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, July 21, 2016

David Antin: “icy seagulls” (a new talk poem)

David Antin talking while Jerome Rothenberg listens in the background (photo by D.G. Wills)

i guess we all need the mike because the people in the back wont hear it    it feels a little weird to me to have it    the glasses are a mistake i only use them for reading and i cant see you if i have the glasses on and ive learned in recent years ive learned from the fact that i can no longer see anything clearly sixteen inches from my face that i need glasses     but i cant see people three feet away with glasses without them looking like blurs    so this is my new experience of optical deficiency    and the trouble is i havent gotten used to this whole thing and i was doing a set of book readings and book signings in san francisco a couple of months ago and it was a little bizarre because i’d sort of try to read something and i put the glasses on and then i’d feel like this is ridiculous  because im a talk poet and i should be talking and i’d interrupt and change what i was saying and i’d take off the glasses and i’d put them on again till i began to realize it was kind of a cute routine    you know    i was beginning to feel like i was doing schtick    which im not above doing but nevertheless    but nevertheless it seemed a little awkward and im glad this is really just doing a talk piece which feels much more human to me    i dont really like working from a script    even though reading is a perfectly fine activity i just dont like to do it in front of an audience    anyway coming here is really in a certain sense a great pleasure because of the history of this place which i remember from its origins    the poetry scene had lost access to or had quarreled with i no longer remember one of the downtown cafes    whether it was the deux magots or it was the seventh street coffee shop it was one of those places that had housed the poetry readings for a while and then there was no place for anybody to hold the readings and then the wednesday night singular readings    and paul blackburn and carol berge were out combing the scruffy areas on the lower east side second avenue and the bowery trying to find a place    and they found this place    and nobody knew how long it would last    it was offered rather generously and it became a place that i think is probably one of the most important places in american poetry at all    because so much experiment has gone on here so many new things have been tried so boldly by so many people    the range of poetry has been    to use a funny word    catholic    in that it has included everything from madly shouted poetry    to a whisper poetry consisting solely of murmurings    which in its extreme form became a poetry of silences the most open of all    so my works have been called lots of things    they’ve been called essays sometimes    and sometimes fictions    and i dont really care    but i think of myself as primarily a poet for one reason    poetry is to my mind the language art    the fundamental ground    and then there are all these secondary forms like novels which is a little bit like accounting    you know poetry is the place where the language is at stake    if nothing else is at stake    the language is at stake    and thinking that then    i was glad i was coming here because i wanted to think a little bit about words    words come into play all of a sudden and sometimes go out all of a sudden    i mean somehow a word like fatwa id never heard the word before    and its not as if i hadnt actually studied some arabic    id studied it for about a year and id learned lots of sentences in which the word never appeared
   i had learned that the king was generous and the queen was beautiful and that the head of a nejdi mare was smaller than any other or that the reason for the failure of the arab league was a want of unity between these two extremes i finally gave up    but the word fatwa occurred and i wondered what exactly is a fatwa is a    you know    who utters a fatwa    does it have to be someone with an authoritative islamic position maybe    or could anybody declare a fatwa    can any muhammed or abdulla declare a fatwa whether he has a right to declare it or not    the question is would anybody come to listen to it    i knew that the word fatwa was important because poor salman rushdie was under a fatwa    which meant he had to travel around with two bodyguards that any idiot attending one of his lectures could elude follow him into the restroom pull out a pistol and shoot him with the intense approval of official islam
     these are the kinds of words that erupt into our language with the force of an explosion    while there are other words that slip into the english language that are strange and simply remain strange    like recently we had a tsunami    and a large part of the world disappeared i mean people sitting on the beach their houses gone their lives gone their children destroyed sitting there in the midst of spars of their life and the word tsunami like a kind of plague hangs over them    the word tsunami    but i asked myself is that different from a typhoon    how many people could tell me the difference between a tsunami and a typhoon    the dictionary can tell us but can we preserve the difference    is a tsunami always characterized by underground volcanic activity and a typhoon is not      a typhoon is a sort of tornado effect    its wonderfully specific but    do we really remember it that way    or do we hear the words and begin to give them a range of meanings they never had before    like bayou    lately weve had several typhoons    weve had a couple of hurricanes    and weve started to hear the word bayou    you know now we have the word bayou    bayou    you know its interesting that the word bayou was originally a choctaw word    whereas typhoon had a chinese origin    but when you hear the word bayou you think bayou levee you dont think great wall mandarin   a bayou they say is a watercourse and a kind of tributary to a river    is that different from an arroyo    an arroyo is very southern californian    every time i think of an arroyo i think of a ravine in back of our house where there is no water except sometimes    i mean like the mexican rivers are sometimes rivers    that is they run sometimes and sometimes they dont    like in the spring they may flood    in the summer theyre scorched and parched like los angeles    the los angeles river    its called a river but how many times have you seen water in the los angeles river    the los angeles river is a sort of parched tunnel that ripped through the earth when they diverted its course    but its still called a river    and now lately we have another word that has been causing a lot of trouble    refugees
