Toward The Unfinishable Sentence of a Moment in Contemporary American Poetry in which the Idea of the
white South might be as white perceptible and relevant as it is
Whose life is this anyway? —Joshua Poteat
“Illustrating how to catch and manufacture ghosts”
Being’s a vagabond— It shows itself in its absence— —Brian Barker
“Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the
Endless Clucking of the Gods,”
whatever you said when I asked you what you thought of Illustrating the Machine That Makes The World seemed right, but it was so brief I lost it, let it slip away, and that was more than a year ago,
but as I read Josh’s book again yesterday, struck (again) by the decay, from the invocatory poem, “Illustrating the illustrators”—“We said, If death is like this, then give us more”—forward
“Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs” The timothy grass coned long for cows and the one-eared lamb, blue flies dead in troughs. Under the orchard where the rotting pears, those dull sparks in the grass, could warm a man’s hands with wasp sting… “Illustrating the theory of twilight” Down in the reeds, farthest from God, where the vultures wash their feet, is where I slept the night the dogs found the wild boar, half-dead from a cancer… “Illustrating an answer to a question through the order in which a bird reveals letters by eating the grains set on top of them” In the empty muffin case, termites root their black chambers, famine through the hours… “Illustrating the manner of communicating vibrations to the air” On the branch of a chestnut, before the blight, a hornet’s nest grew its skin until it throbbed with ten thousand poisons, and because of this it must suffer. I say this now as a warning, as a translator of sight beyond. I watched the nest for weeks, its heart alabaster with the sickness, let it grow, took its air and its long, purposeful lights to bed with me, for what can one do but let the world happen?
I thought I almost remembered it, something about the book’s interest in the “antique,” which I may be misremembering,
though that’s not wrong, because there are a lot of devices here, but little that’s “modern,” which is to be expected since the book is founded, as the subtitle tells us, on J. G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, so maybe there’s something “antique” about Heck’s “science” as delivered here, and maybe, too, something antique about the decay itself, so the word seems plausible,
though I want to remember it not just because I can’t exactly remember it, not just to scratch the itch of absence, itch of erasure, but because it seems to me a dependent clause from which a complex sentence might proceed
to ask, whether the decay of the pastoral or the agricultural idyll in the face of an imminent (a faithful but naïve) industrialization is somehow written into Heck’s Pictorial Archive and excavated by Poteat
or if this world is the world Poteat can’t not imagine beneath the Confederate afterlife into which the first movement of Ornithologies stumbles (can’t not stumble)
or whether Heck’s Archive illustrates—as it turns Nature into machine, as it mechanizes Nature—the imminent passing of the pre-industrial world that becomes the idyll of post-bellum Southern romance, which becomes for Poteat an inevitable subject, something he has to write about once he discovers it
or, to go even further, to ask if the instability of the Confederate world-view is somehow written into Heck’s vision, even as the War seems inevitable after the 1850 Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act—making Heck’s world a kind of proleptic elegy for the world that, if it ever existed, begins to decay only more obviously in the War it would take another 14 years to lose, an elegy to which Poteat turns as a kind of extension of the “Nocturnes” section in Ornithologies but, more importantly, as way of shaping as it participates in a moment in Southern writing, in Southern poetry,
a moment in which we’re working to see what’s been suppressed for so long—not only African-American history and culture, but also whiteness—and to write ourselves into a kind of new world, while all the while being tethered to the world that’s passing—if it has not already passed—away,
namely The mythical-capital-letter SOUTH, which is to say that (to ask whether) maybe somehow Heck’s Pictorial Archive gives Poteat the material he needs to make for the present the past it needs in order to make sense—
a moment in your kitchen, that lovely vanilla-tinged tea steeping, the daylight a little tentative or lazy or maybe just shopworn to which I need to return
—and by “return” I don’t mean get myself to Richmond in the next few months, but literally to revisit that moment—with Brian’s The Black Ocean in my bag, because it wasn’t out then, though I’m pretty sure I’d read it, so I could ask you about it, specifically the book’s lastness, its eschatologies / we could maybe get Wojahn in on this, too, but what I want to ask you about is / the sense of an ending that permeates the book—though maybe it’s better to say the senses of ending the book maintains, because
sometimes the book seems to report, to observe, to visit, as in
“Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods” But here, now, the air is clean and empty and holds them, man and bears, as the pit sinks to blackness beneath the shapes I trace. If I lean over the edge I can almost touch them. They are thin and light as snow now … Now they are nothing. “In the City of Fallen Rebels” Here they come, galloping across the river of a dead king rising, surplice, bearded in flames, blowing their battered bugles. They want a word with the boy, they say. They take him into the trees. And there he goes, still half-asleep, dragging his death by a string. and at other times to pray “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth” When at last we whisper, so long, so lonesome and watch our house on the horizon go down like a gasping zeppelin of bricks, we’ll turn, holding hands, and walk the train tracks to the sea… “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide” He pulled his hand from his hat and held out the bridge they’d never make it across, bright lights and the river braiding its spell of filth beneath it. He held out questions, unanswerable, and the smell of wet newsprint that won’t wash off. He held out a red scarf, rigor mortis, a small band of farmers shaking pitchforks at a tank. “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind” so speak to me now as you disappear and I will carry your message to the cold lips of the sleepers yes I will tell them I saw you standing amazed smiling in another life I will look them in the eye I will tell them you longed to be loved
