To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas: Two Poems by José Asunción Silva

Translations from Spanish by Jerome Rothenberg

Nocturne III

a night,
a night thick with perfumes, with whispers & music, with wings,
A night
with gloworms fantastically bright in its bridal wet shadows,
there by my side, pressed slowly & tightly against me,
mute and pale
as if a presentiment of infinite sorrow should stir you
down to the secretest depths of your nature,
a path with flowers crosses the plain
where you traveled,
under a full moon
up in the deep blue infinite skies
its white light scattered,
& your shadow too
thin and limpid,
& my shadow
     that the moon’s rays projected
     across the sad sands,
     where both were conjoined
& were one
& were one
     & were one immense shadow!
     & were one immense shadow!
     & were one only one immense shadow!

That night
all alone     a soul
filled with infinite sorrow
with your death and its torments
cut off from your self, by the shadow, by distance and time,
an infinite blackness
where our voices don’t reach,
mute & alone
on the path I was traveling …
the sound of the dogs as they bayed at the moon,
the pale moon,
& the croaking out loud
of the frogs …
I felt cold, felt the coldness that came from your cheeks
in the alcove in back, from your breasts & the hands that I loved
under sheets white as snow in the death house!
A coldness of graves & a coldness of death
& the coldness of nada
& my shadow
that the moon’s rays projected
was drifting alone,
was drifting alone,
was drifting alone through an unpeopled wasteland!
& your shadow, agile & smooth,
thin & limpid,
as on that warm night in dead spring,
that night filled with perfumes, with whispers & music, with wings,
came near & made off with her
came near & made off with her
came near & made off with her …
Oh the shadows brought together!
Oh the shadows of our bodies joining with the shadows of our souls!
Oh the shadows sought & brought together in the nights of blackness & of tears …! 


The world-renowned scientist
Cornelius Van Kerinken
who enjoyed a sizable
practice in Hamburg
and left us a volume
of some 700 pages
on the liver and kidneys,
was abandoned in the end
by all of his friends,
died in Leipzig demented,
dishonored and poor,
because of his studies
at the end of his life
on spermatozoa.

Bent over a microscope
that cost him a fortune,
unique and a masterpiece,
from a London optician;
his sight bearing down,
his hands shaking badly,
anxious, tight, motionless
focused and fierce,
like a colorless phantom
in a low voice he said:
"Oh! look at them running
how they’re moving and swarming
and clashing and scattering:
these spermatozoa.

Look! If he weren’t
lost and vanished forever;
if fleeing down roads
that no one remembers
he finally managed
after so many tries
to change into a man                                                                                                                              his life still before him
he could be a new Werther
and after thousands of torments
and exploits and passions
would knock himself off
with a real Smith and Wesson,
that spermatazoon.

And the one just above him,
a hairbreath away
from the so-to-speak Werther,
at the edge of the lens,
could end up as a hero
in one of our wars.
Then a statue in bronze
could serve as a tribute
to that unbeatable winner,
that bona-fide leader
of soldiers and cannons,
Commander in Chief
of all of our armies,
that spermatazoon.

The next one here might be
the Gretchen to some Faust;
and another, higher up,
a noble-blooded heir,
the owner at twenty-one
of a million or so dollars
and the title of a count;
still another one, a usurer;
and that one there, the small one,
some kind of lyric poet;
& this other one, the tall one,
a professor of some science,
will have written a whole book
about spermatazoa.

Good luck and gone forever
you small dots & small men!
between the two thick lenses
of the giant microscope,
translucent and diaphanous,
Good luck, you shimmying
zoosperms, you will not grow
over the earth to people it
with further joys and horrors.
In no more than ten minutes
you’ll all be lying dead here.
Hola! spermatazoa.