     i was a little surprised to find that the people who have been driven from their homes by the hurricane in new orleans    many of them seem to resent being called refugees    and i tried to think what did that mean    they felt there was something racist in the term    it wasnt clear to me why    i suppose it seemed strange because to me refugees simply meant people from some other country who were fleeing for help    well these people were driven by decree from the city and from natural disaster    so that great crowds of dispossessed people trying to flee to the safety of the relatively undamaged neighboring county crowded onto the bridge that marked the border between the two counties where their way was blocked by an angry mob bearing shotguns and placards who shouted insults at them    refugees
     so i had to rethink my experience of the word refugee    my first memory of hearing the word refugee was during the second world war    i grew up during the second world war    i was ten when we got hit    it was one of those lazy sunny sundays    december seventh hard for me to forget    we were sitting around the great radio in my aunt sarahs moorish double living room waiting for the assured voice of the commentator to explain the world to us    but the voice had lost its assurance and seemed to tremble as it struggled to give us an account of japans treacherous surprise attack on pearl harbor    it was certainly surprising to most americans    though it was not entirely clear whether what surprised us more was japans surprise attack on our pacific fleet or the sound of surprise coming over the radio    but all that got corrected once there was a declaration of war and all the formalities had been observed    because now it was just a regular war    only we happened to be in it    but since the main combatants were separated by several thousand miles of ocean and our pacific fleet and its air wing had been severely damaged by the japanese attack    tales of actual combat were rare and had to be replaced by political stories    stories of preparation or want of preparation for war    and one story making the rounds of washington detailed how we had just given japan our no longer useful trolley cars and they were attacking us for it
     but in any case the attack on pearl harbor seemed surprising to most americans    though somewhat less to us    because for us the war was older than that    i grew up in a european jewish family to which relatives and friends would come for refuge from various places in europe where they were being persecuted and dispossessed    even now i can imagine great crowds of displaced people choking the roadways pushing wagon loads of furniture and clothing and baby carriages filled with books    i can see them scrambling for shelter at the roadside from the strafing fire of those stukas    you know i can see those flex winged aeroplanes strafing people on the road fleeing from paris toward the south of france hoping for safety in vichy    perhaps mistakenly    or hoping to escape over the pyrenees into spain which while fascist was not yet completely under the domination of hitlers people    so i had an image of refugees as people fleeing from a country where they were being persecuted to another country where they hoped to be safe    though these countries were not so eager to have them    and we watched with growing concern as hitlers forces marched into the sudetenland absorbed austria invaded czechoslovakia and attacked poland    and each of these german victories produced increasing numbers of homeless people    mostly jews seeking refuge from the brutality of the imposed nazi regime whose explicit policy was the expulsion of the jews    which rapidly became an imprisonment policy    and by 1935 a policy of extinction    so that vast numbers    their homes destroyed    their property stolen    and realizing early that they had to flee to countries whose languages they didnt speak    signed up for crash courses in english or spanish that couldnt guarantee them fluency but could give them enough competence for employment purposes    but there was no employment anyway
     america was in the midst of a severe depression resulting from a credit crisis climaxing in the wall street crash of 1929    and this financial failure unluckily coincided with an eight year drought in the wheat producing southern and southwestern states    but at the end of hostilities america was in much better shape than the rest of the allied powers and it fell to the u.s. to play a major role in creating some sort of order in the chaos they found there    the first and most obvious problem was that there was no organizational system    and there was no one to talk to    or more accurately    in the course of the war they were replaced with puppet governments run by local nazis and nazi collaborators and the ss    whose administrators stole what they could and joined these people to be called refugees because the term had been institutionalized in such a way that there were some systems of support available to people who were documented as refugees the numbers were so great that the allied bureaucracies did what all bureaucracies eventually do    they divided the vast number of displaced persons into two groups: displaced persons who were assumed to have somewhere a home to go to and refugees who were classified as homeless this was very satisfying because it cut the number of homeless persons in half    but it was a paper distinction    since almost none of the displaced persons wanted to go home    so the numbers helped were small    on the order of a few thousand a month while we watched as the number of the persecuted and homeless needing such help mounted to several hundred thousand a month and growing every year i had my own first experience with two real refugees when i was a kid
     jiuba and charlie were two polish refugees    a brother and sister who had slipped out of poland during the german occupation and wandered around through several countries looking for a home    they were a study in contrasts    charlie was a chunky cheerful guy with blonde hair laughing blue eyes and a rudimentary grasp of english that he deployed very effectively     cracking up over his own linguistic blunders as generously as the jokes of others    leaving the impression that these were also jokes and that he knew english much better than he really did    while his sister was a small birdlike creature as dark as he was blonde    as small and fragile as he was strong and hearty    and seemingly afraid of everything but song    i heard her once at a family party at sarahs house in an unusually festive affair celebrating the safe arrival in america of three more relatives recounted in a rich mix of polish russian and ukrainian where nearly everyone who could be considered family was there listening to    recounting and speculating on the fates of the missing in a mix of languages i could barely make sense of    but as the story telling went on it apparently drew laughter as well as tears and charlie called out in russian   “if this is a party why don’t we dance”    as he seized a young cousin by the waist and started to dance    an act she found startling at first but then terribly funny as she threw herself laughing into a passionate waltz where they were gradually joined by others getting carried away by the imaginary music till my aunt sarahs double moorish living room was choked with dreamy dancers    at that point charlie started to sing a melancholy russian ballad    others joined and looking around he saw liuba sitting primly on a white empire chair     this made him so mad that he shouted at her DANCE LIUBA DANCE GODDAMMIT DANCE to which she responded not by dancing but by singing in a flutelike purest high soprano an incredible obligato that silenced the entire room
