Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reading at Robins: Pam Brown, Ron Silliman, Magdalena Zurawski

(notes on the Silliman, Brown, Zurawski reading 5 paragraphs down)

I wake from morning dreams unsure until well into the day where I crossed over from dream to waking, an experience paralleled at night as I review the events of the day sliding into hypnogogic dreams unsure where the waking reality leaves off and the dreams take up again. In dreams the unitary executive is fragmented, multiple, both observer and observed, actor and passive bystander--one of the factors in my never having nightmares. I won't try to explain that here. The analogy is to the rapid transitions in my waking life, from activities that make such different demands on me that it is like shedding skins between acts and reappearing on stage after not merely change of costume but change of body. And yet I remain somehow the observer, as in dreams, I am both actor and beside myself...I mean... as a shadow of the acting self and figure of its own apparently more substantive brother.

I prepare for class--go over the work of my students, give myself to the task at hand, choosing how to divide my concern between objective evaluation and critique and concern for the individual who is, while working at my desk, a shadow of their words more real than the words they have given me as a kind of offering to some absolute stranger they envision as a kind of Teacher God--praying that this god's judgment be balanced by compassion, that they might by submission, if not by hard work, receive its pity and be permitted to remain in the company of the elect, their scholarships intact. Then I meet them in class. The return of the Real. Where I quite disappear for 50 minutes at a stretch... figure and shadow alike. After 11 years I've gotten used to this, but the first few classes--it was a kind of altered state. There was one time when I found myself in the adjunct office and could not remember how I'd gotten there or for how long I'd been there. Class over--the half hour or so since had been very much a state like waking from a dream.

Class room teaching is as intense, as all absorbing an experience as anything I've ever know. Let me tell you, to show that I'm not exaggerating, that I once faced, the summer of 1966, what those of us on that green lawn in Canton, Mississippi, had good reason to believe would be a firing squad about to transform us into headlines on the next morning's news. I've stood before a federal judge with power to send me to prison for five years and told him, no, I would not serve in this unjust war. I've held the hands of men in their last hours of life, on a closed ward of the geriatrics unit of state mental hospital...knowing that I was the last and only one left to care. It's no hyperbole when I say, there's no experience more intense, that requires one to be more intensely present, than standing before a class... at least, if you take teaching for what it is, for what it means.

From class to... canvassing door to door. A volunteer for Obama. Yet another reality. And in the morning, I try to find an hour to write... lost in the fictive world of a novel that no one else may ever read.

I've gone through a few rough patches, but for the last ten years I've got it down pretty well, how keep the balance. Not to go into it over much--major part of this is being able to manage your own time, both sleep and waking, and not be forced to live by other people's clocks. Even so, I live within that spectrum... "labile" is the word they give it. Look it up.

All that is a long introduction to telling about a reading I went to. Ron Silliman was the main attraction, with Pam Brown and Magdalena Zurawski the warm up acts (if this had been a rock concert). I wish I could say more about Pam Brown, a poet from Australia, but the microphone so distorted her voice, and with my less than doggy hearing capacity, I was able to catch, at most... one or two words every few minutes. I noticed that others laughed at certain lines. I saw Ron Silliman's ample Santa's belly shake more than a few times. I'll read Pam Brown's book and try to make it up to her for what I couldn't hear. I'm so glad that Magdalena Zurawsky, next up, by keeping a few inches further back from the mike, made her every word intelligible.

Cannot omit thanks to CAConrad for hosting this reading, whose own ample presence has become a gravitational center for the adventure of poetry in Philadelphia.

Yes, Silliman was impressive. He read from the VOG section of Alphebet, his 1056 page poem, each letter of the alphabet a different book in a different style. VOG, he explained, was the one letter title that was an acronym. In the old days of TV, the voice over who would introduce the host, was called (not him, but his voice)... the Voice of God. More recently, those letters have come to stand for "Voice-over Guy." ... A chapter in the secularization of TV, says Silliman. I like the way he reads. Maybe cause it reminds me of how I try to read. Each line, each word, with due emphasis for meaning in context. Not the reading of an actor, nor the hypnotic pseudo-rhythmic convention of what I think of as the worst poetry readings... something that I've not heard lately... thank Fred...

