The following conversation is from a series of interviews Matt Corey, a writer who lives in New York, conducted with Mark Rudman.
Once the weather got nice in New York, working in an office got to be like an imprisonment. Fitting then that a dialogue in nearby Central Park was spurred on by the Nietzsche quote, “the prison house of language,” leading to the response, reply by Wittgenstein, back to Goethe’s attempt to reverse The Book of Genesis—beginning the history of man with action rather than “the word,” a few chance encounters, and final diagnosis on what actually motivates somebody to create. How to stay loose and not adhere to a fixed form or way of seeing, and conversely, how to avoid beat-like “babbling.”
In forty-five minutes time it was quite an amount of terrain to cross.
Matt: Why are the simple questions always the most difficult ones to answer?
Mark: It’s a trial right. You’ve got me there. It’s not always. But this brings me to a subject that is a perpetual torment. And that is something that relates to the indelible phrase that Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power – the phrase “the prison house of language.” I think that I wrote an entire book called The Sentence when I was about 23 in response to that phrase about being trapped inside language.
Matt: Mark, your mention of that prison house reminds me of a quote from a song of Bob Dylan’s I know you’re very fond of – “The Hurricane.”
Mark: How so, Matt?
Matt: The lines “now all the criminals with their coats and their ties / are free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise.”
Mark: “While Ruben sits like Buddha in a ten foot cell / an innocent man in a living hell.”
You make me feel so scholastic here. And that I should go see what Christopher Ricks wrote about those lines. Because I have a feeling that you’ve hit on something which is somewhat of a paradox in that these may be among the most imprecise lines that I can think of by Dylan. Imprecise and also stretching the case and I don’t even know that Ricks can defend an innocent man in a living hell as being poetry or of even being good.
Matt: I agree they’re not good. But I do think they’re effective.
Mark: I agree with you there. In fact the concept of being effective is one of those things that can release you from “the prison house of language” in the sense that you can be effective through action.
Matt: Doesn’t that bring us to the core of your philosophy that you reiterate time and again and demonstrate in so many of your poems?
Mark: Thanks, Matt, for recognizing that. It has been an obsessive theme since I, well, late in my late reading of Wittgenstein discovered that he ended his final book On Certainty as though somebody should have re-translated it and put a “UN” in front of it in some kind of double quotes or brackets to give a little winking pun to the reader because he’s writing on “certainty” that it’s a book about things that we can be sure of, or certain of.
Matt: But you’ve really taken that idea and moved it and used it, and really in multitudinous ways.
Mark: Prompt me.
Matt: Let’s see. In your essay — – you point to Harry Hotspur’s speech when he comes back from his first big battle and he describes it – you say that this passage points toward the idea of free verse which you also equate with action. Do you mean action as against meditation?
Mark: No, Matt, I think I mean in apposition to meditation. I think the idea of meditation and action and introspection and whatever the converse of that is – does introspection have an antonym? Among the greatest and most challenging problems that we have and also allow us to – hold on – the truth is, Matt, what I find most mind-boggling about contemporary – I wouldn’t call it “literary culture” but, you know, all of the disciplines that address issues of this kind – philosophy, or psychology, even poetry – I find it almost staggering that so little attention has been paid to this moment in Wittgenstein’s work but precisely not because it was Wittgenstein who said it but because he got the lines from Goethe and that Goethe saw fit –
Matt: Oh, oh yeah – you’ve alluded to this quite frequently. In The Millennium Hotel for starters, don’t you have a note to this effect?
Mark: I think so. I know that in the prose that I’ve written I’ve never quite managed to get to that place or that the discussion around that matter of action and introspection has somehow always been put aside because other things are more prominent and this deserves its own space, its own table, its own seminar…
Matt: Its own cable show even, right?
Mark: Yes. Why would Goethe go to such lengths to simply reverse The Book of Genesis? In Faust, I assume that this is not a moment of irony. I don’t think that he’s – he was capable of joking but I doubt that he was joking when he changed “in the beginning was the word” to “in the beginning there’s the deed.” And somehow the repercussions, are really, well, first uncountable, perhaps unmiserable, because we’ve entered a time where people resort to explanations. And shy away from talking about actions or “the deed” as if that that were a more shallow approach.
Matt: Well, it’s more on the surface.
Mark: I’m standing next to a young fellow on a scooter. I’m going to ask him what he thinks. What do you think is more important, doing something or thinking about it?
