Arrivederci, Modernismo

The most extraordinary document came in the mail the other week. It was a reprint of art critic Carter Ratcliff's* poem "Arrivederci, Modernismo" by Libellum, Vincent Katz's press. It was first published in 1974 by Adventures in Poetry, and it comes to us now, 33 years later, with an introduction by Katz and an afterword by Ratcliff himself. The poem bears none of the earmarks of a second-generation New York School poem ca. 1974, but it is unmistakably a product of the regime it claims to be saying goodbye to. "Arrivederci, Modernismo," the narrator keeps repeating, addressing this movement, this era, this regime as though it were a narcissistic lover:

"There were so many good-byes right from the very start that, strange as it is to meet you once again, Modernismo, it isn't strange to be saying, at long last, good-bye, adieu, arrivederci ... to you this time, Modernismo, dear."

It's a lot like revolution: the unintended consequence of deposing the old authority is that one undermines all authority, and ultimately one's own.**

"There were so many good-byes right from the start," and so inevitably there must be a good-bye to the good-byer. Or is there? Carter doth protest too much. The more he says good-bye the more deeply he becomes embroiled in the tentacles of Modernism:

"I loved the way you painted yourself into a corner without ever lifting a brush, and the way you made fun of yourself without ever ceasing to work, morning, noon, and night."

"The fact that I could see into the mirror from which I was excluded meant to me then that we would be together always."

"I never knew how you reconciled the circularity of your principles with the right-angled geometry of that white room, but I know how you stuck to your principles..."

The circularity, recursion, mirroring of Modernismo is self-absorbed and tyrannous; the narrator, in this break-up poem, says "I wanted to be more myself." We believe him. He wanted to be less gorgeous, elegant, and perfect. Perhaps he wanted to write a Confessional poem. Perhaps this is a Confessional poem!
Perhaps this is a perfect Modernist Confessional.
It inspired a train of thought -- not a locomotive, but a hem I've been dragging around with me. "I wanted to be more myself" -- isn't this the very punctum of all efforts to overthrow Modernismo? At the end of the poem, Ratcliff compares his erstwhile lover to "a swan of ice who melts to water whereupon to swim." In his introduction, Katz makes a very interesting, though not entirely explained, connection between this swan of ice and Merrill's "The Black Swan." I will have more to say on this in my next post. Until Monday, arrivederci, Harriet.

* "Carter Ratcliff" is practically an anagram for art critic, which is practically an anagram of itself.
** See Herman Melville, passim