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Alan Halsey

From a Diary of Reading Clark Coolidge

August-October 2000

29 Aug

If writing is a kind of visible thought (sound or not) — "Turn out the lights and think invisibly" — then reading in the dark is ideal.

"The weightlessness of particles is a filmic notion" and a quantity of poems a continuity. A poems as quantity. And it is true there is a weightlessness (waitlessness) about CC's poems even if the idea of a film of words won't do. Otherwise no one could write so many poems and still write a poem.

2 Sept

Thought catches in the throat but everyone has trouble agreeing with anyone how incidental are the sounds of words or configurations of letters. CC's work is an embodiment of movement, the conscious necessity of keeping moving on, yet the embodiment is self-consciously its self-set problem. "The thought back thing" for example a (body of) writing "entraps its keeper" in the first place its writer. The pleasure is again and again to watch him slip the net.

When not reading CC I have an image of his work as somehow abstract. But it is loaded with concrete detail. "Overalls dangled from the antenna array." Such a precise observation of detail is nevertheless likely to be turned on itself — the following line here is "Thoughts as thought." This might be an unrelated aside — or a reflection on the kind of observation made — or even a way of turning the observation into metaphor — for in the same text ("Partial Nurtures") he offers quite straightforward metaphors such as "Grapes are ideal lungs or hanging offspring" (but consider the "or"). Yet a few lines further on: "The world as the master of self-reference."

"but why pretend that language means what is said" — but it is not pretending (should I assume CC's irony — or mere understatement — ) — the suggestion that language does not mean "what is said," everyday and everywhere self-evident since "saying" is not vitally bound with "meaning," is so commonly felt as an affront, particularly if the language is used for making a poem . . .

"and thought is radio of the real" . . . "thinking in simples." 1982-84: CC is thinking (writing) about "thought," nobody should doubt he means what he says. "where do you think so that how will you go?" How, though, is the "real" broadcast? And how good is the radio's reception?

3 Sept

CC rarely uses italic because his twists of syntax (sound as thought) require an evenness of tone as a bass line, a flat (float) surface to light up on. The surface however is nothing like a canvas. Nor is the evenness of tone laid down as a platform for irony. "One thing that the sea definitely does not do is beckon."

Thought catches in the threat. His frequent windows by no means all for looking out or in.

4 Sept

To write myself reading. (The different orders of telling a word story.) Need I be anxious to comment?

It's hard to decide how CC feels about the world beyond immediate perception — words, things, friends — is this in itself a political statement? I wouldn't have guessed that Sound As Thought was written during the most recent fiercely reactionary period in western history. An admirable attention to the immediate but I'm reminded how when in America there is virtually no news of what is not America.

"about half past water in a stain." Generally it's not an accuracy of description so much as that one can hear him seeing things and things happen in exactly those words.

There is one overtly political poem in Sound As Thought: "Political Drift." Reagan as central figure. A poem of alienation — "he maketh me to feel ashamed / to be named among the same species" (the "maketh" repeated, and for CC an uncommon archaism, arch, an expression of embarrassment more than grand effect) but also of acknowledged complicity — a characteristic turn from a social view to the inward: "so clearly nearly forgot / Cascades of own fault in this picture of a country" — but not "my" or "our" "own fault" (as usual with CC, the "own" detached for emphasis — "own face," "own words") — & a nice trope on "picture," America as its picture of itself and nothing but, but a reminder that Reagan was "in pictures," which reinforced the picture. In the last lines the word "bled" twice. "I didn't conclude anything I meant to today, but / the writing carried me / Wasn't it all in origin bled to make this lovely mix?" and the concluding stanza: "The man who has made the sum of himself a fiction / must be bled to the very edges" — Reagan, presumably, the prime example — "bled" here in the metaphorical sense in which a picture is "bled" to fill the whole image-space. The body politic as cardboard cut-out.

5 Sept

So, back to The So: immediate sense of clipped tones, a poetry mostly of nouns, where adjectives & verbs & even prepositions will act as nouns: poetry as skeleton which will later be fleshed out and articulate. The skeletons move, though, each word hammering the next one on. Poetry played on a xylophone, I wouldn't call that random.

This is what "concrete poetry" might have meant if "concrete poetry" hadn't already (sort of) meant something else. Even so CC seems to consciously eschew the commoner devices of "concrete" — the pun, visual slant, transposed letters, reversal — is uninterested in the appearance of apparent connections.

