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, July 23, 2014

Will Alexander: from “The Ganges,” excerpt with glossary

[The following is an excerpt from a long poem, “The Ganges,” which runs around a hundred pages & is itself a third of a giant book entitled The Combustion Cycle. The book contains two other poems, “Concerning The Henbane Bird,” & “On Solar Physiology,” the former in the voice of a hummingbird, the Andean Hillstar, &  the latter spoken in the voice of an Angolan shaman. As for “The Ganges,” Alexander tells us, "it pours from the voice of an untouchable."
               Of Alexander himself  I’ve written elsewhere: “Will Alexander, more than any of our other American contemporaries, is the inheritor of an ecstatic surrealism derived from European sources, colored by factual & scientific particulars, & drawing with great intelligence & passion from an international avant-garde & from the negritude writings of Aimé Césaire & others, for whom he acts as a true successor.”  His use here of historical & appropriated materials is also worth noting. (J.R.)]
The fifth-century Indian philosopher ... considers the faculty of speech to be an instinct or intuition. He compares it to animal instinct and does not believe language is learned.
-Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volume .4

Lamas ... are not so much monks as priests and ghostly warriors who understand the art of fighting with demons.
- Sir Charles Eliot
Hinduism and Buddhism Volume Three

...a race of gnostic spiritual beings.
-Sri Aurobindo

The Rig Veda was composed by the Bramans ... and represents the sum total of the early Aryan experience. ... it is absolutely rampant with violence and racial overtones. It is also in the Rig Veda that we find the first documentation of the racially oriented caste system.
- Runoko Rashidi

"I've come to these waters
as Shudra*
as hallucinated lama
as spellbinding dictor*

in this regard
I'm not a mahatma
nor a spurious intrusion
singing in mystical parlando

I'm an old Dravidian from Goa *
velvet ssiv
discussing motions concussive with sand

or a poem ensourced by cholera
or formations tense with blue rotational acids

I am no more than a spectre
or a villainous discovery
or a gainless instigation
based upon a psychic set rivalrous with absence

I've come to these waters
to craft my own tremendums
to walk outside my nomen
to blur my trans-identity through culture

this is how blood works
how audition reacts
& stages itself
through reactive physical conflagrations

have I come to view to simply foil myself? or to ignite my force by regressive combining?

as I react & speak as I react
I've come to hover at the ghats
the colour of a psychic Kashi *
sometimes sable & liquid
at others
solferino & volcanic

as I respond through parallel as persona
there is Benares *
& Varanasi *
& Kashi once again
as if synergies were overactive with agua

as Buddhist
as Dravidian sprung from Goa
there is the English voice mixed with Kanada Hindu agua *
plunged in the depths
then exploding
as unquelled power as in the purity of ravens

& I see boats burn beneath an unstable Sun
ghats waver as strange proportional. Richters
as ciphered monsoon epics
as blind emission misfocused
& so the maharajah's walls
take on a cunning electrical rate
as collapsing body self-moored to an unsteady balance

I am different
I make no offering of "jai flowers" *
or take as my form philosophical unravelling
to evince a kind of portion
forced from the gullet as mountainous prayer

perhaps firewood on the ghats *
perhaps corpses piled as conflagrant in-audia
& perhaps my heresy of claim
being more than entranced moaning more than something beyond intransigent chakras *

for instance
my psyche swims through neglected alter currents
as if I'd stumbled on a feast of vermin
on infested sugar hamlets

& for those who declare themselves through samsara *
I've risen to no higher than the status of a ghoral or a pangar * 
or at best I'll live a million times
& never subsist as a purposeful vahana*

I've never sat in posture
chewing on Channa *
or invaded a dharmshala
speaking quietly to myself through immolated frenzy

when letters burn
when rocks fly in from the heavens
they are signs from bats & thistles
their kinetics refracted by curious solar incandescence

these being kinetics
between the "Varuna" & the "Asi" *
as if I were speaking of a liminal Varanasi felled
& brought to life again
by rays from the great Surya *
from solar form as shard
as cosmic spiral
as situational treatise
as looking glass spawned by complexification & sulphur
thereby listening to suns as scorching indigo & silver

what I am able to do
is to translate
is to merge samsara with ghat after ghat yet all the while barred from the crypto-Bramanic

but I know the very summoning of phenomena
as the Ganges reacts as luminescence through phenomena
through a spell of transverse murmurs bringing in
& taking away
the purest patterns of breathing
being colourless amethysine which emboldens
itself through rotational blinding

errors are seemingly blinded & drained yet what has always concurred
is the body as wooden abandonment
as exhausted coronation
as the sensate stained through providential inversion

so if I pick out points in time
it makes no ultimate significance

& if on such inscrutable date
a certain sari was stolen
if peculiar Yaks were transmogrified
life would seem as no other outcome
being nothing in itself
being energy randomly exchanged
not unlike tsunamis in Lisbon
so nothing would blaze at that hour
such as listless feuds
such as pointless tiger cats prowling

these being energies which create from themselves riddles
& superimposed
so that
from  the core of being ciphers erupt where animals can live & be brought back from the living
so if vultures crawl & exhibit no response I call them naked
fraught with competitive cremations

& there exists from this
a flicker of understanding
within fuels
which are considered transgression
much in the manner of the torment of owls
or hornets which gather their own affliction
& then revert in themselves
to a scorched or empty preludial

this is how hawks grow empty of their optimums
of their torsions
of the writhing in their bones

at times
I make sport
synchronized to certain bodies

as a curiously saddled sheep
absorbing codes from Mongolian ponies
transposing in my sleep certain levels of waking

not that I contest my own substance by cognition
or that I've reached unefforted fissure that thoughts from certain Gods can't bury
because I've lost my thirst for the heralded soma
for the image of myself
that nothingness inspires

the rats condone me as vapour
as a scent which kindles venom encircliing itself without envy

as if Í'd entangled myself netting
with unsuspected clauses
with rifts in the motes of cyclonics

as if I'd captured dust from fractured ‘tidal heating’
as if my strange basaltic wastes had hollowed their way through gravitized
as lighted prows
as blazeless forts
as monomial stealths & tensions

not that these wastes are cold tellurian rapids
or that they exist as forms peculiar & mixed with carnelian
or as heightened waves
delimited & sterile by fraction

of course beings exist
they descend from the ghat
they descend as perplexed Plesiosaurs in crises
being those who emote by proportional strain

