Category: Uncategorized

administrative things

I owe it to visitors of this blog to explain that this “Ba Jin” project is very much in the rear view mirror. In short, future blogging will appear at a new wordpress linked below.

A blog called The Evan Dara Affinity linked to my blog posts on THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I greatly appreciate. It’s crazy to be in a ground-up critical bibliography, and more discourse on the underappreciated and under-analyzed Evan Dara is always welcome, and we still need a lot more.  First read-through blogging is an interesting way to stage the hermeneutic wheel, so to speak, but it’s high time for a second, informed reading.

My activity on this blog disappeared over the last year as I was completing an MFA. I’m ever so slowly getting literary production out there under the name my parents gave me, and I couldn’t find the balance between that and a reading diary.

Till now that is! I will continue to post up the best readings I can of fine literature and SF at my author page, SECOND SLOPE. It will be more of a diary than a reading diary, a kind of open workshop or laboratory.

The readership on Ba Jin was small but devoted and super kind. See ya later, I hope~

truth, approximately

Winner of the Ba Jin blog prize for Best 2016 book read in 2017

Brian Blanchfield
Nightboat 2016

Nothing too thoughtful I can say about this fascinating and modern essay collection. It does a lot of thinking about itself already, whether it’s the many senses of the term proxy, or on the curious subtitle {Permitting Shame, Error, and Guilt, Myself the Single Source}. Blanchfield seems to have gone back to basics. On the surface, these seem like old-school, 18th century  essays: short, focused on a single subject (“On this, On that”). There’s only one space break in the whole text. However, the pieces do not use any research; if Blanchfield wants to mention Erich Auerbach or an essay by Berger, he must rely on memory and paraphrase. A 20-page section at the end called “Correction.” (what could the full stop mean?) contains a rolling list of errata.

Each piece starts out innocuously enough, expositional. He gives us the two main meanings of “frottage.” But then the rhythm of thinking takes a dip, and we land in something dark and personal. Some scenes, like a weird physical game between young Brian and his mother, are clearly painful for the author to render. The single-subject format provides an oblique way to account for (reckoning) a life that has been through New York, Boston, Tuscon, and also through Baptist church, academia, the NY gay scene at the tail end of the AIDS crisis. How ontologically multiple an ordinary life can seem.

How about the style? Every so often Blanchfield will build up lovely, sinuous sentences. On being asked why he, a poet, does not write the way he speaks:

Why is poetry pretentious? Is that the question? Certainly to answer “Well, there I was speaking as my representative shepherd” doesn’t help the cause. There are all kinds of ways to answer the question, including to define poetry as yet another art that pulls attention to the medium, language, defamiliarizing it from its usual invisible, directly communicative and expository functions, thereby discovering it afresh, activating and liberating it. But it is in usual, directly communicative and expository language that this explanation is offered, and so seems paltry, and even if one cuts to the chase and says, “You don’t tell a dancer that’s not how you normally move,” the defensiveness concedes the point. What was the point? (25)

The shepherd, evoking the pastorale, the happy place (this is from “On the Locus Amoenus”). In another piece, “On Propositionizing,” he constellates Heidegger, of all people, with Helen Keller’s famous breakthrough. These essays, so modest in tone, are actually flaunting the kind of analysis that is possible without recourse to wikipedia or fact-checking. If anything, our addiction to facticity and accuracy can even block off certain styles of thinking. Is this reactionary? Not at all, just a gentle reminder of the complexity of what we can know, and what we do know. Benjamin and Adorno, working under the failure of the German socialist revolution, were making the same claims. One can’t make do with facts and reason alone. We need to reckon with the irrational, the free-form paths of the mind. There’s a distinction to be made between epistemology and epistemophilia.

(I wonder if it’s a particularly USian thing to want facts, adult education, from all media, including novels and stand-up routines. This isn’t a recent thing either: Melville’s early novels were received like travelogues, and then were disappointing as such.)

