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

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Michael McClure: Songheavy (Last Breath Poem)


After watching human
efforts to save the self-beached
pilot whale at Rockport.
Many times the large dolphin
reversed their efforts and
returned to the strand.


globe head


all being-receptors








every where


slick black
sea edge 



this way




the way








to imagine







to swim


five trillion per nanosecond

neuron linking

in the POD


? ?



we laugh
together in the torch

of wetwave darkness





we are gone












[N.B.  A poem, above, that recalls another, “For the Death of 100 Whales,” performed some sixty years ago at the famed Gallery Six reading in San Francisco – a continuation & advance by a poet still at the height of his powers. J.R.]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

From Technicians of the Sacred (expanded): Six Poems of Desperation by Worker Poet Xu Lizhi

[Originally published in China Labour Bulletin January 6, 2016]

I Swallowed an Iron Moon

I swallowed an iron moon
they called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can’t swallow any more
everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country
a poem of shame

I Know a Day Will Come

I know a day will come
when those I know and don’t know
will enter my room
to collect my remains
and wash away the darkened blood stains I’ve shed across 
    the floor
rearrange the upturned table and chairs
toss out the moldering garbage
take in the clothing from the balcony
someone will help me write the poem I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me read the book I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me light the candle I didn’t have 
    time to light
last will be the curtains that haven’t been opened for 
someone will help me open them, and let the sunlight 
    in for a while
they will be closed again, and nailed there deathly 
the whole process will be orderly and solemn
when everything is tidy
they will all line up to leave
and help me quietly shut the door  

Waiting in Line

The packed crowds in this city
crawl up and down the streets
crawl up and down the pedestrian bridges, into 
    the subway
crawl up and down this earth
one lap around is one life
this fire-driven fire-singed species
busy from birth to death
only at the moment of death do they not cut in 
they lower their heads, follow in order
and burrow back into their mothers’ wombs

Single-Dish Menu: Twice-Cooked Meat

Garlic scape twice-cooked meat
Bitter melon twice-cooked meat
Green pepper twice-cooked meat
Dried tofu twice-cooked meat
Potato twice-cooked meat
Cabbage twice-cooked meat
Bamboo shoot twice-cooked meat
Lotus root twice-cooked meat
Onion twice-cooked meat
Smoked tofu twice-cooked meat
Celtuce twice-cooked meat
Celery twice-cooked meat
Carrot twice-cooked meat
Beansprout twice-cooked meat
Green bean twice-cooked meat
Pickled bean twice-cooked meat
Xu Lizhi twice-cooked meat

Obituary for a Peanut

Merchandise Name:  Peanut Butter
Ingredients: Peanuts, Maltose, Sugar, 
    Vegetable Oil, Salt, Food Additives 
    (Potassium sorbate)
Product Number: QB/T1733.4
Consumption Method: Ready to consume after 
    opening the package
Storage Method: Before opening keep in a 
    dry place away from sunlight, after opening 
    please refrigerate
Producer: Shantou City Bear-Note Foodstuff 
    Company, LLC
Factory Site: Factory Building B2, Far East 
    Industrial Park, Brooktown North Village
    Dragon Lake, Shantou City
Telephone: 0754-86203278    85769568
Fax: 0754-86203060
Consume Within: 18 Months          
Place of Production: Shantou, Guangdong 
Production Date: 8.10.2013

My Friend Fa

You’re always holding your lower back with your 
just a young guy
but to the other workers, you look
like a pregnant woman in her tenth month
now that you’ve tasted the migrant worker life
when you talk of the past, you always smile
but the smile doesn’t cover over hardship and misery
seven years ago you came alone
to this part of Shenzhen
high-spirited, full of faith
and what met you was ice,
black nights, temporary residence permits, temporary 
after false starts you came here to the world’s largest 
    equipment factory
and began standing, screwing in screws, doing 
    overtime, working overnight
painting, finishing, polishing, buffing,
packaging and packing, moving finished products
bending down and straightening up a thousand times 
    each day
dragging mountain-sized piles of merchandise across 
    the workshop floor
the seeds of illness were planted and you didn’t know 
until the pain dragged you to the hospital
and that was the first time you heard
the new words “slipped disc in the lumbar vertebra”
and each time you smile when you talk about the 
    pain and the past
we’re moved by your optimism
until at the annual New Years party, you drunkenly
grasped a liquor bottle in your right hand, and held up 
    three fingers with your left,
you sobbed and said:
“I’m not even thirty
I’ve never had a girlfriend
I’m not married, I don’t have a career—
and my whole life is already over.”

