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

Thursday, April 1, 2010

George Quasha: One from Preverbs, with a note on axial poetics

for Susan

We walk together like a field of fireflies.
It gives the ear back to itself.
Hard to beat being heard.
No word for this thing between us, feeling afield.

Mark the opening eye.
The words I leave out rip me apart.
The mystery is the core violating itself, blurted the absent voice.

Reading poetry suffers it to speak.

Things done for themselves are the only things done for all.

Just walking by she multiplies in futures [flash].
I’m the one in the middle longing to be the many.
Put eye inside the empty letter and she looks back at you.
Voyeurism's the illusion I'm not looking at myself.

Exhaust the wisdom impulse before it exhausts paradise.

Today's the day I rewrite my biography.
Pen slips on the slopes of sorrow.
I can't help believing in one thing after another.
Sounds good to me sounds true enough.
And then. And then.

A blurt's a site of first breath.
This only sounds this way.
We wave through each other to approach.
And flex and flex.

Optimal includes bottom.

The world's singing to itself again through our dog.
The tremor in the voice lets the knower out.
Poetry is the state stating.
Says: Say what keeps saying what it is.

You didn't know it but it let you know it.
A form is what knows to take place before you.
It gives the eye back to itself.
Seeing marks.

Let’s meet in the dark where you read through yourself.
Juliet, the verbal scent.

Names get a life to be spoken.
And so I makes my ascent into present.
Poetry says it better than it sounds.
If I don't mean what I say at least it means me back.

The only things done for all are the ones done once for themselves.

I barely feel myself hanging together.
She knows to call me by my calling.
It takes a life to be known.
To tone.
Like things fall free alike.

The underline rhythmic is over and out. Over and out.

Hearing marks.
Speak in the first person on earth.

She sets my system on merge.
Meanwhile I call from a verge, Don't strand me on the grounds of sound.
I can say nothing I can't hear.

The vision’s the body seeing through itself.
The poem even now is hearing itself.

Frog pond in the dark’s bounding across from here.



[While Quasha’s extended series of poems goes back a number of years now, it has remained an ongoing work into the present. In response to a recent query concerning the posting of the foregoing sampler, he wrote on 12/28/09]:

… In the last year or so I've concentrated on bringing the preverbs to a perhaps final stage, long in coming. And the over 4000 original lines have been not only pruned and often reconceived, reconfigured at every level, and continuously added to, but further "complexed" in what in fact I think of as preverb-complexes (or, simply, poem-complexes)—of which there are at this moment 29 realized, ranging from 14 to around 300 lines each, and a number of others still in process. (At other times I’ve called them “configurations” and “constellations.”) This honors a specific principle of axial organization, which I have literally had to learn over and over again how to engage, and has taken me over 12 years to bring to full articulation. They are "fields," perhaps deeply in Olson's sense but decidedly not projective—except that a line, the defining preverbial unit, may well be considered a discrete micro-projective event. But it's axial, which means that the projective force, beyond the line (or syntactic unit), is not forward but radial, and of course highly variable in reading—a processual ambi-valence. (I retain Olson's sense of field as high-energy construct, but not his sense of a primarily forward-projective dynamic in how it appears to originate or function; yet, indeed, even his compositions were often configured in an atemporal or spatial field dynamic, sometimes as collagist assemblings or, I suppose, as sort of pre-word-processing hypertexts.) Any given “close” reading is a singular event. There is no "same poem" to read twice—and obviously I know that's a play on the Heraclitian, but with a preverbial further twist: you can't step in the same river once.

So, this is a first-level take on axial poetics, which is itself a principle-based poetics with a focus of poetics of the singular. And it's consciously non-literary, where this distinction begins with the view that the poetic is (ontologically as well as historically) prior to the literary. The absence of such a distinction may have caused some to consider me as no longer writing poetry at all. I don't agree, of course, despite the fact that in a provocative mood I might have said things that sound like “this is not poetry.” (I’ve long appreciated Antin’s stance, and for me in a different way the poem comes in under the radar of the “poetic.”) Poetry, in my mind, is intrinsically axial, as "verse" is “turning,” a revving of intensity in verbal transformation by way of variability. And variability is itself variable in that it happens at varying (non-consistent and non-separate) levels: semantic, syntactic, tonal, rhythmic, narratological, rhetorical, etc. There is no consistency of method and no commitment to style. (Takes more energy to read but is accordingly the more intense.) [NB: an early attempt at exploring an axial poetics is available online at and]