not only in a present tense that seems traditionally revelatory—but also in the future and the past, to which I want to refer you, because it’s here, for me anyway, I hear a kind of attitudinal rhyme with the scenes of ruin, the images of ruin and decay—I might even say a kind of decadence—in Illustrating the Machine—
—which is a way of asking, as you think about it, if you’d accept any connection between Poteat’s anti-pastorals and the apocalyptic scenes—both the historical/mythical scenes of New Orleans or the 1980s or Cherokee and the eschatological “Last Night” scenes—in The Black Ocean
—and maybe I’m reading you through The Black Ocean in a way that’s unfair—or I’m reading you through me, which is inevitable, though also maybe unfair, however many times I might invoke Eliot1—
but I’m wondering if it’s possible that, whatever we might say about it, we could say that Illustrating delivers a nostalgia, encrypted in a kind of surrealism, you yourself have decrypted from Heck’s Pictorial Archive,
a diagram of 1851 in which it’s already clear that the Civil War is inevitable and also that The South as a political cause will dissolve at least into the kind of ghost that will haunt itself for a century and a half,
which is to say that maybe Illustrating creates for the speaker/see-er/traveler of Ornithologies the past necessary to the present Ornithologies imagines and the future for which it prays,
in which case, maybe it’s possible—however unfair—to read Brian through Ornithologies/Illustrating
Dear Brian, Dear Joshua
and say that the future The Black Ocean imagines
expresses, as a kind of logical realization, by reflection, the decay at the heart of our (to the extent Southern, to the extent white, to the extent that Southern is white) own present, even as Illustrating archaeologizes a similar decay in the history of our imagination/politics/nostalgia,
each of which being a way, as it were, as people, to walk away, after the poems, to move forward into what Whitman might have called “the new life of new forms,”
though I think too that, if I might, that we live in the kinship of a moment in which these mirrorings and reversals,
these sentences that keep switching back on themselves and others,
as the poems in Illustrating and in The Black Ocean switch between the longer/meditative poem—and here I might connect the long, segmented form of something like “Dragging Canoe” to the series described created as the “Illustrating” titles link all the poems in the first and third sections of Illustrating—and the shorter poem, whether the erasures in the fourth section (Appendix I) of Illustrating or the single-page lyrics in The Black Ocean,
the futures that flip back on the past and the pasts that flip forward onto the future,
are passing but can never pass entirely away2
and that remain, that ask, which is to ask, recalling what Alain Badiou wrote in his Handbook of Inaesthetics, that “Art itself is a truth procedure,” that “Art is a thought in which artworks are the Real (and not the effect),” to say that art thinks and so to ask what is our poetry thinking? and to answer, in the first place, that it is thinking about an end, to which we might ask, will ask, are asking what is coming to an end? to which I want to say
(this is where I insert myself between you and maybe misread you both or wishfully read you both or argumentatively read you both in order to produce a me-shaped space between you)
that what we are imagining (together, what our work in its eschatologies, in its elegies, points toward) is a world in which whiteness is not an invisible, insinuating, hegemonic, totalizing power, that what is passing away is generations on generations of white arrogance—
not that we are creating it, but we arrive at an unusual and auspicious time, having each of us come after the Civil Rights Movement, and so being raised to inherit, at least in some measure, the consciousness, the idea the Movement fought to create, but inheriting it without having to face the violence of the resistance to the Movement, and so experiencing the Movement somewhat indirectly (witnessing secondarily, to half-quote Dona Apel, at a remove in which meditation is possible)
but also at a time not so many years forward that we do not also know the stink of the resistance, resistance-whispered-under-the-breath, the resistance that is not entirely gone, that seems to haunt, but is in fact still operative
Michael Donald, lynched in Mobile in 1981 James Byrd, Jr., dragged to death behind a truck in Texas in 1998 James Craig Anderson, beaten and then run over with a truck in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi, 2011
but has not passed away
so we can’t pretend that old white power is gone, that whiteness doesn’t exist in the way it used to, we can’t just not look at it or even at its ghost, because to look away is to make it invisible again, to throw that Anteas to the ground where it could rise again,
which is to say in response to the question what is our poetry thinking? we might say will say are saying already the end of whiteness, but concerned that whiteness may not be killable, that it may be undead, something that has so insinuated itself it is beyond death, so we stand over it always in case someone has to close the casket lid again
this moment of threshold—the sentence moving forward but still connected to its own past through itself, through its syntax
“the latent power,” Badiou says, “in which the contrast between presence and disappearance (being as nothingness) can present itself to the intelligible”3
the sentence, the long sentence—which includes not only the long sentence, grammatically speaking, but as well the series—because it is only in such sequence, such syntax, deployed properly,
