S.A.: You mirror me.
A.S.: You humor me.
S.A.: Inside this glass case there's an ancient Chinese mirror. I can only see the back of it, which is well worth seeing. On the back is the world mountain, rough terrain, terraces and plateaus, levels. It reaches to the clouds.
A.S.: The back is not shiny.
S.A.: I can't turn it over, locked in the case as it is. But I think I could climb it. I see shadows.
A.S.: I see myself.
S.A.: I see black wings.
A.S.: I see a fedora hat.
S.A.: I'm blinded by a flash of light.
A.S.: A glass of lightning? How do you explain it?
S.A.: It's something in my left leg, in the marrow.
A.S.: (He has a large bone and is sucking it and making loud sucking noises)
S.A.: Do you see the search light? The brightness is full of cracking sounds.
A.S.: I don't hear a thing. I've got my leg stuck in something sticky.
S.A.: I'm sorry. Do you think it will walk by itself?
A.S.: Marzipan, spelunking territorial ferrets again.
S.A.: Let's go to the zoo.
(The scene changes to a zoo; the cages are made of glass. A monkey is looking out at them)
S.A.: This isn't what I had in mind.
A.S.: Too obvious. Metaphors have a way of falling into clichés.
S.A.: Do you think we could get something to drink?
A.S.: Not if water is falling.
S.A.: Never mind. That monkey is making me thirsty.
A.S.: I'll never understand the sound of scratching.
S.A.: Think of it as chanting or a sort of intermittent drone.
A.S.: That drone is made of glass.
S.A.: Then I can fill it with water and quench my thirst.
A.S.: An astounding thing just happened to me.
S.A.: A standing stone?
A.S.: A stand in foam.
S.A.: A wing in a glass, that's what I was trying to say.
A.S.: All along.
(They are back in the museum again, surrounded by glass cases)
S.A.: I can see myself in all these glass cases.
A.S.: The mirror stage.
(They are in a theater completely built of mirrors, even the curtains are made of reflective material)
A.S.: The potential to be dazzled is not lost. I'll breathe more easily now.
S.A.: Will you play some music now or recite a verse?
A.S.: I want to lie down in the grass.
S.A.: This field of glass is sharp and fallow.
A.S.: Not if you green it. I'll show you how. Shall we dance?
S.A.: I've forgotten the steps.
(They are both limping. Words appear in several mirrors. They are backwards and some are from exotic and ancient languages)
S.A.: Read to me.
A.S.: This act of translation is bothersome. I'll have to take off my shoes.
S.A.: Your feet. . .I'm astonished.
A.S.: Yes, they are rather large now, and still growing. It's taken me years to learn how.
S.A.: Could I grow feet too? Starting now.
A.S.: Your feet have odd bumps and pustules. Where did you get them?
S.A.: The usual place.
A.S.: You'll have to return them or take them in for repair.
S.A.: I'm losing track of the words.
A.S.: Choosing rack of lamb? Snoozing crack of dawn? Oozing slick oysters?
S.A.: What's for dinner?
with Pierre Joris, from Poems for the Millennium, volume 2
A fish can only swim. If a poem is a fish it must discover that swimming’s what it does. (A.S.) And again: Poetry, as game, as act of faith, as celebration, as commemoration, as epic praise, as lyric plaint, as delight in pattern and repetition — poetry is in trouble.
But trouble relished & defied by incorporating these different modalities into one multiphasic oeuvre by Schwerner, a lyric poet of epic ambitions — as well as a trained musician (he studied improvisation with Lennie Tristano) & a major figure in ethnopoetics. As behoves these (postmodern) times he is a poet of many voices — “palimpsestic,” writes Paul Christensen, “his voice ... one whose depths shimmer with other voices, his mouth issuing language it conduits in from the past or the ‘outside’ and uses as its own speech. ... The voices overlay one another like the strata of various civilizations.” For this — in his long ongoing work (beginning: circa 1968), The Tablets — he creates an open-ended book or series of fictive translations, modelled on the fractured “accidental” form in which old Sumerian & Babylonian cuneiform writings have come down to us & accompanied by a “scholar-translator’s” commentaries that are at once — as Schwerner tells it — “more than ironic and other than nostalgic.” What this highwire act of mixed high comedy & profound seriousness foregrounds is (Schwerner again) “the delicate complex balance between performance, which recognizes the otherness of audience, and individual lyric or narrative or philosophical poetic utterance, which lives in another dimension.” The Tablets are an attempt, suggests Kathryn van Spanckeren,”to recreate archaic art not as metaphor but as given psychological process and concrete/phenomenological reality,” while simultaneously deconstructing classical Western notions of selfhood & unitary consciousness in favor of (Christensen again) “a version of consciousness that is alarmingly unpossessive and entangled in other people’s minds.”
[The foregoing dialogue or auto-conversation was salvaged from Schwerner’s notebooks by Mark Weiss & previously unpublished. The most recent version of The Tablets, mentioned throughout this commentary, was published by the National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine, in 1999 – a necessary modern/postmodern work & still readily available.]
Most discussions of prosody begin and end with metrics, but the contribution of meter to the sound structure of all poetry that was neither sung nor intended for musical accompaniment, when it has been at all specific, has been trivial. Yet because most writers on prosody would probably dispute this, and since some recent poets have worked out sound structures on the basis of implicit defects in metrical theory, it's probably worth taking a look at the metrical background.
