Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
"Lift a great silence off a small detail": Sesshu Foster's _World Ball Notebook_
In one of the32 Short Films About Glenn Gould the pianist is shown sitting at a diner. As he sits quietly, the sounds of conversations around him meld together into a fugue; their content is not meaning but form and tone. The background is noise (not white, but of many colors), but the foreground--where the musician sits alone at his table--is silence. His quiet is required for the moment to work, that instant at which the engine of communication--its noise--turns into music. If 32 Short Films brings abstracted sound into vision, then Sesshu Foster'sWorld Ball Notebook begins from visual and sonic details and lifts their silences off.
While the book is organized around AYSO soccer games, very few of the poems are devoted to soccer; even fewer make direct links between soccer and the world beyond the pitch. "Game 2" makes the connection; after the poet sees a woman dragged by a speeding car, he concludes, "given as much as a full minute, i'd not seen a clear move--out-flanked in that hesitation, as if by a wing forward" (2). But it's a gesture only; other such connections are left unstated, except by the book's clever, at times perverse, form, which is that of games, not chapters. The book is composed of 118 "games. While the rules change, the game is one of observation; hence, in "Game 77":
In a spare moment lift a great silence off a small detail. Note in particular how factual aspects of the detail reveal vast political silence. This detail is the tip of the iceberg, indicator of a world of possibility. But for our purposes let us stick to one small detail of your choice. For example, the hairnet worn by the Mexicans, male and female, working in the kitchen today where you got your food. Anything like this. Pick anything. (89)
Poems like "Game 62" fulfill the rules of this game, unpeeling the layers of Piceance Basin, where foreign company reps mingle with locals whose housing has gone through the roof with oil workers with Mexicans who fill trailer parks and then the story of a real conflagration in which several people died. Other poems complete a catalogue of contemporary America that mostly lacks the enforced cohesion of Walt Whitman's section 15 of Song of Myself or the spiritual joy and despair of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. This is not to say that there is no affect in World Ball Notebook, for Foster is hardly a neutral observer, but the reader is left to experience that affect (for internal use only, the label might read). It's not given, but offered up.
"Game 77" begins with the poet assigning himself a writing exercise, or game: "In a spare moment lift the great silence off a small detail." The assignment begins with an admission; the poet, unlike the workers he observes, has "a spare moment." His "lifting," unlike theirs, is invisible, sometimes spiritual, always politically aware. The "world of possibility" is his, not theirs, and depends on "anything." As poet he is wealthy, but he is keen to find markers of economic inequality. Foster is an empathic writer, but his is what might be termed a material empathy. He plays a game of observation and notation, but what he observes is not a game so much as conflict of another kind, involving work, marriage, politics, race, and urban life. The stadium may be (mostly) Los Angeles, but the participants are not players. They are mainly those late capitalism does not permit to play, leaves on the sidelines.
Foster is a gifted eavesdropper, one who knows that to find the poem the poet needs merely to sit still and (like Gould attending the music of public conversations) wait for it to happen. He shapes these events into prose poems or uses Bernadette Mayer type games as forms, hence the grocery list in "Game 74"; the list of "my [x's]" that is "Game 5"; the frequent fill-in-the-blank sections; the numbered observations; the postcards or emails; the "checklists" he has friends write for him; the coincidences; the stories about his "kid," the unmarked elegies.
There is much to write about the position of the observer in these poems. The poet is sometimes judgmental, on occasion about his own actions. For reasons of my own, I'm sure, I was fascinated by "Game 68," about soccer games in Iowa City. The locals are judged instantly; they're white people who adopt Korean children as a "fad"; they are unfriendly to the observing poet/soccer dad; they make him feel like an outsider. But at the moment he feels their unkindness most powerfully--one of those picnics where parents talk story--he turns his powers of observation on himself: "I laughed out loud, realizing I'd been standing on the sidelines cheering and watching the games so single-mindedly I had never noticed the locals" (77). A reader of Foster's book can be grateful both for his single-mindedness and for the way he turns the tables (or fields) on himself. His is not governing subjectivity, but a governing objectivity. Thankfully, the govern-or (not governator, who comes in for opprobrium along the way) also has a sense of humor.
