Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Major Men: Rainer Maria Rilke


for Rainer Maria Rilke

When the hinges of light
and dogs beseeched and
dead children tried to reach you,
woman too was moved as by a saint
and became your invisible maiden,

The dying, you said, are not pretentious,
and you were always dying,
lost there like a child and lover
circumspecting that pure space

that irony could not darken,
angelic like the inside of a rose,
like a mole you first entered,
tossing up earth behind you.

You to whom the Buddha
was an almond on whom
nothing any more depended,
who entered the laral realms
Of cupboards and drawers and mimicked

Spring and the open animal eyes,
you felt the climbing calm
and still knew Eve's reluctance.

Blue cornflowers gazed at you,
The Big Thing saw you at the turning;
"You must change your life," the earth said,

and the heavy fruit of your gestation
pulled you into depths,
into the microscopic;
behind things you waited
and heard the ventriloquist,
the breath for nothing,

This calling had no limits you knew.
Your salvos answered, spoke
the fishes' language, cried,
paced with a panther in a cage,

filled, after doldrums,
the great white canvas
and the after-birth of sonnets,

One thousand nights of love revived
and the poem became what you thought sex to be,
a festival of our competency.

You were a poet when you shaved, they said,
for against the doorpost of the everyday
you measured your autochthony

and became so like this life
the art was not your property.
Breathing through the pen
in metabolic song,
sleeping with things

and dead always in Eurydice,
these unlived lines of counterbalance
Spring need not persuade
are call-notes within.

You child in every part
replaying the convolutions,
inherent hearer of all saying,
earth's trustee.

Major Men: Rene Magritte

for Rene Magritte

To geometrize the sky is not to know our metaphors are soles on which we walk, that breasts are sky, that memory is bloody splash on stone; that symbols walk with canes and carry old suitcases, that coffins lounge on balconies that we truncate ourselves when the geneal sky becomes our private diary. There is an eye in all our eating, at least to liable thought which plays the rumors of the sheet music that is birds.

Our lineaments are the first to exercise where the easel/eye's strange procreations strew huge fruit upon the shore. We eat at apples seen, not on tables, and though the banal trees maze the jockey, the pleasures of the eye seem always toward even Shakespeare was the horizon's gift. When a rose fills the room, it is because we see it: we see through trees! But the hopes of movement (a Pandoran legacy) frighten all faceless lovers and climax in the body's mirror of flesh.

Major Men: Italo Calvino


for Italo Calvino

Earth's attraction is narration--
a galactic porch for rocking-chair yarns
of the still just beginning invention of things,

of outsides with insides in them!
When light's prodigious difference
probed that nebulous bed of origin,

there, punctiform, lay
the expectancy of woman,
prolific quartz and pettiness,
signs of paranoia.

Desire to make noodles
foresaw a universe
worthy of wager:
the vibrations of a mollusk are Herodotus,
predict the eye,
imply the Rolliflex.

To recognize a sister in Canberra
recalls the miscegenation of those eyes
with color amid
the jealousy of galaxies,
the tidal intimacy yielding moon milk,
the excitement of trajectories

the atom marbles coursed
into a chase creating space
for soccer matches (and Balzac).

Major Men: Henri Rousseau


for Henri Rousseau

Customary never, you sat on peaks and gazed, innocent of shadows, through imaginal proportions. An eye ignorant of thumbs, you sensed, never can manipulate, but leaves the minute minute, the huge huge, never seems (before its proper coming) perspective's death, never cages the riddle-zoo, but loves the charms of serpents which entice because they are the trees from which they speak. "In the process of becoming one of our greatest realist painters," the phenomenal Sundays of a life became jungles of enchantment.


Major Men: Gerard Manley Hopkins


for Gerard Manley Hopkins

In double exposures of the uncreated light
the copula of a still growing eye
stalled the rhyming sinews oftening
in the one crew of your species,
alliterations of Christ's prismatic whorl,
frequencies light thrilled—
groins of words,
vermilioned etymologies—
the sacristy
swept by brooms and snow,
by sprays of trees,
an assonance of pigeons,
fluting cascades of grace,
falcons' achievements,
the time-lapse rhythm of Northern Lights,
selved the pantomime of manshapes,
and though the pied became a thatness
you could not remint,
still you were so happy.

