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, November 16, 2018

Jack Foley: Michael McClure’s "Persian Pony", a Review & Tribute

 Published by Ekstasis Editions, 2017

In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859), Walt Whitman constantly seeks a name for the kind of language he has invented for his complex, multivoiced, multi-selved poem, resonating with echoes from the Bible (particularly the Psalms), from the highly theatrical opera of his day—the notion of the “aria” is central to the piece—even from the world of the newspaper, which was one of the places in which Whitman developed his understanding of writing. The term he chooses for this language, which is alive with the notion of performance, is not verse or poetry or prose or prose poetry—the term “free verse” was not available to him—but song. This notion of song was a redefinition of the possibilities of language in a specifically American context. In his extraordinary essay, “Projective Verse” (1950), Charles Olson extends Whitman’s insights into techniques partially gleaned from the French Symbolist movement, in which the silence and whiteness of the page is not neutral but an active element in the meaning of what the poet intends. In addition, breath—the breathing of syllables—becomes a central issue in the enunciation of the work. Together, Whitman and Olson—with, no doubt, some help from William Carlos Williams, among others—give living poets, and particularly American poets, a medium in which they can find their own erratic, imaginative way.

“Poems in Persian Pony are written in PROJECTIVE VERSE,” writes octogenarian Michael McClure at the outset of his new work: “Projective Verse is neither metrical nor free verse. It gives swift access to the energy of inspiration moving to the Heart where it bounces through the syllable to the Breath and onto the field of composition.” Olson’s notion of “field composition” conjured up the forces active in an electromagnetic field. Paying tribute to Olson in the title of his own book, The Opening of the Field (1960), Robert Duncan immediately changed the meaning of “field” in the book’s first poem: “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” (my italics). Both senses of “Field”—electromagnetic, meadow—are operative in McClure, for whom environmental, “green” issues are a deep concern. “Praise,” he adds, “to my gifted friends who have brought me these awarenesses.”

Persian Pony—the title is taken from a poem by Lorca: “A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep / in the moonlit plaza of your forehead”—is a still exciting exercise in the mode of American verse which Michael McClure has been practicing since the appearance of his first volume in 1956, when the author was in his twenties. Throughout his career, McClure has seen poetry as an exercise in deep awareness. Every individual thing emerges from an all-embracing swirl—“ONCE THIS WAS ALL BLACK PLASMA & IMAGINATION”—but, in the excitement of poetic perception, every individual thing can return to that swirl, every individual thing “is” everything else:

of the pine
into an ancient sonata


of scents of molecules,   atoms,   particles,
superstrings,   touches of space,
energy,   matter,   gravity
    stuff clutching with bonds

into me,
baby me,

ancient me.

It is an amazing stance and, even in 2017—the year in which McClure turned 85—it continues to produce the shock of the simultaneous assertion of the intensely particular AND the intensely cosmic. One might say that the universe is never absent from a McClure poem, but it is a universe in which every individual thing in it is seen with extreme clarity by a pair of what McClure once called “simple eyes”:

here is
Mobius strip
stunned clowns

The thrill of Persian Ponies is the thrill of a consciousness which age has not dimmed, though age is acknowledged, and which love continues to inhabit “like chakras where the nerve tubes pass / on the body of the goddess Kundalini”:

        Look, the small plane, rattling over,
           shakes the petals of the mariposa lily
     where the black beetle stands
                                   with his butt in the air.
        Soon the salamander will
                                  come out for a stroll
                 and to enlighten our stare
                     he’ll leave the prints
                of his feet and tail in the dust
        and amphibian dreams in the air.  

Throughout, Persian Ponies is what Lorca referred to as cante jondo—deep song.

Jack Foley

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Pablo Picasso: A Translation in Progress of “The Four Little Girls”

[24 November 1947 – 13 August 1948]

Translation from French by Jerome Rothenberg

 The scene – a vegetable garden almost smack in its center a well.

four little girls singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor hey the beautiful babe will go pick them up then we’ll come out to dance hey just like they dance oh you sing dance & hug anybody you want

little girl  i – we’ll open the roses with our sharp little nails & we’ll make their smells bleed on the crinkled up flames & the crinkled up games of our crinkled up songs & our pinafores colored in yellow blue & purple & crinkled up too.  And we play that we’re bad & we’re hugging each other it’s mad & we’re letting out horrible cries.