I cannot say that the Ganges contains no suffusion
or that it has no effect on human deliverance
or that it ceases to provoke insular navigation

I am not saying
that the Ganges is not of summoning
or has never existed
that it's monaural worth has not blossomed beyond the Vedas
beyond its stones of sacred writing

the Ganges
perhaps fumes from a stored up sun
or from a moon
which has fallen from itself
in response to halos seized at ironical twilight

as Shudra
do I seek to extract from the Ganges
flow from Tibetan soliloquy
or give it the means to sculpt from itself proportional tenet?

because I remain perilous to the ghat
I am seen as alien
splashing its iniquitous waters *
& am seen as witness
according to navamshas
poised as they are against dominance & forgetting ..."


glossary for “the ganges 

Shudra - Lowest of the four castes. The Brahmins being the priests, the Kshatriyas being the warriors, the Vaishayas being the trading classes, and the Shudras being the servile class. An Untouchable.

dictor - coined term. Variation on the word dictation.

Dravidian from Goa-Southern Indian "descendants of the Nile Valley." Their central energy was located in the Indus Valley civilization. The language spoken was Brahui and is part of the Dravidian language grouping, which includes Tamil, Malto, Andhara, Malayam, and Gondi.

Kashi/Benares/Varanasi-Kashi and Benares, synonymous names for Varanasi, regarded as holy. It is the oldest city in India, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. Located along the Ganges.

Kanada - Another Dravidian language.

jai flowers - Cast by Hindus into the river Ganges as symbols of their troubles floating away.

ghats - Refers in this instance to the burning-ghats. It is a level spot at the top of a river ghat where the Hindus burn their dead.

chakras - Seven major centres of psychic energy located along the spinal column.

samsara -The Buddhist cycle of "birth and death."

pangar - Light colored onagar in Malaysia.

vahana - Animal that accompanies or conveys a God.

Channa - Asian snakehead fish.

Dharmshala - In Buddhism "a building devoted to a charitable power; a shelter for travelers."

Varuna & Asi - Tributaries to the Ganges.

Surya - The visible Sun. Yet during the Aryan period the Sun was never considered the most important deva during the Vedic rise.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Homero Aridjis: [On Riding the Beast]

The search for asylum winds through Mexico
[note. Aridjis of course is a major Mexican poet & environmental activist, & his close account of the border refugee crisis calls further attention to the longer & more difficult part of the journey that the refugees have undertaken.   It seems to me important to see what has been happening in a context other than its relation to domestic United States politics or its coverage by the entertainment news media that so much dominates our political & social thinking & reporting.  Homero’s account appeared first in The Huffington Post (07/08/2014), from which it is respectfully borrowed.  I see it here also as a part of his & our total poetics: a continuation of the work of poetry by other means. (J.R.)]  

The evening news in Mexico regularly features footage of a ramshackle freight train known as La Bestia (The Beast) making its way across the country bearing a cargo of illegal immigrants trying to reach the United States's southern border. One can see hundreds of men, women and children perched on the roof, crammed between the boxcars, clinging to the sides. The trains are loaded with cement, iron, quartz, wheat, corn, diesel, vegetable oil, fertilizer, or wood, but the human cattle along for the ride have no food, drink or guarantee of safety.

To reach the depot at Arriaga, in the state of Chiapas, across the border from Guatemala, from which La Bestia departs every two or three days, migrants walk for days, even skirting mountains to avoid immigration checkpoints and roadblocks. The U.S. border is two weeks from here on the back of the Beast. Along the way pregnant women, mothers with infants, teenagers and adults will sleep on the streets or, if lucky, in makeshift or more permanent church-run shelters. During the long journey, accidents often happen, and passengers tumbling off the roof have their limbs severed. An aid group in Honduras has counted more than 450 migrants who have returned mutilated. Derailments are common, with cars flying off the tracks, leading to injuries and death.

Murders, muggings, extortions, gang rapes of women and kidnappings (some 20,000 a year) are committed by the rapidly expanding Central American Mara Salvatrucha gangs or by Mexican drug traffickers such as the bloodthirsty Zetas. They often infiltrate the groups of travelling migrants on the trains or in shelters, selling them drugs, tricking girls into prostitution, luring boys into gangs or murdering perceived informers. And at each stop, the migrants are prey to local police, who demand bribes up to several hundred dollars a head in exchange for allowing them to continue on their way.

At crowded safe houses along the Beast's route, the migrants' smugglers may coach their charges in how to reply to questioning or fake a Mexican accent. Forged birth certificates and other documents are available at a price, either to migrants or to their traffickers. Everyone knows the road to the American dream runs through the Mexican nightmare and that many passengers on "the train of death" will either perish during the journey, disappear by the wayside or be wounded, robbed or mutilated.

Who reaps the profits from La Bestia? Why do officials turn a blind eye while thousands of women are trafficked inside Mexico or abroad? What laws are broken to allow the transport of undocumented aliens across the country by tri-national smugglers acting as travel agents, risking lives and creating a humanitarian crisis? How much do the railroad engineers charge? Human despair has been turned into a commodity, a flourishing business for illicit enrichment.

The Bestia line once belonged to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which bought the 1,119-mile Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab freight concession in 1999 during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, when the government-owned Ferrocarriles Nacionales was privatized. After the havoc wrought on the track by Hurricane Stan in 2005, GWI sought to end its 30-year concession and suspend freight service. The government threatened sanctions and transferred service to the semi-public Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, and after years of legal wrangling, extended the latter's concession to fifty years. The concession clearly states that it is for carrying freight, not passengers, so the company is in constant violation of the law.

