Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 40:
One day, Ephraim Bedlam, the water-drinker and raw carrot and celery philosopher, who always smelled like musk or gymnasium sweat, tweaked me on the cheek, asking, “Have you seen any human beings lately?”
“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”
from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66
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.)
– Audio & images –
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.”
– Interviews –
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.
– Miscellaneous –
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.
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)
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.
Here is a page from Paul Metcalf’s Apalache (1976), to my mind one of the most beautiful books ever written. The work is available in vol 1 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, published by Coffee House Press, or alternately in an exceptionally handsome 1st edition from Turtle Island Foundation. (The page scan is from the latter.)
Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question Paul Metcalf asked at the end of his life two decades ago:
In April 2015 it was announced that the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was writing a novel about Melville in the aftermath of his writing Moby Dick.
A few months later in August Pierre Senges‘s latest book came out: a six hundred pager, giving us the sequels to Ahab: Achab (séquelles). Ahab (Sequels). It tracks Ahab as he makes his way back on land in New York, working small jobs and trying to sell his story of the whale to Broadway and then Hollywood.
After all these years…
Some of Mallarmé’s personal library was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and I took this screenshot of one of the more expensive items, a manuscript version of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.
It was sold recently for 963,000 Euros.
C’est beau, n’est-ce pas? Here’s an interesting passage:
There are a few other typographically interesting pieces appearing in the same volume, starting with the stunning cover:
And here is a rather beautiful page from M. Kitchell’s Dark Topographies:
(The typo escaped my awareness for a good long while as I admired it. That is a typo right?)
And here is a rather overwhelming shot of an excerpt from Chaulky White’s SSES SSES SSEY:
Anton Ivanov and Jared Fagen did a good job putting this together, needless to say.
I’m hoping to see more print publications like this. Print rules.
Following up on the preceding post, I would like to point out the excellent piece on Thoreau that Levi Asher of Litkicks has written. As I said before, I haven’t ever properly read Thoreau, but Levi’s article provides a lot of context for how we ought to read Thoreau. It seems like an important corrective to the Schulz. Read it.
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) October 13, 2015
May I recommend a damning critique of Thoreau (“Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”), written by Kathryn Schulz?
Banish Thoreau from the canon, it urges; he was a rotten thinker and a hypocrite; a good nature writer, yes, but a fabricator of lies and a pontificator on society who cared none for his fellow man, a comfortable curmudgeon whose ability for self-deception knew no limits. I have no love for Thoreau, I haven’t read his work, except for in high school, but I found it interesting to feel myself through her essay, which I found myself agreeing with and disagreeing with in some different respects.
Near the beginning, it cites Thoreau’s writing in Cape Cod (1865) about the experience of seeing some shipwrecked Irish on the beach along with their dead. He feels only a sense of dull disappointment at the spectacle, no sense of empathy for the plight of the poor persons, nor a sense of wonder as he might feel “If [he] had found [only] one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place.” Schulz opens the essay with this moment in Thoreau’s thought as being exemplary of what a moral monster Thoreau must have been, and even seems to suggest an (implicit) parallel with the our present historical moment, as desperate Syrian refugees are landing on the shores of the Mediterranean probably as I write — but there is a severe lack of historical context in the way Schulz cites this moment. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for poets, writers, artists, and painters under Romanticism’s sway to seek out the picturesque sublime. The inhuman forces of nature were looked on as the source of sublimity, and for the picturesque effect to be just right, it was always important that the human element not intrude too much, or be absent altogether. It’s this valorization of the sublime that makes possible Thoreau’s indifference to the plight of the shipwrecked — and it’s not necessarily callousness I don’t think, unless we want to apply our standards of judgment and our language of moral description to someone living in a different historical era, in another culture.[caption id="attachment_3202" align="aligncenter" width="512"] Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818[/caption]
It certainly takes some seeing to imagine how relativistic our perceptions are, or what great cultural gap separates us from Thoreau, but taking some account of the powerful hold of the picturesque sublime on the 19th century imagination would go a long way to mitigate our perception of Thoreau standing on the beach of Cape Cod. (To pass definitive judgment on the souls and writings of men who have been dead for 150 years: what a way to spend one’s time.)
Another interesting question the essay raised in my mind was whether or not Thoreau (always) wrote in a way that always reflected his true thought and his character. May be; however, as I read through the quotes Schulz marshalls, I thought I perceived a lot of rhetorical shading, and some intentional ironies. I don’t want to be overgenerous to Thoreau; and again I think we get into a problem of historical perspective, a problem of incommensurability.
For example, one section begins, “Only by elastic measures can Walden be regarded as nonfiction.” Surely true, but, to Thoreau and his contemporaries the idea of a mutually exclusive classification of some books containing veridical truth, and other books of pure invention, would not have been as we know it today. (And today, that separation exists only as an idea, or an illusion.) So here we are treated to an inventory of the many gross liberties Thoreau took in distorting the “truth” (or, as Schulz has it, “the facts”).
At any rate, the great pleasure of this essay is how it shows Thoreau to be an idiot. Which is no small pleasure, because Thoreau appears to have been no small idiot. (I am using the term somewhat affectionately, thinking of the countless idiots Pierre Senges catalogued in L’idiot et les hommes de paroles, and which appear in his fictions. The idiot may be contemptible, but at least he’s relatively harmless! Moreover, like the clown, he is a source of laughter — tonic balm!) For instance:
At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.”
How human is it to contradict oneself !! – And ever so briefly, I also caught a passing glimpse of that townsquare idiot-curmodgeon Diogenes, dear Diogenes living in his tub:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home.
Is there not a dose of irony here, or at least some rhetorical intent (as opposed to literal meaning, earnestness)? A touch of self-exaggeration, self-parody, yes — but is it a self-aware tendency, or an entirely unconscious one? I found myself curious to see what Schulz would make of how irony enters into Thoreau’s declarations, how humorous and delicious his contradictions can be. Was he so blind to them? What a motley mess of a man. I get the feeling that there’s been a missed chance to see Thoreau the comedian at work. (Thoreau the joker, the fool, the jester.) But no doubt I am bringing my own obsessions to bear on this old killjoy.
It’s terrific (and rare) to see bold, provocative long-form critiques of much-revered and little-read 19th century American writers in a mainstream publication like The New Yorker. Bravo!