Thus world-renowned scientist
Cornelius Van Kerinken
who enjoyed a sizable
practice in Hamburg
and left us a volume
of some 700 pages
on the liver and kidneys,
died in Leipzig demented,
dishonored and poor,
because of his studies
at the end of his life
on spermatozoa.
by Heriberto Yépez
“Leave your studies & pleasures, your / vapid lost causes, / &, as Shakyamuni once councilled, / hide your self in Nirvana.”  (J.A.S. from Filosofías).  And again: “When you reach your last hour, / your final stop on earth, / you’ll feel an angst that can kill you / at having done nothing.”

(1) José Asunción Silva was a careful reader of Bécquer and Verlaine, Martí and Poe, Campoamor and Baudelaire. He was convinced he needed to combine traditions, though he had his mind on an obscure and introspective nothingness that, according to him, transcended all of them. Silva was a deep researcher of the dark aspect of the soul.
After a year abroad in 1886, he returned to his native Bogotá. In Europe his poetry had evidently taken a significant turn. He had met Mallarmé in Paris, an encounter that marked him deeply. In Silva, European romanticism was reinvented, though he didn’t intend to escape the archetype of the Romantic poet that he explicitly wanted to adapt. Silva’s life is full of sad anecdotes. An important part of his work was lost in a shipwreck and soon in his adult life he had to face all sorts of difficulties. He was a man of an intense emotional life. He believed poetry precisely was an investigation of ‘complex feelings.’
About him the Mexican avant-garde poet José Juan Tablada would write: ‘Silva does not have a biography but a legend. He lived yesterday, is our brother today, but he goes back still further, caving in the past.’ His work constructs a space-time that can be best described using images such as Vallejo’s ‘alternative cavern.’  He knew his ‘night’ referred not only to the depth of his interior world but also to the artificiality of his visions.

(2)  Soon after the death of his sister Elvira, Silva wrote (in 1892) his most enduring poem ‘Noche.’ also known as ‘Nocturno III.’  The intensity of the piece provoked speculations around a supposed incestuous relationship with his sister. We could easily get lost in the biographical aspects of Silva’s figure. But we need to focus, at least for a moment, on this poem, so important in the development of later poetry in Spanish, not only as a forerunner of modernismo but as a structural inspiration for later avant-garde writing.
‘Nocturno III’ comes from an unusual extension of voice that even visually creates an unseen pattern of lines. One can sense in Silva’s ‘night’ the process of contacting his underworld and the intermittent flow and rupture derived from this contact. It is a chant to the night and to the obscure unity of a mysterious duality that does not lead to death, but is death itself. This poem in particular possesses a structure that would reappear (reinvented) in some of Neruda’s pieces, for example, but most importantly it deals with an alliance to obscurity and a dialect of rhythm and breakage, sound and visual play, that is still haunting.
Silva is also the author of a novel titled De sobremesa. In 1896 Silva committed suicide shooting a bullet directly into his heart.

