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Ian Brinton


Carl Rakosi: ‘inevitable quartz’

Looking at the historical position of the Objectivists in the genealogy of American postmodernism, Marjorie Perloff highlights one way in which they differed from the Imagists: they represent a larger aesthetic, one that is articulated by way of a shift ‘from the modernist preoccupation with form in the sense of imagistic or symbolist structure, dominated by the lyric ‘I’, to the form of questioning of representation itself’. Rakosi’s own comments about ‘form’ draw attention to the desire to avoid any notion of it as imposition:

Men escape from realistic limitations on the wings of an artist’s fortunate intuitions about his medium.

Yet what does form mean? I do not even know what it means to ask the question. All I know is that when I ask it, I am in the existential world and that it can only be answered there. The answer may, in fact, be the existential world.

(Ex Cranium, Night 1975)


However, form there must be, ‘for the formal properties of the poem, the very marks which distinguish the poem from other phenomena in the world, are the means by which it embodies conviction. Form, seen from this viewpoint, is not the mould into which content is poured but something captured or rescued by the desire to give materiality (or voice) to an occasion imbedded in the existential world. Thus, form, from this perspective, is the intersection of the desire and the occasion’. (Michael Heller). There is a drive towards a rational apprehension of the world on the one hand and what George Oppen called ‘the life of the mind’ as ‘an awareness of the world’ on the other.

Rakosi’s awareness of the intrusive ‘I’/Eye into a poem is made clear in a note made in his ‘Daybook’, published in
The Collected Prose of Carl Rakosi:

The emotions and the intellect mix very poorly. In fact, they don’t mix at all. They exist on different planes, and when they do meet, their tones clash. No sooner does a person feel something, than the mind butts in: looks, describes, interprets, denatures, absorbs, controls, encapsulates. Its wit and precision make it so complacent that it assumes it has improved on the original, or at the very least, made an even exchange. The trouble is that when it’s through, the emotion is no longer there, only an ectoplasm.

This is a fundamental problem in writing.


Or, as he put it in an ‘observation’, ‘The beauty of a tree is perceived before any idea of it occurs. Once it has, however, it seems as if the perception was the result of what is thought about it’.

A witty example of ‘a closed system’ is the four-line poem ‘The Romantic Eye’ from the 1971 volume,
Ere-Voice:

On the eight-thousandth magnification

the chromosome of the Chironomus fly

stirred its microscopic nebulae into

the figure of a Greek Orthodox cross.


The four lines of the poem present four consecutive components: the gaze (‘magnification’), the object (‘chromosome’), the anthropomorphic transmutation (‘stirred…into’) and the creative result (‘Greek Orthodox cross’). In his excellent article, ‘Be aware of the Medusa’s Glance: the Objectivist Lens and Carl Rakosi’s Poetics of Strabismal Seeing’, published in
The Objectivist Nexus, Ming-Qian Ma analyses these four lines in terms of the act of seeing in relation to form:

Their sequential ordering outlines the logical steps in a methodological procedure facilitating a conceptual seeing into that projects in and then extracts from the object a preestablished, hierarchical order at the sacrifice of that object. In addition, the power of the Medusa’s glance to see into things so as to magically transform all becoming into being is, as the first line suggests, entirely determined and adjusted by one’s desire or intention measurable in percentile, and any change in the intensity of the former or the degree of the latter will alter the end result proportionally. From this perspective, the economy of the Medusa’s glance lies in a circular movement, in its intentional and judgemental capacity to establish an identity by projecting, directly and immediately, from the eye (‘the eight-thousandth magnification’) into its prey (‘ the figure of a Greek Orthodox cross’), across the materialist middle, in which the thing-object (‘chromosome’), by virtue of being seen, is intimidated and subdued into servitude to the subject…


Strabismus is an affection of the eye in which the axes of vision cannot be coincidentally directed to the same object; hence, squinting or a squint. For Rakosi to want fidelity to the object through a lingu-optic construct which is itself not descriptive but prescriptive, not about the world but constitutive of it, the idea of the squint is attractive. It finds a neat echo in Theodor Adorno’s
Minima Moralia, 1974: ‘The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’.

The short poem, ‘Objectivist Lamp’, from the 1981 volume,
Droles de Journal, acts as clear contrast to ‘The Romantic Eye’:

           goddess,
                      ivory carved

Japanese

           lady,

hands crossed

           over breast,

holding

           on her head

electric bulbs

           and batik

lamp shade.


Here the lamp is perceived as an object but it is not aggrandized, as Rakosi would say. The absence of the definite article in the title, the ‘the’ which places something so definitely, leads us into a mythical figure of a ‘goddess’. But this figure has a lower-case ‘g’ and is only identified by the material from which she is made. The later ghost of a symbolic gesture in the lady’s stance, ‘hands crossed/over breast,/holding/on her head’, is driven off by the banality of ‘electric bulbs/and batik/lamp shade’.

