Tost, Tony. 2003. "I Am Not the Pilot". Cortland Review 22.
Probably most of what I see in Flarf I saw in this poem first. Most of what I see in contemporary American poetry today, I guess, I first saw in this poem when I read it six years ago. At least in glimts and flashes. But I did not understand what I was seeing. I did not know what it meant.
So let's begin this reading with what I think "I Am Not the Pilot" means. The pilot is Palinurus, Aeneas's helmsman, or gubernator, a word that shares its root with "cybernetics", namely, the Greek for the verb "to steer". Palinurus is also the pseudonym (the false name) of Cyril Connolly, the author—not so much: the compiler—of The Unquiet Grave, which, of course, is also the title Tony Tost gave to his blog.
So the voice of "I Am Not the Pilot" is, implicitly, not the voice modern Connolly and not the voice of ancient Palinurus. And who were they? (Who is he?) "He is the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" (TUG, p. xiii). Palinurus is, let us say, unable to work under these conditions:
We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot coordinate what is not there. (TUG, p. 2)
And, of course, we have no time to read; we are emotionally exhausted; the material is cheap. Palinurus is the name of our resentment of what we have been given to coordinate.
The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck. (93)
It is this resentment of what we have been given—paultry as what we have been given may be—that the voice of "I Am Not the Pilot" renounces. In fact, he simply leaves it on the side. Connolly was aware of this possibility as a possibility of any poem. Indeed, he too renounced the (otherwise undeniable) morbidity of The Unquiet Grave.
All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind, the manuscript proclaimed; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow. (xvi)
Well, Connolly's manuscript is less convincing in its proclamation than Tost's. Where The Unquiet Grave was stitched together of the "finest" material in the literary tradition, "I Am Not the Pilot" makes do with, with all due respect to his sources, "the muck". Coming to this poem as a reader, one finds an experience that is, unremarkably, and with no profundity, beyond time and space. One finds something (something in one's own miserable self) that is, finally, immune from sorrow.
Coming to it as a critic, one says simply (to steal Ben Lerner's line), "It was open, so I walked right in." That's what we will do in the next post.