--Henry Weinfield, "Beauty and the Beast" (Sorrows 62)
Ross Feld (1947-2001) was the author of four novels, Years Out (1973); Only Shorter (1982), which recounted his first bout with cancer when he was in his twenties; Shapes Mistaken (1989); and Zwilling's Dream (1999). His first book was Plum Poems (1972), though, and his last, Guston in Time (2003), was about his friendship with the older and by then famous painter Philip Guston, an artist whom Feld assayed twenty years earlier in a catalog to the painter's work. Feld was born in Brooklyn, and attended the City College of New York. From 1978 to 1994, he reviewed fiction at Kirkus Reviews, and was a regular contributor of essays on art, fiction, and poetry to Parnassus magazine. Early in his career, he had worked at Time-Life, and then for Grove Press as an associate editor to Gilbert Sorrentino (Feld, "Oz Is Home"). He struggled with lymphatic cancer in the early 1970s, survived this illness, married, and eventually moved, when his wife Ellen became a doctor, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained for the last twenty years of his life. (1)
I knew Feld early in my own writing career when he was nineteen and I was twenty years old, living on the Lower East Side. We attended the workshops offered by the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's in the Bowery and often drank together in such artists' and writers' bars as Max's Kansas City, the Lion's Head, and later Saint Adrian and Company. As a student at the City College of New York, Feld edited the university magazine Promethean, publishing older writers like Gilbert Sorrentino and Paul Blackburn, and younger writers like Bradford Stark, Henry Weinfield, and Feld himself. Some of my own earliest published poems appeared in Promethean when Feld was its editor. Soon enough he had left the university and began to work for Time-Life, and then Grove Press as an associate editor aligned with Gilbert Sorrentino, the press's literary editor. Of course, the job was not all Beckett, Genet, and Burroughs, though. In one of the few autobiographical sketches that Feld wrote in his lifetime, he reminisced about other work that he and Sorrentino did.
A lot of Grove's list at the time consisted of milled-by-the-yard porn novels. As sop thrown for seeing them through the list, the editors were allowed to write over-the-top jacket copy for these. Sorrentino and I particularly enjoyed making up blurb quotes--as well as inventing the "experts" providing them. The one of Gil's I cherished most was a French foot-fetish authority named A. M. LeDeluge; I myself concocted an Indian "erotologist" named Unduli Seerijius. ("Oz Is Home")
A lifetime later, I am reminded of those early days when I knew Feld. I especially recall those times when I come across a poem like William Carlos Williams's "To a Poor Old Woman," in which the poet writes that the poor old woman is
munching a plum on the street a paper bag of them in her hand (67)
Or coming upon the more iconic "This Is Just to Say" in which the poet admits:
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox (55)
Whenever Feld came to Joel Oppenheimer's workshops, which was irregularly and sporadically attended by Feld, though he often hung out with Joel in the Lion's Head bar or with other writers from the Poetry Project, myself included, at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South, just north of Union Square, invariably he had a new poem, usually about plums. (2) It was no surprise to us then that several years later Ross Feld's first book would be Plums Poems (1972), yet even before the book was published Feld had drifted away from the Poetry Project and away from poetry toward the "Land of Prose," to borrow a phrase from a poem by Feld's friend, Henry Weinfield (Sorrows 22). He had gone off to the MacDowell Colony, an artists' and writers' retreat in New Hampshire, to finish his first novel, which would be titled Years Out when published in 1973. It was during this period, too, that Feld left Grove Press, suffered his first bouts with lymphatic cancer--an experience that would be chronicled in the next decade with his second novel, Only Shorter (1982)--moved to Ithaca, New York, met his wife Ellen, and got married.
The 1980s would prove the most fertile for this writer as his third novel would come out seven years later: Shapes Mistaken (1989), Feld's magnum opus of subtlety, comedy, and economy of expression. He also wrote a monograph on his friend, the painter Philip Guston (1980) in that decade. Then he would lapse into a ten-year fictional silence. During this time he would write countless essays--some of his best writing, in fact--and most of this critical and literary work appeared in Parnassus magazine. His last novel was Zwilling's Dream (1999), like Shapes Mistaken, a light-hearted comedy with dark and tragic undertones, leaving an aftereffect not unlike Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (1600) in which the delight of the lovers' language finally settles into the pit of one's stomach in a darker, more tragic way as witness how the great Shakespearian critic Jan Kott interpreted this brooding play in his seminal work, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964). Like all dark humor from Mark Twain onward, we laugh, then we feel uncomfortable. Then we cry. Such is the similar way with all of Ross Feld's novels.
In his introduction to Guston in Time, the poet and translator Richard Howard calls it "the last of Feld's novels as well as his best criticism" (5). In fact, it is neither fiction nor criticism as Feld wrote in these forms, but his one unapologetic autobiographical book, unusual only because he was a writer who spent his life keeping himself out of his writing. Yet he admired writers such as Adam Phillips and Stanley Cavell, thinkers who combine philosophy and psychology in their writings, but also have personal themes in their books. He noted that Phillips, in his book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (1993), shows how psychoanalysis makes possible recovery of the past, and is "prelude to autobiography." In that sense, Feld's poetry and novels were prelude to the second of his Guston books. Elsewhere in the Cavell/Phillips essay, Feld suggests that "the future is something we already understand as a sanctioned contingency--the job is to make the present one also" ("Relievers"). But, of course, fiction-writing is about the past; Feld seems to suggest that voice is where the past resides, creating all its various pitches, timbres, and tonalities. What Feld admires about Stanley Cavell are his stances on "acknowledgment, love, poetry, autobiography, voice--states of being that nudge us out of our heads and into the phenomenal world, where we can be seen as well as see." He quotes Cavell as saying: "Certain questions of ear that run through my life--questions of the realities and fantasies of perfect pitch, of telling pointed stories, and of the consequences of a scarred tympanum--become ... questions of the detection of voice." (The italics are mine.) Cavell goes on to say that his conception of philosophy is "the achievement of the unpolemical, of the refusal to take sides in metaphysical positions, of my quest to show that these are not useful sides but needless constructions."
If I were to replace the word "philosophy" with the word "fiction," Ross Feld's ideas about the novel begin to come into focus. Certain questions of the ear did run through Ross Feld's life. His pitch was about prose, though; he told pointed stories, and his scars had to do with his body structure--a misshapen back at birth--and the cancer he experienced in his early twenties, a kind of cancer that up until that time was deemed fatal. The detection of a voice--put in more lay terms--the finding of one's voice was Ross Feld's lifetime mission as a writer. That his voice was subtle, elusive, bristly with intelligence and opinion, allusive, commanding, slyly comic, quietly tragic, confidently dramatic--all of this was evident in his life and work. That he was a product of Brooklyn, a New York writer even after all those years in the Midwest, I think is evidenced in his books, their themes and characters, almost always about bright, sensitive, Jewish New Yorkers.
The voice in all its permutations, and naming, these are important milestones of poetry which Feld brought to his fiction. Voice, naming. Fiction as the achievement of the unpolemical, of the refusal to take sides in metaphysical positions ... needless constructions. His characters may feud and bicker. But Ross Feld remains outside the fray, not the omniscient author so much as the anti-poet writing prose, a writer who remained throughout his life deeply skeptical of the personal utterance in writing. In that sense, the second Guston book is not even close to being his best novel or critical work; it is an aberration, an oddity in his literary opus. Other than their initial appearances in magazines like Parnassus, the best of Ross Feld's critical writings have yet to be collected in book form. And, really, his last novel is Zwilling's Dream. All Feld's novels are good, but Only Shorter and Shapes Mistaken are exemplary. One was a melodrama verging on tragedy, the other a tragicomedy verging on melodrama. Zwilling's Dream, a solid bit of prose, was a comedy of errors. Years Out was a coming-of-age novel by a poet who considered himself an anti-poet.
His good friend and classmate from the City College of New York days, the poet and translator Henry Weinfield has said that Ross loved the poet Jack Spicer because he attacked "the big lie of the personal," but that Ross was an anti-poet, like Spicer, because it had to do with "his own vulnerability, which he didn't want to admit, and which poetry brought out." Then Henry said something which I think is the crux of the matter regarding Ross Feld, and could be considered the thesis underlying all his work. He said: "The truth is that Ross was essentially a poet, not a novelist" (E-mail 15 Sept. 2004). Yet who is this anti-poet, this fiction writer and critic who forever remained a poet in all his prose?
Of his last book, Guston in Time, published posthumously, the writer and critic Susan Sontag says: "Unlike my friend Richard Howard, I never had the good fortune to meet Ross Feld--just admired him, intensely, from afar. What a describer, what an intelligence! Here is a writer who, whatever the subject, is incapable of commonplace responses and diction. (Randall Jarrell is another.) His last, singular book is essential Feld: a thrilling, giddy rush of subtle, mature judgments. But never was Feld's acuity so partnered as here; Guston, of course, is no mean subject. These two high-octane minds in dialogue, in deep, respectful friendship, resound in their letters like a piano sonata for four hands that's part Schubert, part Busoni. And then there's the enclosing arch of Feld's visionary evocation of Guston's quest and Guston's vulnerability." (3)
The anti-poet eschewing all personal revelations in print came to the end of his own mortal coil with a personal essay, one of the few I know of his writing. His publisher, Counterpoint, posted it on its website in connection with his last novel, Zwilling's Dream. Entitled "Oz Is Home," it is a literary reminiscence about coming of age in New York City, and especially how the downtown art and poetry scenes influenced him. Some of it is nearly word-for-word repeated in his last book on Philip Guston. In the other parts, he writes of getting his education in the Brooklyn Public Library. Unlike the present day student of a creative writing program who learns to write from classroom models, Feld received part of his literary education by hanging out in bars and jazz clubs downtown (Max's, St. Adrian Company, the Lion's Head, the Five Spot Cafe) and by attending events at the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's Church. Keep in mind that Feld was a teenager, precocious and daring.
"After hooking up with some people involved in a little magazine while still in high school," he writes, "I found myself involved in an astoundingly generous correspondence with the poet Denise Levertov. Levertov, as the poetry editor of The Nation at that time, would encourage and chastise me, clucking over God awful poems but also publishing better ones. Somehow she treated me not as a precocious phenom but as an unseasoned apprentice whom she considered perhaps capable of taking over a corner of the fresco should the studio's master be called away" ("Oz Is Home"). He goes on to say that
this was how all the writers I eventually came to spend time with--Gilbert Sorrentino, Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, Frank O'Hara, Paul Blackburn, LeRoi Jones--treated me.... The older writers weren't in search of acolytes. If anything, they wanted you to write not as they did but as their heroes did. That I began to write novels in the first place had a lot to do with my understanding of what a certain kind of American poet attempted upon the model of William Carlos Williams: writing prose defied the lyrical in you, allowed the world in to a greater and messier degree than the pressures of pure language permitted. And though poets like William Bronk, Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Gil Sorrentino were more my first readers than other novelists were--and despite the fact that it took me some years and more books to finally break away from too tight a registration of language--I've never felt sorry to have early learned a poet's economy. ("Oz Is Home")
A prose writer with a poet's economy: I think that sums up the Ross Feld whom I knew back in 1966 when I was twenty years old, and he was a very worldly nineteen-year-old. Feld was forever understated and modest about his accomplishments, and nothing illustrates this point more than a letter Feld once wrote me in which he responded to a review I had written of Only Shorter. I had compared him with Flaubert, especially how medicine and doctors come into the narrative. Though not a doctor, Feld had been a patient in his early twenties when he was treated for cancer. But his wife Ellen was a doctor, and one imagines him asking her endless questions on medical issues. Regarding my review, he said that "it's far from being the truth, but so are most pleasures" (Letter 12 Aug. 1983). The author's note on his first book, Plum Poems, simply says that "Ross Feld does not want much said about himself except that he was born in Brooklyn in 1947 and recently went to the MacDowell Colony to finish a novel." His publisher added: "Mr. Feld is yet another American isolato. He is not peddling his personality or striving for the Literary Light."
Fiction was his passion, but nonfiction might be his greatest gift. This is important to establish immediately because Ross Feld was a writer of great sensibility, a literary artist with a sublime critical faculty. Poetry was the craft he seemed to abandon for writing novels, and yet poetry was what he returned to, time and time again, in his literary and critical essays. (In that sense, he is very much like his earliest mentor, Gilbert Sorrentino, a prose writer whose energy and concision owe so much to a literary foundation in poetry.) In a speech Feld delivered at Notre Dame University in 1992 on the Objectivists, he called himself "a recovering poet." But I suspect that Feld was being disingenuous about his total abandoning of poetry. In a letter he wrote to me in the early 1980s, he still mentions writing poems. "Even the poems I write aren't ship-shape or well honed" (Letter 25 June 1982). Perhaps, like Brecht, it will come about that Ross Feld wrote poems throughout his prose-writing career, and a fat volume of them will appear posthumously. I'd like to think that that is the case.
