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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Unica Zürn: Nine Anagrammatic Poems

Translated & with notes by Hans Bellmer & Pierre Joris


Pale sieves a tired
Ax in the tree’s bosom.
In the foliage’s broom there is
Seed-blood-silk. Bites
in the lovenest of the building.
Sweetly fogs in its ice-bath
the Ibis’s blood. Masses
in the dust of this life.

Montpellier 1955


Once upon a time a small
warm iron was alone. No
Noise, no wine let in.
Lightly at the sea ran, while no
Ice was, thrush-pink in a
See-egg. All wink: tear
like all seeds. Sink in,
water germ, no, alone -
in a pillow. All warmth
once upon a time’s a mall.

Montpellier 1955


I am yours, otherwise it escapes and
wipes us into death. Sing, burn
Sun, don’t die, sing, turn and
born, to turn and into Nothing is
never. The gone creates sense - or
not died have they and when
and when dead - they are not.

for H.B.Berlin 1956

(Line from a poem by Henri Michaux)

Eyes, days, door, the old country.
Eagle eyes, a thousand days old.

Ermenonville 1957


After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.

Ermenonville 1959


It is cold. Ravens talk around the lake. Deer
and blackbird drink tea. Raven, seer of
disaster at dusk - first stars - talk, K!
The first toad most miserably died from
Hik. Nearby the donkey-dream jawed. The
nose of poor Mr K is bleeding. Lake,
dark lake of the raven. To breathe means
to live, means climbing dreams of
rare adventures. Those, Mr. K’s?

Ile de Ré 1964


Youth sings: now the sea is your harbor. Is
dream and hunt, the spirit’s inner feast, that send
him into dark, stony days, yes, you! - and he’s
immune from hand and serious sense - yes, You! Victories are
found forebodings. You travel to the city of Jim-Sing.
Go into the youngest street and find Amin, the Ti.
He says: yes, no, once, never, enemy, courage, it, are, you, D,H,G.
Secret signature? Jade stone? You’ll find the meaning.

Ile de Ré 1964


I, the most lonely
mixes his veinwith ashes. Be the
travelling mast - Ijourney by night. Avoid
O avoid her, earnest
is the name I - itis revenge. Mine the
velvet empire, yours
the lonesome table
in the roof. First one?
Stone, I speak: Sam-Simae-line. End
I, it ends. Simar,
Simae, cross out the
line at the end. Ice
in the table. Roaring,
lonesomest I of
earth. A mast riseup in seas
and: the lonesome table.


Unica’s heroes murdered - scratch
in cold earth - listen! Thank “M” -
Manitou for it, the cold hangman of
the dream of noble Aztecs. KO-HIR-
KUNAS - KIMHONA, Last One of Earth.
SUNA, the red eagle, limps. KEZ-ME,
the circling, cold anger. THU-MA,
Stone-heart and ALKAE murdered.
Uncas, the last of the Mohicans
speaks to me. Listen to him: “Cold,
sick, old is the mouth, o heart
in earth’s ore. Uncas, Thokane,
noble tomahawk of kin - ZUERN -
The last moon - it sank” (Hakirer).

Ile de Ré 1964



ANAGRAMS are words and sentences resulting from the rearrangement of the letters in a given word or sentence. It is surprising that despite the re-awakened interest in the development of language in psychotics, psychics and children, little thought has been given to the anagrammatic interpretation of the coffee grounds of letters. - It is clear that we know very little of the birth and anatomy of the “image.” Man seems to know his language even less well than he knows his own body: the sentence too resembles a body which seems to invite us to decompose it, so that an infinite chain of anagrams may re-compose the truth it contains.

At close inspection the anagram is seen to arise from a violent and paradoxical dilemma. It demands the highest possible tension of the form-giving will and, simultaneously, the exclusion of premeditated purposeful shaping, because of the latter’s sterility. The result acknowledges - in a slightly uncanny manner - that it owes more to the help of some “other” than to one’s own consciousness. This sense of an alien responsibility and of one’s own technical limitations - only the given letters may be used and no others can be called upon for help - leads toward a hightened flair, an unrestrained and feverish readiness for discoveries, resulting in a kind of automatism. Chance seems to play a major role in the result, as if without it no language reality were true, for only at the end, after the fact, does it - surprisingly - become clear that this result was necessary, that no other was possible. Writing one anagram each day of the year would leave one with an accurate poetic weather report concerning one’s self at the end of that year.

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up. They enter suddenly and for real into their interconnections, radiating multiple meanings, meandering loops lassoing neighboring sense and sound. They constitute new, multifacetted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors. “Beil” (hatchet) becomes “Lieb’” (Love) and “Leib” (body), when the hurried stonehand glides over it; the wonder of it lifts us up and rides away with us on its broomstick. The process remains enigmatic. For this kind of imaging and composing to happen, no doubt an eager hobgoblin - oracularly, sometimes spectacularly - adds much of its own behind the back of the I. A pleasantly disrespectful spririt, in all probability, who is serious only about singing the praises of the improbable, of error and of chance. As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance a proof of eternity.

Translated by Pierre Joris


Unica Zürn’s poems are extremely formal yet playful: they are anagrammatic constructs, i.e. each line is a strict transposition of the letters of a given line or phrase, usually the title line. There is of course no way in which a translator could be ‘faithful’ to this process: s/he has to choose one of two roads: either translate the procedure & system of the poem into English, i.e. take the line or sentence Zürn used as her transformational matrix & write an English anagram based on those letters - but this would make for another poem, for the translator’s poem - or translate the resulting semantic construct. Now, what makes Zürn’s poems gripping work for the reader, is not so much the method - once one knows that she did use a specific procedure to generate her texts, a procedure, furthermore, which is obvious enough & can be described fully in English, i.e. “translated” (which is what I am doing right now) but the meanings/images/soundings the poet is able to construct due to/despite of/with & against her chosen procedures. I have therefore chosen to translate the literal, semantic meanings Zürn arrived at, to create English language works via a method of translation that, on a certain level in relationship to the original, is as arbitrary as the original method of creation. Limits are, what any of us, etcetera …

Pierre Joris
Encinitas, California
May 1st 1991

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Diane Rothenberg: On the Insanity of Cornplanter (Part One)

[A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) & the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976). Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, are still available through Ta’wil Books, Two essays from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread" & “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt, were posted earlier in Poems and Poetics (December 5, 2008, March 12. 2009, March 24, 2009, & April 8, 2009). “On the Insanity of Cornplanter,” a historical account that touches also on the poetics & problematics of vision in traditional Indian cultures, has only recently been reassembled.]

