Friday, January 28, 2011

Don't You Feel Like Crying?

Yesterday I rode a horse out into the cactus. The wings of dragonflies shined in the light, veined and transparent. I was surrounded by an ocean of silence. The air felt thick as a curtain. A curtain oozing dreams. The sand turned crimson. The sky was dressed in a wedding gown. The hooves of my horse clicked like consonants on the stone of the butte. We filled the air with the heat of our breath. My mind filled with reflection. Thought became a bird filled with real life. A vision of enduring vitality. Sand sage. Indigo bush. Apache plume. A pair of old boots painted by Vincent Van Gogh. I squeezed an orange and watched the juice ooze out. I was amazed by its light. A cloud passed overheard. A cougar pounced on a shadow. A tarantula crawled out from a rock. A coyote ran off into the brush. And I saw the bones of an old friend, a sternum caressed by the water in a creek, a skull filled with sand and flecks of gold. And the skull spoke to me and said we must endure the cold and the rain. And I could feel the weight of its voice. And I fell through a hole in my personality. I awoke to find steam rising from my body. Tree branches clacking in the wind.

I went home and flopped on the bed and gazed at the ceiling. My life tasted funny, the way it always does, but this time it felt bigger, and deeper, and wider, and I got up and got a glass of water, and drank it as the universe crashed through the window, and I stood, rooted to the spot, haunted by elusive perceptions, adjectives, my feelings exploding into art, scratching myself, feeling myself, a storm of fingers on the neck of a guitar.

I sat in my favorite armchair and dreamed. I listened to the insects exclaim their needs. Greet the moon. The stars. Infinity. Memories stirred in the Louvre of my brain. The strain to see things clearly. The construction of music. Meanings harnessed to words.

The whine of bullets. The howling of bombs.

Ever play the blues on an old 45 late at night on the desert?

That’s where I discovered Aristotle.

And the problem of universals.

When the record was over, and the stars were silent, and I could see just about everything, the whole shebang, Milky Way and the lightning. And the phantom of a man with half his head lost was made out raking leaves in the yard of a building in Hatch. And a space man materialized floating along on Arroyo Angostura. And an extraterrestrial vacationer from outer space was distinguished relaxing on a couch in a trailer in Truth Or Consequences.

The ghost of a youthful lady sporting a blood-covered prom dress was distinguished at Caballo Arroyos Site Number Five Dam looking at the scenery.

The spirit didn't mind that there was someone other present.

The moon was a dark red blob of Alamagordo rock.

And Solomon Burke sang don’t you feel like cra cra cra cra crying.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's All Going On At Once (And We're In it)

Of Indigo And Saffron: New And Selected Poems, by Michael McClure
Edited and with an introduction by Leslie Scalapino
University of California Press, 2011

The afternoon that I went to Open Books in Seattle to purchase my copy of Of Indigo And Saffron, there was a very fine drizzle in the air. The mist tingled on my skin. The sensation was exquisite. I felt the inside of my being and the being outside of my skin, whatever that being is, so mingle on my skin as to become one thing, one phenomenon. Pronouns scrambled. Prepositions jumbled. This, that, in, out, here, now, up, down, under, over, he, she, it, inside, outside, etc. All of it blended. Mingled. And when I felt the binding of the book, and opened to its paper, a life breathed forth.

From the time when McClure’s poetry first entered my consciousness some forty years ago or so, he has been closely identified in my imagination with a life-affirming intensity inherently contrary to the toxicity of capitalist predation and war and bayonets and cruelty. He has been an ambassador of universal biology, a life whose words are so imbued with the character of his being and the pulse of his feeling as to be synonymous with Bergson’s principle of élan vital, a dynamic soul-substance or psychic energy that is immanent in nature, and expressed in bone and flower and cloud and river with equal force and sublimity.

“Considered thus,” observed Frederic Schiller, “nature is for us nothing but existence in all its freedom; it is the constitution of things taken in themselves; it is existence itself ascending to its proper and immutable laws.”

Schiller, as does McClure, presents us with a world that is labile. Flexible, malleable, elastic. According to Schiller’s view art models freedom. It welcomes the random, the accidental, the eccentric. It leads us to an ideology of anti-ideology. It generates countercultures. Subcultures. Undergrounds and subterranean bathtub joys. Its ethic as well as its aesthetic is “play.”

Serious play. Loose, open, free-spirited activity that provides a force contrary to the constricting fictions of ideology.

Of Indigo And Saffron includes a span of work from the 50s to the present time, a generous sampling of work from some 17 different titles of poetry, from A Fist Full (1956-1957) and Hymns To St. Geryon (1959) to Plum Stones: Cartoons Of No Heaven (2002) and a book-length body of new work, a series of poems completed in 2008 titled “Swirls In Asphalt.”

Also included is an insightful introduction by the late Leslie Scalapino, who remarks on the characteristic center-justified shape of McClure’s poetry, which I have always seen as a spine with lines flaring to each side in wing-like exuberance. “McClure’s signature characteristic, of centering each line of a poem on the page without left or right border,” says Scalapino, “is akin to, and elicits in reading, this sense of proportionlessness (of reality as uncarved block), in which conceptually (that is, at once sensationally) phenomena ‘appear’ (as in) to lose conventional fixed relation, either dimension or interaction.”