     Source: Eleanor Goodman, “Obituary for a Peanut: The creatively cynical world of worker poet Xu Lizhi,” in China Labour Bulletin, January 6, 2016.

     What emerges here is something beyond a state & party controlled “workers poetry” but the continuation & development of a popular literature written in the vernacular & confronting the fullest range of human thoughts & feelings, even the most skeptical, negative & self-destructive.  Of Xu Lixhi (1990-2014), Eleanor Goodman writes as translator: “Xu Lizhi is an excellent example of a modern incarnation of the century-old baihua, or vernacular, poetry tradition. His language comes out of the factory and life lived in the lower rungs of society, and revolves largely around nouns: words like screw and worksheet and twice-cooked meat. He tells the stories of workers, of his immediate world, and of his own psyche in plain but moving terms. The baihua movement began as a revolt against the rarified and largely inaccessible language of traditional Chinese literature. Today, there is no longer a strong division between the Chinese as formally written and as spoken, or between common speech and ‘literary’ speech. Nevertheless, a strong division remains in literature in terms of subject matter and approach. Rather than serving as a removed observer or a sympathizer of the plight of workers, farmers, and the poor in contemporary China, Xu experienced this all first hand. The fact that he could write about it with such eloquence and simplicity is a testament to his skill with the language of everyday life, as well as with poetic technique.”
     And further:  “I first came across Xu Lizhi’s poetry in the film Our Verses, a documentary that follows six different manual laborers who also write highly accomplished poetry. As I translated the poetry and then the subtitles for the film, I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy—indeed, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four by jumping out of a Foxconn factory dormitory window a little over a year ago—there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself. His reality was one that millions of other people face across China, but particularly in the south, which has become a center of production and exploitation. His ‘poem of shame’ is not a personal one, but a public and national one.”

[N.B. Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize. A collection of her own poetry, Nine Dragon Island, which was shortlisted for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize, will be published early next year.]

Monday, January 18, 2016

Stephen Ross: “Question Answers Question: on Ariel Resnikoff’s Between Shades” & Other Matters

Ariel Resnikoff’s poems are wide open steps sunk in whiteness: their imprints lead far beyond themselves. They lead to Krasnystaw and Tel Aviv, Philadelphia and Montreal, antiquity and modernity, and back again. This openness, this generous range, makes Between Shades an unusually companionable book of poems. “I wanted to meet you / to tell you / you didn’t know me” reads the epigraph, summing up the ethics and poetics of this memorable debut.
        Between Shades inaugurates a multilingual Jewish American poetics that encompasses Hebrew, English, and Yiddish languages and traditions. The great strength of this unfolding project – the part that makes me certain it is the start of something important – is its refusal to essentialize Jewish history and language, favoring instead a decentered fluency. Resnikoff’s migrations, translations, and “avoidances” obey a scrappy, pragmatist principle of composition. The poems are not revivalist showpieces or sentimental fantasies but living mosaics born of a Jewish diaspora that is always estranged from itself anew, always “waiting / ‘to be’ / wandering.” In this sense, Resnikoff has begun to accompany the work of major predecessors in a larger field of poetics engaged with diasporic transmission—Nathaniel Mackey, for instance, whose ongoing long poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu,” perform syncopated Projectivist variations on diasporic themes. Robert Creeley also comes to mind as a model for Resnikoff’s fine intuition for the pacing of his lines. Take the opening of “Peh-etics (a midrash)”:

                  An efes
                  rises from the sand

                  of syncopated
     speech songs
                  & sings

     a fable de-
     a stone.

The efes (Hebrew: “zero”) that rises here might also be a corruption of epes (Yiddish: “something”). This nothing-something grounds the poem in its own origin myth/midrash, a shifting foundation of “syncopated / speech songs” in which a false spelling can “transcribe” or “de-scribe” a world. Here we have not a poetics but a “peh­-etics,” from the Hebrew word for mouth, “peh.” Resnikoff plays with Zukofsky’s famous interval of music and speech in these lines, filling the nothing with a tune made stonelike (cf. “Anew -20”).
As a scholar and translator of Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, Resnikoff has tuned his ear to exceedingly low and distant frequencies:

               Each night begins
               low as one speaks to a child
               as one writes in chalk
               on the street.