Almost all writers on metrics agree that meter is a compositional constraint. In this theory a particular meter is a pattern of distribution of some phonological feature over stretches of language. A particularly simple example is iso-syllabic verse. The pattern prescribes that for each language stretch called "the line" there must be an equal number of syllables. The syllable is a phonological feature of most European languages. Even in English, where it is not always possible to determine syllable boundaries, it is usually possible to agree about the number of syllables in an utterance. But "the line" is another matter and has no linguistic existence. It is therefore a matter of metrical convenience where the line is broken. If there were no additional constraints preventing the poet from ending lines in the middle of words or from ending or beginning poems in the middle of lines, the only constraint on the poet would be the requirement that he either count while composing his poem or afterward when arranging it on paper; and the preceding sentence would class as a kind of didactic isosyllabic verse.
it is therefore
a matter of
venience where the
line is broken
This little poem is extra-formal in that the total number of syllables is an integral multiple of the permissible number of syllables per line. While this is a clear-cut example of a compositional constraint (at least insofar as setting down the poem on paper), it is not at all evident how such a constraint enters into the sound structure of the poem. For this to occur there must be some manner of marking off line endings in an unequivocal fashion, say by rhyme, or sounding an instrument, or by some theory of recitation, however arbitrary, by which the line endings could be made audible. Even this would not ensure the perceivability of the number of syllables per line, though it would establish unequivocal line endings. A fairly large number of syllables per line would make it virtually impossible to listen to the words and count the syllables at the same time. Naturally it is possible, when there is a written text, to inspect the line endinqs and then read the poem with the conviction that one is "hearing" the syllable count. This is something like a music student at the opera, reading a score of Tristan and using the orchestra as an auditory aid. It may be enjoyable but it is not listening to Tristan. Now I am perfectly aware of the visual and conceptual fascination of printed texts, musical scores and architectural plans. That is the way of concrete poetry. But printed lines are no more verbal poems than drawn lines are architecture. Up till fairly recently the printed text has primarily been a notation for some language utterance, which must be audible. In his history of German prosody Andreas Heusler mentions a poem of Rueckert's which was composed entirely without the phoneme /r/. Is it reasonable to suppose that this constraint enters into the sound structure of the poem?
It may be suggested that this is an unreasonable analogy, that English poetry, for example, is typically written in syllable-stress meters and that syllable-stress is distinctly perceivable in English, but that "our ear is not accustomed to estimate line lengths simply by the number of syllables." This is quite true but not especially relevant, since the ear is not accustomed to estimate line lengths by counting anything at all. It is no more a part of normal linguistic behavior to count syllable stresses than to count syllables. In fact counting is simply not a normal part of linguistic perception.
Moreover English "syllable stress" meter is complicated still further by the circumstance that no one can be quite certain what phonological feature is distributed, whether it is a single phonological feature, or whether it is a phonological feature at all. For a more or less thorough discussion of this problem it is worth looking at Seymour Chatman's A Theory of Meter. The metrical theory he advances is not convincing, but his review of the phonological problems is fairly up to date. Briefly, the main difficulty in identifying the metrical ictus of English poetry with English stress is that it is now by no means certain how we are to identify English stress. Traditionally linguists and grammarians agreed that there was a feature of emphasis marking either prominent syllables or their syllabic vowels. Formerly this emphasis in the Germanic languages was believed to consist of increased intensity of articulation resulting in increased loudness or acoustical intensity. Experimental phonetics has indicated that increased loudness is by no means the most significant factor in the perception of this emphasis. Most work in speech
synthesis has suggested that the main factor in perceiving stress is increased duration of the syllabic vowel, and that vowel quality and pitch deflection are also of considerable importance. These results do not lend support to the acoustical intensity theory of stress, but it is quite possible, nevertheless, that syllable duration, vowel quality and pitch deflection are simply cues to recognition of the increased articulatory force required to produce the emphasized syllables. Moreover it now begins to appear that stress within word boundaries -- lexical stress, may have to be distinguished from phrasal accent, the relative prominence of a syllable in phrasal grouping. The most convincing descriptions, which are still no more than tentative, suggest that phrasal accent.results from the interaction of lexical stress rules with rules for pitch contours.
The most recent work pointing in this direction is Chomsky's The Sound Pattern of English. But the earlier work of Kenneth Pike and Dwight Bolinger also tends in this direction. In any event we are no longer confronted with the single syllabic emphasis of lexical stress or even with the marvelously complex but symmetrical theory of four independent stress phonemes and four equally independent pitch phonemes hypothesized by Trager and Smith back in 1951. Since the problem of assigning ictus in English syllable stress meters is the problem of comparing immediately adjacent syllables for relative prominence regardless of word boundaries, phrase boundaries, or even discourse boundaries, it is more reasonable to assume that any available sign of relative prominence will be used. What is in fact distributed is then "syllable prominence," which may result from a variety of phonological, syntactic and discourse factors. This is apparent if one merely looks at the standard account of the conventions for distributing metrical accent in typical English meters. One degree of accent is recognized, so that there are only accented and unaccented syllables; and the accent is determined by comparing immediately adjacent syllables in a left to right direction in sets of two or three (according to whether the meter is duple or triple) for relative prominence. The process of comparison is abruptly terminated when the "line ending" is reached. Generally it is quite possible to reach agreement in comparing syllables, but there are certain cases in which the comparisons are, to say the least, difficult and others in which they are probably nonsensical. Within a word it is always possible to determine which of two adiacent syllables is more prominent. In a phrase group, given an understanding of the domain of the speaker's emphasis, it is also often possible to agree more or less unequivocally. But when the comparisons of relative prominence have to cross phrase juncture or sentence juncture boundaries, it is frequently impossible to reach any meaningful decision. In a phrase like " . . . in chase of him . . . " when the central accent falls on "chase" and the pitch contour begins to fall from "chase" and falls smoothly to "him," where the fall in pitch is abruptly cut for what Trager and Smith used to call "single bar juncture," who can say with certainty whether "of" or "him" is more prominent? Or in the sequence "He left me: I called after him." who can with any assurance assign relative prominence by comparing "me" and "I". That there is a convention that legalizes such successions of two unaccented syllables ~ the pyrrhic foot) or in some cases two accented syllables (the spondee) is not the point. The introduction of successions of this sort makes it impossible to rely on the number of prominent syllables to determine the location of the line ending or to count the feet by adding up the number of accents. It is usual to refer to these substitutions as occasional variations on a well established pattern, but they are not occasional and what metric pattern is established in a passage like the following, from which they come?
