River, crying

On his Facebook page, the poet Alfred Corn plays himself as the educational version of Whitman’s Spontaneous Me: a Socrates who bestows questions, instant by instant, on the corpus of poetry. Professor Corn’s May 4 question, for example, was: “Can a poem indict or pronounce judgment and still be a good poem? Is, for example, Neruda’s poem about the United Fruit Company a good poem?”

Neruda aside, the answer is “Of course.” But on the Facebook page the exercise generated much excited brow-furrowing among the friends. The reason for the excitement may have been only pedagogical: Corn teaches modern literature, and in the here and now (any here and now) it’s hard to predict what is likely to last. Still, even here and now it wouldn’t have taken much effort to recall The Divine Comedy. If the words “poem,” “good,” and “judgment” have any meaning, then of course The Divine Comedy is a good poem, and of course it pronounces judgment. Indicting and pronouncing judgment are what saturnine temperaments do, and if someone with a saturnine temperament also happens to be a great artist — say, a Dante or a Swift or a Goya — then we’ll get great art that pronounces judgment.

So far, so sophomore survey. If it slipped the minds of Corn and his friends, the explanation may be no more shameful than a desire for unshadowed pleasantness during the act of reading. After all, garden statuary throughout the English-speaking world speaks to that desire by making a little verbal gesture of motto and performative self-description:

Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” Ezra Pound took uncompromising exception to this sunniness. For his own motto and and self-description, he took a long view of himself in the third person, declared that third person “out of step with his time,” and then explained in bibliographic detail:

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

That was in 1920, and as of 2011 Pound has long since fallen into step with the academic calendar. But it seems likely that sundials and their poem are still the more convincing pacers-off of time. From their garden in 2011, sundial and poem invite us to join the orbit of Facebook and become part of its unending cycle of nervous small talk and reassuring consolation.

But the inconsolable among us may still need the poetry of judgment for the different way it teaches us to look toward the sun. Consider Psalm 137, for instance.


“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
From the Chludov Psalter (9th-century Byzantine).
Photoshopped for color and sharpness


This river doesn’t follow the law of cycles. Its course is linear, with a beginning and an ending. It begins in the wordy cry of an uttering mouth, and it comes to an end at the margin of the parchment, where the words run out and (as the idiom has it, but usually not this literally) nothing remains to be said.



Once it has reached that wordless space, the psalm pronounces its judgment. Its penultimate verse is, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” In the English of the King James Version, the term “happy” has its old sense of “fortunate,” so this verse plays a grim, delphic word game with the vocabulary of gift exchange and reward. But where there are no clouds, the delphic must give up its smiling secrets. Irony evaporates from the words, they begin radiating a heat as dry as desert rock, and the psalm ends: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

When he drew those words, the artist of the Chludov psalter understood that in this text the river and the man must be one. Where there is no water cycle, every loss is irrecoverable and every word spoken is a word that is gone. Where the words run, man and river are one cry. In the light by which we read the cry, every hour is sunny.


Waiting for a plane, somebody has second thoughts about being human

In an art of movement we have no reason to devote our particular attention to contemporary man.

The machine makes us ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if electricity’s unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active men and the corrupting inertia of passive ones?

Saws dancing at a sawmill convey to us a joy more intimate and intelligible than that on human dance floors.

For his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film.

Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.

Dziga Vertov, “WE: Variant of a Manifesto” (1922). 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin, 2011), 213-14.


The acknowledgment section of Alex Danchev’s valuable anthology is human in a way that makes you want to applaud Vertov’s chorus line of dancing saws. Most but by no means all of Danchev’s bibliographical citations are set down in the order of their authors’ appearance in the book, without page numbers, and if his Vertov chapter has a named translator or source, I lost them in the confusion. No doubt: if you want your book orderly and alphabetical, with no acting out in the front matter, your best bet is to ask a machine.

Generalizing from what he saw, Dziga Vertov renamed his thinking apparatus “Kinok” (kino + oko + chelovek, “movie + eye + man”) in order to suggest that machines can fly us free from the limitations of our own clumsy humanity. Vertov also happened to live in a society where it appeared for a while that the commissars understood machines that way too. Certainly they did speak in machine language.