        So begins “In Winter,” the opening poem in the chapbook. Like so much of Resnikoff’s work, these lines induce very fine double vision—should we take “as” as a simile here, or as a temporal marker? Poised in an interspace, a polyglot ghosthouse, the title and contents of this little book could also be read as between shades, the tunes and tones that occur in between (the craggy cover art by Rivka Weinstock aptly signals the volume’s complex textures). Or it can be taken as a weird simple sentence: Between shades. Yes, you feel “Between” expanding in these poems, coloring everything. Resnikoff’s poetics depends on the co-existence of all of these readings, and, more importantly, on this kind of inclusive reading—his words convene at the space and time of translation, where languages carry over and shade into each other.  
        You can feel it, for instance, in the way his poem, “not that”, flickers in and out of coherency:

               Tohu ve-
               tohu with     out
               “to be”
               over shade;

               is finity
               the secret
               skin of earth?

               question answers
               marks erasure

               structure as erasure
               strict skin stretches
               between shade.

               Not this
               w/ clock
               ‘s calloused hands –
               not that
               over this.

        Haim Nahman Bialik’s prophetic essay, “Revealment and Concealment in Language” (1915), provides the nourishing ground for this and other poems in Between Shades. Bialik, the father of modern Hebrew poetry, imagines language as a frozen river whose surface we walk across mistaking it for solid ground. This is the “concealment” of language, the fact that we attribute permanency to words that will soon “slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still,” as Eliot says. Yet the very life of language depends on the rise and fall of words, as necessity brings them into and out of existence. The frozen surface of the river sits precariously over the abyss of meaninglessness (Bialik calls it “blima”, or “without what”), yet prose writers step over the cracks in language and ignore what lies beneath—they skate on thin ice. Poets, however, gaze into the cracks and “reveal” the life and death of words (just as Kafka said that a book must be “an axe for the frozen sea within us”). Poets put us in touch with the futility of pitting words against the pure emptiness of things, even as they renew language that constantly atrophies. And they make us watch.
        “Watch it!” Resnikoff repeats/warns in several of these poems. His broken-off reference to “tohu-bohu,” the elemental state of things in the beginning of God’s creation, conjures up Bialik’s terrifying “blima”. But this is not a poem about language’s decay into silence (Bialik is notably pessimistic about poetry’s final efficacy); rather, it’s a poem in the form of an ice floe—breaking up and melting away “with   out” a trace, as skin, shade, and structure are put under inquisitive erasure. “is finity / finally / the secret / skin of earth?” he asks. Question answers question, and we come to understand that finitude, mortality, and “blima” are the necessary conditions for meaningfulness and exchange. The force of Resnikoff’s response to Bialik derives from this pressure we feel, somehow, in the fissures of this decreative poem—in the “between” where incomprehension and understanding abrade each other, where translation happens.
        Resnikoff gathers and harmonizes a far-flung chorus of poetic voices. Among the tutelary spirits of Between Shades—including the Yiddish poets Avrom Sutzkever and Reuben Ludwig, the Israeli poets Zali Gurevitch, Gabriel Levin, Yoram Verete, and Dennis Silk, and the American poet Charles Reznikoff (a relative)—two stand out for having become Hebrew poets as adults: Harold Schimmel and Avoth Yeshurun. The American Schimmel switched from English to Hebrew when he moved to Israel in the 1960s, and his work over many decades at the center of Israel’s multilingual poetry community forms an essential foundation for Resnikoff’s practice. I would highlight in particular Schimmel’s groundbreaking translations of Avoth Yeshurun, a poet little-known outside Israel whose importance to modern Hebrew poetry arguably matches that of Paul Celan for German. Born Yehiel Perlmutter in a Ukrainian shtetl on Yom Kippur in 1904, Yeshurun left his Yiddish-speaking family’s later home in Krasnystaw, Poland, for British Mandate Palestine in 1925, where he lived an itinerant life among Jewish and Arab communities. After he left, he would never again see his family, who were murdered at Belzec. In 1948 he changed his name to the Hebrew Avoth Yeshurun, which might be translated as “the fathers are watching” and, if translated back into Yiddish, as “little boys are watching us.” His reasons for choosing this name are complex, and his work always pivots him back toward eastern Europe where he watches his family watching him. Here is Resnikoff’s version of a very difficult Yeshurun poem,  “all who come from there”:

               from whence you go
               & to where you come
               I won’t arrive
               at anyplace.

               b/c all my goings are
               toward the from-where
               b/c the nothing is.
               The nothing exists.

               in the non-existence – write in logic. clear.
               all that does not exist in existence.
               in nothing, exists
               all that exists.

               all who come from there,
               like a dog I’ll smell their clothes.
               those, their smell, my father & mother,
               brothers & sister stand
                               straight in my eyes
               & all Krasnystaw stands at the windows.