     her voice was one thing but her language skills were quite another     she and her brother had been in the country over a year now hanging out in my uncle sams large brooklyn apartment    but she couldnt speak a sentence of english     if she had to go to the grocery to buy eggs for breakfast she had to resort to sign language    which was fairly simple when it was eggs she wanted    but it got more complicated at the butchers when she had to signify ground round or tender cuts of rump steak     this was still all right    according to charlie    because funny and funny is good    make everyone happy    and happy people never afraid    but liuba was afraid of everything    and that was when he made this intriguing proposal to me to teach her english    “why me”    but i knew the answer    charlie had tried several professionals with good credentials and lots of experience teaching english to refugees    they came variously equipped with lesson plans illustrated with crude little line drawings of what were supposed to be scenes from conventional family life in america    okay    he said    okay    practically grinding out his words    you think shes stupid    got no college degree    okay?    but two years gymnasium    equal two years american college    okay?    she not learn american    learn little american    okay    but lots latin and greek    and some pieces french italian spanish and whatever people speak wherever we go    she give us head start so for rest    you a smart fella    even little good looking    you practically same age    i think she like you  you both entitle to little fun    at this point liuba who had started to blush retreated to the most distant part of the room
     liuba    who spoke fluent russian to go with her native polish as well as dribs and drabs of german french italian spanish    and whatever was the native language of the land she and charlie were thinking of escaping to yet couldnt form a single coherent sentence of english    but because she spoke enough french for me to get by with her when her limited understanding of english completely failed    i could work to improve her understanding of english and hope that some of this improved understanding would spill over into an ability to speak the one language that she needed and seemed to be wrapped in a dark blanket from whose folds she couldnt escape    i remember that i had a ridiculous grammar book out of which i taught her american sentences that she dutifully repeated to me like
may i walk on your lawn
i would like to buy a green hat
or maybe a red one
in the winter i like to sit beside the window
and watch it rain
these were the sentences i heard while i kept thinking how nice it would be to take liuba to the place where the culver line comes out of the dark into the light    because the f-train is not a subway train for the whole length of its run    but an elevated that begins somewhere in queens travels the course of the tunnel cut across under southern brooklyn where it emerges briefly for two stations before plunging back into the dark waters under the city because i wanted to see how she reacted to the sight of all those trim little houses built in a variety of styles ranging from the early part of the century to the early forties with no sign of the heavy hand of government till the train would emerge once more and travel two more stops as an elevated all the rest of the way down to coney island and the great pleasures of the beach
     but of course she had no bathing suit    so i grabbed a blanket off my bed while i kept wondering would she be frightened of being on the beach watching the atlantic ocean come in    the atlantic is not a friendly ocean    the pacific ocean is pacific and sort of bluer    the atlantic is sort of gray steely and green and sometimes looks like stone and she wondered if we wouldnt be cold sitting out there near the edge of the surf but i assured her that we could always find a sunny spot and how exciting it was for us to see the sea in all of its grandeur drawing its skirts together in a final majestic image of power before it collapsed on the sand    but liuba was much more interested in the bird life and fascinated by the pompous looking grey and white birds strolling around in the wake of the surf and wanted to know what they were called    SEAGULLS    i said    and pointing to an especially pompous one she repeated after me I SEE SEAGULLS    she said it again insistently I SEE SEAGULLS and started to laugh    and i said why are you laughing    its so funny    don’t you see    I SEE SEAGULLS ICY SEAGULLS    and i thought it was so funny that it was so cold and that she loved the feel in her mouth of their name    as she loved the sound of it too    so much that my thoughts of icy were funnier than icy eagles though my thoughts of eagles were funny too but it was a kind of cool day and watching the seagulls and watching the waves come in getting stronger the way i told her they would    and advancing further up the beach in the course of the day    and coming further every day as i told her they would under the direction of the moon    how the waves would come in very strong as this was the atlantic and she said atlantic    which was a word she didnt like and didnt resemble any language she knew    and so my image of her was not as a refugee
     and as for charlie    what was he    in the course of time he joined the american army wangled a good job in the signal corps and got citizenship as well
    charlie was a very deft and skilled carpenter and mechanic and he would have been an engineer in a place where he was not a refugee but nothing hindered him and on the advice of an army buddy he went to a place where there was always a need for more houses    a city called houston    houston was a place a lot like southern florida    that would normally be under water    except that it happens not to be    like galveston

