03-23-09

Mark Svenvold

Jeffersonian           

                                     

Because it was, and because it was enough,

it seems, so that: yonder star-swirl might compose

but the smallest flower or leaf thereof,

and in that leaf a world. . . .because He chose,

for He was busy-- what with mollusk and mountain,

because it all fit--weasel, flea, and spore,

because the difficult, the unforgiving forms

of continental granite and jenny wren

brooked no counter, no other, no outer, no ex,

posed no irony of scillia, no pause, supposed

no sad planet afloat in oceanic space,

no lone and troubled inheritor-savant,

--because they lived unpredicated, reader,

like a sand fly or a sea cliff or a river. . . 

II

They brought oilskin bags for their journals,  

                 

                     they brought instruments: 

                                                          two sextants,

                                                                                a horizon,

                                                                                                  a sun,

artificially its term and angle

  

                  reflecting in a pan, 

and other gear to measure

the land,

                             the river's reach, its extent--

                                     you will notice and comment on the soil,

                                                the date at which particular plants

                                          put forth or loose their leaf, or flower;

                                      times of appearance of particular birds,

reptiles, insects. . .

                            dinosaur bones,

                                                    volcanoes. . . . 

which would require, at the very least, it seems,

something to write with)

 

six papers of ink powder, crayons, and sets of pencils

                             

                                (and something to write on)

                                                                             field tables,

 

(and something to see with at night)

                                                           twenty gross of candles

 

        (and something to keep out the weather)

                              sheets of oiled linen for tents and sails

                                                 six large needles, six dozen awls

(and for warmth) six dozen woolen pants,

            30 yards of common flannel, one hundred flints,

            30 steels for striking or making fire--

  

            . . . . because they could & because it was there,

and, since it was in St. Louis, 1803--

                   that Auguste Chouteau

and all the fine girls and buckish Gentlemen,

danced as they danced as they danced

                                                to celebrate Napoleon's

Garage Sale--

          they brought a surveyor's pole & chain,

                                       and a set of plotting instruments-- 

 

                                                                  (Meanwhile. . . . . . . .

 Up river, the Sioux:

hostile, numerous, well armed,

certain to demand ransom for passage)

  

                 Hence: Guns & Ammo, Mail Order Dept--

  

                                                  one swivel-mounted cannon made of bronze,

                                                              four heavy shotguns or blunderbusses,

                                                                 four hundred pounds of lead for shot,

                                                                                 fifteen Pennsylvania rifles,

                                                     two hundred pounds imported rifle powder.

 

              (and a little something for insects & etc.)     

                                                                                       a mosquito net,

                                                curtains; 8ps cat gut,

            two hundred pounds

of tallow mixed with fifty pounds of lard

                                                  which they smeared

  

                   "about the arms & face                  

                      to repel the most pugnacious" 

  

         mesquetor. . . 

                                        misquitr,

                                                                     muscatoes. . .

 

They brought the new Jerusalem,

and the firepower to back it up;

 

                                     They brought the God of Joseph Mede"

                                      Awakened out of sleep."

                             

His tools and His fondness for gadgetry--

                                      an air rifle,

a collapsable "semicilyndrical,"

iron frame canoe

               and from Thomas Parker of South Third Street, Philadelphia,

 

               a very expensive watch-- 

               "with her a screw-driver and kee,

               the works stoped by inscerting a hog's bristle"--

 

                                          They brought fifteen pounds of Peruvian bark,

                                for malaria,

  

                                                   they brought books--

                                    two volumes of Linnaeus, Barton's Elements of  Botony 

                                   The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris-- 

(and something out of Locke and something out of Bacon

and something out of Newton--

for instance, the medicine of one Dr. Rush) 

 

to wit:  

 

III 

When you feel the least indisposition,

do not overcome it by marching.

Rest in a horizontal position.

   

                                    Benjamin Rush, that is, whose pills

                                      "cure all of mankind's ills"-- 

 

          To be your own best physician,

           take these pills for a general purging.

           When you feel an indisposition,

  

                                              --calomel,

six parts mercury to one part chlorine--

                              called "Thunderclappers" by name.  

 

. . .an attack of fever? of augue? Just listen--

for what I've said bears repeating--

If you assume a horizontal position, 

 

and opium, and niter or saltpeter, and jalap,

                              and whiskey and a little laudenum 

  

                     . . .soon all will be well again.

