2013 was a wonderful year for chapbooks. I could mention dozens and dozens, but for now I’ll quickly mention Bernadette Mayer’s The Helens of Troy, New York (New Directions), Michael Slosek’s The Blond Notebook (arrow as aarow), Stacy Szymaszek’s Austerity Measures (Fewer and Further), Beverly Dahlen’s The Rose (little red leaves textile series), C. J. Martin’s 2012 (Supersuperette), Jason Morris’s Local News (Bird and Beckett), Cedar Sigo’s Plains Pictograph (Gas Meter), Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow’s Sidewalk to Jupiter/Mississippi Rainbow (Pied-à-terre), and Rachel Moritz and Juliet Patterson’s Elementary Rituals/Dirge (Albion).
I’ve been meaning to read Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost for a long time and finally got to it this year. It was so stunning, so far beyond what I imagined it could be, that I tore through everything else of his I hadn’t yet read: The Life and Death of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter, and Running in the Family. Each one draws you into a fully-realized world and changes your days—the latter in particular, a memoir, has some of the real-world / fairy-tale spiral of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Mary Oppen’s Meaning: A Life.
One writer I’ve been reading this year is Richard Kearney, an Irish philosopher with a particular interest in the inter-religious imagination. Anatheism: Returning to God After God asks how religious practice is still possible after the all-but-official “death of God.” Like his earlier The God Who May Be, this book advances a practice of “creative not-knowing” that incorporates skepticism on the one hand, and imagining a God-presence that might be vulnerable or fragile on the other, into conditions of believing.
David Brazil’s The Ordinary (Compline) and Steven Seidenberg’s Itch (Raw Art Press) are “first timer” books that are also “first time” books, that is, has anything like them ever appeared before? Brazil’s is a 200 page plus, self-redacted poetry bulletin of immense scope and commitment; Seidenberg’s is a classically cadenced and intricately argued preface to a grand epistemological project that, at the end of its 196 pages, may still be the preface. Beckett and Bernhard will love it when it gets to them.
I only ever get to a few movies per year. This year’s were okay, but not very memorable I guess since I can’t remember what they were. But I’ve been watching DVDs by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His films have a nice leisurely pace and a deceptive semi-documentary style, except that the stories are apt to be invaded by sudden incongruities—dead relatives, mythical legends, narrative repetitions. My favorite is Syndromes and a Century, set in a rural hospital in the Thai countryside and then later in a large, spotless urban hospital, with near-identical scenes playing out in both locations. But also check out Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Blissfully Yours, and Mysterious Object At Noon. Joe (as he’s known) has also made dozens of shorts but they’re rarely shown except in gallery spaces—they cry out to be collected in DVD sets. Are you listening, Criterion?
John Zurier at Paule Anglim in SF, Edmund de Waal at Gagosian in Manhattan, and Forrest Bess at the Menil Collection in Houston, were shows I’ll be thinking about for a long time. The Bess show gave me the impetus to lobby Dennis for a trip to Houston, an oil town whose museums you might expect to be gaudy spectacles a la Eli Broad. But the de Menil family steered the town the right way, and Houston museums are models of reserve and tact. The Fine Arts Museum, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, the Contemporary Art Museum, and at least a half dozen other institutions, know how to put the art first. But the Menil signature is uppermost. The ex-supermarket Flavin installation, the Rothko Chapel, their own collection, and temporary exhibits like the Bess show—any of these are worth a trip to the pleasantly hot and cloudy burg of Southeast Texas. Also the fragrance of roadside gardenia and a constant accompaniment of ocarina-sounding birds. And when it comes to the Twombly Gallery—hard to mention it without sounding like a gushy groupie, but there’s nothing like it. Each of its eight rooms differentiates aspects of the work but the viewer’s engagement is so strong that any hint of scheme in the presentation is banished. There’s the room of green-and-white paintings on wood, the room of paintings crowned with transoms on which lines of Rilke have been scrawled in red, a room of the “blackboard” pictures, and so on. My favorite consists of five large paintings, all covered in his signature offwhite-curdling-to-yellow that always seems to be still congealing, and all of them marked here and there by small unobtrusive pencil markings. If you could rent it out, it would be the greatest writer’s room ever. You’d never have to work to get into the zone—it would be all around you. The light-diffusion apparatus at the top of each room, involving batting and adjustable slats, is worth its own separate visit.
I’ve been listening this year to a lot of Per Nørgård’s string quartets. There are two CDs that give you all ten with no overlap (though strangely each CD is performed by different players). Nørgård goes the modernist vocabulary one more with his invention of the “infinity series,” a method of tone-row composition that, while bound to a system, allows the progression to advance in any number of ways, almost like a DNA chain on hallucinogens. (Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but somewhere in there.) But the quartets are always music before they’re systems. I especially like the 4th and 5th, written in the late 60s, and using some of that era’s favorite experimental devices like electronically-altered tape processing (the 4th) and mesmerizing motive-cell repetitions and variations (the 5th).
My workmates Ronnie Carrier and Emily Ballaine have turned me on this year to the soul revival that’s being brought forward through the work of such artists as Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, and most recently, Valerie June. These artists don’t “reference” Stax/Volt and the Jerry Wexler-era Atlantic, they are those labels brought back to life! The instrumentation, arrangements, and production values would make you think this stuff had just been unearthed in an old studio vault. Except these are artists living right now and writing and singing in this country’s moment. Bradley’s “Why Is It So Hard To Make It in America” is raw and heartbreaking, but you also feel the edge of current economic misery in its narrative world.
Finally, though it’s over a year old, I didn’t see Lushlife’s “Magnolia” video until this year. Every word of the song has been drawn, cut out, and three-dimensionalized on cardboard and accompanies the singer in hundreds of live-action situations. The “typeface” of these cardboard words looks like it might have on the cover of an early 70s pop or funk LP—another brilliant touch. You can see it here.
George Albon is the author of the poetry collections Empire Life, Brief Capital of Disturbances, Step, and Momentary Songs. His prose chapbook, Aspiration, was published in 2013. His work has appeared in Hambone, New American Writing, O Anthology 4, Avec Sampler 1, and the anthologies The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, Bay Poetics, and Blood and Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard. He lives and works in San Francisco.