V. Dobrovolsky (1939), “Long live the mighty air force of the land of socialism!”
Click to enlarge.


For the word aviatsiya in this poster’s caption, the Russian-English dictionaries I consulted offered me a choice between “aviation” and “aircraft,” and I adopted “air force” only after correction and contextualization by the Slavicists posting under the names of Hat and Moskva at http://languagehat.com (comment stream, 8 May 2011 post “The Little Seagulls.” Thanks!) But before I had gotten even that far, I was uncertain about Da zdravstvuyet, the imperative that starts the image’s caption. Long live the air force? Your health, air force? That would be the literal translation. No doubt the idiom works better in Russian, a language with grammatical gender where airplanes are masculine. ¡Viva!

However, this moth-shaped little red airplane does seem to be unambiguously alive, doesn’t it? To a Russian in 1939, to a Dziga Vertov, it would even have a claim on the family’s love, a name, and a nickname: the Polikarpov I-16 “Donkey,” stalwart in the Republican air force during the Spanish civil war. But we don’t need to be part of the family to think that those cute little wings are flapping as they bring the airplane up to our face for a kiss. Down on the ground, unable to see or understand the kiss, grownups are marching in neat rectangular blocks that pass around the Kremlin and then drift into larger blocks like floes in a river. We can’t see individual faces there, but we don’t need to. Formed into squads at ground level, they are the base that supports a single airborne image, and down there they’re interchangeable with any other rubble.

At the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the shadow of Hitler’s
airplane (circled) descends over a pavement of marching Nazis.


But we who wait for the little red airplane are watching from a high branch, far above the adult flagstone. We are in the airplane’s nest, and the little airplane is flapping its mighty way home to us.

Dziga Vertov called that emotionally charged machine motion kinchestvo, a word that translates as something like “movieness.” It was his way of imagining the body language of a society fully socialist. As an image, his conception could have looked something like Alexander Rodchenko’s famous poster for Eisenstein’s Potemkin: a dynamic geometry from which the human has been expelled: dumped over the side to drown in a stern Euclidean cosmos.


“Battleship Potemkin. Director, S. M. Eisenstein.
Cinematographer, Eduard Tisse.”


But not long after 1925, the year of Potemkin, the social geometries of Rodchenko and Vertov were suppressed in favor of the paysage moralisé of Socialist Realism. Rodchenko and Vertov envisioned a universe liberated from the human, or at least liberated from what the human had been until the Bolshevik Revolution, but Socialist Realism loved its machines in a cozier way. Socialist Realism inhabits a Disneyfied cosmos, and the simplifying single-point perspective prevailing there welcomes vision in and then lovingly prevents it from escaping.

The words in Rodchenko’s battleship poster have become part of the battleship. They are weapons, and they have struck the falling officer. He is now about to fall through the image plane and vanish. The arc of his fall teaches a geometry of terror. But in the Socialist-Realist universe there is no such teaching. It is not allowable. There, beyond a horizon drawn through the human, nothing may be conceived. Beyond the state, visualized as a march in ranks around the Kremlin and then back and around again, nothing. Beyond visual forms conceived in literary terms, as characters in a fable situated in space by a moral caption (THE LAND OF SOCIALISM!), nothing.

Likewise, for policy reasons: after the pure kinchestvo of Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera (1929), nothing. Man with Movie Camera is a dance of saws, but the last of Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934) is nothing but a twenty-minute version of the Kazakh national anthem at the end of Borat. Like the poster depicting mighty aircraft moved like marionettes along the illusion lines of perspective, Three Songs about Lenin is flat. It cannot move toward us or away from us. It is held flat against its screen by men in uniforms.



But the history of its flattening comes to us now with a cheerful moral, delivered airmail. In what’s called historical actuality, the cute little Polikarpov I-16 was an efficient dealer of death: “the world’s first cantilever-winged monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear,” according to Wikipedia. Man with Movie Camera probably has the power to destroy too, just like Rodchenko’s gun shapes. But the change from Rodchenko’s primary forms to Dobrovolsky’s aerobiedermeier tells us that after just one look at the poetry of machines, the commissars decided that they much preferred the comic books of the human.

Reflex and wonder

I’ve written about it before: a block from my house there’s a playground with a soccer field where cattle egrets forage. As the big riding lawnmower makes its rounds there, they follow it, pacing off the greenness in silent, dignified strides.

As I was picking up my newspaper this morning, I heard a loud noise, looked up from the lawn, and saw that I was abreast of a semi-trailer hauling the lawnmower away. Behind and above the trailer, flapping hard, followed one of the egrets, keeping up as best he could. For about a block more he continued, but then the truck picked up speed and left him behind.

