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Attention Span 2011 | Benjamin Friedlander

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Rose Ausländer | Gesamtwerk in Einzelbänden | 16 vols. | Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag | 1992-1995

My German, never good to begin with, has been slipping away from lack of use, and I’ve no longer got my father to call for help when the grammar tricks me up—a stroke took away all his answers. A month before the stroke he and I were in Berlin and I bought a few of these volumes; I’ve acquired the others since, reading aloud at the nursing home, where my father’s silence becomes part of the effect. It’s the late work in particular that moves me, written after Ausländer turned seventy: a metaphysical imagism, fluid as Matisse’s cutouts, cutting as a northern wind, though at whisper strength. Or seemingly at whisper strength: the late work fills nine of these volumes.

Bureau of American Ethnology | Annual Reports and Bulletins | Government Printing Office | 1879-1967

Of the 200 bulletins and 48 annual reports with papers, only a few contain material that one might call literary, but these are precious: a treasury of Native American texts in the original languages, with dictionaries and translations. It’s incredible that these are available online, and incredible to scroll through them, if a little bewildering—they encompass a wide range of philosophies and projects, and their credibility is uneven. Racism is pervasive, so suspicion is required, but it’s hard not to get excited by the material: a ghost story in which a bird puts adult skulls on child bodies, which topple over; a song with the refrain, “the entire world weeps for me”; a prayer to the sun that includes the unexpected hope, “Perhaps if we are lucky / … / A floor of ice will spread over the world, / the forests …  / … will break beneath the weight of snow.” The highlight for me is The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published only a few years after the events described, containing a number of the songs that accompanied the dance. (The translator, James Mooney, reports that they were composed in a trance, one after the other, 20 or 30 at a time). Just as interesting, and more influential as poetry: Frances Densmore’s various collections of Indian song, widely read by the moderns—just this week I found a citation by Basil Bunting.

List of BAE publications
Annual Reports
Bulletins 1-24
Bulletins 25-200

Norma Cole | To Be at Music: Essays & Talks | Omnidawn | 2010

Argument by citation, juxtaposition, repurposing—a Talmudic strategy, though based on a very different principle. Not the authority of a sacred text, but a library where authority is dispersed—where the sacred, like the untranslatable, is yet to be grasped. Making this a musical book in Cole’s sense (formulated for Robert Browning): “In the time of imagination, prosody becomes the reference system, the set of locating coordinates.”

Ann Cotten & Kerstin Cmelka | I, Coleoptile | Broken Dimanche P | 2010

Consulting a dictionary every other word impedes the reading of some poets more than others, and Cotten, alas, is one for whom speed matters. This is ironic, since her Fremdwörterbuchsonette (Suhrkamp, 2007) includes the word “dictionary” in its title. A dictionary of loan words, for Cotten—American—has borrowed her German, while incorporating an English borrowed for her readers. Wit is required to keep up, and I’m just too slow in German. Probably, I’m too slow for this English text as well—a prose-poetry hybrid with photographs—but here at least I can pretend to understand. And pretending is precisely the point. The photos (by Cmelka) reproduce stills from a film starring Mayakovsky, with Cotten in Mayakovsky’s role, while the narrative is given under the sign of a disguise: the “coleoptile” is a vegetable sheath, the covering of a shoot, hence a figure for becoming. “I am a woman as yet / in a cocoon. I am embarrassed / that one has caught me as I unfold / my first wing, still in the ‘real,-’ bag.” In context, “real” suggests “reel,” just as shoot invokes photography, so it’s fair to surmise that the metamorphosis unfolds in the manner of a film, the projection of something already been (or “bean,” as the opening discourse punningly puts it). Like a loan word transposed into poetry, it slips by too fast to be savored—or is savored at narrative’s expense.

Stephen Crane, ed. Christopher Benfey | Complete Poems | American Poets Project | 2011

In his introduction, Benfey notes that Crane’s most individual qualities have long been ignored, even by sympathetic readers: they admire his starkness of language and modernity of line, but not the compressed, parable-like narratives these serve. Yet the time may have come for reassessment: aligning Crane with a certain vein of writing from the seventies, Benfey sees a ground prepared by the influx of poetry from Eastern Europe, and by the impact of deep image. This made me think a more contemporary ground might lie with the writers of Action Books. Though Crane lacks the grotesqueries they admire, he flirts with kitsch. His angels scoffing at churchgoers, man chasing horizon, split the difference between American Renaissance allegory and New Yorker cartoon; and it’s not surprising to learn that his original publisher, Fred Holland Day, was a mentor of Khalil Ghibran. All that aside—or rather, not aside—Crane’s work is fun to read. It’s nice to have this compact edition.