laden to the point that it becomes impossible to remember or to figure neatly its function or its fulfillment so the sentence exceeds (has already exceeded) its instrumentality so it will not disappear into the result of its having carried all it was charged to move but instead remain however irrelevant the charge has become as a trace of the movement from intention or initiation to acquisition and shape to delivery to briefly uncomfortable loitering like a valet waiting for—what is it?—a tip a word a sign that all is done that transitions into a steady if mostly invisible presence that then comes to be a part of the family retinue, the estate, a factotum, an administrative appendage that actually does a better job than almost anyone else at remembering how it came to be there4 and what its coming to be a part of the family says about the family itself and maybe even the entirety of the family because it holds at least one stable point from which to measure and therefore (by operation on the value of the measure) remember everything,
even how it became so laden it became impossible to remember or to figure neatly its function or its fulfillment so the sentence exceeded (and continues to exceed as it creates it own epoch within itself) its instrumentality so it can never disappear into its having carried all it was charged to move but must instead remain however irrelevant the charge had become as a trace of the movement from intention or initiation to acquisition and shape to delivery—or however irrelevant the charge had become as a trace of the movement from intention or initiation to acquisition deformation and delivery, a briefly uncomfortable loitering—to a briefly uncomfortable loitering like a valet once waited for—what is it?— a tip, a word, a sign that all was done, that moved into a steady if mostly peripheral presence that then came to be a part of the family that does (has done, is doing) better than almost anyone else remembering how it came to be there and what its coming to be a part of the family says about the family because it holds at least one point (instead of a stream, a river, a rush, the flood5 of always being in the middle of something that began so long ago it may as well never have begun) from which to measure and therefore (by operation on the value of the measure) remember everything
that “long sentence capable of moving in various ways, describing certain things and leaving others out, and coming back” Levis describes in Faulkner in that interview with Leslie Kelen in The Antioch Review in 1990 or so,
to which we are drawn (I might say called) so we can write and move forward without letting the past fall back into itself and so into invisibility where a kind of hegemony might reconstitute itself as such,
so that we can keep the past where we need it, so we can put it into passing, so we can show it passing, not only by turning toward something else, but by placing it under the sign of the new consciousness, whereby the constitution of the past is stabilized in its relation to the new thing,
that “long sentence capable of moving in various ways, describing certain things and leaving others out, and coming back” Levis describes in Faulkner, in that interview with Leslie Kelen in The Antioch Review in 1990 or so, just before The Widening Spell of the Leaves is finished and comes out with that fantastic poem at the end, “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel, St. Louis Cemetary, New Orleans,”
this poem where, in a way, Elegy is already being written, is starting to be written—the mention of “Poe’s funeral” is here, a subject that will come back, in some way, in “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It,” as is Los Angeles, which will appear again in several of the poems in Elegy—though you can follow the thread back to the very early short poems and see clarified in comparison the genius of the longer sinuous poem, the poem in which, unlike Levis’s earliest poems, those in Wrecking Crew, where the leap creates some interesting, even startling moments, as, for example in
Airplanes I get a gun and go shoot an airplane full of holes, and stare at the thing on the runway until it’s covered with rust. This takes years. I turn forty somewhere, waiting for the jet underneath me to clear its throat of burned starlings.
the rapid (telescoped) aging or the appearance of the starlings, the imagistic shock,
though reading Wrecking Crew in its entirety (this may be an unfair approach, reading the early work back through the lens of the later work, but that’s what we’ve got, isn’t it, historically affected (or is it effected?) consciousness) it seems as if, however crisp one of the images in a poem may be, the poems seem more interested, by comparison to the later work, in having arrived at the place where the startling image appears, in the suddenness of the image,
a practice that is still visible in “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel” whether in a string of similetic images like “I would begin falling through myself like an anvil or a girl’s comb or a feather” or in the movement from one scene to another, one city to another, most apparent when the poem breaks from one section to another,
though the poem also shows, in these very places, what the longer poems—which start entering the oeuvre almost immediately after Wrecking Crew—do so interestingly, namely to create a thread or tether between one moment and another, a moment between moments, which is often where another kind of appearance—like the appearance of the starlings, for example, in the airplane poem—can occur, as just after that similetic string
It took nothing more than a few clouds straying over the sun, And I would begin falling through myself like an anvil or a girl’s comb or a feather Dropped, tossed, or spiraling by pure chance down the silent air shaft of a warehouse, The spiderweb in one fourth-floor window catching, in that moment, the sunset
an appearance that also disappears,
the arrival of the girl within the arrival of the girl’s comb making for a double disappearance of girl and comb once the feather arrives with its invisible or unknown discarder who also evaporates into chance though the feather remains long enough to drop out of sight or fade into distraction as the eye of the poem catches the illuminated spiderweb which will itself disappear in another line or two—
the creation of the thread,
To gaze out at a two-hundred-year-old live oak tethering The courtyard to its quiet
which is a thread of syntax, which, to remember Badiou, is “the latent power in which the contrast between presence and disappearance (being as nothingness) can present itself to the intelligible” and here presented in extreme contrast