     and he went there with his buddy and they got jobs building cheap houses for a small company that couldnt keep pace with the demand and eventually sub-contracted the actual construction to charlie and tex who soon realized they could borrow from the banks all the capital they needed    so the two buddies eventually bought out the old owners and charlie brought liuba out to houston where she knew nobody    but he thought he was doing her good by building her this large blunt house that was too large and too empty for her and that he thought to make more livable by calling in a decorator who filled it with japanese screens rugs and huge chinese vases that made it feel even more alien than before while liuba seemed to be spending most of her time trying to hide from the maid or sitting by the window and watching it rain
DECEMBER 7, 2002

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Pierre Joris: From “The Agony of Ingeborg Bachmann,” Prologue and First Scene

                          ACT [I]
Ladies and gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, Meine Damen und Herren, guten Abend, good evening, bonsoir! Welcome one and all! Permit me, the poet-presenter to introduce you to tonight's entertainment -- if entertainment it is. It should be, though it may present itself more as a tragedy. A real tragedy, whatever "real" may mean. But certainly a glorious tragedy. Writers most often seem to just slip away, disappear, vanish, as if into a crack in the world, or, maybe just a crack in the wall, excusing themselves for having been here, hiding their exit behind the pile of books they leave behind, their pile of literary droppings, so to speak. Or perhaps they can be heard ever so softly begging for just a tiny bit more time or mehr Licht or whatever -- but here, tonight, you will witness how the great Austrian lyric poet & prose writer Ingeborg Bachmann, was called -- or, some, but not I, have suggested -- called herself -- back all too early, making an exit worthy of a Greek tragedy if such a ritual were not a religious anachronism. A Happy End, death? It depends, I guess, on how you get there -- & through. We will see or maybe not. You will see what you will --‚ or will want to see. Now, what we can see, because it at least is still with us, is that her writing did create a world, even tried to make a new, more complex world meant to bring brain and heart together. A difficult bargain because the borders between those two are not always open, or even porous.
     One last note before we begin: Any resemblance with persons who have actually existed in the past is due, or can be attributed, if such attribution is necessary or desired, to my lack of imagination, or to my dislike of fiction, or to my desire not to make up what doesn't need to be made up.
(I.B.'s room in Rome,in the house on 66 via Giulia. Schematic stage image: stage-right 2/3 back, a window; stage-right front: a door leading outside; a desk with typewriter; stage-left kitchen/bathroom via open door or open plan; stage center-front: a low table with gramophone & telephone, an ottoman; stage-center back: a bed, upright, near vertical against which IB can lean, as if she was lying on it. On a gramophone, a record of Neapolitan folk singer's Roberto Murolo's "(Totò) Malafemmena"  is playing. IB in bathrobe & with thick eye-glasses wanders from window to writing desk to bathroom. She returns with a pill bottle, swallows down a handful without water, then goes back to window, stands at angle of window peering out at the street below. She lights a Gitane, takes a few deep drags, closes her eyes, listens for a few moments, then walks over to the gramophone & lifts the arm off the record with a noticeable scratching sound. She wanders back to the middle of the room.)
I'm running out. (Laughs) No, no, not going anywhere, certainly not running. Certainly not outside. No, no -- I am nearly out: of cigarettes, of pills, "mother's little helpers," Henry used to call them. Oh, screw Henry, screw America. That was long ago and seriously minor. This is Rome. Roma, Roma, Roma. Ti amo translates as I hate you, tourist whore. Because I cannot be in Vienna. But I am writing Vienna.
(She throws empty pill bottle into wastebasket, walks over to her writing desk, sits down heavily, crushes cigarette out in ashtray then immediately lights another one, leans back & blows smoke at the ceiling) 

Vienna... Vienna... come, come, Vienna, oh how I wish for Wien, Wien...basta Roma -- I have to move back to Vienna, it will happen later this year, as soon as I finish this... As soon as I'm through wandering the desert, there's something more to learn from the desert... words, words, please come, words, come running, yes, yes, I am not out of words, they come running... But they leave me stranded elsewhere, seems I'm always home elsewhere wherever elsewhere is, right now the space between Rome and Vienna is... [She laughs]... The desert... Sand and rocks... That helps to clear the head!
(she types with concentration for a minute in deep silence; first slowly, picking out letters one by one, then faster & faster: typewriter noises in an accelerating crescendo caught by mic hidden behind it & broadcast, becoming a background noise to the scene; brusque carriage returns scatter the ashes of the cigarette over the floor; the Gitane in her left hand burns down to her fingers -- she just shakes it off as if the burn didn't hurt at all, drops the minuscule butt to the floor) 

