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Exactly a century ago, the Armory show brought European avant-garde art to New York. We are still experiencing its consequences. Among the works on view as Marcel Duchamp's notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, which a derisive critic wanted to rename, "Explosion in a Shingle Factory." Both titles come to mind as one reads Chris Hosea's Put Your Hands In, which somehow subsumes derision and erotic energy and comes out on top. Maybe that's because "poetry is the cruelest month," as he says, correcting T. S. Eliot. Transfixed in mid-paroxysm, the poems also remind us of Samuel Beckett's line (in Watt): "The pain not yet pleasure, the pleasure not yet pain." One feels plunged in a wave of happening that is about to crest.Now, it's clear that Ashbery has no idea what to say about the book he has chosen and so falls back on the magical invocation of Duchamp—a value-free gesture meant as an avant-garde stamp of approval akin to "Gluten-Free". What "subsumes derision and erotic energy" means is anybody's guess, as is the sense of Hosea's poems being "transfixed in mid-paroxysm." It may not be idle to point out that "paroxysm" in its medical sense means "a sudden recurrence or attack of a disease; a sudden worsening of symptoms." In fact, when one finishes puzzling over Ashbery's nonsensical praise and confronts the poems offered up as exemplary, the medical meaning seems the most appropriate.
|In This Place|
|The man himself|
|Jorge Luis Borges walking with Willis Barnstone|
in Buenos Aires, 1975
Nos ha dejado espléndidas metáforasForeman translates it thusly:
y una doctrina del perdón que puede
anular el pasado. (Esa sentencia
la escribió un irlandés en una cárcel.)
He has left us some splendid metaphorsWhat this misses, I think, is Borges’s use of “anular,” meaning “to annul”, which deepens the irony because the Irishman in question is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for “gross indecency” (read: homosexual acts) with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. While jailed, Wilde wrote De Profundis, a letter to Douglas that prison authorities didn’t allow him to send. In the second half, Wilde describes the spiritual development he experienced in prison, which led to his seeing himself as a Christ figure—Christ, that is, as a kind of romantic artist. Here’s the passage Wilde wrote that Borges probably had in mind:
And a doctrine of pardon with the power
To cancel out the past. (This is a dictum
Written down by an Irishman in jail.)
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.It’s repentance, of course, that occasions divine forgiveness.
He’s given us splendid metaphorsThere are churches, of course, that may annul a marriage, asserting that the marriage never truly existed. The deeper irony Borges is after, I think, is that Douglas and Wilde were actually in love, actually “married,” but Wilde, repenting of that past, essentially had that marriage annulled. Wilde’s compliance with doctrine provided forgiveness but denied the love at the heart of his “crime.” I wonder, too, if Borges didn't see Guthrum's forced conversion to Christianity by Alfred the Great as a parallel to Wilde's jailhouse conversion, in some way "forced" by Lord Alfred Douglas. Hmmm....
and a doctrine of amnesty that’s able
to annul the past. (This dictum
was jotted down by a jailed Irishman.)
Sometimes it’s only when a difficulty is removed that we realise what it was doing for us. […] Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level.Difficulty is perhaps the taproot that makes poetry different from and (dare I say it?) more nourishing than prose. Prose exists to make ideas go down easy. It explains, it contexts with a vengeance. Even the greatest novel does yeoman duty of creating a setting that defines and restricts its characters’ actions; within the setting, the novel tells us the character stood and left the room or peered over the rim of the canyon or whatever; the novel, as a rule, presents motivations in order to explain why characters are in a particular setting and why they do what they do there.
—Ian Leslie, “The Uses of Difficulty”
It takes you all your life to write the way you speak without faking it. I mean I think it’s very hard for a poet, very-very, very-very hard to get to hear his own voice without affectation. I mean I couldn’t read my poems with a British accent, or an American accent. You know, there’s an inner thing that makes me speak, I hope, the way I would write—tonally, not just in terms of vocabulary. So that I could perhaps move from talking to you now and read something that does not heighten me, you know, sociologically or because I’m on TV or something, you know, that you can just slide into your own voice. And that is what a poet, I think, spends his life trying to do.
The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours.If you write poetry and don't feel pangs of jealousy reading this, you may want to check your pulse.
The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea,
the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro,
the rods of the yawning branches trolling the breeze,
the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass,
the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road,
the echo of benediction on a house—
its rooms of pain, its verandah of remorse
when joy lanced through its open-hearted doors
like a hummingbird out to the garden and pool
in which the sky has fallen. These are all yours,
and pain has made them brighter as absence does
after a death, as the light heals the grass.
And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch
like fingers on the struts of a guitar.
[Click here to read the whole essay]
This passage isn't typical of Berger's fine novel, but it's among the few excerptible portions. The letter form is a difficult one to use if one wants to sustain a plot, and From A to X—like most epistolary stories—is almost plotless. The beauty and the depth of it are in the characters, only one of whom really gets the opportunity to speak. The action is almost completely implied, as in Greek tragedy when the most crucial turns of plot take place off stage. From A to X is more complexly structured, though, and throughly Modernist in sensibility. There is also a non-theistic spirituality at the heart of this novel, summed up toward the end of the story:
Without the evocation of Hell, the Church’s demonstrative wealth and ruthless power would have been far more openly questioned because they were in evident contrast to the teaching of the Gospels.
Hell bestowed a kind of sanctity on amassed wealth.
The inflictions of today have gone further. No need to evoke a Hell in the afterlife. A hell for the excluded is being constructed in this one, announcing the same thing: that only wealth can make sense of being alive.
—From A to X: A Story in Letters, by John Berger
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells and their received messages form a network of ceaseless feedback and co-ordination. No high command, only a continual circuit of the body's own messengers, some of which existed since life began, and which, in their multiplicity, weave—that's the only word I can find—weave an intelligence comparable with the famous one of the mind. It looks as if body and mind are of the same substance. Angels are the powers hidden in the faculties and organs of men.That last sentence is a quotation from Aristotle, one cited by the letter writer earlier in the book. The argument here, the vision, reaches backward and forward from this point in the book, and I can't bring myself to attempt a summary of what amounts to a profound description of what can only be called divinity as encoded in our bodies—and by extension the bodies of all creatures—at the cellular level.