Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Tribute to the Critic of Tone Jam: Remarks Off Bernstein’s TOPSY-TURVY

by Jefferson Hansen

[Topsy-Turvy is forthcoming from U of Chicago Press in April 2021. You can preorder now.


Charles Bernstein was my dissertation advisor at SUNY-Buffalo in the mid 1990s.]


What they are, I'm not sure. But I'm sure they must be there. Lies, that is, the lies I tell myself. Perhaps those closest to me are painfully aware of some of them, perhaps even acquaintances. All sorts of people who barely know me nonetheless know particulars about me of which I am unaware. Recently, I became aware of one of these lies: I believed in a vaguely formulated, cartoonish notion of paradise. I believed that someday, someway, I would live in a time when my problems were few, difficulties rare, and I was always happy. I realize I'm not the only one who believes such a thing, since a number of pop tunes express the same false belief. I found on close examination, that I was even sometimes motivated in my actions by this lie: I was trying to help myself move along on my way to paradise. When the bubble popped, I felt bereft. It was then I realized I had tied some of my hopes to this vague, totally fanciful concept of paradise.


Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should expose the rhetorical strategy at play in the first paragraph of this tribute essay—and it most definitely is a tribute. They say that early on in a piece of nonfiction, you should establish your authority. This need is particularly acute in my case, since I am a mere lonely blogger with no institutional affiliation. (To top it off, the aging Linda Ronstadt has lost her voice and can no longer come to my apartment to comfort me by singing "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," as if she ever did. But this is neither here nor there.) In the first paragraph, I display not only my sensitivity to some of the lies I have been telling myself, but also show I am cognizant that, deep in my subconscious, I undoubtedly hold to be true other, not-yet-realized, lies. This establishes my profound self-awareness. 


On the subject of lying, we all lie to ourselves. A physicist once told me, "I believe I live my life according to my principles." If "principles" refers to something like embodied values, this could not be true. Human beings live according to embodied principles created by the various social contexts they participate in, and one context can be wildly different than another. For instance, history abounds with examples of people who were absolute monsters in their public life, yet sincere in the respect and love they showed their families. Indeed, the sort of transcendental principles the physicist was referring to are more often used as rationalizations than as guideposts. They are incredibly pliable. For instance, many Europeans rationalized their subjugation and even slaughter of native people on the basis of Christian peace and brotherly love. In a more contemporary example, last I heard a number of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks were advocating the oppression and assault of their Muslim neighbors on the basis of Buddhist compassion. 


As far as ethics go, they have little to do with disciplined adherence to abstract principles. They emanate from the embodied interactions of people in groups —contexts—who explore, communicate and work on projects together. It almost goes without saying that any individual person is involved in a number of such contexts, and he or she effortlessly moves from the ethics and values of one to another, even when they contradict each other. It also almost goes without saying that the ethics developed by such groups may appear abhorrent to other groups. Charles Bernstein, in the early 2000s, wrote, “War is us” (Girly Man 154).


Why does the physicist, who is quite smart, believe this lie about ethics? It is because she has not attended to ethics, consciousness, and epistemology the way I have. I would be similarly naive about quarks, neutrinos, and the various forces that act on them. The point, however, is that our concepts do not necessarily represent reality at all. Their job, rather, is to get something done. In my case, I speculate that my lie about the existence of paradise helped me to organize my behavior and streamline my motivation. The lie the physicist told herself, perhaps, made her feel centered and in control and able to guide her life. That said, because the physicist and I have different jobs and interests, we attend to different things.


Along the lines of attention, it should be noted that it is what the correspondence theory of truth leaves out. This theory posits that truthfulness arises when language accurately represents a portion of reality that is, supposedly, “out there.” What we call reality isn’t “out there.” Rather, it is formed by our attentions. For instance, I could catalogue all the facts in this room, from every particle of dust and dirt to every smudge on the wall to every pen and outlet, from now until my death and still not come close to exhaustively completing the task. Our sense of reality depends on our selections from these myriad potential facts. We select on the basis of attention. All sorts of things go into determining what we pay attention to, from what we want to practically get done, to obsessions, to habits, to cultural conditioning. This stuff forms the ground of our always evolving sense of reality, not something “out there.”

As far as cataloging facts go, I couldn’t come close, in my lifetime, to accounting for everything in a square foot of wall space in my room if I attended to all the quarks, gluons and other subatomic particles together with their associated forces. Reflecting on this has caused me to form an opinion: it is of my opinion that nature is infinitely complex and conceptually fathomless.