Franza, Franza, you were the closest to me, but had to die, we all have to, we all will. Easier done for real than in a book, where the art of disappearing is a long drawn-out act, usually much quicker in real life, well I can manage on either side of the curtain, I hope. Yes, I can finish the book by writing into the middle now, returning to the desert, that other empty page. Am in the desert anyway, Vienna will be desert too, my past, all past is desert, desert peopled by ghosts. Malina is done, is over. It was murder, She was pushed into the crack. Over and out. I need out again.
(She types fast for a minute, then tears the page out of the machine, gets up and walks to the middle of the room, another lit cigarette in her hand. She stops, looks at the page then reads it aloud, as if trying out the sentences on an audience) 

"Desert stars. Orion's belt around my waist, a swing to swing on. Wing it on. In-between sand and sky. The in-between that is not just the page but that is time, in-between time. Time is in-between, in fact that is all time is: an in-between. What was the word Mohammed used? Bar-zakh -- that was in Wadi Halfa where in-between time has become water, eternity -- to gain eternity go into the water, dive, dive out of time. 

(She drops the sheet of paper, looks around, pauses for a moment, then says meditatively:) 

Paul did jump, oh Paul, where are you now, in time, in water, in eternity... Someone told me that in the desert more people drown than die of thirst, flash floods far away sudden storms wash down the dry wadi gully you sleep in...hoping to wake up in the morning...But it is hope that kills us, hope that every time lets you down, brings you down, but I will re-birth you, we're half-way there, we'll get there, all of us, all of you, my many Wienerinnen, there will be more of you, you will resuscitate, but before you can take flight, you will have to give up hope, no, not just give it up, kill it, bury it, write it out of existence.
(She gets up, opens the window, leans out, looks up & down the street while traffic noise of a busy Roman evening enter in waves.) 

Too much light. Day's too bright. My bird won't fly. My bird won't come. Roll back the day, bring on the night. 

(She leans further out, seeming to strain ears and eyes as street noise Rome style wafts in. After a minute the noise & the light in her room dim slowly)
[author’s note.   Asked by the TNL (Theatre National du Luxembourg) to be author-in-residence for the 2015-2016 season, I proposed as my second and final play, a 3-act drama concerning the death of poet Ingeborg Bachmann. She died — mythically speaking — through fire, falling asleep with a lit cigarette; though what actually caused the 3-week coma from which she wasn’t able to come out, was her addiction to pills. In my play she is visited by the three most important men in her life: playwright Max Frisch, composer Hans Werner Henze, and her greatest and earliest love, Paul Celan. The play premiered, as a staged reading, at the TNL on 14 June with Sascha Ley as Bachmann, Nickel Bösenberg as Frisch, Fred Frenay as Henze, Raoul Schlechter as Celan & myself as the poet/presenter. (P.J.)]

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Jerome Rothenberg: “A Book of Shadows” (redux) for Tita Reut


History is over.
In another world
you find another
young as you,
your shadow
over his, the two
together, sharing
hidden sorrows,
thoughts of                                         (G. de Nerval)
expiation. The world
does not forgive.


The neighbors cross the boulevard
in pairs.
The door adjacent to
our thoughts shut also.
Therefore they shift
their legs between
short bursts,
the cadence of a march,
old world, old
fashioned melodies
unheard. A single hand
can sweep the board.
A single eye can glimpse
a shadow of the cosmos
through a pin hole.


She is a princess,
fresh as soap
she meets you at the gare,
French dolls like ghosts
step forth at midday.
Everyone is sportif
geared for speed
never to turn a shoulder,
to name a game for love.
Their aim is circular,
it follows where you lead them,
down a secret path,
into a basement
shadowed by
your childhood dream,
a lurking hole,
then up the backstairs
lost to sleep,
concealments of a borrowed life
outside the circle.


The cavern of the universe
widens each morning.
My head fills up with dew,
the father writes,
having no home but where
his shadow leads him.
In greasy shirtsleeves, heavy
lids, blotched faces,
the men pursue
a trail of tears,
unbuttoned captive
to a dream,
a starless galaxy,
the deeper sky
a field of images
measureless & mindless,
absent their god.


It was always dark.
The red hole’s
wetness threatened
the lost sheep.
Sharp exchanges
were not clearly heard.
Rivers did
not flow.
You did not defend
your brother.
We ascend
toward progress.
I scratch fire &
remove it from your throat.
I run out of
distant shadows
now that no one
tries to stop
the passage from a city
that is drowning.


I look for lights
under my fingers.
I will take them & will make
foolish minds wise.
Then when I flick my half closed eyes
your mouth will open wide
& I will sail by with my flags.
You will applaud me
when I scratch for cash
under your shadows.
I who am geared to tear down
what you build
your houses like your ashes
swept away.


