Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The  Delicate Bird-Rib Frigates Of History

There is a fruity resonance

to these slippery antlers,

barely grazing the frozen lips

of sleep’s golden dawn—

its Raisan-Bran scoops and

spidery-handed Mussolinis;

its Ronald-Reagan headed dogs

frothing in an ecstasy

of garishly stirrup-horsed saddles

that corral circular carnival-rides

of abbreviated truths,

while people glued to beach chairs

sit motionlessly behind prosthetic

nose-guards and the tinted windows

of their own impenetrably dark glasses

clapping in tide-transfixing ovations

of quiet hysteria

for the backhoe operators

who lift gifts of ancient

and unspoken provenance

from black ancestral soils

in the form of two gigantic wasps,

encased in moss-tickled ice,

staring vapidly like a pair of very serious

but long dead fossils. Eyes

from the palm-heart memory

of a burning cycad

in the arbitrary horizon

of cryptosporidium greased

stromatalite drum-heads

vibrating like Miocene hooves—

silent ungulates grazing

in a tense meadow

of pissed-upon grasses

animated by the optical flutters

of tiny animals and fruit bats

coiled into scaffoldings of

dense, boughs and trembled

leaves; the night howling

of unseen bodies tumbling

across dark voids towards

the pheromone stink of sexual

partners and soggy tendrils of food,

all without the corseting lattice of words;

a braille spectrum of artifactual

residues—profound silences,

whose judgment of our own


is like the presence

of an immeasurable chasm

of mute-ivory tusks

in the museum atriums

of those antique places

where we go in our minds

to remind ourselves

that we are an entirely

new form of savagery,

loosed upon miniscule seas

like a 12-second hurricane

in a tabasco sauce bottle.

Scale-model frigates construed

like the tiny digestive organs

of small shellfish, through

carefully designed openings,

into menageries of delicate

animal bone; the private

and windless gardens

whose granulated petals

and stems and pollen-soaked

anthers form Lilliputian ships

destined never to sail

but to ride a glass

bottomed ocean, instead,

into an eternity of

fabricated memories.


