Thursday, July 22, 2010

WEARING THE GRIN


from Wearing of the Grin

from Duck Amok

Michigan J. Frog

Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Rabbit of Seville / 1950
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Wearing of the Grin / 1951
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Rabbit Seasoning / 1952
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Duck Amok / 1953
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) One Froggy Evening / 1955

With the death of film animator and director Chuck Jones on February 22, 2002, I decided to revisit several cartoon works by him, a joyful task which reminded me of my childhood, and gave me the opportunity to really watch these innovative and, often, abstract works of art.

Jones' long career, spanning work for Warner Brothers from 1933 to 1962, when his job was terminated for illegally working on the animated cartoon feature, Gay Purree, saw a complete transformation in the cartoon industry from realist-like images and cartoon characters to abstract and even surreal-looking backdrops and absurdist figures. From early characters such as Charlie Dog, Hubie and Bertie, and The Three Bears, Jones refined and transformed his art, creating such memorable figures as Claude Cat, Michigan J. Frog, Pepe LePew, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote. Working with Michael Maltese, he also transformed the characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd.

I watched about twenty of Jones' cartoons, but will focus on just a few in order to point to some of his remarkable transformations. In Rabbit of Seville (1950), for example, Jones and his staff took on the relationship of opera and animation more seriously than before as Bugs Bunny, chased by the gun-toting Elmer Fudd enter the domain, much like the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, of an opera-going audience. The lyrics are a zany mix of nursery rhyme and doggerel:

[singing to Elmer outside the barbershop]
Bugs Bunny: How do?/Welcome to my shop/Let me cut your mop/Let me shave your crop/Daintily, daintily... Hey, you!/Don't look so perplexed/Why must you be vexed?/Can't you see you're next?/Yes, you're next, you're so next!

With manic shifts in character and scene, the two undergo battles of rising barber chairs, a scalp-massage timed to the music of Rossini, and numerous other hilarious interruptions as the befuddled conductor and orchestra blithely play on. As in other Jones cartoons, Bugs shifts in and out of gender, here ending the eternal battle between him and Elmer, briefly, by marrying him!

Wearing of the Grin (1951) features Porky Pig on his way to Dublin. In a heavy rain he finds himself still twelve miles away and decides to spend the night at the nearby castle, haunted, he soon discovers, by leprechauns, who eventually convene a court, trying him to "the wearing of the green shoes." Once Porky has put on the shoes, like Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, he cannot stop dancing and quickly enters a surreal, dream-like world made up by terrifying Irish smoking pipes, pots of gold, shamrocks and other Erin icons that consume and taunt him. When he awakens to be invited again into the castle, Porky suddenly remembers that he has another appointment—with his psychiatrist!

In 1952's Rabbit Seasoning, Fudd is again on the road to murder, as the self-assured Bugs and the increasing confused Daffy Duck join together to create a chaos of visual and linguistic signs that flummoxes the slow-minded Elmer. Their "Shoot me now" routine, right out of Laurel and Hardy, further confuses the would-be hunter, who by the end cannot even recognize his prey.

Bugs Bunny: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now!
[to Elmer]
Daffy Duck: I demand that you shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Daffy Duck: Let'sth run through that again.
Bugs Bunny: Okay.
[in a flat tone]
Bugs Bunny: Wouldja like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: [flat tone] Shoot him now, shoot him now.
Bugs Bunny: [flat tone] You keep outta this. He doesn't hafta shoot you now.
Daffy Duck: [with sudden passion] Ha! That's it! Hold it right there!
[to audience]
Daffy Duck: Pronoun trouble.
[to Bugs]
Daffy Duck: It's not: "He doesn't have to shoot "you" now." It's: "He doesn't have to shoot "me" now." Well, I say he does have to shoot me now!
[to Elmer]
Daffy Duck: So shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him]

Duck Amok (1953) is perhaps the quintessential Jones film. Here a slightly paranoid Daffy is delighted to have captured a role as a slightly mad musketeer, but the moment he attempts to enter the set, the scenery shifts, first to a farm, then to an igloo, later a Polynesian paradise, each with its own music. As he absurdly attempts to play along, things become even more impossible as, first the sound, then the scene, and, finally, he himself disappears. "Where am I?" he existentially pleads, trying to return the story to some semblance of order before being mixed and matched with all sorts of other figures dressed in outlandish mixes of costumes. A final frame reveals that the mad animator of this piece is none other than Bugs Bunny.
One of my very favorites is One Froggy Evening (1955) with the infamous Michigan T. Frog, who, discovered by a worker in a time capsule of a demolished building, suddenly springs to life singing and dancing—top hat on head, cane in hand—songs from ragtime and popular music. The amazed witness of this event suddenly envisions fame and money, and quickly runs off, time capsule in hand, to promote his new discovery. Yet every time he opens the box to others, the frog simply sits as a regular frog. Michigan will sing only for the man, who ultimately nearly loses his sanity before placing the box in the cornerstone of a new skyscraper.

After leaving Warner Brothers, Jones continued to work on his own, making the truly abstract cartoon, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and working with his friend Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) on How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).

Jones' work. obviously, was simply funny to children, but his crazy battling characters, believing in the power of guns and all other forms of killing devices manufactured by the Acme Company, reveal to adults the kind of insanely absurd violence that dominated post-war America, helping us, perhaps, to laugh heartily at some of our deepest fears.

December 27, 2002

Monday, July 19, 2010

FLAGS AND LETTERS




FLAGS AND LETTERS

William Broyles, Jr. and Peter Haggis (screenplay), based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Clint Eastwood (director) Flags of Our Fathers / 2006
Iris Yamashita (screenplay), Clint Eastwood (director) Letters from Iwo Jima / 2006

True to my pattern of doing things, I saw Clint Eastwood’s magnificent diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in early 2007 in the reverse order from which they were released. After seeing Flags of Our Fathers (the second film of my viewing), I observed to my mate, Howard, that had I seen that film first, I might not have been so eager to see its companion. That is not to say that Flags is not a significant film, but simply that, without the context of the more coherent and darker second work, it functions in a much more scatter-gun, even disjunctive manner that is simply not as fulfilling to its audience.

Actually I believe Eastwood has made an important statement in the structural differences between the two films. Recognizing these two works as opposing representations of the same series of incidents—the battles at Iwo Jima occurring from February 19 through March 24, 1945—we quickly perceive that the American version, Flags of Our Fathers, is presented from the viewpoint of how Americans in general perceived the event at the time, as part of a grand heroic effort to defeat the Japanese.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s picture of six men hoisting the flag into position atop of Suribachi mountain quickly consolidated the actual battles into an icon of the hallowed values for which American soldiers were fighting. The three individuals in that picture who survived the Iwo Jima invasion, John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes, accordingly, were immediately recognized as representatives of what most Americans sought, living manifestations of the heroism of their young men and women in World War II. Higherups, moreover, recognized these men as the perfect salesmen in the pitch for American War Bonds to raise monies desperately needed to continue the war effort.

The truth of these events was quite different. Forgetting for the moment that in a matter of 37 days nearly 30,000 men (6,891 Americans and close to 22,000 Japanese) had been killed and another 18,070 wounded, and focusing only on the famed photograph, there had in fact been two flag raisings, the first, a more instinctual act of claiming the island with a smaller flag tied with rope to a shell casing, the second, a military-ordered raising of a larger flag (to be rewarded to an observing congressman) carefully staged for the camera. Moreover, one of the men reported to have helped to raise the second, now iconographic flag, actually helped raise the first, and the name of a marine raising the second flag was omitted in military reports. The men who had survived the ordeal all recognized that there was little “heroism” in raising that second flag (or, for that matter, in raising the first), while the acts of all the soldiers—including their own—involved in actual battle represented what might really be thought of as heroic. Of the three survivors, Ira Hayes, of American Indian heritage, wanted nothing at all to do with the wartime pitch; the other two, medic Bradley and Gagnon—the latter presented as a naïve and somewhat dim-witted solider (assigned the position of a “runner”), participated with a sense of increasing disdain and distress for their ballpark reenactments and celebrity status.

