Monday, November 11, 2019

Greg Gerke: Davenport as Exemplar

The essays of Guy Davenport collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves a Form, and The Hunter Gracchus are more than guilty pleasures for me. They discuss dense things but are easy on the eyes, in harmony with part of Davenport’s forward in the latter, “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Davenport never clogged his sentences with any unnecessary sesquipedalian words or high academic torque, though he taught for over thirty-five years. People used to say about film director John Ford that he made one picture for the studio, then one for him. But Davenport kept his tone throughout—a lecture at Yale held the same locutions as a review of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark in the NewYork Times (uncollected, but on-line). It’s a very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones, as in the Outer Dark review: “Appalachian America has kept in the archaic courtesy of its speech and in the still uncompromised meanness of its ethnic jealousies an inviolable identity unmatched anywhere else in the United States. It is our Balkans.”
     I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own noteriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.” Davenport and the other poet-critics—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and, to an extent, Lionel Trilling—taught me turn and counter-turn in this arena. Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry—traits handed down by a trifecta of writers who probably formed him most: William Blake (who he almost did his dissertation on), John Ruskin (the writer who, with Thoreau, he most resembles), and Ezra Pound (subject of his dissertation—he visited him a number of times); three people he defined, in that dissertation Cities on Hills, as able “to combine an intense awareness and love of beauty with what seems like a fanatic interest in economics...[and] to combine an interest in the details of practical statecraft with what seem like visionary ideas so impractical that all three men are listed in reference books as insane.” Whether beauty is truth or the other way around, given his essay “What are Revolutions?,” it is clear Davenport had a justifiable antipathy to government, “We are now taxed for every movement we make, every exchange of nickel from citizen to citizen.” In manner, he is most like Ozick, knowing the power of one word, well-applied, transforms mere information into artistry, as in this simple sentence from a review of a Gerard Manley Hopkins biography review: “He was still young when the filthy drinking water of Dublin did him in: typhoid.” Many would have bypassed the use of the adjective “filthy,” but that coloration heightens the fact of decay now in our heads.
     I never consciously set out to copy, but the cues slurried through my metabolism while it repeatedly digested Davenport for the last decade. In his non-fiction, Guy Davenport, the person, is sometimes there, but subservient to Guy Davenport, the thinker. His own life filters in at certain points, with a catchy anecdote here or there (in a prescient uncollected piece on the Confederate flag, he writes, “When I see motorcycle gangs wearing Nazi regalia, I know that I’m looking at ignorance and stupidity”), but, like Gass, it is a rare instance to have pure memoir—“Finding” and “On Reading” are the two most notable exceptions. It may be counterintuitive, but I believe Davenport and the others, when writing of Shakespeare or other cultural curiosities, are really dwelling on their own sleepless nights or love’s work or a piss-poor colleague or friend; they can be said to be pressurizing the work in the manner of how Charles Williams, a 20th Century poetry critic, counsels, “Poetry is beginning to write more about things, and less about what the poet felt about things”—meaning the life services the art, which is not at all about itself, but about a person’s experience of it. In “II Timothy” a piece originally in an anthology, Davenport squeezes in his upbringing, “...I was actually raised by my parents to believe that a moral life, polished manners, and an ambition to be moderately well off were the essence of acceptable behavior. Both my parents tacitly agreed with Trollope that a strong interest in religion was a prelude to insanity.” Davenport goes on like this, explicating, with memoir being attendant, yet he doesn’t strain to squelch the primary force of the piece, taking advice he once quoted., when he referenced Menander in “The Geography of the Imagination”: “Talking about a feast that starves the guest.”
     We live in uber-egoic times, and even such a upright scribbler not to be found on social media, Joshua Cohen, litters his essays with the detritus of Tweet-like pronouncements, though with a nifty campy chrome finish: “So here I am at midnight, sitting in a Barcalounger, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish while idly masturbating.” There is a tenderfooted line to the insertion of the superficial self into a review of art, a being whom Proust described thus, “What one bestows on private life—in conversation... or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” The discriminating reader, wondering about the book, film, or exhibition in question, usually will forgive the standard operating procedure of the first-person infused beginning and end, but if too much of the text’s body is that aforementioned paltry feast, it is a very easy and unforgiving click into a new tab that ices the tiresome monologue. But, of course, we don’t think we are inserting that maudlin ego—we are simply using ourselves as a device for more mass appeal and, usually as the bemused (how often writers observe another’s follies) or the victim itself.
     In casting a cold eye on my forthcoming essay book, See What I See, I did notice many of these maneuvers, how I often detailed the circumstances of reading or seeing the art, betting on how the revelations may abet interest, but might only be little jibes which entertain me because it is my life dimly on display. What does the reader really want? Information or intimacy? Probably both, but as in most friendships there is a dance around the indices framing what we want, what we expect, and what we’ll put up with. However many times I hear or read someone say, “I don’t write with the audience in mind,” I know people don’t really have that kind of control over what they write—and anyway, they are speaking in that fusty superficial self voice. But there is the rub—how does that drawing-room self get cloaked enough to come off as half-way genuine, something squaring with Gertrude Stein’s “I write for myself and strangers”? The MFA prescriptivists would say, that is when someone finds their “voice,” when one river flows into another and there is an almost undetectable confluence of form working on the matter at hand. Maybe one can’t countenance that moment—it’s like trying to pinpoint the hour you first began to love someone. You go on a blind date with every reader and some will know in the first syllables if they want to be in your company or not; others will know as soon as they see your name.
     Here is the first sentence of Davenport’s “Dictionary”: “Some years ago, on a particularly distraught evening, the drift of things into chaos was precipitated by my consulting Webster’s Third International for the word Mauser.” So much is going on here and it’s not all ornate or all plain but a synthesis of the two. It certainly is hypnotic. It could be the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it quickly becomes Kafka, with “the drift of things into chaos”—something so beautiful, you think Keats wrote it and you want more of that beauty, that voice. Then the humor of the ending and ending on that particular pregnant word. Yet there is also the time frame—you find out things drifted into chaos before you know the source of said chaos. In Davenport, one gets sentences that have it all. This is what I strive to create.


Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, are both available this autumn from Splice.

Monday, November 4, 2019


“Drones are probably killing someone right now.”

This independent clause appears in small type at the top and bottom of every page of Sarah Vap’s Winter: Devotions and Effulgences.

Each time this sentence appears I read it. I do not skim over it. As I move further into the book, I begin to speak the words aloud—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and it came to feel like an incantation, a secret you tell yourself about your secret selves. It came to feel like a ghost if you define a ghost as something emergent, as something both invisible and present, beyond one’s perceptual field but felt in our loins and our elbows , the tips of our ears. All the things headed our way.  

Here are more words along with blank space within and around the words  from this beautiful book by Vap:

Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Across the years since we bought the cabin I have arranged and rearranged this book into many formats—sometimes this has been a book of lyric poetry. Sometimes this book has been a list of questions, sometimes a collection of deeply-disrupted aphorisms. Sometimes lyric essays. Sometimes it joined with other research and writing while I completed coursework and two dissertations for my PhD. Sometimes I deleted everything and started over with lists and bullet points, then pasted everything back in again so that I could slam my head against it for a few more years.
Sometimes the materials gathered for this book have been a thousand pages long—the scattered writings of all those mornings, gathered together.
And once I deleted and deleted until the words barely gasped themselves out onto each page, a pool of white around them. Pieces of this book have been pulled out of emails, then deleted from the book again. I’ve used portions of letters, journals, and checked my memory against the news sites on the internet.
As the world changes, the book has to change. As my children have been born and have changed, the book has to change. As my brains have dissolved into the brains of the family-animal, into the whale, into the forest, into the fungal mat—the book has to change. 
Sometimes I try to write down these morning desperations, these morning weather reports—from inside our deepest-tendernesses. 
I want to write from within our deepest-kindness, we.
I am writing forth from the entrails of our family-animal—
I want to extend our tentacles toward whatever are the origins of the naval and industrial pinging—deep in those waters all around us—in order to destroy them.
I am amazed when the babies speak words I’ve never heard before,
but long to understand.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (52)
Vap’s book is about living and loving in the face of so much violence, so much death, and possible death, originating from our own destructive, selfish behaviors. Vap’s book is about living with death, dying a little every day, as the book’s epigraph states: 
Death takes place in my very being—how can I explain to you? 
—Clarice Lispector