One of the recognized problems in research, any kind of research, is the repetition of a single original finding or opinion by other, later researchers as if those others had arrived at the finding or opinion independently. This, then, may result in an extensive bibliography of secondary sources for a position that, in fact, has only a single source. Obviously there is no problem with building on the work of others, but there is a problem if the original source was flawed.

In 1986 I gave a paper at the Anthropological Association Meetings in Philadelphia entitled “On the Insanity of Cornplanter.” My work during the previous ten years had been concerned with various aspects of the Seneca Indian/Quaker missionary relationship during the early reservation period (1798-1824), but Chief Cornplanter had been a tangential figure for me largely because he lived on his own land downriver from the reservation. Still I was aware that Cornplanter was accepted by various scholars to have had a “psychotic episode” in some accounts and a “depression” in others in the year 1820, and that, of course, was based on missionary accounts. Because I had frequently called into questions the judgments and conclusions of the missionaries, I decided to look back at the evidence presented on the mental state of a dynamic and pragmatic individual who was in his mid-eighties in 1820. He lived until 1836, active until the end and was described in 1830 by a white reporter as “a smart, active man, seemingly possessed of all his strength of mind and perfect health.”

So, how to explain the “psychosis?”

I believe his behavior can alternatively be read as that of a man in control of himself, responding in a strategic and culturally appropriate way to a difficult socio-political situation. Further, I would suggest that a judgment that he was crazy, while enlivening history in a literary manner, is the least interesting conclusion that can be drawn from the material and a closure of the possibility of comprehending the historical situation while ignoring the biases of the primary sources.

Cornplanter, a chief by virtue of achievement and not by traditional ascription, was born sometime between 1732 and 1740 at Conewaugus on the Genessee River in New York. His father was a white man (John O’Bail or Abeel) from an Albany family with whom Cornplanter had only incidental and anecdotal contact. His Seneca affiliation through his mother was apparently total, as was appropriate in this matrilineal society, and his mixed-blood status is never noted as informing his own behavior or that of others to him. Handsome Lake, the Seneca visionary and prophet, was his half-brother and, in 1799 when the Quaker missionaries first arrived through Cornplanter’s invitation to the settlement on the Allegheny River, the two brothers and their families were sharing a single residence on Cornplanter’s private land. That Cornplanter had private land granted by Pennsylvania on which he and his heirs continued to reside is a testimony of Pennsylvania’s gratitude to him. His reputation for cooperating with whites was additionally built on his role in the signing of two treaties, both opposed by the famous chief Red Jacket, the great Seneca orator. The first of those treaties, in 1784, fixed the western boundary of Iroquois lands, and the second in 1794, relinquished Ohio lands. The dichotomized strategies of Cornplanter and Red Jacket were further reflected in their response to Indian involvement with agencies of white power. Cornplanter frequently sought accommodation to enhance the position of the Seneca and Red Jacket urged separation. It seems likely that the tension between the two men was personal as well as political and that Cornplanter was responding to this personal competition with Red Jacket in some of his statements in 1820. Certainly the attitudes he expressed at that time were more congruent with the consistent position that Red Jacket had expressed. It should be remembered, however, that they were leaders living at some considerable distance from one another and influencing separated populations, hence not necessarily competitive for the same followers except in a larger political sphere.

Reservation lines were established at the turn of the 19th century and the Seneca populations settled onto various segments of land for which the Holland Land Company held the preemption rights, i.e. the exclusive rights to purchase Indian land. These rights were sold in 1809 to the Ogden Land Company, and no profit from this investment could be made unless the Seneca could be induced to vacate the land. From 1809 the pressure to sell was intense and Cornplanter is referred to as saying “some of the young warriors had said they would kill any chief who should sell any more of their lands, and for his part he thought it would be right.” Every means which the politically influential investors could use to bring pressure on the Indians to sell was used. They manipulated federal and state political opinion to remove the Indians to western lands in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kansas; they bribed individual Indians and advisors of Indians; and they offered a series of alternative plans by which they would acquire the more valuable lands in the northern part of the state, particularly Buffalo and Rochester, by removing all the Senecas to the comparatively worthless land of the Allegany reservation which was Cornplanter’s center of influence. My own analysis leads me to believe that the Ogden Company was working on “insider information” about the impending building of the Erie Canal and their strategies were tied to that project. By 1819 the pressure toward the Allegany relocation of the total Seneca population was intense.

The Quaker missionaries whom Cornplanter had invited to Allegany as trusted intermediaries consistently supported the Senecas in the goal of preserving their lands, but their judgment was that the best way to do this was to divide the land into private allotments rather than to continue to hold it collectively. The Quakers had originally anticipated that a desire to hold land “in fee simple,” i.e. as private property, would evolve naturally out of their proposed restructuring of the Seneca community into that of male agriculturalists, but, when this program bogged down, they attempted to approach their goal from another angle, that is, directly from that of land divisions.

