April 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

From a Notebook

Saturday, March 13, Hoa tells me 9 am or so that her contractions have begun. She sends me off with our son for things at the store. We run our errands. Visit a friend. Then, back home, the intensity of labor begins. Our midwife arrives. Sets up her things. She realizes upon close exam Hoa's close to 9 cm dilated. At 3:52 Waylon Hart enters for air and light in this imperfect realm. He's a gentle, alert babe. We called him a bruiser because he looked as if he'd been through a few rounds. Now his skin softens and the birth wrinkles smooth out. He and Hoa are nursing in another room.

Keeping it together here, the house, our son, our wonderful friends coming by. I've been thinking, OK, what do I write this month for Bookslut? Look at my notes: Poetic Image, Occult, Creative Imagination. What the fuck? Close the machine. Read between the chaos of a toddler and a newborn and an exhausted wife.

Kerouac's long been a favorite writer. I think of him as one of the great poets of the last century. The other day I opened his Pomes All Sizes, a lovely, late selection of work with intro by Allen Ginsberg. It shows the sweetness and radiance of Kerouac's elegant, unrestrained release of language through his body of feeling. He sometimes gets blown off for a lack of discipline, or some such shit. The academy hardly deals with him at all while the culture industry hoists his image as a youth culture icon. What's often missed is his poetry, the pure art of his attention in prose. He absorbed in truth a precision that makes "first thought, best thought" an accurate and necessary term for his writing. The internalization of experience made his mind into an organ for Art. He made significant revisions, of course, to the work. But the impulse to open energy on the page was remarkable, forming the great work of his short career. Writing in notebooks or pounding on his Underwood typewriter to exhaustion, Kerouac pushed the limits of himself against the limits of language, memory and experience, racing against himself to project out images of a world he lived and imagined.

The poems in Pomes All Sizes radiate great heat and depth, a religious ferocity. Like in his better known prose novels, Kerouac follows the images of experience closely in his verse, bringing language up from great psychic depths to form his vernacular relations. He's a religious writer of a unique kind. Like Henry Adams, who in the 19th century wrote with religious intensity of secular experience, Kerouac reveals his own on-going education in the school of Every Day. Here are some excepted stanzas from "Enlightenments."

Alright, I'm sick of this
enlightenment-now I'm
dumb again-the
delicate blue morning
sky thru the tree.


Don't worry about food,
Little John, there's some
e v e r y w h e r e


Allen says "When people get
religious they start feeding
e v e r y b o d y"

... ... ...

Enlightenment is: do what
you want
eat what there is


It's common in film studies to consider the image as a complex design whereby narrative makes its vivid relations. The image is equally important to poetry and other written art. My sense is that film and poetry have more in common than not. Both explore the world through systems of complex image relations. Cinema's materiality, its absorption of "scenery" within a single frame, shares the quantitative push of poetry. Our relation to the world is extended by the image. Hot tea, the sound of a distant boombox-the rhythms and displaced moments of our lives compose brief intersections for attention. The quality of attention varies, sometimes in sharp focus, often in a loose give-and-take. Sometimes, simultaneously, we give ourselves through variant volumes of attention to the environments of the day. This is the beginning not only of poetic activity, but occult transformation of the objects of our lives. In the 21st century, the occult is not some hokey practice, half-formed by the demented images of medieval witch-hunts and inquisition. It's a fusion instead of divers readings of the imagery that translates the world to us.

Bay Area filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky's new book, Devotional Cinema, makes a striking meditation on the expression of religious impulse through the materiality of film.

"On a visceral level," he writes, "the intermittent quality of film is close to the way we experience the world. We don't experience a solid continuum of existence. Sometimes we are here and sometimes not, suspended in some kind of rapid-fire illusion."

In trying to relate a vision of the world according to the material of film, Dorsky considers intermittence as a kind of limit, an infusion of the unknown into the known.

"Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core. It is as basic as life and death, existence and nonexistence. My own instinct is that the poles of existence and nonexistence alternate at an extremely fast speed, and that we float in that alternation. We don't experience the nonexistence, the moments between existence; there is no way to perceive these moments as such. But accepting their presence aerates life, and suffuses the 'solid' world with luminosity."


A new book by Rae Armantrout, Up To Speed, moves at a terrific pace, making instantaneous connections in compressed, Objectivist-like stanzas.

Letters throw lassos
far below
at pen tip:

Telltale thought-bubbles
in the sediment.


It's the way the eight legs
can neither line up nor
come abreast,

each entering the present
in its own good time,

that spooks us.

Her attention is cast wide but grounded in aphoristic stanzas that go far with few words. She observes the strange and awkward necessity of living in the present individually, without a State apparatus to support illusions of narrative structure. Memory and matter are significant for her poetics too. Throughout the book, an urgency persists in the close examinations of things and human relations to them. Media voices often penetrate her attentions, as if to acknowledge that intrusion of State authority into the intimate, removed self-an inescapable situation. Beneath this though, she looks at our language, the building blocks of our relational ability. Just as if you may say to a child, "it's time to fall asleep," and that child thinks literally he is falling, so too our assumptions of the world form in words. But unlike a child, our conditioning prevents us from the revulsion we would necessarily feel at the thought of falling. "What sort of place is / existence," writes Armantrout, "since we can 'come into' it?"

A point coincides;
it has no dimension.

Some say
matter's really energy

and energy is force
of law

and law is just


We were taught

to have faces
by a face

looking "back"


Betsy Andrews' She-Devil pursues a less philosophical interrogation of her creative and physical environments. Opulent, rich and indulgent imagery gives her writing a luxurious density as well as room to engage an edgy sexuality. Here is "Letter from Exile, Washington DC":

In the tremendous city it is spring
sky parts its many holes fingers run amok
corner pay phone pleading it's for you child pick it up
language moves moving objects you laugh and
this is speech before syntax this is hap-
today the arc of dirty birds will take your head on air
footfalls cease all else pivots you
are beautiful Soho's 1,000 glass eyes blinking up your legs
where I am zoning bends the knee everyone sits down
helicopter pops the morning open we sit up as
on june nights the lawns are striped in light
curfew on the riot in this word that we call camp
I think of you growing there lushed amongst the buildings
while here the trees are skinny when they sway I apologize

This propulsive energy and persistent effort through memory and "speech before syntax" reaches toward self-origin, or self as a dynamic form of creative play. Here we witness a retrieval of individual experience cast in a language of one's own. She follows each image closely, one opening into another, building lyric narratives of divergent forms. This is a remarkable selection of poems. There are no pretensions, no philosophizing degradations or mental know-it-all distortions. It's mind and image, sound and form colliding in these luminous portals.

Pomes All Sizes by Jack Kerouac
City Lights
175 pp.

Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky
52 pp.

Up to Speed by Rae Armantrout
66 pp.

Sardines Press
27 pp.