Ghazal, Guitars, and Dumb Blocks
Ed Ruscha, My Name Is Abstract, 1995 acrylic on raw linen, 24” x 20”  (Side A.07, DIRTY BABY)

Ed Ruscha, My Name Is Abstract, 1995
acrylic on raw linen, 24” x 20”
(Side A.07, DIRTY BABY)

by Ange Mlinko

David Breskin, Nels Cline, and Ed Ruscha. DIRTY BABY. Delmonico Books-Prestel 2010. 160 pp. $97.49

It seems there is always some plot afoot to get poetry “off the page,” always some recrudescent hope that poetry might evolve beyond reading. Which is odd, because the written is what poetry evolved into. Reading is harder than it looks, according to neurologists, who theorize that our eyes and neural networks have adapted to this relatively new task only with difficulty. And, to put it kindly, it’s not the most convivial activity. So the public poetry reading arose to broadcast and socialize an asocial art; and yet it is universally acknowledged that poetry readings are a colossal bore. Perhaps poets need a little help from their cousins in the showier genres? I once attended a Cooper Union performance of John Ashbery’s work set to contemporary classical music (it was glorious), and at a small bar in Cambridge I saw Robert Creeley collaborate with Steve Lacy (it was innocuous). Modern dance is sometimes set to poems, and YouTube abounds with poems set to video. Some of this seems like misplaced ambition, an attempt to short-circuit the long game that is poetry’s forte: amassing its readership, and its cultural authority, over time rather than space.

But “ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,” as Yeats puts it, and something within us pines atavistically for the communal experience. I was conditioned for it as a child: If prayers were my first memorized poems, then the Catholic Mass was my first Gesamtkunstwerk and the vaulted, stained-glass, smells-and-bells cathedral its theater. Later, The Birth of Tragedy enthralled me with its vision of Greek tragedy as the original Total Artwork. Opera and cinema are our modern versions of the Dionysia. I suspect it’s been hard to make the transition to a secular age—our original Total Artworks were dedicated to divinities.

In his book Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts, Daniel Albright, who until his death earlier this year taught in both the music and English departments at Harvard, invites us to wonder if the various arts are facets of one essence (Kandinsky thought so) and therefore mutually translatable. In other words, is there a Grand Unified Theory of the Arts? I turned to Albright’s book in part because I’ve always felt that music, poetry, and painting (and to a lesser extent sculpture and dance) are analogues of one another, even though attempts to unite them often seem shticky. I’ve known poets to be either inordinately drawn to or repelled by ekphrastic poems. Music lovers can be extreme in their rejection of verbal description—George Steiner, for example, holds that “talk about music is a suspect compromise.” The popular adage “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” encapsulates our distrust of analogies between the arts. At the same time, artists of various media are one another’s best audience and share source material. Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, New York in the 1950s: We glorify those eras in which a Picasso and a Nijinsky and a Cocteau mingled, or a Pollock and a Balanchine and an O’Hara. I daresay we are not living in one of those times.

Still, this is America, and the pure products do go crazy, as Williams noted. Someone, somewhere, is experimenting with what ostensibly cannot be done. David Breskin, for instance. Currently based in San Francisco, Breskin is something of a pop poet—his 2006 book Supermodel, published by Soft Skull Press, was billed as “the first epic poem of the Internet age”—as well as a record producer whose credits include albums by Bill Frisell and John Zorn. In 2005 he served as impresario of RICHTER 858, commissioning Frisell to compose music in response to a series of Gerhard Richter paintings. It was produced as a limited-edition coffee-table book, with essays by Dave Hickey and Klaus Kertess and poems by the likes of Ann Lauterbach and Dean Young. It was avant-garde and pop-friendly by turns, much like the art Hickey has championed in books such as Air Guitar. Breskin heard through the grapevine that Ed Ruscha admired RICHTER 858, and this emboldened him to try another collaboration. The result is DIRTY BABY, in which Ruscha’s paintings serve as a touchstone for music (by Nels Cline) and poetry (Breskin’s own).