Major Men: Twyla Tharp

The following poem was actually published. It appeared in SALOME: A LITERARY DANCE MAGAZINE, No. 22/23/24 (1980): 12.


for Twyla Tharp

Angel and doll. Then there's at last a play.
There there unites what we continually
part by our being there.
Then at last can spring from our own turning years
the cycle of the whole going-on.--Rainer Maria Rilke

I do everything I know how in a dance.--Twyla Tharp

It ain't misbehavin' to run away
to answer without question the call of the wings,
to relax the shoulders, give and take
scrounges and quirks, accidents and collisions,
doodles in ragtime the earth trampolines,

not flippancy to cavort deadpan,
to lean on the virtual realm of the random floor,
not disinterest to be marionette to
the cajolings of a body impossible to leave,
not grotesque to be the spitting image.

Major Men: Paul Klee

for Paul Klee

Birds are on cats' minds
because their image lurks in cats' brains;
but birds on/in cats' heads
play on a painter's canvas when they
--and the alchemy of the aquarium,
and the paths of snakes,
and fish speech,
a tree's childhood,
a flower's young face—
though tacit in the artist brain,
become memories to a poet's hand
whose past tense is not its own.

Yet to clock the plants' own moments,
to attend botany's theatrics,
to be anthropologist to bark's own culture,
to conduct the twigs' concert,
an eye must wing with eagles
to see the tree in every house;
in microscopes must gauge
how symbols are becoming
to the image seen in eyes
that gaze past the medalled beauty
clearing the species' frames.

Immanent never—
an epitaph's claim—
his eyes were pointers,
for is not the sun itself such?
Does not eros cite?
Even letters became gates,
most special doors,
and all drawn lines a poem's meters;
his family art walked in a calligraphy of strolls.

We live in letters,
the real architects;
they imagine China,
plumb in strata
the geologic's colors.
They furnish the arctic's white.
They show the way out at last,
document the major daring.

Major Men: Federico Fellini

I gave Fellini a copy of this poem on the set of City of Women in November 1979 at Cinecitta Studios in Rome.


Consummation of the poet

then the passage winds describe
to breadcrumbs in his iris,
ambit of quicksilver re-memberings,
the center-ring agreements,

inventions of the sesame (Ass Nisi Masa)r
"where the eyes move" in amarcord's serenade

"true friends" guide,
dawns of angelic exercise,
the tour of la strada,
vouching "Buena seral"--

the mother's pedagogy,
like a peacock's benediction
Auguste reconnoiterings,
grotesque sagas

of confessed misogyny,
prodigal from wrapping sheets
and afraid of being happy,
ascend trees wanting woman--

her glance of shy epiphany

"there the treasures are"
little hands of spring
in seminars of weather
the photogenic seasons

Nothing to say


Major Men: Karlheinz Stockhausen


for Karlheinz Stockhausen

"Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents."--Beethoven

Seismograph to Dopplerings between the seen and heard,
the yes of magnifications—
skeletons of Phoenix moments
antennae of instruments--
listening to planes in flight
transistor to the spiral
of allophones at Yosemite
and the blacklight's broadcasts:

feel the bacteria enter
sine-wave these shudderings in stationless panic
and anthems of the cave,
sequences of silence—
music to help people die.

Major Men: Hart Crane


for Hart Crane

The instant fugues requiring
an Atlantean scan
the syntax registered synoptic,
where the shutter speed accelerated
to pass the Limited,

and wind flaked sapphire in retinal repose,
the words jazzed in angelic idioms
that panned parabolas to light's Thule

and a trial of Ocean.

This rhapsody is but death
in fourth dimensions,
a dreaming in Vedanta
of the divine grotesque,
Easter at the speed of light.

Major Men: Marc Chagall


for Marc Chagall

This mirrors immensity
Where waking dreams
and woman draping Orpheus
levitates the promenade,
circus bouquet
perpetual blue consort
of marriage and the wife,
white forever,
sleeping in flower anthologies
the emerging arbitrary:

heads askew--eager of the new angle--
red rooftops,
within-visible wombs of homage
warming homunculus and foals,
bare breasts,
leaping over
the manmusician plays himself a cello,
horse, fish stroke violins
and angelchild oversees,
hanging in trees (wings of pillow).

