I love this painting by Albert York, the famously reclusive painter, said (by Calvin Tompkins) to be " "the most highly admired unknown artist in America." York, who died in 2004 at the age of eighty, shunned the art world yet had a coterie of fervent fans, which is either the best of both worlds or eating your cake and having it, too. Sharon Butler has this column on York illustrated with three of his paintings. York told Tompkins, who profiled him in 1995, "The modern world just passes me by. I don't notice it. I missed the train."But another one came along and he took it, as my father said would happen when he advised me never to chase a train, advice as applicable to romance or the stock market as to that great nineteenth century invention without which the Russian novel would be a much poorer thing and the West would still be wild. The New Yorker's official line: "Each still-life and landscape
as exquisite weirdness," and that's certainly true of "Woman and
Skeleton," left. Congratulations to Davis & Langdale on the York show, which came down on June 14. -- DL
<<< Collaboration between poets and their peers in poetry and painting is
a crucial element of modernism and of avant-garde art in general, and
it’s a prized feature of the New York School. John Ashbery wrote a
novel, A Nest of Ninnies, alternating sentences with James
Schuyler. Kenneth Koch got Ashbery to collaborate with him on zany poems
with detailed and arbitrary requirements. A show consisting largely of
Frank O’Hara’s collaborations with painters opened in Los Angeles in
1999 and traveled the next summer to New York. For these writers,
collaborating was, in a way, their model of friendship.
The more than 60 paintings Jane Hammond has created since embarking
on her “John Ashbery Collaboration”—works that seem to me inexhaustible
as objects of vision and contemplation—attest to the extraordinary power
that artistic friendship can have in the genesis of works of art. Back
in June 1993, Jane asked John to come up with titles for paintings that
she would then make. A week later he faxed her the list. It took him (he
later wrote) about four minutes to make a list of 44 titles. That’s 11
titles every 60 seconds. And these titles are anything but pedestrian;
Ashbery casually produced some of the wildest appellations this side of
Wallace Stevens, titles like No One Can Win at the Hurricane Bar, Lobby Card, Bread and Butter Machine, The Hagiography of This Moment, Contra-Zed, A Parliament of Refrigerator Magnets and Do Husbands Matter? I liked the last one (and the painting it inspired) so much that I wrote this poem:
Do Husbands Matter? for Jane Hammond
At the vital center the fool holds a candle like a pious medieval donor in one hand, a feather in the other but look he has more than two hands I count seven it's as if this were a Hindu tarot card wishbone in one a heart some gems a horseshoe a mask and a globe in the belly how does one read that for read it one must, not chaos but a rebus of my life or yours stares you in the face scratched on the walls of my cabin where I left messages for others to write over it's a scratched itch and a door into a hallway where stands a row of grandfather clocks that don't tell time in this dream of a cello in the corner where function follows form and girls with dolls assemble a still life with fallen candles on the highway a black car
Read my interview with Jane Hammond, along with reproductions of some of her paintings, in the Faul 2002 issue of Bomb -- DL
The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight
(June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya
Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40
seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody
many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves
as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance.
A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most
effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances
that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist,
the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry:
“It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a
song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim
Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up
the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or
two before scramming.
the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous
worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery
cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer
is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed
behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements,
but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as
though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of
just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir
Putin’s leadership would be to the court system.
trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of
some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful…
so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells
of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode
the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a
few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through
with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he
Unmentioned in the
film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander
Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized
anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU
(Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited
Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two
rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one
that is right.”
Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that
could be a Pussy Riot lyric:
Will they cut or bite off their heads
It makes me want to puke.
All those about to die get cold feet.
They have activity of stomach,
Before death it lives as hard as it can.
But why are you afraid to burn up, man?
