Sunday, July 12, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 1.1 (Edward Dahlberg)

Dahlberg, Edward
Because I Was Flesh

Another barely read title by Edward Dahlberg. I bought it at Rust Belt Books. If you look closely, you can see the spine is held together by scotch tape.

Brent Cunningham yesterday posted a note about why he can't stand reading Dahlberg either. Facebook folks can read it here.

Rereading the following I find myself giggling at D's overblown sexual metaphors (Oops. did I just make one myself? Must have been seeing Brüno last night made me do it (oops again).

These are just from the first two paragraphs:

heats the senses
songs of desire
hungry pores
wild concupiscent city
those bound closely to the ground are more sensual
a young, seminal town
The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia

It begins:

Kansas City is a vast, inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of Joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young, seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas city, as hilly as Eteounus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes. The cicadas sang in the valleys beneath Cliff Drive. Who could grow weary of the livery stables off McGee street or the ewes of Laban in the stockyards?


Brent Cunningham said...

Thanks for the permission, m, to post this way-long comment here!

Since I've always had a perverse desire to read the writers no one else seems to be reading I made, a few years back, what I consider heroic efforts to read Edward Dahlberg. Overall my conclusion was that he deserves his ever-deepenening obscurity. I defy anyone to get through all of The Sorrows of Priapus or find anything worthwhile in it. Because I Was Flesh, his predictably ornate bio, is considered by many the single exceptional work in his oeurve, and it does have moments since you can see it as a sociological study of how he became the curmudgeon he was. But in this case the dusty copies of his books in used bookstores do seem to deserve their coats.

E.D. does seem to have some fans still out there, which is interesting to me in itself. I guess it turns on whether you think there's anything compelling (or really: readable) in his peculiarly non-ironic revival of Elizabethan syntax and vocabulary.

For me he is probably best read as an instance of the mad american autodidact, the way certain traumatized and ravenous intellects take on and give total value to whatever's available to them. For Dahlberg that was a certain version of the high literary canon (a canon he soon discovered very few people were actually reading, despite its unquestioned status as cultural apex). He's a Borgesian case really: stylistically, he basically rewrites the King James bible in 1950s America. Why? Hard to say now, given where am. literature has gone, although I suppose it's interesting to contemplate the perpendicular universe where Dahlberg wins the Nobel and mainstream American writing becomes radically baroque and allusion-laden.

Dahlberg did lead me (despite himself as it were) to a lot of thoughts about the interaction of class and literary style. He's a useful reminder that the working class doesn't just sit around, sans literary opinions, waiting for some Harvard-educated writer to revolutionize literature by using their speech patterns in a work. They have active, diverse, and intense commitments to what literary art is, and it's often the opposite of their own speech patterns--the attraction to literary style can be, often is, that it's a thing quite apart.

Of course that doesn't mean Dahlberg was ever much read by, say, the Kansas City cattledrivers that he worked with before he got schoolin'. Just that they might have recognized his style, superficially, as of "high quality" or something.

I also think Dahlberg is maybe useful reading for Olson and Creeley scholars if only to keep in mind some of the faintly xenophobic, strongly patriarchal, and pathetically pseudo-lofty influences that O & C found, at first, both determinant and functional.

Jonathan Lethem has an engaging essay on Dahlberg, the title essay, in his book The Disappointment Artist. There's also some quite appalling stuff about his personal extremes in the Creeley bio, which I know a lot of friends of Bob's have refused to read, but there you have it.

Barry Alfonso said...

I am one of those apparely rare people who reads -- and actually enjoys -- Edward Dahlberg. I discovered him about 12 years ago and slowly acquired most of his work. He is difficult, extreme, off-putting. He decidedly goes against the grain of just about everything modern. I like him for precisely these reasons. Dahlberg's stubborn refusal to compromise his overblown, word-drunk pretentions make him appealing and, at times, illuminting. Brent Cunningham is right: a lot of one's willingness to submit to his vision turns on whether you can appreciate his weird, anachronistic use of prose. I would point out something else: In Because I Was Flesh, he finds a way to frame the personal tragedy of his mother's life (and his own childhood) in terms of Elizabethan tragedy. This overlay of the tawdry with the gradiose is quite stunning at times. Again, I would not expect most people to get into Dahlberg. He is out of the modern context -- which, to me, is a virtue.