Boys are brides in these reflections,
and lovers bloom the burning bush
hovering over birthday celebrations,
listening to a rooster is no enigma here:
face-to-face with a cow
exchanges the momentous--
clown of the eyes' axes,
their equestrienne and juggler.

Major Men: Jorge Luis Borges

Several years ago I started out to write poems commemorating some of my intellectual heroes. i was going to call the book "Major Men," a term (apologies for the sexism--gendered language was just then being discovered) borrowed from Wallace Stevens' "Paisant Chronicle." Major men, according to Stevens, are "characters beyond reality/composed thereof."

I am going to post some of these here in the hope that they might mean something to someone other than myself. First up: a prose poem inspired by the Argentinian master Jorge Luis Borges.


for Jorge Luis Borges

Poetry knows of a palace, is a palace, and the palace is a word, for all palaces (and all poems) are libraries of splendid theses, abecedaria, that biographers of the infinite (you were one) remember, magnify to nothingness the Alephs through which an alluding mind (yours was one) inquire, with faith in modest history (escaped from the influence of De Mille), and see in the books' binding, precursor of the dream's vigilance, the skein unwind into the darkness' permutation. Then collaboration beckons, among the registry of light, to a knower of the knowers (you were one) and eternal objects intone—as persistent and discrete as intuited cats to heresiarchs (you were one) who fathom what the Buddha didn't know. How many dogs are there in each dog? From how many points of view? Where do gestures go? Why do hands surprise? What becomes of a mirror's reflections? The imagination knows (no nouns!); a Simurgh (you were one) it flies in longing—a migration to itself (or Stratford)—in a winter that is Ithaca.


Out of and Into the Cave: My Philosophy of Education

I wrote the following several years ago. I post it here without revision or comment.--DL

Out of and Into the Cave: My Philosophy of Education

In the process of putting so much pressure on language, thought ceases to be satisfied with the support of words; it bursts away from them in order to seek its resolution elsewhere. This "elsewhere" should not be understood as a transcendent realm, a mysterious metaphysical domain. This "elsewhere" is "here" in the immediacy of real life. It is from right here that our thoughts rise up, and it is here that they must come back. But after what travel! Live first; then turn to philosophy; but, in the third place, live again. The man in Plato's cave has to go out and contemplate the light of the sun; then, strengthened by this light, which he keeps in his memory, he has to return to the cave. Verbal philosophy is only a necessary stage in this voyage.
--René Daumal, MOUNT ANALOG

The word “education” derives from etymological roots meaning “to lead out,” not “to lead to.” Its place and purpose is to initiate—by means of “verbal’ philosophy, intellectual journey—even if they seem to be prodigal—in the hope that they will prove to be, like the original Odyssey, round trips, perhaps even vision quests. Education must never be merely the delivery-system for ready-made cultural answers; it must be the radical (in its literal meaning of “going to the root”) asking of questions (questions being—as Heidegger observed the real “piety of thinking”) and the means of learning, for lifetime use, the art of questioning. Education—if may be allowed one more etymological probe—should then be essentially “seminar”: it should be a sowing of seeds. The great failure of education in our day can be attributed in large part to the decline of its seminal importance.

I have long sought (and even dreamed of finding, or perhaps helping to create) a university setting in which teaching might become truly seminal, directed toward wisdom and not merely knowledge and not what it seems to often to be now: the treatment of learning as if the human mind were merely an infinitely complex roll-top desk, satisfied by the proper, precise stuffing of its pigeon-holes (a process known in the trade as classification and analysis). The Cartesian dream—still education’s driving fantasy—of clear and indubitable ideas may have secured for humankind that knowledge which now yields power, but it has sown few if any seeds, inspired little if any wisdom; and it has not provided the young with a grasp of the living unity of the world. Nor can it inspire true vision quests.

