Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notebook (Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga)

Peter Matthiessen

Three contiguous movements out of Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (1975). With praise for its unmitigably spare weathers, its ferocious lovely banter:

The Eden’s course is south by east, 165 degrees, down the Main Cape Channel. Off to windward is the line of reefs: Half Moon Cay, Bobel, Hall Rocks, Cock Rocks, Edinburgh Reef, Cayo Muerto, known to turtlers as Dead Man Bar.

. . . forward of de cobberknife it tapers off. Dass where you shoot him, on de fall, just over de edge of his jalousies. One bullet dere kill a shark dead; eitherwise he don’t pay much attention. So dis tiger took dat bullet and head straight down and bury his head so deep in dat sand dat he were standin straight up, and his tail stickin out de water so you could snare it without ever thinkin about gettin wet. And dis were in ten feet of water.

Now dem big sharks dat you seen dere at Edinburgh Reef, dat is de turtle enemy. Big turtle now, shark got to bite him right to get him, and de turtle is very fast, so de shark try to dismantle him so he can go to work on him. Take a fin off or go for de head. But I seen many times dat when de shark bite de head off of de turtle, he give up den and go away. And dat is cause in my opinion dat turtle head is still openin and closin inside of de shark, de way de turtle do when you chop his head off.

Make him uneasy.

Make him uneasy, and he abondon dat turtle.

Byrum best remember dat on de day dat big shark come for him. Just keep dat big mouth workin when he bite your head off, Byrum, and maybe he leave de rest of you alone.

Dass a very good plan, Athens. Thank you.


Rolling southward.

Lone white bird.

No, dat not a sprat bird—dat is a egg bird! Look something like a nightingale! De sprat bird has yellow bill and yellow feet!

You thinkin about de bos’n bird!

No, mon! Sprat bird! Dat one dere is called de egg bird cause dem goddom Jamaicans theft de eggs of it.


The northeasterly trades continue, bearing away heat and humidity in a hard breeze; as the day wears on, the wind increases.

See dat? Comin back at us again! I hoped dat wind were done with us, but when I seen dat star, I knew dat it were not!

The men stare somberly at the green seas and the white sky of spring. The world is empty.

Byrum Powery Watler, aged thirty, Athens Ebanks, aged twenty-nine. Out of the Cayman Islands. Common names for the royal tern (found in A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies): sprat bird, gullie, gabby, egg bird, gaviota real, pigeon de la mer, oiseau fou, mauve, foquette. Peter Matthiessen, talking with Howard Norman (c. 1999) about writing Far Tortuga:
. . . I was fascinated by the problems of how to present that tropical world, the hazed sunlight, the strong trade winds, the old ship, the sea, the almost Chaucerian language of those turtlemen, unchanged for centuries. I wanted to experiment with silences and space—I mean quite literally the extent of white space on the page between incidents, monologues, songs, wind gusts, squabbles, the shudder of the hull in the rough weather, everything. More than anything I’ve done, perhaps, Far Tortuga was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky. When you fix each moment in all its astonishing detail, see its miracle in a fresh light, no similes, no images are needed. They become “literary,” superfluous. Aesthetic clutter.
And, out of an earlier conversation with George Plimpton:
      Far Tortuga is based on a sea turtle fishing voyage off Nicaragua: tortuga is the Spanish word for sea turtle, and sometimes refers to a cay where green turtles are found. . . . I was moved by the stark quality of that voyage, everything worn bare by wind and sea—the reefs, the faded schooner, the turtle men themselves—everything so pared down and so simple that metaphors, stream-of-consciousness, even such ordinary conventions of the novel as “he said” or “he thought,” seemed intrusive, even offensive, and a great impediment, besides. So from the start I was feeling my way toward a spare form, with more air around the words, more space: I wanted the descriptions to be very clear and flat, to find such poetry as they might attain in their very directness and simplicity. In fact, I can only recall one simile in the whole book. And eventually, I attempted using white space to achieve resonance, to make the reader receive things intuitively, hear the silence in the wind, for instance, that is a constant presence in the book.
      In Japanese sumi painting, in a drawing of a bamboo stalk, the brush moves upward, leaving a white space between strokes to suggest the nodes of the bamboo that separate sections of the stem; it’s the emptiness that brings the rest to life. Similarly, the emptiness and silence represented by white spaces set up reverberations in what is written. . . .

Friday, November 22, 2013

Uncollected Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest, 1920-2006
(Photograph by Charles E. Manley)

Rummaging lately through a number of (largely) New York School journals, I turn to thinking about Barbara Guest: what would a “complete” Guest look like? How many “uncollected” Guest pieces exist? In The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (2008), strict inclusory parameters:
The poems collected here include all of the work that Barbara Guest had elected to publish in book form, along with the handful of poems she completed after her final book, The Red Gaze . . . It was her stated wish not to include in this book any poems published in magazines or journals but not subsequently collected in one of her books . . .
Though, too, in a 2008 number of the Chicago Review (Vol. 53, No.4 / Vol. 54, No. 1 / 2), Catherine Wagner offered (with a short commentary) five “uncollected” Guest poems: “Snowstorm,” “Savon Pompeia,” “Virgo Place,” and “Days”—all previously unpublished—with the somewhat lengthier “Configuration”—out of Mother No. 5 (1965). If I stumble across another five uncollected Guest poems in my (rather haphazard, meaning not particularly “Guest-oriented”) reading, and note (rather effortlessly) the source of some likely others*—I begin to think there’s a sizeable oeuvre out there unrecovered. So, some Barbara Guest findings. Out of the number of Intransit called “The Andy Warhol–Gerard Malanga Monster Issue” (1968):
Wells Fargo

Of all earth’s chargers
Wells Fargo you are one of the last.
You take from West to East
my small percentages
of poetry.

I watch your wagon on Park Avenue.
I have seen your insignia
on the stairwell of a neighbor painter.

                         I know you
from the ledge of a serious plane flight
when one of your daughters flew
with me: we laughed over
                         the Rockies
where we were lost in the bright
                         snow flakes.

                         Wells Fargo
I entrust another emigrant to you.
A love solemn as Dover Beach.

                         His iambics
                         will not startle

Riding the canyons to San Francisco
Another out of Intrepid:
Non Est . . .

Nothing more to say, Catullus,
            you have walked away

                                   from the green room
                                      "       "     dark room
You have turned your head
                                   from the clam beds


You must be hiding!