Given latitude to choose any of Ruscha’s works, Breskin spent endless hours reviewing slides. He came up with sixty-six lesser-known “censor-strip” paintings, some from the Silhouette series and others from Cityscapes. To go with each painting, Breskin wrote a ghazal of the same title. Collectively, the ghazals tell a history of the world from biogenesis to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The first thirty-three, which comprise “Side A,” take us from the Paleozoic Era to the present, while “Side B” drills down into the war zone. When Breskin recruited Cline to provide the music, the architecture of the project was already in place. Cline would contribute one long continuous piece for Side A, and thirty-three shorter pieces for Side B. While Ruscha’s paintings have a restricted palette and visual vocabulary, Breskin’s and Cline’s contributions draw on many vocabularies, linguistic and musical respectively. Suffice it to say there are a lot of moving parts in DIRTY BABY.

DIRTY BABY comes in the form of a glossy art book, with poems and reproductions on facing pages and CDs in the end-leaves, all in a slipcase with cut-outs referencing Ruscha’s censor-strip paintings. Handsome, but heavy as a cinder block. At least, unlike multimedia projects that require installation or performance spaces, DIRTY BABY can be experienced in modular fashion in the comfort of one’s own home. Essentially, it is four artworks in one: three stand-alones and the whole they make when constellated.

Yes, the title, DIRTY BABY, with its nod to au courant “hybridity,” is cool; the legendary Ruscha is cool; it’s cool that Nels Cline is in the band Wilco. But Breskin’s conceptual reach is beyond cool: It’s goofy like Whitman, gaudy like Stevens. When I grasped the extent to which he uses all of poetry’s resources to create a sonically rich, prosodically strict, polyvocal, intelligent long poem, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him sooner. His ghazals on the genesis and evolution of life are beautiful, lush with geological and botanical language, and carrying too a hint of religious awe in their Adamic litany:

Ash tree, bay tree, bead tree, bean tree, beech tree, slanted, growing.
Big tree (sequoiadendron giganteum) anted, growing.

Birch tree, broom tree, cork tree, elm tree, fir tree, flame tree, fringe tree.
God tree, gum tree, larch, lime and love tree, enchanted, growing.

Ming tree, myrrh tree, nut tree, oak tree, palm tree, peach tree, pea tree.
Plum tree, rain tree, salt tree. Nut-leaved screw tree, canted, growing.

(“Joshua Tree”)

A lament in blues idiom about the violence of natural selection varies the tone:

Done took my livin’ as it came, done grabbed my joy, done risked
my life. Out of sweat, meat, and muscle, rips incarnate voice.

I’ve rambled, been chased, rambled an’ been chased so long it feels
like sport to me. Yelping kin, we roll with consummate voice.

(“Cry Box”)

Punning and sampling, science and statistics emerge as human history develops:

Eventually, atomic number 67.
Holmium—soft, silvery, metallic. Ho. Things change.

Habitual Offender in copspeak: HO, also
the ace gauge for trains under Xmas trees aglow. Things change.

I wouldn’t be running my life by some
ancient stupid taboo if I was you.

Five times a day you’re kissing dirt, praying
to what? I’d get a clue if I was you.

You have some options. Think. I’d be thinking
about a bloodless coup if I was you.

Or else. Or else I’d expect a sanguine
high-fiving bomber crew, if I was you.

(“Plenty Big Hotel Room (Painting for the American Indian)”)

Even when the ghazals go a little leaden or fat or tendentious, they bristle with uninhibited intellectual verve—a welcome quality, given that most contemporary intellectual poetry is too safe, and most verve-y poetry too dumb.

