is spread out evening when: on sarah dowling’s line

Friday night over dinner Carolina and I were discussing Sarah Dowling’s new book, Security Posture, which was recently published by Snare Books in Montreal. Sarah’s book is the winner of the 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, an award for emerging Canadian writers. Originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, Sarah now lives in Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, Chris & Jenn McCreary published some of Security Posture in the most recent Ixnay Reader. That excerpt really interested me, so it’s great to read the work in its entirety now that the book is here. I should say, by the way, that the size and feel of the book is fantastic, too. It’s small enough to fit within a pocket, and the blue, black, and white of the cover is sharply done.

In the conversation with Carolina, I had mentioned to her that I found myself reading the book quite fast the first time around. Once finished, I immediately began again until about halfway through. I can’t remember what stopped me from going all the way to the end this second time. Perhaps tired eyes, or an interruption, but no matter, really. Part of the reason why I read fast was because the book moves, I mean really moves. Sarah has such a strong sense of the line, particularly the short line. Her skill in this regard is especially interesting because the book deals with erasure in many ways. That is to say, the book is filled with repetition, but it’s fractured repetition. Or, as Jena Osman puts it in a blurb “[the poem] takes on adaptive choreographies.” I put in the word “poem” where Osman actually says “we,” but it seems a fair enough leap to suggest the we is the poem. To choreograph short lines the way Sarah does, it seems to me, would be a challenge, because how is it possible to maintain the sense of the rhythm when words are vanishing? Sarah makes it happen. The book’s title, Security Posture, certainly indicates what Charles Bernstein says in his blurb when he writes: “In these exquisitely reserved poems, the relation of person to body, stare to reflection, touch to sight is incised in a poetic dry point that cuts deep.”

What follows is an excerpt from pages 38 - 40, which is roughly the middle of the book. It’ such an amazing moment, which is why I want to emphasize it here, but it’s also the reason why I feel I shouldn’t do so. Admittedly, I take the selection out of its context, but as I’ve said, I’m particularly interested in Sarah’s adeptness with the line, and this selection demonstrates that understanding. Perhaps you ought to check it out for yourself. I will reproduce the excerpt here and you should check it out, how about that? One last note, where you read [page break] is my insertion to clarify where the pages break, and therefore where lines and stanzas break, too.

from Security Posture

sky, the against
is spread out evening when
I turn over
there I turn
myself, like

soft white walls
you are my assurance
you, everyday
turn, pass her delicate may I

pool I leave it
turn you’re what
like stones f
the against like

[page break]

like against the
f stones like
what you’re turn
it leave I pool

I may delicate her pass, turn
everyday, you
my response are you
walls white soft

like, myself
turn I there
over turn I
when evening out spread is
against the, sky

[page break]

f like f what it
I everyday, f my control walls
stones like, turn over when against

against stones you’re leave
may you are white
myself I turn evening, the

the like turn I
delicate you you soft
there I out sky



To Paint the Mouth Like Monet Painted a Sunset - On Bacon & Halpern

Head VI

     On Sunday morning, Carolina and I woke up early and got on the bus to NYC so that we could see the last day of Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For some reason, we hadn’t heard there was such an exhibit until Justin Audia mentioned it to us on Friday evening - thanks Justin. 

     Before leaving for the bus, I decided to bring Rob Halpern’s Rumored Place. Last March, Halpern read for Moles Not Molar, a reading and performance series Justin co-curates with Emily Abendroth. Halpern’s work turned out to be appropriate preparation for a day in the museum looking at Bacon’s paintings. An excerpt from one of Halpern’s prose pieces in the book, ”BESIDE THE FUNERALL OF JOHN DONNE,” haunted me throughout the visit: 

“Snap the fuck out of it he screams and slaps me rocking like some autistic on the bed. Each touch returns like a sentence can’t be parsed. Posts animate wrists. Thoughts spindle down from better brains than this compose you in me. He was gentle with leather. Power’s not a metaphor he says whacking me with the backside of his hand and then quickly asks me if it hurt. A moan rimmed with teeth buried deep in gum mimes the only meaning. Why are you always reaching for your wrist like that. To see if I’m still here. A soft chew floats the room in a nibble where I locates itself inside your mouth. So concentrated a location opens the flow in a bedpost or between. Where we is this brush this friction this abrasive rubbing of unfit worlds without which there’d be no fiction no love.”