It promotes a sense of simultaneity. It concentrates vision on a single moment whose parameters are elastic, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, and includes an infinite flux of sensation.

Scalapino quotes a paragraph from McClure’s collection of essays Lighting The Corners: on art, nature, and the visionary, published in 1993:

What I’m speaking of is the Taoist notion that the universe that we perceive is “uncarved block,” that all time/space occurrences of the past, present, and future are one giant sculpture of which we’re a part. It’s not as if something is going to exist in the future or that something has happened in the past, but that it’s all going on at once. And we’re in it. If we’re aware of that, there’s a proportionlessness that is a liberating state or condition. If we understand that we’re not of a particular “behemothness,” then we sense that we’re without time. When we have that experience, there’s a peace and an understanding that can come over us. We can make better judgments and more positive actions.

"Swirls In Asphalt," which is dedicated to Michael McClure’s wife Amy, begins with an epigraph by the 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji: “The limits of the knowable are unknowable.”

There is an intimacy to the pieces in this collection, a warmth and feeling of subdued lyricism, a quiet, mammalian music, the murmur of endlessness, "molecular jewels," Pacific air rustling cypress branches, and quite often a delicious elliptical dissonance that reaches outward for fresh associations and provokes the reader (or listener) into wider spheres of reverie and speculation. Each line is a gentle violation of expectancy. One will be absorbing an image and the next line will jar us out of an anticipated elaboration and provide us with a new, sometimes puzzling idea or image. Or a line or image that puts the former image into higher definition. Or stretches that image into a network of associations, a chain of dissonant entities linked in simultaneity.

“I POLISHED THE STARS,” begins number 3. in the series. The line for many, I suspect, will evoke memories of Rimbaud’s famous declamation in his prose poem “Lines,” “I have strung ribbons from steeple to steeple: garlands from window to window; chains of gold from star to star, and now I dance.” (J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse).

But the next line abruptly alters our anticipated journey into the cosmos: “I POLISHED THE STARS / off my boots. / They’re skin now.”

He’s polishing dew from his boots. Or drops from a garden hose. In any case, water. Drops of glistening water. And we see boots, old, leathery boots, the clunky, floppy, perdurable Dutch kind Van Gogh painted. But instead of Van Gogh, we find Rembrandt: “Faces of Rembrandt / and Shakespeare / on their tops / speak / to / one another.” Strange vision, indeed. But within the range of most imaginations.

The boots grow in raggedy disrepair: “Covered with / the comedy / of bruises / and torn nails.”

Do you see? How things develop in a McClure swirl? There is a turmoil in the luxury of our bones, in our movement through these lines and the terrain they evoke in our minds, those situations in which we’ve worked on a house, a construction site, and gotten involved and dirty. The word ‘comedy’ evokes visions of Buster Keaton and silent movie mayhem. Planks of wood flipped into, or over, the head. Buckets of cement toppling down. Ladders giving way. All the comedy of construction, and the kind of abuse the leather on our feet take. Bish! Bash! Ka-wham!

The field of the poem expands into a scene of sensuality and abandonment, a funky terrain of stray association and acute sensation: “Smell of lime / from the squeezed / RIND / mixes with stardust / settling around / the rusty / refrigerator / lying / on the hill.”

We seem to be in an area of considerable marginality, a landfill, perhaps, a terrain neither rural nor urban but a little of both. “We are / here / in the car roar / in / this instant / between the changing / of climates / and the love / we claim / with our / infinite / presences.”

This piece has the flavor of a love poem, though the love in this case is not directed at a single romantic presence (many of the others do), but potential for caring in everyone. That sense, as McClure informed us earlier, that comes over us when we feel everything going on at once, and that the self itself is time, and the way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. “When you are at this place,” observed Zen master Dogen, “there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of grass and no-understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time-being is all the time there is. Grass-being, form -being are both time. Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

It is when being is constricted that it begins to hate. And shoot people.

A book such as Of Indigo And Saffron has a particular value for younger readers who might just be discovering McClure. The selection is comprehensive, and Scalapino‘s introduction goes further than many discussions of McClure’s aesthetic because of her intimacy with the subject, her own training in Buddhist practice, and the tremendous strength and originality of her own writing. But this volume is also of great value to older people such as myself who already own many of the titles listed in the table of contents. Why? Because it’s a beautiful book. I mean that in its most physical sense, as a beautiful object. The fonts. The quality of the paper. The smell of it. McClure’s pensive face on the cover (at a distance, lying on the coffee table, he resembles Thomas Jefferson).

And it’s convenient. I can jump through McClure’s career without having to get off the couch. I’m not a lazy person, but when I’m reading a poet whose career spanned a number of decades, it’s a matter of tremendous expedience to travel so handily from, say, Dark Brown to Dolphin Skull. Or “Hummingbird Ode” to “Dark Contemplation.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ontology 101 Part Six

How do the properties of an object relate to the object itself?

