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

Monday, April 19, 2021

Harris Lenowitz: A Translation from “The Words of the Lord” by Jacob Frank


[The following is posted here in memory of Harris Lenowitz, who for many years was my comrade in poetry & translation. He co-edited with me Exiled in the Word (a.k.a. A Big Jewish Book) and was himself the author of The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights.  But his masterwork was the compilation & translation of The Words of the Lord, a gathering of the visions & "sayings" of the 18th-century messiah & mystic Jacob Frank, left unpublished by Harris at the time of his death.  The selection below is taken from my presentation of it in Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present (Black Widow Press, 2015).  My gratitude in all of this is enormous. (j.r.)]

 from The Words of the Lord

 1. I had a vision in Salonika, as though the following words were said to somebody, Go lead Jacob the wise into the rooms and when you and he come to the first room, I admonish you that all the doors and gates be opened to him. When I entered the first room, a rose was given to me as a sign by which I could go on to the next and so on consequenter from one room to the next. And so I flew in the air accompanied by two maidens [the like of] whose beauty the world has never seen. In these rooms I saw for the most part women and young ladies. In some, however, there were assembled only groups of students and teachers, and wherever just the first word was spoken to me, I immediately grasped the whole matter from it and the full meaning. There was an innumerable number of these rooms and in the last one of them I saw the First [= Shabtai Zvi] who also sat as a teacher with his students, dressed in frenk [= Turkish] clothing. This one immediately asked me, Are you Jacob the wise? I have heard that you are strong and brave-hearted. To this point have I come, but I have not the strength of proceeding from here further; if you want [to], strengthen yourself and may God help you, for very many ancestors took that burden upon themselves, went on this road, but fell. With that, he showed me through the window of this chamber an abyss which was like a black sea, hidden in extraordinary darkness, and on the other side of this abyss I saw a mountain whose height seemed to touch the clouds. At that I shouted, Be what may, I will go with God's help, and so I began to fly on a slant through the air into the depth until I reached its very bottom, where, having felt the ground, I stopped. Walking in the dark, I came upon the edge of the mountain and seeing that because of the steep smoothness of the mountain I had difficulty getting up on it, I was forced to clamber up with my hands and nails and using all my strength until I reached the top. As soon as I stopped there, an extraordinary scent reached me; and there were many True-Believers there. Seized by great joy, I did not [yet] want to go up onto the mountain with my whole body, saying to myself, I will rest awhile here, for sweat poured from my head like a river in flood on account of the tortures which I had borne to climb this mountain; but when I am well rested then I will come up on the mountain towards all the good which is found there. And that is what I did, I let my feet hang and sat with my body and hands at rest on the mountain. Then I went up on the mountain.

 2. Being sick once in Dziurdziów, I had a dream like this. I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman, who had a well of the water of life and another well of clear water, and this [woman] said to me, Put your legs in the water and you will become healthy right away. I did so and became well. At the place where this woman was found, there was a broad beautiful field, in which she, taking me by the hand, said, Come, I will show you my daughter who is still a maiden, and I went with her into the depth of that field which gave off an extraordinary scent, from [many] different flowers. The Maiden, whose beauty nothing in this world could describe, came to meet us there, and she was dressed in a Polish rubran [a tight-fitting, twisted blouse of heavy, usually red, silk] and her uncovered breasts were visible. Having noticed this I suddenly saw from one end of the world to the other. Her mother informed me that if I was desirous to take her for a wife, she would permit it, but I answered that I had a wife and children.

 44. My grandmother, my mother's mother was a very learned astrologer. When Iwas born, all the witches assembled around our home and surrounded it, even their queen was there at their head. There was a dog in our house— a cross between a wolf and a [canine] bitch. This one did not sleep at all, but barked all the time, for if he had fallen asleep even for a moment, then they would have seen to it that he would have never awakened, but he kept watch vigilantly. Then on the 8th day at the circumcision, they surrounded our home as before and wanted to do something evil, but were unable to because that dog kept guard again, and the old grandmother with her craft fought against the evil also, saying, Watch him carefully, bring him up properly, for a new thing will come to the world through him.

451. On the 21st of October, 1784 the Lord saw a dream, I had a golden ring on my hand, and I dropped that ring onto a mirror, which broke into small pieces, Having turned that mirror onto the other side, I found shining glass there also, and likewise a bracelet fell from my hands and broke the other side. He himself gave the interpretation of that, My help hastens to come.

 504. In a dream I saw Jesus, having priests around him, sitting at a spring of living and clear water. I noticed that this spring went away from them and came to me.

 748. I saw a dream as if I were in a church, totally naked except for a gray cloak such as the Jesuits wear, but the chest was bare like the breasts of a woman. The priests were all prepared for the Resurrection service, but only one priest wore a cloak like mine. All present thought that they would raise something as was the custom at the Resurrection service, but nothing was raised except that priest came to me and sprinkled me with pure water. All the people present laughed, that I was dressed in such a cloak. I wanted to cover my chest, but in spite of all my endeavors, it remained bare.

 791. In a dream I saw a very old woman, 1500 years old. Her hair was white as snow; she brought me 2 silver belts and a Walachian sausage. I bought one from her and stole the other.

 793. In a dream I saw that I went to a great church having a great window, having neither an altar nor any paintings. The walls were covered with silver. Many Polish lords sat there, they ate and they drank. They asked me to eat with them, but I said I was weak and could not eat. Moreover, I had not heard Mass yet. I went to the sacristy, and the sacristy too was beautiful. I saw that a priest threw off his chasuble and put on another. He went to pray with his hands raised, but without the chalice, after having entered a certain room, before which hung a curtain of silver material. I followed and saw a man lying on the ground. He was about 10 cubits long and rolled in the dirt, but the priest prayed to him. I went to those lords and said to them, Come, I will show you a tasty comedy, how a man is rolling in the dirt and a priest praying to him. But I was dressed in a long Polish zupania [the undergarment of the Polish folk costume] and girdled with a precious Persian belt whose ends were very precious; and I wrapped myself around several times with that belt, but still its end trailed on the ground. The Lord himself interpreted: Some new road is prepared for me.

 804. The Lord saw a dream the 14th of June 1784: Two women came to me, and one man 6 cubits tall. They were very beautiful, and they said to me, We have heard in the place where we live that your people have abandoned you and that you do not want to send them on any mission. We have been dead several thousand years and we have worked a lot, and still we have no peace. We ask you, Send us. We will go on your mission wholeheartedly.  I answered them, I have already said that I will make revelation to no man, nor bring any near, nor will I send any on a mission. They asked me, But the signal has already gone out that a great deal of blood will flow in the world, and we want to go and rescue many; only you bless us for the way. I am a prostak, I replied, and cannot make a blessing. They asked me, But you bless your people? I replied, I can say no more than this word: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and this verse: The angel who delivered me & & ... They said to me, We have a book here in which stand blessings. Bless us with that book; we only ask you that you bless us out loud. They gave me the book which was written in large Hebrew letters without dots. They bent their heads and I, after raising my hands above their heads, blessed them. There were beautiful words there, but I do not remember more than two words that were at the end: Du Jankiew, That is Jacob.

 852. Her Highness [his daughter Eva] saw a dream on the 5th of July 1784: I saw a little child in my room; one black man came in with horns on his head. I asked him, What do you want here? He answered, I have come to take that child from your house. I will not give you that child, I said. He said, If you will not give him to me willingly, then I will take him by violence. I asked him who he might be? He replied, First I will take the child, then I will tell you who I am. He took the child by violence under one arm and under the other he caught up that French girl who was with me. I asked him again, Who are you? He answered, I am the worst devil of all the devils. The French girl started to scream loudly and to ask that I rescue her from him, but he did not listen to her and left with her. Immediately a great fire began to burn in my room, which I tried to put out, but I couldn't. The Lord came along to put it out, at which a great outcry arose that in the Lord's room it was burning terribly.

 868. It would be better for you if you had been taught the wisdom of sorcery; you would have known a great deal.

 Translation from the Polish Manuscripts by Harris Lenowitz


 source:  Harris Lenowitz, The Collection of the Words of the Lord [Jacob Frank] from the Polish Manuscripts.  The full translation (nearly 3000 “sayings”) is available at

 As a time of growing dislocations & deconstructions, the eighteenth-century saw changes of mind that reached into isolated corners of Europe, far removed from the strongholds of both the Enlightenment & the “natural supernaturalism” & radical mysticisms that were among the marks of an emerging Romanticism.  With Jacob Frank as its messiah the messianic Frankist movement as it affected eastern European Jews involved, like its literary & western counterparts, a shift in language & its attendant symbols that resembled the shifts emerging as well in the dominant cultures.

