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

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pierre Joris: from Justifying the Margins: “Nimrod in Hell” with a note & reminiscence on Joris même

My father was a healer & a hunter. Is it any surprise that I became a poet & a translator? We don’t escape our filiations: we only stand more revealed, as the territories shift, as the hunt closes in. In an early work I spoke of St. Hubertus, patron saint & protector of hunters, bishop of Liège, also invoked against rabies. While hunting on Good Friday, he had been converted to Christianity when he saw a stag with a light cross between its antlers — this was supposed to have happened in the dark woods of the Ardennes, i.e. just north of where Arthur Rimbaud was born, & in a space he measured out in long walks.

But in Hubertus, or behind that too easily christianized hunter, lay already an earlier hunter: not a saint, though an even more biblical figure: Nimrod, “the first mighty man on earth” —a hunter, a mighty hunter before or against God (depending on the translation). The Old Testament associates this giant & mighty hunter with the project of Babel (his kingdom comprising Bavel in the land of Shinar, where the Tower will be built) and thus with the question of language & translation. And not surprisingly, as Giorgio Agamben reminds us, Dante has Nimrod in his hell (Inferno XXXI, 46-81) with the loss of meaningful language as his punishment. So that what the giant speaks in the Commedia is neither the lingua franca of Latin nor the new Vulgar Tongue. Dante gives us one verse of Nemrod’s ranting: “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi.” Commentators from Benvenuto to Buti, or more recently, Singleton, are certain that these words are meaningless. A few, such as Landino, suggest that the words could be Chaldean, others that they may be Arabic, Hebrew, Greek… But the problem may not be there at all: The words Dante puts into Nimrod’s mouth are fitting, are accurate in their intention on language. Their meaning, in that sense, is absolutely clear: they mean to be ununderstandable, to be the babble of Bavel, the language that is untranslatable into any language — & that therefore, we know, must be translated. And yet – the lingo of Babel was the single language that all humanity understood, that a jealous commander-in-chief then shattered as punishment for the early humans’ communality; “divide et regna” already the essence of YHWH’s political science. So that Nimrod either remembers the first, unified language of the human race which we no longer know, or he speaks in one of the post-Babelian lingos, which are what makes translation possible.

But his words, no matter which language or non-language they are in, are fitting in a further sense: they are babble, thus a babelian bavel, & thus connect to bave, Fr. for drool, spittle. A false etymology – but are any etymologies really “false”? Aren’t they the engine whose misfirings, rather than smooth transparent linguistic runs, drive poetry forward? A false etymology, then, possibly, but one that brings in that much despised excretion without which we would have no language. And now, looking up the etymology of “bave” it turns out that the word goes back to pop. Latin “baba”, an “onomatopoeia that expresses the babble [le babil] of children.” Or of giants. Or of the single universal language all humans once spoke in their lingo-genetic childhood. Now this bave, this spittle, this active saliva (doesn’t the word “alive” hide somewhere in “saliva”?), as George Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephalica teaches us, is “the deposit of the soul; spittle is soul in movement.” For spittle accompanies breath, “which can exit the mouth only when permeated with it.” Because “breath is soul, so much so that certain peoples have the notion of ‘the soul before the face.’” Without spittle, no breath, no soul, no language – it is the lubricant that immanentizes the pneuma. But it is also, the EA goes on, that which “casts the mouth in one fell swoop down to the last rung of the organic ladder, lending it a function of ejection even more repugnant than its role as gate through which one stuffs food.” And it’s sexual connotations & erotic manifestations allow it to befuddle any hierarchical classification of organs. The EA again: “Like the sexual act carried out in broad daylight, it is scandal itself, for it lowers the mouth – which is the visible sign of intelligence – to the level of the most shameful organs…” The scandal of children & giants speaking in a language comprehensible (or incomprehensible) to all, like spitting in public. Neither YHWH nor Dante can let this happen. The one shatters the single language, the other gathers the now incomprehensible words of the giant hunter Nimrod but makes them, has to make them fit into his language, wiped clean of spittle.

For Nimrod’s languaged anguish cannot, and does not exceed the Dantean world, it fits exactly into the cosmotopography of his lyric epic. It is metrically exact & accurately rimes with “palmi” two lines above & “salmi” two lines below. Gentle giant, speaking nonsense in comely divine words. Not surprisingly the prissy Latin poet wants worse from Nimrod, telling him “Stupid soul, keep to your horn,” and dismissing him thus: “Let us leave him alone and not speak in vain, for every language is to him as his is to others, which is known to none.” Yet Nimrod in rage hunts still – for meaning, & he says his meaning.

Poet, translator: même combat! We keep hunting among stones, Dante hunts down language in the De Vulgari Eloquentia where he tells us: “let us hunt after a more fitting language…so that our hunt may have a practicable path, let’s first cast the tangled bushes & brambles out of the wood.” (Ronald Duncan’s translation, modified). But the selva will always be oscura, mutters Rimbaud in the Ardennes, stumbling through Hubert’s hunting grounds, escaping mother and her tongue (is that why he gives up writing poetry?) and he stubs a toe, goes to Africa, travels the desert, the open space, no selva oscura, no guide needed, he has learned the languages, this nomad poet who knew that “living in the same place [he] would always find wretched,” to go on trafficking in the unknown, master of “la chasse spirituelle,” a hunt that will not let up.