Those who would claim that critical theory with its jargon and relativistic nuttiness is responsible for the “post-fact world” (the soft left’s version of the right’s complaints against “cultural Marxism”) are invited to see what an unconstrained thinking mind is capable of in this clever, modest, beautifully written project.

resolutions and hopes 2k17

Read Marx — actual Marx, not just Marxism.

Read BEING AND TIME, maybe over the summer.

At least 20% of the books you read this year will authored by women. Another 20% by PoC which may overlap.

Read more of the long novels.

Read faster.

Get more than one piece accepted for publication this year.


No hopes. In other words the usual.


static shock

Monica Youn
Graywolf Press 2016

A lot of changes in reading life, writing life, thinking life, real life. In fact enough changes to make me repudiate everything I’ve claimed here, if I didn’t feel that way already after posting. I’m reading more poetry, for one. I’m getting over my formalist/aesthete bias against flat, “ordinary” language, which opened up some interesting contemporary poetry, especially by Geoffrey G. O’brien, whose poem “D’Haussonville” describes a 1845 portrait by Ingres of a countess Louise de Broglie. She was an essayist, and the poem is like in essay in its expository function, but the language still de-familiarizes its subject.

It’s been done before; even admitting
It’s been done before’s been done, but not
In Haussonville, where it rains supports
Of all kinds, and variations on blue,
Enough to populate a sitting room,
The single figure richly pauses,
Trapped in what has been called
A rainbow of blues, deep but narrow
Luxury reflected in a mirror
Into which you can and can’t possibly be seeing
Accurately. […]

 Long sentences like these, in pleasantly standard lineation, turning on a variety of end words. There’s a mixture of imagination (the speaker can’t know for sure it was raining when the countess stood for the painting; it’s a “nonfact”) and a voice of realistic pedantry (the reflection in the mirror of the painting can’t physically reflect what it does).

So the speaker moves amongst seeing the painting as the “fictional” scene, a portrait, where it might be raining, where details betray an entire way of living, done in the neoclassical style; and as the product of Ingre’s meaningful work in getting the perfect blend of paints for the countess’s striking blue dress, and the many studies he must have drawn for the job. And while the reader is trying to get their bearings in the poem, perhaps they move the same way between these senses of the work in O’brien’s text.

I read some other stuff too. AVERNO by Louise Glück, Anne Carson’s MEN IN THE OFF HOURS, which had a really exciting sequence of poems called “TV Men”.

But nothing nearly as exciting as Monica Youn’s third collection. BLACKACRE is the best 2016 book I read last year (and probably the only one). The first poem, “Palinode,” before part one, is the lens through which I read the rest of it.

The first part is a single, disarmingly flat line: “a bird / falls off / a balcony / panicked grasping / fistfuls of / air”. These slashes are part of the text; it’s a line with five line breaks written in. “Fistfuls of air” is odd for a bird. Is the bird injured, which is why falling off a balcony induces panic?

Then the second part:

I was wrong
please I was 

wrong please I
wanted nothing please
I don’t want

Here’s the palinode, which is an ode retracting the stance of a previous poem. What do you make of this pleading? Did the speaker really not want something? But then why does she speak, or at least place notations on a page that could’ve been left blank?

Youn captures so effectively a sense of white space as an active counter-pressure. Every line fights to embed itself in place. Each space break feels like the white space snaps off the text, like sausage links, but only creates a seam through which more meaning could emerge. Like Philip’s ZONG! there’s an interest in the visual arrangement of words, using line breaks and space breaks to highlight the words embedded inside words (Youn brings “amen” out of “amenable”). They’re both ex-lawyers, and while Philip worked with the language of law as material, something in Youn’s work invokes that sinister authority and power created by ritual syntax. The Law, the Word.