                                   I do not know the address
                                   of your villa
I do not know the fiddlers, the caterers
                                   or those space girls
who sang of those women
(now they’re wringing their hands)

I am a visitor who reads magazines
                                   in one language
And another:
Eunice Poem

How can I sleep
when the name of the woman I am
                              thinking of
is Eunice

I have written her name
                              on the pillow
and spoken to her in Czech

How many dreams are lost
                              when people turn out the light
like the Peoples Republic
                              where everyone snores

you are walking fearlessly
                              on the sidewalk
I am trembling as I beg for sleep
                              that was promised me on Monday

World why won’t you let me have my love
World with all your machinery
and your new non-sectarian names?
Out of the Daisy Aldan and Richard Miller-edited Folder (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1954-55):

One says quickly many things to himself,
“Time passes. I am not loved, feared. Am afraid.”
These phrases happen frequently in public
Where everything is so charged with unknown,
Inexplicable community opinion that the brain,
Or the heart, depending upon one’s choice,
Cannot always account for itself as a target,
Or as the slayer, but like weather continually profound,
Finds itself either raining or fair.
This particular day I remark,
“In the city what one walks on is the same.”

So when single greens assemble a tree
And there is one man in that factory who can paint
For fifty years a rose, another innocent
Who will spend his life drawing the horizon line
And a friend who is incapable of perspective,
Then landscape appears. In time begins again.

As on this day, under this colonial sky
I pitch my tent in Central Park
And after the massacre
Entwine my arms upon the statue of my general
And weep for what is lost.
Finally, out of the Peter Schjeldahl and Lewis MacAdams-edited Mother: A Journal of New Literature (No. 6, 1965):

Wrrite thatt lline
         the beasts rruning
and quail as were

I think the novel should begin here
                  Three pairs
                  and a roop
Someone should put us together:
                  The laugh
                                     knock door

                  Flush as bush
And         nd
We are          re
A few notes. The sheer oddity of the “Wells Fargo” modifiers—“ledge of a serious plane flight” or “small percentages / of poetry.” Is “love solemn as Dover Beach” meant to call up Matthew Arnold’s grave tonal registers (think “tremulous cadence slow” or “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”)? With “Non Est . . .” and “Eunice Poem”: a tiny series of apostrophic outbursts indeterminant in tone and intent. The purported heroics of the “charger” (“charger” like “steed” or like “bank”?)—delivering “from East to West” those “small percentages”—can only be mock-applauded (hence the wry “I have seen your insignia / on the stairwell of a neighbor painter”), just as the opening “How can I sleep . . .” of the “Eunice Poem” can only mock-lament: too pure in its saying to be simple verity. (See, in the Folder “Poem,” that lovely vacillatory heart—“itself as a target, / Or as the slayer”—that, “like weather continually profound, / Finds itself either raining or fair . . .” Lines that call up the ending of Frank O’Hara’s “My Heart”: “you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.”) The sheer leisurely turnings of Guest’s sentences in “Poem” recall, too, some of John Ashbery’s sentences, their way of matter-of-factly turning back to look themselves over, readjusting publicly (and with nonchalance) their private freights:—“These phrases happen frequently in public / Where everything is so charged with unknown, / Inexplicable community opinion . . .” (At the point Guest writes so marvelously of how “single greens assemble a tree” one is thrown back to Ashbery’s great precursor Wallace Stevens—I am thinking of the lines of “July Mountain”: “Thinkers without final thoughts / In an always incipient cosmos, / The way, when we climb a mountain, / Vermont throws itself together.”) “Prefaces”: am I right to read it as something of a misfit in Guest’s work? Oddly recalling Clark Coolidge, or, too, the sometimes broken, stuttery écriture of Susan Howe. Again the possibilities kept open: is “rruning” read ruining or running, is “roop” troop or rope?
* See, possibly, a piece called “Hands” printed in Ted Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry (Vol. 1 No. 5, 1963) and “Looking at Flowers through Tears” and “Strum Night” in C: A Journal of Poetry (Vol. 1 No. 9 (1964). See, too, a poem called “Travel Talk” printed in The Nation (June 3, 1961).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Ashbery’s “The Coconut Milk”

John Ashbery

Continuing (deuxième fois) the New York School tradition of recouping the fugitive—for use—I’m thinking of Ted Berrigan’s reprinting of John Ashbery’s Semi-Colon-printed “Hoboken” in C: A Magazine of Poetry No. 10 (1965) and Peter Schjeldahl’s reprinting of Ashbery’s play “The Coconut Milk”—it, too, originally seeing print in the ephemeral Semi-Colon—in Mother: A Journal of New Literature No. 7 (1966).* “Copy of a Copy” (1963) work, what Ashbery himself called “a kind of activity that leaves / No room for anything but whispers . . .” Schjeldahl’s note regarding the source of “The Coconut Milk” reads: “two 1955 issues of Semi-Colon”—David Kermani’s, in John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1976), with its “([1956?]),” points to the difficulty of dating with certainty any of the John Bernard Myers-edited Semi-Colon sheets. Here’s the Ashbery piece (copied out of Mother):
The Coconut Milk

Scene I. Mountie headquarters. Lieutenant Roger Scott and Cora, a beautiful spy, are kissing and feeling each other. Captain Rockshaw is seated at a desk.

      Are string beans tasteless?

      Not one to save ivy, are you?

      Why not? Let’s dance.

      We’ll not get far in this glow.

      I’m all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them. I’d like to fly too, but I can’t. Besides, this isn’t a hostile hospital. Look at that wallpaper.

      You must find out who last had the coconut milk,
      Save these moments till next year.

      Oh dear!

      Hey! Don’t scream. I could radish you but these whiskers would kinda get in the way. Be careful of the Big Wig. And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach. Don’t asterisk him to nozzle before the lipstick comes off on the coconut ice cream tray. You know the ways these traitors stand in need of your five library books. The cautious desert rats. Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.

      You have heard of the coconut milk and
      How it induces those who live near it.

      There’s no use imagining things are always as wonderful as they are right now. They are always hammering. They are always hammering at us.

      Please go. Take whatever you need and get out of my sight.

(A storm demolishes the building. They are outside in the snow.)

      I guess my nickel-plated didacticism didn’t do too badly, eh?

      Darling, you’re too eager. You’ve got to leave these politicians time for lunch. Some day you may be better off than they, though out in the cold. Promise me to quit next time.

      Their droppings are shit. I’ll eat it.

      Doors are banging inside me.
      All day I have swung.
      Is it an armored pantheon?
      Is it for good? No, I am old. Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page.
      I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten. I would like a bag of plums.
      Manhattan extra. A job on the rococo porch. The heart that eats dead nuts.
      See, here it comes withering. Extraordinary for a taxman. And I thought him so
            deaf too.
      The sky light, the Hollywood sails wither like an arm.
      Another finicky notion dispossessed.
      Well, now to bottle my speech and sell it.