Nadia and Masha are
serving two-year sentences in prison camps; Katya was released on appeal. One
key moment in A Punk Prayer occurs
during a break in the trial: When informed that Madonna had written the group’s
name on her back to display it at one of the concerts, and had donned a
balaclava onstage as a gesture of solidarity, the faces of Nadia, Masha, and
Katia are intent, avid. They seem not to be thinking, “Cool! A big star likes
us, maybe we’ll become famous, too, and be freed!” Instead, what their faces
communicate is: “Oh, good. Maybe she gets it. Maybe some of her fans will now
hear about us and get it. Our message still has a freedom on Madonna’s back,
and in covering Madonna’s face. She’s not as good as we are at communicating
this freedom, this audacity, but she’ll do until we get out.”
(After tonight’s premiere, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will be repeated on June 13, 16, 18, and
The first line of Walahfrid Strabo's poem
“Rose” is perched among the perennials in The New York Botanical Garden as if it
grew from soil. And it’s how you feel when you take the bus from Manhattan to the Bronx, seeking refuge in the vast and peaceful acreage here.
This moment of resonance is what the Poetry Society
of America had in mind when it partnered with the garden to create annual poetry
installations, bringing verse to the masses in an unexpected place. It began in 2010 with Emily Dickinson’s Garden, an exhibit that showcased Emily’s poems alongside replicas of
her beloved flowerbeds.
Next, they brought together Spanish gardens of the Alhambra with poems of Federico García Lorca, and Monet's garden with Mallarmé's verse. This year, they’ve reached farther
back in time, recreating the first medicinal herb garden of the Italian
Renaissance—lush with opium poppies, milk thistle, cypress and poems inspired by nature.
The PSA hosted its spring benefit here on May 23 to celebrate two successful public poetry projects -- Wild Medicine and Poetry in Motion, the latter of which features poems inside New York City subway cars. It honored Sandra Bloodworth, executive director of MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design, who revived Poetry in Motion after a four-year hiatus.
"It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not need to get credit for it," she said as she accepted the award.
PSA Executive Director Alice Quinn and her team curate the short, memorable poems you see on subways. For Wild Medicine, they dug
up verse from Renaissance poets Thomas Campion, An Collins, Edward Herbert, John Milton and Edmund Spenser. And in a stroke
of brilliance, they included Strabo "the Squinter," a ninth century Frankish monk who tended a
cloister garden and penned the book Hortulus about the experience.
Translated from Latin, Strabo’s poems are the oldest in the garden yet they feel the most modern. Much like Whitman, he has the uncanny ability to reach beyond the cloister walls and through the ages to speak to us today.
He’s not afraid to begin with the blunt (“I am
tired”) or the quirky (“let us not forget to honor fennel”). He paints a poignant picture of the changing seasons, then confides that nettles are so annoying. We see him rush to his flowers with
sloshing buckets and fret about which ones are bathed in sun and which are doomed to shade. He knows instinctively that a garden is ripe with metaphor for the
poet willing to dig.
If you go between now and September 8, 2013, stroll along the Renaissance Poetry Walk to enjoy poems on giant placards, and duck into The Italian Renaissance Garden to learn about the wonder drugs of old. (Did you know fine hairs on a stinging nettle irritate healthy skin but relieve pain in an injured body part? Or that ethanol extracted from the cones of Italian Cypress trees boast antimicrobial and antimalarial properties?) Visit on June 22, July 27 or September 7, and you'll be treated to music and dramatic readings by Rafael Campo, Elizabeth Alexander and Linda Gregerson.
While you're there, look for Strabo's poem "On the Cultivation of Gardens," an artist's mantra and gardening
metaphor that has not wilted in a millennia. The subtle observation that “a quiet
life has many rewards" -- like the joy that comes from devoting oneself to a garden -- bursts open in the second stanza:
For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where
sand And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits
grow heavy In rich, moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside, Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping
valleys -- Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts The gardener's multifarious wealth, and if you do not Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched
soil – Then, you may rest assured, the soil will not fail you.
This, the poet says, he has learned from common opinion, searching around in old books, and experience.
At last, a good trip to the garden begins with
exhaustion and ends in rejuvenation. If you’re looking for fresh inspiration after a long winter, get your soles dirty at Wild Medicine. This soil will not fail
Stephanie Paterik is a journalist and poet in Brooklyn. She earned an MFA in poetry from The New School and, as David Lehman’s research assistant, worked on The Best American Poetry 2010, 2011, 2012 and Best of the Best. She has contributed to Anderbo, PARADE, Glamour, Adweek, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The Sonoran Desert is her native soil.