which is maybe nothing new since these longer poems, these meditative, these syntactical poems (not “narrative” though that term presents itself as being the Other to lyric6) start appearing in The Afterlife (just three or four years after Wrecking Crew, as a result, Levis explains to Kelen in that 1990 interview, of a shift in mood and mind while he was at Iowa with David St. John and others) and already achieve some maturity in The Dollmaker’s Ghost (in poems like “Adah” which I love (why isn’t this in the Selected?)), though as Levis’s career progresses, the tension in the syntax that heightens the contrast between presence and absence, appearance and disappearance, is amplified and calibrated toward its height in Elegy,
so “At the Grave” is not a singular poem, but I’d put an x on it because Levis’s transportation of himself into New Orleans—
I mean the way this poem makes him a creature of New Orleans, by using the cemetery as the crossroads (think Robert Johnson, think Legba) of his own being and non-being, the place he enters when the thought of death or the notion of the thought of death (“nothing more than a few clouds straying over the sun”) overcomes him, the place where his death is buried, where his life moves forward but also remains there,
It took nothing more than a few clouds straying over the sun, And I would begin falling through myself like an anvil or a girl’s comb or a feather Dropped, tossed, or spiraling by pure chance down the silent air shaft of a warehouse, The spiderweb in one fourth-floor window catching, in that moment, the sunset. For in such a moment, to fall was to be simplified & pure, With a neck snapped like a stem instead Of whoever I turned out to be, Wiping the window glass clear with one cuff To gaze out at a two-hundred-year-old live oak tethering The courtyard to its quiet, The tree so old it has outlived even its life as a cliché, And has survived, with no apparent effort, every boy who marched, like a wilderness Himself, past it on his way to enlist in Lee’s army, And now it swells gently in the mist & the early sunlight. So who saved me? And for what purpose? Beneath the small angel cut from cheap stone, there was nothing But my name & the years 1947-1949, And the tense, muggy little quiet of a place where singing ends, And where there is only the leftover colored chalk & the delusions of voodoo, The small bones & X’s on stones signifying the practitioner’s absence, Entirely voluntary, from the gnat swirl & humming of time; To which the chalked X on stone is the final theory; it is even illiterate. It is not even a lock of hair on a grave. It is not even The small crowd of roughnecks at Poe’s funeral, nor the blind drunkard Laughing there, the white of his eyes the unfurling of a cold surf below a cliff— Which is the blank wave sprawl of fact receding under the cries of gulls— Which is not enough.
—this transportation amplifies his invocation of Faulkner in the Kelen interview,
in which Levis slips himself geographically in the tradition of Faulkner into which he’s already moved himself methodologically,
yes, because of the locale, but more importantly because of the overlay of times and places recalls for me the work of Absalom, Absalom! in particular
They stared—glared—at one another, their voices (it was Shreve speaking, though save for the slight difference which the intervening degrees of latitude had inculcated in them (differences not in tone or pitch, but of turns of phrase and usage of words), it might have been either of them and was in a sense both: both thinking as one, the voice which happened to be speaking the thought only the thinking become audible, vocal; the two of them creating between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere, who, shadows, were shadows not of flesh and blood which had lived and died but shadows in turn of what were (to one of them at least, to Shreve) shades too) quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath. The chimes now began to ring for midnight, melodious slow and faint beyond the closed, the snow-sealed, window. “—the old Sabine, who couldn’t to save her life had told you or the lawyer or Bon or anybody else probably what she wanted, expected, hoped for because she was a woman and didn’t need to want or hope or expect anything, but just to want and expect and hope (and besides, your father said that when you have plenty of good strong hating you dont need hope because the hating will be enough to nourish you);—the old Sabine (not so old yet, but she would have just let herself go in the sense that you keep the engines clean and oiled and the best of coal in the bunkers but you dont bother to shine the brightwork or holystone the decks anymore; just let herself go on the outside. Not fat; she would burn it up too fast for that, shrivel it away in the gullet between swallowing and stomach; no pleasure in the chewing; having to chew just another nuisance like no pleasure in clothing; having the old wear our and having to choose the new just another nuisance: and no pleasure in the fine figure he—” neither of them said ‘Bon’ “—cut in the fine pants that fit his leg and the fine coats that fit his shoulders nor in the fact that he had more watches and cuff buttons and finer linen and horses and yellow-wheeled buggies (not to mention the gals) than most others did, but all that was too just an unavoidable nuisance that he would have to get shut of before he could do her any good just like he had to get shut of the teething and the chicken pox and the light boy’s bones in order to be able to do her any good)—the old Sabine getting the faked reports from the lawyer like reports sent back to headquarters from a battle front, with maybe a special nigger in the lawyer’s anteroom to do nothing else but carry them and that maybe once in two years or five times in two days, depending on when she would begin to itch for news and began to worry him—the report, the communiqué about how we are not far behind him in Texas or Missouri or maybe California (California would be fine, that was far away; convenient, proof inherent in the sheer distance, the necessity to accept and believe) and we are going to catch up with him any day now and so do not worry. So she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t worry at all: she would just have out the carriage and go to the lawyer, busting in in the