Friday, November 18, 2005

Schlesinger's "To" / Conative Verse

Receiving Kyle Schlesinger’s poem “To” by e-mail, a work the poet composed after watching Scorsese’s Dylan documentary on television (Kyle BTW has long been a Dylan fan), I am reminded of the possibilities for conative, affecting verse through the use of recurrent syntactical patterns and serialist word combination on-the-fly. Here is the poem:


Mind to tend
Mind to mind
Mind to mend
Mind to mine

Tend to mind
Tend to tend
Tend to mend
Tend to mine

Mend to mine
Mend to mend
Mend to tend
Mend to mind

Mine to tend
Mine to mine
Mine to mend
Mine to mind

To tend mind
To tend tend
To tend mend
To tend mine

Mind to time
Tend to time
Mend to time
Mine to time

To to time
To to mind
To to tend
To to mine

Time to mine
Time to mind
Time to tend
Time to mend

Time to time
Time to tone
Tone to time
Time to tone

To tone mind
To mind tone
To tend mine
To mind tone

Tone to hurt
Tone to mind
Tone to tone
Tone to mine

Hurt to hold
Hold to hurt
To hurt tone
To hold hurt

Such a work puts Schlesinger in the company of some of my favorite and most valued recent and contemporary poets, reminding one, perhaps, of many of Louis Zukofsky’s experiments in verse, and his insistence in *Bottom* and elsewhere on “recurrent” words and word-patterns as bearing evidence to the major tendencies, ideas, if not obsessions of a writer’s “lifework”; I am also reminded of that poet very much after Zukofsky, and particularly the rigorous serialisms of “Come shadow come and take this shadow up” and “Songs of Degrees”, John Taggart; as well as Charles Bernstein, in whose recent *Shadowtime* we find the harrowing and pulsating homage to Celan, “Dew and die”. To quote the first few lines:

“can dew and die can and die can tie his sin tap and
the war dew hoe and die has him and her and tar the
pry and […]”**

Truncating Bernstein’s poem as I have just done seems an inappropriate thing, the poem compelling the reader beyond itself to keep chanting the rhythms of the poem, if not the particular words themselves, taken up into a kind of perpetual motion machine of lyric. Not a small (or large) machine made of words, but a simple machine achieving maximum effect (and affect) by monosyllabic and conjunctive insisting.

One constantly asks (and should of course continue to ask) what a poem can do? That is, what words can effect, how they can move, inspire, enlarge or intensify experience, how can they produce consciousness, and how they can exist as practical objects -- not so much functionally (in what sense could a poem be a function?) or instrumentally, as being pragmatically towards actions taken in the world: towards actual bodies, interactions, things. Such a question is a practical one, but it is also one of what Spinoza called “conatus” -- the co-striving of beings for continued existence. Literalizing Spinoza’s term (and allegorizing "our" letters) I wonder if words don’t also exist conatively?

Spinoza’s term conatus is grounding of his Ethics, insofar as ethics can no longer be founded on ‘truth’ but, to paraphrase Deleuze, upon ‘what bodies can do’ – an evaluating akin Nietzsche. And not only what bodies can do, but what they do by the fact of what they are necessarily -- by their ontological tendencies. Therefore what is ‘evil’ is only that which will not cooperate with a given body by its chemical, biological or (problematically, as the heads of social Darwinism rear) cultural composition. The problems of human good and evil, an ethics of human animals, is a problem of to what extent bodies affect one another in ways given to cultural production, and cooperation within social interaction and affiliation.

A means for this costriving as an ethics of cultural production is, I would argue, the poem itself. The poem, as much as it is an intellectual thing, a thing of consciousness raised and made complex, is also a site where mind and body engage each other, and, perhaps more importantly, ARE for and of each other. Perhaps what we feel before we think, what we feel as we think the words we are reading (just as we might also hear them reverberate by voices in the air), are both emotions the stirrings of ideas and ideas the stirrings of emotions -- simultaneously, and inextricably. Or says Blake (and notably Bernstein quoting him in his essay “Words and Pictures” and his address to Bernadette Mayer, “The Only Utopia is Now”): “The tear is an intellectual thing.”

