Crossing the Andes -- 2004

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 4:01 PM 0 comments
with Diane Rothenberg

Jerome Rothenberg, Cecilia Vicuña, Nicanor Parra Photo by Francis Cincotta

The Andes crossing was part of my reading trip with Cecilia Vicuña through Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, & Brazil. Our other companions were Diane Rothenberg, the photographer & filmmaker Francis (Frank) Cincotta, & Ariane Braillard. Besides Cincotta’s photographs & films, the only records of the crossing are my series of poems (later published in Ram Devineni’s Ratapallax) & Diane Rothenberg’s ongoing journal, both excerpted below.

for Cecilia Vicuña


She died & from
her breasts
her newborn babe
sucked life.

Her sanctuary
at the Inca’s lake
still fills
the flattened earth.

And here Cecilia offers
rocks & roses
where two condors bow to us
guarding the sky.


above a raging stream.

Cecilia running.

The young man
wraps a heavy rock
in orange
next to a standing pool.


tan .......... brown
green ...... red
yellow ..... orange
pink ........ black
grey ........ white snow


mountains of fine
swept sand
& angry rocks

white body
with a lion’s head
astride the mountain’s

low wall of sand
so sculpted
you would think
a city lay behind it
-- under siege –
turns into streams
of mud

desert on the left
poplars on the right

(a river runs through it)


Cristo viene
Jesus está aqui

Christ among the ruins


I want to see
the southern cross
by god!

November/December 2004


11/20/04 This was our day to cross the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina, and all kinds of anxiety were rampant leading up to it. Cecilia had arranged through an agency in Santiago to have a van and a driver take us over the mountains. The weather had been very unsettled while we were in Chile, with a lot of rain and storms, enough that there had been a rockslide on the road to Argentina and traffic had been delayed a couple of days. Until the last minute, then, it was not certain that we would be able to go at all. It had also been, on the whole, a lot colder in Chile than we had expected, and this had supported Cecilia’s predictions that we could anticipate freezing cold in the mountains, particularly if we were delayed and were in the mountains after sunset. There was a plan to buy blankets for everyone, but that never happened, and we concluded that we would layer clothing and hope for the best. Jerry and I figured we could add clothing as we went; the others were padded up at departure, but then they reasoned that they could later take things off. Altitude sickness was another concern considering we would be up about 14,000 feet, and for that we were armed with a jar of mate de coca, kindly supplied by Andrés Ajens back in Santiago and prepared the night before by Cecilia. We did sip it from time to time and we did not have altitude sickness, but that was not a controlled study. Needless to say, we were supplied with a lot of food.

One of the students had approached Cecilia the evening of the reading in the dunes, asking whether he and his girlfriend could hitch a ride with us to Mendoza. He had prepared several long lengths of orange fabric that he stretched along the dunes, and now he proposed to use them for a performance in the mountains. We had agreed, and the two of them showed up as we were leaving and settled down to the breakfast that Cecilia’s mother had prepared. They had brought no food with them, so they mooched from us, but it didn’t work out too badly and we managed to avoid taking them out for dinner in Mendoza. As the others got irritated with them for one thing or another, Jerry got more and more protective, as he always does, and kept them supplied with food. In return the young man created a wire, stone and rubber sculpture for Jerry while we waited (later) to cross the border.

Because Peter Kroeger hadn’t managed to show up the evening before to give Jerry the 25,000 pesos for the Valparaiso reading, and because we were all of us eager to see him one more time, he also came by before we left and gave us a small wooden sculpture that he had made for us. The van arrived and we piled in about 9:00 in the morning and went north a bit before we went east through very rich, very green looking countryside. Because Chile is so narrow (150 miles at its widest), we were soon climbing the mountains, sometimes covered in clouds but always with snow visible on the peaks. The road was one lane in each direction and frequently under repair, but a good mountain road. We stopped early at a restaurant/rest stop and bought an empanada that was being baked in an outdoor oven, stuffed with meat and vegetables and ample enough for the seven of us to get our fill.

Always in the distance was the summit of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, or so Cecilia told us. Snow covered and very imposing, and we made our little gestures of respect when we first saw it. Cecilia feels very connected to the landmarks along the Andean route and planned to do several ceremonies in places she had already chosen. Of course Frank was to document these, and the student intended to do his own thing, essentially wrapping items in the environment with the length of orange cloth he had brought along from the performance in the Dunes.

The first place we stopped was a pond connected to a marker to designate the spot where, as tradition had it, an Indian woman, carrying her baby on her back, had died of exhaustion and cold. The baby found his way to her breast and fed there until he was found by passersby. This miracle is commemorated by a kind of shrine, so Cecilia did a little ceremony there with flowers that her mother had given her from her garden for that purpose. We then moved across the road to a river fed by snow melting in the mountains, and there the offerings continued.

The driver, a very pleasant man, was eager to get on and grew somewhat impatient at the delays, particularly the next one, at la laguna de los Incas (?), a large lagoon or lake also fed by melting snow and located behind a major ski resort on the Chilean side. Although there was no longer any skiing, there were many people there for lunch and walking around. The lagoon was very still and surprisingly without birds, but a beautiful color in a beautiful setting. Cecilia and the student did their ceremonies, and Frank photographed them in the process.

Shortly after that we came to the border with Argentina where we were forced to get in the line for buses rather than in the line for cars. The inspections were thorough, each busload of passengers being made to disembark, go through long lines and then have their bags inspected. All in all, it took us three hours to cross the border and the van driver was still amiable although rather frantic. Contrary to expectations, it was very warm on the higher elevations and the sun was very strong and, rather than adding clothes, we found ourselves removing them.

The landscape changed dramatically on the Argentinian side of the mountains. The rain falls on the western slopes (the Chilean side) so that is very green. It does not fall on the other wide where it is dramatically desert-like but with amazing rock configurations and colors. We drove for hours through this landscape, stopping once at a natural rock configuration that looked like a man-made bridge and was covered with yellow sulfur deposits from which local artisans fashioned trinkets, and we never tired of calling each other’s attention to one amazing rock outcropping after another.

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(“games for eleanor” was a set of 2 person games composed between 1965 and 1966 as a deck of 23 cards intended for reading in subsets of six to thirteen cards selected at random. D.A.)

you come into a strange room
as always you are afraid
you are afraid of the dark lightning
an empty road
you will not stand under a tree when
it is raining or sit near a window
with a spoon
you hear strange noises in the car
the refrigerator is menacing
you believe in bad luck

we make a plan of the city’s streets
we draw lines indicating the paths
we intend to take
we spend a great deal of time marking
in the paths with colored pencils
which we do with such care
that the colors soon obliterate the
and we end up framing the maps
instead of taking walks

i don’t habitually watch you noticing the
way you come and go
i come across you suddenly like a mirror in
a painting
in which i am reversed
you are a taste in my mouth

i want to know the way in
i also want to know the way out
even if i want to stay there
I want the doors lit

boundary lines
they are waiting for a word
as they lean against it
it is of a level
they become straighter and
as they go down

what kind of game are we playing
there are some games in which one player wins
what the other player loses
games of this kind are called zero-sum games
because when you add up the gains and the losses
you get zero
according to the best authorities all games
can be reduced to zero sum-games
what kind of game are we playing

we make a list of all the things we want from each other
i read your list and you read mine
we add many other things to each others lists
we hand them back and learn to want them

cannot retire from them
they require
fixing ones eyes upon it
foresight is seeing
what is not there or
it is seeing the length of your arm or
it is making something
that is not there
now or yet
maybe never

it might be an animal
or a collection of stones
if i turn away
it is a circular movement

we require
nowhere you put your hand
will cover it

treating between equals means
treating between extremes means
standing (not lying) between poles means
treating as equals means
treating as poles means
standing (never lying) means
equal extremes


David Antin has been my compadre-in-poetry for more years than most of us have been alive, and I’ve watched with delight & awe his development from “poems that look like poems” to the great acts of talking that mark his later work. In 1975 I took time to write about his poems in an essay published in Barry Alpert’s Vort, number 7, and reprinted now as “David Antin: The Poems Before Talking” in my forthcoming book, Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press, Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series). An excerpt from that essay follows.

It seems to me that for Antin as for others of us, there has been a strong sense that what we do as poets (more simply: as people responsible for keeping language & reality together) is in danger of an inescapable, premature reduction as it’s forced to enter the unique entropy machine of the modern communications nexus. All of which Antin (whose real outside reputation is as an art “critic”) has shown in his model of a Jean Tinguely-type “self-stabilizing data processing machine,” the blueprint of which strongly resembles the ground plan of the [old] Museum of Modern Art. Put any kind of input into this machine, & it will process it in such a way that the output will be “indistinguishable from the pre-input or initial state of the said machine”: a product called “art” there or “poetry” elsewhere, but with its specific features degraded to the level of what we were expecting all along. Whatever. …

His, then, is poetry with a vengeance—not because it sounds like what we were expecting all along (obviously it doesn’t) but because he’s deeply into it & challenging the language on its own ground. Don’t fret that Antin has left “emotion” & “imagination” to the businessmen who care about such things (that’s what he says he’s done & I believe him), but watch him move deliberately toward that rementalization of reality he hopes will spring us from the trap of the Tinguely Machine. …

For he acts, here & elsewhere, as the whacked-out moralist [like Epictetus, a role model for his early poems] who recognizes (finally & at long last) that at the bottom of our mis-doings is the evasion of our own responsibility to express the reality of things at all costs. I think he’s getting there [has gotten there by now], by every means a rementalized avant-garde can put at his disposal. At least I mean to say I’m grateful.

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Welcome to our language
The Sauce

— Reesom Haile, Eritrean poet — translation by Charles Cantalupo


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all languages are created equal, endowed by their creators with certain inalienable meanings. These meanings are embedded in sounds and texts; in words, imagination, and the poems that bind them. Poetry is the distillation of language; the uproarious babble of human thought, and the engaging patter of consciousness itself—in all languages—all 6,500 of them.

As the Rosetta Stone encoded language, poems encode culture and world view. Both oral and literary poets are central to the ecology of consciousness, serving as transpondents of culture itself. As ways of identifying the features of a physical landscape, language is bound up with place; its loss marks an exile for the poets who express themselves in that language. And yet, across our fragile planet, poetry and poetic traditions are increasingly endangered as their vehicles of communication, the carriers of their art, the words that constitute their lines and
verses, are forgotten or misunderstood. Some estimates indicate that more than half of the world’s languages will cease to be spoken within the next century.

There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
—Earl Shorris, “The Last Word: Can the World’s Small Languages Be Saved,” Harpers, Aug., 2000


When in the course of human communication, cultures are confronted with
a. Loss of language;
b. Loss of dialects;
c. Loss of the ceremonial and artistic traditions of which the poetry is part;
d. Oppression of poets by governments;
e. Oppression by dominant cultural groups against minority or stateless cultures;
f. The trend toward a worldwide market in which communication is reduced to mere products and information;
g. The tendency of the media of dominant cultural groups to co-opt cultural expressions from traditional sources;
h. Increased emphasis on art forms disseminated by the broadcast media with the consequent distortion of those art forms and the concurrent devaluing of other forms of expression;
i. Media ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer, increasingly larger corporate conglomerates;
… these rights and values are necessary to protect the poetic expression of linguistic communities:

1. Every community/ethnic group and its constituent individuals are entitled to the means for preserving and perpetuating their own poetic traditions and poetries, which express their unique sense of identity, individual and collective world view.

2. Every group and its constituent individuals are entitled to the freedom to mix and transform poetry and poetic traditions as they evolve and change.

3. Every group and individual writer should be awarded the legal protection they need to share in any profits earned from their own creations.

4. The diminution of poetic expression, the loss of any poetic tradition, and the silencing of poetic voices are hereby seen as a loss for all of humanity which has invested its creative genius in poetic forms and poems.

5. The poetic traditions of endangered languages are often threatened in different ways so that particular strategies need to be devised to preserve and encourage the traditions in each individual culture.

6. Cultures with the means to document, preserve and disseminate cultural expression are encouraged to assure that poetic traditions of stateless and threatened languages are preserved and fostered, made accessible to their local communities, and preserved as part of the human record of creativity.

7. By poetizing in endangered languages, artists are engaged in a radical, creative, and culturally significant act that needs to be encouraged, not marginalized.

8 . People of every cultural background are hereby encouraged to be as multilingual as possible and to be vernacular translators in whatever competence is available. The linguistic and cultural diversity of the global community must be preserved and enriched.

To make indigenous literature is neither folklore nor a passing fashion; it is a dialogue of identities, of civilizations, of languages, of millenarian voices and perennial spirits.
–Juan Gregorio Regino, Mazatec poet

Written for The People’s Poetry Gathering and City Lore by Steve Zeitlin, Bob Holman, and Emilia Bachrach with assistance from Jerome Rothenberg, Mark Abley, and John Foley.
For the full text of the Declaration see

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Reconfiguring Romanticism (3): Goethe & Shelley

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 12:48 PM 0 comments

Over the next half year I will continue to show brief extracts from Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, which Jeffrey Robinson & I have co-edited for the University of California Press. The bulk of these extracts will be from our prose commentaries, but by the end of the run I anticipate showing newly recovered or newly translated works as well. Responses are welcome but not necessary and can be addressed directly to either of the two co-authors. The book itself is scheduled for publication in January 2009 with an expectation of advance copies in November or December. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts appeared on June 11 and June 18.


Schiller preached the gospel of freedom; I wanted to keep intact the rights of nature. (J.W.G.)

(1) It is not as a conserver of classical traditions but as an originator that we would see him here – from the questionable & self-questioned expressionism of his early novel (The Sorrows of Young Werther) & sturm und drang poetry to the defense of the objective, even “objectivist,” side of a romanticism to which he responded both as a forerunner & uncomfortable participant, & as a frequent, sometimes acerbic critic. This objective view, in alignment with a complementary claim to “intuitive perception,” informed both his poetry & his serious & influential empirical studies & scientific writings. The push throughout was toward a unified view of the human & other-than-human within a transformative/transforming physical world – the model too, if we would take him as that, of a poet working at full throttle & a harbinger of ecological practices still to come. Thus a poem like “The Metamorphosis of Plants” (1798) links closely to his scientific writings under the same title – not a conflict between science & art, but a continuity at the heart of a new poetics emerging in his time. Or Goethe himself, writing of his experience both as scientist & poet:
When I closed my eyes and lowered my head, I could imagine a flower in the center of my visual sense. Its original form never stayed for a moment; it unfolded, and from within it new flowers continuously developed with colored petals or green leaves. These were no natural flowers; they were fantasy flowers, but as regular as rosettes carved by a sculptor. … Here the appearance of an after-image, memory, creative imagination, concept, and idea all work simultaneously, revealing themselves through the unique vitality of the visual organ in complete freedom and without intention or direction. (From a review of Johannes Purkinje’s Contributions to the Study of Sight from a Subjective Standpoint, 1824, translated by Douglas Miller)

Beyond Goethe the fusion of poetry with other forms of philosophical & scientific discourse shows up in these pages in works such as Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants, Shelley’s notes to Queen Mab, Coleridge’s Notebooks, Poe’s Eureka, & in the twentieth-century volumes of Poems for the Millennium, through such diverse poets as Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Miyazawa Kenji, Francis Ponge, & Hugh Macdiarmid. To which might be added Friedrich Schlegel’s directive for the Romantic: “all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one,” as well as Wordsworth's linking of poetry & science in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, & Whitman's famous outcry: “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!”

(2) Goethe’s poetic range isn’t bounded of course by his scientific oeuvre (important studies of light & color along with works on botany & plant & animal morphology) but extends into a variety of lyric & narrative modes in multiple genres. To indicate his range more fully, we have employed a mix of translations, including the attempt by one of us to complete the final two stanzas of Coleridge’s poeticized version of “Mignon’s Song” from Goethe’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, and Shelley’s double translation (as closed & open verse) of a scene from Goethe’s Faust. The translation of “The Marienbad Elegy” into prose echoes Goethe’s comments to Nerval, in praise of Nerval’s prose translation of Faust: “All honor no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effect upon our spirits – namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true values of the material in all its purity and perfection.”


The language [of poets] is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things. (P.B.S., A Defence of Poetry)

(1) George Oppen’s witty revision of Shelley’s famous claim at the close of the Defence of Poetry (“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World“) actually catches a central feature of the poetic radicalism of this most radical of the British Romantic poets: “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.” Attentiveness to the world is transformative, a “lifting of the veil” from the familiar, from the vision of society promoted by repressive Regency power – or repressive power anywhere, everywhere. Thus Shelley, again in the Defense: “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man”. And poet Michael Palmer nearly 200 years later: “Shelley . . . represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness.”

(2) Shelley’s poetry explodes in a multitude of forms, from cosmic dramas about the consequences of “repressive rule”; to urgent inquiries into visionary capacity & possibility; to poems of intensely erotic/lyric communion (Palmer again: “Desire itself will be seen as a signifier of resistance and subversion”); to more popular, rhyming, tetrameter poems of visionary outrage (The Mask of Anarchy and Peter Bell the Third); to poems — like Queen Mab — that juxtapose visionary prophecy with an elaborate set of notes rising at times to a kind of prose poetry of astronomical, naturalistic, & philosophical commentary. His translations – ranging from anonymous Homeric Hymns to fragments from Dante, Calderón, & Goethe’s Faust – propose, along with those of his contemporaries like Leigh Hunt, a consciously transnational agenda for his poetry. This polysemous nature of Shelley’s poetic decisions registers in multiple, mythic, readings of his life & of his death by drowning at age 29. Yet Shelley, & this characterizes his most radical work, enters the field of poetry not as an ego but as an intellectually alive enthusiasm. Matthew Arnold’s infamously seductive formulation of Shelley as “a beautiful & ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain” has been challenged many times, often by political radicals — from the British working class Chartist Movement of the 1840s, to Brecht & the Frankfurt School, & to the the radical student uprising of the Tienanmen Square demonstrations (1989) — who found either Queen Mab & its notes or The Mask of Anarchy productive of the “dangerous enthusiasm” desirable in collective revolutionary efforts. Wrote his contemporary & friend Leigh Hunt: "He was like a spirit that had darted out of its orb, and found itself in another planet. I used to tell him that he had come from the planet Mercury."

The centrality of Shelley for the Beat Generation & Black Mountain poets of the American 1950s & 60s should also be noted – in particular, perhaps, the burial of Gregory Corso, American poet, next to the grave of Shelley in the Cimiterio Acottolico (“English Cemetery”) in Rome.

(3) Among other works presented here is part of Shelley’s parody of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, as an instance of his outraged vision of bigotry & oppression in London, a “Hell” in the manner of Blake, Dickens, & Baudelaire. (A juxtaposition of Shelley’s infernal London with Sousandrade’s “Inferno of Wall Street,” excerpted elsewhere in the book, might also be of interest.) But at one with such a poetry of social critique & futurist possibility lies his hope for the transformed reader: “Poetry turns all things to loveliness.”

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12 Russian Ikons, & Others

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 2:06 PM 0 comments
The first series, below, was published under that title in 2003 by John Martone’s tel-let books & was freely available to any who wanted it. I’ve added several more poems here -- all written circa 2002 on my second Russian visit – just to round it out. Ikons of this sort continue to astonish me, for reasons that I can’t quite figure.

for Margo Berdeshevsky

crowds, like crows, bow down
they scrape the ground

a woman with a crown
a babe on someone’s back

she holds a scroll
& points

a figure in the sky
hands her a second scroll

Sophia, the Wisdom of God

sits on a central throne
with wings

The Savior

rests on a bed
as in a lotus

Skyscape with Angels

angels stand on clouds

some dance

each one
holds up a book

or writes in it


holds the babe
a little man
with tilted skull
& forehead
without hair

The Forty Martyrs of Sebastian Lake

stripped to the waist
& bunched together

crowns above them
fill the sky


a horse that draws
a sleigh
in which the mother
drops the bodies
of the dead


with a cross

the others follow
with their crosses,

a serpent bound
with rings

a table
with a pair of scales

the judgment


as the just man
strikes the serpent
a devil flies by
with the babe on lap

The Entry to Jerusalem

4 men in a tree

2 men lay out
their coats

on which his ass
will tread

the road to heaven

babe in a cup
the furry man
with wings & scroll
holds in his hand
& points

The Agony in the Garden

the others sleep

the man prays
to a cup perched
on a rock

The Harrowing of Hell

his right hand
lifts the man

the woman at his other side
in red

a key drops down
the pit

Ecce Homo

a beggar christ
in loin cloth
in a city
over whom
a god christ
from the sky


a round faced jesus
with a moustache

john with wings
& scroll
has christ the babe
inside a cup
at which he points

no body
on that cross

only a crown
of thorns

savior with blazing eyes
savior with golden hair


split by cleaver
hangs from tree

saint christopher
holds up an orb on which
the babe rests

with spoons & bellows
ride on rats

a monk with lantern
climbs the tree
turns from the head & cleaver

fish fly in the air
bees swarm
from hanging jugs

a helmet
teems with tiny men
like ants

what feckless soldiers
fill this scene
what babes swim by

the water
& the landscape of
the legend

of saint christopher

of saint christopherJan Mandijn [Mandyn], Antwerp, early 16th century


holds the babe
over the mother’s

at foot of which
an angel
drives his sword into
a blind man’s heart.

eleven saints
surround the mother
reading poems

the babe peers down
over her head

Christ holds
the christ babe
while the mother

TWO IKONS, after Andrei Rublev

The Baptism of Christ

among fish
& fish people

a beardless
with wings
seated at table


stares out at you
behind his mask

holds halo
in his right hand
staff in left

with deep brown eyes
with black red wings

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[On Sunday June 15th] the Duende Poetry Series in Placitas, NM, hosted a tribute for the poet Keith Wilson. Keith, now 80 years old, is frail and in poor health, following a series of strokes. He understands what others are saying but is not capable of making simple sentences or even words without enormous struggle. It's a terrible sickness for a poet. And to make matters worse, the day before the event he had to begin using a walker. The hosts were kind enough to ask me to introduce the event. I was honored. Below is my tribute to Keith that I wrote for the occasion.


Duende Poetry Series

Placitas, New Mexico

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Welcome, as Jerome Rothenberg would say, to the Paradise of Poets. Welcome, as Gertrude Stein might say, to the continuous now of poetry. We are here today to honor poet Keith Wilson, and by our presence, the radiant beast of poetry survives. We nourish her by making our poems, we nourish her by reading the poems of others, by hearing aloud the poems of others, by buying books of poems and by sharing these poems and talking about these poems and the poetics that we discover in these poems.

It’s a peculiar idea, thinking of poetry as a creature of biology, an ethereal animal made of words and ideas and rhythms of language and culture. An animal that was birthed in the chants and drumbeats of our collective pre-history and which continues to breathe the air of our contemporary wanderings through, and experiments with, our language. I began learning about this idea when I was in school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, 1963 to 1965. Keith and Heloise Wilson were kind enough to invite me into their home and there I discovered a household of poetry. It was a unique place. The idea of poetry and art as community and as a continuous thread of understanding seeped into my mind and heart. In Tucson that community of poetry was centered in the Wilson household. I met Bob Creeley, Gary Snyder, Robert Sward, Barney Childs, Paul Malanga, Drummond Hadley, Diana Hadley, George Bowering and so many others. We talked about poetry, especially about the poetry that rooted itself in Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson--the New American Poetry as anthologized by Donald Allen. Keith was a role model. He always had at his side his notebook where he was working on his poems. I listened to Keith’s early work in manuscript and saw him rejoice when Gino Sky and Drew Wagnon, editors of the mimeographed little magazine Wild Dog, decided to publish a poem, his first publication. I remember Keith being enthralled with Jack Spicer’s work. He borrowed books and typed them up, duplicating the format of the book and creating his own librito, doing a mockup of the cover. The practice he told me was to feel the words and to learn how and why Spicer broke his lines the way he did. He typed other poems and books he admired. He was obsessed with his writing, and his obsession was contagious. He was, for so many of us, a role model of what a poet is. It was a wonderful time, and I learned so much, being in that community which was so much created by the presence of Keith and Heloise. In the 70s, when Jerome Rothenberg began to publish his anthologies and theorizing about the life of poetry, I knew immediately what he was talking about. It made perfect sense.

