Mark Young

A Review of Michael Gottlieb's MEMOIR AND ESSAY

memoir AND ESSAY
Michael Gottlieb
Faux / Other
Cambridge, MA / Brooklyn NY, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9825495-0-6
176 pages

Memory is not linear. Is more, aligned with. Is triggered by, lines up, a long sigh, alongside, commonalities. Thus, one thing placed, another placed beside it, maybe earlier, maybe later. May be temporary, may be temporal. Most likely many links invented, what linked to edited. Synapse fiction.

Memoir is even more & less so. Is directed, is selected. Is biographical not biography. Probably more true. In that: read by others before being read by others. Is linear in that: start & end. Traversing a journey within the overlaps of Venn circles. Parts obscured, or over-amplified so the backgrounds are concealed. Is as much about place as people.

Michael Gottlieb's memoir, The Empire City, is, in equal parts, about New York, the writer himself, & the group of poets he came to be part of. It is about external disintegration; the distintegration & decay of the city—though, ironically, when he came back to it some decades after, the city was reborn, renewed, though with many landmarks vanished—& the dissolution of the group qua group, which was never reconstituted though the influence of its members lingers on. It is about internal discovery.

It starts by casting anchor at a time that must be set / through historical reference. Post-HOWL. The Vietnam War—ran for another twenty or so more years, the U.S. sending combat troops from 1965 on, ten years in. More specific than that. Tricky Dicky in the White House. Six years. Honing in. Dubček & the Prague Spring. "Two summers after." Ah, 1970. & then skips over three years in a chapter that is a single paragraph.

So, New York from 1973 on. A city redolent with places, some of which that I, even though living at the bottom of the Earth, am familar with—The Gotham Book Shop, Chock Full o' Nuts—& others that I have only learnt about through Gottlieb's memoir, but which he walks me through & so they, too, become familiar. & the people. Let's leave the poets aside for the moment, & think about Warhol, or Merce Cunningham, or John V. Lindsay. Major players of the time, though their roles are mainly minor in the memoir.

& left aside, not for the moment but for the whole period, are the women. That, too, is an historical referent, an act of pre-dating rather than precision. Secondary characters, bit players, wives & girlfriends changed & exchanged in a few lines, only slightly more substantial than Guildenstern & Rosenkrantz were in Hamlet. Hannah Weiner does appear. But Shakespeare, in that same play: "Poor Ophelia / Divided from herself & her fair judgement."

New York, 1973. Probably not aware of the gender bias, but starting to become aware of one's own bias towards a type of poetry. "I couldn't continue to turn out those small, neatly turned, precisely observed lyrics. That wasn't me." Moving forward. "Turning those pages, reading the poems that appeared in (Barry Watten's This, Alan Davies's Oculist Witnesses) was like being struck by lightning. At one glance I realized that all the impulses I had been stifling for years, everything I had been doodling, noodling around with, all of my attention to words—an attention I had always assumed was pointless, irrelevant to making poems, all the scribbling I had been making in the margins of my drafts, going back to the beginning of college—all of that made sense, finally."

From that, & again we move through several years, allowing that Oculist Witnesses first came out in 1975, in a few words—"I was corresponding with Alan"—the first published poems several issues in of the new magazine that replaced OW; a chance meeting with James Sherry & those few poems, not yet published, but the fact that it was Davies who had accepted them was a bridge-builder; the arrival or surfacing of other people. &. "On its own, without any individual's apparent volition, a scene was born."

That scene is the core of this memoir. Think of an oyster. The city is the outside of the shell; the famous people/places the nacreous inner shell; the flesh is cast from the wider pool of poetic practitioners; & within that pool an irritant, some grit perhaps, around which, over time, is wrapped a coating as irridescent as the nacre. To become a pearl. The Language poets of New York.

It's a scene, though, that Gottlieb seems to have a dualistic attitude towards. On the one hand there is a wondering—self-doubt? self-deprecation?—whether he was worthy of being part of it. But the other hand, the one that wields the—oyster shucker's?—knife, is steady as it cuts open some of the other participants. Charles Bernstein comes across as someone set on carving out a career—obviously, in retrospect, successfully—rather than pursuing a vocation. Bruce Andrews is described as "a natural salesman" & isn't much written about after that. There is an account of Ted Greenwald deciding that revenge is a dish best served hot, but in successfully achieving that revenge, apparently commits some sort of poetiquettal faux pas.

Gottlieb's memoir is a telling from the inside, made more telling because it's one of the few of that particular combination of time, place, & scene. It's a delightful mix that jumps from anecdotes about furniture & cutlery to a paean about John Vliet Lindsay's shoes; a love letter to the city it's set in; the contrast between the exhilaration of a successful reading & the drudgery of getting a magazine out in a low-tech age; of the societal transitions of working spaces & apartments—a tie-insert factory becomes the downstairs of an art gallery, cramped one-bedroom flats become upmarket apartments; a curriculum vitae of go-nowhere jobs.

Which is probably a good hook to use to segue into a consideration of the last part of the book, the essay part, Jobs of the Poets.

Gottlieb says elsewhere that this is intended to be a kind of "letter to a young writer." It's a series of 32 numbered pieces, only a few more than a page long, all but three broken up into two parts, an italicized set of questions, & a romanized "response" that consists of more questions. Almost as if the imaginary young writer had, in fact, answered the first set of questions & is then met with "but what ifs" by the questioner. Or, taking into account the fact that this essay is bound within the same covers as the memoir, the author himself is questioning what he has done, what jobs he has held, outside poetry. & what are the implications, the answers to the same set of questions, for those that came with, & those that have come after.
How has that changed for the second, third, fourth generations?

        Somehow — how? But we know exactly how, don't we? Somehow, in a way that seemed impossible for us back then, or all wrong — that tenured, or, at least, adjunct lifestyle — one which seemed ridiculous for the likes of us back then to even countenance, somehow that lifestyle has normative, normal. And why? How could this have come to pass? And at what cost?
It's a provocative piece. Hard in tone, but generously offered, & with flashes of an anger that is missing—but shouldn't be—from parts of the memoir. One cannot help but attribute some of its genesis to Ted Greenwald, two interchanges, one with, one concerning, which are recounted in the chapter simply titled Ted in the memoir.

The first is the conversations Greenwald had with Gottlieb, in which the former offered advice to toughen up the newcomer, "for Ted too had been the youngest of his time."
Back when people there took poetry seriously, and got hooted down if they couldn't cut the mustard. When no quarter was offered or given. When favors were offered or denied, and nothing was forgotten . . . and while shocking in some of its details, the sooner I acquainted myself with it, the better off, or, at least, the better armed, I would be. So I listened, and Ted talked, and I learned.
The second.
When I mentioned that Ted was someone who I continued to turn to for advice, whose counsel I honored, there was a moment of silence. Then one of the wives replied saying, simply, "Ted?"

No one sitting there had the slightest doubt about what she meant: why in the world would I feel it necessary to get advice from someone who had ended up driving a cab? What could I possibly learn from someone like that?
The questions asked, both in the calls & the responses, are probably more important now than they were in those New York days, for the passing on of pertinent information, advice, & constructive criticism on a one-to-one basis, that desire to provoke & promote independent thought paths, generation to generation, all seem to have become a forgotten part of art. Not to be found in the ever-increasing enrolments in MFAs offered by "colleges and universities, (which) by virtue of their utter dependency upon grants and other public funding, therefore become instrumentalities of the state" and where, for the academic staff, there might be more "pressure, specifically, to ensure that one's writing aligns with the aesthetics and literary politics of those . . . who have a say in one's future."

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Blogger The Recalcitrant Scrivener said...

Reading this review of Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay, what strikes me is that the commentary takes on something of the elegiac tone of the book. Which makes sense--Memoir and Essay contains some of the most evocative writing on New York or on any city that I have seen in a long time.

It is also worth mentioning that sections of the book are extremely funny, even as they are deadly serious. Without giving anything away, the Hannah Weiner story had me laughing cataleptically at 3 AM, to the extent that I feared my neighbors would be disturbed. Nevertheless, I suspect the episode was distinctly unnerving at the time.

It also strikes me that Memoir and Essay deserves a readership beyond the worlds of poetry and writing. This is, after all, personal and intellectual history, a history that is largely elided from the official version of the 1970s. Not entirely irrelevant to the world today.

3:08 AM  

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