What would you rather do? Do something or think about doing something? If you don’t answer, I’m going to have to ask your mom.
Mother: I think they would rather do something.
Mark: Why do you think so?
Mother: Instant gratification. What is this for?
Since we’re in Paris, and having coffee in memory of Julio Cortazar and Simone de Beauvoir and some other of our dead friends, I think it’s appropriate to be in the street, the way that they would advocate and we’re sitting next to an attractive young woman who’s reading some books that lead me to think she may have more to say on this subject than you or I – “Israel and the Politics of Jewish Identity.” I don’t know what I’m going to ask but I’ll think of something.
We don’t want to take too much of your time, or interrupt your work, but maybe a fraction of the two minutes will leak into it or perhaps there’s some correspondence that sometimes happens. Because we’re both puzzling over why there’s never been much interest in the culture at large or you might call the intellectual culture in these questions – actually they weren’t questions they were statements – or propositions that Wittgenstein raised in his last book On Certainty which he derived from the beginning of Goethe’s Faust, where Goethe reverses the beginning, the sentence that in a way begins human history – at least from our perspective, however biased that is, in that he changes “in the beginning was the word” to “in the beginning was the deed.” And since we live in this culture where when people do things whether it’s the murder at Virginia Tech this week or some form of abuse that one of us has endured over the past few days or ill treatment someone is likely to respond not to what happened but to the fact that they had polio when they were a child or some aspect of their history. It seems like a rather crucial matter, and we just wondered if this sparked any spontaneous response on your part.
Woman: Um, empathizing with the perpetrators of violence, you mean?
Mark: No, the idea that there’s more emphasis on – in thinking and as I say in sort of the intellectual establishment you might say, the university, literature, I’m talking about language as an isolated phenomenon on motivations, and then of course the Freudian tradition carried through and diffused through so many rivulets. And that most of them seem to focus on not things that happened or might happen but on things surrounding them, circumstances or history – your own history – and I find this curious – the idea that the focus on the idea of an unconscious, which Sartre said, since we’re sitting at the d’ Van Gogh – he said that there can’t be an unconscious because it’s already conscious. Just to say that you’re studying political science and that’s involved with action. I find it a conundrum as to why this culture seems to be so involved in the matters surrounding things rather than the things, or the things through which people are defined. Which is not what they think or what they intend. If you’d agree with that.
Woman: I do think I agree with that. I guess I’m also a product of the culture so my response is I don’t know American culture, the intellectual culture, whichever culture you want, so, yeah, so I think the reason for that emphasis is because to understand any action you have to understand – you have to put it in context to understand the ___ of somebody’s history, their past experiences, and what they’ve been through, because that’s what shapes them, what determines how they act, so I think you can’t sort of understand isolated episodes without understanding…..
Mark: Wait, wait yes, I agree with that 100 percent. But I wasn’t necessarily referring to understanding so much as dealing with the reality —-
Woman: Do you have a concrete example of what you mean by that?
Mark: (to both of us) I’m characteristically drawing a blank when somebody asks me an intelligent question that pierces through the fog of my own more poetic way of apprehending things. But I can’t refer to anything that’s happening so much as the idea as say that Aristotle when he talks about the nature of theater and stuff that they talk about action, they talk about what happens and what you can see and what’s visible. So, it’s a little bit of a different twist. And you went right to the idea of understanding, which is part of the question and part of the problem. Again, but then I’m referring to something in an aesthetic realm, as opposed to, and that’s in a way why I found it difficult to address this because if someone asks what you ask I feel immediately trapped with a problem of it being on the surface. But then why would Wittgenstein finish all his work on this quotation.
Woman: I think the question you’re asking is why they talk about, they don’t talk about an action, they talk about the motivation, the intention so much, the invisible, rather than the visible…
Mark: The invisible is interesting. But that’s also more subtle than I was thinking…
Woman: Well, I feel like one reason why I talk about the visible is that it’s – I guess that if it’s distasteful, or some sort of morality, and morally repugnant, then we don’t actually want to focus on….
Mark: I’m talking about it though on any level. It doesn’t have to be anything with any baggage of an action that has anything dark or anything more than walking out the door, as opposed to not walking out the door.
Woman: I think if there’s any visible act it’s a manifestation of what’s invisible and that’s what sort of brings it to light and you can’t really understand it. However, I’m talking about understanding.