      Oh, dear! I can’t pay either!

      I cared for you, carrot. Why has he turned over?

Scene II. A tulip bed in Holland, Michigan.

      I’ll douse these warblers with galoshes and then—it’s off to the ferns!

Johnny Appleseed
      Do you have a kind song for a near tidbit like me, Master Old Lady?

      I recognize you, Appleseed. Tell me, Johnny, what are you doing in this territory? I thought apple roaming was more your specialty.

      For decades I roved the central and Oscar states exploding the apple. Gray twigs at times seemed to me a dark background. Twilit bears and stylish silhouettes of wolves posed personal problems. It was hard to outwit the shit. Often ants would come seeking my advice. I became known as The Grasshopper. Then it was winter, and I had no store to live in. For some reason there were apples on the trees, but these danced on the dark boughs far above me and would not come down. I, who had done so much with my lowly contraptions, slept between two rocks, relegated among the pigs, prigs, dried-up leaves, and other malcontents of the ground. Sometimes I would walk far into November in my bare feet. I was the first snowplow. My toes left bloody marks on the snow, redder than the apples I used to tease people with.

      I remember you, Appleseed! You thought it a crime to kill any living thing. As a consequence, the birds devoured most of your seedlings. Even grafting was somehow wrong to you, thus your orchards yielded an inferior fruit, hard and pithy, poor in color, shape and size. It is doubtful whether any of them is still under cultivation.

      Then I take another path. Old factories, old toilets couldn’t buy my damp awareness. I look forward in joy and translucence.

      Perhaps some other bug will bite you.

      It is madonnas of Japan.

(Coconut Milk enters.)

Coconut Milk
      Skiing past I noticed this station.
      Is this the deserted entrance? For why
      Have adults shorn the ground so low?
      Oh well. I'll look back, and my thanks.

(She goes. They gaze after her.)

Scene III. A dark street. Scott and Lieutenant Raven enter.

      Over the billows of the North Sea
      I have limped ably to near your hand.

      You have no ticket but perhaps I do not care.

Three Stars
      We are optimists!

(on a cloud)
      You must free the executioner.

      Shunted we know not where.

      Are you a living English girl?

      The days do not fit around the space they were intended for.

      Why do you sit and moon?

      Surely no other has given so visibly of himself. I am like you, that’s why. Did your mother ever ask you where you’d gone?

      So cool in the grove. (aloud) Hey you, remember the quizzical tents?

      Snarl it. I'm leaving. (He goes.)

      Alone in cool filth.

      We’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes.

      Better to be asked back than to go corking, hat in hand, across the sandy ball. Or are they men? She’s asking for it. I’ll unleash every ounce of phantom and maybe by the time the barmaids get done chanting everything will be loose and I’ll be able to balk the Norman modes.
      Still, I wonder will I ever be trampled? A disc flung clear of the sun, it smiles and is behind me. There’s no chance to be clean.
      I’ll average and in some existing way take over the real, bad fun.

Scene IV. Bar at the Folies Bergère. There is deafening conversation.

First Man
      Quiet! Summer
      On this wall painted with fox heads.

Second Man
      Has the Coconut Milk arrived yet?

First Man

Second Man
      Fur heads! Who will do that act?

First Man
      She may be the last one in, sir.

Second Man
      I don’t care for that. Get me the ship in the sea.

      Whew! Let me put down my bag on this stool. It’s been a gala day, a rag day. Goodness knew what bargains blew in the back stair when we sat tumbling. I thought of you. I thought you were a colored shape, only the color kept running away from the edges. I remembered a thing you said. It doesn’t matter since we’re all here. What does matter is that we are unlike ourselves.

      It’s been a day of specialties. I campaigned against the honor of a can from two until three o’clock.

      The odor! We must do something expensive. Like really sitting. I had planned a surprise.

      Your color couldn’t be faster.

      I meant as a kind of heaven.

      It’s been a thirsty day, hasn’t it? But all troubles come to an end or some kind of difficulty. So you may turn out to be something, something hard to find. Am I your traitor? Kindly saw away from Father Time there. (Rockshaw walks by.)

      I’m glad you are part of my table.

      I’d like something liquid and transparent.

      In a moment the camera will be here.

Coconut Milk
      Often you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.
      We spoke with our ears. “It’s the yearning, the unsure steps which tie us in knots.” The steps return. They make a lake of us. Someday men will come to untie the knots. Meantime we swoon on.
      I’m serious, and I’m very angry. The fragile words, they creep out from the void, and they too have words leaner and more like men. Night has many stones to roll over the O’s. The time is ripe for ridiculous peaks.
      Someday I will say this. Now I’m lying on my plateau. Morning to night photographers come. Hardy perennials have me off to Cythera to bathe in the light. I relax in my great lateness.
      Exciting? Sure. But that not the only unlikely treat. Someday the hair will come . . . the ice . . . the rise . . . the great funny beast . . . (the light swings off). Let me explain!

      Sweet dream-people, that is all.

      Was it all?

      We’ll never know. Oh, have the artists asked you?

      Oh no. You see, I was to have been a bride-to-be.



      Have you thought of leaving? I have your gun. The tulips are about to fall anyway.