JZRothstein(final edit) 8/14/2015

                                                         Transcending Genre
About 20 years ago I wrote a small cookbook called “Largactyles.” What made this particular homage to the universality of the culinary aesthetic different from more prosaic texts on the preparation of food was that all of the recipes were designed around imaginary animal and plant species. I knew, of course, that since the flora and fauna, which inhabited the hermetic world illuminated in my manuscript, were entirely my own creation, there was little chance that anyone was going to tell me that I was preparing them the wrong way.  After all, how could someone who had never before heard of a Baffin Island Spotted Mullex, possess enough information about said creature’s anatomy, temperament, and flavor when broiled for 35-minutes at 400 degrees, to advise me on whether or not my approach was correct? One would need to have some pre-existing frame of reference, or prior experience, in order to even establish a position counter to my own. That no such rhetorical space existed, was a reflection of the self-contained nature of the edible menagerie that I had constructed like some scale-model futuristic space vessel, nestled inside a tabasco sauce bottle: its hermeticism—wrapped in the familiar tropes and enumerations of the recipe book—was what constituted its singularity and freshness as literature.
Similarly, when one creates a fictional Mount Ararat, where an ark-load of sharply imagined beings—who have too long withstood the roiling global seas of one’s consciousness—can finally make landfall, disembark, and proliferate, it makes little sense to adopt conventions, pertaining to narrative, character development, or style, culled by someone unfamiliar with the small, largely unmapped, world over which such edicts are theoretically imposed. In other words, there can be no generic set of dictates that ought to control or shape the development of a self-invented universe—whether it be the purview of a cookbook, or that of some creative reimagining of a well-established narrative. It should be of little or no consequence that—as in the aforementioned ‘Largactyles,’ which remained unpublished, vested as it was in gustatory prose that concealed its true identity as a fanciful exobiological taxonomy—others may find the material esoteric or opaque. It is not the responsibility of an artist or writer to landscape her domain to specifications befitting the most uncomprehending reader in the room.
This same reader may argue, in response, that this hypothesis endorses self-indulgent practices that lead to solipsistic and incomprehensible writing. While this may sometimes be the case, it is also axiomatic that the imposition of conventionalized genre and narrative paradigms corrals the quirkiness of individual literary expression into small enclosures built upon the familiarity of clichés and stereotypes. Of course, such characteristics are not mutually exclusive or binary; like the architecture of a building, a story may be constructed of unique cladding and foundational materials but contain repetitive and mundane interior spaces, figuratively comparable to the tiny efficient rooms inside the typical military academy or community college.
Moreover, one may take the analogy even further by arguing that, similar to an architectural structure, a written narrative—of any kind—must adhere to certain basic laws so that it too can remain standing and stable enough to avoid disaster. To respond to such a hypothetical argument, I might point out that, even if a structure is designed for the pyrotechnics of a sudden collapse, this does not necessarily render it uninhabitable; rather, it may become a domicile for a group of squatters, or even an entirely different species. In fact, if fallen tree stumps, rusting airplane fuselages, beached houseboats, or abandoned apartment buildings in inner cities are any indication, the continuation of inhabitability can take innumerable forms, not limited to more conventional ideas that reflect a particular demographic bias. Even the collapsibility factor that often inhibits experimental narrative may be conducive to some, as yet, uncharted aesthetic that prizes those very expository, or extemporaneous, redoubts most likely to implode. Like giant stars collapsing in on themselves, and giving rise to the paradoxical specters of black holes, these counterintuitive practices may harbor and nurture innovations whose eventual development and form may be difficult to extrapolate rationally; requiring instead, the quantum cogitations of pure intuition to ascertain what cannot be arrived at through the misleading syllogistics of consensus.
One conceptual prism that may help frame this idea, is to consider the similarities between free-flowing literary creation and the a-causal consciousness of dreaming: both emerge from intuitive cogitation, unfettered by normative standards, geometric logic, or linear chronology. If one dreams of flying, for example,  a common enough trope with myriad variations, one’s exhilaration, or even fright, is not determined by whether the idioms preferred by the delirious imaginarium of the dreamer conform to a standardized index of symbols, or narratives. The dream takes its own form regardless. The oneiric  mind’s integrity in presenting variations on inner landscapes is derived from the fact that it’s raw materials—images, sounds, memories, conversations, events, etc.,—are internally reconfigured, contingent and not responsive to the conventions of waking thought, except in unintentional, often hilarious, or disturbingly uncanny, ways.