In the American experience of the event there is little coherency. While the three soldiers relived nightmarish scenes from the battle, the public in general saw the battle only through the lens of a split-second photograph. The press conjured up “a truth” out of unrelated events (such as Gagnon’s marriage and Hayes’s apparent alcoholism) before completely dropping their coverage. It mattered little to the military, the press, or the public that these men’s lives had been utterly transformed or that perhaps their real heroism related less to the war than simply withstanding the onslaught of publicity heaped upon them.

Ultimately, it was left to their sons and daughters to piece together—through interviews and a book publication—any sense of reality of the Iwo Jima battle. Heroism, Bradley’s son suggests, was not a unifying force; it meant fighting with and saving, if possible, the men immediately closest to one in battle, protecting and saving one’s friends. For the individual soldiers, the public displays of nationalism were not what they had fought for. There is a strange (if predictable) homoeroticism to the young soldiers’ oceanside swim soon after the battles that Eastwood presents as the image of friendships behind some of these men’s heroic exploits.

The Flags version of Iwo Jima, accordingly, presented in disjunctive pieces and viewed from various angles and perceptions—from the viewpoints of individuals, friends, the military, the national public, the families, and history—is a narrative without the possibility of a unifying vision.

Contrarily, Letters from Iwo Jima reveals events primarily based on the letters of three soldiers writing their loved ones back home and other unmailed letters later discovered buried on the island, and for that reason presents a much more intimate portrait of military men, many of whom knew they were doomed to die in the battle.

Unlike the American presentation of the Iwo Jima slaughter, moreover, Letters has at its center two great military leaders, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi (stunningly portrayed by Ken Watanabe), commander of the Empire of Iwo Jima, and Baron Nishi.

Nishi, a great horseman, winner of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and celebrity of Japanese culture, knew English and had befriended, before the war, numerous American film actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Kuribayashi, assigned by Hideki Tojo to defend Iwo Jima, had spent part of his education in Canada, and, in 1928-29 served in the United States as a deputy military attaché, traveling throughout the country. Kuribayashi, accordingly, knew well the American state of mind, and through careful study of US military strategy, was able to determine on which shore the Americans would land. As opposed to the standard strategy of entrenching opposition soldiers near the landing point Kuribayashi catacombed the local mountains as a fortress, thus allowing for a longer survival time for his soldiers and a high ground from which to shoot and kill the American enemy.

Even though he was of samurai and aristocratic descent, and was one of the few soldiers who was granted an audience with Emperor Hirohito, Kuribayashi had opposed the war with the United States from the beginning and had fallen into opposition with numerous colleagues. According to scriptwriter Iris Yamashita and director Eastwood, moreover, he opposed the traditional self-immolation upon failure in battle, arguing that instead of destroying themselves, the troops should move forward or retreat to a place of better advantage.

One of the most terrifying scenes in both films is the reference to and depiction of the self-destruction of a Japanese platoon as, one by one, they discharge grenades against their heads or torsos. Two soldiers in that group do not choose to “die honorably.” One of the major figures of Letters, Saigo, formerly a student in Japan’s prestigious military school, along with Shimizu save themselves and, ultimately, rejoin Kuribayashi’s forces, only to be threatened with death by a lieutenant of the old school. Saigo’s and Shimizu’s lives are personally spared by Kuribayashi, representing, in Saigo’s case, the second of what will be three of Kuribayashi’s interventions on his behalf.

Eastwood painfully demonstrates the horrors of war when these two soldiers later determine to surrender. Shimizu escapes and is captured by the Americans, only to be killed by two American soldiers under whose protection he and another man have been assigned. Although there have been many films of the past that revealed the absurdity of war, the brutal killing of this young man by Americans reverberates in a way that can only call up similar shocking events in Viet Nam and our current Iraqi invasion. Americans, we have had to recognize, are not always the “good guys” we like to think they/we are.

In the United States it is amazing that Eastwood’s eloquently sympathetic presentation of enemy combatants has received so little negative reaction. Japan, one must recall, was one of the few countries ever to actually attack Americans on their own soil! Perhaps it is a testament to the director’s honesty and integrity. One wonders, moreover, how this film is being perceived in Japan, where it is still generally believed—although his body was never discovered—that Kuribayashi committed seppuku, the ritual suicide of the samurai. In Eastwood’s version the general dies before he can destroy himself, to be buried by the loyal Saigo, who, recognizing the general’s gun hanging from the belt of a conquering American, springs into his first actual attempt at combat with “the enemy” before he is quelled, to become one of the few Japanese survivors.

The letters, intimate communications between wives, sons, and others, create a coherency not to found in the American version of war. While the Japanese Kuribayashi goes to his death knowing that he has attempted to communicate with his beloved son Taro, for the American soldier Bradley, up until the last moments of his death, there is a feeling of having been dissociated from his own son, of having so buried the war within his own being that he has remained at a distance from one so loved. It appears, Eastwood suggests, that a culture that prefers flags to letters, a culture which offers up symbols as opposed to simple human expression—the culture of my own father—is doomed to estrangement.*

Los Angeles, January 19, 2007
Reprinted from
Nth Position [England], February 2007.


___
* One must recognize that Japanese culture is also highly involved in and enchanted by symbols, a point Eastwood brings up in his film. As a young military student, Shimizu is commanded to enforce the rule that all houses display the Japanese flag, an incident which, when he also is commanded to destroy the family’s dog—an order he disobeys—results in his dismissal from military college and in his being posted to Iwo Jima. It is particularly notable, therefore, that the three major figures of Letters from Iwo Jima spend their last days in epistolary communication.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

MIRROR IMAGE




MIRROR IMAGE

George Axelrod (screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Condon), John Frankenheimer
(director) The Manchurian Candidate / 1962

Other than the Visconti film I discuss later in this volume, few films reflect the theme of this year’s volume, “love, death, and transfiguration,” more fully than John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer, who died on July 6th of this year, described the work as being centered around what he described as “double images.”And indeed, the film contains a good many of these, which I would prefer, however, to speak of as “mirror images,” images that, while revealing one reality also suggest or show its reverse, what might be perceived as the darker side of what the surface presents.

The return home of Raymond Shaw, for example, is, in one sense, the homecoming of a war hero, the supposed celebration of a man who has received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in saving his patrol in the Korean War. Yet Raymond is clearly not at all approving of his step-father’s and mother’s “disgusting three-ring circus” to celebrate him, and we soon find out that, although described as a “hero,” a man referred to by his entire unit as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life,” he was scornfully dismissive of his underlings, was a man aloof from his fellow men.

We already know, from the film’s very opening scene, moreover, that although he has been awarded the medal for saving his men from capture that his unit was captured in Korea
in 1952, as the men, against army strategy, marched along a path in single file. And we gradually discover that the “loveable Raymond Shaw”—as one of his fellow men sarcastically describes him—is not even a hero, but was brainwashed along with his fellow men, forced to strangle fellow-soldier Ed Mavole, shoot their young “mascot,” Bobby Lembeck, and programmed to do the biddings of his handlers, foes of the American government.

One of the most famed of the mirror images of the film is represented in Frankenheimer’s brilliant presentation of these American soldiers in enemy hands—recalled in a dream of intelligence officer Ben Marco—as they sit in what seems at first to be an elegantly decorated room among a gathering of a lady's garden club that, upon the camera’s second pan around the room, reveals a room closer to an observatory operating room, wherein sit numerous male Communist officials (both Chinese and Russian), discussing their success at reconditioning their captives.

At the congressional session wherein Marco is serving as public relations officer, we see one of Frankenheimer’s most brilliant mirror images. As senator John Iselin interrupts the hearings with McCarthy-like charges of governmental ties with Communism, we observe the drama in the room—which gradually is reduced to a shouting match—while at the same time seeing it replayed, from a slightly different perspective, on a television monitor—a mirror image that would later become a staple in such politically-centered movies.

Although Marco speaks of Shaw—like the others—as a good man, he has nightly dreams that convey another truth, and admits to his superior that “It isn’t as if Raymond‘s hard to like, he’s impossible to like. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve known in my whole—in all of my life!”

The discovery by Marco that Chunjin, the former Korean guide, is now a butler working in Shaw’s apartment and the revelation of a letter from Al Melvin, another of the army patrol members, that parallels his own nightmares, finally forces him to act, informing his superiors of his and Melvin’s dream, being asked, in response, to identify the villains from two simultaneously projected sets of photographs—these representing double images more than “mirror” ones—some of bouncers, thugs, and normal individuals, the others of high-ranking members of the Communist party.

If Raymond is acerbic and intellectually aloof, we also discover that, for at least one year, he was a true Romantic, having fallen in love with the daughter of his mother’s political rival, Jocie Jordan.

The mother’s determination to end that relationship draws one to conclude that she is also someone who is not what she pretends to be, that her evident devotion to protecting her son has yet another manipulative element that becomes clearer as the film proceeds, as we ultimately discover that she is not at all the upright American conservative that she pretends be, but is a member of the Communist party devoted to their takeover—albeit on her terms—of the American government.

The intense play of doubles or mirror images turns tragically-comic in the penul-timate scenes of Frank-enheimer’s work where Iselin, dressed as Lincoln—a man in real life who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall—attempts to bend under a limbo stick. Having revealed that Raymond’s obedience is triggered by the Queen of Diamonds in a deck of cards, Frankenheimer almost transcends believability by having Jocie attend the party dressed as that playing card!

Love seems to win the day once again, as Raymond and Jocie run off to be married, but by now we recognize that it cannot end well, and we are hardly surprised when, soon after, he is ordered to kill Jordan, and in the process murders Jocie as well.

By this time, Raymond’s identity has been lost in the hall of mirrors of his ever-shifting desires and commands. And finally, dressed as a priest, Raymond both curses and saves himself by reversing his role of the assassin, killing not the intended target, the presidential candidate, but the “Manchurian candidates”—the individuals who have ordered the murder: his mother and father-in-law—before turning the gun upon himself, simultaneously destroying both the surface and mirror images, and by doing so, breaking through the looking glass.

The movie that has begun with a loud American marching band celebrating the return of a hero, ends in a solitary whimper of profanity as Marco utters Raymond’s eulogy (presenting the opposite, in many respects, of what he has seemed to be), ending with the words “Hell. Hell!”

Los Angeles, August 19, 2002

Saturday, July 17, 2010

BETWEEN VISIONS




I printed a few paragraphs from the essay below in My Year 2004 in a piece devoted to Marjorie Perloff, in whose course I first encountered the work of John Wieners. The essay was one of my first attempts to discuss contemporary poetry, and it reveals the graduate-student environment in which it was written. The essay was written at a time when postmodernism was just beginning to have an impact on literary texts and my own notions of postmodernism, moreover, were highly influenced by the course for which I wrote the essay, which would ultimately result in Marjorie Perloff’s important study, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage.

Consequently, I had decided not to republish the piece until news came last week that Wieners had collapsed on a Boston Street and died a few days later, on March 1, in Massachusetts General Hospital. Without any identification upon him, he lay in the hospital for several days, hooked up to a machine, until a worker traced a prescription in his pocket to a local pharmacy. Soon after, the hospital connected with John’s friends Jim Dunn and Charles Shively, who sat with him as he died.

I first met Wieners in the mid-1990s when Raymond Foye, who had edited Wieners’ Selected Poems in 1986, introduced me to him at a small press book fair in New York. I had previously communicated with Wieners and had published some of his poems in my 1994 volume, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990, but I don’t believe John ever knew of the essay below. Nonetheless, he recognized my name, and, although he looked like a street derelict with his three-day beard and torn and ripped clothing, he spoke—as Fanny Howe described him—like a Southern gentleman: “Sir, it is so very nice to meet you,” he slightly bowed. The paradox was memorable, as if one were witnessing a true-life character out of a Damon Runyon novel.

I believe that I met him again a year later at the same affair, which I attended briefly for several years out of a sense of affiliation with these very small presses similar to mine years before. I believe Raymond invited him there each year—where he stood out as a sort of unexpected celebrity—to sell books and signatures that might bring the destitute Wieners a few needed dollars.

In 1996, Lewis Warsh sent me a manuscript which he had rediscovered in his files of Wieners’ 707 Scott Street, a mix of prose and poetry documenting John’s San Francisco life at the time of the legendary Hotel Wentley Poems. For the rights to that book, I paid Wieners $2,000—an exceptional sum for Sun & Moon Press to pay, given that we were always on the edge of bankruptcy; but I was pleased to be able to help John get by for several more months.

A year after its publication, I was invited by Boston poet Aaron Kiley to attend the first Boston Poetry Marathon, where I met Jim Dunn, who had been unofficially caring for Wieners. He, in turn, suggested that John and I meet, and I told him to tell John that I would take him to any restaurant he might choose in the city. Word came back, Wieners wanted to go to—Burger King! And so the three of us dined royally at his usual hangout—my treat!

I took several photographs of Wieners at the Burger King, but my camera’s battery must have been low, and none of them turned out. Soon after, Dunn took another photo of John at the same spot and sent me a copy, reproduced here.

It was hard to tell whether Wieners was extraordinarily coy and witty or simply uncomprehending and unable to verbally express himself. I chose to believe the former. Several times I tried to ask him if he had any other materials that remained unpublished, but each time he vaguely answered, brushing away any real response. Finally, upon the third try, he pointed up a hill, saying “There, there, I’m sure they’ve got some—all of my work. Up there!” Dunn explained that “up there,” was the publishing house, Houghton Mifflin!

As I have written elsewhere in these volumes, Wieners was an extremely important figure for me; it was while working on his poetry that I discovered the dozens of 1960s small presses and magazines in the Library of Congress that not only provided me with a history of small press publishing, but helped me to understand that I too might be involved in small press activity. And soon after, I began Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, publishing my essay on Wieners in its second issue. Wieners’ poetry, with its mix of romantic idioms, gay slang, and postmodern techniques, struck a cord with my own poetic concerns.

Los Angeles, March 12, 2002
Revised July 2, 2008



BETWEEN VISIONS

John Wieners Ace of Pentacles (New York: James F. Carr and Robert A. Wilson, 1964)
John Wieners Selected Poems (New York: Grossman, 1972)

From the beginning of his career John Wieners has been a poet who experimented with poetic forms that we have come more recently to describe as Postmodern. As a student at Black Mountain College, Wieners, like other writing students, was inspired by Charles Olson’s influential Projectivist theories. In Wieners’ own poetry, however, Olson’s influence seems negligible. Rather, Wieners turned for moderns to the literary forbearers of Postmodernist poetic writing: Rimbaud, Stein, Apollinaire, Pound, and, to a lesser degree, Williams. In short, we can observe in both Wieners’ poetry and his few theoretical statements that he discovered a personal mode which grew out of a process of trial and error based on conscious imitation. In fact, Wieners’ early poetic attempts are fascinating, not only because they tell us something of the development of his own theory and art, but because they parallel much of the poetic development in the twentieth century which only in the past few decades have we come to see as a poetics which stands at odds and often in opposition to the theories and work of such men as Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, all dominant writers of the first half of that century.

Wieners’ earliest poetry, for example, especially The Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), was written from a perspective akin to Rimbaud’s. In his 1965 “Address to the Watchman of the Night,” Wieners explains that the creative energy behind this early poetry had its genesis in a need

To explore those dark eternals of the nightworld: the prostitute, the dope addict, thief and pervert. These were the imagined heroes of my world: and the orders of my life. What they stood for, how they lived, what they did in the daytime were the fancies of my imagination. And I had to become one of them until I knew.

We perceive from the beginning that Wieners’ desire for a life ordered according to what he recognizes as an inverted world, owes much to Rimbaud’s “raissonné de tous les sens.” In this early poetry Wieners consciously sought out a world that would allow him to explore exactly that which Rimbaud asserts that the voyant must: “Toutes les forms d’amour, de souffrance, de foile.” The Wentley poems present a world of tortured homosexual love and drugged insanity that one cannot help but compare with Une Saison. We can hardly be surprised, therefore, that as recently as his 1972 preface to Selected Poems Wieners advocates a poetry “dependent of question, producing revelatory postures for men, animals and stars,” or, that he asserts that “the poet is one pastor of [a] distribution between two visions,” that he defines one of poetry’s forms as a “transformation by fire.”

All of these can be traced back to Rimbaud’s theory as expressed in his well-known letter to Demeny of 1871:

…the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity, even for animals; he will have to have his inventions smelt, felt and and heard; if what he brings back from down there has form, he gives form; if it is formless, he gives formlessness.

However, in Wieners’ own poetry this comparison does not appear to be sustained. Whereas Rimbaud’s Saison creates a world so completely disorienting that the reader is forced to drop all previous notions of value, Wieners’ poetry relies for its effect upon the values the reader brings to the poem.

A poem such as “To H,” for example, depends upon the reader’s traditional expectations.

I like Sunday evenings after you’re here.
I use your perfume to pretend you’re near
in the night. My eyes are bright, why
can’t I have a man of my own?

Your wife’s necklace’s around my neck
and even though I do shave I pretend
I’m a woman for you
You make love to me like a man.

Even though I hear you say why man
he doesn’t even have any teeth
……………………………………
I make it up to you in other ways.

I will write this poem.

As critic Marjorie Perloff has noted of this work, “After the opening tum-ti-tum stanza, it comes as something of shock to learn that the person who wants a ‘man of my own’ is himself a man, that his lover is married, that the poet tries to impersonate a woman so as to attract her husband….” In fact, it is this “shock” effect which gives the poem its power. Through his use of hackneyed rhymes (“here,” “near,” “night,” "bright"), the sing-song rhythms of the first two lines and the lament of the fourth line, Wieners encourages us to expect that the rest of the poem will fulfill the requirements of a popular love song. Even when the “shock” occurs, we are not made to question our own values. Indeed, the poet asks us to remain within our own value systems as voyeurs of sorts, for it is only as somewhat disparaging observers that we can see the humor of the situation, and it is upon that humor which the poignancy of the last line and the poem as a whole relies. As Perloff perceives, “…any such impersonation is doomed to failure…” Thus we find the situation somewhat ludicrous, and as we do we are made to see the inevitable loneliness and sadness of the figure at the center of this work; and it is only through this perception that we come to sympathize.

“To H,” accordingly, has little of Rimbaud’s transformative power. In Wieners we are not made to participate in a deranged world; we are merely asked to listen to the self-disparaging cries and open our hearts to the figure caught in such a world. Wieners himself has since rejected the “là-bas” of which Rimbaud would have the poet write: “I know now that ‘the dark eternals of the nightworld’ are only deprivations of the self, not further extensions of its being: manifestations of want, denial and betrayal” (in Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., The Poetics of the New American Poetry). Such a statement shows us that, as Gilbert Sorrentino recently suggested, Wieners is at heart much closer to Baudelaire than to Rimbaud. Nevertheless, Rimbaud’s influence should not be underestimated, particularly since Wieners’ mature work owes much to Rimbaud’s ability to transform objects and landscapes into an almost surrealistic world infused by process.

The most fascinating aspect of Wieners’ poetry, I would suggest, is not the question of whether or not he has been directly influenced by Rimbaud, but the fact that in this early period he was drawn to such poets and was in his personal life and theory influenced by their work while simultaneously embracing modernist values when it came to his own writing.

This is particularly apparent in Wieners’ “imitations” of other poets. In “The Windows,” the poet has taken Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” and seemingly translated the French, concretizing the images and a few of the lines (for example, “Abatis de pihis” appears in Wieners as “A bat is pinned to a tree.”), changing some colors, adding an occasional negative (“Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique” becomes in Wieners “We cannot take calls by telephone), and altering some personal pronouns, adjectives, etc. On the surface, it is exactly the kind of poem that literary historians love to point to as an “apprentice piece,” a work written in the formative years in imitation of a previous “master.” This can be said as well of Wieners’ “The Magic of This Summer June 23, 1963,” wherein a stanza such as

The sense of continuity entirely destroyed by many
new senses, continually destroyed by many new
shapes o continually destroyed, o many new sphere,
many life entirely destroyed, continued by
many spheres, entirely lost, o continually destroyed
many lost by more o continually new generation,

with its shifting repetitions, reads like a parody of Gertrude Stein. In poems such as “Times Square” or “A Dawn Cocktail,” we see obvious imitations of Pound’s Imagism, modeled after “In a Station of the Metro.” In each of these cases we can see Wieners’ experimentation with a poetry moving towards and defining something akin to what we now call Postmodernism.

Wieners’ poetry, accordingly, would seem to be exemplary of the contemporary poetics. In a poem such as “A Poem for Cocksuckers” we can see nearly all the elements by which critics such as Charles Altieri have defined Postmodernism: preference of “the direct, the personal, the local, the anti-formal, and the topical." These are particularly explicit in the poem’s first stanza:

Well we can go
in the queer bars w/
our long hair reaching
down to the ground and
we may sing our songs
of love like the black mamma
on the juke box, after all
what have we got left.

The narrative “we” directly presents us with a specific scene, a gay bar, and that specificity is established by a language which is at once colloquial and topical. Words such as “queer bars,” “black mamma,” “juke box,” and, in the next stanza, “fairies” and “nigger’s world,” and the informality of tone call up this scene. However, the specificity is of a type, not a particular. Indeed, we are given few visual images. Just as in “To H,” “A Poem for Cocksuckers” is a poem that calls for reader participation. We have been warned by the title itself that this poem is a poem “for cocksuckers.” Wieners presumes, obviously, that any reader is thereby included in the type. Indeed, the gay scene which we are now part of is established by stereotypes, by words charged with negative societal values, values which some of the readers, in fact, might bring to the poem. The few visual images with which we are presented only reinforce these stereotypes. “Our long hair reaching to the ground” is, quite obviously, a topical reference to the late 1950s and '60s when societal reaction to long hair was most vocal. Images such as “On our right the fairies / giggle in their lacquered voices & blow / smoke in your eyes….” Phrases such “It is all here between / powdered legs & / painted eyes of the fairy / friends….” are also emotionally charged in a way that necessarily brings up negative connotations. As part of this world, therefore, we are also stereotyped: we are “cocksuckers.” While we have been brought into this place, moreover, we are simultaneously alienated from it. We are made to see it truly as a “nigger’s world,” a world which is brought to detest itself.

Yet that is not at all the feeling we get from the rest of the poem. The second stanza tells us of the “gifts” that “do not desert us, / fountains do not dry / up there are rivers running / mountains / swelling for spring to cascade.” The poem has suddenly shifted to a more lyrical tone which draws us away from the specific scene and makes us think in a symbolic context that is very unlike the beginning. Here “gifts” represent both “our” mental abilities to transform this negative experience into something creative and suggests “our” sexual organs which await release. Even when we are brought back into the specific gay bay world with the lines, "friends who do not fail us / in our hour of despair,” the symbolic associations remain. Although , we are specifically pointed out the phalluses of “our” "fairy friends,” it remains purposely unclear whether it is the sex itself that saves us from despair or whether it is the experience
imaginatively recalled that gives us value—or both. But almost before we can ask this question, we are left alone as suddenly the poet enters the poem in the first person, and lyrically calls upon us to “…Take not / away from me the small fires / I burn in memory of love.”

The effect of this sudden emotional command is that the “I” which we have felt has been guiding us all along removes himself from the specific scene and leaves us there, almost as a jilted date. Wieners turns on us and calls upon us both as outsiders who would deny him his love through our stereotyped vision of him, and, now, as insiders who would take his “lover” away, imploring us like the “black mamma” of the juke box to let him live his life with the small pleasure he has left intact. This is a brilliant maneuver, but as a tactic it is far more Modernist than Postmodernist. This last outburst leaves the reader behind, while the poet, again in metaphorical language, states his meaning. The reader has been somewhat “manipulated” into participating; he has been “used” to say something rather than asked to share in the poem-making process.

The direct presentation, we must feel, has only been a sort of decoy to involve the reader in what is actually a tightly controlled construct.

Altieri has asserted that the philosophical foundation of Postmodernism is the belief that value and meaning are immanent in nature, “that God…manifests himself as energy, as the intense expression of immanent power.” For the Postmodern “…value is not mediated but stems from a direct engagement with the universal forces of being manifest in the particular….” This idea is close to what Pound expressed in his Imagist and Vorticist theories, and what Williams was later to summarize in Patterson as “no ideas but in things.” Having been brought up with these theories, Wieners, as we have seen, seemingly supports them. Ostensibly, it is the process of poem-making, not the finished product, with which Wieners is most concerned. “A poem does not have to be a major thing,” Wieners wrote in Donald M. Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. “Poetry even tho it does deal with language is not a more holy act / than, say, shitting.” Two lines later, however, comes a question which, I suggest, is at the heart of the contradictions we have thus far observed in Wieners’ work. He begins with the Postmodern assumption that poetry is a “Manifesting of process…,” but he is not sure of what process it is a manifestation: “Is it life? Or action between this and non-action?” He continues, “For to take up arms against the void is attack, and the price of / was / is high.” For a poet and theorist like Pound there would be little question here. Poetry was for Pound a manifesting of the process of life because it was life itself which was in process. But Wieners suspects a void. Wherein then does the immanence lie? From where does the process issue? The Postmodernist necessarily believes in the material reality of the world around him, for it is primarily that reality which gives meaning and/or value. Ideally, the Postmodern poet demonstrates, restates, or clarifies the process that is already active in the world of objects. Wieners seems to be inferring that it is in the poet alone that meaning is immanent, that the process issues not from the world but from the poet. We are getting closer here to a Modernist orientation akin to Wallace Stevens’ in which the poet imposes meaning upon an otherwise dead or meaningless universe.

This same pattern can be observed in Wieners’ imitations previously described. “The Magic of This Summer,” for example, has all the superficial characteristics of a Stein work. It is, as in most of Stein’s writing, a direct statement wherein what is stated is given a sense of process by the use of present tense, active verbs, and by shifting repetitions. This latter, especially, gives us the sense of a cubistic perspective, for each time an idea is repeated it is slightly altered—either the construction is changed or a word has been added or subtracted—so that it is given a slightly different emphasis. All of this is at work in Wieners’ poem, but, once more, he uses this Postmodern-like technique to present a dialectic between Modernist and Postmodernist issues, to discuss issues of form which eventually contradict the form itself.

Wieners’ question in this poem is, once again, “Where does meaning or value reside?” The poet begins with a seemingly Postmodern position: “Form to be given / declared at any moment by what lies outside of us, and within us”; “the form declares / shape, given, of any, this moment, everything / declares itself in the moment, hidden in the declaration / of life, this moment, remains entirely given.” Suddenly, however, he remembers an event from the past, and he realizes that “this means, you are to be given, at any moment, / the fragments of past life.” “It seems,” therefore, “there is nothing, entirely given over the any moment,” because the moment can return. This is indeed a troubling concept, for if “The hand of the maker carves everything to be,” then, “For its own being, will come our shape. Form declares / itself. / In the given moment / In every living being.” This means that there is nothing more to be declared “at any given moment.” In being, everything “is given over to the moment.” “…Life is not over,” but “There is not more to be given.” If this is true, Wieners perceives, he must surrender his constructs of value to being; he must give up his “castle in the sand, on the beach, o the castles surrendered, / in my air.” But how can it be that everything is given when “still my life, by back life given many more days?”

The rest of the poem, accordingly, is a struggle to find continuity between the past and being, between value immanent in nature-in-process and values that we impose on nature or are given to us from the past. By the end of the poem, Wieners has been able to unite them in the “continual reality; expressed in the afternoon window,” and the heat, trees, and sun. Although he has returned to nature here, to the idea of immanence in the object, we rrealize that in remembering he has brought a “new consciousness” to bear upon the object that certainly contradicts Stein’s admonition against remembering, and brings into question the whole Postmodernist stance. If value is given us from the past, then how can we be free to see without preconceived notions that value is immanent in the object? It is clear that, at least for Wieners, this issue is unresolved. Here, as we saw previously in his experiments with Rimbaud, Wieners is unprepared to deny all previous values. As we have noted of all these poems discussed so far, Wieners brings to the writing his own values based upon previous encounters with nature. The poem itself is a construct of the previous process; it is not a document of his engagement with that process itself.

In Wieners’ Apollinaire imitation we can see further traces of Modernist or Symbolist tendencies. Apollinaire and his friends, who reportedly sat at the Paris café calling out lines to each other which would become “Les Fenêtres,” were certainly not attempting to create a poem in which one was encouraged to make connections. In fact, if anything, the connections were totally cut, which is what makes this experiment in poetics so fascinating. As Wieners notes in the short introductory paragraph to his imitation, “each line of his poem” is a poem “entire to itself, a sound and end in itself, without periods.” But then, Wieners adds two sentences that lead the reader to attempt to do just what the original was discouraging him from doing. Wieners writes: “There are no connections. Yet, look how each of us is hooked.” What is implicit in this statement is that Wieners is “hooked,” that it is the poet who has a tendency to make connection, bringing meaning out of discovery and imposing form upon formlessness. In fact, Wieners changes the text to encourage tenuous connections. For example, what in the original appear as completely unrelated phrases,

Beauté pâleur insondables violets
Nous tenterons en vain de prendre du repos

reads in Wieners,

Beauté paler than manila violets
We transplant in vain what cannot blossom.

