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Friday, 3 May 2013

Jim Dine: On Pain


An abandoned "Giant Slide" at Coney Island: photo by Arthur Tress, May 1973 for the Environmental Protexction Agency's Documerica project (US National Archives)

As much as he had
when she was buried alive?

His daughter
relentless pain
Killing the strength 

of the soul
Bobby's pain

Is Emptyness
the same
my aunt with my uncle

How you've with blood the memory 
The memory of the headaches

It's never fair
but our great age teases us 
with knowledge
and supposed wisdom

Who would have thought 
There would be random pain to kill?

Pain of non-recognition
not for no reason 
the mystery of it going away


Jim Dine: On Pain from Double Diana with Poem, 2009

Storm clouds, San Francisco, California: photo by franklin_hunting, 26 February 2011


TC said...

Jim's perfect dark arrow of a poem made me think of this bit from Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations):

"I.303. 'I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am.'---Yes, one can make the decision to say 'I believe he is in pain' instead of 'he is in pain'. But that is all.------What looks like an explanation here, or like a statement about a mental process, is in truth an exchange of one expression for another which, while we are doing philosophy, seems the more appropriate one.

"Just try -- in a real case -- to doubt someone else's fear or pain."

Anonymous said...

maybe there is universal pain and individual pain...some may match a little but never at we are different and unique...anyhow I think that what brings people together is pain rather than happiness...

Nora said...

That is a very dark arrow.

Wittgenstein, for some reason, reminds me of those pain scales they have in hospitals, which I always find inordinately stressful, because how do I know how the pain I'm experiencing compares with an objective notion of pain, or the pain anyone else might be experiencing, say, down the hall?

TC said...

Sandra, I think that is true, because, as our Buddhist friends believe, suffering is the common baseline of the human condition, and thus the one thing everyone sooner or later must come to acknowledge; and in this acknowledgment we are joined.

Nora, that pain-scale question is so very odd. The "old school" (??) response, when first asked, is to pretend a stiff upper lip, downplay the pain, and say "one" or "two". Then gradually one comes to understand one is being encouraged to start with a higher number, say "five". From that point on up, your reluctant admission will qualify you for a bit of oblivion pumped into your drip. Like the rat in the experiment, you will thereafter be tempted to ratchet-up those numbers. The freedom from pain is of course never more than temporary.

And soon enough, your drip is gone, you are back home, and no one is interested in your numbers. Only in getting you to shut up.

But, so, yes... the subjective element in all this is obviously incalculable. There are people -- and animals -- who appear able to experience enormous amounts of pain quite stoically. An admirable trait that. But far more common in animals than in people.

By the way the Wittgenstein bit I've quoted comes from a longer discussion of this subject:

Wittgenstein: Is Understanding Possible?

It's all so mysterious really. About the only thing one may count on (at our stage of the game in any case) is the probability that, in case it's any consolation, the person down the hall is probably feeling pain too (and it's better not to ask).

TC said...

I love Jim's closing rhyme here, which is double perfection... thinking of the legendary vintage Chinese ping pong ball brand, Double Happiness.

When I used these in the 60s and 70s they were commonly seen, but any more, I don't know... though I discover they do still exist and indeed seem latterly to have been injected with Vitamin C. Possibly for doubling the happiness of a parfait?

And while we are on multiples of two...

This restaurant in Osaka has twice as many parfaits as Jim has.

But are they real??

TC said...

Oh and while we're on small facts that may loom large, Arthur Tress, who took the great top photo here, actually grew up at (well, very close to) Coney Island.

TC said...

As to that last statement, some supporting evidence:

Arthur Tress: City of Ashes ("Ashamed of my eyes that beheld it")


Babies born with congenital insensitivity to pain sleep quietly through the night. Pain is a primary sensation of life from the first moment. No pain, no gain, but with pain we gain painkillers. They float around like candy in America. Oh baby come on with hydrocodone.

Anonymous said...

the link about Wittgenstein does not work...looking for him in google I found a film ...

but it says that he is vietnamite (?)

