To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
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

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Angelus Novus

 

1.

It’s A Strange Angel!

 A NEW & improved angel!

 Chicken-footed claws and finger feathers,

a perfect poultry type.

Raglan sleeve-y wings

with a sigh-nage, hmmmm.                                                   

Him. Her. It. They.

Ange or angel-us.

An angular build,

spikes poke half-wise as its puzzle parts-- 

triangles, churches, knife blades

and/or mountains.

 

Tri-ages. A wire-line’s the shadow

of its doubled halftone self.

It stands in clarity. It stands in blur.

Its face is a scroll, or maybe a lion

with intelligent snout.                                    

You'd think, given strength and virtue,

things might just work out.

 

But its animal eyes fly to the side,

crooked right,

left askew

slid to where

the remnants brew.

 

This is your body on fear.

This is your body on dread.

Eyes pop out of its head.

Eyelids widen and pupils dilate

hair rises, muscles vibrate.

                                   

Though it shudders, it is fixed.

It's staring

at the wrong ends

of pick-up sticks.

 

2.

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

 

                                                                                                                        Walter Benjamin

 

3.

To ask which way

the wind is blowing

is not a 60s joke.

 

This says it’s from a “Paradise”

generating wreckage, but

suctioning backward to the future.

 

To ask in what way

its wings will ever close

is not another joke.

 

The wreckage lies

in the same quarter

(in front of it) as Paradise.

 

What dreck is coming from the blast?

Will the future be the same

as this wrecked past?

 

 

4. Some questions, some answers

 

What does have the power? A storm.

A Power Surge. From whence? From

 

Paradise! And where is Paradise? Yes--ask!

is it coming in the future, or lurking in the past?

 

Is “Paradise” the goal before us

or the theological back?

 

The messianic Will says “Paradise” (glimmer)

is coming forth, full monty futurial.

 

While Paradise was (cue glittery shimmer)

once angels' home, this Paradise

 

is modern and gives rise to storms.

It's not a place of peace, but turbulence.

 

How can this be? Is every image wrong?

Is Paradise Malign? Is Angel Powerless?

 

Are these names obsolete, flat, functionless?

We seize up, freeze up: thesis, antithesis,

paralysis.

 

 5. 

Almost the same

 

Why does this angel have fewer powers than us?

We perceive a "chain of events." It perceives "debris."

 

We project a narrative linkage.

It perceives "catastrophe."

 

Why is the wreckage apparently invisible?

I mean: not rendered in this scene.

 

Did everything shift in the twisting swirl

of a funhouse twirl called “history”?

 

In the realm of angels, is there no logic, no cause

and effect, nothing syllogistic? Is the answer “yes, not”?

 

How to imagine the motives of any angels;

then how do these get thwarted? And by what?

 

The angel would like to stay, its mission

to institute justice by heavenly fission.

 

Nonetheless, it is doomed to hover

paralyzed inside this ever-darkening loss:

 

which is--Whatever Comes when winds

from so-called Paradise double their Force.

 

6.

This thing is not a picture exactly,

It is one monoprint, unrepeatable.

Mainly not to illustrate

but to parallel us and travel together.

These glyphs are flat as forms of fate.

 

Ledgers

unreadable records

accounts of daze

barely having time to leave

their ugly detritus

before more arrives.

 

The stakes that high.

Were always so.

 

Almost unrepresentable is everything.

That's why you might say

 

that Benjamin’s glyph--taken from Klee--

is "illogical." If you can’t represent this,

 

you just can’t. But there’s the joke.

It is what it is, like IAM/IAM

 

stuck in the throat.

So what's to say in face of all this?

 

Let them eat cake.

Let them choke.

 

7.

Consider cinders, consider the badger

bludgeoned.

 

Irreducible, implacable,

inadequate, insightful,

 

not enough, never enough

but enough after all,

 

enough to be unbearable.

Already "ruins." The line

 

tightens. Can the "right"

words get gasped out?

 

Get grasped? Shards

on the shard pile testify.

 

8.

My vocabulary didn't do anything 

in the way of killing me.

 

It was the findings.

 

I have seen an incandescent lightbulb that had angel wings wired on it—and it was “Style”--pretty pricey--a designer fixture. Cute. A plain old lightbulb, and some white feathers. Almost a cartoon.  But it was true.

 

Do angels have money? Hold it; that wasn't the question. But I couldn’t read my scribble. This was it: "Do angels have memory?" Just a note, straight out of Dante. The desire for brightness and luminosity, compared with our diurnality. They don’t go into our darkness? Except when given a mission. And then they never stay.