<<< A 1956 letter written by Ms. Freilicher to Frank O’Hara, who celebrated
her in his acclaimed “Jane” poems, initiated various plans to get
together, beginning: “Dear Frankie, I was utterly delighted to get your
cuddlesome letter. Perhaps you don’t know how much I’m missing you but
it is quite a tel’ble lot. It is a terrible thing being the Adlai
Stevenson of the art world without a Young Democrat like you by my
relationship [with John Ashbery], and the others that grew from it, are the subject of
“Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets,” an exhibition at the Tibor de
Nagy Gallery in Midtown, a show that places Ms. Freilicher’s work in the
context of her exalted status among the poets of the New York School —
Mr. Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler — to whom she
was muse, confidante, beloved brain. “One doesn’t stay friends with
somebody for 40 years unless they have a lot of nice qualities, such as
brilliance,” Mr. Ashbery wrote two decades ago. “Jane Freilicher is also
the wittiest person I have ever known.”
By implication, the show is an exercise in anthropology as well, an
exploration of an ever-receding way of social life among successful
creative people in the city, one in which the friendships built and
circles configured seemed more firmly rooted in genuine affection, in
affinity, in shared notions of whimsy, than in the prospect of mutual
professional advantage. >>>
Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.)
He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautifuland movingverbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.)
Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote.
Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur.
Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?”
Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps?
Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper.
Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention.
I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice how this thing connects to this other thing. How they are – or aren't – like the things you know back home. How this reminds you of that.
And now we’re making metaphors. And now the world just got a little smaller.
I wrote poems about being in China to create verbal devices that would enable me to go back to China, if only for a day or an hour, and only in my imagination – and so that (so my hope goes) interested readers could do the same. What I wound up with on the page is a mix of memory and imagination, of course, and so not exactly the China I set foot in some years ago.
And interestingly the best part for the poet (for this one, anyway) wasn’t that finished verbal device, but the process of building it, how the words – or the search for the right ones – kept spurring me on to remember more, imagine more, to go back there again and again.
And finally it’s worth remembering too that one of Larkin’s most beautiful poems is about a journey (again, in all the senses), albeit a domestic one. Listen to him read “The Whitsun Weddings,” which picks up steam slowly but surely, like the train the poet travels in--
That Whitsun, I was late getting away: Not till about One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out, All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense Of being in a hurry gone. We ran Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence The river's level drifting breadth began, Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
I want to kick off my stint here with a painting, a favorite poet, and a poem called “Poem.”
At the beginning of last year I paid a visit to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery for what felt like a belated Christmas gift. It was one of those January days in New York – cold but sunny, no snow, milder than a January day ought to be – when you half-forget it’s winter, and I had brought my wife along to check out a compact but wonderful show of pictures by Elizabeth Bishop. “Small paintings on paper,” the Timescalled them; a selection of her works in watercolors, gouache, ink and graphite.
Some I recognized from other places. Merida from the Roof you would know as the cover art of The Complete Poems 1927-1979, the salmon-colored paperback we all owned (and probably still have, because it’s so portable) before the Library of America edition and the one simply called Poems were published. And her painting of a tiny-looking Louise Crane kicked back on an enormous bed I’d seen reproduced in The New York Review of Books, in a piece celebrating her centennial.
The show also included an assortment of “Bishopiana” (the Times again) such as a pair of her binoculars (produced by Abercrombie and Fitch!), two of her desks from Brazil – heavy, rough-hewn, rustic-looking things – as well as some folk art sculptures from South America, a birdcage (I think it was a birdcage) and a couple of paintings. The desks didn’t thrill me the way I thought they might, though I did run a finger along the edge of one just to touch it.