The oddly structured anti-narratives that often result are a rich source of ideas for artists and writers. The extent to which such raw materials are modified so as to fit the dictates of a particular narrative framework or genre is mostly a reflection of cultural assumptions about form rather than a transparent act of creation ex-nihlo. The distinction is important here, since I am arguing, counter-intuitively perhaps, that it is the latter that best reflects the unmediated processes by which the mind creates stories. Moreover, such ‘stories’ cannot be excluded from consideration, as a form of literature, simply because they are assembled differently than those that retain fidelity to the official normative codes that characterize popular genre writing. 
The crux of my argument here regarding narrative is that storytelling is a function of a consciousness freed from the contingent boundaries and hierarchies of consensus reality, which bears a close resemblance to the aforementioned process of dreaming—an art form that we indulge during sleep. The laws of physics and the dictates of western reason—Cartesian or Aristotelian—need not apply here, as the terrain is that of imagination rather than the pre-mapped ground of the known and often mundane world. This is the same metaphorical environment which has always nurtured the fantastic nature of mythic and poetic narratives. In fact, it is one of the wellsprings from which the oral traditions of many cultures and literary styles initially took shape.
Such confabulatory innovations, however, can often evolve, over time, into the simplified dualisms characteristic of certain quasi-historical romance dramas and action fantasies. This is not because such forms are inherently mediocre as narrative styles; rather, it is because their intrinsic portability has been conducive to their recent metamorphosis into transistorized e-commodities (although they have always been commercially exploitable forms of story-telling), which exist in a high-pressure market-driven environment.  It is important to point out here as well—despite my substantial personal and philosophical discomfort at the idea of materially reductive, computerized, plastic tablets and view screens as devices for the dissemination of literature—that the electronic revolution they emblematize  might be the most revolutionary innovation since the Guttenberg printing press, or at least the paperback texts, in terms of making literature accessible to millions whose prior choices were limited by the material scarcity of expensive paper products. Once one possesses one of these devices, it is easy to accumulate and read more and more texts, as they, presumably become more widely available in electronic form. In itself, this is a positive development, but the history of technological innovation never occurs in a pristine vacuum; it is frequently buttressed, jostled and squeezed by the effects of capitalism and corporate investment. Literature that does not command a large audience, or which is not eminently easy to digest—literature which, in other words, demands an investment of time and energy from the reader without the guaranteed sugar-rush of a hook or a payoff—is not going to attract the sort of market share necessary to keep it on accessible reading lists for long, although if someone makes the effort to reproduce it, it will surely show up in libraries, or their futuristic equivalent.
Of course, in theory, it is already cheaper and simpler to download almost any text; but, as with innovative domestic and foreign films—which, despite the appearance of hundreds of newly accessible cable TV stations, have now become more difficult, rather than easier, to access than one would imagine (although, in rural America, they are comparatively more available than they were, say, twenty years ago, a fact that is unlikely to be of help in locating Alexander Jodorowski’s El Topo, however, if you happen to live in, say, western Kansas)—the reality still bears out the market-driven truth of that  1970’s axiom, that “unless everybody wants it, nobody gets it.” This also seems to apply to the disparate, but predictably, commerce driven, subscription radio stations which claim to play every imaginable variety of music, as long as one understands that the term ‘variety,’ in this case, refers to that which can be categorized in accordance with modern notions of demographics, which are still too streamlined and reductive to be anywhere close to all-inclusive.
I do not mention this to be superfluous, but to point out that popular forms are commodities shaped by the pressurized dictates of the marketplace. Whether one defines the final product as a diamond, or an inert lump of carbon is less important than that it meet the initial entrance requirements for pre-production. Self-publishing has created an interesting exception to this, but only to a small extent, as it is becoming very apparent that individual sensibilities are still primarily shaped by the ideology and tastes of the marketplace; perhaps far more than the reverse dictum, which holds that the marketplace is a mere reflection of innate demand—a self-serving shibboleth of capitalism famously contested by TW Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and others, over 50-years ago, and then apparently forgotten. After all, who still reads books by Frankfort School philosophers these days—intellectuals? And, more importantly, who will read them on a plastic alloy tablet? Similarly, the long-standing trend of serializing story-telling into pre-chewed and digestible chunks, has been transformed—through the alchemy of contemporary marketing techniques—into pre-branded sound-bites and clichés that often replace nuance with the stuff of made-for-TV movies, or video-game style action-pix. That so much of this material can comfortably coexist with high-tech cities of disneyfied marketing slogans and aphorisms has only facilitated the further compartmentalization of such practices into empirically indexed categories.
