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This review is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.SMALL CHARACTER PARTS
Who is Douglas Messerli? Difficult to say, apparently even for him, the author of this volume of memoirs which seeks from the outset to problematise the genre. 'Instead of a concept of unified being, I much prefer a kind of Babel of existence,' he writes in a republished interview with Charles Bernstein. It is in the course of this interesting interview that we discover most - and most cogently - who Messerli is and what he believes about writing and poetry but we are to understand, perhaps, that the form of the interview imposes a coherence that is only passing in nature and only partially true to the complex interconnection of memory, desire and knowledge that together make up the personality of a human being. Messerli has been at the heart of innovative American poetry publishing for decades both as a distinguished poet and as a highly enterprising editor (Sun and Moon Press, Green Integer) but he is also the book designer Katie Messborn, the dramatist Kier Peters, the theorist Claude Ricochet, the editor Per Bregne and the novelist Joshua Haigh.
These may be pseudonyms but they are names that can all lay claim to real literary achievements in different genres. Add to this, activity as a dancer in his youth and the making of musicals and opera and we have the composite impression of a 'Renaissance' man who confesses in his introduction to an 'almost maniacal drive to experience culture'. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why Messerli has resisted the exhortations of friends to compose a book of regular memoirs and preferred to present a picture of the 'selves' that have emerged out of the many stimulating collaborative artistic ventures that have made up his life. It is also an approach that will make sense to anyone familiar with Messerli's own poetry which has often been written 'after' other poets, in response to them, to lines of their poetry, a 'language-led' approach that complicates traditional notions of poetic voice.
So Messerli attempts to build up a portrait of the kind of 'cultural sensor' he appears to be by eschewing the self-censorship the singular form of the memoir might impose and by composing via a collaging of articles, interviews and anecdotes mostly dated to the year 2005 and yet which all dip into the distant or more recent past. A chronology of Messerli's life does emerge as we pass through a series of meditations on Hitchcock films that asks questions about what we experience and expect of child-hood, innocence, idealism into a number of pieces on awakening and flourishing sexuality. But this chronology emerges tangentially out of his engagement with culture and his social interaction with other people. The subtitle of the book 'Terrifying Times' implies a link between the cultural concerns of the pieces and the frightening series of natural and man-made disasters that have struck America in recent times. There is little in the way of direct political polemic here, however; perhaps, indeed, there is too little and it may be that if Messerli is to make this kind of linkage stick then he needs, occasionally, to proceed more directly.
This book, however, is far from being dryly experimental. It is colourfully and anecdotally written and the affection Messerli has for his friends and previous selves is palpable. There is a moving recollection of the moment things seemed to fall into place for him and he was able to come to terms with his homosexuality and there are entertaining recollections of gay bars, pickups, book parties and Broadway musicals that combine to provide quite a nostalgic picture of New York in the 1970s. There is an excellent piece on the self-obsession of youth that saw him take off for The Big Apple without telling his parents and the serendipitous sequence of events that put him back in contact with them again. Among the more literary pieces there is an affectionate memoir of Robert Creeley and a nicely judged encounter between a group of 'language' poets and a Chaucer-quoting punter in a bar that sums up some of the issues that have divided the American poetry 'scene' in a way that is both wry and non-judgemental. It is good to read paragraphs in which Messerli is vehement in defence of the importance of translation and that signal the great work he has done as a publisher and author in this area.
The difficulty presented by the method Messerli has adopted is that there is quite a thin line between the revised conception of autobiography he proposes and the presentation of a loose collection of 'occasional' cultural journalism. There are moments, particularly when reading pieces on the engagement with visual artists or on some of the more obscure novelists, when the sense of personal connection wavers. Generally, however, the care given to the placing of each piece and the return of Messerli's enthusiastic self or selves is frequent enough for this not to matter too greatly. It is a delicate balancing act and one he proposes to renew in a series of future volumes.
This review is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.