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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Heriberto Yépez: Ethopoetics, What Is It?

[In a recent announcement, which seemed strange even to those of us who thought we knew him well, our friend & companion in poetry Heriberto Yépez announced recently that “the writing project that was Heriberto Yépez” had now come to an end and that “Heriberto Yépez’s oeuvre has concluded.” Since Heriberto had only turned forty this year, it seemed a little premature & reminiscent, to me at least, of the “poets of the no” (the great refuseniks) in Enrique Vila-Matas's masterful Bartleby & Co. It was also enough to set off a new barrage of ad hominem attacks from a “gruppo” of American poets who had been on Yépez's case since publication in 2012 of his Empire of Neomemory, where he focuses critically, even negatively, on Charles Olson's northamericanist perspective (a part of Olson's “special view of history”), taking him seriously enough to place him on a par with Whitman, Melville & Lawrence, among notable others. I have no sense that the retirement of Heriberto Yépez as Heriberto Yépez has anything to do with those attacks, but the two events coming together encourages me to reconsider the value of Heriberto Yépez and what his work has meant to me over the fifteen years or more I've known him. The essay that follows is the first work of his that I published in Poems and Poetics & was an early & tentative expansion of what I had been calling ethnopoetics into what he began to redesignate as ethopoetics. That seemed fair enough to me as a way to keep the discourse rolling, & I reprint it now as an appreciation of what can open up by not taking for granted or as gospel the work that comes before our own. I look forward at the same time to whatever comes next in Heriberto's work, by whatever name we get to call him – even perhaps the project we had planned together of a new assemblage that would bring the poetry of all the Americas together in a single large anthology or “grand collage.” (J.R.)]

(A Pre-Face)

In the nineties, I-I began translating Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry and prose and, of course, there I-I found that meaningful word that appears constantly in his work and maybe sums it up: ethnopoetics /// The term is not precise—and there’s no reason for it to be precise—it allows its own rethinking /// One afternoon I-I was working on the translation and I-I kept making a mistake—a typo I-I think Americans call that and I-I like writing “typo” by the way /// Instead of writing etnopoética (ethnopoetics) I-I repeatedly wrote etopoética /// The word was odd and at that time I-I didn’t realized it existed, though in a curious way the mistake meant—at least meant something that afternoon and also means something today—and I-I took it as a clue—and it stuck on my mind for a long time—in my journal I-I made a note: “etopoética, ¿qué es?”—Ethopoetics, what is it?

. . . . . . .

(Ethopoetics Not Just a Lapsus)

Ethnopoetics has been centered on the techniques on how to produce new kinds of poetry. Its own consciousness of that involves, of course, how to transform the poet, thought that hasn’t been its emphasis and I-I think Rothenberg himself would agree on that.

Some time ago, teaching at the university where I-I work—and I-I don’t teach anymore in a text-based traditional way, but more in a way that I-I can only describe as more on the spot, using ‘academic’ subject matters as pre-texts to invite students to work on themselves inside and outside class, to make books come alive, and without being preoccupied with making products such as ‘books’, ‘ideas’ or ‘works’, all of that driven by Mexican and American dreams of success, career, competition, originality, cleverness, reputation, copyright, control, and all the other things we all know are insane but we keep alive in the same degree that we still depend on them to ‘survive’.

I-I was saying, “some time ago, teaching at the university where I-I work”, I-I started using Foucault’s later work as a perfect excuse to invite ‘theory’-driven students—mostly afraid of their own bodies—to really understand the nature (change) of philosophy. And for that purpose I-I used Foucault’ seminars about the hermeneutics of subjectitivy. (I-I could use some other authors, but I-I’ve found Foucault make things easier. They trust Foucault. I-I use him as a fishhook).

I-I use, let’s say, his discussion on how Greek philosophers—though in his view mostly post-Socratic—which shows how Aristotelian Foucault still was—taught philosophy and how philosophy meant then a series of techniques to transform the individual so he is able to relate himself to the truth. For example—this is not the place to explain in detail Foucault’s late research—how parrhesia was obtained, that is, how to develop a complete freedom of speech, a capacity to “say everything”, based on the work on oneself, the care of oneself (epimeleia) in order to ABANDON SELF-DECEIPT and thus, boldly speak the truth in a world based on lies, that is, fears. (In spite of Foucault own fears of stating his position more clearly, because he was afraid of leaving ‘academia’, ‘philosophy’, ‘university’ and so he said all of this as if it only was what he found out in “scholarly” ways, in “scientific” ways, not what he personally, as a wise man in becoming, believed, no... Foucault in that sense died afraid of abandoning his past identity as a theoretical post-modern academic and writerly figure. He couldn’t take the ridicule of attempting to overcome himself.

But what he unearthed (again) was how to rethink philosophy not as a discourse-based discipline but as something else: the re-making of man. A re-making in which parrhesia for us in the poetics community is a key value, which consists in the cleansing of the mind of false idols and then and only then, producing language in unexpected and not always welcomed ways. Or to explain it a very simple way, how to produce spontaneous truth.