Mark: That’s brilliant. Do you think that it’s possible if an action – a physical action – is a manifestation of something invisible – okay – that’s much better than I phrased it – then the action may incorporate a totality of the thinking.
Woman: I don’t think any action can ever incorporate the totality of the invisible because it’s only a portion of what gets transmitted.
Mark: Only a portion. Sure.
Woman: So, I don’t think it’s….that’s why we have a metaphysical speculation because we know that there’s a larger invisible reality that we can’t comprehend. It’s incomprehensible to us (incomprehensible).
Mark: I’m the one that’s supposed to be Hamlet. Hamletizing…you’re the political scientist. I mean, yes, I agree with you I’m just poking into this and it began with that phrase of Nietzsche’s “the prison house of language” so that I think what Wittgenstein was doing was saying that to get out of the prison house of language where you’re trapped by expression, syntax, that action (in a sublimer sense) might be more of an appeal or a clue to some truth.
Woman: I don’t think it can, because we can only talk about action through language itself so just even talking about action is unseparated from the language and syntax and the expression; so however you make sense of it it’s filtered through your concept of language. So that to an extent limits even when you perceive an action, unless it’s through art or poetry where you try to break it down to language and try to capture reality (—-) but not expressed through the logic of language…then maybe….you have to express what you’ve observed.
Mark: I think that since I spend my life doing that, I’m interested in this other avenue or I’m interested in the idea of art that is in action, which a lot of great art is including Homer, a lot of Shakespeare if you read the plays, that’s more what I was thinking. Brilliant.
Matt: I guess she showed you.
Mark: She did indeed. Although I think that she was coming at it from a radically different angle than I was. I think that I meant it more metaphorically, or thinking more concretely about my own experience of people explaining away things, or using someone’s situation as a way of justifying or ameliorating the effect of what they’ve done.
Matt: If I can stop laughing I’ll go on because by talking about the “prison house of language” and all this business of action you make me think of Hamlet saying that “Denmark’s a prison” and then that nothing’s either good or bad but the thinking makes it so, which opens up the whole domain of subjectivity, or you might say, that it is a forerunner in terms of mental life of relativity.
Mark: Yeah, Matt. It reminds me of the famous case of Eliot and the essay on Hamlet, which is really quite a challenge to get your mind around, in the sense that Eliot goads us because he’s too smart to be trapped in a specious argument and in that essay, also by coining the phrase “objective correlative” and calling the play Hamlet a failure, an artistic failure, he issued an invitation to countless misinterpretations or misunderstandings of something that he may not have fully understood. I say “fully” because he did right his thesis on appearance and reality and the philosopher F.H. Bradley so he’d given a lot of thought to these matters. But I don’t think that Eliot’s domain was that of “action.” He was very much a man of the sidelines. Ultimately. And emotionally. Which becomes completely clear as his poetry develops and he gets to the phase of The Four Quartets where meditation replaces the inaction of his characters, or persona. If you think about it, the action in Eliot’s great poetry which you know that I hold in the highest esteem is carried out by the elements in some sense. Or elemental forces. Like the tiger in The Wasteland and certainly the great apocalyptic ending.
But to call Hamlet a failure is without question I think to judge it by a pre-existing standard which he invokes for his convenience at the moment. He similarly disposed of Blake’s prophetic books in this manner and I think he called Blake a “minor prophet,” something in that vein. Those books are immensely problematical and if he had used the objective correlative with regard to the The Book of Jerusalem he had a case there for it, not “working,” in the way that previous poems in English worked. On the other hand, the poem holds an enduring fascination for me. And maybe this leads to another example that hearkens back to the problem of this prison house of language because in a lot of the cases that have come up, everybody is in some way exaggerating or sacrificing precision to make a point. And every time that happens the language and the concept stray further from the truth.
Matt: What do you mean by “the truth?” What’s “the truth?”
Mark: The possibility of possibility.
Matt: Hmm. That’s…kind of an amazing comeback.
Mark: That’s because it’s not my idea.
Matt: Whose idea is it?
Matt: So, you have the passion for philosophy. You think in a philosophical manner, in varying ways, and yet you argue against what you might call, “philosophical poetry,” or fiction.
Mark: You mean, like “the novel of ideas” as well.
Mark: Once again I think I owe some of this to other minds. There was a renowned philosopher named Martin Heidegger who in one of his great books of the several of them I thought were great – many I haven’t read – and some I haven’t liked – but Heidegger makes a veritably ferocious argument against the so-called “philosophical” approach of Rilke in The Duino Elegies, as against the, you might say, realized potential of language and image that he finds in the poetry of Georg Trakl.