Going back to “Palinode,” we can take the first part, the first line, as the timid hazarding of a poem. It’s kitschy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s as if it tries to spit itself out as one line even though it’s five. The frantic retraction recognizes that these words are unworthy of the white space. It’s almost like those first three lines are re-arranging the same four words. The five-line block, resting under the long first line, almost makes the page look like one of Malevich’s suprematist compositions. The two blocks of words almost seem like swatches cut from different material.

Youn’s great at working with conceptual inputs and templates without using them as a crutch. It’s not a suffocatingly rigorous book. The first section’s a cycle of poems inspired from Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men,” but also sustains the Hanged Man tarot card, and paintings encountered at art history talks.

She’s also great at rhythm. For example, in the title poem: ” ‘Therewith’ — a safe word, a strongbox to be buried.” The last half rolls nicely. And “safe” starts as an adjective and then functions as itself, a word as a safe (what does the safe hold?). The insight arrives like a shock, the speaker interrupting herself with a dash. Or: “Rest — the rind of the best, a contoured pod that cradles the shape of what it doesn’t hold.” A little rhyme, which she likes to do, sometimes to an unsettling effect when the language resembles children’s doggerel. Every word’s doing a lot of work here, especially “cradles.”

I have to mention “Blueacre” which is an inventory of 60 items: things seen and heard in a long take of Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975). This was an answer to questions I’ve had of achieving the same effects and experiences in prose that are done in those minimalist art movies I like, an answer I never dreamed of getting from a contemporary writer. And it’s elegantly simple. The camera is the poem, if not necessarily the speaker. This isn’t made explicit until the last line. The form pushes against the linear march of the text until it’s just short of grinding to a halt. It really was analogous to watching this kind of cinema, which indeed, can be “difficult” and “boring,” but that’s the interesting situation of lacking reprieve. To use another great line from the title poem, the task of this aesthetic is “to pit the body in emnity against its own heaviness.” The sheer material and philosophical weight of being an embodied human reveals itself, having been there all this time, the moment the beguiling fictional world of the film, poem, or novel dares to make us wait.

The inputs of the amazing Blackacre poems: coming to terms with infertility (revealed by a miscarriage?), and an exegesis on Milton’s Sonnet 19, “On His Blindness.” Milton is deprived of the thing he needs most to answer his calling to create. The poet can’t procreate. Is she “a bounded resource” and hence exhaustible? Is poetry one too? Fourteen prose sections titled after each end word, which launches fascinating thinking.

The first Blackacre poem, arranged like one of Susan Howe’s text blocks, reads: “one day they showed me a dark moon ringed / with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen”. The “they.” There’s always some authority attached to that word. Here “they” are doctors showing an ultrasound. But recalling Foucault on hospitals, schools, airports, malls, and prisons, as well as what Our Bodies Ourselves and the Jane Collective revealed about women’s health care practice, it’s not hard to extend those impersonal forces to the medical people.

These forces are embodied in the “they” and the white space of every page. The formalities of Law demand that one doesn’t speak without permission. Youn may not be practicing but she writes as if one needs permission to stain the silence, if only through the force of craft. Which is great, because her work abjures confession and the exposure of pain in favor of reticence without occlusion. Yet she is such a strong writer, maybe one of the best working, that I wish she didn’t.

what’s outside the window?

Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Picador 2008

Returning to SD after so long, because its lasting impression is of a world succumbing to an entropic darkness. Like Saramago, Bolaño was a writer and a left wing fellow traveler. Say what you will about anarchism, but a majority of the time they strive to make their writings accessible to all. I had bracketed this question: why do my own tastes in literature go to the difficult, experimental, and pyrotechnical styles over simple and direct prose? I was content to have my aesthetic and political interests run as two separate trains, hopefully in the same direction.

Yes, in the rise of Trumpland, even I am wondering about what to do with my art. I’m searching for an alternative to the predictably moronic response of the imploding democratic party and the neoliberal consensus that has been given its biggest rebuffs in a long while. I’ve never been keen on “activist art.” That’s a niche market for commissions. Writing doesn’t change the world; riots do. Bolaño’s novel provides a foothold to come at this issue with a little more dialectical thinking.