Of the work presented above, Harris Lenowitz writes as translator: “These are some of the sayings of Yankiev Leivich, Yakov ben Lev (Polish, Yiddish,1726-1791), who called himself Yakov Frank and whom some called Wise Jacob.  Jacob Frank was a creature of Podolia, Turkey, Poland-in-its-disintegration.  He traveled.  His father was a traveling preacher.  Frank was a peddler too and spoke everybody’s language: Balkan, Turkish, Yiddish, Polish, Ladino, with quotations, citations, and language play from Hebrew and Aramaic.  He joined up with Sabbateans, followers of the messianic movement begun by Shabtai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza [in the seventeenth century], continued through Barukhya Russo [d. 1721], and temporarily short one messiah.  With them he turned against the Talmud, into the Zohar, and out through the Sabbatean pore.  He added some things to the movement: a new emphasis on the Virgin, a passage through Christianity, after the passage through Islam which Shabtai/Nathan originated, on the way to Esau.  Perhaps more sex.  He became a messiah to thousands of Jews.’

 “In the ‘words’ written down by his followers, the mini-narratives show a range of transformative experiences that came to him, like vatic prose poems, in the form of dreams & visions or by observations, simple or not, of the people & events to which his way of life had brought him.”



Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Anselm Hollo: “The Dada Letter,” from Collected Poems, in progress

      One afternoon in northern Europe, probably in the year 1939, a boychild one now sees wearing a blue velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with lace collar and cuffs, is walking down a chiaroscuro corridor in a haut-bourgeois six-story apartment building —

     What Dadaists are still alive are dealing with their life-movies in various ways, suggested by other labels:




            within the increasingly hallucinatory public film, Herr Adolf Hitler’s

             “millennial epic” BOY FROM AUSTRIAN BOONIES MAKES GOOD —

     The boychild’s parents, who met in the Twenties in the capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, never were Dadaists, although they did have the works of Hugo Ball on their shelves —

     There really had been no Viennese Dada, the way there was a

            Berlin Dada a

            Zurich Dada a

            Cologne Dada a

            Paris Dada a

            New York Dada and a

            Hannover MERZ

     Vienna and London had their Neo-Dadas many years later, after another World War, and the boychild would have some first-hand experience of those —

     Speaking of hands, that boychild (one afternoon probably in 1939) is, in his right hand, carrying a glass plate with a doughnut on it —

     When one says “doughnut” here, one is referring to the European kind without a hole, just a ball of fried dough covered in refined white sugar, known in some Teuton-speaking lands as a “Berliner” —whence the essentially Dadaist delight of the inhabitants of Berlin at a Post-Dada United States President’s enthusiastic confession that he, too, was just a ball of fried white dough —

     This, too, was later — now in ‘39, the boychild’s left hand is most likely engaged in picking his nose or trying to detach the pretty lace collar from his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit —


      Young Post-Dada Krissie from next door just called to say that there is an Amnesty International special on Channel 2, on women prisoners of conscience — she is a member of Amnesty International, as are Jane and I, and a mover and shaker in the local (Salt Lake City) high school cadres of that organization — a bright sweet blonde young thing who reminds me of my daughters at her age — and that seems like an eternity ago — her fellow Amnestyites, on the other hand, affect Modified Punk, that Post- or Neo-Dada marriage of S & M Biker Chic with Seven Nations tonsorial fashions, first consummated in London —where those daughters were born, in the era of Love and Beatles —

     I tell her that it is good of her to point this out but that we don’t have a television set, as both Jane and I are somewhat afraid of having attention spans totally destroyed and adrenalin levels artificially but permanently raised by daily exposure to that ‘medium of the day’ — she says that I’m welcome to come over and watch the program on women prisoners of conscience, or prisoners of conscience who are also women — and then I have to tell her thank you but I am at this very moment struggling to get some kind of fix on this lecture I am supposed to give at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, in about two weeks’ time, on



            and Post-Dada - ridiculous idea, I say, isn’t it — don’t know what possessed me, it wasn’t the money — and am tempted to quote the pertinent line from Allen Ginsberg’s still-reverberating HOWL: “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism” — but don’t — but say that maybe she can tell me later about the program — then feel like a prick, sigh, and return to the keyboard of composition to stare at the words “pretty lace collar of his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit” —

