Thursday, May 10, 2012


28 Books in 29 Days – Or So. (And After)

By John Bloomberg-Rissman



to GalateaTEN

Dear All,
Wow.  THANK YOU All!  This issue has 108 new poetry reviews!  I thought I was kidding when I blathered out into the internet that I'd like a hundred reviews for the next issue, but you all came through -- how wonderful of you all!

Anyway, the issue is now up at Feel free to send me typos.  Here's also the announcement below with Table of Contents.

Very Best to you all!

John Bloomberg-Rissman

We live to serve, Eileen!!

What's the goal for the next issue. 200???



to j&k

200?   Naaaah.  Higher number but concept already done.  What I really want to do is put out a feature where one reviewer reviews A TON of books, like a minimum 50 or maybe 25...?  Because, as an experienced maximalist, I know that something happens over a prolonged period of time and if a reviewer put in reviewing in a compacted time period for a lot of things, something will happen whether it's the way the reviewing is done or what.....but i don't know if folks have time to do such a thing....but that's my next big idea (though still trying to figure out if I'll put it out there...)



John bloomberg-rissman

Hi, Eileen--

If you're serious ...


How do desires achieve speech? How do desire make speech fail, and why do they themselves fail to speak?

            -Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (tr. Denis Savage)

From the discussion of the Greek genius to mesmerism; from Giotto’s painting of inter-facial space to Magritte’s tree of infinite recognition; from Odysseus and the Siren’s Song to the idea that, “as soon as breath exists, there are two breathing,” “the limits of my capacity for transference are the limits of my world.”

-JBR, In the House of the Hangman 806 (out of: fragilekeys, and Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles, as quoted in fragilekeys, “An introduction to a medial poetics of existence”, at fragilekeys, 6 Jan 011)

THE ADVENTURE ITSELF (I don’t claim to be the least bit original in my discoveries …)

So: Eileen sent me 28 books, some of which I’d chosen, some of which she’d chosen. I wanted to read things I hadn’t read before.

I very quickly realized I couldn’t read (and then write on) a book a day. Some people are fast readers. Not me. Not of poetry. Not of anything in which paying close attention seems a requirement. Which, for me, is everything worth reading. I read slowly and can only read a little at a time.

I seem to be susceptible to language’s affects.

So I asked Eileen if I could read 28 poems instead of 28 books. One poem from each book she’d sent. She agreed.

This was the rule. Pick a book and a poem from that book in the morning. Read that poem. Think. Write. Finish the same day.

At first it was easy. You probably know the zen saying, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The mountains (poems) seemed really solid to me. But I quickly realized I wasn’t really giving myself over to the poems; I was staying safely ensconced in my “safely me.”

I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get out of my safety zone and into the space where the poems and I would actually meet.

So, rather quickly, I began to experience what my friend John Armstrong (Bebrowed’s Blog) describes as Readerly Anxiety. John and I started discussing RA via Prynne’s recent Kazoo Dreamboats (which I think is a truly great poem, by the way). When reading Prynne, it is often hard to know if one is “on the right track”, so to speak. Whether one is actually reading, or, as he puts it,  “just staring bleakly at the text.”

I responded with

I think everyone is self-taught when it comes to contemporary poetry, really. There are no authority figures who can tell us what to do with Kazoo Dreamboats, at least none I believe know any more about the text in front of them than I do ... expect perhaps in the sense they've spent a lot more time with his texts than I have - as you've obviously done with Hill ... but that doesn't mean they can do my reading, have my experience for me. You write "part of me still thinks that 'Kazoo Dreamboats' is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I'm missing the 'point'." A friend of mine from Nottingham, Alan Baker, told me that Lee Harwood believes that Prynne is entirely a ... well, not a fraud, but just uh meaningless air or something. But I can't believe Harwood, either. I have no reason to "believe" anyone. All I have is who I am and what I know and the text in front of me.

You describe RA as "a number of intellectual variations around the status of what's in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words".   

I think that describes my own RA as well. 

So: there are two "sides" to it. Both are readerly, but one is social and the other is more phenomenological, so to speak. The social side has to do with what you call status. In spite of the "death of the author" I do think authorial intention comes into play (e.g. is this a feminist poem? is this satire?, is this a mashup?, is this to be read as fast as I can or as slowly as I can? etc etc. All of those are authorial or public or community determinations ... (for instance, it wasn't til  I heard Tom Raworth out loud that I understood how to read him (fast fast fast). The other side is what I'm clumsily calling phenomenological, tho I'm sure there's a much better word for it. And that's what am ***I*** doing when I read, that shifting nature thing. Am I looking up words in the dictionary? Am I trying to find a narrative line (narrative used loosely, to mean something like one words follows another and is tied to it, and the next word is tied to that chain, somehow, etc etc etc, i.e. that the words are syntactically/semantically connected somehow no matter how they first hit me)? What am I doing with the images? the line breaks? the music? 