We logically associate these two lines in the Wieners version because of the image of flowers in the first line and the words “transplant” and “blossom” in the second. Similarly, the French original

Et l’oie oua-oua trompette au nord
Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
Entincelant diamante

appears in Wieners as,

While reeds whine through trumpets up north
Where strippers offstage
Sell their skin cheap as ice
Tinkling like diamonds.

Again, the desire to make connections in the Wieners version is natural. The idea of strippers up north selling their skin as cheaply as ice tinkling like diamond is quite plausible, and is a rather arresting image. However, in the original, except between “Où les chasseurs de rations” and “Raclent les pelleteries,” we would have no reason to make such connections. This is a type of process, but once more these are connections that have already been established in logical discourse. They do not force us in any way to arrive at a new set of associations as a Cubist work might. Even if the original “Les Fenêtres” were not an experiment in dissociation, and instead a Cubist-like collage, Wieners’ version is, accordingly, a completely different kind of work. It is a poem that has as its philosophical foundation the idea that the world is a void upon which man imposes meaning, to which man gives form, an idea antithetical to the Postmodern perspective that underlies much of Wieners’ work.

In other words, we can say that Wieners is an author who is not really comfortable with some of the values we have come to associate with Postmodernism. For Wieners, in short, nature is not immanent, but is a void or at least a chaos from which man with his imaginative powers must call up meaning. Yet, it would be hard to describe Wieners as a Modernist, for in the vast majority of his poems Wieners uses techniques—direct presentation of the personal, reader participation, etc.—by which critics have come to define Postmodernism. Thus we are faced with a quandary of sorts. In Wieners we have come up against, who uses contemporary techniques that create a tension between the immanence of the thing being presented and the values which the poet and/or reader puts upon the thing. While this may appear to be quandary only from the perspective of our Postmodern lens, it is actually a quandary of which Wieners himself is aware, and an important tension at work in a great many more experimental poets’ works. If believing in the Pound-Williams notion of the immanence of nature requires of the poet that he constantly seek for ways of seeing anew, of “making it new,” that effort simultaneously denies the poet his past. In this post-Bergsonian world of durée the poet is asked to continually surrender his values as soon as he has perceived something. If he stops to reflect, if he remembers, his poetry is deadened, becoming a remnant of some previous process. This, in turn, produces a moral dilemma for the contemporary writer, for he understandably desires to assert value, especially when faced with a phenomenon like the Viet Nam War. Since the Postmodernist is already concerned with process it is, accordingly, tempting to convert the energies of discovering the essence of process in nature to the promotion of process or change through a propagandistic or didactic art. From Pound’s “Usury” Canto to Denise Levertov’s Staying Alive we have seen the precursors of Postmodernism and Postmodern poets themselves turn to a preconceived value-oriented poetry.

In a recent interview, Robert Van Hallberg brought up just this issue:

…You seem to have a firm sense of the poem’s commitment to
a moment in history. Do you feel that at a particular moment in
history, specifically in the last few years, the pressure of political
tensions may push the poet, even a lyric poet, toward a more public
and rhetorical poetry?

Wieners’ answer follows from his poetry:

Yes, I do…. Yes. Lyricism is still a quality of a political career.
…Until the right moment, I created from past-inhabited experiences,
or vice-versa. These topics arise only upon consideration.

What Wieners is suggesting here, it seems to me, is that the subject for the contemporary poet does arise at least as much if not more from his past values and the values he has come to in that past as it does from the present. We can surmise that for a poet like Wieners it was from the beginning impossible, caught as he was in the nightworld, to reject past values. Indeed, his desire to know the nightworld was grounded in his awareness of his own past and the societal values which he had know from childhood. Once he had become part of that nightworld, moreover, he must have discovered himself more than ever comparing it with those values. Survival came to depend more and more upon his imaginative powers to convert his suffering into statements of faith. Wieners came to depend upon what he has described as “…other realities / besides those existing before / your eyes.” Despite his playing down of the importance of poetry, it is totally consistent with his work that Wieners should see the poet as “a pastor,” or as a priest of sorts.
This same tension was potential in Rimbaud’s poems as well. His dérèglement was utterly dependent upon his knowledge of traditional systems of cognition, for only with that knowledge could he give his reader anything “deranged,” could he make nature through language alive in a new way. Eventually, once he had perfected it, Rimbaud would have been forced also to tear down his own system and start all over again. But, of course, he stopped writing before his poetry had become artifact.

Wieners’ solution, then, is to make use of this tension, for when he writes with it in mind, he is saved from flat didacticism. “Long Nook,” for example, is a poem that could not have been written without the experimentation of Rimbaud and Pound, yet we can immediately see that it is a poem that neither of them would have written. It would not have been “deranged” enough for Rimbaud, and it would have been too controlled, too much of an artifact for Pound’s taste. Yet what an exciting poem it is! As Gilbert Sorrentino has written of it, “There is not a line…not charged with risk.”

There she took her lover to sea
and laid herself in the sand.
………………………………

He is fast, was down the dune
with silk around his waist.
Her scarf was small.

She opened her clothes to the moon.
Her underarms were shaved.
The wind was a wall between them.
Waves break over the tide,
hands tied to her side with silk,
their mind was lost in the night.

The green light at Provincetown
became an emerald on the beach
and like stars fell on Alabama.

The poem begins with a direct narrative statement in the past tense, with the vague “There” hinting at a world beyond time, like the “faraway country” of children’s tales. We are immediately made, however, to question these expectations. The construction of “to sea,” because there is no article, makes us think of the infinitive “to see,” which changes the whole tone of the line and urges us to move to the second line to find out what it is that she wants him to see. But we are not told; we are simply described the process of her lying down in the sand. The word “laid” is wrong here, however, and the object of the verb, “herself,” makes no sense. Even as a sexual pun it is, at first thought, ludicrous. Yet, when we think back to the first line, we recall that it was she who “took” to her “to sea,” and thus, we see the connotations of the pun. As the seducer, she encourages her lover to have sexual intercourse by seductively lying down in the sand, a seduction which is reflected by Wieners’ use here of l and s sounds (lover, laid; she, sea, herself, sand). But in that seduction she is also taking on the male role (as we shall see there are reasons for the stereotyping of roles) and, thus, in the sexual slang sense, is “laying herself.”

Suddenly, in the next line, there is a shift. A command is whispered in the present tense, ostensibly her command: “Go up and undress in the dark.” In its short, clipped iamb with a labial ending followed by two anapests, we are told more about the upward movement of the male than about her. This movement is rhythmically stirring compared to the slower pace of the first two lines, and in the next line, a mirror image of the previous line (an anapest followed by two iambs which gives the sense of downward movement), words like “fast” and “down the dune” give the male’s movements a vital energy. This sense of vitality is reinforced by the use of the present tense. The shift in tense in the first line of the second stanza does two things: first, it begins what I shall call a whistling sensuality of the second line, a sensuality suggested by the short s sounds (was, silk, his, waist) and by the associations we have with the texture of silk; second, this shift in tense creates a balancing effect in which we are given a sense of the male’s wholeness and surety. The correspondence of the last line of the first stanza and the use of the word “around” in the following line with the two iambs on either side of it (“with silk,” “his waist”) all contribute to this sense of balance. With all this detailed attention to the male, moreover, we are asked to take a special interest in his movements. When in the next line we are presented with a direct statement that draws attention to his genitals which are evidently not completely covered by the scarf tied around his waist, accordingly, we become voyeurs in the same way in which the woman is in her waiting position. We come to perceive at least one meaning, thus, of what it was she wanted “to see.”

