Reviews Editor: Meg Hurtado
Location: Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley CA 94704
Main Store: (510) 849-2087
Open 10am – 10pm every day
Curator: Owen Hill
Parking/Transportation: Wherever you can get it. There’s a garage at roughly Telegraph and Channing – $1 per hour with validation. Probably best to drive, but not a terribly long walk from BART.
The Run of Things: Audience usually arrives a little early to browse the store and grab a good seat – it’s a well-established series in the Bay Area and it can get crowded.
Donation Encouraged? Not overtly, but it’s a bookstore – copies of the readers’ work is always for sale.
Is There a Blog? Yes, through the Moe’s Bookstore website.
All upcoming events and past audio and video files from previous events can be found there too.
Quote From a Reader: “Schools are made to be broken.” – Charles Bernstein.
Upcoming Events? Moe’s will host an in-store celebration of its 50th birthday on July 11th. This is not to be missed.
Some Legends Don’t Need to Slow Down
By Meg Hurtado
Moe’s Bookstore in downtown Berkeley is the stuff of living legend. Snuggled amid the pubs, florists, junk-shops, head-shops, doughnut-shops, used music and vintage clothing stores of Telegraph Avenue, the store has been enthralling independent, left-minded readers for half a century. Owen Hill, author (his latest novel, The Incredible Double, is brand-new from PM Press), curator of the Moe’s Reading Series, and Moe’s employee of twenty-three years, says that the store “performs the same function for the East Bay that City Lights does for San Francisco,” as not only a purveyor of magnificent, inexpensive literature but also as an intellectual gathering place.
The Moe’s reading series has been “an ongoing, regular thing” for six years now, and on June 22, Moe’s hosted a collaborative reading to commemorate the fourth volume of War and Peace: Vision and Text, edited by Leslie Scalapino and Judith Goldman. A thrilling lineup of nine featured authors read their work: Judith Goldman, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Leslie Scalapino, Michael McClure, Denise Newman, Etel Adnan, John Beer, Michael Cross, and Charles Bernstein.
Leslie Scalapino spoke briefly about the importance of interlocking visual art with poetry. Her reading, an excerpt from her poem “The Animal Is In the World Like Water in Water” (inspired by a quote by George Bataille) accompanied by drawings by Kiki Smith. The drawings portray various women being eaten by animals, though Scalapino’s poems are working against the traditional notion of hierarchy and “ascendancy”: “the animal makes / holes in / the girl – the night [not there yet] / is / [night] in the same place then / as both – and holes in night where’re / stars seen [by them there inside it]?” At several points it arises that instead of the animal inflicting bloody death upon the girl, the girl is surrounded by “the rosy night”. Scalapino said that her purpose in the poems was to “reverse” the horror of the drawings, to “make it something sensual and wonderful . . . . and it really is!”
Judith Goldman’s poem “But to me [redo] Ad terminum” dealt with vision on a more internal level. Certain terms and concepts familiar to the amateur art theorist or historian kept popping up: “the bone dropped me / from its mouth / Into the river / to Catch my image”, “conceived as an illustration for a text”, “suggests . . . disappearance”, “The frame is an equal partner in the work”, “figure cropped by left border”, “My mind is encaustic”, “You’ll see on the facing page / this is a work of glazed ceramic”, and my personal Renaissance-Art favorite: “Stop painting the Virgin!” In addition to Goldman’s skillful construction of our visual skyline through words, she moves into moments of tender, defensive, quotidian dialogue: “Sign for the parcel”, “We didn’t know you didn’t know”, “You don’t know your own strength”. Particularly clever was the found-language-esque “You’re paying for the extra day because you exceeded the discharge time” followed by one punny word, “Fine”.
I had never heard Mei-mei Berssenbrugge before, but it was immediately clear that her reputation for elegant and evocative reading is wholly deserved. Throughout her time at the mic she sustained a lilt and pulse that was musical, stylish, and original. She read from a new poem called “The New Boys”, which she described as being inspired by the “slender and willowy and very carefully-dressed” young men of New York. This particular poem blended humor (“he can overplay the artist thing”, “the problems in Israel will be solved by extra-terrestrials”) and post-postmodern innocence and doom (“there’s sex, creativity with the surrealist instincts of a young faun”, “an appearance of renunciation”). Berssenbrugge also read from two of her poems in War and Peace, “Slow Down Now” and “Hello, the Roses”, which were centered around the idea of speaking to plants.
Michael McClure’s untitled poem developed alongside twenty-fives sculptures of horses by Amy Evans McClure, who also provided several drawings which appeared beside Michael’s poem in War and Peace. In section 2 of the poem, McClure made some claims on a grand poetic scale: “BEING BORN IS NOTHINGNESS / DYING IS NOTHINGNESS / Grandpa and Mama are nothingness / and I am here with / ALL LIVES / I / N / venting / a love / – half free”.