Donato Mancini | Buffet World | New Star | 2011

A pringle can probably tell us more about our world than a potato: ersatz, weighed down by packaging, more pleasurable than sustaining, the lowly chip—like its lowly consumer—is the material form of a relation (economic, ecological) that stitches reality. These wonderful poems tug at those stitches, making reality dance wonkily, like a puppet show. Fun facts, childish play, damning critique: Capitalism, you are what you eat.

Thomas Mann, trans. John E. Woods | Doctor Faustus | Vintage International | 1999

From the Mann-Adorno correspondence I learn that portions were taken verbatim from source texts—a precedent (yet another) for our contemporary practice. I feel especially close to Mann’s version: plundering one milieu to recreate another, he historicizes the avant-garde while making it the vehicle for a counter-history. In conceptual writing, however, a concept is nothing without execution. Here, as it should be, the devil is in the details.

I poeti della scuola siciliana | Vol. 1: Giacomo da Lentini | Vol. 2: Poeti della corte di Federico II | Vol. 3:  Poeti siculo-toscani | Ed. Roberto Antonelli (vol. 1), Costanzo Di Girolamo (vol. 2), and Rosario Coluccia (vol. 3) | Mondadori | 2008

It’s silly to list these long-coveted volumes when I’ve only managed to make my way through a half dozen poems (under Carla’s tutelage, of course), but because they’ve already sent me on a fruitful detour through Rosetti, I feel, if not justified, then at least honest: my attention is directed where it takes new inspiration, though it can’t go forward on its own.

Laura Riding | Omitted Poems and Superseded Versions, 1927-1938

I spent a fair portion of the year tracking down fugitive publications and original editions by A. R. Ammons, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Laura Riding, with gains in each case. The biggest surprise came with Riding, whose bibliography contains perhaps a hundred pages of uncollected poetry and a wealth of material for a variorum, a companion to First Awakenings (the uncollected work through 1926) and Collected Poems (Riding’s “self-determining canon”). What lies beyond, in the archive, I can’t say, but the unpublished writing strikes me as a separate issue. It’s the successive stages of Riding’s public presentation that interests me—a story well worth preserving.

Andrew Schelling | From the Arapaho Songbook | La Alameda | 2011

It feels good to be in synch with a friend: little did I know when I took up The Ghost Dance Religion that Andrew was already studying one of its principal languages, Arapaho, an Algonkian tongue that flourished where he now lives. The aim: “to get closer to plant, animal, rock, weather, or hydrological cycles, by way of the Native words that held them.” The resulting work has an objectivist compression, which, despite the economy, finds space for all that the eye can see, or ear hear, all that deepens a day. Living up to the demands of Arapaho as expressed in his book’s epigraph, from Edward Sapir: “Single Algonkian words are like tiny Imagist poems.”

Elisabeth Workman | Maybe Malibu Maybe Beowulf | Dusie Kollectiv | 2011

Through experiments on a rodent (namely myself), I can say that these poems all hit the goody place, the pleasure center of the brain, which laps up the lines like so many pulses: “pink tufa dust / of the Golden Girls,” “Caucasian dawgs,” “a probe, a hole, a ‘Burger King,’” “SpongeBob / ejaculates brief histories of time.” All meaningless, of course, but perfectly directed, electric.

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Beyond these, let me cite without comment two books I blurbed this year: Stan Apps, The World as Phone Bill (Combo Books, 2011), and G. P. Lainsbury, Versions of North (Caitlin Press, forthcoming). Also, two broadsides that gave me great pleasure: Tim Atkins, Pet Soundz (Crater Press, 2011), and Rodney Koeneke, At the Small Bar in the Embassy (Cuneiform Press, 2011).

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More Benjamin Friedlander here.

Friedlander’s Attention Span for 20102009200820072006200520042003. Back to 2011 directory.

Attention Span 2011 | Franklin Bruno

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Hans Abbing | Why Are Artists Poor | Amsterdam UP | 2002

Erica Baum | Dog Ear | Ugly Duckling | 2011

Paul Coors/Dana Ward | I want this forever | Perfect Lovers | 2009 

Timothy Donnelly | The Cloud Corporation | Wave | 2010

Roy Fisher | Selected Poems | Flood | 2011

(Despite the exclusion of anything from The Cut Pages, 1970)

Benjamin Friedlander | Citizen Cain | Salt | 2011

Karen MacCormack | Tale Light: New and Selected Poems 1984-2009 | BookThug | 2010

Christopher Nealon | The Matter of Capital | Harvard | 2011

Benjamin Péret, trans. Marc Lowenthal | The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works | Wakefield | 2011

Raymond Queneau, trans. Guy Bennett | For an Ars Poetics | Mindmade | 2010

Leon Stein | The Triangle Fire | Lippincott | 1962

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Franklin Bruno‘s writing appears. So do his recordings. A book of poems, The Accordion Repertoire, is due from Edge in 2012. He lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Bruno’s Attention Span for 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004. Back to 2011 directory.

