JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
(Vigilance, n.p., )
So CITY was mourning and they missed it,
mourning but not really answering.
A toy, a doll’s eyes, for I have
a head now, too, where all manner –
instead they lived upon have until now.
Not a dozen mourn on the road to Carna.
7/2d, 1882, “Down in the woods”:
If I do I at all I must delay no longer.
Neither halter –
Like town like
– cutting order
– precipit ells
Best white boxes /
Plain of fabric.
2 in even im-
Bushel mechanism –
else than mechanical drift,
if to increase the between
(touch & thing);
this means drafts, chances.
Minnows in the house.
Bright doll annealing
– CITY – CTIY – ICTY – YCTI –
If ‘A line just distinguishes it,’ duration puts it over – first locally – then gathers piles in pans and barrows, quits altogether. For reason of too long absent, to whom relation’s a place of universal thralldom . . . So called because only in decomposition is her thought commensurable to a law of form. The world of objects matters urges. Bother. – WORM as function, maybe, but minus proximity (which was recent) so finally clear of its uncertain residue. Remains here, herself, by cultivation methods of citing leaving. And so for her leaving family, city.
Above, two blank lines between blocks of text indicate page breaks. I don’t know if CITY is one poem or four, or whether these are stanzas or sections. I have decided to treat CITY as one poem; I don’t think it’s particularly revelatory to know whether what’s on each page is a stanza or a section; they are linked enough as-is.
This, not intentionally contra Andrew Rippeon’s “C.J. Martin: Poetics of the Pile”, in http://www.oncontemporaries.org/1/rippeon%20ON%20martin.pdf ON: Contemporary Practice 1, where these are treated as four separate poems. I didn’t (re)read this til after I made my decision (in fact, I haven’t read this for a couple of years). Rippeon may be right (maybe Martin told him these were separate poems). Rippeon does go on to write some very important things, which are very helpful in figuring out how to read CITY. I will use them as aides to a reading, which is rather different than his:
One thing is one thing. One hundred things are one hundred things. One thing plus one thing is two things. One thing plus one hundred things is one hundred one things. One thing is not a pile. For any number n, if n things are not a pile, then the addition of just one more thing does not make them a pile. But in each case, then, we can never get to the pile, because each thing added leaves us just as much without a pile as before. Where then, when, then, do we arrive at the pile? Between number and too many to number (which must be a number, but must be a number we can’t know) is Martin’s poetics of the pile
“Bushel mechanism” is better, but let me call it a “soritical [soros: Gr. for ‘heap’] poetics.” This means drafts, chances. A soritical poetics brings both together, not in a poetics of process, transparent practice, or auto-commentary, but in a petition for the worth of the pile, an appeal to the power of the vague. The poems here come close to the state of a pile – we could find a source for the quotes, a context for the statements, a reference for the dates, but then where would the poems be?
The pile is a special set of relations. It is, in fact, a relation by way of non-relation. If relation is predicated on one of the simplest and most fundamental properties of the thing (its number, i.e. that it is one thing, and not two, or three, etc.), then the pile is first and foremost an effacement of that property. A pile asks that the things that make it up forego their property of number. If they retain their property of number, however, then the pile is not a pile – it is a collection of n things, where n is a number that we know.
Thinking the pile tends to think toward the pile: One thing is not a pile. If we add one thing to that one thing, the thinking goes, the two things that result are not a pile. The same with an additional thing, added to those two things, and so on, ad infinitum. As logic has it, then, we can never arrive at the pile. So what to call these papers, these books here on my desk? Logic would have that my experience of them as “pile” is wrong – they are something else, then, obscured by the easy (or lazy) conceptual category of pile. If I took the time, I could say exactly what they were, without recourse to “pile.”
But a soritical regard for the papers on my desk would allow my experience of “pile” to stand, and it would take issue with the idea that numbering the papers (destroying the pile, destroying the experience of pile) is the correct way to know them.
This is to think the pile from the perspective of the pile, not from the perspective of the thing, and this, in turn, is to respect both pile and thing. Starting from the pile, the logic is undone: one thing taken from the pile does not erase the pile. Nor does it make two piles (one a pile of one-thing, the other a pile-minus-one). The pile remains, unchanged, when the thing is removed, and the thing then comes into relief in the senses of the viewer, standing sharply as the sign of what it was formerly a part: the grain of sand, taken from a pile of sand, owes its discrete appearance to the pile behind it.
A soritical practice, then, doesn’t try to build a world by adding thing to thing, but instead to preserve it, though the practice may appear to be of fragments, stutters, incompletions, starts and stops, drafts, chances. The practice is to select, present the grains, one by one. Not in the effort to make a pile, but to preserve what remains unpresented as pile. Like Wittgenstein will say of the Tractatus, this writing is composed of two parts, one being all of that which it says, and the other being all that has been left out …
What’s important here, I think, is that Rippeon helps us think at least a (if not the only) relation between line and whole, between datum, so to speak, and the data set which it helps to compose. He also helps us consider the nature of how a city, as well as a poem, might be thought.
Where I take exception to, tho “exception” is putting it way too strongly, where I quibble with Rippeon’s analysis of Martin’s methodology, and of his reading of CITY in particular, however, is in relation to his decision to privilege the soritical to the extent that he does. When he writes
So what to call these papers, these books here on my desk? Logic would have that my experience of them as “pile” is wrong – they are something else, then, obscured by the easy (or lazy) conceptual category of pile. If I took the time, I could say exactly what they were, without recourse to “pile.”