                     You won't hear your men complaining,

                     anyhow, of the least indisposition. 

For they've brought presents

for all the new tenents

                          ten pounds assorted sewing thread;

                         silk fabric, and paint, and vermillion -- 

  

        and they'll be more refreshed, I say, by lying down.

 

        That's key. Prevent verticality. No leaning,

        no listing, no half-hearted horizontalisme 

                                             should be allowed. In sum: go prone

                                             briefly, it goes without saying,

                                             and, at the least indisposition--

                                             be sure to rest in a horizontal position. 

 

IV

                              They arrive

                              like emperors of China, recognizing no equals

                                                                                      only tributaries, 

 

with 12 dozen flags,

and 12 dozen friendship coins,

and whiskey by the barrel, 

  

                              the ocean breaks its shackles

                                                                       and a great earth lies open--

                             the stone rolls down the mountain

                             and the rivers run backward

                                                                       and a new generation ascends

                              in a keelboat, in canoes, 

with small cheap scissors,

and common brass thimbles,

and 288 knives; and combs;  

          and Kirwian's Elements of Minerology, 

   

          and A Practical Introduction to Spherics and Nautical Astronomy

   

                                     and ear trinkets, and arm bands, 

                                                           and red glass beads

                                                           and white glass beads

                                                           and blue glass beads 

  

           tunc Orientis occidit et ortum est. . .

  

                                                       . . . . imperium sine fine dedi.

-from Empire Burlesque

BIO: Mark Svenvold’s poetry has been published widely in Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, The Iowa Review, The Journal, and Swink. He is winner of a Discovery/The Nation poetry prize; and his first collection of poems, Soul Data, won the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, selected by Heather McHugh. His nonfiction books are Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America (Henry Holt and Company, 2005) and Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw (Basic Books, 2002). He has written for Best Life and Harper’s and is currently working on an article for The New York Times Magazine about North America’s first solar-hydrogen residence. He lives and works in New York City.

 

An Interview with Mark Svenvold by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum  

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Jeffersonian” is a really interesting poem for a number of reasons.  The subject matter just begs to be written about, for one, but I also find the way in which you approach this subject matter really interesting, opening with a brief, highly elevated Part 1, then moving into longer parts broken into sections that jockey back and forth between the various points of view of the characters who are all integral to the telling of Lewis and Clark’s story. 

Part 1 is intriguing to me as a writer because, first and foremost, it emits from an elevated language that I think I’d be concerned to use so early in such a long poem.  Let’s face it, some readers might not respond well to that strange opening line, “Because it was, and because it was enough, /  it seems, so that:” followed by antiquated diction in words like “yonder” and “brooked.” 

And yet, this is a poem directed to the reader: “—because they lived unpredicated, reader.” As you were composing this poem, did you see this as a problem.  If so, do you think you reconciled this problem? 

Mark Svenvold: Well, let me say, first, that the number of people who have read Empire Burlesque as carefully as you wouldn’t fill a small elevator, so I should start by embracing you at the knees and thanking you and offering to wash your car or something. But, to your question, which seems, in part, to be about process: ten years ago I’d finished Soul Data and was reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and that was the initial spark to something—I didn’t know what, thank god, but it became a long reading project wonderfully interrupted by two nonfiction book projects.

At the time, I wanted to put a long sequence together, to stretch out a bit, and I wanted it to somehow address my own relationship to history. The more I read about Jefferson and his milieu, the more I felt a heart-ceasing sense of living in the predicate, at the other end of possibility, the other end of a long and riotously derailed experiment the only response to which was some sort of opera or a burlesque.  

At that time, I also happened to pick up Richard Storey’s book, Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask, which traces Laforgue’s influence upon all sorts of poets and artists. It was Laforgue who, having discovered the Commedia del Art figure of Pierrot (the Italian Pedrolino, valet and the butt of jokes for another stock zanni character, Harlequino, of which Seinfeld’s Kramer is a recent iteration—it was Laforgue who wrote to his sister in 1880 to say “clowns have achieved true wisdom. I should have been a clown. I missed my calling.” Well, Laforgue managed to discover not only a clown-like mask but a French form of folk song, a “complaint.” He figured out how to balance his very dark, cosmically pessimistic, detached, blasement with these two “light” formal features. The effect powerfully influenced Eliot and is startling even today.  