First, something from the Paris Review’s interview of William H. Gass:

If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.

I won’t outright say DETECTIVES belongs in the second “printed page” category, but it’s not interested in doing the things Gass’s prose does. It lights matches, it doesn’t set fireworks. (And as much as I love Gass and believe he wrote some of the finest American literature of the last century, lighting fireworks all the time has its own flaws.)

In a big set piece a little early on in the big middle part of the novel, our section’s narrator Auxilio Lacouture recounts hiding out in a UNAM campus bathroom as the military massacres the students:

Then I took the toilet paper that I’d written on and threw it in the toilet and pulled the chain. The sound of the water startled me, and I thought I was lost. I thought: what a poetic act to destroy my my writings. I thought: I should have swallowed them instead, because now I’m lost. I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought: because I wrote, I stood my ground. I thought: because I destroyed what I wrote they’re going to find me, beat me, rape me, kill me. I thought: the two acts are related, writing and destruction, hiding and being found. (204)

This thematically salient moment comes after many pages of language that is a little more figurative and lyrical — Lacouture’s a poet, the “mother of Mexican poetry.” She clings “like a limpet” to theater groups, and what have you.

We can locate her in that turning point Gass identifies between the performance and printed page prose styles. Bolaño’s kinda making fun of an idiom that is on its way out, but he’s also celebrating it for what it was. I’m less interested in that masculinist notion of the artist as conquerer, or the totally free agent. The more serious I get about writing, the more it feels more like a surrendering. To what? Not necessarily a metaphysical flow of creativity. Just to the material conditions of our time. Certain ways of writing are closed off for good. Classical forms can be used, but usually with a postmodern irony. The legacy of artistic history can weigh down like a nightmare, or it can be the wind in your own sails.

I’m pretty sure there are over fifty different speakers in this second part of DETECTIVES. It really is a tour de force for Bolaño to differentiate among the characters so successfully. Sure there are tics of verbiage and diction: there’s a snob who spits out latinate phrases, and there’s a painter on whom the mystique of the visceral realists is completely lost — for him Belano and Lima were just the gentlemen losers who sold him pot. At a deeper level, Bolaño seems to have thought about each person’s relationship to language. Barbara Patterson, the American gal who swears a lot, also doesn’t have the inner eye of a poet, she sees the “Arab” eyes of her Mexican boyfriend and goes right to kitschy cliches of camels and tents. Is Belano travelling the world with a tape recorder to take down these long yarns of speech?

And then, in the third part, we have Madero’s doodles. They’re riddles, where simple shapes have to be identified. A dot with a tight circle and wide circle with a little black wedge sticking out. It’s a buzzard wearing a cowboy hat. And so on.

They’re related to the one piece we get by Cesárea Tinajero, the object of their quest in the desert (while on the run from Lupe’s pimp). In that poem, called “Scion,” a square is on a flat horizon line, then the line becomes a sine wave, then a distressingly jagged line. The boys “read” it as a ship on the horizon, and behind the title is not only “Zion” but “navigation.” Riddle solutions lock things up, but the meaning of poetry is none the less probelmatized.

I was chilled by the final pages, which devolve into doodles. The riddle is “What’s outside the window.” A triangle sticks in from the left edge. The answer is a star. But that’s not what stars look like: that’s just the formalized convention, or conventionalized form, of a five point star I used to draw in kindergarten.

In the final riddle, the window’s border is a dotted line. Is it gone, with only an outline for where it should be, like in a cartoon? Is the window mutable, able to expand, like Derrida’s discourse, so that there is no “outside” of it?

