Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Another World Is Possible

Matthew Stadler and Rob Halpern read for Tangent this weekend at the Clinton Corner Café, packed & warm & close & dark & Dutch. Until this Saturday, I knew Matthew Stadler mostly through his work at Clear Cut Press, which produces those beautifully designed and printed “pocket” editions of books like Robert Glück’s Denny Smith and Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture that call to mind the brainy glamour Edward Gorey brought to Anchor. (Stadler’s interview in the new Tarpaulin Sky explains Clear Cut’s alternative distribution model, where subscriptions trump Amazon and the unseemly wooing of chains.)

Since moving to Portland, I’m learning more about Stadler’s fiction, which he instanced on Saturday with a long excerpt from an early piece that grew into his 1994 novel, The Sex Offender. Why am I always so wary of prose/poetry double bills? When it’s read aloud, fiction sort of has to enchant to work; I need to go under its spell, grammar to glamour, and when I don’t let that happen, it’s like finding out part way through a root canal the Novocain’s not kicking in. Poetry, by contrast, divides my attention into shorter units, so that even when I’m lost or confused or just plain bored, there’s some tiny felicity of diction or alliteration that can turn me suddenly forgiving and benign.

I shouldn’t have worried Saturday. Stadler’s prose moved in a rhythmic, unhurried, richly-claused roll that put me in mind of a river passing through an established European capital at dusk. The manner was in pointed contrast with the matter: a schoolteacher (history) undergoing “correctional” therapy for falling in love with a male—and by all signs vigorously consenting—12-year-old student. As the story unwinds, the narrator’s complacence about his crime, and his reluctance to claim it as an act of political resistance in the face of his doctor’s promptings, itself becomes a highly polished political act (in every sense of that word) as he calmly refuses, Bartleby-like, to recognize any terms for understanding the affair other than his own. Stadler opened with a description of a burlesque show he used to attend in New York in the 1980s, and his story seemed in part a meditation on the subversive possibilities inherent in drag and burlesque, where the alternate reality created is so intense that the ‘alternate’ in it at last burns away, and you’re left living fully in its own terms, like the story’s narrator, or like the story itself, its peculiar swing and cadence determined to move at no century’s pace but its own.

Rob Halpern read from the manuscripts Disaster Lyrics (of which the mysterious and recent Disaster Suite is a part) and Music for Porn, along with a selection from his 2004 Krupskaya book, Rumored Place. I’ve seen Rob read several times, each time I’m left amazed at how he extracts so much that’s lyric from the stupefying news feed of our grim late-capitalist moment. I think of his poems as resisting hymns to the episteme, a portable Egypt for some intrepid geographer of the future to prize open and discover what went wrong. It’s usual to say about poets with Rob’s feeling for language that they “have a great ear”; in Rob’s case, you get the sense of an ear that’s managed to produce a body around it, itself a material instance of the rhythm that’s coming in all the time from the social: “ear” as metonymy for interface; economy as anatomy; body as pure product, “identity’s fleshy yield.”

Rob’s manner of reading is impassioned and enraptured and nothing like the dark harangue he told us he feared it might sound like. In his opening remarks he paid tribute to kari edwards, “who for me,” he said, “will always be a reminder that another world is possible.” Where the world is produced, not given, it is. Rob's gift is the work to remind us of that.

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