Poetry is made in bed
for some for me
the call of life is stronger.
I walk & see my shadow
hanging upside down
with yours. The way
your mouth says I
is just like mine.
I multiply
the little portion
that your fingers
I cannot comprehend
the way men kill
or laugh. I will not
vouch for them.
There is a space to burrow in
under the covers.
The way he wants to kiss
while vomiting
is part of life. The way
he calls on death
trumpets his own.


I is an other gaunt
& somewhat turned
into the light.
I threatens to return,
is hungry now
for power
as for love.
He is my own, becomes
my shadow
I reach a hand to him
& freeze.
I cannot speak
without him
though we try.


I run from shadows
to avoid old people
maddened by God.
I follow animals
whose eyes at night
mirror my face.
Seeing myself asleep
I touch my arm.
I celebrate
new forms of sex.
I am frantic
knowing that nobody
has a way out
or a face
more marked than
I was not
born live
.                                                 (J. Holzer)


It is a shame to watch
my face to see it
running through your hands
like jelly.
I am my own
dark friend
a shadow set against
a darker shadow.
I hear a sound
like pianos
buried in the earth.
The pressure of my feet
against the pedals
opens a flood.
A carrousel is bobbing
up & down.
The happy singer
enters paradise
with seven others.


There are some who shadow us
for what we love.
Nightly the passengers
still blind me
while I bind their wounds.
I feel their final jabs
between the covers & the sea
no time for preening.
I watch my feet move
among the stars.
Everything we offer
to the world
is what the world gives back
without a thought
or breath.

Coda to A Book of Shadows

What is remembered
of the dead is how
they tottered, little more
to write, & less
to pass a test
at understanding.
How discreet
to dance here in a hall
of shadows,
or to sit this moment,
dozing in the fast train,
while the clouds
take shape, even
as they leave
their shadows, like the dead
across the fields.
I am more alive
for thinking of them,
knowing that the time
draws nigh,
the outline disappears,
& dark as Monday
I am marching
with the fathers, ready
to mark my presence
in their ranks.

2.vii.16                                                                                                                                                                                               Encinitas
[The preceding poems were commissioned as a suite, with photos by the author, in a series of artists’ books published by Tita Reut under the imprint of Les Editions de l’Ariane. The poems themselves, all but the closing coda, are fragments from the author’s A Book of Witness (Un livre de temoignage), a part of which was translated into French by Tita Reut & Joseph Guglielmi & published with illustrations by Arman in 2002.  For reasons beyond our control the suite itself was never published, but the future possibility, as far as I can tell, stays open. (J.R.)]

Thursday, June 30, 2016

From “Technicians of the Sacred Expanded”: Genesis Three (Enuma Elish), with Commentary

Translation from Old Babylonian by Harris Lenowitz

When sky above had no name
          earth beneath no given name
   APSU       the first       their seeder
  Saltsea     their mother     who bore them
                                                                mixed waters

 Before pasture held together
            thicket be found
no gods being
no names for them
no plans

the gods were shaped inside them

LAHMU AND LAHAMU were brought out
while they grew
                 became great
ANSAR and KISAR were shaped
 Skyline       Earthline                  much greater

                                made the days long
                                added the years

ANU was their son
 Sky       their rival
ANSAR made his first son ANU his equal
Skyline                                 Sky
      ANU           NUDIMMUD
and Sky        got  Manmaker       equal
   (EA)          his fathers' boss
                                             wide wise
                                            full knowing
                      ANSAR         strong
stronger than Skyline his father
no equal among his brother gods

The godbrothers      together
stormed in TIAMAT
                   Salt sea
stirred up TIAMAT's guts
rushing at the walls

Not Deepwater hush their noise
 Salt sea struck dumb
They did bad things to her
          acted badly, childishly
until Deepwater             seeder of great gods
                           called up MUMMU
Speaker     messenger     makes my liver. happy
                                         come!                            TIAMAT
                                                            Let's go see Saltsea

 They went                         TIAMAT  
           sat down in front of Saltsea
          (talk about plans for their first-born gods):

Deepwater     opened his mouth      said
to TIAMAT              said loud:
"The way they act makes me sick:
during the day               no rest
at night                          no sleep

I'll destroy them!
      stop their doings!
It'll be quiet again         we can sleep”

When Saltsea heard this
                                      she stormed
                                      yelled at her husband
                                      was sick
                "Wipe out what we made?!
                 The way they act is a pain
                                                           but let's wait"

  MUMMU                                   APSU
 Speaker answered     advising Deepwater:           MUMMU
                                                             bad advice Speaker's
"Go onl
               Put an end to their impertinence
rest              during the day
sleep            at night”

When APSU       heard him
        Deepwater               his face gleamed
                                                                      for the hurts planned
                                                                               against his godsons
                                           hugged MUMMU
                                           set him in his lap
                                           kissed him

 What they planned in conference was repeated to their first born
They wept
         milled around     distressed
         kept silence                                                             


     Source: Translation from Enuma Elish by Harris Lenowitz, originally published in Acheringa/Ethnopoetics, new series, vol. 1, no. 1, 1975, pp. 31-33, & later in H. Lenowitz & Charles Doria: Origins: Creation Texts from the Ancient Mediterranean (Doubleday & Company, New York, 1975).

