Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it for fun.
The people of the Huns . . . exceed every degree of savagery. Since the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with steel from their very birth, in order that the growth of hair, when it appears at the proper time, may be checked by the wrinkled scars, they grow old without beards and without any beauty, like eunuchs. They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks, and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen, that one might take them for two-legged beasts or for the stumps, rough-hewn into images, that are used in putting sides to bridges . . . they have no need of fire nor of savoury food, but eat the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever, which they put between their thighs and the backs of their horses, and thus warm it a little. They are never protected by any buildings, but they avoid these like the tombs, which are set apart from everyday use. . . . They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. . . . They are almost glued to their horses. . . . From their horses by night or day every one of that nation . . . eats and drinks, and bowed over the narrow neck of the animal relaxes into a sleep so deep as to be accompanied by many dreams.
– Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325 – 391 A.D.), quoted by Jacques Le Goff in Medieval Civilization, trans. Julia Barrow (Blackwell, 1988).
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.
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.
From Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, (trans. Patrick Creagh), from the start of memo 2, on “quickness,” an exquisite anecdote:
I will start by telling you an ancient legend.
Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved — but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed body carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the girl’s dead tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell passionately in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.
Calvino glosses the legend (which he finds in a book of unpublished notes by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, in the Pléiade edition of the author’s works, 1.1315) thus: What we have here is a series of totally abnormal events linked together: the love of an old man for a young girl, a necrophiliac obsession and a homosexual impulse, while in the end everything subsides into melancholy contemplation, with the old king staring in rapture at the lake. Beautifully.
While I haven’t found Calvino’s fiction often to my taste, I would recommend this short book, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, to all and sundry.
I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).
The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.
Nowadays, as one lounges out on the porch of an evening, in a folding lawn chair of finished redwood, it is scarcely possible to recall the limitations of those days. It seems that our memory typewriters and compact disk players have been around forever, like wise infinitely reliable mentors and administrators of our sport. In front of me the automatic sprinkler crawls steadily along the garden hose which my father has cunningly laid across his lawn; and from the Carsons’ house on Woodbine Court I can hear the metronome-like ticking of the children’s robot playing house with Robbie in the garage. A jet plane shoots happily through the blue sky, bound, perhaps, for another covert bombing mission in Nicaragua, where the colorfully dressed, brown-skinned population still resists our directive to BUCKLE DOWN and WORK because for them every day is a fiesta day in their pink or yellow or green brick houses in the cool mountains when WE are drumming our fingers and impatiently waiting for our Buddy Brand or Dodger’s Choice instant coffee to be harvested so that we can zip down to the office in our station wagons and set new goals and trends in productivity, because without us electrical consumption would sink to its nadir. – But if you will just stop dancing with the dishwasher for a moment I, Big George, will describe to you in loving detail how it all came about, and what life was like for our pioneers in the 1860s and 1870s.
– William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels (Picador, 1987; p. 34)
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented.
– Joseph McElroy, Hind’s Kidnap, Harper & Row, 1969. P. 53.
Jefferson’s revolving Windsor chair which he purchased in 1775-76. The writing arm was added later at Monticello. (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)
‘Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furious bark of a million drops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Apollo-Saturn fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from that near-audience watching; then came the earsplitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning hour, a nightmare of sound, and he heard himself saying, “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, my God!” but not his voice, almost like the Italian girl saying “fenomenal,” and the sound of the rocket beat with the true blood of fear in his ears, hot in all the intimacy of a forming of heat, as if one’s ear were in the caldron of a vast burning of air, heavens of oxygen being born and consumed in this ascension of the rocket, and a poor moment of vertigo at the thought that man now had something with which to speak to God — the fire was white as a torch and long as the rocket itself, a tail of fire, a face, yes now the rocket looked like a thin and pointed witch’s hat, and the flames from its base were the blazing eyes of the witch. Forked like saw teeth was the base of the flame which quivered through the lens of the binoculars. Upwards. As the rocket keened over and went up and out to sea, one could no longer watch its stage, only the flame from its base. Now it seemed to rise like a ball of fire, like a new sun mounting the sky, a flame elevating itself.’
– from Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), p. 93. Signet Classics paperback.
“The Trouville Gazette reported that a veritable wave of the exotic had broken upon Deauville that year: des musulmans moldo-valaques, des brahmanes hindous et toutes les variétés de Cafres, de Papous, de Niam-Niams et de Bachibouzouks importés en Europe avec leurs danses simiesques et leurs instruments sauvages.” – W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Seek it out Joseph J. Ellis’s book Founding Brothers if you’ve any interest in American history whatsoever, or an inkling of sentimentality about the Founders, the Revolution, or the Constitution.
Adapted from my paper “The Case for Thomas Jefferson as the Father of American Librarianship” and presented at the 6th Doctoral Symposium in Information Studies at the Université de Montréal, March 30, 2012:
Polymath of Albemarle county, Thomas Jefferson invented for his own use several ergonomic devices to reduce cumulative physical stress resultant from reading and writing. Of especial note is this ingenious revolving book-stand:
Shaped like a cube when not in use, the stand could be unfolded to hold five books simultaneously. Hinged at the top, the four vertical sides could be lifted up and angled out. A lip at the bottom of each let a book rest on the angled surface. Furthermore, the top of the cube could be tilted up to hold a fifth book directly above one of the lower books. Even when fully loaded with books, the stand could be easily revolved to let Jefferson quickly peruse multiple texts in succession.
Also remarkable: a portable writing desk constructed to his specifications. On the angled baize surface of this beauty, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Made of thin strips of mahogany, the desk was reduced to the minimum size and weight and produced the maximum utility of space. In addition to a folding writing board lined with green baize, it had a bookrest and a drawer with a lock for storing a supply of stationery, completed documents, ink, pens, wafers, and sand. Jefferson continued to use this desk until 1825, when he presented it to his grandson-in-law.
The Virginian statesman also devised a chair with a fully revolving base to facilitate easy interaction with print material:
Federalist William Loughton Smith ridiculed the chair in the anonymous The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency Examined, writing: “Who has not heard from the Secretary of State of the praises of his wonderful Whirligig Chair, which has the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?”
It may be added that the debt-ridden patrician of Monticello used several different polygraphs (copying machines) during his last 14 years to make a simultaneous copy of his vast correspondence over that period, polygraphing over 5,700 correspondences.
Sources: Bedini’s Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines, 1984;
Hayes’ The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2008.
Final note: It just so happens that Jefferson’s ingenious chair, with its revolving base, pops up in a passage from Joseph McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap (1969):
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented. Viewed from an approaching helicopter, Maddy Beecher’s office, a white concrete block, perhaps like a huge clamping not just thick enough to hide its bolt, topped the rambling… (p. 53)
Sir Thomas, known familiarly as Sir Tippy, vowed to own ‘ONE COPY OF EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD.’ His vast and largely uncatalogued book collection infiltrated every room in his large country house. As a visitor from the Bodleian Library reported is 1854, ‘Every room is filled with heaps of papers, MSS, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders, &c.&c. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes!’
Let me say at the outset that this is not a book I intend to read soon in its entirety. The Anatomy of Bibliomania is extraordinary for above all the jocular, ribald hilarity of its table of contents. There are subsections on such topics as: “anti-bibliokleptic measures”; “books bound in human skin”; “bibliopegic dandyism”; and on the “belligerent usefulness” of books. Whole chapters are dedicated to: “book-drinkers”; “bibliophagi or book-eaters”; grangeritis; “the cure of bibliomania” (subsection 1: “whether it is curable or not”; 3: “Bibliophilia is the only remedy”).