Fingers are fiercely particular. There are no universals for fingers, except fish, and planetary spheres, and doorknobs and handles on buckets that make a loud clattering sound when you set the bucket down.

I wonder if Aristotle ever carried a bucket and set the bucket down and found something embryonic in its declamation?

A subject (hupokeimenon) is what a statement is about.

A predicate (katêgoroumenon) is what a statement says about its subject.

Bacteria follow the hands. The pack mule follows her human. The sublime unpacks her suitcase at the top of the mountain.

Time is a universal ticking in lyrical hickory.

The night is anarchic and soft as moccasins. And long and forceful and the cocoons dangle from branches and inside them new life churns in squiggly metamorphosis. A congenial worm grows colorful wings.

My interpretation of universals is subjective and weird. That’s because I have skin and weight and density and volume.

Perception is flimsy until it turns licorice.

The weight of a thought is shaped into hymns. And a refractory universal hungers for enhancement by the particular.

Contraption, conception, and butterflies.

Let me touch you.

Let me fill the air with the heat of my breath.

Let me fill the air with the taste of predication.

The properties of water, and things like skin. Beads of amber on an ebony belt. Kitchen drawer full of flashlight batteries. And beautiful spoons. And beautiful forks. Knives and pliers and postcards from North Dakota.

Pennies, keys, cellophane, bills.

Struts on a wing.

An ounce or two of Dr. Pepper left in the bottle I put in the frig three weeks ago after returning home from a session at Alliance française.

Muffins and Plato.

The photograph of an odor. A glass of water painted by Jean Baptiste Chardin. So beautiful it reminds me of your voice. And eyes. And a path surrounded by towering pines, garish and pink in the sparkling rain.

Steam rises from my body. Gold comes in flakes of supernatural beauty, the taste of predication. I am fascinated by sidewalks. The mountains speak to our hands and feet.

Represent yourself as you would a king. Or queen.

Or orangutan.

Abstractions sleep among the adverbs. There are meanings harnessed to my words. Crustaceans. The mind boiling in indigo. Warm eggs warming the curl of our fingers. I fall through a hole in my personality. The photograph of an odor. Jellyfish washing ashore. I hit the table with my fist and the cutlery jumps.

What is a moral? What is morality?

Let me watch you as I chew meat and crinkle potato chip bags.

Desire opens us to the world. I must rescue the cabbage from its introversion.

Experience shapes perception. Perception shapes experience.

Or is it the other way around?

The hair on my head is wild. I rarely use a comb. I prefer to use a brush. And sometimes I drive to the end of the night in a Buick of prodigal fire. Grease envelops the axles. Morning is revelation. The birds are sweet to hear.

I swim among syllables dreaming of the chemistry of whales, outboard emotions, the hinge on the bathroom door bright in its metal.

There is no such thing as a subtle tattoo. Power comes to those who are drunk with ambition, and must be maintained by violence, and fear.

Power is a disease. The largest throat does not necessarily produce the deepest sound.

If my skin breaks, I discover an ocean of blood beneath it. The nostrils of my horse flare. My feelings explode into art. I forge words. I assemble fictions. My running shirt trembles above the baseboard heater. Heat fills it with life. Not my life. Another life.

I have a piece of string with which to operate my eyebrows.

The lake is crazy with diamonds. I hear someone walking upstairs. The spoon is a luminous milieu, a silk robe on a tin skeleton.

Do we have candles? I am amazed by light.

Skin is malleable. Fat on a globe named Falstaff.

Adjectives so burden the sentence that its weight causes it to sink and appear on the other side of the paper.

Someone, somewhere, is building a barn. Creating energy, thread, and DNA. The clouds are boiling with purple. Crickets pull our wagons, our words. A sweet blue exaltation of the sun at the end of the day.

It’s curious the way rooms are connected, how one room leads to another room and in between is nothingness and motion and ghosts.

There is a ghost on the road carrying a gallon of gasoline to a car that no longer exists.

Ghosts are symptomatic of the failure to believe that there is an absolute end to existence. So that a glowing entity might implore a biography. Or the history of a knife. Or an animal chained to a crumbling wall.

The mind has neither shape nor substance. It is pure energy. And loves the verticality of things.

Water in a green jug on a blue table.

The universe crashes through the window, tasting of acceleration. And doughnuts. Mahogany in Madagascar. The weight of your voice. Tree branches clacking in the wind.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Infinite Of Language

Driven To Abstraction, prose poetry by Rosmarie Waldrop
New Directions, 2010

“Discussing words with words,” observed St. Augustine, “is as entangled as interlocking and rubbing the fingers with the fingers, where it may be scarcely distinguished, except by the one who does it, which fingers itch and which give aid to the itching.”

I like this description, but it’s not entirely true. Much of the poetry written in the last century has been focused on semiotic phenomenon. Words about words, words generating words, words churning among words, words purling and stitching and sewing imbrications of semantic embroidery has been an ongoing adventure beginning the latter part of the 19th century with works by Mallarmé, Lewis Carroll, Isidore Ducasse and Frederic Nietzsche. St. Augustine’s depiction of itchy fingers is misleading; it describes a confusion between inner proprioception and outer perception. He has created a scenario of self-involvement, a subjectivity entangled in linguistic disorder. The truthfulness of experience is obscured by the opacity of a language parading its excesses in semiotic glitter.