No, the moment of amazement came when I looked up from that desk and realized what else I was looking at, hanging a little off to one side. It really was “About the size of an old-style dollar bill”— or so I’d imagine, never having seen one. (I take it on faith, since EB said so.) 4 and 3/16 by 9 11/16 inches, oil on masonite, in an old wooden frame. A mini widescreen landscape: one-third sky, blue-gray and cloudy; one-third dark ground, with light and dark houses and barns; one-third water, vaguely (cloudily?) reflecting the sky and clouds. Poor painting, it didn’t even have a name – or a date. Untitled, nd, by George Hutchinson – “Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George.”
It was the painting Bishop describes – and in describing, gradually arrives at a sort of definition of what a poem is for her – in the poem she called “Poem”:
Life and the memory of it cramped, dim, on a piece of Bristol board, dim, but how we live, how touching in detail – the little that we get for free, the little of our earthly trust. Not much. About the size of our abidance along with theirs: the munching cows, the iris, crisp and shivering, the water still standing from spring freshets, the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
I snapped a quick picture when I had the little room to myself, but it came out blurry. (You can click through a slideshow of all the pieces here; this painting is image #19.) And I thought – just for a minute, just to enjoy thinking it – what if I bought it, what if I could take this relic home and hang it over my desk? Because it seemed amazing to me that, all these years later, here it was: the actual painting. It existed. Because if it were in someone else's poem, it might not, but because it was in Bishop's, it did. And because this was a gallery, almost everything on show was also on sale. Though of course the thirty-something-thousand-dollar price tag was beyond me, and anyway I think it was already marked "sold."
But just to know it was still out there, that it might again hang over someone’s desk, or in their foyer (as it once did in Bishop's aunt's house), made me very very happy. There's a poem in this that I haven't written yet. And I'll have more to say this week about Bishop's poem and what it means to me.
This is perhaps my favorite piece of conceptual writing.
Over the weekend I found myself in the judges' room for a
high school Speech & Debate final (true story!). I asked one of the English
teachers there whether poetry was a hard sell to her students, thinking I
suppose of the oft-stated consensus that of all the genres poetry's the most
resistant, the least popular, the swath of the textbook one rushes past to get
to the plotty parts. "Not at all," she said, whether because they
thrive on its intensity or simply through their tech- & hip-hop-enabled
comfort with compression and linguistic multifariousness. “The problem is
novels. It’s very hard to convince them that reading anything lengthy is
What the villagers call that empty space of weeds, that
grove or knoll where my mother was baptized. Not __________, but ___________.
Not церква but коcтьол, kościół, the word in the banished
Ear of corn? [can’t
make out the word.]
She coughs. The body’s own water pools in the crevice of her
clavicle. The wind ripples the lake so shallow now that no fish can winter
In addition to writing some of the most singular books of
poetry of the last decade (2002’s O
Cidadán, 2009’s Expeditions of a
Chimaera with Oana Avasilichioaei, 2010’s O Resplandor, among others), Moure has published translations of
the equally uncategorizable Galician poet Chus Pato, as well as a brilliant
translation/reimagination of O Guardador
de Rebanhos by Fernando Pessoa, or by his heteronym Alberto Caeiro. Pessoa
famously recalibrated the task of the poet as the creation of personae rather
than poems, conjuring the myriad personalities who then undertook the labor of
drafting the writings associated with his name.
Moure gives the adventure of Pessoan heteronymity a
political and sociolinguistic spin; as the above passage suggests, her work
crosses and recrosses geographic and linguistic boundaries as it details its
author’s encounters with real and imagined figures and events. Pato figures
tangentially as a correspondent, while more central is the elusive Elisa
Sampedrin, an authorial alter ego who appeared previously in O Resplandor. Sampedrin reflects upon
Moure as Moure reflects upon the dark history that sent her own mother from the
Ukraine to Canada in the first half of the last century.
Naturally enough, both Moure’s champions and her detractors
tend to frame her work in relation to the post-structuralist theory that has
informed avant-garde writing for almost two generations now. One will encounter
citations of Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Agamben in her writing, and the
passage above with its fragmentation and erasures invites assimilation to the
familiar gestures of language and post-language writing.
But the heteronym is both an anticipation of and a deviation
from the vertiginous deconstructions of later theory. Pessoa’s writings offer
us a vision of identity plural and dispersed, circulating through the
linguistic productions of a system of personae. But through imaginative
investment the counterfeit becomes real, accruing an undeniable particularity.
