Preface: Quiddities (from Apparition Poems)

Ezra Pound famously remarked that when poetry strays too far from music, it ceases to be poetry. I would like to opine, as a tangent thought to his, that when the higher arts stray too far from philosophy, they cease to be the higher arts. Philosophy, no less than literature, is a series of narratives; and that higher-end, intellectually ambitious literature should twirl and torque meaningfully around philosophical quandaries and discourses is something that English-language poetry has forgotten in the last half-century (and I mean “pure” philosophy, as differentiated from literary theory or aesthetics). The leveling process by which no distinctions between high and low art are made, as a precondition to post-modernity’s preponderance, has effaced interest in the “fundamental questions” in favor of narrow, nihilistic ironies and corrosive but intellectually superficial cultural critiques. But that, without reprising Romanticism, English language poetry can reclaim interest in pure philosophy and the crux questions of human existence, is the assumption these poems make. As such, they are angled against everything in the English language oeuvre after T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” including the array of Deconstructive, non-narrative poetics, which confuse the respective (though not completely antithetical) functions of philosophy and poetry in an excessive and demeaning alienation of the aesthetic.

How my approach differs from Eliot’s is this— rather than compressing the sensory data relevant to his inquiry into succinct forms, he prefers to paint on a wide canvas. The sharp points of his piece, often expressed in axioms and aphorisms, suffer a dissipated sense of being too generalized; an intermittent chiasmus with the tactile is represented, but focus is all too often lost in digression and imprecisely motivated meanderings. Many of Eliot’s axioms are, in fact, quotations (from, among others, Heraclitus and St. John of the Cross); and his Modernistic allusiveness chips away at the potential philosopher’s stone of original cognition for him. The poems in “Quiddities” are compressed and formed in the manner of John Keats’ Odes; not, of course, that the poems are odes, just that they are meant to convey mystery-in-brevity; and a sense, however sodden with disillusionment and despair, of enchantment. For enchantment in intellectual mystery, where English language verse is concerned, few poems but these Apparition Poems after the English Romantics will suffice. Modernism and post-modernism presented many shortcuts to a sense of engaged cognition; but the full enchantment of the depths and mysteries of the human mind and its powers of perception and discernment was not perceived or represented. Impulses which could have led to these representations were deemed too earnest, in a milieu and context which prized irony, and mistrust of any form of depth, especially subjectively maintained cognitive-affective depth, with or against impulses which could be deemed Romantic.

If “Quiddites” is not merely a reprise of Romantic impulses, it is because the mysteries the poems encompass and close on are not comforting. Wordsworth’s conception of intellectual enchantment is positivist; he follows a pedagogical path to teach us, with a discrete, didactic, and circumscribed system, how to think. This is the thematic backbone of “The Prelude,” his masterpiece. Intellectual man, he informs us, can always fall back on Nature; and Nature has the capacity to endlessly replenish intellectual man. The other major Romantics offer more naïve versions of the same intermittently comforting premise; even if Byron and Keats have ways of building levels of permanent encroaching darkness into their visions, too. The intellectual enchantment in “Quiddities” ends in itself; the poems offer no system as a transcendental antidote, and nothing is endlessly replenishing in the poems except the endless montage of thought (thoughts on more thoughts). The enchantment offered by “Quiddities” is strange and (in a contradictory way) bitter; cognition has no recourse but to recur endlessly, in a sensory landscape as blasted and dystopic as the poems themselves. To circle back to Eliot again, where “Quiddities” is concerned; it is cognition over the (or a) waste land. But that the human intellect can and should develop its own kind of narcissism, over the dictatorial narcissism of the senses, especially in America, is presupposed. The human mind is the only enchanted place with any genuine permanence for mankind; that is the key and primordial supposition here.


WYB Outtakes Pt 3


I am a limited body. I do
not encompass much, &
my ace-in-the-hole is how
& why I know this (from
long experience of waves,
which have taken salty
thoughts from my brains). 
I know vastness, being little.
I know defeat sans groans.
Being pure is what saves.
Out at sea, unnumbered
uproars roll past my ears,
like the Danny’s bar-keep’s
innuendos like thunder.   


