Special thanks to Konrad Steiner (Kino 21), Fara Akrami (ATA) and Steve Dickison (Poetry Center) for helping to make the night possible!
Below is a report from the lovely Laura Woltag:
JONATHAN SKINNER ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF/IN LORINE NIEDECKER //
CATHY COOK’S IMMORTAL CUPBOARD: IN SEARCH OF LORINE NIEDECKER
"Nature is a haunted house--but Art--is a house that tries to be haunted."
On a rain-speckled Saturday night, SPT gathered at Artists’ Television Access at 21st & Valencia for an exploration of Lorine Niedecker’s life in poetry. I arrived early and the theater was already full, seating snaking up the stairs. I was lucky to score a seat in the second row between Carrie Hunter and Stephen Vincent.
Jonathan Skinner began the evening with a presentation contextualizing Niedecker’s work, situating her in a post-Darwinian field of range finding. Skinner states, “She is a poet of ambivalence, for whom the poem is an instrument of balance…[to Niedecker,] the poet is an observer and instrument of place. “
Skinner explored formal aspects of Niedecker’s poems (a Dickinsonian employment of the em dash, poetics of condensing, sound structures) that bled her engagement with her ecological, biological, sonic, social, and political environs.
Tracking movements of consciousness within poems through the lens of natural histories, Skinner played close attention to the sonics of Niedecker’s work. In an excerpt from “Lake Superior”, Skinner’s colored sounds reveal all sonic events have corresponding occurrences, except for a lone ‘H’ in the middle of the poem that Skinner likened to primordial sound:
In Skinner’s analysis of Niedecker’s poetics, he cited Leo Marx’s writings on the “complex pastoral”. Marx states the pastoral is located “in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature.”
CIGARETTE BREAK OR BREAK TO ADMIRE THE FUNKY COLORFUL BATHROOMS IN OUR NEW TEMPORARY HOMESITE AND CONTEMPLATE RELEASING FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS FOR A GLASS OF GALLO
“LORINE, WHO ARE YOU?”
Cathy Cook’s documentary film, Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker opens with a drive to Black Hawk Island in the dark rural night. And so begins Cook’s journey through fields of Niedecker’s poetics, environment, and personal life. What was, for Cook, to initially be a few minutes of film, resulted in a six-year, 72 minute documentary (and aren’t we grateful!).
The narrative begins in a loose chronology of Niedecker’s life that tightens as it moves forward in time-space. Voices describing Niedecker’s “sparse” childhood on the remote island accompany sounds of splashing carp and the text of her early poems scrolling up-screen.
The film collages voices from a variety of interviews (from members of Niedecker’s local community, her family, the geographically dispersed poetry community, etc.) to piece together a narrative of Neidecker’s life. The voices are never identified, and their corresponding faces are left out of the film, yet “who is speaking” is of little significance to the narrative. Voices of “others” do not overshadow Niedecker’s life; rather, they speak with it—a life in poetics that is just recently receiving the attention it deserves, and the audience who needs it. Like a poem may, the film collages voices to tell a story:
“Lorine was famous.”
“Lorine, who are you?”
“I always thought of a wren. She had a lot of brown things. Brown and blue.”
“Then came the winter of ’54, and we wondered why she never had any heat in the house.”
“When it came to cooking, she was a blank slate…She ate words.”
“You can’t separate her from her place.”
These voices are transposed on the environs of the Wisconsin land/waterscape; the camera tracks movement of light over milkweed silk, cottontails, red dogwood branches, irises, forest fungi, ice fishing holes, etc. This visual narrative is never steady – it operates in a current of motion, disjuncting space and mashing together scenes.
Gaps in dialogue are filled with instrumental music. Mechanical in essence, these sounds exists in relation (at times juxtaposition, at times resonance) with the cacophony of sounds on the island: loon song, Canadian geese calls, cicadas, frogs, insects, lapping water, flapping great blue heron wings, an apple cider crank, etc.
In the film, as with Niedecker’s poems, the visual is dependent on the sonic—no sound is ambient. Both artists’ material arrives from a meditation with place.
And then there are the poems!
Cook intersperses Niedecker’s poems within the visual-vocal dialogue: a poem featuring beer can litter is transposed on an actual beer can litter, the text of a poem appears and then dissolves down a bathtub drain, a poem wavers with the lily pads on the surface of Lake Koshkonog. Above a field of sunflowers:
Along the river
over my head
who gave me life
give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend
Presenting poetry in a film creates the fact of its textual disappearance. Cook uses short poems and extracts from longer work to negotiate the challenge and limitations of the screen. She also layers the poem’s presence once it has left the screen, by installing visual resonances that flicker in the moments following the poem’s passing out of sight.
Cook also includes excerpts from Niedecker’s journals and letters:
“I conceive of poetry as the folktales of the mind and us creating our own memory.”
“Believing as I do poetry comes from the folk if it is to be vital or original.”
The film is a story of it own making – of Cook’s numerous trips to Wisconsin to wade through flooded Black Hawk Island, to wheel open the library shelves that store Niedecker’s archives, to conduct interviews, and to peel away at the layers of Niedecker’s life. A life, as the film highlights, lived largely in necessity and in water. However, Cook works to highlight Niedecker’s connection the (then) contemporary poetry scene, and her correspondences with Cid Corman, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, Jonathan Williams etc. Cook recreates Niedecker’s “immortal cupboard” of books, down to the exact editions, including works by John Muir, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, Lucretius, and haiku collections.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great song wrote and preformed by Jen Benka (also a Wisconsin native), which anchors the film’s opening and rest. The piece was written before the film was conceived, and it haunts landscape of the screen in its channeling of Niedecker: “You will never know me/ But someday you will hear me.”
& in SF last weekend, we did:
Tell em to take my bare walls down
my cement abutments
their parties thereof
and clause of claws
Leave me the land
Scratch out: the land
May prose and property both die out
and leave me peace