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A revised, expanded Rest Note : includes new chapter of thingo-in-progress, Fontegaia.


Last puzzle-piece for Fontegaia, chapt. 2 :

28 (coda)

So the Tuscan tinkers' toy Troy-town
on the hilltop (miniature Hippo
in the August sun) is ensign now
of end-signs (Jonah diving underground).

As eighteen tender feet translate to nine
spheres circling the sunlight glimmering
in streambeds brimful from the swelling
horse's hoof (gold-beaten shoe-iron)

one distempered Hobo (smoking pot
on mossy bank) dips his toes
in winking night, 'mid rows
of rock-doves in a railroad lot.


They raced beneath the tower there
for the joy of racing, just as
a pride of lions circles a carcass.
Fabulous exfoliation, flair

of summer flares, embodiment
of equilibrium of men and horses,
laughter and money, knives,
smiles... the ancient, famous

tournament. Stiff-neck mastery
of recreation. A gimp-legged
padre (or his younger brother)
pegs last place (stigmata-victory).


Early in the morning, only a trickle
in the fountain. For the boy's
best friend (a brittle wooden horse)
it is sufficient unto the day. O fickle

people! - a child shall lead you then.
Alongside the last-place colt
of goofy Bernardino (grinning dolt
of God) a merry band or procession

of beggar-lads... the fool's parade
circles the Campo, heads to Cathedral
where they'll toast the empty saddle
once again - O dim charade, slow oracle!

I wonder if there's not something overly passive in Paul Fry's concept of the "ostensive" moment as the defining characteristic of lyric poetry. I'm not done with the book yet, & I know he has a chapter specifically addressing "negative theology" and quietism in relation to his concept - so I'm probably jumping the gun.) It's as if the political/controversial stakes have become so intense and byzantine in theoretical-historicist literary crit, that eventually some such notion had to be found just to let off the pressure (without becoming, heaven forbid, "a-political"!).

Guess I would tend to think of humankind as naturally, genetically, political - in the sense of creating adaptive orders of social life on earth; and that the a-human or pre-human ("ostensive") reality of non-referential stasis, or "mere being", will always be subject to human adaptation (even if its source, its paradoxical/cthonic power, is non-human).

In my view, the charming stasis or equilibrium of lyric poetry stems from the same root as pastoral - a "peaceable kingdom" hidden within the present & representing a (future) better state of things on earth. It may indeed be a mingling of the human and the non-human, or the human and "nature"; but I wouldn't equate such a state with non-meaning, or some transcendence of, or vacation from, meaning itself. This is too reductive. This state ("quietude?"), along with everything else, will not evade interpretation. Everything is interpretable.

I think one of Fry's main points is that lyric poetry humbles the pride of intellect (interpretation) - restores the balance of actuality and our names for it. I would agree with this (though he might not agree with my spin on his position...). But one can imagine a humbled intellect still active, still interpreting,, still "figuring out" that ultimate global Day of rest.

(& actually, Fry's passage on Virgil's bees (in the Georgics) presents such an image of "active rest". Maybe there's more on this in the chapters I haven't got to yet.)


Winding down 2nd chapter of Fontegaia poem. Finally found some time to work on it.


Herds of autumn leaves like red-
gold seahorse-centaurs race now
(ceremonially) toward the ground.
The pennants of each neighborhood

of every hilltop Tuscan town strive
to outdo themselves. Cocky rivalry
of pennate foliage - circadian chivalry
of bagpipes, droning in a restive hive.

Numb roots of the trees still thirst
toward snow. In the centaur's heart
(a horse chestnut at the center
of the swirling hubbub's hum) a wasted

wasp, forsaken, crawls toward the border
of bridled boudoir, fainting, slow...
Ajax burdened with an axle-wheel,
a naked mule dragging a suitor's quarrel.

Omphalos moat, dawn water
for the dying. The river's fluting
now. Last leg of labyrinthine fling.
A drone flotilla (shrivelled to mutter)

accompanies her fluent aria
with muted paddling of tender feet
round aureole-knoll called Complete
(knot drawn tight; flight's last cry).