Alone, the bird made a turn, soared to treetop level, and rose, white into white-clouded blue. I remembered what I had learned about Pavlov’s dogs and Lorenz’s geese and nature’s school where we learn motive and desire, but the white arc hinted that there may always be an unknown, somewhere in the air, to fill us with surprise and love.

Second homes

March 20, 1939: Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem, writes to Walter Benjamin, in Paris:

I’ll be traveling to Port Said at the beginning of next week, to see my mother for three hours once again when her ship [carrying her from Germany to exile in Australia] puts into harbor there: this is likely to be our last meeting by human reckoning. I’ll be writing much more soon. I will certainly make use of any opportunity I might somehow, somewhere, come across for you. I am asking myself whether you shouldn’t try to get into the U.S.A. while you still can, and whether that wouldn’t be better for you than anything else. (251)

September 25, 1942: snow falls in Iowa and Illinois, USA. For the weather bureau in Des Moines this is the first September snowfall on record, and elsewhere in the state the football game between Garner and Buffalo Center has to be called after wet, wind-blown snow breaks seven lights on the field. On a train, the conductor and brakeman are impressed enough to make a note. In chalk, one of them writes “1′ / of Snow 9-25 5 PM” on one of the rafters that support the roof of his caboose. The words will still be there four months later, when the photographer Jack Delano records a moment in the history of the caboose for the Office of War Information.

Click to enlarge.

To posterity, Delano will later explain: “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. The caboose is the conductor’s second home. He always uses the same one and many conductors cook and sleep there while waiting for trains to take back from division points.” After Delano, other viewers of the image will follow his narrative to its completion. To the comment stream where I found the image on Shorpy.com, one will contribute the weather report for September 25, 1942, while others will observe the splatters of tobacco juice on the floorboards and the different sorts of girls’ pictures on the bulkheads. Those data are precious to the commentators because they are history, because there are no cabooses now. The commentators explain: brakemen are no longer needed to watch for fires under the train because wheel bearings are no longer packed with oil-soaked rags; and switches now are thrown electrically under radio control, not manually by a brakeman who has climbed down from a caboose; and air pressure in the train’s brake lines is now read and communicated to the engineer by electronic sensors, not by a brakeman swinging a lantern.

But the brakeman in Jack Delano’s picture doesn’t know. For the camera he is wearing new overalls and a new shirt and smoking a pipe, as many American men did in January 1943, the month that shows on the calendar beside his head. Photography has done its magic again; looking, we believe the moment can be 1943 forever, with the pipe scenting the air along with coal smoke from the iron stove. And above the conductor’s head, as he sits at his desk, is the punctum of the men’s presence in the moment: inconspicuous on the bulkhead behind the girl prettily standing on tiptoe to hang laundry on a line the way American women did in 1943, an air pressure gauge. Until that indicated a certain number to a brakeman, a train in 1943 couldn’t move. But of course there’s nothing left of any of this information, now, except a still photographic image bearing pictures of a conductor and a brakeman and some scribbled words and some pretty girls who are less likely than the two men in their little portable home to have gone invisible to memory.

As to Gershom Scholem’s mother, she disappears from the text of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem after the sentence I’ve quoted above. The correspondence itself ends fourteen pages later. We know how it turned out. In an appendix, Scholem notes that cemetery attendants in Port Bou “who, in consideration of the number of inquiries, wanted to assure themselves of a tip” (268) used to show visitors an enclosed plot of ground and tell them it was Benjamin’s grave. But it wasn’t a grave.

Here below are some more plats of homes from which Walter Benjamin was absented. And Susan Schultz, whose mother now listens as an attendant in what’s called a home reads to her from The Little Prince, thinks of exile and a lost kingdom and writes:

There was a happy ending, at least for a time. Using dowsing sticks, they found a spot, unmarked by stone or twig, dug until they reached a vein of water. They drank from the same bucket, sharing more than the cold water. But then the daughters came, and their retinues, and their resentments, even the youngest one’s recovered love. There were swords and bitter words, nothing water could wash away, not yet.





http://www.shorpy.com/node/10430  “Haifa, British Mandate Palestine, circa 1940. ‘Swimming pool at the Casino, Bat Galim neighborhood.’ Medium-format acetate negative by the American Colony Photo Department/Matson Photo Service.”


Works cited:

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940. Ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. New York: Schocken, 1989.

Schultz, Susan. “King Lear Enters The Little Prince.http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2011/04/king-lear-enters-little-prince.html, 25 April 2011.