…quickening then the pace (line 131)
of the unwieldy creature he bestrode,
He left me: I called after him aloud;
He heeded not; but with his twofold charge
Still in his grasp, before me, full in view, (line 135)
Went hurrying o'er the illimitable waste,
With the fleet waters of a drowning world
In chase of him; whereat I waked in terror,
And saw the sea before me, and the book
In which I had been reading, at my side. (line 140)
I doubt that anyone will deny the brilliance of the checked music of this passage from the Fifth Book of The Prelude, but it is hardly a metrical pattern that determines the musical effects. In order to scan these lines as "blank verse" we must assume at least two pyrrhic feet in line 132, two more in line 133, an inverted (trochaic) foot in 134, another one in 135, two more pyrrhics and one anapest in line 136, two more pyrrhics in 137 plus a possible spondee, a probable pyrrhic in 138 and an additional unaccented syllable at the end of the line, a pyrrhic in 139, and two or (conceivably) three pyrrhics in line 140. Add to this that while 7 of the lines have some clear junctural breaks at the line endings, there are at least 7 junctural breaks within the lines, so that the caesura, which is the basis of the sound of the passage, cannot be used as a clue to the line ending. For the sake of clarity, this is my conjectural scansion of the passage:
… quíck ên/îng thén /thê páce (line 131)
ôf thê/ûnwiél/dy créa/tûre hê/bêstróde,/
Hê léft/ mê: Í/ câlled áf/ têr hîm/â lóud/
Hê héed/ êd nót,/ bút wîth/ hîs twó/fôld chárge/
Stíll în/ hîs grásp,/ bêfóre/ mê, fúll/ în víew,/ (line 135)
Wênt húrr/ yîng óer/ thê îl lî / mî tâ/ blê wáste,/
Wîth thê/ fléet wá/ têrs ôf/ â drówn/ îng wórld/
În cháse/ ôf hím;/ whêreát/Í wáked/ în térrôr/
Ând sáw/ thê séa/ bêfóre/ mê, ând/ thê bóok
În whích/ Î hád/ bêen réa / dîng, át / mˆy síde./ (line 140)
But this seems like a foolish exercise, since it could not be resolved by any ear. It hardly seems likely that the lines were composed with the metrical restraints in mind. The poet like the centipede would have too many options for the "metric" to provide him with an unequivocal way of going on. Nor is the passage atypical.
[Originally published in George Quasha’s magazine Stony Brook (number one, December 1968), Antin’s essay was accompanied by the following note from the editor: “Mr. Antin wrote these Notes as a paper, originally, which was not amended for publication. I persuaded him to publish it, though he is not happy with the presentation, because I believe it raises crucial questions. It is coherent if not thorough, and it may succeed in bringing about some relevant discussion, hopefullv in future issues of STONY BROOK. Part Two of the Notes will begin to investigate the poetics of that area inhabited by himself, Rothenberg, MacLow, Cage, Duncan, etc.”
There was no followup, however, nor is it certain that one was intended. The essay, never republished, is a clear indication of Antin’s ongoing thoughtfulness in these matters. The second half of the present segment will appear in a later posting.]
While there is still some light on the page,
he escapes in a stranger’s coat with his wife.
And the cloth smells of sweat;
a dog runs after them
licking the earth where they walked and sat.
In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbor has binoculars
and he watches, dust settling on his lids.
It is the 1930s: Petersburg is a frozen ship.
The cathedrals, cafés, down Nevski Prospect
they move, as the New State
sticks its pins into them.
[In Crimia, he gathered together rich ‘liberals’ and said to them strictly: On Judgment Day, if you are asked whether you understood the poet Osip Mandelstam; say no. Have you fed him? – You must answer yes.]
I am reading aloud the book of my life on earth
and confess, I loved grapefruit.
In a kitchen: sausages; tasting vodka,
the men raise their cups.
A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger
into sweetness. Mother washes
behind my ears. And we speak of everything
that does not come true,
which is to say: it was August.
August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August
filling hands with language that tastes like smoke.
Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.
(The younger brother of a cloud,
he walks unshaven in dark-green pants.
In cathedrals: he falls on his knees, praying HAPPINESS!
His words on the floor are the skeletons of dead birds.)
I’ve loved, yes. Washed my hands. Spoke
of loyalty to the earth. Now death,
a loverboy, counts my fingers.
I escape and am caught, escape again
and am caught, escape
and am caught: in this song,
the singer is a clay figure,
poetry is the self—I resist
the self. Elsewhere:
St. Petersburg stands
like a lost youth
whose churches, ships, and guillotines
accelerate our lives.
[In summer 1924 Osip Mandelstam brought his young wife to St. Petersburg. Nadezhda was what the French call laide mais charmante. An eccentric? Of course he was. He threw a student down the staircase for complaining he wasn’t published, Osip shouting: Was Sappho? Was Jesus Christ?]
Poet is a voice, I say, like Icarus,
whispering to himself as he falls.
Yes, my life as a broken branch in the wind
hits the Northern ground.
I am writing now a history of snow,
the lamplight bathing the ships
that sail across the page.