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The Burning Babe – Now accessible in full

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 2:59 PM 0 comments
Art & design by Susan Bee, poems by Jerome Rothenberg

In 2005 Granary Books published – in a very limited edition – Susan Bee’s illumination of The Burning Babe, a series of poems that I had written over the preceding several years. While the poems reappear in Triptych, which New Directions brought out in 2007, the illuminated work has been largely inaccesible till now. That work, in which Susan Bee appears at the height of her artistic powers, can now be viewed in full, courtesy of PennSound & the University of Pennsylvania, at Of the poems themselves, which follow Poland/1931 & Khurbn as the coda to Triptych, I wrote the following in that book’s postface: “Moving into the new century, I haven’t lost sight of diaspora & holocaust but come to feel them now as exile & suffering on an almost universal scale. In no sense religious I had drawn freely in Poland/1931 on the figure of God’s exiled female aspect – Shekinah – while in Khurbn the overwhelming imagery for me was that of emptiness & silence. With Poland, looking back, I could indulge a high degree of play in a way I couldn’t or wouldn’t in the case of Khurbn. The years after Khurbn brought that back to me, but the central image this time was the Babe – the infant, like Christ, as god & victim. I began to feel this too – to feel the poems in which it issued – as the climax to what had come to me with Poland & again with Khurbn – the absurdity & horror of the god-child as that figure entered my imaginings. The weirdness came first & drew me to a history of images whose power & sometime sensuality were still present at both the margins & center of the Christian world. These I found in wanderings through churches & museums & monasteries – babes in marvelous configurations: crowned & armored, swollen, bleeding. blind, bejewelled, feathered & recumbent, wedded often to a saint, in one uncanny instance to a serpent. But stranger (stronger) still – for me, for others – was the deformation of the Babe when set into a Jewish focus or pictured through the fearsome words of certain Christian poets – Blake in The Mental Traveller, Southwell in The Burning Babe, others like Levertov & Duncan from then to now. That much was literature, but the other, more awful reality was in the world outside the poem. Here, as with Khurbn, my impulse to play came up against what denies & murders play – the burnt & mutilated babe(s) not only as the Jewish horror but in the wreck of the divine when brought low anywhere by murder & by ‘holocaust’ (itself a death by burning) that has haunted us down to the very present. For the depiction of these the Babe is a spent image & a companion as such to the spent images that life & the life of poetry must constantly absorb. The terminal point for me was the 2001 devastation in New York, to which I was a nearby witness, but fused here with a memory of Kurt Schwitters’ sculptural Merzbau, destroyed (also by fire) in World War Two. The column at its center, on top of which a babe’s head was implanted, serves me for a reprise & a coda.”

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Reconfiguring Romanticism (2): A Preliminary Listing

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:58 AM 0 comments
From Poems for the Millennium, volume three
Written with Jeffrey Robinson

In the process of composing a book of romantic & postromantic poetry & with an eye on the linkages to & differences from the modern & postmodern present, the field before us has opened to include the following, sometimes contradictory definitions & characteristics of romanticism, both the poetry & the identity & function of the poet.

– A first challenge to closure, as regards both form and content (conventional/inherited truths), and the beginnings of an “open poetry”; thus Schlegel (Atheneum Fragment 116), that the “particular essence” of romantic poetry is “that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.” Or Blake: “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race.”

– A conscious emphasis on defamiliarization, what Novalis signals when he writes: “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics.” Or Coleridge: “The common end of all narrative, nay of all, Poems is … to make those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a circular motion – the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.” (Letter to Joseph Cottle, 1815)

-- A foregrounding of emotions, feelings, and perceptions in the act of composition, not in any loose sense but as process and experiment (Wordsworth’s term in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads), not against but in the line of Enlightenment and neoclassical emphases on rationality and logic. Offshoots of this concern are Wordsworth’s “poem on the growth of the poet’s mind” (The Prelude) and the writings of a wide range of poets concerned with alternative states of mind from dreaming and fantasizing to mystical and psychedelic forms of experience (Coleridge, Nerval, Büchner, De Quincy). Romanticism in this sense features nascent forms of the “unconscious” (a term likely coined by Thomas De Quincey).

– The poet as visionary / seer (voyant) and poetry as a vision-making or vision-recording activity, what Breton called “a sacred action,” though practiced most often in a secular context (what Thomas Carlyle famously termed “natural supernaturalism”). As an act or strategy of composition we would tie this to Shelley’s redefinition of poetry as “vitally metaphorical” – an instrument therefore in the search, now renewed, for “the before unapprehended relations of things.”

– Along with this, the poet as a conduit for other voices, as in Whitman’s call for a “song of myself” that includes a multitude of other selves, or, where it exists, an attempt to bring excluded classes and orders of being into the mix of poetic voices and experiences. This in turn is a force behind an emerging ethnopoetics, which is itself, though not under that name, an innovation of the Romantic and postromantic nineteenth century. Texts in dialect and texts transcribed or translated from oral sources can, then, also be seen as an important part of our gathering.

– An erasure of the boundaries between poetry and other forms of composition and speculation – often to be noted in the works of Goethe or in Poe’s booklength “prose poem” Eureka. With this, as in the fragments (epigrams) of Novalis and Schlegel, comes a push toward “a new mode of writing that would combine literary, critical, and theoretical discourse” (but philosophy and science as well) as a kind of mischgedicht (poem of mixed means). And that mode in turn is reflective of a new era of genre mixing and crossing, operative in all arts from then to now.

– At its finest, a poetry that allows for a guiding principle of uncertainty, for which Keats’s “negative capability” serves as a working model: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”: a phrase picked up by many radical and experimental twentieth-century poets. Along with this comes a foregrounding, where possible, of “romantic irony,” as it relates to techniques of defamiliarization and moves toward what Jean Paul posited as the “humoristic” in romantic thought and writing.

– Alongside the celebration of beauty (both “intellectual” and physical), a recurring exploration of the ugly and the grotesque, taken to extremes that will continue and intensify over the coming two centuries. Pushing past the more rarefied sublime (“the tempestuous loveliness of terror” – Shelley), with its sources in the neoplatonic past, there is a desire to bring to surface what has been suppressed and outcast (Whitman) – outside the realm of the simply beautiful. The contraries of “beauty” and “ugliness,” like “good” and “evil” in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven & Hell, come together in a renewed meeting and clash of opposites. (On the road too to Tzara’s pairing of “intensity” and “disgust” as primary Dada [modern and postmodern] values.)

– In the religious sphere, a calling into question of traditional religious forms, as in Victor Hugo’s multiphasic recastings in his monumental Dieu, Goethe’s probings into Islam, or Shelley’s defense of atheism alongside his defense of poetry. At one extreme a line from Jean Paul to Nerval and Nietzsche explores the image of “the death of God,” which the nineteenth-century writer Charles Nodier called “the most daring idea of the Romantic spirit”; at another poets like Hopkins in England and Norwid in Poland make new approaches to deity through radical recastings of language itself.

– Alongside romantic ideas of fancy and fantasy, an emergence of a new realism: a poetry of “minute particulars” (Blake) and an attention to the details of the (physical/social) everyday world. Nature as a central, even a spiritual, value leads through Rousseau, Goethe, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and others to the concern with wilderness and ecology in twentieth-century poetry. Indeed, we stress not the antagonism between poetry and realism or poetry and science, but that for some writers presented here poetry and science are complementary manifestations of an inquiry into the natural world and our relationship to it.

– A heightened sense of the transgressive set against an officially sanctioned ethos of gentility and conformity. The contents of a significant body of poetry open on areas that are increasingly subversive, sexual, or blasphemous, from De Sade and Blake in the 1790s, through Shelley, Hugo, Jean Paul, Baudelaire, Whitman, and Nietzsche, among a host of others. This marks the surfacing of the outrider tradition (A. Waldman) and the poète maudit in postromanticism and modernism.

– A widespread experience of exile – forced or voluntary – that affected a large number of the poets gathered herein, as marker of a new-found location (dislocation) at the margins or in the “creases” (R. Schechner) of their respective worlds. Sometimes a result of the transgressive/subversive nature of their writings (above), it surfaces as an away-from-homeness in the works and lives of poets such as Heine, Mickiewicz, Byron, Pushkin, Norwid, Beddoes, Rimbaud, and with it a (liminal) sense of writing between languages and cultures. (For which, see Pierre Joris’s advocacy of a “nomadic poetics” or Schiller’s early account of the Romantics as “exiles longing for a homeland.”)

– An accelerated change in the notion of what a poem can be, going from Blake’s illuminated poems in the early years of the century to Mallarmé’s Coup de dès at the very end. Among the changes in form are the following:

: irregular forms and radical transformations of poetic genres (odes, experimental sonnets, sprung rhythm, etc.) and early free verse, not only as these appear in Blake, Mallarmé, and Whitman, but Goethe, Hopkins, and, premeditated or not, in the “palimpsests” of Hõlderlin.