These days many migrants prefer to take a bus and risk detection at a checkpoint, where a payoff may allow them to continue. Others are crammed into airless trucks for the trip north. A former National Migration Institute agent reported that the going fee at each checkpoint for a truckload of migrants is around $20,000 dollars, divvied up "fairly" among the employees. Coyotes and polleros (literally "chicken herders") charge upwards of $5,000 dollars per migrant to shepherd him or her across the U.S. border.

For years refugees have started their journey north by crossing the Suchiate River, the border between Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, in Chiapas. Lately the number of unaccompanied children who pay $1.50 to cross on an inner-tube raft has grown, as has the business that services them. Three ad hoc unions control the crossing, and the rafters, who are also money changers, are on call 7/24 for U.S.-bound migrants or mere shoppers, as well as for running drugs, guns and cash. A Catholic priest working with migrants estimates that 60 percent of the underage children come from Honduras, mostly driven out by extortion or running from gang recruitment. These thousands of migrant children, some barely able to understand Spanish due to their Indian heritage, have been an easy prey.

In Tapachula, half an hour's drive from the border, up to 1000 migrants are held at a time (or "lodged," in official parlance) at the Siglo XXI Migratory Station prior to being repatriated (read: "deported"). Mexico deports 250,000 foreigners a year to Central America. Meanwhile countless girls, young women and boys who have been sold into prostitution are working in Tapachula, which the founder of the Center for Investigation and National Security has compared to Sodom and Gomorrha. Elsewhere in Mexico, corpses of migrants have been found with their organs harvested.

Smugglers have been spreading false rumors about lenient U.S. policies to drum up business for themselves, convincing parents that after their children turn themselves into the Border Patrol, they will be allowed to remain in the country if they can furnish the name of a relative already in the U.S. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border since the start of the year, more than twice last year's total of 24,000.

Chronic illegal migration and trafficking of persons can only be tackled if the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala work together on combatting the underlying causes: a reign of terror and violence imposed by organized crime, relentless poverty in the migrants' home countries, lack of opportunities and employment, and weak law enforcement and corruption at the official level. Family businesses close as owners can no longer pay off the criminals who threaten them, and even street vendors have to hand over some of their earnings. Teenagers face a future of gangs, prostitution, and drugs. Perhaps the time has come for a Central American Marshall Plan. And what about UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Program?

The situation is very complex. What are the options? Deporting 52,000 children, at least two thirds from Central American countries embroiled in violence tantamount to civil war, to become victims of gangs or sex slaves, with slim chances of survival? They are war refugees and deserve treatment guaranteed by international agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory. Or allowing them to join family members already in the United States, legally or not, sending a message that this is the way to go? And turn the U.S. border into Lampedusa?

The Obama administration has not looked south of the border at failing states. Human rights experts estimate that 10,000 undocumented immigrants are kidnapped every year during their passage through Mexico. Mexico is legally obliged to guarantee the safety of these migrants. Should Mexico close down the border crossing at the Suchiate River?

Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans escape from hell, journeying through the limbo of Mexico to be held in the purgatory of shelters at the U.S. border, always striving towards the paradise of rejoining family members in the promised land.

Is it morally acceptable -- or even legal -- to send thousands of children back to hell?

Mr. Obama, while you ride in the comfort and safety of The Beast (as the Secret Service calls the armored presidential limousine), give some thought to the hopeful passengers on the Bestia.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Peter Quartermain: “Incompletable Text,” a view of Jerome Rothenberg’s Eye of Witness (Part Two)

[Part One of the Quartermain essay can be found here on Poems and Poetics.  His complete view of Eye of Witness will appear early in 2015 in the twentieth issue of Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuff’s Review, a major repository of poetry & poetics moving from one century & millennium to another.]

There is indeed a politics in this, the politics of a “work intended – above all – to question and disrupt the power of dominant European discourse” (169); it underlies the whole of Eye of Witness and is a well-spring, and the rhetoric, embodying as it does Rothenberg’s persistent late twentieth-century Romanticism, is persuasive. In October 1961 he commented on “the poetic image struggling with the darkness. The image rescued from the lie of the unthreatened. Not as a literary prescription, for writing better poems or nurturing the language, but from an impasse in the soul, in which the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past have drawn a blank” (59).  Thus Eye of Witness is a purpose-driven book which eschews, utterly, the literary: it is driven by a sense of loss closely linked to its sense of the incomplete. It is that sense of the incomplete that propels the symposium of the whole, a symposium from which, ideally, nothing can be omitted. Such expansive inclusiveness is very close to Whitman’s resolve, in “Eidólons,”  to “put first” the ever-mutable range of human activity in its entirety:

Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed
      left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidólon. 

Whitman, another constant in this book: his encyclopaedism informs the whole of Rothenberg’s activity.
      So if one of Rothenberg’s aims is, as he says, to “open up to voices other than our own,” then it’s essential that those voices not be separated out, compartmentalized off  from the welter of human speech and art and music, essential that we read this book as a single work, whether that work be composition, compilation, or performance, albeit a work in progress and in process. Rothenberg’s poetics demands a mingling of his voice with others – “my own words interlaced (collaged) with theirs” (391) – in an encompassing never-definitive text, unindexed and unclassifiable, always tentative, always of the moment. We are invited to view the book as a continuum, all of a piece, even while discontinuities remain and are preserved and even emphasized, and tentativeness persists. The book thus out of deep need challenges not only empty conventions and emotional and social-political habits, but also long-held and seemingly ineradicable assumptions. Those assumptions are based on a syntax and ways of seeing which determine that the world can be understood, and that such understanding can be certain and true; which is to say, immutable. But incompleteness has its own necessities.
      Eye of Witness challenges deeply-inscribed patterns of belief, and works to undo those “monotheistic habits of thought” which Pound called “the curse of our time.”[1] Such motives, I need hardly add, carry their own dangers, for purpose-driven writing, like thesis-driven poetry, drifts rapidly into monotone. It fosters listless reading and is not to current taste. That’s the risk, but Eye of Witness successfully counters it through playing, or rather, plying a centrifugal move against a centripetal, an outward move against an inward, each folded with, against, and into the other. This is as true of the prose as it is of the poetry – and there is indeed a lot of prose here, over 200 pages of essays, letters, manifestos; much of the work reaches out to other cultures, other voices, other realms “which only a colonialist ideology could have blinded us into labelling ‘primitive’ or ‘savage” (Shaking, xxi) – the archaic, the ancient, the autochthonic. At the same time many of the individual poems (the Lorca poems, say, or the Goya), though they none of them behave like a conventional lyric, are tightly focussed; they push inward, the move is centripetal. For instance, there’s the quite extraordinary and lovely charge of the repeat in these lines from “The Wedding” (214-215), the opening poem of his early book, Poland / 1931: 

thy underwear alive with roots o poland
poland poland poland poland poland
how thy bells wrapped in their flowers toll 

