A Sea Sewn to a Spine: Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook

November 30, 2007 at 12:02 pm | Posted in attention, buddhism, contemporary, materiality, poetry, travel | 6 Comments

“Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” — Jean Baudrillard, America

“Life, friends, is boring,” proclaims Henry at the beginning of Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song. If you’ve ever been on a lengthy car trip, you know that there are few things more boring. Sometimes the road brings startling things into your path, but there are long, barren stretches in between. Sometimes you are blessed with a conversation partner, but even the chattiest of friends runs out of steam after a few hours. Sometimes there is something good on the radio, but most of the time it’s country, preaching, static, or something you’ve heard thirty thousand times before. And every few hours, you have to stop for gas, food, the bathroom.

Gabriel Gudding’s brand-new Rhode Island Notebook (Nov 23 2007, Dalkey Archive Press) is a book of poetry that was handwritten in notebooks as Gudding drove back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island twenty-six times. It is a book that embraces boredom and transforms it, proving that the author is firmly in touch with his “Inner Resources.” It is a record of mileage, billboards, and bug splats, but it is also a record of loss, suffering, and redemption. Here’s an excerpt:

My thighs
Are hot with coffee, you can’t
solve or remove or understand
suffering, you really can’t
understand anything. The best
you can do, 1:49am, while thinking is see
similarities among particularities jesus
what the shit am I talking about, best you
can do is to keep a loving heart 79000m Odo
844.7m fr Providence Tractor & trailer
in the ditch. Pee 2 AM
Newsflash: I don’t need

to get anything from the world.

I had planned for my series on the poetics of attention to proceed in an orderly manner from Frost to Stevens to Williams, etc, but Gudding’s book is such a stunning example that I felt compelled to inform you immediately. I wrote in my last entry that the demands of attention are always contradictory — we must be open to the world, but we also must perform the tasks of synthesis and analysis which require our abstraction from the world. Gudding’s text is constantly interrupting itself as he moves between these two modes. There are lengthy meditations on subjects such as literary narcissism, the importance of dung, Nancy Reagan’s life as a psychotic nightmarish eagle, and the meaning of suffering, but even these extended treatises are peppered throughout with the sort of information you see above — the odometer, the traffic conditions, the stops to pee. The very process of reading the book becomes a kind of exercise in attention; it’s tempting to treat this information as “noise,” skimming past it to get to the good stuff (Nancy Reagan’s nipples are made of nickel!), but it serves an important function — namely, it grounds the whole book in a continuous present. Even if you skip over these textual details, they’re there, as insistent and banal as the facts themselves, reminding you where Gudding is, what the weather’s like, and how long he’s been on the road. You are confronted with your desire to filter, to privilege information about Gudding’s mind over information about his body or his car.

It is a profoundly lonely book. The trips Gudding makes back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island are undertaken in order to see his wife and daughter, who live half a continent away. Over the course of the book, the marriage falls apart and the trips become less frequent. Gudding is almost always alone in the car — very occasionally his daughter is with him — yet the book is not claustrophobic, because Gudding’s mind is always reaching outward, observing and fantasizing and reflecting. Though the divorce is the book’s main “plot” line, very few of its details are discussed. The real throughline is the gradual sea-change in Gudding’s emotional states: the narration is always heterogeneous, but at the start of the book we see him being flippant and vitriolic about a wide range of subjects (including, importantly, the start of the Iraq war and the concordant rise in patriotic bumper-stickers) more often than not. As the divorce starts to become real, he starts to report his emotional states as though they were more roadside facts, as here:

88m fr. Providence. Am
incredibly sad. blue steel
double-arch “dromedary” bridge
over Quinnipiac River 95m

The book is structured around the epic conventions of anabasis and katabasis, the descent into and march up from hell. As it progresses, and he begins to process his loss, the notebooks (which are still, as before, assiduously reporting road conditions) begin to reflect a change in focus and a change in resolve.

In the prologue, Gudding refers to a notebook as “a road through emptiness, a sea sewn to a spine.” It records your journey, but more than that, it makes your life into a journey, by giving it epochs with beginnings, middles, and ends even if they are bounded arbitrarily by the number of pages. I too am a keeper of notebooks; they are similarly full of debris, but when I start a new one or end an old one I am forced to give an account of myself, to take stock. In between, the things I scratch down furtively in train stations and coffeehouses become my definitive history. I opened one at random today, and found this on 4/13/02: “Am I really going to be doing this for the rest of my life? Putting words in sequences on a page? Shouldn’t I go do something useful, like build a bridge? But I am building a bridge, if you think about it. A bridge from me to ‘you’ even if you is just a page in a notebook or another part of myself. My tea is cold. Fuck.”

John Ashbery said in a 1981 interview that, “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience. I’m trying to set down a generalized transcript of what’s really going on in our minds all day long.” I love him deeply, but somehow my mind fails to produce transcripts like his: “The immense hope, and forbearance / Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day / Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled / As night returns bringing doubts”. Gudding’s Notebook is much more like mind as I know it — full of nonsense, full of noise, easily distracted, self-obsessed, but occasionally brilliant. It is, in many ways, a relief.

6 Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Interesting; I don’t find them boring when there’s someone else there. I’m a big fan of the view expressed in this Dinosaur Comic: road trips are the only occasions that having company is pleasant whether or not there’s conversation. With a partner, a road trip can be contemplative and friendly even if you don’t talk for hours. Whereas on a solo road trip you can only hope that you have some great music on your iPod and that your singing voice doesn’t give out.

  2. You’re right, Tomemos — my trip up to Burning Man (which took like 15 hours) was made tremendously more pleasant by the presence of a friend, even though we spent a lot of the time not talking. Even so, drives like that are an ordeal and part of the ordeal, I think, is the tedium. I’m talking about the tedium that’s inherent in the situation: you have to sit in one chair, and look at the same yellow lines and almost the same highway signs for hours and hours on end. With a friend it can become more like a mission or an adventure, but the “situational tedium” is still in effect. (And relevantly for the book I discuss here, Gudding is almost always alone in the car.)

  3. this is an astonishingly great post. it makes me want to go read this book right now. while i like the ashberys & the mark strands, of contemporary verse, and tend to veer away from lyricism without any reaching beyond itself, it’s rare to find a poet who can navigate the tension between the two: the intimacy and the metaphysical reserve. this makes me think of the recent new yorker article about strand and hass, actually.

  4. fascinating! thank you.

  5. I find long road trips to be when I do much of my best thinking. It is all about attention. I actually never find them boring. Boredom forgets that the process of getting to a destination is a journey. Boredom believes that the goal is more important than the journey.

    Then again, the purpose of many of my long road trips is go see what’s there, and take lots of photos along the way.

    Or maybe it’s that I’ve been meditating for years. I just never find anything boring. Boredom is an existential state that says nothing in interesting. In fact, everything is interesting. Sometimes doing nothing can be the most interesting thing of all.

  6. Extremely vivid, for me, is the memory of watching a film about an intentionally produced state of boredom, which the filmmaker achieved by driving ceaselessly around London on that futuristic highway that rings the city. He quotes Baudrillard, of course, and also Ballard.

    I sort of hate the way the details are presented as such; it just doesn’t feel digested enough, compared to Ashbery or O’Hara. But I do get interested in the way the details function as a reminder of life going on outside oneself. There are echoes of Williams’s red wheelbarrow here, and there is a strange sort of conscience to this imagery. The connective tissue of abstract thought makes the little holy catastrophes of concrete life even more real.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. | The Pool Theme.
Entries and comments feeds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: