Ruminations

RuminationsHamlet, talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (Act I, Scene II). Hamlet’s body does not seem to be the problem. Uploading Hamlet’s mind into a supercomputer and dispensing with his body would only make matters worse.

Raffi Khatchadourian, in “The Doomsday Invention,” mentions the scientist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, “who envisioned advanced civilizations inhabited by intelligent robots (each encoded with simple, ethical Laws of Robotics, to prevent it from doing harm)” (New Yorker, 23 Nov 2015, 71). In other words, the robots would be eunuchs.

“Extropianism,” Raffi says, “is a libertarian strain of transhumanism that seeks ‘to direct human evolution,’ hoping to eliminate disease, suffering, even death; the means might be genetic modification, or as yet un­invented nanotechnology, or perhaps dispensing with the body entirely and uploading minds into supercomputers. (As one member noted, ‘Immortality is mathematical, not mystical.’)” (67). So much for immortality. But isn’t eternal youth the goal, a never ending Spring dawn, not to grow old indefinitely, like a wintry universe?

In the conclusion to his study “The Human Body” (1963), Asimov, trying to explain the primary difference and advantage of the human relative to other animals (and other life forms), focused on the number of cells in the human brain (a part of the body he devoted an entire other study to). “The human brain is nothing short of monstrous in size,” Asimov said (309). Monstrous in relative size to the human body, and the human body is no small thing, and, Asimov points out, “a large animal is less the sport of the universe, in many ways, than a small animal is” (308). These are interesting perspectives, to say the least. Will we be able to upload the brain but leave the “bad dreams” behind, in the vacated body? Is the body simply a room for the brain, a room the brain might move out of some day, for new digs? I don’t know if it was Asimov’s idea or his publishers, but the “The Human Body” was kept separate from “The Human Brain.”

Monstrous, too, the harm a brain might bring to its own body, in some attempt to escape, or bring to another, in some attempt to enter, particularly when disguised as a heart. To inhabit another’s brain for purposes of manipulating and exploiting its body, but only for a time, the body a motel room, a rental, a sentence fragment.

Orville Prescott’s January 21, 1948 review of Truman Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” (New York Times) criticizes Capote’s writing for its lack of “narrative clarity”: “Reality for Mr. Capote is not material and specific; it is emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries.” But how else was Capote to tell his story and get it published in the United States in 1948? Capote was not a beatnik.

“Should I get married? Should I be Good?” the Beat poet Gregory Corso ruminates in “Marriage,” his poem that ironically considers the choice between the mores of his time and the impossibility of pretending to be someone he is not. There is only one room he can live in, and it must have poetry written all over its walls.

Or, as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:

“Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Another room book is James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). The first person narrative concerns David, an American in 1950’s Paris who tries to satisfy a growing disparity between what he thinks he might want and be reasonably satisfied with, unopposed to society’s equivocal mores and arguments, and what he increasingly, as he crosses the existential divide of honest self-knowledge and acceptance, knows he needs.

Where Capote might have deliberately disguised his themes, Baldwin’s style is clear and realistic. Neither the brain nor the body are shrouded in the mystical, but the action is full of compromise, deceit, and betrayal. “Giovanni’s Room” is a rumination on love and unrequited love. How hard is it to love another as yourself if you not only don’t love yourself but grow to abhor yourself? Many men and women have tried it, usually to great disappointment. Baldwin’s David is honest some might say to a fault. He looks for expiation in all the wrong places.

Some of the scenes with dialog in “Giovanni’s Room” emulate Hemingway’s style where what is said best is what is left unsaid, as indeed Baldwin’s characters move in and out of cafes and bars like Le Select, a Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” old haunt, where Jake might have met them with a smile, and Lady Brett Ashley might have danced with them, the various merry but unhappy groups drinking and carousing through the well-lit but ambiguous Parisian night. Baldwin’s style is generous, almost absurdly gentle in places, beautiful in the way that unabashed beauty might cause pain. Love involves sacrifice. The body is a lamb, the brain a beast. Will machines ever be capable of human love and sacrifice? Wouldn’t the human brain, uploaded into a machine, simply crave a body?

Dog eared persons, categorized and shelved, used books. Ruminations. Room and ate shuns.

Lost on Me – Fables Sans Morals

Some time ago, a friend mentioned driving north on I-5 with California plates and being pulled over by the local highway patrol around Olympia. “In Washington,” the patrolman said, “we like to think of the speed limit as more than a mere suggestion.” Apparently, the self-satisfaction rewarded from this afflatus meant that all the more that was needed to restore calm to that section of his freeway was a warning. Was this a cop whose partner was a muse?