little girl ii – mama mama come out & see Yvette wreck the garden Yvette burn the butterflies up mama mama

little girl iii– go take your places wherever you want & burn the cock’s feathers & light all the candles the baby clothes hung on the old cherry tree – & wake up & I’ll tell you & untie the wings of the little dead birds in their cages their scatterbrained singing
the paisley prints on the sleeves of the dress on the pleats of the sky oh so high all fall down from the sky.

little girl i – singing – we’re not gonna go to the woods no more the laurel trees are down on the floor & the beautiful babe hey (she shouts) hey hey hey cause the cat has taken a bird from the nest in his mouth & he’s choking it now with his claws & dragging it back of the lemony cloud dipped in butter that melts on the edge of a wall that’s all bunged up with earth & a sun that’s covered with ash.

little girl iii – oh that’s just too dumb

little girl iv – go take your places down by the flowers the knitting yarn trailing all over the garden & hanging its rosary beads up like eyes & the full cups of wine in fine crystal the organs we listen to short little arms pitterpatting the cotton wool sky from somewhere in back of the big rhubarb leaves.

little girl i – go take your places your places life’s wrapping me up my passion’s like chalk on my coat it’s in tatters & full of black ink stains that flow down my throat from the blind hands that seek out the mouth of the wound.

little girl iii (hidden in back of the well) that’s it yes that’s it yes that’s it.

little girls i - ii - iv – dumb dumb – you’re so dumb – you’re two times as visible there – yeah yeah everyone sees you – you’re totally naked & covered with rainbows.  Go fix up your hair it’s on fire it’s starting to burn up the string of bows scraped on the tangled-up hairdo of bells licked clean by the mistral.

little girl iii – that’s it – yes that’s it – that’s just it you can’t catch me alive & can’t see me – I’m dead.

little girl iv – don’t be such a jerk

little girl i – if you don’t come back we’ll climb up the lemon tree into its branches
we’ll live out our dramas in flowers & our dances in tears on a razor.

little girl ii – we’re going to get you a ladder (they look for a long ladder & carry one in but have trouble standing it up)

little girl i – no she’s in back of the well – no she’s on the roof of the house.

little girl iv – she’s on the flowery branch upper left of the pear tree.

little girl ii – I see her hand slice the little leaf’s wing tip making it bleed.

little girl iv – no it isn’t her there in front of the bronze stain the blast of the bugle onto the pane of the room upstairs boiling hot from their punches the blinded sun’s broken-up corners & feeling her way in the darkness.

little girl i – she’s crawling she looks like she’s searching between the wet leaves & the grasses a quick bite to eat then unwinding her arabesques colors & curves tiny gossamer threads.

little girl iv – do you want to come out here Paulette yes or no cause you bug us I ’ll go & tell mama you don’t want to play any more that you’re looking to make yourself special by changing yourself in a thousand weird ways into baskets of Japanese flowers.

little girl ii – let them do what they like I’ll go & pick grapefruits I’ll eat them I’ll spit out the seeds I’ll wipe off my lips with the back of my hand & I’ll light the festoons of the lamps with my laughs with incomparable cheeses I beg you to take them I throw myself down at your feet & I sign myself very sincerely

little girl i – it’s so hard to be with you here on a nice summer’s day & it’s more & it’s more & more clear that you won’t let me play with what chronologically touches the lessons they shoved in our ears all winter in class

little girl ii – we’ve got to leave her & not worry about her no more & she’ll come back & clean up her act & she’ll make us all laugh with her phony account books & her set-ups so cool & so arty … (here a long silence – three minutes –the little girls painfully silently dragging the ladder downstage & from corner to corner just skirting the trees & the walls of the house & trying to get near & to push it down into the well) while at that very same time the voice of little girl iii can be heard – there you go there you go there you go

it starts raining

[translator’s note.  While Pierre Joris & I were translating & putting together Picasso’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems (2004), I began a translation of Les Quatre Petites Filles, the second of the two full-length plays Picasso wrote in the 1940s.  While there may be less razzle-dazzle here than in the better known Desire Trapped by the Tail, there was a pop, almost juvenile quality in the language, or in how I perceived the language, that I wanted to emulate in the version I was starting to transcreate.  My sense of Picasso poète then & now was, contrary to Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of him, that what he offered was the real goods which his awesome reputation as an artist only tended to obscure.  My own efforts only went this far until other projects of that time intervened & I lost track of what I had earlier begun.  Some ten years later I came across the first several pages of the translation in progress & with the ease of publication that the internet allows, I’m posting it here, both for the record & for whatever pleasure it may still bring. (J.R.)]

The image above is from Picasso’s Harpy with Bull’s Head and Four Little Girls on Top of a Tower with Black Flag Plate 13 from the Vollard Suite, December 1934