The on-site Quaker senior representative, Jacob Taylor, was an assertive man and often Cornplanter’s adversary. In 1815 Cornplanter invited the Presbyterians to found a mission on his land because, Taylor writes, “he said friends had forsaken him and that one of us [Jacob Taylor] had said he formerly was like a bright star and gave light to his people, but that he is now a dark lamp or like a rattlesnake that poisons them. However just the simile, it gave great offense for he alleges that such a sentiment coming from a Quaker causes the Indians to think light of his judgment and they sometimes decline to follow his counsel and that he wanted somebody that would not forsake him.” Similes like “bright stars and dark lamps” would be expressed several years later by the Presbyterian, Timothy Alden, but his causal analysis was psychological derangement evidenced by Cornplanter’s rejection of Christianity, and it is Alden who is the primary source on which the secondary sources rely. In 1818, Jacob Taylor arranged, presumably on his own authority, to have the reservation at Allegany surveyed in order to facilitate allotments, but the surveyors were met by a delegation headed by Cornplanter who ordered them off. There were strong factional divisions at Allegany over this issue and Cornplanter was regarded as a strong and rational leader of one of these factions along with his younger relative Blacksnake. The unresolved pressures over land divisions and removal continued to mount and were not quieted for about another 25 years.

By 1818 the socio-political environment was strewn with missionary presence and with conflicting opinions about appropriate strategies for the salvation of the Indians both here and in the hereafter. All the missionaries of whatever persuasion were firmly in agreement with prevailing United States governmental sentiment that the Indians must be civilized and assimilated, but, by around this time, it has been suggested that the Jeffersonian enlightenment view of the noble savage being led on the path to civilization by instruction was being perceived as a failure and alternatives of coercion and separation through removal were gaining ground.

Whatever effects this change of sentiment was having on the Seneca, in 1818 there was a revival of nativistic expression and interest in the teachings of Handsome Lake and a large council was held at Tonawanda to renew the teachings. Timothy Alden related that, at this council, a man arose in the ordinary course of things, who said that he had a dream to tell in which the sun spoke to him and told him to instruct the Indians to repent their wicked ways or disasters would follow. Alden remarks that “he did not however assume the character of a prophet. He simply related his singular dream; yet he appeared to feel as if it should be regarded like a communication from the Great Spirit.” Alden, himself, had no great trouble with verbalizations suggesting spiritual communications as positive events, except when the communications gave instructions contrary to his own opinions. When he visited Cornplanter in 1817 he quotes Cornplanter as saying, “I have long been convinced that we are wrong and that you are right. I have often told my people that we must be wrong and that you must be right because you have the words of the Great Spirit written in a book.” Alden goes on to say that Cornplanter had said that, if it would do any good, he would personally intervene with Red Jacket in favor of Christianity. At this Alden remarks with praise: “Must he not have been blessed with some special communications from the Holy Spirit?”

This, then, is the socio-political climate in which Cornplanter’s behavior around 1819-1820 must be analyzed for its rationality, and the analysis must not rest on the opinions of invested white men, but on the cultural congruence and appropriateness of Cornplanter’s own behavior. We cannot know the state of his mind; we can only analyze the fragmentary bits of information we have about what he did and said and decide whether these are sufficiently bizarre in the historical and cultural context to be judged psychotically inappropriate.

And, of course, there is the continual problem that the behavior is being selected for reportage by white men who may have been predisposed to consider Indian behavior in general as bizarre or, at least, perverse. Considering Cornplanter’s age, it is perhaps astonishing that there was so much public behavior and encounters with white men as were reported. He continued until his death in 1836, certainly past 100 years old, to have occasional public meetings and the white reporters were invariably impressed with his dignity and demeanor. In 1821-22, when the state of Pennsylvania decided to tax his land, he successfully resisted this taxation and delivered a speech at the courthouse in Warren which were in essence another version of his “visions” [those that Alden viewed as deranged and that will be discussed below] but which were here judged not only legally persuading, but appropriate, effective and characteristic of Indian discourse.

(To be continued,)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Outsider Poems (3): Micropoetries, an Encyclopedia Entry by Maria Damon

MICROPOETRIES. The term m. refers positively to the rawness of fragmentary, ephemeral, non-literary, unintentional or otherwise “unviable” poetry: doggerel, occasional verse by amateurs and other para-literary detritus that, because of its high degree of defamiliarization, achieves the poetic in its effect on the reader, audience, or recipient. Because audiences and poetic discourses vary widely, M. are intensely context-specific and often arise out of the cultural practices of subcultures or informal communities with little public acknowledgment or power. For example, graffitis, prison poetry by non-literary inmates (as distinct from figures such as Oscar Wilde, Osip Mandelstam, et al.), slogans, private (scrap-book or diaristic) or semi-private (correspondence, blogs or social-network) writing, poetry written by children or their strange and charming utterances, “écriture brute” (outsider writing), thieves’ cants and other argots or vernaculars, and so forth, may be considered micropoetries, as might newspaper poetry, greeting card verse, prayers, idiolects. Intended as a capacious rather than narrowly specific term, the category of M. widens the field of the poetic by valorizing artifacts that may be considered clumsy, awkward and inadmissible among professional poetry circles.

Introduced in the late 1990s, the term reflects the democratization of poetry and poetry scholarship in the US. The poetic nature of M. inheres as much in the critical intervention as in the artifact itself. M. scholarship draws on the Russian formalist principle of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, as an index of poetic language, but, in accordance with insights from Russian socio-linguists of the 1920s and British cultural studies scholars from the 1970s-1980s, aims to broaden the nature of this defamiliarization; it is also indebted to W. Benjamin’s method of combining phenomenological observation of linguistic effects with social analysis, and to ethnographer C. Geertz’s method of “thick description” as a way of making the micropoetic artifact meaningful. M. is genealogically related to ethnomusicologist M. Slobin’s term “micromusics,” musical subcultures that fall outside mainstream (classical, popular, folk and other commercial) networks of production and distribution but enjoy a relationship of productive adjacency to these mainstreams, challenging and combining with them to create new styles and otherwise refresh popular musical culture. M. also derives from E. Conrad’s working concept of “micro-movements,” the smallest perceptible physical movement that the mover him/herself can detect; the practice of isolating these micro-movements and training awareness of them has been instrumental in working with brain- or physically injured patients. M. inherits Slobin’s emphasis on subcultural, minoritarian or highly eccentric but context-dependent expressive practices, and Conrad’s heightened awareness of minutiae with an eye toward enhanced aesthetic experience. Both of these indicate the micropoetic object’s contingency and dependence on the contexts of its production and reception. In their ubiquity, m. comprise a thicket of discourse and expression-quotidian, eccentric, ephemeral-that gives rise to more polished "high-art" poetry and forms its background "noise," even while that elevated poetry defines itself by repudiating m. in terms of complexity, craft, or taste.