A few notes. Some kind of “bottom” surely provided by wry surrealist antics (“all broken out today in experiments and bumps with comical bandages on them”), what surely ought to be “amenable” after nearly six decades of Ashbery & Co.’s use of such. What, though, remains, refreshingly, somewhat intractable: “And talk about a talking explosive—we’ve landed in the peach.” So we note echoes, preambles, moot assailable pertinences, what any reading delivers. Is there a tiny cockeyed mocking of Eliot, a likely target (“All day I have swung. / Is it an armored pantheon? / Is it for good? No, I am old.”)? Is there a little quasi-existentialist gibbering (in lieu of) profundity (“The days do not fit around the space they were intended for.”)? (Or something of a campy Huis Clos atmosphere to the recklessness of the proceedings, borne along with syntactical malarkey, logic’s trapdoors sprung open—or shut: “Temptation, girl, that’s in no way the sanitary process of defending a couple of inscrutable arms to be able to ask yourself these questions.”?) Too, there’s Ashbery’s tremendous ear for the demotic, the way we humans must needs Hoover up the idiomatic against the ineffable void (I must be thinking here of the O’Hara lines: “To be idiomatic in a vacuum, / it is a shining thing!”), so: “some other bug will bite you” or “now to bottle my speech and sell it.” (Isn’t Cora’s remark, “We spoke with our ears,” ref and testimonial to one of Ashbery’s own modi operandi?) “Coconut milk”—at once a kind of MacGuffin (“You have heard of the coconut milk and / How it induces those who live near it.”) and somehow reminiscent of somebody like “Little Buttercup” out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore: “I’m called Little Buttercup, dear Little Buttercup, / Though I could never tell why . . . I’ve treacle and toffee, I’ve tea and I’ve coffee, / Soft tommy and succulent chops . . .” &c. Coconut Milk, too, sings and implores: “Often you’ve found nothing will induce a dry message, only plaudits. Now I ask you to do a little. Don’t give up the scalp. Put a little on, one now through all your years and fun.” Years and fun. If the clouds in the mock-allegorical talking landscape (that, too, of a silent film—the only place one encounters “Mounties”) of “The Coconut Milk” announce “We’ll meet you in the thread sweepstakes”—a poem called “Viewers Will Recall” in Ashbery’s Quick Question (2012) begins, “We gathered the threads into an equation.” And ends with a warning: “Stop it, you’re listening to me.” (So the sly defiance of anything beyond its own constructedness: Rockshaw: “Here I am, on the edge of this typewritten page. / I have crossed the proscenium, also typewritten.”)
* Mother No. 7—co-edited by Lewis MacAdams—contained, too, Ted Berrigan’s notorious fake interview with John Cage (“Interviewer: Do you think it is better to be brutal that to be indifferent? Cage: Yes. It is better to be brutal than indifferent. Some artists prefer the stream of consciousness. Not me. I’d rather beat people up.”) and several of Kenneth Koch’s invented South American “Hasosismo” documents and translations (“Hasosismo is difficult to illustrate, since by its very nature it tends to cover its own tracks”), with poems and prose by Ed Sanders, Bernadette Mayer, Tony Towle, John Perreault, Frank Lima, Jim Brodey, Dick Gallup, Michael Brownstein, John Giorno, and John Wieners, among others. Drawings and paintings by Joe Brainard. Cover by Mike Goldberg.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ted Berrigan and “E. A. McGregor-Plarr”

Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983

Out of Tom Clark’s one-shot magazine Ice (the penultimate number in the mimeo’d Once series out of Essex, England circa 1966-7—Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Vice, Spice, Slice, &c., each flagged with the sterling imprimatur “no copyright no nothin”), Ted Berrigan’s “Blueprint for a Poem to Be Written Spontaneously in the Act of Reciting It to Me and at Least Three Others”:
Title:           (The name of the last book (not poems) you read or
                            are reading / or of the last movie you saw, or
                                  any movie you really want to see, or book
                                        you want to read but haven’t yet)

Dedication:           (To:   any female not present)

Line 1   (any line from some poem, not your own, that you like)

         2   (sing any line from a folk song you can sing)

         3   (any apologetic explanation (e.g. Eng. equiv. of “Pardonne” etc.)

         4   (look at one of the audience and say something sarcastically
                    personal to them. Don’t use their name)

         5   (recite either the alphabet or the numbers 1 to 26 slowly and with
                    heavy sarcasm)

         6   (any line from one of your current poems (not this one))

         7   (a one line critical judgment on the previous line)

         8   (say something as if you were just proven right about something
                    you knew to be true but that others doubted)

         9   (any four banal phrases (e.g. “guess I’ll hit the hay”). Clichés!)

       10   (any line from a movie . . . imitate the actor or actress)

       11   (any seven or 8 words you want, to be said in absolute monotone)

       12   (any phrase to indicate that the poem is now finished)

       13   (ask someone present (not me) how they liked the poem)

       14   (ignore them as soon as you ask. Say something very pompous, then
                    sing the line from the folk song, used above, then try
                    to make up a spontaneous good line quickly).
A kind of petulantly wayward send-up of what I think of (in the New York School context) as “Kochean” poetic constraint systems, somewhat overly filigreed. (Recall Koch’s note in Locus Solus II regarding the Ashbery / Koch “Crone Rhapsody” piece—itself a send-up: “written according to the following requirements: that every line contain the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, and a famous old lady, as well as the word bathtub; furthermore, the poem is a sestina and all the end-words are pieces of office furniture.”) Berrigan’s note of anti-constructivism here—if it is that—is a shaggier sort of tomfoolery, with a snickering not entirely untenderly disposed toward all it snickers at, homely in its fun, and direct.* The “Blueprint” is printed with what is likely Berrigan’s own exemplary rejoinder, signed “E. A. McGregor-Plarr”:
Two Serious Ladies

      to Sarah Burgess

She fell beneath the tree, and breathed in pants.
He’s my man, but he done me wrong.
Sorry folks, that one got away from me,
You fat slob there with the tight pants!
Abcdefghijklmnopur—I mean q—rstuvqxyz
And the heaving corpuscles of the sea . . .
“Corpuscles”—change that to “radiators,”
I knew it ought to be “radiators” when you came all over “corpuscles”!
Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or
                    you’ll never know what hit you!
Wait—those horsemen—I think it’s Nevsky,
Grim, stately, prim, tactile, utter, dead and serene. The End.
Well, what’d you think of it? I thought it was totally great! He’s my man, but he
                    done me wrong, serene among the beans.
“Likely” Berrigan. It’s a “vexed” thing (comme on dit), the identity of E. A. McGregor-Plarr. I suspect there’s a whole untethering study to be made of the pseudonymously-printed collaboratory pieces of the early years of the second generation New York School “era.” If “Two Serious Ladies” recalls both Berrigan’s hero’s Frank O’Hara’s Jane Bowles-reading cowhands line out of “Collected Proses”—“Would you pass me that copy of TWO SERIOUS LADIES over there on the bunk” under the title “In the Ranchhouse at Dawn”—and Berrigan’s own late and identically titled piece (“That’s all / one life needs— / Two serious ladies.”), and if both the tough-guy joshing of “You fat slob there with the tight pants!” and the trademark Berriganism** “totally great!” sound like Berrigan (I’m thinking of something like the one-line “Salutation” out of the 1988 A Certain Slant of Sunlight that reads in its entirety: “Listen, you cheap little liar . . .”), other lines “toss off a proud anonymity.” What to do with the ostentatiously pumped-up line “the heaving corpuscles of the sea” beyond noting (and reveling in) its pretense? Seemingly no other “corpuscles” in Berrigan’s works (and no “radiators”). No “Nevsky.” Did Berrigan collaborate with someone to construct the exemplary “Blueprint” piece? (Oddly enough, in Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories (1980), in a story titled “Love and Death,” a character named Bob Bunny’s “life-blood flows in round veins that are conduits through which gurgle the aerated products of the various parts of his arterial system. There is a bubbling, a foaming; a spuming, spraying surf of red corpuscles.” “The heaving corpuscles of the sea?” A Berrigan / Clark work? I doubt it.***) (The subsequent line of clichés—“Well, it takes all kinds—no one’s perfect. Still, strike while the iron’s hot, or you’ll never know what hit you!”—recalls perfectly some paragraphs out of “Furtive Days,” a prose piece Berrigan wrote with Ron Padgett.****)