Be that as it may, his was an exemplary literary life in the late twentieth century. Novelist, essayist, poet, critic, and editor, Ross Feld wore many different hats. But I believe all his prose was influenced by his love and knowledge of poetry, first, and that, in turn, his novels, though appearing to fit into a more traditional niche with urban, Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, really are more language-driven constructs--more oddly articulated narratives than their seeming surface realism might suggest. More than any other writer whom I knew from my early twenties, Ross Feld exemplified the Isaac Babel tenet that "you must know everything." He reviewed books prodigiously for Kirkus from 1977 to 1994. (4) He also wrote long, involved literary essays for Parnassus magazine, including ones on Charles Baudelaire, Primo Levi, Cormac McCarthy, William H. Gass, Charles Bernstein, Eugenio Montale, Guillaume Apollinaire, Stan Rice, John Updike, and John Ashbery. His essays on Jack Spicer, though, are the most revealing of Feld's roots in poetry. (5)
Feld was born in Brooklyn on 18 November 1947, and as he noted in the author's note in his first novel Years Out, "attended public schools and the City College of New York." He grew up on Argyle Road in Brooklyn, and went to Erasmus Hall High School, graduating in 1965. Although the New York Times obituary said he graduated from City College of New York, he did not. Like his Saint Mark's Poetry Project mentors Joel Oppenheimer and Seymour Krim, and his Grove Press mentor, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ross Feld attended university but then became a dropout, which was a kind of badge of honor that everyone wore in those halcyon days. Unlike so many of his peers, he did not seek out dissolution once he dropped out of college. Instead he went to work as an editor--for Time-Life and Grove Press from 1968 to 1970. From 1970 onward, he worked as a freelance editor for the next thirty years. Back in the late 1960s, though, he attended workshops at the Poetry Project, and was a protege of Gilbert Sorrentino, working as his associate editor at Grove Press. (6)
Although Feld was certainly a part of the Poetry Project, he aligned himself more with Sorrentino (at work) and made other allegiances and friendships at that adjunct of the Poetry Project, Max's Kansas City, the artists' and writers' bar par excellence. Max's was named by Joel Oppenheimer for the poet Max Finstein who, among other things, ran off to New Mexico with Oppenheimer's first wife (Gilmore 142).
Fast flashes--the women who love him, Rena, Joyce, Max, the mensch, makes poverty almost fun, hangs on edge, keeps traveling. (Creeley 292)
Max's Kansas City's owner was Mickey Ruskin, an odd but important figure in the early days of the Lower East Side poetry scene in the run-up to the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's (Kane 38-39). Feld liked to hang out at the bar with his fellow Brooklynite, Archie Rand, the painter, or with older writers such as Fielding "Fee" Dawson, a Black Mountain writer and painter, or even a fellow Time-Life worker and poet, Joe Early, or the essayist and editor of For Now magazine, Donald Phelps.
Archie was a tough, young guy from Brooklyn, a prodigious talent and as equally precocious as Ross. (Both of them were still in their teens when Max's first opened, and they began to hang out there.) Joe wrote short, cryptic poems, influenced by Robert Creeley and Gilbert Sorrentino, among others. Fee held court at the bar, regaling people with his stories of the Cedar Bar, now defunct, but once several blocks south of Max's. He knew Franz Kline. Well, Fee knew everyone from the Cedars, as they called it. His book about Franz Kline, An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline, was just about to be published. Donald Phelps, gargantuan, stuttering, looking like the cartoon character Humphrey Pennyworth in Lil' Abner, also held court at the bar.
"You can learn as much about poetry and life at this bar," Ross once told me, "as you can learn in Joel's poetry workshop."
Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) would not appear for a few more years. But Max's was filled with people who bore uncanny correspondences with characters in his novel. In fact, one could patch in parts of Sorrentino's novel, and the collage might easily resemble any night at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South.
Some Things Sheila Henry Grew to Care for: 1966-1967.
Larry Poons' work: Bart Kahane pointed out his excellence.
Larry Rivers: She met him at a party.
Pantyhose: SMOOTH UNBROKEN LEG LINE.
Madame Bovary: She understood her anguish.
Guy Lewis: Who even drunk yet hath his mind entire. (7)
Bunny Lewis: Her gentle guidance of Guy's life and writing.
Samuel Greenberg: Probably the most underrated poet of his time.
Emanuel Carnevali: Probably the most underrated prose-writer of his time.
Barbary Shore: It has Mailer's most brilliant flashes of pure prose.
Harry Langdon: Really the best of the Great Clowns.
Ricard: More subtle and somehow more--exact--than Pernod.
Murray Mednick: Had claim to the top rung of the American theater. (8)
Frank O'Hara: He died.
Jack Spicer: He died.
Leo Kaufman: He was a sweet guy. (9)
Che Guevara: He was a man.
Ho Chi Minh: He was a great old man.
Anal intercourse: She almost fainted with the pleasure.
Algernon Blackwood: As good as Poe in his way.
Lou: He loved her. (10-11)
This list of real and imaginary characters suggests the surreal atmosphere of a place like Max's, an artists' and writers' bar that more resembled a fictional setting than a real-life hangout. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground played music in the upstairs room. Minimalist and pop art paintings hung on the wall (Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Andy Warhol), chrome sculpture stood in the front (John Chamberlain's car fender sculpture), and artists and writers everywhere. (10) In his last book, Feld describes how the older painter Philip Guston looked and dressed, and I'll be damned if it isn't an apt description of the young Ross Feld, too. "He dressed pretty much according to Brooks Brothers: oxford shirts, khaki pants, brown Weejuns, a roll-collared over-sweater" (Guston in Time 53). Feld goes on to describe a slightly messy older artist, his breast pocket filled with his Camel cigarettes. Instead of mess and sprawl, Ross Feld was as neat as a pin, topping this outfit off with a corduroy jacket, the same one he wears in the jacket photo of his first novel, Years Out.
His voice was loud with bourbon and cigarettes, and his head was stuffed with quotations from William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley. But he most liked to quote to us from Jack Spicer:
Let us fake out a frontier--a poem somebody could hide in with a sheriff's posse after him--a thousand miles of it if it is necessary for him to go a thousand miles--a poem with no hard corners, no houses to get lost in, no underwebbing of customary magic.... (Controversy 436)
Ross Feld was not the first person to quote Jack Spicer's "Billy the Kid," but he probably understood the poem--and the poet--better than any of my peers. A poet from the Poetry Project by the name of Jerrold Greenberg also liked to quote from Spicer, this same poem but a different section of it. Jerry was almost the antithesis of Ross. Where the latter was stiff-backed and formal, (11) preppy and businesslike, Greenberg affected the sleazy countenance of the street hustler, including a pencil mustache, white suits with black shirts and a colorful tie, and even white loafers with those gauzy black socks preferred by wiseguys the world over. Jerry had dragons tattooed on his arms, and used pomade to slick back his hair, making him look more like a pimp than a poet. What these two young poets had in common was a nexus at the newly started Poetry Project at Saint Mark's in the Bowery and a love of writers like Jack Spicer.
So the heart breaks Into small shadows Almost so random They are meaningless Like a diamond Has at the center of it a diamond Or a rock Rock. (Controversy 439)
The Poetry Project may not seem like the place to associate a writer like Ross Feld. His novels were written ostensibly in a realistic mode. After his first book of poetry, he seemed to abandon poems forever. The Poetry Project became a place associated with New York School and, later, Language poets, not second- and third-generation Black Mountain writers. Feld's influences were writers like William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Gilbert Sorrentino, and, as I have noted, Jack Spicer. He was not a formal experimenter but rather a young writer with a long memory for traditions. And yet the Poetry Project's young writers were far more diversified than first seems to be so. Names like Lewis Warsh and Anne Waldman come readily to mind when writing about the early days of the Poetry Project, and yet the Poetry Project also consisted of poets like Bradford Stark, Elaine Schwager, and Henry Weinfield and prose writers like George Cain, a black novelist and author of Blueschild Baby (1970). Ross Feld knew the work of Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Apollinaire as well as any second-generation New York School poet at the Poetry Project. His interests in art were as avid as any follower of Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery; in fact, he would later write art criticism on a par with these poets. In his memoir of Philip Guston, Feld reminisces:
I wandered through the two great adjoining museums of Fifty-third Street, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, precisely during the years when the sovereign, gorgeous Abstract Expressionist paintings were pushing their way into those collections.... By the mid-sixties a more personal connection to these paintings happened to be forged for me. Riding the last wave of the twenties-through-sixties Village bohemianism, the pedigree that runs from Edmund Wilson through Dawn Powell to Franz Kline, I took a literary apprenticeship that located itself not in college writing-programs but in downtown bars like Max's Kansas City and the Cedar Tavern, the Metro, the Lion's Head, the Ninth Circle, the St. Adrian's Company; or at jazz clubs: the Five-Spot, the Half-Note, Slugs, the Dom; or at uptown art galleries, or at the Poet's Theatre on Fourth Street, or in slum apartments. (Guston in Time 39-40)
Young writers associated with Saint Mark's Poetry Project developed into mature writers who were far more complicated than labels such as Black Mountain, New York School, or Language poetry suggest. Even their politics were far more complicated than terms like Left and Right imply. In his novel Years Out, two of Feld's characters, David Abrams and Joyce Cecere, are drawn to each other as university students--it would seem to be City College in Harlem--after "three weeks of before- and after-class time was spent talking about their mutual distaste for the peace movement (on strictly nonideological grounds) and their mutual taste for French literature" (76).
The African American poet Tom Weatherly, whose first book of poems was Mau-Mau American Cantos (1970), was an ex-Marine, and a registered Republican, and perhaps one of the most loyal attendees of the workshops at the Poetry Project in its earliest days. Far from being an Umbra poet--the radical black magazine that shaped much of the literary image of African American unrest in the mid-1960s--Weatherly eventually converted to orthodox Judaism, and became a clerk at the Strand Bookshop on Broadway at West 12th Street. (12) One young writer in Seymour Krim's prose-writing workshop regularly wrote pieces sympathetic to a Neo-Nazi agenda, though to be sure this was more the exception than the rule at the radical premises known as the Poetry Project. The feminist writer and scholar Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectics of Sex (1970), was a member of the prose workshops, and so was Bill Amidon, an habitue of Max's and the other bars on the Lower East Side. So was Clark Welton, a writer for the Village Voice, as was the future semiologist Marshall Blonsky, and so was the novelist John Bart Gerald. The Olympia Press author Jerry Joth (formerly Jerry Roth) also attended these workshops regularly. (13)
What is true is that The World, the mimeo monthly that was connected to the Poetry Project, did not reflect this diversity because it rarely published prose. The poets in The World were predominantly second- and third-generation New York School of Poetry writers, with an occasional bone thrown to the young writers in Joel Oppenheimer's workshops, including Tom Weatherly, Scott Cohen, Elaine Schwager, Ron Edson, and Jerrold Greenberg. (14) Mostly, though, The World was a showcase for Anne Waldman's and Lewis Warsh's coterie of friends who emanated outward from allegiances with Ted Berrigan and other New York School writers (Kane 156).
The only prose published at that time were prose poems because the Poetry Project was foremost a venue for poets. It was not the Prose Project. Its reputation was based on its poetry, the same poetry from which Ross Feld began his career. Yet Feld's poetry is still a good route through which to approach his fiction. Throughout his career, Feld was misread by critics, who saw only the realism in his prose writing, not the poetic elements from which the prose derived. Still, this was a novelist who certainly was more involved with Montale and Apollinaire than he was with F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Put another way, Ross Feld was more into Frank O'Hara than John O'Hara, although his critical and literary essays were primarily about poetry, not fiction writing. Yet it was through his deep readings of poetry that he was able to become such a good prose writer.
Ross Feld's four novels are filled with naming and names, what I take to be the foundations of all poetic impulse, and he loved analogies and metaphors, and his most extreme use of these tropes removed his fiction from the realms of realism and naturalism into the fields of poetry. Susan Sontag, who championed Feld toward the end of his life, observed in her own final book of essays that "the distinctive genius of poetry is naming, that of prose, to show movement, process, time--past, present, and future" (5). Perhaps more to the point is Charles Olson's observation that "the whole world & all experience is, no matter how real, only a system of metaphors for the allegory (Keats called it) a man's life is" (qtd. in Clark dust jacket).