Foster's book led me, via google, to his blog. His post of June 6, 2010 offers the most powerful response to the environmental disaster/crime in the Gulf that I've yet seen. He juxtaposes photographs of oil-drenched pelicans by Charlie Riedel with his own short prose pieces. The terrible directness of the photographs, at which one can hardly bear to look, are met obliquely by Foster's meditations on his day, which begins in a cafe. He is Glenn Gould absorbing sound, image: "As he glanced up from his coffee at the cafe, his cousin talking about the economy, he caught a glimpse of a TV news anchor with a certain image related to this news item emblazoned on a widescreen." If he "catches a glimpse" of the "this news item," we cannot but be caught within the images of pelicans dying in cauls of oil. The photos trap us, even if we can "surf" away from them (our metaphors bite us back). What is most powerful in the collaging of text and photograph is the deliberate distance created between them. Foster does not write about the photographs, nor even much about the birds. He writes about his day, about students at the school where he teaches, the "ordinary" violence (I use that word ironically) of budget cuts, of fights in the halls.
A teacher complained about a student. Another complained about the administrator who many seemed to dislike for an abrasive voice and pronounced indifference. A couple of students complained about various lacks of the latest issue of the school newspaper. Somebody complained that the latest round of budget cuts caused the district to cancel all recycling programs, yet the district produced massive amounts of paper waste. A bus driver cracked acerbically about another driver who had taken his usual spot. That was as far as he was going with the grievance at this time.
On the one hand, these complaints are petty, set as they are between photographs of animals killed by human neglect and greed. On the other hand, the juxtapositions of image and "complaint" bring these worlds together in ways they have not been joined in the media. The media tells us about shrimpers on the coast, about "ways of life" that are threatened, about animals swimming furiously away, away from the spill, dying of exhaustion. But, for the most part, these are not "our" way of life. "Our way" is more likely to be what Foster overhears among his colleagues and students. "Our way of life" is not working, is also violent, if on other levels from the life and death struggle in the Gulf. Our situations are not uninvolved with each other:
We have a situation here. Someone runs off. Empty hallways, later on, empty hallways. I stepped between the guys who were fighting, somebody pulled one of them off the other. I pushed another one up against the wall. His face was blanched, his stare hollowed out with adrenaline, he was breathing hard. I don’t know what was happening behind me. I turned and they were gone. He had his hand to his face, blood streaming from his nose. Blood drips on the floor.
While not "like" the pelican, the boy with the hollowed out stare is also endangered. As are the schools, decorum on the roads, possibilities for communication . . . what Foster shows us is that each situation is ours, that how we deal with it matters. His microscope blows each detail up (I think of another film here, about an unsolved crime, a photographer, an obsession) until we are forced to make the metonymic leap between details, situations, our lives and those of the pelicans drowning in the Gulf. "Would you volunteer to help in the Gulf?" my computer screen demands of me.
While in Virginia the other week I talked to friends about the Glenn Gould film; we remembered that we'd had the same conversation several years ago. We agreed the film could be used in a classroom. Listen, observe, take heed: these are its lessons. I wrote a poem about the film years before that first conversation. Here it is:
Truck Stop Fugue
One man in a cold space. The word as self, exchanged. World in which there is no moon, no cloud. Where there are variations without theme, indulgences preceding sin. In which there is no background, only counterpoint. To hear as he does a kind of empathy. In kind. Kinder, kind kids. Da kine, or an evasive opening. Moon down, the boy says, where down means gone. He was not a hermit, for he had a phone. Light bends, distracts, is consumed by dust, and that is why the sky is blue. One man in a cold studio, dancing. Time may be replayed but is never repeated. I am obsessed by form because I am never still. Indulgence is desire at its extremity so I want wavers from poverty to plenitude. Give everything away.