‘It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.
‘Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting.
‘Genoa was first published in 1965 by the Jargon Society, a small press associated with the Black Mountain school of American poetics. Its story, to the extent that it has one, is not hard to relate: a certain clubfooted, nonpracticing MD, Michael Mills, ponders his relationship with his murderous and broken sibling, Carl. In the process, he burnishes their lives and upbringing in a field of exploratory quotation, not limited to extensive quotation from the complete works of Herman Melville, a mulch of Christopher Columbus’s diaries, and even a brief stopover in the literary confines of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. …
‘How do you read it then? Like all the books that have changed me as a reader and made me think otherwise about the book as a vessel for language, Genoa can be read in ways that are like unto the novel, in which you start at the beginning and move page by page to the end. But you can also read Genoa as a particularly rich act of Melvillean scholarship by a person with abundant feeling for the work of his great-grandfather. You can read it, too, as a work of scholarship about American exploration narratives, a kind of Anatomy of Melancholy in which all is the lesson of the classics. And you can read it as a work of repetition compulsion about what lineage is. Each of these readings is coincident with the others, and each is available at any time. In a way, Genoa requires that you don’t start at the beginning on one of your perusals of its chapters, but rather that you start in the middle and let the languorous semiosis of compulsive quotation be your guide.And it also requires that you read only for Columbus, and that you skip the quotations entirely. It permits you license as a reader, and judges you not at all.
‘And so Genoa is also a work about the act of reading. As the beginning, the transition, into Metcalf ’s subsequent vanishing into quotation and poetry, this makes sense, that the work should be about reading, that it should locate the old debunked theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the stratum of citation, in which all novels consist of a history of literature, each with its influence.
‘So much happening in such an abbreviated space, a mere couple hundred pages! More the length of a poem than the length of a novel. And happening well before the period in which fiction this innovative (I’m thinking of the period between, for instance, Snow White, by Donald Barthelme, and The Age of Wire and String, by Ben Marcus) would have found a success d’estime simply for being new and unpredictable. But that is exactly why this reissue gives us a chance for an overdue reevaluation, and gives you the opportunity to have the experience with this book that I was so happy to have, the experience in which the history of literature, again, seems populated by eruptions of a kind you never knew to expect, eruptions of the unpredictable and new.’ — Rick Moody
Paul Metcalf @ Wikipedia
Paul Metcalf @ goodreads
No Wooden Horse
The Unyielding Sea: Genoa by Paul Metcalf
Book Review: Genoa
Genoa – Paul Metcalf
Paul Metcalf @ BIBLIOMANIAC
Paul Metcalf on Craft, Heritage & Selection
We understand the New by comparing it with the Old
PAUL METCALF (1917-1999): A EULOGY
Paul Metcalf / Guy Davenport
Rick Moody Considers the Poetic Collage & Novelistic Pleasures of Paul Metcalf’s Genoa
Paul Metcalf, 81; Wrote Experimental Tales
Buy ‘Genoa: A Telling of Wonders’
Paul Metcalf (1917-1999)
Paul Metcalf – Genoa – Book Review
Paul Metcalf’s limits as a writer
John O’Brien: What have been the influences of modern poetic techniques on your conception of prose? I should point out two things: first, the poets I have in mind are Pound, Williams, and Olson; second, I am purposely avoiding the word “fiction,” though you are usually thought of as a novelist.
Paul Metcalf: The poets, it seem to me, have offered us an opportunity to “particularize”—i.e., to break a narrative into its particular parts, and rearrange them according to an original pattern. There is a significant connection between the images from the world of electromagnetics, images used in one case by Pound, and the other by Olson. Pound speaks of the poem as the “rose in the steel dust,” and Olson describes the poem as a thing among things, that must “stand on its own feet as, a force, in, the fields of force which surround everyone of us. . .” Both these images suggest particles in a state of chaos, drawn into shape through an act of imagination, but retaining their character as particles, distinct from one another.
The American dynamic (in their example, the historical dynamic) is the separation and exposure of the particles, spread out and shaping, all in one difficult process, seemingly contradictory but not so, and not to be easily congealed in the European manner—particularly in Olson’s and Williams’ view—not brought together, but spreading and shaping in one gesture, as in the “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe, spreading and shaping.