I-I’m not innocent of the resonances I-I’m trying to bring here. Not only in Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s Buddhist sense but also in earlier visions of what poetry meant (surrealism’s attempts to remove everything that blocked—aesthetics, morals and logic—the subject from understanding reality and also, again, in Situationism, which is mostly a spiritual discipline, though I-t don’t think Debord fully realized that). In Foucault’s take on Greek philosophy—not only based on Pierre Hadot incredible research but also, I-I heavily suspect though Foucault tries to hide it, in non-Western shamanism and Buddhism itself and, of very evidently in Marxism (philosophy defined not as ‘theory’ but as ‘the transformation of the world’) and psychoanalysis—In Foucault’s take on Greek philosophy, I-I was saying, philosophy is anthropoeisis, so called it somehow. Anthropoiesis = the making of man.

Of course, Foucault’s late work (less known still today than this earlier books) resonates with what I-I learnt from Matthai and from reading (enjoying, translating) Rothenberg’s work and with my own personal experiences with counter-psychotherapy, that is, not how to ‘normalize’ individuals but how to learn how to liberate oneself from hegemonic “one”self/constructs and also how to get free from society’s methods of control at all levels, with which we get caught up in the same degree we still (mostly in hidden ways) identify with those control-values, even if (or specially if) we believe we “fight” them.

What I-I am saying in these last words is that I-I have found out that writers, artists and intellectuals start as defectors of control but somehow during the way we generally don’t understood we were supposed to center our work on curing all our lies, fears, and then (or during that process) making our work (written or not), because the aesthetics mostly follows Ethics.

Understanding ethics as self-construction.

And so, without curing ourselves, we are now spreading in different ways the same methods of control that we believe we fight against…

Rimbaud couldn’t manage the forces he himself unleashed. He gave up and became himself a slave(rer).

Baudelaire knew he had to jump into the abyss, but remained in love of hate.

Artaud didn’t cure himself and so he ended destroying all that was profound in him through drugs, lies, ego, foolish frenzy, fantasies, misogyny and even crazy christianism at the end.

Kerouac had the potential to fulfill his dream of becoming a new kind of sage, but he never got rid of his childish Catholic dream of being a perfect saint for mommy and at the same time a big macho American cowboy-Superman, and so he drowned out in alcohol, the only situation at the end in which he fantasized he was a free and opened-up Western male.

Kathy Acker knew she had to blow up and in many ways she did, but there was a final step she didn’t take. She loved violence too much.

Debord knew all but stuck with paranoia and general control, so he projected all his authoritarian spectacle onto the ‘society’ and couldn’t manage to work on himself to really get ride of everything he rightly accused the world.

Foucault knew in public theory everything he ended up unfulfilling in his spiritual self.

And I-I am naming just a few of those more brave than us!

We idolize them so what’s similar in us is idolized by others.

Writers, thinkers, intellectuals, artists, ¡poets! Need to heal themselves (from themselves) in order to become true visionaries.

We haven’t done that—that’s the only task that completely matters right now.

But what is happening now? In Latin America, in Spain, in Europe, in China, in Japan, in America, in Russia, in everyplace the human mind is afraid of being an animal still evolving—and after the big upheaval we are living a return to the old models of poet as man-of-letters, and ‘artists’ as man-of-walls, though by way of post-modern disguises! Deceit yourselves! Or use all your irony or all your critical theory you can to hide from what you deeply know! Poets have to become knowers.

In this time of total warfare against the planet and humanity—which is not something we own but something we create—aren’t we suppose to lead the path into something beyond this cruel order of despair, poverty and neo-totalitarian control?

Archaic traditions, from shamanism to Eastern religions, were not perfect or worked at all—we are the inheritors of their collective failures—but they knew the end is not to produce things, but to produce subjects.

All the great poets have known poetry resides beyond writing, but in Modern Western cultures such as ours this knowledge is kept bookish, utopical, dream-like, and romantic, so we can play the game that consists in not fully accepting that everything we do is really based on the persecution of truth.

And I-I mean it in two ways, because that’s how (for us) it is.

Poets will be considered in the future only the ambivalent forerunners of now unexpected liberated women and men.

They will understand how afraid we were.

I-I’m not saying there’s something fundamentally wrong with poetry, what I-I’m saying is poetry can always be more!

(Ethopoetics. What Is It?)

Etopoética, no longer an accident. At one point I-I even found it to be a word in Plutarch. It means “the poetics of ethos”, that is, the making of ways-of-being. And ethos meaning there not just one way of being but a more healthier, open, developed, complex way of being, which is described by the different schools of ancient philosophy, and where writing is considered part of epimeleia.

Poetry? Does it affect anybody? Well, yes, the poet foremost.

Experimentalism means there to experiment with news ways of life, in which language techniques play a central role in the transformation of reality.

We can define poetry as a series of techniques to construct—or if you prefer, deconstructthe subject through concrete and various methods that involve voice, body, book, theory, therapy, vision, tradition and writing.