     I notice that I have typed “worlds” instead of “words” — this makes me think of Gertrude Stein, without a doubt the great Dadaist in the American language — I need to quote a poem of hers — but back to that moment one afternoon probably in 1939 when the boychild, walking down a chiaroscuro corridor in a haut-bourgeois six-story apartment building, executes, with his right hand, a gesture somewhat similar to the Fascist salute — one cannot say why but one remembers that he is or now rather was in his right hand carrying a glass plate with a doughnut on it—

     When one says “doughnut” here — OK you heard that one already — CUT to Grand Pre-Dada Marcel Proust eating a doughnut —

     “now rather was,” since the Berliner is now launched on a trajectory through the slightly stale but pleasantly lavender-smelling or is it lily-of-the-valley (the boy child’s mother’s favorite perfume) air of the corridor —


      While on a recent expedition to my study or office to get Volume Six of the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, I noted that the indoor temperature had dropped to 79 degrees, thanks to judicious use of the window fan, and also that the radio was playing one of those south-of-the-border classics about living out the Twilight of Empire in a sun-drenched tequila coma — and instantly thought of David Bromige, because of his lines in Red Hats, a recent work:

     “For those who learned to drink in the 50’s, vibraphones will inevitably bring on a slight stagger. Down the steep steps he slipped with many abrasions, only to find the Club Serendipitee, where caught some GREAT sounds being improv’d [This is probably a typo for improvis’d, should we leave it alone?] by those cats. Then this chick, see …”

     — the book Red Hats is so tightly bound, “perfect-bound” I suppose, that I have to type with one hand while the other holds the book open —

     As the doughnut is now flying through that lily-of-the-valley and/or lavender air, the boychild is left holding

            only the glass plate

            which he stops to contemplate

     — and how is that for rime riche — the doughnut meanwhile vanishing into the chiaroscuro with what Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton might have described as an inaudible thud —

     The Pope just called — he wanted to know if there was any substance to rumors that his invisible guru — whom he referred to as Our Lord — would prefer Salt Lake City to Rome for his Second Coming —

     I of course pooh-poohed said rumors and told the dear Vicar that his boss had told me, at a recent poetry and rock’n’roll conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, which he was attending incognito in the guise of a pale and sweating Finnish blues singer, that he was no longer interested in religion of the paternalistic sort —

     After a brief pause, the pontiff drily remarked that I must have been reading that dear but over-educated Ernesto Cardenal again — I said, no no, I had actually been reading David Bromige, the wonderfully erudite North American poet and bon-vivant saint of eiron

     “The eiron, or ironical man, is a man who professes that he does not have, or has in less measure than the world supposes, the good qualities which he does in fact possess” —

     Yes, yes, that’s from Aristotle, says the Vicar, a mite impatiently — well have a nice day, one gathers it is quite hot out there —

            eiron = semper dada

     I say well have a good one too — don’t let the population figures get you down —


      The doughnut has come to rest in a corner of the corridor and the boychild in the blue velvet suit is left holding the glass plate — momentarily at a loss as to what should be his further course of action — possibly even right action, a concept that’s been looming on his psychic horizon for some time now, being often discussed by his parents — who have Hugo Ball’s works on their shelf —

     Hugo Ball, saint of Zurich Dada, and later ascetic mystic who performed his sound poems in a costume made out of big cardboard tubes- looking a bit like the Pope drawn by Wyndham Lewis — spouting things like “jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla” — and

            “hej tatta gorem

            anlogo bung

            blago bung” — and also said “spit out words, the dreary, lame, empty language of society” — rousing stuff SEMPER DADA! —from Ball’s Russian soul brother Velemir Khlebnikov — to beast-language Post-Dada American Michael McClure — and yet

     one has gone back to replacing the zaum words with the other kind — those shared with the dreary lame empty language of society — hasn’t one — ah, a vast flood of nostalgia washed o’er me — as the indoor temperature resumed its relentless climb — what “one” needed right then was an ecologically sound air conditioner — and maybe a videotape of Post-Dada Tom Stoppard’s snotty little “Travesties” — T. Tzara’s and V. I. Lenin’s café chess playing days in Zurich —

     on the other hand, this would have set one back an hour or two in the task of composing the lecture one had in some weak moment consented to give — to this really hip audience of fellow poets just about ready to launch the potato salad —

     one paused briefly to correct the spelling of “doughnut” by means of “Word Search and Change,” a “feature” of one’s writing implement — ah, there — one is now old enough to comfortably enjoy being a little old-fashioned —

     then one is captivated by the thought that one could change the word “doughnut” to let’s see, how about “Stinger missile” —