The first critical review of my poem “16 Tiny Camels Found in Wood Box in Garage Stale,” up Monday at VERStype, began, “Beyond me my friend! I love the first line but lost on the rest.” “Ah! fellow musician,” I replied, “we often get lost on the rests.” I had, no doubt somewhat obnoxiously, tagged a few friends on Facebook to bring their attention to the newly published poem. Why? We are surrounded by poetry. No wonder erasure has become popular. If poetry habitually obliterates meaning, this is because poetry speaks allusively. We might define poetry as what can only suggest. But must we erase ourselves out of every poem? New hazards require new signs, new designs.Do Not

To allude is to hint. To hint is to keep something hidden, perhaps from fear, or to play, or to tease, or because to point directly is either impossible or too dangerous (like looking directly at an eclipsed sun), or erases too much from the peripheral shadows. Maybe poetry is a peripheral device, necessary to navigate around meaning. A road sign does not have time to solve every ambiguity. Stop means stop. But after stopping, we can go. Maybe the ubiquitous Stop sign should read: PAUSE. But the idea (stop) is not up for discussion, for our consideration. But what does a bevy of signs mean? We are surrounded by instructions. It’s easy to get confused. Road signs are like poems; they speak allusively. But poetry may not be instructional.

Sign Stories.jpeg

But there are all manner of poems, and the function of poetry may vary with each poem. And language is an ogre whose sleep poetry tries not to disrupt, usually to little avail. There are a few one way streets in our neighborhood. Occasionally, a miscreant driver goes the wrong way, honking and freaking out at all the drivers going the correct way. That’s what the poetic experience is sometimes like – that sudden moment when you realize you’re the swine driving the wrong way down a one way street, the epiphany sending you up and over the curb, everyone honking and shouting suggestions. Every sign contains a moral. Poetry is amoral. The perfect poem traffics not in values but in virtues.

VERStype is a new venue devoted to a particular kind of poetry. How we say something is as important as what we say, and how we say something includes both shape and syntax, tone and style, font and CamelCase. Jazz drums used to be called the skins, and to skin is to zest, peel, flay. How do you do that in a poem? Moving toward a lyric that mobilizes concrete techniques to carry melody and choreography with images of surreal dream dance. “JAZZSKIN” was published a long time ago in the El Camino College arts magazine, Silent Quicksand. No quicker way to obscurity, my friend Tim quipped at the time.

jazzskin2 (1)

Involving “Involution,” a book by Philippa Rees

For years, science was an argument that believed nothing on faith. These days, anything might be believed, as long as adequate funding materializes. Matthew Arnold’s receding “Sea of Faith” may be replenished with research dollars. What the sea might be replenished with is up in the air, and anyone’s guess.

In “Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?,” Adam Gopnik (30 Nov New Yorker) explains: “The seemingly neutral order of the natural world becomes the sounding board for every passionate feeling the physicist possesses.” The subject is non-locality, or locality, depending on your point of view: the idea that we might eschew working at home and go into the office but without a commute. Gopnik is reviewing George Musser’s “Spooky Action at a Distance.” “One of Musser’s themes,” Gopnik says, “is that the boundary between inexplicable-seeming magical actions and explicable physical phenomena is a fuzzy one.” Gopnik looks at two other books, David Wootton’s “The Invention of Science,” and Thomas Levenson’s “The Hunt for Vulcan,” and concludes that scientists who suggest nature is wilder than we ever imagined “widen our respect for what we might be capable of imagining.”

Imagining extreme life made possible by large doses of alien DNA, for example, such as the recent genome sequencing of the tardigrade makes apparent. Or of imagining a thinking both qualitatively and quantitatively different than Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind’s facts based knowledge. In a delightful essay test-like answer, Mary Midgley said, “The Enlightenment has done a magnificent job of increasing our knowledge. The further job – which its original prophets glimpsed very clearly – of putting that knowledge in its wider context hasn’t been done so well. It is not a job for science but for wisdom. It needs more work” (“You may now turn over your papers,” 24 Sep 2010, Guardian). If you doubt that it needs more work or that funding must be involved, consider this, from Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Does the Scientific Method Need Revision?”: “I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?” Not that I’m a fan of string theory. As I said in a prior post, if Christo were a physicist, he would have enough string theory to wrap the universe. Beauty and elegance point to metaphor; what does physics point to? Without some extra-dose of alien DNA, it seems we’re trapped in the human.

Imagining more work for the imagination is the lure of Philippa Rees’s erudite tome, “Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God.” “Creation has paid a high price for science’s limited certainties,” Rees says in her Introduction. Like Mary Midgley, Rees challenges Dawkins, who, Rees surmises, would call her work “bad poetry,” where metaphor is the culprit. And the Gradgrind school of physicists like Hossenfelder might also ask metaphor to leave the room. Can metaphor be tested? Is beauty falsifiable?

The electronic copy of “Involution” is 947 pages, cover to cover, including copious notes, scholarly references, introduction, appendix, and afterword that bookend nine long cantos of free verse. If you’re looking for the gift that keeps on giving for someone who likes to read, consider P. A. Rees’s “Involution.” The paperback copy is only 444 pages (CollaborArt Books, 4 Jul 2013), but with the many references and notes, the e-copy might be a better choice because it’s efficient and effective to navigate.