Marie W said...

Tom, one recurrent thought I had over the last couple of weeks is that poetry can be a means of exorcising pain. Not in a technical kind of way, but almost as a compulsion. Somehow I can feel this in Jim Dine's lines. Writing down pain, black on white. Putting words on pain. And then the memory of it. Not for no reason, the mystery of it going away. Until parfait parfait. And we know nothing will never be parfait parfait again. It is not going away, it just becomes something slightly different with every day passing, but it will always be there.
Ah, those parfaits of Osaka, as real as can possibly be :-))

TC said...


In that case I should wish to visit America very very soon. They say it is a wild and crazy place. Whatever gets you to sleep quietly through the night can't be all bad, even if it's the sound of fire engines screaming in your waking nightmare. Er, I guess.


Sorry that link to Wittgenstein On Pain didn't work -- what a pain. Let's try that one again:

Wittgenstein: Is Understanding Possible?


Beautiful and wise words.

To be perfectly honest, pain has been a great distraction here, in particular since last year's accident; allowing oneself to be distracted is another form of grief (anger with oneself); and finally the whole business compounds the complications until concentration fails and total uselessness sets in. Concentration is always so difficult even at the best of times, and of course any time one's in pain can hardly be said to be the best of times. Still this and these = the only times we shall be given to have. I've found that concentration on making things (poiein = to make) is maybe the best pain therapy, if one can manage the clarity for concentration. (Does that constitute one of those notorious circular Catch-22 thought-loops, product of a lack of proper concentration, I wonder? Ah well!)

Jim's work concentration habits are a wonder to me. He's 78 and going strong. Making paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, prints, poems. Every day. This time of year he's usually working pretty much nonstop, up in the Northwest where he has his studio, a kind of retreat-setting. In the winter he travels a lot, often to Europe, but he's said that when he travels his baggage consists of his work tools -- where those are, he feels at home. It's a life of work, and oddly, I think of the medieval monastic orders, those based on work. Of course there is a measure of physical strength required. Perhaps this strength requires a certain genetic makeup which we don't all possess. But of course that doesn't mean all those good genes didn't ever have to put in their share of hard work at some point, in order to become so good.

Discipline, though -- I suspect that must be the real key, both to the good work habits and to the ability to set physical discomfort off to one side, where perhaps its command over the mind is a bit less imperious. That and a relatively clear conscience. (Neither of the above available in pill form, so far as I am aware.)

This gets right to the heart of the matter, and of the poem, I think:

"Writing down pain, black on white. Putting words on pain. And then the memory of it. Not for no reason, the mystery of it going away. Until parfait parfait. And we know nothing will never be parfait parfait again. It is not going away, it just becomes something slightly different with every day passing, but it will always be there."

I think you've there touched on another aspect to all this, in the context of Jim's poem: pain has a history, and as one ages, inevitably there are more chapters to that history. And those chapters are crowded with everyone one's ever known and everything under the sun; addressing and dealing with that long and difficult log of all one's days and nights and the attendant undertow of memory may well be the subject here. And of course in the obscurities of the soul-life these histories spill over willy-nilly into mysteries... and that would bring us to matters of which we are unable to speak.

I was inclined to accept the tangible parfait-ness of those Osaka Parfaits, but with beautiful Japanese food displays (maybe we've talked about this before?), one never quite knows until an expert has been consulted. So now that's been done, and on we go into the next chapter of the unknown.

Marie W said...

Chapters become crowded, indeed. And they overlap. Maybe that's why grief might be important, and one can allow oneself to be distracted and angry sometimes? To allow space for the next chapter?
I keep getting stuck at the word Emptyness. I wonder why Jim chose to write it that way, with y.

TC said...


Thanks for staying with this one. The poem is worth the generosity of your attention, I do believe.

