Bill Knott's The Unsubscriber

The Unsubscriber
Bill Knott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Knott is as fond of sonnets as Borges is, hence his attention to one by the Argentinean, “To a Minor Poet of 1899”, as two considerations of the fugitive substance of art in frail hands, “Compact Dusk” and an after-poem on the original.

Godard decreed “in the future, television will show only reproductions of films.”

Trakl and Goethe are treated in loci classici, “4 Transversions of Goethe’s Wanderers Nachtlied II” and “Transversion of Trakl’s Ein Winterabend”, the latter with again a prelude (“Poem for Georg Trakl”).

“A meditation upon Bashō’s most famous haiku” (“Mizu No Oto”), an “Old Joke from the Ted & Syl Show”,

You’re wrong, you bodkin, you big moose,

You handsome sod: God is in the profile—

Got one, and you’re God; you’re Ted Hughes;—

Don’t got one, you’re Philip Larkin!

Robert Frost (“Winter Regrets”). Walter Pater, René Magritte, Graham Greene, Georges Braque, all of these are the comfortable calling cards of a very friendly poet. Mondrian collected drawing certificates, Eliot was a banker, Stevens an insurance man (like Ives, and thus an amateur, the BBC must conclude), Knott is a tenured professor.

His book comes with a warning or two for specialists,

I wish to be misunderstood;

that is,

to be understood from your perspective.

That is, “Wrong”. Knott’s perspective is given at once. The Flat Earth Society of children, that “vain solipsistic sect” pondered by Nemerov in his “To Lu Chi”, the simple expectation of word and thing as cognates, Butley’s Reg and his “no bloody metaphors”, this is the group from which the title is extricated.

Knott is a master of deadpan, the tacit irony that spills over the observer. It is pleasant for him to recall the vroom of Kerouac amid the penitential cells of his heirs, and greatly amusing to add a long footnote on the damnable masculine sex, concluding, “All future poets can be replicants coined from the DNA of Adrienne Rich.” Incidentally, Emerson principally and Whitman are cited as mock-devils in this vein. A great comedian, Knott, with a refinement in his delivery that was simply lost on the Contemporary Poetry Review.

The general form is divided by “An Interlude of Short Poems”, with a final section of “Poems After”. Birth and death, beginning and end are roughly the framework of each section. So, the entire book ends with “Alfonsina Storni”, who drowned in the sea to forestall a death by cancer,

Sea that swallowed your poet     throat

Does not     for the having of it     sing less

And besides     only that cancer tried to float

another sonnet, and one that suggests another meaning in the title, “getting out from under”.

There is a long and beautiful meditation on Isadora and Esenin (from Russell’s film, in a way). Part Four opens with fourteen lines on Pascal and small rooms. There is a poem “To Ripley (Alien 1-4)”,

Always your face like a space

(Destination: beautiful) ship

Empties its mote of closeup trace

Down screens that blink blank blip

also a memory of “Mrs. Frye and the Pencilsharpener”, groundling works in a certain sense, “with the net up”, entertainments in the profoundest sense (the one known by Shakespeare and Hollywood). The short poems have this capacity, such as “Contrivance”,

The perfect artist is

the one who manages to die

at the hands of the critics.

He proceeds from “The Unsubscriber” to “Paradise” with Auden, when “the writer / Runs howling to his art” in the sonnet, “Neckognition”,

that whatever disappears

can also go as verse

whose shape’s nape-known now.

a dual art (“By the River Baab”), its reward à la Cummings,


in salutations.


(and this is the place to mention Part Four’s “Gimme Shelter”, a poem that seems designed to emulate Mallarmé’s “Cantique de Saint Jean”). The great Kafka jape of “Circus: Aerialists” has us trapping them up there till hungry or weary they fall,


And sprawled in dust of center ring

May take back our lack of sympathy

When once like shadows shown or less

You lowered yourselves among us.


And with a characteristic symmetry, thoughtfully applied, Knott elevates the thought once again in a Kafka structure (“The Word”),


I am the windowkeeper

of the Tower of Babel.


Whoever built this place

put one window at its top

and one door at its base.


* * *


if there is a doorkeeper;

if I’m not alone

in here.


* * *


mightn’t some stir occur

in the vacuum

of this hollow highrise,

provoking its ghost

to whisper at least

one pure, one

pre-word word—


Maintaining my post

would otherwise be a waste...


At last, himself in contrast to these burlesques, in the arms of the Muse, “Suite (to Hoku)”,



the poem on its own, wandering.