Turns out, Tom Clark printed another piece by E. A. McGregor-Plarr, earlier, in Thrice. With work, too, by Padgett (translating Max Jacob), Joanne Kyger, Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Gael Turnbull, Charles Olson, Gerry Gilbert, Clark Coolidge, Harold Dull, and Clark himself, among others. Here’s the piece:
An Ode

The monogram on the cigar box says Picador,
and above the monogram there is a horse
with no legs and a rider with one and a spear
and a striped cape and much apparent force,
and this is the picador, of course.

W. D. and H. O. Wills are the manufacturers of Picador.
It is a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Gt. Britain
and Ireland Limited. But from the box it would appear
the man on the legless horse, with the spear, is from Spain,
and this is the picador, and he gives me a pain,

for how does one explain to oneself this picador
of Spain on a box of stogies of Imperial
Britain? On top of the picador’s spear
there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul
being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl

from left to right of the box as I shake it; the picador
tramps through the gorse of hashish
bits and parched papers blindly to appear
to me as if the insect he would smish
with a stroke of his picador’s pic.

The bug leaps up to the top of the box of Picador
Cigars and crimps on the lid
for safety. He is the color of ancient beer.
He is not blind but the not wounded
picador is worse off, he is blind and dead.

Toward the word “Limited” strides the horse of the picador.
Somewhere in the drear, enormous house
of Time the tradition of pic’ing these wee fear-
in’, tremblin’ things has passed like the drayhorse. Heraldic, extinct, the picador stands to remind us

the tiny grey and brown races are enormous in picador-
ish bitterness as the toot and roar
against the sides of the tired bull of all that one held dear.
It is at least a year and it might be more
since I bought this box of Picador, and the glor-

ious brown smell of victory here is not of Picador.
Again the O’Haraesque title. Is it the dopey sass of “this is the picador, of course” and “this is the picador, and he gives me a pain”—a sort of refrain casually abandoned—or the insouciantly wise-guy rhymes (hashish / smish / pic and enormous house / drayhorse / remind us) that make me suspect “An Ode” is an unidentified and uncollected Berrigan work? Little sense of collaboratory ruckus here: for all its untempered, vaulting fun (“Somewhere in the drear, enormous house / of Time”, “the glor- / ious brown smell of victory”, “He is the color of ancient beer”), it reads “of a piece.” Both in its seemingly offhand rhymes and jaunt-contrary rhythms (“there’s an insect, a mite, in a tobacco caul / being pic’d by the picador, who doesn’t see it crawl”), and in its sly humor (“the tired bull of all that one held dear”), “An Ode” recalls Berrigan’s “Peace” (out of the 1970 In the Early Morning Rain) with its lines like “The days’ usual aggressive / contrary beat / now softly dropped / into a regular pace / the head riding gently its personal place / where pistons feel like legs / on feelings met like lace.” And (ending): “It’s a pleasure / to meet one certain person you’ve been counting on / to take your measure / who will smile, & love you, sweetly, at your leisure. / And if / she turns your head around / like any other man, / go home / and make yourself a sandwich / of toasted bread, & ham / with butter / lots of it / & have a diet cola, / & sit down / & write this, / because you can.”
* A difference: Berrigan’s “Blueprint” is largely designed to trigger a poetics grounded in speech, its improvisatory impertinences, its roughs and eruptions. That against, here, Koch’s (and Ashbery’s) concoctions of writing. Berrigan’s O’Hara / Williams lineage making itself clear, and maybe scowling a little against what might be conceived as fussiness or unnecessary rigor. Recall that in the “Notes” to Bean Spasms (1967), the book of Ted Berrigan / Ron Padgett collaborations, Berrigan writes, simply: “Most of the time we made up rules but sometimes we didn’t.” And: “Sometimes friends who came by would write a few lines.” And: “It wasn’t the new thing, we didn’t even invent the idea, and we didn’t think we were being revolutionary. It was just what was happening and fact, still is.” Humble, casual, direct. With a curious addenda:
      I forgot to mention that although both of us had done collaborations before we ever saw Kenneth Koch’s marvelous magazine anthology of collaborations, LOCUS SOLUS II, much of the momentum for our future collaborations was generated by its appearance.
** See the end of Lewis MacAdams’s piece “Big Ted” in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (1991):
. . . Ted saying “Totally Great.” That’s when I want to stop. When he was filled with joy. “Not ecstasy,” he cautioned once, “joy.” That’s how I like to think of Ted, Pepsi in hand, army pants, lumberjack shirt on, orating. “Totally great,” I can hear him saying. I still feel great when I hear him saying it out loud, right now, in eternity, “Totally Great!”
*** Out of Clark’s Late Returns: A Memoir of Ted Berrigan (1985):
      I wrote to Ted asking for poems for The Paris Review, of which I was then poetry editor. He sent “works” (as he called all writings in poetry or prose) by the bunch—his own, and collaborations with other writers (Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Tom Veitch, Bernadette Mayer, Peter Schjeldahl). In rolled big chunks of his enigmatic cowboy novel, Clear the Range, composed by crossing out and replacing words in a pulp Western, as well as dozens of poems. . . .
      The generous overflow of Berrigan poems and collaborations, as well as many works by fellow New York poets whom he’d alerted about my interest, went into the series of “one-shot” mimeo magazines (Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Ice, Slice, Nice, etc.) which I was simultaneously editing from the University of Essex. Many were the pill-bright, fluorescent-lit nights I spent alone in the empty institutional buildings, typing stencils, grinding the mimeo, collating and addressing envelopes to the hundred poets Ted was putting me in touch with. . . .
**** Out of Bean Spasms. Delivered deadpan of one “Naomi”:
      She’d die with her boots on. A little preparedness goes a long way. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Keep your chin up. Keep your powder dry. You know which side your bread is buttered on. Don’t blow your top. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Put your nose to the grindstone. You’re up against it? Don’t take it lying down. Stand up and be counted! Be a man! You’re not licked till you think you are. . . .