Attention Span 2011 | Daniel Bouchard

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Benjamin Friedlander | Citizen Cain | Salt | 2011

I used to think of “flarf’ as embodying the poetics of insincerity. Ben Friedlander’s book has changed my mind. This is a sincere book, and it’s really weird and wonderful. This stanza, opening the poem (title lifted from Baraka) “Somebody Blew Up America,” provides a kind of framework for the collection’s many modes: “The poem you just heard was ironic and this one is sincere. / How can you tell? Because it was written in ‘my’ voice.” Don’t ask the criteria for insincerity but rather think what the search terms might have been: “The special sin that arouses God’s anger is in reality an aborted baby.” That’s just language from the Web, right? How about “the sticky / white load he pumped on her toes. / Bookmark this site.” I’ve never read such a variety of contemporary voices commandeered in poems. Yet for all the noise that might suggest the poems read with consistent grace and an even pace despite their detachment from the Literary. And they’re hard voices to identify. Maybe it’s better not to think too much about who they may be or represent or where they come from, either as individuals or composites. The Web is dark and strange: your keyboard is a Ouija board that can summon a wide array of spirits. They show up and begin to reflect or speak to your preoccupations, even demons. Better to read with your eyes slightly out of focus (like being online too long) to get a picture of the poet shaping these poems (in 4, 3, or 2 line stanzas, almost exclusively) and the umami of sensibility. This is a good book of poetry. This is a funny book. “Remember Vietnam? No, not really. / But I do remember what shaq did / last year in the playoffs. Hoooooooo!” (16) Jewish culture, user feedback, user profiles, modern poetry, politics (“Senator shithead”), internet porn: not many books published today make me think ‘oh, I could never write this’ and also elicit respect in the form of envy. Pound appears throughout the book, a significantly higher number of times than placenta, and placenta is no small presence. Read “Alterity Cudgel,” “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” and “Me and My Gang” (“Sexy Librarians of the Future \ are behind you, with a big strapon \ called Knowledge . . .”) and then just jump around. If someone who doesn’t regularly read poetry wants to know what book they should purchase by a living poet, Citizen Cain is a lively choice.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis | The Collage Poems of Drafts | Salt | 2011

It’s not a difficult shift from the thickness and rich verbal density of all the preceding of DuPlessis’s Drafts to this new mostly-visually based format. The mode of collage isn’t new to Drafts and the pictorial element (four color at that!) in this collection has strong ligatures cementing the continuity of the overall project. Somewhere she has said she thinks of Schwitters all the time, a claim substantiated and made quite apparent in the materials and arrangements of these works. Attentive readers will see familiar themes, processes and words sustained here from earlier incarnations and with a similar richness resulting: “A process of scraping, of ripping, of pasting. . . . Mite and mote.”

Edgar Lee Masters | The Great Valley | MacMillan | 1916

Published a year after Spoon River Anthology, Masters broadens his sustained meditation on American history and society in a book that is very long and very prosaic. But its flatness is somewhat countered by the sheer range of interest the poet takes in so many things, and the belief that there is so much to give voice to, and so many worthy. The title refers to Illinois, and the elegies within sing of long forgotten figures, mostly local. The Lincoln–Douglas debates, Dreiser, and Robert Ingersoll are among the better known subjects. (I couldn’t help but think of Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise throughout.) Honestly, I lost interest about halfway thru the book but I am glad I read the entire thing. Masters is a lot more than just the famous Spoon River. There is a fat selected poems waiting to be created. It should aim to bring the best of his work back into view.

