. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I can feel
A whimsy in my blood. I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropped from above,
Not bred amongst clods and clotpoles here on earth.
I muse the mystery was not made a science,
It is so liberally professed. Almost
All the wise world is little else, in nature,
But parasites or sub-parasites . . .
Lines lifted from Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox (III. i . 3-13).
America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
It’s been going on two years since I first inveigled myself into the business (sic) of literary translation. This I achieved mainly by cunning and deception: the truth being that, if you want to be a literary translator, you have to present yourself as one, credentials or no. Credentials? The classic conundrum: to be a literary translator you need to have published literary translations; but to publish literary translations — well, to get the permission to do so — you need to be a literary translator, who has published… literary translations. Round and round we go round the mulberry bush. — I was not, however, entirely uncredentialed; I had a university degree in French literature, I had taught French in a high school, I had studied contemporary French literature in graduate school, I had lived in France and achieved fluency, and I had even taken 3 credit hours of a translation course, way back in… 2005? (a disheartening experience, truth be told). But experience?
A little rancor, a little bile now, but without getting too carried away; hmm, let’s say I happen to be a literary translator who wants to do literary translations and publish literary translations. I need to find some texts I want to translate, I need to determine whether a) they are in the public domain (fantastic; but wait, does anyone want or need another translation of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Louise Labé? etc.) or b) under copyright, in which case let’s find out who owns the copyright and ask for rights. Let’s just say things there go swimmingly, permissions are granted with the wave of a wand, to translate! What could be easier? Nothing! I make a rough draft, I correct it, I revise it twice, thrice, then some more and some more and then I go back and second-guess every single choice I’ve made and now let’s say it’s perfect. Merveilleux. Now, to send out this thing I parasited myself onto. At whose august feet shall I depose my monstruous offering? Let’s see, there’s Journal Hoobastank, a leader in publishing literature in translation, one of whose editors once queried me to ask if I would like to review for them a title of my choice “on a trial basis,” after which, if all goes great, I would be eligible to receive US $25 for my second review. (Scratch that, they don’t take open submissions.) OK, my pride is still smarting a little from that underhanded query, I’m not going to submit there and apparently I can’t anyways, who’d a thunk… — but fear not! there are many other great editors eager to read my monstruous thing. Like Granta… or not. Granta has had one of my submissions for about five months without yet even opening the file. OK, Granta is the establishment, they are miles above scrappy, up-and-coming translators and writers like me, I’ll go cold-calling again. But wait! what are my criteria? How am I going to determine whether or not it’s more desirable to publish in Journal Zibbazazza or Hubbahubba Mag? Lists! A spreadsheet! — (Alright, I’m not actually going to reveal my spreadsheet and all the sensitive information it contains.) And I’m running low on vitriol.
Let’s put it this way: I am interested in the tacit (often unspoken) motivations that lead writers and translators to view publication in one journal as more desirable than another. Let me advance some hasty generalizations, my own:
We are now in a little town in Ohio. Here and there among the houses, which are certainly comical in their structure, all towered and pillared and trellised, like a child’s drawing of a hous, we saw strange, shell-like cellars extending deep into the earth. Our inquiries brought the information that these were originally designed as roasting pits for the preparation of human flesh. Upon consulting a history book, I learned that cannibalism was prevalent in the Middle West as late as 1924. These pits are now the scene of dog-baiting and cock-fighting. This region is up-to-date in the extreme: it is not at all unusual to see other sights in these diggings — women cohabiting with sheep, pigs, and dogs; men masturbating stallions with greased inner-tubes; surgeons performing cancer operations; local election rallies featuring the castrating and lynching of Negroes — all this is done to acquaint the public with a new cosmetic or tooth powder, or to open a new movie palace or church. I do not wonder that this state ranks second in the number of sons it has contributed to the White House.
– from Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight (New Directions, 1941)
A pretty nonpareil month in books — many excellent things. If there is an underlying pattern here at all, it’s the Ohio book (the Indian accounts, the Wright Brothers, the Ordovician fossils) I am working on, & also exploring Paul Metcalf’s influences & peers (Metcalf’s work being an inspiration for the Ohio book). The Jesperson is a fair outlier, but every bit as edifying as George Saintsbury. But I don’t know if I will finish it, skipping around as per my wont.
Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905) – Otto Jespersen (in progress)
“Projective Verse” (1950) – Charles Olson
Paterson (1960) – William Carlos Williams
Captured by Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts (1961) – ed. Frederick Drimmer (in progress)
White Trash Cooking (1986) – Ernest Matthew Mickler
Sagetrieb 5.3, Featuring Paul Metcalf (1986)
Singularities (1990) – Susan Howe
Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe
An Ear in Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems 1957-1967 (1972), Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems (2005) – Jonathan Williams (in progress)
Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006) – David Lynch
A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region (2009) – David L. Meyer and Richard Arnold Davis
The Wright Brothers (2015) – David McCullough
My latest revelation has been the works of Susan Howe, an American poet and essayist. Since the 1970s, Howe has been fashioning original works from early American historical narratives, including those that document the violent encounter of New England colonists with Native Americans. It contains many other aspects, too, I’m sure, but for now this is what seems most present and palpable in her work — taking inspiration from historical and documentary texts, and the period of early American colonial conflict.
I was referred to her work by a Twitter acquaintance some time ago after mentioning in conjunction two other authors (Paul Metcalf and W.G. Sebald) whose work plunges us headlong into the past, and I have since read several of her books: That This (2010), The Birth-Mark (1993), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996), and Singularities (1990).
My enjoyment of her work I think stems from the disorientation and awe I feel on a first reading. These are texts that demand a second reading if we are to truly get at them. And those second readings, too, are limited in what they reveal. It would be very hard to succinctly say what she’s up to, in fact it’s quite varied among the works I refer to above; but as a general observation, her work seems to be constructed on principles of quotation, lexical borrowing and combination, unusual typographical arrangements. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the way her work confronts, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very directly, the power and violence that are implicit in conquest and (historical) interpretation.
In The Birth-Mark, for instance, in the context of an essay about Emily Dickinson (“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values”), Howe underlines the fact that
It is over a hundred years after her death; if I am writing a book and I quote from one of her letters or poems and use either the Johnson or Franklin edition of her texts, I must obtain permission from and pay a fee to
The President and Fellows of Harvard College / and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Indeed, that is outrageous. (It’s not hard, in light of this travesty of liberalism, to see why Howe titled another of her books My Emily Dickinson.) How can institutions like Harvard and Amherst claim to be advocates of scholarly inquiry, while controlling the dissemination of and access to Dickinson’s work in that way? For an institution of higher learning, this is rank hypocrisy.
As I read through Howe’s poems lately (what generalizations I’m making here refer mostly to Frame Structures and Singularities, her two books freshest in my mind), I am lost much of the time, as if in the American wilderness that forms the scenic background of the poems. I move along understanding only a fraction of what I read, grasping for bits and pieces that make me feel less lost. A fragment hoves into view for a moment, crystallizing the understanding —
infinite miscalculation of history (in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time, published in Singularities, p. 17)
and is gone. I have the sense the effect is itself calculated — not a sign of the poet’s failure to communicate or achieve coherence or cogency, but intentional. We are meant to be lost, phenomenologically, lexically. As we are lost in history, or in this present. We salvage what shards we can.
More on Howe later, maybe. I’m captivated. For now, I invite you to listen to any number of recordings of her reading from and discussing her work at PennSound.
Seen in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson.
Hamlet ou les suites de piété filiale (1887) – Jules Laforgue
Afloat on the Ohio (1897) – Reuben Thwaites
Call Me Ishmael (1947) – Charles Olson
The Maximus Poems I – III (1960) – Charles Olson
Paterson I – II (1946) – William Carlos Williams
Fire Sermon (1971) – Wright Morris
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1999) – Simon Winchester
Graffitis (2012) – Charlotte Guignard
Lillabulero 12 (1973) – Paul Metcalf Special Issue
Begun/in progress :
The Tragic History of the Sea / História trágico-marítima (c. 1735) – edited & compiled by Bernardo Gomes de Brito (ed. & trans. C.R. Boxer, 1959, 1968)
The Median Flow: Poems 1943-1973 () – Theodore Enslin
Colonel Zoo (1997) – Olivier Cadiot (trans. Cole Swensen, 2006)
The Lost Colonies of Ancient America (2014) – Frank Joseph