Brian Blanchfield will serve as a guest editor of the PEN Poetry Series beginning in October 2015. Read an interview with Blanchfield here

On Reset, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

A couple nights into a housesitting stint in my friend Eliot’s studio apartment in Brooklyn one winter, I tried one of the video cassettes he had said were blanks, on which he said I could record any of his estimable movie collection on a tape-to-tape recorder he had. Eliot is now, some fifteen years later, a successful screenwriter (his debut film stars Kristen Wiig and has major distribution this year), and he lives in Pasadena; but at the time Eliot lived a few blocks from me on Flatbush Ave, above a hair salon, and worked as a librarian at ABC Television. He described his job then as the person who presses play, who makes sure the programming is loaded, who interrupts this broadcast during technical difficulties. Anything on tape or reel that belonged to ABC he cataloged and pulled and queued as necessary. 

The tape I loaded was not blank. On the screen a digitized clapperboard chopped out the name of an actress, the abbreviation OLTL, some numbers also meaningless to me, and the word audition. Take one. Action. An executive behind a desk distractedly calls in a guest at the door. Entering what seems a carpeted corner office a young woman, a tall African-American in business attire, emerges and finds her mark, introduces her character to his. It emerges that the executive is interviewing candidates for the position of his secretary. Particularly devilish, metanarrative, for One Life to Live to make an interview scene its audition scene, for what would be for both character and actress a recurring role, a hire. The scene is for the character a winning one, short, maybe three minutes of dialogue, a review of her qualifications lengthening into a conversation wherein it is revealed that she has noticed his motorcycle in the parking lot and furthermore can relate knowledgeably, even disabuse him of a misperception he has labored under, about the Harley Heritage Softtail Series. As the scene concludes it is apparent she has the job; none can match the promising rapport she seems to have with him. The tape runs darkly on a few moments until the redrawn slate claps out a new name, the same voice calls action, and our attorney again puts down the file he has been examining idly to wave the applicant in. A crisp, attractive white woman, pert, with coifed hair, steps a few paces onto the carpet and addresses the executive. They review her identical qualifications. She has noticed his motorcycle in the parking lot—she herself rides; again he is surprised, charmed, challenged, impressed. If he is a man who isn’t afraid of a subordinate’s savoir-faire, surely he will hire her. 

She is in turn replaced by a third and then fourth hopeful running the lines with the cast member—and more: maybe nine, ten, eleven in all. At the end of each iteration I leaned forward, urging another to follow. I watched the entire hour, then made myself a snack from Eliot’s fridge, got my notebook, returned to sit cross-legged again on the bed, and reset the whole thing to play again. Something here was tapping the quickest vein I have, a kind of xylem channel of creative pleasure. Something here I recognized, and recognized wanting, in my own work. It had to do with the change in me it elicited, a reorientation. 

In retrospect, the slow moment that interest bloomed into euphoria, more or less at the appearance of the second prepared slate and the nearly identical (but notably varied) play of the actor behind his desk, was the one alive with the understanding that this scene would not have its particular increment of drama developed by another in a chronology. The development would be parallel, substitutive, paradigmatic (and not syntagmatic), despite the forward-moving melodrama of the script, of the advancing tape, of time itself. This was a series, a system, a machine run on a simple algorithm—three minutes of banal theater cycled through human interpretation. The banality was not a detraction; in fact it aided the formal pleasure. The machine kept its own time, establishing expectations, the midway arrival of a certain line or choreographed blocking—the lawyer’s rising and approaching the applicant, for instance. How would it happen this time? To what, in one run-through, could his hand in his pants pocket be attributed? There was even a word in the script whose relative volatility was a small tripwire to dread; half of the actresses could pronounce the word implacable when speaking of their character’s qualities: her perfectionism each time would or would not be “implaceable” when she came to it. 