The mingled alloys of the leaves say
near, near. Profile of a referee
at apex of the cobweb-tracery
of Palio and round-dance (planetary) -

sliver-shadow of the solar One,
lanternglow of pulsing jockey-Jacques;
a morsel of the moon in parallax,
a ripple in the stream (yon Hobo's hon).


Reading along in Paul Fry's Defense of Poetry. I haven't even gotten to the chapter in which he zeroes in on theology (contrasting the "mere being" of his "insignificant" ground, with traditional via negativa theology). But I get to thinking as I read along that he reminds of John Locke & the other 18th-cent. materialists with whom Berkeley did battle.

Fry dismisses questions of first causes ("why does anything exist? how did it start?") as of interest only to theologians, not to philosophers, scientists, critics etc., since we can have no comprehension of anything which precedes comprehension itself (reflection, mind, intellect, language, understanding, awareness, knowledge, etc.), and, moreover, it's perfectly possible to imagine this unimaginable cosmic substrate has having no beginning whatsoever. And it seems true that all our conceptions (Nicholas of Cusa's "conjectures") are strictly human constructs, and we live in a kind of human-constructed conjectural reality. But if this unsignifiable substrate (Fry has many names for it) is strictly beyond - because other than - human intellect, then the conjectures of theologians (and philosophers) are just as valid as those of Fry's persuasion. Berkeley described Locke's "matter" as an abstraction, a heuristic convenience, a non-entity : for Berkeley, everything begins and ends in Mind. Berkeley perhaps lacked Cusanus' dialectical sense of a limit; he made up for it with paradoxical faith ("the evidence of things unseen").
This bit (from July), written on Thanksgiving 8 yrs ago, seems to be dwelling on yesterday's notion of "sounding" (the ping in the depths, the weight-balance)...


What I wrote yesterday about the architecture of human/natural cosmos...

this weight-balance of relations...

maybe what I mean is "specific gravity". Maybe poets sense the cosmic harmony or design intuitively, by the sound of weight, or the weight of sound.

1132 : mysterious number in the works of James Joyce (& also Henry). Rate of falling bodies (32 ft/sec? something like that)
You might be able to read Olson, Dorn & some of the other like poets, using Fry binoculars (tweaked). That is, the "documentary" in history is also a kind of indication (ostensive).

Simple pointing toward facts (it is what it is) is also tautological, though for the purposes of interpretation & ideology, such indication becomes the primary tool in argument, persuasion (& thus loses its force or gets blurred in verbiage & comparisons).

But perhaps in a "documentary" poem, the facts can get taken in a different direction - aligned or fused with Fry's notion of the submerged prima materia of literature and lyric poetry : the tautological is-what-it-is of "precognitive", "somatic", pre- or non-human "being". A form of irrational or anti-thematic rhyme.
This Paul Fry book is amazing, actually. Very original, very deep.

(Though I have the feeling (see yesterday's post) that I might give different names to, and draw different conclusions about, the phenomena he describes so acutely.)


Paul Fry, Defense of Poetry, p. 52 :

"We might willingly enough agree, with many of our colleagues, simply to give up formalist, traditional Marxist, and rearguard humanist efforts to define literature and settle instead for the neo-pragmatist argument that whatever you want it to be is what it is; but that argument leaves an interesting question unanswered, the question why you do invariably want it to be something, and why so many have always wanted to write or speak that something, whatever it is, not just until formal, representational, or vocational aims have been fulfilled but incessantly, with obsessive repetitiveness. From this curious fact it is almost enough to infer... that literature is coextensive with human being in defining human being, over against all other forms of sentience, as that which can never say what it wants to say."

- which reminded me of this post -
I tried to dig down into things this way (which JL thinks about so intriguingly) in the poem In RI. Anny Ballardini (who translated it into Italian) will be making an expedition to Rhode Island next spring : hope to give some readings.

If you read Paul Fry, poetry (according to him) is not so much anti-fiction, pro-history. It's sort of pre-fiction, pre-history. Pre-cognitive, so to speak. Unplaceable.

