Murat Nemet-Nejat [USA]
RECOVERY OF THE STOLEN WORDS: BILL BERKSON'S SUDDEN ADDRESS: SELECTED LECTURES 1981-2006
“The continuous right-angled skin of the city.”
James Schuyler (quoted by Bill Berkson in his essay, “Sensation Rising,” The Sweet Singer of Modernism)
“Lucifer, 1947, oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas. 42 inches high [below], reproduced here for the first time. Detail [above] about actual size [about 71/2 by 9 inches, or nearly 5/8s of the page] reveals the complexity of Pollock’s paint skeins.”
from the Caption for Pollock’s drip painting “Lucifer” during the 1967 Pollock exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (quoted by Bill Berkson in his essay “The Sensational Pollock,” The Sweet Singer of Modernism}
“love, of a not yet visible asia, is
the barely sensible skin of plants. “
from souljam, k. Iskender (from Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry)
“not ‘words to choose to call up visual representations,’ but the reverse: visual representation to call up words.”
Robert Duncan (HD Book)
The history of the second half of 20 th century art, from painting to poetry to photography to film to television to video and computer arts can be understood through an in-depth understanding (here is the first contradiction!) of the idea of skin; in other words, envisioning, speculating on a metaphysics of skin. On the one hand, there is the tautological impulse that the skin is just a skin, a surface, a piece of cardboard, etc., a reinforced surface of its material flatness, words are words. In this impulse, seemingly so proud of its material realism, reduced to its reductive extreme, a surprising transformation occurs. The skin dissolves, into a plethora of words, in a kind of radioactive decay. In this process, the internet is the medium without a skin, with no muscle tone. Kasey Mohammad, for instance, plucks docile words from the net, which do not scream or resist as they do in Dante’s Inferno, being pulled out of their specific locations, to create a parallel, flat (ironic!) surface of words. Starting with Clement Greenberg’s essays on the absoluteness (rather than the ambiguous materiality) of a flat surface to Conceptual Art, Mohammad’s poetry presents the apotheosis of this tautological impulse as the skin/canvas is transformed, swallowed totally through the passion of his art into the body of words. Of course, that passion, besides its religious overtones, has, due to the pure malleability of the canvas it embraces, the qualities of an inflatable doll. I do not mean by that the net by its very nature is only amenable to such treatment. For instance, the passion of Alan Sondheim’s art derives from his obsessive pursuit to make the net grow a skin, in his words, by a legerdemain of his imagination to make the digital become an analog. Looking at his images in the web, this critique at least is constantly forced to ask where do these images come from. His digital action figures create a dance which keeps their mysterious autonomy; they resist to be totally appropriated. I also avoided to use the word “flarf” because some flarf members practice an art the very reverse of Mohammad’s tautological poetry. For instance, in Gary Sullivan’s enchanting comics books series, Elsewhere I & 2, the visual field of the comic, arrived at slowly and painstakingly almost in real time (in Elsewhere II this takes the form of a walk down a Brooklyn Street full of store signs, reminiscent of a walk down a Manhattan street in a Frank O’Hara poem or a Rudy Burckhardt photograph) the skin of the visual field retains its autonomy, letting words out grudgingly. Sullivan must inscribe his own words over them (that is the significance of the comics form), creating two parallel texts where the eye, “the complexity of seeing” and its motions in the visual field, has precedence over the ear, words, rather than the other way around. This primacy of the eye and its perceptual motion over the flat surface of a painting is also at the heart of Bill Berkson’s poetry, of the poetics implicit in Sudden Address.
In the collaborative internet novel Swoon also, Sullivan falls in love with Nada Gordon’s writing, addressing it through e-mails. Nada Gordon, the person behind the writing, responds to them resistantly. There are silences between e-mails. The novel is a dance through which Nada, gradually, reveals herself, finally, in a letter of her own tells of her dream of a sleek, beautiful tiger.