It follows from this opinion that natural science, in spite of its spectacular creation of knowledge, can never conceptually “nail down” natural laws. Over a hundred years ago, many thought Newton had done just that, for all time, with his law of gravity. Then along came the notion of spacetime. Newton’s theory became delimited and could only be useful in a specific context. Einstein’s theory, no doubt, will, at some point, suffer the same fate. Science moves from theory to theory in the infinite vastness of nature, exploring attendant difficulties and issues, forever. 


All I’m trying to say is that science is human, all too human. It is analogous to a person’s everyday life. We go on and on, thinking and exploring and interacting, exchanging one set of difficulties for another. Life is life—complex, multifarious, ever changing, but it never fundamentally changes so that an endpoint is reached, such as a paradise, where difficulties cease and conceptual clarity is absolute.


The portion of a concept that is in the light attracts us with its seeming clarity. But in the shadows concepts are muddled, ragged, and off-kilter. And it is from the shadowland that concepts get their flexibility and become widely adaptable to, again, not necessarily reflect reality, but get things done.


These thoughts were occasioned by my reading of some of the poems in Charles Bernstein's Topsy-Turvy, which I read in manuscript form in a press kit prior to publication. Since a lot of people will give a bird's eye view of what goes on in the book, from the various forms Charles uses, such as blues songs, to the architectonic arrangement of the order of individual poems and sections of the book, to the inventive use of rhyme, and so on, I will here explore, appreciate, and consider Charles' use of two words: "truth" and "lies" and their variations. Charles uses the word "truth," or a variation, in thirteen different poems. He uses "lie," or a variation, five times. I will look at a few of them below.


The words "truth" and "lie" first show up in the book in this short poem:


        Telling truth is a kind of lying since

        Every truth conceals both other truths and

        Plenty of falsehoods. But lying is as

        Far from truth as the dead from the living.

        It was never my intention to do

        Either—Just to keep bailing this open

        Boat drifting out toward an infinite sea (16).

Any supposed truth telling is partial: it comes from a particular perspective and draws attention to certain things and ignores others, thereby concealing much. It is always strategic, always in the service of some agenda. The same is true of lying. It is also strategic, also corrals attention in a certain direction, also conceals. But there is clearly a difference. I want to firmly establish that Charles believes there is a clear practical difference between lying and truth-telling. However, at the murky level where concepts are formed, the difference is far from absolute. Is the difference between truth telling and lying in the intention of speakers, what they want to accomplish? If what they want to accomplish is to help listeners get a fuller sense of reality, then are they telling the truth? Charles takes away the notion of intention: he gives us an image of, really, infinite desperation and futility. I have felt desperate and futile at some periods in my life. When in the throes of these feelings, they feel like they will go on forever, until death. But they almost never do. Feelings, like everything else, change, morph, and fade. The word "infinite" points to this delusory aspect of a prolonged desperate feeling. This poem also implies that the activities of surviving and feeling distract us from fully accounting for the difference between truth and lying. 

You may have noticed this poem skittering through tonal changes. The title and the first couple lines have the feel of a public, even sacred, testifying of belief. Later, the speaker’s tone becomes a little defensive. We refer to our “intent” when trying to justify ourselves. Finally, the tone turns psychological and personally apocalyptic in the final image. This shifting of tone is typical of a Bernstein poem. For years, Charles has inveighed against what he calls “tone jam,” where tone remains consistent, and he has particularly inveighed against the serious and sober tone that signifies gravitas. He prefers jocularity, in a variety of forms, and multiplicity because they open wider semantic possibilities, and meaning can percolate on multiple vectors and in divergent dimensions. In this poem, for instance, we see frames associated with sacredness, philosophical reflection, interpersonal communication, and personal psychology come into play, overlapping and even colliding in some ways.

Charles’ concern with tone jam dovetails with his critique of irony. Charles favors comedy. Charles thinks irony dismantles an apparent “truth” in the name of a firmer, more real ground. In the comedy which Charles prefers and produces, there is no ground. All the balls are always in play, and we are always juggling, perhaps awkwardly.

This juggling makes us aware that we, partially, create what we take to be true, in what our culture and habits and obsessions draw our attention to out of the infinite possibilities in nature. Since "truth" seems to be a convention, no wonder it is so easy to get away with lying. Truth must be honed in our social interactions. Such work will never end ("infinite sea"). It feels a little exhausting, sometimes. More on this later.