The anxiety from the social side is easy to understand: am I reading a satire seriously? Am I missing something everyone else in the room so to speak is getting?

The other anxiety is worse, tho. Sometimes I wonder whether I'm reading at all, actually, or whether I've turned the poem into some sort of mirror, and am just projecting onto it (what if I'm finding a narrative thread? Am I constructing it out of nothing that's actually there? What if I'm not finding a narrative thread and there is one? ... the real question is: how do I know whether e.g. narrative is even relevant when I think about this thing in front of me?

This is all a way of saying that when you write, re Prynne, e.g., "I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would" there's a little voice w/in my saying, even if that brings me to a more satisfying experience, can I call that experience **reading*** - or must I call it something else?

Later in our conversation, it came to me: reading with RA is the only honorable way for me to read.

So I read these 28 poems in a RA state of mind. I tried to be faithful to my experience, to abstain from needing to feel definitive (Keats’ negative capability comes strongly into play here), and to just read, whatever I was doing.

Which taught me something. Reading is a trialectical act. The death of the author as authority, per Barthes, Foucault, etc is valid, but the author is not dead, just the authority. The work and the reader are in a dance, but since the author was dancing with the work as s/he was creating it, it’s a three-way dance. Everyone is included.

Anyhow, I got to number 28, and felt very unsatisfied. I felt as if I hadn’t mastered RA, so to speak. By mastered, I don’t mean gotten control of it, tamed it, cured it. I use the word cured intentionally, since RA is also the name of a disease (rheumatoid arthritis). I know enough chronically ill people to know that one has to learn how to live with the disease. One has to learn how to be a conscious graceful chronic. I was not yet graceful with my RA.

To return to that zen saying, I was in the “then there are no mountains” stage.

So I wrote Eileen and said, let’s go to fifty. She agreed, and chose and sent me the remaining 22 books.

By the time I finished the final reading I was comfortable not knowing how to definitively read. Which means that I had (have?) become graceful with my RA. The mountains were back, though this time they were not the same mountains. They are giant shadowy mysteries, encounters awaiting me.

How did this happen? What does this mean? Let’s step into the WABAC Machine (for those of you too young to remember the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the WABAC Machine was Mr Peabody’s invention that enabled him to travel with Sherman back in time to experience history first hand). And let’s set the date for 21 December 1817. The place: Hampstead. We are looking over the shoulder of one John Keats, as he pens a letter to his brothers:

Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime.  I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason …

By the time I had finished poem 28, I had begun to understand Negative Capability, and to read from that position much more deeply than ever before. But – and I hate to admit this, because it’s been too too true for too long a time – tho I had been “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” (there’s no other way to read, really, at least not the art of modernity) I never really understood how much I disagreed with the second part of Keats’ definition “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”    it just seemed WRONG to read without irritable reaching, it seemed shallow. After all, Keats continues by writing

Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated  verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium  of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.  This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

And he ends “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with

   When old age shall this generation waste, 
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe 
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all 
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Well, “Beauty” isn’t the end-all and be-all of art, at least not for me. I’ve read too much Blanchot, and Levinas, etc, for that to be the case. So, as I read the next 22 poems, I read in a state of RA, which could be defined as Negative Capability combined with irritation, reaching, suffering, shrieking, pounding my head against the wall, smiling, laughing, etc etc.

Living, really living with differance, maybe.

I guess you could say I learned to suffer gracefully. I learned that Reading (and I’m not ashamed to capitalize here) is always pleasure mixed with pain, confusion mixed with clarity, understanding and misunderstanding..

I feel that those last 22 poems taught me how to be at home in my gracelessness.

Now why isn’t beauty enough? Why do I feel that it’s important to be at home with graceless reading (RA)?

These days I am slowly making my way through a very wonderful books: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s a bit about it at the Harvard University Press Blog:

As we were preparing to publish Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization a memo from the book’s editor served for many of us as an introduction to this important new work. Revisiting that memo now, it’s a wonder that its movie-trailer quality had previously escaped our notice:

In a world where there are so many forces conspiring to shatter any person’s sense of having a self, the deconstruction that Spivak once championed is problem, not solution. The solution lies right where great theorists who dominated the field twenty years ago denied it lay, in teaching literature as a means of causing people to realize that they have souls.

