SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: Welcome to the inauguration to lift our spirits. I am grateful for this opportunity to introduce and briefly pay homage to my stellar colleagues. Their work had added, to use Blackmore's phrase, to the stock of available reality. And this reality, for Alice and Helena, in their selfless practices, professors consists of expanding a student's capacity to hold high intrinsic value to literature as is to life.
But a few short remarks before I actually introduce them. The Creative Writing Reading Series is made possible through the ongoing generosity of Barbara and David Zalaznick, to whom we extend our heartfelt thanks. Can we give them a big hand? The Richard Cleveland Memorial Endowment was created in 2002 by family, friends, and Illumina in memory of Richard Cleveland, Cornell class of '74.
One of those friends, Charlie Ferris, who couldn't be here because of the snowstorm, wanted to share this remark about his friend Cleve. "Richard Cleveland was an English major who graduated in 1974. While at Cornell, he and his friends started a student literary magazine that was known as "Rainy Day." After he graduated, he remained in Ithaca and published a newspaper known as the Ithaca Grapevine for five years before heading west, where he ultimately settled with his wife Gwen along a river in Montana, where he housed and guided fly fishermen.
While he was a student, Cleve was a frequent reader of the English department's Temple of Zeus weekly poetry reading, along with other notables you may know, such as Professor Robert Morgan, his creative writing instructor, professor Kent McLean, then a graduate student, professor Archie Ammons, and fellow student Richard Price, among many others. After he died in 1999, his friends and wife, Gwen [? Klober, ?] established a reading fund in his name in an effort to perpetuate the process of communion with writers of which he and his friends were particularly fond when they roamed the halls of Cornell. So give thanks for that.
In the year 1611, John Donne prophesied Alice Fulton with these words. She that should all parts the reunion bow. She that had all magnetic force alone to draw and fasten sundered parts in one. No other contemporary American poet's work has harvested and continues to harvest the magnetic force of creating new sensations that startle us into attention to the particularities of our world and liberate the ear of the mind into places it has never seen like the magnificent yield of Alice's poetry.
It is Alice's lyric gift to unsettle language and rupture us. But her gift also sutures our wounds. Not with pathetic consolations or epiphanies. It is her singular authority to allow the marks from the healing to multiply into map lines, connecting or reconnecting us back with what is truly human, truly real, and truly in the Fulton emphasis of the word, felt in ourselves, experiencing the universe.
If there is resolution in her poetry, it manifests as reciprocity. There is no withdrawal, only inexorable reunion Alice's poetry achieves, comes closest to answering that ever mystical question, what is poetry? Hers, of course, which constellates the feeling of a former world and the future. Thank you. Alice?
ALICE FULTON: Well, that was so beautiful, [? Ishen. ?] Got so much about my work. It was beautiful. Thank you for being here. I want to say, before I begin, that it's the honor of a lifetime to read with Helena Viramontes. She is a brilliant writer and an activist, and I am truly honored.
I'm grateful to Sam Boyle of Buffalo Street Books, who is here to sell our books. Please. And also if Linda [? McCandless ?] is here, thank you for being here to represent the Cleveland family, who have funded the reading. Really appreciate that. And thank you everybody. Because I know how hard it is to get yourself to a poetry reading with all the demands-- and fiction reading-- with all the demands on your time. So thank you for doing that.
I'm mostly reading from my new book, Barely Composed. I've said that that book is about love, death-- oops-- [LAUGHS] love, death, and time. The book is also about suffering and trauma, censorship and silencing.
The suffering that I write about is not only personal angst, but the suffering caused by fascist states, police states, and sadly, of course, that topic seems appropriate at this moment, for this cultural, historical moment. There are other brighter threads in the book throughout, gifts, gift giving, communal celebrations.
Some of the ones I wrote about are the less obvious communal things, like the Burning Bowl Ceremony on New Year's Eve, which I had learned about. And even the Anti-Suicide Festival in Ithaca. And the year I wrote the poem, actually, it was canceled because of rain. So that's a little humor in the anti-suicide trope.
There are three connected sonnets in the book that meditate on Valentine's Day and the heart. And, of course, Valentine's Day, a very commodified love fest, is next week. So I thought I would read the first of those three. Just the first one. It's called "Triptych for Topological Heart." And topology is a branch of mathematics that's concerned with connectedness and boundary.
"Triptych for Topological Heart." It befalls us. An exchanged glance, reflective spasm. Is it a fantastically unlaminated question set in flesh or Valentine that wears the air as its apparel? If you cut a heart from parchment, is it still a heart? A non-trivial knot, where turns of every gradient may kiss and tell.