black dress that looked like a section of limp stove pipe and maybe not even a hat but just a shawl over her head, so that the only things missing would be the mop and the pail—busting in and saying ‘He’s dead. I know he is dead and how can he, how can he be’, not meaning what the Aunt Rosa meant: where did they find or invent a bullet that could kill him but How can he be allowed to die without having to admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it and so in the next two seconds they would almost catch him (he—the lawyer—would show her the actual letter, the writing in the English she couldn’t read, that had just come in, that he had just sent for the nigger to carry to her when she came in, and the lawyer done practised putting the necessary date on the letter until e could do it now while his back would be toward her, in the two seconds it would take him to get the letter out of the file)—catch him, get close to him as to have ample satisfaction that he was alive; so close indeed that he would be able to get her out of the office before she had sat down and into the carriage again and on the way home again where, among the Florentine mirrors and Paris drapes and tufted camisoles, she would still look like the one that had come in to scrub the floors, in the black dress that the cook wouldn’t have looked at even when it was new five or six years ago, holding, clutching the letter she couldn’t read (maybe the only word in it she could even recognize would be the word ‘Sutpen’) in one hand and brushing back a rope of lank iron-colored hair with the other and not looking at the letter like she was reading it even if she could have, but swooping at it, blazing down at it as if she knew she would have only a second to read it in, only a second for it to remain intact in after her eyes would touch it, before it took fire and so would not be perused but consumemd, leaving her sitting there with a black crumbling blank carbon ash in her hand. And him—” (Neither of them said ‘Bon’) “—there watching her, who had got old enough to have learned that what he thought was childhood wasn’t childhood, that other children had been made by fathers and mothers where he had been created new when he began to remember, new again when he came to the point where his carcass quit being a baby and became a boy, new again when he quit being a boy and became a man, between a woman whom he had tought was feeding and washing and putting him to bed and finding him in the extra ticklings for his palate and his pleasure because he was himself, until he got big enough to find out that it wasn’t him at all she was washing and feeding the candy and the fun to but it was a man that hadn’t even arrived yet, whom even she had never seen yet, who would be something else beside that boy when he did arrive like the dynamite that destroys the house and the family and maybe even the whole community aint the old peaceful paper that maybe would rather be blowing aimless and light along the wind or the old merry sawdust or the old quiet chemicals that had rather be still and dark in the quiet earth like they had been before the meddling guy with ten-power spectacles came and dug them up and strained warped and kneaded them;—created between this woman and a hired lawyer (the woman who since before he could remember he now realized had been planning and grooming him for some moment thatwould come and pass and following which he saw that to her he would be little more than so much rich rotting dirt; the lawyer who since before he could remember he now realised had been plowing and planting and watering and manuring and harvesting him as if he already was):—him watching her, lounging there against the mantel maybe in the fine clothes, in the harem incense odor of what you might call easy sanctity, watching her looking at the letter, not even thinking I am looking upon my mother naked since if the hating was nakedness, she had worn it long enough now for it to do the office of clothing like they say that modesty can do, does——7
but also more generally Faulkner’s “stream of modified consciousness” as Edouard Glissant calls it, the recall of which seems particularly amplified given “At the Grave”’s errantry into a broad stretch of Southern history, but, in the context of the current sentence, also because, even where the subject or immediate focus is beyond the ken or interest of Faulkner’s work, Levis’s method
(not just the stream, but the crossing of presence and absence, of appearance and disappearance)
echoes, recalls, evokes, and maybe even invokes (with the statement to Kelen the underlying harmonic) that central aspect of Faulkner’s fiction
Glissant identifies as Faulkner’s response to the crisis, the ultimate and inevitable decadence and decay of the hegemony of whiteness, the European worldview, responding to the crisis even as it’s announcing it, as Glissant explains
We are living in the moment when an indivisible world harmony and the conceptions it suggests are breaking up, a time when partial harmonies arise everywhere and converge toward a generalized disharmony, something the writer feels he cannot explore without first renouncing this indivisibility that established him, sovereign and seer, in his place and words. To renounce the indivisible is to learn a new way of approaching the world; in doing so the writer learns to deploy all of his works in this approach, to become accustomed to this new and generalized disharmony while trying to follow its innumerable traces. 8
which is to say that Faulkner’s stream, as it reaches forward and back, is what Glissant will term elsewhere a kind of relational thinking, which is to say that
that long sentence, whether we’re being very strict about that term syntactically or grammatically or just allowing the sentence to be defined by the shape and size of a thought (its bandwidth and its duration
to quote Glissant from his Poetics of Relation,
We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments. The poetics of duration (another leitmotiv), one of the first principles of the sacred, founding books of community, reappears to take up the relay from the poetics of the moment. Lightning flashes are the shivers of one who desires or dreams of a totality that is impossible or yet to come; duration urges on those who attempt to live this totality, when dawn shows through the linked histories of peoples.