     “as the Stinger missile is now flying through that lily-of — the-valley air” — well it probably is, somewhere on this semper dada globe —

     where was one —

            “the doughnut has come to rest

            some corner of blue velvet hall

            in his left the glass a loss

            expatiating parents loom” — yes, the old scramble — proto L=A= N = c = u =A= G = E strategy — how one wrote some of one’s poems in 1969 Neo-Dada Iowa City-in the good company — semper dada! amigos Actualistas! — even though twenty years later, it is still “venceremos” only in the future tense -vis-à-vis or should one say versus The Big Smirk

            o jolifanto bambla —

one does stare at the words —


      The word INTERMISSION — written when one got up from the writing of this piece three days ago — at a loss what else to say—

     during this grand intermission — when all of us seem at a loss as to what should be the further course of action — “possibly right action” —

     during the intermission at the phantom opera that occasionally haunts this city by the dead inland sea —

     I go to the “rest room” in my grey CIA suit — then re-emerge into chandelier chatter — thinking, Dada is dead but Opera lives — ah wistful wistful —

     smile politely at the one Michael Jackson look-alike — among all the Burl Ives and Deborah Kerr look-alikes navigating around and saying things —

     who is that tall beauty standing there all by herself — my heart leaps up as I behold — the gentle, intelligent curve of her neck and silver-streaked hair — and know it is Jane — once

again thank the gods we’re permitted this time — in the great intermission —

     in a place where only a few have to disappear before their time — although some of the best have done so — still few, compared to other places one might name — ruled by the grim Anti- or Idi Amin Dada of los desaparecidos — now back to our movie:

     having raised his hand in a vehement gesture — who knows why- on his way from the kitchen and mother — who is power — to father in his study (or office) — who is culture —

     with the doughnut on the glass plate — perhaps to ward off some phantom of a five-year-old imagination —

     and thus having caused the doughnut to disappear from the plate — the boychild of 1939 decides that right action is no longer possible in this particular case — and so —

            lets the plate, too, go

            into the chiaroscuro —

     it is an act of Proto-Dada devil-may-care despair- and is (luckily) found amusing by both mother power and father culture — as power and culture had found amusing the paper wars between Dadas and Surrealists — now amply documented and catalogued — analyzed and deconstructed — by numerous degree candidates in American institutions of well they say learning —

            anlogo bung

            blago bung

     so, Dad didn’t get his doughnut — the plate, miraculously, did not break —

     so the boychild grew up and out of those corridors — and once he’d outgrown Buffalo Bill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — discovered Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp — the heroes of Dada — and lived through a heady period of Neo-Dada-when it seemed like John Cage and Jasper Johns — to mention but two — would lead the world — into art forever — but no, you can’t stop here —

 From Outlying Districts

 [Note: The Collected Poems referred to above is being edited by Yasamin Ghiasi and John Bloomberg-Rissman and will be published by Hollo’s long-time publisher Coffee House Press. As one of the editors notes, “Anselm has been a great companion during this covid mess.”]



Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Jerome Rothenberg, with Javier Taboada: from The Book of Voices, “I Heard the Voices of the Dead"

                                                                         Cover ot the Lithuanian edition of Khurbn by Algimantas Černiauskas

 [The following continues an interview and conversation with Javier Taboada in El Libro de las Voces, just published in Mexico by Mangos de Hacha.  The publication of course is in Spanish and includes a selection of poems and essays along with the extensive series of interviews.  Still in my possession and unpublished is the entire book in English, from which the following excerpt is taken. (j.r.)]

Khurbn is one of your most brutal collections. You once mentioned that those poems "are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry." In one of them, Dibbukim, you answer Adorno's famous sentence on poetry after Auschwitz. You wrote: "after auschwitz/ there is only poetry/ no hope/ no other language left to heal / no language / & no faces / because no faces left". In the current state of things, do you still think so?