Ross Feld's poetry and the critical writings are roadmaps to the novels, although I am aware that using these critical writings as maps to the fiction lessens Feld's efforts in these other nonfictional forms, and his poems and essays are powerful in their own rights and on their own merits. So, after discussing his novels, I will return to Ross Feld's critical and literary essays, concluding with them, as I think ultimately they are what Ross Feld will be remembered for. Nonetheless, in this first instance, I intend to use the essays--and the poems, to some extent--as a kind of apparatus with which to grasp the fictional works--as a kind of apparatus to unlock meanings, intentions, drifts, and tendencies in the novels.
Also, beyond his penchant for naming (the poet's gift) or the allegory his life was, I associate Ross Feld with the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's Church because, in his way, he is a fusion of Joel Oppenheimer's poetic sensibility, by way, if you will, of Paul Blackburn, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Jack Spicer. Yet Feld also was a bit like Seymour Krim in his essays, both of them sharing an affinity for being intellectual mavericks and gadflies in their essays, stylists but also innovators in their contents as well. Unlike some of the more dogmatic young poets at the Poetry Project who could only toe a Black Mountain or a New York School line, Feld loved a vast array of mentors from Williams to Creeley to Sorrentino, from Joel Oppenheimer to Paul Blackburn. He wrote art criticism as good as any New York School poet did, and he knew Frank O'Hara's work as well as probably someone like Ted Berrigan did, and as Berrigan's sonnets prove--being a collage of O'Hara and Ashbery mostly--Ted knew Frank O'Hara's work brilliantly (Kane 100-22). In fact, there is an instance in Ted Berrigan's correspondence to his first wife in which something he writes reminds me more of Ross Feld than Ted Berrigan. He says: "Personally, I think I can write better than many poets in the book (the Don Allen anthology), but I can't write well enough to satisfy myself yet" (qtd. in Kane 101). Just like Berrigan, too, Feld was indebted to Don Allen's poetry anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), more than any other piece of writing in his early years as a fledgling writer. In a talk that Feld gave at Notre Dame University on the Objectivist poets, he said that Don Allen's poetry anthology "was probably the single most shaping force for the poets of my generation whom I spoke with and shared work with" ("Talking about Objectivism").
Poetry is where one starts with Ross Feld, the novelist. He began in this realm, and forever would live in a tension in relation to it, either denying it in his prose life or embracing it in his literary essays. Plum Poems (1972) pays homage but not lip service to all of Feld's mentors, but mostly to two of them--Jack Spicer and Gilbert Sorrentino. The poems are anti-poetic, talky, jagged, irregular, more correct than beautiful. Like Spicer, Feld wanted to relieve poetry of personality. (15)
Poetry is calling it a day. Someone else, across the grove, calls it real and continues to sweat.
("A Hard Day's Night," Plum Poems n.p.)
Elsewhere he writes:
They are playing the Tennessee Waltz and it's getting to me already.
("Hit Parade," Plum Poems n.p.)
Feld knew what he liked, and said what he didn't like. He didn't care much for Ezra Pound, though he'd read him thoroughly. He liked Creeley--"a grand master," he called him--and, of course, adored Williams, and though widely read in European literature, from Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Apollinaire, to Italian masters like Montale, Feld had very little tolerance for the fads and schools at a place like the Poetry Project.
A fiction writer digs his origins, his literary foundations, in poetry. But this is not just any poet. Ross Feld is an anti-poet or, more accurately, an anti-autobiographical poet, one who eschews the author's backstory. Like his hero Jack Spicer, Feld believes in a poem without an author; he believes in poetry itself. All of this reminds me of a sonnet written by Feld's college friend, Henry Weinfield, a sonnet from his book The Sorrows of Eros (1999).
For years I sojourned in the Land of Prose; With other sojourners I sojourned there. It was a land of plenty, I suppose, But in the end I was a sojourner. (22)
Henry attended workshops at the Saint Mark's Poetry Project, but only briefly. As he explained it, regarding his friendship with Ross Feld and Bradford Stark: "The truth is that I am and have always been a latter-day Symbolist--and I wound up at City College among a bunch of American modernists for whom symbolism was anathema. I was reading Yeats and they were reading Williams. Ross and I used to have terrible fights" (E-mail 15 Sept. 2004). Henry was a sojourner in the Land of Prose; but not his friend Ross Feld, who pitched a tent in Prose's field. (16) But his prose was to be informed by a highly evolved and sophisticated poetics, just like that of Jack Spicer about whom Feld wrote: "His project was too grand and quixotic, too self-aware, for vain expectation not to have been a part. Spicer would have liked to do the perhaps impossible: to relieve poetry of personality" ("Jack Spicer"). Later in this same essay, Feld refers to Jack Spicer's wish to be relieved of "his own masonic sentimentality." Feld saw Jack Spicer's contradictions this way: the poet's need for a "non-personal art," and yet having a need "for human contact." Both in his poetry and in his prose, Ross Feld was everywhere and nowhere. There was never a voice in his poems which you could point to and say: there he is! There was never a character in his fiction who was a stand-in for the author. Every Chekhov play had a doctor or professional person who seemed to mirror its author's sensibility. (17) Not Ross Feld's fiction. Chekhov is a writer I have often thought of when reading Ross Feld's novels. Illness invades the lives of so many of his characters. Feld had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of medicine and medical practice, no doubt in part because of his own early bout with cancer and in part because of his long relationship with his wife, Ellen, a doctor herself. (18)
Henry Weinfield stayed in the Land of Rhyme while his friend Ross Feld departed for the Land of Prose. The third person in this literary friendship is Bradford Stark, someone who forever seemed to feel that he was an inferior poet to his friend Ross Feld, with whom he lived and whose anti-poetic style he emulated in his own work. Ultimately, I think that Stark became the better poet. Of course, he would not live to appreciate this fact as he committed suicide in 1980.
The small constellations where lovers live as both partners and disruptive agents. Who would believe it and in it? Those who promise somebody something. Happiness, for instance: a process begging description and rendered useless. Take the televisions away or make them show us things happen. This universe run down. (Stark n.p.)
When I asked Henry Weinfield if he believed that both Brad and Ross painted themselves into a corner with this kind of anti-poetry, Henry responded: "I don't think Brad painted himself into a corner (to use your metaphor) with his poetry--though maybe Ross did. Brad suffered from depression, and he was probably addicted to Valium. Our supposition is that he was out of Valium and literally crazed when he killed himself." In those days of the Poetry Project's beginnings (1966), I remember these three young poets almost the way one imagines the three friends of Dante's sublime "Sonetto III (da Il Canzoniere)":
Guido, vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io Fossimo presi per incantamento, E messi ad un vascel, ch'ad ogni vento Per mare andasse a voler vostro e mio. (Guido, I wish that you and Lapo and I Were taken by enchantment, And put on a boat, that with each wind Would sail the sea at your will and mine.) (18-19)
Although Henry Weinfield says that his own sonnet (Number Ten) is not about Ross Feld, he told me that "Ross liked my sonnets, and that one in particular" (E-mail 15 Sept. 2005). Eventually the young anti-poet Ross Feld would abandon poetry for prose, and so I cannot help but think of him when I read these lines from Henry's poem:
How long ago it was I cannot say That I departed for the Land of Rhyme; But it was long ago and far away, And I am finished now with space and time. (10)
Back to the Land of Rhyme for Henry Weinfield. So much for the Land of Prose. But Ross Feld's literary life would take a different trajectory. He loved poetry, knew it and read in it vastly. And yet prose would prove far more appealing to him. Prose was, well, prosaic, ordinary and everyday, and Feld relished the quotidian. I never met anyone who so liked to work, even as a teenager at Time-Life and Grove Press as an associate editor. At the latter institution, he worked with Gilbert Sorrentino, then a senior editor at Grove. Gil was passionate about writers like Jack Spicer, and I presume Feld first read Spicer as a result of his association with Sorrentino. Although this influence would not be evident in Feld's first novel, Years Out, it was in abundance in his first book, Plum Poems. This influence was also evident--as I've previously noted--in the poetry of Feld's college roommate, Bradford Stark, a regular member of the workshops at Saint Mark's. Stark was very much in the sway of Feld by way of Sorrentino and Spicer.
Here it is. What he once thought he was waiting for. There is a table he finds himself resting on. It is an impossible table, for which men have written long and tormented books attempting an assertion. (n.p.)
As Feld points out so clearly in his essay on Jack Spicer, this San Francisco poet was really not a poet so much as "an anti-poet." Feld writes how the poet "throws in names, direct addresses to lovers" ("Lowghost"). It was not lovers' names but just names themselves that seem so remarkable in many of Ross Feld's novels. His first and second novels have more or less generic names associated with Jewish literature. Their names are Abrams and Lapin, Richmond and Kornbluh. But in his third novel, Shapes Mistaken, names seem to explode from the page: Henry Hing, Sid Telscher (a rabbi calls him Tischbein), Iris Seavy, Monte Vogelsang, Theresa Dellamatraccia (one character calls her Mrs. Gimee-I-Want-It-All-a), Merrit Heubsch, Ivan Roitman, Lurtha Meneny, Sister Ranelle, Moishe Pipick, Leona Mackey, Meg Seavy, Teddy Ullivan, Tony and Dallas and the Regensteins, Dr. Franziska, and Diane Occhiogrosso. But it is not just people's names; there are explosions of names about things, too. Charles Shapes owns an electronics store, and the place is filled with names like "Audiobrights, Valsalvas, Cranmer-Lutzs, Woeneckes; speakers, tuners, and decks stacked one and two and three high" (159). Perhaps the only book to equal this one's cornucopia of names is Gilbert Sorrentino's own Mulligan Stew (1979), a book filled both with the author's own inventions, plus the lists of characters from other books.
Reading Feld's essays on the poet Spicer, one begins to understand how Feld left poetry for prose-writing. Arguing for collage in poetry, in After Lorca, Jack Spicer writes:
But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible--lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay, they bring their equivalents into being. (qtd. in Feld, "Lowghost" 7)
In his speech at Notre Dame, Feld refers to the Objectivist poets (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, et al.) as being "epiphenomenal." "Their marginalism was their freedom; they had access to quiet corners in which to handle the polished instruments of the art." He goes on to say that these poets "are much to the point," but that they also "seem narrowed down to a point." At first Feld takes exception with the politics of George Oppen's poetry, calling it "a poetry of alibi and bad faith." Later still in the essay, Feld asks whoever promised that we could be innocent of loneliness? Then he answers himself: "Marx, that's who." He calls Oppen's failures "political and psychological." And because Oppen corresponded with Robert Duncan, Feld includes Duncan in his assessment of the Objectivists, and he says the San Francisco poet's fade-out was "a product of social, political, sexual, and almost masonic deliquescence." Whatever the reason, "the effect on me is to read the poets we call Objectivist or Black Mountain or countertraditional with less and less relish each time. The longer I write novels I seem to suspect something structural's behind my disenchantment, too." He continues: "Yet I, from my perch over in the less pure art--and having made poems myself, and having stopped making them--am much less sure that blockbuilding doesn't describe poetry perfectly."
There are many reasons why anyone chooses one thing over another. Ross Feld chose prose over poetry, as he stated in his lecture at Notre Dame. But there are some things worth noting in that journey from poetry to prose. Feld may cite the Objectivists for what he called their "pietism," and he may also say that his disenchantment with poetry is nothing more than a structural awareness. ("The longer I write novels I seem to suspect something structural's behind my disenchantment, too.") One might say that poetry at Saint Mark's went in a direction completely opposed to Feld's own poetics. But I think his main objection to poetry was what Daniel Kane calls its "performative" nature (Kane 27-56). Feld was a writer of words on the page--a writer of language not speech. "The midcentury Anglo-American personal/subjective poem," he says, "was largely one of performance [Feld's emphasis]--a formalist's ruse." He says that the Pound/Olson/Zukofskian vector, in exposing this ruse, "went too far" ("Talking about Objectivism").
Finally, Ross Feld believed that "the poem's exhaustion is what has become sovereign" ("Jack Spicer").
