Kent Johnson, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field

West Brattleboro, VT: Longhouse Books, 2015. 176 pp. $18

Reviewed by Jeremy-Noel Tod

Chicago Review

Every poetic community knows “that guy.” He—and it is usually he—is the gadfly in the ointment, the satirist or critic who mocks the pretensions of the leading figures of the day. “That guy” is not so much an individual talent as a singular pain in the ass. In early eighteenth-century England, he also happened to be the era’s finest poet, Alexander Pope, who in The Dunciad and the spoof essay “Peri Bathous” laid mock-heroic waste to his contemporaries. Three centuries later, he is known to Internet sociology as a “troll,” lurking below the line as once below the bridge.

Kent Johnson, as this second expanded edition of his “partial memoir,” I Once Met, acknowledges, has long been “that guy” at the avant end of American poetry. Each short section is structured around the conceit of a remembered meeting in the “Poetry Field.” The fifth reads in full:

I once met Marjorie Perloff. This was at the MLA, though I can’t remember the city; it was long ago, I think it was D.C. She is a great critic and an extraordinarily generous person. Kent, this is Bob Perelman, said Marjorie. Bob, this is Kent Johnson. Oh, so you’re that guy, said Bob. What guy? I said.


The next section, which recalls meeting Allen Ginsberg, has the same don’t-hit-me punchline. It seems likely there has always been more than one reason why Johnson might be known—in words attributed to Perloff—as a “horrible troublemaker.” Perhaps the most notorious dates from the mid-1990s, when he presented the world with the poems of Araki Yasusada: a Japanese poet who, despite surviving the bombing of Hiroshima, did not, in fact, exist.

         Johnson has continued to be a rogue double agent in the poetry wars that have followed the Death of the Author. His archive-procedural masterpiece, A Question Mark above the Sun (Punch Press, 2010), proposed that Kenneth Koch was the real author of Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” The first edition met with legal threats from unamused estates and appeared partly redacted. He also seems to have had at least a mouse-clicking hand in the Works and Days of the Fénéon Collective (Delete Press, 2010), an anonymous PDF which began as a blog devoted to scurrilous “Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine de Brittanique,” such as the following parable of Conceptualism:

“Ouch!” cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. “A pearl!” Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.

In 2009, Johnson produced his own edition of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003)—a book comprising the typed-out text of an issue of The New York Times—by pasting on a new jacket bearing his name. Regular readers of

Chicago Review will know that Johnson has serious revolutionary beef with the political amnesia of such appropriative poetics, and its “desire to be legitimized by dominant institutions” (see “Card File, or: Why Communism Looks out of Their Eyes (50 Graphs on Conceptual Writing)” in the Winter 2015 issue).

         The frequently institutional vignettes of I Once Met continue Johnson’s favorite theme of the “Avant Garde in the Ivy League,” and play familiar games with the duck-rabbit of fact and invention (“poetic license,” he writes, has sometimes been employed in “a deepening of the genuine”). What is unexpected is how cumulatively moving the book is. The satirist, wrote Robert Graves, is a left-handed poet, and I Once Met is not so much a compilation of pasquinades as a series of “small and stillborn poem[s],” as Johnson calls the sweetly sincere note addressed to his son, Brooks Johnson.

         The remembered meeting in Cambridge, England with the “tremendous poet Stephen Rodefer” is particularly touching in its truth to the dysfunctional and noble reality of people getting together to hear each other read verse. Rodefer, who died last year, was undoubtedly “that guy” on the Cambridge poetry scene for many years. Johnson’s pen-portrait brings him right back: “Stephen Rodefer came over and said something like…is Eager Kent trying to suck up to you so he can make it in the avant-garde biz? He walked away, smirking, drink in hand, and I followed him down to the wine box.” Eager Kent threatens violence, but all is changed to tenderness by the story of a small boy who sits in on Rodefer’s reading (which rails, Johnson-like, against “the complicities and hypocrisies and treacheries of the post-avant”). The sight of this boy moves the poet to tears due to his resemblance—Johnson learns—to Rodefer’s own son, who drowned at the age of ten. The next day, that guy and that other guy are reconciled in “awkward small talk” by the wine box, walking “out into the courtyard together, where it was cool, in the evening air.”

         The elegaic refrain of the book is “life is strange.” Johnson’s feeling for lacrimae rerum is the secret of his power as a poet, which has often been hidden behind the slasher mask of his satire. His love-hate riffs on the New York School, for example, come down to the essentially poignant contrast between their romantic whimsy and some harder reality elsewhere. Thus the brief text here about having never met John Ashbery, which moves immediately sideways into melancholic parody (“Automobiles go by in the night”) and finally arrives at the image of “a cheap velvet painting…on half a wall, in some bombed out slum, on the outskirts of Beirut.”