Does the vessel have edges, or is it all connectedness, an embedding to be stretched or bent. Imagine being simultaneously alive, bound in both directions with a bow. Is it diachronic, a phenomenon that changes over time?
Without ardor, theory suffers. That's why I'm stuck on you with wanton glue, persevering. Styling something blobfish and macabre into something pointed, neat. Love is a gift that springs from an unlit spot. Rosin and roux, even when I'm in the dark, I'm in the dark with you.
ALICE FULTON: [CHUCKLES] Well, it gets a lot more political after that. [LAUGHS] My book is actually-- it's got a political thread in it. But today, I'm going to really read a lot of my more activist poetry because of where we are culturally at this moment. I hope you're not too sick of hearing about it.
While I was writing this book, I was reading about repressive governments. And this was quite some time ago, but I learned that fascist states have a lot of enforced celebrations. And I wrote a poem set at such an event, and it's an apple festival. And believe me, this has nothing to do with the apple festival in Ithaca. I admit I got the idea from that. I admit that.
It gave me the idea, but poetry isn't literal. And I began setting it in this dystopia I was imagining, this fascist place. So it's definitely not our apple festival. I'm sure you've heard that Trump-- and I can't bring myself to say President Trump-- I think of him as [? Starpomme ?] Trump-- I'll explain that later.
But I've heard a rumor-- actually I think it's the truth, not a rumor-- that he supports waterboarding. And waterboarding is the thread in the poem I'm about to read. It's called "Malus Domestica," and that's the botanical name for Apple, malus domestica. And it also kind of means bad servant, unfaithful servant.
Of course, the apple is the archetypal fruit, and it brought with it the knowledge of good and evil. The speaker of the poem is an unfaithful servant. He's not a happy camper. It's someone who works as an apple evaluator, and there are people who do this. So this job I'm describing is an actual job that people hold. He tastes the new Apple hybrids.
For me, the poem touches on hypocrisy, advertising, selling product, and the gap between ethics and survival. "Malus Domestica."
I've come to dread the obligatory apple festival, where we must pledge our fealty to the strains of folk drone music by the shores of an impaired lake, where former detainees weep to see children bobbing for apples, with their hands tied behind their backs. And the shepherd in the sheepskin vest cries, it's even more fun with a boot on your neck! We have a saying, "Nothing is allowed. That which is allowed is compulsory."
As an apple evaluator, I judge the russeting and bloom, the starch index at harvest. Judge is a euphemism for praise. A sample is handed through a hole; sniff, bite, spit. I stroke the infected and stunted, those with a hint of worm. I praise till I'm stupid from the labor of praising these wicked apples.
Pluton 658 has a shelf life of 12 million years. [? Belly ?] [? Slab ?] [? Vermach ?] triples the cyanide of every seed. [? Gulag's ?] [? Snow ?] [? Blower, ?] completely hollow, might be an acquired taste.
I get a lot of emails that say, I've always wanted to be an apple evaluator. Once I cherished the onceness of every apple's blush, knowing we might never fall into these forms of flesh again. Now I envy the bees drowsing in their blossoms, drunk on the mouthfeel. For them, there is no distance between the necessary and the good.
Why do you keep hitting me when I'm already dead, the detainee asked at the enhanced interrogation. He wanted to wipe his eyes on mine, but I was busy loading my pockets with apples for the penitential climb. Sniff, bite, spit. When I offered him the latest hybrid, he said, we have a saying, "Giving it away doesn't make a thing a gift."
I will read a poem from a sequence that was originally supposed to be in my book, Barely Composed, but it's still in progress. It's a sequence that was not finished in time for the book. And the book was long enough anyway, so this is still going along.
It's a group of poems set in that imagined dystopia. It's a police state that I called Desnos, and that is an acronym for Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified. And this fascist dystopia is the site of detention camps like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
The poems include some invented terms, euphemisms created by a governmental need for white washing, lies, and secrecy. When writing about dark, painful, charged topics, writers have to provide some respite for the readers, and humor is one way to do this and language is another. I'll say more about that later when I read another poem.
But there is some humor in this sequence, quite a bit, actually. Both humor and language are ways to mediate the horror, the trauma, and to help us think about it. The prose poem that I'll read is spoken by a character called [? Starpomme, ?] and I did say I call him [? Starpomme ?] Trump. He's a chief executive officer, and his administration is called the Dread Mill.
He mentions someone called [? Zam ?] [? Polit, ?] that's his chief political officer. And the low-ranking spin doctors and copywriters are called sheep pens. And any number of current players, current villains can fit those roles. So you can just think about whoever you want to dislike, actually, at the moment.