It’s not often that we’re able to imagine our memos in voiceover, but that bit conjures a dark and dramatic film, the epic story of the last great hope for a global dystopia.

We shouldn’t make light, of course, for the world described in that memo is our own, and its depredations have inspired a radical reorientation in Gayatri Spivak’s thinking. This book, presenting essays from throughout her career in newly revised form, conveys Spivak’s renewed sense of the importance of teaching literature as “training for the ethical impulse.” As the excerpted memo above indicates, globalization now ensures that our lives are characterized by the uncertainty that Jacques Derrida, Spivak, her teacher Paul de Man, and other post-structuralists once upended the study of literature to help us see.

I think the editor is dead wrong when s/he writes “The solution lies right where great theorists who dominated the field twenty years ago denied it lay, in teaching literature as a means of causing people to realize that they have souls. This is a grave misreading of deconstruction, utterly incorrect. All Derrida, De Man etc did was to teach literature. But this is not surprising, because Harvard is at heart a conservative institution, and, well, De Man was a Yale guy.

But I don’t want to get sidetracked. What I want to do is to emphasize this it:

This book, presenting essays from throughout her career in newly revised form, conveys Spivak’s renewed sense of the importance of teaching literature as “training for the ethical impulse.” As the excerpted memo above indicates, globalization now ensures that our lives are characterized by the uncertainty that Jacques Derrida, Spivak, her teacher Paul de Man, and other post-structuralists once upended the study of literature to help us see.

The importance of “training for the ethical impulse” – the aesthetic education about which Spivak so eloquently speaks … I think that a big part of this education is learning to read in a state of RA. After all, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The world is very very big, and very very complex. And ultimately incomprehensible, maybe. I know that I, at least, have to live with all of it, and it’s more than I can understand. And yet I have to work towards an understanding. An unreachable goal. Remember, above, when I used the word honor. That’s what honor means to me.

I want to thank Eileen for helping me with my aesthetic education, which is as important, whether or not it’s our “last hope”, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests, and in just the ways she suggests. Maybe RA is the news Williams spoke of in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

It is difficult
to get the news from poems                 
yet men die miserably every day                                               
for lack
of what is found there.

I’ll end with quoting an email I wrote to John Armstrong, which which I would now quibble a little – it’s not the space between the arts that’s unjudgeable, it’s the arts themselves, in fact it’s more than the arts, it’s everything under and over the sun (which doesn’t mean we mustn’t judge, it just means that we must know our judgments as judgments as judgments, and not as “facts”):

I'm reading a book about Sherrie Levine right now and came across a bit I want to quote. But first a little background. Clement Greenberg and then Michael Fried attempted to define modernism as a "space" in which each art was true to ints own inner necessities; it was a failure of some kind when one art made use of a technique or an aspect of another art. Fried called this impurity "theatricality" and saw it as a real negative. (I'm simplifying to the point that I'm losing all the subtlety and interest of their arguments, so I'll quote Fried a little to be fairer: "the concepts of quality and value - and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself - are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre"  ...). In any case, a bit later Rosalind Krauss wrote a piece called "Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. The author of the book I'm reading (Howard Singerman) suggests, "Her 'expanded field' maps out and articulates that frighteningly unjudgeable space **between** the arts - and perhaps between art and criticism - that Fried dismissed as theater." 

When I read "that frighteningly unjudgeable space" I immediately thought of RA and began to wonder - maybe RA is the only truly appropriate response to art now. Maybe a Greenberg/Fried kind of purity that will enable us to categorize/assimilate/"get comfortable with" the kind of poetry we're discussing is over. Maybe that was modernism. Maybe we're somewhere else now. Maybe the problem with trying, e.g. to classify Kazoo Dreamboats is the attempt to read it as a modernist poem. Maybe it, and Ashbery, and Muldoon, and Hill, and Anne Boyer (nice post, by the way) etc etc etc are all working in "that frighteningly unjudgeable space" and we simply have to live with anxiety of not KNOWING - which is different than not reading, …

To put it all into one sentence: if I’m not anxious, if I’m not in negative capability, I’m not really reading … and if I’m not really reading (in the widest sense of the word) I’m not really living ethically or honorably.


John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.

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