Writing ‘Down Impassive Rivers I Tried Each Thing’

The poem came about through my interest in a single word: packet.

About a week ago I discovered one of my favorite writers—Michael Brodsky—has been writing a blog going by the description “thought packets”. I tried to explain the thrill of this discovery to a musician friend who had not heard of Brodsky. I said it would be like discovering Yo Yo Ma had decided to write a blog, sharing thoughts on his process and the larger world of the arts (Brodsky is an expert on film and is well schooled in philosophy and the visual arts). Not just anybody, but Yo Yo Ma (I consider Michael Brodsky to be on a level with Anne Carson, John Ashbery, Thomas Pynchon and Chris Tysh). My friend said, “Who’s Yo Yo Ma?”

Maybe I have the wrong friends. Anyway, thought packets. Brodsky has written about his take on Manny Farber’s concept of termite art (opposed to elephant art) and it’s based on the process of thought packets. Remembering he had used the term in his novel, ***, I’ve been rereading it.

Meanwhile the poet/mockingbird part of my brain seized the word “packet” like a sucking stone and wouldn’t let go. Unsurprisingly, a line from my favorite living poet came to mind. The first sentence of Ashbery’s book, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror—“As one put drunk into the packet-boat”—is lifted from Andrew Marvell’s poem, Tom May’s Death. Now, as it’s hardly possible to mention drunkenness and boats in the same sentence without thinking of Rimbaud, I had to read The Drunken Boat too.

So now all of these things—radiating, as it were, out of the word “packets”—had come into a single orbit and I couldn’t help but notice the note one hears struck in each one, different as they are, which one might characterize as interstitial space: neither day nor night, but twilight; neither child nor adult, but the play of imagination; neither knowledge nor ignorance, but the lucid unknown.

Marvell introduces the note in the first few lines of Tom May’s Death. May is put drunk into a packet-boat and in his stupor gazes about wide-eyed, equally restored and disoriented by what he sees this side of Elysium, “Signs by which still he found and lost his way.”

Rimbaud, of course, first becomes the drunken boat itself with an enthusiastic echo of Baudelaire’s exhortation to be drunken but comes to regret it, wistful for the child on dry land making boat and river into playthings. But Rimbaud as poet never escapes the interstitial space of The Drunken Boat.

Ashbery has the benefit of this history, has lived, “tried each thing”, and does not shirk the mature tone of the adult. Still, one cannot miss his privileging the night, not just in this poem, but many others (by the way, I have lifted the phrase “back to the night that bore us” from his poem, From Estuaries, From Casinos). It would be hasty to equate Ashbery’s night with Elysium, but the narrator of As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat is on this side of it just as surely as Tom May is on this side of Elysium in the lines quoted. Caught between summer and night, in this poem and so many others, Ashbery has established himself as the poet of interstitial space.

Home base for this particular thought packet is Brodsky’s novel, ***, in which Stu Pott (sounding suspiciously like “Stir[the]Pot”) in a semi-juvenile state of young manhood finds himself (or the reader finds him) in interstitial space with regard to the whole world of ***. Because he is neither in nor out of this world (or because he is both in and out of it), he is the quantum underlying the *** world, writer and reader included (Stu Pott is a new recruit for a company that produces something called “***” but “***” is also the name of the novel and how it is being produced). Which only means that the fictional *** existed before Stu Pott did, but *** in its fullest dimensional capacities could not exist without Stu Pott.

Which brings me to Manny Farber. I can’t fully embrace his beef with Cézanne. I wonder what he said about Philip Guston?

And the word “packets” never even made it into the poem.

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3 Responses to Writing ‘Down Impassive Rivers I Tried Each Thing’

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: I can’t help but be reminded, by your poem without “packet,” of Mike Goldberg’s sardines. It’s a tremendous privilege to be let in to your poetic process like this. I can well understand being seized by “packet.” Ashbery’s poem certainly came to mind for me (and Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat could not be far behind). Then, the trail I went on was to classical Chinese poetry. I’ve somehow come to associate the title of Ashbery’s “packet boat” poem with such poetry, and that in turn takes me to all those poems among the classical Chinese that extol drinking and wine (like this, from T’ao Ch’ien: https://books.google.com/books?id=V9aZAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA117&lpg=PA117&dq=people+all+hoard+their+hearts+away&source=bl&ots=-G6KZ9G399&sig=p8jutEvGTVEySlgiDgdtDdcHoqo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAGoVChMIldSBiuroyAIVwTk-Ch26lA4P#v=onepage&q=people%20all%20hoard%20their%20hearts%20away&f=false)

    There is nothing better, for me, than to be taken on such a wonderfully rollicking ride of associations as you do here.

    • I do really love O’Hara’s poem. Wasn’t it Al Filreis who pointed out (quite correctly, I think) that O’Hara has written it so that poetry writing comes off as a far more rich activity than painting? I wanted to be a painter so bad once upon a time, and tried very hard to do so–ended up a poet almost by default. Another story….

      I’m glad you enjoyed this. I know you love to go off on similar intellectual adventures. And how interesting that the packet-boat poem took you to Chinese poetry! I wonder if something about the transformation process of translation has left a residue that strikes us as Ashberian? Or if it’s somehow in the original (so frustrating having to settle for a translation!). Lines like these: “But whatever makes living precious/ occurs in this one life, and this life/ never lasts. It’s startling, sudden as/ lightning, a hundred years offering/ all abundance. Take it!” seem like they’d be perfectly at home in an Ashbery poem.

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    Mark–I really am not nearly so erudite as you–I am embarrassed by my ignorance, but I do love Marvell and Rimbeaud and Guston (esp.) and I’ve read a little Brodsky (Joseph) and Ashberry–but the idea of thought packets is very appealing. I think of the little stories of Lydia Davis, which I also like often. Still, I think there is something about trying to envelope the layers of a moment–I am not sure if that is what you write about here, but I think so– and it makes sense to me with Guston especially. Thanks for your very kind comment at my place. I wish I knew more! But I appreciate your thoughts always. k.

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