So this is in the voice of [? Starpomme ?] The Dread Mill creates its one bubble. I was promoted through five remote access controlled doors. In the truth-finishing cubes, the PR worms and sheep pens were crafting modified moods, like diseases created to match the drug.
Shape the spin before it shapes us. Near the exsanguination station on the cold pack setting, I observed a nest of rhinestoned electric chairs for the engineering of consent. My baton glowed in the smoke.
The roar of the security vacuum threatened to destabilize the rattling of sabers, an uh-oh anthem that spangled the air with clash. [? Zam ?] [? Polit ?] was probing collective thinking with dental instruments with his right hand and removing collected beard trimmings from decorative urns with his left. As he flogged our compulsory carnivals, stressing the bells on the harness, the festive tassels on the whip, it fell to me to mister mind more poignant terrogation episodes.
I naturalized our poolside globotomy programs by running them through the transparency enhancer. Sadly, our remote watercolors of teargas canisters suffered water damage. The gallery had a lachrymose, steam-tray stench, despite our recent fumigation.
Tear number 2017 was marked by Make a Drop Incontinence. I staunched the bleed with leeches. While dusting the gates of our gated community, I curated the buzz from village bazaars.
Miscible heresway described an apparition in the distance, a moving grief bigger than any whale. Its wagging tail and panting vitality surpassed all hitherto classified. A truth winkel, how to disavow it. My mind itched with angst, my sleep with slug lace. I frothed with wuss.
I'm the [? Starpomme, ?] I kept saying, but it was having none of it. Butter melt mouth. Though I lied a thousand breaths, something must out.
Well, this past week-- and I'm not going to be all political poems, but I will read one more at least. This past-- this is a short one. This past week, both Coretta King and Elizabeth Warren were silenced-- were silenced by men, and I'm going to read a poem about silencing and censorship. The poem takes the shape of a redacted document, with portions of the words blacked out.
The redacted language, under the dress of censorship, becomes a barely composed testimony of disassociation. The poem is made of words bent out of shape under the pressure of enforced silencing, and a mutilated language emerges. A tongue so constricted and warped by trauma, that it's partial. It's called "Reckoning Frame."
Tell the truth. Rage, but never force. Go and in and. Always the widest word. Pull it tight, and anchor it with a knot. A forming andage, twisted to a sting.
Not even that vetwrap, laced in the dark, a corset ice ouch safed with stays, or a simple ice of hosiery, fastened so the tongue is exed as far as possible.
Do not speak when spoken to in a vice. At a time like this, it's pain why. It is good to have ouching. Let them ache some. This aches them closer. This aches them feel. This is not roux. This is normal and should. It is oh. It is all.
Tell the truth. Time does us. It has me. It has laced me in ever force. The grave ate feeling. It is ex ink. Do not wear bright anything. Keep your never person laced in the dark. This is natural. Is-- is normal and even. Is-- is roux. It aced me in the dark, its tongue against the oof, ooshing the aliva back.
Reader reactor. If voice inks to a isper, say say it. Now is mol eve. Even the will die.
Well, I have kind of a moment of choice here. I can go in two directions. I can read a poem that is really a poem of resistance, a feminist poem of resistance. It's an oldie. It's a flashback, a blast from the past, from my book, Sensual Math, or I could read a poem that's a tribute to artists who are unsung. I'm very concerned about the arts in this country.
So I don't really know which one to read, and I almost want to look to you and say, do you want another poetry of resistance, or do you want a poetry about the arts?
ALICE FULTON: Arts! Arts! OK. A lot of artists here, huh? So I will dedicate this poem to the artists who are here. And I want to say too, I'll read it in your honor. The arts are so endangered, and I'm reading it for the writers, the visual artists, the musicians, and the scholars. I think scholarship is quite endangered too.
Many years ago, how this happened, I was asked to write a poem about a work in the University of Michigan's art museum. So I went and looked at what was on exhibit. And I didn't find anything I really wanted to write about.
So then I went into the museum's archives, which were located in the basement, way down, like a kind of morgue. Morgue for art, where nothing was shown, and everything was in slides and trays and files. And so I began going through all that-- not all of it, but going through it, looking for an artist that I really wanted to write about.
From a slide, I selected a painting by Joan Mitchell. Later on, there was a big Whitney retrospective on her work, and she had a big revival. But at the time, she was pretty much dead in the water. And they had-- her big painting was not on exhibit. I don't think it ever had been. And once I had chosen it, quite a big painting, I had to see it in person.
And as I tried to do that, I realized that the process of trying to see that painting would be important to the poem I was writing. Since it wasn't on exhibit, I had to see it in its storage space, which happened to be a stairwell, and they had it all kind of wrapped up in like a body bag, and they took the wrapping off. So that became, actually, what I wrote about.