     (1) The god-world of Enuma Elish starts in turbulence & struggle: a universe the makers/poets knew or dreamed-into-life & felt the terror/horror at its heart.  It is this rush & crush of primal elements the poetry here translates into gods & monsters, reflecting as it does a natural & human world in chaos/turmoil.  The scene it leaves for us, replete with names of gods & powers, follows a story line encountered in many other times & places.  In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, tracing back to still earlier Sumerian sources, the two primeval forces are the god Apsu (Deepwater/Freshwater) & the goddess Tiamat (Saltsea), whose offspring will eventually destroy them both & lead the way for the triumphant reign of the new god Marduk, killing the goddess off at last & using her severed corpse to form the earth & sky, with humans coming in their wake.  The ferocity of word & image remains a key to poetic mind both then & now: the dark side of the joy & beauty that would be needed too to make their world & ours complete.
     (2)  “The Babylonian Creation Myth ... relates how the universe evolved from nothingness to an organized structure with the city of Babylon at its center. When the primordial sweet and salt waters – male Apsu and female Tiamat – mingled, two beings appeared, Lahmu and Lahamu, that is, mud and muddy. The image suits the southern Babylonian view over the Persian Gulf perfectly: when the sea recedes, mud arises. A chain reaction had started [...]” (Mark Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit in Ancient Babylonia, 2016, p.4)
     And further: “The ancient Babylonians certainly were not humanists but deeply committed to a theocentric view of the world.  Yet, they believed that humans could have a firm knowledge of reality as the gods had created it, and continued to direct it, because at the time of creation the gods had provided the tools for understanding, as the Enūma Eliš shows. Creation in that myth was a work of organization: Marduk did not fashion the universe ex nihilo. Rather, he created by putting order into the chaos of Tiamat’s bodily parts. And just as he ordered the physical world, he organized knowledge and structured it through writing [...] the Babylonian theory of knowledge was [...] fundamentally rooted in a rationality that depended on an informed reading. Reality had to be read and interpreted as if it were a text. [...] ‘I read, therefore I am’ could be seen as the first principle of Babylonian epistemology.” (Ibid, p.10)
      (3) “What’s presented here, the Babylonian genesis retold, is the paramount interest, & the work of the ones who present it is an interest almost equal; & all of it crucial to the unfolding, changing recovery of cultures & civilizations that has now entered its latest phase.  To bring across this sense of myth as process & conflict, Harris Lenowitz & Charles Doria, working as both poets & scholars in Origins, make use of all those ‘advances in translation technique, notation, & sympathy’ developed over the last half century, from the methods of ‘projective verse’ to those of etymological translation or of that recovery of  the oral dimension of the poem that the present editor & others have, wisely or not, spoken of elsewhere as ‘total translation.’  The picture that emerges is one of richness, fecundity at every turning, from the first image of poem on page to the constantly new insights into the possibilities of ‘origin.’  And this allows that ‘clash of symbols’ which, those like Paul Ricoeur tell us, is both natural to mind & forms its one sure hedge against idolatry.”  (Adapted from J.R. in the pre-face to Origins, 1975)
      (4) “We live in an age in which inherited literature is being hit from two sides, from contemporary writers who are laying bases of new discourse at the same time that ... scholars ... are making available pre-Homeric and pre-Mosaic texts which are themselves eye-openers.” (Charles Olson, “Homer & Bible,” 1957)
N.B.  In the translation, above, god names are underlined throughout, with the English translation directly beneath.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Jake Marmer: A New Poem, “The Law of Returning Lost Objects”

After Talmud Bava Metzia, 21A

On seeing Roman Vishniac’s ‘Vanished World’ exhibit

when is an object considered lost?
when it has been disassembled, crumbled, or scattered
so that it can no longer be described
as a sum total of itself
when it can no longer be touched or held
when consciousness can’t wrap around it as does around experience
when no action can be directed towards it
other than falling
upon it
as in falling upon the scattering
fruit that rolls down the hill
money flying across the field

if you fall upon scattered money it is yours
if you fall upon a scattered thought it is now your thought
scattered memory and the lost image become your possession                                                 

you’re now in possession
in possession of a memory 
possessed in the image 
possessed with words that aren’t yours
with names no one has given you

when is an object considered lost?
when it has been purposefully abandoned
when the loser has abandoned hope of finding it