Emptyness with a y: Jim has written quite a bit about his history with Dyslexia, how he's had the lifelong habit of "reverse-visualizing" words ("in printmaking... right away I imagine the image I am making even though I have to make it backwards to come out frontwards"), and how this habit has influenced his direction toward poetry. His art, as he's said many times, is always made by hand ("Everything I do is made by hand. I'm here to work with my hands"). I know he's had the practise of writing his poems by hand on walls, or on large easels, in his studio. I think maybe this comes close to the direct way we have with words when we first begin to write, that is, using words as expressive materials, in an instinctive, physical way. ("Words are important to me," Jim has said, "And how they're built.") And too he's spoken often of his involvement with pentimento, the art of erasure ("Erasure for me is another way to make a mark").

The word "grief" has come into this conversation, now, and grief too, like pain, like anger, is very much a part of the truth content of our lives and therefore also of what we would have to say, if we are to be honest.

The issue of the personal arises here, maybe necessarily, because in this and other poems there are names. A good deal is left out, in Jim's poems -- the connective tissue, as it were. So we see the skeleton of the thought. The missing spots, the areas of erasure, then become part of the content, left for us as readers to fill in as we are able.

A while back, Jim sent a CD with his reading of this and other poems, and hearing that, it was impossible to escape the fact that the lines have been carved out of life, and indeed, in large part, out of anguish -- experienced, survived, learnt from.

So hopefully without violating any privacies, I might say that with this poem I fill in some of the missing information with bits of what Jim has related elsewhere about his life, the important people in it.

Thus I take "Bobby" to be Jim's longtime friend the late art historian and novelist B.H. Friedman, and "Abby" to be Friedman's late wife (and second cousin) Abby Noselson. In the utterance of those names in this poem there is care, love, respect, as I take it.

Those references become part of the poem for me, in a way that words and names in the writings of less serious writers do not. The emotions implied, that is, feel earned -- not merely the diddlings and fiddlings of someone who is idly playing-at the spinning of language.

I don't mean to suggest that such references enclose and contain the poem, more that they offer doors and windows in the wall of the mystery that always seems to surround a poem that we know we must and will return to.

That mystery is the heart of the matter, of course. Thinking here of the prematurely-wise words of the poet Keats, from a letter writ to his brothers when he was but three-and-twenty:

"I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -- Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

TC said...

Oh and lest I forget -- it seems I've casually added a year on to Jim's age, how unkind. I've said he is 78. But he will not reach that age for month or two. Meanwhile, divide that number in two, and get the age which, according to certain experts (well, stretching a bit), is the age at which youth lasts forever.

But of course numbers, ages, names... nothing lasts forever.

Marie W said...

I am so glad I stayed a bit longer with this one, because now I know more about Jim Dine and about this poem, and now I like it even more. His approach to poetry is fascinating. Reverse-visualizing. Those words alone will get me to wonder and think for a long time. Erasure, pentimento, connective tissue and skeleton. Names. Thank you so much for writing more about all this, Tom. I felt like there was something more about those lines, a kind of need to know (on my side of the screen). It's hard to explain. And after reading those lines from Keats, I feel that wherever there is Beauty there is also much more to it.
Thank you!

TC said...

Many thanks, Marie. There's a fine line (I guess) between providing helpful information, hand-rails so to speak, in hopes of assisting a careful reader... and coming on as the village explainer, in the process taking the risk of precluding the perceptions that reader may arrive at on her/his own.

But with a poem as densely-packed as this one, I thought perhaps it might better to take the chance of erring on the side of over-explaining; and (of course) to hope not to explain-away the mystery that always lingers on at the secret center of any poem as good as this one.

In any case, Jim shares my gratitude to you for being such a sensitive reader.

Another sensitive reader, the terrific poet/musician Terence Winch, reports he's had some trouble posting a comment on this poem. Apologies to Terry for that, I know the "interface" can prove frustrating.

But Terry has kindly sent along his comment back-channel, and we are grateful of him for taking that extra trouble.


Terence Winch said...

"It's inspiring to see that JD's visual work remains so distinctive and full of vitality. It's pure pleasure looking at his work, making those of us devoted to the Pleasure Principle very happy. I will keep an eye out for his writing."