            It is Yeshurun’s manner to slice language down to the bone, then past the bone. Like Bialik, he is a master of negativity, yet he defers Bialik’s full-bodied sublimities in favor of a hybrid language that rattles, gasps, stutters, breaks off, and chokes in a Hebrew shot-through with Yiddish, Polish, Arabic, and other languages. Here, too, is a poetics of watching: “my father & mother,/ brothers & sisters stand / straight in my eyes / & all Krasnystaw stands at the windows.” This is a different kind of watchfulness, though, than that of Bialik, a keen attentiveness conditioned by guilt and mourning. Resnikoff does an excellent job in this translation of getting across the shorthand flavor of Yeshurun’s work—the lower-case title and text, the ampersands, the b/c’s. What kind of a poem is this? It begins with a garbled reference to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:1, “Know from whence you came, and where you are going.” The poem begins by falling into the cracks of its own unusable language. Nothing comes from nothing, and there is no there there, in Krasnystaw. I think Resnikoff responds very movingly in Between Shades to the contingency of this poem, the way it obeys what Robert Duncan calls “the unyielding Sentence that shows itself forth in the / language as I make it.” Language is not transparent, and form is not fetishized. Words are material things we make make meaning. When Resnikoff plays with the sound and sense of the Hebrew “efes” in “Peh-etics,” we hear behind it Yeshurun’s “rattling / mouth // garbled / running.”
        With this debut, Resnikoff lays the groundwork for a major life-long poetic project of “gathering from the air a live tradition”—a multilingual Jewish-American poetics that we will be watching very closely.

Monday, January 11, 2016

From Technicians of the Sacred (expanded): “Worawora Woman,” from Paddy Roe’s Gularabulu, talk poem with commentary

Worawora woman                                                                                           
        (by Paddy Roe)

Well this man proper man had two woman in camp  -
an' he's a strong man that fella well I mean he can feed that two woman -
that's why he's strong you know he, he can get lotta food -
walkin' you know --
well he used to kill goanna --
everything -
bring pleeenty o' meat you know plenty everything tucker for these two  woman --

so one day come
that old fella paint himself with everything -
he want to find this woman if it's true –
it's true all right he come out in 'im -
so he got this woman too an' he got nether two over there proper womans in his camp you know --
all right -
oh this woman feller 'im round he got his, thing too, to carry --
everything what that man kill you know (Stephen: Yeah) -
tucker for them two women too
all right -
  oh he got 'nuf dis -
coolamon is full now you know with the tucker goanna everything -
  "Oh well that 'nuf ' -

     all right he -
     he stop in one, tree -
   they siddown -
     “All right you take this one” -
     he tell that woman -
     “An I’ll take this one back to my ‘nother two woman in camp” -
     “No” he say --
     “No you not takin’ anything back it’s all mine” -

(Laughs)  he come back -
come back in his two woman --
so that woman disappeared with his tucker an' everything it's gone -
this man goback oh he's too tired now can't get nomore -
everything enough to goback home he's hungry --
he had two woman waiting for im -
see  -
only with spear hunting stick tommyhawk in his belt --
"Ooh what wrong?" they tell-im -
"No no got nothing" he say “I been everywhere can't find
          anything" --
he didn' want to tell, these two woman -

ah -
he's bin doin' this for aaaall the time -
so this man off dis way -
but that woman is there too  -
he kill eeeverything what he can get he pull everything out of his belt -
that man you know put-im in his little, that thing -
he must carry all them things -
he bin doin' this for ooh ----