Repetition trains the viewer of such a thing, until the rules that seem to govern the cycling content supplant the content. One such rule: One of the two players here is dispensable; one stays with the furniture and the script and the square of carpet, and the other by definition passes through. This introduces an ethics, no less than the dicey phrase “one life to live.” Hence, another rule: Privilege, positional, outside this circuitry, is a byproduct of this circuitry, watching the secretary reincarnate. The illicit pleasure of screening footage not meant for me was partly in reviewing what each actress could not see: the cheap guile with which she was one of many beheld as if singular by the consecutive executive. Finally authorship itself is reassigned by this structure; if anyone it is the reading viewer, not the screenwriter or show runner or casting director, who has created this art. After all, the whole of the hour of video was not meant as a whole; the auditions were not meant as parts of that whole. The artifice is an effect of their incidental succession, and the call to pattern recognition makes the viewing a kind of code management, the reading a kind of writing. 

This is—as many have said in one way or another—the province of poetry, the arrangement of language whereby the sensations of reading are charged with the creative feeling of writing, and vice versa. This is why I reflexively brought my notebook to the television, cued, ready. In an essay I read recently, a poet I admire, Mark McMorris, quotes Paul Valéry as having said something like: the purpose of poetry is to re-create the poetic spirit in the reader. That feels pretty right to me as a real reason I read poetry. Poets often fret that only poets read poetry; but in fact that seems to me inherent to the transactive practice it is. Poetry makes poets. When it happens we say that work is generous. This last year, books by Chris Nealon and Kevin Killian and Jena Osman and Harmony Holiday and Aaron Kunin and Bhanu Kapil were my go-tos. Each of them, midway, I put down and looked up to find the world was changed, a little. That’s what I’m looking for, that transfer, a new attunement. In the experience neither poem nor reader has yielded; on the contrary, we generate something together. It’s because “a poem is a thinking thing,” as my onetime colleague Karen Volkman said somewhere. It’s a choice formulation: “a thinking thing,” a phrase in which I hear both the poem’s instrumentality for thought (it’s something with which to think), and its processing of its materials (it’s something that conducts thought, as if independently). Especially in books like these—different as they are from one another—where the moves are recursive, where the iterative processing suggests a program, one to operate. This is work about which poets remark, it teaches you how to read it, meaning, often, its set of likenesses and equivalences build an interiority as you pass through it. A poem is durational art; but, its running time belies its inclination to reset, to redo. Merely to start a second stanza references the first as a template, suggests their comparability as another track of significance. In the poem or poetic series the repeat of identical sound or parallel rhetoric or syntax or any similar passage or equivalent unit sews a relationship that subtends and subverts the unidirectional alla prima thrust of the poem. Gertrude Stein said repetition is never exact repetition, because the human registering it is different the second time. For her, the practice has implications, self-othering at the mark of the selfsame. As Nealon puts it, “my secondarity achieves a sheen.”

A marcher sounds off in tandem with one earlier in formation, to whom he’s now attuned. Two pairs of others uncannily have their ties blown north; they turn in lockstep away from the rest. Another by himself five rows ahead turns too, though his tie is tucked. The far marchers in the fourth, ninth, and twelfth rows drag their stride when each crosses a certain mark. Implaceable. Anticipation tripped by surprise. Again the marcher counts himself and is answered by his partner. And as the troop moves through the course, the course is not used up by the passage through. This is a dance. It is called “The Pangolin” by Marianne Moore; “that they were at the beach” by Leslie Scalapino. Sonnets to Orpheus. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” “The Glass Essay.” Or, recast the formation: executive secretaries leaving the lot at the end of the mind. 

In John Berger’s best essay, one of the very shortest, a small meditation called “Field,” he describes a small squarish weedy meadow alongside a railroad crossing in France, one at which he hopes to be delayed so that again he may practice a devotion of sorts. Most times there is no train. But when there is, he may again look over the field, accustoming his attention, until something jumps within it. It always happens, he assures himself. A grackle hopping, a rabbit standing plantigrade. To focus on the impression it has made is to spot then a second phenomenon, sometimes tangent, immediate, sometimes in a far quadrant of the field, a low breeze bowling through the tall grasses. Something else thereafter, cornflower breathing out a hue in the new light, some gnats worrying the air in a helix there, the grackle again hovering for his hidden mate. And then the train has passed, and the traffic inches ahead. The field is for Berger idling in his Peugeot always a duration, and the field for as long as it is the field is a set of reliably dynamic relations. So, it would seem, is any field, and anything so (squarely) attended might qualify. A canvas, he doesn’t say. The essay ends, “the field you are standing before seems to have the exact proportions of your own life.”

