A Compost Commonplace (I)

At work on a new project, turning this blog into a book, A Compost Commonplace, wrote about it here, and after the first flush of excitement, am up against a prob. One I hope won’t turn me against the whole damn thing.

The blog was made in spontaneity. That was and is the pleasure of it – for me anyway – careful crafting for the words, most def, but writing what came to mind, when and as it did, not so much deliberacy. And then moving on, going, à la O’Hara, on yr nerve.

I thought I saw lots in common between the blog and the serial poem, moving ever forward, trusting your accidents as divine inspiration (or whatever enters the god hole after the whoosh sound is done) – and, too, between the blog and the commonplace book, those old school assemblages of finds, best loosely gathered, so the mind of the one you love and hand it to can step in to complete the act.

I wanted something else too, though, something that’d warrant durable fastening to the page. What struck me was the medieval folio, whose deployments of attention are so marvelously lateral – weirdly like our online pages, drawing the eye left, right, up, down, through this window, that door. As if the printed page we’re used to, dictating a steady advance from upper-left to lower-right, is a quincentennial interregnum not so hard to bound over. So, a technique: use the designs of old pages as shells for my new pages.

Do you wonder why, in Trump’s America, late 2018, I resonate to any reminder of the mind’s freedom? I haven’t written about it much here recently, but the news. Oh, to take just one example, three authoritarian governments are jockeying in the media for control of the narrative, and geopolitical advantage thereby, that frames the state-sponsored murder of a dissident journalist. It, and all the rest, has me so alert to incipient fascism, for I’m not sure that’s not where we are, see this editorial (NYT) on the matter, I see it even in the frame of mind page a proposes to its reader.

Here’s what, back on topic, not to do. I know, cuz I did it. The shell I took from the Lindisfarne Gospels:

Lindisfarne – Matthew incipit
“Book of Matthew,” incipit page. The Lindisfarne Gospels, folio 27r.

 

Under the spell of its colours and lines, I did this:

Commonplace – Now I amI went and mistook a shiny surface for – what. I dunno. But this is sad abject mimicry. There’s one in my current draft even worse I’m not gonna show.

In the spirit of trusting yr dismay (see here) I can tell you, I’m grateful for the sourness this page stirred in me. B/c it directed me towards a conundrum of this project.

Namely. The ethic here is projective, spontaneity, an increase in freedom. The blog says so. The serial poem it rhymes with says so. The commonplace book they both recall me to says so. But the formal idea I chose as harness – is a complex, chastening harness. The medieval illuminated page – really? To model after it asks a precise controlled & essentially worried attention & calls forth a part of myself I’d like to have thrown off.

All the delighted fascination I’ve felt, finicking margins, colours, guidelines, has come under suspicion. The pleasure it of it’s close to the pleasure of control.

It is, in Blake’s terms, Energy up against Reason. Mother of all traffic stops.

If I don’t find a way to marry ’em, the whole thing’s toast, and a waste.

Whitman, “This Compost”

Source o’ the source o’ this blog.

Biblioklept

“This Compost”

by

Walt Whitman

1

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it…

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Teaching note

So it’s give or take, who keeps track, the anniversary of this blog, in which honour, here’s from the syllabus to The Art of Compost, the second coming of it.


SOME LIKEMINDED FOLK

Compost is a way of thinking about life and death and art and thought and act. Not a better way but a really quite interesting way. Also, there’s no such thing as compost theory, but if there were, here might be some thoughts of it.

Now I am terrified at the earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.
          – Walt Whitman, “This Compost”

Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series.
          – Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”

write carelessly so that nothing that is not green will survive
          – William Carlos Williams, Paterson

Life is natural
          in the evolution
                    of matter

Nothing supra-rock
          about it
                    simply

butterflies
          are quicker
                    than rock
          – Lorine Niedecker, “Wintergreen Ridge”

It is only the midden heap, Beauty: shards,
                    scraps of leftover food, rottings,
                    the Dump
where we read history, larvae of all dead things,
                    mixd seeds, waste, off-castings, despised
                    treasure, vegetable putrefactions
          – Robert Duncan, “Nor is the Past Pure”

[You] can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself.
          – Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

After a long time of light, there began to be eyes, and light began looking with itself.
          – Ronald Johnson, Ark

Poetry is biodegradable thought.
          – Jed Rasula, This Compost

Hey try this out. Where you see “poem” or “poetry,” read “writing.” Does the thought hold?


Sorry for the gap between the posts folks. Rough couple of days in headache land. I have trouble turning off. End of the quarter, all ramped up, grading frenzy, plus madness with the student journal I advise, plus getting prepped for summer compost, and having got it all done, instead of relaxing into a week of sunfull ease – whump.

There I am in line at the Home Depot to pick up my new composter and the sparklies start, migraine’s coming, oh no. (Head, meet composter, headComposter, ha, ha.) Mostly through it now so I can get this bit posted but damn, the body, damn.

Some sympathy let’s for those medievals who reviled it and apotheosized the spirit. Yeah they leave us with a cruddy debit. But just think, boils, cramps, agues, rotten tooth roots, and what did they have to heal yehs? Leaves and leeches.

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.