RIP Tom Clark

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RIP Tom Clark, 1941-2018

The American poet Tom Clark died in the first hour of Saturday, August 18th, 2018 in Berkely California. The cause of the death happened a few hours earlier, late Friday night, as a motorist collided his sedan into Tom Clark as Clark tried to cross the street. Clark was 77.

Tom Clark authored over two dozen poetry collections, many published by Black Sparrow Press. He also wrote a number of literary biographies, including a pair on Jack Kerouac, bios of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, and a biography of John Keats called Junkets from a Sad Planet that is actually a series of poems. (But also actually a biography of Keats). Clark was the poetry editor for The Paris Review from 1963-1973 (maybe you read his interview with Allen Ginsberg there). Clark was also a blogger—an excellent blogger. He updated his blog a few hours before the car collision that killed him.

I first read Tom Clark in the middle of September, 2013. I read Fractured Karma (1990) and I had never heard of him before. I know the time specifically not because I have a good memory (I don’t), but because I wrote about it then:

I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:

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That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.

I actually did go to the bookstore after writing that post and pick up another book by Clark, Sleepwalker’s Fate (1992). The store had several books by Clark, and I wasn’t sure which one to get. I remember that the title Sleepwalker’s Fate stood out, so I picked it up and thumbed through it, and I remember reading the poem “Terminator Too” there in the store—it did something electric to me—the goofy title, the winking irony, but also the earnestness of the poem, which paraphrases a few lines from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Here it is:

“Terminator Too” by Tom Clark—

Poetry, Wordsworth
wrote, will have no
easy time of it when
the discriminating

powers of the mind
are so blunted that
all voluntary
exertion dies, and

the general
public is reduced
to a state of near
savage torpor, morose,

stuporous, with
no attention span
whatsoever; nor will
the tranquil rustling

of the lyric, drowned out
by the heavy, dull
coagulation
of persons in cities,

where a uniformity
of occupations breeds
cravings for sensation
which hourly visual

communication of
instant intelligence
gratifies like crazy,
likely survive this age.

Sleepwalker’s Fate is a good starting place to read Tom Clark’s poetry, as are Fractured Karma and the collection Paradise Revisited (1984). Here’s one from Paradise Revisited:

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The later poetry collection Like Real People (1995) is also pretty great. It includes this humdinger:

Like Real People also includes a series of autobiographical sketches and stories told in an engaging but straightforward manner. The epilogue there is particularly good—Clark mulls over what it means to write an autobiography, straining against his anxieties over framing his own life stories. Tellingly, he lards the essay with quotes and ideas from other folks. Clark’s poetry often takes on the form of translation, citation, history, or reinterpretation (as we see in “Terminator Too,” above), and works like Empire of Skin (1997) and Junkets on a Sad Planet (1994) are particularly ambitious. Empire of Skin is a series of poems that take on the history of the American fur trade through a lens critical of Manifest Destiny. Junkets on a Sad Planet is an impressionistic series of riffs on Keats’ short life (“junkets” is a pun). From Junkets

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What a lovely condensation of biography, history, and poetic anxiety!

I’ll close with one of my favorite Clark poems, “Heavy,” which discharges poetic anxiety. Clark dedicated the poem to Jack Kerouac and Charles Olson—the gods in the first line, perhaps?–figures he would later write biographies on.

Peace be with Tom Clark.

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RIP Anthony Bourdain

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RIP Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

Anthony Bourdain, who died today of an apparent suicide, embodied a visceral curiosity far too absent in much of American culture. Bourdain took his readers and viewers into strange places and showed them that those places weren’t really that strange because, after all, the people there turned out to be human too. This strand of humanism sometimes evinced with bitter notes in Bourdain’s presentation, but ultimately there was a deep love for the human potential throbbing underneath everything the man did. His resolutely-cool persona never seemed like a put-on or an act. Even though he performed that persona with a ready naturalism in his shows, there was always a wonderful nervous edge there too, as if Bourdain was winkingly aware of the artificiality of show bizness but was confident that if he was just himself enough he could transcend that artificiality and make something real.

