SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
the Narrows: Introduction
"The best judge
of future is past."
About the turn of the year, I found myself in conversation with Matthias; we were discussing haunted places. Not the famous variety, but the localized anonymous: disused buildings, attics, cemeteries, isolated stretches of public park - places that would be considered dangerous by the parents in a given neighborhood because dilapidated or simply isolated and unsupervised, but that any child would know as places of genuine terror. I tell him about the house my family lived in until I was eleven. It had a large, "unfinished" basement about the size of a full tennis court with several additional rooms. One room served as a workshop, cluttered in the usual manner with common tools, woodworking equipment, jars of assorted nails and other random stuff; a decades-old pair of downhill skis, complete with leather boots and bamboo poles. A second room, reserved for general storage, held some pretty spooky large items draped with sheets, nevertheless too much like a setting from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein - I saw it on tv at about that time - to be taken very seriously. These were mildly disturbing places, musty and inhospitable but not frightening. At the other end of the basement, however - just past the laundry and the concrete sink - was the really bad place. It was an old canning cellar, one step up from the rest of the basement and outfitted with several rows of narrow scrap-wood shelves. The shelves were empty, of course: this was the semi-urban Midwest of the 1970s, and canned food was purchased at the supermarket, making its way like small quantities of pure convenience to the well-stocked, daylight-familiar kitchen cupboard. By contrast, the whole of the little cellar - shelves, walls, and the ground-level windows so terribly out of reach - was emphatically bare, all the more so as it had been whitewashed by some previous owner, an effort at salutary cleanliness whose real effect had been to heighten the shock of its disuse.
What made this space frightening, in fact, was that it pertained solely to the past. Not only was it divorced from the lives of my family - no one ever set foot in there - but it was divorced from the life of my culture. I wasn't entirely sure where canned food came from - wherever Chef Boyardee lived, I guess - but I did know that it filled an entire aisle of "our" supermarket: in effect, that our storehouse - our store - was elsewhere. And I did know that it was brightly colored and cheerful like the other consumer goods that made up almost the totality of my world; the gap between such things and that pale cellar was unbridgeable. No one of my acquaintance worked directly to produce the necessities and pleasures of life for his or her family: my people worked for money, mostly in enormous office buildings, doing jobs somehow tenuously connected with goods they neither made nor sold, but which led autonomous lives in "the marketplace." Each time my mother and I went to buy groceries, we were witness to the almost magical power and abundance of the marketplace, which - in the form of the supermarket - provided us with all of our needs through an orderly and timeless shopping experience, endlessly self-replenishing, at once accustomed and completely mysterious; a form of "imperishable bliss" as Stevens says. And it was the same for clothing, toys, records and books - all the necessities - which came from somewhere, evidently, but were had through the same experience, our errands one gigantic univocal shopping trip. The market was alive in everything, and everything found its life in the market - except the canning cellar.
Spicer: "History begins with shrewd people and ends with ghosts."
The upshot of which is, a significant part of the supernatural as I learned to experience it involved a fear of the obsolescent, the unreconstructed past; and it's no less scary for that, though considerably stranger and more fascinating - an observation that's verified in my experience by figures as diverse as Susan Howe and Tobe Hooper. Thinking back to my conversation with Matthias, I can see him standing in the kitchen, saying something like "Exactly - because mostly our culture knows the past as repression followed by haunting" - and then waving his long arms in a caricature of fear: "Oooohhh Shiiiit, I'm getting out of here."
The cards arrived without explanation except for the postmark, Chicago - of course I knew who they were from, but they struck me as if from out of some obscurity: not a sender to my receiver, but some unexamined corner of the postal system resurgent, "gone postal," operating in reverse - cards of others' nightmares - obsolescence given form - ghost art.
The US postal system is creepy in and of itself: one of the largest bureaucracies on the planet, a relic of the nineteenth century urge to federalize the expansive continent - semi-privatized alas by Nixon, in what seems in retrospect one of the first blows to so-called big government - but still for the moment pervasive. Mail can arrive from almost anywhere, given long enough, to exactly where you are right now, carried by agents so mundane in their uniform blue-grey they seem almost secret, eminently obvious, invisible.
writes Creeley - and, "the poem supreme, addressed to emptiness."
Ed Dorn, incidentally, got the whole thing on paper:
the idea of poetry as an art of specialization in language was more or less exploded for me by the previous generation of writers, if not by Williams, Reznikoff et. al.
to me, poetry is an aesthetic gesture that turns on the operation of power in everyday life; "an embarassment of unwilting interrogations," maybe - but also a utopia of epic proportions, a mode of phenomenal activism, experimental living
Still I can't help feeling it's peculiar that poetic practice should remain so closely bound up with bringing things to the page
that's part of the appeal of this project I guess
writing that involves
elements of the existing social order in an unexpected way
not that mail art
isn't the most common thing in the world
limits that are usually
conceived of as being definitive attributes of an aesthetics but which
are actually boundaries that have come to seem natural by force of habit
The distance between Emily Dickinson's poems and her letters is exactly the width of their address; they are different in their strategies, of course - the fascicles, the variants traces of the life of her mind on the page - but the letters perform their own poetic strategies under entirely other conditions
writing that is extra-dimensional
Duchamp had this well
figured out but it's easy to forget
"To intensify our assaults we have decided to forego regular publication and opt for the thorough exploration of the Streets" - Franklin Rosemont, American Surrealist, in the December 1966 (last) issue of THE REBEL WORKER
histories I guess we all know
The information I've since gathered about this project more or less jibes with my first impression - that many of the cards themselves were recovered while cleaning out an old New England attic, for instance; that the text - aside from the bits cited or recognized - some Olson, himself an old mailman - is derived mostly from editing an obscure book of country ghost stories, a sort of Reznikoff-inspired operation, tuned mostly to vernacular accounts of uncertain horrors rather than, say, juridical reconstructions of their everyday counterparts. The ghosts are "in" the poems, language shaped to an uncertainty - as always, but here openly - so that the transparent quality of description, its documentary status, is called into question even as the dialogic element takes on a greater urgency; these are poems, but they're tales, events in language passing between speakers, first of all. If their words are wrapped around a blur, a smudge of light down by the stairs, something less than there there, it's their application one then senses most - the words made to give shape to the something - and their quiet address. So that the ghosts are also the people who told the tales, gone now, leaving their inscrutable prints in the language - who the poems, by attention to a lost discourse, make to call forth.
"We left the
"the story which
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