Understanding “voice” as the ways in which mind and body materialized, the patterns in which change interplays with memory.

Understanding “body” as not just physical body but that other body that Blake refer to, and also Whitman—and romanticism and avant-gardes in general—and from my angle Pre-Hispanic thought through notions such a “nawal”, co-body (co-cuerpo)—that is, that other body (animal, plant, object, world) that through chant, writing, love, ritual, mind, vision, ordinary life and developed spiritualism is allowed to re-unite with our recognizable (already stable) physical body. Poetics means how to increase/accept more ‘body’.

Understanding “book” as a being existing not only in materiality (that which holds ‘pages’ or can be ‘read’) but also as a symbol of a ‘book’ inside the mind, that crypto-genetic information (form-giving) that we inherit and construct through out our lives.

Understanding “theory” as the intellectual capacity to see what’s separate—from ‘ordinary world’—the vision of teos, from theoin, the divine and, of course, theos, god(s)). Only later theory was degraded as mere ‘seeing’, ‘thinking’ (rationally), ‘spectacle’ (not only in the Greek sense but also in Debord’s). Here theory is understood as the vision of the sacred.

Understanding “therapy” as just as what it means “substitute ritual”, that is, ways of channeling individuals unto their next stage of development, and doing that inside societies that lost the ritual methods of helping in that process or inside societies that surpassed the levels of consciousness that collective ritual could provide.

Understanding “vision” as the emergence of uponoia, images made autonomously by the mysterious functioning of the ‘mind’, which is two (‘female’ and ‘male’ plus ‘one’ (The ‘I-I’)).

Understanding “tradition” through its missing n, “trans-dition”, trans-dare, trans-giving, that is not only the handing down of something that involves movement, but also the giving-of-how-to-change.

Understanding “writing” as psyche-making (psychopoetics), as the intervention on the mind-as-received, psyche-as-given, the modification of “one-self” (into other-selves) through all kinds of techniques. Understanding ‘writing’ as a open process of reinventing its identity, and understanding ‘identity’ in general not as a fixed list of attributes of something/something, but identity as a series of patterns and methods of changing one-another.

Poetry then means the new-making of oneself.

Poetry as the practical—not just ‘verbal’ or utopian—invention of wholeness/otherness. Poet as technicians of the (sacred) self.

And poets as proto-poets.

Ethopoetics as a rewriting not only of ethnopoetics but everything that poetry has discovered and everything we can find out outside writing. Ethopoetics as a mutation, an accident after the big accident of the 20th Century. Ethopoetics as a rewriting of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Ethopoetics as a rewriting of religions and philosophy and social sciences. Ethopoetics as a way out of the university and the humanities, all of them part of control, part of ‘discourse’. Ethopoetics as the rewriting of the Human animal.

And if writing as literary craft still is in your mind right now—it still is in mine—just remember that’s how poetry changes: when the self modifies itself or is abruptly or slowly modified by some ‘external’ force, the page also mutates.

We need not to look for ways to (just) ‘change’ the page—the main goal of the literary world, avant-garde or not—but ways of changing ourselves and then, the page, along with other structures, will emerge in otherness.

And poetics then will be understood as the techniques to help others that are seeking/desiring to transform themselves and have a strong relation to writing.

(And if somebody has a strong relation to writing, I-I have discovered that means s(he) wants to rewrite her/himself).

(And if poetry conceives itself as a way of changing others, that's a definition that I-I would consider authoritarian—to do something to somebody else, without their open, free and clear willingness to do it (for) themselves).

And, yes, this brings politics into place. Politics understood as the production of well-being inside gatherings, not just “cities” but everywhere the plural (polis) exists.

So by “poetry” I-I just don mean “verse” but the construction (poiesis) of oneself.

And how trans-constructing oneself transforms ‘individual’ & ‘world’.

That is what ethopoetics is. A life-time project. A new science.

I-I conceived not a new literary style, school of philosophy or a combination of disciplines, but something beyond all of that, and maybe, far less recognizable, process-guided, site-specific, culturally-based, diverse, whose meaning can only be understood at its end. That’s how I-I see that which through accidents I-I got to un-cover and dis-cover.

And that’s how I-I see too the future of poetics as it is today.

I-I see fear will still dominate the last stage of this pre-human order. But I-I also see something else, I-I see a higher animal becoming visible. A general rewriting. A future radical ethopoetics brought by a collapse, a great unseen accident.

Tijuana / 2009

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ian & Me: A Collaboration

Ian Tyson, “Three Friendly Warnings,” Realization from the Seneca Indian with Richard Johnny John & Jerome Rothenberg
“Ian Tyson reads us” – or so I wrote a number of years ago when the question first came up.  He is illustrator of the work not as subject or as mood per se but as structure.  The rest comes out of that, a play between the poet & the artist, where the poet’s words are taken, not for what they say at surface but for the directions they imply – the rules or inner structures that are there for him to read & follow, or evade.  I am a poet with some feel for content, for signification, that may sometimes act to hide the structure.  I began to come alive in poetry with a series of polemics arguing the primacy of image (“deep” or “surreal” or otherwise) as a concern to be explored anew in the awakening of the later 1950s.  That part, the image part, had no need for picture as a form of illustration.  And even later, when I used photos & other images to let the physical eye catch a glimpse of a mythical Poland disclosed through words, said photos were sparing & personal, my additions, often ironic, to a work that was proceeding as a whole by means of an already evident collage.
            I was working in the middle 1960s on a group of poems called Sightings – a form of poetry that challenged continuity & organic flow in favor of a rigid demarcation between the fragments or perceptions that composed the poem.  If my images remained “soft,” the structure was no longer flowing but sharply cut (by visual “bullets,” aural silences).  In that sense I was already approaching Tyson’s world, coming to a first meeting circa 1967 & a friendship & sometime collaboration down to the present.  The result for me was an immediate re-cognition of the structural side of my own work.
            The poems of mine to which he first turned his attention were those in Sightings.  As I conceived of them, they made up a single poem divided into nine numbered sections, & each section subdivided into smaller “fragments.”  His translation into abstract visual images bore a close but by no means slavish relation to the structure of the poems, less evidently to their content, tone, etc.  For this his first move was to generalize the numbers in the subsets – or as he later wrote about it: 

Carefully considering the text I found that each section had an average of nine lines so I devised a grid of 3 x 3 large squares subdivided into 12 x 12 alternating black to color.  I used the grid to form the pulse or ground base of the images & as a structure for the typography [the poems printed en face].  The colored squares were thematic relating to each part of the text but once having established it I improvised freely until I arrived at what I  felt to be a satisfactory counterpoint of typographically correct text & page.

From that reading – the best in any sense that my work had had up to that point – & from a feeling for his work, which was then new for me, I made another poem, “Red Easy A Color,” that followed Gertrude Stein’s steps into a common meeting.   And this one he translated into a rich & glowing, almost monumental image that sealed up that book.
            I had begun by then a work in ethnopoetics that would bring me into the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, largely but not exclusively derived from song texts.  The first collaborative piece to emerge from that was a large pamphlet/broadsheet derived from an Aztec description (a lexical definition, in fact) of the ceremonial & private uses of flowers.  The verbal piece, which I in turn had mined from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, was a cataloguing of repetitive & parallel declarative sentences that rose at times to crescendo.  In the resultant piece, Offering Flowers, the words on the left are pulled toward the image on the right by cross-bars of a large “F” taken from the title, & the image itself (in orange, black & white), while it’s still composed on the grid, is allowed dramatic bursts, like clusters of squared-off flowers, pathways, stairs, in a manner reminiscent of pre-Columbian design or, as he writes of it, “rather like an embroidery pattern.”
            From the “more explicitly illustrated,” almost fluid flower image, he went in The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell to a group of much more austere, more minimal pieces.  The poems here were “total translations” of four of the seventeen Navajo songs, which I took as sound-poems & to which his images related in a more general way than before – an accompaniment rather than a mapping of the infrastructures.  The principal response to the structure (this time of the songs over-all) was in the choice of color (white & blue) suggested by the alternation of blue & white objects (turquoise, whiteshell [abalone], etc.) in the systematically paired horse songs themselves.  Tyson’s designs kept an American Indian feeling, akin to Navajo sand painting & even closer – as with the Aztec flowers – to native weavings.  And along with this there was also a sense in which the form of his images might be thought to represent, in line with the underlying mythological narrative,  “a ‘going through’ portals to the sky, to obtain and bring back the horses.”
A more extended & more collaborative work was Songs for the Society of the Mystic Animals, a series of poems derived from Seneca Indian ceremonial sources.  I had already translated these into “concrete poems,” transformed them in that instance since the originals were purely oral.  What I now sensed, along with Tyson, was the possibility of driving them still further, incorporating color & significant typography, plus (in line with Tyson’s vision) a greater adherence to the structure of the grid.  This would take us, I thought, toward the creation of a meditative visual field – as the tantrist yantra is the classic visualization of the chanted mantra.  At the heart of that linkage was the fact that the songs – qua mantra – contained not only words but vocables (“meaningless,” non-lexical sounds: highyohoweyehhey, etc.) to which the words related as with figure & ground.  Color & position could both reveal & conceal such distinctions, however we chose to handle them, & this became the basis of much of the collaboration between us.  His own words cover this far better – the care given to each work as an event, an action triggered by the field, the way the words are set before us: 

            The choice of color was determined subjectively where appropriate to the
            elements described; e.g., earth, smoke, fire, water, etc., or objectively to
            separate out the textual changes between the sensible & chant elements
            & to punctuate any accents as they occurred.  The shape of each song
              was indicative of its subject matter [“but in a non-illustrative way,” he points
              out earlier] so that in the Song about a Mole, or Was It a Dead Person? the
              shape became long to support the idea of burrowing or traveling through
whereas in the songs about Acting Like a Crow I kept the format to an
approximate square to engender the notion of performing within a limited

