Thursday, July 17, 2014

SINCERITY IS A GIFT: Green, Niedecker, Wescott, Noll

To begin

there is the possible hint of irony in this photograph… though that popular and ever contemporary  illusion of an alternative to an acceptance that each day is in some sense a constant postponement of a willful end to this thing called living, undermines any possibility of mourning, of regretting, of loving, of hating, of…

and while the tombstone for Hannah Green is self-explanatory, the second photograph is only that, a picture, of the cabin on Blackhawk Island on the Rock River in Wisconsin near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin where Lorine Niedecker lived and wrote her claim upon posterity: a posterity in the forms of a collected poetry/prose works from the University of California Press,  two books of letters to/from Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman,  a couple of books of selected poems and the resulting:a few studies of her work, a biography,  a room in the Hoard Museum in Fort Atkinson, which contains her writing desk, a few paintings that were in her cabin, a few manuscript pages and copies of manuscripts--- while the local library has her archives.  There is a state marker on the road in front of this house on Blackhawk Island  which is still a private residence.. 
        What one knows of her life: writing poetry, the dreary work of washing floors in the local hospital, other menial work…two years of college at Beloit and leaving to take care of ailing parents and being without money, an abortion of twins fathered by Louis Zukofsky… a correspondence with a few people out in the world… but of course  the poetry is meant to…
Lake Superior
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock.
From THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE by Hannah Green:
  I have tried to write, seemingly, a very real book, which is, in fact, a dream.  I got the idea from life, but I have proceeded from vision.  I have made use in equal parts of memory, record, and imagination.  Members of my family and other people, I have loved, my feelings about them, and theirs about one another and many other things as well, have provided the inspiration, the starting point, for this novel but the characters in this book bear no more relation to their real-life counterparts than the characters in a play bear to the actors when they have left the stage.

At Beloit College, I walked about the campus where I had spent three years (the junior year was in Dublin as I dropped out of Beloit---) a pretty campus looking the way a campus is supposed to look: late 19th century buildings, lots of trees, the ugly modern science building, all built on a bluff overlooking a debased and broken city, ever trying to come back: riddled with poverty and crime, mixed with natural food stores and cute gift shops… but Beloit was Bink Noll who died in his late 50s… three little books of poetry… and in a letter 8/10/86 to me--- three months before his death--- he wrote:
You are, of course, feverishly bookish, and I love you for it; but as for myself I don’t think books count for much--- esp. “creative” ones. I favor them, too--- read quite a bit, among other things; but all in all I don’t think they  (writing them) are a satisfactory way of generating self-esteem.  I set great store by happiness and see that most famous authors and literary ones, too, are fairly miserable.  I have been spending the summer among strewn corpses, no better for their delusions about craft and talent while they lived.  I prize your happiness.  Keep writing but “without attachment,” treating your stuff,  mine, and everybody else’s as the ephemera and mere amusement that it surely is. 


To underscore:  ephemera, ephemera ephemera…  the University of Wisconsin bookstore in Madison is a vast t-shirt superstore… there is only one bookstore, Paul’s, on street level on State Street, and that presided over by an elderly woman... there are no independent bookstores in Menasha, Neenah, Appleton or Oshkosh… (home to a branch of the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh and Lawrence University in Appleton). There is a Half Priced bookstore in the mall zone near Walmart and Target.

  None of the three librarians I talked to in Neenah and Menasha public libraries had heard of Lorine Niedecker or Glenway Wescott.  This is not unusual as they spend a large part of their days helping people get on the internet.   
In the Neenah library where I had begun a manual search through the microfilm version of the Post Crescent newspaper for a poem I thought I had published there in the early 70s;  another woman was copying obituaries for a newsletter of some sort. 
    Eventually one of the librarians suggested I use an internet search of that paper which they subscribed to.  I did not find the poem but I did find a letter I had published on 19 September 1971  suggesting that the killing of George Jackson--- do you remember who that is?--- was a murder perpetrated by the prison guards. 