The unit in the preverbs is the line (open-middle syntactics), modeled originally on "The Proverbs of Hell," but in the end there’s no model, which of course makes it all the more “Blakean” (model as something to parody or transform). (My original title, "The Preverbs of Tell: News Torqued from Undertime,” is no longer foregrounded, and I've settled on "Preverbs."] I'm seeking a balance between the independence of preverbs/lines and a clustering force with forward flow. Each line is a small field of axial possibility; that is, there's a hidden axis that is the structural site of variability. This relates to my work in sculpture, drawing, and video, most obviously the axial stones, where the axis of balance between two stones is not apparent at a glance. [I develop this notion in Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2006]. (And it relates to the practice of axial drawing in which two hands draw simultaneously from an axis at once in the center of the body and resonantly on the surface of the paper; and axial video, for which: Axiality in this context may seem to be a function in the exercise of precarious balancing of possible meanings or stones—or lines, either graphic or lexical. On the principle that like attracts like, the preverb-complexes form over time, discovering their components by attraction. (Stones, like words and ideas, come into relationship, after first attracting me, by being brought to reside on my property, and in time they call me to work them to a refined state together; to do this I must be sensitive to their attractions and their “will” to conjoin, always somewhere beyond my understanding.) This includes a “poetics of service”; how we serve by listening, and how this heightens the sense of singular life. (I probably owe this to Cage, to some degree.)

A "how to read" the preverbs would be mostly a how not to read—how not to hold them to what they are not willing to be, e.g., to expect narrative, development, or any other interpretable momentum. Non-expectation instructs me in listening better, and the writing is born there. The lines, the tiny fields, attract each other in a process of continuous refinement until, as with the stones, there's a still point—where they become weightless and levitational and I can feel the intensity of their conjuncture. Then I let them sit, until they call out for more. When the whole large field (the complex, the poem) goes into its silence, I know it's done. Even after years of forming and reforming in these complexes that have been named over a dozen years, this completion process can take days or weeks of reworking, until they settle into place. The "revisioning" process—also a further listening—is always primary composition; lines fail and fall out or change, new ones arise—everything moves about until completion. The process reflects an interdependent animate nature in language, concentrated to the point of willfulness in the axial field.

So reading preverbs involves a relatively “free” (=not fixed, non-programmatic) oscillation of fields—from the line-field to the group-/stanza-field to the titled complex-field. Like a Klein Form there's no definitive “outside,” no inside/outside distinction. It's a mind field. And, to use a word from Somapoetics, gnosemic in aspiration.

I want to be clear that I make no claim on the axial as such—only the fact of focusing on it, intentionally furthering its practice—and I find axial poetics in play in many poetic works, including Rothenberg poetics pretty much all along, and going back to Deep Image. I find it of course in Blake, in G. Stein, in Joyce (esp. the Wake), in Stevens, in Robert Duncan (Structure of Rime), in Mac Low (e.g., Bloomsday), etc. Syntactic becomes synaptic. Robert Kelly has highly axial works as early as Deep Image, but especially at play in a poem like Axon Dendron Tree or Sentence. And Clark Coolidge, Franz Kamin, Charles Stein…. The latter and I have explored axiality, for instance, in Maurice Blanchot [] and Gary Hill [An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings, Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009]. Yet an axial poetics is not subject to full definition because it’s not really conceptual; it’s principle-based, and as such can only be discussed in relation to actual/singular manifestations, which, however, are never definitive.

[NOTE. Artist & poet George Quasha works across mediums to explore principles in common within language, sculpture, drawing, video, sound, installation, & performance. His axial stones & axial drawings have been exhibited at the Baumgartner Gallery & at ZONE Chelsea Center for the Arts in Chelsea (New York City) & elsewhere, & are featured in the recently published book, Axial Stones: An Art of Precarious Balance (Foreword by Carter Ratcliff) (North Atlantic Books: Berkeley). Editor & publisher of Station Hill Books, he has also produced & directed the video series, Art Is, Music Is, Poetry Is, all of which can be accessed at & other spots on the internet. In the early 1970s he was my co-editor on America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present & has remained an articulate voice for poetry over the intervening years. (J.R.)]

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