But a soritical regard for the papers on my desk would allow my experience of “pile” to stand, and it would take issue with the idea that numbering the papers (destroying the pile, destroying the experience of pile) is the correct way to know them
I can’t help but think it’s a both / and, not an either / or. Neither the soritical nor the “idea that numbering the papers” – and other way of “saying exactly what they were” are correct; both are. Which Rippeon does “half-get” later, when he writes:
A soritical practice, then, doesn’t try to build a world by adding thing to thing, but instead to preserve it, though the practice may appear to be of fragments, stutters, incompletions, starts and stops, drafts, chances. The practice is to select, present the grains, one by one.
The key here is that I think read “world” differently that Rippeon does. I mean, I read more into it than he does. A pile is not random. CITY is not random. These “fragments” have been “shored against a ruin”, to almost quote Pound.
Hurricane Katrina took out New Orleans and a number of other cities and towns in August 2005. I don’t claim that I can read every bit of this poem as Katrina-centric, but I do claim that I find it very difficult to read it without thinking of urban destruction on a massive scale. If I’m correct, that CITY is a meditation upon the destruction of urban dwelling places, then Rippeon’s description of Martin’s method is truly perceptive, and if he’s right, then Martin’s method is a wonderful way to try to come to grips with how we might think such an event (or historical series of them):
A soritical practice, then, doesn’t try to build a world by adding thing to thing, but instead to preserve it, though the practice may appear to be of fragments, stutters, incompletions, starts and stops, drafts, chances.
If I’m right, the world Martin wants to preserve is not just the world of the pile; it’s the world of the former city or cities for which the pile is a stand-in.
OK. Now I’d better make my case. Though I want to emphasize that the case I want to make is that my reading is more-or-less legit, not that I have some sort of “summoner” access to Martin’s intent.
“So CITY was mourning and they missed it, / mourning but not really answering.” Oftentimes “city” is synechdochic for the inhabitants of a city, e.g. last year St. Louis was ecstatic when the Cards won the World Series. In whch case, I can read this sentence as meaning something like the inhqbitants of the city were mourning, but their grief was inadequate, because what had just happened was beyond comprehension.
“A toy, a doll’s eyes, for I have / a head now, too, where all manner –” might then be even more synechdochic than the lines above – a zoom shot, as it were.
What about the highly compressed “instead they lived upon have until now.” Well, when a city is destroyed, there is no future. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about next week’s food supplies, next week’s plans, etc.: forget about them (“Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!”) If there’s food in the cupboard, you eat it. If there’s food in the stores, you take it.
“Not a dozen mourn on the road to Carna.” There are a number of Carnas. I don’t know the history of any of them. Google knows nothing relevant. But the suggestion is that there are very few survivors on this road, and that they have suffered a terrible loss.
“7/2d, 1882, “Down in the woods”:” This is another mystery. Nor do I know whether the next line, “If I do it at all I must delay no longer”, relates to this or is simply another item in the pile.
You see, I feel no need to order ALL the fragments. I doubt all can be ordered. I am sure that’s the case when sifting through any wreckage. Have you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz? Much is made in the 26th century of a 20th-century shopping list …
I will say nothing of the second poem/section; this is getting long enough. In the third, I want to note two lines: “minnows in the house”, which certainly brought to mind a drowned city – and “Bright doll annealing”, which reminds me of the earlier doll, though “annealing”, which means “heat treatment that alters the microstructure of a material causing changes in properties” brings to mind, say, Hiroshima, or Falluja, say, rather than New Orleans. But I don’t have a problem with that. I take it that here we are meditating on a pile of fragments from some sort of ur-destruction.
The fourth poem/section begins “– CITY – CTIY – ICTY – YCTI –”, which I read as time’s and memory’s distortion of what ever the lost city one was.
“If ‘A line just distinguishes it,’ duration puts it over – first locally – then gathers piles in pans and barrows, quits altogether.” I admit to not being able to parse all of this, though it seems to have to do with the birth of a city (“‘A line just distinguishes it’”), its coming to be a felt place (“duration puts it over – first locally”), and its death (“then gathers piles in pans and barrows, quits altogether.”) We escape with what we can.
“For reason of too long absent, to whom relation’s a place of universal thralldom . . . So called because only in decomposition is her thought commensurable to a law of form.” The important question for me in this is “who is the ‘her’?” Where did she come from? Is she CITY “herself”; is she a survivor? The rest is reasonably self-evident, I think.
“The world of objects matters urges. Bother. –” is curious on several grounds. Yes, the world of objects matters. Whether we are thinking New Orleans, or Hiroshima, we must think levees, enola Gays, bombs, etc. every city is destroyed by some set of objects. But what of “urges”? And “Bother”? Are we talking instead about all we have lost, and the concomitant affect? This changes the sentence entirely. And makes it much more ambiguous, I think.
“WORM as function, maybe, but minus proximity (which was recent) so finally clear of its uncertain residue.” WORM is the other all-caps word in the text. Are we talking about the worm of time that eats everything, even what seems most solid to us of all we have made, our urban surrounds? I’m not clear on this.
The poem ends with “Remains here, herself, by cultivation methods of citing leaving. And so for her leaving family, city.” Here, “her” seems to be a person, who remains by citing leaving. And perhaps by citing does “in fact” (whatever “in fact” means) leave.
Now I want to emphasize something. I will NOT insist that this poem has just been read “correctly”. But what I will insist on is my disagreement with Rippeon, whom I may have misunderstood (so let’s say my “perceived disagreement”). I don’t think there’s anything random about this pile. I suggest that Rippeon is right when he suggest that it preserves a world. But I believe that it’s – also – a world beyond itself. This poem is not “just” an object.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
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.