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

Friday, April 19, 2019

Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas (19): from Roger Williams, “A Key into the Language of America”

Selection & commentary by John Bloomberg-Rissman, in collaboration

Of Fowle.
(New England, 1643)

from A key into the language of America, or, An help to the language of the natives in that part of America called New-England together with briefe observations of the customes, manners and worships, &c. of the aforesaid natives, in peace and warre, in life and death : on all which are added spirituall observations, generall and particular, 1643.

NPeshawog Pussekesësuck.
I goe afowling or hunting.
Hee is gone to hunt or fowle.
He is gone to fowle.
An Eagle.
Wompsacuck quâuog.
Néyhom, mâuog.
Paupock, sûog.
Aunckuck, quâuog.
Chogan, ēuck.
Black-bird, Black-birds.

Obs. Of this sort there be millions, which are great devourers of the Indian corne as soon as it appeares out of the ground; Unto this sort of Birds, especially, may the mysticall Fowles, the Divells be well resembled (and so it pleaseth the Lord Jesus himselfe to observe, Matth. 13. which mysticall Fowle follow the sowing of the Word, and picke it up from loose and carelesse hearers, as these Black-birds follow the materiall seed.

Against the Birds the Indians are very carefull, both to set their corne deep enough that it may have a strong root, not so apt to be pluckt up, (yet not too deep, lest they bury it, and it never come up:) as also they put up little watch-houses in the middle of their fields, in which they, or their biggest children lodge, and earely in the morning prevent the Birds &c.

Kokókehom, Ohómous.
An Owle.
Kaukont▪ tuock.
Crow, Crowes.

Obs. These Birds, although they doe the corne also some hurt, yet scarce will one Native amongst an hundred wil kil them, because they have a tradition, that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Graine of Corne in one Eare, and an Indian or French Beane in another, from the Great God Kaután•…uwits field in the Southwest from whence they hold came all their Corne and Beanes.

Hònck,-hónckock, Wómpatuck-quâuog.
Goose, Geese.
Swans, Swans.
Munnùcks-munnùck suck.
Brants, or Brantgeese.

Obs. The Indians having abundance of these sorts of Foule upon their waters, take great pains to kill any of them with their Bow and Arrowes; and are marvellous desirous of our English Guns, powder and shot (though they are wisely and generally denied by the English) yet with those which they get from the French, and some others (Dutch and English) they kill abundance of Fowle, being naturally excellent marks-men; and also more hardned to endure the weather, and wading, lying, and creeping on the ground, &c.

I once saw an exercise of training of the English, when all the English had mist the mark set up to shoot at, an Indian with his owne Peece (desiring leave to shoot) onely hit it.


Obs. These they take in the night time, where they are asleepe on rocks, off at Sea, and bring in at break of day great store of them:

Yo aquéchinock.
There they swim.
I lay nets for them.

Ob. This they doe on shore, and catch many fowle upon the plaines, and feeding under Okes upon Akrons, as Geese, Turkies, Cranes, and others, &c.

It is fled.
They are fled:
Wing, Wings:
Wunnúppanick anawhone
Wuhóckgock ânwhone
A Pigeon:
Pigeon Countrie:

Obs. In that place these Fowle breed abundantly, and by reason of their delicate Food (especially in Strawberrie time when they pick up whole large Fields of the old grounds of the Natives, they are a delicate fowle, and because of their abundance, and the facility Page  94 of killing of them, they are and may be plentifully fed on.

Sachim: a little Bird about the bignesse of a swallow, or lesse, to which the Indians give that name, because of its Sachim or Princelike courage and Command over greater Birds, that a man shall often see this small Bird pursue and vanquish and put to flight the Crow, and other Birds farre bigger then it selfe.

They go to the South ward.

That is the saying of the Natives, when the Geese and other Fowle at the approach of Winter betake themselves, in admirable Order and discerning their Course even all the night long.

They fly Northward.

That is when they returne in the Spring. There are abundance of singing Birds whose names I have little as yet inquired after, &c.

The Indians of Martins vineyard, at my late being amongst them, report generally, and confidently of some Ilands, which lie off from them to Sea, from whence every morning early, certaine Fowles come and light amongst them, and returne at Night to lodging, which Iland or Ilands are not yet discovered, though probably, by other Reasons they give, there is Land, &c.

Crane, Cranes.
The Hawke.

Whch the Indians keep tame about their houses to keepe the little Birds from their Corne.

The generall Observation of Fowle.

How sweetly doe all the severall sorts of Heavens Birds, in all Coasts of the World, preach unto Men the prayse of their Makers Wisedome, Power, and Goodnesse, who feedes them and their young ones Summer and Winter with their severall suitable sorts of Foode: although they neither sow nor reape, nor gather into Barnes?

More particularly:

If Birds that neither sow nor reape.
Nor store up any food,
Constantly find to them and theirs
A maker kind and Good!

If man provide eke for his Birds,
In Yard, in Coops, in Cage.
And each Bird spends in songs and Tunes,
His little time and Age!

What care will Man, what care will God,
For’s wife and Children take?
Millions of Birds and Worlds will God.
Sooner then His forsake.


Source: Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, ed. Howard M. Chapin, Providence, 1936.