Rakosi’s self-consciousness about the intrusive ‘I’ in the use of the ‘eye’ leads to the tension of many of his poems which lie between an anthropomorphically language-centred world and the world of otherness: ‘the soundless order’. As Michael Heller puts it in
Conviction’s Net of Branches:

The substantive quality of his work lies not in the things it renders but in this arrested quality, the shapely contour of interacting thought and emotion, thought and object.


‘The Lobster’ appears in
Amulet, the volume which appeared in 1967 after a twenty-six year gap since the Selected Poems put out by New Directions in 1941. The latter was the volume which caught the attention of the young Andrew Crozier, the story of which I have outlined in the last issue, in my comments upon Lorine Niedecker.

The Lobster

Eastern Sea, 100 fathoms,

green sand, pebbles,

broken shells.




Off Suno Saki 60 fathoms,

gray sand, pebbles,

bubbles rising.




Plasma-bearer

and slow-

motion benthos!




The fishery vessel Ion

drops anchor here

collecting

plankton smears and fauna.




Plasma-bearer, visible

sea purge,

sponge and kelpleaf.

Halicystus the Sea Bottle




resembles emeralds

and is the largest

cell in the world.




Young sea horse

Hippocampus twenty

minutes old—




nobody has ever

seen this marine

freak blink.




It radiates on

terminal vertebra

a comb of twenty




upright spines

and curls

its rocky tail.




Saltflush lobster

bull encrusted swims




backwards from the rock.


In his interview with Rakosi in April 1968, L.S. Dembo, raised the issue of ‘raw data’ in relation to ‘The Lobster’ and his term of reference comes from a poem published in
Amulet, ‘Shore Line:

A sunfish thrown back by a fisherman

lies drowned and pitching.

The eyes are white in death.

This is the raw data.

A mystery translates it

into feeling and perception;

then imagination;

finally the hard

inevitable quartz

figure of will

and language.


Dembo suggests that these lines give an indication of how Rakosi viewed the poetic process in general and Rakosi replied:

I think that’s true, though it’s not the whole thing. The first draft of what I want to write will be pretty much raw data that’s been changed around. Then I keep changing it around some more, but it’s still raw data. It hasn’t been converted yet to a…I would say a mystery changes it. I really mean a mystery because I don’t know what it is that makes the conversion possible. I only know when I haven’t done it. What is it in a person that doesn’t let him be until he has transformed an experience, certain feelings and observations that are related to each other and suddenly strike him as important subject-matter? I don’t know the answer.


Dembo suggests that ‘The Lobster’ seems to present raw detail ‘although if you look at it carefully, it’s not raw detail by any means’. Rakosi replied that ‘there are a lot of details here, but they’re certainly not just raw data, they add up to the sea, the mystery and coldness of the sea’. He was trying to project ‘a depersonalised something which is the sea’. It was Rakosi’s attempt at writing a poem without the poet! Dembo and he then discuss the poem, ‘Time to Kill’, which was written some time later although published similarly in
Amulet:

A man and his dog.




What fun

chasing twigs

into the water!




Young girls bicycle by

in pairs and plaid shorts.




A wind so soft,

one’s whole

back tingles

with cilia.




A gentle lake.




The sun boils

at the center,

radiates the zone

for man

and lays

a healing pad

across his nape.




An airplane small and flat

as a paper model

roars behind

the Virgilian scene.




An old man

tips his straw hat

down to shade

his eyes,

pulls up his fishline

and moves on

to a new spot.




The poor small

wood louse

crawls along

the bark ridge

for his life.


Dembo: The poem called ‘Time to Kill’ seems to raise the same questions. It seems to be giving raw data, objective description—though, when you consider it, the observations are clearly those of a man with time to kill, someone who is bored, perhaps.


Rakosi: That’s right, up to a point. This was hot summer afternoon and you know how everything thickens and slows up when it’s hot, so that one’s perceptions of what’s going on become slower and denser. Then along comes an old man into the scene, and I felt and tried to convey a bit of pathos there.


Dembo asks if there is a human subject, a perceiver, and Rakosi pointed to the difference between this poem and ‘The Lobster’, written thirty years ago: ‘I couldn’t have written ‘Time to Kill’, as a young man…I wasn’t related to reality in that way then…A lifetime of involvement with people in social work came between these two periods. This might make me a poorer poet in some ways because I’m not so completely subsumed by language as I was then. I’m equally interested in subject-matter’. As Heller suggests, Rakosi’s poetry contains ‘irony, complexity, a mordant hilarity, and willingness to examine the folly of the self and that of the community…underlying these is the hard classical commitment to the eye in its paradoxical function of orienting us towards otherness.’

In Rakosi’s ‘Note on the Objectivists’, 1969, thinking of the appropriateness or not of the term, he adds:

It conveyed a meaning which was, in fact my objective: to present objects in their most essential reality and to make of each poem an object…meaning by this, obviously, the opposite of a subject; the opposite , that is, of all forms of personal vagueness; of loose bowels and streaming, sometimes screaming, consciousness.


