Friday, August 31, 2007

The Semiotics: A bed of words

Of nature, angels, and gods;
Of untranslatable music;
Of oblivion never sweeter
Than upon a bed of words.
Alex Caldiero

Oh that Procrustian bed of words, sweet even though (especially because) it requires clarity and translation. Let nature, angels, and gods sing freely and absolutely. The dark impress of human language speaks us as we savor its flavors.

Alex's poem and my Goethe Yearbook article on language in Goethe's first novel are echoes of Herder's arguments in the essay "On the Origin of Language."

For instance: "If an angel or a heavenly spirit had invented language, how could its entire structure fail to bear the imprint of the manner of thinking of that spirit, for through what could I know the picture of an angel in a painting if not through its angelic and supernatural features?"

For instance: "What proof is there of the existence of a single word which only God could invent? Is there in any language anywhere a single, pure and universal concept that was handed down to man from Heaven?"

As Herder contemplates the human origin of language he contrasts the whirling and fecund imperfections of language with the cold universality of supposed angelic speech. God's language and the cold language of French philosophy pale, for Herder, against the rich tapestry on the bed of German words.

"Die, or create language."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Semiotics: Alex and Scott

This semester I'm teaching a course with my old friend Alex Caldiero called, after a line by Holderlin, "Language, most dangerous of possessions." The delicate song and dance that is teaching (lowest paid branch of the entertainment industry) becomes even more delicate when it's Alex and me dancing cheek to cheek. We've thought of several names for our act: Abbott and Caldiero, The 49'ers (both born in 1949), The Poet and the Madman, HUMISPHILCOMM (the departments sponsoring the class) -- but have settled on The Semiotics, neatly fracturing a noun meant to describe a scholarly discipline.

Don LaVange made a wonderful poster for the class, using a miniature painting of the Tower of Babel from a medieval manuscript.

With about 30 students able and eager to discuss 18th-century European theories of the origin of the language, a novel by Goethe in which the main character shoots himself because he can't escape the conventions of language, the language of religious mystics, the everpresent and omniscient DADA, Nazi use of language, obscenity, The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and so on, we're having great fun thinking about semiotics of all sorts. (Great fun with suicides? Nazis?)

The high point of the class will be a November performance by Alex featuring poetry in and about, for and forswearing, within and without language. Watch for a new flier and come hear and see and possibly smell a master of the semiotic arts.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Still-born fawn

Yesterday my dog Blue and I were hiking in a gully near our house. (The photo is from last winter, his favorite season.) Blue's sharp nose led us to the remains of a fawn, still-born earlier this summer. Its tiny black hooves were still perfect, it was still curled in what I took to be a perfect fetal position, but something had gone wrong and there it lay. Still.

I felt sad about the loss of potential; but I also recognized the event as perfectly, or imperfectly, natural. We start things, we conceive ideas, we make plans, we nurture them and let them grow; and sometimes they just plain don't work out. Sometimes we just have to let them be.

Left there to decompose, the fawn's little corpse was feeding ants, flies, beatles, birds, and would have fed Blue if I hadn't been so squeamish. Our abandoned projects and incomplete ideas can do the same.

This summer I've returned to some writing I started in 1991 and for my new work have been drawing from its various blind alleys and fragments. I grew up in Farmington, New Mexico, and my ongoing question is what that red-neck, oil-boom town was like outside my limited set of experiences.

In my research, I found some information that I inserted into the beginning of my text:

March, 1950, Farmington, New Mexico

In what eventually will become our hometown, for three days running, half the citizens report seeing flying saucers. Between eleven and noon each day, hundreds of the alien craft raise hell among farmers and trading-post operators, builders and teachers, cooks and civil servants, many of them descendants of Mormon settlers.

I found a newspaper account that I also wove into my experience:

10 June 1974, Tocito Oil Field, Navaho Reservation

I kick at rabbitbrush to break the silence. The derrick has been lowered, the doghouse packed with equipment. Cactus Drilling Company is paying me time-and-a-half to stand guard for the night.

A breeze browses through the newspaper I’ve set aside.

“Violence Erupts, Policeman Injured: Coalition Stops Posse Parade”

A traditional Sheriff’s Posse Parade through downtown Farmington Saturday erupted after a peaceful beginning into an afternoon of violence which saw a Farmington policeman struck by an automobile and crowds of hundreds flee from police tear gas when members of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation attempted to stop the parade. . . . The leaders, who seemed to be supported by an estimated 40 to 50 more Indians on the sidewalk, objected to allowing a six-man contingent of horsemen to proceed. Dressed in cavalry uniforms of the late 19th Century, the horsemen were members of the U.S. Army’s Ft. Bliss, Tex. drill team. . . . One middle aged Fruitland Indian, speaking just after the violence, said in a voice heavy with alcohol, “I care for my people. It should not happen . . . I speak for my people and the white people.”

“Juveniles Sentenced to Springer”

All three youths charged in the mutilation murders of three Navajo men in April were sentenced to terms at the New Mexico Boys School at Springer following an all-day hearing in San Juan County District Court Friday. . . . Medical and psychiatric testimony at the hearing revealed that in the opinion of the authorities, none of the three youths was insane and that they would be “amenable to treatment.”

I study a sidewinder track in the sand. A sinuous sentence with ellipses. And there’s the snake! It progresses almost by regress, eyes me as carefully as I it.

I sleep fitfully in the back of my little car, dream of vengeful natives in the grey dawn over the sand.

After remembering this, I found what's called "The Farmington Report," an important civil rights document, on the internet. It's a federal attempt to improve the way Navajos are treated by Anglos in my home town. That national context made me see the little town with new eyes.

Then I talked with my friend Don LaVange and he showed me a 1974 poem by the Beat poet Gary Snyder:

I Went into the Maverick Bar

I went into the Maverick Bar

In Farmington, New Mexico.

And drank double shots of bourbon backed with beer.

My long hair was tucked up under a cap

I’d left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay by the pool tables,

A waitress asked us where are you from?

a country-and-western band began to play

“We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie”

And with the next song, a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances in the fifties;

I recalled when I worked in the woods and the bars of Madras, Oregon.

That short-haired joy and roughness—America—your stupidity.

I could almost love you again.

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—under the tough old stars—

In the shadow of bluffs I came back to myself,

To the real work, to “What is to be done.”

Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar” from Turtle Island.

Finally, I drove through Farmington again and found an adult video store on the south side of town with a billboard towering over it:

That, of course, scared the bejesus out of me and I went back to my computer. My task now is to take lots of fragments like these and tell a story with them.

The Byrds tell a story of a dog named Blue you may enjoy:

And I hope that buck and doe have more luck next spring.