duration being the space in which the linkages of histories and of peoples can be seen),which is to say that this long sentence is also a tool of thought and for showing a thought that enters into the relation of duration, a thought and a record of thought that not only perceives but works to show that relation, the entanglement, not just what is central or dominant, but the complex, the tangle, the everything,
which is to say that Faulkner’s long sentence, his stream, his duration is a mechanism that displaces the centrality of whiteness, that works to escape and neutralize white hegemony even as it preserves the traces of its movement from that very center, which is to say that it keeps its eye on what it is trying to pass away, to pass on,
which, as Glissant himself explains, is “not narrative”
The incomparable suspense in Faulkner’s writing denies the foundational power of the Story. By this very denial, it establishes another dimension, a poetics that is not narrative but creates a relationship between what is narrated and what is unsayable.
a point almost echoed by Levis in his interview exchange with Kelen, in response to a question about the role or place of “narrative” in his work
LK: Let’s discuss your most recent book, Winter Stars. By way of introducing the book’s heavy reliance on narrative, would you trace how the narrative element
has developed in your previous books?
LL: You can discern the elements of it all the way to Wrecking Crew in a poem like “Fish.” There actually is a story, or half of a story, in that poem about an arrest. I think the narrative mode drops out of my poetry after that, except for a muted narrational quality in the long poem “Linnets,” in The Afterlife. Then it comes back far more strongly in The Dollmaker’s Ghost. The trouble with narrative is that sometimes when a poet writes for narrative, the narrative overwhelms every other consideration. When I go back to The Dollmaker’s Ghost, if I see any deficiencies, it’s that the poem is racing so much to be a narrative that other considerations, such as the integrity of a line, or rhythm, sometimes disappear. In Winter Stars the subjects themselves have the narrative so implicitly about them in elegies that all one needs to do is allude to it, repeat a certain thing (like a motif), and the narrative moves into that image or that line. In Winter Stars, too, I was consciously writing a rather traditional five-beat line against some of the free verse in the book. But I wanted it to remain unnoticeable; I wanted the rhythm to work unconsciously. What intrigued me was coming back to a very traditional poetic source, while at the same time using or involving myself in narrative. So there was this tension between the two. The narrative was always wishing to break into prose, which is our narrative tradition. And the older line, which once contained any kind of narrative you would possibly want to write in, was coming back in the position of poetry and saying, well, there are certain things we won’t do.
an exchange that shows Levis trying to find, in what he elsewhere in that interview calls a “meditative” poetry, a place for narrative that is not a dominant, but a related, even circumscribed place,
a poetry that is not narrative, though it contains narrative, a poetry that is lyrical while being narrative,
a lyricism that, in Levis, is shown not so much in short poems like “Photograph, Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967” or “The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World” but rather in the undeveloped images within the longer poems, like the radio in the orchard in “Elegy With a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage” or the girl’s comb in “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel, St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans,” the moments within the river of something narrative that arrest the flow, like a weir, and gather the fish, the pearls, the quartz, the ore, and show the other motions,
which is what, the lyricism, I think, the erasures in Illustrating the Machine That Makes The World are excavating from the already lyric but somewhat narrative poems that comprise its first and third sections,
in a method apparently different from the sectioning in The Black Ocean but temperamentally or attitudinally cousin
which is, then, to suggest
that Levis’s full-scale adoption and adaptation of this method expands the capacities of his work’s associative sweep and leap so it can move along (and also back along) whatever trajectory of metonymy or metaphor also into history
that Levis adopts and adapts it (perhaps coincidentally or perhaps because poetry, as a form of art, has to continue thinking what the language is trying to think even as it is trying to think what it itself wishes to think) even as early as “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” in The Dollmaker’s Ghost, which is the book he’s discussing when he says to Kelen that he’d been reading Faulkner when he was developing a new kind or rhythm
Whereas, traditionally, in poetry, one might think of rhythm being linear, one could begin to think of it more architecturally, as not only a linear but a vertical figure, establishing itself in rhythms or variations, both across the line and then vertically down through the poem, picking up repetitions and motifs.
—a poem (“Picking Grapes”) in which his own relation to the Mexican culture, through the persons of the hands on his family’s farm who are actually named
I remember two of them clearly: A man named Tea, six feet, nine inches tall At the age of sixty-two, & And Angel Domínguez, Who came to work for my grandfather in 1910, And who saved for years to buy Twenty acres of rotting, Thompson Seedless vines.
and so humanized, humanized further in a poem (we should pause here and read the entire thing to the air) whose rhythms perforate the boundaries between narrator and subject by creating a single body of syntax and sound that reaches through and around their separate bodies
these men, named, who remain an important part of Levis’s narrative consciousness indexed to the undoing of a central whiteness, as we see in “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern In It,” where another of the Mexican farmhands appears and becomes also the occasion for Levis to “deny the foundational power of the Story,” as Glissant writes,
One afternoon in August, two black widow spiders bit Ediesto Huerta. He killed them both & went on working, Went on swinging the boxes up to me. In a few minutes the sweat Bathed his face until it glistened, & still he went on working, And when I asked him to stop he would not & instead Seemed to begin to dance slowly in the rhythms of the world, Swing & heft & turning back for another box, then Swing, heft, & turning back again. And within a half hour or so, Without him resting once but merely swinging box after box Of peaches up to me in the heat, the fever broke. 5 In the middle of turning away again, he stopped dancing, He stopped working. He seemed to be listening to something, & then He passed out & fell flat on his back. It looked as if he had gone to sleep For a moment. I let the idling tractor sputter & die, & by the time I reached him, he had awakened, &, in the next moment, his face Began twitching, his arms & legs danced to something without music And then stiffened, his jaws clenched & his eyes fluttered open And turned a pure white. I made a stick from a peach limb & tore The leaves & shoots off it & stuck it between his teeth As I heard one was supposed to do, &, in this way, almost Killed him by suffocation, & so took the stick out & threw it away. And later lifted him by the one arm he extended to me & pulled him up onto The bed of the trailer. He dangled his legs off the rear of it. We sat there, saying nothing. It was so quiet we could hear the birds around us in the trees. And then he turned to me, &, addressing me in a name as old as childhood, Said, “Hey Cowboy, you wanna cigarette?” • In the story, no one can remember whether it was car theft or burglary, But in fact, Ediesto Huerta was tried & convicted of something, & so, afterward, Became motionless & silent in the web spun around him by misfortune. In the penitentiary the lights stay on forever, Cell after cell after cell, they call their names out, caught in time. Ring, & after ring, & echo. In the story, the girl always dies of spider bites, When in fact she disappeared by breaking into the jagged pieces of glass Littering the roadsides & glinting in the empty light that shines there. 6 All we are is representation, what we appear to be & are, & are not, And representation is all we remember, Something hesitating & looking back & caught for a moment. God in the design on a spider’s belly, standing for time & infinity, Looks back, looks back just once, then never again. We go on without a trace, I am thinking…
to establish at the center of the work the dialectic Badiou named, that relationship between presence and disappearance, that Glissant named between “what is narrated and what is unsayable”
that, each of us, encountering Levis in our own time and way (Joshua as a student in his last year, Brian at VCU at nearly the same time, in the first umbra, and I years later after Craig Arnold insisted that I acquire and read and take seriously Elegy which I attempted but failed to do for another year or two until I traveled to California and through Levis’s valley to interview Philip Levine for a film in which he was supposed to talk about himself though he refused, insisting to talk about Levis instead) learned from and absorbed this method and through Levis were (even cryptographically, steganographically) connected back to Faulkner, both teachers providing not only the method fireworks long operatic sermonic aria John Coltrane playing for five or ten or fifteen minutes in the blank space provided for the solo but also the motive for the adoption of the method
in your own encounters with the historically Other
that begin and end both your books, in the last movement of “Flood”
I want to say, this is the music of beginning again, When a face on the news stops me. It’s a Mexican man I’ve seen somewhere before, Perhaps slinking in the long sheetmetal Shadow of the day labor office off Shepherd, Standing now on the steps of his house, The street swollen with water and debris. He’s holding a fishing net And scooping up a muddy wedding dress Billowing in the backwash of the bayou. He stands holding it for a long time, Watching the water empty out Of its lace skirt and bodice. He doesn’t look up, Not even when the reporter thrusts The microphone beneath his chin. He starts staring at the dress, And before I can speak I’m gone with him To the place where he last remembers it, Unzippered and crumpled at the bottom of a skiff Shored where the cattails bow along the bank, A half-mile down river from the wedding feast. The stars never so close and silent as this, As he and his new wife swim, the water So black and warm against their bodies the world Seems to be springing forth For the first time out of the dark, Out of their footprints pressed in silt, Out of the willowroots and stones and snakegrass. And when I study his face And close my eyes now, I can see the rowing Back, the oars rising and dripping Like wet wings. I can feel the hot blisters swell On my hands and welcome them. I can hear the music that floods the night And blesses the boat, and there is No reason to speak, no reason to say anything.