Bryher | The Fourteenth of October | Pantheon | 1952
Bryher | Roman Wall | Pantheon | 1954
Bryher | Beowulf | Pantheon | 1956
Bryher | Ruan | Pantheon | 1960

Byher’s historic novels have a pattern: a boy’s coming of age tale in which he is caught up in the forces of history. His native land is in the throes of turmoil: Saxon England fighting the Norman invasion; a Roman outpost fighting the plundering Goths; London during the Blitz; a druid heir fleeing the conversion of Cornwall to Christianity. In each narrative there is a slackness or incoherency to the society which makes it vulnerable. Old ties and traditions will soon be washed away. There is usually one character who knows better and can see the peril coming but no one will listen to them and then it’s too late. In this, Bryher herself is represented directly. She wrote in her memoirs that she saw WWII coming years before it began. But, alas, no one would listen. She acknowledges a deep influence by G.A. Henty, a nineteenth century novelist who wrote adventure stories for juveniles. Bryher’s attention to detail for what life may have been like for common people at turning points of history across many centuries makes her stories vivid and interesting. All of the books can be read rather quickly. The Player’s Boy and The Coin of Carthage are among her best. Her two memoirs, The Heart of Artemis and The Days of Mars, are not to be missed.

Brook Holgum, ed. | The Capilano Review: George Stanley issue | Vancouver | 2011

A festschrift for George Stanley, San Francisco-born Canadian poet: interviews, photographs, recollections, dedicatory poems and critical takes. As if that were not enough the issue also contains the debut of Stanley’s serial poem After Desire which alone is worth the price of admission.

Humbert Wolfe | Humoresque | E Benn | 1926

Wikipedia describes him as “an Italian-born English poet, man of letters and civil servant, from a Jewish family background.” A contemporary of Pound and Eliot, Wolfe’s work falls to the lighter side of poetry. Prolific in the 1920s and 30s (he died in 1940) he left a largely forgettable body of work. But once in a while there is a gem:

I looked back suddenly
into the empty room
and saw the lamp that I had lit
still shining on the little table by the window
and throwing its light on the tumbled sheets of paper
on which I had been writing.

And I felt as though long years ago a man,
whom I had know very little,
had lighted that lamp,
and sat by the window writing and believing that he was a poet,
and then he came out of the room and found the letter.

He would not go into the room again:
And not he, but I will go in softly
And put out the lamp,
And lay aside the useless paper.

Joseph Torra | What’s So Funny | Pressed Wafer | 2011

This short novel is the narrative of a washed-up comedian on the verge of quitting his trade. Angry, depressed, misanthropic, not even his trademark biting humor gives him satisfaction anymore. “Is there anything more sickening than a couple falling in love?” His marriage is long over, his family distant, dead or in decline. “Could there be anything sicker than the concept of baptism? That some precious newborn baby is born in sin, and has to be cleansed?” The pathos of the story, the loneliness and sadness of an individual who can’t see or won’t admit or simply can’t overcome the causes of his suffering, is nearly drowned by the humor with which the material, and life, attempts to redeem itself. Finally you realize you are reading the transcript of one long comedy routine. Childhood, sex, race, religion, dating, therapy, war, porn, the usual and not so usual material of stand up, are all grist for the mill. “If everyone would lie about Santa, they’ll lie about God.”

Joe Elliot | Homework | Lunar Chandelier | 2010

Cedar Sigo | Stranger in Town | City Lights | 2010

Jennifer Moxley | Coastal | The Song Cave | 2011

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Daniel Bouchard’s poetry books include The Filaments (Zasterle Press) and Some Mountains Removed (Subpress). He edited The Poker for many years. An essay on George Stanley’s work appeared recently in The Capilano Review, and an essay on Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts is posted at Jacket2.

Bouchard’s Attention Span for 201020092005. Back to 2011 directory.

Attention Span 2011 | Brian Ang

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Alain Badiou | Conditions | Continuum | 2008

The best introduction to Badiou’s system as immediately useful for literary criticism, due to its accessible thematic organization around Badiou’s four truth procedures of poetry, mathematics, politics, and love: an opening parry and complement to the denser Being and Event. I’ve found Badiou and the strength of his system, as a philosopher proper, to be a cleansing challenge to post-structuralist and Marxist tenets grown dogmatic: philosophy restores contextual problematics to conclusions simplified into the present.

Calvin Bedient & David Lau, eds. | Lana Turner 3 | 2010

A wealth of emergent ideas pursued all year: I’ve returned the most to David Lau and Joshua Clover’s works, and Ben Lerner, Marjorie Perloff, and Gopal Balakrishnan’s works were also highlights. Lana Turner’s sustained editorial argument achieves a hybridism with the capacity to take a stand.

Alastair Brotchie & Harry Mathews, eds. | Oulipo Compendium | Make Now | 2005

Editor Ara Shirinyan gave me the Make Now catalogue when I visited Los Angeles in June. A trove to the endurance of form and stalwart ideas, and an historical authority behind the wager of contemporary conceptual writing.