The poet is an exclamation mark, head below to bare the receptacle (“As Usual”), his portrait is in “Group Photograph (The Early Years)”,


Most biographies of the Moderns share

A common pose: ranks of raw youth appear

Often capped and gowned, uniformly there

It looks alike in all such Lives we read.


* * *


How of this many is there but one self—

Whose underneath name obtains its caption—

In book beside book, on shelf after shelf?


He mocks a sterile fashion (“No Italics”), a venerable custom dating back at least a quarter-century to a New Yorker poem tremulously answering all questions with a Sibylline bird-cry, “Drink your tea!” He continues in “Dream Amid Bed-Woods”,


To somehow remain alow, to resist

All berth above: you must push off this soft

Palleted grove, this tall, forest mattress.


Kafka and Poe (a great poet, great writer) combine somehow in “Actors: The Denouement”,


After each performance comes catharsis

as one more audience member is sewn

into the hem of the theater curtain;

some day it will sway too heavy to raise.


The Prisoner is on (“Sub/Unsub”), the suicidal bubble, Mallarmé’s bave, wonders if its prey’s position


is fixed then



on the charts

of our quantum ocean?

The spirit drifts, uncaught.


We come into this world with nothing, or nearly (“The Answer”),


Only in departure whole.


is always partial.


The clone as Poe’s or Wilde’s doppelgänger, “without passport”,


where does the line

leave off and,


does it end?


In “Labmarks”, an unnamed Friday’s footprints “at the center of the maze” are desperately zoomed-in on by “spysats”.

The worm turns in “A Lesson from the Orphanage”. Lovers go a journey (“Extended”).

... Everything goes bright then dark.

Either emerges on a further line.


The diurnal impossibility of any existence worthy to be named, as a sequence of childlike propositions à la Rimbaud,


His eyes devoid him of the end.


* * *


Carrots and peas and please go away.


A child who never lived where always did.


My fingers through the woeface feel your face.


I sank my youth to the half in the cry that loved me.


You wage the world in your flesh


daily watching lovers forge duplicate keys.


Birthdays are “a candle in a skull”.

“The poem that hurtles from heights unknown” (Nabokov) is, in “Elementary Lesson”,

cloud loud as a chalk

Rattling back in place on the blackboard’s sill

One of Kafka’s or Rimbaud’s Bible pensums, “Romance (Hendecasyllabics)”, has the Ark paired with

that surface image

none of us desires to engage in divorce—


* * *

... to reach at last their offspring shore.

A fine pair of love sonnets (“Two Poems to S.”) have desire and solitude and love as a sequence of fragments from the foregoing.

And here is John the Baptist,

caught in that unreeling portrait called Arrival,

bearing witness to the completed self (“Succession”).

Prince and pauper are interchangeable (“True Story”), experimentally proven with changelings, anyway

the pure

narrative we write in order to write.

Boulez was asked at UCLA (by a strange character in nineteenth-century dress like an English bump-feeler) if Mallarmé’s verse were not essentially masturbatory, he replied, “Your Mallarmé,” and cheerfully asked the evening’s moderator (Elliott Carter was across the table) how to say “l’absent de tous bouquets” in English. So, very much so, Knott’s “Monodrama”,

Sky from your vantage of death, try to see.

Flesh drawn back for the first wound, it’s me.

Narcissus has his response (“Echo Near the End”), Geryon descends,

Banking slowly the monster completes its turn—

a wedding, dreams are the only surcease of murder,


stuck to the roof of the mouth, stupid tripod of spit.

Erudite, a certain amount of erudition is required. Yeats’ Complete Poems come with notes on Greek mythology and the Flood and “Normandy, a region in France,” but leave Irish pronunciation unaddressed. “I have to quote that brute Ovid,” says Knott (“De-Evolution of the Poet in Rumor’s House”), and

Each time it tries to say more than this

The tip of the tongue must wrestle a leech.

Yeats’ editor is spoken for (his rationale is worldwide distribution and the decline of general knowledge) in “The Flaw”, Nabokov’s oculus, a blind sun, a manifold teardrop,

Must I also go aggregate go greet

A global bitter mime that bears its white


Situate amidst their company sought

Opposite I wake lost at night without

The transitoriness of ephemeral culture in age (recalling a song of Carter’s) never comes around,

Mocked by how little of its kitsch remains,

We crave our carton, not what it contains.

Part I concludes with twenty-three quatrains in a Nemerovian style tending toward Frost and full of literary allusions or associations (“Relics with Old Blue Medicine-Type Bottle: To X”), among them Pinter’s flowers, Arthur Miller’s old pair, Mallarmé’s Baudelaire and Madame Bovary,

What antidote waits, withering, within


Against that great granulate upheaval of

Fields whose depths have grown archeological—

Filled by fucked relics and by that above-all

Most subterranean of discoveries, love?