In Moure’s work, as well, the destabilization of identities and unsettling of
comfortable reading habits goes hand-in-hand with the production of new and exhilarating
reading possibilities, generated out of the incessant layering of linguistic
strata, and thereby new existential possibilities. As Johanna Skibsrud puts it
in an unusually perceptive reading of Moure, “hers is not an interest in
language as a fact in itself..equally her intention is not to arrive at a sense
of greater senselessness. Moure’s poetry is instead interested precisely in the
‘explosivity across membranes’ that E.S. represents in The Unmemntioable.”
What Moure’s work seems to call out for (and what Skibsrud’s
reading to some degree attains) is a criticism that can trace out its processes
of destabilization and reconfiguration. In particular, her writing manifests a
kind of self-consciousness often associated with the “metafictional,” but which
is intensified and qualitatively altered through the medium of lyric, as well
as via her text’s multilingual slippages. So much of contemporary writing is
sick with knowingness; Moure’s signal achievement is to parry the inescapable
reflexivity of her poetry with a countervailing urge to unknowing.
This fall, Wave Books will publish the collection Poems (1962-1997) by Robert Lax, which I
edited. Among other pieces, the book contains the entirety of Lax’s 1962
collection New Poems, which I consider
one of the underread gems of 20th-century American poetry. Here’s
one poem from that collection:
How do you read
a poem like this? How do you know when you’re finished with it?
One’s inner cynic might answer that it’s pretty easy to
read, and even easier to be finished with. (Criticism often seems to launch
from the premise that the poem is guilty until proven innocent, as though never
being taken in is the highest virtue.)
“My kid could do that,” is the old and shamelessly
philistine way of attacking art that dispenses with traditional conventions;
variations on it persist in museums and journals to this day. To which Lax’s
longtime friend Ad Reinhardt would respond, “Your kid must be a genius!” &
he or she probably is.
The recent “neuro-revolution” in poetics has tended to
replicate the privilege granted to cognition over affect in other areas of
neuroscience. What is most
important, from this perspective, is the prefrontal cortex and its attendant
brain systems: those most linked
to tertiary processes, the “higher” forms of reasoning that are unique to the
human brain, the kind of meta-critical capacity that distinguishes us from our
dogs and dolphins, elephants and apes.
Research in neuroscience has been guilty of the same biases
until recently. The term cognitive neuroscience was often taken
to describe all brain processes, as
if all brain processes were cognitive, primarily because of the assumption that
emotion is regulated by cognition and that cognitive processes occur first,
structuring the emotion in fundamental ways. “Cognitive gating mechanisms” were seen to inhibit emotion
and determine its expression, thus representing emotion as raw material that is
only given its form through cognitive processing—emotions are viewed in
This is called a “top down” model of information processing. However, the most recent advances in
neuroscience tell a different story, one that makes a convincing argument for a
“bottoms up” model, and one that has wide implications for poetics and the
value we have granted to the cognitive over the affective. Any such attempt to purge affect and
narrative is doomed to failure, since it ignores the indissociable relation
between affect and cognition, emotion and reason, biology and culture, the
brain and the mind. As current
neuroscience has spelled out in some detail in its theories of “functional
connectivity,” the one is not possible without the other.[i]
Instead, “brain-behavior processes” are the products of
interaction effects between each, neural circuits that include the control
functions of the primary process emotional states themselves. In fact, recent advances in affective
neuroscience argue for “more realistic models that incorporate dynamic
properties and bidirectional interactive multi-way communications.”[ii]
Instead of occurring through a top-down hierarchy in which cognition occurs
first and is the controlling mechanism, neural activity has recently been shown
to occur bidirectionally in multiple regions. Furthermore, as the
phylogentically oldest part of our brains, the affective systems are most
linked to fundamental survival mechanisms that “provide a necessary foundation
for higher functions to operate” (Cromwell and Panksepp 2032).
Crucially, these are the systems shared across all mammalian
brains, and point to an affective experiential universality across all
mammalian species, including humans.