Vap’s book is also about transformation from young woman to woman who procreates (miscarries) and raises a family, from feelings of burgeoning and gain to feelings of disorientation, frustration, and grief over the loss of the quiet, capacious selves, all the possibility, the expansion of multiple selves within and beyond youth, all of it disintegrates. You raise a family into being—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and something else emerges, a kind of “second body,” a phrase the writer Daisy Hilyard, in her book Second Body, uses to describe the various empathetic selves in touch with the world beyond one’s perceptual field. 

Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Glut, I.
The noise in this cabin—my brains exploding from noise—the slams.
Screeching, laughing, crying. Rain on the roof. Sonar pinging at each moment into our brains—
Into the brains of whales—and all the other sea creatures—this animal asleep in my arms— 
love made a body—for a complete mind. I
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (8)
The narrator leaps from the children’s noise to rain pelting the roof to sonar pings in the brains of whales, in our brains. This porosity gives way to spiritual action—fleeting, poignant. In this way writing makes space for stretchy moments hyper-presence invites: 
Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Weeks have passed since I’ve tried to write about winter. The birth of Mateo turned, and is still turning me, inside-out.
Tonight sitting in front of the fire, things flowing into and out of my shot-through brains, breastfeeding this beautiful new baby in my arms—my torso—my brains—my vagina and anus and bowels and bladder—they’re wobbling or falling, and. 
I am newly eviscerated, newly cracked-open. 
The firelight flickers through this tiny baby’s eyelashes, creating shadows across his face so that his face looks cracked open.
Cracked open at the sternum, and cracked open at the brains,—I.
Something of soul has increased, as my porousness has increased.
Something of me has diminished. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (38)
The experience of childbirth, of raising children, of being part of a plural organism, transforms the body. Being cracked open materializes into heightened sensitivity to the pinball-flow of creation and destruction transmitting both singular and collective ways of being in the world. What’s around us, what’s coming at us, what’s swimming near us, moves inside us or near us. A man cleans the cafe’s high windows out of which I stare. As I watch him work the squeegee, I send him love and praise. My son leaves dirty, fetid socks on the couch and I imagine draping them over my ears, wearing them as dangly earrings. So many things within and beyond our control have been set into motion and all we can do is behold what is emergent, what emerges. You understand—my son wants the skin of his feet to feel the touch of air. 


The narrator writes. She writes over the course of 12 winters spread across three distinct regions (the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) and filled interruptions. Hunger, poopy diapers, questions about the world and about their bodies, ordinary and extraordinary needs connected to attachment, nourishment, and emotional development. Amidst her own needs and the needs of her family, the narrator writes. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” Snowfall, flooding rains, days at Venice Beach. She writes. She writes in order to come into contact with selves that mark with more clarity where her body ends and other bodies begin. She writes to record the ordinary and extraordinary familial motions: 

