A tentative structure I’ve divined around Apparition Poems has to do with what seem to be the four most salient themes of the book: the city, the night, sex, and art. The city is usually Philadelphia; New York, Montreal, LA, and Washington also put in appearances. So much of the book was written in the middle of the night, and so many poems are set roughly in “wolf’s hour” dimensions, that the night itself, its vicissitudes, has to be a major motif. Sex I’ve discussed as involving, to use pop culture as a reference point, a James Bond/Marlon Brando protagonist, who is very successful sexually with women but also frequently heartbroken and therefore emotionally vulnerable. Under the aegis of “the art,” I include the meta-poems, character monologues, and the poems which address philosophy and academia. So, that’s how, when you configure the four motifs together, I allow myself to call Apparition Poems an American epic, and an epic in fragments. No book is all-inconclusive, where human realities are concerned; but Apparition Poems takes a vested interest in covering as much narrative-thematic ground as possible. Divining also, for an Apparition Poem which brings all motifs, the entire motif square together, I stumbled upon 1341:
Secrets whispered behind us
have a cheapness to bind us
to liquors, but may blind us
to possibilities of what deep
secrets are lost in pursuit of
an ultimate drunkenness that
reflects off surfaces like dead
fishes at the bottom of filthy
rivers— what goes up most is
just the imperviousness gained
by walking down streets, tipsy,
which I did as I said this to her,
over the Schuylkill, two fishes.
The first eight lines could be oracular, or just drunken babble— I prefer to think of them as a little bit of both. Intimations and insinuations of gossip soon give way to intimations and insinuations of murder, corpses, carnage— death, in fact, hovers over the poem and its two protagonists, as does the night and the city. The Schuylkill is filthy; and, as the protagonists cross the Walnut Street Bridge, drunk, perhaps in the middle of the night, they have to make peace both with their own mortality and with what, both inside their minds and outside their minds, is filthy beyond repair. As to whether this semi-Brando stand-in is as impervious as he thinks— the thoughts of death, of “ultimate drunkenness,” suggest that he is not. What sex is there is not revealed; and if the connection to art has to do with the end-rhymes and other poetic devices which configure the formal structure of the poem, it roots 1341 in a history which reaches back from Philadelphia to London and Paris. I read 1341, and how it ends, as a fragment or apparition documenting the pleasures both of intoxication and of psychic dissolutions into larger realities, both inside and outside the mind. It is also worth noting that the eight lines of “drunken babble” may be answering one of his companion’s questions, maybe about gossip, maybe about death, or about both— she may bother to ask him if he has any secrets, if he is hiding anything important from her, or if there is anything sinister in his past. Does his answer suggest he’s a bullshit artist? Maybe.
What happens to a genuine artist forced to survive in academia? I entered Temple University with the University Fellowship in 2006. I already had a Penn degree and an MFA. What I noticed instantly about hardcore academia is that everyone had a way or manner of fronting heavily involved with jargon and “jargonese.” To keep up, in academic discourses, I had to learn all sorts of idiolects and dialect tricks. If you know the right jargon, in these situations (which ran the gamut, from seminars to Temple-sponsored poetry readings to everyday, office-bound interactions with peers), you can appear to be “in” the right way. By the time I wrote Apparition Poems in ‘09/’10, I was pissed off with the rigors of academia and academic fronts, and was, in fact, more than ready to take the piss, in App 1607:
Every live body has a dialect:
to the extent that bodies are
in the process of effacing both
themselves, what they efface, I
move past dialect to the extent
that there are no no-brainers
here, what’s moral in this is the
belief that properly used dialects
emanate waves to hold bodies
in place. As to who’s saying this,
I heard this on the street last
night after a few drinks with
an ex at Dirty Frank’s. It was
a bum who meant it, it worked.
Temple English specialized in a certain form of academic feminism, where gauntlets were perpetually being laid down by ersatz powerhouses out to dazzle us with their gravitas. What I found charming about their rhetoric is the sense that they always demonstrate a moment of “getting real” or “being real” with the audiences for their presentations, articles, and books; thus, throwing in “there are no no-brainers/ here” has to do with the attempt to be imperiously earthy amongst all the verbiage, “in” references, other kinds of codes, and general aura of totalized pompous pretentiousness. I had to set the poem at Dirty Frank’s, because to me all the blarney of academic feminism, its pretentiousness and faux-earthiness, belong in the gutter, and Dirty Frank’s is as charming a dive-bar and a trough as any in Center City. In fact, Dirty Frank’s was a major PFS hang-out in the mid-Aughts— located at 13th and Pine, caddy-corner to the Last Drop, and thus as easy access as it could possibly be, and a place where the booze was cheap and the ambience about “ease in sleaze,” down to the “Frank” mural painted around the bar’s outside façade.
Apparition Poem 509 offers the imaginative vista that a city can embody, in phenomenological terms, both a kind of circle and a kind of game. While enclosed, both cognitively and physically, within the confines of a city’s limits, any given subject can be pried open and exposed to the kinds of games the city perpetuates. I have written that Philadelphia is a Gemini city— both blessed and beleaguered by dichotomies and dichotomous energies— and these dichotomies manifest as flash-points within the Philadelphia circle— attraction/repulsion, beauty/ugliness, novelty/decay, enchantment/damnation. Heidegger’s terminology for Being-In the charmed (or damned) circle of existence— Dasein— is explored in 509, in ambiguous terms:
There are gusty showers
in Philadelphia, showers
that beat up empty lots,
down in sooty Kensington,
you could almost believe
what the books say about
being-in-the-world, I mean
being in a damned world, it
really does seem that way
on greasy days in Philadelphia.