It is, indeed, fortunate, as R. Buckminster Fuller once noted in a poem, that nature does not “have/Separate departments of/Mathematics, physics,/Chemistry, biology,/History and languages./Which would require/Department head meetings/To decide what to do/Whenever a boy [throws]/A stone in the water/With the complex of consequences/Crossing all departmental lines.” But the normal curriculum of the American university seems oblivious to this central fact: that the world (both human and natural) is a whole, united beyond all human attempts to compartmentalize, or departmentalize, it. Because Fulller’s insight has long informed all my own research and teaching, I view education as primarily a synthesizing process which must serve, especially in this divisive age, as perhaps the most seminal means available within a culture for the transformation of a divided world. But education must unite more than just the disciplines.

Paul Goodman once suggested that the real task of anthropology is “to show what of human nature has been ‘lost’ and, practically, to device experiments for its recovery.” We might similarly define the task of a synthetic education. For in its questioning of the traditional order of knowledge, its linking up of past and present, its cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary perspective (for synthetic education should be all of these) it seeks to guide the student “beyond culture,” an absolute necessity, as Edward T. Hall has shown, in an age in which the clash of cultures exhumes all those hidden assumptions, often grounded in habitual ignorance, which serve as the underpinnings of what we believe to be reality, depositing them where we can no longer ignore them, on the stage of history. A synthetic education, aiding time in its pursuit of its own tail through the integration of past and present world-views, facilitating the development of a planetary culture by generating minds capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff in the midst of cultural pluralism, can be a primary means for overcoming the potentially lethal ethnocentricism which now threatens our aspirations to unity.

When you learn something, G. B. Shaw once quipped, it always feels at first like you’ve lost something. To truly learn, then, a student must not be afraid of loss, and will not be if the guides seem trustworthy and experienced. A teacher must know the routes—all of them, even the ones not explored on his or her own journey into the interior—and a teacher must know more than the map and the territory (the curriculum and the world, respectively) and why they are not identical; a teacher must remember, too, what it was like not to know the way about; a teacher must teach exploring, whether mountaineering or spelunking, as if it were to have no end and as if each step along the path were the whole journey itself present in a pedagogical equivalent of the nunc stans, the standing now, remembering all the while that, as Loren Eiseley says, teachers are always “sculptors in snow,” and should be, lest they become Gradgrinds.

Teachers teach best when they must teach—of that I am convinced—when teaching is a natural outgrowth or overflow (spontaneous or otherwise) of the interests, enthusiasm, and passion of the teacher’s whole being, when teaching is instrumental to his unity and as well a progress report on an odyssey. I wonder if it is not true that teachers actually teach only themselves; I wonder if students do not , in fact, learn best when they find the mind that confronts them in that particular arena of life known as a classroom worthy of mimicry. I wonder if all learning is not emulation. The true function of a poet. Wallace Stevens argued, is to make his imagination the reader’s imagination. Similarly, a teacher teaches imagination—his or her methods, questions, mind, but not his or her answers.

Only in this way can a student be brought out of the cave; only in this way can he be properly prepared for return.

Were the Best

As an English teacher for over thirty years, I have long experienced the professional irritation so many of us feel at the deterioration of the language.

I have always been pretty much of a new grammarian. I had a professor when I was an undergraduate, Dr. Redfern, who would shock phone callers by answering the question “Is Dr. Redfern there” with “This is him.” He believed—and convinced me—that it is ridiculous to assume that “This is he” is grammatically correct when every bone in our body wants to say “This is him.” “This is he” enforces an artificial, upper class, 19th century British sense of correctness on all speakers of the language. We should rebel against against such grammar. At 20, in 1969, I was more than ready to rebel.

But that hasn’t stopped me from being annoyed at the outright errors I find all around me, especially in signs. When I drove by a Shoney’s restaurant in Alabama a few years ago and saw on the marquee out front the message “Were the best,” I had half a mind to confront the manager and ask him why his restaurant wasn’t any good any more.

When confronted with that ice cream shop sign advertising "37 flavor’s" I did call to the manager’s attention that it should be “flavors” instead and was told “That sign has been there for fifteen years and you are the first to say a word about it.” Alas.

And all those signs on restroom doors, identifying the proper place for bodily functions of “mens” and “womens,” well they piss me off! Is it really any more difficult to construct a sign with apostrophes where they rightfully belong.

And now I live in London—the mother land of proscriptive grammar, but things are no better. Nearly every day I pass by a small park in Turnpike Lane and wince at the official sign reading “Ducketts Common.” I am walking down fashionable Regents Street and behold a sign in a clothing store window announcing "Its in your jeans." Nice double (triple) entendre, but there's an apostrophe missing.