     Fragments of Halpern’s lines above were reverberating in my ears all day, and Bacon’s work only amplified the volume and intensity. For one, Bacon continually works the trope of the mouth. In an interview with David Sylvester, and in this BBC documentary on Bacon’s work, Bacon mentions that he “always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” I think Bacon and Halpern suggest that the mouth’s actions shape the world, whether those sounds be, to borrow from Halpern, ”A moan rimmed with teeth buried deep in gum…”, or verbal statements from politicians and religious leaders as in Bacon’s Head VI (pictured above) which derives from his various studies of Diego Velazquez’s Innocent X (pictured below), the pope who reigned from 1644 - 1655. In both cases, the mouth more directly participates (or suffers) in systemic power structures, while Monet’s sunsets deal more with the powers in/of Nature. With this in mind, it’s interesting to see how Bacon’s interest in painting the mouth like Monet painted sunsets begins as an aesthetic move and becomes political after the fact.  

Innocent X

Innocent X

     To turn to Halpern again, “Power’s not a metaphor he says whacking me with the backside of his hand and then quickly asks me if it hurt.” As I was arranging that last sentence, I was reminded of a phrase I overheard another viewer say in one of the galleries — “I feel hurt by it” — but I have no idea if the viewer was referring to Bacon’s work or to something else altogether. With the violence of Bacon’s work surrounding me, it was easy to assume the viewer’s comment was a response to the paintings. In Bacon’s and Halpern’s hands the relationship between power and pain takes an inherent hue. But, Halpern, in “RECONCILIATION, UNDER DURESS,” the final piece in Rumored Place, unlike Bacon (at least the Bacon I’ve seen), points to a place beyond where we are: “So where’s this ‘rumored place,’ he asks, and I’m pointing out beyond the docks, out to rock on the horizon as if the thing out there were already in here with us, screaming — something I’m not doing — ‘there, O there!’” It’s a “rumored place” Halpern’s speaker points to, but it’s “to rock (italics mine) on the horizon.” I can’t help but notice the firmness of the rock when juxtaposed with rumor. I’m not sure if Halpern’s commingling of the concrete with the abstract in this example suggests alternatives to power, or alternative forms of power. Either way, the “as if” in that phrase suggests that the specificity of the “rock on the horizon” may already be with us, or as Halpern says, “in here with us…”, if we would only acknowledge it. Interestingly, Bacon’s work of the late 1970s and 1980s uses arrows, as in a painting like A Piece of Wasteland (pictured below), to focus the viewer’s attention on what’s happening now, because for Bacon, as an atheist, there is only here and now. To be clear, I don’t think there is anything particularly religious about Halpern’s work, so I don’t mean to imply that one can’t point to or suggest alternatives to power without religious faith. Rather, there is simply a difference in attitude towards social engagement. It seems for Bacon his work is akin to saying, “This is what’s wrong.” For Halpern, “This is what’s wrong. Is there an alternative? Yes, I think there is.” Or, perhaps my reading of their work is restricted by my desire for art to more obviously make suggestions. 

A Piece of Wasteland

A Piece of Wasteland

     What ultimately connects Bacon and Halpern, right now anyway, is their visceral response(s) to socio-political struggle(s). With that in mind, perhaps Bacon’s work does point, in Halpern’s words, “out to rock on the horizon,” but without saying, “Look over here.” Rather, Bacon says, “Look here, you bloody fool.” And by looking here, if we’ve a mind to look with, we should know the “rumored place” is possible, and if not possible, then certainly desired. Bacon’s 1950s Man in Blue paintings refer to a social criminalization of homosexuality in England. The notion of a “rumored place” surely must not have been far from his mind. So, for me to suggest that Bacon’s work avoids suggesting alternatives misses the point. In a painting like Man in Blue IV (pictured below), Bacon illuminates the hypocrisy of authority and masculinity as it becomes clear to viewers who are aware of the cultural repression of homosexuals that the painter is perhaps making a political statement regarding the lack of civil rights protecting sexuality. Bacon need not point to a “rumored place” because it’s clear from the suffocating feeling of the blue in the painting that an “actual place” is necessary. Both Bacon and Halpern are invested in finding that “actual place,” but through different methods of suggestion.  