The novel “gives up” on language in a way, but it’s also magesterial in its range of discourse. You could plunge through all the name-dropped authors and avant-garde movements it touches on, but you could also enjoy the shaggy detective story. There is a dialectical relationship between advanced modern art, arbitrary, artificial, and alienated, so hard-pressed to communicate itself, and a popular mass art produced by the culture industry that communicates too much to too many people. Neither kind is enough by itself; but together they generate sparks. It is mechanical reproduction that conditions us to what the aura of fine art is by showing us the David and the Mona Lisa repeatedly on postcards and TV commercials and so on. It is art that retreats from the world that can generate the utopian space, the conditions for a new world.

What’s outside the window?

god doesn’t deserve to see

José Saramago trans Giovanni Pontiero
Harvest 1998

With the election horse race and the liberal discourse reaching a pitch even more febrile than I ever anticipated, it was more tempting to go with an allegorical reading. I can’t sustain an argument of the terrifying white blindness as that of bourgeois liberalism; I’d love to see a post somewhere try to pull that all the way through.

More important was the masterful way Saramago unfolds the calamity, from the man in the car to his wife to the man who stole his car to the doctor to the sex worker with the dark glasses, and so on.

If we have always been blind, or already blind before the blindness wipes out capitalist society and its accumulation, perhaps it is because we see the depravity and barbarism that emerge as human nature, rather than the behaviors and desires cultivated by such a society in the first place. It’s satisfying to see Camus’s THE PLAGUE as an allegory for the German occupation, even though the plague is a natural phenomenon. The blindness and the plague are the human condition, each one completely alone except for the common ground of being trapped in existence and doomed to suffer before death. It is only exacerbated by the social relations of capital and the power they shore up on those who already have more than what they need.

A couple summers ago I binged on popular horror while my grandmother was dying. BLINDNESS was far more terrifying, for the depth to which it percolates in your consciousness (something about the church statues having white bandages over their eyes), and how little it titillates for all the brutality that happens.

I just have a little note about the relation of language to power. Much of the novel takes place in a quarantine — really an internment camp with soldiers and watchtowers. The blind people debate and discuss how to carry on, and very often proverbs and sayings are used to build their arguments, or in this case, a proverb goes unsaid.

When a group of internees, their leader wielding a gun, horde the food and force the others to pay and eventually demand the women from the other wards to be gang-raped lest everyone starve, we read a fraught debate on what course to take.

…one of the emissaries, with a particular sense of occasion, supported her by proposing that women volunteers should come forward for this service, taking into account that what one does on one’s own initiative is generally less arduous than if one has to do something under duress. Only one last scruple, one last reminder of the need for caution, prevented him from ending his appeal by quoting the well-known proverb, When the spirit is willing, your feet are light. (167)

Emblematic of our blindness, interestingly enough, is our reliance on speech that is not our own to guide us. Commonplaces and cliches are to be avoided, yes, but are also powerful tools when used with other techniques of rhetoric. If they are not our own words, they are also words with great authority; they are passed down a chain of command like military orders. This comes from A THOUSAND PLATEAUS by Deleuze and Guatarri. Commonplaces that serve authority would be ones like “The police are here to protect us” or “Clinton is the lesser of two evils” or “If you don’t vote don’t complain.”

The greatest source of hope is not from discarding proverbs but transforming them. In a dialog between the man with the eye patch and the doctor’s wife:

Do you know the saying, What saying, Old people cannot do much but their work is not to be despised, That’s not the way it goes, All right, instead of old people, it should be children, and instead of despise, it should be disdain, but if sayings are to retain any meaning and to continue to be used they have to adapt to the times. You are a philosopher, What an idea, I am just an old man. (283)

The transformation of sayings, and the vandalism of the church (a beautiful and powerful sequence) may be part of the same act of re-inscription, which in our world without the threat of white blindness (knock on wood) could be instrumental to our freedom.

easier Said than Fanon

Juan Goytisolo, trans. Helen Lane
Serpent’s Tale 1993

Where have all the colons in writing gone? asks Terry Eagleton (one of his stock jokes in his lectures). They went into this novel, which has no end stops (but it does have line breaks and chapter divisions with allusive titles like “Heloise and Abelard”). MAKBARA is the most aesthetically radical novel I’ve encountered since Dara’s LOST SCRAPBOOK. No protagonist, no discernible plot. Huge chunks of it are in French, Arabic, and possibly other North African languages and dialects.