There’s comedy here, but there is also great affection, and the poem is, in its psalmodic and liturgical rhythms and vocabulary, its management of long vowels and repetitions, a ritual or ceremonial lamentation whose power arises from its mildly surreal comedic elements. Whoever the speaker might be, male or female, that speaker is individual (but not by that solitary); the voice might be reflective, directing its monologue to the self; it preserves its private elements, it moves inward. The voice is personal, and its ironies largely gesture outward, as do the “poland poland” repetitions (they appear several times) especially if voiced in something approaching a cry (as Rothenberg does, in some performances). In this poem such ironies are primarily social, suggestive more of the comedy of manners than of any romantic lyric. The poem, then, calls to and invokes a more-or-less definable and familiar group, nicely balancing the life of private feeling with an implied public and social order.
      In their deployment of repetition the lines I quote have discernible kinship with such radically different work as Frank Mitchell’s horse songs or Richard Johnny John’s songs. Here’s “A Song About A Dead Person – Or Was It A Mole?” (325), John’s poem-song written with (rather than by) Rothenberg. Citing Haroldo de Campos he calls this process “transcreation” (137): outsidering the work lest we think we “understand” it. I quote the poem in full


g thru the big earth
I went thru this b
I was going thru the big earth
I went thru this big earth
I was going thru the big ea
I went thru this big earth

It might be tempting to skip, but the song warrants close attention: Three blank lines of silence between the final four lines of upper-case chant; seven lines of rather bald let’s-call-it-prose narrative somewhat irregularly and unevenly marching thru the block of uppercase, its claim not always completed, and indeed, without clear beginning – in medias res, then. With its two (or more) voices – and one if not both of them emphatically out loud – the song’s ritual and ceremonial elements are much more prominent than they are in “The Wedding,” and they beckon the group. The song almost irresistibly calls for performance, moving towards the shared speech of chorus. It also moves toward simultaneity, not just of voices in chorus but lines spoken/voiced together in simultaneous overlap, a public act which affirms an identity in, for, and of the group; a shift towards communitas in which that isolate “I” of the fourteenth (otherwise silent) line is perhaps subsumed into the group-voice of line fifteen, but equally perhaps absorbed into and thus constructing, well, constructing what? Maybe it reflects what Rothenberg calls “self-othering,” wherein “there are many ‘others’ in me” (161). Where does the “big earth” come into all this? How do we account for it? I run into difficulties here because my own habits, my own cultural baggage, get in the way – my own cultural baggage rests uneasily when matters are not explained – but the poem folds one culture into another with that in medias res and that ply of narrative and chant and refuses accounting. The lines fold ear into eye into ear in quite complex play, story into chant, single voice into multiple voices, and that repeated “thru the big earth” – with its variants, and the shifts in the verb -- gestures towards, even invokes, an apperception beyond words, an apperception of a physical world and, yes, to western eyes an imagined experience.
      The physicality of the world thus sung is crucial, in much the same way as Rothenberg’s conjuration and invocation of the body and the life of the senses (not always pleasant, not always celebration) are central to his more conventional poetry. This poem, with its foldings, is in what Velimir Khlebnikov might have called a “beyondsense language.” Rothenberg, quoting that phrase of Khlebnikov’s in his 1990 talk on “The Poetics of the Sacred” (169), sounded a principal theme, constant throughout his poetics, that we must return to, recover, an understanding of language (and hence meaning) as motivated rather than arbitrary. This is what we have lost. An essential step in such recovery is to move outside our language, step outside our cultural norms, which all get in the way. We must somehow find a means to see our language as Other. For the last century or more, or at the very least since the publication of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning in 1923 and Leonard Bloomfield’s Language in 1933, it has been fashionable to believe that meaning is entirely a social construct: Bloomfield’s pronouncement that “the connection of linguistic forms with their mean­ings is wholly arbitrary”[2] has more or less the status of gospel. Any sound, in this view, can be attached to any referent, and the meaning of any given word is necessarily a matter of social convention. So, if there is nothing in a word per se that reveals its ineluctable meaning, then our perceptions are filtered by and through language, itself an inevitable and unavoidable screen between us and the world: language mediates; it hides the world from us. And there’s a price attached, for such a view takes us at least one remove from the world of direct feeling and direct apperception, and the world in its very reality is hidden.
      The alternative view is that a sign really does designate what it signifies, that words actually do mean what they say; it sees language as unmediated, what linguists call motivated. In this view, our experience of the world and the things in it is immediate. Words say what they mean, and the essential connection between words and things not only provides or confirms an essential and sympathetic concordance between humankind and the world of what might be called nature, but in addition makes language itself a significant agent of discovery and the word itself a thing, contemplation and investigation of which opens the hidden world to view. Whence Ferdinand de Saussure’s dictum that in symbol “there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified,” and his work on anagrammatic composition as the basis of poetic texts.[3] In Michel Foucault’s account (in Chapter Two of The Order of Things), words “once had an absolute, primary, initial relation to the world,” and a sign once really did designate what it signifies, much as might those repeats of “poland” and yohoheyheyeyheyhahyeyeyhahhah (the lower-case or upper case bringing eye to bear on ear. Rothenberg’s somewhat puzzled first response to Jackson Mac Low’s “aleatory / chance experiments,” that “something real & important was taking place” (158), points to the possibility that a “natural bond” between words and the real can be restored, Mac Low opening up even in a tentative way the world of the hidden, obscured as it is by habit and belief. The motivated and the arbitrary are not, of course, mutually exclusive; they can exist side by side in a single practice, and even in a single utterance, but it is our daily habit to linger with the arbitrary. Most English poets, at least since Blake and Wordsworth but also before, write as if the words they use were indissolubly linked to things, and were things in their very nature. The poem is a means by which to discover / recover that bond; it is sound, along with its rhythm, that gets you out of the arbitrary and into the motivated.
      In a 1976 note, on Tristan Tzara, Rothenberg described ethnopoetics as “a positive work of recovery & return to the lost basis of human poesis” (141); he had elaborated  that sense of loss fifteen years earlier, in October 1961, writing about “deep image”:

The world as it existed for the first man still exists. It taunts us & breaks into our dreams. The poet dares to face it without hope & to create from pure desire, from pure love. The world as it existed before man. The primal world, not yet hardened into the mold of law, but a new law to be imposed on it in the daily encounter. A return to the beginning. A struggle to shape the world . . .Poetry as a total & desperate act (59). 

That’s not far from Jack Spicer’s desire, in After Lorca, to “make poems out of real objects . . . a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper . . . . make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” But, perhaps unlike Spicer, Rothenberg does not succumb to a sense of loss but seeks in its place to assert and rediscover hope in a language which has a “true” connection to the “real,” however that real might be construed, imagined, imaginary.
      So primal is a favourite Rothenberg word, and you have to pay attention to what the words say: “As a way of making the poem I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation, . . . I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it” (56).  But that’s an impossible dream, and it derives as much from the Romantic poets as it does from Pound’s make it new. Writing about Picasso, Gertrude Stein talked of the difference between “things, things seen, and things known,” and thought “things” were unknowable, even unperceivable. Wordsworth sought to restore the immediacy of language and thought the language of ordinary men would rescue poetry from the artificiality of literary convention. It would thus open up the hidden real. Rothenberg’s determination to escape “the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past” (59) and open up the hidden real leads to the great range of his sources; his strategy is encyclopaedic: the sum total cumulative mass of all human (and other?) discourse might possibly add up to an unmediated relation with the real. Ostranenie: each strange voice, each step, however incomplete, into another culture, makes it possible to step, no matter how briefly, outside one’s own language and culture. So almost the last poem in the book, dated 30 August 2011, (it is followed by a coda) closes with: 

the book of witness
opens      all the words we have
are theirs & lead us
eyeless whispering
the years themselves
a miracle
over against a world of pain. (575) 

[note. Peter Quartermain taught contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of British Columbia for over thirty years, retiring in 1999. He was the first Mountjoy Fellow at the University of Durham, UK, in 1990, was Resident Fellow at the Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio Study and Conference Centre, Bellagio, Como, Italy in 1997, and was awarded a Killam Research Prize at the University of British Columbia in 1997. He has written or edited numerous articles and several books, including Basil Bunting: Poet of the North (1990) and Disjunctive Poetics (1992); with the English poet Richard Caddel he edited Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), and, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).]

[1] Ezra Pound, "Studies in Contemporary Mentality . . . XIX.--? Versus Camouflage," New Age 22.11 (10 January 1918): 209.
[2] Leonard Bloomfield. Language (New York: Holt, 1933), 145.
[3] Ferdinand de Saussure.  Course in General Linguistics. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, ed.; Wade Baskin, trans. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 68. For his work on anagrams see Jean Starobinski. Words Upon Words. Olivia Emmet, trans. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Geoffrey Squires: Five poems from “Irish Poetry 600-1200” (a work in progress)

[Following his remarkable translations of the great Persian poet Hafez, Squires has embarked on an assemblage of translations from Old Irish, “the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe.”  Its relation to what John Bloomberg-Rissman & I have been assembling as outside & subterranean poetry should also be noted. (J.R.)] 
Over the sea comes Adzehead
off his head
with a hole in his cloak for his head
and a stick with a bent head

he stands in front of a table in front of his house
intoning impieties
and his followers all respond
amen       amen

Ticfa tálcenn … A hostile poem about the arrival of St. Patrick. The Adzehead is a rude reference to the shape of his tonsure. Anon, 6th c. or earlier. 

How many Thirties in this noble island
how many half-Thirties allied to them 
how many townlands side by side                                                                                 
how many yoke of oxen in each townland

how many townlands and Thirty-hundreds
in Ireland rich in goods and chattels
I tell you straight
I defy anyone else to work it out

and do not presume to challenge me
I who am known as Fintan the wise                     
the most learned man that ever was
in Scotland or Ireland

ten townlands in each Thirty-hundred
and twenty more       to be precise
and although they might seem small to us
together comprising a great country

a townland sustains three hundred cattle
with twelve ploughed fields       to be exact
four full herds can roam there without
one cow rubbing up against the next

eighteen Thirties       this is my tally
for the rich and fertile county of Meath
and one score and ten Thirties
belonging to the fair-haired men of Connaught

and fifteen thirties and another twenty
I can tell you as a matter of fact 
without fear of contradiction
in the mighty province of Ulster

eleven Thirties and another twenty
in crowded affluent Leinster
from the mouth of Inver Dublin
up as far as the Boru road

ten thirties and another three score
living together in perfect harmony
in the two illustrious provinces
of the far reaches of Munster

of the Thirty-hundreds I have reckoned
nine score altogether             
and not a townland or half a townland
short in any of them

five thousand five hundred and twenty townlands
by dividing and adding them up
believe me
this is how I have arrived
at the number of townlands in Ireland

Ca lín tríchaIreland was originally divided into areas that could raise thirty hundred fighting men. Over time, these became simply administrative. The term ‘townland’ is still used for a small community. Fintan is a mythical poet. Anon, undated.