Or as Schlesinger writes to me, giving me permission to publish his poem "virtually" and comment on it:
"If you’re inclined to stomp on the chorus pedal, by all means, reverberate with vertebrae."


Notes reading “To”

In affectivity mind and body are bound mutually to the nervous system – and centrally, the discs of the vertebrae as those portals of mind / body, sense / non-sense. To move is to weave mind and body intensely, by sense in duration. To rest to act and act to rest. To find “perfect rest” - in Zukofsky’s Spinozan parlance – as a means to action.

To be ‘to’… the poem is an address, a speech act with an indefinite addressee; ‘to’ also intends an action virtual not yet or no longer made actual. A preposition = virtual action. Pre-position. One doesn’t “do” but one is ‘to’: about ‘to’, doing “this” ‘to’ do “that”. Equi-vocating?

Equivocalizing as affecting.

The first 4 stanzas establish a cross-bred equation / equivocalizing of the words 'mind' 'tend' and 'mend' and of the phonemes “m” “t” “i” “e” “n” “d”.

The spell / accumulated effect of these textual units becomes broken at the 5th stanza where the insistent pattern “x” 'to' “x” / “do this” 'to' “do that” turns to what I read as declarations of virtual action: 'To tend mind', etc. However we must shift our attention between two ways of reading the statements, to 'tend mind' inviting a reading of 'mind' as a verb and a noun, and this flickering between verb and noun slowing and speeding the reading of the poem -- noun delaying, verb accelerating.

Stanza 6 is a jumbling coda of the first 4 stanzas.

Stanza 7 I immediately read after the early “Phase” pieces of Steve Reich, 'to' first doubled in my reading attention – an echo of attention. But then I realize the 1st 'to' is not so much a stutter double-timing, but an activating word (for lack of a better term). A word highlighted in what it enacts and therefore is. ‘To to time’ as in “Use the word / the preposition 'to' to time” or “'To' is to / for time / timing”. By using the preposition 'to' (as I’m using it) I position myself to / towards time, I act within it while being acted upon, affected. The time of the poem / poem as time as inter-action. The attending of my being affected in a duration the partaking with the words comprising the poem.

“To” to affect being always duration. A matter of how the words are read in their ambivalent arrangement.

Reading throughout the poem, but especially in the final stanzas as words are recombined quicker, more intensely, the ambivalence of the words, not to mention their "abstraction", wear the attention down – attenuate consciousness. Like prayer? Chanting, meditation, incantation. Sense or meaning giving way to "pure" sense of sound – the sonority of words woven, recurrent, held (and 'hurt') in my reading attention. The poem stares /sounds back at us, echoes, reflecting as it enacts, enacting as it attends, as we attend it and it us – 'to'. Positioned 'to' and we 'to' us...

Finding rest (not "perpetual peace") to perhaps 'hold hurt' (index), to 'tone' down (chill out), to 'mend' 'time' (heal), to 'mind' what is 'mine' and what is Mind (shared).

Since I can’t remember an appropriate Dylan line right now, Steve Reich will have to do:
“While performing and listening to gradual musical processes, one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from *he* and *she* and *you* and *me* outward toward *it*.”***

*"To" as received by Schlesinger in e-mail attachment is centered on the page, in Helvetica 12 pt.
**There should be regular tabs between all the discrete words of this excerpt from "Dew and die", however I have yet to learn how to re-code the Blog format. Please forgive!
I emphasize the absence of the tabs because they are crucial to the reading of the poem in its propelling and plosive energy. An energy where the breath picks up the energy it leaves behind wherever it left off. What occurs to me reading the poem to myself and aloud is how the absence of grammar (other than of course tabs) doesn't matter, so long as you keep articulating the words, keep pace and tendential rhythms.
***From Reich's "Music as a Gradual Process"

No comments: