Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Bartlebys

photo by Geoffrey Gatza

Bartleby, the Sportscaster A Novella by Ted Pelton. Boulder, Colo.: Subito Press, 2010. 73 pp.
buy it here. (SPD)

The precious gift of a few hours free from parenting, working, cleaning up the spilt milk, fretting over love’s delicate fibers and the looming necessity of home repair: this is the time I use to sit down for a visit with Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, is one of those fictions Phillip Lopate calls a “work that refuses to resolve the inexplicable.” Melville’s 1853 novella is a haunting text whose main character is remarkable because he’s not really or effectively there. Bartleby is a story that has persisted as an American classic because it is in many ways prescient of our modernity. Index of the segregated masculine mind, domain and oikos (Greek for “household”), it humorously teaches us about New York City’s financial and legal professions, the strange life of its sector, and it manages to place a “supreme enigma” at its heart. It is one of the best fictions ever written about the disruption of the ideal bourgeois subject, that jargonish term for white collar and professional workers living in, as we now say, corporate culture.

Nothing is ideal about Melville’s story, however. Strained as you may find Melville’s prose, especially in contrast to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s elegant flow, he is the master of irony. I bring up (and will indulge in) Melville’s style because I want to address the importance it holds in comparison with Ted Pelton’s newest novella Bartleby, The Sportscaster, which I want to praise, even as I parse. Where it takes Melville 170 words to describe his narrator's public role as a Master of Chancery, it takes Pelton about 10 to give us the goods on Ray Yarzejski. A Master of Chancery must be, I first thought, something like the 1850s equivalent of a derivatives trader (who, as we have learned, were recently inflating their bank accounts by betting on companies to fail, while telling their investors the companies were growing), but I now understand it is a Clerk of a particular branch of the Courts, dealing with land, inheritances and some other odd cases.

Okay, I need to stop this so-called review right now. There is something ridiculous in what I am about to do. But it fits. It’s fitting. I wonder: do things really happen to us by chance? Or, if we look realistically at all the shit we have to wade through, we may conclude that, if we don’t master situations and instead let them have their way with us, and it seems readily apparent to all who know us that we haven’t mastered them, then the gratuitous parading of our powerlessness can only set our old enemies to chuckling. We may even do further harm to ourselves thinking that they will somehow be comforted in feeling that, in their view, all is indeed right in the universe. We might, in a bizarre fit of dissociation and misplaced identification, come to believe that our misery is a significant cause of someone else’s happiness.

With this in mind, there is something else we need to keep in front of us if we’re ever going to get a handle on the Bartleby Enigma as taken up by Ted Pelton, and that’s the baseball metaphor. It’s the game of life, right? Though I’ve long since given it away, I do remember the Lakoff and Johnson book Metaphors We Live By, published thirty years ago, in which the most pervasive tropes in the American psyche are examined and given a kind of philosophical honor: the road of life—the sunshine of your love—eating one’s own words. The list goes on and on. But what is important about this metaphor—the game of life—is that it demonstrates effectively how much a particular, limited, distinct activity stands in for much more general areas of experience. It certainly does so for August Wilson’s iconic figure, Troy Maxson, in his play Fences. Troy faces off with his children, wife, friends and death itself as if he were standing in the batter’s box. In a more recent turn, this Spring sculptor David Adamo has created a parquet floor of Louisville Slugger baseball bats in one room of MoMA’s P.S. 1 Art Museum, so that the clean blonde wood of all these toy weapons will slowly darken and soil as visitors walk over them. Here, the baseball metaphor undergirds our experience. We walk over it. “I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” my friend told me as I stepped into the room. “But I was instructed to do so by The New York Times!” I cried. That good grey lady is my most constant book of instruction. I would help the artist complete his metaphor. As much as we are capable of inhabiting such metaphors, the more satisfying and fitting our lives will be for us. Sadly, Bartleby doesn’t fit any of them, and the concept he offers us in response, refusal by preference, infectiously leads us nowhere pretty damn fast.

On June 4, 2010, David Markson died. He was a very important fiction writer who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In The Last Novel, which was in truth his last novel, and he announced it as such, he builds a narrative out of quotations. One of these quotes is: “Baseball is what we were, Football is what we have become” (Mary McGrory). She doesn’t mean the World Cup, which is the focus of some works currently up at Apexart in TriBeCa called “Men With Balls” (until July 11). But even these connections—baseball as what we were, football as what we have become, are now, it would seem, unsettled. Football is not what we are now, and is also what soccer has become, in America. So, what will we now call our most championed American game? Pigskin?

I am taking a long, circuitous route around my purposes here, because I am trying to find the constellation that best suits, accentuates, and sets off this novella: Bartleby the Sportscaster. After I finished reading this literary curiosity, I went for a walk to the end of my street, where a wide path of foot-pleasing, rounded hexagonal cobblestones stretches out in both directions, and is set with many many benches, one whereupon I sat myself down with my New York Times and looked beyond the low iron fence and down the rise into the baseball field below, where a game of softball was taking place. It’s easy, I thought, to not have to think about baseball at all. It’s everywhere. Beyond this field (and a fence) is the Shore Parkway with its zooming impatience, and then, after another fence, the paved strip of a bikepath, more benches, a sidewalk, and then yet another fence guarding the populace from the rocks forming the bank of the Narrows. To the right is New York Harbor and Lady Liberty, the lower tip of Manhattan. Just across the Narrows is the landing for the Staten Island Ferry and of course, the Island itself. And as it was nearing dusk, who can leave out mention of the soft, billowy cumulonimbus clouds framing a huge orange sun like a supercilious brow, the hazy beams cast upwards by their shadows stroking the infinite blue-white sky above it? Melville is infectious.

My general subject, peripherally, as well as the novella’s ostensible subject, is baseball. But of course it should be clear by now that forgetting about the ball, and getting on with the game is the real subject of my efforts. Sometimes I get a jolt of vertigo when I think about just how far I have to take my eyes off the ball in order to get started. David Markson, in the same videotaped reading I alluded to above, repeats a short set of words two or three times over the course of his forty minutes: “Old. Tired. Sick. Poor. Alone.” How could a man just under half his age, and in the prime of his life, feel such painful kinship with this plaintive certainty, a feeling that almost screams as it glares out quietly from within and reaches so far beyond those simple words? What does one do when a writer abandons the pretense of distance and objectivity like that? Who supercedes decorum and all sugary literary artifice just to ruin our pleasant and consoling hours of reading with such an accurate indictment of our aloof, blinkered hearts?

Something in the “inexplicable”, queer and singular case of Bartleby makes his story, and each retelling of it, less and less singular and queer the better and better you can work out its problems, indictments, and refusals. And when Ted Pelton, the author, decides to insert a chapter of autobiography into his novella, we realize that he, too, is not interested in keeping any veneer or bouyant artifice intact. But we should well know by now that this kind of interruption of the tale is nothing new or disturbing in fiction, and is instead integral to its mode. It rubs a little life into its achey limbs.

Part Five of Bartleby the Sportscaster only lifts us from one fiction into another, rather than departing from fiction altogether. Melville, as one of the greatest prose writers of the 19th Century, does not do this. Melville’s tragedy is absolute. There is a sense of stability in the art he perfected that makes his fiction the highest form of literary writing in the 19th century. In the 21st century, the imposing formal edifice of those great fictions with their silent, urn-like fixity and otherness, has become too much for us to bear, perhaps simply as a result of the ubiquity of the form itself. Today the tragic is a laughable residue, the result of a systematic worldview that has only one imposing other to threaten and provide for its dissolution and destruction. Today we are blessed with hundreds of annihilating others. Today there’s a selection, and we can have a preference. No, we now recognize that the old form is unworkable: we must have melodrama, and we must be a part of it. In Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Creon upbraids the rebellious daughter of Oedipus for what he considers a family sickness—that firm resolve to enact tragedy, when all other indications are that, with a slight bending of her will, she can enjoy all the fruits of what is, in Anouilh’s day, the modern melodrama, a tragicomedy. Ted Pelton indeed wants to have his conversation with Melville, one not unlike Creon’s with Antigone, or Melville’s narrator with his employee, for that matter, in that he simply wants his interlocutor to relent. “Give a sign!” he, we, it (the fiction) all cry. We want to shout. We beg the Bartlebys to give us some slight gesture of sympathy with us, sign up with the status quo, get everybody on the team, onto the bus. Likewise, in Ted Pelton’s melodrama we are begging, from the endearingly recalcitrant position of the one who has given up, for this other to acknowledge, even by one simple wink of the eye, that the game can go on. But we do not beg in Melville’s tragedy. The narrator does the begging. Mercifully, in Melville’s fiction there is no we. He’s way over there. Sure he sounds a lot like us, but we’re not him. It could be said that the namelessness of the Master of Chancery implicates us in his conundrum, his paradox. Instead, like the witnesses of Creon and Antigone's argument, we are given a seat at an appropriate distance from the stage so that our squirming, tears, or boredom can go on in the dark. Our time, as a matter of principle, doesn’t want to be sure there is a stage up there. We all want to act, and have that certainty of acting, without the theme getting too carried away with itself on its own. In our great fear of the body, and of losing the body, that we have lost the body, and in our enormous surprise in discovering that we might get a chance at having and living as the body, we want to make sure by repeatedly calling on it, touching it, and seducing it just enough for it to show itself. But we’re not sure it’s worked.