After this visit to where my parents had lived in exile from 1965-1972 I drove for Milwaukee by way of Kewaskum as that is where Glenway Wescott is from. 

Wescott is another writer who has shaped me.  For a long time  I would argue if we in the US need the great American novel his THE GRANDMOTHERS is a worthy candidate.   
And then I had that his title essay from GOODBYE WISCONSIN is a necessary addition to who he is.  I do know he acquired brief  contemporary fame later on for a short novel THE PILGRIM HAWK and that is how most people today will meet his work.
Jerry Rosco has been a tireless promoter of Wescott with a biography and the editing of two volumes of Wescott’s journals and a book of his short fiction… and while his immediate claim upon the current moment is through his never hidden homosexuality he is of course far more than just that… something the poet Elizabeth Bishop understood in not allowing her work to appear in anthologies devote to “poetry by women” and the same could be said of Hannah Green who was happy with the simple declaration: Hannah Green is a writer.
 Wescott appears in the first year of the first version of Julian Green’s journal and it is to me the closest definition of my whole experience of writing:
19 December 1928:  Lunched yesterday with Wescott.  He told me that it seemed to him impossible for a journal to be written that should be absolutely sincere and bear the stamp of truth.  But sincerity is a gift--- one among others. To wish to be sincere is not enough.

I have often thought Green was “a success” only because of the gift of his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
In Goodbye Wisconsin, Wescott writes, 

“By birth the best of these young people are Protestants of some sort; by accident, or thanks to their own efforts, the classic Protestant rules have given way to an almost equally scrupulous open-mindedness.”

Of course now, I would suggest an open mind is an empty mind.  The only minds I find interesting are strewn with nasty dead-ends, uncomplicated urges, irrational beliefs… and simple knowings beyond the necessity of words.
Wescott  gave in to a public amiability, a willingness to please and was unable to find his way back to his early books that still are his claim upon me--- but I will grant him his THE PILGRIM HAWK and possibly it is his A CALENDAR OF SAINTS FOR UNBELIEVERS  with its subtitle: Daily readings for eccentrics heretics revolutionaries and other fallen angels  which might be his best claim though ironically it can really only be read by believers who are capable of understanding the necessary wit and genius of this book as it makes such uncomfortable in that all belief is always a little comic, a little tragic in the echoing of Unamuno’s: THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE, another self-defining book.

I did try with my limited ability to picture the place where Wescott came from and if only he had remained in some fashion there instead of decorating the American Academy… ironically and in a wonderful final gesture: Julian Green might have been an elected immortal to the French Academy but he had the decency before his death to try to resign…”

An aside:  I think I personally shall fail as doesn't it seem obvious from what I have just recorded.


two photographs.  What remains.  

 The first was a postcard from Juneau, Wisconsin with a 

message to Lilia back in Menasha while on  my  drive to 

see Iowa City to see Elliott Anderson 

2 June 1969:

and this photograph from this summer, 2014:

what passes and does...

Monday, July 7, 2014


A very good book of essays everyone should read:  NAMEDROPPING Mostly Literary Memoirs by Richard Elman (SUNY Press, 1998)  describes in vivid detail what it was like to be alive as a writer in the years from 1962 to 1992… the end of the Twentieth Century one could say, the end of the time when books still seemed to hold a central place in the so-called contemporary imagination, or at least that part of the population which truly had both an imagination and the intelligence to understand both of those words in some way beyond…  enough.  