Man in Blue IV

Man in Blue IV


Obviously, there’s a lot to consider in terms of Bacon’s and Halpern’s work, and I’ve only skimmed the surface. One thing’s for sure, as I’ve literally and figuratively worked on this post over the past few days, I’ve become much more conscious of how I’m reading what’s around me, and not just paintings or books, but the conditions that make up my day to day. As I write these lines, I’m becoming more aware how “the visual” works and how “the verbal” works. Of course, the printed word is both visual and verbal, but there are, it seems to me, clear differences in how a visual work makes suggestions, i.e Bacon, and how a verbal text like Halpern’s performs that same task. The visual (most of the time?) chronicles what’s here, and it’s up to the viewer to decide where to go with the depictions and ideas in the work. Now that I think of it, much of documentary poetry (Mark Nowak and Jena Osman are two examples) does just that. The verbal has a tendency (oftentimes?) to more consciously point to alternatives, i.e. “rumored places.” I don’t know if I wholly buy the distinction between the visual and the verbal I just made above, but I do hope to further this line of thinking, either here or elsewhere, about how and why visual and verbal texts work the way they do.    

Said to me at a party on Friday

For someone like you

who works with language

there would be no job

Looking for Capital in the Grand World

Helmet with Mask, Iran, 16th century, Steel, © The Moscow Kremlin Museums

     This past weekend Carolina and I were in D.C. visiting friends and Carolina’s brother. I’ve always liked D.C. because it’s architecture encourages me to think strangely. And it’s museums often have charged exhibits. Late on Sunday afternoon Carolina, Ben, and his girlfriend, Christina & I visited the Sackler Gallery, which along with the Freer, houses the Asian Art collection of the Smithsonian. On Saturday, another friend of ours, who suggested that we go to the museum, remarked that the Sackler and Freer seemed to him to suffer from an Orientalist tendency, one focused on essentializing Eastern culture - I suppose this could be said about many Asian Art collections.

     One of the main exhibits at the Sackler right now is Tsars and the East: Gifts from Iran and Turkey in the Moscow Kremlin. The first thing one sees when walking towards the exhibit is a panel describing and mapping the trade routes from Russia to Iran and Turkey. The relationship between these countries, as pointed out in the exhibit, is one that dates back to the fifteenth century. Near that panel is a Christian icon made from gold and precious stones. On the icon the word “Allah” appears a number of times. For anyone interested in religion this is hardcore syncretism. Within the same room, but on the opposite wall, is a sign thanking all those who made the exhibit possible. The most prominent and important name on that list is Lukoil, the largest oil company in Russia and the second largest company after Exxon-Mobil with proven oil reserves. At this point in the exhibit, it’s abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, what’s happening: a concerted effort on Russia’s behalf to encourage Americans, as well as any foreign visitors, to recognize the precedence of Russia’s and Iran’s relationship. It’s as if they’re saying, “Look, this is how it has always been. What’s the problem?” Or, as niacINsight, an organization concentrating on the interests of Iranian-American community, puts it, this is Museum diplomacy.

     I was happy to discover niacINsight’s positive blog entry about the exhibit as I was preparing my thoughts for this post because I was about to leap to conspiratorial heights! I realize now that’s ridiculous. Lukoil wants us to see their name and Iran associated in this way. It is what it is. So, of course the orchestration is overt, it’s meant to be. To miss the connection is to be naive, I suppose. The word “OIL” has long provoked suspicion in people, so it’s not surprising, to me anyway, that I was about to declare “Conspiracy, conspiracy!” To which all of you could reply, “We know. Where have you been?”

     There is obviously much at stake between Russia, Iran, and the United States. Just as the exhibit makes clear, the current tensions between these countries stems from the desire to possess, among many things, permission for trade. The nuclear problem fits right in there tho I don’t know how to address it within the context of this post. Am I already addressing it?