Given eternity in which to work, everyone would eventually stumble into the abyss, just as all matter would eventually be swallowed by black holes. (R.W., The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect: a novel of the singularity)  

After having been banished by the Massachusetts and Plymouth Bay colonies for his “new and dangerous opinions,” such as freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, and narrowly escaping deportation to England, Roger Williams fled south, bought land from the local Indians, and founded the Providence Plantation. The Key into the Language of America, which records the language and customs of the Narragansett people, was undertaken and printed to foster harmonious relations between the indigenous inhabitants and the settler colonialists. As another poem from the Key has it,

Boast not, proud English, of thy birth & blood,
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good,
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All,
As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Postface to “The President of Desolation”: Now available from Black Widow Press

[In announcing the publication of my latest book of poems from Black Widow Press, I thought the following Postface might be of interest in what I say about the book’s title and the concerns that inform the book as a whole.  Further information, for whose who seek it, can be found at the Black Widow web site (, but for now I would hope to make the context of the work, including a number of procedural and aleatory poems, as clear as possible.  The span of time covered is from the end of the previous century through the first two decades of this one. (J.R.)]
The title of the present gathering – like much of what I’ve written over the years – points to the time through which we’re now living and to the times before through which I’ve also lived.  The sense of desolation and devastation – a sadly rhyming pair – continues to inform our lives as vulnerable beings, both politically and ecologically, and it enters into our words and thoughts as poets in what Pablo Neruda famously titled our (all too bounded) “residence on earth.”  To all of this I am a witness, or, better put, the poems bear witness on my behalf, even where the writing is procedural or seeming to put process over substance – & maybe especially then.  In composing this book I’ve inserted some accounts concerning form & occasion, but my sense of the life & politics outside the book come across more directly in the following excerpt from an interview recently conducted for Spanish publication by the Mexican poet Javier Taboada.

I would like to link one of your poems, Twentieth Century Unlimited, with the outcome of the presidential elections (2016) in the United States:

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

Do you think that the ‘last delusion’ has already been unmasked?
The poem goes back to the 1990s when the Cold War was coming to an end and with it – for better or worse – many of the twentieth-century dreams of human perfectibility and unlimited progress that we had taken too easily for granted. That was the “last delusion” I was talking about then, but the still darker thrust of the poem was the sense, already forming, of a retrogression to precisely the conditions that those dreams and delusions were aiming to address. We were moving, in other words, into a new century and millennium, but what was emerging already was a return to the conditions of the century before: “nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, ethnic and religious violence, growing extremes of wealth and poverty” in the description Jeffrey Robinson and I provided for the pre-face to the third volume of Poems for the Millennium. To which we added: “All reemerge today with a virulence that calls up their earlier nineteenth-century versions and all the physical and mental struggles against them, struggles in which poetry and poets took a sometimes central part.”
This wasn’t prophecy (though it might have been) but my sense of history speaking and unfolding for us in the here and now. And it has only intensified over the last two decades: the farce that history has now become in Trump’s time, but not without the threat of tragedy as well. To speak more specifically, what’s marking the present century – whether it resembles the nineteenth or not – are two distinct emergences: the rise of ISIS-like religious movements over the last two decades (and not only Muslim) and the rise of the nationalism and jingoism that Trump is bringing to us in the United States, and others like him elsewhere. Not to equate the two too easily, both are threats to a fact-based sense of reality on the one hand and to an open life of the imagination on the other, and my own push, like that of most poets I know, is to bring the two together: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as Marianne Moore once had it.
So yes, I think the mask has already fallen off and we again have to take account of the actual present that confronts and threatens us. For this, poetry would be my own immediate answer, as it has always been, but there are other answers as well –and maybe, in the short run, better. Under any circumstances, the threats of violence and closure are what we have to stand against –wherever found and however answered.
Those anyway are the deeper thoughts (“too deep for tears”) underlying the bulk of my present writings, and I thought it useful to call attention to them here.

Is this what you meant when in A Further Witness you wrote: "the age of the assassins/ once deferred/ comes back/ full blast"? Where do you think all this will lead?

At my age I’m suddenly feeling closed off from a future that I’m not likely to see, but I can try to answer the question as if I’ll be a part of it. With that in mind I can reconstruct fairly easily what I was getting at in A Further Witness: the sense of terrorism (also a tactic with nineteenth-century roots) as a notable and distressing fact of our new and present reality. By assassination, then, I mean murder as a public and political act, not only aimed at rulers and leaders but, very much so, at the world-at-large. I could have also said the age of the murderers but I think that “age of the assassins” carries an echo for me and others of something from Rimbaud (Voici le temps des Assassins); at least that was the way I used it here. And there was also the other word that kept coming into the poetry –cruelty– as a signal of what we had to fear in the world that we knew from before and that kept coming back no matter how much we tried to defer it. As much as I feared and hated it, whether active or passive, I knew it was something that had to be right there, at the core of what I thought and wrote as a poet. It is for this reason that I used it several times as a book title, A Cruel Nirvana, in English, French, and Spanish, and in a poem of that name, which ends with these lines:

It is summer
but the trees
are dead.
They vanish with
our fallen friends.
The eye in torment
brings them down
each mind a little world
a cruel nirvana.

That would put it even at the heart of religious or spiritual attempts to escape it – the cruelty of the escape from cruelty – but its most hideous effects are in the public world and in the murders and tortures that serve as instruments of policy or, worse yet, of belief. So the idea, much needed today, is not to exclude it but to bring it into the body of the poem, as a sign of both the terror and the pity that the poem calls forth.