6 Sept

"But, as far as I can tell, writing, like its poor cousin speech, has no beginning" (Mine: The One That Enters the Stories, p.1). If it did would it be different? Writing has to change, to never be what it's been, when speech need only flow. "All books live in the dark anyway." Reading in the dark is still ideal and to move straight from The So to Mine is to enter a new grace and not be surprised to meet Henry James on page 4.

What is mine but a host of names. "You need to impose a brightness when you read a thought book." "So the thought is to pick up the plot where the last light left it." A cave would seem to be a perfect image of such persistent darkness but when we are in it the answer is "No" perhaps meaning we're not in it at all or not meant to be. "In the room the lights brightened as the pages turned." Perhaps it was a cave kind of library of books he was writing often thinking of Kafka. "No one can tell a thing in so lighted a room." So when does witness become writtenness exactly?

7 Sept

The mine on the other side of the describing cannot be named because part of the describing. Words considered as objects — actual objects as found in a room or a landscape — are bound to seem unusually wilful.

"Own pain given voice, given hidden pleasure" and there are certainly some stories going on. "The men walked past the lifters and out up the headwall of the camp." "And my room fossilizes as I watch back to nineteen oh five." At this point (p.81) any common desire to hear the rest of a story gives way to the fear of it. The list of miners' gear (p.82) is menacing word after word — hardly need to say "I fear a baggage mountain will coffin me."

Why should I want to understand? "The continual questioning has become a deep unease at whatever is put down."

8 Sept

On the Nameways lines up in the grand tradition of American nonsense poetry — masterpieces including Kerouac's blues choruses — which earlier work just grazed the edge of. Little gangs of words who went out for a party and CC was there with his chuckaway camera. He's caught some this way before — a "Nameways" poem from Odes of Roba:


Old Oxymander the Trope
came wafting through here one after
light of miles on his smile and marble
wax pressed into his slate bags
held the secret slips for Bruno, G.
but was off just one quaff of the retort

9 Sept

Here are some poems called On the Nameways that were hanging around which nobody wrote when we weren't looking.

10 Sept

"Bomb" in Bomb an everyday word just slightly more than usually disruptive. To look back to American Ones is to experience again a language in frenetic search of its own (re)order. Verbs will noun, nouns will verb, adjectives will either. Or do they? "Temperament hornbeam and sullen to porch grey grove intelligent sticks in hollow, gone down, twisted, calamus." Sentences so impacted but they do shake out not so strangely. "This is hem light still bean migraine, in toto in flam step fail clap lexicon to the meadows fall flat stir." Followed by "Colloidal in American drifting repetition." colloid "a mixture having particles of one component . . . suspended in a continuous phase of another component. The mixture has properties between those of a solution and a fine suspension." The Collins definition thus describing CC's work at its most vibrant. American Ones on the road so fast it defies an airmap. In all the geology and jazz it's a treat to find a Muggletonian but odd Walt Whitman didn't make it.

The texts vary a great deal in their sense of the author's presence. In American Ones a virtual absence whereas in Mine (but of course) a strong self-image, of the act of writing. Strangely I feel this too with the early poems, a sense of deliberation, you can almost hear the typewriter keys hit the paper on the platen. Whereas the author of On the Nameways is ghostly quiet.

"Living in the memory of everything, America." None of the multivalent shine has gone off nearly 20 years since first reading.

There might be even more names ("Names, part of a rapid") in American Ones than On the Nameways but more of them are real famous people's.

12 Sept

The strange stranger smells of At Egypt its colours and noises its must.

CC's fondness for "roentgens." Text as X-ray? "Those gentlemen roentgens routing the rhythms / as I could hardly bear to seat you far / from rooster crows at midnight celery sticking though / I write clear to window with my elbow follow-through"

Also "particle" and "Brownian." "Brownian in its tongue involvements." Collins def. Brownian movement "random movement of microscopic particles suspended in a fluid, caused by bombardment of the particles by molecules of the fluid."

13 Sept

We could try saying, as an analogy which doesn't need to be stuck with for long, that CC works with language in process as if it were a Brownian movement. He pays minute attention to the "random," watches for its patterns. So that the livingness of language is crucial to him. Which means there is a particular interest in At Egypt concerning his confrontation not only with a dead language — "No sound to the sign" — but one which is embedded in monumental form. Thus a fine passage in part II:

And the House of Death is a book of words
I can stand inside it, I can stand
to the center of it, which is not
its center, where is the center of the words?
in the dim and charged, placed perhaps at the need to
know the need to not know, and feel over
and trance adjudicate the belt of said earth
felt to be, felt along the cuts in stone, the lap
of slow is hot, inside is cool, I trip and stride
am in the book, this lower cell where the cuts
swung entail around no lamp, no glance for what
is clung to the touch of signs, beside the point to
say whatever at all in this chamber of the seems
the strongs to the drape of powers where language stands
our giggles to a hush, flashlight rake oval over
layer mere dust, baker of walls, to hang alert
inside the language box, feel all world as a
hurtling past, this only place, still
eyes, finger sounds, stone and that all
since has been nonsense

The force of the passage suggesting that "nonsense" should be read full-bloodedly as "non-sense," a true fall out of signification. The "language box" might in another context be metaphor but is here entirely literal. The common expression "hurtling past" is nicely re-empowered.