But on certain afternoons
the Republic of Psalms opens up
and I grow frightened that I haven’t lived, died, not enough
to scratch this ecstasy into vowels, hear
splashes of clear, biblical speech.
I read Plato, Augustine, the loneliness of their syllables
while Icarus keeps falling.
And I read Akhmatova, her rich weight binds me to the earth,
the nut trees on a terrace breathing
the dry air, the daylight.
Yes, I lived. The State hung me up by the feet, I saw
St. Petersburg’s daughters, swans,
I learned the grammar of gulls’ array
and found myself for good
down Pushkin Street, while memory
sat in the corner, erasing me with a sponge.
I’ve made mistakes, yes: in bed
I compared government
to my girlfriend.
Government! An arrogant barber’s hand
shaving off the skin.
All of us dancing happily around him.
[He sat on the edge of his chair and dreamt aloud of good dinners. He composed his poems not at his desk but in the streets of St. Petersburg; he adored the image of the rooster tearing apart the night under the walls of Acropolis with his song. Locked up in the cell, he was banging on the door: “You have got to let me out, I wasn’t made for prison.”]
Once or twice in his life, a man
is peeled like apples.What’s left is a voice
that splits his being
down to the center.
We see: obscenity, fright, mud
but there is joy of shape, there is
more than one silence.
-- between here and Nevski Prospect,
the years, birdlike, stretch, --
Pray for this man
who lived on bread and tomatoes
while dogs recited his poetry
in each street.
Yes, count “march,” “july”
weave them together with a thread –
it’s time, Lord,
press these words against your silence.
-- the story is told of a man who escapes
and is captured
into the prose of evenings:
after making love, he sits up
on a kitchen floor, eyes wide open,
speaks of the Lord’s emptiness
in whose image we are made.
–he is out of work– among silverware
and dirt he is kissing
his wife’s neck so the skin of her belly tightens.
One would think of a boy laying
syllables with his tongue
onto a woman’s skin: those are lines
sewn entirely of silence.
. . . . . .
BY WAY OF A COMMENTARY. The coming together in this poem of Osip Mandelstam & Ilya Kaminsky is or should be a matter of some interest to us. Born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977, Kaminsky arrived in the United States in 1993, at which point his transition to English began. (He also still writes some poetry in Russian.) In this he follows other transplanted poets (Joris, Hollo, Codrescu, Waldrop, Simic, et al.) while retaining a strong, often an uncanny sense of an earlier time & place. In his major first gathering of poems, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), the city of the title poem is itself a persistent presence, & in the poem therein from which the present extract is taken, there is a virtual channeling of the voices of Mandestam & his wife Nadezhda. Osip Mandelstam, while born in Warsaw, was one of the formidable Russian poets of the early twentieth century, whose poem mocking Josef Stalin, born in Georgia, resulted in his subsequent arrest & disappearance in the 1930s. The movement across borders & languages is one of the distinguishing characterstics of poetry in our own time & place, a nomadic phenomenon (P. Joris), not easily dismissed. [J.R.]
THE FACES (1)
into my hair
THE FACES (2)
whose big mask
cools it down
THE FACES (3)
with hanging little
balls of medicine
THE FACES (4)
had gambled for
& phony smiles
THE INSTRUMENTS (1)
pounders for corn
paddles for soup
THE INSTRUMENTS (2)
put out an old fire
kindle a new fire
do a war dance in the name of peace
speaking to Ham
was flicking my ashes into
POUNDING THE WOOODEN FLOOR WITH
BROOMSTICKS THE WOMEN
SANG SIX SONGS
in the middle of the room
I was alone
we all came back
who’s got an old dream?
who’s got a new dream?
who’s got a white dog?
DREAM EVENT (1)
See something in a dream & tell it in a riddle.
Let someone guess the riddle, let him give the object as a gift.
DREAM EVENT (2)
Act out a dream.
Let everybody’s brains turn upside down.
has a lake
seen in my eyes –
with many colors
when I cough
It was all I could do
It was all I had learned
It was all that there was
[The preceding is the second part of a series of Midwinter poems written during several years of participation in ceremonies, both social & religious, at the Seneca Indian Coldspring Longhouse in western New York state. The first part of the series appeared in a posting on May 1, with some additional explanation as to their origin & intention. All poems were originally published in the author’s A Seneca Journal (New Directions, 1978).]
Translation & commentary by Pierre Joris
GOETHE TO HAFIZ:
That you never end is what makes you great.
And that you never begin is your fate.
Your song’s a gyre like heaven’s vault,
Beginning and end are ever the same
And what the middle brings is patently
What remains in the end and was in the beginning.
You are true poet’s source to joy
That spills from you wave after wave ceaselessly.
A mouth always ready to kiss,
A breast full of song pouring forth sweetly,
A throat always parched for drink,
A good heart, gushing.
And if the whole world should disappear
Hafiz, with you and you alone
Would I compete! Pleasure & pain
As twins we’d share!
To love & to drink like you
That shall be my pride, my life.
May songs now resound with their own fire!
For you are older, you are newer!
TALISMAN on Carneol
Is luck & well-being for the believer,
If on Onyx all the more so,
Kiss it with hallowed lips!
It chases away all evil,
Protects you & where you are:
When the engraved word
Purely heralds Allah’s name,
It arouses love & deed in you.
It is women most of all
Who are edified by talismans.
AMULETS are similar
Signs written on paper;
But one’s not as strictly pressed
As on the noble stone’s tight edge,
Thus pious souls are granted
Here to choose much longer verse.
Men wear these papers
Faithfully as scapularios.
THE INSCRIPTION has nothing to back it up
And yet: it is itself & has to tell you all
That in your turn, with honest pleasure,
You wish to say: I say it, I!
But ABRAXAS I rarely bring!
