Academic journal article Chicago Review

A Reading Diary

Academic journal article Chicago Review

A Reading Diary

Article excerpt

26 JUNE 1995

A comment made by Adriaan Peperzak at last year's annual Comp Lit conference sticks with me and comes to mind while trying to write about Lisa Robertson's XEdogue. Peperzak is a conventional, even stodgy philosopher in his 70s who has written on Plato, Hegel, Heidegger, and Levinas. During the question and answer period he shows a surprising and inspiring passion. Provoked, I think, by his earlier confession of religious faith, he disburdens himself of one after another admonishing opinion-laughing out loud at his own audacity. Finally, asked about "the question of language," he immediately says, as if waiting for a chance, "Heidegger called language 'the house of Being.' Well, everything is the house of Being, but it's given to our epoch to frame everything in terms of language, so Heidegger calls language the 'House.' And we repeat this formula devoutly. But we're no closer to understanding either language or Being when we do so." For poets too "the question of language" is fundamental. A nagging doubt nonetheless remains: are poems written in answer to this question equally fundamental? I mean, are they any more fundamental than any other kind of poem? I am not so sure. Our "language poets" (and I mean by this something more general than L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing) compose wonderful work, but the wonder of it is often superficial. Still, it is a piety of our time that only those poets who address this "question of language" are worth reading. Those who turn their attention to other questions-however fundamental, however profound the answers-come to seem naive. Old fashioned. Hung up on content. Marginal to a fault.

Rereading Michael Palmer this summer, I came again on his diary entry about receiving the first copies of Notes for Echo Lake-"dismay, then sorrow, upon realizing that it was only a book." Yes, this is how it feels, even when you are only the reader. Lisa's book has been a rumor for two years, but based on all I have heard I almost feel as though I have read it. Now Joel returns from Vancouver and lends me a copy. Leafing through I feel-what? Dismay? Sorrow? Not at all, but maybe a book is more exciting, more useful, as rumor than fact. Maybe that is why I never tried to order a copy. Maybe-sad prospect-rumors are more inspiring than poems.

I think of Lisa's "Manifesto" mode-is this a way of staving off dismay and sorrow? A way of pretending that a book is not just a book? Talking to Joel, I said her insistence on that mode gets boring, the tone begins to annoy-the whole "Giantess" trip. "She couldn't possibly mean it, could she? It's so corny, so 'Cabaret Voltaire,' so...I don't know...so 1970s!' Later I wonder if I am not simply jealous. She is so good at writing that way. At the top of her voice, as Mayakovsky would say. And why not? She wants to be heard. Deservedly.

Later still I read "Eclogue Three: Liberty" over and over again. I try to gauge my response as honestly as possible. I decide that the constant recourse to assertion, effective in the short run for maintaining interest in the argument, wears attention away in the long run. case in point: "What is this thought that refuses to reverse itself, that in the cool shade of fantasy creates an institution?" A useful question, oddly put. Then comes, in quick succession, the grating, the overweening, the gratuitous, the silly-"my kilted wit," "my perfect barbarity," "the death of method," "Utopia is dead," "prim sublimity," "I flaunt her." And then, right at the end, played like a trump card, one perfect, purple twist of prose: "She's lying in the pagan flowers, sweet-faced in the pompous velvet, swathed in the crude luxury of my rhetoric, strewn with the petals of aptly faded hope." Not an answer but an antidote to her question, administered just in time.

27 JUNE

At the beginning of summer I thought about writing an essay on three first books that use the seashore as their organizing theme-H.D.'s Sea Garden, Rachel Carson's Under the Sea-Wind, Pat Reeds Sea Asleep. …

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