With DIRTY BABY at my fingertips, I turned again to Panaesthetics for some insight into what makes the different arts analogous. Albright prefers to think of works like DIRTY BABY as intermedial rather than multimedial. “An intermedial artwork is the imaginary artwork generated by the spectator through the interplay of two or more media—the transient, complex thing that is assembled in each spectator’s mind through attention to the elements in different media.” But he adds this caveat: “There is a danger that intermedial exercises will expose the vanity or uselessness of art.” In other words, that they will seem a mere contrivance. DIRTY BABY doesn’t feel like a contrivance: Its intermedial approach serves a joyful, wide-lens vision of the totality of life. Yet it risks exasperating us: overstimulating us with sensory information; taxing our ability to make instantaneous connections; in short, working us. “Art always exasperates,” ventures Albright, and I’m inclined to agree. In the case of DIRTY BABY, how do its three elements—visual, musical, poetic—not only achieve concinnity but persuade us to persevere through exasperation? Above all, does DIRTY BABY provide the catharsis we look for in a Gesamtkunstwerk?

Some say that multi- or intermedial art, far from being the most contrived, is the most natural to us. “[R]itual, mask, chorus and choreography long preceded our politically aligned literacies,” George Steiner writes in The Poetry of Thought. “They flourish still in the pre-technological world.” For him as for Nietzsche, the ancient Greek theater-extravaganza is a touchstone. But the Greeks were also the ones to divide the arts and invent muses for each.

Fusion and fission. The potential for play offered by binaries (1s and 0s), or dueling antitheses (Yes vs. No), has repeatedly opened ways to analyze a human activity that resists analysis. Music is nothing if not a play of binaries: rest/note; piano/forte, minor/major. Albright observes, “Once an antithesis is established, the composer may alternate, combine, vary, expand on, digress from, supersede, or otherwise compare, contrast, and entwine the two antithetical elements; in this manner the composer prosecutes an argument, thinks in music.” In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson claims that the tradition of lyric poetry began with Sappho’s coinage of glukupikron, an oxymoron she translates as “bittersweet.” Eros is simultaneously pleasurable and painful. Anna Karenina: “And hate begins where love leaves off . . .” Catullus: “I hate and I love.” Anacreon: “I’m in love! I’m not in love! I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!” They might be saying, “Yes! No!” or, “And 1 begins where 0 leaves off . . .”

If you are going to make the case that poetry, music, and visual art can be in conversation, albeit in different languages, then the antithetical form of the poem matters; in fact, it may be the only thing that really matters. The ghazal, with its internal monorhyme (qafia) and terminal refrain (radif ), is an enactment of fusion and fission, sameness and difference. Its doubling up of echo—one riffing, one unchanging—in couplet form is the binding factor in the poem. The more discontinuous the content from couplet to couplet, the more emphatically the form asserts its power to make almost anything cohere:

I wouldn’t be running my life by some
ancient stupid taboo if I was you.

Five times a day you’re kissing dirt, praying
to what? I’d get a clue if I was you.

You have some options. Think. I’d be thinking
about a bloodless coup if I was you.

Or else. Or else I’d expect a sanguine
high-fiving bomber crew, if I was you.

(“If I Was You I’d Do Just Like I Tell You to Do”)

Hey Atta you missed your last flight dead man
Why so hucka-lucka uptight dead man

Got your towlie boxcutter ass smack-dab
in my damn Abba-Dabba sight dead man

Yo camel-fuckin clit-choppin haji
raccoon sunni shithand shiite dead man

You be thankin me for all that virgin
pussy tight heavenly delight dead man

(“Your a Dead Man”)

But what of Ruscha and Cline? How do they employ antitheses? The paintings have an obvious dialectic at work in them. The censor strips or “dumb blocks” (Ruscha’s term) demand that we consider what we are not allowed to witness. We’re asked to look at something, then refused information. Whether paired with representational images or standing on their own like sinister Color Field paintings, the censor strips resemble blindfolds. But they also seem to coax the viewer to fill in the blank, to participate in completing the picture, to write a caption in the cartoon bubble. Something is censored, something is Mad Libbed. Something is offered, something is withheld. Both negative and positive readings of these dumb blocks are possible. It also occurs to me that the blocks withhold information but not (that spiritually tinged word) revelation. This may be another paradox to consider: that artworks produce revelation in spite of, or even because of, what’s redacted.