Here supposedly the grotesque
That stark madness made
Has to stand in for the highest.
If I tell you absurdities,
Just think I’m bringing Abraxases.
A SIGNET RING’s difficult to draw,
It is highest sense in densest space;
Though here you know how to acquire
a thing authentic,
Dug in or raised, the word stands,
you hardly think it.
A Note on Goethe’s West-Östlicher Diwan:
Like many a northern boy, Goethe fell in love with the images and tales from the Orient at age 12. But — except for a poem entitled "Mahomets-Gesang" ["Mohammed's song"] dating to 1774 — it wasn’t until his sixties that this early infatuation came to literary fruition in the collection of poems we know as the West-Östlicher Diwan, composed in the main between 1814 & 1818. The early years of the composition also coincide with his last great love affair, with the much younger Marianne von Willemer, and could be seen as a making-public-while-covering-up of that affair. In fact, a number of the poems attributed to the poetic persona of “Suleika” are not by Goethe, but by his lover Marianne. Much literature on classical Persian and Arabic matters (& translations of the poets) appeared in those years, and Goethe read up on most of it (in Latin, English, French and Italian, given that he didn’t have Arabic or Persian). Some of his poems (such as BLESSING-PLEDGES) are in fact versified bits from such literature.
But at the core of this late creative surge lies Goethe’s avowed Ahlverwandschaft with the Persian poet Hafiz, the addressee, instigator, dedicatee of much of the Diwan. Whatever Saidian critique of “orientalism” may apply to this work in hindsight, it is also clear that this is probably Goethe’s most powerful long sequence of poems. The gusto for life, the exuberance, the magnificent lyricism evoked by this consummate and graceful composition make it indeed into one of the great works of Romantic poetry. [P.J.]
Etymologically, the word "anthology" means a bundle of flowers. During the late medieval period, monks made collections of favorite texts for their own use or for members of their orders. Private collections offer satisfactions, as you can see among people who collect stamps or coins or, well, you name it and you can find somebody who collects whatever you've named. Anthropologists speak of "hunter-gatherer" societies, and it's easy enough to see hunting and gathering as among the most basic human characteristics and impulses. When keeping private collections does no harm, it's not something to dismiss or look down upon. However, most people who make personal collections want to share them. Last Christmas I received a CD and an audio tape of seasonal music from friends who initially put them together for their own use, then made additional copies as gifts. That I received two such collections from people who didn't know each other, suggests how many people turn such collections into presents. No matter how dogmatic anthologies can get, the sense of gift is usually there somewhere.
The sense of a gift seems an admirable editorial concept, and one that should not get lost no matter how anthologies change through time. Gifts often include hopes. Of course, gifts can act simply as bribes or as a means of coercing, conning, or appeasing people. Yet the hopes in gifts can even grow considerably from this simple form of transaction. A gift given in courtship, for instance, may include hopes for relatively quick and selfish gratification, but that doesn't necessarily exclude hopes for cooperation and shared happiness over extended periods of time.
Some of the most important anthologies published in recent centuries have acted as news vehicles. This is not out of keeping with the courtship theme: if you're in love, you want to tell the world. Aside from amorous enthusiasm, real news is hard to keep to yourself. If you've found something important, you'll probably want to tell people about it. Even as I write the beginning of this essay, there are a number of people I feel impatient to show it to.
News tends to stimulate a prescriptive impulse. Anthologies based in news may begin with the implication that this is something you gotta see to believe, but it will also tend to bring with it the implication that this is what people should read. Likewise, controversial news acts as a stimulant for debate and news of an atrocity asks people to seek a remedy. Remedial anthologies can act as advocates for groups of people or types of work that have previously been disenfranchised or excluded. Just as easily, they can move in such a way as to negate what some would see as news. Easily identifiable examples of these directions can be found in collections of work by minorities and of work meant to reestablish traditional forms and values.
The interrelation of inclusion and exclusion forms one of the basic dynamics of the process of anthology formation. In a simple collection of flowers, gatherers select the plants that they think look or smell best or carry the right kind of symbolism. The gatherers may find plants that might or might not be appropriate, and spend considerable time deciding on which to keep and which to exclude. This tension can become a dynamic force in the reading of anthologies as well as in their assembly. Readers who seek what may have been left out become ideal readers and extenders of the news in anthologies. As anthologies and the environment in which they function become more complex, exclusion becomes more important and can take on a negative role. This can grow from the problems any editor finds in work that may or may not fit the anthology's purposes. At times, some anthologists work primarily from the need to exclude what they dislike rather than what they wish to keep. Anthologies can thus become tools for something like excommunication just as easily as they can act as vehicles for enfranchisement.
Combining most of these elements, polemical anthologies can act as much as stimulants for new work as surveys of what has been done. Manifestos became something of an art form in themselves in the 20th Century. Perhaps the most enduring manifestos may not be those limited to a single rhetorical voice, but those which appeared as choruses in the form of anthologies.
No matter how complex the impulse to anthologize becomes, it almost invariably includes these elements, and to the editors, they become a means of trying to make the environment in which they operate better than it was before.
I saw my initial efforts at electronic publishing in a limited and tentative context. The first works I put on-line were Anarchist classics and a few poems, in the days when ftp, gopher, and bbs were the main means of electronic distribution. When the World Wide Web opened up to general use, it became clear to me that this would be as good an environment as I could find for creating an anthology of the poetry of the later decades of the 20th Century. Following nearly all the lines of collection mentioned above, I set about trying to represent as close to all the genres and tendencies of poetry produced during the era in what gets called "experimental" or "Avant Garde" modes.