These lines appear in a poem entitled "For Real":

        Liars move on, the lie remains:
        Lies that truth enshrines and engrains (19)

How does "truth" enshrine a lie? How does it engrain it? If "truth" is something forged socially, through the push and pull of discussion, negotiation, persuasion, manipulation and so forth, of course a lie can be engrained and enshrined as truth. Examples abound. Charles is Jewish, and I can't help but think of all the enshrined lies that have hurt the Jewish people over the centuries. I also think about our current situation in the U.S., where a lot of people enshrine the lies of Trump and Qanon. Since we all believe plenty of lies, as demonstrated in the first couple paragraphs of this essay, it should come as no surprise that people can believe hogwash. What's more, it's clear that, since truth is not simply the correspondence of language to true facts but social and constructed, we can't simply show people the truth. People are not convinced by intellect to change their mind. Their beliefs are rooted in a whole way of life they feel attached to. They are convinced when this way of life gets disturbed because their concepts stop working. When they can see they don't get what they want out of their concepts, they begin to change them, and change their way of life. Remember, concepts are about doing, not accurately reflecting reality.

This shows the difficulty of changing people's minds. Indeed, in the U.S. today, we have radically different, competing ideas of truth. I am afraid that convincing a lot of the people of the errors of their ways is impractical. Instead, they will need to be defeated. Once again, I come to what Charles wrote in the early 2000s: "War is us" (Girly Man 154). At this point, I feel myself staring into the maw of might makes right: the determination of truth at the legal and political level will be decided by who has power. What role can Charles' poetry play in this high stakes power game? He clearly explores and demonstrates nuance, complexity, and multiplicity. When is the last time you saw people rallying around a flag celebrating those notions? Never. They don't motivate action. They cause people to contemplate. Slogans motivate political action. And what are slogans? Simplifications. I am afraid they are "Lies that truth enshrines."

As an aside, I should address the objection that some are sure to make, that this tribute—and it most definitely is a tribute— in its abject pithiness, is nothing but a series of mere philosophically tinged slogans. (This potential criticism threw me for a loop. I began to unravel—not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. I solved it by closing the parentheses ... ) (Oh, so piddling ... so piddling ... so confoundingly piddling...) In my defense, I offer this quotation: "It was never my intention...[I just] keep bailing this open / Boat drifting out toward an infinite sea"(16). Ah, Topsy-Turvy to the rescue! 

Back to politics. Charles' poetry does have a political role, but it's not in the formulation of public policy. It serves as a sort of gadfly, needling us into realizing what we believe is always partial, always from a particular perspective, and is always ignoring something or, more importantly, somebody. Reading him carefully causes me, at least, to question my assumptions, ask myself who I am, what my country is, and how I am defining the world.

These poems are therapeutic, but not in a psychological sense, where we become aware of our feelings. They are therapeutic in the sense that they ask us to know ourselves in the Socratic sense. When Socrates counseled "know thyself," he meant we should become aware of our intellectual assumptions. But Bernstein goes a step further than Socrates: he asserts that the truth is not an accurate reflection of a realm of Being, outside this one, but is forged through our social actions and efforts.

While I have been dealing conceptually with what Charles does poetically, I can't help but feel my lack of lightness. I'm thinking with language; Charles does with language. It's as if he wants to shock readers out of conventional ways of using language in order to foster novel perceptions and perspectives. "Fancy" means a passing whim. Yet

               Fancy is
        at the root of illusion and the soul
        of truth (53).

Ephemeral desires, Charles seems to be saying, create illusion. This implies, I think, that we often see not what's there but what we want to see in any given moment. Yet this "fancy" is also "the soul / of truth." We shouldn't take Charles entirely seriously here. But we can't take him not seriously, either. It seems he both believes and doesn't believe this. After all, right after this sentence, he writes "A kick in the ass will never / abolish asses." Am I an ass for thinking about this so hard? It is only about "fancy," after all. Or are we all asses for basing our notion of "truth" on something as flimsy as "fancy"? The point might be to kick our asses, to provoke an unsettling, to bring grand words such as "illusion" and "truth" into contact with the weakness of "fancy," in order to loosen sedimented assumptions about the nature of illusion, the soul, and truth. How do we use these words? why?

In "Clouds After Rain" Charles writes:

        even the most difficult path
        is a beginning

        every lie's a kind of truth

        truth is never sincere


        reality is not
        behind a veil
        it is a veil (100-101)

This poem emphasizes moving. The first line in the quotation above is about a path. We also have images about what is "just ahead" and "almost behind." In this quickly passing life, how can every lie be a kind of truth? The only thing I can think of is that every lie is motivated and has a perspective, goal, and context. In this sense, it reveals, as truth does. Interestingly, this formulation echoes in reverse the lines from "Testament," quoted above. But it makes lying, not truth telling, the center. Communication is difficult. Life is multifarious. What we take for granted may not be granted—granted by whom? the veil?

Sometimes, what to all appearances is smoothed over is also, also I say, a rough edge.