Years Out (1973) is Ross Feld's first novel, published when he was twenty-five years old. Although on its surface, it would appear to be a standard realistic novel, all Ross Feld's novels, like his one book of poetry, were about language, just as all of Jack Spicer's poems were about language, too. Here is how Feld put it regarding this mentor, the poet's poet:
The hortatory, long-strided mode we indistinctly call the Black Mountain movement is eclipsed in subtlety by Spicer ten times over, but he is still of that widened-out mode. Clever, pithy, brilliant, daring as he may be, Spicer was set from the start upon the One Thing, larger-goaled even than Olson and his polis and culture-straddling. Spicer wanted no less than to clear the totals on poetry's machine, to introduce the proper multipliers and dividers. Poem was all; and if so, what we made it from had to be more perdurable, of more lasting and truer clay than we ordinarily contributed. Spicer asked that it only be "objects," real things that the poet, totally subordinate, could "disclose ... to make a poem that had no sound in it but the pointing of a finger." Ghosts, lemons, seagulls, rocks, diamonds, baseball, God, radio, dead letters: they are recurrently placed into the poems as figuri, as markers, as shims--but above all as absolute quiddities, made realer than real by a retrospective turn that Spicer would have both appreciated and half as much rued. ("Lowghost" 6)
Not only did Spicer provide Feld with a self-consciousness about language and how one uses it in a poem, but he allowed a young poet to contemplate "the other." "The 'I--never seen' is tacitly replaced with a 'we,'" Feld observes ("Lowghost" 11). Really, this is a kind of truism of fiction writing. Characters become more important than the author. At least, I believe, Ross Feld took Spicer's desire to remove himself from the poem as a kind of invitation for the young poet to write fiction, to eschew the first person for these other persons, these characterizations. In an essay that Feld wrote about John Hawkes and Scott Spencer, he writes: "Characters are a novelist's children not only by force of original creation but in the strength, too, of their rebellion" ("Braving the Depths").
Thus we have this first novel, Years Out. Its plot and characters are rather conventional. In fact, these five characters are no more different than the ones found in a movie like The Big Chill (1983), a play like Michael Weller's Moonchildren (1971), or even the 1990s television phenomenon, Friends. But I don't believe that Feld wrote novels purely about language the way that Jack Spicer wrote poems purely about language. No, he believed in the conventions of fiction writing, and plot and character were two of those conventions. Years Out chronicles the lives of five friends in the time immediately after university--the years out. The time is the late Sixties. Yet as a language field (using the word in the sense Olson employs it in his essay) constructed out of odd bits of metaphor and analogy, Years Out more resembles a narrative poem written in American speech rhythms circa the 1970s. In that sense, Ross Feld was writing projective prose.
To be sure, Ross Feld read--and was influenced by--prose writers as diverse as Flaubert and Gombrowicz. But his real literary heroes were poets with names like William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Gilbert Sorrentino, Joel Oppenheimer, Jack Spicer, and Paul Blackburn. His other influences would include Montale and Apollinaire, Mallarme and Baudelaire. For Ross Feld's strongest language is not narratively driven nor for that matter is it character-laced. It is his use of metaphors and tropes. In Years Out, David and Serena engage in pillow-talk after making love. But, like Feld, his characters are fond of language.
In bed, they exchanged verbal doodles. He told her about the fabled Giants team of his youth: "Young" Goodman Brown on first; "Doc" Rappaccini playing short; Ethan Brand--"a real phenom; went to his right beautifully"--at third; "Dimmes" Dale in left; Willie Mays where else but in center; Roger Chillingworth in right; Johnny Calvin calling the signals behind the plate; and Nat Hawthorne throwing heat from the mound. (204)
Of course, this is a New York baseball team, but with certain literary and intellectual over shadings. The only real baseball player is Willie Mays, the fabled center fielder for the New York and later the San Francisco Giants. Most of the other "players" are really characters from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels, and he is the pitcher on the mound. Calvin is the stiff-backed, strait-laced minister who was a kind of subtext to so many of Hawthorne's writings, Calvinism being the bane--and sustenance--of early American settlers' lives. But like everything that Ross Feld did, there are still other layers to explore. There is the faint echo of Jack Spicer's own obsessions with baseball, not to mention Gilbert Sorrentino's. But there is also that tribal and territorial one, the oddness of a Brooklyn native creating a New York Giants team. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the team of Brooklyn, while the Giants resided in uptown Manhattan, north of Harlem, and across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
All of these metaphors and tropes are held together by memory. In the beginning of Years Out, the narrative states: "The best way to never forget was to never quite remember" (5), which is more indicative of the 1960s and its ethos than Ross Feld whose own ethos was more like, "You must not forget anything." In an essay that he wrote on Witold Gombrowicz's Diary, Feld refers to the Polish writer as thinking of himself "like aspirin," ridding one of excessive cramps ("I Am Like Asprin"). Feld is more like glue, making his often extraordinary and even odd tropes adhere to the narrative structure of his writing.
I came across an observation by V. S. Pritchett on Chekhov which I think is apt for Ross Feld here. Pritchett writes: "If his prose is plain and neutral, it is nevertheless musical in its architecture and its curious response to sounds" (6). It is no coincidence that one of the five characters in Years Out is a cellist. Besides being a poet with a passion for language, Ross Feld, despite trying to be an anti-poet, even an unmusical one, was a highly lyrical writer. His passion for classical music runs, like a minor motif, like a musical stream, through all of his novels. At times, Feld's musical ability is so effortless, one might not even notice its being there.
There is a passage in Years Out in which Serena, the cellist, has an affair with her music teacher. Her teacher seems to observe that "There were only a limited number of means to gain access to new thought; it's why modernism is a declarative moment and then is lost, only to come back in the world of art to haunt and prod and insinuate until its tenets are almost unconsciously accepted" (145). After they make love, Serena declines dinner in order to practice her Kodaly for the next day. "On Sunday, they went to Orchard Street, then Chinatown, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and strolled the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, came back into Manhattan, took the I.R.T. to his house, and slept there together until she had to get up and attend her first class, and he had to get up to teach his: the same one" (147). This urban geography is very reminiscent of some of Paul Blackburn's poems, especially his rhapsodizing on the streets of New York.
Straight rye whiskey, 100 proof you need a better friend? Yes. Myself. The lights the lights the lonely lovely fucking lights and the bridge on a rainy Tuesday night Blue/green double-stars the line that is the drive and on the dark alive gleaming river Xmas trees of tugs scream and struggle. (120-21)
Feld, the anti-poet, less lyrically than Paul Blackburn, but with an equal measure of invention, introduces what amounts to a found-poem, a poem of its time, very Spicerian in its anti-poetic nuances. It is a list of Beatles' songs.
"Taxman" "Eleanor Rigby" "Love You To" "Here, There and Everywhere" "Yellow Submarine" "She Said She Said" "Good Day Sunshine" "For No One." "I Want to Tell You" "Got to Get You Into My Life" "Tomorrow Never Knows" (150)
Yet what could Feld possibly have meant when he wrote that "the best way to never forget was to never quite remember?" If we return to that italicized paragraph in the preface, which is entitled "Out," we find out that:
The day before, they had all graduated. The actual ceremony was unattended--much too formal and unrelated to whatever they felt--but the behind-the-eyes vision of it stayed. The shuffling forth. The years released like a gay balloon. An amphitheatre carbonated with possibility. Rather than ignore the event, they seemed to have settled on finessing it, coaxing it here, to what turned out to be brilliant calming rooms, and, instead of dispatching it with one great binge of memory and regret, marking it with a cool offhand indelibility. The best way to never forget was to never quite remember. (5)
The years were like "an amphitheatre carbonated with possibility." This is not so much a mixed or garbled metaphor as a very surreal one. Keep in mind that Feld's hero, Jack Spicer, ends one poem with these words: "The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a / counterpunching radio" (Collected Books). An amphitheatre carbonated with possibility is a poet's way of putting things--a poet who has read Mallarme and Apollinaire.
Earlier I referred to Feld's seemingly realistic narratives. At least, on the surface, they appear to be realistic, and that is what seems to be the case; realism skitters over the surface of his prose like a dragonfly over the surface of a pond. But even a cursory examination of his use of language suggests something more disconcerting, more challenging, and the reader either signs on to this agenda or the ride becomes rocky. An example: take the New York Times Book Review assessment of Years Out (1973). Michael Mewshaw begins the review as if this were merely a realistic novel. He writes:
The "Years Out" refers to the years after college when one escapes the limits--and consolations--of school, family and most institutional supports. This first novel wanders in the wake of five young people who are out and who share a common fecklessness, confusion and curious inability to make intelligent choices. Their groping feels genuine, and the author allows us instants of poignant insight into their troubled discoveries. Gradually they seem almost more tellingly representative of the times than the radicals, hashheads and commune dwellers who attracted attention in the late 1960's. (80)
I like that hashhead remark, more telling of the reviewer's suburban ethos than anything Feld might be up to or not. Yet after this first paragraph, which almost seems to promise a fair-minded review, Mewshaw takes a critical U-turn. When the novel turns out not to be a realistic one, the reviewer becomes irritated and disappointed. The next paragraph is blisteringly negative in its assessment of Feld's writing style.
But because of his garbled prose, Ross Feld never fully succeeds in giving shape and voice to their longing. Instead the reader is often left puzzled by sentences like, "Her frame, thin and hooking, was not up to her voice, a full and lifey de gustibus non est disputandum." Or to suppress a chuckle at lines like this description of an orgasm: "... Marilyn fell apart--steel and raucous, truncheon and holiday, sparks and saliva." (80)
The third paragraph of Mewshaw's review is not much better. He whinges about the plot, claiming that "the novel is utterly devoid of narrative drive":
Things happen, but very little relates to what has gone before or is to come. As they move from apartment to apartment, take jobs, shack up, marry, have affairs, split up and break down, the characters are self-absorbed, yet seldom analytical or incisive, and crucial scenes frequently blur to sameness. The drifting, disjointed, episodic structure seems more an indication of authorial indecision than an image of anomie. (80)
The last paragraph, in true New York Times book-reviewing fashion, hedges its bets. Mewshaw admits that the novel does "capture the gritty reality of city living." And then he concludes rather scoldingly: "If Mr. Feld is to go on to better work, of which he seems capable, he'll have to dig deeper, and find a way of making his vision as immediate and important to the reader as it is to him" (80).
Mr. Feld was twenty-five years old at the time, and a lesser novelist probably would have packed his fictional suitcases and shuffled off to Buffalo, never to be heard from again. He moved to Ithaca, New York. He had been diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, a lymphatic cancer that was something of a death notice in the 1960s but by the early 1970s was a treatable and even curable illness. Feld became one of the survivors. Of course, cancer patients often say that the very cures that give them life will eventually take their lives years later, and I suspect that Feld's dying of cancer in his early fifties no doubt had something to do with the cancer treatment he received in the early 1970s. (19)
But let me return to that New York Times review of Years Out. Mewshaw says the novel is devoid of a narrative drive, and yet I think that the novel is one of Feld's most plotted enterprises. To say that nothing happens is to miss the point entirely, I think, as philistine as going to a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, and complaining that nothing happens there.
Perhaps it is time to call in Chekhov, the writer I so often think of when reading Ross Feld's novels. Chekhov wrote: "What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart" (qtd. in Schmidt 5). This really is the key to Feld's characters. They are sitting at a dinner table having dinner, and their happiness or their lives being torn apart just happen.
In drama school, I was taught that for a play to be dramatic something must happen. But it does not necessarily mean that everything must happen to characters. I take something happening to mean that characters are different at the end of an action than they were at its beginning. In the best of these dramatic arcs, something happening is even transformative. In this sense of something happening, I believe that all of Ross Feld's novels are plotted and have strong narrative superstructures despite the superficial evidence to suggest otherwise. Feld said as much in an essay entitled "The Spilled Drop," in which he assayed, among other writers, Eudora Welty. He quotes Welty saying that "great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel." Feld goes on to say that unlike our own errors and shortcomings, those of a character "tremble" with, to quote Welty, "the possibility that they may indeed reveal everything." One last thing regarding Eudora Welty, Feld also quotes her remark that there is more longing in fiction than in love.
I think this issue of something happening is addressed quite well in Feld's Notre Dame address about the Objectivist poets. In that paper, he refers to Wittgenstein alluding to St. Augustine, and how a child acquires language. From this he returns to his abandoning of poetry for prose. This is where he made that remark about "blockbuilding" describing how one makes a poem. At that point in his talk at Notre Dame, Ross Feld articulates, I believe, one of his key theories of fiction writing.
But in the novel, stuffed as it is with people--many if not most of whom do not tell the truth--there is also an intra-individual element. A. for instance might ask for a stone he knows B. is too clumsy to manage; B. might make believe he asked for a slab instead of a pillar; they might work so smoothly that they fall in love with their own efficiency and forget to make a doorway. Language in a novel is passed from one fictional person to another--blocked, stymied, reflected, flattened, disbelieved. And there is, Bakhtin reminds us, also the matter of what he calls the superaddressee--the one (be it the reader, the author, or just plain common sense and experience of the world) who knows that all of them may be equally hopeless as blockbuilders.
