Student work – Scrap elegy

The exercise, upon reading Anne Carson’s Nox:

Build an elegy out of scraps, fragments, parts. At least some of its text should be found text.


Nox a text I admit to some mixed feelings re. Gorgeous seductive reproductions of crinkled scraps. You can see the shadow where the slip lifts off the ground it rests on. The tears and stains are palpable. The thing ages afore your eyes. A sepia principle squared and resquared perhaps. Apotheosis of mimesis.

Nox - CI

First day discussing it, a tenth or thirteenth point threeth muse came down upon me, and I held the faltering accordion o’er my head, and cried out, “is document porn, people, document porn.”

I meant, it promises all the satisfactions of actual cotton fibre, passionate tears, coffee stains or such under your fingertips, but it’s mere dissembly. A 2D picture plane w/ a pretence to texture.

Yeah, I know, book’s an elegy, and first and last elegy for itself, and eros is longing for what’s gone missing, yadda. Porn knows it’s porn’s still porn.

Not, in the words of a comedian or three, that there’s anything wrong with that. But there are other options.


My students, bless’em, haven’t the production budget of a New Direction behind them, but their work on this exercise’s been wonderful. All sorts of elegy, acknowledgement of lack and loss and longing, and done without making their scraps into fetishes. (Admire Carson lots. Lots structural in Nox I love. But not its slick mimesis which makes me sort of sick.)

Herewith a gallery of their deft encounters.


One interrogates the torn edge without making a fetish of the tear.

Ex 6 no 1


One abrades the boundary between beauty and ugly in a way only plastics and the postmodern can.

Ex 6 no 2


One applies a mathematic of the shell to arrange swatches cut it might be from a Louis Quatorze drawing room.

Ex 6 no 3


Click on this one to get some sense how it shone. Also it had a warm shaggy waft of tobacco which made me want to smoke which I’ve never (almost). It was, that is to say, multi-modal. Okay now I’m doing the nostalgia I got on Carson’s case for. O mimesis. O Plato.

Ex 6 no 4


Been on this student’s case to get his thinking into his fingertips. He broke through and big.

Ex 6 no 5


And this one, my goodness, click on it too, the layers! the textures! the heart! (all of them, the heart)

Ex 6 no 6

One more for Elise

I thought I would post here, with her husband Steve’s most kind permission, the remarks I made at the memorial this weekend for Elise Partridge. It was a beautiful occasion, the afternoon. Our seats arranged such that our seeing went out the frames of the windows and frames of wood and frames of stone and frames of shore pine and out over ocean into the frameless mountains. (I have it in mind because two days later Stephen Burt spoke in that same space, differently em-placed, on the poetry and poetics of place.) One might almost feel one was a spirit passing through bodily frames, one, another. The words I said were about these.


In the weeks around Elise’s death I’ve been talking with some of my students about animism. The thought — to be a bit simple about it — that the world is alive. Every part of it and the whole of it. Which I think might mean, if it’s true, that when you go, you’re not really gone, you’re just differently here.

I start with that because I haven’t been able to get my head around it very well. Elise — here. Elise — gone. It’s the most elemental thing. We get to live so we’ve got to die. And, as Elise leaves the tangible world, I am finding it makes almost no sense to me at all. I keep looking for ways to find her not gone but instead differently here. And so maybe all I’ve got for you is four and a half more minutes of magical thinking.

It’s a sort of thinking Whitman was fond of. And Steve’s asked me to read a late poem of his. And so I guess through him Elise is asking me to read a late poem of his. It’s called “The Last Invocation” and it goes like this.

1.

At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful, fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks — from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

2.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks — with a whisper,
Set ope the doors, O Soul!

3.

Tenderly! be not impatient!
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!
Strong is your hold, O love.)

Whitman, who said we could find him underfoot. I don’t think of Elise as under our boot soles — I think she’d find the notion undignified — so much as behind our eyes. Entering our vision to sharpen it with us. Forgive me for going back to my class but they’re on my mind because they had to bear with a teacher thrown off his game for a while by grief. I might put it to my class this way. If the proposition of animism is, oh, when you go, you’re not really gone, the problem for us moderns is, yeah, we’re here, but we’re not really here.

That’s a problem Elise concerned herself with. In her work, in her life. Maybe the problem though I don’t want to presume. What, every one of her poems asks, stands in the way of seeing more clearly, hearing more kindly, touching more tenderly, feeling more feelingly. And go — the poems say, to whatever that what is — go stand somewhere else, there’s a life to be lived, fully, lived well, lived lovingly. The first lines of the first poem of her first book —

Nothing fled when we walked up to it,
nor did we flinch.

What a note to start a life in poetry on. “Everglades” is the poem. It has a vision of that swamp as a wild and wildering democracy —

Tropical, temperate, each constituency spoke —
the sunburned-looking gumbo-limbo trees
nodded side by side with sedate, northern pines.

“Gumbo-limbo trees”! What better evidence of a life well lived? (The phrase, I mean.) The line following —

Even the darkness gave its blessing

A darkness from which I’d like to think Elise blesses or raises an eyebrow at us.

