David Antin's i never knew what time it was

University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)

 For three decades the “talk poet” and performance artist David Antin has been invited “to think out loud” at museums, poetry centers, and universities, talking off the cuff to audiences on topics sometimes of his own choosing, sometimes prescribed. Transcriptions of these performances have provided Antin with material that he has then reshaped into his celebrated and signature “talk poems,” the many-layered, part-ruminative and part-anecdotal texts that Antin in his preface describes as leaving intact “the marks of their origin in talking and thinking at a particular time in a particular place.” To ensure that the printed texts preserve traces of their origin in speech, Antin dispenses with certain prose conventions while marking the pauses in his phrasing with approximately five spaces:

      time does strange things to you    its a
bit like the ocean    mostly it takes
  things away but it also casts things up
on the beach     new things or old ones
    from different places     now looking
very different     every bit of disorder
    contributes to the formation of a new
order     usually     worse but sometimes

From the beginning Antin has staked his claim in a relatively unmapped territory between poetry and prose, between speech and text, and i never knew what time it was, his fifth collection of talk poems, shows Antin still at the height of his powers.

In the collection Antin addresses such subjects as the nomadic character of the California experience, the difficulty of telling time, whether there is really such a thing as repetition, and frames of viewing. This is not, however, a collection of disparate pieces. It is a book. Antin aims, he says, at “a kind of open work structure i hope to offer as provisional housing for a number of elusive bright colored migratory meanings.” I suspect that Antin, alluding here to the improvisatory method of a Charlie “Bird” Parker, is proposing that a book can also be a kind of birdhouse, an open structure through and around which a reader might experience an often dazzlingly unpredictable array of darts, swoops, flutters, warbles, and excretions—language, in other words. A verbal architecture designed to exhibit the innate grace of a mind perpetually in unpredictable motion.

One indispensable move for any self-respecting warbler is the invisible (or perhaps more mischievously, the overly visible) segue folding into an unanticipated digression—and the next and the next—without ever losing track of its all-over-the-map flight plan. This tends to be the resource not so much of the poet as of the storyteller. An ably and even nervily digressive storyteller, Antin uses that technique to draw attention to the unexpected movements of his performances while building suspense as audiences follow the twists of his thinking—and without necessarily having a clue about its ultimate destination. There is always that frisson on the backburner, so to speak, as you wonder if Antin knows where he’s going, and if you think he does, how will he ever get back to what you thought was the subject at hand? And is it really the subject after all?

The book’s ten pieces represent ten multiply disjunctive meditations on how we think we experience time—how we imagine ourselves to experience what is in fact always sliding away from our immediate grasp. For Antin it is axiomatic that experience can only be individual, and each talk poem takes advantage in an open but deceptively casual way of situating the persona of the performer (storyteller) at its center, introducing touches of autobiography that eventually fold deftly into various unstable moments of postwar American and European history. A piece might be about an expedition to buy a new mattress but suddenly open out into a theory of postmodernism. Or a piece that questions the notion that an artwork can be the embodiment of an idea might contain a tour-de-force riff on the mousetrap that closes with the thought that “desire leads to death at least from the point of view of the mouse,” then pause for a moment on Paul Ricoeur’s evocation of “the blind alleys of time,” then note the suggestiveness of the title of Osip Mandelstam’s memoir The Noise of Time. It might then consider the impossibly complex art of translation, alight in a diner in Oklahoma City to eat potato skins and argue over the meaning of Shakespeare’s use of the word “tickle” with the art historian Leo Steinberg, then relate a story about how Antin’s son, who had grown up as an “art kid,” tried to leap over the noise of time separating him from his 80-year-old Hungarian grandfather, a poet and painter who had emigrated to sunny California, “whose beautiful and accomplished paintings could find no appreciative audience because their time had passed” and whose poems “could really be understood by no one he knew.” The montage that Antin performs in this piece, “the noise of time,” happily situates the reader within the twists and turns of what feels like a unique ride through otherwise ineffable or even forbiddingly remote regions such as the incommunicability of experience and the oblivion guaranteed by time.

