Archive for May, 2009


Tuesday, May 5th, 2009


Have been thinking about California the past few days, as the place that bore and bred me, and the poets who have written about it. Woke up this morning and the poet Cindy Cruz had posted a poem by Bertolt Brecht on f-book, which reminded me of my weird love for Brecht’s poems about Hollywood. Hell to him and home to me (“I… /Find on thinking about Hell, that it must be/ Still more like Los Angeles,” B. B.), but that can be close to the same thing, no? I’ve always loved his image of film directors, angel-devils with blue rings ’round their eyes, “Feed(ing) the writers in their swimming pools every morning.” When he writes about the oil derricks by the sea in “Hollywood Elegies,” I think he must mean Venice’s old derricks, and I picture him padding along my beach with a look of resigned horror on his face, sand filling his worn European shoes.

California and Germany are such stark, strange companions, the neu and the olde, but companions nonetheless. Their differences, however, might be outlined by a homophonic translation mistake I used to make: whenever I came across the word träume, usually in a poem, I thought it meant trauma—war, violence, memory would come spinning off the page. Träume actually means dreams, of course. When I was recently in LA, visiting my dad, we went to the LA County Museum’s new Broad addition to see “Cold War Cultures/Art of Two Germanys,” which I was writing about for Frieze. It was the third huge survey of German art to go up there since the ’90s; I likely saw the other two when my mom would let me play hooky from high school so we could hightail it to Westwood to see art. In this case, some fatalistic Teutonic work, her favorite next to all the German-speaking writers—Bachmann, Bernhard, Musil, Celan, Handke, Jelinek—whose books, in tall stacks by her bed, were always incongruously dusted with sand from the beach.


Barbara Guest wrote a wonderful book of prose poems, The Confetti Trees, about all the WWII-era German emigres—the writers, filmmakers, artists, composers—who landed in Los Angeles and changed the Hollywood film industry; I wrote an inscrutable, probably unreadable, essay about Guest’s book to get into grad school. But Guest’s description of the incongruity of Southern California’s lushly painted environment—the purple bouganvilla and yellow lemon trees and hand-tinted skies—to the war refugees who settled there, is close to B. B.’s, but with a little less caustic morbidity, which makes sense, since she is celebrating the cosmopolitanism and seriousness and the “different kind of sadness” that they brought to the American culture industry.

But I digress. When I say California, I rarely mean Northern California (the horrors), but sadly enough, since B. B. and his pals graced our beaches with their poems, the best poetry to be written out of CA has been done up north (although Cruz was born in Germany and raised in Northern California, she lives and writes in New York). And the poem that triggered this little half-caffeinated California-Germany poetry pamphlet was one by Brenda Hillman, a Bay Area poet who I’ve always thought imbues the contemporary California landscape with a politics and spirituality that manages to be neither fey nor naive. Needless to say, her poem has nothing to do with Germany or World War II or the horrors of swimming pools. It has to do with rats. But I think B. B. would have liked it, with its political consciousness and “rats of the poor” filling her dreams. I can never get over the first two lines.

The Rat

When I can’t write, I go in and play with the rat.
Come on darling.
I open the cage and pick him up under the arms,
loving him so much, though I am his jailer—
the little head strains forward,
the body hangs down till the budlike penis
emerges from the tender belly.
Come on, I say to him,
I’m taking a break;
I’m going to stop trying to find myself in poems.

Probably I’ll be having no more children
so when I look in his eyes, which are always clear and wet
like salmon roe
I say my son, all day, my son
and let him do all kinds of things:
put his whole head in my mouth,
eat crumbs in the bed,
shit in the laundry basket …

This is the bourgeois view of rats, that they are pleasure;
I have the rats of the poor in my attic—
hard for me to love them—
and the rats of the poor in my dreams,
in the barns of childhood,
eating the hot, closed milky ears of corn
till they are shot over and over,
until their magic skulls light up with flame …

Come on darling.
I hold the rat close, too close;
let him dig the pink commas of his claws
into my neck, lie for hours on my inadequate breast—

and then he starts this purring or clicking
such as must occur
at the center of the universe,

the sound acacias make when they split
their seeds on a hot day,
a tiny snap as what is dark and curved
twists into openness—

—Brenda Hillman, from “Bright Existence”

Wind Ensures the Rest

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009


Recently, while I was searching for biographical information on Walter Swennen, a Belgian painter who came to some prominence in the ’80s, I was only able to find texts in Dutch. Out of a kind of tinny desperation, since I was writing about him on deadline, I pasted a few blocks of these texts into the Babel Fish online translation service. As is nearly always the case with direct translations and with Babel Fish in particular, the results were weird and beautiful and sublimely frustrating. In this case, however, my interest in factual information about his work ceded as I became entranced by the droll and poetic lines that Babel Fish yielded up. Like Greek fragments found on some ancient shredded papyrus, albeit of the glowing rectangular 21st-century sort, the lines gave off whiffs of wisdom, strategically placed and brilliantly awkward:

That does not veil Swennen, reveals he.

Do we speak now concerning the art of Swennen or concerning living everyone?

Wind ensures the rest.

That his last name made him sound like a vainglorious clerk in a Robert Walser story only helped matters. Within these luminous little lines, the character of “Swennen” took on heroic proportions for me: now he was no longer a struggling Neo-Expressionist painter in Antwerp on his second wind, he was a comically heroic Everyman, the vehicle through which our own struggles and conditions would become magnified and understood. Only with reluctance did I go back to my review of the former Swennen’s show in Basel, and put these lovely bits of translated strangeness aside.


This weekend, tramping across some hot, tousled meadows near Geinsheim, in Germany, I watched the wind press against the grass and thought again of The Fragments of Swennen. I was with my boyfriend’s family, and we were headed for a dappled glen of fluorescent green trees, under which we would find scores of lilies of the valley, his father’s birth flower and mine too. I had never seen the flowers growing before, could only recall a perfunctory white-and-yellow illustration of them on a birthday card I once received as a child from some vague relative. The reality of their perfume, which soaked the afternoon air, and the perfect ladders of tiny white bells was a bit revelatory, although it could have been the late spring heat.

The Swennen fragments, and the strange charge of their syntax, remind me of Anne Carson’s interest in fragmentary forms, with their ecstatic elisions, ample white space, and atmospheric unknowables. They also recall a kind of compressed poetry written by hospitalized maniacs, modernist writers, and some of my favorite contemporary poets. Perhaps in a debt to the queen of compression, Ms. Dickinson, I keep wanting to add em-dashes after the lines:

For the Swennen has a high figure, the gravitation plays a role—

The artist such as builder, in with its hands and arm brandishing—

At Swennen that vanalles can be—


Sometimes Babel Fish doesn’t catch every word—for example, vanalles—which lends another layer of omission and frustration and error. Maybe because I am ever-so-slowly learning a new language, and am often in a defiantly seismic dark to the voices streaming around me, these mistranslations interest me—seem unusually significant.


van alles

of everything.