My cat and I are of one mind
he hunts mice but I too
hunt in my own way

indifferent to celebrity
I like nothing better
than to be seated quietly
at my books
diligently pursuing the truth
he is not put out because
he has his own small pursuits

when the two of us
are alone together in the house
each of us deploying our skills
we have great sport       endless amusement

he fixes his beady eye
on the far wall
my eyes are not so good now
but even so I focus
on the finer points of the arguments

every so often
a mouse falls into his net
as a result of his martial arts
as for me from time to time
some answer drops into mine

he is overjoyed when
with one swift movement
he traps a mouse in his claws
I am pleased when I grasp some problem
that has long preoccupied me

though we are like this all the time
neither of us gets in the other’s way
each of us loves what he is doing
my little white cat and I

he is a past master
of the work that occupies him daily
I too have my work to do
elucidating difficulty

Messe ocus Pangur Bán … This much-translated poem, known by the cat’s name White Pangur, was written in the margins of a manuscript in an Austrian monastery probably by a missionary monk. The original is in rhyming seven-syllable lines. Anon, 9th c.

I invoke the seven daughters of the sea
who spin youth’s threads of longevity

may three deaths be spared me
may three lives be granted me
may seven waves of good fortune wash over me

may spirits not harm me as I make my rounds
in my flashing breastplate
may my fame not come to nothing
may I enjoy long life       let death
not come to me till I am old

I call upon my silver champion
who has not died and will not die
may my life be as strong as white bronze
as precious as gold
may my status be enhanced
my strength increased

may my grave lie unprepared
may death not come to me
while I am travelling
may I return home safely

the senseless serpent shall not take hold of me
nor the pitiless grey worm       the mindless black beetle
no robber shall assail me        nor coven of women
nor band of armed men

may my lifespan be prolonged
by the King of the universe

I invoke the Ancient One of the seven ages
whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts
may my seven candles be not extinguished
I am a strong fort
an immovable rock
a precious stone
a weekly benediction

may I live a hundred times a hundred years
one after another
enjoying all the blessings of life
may the grace of the Holy Spirit be upon me

Domini est salus (thrice)
Christi est salus (thrice)
super populum tuum Domine benedictio tua

Admuiniur secht … Attributed to the abbot of Comraire who died in 762.  The poem mixes pagan and Christian references, typifying the mingling of the two cultures.

A bank of trees overlooking me
       how could I fail to mention this
a blackbird composing an ode for me

above my book       the lined one
here       in the glade
the chatter of birds       birdsong

a clear-voiced cuckoo in a grey mantle
sings to me
making a fine speech
from the top of a bush-fort

truly the Lord is good to me
I write well in the wood 

Dom-farcai fidbaide fál … Another marginalia poem found in a Latin grammar in Switzerland. The Irish is quite mannered rather than spontaneous, and has given rise to discussions about the role of ‘nature’ in such verse. Anon, early 9th c.

[note. “The poems translated here were, with one or two possible exceptions, written between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, making them the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. Latin, which arrived with Christianity in the 5th century and brought a script, was the only other language in play, although there are occasional loanwords from Norse and other tongues. … This work gives us a window onto a world that is in some respects very different but in others seems strangely close. There are poems about war and warriors, the geography and topography of the country, the religious life, nature and the seasons, the Viking threat, about love, exile and death. They comprise a mixture of pagan and Christian in a period when the two cultures intermingled, with the latter gradually displacing the former. … Here … the over-riding aim has been to make of these originals an equivalent poetry in English, and without attempting to reproduce the very different Irish prosodies, to capture something of their form, dynamics and style. The translations are typically close without being literal, and draw on the painstaking scholarly work that has been done in the field over the last century and more. But they are offered as literature: as texts that, despite the great chasm of time, and without in any way diminishing their otherness, still somehow speak to us.” (G.S.)]

Monday, July 7, 2014

Eric Sarner translated by Pierre Joris: An extract from “Experience of Water” in Coeur Chronique

[a note from pierre joris posted originally on his nomadics blog 6/11/2014.]  In Paris now, on the day of the opening of the Marché de la Poésie, a great yearly 4 day event. One major pleasure will be to meet up with old friend Eric Sarner. I had been very happy to learn a couple months ago that this excellent poet, my good friend & sometime translator, was awarded the Prix Max Jacob 1914 for his latest book of poetry, Coeur Chronique published by the Castor Astral with a preface by Michel Deguy. Sarner is a true nomad who lives between Berlin, Paris & Montevideo. Besides a number of poetry collections he has also published several travel récits (most recently a superb book on Algeria (Un voyage en Algéries) and Sur la route 66 (travels in the US, of course), and has made a living via twenty plus film documentaries for television.
      “Here is an extract from a section called ‘Experience of Winter’ that feels/reads like a continuous/discontinuous ribbon of writing with just momentary breathing pauses, mawaqif’s in Sufi parlance, between the perceptions.”


To flee poetry
to let it flee
to let go
the brilliance
through the black groove
on the lam without reason
nothing pretty
for example
in Montaigne

to shit in a basket
and then
to put it
on one’s head

there’s need to find
for each thing its
rightful place
oh! that silent cat
over there
carefully without words
to flee poetry
leaving it the chance
to come back by the edges

Vallejo exaggerates
he who came from
the heights

3000 meters
of andean mountains

little black man
resting on his hand
his cane

while Georgette
guards his hat

triste & dulce

Vallejo saluted
this past spring
at the Montparnasse cemetery
section XII

at the end of
terraced nature
and the sparrow block

without even his shadow

This book Diary of Errors
I knew Ennio Flaiano for his complicity
with Fellini La Dolce vita & 8 1/2
but the title before all had stopped me livened
up notes, stories, parables, word sketches
the simplicity, delicateness
of Flaiano
an elderly checkout lady in a bar
sighs caressing her dog

The chestnut trees are in flower
and spring is not here.

he speaks also of feet

set firmly on the clouds

and on another day he confesses to have
told a seven year old girl

Go away! You’re old!