: prose as a medium for poetry, involving both the development of the prose poem and, after the fact, writings in prose that share the dynamic character of the new poetry; experiments, therefore, not only in poetic form but in the sentence and the paragraph: the essay, the aphorism, the spontaneous notebook entry (cf. Dorothy Wordsworth, Joseph Joubert, but also Coleridge, Hopkins, et al.), and the nineteenth-century poetic and even political/social manifesto.

: The fragment as a conscious poetic form, significant enough for Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy to write: “Indeed the fragment [… the genre in which the Jena romantics’ best-known texts are written, the genre that has become almost inevitably associated with their name …] is the romantic genre par excellence.”

: Improvisation and performance poetry, as a goal or ideal more than a realization, e.g. in poems around the Italian figure of the “Improvvisatore” by Byron, Coleridge, Beddoes, and De Stael.

: Approaches to what would later emerge as sound poetry, most notably among the British non-sense poets Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, but also in the glossolalia and glossographia of the American Shakers and in the occasional works of writers such as Lafcadio Hearn and August Strindberg. Sound, in workings such as these, does not serve “meaning,” but travels beyond meaning’s precincts.

: Experiments with dialect (Burns, Scott, Hebel, Belli, et al.) and with a gradual turning to the demotic in general (as in Wordsworth’s search for a poetry written in “a selection of the language really spoken by men”). With this too a concurrent demand for the rights to practice an idiolect, a personal dialect and syntax, whether spoken or written.

: experiments in verbal/visual interaction that would include the plates or “visionary forms dramatic” of Blake, the Caprichos with accompanying texts of Goya, and the illustrated nonsense poems of Edward Lear.

[From Poems for the Millennium, volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg & Jeffrey C. Robinson, scheduled for publication in January 2009.] This excerpt will be published simultaneously on ‘Readings,’ from the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck College, London. URL:]

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Paris Reading June 25

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 10:55 AM 0 comments
For any in Paris on June 25, this may be of some interest. It also seems likely that Pierre Joris will join the group, reading French translations of "The Rothenberg Variations" from his new book, ALJIBAR II, translated into French by Eric Sarner and just published by Phi Editions in Luxembourg.

Mercredi 25 juin 2008 à 19 heures 30
115 rue de L’Ourcq, 75020, Métro Crimée


Yves di Manno, Philippe-André Raynaud et Sebastian Reichmann présenteront l’œuvre du poète Jérôme Rothenberg. Ils prolongeront, en son absence, la série de lectures faites il y a quelques mois en France, à l’occasion de la parution de son anthologie Les Techniciens du sacré

Né à New York en 1931, Jerome Rothenberg est l’un des poètes majeurs de sa génération. Auteur de nombreux recueils - dont Poems for the Game of Silence (1971), Poland/1931 (1974), Khurbn (1989), The Lorca Variations (1993), A Book of Witness (2002) — il a également assemblé, outre Les Techniciens du sacré, une dizaine d’anthologies qui proposent une relecture d’ensemble de la poésie du monde entier, dans une perspective contemporaine

Les Techniciens du sacré présentent un corpus exemplaire de textes « traditionnels », de toutes provenances géographiques et temporelles. Mais loin de s’en tenir à une approche strictement documentaire, Jerome Rothenberg a composé son ouvrage comme une anthologie « active », inscrite dans le présent, développant au fil de nombreux Commentaires, un singulier parallèle entre ces textes immémoriaux et la poésie du XXe siècle. Composé au beau milieu de la grande tornade utopique et rebelle des années 1960, ce livre a eu outre-Atlantique une influence notable sur la poésie de son temps. La version qu’en propose Yves di Manno rouvre aujourd’hui ce débat, dans le contexte français.

Yves di Manno, poète, dirige la collection Poésie/Flammarion. Traducteur (entre autres de William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, George Oppen, Jerome Rothenberg et Ezra Pound), il collabore à diverses revues, dont Action Poétique.

Sebastian Reichmann, poète, a publié, ces dernières années, Balayeur devant sa porte (L’Improviste), Cage centrifuge (L’Harmattan), Le Pont Charles de l’Apocalypse (Dumerchez). Traduit en nombreuses langues : anglais, allemand, grec, italien, tchèque etc., il est lui-même traducteur de poètes et prosateurs anglophones et roumains.

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Three Caprichos, after Goya

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 10:10 AM 0 comments


Words imprinted on a sign
by Goya glowing
white against a surface
nearly white:
the sleep of reason
that produces monsters.
He is sitting on a chair
his head slumped
resting on his arms
or on the marble table,
pencil set aside,
his night coat open

thighs exposed.
All things that fly at night
fly past him.
Wings that brush an ear,
an ear concealed,
a memory beginning
in the house of sleep.
His is a world where owls
live in palm trees,
where a shadow in the sky
is like a magpie,
white & black are colors
only in the mind,
the cat you didn’t murder
springs to life,
a whistle whirling in a cup,
gone & foregone,
a chasm bright with eyes.
There is a cave in Spain,
a fecal underworld,

where bats are swarming
among bulls,
the blackness ending in a wall
his hands rub up against,
a blind man in a painted world,
amok & monstrous
banging on a rock.


Flesh down to bone
a feeble skin
that barely covers her,
her empty mouth
pushed up against her nose,
her eyes shut tight,
the two who kneel beside her,
sister crones,
squat bodies hoisting brooms,
what do they spin
so finely?
In a corner of the room
the bodies of dead babes
are hanging,
little molls like little dolls,
the chins of children
sickly prickly
strings attached
to fingers. Elsewhere
in Goya’s world
crones suck the juice from
babes jaws loose
& braying
ancient beings tucked in cowls,
in coils,
a basket at their feet
filled with babe’s bodies.
It is too late
too late,
the bodies hang no longer,
all have fallen,
the women pass a dainty
box from hand to
hand, their fingers
dig down deep,
they slip the bones,
the little seeds,
between their lips,
into their gullets,
always still more to suck,
still always hungry.


Duendes sound a last
hurrah they squeeze
a bellows, scrub a dish
with greasy hands,
a whisper
in an ear bent down
to listen.
No one sees them.
Over every duende
falls the shadow
of a greater duende..
Holy moly!
Is this not a black sound,
Mister Lorca?
Pissing olive oil
I isn’t what I seems
to be a poor
barrel overturned,
the wine I swigs
gone rancid.
There is now an end
to everything.
What is flesh
they suck no more,
they drive the foul caprichos
out of sight
Caprichos, Goya, Lorca,
all my duendes,
locked into a cage
at dawn, evading
sleep & dreams,
those whom they leave
behind them, fathers
raising arms
to heaven,
screaming through
their empty
mouths like caverns
black holes
where all light
is lost.
Now is the time.

From an ongoing series of fifty poems, the first half of which were published by Kadle Books in Barcelona and Tenerife as 25 Caprichos after Goya (2004), with translations into Spanish by Heriberto Yépez. The three printed here and a number of others from the second half of the series also appear in a limited edition, Homage to Goya, published by Brighton Press in 2008 with images and design by Ian Tyson.

Written with Jeffrey Robinson

Painting (like poetry) chooses from universals what is most apposite. It brings together in a single imaginary being circumstances and characteristics which occur in nature in many different persons. (F.G., announcement for Caprichos, February 6, 1799)

Not a poet in any ordinary sense of the word, Goya opens an exploration of the constructed dreamwork – a conduit for transformation & dis-ease, holding up a crooked mirror, to see the world askew & dangerous, but ineluctably real. His Caprichos, initiated in 1796 as a series of eighty etchings & aquatints, come complete with captions, later reinforced by editorial “explanations,” on some of which (the so-called Prado manuscript in particular) Goya himself may have been an informal collaborator. As he takes hold of the idea of “caprichos” – what had been whims or fancies in the works of others – he becomes, as Robert Hughes writes of him & them, “the first artist to use the word capricho to denote images that had some critical purpose: a vein, a core, of social commentary.” And it’s his alliance of this with a stunning sense of the fantastic – even the surreal – that makes him not only a forerunner of the “romantic” but, as others have noted, “the first modern artist and the last old master.”

