Friday, January 8, 2010

Daybooks and the reaches of the page


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth-century scientist who, among other things, discovered the electron tree, these days called the Lichtenberg figure (pictured above). What's remarkable is that he's remembered today not so much as a scientist but as a writer - even though he never intended to publish the things he's best known for now. The writing for which he is celebrated consists of what we would probably call aphorisms, collected in private notebooks from 1765 through 1799. His own term for these notebooks was Sudelbücher - "waste books." Waste books were what English accountants, at the time, called scrap ledgers in which transactions were entered before being copied out more neatly in formal account books.

Here's one of Lichtenberg's jottings - unpublished like the rest until after his death:

"What concerns me, alone, I only think; what concerns my friends, I tell them; what would be of interest only to a few I write down; and what the world needs to know I publish."

It's an odd thing when private writing gains a public audience, but how we adore writers who - literally - think for themselves!

Anyway, I came to Lichtenberg - as well as the mysterious Joseph Joubert, whose thoughts were also only published posthumously - after reading George Oppen's daybooks, which are such a trove that I started looking around for similar collections. I made my way through daybooks by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti... Carl Van Vechten... Anne Truitt and Tillie Olsen... and of course, there's Whitman's, Emerson's, and Woolf's, among others. (Marilyn Hacker even published a poem in Poetry made from hers.)

But perhaps the most curious - and beautifully produced - specimen I've found so far is Ray DiPalma's marvelous The Ancient Use of Stone. Other folks have already blogged about this book, e.g. John Latta, Michael Lally, Nick Piombino, and the Best American Poetry folks. So here's my own small compendium from Ray's journals and daybooks.

But first... let me digress about the book's publisher, the estimable Seismicity Editions, at the Otis College of Art and Design, which along with its journal OR: A Literary Tabloid, is the result of poet/editor Paul Vangelisti's and Guy Bennett's extraordinary generosity and genius. OR is free-of-charge and distributed nationally to bookstores and individuals, and is an extremely important development in the world of American literary print culture. Issue 3 has a terrific interview with Ezra Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz (whose previously unpublished poems we recently featured in Poetry), and other gems such as Bill Mohr's thoughtful review of Ron Silliman's the Alphabet (which I was pleased to see, having met Bill recently and chatted w/him about why Ron's book hadn't gotten more reviews), some translations of Marinetti - and poems by Ray! The books are magnificent. TAUS, as Ray calls it in his emails, is in every way an engrossing pleasure. It collects more than jottings, quotations, reflections, poems; it also includes an amazing and amusing assortment of graphic images which the Otis folks have managed to reproduce meticulously and artfully. And I don't know when I've held a recently-published book printed on such exquisite paper! I keep running my fingers across the weave as I read. In fact "read" isn't even quite the right verb for what I do with the book, because I find myself staring... gazing... at the images and lines on each page the way I used, as a kid, to do with things like the Whole Earth Catalog or head comix and album cover artwork. It's a splendid experience. Whatever were the ancient uses of stone, this is a brilliant contemporary use of the page. Both the press and journal belie blather about the supposed death of print and death of the editor. The editorial and production values of what Vangelisti publishes are simply unexcelled at the moment, and convey things you are never going to get on your tablet, computer, iPhone, or Kindle.

And let me digress, too, about Ray DiPalma. I only know rudimentary things about the ancient use of stone, but what I know about Ray is that he's a miraculous living... artifact! An experimentalist, he is at the same time AmPo's greatest rememberer. When I blogged about Robert Bridges and snow, he wrote to me with Emerson (connecting him with Eliot and Frost!), Whittier (whom he connected with the naturalist Gilbert White), and William Vaughn Moody - complete with transcriptions of poems, adding that he was putting together a course on "the transformative nature of myth" that would discuss bird poems by Hopkins, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Poe, and Whitman. On another recent snowy morning, he wrote to me of Basho, and a search for allusions to snow in Mallarme, enclosing this wintery image of the Eiffel Tower (by Henri Rivière) that Ray had been given by a former wife:



And when I blogged a tiny bit of an essay by Durs Grünbein, Ray responded "to his rather solipsistic set of posings" with a quotation from Beckett's Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit:

D: What other plane can there be for the maker?