Behind this experiment is the work of Edward Said and the great Dr. Fanon as well as the poststructuralists. He uses the techniques of high postmodern narrative: East and West, Man and Woman become ontologically confused.  That is, we flit from metropolitan places in Europe and America to Moroccan scenes without any marked transitions. There is an Arab man and a white woman, but their identities and voices are in a total state of flux with that of the narrator’s (the narrator is a ventriloquist, and is themselves a nomadic figure). The pronouns I, she, he, we do not demarcate but blend together and combine with random voicings from the streets and bazaars.

Come to think of it, the romance narrative is actually pretty standard. Like in BELOVED, the simple storyline is the scaffolding for ambitious rhetorical and modernist operations.

in the beginning was the cry: alarm, anguish, terror, chemically pure pain?: prolonged, sustained, piercing, to the limits of the tolerable: phantom, specter, monster from the nether world: a disturbing intrusion at any event: disruption of the urban rhythm, of the harmonious chorus of sounds and voices of supernumeraries and beautifully dressed actors and actresses: an oneiric apparition: an insolent, brutish defiance: a strange, transgressive presence: a radical negation of the existing order: index finger pointed accusingly at the happy, self-confident Eurocraticonsuming city: with no need to raise his eyes, strain his voice, extend his beggar’s hand with a black gesture of Luciferian pride…

The Arab man is a pariah figure shifting between peripatetic beggar, an ex-soldier with a big brown dick, an underground man, and still other figures. You can see the colons at work. In cinema, cuts are a division and a join at the same time. Likewise, at the same time the colon separates clauses it also promises an elaboration of what came before, so the novel unfolds at a relatively micro level. I’ve tried to stop worrying about translations too much, but clearly this sort of alternative system depends a lot on a prosody that can’t be reproduced — I wonder what it sounds like in Spanish.

Goytisolo’s work was heavily censored in Franco’s Spain. There have been some surprises as to what offends people in this novel. There was one online review that spent a whole paragraph complaining about the bad Darwinian science in the second chapter, apparently missing the entire context of it being a series dystopian proto-Fascist radio broadcast about eugenics and building the master race. Some folks still go to novels for adult education…

Another one is “Angel,” a white European woman who falls in love with the Arab man. She was virtuous until she is raped, which afterward makes her sexually active; she is “turned out,” as they say.

…a primal scene, a continually repeated point of reference that haunts you, has haunted you, and will haunt you: a ceaseless beginning all over again, one step forward and two back, with my Sisyphusrock on my back: how to defuse, pray tell, the tension of that extremely painful episode?: I have tried, you have tried medicines prescribed by doctors, the traditional remedies of faith healers, to no avail:[…] acting as though I were a frivolous creature without a care in the world: comporting myself in a deliberately childish, shocking manner: visiting the doctor’s office without a brassiere, winking suggestively when the nurse left the room, insisting on unhooking your garterbelt… (30-31)

Notice the pronoun switch, the narrator’s voice taking over or embodying voice. Well, the kind of media criticism sensitive to assault — and this is the classic rape porn narrative — would find this totally repugnant. But remember that this is Franz Fanon’s sexual analysis of colonial mentality, but in reverse.

I’ve come to think that the social justice oriented criticism, that accuses these moments of regurgitating the filth of our society, are right, mainly because the media they critique is garbage. I realize this makes me a Frankfurt School snob. But successful art and literature engages in the world’s filth in order to hold it in suspense.

It’s a blue book, by the cover as well as the eros packed into it. It’s darkly funny, and no matter how distressing you may think it looks or is to read, it happily opens itself up to you.

Everybody who knows about Goytisolo says he’s the best in Spain. He’s still underrated.