Thursday, October 31, 2013

W. G. Sebald (Stray Notes)

W. G. Sebald, 1944-2001

W. G. Sebald, out of the “Foreword” to A Place in the Country (2013):
There seems to be no remedy to the vice of literature; those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it, even at that critical age when . . . one every day runs the risk of becoming simpleminded, and longs for nothing more than to put a halt to the wheels ceaselessly turning in one’s head . . .
Sebald’s root uneasiness with writing, its tendency towards an unthwartable graphomania. Recall the squib out of Sebald’s Unrecounted (2004): “This writing paper // smells / like wood shavings / inside the coffin.”

Or the lines out of The Rings of Saturn (1998):
Everything is on the point of decline, and only the weeds flourish: bindweed strangles the shrubs, the yellow roots of nettles creep onward in the soil, burdock stands a whole head taller than oneself, brown rot and greenfly are everywhere, and even the sheets of paper on which one endeavours to put together a few words and a sentence seem covered in mildew. For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane.

A line, found in a notebook, regarding a story of how wrestlers “must maintain vigilance against swollen cartilage in their bruised ears, and drain such with a needle unless they cauliflower.” Writing’s way of siphoning off the hurly-burly, the excess.

Of the unstoppable Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, out walking, made notes on playing cards for the Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (1782), Sebald writes in the essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan . . .: On the occasion of a visit to the Île Saint-Pierre”:
      Although Rousseau was by no means idle as an author in the few weeks he spent on the Île Saint-Pierre, in retrospect he nonetheless came to see this time as an attempt to free himself from the exigencies of literary production. He talks of how he longs now for something other than literary renown, the scent of which, as he says, revolted him from the very moment he first got a whiff of it. The dégoût Rousseau now felt with regard to literature was not merely an intermittent emotional reaction but something that for him always went hand in hand with the act of writing. In accordance with his doctrine of the formerly unspoiled state of nature, he saw the man who reflects as a depraved animal perverted from its natural state, and reflection as a degraded form of mental energy.

A mordant phrase out of Sebald’s essay “Why I grieve I do not know: A memento of Mörike”: “a different kind of mountebank career from that of writing—that rather vicarious vice whose clutches those who have once embarked upon it rarely succeed in escaping.”

Seemingly fatal burgeonings partout. Out of Sebald’s “As Day and Night . . .: On the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp”:
The photographic image makes a tautology of reality. When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, writes Susan Sontag, he shows that there are people in China and that these people are Chinese. What may be true of photography, though, is not necessarily applicable to art. The latter depends on ambiguity, polyvalence, resonance, obfuscation and illumination, in short, the transcending of that which, according to an ineluctable law, has necessarily to be the case. Roland Barthes saw in the—now omnipresent—man with a camera an agent of death, and in photographs something like the relics of life continually giving way to death. Where art differs from such a morbid affair is in the fact that the proximity of life to death is its subject, not its obsession. Art deploys the deconstruction of outward appearances as a means of countering the obliteration, in endless series of reproductions, of the visible world.
To stop writing: “a means of countering the obliteration, in endless series of reproductions, of the visible world.”

Eight of Hearts, with jottings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
(One of the twenty-seven playing cards found with the unfinished manuscript of
Les Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire at the death of Rousseau in 1778.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

John Ashbery in Semi-Colon

John Ashbery, c. 1953

Out of an undated number (Vol. I, No. 3, circa 1953) of the John Bernard Myers-edited sheet Semi-Colon, an uncollected John Ashbery collage—a piece Ted Berrigan reprinted (lacking the sub-title) in C: A Journal of Poetry (Vol. I, No. 10, 1965) a decade or so later:

        (A collage made from Roget’s Thesaurus)

Excitation, excitation of feeling,
Excitement, mental excitement,
Heart interest [slang], sensationalism,
Yellow journalism, melodrama, irritation,
Etc. (resentment) 900; passion, thrill, etc.
(State of excitability) 825.2-5.

Work or operate on or upon.
Stir, set astir, stir up, stir the blood.
Fillip, give a fillip.
Illuminate; fire, set on fire; inflame.
Apply the torch, fire, or warm the blood.
Fan, fan into a flame, fan the fire or flame.
Blow the coals, stir the embers, feed the fire, add fuel to the fire.

Change color, turn color,
Mantle; whiten, pale, turn pale; darken, turn black in the face, look black or blue;
Turn red, blush, flush, crimson, glow, warm.

Voice of the charmer, flattering tongue, unctuousness, mealymouthedness, etc.,
Humor, soothe, pet, coquet, slaver, beslaver, beslubber, beplaster, pat on the back, puff.
Fool to the top of one’s bent.
Do one proud, pull one’s leg, sawder, soft-sawder, soft-
Soap, butter, honey, jolly, blarney, lay
It on, lay it on thick [all coll.]; lay it
On with a trowel, string, string along,
Honeyfogle [U.S.], oil, soap [all slang];
Make things pleasant, gild the pill.

What is the use of running when you are
On the wrong road—J. Ray. Mentis gratissimus error—A most pleasant
One goes to the right, the other to the left; both err, but in different ways.—Horace.
        Who errs and mends, to God him-
Self commends.—Cervantes. To err is human, to forgive
Divine.—Pope. Errors is worse than ignorance.—P. J. Bailey.


Off the track; on a false scent,
On the wrong scent or
Trail, up the wrong tree; at cross pur-

Intense darkness, pitch-darkness, Cimmerian darkness,
Stygian darkness, Egyptian darkness, monte, reversi,
Squeezers, old maid, beggar-my-neighbor, goat, hearts, patience.

Dull, dullsome, dull as dish water.
“The face
That launched a thousand ships.”
Wind-swept, bleak, raw, exposed,
The storm is up and all is on the hazard,
Rainy, showery, pluvious.

Avant-courier, avant-coureur or avant courrier,
Vice-sultan, vice-caliph, vice-queen,
Bitter as gall.
Liqueur, cordial, sweet wine, punch,
“Leave not a rack behind.”
All moonshine, all stuff and nonsense, all tommyrot,
“Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallambrosa.”
Bags, barrels, tons, flock,
In one’s stead.
Prolocutrice or prolocutrix,
Accept the stewardship of the Chiltern hundreds.
View with disfavor, view with dark or jaundiced eyes,
Loblolly pine.
Ineptitude, inaptitude,
“As like as eggs,”
Swim or go with the stream.
Myrtle, turtledove, Cupid’s bow,
Cupid’s dart; love token etc. 902-5,
Bewitch, enrapture, inflame with love, carry away, turn the head.
Once in a blue moon [coll.],
Once in a coon’s age [coll.],
Continually, incessantly, without ceasing, at all times, ever and anon;
Every day, every hour, every moment,
Daily, hourly, etc.
Daily and hourly, night and day, day and night, morning, noon and night,
Hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year,
Day in day out, month in month out, year in year out;
Perpetually, always etc. 112.5; invariably etc. 16.7.
Wander etc. from the truth,
Be in the wrong, be in the wrong box,
Bark up the wrong tree, back the wrong horse,
Aim at a pigeon and kill a crow,
Take or get the wrong sow by the ear,
The wrong pig by the tail, or the wrong bull by the horns,
Put the saddle on the wrong horse, count one’s chickens before they are hatched,
Reckon without one’s host, misbelieve, sin,
By special favor, yes, by all means.