“Just when you have been glued to a screen, in the street you see people or a slice of sky, and the sensation is continuous. Your ordinary vision is suddenly invigorated or heightened. That sustenance has some staying power. I know I owe some of the presence of my alertness to looking at paintings… One should not get too entranced by the materialism of art..” (“Poetry and Painting,” Sudden Address)
“Any divergence from the ‘everything’ principle is obfuscation, which often is necessary as a ground, to add surface. Surface is the great revealer. Both poetry and painting have surface, but with poetry the location of the surface is harder to pin down. With paint, color, the issue of revelation becomes paradoxical. As Robert Smithson reminds us, ‘The word color at its origin means to ‘cover’ or ‘hide’…” (“Poetry and Painting”)
“In Vermeer… the point of entrance is precise and realistic: surface, wall, threshold… the whole image strikes eye and mind instantly in equal measure like a natural light, a reminder that light is substantial, has pressure and weight…. The ideal conception is that technique is… an ongoing state of attention like affection that lasts.”(“Idealism and Conceit (Dante’s Book of Thought),” Sudden Address)
“Light and space are vector fields, and with gravity thrown in, the balance of matter, if you see balance, is a continual demarcation: let it go at that and call it door.” (“Idealism and Conceit”)
“In art, materials tend to assert their own values. Fresco wall painting –fresco buono, as they say- thrives upon a literal crystal effect, ‘a chemical reaction based on the behavior of lime…. ‘The plaster dries and re-crystallizes, the pigment particles are locked among the crystals. Thus the colors become an integral part of the wall’s surface, to endure as long as it endures’” (“Idealism and Conceit ”)
”’Declarative’ is one component of the surface; others are a silence as full as light, and a countenance that functions as a forward edge.” (“Idealism and Conceit”)
“What is so appealing about a fact is often its inconsequentiality. Beyond the relief that somehow astonishingly there are words for what it tells you…” (“History and Truth”)
“Truth is face to face with every facet –or nuance- of fact. By nuance, every word of a poem gathers the poem’s surface energy. By the nuance of its surface a painting we might call ‘great’ actualizes its place in the culture that bred it (“History and Truth”)
“I write with my eyes, not my ears or mouth…. As a matter of fact as a writer I write entirely with my eyes… The words as seen by my eyes… I said to Picasso… ‘A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears.” (“Poetry and Painting,” Berkson quoting Gertrude Stein)
In dialectic opposition to the tautological impulse, where language in automatic creates an ironic mimesis of its own concept of flatness, there is the idea of skin as equivalent to space. In space words have muscle tone. If plucked in one spot, others are affected and bent by it. They scream, because cosmic anti-matter invisibilities (Berkson calls them “facts”) permeate this space, making it resistant for words in it to be easily flattened or appropriated. The first poetic impulse before this skin/space is not appropriation, but “confrontation,” a dumb wonder. One might say that any poem which consists of delineating, re-enacting the nuances of such a space, Berkson’s poetry being a prominent example of that, starts with a writer’s block. It is crucial to understand the resistance of that space to give up its words, its reticent autonomy. The poem written with the eye must materialize “the complexity of seeing,” its unfolding process, in real time, as a movement, a walk to an unheard mental music. In this dialectic, skin possesses the materiality of space (not of a carton), bending by time, as space does. Time in relation to skin is a continuous now, while perception unfolds, walks its process through the eye. The experience of the reading of the poem and its writing merge as a single performance.
Berkson calls this point of union between sensation and thought, meditative seeing, a “demarcation,” releasing the language locked in the body of the painterly surface into the parallel skin of a poem. For Berkson, as in photography, a silence as full as light is at the heart of this process.
To understand the relevance of reticence and silence in skin/space, one may go to a pivotal artistic act of the last fifty years, John Cage’s production of Erik Satie’s Vexations. At first blush, a piece of music which takes 18 hours and 40 minutes to perform appears like a piece of Conceptual Art, basically performed in its telling. But Cage expects the audience to sit through it, as he himself does. The sitting materializes time, as does Andy Warhol’s filming of the sleeping poet John Giorno (here is the image of space consisting of words in sleep), as does the endless dialogues which take place in closed rooms in Eric Rohmer’s films, etc. In fact, this is the poetry of resistance where time and light are material, not a flat surface. An “other” language is the quintessential resistant surface. That’s why translation is the primary genre of resistance, in Jack Spicer’s terms, “writing against the grain,” pulling a vexed Frederico Garcia Lorca from his grave.
Sudden Address is a collection of Bill Berkson’s lectures from 1981 to 2006. Two points need to be immediately understood about it. The first relates to the title, its two pregnant words, particularly to the fact that “address” is not used in the plural, which the presence of seven different lectures ostensibly demands. The second point relates to the chronology of the pieces. The first three, “Poetry and Painting,” “Travels with Guston,” “Idealism and Conceit (Dante’s Book of Thought)” were written in the 1980’s. The last four, “History and Truth,” “Walt Whitman’s New Realism,” “Frank O’Hara at 30,” “’The Uneven Phenomenon’ – What Did You Expect?” were written in the 2000’s. A gap of thirty years separates them. These two facts are related, pointing to the deep unity of purpose which underlies Berkson’s work.
Suddenness is central to Clement Greenberg aesthetics. The response to the plane surface of the painting is instantaneous, like a baseball hit, and ends there. The response has no temporal dimension. Berkson’s address, on the other hand, refers to a response in time. The word is in the singular because the response occurs in a continuous present, across painters and paintings, through time. Berkson’s work can be seen as an adventure of the eye, expressed in a language of meditation. The central concern of Sudden Address is to reveal how an experience based on the senses, the eye, transforms itself into thought, “I feel, old man,/ seeingly, in the calligraphy of sudden thought.”
It is not within the scope of this review to present in detail the subtle movements, sudden diversions of Berkson’s thought. I leave such pleasure to the individual reader. This reader at least became addicted to them, waiting for the next hit, and, when the book was finally over, he felt a sweet kind of sadness. Suffice it to say, Berkson suggests that sensation turns into thought by means of a mental walk through resistant space, in a dialogue with it, as Dante does through the pratfalls of The Inferno, a la Buster Keaton, or Baudelaire wandering, as flaneur, in the arcades of Paris or O’Hara riffing off the skin of the city in his ecstatic walking poems of New York. An assimilative, meditative motion joins them all.
Ron Silliman asserts that Berkson is a “second generation New York School,” a follower of John Ashbery. This judgment misses the point, relying on a linear view of the American poem with its avant and post avant and schoolmarms of quietitude. I think the idea of influence from one American poet to another is an illusion. Both Ashbery and Berkson are joined together, not linearly, but by their rapacious openness to other genres, other forms, other media. In my view, this radical openness, avariciousness and idiosyncratically absorbing the resistant skin of the other, anything but another American poet, Jack Spicer’s “the planet Mars.” is the unifying hallmark of the American poem.
It is the reach of Berkson’s mind across media and opposing modes of perception which makes Sudden Address (and the companion book, The Sweet Singer of Modernism, published by Qua Book in 2003) such terrific readings.