            The Mystic Animals series was done by 1982, & since then we’ve engaged in a range of individual publications, something like half of which involve a process of composition based on a form of traditional Jewish numerology called gematria.  While the texts for these works resemble my earlier Sightings, the process by which they’re composed is much cooler, more hard-edged than what I had allowed myself in the 1960s.  As a form of process-generated poetry, the gematria poems play off the fact that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is also a number & that words or phrases the sums of whose letters are equal  are at some level meaningfully connected.  For myself – as for Tyson – these coincidences / synchronicities function not as hermeneutic substantiations for religious & ethical doctrines, but as an entry into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist & postmodernist experiments over the last century and a half.
            Where Mystic Animals had brought us to a place in which the components of the visual image were themselves letters & words, the works thereafter were, as he describes them, “typographically [un]interpretable other than the choice of type face and the careful placing on the page, i.e. they are not translatable into visual poetry.”  What moves the work forward, then, is a mutual interest in numbers (“as opposed,” he points out, “to mathematics”) that can function for both of us as an opening for “specific compositional doors … less as systems than as philosophical speculations.”  In the most complex of these collaborations, Delight/Délices, five gematria-derived poems are set in units that include the English text, a translation into French by Nicole Peyrafitte, & a visual extension that places strikingly colored squares on a black ground, disposed according to their numerical position – determined by the gematria number – on an imagined grid.  In another collaboration, Six Gematria, my selection of poems assures that each will include reference to a primary or secondary color, & Tyson follows with a single image made up of 26 “lozenges” (for the 26 letters of the alphabet), which changes color as he moves from poem to poem.
            In other, still more recent work, the strategy varies from piece to piece, with a tendency for the visual image to attenuate by stages: a series of thin, variously dispersed lines in A Case for Memory, or an arrangement of colorless intaglio squares, embossed so lightly as to hint at their own disappearance, in The Times Are Never Right.  Here, if I read him rightly (& I think I do), he follows my own struggle with time, both personal & cosmic, & with the sense of “loss and desolation” that the struggle implies. “In making the visual corollary to these,” he tells me,  I put forward my own image of time, gained and lost.  A very abstracted conception which I tied together in the general design.
            It is something of this kind that informs our most recent work together: In Memory of Paul Celan: Three Death Poems.  My own contribution to this was to pull together a series of words & phrases drawn from Celan’s poems or reminiscent of his texts or textures.  To meet these, Tyson turns to an image, he writes, that “comes from a gradually developing structure first encountered when I took another (very oblique) look at cubism and started to deconstruct the grids in [a series of his] drawings.”  Working for the first time with computer, he transferred the ideas onto QuarkXPress, “where I could cross reference the text and image on the screen.”  The result, as he saw it was “a gradual seeping away of the colour filigree – there and only just there – paraphrasing the Three Death Poems. …  Perhaps a metaphor for my state of mind although the possibilities it opens up for me are immense.”
            For me as well the openings are now extraordinary.  We may have entered – both of us – into an altenstil or a series of such as a place of reflection – not, I would stress, of rest – that neither of us could earlier have imagined.  Here all possibilities are equal & we can descant, like the ancient figures evoked by Yeats or Duncan, on art & song, or on Stevens’ presentiment, maybe, of “a colossal sun … like / a new knowledge of reality.” (If only the world allows it  … & of course it never does.)   
             For this I will let Tyson have the final word, glancing back like me at our long-shared musings: John Christie has said that my work ‘seems to withstand the vicissitudes of daily life.’  This may be but I can't help thinking that of late there are some undertones of angst creeping in and reflecting themselves, however subtly, in our recent works, which only seems natural given the times.  As for the future, we haven't even started talking of it.

[note. Visiting recently with sculptor & book artist Ian Tyson in the village of Saint Roman de Malegarde in the Vaucluse, I thought again of the nearly fifty years of friendship & collaboration that have bound us together, & I felt that I wanted to reprint this homage to him written a decade ago & included also in Poetics & Polemics, the book of my prose writings published by the University of Alabama Press in 2008.  Ian’s work has been crucial for me, & I mean to reiterate his importance here for anyone who cares to read it – a reminder too that for those of us fortunate enough to share their work as we have, the life of poetry can open up as here to become a work in common. (J.R.)]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For David Meltzer, an Old Pre-Face for a New Publication

[Having written it  originally for David’s Copy: Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 2005), I reprint my pre-face here in celebration of the republication by City Lights Books of his classic poetics primer, Two Way Mirror, concerning which I wrote more recently: David Meltzer had set out, when he was very young, to write a long poem called The History of Everything, an ambition that his later poetry brought ever closer to fulfillment.  Here, in Two Way Mirror, he shows us the underpinnings for such an enterprise: a brilliant & wise work as rich in insights & discoveries today as when it was first published in 1977.  I know of no better amalgam of poetry & poetics & no better introduction to the ways in which poetry can emerge for us & lead us beyond ourselves & toward our own fulfillments.  Meltzer’s grace of mind & the life of poetry that surrounds it make the case complete." (J.R.)] 