Donald Davie’s review of Rakosi’s
Collected Poems, 1987 refers to the lapidary quality of the verse, ‘the stony or as-if-stony’ and quotes ‘How To Be With A Rock’ from Ex Cranium, Night:

The explicit ends here.

          Outer is inner.

It is all manifest.
           Its character is durity.

There lies its charisma.


By nature it is Pangaea.

           It has its own face

and its own tomb,

           the way it stands

unmoved by destiny,

           a model for the mind.

We can only be spectators.

           All is day within.





“Go to the village,” I tell my wife,

“and bring back a chicken,

           an onion, a goose

and an apple

           and we’ll lie here

and repopulate this Siberia.”


It is in Genesis.

A strange god,

           all torso

and without invention or audacity.


It can be accused of both plutonism

and the obvious.

           The closest thing to it

is the novocained tooth

           its Medusa hair now fossilized.


It can be bequeathed to one’s heirs

with the assurance that it will not depreciate

or be found irrelevant.


Here Rakosi’s naturally exuberant and sportive wit comes into play: ‘What is winning here is how the very lines which describe the rock as ‘without invention or audacity’ are themselves both inventive and audacious, wittily declaring it ‘A strange god,/all torso’’. What also is evident is the quietly humane sense of humour in the leisurely call of the poet to his wife ‘Go to the village…’

The more discomforting voice within Rakosi’s lapidary wit can be found in the long sequence, ‘Americana’, begun in
Amulet and continued in Ere-Voice. Number XVI, ‘1968’, speaks in a way that is chillingly familiar today

Events suggest that the administration

has been caught in a rat’s bind

by its own rhetoric on commitments,

but the average citizen goes about his work

even when it’s his son

           who’s been sent home

in a simple box

           and left on the siding.

The underlying mood of the nation is steady and mild.

It shows a patience which allows the president

           maximum leeway.

Though the father says, “I can’t hunt anymore.

I can’t pick up a gun.

           It’s that boy.

We used to hunt and fish together,”

he is careful to avoid complaining.


In conversation with Dembo, Rakosi speaks about abstraction:

When you write about something as though it were a principle or a concept or a generalization, you have in that moment evaded it, its specificity, its earthly life. You are talking about something else. Really a different order of reality…It’s extremely difficult to present the subject, the object that has been the cause of your experience, in its integrity—and you, the portrayer of it, in your full integrity.


This concern with integrity makes it no surprise that Rakosi should speak of Charles Reznikoff in high terms: ‘I think that Reznikoff comes through in his earlier poems as a thoroughly compassionate man. He comes through as a person. When he’s observing something, you’re inside him.’

Rakosi’s strabismal sight which allows him to concentrate upon an object with one eye whilst focussing upon the object’s importance in the process of becoming ‘finally the hard/inevitable quartz’ will be familiar to the reader of Flaubert, master of ‘le mot juste’. In
Madame Bovary, the adulterous affair between the heroine and Rodolphe (masquerading as ‘romance’) is contemplated in juxtaposition to a farmers’ auction:

‘Prize for general farming!’ shouted the chairman.

‘Just now, for instance, when I came to see you…’

‘To Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix.’

‘Did I know that I would be escorting you?’

‘Seventy francs!’

‘A hundred times I wanted to leave, and I followed you, I stayed.’

‘Manures!’

‘As I shall stay this evening, tomorrow and the day after, all my life.’

‘To Monsieur Caron, from Argueil, a gold medal!’

‘For never before have I found anyone so entirely charming.’

‘To Monsieur Bain, from Givry-Saint-Martin!’

‘I shall carry with me the memory of you.’

‘For a merino ram…’

‘You will forget me, though, I will have faded like a shadow.’

‘To Monsieur Belot, from Notre-Dame…’

‘Oh! No, surely, I will be somewhere in your thoughts, in your life?

‘Swine category, prized shared by Monsieur Leherisse and Monsieur Cullembourg; sixty francs!’


As an early ‘Objectivist’, Flaubert wrote ‘D’ailleurs, la parole est un laminoir qui allonge toujours les sentiments’/ Language is indeed a machine which continually amplifies the emotions.


Ian Brinton


Bibliography:

Carl Rakosi,
Poems 1923-1941, edited by Andrew Crozier (Sun and Moon Press 1999)
Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi (National Poetry Foundation 1987)
Collected Prose of Carl Rakosi (National Poetry Foundation 1983)
The Objectivist Nexus, Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Du Plessis and Quartermain (University of Alabama Press 1999)
Contemporary Literature, vol 10, No 2 (University of Wisconsin Press 1969)
Conviction’s Net of Branches, Michael Heller (Southern Illinois University Press 1985)


N.B. This article first appeared in Tears in the Fence magazine, UK.


Copyright ©Ian Brinton, 2005.