When I graduated college in 2001 I thought I would be a travel writer. I moved to Japan and did the English teacher thing and then I did the backpack around Thailand thing. Then I ran out of money. At some point in there, I read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s 2000 behind-the-scenes look at the New York restaurant scene; I’d later listen to the audiobook a few times, read by Bourdain himself. Bourdain’s first show A Cook’s Tour became a favorite—particularly the episodes in Japan and Vietnam—and I watched his second show No Reservations when I could. By the time the oughties were over and Bourdain was doing The Layover and Parts Unknown, I’d settled into a nice domestic professorial life fitted out with occasional (comfortable) trips. Bourdain, meanwhile, lived the life that I had imagined for myself when I was 17, 18, 19, before I even knew who he was. I’m envious of him for that, but moreover I’m ultimately thankful that he shared what he did with all of us, and that he shared it in such a bullshit-free way. His spirit of visceral curiosity will live on.

RIP Glenn Branca

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RIP Glenn Branca, 1948–2018

I have a very specific memory of shoplifting a Glenn Branca CD from Camelot Music in the mall and then trying to approximate what he was doing with my band with a four track plugged into a second amp. Turn it up!

CHECK THE RECORD / CHECK THE RECORD / CHECK THE GUY’S TRACK RECORD

RIP Mark E. Smith, 1957-2018

RIP William H. Gass

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RIP William H. Gass, 1924-2017

I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog).  Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:

“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].

The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks. Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:

“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).

I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.

The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate.  Gass (never the kind of  hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.

Hell, look at Gass’s contemporary Denis Donoghue wrasslin’ with Gass’s prose in a 1978 review of The World Within the World

“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.

Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:

“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:

‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”

And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point.  wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.

Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.

And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:

“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’ Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).

Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.

Etcetera etcetera.

I could keep listing.

Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or  John Hawkes’s  The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass. 

RIP Harry Dean Stanton

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RIP the great Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017

…Kelly’s HeroesTwo-Lane BlacktopPat Garrett & Billy the KidCockfighterRenaldo and ClaraAlienWise BloodEscape from New YorkChristineRepo Man, Paris, TexasRed DawnPretty in PinkThe Last Temptation of ChristWild at HeartFire Walk with MeFear and Loathing in Las VegasThe Straight StoryThe Green MileBig LoveInland EmpireTwin Peaks: The Return, and so many, many more.

Harry Dean Stanton elevated any film he was in, adding strange depth and soul to characters who may have otherwise been flat. Stanton was what people who write about film call a character actor, a subtly bizarre term, really, if you think about it, one that we use to easily distinguish between leading actors—“stars”—and the folks around them who are far more interesting. The greatest character actors are true artists, and Harry Dean Stanton was the greatest character actor. He did play the lead, occasionally though, as in Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders), a cult film that look let me stop here and say, See Paris, Texas already if you haven’t, it’s amazing. And while he’s not exactly the lead in Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox), he’s certainly the weird bouncing gravity that both anchors the film and propels it forward. (I assume that Repo Man is still required cult film viewing for young folks?). It was a joy to see Stanton one last time this year in Twin Peaks: The Return, where his performance of “Red River Valley” was a standout scene in a show full of standout scenes. While I’ll miss seeing him in new films, Stanton’s long list of roles insures that we’ll still be able to wonder into a film or show and excitedly declare, Oh shit! Harry Dean Stanton is in this!

“Pink Turns to Blue” (Live in ’87) –Hüsker Dü

RIP Grant Hart, 1961-2017

RIP Holger Czukay

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RIP Holger Czukay, 1938-2017

Yesterday, Rolling Stone and other sources reported the death of musician Holger Czukay.

Czukay is probably most famous as the throbbing heart of Can, but he also recorded many solo albums and was a frequent collaborator with other artists across many genres.

It’s hard to find another run of albums as perfect as Can’s output in the early 1970s—Tago MagoEge Bamyasi, and Future Days are flawless in my book.

These albums have brought me good times and good grooves for decades now. I’ll always be especially thankful to Czukay for one particular moment in my life—I was 19, relaxing in a bathtub, blaring Monster Movie on my stereo—a particular bass frequency rumbled a bar of soap and sent it smoothly sliding into the water. The moment was somehow epiphanic for me, illustrating a relationship between time, space, and matter. And music.

 

A sense of not pretending | Sam Shepard on Days of Heaven

George A. Romero’s Martin (full film)

RIP George Romero. 1978’s Martin is one of his finest—and most overlooked—films.

Sunday Comics 


RIP Bernie Wrightson, 1948-2017

The older we get the more we write elegies | RIP Derek Walcott

RIP Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Hear him read his poem “For Oliver Jackman” around the 6:00 mark.

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“Spoon” (Live & Long) — Can

RIP Jaki Liebezeit

Warszawa

RIP Greg Lake

RIP Leon Russell

“We’re too broken up to go on” (Leonard Cohen)