 Of course I overstate the case here, though I think that there are reasons for doing so, not to let Adorno’s statement or the way it’s usually represented stand by itself. It was with Khurbn, anyway, that I felt possessed by the dead on a visit to Poland and Auschwitz, and poetry was the language, the only language, in which I could respond or bring it forth. There were so many dead, so many dibbuks killed before their time and entering the minds and thoughts of the survivors –an onslaught that needed then and now a language-of-resistance. Toward that end poetry had become over the last two centuries at least –but maybe always– the best vehicle I knew to trigger that resistance: an outside language, oppositional not just by what it said but by its very nature.                                                                              I think if that was true for me it was also true for other poets of my generation and for many poets who preceded us: a need to carry this forward and in so doing to change the means of poetry as well, to work toward new and unexpected forms, whether freshly invented or drawing from an otherwise neglected or occulted past. In doing this we recognized that we weren’t the first (although we often and rightly acted as if we were), nor would we, hopefully, be the last. In that sense, then, we could look back easily enough to those like Blake and Shelley or to the later “revolutions” of Dadas and Surrealists, or still closer to home, one like William Carlos Williams when he wrote: ”Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas.” For him, for all of us in one way or another, the opposition was not only in the content but in the structure, the form, the language of the poem –both deep and surface.                                                                                                                                                That anyway was the arena in which I chose to work, while recognizing that there were other forms of resistance, perhaps more effective in the short run, but for me and others like me the choice was poetry, a place into which we felt ourselves driven. With Khurbn, more than any of my other writings, that much was true in every sense: “the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry.”

 And in this sense there is a wide spectrum of testimonial poetry about the holocaust, which has been developed by both 'non-professional' voices and by poets as diverse as Celan or Reznikoff. But for Derrida, for example, there are negative aspects about testimony --in court—and its possibilities of falsification and perjury. What do you think of this in relation to poetry?

 The problem in relation to poetry as such is that the work there – as in religion perhaps – is a mix of observed and imagined, fact and fiction, so that the measure of truth and untruth is hard to assess in isolation.  The tilt for many of us as poets has been toward imagination and fancy, relentlessly amplifying and transforming the observed, the here and now, which we also desire, into the not-here and not-now, the realm of the hidden and awesome, which includes the pity and terror that we also need to make real.  Falsification and perjury are in that sense part of our arsenal, where the intention is to make present the offshoots of a truth that the facts, while needed, only hint at – or as Picasso had it famously “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand.”  On the other hand, poets like the American “Objectivists” (Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Oppen) theorized a poetics of fact, whose hallmark was what Zukofsky called “sincerity.”  But hard to say how much consistency there was in doing that as poets.

Most of your work in the 70’s-90’s featured the “poet as an informant” (G. Snyder) whose aural narrative experiences (mytho-logia) reinvent the self and the reality of the world around (both for the narrator and the audience). But in the 2000’s you developed it into the notion of witness: the poet-teller not as a figure of power or authority but a rebel/outsider who challenges the establishment or status quo via images and languages derived from his/her own relation to the seen, unseen, heard, unheard, etc. of the world. Could you go deeper into it?

The themes are all there but I think I would arrange them in a different order. To start with, the word “witness” is a little elusive or possibly ironic here, since what I’m doing (at least in A Book of Witness) is exploring a range of utterances with the first-person pronoun “I” (the pronoun of witness) given full play in short sentences or phrases borrowed from other poets alongside those of my own making (real and fictive both). I don’t know that this reinvents the self so much as it puts identity into question, which may or may not amount to the same thing. That however is one, very particularized use of “witness,” and very far from the usual one. But elsewhere I do more directly let myself be a witnessing voice or presence among the other voices that I channel in Khurbn (“the dibbiks killed before their time”), as we discussed it in the previous question. Here –let me be clear again– I mean nothing mystical or otherworldly by this, rather that holocaust or khurbn is the prima materia of the poem and that collage or appropriation is a means for giving entry to the dead, to allow their witnessing to be a part of my own as a witness to their acts of witness.                                                                                     It’s in that sense the most serious thing a poem or a poet can do… and a connection too to the earliest sources of poetry, and to the poet like the native and the savage as an informant to his time and culture. And it may also mark the poet like those others as an endangered species. More than that, I think, since on my visit to Poland and the death camps I was wracked by a sense of desolation in which I could, if I were inclined that way, say that I heard the voices of the dead.                                                       All this our poetry, as developed by others and myself, makes possible.

 Back in the 60’s, in a letter to Robert Duncan you stated that in your process –to create the poem anew— you didn’t rely on any intermediary (tradition or second-hand treatment) of the information, data; that you needed to go deep into the prima materia (= source) and thus unleash or feel the power of the poem. Do you still do that? What has changed in your creative process?