So it became my goal to combine the dark themes of American history with formal features that might create a tragic-comic effect. At the time, I was also deeply interested in Pound’s experiment of “a poem containing history.” It’s interesting to compare Pound’s discovery of history, which was an energizing and powerful force, the poem becoming something that dissolved the past and the present, and Eliot’s use of the past, which is just dispiriting. The short answer is that I’m either trying to extend Pound’s experiment with history or I’m the last poet on the planet to crawl out from under the influence of Eliot. I hope it’s not the latter, which is just embarrassing, if true. As to the reader, if the early references and allusions in Empire Burlesque throw off anybody, then my apologies. I’ve failed. I don’t want to be baffling. Next time, I’ll put a little sign up that says: “If you find this poem disorienting, please try the poem on page 19,” or some such thing.   

AMK: As you write poems, do you typically worry much about the reader? 

MS: Sure. I think it’s the writer’s job, whatever you’re writing, to seduce the reader. It’s incredibly selfish and irresponsible to make the reader fell like I’ve added yet another burden onto his/her shoulders. Reading a poem or a story really should be like a release from those burdens. How else are we to gain perspective on our lives if we can’t, by means of the poem, plunge elsewhere for a moment.

I’m not talking about the poem being a form of escape so much as a useful way of re-framing our own habitual mode of seeing things. The poem as portal or fun house mirror. You emerge, you hair messed up a little, your eyes (hopefully) dazzled. So, yes, you’ve got to ask, at some point whether or not someone now, or say, in the distant future, some archeologist with an inexplicable interest in poetry, will be lost or disoriented by what’s on the page.  

I do think about the plight of the reader, probably more now after having written two books of nonfiction than I did when I was working on my first book of poems. This is going to sound like a horse's-ass thing to say, and I’m truly sorry if it sounds that way, but writing books that have by default a much wider audience of readers changes you in a good way, I believe, and that’s been my experience with prose. At some point in that other process, you have to jettison the art-house jibberish. If you don’t, you have an editor whose job it is to rein you in. You develop the healthy sense that there is something at stake, and much of that has to do with maintaining the reader’s trust in you as a reliable witness to the world. Prose writers in general don’t have the luxury, for instance, of not making sense.

But we’re at a point where, at least in the public mind, poets are not even expected to make sense. I think that’s a pity for poets and for poetry. I’m not talking about being simplistic or reductionist. I’m talking about just being more responsible. I think it’s changing, but we’ve got a long way to go before poetry becomes a relevant force in the culture. Some think it’s silly to hope for that. Maybe it is. Maybe we’re destined to be marginal, like contemporary classical composers. Maybe that’s just something to accept. For those few who want it, poetry will be there. I think that’s Richard Howard’s take on it, and I love Richard Howard. But it’s hard not to think it might be different. At the end of his life, Aaron Copland was viewed as a hack because he wasn’t “out there” enough for the avant garde composers—even though, in his time, he produced any number of audacious atonal pieces, but the cumulative effect of the avant garde--does anyone doubt it?—was to place contemporary classical music beyond its audience. This may have happened to poetry, too.

So, yes, I worry about the reader. I’d be an idiot not to.  

AMK: When I read a poem, I rarely worry myself with knowing what all the words mean or with what the poem, itself, means.  I’m more interested in the images and the language used to create these images, and that’s what immediately struck me about Part 1 with its wonderfully musical images of “mollusk and mountain,” “continental granite and jenny wren,” and “no sad planet afloat in oceanic space.”   It’s only later that I concern myself with really understanding a poem. 

When I looked up Jeffersonian, this is what I found:  pertaining to or advocating the political principles and doctrines of Thomas Jefferson, esp. those stressing minimum control by the central government, the inalienable rights of the individual, and the superiority of an agrarian economy and rural society. I think this definition is important because it focuses so much on Jefferson’s principles of free will within a larger framework of, what could be, an all too large influence. 

This definition changes my reading of the poem from one that enjoys its rhetorical moves to one that sees a poem trying to make a statement about the state of man and of the natural world. Do you feel that poems need to make statements, that they need to have “something to say?” 