 

But who really cares about "angels" except you've just spent a few hours in yet another museum. Although it is nice to see them wander around the world in the imagination of various cultures--those pretty and elegant androgynes whose feathery wings are sometimes covered with eyes. If they had that many eyes--and all those rainbow stripes, they probably don't need either memory or money.

 

They simply give the message they have been given. Someone tweeted: Don't bomb Syria; glitter-bomb Russia.  Do you remember this? It was a specific moment.

 

Plus I just learned about mica. It's mined almost exclusively by children twelve and under. In India. And often mined illegally. Where does this leave us? Or actually, in our part of this, our collective world: where does it leave anyone?

 

9.

We live amid documents

a new batch every day, vital

to document something

 

of what we are seeing.

Hence a poetry not solely

“poetry”—do I have to spell

this out?

 

We are on energy alert,

but on a short fuse for qwik illumination

so then the poles

swerve to depression with disgust,

swerve back, practically electrocuted with despair

and reanimated, jolts of force, more power

plus unsought powerlessness.

 

Our angel was once rooted in its clarity of purpose

and grew in light

but that brand of angel declined,

was withdrawn from the market,

ripped from its root,

wrenched out

of shifting soil and in straining winds.

Thus the angel found itself

deep flung across the place once home.

Splayed, and played

out.

It got worn, raggedy and frightened,

and so it looked

like us.

The Angel-Us.

Yes,

spell

it

out.

 

10.

A project is a desire, altering

itself as it goes, shadowing

the names it thought it had, tracing

the words behind the words

which are the only ways to know.

 

To live among quotations makes

everything exegesis, which ennobles solemnity and

convergence.

One pitches down the incline of the scroll.

Interpretation is a mode of clarity,

and maybe (very loosely)

reverence.

Destiny.

 

11.

We live in nomadic

unfulfillment.

 

Therefore I am the philologist of the trace

and I am not I

hello, goodbye.

To read trace is violation;

not to read disvalidates whatever the mark might give.

 

We stare at the plethora of texts.

The trace is a smudge of flattened historical time.

A sullying -- hedged spaces

the hard-to-clean grease of endlessly

bad politics. Ecologies fucked.

Or "challenged" to breaking.

 

Persons like numbers but

unnumbered,

picking at shards

thrown off by cataclysm

lying among those broken parts

and speaking in the voices of the dead

so? so? so? Speak?

Nothing. Again nothing?

What is beyond that sublime?

 

Something. For which there is no

genre, but swiveling pressures on words

from words

blowing and blasted at every turn

like mini-angels.

 

The time of now is palpable; it is the source.

Tense and restless, twisted lot and cowed,

is it possible to vow?

To gather up our nothingness as force,

to enter the dark tunnel of our time once more.

                                                                         2013-2016, July 2018

 [N.B. As a master of the multi-volume long poem, one of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s motifs, she tells us, is “making a commentary in a poem that glosses key modernist texts in suspicion and homage.” In her recent book Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020), the poem “Angelus Novus” examines, “with contemporary panache,” the Walter Benjamin / Paul Klee image (above) of the “angel of history.” Elsewhere, in “Draft 52: Midrash,” (in one of the books of her earlier Drafts), the text under question is by Theodor Adorno about the pitfalls of writing poetry after Auschwitz, “This project,” she writes further, “is the work of the prodigal daughter in internal exile pursuing incomplete enlightenment in poetry.”]

 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Jerome Rothenberg: Ian & Me, A Collaboration

 

              Ian Tyson, “Three Friendly Warnings,” Realization from the Seneca Indian with Richard Johnny John & Jerome Rothenberg

[In memoriam Ian Tyson (1933-2021), painter, printmaker, sculptor & extraordinary book artist, who was my dear friend & collaborator over a half-century & more. (j.r.)]

I have tried an altenstil

& dropped it.

 – J.R., A Book of Witness, 2003

 “Ian Tyson reads us” – or so I wrote a number of years ago when the question first came up.  He is illustrator of the work not as subject or as mood per se but as structure.  The rest comes out of that, a play between the poet & the artist, where the poet’s words are taken, not for what they say at surface but for the directions they imply – the rules or inner structures that are there for him to read & follow, or evade.  I am a poet with some feel for content, for signification, that may sometimes act to hide the structure.  I began to come alive in poetry with a series of polemics arguing the primacy of image (“deep” or “surreal” or otherwise) as a concern to be explored anew in the awakening of the later 1950s.  That part, the image part, had no need for picture as a form of illustration.  And even later, when I used photos & other images to let the physical eye catch a glimpse of a mythical Poland disclosed through words, said photos were sparing & personal, my additions, often ironic, to a work that was proceeding as a whole by means of an already evident collage.