In the notes to his early drawings for “The Sleep of Reason,” originally intended as the opening Capricho but finally positioned as Capricho 43, additional texts appear. As Hughes further describes them: “On the flank of the desk is written ‘Universal language [Ydioma universal]. Drawn and etched by Francisco de Goya in the year 1797.’ Then, below the design, we read in a pencil scribble: ‘The author dreaming. His only purpose is to root out harmful ideas, commonly believed, and to perpetuate with this work of the Caprichos the soundly based testimony of truth.’” That this “truth” incorporates images of witchcraft, animality, cannibalism, rape, & torture, often identified by him with those in power, made the Caprichos a target for censorship & inquisition as well as a sardonic & ominous reflection of Goya’s world & ours.

N.B. The alternative translation as “the Dream of Reason [that produces monsters]” adds an ambiguity to the reading that we shouldn’t overlook.

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The Burnt Book

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:33 PM 0 comments
Postscript to A Book of Concealments

There is a burnt book

that remains a book,

a hidden book

which, if it opened,

would tear the walls

of time down, let

the false world

infiltrate &


the real.

Jerome Rothenberg


* * *

There follows a version of the narrative:

“It is very difficult to reach high spiritual levels and attach oneself to Hashem's infinite light. It is even more difficult and even dangerous to return with very lofty spiritual fruit, gathered from the upper worlds In the year 1807 after the holiday of Succoth Rabbi Nachman traveled to Lemberg to receive medical help and for other unknown, mysterious reasons. When Rabbi Nachman arrived in Lemberg he was in very critical condition. However, through Hashem's mercy, his condition improved. Several months after Rabbi Nachman arrived in Lemberg, he called for his attendant, Rebbe Shimon. Rebbe Shimon entered the room where Rabbi Nachman was staying and he found the Rebbe crying. With tears running down his cheeks Rabbi Nachman sighed and said, ‘There is no one to ask for advice.’ Rabbi Nachman told Rebbe Shimon that he had written a holy book, which was kept in his house, for the sake of which he had lost his wife and children and had, himself suffered greatly. Rabbi Nachman knew that if he did not burn the book, he would die, but he did not know whether it would be better to burn the book or for him to die, due to the great benefit the book would bring the world. There is no way of explaining how awesome was this book.

“Rebbe Shimon told Rabbi Nachman, ‘There should be no question that it would be better to burn the book so that you can remain alive.’ Rabbi Nachman and Rebbe Shimon continued to discuss what should be done and Rabbi Nachman cried even more. The possible loss of this most precious and exalted book was too much for him to bear. After discussing the matter further, Rabbi Nachman ordered Rebbe Shimon to quickly travel to his home, in far away Breslov, to burn the book. Rabbi Nachman warned Rebbe Shimon not to try to be clever and go against his orders by trying to hide part of the book instead of burning everything.

“Rebbe Shimon hired a carriage and traveled as fast as he could, because he knew Rabbi Nachman's life was dependent upon this. But when Rebbe Shimon came to Dashev, a town near Breslov, he suddenly fell ill and was laid up in bed, simply unable to get up. He realized that this was the work of the Evil One, who wanted to prevent him from carrying out his mission. Rebbe Shimon gave orders to be placed in a coach and he continued his journey despite his severely weakened state. As soon as Rebbe Shimon arrived in Breslov he immediately recovered and went to Rabbi Nachman's home and took the books, both the original and the copy, and burned them. The burning of these books prolonged Rabbi Nachman's life an additional year and a half. Rabbi Nachman said that the book had to burned, but his other work, Lekutai MoHaran, would be printed and spread throughout the world. One of Rabbi Nachman's intentions in writing the ‘burnt book’ was that the light that it contained would have brought the Messiah much sooner. However, because of our many sins, it was decreed from Heaven that the book should be burned. Rabbi Nachman said that such a book would not come into the world ever again.

“There yet was another book Rabbi Nachman wrote, even greater than the burnt book, which was called the concealed book. It was hidden away. Rabbi Nachman said that he had shed his very body when he wrote this book. The concealed book is so lofty, it is beyond the grasp of any human being. Only the Messiah will have the ability to explain it.
[Note: The probable reason why the concealed book was permitted to remain, although it was greater than the burnt book, is that only the Messiah would be able to understand it, and therefore it would remain an essentially closed and concealed book. However, the burnt book would have been understood by a select few sages of the highest caliber and they would have been able to disseminate the information it contained, thus causing the Messiah to come before his time. Perhaps this is why this book had to be destroyed.” ]

Source: Tzaddik (Breslov Research Institute, Far Rockaway, New York)

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15 Antiphonals: for Haroldo de Campos

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 11:18 AM 0 comments

burnt by asthma

curs’d miasma


a blind nail
sun’s axis

a kind whale
nun’s praxis


the malice of the mastery

the chalice of her chastity


the crux of the incredible

the flux of the inedible


mirrormoon in the mirage

silver spoon for persiflage


from muse to medusa all hot

when accused the accuser will rot


the fire became
water the water
a body of vapor

the tiger proclaimed
slaughter the slaughter
modified nature


weary weary weary
and a fury

dreary dreary dreary
in missouri


mirror of the self, mature

silver on my shelf, secure


Sitar of the tongue, how does one hear?

Guitar once unstrung is never clear


Unlike the bird
according to nature
but as a god

Hiding his word
under their strictures
rebuff’d with a nod


in front of a greater king
a king lesser great

unsung who will later sing
will more sing still late





secure a cut
a sure shot
on the bull's eye

skewer a cunt
the whore hot
on the driveby


the unflinching
the eye

the diminished
the sky

[N.B. The preceding poems were part of a commission from Francesco Conz, for work to be added to a series of large colored photo portraits of Haroldo de Campos. As my contribution to what was conceived as a group tribute, I took phrases & lines from English translations of Haroldo’s poetry & responded to them with loosely rhymed soundings of my own. I then handwrote the poems pair by pair onto a black left margin on each of the photographs. In the typographical version above, Haroldo’s words appear in italics, while mine are shown in roman type. For me at least, the resultant work has the feel of translation/transcreation – as still another instance of othering.]

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La voix des morts: poésie et chamanisme

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 1:15 PM 0 comments
Prepared as a talk for the Colloquium “Écriture et chamanisme: l’efficience de la parole,”
Le Festival international de littérature de Montréal, September 22-23, 2005

The title of the colloquium is Écriture et chamanisme, & here, it seems to me, we have an immediate paradox or contradiction, nothing major but something that allows me a point of departure for what I want to say. If we are talking about shamanism as such, rather than our responses to it, it seems clear that the poetry, the shaped & efficacious language of the shamans, largely exists without writing, something apart from literature in the narrow sense. The force of the shaman is in voice & gesture, & if he or she becomes a model for poets in our own time & place, it is from a concern with forms of languaging (again, of voice & gesture) that are both before writing & beyond it. It is with a sense too that the language of what we think of as poetry may be a conduit that can lead us into forms of experience that were once the shaman’s domain & in parts of the world still remain so.

My own discovery of the shaman & of shamanism goes back a half century or more. I can’t recall when I first heard the word sheyman/shahman, but it was sometime before I came on it in the literature & particularly in Mircea Eliade’s great work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. I had been searching intensively for what I came to recognize as extraordinary forms of language art in the traditions of people whom we were still characterizing at that time as « primitive » (or « primitive & archaic » in Eliade’s termininology). At the same time I was finding – in the work of many of my contemporaries (myself included) & in that of our acknowledged predecesors as well – processes of composition & performance that seemed experimental in our own time but with long histories elsewhere.

My first assay in that direction was a series of New York readings in which I & a group of fellow poets (David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Rochelle Owens) performed translations that I had been gathering of poems from (largely) tribal & oral sources. Our performance together – in connection with the New York & international avant-garde – was already a statement of kinship with the older work. Soon after I was given the chance to assemble this & related work in a book – an assemblage presented under the title Technicians of the Sacred. That title of course was taken from Eliade’s description of traditional shamans whose practice, he told us, centered on what he called « techniques of the sacred. » What I then did, almost impulsively, was to juxtapose those techniques & the resultant poetry with the modes & means that had come into our own poetry, largely the works & lives of several generations of experimental modernists.