MS: You capture the Jeffersonianism I had in mind when you mention “free will,” the sense of agency in the world that seems unique to that time--and seemed to have gotten lost, perhaps, until, say, the election of Barack Obama.  As to statements, every poem by default, is probably an ars poetica, and that’s a kind of statement, a form of having something to say, at least about what a poem gets to do here, at the beginning of the 21stcentury.

Beyond that, yes, I think a poet ought to strive to have something to say. Or to figure out how to say something so that it “gets heard,” so that it speaks to its time. I think it’s my job to step back and ask myself what it is I’m trying to say, at some point, in a poem.  

AMK: Whose speaking to us in Part 1? 

MS: I don’t know. A speaker of some sort, somebody better than me, smarter than me.  

AMK: I really like Part 2.  It still uses the elevated diction (actually borrowing from Jefferson’s writings to Lewis and Clark and from Lewis and Clark themselves) but moves more quickly and clearly, narratively speaking. I’m particularly struck by the imaginative twists that move in and out of the poem and that I first encountered with the line "they brought instruments:  / two sextants, / a horizon, / a  sun." 

Obviously, they didn’t bring the sun with them…but, then again, they did bring the sun in a way, I thought…and I’m still struck by the surprise of that line and of others like it throughout Part 2. Is surprise important to you when you write a poem? 

MS: Surprise, as part of the seduction business, keeps us in the game, no? It’s part of the whole package of obligations, the prime one to hold the reader.  

AMK: The listing of all of the items they brought with them on their voyage reminds me a lot of Tim O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carried” because it sort of weights us down as we read the poem, overwhelmed, as I’m sure Lewis and Clark were, with the enormity of their expedition. Is this something you intended to do, to bring the reader into the poem, to invite allow us to feel what Lewis and Clark were feeling? 

MS: Yes, very much so. I love O’Brien and I’ve long been smitten with the symphonic list at the beginning of The Things They Carried, especially the way it moves from the very specific, with the weight of each item given, to the very abstract.  It’s just a knock out. It was something I read long ago and when I discovered the historical material of Lewis and Clark, a listing strategy seemed to recommend itself. I wanted to write a dynamic list, one that worked accumulatively, to evoke the target of my book, the cataclysm of American history, by means of metonymy, a whole revealed by its parts, by the accumulative elements of the list..  

AMK: I also thought of Robert Penn Warren’s book-length poem, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, when I read Part 2 because, like Penn Warren, you move back and forth between the narrative and what was written at the time to and about Lewis and Clark.  Was this book an influence in anyway?  If not, what was? 

MS: It wasn’t Penn Warren. But that’s just an accident, another gap in my reading. It was Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, mostly, which is just a transcendent book. Actually, if you’ll excuse the recourse to Walter Benjamin--and maybe you won’t--but honestly, by accident I found a passage from Theses on the Philosophy of History, and I was going to use it as an epigraph to Empire Burlesque, but instead it became an epigraph to Big Weather. You may be familiar with it and if so, sorry. But if not, here it is.

It was profoundly inspiring: A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in fornt of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.   

AMK: Part 3 seems to be in the voice of Jefferson himself, and Part 4 seems to be in the voice of a Native American, moving from time to time into those italicized strophes that are in yet another voice.   Beth Lordan, a fiction writer and one of my teachers, recently quoted a famous writer (whose name now eludes me) who said that the most important decision a writer makes is point-of-view— the first most important decision, by the way, was to write in the first place.   Would you agree? 

MS: I can just see 12 or 15 grad students dutifully writing down those words about point of view, and maybe that’s a good thing, but the gremlin in me would ask if point of view is important if there’s no story, for instance, or if the characters are one-dimensional bores? Maybe that’s a preoccupation of fiction.

But to your question, which does cut to essential things expressed hyperbolically, no? I don’t know what the most important thing is for a writer, once you’ve decided to write, but attending to point of view seems pretty far down the road. The recommendations that last seem to address what’s most proximate about the writer: Hemmingway’s “shock proof bullshit detector;” the recommendation to “kill one’s darlings;” Pound’s (I’m paraphrasing here) “more poems fail not because of a lack of talent but a lack of character;” Keats’s idea of negative capability—that by negating one’s habitual modes and patterns, one becomes more capable; and then there’s Rilke. I don’t think Rilke focuses on things like point of view but more on outlook and attitude, which is why he’s been so helpful to artists of all sorts.  