Nietzsche offered a different view. He rejected the idea of universal constants and claimed that what we call truth is essentially “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” Arbitrariness prevails within human experience. Concepts originate via the transformation of nerve stimuli into images. Language is an amalgam of stars and subatomic particles; it is the colors on the palette that we use to make these images. The correspondence between nerve and word is intimate. More than intimate: it is synchronal. Coexistent. Simultaneous.

As long as language interrogates language we have a far better advantage in which to find the truth of experience. Its most vital revelations. There is no fixed convention. There is experience bundled in words, words which may be scratched on paper where the itch for knowledge is never completely satisfied, and is instead constantly urging examination, inciting us to poke around the logs in the fire so that every bit of burnable material catches flame and bursts into crackling illumination.

“Writing is made of words, of nothing else,” observed Williams. “These have a contour and complexion imposed upon them by the weather, by the shapes of men’s lives in places.”

“I became more and more excited about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description,” remarked Gertrude Stein. “And the thing that excited me so very much at that time and still does is that the words or words that make what I looked at be itself were always words that to me very exactly related themselves to that thing the thing at which I was looking, but as often as not had as I say nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described that thing.”

Such are the ideas that the work of Rosmarie Waldrop has been evolving over the years. Her prose poetry has largely and generously exemplified Pound’s identification of logopoeia as the dance of the intellect among words. Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poetry is a thinking person’s poetry. It is rich with philosophical inquiry, particularly in the area of semantic instability and semiotic play.

Like many other of Rosmarie Waldrop’s work, in which Wittgenstein’s investigations have been in full evidence, Driven To Abstraction offers the reader a voluptuous dépaysement, a prodigality in addition to empirical reality. Language artfully deployed, embedded, deepened, shifting, with a conspicuous verbal surface, pointing to connections between matter and the dynamics of inner consciousness.

Steve Evans, in an essay devoted to the Dictionary Of Literary Biography, remarks: Making her achievement perhaps the more remarkable is the fact that English is Waldrop's adopted language and the United States her adopted home. In "Alarms and Excursions," a 1990 essay that provides an excellent introduction to her overarching concerns as a writer, publisher, and translator, Waldrop points out that, along with the inevitable difficulties associated with a shift in one's primary language (her native language is German), the experience of this change can also yield a valuable insight: "it makes you very conscious," she writes, "that you don't ever own the language, that the language is larger than you, that it is not simply a tool that you are master of." She has on several occasions spoken of language as the only credible form of "transcendence" in secular times, and in a brief essay from 1993 titled "Split Infinite," she describes the act of writing in these words: "Allowing ourselves to be lost, we dive into the infinite of language.

Driven To Abstraction is divided into two main sections, with the second section divided into four more sections. The first section is titled “Sway Backed Powerlines” and the second section is titled “Driven To Abstraction.”

“Paper Money,” a prose poem toward the back of the book, provides an important key to understanding the book as a whole. In “Paper Money,” Waldrop makes explicit the horrendous vacuity at the heart of our capitalist economy. “Paper money,” she says,

A scandal worse than taking off your clothes. Who could take off his body? Forget he needs it? To stretch mere writing into money -- which already is a language difficult to understand. And manufactured at will! Self-created! Without necessary prior wealth! “Flying,” say the Chinese. “Flying money.” Arrives out of nowhere. Is spent ignorantly. Retains nothing.

The irony here is palpable. Language, when dislodged from its referent, goes delirious. Becomes madness. Which is precisely what has happened to our economy. It has gone insane. And a result of that insanity, of obscene amounts of wealth horded at the top, which is little else than a set of algorithms floating in somebody’s computer, is real suffering. Hunger. Depression. An overpriced and venal health care system. Middle class Americans living in tent cities. Climate change, floods, cholera, hurricanes, cities so devastated by unemployment they look as if they had been bombed, and the toxicity born of oils spills and corporate irresponsibility. A language shorn of all consequence wreaks havoc. Tony Hayward goes yachting while the Gulf of Mexico dies.

I am mindful, too, of the recent events in Arizona, the brutal massacre of six people at a shopping center, the near-fatal wounding of an elected official, and Obama’s soothing words: “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”

Fine words, full of wisdom. But let’s not forget that Obama, who has chosen to continue rather than investigate the criminality of the previous administration, is responsible daily for the deaths of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. The language we get from the white house is the same totalitarian doublespeak of Orwell’s 1984.

“As President Barack Obama consoled the nation Wednesday with talk of ‘rain puddles in heaven,’” writes Chris Floyd, “his agents were murdering four more people in his illegal war in Pakistan. The incongruity was excruciating; you could almost feel your neck snapping from the moral whiplash induced by the contrast between word and deed.”

Words must have meaning. Words without meaning lead to noxious, misleading paradigms manipulated by an oligarchical elite. What is ultimately more damaging? Right wing psychotic dingbats shooting innocent civilians after drinking the swill of vitriolic talk show hosts, or a progressive movement that has become utterly impotent as a result of sops and half-measures from a duplicitous leader?