And the poem is about proximity, thinking of other artists across time. You know, John Mitchell was dead, and I love a lot of artists who have died. And some I've known, and some I've never known. So this is a poem about art leaving a residue, a materiality in time. It's called "Close."
To take it further would mean dismantling door frames, so they unpacked the painting's cool [INAUDIBLE] where it stood, [INAUDIBLE] shrouded in gray tarpaulin, near a stairwell, in a space so tight I couldn't get away from it. I could see only parts of the whole. I was so close.
I was almost in the painting, a yin-driven, frost-driven thing of mineral tints in the museum's vinegar light. To get any distance, the canvas or I would have to fall down the stairs or dissolve through a wall. It put me in mind of winter, a yin-driven enigma and thought made frost. When I doused the fluorescence, it only became brighter. The background spoke up in bitter lungs of bruise and Eucharist, of subspectrum, a sentence left unfinished because everyone knows what's meant.
It was a home for those who don't go out for sports, the closeted oddball, marginal artists, in the storage of the world's indifference, whatever winters await us next. I was almost in its reticence of night window and dry ice, its metal lyric barbed in gold. Almost in the gem residence for oils, bristle into facets seen only in the original, invisible in the plate or slide. Since a painting is not an illustration but a levitation, dense as mind, as this minute, inheriting its history along innumerable lines.
The enigma is so diligent. I miss it when I visited. It shrinks to winsome in a book. Its surface flattens to sleek. In person, it looked a little dirty. I could see the artist's hairs in the pigment, traces of her head, or dog, or brush.
I stood too close, I saw too much. I tried to take the long view, but there was no room. I saw how turpentine had lifted the skin, leaving a ring. How the wet was kept on the trajectories, the gooey gobs of process painted in. Saw dripping made fixed and nerves and varicosities visible.
I saw she used a bit of knife and left some gesso showing through. A home for lessness that, well, think of anorexia, is a form of excess. While painting, she could get no farther away than arm's length. While seeing parts of the whole, she let the indigenous breed then leave a note. She dismantled ground and figure till the fathoms were ambiguous, a sentence left unfinished because everyone knows what's meant, which only happens between friends.
The lack of that empathy embitters. Let me tell me. I miss you when I visit you. I stand too close, I see too much. You put me in mind of winter, where I live. A winter so big, I'll have to dismantle myself to admit it. The always winter and its consolations of flint.
This is not an illustration, it's what I saw when the airbag opened, slamming me with whiteness, like the other side. I came to consciousness on braced arms, pushing my face from the floor in order to breathe, an arm's length from unbeing, as it seemed. I was what flashed through me, in full frost.
We were life to life in our flesh envelopes, insubstantial air to air and you and I. Though we could see only parts of the whole, we felt its tropism. We leaned toward, liked its better lungs. We almost were that winter tissue and cranial colored paint.
We were almost in the picture. We were close. We left each other a note. And I will end with a short poem, if I can find it. [CHUCKLES]
It's-- a couple of years ago, I was giving a reading, and I found out ahead of time that my reading was going to be interrupted by bells that were ringing a carillon right outside the window, about that far away. And it was a long carillon. I had seen-- I had been there at 6 o'clock before, and I knew what was going to happen.
Why was it scheduled at that time? I don't know. Bad scheduling, I guess. But I had a problem. Thinking of how those enormous bells were going to slash through the middle of the reading, I wrote a poem to be read with them. To be accompanied by them, by the sound of time.
My task now is to solve the bells. They are here to perform. How can I make them my co-creators, salve their interruptions of air. What words will they upstage with their verdict tapestry. Time needs them the way anything large that moves only forward and cannot stop needs a warning signal, as a train needs a whistle.
The train here sounds annoyed, but the bells sound patient, as if they are stapling time. They roll through your thinking, saying torn, torn, until your thinking goes like this. But I, torn, petroally in flux, which I thought-- torn-- in a-- torn-- pacity of singing more at length. Their sound is leaden, they are so laden with torn.
If you trace a bell to its source, you'll find a human trying to trap a magnitude in bronze. Because a bell's task is to snag, to holiday, or moan. When bells begin, it's best to collaborate with them. To translate them as best you can.
The translation goes, don't get too close. I am time made loud. There's not enough God to go around. And what I assume, you shall assume. And there is no peace, no silence after bells. The air is too infested by a memory of them, their lips screwed long upon the torn.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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Alice Fulton, Ann S. Bowers Professor of English, delivers the Richard Cleaveland Memorial Reading Feb. 9, 2017 as part of the Zalaznick Reading Series at Cornell University.