Matt: You mean, Heidegger didn’t like Rilke?
Mark: I think he didn’t like certain things that Rilke did. I would wager that he liked the ( —- ). I myself love The Duino Elegies. I really don’t think about them from an ideological point of view. A poem to me is language, rhythm, music, cadence, syntax, structure, and these poems have a way of moving that brings me to a pitch of ecstasy that I’m sure it did Rilke. I find them utterly exhilarating, like the line “when the wind full of infinite spaces / when the wind gnaws out our face.”
If Heidegger finds a line like that specious or even pretentious I couldn’t care less because he’s writing poetry. And he’s using a certain kind of abstract language because he’s nearing the end of his life and he wants to say everything in one poem.
Matt: Why do you say that you’re always surprised when someone appears to have grasped your intentions or subliminal intentions in your poems and especially in the books that constitute The Rider Quintet.
Mark: I think that that’s another example of a kind of imprecision – I’m overstressing one thing to really say something else that’s much simpler and contains all of it which is gratitude. I feel grateful and moved when people “get it.” And by “get it” I just mean get what I was after, nothing that can’t be expressed in a sentence, as in what is for me an indelible insight that Bruce Murphy made in that essay he wrote on Provoked in Venice when he hones in on the moment in the section called “Not Normalissimo” when the figure of the poet remembers arriving at a party in New York as a teenager, he’s living in Utah, going to high school in Arizona; he’s not really involved in that kind of community, but these are friends of his parents who were sort of in loco parentis for him who will be at the party and he shakes hands with a blind man who then utters his name.
And when I put the book together I put that moment in there wondering if anyone would see that this was it. This was what I wanted. To be identified. And again I was touched that the man could identify me in this way and also there was a tinge of enthusiasm in his voice. There’s an element of superstition in this – when a blind person, symbolically or historically, right? The blind sage looks at someone and sees some quality that other people have missed because he’s not distracted by all of the thrills of the visual field. He doesn’t know what kind of tie he’s wearing.
Matt: And he could be easily wrong.
Mark: He could be wrong. But I never forget when I’m writing these things that are grounded in experience or incidents or events that actually occurred just as Apollinaire said, that every poem of mine is a record of an event in my life. Firstly, it isn’t any kind of literal transcription, and second, anything that I write has to be seen as an act of invention and imagination. I try not to trick the reader and play games but it has to be seen that way. And curiously, a lot of people always want to talk to me after I give a reading about things that I allude to that appear to have happened to me, these experiences that are recounted to in poems. And I find that not so gratifying but perhaps amusing in the sense that how much it overlooks the totality.
Matt: Yeah, I remember that night at Cooper Union when you read “The Art of Dying” at that reading sponsored by the NYRB Classics, and you were reading from your introduction to The Moon and the Bonfires but decided to begin, since Pavese had committed suicide with a poem that dealt with that matter and alluded to his suicide along with Paul Celan’s and the semi-suicide of Jean Vigo and the actual and bloody, horrible and unspeakable suicide of your uncle, the director Herbert Leeds.
The Art of Dying
To the Suicides of ’50 and ’54
(Cesare Pavese, Herbert Leeds)
Even to say something went wrong is wrong:
you merely took control of your own death;
and what could be more futile than trying
to pin it down on some one thing, some
reason, a woman lost, some form
of failure, imagination dead.
You had had enough of the same
and somehow that absence grew
large enough to swallow you.
Not the woman with the hoarse voice.
Not the mayhem and slaughter
on the bridge at Remagen
Not the hills leveled.
Not the rows of hazel cut down.
The rye fields gone.
1972. The Seine. A bleached
summer afternoon. Paul Celan
jumped in and Jean Vigo did not do
himself in exactly but hurried
his tubercilli by shooting
L’Atalante on a barge in the hard
November rain. It must be
an absence at the heart, a hole that grows
until it swallows you up
until you are no more: it’s then,
when you’re already done in,
that you do yourself in:
every breakdown is a catastrophe
that has already occurred—
a burst of anger
is never sudden, the thing
most feared in secret
Mark: That was interesting to me also from a practical point of view – the way that I had suddenly become “the Pied Piper” and it ran through my mind later that this would be a good way to earn some money, reading and talking about some of these things. And if people wanted to see me as a “sage” of some of these dark matters, that I’d be willing to accept the projection.