“Her scarf was small” subtly suggests that the male is aroused and ready for sex. And by the next line we see, once again, the female’s readiness as she “opens” her clothes to the moon. The next line, “Her underarms were shaved,” repeats this whole idea of preparedness, and there is something slightly sinister in that fact. Compared with the male’s natural vitality and energy these is something almost unnatural in her presentation of herself to the moon, creating an almost surrealist quality here that inexplicably makes us feel that we are observing something connected with ritual, as if she were worshipping the moon. I do not believe that Wieners would have us ignore, moreover, all the more traditional associations that this image calls up. Facing the moon this way, she comes to be connected with it as an archetypal female symbol and as a traditional symbol for the imagination and mutability.

The next line contributes to this sinister mood. The description of the wind as a wall between them, obviously, is one way of saying that they are embracing each other. But the fact that the wind is suddenly brought in here, and that it metaphorically becomes a “wall,” in addition to the fact that the w sounds (wind, was, wall) recreate the whining sound of the wind, suggest that nature itself is somehow being affected by this coming together of the couple. It is almost as if before the final moment of sexual intercourse, the wind is holding them apart.*

In the next stanza this idea is repeated. The “waves breaking against the tide” metaphorically represent the orgasm, but again we recognize that there is something violent, disintegrating about this, especially when Wieners uses “tied” homonymically in the next line, and then rhymes it in the same line with “side.” At first, it is not clear whether her hands are tied to her side, but with the connection of “tide” to “tied” we are logically, if a little roundaboutly, led to thank that his hands are those which are tied. For “tide” cannot help but be connected with the moon, and therefore, with the female. We have a parallel construction, then, reinforced by the rhyming of “tied” and “side.” This is less complex than it sounds; it is simply the parallel relationship of male to female, and female to male, but it is important in how it affects the poem, subtly restating her dominance. He is tied to her.

It soon no longer matters, however, for in the sex act they have now “lost their minds in the night.” Their individuality no longer exists, as they abandon their cognitive faculties. In love, they have transcended the world in the Romantic sense, have become one with the world. But in so doing they have lost the natural vitality of being in nature that we saw previously in the male. Archetypally we have just witnessed the seduction by an Eve of an Adam. Just as suddenly it becomes quite clear what Wieners has meant by the female’s desire to take her lover “to see.” She has determined to show him a world beyond the everyday material reality.

In the last stanza we also are made “to see” this transcendent vision. But we see it both in its dangers and ridiculousness. The green light is also Gatsby’s green light in The Great Gatsby and, accordingly, represents the absurdity and dangers of the American dream; in Wieners’ poem that light is transformed into the ridiculous “emerald on the beach,” and, as if that were not absurd enough, the emerald surrealistically falls like stars on Alabama, this last phrase calling up the Brecht-Weill song “Moon over Alabama,” which makes the sex act we have just witnessed slightly tawdry, corny, and sentimental—all of which connects to the pornographic title of the poem itself. In the end we are made to see the silliness and destructiveness of associations. Like the female whose conscious preparedness is witnessed most clearly as she undresses to the moon, we would worship the associations more than the object itself and end up with the tawdry and sentimental instead of the vital being we observed in the man’s race down the dune.

We cannot come to understand this poem, however, without traditional symbolist values. Wieners may assert the Postmodern approach to poetry, but he requires that we know and use more traditional constructs. And while it is clear that these last lines present a vision which is quite ludicrous, they simultaneously present a fascinating and disorienting transformation the likes of which we have seen in Rimbaud.

Writing poetry for Wieners means combining both the seductive and imaginative awareness of the female in “Long Nook” and the vital energy in process of the male. And it is between the distribution of these two visions that Wieners sees himself as “pastor” (Selected Poems, p. 5).

____
*The original version of “Long Nook” (published in Floating Bear, no. 10 [1961]) makes this even more clear by setting off the line and putting it in quotations: “The wind was a wall between them.”

College Park, Maryland, December 1975
Reprinted from
Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art (No. 2, Spring 1976).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ON ALIEN LAND




Violet Kazue de Cristoforo May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow—An Anthology of
Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku
(Los Angeles: Sun & Moon
Press, 1997)

I was saddened to receive the news this morning that Violet de Cristoforo had died on October 3, at the age of 90. I had not been in touch with her for a long time, and I felt some guilt for not continuing communication over the years. For some years, Violet had sent a small gift to me each Christmas, which I had followed with a telephone call or note.

Her death reminded me of the day in 1995 when I received a baggy monster of her manuscript in the mail. The book, a collection of Kaiko Haiku written in the Japanese internment camps in California and elsewhere during World War II, was a mix of historical information about the internment, descriptions of the art and poetry done in various communities before the war and within camps during World War II, and brief comments on the various camps throughout the American West. While extremely informative, it was poorly organized and was unpublishable in its original state.

I telephoned Violet, who invited me up to her home in Salinas where I had dinner with her and her husband, Wilfred de Cristoforo, staying the night and talking with her much of the next day. I suggested that, without abandoning the important historical contexts of the volume, she refocus the book on the haiku itself, beginning with the various pre-war groups and following them into the camps, providing the information on the internment and the concentration camps themselves before presenting the substantial selection of poems which she had translated. I also suggested that she attempt to give short biographies of each figure, even though much of that information was now unfortunately lost since many of the poets had returned to Japan and others had died.

Violet, who had spent much of her life writing this work, and who had dedicated herself to disseminating information about the Japanese internment—often in opposition to the Japanese community itself—was quite obviously overwhelmed by the changes I had suggested. Through that first evening and much of the next day, she attempted to explain, with the stories and texts she put before me, the difficulties of camp life and the terrible effects it had had on her and her husband’s own lives.

Born of immigrant parents, Violet spent her early life near Hilo, Hawaii. From her birth in 1917 until her family’s return to Japan in 1924, she attended a Japanese Language School. When they returned to Hiroshima, she was enrolled in the Danbara Elementary School. In her mid-teens her family decided that she should have an American education, making arrangements for her to move to Fresno, California, where she stayed with the Stuart family, who raised her as their own daughter.

Upon graduation she married Shigeru Matsuda, a charter member of the Valley Ginsha Haiku Kai and a practicing Kaiko (freestyle) Haiku writer. With her husband, she ran a Japanese language bookstore in Fresno. She had two children, Kenji and Reiko, with whom, in 1939, she traveled back to Hiroshima for a visit to her mother, gaining further knowledge during her visit about the fine points of Haiku. When she returned to the US just prior to the outbreak of World War II, she was startled to learn that the family bank accounts had been frozen by the US government under the Enemy Alien Act. While expecting her third child, she and her family—subject to the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—were forced to abandon their home and bookstore and were relocated to the Fresno Assembly Center, where she gave birth to her child over an orange crate.

After several months, they were transferred to the Jerome Concentration Camp in the swamps of Arkansas, whereupon her husband and his parents, having lost everything, decided to return to Japan. In the fall of 1943, Violet and her children were taken to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, where she remained throughout the rest of the war. Camp life, as she described it to me that weekend in Salinas, was difficult; the dorms were often cold and any complaints about conditions resulted in censor and sometimes imprisonment. Her brother was arrested and thrown into the stockade, and she herself was branded by camp “spies” as an agitator, in part because she refused to sign the loyalty oath, feeling that she could not swear loyalty to a government who had without cause taken away the rights she has as an American citizen. One of her few joys left was her writing, where she found a serenity that was not always available in camp life:

Winter shower
distant mountains
serenity

Yet bitterness often showed through her carefully composed lines:

Looking at summer moon
on Castle Rock
we are living in alien (enemy) land

At war’s end in 1946 Violet was expatriated to Japan, returning to the bomb-scarred Hiroshima where both her father and mother had died in the explosion of the atomic bomb. Her husband, she discovered, had remarried. In order to support herself and her children, she worked concurrently in three jobs, paid by the Americans in the devalued yen instead of dollars.