Bibl.–M. Damon, “Post-literary Poetry, Counter-performance, and Micropoetries” (1997); M. Chasar and H. Bean, eds., Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies: Poetries (2006); B. Perelman, “Democracy & Bathos: Variations, Calypso & Fugue on a Theme by Ella Wilcox Wheeler," Poetry of the 1970s (conference paper), June 2008.

Maria Damon’s encyclopedia entry on “micropoetires” is scheduled for publication in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for which information can be found at Earlier entries on “outsider poems” as an ongoing anthology project were posted on Poems & Poetics on June 14 and July 7, 2009. [J.R.]

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Amy Catanzano: Excerpt from “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light” (Part One)

June 2009

The more I think about theoretical physics and the implications of its principles on poetry and prose, the more I question the spacetime of my own poems. I also have new questions of the poems I am reading: How does gravity behave? Where does the poem’s universe warp? Broader questions surface: Is poetry a form of space/time travel? What is the result of using a causality-based language in a universe where, through the use of telescopes, the farther we look into space the farther we are looking back into time? By this I mean: Telescopes are time machines.

When we look into space from the relative position of Earth, we view objects in space as they existed in the past. It takes about eight minutes for the light from the sun to reach our eyes. This delay in light travel appears constant throughout the known universe. In a context where looking into space is looking into the past, the determination of how far away something is from our relative position of Earth is made by measuring the expansion of the universe in relation to an object’s light spectrum, or what’s called its redshift. Just as noteworthy is the word developed for this measure of spacetime. Light, a unit of space, marries years, a unit of time, and they make a hyphenated hybrid named light-years. Under this ambiguity of spacetime, can we describe what is happening? In Happily (2000), Lyn Hejinian writes, “This is happening” and “All that happened is what is happening.” Is it possible to write what is happening?

According to the theory of the Big Bang as well as data from NASA space probes, the universe has been expanding from a dimensionless point of extreme density and temperature for 13.7 billion years. Matter, gravity, and electromagnetic forces coalesced, and novel elements were introduced into the universe. Each novel configuration of matter, from elementary particles to solar systems, marks an increase in spatial and temporal complexity as the universe expands. Terence McKenna once proposed that the most novel form of matter in the universe might be situated behind our eyes. If this is even somewhat accurate, novelty, as a trait and force of evolution, expressed through the action of innovative language, which is an activity of perception, is one way of understanding consciousness and also conceiving of what is happening.

Spin the Kaleidoscope

Neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain (who, sadly, recently passed away), in his book, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (2001), examines how in geometry, Euclid codified space into a field of knowledge where abstract thought is conceived through diagrams, and space is organized as if its points could be connected by an imaginary web of straight lines that do not exist in the natural world. As Euclid articulated linear space, Aristotle articulated linear time. Just as imaginary lines in nature became the key to Euclidian space, sequence, duration, past, present, and future became the key to Aristotelian time. Based on his linear notions of time and Euclid’s notions of linear space, Aristotle developed rules of logic and problem-solving techniques using syllogisms, if-then hypotheses. Newtonian physics was one direct lineage of Aristotelian time and Euclidian space in that it described the natural world in mathematical relationships by developing a system of ordering called classical mechanics.

Shlain argues that breakthroughs in science often happen near the same time as similar breakthroughs in art. The development of perspective through a single vanishing point gave visual art the third realistic dimension of depth and rejected years of flat depictions of space and time. While the Renaissance painters were elaborating on the development of perspective, the scientific method was developed from realistic observations of nature by means of measurement. Similarly, Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity within a few years of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developing cubism and Gertrude Stein using language for similar experiments. Einstein asked a new question, one that would usurp thousands of years of Euclidian space and Aristotelian time. He asked: How would the world look to someone sitting astride a beam of light? Shlain notes that Picasso, through cubism, and Einstein, through relativity, imagined that all points in space along a path of observation occupy the same location, simultaneously. In his theory of general relativity, Einstein illustrated how the world would look to someone with access to multiple, and all, perspectives at the same time. In cubism, objects are often viewed from multiple angles at the same time, fractured into visual fragments and rearranged so that the viewer does not have to move through space in time in order to view the objects in linear sequence. In cubism and relativity, space and time appear relative and inseparable, uniting in a new dimension where Euclidian and Aristotelian notions of space and time—those of linearity, sequence, duration, and logic—have no meaning. Michael Palmer: “All clocks are clouds.” “A and Not-A are the same” (“Autobiography,” At Passages, 1995).

The Multiverse

According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, light binds space, time, matter, and energy, and the interplay between these forces results in gravity. In Einstein’s theory, space is not empty, and matter does not inertly move through space. Matter tells spacetime how to warp the spacetime in its vicinity; likewise, warped spacetime tells matter how to behave. The theory of relativity challenged classical mechanics on large scales through observations in astronomy. Conversely, quantum theory challenged classical mechanics on small scales through observations of molecules. In quantum theory, the relationship between the observed and the observer is one in which the observer affects observed reality. In quantum theory, matter at the molecular level swerves in and out of observation and can appear in multiple states of time and space simultaneously.

Theoretical physicists today recognize there is a problem with relativity and quantum theory both being accurate models of physical reality. Relativity breaks down at quantum and molecular scales. Quantum theory breaks down at relativistic scales of space and time. In quantum theory, the relationship of the observed and the observer is made new, but Newton’s conceptions of space and time are retained. In relativity, space and time are made new, but Newton’s conceptions of the observed and the observer are retained. Theoretical physicists have been attempting to bridge relativity with quantum mechanics by developing a single theory of physical reality, a theory of everything, which would allow relativity’s conceptions of space and time as well as quantum theory’s conceptions of the observed and the observer.