What Dasein means, as a phenomenological reality— a complete and totalized integrity between inside the mind and outside the mind realities— ricochets here along the polar cognitive axes of beauty/ugliness and attraction/repulsion. This Apps protagonist, even while dissolving into Negatively Capable invisibility to represent both poles of these dichotomies, seems to favor beauty and attraction to their antitheses, as a rain shower assaults the North Philadelphia slum where he finds himself. Why Philadelphia boasts so many of these spaces— spaces which appear both enchanted and damned— is part and parcel of the Gemini mysteries for which Philadelphians have no easy answer. As per the phrase “greasy days”— I would like to confess that it is a lift from a poem written by a 90s Philly poet named Vladlen (Vlad) Pogorelov. On my semester breaks from Penn State, I discovered a poetry open mike night at Philly Java Company, on 4th Street between South and Lombard. Vlad was a regular reader there. Vlad’s whole approach to poetry was very Charles Bukowski— down to his most memorable, show-stopping poem enumerating his encounters with “the dirty whore/ taking a bath / smoking crack/ singing songs from time to time.” Vlad was the editor of a print poetry journal called Siren’s Silence— who eventually published me, including the poem Clean from my State College days. In ’98, Vlad put out his first and only book— Derelict— featuring another show-stopper, At the Train Station- and then disappeared. I paid homage to it, and to him, at a reading at the Painted Bride in 2000, but I never heard of him seriously publishing again.
Back to 509: the three adjectival incisions the poem makes— gusty, sooty, greasy— reinforce that the attraction/repulsion dynamic here is a perverse one— ie, gusty, sooty, greasy places are not conventionally considered attractive ones. Furthermore, as a catalog of what North Philadelphia contains, it is pretty despairing. Yet, another constituent factor of the 509 dynamic is that, by gusts, soot, and grease almost maneuvering us from enchantment to damnation and leaving us there, but not quite making it, the poem attempts to represent damnation and never quite manages to do so, either. The complete, totalized integrity between inside the mind and outside the mind realities has to assert, as fulsomely as possible, ambiguities— yet the see-saw tensions are stabilized by the protagonist’s willingness to close the textual circle (which is also a narrative-thematic circle here) at the end, sans irritation, with no attempt to rationalize (perceptions or sentiments) at all. North Philadelphia is just what it is— no more, no less— and the relevant internal flash-points are absorbed into a circle containing multitudes, entities and perspectives.
Over the course of my studies, graduate and undergraduate, there are few texts I got closer to than William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. At best, it is one of the choicest exegesis texts ever written around the disclosure of what motivates, sustains, and inhabits major high art consonant poetry; at worst, it is a confusing mess. Wordsworth makes clear his allegiance to the rural poor, and to channeling their voices (which he calls “the real language of men”) in his poetry; he has established this choice, he says, to represent the plain, emphatic language used by the rural poor, uninfluenced by social vanity, hinged always to the beautiful, permanent, durable forms of nature and the natural world. Wordsworth also wants to explore cognition, the manner in which emotions, once excited, cause the mind to associate ideas. The dialogue I would like to initiate here has to do with Apparition Poem 1488, which has already proven to have, among the Apps, a unique, compelling magnetism. I think I have found out why— it is because there is a “heart” to the poem, a center, which is plain, emphatic, uninfluenced by the vanity (and it is in some senses a social one) towards heightened diction, syntax, and thematic thrust. While 1488 is not written in a rural dialect, it catches its protagonist in a state of excitement, associating ideas in such a way that the plain, emphatic “heart” of the poem is sandwiched by the wonted heightened aesthetic terrain of the Apparition Poems series. That the heart has permanence and durability owing to its emphatic plainness is arguable:
liquor store, linoleum
floor, wine she chose
was always deep red,
dark, bitter aftertaste,
unlike her bare torso,
which has in it
all that ever was
to miss someone terribly,
to both still be in love, as
she severs things because
she thinks she must—
exquisite torture, it’s
a different bare torso,
(my own) that’s incarnadine—
By the heart, I mean “to miss someone terribly,/ to both still be in love, as/ she severs things because/ she thinks she must,” and it is, as I said, readily comprehensible on the surface, with (uniquely, in the context of this book) few multiple significations and no twists or torques towards multiplicity— one woman, one man, one relationship. That 1488 should inhabit a more typical, specialized Apparition Poems space, move into direct earnestness, and then move back into specialized multiplicity again— when Wordsworth discusses the real language of men, he never establishes how he would choose to approach, on a theoretical level, a Lyrical Ballad which had inhering this kind of gear-shift, or for the real language of men to develop an imagination (in one poem) and then shift back into plainness. The effect, in 1488, is to make it so that a reader, who might have limited tolerance for the multiplicity levels in other Apparition Poems, would find a kind of safe haven in the four pertinent lines, a textual oasis which makes palatable, and imaginatively feasible, the rest of the poem. It is also relevant to me that the substitution of Eros (broadly speaking) for what William Wordsworth perceives in nature is one the Apparition Poems go out of their way to make— the beauty, durability, permanence, and the “real” are all to be found in the erotic, and that the richness inhering in text-represented eroticism need not fall beneath what Wordsworth sees in (for instance) Tintern Abbey. Where the Wordsworthian text sits between Man and Nature, how the text can guide men to a fuller understanding of the life we have all been born into on Earth, is another quandary which the Preface only half addresses, especially because the average reader is not guaranteed to be smitten with natural forms. Eroticism is different— because Wordsworth claims that the poet supersedes other writers for singing a song which everyone can join in with, and because the erotic is of interest, permanently and durably (and plainly and emphatically), to almost everyone, it would seem that nature and eroticism should be at least commensurably ranked. As to the special magnetism, already manifest, of 1488, it has to do (as has already been written about at some length) not only with eroticism but intoxication— and the most important intoxicating effect 1488 manifests, is the move from the heightened to the plain and back again.