only reasonable hope can be considered hope
like the hope of finding an escaped dog
your car keys

the hope of finding a lost wad of unclipped money in the field or an upturned basket of  
     apples at the top of the hill
is not considered a hope
it is not a hope directed towards a tangible object
that can be touched
or perceived as whole
that can be described as sum total of itself
in this case there’s no such thing as hope
the items’ identity is that of scattering 

if you’re the finder you’re owner, the one in possession –
of the image, of lost letters

these letters may have spelled     
            ze shaar tzadikim yavou bo
“this is the gate righteous come through”
letters may have spelled
our rebbe our teacher”
you may have found these letters on a photograph of lost posters
lost grime lost passersby

the gate was collapsing even before it was lost
and you wonder about the lost righteousness
and the “welcome”
as you now welcome the loss
at your own gate
along with letters and grime and torn posters
and you can also welcome righteousness
all day long
unsure of the sound the word “righteousness” makes
repeat it till it loses all meaning
comes loose in your mouth
till your teeth start rotting with sound you’re coming into
possession of righteousness you’re trying to welcome
it is ravishing your mouth
the rebbe the teacher has no presence
the presence was scattered
but the words are yours and what’s there to do
with words “the rebbe the teacher”
they’re possessing you
they’re impossible words
in the world you know as world they’re impossible
you’d like to return these words
but the hope has been relinquished
and the lost hope is now yours
you are now in possession of the lost hope

when is an object considered lost?
items considered worthless do not need to be returned

when is an object considered lost?
when there’re no identifying marks              
money, for instance, has no identifying marks
and neither does language
the owner relinquishes hope
the object becomes ownerless
does the moment when language when image turn
ownerless happen at the point of scattering
or at the point of relinquishing hope
or at the point of someone’s falling upon it?

you’re falling at the gate of righteousness
on somebody’s lost words
or else the gate falls on you as you’re trying to pass
for a word yourself
trying to pass for the word “rabbi” or “teacher”
the whole gate collapses on you
the law of possession applies

when is an object considered lost?
when it cannot be identified through its location
things found at the bank of a river cannot be identified
as fish and seaweed cannot be identified –
as belonging
to anything other than the river and themselves

things found in a museum cannot be identified
can be labeled but not identified
the identity of these objects is that of scattering
you can come into possession become possessed
with the story of scattering the story of loss
you can become the Great Rav of the lost history of objects
and the lost gate where every object is a scattering
where every teaching is a relinquished hope

who’d want to pass through that gate or be welcomed by it
you’re in possession of falling
obsession with falling upon the lost objects you’re in possession
of names you were not given

it is a positive commandment to return a lost object
even if it has been scattered
even if the hope has been relinquished
even if dialogues split into half-thoughts and the half-thoughts
do not add up to the sum total of themselves
it is simply the matter of finding
who these thoughts can be returned to
who is the owner of these losses

isn’t the finder of the scattered objects
also the sole owner also the magnet the lining and the sleeve of loss
the gate of righteousness welcomes those who return
welcomes those returning
as lost objects
in exchange for fulfillment
of the positive commandment
of curating an exhibition or observing one or simply nailing
the pictures
when you’re on your way
to the gate of such fulfillment
according to the tradition
no harm will fall upon you
this fulfillment isn’t yours
but belongs to the voice
welcoming you to the gate
welcoming you to the dream loosened on a tripod
the face behind the image
the face that approximates the loss
you can be thankful and relieved to find it isn’t your own face
this discovery might make you a rabbi or a teacher or curator
you may be welcomed at an altogether separate gate
and subsequently scattered as a commandment
and the law of returning objects
will continue to apply 

* * * * * * * 

Author’s Note.  There's a section of the Talmud that deals with laws of returning lost objects. Particularly poignant are discussions of items which, due to various circumstances, could never be returned. I was struck with the thought that the genre of found art, at its greatest moments, is, too, a failing attempt at restitution, expression of one's inability to either give back or properly own that which comes into our possession, and immediately begins to possess us.  

I was invited to respond, through poetry, to the exhibit of Roman Vishniac's photography, held at the Contemporary Jewish Museum this winter. As is well known, Vishniac's photography of the impoverished Eastern European shtetls is considered to be the last glimpse of these communities. Thus, "A Vanished World".  

What does it mean to encounter - find - this vanished, lost, world? What can be returned - and how? What, or who, is being possessed? What about one's own family history - and possession of those losses?  

There's a tradition of celebrating the memory of the departed through study, and interpretation of Talmudic texts. Engaging in a "write-through" as a form of study/hermeutics/ritual is a resonating attempt - one that, too, resonates with the poetic practice of writing from within the "vacuum in which the dead... were free to speak" - that is, J.R.'s own Khurbn poems.    

In addition to the text above, you can listen to the audio recording of this poem (or the whole set), performed live and in collaboration with John Schott (guitar) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, surrounded by Vishniac's images.