Feld believes that poetry lacks this superaddressee, and he wonders if Ezra Pound, "a terrific reader of prose," did not introduce "swerves of tone, the breaks, the echoes of earlier texts that find their way into the Cantos, in order to see if a monoreferential form might be made multireferential like the novel."
In an essay Feld wrote called "Timing and Spacing the As If: Poetic Prose and Prosaic Poetry," he mentioned the Russian Formalist critic Shklovsky who "saw novels as poems" (13). (This is not something that Ross Feld himself subscribed to.) Shklovksy believed that prose could easily be broken down to strophes and meters and recurring tropes, and Feld notes that "the sentimentalist avant garde novel feeds on that presumption" (14). But I mention this essay, not to bolster a theory that parallels Feld's own, but for another reason. Later in it, Feld presents what I think is his own most cogent theory of the novel.
A man and a woman, parents together of the same child, shop for a toy. Both parents know the toy will break or quickly be consigned to oblivion; but in order to buy the toy in that store on that day and not have to make a return trip, one of the pair must will him or herself to a belief in the toy's temporary magic--magic in time--to bring pleasure, boldness, and imaginative relief from the self that even children need. The parents do not stop knowing that the toy is just a toy--but know also the fact that the toy's bringing of joy and imagination and even the lessons of loss to the offspring brings all that to themselves, the parents, too. They consciously know one thing less than fully in order to know another thing more.... Are toys (or fairy tales or novels) not serious enough? Ask a child. (14)
With Years Out, Ross Feld lays the foundation stones for his later work, and this concept of knowing one thing less than fully in order to know another thing more, I believe, is yet another key to understanding his fiction. Is Years Out serious enough? Ask the fiction writer, not the critic. Yes, it is a serious novel, and something does happen. Five people leave school, go out into the world, in this instance, the world of New York City. Neither self-absorbed nor unanalytical, his five characters are bright and talented, and sometimes like their author, quick-tongued. They engage the world around them, and sometimes they succeed, and often they fail.
Feld's classmate from the City College, Henry Weinfield, a poet and professor at the University of Notre Dame, has noted that the ending of Years Out corresponds with the ending of Flaubert's Sentimental Journey.
Flaubert was one of Ross's models (he agrees with Pound and Joyce), and if you read the end of the Flaubert against the ending of Years Out you will see a similar tonality, a similar way in which life is cut off in the middle of things, and a similar sense in which our aspirations and hopes for life never amount to anything. The same is true, by the way, of Ross's book, Only Shorter, in which the heroine dies at the end--but in a way that fulfills the truth of the book's epigraph from Beckett. (E-mail 15 Sept. 2004)
"to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old all down the unchanging days and die one day like any other day, only shorter."
--Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, as quoted by Feld in the front matter of Only Shorter
In an essay on contemporary fiction, Ross Feld observes that "characters are a novelist's children not only by force of original creation but in the strength, too, of their rebellion" ("Braving the Depths"). In his Spicer essay, Feld said "that ignored poetry, like an ignored child, will go to its room to play hermetic and private games. Its own secrecy, self-congratulatory neatness, compensates for the attention it's not getting--and this it gives up unwillingly if at all" ("Lowghost"). The observation resonates more as an autobiographical instance than a poetics, and yet Feld was an anti-poet, like his hero Jack Spicer, and so perhaps this is an instance of an anti-poetics. In the Notre Dame talk, he mentions a line by the poet Robert Duncan that "love is an answer to a question that has not been askt." (20) In another essay he wrote about contemporary theories of poetry, he calls Charles Bernstein "well-informed, jargony, willful, and impossibly self-important." He also says that Bernstein is prodigious with the moondust ("The Swarming"). Of the poet Michael Palmer, he writes that his "natural lyricism, though, has begun to go spongy under the weight of such Lyotardian 'post-human' gear, rhetorical widgets that make me recall the classic Yiddish definition of the shlemazl, the serious-nik who runs through the streets crying, 'I have a wonderful answer! Quick, someone ask me a question!'" ("The Swarming"). What is love, Feld seems to ask, if Robert Duncan's line is to be considered the answer?
Only Shorter would seem to be the answer to another kind of question that has not been asked. It might even be the shlemazl's answer searching for a question. It is also the closest Ross Feld ever gets to autobiography, to fiction as memoir, to the novel as a roman a clef. Less than a decade after Feld experienced his own lymphatic cancer, he published this book ostensibly about two young people with cancer, one who survives it, the other who almost survives it, but then dies. The latter, oddly enough, is the more accepting, the more decent, the better person. The former is not likeable at all. He's a whiner, a malingerer, at times, a nasty bit of business, a snitch, a right-wing dogmatic, a mid-level corporate executive turned landlord, no, slumlord. There is no character who is a stand-in for the author; rather there are narrative events which correspond to the author's experiences, in the first instance, those experiences he had as they relate to having cancer.
Yet if I can make no other point about Ross Feld's writing than this, it would be to say that invariably critics misread his intentions. Because he appeared to be a realistic kind of writer, they wanted him to be just that. But he was not. As I said, all Feld's books are about language, just as his mentors--Gilbert Sorrentino and Jack Spicer--wrote books about this subject, too, language pure and simple or language, to be more exact, impure and complex. But first let me return to the dumbfounded critics.
An unsigned review in Best Sellers begins by noting that "it's hard to explain why a novel, obviously written with care and attention to detail, leaves you cold. I ask myself why I admire this author but don't like this book and I think it is because I am thinking about his technique while I read and do not care about the story" (170). The reviewer continues by observing: "The story of two victims of cancer with the prospect of death and desertion of family and friends teems with possibilities, the very stuff of which novels are made. Yet whenever either character heads for a reckoning of his values, the narrative veers away to distracting details, in a tone devoid of sympathy for what it takes to make tragic choices" (170). The reviewer goes on to declare that the novel fails because its characters are not "revealed." Then a big gun is brought in--Tolstoy in Anna Karenina--to illustrate the need for revelation. But Only Shorter, despite its potential for melodrama or even tragedy, is neither. Its strategy is based on discovery--an almost intellectual kind of white-light experience--rather than revelation. Characters' lives are not stripped away, piece by piece, as they might be in, say, an Ibsen play, but instead arrive at their own epiphanies, not so much through experience, but in spite of the evidence that experience provides. Their discoveries, as I've noted, are intellectual ones, and they usually have to do with something relevatory in their language.
Again, language is everything in Ross Feld's novels.
Joan Silber--herself a subtle fiction writer--wrote more lucidly about Only Shorter in the Village Voice. Of the two central characters, Jack and Judith, she tells how they meet in a cancer clinic: "They do not fall in love, or anything near it (in fact, in the first scene we see them annoyed with each other and mutually estranged); they have a fitful and weakish affair, as wasteful as if they were regular people" (47). I like that phrase regular people, for the fact is that there is nothing regular about cancer, especially when it afflicts young people. Silber later provides an assiduous reading of the novel by noting: "Feld's theme throughout is that no one is ever ready for what always comes as an interruption to things left incomplete." But then she loses the plot.
There is nothing even remotely cloying about this book. It veers instead toward being too distant and crisp (and sometimes over-careful in style). Insisting on the tangle of mundane events, it is at times too loose in its plotting. Often incidents which could provide more information about the characters are merely digressive, and the figures themselves are sketched in lightly, secondary to their own diseases. Still, the novel manages to be impressively truthful in its own hardheaded way. (47)
Silber was one of the regular people on the downtown scene in the days when Ross Feld first began to work at Grove Press and attend workshops at Saint Mark's. I never saw her at the Poetry Project, and I don't think she had much interest in the poetry scene, although she was friends with the poet Harry Lewis, who worked as a bartender at the Saint Adrian's Company bar, an enormous artists' and writers' bar on Broadway in the seam between Greenwich Village and the East Village. Silber was a waitress there for many years. Eventually she began to write herself, and has since published several books of fiction. I note this because one's expectations--and disappointments--reading Feld's novels are in direct proportion to one's exclusive dedication to fiction as a craft or a broader sense of the craft of writing, particularly one that incorporates poetic ideals into notions of prose. In other words, it helps to know Feld's origins in poetry to read his prose. It also helps to have some grounding in the poetry scene of the time--especially the poetry groups at Saint Mark's, including Black Mountain, New York School, and, later, the Language poets.
Ross Feld's trajectory as a novelist is less by way of Flaubert to Joyce to Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald than it is by way of Baudelaire and Mallarme, by way of Apollinaire, and then straight to the heart from William Carlos Williams to Robert Creeley, and on to writers like Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Blackburn, and Gilbert Sorrentino. (At the end of his life, he kept reading company with Eugenio Montale, the great contemporary Italian poet.) A writer like Larry Kart, writing in the Chicago Tribune, seems to intuit this journey of Feld's writing much better than other critics did. Kart had no trouble delineating the overall arc of Only Shorter: "The book's central characters--Jack Richmond, a middle-level corporate executive, and Judith Kornbluh, an assistant curator at an art museum--are suffering from cancer; and in the end we don't know whether either will survive."
Kart clearly sees that characters and plot are only two ways to approach Feld's writing. He shrewdly concludes that Only Shorter "is really about paying attention--the sleepy kind of attention we pay each day to ourselves and our worlds, how that attention can shift into a different gear when we know that the next day may be our last and, above all, how this novelist pays attention to the way life and fiction interact." He goes on to note that all fiction asks is who is telling the tale, and Only Shorter is no exception. But Feld's narrative voice is told with "such near-invisible grace that it's possible to read through the book without quite realizing what Feld has accomplished." The rest of the review is spent showing and exploring how Feld's subtle narrative voice turns the third person on its ear, making it at times almost painfully autobiographical, the author's voice, and yet never lapsing into an epistolary or a diaristic voice.
The Tribune reviewer manages to understand how creating "ordinariness" is one of Feld's chief triumphs. He illustrates with the following sentences from Only Shorter: "The man Jack finally got the door open for was neat and chunky--in a golf sweater and light blue slacks. Dark straight hair was combed wet into a just-so sweep and there was a hint of cowlick in the back, like Fred Flintstone's." "The first sentence is Jack's, or at least most of it is. 'He was thinking' tells us that. But the second--though it retains Jack's 'sound' in its awkward, muscular thrust--conveys information that Jack certainly does not possess." In the second, the narrator is speaking, Kart writes. This gives the prose "torque," the reviewer says. "We know Jack and his motives better than he does himself, but the narrator must pull us away from Jack in order to give us this information, as though he were wrenching a man's arm from its socket." Then Kart produces a passage in his brief but uncannily observed review that I think illustrates what I have been saying all along:
Undercutting the assumptions we make when we read realistic fiction--our willingness to accept or ignore the narrator's presence--Feld has produced a quietly original book that forces us to pay attention both to the "real" lives he has invented and to the fictional brush strokes that create these vivid illusions.
Put another way, Feld is a writer of realistic details as well as the brush strokes of fiction, a more self-conscious writing, one that is reflexive, one that is involved with issues of language itself.
Critics have noted that Feld wrote without sentimental urges, particularly in this novel about cancer. Feld's friend and literary executor, Josh Rubins, writing in Kirkus Reviews, where he'd been a co-editor from 1978 to 1985, drew attention to Only Shorter, where the author wrote of terminal illness with "an almost breathtaking ... lack of sentimentality" (1). Rubins acknowledges that Feld introduced poetry reviews into Kirkus. "New sections were added to embrace his expertise with Montale and Mandelstam as well as with Americans of every school" (1). Ross Feld was especially good with Montale. Like the great Italian poet about whom Feld said his dubiousness and pessimism were constitutional ("Montale"), Feld himself shaped his own unsentimental prose around a constitutional pessimism and dubiousness. As Feld notes in this lyrical and elegiac essay, Montale's themes often were about illness and family, particularly in later life.
As in all the Motets, the poet isn't demolished by separation. He's astonished by it. The widest gulf is the one opened not by a lover's flightiness but by the recognition of the dark personal fixations surrounding each of us like pelts: illness (Motet II), for instance, or family (Motet IV). Always Montale is writing less to the lover, Clizia, than to her privacies: Altro era il tuo stampo; Something else was your mark (Motet IX).