An intermission is required, Knott provides one. After all (“Shower”), language is mutable and shifting, things have a connotation, don’t they?

I tie my handkerchief

to a kite

to try and dry

the cries of

the clouds up there.


Pour, pour:

oh, if only

I hadn’t loaned

my umbrella

to that submarine!

And so forth, in a sequence or perhaps rather a succession of poems too brief to excerpt,

Always jumping from one pan

of the scale to the other, always

trying to measure

your absence.

(“Weighed”), every means is tried, even Houdini’s medium, out of this emerges Beckett’s Rilke’s “Ichgott” to its peers, and “Lovelade”,

The sea is the cargo of empty ships

Moon bears the sun when it’s gone

My face with the trace of your lips

Will fare from now on and on

and a very quick, telling “Poem” (which might be Rauschenberg & De Kooning),

Dear boys and girls,

please don’t forget to

underline my words

after you erase them.

before Knott’s Matisse “transversions” of Goethe, a rest and a warning to heed Dylan Thomas.

The omphalos,

Last link with the Mother’s body,

and therefore with the self,

I accumulate around you. My belly

oceans your lame island.


* * *


In some homelands they dry

and twine the umbilical-cord

into a knout

and then use it

to spank the placenta, crying

“Bad! Bad! You made me bad!”


The note of Velazquez (and Joyce and Greece) opens the freer Part III, which continues like Rilke on mirrors,


And no expert needs

to authenticate

these masterworks.


We are the forgeries.

We are the fakes.


The new Pharaoh of “Poem that Wants to be Ash” is bidden to



a color so true every prism

it passes through melts—


“Excerpts from the Diary of Damocles”, a great poem, is also merely the prelude to its footnote already cited, Twain’s delivery and setup arranged off-balance, deliberately.

The earlier “Vows” (in Part II) serves as the linchpin (quietly, unobtrusively) of “Wedding Party”, which coincides with the value indicated, a trick Nabokov would enjoy. And now another literary satire, “Salon Poem in Leafgravure”,

Cemetery statuary

should be deciduous


* * *


let crosses blossom,

the tall crosses regain

their nailed arms. Now all the chisel

foliage should follow until the whole

museum from within is risen.

The instrument is toward us, double-edged (“To Live By”), commanding.

Wake up, wound, the knife said.

A joke said by John Cassavetes in Marvin & Tige, whose source is Mallarmé’s faun (“moins tristes vapeurs”), informs “Forthfable”, Eve rained on by a teary Adam, imaginatively.

The dauber howsoever out-of-doors, the taker of views, is summoned to his duty away,

Meanwhile the hydra of my soul

needs just one more mirror to see

itself whole, so hold your eyes still.

(“The Sightstop”), whited sepulchers have a fashion cycle of “Heilstyles”,

Body by Buchenwald, shade by Chanel.


Nazi nurses infiltrate CIA hospice—

At Safehouse Haven the dying agents

Are coaxed by swastika sisters to confess

A. Hitler was their greatest influence.

Another style, the random assemblage of words, stones randomly selected on a beach to create the same effect. Eliot is alluded to in this context, and Breton’s hand (“Rock Picked Up from the Beach”).

Goddard’s tree is left behind (“Space”),

at which point we merged to remove

all consonants from our star-maps.

The infinite consists of vowels alone.

Dead words in a vain “Cemetery”, fingernail-text,

one needs a hand bared

of all uses, of all trades:

as ours is not.

A Beckettian construction, a sort of roundelay, “Later/Literal”. The problem of language in a speaker read by a lip-moving lip-reader “From a Distance”,

less translation than transference?

The difference of writing and written, pebbles in a paper boat (“Parable from Childhood”),

ripples horizoned by sky

remain the only real cargo aboard

“In the prison of his days,” cracks in the walls intensify suffering (“Stretch”),

...through which can be seen


fair glimpses of all the others

penned around us, the ones

who deserve this sentence.

Browning’s trick (according to Borges), to burn the weary wooden horses (“Merry-No-Round”),

as once the artisan when


out of the tree they

were nagged to this neigh.

“Fix vertigos” or Eliot’s butterfly,

and have my symbol

also, a snail

scotchtaped to a stopsign.

(“Step On It”). Some of the reviews, such as they are, suggest Knott as a kind of jester, Hop-Frog at least. His own view for dull interviewers is called “(Poem) (Posthumous) (Poem)”,

I am that serene derided echo

known as form, that scalded snowstorm, I too
must seem almost a solo mist, my orchestral body


trying to tiptoe up to its conductor’s deathbed.

