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, May 11, 2012

From AMERICA A PROPHECY: Cotton Mather & Gertrude Stein revisited, toward an omnipoetics

please note. a list of postings after january 12, 2012 can be found here 
 for Susan Howe

[note.  At a recent birthday celebration in my behalf, Susan Howe looked back at America a Prophecy, the anthology/assemblage that George Quasha and I composed & first published in 1973, & called special attention to the juxtaposition in its pages of short pieces by Cotton Mather and Gertrude Stein.  It struck me then, as never before, how close America a Prophecy was to my ideal of “anthology” as what I called elsewhere “an epic including poetry” – more in that sense than any of the other big books I’ve constructed in the aftermath of the other true assemblage in my total oeuvre, Technicians of the Sacred.  The Mather & Stein pieces come together in a section of America a Prophecy that highlights linguistic meditations on words & objects: definitions & descriptions drawn from a wide range of experiences within the framework of what could be called “America” or “the Americas.”  Coming immediately before these two are several “Aztec definitions” recorded in the early days of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  I would take the trio as emblematic of what Quasha and I were trying to accomplish, putting collage or assemblage at the service of a new omnipoetics.  The reissued America a Prophecy is now available – happily – from Quasha’s Station Hill Press -- that after several lost decades.   (J.R.)]

 Aztec Definitions

The Precipice

It is deep – a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place.  It is dark.  It is light.  It is an abyss.


It is round, like a ball.  The back is rounded.  The eyes are like spindle whorls; shiny.  It has horns of feathers.  The head is ball-like, round; the feathers thick, heavy.  It is blinded during the day.  It is born in crags, in trees.  It feeds by night, because it sees especially well in the dark.  It has a deep voice when it hoots; it says tecolo, tecolo, o, o.


The eye, the bird’s eye, the eye of a bird; the turkey’s eye, the eye of a turkey.  With it, it looks, it looks in different directions, it becomes blind.
            I blind one; I smash it in the eye; I smash it in the eyeball.  I put fear in its eye.  It opens its eye.  I remove its eyeball.

Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble from texts compiled a quarter-century after the Spanish conquest by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish monk.  The Aztec elders – who had been through the highly developed pre-Conquest schools – provided him with a compendium of their culture (songs, myths, histories, rituals, etc.) at a time of crisis.  The “definitions” (a kind of glossary of “earthly things”) comprise the eleventh book of his Florentine Codex.

Cotton Mather


            There are many sorts of Stones found in lesser Masses.
            Of these there are many who do not exceed the hardness of  Marble.
            Several or eight of these are of an indeterminate Figure.
            Twice as many have a determinate Figure.
            Among these the wonders of the Osteo-colla, to join and heal our broken Bones.
            But then there are others which do exceed Marble in hardness.
            To this Article belong those that are usually called Gems or precious Stones.
            [Pebbles and Flints are of the Agate-kind.]
            Some of these are opake.
            Three of the opake have a Body of one Colour.
            Here the Wonders of the Nephritick Stone!
            Three of the opake have different Colours mixed in the same Body.
            Here the Wonders of the Blood-stone!
            Some are pellucid.
            Two with Colours changeable, according to their different position in the Light.
            Nine or ten with Colours permanent.
            Some are diaphanous.
            Two yellow (or pataking of it).
            Three red.
            Three blue.
            Two green.
            Four without any Colours.
            But an excellent Writer observing, Deus est Figurus Lapidum, carries on his Observation, That the God who makes precious as well as common stones, has made Men with as much of a Difference, and not altogether without such a Proportion.
            Good God, Thy heavenly Graces in the Soul are brighter than any that are dug out of the Earth! A poor Man may be adorn’d with these; those who are so, they shall be mine, saith the Lord, in the Day when I make up my Jewels.
            ‘How often have I seen a Jewel in the Snout of a Swine!’
            ‘And how many Counterfeits in the World!’

[Cotton Mather, the well-known seventeenth-century divine, also wrote natural history as a mode of revelation.  See Pound’s remarks on “the medieval philosopher” elsewhere in these pages.  Deus est Figurus Lapidum: God is the potter who makes the stones.]

Gertrude Stein

(from Tender Buttons)

Pheasant and chicken, chicken is a peculiar bird.

Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty bird alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.

Alas a doubt in case of more go to say what it is cress.  What is it.  Mean.  Potato.  Loaves.

Stick stick call then, stick stick sticking, sticking with a chicken.  Sticking in a extra succession, sticking in.

note.  The complete Tender Buttons (written in 1911, published in 1914) was like a glossary in form: a book of definitions divided into three sections: objects, foods, rooms.  Here Gertrude Stein’s attempt was to “make poetry but and it seriously troubled me, dimly I knew that nouns made poetry but in prose I no longer needed the help of nouns and in poetry did I need the help of nouns.  Was there not a way of naming things that would not invent names, but mean names without naming them.” (Poetry and Grammar, 1935)  In the process she came to the conception of a “continuous present,” which, she said, it was “the business of art ... to live in ... that is the complete actual present and to completely express that complete actual present.”

(further commentary)” “A continuous present is a continuous present.” – Gertrude Stein.

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