I met the painter Jenny Kanzler in 2008. I was sitting in the Last Drop one weekend afternoon in April or May, and she approached me and introduced herself. She was very pretty in a cherubic way, not unlike Abby Heller-Burnham. Over the course of 2008, we had coffee many times. I wouldn’t call these tete-a-tetes dates— Jenny was otherwise engaged— but we got to know each other with some thoroughness. Jenny, both in her paintings and in her life, had a fascination with “the stunted,” in general terms— stunted people, stunted situations, even stunted animals (she found tarantulas exquisite, for example). She also had a fetish for violence and gore— the films she liked were violent, and the art. Jenny had been at PAFA along with Abby and Mary, but she usually declined to discuss them. I got the distinct impression that they were not among her favorite people there. Mary’s “The Fall” was showing at PAFA precisely when I met Jenny Kanzler, and she gave it a mixed review. There was some sexual tension in the air between myself and Ms. Kanzler, but she made clear that she was mostly a Platonic soul. Abby and Mary were floridly liberated, eroticized, and romantic in comparison, despite Jenny’s attractiveness. Yet, Jenny did have a singular mind and a singular vision, and she made a strong impression on me. It seemed to me that the substitution, in Jenny’s art, of violence for love and sex was a deliberate one, but (this was my own prejudice) not necessarily a healthy one. Jenny’s penchant for violent, rather than sexual, smut, was what inspired Apparition Poem 1342, along with the sense, mistaken or not, that Jenny was sublimating so that the part of her psyche which wanted her to remain a stunted little girl would stay untouched, unchallenged, and inviolable:
What’s in what eyes?
What I see in hers is
mixed greenish silence,
somewhat garish, it’s
past girlish (not much),
but I can’t touch her
flesh (set to self-destruct),
anymore than she can
understand the book
her cunt is, that no one
reads directly, or speaks
of, there’s no love other
than “could be,” but I
think of her throat cut—
that’s her slice of smut.
The phenomenological import of the poem is a torque of Elegy 414— I privilege myself to do a “break-in” into Jenny’s brain, and have a look around. The problem with phenomenological break-ins is that it is difficult to ascertain whether what you are seeing is real, is really someone else’s brain, or if what you find is just a projection of your own fantasies. It could be that Jenny’s “slice of smut” is more involved in real emotion and intellection, not just a product of stunted adolescence, but there was no way for me to tell, as I was writing, whether this was the case or not. In fact, I believe the break-in in 1342 is brash enough, pompous enough, even, as a male narrator violating a woman, that this Apps Protagonist seems like half a pig. If he is correct in his assumptions, however, his piggishness has still won him entrance into a woman who has denied him conventional entrance. It is worth noting that I didn’t fight Jenny this way— no passes were made, nor did I have the experience of falling in love with her— but the bullying energy to understand her made for some strange, loopy mind games between us, and our “gaming” against each other on cognitive levels lasted a few years. To broaden the context— by 2008, the Recession era was starting to sink in, and much of the grandeur of Aughts Philly, the romance and the freedom, were beginning to fade. For Jenny Kanzler to enter my life at the time she did, and for us to become sparring partners rather than lovers, was a sign of the times for me, an inversion of the odal early Aughts, and some of the hard-won victories of the mid-Aughts, too. A beacon also, perhaps, inverse-shining towards a realization of the Great Recession, and what it was to become. It’s also perfect for me that by 2008, a painter I was conversing with preferred violence, gore, and the stunted to sexualized expressiveness; where all of America was headed was into a meat-grinder of violence, moral/ethical bankruptcy, and generally entropic conditions, and those of us who wanted the Aughts, which facilitated art around sex and romance, to go on forever, were to be bitterly disappointed.
Much of the book Apparition Poems was written in the middle of the night, between November 2009 and February 2010. That winter wasn’t particularly an extreme one; and I established a regimen, in November, of going to bed early and waking up to write at around 3 am. I could do this because it was a Fellowship year for me at Temple, meaning I didn’t have to teach. I had already passed the dread comp exams and was working on the prospectus for my dissertation. I was only on the Temple campus once every few weeks. So much of Apparition Poems was formed from this congeries of circumstances— waking at 3am in the dead of winter in a studio apartment at 23rd and Arch Street in Center City Philadelphia— that it seems apropos that darkness, and the middle of the night itself, be motifs in the book. Center City Philly in the middle of the night is not a conventionally attractive locale; more like a menacing one. Yet, I found in the urban darkness the cognitive enchantment of a kind of inverse grace, a force that transmuted the brutish into the beautiful, and made (in phenomenological terms) the outside the mind realities which informed the book’s narrative-thematic levels compelling, magnetic to me. The darkness in Apparition Poems manifests both in the sex portrayed and in the meta-poems; it even engenders its own graceful strain in a poem like this, 1326:
Before the sun rises,
streets in Philly have
this sheen, different
than at midnight, as
the nascent day holds
back its presence, but
makes itself felt in air
like breathable crystal—
no one can tell me
I’m not living my
life to the full.