And what of the musical component of DIRTY BABY ? In his liner notes, Cline says that his composition on Side A is modeled on Miles Davis’s “Great Expectations,” while Side B, comprised of thirty-three short pieces, is a “total mashup of free jazz, hard rock, grindcore, Morton Feldmanesque swaths of indeterminacy, blues, Ellington/Evans references, spy music, and more—all to create tension between these sensibilities, to highlight differences, to punctuate conflict. I used every strategy I could, trying to make the punishment fit the crime.” He also writes that “all the music was played by the ensemble in real time.” (It was recorded over three consecutive days in January 2008.) This points to a difference between Cline and his collaborators: The music isn’t primarily a representation of anything so much as it is a happening, in real time, with musicians present. Music has no past tense, as George Steiner points out: “The meaning of music lies in its performance and audition . . . To explain what a composition means, ruled Schumann, is to play it again.” Cline’s compositions suggest a host of binaries, particularly harmony and noise. But above all, the music asks that we consider it an artifact of a performance, as a singular moment that has passed. Now we are—musicians, music; now we are not. It is the most poignant of the antitheses in the schema of DIRTY BABY.

Reading the project this way, one can, as Albright might say, follow the rhythm of consonance and dissonance between the three media. Consonance or correspondence is strong in the first third of the series. A-01, “Fistful of Aliens,” shows a censor strip hovering over a fuzzy, monochromatic image of what appear to be cactuses but could just as easily be spores or microbes; Breskin’s poem, which imagines the first stirrings of life on Earth, seems like a perfect fit. This evolutionary theme encounters a challenge at A-09, for which Breskin chose a painting of an ordinary, rather modern-looking table. How will he proceed? Cleverly, he decides to use the idiomatic “on the table” as the radif :

Meanwhile, in the real world, everything was on the table.
Reality-based life (fact finding) was on the table.

Eggs laid, butter churned, earth turned. Mill foaming lazy river.
Once wheat was in the bins, taxpaying was on the table.

The couplets go on to tell us that “double-entry bookkeeping,” “Stephen Hawking,” and “mapmaking” were all “on the table.” Ruscha’s literal table becomes a metaphorical table, and the evolutionary theme goes on seamlessly. Consonance between poem and image is particularly gratifying when unexpected, and such is the case here.

As for Cline, he responds to the paintings and ghazals with a piece that seems to mimic the increasing discordance of life on Earth as it evolves from the Paleozoic to what we now call the Anthropocene. In this it resembles a soundtrack, matching music to mood: a kind of consonance. But for the thirty-three short pieces on Side B, the listener must imagine a bridge between the music and the images.

Cline’s pastiche of styles abrades while Ruscha’s blocks withhold. And Breskin’s ghazals, stitched from different dictions and the lexicons of pundits, politicians, and soldiers, unify the work, splitting the difference between the paintings’ rigidity and the music’s cacophony. Making use of language like “kick-ass,” “Gitmo,” and “rotten bitch” for the radif of a ghazal is part of the cacophony; the repetition and isometrism give us the rigidity:

A videoconference. Our coarse kick-ass
prez eggs on his brass with a hoarse Kick-Ass!

If somebody tries to stop the march to
democracy, we must use force. Kick-Ass!

(“I’m Going to Leave More Nots and I’m Going to Kick More Ass”)

Come play! Be our treasured guest at Gitmo.
Enjoy the mild, mild West at Gitmo.

A Caribbean hideaway second
to none. You’ll feel full of zest at Gitmo.

(“You Talk You Get Killed”)

Like men these women. Dirty rotten bitch
points gun, breasts at me? Flirty rotten bitch.