Dr. Lisa Randall, a Harvard professor and theoretical particle physicist (who I heard lecture in 2007 after she returned from CERN’s massive particle accelerator, the large hadron collider), suggests that gravity, unlike other forces such as electromagnetism, is present in all dimensions of a higher-dimensional model of the universe. This theory of everything must contain a theory of quantum gravity that addresses space and time from small and large scales. Theories of quantum gravity are unified field theories, based on field theory physics, and some are referred to as M-theory, short for membrane theory. One of the most well known of these unified field theories of quantum gravity is string theory, or superstring theory. In proposals such as string theory, spacetime is an ambiguous ecology, and the known universe is thought to be part of a larger wilderness, a multiverse comprised of multiple and perhaps infinite dimensions of space and time that are created by collisions between subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy. String theory attempts to define the evolution of space and matter from the connections between these vibrating membranes of energy. The multiverse, a concept rooted in science fiction, is now an accepted theory of physical reality in theoretical physics. Poems and other innovative languages also seem to be multiversal, invoking invisible ecosystems outside eye-level, molecular and astronomical scales, ambiguous spacetimes, and collisions between membranes or borders. One problem of the quest for a single theory of everything is the reductive nature of its premise. How can a single theory of physical reality describe a universe comprised of multiple dimensions? It seems multiple theories would be needed to describe the complexity of the multiverse, multiple quantum and relative theories (like poems) that are mutable, relational, and paradoxical. Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)” (“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, 1881).
[To be continued on 8/12/09 …]

EDITOR’S NOTE. As is true in many cases, Catanzano’s poetics exists side by side with her poems in which the intersection between poetry & science plays itself out in a contemporary, even futuristic form. The key work at present is her Multiversal (Fordham University Press. 2009), of which Michael Palmer writes by way of introduction: “Amy Catanzano offers us a poetic vision of multiple orders and multiple forms, of a fluid time set loose from linearity and an open space that is motile and multidimensional. The work exists at once in a future-past and in a variety of temporal modes. … In a time of displacement such as ours, she seems to say, in place of ‘universals’ we must imagine ‘multiversals,” in place of the fixed, the metamorphic. … ‘A blaze within a tighter blaze, engulfed.’ ‘Earth pivots on a pearl.’” For a further take on the poetry-science connection as it first came into a radical poetics, check out the posting here on Goethe, Shelley, & others – a dissolution of boundaries that continues into the present.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Abraham Abulafia Visits the Pope: A Fragment of a Steinian Opera (Scene Two)

[The second scene of an opera conceived & planned with composer Charlie Morrow but never finished beyond the first two scenees nor ever put into production. Abulafia selbst (1240-c.1291) was a great mystic & master of a species of meditation that took the form, often enough, of a kind of mystical lettrism. In 1280, responding to a dream or vision, he set out for Rome to convert the Pope (Nicolas III) & to proclaim himself the Jewish messiah. Threatened with execution he was thrown into prison but saved by the sudden death of the pope himself. Some of his lettristic work, translated by me and Harris Lenowitz, appeared in A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to Present (a.k.a. Exiled in the Word), still in print from Copper Canyon Press. Scene One of the opera was posted on Poems & Poetics on November 13, 2008.]


[Enter the three women who are three women in love. They sing.]

Three women in love
we are
who are in love with a Jewish king.
So we are & we sing.

Three women in love
we are
& so we sing we sing
under the moon.

(The moon, the moon,
& o the Jewish king.)

Three women in love
we are.
And we wait where an old moon dies
in the old king's eyes.

We sing & we wait.
And the night grows old
where we wait.
Where we wait with the moon.

(The moon, the moon,
& o the Jewish king.)

[Abulafia appears in the sky above them. His earlocks are long & fall over his shoulders. In his right hand he holds a blue & white umbrella.]

First Woman
[no longer singing; speaking]
Along this road or somewhere somewhere along this road he comes. And where he comes I do or do detect him.

Second Woman
And now we watch see how his foot sets on the ground.

Third Woman
See how his other foot goes searching for the path his first foot takes.

Second Woman
When Abulafia becomes a traveler on the earth we circle –

First Woman
And we take him in this net.

[A net falls down & covers Abulafia.]

Third Woman
And bind him.

Second Woman
Oh love is vegetable & love is blind.

All Three Together
And so we say.

[covered by the net he feels along its surface as if testing the narrow walls & ceiling of a cell. When he speaks he sings.]
Into the love of marigolds the Jew returns & goes, o does he go & sweetly, neatly as the paper where he reads he sees the letters float with love, sweet love sweet marriage blisses. When he kisses love the Jew begins with love, & when he sins love wins him to her side. The bride in love & o to be in love & be beside.

[Then speaking.]

It is only this or this that keeps me from it that delays the leap across the trees into the house the deep house & the ring where the messiah sings & is true.
[Slowly, very slowly.]
I had set out to do what I must do & here love keeps me true.

[The other Jews appear. The Italian king is now a Jew too, he is with them.]

The Jews & the King
[as a chorus, while the women raise Abulafia above them in the net of love.]
One by one.
No light at all.
No surprises.
To bewilder a taste
& open it.
To surprise
with cheese.
To delight.
Perfect in understanding.
The girl has her shape.
Perfect for once.
It is real.
It is past.
A holiday is everywhere.
Send necklaces.

The Three Women
[swinging around Abulafia's net on ropes that hang from the sky.]
Do they whistle for work.
Do they whistle for a wedding.
Do they whistle for a beard.
Do they whistle for whistles.
Do they whistle for bathtubs.

First Woman
And when.