Matt: I can’t imagine you presenting a false front like that.
Mark: I’m kidding. I would disavow them of any claim to any special wisdom or knowledge about these matters. At the same time, who does have wisdom or knowledge about something like suicide?
As far as I know, all we have is a heap of conjectures. Which pretty much categorizes the bulk of serious writing in all of these various fields.
Matt: How could it be otherwise? You don’t expect people to present answers or solutions?
Mark: Precisely not. But, what disturbs me is their resistance to phrasing their inquiries in whatever form they’re working in as questions. Which doesn’t mean they have to end their sentences or paragraphs with question marks. A question can be something embedded inside as an element of ambiguity that is an enormous question mark.
Matt: It’s true that Rider presents the idea of “riding” – an action or activity if there ever was one – and then you work with various permutations of that.
Mark: I try to…
Matt: And in Provoked in Venice you’re essentially on a journey and you create a situation which is inseparable from any concept of the poem.
Mark: How do you mean?
Matt: That the presence of the child, or your son, who was about ten at the time? Is always there, with the couple, who would like to do things that they’re prevented from doing, even outside the bedroom. I imagine you’d like to have the leisure to look again at the art that you love.
Mark: [I didn’t want to rethink concepts from five years ago. I wanted to dedicate this shameful and shameless bracket to Charles Bernstein who said that the best part of my acceptance of the Shelley Award for James McMichael, was the page that slipped out fluttered, and landed between myself and the toes of those sitting in the first aisle in the New School Auditorium. I am completely serious.]
Matt: Why haven’t you ever tried to write fiction?
Mark: If we add the practical point of view, I just haven’t had the impulse. It just hasn’t occurred to me that if I’d ever thought about doing anything like that, for example, writing something in the third person, something else has always come along to short-circuit that. Something more attractive. Which I would find more challenging in that time, which might be a short time. But the time I’m done doing that I’m always tired and need to take a break. And on and on the cycle goes.
Matt: And with your love of “genre” I wonder why you haven’t tried to write – very quickly – some kind of genre novel. Even on the odd chance that you can make some money.
Mark: I wonder that, too. I’m reading one now that’s so good and so deceptive. You know, John Banville’s book Christine Falls where he adopts a pseudonym of Benjamin Black and then reviews would lead you to believe that this was a genre novel written by this “very gifted literary writer” and always mention the winner of the Booker Prize.
I have mixed feelings about the book, but as I brought on, I can tell you that it’s only a genre novel in quotation marks, just as some genre novels are among the best works of fiction in our time. But not in a sentence-by-sentence basis.
Balzac didn’t write in a sentence-by-sentence basis, neither did Dickens, neither did Trollope. And it was hit and miss but they also did hit. It’s just in the nature of things that no matter where you start there’s always something that’s going to upset the “intention.”
If you begin as many of the writers earlier period of the forties like Saul Bellow did, with this sort of Flaubertian idea of the “le mot juste” you may succeed for awhile and write something superb where every sentence has that crafted quality and everything resonates and echoes but it won’t be like – as was the case with Bellow – where you want to break out of that one. And if you begin with a sort of unrestricted approach, say, your hero is Jack Kerouac, and you do something good, a couple of times, the chances are, unless you’re really an original, or a powerful imagination like Bernhard, or in his own way, Javier Marias, that impulse is going to die, too, and you’re going to begin babbling.
It’s something in nature and in the nature of imagination. That it doesn’t want to be treated and manhandled.
Matt: That’s a pregnant word for you – “manhandled.” There’s a lot of criticism of “manhandling” in all of your writing and an unmistakeable bias – which isn’t the right word, for the feminine.
It makes me think of that line by William Carlos Williams:
“The feminine principle of the world / is my appeal / and the extremity to which I have come.”
Mark: I can never say it that way. But Williams is certainly my guy and I would certainly agree that I share the exact sentiment in a somewhat different form.
Matt: Let me just go back for a moment to the notion of action in your writing. And your interest because Williams is a poet whose poems are mostly ones in which an action occurs. And in your own books, I mean you have The Bus to the Ruins where there’s an action and you’re in motion. You’re in motion all the time in so many of your poems.
The first poem that you published, The Dancing Party, is pure movement. Then the poem “Flying” which is in your first book is all action, or almost all action, until the ending where you discover that the poem is a kind of flashback and you’re in the dentist chair imagining all this.