The "center" and "central" he keeps coming back to, or keeps trying to find if there is one.

from the glyphs to now a more
graceful alphabet, more linkage
more unstable? so able to move

— the accustomed pull towards movement, instability posited as necessary condition. CC is bound to be caught in a dichotomy here, given his reading of the glyphs as signs reified. Which is our customary reading but not beyond breaking down, which as At Egypt continues it begins to:

As is anyone we are
about as sure of the significance of any of
this signing as one could be of the relation
of Chattanooga Choochoo to the amethyst lamp panes of Venice

14 Sept

                    I'm caught
by natures more than persons
and every thing has a nature

Yes. Persons seem hardly to figure in CC's work. His attention is almost wholly given to words and things. A limitation but the essential point is how much he does within it. In the key of B:

In back of (they hollered at us)
the Black Earth Club (there is none there)
was a crown
where Brownian motion is unacceptable
we wrote our name (as one will manage)
I managed to bring a basis back
from Egypt (something black in motion)

15 Sept

"Colloidal in American drifting repetition" is ?prefigured in a poem in the collaboration with Philip Guston, Baffling Means: "Drifting American continental / repetition." The "colloidal" is a strengthening but the BM version has the suggestion of continental drift as well as "drifter"/hobo. And "repetition" gains by repetition?

In writing/graphic collaborations the eye is practically always drawn to the image rather than the text — perhaps because the eye would rather the freedom to roam than the across-and-down of textual geometry. The effect in Baffling Means is that coming from the Guston images the eye tends to scan around & across CC's printed texts, and why not? Perhaps we should do it more often. Why assume a poet doesn't mean us to ramble around in his poem, starting where we please and stopping anywhere? When you know a poem well enough that's anyway what you do. It's one of many things you can do with writing but not speech.

16 Sept

The first 40-odd pages of Baffling Means contain some of CC's most playful early work, played between the text and Guston's cartoons. At p.46 the play unexpectedly cuts off and CC offers a series of statements, an argument which sets out his aesthetic — no surprises except the willingness to come out and lay it down. "Art is isolate . . . / At its deepest levels, art is an attribute of / nothing else. It may not be defused in / attribution to." "The worst danger for an artist's work: / assimilation." "Criticism is divergence, immediately. / I know, when I have written, that there / is no other possible state of this matter." "The vector of an artist's personal development / is away from history." The quotation from Beckett "to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now" prepares somewhat for what does a little surprise, the metaphysical edge and attendant angst: "To create is to make a pact with nothingness. / The void exacts its tribute. What price do / I daily pay for maintaining sufficient / ignorance to accept forms when they / emerge?" This impassioned declaration then steadies itself with a familiar attention to acts of perception and their placement:

The door.
The edge comes to me first. No,
the back inside. The place I think out.
Absence is to decipher, fill the night
with ends. It cracks. I live in a moor,
the concrete tipping. A space let to
will the land.

17 Sept

Polaroid seems the least giving of CC's poems until I turn a single line round to a vertical axis:






Now I see it, see its working, its motor turning, the line become a single poem complete in itself. But that's seeing it my way, not his. "I know, when I have written, that there / is no other possible state of this matter." On the other hand: "Polaroid contains crystals that behave like tourmaline. The process by which Polaroid is manufactured turns all the crystals the same way, so that the film is much like a broad, thin, single crystal plate of tourmaline. But if one identifies and examines the words one finds them beginning to separate and to act independently" (Smithsonian Depositions p.26).