         There is much more of such anti-imperialist bathos in Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Shearsman, 2008), a collection that Johnson published in the UK. Here, his affection for the quixotic nerve of the New York poets also shines through, from the dedication “to the memory of Joe Brainard”—a witty acknowledgement of the model of Brainard’s I Remember (1970), a prose poem of life-trivia—to the final anecdote about the Zen Buddhist poet Philip Whalen, which plays a koan-like variation on Frank O’Hara’s notion that writing a poem is an alternative to picking up the telephone:

No, No, No, he growled, The last thing I’m going to do is write an essay on the relationship between Zen and poetry. I mean, what makes you think that either one even exists? I mean, give me a break. Goodbye. Click.

Johnson’s admirable work as a “militantly anti-racist” editor and translator of (real) non-American poetries is mentioned in passing here, along with his time as a volunteer literacy teacher for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the early 1980s. Ultimately, however, the book’s biggest target is Kent Johnson himself, whose vanities and failings are exposed in his clumsy, unremarkable memories of “just saying hello to…nice people,” retold in what he admits is “a somewhat antiquated and affected prose that appears to be, now that I look at it, a poor imitation of the writing of the dear friend of John Keats, Charles Lamb.” One repeated form of praise on the cadenced lips of his courteous manner is that so-and-so was a “true gentleman,” and this is indeed, among other things, a deeply homosocial account of contemporary American poetry—a fact that strikes Johnson about two-thirds through, and launches him into “a kind of strained apologia for great matters that oppress my mind.”

         At its best I Once Met is a work of profound self-critique which challenges the hypocrite lecteur to recognize that “gossip in poetry is…the beating heart of its habitus,” and that if we were all a little more like “that guy” in telling the truth about the frailty of virtue, poetry might paradoxically become a more civilized place. In his story about Peter Davis, Johnson rehearses some convoluted regrets about having spoken too harshly against the Best American Poetry as a culture-industry takeover of “the mysteries and divagations of anarchic, rhizomatic collective life.” True to the spirit of this vision, Johnson doesn’t try to reconcile the antagonism in his sign-off, but instead restates his dialectical attitude even more starkly: “The avant-garde is a rotting corpse. I hope this finds you well, Peter.”

         Johnson’s most recent project is a website called Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. During the Republican National Convention, there was a homepage post that began:

Shares in VHS Concept Industries rose slightly on news that Kenneth Goldmine and Vanessa Plot filed a $100,000,000 lawsuit against Donald and Melania Trump. The suit alleges that on July 19th Melania Trump appropriated without legal authorization Goldmine and Plot’s trademarked concept of replicating material related to African-American topics, texts, autopsies, and First Ladies…

Etc. It’s a neat structural satire. But it’s not as boldly counter-avant-garde—Confessional, even—as Johnson’s apparently true account of talking with Vanessa Place on the train from Princeton to Newark airport, which concludes:

I’m no less sceptical about the current version of Conceptual Poetry, no less sceptical at all. But I have to say that I came away, really, liking Vanessa Place quite a good bit, life is strange.

May 2017

 

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Robert Archambeau, The Kafka Sutra

Asheville: MadHat Press, 2015. 108 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by Piotr Gwiazda

Chicago Review

Robert Archambeau’s new book of poems The Kafka Sutra differs from his previous book Home and Variations (2004) in the degree to which it explores the possibilities of appropriation as a literary device. Appropriation, moreover, becomes a hermeneutic tool in Archambeau’s hands. A poet and a critic—the author of Laureates and Heretics (2010), The Poet Resigns (2013), and the forthcoming Making Nothing Happen—he employs it to compose his poems and to perform criticism on his textual sources. Entertaining and intelligent, The Kafka Sutra shows Archambeau’s in-depth engagement with this widespread, increasingly dominant poetic practice.

     The title sequence at first quite implausibly grafts several of Kafka’s enigmatic parables onto the subject matter of the Hindu classic Kama Sutra. Describing it elsewhere as “one of the odder things [he’s] done,” Archambeau promises, at least in theory, a merging of existential anxiety, sensual fulfillment, and didactic intent. The result is indeed odd, but not entirely foreign to anyone who has ever had the experience of reading creatively more than one book at a time. The sequence is also disarmingly playful and funny, as are the accompanying illustrations by Sarah Conner. Here is “Couriers,” quoted in its entirety:

He is offered the choice of becoming a husband or the lover of another man’s wife. Men being as they are, he wants to be a lover, as do all the others. Therefore there are only lovers hurrying around the world, near rabid with ardor and bearing their secret letters of desire. There being no husbands, though, there are no wives, so there is no one to receive their amorous messages. Secretly they would all like to put an end to this miserable way of life, but fear commitment.

As he exploits the comedic potential of the double parody, Archambeau makes a not-so-outlandish critical point: he reminds us that Kafka’s writings are pervaded by frustrated sexuality, while Vātsyāyana’s text, primarily known as a manual on the art and techniques of lovemaking, is also one of the world’s most comprehensive guides to a happy life.