I first became aware of David Meltzer – as many of us did – with the publication in 1960 of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, that celebrated the emergence over the previous decade of a new & radical generation of American poets.  Those included ranged in age from Charles Olson, already fifty, to David Meltzer, then in his early twenties.  Meltzer’s four poems were all short, filling up most of three pages, & displayed a surefooted use of the kind of demotic language & pop referentiality that was cooking up in poetry as much as it was in painting.  His lead-off poem mixed traditional Japanese references with more contemporary ones to Kirin Beer & Havatampa cigars, but  there was otherwise no indication of a wider or deeper field of reference – as in the work, say, of older contemporaries such as Olson & Robert Duncan, or of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Louis Zukofsky before them.  Like many of our generation his aim was not to appear too literary; as in the conclusion of his biographical note: “I have decided to work my way thru poetry & find my voice & the stance I must take in order to continue my journey.  Poetry is NOT my life.  It is an essential PART of my life.” 

It took another decade of journeying for Meltzer to emerge as a poet with a “special view” & with a hoard of sources & resources that he would mine tenaciously & would transform into unique poetic configurations.   For me the sense of him had changed & deepened some years before I got to know him as a friend & fellow traveler.  The realization – as happens with poets – came to me through the books that he was writing & publishing & that I was getting to read – on the run, so to speak, like so many others.  In The Dark Continent, a gathering of poems from 1967, I found him moving in a direction that few had moved in – or that few had moved in as he did.  The “transformation,” as I thought of it, appeared about a quarter of the way into the book – a subset of poems called The Golem Wheel, in which the idiom & setting remained beautifully vernacular but the frame of reference opened, authoratatively I thought, into new or untried worlds. 

The most striking of those worlds was that of Jewish lore & mysticism, starting with the Prague-based legend of Rabbi Judah Loew & his Frankensteinian creation (the “golem” as such), incorporating a panoply of specific Hebrew words & names along with kabbalistic & talmudic references & their counterparts in a variety of popular contexts (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Harry Bauer in the 1930s Golem movie, language here & there from comic strips, etc.).  It was clear too that the judaizing here – to call it that – was something that went well beyond any kind of ethnic nostalgia., that he was tapping in fact into an ancient & sometimes occulted stream of poetry, while moving backward & forward between “then” & “now.”   In an accompanyhing subset, Chthonic Fragments, a part of it presented in the present volume, he expanded his view into gnostic, apocryphal Christian, & pagan areas that left their mark, as a kind of catalyst, even when he swung back to the mundane 1960s world: the “dark continent” of wars & riots, the funky sounds of blues & rock & roll, the domestic pull of family & home. 

I mention this as a recollection of my own very personal coming to Meltzer & to the recognition that he was, like any major artist, building a special world: a meltzer-universe in this case that spoke to some of us in terms of our own works & aspirations.   (“The Jew in me is the ghost of me,” began one stanza in The Golem Wheel, & I was smitten.)  His pursuit of origins of all sorts was otherwise relentless – not only in his poems but with a magazine & a press that also took as their point of departure or entry the hidden worlds of Jewish kabbalists & mystics.  The magazine was called Tree (etz hayyim, the tree of life, in Hebrew) & was connected as well to a series of anthologies of his devising (Birth; Death; The Secret Garden: An Anthology of the Kabbalah), alongside chronicles of jazz writing & jazz reading & of poetry – Beat & other – that had emerged or was emerging from the place in California where he lived & worked. 

What was extraordinary here was the lighthearted seriousness of the project – a freewheeling scholarship in the service of poetry – & his ability to cast an esoteric content in a non-academic format & language.  In this he shared ideas & influences with a range of contemporary artists & poets – notably the great west coast collagist Wallace Berman, whose appropriations of the Hebrew alphabet as magic signs & symbols led directly to what Meltzer, borrowing a phrase from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, called Bop Kabbalah.  It was also in that California ambience that he made contact with older poets like Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, & Kenneth Rexroth, & with younger ones like Jack Hirschman, engaged like him in the search for old & new beginnings.  In circumstances where everything suddenly seemed possible, he joined with his wife Tina (as singer) & with fellow poet Clark Coolidge (as drummer) to form a rock performance group called Serpent Power – the name itself an echo of ancient yogic & tantric practice.  

The totality of Meltzer’s work will wait for another occasion – a Meltzer Reader perhaps or a collected Meltzer – in which all of it can be mirrored.  For now – & not for the first time – he has condensed his nearly half century of poetry into the pages of this book.  As such it is a reflection of where he has worked & lived, often with great intensity – first in polyglot New York (Brooklyn to be exact) & later (most of his life in fact) in California.  He has never been a great traveler, in the literal sense, but his mind has traveled, metaphorically, into multiple worlds.  In the process he has drawn from a multiplicty of times & places & set them against his own immediate experience.  His attitude is that of a born collagist, a poet with a taste for “pilfering,” he tells us, or, paraphrasing Robert Duncan: “Poets are like magpies: they grab at anything bright, and they take it back to their nest, and they’ll use it sooner or later.”  And he adds, speaking for himself:  “I use everything, everything that shone for me.” 