In his essay "Relievers," Ross Feld notes that Stanley Cavell in one of his own essays observes "that human life is constrained to the life of the human body, to what Emerson called the giant I always take with me. The law of the body is the law." Feld qualifies this by noting that "bodies are somethings, in other words (the sick body a something in error, maybe)." I have always been puzzled by the opening paragraph of Only Shorter until I came across this Cavell essay by Ross Feld. The sick body is a something in error. Now listen to that opening paragraph in his second novel:
He hates that she came along. It's even in the way he's grabbing at, angrily yanking, the stickshift. They fly down the slanted streets of the student section; and once, when he makes an unnecessarily sharp turn, she wonders if he doesn't mean to see whether she can be flung off, like a fat pulled drop of something. (3)
Like a fat pulled drop of something sounds almost incomplete, not for the character thinking this thought, but the writer writing it. At least that is what I always thought until I came upon that passage by Stanley Cavell and Feld's own interpretation of it. Then I saw how this passage is about something in error, and that something is the human body. (21) In this case, it is Judith Kornbluh's body, her cancer-ridden body. There is another essay I am drawn to by Ross Feld to illustrate the themes in his second novel. That is a piece he wrote on Primo Levi, the Italian chemist from Turin, the Auschwitz survivor. "Death after death," Feld writes, "is one definition of shame, and as a detective of shame Levi is wholly Celan's equal as a great artist. Levi writes of shame as a kind of nesting of destructions" ("Taking Time" 13).
Finally, despite so many critics still not understanding what Feld was doing with his special kind of realism, I want to note, as in any great piece of writing, there are often passages that don't necessarily add to the narrative thrust or reveal a character into a particular light or even create a further mood, and yet they stand out as exemplary in their execution and observation of detail. Only Shorter addresses the subject of cancer in just this way. Afterward, you find yourself thinking back on a certain passage, re-reading, and pausing to think about what the author has done. Chapter 5 of Only Shorter does that for me. Jack Richmond finds himself at a business meeting with town leaders. "Just at that moment, something must have bitten Jack--right above the collarbone. A hardy winter mosquito? A flea from the couch? He rubbed at the itch through his shirt." Then: "Jack's bite had begun to itch savagely now. He slipped two fingers down his collar, encountering a swelling distinct as an egg, and raked it good and hard with his nails" (94). Later:
Four, five, six times during the night his fingers went to it, checking. The itch was mostly gone but not the swelling. That, if anything had increased, become defined and hard. Before dawn he went into the bathroom, turned on the light over the sink, and looked at it in the mirror. Only when he pressed at it did it redden, buzz against the air faintly; he painted the entire area generously with calamine lotion. Hours later, when he drove to work, it was tieless. (95)
Eventually, Jack loses his denial about it being an insect bite and sees a doctor. The doctor's fingers go to the lump, "Jack's bite," "as if quickly covering a boiling pot" (97). Jack is twenty-seven years old. He had a lymphadenopathy. What? Jack asks. "A swollen node" (97). Jack returns to his insect bite theory. But the doctor contradicts him. It is not an insect bite. The doctor thinks it too hard for mono. Then he tells Jack: "it could be Hodgkin's disease" (99).
Shapes Mistaken (1989) may well be Ross Feld's finest novel. It holds all the themes of his earlier work, plus it unfolds all his obsessions in the most felicitous way. All of Feld's writings remind me, in their way, of Chekhov's writing, and Shapes Mistaken reminds me of the later Chekhov, when the great Russian writer gets beyond the melodrama of Ivanov and the arty concerns of The Seagull for the quiet tragicomedy of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. Related to this subtle progression of time in Chekhov's plays, Feld writes of the tick of the clock being a kind of plot.
Frank Kermode, in his useful (and it seems to me never more pertinent) 1967 book about fiction, The Sense of an Ending--said that the clock's tick-tock is itself a plot, "an organization that humanizes time by giving it form." ("I love History because I hate time and all Time contains," declares Kohler--whose clock, recall, goes tip tip tip instead.) (22) Kermode contrasts chronos--passing time--with kairos--a season, "a point in time filled with significance, charged with meaning derived from its relation to the end." Gass would say (with what Kermode would call the "skepticism of the clerisy") that this shows us as naive: that to expect an end in art means to expect a sum, a sermon, a moral. ("Timing and Spacing" 27)
Nothing seems to happen in Shapes Mistaken, and yet in fact everything is happening. Something happens, at least, because the characters are not the same at the end of the action as they were at the beginning of it. There are not so much plot points of recognition as there are character points of awareness, of cognition, of knowing what they have to do with what was and maybe even with what will be. Shapes Mistaken begins in what is almost a Lenny Bruce routine. (23)
Before proceeding to Sid's affair, Shapes first drove across the river in weak afternoon light to the restaurant in the D-Lux Motel, where he planned to stuff himself on lion's head and that way be sure to get at least one decent meal for the day. He'd phoned ahead from the store so the Hings would be ready: Aahs of welcome, a little bit of talk about the premature heat, then Henry Hing sweeping an arm through the room, offering any deep-backed seat in the house. Followed by ice water, hot tea, and ultimately Frankie--chef and eldest son--marching out with the burly meatballs, his mother shyly hanging back behind. (5)
If you get Feld's humor, you laugh immediately. A giant meatball called lion's head? A nervous Jewish businessman entering an empty Chinese restaurant to eat a meal that might better serve a family. Even their names. Shapes. Hing. Frankie, the eldest son, bringing out the giant meatballs ceremoniously, and his mother lingering shyly behind. Personally, I find it priceless, and vintage Ross Feld, not to mention classic New York Jewish culture, some of the best Chinese restaurants in New York not being found in Chinatown but rather in Jewish neighborhoods, not the ghettos of one's parents and grandparents, but the affluent places of the Upper West Side. (I am reminded of Saul Bellow's short, lyrical novel, Seize the Day (1956).)
The novel is a chronicle of Charles Shapes's seemingly uneventful life, although, again, I return to that operative word to describe all of Feld's novels--seemingly. Shapes's life is really too eventful: his chest pains, thus his pangs of regret for his newly deceased wife; his pangs of regret over the poor relationship he has with his daughter; the pangs of inarticulateness and lack of action taken with his partner and old friend, Sid Telscher; the regret he feels even toward an employee who clearly is ripping him off for thousands of dollars in stolen electronics equipment. Shapes's dilemna is summed up even before he finishes his meal: his is a life "spent being nice--and never in the process having to be good"(11). Charles Shapes is a man who wants to do good and be good instead of being Mr. Nice. Being Mr. Nice has gotten him walked over and stepped on by everyone from his wife to his daughter to his business partner to his employees, including his son-in-law. People literally are stealing Shapes blind. Nothing seems to be happening, and yet everything happens to him.
Charles Shapes is a quiet, decent, sophisticated fellow. He owns an electronics store, in partnership with his more successful lifelong friend, Sidney Telscher. A Russian emigre he is trying to help is ripping him off. His daughter thinks him a shmuck. (24) While driving in his car, Shapes and his daughter get into an argument over--of all things!--the direction of their route. The direction of their route! It is not about their feelings of love and conflict; about the death of a wife and a mother. It is an argument about the direction they are taking in the car.
In the essay entitled "Relievers," Feld writes smartly and affectionately about the writers Stanley Cavell and Adam Phillips. In one of his own more autobiographical pieces, Stanley Cavell refers to his own parents' bickering and fighting, as a "devastation of spirit in their quarrels." This idea of the detection of voice, Ross Feld points out, has to do with Cavell's "mother's musical grace and sight-reading ability, his father's jokes and their particular flavor of Jewish moral pertinence, his parents' disappointments together and their bitter fights," all bring the philosopher to an unpolemical juncture in his work. That angst that Cavell experiences with his bickering parents I find illustrated vividly by Feld's own description of Shapes and his daughter Amy in the car.
"You said left."
"That was left."
"That was straight," Amy said.
"It wasn't--it angled off. Didn't you see it angling off?"
"THEN THAT'S NOT LEFT. ANGLING OFF IS STRAIGHT. IT CAN MAKE AS MANY CURVES AS IT WANTS--IT'S STILL THE SAME ROAD, STRAIGHT AHEAD."
"I know you--I KNOW YOU DO. AND YOU'RE WRONG."
"I can hear you, you don't have to scream." (118-19)
Zwilling's Dream (1999) was Ross Feld's most successful book, commercially and critically. Unlike any of his other works, it went into a second printing, and finally critics were beginning to understand that this was realism with a twist. "All fiction offers escape, some from thought, some into it," wrote Cynthia Shearer in the Hungry Mind Review. "Ross Feld's third novel Zwilling's Dream is of the blessed second type. A trenchant and funny novel about a film that never gets made, it uncovers one of America's little secrets: some of the finest minds of our generation instinctively choose to walk away from the spectacle of what the American art tribe might call 'success'" (36). Well, it was his fourth novel. But no matter. Shearer is right about Feld's novels being an escape into thought. That's the important point to be made about in the review. The next sentence she writes could describe Ross Feld; in fact, substitute his name for his character Joel Zwilling, and you have instant biography of the author. "The one who has walked away in this case is Joel Zwilling, a middle-aged writer living quietly in Cincinnati" (36).
For the last twenty years of his life, Brooklyn-born Ross Feld lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, the New Yorker choosing to live in a quiet, out-of-the-way backwater of the American Midwest. His wife Ellen came to this city by way of her medical practice. But, of course, Cincinnati isn't really a "backwater" at all. Poets such as Richard Howard and Kenneth Koch came from Cincinnati. Frank O'Hara, the quintessential hip New York poet and art critic, even included a poem about Cincinnati in Lunch Poems (1964):
I was walking along the street of Cincinnati and I met Kenneth Koch's mother fresh from the Istanbul Hilton she liked me and I liked her we both like Istanbul. (60)
That other Cincinnati denizen Joel Zwilling has repudiated everything he ever wrote except for a story called "Prague Spring," which turns out to be the first chapter of Feld's last novel. Eventually Hollywood gets wind of this story, wants to buy it, and resuscitate the dead art of Joel Zwilling. Enter Zwilling Junior, a filmmaker, a man-about-town, everything his father is not. The rest of the novel is a trajectory of these two miscast relations, a father and son team devoid of emotional as well as intellectual connections.
Curiously, Ross Feld was a significant enough writer to get an obituary in the New York Times. But almost thirty years after the newspaper trashed--and grossly misread--his first novel, Years Out, the same lack of understanding was brought to bear with his final novel. Erica Sanders calls Zwilling's Dream a "cluttered, melancholic fable about survivor guilt." It is worth reprinting the entire review here to show how profoundly the book has been misread.
Joel Zwilling, a middle-aged writer, had gained notoriety at a young age after writing an autobiographical novel about growing up in New York as the child of Holocaust survivors. After his wife and daughter die in a car accident, however, he stops writing. While teaching at a small college in Cincinnati, Joel raises his son, Nate, who also grows up to be a writer. Their lives become filled with turmoil when a film director decides to make a movie based on Joel's early work. The director, Brian Horkow, and Selva Tashjian, his producer, descend on the Zwillings and Cincinnnati. The locals are predictably, amusingly wowed by the duo's big-spending ways. But Feld has made a puzzling choice to assemble such a psychically scarred roster: the Zwillings are defeated, the annoying Horkow is a manic-depressive and Tashjian is, tragically, delaying major surgery. No matter, the real story here is the tension between Joel, who thinks of the movie as "foolishness," and his son, who has agreed to write the screenplay. In Joel's mind, his fate is to mourn the family he has lost, while Nate despises him for it--it's an excuse not to write, an unforgivable cowardice. As with other conflicts Feld has set in motion, he neglects to resolve this most central one. With so much going on, one wonders if Feld simply ran out of answers. (25)
Of course, Feld did not run out of answers. Remember that wonderful Yiddish joke he told in one of his essays about the man running around with wonderful answers, asking for anyone to ask him a question. Besides, Ross Feld was more a writer of questions than answers. No, what Ross Feld ran out of was time. Simply put, his time was up. He had come to the end of his mortal coil. But his last novel is not one of exhaustion. Instead, it is a book of life-affirming exuberance. Really it is a stick in the eye of critics like Erica Sanders who quite simply don't get his prose, and frankly never will. Ross Feld will never be everyone's cup of tea, and yet look at the writers who did get him: Richard Howard, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Wendell Berry, and when they both were younger, Gilbert Sorrentino.
After Wendell Berry read Zwilling's Dream, he said that "I need to think about realism more carefully than before." Berry seemed to sense the end for Feld in this novel because he goes on to say: "What interests me most about the novel is the sense it persistently conveys of the finality of human life." Berry asks:
How does Ross do this? I don't know. I can't figure it out. Is it a feat of style? Is it a quality of attention? What can it be? I don't doubt that Ross has a masterful literary intelligence. I have thought so for a long time. When you first find a master whose mastery you can understand, you are assuredly glad, but you need not be long detained. When you find a master whose mastery you can't understand, you have found a mentor. A mentor is somebody who has got your attention.... Ross Feld is a writer I am paying attention to.
