Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aimless Reading: The Z's, Part 1 (Louis Zukofsky)

Selected Poems
Zukofsky, Louis
Selected Poems

Purchased at Talking Leaves Books. I can remember seeing it on the shelf in the new poetry releases section, alongside a few other volumes in the series. It was another of the many books I ogled for a while before buying it. This is one of the many things you lose when Amazon takes over the world: ogling. It's hard to ogle a thumbnail sketch. It's hard to take a thumbnail sketch off the shelf and hold it in your hand, weigh it, determine whether or not the book seems worth it's weight in coin.

I can recall Charles Bernstein, who edited this volume, and who also introduced me to Zukofsky, going over the reading list on his syllabus with the class. In addition to the required reading, which covered a couple of books per week, he appended a "suggested" reading list that filled several pages and included some two hundred books. When discussing his expectation he told us that he did not expect us to read all of these books.

He paused, reflected a moment, then revised this statement, saying he didn't expect us to read any of the books, including the required reading. Ideally, he said, we should handle each one. He suggested we hold them in our hands, feel the weight, the texture of the cover, perhaps even run our fingers over the text, and then, when we had fondled each book, we could report back on what we had learned.

No one took him seriously, of course, but why should we have? We assume that the only pleasure one derives from a book should be in reading it and, if we happen to be in graduate school, interpreting its meaning via well-formed paragraphs and syllogisms. But books provide other information than the content of the words written therein, which was a I think the point.

Charles and his generation of poets made formidable arguments about the significance of language in its materiality. Just as we're taught to assume meaning is outside the text, we also assume that it is contained outside of the book. Each book is a reproduction of a text whose meaning resides in the intention and will of the author who wrote it. We're trained to close our eyes to everything else when talking about meaning. The font, the color of the ink, the weight of the paper and its texture, the smell of the book, are all beside the point.

"Read the words, interpret their meaning." This kind of argument is fitting for the Amazon age, I guess. It follows that we can call text "data" and like all other information of its kind we can buy it from sellers like Amazon knowing that all data is identical. The only difference between data and text is the assumption of a deeper meaning. In terms of our reception of the object, there is no material difference.

Not so with books. Each book has a certain shape and color and texture and feel that exists apart from the text or the "data" inside. It has some individuality even when it is sitting on the shelf at the bookstore. If there are five copies of the same book, I often choose one of the five after inspecting all of them. Usually, I just want the one in the best condition, but who's to say there isn't some other unconscious attraction to s specific book that draws me to tje one I choose?

Once it comes home the book takes on a life of its own. I leave a trail behind in every book I read. Each contains within it the history of our relationship. Some or all of the pages will have been touched by my fingers. I might spill coffee or water on it. I may drop an ash from a cigarette (in the old days, anyhow) between the pages. I might put the book on the shelf and leave it there for years to gather dust, turn yellow, fade, dry up, crack and wrinkle. We age together.

If I stay in one place forever, I may decide to retain all of these little histories together on my shelves. If I move around, as I have often these past few years, I may choose to purge a few (or a lot), that is, to send our shared histories anonymously into the world, where their particularities might evoke for another reader a sense of mystery, the same way they sometimes do for me when I buy a used book and ask, Who is the person whose name is written on the front page? Who underlined THIS passage? Why did they fold over this corner?

This book here in my hand, Zukofsky's Selected Poems raises questions I can't quite answer with a quick survey of the cover. There's a small coffee stain in the lower righthand corner. It's just a droplet, really, not the classic shape of the mug one often sets on the book, as if it were a coaster.

Below that is a slight puncture. It's dead center at the bottom edge of the dust jacket. Whatever went through it also damaged the cloth cover of the book itself. It looks like it's about the size of a small nail or a thumbtack. But how could this have happened? And if I hold the book up to the light I can also see a nearly invisible smudge in the pink area just above the title. A liquid of some kind? Glue perhaps?

I like the compactness of this book. It feels good in the hands. This is not true of some of Zukofsky's books. The Complete Shorter Poetry is an abomination (no offense to the editors). Its gigantic page format is awful for reading and it's not beautiful enough to be a display book. This size, this weight, this density, is the perfect size for reading. The embossed cover art pleases my hand as it runs over the surface.

You can appreciate any of this after you have made your Amazon purchase, of course. But you don't get to enjoy it before you've bought it. I feel this loss more acutely here in greater New Haven, where there is nothing resembling a decent book store, much less one with three shelves dedicated to new poetry releases.

I try to ogle the thumbnails, but they don't carry much weight.

from Selected Poems

Can dogs

Dogs in a vise,
and a wood saw
can aw an anatomy
of dog

Such as you never saw.

If it yowls
shut the eyelid on a bad dream,
Let not the snarls take,
With its virus in you
You are imune.

What hounds
you means to.
Not all woodsawyers
grow animal.

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