     I suppose I am talking about the nuclear to some degree when I think about the idea of Museum diplomacy. As Nikta Hathaway, the author of the niacINsight blog entry, suggests perhaps the “ancient art of diplomacy might be the way of the future. In the times of the Sefavid Shahs and Ottoman Sultans, customized gifts were part of the diplomatic conversation.” Hathaway’s sentiment is similar to what Carolina reminded me of during our lunchtime conversation yesterday. She said that the U.S. isn’t really old enough to know what a long term gift-based trade agreement is like where, by comparison, Russia and Iran know all about it. With Hathaway’s and Carolina’s comments in mind, I think Tsars and the East is an even more fascinating exhibit than I had thought when I first saw it. It’s as if Lukoil (Russia) feels the need to demonstrate that diplomacy is a specific process that can, and perhaps should, involve more than mere trade. It should also incorporate gestures of good will. To return once more to Hathway: “Valuable treasures were presented to political authorities in order to ensure economic and political agendas. The Russian government, in an attempt to improve relations with the US, has made the simple yet powerful gesture of sharing these historic artifacts with the Smithsonian here in DC.” Wow! Is this similar to or different from graft? It’s not graft, so how does one measure whether or not this diplomatic process actually works in modern times? It’s not as if these gifts are in the White House in the way that the Shahs’ and Sultans’ gifts were presented directly to the Kremlin. For instance, does Obama know that there are some serious Middle Eastern artifacts in the Sackler and that they should influence him? Or is the diplomatic gesture directed more at us, the regular people? Is this meant to educate us and/or possibly pacify our potentially conflicted feelings about Russia, Iran, oil, and the nuclear? I don’t know, but for an amateur art and politics junky, I am truly intrigued!


The Delaware River is a Zombie - Selections from Ryan Eckes’ Old News

As I said I would in my previous post about Steve Dolph’s work, I am posting selections from Ryan Eckes’ series Old News, which is one of the influences that Dolph cites in his brief statement of process regarding his poem “armed commando pursues and kills man on street.” Like Dolph, Eckes’ poems work with news stories as source material. Though In Eckes’ case the journalism is not current, but it is, by virtue of his poems, contemporary. In other words, Old News tests Ezra Pound’s assertion that “poetry is news that stays news.”

I first heard Eckes read selections from Old News last June at the now partially defunct Robin’s Bookstore. Afterwards, he told me that when he moved into his house a few years ago he discovered a stockpile of Philadelphia newspapers from the 1920’s in his basement and began reading them with fascination.

What immediately strikes me about these poems is the commingling of journalistic brevity with everyday vernacular. This combination naturally pulls irony to the surface, which I think is refreshing in an era when popular culture’s version of irony bombards us. Oftentimes, pop culture leads us to believe that irony isn’t natural and must be produced for us in the form of a sitcom. In turn, this manufactured irony makes it harder to discern true irony when we encounter it. Old News is journalism - objective and informative - but it is journalism written by someone who knows, whether it is 1923 or 2009, what’s at the core of everyday life .

Posted below are pages 16-24 of Old News. If you are interested in more, I highly recommend jumping over to Ryan Eckes’ blog where you can read pages 26-34 as well as listen to selections from the series.