This was written in early December 2009, and soon published in The Argotist Online. It is also worth noting that this is not the kind of poem I could have written, even in recollection mode, about Cheltenham, or in the Cheltenham Elegies. There is a dynamism in the Philly streets, even for the duration of wolf hour, which, however menacing, is inverted by sleeping Cheltenham into absolute, moribund stasis. In fact, I use the urban in Apparition Poems, specifically Philadelphia, as a metaphor for different forms and manners of dynamism, and even if the dynamism has a hinge to confrontations with mortality and conflict in general, it still generates the kinds of sparks (sexualized or not) which make it more attractive and more graceful than the desolate banality of the suburbs. That Philadelphia is an exciting landscape for me, and for different Apparition Poems protagonists, also differentiates it from Baudelaire’s Paris, where damnation is the price to be paid for enjoyment, and the fact of the urban landscape as a “game” cannot diminish the ennui of human consciousness which has not made peace with individuality or processes of individuation.
The Apparition Poems protagonists in Philly are not, strictly speaking, flaneurs; they almost always have a definite objective in doing what they do, or looking at what they are looking at, and move through these texts with a sense of conviction. The Philadelphia game of interlocking circuits is being played in pursuit of victory, of triumph; and the prize for triumph is to reprise the dominant theme of the epic text— that behind every singular reality there are multiple meanings, and singularity must always dissipate into multiple channels, whether what is being dissevered is inside the mind realities from outside the mind realities, concupiscence from fertility, or a relationship with language from language subsisting as a reality in its own space. It just so happens that this dissevering process, both the phenomenological spark in my consciousness and its textual counterpart, was born into being with greater facility in totalized, 3 am darkness than in broad Philadelphia daylight, and from this singularity you may derive any multiple significations you wish; including how to interpret the suburban echoes which later issued from it.
What’s in what eyes?
What I see in hers is
mixed greenish silence,
somewhat garish, it’s
past girlish (not much),
but I can’t touch her
flesh (set to self-destruct),
anymore than she can
understand the book
her cunt is, that no one
reads directly, or speaks
of, there’s no love other
than “could be,” but I
think of her throat cut—
that’s her slice of smut.
In positing critical boundaries between Apparition Poems and Cheltenham: Apparition Poems has in place something Mannerist, or “Manneristic,” which differentiates it from Cheltenham and the Cheltenham Elegies. It has to do with sex, and sexuality; the sense that one Apparition Poems protagonist is exaggeratedly sexual, a kind of James Bond figure, who traipses from sexual encounter to sexual encounter, always with women (a hetero stud, again like Bond or Brando), always with a kind of grandiose Byronic angst about the strife, confusion, agony and ecstasy he encounters in the process. The pitfalls of this textual Mannerism are much the same as the pitfalls of pictorial Mannerism: by focusing on exaggeration, the distending of literal and metaphoric limbs, the reality or Realism component of the text is diminished, and with it the sense of humanistic interest. That is why, for all their iciness, dinginess, and phenomenological turmoil, the Elegies have a hinge (for me) of being rated superior to the original Apparition Poems. It also needs to be said that Apparition Poems is a book with many facets: the meta-poems, dramatic monologues, and character sketches (including a few persona poems), all present a far less Mannerist, or “mannered” textual picture, so that the epic in fragments can continue to enumerate its turf as just that. I also want to iterate that the chiasmus between the Mannerist, sexualized poems and the meta-poems, dramatic monologues, and character sketches objectifies this James Bond protagonist as he intermittently appears in the text, highlighting both his raw-nerved sensuality, its phenomenological import, and its limitations, as different audiences will construe these limitations to be drastic or not, depending on attitudes towards the Mannerist. Some sensibilities dote on exaggeration, some do not.
Another chiasmus: between the James Bond version of Apparition Poems protagonist and Byron’s two alter egos, Childe Harold and Don Juan: reveals how and where we have seen these phallocentric energies in English language poetry before. In fact, the Bond Apps protagonist is a sort of composite sketch of Childe Harold and Don Juan conflated. Childe Harold’s exaggerated world-weariness is mixed with Don Juan’s exaggerated libidinous innocence, and set into motion in twenty-first century Philadelphia. If we could call Byron a Mannerist, it is because he plays on his audience’s expectations that he is willing to exaggerate circumstances and contexts in his poetry towards outrageous ends; and if Don Juan and Childe Harold do not seem particularly outrageous in 2015, it may be because even Byron’s outrageousness was carefully crafted not to antagonize the substantial public which had already gravitated to his work. It is also interesting to wonder if an Apparition Poem like this, 535:
I was fucking this girl
in the ass, late at night,
and I looked out into
the parking lot across
the street and moon-
light glistened on the
cars, I thought, that’s
it, I don’t give a shit
anymore, you can take
your America, shove
it up your ass just like
I’m doing here, that’s
when I came, and it
was a good long one.
will seem outrageous in 2215, or even if it seems outrageous now; living, as we do, in porn-besotted times, where (in porn) couples fornicate in Mannerist modes and formations, exaggerating what physical intercourse is and means against the normative. Byron wrote against the Regency England backdrop of coyness and artful evasion; yet, he manages to convey a sort of randy insouciance in his treatment of the Don Juan protagonist. In a way, it doesn’t matter; even those who don’t enjoy the James Bond level of Apparition Poems will see how “Bond” fits in like a puzzle piece towards a representation of both a Zeitgeist and a national psyche; even if, as I have suggested, the Cheltenham Elegies perform roughly the same job with more authority and with superior, laser-like focus.
