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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas (22): Juan Gelman, from “The Poems of Sidney West”

Lament for the Death of Parsifal Hoolig

it began to rain cows
and in light of the prevailing situation in the country
the agronomy students sowed disorder
the engineering professors proclaimed their virginity
the philosophy janitors oiled the staples of intellectual reason
the math teachers verified crying the two plus two
the language learners invented good bad words

while this was happening
a wave of nostalgia invaded the country’s beds
and the couples look at each other as strangers
and twilight was served for lunch by mothers and fathers
and the pain or the hurt slowly dressed the little ones
and the chests fell off some and the backs off others and
     to the rest nothing fell off at all
and they found God dead several times
and old men flew through the air holding tightly to their
     dried testicles
and old women hurled exclamations and felt painful
     stitches in their memory or oblivion
and various dogs approved and toasted with Armenian cognac
and they found a man dead several times

near a carnival Friday ripped from the carnival
under an invasion of autumnal insults
or over blue elephants standing on Mr.Hollow’s cheek
or close by the larks in sweet vocal challenge with summer
they found that man dead
with his hands openly gray
his hips disordered by the events in Chicago
remains of wind in his throat
25 cents in his pocket and its still eagle
with feathers wet from infernal rain

oh dear ones!
that rain fell years and years on the pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humiliations not even one of
     the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water and rot and end!

and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man
and while his obituary did not appear in the New York
     Times and the Chicago Tribune paid no attention to him
he did not complain when they picked him
    up in a truck from the city
him and his melancholy look

and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it is sad
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven

Lament for Chester Carmichael’s Bird

all the young girls sing in Melody Spring
all the young boys dance in Melody Spring
and the old women knit the old men smoke their sea foam 
      pipes in Melody Spring
all except chester carmichael dead in the fall of 1962

previously he had lost his leaves as a tree
feathers winds pieces of memory falling all around him
the last to fall was a woman or what was left of a woman
semi-gnawed chewed dry and even phosphorescent
who illuminated chester carmichael night after night
and still could not be extinguished and shines
     where the southern road begins

he is dark:
not so much because of earth and death
time reworked his face as a small angel
and now he is naked without alternative decadences furies
among smooth roots and the rest of his seasonal companions

chester carmichael was finished
he left with a spikenard in his hand accompanied by one 
      hundred thousand monkeys
who danced and sang as the young girls and boys of 
      Melody Spring
there were no sobs screams flowers over his heart
only a beautiful bird who would stare at him
and now watches over his head

oh tiny bird!
every so often it bends over chester carmichael and hears 
      what he is giving back
calm as the sun

[Final Poem] Errata

where it says “he escaped from himself as from a prison cell”
      (page such and such verse whatever)
it could say “the tiny tree grew and grew” or some other error
as long as it has rhythm
is certain or true

and so sidney west wrote these lines that will never love him
in the freshness of a dry dark well
on top of a world blinded by sun
or alone alone alone

where it says “if we were or we were/as human faces”
(page such and such verse whatever) it is as the ox that
      ploughed there
not rotted by pain or fury
disguising much of the time in solitude

ah sidney west! here ends (hopefully)
your wretched aspimos leanings
what tiny bit round this man
and what animal within

all those birds that knew how to invent ate sidney west
ponina and nino especially
greedy from their state and passion
open sweet as useless

where it says “one day the following happened”
     (page such and such verse whatever)
sadness had happened by before
and that is fatal for the poet
or it was fatal for west’s pain

hey tiny bugs horseflies brilliances greeting in the Oak’s
there they put sidney west let him sleep
where it says “let him sleep sleep sleep” (page such and such
      verse whatever)
it should say let him sleep and nothing more

and so when west with his first love
headed for sidney sailor
sidney the last in history
spun with west as a water wheel’s donkey

let him sleep and nothing more should be said
      (page such and such verse whatever)
and nothing more let him sleep and nothing more
let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep sleep sleep

until his feets grow wings please
let sidney west sleep
until we love one another well
let him sleep sleep sleep

the father breathes it if he really wants to breath it
here they lie as before
but let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep

where it says “curtains with birds so morning enters
      singing” (page such and such verse whatever)
sidney west should turn himself off in the morning
let him sleep sleep sleep