The Master of Chancery begs Bartleby to dispense with the law, have a taste of the good life, by giving into it. Just a little. Ted Pelton, expressing his sympathy for the narrator of Bartleby the Scrivener, does so formally (in narrative structure) just as much as he does by reproducing the Master’s voice (though now in a kind of harassed Brooklynese); just as Ray Yarzejski does when he invents a radio voice for Bartleby. Pelton includes autobiography. But what will this reviewer do? Is it both his candy and candor to set down here that echoless fact that me knew him once? And that I did meet, however briefly, in a sterile third-floor adjunct’s office, adjunct-to-adjunct, so to speak, the woman he married and eventually divorced? I’m desirous that it was in fact she who wrote Bartleby the Sportscaster! It would form a beautiful figure in our world if she had, gestate the succession of forms, however buried in the layers of narrative voicings this framed echo-chamber of postmortemism, ahem, which we now inhabit asks us to wade through in the hopeless desire to discover who speaks. And why do I feel bound by an equally difficult loyalty to also not print her name?

It isn’t as disconcerting to discuss the degree to which Bartleby articulates a social, aesthetic and philosophical crisis in Bartleby the Scrivener. By the story’s end, the Scrivener is, with Hamlet, sleeping with Kings and Counsellors. We come to realize that the narrator’s story is only the rustling of voices surrounding the body of the recently deceased. Bartleby’s revolution is, of course, the new thing, and not a simple matter of the master-slave dialectic, of bloody refusals and violent uprisings. There is only Turkey, Nippers, Ginger-Nut and himself. Bartleby’s revolution is of an American, or more accurately, capitalist reliance on the trope of preference. Readers are slowly teased along to believe that Bartleby has turned to Wall Street after a tenure in Washington D.C., working in a similarly cramped and dismal office where he was destroying, and perhaps—the narrator is almost sure of it—reading the dead letters sent to nonexistent, dead, unreachable recipients. Bartleby achieves tragic status twice over for the fact of this work: he is responsible for consigning hopes to the flames. Melodrama does no such thing. Ray Yarzejski picks up all these letters and drives out into the great rolling night. He will find the address. He will deliver the mail, no matter what.

And I’ll get on the bus, too, as I sincerely hope for the success of Pelton’s novella. These twin tales of scrivener and sportscaster have provided me an engaging diversion from my otherwise pressing household duties. I’m sending out my hopes for Bartleby, The Sportscaster in the name of Ecclesiastes Choate the one-legged wonder, and in the name of Jeff Huson, too: onetime utility player for the Montreal Expos, and now calling games for the Colorado Rockies.

Was it by chance? On my return from my meditations on the edge of the Narrows, Huson’s 1990 Upper Deck baseball card lay gingerly tipped on the edge of a sewer grate. Maybe it had fallen from the spokes of some young ballplayer’s bicycle. Putting baseball cards in the spokes is what we were. Riding along to the sweet clickity-clack of cardboard on metal, us boys once pedaled the streets and avenues in search of ice cream, a little illicit chewing tobacco, and for lovely Lisa to come play doctor and patient with us down under the bleachers.

Lord knows what we have become.

Go Cyclones!


Douglas Manson is a writer in New York City. If you like this review, please buy Ted's book, and maybe even send Doug $10. Or ask him to become a full professor at your 4-year research institution, or to sign on as a salaried staff writer at your high-profile magazine or newspaper. And if you're beautiful and kind, go give him a hug and a kiss. He likes those, too.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Leslie Scalapino (1944-2010)

The Memorial for Leslie Scalapino on Monday at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church was a wrenching, sad, but also incredibly loving collective expression of grief and elation. Though I never met her, she seemed to be everywhere Monday and Tuesday, especially in my thoughts, and as a kind of energy and force--so that my class today, beginning with Emily Dickinson's poem "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--" became both a discussion and meditation about Truth, but as a truth of time and place, as I talked about the memorial and communities of poets. She was there as I announced the new, local, Queens Borough laureate, and we looked at reviews and the cover of Paolo Javier's 60 lv bo(e)mbs, which was published by the press she founded, O Books. But she was there, for me, in that I felt myself somewhere instead of nowhere. I was moved by the tributes and learned how she was both a serious Buddhist practitioner, and a dog telepath! She was a writer of inside and outside, of horizons and what they are and what they do. Inside and outside. "The poet has died, and the poems are born in the readers." --Charles Bernstein

Donations in her memory can be made to these funds :

Poets in Need, PO Box 5411, Berkeley, CA 94705; to Reed College for the Leslie Scalapino Scholarship, 3203 Southeast Woodstock Boulevard, Portland, OR 97202-8199; The AYCO Charitable Foundation, PO Box 15203, Albany, NY 12212-5203 for the Leslie Scalapino-O Books Fund to support innovative works of poetry, prose and art; or to a charitable organization of your choice.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Raucously Immoderate Blacklisted Fungal Oryx-Horn Tootles

Today is PLAY DAY. A rare moment between gigs, where I decide to cocoon it like beckham and hike the pristine Alps of all my undiscovered countries, where I regurgitate my true colors in the same way Alexander von Humboldt's pomeranian throw-pillow spits mysterious lyrics about Bulgarian bait shops. It's just like blogging from a shed in the Hudson Valley, except that now all its unlocked additional premium features are going live in real time. It's like Christmas in the Azores. It's all about getting old and bloated like 1975 Elvis and not being hot anymore. It's all about dispensing supplements rather than accepting nurturance.

Part One (for Jeff Beebe)

This one sat on the top of my stack the longest. Mir hinted that it was because the dragon-riding elf (sylph? succubus?) wasn't wearing pants, but I hadn't even noticed that fact until she did. I was happy the poet and publisher had such verisimilitudinous cojones to get all the fonts and stripes just right, and then I went all chaotic neutral on it:

As with my 18 and 19 year-old students, I had spacing issues with the poems on the inside, because Sakkis uses a lot of triple and quadruple-spacing for his 17-poem sequence. Even so, his lines, so spare, soi disant, are still funny. Teaser lines from "Gelatinous Cube": "when walking into the room/make sure to poke it with a stick/or you may end up/disgested/or maimed/with a Crip walk/like Charles Manson". For completed joke purposes, I include here the cover of the very module me and D&D pals Mir, Jaye and Atira tried to play last saturday:

As you can see, as much thought and energy went into the cover of Gary Gygax as went into the poems. Nonetheless, nostalgia and neuralgia points are awarded for making it to the top of the dogpile!!!

Part Two (for the Vandercook Snobs)

I begin to understand why visual appeal and design virtuosity make for successful book fair visits. My next offering comes from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The person at their table took the time to explain the amazingly complex process by which the book was made, and which I promptly forgot. I think lithography, post-raised reverse impressions and passes, and some fair amount of rubbing were used to create the drifting, cloud-like tenuousness of this cover. While the book-as-object itself sent me into a trance with its tactile, gentle feeling and modesty, the poems inside Museum Armor took me 3 to 4 readings before their chiseled subtexts bubbled forth like a clear spring of Helicon water.

Part Three (for the IO poetry journal)

This next piece is a postcard. I just picked it up off a table. I don't know if I was nice enough to talk to the person sitting at the table. My memory is vain, fickle, selective and basically crunk.

Apparently, this rare postcard (#18 of 30) is supposed to be treated in some way, given "extra-illustration" so it can appear in a chapbook. But I'm going to use it to send a request for poems to somebody named "Rootdrinker" who is also a Charles Olson fanatic. My apologies to Elsbeth. I was trying to think what a "rootdrinker" was or is, and then I decided he or she or it is a "beer drinker". Plus the book I get for sending the card to "drinker" has a poem by Hoa Nguyen in it.

Part Four (for Alice Cone)

This part is much more serious than Parts One to Three. One of the best conversations I had at the Chapbook Festival was with Alan Holder. He gave me what I think was his only copy of his book Mourning Sequence. It had some kind of oil stain radiating from the center. I left it in an unduly moist place in my house, and it was further damaged. It was published by Finishing Line Press, where my dear friend Alice published her book Shatter Blossom. I knew this was a halfway pay-to-play publishing concern, so I could see how much care was given to the text and cover by the poet himself.

A poem by Alan Holder:


Now that you are gone,
I must see for both of us
see leaves gallantly hanging on,
turned to gold by November's alchemy.

Now that you are gone,
I must hear for both of us,
hear the stately descending notes
at the start of the Largo in Handel's Xerxes.

Now that you are gone,
I must taste for both of us,
spoonful after spoonful of chocolate
almond ice cream, our favorite.

Now that you are gone,
I must smell and touch for both of us,
but since it is you I would smell, you I would touch,
what scent can I seek, what trace with these fingertips?

Part Five (for Gabrielle Bouliane)

At the end of the Chapbook Festival, a kind man at the next table gave me this book, a memoir, and it really impressed me, both in how it came into my possession, and by its completely unique narrative. I don't know if it's a sub-genre, but I'd never read a memoir by an artist/illustrator living in NYC who was into sado-masochism. I suppose I never looked very hard to find one. I appreciated the straightforward tone and the sometimes unintentionally ridiculous situations the author found herself in, but above all I came to admire the strength she showed in surviving horrible living conditions, scam artists, piecemeal and underpaid employment, and the two biggest municipal disasters of the aughts: the 9/11 attacks and hurricane Katrina.

Go Marrus!!

Come back around for Parts 6 to One Kajillion!


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Barbed and Stupid


You are likely to be one of my 7 daily readers.

I'm probably either related to you or got all sweaty with you sometime in the near or distant past.

If you aren't one of these people, then welcome! I apologize for the sticky sweet intimacy of my greeting.

I'm tragically distractable. That's why my posts aren't as prosodically vitamin-packed and irradiated with x-ray infrared theory missiles as my confreres, peers and fellow pack-mules.

They call this an attention deficiency. I call it a tragically distractable mind.

Or maybe I have a hyper-acuity with no dissertation to write meta-order.

Wouldn't it be good to consider our distinctive pathologies meta-orders rather than a dis-orders? Maybe I write the kind of writing this text-box and the internet likes best. Or you.

I'm definitely NOT trying to sustain an elegant thought here.

Today At 4:00 p.m. a blue dodge pickup truck NY license plate DYB 1200 used a weapons-grade sound device (that really should be classified as a military weapon), in order to "honk" at a car in front of it on 3rd ave. at 77th street, while I was carrying my warm and clean towels home from the laundromat. I'm really scared that our society is in serious collapse, because some fat 20-year old dickhead can buy and install an ear-drum shattering device like that in his redneck pickup truck. As I turned the corner I looked back to see him smiling and laughing, while my eardrums felt like ripped shreds of tissue paper, and my head hurt.

Back when I thought I was going to be a life-long professor and poet, writing a book on Animals, Philosophy and Literature, a critical biography of Kenneth Patchen, maybe even a book on Ethics and Literature, I used to spend my sleepless anxiety-ridden nights wondering what was so wrong with me that I couldn't get a tenure-track position. Back then, I used to believe people when they told me, "oh, the job market is terrible right now."