I refuse! By no manner of means! I will not! Far be it from me!
Not if I can help it! I won’t! Like fun I will!
Count me out! You have another guess coming! Catch me!

Volunteer, come forward, be a candidate,
Barkis is willin’.

Don’t! Don’t do that! Enough!
No more of that! That will never do! Leave off! Hands off!
Keep off! Keep off the grass! Hold! Stop! etc.
Refusal, refusing, declining, etc.

Leave alone, leave it to me,
Leave the door open, open the door to.
Open the floodgates, give the reins to etc. (allow freedom).

Above par.
Best, very best, choice, select.
Picked, elect, prime, capital, of the first water.
First-rate. First-class. First-chop.
Top-hole. Bang-up. Tiptop.
Top-notch. A 1, A one or number 1.
Crack, gilt-edge or gilt-edged.

Good, superb, super, superfine, exquisite,
High-wrought, precious, worth-its-weight-in-gold.

Worth a king’s ransom,
Precious as the apple of the eye.

Good as gold,
Priceless, beyond price.

Invaluable, inestimable, rare.
Exceptional, extraordinary.

Beau idéal

Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche


Beyond all praise, sans peur et sans reproche

Clean, clean as a whistle, completely (etc.)


Corker, trump [both slang]

Black tulip

Cygne noir, black swan

Admirable Crichton, Bayard, Roland, Sidney


Choice, best etc.

Standard, pattern, mirror etc. (prototype) 22
A wry assemblage—replete with notational Thesaurus-oid mannerisms (“Cupid’s dart; love token etc. 902-5”), rhythmically humorous swells (“First-rate. First-class. First-chop. / Top-hole. Bang-up. Tiptop. / Top-notch . . .”), bemusedly emphatic discernments (“The wrong pig by the tail, or the wrong bull by the horns”), the fussy demotic (“yes, by all means”) in cohort with the literary refractory (“Barkis is willin’”) and the chronic human will to connect, melancholic or giddy (“all stuff and nonsense, all tommyrot, / ‘Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallambrosa’”)—of lingual detritus high and low.* I see in “Hoboken” a direct predecessor of some of the lists found in Ashbery’s book-length poem with Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook (1975). See something like:
Beggar-my-neighbor, pounce, fish, old maid, progressive euchre, bezique, backgammon, mah jongg, dominoes, hearts, contract bridge, Michigan poker, rummy, solitaire, Monopoly, Sorry, Parcheesi, Scrabble, Authors, checkers, Chinese checkers, chess, go, fan tan, honeymoon bridge.
Suede, tweed, cotton, silk, jersey, whipcord, cavalry twill, melton, moire, nylon, net, challis, cordovan, maxi, midi, scarf, shoes, zipper, cuff, button.
Or the slightly recherché (possibly Thesaurus-generated?):
Grey, ocher, mauve, gentian, tabac, beige, greige, buff, taupe, mastic, fawn, havane, verdigris, smoke, amber, russet, outremer.
Something plausibly conceptualist avant la lettre in the way “Hoboken” flaunts the anti-expressionist marks of its making—Ashbery’s is a flaunt performed with a shrug (against the ostentatious squeals of self-import of “our” contemporary purveyors).
* Something in the grand range of lingual elements Ashbery’s selected recalls these lines out of “The Recital”—in Three Poems (1972):
      The point was the synthesis of very simple elements in a new and strong, as opposed to old and weak, relation to one another. Why hadn’t this been possible in the earlier days of experimentation, of bleak, barren living that didn’t seem to be leading anywhere and it couldn’t have mattered less? Probably because not enough of what made it up had taken on that look of worn familiarity, like pebbles polished over and over again by the sea, that made it possible for the old to blend inconspicuously with the new in a union too subtle to cause any comment that would have shattered its purpose forever. But already it was hard to distinguish the new elements from the old, so calculated and easygoing was the fusion, the partnership that was the only element now, and which was even now fading rapidly from memory, so perfect was its assimilation by the bystanders and décor that in other times would have filled up the view, and that now were becoming as transparent as the substance that was giving them back to life.
Regarding that “assimilation by . . . bystanders and décor”: how quickly the piece’s—“Hoboken”’s—constructedness begins to seem “natural.” How the explicatory sub-title “(A collage made from Roget’s Thesaurus)” is already, circa 1965, scratched by Berrigan in the reprinting, presumably a sort of redundancy. The room subsumed by its viewing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Uncollected Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme, c. 1964

Found by accident whilst looking for something in Peter Schjeldahl’s magazine Mother: A Journal of New Literature, an uncollected piece by Donald Barthelme:

