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By Anselm Berrigan

Emerson apparently wrote to a student or former student of his and instructed him not to get overly involved with his reading so as to be able to move with enough rapidity through any number of other reading possibilities, to go into books looking for the material needed, get it and get out, often enough, so as to keep moving. Given Emerson’s rather sizable monthly reading lists, as gleaned from, in my case, the intensely absorbing critical biography Mind on Fire (written by Robert D. Richardson and credited several times as source for Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood, by the by), this was somewhat helpful to take in and I’ve tried putting this kind of speed-reading into practice over the past six to eight months when it has seemed either useful or necessary to assuage and encourage the idiosyncrasies of my own curiosity (is it possible that one’s curiosity is largely composed of impulses that must be idiosyncratic, if only to avoid falling into rigidly composed circles of taste-as-didactic identity?). I’m teaching a little writing class on digression at the moment – by little I mean it has four students and is a type of class meant to only have thee to five students – and it is quite possible I put it together at heart because I wanted to talk about, to learn how to talk about, W. G. Sebald’s prose narrative (his term) The Rings of Saturn. Today was this day where only one of my four students came by the hideous room in which we meet once a week, a room constantly filled with hissing pipes, jackhammering construction just outside the windows onto DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, and the in-the-walls noises of bats and giant roaches, data with wings, art students and Beuys-addled coyotes… your basic concert of Cage-ian noises that often strike me as musical and usable in the course of the class when not drowning out somebody’s quiet utterances (I find Cage’s interviews, his articulations, to be useful on almost every subject they touch upon with the notable exception of writing, his own thoughts on writing as an actual practice, I mean). I had been re-reading Rings of Saturn very fast in recent days, not so much out of necessity, but out of a desire to talk about it without hammering out an annotated sensibility of voice to access so as to sound like my handle on the book is from anywhere but the wing. Because my handle is from the wing. And after a good conversation and look through an interview Sebald gave shortly before his death by automobile accident in 2002, we read the entirety of chapter VII aloud, trading pages, and I was especially struck on this re-read by the layered pacing provoked by the combination of our alternating voices and Sebald’s sleepwalking quickness within hypotactic sentences of varying length. I mean, my silent reading voice is terribly fast to the point where I rely, counter-intuitively, on my eyes to slow it down, while both my student’s and my own reading voices out loud were measured and steady, with occasional dips into acceleration on my part, but Sebald’s voice echoing out of the page, and he spoke of devoting a great deal of care and attention to each individual prose page, much as a poet does, I find to be neither fast nor slow. If I read it fast (silent) I pick up particularly on the dream-like quality of the writing in which one is transported from subject to subject without, possibly, noticing the transitions until thick in the middle of a separate description or listening to a new, previously sidelined voice.  When reading slowly the sentence structures might rise to the surface, or so might the humor embedded in the not quite fictional not quite non-fictional I doing the consciousness at work. To hear all these sensed reading rhythms at work in one sitting was fantastic, connective, and leveling, if one can be subtly leveled (ha). We’d last done a read of Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, a poem which I have now participated in reading aloud in its eighty page entirety at least ten different times, and which, through its own very different music, also constantly opens itself up to new reading experiences, for my part, particularly when the velocity of reading is varied. Mullen’s handling of the line as taut (musically) and fluid (by sense) unit within the quatrain, itself a taut & fluid unit within each page of four quatrains structuring a by-the-page episodic continuity for the poem without any visible sectioning taking place, as well as the poem’s receding and reforming multiple subjects help in large part to make this happen. Recently I came across a stanza in Muse & Drudge which struck as me quite likely to have been composed with Thelonious Monk’s number Masterioso on in the room, or having just been on. I don’t have the poem in front of me, but that song is one I was listening to walking down Madison Avenue this past autumn one day while thinking it would be really great if this one particular harpsichord sonata by Scarlatti came on next, and it did, a mild surprise as it was one of four hundred possibilities, not exactly long odds, but it put me in a kind of bliss state that a few minutes of listening made feel rather endless. All I seem to think about musically these days is the notes and silences in piano-based music. There’s a great moment in Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts during which he announces that it is time to consider the music of Scarlatti and his words to that composer’s ability to squeeze so much music into such tight little spaces can easily be read as an un-self-conscious description of what reading Briggflatts can be like for all of its density and leaps across time and landscape. Anyway, I wanted to get to Sebald moving into a take on the deserted, soundless month of August in Suffolk County. He writes, doing the voice of his friend Michael Hamburger, for weeks, said Michael, there is not a bird to be seen. It is as if everything was somehow hollowed out. Everything is on the point of decline, and only the weeds flourish: bindweed strangles the shrubs, the yellow roots of nettles creep onward in the soil, burdock stands a whole head taller than oneself, brown rot and greenfly are everywhere, and even the sheets of paper on which one endeavors to put together a few words and sentences seem covered in mildew. For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving or admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. Perhaps we will all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life. And I will govern the course of the rest of my day today, people of the present, by putting most of that, maybe not the we part, in my pipe and smoking it, so you won’t have to, unless you so desire.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 by Anselm Berrigan.