Translation by Katherine Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez


source.  Juan Gelman, The Poems of Sidney West, Salt Publishing, 2009

La traducción, ¿es traición? 
La poesía, ¿es traducción? 
        --Po I-Po

Translation, is it treason? 
Poetry, is it translation? 
         --Po I-Po
From a work created by Juan Gelman and presented in Spanish as a presumed translation from an otherwise unknown U,S,American visionary poet.  The translation of Gelman’s “translation” into English is therefore the creation as well of the “original” poem and poet.
               Write the actual translators in this instance: “The use of translation as a tool for poetic creation that distinguishes Juan Gelman’s work, reaches its apex with The Poems of Sidney West. María del Carmen Sillato has stressed how this device, along with heteronomy and intertextuality, is ‘an expression of alterity by recognizing the other-author, the other-text, and the other-language as co-participants in the elaboration of a textual universe’. …
               “The space is even more precise and determined, always within the real or imagined United States. This territorial emplacement, beyond Argentina’s borders, constitutes a frank questioning by Juan Gelman of the nationalism and populism on the rise during the era. … What is sought here is the destruction of the self, a redefinition of the poetic ‘I’ that, like these stories’ characters, experiences a metamorphosis, de/composes to achieve the com/position of the subordinated other.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Jeffrey C. Robinson: Remaking the World: Poetry of the Homeless Library

[author’s note. The Homeless Library (2104-17) is “the first history of British homelessness. A collection of books handmade by homeless people, reflecting on their lives and how they connect with the wider, previously unwritten heritage of homelessness.  The books describe lived experience in interviews, poetry, art.”  It was created by poet Philip Davenport and artist Lois Blackburn under their experimental arts organization arthur + martha based in Manchester, UK.  I first became acquainted with the project when, at a poetry festival and symposium I organized in Glasgow, 2016 called “Outside-in / Inside-out,” Davenport and Blackburn exhibited (the books of) The Homeless Library and discussed it along with the informative and incredibly moving testimonial presentations of several participants from Manchester.  The idea of a “poetry of the outside” suddenly veered back to a “root” or radical instantiation of its meaning and power.  Phil and Lois asked me to characterize the poems of The Homeless Library.  Many more can be found on the arthur + martha website.  (JCR)]

Although interviews feature in the Homeless Library, they do not define it. The purpose of this project, is to recast lives into a wider frame that transfers pain and trauma into the larger rhythms of life, and simultaneously allows a critique of society. If "documentary" sets the terms by which life is measured, particularly when life has been restricted by society, then poetry’s capacity is reduced (1). The subject is usually the centre of documentary narrative. But here it scatters itself as poem, among objects and events outside itself, it swivels between individual and collective, this world and a larger world: “the dreaming earth”.
Given the uncentered, unprotected and rootless reality of homelessness, it isn’t surprising that homeless writing is preoccupied with many “worlds,” and with space itself. In her 2008 book, The Culture of Homelessness, Megan Ravenhill observes that “the concept of space is far deeper than a set of sleeping or begging patches . . . space and the ownership of space creates power, has identifiable purposes and can be political” (p. 176). Space is anything from a safe space to sleep, to the definition of identity. The Booth Centre is a safe space. But, says Lois Blackburn, the weekly poetry and art sessions there turn a space for relaxation and physical recuperation into one of “quality conversation,” discussion of the past, of now, and of meaning. The poetry and artworks become not only a safe but, let me say it, a sacred space. In the following, the speaker describes being rooted in space, but is it that of the Wellspring or of the poem itself, process and product?—

When you first come here
You are in dire straits
You come to heal at the
“The Wellspring” is a homeless resource centre in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and yet the word is metaphorical as well. “Here” may also be the making of art, where the world is remade on the spot.
Us; we’re dreaming the same
Hundreds of miles away or next to you. . . .
You visit the old dreams to see
If you’re doing right or wrong.
A rite of passage
A chuckle dream

The stream runs within
Comfort, guidance, warning
My mother, brother,
And sister.
The world of Wellspring extends past physical care into the unconscious, an opening up of being, and a meditation on making, as distinct from dream.
Everyone dreams, but
Sometimes we shoot and miss.