The range of the work itself follows from another dictum: “Poems come from everywhere.”  As such, the focus moves from the quotidian, the everyday, to the historical &, where it fits, the transcendental.  The mundane stands out, for example, in a poem like “It’s Simple,” though not without its underlyhing “mystery.”  Thus, in its opening stanza (the whole poem elsewhere in this book): 

It’s simple.
One morning
Wake up ready
For new work.
Pet the dog,
Dog’s not there.
Rise & shine
Sun’s not there.
Take a deep breath.
No air.                                               

If the presentation here gives the appearance of simplicity – something like what Meltzer calls “the casual poem” – we can also remember his warning, that “art clarifies, it doesn’t simplify,” that his intent as a poet is, further, “to write of mysteries in language as translucent and inviting as a mirror.”  

Mystery or “the potential of mystery” is a term that turns up often in Meltzer’s poetics – his talking about the poetry he & others make.  It is no less so where the poem is family chronicle than where it draws on ancient myth or lore: the fearful presence in “The Golem Wheel” 

. . . returning home to a hovel
to find table & a chair
wrecked by the Golem’s fist       

 or the celebration & lamenting of the parents in “The Eyes, the Blood: 

my father was a clown,
my mother a harpist . . . 

There is a twofold process in much of what he does here: a demythologizing & a remythologizing, to use his words for it.  In this sense what is imagined or fabulous is brought into the mundane present, while what is mundane is shown to possess that portion of the marvelous that many of us have been seeking from Blake’s time to our own.

David’s Copy is full of such wonders, many of them excerpts from longer works that show a kind of epic disposition – in the sense at least of the long poem as a gathering of fragments/segments/image-&-data-clusters.  Watch him at work, full blast, in the two excerpts from Chthonic Fragments or in the “Hero” & “Lil” excerpts from what was originally his long poem, “Hero/Lil,” in which he draws the Lil of the poem (= Lilith, Adam’s first wife; later: the mother of demon babes) into the depths of post-exilic life: 

She-demon deity
lies on the sofa
stretching like a cat.
Small hot breasts.
Miles breathes Blackbird.
She accepts
the hash and grass joint.
Cool fingers
Dive under my pants
ka! ka! ka!
Screech of all
Lil’s hungry babies
caged-up next door. 

Or again: 

She wants words only at dawn.
I touch her mouth with language
then afterwards move against her. 

            In other serial works the touch is lighter, where he observes or playfully takes the role – totem-like – of magical yet ordinary animal beings: the dog in Bark: A Polemic, say: 

Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
also shit on sidewalks door mats proches trails
wherever new shoes walk fearless.
Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown
it’s a dog’s life
we can’t live without you.
Mirror you we are you.
Beneath your foot or on the garage roof.
You teach us speech bark bark
for biscuits we dance for you.
You push us thru hoops
& see our eyes as your eyes
but you got the guns the gas the poison
all of it.
Bark is what us dogs do here in Dogtown. 

Or the Monkey in the singular poem of that name – both pseudo-orthodox (“bruised before Yahweh”) & quasi-stylish (“suave in my tux”). 

These are the marks of a poet who has worked over a span of time, to pursue interests near & dear to him.  To cite another instance, music – the full range of it for Meltzer – comes into a large portion of the poems, a reflection of his own musical strivings inherited in part from his harpist mother & cellist father, celebrated in the long poem or poem series, Harps, itself a section from a much longer ongoing work called Asaph, one intention of which is to use music, he tells us, “as a form of autobiography.”  Of such musically engaged works the great example is his recent booklength poem for Lester Young, No Eyes,  from which he has generously selected for the present volume.  Add to that another big work, Bolero (also a part of Asaph), & short poems or references to Hank Williams (the “lamentation” for him), Billie Holiday (“Darn that Dream”), & Thelonious Monk, among recurrent others.  Later too, when he becomes a chronicler (Beat Thing the most recent & most telling example), the music of the time, like its poetry & loads of pop debris & rubble, has a place at center. 

I would cite Beat Thing in particular as both his newest book as of this writing & as something more & special: a harbinger perhaps of things to come. As recollection & politics, it is Meltzer’s truly epic poem – an engagement with once recent history (the 1950s) & his own participatory & witnessing presence. If the title at first suggests a nostalgic romp through a 1950s-style “beat scene,” it doesn’t take long before mid-twentieth-century America’s urban pastoralism comes apart in all its phases & merges with the final solutions of death camps & death bombs from the preceding decade. This is collage raised to a higher power – a tough-grained & meticulously detailed poetry – "without check with original energy," as Whitman wrote – & very much what’s needed now.