Denise Newman’s poem “Future People” was written beside the work of Gigi Janchang, a visual artist who assembles “portraits” with facial features taken from several different photographs. Newman’s work flows in the vein of the gentle poetry-of-the-everyday-eavesdropped-world, and the end of each stanza is punctuated by a shifting refrain built on the phrase “in reality”: “’in reality’, what gets made is winter”, “’in reality’, not in control”, “’in reality’ this is not a mystery. What’s missing is a mystery”, “’in reality’ wanted to be a saint”, etc. It would seem that Newman was affected by the unsettling effect of Janchang’s portraits – and by the question of whether images compiled of disparate parts can in fact be called a “portrait”. It’s a loaded, laudable question, since “naturalism” in art is really a very young phenomenon, and centuries of artists have viewed the ‘compilation’ as the best way of getting at ‘inner’ beauty – Elizabethan artists in particular were fond of sewing together “ideal” features in aristorcratic portraits, most of which bore little physical resemblance to the sitter, and calling it a ‘true’ likeness. But when the features come from multiple imperfect individuals and not a socially-contracted “ideal”, the final product must inevitably make us uneasy. This tension, which Newman referred to as “what was missing, that invisible glue that integrates the parts”, fuels our necessarily-piecemeal perception of “reality”, and creates our anxiety about whatever larger force (Newman describes this force as “God” or perhaps “accident”) will orchestrate our “accident” (“death”, which we can only conceive as an “exception” or “accident”) and the end of our perception.
Etel Adnan advanced to the microphone and ever-so-charmingly announced (or admitted?) that she’d taken the publication’s title literally, and so she’d written an essay about war. On behalf of a generation valiantly shielded by the Patriot Act (happy Fourth of July, everyone… freedom isn’t free and these colors don’t run – they crawl), I was fascinated even though her whole point was that she “had not ‘seen’ war”. While her involvement was certainly greater than that of the average upper-middle class American kid today, the moral of her story is reassuringly familiar, in an unnerving way: nobody sees war. “Even the young men who fought the war, who had weapons, or killed with their own hands, have little say about the war,” she writes. “They have seen nothing, that’s what they say. That it was exciting, or scary, yes, they will admit. But what was it? Events, they will say, little events.” Adnan narrates the way in which war brought her parents together, her teenage and college years surrounded by newscasts, and the pervasive, “perennial” war in the Middle East which has shaped her adulthood and her identity as an Arab. The essay itself is well worth reading, but Adnan’s delivery – both dry and sweet – made her reading perhaps the most memorable of the evening, not least because in spite of her literal interpretation of “War and Peace”, she achieved a very pure, very natural questioning of the intersection of vision and text. Do they always intersect? Do they intersect about the important things, or just about the day-to-day? Are there certain things we can’t ever see, even if we see pieces of them constantly? Can we really talk about what we see? Probably not. In the end, Etel Adnan arrived as a teenager at the only solid conclusion to which a poet can hold: “we were born to read poetry . . . . everything else was evanescence.”
Next came John Beer, who delivered with deadpan humor his brilliant and brief “Descriptive Poem”. The poem centers around the speaker’s view – a physical, visual view – of three lamps in a mirror, nicknamed “Scotty”, “Lola”, and “Lumpy”. In a sense, it’s a poem exploring still-life (for which the original French term is nature mort (“dead nature”) as an art form and as a vivid, constantly-changing life-form in itself. One striking feature of the poem was the way in which Beer rubs contradictory statements against each other and turns them into progressive, dove-tailed revelations, particularly in the following line (which feels reminiscent of both Williams and Yeats): “The view from my / mirror has not changed. / It has changed / entirely.”
Michael Cross read his poem “Pax”, whose title bears a certain brutal-and-brilliant irony, as “pax” can mean military armistice (Pax Romana, obviously, and etc), or outright friendship, and in Catholic culture refers to the “kiss of peace” component of Mass. The lexicon of Cross’s poem, however, was anatomical and sometimes brutal, with decidedly visceral overtones. Phrases like “pigs fixed”, “cleave as stone drawn straw”, “ham of hand, fingers of foot” caught the ear. But the line which most arrested my attention – “dreamt of his blood in the mouth of his brother”.- was simple, archetypal, and extremely reliant on the symmetry of sound.
The final reader was Charles Bernstein, who was perhaps the ideal finish for a long literary evening. Listening to Bernstein’s long conversational lyric was thrilling, but the poem also presented compelling reasons for why we were listening at all. Poetry that tackles the Significance of Poetry is often risky, preachy, or pointless, but Bernstein sailed through all risks with levity and warmth. He dared to channel mighty canonical poets while making charming adjustments of his own. For Coleridge: “Facts, facts, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” For Yeats: “the rag and bone shop of the quotidian”. For Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a frame, that wants to lay bare.” For Williams: “So much depends upon what you mean by failure”. My very, very favorite example, which will never get old and which will decorate my psyche for years to come, springs from Keats: “A thing of beauty is annoyed forever.” And there were simpler, even more hilarious moments: “Computers will never replace poets because computers won’t take that much abuse.”
The heart of the heart of the message, however, is quite serious. The tension between facts and truth is perpetual, is even normal, but great danger lies in the way we perceive said tension. Bernstein’s poem began and ended with a refrain which I’ll attempt to reproduce in full, and if bits are paraphrased I deeply apologize: “Think of poetry as a series of terraces overlooking the city of language . . . . Language is an event of the world just as for language users the world is an event of language. Even the ‘world’ is a word.”
Bernstein ended with a brief remark about the importance of independent readings in general and the Moe’s reading series in particular. Most living legends contain, by their very nature, a certain element of “last stand”, but Moe’s seems to be an exception. Of the dizzying economic downturn and general commercialization of art and intellect which have crippled so many small bookstores, Hill says that it hasn’t been that bad so far, that “we’ve had to do more ads, to work a little harder” but that business is “surprisingly solid”. But what looks like solidity is solidarity, really. When asked the best part of working at Moe’s and curating the reading series, Hill replied, “the audience. It’s a very intelligent audience . . . . it’s a little community of the slightly-crazy.” But we’re loyal.