Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Losing It and other Midwestern Adventures, November 2011

The man in the hotel told me to get on the subway at Clark and Lake, so I walked west along the Chicago River. As I crossed a street under the El, I saw a homeless African-American man (one of so many) sitting on an overturned barrel across the street from me. He was wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap. He saw me. "I like your cap," he yelled. "And I like yours!" I responded. I kept going. I got lost. I went back to him and asked for directions. Slipped him a bill, which he hadn't asked for. You're in the wrong place, he said. His directions proved true.

When I left Chicago, I walked by him again. We chatted briefly. I said, "I'm going home today," then felt a pang.

The Cardinals cap I wear on trips is a sign. It usually nets me very little except the right ride at the airport or the bus stop. On this trip, it got me a snide remark, but mainly thumbs ups, and good conversations about the Series. "I turned the game [six] off," said one flight attendant, making a sad face. Lauren Berlant said of Susan Lepselter's essay on a man who talked UFOs at her until she entered his world for a time, that her work is about "staying in a conversation." Baseball caps are oddly like UFOs in this. They create the chance for conversation. One usually stays in it for a while.

My conversations these days are mostly about Alzheimer's and dementia. This conversation, which occurs over and over, covering much of the same ground (yet never losing its blunt force) is like talking about a team. Except that all the plays seem to be errors. The Alzheimer's parent speaks in error, and we children act in error, because what else can we do. We are our own scorekeepers, and the score is not good. Error rhymes with terror, which is also part of the conversation.

At the University of Chicago we talked about "Losing It," which was the name of the symposium, organized by Lauren Berlant. Jennifer Montgomery ended up distressed by this phrase. She thought all of life was "losing it"--what's to distinguish one from the other instance of it? But in our panels and conversations the central sign of losing it involved the breakdown of time: cause and effect falter, then fall apart; appointments aren't kept, or are kept at the wrong time; memory escapes (though it comes to us adult children before it disappears completely). And space breaks down, too. People fall, break bones. This is not humility, but humiliation, though there might be a way back to humility through the work of writing and filming. Or do I mean "dignity," that over-used word?

I framed, or failed to frame, my paper at the U of C with a mention of ethics. My failure was in opening with that term, and then leaving it on the stoop, in the foyer, at the threshold, like a foundling. Lauren did not think I was talking about an ethical issue. But what if that move from humiliation to humility, or from trying to absorb the Alzheimer's patient into one's own I, is an ethical issue? Lauren also quoted Juliana Spahr's defense of the I to me, an argument against arguments against the lyric poem. Again, point taken. But if the I is to represent the world, it needs still to acknowledge that other somehow. My axe to grind is that the I in the memoir or poem about Alzheimer's, if it does not belong to the person with Alzheimer's, needs to keep a distance (dare I say "polite" or "ethical"--that sounds funny?) from the person who suffers it. I tried to explain using the Objectivists; my mother, while she was not a tree (in a Williams poem) deserves the same respect as he showed the tree. Just as the tree is not the poet's to possess, my mother is not mine to own. Lauren asked a question about questions: when are they out of curiosity, and when are they aggressive? I recognized a keen irony in this. My mother's questions were more often intrusive than curious. Her I tried to drown mine out too often. I was she, which was a continuity in her dementia, not a break. My work on her last years tries hard not to intrude, although it does leave so much of her earlier life out.

But we're not there yet. The symposium began with Lauren Berlant's opening remarks. The Worlding Writing Project brings together experiment with theory, induces comparison, tries to incorporate detail and situation. (She noted that Dementia Blog is about "staying in a situation.") If theory is a generalizing principle, then the Worlding writers want to experiment with un-generalizing. I take Kathleen Stewart's work as a primary example of this. Her Ordinary Affects largely ignores the theory that propels it (though some of my students wished it never intruded at all), that theory being that situations are worth exploring on their own terms. Lauren spoke about our time being one of ADHD, that the Occupy (or Honolulu's de-Occupy) movement is about attending to the world, slowing down attention. Somewhere in there bobble heads from groupon appeared on the screen. The pigeon then appeared, for its flocking, its aggregation, and she told us that the word "gregarious" comes from sheep. Relationality is a priori for pigeon and sheep, as it has not been for "us." MLK and Spinoza spoke of love as politics. This involves relation, transformation, what I wrote down as "social therapy," but intended as "social theory." (Just as Radhika this morning was trying to figure out what "adding fuel to the fire" meant and kept saying "adding fuel to the feather"--I did NOT say that, she said, but her dad and I said, oh YES you did!) And so collaborative work in theory, and an interest in the commons, and discussion of citizenship--Lauren's remarks, while clear, seemed to gather steam at this point. Institutions are still objects; infrastructure is a moving form. (Which made me think of the difference between the Alzheimer's home as building and as a life, or as many parallel lives. So much Gertrude Stein running beside us.) The Losing It conference, then, was about how the family is a scene for being out of control, for thinking about relations of care--such relations are enigmatic. What interests Lauren is how caregiving can be presented as solidarity and as a relation that is not sentimental.

There was more, but this is what "stuck" with me, "stuck" being one of those keywords of the conference for me, just as "register," uttered by Katie Stewart in response to my work of transcribing Alzheimer's voices became a key word for Carl Bogner (who gave a beautiful, generous talk on Jennifer Montgomery's The Agonal Phase later on). "Stuckness" like "attachment" went a couple of ways for this Buddhist-inflected writer. Truths to try to let drop, and then remember, and then let go as memory. "Forgetting is crucial to learning," said Lauren. Forgetting is crucial to poetry, said Ann Lauterbach in an essay. Memory Cards arrives today in the mail, and I read that book-to-com as evidence of moments lived through and then forgotten, and then remembered as writing.