The reader of David’s Copy will find in the more recent poems that end it a sense of timelines amidst the timelessness that poetry is often said to offer – Beat Thing clearly but also Feds v Reds, Tech, or even Shema 2 with its linking of judaic supplications & koranic language in the wake, I would imagine, of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The political engagement – embedded in the poetry itself – is both real & heedful of his earlier remarks that looked down at the “onedimensionalizing” of so much  political poetry (“a tendency to supply people with conclusions, but you don’t give them process”) in contrast to which “a certain kind of pornography was what I wanted to do as politics.”  And that in fact was something that he also did – a genre of novel writing that he called “agit-smut” and described as “a way for me to vent my rage and politicize … a way of talking about power.” 

Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything.   It was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young poets the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.”  Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to critic-masters who were themselves, most often, non-practitioners & non-seekers.  By contrast, as is evident throughout this book, Meltzer allied himself with those poets of his time & place (Beats & San Francisco Renaissance & others) who were both international in their range & the true carriers or creators of traditions new & old. 

It was at this juncture that I met him, & his companionship added immeasurably to my own work as a poet.  I continue not only to prize him but to read his poems with the greatest pleasure. 

Jerome Rothenberg

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jerome Rothenberg: After Gorky’s “The Betrothal,” Poem & Autovariation, 1966 & 2014

Arshile Gorky, "The Betrothal," 1947
[Using the procedure of “variations” that I began with The Lorca Variations (1993) I turn it again toward my own earlier work & show, below, both a poem from 1966 & the corresponding autovariation from 2014.   In the present instance I’ve gone back to a poem written & published as part of a book called “The Gorky Poems,” and, as in the  “variations” I’ve done from other poets, I systematically remove all nouns from the original & use them as building blocks or what Jackson Mac Low used to call “nuclei” in the construction of an otherwise “original” poem.  For this the directive is from Henri Matisse, in an exchange with Gino Severini: “One should be able to rework an old work at least once – to make sure that one has not fallen victim – to one’s nerves or to fate.  And again: “When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.”]

the betrothal (1966)
from The Gorky Poems 

     How they began it.  Dead bodies
     moved in the flowerbed, a finger stopping & turning, showing
     a page & an ocean, a longboard covered with stars.  In the great night
     my heart will go out, will be scooped from me, swept thru the water
     follow the plane’s route, a place
     where boats meet like lovers
     in couples, the heart of the diamond, the cyclotron’s heart, its spaces
     cleaving me, leaving me dead.
     I was dead.
     Who steps from the sea to meet me?
     Another dead body, a heart like a cucumber
     cold, green, in the ice-covered room, receiving my heart
     the taste of my blood in her mouth.
     Her dead mouth.
     The passage into her darkness, a gutter
     a rainpassage
     country of clouds & the blue lips of women.
     A hand slides under his shirt.  He grows hard.  The dancers
     forget where the light is
     & fall, the dancers forget
     they falter
     their hands break the glass
     a finger stopping & turning, showing
     a skull.  Lift the hammer
     & over your head lift the icecap.
     Smash thru the air.  The air freezes &
     freezes against you
     covers your hair & your teeth, slits your gums, draws bile thru your nose.
     To the sound of drums, the cry of walruses, the beating of a heart
     not my own
     to the beating of a heart not my own
     I was turning.
     In the trunk I was turning.
     Among crushed hat I was turning.
     Under a crushed sun I was turning.
     I turned with the sun.  A faucet
     was turning
     black water spilt from a glass.
     Starting & turning, returning
     & starting.  A penny.
     A seal.
     An umbrella.
     An American flag.
     A wishbone.
     A derrick.
     A place.
     We called it a place by subtraction.  

the betrothal (2014)
from The Gorky Variations 

he points a finger
at the stars
a cyclotron of racing bodies
like a plane in flight

a darkness in which
lovers struggle
women’s hands
grow hard

the country hides them
hammers strike the air
blood turns into ice
the way the dead do 

there is more bile in this
than heretofore
the cry of water
when the sun comes out

crushed hats
will suit no head
no heart beat
like a drum

a black umbrella
place determined by
sealed & sold 

the skull has lost
its gums & lips
deprived of air the dancers
search a passage

leading to a passage
where the sea waits
with its boats
a taste for breaking free

leaving his bed behind
to test the water
set the ocean shining
like a diamond

flower for a heart
the places & the spaces
that a heart fills
vacant    heartless

blue cucumber
frozen    rain
that falls so hard
his mouth can’t hold it

ice forms on my shirt
my cap    the beating
of my heart
a feeble sound

teeth clenched
a faucet dripping
pennies clinking in a glass
a trunk half full

where a derrick lifts
the bodies of the dead
abandoned couples
line the route

they watch & wonder
turn a page
that leads them to a room
at night    bewildered 

heart in mouth
& hand aquiver
clouds reflected in a glass
sun in the gutter

the hair atop my head
inside my nose
has come alive
my wish is fatal

wounded    split
a false betrothal
ice invades their bodies
down to the bone