Sunday, July 29, 2012

Whether the Weather

There is a passage in a recent short story by Lorrie Moore, called “Referential,” that goes like this:
There was a storm looming, and lightning did its quick, purposeful zigzag among the clouds. She did not need such stark illustration that horizons could be shattered, filled with messages and broken codes, yet there it was. A spring snow began to fall with the lightning still cracking .... She knew that the world had not been created to speak just to her, and yet, as for her son, sometimes things did.
This is, I think, a particularly lovely example of something I see again and again, in works of fiction, poetry, even news reports: a moment, a pause, as a person takes in the weather and wonders if it might be meaningful. (Maybe this, even more than if it will rain or snow, is the real “whether” of the weather.) Here, the protagonist is driving home after visiting her mentally ill son at the institution where he lives, and for a moment, like him, she sees “messages” in “things.” (I love that weather, here, is a “thing”—because it is.) The message in the lightning, its “broken code,” tells her that her “horizons” can be “shattered”—and really, is there any clearer illustration of chance, of uncertainty, than the weather? All the same, the message is “broken”: weather is at once clear and inscrutable.

In this moment, the moment of this writing, I’m sitting at my desk, in south St. Louis city, listening to the low rumble of distant thunder, as the first rain we’ve had in weeks falls gently outside my window. It’s been terrible here, weather-wise—sublime, really, which is just another way to say it’s been godawful. We’ve had temperatures above 100 almost every day in July. It hasn’t rained. There haven’t even been clouds, for the most part, until this past week, when they materialized and loomed spectacularly over the city, and brought no rain. Stepping outside in this weather is like walking into a wall. It is hard, a fact. As such, it’s hard to know what to say about it, but we talk about it anyway.

And of course, we talk about global warming. Again, no one is saying this is global warming, but a lot of people, including climate scientists, have allowed that it is a kind of “preview” of global warming. It’s a hell of a preview. I honestly don’t know how we’d manage a string of summers like this one, not to mention a string of winters like the last one, when it snowed, lightly, only two or three times and temperatures rarely fell below freezing.

Wondering if weather is meaningful is not so different from wondering if weather is global warming.

I’m a midwesterner, and I feel a kind of panic when I imagine midwestern winters without snow. I’m not sure what, exactly, would be lost, but it’s something like meaning. There is talk now among those of us who think critically about ecology that despair may be a real and even useful (and perhaps our only) option.

For the moment, I’ll defer to Scott Fitzgerald. I came across this lovely passage in my most recent reading of The Great Gatsby:
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Speaking of conceptual weather art ... here's my review of ˚ by Stephen Cartwright and Andrew James, at the Luminary Center for the Arts in St. Louis.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is it with conceptual poetry and weather?

Well, maybe there isn’t that much conceptual weather poetry. But there is some. (As well as some conceptual weather art—more on this soon.)

While making my way through Craig Dworkin and Kenneth “The Weather” Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (which I find by turns thrilling and numbing—what makes good conceptual writing?—a simple concept, surely, and a degree of art, accidental or otherwise—not everyone will agree) I came across an excerpt from Gregory Betts’s If Language, exactly the kind of conceptual work I most enjoy. As it happens, the excerpt in Against Expression includes a weather poem. First, though, this is how it works: each of the fifty poems in If Language is a different arrangement of the same 525 letters in a passage from an essay by Steve McCaffery. To give you a sense of what this is like, here is the McCaffery passage:
If Language Writing successfully detaches Language from the historical purpose of summarizing global meaning, replacing the goal of totality with the free polydynamic drive of parts, it nevertheless falls short in addressing the full implications of this break and seems especially to fail in taking full account of the impact of the human subject with the thresholds of linguistic meaning. It is at the critical locus of productive desire that this writing opens itself up to an alternative “libidinal” economy which operates across the precarious boundaries of the symbolic and the biological and has its basis in intensities.
And here is Betts’s weather poem:
Today it will be music degrees of collage with a litter of sun petroleum and solace, hi-fi of sickishness, obliged by a conservative force that, it is hopeful, will fulminate in the social realities of committed principalities. Someone’s parents slip back into an ungracious war front that agitates the alliance and physiognomy of illuminating gases threatening shift. By tonight, at the mausoleum parade, the light scoffing carbuncular air should eroticize its partly visible superobjectivism. Plush gallows hiss. There is a fifty percept chance of fifth and eighth dimensions contrasting that should clear up all things considered.
I am amazed at the virtuosity of Betts’s anagrams. (I should also mention that the blurb for If Language, by the conceptual writer Christian Bök, is an anagram of the McCaffery passage, as well.) To my eye (my ear, my mind) this poem is just, well, perfect. I especially like “hi-fi of sickishness,” “the mausoleum parade,” and “the light scoffing carbuncular air should eroticize its partly visible superobjectivism”—although I can’t say particularly why I like it. It reminds me that every word is an arrangement of letters, every sentence an arrangement of words, and that arrangement itself is meaningful, even when I don’t know exactly what this arrangement of letters and words means. (I’m typing this in Microsoft Word, and I’m kind of tempted to turn on the grammar check, to see what it makes of Betts’s sentences.)

Betts’s poem is like a weather forecast, right? But how? I’ve struggled to find a way to say this. The same is true of parts of Clark Coolidge’s “Weathers.” There’s a passage that begins, “Partly stone only to see beneath red slips. The fishing particle, on and off, innards of glass. Sun parts hardly, seems to move.” That “partly stone” and “sun parts hardly” suggest something like “partly sunny”—and of course, rain, snow, wind and so on are often “on and off.” Coolidge misstates the weather forecast; Lisa Robertson might say he quotes it wrongly. Betts does this, too: “Today it will be music degrees of collage with a litter of sun petroleum and solace, hi-fi of sickishness, obliged by a conservative force that, it is hopeful, will fulminate in the social realities of committed principalities.” Today it will be 90 degrees with scattered rain and wind, high humidity, relieved by a cold front that, we hope, will mean cooler temperatures over the weekend. Something like that, right?

In part, it’s this—not knowing what, exactly, is familiar and how—that makes the poem uncanny, and beautiful.

(I’m plotting a conceptual weather poem of my own. Stay tuned.)