It made her cry all night long

Thus all that lives
has a share in
& sme
That’s Empedocles of Agrigento

the hidden breath
where then lurks
the smell of self
is what made
us recognizable
by the other
when he was
naked in the shadow
without a living body
or on the edge
of a nerve
of a doubt

No illusion on the soprano
the final accurateness
& nothing else
that’s Lacy
the grace
absolute & relative
often with no smile
on Steve’s face
so that there exploded
on it like a rage of
a flood of colors
a tornado
of heat as simple &
as each moment
so ready to live

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Peter Quartermain: “Incompletable Text,” a view of Jerome Rothenberg’s Eye of Witness (Part One)

[What follows is the first part of Peter Quartermain’s response to Eye of Witness, an in-depth view that leads me into & beyond areas of my work that needed & still need (for me at least) viewing & addenda from the outside.  Quartermain’s essay is scheduled to appear early in 2015 in Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuff’s Review (GHR 20), so this is an opportunity to put it into circulation closer to the publication late last year of Eye of Witness & to turn attention to Golden Handcuffs as well.  The second half of Quartermain’s piece will appear here shortly. (J.R.)]
Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and Heriberto Yépez (Boston: Black Widow, 2013).

“My own choice has been to write from the side of a modernism that sees itself as challenging limits and changing ways of speaking / thinking / doing that have too long robbed us of the freedom to be human to the full extent of our powers and yearnings. The struggle is immediate and the objects and attitudes to be destroyed or transformed appear on every side of us.” (Symposium of the Whole, p. xiv.)[1]
Jerome Rothenberg asked, in 1996, “Why has the poet failed us?” (385). There is of course a considerable difference between the poet failing, and the poet failing us, but at first glance the question still seems pretty weird, given the sheer volume, variety, and energy of Rothenberg’s work, a great deal of it sampled and reordered in this absorbing book. He has written and/or edited some 80 or more books and they’re pretty substantial: poetry, prose, interviews, translations, commentaries, prefaces, letters, transliterations, anthologies, libretti, collaborations – to say nothing of his travels, recordings, collages, investigations; his explorations of ritual and theatre; his probing of discontinuities; his stratagems to open up the eye to the ear, to shift the oral onto the page, to shift the strange into let’s call it the familiar or at least recognisable, and the reverse. He’s a great archaeologist of the neglected and the forgotten, retrieving such treasures as “The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi,” and there are some terrific essays – that on “Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel” should be required reading in every English course in the land. Then there’s his remarkable ethnomusicology of wordless as well as worded songs; his pioneering work in ethnopoetics. He’s brought the contemporary and the archaic as well as the non-alphabetic into the resources of American poetry; he’s brought the aleatory as well as the formulaic into the nature and structure of the poem.
      What I list doesn’t even begin to cover the territory, and he has not of course worked alone: collaboration is not simply for him a means of making works, it is a means by which to listen, to learn, and to question. And all this is never-ending: “The work is in no way complete,” he said in the Pre-Face to Symposium of the Whole (xiv). The definitive, with its intolerant authority, is anathema: Eye of Witness more than once quotes Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dadaist call for the “liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power.” The notion of failure seems never to enter Rothenberg’s head, any more than might caution and timidity: with his deeply entrenched opposition to the idea of completeness at the very heart of his poetics, questions of failure or success are irrelevant. “What I come to do,” says a Creeley poem, “is partial, partially kept” – you can’t neglect the pun there. What counts is the doing, and one’s partiality gets in the way.
      That, perhaps, accounts a bit for his great economy of energy, for the drive that produced and still produces (Rothenberg’s in his eighties) these thousands of pages of work. Even the most cursory of readers, casting an eye through the nearly 600 pages of Eye of Witness, will be struck by the sheer urgency of Rothenberg’s thought, and the profound sadness that stirs necessity and informs his affirmation. The first thing you see, on the book’s cover, is Goya’s Asmodea (Goya surely kin to Rothenberg); and one of the first things you might read, the epigraph to the first section of the book (29), is from William Blake, also kin, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. As Rothenberg says in “Je est un autre,” his short talk-piece of 1989 titled after Rimbaud, “there is a politics in this & yet there is no politics” (162). And the politics is impassioned. In 1987, on his first visit to Poland, he went to Treblinka, site of the Nazi extermination and forced labour camps at which close to a million were killed, now “only an empty field & . . . thousands of large stones,” a graveyard of voices, a site of khurbn. Khurbn, a Yiddish-Hebrew word for disaster pure & simple -- what Christians call The Holocaust (implying sacrifice), and Jews call Shoah (a Hebrew word for catastrophe) – is what Rothenberg names “the word as prelude to the scream” (310), the word for the unspeakable, for that which is beyond witness – no sacrifice, no false ennoblement, nothing left to say beyond the word and perhaps not even that, but emptiness. To our dismay, there are other forms and occasions of the unspeakable, other empties, other roots of that “impasse in the soul” (59) Rothenberg faced at around the time he was writing Poland / 1931, in 1961: the sheer impossibility of witness, of bringing to speech, and the inescapable urgent necessity to give the dead their voice. “The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka,” he reports, “are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry” (306).
      The second volume of Poems for the Millennium, edited with Pierre Joris, closes with these lines from 1996 (they are also in Eye of Witness, 387);  it all – anthologies, collaborations, essays, poems, talks, everything – makes but one work:  

A woman’s breast & honey.
She in whose mouth the murderers stuffed gravel
who will no longer speak.
The poet is the only witness to that death,
writes every line
as though the only witness.