I brought my notebook to the television. Of course my life’s proportions were written there: a secretary (my mother), an attorney (my stepfather), report of a motorcycle (somewhere, my father), a revolving applicant (myself), an embedded standard in the script (unappeasable if you pass, illocable if you don’t: growing up queer), and the slate (poetry): one life to live to live again. That is, singularity recast as multiple. That is, one’s subjectivity run through by a performance not one’s own. Here at the authorless site of my thrill, producing a replacement time in place of time, something expresses in me, the way groundwater is said to express intermittently as a spring. A sense of it having run under all along. “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow,” and sometimes the meadow is a soap opera bit part audition tape. The scotched and blotted notebook page I import to the scenario may capture not even the scaffold of a poem but marks the site where “poetry” is anyway reading me, resetting itself, across my lifetime. 

It’s embarrassing in 2015 not to say so what to that and rather to build a trust in those dimensions. I don’t say God, but if I’m in a church basement meeting, this is the higher power I let myself conceive. The same way during his occasional interval the field each time instantiates fieldness in Berger, the welling of confluent creativity when it happens draws out my subjectivity and conflates it with my objecthood. I mean, it brings back (or resets the text of me at) prior instances of this influx rush, compounding their current. Something throws forward from other encounters. Seeing dance for the first time, in 1995, Mark Dendy’s quick, gestural, multivalent “Fire” at the American Dance Festival in Durham; reading in 1990 Sonnets to Orpheus, the first book with a system I understood as inhabitable (though I no longer live there); watching with John in 2010 the Clark Fork River run again over its natural floodplain after the demolition of an old dam in Milltown, Montana. Maybe here are Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” or Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” (and maybe, too, wishfully, something of Keats’s “negative capability”); but in any case, these instances when poetry is cued—forthcoming or not—these sited sensations of renewal coming on, are finally for attuning your own instrumentality, were some other agent playing the thinking thing, something continual keeping its time, in the plain continuousness of your own lived span. 

“Choose your poet here,” says Muriel Rukeyser, late in The Life of Poetry. “Or, rather, do not choose, but recall,” she continues, describing the overwhelm of something she calls truth that each person finds in the poem that does it for them, that enacts whatever transfer it is that seems a self-replenishment, “the light of a new awareness that was not something you learned but something rather that you seemed to remember.” “This,” she says, “is the multiple time-sense in poetry, before which your slow mortality takes its proper place.” 

[This piece is from a collection, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which observes as one of its organizing constraints a total suppression of recourse to authoritative sources. So, on his own authority, the author gets a few things wrong; accordingly, the book concludes with a rolling corrective endnote. Relevant portions are printed here.]

from Correction.

Welcome to Me (2014, directed by Shira Piven, written by Eliot Laurence) is a comedy about new-age self-involvement and untreated mental illness. The trailer begins with the main character, Alice (Kristin Wiig), putting a tape in the VCR, sitting close, hypnotized. On its spine she has written the words My True Calling

In a 1982 essay, John Berger reports that he and his family had recently driven to Genoa in his Citroën C2V. This is the same model car he reports elsewhere having driven through Yugoslavia during the summer the two erstwhile leaders of Poland and Yugoslavia, Gomulka and Tito, were meeting for the first time, a meeting that took place in 1957. It is likely then that in 1971, when Berger wrote the essay “Field,” he drove the Citroën and not a Peugeot. 

His essay concludes, “The field you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.”

In late 2010, after the Milltown Dam was destroyed at the west end of the nation’s largest Superfund site and the associated reservoir was drained and cleaned of arsenic and heavy metals, the Clark Fork River was no longer diverted and instead channeled into its natural course, toward a confluence again with the Blackfoot River in Bonner, Montana. Migration of fish upstream to the rivers’ sources was unimpeded for the first time in 102 years.

Muriel Rukeyser writes, “Remember what happened to you when you came to your poem, any poem whose truth overcame all inertia in you at that moment, so that your slow mortality took its proper place, and before it the light of a new awareness was not something new, but something you recognized.

“That is the multiple time-sense in poetry, that is the ever new, which is recognized as something already in ourselves, but not discovered.”

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