In Cheltenham Elegy 412, what surfaces is the phenomenological reality of ghosts (apparitions or phantom presences), and the unsettling sense that they can reside either inside or outside the mind, be attached to persons or places, and (possibly) inhabit multiple entities at once:
Each thinks the other a lonesome reprobate.
That’s what I guess when I see the picture.
It’s Elkins Park Square on a cold spring night;
they’re almost sitting on their hands. One
went up, as they say, one went down, but
you’ll never hear a word of this in Cheltenham.
They can’t gloat anymore, so they make an
art of obfuscation. That’s why I seldom go
back. Elkins Park Square is scary at night.
There are ghosts by the ice skating rink.
The first hinge to our discourse, and chiasmus to/with Keats’ Odes, is 412’s partial resemblance to Grecian Urn— that, in the Elegy, the Elegiac Protagonist is presented with an inanimate object (a photograph) which contains a representation of human life. A photograph, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, is an objective, outside the mind reality— and what we get, in contrast to Keats’ enchanted forest, is the dinginess and haunted decay of Elkins Park Square, further made lurid by the assumed coldness of the temperature when the photograph was taken. The phenomenological leap is made by the Elegiac Protagonist into the photograph— he attempts to inhabit the minds of both represented figures (who are ghostly in their physical absence from the Elegy itself), and conjectures, from the phenomenological “break-in,” that both accuse the other of both isolation and lawlessness. Meanwhile, Keats’ leap into the mind of the “fair youth” reveals only ease, comfort, and engaged sensuality— a sense of timelessness within sensuality as well. If the “fair youth” is a phantom ghost/phantom presence, he is redeemed by the vainglorious conceit of inclusion within the parameters of art and major high art consonance; first, by those who built the urn; second, by Keats’ memorializing of the urn in a later era. The two antagonists in the Elkins Park Square photograph are redeemed by nothing; we learn that one has managed to find a place in the world against the other, but the details of the situation are caught and clipped by “coldness” and amorphousness. The Elegiac Protagonist demonstrably has back-knowledge of the situation between the antagonists, and is on intimate terms with their strife (while Keats’ intimacy with his “fair youth” is suspect); but the photograph freezes for eternity the essential mystery of a beleaguered situation (why the Protagonist must “guess”), and the situation and the mystery themselves become ghosts, as does Elkins Park Square and Cheltenham itself, as a phenomenological, as well as a physical, reality.
As we continue to interrogate 412, the mysteries, and the ghosts hewn into the mysteries, multiply— who is it that the Elegiac Protagonist is talking to, who is showing him this picture and demanding a reaction? Is it an Antagonist, as in 414, a competitive brother, as in 261, or some other combination of sensibilities and motives? The sense that the Protagonist is surrounded on all sides by phantom presences is difficult not to discern— whether in the photograph, showing him the photograph, or “ghosting” the entire scenario by having created the context out of which all these relationships and situations could have unfolded. Because the Elegiac Protagonist is beleaguered by ghosts on all sides, and the phenomenological tension of their presence, of whether they exist objectively or only within his own consciousness, it is easy to imagine why the Elegy ends with an apostrophe to the kind of nothingness Cheltenham place which generates phantom presences and apparitions— again, the fulsome, lurid banality of Elkins Park Square, and the ice skating rink which does, in fact, sit on one of its borders. What makes 412 a well-rounded experience, within all this empty space, is that all the situations and interrelationships are rendered with intensity, and with a certain intimate insight into the consciousness of the Elegiac Protagonist. Oddly enough, unlike 261 and 414, 412 ends with an outside the mind, tactile derivative image— the ice skating rink near Elkins Park Square— which can serve as a metaphor towards understanding the coldness (iciness) of apparitional life, the way it stays on the surface of things, forces interiority to objectify itself, gives concrete form to cognitive-affective desolation and abandonment. That ghosts are a phenomenological reality, objectively existing both encased in and free from human consciousness, seems to be not only a subtext but an overt theme; and the elegiac nature of the poem incises that a haunted realm like Cheltenham not only generates ghosts out of its fraudulence, pettiness, and cruelty, but makes it so that once Cheltenham is an inside the mind reality, ghosts and apparitional presences must accompany and animate it.
In Elegy 261, there is a preponderant weight affixed to outside the mind realities (initially), and the imposition of outside the mind realities on the interior terrain of innocent kids:
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
York Road at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
In an American suburb like Cheltenham, the landscape is mostly occupied by nothingness places— homogenized, generic strip malls and thoroughfares, along with neighborhood after neighborhood of undistinguished, unattractive homes, parks, and schools. It is an outside the mind reality of entrenched nothing and nothingness— places which not only mean nothing to anyone, but which were specifically designed and manufactured to mean nothing to anyone— hostile places for kids with brains and imagination. Old York Road is the archetypal suburban pivot point— supporting commerce, facilitating different forms of traffic, but generic enough to guarantee that cognitive-affective attachment to Old York Road is extremely unlikely for those who use it. Connecting nothing with nothing, in 261, manifests the process by which the human mind, surrounded by nothing and nothingness outside the mind realities (soulless realities), internalizes nothingness also as an interior reality; having, under the weight of perpetual imposition, no choice but to do so. Once the nothingness of the suburban landscape is internalized, the mind’s affective and imaginative capacities grow numb, and subsist in a state of dormant torpor. When the hero/anti-hero of 261 pulls his rough u-turn in Old York Road, it is both to demonstrate rebellion against internalized nothingness and to (by risking death) express complicity with it. It is an ambiguous gesture, which also encompasses expression of an internal landscape incompletely homogenized with Cheltenham’s outside the mind tactility.