      Silence: the blank subtext which has ever since suffused our lives, which we attempt to pass over, to cover as best we can with noise and empty chatter. The very first entry for “attend” in the OED is “to turn one’s ear to, to listen”; the word also means to heed, as well as to serve. In the graveyard of voices (the phrase is from page 38) which is the world, the eye of witness is also an ear, perhaps an ear most of all; an eye and an ear of attendance, and of retrieval; by that it is an eye and ear of discovery, revealing that which is to be found. “The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka” were carried by the wind, by the stones, by the grass. By memory, and by imagining. So the task of the poem is to conjure, to conjure the absent, the silent, the forgotten and the lost. One early meaning of “conjure” is to swear together, to conspire – Wycliffe used it that way in his translation of the Bible – and in his time as in ours it also meant to call forth angelic or demonic spirits into one’s presence, to invoke and body forth powers of the invisible world. It would take some three or four hundred years, suggests the OED, for it to mean beseech. Eye of Witness constitutes  Rothenberg’s pact with the reader, and that pact demands conjuration in all the senses I just proposed. There can be no idle reading of this book.
      That’s where the energy comes from, then; not only Rothenberg’s astonishingly productive energy that drives these multitudes of pages, but the very energy in the writing itself. The sheer urgency of the task is assuredly source, and that urgency burdens the poem with its task the way a groundswell of rhythm and tonality might carry an undersong across and through the wordless silence of the abeyant gap between stanza and stanza, like the unvoiced silent beat between the lines of nursery rhymes like “Hickory Dickory Dock” or “Mary had a Little Lamb.” That urgency is dire: it carries through the writing and carries the writing through; when the Muse has to say something, that gist may be inescapable. But at the same time and perhaps by the same token it may not be voicable nor even tellable; then language fails; it cannot be sufficient.  “Take the legacy of Auschwitz,” Rothenberg enjoins, “as a call to vigilance against all forms of chauvinism and racism” (394). Eye of Witness is a call to arms – “Why has the poet failed us?” indeed. Such pressures break the poem open, call for any resource or recourse, so that aesthetics inevitably play second fiddle. It hardly needs saying, surely, that testimony and a sheer necessity for accuracy of witness sit very uneasily, to say the least, with the idea of a masterpiece and a hunger for the beautiful – thus Rothenberg, in an essay on the poetics of performance, talks of “a move-away from the idea of ‘masterpiece’ to one of transientness and self-obsolescence of the poem as art-work as performed.” Permanence doesn’t come into it at all, for “life,” as William Carlos Williams told Harriet Monroe in 1913, “is above all things else at any moment subversive of life as it was the moment before  -- always new, irregular."[2] Rothenberg takes that a step further: “The work past its moment becomes a document (mere history).”  Hence “the value of a work of art isn’t inherent in its formal or aesthetic characteristics . . . but in what it does,” (209) and what it does includes the act of composition as well as performance as well as reading or looking, and the artist will use whatever means come to hand, as those means come to hand.
      “Write carelessly,” Williams said in Book Three of Paterson (129), “so that nothing that is not green will survive”; he too cared above all for the energy of the poem. Like Blake, he is a constant presence throughout Eye of Witness, a provocative and welcome model of urgent inventiveness – his disturbances of convention and form, his transgressions, and his deployment of what Blake in “A Descriptive Catalogue” called “the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements” (550) – leaping its own limits. “Write carelessly” does not mean “write without care”; it shifts priorities and reconstitutes the aesthetic. Some years ago Jacques Attali proposed that "subversion in musical production opposes a new syntax to the existing syntax, from the point of view of which it is noise"[3] – a comment that surely gets at the neglect of Williams for most of his lifetime. Paterson in its expansive inclusiveness crosses generic boundaries, including as it does personal letters, geological reports, newspaper clippings, lyric, laments, narrative, pastoral, dialogue, and who knows what else besides; Rothenberg may have first got permission for his genre-and-other transgressions from Williams, but in his extraordinary diversity of output and range of reading and listening he stands alone.
      But despite its rich diversity, Eye of Witness at first glance can be a bit frustrating. For one thing, the book necessarily prints extracts as well as whole poems and essays, but it does not always give their source. If you want to follow something up, or restore a passage to its context, you can’t do that at all easily. But it is, after all, “A Jerome Rothenberg Reader,” and like any other such it makes no claim to completeness. If, like me, you want to know what book a particular poem or prose piece might be from (perhaps because you do want to follow it up), or want to know when it was written, the book frequently doesn’t tell you; the relationship of one work to another in the Rothenberg canon (which work came first, say) is often not at all clear. A chronology, sketchily implicit as a substratum to the book, is scrambled in deference to thematic considerations. The seventy pages of “Gallery One: Prolegomena to a Poetics,” for instance, are followed by sixty-five pages of “A Book of Otherings” which are followed by forty pages of “Poetry and Polemics 1: Toward an Ethnopoetics” which in turn are followed by more than a hundred pages of “Gallery Two: The World Turned Upside Down.” Work in any given section may be from the 1960s or the early 2000s, you can’t necessarily tell which, and it is hard to find your way around the book even though there’s an analytic Table of Contents constructed along the lines of those in the three volumes of Poems For the Millennium. There is no index of titles and first lines, there is no bibliography, not even a checklist of the books the works come from. Overall, this lends the book a kind of slapdash homogeneity – write carelessly, perhaps -- but the careful organisation along other than chronological or conventionally canonical lines suggests that Rothenberg’s work here has been carefully groomed into a unity, and that very unity draws the reader – this reader at any rate – to read straight through, a sequential reading of the whole book. That grooming obeys Rothenberg’s recognition, some time around the mid-1960s, that ethnopoetics, a word he coined “circa 1967” (171), is “a necessary part of a poetics (an idea of poetry),” and his discovery, not made by him alone,  that “ethnopoetics, once it had entered our work, altered the nature of that work in all its aspects” (Symposium, xv).


[note. Peter Quartermain is the editor of  The Collected Poetry and Plays of Robert Duncan (two volumes, 2012 & 2013, from University of California Press), and the University of Alabama Press has recently published his collection of essays, Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde.  For thirty years he taught contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of British Columbia, before retiring in 1999, and he has written or edited numerous articles and several earlier books, including Basil Bunting: Poet of the North (1990) and Disjunctive Poetics (1992).  With the English poet Richard Caddel he edited Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), and, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).]

[1] Jerome Rothenberg. “Pre-Face.” Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics. Edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg & Diane Rothenberg (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), xiv). All quotations except those otherwise identified are from Eye of Witness.
[2] William Carlos Williams. Selected Letters, ed. John C. Thirlwall (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957) 23-24.
[3] Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music, tr. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985) 34.