Incongruity. There are all these incongruities in these poems. What's more, there are these congruities asserted between what we would suppose were dissimilar. A whole lotta mixin' and matchin' goin' on. It makes me feel as if I am in the men's department, and that I've found the perfect t-shirt to go with the perfect pair of pants, but the t-shirt does not come in my size. In frustration, I look up at the ceiling and notice the fluorescent lights, which in turn remind me of a job I once had changing such bulbs in a cheap department store chain, and my whole life becomes clear in a blazing instant—an instant which I later realize was illusion, with, yet, a small kernel of truth.

"Truth is difficult" (114), says Bernstein. Yeah, right. Come on, Charles. The most basic truths are effortless. They are the givens, the beliefs we don't know we have that guide us through our lives, like a trip down one of those moving walkways, that get us from here to there, while we pay attention to other things. We can't help but to act in accord with these "truths." Come on, Charles.

Then again, I suppose I should be fair. Charles is, perhaps, not pointing to these moments of truth. Rather, he may be pointing to the moments when, perhaps because of reading his poems, the cement holding the cinder block truths in the foundation of our givens loses hold, and the cinder blocks become unmoored, and drift mysteriously up into the air, ghostlike. It is at such moments that we realize we have a problem. We must then work together to strategize a solution, to reform and even reformulate our floating cinder blocks. Yeah, this is difficult. Ever try to lasso a ghost? How about a cinder block, even? In such moments, truth must be corralled and forged, and in doing so, no matter our sincerity, something and someone is inevitably left out.

Yes, I was too harsh. I'm sorry for yelling at you, Charles. It was unwarranted—but boy was it fun. Put another way, it's difficult when we become self-conscious about our words, our language, our perceptions. And this difficulty is where we need to be if we are to live together with creativity and imagination. 

Ultimately, however, I do think the drawing of the line between what is considered truth and what is considered lies comes down to a couple tendencies: Fear and the desire to dominate. The fear has to do with perceived possible bodily harm, sure, but even more about perceived loss of social stature (honor). And the urge to dominate comes from a desire to control others. I would like to think I, personally, draw the line based on my principles of compassion, care, and liberation. But I know that most people who assert their principles strongly are hypocrites. Face it: I, too, often draw the line because of fear and the urge to control. My fears are just different than the Trump supporters.

When do I apply my more magnanimous principles? It has to do with the existential matrix I mentioned earlier. I am magnanimous when I'm in a context that makes me feel safe, secure, and cared for. I think this is true of others, too. Fear begets fear. Care begets more caring. We are more likely to create "truths" that care for and liberate people when people already feel safe and appreciated. I believe this. Does Bernstein? I think so. He divides the book into sub-books, and the final one is entitled "Last Kind Words." He also grounds his poems in the social, in people and writers he cares about. Many of the poems are dedicated to, written with, or written after other people and poets. They emanate from care. (I use the word "care" instead of "love" because love usually involves grasping, and this often brings with it fear.)

My engagement with some of Charles' poems and lines has caused me to assert the truth about "truth"—namely, that it is a contested social construction that is always partial, shaded, and not as different from lying as we might like to think. If this is accurate, "truth" is a kind of game, although its determination is often a deadly serious one. So, what is my game in telling the truth of truth? What is my angle? How am I partial? I would like to think my game in writing this emanated from my engagement not only with Charles’ writing, but the culture at large, and I acted as the conduit for a notion of truth that this time and place needed to express. Quite grandiose—but, naw. This tribute just repackages stuff from other writers. My ultimate game stemmed from a simple impulse to get this tribute out there. What formed this impulse? I don’t fully know. But I assume it came, in part, from deeply sedimented concepts in my subconscious. In the first paragraph above, we showed how some of these concepts are, no doubt, lies I am unaware of. So I’ve formed a conception of truth partly on the basis of lies. Honestly, dear reader, if I were you, I wouldn’t trust me. No way.



Friday, March 26, 2021

Review of HEI KUU (Post-Asemic Press) by Michael Jacobson

Review of HEI KUU (Post-Asemic Press) by Michael Jacobson

 by Terrence Folz

Am reading the book Hei Kuu and really getting into it. It's a collection of haikus by my friend Michael Jacobson.

This one knocks me out: 

        Will they clone my ass
        If l run for astronaut of
        The book business.

Or this one:

        Kick on frequency
        Emcee wrapper wisdom punch
        Cassette of blind truth. 

For Michael, immediacy and image take precedence over strict form in every instance----- the 5-7-5 syllable formula (for any purists out there)-----and that's as it should be. (Most of them are still the 5-7-5). The content is the thing. A lot is said in these haikus.

