Friday, September 28, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe and Bolaño’s Detectives

Poe was one of the greatest technicians of modern literature.  As Valéry pointed out, he was the first to attempt the scientific story, a modern cosmogony, the description of pathological phenomena.  These genres he regarded as exact products of a method for which he claimed universal validity.  In this very point Roberto Bolaño sided with him, and in Poe’s spirit he wrote “The time is not distant when it will be understood that a literature which refuses to make its way in brotherly concord with science and philosophy is a murderous and suicidal literature.  The detective story, the most momentous of Poe's technical achievements, was part of a literature that satisfied Bolaño’s postulate.  Its analysis constitutes part of the analysis of Bolaño’s own work, which has three of its decisive elements as disjecta membra: the victim and the scene of the crime, the murderer, the masses.  The fourth element is lacking—the one that permits the intellect to break through this emotion-laden atmosphere. Bolaño went without this because, given the structure of his instincts, it was impossible for him to identify with the successful detective.

Okay, I didn’t write that paragraph, not really.  And it isn’t really about Roberto Bolaño.  It’s a paragraph from Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, with Baudelaire’s name changed to Bolaño, and a few other minor syntactical tweaks and omissions here and there.  The method is something I’ve ripped off from Benjamin Friedlander’s brilliant book of 2004, Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism.  In that book, Friedlander set out (in his words) to undertake “the creation of criticism through the strict recreation of an earlier critic's text (or, more precisely, through as strict a re-creation as the discrepancy between my source text and chosen topic would allow).” So the experiments in criticism consist of things like following the argument and phrasing of Jean Wahl’s A Short History of Existentialism to write a short history of language poetry.  Sometimes the criticism ended up saying things that Friedlander himself disagreed with, which is interesting: he’s really following Roland Barthes in erasing the author, and the author’s opinions, and replacing that figure with a “scriptor,” Barthes’ figure whose only power is to mingle different kinds of writing—in the case of Simulcast, the writing of Jean Wahl (and others) and the writing of the objects of criticism, like the language poets.

In the little paragraph above, where I hijack Benjamin to talk about Bolaño, I’ve done nothing near as bold as Friedlander does, because I actually agree entirely with the statement the paragraph makes about Bolaño.  I mean, the pervading atmosphere of Bolaño’s writing, from Nazi Literature in the Americas to The Savage Detectives, from The Romantic Dogs to Tres, and certainly in 2666 is a kind of noir desolation.  When there aren’t literally faced with victims and crime scenes, we’re still dealing with people who are in some way damaged, living in environments that reflect that damage.  The people we get to know in his work are always at odds with the great mass of people in society, and over everything there hangs a sense of a great wrong that has been done.  There’s never any real resolution, no true and satisfying success for any detective or searcher, though: in fact, there’s rarely anything specific at which one could aim one’s investigation. Bolaño is a writer of mood, and that mood is despair—the mood of an Edgar Allan Poe detective story without a detective to solve the crime.  I imagine this has to do with Bolaño’s generational experience: his is the generation of the Chilean revolution that failed, his is the generation of poets who could never come into the spotlight like their Latin American poetic predecessors had done, at least not in their lifetime.  He has a lot in common with an alienated outsider like Baudelaire, who could never quite find a social or political program into which he could channel his discontent for long.  I suppose that’s why when Benjamin nails it about Baudelaire, he nails it about Bolaño, too.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Book You Need To Read

Hot news!  John Matthias' Collected Longer Poems has just appeared, published a month ahead of schedule by the good people at Shearsman, who have yet to publish a bad book.  The long poem is where Matthias is at his best, and the new book is the best possible opportunity to get to know this side of Matthias' work.

Here, by way of introduction, is a review I wrote some years back of Matthias' Working Progress, Working Title, from which some of the poems in the new book came.


For many of his most passionate readers, John Matthias will always be a poet of place.  His long topographical poems — “An East Anglian Diptych,” “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest,” and “A Compostella Diptych” — have inspired much commentary and have merited every bit of it. Such poems place the contemporary experience of a specific landscape in the context of the history of the region, revealing unexpected rhymes among the events that have occurred in a given space.  Allusive, fact-packed, rich in specific dates, resonant with proper names, and tremendously ambitious, they have been both the means by which Matthias has made himself feel at home in particular landscapes and the means by which he has made himself existentially at home in the world.  Readers who love this side of Matthias’ work may be surprised by his most recent book, Working Progress, Working Title.  The two long poems that make up the book, “Pages from a Book of Years” and “Automystifstical Plaice,” seem oddly placeless.

Such surprise isn’t really warranted, though.  The new poems grow from a branch of Matthias’ work just as well established as his poetics of place: the poetic exploration of texts and historical archives.  Matthias has always been interested in investigating texts in the same way he investigates landscapes.  He has been an adventurous reworker of found or archival materials, notably in the poems of the 1975 collection Turns.  Here, Matthias enters a text and sounds out its parts, reworking them into new grammatical shapes and new intellectual contexts.  In a way, what he does with text is similar to what he does with landscape in his topographical poems: through investigation and play he makes himself at home in a previously alienating environment.  Whether that environment is physical or discursive, it becomes a kind of home territory through the act of poetic investigation.

In “Pages from a Book of Years” Matthias takes as his matter a rather unusual textual archive: a collection of yearbooks found in his recently deceased father’s closet.  These books — the annual reports from any number of fields of endeavor — provide Matthias with the material he needs to investigate several key years in his own life.  The reference works give him a rich store of historical arcana through which to reflect on personal and familial experiences.  It is as if one filtered Robert Lowell’s Life Studies through the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The personal takes on greater significance in the process.

“Automystifstical Plaice” is one of the oddest and most fascinating products of an odd and fascinating oeuvre.  Here, Matthias draws from a number of textual sources and finds the historical links between such apparently disparate phenomena as George Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique, the career of Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the invention of electronically interfaced music.  In the end, the poem becomes a kind of ode to the fusion of the human and the technological in the twentieth century. 

Matthias’ poems of place have always treated landscape as an archive of the local past.  Admirers of those poems would do well to read these new poems, where his archives lead us on new, unbounded adventures.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

"I Fear That We Cannot Be Friends": Introducing Poetry Northeast

"If you don't find these turns of phrases intriguing, enticing, I fear that we cannot be friends."  This sentence, which follows a few quotations from poems in the first issue of the new journal Poetry Northeast,is the beginning of Zachary Bos' editorial statement, and it's just the right way to begin.  This journal, Bos implies, will be personal, idiosyncratic, and in the best sense of the word, amateur.  I like that.  And not just because the first issue contains an old poem of mine.

The issue includes poems by the increasingly-ubiquitous Ben Mazer, by George Szirtes, Meg Tyler, Dylan Willoughby, and others. Check it out, and see if you and Bos can be friends!