Did I say that then? Very likely since I and Robert Kelly and others were talking at that time about what I had named “deep image” with an emphasis, I suppose, on what we were taking as the psychic, even spiritual, underpinnings for the work at hand. Looking back now I find it in one of the poem-manifestos I wrote for my magazine, Poems from the Floating World:

 From deep within us it comes: the

wind that moves through the lost

branches, hurts us with a wet cry,

as if an ocean were caged in each skull:


There is a sea of connection that floats

between men: a place where speech

is touch and the welcoming hand

restores its silence: an ocean

warmed by dark suns.


The deep image rises from the shoreless

gulf: here the poet reaches down

among the lost branches, till a

moment of seeing: the poem.


Only then does the floating world sink again

into its darkness, leaving a white

shadow, and the joy of our having been

here, together.

Not long after that, however, I began to explore other resources for poetry, resources that I needed for the new works of poetry I was then undertaking. Deep Image, I think, had led me to a concern with Deep Cultures, the range of poetries that I was gathering for Technicians of the Sacred and the other assemblages that put forward the idea of an ethnnopoetics and “a reinterpretation of the poetic past from the point of view of the present.” For those projects research and data were truly needed –“second hand” or not– where the prima materia was in the works we uncovered, not simply in the minds of those who did the uncovering. And even more so, when I began to explore “ancestral sources of my own” in a work like Poland/1931, I had an absolute need for “data” or what fellow poet Ed Sanders, proposing a new “investigative poetry”, called “data clusters,” that would give me the materials to compose an otherwise imagined Jewish Poland, or what David Meltzer called my “Jewish surrealist vaudeville.” For that to happen, then, deep image, however much I valued it, was no longer enough, and other ways, other means, began to open for me.

You have employed multiple methods and modes of composition throughout your work that help de-familiarize the poet with his own ingrained thought process and create permutations. How do you go about working on these methods? Do they impose themselves to you? Are they encoded in a preverbal state, as a sort of DNA at the core of each individual poem?

The methods and modes you mention are premeditated on my part, not imposed, and draw often enough from a store of possibilities that I’ve discovered in a wide range of sources – both contemporary and traditional – and have revised or modified toward my own uses. To cite a fairly easy example: in the course of preparing A Big Jewish Book as a gathering of “poems and other visions of the Jews from tribal times to the present,” I was struck by a form of mystical (kabbalistic) hermeneutics called gematria, the basis of which was a numbering system in which every letter of the Hebrew alphabet was a specific number (aleph = 1, beth = 2, gimmel = 3, etc.). That meant of course that every word or phrase in the Hebrew Bible was also a series or sum of numbers and that words or phrases of the same numerical value could be interpreted as having some relation, otherwise not evident, to each other. Using that system, for example, a follower of the heretical eighteenth-century messiah Shabtai Tsvi juxtaposed the Hebrew words for “messiah” and “serpent” to reveal a hidden relationship between Shabtai and the serpent/tempter in the Book of Genesis. For me, however, this presented itself in the form of a minimal poem – one word as title, the other as text:                    


                              A snake.

 And others of this sort presented themselves immediately:


                              A mystery.





the witness

                              A jewel.

 Or, combining more words:

                               a vision (1)                                                      a vision (2)


Beat it                                                                God

with power.                                                       is crushed.

And finally, composing still larger structures:

 gematria 519

“Around Midnight”


so he drove out

& was silent


& she took it

& when it rose



the song


at their door

around midnight

 The result was a large book of gematria-generated poems and the further use of gematria in still larger works –a series, for example, called 14 Stations, in which I composed poems that drew their vocabulary from the Hebrew/Yiddish spellings of the names of fourteen holocaust extermination camps, as in the following:

                               The First Station: Auschwitz-Birkenau

 now the serpent:


 I will bring back

their taskmasters

crazy& mad


will meet them

deep in the valley

&be subdued


separated in life

uncircumcised, needy

shoes stowed away


how naked they come

my fathers

my fathers


angry& trembling

the serpents

you have destroyed


their faces remembered

small in your eyes,

shut down, soiled


see a light

take shape in the pit,

someone killed


torn in pieces

a terror, a god,

go down deeper

 That all of the words were drawn from translations of words in the Bible only added to the power of what I was presenting as memorial and outrage –even more so when the results in the earlier gematria poems appeared to be transgressive.


[ N.B. Further excerpts from The Book of Voices can be found in earlier numbers of Poems and Poetics.]