Joshua Clover | Fragment on the Machine | self-published | 2011

An occasional pamphlet made for the “Can Art and Politics Be Thought?” conference in Los Angeles in June in an edition of 50. Contains Clover’s recent poems “Gilded Age,” “In the City It Was Warmer,” “Poem (Oh capital let’s kiss and make up)” and “Years of Analysis for a Day of Synthesis” in English and French. The first and last were published in Lana Turner 3 and 2 respectively. Clover’s recent poems are his best and most urgent.

Benjamin Friedlander | Period Piece | porci con le ali | 1998

I had correspondence of poems and thoughts with Ben this year and among items received was this poetic tribute to San Francisco Bay Area Language poetry as he knew it. It was a fascinating reading experience, for the effects of Ben’s Bay Area moment are strongly sedimented in the present Bay Area in which I live. It was a helpful work in thinking about historical cultural sediment in both spatial specificity and concept and an affirmation of how poems are a uniquely maximal form of communication over time’s milieus.

Richard Kempton | Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt | Autonomedia | 2007

Read as part of the suggested material for Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr’s Durruti Free Skool, along with Raul Zibechi’s Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces and the East Bay Skool specific complement, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I found this book to be the most directly useful of the materials to the immediate situation by the Provo anarchists’ similarity of environment of a modern city and their insistence on playful insurrectionary performance art. It was also a reminder of the importance of a rigorous theoretical understanding of material conditions: the Provos proved not to be sustainable past the exuberance of their moment without a program.

Ron Silliman | The Alphabet | Alabama | 2008

Silliman’s works take such a commitment to read, their experiences are unforgettable and permanently transformative. In the pressure chambers of Silliman’s works, some sentences only read once have echoed in my head for years. Preparing for and presenting at Louis Cabri’s Alphabet symposium in March gave me the necessary energy to finish this. I can’t think of any other book in which time-congealed labor is so palpable in every sentence.

Brian Kim Stefans | Viva Miscegenation | Insert | 2010

I received Insert Press’ PARROT chapbooks nos. 4-7 from editor Mathew Timmons when he read in my apartment in May, and I’ve returned the most to this one. Stefans leans more toward his Ashbery inclinations than his Bernstein ones here, subordinating thickness of language to making an antechamber of communication toward the ineffable importance of a potential recipient, striking an exceptional pleasurable organization between intimate address and expansive play.

Dan Thomas-Glass, ed. | With + Stand 5 | self-published | 2011

Thomas-Glass’ generous experimental sensibility and DIY community sensitivity capture the organic ambiance of the moment and let the spray paint and duct tape dangle. This latest issue is the densest yet and a rich document of the year.

Tiqqun | Call | 2004

I hosted several Talk events at my apartment this year and this was distributed at one of them for discussion. I’ve found the Tiqqun texts stimulating for redeploying Situationist-style energy out from historical contemplation back into urgency in confronting contemporary particulars. Contentions with and lessons from Tiqqun have been immediately contributive in recent activist movements, including for student activists engaged in and coming out of current Californian public education struggles.

Barrett Watten, ed. | THIS 9-12 | THIS | 1979-1982

Barrett gave me these when we both attended the Alphabet symposium in March. It’s moving to read the major poems of Language poetry of the period, including Tjanting, a.k.a., “I Guess Work the Time Up,” and Four Lectures, in their first appearances and organization through Barrett’s visionary editing.

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Brian Ang is the author of Communism (Berkeley Neo-Baroque, 2011) and Paradise Now (Grey Book Press, 2011) and the editor of ARMED CELL. Starting in October he will be a Guest Commentator on the PennSound archive for Jacket2. He lives in Oakland, California.

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Attention Span 2010 – Benjamin Friedlander

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Lawrence Rosenwald | Selected Journals 1820-1842 and 1841-1877 | Library of America | 2010

Memory is the ultimate power, it “holds together past and present, beholding both, existing in both, abides in the flowing, and gives continuity and dignity to human life.” The slackening of that power tells the story—or rather, withholds the story—of Emerson’s final years, in which he suffered from dementia, and which he passed, in part, by rereading these journals.

Herman Melville, ed. Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, G. Thomas Tanselle; historical note by Hershel Parker | Published Poems: Battle-Pieces, John Marr, Timoleon | Northwestern UP | 2009

Though you wouldn’t think so from their prose, Emerson is the more sensational poet; Melville, the more metaphysical. Even in Battle-Pieces, he attempts to worry the essence of a truth. Which isn’t quite right: his poetry is too adept, too carefully worked, to be a mere attempt; it’s we who do the worrying. Assured as a sailor’s knot. And just as unlovely—unless you love knots.