            I was working in the middle 1960s on a group of poems called Sightings – a form of poetry that challenged continuity & organic flow in favor of a rigid demarcation between the fragments or perceptions that composed the poem.  If my images remained “soft,” the structure was no longer flowing but sharply cut (by visual “bullets,” aural silences).  In that sense I was already approaching Tyson’s world, coming to a first meeting circa 1967 & a friendship & sometime collaboration down to the present.  The result for me was an immediate re-cognition of the structural side of my own work.

            The poems of mine to which he first turned his attention were those in Sightings.  As I conceived of them, they made up a single poem divided into nine numbered sections, & each section subdivided into smaller “fragments.”  His translation into abstract visual images bore a close but by no means slavish relation to the structure of the poems, less evidently to their content, tone, etc.  For this his first move was to generalize the numbers in the subsets – or as he later wrote about it:

            Carefully considering the text I found that each section had an average of

            nine lines so I devised a grid of 3 x 3 large squares subdivided into 12 x 12

            alternating black to color.  I used the grid to form the pulse or ground base

            of the images & as a structure for the typography [the poems printed en

            face].  The colored squares were thematic relating to each part of the text

            but once having established it I improvised freely until I arrived at what I

            felt to be a satisfactory counterpoint of typographically correct text & page.

 From that reading – the best in any sense that my work had had up to that point -- & from a feeling for his work, which was then new for me, I made another poem, “Red Easy A Color,” that followed Gertrude Stein’s steps into a common meeting.   And this one he translated into a rich & glowing, almost monumental image that sealed up that book.

            I had begun by then a work in ethnopoetics that would bring me into the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, largely but not exclusively derived from song texts.  The first collaborative piece to emerge from that was a large pamphlet/broadsheet derived from an Aztec description (a lexical definition, in fact) of the ceremonial & private uses of flowers.  The verbal piece, which I in turn had mined from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, was a cataloguing of repetitive & parallel declarative sentences that rose at times to crescendo.  In the resultant piece, Offering Flowers, the words on the left are pulled toward the image on the right by cross-bars of a large “F” taken from the title, & the image itself (in orange, black & white), while it’s still composed on the grid, is allowed dramatic bursts, like clusters of squared-off flowers, pathways, stairs, in a manner reminiscent of pre-Columbian design or, as he writes of it, “rather like an embroidery pattern.”

            From the “more explicitly illustrated,” almost fluid flower image, he went in The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell to a group of much more austere, more minimal pieces.  The poems here were “total translations” of four of the seventeen Navajo songs, which I took as sound-poems & to which his images related in a more general way than before – an accompaniment rather than a mapping of the infrastructures.  The principal response to the structure (this time of the songs over-all) was in the choice of color (white & blue) suggested by the alternation of blue & white objects (turquoise, whiteshell [abalone], etc.) in the systematically paired horse songs themselves.  Tyson’s designs kept an American Indian feeling, akin to Navajo sand painting & even closer – as with the Aztec flowers – to native weavings.  And along with this there was also a sense in which the form of his images might be thought to represent, in line with the underlying mythological narrative,  “a ‘going through’ portals to the sky, to obtain and bring back the horses.”          

A more extended & more collaborative work was Songs for the Society of the Mystic Animals, a series of poems derived from Seneca Indian ceremonial sources.  I had already translated these into “concrete poems,” transformed them in that instance since the originals were purely oral.  What I now sensed, along with Tyson, was the possibility of driving them still further, incorporating color & significant typography, plus (in line with Tyson’s vision) a greater adherence to the structure of the grid.  This would take us, I thought, toward the creation of a meditative visual field – as the tantrist yantra is the classic visualization of the chanted mantra.  At the heart of that linkage was the fact that the songs – qua mantra – contained not only words but vocables (“meaningless,” non-lexical sounds: highyohoweyehhey, etc.) to which the words related as with figure & ground.  Color & position could both reveal & conceal such distinctions, however we chose to handle them, & this became the basis of much of the collaboration between us.  His own words cover this far better – the care given to each work as an event, an action triggered by the field, the way the words are set before us:

             The choice of color was determined subjectively where appropriate to the

            elements described; e.g., earth, smoke, fire, water, etc., or objectively to

            separate out the textual changes between the sensible & chant elements

            & to punctuate any accents as they occurred.  The shape of each song

was indicative of its subject matter [“but in a non-illustrative way,” he points

out earlier] so that in the Song about a Mole, or Was It a Dead Person? the

shape became long to support the idea of burrowing or traveling through

whereas in the songs about Acting Like a Crow I kept the format to an

approximate square to engender the notion of performing within a limited

sphere.