For these theorists, humanism = anthropomorphism, essentialism. False consciousness. Blinkered by species-solipsism & historical conditioning. An interesting idea, has a lot of appeal for our presently human-battered, overheated planet.

I'm too ignorant of their whole mentality to argue with them (yet). Provisionally however I harbor a couple caveats:

1) if you're going to accept the notion of universal sentience, pan-consciousness (thinking rocks, etc.) then you have to consider the possibility of super-consciousness, a higher sentience.

2) an architect fastens onto the weight-balance of relations. Ecology is a kind of natural architecture. So also human being seems to have a certain symbolic/practical "stature" in the ecology of life on earth - an architectonic. Yes, our notions of that place & stature in relation to other creatures is changing : but I'm not quite ready to accept the idea of NO structure. Even if the human self-concept has to change - from "lords of creation" to servants & stewards of creation (gardeners) - that still leaves us with a certain concrete role in a structured ecology (history, the house in Michigan) of reality/life.

3) and what if history is not the indescribable chaos of scripted fictions/errors of the Yale boys? What if history is an enactment of a growth-process, a manifestation-process, a flowering?

4) a Byzantine, iconic-triadic architecture (Urs von Balthasar's history as "glory") : Mankind as body, mind, and union of the two. Personhood inherently relational (parent & child, self and divine otherness).

(p.s. my little brother Bill is such an ecologist.)
Reading Paul Fry, A Defense of Poetry (1995). Out of or after the Yale School of literary Theory. Kind of fascinating - like trying to decipher foreign language.

Out of Geoffrey Hartman, Derrida, De Man, etc. - but on his own track. He seems to have invented a new interpretive tool or explanation for poetry called the "ostensive" - I'll have to check the etymology of that. The idea in a nutshell - as far as I can see blurredly for the moment - is that Criticism (Theory + Historicism) has deconstructed any "essential" reality of or function for literature - that is, it's all a kind of epiphenomena, really indistinguishable from other epiphenomena, predetermined by socio-historical forces at large. But Fry complicates this (it is a "defense" of poetry) with a new idea : that poetry - lyric poetry in particular - is actually a release from meaning, reference of any kind. It's a sort of tautological non-human substrate (sentient or non-sentient, I'm not sure yet - just started reading the book) - it is what it is, so to speak, and in so doing lets reality "be" what it is, whatever that is... He leans a lot on Wordsworth, Keats & other Romantics ("a slumber did my spirit steal..."; "music of no tone"; etc).

Much of this intellectual milieu - the arcane & ponderous philosophical assumptions & assertions about writing, history, reality etc. - I find pretty doubtful & unappealing. Have made a lot of fun of "Theory" over the years. But Fry's idea ("ostension") sparks my interest... that is I recognize certain affinities with, or new ways of reading, my own poetry themes & adventures.

I guess I'm behind the times, as usual - the book was published 12 yrs ago...


It's always love/hate for the non-poet explainers of poetry. The better they are at it, as in the case of John MacKay - unveiling aesthetico-historical motives & mechanics in all their conceptual nakedness - the stronger the ambivalence.

(Though I wouldn't be surprised if he's a poet, too...)


Pretty much under the cartwheel of Labor lately, not thinking very much. Ambivalent response to John MacKay's fine book. The prospect & orienting markers of the historico-philosophical Left, so subtle, so fine-woven, so refined now. The flavor of the word "capital". A kind of superstructure or brahmin sense. Predicated on the assumption that the People cannot or will not correct (or ameliorate) economic injustices through the channels of law, democracy & civil society; that the idea of Revolution is a forceful idea precisely because it is an Idea fused with Force; and that such Forceful notions (ideology) are justified in a sense by a kind of historical Revenge Ethic : because of the brutal Force of Capital, the countervailing Force of Revolution is justified. But in refined brahmin academic Leftism, such Force is assigned to a kind of theoretical Utopia (where it won't really hurt anybody). (Slavoj Zizek, on the other hand, seems to be doin' the good ol' Big Man (Chavez) kow-tow, which worked so well for the 20th century.)