This is why, ultimately, 261 is a poem about, and Elegy for, brotherhood— neither character is so absorbed and assimilated into nothingness (Cheltenham) that a sense of humanity is lost, and the drama of the poem inheres of watching the Elegiac Protagonist connect (as an inversion) the “something” of bold-if-foolhardy rebellion against nothingness with the something of his own artistic triumph. Whether the hero/anti-hero has established an “I” which “works” we cannot determine. What we see, by the end of the twelfth line, is both triumphant and tragic— it is inferred that nothingness, when internalized at a young age, is impossible to completely eradicate in human consciousness— thus, the Elegiac Protagonist still lives, on an internal cognitive-affective level, in a space vulnerable to nothingness. Over the course of the Elegy, we watch as Old York Road begins outside the mind and makes a phenomenological transition inside, moves from physical to metaphysical textual subsistence— and signifies identical nothingness realities in both realms. Likewise, between the two friends, the drama is initiated in physical reality and dissolves into a metaphysical or phenomenological drama between two interiors— who has managed to expel, and thus transcend, the most nothingness, and who has manifested more presence in the world. The Fancy-equivalent in this Elegy (to lasso in Keats’ terminology) is this phenomenological dissolution from outside the mind into the mind’s interior (a confrontation, rather than a break-in as in 414), from the physical into the metaphysical (especially as regards Old York Road, what it is), and the felt truthfulness of this dissolution, even if (as in 414), we complete the Elegy surrounded by unresolved tensions and ambiguities (never learning the current “location,” inside or outside, of the hero/anti-hero), and the omnipresence of the banal.
To introduce the inquiry into phenomenology and phenomenological interest in the Cheltenham Elegies, I would like to include, in its totality, Apparition Poem #414, which is placed early in the 2012 Blazevox print book Cheltenham:
And out of this nexus, O sacred
scribe, came absolutely no one.
I don’t know what you expected
to find here. This warm, safe,
comforting suburb has a smother
button by which souls are unraveled.
Who would know better than you?
Even if you’re only in the back of
your mind asphyxiating. He looked
out the window— cars dashed by
on Limekiln Pike. What is it, he said,
are you dead or do you think you’re Shakespeare?
The chiasmus and comparison with Keats’ Odes: the preponderant weight, in the Elegies, of humanism over formalism and drama over prosody establishes that the Elegiac Protagonist consolidate an identity over and against the identity of the Odal Protagonist. The “I” here is social, and brings his phenomenological biases and concerns into a social context. In 414, the Elegiac Protagonist is confronted with an Antagonist who sets into motion his own phenomenological interest or gambit. As per this phenomenological movement— the Antagonist in 414 maintains the conceit that he has made cognitive boundaries dissolve and has entered, and is speaking from within, the Elegiac Protagonist’s mind (“Who would know better than you?/ Even if you’re only in the back of/ your mind asphyxiating”). His conceits are thus multiple— first, that such a cognitive break-in is possible— that, by a phenomenological movement, one human mind can break into and inhabit another with authority— second, that the Antagonist has successfully jumped into and inhabited the mind of the Elegiac Protagonist— third, that he has not only broken into but (Zen) mastered this mind. He is magically in possession not only of his mind, but of someone else’s.
In 414, tensions and ambiguities around this phenomenological confrontation are left open and unresolved— to what extent the Antagonist has (Zen) mastered the Protagonist’s mind is not addressed. The truth, were it aired, might be quantifiable— as in, his mind is 50% mastered, or 60 or 70— but we are left to surmise these calculations for ourselves. It is also important to remember that this attempted cognitive break-in works as a metaphor for Cheltenham itself, both as an external, physical reality and as, on a phenomenological level, a mindscape for the Protagonist. The phenomenological reality of Cheltenham, for individuals, is that it is a dystopia of hostile aggression and violence, but also (conversely) of the mind’s enchantment with darkness, deterioration, and decay. The included concrete detail, of cars dashing by on Limekiln Pike, fulfills a specific function in the Elegy— it breaks the phenomenological tension (whether the Antagonist speaks from within the Protagonist’s mind or not), and enumerates how an enclosed circuit (mind to mind) has been broken by an impersonal, outside the mind reality (cars, Limekiln Pike), demonstrating as well the obdurate hardness of outside the mind realities (the drabness of cars and of Limekiln Pike), and that the Antagonist now (rightly or wrongly) feels himself moved back into his own mind. Important with Keats: his outside the mind realities are almost always beautiful, conventionally enchanting ones (forests, mountains, birds, trees, etc). Outside the mind realities in the Cheltenham Elegies tend to be cold, hard, eerie, or even repulsive ones; but redeemed by superior truthfulness as regards humanity and the human condition. Back to 414: once the attempted cognitive break-in ends, and the phenomenological tension (mind against mind) disperses, a sense of discretion is restored to the vignette. That the final interrogative iteration more or less concedes non-mastery is significant— and once again, because the answer to the question is left unspoken, the ambiguities and tensions of phenomenological combat (who is more inside the other’s head) are left intact.