In “Family Romance” your brother-in-law is driving and, as I remember, torturing your sister-in-law by doing things that make her nervous and torment her.
So, those are just the beginning works of yours. It seems to me that there’s a rapidity and kinesis that persists quite remarkably in a way…
Mark: Ok. But I’m nervous about the “quite remarkably” as if you were referring to the fact that I was getting a bit on in years there and that I should be more philosophical or something at this point.
Matt: In The Millennium Hotel you focus on an actor who was known for his actions and his movements. And the actor as himself, Lee Marvin, acts and moves in the poem and then the next poem is called “Gratuitous Act,” where there’s another action where a strange, tall Bahamian man arrives at your table and talks to the man and the poem is full of wonder as to how this guy on the lamb found you, found him out of nowhere. Of course, you wouldn’t have any idea, at the age of nine, as to how he got the man’s information or knew he’d be at the club that night.
Mark: Yeah, there was no sense on that lawyer’s face that he had any idea either. But I could be wrong about that.
Matt: And then you get into the poem itself, and you’re on the PATH and you have that sort of luminous walk that brings in all this radiant imagery, along the Hudson and the light. And the poem continues with poem after poem in which you might say something happens, something is always happening.
And then you get to “Motel En Route to Life Out There” where you and Madeline are driving cross-country on route to her exploring outer space so that the actions are enfolded within a metaphysical dimension which incorporates real hotels and motels that you stop in on the way, real gamblers at real crap tables where you pun on Mallarmé’s idea of “throwing the dice” again, in a more abstract way, and this continues up to the end when you’re in Mexico and you’re walking along and you see the moon as you say ‘round over a go-kart track’ a line that I single out of the obtuse comment that reviewer in the American Book Review made about the line – Dick Allen.
Mark: Oh, you mean the review where he said something like that the book made him think of someone with a consciousness of Henry James? Or that kind of imagination and sense of detail – but with a hard-on?
Matt: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: I’ve never read anything quite so sexually ambivalent in that form. I’d rather not comment too much on it, except that if he wants to kiss me in a public place, he can. I do kiss my male friends and I don’t think that Dick Allen is gay. But his ambivalence is definitely so out of proportion to the situation.
Matt: You mean, he doesn’t have an objective-correlative?
Mark: Exactly. In fact I think that that was a map of misreading. In that….
Matt: Oh, yeah. He’s the one that talked about you loving things like pools, right?
Mark: Yeah, because there’s a pool on the cover in a painting by Jennifer Bartlett. And because there are several scenes that take place beside pools or much more significantly in the water.
Matt: Yeah – where you’re holding Sam the way your father held you. And that only in the water, I think you say, was there no conflict. Or was there a certain kind of untrammeled intimacy between you and your father.
Mark: Yeah, but the pools are all meant to be a place where some sort of communion can happen. So, since you brought that up, maybe my so-called sensitivity to interpretation or my sense of how easy it is to misinterpret – not my intention – but what I’ve actually written, you see how easy it is to do that. I don’t see how it would be possible or it was possible to read – that is, misread – that poem and the water imagery as having anything to do with luxury in too much of a literal way. In fact, it could be seen as a study of a kind of poverty and imaginative use or poverty as a springboard for transcendence.
Matt: Now how could that be? You mean that, because you only spent one night at the Millennium Hotel with your son and you actually include the price of a room service bill and the menu in a way that is reminiscent of the handbill that Prince Al pulls out of Falstaff’s pocket.
Mark: Exactly. What someone like myself might derive from one night in a place like that is rather large in comparison to people who take anything like that for granted.
Matt: Surely it’s clear that you don’t take anything for granted. I almost wish you could take a few more things for granted. Sometimes when I read your work there’s no sense that there’s life beyond the moment that you’re in, that you even have faith to summarize. Or that your wife will be there in the morning. Everything is always disappearing and you have numerous references to that scene in Antonioni’s film The Passenger where Maria Schneider says to Jack Nicholson when they’re in that museum designed by the architect Gaudí in Barcelona that “People disappear everyday.” And Nicholson responds, “every time they leave the room.”
Mark: That was certainly the case. And I was again amused and gratified to hear just in the past few months that Nicholson added the line “Every time you leave the room…” to that scene.
I don’t feel any chill like that when that happens or come to think of it maybe I do. But all these aspects of my writing have – I repeat – to be taken not so much with a grain of salt as an act of imagination which I am using to heighten, intensify, and brighten in the sense of making, or richly color the scenes or situations that I’m trying to paint.