From a neuroevolutionary perspective, the affective remains
fundamental. It is not a matter of
cognition always generating a behavioral response, for instance, such as reader
response. In fact, quite often, it
is the more fundamental processes that inform behavior, those “from the gut”
responses linked to the embodied, “so powerful it gives me the chills” effect
in aesthetic response—a response in the autonomic nervous system triggered by
With this new information, it’s time to examine the
interaction effects, the feedback loops between affect and cognition in
poetics. An affective neuropoetics
would, like Jaak Panksepp’s affective neuroscience, proceed from the bottom up,
locating the roots of our motivations and aesthetic response in the primary
A wonderful example of what I am talking about is Maria
Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “Watching the Pelican Die,” first published in Prairie Schooner and forthcoming in The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ
Books. 2013). The
embodiment of what I have posited here as a site of the interactions between
the affective and the cognitive, the poem enacts what, in her own aesthetic
theory, Gillan has termed the dialogue between “the cave” and “the crow,” which
are the metaphorical representations of affect and cognition.[iii] For Gillan, the privilege historically
granted “the crow”—the social discourses and systems of valuation associated
with scientific rationalism, tertiary process cognition, and the masculine—has
served to devalue the embodied, the feminine, and the emotional that represents
“the cave”—precisely those primary process affects that Panksepp has
empirically situated as the very basis of and possibility for the
cognitive. The “cave” in Gillan is
the equivalent to affective brain processes in Panksepp, and is similarly fundamental:
Watching the Pelican
On TV, I watch the pelican with its mouth wide open,
its wings and body coated with oil. Is it screaming? I do not hear
the sound and since this is a photograph, I don’t know if it
in that mouth-stretched howl when it died or if it’s howling
in recognition that it cannot survive the thick coat
of oil that bears it down.
The ladies who take care of you when I’m gone tell me you
are having trouble.
“His hands,” they say, “his hands.” When I
come home, I see that your hands have turned black
at the tips and I see that the ends of your fingers
have been eaten away.
I watch the dead bird in the Gulf
floating on top of the water, its legs stiff and straight in
its body drained of all motion, all light.
The next day I take you to the doctor; he tells us he will
to operate to remove the gangrenous flesh.
The announcer on CNN says BP didn’t want the photographer
to take pictures of the dying birds covered as they are
with the black slick of oil. “They were hoping,” he says,
“that the birds would sink and the evidence
would be swallowed by the ocean.”
In the late afternoon, I hear my daughter cry out. I rush to
what has happened, and you are stretched out on the bed,
your body so thin you look like a boy. You do not move.
I call 911 and the ambulance takes you to the hospital.
BP is trying to put a cap on the spewing oil rig; the CEO
keeps saying, it’s no problem. Clumps of oil wash ashore
and float on the surface of the water. The beach is littered
with dead fish and birds.
At the hospital, they want to know whether we want
extraordinary measures. “No,” I say. “He
has a living will.”
We hover around while they admit you. You have forgotten
how to speak.
Mostly you lie in bed, staring into a space
above our heads.
In my mind I see that screaming bird, its mouth wide open,
a picture of torment and despair.
I reach out to hold your hand, stroke your forehead. “Dennis,”
I call out, “Dennis.”
You do not hear me. The
doctor comes in
to see you. “Well,”
he says, “he should have been dead five years
ago. What did
you expect? You shouldn’t have
good care of him.”
“We did everything we could,” the BP president says, looking
directly at the camera. “It’s not such a calamity,” says
the governor of Louisiana. “We don’t need to stop
deep water drilling.
Our economy will collapse if we do.”
We stand around your hospital bed. My brother comes in
and says he’ll try a stronger antibiotic. “It’s bad,” he says,
but he waits until we are in the hall to tell me.
The social worker says, “You should put him in a nursing
brother says, “You kept him home all this time.
If he gets a little stronger, I’ll let him go home and he’ll
around the things he knows.”
The doctor comes in and says, “He’s not going to make it.”
The social worker admonishes us with her bag
of common sense.
She does not love you. We
take you home.
I sit next to you and hold your hand.