“We take language for granted, as we do sitting and weeping,” Waldrop writes in a prose poem in the section titled “By The Waters Of Babylon,” which has an overtly political theme. “Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We wrap entire villages in barbed wire.”

It would be a mistake to believe that a language so given to semiotic play is severed from referentiality. It is not. It is a stimulating and deeply engaging examination of the integument between the sign and its referent. It asks us to question, to wonder, to delve into matter. To think critically, and independently. To appreciate reverie. Unguided, untethered thought. It is intended to liberate us from a false, delusional model of the universe in order to see things as they truly are, and not be so vulnerable to demagoguery and delusion.

Money was once backed by gold. When, on August 15th, 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated the convertibility of money to gold, what emerged in its place was a pegged rate currency regime, wherein a currency’s value is matched to the value of another single currency . In other words, one mirage is linked to another mirage. It is all illusion. And the masters of finance are nothing more than magicians pulling assets out of their hats and making debts disappear.

But not really.

It’s enough to drive you to abstraction.

“All Electrons Are (Not) Alike,” the title of the first grouping of prose poems in this collection, is apt. It launches forth three central themes: exploration, as embodied by Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca, profusion, as in flowers (or electrons, or language, or heavenly bodies) and the vastness of the open ocean, and history. How is history told? Who tells it? Who gets to be in a position to tell it, to interpret events however they wish?

“Triangulation: greed, religion, stunned surprise,” begins the third prose poems of this section.

Cabeza de Vaca “passed through many and dissimilar tongues. Our Lord granted us favor with the people who spoke them for they always understood us, and we them.” All electrons are alike, a sunny surmise, surf, surface. Not raked by interpretation. With a flavor of asymmetry. Like the electric shock from a battery of Leyden jars administered to 700 Carthusian monks joined hand to hand. Later. Under Louis XV. No note of bruises, blunt instruments. Do we need to open and shut the window when it is transparent from the start? Or a special organ for what trickles through the hourglass? Enough to stretch your hand westward at the right moment and pull down the sun.

The experiment to which Waldrop refers here was conducted by Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet in 1747 shortly after first experimenting with 180 of Louis XV’s soldiers. The soldiers joined hands in a circle and when a Leyden jar was applied to one of them all men jumped in unison from the resulting electrical shock. What is fascinating here is how a scientific experiment so wonderfully lends itself to metaphorical treatment. Electricity is made up of electrons. The electrons in Nollet’s experiment pass from hand to hand with a notable stimulating force. In like manner, words pass from tongue to tongue creating electrical energy, shock, distortion, or sometimes the truth, or a simulacrum of truth.

It is enjoyable to note as well the play on the words surmise, surf, and surface. Similarities of sound conjoin in semantic correspondence. There is surmise in surf, surf in surmise, surface in surf and surf in surface. Electrons generating a magnetic field.

Waldrop makes her ideas concerning the particulate nature of language and communication, and especially ideas of matter, fully explicit in a prose poem titled, quite tellingly, “A Feeling Of Absence.” “If signs create the very objects they were thought to represent,” Waldrop writes, “if shadow be the cause of substance, thought provoking matter, then it’s illusory to think objects come first. Though they contain the infinite. Though they be warm-blooded mammals covered with fur and give birth to live young and nurse them. An illusion whose nature we had forgotten and therefore took for truth.”

Signs do not create objects. They refer to objects. They so become their name.

In the imagination.

Once a metaphor’s exhausted, has as it were lost its imprint it operates like mere metal, no longer coin. Says Nietzsche. As if it were the same to grasp hold of a book and grasp its contents. To rub it against my forehead to make it enter.

Waldrop makes reference to zero: “Zero is again a number among numbers. The vanishing point, a location among others. And paper money, simply money.”

Zero is the supreme sign of signs. “A sign,” writes Brian Rotman in Signifying Nothing, “whose connection to ‘nothing,’ the void, the place where no thing is, makes it the site of a systematic ambiguity between the absence of ‘things’ and the absence of signs, and the exemplar… of a semiotic phenomenon whose importance lies far beyond notation systems for numbers.”

When figures of speech die and become literal, as they have for the fundamentalists, it becomes necessary to break new ground and inseminate it with a new semiology. If we don’t, we will find ourselves imprisoned by the linguistic dementia of a mercantile capitalism that is, at best, hallucination, and at its worse, a bloody monster feeding on its progeny.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Brief History Of Indigo

Marco Polo was the first to report on the preparation of indigo in India, “being made of an herb which they place in a great vessel, then pour in water, and leave it till the juice is given out.”

Indigo occurs between 420 and 450 nanometers in wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum, placing it between blue and violet.

In New Age philosophy, indigo is regarded as representing intuition. Electric indigo represents the sixth chakra, called Ajna, which is said to include the third eye. This chakra is related to intuition and gnosis, insight into the divine and infinite.

Ancient Egyptians used indigo-dyed cloths to wrap their mummies.