Matt: I don’t have your books in front of me right now. Just some notes, but I’m also thinking with regard to action of poems you’ve published in the last few years, like the poem “Wrong Stop,” which couldn’t be more in motion. In fact, I’d like to quote a bit of that poem, which I have from The London Review…
Mark: And I’m including in the New and Selected Poems.
Matt: And then after Provoked in Venice you go to The Couple which begins right away with you driving in “Provo.” Again, motion – entering another domain where there’s more a sense of an ominous presence, a danger, an ambiguity, and also a distinct point of view. And Sundays on the Phone begins with “Back Stairwell” where the question of action becomes the predominant issue, somewhat humorously but also terrifyingly presented, when you describe your son trying to hold onto the cowboy hat that I think you once told me somebody gave him – a Stetson – when you were waiting in line at Zabar’s. And his cowboy boots and holding onto popcorn while walking onto the escalator behind you when he lost his footing and began to backpedal. And you could imagine what the sharp edges of – what you call “blades” – could do to your four-year old son when he fell backward on them. You do grab him, but you imagine having to dive flat-out in an image that recalled what for me is a famous photograph because I wasn’t born when it happened of Brooks Robinson backhanding a line drive at 3rd base in a World Series. A dive which you say “I couldn’t have even managed in my youth.”
Mark: All right.
Matt: Really it is scene after scene. In a —- things are always happening and the things you choose to focus on are committed to certain kinds of physical activity.
Mark: To which myself I don’t fully prescribe, but which again present themselves as great material. Ways to get at other things. Because I never thought of this before but in the case of Robert Shaw, who basically drank himself to death (at will), partly out of guilt at his neglect of his wife, who died through that accidental incident that night when he left, went to shoot some crummy film and she fell asleep and choked on her own vomit.
That even though Robert Shaw isn’t at the center of the poem, he was a man who was always in motion, always you might say “running” and I might say “running away.”
Matt: From what?
Mark: Well, mainly what loomed up before him which was his father’s suicide. So he met that commitment – he died at the same age his father died. Not high in my hierarchy of accomplishments. Dean Martin, the “Secretary of Liquor,” is completely involved in external life. It’s almost as if he has no inner life, to the extent that he brings a golf net with him when he’s on a movie set, so he doesn’t to interact with anybody and he can just hit golf balls.
Matt: The lovers in the one – quote – positive poem in The Couple are always on the move. And their walks are – their motions register a kind of radiance, a blaze of light that’s utterly exhilarating, but still, they’re in action.
Mark: I think the lovers might do well to be in action. Don’t you? Talking about them being together and perceiving things in this way in these imaginary walks and encounters is a way of portraying something, or you might say, getting them out of bed. I mean, certainly if the alternative were to do 17-18 scenes of them having sex in different positions, well, that’s something I might do at some other point.
Matt: I have a small confession.
Mark: Well, shoot.
Matt: I was curious what your real reaction was to the reaction of the political science student that you endeavored to engage in this discussion about language and action.
Mark: Once again, see, I did it. It’s not “I” it’s absolutely in tune that you should ask that question. And maybe that’s why you and I are doing this, or why we maintain the relationship. And that’s that, I’m going to try and answer this as straight as possible. I think that I was slightly put off by what she said. I don’t mean personally, or maybe I do, and this touches on a very subtle and important point. More important really than the more overt issues. I mean, the ones that are raised by Wittgenstein or Nietzsche or anyone who deals in theoretical matters which for the most part I don’t. They’re really just part of a palette.
Matt: That’s a good way to put it. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. You’re saying that you yourself are not invested in these matters.
Mark: I’m invested in them, I’m fascinated by them, I’m delighted by them and tormented by them. But I don’t buy into any of them. And I don’t expect any resolution. In fact, what resonated from that encounter was actually a lack of resonance. This is a very, very, I think you’ll admit she did answer in a “straight” way a question that was presented with a little bit of a twinkle. And I think that somehow this brings us to the crux of what it’s all about for me. And you might call it “intuition” but beyond that I would say it’s a matter of tonality or what Walter Bonheim used to call I think “sympathetic vibrations.” That he was aware that people often felt alone because they didn’t feel that sort of thing often enough with other people. I will confess that I often do feel that way with the people that I like.