I wanted to touch on her e-mails, how they quivered with joy on one’s behalf, and with outrage at banality, idiocy, herd mind, also how they made the exclamation point safe for human perception again — there may have been seventeen of them but you knew each was uniquely meant — but I’m about out of time.

Just this — a postcard from years back, after Steve and Elise had looked after my house and cat on Salt Spring, one of many times. I still have it on my fridge. It’s a photograph of Robert Creeley taken by Allen Ginsberg at a diner in Boulder, CO.

Postcard - front (cropped)

Ginsberg’s inscription: “I wanted to focus on a sharp clear eye — Robert Creeley’s friendship.” Elise’s inscription on the back begins: “Hello Chris! I admire your poetry! —Robert Creeley.”

Postcard - back (cropped)

Elise and I had gone down different paths aesthetically, and at this point in our friendship, she was feeling really kind of pretty unsure what the hell I was up to. And yet she found a way to express, with grace and class and decency, and without dishonouring her own instincts, encouragement and faith in me.

That’s love. That’s the love of a friend for another. It’s a rare thing and it doesn’t die. I don’t think it does, I really don’t.

Dougal Fraser, 1944 – 2014

Tomorrow is the memorial for a favourite teacher, Dougal Fraser, up in Vancouver, and I’m not going to make it, having been laid low with bronchitis and a slipped disk (yes one can cough that hard), so I’ll post here the remarks I’d thought to make there.


Mostly I want to say that Dougal helped instil in me a love of poetry that will last me my life long. And that’s a comfort I thank him for. And so I thought I’d read a few bits of poetry that came to mind when the invitation came to speak today.

One speaks to my sense of something dark or even tragic in his seeing. Because it’s hard being a person, it just is, and he knew it, and he wanted us to enter the world not ignorant of the fact.

This is from the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” The speaker is saying why he prefers a life of restless wandering at sea to one of easy complacency on land. And today I hear in his words a case for a life of restless wandering in mind.

The Old English poem, the bit I have in mind, looks like this

Seafarer

and sounds

a little like this

and translated goes a bit like this

Always, for each, one of three things
near the end has thrown all in doubt:
illness, old age, or rage of the sword
wrests life from all who must, fated
to die, go forth. The best word-trace
a man may leave is the praise of those
who live to speak afterward: how he
brought to pass, before he went on,
good works on earth against evil,
daring acts to confound the devil,
the children of men praise him after,
that praise resounds forever and ever
among angels, the glory of eternal life,
joy in the host of heaven. Those days
of majesty on earth have passed now
though, there are no kings or caesars
or goldgivers like there once were,
performing the most glorious deeds
and living in lordly renown. Fallen
that company and past those joys.


Dougal was also, as all who knew him know, a reservoir of joy, and irreverent unto high iconoclasm, by which I mean a great clown, a clown of greatness. So Shakespeare’s Falstaff comes too to mind — the one whose wit’s so sharp it might skewer not just kings but kingship. Here he is on the verge of undoing the whole code of manhood and warmongering.

How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that ‘honour’? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But it will not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

Scutcheon: decorative heraldic panel. That his agenda’s mostly selfish just sweetens the dish.


I didn’t come to either of these works in my studies with Dougal — only later. As a last taste, one bit from something we did read together in Brit Lit 12, whose magnificent rhythms made it through my thick intemperate skin somehow. This from 1 Corinthians 13:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Dougal, I don’t know who you are seeing face to face right now — maybe a heavenly host, maybe a diet of worms — but I hope you are having a good laugh together. You were brilliant and fickle and kind and mean in the best imaginable way and one of the most fully human beings it has been my good fortune to know.

Paperwhites, for Elise

An exercise I give my poetry students: “Write a flower. Don’t write about a flower. Just write a flower.” Heh heh. Evil sumbitch I am. But I think I might have done that this morning. I had vaguely in mind to cut some paperwhites (narcissus) I had growing indoors from bulbs when they first began to falter and bring them to the photocopier and see what they had by way of elegy in them.

So I did. This one’s I think the best to stand alone. If I keep thinking so it’ll end Dumuzi under a title something like “Paperwhites, for Elise.” Click on it once, twice for a blowup.

Image 16 - 8

Elise was always a bit scandalized (and skeptical and intrigued and mortified and drawn) by my drift in this direction (“Chris, you’re not going to abandon MUSIC, are you?!?!?”) and I offer her this elegy in the cheerful teasing spirit in which our overlapping divergent aesthetics met. I’ve rarely loved disagreeing, being disagreed with, so much.

(Really. That many ?s and !s and more. Of how many people can you truly expect to say that you’ll miss their e-mails acutely?)

Of the two dozen or so scans I made, quick quick, little thinking, the latter half come together as a kind of sequence I think, also elegy. And something about ones and twos and threes, and how when you’re close to yourself there are more and fewer than one there, just as when you’re close to a friend there are more and fewer than two there.

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