In the course of a story about a storytelling project he created at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1971, Antin says, “now I believe that what I call narrative     which other people call storytelling     is a fundamental cognitive activity without which human beings couldnt exist at all     but thats what I believe now I couldnt have believed it then     or not in that way     not in the teeth of received modernist opinion that narrative and representation were the two greatest enemies of modernism.” Antin expands on this in a recent issue of Narrative: “Narrative is a desiring subject’s confrontation with the threat or promise of transformation . . . which the subject struggles to withstand or bring about—or both.” More than just concerned with temporality, each of the ten talk poems in i never knew what time it was dramatizes the narrator’s increasingly unsettling confrontation with the inevitability of death. Woven from complex threads of memory, cultural and political history, philosophy, and art criticism, each piece swoops and hops across space and time to survey the void of human extinction. Even the first and funniest piece, an effervescent search for the perfect mattress, hints at the big sleep from the moment it takes off: “we had an old mattress wed had it for years and the salesman wed bought it from had assured us it would last us a lifetime . . . i figured we were going to live long lives I didnt think we were anywhere close to dying     so neither was the mattress.”

The second piece, “california—the nervous camel,” starts off with a recollection of Brooklyn-born Antin’s boyhood pal Jerry,“who was called gedaliah inside his house and jerry outside     in that part of boro park we lived in two different countries in those days     inside my grandmothers house where i lived then     we lived in eastern europe and my family spoke a variety of eastern european languages that all were very pleasant to eavesdrop on.” When little David asks his friend why he never sees his older brother anymore, Jerry replies: “he was killed by an airplane on the beach in los angeles.” The impact of this early memory, Antin suggests, may in part explain why he spent much of his youth “staying away from California” (he has lived there since 1968):

    now I was a smart little kid and I knew
that los angeles was in california     and
  the image has never left me     this image
of a plane diving on the beach in los
  angeles     as i saw it this tall handsome
athletic looking guy in a bathing suit was
  standing on the beach talking with two
girls who were admiring how handsome
  and athletic he was
                        . . . i imagined him racing
madly down the beach to dive into the
  surf and just as he rushed into the
water a plane fell out of the sky and killed
  him that was something to bear in
mind when i thought about california

In no time Antin is guiding us into a story about two handsome and inseparable San Diego County doctors, Richard and Jack, and their wives, Alexandra and Melissa, a consideration of the consonance between the nomadic “movement of people and things” and “the feeling i had . . . when i saw my first earthquake,” then a brilliant comparison of California to “some kind of animal that is very amiable patient and long suffering but sometimes it gets nervous sometimes the tawny skin twitches and the buildings mounted on its back move and this happens often enough that whole lives are lived in relation to this.” After recalling a slideshow of photographs of Richard and Alexandra’s trip to Egypt, including one of a woman being thrown from a confused camel, Antin veers off the highway of sun-drenched complacency just as Jack, speeding off to his clinic in Mexico one day, suddenly dies in a car accident: “the bright red corvette was totaled and boyish blond haired laughing jack was dead.” As the camel recalls California, this second death answers back to the one that began the piece, and in an instant what had seemed a series of digressions reveals itself to be a subtle, intricate, and poignant meditation on “americas nomadic moment,” or as Antin describes it, “the sense of where the earth stands in relation to you it knows youre irrelevant as if you were a tourist here everybodys a tourist.”

Fellow travelers include friends Sheila and Harris, whose abrupt deaths tear us almost brutally away from the charm of Antin’s art-world narrative “talking at blérancourt,” as well as Antin’s dignified but displaced 93-year-old Hungarian father-in-law, who haunts the title piece (one of the book’s three closely related meditations on time), which ends with him “looking for this one place he was sure never to find again.” This figure of loss is complemented structurally in the final talk poem, “endangered nouns,” in which Antin recounts a story that his mother-in-law, Jeanette, would often tell about her own mother. As her own life drew to an end Jeanette found herself unable to manage telling the story “to which her life was moored”: “each time she came to the end of the line she paused and began again but the third and last time she arrived at the line she simply stopped and waited and im not sure how long she was prepared to wait.”

Antin doesn’t blink here or look away. He stops. Narrative, “the vehicle that makes life possible,” breaks down or at least reaches its limit when the possibility of further transformation is foreclosed. At the same time, by appealing to thedynamics of an improvisatory oral tradition dating back to Homer, he not only destabilizes the text but also revitalizes it. Situated between speech and writing, Antin’s talk poems never seek refuge in either form but revel in their contradiction and unpredictability (amiably disguised as digression). In correlating these two conditions—happy contradiction and mimetic unpredictability—Antin keeps the narrative vehicle in gear.