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, January 19, 2018

Billie Chernicoff: “Gradiva,” a new poem from WATERS OF, with a closing note by Robert Kelly

[Reprinted from the original 2016 publication by Lunar Chandelier Collective]


She who walks 
the woman who walks 
that woman
the splendid one
unreal twice over 
thus real, who walks
with her sisters, 
the three who walk 
early, in the dew.

The dew, called
“what is it?” called
the teaching water,
drops of the night.

She who does not stride
who does not go dreamily
who is real, who walks
with naked foot 
who lifts her foot
and sets it down
sets her heel down 
in wet grass
she whose toes, whose
arch, the arch of whose foot
whose foot lifts
and flexes, whose toes 
press the earth
whose heel is firm
she who walks
walking ahead,
even of her sisters.

Across the wet field.
She who has risen early
who hears the owl
and the mourning dove.

She who lifts her skirt
who lifts the heavy cloth
the folds of
the stuff of her skirt
who gathers in her hand
the soft cloth of her garment
and lifts it from the ground
walking with wet feet and ankles
with cool feet in the dew.

With warm thighs under her skirt 
under the cloth, her warmth
as she walks, as she walks away
from chaos, history, obsession,
she to whom the walls of the city
are as mist. 

The rhythm of sisters 
rhythm of hips
deep socket of the back
the sway of hips
spine rising
from the cleft of her buttocks
her torso rising, uplifted.

Each step lifts her. 
It is a rocking
and a sailing
a moving forward
while hovering.

The unthinking acts of her feet
knees and hips, the hinges, the slip
the synovial fluency, the slip of
thighs overtaking each other
the genital slip, the smallest.

Unreal twice over,
therefore real, she walks ahead
of those who imagine
remember, deny
and pursue her,
who are perplexed
refreshed, comforted
pleased, vexed, shaken by her,
who confuse her with her name.

She slips away.
She balances,
moves forward.
Her gaze is a sailing ship.

Her foot on the earth
pleasures her, the earth
pressures her, answers her.
It is her pleasure.

The moist cloud
of her breath
and of the earth,
her own perfume
in her skirt 
in her armpit,
the perfume
of her sisters 
of the grass
even of her name,
all these are in the air.

The dew is in her skirt
her cloth, her clothes
her hem heavy with dew,
it cannot be helped.

That she is free of us,
free of our supplications
our promises,
free of our books.

Her wet skirt is her book.
She who resolves
absolves and reveals
wrings out the solvent
from her own skirt.
Her hem rains,
love doctoring love.

Our father the owl
our mother the mourning dove
our sisters the laughter of her sisters.

The sun and moon are in the sky. 
The morning star is in the sky, 
a wet flame. How pale the moon is. 
How at one everything is in her gaze. 

You walk with her 
wait for her
marry and abandon her. 
She heals the letters of your name.

You dream you are her only errand.
She leaves her footprints in you.

She who slips between columns
who advances, who rises
and walks on, splendid in walking.


[Note by Robert Kelly] 

What are we to make of such grace?

The great poets of the last half-century rediscovered for us the musical power of the poetic line, the actual line in an actual poem.  Not a counted beat but a rhythmed tune, a muscular (the heart is a muscle) limb of sound.  From the line we make music, and we shape lines by the silences between them.

We learned from Creeley and Duncan and Williams (for me, in that order) how the interruption of syntax indulged that deepest of all qualities of poetry, what Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists called ostranenie, its strangeness, its subtle or not so subtle difference from ordinary speech.  From that strangeness our poets made music.

When I read Billie Chernicoff’s work, though, for all its quiet, tuneful suspensions of syntax over visual gaps, I’m conscious of something else at play.  I want to tease out here, if I can, what that difference is.  Or not so much difference (from what I and a million other post-New American Poetry poets are doing) as something added to that process, a different way the music is being used.

Provisionally, I think it is a mode of making visual.  Look at the longish poem in the middle of the book, “Gradiva.” and you’ll find a scrupulously lucid description of the image of a ‘walking woman’ — which is pretty much what I take the Latin word to mean.  That poem, its summoning of the image, is my clue to what’s fresh, very fresh, about Chernicoff’s work.

To say it as clearly as I’ve been able to think it, she’s trying to turn the hesitant, graceful movement of music into a visual apprehension of physical movement.  The silences at the ends of her lines are not just rests in the musical score, rests in the measure, they are the geometric points that outline the shape of a person, or a Chinese bronze— it is as if the shape of the poem says:  when you see this, know that there is a curve, a salient, a deep embowerment in what the sound of me is summoning you to behold.

Something like that.  I feel it in the persistent visualization that goes on in Chernicoff’s work — things say look at me.  Even when they seem to say touch or taste me, I see more the hand reaching out to caress, rather than the feel of bronze or flower beneath the fingertip.

In this sense, Chernicoff’s work is profoundly shaped by, part of, the visual culture we more and more inhabit.  She casts the image on the mind’s eye — as poetry has always been doing, that’s what an image is — Brakhage’s ‘eye-mage’, Pound’s phanopoeia, all that.  But Chernicoff’s process is not to cast the image by describing it in so many words, but by setting the name of it in supple motion in the silent air around the poem — we see the shimmer.

Something like that, again.  I started out by noticing the grace, the dance–like suavity of her tunes, her sequences, especially the order of things she notices for us to observe or inhabit.  Quiet, slow, unhurried as any object, the spectacles her poems unfold are sumptuous in their giving. 

The book’s title itself starts us off with just such a seen silence.  The waters of.  Of what?  Of Babylon where we wept, remembering? Of Siloe, where we hold our tongues and meditate? The Housatonic that flows through her neighbor fields?  Sea that washes all away?   That of makes us see something, a place or word, just as so often the line will end, startling as a knock on the door.  We hurry to open it to see who’s there. 

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