Rimbaud and de Kooning

Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.

We are modern. We are so because Rimbaud commanded us to be.

It is one of those curious accidents (but are they really accidents?) that I have resumed my de Kooning studies at the exact same time I decided to buy Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a book that had been on my wishlist for eight years.

I have never made a conscious connection between the painter and the poet. In fact I’ve been a student of de Kooning’s work for many years whereas for the same amount of time my knowledge of Rimbaud has been a ragged tissue of cultural cliches. As a teenager I read translations of Rimbaud’s poetry that were already dated and none of the poems took hold on my imagination. Essentially Rimbaud has been little more to me than a name one sees dropped over and over, registering absolute zero, like a distant bell that keeps ringing and one no longer hears.

Ashbery’s translations have changed that for me. Though one can still place most of the poems in 19th century Europe, the language is fresh, often startling, and the brilliance of the poems comes through. More to the point of my theme today, I couldn’t help but contrast and compare what I was reading there with my meditations on de Kooning. Because it seems to me that one sense of the modern as Rimbaud commanded it reached full flower in de Kooning. And yet another sense of the modern that comes out of Rimbaud was antagonistic to de Kooning’s attitude toward art. For there are two senses of the modern, two divergent streams that both have their source in Rimbaud. They are not always easy to disentangle (a bit of one always remains in the other) but each one taken as an individual track leads to a very different place than the other.

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Song of the Mock Turtles

From September 1st to December 31st of last year I kept a stuck tune diary, a journal of all of the sticky tunes that visited me, particularly tunes that I awoke with already playing in my head. Of the 122 days there were 32 days when I awoke without a song playing in my head. You heard it right—without a song. Suspecting that I would not learn anything new, but the same two or three lessons would repeat endlessly like a school bell in a dream about a class that neither ends nor begins, by early November I decided to conclude the journal at the end of the year. Mostly I feared a bad case of the sickness since the journal itself was causing two or three songs to recur. After a while the diary had become a catalogue of songs, a veritable jukebox of sticky tunes, the mere thought of which could bring one of them up in an instant. Because of the way the syndrome works (for me, anyway), my brain came to identify thought of the journal with two songs in particular. In other words every time the thought of the journal crossed my mind one of those songs threatened to take hold. It’s all automatic, like an involuntary muscle, something the brain does apart from conscious will. I had created the journal in hopes of learning something about myself. What I learned, above all, was helplessness.

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A Song for Julia and Winston

If I could stretch my eyes
Wide enough to see 
I wouldn’t blame you
I’d see you’ve set my pace
One paycheck away and far
From a homeward slide

Around and around like full moons
In day’s full light we dance
Across a store of blindness
My darling, may we dance
Like 1984’s behind us
To freedom’s lonely tune

Can you say five seeing four?
Or seeing both say but one
But which, oh dear which
A full moon face in the sun
Tell me how to read the lines
Before I fall out the door

Around and around like full moons
In day’s full light we dance
In the market whirling blind
Forging links with every glance
Only to leave them all behind
Forgetting freedom’s tune

I’ve buried the song in silence
In my heart I’ve wandered lost
Pathless, long, gates all closed
Until ends with starts get tossed
Where nothing and no silence grow
And my soul sits off balance

Around and around like full moons
In day’s full light we dance
In the marketplace for all to see
How lovely we murder chance
And paint freedom the place to be
Sand in sand the mind’s dunes

Note: A mangled version of this poem has been published in an anthology and attributed to me. This is the correct version. This is my poem. © Mark Kerstetter

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On Reading William Carlos Williams on Christmas Day

It’s Christmas and I don’t have to go
It’s Christmas and I have a place to stay

Not writing but reading
my favorite thing
Picking my way
through the delicate mechanisms
Not by the clock
but all day to lightly tread
So as not to trample
my own tomorrow

Williams wrote that, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found in” poems. Now I do not in a strict sense believe that. Men and women and children certainly die miserably every day for many reasons, or for no reason at all. More to the point, it seems to me men often live to a ripe old age without indulging in one ounce of poetry. Moreover, we all need food and shelter and basic health first, before we can begin to think about a surplus such as art. But I do believe it could be true for some who have died and that it is a partial truth for many of us living in the sense that we would not want to live without it. I cannot imagine any life worth living without art.