But because I’m trying to be a good boy scout, I’ll take a stab at it: what’s most important to me is to somehow maintain a healthy attitude—playfulness, seriousness, curiosity, confidence, a love for the materiality of language wedded to a refusal to accede to forms of pre-packaged thought and expression. And generosity in the form of the compulsion to give more than is required (you can cut later!) and in the form of your relationship with the reader, a relationship that allows the reader an active part in all of this. There’s nothing memorable in any of this or that hasn’t been said better elsewhere.   

AMK: I’d like to hear about the process that this poem took to write.  I can imagine a number of ways you might have tried to pull all of this together, and it would be interesting to know when you started to use all of these different points-of-view and why. 

MS: Well, the stories of Lewis and Clark do involve many different characters, so hewing close to those points of view, trying to imagine what it would be like to see the world through their eyes, seemed naturally important, early on. The poems in the sequence modulate between that kind of proximate point of view and a larger perspective of history.

I liked the interplay between those two—the landscape view, which is the view of the characters moving through the country, unable to see that there’s a grizzly bear around the corner. Their predicament is our predicament. Who foresaw the current economic bear coming? Very few. Then there’s the map view, which is God’s view, our view looking down, as it were, upon creation. The angel of history’s view. That staggered and stunned perspective. Each poem deploys that modulation, I hope.

I tried to do that from the beginning. That was what interested me—not writing poems that are “time machines,” ways of pretending that we’re back in the time of Lewis and Clark, like historical re-enactors, or of Ambrose Bierce, or whatever, but poems that demolish time.  

AMK: “Jeffersonian” is just one of many poems in your second book Empire Burlesque, which is largely about L&C.  One thing that is really odd about the book is that only about half of it is dedicated to their expedition, the rest of the book similarly reflecting on history and its various figures and how they have affected the world we now live in.  The result is that I’m not sure exactly how to discuss this book as whole.  Yes, it most certainly reflects on history, but it ranges so widely into and out of the past and in the types of pasts it looks at (King Kong, Andy Warhol, and The Chuck Berry Sex Video, to name a few)… 

I’m wondering what you hope this book does as a large piece of art, individual from the poems within. 

MS: I think the book is a lyric sequence--not a narrative sequence—that begins with the expedition of Francisco Coronado along the Arkansas River in the late 1500s and ends with me pedaling a rented bicycle over the Golden Gate Bridge and thinking about Longinus and the sublime. The Longinian sublime carries a burden. It is not the burden, for instance, of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s outward journey across the limitless expanse of wilderness but the burden that emerges after the discovery of the landscape’s limit, its boundedness, and with it the inescapable “sense of ending.”

The burden of the explorer is that, by right of discovery, after one has survived to reach the waters of the Pacific, say, one enters forever into the mode of the predicate, the mode of consequences, where everyone and everything is forever and always after the fact. How strange it must have been for the actual Corps of Discovery to reach the Pacific and feel the peculiar burden of modernity fall upon them. Using Ambrose Bierce as a bridging figure, I think the rest of the book addresses that predicament, which is the predicament of Longinus, 1st century Greek living under Roman rule—and of course it’s our own predicament.  

The predicament of the quotidian, of the Chuck Berry Sex Video and of pizza-flavored Oreo cookies. What comes of that is a yearning for outsized sublime experience. Hence: extreme sports, the desire for extreme experience. “Storm Stories” on The Weather Channel, a unnatural fascination with catastrophe. I call it catastrophilia. Things here at this end of the historical continuum are sort of ‘okay,’ but there’s a sense that the best times, the times of greatness, may be behind us. Maybe not.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a marker of the technological sublime. Maybe our most heroic times are in front of us. I happen to believe that’s true, but for a long time while I was working on Empire Burlesque it didn’t seem that way. Just the opposite. Still, there’s a way to frame all of this so that a longing for the heroic doesn’t become a form of nostalgia, but is actually kind of prelude. In so many ways I think we’re right on the cusp of something. Poetry will find its own way to respond to all of that, as it always has, and I’m glad I’m here to see what that might be.  

AMK: Thank you. 

MS: My pleasure.