When I try to write the poem about winter, I am trying to hold, tenderly, onto something of the childhoods of my children—my children are flowing right past me, and into the world. (54)
Emergence. Something that has been there gradually and abruptly becomes apparent. Light in the dark sky. Sunshine through tree boughs. Semen. Mature eggs. The child’s inquiring voice behind the shut door. A submarine’s sonar pings and the “drones are probably killing someone right now.” Loose syntax expands through layering modification. An overgrown, jagged toenail soon to be ingrown snags multiple threads of those new blue socks. An imbalance of care—everything there and nothing here. The very end of a sentence reveals a numinous, ambiguous stance. The cold air spills from the cave’s mouth and the man’s mouth opens reflexively as he brings a spoonful of porridge to his child’s opening mouth, like a wish, small, deeply consequential. We eat to stay alive and being alive means being in motion so when we pay attention to the world we’re paying attention to motion, that which we can apprehend and that which lies beyond. I’m talking about soul-level stuff here. Do you hear the knocking on the door? Who’s on the other side? The boy child is. He needs your attention. Or is that the wind blowing the tip of a tree branch against the door?
I haven’t written this book. I’ve gathered fragments across a few thousand mornings during which my body and brains felt susceptible.
During which my body and brains succumbed to. Years of astonishing porousness, during which i have wondered: do i have a soul.
Do I have a mind. Is this love that is dissolving me. And is my soul the bomb that landed
at the center of my torso, exploding—the sternum of this book.
This book that has sputtered out of holes, across many years, during which I was interrupted every few seconds, I. 
Good morning love. Come here.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (21)
In the company of her boy children Vap describes her face or their faces as “soulface.” She’s searching for the soul touch of others, the deepening of her own:

I cannot know what the salmon just accomplished, across time.
I have always associated the human soul with dwindling. 
I have always associated the human soul with a fire burning in a small cabin in the middle of the woods—snow piled up all around. An ocean not too far away.
I have always associated the human soul with a woman sitting in that cabin at her computer, trying to write a poem about winter. A baby nursing on her lap while she types with one hand. Another tiny boy plays with something behind her, and he is talking to her. (115-116)
A dwindling, a fire burning, snow piling, an ocean not too far away. I think of soulfulness as hyper-presence in which you attend to multiple motions at once, what’s before you and behind you and around you and far away, across space-time. Things recede, push forward, pile up, melt. Forever gone. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” It’s not one drone—it’s many. What emerges has already existed before it’s entered our perceptual field. “And some kind of animal, the whole time—it was moaning all around me” (37). We may have set something in motion without understanding exactly what it is, or even if we do understand, we can’t exactly grasp the quality of its motion, its speed, its pathways, its trajectory.

Emergence signifies a kind of connective motion, from invisible to visible, from beyond reach to within reach. I look behind the couch cushions and notice three more balled-up socks that smell like Limburger cheese, which is mainly produced in Germany. There is so much happening we cannot see that eventually makes its way. A knotty contradiction, an insight around origins and impacts, an inevitable, mysterious act—“Oh my fucking god we are sitting on the floor in the sunshine coming through the window and the glare of the snow is blinding us and I am scratching his itchy stinky little foot and we are smiling so hard” (111)—a shift in tone or sound (or even just much more of what has been building, amplification of what’s there already, a language moment expressing irrevocability, there’s no going back—“Why do we want to look inside of each other. / What does it mean to be, or to remain, intact—. / When my sons were inside of me—they were entirely inside of me. / When my sons were inside of me—they did open their eyes” (163)—we readers ride through the velvet folds of language, words, the blank-space horizon, everybody’s and nobody’s, and there’s Grandma and those napkin holders she kept in the bottom drawer, wooden rings engraved with skeletal fern fronds. An emergence flickers on like a ghost, expands and deepens, tree roots spreading in every direction, closer to the core. Reticent and ignitable, connected to the body’s incessant motion, even beyond living, into death, to becoming something. 

