The Operating System


urlI recently showed my students a few scenes from Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, and while prepping the class the night before wound up watching the whole movie, for the amazing soundtrack and outfits, sure, but also for the endlessly appealing fable of art-world rise and fall—a guilty pleasure. To amp up the romance, and simultaneously dispel it, many truth-telling characters surround the titular hero, the best of which has got to be Michael Wincott as René Ricard. I love the scene at the big gallery opening when the Ricard character, rubbing his hands (or maybe even twisting up a handkerchief?) with anxiety, watches Basquiat blithely give away the painting he’d promised, in an earlier scene, to Ricard. Later, at the restaurant, a now-drunk Ricard throws a massive hissyfit about the betrayal, refusing to stop until he gets tossed out by some flunkies. He’s the poet character, of course.
Afterwards I went and got down my Ricard book, the one with the lovely title René Ricard 1979-1980 (it’s hard to imagine a more momentous hyphen). It’s aqua-colored, thin, and published by the Dia Foundation. I got the book at their Beacon outpost, in fact, on a visit along with Erica Kaufman and David Buuck. The latter saw the book in the shop on our way in, asked me if I owned it, and when I said no generously promised to buy it for me on the way out. I needn’t, like Ricard in the gallery, have wrung my hands wondering if the promise would really come true—Buuck kept his word. Now it sits on the shelf next to all the poetry books by people in the poetry world, which I somehow think of Ricard as not inhabiting, I guess because I think of him in the art world. And so he gets to be, for me, what he himself often worries about being: an amateur or dilettante in poetry, as in his wonderful poem, “On Being Called a Dilettante,” which begins “Why did I get up today or yesterday?/There is no cushioning layer of beauty/Between the harsh realities of life.”
Here and elsewhere Ricard enlists in what Roberto Bolaño calls “the literature of desperation,” participation in which, as Bolaño also reminds us, is a great way to get exiled even from the company of other writers—probably by being called adolescent or a dilettante. Here’s a complete Ricard poem:


I did the homework but flunked
the exam. The light lays on the bed.
I lay on the bed. The light lays on
me. I get under the covers.
Light lays on the blanket. I get
no sleep. Light lays heavily on me.
Things are not always deeply felt.
Meanings bubble up before
sleep and, fairy gifts, vanish at the
grasp, like finding money in the
street in a dream or being re-
united in a dream and
seeing you was like finding
money in the street. Then seeing you
again like fairy gifts that vanish
at the grasp. Five o’clock in the morning.
The street. The luncheonette.
Now I stay away from the bad
neighborhoods where I lived.
The bad blocks of the heart.
Things are no longer deeply felt
as I ascend the grand staircase
of indifference. Discarded party favors
lay on the floor below.
They were my feelings.
I have a headache.
All these feelings like the remains
of an orgy in the morning light
cigarettes in half-empty glasses
The afternoon. The light.
The bed. The tearing away. The heart.
The artificial limb. Kew Gardens.
The leg falls asleep and goes numb.

December 28 77

I just read a piece of contemporary poetics that dismisses the lyric as unequal to the complexities of our current subjectivity as it is supposedly undone by the disjunctions of our information-saturated and environmentally apocalyptic reality. I’m really not trying to set myself up as a defender of the lyric—I mean, why don’t I just hang a giant “kick me” sign on my back?—but I think this poem, which is undoubtedly lyric (if that means anything at all), makes a case for a form that is able to withstand an ontological critique of itself in basically every line, and still succeed. The light that won’t stay put to define anything, the feelings not deeply felt, the meanings that vanish at the grasp, the disassembling of bodies every morning after their constitution by desire in the dark—this poem is all about its own inability to properly observe, speak, mean, or console. Here and in his best work, Ricard faces these limitations and gives them their due, proposing neither antidote or antistrophe, but speaking up as even the most abject wreck of a subject has the right, in any age, to do.
“The luncheonette”—that kills me. And: “The bad blocks of the heart.” Leopardi and Baudelaire and Dickinson and Wieners and all the other desperadoes, straightening up their manhandled, disheveled clothing on the pavement right outside Mr Chow’s…

Matt Longabucco’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Rail, Parkett and The Death and Life of American Cities. He is the Friday Night Series coordinator at the Poetry Project.





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