25 Sept

The Beckett quotation reappears early in The Crystal Text: "What I discover in writing comes out of the / mess, the mix. I know no nodes before." CC is talking while taking aim: "To grasp the relation of words to matter, / mind, process, may be the greatest task." This is again associated with his quarrel with history: "I hate history because it has not entered the / world as a life. It has no direction / but back into the fold." I'm not sure I entirely understand the point but without failing to appreciate that to CC history distracts perception. History hides things, he'd say — and this opening passage does present a sharp-focus picture of the writer putting his things in order, ready to work. Me, though, I see history in everything. I'd almost say that without history there wouldn't be any things anywhere. At least not things I could say anything about. I'm sceptical, then, about the (sense of) continuum CC is above all after: "I am fascinated with the self / as it exists without one / active separation. / We are whole edges. / If I turn to sleep / the same one will urge tomorrow." But that scepticism has as much to do with notions of selfhood as with history, and that's certainly not one of CC's blind spots — "I dived at you, self, but you rubbed me blank / in all my own mirrors."

The question with writing is always what's needed to make writing possible. There's no doubt whatever about that.

26 Sept

Via the crystal which "has no discernible edges" CC approaches the transcendental and to the transcendentalist knowledge is always an encumbrance. Language seems so too, often, which is a peculiar snag for a poet since "a poet's [mind's mass] is fielded of words." What mazy tracks then ('Directionless roads, all of them") The Crystal Text negotiates. "The end of writing a conscionable step" but "Removal is the only sense of finishing / you get." Words here slip into each other's shapes and space more than usual with CC — "tines. The time" "The crawl you call" "better butter remnant" "not . . . underhanded but . . . underhandled" "burning . . . boring" "pale pall space" "friction and fiction" "I'll / never learn right to write" "as far as fire."

"How much of poetry is unprovoked thought?" An exactly right question. Are the unprovoked bits best?

27 Sept

"everything seen is determinate" (Blake)

28 Sept

"We See, is not allowed" (The Crystal Text p.39).

          But diaries too are dialogues
and here I only grasp one end.

It is the everyday thing which is seen but seen flat and any event has something of the bare sense of the word in physics.

29 Sept

Somewhere inside The Crystal Text there is a ghost town and a single voice stranded. When phrases recur so rarely there is no way to map its geography. Even if you look in the same place twice there is a different object — except the crystal — occasionally a "great number of Japanese novels" — and cigarettes.

30 Sept

How do I know if a word-space needs six words or sixty thousand to fill it? Or which ones are traps? Or if the words going straight in one end go straight out the other? Look: this one has a false bottom.

Another time I think there's no such thing as a word-space and even if there were if not already full you could never fill it. Of course not. But I've always known how close a draught is to drought.

1 Oct

One writer's remarks about another often reveal more about his or her sense of his/her own work, or at least the impetus of it, than any direct statement. This is the case when CC writes about Kerouac. "All I need do is read a few pages to regain sheer belief in the unstoppable endless volleying Everything Work." Yes that's what he's been up to; and why, for example, his work seems so distinct from the more deconstructive aspects of "language writing." This hasn't always seemed so — The Maintains read circa 1979-80 seemed pretty well tied in there. But his reference to it (Now It's Jazz p.34) as "a similar meditation on the dictionary" to a section of Desolation Angels ("The Maintains which I almost dedicated to this section") sets it in a different trajectory. Or perhaps — rather — it sets the "language" project itself, at least from CC's perspective, in a different frame.

"the consciousness in each one of these books is a different consciousness." I'd thought of saying some such thing about CC but here he's quoting John Clellon Holmes on Kerouac.

2 Oct

Phrase moving from text to text:
"Drifting American continental
repetition"           Baffling Means
"colloidal suspense or continental
American drifting repetition"       "The Aisling Minder," in Own Face
"Colloidal in American drifting repetition."    American Ones
The Own Face variant followed by a final line which possibly refers to Kerouac (with whom the poem also begins): "of road to clouds as spoke of dreams."

Geology does not repel CC as history does — in fact its dwarfing of the historical period is a delight to him — "We have seen human time in a broken stalactite, / its helictite adjacents still present, twisted." The key-word is "present": geology is all a sustained presence — history an absence, its remnants all the belongings of ghosts.

3 Oct

The opening section of A Geology reads as a treated text. Paragraphs as strata. Certain repeated words as stray deposits in any. drift "a loose unstratified deposit of sand, gravel, etc., esp. one transported and deposited by a glacier or ice sheet." "Drift, a homonym as seen to."

"Rock fabric, drawn on the edge of a bed as seen compressed in art, a diagram of no explanation." Geology as gist of his aesthetic.

More specifically drawn out in Smithsonian Depositions. "The dictionary seems a vastly supersaturated solution of languages, roots entangled along sunken axes. . . . Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. . . . This discomforting language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution; the certainties of didactic discourse are hurled into the erosion of the poetic principle. Poetry being forever lost must submit to its own vacuity; it is somehow a product of exhaustion rather than creation. Poetry is always a dying language but never a dead language. // As for Apatite, fraud is a matter of bones" (Greek apete, deceit) and so through the alphabet to "Zircon, a silicate of jargon" (German Zirkon, from French jargon, Italian giargone, via Arabic, from Persian zargun, golden). Which is a neat way of showing by supersaturation a relation between "jargon" in this sense and the unrelated "jargon" in the sense of "specialised language."

(Allowing that Smithsonian Depositions is a collage and collages are unusually devious in saying what they mean.)

4 Oct

"Thinking, a matter of filters, to accommodate the mess." CC likes to revert to Beckett's remark. He and Beckett, though, are writers of such opposite tendencies — Beckett always to contraction, CC to expansion — Beckett ever narrowing the focus & object of perception, CC ever broadening the field of particulars. Could Beckett have entertained the idea of the Everything Work? Yes of course — but the everything would be contained in the almost nothing.

(CC shows little interest in Joyce, although Ulysses & Finnegans Wake are obvious contenders for Everything Works. More in Melville, yes, another contender — ) (No pull in CC towards the polyglottal — unlike Kerouac — ) (because

CC needs for his best effects an extensive but generally simple non-specialist and so manipulable vocabulary, to squeeze his particular meanings out in a kind of shuffle and skip — e.g. in the first of the Odes of Roba

            the name to go you
away from in clasp and heat praise and the colder
you go the primer bold of edges old ones shifted

5 Oct

"I hear it seen" but apart from a few poems, particularly the final Roba sequence, there seems far less of Rome in Odes of Roba than of Egypt in At Egypt — as if CC has brought his own word-world with him and Rome inexorably lies on the outside of that — as if the poems are sealed chambers — consciously — "the meaning seems / all of a penetrant masking only" — but "a penetrant masking" needs thinking about.

6 Oct

All I am is a poet
reduced from totality sauce
to everything loose again
and the trees number my nails
in abatement, hungry
lingering statement
             ("Song Then Bolts," Odes of Roba p.123)

A sense of own failure here, a confessed tiredness unusual in CC — the Everything Work fragmented by diversity of particulars? There is a similar feeling in the previous poem, "Cats Mounted on Cots," beginning "Stevens, his stuff so even, makes mine seem like / slipwash." I can't follow it all but there seems a general (generous?) allowance of the upper hand to Stevens:

But even Borromini didn't tackle all the angles,
so Stevens in his blue glaze heightens all arcades
of the school whole. Seen is seeing after the last
of nights, so is not. Angles are only variation
on the matters of some less reasonable tone.
But still they craze.

CC has none of Stevens' pull towards philosophical abstraction but it's inevitable that Stevens' dichotomies of seeing and knowing will seem to him an attractive bugbear. "But seeing things was not believing anything."

8 Oct

Each book does do a different thing. Registers (People In All) seems a kind of music score — but not CC's beloved jazz — more like an extended minimalist piece for a small orchestra, a counterpoint of recurring phrases undergoing gradual shift. A recombinant tone poem. Is language fit for such composition? It's difficult to read when you only want to hear. Extension of time in music is so distinctly other than in writing.

Nothing quite seems to shake CC. His writing world is a calm. Except in particular at Egypt. An implicit morality without dilemmas. As the work progresses his instinct for the positioning and repositioning of words becomes ever more subtle and yet somehow conformable and comfortable. Perhaps he senses this himself and it lies behind his remark in the Preface to On the Nameways: "A glee here I hadn't felt since writing the first poems of my own (1965)." Which carries across. Glee in Registers? Maybe but harnessed.

"Hear the hard time turn under the American happenings"? We should but do we, does he?

The music analogy for Registers won't do — there is a play on story-telling, it is a novella in verse on a long rambling loop in which repeating events and recurrent objects implode into nonsense. A cartoon starring a duck, a bear, a donut, a red (not blue) monk & supporting cast of thousands. There's a glee in that. It looks like America to me, "riddling script of the bulk senses," a surrealism of all surface.

10 Oct

"The past tense has all but disappeared.
Hello, floating objects."

"There are no faces to be seen since all
that is human here is you."

"the thought to start to stay to say beyond the thought"

"lists where they covered their walls with everything
fluid hugewall where the fighting guys were drowning guys"

"the psychology of form is to box it" — but to break the box — and make a different one — break that — make another — and — and —

"you could almost say . . .
that language overhangs
a garage for precision images"

"And I hear
      what's missing there
             music is core of the missing
                    the code of fly time"

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