K. Silem Mohammad | Sonnagrams | Slack Buddha | 2009

From one point of view—mine increasingly—craft is the ability to shape a meaningful context for interesting words. And it’s in this sense that Mohammad lives up to his model. The Bard he takes apart letter by letter, leaving everything changed except the form, had a mammoth vocabulary, and little fear (at least on stage) of the vulgar. But Mohammad has less fear. And more laughs.

Aífe Murray | Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language | U of New Hampshire P | 2009

For a hundred years biographers have overturned stones looking for Emily’s lovers while the ones who knew all the secrets stood invisibly in the shadows. This lovingly researched book helps to part those shadows. A story worthy of James: the hiring of Margaret Maher, fought over by two rich families. Worthy of Tillie Olsen: the poet’s funeral, her white casket hefted by Irish servants. Out the back door and across the fields, a final concession to visibility.

The Charles Olson Research Collection | Thomas J. Dodd Research Center | University of Connecticut Libraries | Storrs

Free with visitors and unimaginably wealthy in unpublished material, the Olson Archive, like the Rembrandt Museum, or Stonehenge I suppose, is well worth a trip across the world. Even with a finding aid, there are plenty of surprises—the papers are organized in service to their editing, which is to say their own logic is subordinated to hierarchies of genre. Which are often arbitrary, even whimsical: notebooks are scattered all through the collection, sometimes marked as notebooks, sometimes as prose, sometimes as poetry. I even found a heavily annotated copy of a John Wieners book marked as poetry, because of a few lines of verse on the inside cover. All of which makes reading into a kind of archaeology. Do you like digging? You will dig it.

Tom Raworth | Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems | Carcanet | 2010

I wish I could be satisfied with a poem, but what I really seek to know is the mind that made it. And minds I like as little as poems when there’s no body to hold them, no world for the body, no history for the world. Some poets give you their world, or give you their response to it, and some call you into the world, or from it, with a voice that has as much meaning or matter as any discourse. Raworth is the former, but in a manner so unique as to seem the latter. Almost a sonar, sending you back minute-by-minute information, his narration is almost never enough, but has to be heard, a ping-ping-pinging … a sounding that gives you an object and its motion, with little time to react.

Tom Raworth | Earn Your Milk: Collected Prose | Salt | 2009

Turning to Raworth’s prose from his poetry is a little like clicking on the plus sign on Google maps, watching the world grow larger within a shrinking horizon, ever more knowable. At one point, there are even street names. Hell, there are even directions available. It’s the same world, but close up. I’d call it comfy, but that’s going way too far.

T. D. Rice, ed. W. T. Lhamon Jr. | Jim Crow, American: Selected Songs and Plays | Harvard UP | 2009

Blackface minstrelsy has always been disreputable, but before it became synonymous with racial domination it formed the cutting edge of popular culture—and Rice, if anyone, held the blade. Hard to believe this is the first collection of writings to bear his name on the cover.

Lisa Robertson | R’s Boat | U of California P | 2010

Robertson’s poetry is tactile; and dense, but pliable. Reading it is a little like pressing one’s way through a spongy medium, like a fly in marmalade. Alive in a substance that nourishes, or suffocates; that has to be escaped. Except that this is language, not jam, so Robertson abets our escape, guiding our senses beyond the medium, toward a world of imagination, possibility, desire.

Gianni Vattimo with Piergiorgio Paterlini, , trans. William McCuaig | Not Being God: A Collaborative Autobiography | Columbia UP | 2009

The story of a professor’s life, which is to say: a life of the mind lived as something other than the spirit of history. “Although a decent knowledge of languages has helped me along in life, I confess that vis-à-vis Gadamer I felt like a worm. As far as I could tell, the only one who understood less than me was a beautiful prince from some African tribe, whom I tried to seduce. Unsuccessfully, because of the language barrier.” A bit of a feint, since Vattimo understood well enough—he was the first to translate Truth and Method. Thus: “Gadamer in the end is a watered down Hegelian, like me.” Which is only deprecatory if you want to be God—modesty is Vattimo’s own truth and method. Making him a good seducer; and this, a thoroughly likeable book.

Albery Allson Whitman, ed. Ivy G. Wilson | At the Dusk of Dawn: Selected Poetry and Prose | Northeastern UP | 2009

The most ambitious African American poet of the nineteenth century, formally speaking, and the most prolific up until Dunbar (with whom he shared a stage at the Chicago World’s Fair), A. A. Whitman is hardly known, even to experts. Born a slave in Kentucky, he became a pastor in the A.M.E. church, publishing six volumes of verse between 1871 and 1901, the first of which is no longer extant. But despite his church affiliation, there is little religion in his poetry. For the most part, he’s a cultural nationalist, a little like Tolson, who shares Whitman’s narrative scale and sense of form. Not to give any false impression of Modernism: this is a poetry indebted to Bryant’s neoclassical side. It’s a shame that all four long poems appear in extract—that this could not be a Collected (especially since the book is already too expensive for casual purchase)—but what a gift to have any edition at all, especially one so scrupulously researched. Opening this book makes the nineteenth century a little larger.