Except for this.

Friedrich Hölderlin is reputed to have written, “To live is to defend a form.” (“Leben, das heisst eine Form verteidigen.”) The extremity of the statement draws our attention to the power that formal acts have had on the HL participants. In blogs, Davenport and Blackburn describe the extraordinary present-ness of The Homeless Librarians scribing, drawing, printing over published, canonical text, and making books. For people insecure about their relationship to language, many of whom term themselves “illiterate”, to turn language into not just written but also material form is to reclaim power. The poems of the Homeless Library make sophisticated formal decisions often used by experimental poets, and the books that contain them recall the work of experimenters with book form - Dieter Roth, Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha. Work on the poems often proceeds from group discussions transcribed and then given poetic shape by one or more members of the group, including Davenport and people to locate their experience in a larger system of oppression. The Library creates its poetry of critique by layerings, juxtapositions, and translations (that is, the carrying across) of materials from apparently different domains, transgressing known borders.
woke up this morning not in my own bed
Half a bed it was I fell out of

Fell out across fields, over and out
Over and out to continue
Made my way here. . . .
“Bed” becomes “half a bed,” to fall out of bed becomes “Fell out across fields,” and “over and out [of bed]” becomes the pilot’s signal of the end of communication. Here, however, the poem contradicts, in a Beckett-like way, the implications of ending: “Over and out to continue.” Language and syntax generate new versions of themselves that becomes a kind of heroism: “Made my way here.”
Unlike most HL poems, the following refuses local detail in order to entwine itself in the received poetic imagery of Shelley’s West Wind. The “Ode” becomes a spiritual reference point for defining self:
O wild West Wind
I am a system in chaos.
A breathing Autumn
In chaos, I am a system
Leaves dead, driven like ghosts
There is meaning in them unknown to the Traveller
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red
Perfection is not necessarily smooth and orderly
Pestilence-stricken multitudes we
Arrive where we started
My life’s journey
dark wintry bed
winged seeds
I am a system in chaos
A wild West Wind
O’er the dreaming earth.
Formally, “O wild West Wind” continues the practice of “occupying” words and phrases from a canonical poem. It rejects Shelley’s sonnet-terza rima stanza along with the Ode’s movement from emotional burden to revolutionary spring, and speaks in non-Shelleyan language of a self placed on the threshold of a radical discomfort: “I am a system in chaos.” Alluding only to stanza I of the “Ode,” the poem seems arrested there. Everything in Shelley moves forward—winged seeds imply future rebirth nurtured by the visionary dream of the earth. But the speaker in the HL poem describes her/himself as a system; does that system refer at once to the affective system of sadness, anger, hope, poetic realisation and also to a social system that oppresses achievement; “we arrive where we started”?
Shelley’s expansive rising lines are reduced (“Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/ Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing”) to “leaves, dead, driven like ghosts”. As with some of Oppen’s late poems, a line slows its forward movement, turning back to its beginning and at the same time crossing over to the next one, requiring a pause and deepening of attention. The line-breaks create another system of chaos, a mirror for the authors. Is it “hectic red perfection” or “Yellow, and black, and pale and hectic red”? Does “we” belong primarily with “Pestilence stricken multitudes” or look forward to the next line: “we / Arrive where we started”?

And so to a broader question. Are the poems and artworks of The Homeless Library mired in a hopeless present, spelling out the rules cruelly applied to what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the permanent underclass of modern capitalist society? I would argue differently for these poems (and the books of this Library, which are, essentially, visual poems themselves). They capture moments of empowered collaboration and construction, they are works of art that shape and reshape lives, allowing a future reimagined. Shelley said in his Defence of Poetry, “the future is contained within the present, as the plant within the seed.” Perhaps this is how to read the entire The Homeless Library, not just as history, but also as the seeds of a possible beginning. The final lines of “O wild West Wind,” in which the “I” escapes, to catapult into a cosmos of wind and dream and earth:
I am a system in chaos
A wild West Wind
O’er the dreaming earth.

seeds of a possible beginning. The final lines of “O wild West Wind,” in which the “I” escapes, to catapult into a cosmos of wind and dream and earth:
I am a system in chaos
A wild West Wind
O’er the dreaming earth.