I woke up this Christmas Day with no pressing needs and, well aware of that blessing, thought what better way to both relax and celebrate than to read. I chose Williams, for I could think of no better use of my reading time. I came across “A Foot-Note” he wrote in 1933. He warns that if you “Walk on the delicate parts / of necessary mechanisms” you will soon have nothing. I immediately thought of that fragile machinery as poetry since it is a peculiarity of mine to think of my poems as machines. The full note seemed to bear this out:

A Foot-Note
by William Carlos Williams

Walk on the delicate parts
of necessary mechanisms
and you will pretty soon have
neither food, clothing, nor
even Communism itself,
Comrades. Read good poetry!

Once again, I cannot agree with this in the strict sense, but with a full heart in the narrower sense. You cannot run roughshod over poetry any more than you could a field of flowers–not without trampling them. Williams says that “Nothing is more certain than the flower”–another untruth in the strict sense, but absolute in the poem’s sense. In Two Aspects of April Williams states that Spring comes blowing in and gets things done, maybe not perfectly but it establishes a basis for life, like a field for playing ball. It’s in your hands now, get it done!

This is your responsibility. Nothing is more important. Now, look at this extraordinary poem with the humble title, “The Entity”:

The Entity
by William Carlos Williams

Antipoetic is the thing
flowers mostly in the spring
and when it dies it lives again
first the egg and then the hen

Or is this merely an unreason
flowerless the which we beg
antipoetic mocks the season
first the hen and then the egg

Oh, you can live without poetry, but is it a life worth living? and when you do read poetry, make sure that you understand your responsibility–to it, to yourself, to the life you live. Happy Holidays and all the best in 2019.

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Carl Andre, Poet

Carl Andre is famous for his sculpture but anyone who takes an interest in his work soon discovers that he is a writer as well. One suspects his career could have gone either way. But when the art took off he stopped pursuing publication.

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The Book of Disquiet, a Thousand Times

I’ve never been able to lose myself in a book…. After a few minutes it’s I who am writing….
–Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, Richard Zenith ed. Penguin paperback

There are a thousand ways to read The Book of Disquiet. Sometimes I start at the back and leaf through to the front, focusing on my own marks but stopping at any word that catches my eye. Most often I open the book at random, reading anywhere, and, considering that method, one would have to say there is an unlimited number of ways to read it.

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Of Ice Crystals and Flaming Hearts

My poem, The Effulgent Heart is out now in the new issue of Survivor’s Review. It’s a poem very close to my own heart.

I wrote it at the end of the cycle of poems that became my chapbook Prayers and Curses. But I did not include it because it seemed to make its own noise apart from the others. So it stands alone, for now.

A lingering worry I have is that the reader will not respond, apart from confusion, to the final line. It will have to stand on its own, for now. But that mingling of fire and ice, of an ice that burns, that presses close even as it falls away, was on my mind throughout all of last year. I wrote about it here on the MB Sings. It’s in my obsession with James Tate’s poem, Dear Reader, and its connection (in my mind) to a comment by Robert Frost. It’s there in my reading of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a dream, and a strange poetic experiment. And it is there, most explicitly, in my discussion of the film, The Thin Red Line. I think of all of my poems, in a sense, as ice crystals.

The reader of the poem does not have access to any of this supplemental material, of course (and much less my thoughts). So I hope, at least, that something of a “soul on ice” comes through, however different than Mr. Cleaver’s–something of the icy image of living with the threat of cancer always looming. I’ll settle for that, until I can put into a poem what I need to say about ice.


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