(Speaks to Butcher Joe in Nyigina)
smoke -
             all right? -
    no I means -
he just  asked  me if -
that smoke all right, eh -
it's not -- (Stephen: Oh that's all right) aah (Stephen: He wants to move?) no he's all right too -

aah so one day come -
"Ah well you bin little bit too long comin' back with these  things" he tell-im  "No tucker" -
these two woman tell-im --
"You must be got somebody" -
tell-im, you know these two woman say --
"Might be some woman somewhere" -
oh they know too the womans know too -
"Aah yes" he tell-im "Yeah -
that's that woman" -
aah all right "Well we gettin' hungry look at all the kids all gettin' hungry no tucker  -
you only feeding one woman" -
"Yeah tha's right" he say "Tha's true" -

so he went back again he kill everything  -
finish all right -
they siddown under the tree now,  that -
aall that goanna what dis man got he puttin-im in the same dish again you know that thing -
this man off one side 'e get that tommyhawk from his belt an' he cut his neck right off -
finish (Laughs) (Stephen: Oh) kill-im, dead -
finish -
'e didn't want to kill-im but 'e had to do it -
other way they all die from hungry too -  
the people -
so he kill that woman -

but that’s only one -
it’s lots more, yet -
(Laughs) you know (Stephen: Mm) -
he only done this jus’ to try -
this person, you know -
he done this jus’ to try -
but we all know too -
there is a woman there -

but we gotta be painted up with the different trees -
you know -
gotta be painted up with different trees -
we bite all the leaves and skin you know off the trees an' we gotta paint -
sit down under that tree then the woman come (Laughs) -
I know it's very hard for somebody to believe, you know (Stephen : Mm) It, it's dere -
it's there -
(Stephen : Aw, sounds all right) -
(Laughs) yeah -
yeah -
Oh some, lotta people done these things too, you know -
lotta  people done paint themselves.
                                                                              (Nyigina , Australia)

Source: Paddy Roe, Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberly, ed. Stephen Muecke, Freemantle Arts Centre Press, West Kimberley, pp. 31-34, 1983.

This is all public,
You know (it) is for everybody.
Children, women, everybody.
See, this is the thing they used to tell us:
Story, and we know.
        Paddy Roe


synopsis.  A fine strong man used to  provide  handsomely  for his two wives by hunting.
     One day he thought he'd see if the worawora woman really existed, so he painted himself up in the required way. He left his camp and went to the right tree where the  woman  came  out  to meet him.
     They hunted together, but when he wanted to share the hunt between her and his women in camp she refused, taking all the food for herself.
     The man went back home empty–handed. His wives questioned him, he said he could find nothing.
     Everyday he went to this woman and the same thing happened. Eventually he revealed the truth at his wives' insistence.
     Then he went and decapitated the woman.

     (2)  Paddy Roe’s choice of title, Gularabulu (“the coast where the sun goes down”), references his own home territory in the West Kimberley region of western Australia.  But the work is an instance too of his reaching out, by the transmission in Aboriginal English of a range of narratives both traditional & contemporary. The resultant “talk poems” (D. Antin), drawn from a word-for-word transcription of his spoken account, provides a conscious transmission from him to “us,” for which Stephen Muecke (identified by bold face in the present text) takes on the roll of listener & scribe.  In this process, Muecke writes further, “Aboriginal English is a vital communicative link between Aboriginal speakers of different language backgrounds.  It also links blacks and whites in Australia, so, as it is used in these stories, it could be said to represent the language of ‘bridging’ between the vastly different European and Aboriginal cultures.  It is therefore in this language that aspects of a new Aboriginality could be said to be emerging.”              
     In the making of such a new “narrative art,” the transcribers follow a pattern along lines developed earlier by Dennis Tedlock & analogous as well to David Antin’s “talk poetry.”  Thus: “The texts are divided into lines whenever the narrator pauses.  The length of these pauses is indicated by one dash per second of pause.  Hesitations in mid-line, at which points the breath is held at the glottis, are indicated by commas.  Extended vowels, ‘growls’ or breathy expressions, are indicated by adding more letters to the extent of one per second.  The texts are also broken up into episodes.”

     (3) In constructing his own poetics, Paddy Roe, as Muecke describes it, ”distinguishes between three types of story: trustori (true stories), bigaregara (stories from the dreaming) and devil stori (stories about devils, spirits, etc.)”  In the last of these “something inexplicable or anomalous happens which can only be explained by the presence of some spirit being.  As Paddy Roe says, in connection with the alluring Worawora spirit woman [in the episode presented here]: ‘Sometimes we see a woman pass but, when you look again you might say: Oh yes I’ve only seen a grass.  But it is the woman Worawora, she still lives today.’”