Friday, October 12, 2018

from “Eclipse” by Joe Safdie, with a note on its poetics by the author

A sunrise, the sun’s course, a sunset are marvelous to no one because they occur daily. But solar eclipses are a source of wonder because they occur seldom, and indeed are more marvelous than lunar eclipses, because these are more frequent. Thus nature shows that she is not aroused by the common ordinary event, but is moved by a new and striking occurrence. Let art, then, imitate nature, find what she desires, and follow as she directs.
– Frances Yates, The Art of Memory
6 August: New York Times
On the morning of August 21,
the moon’s shadow will appear
over the Pacific Ocean and move
swiftly toward Lincoln Beach Oregon,
making landfall at 10:16 A.M. local time.
If the morning fog has lifted by then,
and if the weather is clear,
viewers will see something in the sky
that most have never seen:
a black hole where the sun should be,
and around the edges sinuous flames
radiating in all directions.
Stars and planets will come out,
winds will shift, birds and bats
will behave strangely, crickets will chirp.
I stood on a crowded beach in Turkey
and waited until, at the allotted time,
with a chorus of screams and cheers
and whistles and applause, the sun
slid away, and impossibly, impossibly,
we saw above us a stretch of black sky
and in the middle of it a hole, blacker
than anything I’d ever seen, fringed
with a ring of soft white fire. My heart
jumped up to my throat, and my eyes
grew hot with tears. I fell to my knees,
feeling tiny and huge, and as lonely
as I’ve ever been, but also astonishingly
close to the crowds around me.
Totality – that point of a solar eclipse
when the sun is entirely covered
by the moon – is incomprehensible.
Your mind can’t grasp any of it:
not the dark, not the sunset clouds
on the horizon, nor the stars;
just that extraordinary wrongness,
up there, that pulls the eyes toward it.
I stared up at the hole in the sky
and then at the figures around me,
and became gripped by the conviction
that my life was over; that I was
kneeling in the underworld
with all the shades of the dead.
A 260-day Aztec calendar stone
may depict the death of the sun god Tonatluh
at the hands of an eclipse monster,
whose claws clutch at human hearts
Full moon in Aquarius, the event now
just two weeks away, “96% of everything
is dark (matter or energy); it is sight itself
that has blinded us to nearly the entire universe”
darkness keeps us in place     dark energy
dark matter     “He reveals mysteries from the darkness,
And brings the deep darkness into light" (Job 12:22)
God is Light, yet the scriptures tell us that
He makes darkness His secret place.
Oh, the wonders of God! Who can know His mind?
Let men pry, but His ways are past finding out,
and one of those things men cannot find out is
the mystery of light that comes out of darkness.

9 August
OED: OF eclipse, esclipse, ad. L. eclipsis, Gr. eclepsis
literally “to forsake its accustomed place, fail to appear”
which would imply what matters is that the sun
lets itself get eclipsed, an act of generosity . . .
1. An interception or obscuration of the light
of the sun (moon, or other luminous body)
by the intervention of some other body, either
between it and the eye, or between the luminous body
and that illuminated by it; “These late eclipses
in the Sun and Moone portend no good to us”
2. obscuration, obscurity; dimness;
loss of brilliance or splendor, the eclipse
of reason and decency: the eclipse of truth.
the Newport, Oregon police
were recently alerted to a cat
who appeared to be armed,
possibly with a semi-automatic weapon,
who had situated itself high in a tree

13 August
Solar and lunar eclipses are significant events
at a spiritual level. There is an increase in Raja-Tama
which has negative effects on humanity . . .
the environment becomes conducive
for negative energies to amass black energy.
Black energy is a type of spiritual energy
that is the primary weapon of attack of ghosts
[who] utilize their black energy to harm humankind
during the period of the eclipse
as well as to sow the seeds of destruction . . .
Of course                                                                                  shore wind will dissipate the fog and warm the air,
                                                                                                   so attention to the eclipse-day forecast
will tell whether to stay or whether to move
to an inland trans-mountain location.
What is the meaning of a solar eclipse?
To the ancient Chinese, solar eclipses meant
that dragons were devouring the sun.
To the Czechoslovakians, they meant that ice giants,
bitter enemies of the sun, were conquering it.
To the Romans, they meant that the sun was poisoned
and dying. To the Jews, solar eclipses meant that the moon
was passing between the sun and the earth . . .
Many eras in history have been dark for us.
But during these times, we should remember
that G-ds light has not been extinguished;
it is merely in a state of hester panim,
hiddenness. And just as the sunlight always emerges
from its eclipse (sigh), so too are all situations
of hester panim only temporary, destined to be
followed by the light of G-ds redemption.
Even during the darkness of a solar eclipse,
all is not entirely in gloom. The sun is
four hundred times further away from us
than the moon, but it is also four hundred times
larger than the moon (secular scientists call this
a "grand coincidence") . . . while the sun
is essentially obscured, shafts of sunlight
may appear around the edge of the moon
as they shine through the mountains
on its surface. When Yosef’s brothers sold him
to a passing caravan, we are taught that
G-d arranged matters such that the merchants
would be carrying sweet-smelling spices
instead of their usual foul cargo.
Now, this would appear to be of little comfort
to Yosef. He had just been betrayed
by his brothers and sold to heathens as a slave.
What was the consolation in his prison quarters
having a nice smell? The answer is that precisely
because this was the lowest point of Yosef’s life,
G-d wanted to show that He was still with him.
This minor but significant gesture strengthened
Yosef’s spirits during his long ordeal.
Such is the message of the shafts of light,
which we perceive during the darkness
of a solar eclipse. They are literally "rays of hope,"
and they remind us that even during
the dark periods of life, we are to look for
those small signs that tell us that G-d is still with us.