Similarly, the conventionalization of writing into codified genres, techniques, argots and glossaries, creates the false impression of an artistic process transformed into a series of recipes, whose preparation is, at best, guided, determined and judged by so-called ‘experts’, and at worst reduced to mere catechism, or a mundane enumeration of by-laws and rules. Some of this is attributable to the exigencies and demands of the marketplace, but just as often it is fobbed off as a standardized set of literary codes that cannot be transgressed.
I am not trying to imply here, that human beings exist inside of an ontological or existential vacuum. We all swim in the complex currents of a shared language, although the act of writing, like its corollary in thought itself, is a solitary practice. This does not mean that it must be solipsistic, but its range of available expression does often extend to the rugged unmapped territories of the extremely personal and quirky. It is this broadened spectrum of possible literary expression that must be taken into account when analyzing or perusing narratives that refuse to conform to the stylistic adaptations demanded by genre writing, and its attendant gatekeepers.
In order to transcend the mind-set that often locks individual writers into a geosynchronous orbit around the unchanging moon-face of conventionalized literary formats, one must first attain an adequate escape velocity. In this particular context, this idiom refers to the necessity of re-conceptualizing one’s ideas about what constitutes literature—specifically, the boundaries that define its limits. This reconsideration of paradigmatic assumptions, often leads writers to examine their most basic assumptions about the functions of individual words as carriers of discrete meanings previously thought to be irreducible entities. These entities often reveal levels of ambiguity that are problematized by the way in which socially transmitted ideologies encode words with layers of residual meanings that alter the function of larger narratives. This may inspire writers to experiment with the very ways in which they present stories, as a method of trying to free the narrative of vestigial residues that falsify and distort storytelling by polluting it with ancillary meanings imposed on it from its appropriation as a vehicle to canonize cultural ideology.
Even narratives that are opaque can provide a visceral set of associations that are not always apparent from a cursory reading. For example, the texture of language as a spatial-auditory design element, introduces new possibilities even when a text resists casual interpretation. The incomprehensible nature of such texts, often acts as a catalyst for discovering new modes of conceptualization. This includes, words as texture, composition and sound; narrative as the intuitive investigation of molecular idioms metamorphosing into supra mnemonic disseminators of entropic processes. In other words, meaning can often translate into the language of the visual or tactile. I am of course, speaking metaphorically here, reducing words to actual concrete entities in order to make a point regarding the tendency of all metaphors to collapse into a kind of tone poetry. In doing so, the word is transformed into an object of almost physical contemplation, replacing metaphor, temporarily, with a dynamic form of invocation which sculpts the language into something resembling a poetics of pure sound and feeling..
Even if the text is confined to the realm of a visual surface that vouchsafes no glimpse of its interior meanings, one can still read it as if it were the outer skin layer of an exotic tropical aquatic animal. In this scenario, the reader, beholder, translator—even the author—can act as a marine dermatologist, of sorts, scanning the epidermis for signs of parasite bites, barnacles and lesions from shark attacks; examining the way that it covers and connects the rest of the textual body, while extrapolating the shape of a barely visible musculature and skeletal structure residing beneath the unitard of flesh. Such practices must allow for the variations that render all morphological truths—and that includes analogies as well, even mine—porous and insufficient, since the structural characteristics of cephalopod bodies are distinct from those of most chordates, which, in turn, are dissimilar to nematodes, gastropods and jellyfish. Of course, the more one is willing to generalize, the more likely that an accurate heuristic, or rule-of-thumb, can be established; but such generalizations should never be literally confused with the reality that they refer back to.