     The section that follows, “Responses,” contains sixteen poems inspired or otherwise instigated by other sources, not always literary or written: the comic book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (later reinvented as a “punk rocker” by Joey Ramone); a photograph of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Tony Defries; the design of US and Mexican flags; a typo in his friend’s email message (contextualized through a misprint in a poem by Thomas Nashe); the life and work of Archambeau’s teacher and mentor John Matthias; John Berryman’s poetry (who “taught / [his] teacher”); Milton’s neologisms; Albert Goldbarth’s Budget Travel through Space and Time; and the ancient Gnostic texts discovered in Egypt in 1945. These poems can be most readily called Archambeau’s own. Though prompted by other texts, they are linked to his personal experiences and relationships; in one instance, he quotes and ruminates on some words spoken by his five-year-old daughter. Formally elaborate, they project several authorial stances—anecdotal, excursive, dramatic, meditative. My favorites in this group are “Brightness Falls” and “Nag Hammadi: A Parable,” poems that speak at once casually and profoundly about global politics.

     The next two sections, “Two Procedures” and “Versions,” offer compositions made up completely of borrowed material. “Manifest Destinies, Black Rains” splices two prose passages, one from Anne C. Lynch’s nineteenth-century essay on Washington, DC, emphasizing US exceptionalism, the other from Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. As in most instances of documentary poetry, the choice of textual sources invites readers to draw their own conclusions. In a rhetorically significant maneuver, Archambeau shapes them into nine four-line stanzas, one per page, to make them resonate together with the white space around them:

A magnificent country’s principles of freedom,
completely razed to the ground.
Where they had once stood an arid waste
Scattered with broken tiles.

He follows this with “If Wronging You is Love,” a clever “conceptualist inversion” of a text by Felix Bernstein, itself containing allusions to Luther Ingram’s song and David Antin’s talk-poem “what am i doing here?” Another variation on appropriative poetics comes in the form of “free and loose” translations of French-language poems by Martinique’s Lucie Thésée and twin brothers Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray of Belgium. The product of a collaboration with Jean-Luc Garneau, these “versions” seem akin to mid-twentieth-century experiments like Jack Spicer’s renditions of Federico García Lorca and Robert Lowell’s “imitations” of various European poets. Even as he salvages these relatively obscure poets from the past, Archambeau hints at additional meanings of appropriation. Combining the strains of Surrealism and Négritude, Thésée adopts the persona of her island to express an attitude of protest, proving herself a worthy counterpart to Aimé Césaire. As for the Piqueray twins, the elusiveness of their verse can perhaps be explained by the fact that they did not believe in individual authorship and often published under pseudonyms.

     Archambeau concludes The Kafka Sutra with a prose “afterword” in which he reflects on the partisan nature of poetry criticism in the past several decades and his own resistance to polemic. If not exactly the key to his book, the essay comes close to being an explicit statement of Archambeau’s broader agenda, which is predicated on a relatively modest claim “merely to describe” poetic texts and phenomena as he sees them. As I noted earlier, he is not only a poet but also a prolific critic, editor, and blogger with a long-standing interest in the social contexts of poetry writing in the United States, as well as an English professor at Lake Forest College. The academic background comes across in the poems, with their numerous allusions and references, mostly to the Romantic, Victorian, and modernist poetry canon he presumably teaches. Like a good teacher, Archambeau shows us how literature is made: through the zany, delightfully dissonant title sequence, as well as his other “riffs on, remixes of, replies to, or deeply unfaithful translations of what others have written,” he illustrates how one text gives birth to another, how one reading generates another. The essay at the end suggests that, at least in his case, the creative faculty is never too far from the critical.

    Throughout his book, Archambeau also makes an argument about the personal side of writing and reading. What especially stands out to me is the way he pays homage to two individuals who have shaped him as a writer: his mentor Matthias, the addressee of “Working the Piano” (“it is your work // my books are all about”) and his father, a ceramic artist based at the University of Manitoba whose name he shares and who is the hidden subject of “La Bandera,” a poem ostensibly about differences between the US and Mexican flags. In the concluding essay, the younger Archambeau considers his father’s contempt for artistic grandstanding as a likely source of his own “neutral” temperament: “Most of our attitudes are absorbed from our environment without much conscious reflection on our part, and I imagine my distaste for battles about aesthetic recognition and campaigns against forms of art different from one’s own comes less from all those grad school hours reading Bourdieu and Adorno than from seeing my dad roll his eyes at the rhetoric and ambitious yearnings of his colleagues.” Even Archambeau’s biographical note at the end of the book is more than a typical list of publications and teaching appointments. Rather, it’s a graceful précis of his life at its midpoint, as it salutes both of his parents, recalls his beginnings as a poet in Canada and his formative study under Matthias at the University of Notre Dame, declares his fascination with appropriative poetics and his critical interest in the social position of poetry in the United States (he certainly knows his Bourdieu and Adorno).

     The Kafka Sutra is an accomplished book—thoughtfully put together, formally and linguistically adept, comfortable with a wide range of cultural idioms, responsive to world events. It is also a very personal book, expressing gratitude and love to those individuals who have enabled Archambeau’s career.

February 2017

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