Several factors came from characteristics of the web itself. First, its nature made it open-ended in ways that print anthologies are not. The ink never dries on the web. The most immediately gratifying aspect of this comes to a print publisher from the fact that it allows you to correct typos. I'm not sure how much people not involved in print publishing understand how much misery these little fleas or heartaches or pestilences can inflict on a printer-publisher, or how they add up over the years. I didn't know it when I started on the web, but in the electronic environment typos became less of a problem: readers take them more or less for granted, and since they can always be corrected they weigh less heavily on the publisher's psyche. Thus the web provides liberation from an unwanted kind of permanence in two ways at once.
Lack of fixity fans out from there. Authors can revise and add to work that they publish on-line. Unlike a print anthology, the editor doesn't have to allot a certain amount of space to each contributor or each work. In some instances, charges for disk space can become expensive, but at least in its potential, web space is virtually unlimited. Going by author, if the work of X seems to require several hundred pages to make its point, the editor can include that much. You don't have to assign each contributor a limited number of pages, or use volume as a qualitative signifier in which the more prestigious authors get more than those assigned a lower status. Volume as an indicator of status disappears along with the worries about how to apportion limited space.
On the web, which acts as a world wide distribution system in a literal sense, there's no reason why you can't present work in multiple languages, and you can add translations as you go along, not requiring them to be on-hand by a specific deadline. If the presence of work on the Web finds translators among readers, as it has done a number of times at Light and Dust, so much the better. Like most editors, I know more about what's going on in my own part of the world than anywhere else. But the global environment of the Web allows considerable outreach beyond that. The tendency toward expanded areas of possibility became apparent in anthologies before the Web appeared, but the Web allows considerably more room for exchange. Contributions from France and Hungary, Paraguay and Eritrya don't simply make up addenda or footnotes to my anthology, but take positions as important as anything else at the site. My offering hardly represents everything that's going on in the world, but it moves more fully toward an international scope than any print anthology I know.
Criticism and commentary play an essential role in the poetry of the era: given the diversity of work and the originality of much of what interests me, it seems unlikely that all new work can be accessible to a wide range of readers without commentary. Manifestos and theoretical papers have assumed crucial positions in the 20th Century, some acting as impetus for the creation of new work as well as commentary on it. During recent years, writing of this sort has found its way more prominently into print anthologies. At Light and Dust, I favored criticism and commentary done by practicing artists, though I didn't disqualify the work of scholars and critics who do not produce works of art. This, too, is something that doesn't need to be complete by a given deadline; it's something I could add as I went along. And, again, the space for it is potentially unlimited, not something that requires a trade-off between poetry and commentary.
Perhaps the most important internal feature of a web anthology's lack of fixity is that no one is permanently and categorically excluded. This is not the case with print anthologies. Once the ink dries, whomever is excluded is cast permanently out of that particular garden. The sense of exclusion in print anthologies can create problems ranging from a poet's sense of lost opportunity to ferocious squabbling, back biting and other forms of infighting, the flattering of editors, and the generation of deep-seated and long lasting grudges. An anthology's finality can also generate lack of credibility on the part of readers. In the web environment, much of this simply disappears. If Dick and Jane aren't part of the anthology today, they may be tomorrow; the need for competition eases, and with a bit of luck, this may even lead to a greater sense of cooperation rather than one-up-manship.
This expands further in the context of the Web as a whole. Dick and Jane may very well be people who'd have to undergo something like a Damascus Road conversion to appear at my site, and probably would have to do so at about the time hell freezes over, but my site isn't the only one on the web. If you don't find them at my site, you can probably find them somewhere else using the same means you used to access Light and Dust. If links don't take you where you want to go, search engines, for all their weaknesses, may help. If Dick and Jane can't find anyone to publish them on-line, nothing's stopping them from setting up a Web site of their own. If they've been so far unrecognized, an environment like that of the Web will certainly get them at least some attention, and they may be able to build on that. However dogmatic any site may become, if it's on the web it still potentially connects to all other sites. You don't have to buy more books or check out other libraries: if you can get to Light and Dust, you can get to any other public site on the Web.
My approach to poetry is eclectic, anti-hieratic, pluralistic, and decentralized. Despite the use of the Web by totalitarian factions in attempts to establish dominance, the Web has a tendency to resist this kind of treatment. It may not always succeed, but it still provides the means for subversion of any group claiming hegemony or seeking to form an instant or pre-stacked canon. My site goes against the hegemonic grain to the extent that some people have given it such nick names as "the Resistance" and "Sweden, 1941." That's congenial to me and my way of looking at things, but it doesn't come from a desire on my part to overthrow orthodoxies in order to establish a new one in their place. I see domineering cults as toxic to the general scene, and equally harmful to individuals within the various citadels themselves. The rejection of clique putsches doesn't equal a dismissal of all those inside the various armed fortresses, and members of many of these cabals appear at Light and Dust. When presented without the imperial trappings, armies of Mooneyesque cheerleaders and draconian enforcers, the work of these people can take on a greater life on its own terms.
With this anti-dogmatic precondition in mind, I have been able to put forward work that has been ignored, marginalized, or abused. Perhaps the most dramatic examples come from projects to put works on-line that have been censored or otherwise kept out of print by force. But other work that has suffered benign neglect seems just as important. There may be a paradox or a bit of serendipity in this. I seem to be temperamentally oriented toward certain types of rebellion, confrontation, and, as some would see it, plain crankiness or contrariety. In a different milieu, this might leave me in the position of backing those who had failed by any standards, including my own. In the dispensation of the last century, however, much of the best work I know has been bashed or ignored. This makes it easy to simultaneously publish some of the best work around and some of the most abused or neglected. As important as this advocacy may be for me, it's by no means my only motivation nor does it reflect the whole show. I have been able to put up work by prominent and successful poets along with those who have been marginalized.