More Benjamin Friedlander here. His Attention Span for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003. Back to directory.

Attention Span 2009 – Benjamin Friedlander

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Ludovico Ariosto, trans. Barbara Reynolds | Orlando Furioso, Parts One and Two | Penguin | 1975 and 1977

Lit up by rare flashes of gunfire, a hundred characters fly every which way in the twilight of the middle ages, in stories as ragged as the back of a tapestry. It’s ridiculous fun—The Faerie Queene as told by Rabelais—made perfect for bedtime by the rhymed translation, which aims to be as rubbery as Don Juan. Making me wish Byron had been born in the Renaissance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane | Collected Poems and Translations | Library of America | 1994

What finally won me over is the pulse of composition: an engendering rhythm urged forward by rhyme, lifting the flower out of its seed, delivering into consciousness what gets delivered into script. No other poet of the nineteenth century gives me the same sense of scribble as bioproduct. To be sure, the poems I like best are much more than that, but it’s the bioproduction that defines the overall experience, a fitting expression of Emerson’s commitment to nature.

Flarf and Conceptual Poetry | various websites and presses | 2008-2009

Perhaps the one indisputable achievement of conceptual poetry is its radicalizing of the old truism that being is inferior to becoming, that one should prize thoughts less highly than thinking. In works like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget (a list of every body movement made over thirteen hours), it’s the completeness with which the initial inspiration is carried out that matters, not the result. The heft of the book matters more than anything said in it. Even a project as magnificently crafted as Christian Bok’s Eunoia (a set of lipograms, each highlighting a different vowel) is of little interest in what it says; what we admire, finally, is the fact that anything gets said at all. The being of such projects is not simply inferior to becoming; it makes us yearn for a dissipation of being, for a conceptual project that would free us from the burdens of consumption altogether; a project that could marshal all the obsessiveness of Fidget, all the ingenuity of Eunoia, but in pursuit of nothing tangible…of nothing at all. Wait. I think I just discovered the death drive.

Flarf is the opposite. It cares not a whit for becoming, though it responds to change, and reproduces. Like an amoeba, growing and splitting, splitting and growing. Except that flarf is hardly single-celled. It’s a whole culture, decaying matter newly charged with life, responding to stimulus. In flarf, any stray word or phrase can become an organ of feeling, obeying the pleasure principle, luxuriating in its being. Which is why consciousness ripples through it so confusingly: with consciousness comes intention, reflection, concern for becoming. Ripples, however, are unavoidable: consciousness, or its influence, is irrepressible, except through the rigorous application of a method. Which is really a conceptual thing.

Rob Halpern | Disaster Suites | Palm | 2009

In which the lyric I is a materialist project and language the flood setting the wreckage adrift. Flood, however, is not the disaster, only its means of becoming manifest. Transcendance? A survey of the wreckage from above.

Rachel Loden | Dick of the Dead | Asahta | 2009

Pleasure and disgust are modes of understanding. Humor, a pedagogy that relies on them. Which is why Rachel Loden’s history is so effective. Its lesson? A reawakening of sensation. Call it proprioception, but of the mind.

Mel Nichols | Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon | Edge | 2009

Flickers of happiness like red lights from tapped brakes, driving into northern Virginia, immersed in music and the passing view. It all made so much sense when I learned that Mel Nichols used to live on the same road toward which I careened nearly every day. A historic city split open by highways, bandaged with strip malls, unexpectedly hospitable to foreign substances. “I kiss you city // and melt into your dangerous tongue.” Or drip into you, as through a feeding tube. However evoked, a very particular experience of place. Which these poems reproduce, in calming flashes.

Kit Robinson | The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems 1976-2003 | Adventures in Poetry | 2008

If craft, poetics, and experience form a triangle, the area they enclose is ruled by artifice. And no poet has succumbed to that rule as winningly or knowingly as Robinson, who appreciates with cheerful horror the larger mandate: to remake the world in our own image.

Susan Schultz | Dementia Blog | Singing Horse | 2008

Family and caretakers, bent by love or duty toward the ultimate abjection: cognition after twilight. According to Susan Schultz, all of us are likewise bent relative to authority, making this six-month report essential reading.