In doing this I tried very hard to avoid claims of shamanship – certainly not for myself – although I recognized the strivings of a number of poets & other artists that bore more than a passing resemblance to the activities of shamans in traditional cultures. What I particularly wanted to avoid was any pretense to healing or to extraterrestrial or supernatural powers, while welcoming dreams & hallucinations as a part – though only a part – of our repertory as poets & artists. My more matter-of-fact concern was with the twists & turns of language (also of sound & gesture) as evidenced among the shamans – how theirs resembled our own workings, or went beyond them, & how they were positoned within their own times & places, their own societies & epochs – notably different in that sense from the life around us.

[But here let me pause & correct myself a little. There is of course poetry & other language work in traditional [oral/preliterate] cultures that can’t be attributed to shamans or shamanism. Even so I felt justified in constructing an idea of the shaman as protopoet & a dominant voice in just those cultures. I also was aware of the persistence of what I took to be shamanic modes in literary poetries that predated experimental modernism as such: ideas of inspiration (the muse as indwelling), song & voice as precedent to writing, dreams & visions, elegies & death-poems, reminding us (metaphorically) of the shaman’s function as psychopomp & particularly strong in romantic & postromantic poetry. Finally I was also aware of forms of magical writing & mark-making (drawing) that were a part of the repertoire of shamans & other traditional practitioners.]

When I began Technicians of the Sacred I was familiar with poets before me – Tzara & Cendrars among the better known – who had turned to what was then called the « primitive » in much the way that painters & others had done for the visual arts. What seemed to me lacking were truly viable texts – readable & performable -- in contemporary translation – this by contrast to the deceptive immediacy of the sculpture & music that had already come to light. I wanted both to address that lack & to extend the field of what we could see or read as poetry by viewing the primitive & archaic in the context of new forms of poetry that modernism & postmodernism had independently developed. I also found in the accounts of shamanism by Eliade & others – wherever I looked in fact – a figure so immersed in elaborate language practices that I could not help addressing him or her by the designation of « proto-poet. »

The « poetics of shamanism, » as I began to set it out & to some degree construct it, offered a first connection to Rimbaud’s (re)discovery of the poet as a voyant who both « saw » & came to his « seeing » through a « derangement of the senses » that resembled the shaman’s initiatory [dream] journey. The analogues (post-Rimbaud) to shamanism seemed clear & numerous, told & retold wherever I looked for them – as when Knud Rasmussen wrote of the Iglulik Eskimos : « The young aspirant, when applying to a shaman, should always use the following formula : ‘ I come to you because I desire to see, ‘ » & the Copper Eskimo word for shaman-songman : « elik : one who has eyes. »

With sight came language & with vision, song. These connections in shamanic cultures are almost universal, as when Clark Wissler nearly a century ago (1912) wrote of the Blackfoot Indians: « All Blackfoot songs, except those learned from other tribes, are said to have been obtained through dreams or visions. » In a personal account that I cited in Technicians of the Sacred, the Gitksan Indian Isaac Tens, before he became a shaman, was stricken uncsonscious by the apparition of an owl & woke up after being treated by a pair of older shamans, to find his flesh « boiling » & his body « quivering. » « While I remained in this state, » he said, « I began to sing. A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it. Many things appeared to me presently : huge birds & other animals. ... These were visible only to me, not to the others in my house. Such visions happen when a man is about to become a shaman; they occur of their own accord. The songs force themselves out complete without any attempt to compose them. But I learned & memorized those songs by repeating them. »

The vision & song [dream & song] continuum in which vision gives rise to song – or, conversely, where song acts to stimulate vision – is crucial to the idea of the shaman as a proto-poet. Here the shaman appears as the master of both rhythm & language, but the mastery of language goes further. For the Huichol Indians on their peyote journey, the makiritare (shaman) dreams & constructs a new vocabulary of opposites & a new series of names for all the peyoteros – an act of invention & rebirth. This process of language construction turns up in many cultures & reminds us of language experiments (language play) in our own time – some with a mystical/spiritual underpinning & some without, but all clearly in the domain of what we know as poetry.

A still more impressive example of a shamanic relation to poetry & language comes from the Mazatec (Mexican) shamaness María Sabina. A well-known connection exists between the use of psychotropic plants & the flow of language that results for the shaman practitioner. In the case of María Sabina, who further asserts that she « cures with language, » the opening takes the form of a great Book that reveals itself to her in her initiatory vision & reappears in her visions thereafter:

On the Principal Ones' table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me & said: "María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work," I exclaimed with emotion: "That is for me. I receive it."

And she did & was thereafter a woman of language -- what we would dare to translate, by a comparison to those most deeply into it among us, as "poet."

[Reads a passage from María Sabina’s chants.]

The extent of the vision & poetry continuum is perhaps best shown, at least in my reading of it, in a work that I imagine is familiar to many of us, the great Lakota Indian autobiography, Black Elk Speaks, as fashioned in English by the Nebraska poet John Neihardt. There the “great vision” of the adolescent Black Elk – itself a dream work or construction of a considerable magnitude – is experienced like most shamanic imitations during a period of personal crisis & a Rimbaud-like “derangement of the senses.” The result however is not only a succession of dream songs and visions but an extraordinarily elaborate reenactment of Black Elk’s extraordinarily elaborate vision – a newly created ceremony he calls “The Horse Dance.” At its height the dream performance calls up images from Buffalo Bill’s wild west circus (in which Black Elk also participated) or brings to mind, if we want the comparison, the most elaborate of our latterday happenings & performance art events. But the Horse Dance is not only more elaborate – with its massed formations of riders & dancers, & with Black Elk himself on horseback in the center – it is an enactment of a vision that will lead to future visions & a speculation as well on the world it tries to capture.

A further point to be noted here & elsewhere is a kind of shamanic denial or rejection of the concept of authorship. The songs & events come from elsewhere & gain their authenticity through a relation to their sources – no anxiety of influence here, but almost always with a welcoming of in-flow & the sense of a don or a donné, of a gift or something given. Again it is in the words of María Sabina that I find this most clearly expressed – here speaking of the psilocybin mushrooms that bring the songs to her:

Language belongs to the saint children. They speak & I have the power to translate. If I say that I am the little woman of the Book, that means that a Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth is a woman & that she is the little woman of the Book. In that way, during the vigil, I turn into a
mushroom — little woman — of the Book . . . If I am on the aquatic shore, I say:

I am a woman who is standing in the sand . . .

Because wisdom comes from the place where the sand is born

That the poet is a conduit for other voices & personalities is – for me at least – a concept that lies at the heart of my poetics. “Je est un autre” wrote Rimbaud, & John Keats wrote wonderfully of the “chameleon poet … [who] has no identity … [but] is continually in for, & filling, some other body. … He is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.” At its most bardic & assertive, I find the idea in Whitman, where he sets out to write a “song of myself” that will simultaneously contain as many selves & voices as his words can conjure – voices at all levels of being for whom his own can serve as a conduit. The resultant declaration, which I’ve often cited, is for me both personal & shamanic:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners & slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d & despairing & of thieves & dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation & accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, & of wombs & of the
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

I recognize in the voice of old Whitman & in the others I’ve cited some vestiges of our lost shamanism. In the way he lays it out there is a strong sense, for me at least, that he is speaking for the living & the dead together – all life that has ever been or ever will be. It is no small matter that the presence of the dead informs both the work of the shaman as a psychopomp & the poet in one of his still persistent functions and by every means possible. In the course of preparing our conference someone attached to the title of my talk the phrase: la voix des morts. I don’t remember choosing this myself or, if I did, it may have been someone or something else, something uncanny, that was guiding me.

I am a poet to be sure but otherwise have no claim & want no claim to shamanism. Yet a working principal of my poetry has also been to open up to voices other than my own, to bring the present & the past, the living & the dead, together in a congeries of dialects & voices. To do this I use a variety of techniques – appropriation, collage, translation, systematic chance – to write through [or by means of] other voices or to let them write or speak through mine. There are times, however, when something happens that goes beyond technique – dreaming, for example, which brings me images for poetry (like Yeats’s metaphors) over which I don’t have or don’t seem to have control. This is the experience of all of us – not just the prerogative of the shaman or the poet -- if only we choose to remember or to write it down. It is also the place where we come up against the dead whose presence in a dream sometimes fills us with fear, sometimes with longing, more often with regret.

(Or do I speak only for myself here?)