where the periods can’t stand against the integrating force not just of scene, which would be merely narrative, but the coordinating conjunctions, the invitation to run on, and the anaphoric repetition, all of which bring each apparent beginning into its place in a continuing and accumulating movement, which here is dilated by this encounter with the face of the historically Other, which Levinas says is the location of any perception of infinity 9
and powerfully in “Dragging Canoe” and “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind”
in your encounter with the nostalgias of the old order, encounters that occasion, too, a reach, a turn to the side, away from the center, to retrieve what is lost within and from the story,
as in “Nocturne: For the River”
Tell me, Robert E. Lee, of the hundred-year sleep, of mice skulls in own dung, your bronze head bearing the weight of catacombs hidden in the itch of amputees, gas-lit, forlorn. Tell me, J. E. B. Stuart, that everything will be okay, that your horse is facing the north because she misses the snowy fields. Tell me, sad horse, with doves nesting under your raised hoof, in this century of longing, how can I go on loving this ruined excuse for a city, sleepy-sweet night, sweet cicada, sweet oak, sweet old nothing?
reaching from the centers of the history, Lee and Stuart, to the edges, to the amputees who would be amputated from the tale, to the horse, which is able to become here a life, a creature, a point of attention
in a muscle
in a motion in a flood10 in a river of attention
(and think, too, while we’re here of all the other poets from the South from the last two decades who have been drawn into the idea of the flood of sentence of thought: Ammons, Dickey, Stanford, Wright (yes and yes), Daniels, to name a few)
in which we too whether by choice or force of example of drift of time and momentum even of language itself could imagine
through these images of decay and end the decay and end of a white hegemony (which is still dying)
but also show,
also trace (to use Glissant’s word, signifying both the ability to discover a line of thought of cause and as well the confusion or obscuring of the line of cause within the flood—
Essentially, it comes down to this. To explore this double field—the flat reality that flaunts and exhibits its monsters, and the realm of primal truth that,
if its mysteries can be fathomed, should finally allow a weighing of reality’s monstrosity—Faulkner invented very naturally a language that does both at the
same time. It describes and at the same time seeks to say what cannot be said through description yet fully signifies (establishes through disclosed reason)
what is described. The pitch and fluctuations in Faulkner’s writing come from the fact that also, at the same time, it constantly reminds you that this full
disclosure is impossible.
Faulkner’s writing originates from these three elements: a hidden truth (prior and primordial, such as the impossibility of the country being well rooted, its illegitimacy) that regulates the description of the real; a visionary description (determined by intuition and premonitions of primal truth); and the disturbed assurance that the secret of this truth will never be revealed.
These three elements, or three modes—the hidden, the described, and the inexpressible—are interwoven throughout a book (Absalom, Absalom! for example), just as they are within a chapter and sometimes in a single sentence, carrying the reader to a vertiginous unknown, which is the most precise manner of approaching what can be known.
—so, to trace, but not entirely in the way Glissant ascribes to Faulkner who, he argues, has discovered the impossibility of the disclosure of the truth of the system’s (the hegemony’s) illegitimacy,
because we exist we write at a moment in which that illegitimacy is now more legible than ever, in part because of Faulkner’s tracing, so maybe we are tracing over Faulkner’s tracing and actually writing something further there)
trace the passing away of the past by placing it in the past of the sentence, by making it dependent on the central and present motion and by placing that in a position that does not look forward so much as writes forward to a future
out of a moment so briefly and precariously constructed so that
Whatever attitude he adopts in his rapport with the Other and whatever global vision of the Other he has formed, the writer has no choice but to disturb this vision through his work, even after expressing it in the work. Because finally he must renounce indivisibility and terrifying unicity…
the moment of writing itself, and the moment of identity, the coalescing, the direction that enables and works through the writing, is a moment in which all things have to be constantly improvised,
in ways that are clearer in the increasingly improvised impossibly and irritatingly long sentence (when will this be over? are we there yet?) in which all moments and in which even the effort itself, the motion forward seems always about to fall apart,
but each time it doesn’t fall entirely apart, each time it makes another motion forward, it preserves—even as it is still looking back or feeling at least the morse-tremblings of the motion of the past along the filament of the sentence—the possibility of moving forward into even
another emergent consciousness that must also pass away along the line we are imagining our way to imagining
“Flood” from The Animal Gospels by Brian Barker, © 2006. Used by permission of Tupelo Press.
Lines from “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods,” “In the City of Fallen Rebels,” “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth,” “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the Magician of the Great Divide,” and “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind” from The Black Ocean by Brian Barker, © 2011. Used by permission of Southern Illinois University Press.
“Airplanes” from Wrecking Crew by Larry Levis, © 1972. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15620. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” from The Widening Spell of the Leaves by Larry Levis, © 1991. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15620. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It” from Elegy by Larry Levis, © 1997. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15620. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“Illustrating how to catch and manufacture ghosts”; “Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs”; “Illustrating the theory of twilight”; “Illustrating an answer to a question through the order in which a bird reveals letters by eating the grains set on top of them”; and “Illustrating the manner of communicating vibrations to the air” from Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World: From J.G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science by Joshua Poteat, © 2009. Used by permission of the University of Georgia Press.
“Nocturne: For the River” from Ornithologies by Joshua Poteat, © 2006. Used by permission of Anhinga Press.