(“You Dirty Rotten Bitch”)

(In Breskin’s notes, there is a disclaimer about this last ghazal, saying that it “lists the names of nineteen of the nearly one hundred American servicewomen who have been killed, or died, in Iraq during ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom.’ These women have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and the sentiments expressed in the qafia and radif are not those of the author.”)

Sarcastic, blasphemous, and obscene, the ghazals of Side B are hard to take, and much of their language, sampled from headlines and filled with buzz words like “blowback,” is inherently, violently boring. Throughout DIRTY BABY, in fact, the repetitions of Breskin’s ghazals ought to drive us nuts. And yet they save the whole artwork—Cline’s noise, the thuggish censor strips. By bending the iron rod of cliché into a repetitive pattern, Breskin exorcises it. The form is a kind of magic: This is the truth of the thing.

There is no sweetness in DIRTY BABY. The ghazals are rude and vibrant, but also grandly rhetorical and impersonal. The music is cerebral, as are the paintings. Paradoxically, the exasperation they provoke is stimulating, and finally cathartic. And it’s satisfying to see the invasion of Iraq addressed with such unsentimental formality. If you cringed at the protest poems written in the wake of the invasion (Poets Against the War, etc.), and wondered if “real art” ever came out of it, look no further.

I suggested that form may be the only thing that really matters vis-à-vis poetry in the intermedial artwork. The paradoxes of the ghazals echo those of the paintings and music: This is how they keep their trialogue going, communicating through analogues that achieve powerful consonances. The fact that the ghazal finally unifies the cacophony of Side B is proof enough. But I have a corollary to that proposition. The Creation story that Breskin teases out of Ruscha’s works is an old story that art tells about itself, over and over: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the Word. In his life of Caedmon, the Venerable Bede writes, “Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’ The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’ ‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’ And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’” True art is always and everywhere a recapitulation of the first day, when Something was created out of Nothing. The first ghazal of Side A brings DIRTY BABY into existence while evoking the beginnings of life on a new atoll:

Opened, sprinkled, twirl of seeds on a’a or pahoehoe.
Breaking news: nature’s prayer beads on a’a or pahoehoe.

Jazz funeral for nothingness, busty microbes sway and march
out of heaving sea. Goodspeed on a’a or pahoehoe.

A hovering Higgs boson. Guava, fig, lichee, kiwi.
Now pigeon-toed tumbleweed on a’a or pahoehoe.

Wrath of buttercup. Vengeance of pansy. Even blooming
idiots grow the stampede on a’a or pahoehoe.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rains spur radicle culture. Tender spikes fence the gloaming.
A paradise to misread on a’a or pahoehoe.

This grueling gazillion day’d dawn, a prepaid upgrade, but—
not even a millipede on a’a or pahoehoe.

(“A Fistful of Aliens”)

There’s a little Yahweh here, and lots of Darwin. Some Anglo-Saxon too, as far as I can tell. The lilt of the radif, the density of the sounds, the punning, the devil-may-care phrasing: This is a poem unconcerned with verbal transparency. A’a and pahoehoe, by the way, are two kinds of lava: The generative prima materia belongs simultaneously to the scientific secular worldview and the magical worldview conjured by their exotic names.

Michelangelo paints God creating the Sun—light by which one paints. Dürer draws his own hands. Haydn composes The Creation, with an atonal introduction signifying what before was void, what after was harmony. Dryden and then Handel make anagloues of music and cosmos in, respectively, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. One of the best passages in Panaesthetics is on Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, with its meditation on van Gogh’s shoes. “Heidegger was wrong,” Albright writes, “in thinking that van Gogh was painting a stray farmer’s shoes: van Gogh was painting his own—they are a painter’s shoes, and van Gogh had trudged a long way in them, over thousands or millions of years, from East Africa to the caves of Lascaux to Provence . . . [T]he whole history of painting is there.” The artwork not only revisits its origins, it recapitulates its entire history. And this, for me, is where DIRTY BABY pays its dues to the history of art as well as to the history of the Bush era. It makes a bid not just for protest but for myth.

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