It's only been in the last few months that it dawned on me that the ONLY people who would tell me this are either tenure-track or full-time professors. I sleep quite happily now. Usually. Yes, the job market is terrible, yes higher education is now exposed for the debt-and-indenture system it really is, and yes, universities gave me a purpose in life, introduced me to high literature and culture, and are the most thoroughly treasure-packed humanistic resources we have in our society.

About six weeks ago I wrote this:

"Whatever this spirit or style or mood may be, it's a good thing--something I may or may not be able to characterize in the near future. And now I'm afraid that today I'm going to be going around LOOKING for it, or something."

But really I was trying to describe the feeling of cumulative meaninglessness I experienced after speed-browsing about 50-60 poems at a book fair. When I said, "it's a good thing," I think I was just trying to be nice and accommodating. But I think what I felt was akin to what this author is trying to describe regarding "The Best" American poetry of 2009. I think I will be going around trying to AVOID it, or find something else. I think there's a meaning to meaning, even if Avital Ronell thinks "meaning" is a fascist plot.

I think I'm just feeling a little restless. Restless about a play I can and cannot write. Restless about planning and budgeting my next year as a publisher. Wondering if people can still get the kind of news from poetry that Dr. Williams was talking about. Feeling a little bit wedged between eras. My own eras, and what's wedged between my ears. What Robert Huillot-Kantor calls an emerging, "completely stupidifying situation". About the very real connections between a car horn that works like a bomb, the Eisenhower interstate system, the Gulf of Mexico turning into a tar blob puddle, and the kind of endless wars that I wish Orwell hadn't foreseen. The stupidity that I wish Kathy Acker hadn't foreseen as the way write in our era--to "write stupid," as she does so well in In Memoriam to Identity.

Okay, all I want to say is: we aren't such cheap goods. I hope you will kiss someone deeply and lovingly very soon. And I hope you will eat either dried or boiled seaweed, too. That stuff is amazing.

I promise I will wander the streets of Brooklyn and Queens all day today looking for my lost spiritual son, just like Leopold Bloom.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Nostalgic For Future Times

The internet has grown increasingly a space for literature as time goes by. As a child, books were so wondrous and magical I couldn't help thinking, outside of the fame I would achieve once I appeared on television, perhaps on the Junior version of my favorite TV game shows like Joker's Wild or Wheel of Fortune, that the greatest success in my lifetime would be to write and publish a novel--and in those days it meant something like a cross between science fiction and medieval discovery narrative (later named "the literature of encounter"), in which a person travels to the coldest, most distant, bleakest edge of the universe that transforms itself, just as the hero and his faithful dog cross the most dangerous mountain pass or galactic chasm, into some kind of unexpected, magically new world.

I'm only saying this much because I have to admit that I consider it a publication (or a citation, the good kind, not like a parking ticket) when a comment I posted on Facebook is used on a Blog that is part of a Newspaper website. Nothing made it into print, and yet I feel I was validated somehow. Thanks, Bob.

Speaking of print, I realized just how bad things have become when the website for the University of Chicago Press posts a typographical error on their front page. I know that I write and publish typos all the time. That's usually because I'm the only person who reads my posts before I hit "Publish Post". But I love editors and proofreaders. I wish I had a partner, employee, editor, collective, or some other arrangement in order to solicit, edit, design and publish little scratch pad press books. But the University of Chicago?? Inventors of the Chicago Manual of Style; the pickiest, white-glove testing grammar-hammering book on editing in existence?? Inventors of the the Chicago School of Economics and snatcher of all those Nobel Prizes?? Anyway, I thought the typo was funny. Maybe an act of protest, even. Now more than ever, there is an unsettling and increasingly thin divide between the public and the . . . . (well, read it for yourself):

In Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea, Svetlana Boym explores the rich cross-cultural history of the idea of freedom, from its origins in ancient Greece through the present day, suggesting that our attempts to imagine freedom should occupy the space of not only “what is” but also “what if.” “Another freedom” is an adventure that tests the limits of uncertainty and responsibility, of individual imagination and pubic culture. Read an excerpt.

Let the adventure begin!