The MSNBC reporter stands on the beach in a hurricane
and picks up a huge glob of oil with a stick.
“Look,” she says,
“look,” and drips the oil on the white sand. She is shaking
with fury at such destruction. Dead birds float behind
“I’m in so much pain,” you say, though you have not
feeds you a jar of baby applesauce.
your mouth and accept the food. When I see the pelican
on TV with its mouth wide open in horror, I remember you
as you lay dying.
On the Gulf, the earth and the sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there
is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought
against this illness with such courage, even you
cannot survive, the blackened tips of your fingers, the oil
heavy on the birds feathers, the birds dead and floating on
the surface that gradually sink and disappear.
Astonishing in the depth of its representation of the levels
of brain processing, “Watching the Pelican Die” moves from affect to emotion to
memory to cognition and back down the chain, establishing the affective basis
for human behavior and relations and showing how cognition, when detached from
the other levels of processing, can be responsible for destroying the very
things it relies upon most—the basic attachment mechanisms of relationships
(Panksepp’s “CARE” system), on the one hand, and the biology of ecology, and
the relationship between the basic levels of the ecosystem, on the other. The movement in the poem between the
grief the narrator experiences (the basic affective system that Panksepp terms
Panic/Grief) and the ways that grief resonates throughout the larger cultural
landscape of destruction and loss is a quintessential example of a narrative
poetics that embodies and demonstrates the principles of affective
neuroscience. In Gillan’s poem we have one of the most bidirectional
representations of the relationship between affect and cognition, the cave and
the crow, that I’ve seen in contemporary poetry. As Gillan puts it, “poems hide in a place deep inside you
that I call the cave . . . In the
cave are all your memories . . . Every person you’ve ever known or loved or
hated everything you are afraid of in the world and in yourself. In the cave is your rage and your fury
and your passion” (Writing Poetry to Save
Your Life, 13). In neuroscientific terms, Gillan’s “cave” is affect, the
primary process affective brain
systems that underlie secondary processes like memory and cultural
learning. Affect is the bedrock
poets draw upon, and it is informed by the reactions in the ANS & CNS that
neuroscientist Stephen Porges, in his "Polyvagal Theory," calls “neuroception.”
Tomorrow I will discuss the seven basic affective systems in
further detail, especially as they are instantiated in the work of the poet Joe
Weil. Later posts will explore Polyvagal Theory, its concept of “neuroception”
and the vagal ventral complex that links the heart, face, and brain. Using this work from affective
neuroscience, I will discuss the movement from neurophysiology to affect to
aesthetics by way of Panksepp’s seven affective systems in conjunction with the
Polyvagal Theory and its implications for memory and how creative writers use
it via the work of poets Gary Soto, Bruce Snider, Jack Bedell, Vivian Shipley,
and James Reese. The work of all
these poets and the affective neuroscience that helps explain their aesthetic
projects will be linked to the need for narrative poetics, and narrative as one
of our most interactive, bidirectional brain processes.
Where? City Winery, 155 Varick Street, New York City When? Sunday, March 17th at 9:45 AM Who? Archie Rand, painter and muralist, in conversation with Rabbi Dan Ain What? "Art, relligion, and defying the establishment"
Join Jewish iconoclast Archie Rand and Rabbi Dan Ain for
a breakfast conversation about art, religion and defiance. From his
murals at "The Painted Shul," which cover the interior at Congregation
B'nai Yosef in Brooklyn, to his recent work, "The 613," which includes
individual panels and depictions for all 613 commandments, Rand has been
creating radical Jewish art for almost thirty years. On the left is a reproduction of Rabd's "Yonah" (Jonah). "As a consequence of [Rand's artistic] insolence
he has been exiled to what amounts to a critical wilderness. It is time to
redeem him from exile, time for the Jewish public to take note and acknowledge
the accomplishments of the foremost creator of Jewish art working today. Our
cultural future depends on it." - Richard McBee, The Jewish Week.
Archie Rand, who has collaborated fruitfully with John Ashbery and other poets, has had his work featured at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliotheque
Nationale of Paris, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Art Institute of
Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.