One must also keep in mind that even the most well respected hypothesis can collapse in the face of a new configuration, simply because of a shift in criterion. This has often been seen periodically in the realm of the sciences, and is doubly true in the more evaluative and aesthetic province of the arts, where the sliding geological plates of value and import are constantly being reassessed in light of new perspectives often arising from transgressions that are later codified as elements of a new canon. These canons can quickly harden into the eternal verities of convention if their foundations are not continually irrigated with a healthy flow of debate and doubt. Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed that every twenty years or so, “the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of patriots,” by which he meant that revolutions must be periodically infused with new vitality, lest they fossilize and become rigid and unresponsive to the body politic. Such metamorphic shifts also need to occur in the contingent realm of the arts, where regimes of taste and style can quickly become as oppressive as they develop into the orthodoxies of ideology, and just as incommensurable with the experiences of artists and writers.
The problem is that all revolutions—whether springing from a Great Leap Forward, the Storming of a Bastille or new manifestos establishing, once-and-for-all, the tone of the latest  wrinkle in identity politics— invariably transform the open possibilities of change into the regurgitated dogmas of the new and improved, but just as ossified, paradigms that they engender. Literature has never thrived under the rigid conditions imposed by reformers, any more than it has blossomed when treated as a modular, segmented thing. It cannot be thrust into the role of some expository equivalent to an actuary table, or the humanist’s precision watch mechanism; it cannot be asked to function predictably, as it does not obey the same laws that apply to machines or objects of empirical measurement. A good story is too organic, mutable and unexpected—too fragmented and uncanny—to remain vital under the watchful regimes imposed by the various gatekeepers of proper form. Rather than express itself through the rigid dress codes enforced upon it by the arbitrary dictums of paramaterization, it must perpetrate subterfuge, bribery, even a daring moonlit escape, in order to preserve its verity.
Of course, the real trick here is to get past the idea that literature must be cast in stone as a standardized schematic of rhetorical calligraphy, and infuse it instead with all of the things that make it a human artifact. By this I do not mean that storytelling must aspire to the conventions of last years’ fantasy sagas, or those parables constructed to fit the dimensions of a flat-screen television monitor; rather,  it must retain the integrity of its creative origins. This means that, regardless of its resemblance to those forms put forth as natural models, it need not flatter any conception of truth but its own. In other words, the honesty of the work is inherent in the extent to which it cleaves to the intentions of its creator, not the extent to which it blends with some previous vision, even if that vision was invoked the day before, by a respected fellow writer utilizing a similar set of ingredients. Every story must speak by itself, for itself, and not for any larger symbolic association. Existence must precede essence, to quote a familiar existential axiom; to do otherwise, is to turn literature into flat, serialized anecdote; to defang it, like a drugged South American viper in a glass enclosure; or to suit it up in identical tweeds, next to others of its ilk, like the mop-tops gracing an early Herman’s Hermits album cover photo; or, perhaps even to reimagine it as a carved effigy, stiff and wooden, an object to channel the humor of ventriloquists, and to edify small children performing in grammar school talent shows.
My point is not to attack individual examples of a genre; or even to make some blanket statement that such writing lacks literary merit. In fact, much of it is quite good. My argument is with the imposition of criterion and categories that are invariably placed before the very characteristics that often indicate a story of interest. When applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion, such criterion becomes burdensome, precisely because it is imposed arbitrarily, in reference to an index of prerequisites. This type of approach conceals the reader’s view of the story in question, by framing it against a background of prior works, which often appear authoritative and canonical as a result of having defined a new standard for a given type of literature at some point in the past.
The paradox this suggests is twofold; firstly, all genres are essentially historically contingent forms, meaning that they evolved from transgressions against previously existing paradigms, into the conventionalized styles that reflect the ideal framework of their current state. Secondly, genres exist in relation to an odd sort of creative tension, or dialectic; this dialectic, reflects the fact that genres are expected to remain consistent—in other words, they are defined by certain recognizable characteristics—but at the same time must be somewhat dynamic in order to continuously develop narratives of interest. In other words, they must periodically redefine old mantras, while remaining marketable to a fan base that tends to favor the familiar reaffirmations of existing themes. Moreover, it is often a truism that the most inventive examples of these forms are by their very nature too innovative to remain part of their parent genre; and for this, they are often symbolically ostracized or punished.