15 August, Sacramento Airport, New York Times Again
a jungle in Mikongo, Gabon
the top of a mountain in Tianhuangping, China
the frigid wilderness of Svalbard, Norway

and Ferris Jabr’s text: All life on earth
depends on a luminous umbilical cord
eight minutes and 19 seconds long,

the time it takes light to travel here
from the sun. During a total solar eclipse,
this lifeline is temporarily severed.

At the moment of totality, a tide of darkness
briefly swallows the land. Life responds
instantaneously. Most living things have

biological clocks – constellations of genes,
proteins and neurons – synchronized
to the sun’s rhythms . . . Earth’s surface temperature

drops by as much as 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
The very chemistry of the air changes.
Certain molecules produced by

light-activated reactions, such as ozone,
suddenly dwindle . . . A total solar eclipse
is not just the momentary theft of day.

It is a profound interruption of the world
as we know it, all the more terrifying
in its transience. Imagine what would happen

if we altered the planet’s relationship with the sun.
An eclipse of our own making.
A new era of twilight with no promise of dawn.

August 21, 9:36 AM
found a spot near a river
just east of Corvallis
two bikers from Seattle here first
eclipse glasses working
sun about one third occluded
slowly growing from the northeast
at about 1:00 . . . clock metaphors?
river     sun     moon
the new moon is the only chance
for the yin principle to assert herself
the world 88% yang
foggy by the coast when we left
we wanted an ocean but this will do
9:45 about 40% covered
the right brain slowly taking over
sweet blackberries     elemental
Sara on her cell phone     checking
to see how our cat was reacting
conversation with the bikers
9:52 perfect yin-yang circle
balance is not “totality”
zen master shrugs her shoulders
flight home in 3 ½ hours*
watching the river flow
right to left     Mahayana
not Hin9ayana     holding Sara’s hand
*this line was wild exaggeration

24 August
            after the eclipse
                        endless poetry
     (the name of a Jodorowsky movie

but this may be one of those times
     that I follow
Marianne Moore’s example

and the movie’s pretty damn good
the singing mother
     and the strawberry cake

hope and no hope
     poetry and cynicism
            endlessly recycling

but on the last day
     of Endless Poetry
at San Diego theaters

my poetry class got cancelled
            for lack of interest
“it’s not required”

     “poets and muses
meet there every night
maybe you’ll find yours”

     I really gotta read
Nicanor Parra again
poets don’t explain themselves

after the eclipse
everything was new again
and Orpheus is here too!

            love will always
get corrupted by purity
9“I am not a faggot”

     said Enrique Linh
“nor poets into teachers”
            adios poetas

The Poetics of “Eclipse”
This poem was clearly a collaborative enterprise: joining me, in addition to the cited and uncited sources here, were writers who had posted on social media about the forthcoming eclipse, cable news broadcasters, weather forecasters, baseball commentators and a few people I don’t remember. Indeed, most of my recent work seems like assemblage, and I remember an earlier poem, “Against Romanticism,” when I quoted Walter Benjamin:
            This work must raise the art
            of citing without quotation marks
            to the highest level,
            its theory most intimately linked
            to that of montage.
So perhaps it was ever thus. Still, it might be one way to navigate our post-truth or post-fact age, when politics and technology have converged to make the line between fiction and non-fiction porous indeed. Can any of us be sure what’s meaningful or meaningless anymore, what’s relevant and irrelevant? David Shields, in a book I’ve come to value highly called Reality Hunger, wrote “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” And yet we hunger for them. This poem charts that hunger.