As I said, Feld's last novel was the one that was best received critically and commercially. Besides the encomiums from writers like Wendell Berry, he received a good review of the book in the Washington Post. Andrea Gollin, a Miami-based writer and editor, concluded her thoughtful review by observing that "it's not happy ever after, but there is, finally, some measure of hope" (7). Writing in the Boston Review, James Hynes assayed the novel, saying, "The book is a diffident but beguiling performance, obliquely told and gently ironic, sustained not so much by storytelling as by vividly precise characterization and artfully colloquial prose." The caption for Peter Trachtenberg's review of the novel in Forward says it all: HOLLYWOOD GLITZ MEETS MIDWESTERN GLOOM.
I have made the assertion that Ross Feld's novels remind me of Chekhov's writings, particularly in how characters' lives are transformed in the midst of doing the most ordinary things like driving a car or eating dinner. In that sense, Zwilling's Dream is more The Seagull than Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, or Uncle Vanya. It is about art and writing, subjects that usually put one to sleep rather than rouse them to character self-assessment. But like Trigorin in The Seagull, Joel Zwilling is a writer. Even the opening of The Seagull could be lifted out of context and the words placed in the mouths of Ross Feld's characters.
MEDVEDENKO: Why do you always wear black?
MASHA: Because I'm in mourning for my life. I'm not happy. (111)
Virtually any character in Zwilling's Dream could utter those lines, particularly, "I'm in mourning for my life." In mourning for one's life is how Joel Zwilling finds himself, but so does his counterpart in the Hollywood film director Brian Horkow, but also the other characters like the director's personal assistant, Selva Tashjian, or Joel's son, Nate. Who is not in mourning for their lives, not just in Zwilling's world, but in Charles Shapes's world from Feld's previous novel, and even the one before Shapes Mistaken, Feld's cancer novel, Only Shorter? Being in mourning for one's life is the condition of nearly everyone in all four of the novels.
But that is not the only Chekhovian detail I find in Ross Feld's writings and his life. In fact, Feld's essays remind me that there is more to life than tragedy, and his memoir of Philip Guston is as life-affirming as the essays are, too. No, when I think of Ross Feld reminding me of Chekhov, it is really one bolt of insight that the Russian writer provides in one of his letters. The theatre critic Richard Gilman, in his study, Chekhov's Plays: An Opening into Eternity, builds the entire structure for his book around this excerpt: "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable--freedom from violence and lies no matter what form they take" (9). That Ross Feld would die two years after his novel was published tells me how profoundly aware he was of this condition Chekhov writes about, and how, at the end of the day, this is all we have, our bodies, our health--or lack thereof, in the case of both Chekhov and Feld--intelligence, talent, inspiration, and love.
Unlike so many books by my contemporaries, no one in Feld's novels gets punched in the nose or thrown down stairs. No one has a gun pulled on them. People argue, true; they live in constant tension between their ideals and the actions of their lives, ever aware of the irreparable qualities of those lives. Ross Feld lived free of violence and lies, and nearly all of his protagonists do too, though invariably their lives become entangled with people, if not violent in their natures, then often out and out liars, like the Hollywood duo who descend upon Cincinnati, Ohio, to produce a Holocaust movie based on Joel Zwilling's story. These details come out in subtle ways, as for instance a father appraising his annoying son: "His son suddenly was sixteen all over again, a sharp pain in the intellectual ass, goading his father while simultaneously asking for his framework of approval" (81). Even the oily Brian Horkow had his redeeming moments.
Two things only do I wish for in this life, he thought. That the children not die too soon (meaning not before me, meaning not ever) and that I myself be tapped in somehow to authenticity. Not originality, not novelty--just a good center-cut portion of the real. With one sabotaged child plus two adopted ones, do I want to pass down anything that is intrinsic to myself and my crummy genes? So why is Shelley bringing up my gums? ... No, all that he wished for his children was what he wished for himself: to not be so goddamned pure! Let them blunder onto reality. And the real, in this instance, would be that an Oreo now and then--even every afternoon, with milk!--was not going to peel the enamel off their little teeth. If it did, at least it would happen much later, and first would have come deep pleasure, plus a simultaneous introduction to the manifold ambiguity of the world. Wasn't pleasure usually dangerous? Wasn't everything? Life was dangerous. In fact it was a sugar: brittle, lacy, quickly surging, only later doing its damage. (43)
Although Ross Feld sedulously avoided being autobiographical in his writings, invariably instances of the autobiographical had to creep in. Joel Zwilling might offer the most fertile ground in this pursuit, although, like Feld, I'm reluctant to ascribe out and out instances of the personal here. Still, this novel would appear to be Feld's farewell address, his swan song, as a writer, and so one can't help over-interpreting moments where the author, not a narrator, is addressing the reader. For instance, Zwilling sits quietly, and then the narrator writes: "To say now that nearly anything he ever said was cribbed from reading would not be advisable" (80). In writing about Feld's gargantuan reading habits, I can't but wonder if he were leaving clues for us to decipher. Then I catch myself up, and say that I am over-reaching, over-reacting.
In my own autobiographical instance, I have to say that all of us became so busy and drifted away from one another. The letters I used to get and send to writers like Ross Feld practically stopped in the 1990s. A character speaking to Zwilling sums it up so beautifully: "We all get so busy, so lousy busy, and people drift out of mind" (214). I think of this because I did lose touch with Ross Feld in the nineties. Then I found myself living in London, pre- and post-9/11. Around Christmas of 2002, I was browsing in a Waterstone's bookstore in Hampstead, and I came across a book of interviews with Philip Roth in which he quotes my old friend Ross Feld in one of these pieces.
Immediately I wrote Ross a letter, thinking that maybe this book was only published in England, and so he would not know that Roth had alluded to him. A month or so later, I received a telephone call from Dr. Ellen Feld, telling me that Ross had died in May of 2001. When Seymour Krim died, I remember attending--and reading at--a memorial service for him at Columbia University, and when Joel Oppeheimer died, I attended--and spoke at--a memorial for him at Saint Mark's Poetry Project. But my old literary friend Ross had been dead almost two years when I found out. It was the first occasion when I felt the profound sense of disjunction that one experiences living abroad, how your life is so different from the lives back home in America.
In Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader (1997), the narrator mentions a book he read by a Holocaust survivor, but how the book remains opaque as he reads it in English, not German, his native language. He read it thoroughly, he says, but could not "make it one's own." He goes on to say, "It remained alien, in the way that language is alien" (117). That is how I have always read Ross Feld's novels: in the way that language remains alien. Seemingly realistic on the surface, nonetheless, this is really a ruse, for all his novels are like Jack Spicer's book The Heads of the Town up to the Aether (1962). Ross Feld's novels really are as odd as Apollinaire's or Mallarme's poetry. Perhaps odd is not the right word, and yet I think maybe it is: unusual or unexpected, strange. But it also means occasional and spare. Language becomes alien--foreign, unfamiliar, or unacceptable--when it brings attention to itself, taking us away from the storyline, the characters, the mood of a piece of writing. Yet this is exactly what all the great modernist writers have done--to have it both ways. They are storytellers and poets of language, and this is true from Joyce to Faulkner, from Virginia Woolfto Gertrude Stein; they make us stand outside their narratives to admire or to experience consternation or wonderment about their language. Poets play this game better than anyone. They make us self-consciously aware of their language, particularly those poets whom Ross Feld admired--Apollinaire, Mallarme, and Baudelaire. But the contemporary poets whom Feld liked also possessed this self-conscious manner in their poetry writing as witness Jack Spicer or Gilbert Sorrentino. Or even Feld's later poet of choice--Eugenio Montale.
Montale believed that memory was a literary genre before writing, and of this idea, Feld observes:
There's little of the sands-running-out ruefulness to these observations. Sad they are, but the lack of regret, which some have read as posture, I read as a sort of welcome weightlessness that floats the poet toward heretofore unreachable conclusions. Such as: if time is nothing but something presentness, memory can be valued as much for its inefficiency as its efficiency: you can sometimes forget to forget. ("Montale")
Feld ends these observations on Montale by quoting from the poem, "Domande senza riposta":
Non ho avuto purtroppo chela parola, qualche cosa che approssima ma non tocca All I have had unfortunately is the word, something which comes close but doesn't touch
I have used Ross Feld's essays in a way they do not deserve. They have been employed as a kind of torch to illuminate his novels. In fact, I have used his poems in the same way. Though I liked his poems enormously when we both were young and at the Poetry Project, and I have enjoyed revisiting them more than thirty years later, I really have used them to elucidate the novels, which are so much richer and more complex than the poems, not to mention being more original. But the essays are another matter entirely. I have reservations about deconstructing his literary and critical essays to illustrate the fiction because the essays finally are what I see as Feld's finest achievement. In our generation, Ross Feld was not so much conscience as he was our intelligence, the one who read and knew everything, the one whose opinions were not so much beautiful as they were correct. Even when I disagreed with Feld--and the fact is I didn't often disagree with his essays or ideas--I ultimately see his point-of-view as being valid, as representing a kind of thorough-goingness, unearthing, in his way, everything that needs such discovery and exposure.
So many writers from the Poetry Project could have been nothing but poets. Ross Feld could have been anything he wanted, including a doctor or a lawyer, a businessman or even a rabbi. He chose to be a writer. That he was an amazing prose writer, I have no doubt. That his novels are very good, I also do not doubt, once they are understood as being the realism of a poet, and finally are books about language as much as they are about university friends, cancer patients, and middle-aged Jewish men. The essays, on the other hand, operate on several important levels. They are propelled by Feld's intelligence, his sensibility; and by his prose gifts--fluid, graceful, even lyrical at times. Robert Creeley is not merely a great poet, he is "a voice, a choice, a poet" ("Fate" 113). Montale was not simply the greatest contemporary Italian poet, he was an "eelish maestro," and he was "object-oriented ... even at the heights of his most trance-like purifications" ("Montale"). About Baudelaire, Feld wrote: "Un Voyage a Cythere' (A Voyage to Cythera): a Great Pyramid of literary history which, recalled in memory, seems firmly enough built of black marble--and in re-encounter turns out to be of packed volcanic sand" ("Egress and Regress" 41).
Because Feld was first and foremost a poet, he constantly reverted to the tricks that poets employed, particularly metaphors and tropes. The most complicated ideas were made understandable when Feld reduced them to some metaphoric turn.
Once again, I return to Charles Olson, alluding to Keats's "proposition that a man's life ... is an allegory" (qtd. in Clark 254).
Ross Feld possessed a poet's gift for metaphor and allegroy. He also had a poet's concision, and nowhere was this more evident than in an essay he wrote on Apollinaire. In this piece, he reduces Apollinaire's complex life into one astonishing, Jamesian sentence. "Language and culture were continually beckoning him into the tightest jams: Monte Carlo (where, as a boy, the Polish-Italian bastard born in Rome learns French--and life-as-risk?); La Sante prison (six days, accused falsely of complicity in the theft of the Mona Lisa); the wartime trenches of the Champagne" ("Headless, with Flares").
Tropes and metaphors are one thing; so is a poet's concision in Feld's prose. But Feld is a twofold writer, not just dazzling us with his language, he also impresses with his thoughts. Often he braids both of these angles of pursuit into one manifesto. In that same Apollinaire essay I encountered the following observation by Feld.
A poem like "Les Colchiques" could employ the blunted mood, the spoiling modifier, with which French poetry and painting had been quite merrily objectifying self-pity for fifty years: De pre est eneneux mais joli en automne Le vaches y paissant Lentement s'empoisonnent Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la Violatres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s'empoisonne William Meredith's translation: In fall the fields are poisonous but fair Where slowly poisoning the cattle graze. The meadow saffron, colchicum, thrives there, Color of lilacs and the circles under eyes. My life pastures so on the autumn hue Of your eyes and slowly poisons itself too. --while the next or previous poem might be "Le Pont Mirabeau" or "Les Spins" or "Automne" or "Signe": crooned lyrics (Apollinaire insisted he composed much of his work to wandering little melodies of his own creation; friends bore out the assertion, as would anyone with half an ear who reads the French aloud) which hug as close to the conditions of pure affectationless song as any of Villon, Nerval, Verlaine; the uncookedness of some of the feelings expressed startles us to this day.