Katie Stewart and Susan Lepselter performed discrete essays in interwoven pieces, moving back and forth to create conversation. Their essays were very different. Katie's was about losing her mother; Susan's was about researching UFOs in the west. Susan is fascinated by the uncanny; Katie in the canny, if that word can be used as a mere reversal on un-canny. But the gaps between their pieces were themselves somewhat uncanny. I kept wondering what Susan's essay about encountering such a completely absorbing subject had to do with Katie's narrative about her mother, her absorption in her mother's dying. Like a long poem, this one requires some time to ponder. There's a leap there, but I can't say just what it is. (And this was one of the leaps that made me want to talk about the relationship of the spirit to this subject matter. The UFO belief system is one spiritual practice, as it were, and Katie's attending to her mother's passing is another.) Tony Trigilio, a Buddhist, and I agreed we would talk about spirituality and the academy the next time we talk. This talk we had at Heartland Cafe, was about John F. Kennedy's death (a conspiracy-talk, in other words, oddly and ill-related to the Buddhist conception of the world as utterly connected) and about poetry and more mundane institutional matters (like trying to preserve a graduate program, perhaps not so mundane, after all).

Some fragments:

Writing is not catharsis.

Hoarding cats.

Gertrude Stein / Stain.

We made lists of losing its. (Is there an apostrophe there, of any kind?)

They had a wonderful life. She led the life of Riley.

Their work included broken roofs. (Is there a "v" there, of any kind?)

The man in black was not Johnny Cash. He met her at the airport. She knew not to tell. She is telling us now.

Now you know how I feel.

The word "sensorium." The word "energetics." The word "abject." This is not my discourse community, but it is my emotional one in many ways.

I've blogged on The Agonal Phase already. I made so many mistakes of fact I had to go in and expunge large sections of what I had written. I had thought, for example, that Jennifer Montgomery's mother Ruth was in the film, that she was the baggy pantsed person on the trampoline, the person in the chair with glasses. That she was Jennifer's father, in other words, the man who spoke in the film. (Think about voice-overs, Lauren advised us, but I'd gone to face-overs.) I assumed her illness, her age, had made her androgynous. But it was her father who was becoming a woman, instead. Carl Bogner spoke on the film and everyone wished there was a tape of it. There was! A graduate student had recorded it, but whenever Carl got good, the student would type madly and there would be loud clacking noises. So when you listened to the video, the best parts included lots of noises. "Mental scratch pad." Faster versions of Jennifer's father/mother on the trampoline. Some of Carl's references:

Peter Handke's memoir, Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.
Grueber's still life of 1661. Was that called Vanitas?
Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary. (My response here.)
Guy Davenport's reading of Joyce's story, "Clay."

The practice of attention is a caesura.

Day One: rumination: sadness.
Day Two: two pairs of glasses in harmony. Transitions, leave-taking, moving on: "Ah!" says Mr. Montgomery.

There is an enigma to its clarity.

Workspaces: composer & editor.

Sequence: dog, Jennifer, father. [This is the sequence that made someone cry. It's about faces, the face that wants a response from you, the face that cries, the face that is impassive.]

What is the capacity of the camera?

Jennifer took two photos of her mother after she died. She erased one and then the other of them. She misses these photos, regrets their erasure. But she remembers her mother and the photographs, the photographs of her mother.

Jennifer's short video on squid, from a work in progress. On the cutting apart of a squid, the milking it for ink, the use of that ink to draw a squid.

"Part of my face is missing" as a phrase about grieving.

"Shakespeare is crafting this death"--I remember thinking that my father was dying into poetry, as everything he said was metaphorical, more Dickinson than dad.

"Where's that fucking photo?"

On Annie Liebovitz's photographs of Susan Sontag: "That's HER hell."

Sea change. Purcell's The Tempest. Ruckfigur is either seeing the world as the other does, or entering from behind. A comment that haunted us after. Do we show faces or not? Or parts of faces? (Reference back to a discussion of my transcriptions: to whom do they belong? do we shows them entire, or in pieces?)

Fast forward:

Full Court / Small Press event in the Red Rover Series. This series is curated by Laura Goldstein and Jennifer Karmin. As you'll see if you click that second link, they organize readings that are more than readings, but provocations. Patrick Durgin, Caroline Picard, Johannes Gorannson (umlaut to taste) and I each read pieces by ourselves and others, then convened for a panel, in which we asked one another questions. Patrick and I had agreed on our questions, and delivered them with a lack of spontaneity that was astounding. We should have been penalized for staying in the paint too long. My question for him had to do with his decision to publish his own work through Kenning Editions; his for me was about Tinfish as argument, rather than press. Caroline talked about design work and the production of books (silkscreen covers and Bookmobile innards). Johannes talked about Action Books as a translation press that was not one. Not exclusively one. Other poets we read: Johannes read from Kim Hyesoon's new Action Books volume, edited by Don Mee Choi. Patrick read a poem by Andrew Levy. I read "What We Get" from Gizelle Gajelonia's Tinfish chapbook, 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus. It's in pidgin (not to be confused with Lauren Berlant's pigeons); I did my best.

Fast backward:

In Madison, I spent time with Steel Wagstaff, a Ph.D. student, before and after my FELIX series reading. A waitress, not knowing why an older woman and younger man might be dining together, assumed. "So nice of you to come from Hawai`i to visit your son," she said. He gave me a Brewers Central Division Champion teeshirt at my reading. Said it had been on close-out. Duh.

And there was much else that was lovely.

1 comment:

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I found it and am excited to read--SLOWLY SLOWLY. May print out to read in comfort.