To the Editor:
Although the practice of assigning books of poetry in translation to reviewers who lack knowledge of the original’s language has become something of a commonplace in our literary culture, one hopes for a higher standard from the New York Times Book Review. Sadly, that standard has been neglected in the April 19 review, “A Poet’s Progress,” of the recently published translations of C. P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems by Daniel Mendelsohn, just as it was in the review of Aliki Barnstone’s volume of translations of the same poet in the issue of 26 March 2006. In each case, it appears a writer of repute was invited to provide an expert assessment of a kind of work for which he is not fully qualified. Two years ago in his review of Barnstone’s translations of Cavafy, Brad Leithauser prepared his readers at certain points to infer that he was not familiar with the poet’s texts in Greek; this past week in his review of Mendelsohn’s two-volume Cavafy James Longenbach is notably less transparent about his familiarity with the poems in the original. In each case, the reviewer fulfills the requirement of producing a lively and informative read, but both devote too much space to rehearsing what others, including the translators in their introductions, have written about Cavafy and his poetry.
Mr. Longenbach, who begins his review with yet one more quotation of E. M. Forster’s once iconic but by now exhausted remark about Cavafy “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” (at least Mendelsohn waits until the eleventh page of his long introduction to invoke it), keeps addressing the question of Cavafy’s “tone” with a kind of confidence that might suggest he has engaged with it in the poet’s own language. But a careful comparative reading of his review and Mendelsohn’s introduction reveals that the critic’s praise of the translator’s achievement in capturing Cavafy’s tone is not a privately earned position but merely a recapitulation of what Mr. Mendelsohn almost simultaneously announces as his intention and accomplishment. The one passage in the review in which the reader might suspect the critic actually compared the words in one of the translations with its counterparts in the original, the discussion of the choice of the word kid in the poem “Days of 1909, ’10 and ’11,” turns out to be nothing more than a paraphrase of the translator’s own explanation of his strategies in dealing with it (p. xliv of the introduction).
It is disappointing that Longenbach (unlike Mr. Leithauser) fails to mention a single other translator from among the many who have contributed to the current phenomenon of translating Cavafy into English. Mendelsohn also pays scant attention to his eminent predecessors, making only token mentions of John Mavrogordato, Rae Dalven, and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, all of whom first published their Cavafy translations between 1951 and 1975, and ignoring the numerous men and women who have contributed to the enterprise since then. By outdoing Mendelsohn in this department, Longenbach relegates them all to the nameless status of the “earlier.” In fact, the only specific comparative literary observation he bothers to make doesn’t come until the end of the review, where it seems his interest lies in proclaiming a triumvirate of contemporary translations, Mendelsohn’s Cavafy, Richard Howard’s Baudelaire, and Robert Pinsky’s Dante (based on the last time I looked, shouldn’t this read Inferno?).
[N.B. George Economou is himself a distinguished translator of Cavafy & a participant for many years in the composition & dissemination of contemporary & traditional poetries. Recent books include Acts of Love: Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite's Garden (Random House, 2006) and I’ve Gazed So Much: C. P. Cavafy Translations (London: Stop Press, 2001). Half an Hour, a second collection of Economou’s translations from Cavafy, was issued last year by Stop Press, and his ultimate adventure in translation, Ananios of Kleitor, was published by Shearsman in early 2009. During the 1960s he was the co-editor, with Robert Kelly, of the magazine Trobar and has been an active poet, translator & scholar ever since. Several of his translations from Cavafy were posted on Poems & Poetics on November 24, 2008.]
The Horse Songs of course go back to the early 1970s, so it’s my pleasure too to see them still in circulation.
1 If you’re looking back, how do you place – historically – ethnopoetics in the American poetic “revolution” – and tradition?
It seems to me that in the century now ending one of the principal allures of poetry —even or (maybe) especially for many of our most “experimental” poets — has been the sense of engaging in a process — a way of thinking & of saying — that has until very recently been universal both in space & time. The time factor is a measure of its oldness, and the emergence of a “new” poetry over the last hundred or two hundred years has almost always been accompanied by declarations of “re”covery / “re”discovery at the heart of every new invention. This is clear enough in U.S. poetry, where someone like Ezra Pound, whom we take as radical — structurally radical — from The Cantos on, insists on pushing the time frame back & expanding it horizontally or culturally to a range of earlier initiating moments: first Anglo-Saxon rhythms merged with Homeric shaman journeys down among the shades in Canto One; then in his other & his later writings with the Chinese Book of Songs, the African “Gassire’s Lute” as given by Frobenius, erotic poems of ancient Egypt, re-castings of neglected Provencal and Roman poets. This was what put him in conflict with Marinetti and the Futurists – a “tale of the tribe,” as he named it, but curiously – in that fascist mind – a greater tribe than privileged race & nation might have led us to expect.
The same spirit of newness & transformation with relation to the past & present (what I used to speak of as "an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present") infused the work of many of us in post-World War II America – Olson, Duncan, Snyder, Kelly, Waldman, Schwerner, among the major ones from my perspective. And there were others too, outside of the U.S. as such – Tzara with his projected gathering of African and South Pacific poems; the Surrealists who set up their bureau (under Artaud!) of “research” aimed in that direction; and the French Negritude poets & their counterparts in the Spanish “new world.” All of this – and more – was the underlying basis for what I came to call ethnopoetics, and it encouraged me and others to declare that a poetics without an accompanying ethnopoetics was not capable of engaging the full possibility of poetry that our time allowed us.