Dealing with phenomenology in the Cheltenham Elegies
The process of critical comparison in literature reveals and adumbrates, over a long expanse of time, that in the interstices between works of literary art, of perhaps equal value, a system of compensations binds and fastens comparison and chiasmus. When positing the Cheltenham Elegies in relation to Keats’ Odal Cycle, and bearing in mind the preponderant strength and subtlety of Keats’ prosody, I would like to suggest this compensatory chiasmus for the Elegies— just as Keats’ prosody not only vivifies the Odes but justifies the entire Odal endeavor, the Cheltenham Elegies are vivified and justified by the exquisite tensions and dramatic intimacies between the specific characters who populate them. Keats’ Odes, it must be iterated, are populated by no specific person other than the Odal protagonist— the intimacy between this protagonist and Art and Nature must suffice. The intimacies thus explored are Platonic intimacies. As human drama must compensate for metrical sublimity in the Elegies, what should be sublime in them are the intricate complexities (scaffolding again) between the characters, and the sense of crescendo/decrescendo inhering in the miniaturized dramas which unfold and coalesce from line to line, and from (as certain characters are carried over) from Elegy to Elegy. The precise substitution is humanism for formalism— and heightened psychological acuity for heightened diction. Poets and critics are free to decide, in their own systems of compensation, which counts for more, within the context of poetry, rather than in drama, philosophy, or literary criticism itself.
The phenomenological aspect of the Odes— what, as textually represented, is outside of Keats’ mind and what remains locked inside— is matched, in the Elegies, by a sense or panoply of multiplications around the myriad characters who inhabit them— that phenomenological inquiry, when applied to more than one represented psyche, especially applied in a simultaneous fashion, manifests its own bewildering complexity, and must be approached (on a critical level) with a certain amount of caution and restraint. Thus, I will not yet venture towards the sorts of appraisals I have already visited upon the Odal Cycle— I will only assert that the Elegiac protagonist (so to speak), in making (in each Elegy) a series of textual, narrative-thematic bifurcations (as in, with every introduced character we see manifested another cognitive interior and exterior), creates and orchestrates a circumscribed textual universe or cosmic egg, in which phenomenological matter changes form, ascends or descends, without ever altering the basic imperative drives of an individual, individuated human psyche, as a smaller egg contained and encompassed within the larger cosmic one. If prosody, commensurate with Keats’, is not there to lend grace and beauty to the production, what is? To paraphrase Grecian Urn, the beauty of the Elegies is all in their truthfulness— that by channeling the deepest possible levels of human intimacy, we see, on this humanistic level, the human race revealed in totem, in a way or manner impossible in the Odes, whose prosody still signifies everything but human intimacy and interrelation. As the work on various Elegies begins, the delicate, tentative work of unraveling the phenomenological systems in the texts will gradually emerge from this early amorphousness.
The chiasmus between phenomenology and prosody in major high art consonant poetry, specifically in Keats’ Odes, is a novel one. What can be mapped, in the five major Odes, is that Psyche manifests points of extremity which the others do not: not only is Psyche the only Ode which presents what could be termed a complete, totalized mindscape, without an engagement with tactility outside of imagination (“fancy,” in Keats’ parlance); it is by far the loosest and most casual on a prosodic level. As to the ramifications of this: that a “pure” imaginative landscape should engender unusually loose, casual, expansive, even luxuriant prosody: it would seem that the mind’s self-sufficiency, its sense of remaining safely enclosed within its own bounds, heightens for the poet an ambience of naturalness and ease, of being ensconced in a kind of womb-like space where changes, abrasions, and peripateias are impossible, and the poet is free to generate long, loping lines which needn’t be clipped by the vicissitudes of actual flesh and blood. It is also notable that, on phenomenological levels, Psyche and Autumn (first and last, as I place them in the Odal cycle) are near-precise opposites: the landscape of Autumn is resolutely outside the mind, and Keats makes no imaginative impositions on the surfaces he represents textually. Oddly, Autumn is more relaxed, in its prosody, than any other Ode besides Psyche; it expands on the prosodic tightness of the three “middle” Odes (Grecian Urn, Nightingale, Melancholy), and has a purity as the opposite of a mindscape or Fancy-production— Autumn represents a catalog of Earth-consonance, of hills and forests, away from enchantment, into the pure sense of the self-sufficiency of Nature against the human mind, and as its own womb-space.
Nightingale is the Odes’ centerpiece, for more reasons than one: the way I configure the Odal cycle, it is read third out of five; and, because it is halved down the middle in its phenomenological import, as half-mindscape, half representation of Earth-consonance, half in and half out of the mind (so to speak), it is capable of generating the most complex cognitive responses of all of the Odes, and maps the process of cognitive dissolution, partly into prosodic richness, partly into narrative-thematic confusion, with greater emotional force and sense of crescendo/decrescendo than the other Odes do. What Keats learns in Nightingale forces him into a confrontation: that the Nightingale, as representative of the enchanted forest which has already been established as topos in Psyche and Grecuan Urn, is not necessarily a benign presence, and staggers Keats’ imagination with its own imposition of Otherness towards Keats recognition that the sublimity of the forest is not only an agent of ecstatic dissolution but also of frightening confrontation (“What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”). The Otherness of the Nightingale, indeed, forces a sense of entropic bankruptcy in Keats, and establishes Keats’ sense that his imaginative capacities are being bled out of him by a Nature-force which is more powerful than he is. The prosody of Nightingale is the most meticulously executed of all the Odes, and the most daunting for poets who followed (and continue to follow) in Keats’ wake to achieve parity with, for it is here that the English language achieved what is, if not its absolute apotheosis, at least as close as it can come to absolute apotheosis besides (perhaps) certain passages in Shakespeare and (for my money) not particularly Milton or Wordsworth, both of whom cannot generate the emotional passion in text to lift them, on “Poesy’s viewless wings,” to the melodious plots in which the human mind has represented Otherness as perfectly as possible.