All of this was to get to Magdalena Zurawski. I told you, I'm a labile sort of guy. I was trembling... near tears listening to her read from her novel, The Bruise, an FC2 publication, imprint of The University of Alabama Press. I even asked her to sign the copy I bought... something I NEVER do.

(Another post on Magdalena HERE)

Turn it and turn it... the darshan, says of the words of Torah: everything is in it. This is what she does. Turns and turns a single thought, a single observation, a single word, finding as she does, in each phrase, in each thought, an association, a nuance, which in turn needs be turned, re-turned, returned to over and over. By repetition that is not repetition at all, but layer upon layer of discovery, she employs the simplest prose, returning again and again to the same words, but with each return, layered with new meaning, new associations.

I'd like to offer the sections she read... her father's story of drowning, the story (again... this is about fiction and reality) of the dream of giving birth to a child with a wooden leg... but it makes more sense to pick a section less fraught... less "labile," to give an idea of the ideas she's working with--which are all about words and their problematic and necessary relation to "reality"... whatever that is.. Notice the way she exploits repetition of key words...

Here's the chapter: The Sentence. (typos are mine... )
Two years earlier I had found a sentence in an essay and ever since I had found the sentence I had kept it written nearly by hand on the lined side of an index card that I had cut to the exact size of a business card so that I could keep the sentence in my wallet in the plastic protective plastic that was meant to protect credit cards bank cards drivers licenses student ids family photos and especially certain business cards of great importance but that I had used primarily to protect this particular sentence that I had found in an essay two years earlier while reading the essay for my literature class. I can't remember what the essay was called or who had written it or why we had even read the essay or who had written it--or what its relationship was to the novels we were reading. I can remember even less of what the essay was about because when I read the essay I was a very young student of literature and there was very little that I understood about literature at all and whenever I was asked to read an essay about literature I rarely understood anything in the essay but I was stubborn and would always read the essay to the end because I thought if I forced myself to read the things students of literature were supposed to read even if I didn’t' understand the things as I was reading eventually I would understand them and I would be a student of literature and that is how I read the essay and so I had understood next to nothing that was written in this essay and I had understood very little of what my professor had to say about the essay but somehow I thought to write this one sentence from the essay down and to keep it with me always.
And I thought as long as I kept looking at the sentence one day I would eventually know what it meant to me--why I had written down this sentence and put it on a card that I kept with me always in my wallet and so when I was waiting in line at the refectory or standing on the corner by the library waiting for the night shuttle or sitting on the steps outside the Blue Room in between classes I would pull out my wallet and read the card to myself and see if I had not yet really understood the sentences and slowly I began to realize the reason that this sentence had been important to me was because it had nothing to do with literature but with real life and what it discussed was something in life I didn't yet myself know and so each time I read Each time a man speaks to another in an authentic and full manner...something takes place which changes the nature of the two beings present it was as if I were reading a sentence that was discussing something imaginary that was happening between two people in a story but of course I knew the speaking that the sentence was talking about was not the speaking of two people in a story but the speaking between two people in real life and I wondered if I could ever speak to someone on such a way and the more I wondered about such things the lonelier I felt as if I had never spoken to anyone every before. And so each time I pulled out the card to stare at my sentence I wondered when I would ever begin to speak in such a way and the more I thought that I wanted to speak to someone in a very real way the more scared I got that I never would be able to because I thought there were so many real things to say to someone that it seemed impossible to say them all and without saying them all it seemed as if somehow what one said was untrue because without finding sentences for all the thoughts in my head there would only be some parts of thoughts and that would not be true because it seemed each of the thoughts helped make a whole world and it seemed if I didn't find enough sentences or all the thoughts in my head I would never really be able to live in the same world with somebody and more than anything I wanted to live in the same world with somebody and so soon I stopped looking at the sentence altogether because it made me think it would be impossible ever to have enough sentences to speak to somebody in a real way and I might be stuck alone in my thoughts for a very long time.

That quote, Lacan... sounds like something Martin Buber might have written. There's an association I would never have imagined before. Buber was an important early influence on my thinking.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say that I'm glad you think teaching is a kind of soul-possession. When I was teaching French literature I would feel nothing, no hunger, no thirst. It was only when the students had gone that I would gradually return to full sensation. It is the strangest thing.

    I should say something about the Lacan but it's only 8.30 am over here and I'm not fully awake.