There are many reasons to be impressed by this writing, not the least of which is its observation and its inherent intelligence and breadth of literacy and feeling. Metaphors and tropes abound, although in this instance, concision is thrown to the wind. Instead, a brilliantly snaking sentence unravels itself, Jamesian or Proustian in its intent. I marvel at the fact that all of this passage is literally one long sentence. I had said earlier in this final section on Ross Feld's life and work that his essays operate on several important levels, one of them being his gift for writing itself, its grace and fluidity. But his second gift is no less remarkable, and that is the gravity of his prose, a weight given all that he writes by the sheer force of the intelligence behind the observations, the engine behind the metaphors and the tropes and the concision.
In Ross Feld's essays, form and content merge in that projective field that Charles Olson wrote about. Breath and syllable form a coherency in Feld's essays. In Charles Olson's "Projective Verse," the poet writes that "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT" (240). Yet Ross Feld's essays show that the best writing merges form and content into a coherent whole, a totality bonded by significance and substance. In writing about my dear old friend Ross Feld that is what I now come away with: his lyrical intelligence was equal to anyone's poetry or intelligence. But his rudimentary, everyday intelligence was equal to no one's because it was on a plane by itself. This was the literary intelligence of my generation, and his literary and intellectual brilliance was unparalleled.
Yet saying that, I can hear Ross Feld answering, "Well, that is what I do." Of course, he would not merely be making a statement of fact. He would be alluding to a great philosopher, for Feld liked to quote Wittgenstein in this matter. The great Austrian philosopher observed: "This is simply what I do" ("Talking about Objectivism").
Babel, Isaac. You Must Know Everything. New York: Dell, 1970.
Berry, Wendell. Unpublished manuscript.
Blackburn, Paul. The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn. Ed. Edith Jarolim. New York: Persea, 1985.
Chekhov, Anton. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1997.
Clark, Tom. Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life. New York: Norton, 1991.
Creeley, Robert. Selected Poems. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
Dante. "Sonetto III (da Il Canzoniere)." Italian Poetry: An Anthology. Ed. and trans. Arturo Vivante. Wellfleet: Delphinium Press, 1996. 18-19.
Feld, Ross. "Braving the Depths as Man and Boy: Two Novels of the Seventies." Unpublished manuscript.
--. "Egress and Regress." Parnassus 11.2 (1983-1984): 39-40.
--. "The Fate of Doing Nothing Right." Parnassus 12.1 (1984): 95-122.
--. Guston in Time. New York: Counterpoint, 2003.
--. "Headless, with Flares." Unpublished manuscript.
--. "I Am Like Aspirin." Unpublished manuscript.
--. "Jack Spicer: The Apostle's Grudge at the Persistence of Poetry." Unpublished manuscript.
--. Letter to M. G. Stephens. 23 March 1978.
--. Letter to M. G. Stephens. 25 June 1982.
--. Letter to M. G. Stephens. 12 Aug. 1983.
--. "Lowghost to Lowghost." Parnassus 4.2 (1976): 5-30.
--. "Montale." Unpublished Manuscript.
--. Only Shorter. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.
--. "Oz Is Home." http://www.counterpointpress.com.
--. Plum Poems. Highlands: Jargon Society, 1972.
--. "Relievers." Unpublished manuscript.
--. Shapes Mistaken. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.
--. "The Spilled Drop." Unpublished manuscript.
--. "The Swarming, the Pure." Parnassus 23.1-2 (1998): 51-62.
--. "Taking Time." Parnassus 15 (1990): 7-15.
--. "Talking about Objectivism at Notre Dame." Unpublished manuscript.
--. "Timing and Spacing the As If: Poetic Prose and Prosaic Poetry." Parnassus 20.1-2 (1995): 11-31.
--. Years Out. New York: Knopf, 1973.
--. Zwilling's Dream. New York: Counterpoint, 1999.
Gilman, Richard. Chekhov's Plays: An Opening into Eternity. New Have: Yale UP, 1995.
Gilmore, Lyman. Don't Touch the Poet: The Life and Times of Joel Oppenheimer. Jersey City: Talisman House, 1998.
Gollin, Andrea. Rev. of Zwilling's Dream, by Ross Feld. Washington Post 7 Nov. 1999: 7.
Howard, Richard. Introduction. Guston in Time. New York: Counterpoint, 2003. 1-5.
Hynes, James. Rev. of Zwilling's Dream, by Ross Feld. Boston Review 1999-2000.
Kane, Daniel. All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003.
Kart, Larry. Rev. of Only Shorter, by Ross Feld. Chicago Tribune 29 Sept. 1982.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964.
Mewshaw, Michael. Rev. of Years Out, by Ross Feld. New York Times Book Review 4 Nov. 1973: 80.
O'Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1964.
Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse." Collected Prose / Charles Olson. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 239-49.
Oppenheimer, Joel. the wrong season. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.
Pritchett, V. S. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Rev. of Only Shorter, by Ross Feld. Best Sellers Aug. 1982: 170.
Roth, Philip. Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work. London: Vintage, 2000.
Rubins, Josh. Rev. of Only Shorter, by Ross Feld. Kirkus Reviews 15 June 2001: 1.
Sanders, Erica. Rev. of Zwilling's Dream, by Ross Feld. New York Times Book Review 14 Nov. 1999: 25.
Schlink, Bernhard. The Reader. London: Phoenix, 1997.
Schmidt, Paul. Introduction. The Plays of Anton Chekhov. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1997.
Shearer, Cynthia. Rev. of Zwilling's Dream, by Ross Feld. Hungry Mind Review Fall 1999: 36.
Silber, Joan. Rev. of Only Shorter, by Ross Feld. Village Voice 22 June 1982: 47.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. 1971. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
Sontag, Susan. Where the Stress Falls. London: Vintage, 2003.
Spicer, Jack. A Controversy of Poets. Ed. Paris Leary and Robert Kelly. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.
--. The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Ed. Robin Blaser. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975.
Stark, Bradford. An Unlikely but Noble Kingdom. New York: Rainbow Press, 1974.
Stephens, Michael. Circles End. New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 1982.
Trachtenberg, Peter. Rev. of Zwilling's Dream, by Ross Feld. Forward 1999.
Weinfield, Henry. E-mail to M. G. Stephens. 15 Sept. 2004.
--. Letter to M. G. Stephens. 25 Oct. 2004.
--. The Sorrows of Eros and Other Poems. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1999.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1969.
(1) These biograxphical details were supplied to me by Feld's widow, Ellen and by his childhood friends, including Larry Merrill and Archie Rand.
(2) Both Lyman Gilmore's biography of Joel Oppenheimer and Daniel Kane's chronicle of the 1960s downtown poetry scene amply detail these two artists' and writers' hangouts.
(3) Endorsement on the jacket copy of Guston in Time.
(4) I am indebted to Feld's widow, Ellen, and his childhood friend, Larry Merrill, for this and other personal information about Ross Feld.
(5) Herbert Leibowitz, editor of Parnassus, provided me with most of the essays that Ross Feld published in his magazine as well as other ones which he had in his possession. I often quote from the unedited manuscript throughout this piece, not the published essay, though, as Feld was preparing this manuscript for publication before he died, and in that case, it is more up to date than, say, an essay that was published in Parnassus many years earlier.
(6) Larry Merrill, Feld's best friend from childhood onward, provided me with this information in interviews at his home in Rochester, New York, 16-18 October 2004. Merrill also provided me with Feld's last CV, which contained his employment information.
(7) Although I always presumed that Guy Lewis was a pastiche of several characters, ostensibly the poet Harry Lewis, who in turn was reprised in the character of Lou Henry, too, this kind of detective work invariably is fruitless and invariably incorrect. Now I see that the name Guy Lewis is a kind of play on words which Sorrentino employed regarding Fielding Dawson, Black Mountain alumnus, visual artist and writer. When Fee, as Dawson usually was called, died in 2002, all the obituaries I read gave his complete name as Guy Fielding Lewis Dawson, i.e., Fielding Dawson equals Guy Lewis.
(8) Mednick was a playwright who, along with Sam Shepard, often had his plays produced at Theater Genesis at St. Mark's Church.
(9) People usually thought Leo was based on Joel Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer believed this so much that, although he and Sorrentino were close friends and both eventually lived in Westbeth, the artists' and writers' coop in Greenwich Village, Joel never spoke to Sorrentino again. In Oppenheimer's vitriolic dedication to his book, the wrong season (1973), about the New York Mets baseball team, he writes:
this book is for walter o'malley and gilbert sorrentino
--a reference to the fact that Walter O'Malley, who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, unforgivably took the team from Brooklyn and moved them, quite successfully, to Los Angeles. The implication is that Sorrentino was a turncoat like O'Malley, untrustworthy and never to be forgiven. Sadly, Oppenheimer carried this vendetta with him to the grave, and as far as I know Sorrentino has never softened his excoriating appraisal of Oppenheimer as a failed drunk of great initial poetic promise. I have often thought of writing a play about these two warring poets, and like Lucky and Pozzo showing up in Waiting for Godot, intercut their feud with one between two writers like Walter Abish, the eye-patch-wearing experimental prose writer, and someone like Marvin Cohen, another experimentalist, who was nearly completely deaf.
(10) I would refer the reader to a delightful correspondence with this world of Max's Kansas City. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has a room that replicates the upstairs backroom at Max's. You may also take one of those sequential photographs from a booth in a basement of the museum, something so tacky and so right. I went to this museum with the writer Richard Elman and his wife Alice during a break in the Associated Writing Programs' conference in 1995. It is also worth noting that Chamberlain's sponge sculpture, whether intentionally or not, eventually was picked into nonexistence by the bar's customers.
(11) According to Larry Merrill, "Ross had scoliosis as a teen, and he was in a body cast for a long time. That's when he began his reading and writing and listening to music. When he got out of the cast, he began to play a banjo in Washington Square Park." In conversation, 17 October 2004, Rochester, New York.
(12) The author spoke with Tom Weatherly about this information (1999) at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street and Broadway in Manhattan where Weatherly worked for many years
(13) I am indebted to Jerry Joth for many of these names.
(14) The World was edited by various poets during its history, but initially edited by Joel Sloman, then by Joel Oppenheimer, Anne Waldman, and Lewis Warsh, and finally by the last two poets exclusively.
(15) From Feld's "Jack Spicer: The Apostle's Grudge at the Persistence of Poetry," part of a manuscript tentatively entitled The Spilled Drop, a collection of essays that RF was putting together at his death (inedited).
(16) The "field" of course is the one Charles Olson alludes to in his essay, "Projective Verse." "First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the 'old' base of the non-projective" (239).
(17) In Ivanov, we encounter Yevgeny Lvov, a young local doctor. There is Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn, the local doctor, in The Seagull. And in Uncle Vanya, we find Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, a doctor. The army doctor, Chebutykin, inhabits The Three Sisters drama. These are not central characters to the storyline. But they are central to the lives of the other characters. In an odd way, they resemble the Greek chorus, the voice of the citizenry, the voice of the golden mean.
(18) In a 23 March 1978 letter to the author, Feld writes: "We've got a nice piece of hotcha news ourselves: Ellen got into medical school, right here at Downstate in Brooklyn."
(19) Henry Weinfield has told me that Feld died of pneumonia after cancer treatments lowered his immune system's tolerance (Letter 25 Oct. 2004).
(20) Robert Duncan, like Charles Olson and Ezra Pound, often used phonetic spellings such as "askt" instead of "asked."
(21) The word "something" has probably not worked so hard since Joe Cocker sang the Beatles' song, "Something."
(22) In a book I wrote on digital time (Circles End), I tried to show that the pulse of quartz, highly exact, and unvarying, is always Be-Be-Be-Be ...
(23) Lenny Bruce often did a routine in a Chinese restaurant in which the waiter tells him how beautiful his showgirl wife is. "Mama, so beautiful!" Then Bruce gets divorced, and goes into the restaurant for dinner. "Where's mama? She so beautiful!" The Chinese waiter goes on and on with his praise of Bruce's ex-wife until the comedian finally says, "We're divorced." Without losing a beat, the waiter says, "Oh, you betta off."
(24) Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish (1968) defines a shmuck as an ornament or (obscenely) a penis. But in everyday New York City parlance--even outside the purlieus of the Jewish world--it has come to mean "a dope, a jerk, a boob; a clumsy, bumbling fellow." Charles Shapes is that: a clumsy bumbling fellow.
Ross Feld Checklist
Plum Poems. Highlands: Jargon Society, 1972.
Years Out. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Only Shorter. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.
Shapes Mistaken. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.
Zwilling's Dream. New York: Counterpoint, 1999.
Guston in Time. New York: Counterpoint, 2003.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
|Previous Article:||Robert Lowry.|
|Next Article:||Gilbert Sorrentino. Lunar Follies.|
|Hard times for Ballet Tech.|
|A royal day out for young ambassadors.|