The problem here, however, is that well-nourished art is not qualitatively synonymous with, say, a well-nourished rhinoceros; the latter is expected to grow over time into a fatter version of itself, whereas the former can be expected, inevitably, to transgress the rigid ontological structure that has been imposed upon it, presumably by canons originating from an entirely different order of experience. This is because the categories that are applied to aesthetics—and most other forms of conscious human activity—are incommensurable with the more static categories that are employed to define the speciation and physical growth of everything from biological organisms to the behavior of subatomic particles, planets and entire galaxies. Since literature is a creation of human consciousness, there are very few laws that can be applied to its overall character that are not also generalizations. And, since acts of individual creation are subject to the very quirks and eccentricities intrinsic to all forms of aesthetic cultural production—say, as opposed to the quantifiable art of the actuary table or the proper recipe for an influenza vaccination—they rarely exist comfortably within the fixed boundaries that evolve over time to shape and contain them.
 In ascribing what are, essentially, categories of being, to the products of the imagination, we are all indulging a well-documented human proclivity to impose patterns and meaning over the arbitrary nature of existence. This is not something confined to literature, as any casual observation of the larger culture reveals; western civilization has distinguished itself by an aggressive proclivity for encapsulating almost every identifiable manifestation of everything it touches within the rubric of some form of taxonomy. These taxa comprise the molecular constituents for even larger groupings, which are themselves aggregated by the currents of modern thought into meta-systems. It all presents an extremely sanitized and ultimately ordered vision of a hyper-Cartesianized universe, one which transforms the chaos of nature into deceptively predictable probability boxes that are themselves wedged within larger ontologies. The entirety of this structure makes the world easier to comprehend, but it is an artifact of Western epistemology. Moreover, in terms of confronting the daily existential reality of one’s life, it is a bold-faced lie, and the only language that can counter its empirical reductionism is that of art.
Yet, all of the arts, including literature, are subsumed beneath the rising tidal surges of a market driven rush to coopt the world and partition it into easily identifiable sections. If literature is to thrive as a way of speaking a kind of truth to the experiences of its creators and audience, it must periodically break through the barricades of typology and free itself from tyrannies of style. By transcending the ‘natural order’ of hierarchies in this way, it can re-establish itself as an expression of verity, as experienced by the mediating voice of an author rather than the drone of the commercial ink-press.
Now, if you’ve read this far, and you think that you are confronting a polemic against science fiction, or fantasy literature, or any of the other myriad categories that have evolved into their own gated communities, you might want to use a sharper scythe to more easily make your way through the tangle of qualifying foliage that I have strategically placed in your path. What I am discussing here is not confined to a particular category, but is more properly seen as a sort of manifesto for those who know that the seeds of dogma reside in all manifestos. More accurately, I am articulating the problem with reducing things to mere nomenclature, as such titles are always endowed after the fact; and, paradoxically, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat, always remain long after everything else has been erased, suppressed or forgotten.
Thus, the balkanization of literary form promises a kind of immortality; but, it is, ultimately, the immortality of the trademark, the price code and the corporate patent. Like the uncountable plastic pellets churning towards oblivion within the waters of the Southern Pacific Gyre, the numerous offspring of genre branding will continue to exist long past the point at which their collective readership has disappeared, or perhaps evolved into something else. While their existence for a long time to come seems assured, they will always remain granulated nodules, occasionally mistaken for fish food or bird seed, but rarely considered otherwise. This will constitute a tragedy of misrepresentation, rather than of outright censorship, for lurking within the husks of a generic packaging will be the makings of many great works of literature that have been living under false identities and suppressing the very qualities that ought to make them exceptional examples of the art.
JZRothstein (completed and edited draft) 6/10/2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New York


I know something about quahogs whelks and clams

here by the shell middens the rocky crust of the world

pushed out of the bowels of its flowering schist’s to make way for the pine

oak chestnut hemlock hickory willow and elm

but we are ancient and the shore is far away

a lip of stretched deer hide wrapped ‘round undergirded reefs of bright stone

upon which we ride the skinned barks of our intrepid souls

down the edge of the deep river lined with nesting piles of rock

cribbed like the woven oyster lattices astride the bay

and singing 10,000 years of a great city to rise on this spot

further away than any of us could ever walk

congealing like the shell heaps along the coves

into giant ruins of green moss covered chalk.


JZRothstein (final edit) 2/5/2014