The poet Clark Coolidge works with even smaller particles—individual words and syllables—and in correspondence with me he has used these phrases: “just what are words & what do they do?”—”manipulation of language particles”—”words surrounded by spaces”—and “particles are interesting.”
Compared to all this, the conventional novel, with its sequential flow of events, seems less “original,” or, more simply, less appropriate to the character and quality of American life today.
A careful reading of Moby-Dick, by the way, will show how modern it is, how much in line it is with what I am talking about here, After a conventional novelistic opening, Melville quickly particularizes, interjecting (between narrative sequences) particles of cetology, the practice of whaling, etc.—”the ballast of the book,” as Van Wyck Brooks put it. Has anyone ever made a comparative study of Moby-Dick and Paterson?
Is Moby-Dick a poem written in prose?
(Clark Coolidge once tried seriously to find any reference to Melville in Williams’ writings. The closest he could come was in a letter Williams wrote to someone: “Flossie is now reading Moby Dick.” No more.)
(And when Olson published Call Me Ishmael, he gave a copy to Pound, and asked him to send it on to Eliot, to see if Eliot could arrange for an English edition. . . .Pound obliged, with a note to Eliot: “I recommend that you publish it, it’s a labor-saving device-you don’t have to read Melville.”)
But this is another matter, that I will get into later: the artificial separation of 19th and 20th centuries. Pound and Williams were evidently so aware of themselves as innovators that they were not altogether conscious of their heritage.
JOB: When you eliminate so many of the conventions of the traditional novel (i.e., plot, and sometimes even characters), what becomes the principle of unity? How do you move from point A to point B?
PM: The principle of unity is “the rose in the steel dust,” and I can be no more specific than to say that this is something inside me, and that effecting its transfer, from inside my skin to outside it, is the reason for writing (as well as the process). The pattern may be clear in its details—or nebulous, only vaguely intuited—but the pursuit, the delineation of its outlines dictates every step—or at least dictates what is point A and what is point B. Then—how to get from A to B—this is best done abruptly. I learned long ago, from a very wise man, that “the only real work in creative endeavor is keeping things from falling together too soon.” A corollary to that notion would be that, having held the structural elements apart as long as possible, when they do come together, let them really clang. And this is not work, it is only the courage to move abruptly. Nothing softens and muddies a piece of writing so much as what used to be taught in writing classes as “transitions.” Let the relation of your particles be implicit, discoverable by the reader. When you have accomplished this, you will have a quality that Guy Davenport has used in describing my writing: tensegrity (which, as near as I can make out, is one of Bucky Fuller’s neologisms, meaning that when you erect a structure, if all the lines holding it are taut or tense, it will stay up. Tension=integrity.).
It might be worth adding that one doesn’t always travel from point A to point B. It might be from A to point L, for example—with points B through K inferred.
JOB: To continue with these connections. Genoa, I think, is a tightly written book, each of whose pages seems to reverberate with echoes of other pages. I can see the smile on your face as you came across a passage in Columbus about feet or a line in Melville about heads: connections, Did you have to keep charts, listing such references, when you were writing Genoa? Did you consciously seek out material that would set up these echoes?
PM: I am flattered that you consider Genoa a tightly written book—this is as I would want it to be. And I humbly (proudly?) confess to the many smiles that crossed my face, as the rhymes and reflections emerged. No, I didn’t have to keep charts; my notes, although lengthy and complex, never exploded beyond 8-1/2×11 (almost entirely handwritten) . In developing the thing, I functioned pretty much according to the premise I outlined for Carl and Michael. I “intuited” the Columbus-Melville connection, by which I mean that a body of knowledge about them, of which I was only dimly aware, may have existed somewhere within me, and when I began to open it (i.e. , research the lives and writings of the two men), the revelations came as a series of confirming surprises.
I draw the line, however, at your last suggestion. I did not consciously seek out these echoes. I didn’t have to. They were all there. All I had to do was find them. And having found them, I then followed the dictum of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.”
