Paul Klinger's forthcoming chapbook
FESCUE? What on earth is FESCUE?
Mustachios on the Mona Lisa, for one thing: Paul Klinger (see the plates) slashing and doodling, noodling his way through Philip James Bailey’s (minor, forgettable—more on that later) mid-nineteenth century epic poem FESTUS. Such iconoclasm is modernist, and partly Dadaist, or as Angus Fletcher’s coinage has it katagogic (“leading downward”), mischievous. But it’s also a wager for purer influx: smashing the idols to release what was pent inside those petrified forms. It’s an American impulse for sure, extravagant and antinomian, as in Emerson: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? . . . why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? . . . Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” What’s smashed, says the poet, is the dark glass we see through darkly, and the resultant momentary influx feels chiliastic, face to face with divinity here on earth. Except in the ecstatic dissolve there are no faces: “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” The sacred, in this anti-traditional tradition, happens in the vanishing of armatures rituals and received forms, including the one we call self. Coming down, having shucked off such mediations, can be hard, or else funny: “I am God in Nature; I’m a weed by the wall.” Erasure produces afflatus; then poof, one sits amid the wrecked shards mouthing bits of puffery.
Liberating erasure—freeing the poem or artwork from its husk, freeing the artist (both erased and erasing) from the husk of himself—is by now an august tradition, an American initiation ritual that itself needs continual re-making. Its high-points would include, among others, Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os excavated from the baroque epic and theological armature of Paradise Lost, Jen Bervin’s recent Nets catching gists and piths of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Of these it’s Johnson’s transactions with religious epic that are most pertinent to Klinger’s enterprise. Like Johnson’s, Klinger’s antinomian impatience cuts a wide swath. Heavy hitters that “fall to Johnson’s mighty eraser,” as the critic Robert von Hallberg wonderfully has it, include pretty much all of Milton’s vast cast of characters—Satan, angels fallen and unfallen, Adam, Eve—as well as the character-driven events that make up Milton’s energetic plot. “Dry bones of the past” indeed! What remains, von Hallberg says, is light, calling forth ecstatic praise in place of epic drama. And in Johnson’s Ark, von Hallberg notes, earth. So hymns to the two great early religious pantheons, minus, precisely, their presiding pantheons: just sky and earth, alive and numinous. Klinger, who questioned von Hallberg with startling specificity when the latter delivered a version of his work on Johnson in Tucson (to an audience that had generally not read or perhaps even heard of Radi Os), must have been gratified to encounter a description of Johnson’s work so closely congruent with his own eraserly intent. FESCUE is also a poem of praise, a hymn to light and earth. “The great poems of heaven and hell have been written,” says Stevens, “and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.” In FESCUE Klinger works energetically to pay down that debt, and twice as fast: robbing Peter to pay Paul, pulling from one account what can be purloined for the other. Bailey’s Cecil B. deMillean re-writing of the Faust legend, with its “whole harem of Gretchens” comes to rest on “a sort of battle of Armageddon, followed by the consummation of all things”; “In the enormous interim,” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature also mischievously notes, “Lucifer, for purposes not always obvious, personally conducts Festus about the universe.” In FESCUE all this frenzied stage business is quarried to reveal a hymn of elemental praise at its core.
Of course Bailey isn’t Milton. But neither, say, was Beryl of the Biplanes, the pulp novel made to reveal stretches of startling and unlikely beauty as redeployed in Ashbery’s early poem “Europe,”--or for that matter Campbell’s soup. Like Ashbery, Klinger seems to watch, as startled as we are, as revelation emerges suddenly, only to vanish, from chunks of kitsch. In FESCUE the characteristic tone of these moments hovers tactfully among awe, tenderness, impatience, and bemusement, the profane poet working away in the erasure factory himself quarried to reveal a diffident religious poet lurking within (such diffidence, Jason Lagapa argues, is characteristic of modern and especially postmodern poetry’s transactions with the sacred): “seen through a mist of words, though they enlarge light”; “Mind and Night / in silence / The stillness / under / the feeling”; “passed close by / a long, cold / whining through a catacomb / the sides of that great / vision / blazoning / things”; “Wide sweeping as the lightfall / Rushes aloft”; “jags of light remembrance, their names / To live within That dark point, where the shades of all things round”; “Now comes to have nothing almost. And bring the mind up / To the generous thought upon gathering summer Until It plays Open”; “make a night, the essential light alone yes / clear, fabled stone, conceived mutes all to shadow”; “The birds ceased the lake smoothed listening, pace of the morning / the first lap and in the east, Pleasance was, furled There they / built the soil around, the rocks / a little worm, rose upon the ground as though a mediate original.” As in Whitman or Pound, the epiphanic in Klinger’s poem emerges quintessentially in what’s evanescent or fragile, and almost unnoticed: in place of Faust and Lucifer, say, a worm working its way up out of the earth.
What else? Well, the added pleasure that we also get to play. In this wonderful edition of FESCUE, the “real” text of the poem appears among a generous array of doodled over plates of FESTUS, the curving or slashing pencil lines making it hard to tell what’s being deleted and what’s left in. So the poem emerges dream-like for us, all over again at every reading, blurring into and out of its ur-poem.
“Mediate original”: this little book.