Shamanism is possession. And there are times in the search for poetry that we feel ourselves possessed or overcome by spirits other than our own. In my own life as a poet one event like this stands out beyond all others. I have no desire, really, to speak of this in mystical or shamanic terms but to give you a straightforward account of what I experienced & of the poems that followed. The occasion was a first trip to Poland in 1987 & to the small town, Ostrow-Mazowiecka, sixty miles northeast of Warsaw, from which my parents had come to America in 1920. I had already written, by all means (techniques) at my disposal, a book of poems or anti-poems called Poland/1931, but I had never been to Poland. In the aftermath of that visit & in the book that resulted both from the event & from a great deal of research to flesh it out, I wrote the following.

[From the Pre-Face to the poem called Khurbn]: The town [Ostrow-Mazowiecka] was still there & the street, Miodowa (meaning "honey"), where my father's parents had a bakery. I hadn't realized that the town was only fifteen miles from Treblinka, but when we went there (as we had to), there was only an empty field & the thousands of large stones that make up the memorial. We were the only ones there except for a group of three people--another family perhaps--who seemed to be picnicking at the side. This was in sharp contrast to the crowds of tourists at Auschwitz (Oswiecim / Oshvietsim ) & to the fullness of the other Poland I had once imagined. The absence of the living seemed to create a vacuum in which the dead--the dibbiks who had died before their time--were free to speak. It wasn't the first time that I thought of poetry as the language of the dead, but never so powerfully as now. Those in my own family had died without a trace--with one exception: an uncle who had gone to the woods with a group of Jewish partisans & who, when he heard that his wife & children were murdered at Treblinka, drank himself blind in a deserted cellar & blew his brains out. That, anyway, was how the story had come back to us, a long time before I had ever heard a word like holocaust. It was a word with which I never felt comfortable: too Christian & too beautiful, too much smacking of a "sacrifice" I didn't & still don't understand. The word with which we spoke of it was the Yiddish-Hebrew word, khurbn [khurban], & it was this word that was with me all the time we stayed in Poland. When I was writing Poland/1931
, at a great distance from the place, I decided deliberately that that was not to be a poem about the "holocaust." There was a reason for that, I think, as there is now for allowing my uncle's khurbn to speak through me. The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry. They are an answer also to the proposition--raised by Adorno & others -- that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz. Our search since then has been for the origins of poetry, not only as a willful desire to wipe the slate clean but as a recognition of those other voices & the scraps of poems they left behind them in the mud.

I will end my presentation by reading a poem from the sequence called Khurbn.

[Reads “Dibbukim” (Dibbiks).]

More of Khurbn will be found in my last book from New Directions: Triptych: Poland/1931, Khurbn, The Burning Babe, published in 2007. The earlier discourse on shamanism goes back to Technicians of the Sacred (1968), still in print.

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In Memoriam Jackson Mac Low

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 1:35 PM 0 comments

When the expiration hath ceased, the vital-force will have sunk into the nerve-centre of Wisdom & the Knower will be experiencing the Clear Light of the natural condition. Then the vital force, being thrown backwards & flying downwards through the right & left nerves the Intermediate State (Bardo) momentarily dawns.


How will I take the final words of your Night Walk, now that you’re dead, & work them
into my poem?
I had promised it at your birthday, the last or the next to the last, so hard to tell the years
so leave myself no choice but to continue, get it down & try to speak your presence with
the words you give me.

Once again I think of you as someone wearing many coats or bundled up against the
night, my own delight to sit beside you,
to see your nose & eyebrows glowing in that light, revealing you to us,
revealing secret bodies from your night walks, meanings written on their foreheads,
two o’clock when happiness arrives to free our tongues,
when coats are shed & foreheads show what’s real inside us, feeling, hearing, walking
with delight,
a man at night whose being flows out from his teeth, who steps on twigs & breaks the
learning how to draw attention in that halflight, feigning sweetness.

Clasping your coats around you, hairsmells heavy in the night, dark clouds & kisses
when the evening’s dark & cold, I hold the clouds in memory, a dimness
black as three o’clock, so touching when the cold rests on your eyebrows, otherwise
revealing what we all try finding,
clothing darker than the sky, desiring & feeling, telling your old stories, standing rooted
like a tree.

Desiring what else I couldn’t say but know that when the light grows dark, as when our
fingers close around it,
a streamsound breaks the silence, that’s when wondering makes way for learning,
pointing out the stars at night, wrapped in your many sweaters, when our beings feel
you wait there, listening in that dimness, hearing little, knowing less, of what the night’s
bodies black & cold are sliding past you, clasping you around as you might grasp at
bundled in your clothing, looking outward where the night grows white & quiet.

There’s a halflight that survives you. Now we’re warming ourselves in it, resting,
hugging, hearing streamsounds,
loving peace as you did, finding that our eyes, turned to the sky, observe a man there,
hearing what we hear, whose kisses promise sweetness, being who he is, but turn to ice
before us,
talking through the night while wearing many coats against its dimness, friends together,
filming trees & raising eyebrows, hearing, hugging, kissing, melting ice against our
out in the night air, trading coats.

A dimness with no resting, seeking warmth from kisses, needing what a man has always
touching lips to eyelids, talking to each other through the night, a memory of three
no longer a delight for eyes & tongues, with never warmth enough to suit your liking,
bodies poor & old, their pockets long since emptied, naked beings who still freeze
like naked beings,
some dispensing meanings, others begging for attention, listening while walking, slipping
backwards in the night,
its grey trees masking feeling.

Will trees still bring delight, the way old stories made our cheeks turn red or hairsmells
filled our noses?
Will we be clasping something, feeling it slide past us, eyes & teeth revealing what
the night can’t hide?
Where will our clothing be at three o’clock, our pockets empty, trees like fallen friends
around us,
& no telling if there’s starlight, if the night still brings us wonders, trees that once again
are only trees,
each one of us a fallen being, hairsmells heavy in the darkness, noses swollen,
clasping what we can & listening, for what?
Another nightwalk, half forgotten,
where the light turns black.

finished 17.i.05
* * *
A NOTE TO THE PRECEDING. I met Jackson Mac Low in 1960 or 1961, through the intervention, as I recall it, of Diane Wakoski. She had come to New York with LaMonte Young & there was clearly a connection between Jackson & LaMonte through an avant-garde that was centered on John Cage’s presence in New York & the international connections delineated by Fluxus. My first response to Jackson’s aleatory/chance experiments was a degree of puzzlement but a sense beneath that that something real & important was taking place. I fell for him first at a reading in which he introduced the first several of his Light Poems, impressed enough by those so that whatever else he did entered at once into the realm of my possibilities. And this was enhanced still more when he drew me into performing with him (as he did with many others) or, conversely, when he gave himself willingly to my own early attempts (circa 1969 or 70) at fusing poetry with performance. I often performed with him in his Gathas, & he was one of my performers (along with David Antin & Rochelle Owens) in a staged & recorded presentation of “primitive & archaic poetry” (circa 1967) that was the direct forerunner to Technicians of the Sacred.
Our friendship lasted from then until 2004, when he died at the age of 82. By then he was one of my essential compadres, & I like to think that I played the same role for him & that whatever it was between us, it worked to our mutual advantage as individuals & poets. After I left New York for good – in 1976 – there was hardly a return trip in which Jackson (& later Jackson &Anne Tardos) wasn’t there as a dear companion & confederate.
In 1997 Jackson celebrated his 75th birthday in New York, or rather it was celebrated for him by a number of friends & admirers. I was in Paris at the time but prepared a poem in three parts, a suite of “night poems” as a kind of rhyming response (in title & theme) to Jackson’s “light poems.” Five years later I added a fourth part, a series of variations off a lexicon of words provided by Jackson’s early Night Walk (1960). I read these for him at his 80th birthday celebration in St Mark’s Church, with the promise that I would continue to do these for every subsequent fifth-year celebration. After his death in 2004 I compacted the final variations on his Night Walk into a poem “in memoriam” – not an elegy so much as a poem in commemoration of his works & of our lives together.
A year or two after the writing Charlie Morrow & I brought the several poems for Jackson into a single musical work, In Memoriam Jackson Mac Low, & produced it privately as a commemorative CD. The performance can now be heard along with Charlie Morrow’s An Awakening for Jackson Mac Low on Penn Sound (, & copies of the CD are obtainable through New Wilderness Audiographics at Mac Low’s own performances can be heard on many internet sites – an introduciton to the possibilities of performance & of poetry not to be missed.

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