The Three Women
Do they pretend to whistle.
Do they pretend perspiration.
Do they pretend breakfast.
Do they pretend jewels & furs.

Second Woman
Will they be first
or will they.

Third Woman
Or will they return to be first.

First Woman
Or will they return love.

Second Woman
Or will they love & turn back.

Third Woman
Or will they express themselves too often.

First Woman
This is what I guess.

Second Woman
I do not offer a hand but it is offered.

Third Woman
I do not wait for the sea by decree or by a holding.

First Woman
I take greater pains to be best knowing of their wishes.

The Three Women
We prefer to be first.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (32): Bruce Andrews, Four 19th-Century Poems

[Poems manufactured/crafted from texts in Poems for the Millennium, volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry. First performance March 23, 2009 for a group reading and launch at St Mark’s Bookshop in New York. Some modifications in format by the blog editor.]

and the like--------and the like
and the like--------and the like
and the like--------and the like
and the like------- and the like
roar---------------- power
vain---------------- brain
wild---------------- beguild
pow’rs------------- devours
sheuk-------------- leuk
a’ that------------- a’ that
variorum--------- decorum
protected--------- erected
are----------------- war
time--------------- sublime
array-------------- gay
cause-------------- laws
untrue!------------ can do
nation------------- explanation
sublime----------- crime
ass----------------- alas!
despotism-------- methodism
terror------------- error
noise-------------- joys
brain-------------- feign
worst-------------- first
in------------------ skin
politique--------- trick
far---------------- war
stark------------- hierarch
emotion--------- motion
move------------ groove
by heart--------- your heart
aesthetics------- frenetics

The Shakers / reverse glossolalia / [ailalossolg esrever]

oop net evol enap re-s not not re-caw a-lot re—caw a lot not not not mus-em eb O
oov al na muc-ool rat-v no red nod na oov er
as rav ral oot al as sav no reb-mohs
et nav el-ek ra oo es naw el-eM
nav en-o es-naw et oow en av esat naw-e-no eT
oov en-o es nal
et oov en-at ek ra es-naw eT
oot nahs ev ha nol
ek-saw an-as naht ek sav en O
ool et na-t ek sa-t na-ep hA


We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty

switched song of the bald mountain witches

Nich, nich, salampa, daba.
Chomoescho, wassala, bodaschib.
O.a.a — o.o.o. — i.i.i. — e.e.e. — u.u.u. —
Aa, la sobs, li li sobs lu lu sobs.
Chodawi, saraks, jatungu, jatungu, etc.

oi, ai, — oi, ai, zok, oi, ai,
zopaz! oi, ai, zopipaz!
Jemasookat, suomasoos, kamni, samnis, daschol.
Paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz!
Zopin, zopin, zopin, sadyn.
Noscho, kodamtschi, gasawik, damej.
Pobouo, yamochondyr, pobou, alpig.
Chadorua, sadora, sadory, yemozal.
oi, ai, o. oi, ai, koz. oi yen zolk, oi ai zolk.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Heriberto Yépez: Ethopoetics, What Is It? (Part Two)


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, deconstruct—the 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

[The opening section of "Ethopoetics, What Is It?" appeared June 23, 2009 on Poems & Poetics.]

Friday, July 10, 2009

Christian Bök: Excerpts from Eunoia

from Chapter A
(for Hans Arp)

Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh – a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

from Chapter E
(for René Crevel)

Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech. The
text deletes selected letters. We see the revered exegete
reject metred verse: the sestet, the tercet – even les
scènes élevées en grec. He rebels. He sets new precedents.
He lets cleverness exceed decent levels. He eschews the
esteemed genres, the expected themes – even les belles
lettres en vers. He prefers the perverse French esthetes:
Verne, Péret, Genet, Perec – hence, he pens fervent
screeds, then enters the street, where he sells these let-
terpress newsletters, three cents per sheet. He engen-
ders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms.

from Chapter I
(for Dick Higgins)

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism,
disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish
hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib?
Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits,
writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

from Chapter O
(for Yoko Ono)

Loops on bold fonts now form lots of words for books.
Books form cocoons of comfort – tombs to hold book-
worms. Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-
docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth. Dons who
work for proctors or provosts do not fob off school to
work on crosswords, nor do dons go off to dorm
rooms to loll on cots. Dons go crosstown to look for
bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods:
cookbooks, workbooks – room on room of how-to
books for jocks (how to jog, how to box), books on
pro sports: golf or polo. Old colophons on school-
books from schoolrooms sport two sorts of logo: ob-
long whorls, rococo scrolls – both on worn morocco.

from Chapter U
(for Zhu Yu)

Kultur spurns Ubu – thus Ubu pulls stunts. Ubu shuns
Skulptur: Uruk urns (plus busts), Zulu jugs (plus
tusks). Ubu sculpts junk für Kunst und Glück. Ubu
busks. Ubu drums drums, plus Ubu strums cruths
(such hubbub, such ruckus): thump, thump; thrum,
thrum. Ubu puns puns. Ubu blurts untruth: much
bunkum (plus bull), much humbug (plus bunk) – but
trustful schmucks trust such untruthful stuff; thus
Ubu (cult guru) must bluff dumbstruck numbskulls
(such chumps). Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust
funds plus slush funds). Ubu usurps much usufruct.
Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck.

from “The New Ennui”

‘Eunoia’ is the shortest word in English to contain all
five vowels, and the word quite literally means ‘beauti-
ful thinking’. Eunoia is a univocal lipogram, in which
each chapter restricts itself to the use of a single vowel.
Eunoia is directly inspired by the exploits of Oulipo
(l’Ouvroir de Litteérature Potentielle) – the avant-garde
coterie renowned for its literary experimentation
with extreme formalistic constraints. The text makes
a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, wilfully crippling
its language in order to show that, even under
such improbable conditions of duress, language can
still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.

Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules. All chapters
must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must de-
scribe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pas-
toral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must
accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical
parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each
vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire
(although a few words do go unused, despite efforts
to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, mono-
chord and tumulus). The text must minimize repeti-
tion of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word
appears more than once). The letter Y is suppressed.