JOB: One of your methods for “combining” is juxtaposition, which you do not use as a substitute for clumsy metaphors but rather as a way of focusing sharply on the “particles.”
PM: I am much happier, and always have been, with the word juxtaposition than I am with metaphor. Another term I have used is mosaic, and my friend Don Byrd speaks of immense rhymes: “you pick up these unlikely chunks, and they do slip together, like a perfect tenon mortise joint.” And, yes, this is a constant in my work, this approach.
I think there’s a reason why Don uses the word “immense.” I’m not doing anything much different from a good poet, putting two words or two phrases together in an original way—or a good colorist in painting, Joseph Albers for example, looking for the chemistry of this yellow against this lavender, etc.; the difference is simply the size and proportion of the units I use: instead of words or phrases, I use whole lives, concepts, episodes or epochs.
JOB: In The Savage Mind Claude Levi-Strauss talks about the attention that primitive people gave to naming objects, which they then would put to magical uses, such as curing illnesses or freeing themselves from curses. He says that such naming and use of objects is of no “scientific” value but that these activities meet “intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs. The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak does in fact cure toothache. It is rather whether there is a point of view from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as ‘going together’ . . . and whether “some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings” (emphasis added). I want to ask whether your juxtapositions do not serve the same purpose—to group objects in order to create an order.
PM: I’ve thought a lot about this lately—the magic of simply naming things, and then the virtues (homeopathic, among others) of associating, perhaps in a new way, the named and/or described objects, episodes, histories, landscapes, etc. There is certainly a parallel here, between what I try to do and what Levi-Strauss describes among primitive peoples. In my books, it can be found in its simplest form in Zip Odes, which is nothing but names, regrouped; it is this philosophical thrust, I think, that gives a serious tone to what is otherwise a flippant book. It exists at a more sophisticated level, of course, in the other books, where rather than simply a single place, I am dealing with complex entities, histories, cultures, geographies, etc.
This is nothing that I ever set out to do consciously: to be “primitive.” It’s just that I’m sure there was an instinctive feeling, when I was younger, that the old European groupings, the associations and premises of Western civilization that we Americans inherited, were worn out, and that a new grouping and shaping, a new “rose in the steel dust,” based on a renaming and redescribing, was called for.
It’s interesting to see, among readers, whether this works or not. For Guy Davenport, it obviously does: speaking of the three major themes in Genoa, he says that I make “them touch just when they can speak in concert, disclosing ironies, deepening the intuitive evidence that there is a plot to American history.” For Robert Von Hallberg (writing in Parnassus, Fall/ Winter, 1978), the method obviously does not work: “Genoa is a mad book . . .this paranoid modernist view . . . Michael’s contrivances are hilarious . . .this outrageous book.”
There is, I suppose, a certain fatuous aspect—at least one exposes himself to ridicule—in trying to be primitive in a sophisticated world. But it is an important question you raise, and the answer is, yes, all my books must be understood, if they are to be understood at all, in terms of something very close to what Levi-Strauss is talking about. For someone like Von Hallberg, who apparently doesn’t share my mistrust of the old groupings, an attempt to restructure must appear “hilarious” and “outrageous.”
Paul Metcalf Genoa: A Telling of Wonders
Coffee House Press
‘First published in 1965, Genoa is Metcalf’s purging of the burden of his relationship to his great-grandfather Herman Melville. In his signature polyphonic style, the life of Melville, Melville’s use and conversion of the Columbus myth, and the story of the Mills brothers—one, an M.D. who refuses to practice, the other an executed murderer—vibrate and sing a quintessentially American song.
‘Paul Metcalf (1917–1999) was an American writer and the great-grandson of Herman Melville. His three volume Collected Works were published by Coffee House Press in 1996.’ — Coffee House Press
Item: a Post-mortem: to understand my brother Carl
Item: for the living, myself and others, to discover what it is to heal, and why, as a doctor, I will not.