In 1956 she met and married American army officer de Cristoforo, with whom she returned the United States, where he attended the Army Language School while she began working for the educational division of McGraw-Hill. But even then, her past seemed to haunt her and her new husband. Both told me that they believe he did not receive military advancement because of his marriage to Violet, which information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act seemed to confirm.

Now, perceiving her complete immersion in these experiences, I suggested that she simply send me more information, photographs, and other materials, and I would reedit and reorganize the manuscript myself.

Fortunately, I had a gifted intern at that time, who worked dedicatedly on the project, and was able even to match the Japanese with the English translations. Working hand in hand with my typesetter, Guy Bennett, she shaped, with my suggestions, the book into a coherent whole. In 1997 I published May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow—An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku in a cloth edition, a book I am very proud of having produced.

Although the book received some critical attention, the major newspapers and magazines, to my amazement, did not bother to review the work. Clearly there was some confusion over whether this was a history of the Japanese Concentration Camps or a collection of Haiku; it was both, I tried to explain, but book editors often can only comprehend books that fall into standard categories; and, I suspect, that if they sought any guidance from Japanese scholars or critics, Violet’s outspoken history did not help the matter. I called book editors across the country, sent copies of the book to the newspapers of every major city—not one of them responded! Although there have been several studies now on the shameful incarceration of Japanese Americans, there had never been a book that explored the issues from this perspective. Evidently, those in power still did not want to face the past!

I am pleased, however, that many of the poems have been anthologized in poetry collections of American writing. An individual from the California State Historical Society recently told me how important he felt this book had been. He had only to thank its courageous author, I responded, a woman who lost everything before recovering her powerful voice.


Los Angeles, October 9, 2007

Thursday, July 1, 2010

PONDERING THE STRUGGLE


John Singleton Copley Paul Revere

Gilbert Stuart Paul Revere

Grant Wood The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

John Singelton Copley Watson and the Shark


American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 28, 2010-May 23, 2010 / I attended the show on its closing day, May 23rd

On the very last day of the exhibition, May 23, 2010, my companion Howard Fox and I attended to Los Angeles County Museum of Art show American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, a show containing some of the most iconic images of American painting by major American painters such as Winslow Homer, George Bellows, George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, Thomas Eakins, and Mary Cassatt.

I will write of some of these works at a later time. But two of my special favorites were by the great pre-Revolutionary American painter, John Singelton Copley who by the time of the revolution had moved to England, where he would go on to express himself more as a British painter.

Earlier in his career, Copley painted at least two important images that represented—each in a radically different way—what the United States and the Americas in general were to come to represent. The first of these, painted in 1768, was a portrait of the silversmith Paul Revere, who sat for the painting. This work is also one of the most ironic paintings in the show, not necessarily because of authorial intent but simply because of the emblems Copley used, whether they were actual or imagined, to portray the nature of his subject.

By the time of the sitting Revere, who had gained attention as a silver craftsman in Boston, had also become highly involved with political agitators, producing several political engravings as well as taking political actions with the Sons of Liberty, a group of individuals—including Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Edes and others—whose purpose was to incite change in the British government's treatment of the Colonies, actions which resulted in the Battle of Golden Hill just two years after Revere's painting and in the burning of the HMS Gaspée in 1772.

The artist, on the other hand, was insistently neutral and would soon after marry into the Tory family of the Clarkes. Clarke, in fact, was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773 was consigned. Copley himself wrote of that significant event, defending his in-laws. And in its aftermath, when patriots had threatened to have his blood if, as he had dined that night with the Loyalist Col. George Watson, he ever "entertained such Villain for the future," Copley protested, "What a spirit! If Mr. Watson had stayed (as I pressed him to) to spend the night. I must either have given up a friend to the insult of a Mob or had my house pulled own and perhaps my family murthered."

On the surface Revere is portrayed quite lovingly, a young man instead of the older one we know from Gilbert Stuart's portrait of 1813. Dressed in a linen shirt, at a time when linen was prohibited to Americans unless it was imported, the craftsman's handsome face, mirrored—as art historians have often pointed out—in the polished surface of the tea pot he has just completed, and his simple tools still resting on the dark mahogany work table, the image encapsulates the ideal of American achievement. Whereas, the linen shirt, it might be argued —and has been by Sister Wendy Beckett—could be construed as a patriot concession (in opposition to the ban, Boston seamstresses had produced that very year more than 100 yards of linen), the teapot was a emblem of the Tories alone. In protest to the tea tax, patriot Bostonians drank only what was described as "Boston Tea," a drink closer to punch.

The major irony, accordingly, is that this young patriot made a livelihood by producing an item unavailable or, at least, unused by his American fellows. Whether or not, as some have argued, Copley was simply balancing the parts, creating a figure in Revere who might appeal to all Colonists, he, nonetheless, succeeded in creating a thoughtful and appealing man, far different from the comical and satiric figure of Grant Wood's 20th century painting with its strange aerial perspective and ridiculously high pointed church spire below which, as if he were on a rocking-horse, Revere madly rides off.

There is something hilariously funny in Revere's ride as he runs to the church tower to watch British movements and speeds away to report what he has seen. The startlement of pigeons, the "trembling ladder," and the moonlight view of the town below is slightly ludicrous in Longfellow's famous poetic depiction of that night adventure:

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

In Grant's depiction the whole event echoes, what Longfellow's poem suggests was its intended audience, a children's tale ("Listen my children and you shall hear..."). Copley's stately portrait of a thoughtful and skillful man of crafts is a statement of willful industry aimed at adults.

The second painting, Watson and the Shark, is Copley's exciting and romanticized telling of the tale of a fourteen-year old orphan, Brook Watson, who served as a crew member on a trading ship. The young man, a natural swimmer, dove in for swim in the waters of Havana Harbor in a trip to the West Indies in 1749. Suddenly he was attacked by a shark who soon after bit through his leg which subsequently had to be amputated. The shark also bit off his other foot.
Watson was saved by his fellow crewmen, who, awaiting the arrival of their captain, drove their dingy forward into the waters to fight off the shark.

Despite his injuries, Brook Watson lived on, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London, and commissioning the now-famous painting from his friend Copley. At his death, he bequeathed the painting to Christ's Hospital.

The melodramatic lone swimmer and shark in the front of the painting are carefully balanced by the crew of various ethnicities in the triangularly arranged grouping of nine figures, some trying grasp the failing swimmer, some rowing, another attempting to spear the beast, and others simply expressing their horror of the event. How different the depiction of this terrifying and chaotic accident is from the almost static portrayal of Revere— unless one imagines that in the mirrored image of the silver pot the smith has caught a glimpse the impending struggle of the Revolution and his own involvement in those battles.

Watson and the Shark is certainly a powerful depiction of an occurrence in the Americas, but is, strictly speaking, not at all about US life. Indeed the painting was done in 1778, four years after Copley had emigrated to London, and its subject was British, not an American citizen. Unless one understands "American stories," accordingly, in the broadest sense, this might be argued to not be an American tale at all, but rather a British or even a Cuban one. But who would quibble with the opportunity to see this great painting, which hangs in Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery, once again?

Los Angeles, June 30, 2010