Jonathan Skinner | With Naked Foot | Little Scratch Pad | 2009

It’s waaaay better than slow poetry. It’s Skinner! (With apologies to Wendy’s.)

Peter Weiss | Auschwitz auf der Bühne: “Die Ermittlung” in Ost und West [Auschwitz on Stage: “The Investigation” East and West] | Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung | 2008 | DVD and DVD-ROM

Like Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, The Investigation is based on trial transcripts. In this case, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65, which Weiss briefly attended, breaking away from the rehearsals of Marat/Sade to hear the testimony of the victims and perpetrators. Subtitled “an oratorio in eleven cantos,” the resulting text is an exhumation of the past, not a reconstruction of the trial; it moves didactically from ramp to camp to gas chamber and ovens. Overshadowed now by other exhumations, most notably the film Shoah, Weiss’s play deserves to be remembered. On October 19, 1965, it was performed simultaneously in fifteen German cities, including both parts of Berlin, no small feat in the Cold War. Coming twenty years after Hitler’s defeat, and twenty years before the West German president pronounced that defeat a liberation, the performances marked a turning point in Germany’s coming to terms with its National Socialist past. Really, one of the great moments in political art ever, documented on these DVDs.

Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg | The Collected Poems | Wesleyan | 2007

The skills needed to read a poem are specialized enough that acquiring them was at one time what people meant by acquiring an education. In the twentieth century, the old skills became curiously inapt; what was needed instead was a reeducation. The modernists approached this problem with a ruler-to-knuckles kind of fanaticism. With Philip Whalen, we arrive at the public schools of my childhood: the ruler is used to make straight lines, and there are penmanship classes, and sleepy moments in the afternoon when we study ancient dynasties. And recess, and lunch, and doodles, and the joy of the bell, and dispersal home.

More Benjamin Friedlander here.

Attention Span 2009 – Melanie Neilson

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Stacy Doris | Cheerleader’s Guide to the World | Roof Books | 2006

Classic texts over the top Mayan, Tibetan, New Jerseyan for the reader-gamer. Also enjoyed re-reading Doris’ Knot, Conference, and Paramour recently.

Manny Farber | Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies | Da Capo Press | 1998

“this exciting shake-up movie is made up in progressive segments, each one having a different stylistic format, from fixed camera close-up of a comic-porno episode (‘…and then she sat in a saucer of milk…’) through the very Hawkslike eye-level dollying past a bumper- to-bumper tie-up on the highway…”

Rob Fitterman | Rob the Plagiarist | Roof Books | 2009

Brilliant. Conceptual Mardi Gras and the big hijack extraordinaire.

Benjamin Friedlander | American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson | Blog |  2009

Ben’s findings, archiving and overflow “on their way to a book” give immense reading pleasure. I’m staying tuned to read what BF has to say on how keyword searching has changed our relationship to literature, redefining “canonicity.”

Nada Gordon | Folly | Roof | 2007

I laughed, I cried, I came, I went, I like it, I like it, I like it.

Jane Grigson | Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book | Antheneum | 1982

Apple strudel to watermelon sherbet, recipes plain and fancy for forty-six different fruits. Rediscovered and reunioned with this book in June, on blueberry stained pages is a favorite berry pie recipe (adapted from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’s Mango Pie), poetry of lowbush and highbush blueberries.

Jessica Grim | Vexed | Online from ubu editions since 2002; recently published in print by BlazeVox | 2009

Brian Kim Stefans: “sensual reverie with documentary relevance. The musicality of Grim’s poems is understated, the words delicately gathered, such that the poems occasionally seem given over to indeterminacy and chance, but in fact each one has a formal perfection that illustrates an underlying lyrical integrity.” Amen.

Todd MacCarthy | Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood | Grove Press | 1997

The engineer as poet. Started reading this after weeks of watching HH pictures with my sons in our family Movie Club. McCarthy focuses with great and admirable detail on the films. Fresh discussions of overlapping dialogue in the romantic comedies though ultimately I enjoyed Joseph McBride’s Hawks on Hawks more.

John Ruskin | The Poetry of Architecture | Wily and Sons | 1873

“Shelley has caught the feeling finely the house is penetrated to its corners by the insolence of the day”. More reading about “negative space” this time in the chapter about Giotto and his works in Padua.

Kim Rosenfield | re: evolution, with an introduction by Sianne Ngai | Les Figues | 2008

There will be repercussions after reading this book. I really like the noirish spawning and smooth switcherooing in technique and style. Tabula rasa/Population cage/Withstanding the wear and tear of modern “tempos”/Natural heredity of the body/Inheriting the wisdom/Of people who’ve never met in the first place.

More Melanie Neilson here.