B: Logically none. Yet I speak from an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be ble, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.

D: And preferring what?

B: The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express.

... and then Ray apologized in case he was being precipitous!

Of the poets I was fortunate to meet during close to a decade of hosting poetry readings, Ray was the most interesting and lively by far. Even the sound of his voice is unforgettable, but what really sticks with me is how he's an intellectual alchemist, taking the stuff of books and refining and transmuting it into the vigorous sinews of his everyday living. His mind is a distillery, an alembic, and that's why his quotidian pluckings and gatherings are so musical - and so fascinating. What follows is a miniscule sampling, and without the texture of the material book itself and the images that are embedded in its aware and civilized landscape.

MARBLE SHOES

'I have not brought
the message. I came
with the message.

I am a part of what
is said to have
happened.'

MARCH 10
Home life with tea leaves and a dog. Where bowls of blossoms and stacks of books meet the blue and green mountains and every conversation begins "I've been meaning to tell you." A fragile, ingratiating life. Its occulted goal a minor achievement.

JANUARY 20
...
Distracted to the point = another method for finding one's way. Lost part of the initial draft of today's entries while working on the visuals. Juxta-'pose'. Leaving with exactly what you need.

JANUARY 25
...
Reductio ad Inflection

JANUARY 30
...
"The dog pants - but the camel carries the load." Also Sprach Meatball Fulton

FEBRUARY 7
...
Genealogy articulates stranger convictions.

Application of resource =
Strangest convictions

The strategies of convictions
The convictions of strategies

FEBRUARY 12
...
A letter at a time a word at a time a time at a time
...
It's a metaphor so there's no real emergency - ever

MARCH 9
...
Red rover, red rover,
Let Ludwig take over

MARCH 15
...
"Poetry, according to Hindu metaphysics, is language that no longer consists of mere phonemes and socially accepted meanings, but emphasizes their resonance. The Sanskrit word is dhvani. Commentators are careful to stress that it is neither the sound nor the meaning of the word, but rather its suffusion, the vibrating psychic halo around it, which is the effect of convergence and context. 5355 ways of making mere words resonate were listed by Vendantic metaphysicians." - Ellemire Zolla

AUGUST 2, 2005
...
Fuck the posthumous! We want to sit down, eat, and drink sometime today!

AUGUST 3, 2005
...
Dollar bills folded into the shroud - whims of pious ennui
...
DESCENDENTS DESTROY VALUE
I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will provide temporary shelter for you - and even give you money. But I will no longer negotiate these letters and lettershapes in the conventional way you suggest. And no you can't take them away and do with them as you please. I don't have a gun, but I do have a knife, or, even better - a bottle of ink to pour over the pages of the whole enterprise. All this was done in the way it was done because it was meant to confound the validity of anything freehand - so your memory will do you no good. Only I know how these things came to be exactly as they now are.

AUGUST 5, 2005
The Chinese believe it's bad form to give someone a clock as a gift - reminder that it is of one's mortality. In the past month my former wife has given me 2 clocks that once belonged to her recently deceased mother. [Finocchio, finocchio, / Non dami il mal occhio.] [Schiatta mal occhio / E non piu avanti.]
...

AUGUST 11, 2005
...
What are the reaches of the page -
Their original purpose now forgotten after so much revision
Intent upon such accuracy of address -
First testing the new pen on a scrap of paper
Before making an initial entry in the new notebook -
The imagined face around the eyes
As though something were diminished by being
Brought into sharper focus - the four dimensional object
That casts a three dimensional shadow

I failed to sleep soundly and had a very uneasy dream. I thought my wife lay on my right arm and somebody took her away from my side which made me wake up very unhappy. I thought as I awoke somebody said 'Bess' but nobody was near. I stretched out again with my head towards the north to show myself the steering point in the morning -
...

1 comment:

Kent Johnson said...

In spirit of Jordan's funny comment about linking (a couple posts down), here is a link to an interview I did with Ben Lerner, focused on his book The Lichtenberg Figures! The interview is accompanied by the same visual Don offers, plus one of a Lichtenberg Figure that is scalded into a lightning-strike victim's skin. In addition, Lerner's comments are fabulous. And so, of course, are my questions.
http://jacketmagazine.com/26/john-lern.html

Kent