My 70s ancient history among the community organizers emphasized a more "hands-on" approach to social consciousness and public service. Less intellectually ambitious, perhaps, but more practical. (& public service, you might notice (if you read your local paper), often transgresses supposed ideological differences.)

Meanwhile, we live in a Red-Blue atmosphere, where political thinking per se is suffused by a religious-symbolic vocabulary (on the right) and frustrated ressentiment (on the left).

I, personally, have a lot of trouble holding historical, religious, aesthetic and political ideas in balance in a single conceptual process. Maybe others have similar problems. It helps me to think of Roger Williams' attitude toward relations between cultures, religions, and politics. He had a sort of Greek sense of the universality of civic and political goods (the common good); he somehow was able to hold absolute religious convictions without feeling the need to impose them on others or on the world at large - mainly by way of a sharp distinction between spiritual/heavenly/personal reality and earthly/historical/social reality. Maybe these are signs of a kind of "providential" political prudence. Very different from the various strains of apocalypticism, millennialism.


MacKay also notes "remarkable" affinities between Mandelstam & Hart Crane (sumpin I been sayin for years !)
Want to get back to poetry... lots of commitments & distractions lately.

Thin scattered thoughts on politics & religion etc. are not enough, irritating.

I know I'm out on a limb - that is, far from the current acceptable climate of opinion among the literary intelligentsia.

Reading interesting book by John MacKay - Inscription and Modernity. Wordsworth, Clare, Baudelaire, & a bunch of Russians (Khlebnikov, Kluiev, Mandelstam especially). From an historicizing left-materialist-Marxist perspective (Barrett Watten is one among many names in the acknowledgements). Interesting to see Mandelstam's Acmeism and "domestic hellenism" taken seriously from this perspective.

I know that in my occasional informal attempts to align or echo Acmeism/Futurism with "me"/post-avant-langpo, I have oversimplified Mandelstam. Also, much of the OM criticism over the decades has emphasized his victimhood, as part of an anti-Soviet polemic. MacKay, on the other hand, looks at Acmeism as not at all nostalgic/reactionary, but as a secularizing, materialist-humanist vision; and MacKay's interpretation of M's deep interest in language and "the Word as such" takes on an almost proto-"language poetry" cast. It would be interesting to contrast this viewpoint with that of Elena Corrigan (Mandelshtam's Poetics). M's critical writing is rich and complex, & can sustain opposing perspectives; there are passages which contradict MacKay's general position ("the Word is Psyche"; the "double strand" of the "verbal material" and the "poetic impulse"; etc.)

In general, MacKay's close readings seem to me both politically tendentious (based on several familiar socio-historical assumptions of left "critique") and very sensitive & discerning. His analysis of Mandelstam's concept of the perpetual renewal and invigoration of ancient poetic language is probing and evocative : inspiring, actually.


These came to me (as I was trying to get back to sleep) at 2:30 this morning...



A man died and came before the Judge. "Judge," he said, "I renounced strong drink in order to pursue the active life in my community. I imposed strict ordinances outlawing alcohol, with severe penalties for the smallest infraction." The Judge said to him : "I perceive you are a man of strong will and self-denial. After a thousand years in the Hell of Tyrants and Oppressors, I will transfer you to the Hell of Drunkards, where you may remain sober for eternity."


A man died and came before the Judge. "Judge," he said, "I learned, through careful perusal of the fine print of your Holy Book, that you abhor homosexuality. Thereafter I spent my life preserving your people from the slightest taint of such practices." The Judge said to him : "I see that you are an observant, conscientious and meticulous man." He handed him a copy of the Holy Book, in the form of a large roll of toilet paper, and ordered him to clean, forever, the anal cavities of his brethren in Hell.


A man died and came before the Judge. "Judge," he said, "I know that the word of your Holy Book is the literal truth. I have devoted my whole life to the recreation of an exact replica of the original Holy Nation, as described there in detail." The Judge said to him : "I see that you greatly revere the literal truth of the Sacred Writings." Then he seated him, naked, upon a large anthill, in the Hell of the Literalists, and commanded him to read the Holy Book aloud, unceasingly, to a large colony of fire ants.