Homophonically this morning I hear Dante/Nimrod’s line as:
“Rough hell may enmesh ease, a be-all me.”

* * *


It is astonishing to me how Joris, whom I’ve known going back into his jeunesse (& almost into mine) has emerged as an exemplar of a total poetics, at the heart of which is that nomadic poetics which he’s been delivering to us over the last two or three decades with such singular force. During that time it has been my good luck to work with him on a number of collaborative projects: Schwitters’ & Picasso’s collected writings & the two massive volumes of Poems for the Millennium (1995 & 1998), along with poems & poetics happily conceived & shared between us. Several years ago, in an interview on collaborations for Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat (number 7), I was asked, particularly with regard to Poems for the Millennium, “to say something about working with Pierre & how that collaboration has lasted so long.” A part of my answer follows, in the form in which it will appear in Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005, to be published later this year in the University of Alabama’s Modern & Contemporary Poetics series. That book is also -- & rightly – dedicated to Joris as “nomad & fellow traveler.”

The later work with Pierre Joris is, as I see it, a culmination for me of what came before and an indication of how fruitful collaboration can be in the kind of world we share. For all of that I’m a little hard pressed to remember the steps by which we came to work together. I had known Pierre since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Bard College and was living in New York City for a year or two after graduation. After he moved back to Europe we saw each other on and off in London and Paris, and in 1986, when I started a brief tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, we got the bright idea of bringing him over as a graduate student. I had already floated a proposal for a big twentieth-century book but was very uncertain about it as a one-man proposition. Once into conversation with Pierre, however, it became clear that we were both close enough and different enough to consider this as, simultaneously, a singular and dual venture. The key in fact was in the interplay that it allowed us – the possibility, as with other collaborations, of opening it up beyond what either of us was capable of doing on his own. And right from the start – and over the years that followed – the work proceeded, minus all acrimony, as a process that energized us in the work at hand and in our other workings.

Both of us had made anthologies before and both of us were devoted to the idea of the anthology as a kind of manifesto. We were also, both of us, devoted to the idea of poetry – the kind of poetry we needed – as a radical enterprise that cut across nations and cultures, and we both felt the absence of a gathering reflecting the history of modern (and “post”modern) poetry as we knew it. Over the years we had been engaged in acts of translation, and Poems for the Millennium, we knew, would be heavily dependent on translation. And when Larry Venuti, in affiliation with Temple University Press, raised the possibility of commissioning a work of translation in a new series he was starting, we sensed the chance to create a selected writings of the German artist and poet Kurt Schwitters. The Schwitters project – later published as PPPPPP: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics – became a kind of testing ground for the collaboration, and a work also that we felt long overdue in English.

. . . . . . .

Joris’s background and intentions, then, were in most ways very similar to my own. At the very least we felt a kinship as poets that made the work of collaboration a consistently meaningful process and reinforced a sense that our dual input strengthened our ability to create an image of poetic worlds more diverse (and therefore “truer”) than what either of us might have done in isolation. We could also call on a significant number of others to add to that diversity and to the necessary sense of creating a big work in common. In doing this we were aware that the immediate model for what we were doing was the otherwise debased form of the university anthology. We willingly accepted the subtitle “The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry” as a kind of riposte to Oxford- and Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry and poetics of which we (a larger “we” than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices), and we enlisted a distinguished board of “advisors”
that spoke to our overriding sense of kinships and alliances. We were careful in doing so that such a board would be dominated by poets rather than academics and would be international in scope.

The structure of the book was otherwise of our own devising and different in kind and intention from more conventional assemblages. We chose in the first volume to highlight a number of the movements that characterized the early twentieth-century and had been ignored or diminished in most academic gatherings. Accordingly we gave a separate section of the book to each of six of them – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, and the American “Objectivist” poets. The rest of the poets were grouped in three large “galleries” following a rather loose chronological sequence, and we opened the book with a section of nineteenth-century “forerunners” and ended with a section (“A Book of Origins”) that gave a glimpse into historical and ethnopoetic recoveries across the whole preceding century. In the second volume we limited ourselves to two galleries and incorporated a number of movements or quasi-movements as “corridors” or “clusters” within the galleries – many of them still more local or regional than those in the previous volume. And – as a kind of musical or compositional gesture – we began with a section that was pure prelude (“In the Dark”) and closed with a short coda-like section (“At the Turning”) in which we joined two of our own poems with Robert Duncan’s final, altenstil poem, “After a Long Illness.”

In all of this we were trying to present a range of realized possibilities while hoping that the work wouldn’t be read canonically in terms only of its inclusions and exclusions. To avoid that, I suppose, we also put what was probably a greater than needed emphasis on the personal nature of what we were doing – in Olson’s words again, our “special view of history.” Going still further, I would describe the book as a construct or even, if it comes to it, a fiction – but the kind of fiction (“supreme” or otherwise) that all such works must surely be.

ADDENDUM & BOOK NOTE. "Nimrod in Hell" also appears in Joris's Alibar II, a new book of poems just published by Phi Editions in Luxembourg; and the larger book of his essays, Justifying the Margins, in which it functions as a sort of "exergue," will be published this fall by Salt Publishing in England. "Not a prose-poem, not an 'essay' as such,'" he writes, "not a bio-note really, but something else, a noamadic inter-genre piece of writing, I guess."