Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Alchemist’s Mind: a book of narrative prose by poets, ed. David Miller

Come on, Graciela, Jeanie Jones whimpers.
A twig snaps, a car accelerates toward the ocean.
From somewhere in the shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot the singing of the mockingbird unfolds as in a dream continuing day and night – free of fate, since no matter how much seems to happen, nothing actually does.
Period – so there – it’s over – fini – the end – come all. (Lyn Hejinian, “Lola”)

I’m fascinated by the choices editor David Miller made to construct his new anthology, The Alchemist’s Mind: a book of narrative prose by poets (East Sussex, UK: Reality Street, 2012), including the work of twenty-eight writers from North America and the United Kingdom. His list includes Guy Birchard, Paul Buck, Vahni Capildeo, Johan de Wit, Lawrence Fixel, Giles Goodland, Barbara Guest, Paul Haines, Lee Harwood, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Robert Lax, John Levy, Tom Lowenstein, Daphne Marlatt, Brian Marley, Bernadette Mayer, David Miller, bpNichol, Will Petersen, Kristin Prevallet, David Rattray, Ian Robinson, Robert Sheppard, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Stephen Watts and M J Weller. As Miller writes in the introduction, “This anthology is intended to highlight the contribution made by poets to narrative prose writing since 1970, emphasising the variety, scope and singularity involved, and signaling that a great deal of the most interesting, unconventional and impressive work in this field, in the UK and North America, has been written by poets.” He goes on to write:

Narrative prose in the UK and North America is, for the most part, not even haunted by the presumed ghosts of “classic” modernism (e.g. James Joyce, William Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Andrei Bely, Miguel de Unamuno), let alone informed by an awareness of the living example of those writers, and most certainly doesn’t attempt to go beyond modernism. It’s more as if modernism never existed… except perhaps as something to teach in the academy. Language is mainly seen as a transparent medium, and literature (following on from this) is a largely direct transference of happenings, ideas, emotions, etc, from one mind (the author’s) to another (the reader’s), only complicated by questions of manner, ingenuity, decoration or embellishment, and order (mostly considered in a fairly rudimentary way, if sometimes “tricky” at the same time). Mimesis hangs behind all this like a moth-eaten curtain, and Aristotle’s well-made plot (with its beginning/middle/end) largely reigns supreme, even if a little chronological reshuffling may be indulged in, together with certain other ways of complicating the basic schema. “Character” follows the certainties of conventional psychology, for the most part. We are what we know we are, however terrible that may sometimes be (as with the fictional – and cinematic – obsession with serial killers, for example), and however mistaken we may sometimes be about one another.

I’m fascinated by the selection, although frustrated by the lack of biographical information on any of the authors. If the work is so compelling, why not let the reader know what else these writers might have to offer, or even what continent they might be from? Of the authors listed here, there are three (to my knowledge) that are Canadian – the obvious bpNichol and Daphne Marlatt, as well as the late Toronto writer Paul Haines (who had a posthumous collection, Secret Carnival Workers, a few years back, co-edited by his daughter, Emily Haines of Metric). I’m intrigued at what other Canadian writers or writing he might have considered, and if he went through any of the Coach House Press anthology series “The Story So Far” to help with his choices? The bpNichol selection comes from his Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography (Black Moss Press, 1988), which is apparently forthcoming in a new edition, and one of the finer pieces (if not the most fun) in the anthology:

Probably there are all sorts of stories. Probably my mouth figures in all sorts of stories when I was little but I don’t remember any of them. I don’t remember any stories about my mouth but I remember it was there. I remember it was there and I talked and sang and ate and used it all the time. I don’t remember anything about it but the mouth remembers. The mouth remembers what the brain can’t quite wrap its tongue around and that’s what my life’s become. My life’s become my mouth’s remembering, telling stories with the brain’s tongue. (bpNichol, “The Mouth”)

This really is a fantastic anthology, and part of the pleasure from going through such a volume is not only in discovering works, but the possibility for re-discovery, moving through a range of the familiar and the unfamiliar, including some writing that could very easily have been otherwise overlooked. For anyone interested in the idea of “poet’s prose” (something I discussed recently through reviews of new works by Roger Farr and Lisa Robertson), it seems important to work through a collection of what has already been produced, to help understand just where it is we should possibly go next.

Physical Description of Sexual Intercourse

The explorer travels over the beloved body, but nowhere does he find an end or edge.

When Columbus set foot on the Bahamas, the two worlds which God had cast asunder were reunited and began to become alike.

The moon unusually large and near. At times, the sea rises into the light and become incomprehensible.

The contract is definite when the man steps into the woman’s shoe. As long as the foot still hovers above the shoe, his body may still turn on its own axis, which takes about twenty-four hours.

What does my body want? (Rosmarie Waldrop, “A Form of Memory [abridged]”)

1 comment:

David Miller said...

There is in fact one other Canadian poet in the anthology - Guy Birchard. Although he's lived in various parts of the world, he hails from Canada and resides there now.