In Lisbon, — rank with bodega, wine in the wood, salt fish, tar, tallow, musk, and cinnamon — the sailors talk
of monsters in the western ocean, of gorgons and demons, succubi and succubae, maleficent spirits and unclean devils, unspeakable things that command the ocean currents—of cuttlefish and sea serpents, of lobsters the tips of whose claws are fathoms asunder, of sirens and bishop-fish, the Margyzr and Marmennil of the north, goblins who visit the ship at night, singe hair, tie knots in ropes, tear sails to shreds—of witches who raise tempests and gigantic waterspouts that suck ships into the sky—of dragon, crocodile, griffin, hippogriff, Cerberus, and Ammit.
In summer, too, Canute-like: sitting here, one is often reminded of the sea. For not only do long ground-swells roll the slanting grain, and little wavelets of the grass ripple over up on the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of the billows, and a still August noon broods up on the deep meadows, as a calm upon the Line; but the vastness and the lonesomeness are so oceanic, and the silence and the sameness, too, that the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.
Threading its way out from among his gray hairs, and continuing right down his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.
Now, from this peculiar sideways position of the whale’s eyes, it is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can one exactly astern. In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears…you would have two backs, so to speak; but, at the same time, also, two fronts (side fronts): for what is it that makes the front of a man—what, indeed, but his eyes?
I step back from the desk, gaining my sea-legs. I am braced, with one hand on the chimney. The house arches and shudders — an inverted hull, with kelson aloft against the weather. and the human sperm enters a reservoir, low in oxygen — an thence to the vas deferens, in the lowest, coolest scrotal area…
There being division, I am able to observe myself, to be at once within and without, and an exploration occurs, inwardly derived, over the surfaces, the topography of face and head, and downward over my body, I gain the sense of being different, of causing this difference in myself, of altering the outwardness of myself. I discover that flesh and muscle, perhaps even bone, and certainly cartilage, are potentially alterable, according as the plan is laid down. And the plan itself may shift and change: I may be this Michael or that, Stonecipher or Mills—Western Man or Indian, sea-dog or lubber, large-headed or small, living then or now; and even such outrageous fables as that of Ulysses’ men into swine become not unreasonable, when we understand that the men must have experienced some swinish designs within themselves, to which Circe had access . . .
You must have plenty of sea-room to tell the Truth in; especially when it seems to have an aspect of newness, as America did in 1492, though it was then just as old, and perhaps older than Asia, only those sagacious philosophers, the common sailors, had never seen it before, swearing it was all water and moonshine there.
…for Melville, space and time are one. Later, he writes: Fusing with the amnion, becoming the amnion, turning all to gray and white, I am no longer Michael, but everyone — a particle in an explosion — all time and space — and therefore nothing.
p.s. Hey. ** Chaim Hender, Hi. My total pleasure on your videos. Well, I think the ‘slack eloquence mode’ — wonderful way to put it, and thank you — is a result of the fact that I myself talk like my characters do but without the saving refinement and editing. When I write, even here, I clean my voice up, but face to face, I’m a pretty sloppy talker, I think. I tend to chalk that up to growing up in LA. Also, I never studied fiction writing in school so I never had any voice but my own drilled into me. Cool, I’ll go read that writing you linked to and find out what you mean. And I’ve read very little of Chris Marker’s prose, so I’m excited to read that too. Those AIDS pictures are tough. I lost a ton of friends, and it’s hard for me to look at them. I’m not really a good one to recommend a book from which to learn about the epidemic. Having been there, I don’t really head towards books about it. Steve Erickson had a recommendation for you if you saw that. I don’t think you’d feel self-conscious here. Parisians have a bad reputation as being difficult and judgemental, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I have Jewish-American and Israeli friends here, and they don’t seem to have any issues being here related to who they are. Give it a shot. ** Amphibiouspeter, Hi, Peter. The tunnels are really old. Some were dug to hold the remains of plague victims, and others for reasons I don’t know. Some of them are huge and long, and they keep finding them when they do metro expansions. Getting published or trying to is no fun in the best of circumstances. What are you trying to publish, and what is your game plan as of now? You take care too. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. It seems like moire people agree with you about ‘BR’ than with me. Such is life. Yeah, very sad what’s come of Eddie Furlong. I keep hoping he pulls out of whatever mire he’s in. He has a super focused talent, but, when he’s good, he’s really very good. As you know I interviewed Brad Renfro circa ‘Apt Pupil’, and he was easily most obviously tormented actor (or musician) I ever interviewed. ** Misanthrope, Howdy. He was great in ‘Pecker’. Ah, a Lego game. I’ve never played one of those. I think I would like to since I’m imagining whatever bosses are in those games, if any, are easy peasy. Oh, God, fingers ultra-crossed re: LPS’s court date. Big up on the insurance relief. ** Bill, Hi. You’re almost making me wish I’d done Thanksgiving. Holiday socialising sounds like the best way to do a holiday. I heard the new Pere Ubu is good, I’ll snag it. Bon Monday. ** _Black_Acrylic, Ho, Ben. That is a really nice image combo. Wish I could see that show. ** Alistair, Hey big A! I’m good. The fact that it was in the mid-90s when I was there in late October was scary, but in the 90s right now? That is truly scary. Oh God. Book rollouts are as emotionally complicated as anything can be, you ask me, and it doesn’t become less so after book upon book. I think it’s good. A newly published book and its ripples is like having a short-is term therapist in a weird way. Freed up, yeah, I hear you. Best feeling from which to initiate anything, obviously. ‘Permanent Green Light’ is currently under consideration by two film festivals and another two will start considering it this week. We’re just waiting anxiously for a hopeful yes, especially from one festival where we really hope to have the premiere. So, yeah, just waiting and stressing. And we are working on the script for the next film, yeah. Early stages, but we’re both pretty excited about it. ‘Crowd’ seems to be going really well. I wasn’t at the premiere. I’ll see it in Paris soon. Gisele and I want to make some changes/advancements before the Paris shows, so I’ll see it in rehearsals first. Have as great, great day! ** Steve Erickson, I liked ‘DRC’ too. Very charming. I’ve never had the slightest interest in Kiss. I think, sadly, Mr. Furlong is in a phase of his career where he has to take almost any work he’s offered, so Boll, SyFy Movie Channel movies, etc. I like what I’ve heard of Converge. I’ve never gotten deeply into their catalog, but for no reason. I’ll audio-peek a bit more. Yeah, it was utterly predictable that ‘CMBYN’ was going to be the new social media lightning rod. Cue the pro and con hysteria. Step aside Lena Dunham, et. al. The Julian Calendar album is excellent, isn’t it? That Jeff is one talented dude. ** H, Hi. I did get your email. Thank you very much! My total pleasure about the Marie Menken post. I’m so happy that it made some people passionate. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! I had a feeling you would be a Furlong fan. On the new film script, we’ll just keep inching forward. I’ve started sketching out out some new scenes. No timeline or deadline. We’re about to get swept up in another huge writing project with Gisele that I’ve mentioned mysteriously before but still can’t talk about yet, so we would like to get as far as we can with the script before it starts to battle with the other work. What a nice weekend you had indeed! My weekend was all right. I worked on the film script for the aforementioned reasons. I saw a bunch of friends. I almost went to see some movies in the Harun Farocki retrospective going on here but didn’t ultimately. This and that. It was good, and my schedule starts getting busy today so having the relax time was perfectly fine. You worked today, yes? Any highlights, lowlights, or anything in between? ** Tina, Hi, Tina! Welcome to here! Good to meet you! I’m happy we share Mr. Furlong as an intrigue source. Oh, wow, thank you for invitation re: the Kathy Acker event. I mean, I would love to. It’s really just a matter of if I can get to NYC somehow. I don’t know anything about Sarah Schulman’s event. So, yes, thank you, and I would really like to if I can figure out how. Oh, if you need too reach me off-blog, my email is: email@example.com. Take care! ** Right. I would say that Paul Metcalf is easily in the running for the most unread and under-celebrated great visionary American novelist. I’ve long wanted to do a post re: him, and I was able to find enough fragments of his novel ‘Genoa’ online to make that possible. I had hoped to do the post about his 1982 novel ‘Waters of Potowmack’, which I consider maybe his greatest, but there is almost zip online about it. Anyway, I hope the post and his work interest you. See you tomorrow.