[Editor's Note. The five texts printed above represent only the opening paragraph of each lettered chapter of Eunoia. The full text, published by Coach House Press, can be found at A rerelease of the original book -- with new material -- is scheduled for September.]

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Outsider Poems, A Mini-Anthology in Progress (2): Four from Adolf Wölfli



G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'gung g'gung!
Giigara-Lina Wiiy Rosina.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'gung g'gung!
Rittara-Gritta, d'Zittara witta.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'ung g'gung.
Giigaralina, siig'R a Fina.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'ung g'gung!
Fung z'Jung, chung d'Stung.







with Pierre Joris, from Poems for the Millennium, volume one

The southern half of all the gigantic and majjestic Creation is my … property. Not only the millions and billions of stars. No!! 500 myriads and one star. … I have traveled through all of them in the year 1868. And now, appalling Ca-tas-tro-phe before God the Holy-Spirit, I am swinging on the hideous rope of the gallows, in cell number 3 of the 5th wing of men. A.W.

A key twentieth-century opening [possibly diminished into our own time] was to the work of a number of artists & poets whose mind-sets put them outside the sphere of normal artistic discourse. Presented often as the art-of-the-insane, such work was later designated as “outsider art” [only one of its accumulated meanings] or, in the [more specific] phrase of Jean Dubuffet, its principal early proponent, as art brut (= “raw art”): a beacon of lost & disturbing humanities. On a verbal level, it is marked by transformations of thought & expression as radical & often as revelatory as those of the greatest modern experimenters, or those of traditional speakers of numinous tongues.

Of [the writings of] the Swiss-born Wölfli, who spent the last thirty-five years of his life in confinement at a mental institution, Elke Spoerri wrote: … “Adolf Wölfli became famous as a result of his drawings. With the exception of a few extracts his extensive narrative work has remained unknown. This narrative work is composed of 44 illustrated books (20,000 pages, with over 1400 drawings and over 1500 collages), with epic texts, dialect poems, sound poems, and musical compositions. The elucidation of the content and structural organization of Wölfli’s collected works … shows emphatically that the four forms of expression (drawings, prose, poetry, and music) form a homogeneous whole. A study of the works also reveals an illuminating correspondence between real and imaginary biography.”

Known to Rilke as early as 1921 (“the discordant has been turned to a new concord”) & to the Surrealists by the 1930s, Wölfli’s work was the driving force behind Dubuffet’s founding of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948. His massive gathering of texts, From the Cradle to the Graave, has never been fully translated into English.

[A FINAL NOTE. The preceding poems (sound & visual) by Adolf Wölfli continue my conjectures toward a global gathering of works outside the conventional literary nexus. I’ll be developing the project – as far as I can take it – with a sense that the term “outsider poetry” can cover a wide range of sources & possibilities, from art brut & mystical/religious poems & offerings to folk & working class poetry, sermons & rants, glossolalia & glossographia, dialect & “nation language” (K. Brathwaite), & so on – works in short both written & oral. Glimmerings of this sort have already appeared in both Technicians of the Sacred & the three volumes (so far) of Poems for the Millennium. For which see also the entries on this blog for June 14, 2009 & August 16, 2008. (J.R.)]

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Five Poems after Poems by Jan Skacel

Transcreations from Czech by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak


Smells of horses
burst forth
aromatic like black-
currant bushes
ditches knee
high with water
coming at them
in a rush
the riders with
thoughts of death
their heels
& deep in their minds
an ancient rule
often repeated


As so many do
& make an arch to carry them over the ditch
with no time left for looking behind them
Time reverted a direction still not allowed

On cherry trees the blood takes flight, the killing
flutters like a flag
The race has ended with the summer
a quiet darkish autumn come to life

And the riders those who overcame the hurdle
make their way on foot back to the site
where they once launched their hearts
heads bent now to peer through the grass

Maybe to bring it to light
maybe not


trees still bandaged
all the rest untouched,
between two poplars
half asleep in flight
a levitating angel

Through cracks in sleep
he sings

The first one on the street
he whom that song would wound
may stand there half suspecting
yet never catching a glimpse

A greenness
all that remains
of those angels


scratched like a plank
the joiner sets aside
I walk along the river, call down seven thunders
bright & regal on my head

beneath the bridges winter birds fly here & there
the water empty
high above our heads the snow mill’s
crunch of straw


When we become aware of our desires
gently to stroke his cheek
they will beseech us & will let us know
that he lives high up there among the bells

& they will sound a proclamation:
that the gallows may not cast a shadow
over any foreign plot of land
no not even if they hang a heart on it

This they will keep repeating
until the rain
over some small provocation
arrests us in that town
bearing the most beautiful name
in all the world
a little settlement called Huslei

And they won’t flinch but will obey it
when we sniff the fingers on the hand
that gnawed death like an iron moth

That’s when we’ll sneeze
& leave the wolf weddings
somewhere behind us

A FINAL NOTE. These poems, derived from poems by Jan Skacel (1922-1989), were among the works left uncompleted at the death earlier this year of my friend & collaborator Milos Sovak. It was Milos’s sense that Skacel was one of the truly outstanding Czech poets of the last century but one whose work until now was barely visible in English. We made a start on it several years ago & left it for other pursuits, although I continued to think of the possibilities that these & other poems of Skacel’s presented. Coming back to them now I had no one like Milos to consult, so I moved on my own from translation as such to a modest version of what Haroldo de Campos graced with the name of transcreation. They appear here as a final tribute both to Skacel & to Sovak, with some misgivings about my own belated interpretations but with the hope that they exist now on their own.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ambar Past: From the Introduction to the Tzotzil “Incantations”

She of Great Writing, She of the Glyphs

These incantations were dreamed by Maya women in the Highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico. The Tzotzil authors of this anthology claim their spells and songs were given to them by the ancestors, the First Fathermothers, who keep the Great Book in which all words are written down. Pasakwala Kómes, an unlettered seer from Santiago El Pinar, learned her conjurations by dreaming the Book. Loxa Jimenés Lópes of Epal Ch’en, Chamula, tells of an Anjel, daughter of the Lord of the Caves, who began whispering in her ear and then, in dreams, showed her the Book with all the magic words to be learned.