You should buy his book.


Buy Hei Kuu at Amazon or Bookshop.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Mark Wallace's "The End of America Book Fifteen"

Mark Wallace's "The End of America Book Fifteen"

 [The book can be purchased at Bookshop.]

by Jefferson Hansen

"The End of America Book Fifteen," the latest in a series by Mark Wallace, juxtaposes images from San Diego in 2015 and 2016 with more abstract observations in short prose lines. The effect is accumulative, and limited quotations cannot do justice to the bursts of awareness coming one after another. But I will do my best:

The burden of noticing turns into the burden of refusing to notice

The benches under the pounding sun sit empty. There are no benches in the shade.

Abstract, it digs under the skin like a pebble in a shoe.

"Gravitate towards Jupiter": a sticker on the wall in the coffee shop bathroom (4) 

 In the first line of the above quotation, the words "burden" and "notice" are repeated. Somehow, there is a sense of requirement, a burden, associated with either noticing or not noticing. This implies an intense self-consciousness: what we notice is a choice. When we become aware of this choice, it can turn burdensome. Then we get the image of benches under the hot San Diego sun: There is no place to rest. The burden of noticing or refusing to notice goes on and on, not resting. Perhaps this burden is part of living, something we can never get away from.

Then Wallace moves to an uncomfortable metaphor for "abstract" —namely, "a pebble in a shoe." How exactly this fits with what comes before or after is not conceptually clear to me, but it feels right. Perhaps the abstractness is tied to sensing the burden of noticing; both seem terribly uncomfortable. But the voice of the poem keeps moving, ends up in the bathroom reading a sticker on the wall.

Discomfort comes and goes, insight comes and goes, perception comes and goes. At one point a large American flag is described fluttering on a crane above the city. Cranes mark progress. They usually also mark the destruction of areas of the city where new building is taking place. Somehow, that flag does not seem the equal of the particulars being narrated, nor does it seem the equal of the passing insights about experience and perception. It seems oversimplified. America asserts itself too much, even in San Diego, where perception and thought outdistance it by miles. 

What I just wrote I believe, of course, is justified by the poem. But I'm not entirely sure. This poem sprawls, and reading it is more of an experience than a telling. Pulling back from it and accounting for it is difficult. It is so embedded in the trajectory of bursts of conscious awareness that discussing it is like scooping some water from a fast-moving stream and claiming to hold the stream in your hand. I'll keep trying:

The momentary sharp sensation of the needle jabs half an inch into the arm.

Two anonymous Internet identities argue and insult each other furiously over their commitment to events that are not taking place.

Comfort washes through the stomach at the barely audible sound of lawnmowers.

In these series of lines, Mark juxtaposes images from, I assume, an inoculation with social media driven delusion with the strange comfort created by hearing lawnmowers. As William James points out, the mind does not move in a stream. Rather, it leaps from perch to perch, like a bird. Mark is tracking attention, tracking what he notices, which, as we have already learned, is a burden when self-conscious.  Comfort comes from the strangest places. Nothing is predictable.

Consider for an instant that the hummingbird, emitting a nearly metallic high-pitched buzz, views this scene of flowering trees differently than the humans walking down the street.

Very little is clear about the relation between perceiver and perceived.

An array of opinions swirls around the issue of whether to remain in, or change, the situation.

A plastic coffee cup lid sits in the road. (22)

In the course of reading this book, some deep skepticism consistently pops up about the integrity of anything we call "self" and our ability to securely know what is going on in our lives and in San Diego and in America. Everything is in motion, including our self-conceptions. Perspectives proliferate, and we inhabit a different one each moment. This is unsettling, but also exhilarating: The world is complex beyond our imaginings, offering endless opportunities for exploration, in every moment, during every perception, which is always multiple and complex and partly chosen. And this insistence on the absolutely transitory nature of consciousness and experience is what sets this book apart from other poems that trace the way consciousness streams and perches and bursts.

Five pairs of white socks above five pairs of black sneakers move down the street in a row.

There is no way to stop anything from becoming something else.

The speaker in the poem describes looking at the ankles and socks of five people walking down the street, then realizes this will change, become something else, and no matter how badly we want to hold onto our perceptions and conceptions, of coffee cups and of our selves, they will morph and change, as will America, which will one day end.


See the poem It's Not Possible by Mark Wallace that appeared on this blog in 2012. Other posts associated with Mark can be located by using the search tool at the upper righthand corner.











Terrence Folz Reading From "Bunt Burke"

  Terrence Folz's chapbook  Bunt Burke will appear from The Circulatory Press in August 2021. The above film features him reading some o...