The Evening Bulletin, Monday, May 7, 1923
Bluecoat Insulted
a postal clerk mistook a policeman for a thug
in germantown early today.
"i was on my way home," said Knox, "when
i saw a dark figure under the trees."
he drew a revolver and leveled it at
the officer, Leary, who seized  Knox's wrist
and wrenched away the gun. Knox apologized
and explained: "i have been shy of bandits
ever since i was shot in a holdup of a mail
wagon at 43d and Woodland a year ago."
in the back of the head
often i imagine a bullet will rip
through my head as i'm sitting
by the window at night or walking
down the street a fist to the back
of my head, always this small
expectation, a stone lodged there
from a single moment in child-
hood. what's your background. can
you describe him. every day i'm here
for you. i am there for you. every day
out of the corner of my eye the guy
in the median of broad street selling
the daily news, "the people's paper."
i don't buy it, ever, not for a  quarter,
not for my neighbor. my neighbor
clara blesses my tree, she blesses my
mailbox, she blesses my railing
which she leans on now, smiling
towards a neighbor up the block. does
your house have god. what does your
house have. can you see into the eyes
of the house. a girl waves behind one
across the street, then closes the blinds.
her name escapes me.
walt whitman
i dropped a quarter in walt whitman's cup
out front of the serv-rite
hey thanks man, he said biting into his
sandwich, slumped against the wall-
what're you irish - irish is good people,
man, good people - you irish, aint ya
nah man, i'm american, i said, walking
well, yr still irish - did you hear me - yr
still irish! he called painfully spitting down
the street again, offended, apparently
not walt whitman, not walt whitman
The Evening Bulletin, Monday, May 7, 1923
Refined Recluse Who Never Begged Found on Tracks,
Slain or Hit by Train
the "hermit of high bridge" is dead
his body was found
beside the pennsylvania railroad
tracks at wallingford
examination disclosed his skull
had been crushed, one arm was
cut off but otherwise the body
was not marked he never begged
for food and never asked alms
he was always willing to work
and when he spent his money
it was with economy
he was evidently
a person
of refinement as he spoke
english fluently and appeared
educated he fitted up his hut
comfortably under the bridge
with his books, stove, table,
lamp and bed he gave his name
as george johnson but avoided
all inquiries as to his past
despite his eccentric ways
the hermit held the affection
of many people for whom he
did odd jobs and gardening
townspeople say he had been
disappointed in love
if he were possessed of wealth
his garb did not indicate it
he wore clothes ofttimes ragged
and unkempt although he was
always clean shaven he accepted
gratefully the small coins
which were the reward
of his odd jobs
odd jobs
i have many hearts
one's a stick
i snap it over my knee
can't help it
can't help it
a big school
        publics you out
ironfist pounds a cloud's
all you got	so what
so what
      jobs    jobs    jobs

every 20 minutes
years ago you'd walk 20 minutes
in any direction
and there'd be another dialect
frankie tells rosanna
every 20 minutes no matter
what direction you walked
frankie's tone never changes
i can't tell
if he laments a more integrated
yet homogenized present
or if he prefers it
he whistles right past me
a conversation 
you said if Bush won the election again we'd move to my country, she said.
i'm not ready to move yet, he said.
if you're not ready now, you'll never be.
i don't know if i can move there. no offense, but your country's pretty racist and classist.
you say the same thing about your country, she said.
it's not the same. this country has essential freedoms that your country doesn't.
such as what?
such as freedom of speech, he said.
we have freedom of speech, she said.
oh yeah, what happens if i protest the government because i disagree with them about something? huh? i disappear, that's what happens. i disappear.
why would you be protesting the government? when do you protest the government here?
the whole way i live my life is a protest.
is it? well, you can live the same way in my country.
you don't understand - look, it's the principle of the matter. i need to know that i have that freedom.
this is why you are spoiled. this is why americans are spoiled.


dredging = jobs
the walt whitman bridge is no cheaper
than the ben franklin
lay on the horn all you want
camden is poor
you know by looking at the dunkin donuts
america runs on dunkin
the present's not a divider
the present's a uniter
you know by looking at the dunkin donuts
walt whitman is buried in camden
ben franklin is buried in philadelphia
and the delaware river is a zombie

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, May 23, 1923


LOST - Dog, male, with harness; white with brown spot on
       face & tail; in centre of city; answers to "Spike."
LOST - Bar pin with sapphires and Baroque pearl, going
       from 20th and Locust sts. to 12th and Lycoming ave.
       on Sunday Morning. Reward.

LOST - Brindle Bull. White mark neck & face, short tail
       large eyes. Red collar. Vic. 28 & York. Rew. Spirit-
       matter. 2230 W. Tioga
LOST - Certificate of Naturalization  No. 2, 400, 780.  Rew.
       Agostinho Antonio Barboza. 308 Pemberton st.
LOST - May 22. $50 bill btwn Widener Bldg & Wannamaker
       Store. Rew.
LOST - Black & tan female puppy. 5 mos. old. name "Gipsy."
       Rew. 3024 E st.