Show me your three books,
your three letters,
the ink of the letters

prays María Tzu to ask for the secret of black dye, directing her verses to the Ancient Earth in Flower, the Coffer Where the Secrets are Kept.

Manwela Kokoroch, from Laguna Petej, Chamula, sings to the Elder Brothers of Writing and Painting, who hold the Book where the names of all the people in the world are written down, along with the dates of their deaths. Here she pleads for a long life:

Let my animal spirit live
many more years
in the pages of the Book,
in its letters,
its paintings,
on the whole surface of the Earth.

Even though few of the authors of this anthology can read, even though the Tzotzil Maya have no libraries nor bookstores near their houses, a wise person is said to have «books in the heart,» according to Robert M. Laughlin’s translation of a sixteenth-century Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary.

The Mayan word for book, jun or vun, also means paper, and the making of paper is an important Mesoamerican tradition. During rituals ancient Mayan women pierced their tongues and dripped the blood on paper which was then burnt. Even today in the amate papermaking town of San Pablito Pahuatlán in Puebla, paper is still burnt as an offering to the gods.

In Tzotzil, to write and to paint are the same verb (tz’ib), just as the color yox serves for what English speakers perceive as both blue and green. Antonia Moshán Culej of Huixtán asks: «How is it that María Tzu can paint if she can’t write?» Weaving is today considered to be a form of script and Tzotzil women can read the verses on their looms.

The ancient Mayan god Itzamná is credited with the invention of writing. His wife is said to have created the universe by painting everything into existence. The Fathermothers gave birth to one of the few civilizations in the world that conceived a way to write down its language. The ancestors of Loxa Jiménes, María Tzu, and Manwela Kokoroch created the Maya codices, magnificent books written when only Native People inhabited these lands. On stuccoed bark paper pages they painted forecasts of the movements of the heavenly bodies, prophesies, divinations, and spells. In his chronicle The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a soldier who accompanied Cortes in the invasion of Mexico, wrote:

We found temples and places of sacrifice, and blood splashed about, and the incense they burnt, and other properties of their idols, also the stones on which they made their sacrifices, and parrots’ feathers, and many of their books, which are folded as cloth is in Spain.

The Maya seem to hold ancient memories of their libraries. Even today, the oral poetry of ritual speech is referred to as tz’ib­ «that which is painted or written down.» Poetry is called nichimal k’op, «the word in flower.» We know of only four precolombian Mayan books that survived the ravages of time and war; many were destroyed by Friar Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, as documented in his Relación de las cosas de Yucatan:

[The Maya] wrote their books on a long sheet of paper doubled in pleats, the whole thing enclosed between two boards that made them very attractive....
There were many beautiful books, but as they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the Devil, we burnt them all, and this affected
[the Maya] deeply, causing them great sorrow and grief.

Song is a book that will not burn. In the early colonial period a number of ancient texts in verse were dictated to European friars who transcribed the Mayan words in Latin characters and translated them into Spanish. The best known of these is the Popol Vuh - the sacred book of the K’iché. The Yucatec Maya conserved their magical writings in the Books of Chilam Balam, the Codex of Calkiní and-perhaps the most exquisite poetry left us by the ancient Maya -- a volume of incantations entitled the Ritual de los Bacabes.

It is clear the First Fathermothers were writers, and it is rumored that some of their books - that no one can read anymore - lie hidden in old chests in Chamula. Each year they are taken out with great reverence, perfumed with incense and wrapped up again in embroidered cloths. Some say the books inside the chests have begun to talk. Women who learn the words are said to have writing in their hearts.

Incantations by Mayan Women is the first book Mayan people have created, written, illustrated, printed and bound - in paper of their own making - in nearly five hundred years.

. . . . . . .

In the womb of my mother
I learned the spells.

In the womb of my mother
I heard them.

I took the basket,
I received the bottle,
I was given incense,
I was shown the Book.

From the womb of my mother
I dreamed the incantations.

-- Pasakwala Kómes
translated from Tzotzil


[From the Cincos Puntos Press English language edition, just published, of Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, assembled, edited and translated from Tzotzil and Spanish by Ambar Past.] The press’s announcement carries a sense of the book well worth noting: “This book of poems and stark, vivid illustrations is rooted in the female soul of indigenous Mexico. The Tzotzil women of the Chiapas Highlands are the poets and the artists. ... In the 1970s, living among the Maya, Amber Past watched the people endure as an epidemic swept through a village. No help came. Many children died. One mother offered her dead child a last sip of Coca-Cola and uttered a prayer: Take this sweet dew from the earth, take this honey. It will help you on your way. It will give you strength on your path.

”Incantations like this — poems about birth, love, hate, sex, despair, and death — coupled with black and white dream images, paintings which remind us of ancient rock paintings, provide a compelling insight into the psychology of these Mayan women poets. The Cinco Puntos edition of Incantations is a facsimile of the original handmade edition produced by the Taller Leñateros ... [a collective workshop of Mayan women, of which Ambar Past, long a resident in Chiapas, has been an active co-founder and member.] “

Concerning Incantations, I have written elsewhere: “There has to my mind never been a project quite like this: a collective body of poetry – and women’s poetry at that – coming directly out of an indigenous culture and gathered as a deliberate work of poetry and art by the women themselves. The poems, created and spoken in Mayan Tzotzil by individual poets, then translated by Ambar Past into faithful and readable Spanish and English versions, show how deeply rooted language traditions can transform into vehicles of personal as well as collective expression. Incantations represents a major contribution to poetry in general and to ethnopoetics in particular.” (J.R.)