I had an exchange – email’s the worst for this – yesterday evening when I had said a few things to someone in an e-mail and remembering that the man smokes cigars and always had a cigar in his hand and was doing me a favor. I can’t be more specific, don’t want to name anyone. Doing me a small favor. I said that I would come and bring him a cigar. And he responded to something that I meant in a light-hearted if not humorous way in an e-mail writing back in all caps “AND NO CIGARS” and added something else about something he had brought up and he took it further and dramatically said he could not do x service in the mix of other things he was doing as a favor for me and my students.
And I frankly was rather distressed by it and thought of saying something to that effect – that I didn’t really mean any of this in that way, but that’s the problem. Well, especially in an e-mail, that’s the dividing line in life – how can you tell someone who misreads you, misreads the signs, that doesn’t see the humor or detect the wit perhaps or really we can just stay with the tonality. You can’t then turn back to that person and do that because that just often makes it worse, right? It makes them feel stupid. And they’re not stupid. But maybe…kind of blinkered. I think I wrote something the other day using the image of a certain people – I can’t remember the exact context, but I remember the image that a certain people had made terrible errors in judgment in terms of the destination of the whole people and what they did because they had – remember this is again an imaginative construct – adopted the Greek helmet – I think it was the Greek helmet and I think I was referring to the Romans – which covered their heads in such a way to knock out their peripheral vision. So that they can only see straight ahead. And they’re insensitive and blind to all the other elements of reality.
Of course the advantage of this is “getting the job done” and the disadvantage is catastrophic in that it ignores all the other significant elements that were a part of it. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so fond of Robert Altman’s films. He really did keep his eye on the periphery.
Matt: Which brings me to your use of film imagery….
Mark: Yeah, I had just been thinking again about “Deep Focus” and I remember when I first came across the notion that – and I may be wrong again about who said what – but that Elia Kazan identified “deep focus,” I think and if I’m wrong I really don’t care because it’s the matter that I’m concerned with here.
Well, first of all, in Jean Renoir’s films, but in a film by William —- called Jezebel which I’ve never really able been to endure until recently and I don’t think I got all of it, but with deep focus – I don’t think it’s a technical thing, that may have been a different camera that allowed him to keep the foreground and nothing focused but get the entire background in a way that made the background people almost as important as the central characters. In the sense that the story could’ve been their story only it so happened that it was Jezebel’s story and not the story of someone who was in the same room. And the same is true with Altman.
Matt: Now that’s something I know little about. That’s a fascinating thing to consider.
Mark: It’s also again has something to do with reality. In that everyone is the center of their own life and so every time you see something or read something we imagine it being us or happening to us. I had any number of people – trainers at gyms say something like “when you watch sports you’re watching yourself.” Again, I don’t like the tonality of a narcissistic equation there, but it’s still true in the – sense. And what is it about sports, it’s that when people are performing under a certain kind of pressure, they’re faced with – I was going to say “imaginary difficulties.” They’re hardly imaginary, but they’re not necessary. I mean this is not like someone at a barricade or dealing with a bomb or a gun.
But it has to do with how people confront things and the way you need to be in order to accomplish things and to maintain your balance, equanimity. It’s like the story of A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, in terms of staying loose. The line that I like is by The Byrds – relax and pay attention. You have to be relaxed. And only by being relaxed can you also be as attentive as necessary.
Matt: Why aren’t these things more often addressed?
Mark: Got me.
Matthew Corey is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has work published in Two Cities Review, The Lascaux Review, and Travel-tainted: Turtle Point Press Magazine.
Mark Rudman’s Rider Quintet is now available as a complete set (Wesleyan/Amazon). He is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently The Motel En Route to Life Out There: Selections From the Rider Quintet, and four of prose, most recently The Book of Samuel, concerning the poetic act, and the permutations of wishing and willing. His works in progress include his first gambit into heteronyms, as in Palescon, and Which Tribe Do You Belong To, a generous section of which is available on the online magazine Per Contra, and have appeared in the Drunken Boat, L.R.B, TLS, N.E.R., Raritan…. He lives in New York City with his wife and son and—currently—four baby turtles (who will not appear in his book length Darwinian poem/investigation about turtles: The T Diaries).
Recommendations of books he is reading:
The Leaves of Hypnos, all translations for different reasons, by Rene Char
The Voronezh Notebooks, by Osip Mandelstam
Jack Spicer’s poetry and writings on the serial poem
Lucretius in David Slavitt’s translation
Buson translated by W.S. Merwin