I can't feel a thing but pain.
Everything I say's a blunder—
form and feeling gone insane—
heaps of snow inside my brain.
She's my loaded cherry pie.
I'm not worth her sliding doors
unless my eyes get cauterized
and moving sand's a wooden floor.
It's all been said except for this—
that I will out the road I missed,
scattered signs, paraphernalia of
our last night’s pilgrimage past
the bucks hitting Bucktown’s tow-
away zone, down-bound baked goods.

Worn Yesterday

To circle you from inside you,
from inside glassy globes of skin
offered up in mute scream to
shared sharp pangs, how a lock
might close shut in this, how it
could clasp us to a firmament,
how in arching up we forge bliss,
down, & to be gone is concupiscent,
& come is gone, white-woven in —
what’s still unaccounted for is
how when I leave this place again
for Philly, I’ll look for you on
Main Street, Manayunk, find
myself at Worn Yesterday again.


WYB Outtakes Part 2

Bon Appetit

Would that you were closer,
that we each could roll over
and beg to be petted, loved,
rubbed & flown over, above
what keeps us planted in dirt.
I don’t mean to call you a flirt.
I don’t mean to tell you OK.
I can’t think of what I can say.
The omens say Bon Appetit
omens are closer than meat.
What murmurs from Wicker
Park’s main street as we are
up semi-fucking at dawn, city
birds: they portend concrete. 

Fear-Dreary Philly

No little lame balloon-man
whistles far or wee, or even
has balloons. I sit near the
fan, feel like Dante's son
plucked by this city of
dreams into Hades. There's
no way this can be anything
but rote, my hip routine,
& even a fly's anus looks
more succulent. But, what
the fuck. I've got memories.
As I anticipate the wideness
of your limbs, quiet or not,
the shore I stand on is silent.


Three WYB Outtakes ('07/'08)


You’re like an obsessive
astronaut: coveting space,
empty vacuums, stretching
outwards around you, deep
as wolf-hour dreams, dark
as bottoms of rocky peaks.
I live, breathe, in your sleep.
My need: toothed like a shark.
There is no reconciling this.
Uneasy space is rank to kiss.
I’m lowly wise, a slug, stuck
to woody surfaces, rocky
bottoms, yours. What luck:
between your legs is bold and stark.


Your scales are wave-hewn.
You are soporific as a siren.
Around you limbs are strewn.
It’s fin to tail chess. Pawns
move in an undulant fashion.
I have nothing to trade you
but a marching soldier’s gun
I know little of. I know what
to do with him, loosely, but
really this air has me kite-high,
ready to blow, high to black sky.
Then, on the shore of your
wide world I kneel before you,
hopped up on sedated nerves. 


I’m Eternity’s Pilgrim, I’m
hot enough to broil flesh, I
am made one with Nature,
yours, every time you flip
over for me. It’s cynical to
speak in these terms, but
I’m captain of a wet ship—
you’re sub someone, slut.

It’s a big identity mess. It’s
me angling to parse an angle
not yet gelled, where there
is “we”, & we’re newfangled.
It’s a bunch of bullshit.
I’m floss on thorns, tangles.  


From "Mortuary Puppies" ('98/'99)

C: (finding a razor, preparing to slit his wrists) God is a spider piercing heaven with venom and menace!

A: (knocking razor out of C's Hand) Fuck death! Death is the refuse of flies! (the rest of the group forms a semi-circle around him, begins falling at his feet and feeling him up sensually, lust in their eyes) Death is the pulse of underwater nowhere! (the group begins to sex-pant) Death is the thin arm of ridiculous waving! (the group begins to climax violently) You're all a bunch of babbling crabs! (he breaks off them and they whimper) Let us ride. Let us worship a lesbian gopher. Let us spit our vehemence. (he takes out a copy of the Bible from under the candle; in it are five copies of the poem "bible"; he distributes them; the rest of the group forms a line at the front of the stage and recites this poem)

B,C, D, E, F:

bible is stilts for mind-midgets,
brassy as a barnum poster, three-ringed
bible is black and white silent film
with Valentino Christ presiding....