Ibn el-Baitar, a 13th century Andalusian scientist, botanist, pharmacist and physician, recommended a solution of indigo (Indigofera) to soothe all tumors and abscesses, and that a weak solution dissolved in water and taken internally lessened not only pain but even sexual desire. He quotes another author who suggests that India or Kirman indigo, when added to a rose conserve, will check both stupidity and sadness, and that a concoction of indigo, lead monoxide, pepper, rose oil and wax will calm palpitations. A lotion of indigo, plantain oil, and honey is recommended for gangrene.

Sir Isaac Newton picked indigo as the seventh shade to make up his mystical harmony of colors. He assigned indigo A on the musical scale.

David André, a merchant-dyer who settled in Nimes in the early 17th century, created a sturdy cotton twill dyed indigo which came to be known as Serge de Nimes, which was later shortened to de Nimes, and finally, denim. Levi Strauss added rivets in the 1920s.

During the restoration of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1994-1995, it was ascertained that Vermeer had originally given the background a deep greenish tone by glazing a very transparent layer of indigo mixed with weld (a natural yellow dye-stuff obtained from flowers of the wouw or woude plant as it is called in Dutch), over the dark black underpainting. Mixed together with a binding medium such as linseed oil they form a transparent greenish tone.

Pliny mentions the use of pigeon droppings to lighten indigo to a blue.

Joan Míro’s Tempest-Indigo consists of a green figure with a single eyeball. The eyeball hangs defiantly, a searching engine, an organ of imperial design, a living emblem of vision, amid an energetic jungle of green, a tangle of lines and webs, with a section below, a patch of white occupied by black squiggles, the background in indigo.

Carlo Crivelli (c1435-c1495), mixed indigo with lead white for the bands of pale blue and gold decoration on the throne and steps in The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian.

Matisse’s Seated Nude includes a square of indigo to the left of the woman’s head, a bright yellow L accenting its lines, and the blue next to it of an open window, the presence of a soft velvet night, the air in the room full of vibrancy and warmth.

“Mood Indigo,” a jazz composition with music by Duke Ellington, was the first time Ellington had written intentionally for radio broadcast. He turned the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet “upside down,” assigning high notes to the trombone and low notes to the clarinet. The arrangement produced some interesting overtones on the electronic microphones.

The Indigo Girls are an American folk rock duo consisting of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.

Turbulent Indigo, an album by Joni Mitchell, references a great deal of pain, madness and death, and won a grammy in 1994.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ontology 101 Part Five

Which entities, if any, are fundamental? Are all entities objects?

The spoon is an admirable shape, especially when it holds a galaxy of sugar. I am stunned by the fullness of a full moon above the city hill and its twinkling lights. Further are the mountains. I grow into myself as I age, becoming fuller as I become less of myself. Nothingness is fertile. Ganglions wrestle the void. The circumference of the globe spins through space creating time, years, months, days. I am tickled by the ticking of the clock. And yet I cannot adjust to the imperial dictates of time.

An entity is a discrete phenomenon which makes itself available to consciousness as an abstraction or a perception. A hammer, a screwdriver, a column of water shooting up into the sky, a barking dog, a cat sleeping on the bed. Or a square or a rectangle or a circle. Or the idea of a circle. But how does an entity make itself available to the mind as an abstraction? That is to say, if there is nothing there to perceive? Is an idea an entity? If an idea is an entity, then anything the mind might conceive could be an entity. In which case, everything and anything is possible. There are no limits. And if there are no limits, then everything becomes a vast mental blur, a vast field of muzzy circumstantiality.

Where, then, is external reality to be found? If it is not already in the mind, then where is it?

The entity shatters unity. It becomes iron. It becomes a moon and the orbit of the moon. It owns itself by way of its determination. But what does it determine and who or what gives it determination? The mind stumbles through its language in quest of its being. How did it acquire being? The mind acquires being through an entity. The entity is compelling. It is a pocket. Leibnitz’s monad. With loose change. It abhors nothing. Except a vacuum. And the vacuum itself is an entity. And so ascends the dawn of a new conception of language and perception.

A tree propels silk because it is aroused by jokes. Awed and held and gantry. The cloud ignites in incandescent report. A tonic accentuated loaf begun by vein.

The hirsute erects a paper. And the bikini becomes soft in that walnut. The fractions seethe like seminal morning. Spring pleads grease and there is a knot that whistles and a need that fumes. This pain is for the mouth and skull to articulate in a novel.

The punch bag is more than its cuticles. A Parisian orchard is more or less brindled among its hinges. The biography of a jerk is operated by dream. And the veins bloom amid their blood, even as a catfish is caressed by the river in which it lives and is carried to places where the water gurgles under the shadows of cottonwood and willow. Oats amplify the smell of this for a bug. Massive roots show what grace there is in bark.

The interior is illumined by pharmaceutical. A smooth redeeming jug imbues the meditation on lithography. I find bottles along the walk that cause necessity to flow into gravity. And forge cocoons that the unfettered churn of wind brings into being.

Each oddity bequeaths itself to the glorious fantasy of the sky. Purple is obscure at fibers in glue. A faucet tumbles through its water. A nimble Elizabethan pulls his rapier and floods this feeling with a sorcery of movement.