The British were the best.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Last Month/Remarks in China

The last month has been very busy as I have moved into a flat of my own in London (near the Turnpike Lane tube stop), begun work at Brunel University, and travelled to China, where I served as a judge at the China International Documentary Film Selection Conference in Luzhou, and watched the Democrats back in the US take the House and the Senate. (Many Brits have congratulated me on the election results, as if they were something for Americans to be proud of--and they are.)

Below is the text of the remarks I made at the final plenary session of the conference.

Remarks by David Lavery

On the behalf of Brunel University in London, allow me to thank the China Documentary Society and all of you who have made me feel welcome, both in Beijing and here. And a special thanks to the city of Luzhou, before a place in China unknown to me and now never to be forgotten. The Chinese lead the world in many things and hospitality must certainly be one of them.

As some of you know, I am back in China for the first time in a quarter of a century. I taught in Shanghai twenty five years ago.

I could not then have imagined the China I have seen in the last week. But then you probably could not have either. The metamorphosis you are undergoing would amaze even the most beautiful butterfly.

The documentaries I have watched over the last few days have opened my eyes in extraordinary ways. These are not the films of a nation with one agenda or one point of view. They take on a range of subjects and concern themselves with all the complexities of being human. “Documentary”: the word in English has always been a bit misleading. Documentaries are not documents, the way, say, a passport is. But they are not purely fictions either. Hybrid cinematic creations, born from the imaginations of filmmakers like those gathered here today, their life blood comes from the circulatory system of reality. The illusions—and I do not want you to hear in this word the negative meaning it holds in my language—documentaries seek to create are, in the famous maxim of the playwright Ibsen, “that of reality.”

The pioneering American filmmaker D. W. Griffith imagined cinematic language becoming a kind of visual Esperanto, a new tongue understandable by people all over the world. Though I have been lucky enough to have Winnie Leng as my constant fellow spectator, offering me a translation of many a complex idea in scores of documentaries, I have been impressed, too, how often I didn’t need to know the language to grasp a particular movie’s importance—or its art.

The Esperanto of these documentaries is, for me, most apparent in the movies that are most intensely visual, that extend the nature of the medium. The man who taught me 90% of what I know about the medium convinced me to distrust the word “film,” which in English means something that obscures and tends to make opaque, as in the “film” we might find on an otherwise transparent window.

The movies I have liked the most this week have given me new eyes, have shed light on new subjects, and they have not told me what or how I should feel or think. Documentary, like any true art, should allow us to make up our own minds, without sentimentality, without manipulation, about the world they, and they alone, make real for us.

All movies, documentaries included, are mirrors of a culture’s developing taste. They reflect and, at the same time, create what is considered appropriate in the form’s conventions. An American now living in London in a postmodern, somewhat disenchanted west, I will readily admit that, for my sensibility, I often found these films a bit too emotional and too sentimental. I must say as well that I sometimes was irritated at the musical scoring, which though no doubt essential and even beautiful by Chinese standards, sounded overdone and manipulative to my ears—a bit “too much” as we now often say.

On my way to China I found myself wondering what the documentaries I would be viewing would be about. Now I have the answer. They are about the environment, about education, about endangered species, about the past (and no nation has a richer past than yours), about the present , about the future, about ordinary and extraordinary people, about work, about play.

Only a week ago, I never knew about the Chinese minorities captured in these ethnographic films. I was badly informed about Japan’s bacteriological warfare against China in World War II. I knew little about such important subjects as AIDS, or education, or migrant workers, or jelly fishing, or the Tangshan earthquake, or the Silk Road, or SWAT teams, or kidney transplants in this great nation. I didn’t know that the death of a cat could capture its attention.

“Be one on whom nothing is lost,” the writer Henry James made his first principle for an artist. Taken together, these movie documents do not miss much. With clear eyes and ears and even clearer lenses and microphones they capture a China in metamorphosis. Future historians who want to know who the Chinese of the first decade of a new century were, and what the nation they were building was, will be grateful to have these records. And I am in your debt for allowing me the privilege of screening them with you. Thank you.