So far so good, critics.

Around me far as the bare can see fields shed

whatever misprints my head to toe showed forth

as evidence of presence,

Nabokov, again.

And yet if birth that always wealth be mine,


may it gather suit to say your name. Name? Say?

Yesterday, tomorrow. Least of all the days today.

As closed as my eyes were during their face phase.

As open as they are now in this latest guise.

One of Borges’ citation-poems, on the aurea mediocritas, suggests the flight of sunlight, the bonds of earth, the poet’s rays (“The Dawning”),

I pray they penetrate

always the dirt and find

a place haven to our kind.

“Face in the Window”, the seigneurial poet reflects in this sonnet on his stately person, a figure of accomplishment, self-contained, white-haired, and in fact the speaker in Mallarmé’s “Les Fenêtres”, and the counterimage not of “its one remaining pane” but of a screen door and summer (“First Light”),

a hesitation at the threshold of itself,

expectant, tense, tensile

as lines that cross each other

in a space forever latent

where we wait, pressed up against

something trying to retain its vagueness.

From Mallarmé to Char’s horizon, so to expose the division of sense, Wilder’s and Beckett’s dilemma (“Dearth Demise”), the reception committee of Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man,

the shape of your silence when it speaks me

is different than mine in saying you,


though both of them resemble that spasm hymned as

repose     lifepause     a happen of sorts     the way

the horizon’s a long way without meaning to.

An elegant way of saying it, Bergman’s intermittence, qualified by the blank inconsistency of the title, “(L)id”,

Each time I blink

Is a lapse in my life.

Each blink outlives me.


The one I was before

The blink is never

The one I am after.


And the one I shall be

Desires me to cease

Quenched with each crease

Instant of the lids.


An eye juggled on

The tips of its own

Lashes might see

Who I have been then.

From Bergman to Godard and the fate of finish “to die unsung in the original tongue”,

if words lost one of their letters each time they

were spoken, which word would be the last intact?

Finally, to conclude Part III, “A Suite from Summer/Autumn 2001”, in five sections, the irony of religious wars in “Testament”, the irony of Futurism in “Room 5, Hotel Angleterre, Moscow, December 28, 1925”, any nation’s flag misrepresenting it somehow (“Memorial Garden, National Military Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.”), the great comic paradox that follows on this, “The Roadkill (For a Bestiary)”,

(Phylum: Poeticus americanus.)

and Nemerov again, the final castigation of victory (“1946”),

So I blame him and him and him and him,

All of them from Adam onwards are men,

meaning me, meaning the worst thing I know.

And there is an instant segue to the meditation on Pascal that opens Part IV in quiet humor, with old songs filtering through it (“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “You Belong to Me”). From Kerouac going nowhere fast it would almost seem, to Greene at the birth of his consciousness,

A dead dog at the bottom of my pram

Seems to be my earliest memory.

The Borges next, the Trakl, then one of the latter’s lines as superscription to “The End”, a view of John Ford’s The Searchers from the standpoint of that threshold as not ours and his but the critics’, the ignorant bloody critics’.

That rippling water is talked around like poetic schools,

Bashō by a pond heard a frog make

the usual faucet-dripping-into-a-keyhole

sound; it wisely ignored his efforts


to collaborate.

Knott—Pater = Mallarmé—Wagner in “The Singular (Nonasyllabics)”, a sonnet on birds,

Your songs define you while mine unvoice

my field of lieu and fail to call up

a likeness new enough from the group

auguring each face its fate.

The poem stands in opposition to

that rind that blinds us with its consummate

yield of polished inveighed truths which betray


nothing of the stuffing, the seeds that rot

innate tumors of meaning, enemy

rumors amassed across your desk each morning.

(“To José Lezama Lima”). A little resistance in the poem, a little give, to achieve the result, not a pose,

To pose nakedness is

To refute it.

Walter Pater, “the Great Pate”, gets refuted by the jealous poet (“Transhendeculous”),

... why shouldn’t I kneel by the podium

and beg the conductor to leave her baton

propped upon my proselyte head like a sword

knighting me until I can hardly rise from


that ideal sill: one could have no grail beyond

that grace.

The position is Jagger (words) and Richards (music) in “Gimme Shelter”, as aforesaid to the tune of Mallarmé’s canticle.

“The Four Views”,

Are you a phantom here in your own home,

or a squatter in the house of René Magritte?

Hérodiade before the saint with all her might is the poetaster at “Rilke’s ‘Apollo’” in “Sureties”,

You dance like wallpaper thawing its father

And still you lack that proof-in-all, that aloof

Olympian ennui, the sniper’s prize.