      ASTONISHMENT, surprise and disappointment were so great for a few seconds after the discovery that the best part of the party—the ice cream—was gone, that no one knew what to say. Then Flossie burst out with:
      Then the feast began, and such a feast as it was! Mrs. Bobbsey, knowing how easily the delicate stomachs of children can be upset, had wisely selected the food and sweets, and she saw to it that no one ate too much, though she was gently suggestive about it instead of ordering.
      Then a chair would be taken away, so as always to have one less than the number of players, and the game went on. It was great fun, scrambling to see who would get a seat, and not be left without one, and finally there was but one chair left, while Grace Lavine and John Blake marched about.
      Then Freddie, anxious as to what would become of Snap if he fought a snake, looked back. He saw a strange sight.
      “Then don’t you come any nearer if you don’t want to get wet,” said Bert. “This hose might sprinkle you by accident, the same as it did when Freddie had it,” he added.
      Then came all sorts of games, from tag and jumping rope, to blind-man’s bluff and hide-and-seek. Snap was made to do a number of tricks, much to the amusement of the teachers and children. Danny Rugg, and some of the older boys, got up a small baseball game, and then Danny, with one or two chums, went off in a deeper part of the woods. Bert heard one of the boys ask another if he had any matches.
      Then she thought she saw something long and black wiggling toward her, and, with a little exclamation of fright, she, too, turned to follow the others. But, as she did so, she saw their dog Snap come running up the hill, barking and wagging his tail. He seemed to have lost the children for a moment and to be telling them how glad he was that he had found them again.
      “Then I’m surely going to be one, too,” declared Flossie. “I like good things to eat. I hope our minister isn’t very hungry, ’cause then there’ll be some left for us when we come home from this picnic.”
      “Then how do you account for this?” asked the chief, as he held out a box partly filled with cigarettes. “I picked these up in the living room,” he went on, for the boathouse had one room carpeted, and fitted with chairs and tables, and electric lights where the family often spent evenings during the Summer.
      Then he felt embarrassed at asking it and before Macomber could answer he went on, “We all take a beating every day, you know, one way or another.”
      “Then let’s eat ours now,” suggested Flossie. “I’m awful hungry.”
      Then Mr. Bobbsey sat down to read the evening paper.
      Then came closing days at Ocean Cliff, the home of Uncle William and Aunt Emily Minturn at Sunset Beach. School was soon to open, and Mr. and Mrs. Bobbsey were anxious to get back to their town home.
      “Then take that!” exclaimed Danny, and he gave Bert a push that nearly knocked him down. Bert put out a hand to save himself and struck Danny, not really meaning to.
      Just then there came along two large boys, Frank Cobb, and his particular chum, Irving Knight.
      Then the lumber merchant gave certain orders to his grocer and butcher, and if a number of poor people were not well supplied with food that gladsome season, it was not the fault of Mr. Bobbsey.
      From then on Mr. Rugg did some hard thinking. He began “putting two and two together” as the old saying has it. He remembered the Bobbsey boathouse fire. On that occasion Danny had come in late, and there had been the smell of smoke on his clothes.
      Then how the children laughed and clapped their hands! And Snap barked so loudly—for he liked applause—that there was noise enough for even jolly Aunt Sarah. After that there was no trouble.
      Then, when they had on dry garments, and could go out, there was no one with whom to play.
      “Then come with me, and I’ll let you help hold the hose,” said the fireman. “I’ll look after him,” he went on, to Mrs. Bobbsey, and she nodded to show that Freddie could go.
      “Then we’ll have to give him up I suppose,” and Mrs. Bobbsey sighed, for she had grown very much attached to the fine animal.
      But the strange dog did not need lifting. He sprang into the tonneau of the auto as soon as the door was opened. Mr. and Mrs. Bobbsey lifted in Flossie and Freddie, and Nan and Bert followed. Then in got Papa and Mamma Bobbsey and Mr. Blake started off.
Found in Mother No. 3 (1964) between three pieces by Tony Towle (“Innocent-looking floorboards give way and I can’t stop my fall . . .”) and a collaboratory cartoon by Kenneth Koch and Joe Brainard called “Size 40” (thinking bubbles of a T-shirt: “To lie across her breasts all day—aye, ’tis a pretty thought . . .”) and signed, “Donald Barthelme and Laura Lee Hope.” The latter being the pseudonymous author of the Bobbsey Twins series—The Bobbsey Twins, or Merry Days Indoors and Out (1904), The Bobbsey Twins in the Country (1907), The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore (1907), &c. Barthelme’s “Then” is constructed, then, by simply lifting and rearranging a number of paragraphs out of the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate-produced fourth book in the The Bobbsey Twins series The Bobbsey Twins at School (1913). Reworking with ironic intent what Barthelme once called* “cultural artifacts of ambivalent status,” putting ready-made American detritus into new contexts. And hiding, amidst the Bobbsey slurry, a nugget of Hemingway. (The source chapters, in sequence, with all repetitions detailed and the “unmannerly intruder” compris, go: Chapter XIV “A Coat Button,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter XI “Danny’s Trick,” Chapter VII “At School,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XI “Danny’s Trick,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XIX “Who Was Smoking?,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Chapter X “A Scare,” Chapter XV “Thanksgiving,” Chapter II “Snoop Is Gone” (with Barthelme truncating the final sentence, removing the clauses “for Flossie and Freddie were to start regular lessons now, even though it was but in the kindergarten class” after “home”), Chapter VIII “Bert Sees Something,” Chapter XVIII “A Night Alarm,” Chapter XV “Thanksgiving,” Chapter XX “A Confession,” Chapter XIII “An Unpleasant Surprise,” Chapter VII “At School,” Chapter VI “Danny Rugg Is Mean,” Chapter XXII “Snap and Snoop,” and Chapter IV “Home in an Auto.”) In a 1981 “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review Barthelme points to one source of such brash formal license in jazz:
You’d hear some of these guys take a tired old tune like “Who’s Sorry Now?” and do the most incredible things with it, make it beautiful, literally make it new. The interest and the drama were in the formal manipulation of the rather slight material.
Pertinent, too, is a remark Barthelme made to George Plimpton in a 1984 TV interview (reported in Tracy Daugherty’s 2009 Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme): “I originally began writing in rather traditional, ersatz Hemingway fashion, and it was really terrible, it was truly terrible. It was in reaction to my own inability to satisfy myself with traditional forms that I sort of began throwing things on the floor and looking to see what sorts of patterns they made.”
* In Barthelme’s c. 1985 essay “Not Knowing,” wherein he relates how he once bought “a set of brass knuckles . . . in a pawnshop, not to smash up someone’s face but to exhibit on a pedestal in a museum show devoted to cultural artifacts of ambivalent status. The world enters the work as it enters our ordinary lives, not as worldview or system but in sharp particularity: a tax notice from Madelaine, a snowball containing a résumé from Gaston.” He’s referring to an exhibit called “New American Artifacts: The Ugly Show” he assembled in 1960 for Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. Barthelme’s list of some of the exhibit’s wonders:
A baby blue Styrofoam chrysanthemum. An auto hubcap, brand unrecognizable. A hideous jukebox. Paint-by-number pictures of lambs, sans paint. An unbelievably ugly plastic chair. A giant-size Vaseline jar. An imitation shrunken head. A plaster “flamenco.” Reader’s Digest. Official Detective. Ricky Nelson Magazine. A TV antenna. A whiskey decanter disguised as a Greek vase. Bunny rabbit decals. Big Bonus stamps. A gilded baby shoe coin bank. Klutch denture adhesive. Plastic-bright artificial fruit. Tiki Joe’s Luau Kit. A plastic red rose in pseudo crystal vase. Three (bad) reproductions of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. An “obscene” ashtray. A large Coke bottle. A box of All. Half-ceramic, half-wooden totem poles. A toy machine gun. A plastic soldier’s helmet. “A roseate and gaudily commercialized” badly-printed stuffed head of Christ. A copy of the American flag printed out of register on flimsy plastic.