A: (regaining his composure, lighting a cigarette suavely) Terrible, how our needy flesh imagines satisfaction in external monuments.

B: (rising, kneeling before A) Shut your eyes and listen- the thread of children's voices will hold our hearts in place, cozy as a hammer's nail or tire tracks on blacktop roads.


Two Elegies


“The girl in the black dress is rich.
He’s famous. Are they doing it?
I doubt it. You have to understand—
no one’s getting any these days. Yeah—
come see us Friday.” That’s where
the tape in her head ends, as it is Friday night,
and she’s going nowhere near those
gaming sons of bitches. She forces
herself to vomit up an ice-cream
cone. She sends a one-liner out to one
of her text-lists— she’s wearing a black
dress in her soul. She has no initials.  


They sit at the same pub on Limekiln
Pike and reminisce. Have they ever
wondered how he feels? They don’t
realize he’s driving past, and looks in
and sees them there. He still wants in,
and pretends not to. The sun set over
Glenside an hour ago. He pretends to
his family, always, that he has some
where to go, but he doesn’t: he just
likes to drive. The old crew, the popular
girls of ’95, are just as senseless, as
they drive their minds backwards, he
thinks. He’s still a virgin, and desperate.
The business works the same everywhere.  


Abby Heller-Burnham, New York, and the Twenty-First Century Pt. 1

Though the formal aspect of Abby Heller-Burnham’s work is indebted to French Neo-Classicists Ingres and David, the thematic narratives embedded in her paintings, which hinge on usages of humor, irony, and rhetorical incisiveness, owe a surprising debt to post-modernity, and the conceptual post-modern art which has dominated NYC’s Chelsea galleries for several decades. Specifically, Abby’s narratives of the body, of femininity, and of queerness do the post-modern trick of moving past form to reach unadulterated thematic goals. Why the formal components which complicate Heller-Burnham’s paintings also add several more narratives (of aesthetic form itself, of aesthetic histories, and of America establishing a new, form-driven discourse with historical Europe), completing a well-rounded package which has in it the insignia balance and major high art consonance of the Philly Free School, is that we all, in Aughts Philly, argued that narratives of form itself are as interesting and as rich as thematic narratives, and created accordingly, against the American sanctioned and normative. Yet, the chiasmus which presents itself here between New York and Philadelphia has its own level of richness, and its own narrative— specifically, about form and formal rigor, and why, at a certain point, early in the new century, a group of American artists decided to investigate past what was indigenously in our blood, towards an embrace of the historical.

Abby’s “Meeting Halfway” takes us right into the heart and the heat of the New York-Philly chiasmus and conflict— a painting which grants equal time and attention to concept and form, establishing an essential multi-tiered narrative in the process. About queerness, what “Meeting Halfway” establishes is a sense of nuanced, practical particulars— Abby and her twin/muse only partly face each other as they emerge from their respective pupas, into— what? Respective adulthood? Sexual awareness? Consonance with a queer vision of life? As Abby and her muse “meet halfway,” their matching postures are ambiguous— they are bare-breasted, but covering their breasts. How I take the essential thematic narrative of the painting is that it defines a sense of isolation, alienation, and “half-sisterhood” among gay women. Here, the formal narrative is rather raw for Heller-Burnham— yet the graceful sense of added ornaments softens the construct, and the expert drawing and coloration fills it out into balanced major high art consonance. Yet, I can’t not notice that Robert Mapplethorpe is in Abs’ blood somewhere here— the awareness that queerness in art necessitates confrontation, and that queer alienation and intimacy are so oddly entwined as to be (or become) interchangeable. The boldness and bluntness of “Meeting Halfway” is very New York— it amounts to a declaration, both of queer independence and queer complexity. Mapplethorpe does similar tricks, with even more phallic boldness and bluntness— but his formal narrative is a piddling one compared to Abby’s, and creates a sense of impoverishment around his work. Indeed, Mapplethorpe’s impoverishment is New York’s— incomplete or inadequate narratives of form, and a totalized reliance on theme and thematic (conceptual) narratives, without explanation of why form needs to auto-destruct.