Bones crackle in Picasso. And in guns that that the grammar of war garbles into a wicked symmetry of bark and cannon.

The charm of autumn unbinds us in its sculpture. Strength elevates our hunger above our handsprings. A tiger talks among rocks. Panic visits distance. The sticks sing. The paragraph obtrudes its images of heaven. An obscure injury forms a scar in the shape of a key.

An inflammation of the soul is hoisted by winch and slowly turns, exhibiting various sides of voice and spirit. The many emotions that fill a soul during the day and its slow accidents of tea and plug and cloud and beauty.

Poland is a rock. Experience comes in streams. Dissonance is good for garlic. It is sometimes enough to suppose that a cow has fireworks and that abstractions form between the threads of an embroidered romance. The larynx is neither a bag nor an olive but an intention of nerves and mucus and membrane that make a voice claim its penumbras. Even the calliope is unpredictable.

The trapeze is green. And the enigma of the entity is solved by wheels of the lotus. The things that make a flower spin into granite, creating fossils of expansion, peacocks at the fringe of our language. The seen and the unseen. Being and nothingness. Nothingness and being.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Do You Know This Feeling?

Life, an autobiography by Keith Richards, with James Fox
Little, Brown and Company, 2010

Keith Richards is full of surprises. Of all the Rolling Stones, I would have thought him the least likely to pen a book. He did not strike me as the literary type. But it appears he is. He describes himself as a “voracious reader.”

And why should this be a surprise? I’ve enjoyed his interviews over the years. He has always managed to say something highly insightful about the creative process, not just music, not just rock.

Though it does feel odd to review a book that has had, and will continue to have, such huge sales. It reached the New York Times bestseller list before the ink was dry. This is not a book that needs me to champion it. I’m doing this review more for my benefit than Mr. Richards. Everyone has a number of elements that have become such a vital component of their personality that if it were somehow taken away, somehow removed, they would not be the same person. For me, that would be the Rolling Stones. Remove the Rolling Stones from my life, and I would not be me. Not the same life.

I was a little disappointed when I discovered the book had been co-authored. But when I began reading the book, it became stunningly apparent that this book is not ghost written. Ghost written books are perfunctory and tame. Style does not enter into it. The words are transparent. The words are simply there to convey all the juicy tidbits of a celebrity’s life. They must in no way distract from the information. Style gets in the way of that. Style insists that we see the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That we feel the world as a singular experience, not a generality. “A work of art,” observed Susan Sontag, “is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit.”

This, happily, is the case with Life. The language is rich. It has in no way been diluted by the ministrations of a ghost writer. It is most certainly Richards’s own voice. I recognize it through the words. His style of talking. Which is warm, spontaneous, colorful, and richly detailed. He brings the same level of artistry to his language as he does to his music.

I read this book over a period of several days. I would read it until my eyeballs hurt. Much of this has to do with the fact that the music of the Rolling Stones has been in the background of my life for four solid decades and I have had a raging curiosity about what went into its making. I am not a musician. I love music, but I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, nor the expertise to even fully understand what an octave is, or an A minor from a C major. Richards is brilliant at describing music, and how music is made. This is what I loved most about this book. Richards’ passion for the music, and the guitar in particular. He clearly sees the guitar in the same light that I see poetry: as a phenomenon of infinite resource. Its possibilities can never be exhausted.

There is a wonderful passage in the book in which Richards’s expounds on his discovery of open G tuning:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes -- the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just there saying, “Fuck me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing. And you can never let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines -- sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do. It’s the drone.

Richards’ enthusiasm for open G tuning is revelatory. It reveals a number of things: his creative joy in discovering a way to expand his repertoire, his need to challenge convention (including his own settled habits), his need to crash barriers, his passion to exceed limits, his willingness to take risks, his intuitive alertness to outside influences, to random elements, to that eternal wilderness of sensation on the other side of our skin.

Most importantly: it’s what you leave out that counts. That’s brilliant. This is the true generosity of the artist. This is what creativity is all about. It is what makes creativity so exciting, so intoxicating. It is to find yourself in a dimension free of logic, the constraints of reason, a realm where possibility assumes new hues, colors and color combinations that resist scientific analysis. A place of harmony, but dissonance as well. A place where paradox and contradiction are as elemental as puddles after a spring rain.

Attunement to a dialectic of alterity, with something other than ourselves. It is a matter of control and knowing when to relax control. It emphasizes the crucial business of balance and composition. Sympathetic ringing. Sympathetic strings. The resonant richness lying in the space between things. A fullness of experience we achieve by emptying ourselves.

Richards’ exposition on open G tuning also has a lot to say about how closely he listens to other artists. He discovered, for instance, what an immense influence Johnnie Johnson had been on Chuck Berry’s song writing, by noting Berry’s preferred chords:

I asked Johnnie Johnson, how did “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Little Queenie” get written? And he said, well, Chuck would have all these words, and we’d sort of play a blues format and I would lay out the sequence. I said, Johnnie, that’s called songwriting. And you should have had at least fifty percent. I mean, you could have cut a deal and taken forty, but you wrote those songs with him. He said, I never thought about it that way; I just sort of did what I knew. Steve [Jordan] and I did the forensics on it, and we realized that everything Chuck wrote was in E-flat or C-sharp -- piano keys! Not guitar keys. That was a dead giveaway. These are not great keys for guitar. Obviously most of these songs started off on piano and Chuck joined in, playing on the barre with his huge hands stretching across the strings. I got the sense that he followed Johnnie Johnson’s left hand!