             The Mystic Animals series was done by 1982, & since then we’ve engaged in a range of individual publications, something like half of which involve a process of composition based on a form of traditional Jewish numerology called gematria.  While the texts for these works resemble my earlier Sightings, the process by which they’re composed is much cooler, more hard-edged than what I had allowed myself in the 1960s.  As a form of process-generated poetry, the gematria poems play off the fact that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is also a number & that words or phrases the sums of whose letters are equal  are at some level meaningfully connected.  For myself – as for Tyson – these coincidences / synchronicities function not as hermeneutic substantiations for religious & ethical doctrines, but as an entry into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist & postmodernist experiments over the last century and a half.

            Where Mystic Animals had brought us to a place in which the components of the visual image were themselves letters & words, the works thereafter were, as he describes them, “typographically [un]interpretable other than the choice of type face and the careful placing on the page, i.e. they are not translatable into visual poetry.”  What moves the work forward, then, is a mutual interest in numbers (“as opposed,” he points out, “to mathematics”) that can function for both of us as an opening for “specific compositional doors … less as systems than as philosophical speculations.”  In the most complex of these collaborations, Delight/Délices, five gematria-derived poems are set in units that include the English text, a translation into French by Nicole Peyrafitte, & a visual extension that places strikingly colored squares on a black ground, disposed according to their numerical position – determined by the gematria number – on an imagined grid.  In another collaboration, Six Gematria, my selection of poems assures that each will include reference to a primary or secondary color, & Tyson follows with a single image made up of 26 “lozenges” (for the 26 letters of the alphabet), which changes color as he moves from poem to poem.

            In other, still more recent work, the strategy varies from piece to piece, with a tendency for the visual image to attenuate by stages: a series of thin, variously dispersed lines in A Case for Memory, or an arrangement of colorless intaglio squares, embossed so lightly as to hint at their own disappearance, in The Times Are Never Right.  Here, if I read him rightly (& I think I do), he follows my own struggle with time, both personal & cosmic, & with the sense of “loss and desolation” that the struggle implies. “In making the visual corollary to these,” he tells me,  I put forward my own image of time, gained and lost.  A very abstracted conception which I tied together in the general design.

            It is something of this kind that informs our most recent work together: In Memory of Paul Celan: Three Death Poems.  My own contribution to this was to pull together a series of words & phrases drawn from Celan’s poems or reminiscent of his texts or textures.  To meet these, Tyson turns to an image, he writes, that “comes from a gradually developing structure first encountered when I took another (very oblique) look at cubism and started to deconstruct the grids in [a series of his] drawings.”  Working for the first time with computer, he transferred the ideas onto QuarkXPress, “where I could cross reference the text and image on the screen.”  The result, as he saw it was “a gradual seeping away of the colour filigree – there and only just there – paraphrasing the Three Death Poems. …  Perhaps a metaphor for my state of mind although the possibilities it opens up for me are immense.”

            For me as well the openings are now extraordinary.  We may have entered – both of us – into an altenstil or a series of such as a place of reflection – not, I would stress, of rest – that neither of us could earlier have imagined.  Here all possibilities are equal & we can descant, like the ancient figures evoked by Yeats or Duncan, on art & song, or on Stevens’ presentiment, maybe, of “a colossal sun … like / a new knowledge of reality.” (If only the world allows it  … & of course it never does.)   

For this I will let Tyson have the final word, glancing back like me at our long-shared musings: John Christie has said that my work ‘seems to withstand the vicissitudes of daily life.’  This may be but I can't help thinking that of late there are some undertones of angst creeping in and reflecting themselves, however subtly, in our recent works, which only seems natural given the times.  As for the future, we haven't even started talking of it.”

[note, Receiving just now the news of Ian Tyson's death. I thought again of the nearly fifty years of friendship & collaboration that have bound us together, & I felt that I wanted to reprint this homage to him written more than a decade ago & included also in Poetics & Polemics, the book of my prose writings published by the University of Alabama Press in 2008.  Ian’s work has been crucial for me, & I mean to reiterate his importance here for anyone who cares to read it – a reminder too that for those of us fortunate enough to share their work in this way, the life of poetry can open up as here to become a work in common. (J.R.)]