The writing makes Vap something, takes Vap someplace else, many other places:
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Christmas Disassociation 
The baby burrows himself back into my body like when I was little, and I buried myself in the snow. 
The baby pinches and holds onto skin of my arm like when I was little, and her brother grabbed at. 
When I was little, and he wiggled his fingers and his tongue at her each day when he drove them to and from school, and her other brother just. 
When I was little, and her oldest brother sniffed the air each time they passed a particular house as he drove the three of them to and from school. 
He said I smell pussy and he sniffed. He sniffed the air and said pussy every day when they passed the house, because a high school girl lived in that house. 
When I was little, and her brother turned to look at her in the back seat while he was still driving the car, and he sniffed the air to see what her reaction would be. 
Or turned toward her in the back seat to stick out his tongue and wiggle it at her slowly and he was still driving the car, but he wasn’t looking at the road he was looking at her.  
When I was little and he wasn’t looking at the road, instead he was looking at her in the back seat and. 
He was looking at her to scare her.  
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (96)
Nesting inside the narrator’s perception of her baby pressing into her back is a memory of her older brother’s violent speech, his hurtful behavior. As her baby touches her skin, the narrator splits or dissociates, becomes “she,” recalls this memory that emerges over the course of seven prose paragraphs bit by bit. Imagine the drones flying, a swarming or whooshing sound. Imagine robotic claws like earwig pincers. Imagine a young man not much older than my 15-year-old son focused on a screen inside a dark room, his hand on a joystick, the drone’s pincers opening to release an explosive device and then imagine a family sitting around the kitchen table eating a meal, lentils and greens, a child reaching for the butter and knife, the explosive device shaped like a rod dropping through the sky at a slant, the way a child often just learning how spreads the butter unevenly across the bread. 

The emergent emerges, commingles with what has already emerged, what is visible, consciously or unconsciously engaged, thickening or dissipating. I pay close attention to my surroundings, what is entering my perceptual field, what may enter the moment after the next, what is far beyond but headed towards us all. Winter. Winter’s coming our way. This imaginative and empathetic mindfulness gets replicated on the page, shows its winding, shifting, divergent motions.

Close to the book’s end, the most blistering section, the narrator instructs our President and the ExxonMobil Corporation how to examine their vaginas. The narrator patches together the language of genital self-examination and of violence expressed in the nomenclature, Donald Trump and ExxonMobil:
Donald Trump if you’re comfortable doing so, slowly put a finger or two inside your vagina. Those are your vaginal walls. If it hurts or if you have trouble, take a deep breath and relax. You may be pushing at an awkward angle, your vagina may be dry, or you may be unconsciously tensing the muscles owing to a fear or discomfort. Try shifting positions and using a lubricant such as olive or almond oil (don’t use a perfumed oil or lotion that could cause irritation).  
Vulva modeled upon the exchanging of property. 
Vulva of the prison industrial system vulva of water boarding vulva according to the logics of global capitalism vulva of disposable populations I.  
Vulva fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, also on your reviled point, vulva. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Donald Trump notice how your vaginal walls, which are touching each other, spread around and hug your fingers.  
Feel the soft folds of mucous membrane. These folds allow the vagina to stretch and to mold itself around whatever is inside, including fingers, a tampon, a penis, a dildo, or your baby during childbirth. 
ExxonMobil with my vaginal walls I. (197-198)
The “I” often emerges only to be halted by the sentence’s end out into blank space so the abrupt, emerging period makes your body feel the violent severance, the many selves cut off—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—that happens within the porous body, the body open and woven into many other bodies, the body paying close attention to what exists, what is emergent, what has passed through us long ago. The writing shows the kind of deep listening that leads you to the next step or move while making you aware something is coming at you. An effulgence is a brightness taken to an extreme. The brightness fades, always. Death takes place in my very being. I want to witness every incremental step of this fading. My son suddenly 15 years old, asks me to drop him off at high school, a dance. Four years of his childhood remain. His fast walk, the way he now hunches over slightly, especially when he’s wearing his hooded sweatshirt. Tonight I shall cook his favorite meal. I shall measure out each ingredient. 


Jay Ponteri directs the Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art. His book Wedlocked won the Oregon Book Award. LOBE is forthcoming in Spring 2020, from Widow+Orphan House.