As to what else is expressed or signified by Keats’ prosody: I would argue that Negative Capability, Keats’ vaunted description of the cognitive process by which dichotomies are harmoniously and without irritation held and expressed in poetic language, is given concrete form by Keats’ prosody; in other words, the exquisite beauty of Keats’ metrical language is itself a metaphor for cognitive boundary dissolution, whether into a tactile Other (the Odes’ enchanted forest) or into the mind’s own imaginative dream-scapes, as they coalesce into a gestalt form. The dynamic, phenomenological tension in Keats’ Odes— what is inside and what is outside Keats’ mind, both as he dreams and as he writes— finds its apotheosis in the masterfully constructed verbal harmonies, resonances, and resolutions, which constitute the basis for a chiasmus of philosophical and aesthetic interest in the Odes. In the hierarchy of targets for the exercise of Negative Capability, the “who”— humanity, as an agent of Keats’ cognitive dissolution into human contexts— is set at a rather lower frequency than the “what”— the ineffable, the Other, the work of art itself, ranged along a vertical axis rather than a horizontal one, sublime, foreboding, beyond the grasp of human cognition, even if (as is the case in Grecian Urn) it includes and encompasses the human to express its own prosodic magnificence.
The importance of the phrase “working brain,” as it appears in Psyche, cannot be overstated— it is Keats’ vow to paganism and classical antiquity, that he can replicate both its sublimity and its tactility, through the conjunction of metrics and narratives. Keats’ prosody becomes the represented ecstasy of cognitive conjunctions— the working brain’s imaginative capacities with the enchanted forests of Greece, and its heroines; the transcendental capacities of human cognition with physical, embodied ecstasy (Cupid and Psyche, the Nightingale); and the horizontal axis of terra firma, the ecstasy of its sights and sounds, with the vertical levels of cognition connecting thoughts and visions into a mirroring mind’s landscape. This process is characterized in Keats, less so in Wordsworth and the other major Romantics, by (as Keats semi-famously wrote in one of his letters) its intensity. It is worth noting that prosody not heightened by the crescendo and decrescendo effect of deep emotion (the “where” parallel structure sequence in Nightingale, for example) has a quality of sag about it, however meticulous its rendering is— Wordsworth often has this problem. The blank verse rhythms of The Prelude, however stentorian, do not shudder or ripple along a vertical axis— they move gamely forward on a steady horizontal, without (even in the Snowdon episode) culminating in any cohesive, negatively capable expressive climaxes. Were Wordsworth to approach Snowdon in a Keatsian fashion, his represented physical ascent along a vertical axis (Snowdon itself) would need to find a greater sense of dynamic melopoeiac tension, bound together and then self-resolved, to mirror a greater sense of affective and cognitive intensity simultaneously.
Among the Odes, Grecian Urn is rather famous for its interrogations of an inanimate object, a work of art, as though it was a sentient being, or a kind of sentience inhered in it. In Grecian Urn, we get, indeed, two sets of interrogations: into a generalized “what” (“what mad pursuit?/ “what struggle to escape?”), and into a generalized “who” (“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?”). An incision I’d like to make into narratives around the Odes, and specifically around Grecian Urn, has to do with the difference between the two interrogative pronouns in Keats (“what” and “who”), and why the difference is significant, both in our perception of Keats’ place among the Romantics and his Odes, and in metaphysics in poetry and major high art consonance generally. As to the significations, in Grecian Urn, of “who” (inverting the fact that it appears after “what” in the poem): I take the interrogations around “who” to suggest an appreciation (Keats’ appreciation) of humanity as knowable, decipherable in both their thoughts and in their activities, and as worthy of praise, when represented gracefully and rigorously, as anything or anyone else in the universe. Keats’ vision of humanity is horizontal: he looks directly at humans, and at the broadly “human,” along a horizontal axis which includes himself and his quotidian perceptions. The interrogations around “what” suggest something else, something transcendental and bordering the ineffable, and charted along a vertical axis: Keats’ relationship to art, to major high art consonance, and to what in it is sublime, and past being merely comforting and companionable, “post-human.”
As to what in Grecian Urn, and Keats Odes, binds him most firmly to the “what” of things, rather than the “who” of things: his visionary sense of the Urn itself is indicative, but it is the exquisite prosodic element of Keats’ language itself, its ornate scaffolding having been manifested from a power base of enormous intelligence, that replicates the exquisite “what” of the Grecian Urn itself, what is embedded on it, narratives and figures. In addition, the exquisite molding and scaffolding of Keats prosody can be taken as a representation of the enchanted forest itself, what in it is Other to human consciousness, what in it holds and maintains mysteries in the direction of humanity. This is a key idea in Keats, especially in relation to the other major Romantics— what exquisite prosody signifies, in/of itself— because Keats’ prosody is the major distinguishing characteristic of his best poetry over that of Wordsworth especially, Byron and Shelley certainly. If there is a direct causal link between the forest’s enchantment (as had been handed down to Keats from the Greeks, on the Grecian Urn and elsewhere) and the quality, ambience, and “what-ness” of Keats’ prosody, it reinforces the sense of the transcendentalism of the Odes and the odal cycle, and the fact that Keats’ critical reputation in century XX, which pegged him for a sensualist against transcendentalism, were investigating the Odes on a superficial level, against the kind of “deep hermeneutic” which finds pertinent significations in exquisite prosody itself.
On the trip I had one mind,
everyone else had twelve or
more, I maintained weight,
sat around doing nothing as I
wandered a baffling universe
of locked-in zeros spinning
all around the two talismans
that gave the apartment its
currents, Jimmy the Face,
Martha the Mask, and they
slayed all my enemies, countless
piles of shit, while fame gave
me bark to shave off and I
complained of mirrored graves.