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DADA IN ALBANY, N.Y, by Ricardo Nirenberg.

 


When it comes to soirées, one cannot expect much in a city of state bureaucrats, but we have Pierre Joris, the poet, and Nicole Peyrafitte, the artist, who live with their two boys in a grand old house half a block from the cathedral. I'll be elsewhere and regret not being in Albany, if they happen to be throwing a party. Nicole is as beautiful and talented a salonnière as Juliette Récamier, but a better cook; I forever return to that fabulous rabbit with chocolate sauce, which she made from an old Peruvian recipe. If you are not too bothered by cigarette smoke and the occasional drunken Argentine singing "Adiós muchachos," there is no better or warmer place to meet interesting people. Usually, after my second glass of wine I'll pump Don Byrd for the latest gossip from his department: since it doesn't affect me in any practical way, it is soothing to hear. Life in the English department is violent, cruel and brutal, but not short since most of those guys have tenure. Don tells me this hellish environment is the work of a group of colleagues he refers to as "the theorists," which to my ear rings close to "terrorists," and I find it puzzling: isn't theory supposed to be peaceful contemplation, disinterested letting-be? Ever since that time, years ago, when someone was perorating on the subject of death and a theorist from the English department quipped, "But you know, death is a literary topos," I have kept my distance. Let them hurl topoi at each other, that gang of reality renegades; I prefer the company of the poets, people like Don and Pierre. Tonight I have brought early muguets instead of a bottle of wine; Nicole offers me one cheek, then the other, both equally smooth and subtly perfumed. "Ça va ?" "Ça va." Had I not a penchant for small females - it must be a genetic trait because my mother was small, as are my wife and my two daughters-in-law - I'd be ridiculously in love with Nicole; she reminds me of the Lady of Elche, especially tonight since she's hung large rings from her earlobes, which tinkle when I hit them with my nose. "This is Guadalupe," she says, introducing a deliciously short and vivacious young woman who is no poet, no artist, she's from Seville, Spain, and spends time in an Albany lab recombining DNA. I wonder why a mustache - I don't mean a full one, but a subtle and incipient down - why does it confer on small Iberian women a heightened femininity? Says Nicole, pointing to a canvas on the wall, one she has painted, "He doesn't like my flower." "I never said that," I protest. "Mais si, tu l'as dit, you said it is too large." Guadalupe considers it. Most of Nicole's work is collages and photomontages in the spirit of Hannah Höch, a spirit with lots of haches, aspirate and mute, but this one is acrylic, and the flower is huge. "Si une fleur n'est pas mignonne, it better be ferocious," I develop. "I think the flower is very nice," says Guadalupe, putting an end to the critique. I pour myself another glass of wine, take a couple of petit-fours, and walk into the kitchen. Pierre is there, who's always good to hug. He's stirring the soup and he's happy: his book Poems for the Millennium is selling well. "Over five thousand copies! Of course, for a diet book that's nothing..." We agree that for a poetry book 5,000 is humongous. Is there a glimmer of hope for American civilization? Hasn't the year 2,000 marked the final demise of the soul? May we still see a fantastic increase in the popularity of poetry? In The New York Times, Robert Pinsky, the translator of Dante and that year's poet laureate, came out in defense of poetry and endorsed a National Poetry Month, and what's remarkable, without once bringing up dusty notions like beauty, truth, spirit, terror or soul, but only shiny ones like intelligence; he argued on a scientific basis, specifically an information-retrieval basis, that poetry helps us remember things because of sound and rhyme; a voiced telephone number, he remarked, is more easily retained. The point has often been made in the past, but does it bear repeating at a time when devices for data storage are widely available and few good poems are rhymed? Pinsky, mind you, not to be confused with Minsky, the artificial-intelligence guru at MIT. Remember the Jewish joke? Two guys on a train, one says, you say you're going to Minsk to make me think you're going to Pinsk, but actually you are going to Minsk: why are you such a liar? Of course Pierre knows the joke. "Jerry's here," he says, changing the subject and referring to Rothenberg, coeditor of the Millennium book, our mutual friend. "He arrived yesterday from California, he's going to read Kurt Schwitters' Ursonaten for us, well, some variation thereof. Great stuff." This I'm happy to hear, for Jerry is an exciting performer, he's top notch, as you don't have to be told. I can see Jerry beyond Pierre and the door, standing on the deck overlooking the backyard. He really should be called Jerome, or rather Jerôme with a circumflex o; if painters still did that kind of stuff, he would be the perfect model for the eponymous, hieronymous saint, translating in the wilderness, pen in hand, lion couché: a St. Jerome with a touch of the shaman. I join him, or rather them, for Jerry is talking with Chuck Stein. They sip wine and talk about astrology. Chuck I've known for even longer than Jerry: back in the days when Chuck worked at the University Writing Center, back when he hadn't yet grown this long, gray beard, once a week we would meet at the cafeteria and talk about Parmenides, logic, and Brouwerian math. I used to wonder what all this had to do with poetry, but Chuck is one of the very few who can bring chicken, angst and Loewenheim's Theorem together and make it sound terrific. He tells Jerry and me why his contract wasn't renewed at Bard: he refused to give grades and taught astrology. "As a symbolic system, it's as coherent and compelling as physics or math," says Chuck defiantly under his beard. "And full of beautiful words," says Jerry, "apotelesm, almucantar, signifer, house..." Are they serious? Anybody's guess. What I love in poets is their wholesale, willful disregard for truth. Amica veritas if you insist, but even from the dearest friend we need the pause that refreshes. What a silly idea to banish the poets from the republic, and equally silly of Bard to get rid of Stein, even though they got Ashbery later. When I go back for more wine, I notice that a lot more people have arrived. Some are dancing in the living room. The glorious strains of a pasodoble gladden my heart; Nicole and two other women are waving arms, shaking behinds, tossing their hair wildly about; Guadalupe stands a little apart, all by herself, the only one who understands this music, that the ecstasy it calls for is communion with one's body, not with the cosmos. And so, while the others play maenads or corybants, she softly claps a pair of castanets, head turned to one side, skirt swirling as if by the sighs from a ring of amorous zephyrs. I take it in thankfully: the dancing girl is showing us what's absent from this sad civilization obsessed with theory, problem-solving and data-retrieval: the unselfish pride of the flesh, grace that knows itself as grace. Pierre, however, interrupts: time for the poetry reading. The music is stopped, chairs are arranged in a semicircle, people look for places, and as Guadalupe walks by I feel like whispering something in her ear, but I'm too shy. As Pierre aptly remarks, Jerry is in no need of introduction, except to say that no poet writing in America today is more fully nomadic than he, the summoner of the Dada fathers for us and our time, a summoning all the more urgent since what our time needs most is a collapse of language. As regards Schwitters in particular, Pierre and Jerry are preparing a volume of translations which should be in the bookstores in four months. With that, Jerry takes over, and after some words about the strange way in which a Schwitters' manuscript was found, which I don't fully catch yet brings to mind the way in which Renaissance writers used to preface their fictions, he starts reading:

"Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu (pause) pögiff (pause) kwii Ee (pause) Oooooooooooooooooooooo (pause)."

Jerry's umlauts are graceful and elegant, his o's neat and refined.

"Dedesnn nn rrrrrr (pause) li Ee (pause) Rrummpff tillff toooo? (pause) Lanke trr gll (pause) pe pe pe pe (pause) Ooka ooka ooka ooka (pause)."

I try to follow, but after a minute or so my mind wanders. It seems logical, though: once you take that first step and detach poetry from truth, the second step should follow, detach it from propositional sense, and once that's done, the third step must be to separate it totally from reference and avoid any dictionary word. Yes, the whole thing makes sense, but it goes on and on, and I can't help feeling that the same point could be more forcefully made in thirty seconds flat. On the other hand (for I don't want to appear to myself deaf or philistine,) de la musique avant toute chose, n'est-ce-pas? Music does not use words from any dictionary, nor does it have to be played with the usual instruments. This is music then, fond heart, with which you should become familiar. I'm brutally awakened by a fart. The word "fart" doesn't convey by a long shot the abruptness of the rent in time, the decisiveness of its sostenuto, the richness of its deep, stercorous harmonics. Everyone turns around, searching for some sign or orientation in the air, then we all look at Guadalupe. We all look at Guadalupe and she smiles. Jerry has been taken aback, he fiddles with the sheets - his face turned red - then he resumes reading.

"Ziiuu lenn trll? (pause) Lümpff tümpff trll..."

People whisper, they fidget in their seats, there's giggling. When the end comes, I don't know about the others, I applaud Guadalupe's fart. Later, no one mentions it. Two more poems are read, soup is served with bread and cheese, tangos and fandangos are danced: a cyst of embarrassed silence has enclosed the loud sore. As I'm leaving, Nicole comes to the door and whispers, "Did you hear that? She did it on purpose! I'm afraid Jerry is offended." I assure her that Jerry is not offended; on the contrary, he's surely delighted, since that fart has expressed as nothing else could the original intention of Dada: to bring Art down from its capitalized pedestal. For even when art is made from meaningless sounds uttered with the mouth, its station is still too high, the mouth itself is far too high, far too grand, inevitably connected with orotund rhetoric; the only way out is utterance with the nether orifice, the sound which has always been with us, always marginalized. Schwitters himself called his poem "Sonate in Urlauten," sonata in primitive sounds, and what could be more primitive than a gust from the gut? The Dada agenda was to transform Art, big a, first into art, small a, and finally into fart: not by accident the first word in the sonata is "Fümms," the first letter is f. We kiss on both cheeks, then Nicole shakes her head and murmurs, "Tout de même..."


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