NAMEDROPPING has Elman’s rare and defining essays on William Bronk, Tillie Olson, Richard Price, Matthew Josephson, among others… the essay on Alfred Kreymborg  should be required reading for anyone thinking about making a life in writing and the likely end of that life.
 But personally for whatever obscure reason I am not able to access, One aspect of Elman’s book has lingered in my mind because of an essay describing the fate of one of the not failed yet not remembered writers of that moment: Joel Lieber. 
After writing about Lieber’s novels MOVE (made into a Hollywood movie but unavailable), THE CIRCLE GAME and HOW THE FISHES LIVE he mentioned knowing in some way Lieber as they both lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and he knows Lieber has had some success writing for the movies but it is this passage, that has always stayed with me, his reporting on a phone conversation with Lieber:
“Joel said he was glad to hear I was doing okay.
“Yeah sure,” I told him, even though I wasn’t. Hard to say what I was thinking or what he felt.
The next morning around eleven I was at my writing desk when the phone rang.  A mutual friend had just heard over the news how Joel had jumped from his penthouse apartment killing himself instantly.
As his friends now tell it, his girlfriend and her mother were having coffee out on the terrace when Joel, without a world, walked past them into the air and the sidewalk below.”
These sentences are precise, unsettling and memorable, at least for me.  Earlier in the essay Elman mistakenly assigned Richard Benjamin to the movie MOVE when in fact it was Elliott Gould.  The film is not currently available. 


What decided me to compose this prose was a brief article found via Google in New York Magazine by Jane “O’Reilly, a friend it seems of Lieber and now a one-time prominent journalist in the late 60’s, 70’ they say…  I cannot copy the whole brief notice for what was Joel Lieber’s last published book, the finally roll of the papery dice, the final curtain as there is nothing after this book: TWO-WAY TRAFFIC (Doubleday, 1972 and as far as I know the little note by Elman.
Jane O’Reilly writes upon the publication of TWO-WAY TRAFFIC: …the last two years of his life, drawn almost directly from the notebooks he always kept, obsessively chronicling everything in his mind.  It is in fact a book more noted than written---unrefined, often clumsy….There is the same sense of purpose one feels on reading old love letter.  What happened to the emotion so intensely, so physically felt at the time?…. is not a book about a person who is depressed, it is from one particular person, from inside his closed world, from inside the state of mind which has its own inexorable logic…. I did not know Joel earlier when he was a Wise Side writer, working sixteen hour days… I met Joel in Vermont, where he came with his dogs, a jeep, and Lisa---a woman even more perfect than the book describes…
The article review continues.  It ended on May 5, 1971 when Joel jumped….the note he has left had been written two weeks earlier and had been updated a week before he jumped: I don’t want to live any more,  That’s all.  I suffer too much inside. Too many problems I’ve made for myself.  Money, debts, my despair.  I just can’t stand it any longer.
The article concluded  Joel Lieber was 35 when he died.  I am 35.  This year I realized that I---not them---but me too---will die.  Thirty-five years spent carefully piling up experience, against the future, and is this all?  Is this it?  Life? Outrageous  (April 24, 1972)


ASIDE:  the final sentences one might say reveal why no one should really mourn or wish they had been alive and living through the so-called Sixties of the last century: the vileness of a generation never more self-centered upon their nothingness, as it turned out.

I have read four of Lieber’s novels.  (I have not read his, Israel on $5 a Day or America the Beautiful) I will quote the first five sentences of each of them. Books live and die because of the sentences they contain.  It seems not unfair to hold up these sentences as evidence.


HOW THE FISHES LIVE (1967) (paperback reprint as DEEP BLUE. 
Prologue.  The reader will no doubt ask: is this true, did this really happen?  My answer is that it had to happen; it was inevitable.  It has been happening in the way I present it, and in similar ways, for a very long time.  It will probably happen again, although not exactly in the same way.  But in this behind the scenes account of the sea disaster of our times I cannot in all honesty say that the resemblance to any character, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Novelists who say such things are to be viewed with suspicion. 
        375 pages later:  I didn’t call her back, though.  Because when you get right down to it, it just doesn’t make sense.  And yet you know that it must make sense, because we believe in things making sense.