A synopsis of “Involution,” or a paraphrase of its argument, for purposes of this blog post, might best be substituted with Rees’s opening quote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (attributed to Père Teilhard de Chardin). The stylistic treatment of such themes often results in alternatives to standard forms of non-fiction. This is true of McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”; of Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body”; and of much of Joseph Campbell’s work; and of Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space.” These are works replete with references, written in a mosaic form, non-lineal. Their form challenges the status quo as much as their content. The poetry is not what makes “Involution” difficult. Involution’s poetry is not a post-modern puzzle. In many places we find a piece of the mosaic that alone is worth the price of entry:

“It was all I had to bring
For words must pull against the grain
Shackled to their past
Employed in other houses, poorly trained…
Blacking scuttles, shining brass…
All marred like aprons with old stains
Or rigid in a tail and bow.
Unable to use a common tongue…”

But “Involution” is not an easy read. The seemingly protean nature of its narrator, moving in and out of italics; the mosaic history of science where each new discovery does little to complete the mosaic; the ambiguity of both protagonist and antagonist; the encyclopedic setting; the essential mystical nature of poetry; the science specialties – these all point to a work that is not meant simply to be read but to be lived with. At the same time, the book is carefully constructed, the layout accessible, the erudition softened in accessible notes and explanations. I remain perplexed by most of the figures, but they are helpful in the sense of being contributions to a new language form. I was initially a bit put off by the title, feeling no particular need or want for any kind of reconciliation, too cynical, I guess, but the title is true to the content; still, it gives little clue to the enjoyment of the reading experience.

Sometimes, books are discovered by an unintended audience. How we say something is every bit as important as what we say, maybe more important. And it takes a staunch realist to speak to every audience in the same voice. Likewise, we should read difficult books. I’ve been working on Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” forever, and he cunningly made it a circle, so I’ll never be able to finish it. The occasion of reading is also important, as important as the occasion of writing. The occasion of “Involution” may be now for both Philippa Rees and her reader: “From whence comes this recognition of beauty, economy, and elegance if not from our internal experience of being part of it?” (“Involution,” e-copy, p. 492).

Two Hep Cats and Plans for the Day

Two Hep Cats Plan Their Day

Poem for Ones Who Know One When They See One

What W. H. Auden said
“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”
not modified in the “guts”
or on the blog:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”
so there it is,
no one need worry.

“Encore! Encore! More! More!”
OK, ok, settle down;
this is no time for pathos, but,
“Wild nights – Wild Nights!”
Emily Dickinson reasoned,
racked with want on the windy,
open sea of her dainty,

daunting room of gloom,
and who knew better even
than the audible Auden
how poetry makes nothing
happen, again and again,
like seizures,
and so I give you this, this wildcalm night:

Poem for Ones
Who Know One
When
They See One:

Poem for Ones

New Cat, Mew Cat

New CatHave you seen the new cat?
How could I miss?

Big cat.
And fast.

The new cat changes a lot.
Big house, zero lot.

So comes here.
Our lives will never be the same.

They never were the same.
What were we doing?

Waiting.
Waiting for what?

It’s what we do.
How does the new cat change that?

The new cat does not appear to wait.
What are we doing if not waiting?

Wait not, want not.
Want not, think not.

Think not, wake not.
Wake not, watch not.

Watch not, pine not.
Pine not, itch not.

Itch not, cat not.
Cat not, can’t not.

I am a cat.
That I know.

The new cat changes
not that cat.

New Cat Happy Cat

Privacy Poem

Where do we get this notion
of privacy?
Is privacy a value,
or is privacy a virtue?

If privacy is a value,
it’s simply a worth
we want, and what we want
is not always what is good
for us:
we want alcohol,
tobacco, and firearms;
fast cars with sound
so loud we need
earplugs;
instant accesses
to tête-à-tête boxes
where we spy
on our bosses.

But is privacy a virtue,
like love, patience, for
giveness,
joy of living, or courage
to befriend?

Abuse of surveillance
does not make a virtue
of privacy,
just as, as Ivan Illich
explained,
protection
is not the same as
safety.

But getting back
to privacy:
we want to be seen
and heard at the party
but not in the morning
when the porcelain white
face throws up
its image in the little pond.

The poet wants to be read:
“Read me! Read me!”
But the words seem so
private,
no way to enter
the text.
“I’m in here!”
the poet exclaims,
as if from the depths
of some Xanadu privy,
and when we hear
the roller of big cigars,
his call a private scream
behind a rude screen,
we know the poem
is finished
and about
to go
public.

In public the words squirm
for privacy, wriggling
across the page
heading
for a clear margin.

IMG_20151023_131339