Another stirring & verifiable report from John Latta today. I don't see eye-to-eye with him on the politics - I don't have the same faith in the anarchist's righteous thunderous "No" - but I appreciate his discerning literary ear.

So where do I stand now on the War (Kent Johnson wants to know)? I accepted the "WMD" argument & aligned it with 1) Saddam tyranny; 2) egregious failure of Iraq "sanctions" regime; 3) Saddam's unwillingness to negotiate before the war. I was offended by what seemed to me the knee-jerk, partisan and doctrinaire mentality on the anti-war (& poetry-world) left. I was tempted (as I often am) into gratuitous contrarianism.

What it comes down to, however, is that I assented to another round of war and military violence in history; moreover an "unnecessary" war (in that it was not provoked in defense against a real & immediate threat). This puts me in a rather demoralized and discouraged state of mind. (I suppose if the follow-up to the war had been more successful, I would not be having these twinges of conscience; I would have accepted the justification for violently pulling down the tyrant Saddam; it's easier to be complacent if you're among the victors.) On the other hand, I also believe the situation in Iraq is not amenable to simple armchair abstractions; good & bad are emerging together out of the great spectrum of intentions and actors on that vast stage. I think many (if not all) Americans there are working hard to make the best of it, to steer toward a better future. If history is any guide, that future will not justify the pronunciamentos of doctrinaire politicos & prigs on either side of the debate. I would be not at all surprised if John McCain's strategic view of the situation in Iraq proves (surprisingly) correct in the long run.

I'm not (obviously) a strict pacifist, but I do hope for a global, historical evolution beyond war, aggression, violence, oppression, and exploitation. This will not happen in some deterministic fashion, but depends on the decisions and actions of the human race. The arrogance and vanity of nation-states is maintained by the complacency and brutality of nations themselves. "Why do the nations rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?"


Much is being made on the Poetry Foundation blog (Harriet) over issues of sexism, fairness, marginalization etc. within both mainstream and "avant-garde" sectors of Poetry World. Lots of articulate braininess and high-octane critical thinking on full display.

As somebody writing on the extreme margins of the Marginal, I am sceptical, perhaps cynical about all this right & righteous thinking. I recognize that cynicism/curmudgeonliness is a self-defeating vicious circle (see Edmund Wilson's essay on Ben Jonson's "anal" personality, for a classic diagnosis of this feature of po-biz).

Nevertheless I can't help thinking that this is one of those areas where the path of good intentions leads straight to, etc. Everything gets over-complicated (like most of our popular technology these days) when sociological analysis or a demand for justice tries to take people's snobbery & pecking-orders and scheming ambitions & self-interest - as a whole - to the cleaners.

I guess my feeling is that these crummy behaviors will always be with us. And it's part of the miracle & glory of the aesthetic experience itself to trump them all, without all the well-meant tinkering and interventions. Aesthetic response relies solely on personal and public taste. The art that pleases, informs and enlightens is the art that wins out in the end - because it's what people are looking for.

This is just another way of saying that I have a great deal of naive faith in aesthetic detachment; the ordinary reader; the unknown interlocutor. Without that primary relationship between artist, art and audience - why bother with all those other games, all that social engineering? We have to have a baseline of trust that editors and publishers also have some dim sense of the basic aesthetic experience and encounter - and know how to capitalize on it, for better & worse.


The number of known works by artist Martin Ramirez has just expanded by about a third (over 140 new drawings).

There's a funny article about how they were preserved and discovered, in Tuesday's NY Times (read it here if you're signed up).

(cf. also various sections of Fontegaia...)
When someone comes from generations of taciturn New England farmers turned self-effacing midwesterners, there's a resistance to writing poetry. But composition is like a gravitational force. He senses the poem approaching like a mandatory summons, like Cincinnatus at his plow hearing the far-off bugle.

(my father & the Taj Mahal)


Gabriel Gudding's Big Book is a-comin' round the bend...