MOVE (1968).  An eruption of hoofbeats shattered the quiet of the late afternoon.  The young man, preoccupied and day dreaming, cursed.  He called to his flock” “Murphy, Sugar, Gregory. Banjo, Omar, Hans. . C’mon. C’mere.”  Whistling and clapping his hands and afraid the rider might trample one of them, he got five, but Omar, the Saluki, broke for the horse, possibly mistaking the animal for an Arabian gazelle.  The rider reared up, his mount dancing nervously to the right.  Omar’s nose was wrinkled, his teeth threatening the rider’s boots. “Get ‘im on the leash, Jaffe.  Get ‘im on the leash, he yelled.
236 pages later. Then she stopped and he turned around and she moved sideways and hung her head.  He cupped his hands and scooped at the water, spilling it over her.  He thought it was interesting how they were treating each other with great gentleness, as if they were both invalids.  “Hey Dolly, we don’t have any towels.”  “Ssshh.” 


THE CHAIR A Historical Novel (1969)
“I don’t know where it’s all gone.  I shot you a double dose and you shouldn’t be feeling anything.  I’ve had some people who can sit there and take anything short of an extraction. They just don’t feel it.  But there are others--- like you, for example--- with a low tolerance.  Very low pain threshold.  Practically negative.  The least little work and they start squirming out of the chair.  I don’t like to see people suffer needlessly.  I like to think I’m a sperson of some compassion.  When see somebody jerking in the chair like that, the way you do, I just sip and shoot them some more Xylocaine.  No skin off my back.”
        181 pages later. “Hothothot, “ Tommy said.
”I’m going out with Tommy to play in the backyard for a while.  Fill up some more boxes.  And think about the essentials.”
She didn’t say anything. I opened the back door and took my son by the hand.
“C’mon Tommy, Let’s go out and play in the fog.


THE CIRCLE GAME (1970)  As Hugo Pearlman climbed the last low dune he heard an unfamiliar noise coming from his summer house.  A repetitious, metallic sound, neither that of water pump nor banging hammer, but a little like both of them,  Something like a sawing noise, with more jingle to it, more music.  He stopped beside a patch of beach plum and cocked his head: behind him the gentle breakers, slurping in.  Under his arm the newspaper rustled in the soft breeze, and crackling inside his clenched fist was the letter he had just picked up in town.
348/9 pages later: A nice comfortable room, he thought, a private room at that, sugared and colored with any bouquets of flowers.  A comfortable room, a comfortable life, a comfortable and deserved success.  I would say this, he thought: after all these years, the gentlemen have finally retired to the library for port ad cigars, while the ladies rustled their skirts and compared birthmarks.
(Joel Lieber was 34 years old when this novel was published.)


TWO-WAY TRAFFIC is billed on the jacket as: Joel Lieber’s Last Novel.  It is illustrated with a black hand and wrist about which a bandage has been wrapped what is apparently leaking blood through the cotton. 
Pages quoted at random: 
“Mrs. Robinson” is playing, a record Paula and I used to fuck to in the summer of 1968.  I feel old.  Shit, why did I fuck up my wrist, my finger, my beard?  I could solve it though.  Because I don’t like feeling like some now-Italo Svevo.  It’s like I am following myself around making notes on me.  Why am I compelled to keep writing this thing? (204-05) 
I am a nice person, and if only people would be nice to me…
Adventures in the Here and the Hereafter, by--- (323)
Ovaltine, honey, cheese, crunchy Granola: eat it a lot.
I spend more time horseback riding than I do writing and fucking combined. (324)


The work of Joel Lieber can only be stored in the house of oblivion.   
The evidence seems clear to me.  I had hoped that… thought that--- well, it comes from reading the novels of Thomas Bernhard: herein was to be a figure who could be made into something, who could be taken up, who could be rescued by means of better sentences as are the suicides in the novels of Bernhard, but no… the banality… the lack…the sentences, the pages would never arrive.. 
As a back-up I had been thinking of E. M. Cioran’s essay,  Fitzgerald The Pascalian Experience of an American Novelist: 
"This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon: if Fitzgerald had limited himself to those novels, he would present no more than a literary interest.  Fortunately he is also the author of  that text The Crack-Up from which I have just quoted  the opening and in which he describes his failure, his only great success…  it is second-order mind that cannot chose between literature and ‘real dark night of the soul.”


The grandest and the most modest of cemeteries...
Joel Lieber survives only in those sentences of Elman's not in his own work.