalized to write hidden messages within the poem. Other times it's words vertically entering and subsequently sharing other letters in the paragraph. The vague groupings blur with each other to make new forms, and yet each poem, as well as each form, remains distinct though related. More like categories than series. Similar to each other, but not to any other work by any other poet I have encountered.
It's source is the skull, and the method invokes what I've seen referred to as the "swarm of being." Being being our presence in the repetitious, abject stuff that stuck to the drain? That language amkes ever the more multiple- that is language likened to thought. I've liked him to an e.e. cummings of the back of the head. Another poet who contemporary moderns don't seem to think much of. Is it too ubiquitous? Too familliar, in the end (which is a strange claim to make for e.e.c. or j.m.b.)?
Back again to the question of form- John is, to my knowledge, the most prolific poet working by hand, type, sound & video living. I have gotten three to five new poems from him almost every day for a couple years, and that's, I know, just what he is sharing on this poarticular listserv. Part of his ability to do this must be his interest and intensity at devising forms (poetic in their own right) and exhausting them, or if he's not exhausting them, cracking them open and creating new forms.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

When this you see...

Someone else already has a blog dedicated to this (and it's not Ron), but it seems like a good place to start. I've had two dreams involving Ron Silliman (don't worry, that's as creepy as it gets). The first was in 2009, and he wasn't in it, but the dream was about a form of poetry involving a system of shifting colors throughout a text, a mnemonic device that would control a system of permutations. It was clearly inspired by some things he actually said in The Age of Huts. If you write the same sentence in a different pen, is it a different sentence (forgive me, I'm paraphrasing). I began the poem, actually using the strategy (poorly described here, and for good reason), sometime around last January, and am halfway through it.

The second dream, more recent was about catching him read at an arena (and I want to say in Seattle, but, again, it was in my head). A huge event space, and we got good seats. I was excited. I will be excited to finally see him read the first week of November, in New York.

The Age of Huts may be the first book of contemporary poetry I ever picked up (though there was a stack of others to follow it). I must have discovered the blog around the same time, and shortly thereafter met the poets of Portland, and as the dialogues began, here in place, and the web in space, I found myself in awe of the side of poetry that is theory and opinion. The former I think I was predisposed to, though it was mostly private, and before I realized there was a nebulous community simulteneously here and there, it was much for general, for me, than something concerning poetry. Opinion- how can I claim to be unfailiar to its auspices. And yet it seemed to me like a large bat slowly opening its wings before me, or a sad flag sagging at first, and then beginning to beat fiercely.

One of the first things I noticed in this new world was the disdain of the various for the choices Ron made with his spotlight. The opinion of opinion. He certainly has made interesting choices on the light itself he chooses to cast, especially with his reorganization of the hierarchies of those at work into the School of Quietude and the post-avant, with a certain appreciation for the latter, though the connotation of the name is not necessarily positive from a modernist standpoint, and then the School of Quietude, an aggrandizing name to some degree, for the apparent opposition. From this vantage, I believe him to be more diplomatic than he sometimes gets credit for. I have on at least one occasion noted his appreciation for certain Quietists, so the label (basically undefined, again) does not refer to things like 'good' or 'bad' poetry.

As a poet, and critic, I think he is a practitioner of great subtlety. I see his forebear, or a very significant forebear as a writer to Ron being the composer (and writer) John Cage. He at least within his own work seems to be invested in the indeterminacy of experience, his work a chronicle of his rotating and shifting perceptions. Not non-egoic, to be sure, the tradition appears to be in the independence of each sentence or statement as it follows the last, in his long work, The Age of Huts. He at one point thought he would contain all of his work in a single poem called the Alphabet, but it doesn't seem the alphabet was large enough a signifier, as he now places the Alphabet aside Universe, alongside Tjanting and Age of Huts, as Ketjak.

Another thing I can appreciate is one who changes their mind. Creating an arc, and ark. Look forward to seeing you, and remember.