There’s a genre––maybe yet unnamed––whose origin I find in Godot (maybe really in Plato): a kind of existentially-pitched yakking between buddies, buddies who are dudes. Here the parodic doesn’t exclude the profound (cf. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, My Dinner with Andre, Padgett Powell’s You and Me). It’s a propositional, (aspirationally) knowledge-acquisitive discourse begun in possession of a reasonable hope. It tries to set the furniture in the room right (always once and for all) but things break down. Turns out talk doesn’t improve the condition. Turns out reason isn’t always a great tool in the acquisition of hope. And hadn’t they meant to do more than decorate? And now the room looks weird. Here the funny is sad–funny.
A line in Merwin lives with me: “All my teachers are dead except silence.” And also a recent remark by my 7 year-old cousin: “I love big grocery stores like Shoprite and A&P because I get lost in them...hopefully in the Jell-O aisle.” (He was smiling widely.) Bear a moment longer the odd concatenation. The first remark first: not for me actually true but somehow spiritually accurate. My point (and I’m going to skip some math here) is that if I were to take exception to Merwin, to add to my list of undead teachers, I might first save the supermarket. All my teachers are dead except silence and the supermarket. It’s a whim, maybe, but a whim isn’t nothing.
I read a book about a monk whose big moment, his glimpse of the unity of God and creation, came in the aisle of a drugstore. (I want to say the abbot had let him out to buy orthopedic insoles, but I’m not sure.) The epiphany was an unsatisfying development, or at least poorly written. Once God came he no longer had anything to say about the drugstore. The world isn’t understood by leaving it. I’d want to hear the name of the Lord and glimpse a deep row of cereal boxes.
One time: I’m maybe five or six years old and in the anodyne light of a McDonald’s, glow sheening across the plastic-enameled table where I sit with a Happy Meal. The blue swirl of evening settles over the office park across the street where I like to go to look at the koi pond. My sister is shaking the gumball machine to loose a stuck quarter and my father is in the bathroom for what would’ve seemed like a long time had I been paying attention. I don't remember much of either of them there, just the light and an R&B song playing in the restaurant. I was taken by the song though what absorbed me was how weird it sounded, somehow totally foreign, that I knew I didn’t understand it––nor could I figure out what should’ve been available to be understood. I had the sense that the song and its style would’ve been uncomplicated for a listener who knew the code––it seemed obvious, somehow, that it was coded, that its language was a language of types, only that whatever its meaning was, not so much of the words but just the simple way the song would sound to someone with the context to make it familiar, was unreachable for me, that I couldn’t assimilate to it. I wondered about the name for its mood. I wondered what would make someone feel that way. I liked it though, not the song necessarily, but being spun out from stale talk and gesture into sound and light. The light was clean and you could see everything in it. You could keep taking from it and it wasn’t depleted. We walked out to the car and I clasped my plastic trinket. My sister held the fat wad of gum in her cheek and we felt like we had everything. When my father reached for his keys a small pipe fell out of his pocket and it was the bright green plastic of a toy. The world is various and plentiful.
As a kid John Fahey found a 78 of Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere Parts 1 and 2.” He said the record––worn to near total inaudibility––changed his life. Adorno, exiled in New York, proposes a music made entirely of static: all signal, all noise. (Jazz famously confounds him.) When asked what his favorite music was Tom Waits said a radio playing across the street. Arthur Russell liked to listen to demos on a cassette Walkman while riding the Staten Island Ferry because he thought music was best half-heard against sea drone. Satie wanted his music to function like furniture “you may or may not be sitting on.” In the only surviving recording of Whitman’s voice––captured on wax cylinder––he reads a few lines of the poem “America” in a half-minute and it’s over. The way he says the word “ample” makes it seem an onomatopoeia.
To the infant words are sound. Then you grow up and words are still sound.
But they turn on us. Trope: literally a turning.
Stanza: canzone: room: womb. An intuition needs a body. A body is a thought that begins in a room.
(What, if not an infant, is an empty signifier?)
Cy Twombly’s painting makes me think of writing without reference, epic without content. Or Franz Kline: a kind of reduction to the mark. (The word character is recalled here.) In these works it seems something has come unmoored in the signifying act, entered into the run of light in the world of objects. That something means less but is more.
Freud thought this happened in psychotic break: language becomes material, unalloyed sense phenomena. We might say becomes so again.
Stevens doesn’t want to say something profound about a stone, he says he wants to be one. But a stone that thinks. (Of what? Jonathan Edwards: “As a sleeping stone dreams of nothingness…”)
I’m told that in the common Chinese grammatical construction one reads a painting.
Lots of things are called “poetic” and for many reasons. This has something to do with what I mean by it.
By melancholia we should mean the theory and practice of object hunting and its failures, and therefore the analogy (it’s not an analogy but an equivalence) to whatever work poetry is. The question is then: What doing beneath the saying? Stevens’ Adagia: “Poetry is a form of melancholy.” This doesn’t have much to do with sadness. Though eventually it does.
Will among vectors of force, will amid its resistances. “The will to utter within a tradition of uttering.” William James says something like I is what I attend to (or was it: Will is what I act on?). What if all the bracketing and “instability” attending the use of the first person singular is simply part of what’s meant by I, what’s included in it? In the sense that what a word recalls and does is what a word means. Because there isn’t another sense.
At the end of one of her late letters, in the place of her signature, as her signature, Dickinson just wrote: "America." Perhaps it was.
(But he doesn’t turn around.)