It seems like a cruel irony that a man so closely identified with freedom would be a victim of heroin addiction. But then, many, if not all, of my preconceptions of what it is to be a rock star have been proven wrong. I had always assumed that once one attained a high level of stardom and wealth that immunity to life’s pricklier complications came with it. Not so. The stress of having to perform day after day night after night and maintain civil relations with the members of the band are extreme. Far greater than what I would imagine them to be. Added to this is pressure from the music company to come up with new material. I could not do it. Maybe it’s a blessing that I love music but have an utter inability to play it. I envy the audiences that rock musicians get; but I certainly don’t envy the unrelenting pressures of being such a high profile character in the public domain. I love poetry, and poetry needs solitude. I would be exhausted within a week of the grueling schedules that Richards and the Rolling Stones maintained. How much money do these guys need, one wonders.

But it’s not really the money that drives these guys. It’s the joy of the music. As Richards puts it so eloquently at the end of the book, “I can’t retire until I croak,” he states.

There’s carping about us being old men. The fact is, I’ve always said, if we were black and our name was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, everybody would be going yeah yeah yeah. White rock and rollers apparently are not supposed to do this at our age. But I’m not here just to make records and money. I’m here to say something and to touch people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: “Do you know this feeling?”

My answer to that is a resounding yes. The feeling I have derived from the Stones has been at times sweet as pancake syrup, sometimes bitter as Columbian coffee, heavy as oil, thick as grease, but always the engine behind much of my life. Pure diesel. Corso’s Gasoline. An essence of stars and the fusion of birthing suns. The Stones have been disinhibiting as a shot of Jack Daniels. Given me the courage to say and do things that otherwise would have stayed safely caged behind my ribs. And perhaps should have. But what the hell. Life is life. Blood and bone and muscle and impulse. Big and fat and maniacal as Van Gogh’s stars.

I confess to a high level of voyeurism in reading this book. I’ve always been fascinated by heroin. Never got the chance to take it. Did not want to risk addiction. I had enough problems with alcohol as it was. I must say, after reading Richards’ book, I don’t think I’d have the stamina for heroin addiction.

Some of the lengths to which Richards’ went to give himself a fix while on the road are actually quite funny. I am impressed with his ingenuity.

Once again, everything revolved around the stuff. Nothing could be done or organized without first organizing the next fix. It got more and more dire. Elaborate arrangements had to be made, some of them more comic than others. I had a man, James W, who I would call up when I was going from London to New York. I would stay at the Plaza Hotel. James, this sweet young Chinese man, would meet me in the suite, the big one preferably, and I’d hand him the cash, he’d give me the shit. And it was always very polite. Give my regards to your father. It was difficult in the ‘70’s to get hypodermics in America. So when I traveled I would wear a hat and use a needle to fix a little feather to the hatband, so it was just a hat pin. I would put the trilby with the red, green and gold feather in the hat bag. So the minute James turned up, I got the shit. Ok, but now I need the syringe. My trick was, I’d order a cup of coffee, because I needed a spoon for cooking up. And then I’d go down to FAO Schwarz, the toy shop right across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza. And if you went to the third floor, you could buy a doctor and nurse play set, a little plastic box with a red cross on it. That had the barrel and the syringe that fitted the needle that I’d brought. I’d go round, “I’ll have three teddy bears, I’ll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits! My niece, you know, she’s really into that. Must encourage her.” FAO Schwarz was my connection. Rush back to the room, hook it up and fix it.

“The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is,” states John Tanner in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. It is telling that the legendary bad boy of rock and roll, a genuine rough and tumble outlaw who has left a great deal of debris in his wake, should have no regrets. But nowhere in Richards’ portrait of himself do I sense shame or regret. He confesses to numerous mistakes, many wrong turns, many misconceptions and many blunders. He has wrestled his share of demons and gone through the ordeal of heroin withdrawal multiple times. But he does not appear to be haunted by any one wrong decision. There is no recantation, no defection. The overall sense throughout this back, apart from his passion for music, is acceptance. Tolerance. He describes firing Brian Jones from the band as an extremely painful decision, but one which was made after months of repeated warning to Jones to take his role in the band more seriously. Jones had become dead weight. Richards describes how taking over two guitars instead of just the one helped him in many ways, but it was still too much to handle. “One can get very sarcastic on the road and quite vicious. ‘Just shut up, you little creep. Preferred it when you weren’t here.’”

Ouch.

Despite the problems with Brian Jones, and Mick Jagger, of which there is much of that in the book is well, Richards thrives on camaraderie. “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together. This wonderful little world that is unassailable. It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose, and there’s no flies in the ointment, for a while.”