2 To what extent has this concept (and practice) influenced your “own” work? And is it still central to you NOW?
It was impossible for me to get as engaged as I did and for it not to have an influence on the work that I was doing. A part of that work of course was directly connected with the opening of such a field as ethnopoetics. My own work had followed others in the use of collage and appropriation as a way of opening our individual or personal poetry to the presence of other voices and other visions besides our own. I came to think of all of that – appropriation, collage, translation – in ideological terms. Long before our time, Whitman in Leaves of Grass had set the task very plainly:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
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.
This was in the section of Leaves of Grass called “Song of Myself” – that great bringing together of the individual voice with the sense of a total and suppressed humanity. And it was reborn for us, for me certainly, in Olson’s rant, say, against “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” or in Duncan’s call for a new “symposium of the whole,” a new “totality” – among my immediate predecessors and near contemporaries.
Where it turns up in my “own” work most clearly, assuming it is my “own” work, is in the acts of translation that are an underpinning for the anthologies. It was there that I could let rip for the first time with those voices and find myself absorbing – thrillingly – something that was far more than myself. And the translation led me also to an interplay with poets more of my own time – Schwitters, Lorca, Nezval, among those I’ve recently done in abundance – and now, surprisingly to me, Picasso. For me too the big books were a kind of assemblage and collage, very much like the translations in terms of what they allowed me to do or to be. And all of that also led me to the possibility of Poland/1931, which I was clear about from the start when I spoke of it as “an attempt to write an ancestral poetry of my own – in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.” (Look back at Whitman’s list of the “many long dumb voices” to get a sense of that; or Duncan's “totality” in which “all the old excluded orders must be included ... [:] the female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and the failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”)
So, yes, it remains central to me – the ethnopoetics, I mean – but only along with these other suppositions and the legitimate acts of “othering” which are fundamental to this project. In The Lorca Variations, which you know quite well, I took a step beyond translation by writing with Lorca (or my translations of Lorca) as my source; and in Gematria I used a traditional Jewish form of connecting words by numerological methods, to make a poetry in either instance that I thought was both personal to me and was created by means that shared in what Blake saw as “the most sublime act ... [:] to set another before you.”
As for the ethnopoetics itself, it remains a central part of Poems for the Millennium, the most recent of the big anthologies, in which Pierre Joris and I try to show the poetry of the last hundred years as incorporating within it the work of all preceding millennia, so that “all times” will again be, as Pound once had it, “contemporaneous in the human mind.” And I would hope too that it hasn’t left my own poetry either – the work that I’m doing NOW. The most recent book is called A Paradise of Poets, and the most recent longer work is a series of several hundred one to three-line poems called Autobiography and proceeding with a sense of incorporation that I hope can put identity in question.
3 Do you think this approach (its cultural openness and implication) has had some effects in the U.S. on the “new” poetic generations?
Others assure me that it has, though not always, it seems to me, in the ways that I most wanted. There was always an apprehension in my mind, say, that the poetics of the project would be overshadowed by the ethnos, the factor of ethnicity that looms so large in our current political and cultural thinking. While this is an issue of considerable importance – in America certainly but in France as well – for me the freeing up of poetry and language was the end – the principal end – toward which I thought my own means as a poet could be best directed. At the same time I recognize in many of the poetries associated with ethnic identity a push to call the language of the dominating culture into question – in favor, say, of what Kamau Brathwaite, a poet and thinker whom I greatly admire, talks about as “nation language.” And in many Black writers in America – more than with other poets working in an ethnic mode – I find the impulse to transform through language at an interestingly high pitch. All of this is also part of the great push toward the demotic that Joris and I marked as a central thrust (but also a problematic) of the century now passing.
So, yes, I think that this approach did have some effect on the “new” or present generation of U.S. poets. And beyond the multiculturalism – or the less widely recognized interculturalism – it contributed to an increased sense of the performance side of poetry – experimental and ritualized from my perspective, popular and drawing on familiar prosodies from the perspective of some others. Similarly it encouraged – as it was meant to – a crossover with the other arts: a point we emphasized in talking of the “total performance” or “total theater” quality in so many tribal/oral cultures. For all of this I’m told that Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin served as instigations – directly for the generation in which they first appeared, more indirectly for the one(s) that followed. When (so-called) Language Poetry first appeared in the U.S. – even before it had taken a name like Language Poetry – I encouraged its entry into Alcheringa, the magazine of ethnopoetics I was then editing with Dennis Tedlock. Ron Silliman prepared a sampling for me and shared, I thought, a sense of practices in common. And Charles Bernstein, who came along later, has always had ethnopoetics as a solid presence behind his work. Still more directly magazines and publishing ventures like Mark Novak’s X-Cultural (Cross-Cultural) Poetics have carried on and extended the work of Alcheringa, which has otherwise become part of those generally acceptable assumptions about poetry and culture that are often separate from a heightened sense of the possibilities of poetry – not only what can be imagined but what has already been put in practice by human beings somewhere in the world.
[In the tradition of political and poetry manifestos going back to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, a group of over 300 Chinese writers & intellectuals, suported by more than 8000 later signatories, last year issued a declaration called Charter 08, demanding the rights listed in the excerpts printed below. Among those subsequently arrested was Liu Xiaobo, a poet and one of China’s preeminent dissident writers and activists , who is currently being held without charge or trial under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location in Beijing. On April 28 he was honored with the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from PEN American Center. A petition calling for his freedom can be found at http://pen.org/page.php/prmID/1817.]
A hundred years have passed since the writing of China's first constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of the Democracy Wall in Beijing, and the tenth of China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.
. . . . . . .
II. OUR FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES
This is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the political modernization process of the past hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as follows:
Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.
Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China's recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime's disregard for human rights.
Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.
Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of "fairness in all under heaven." It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.
Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly "of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.
. . . . . . .
Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an "enlightened overlord" or an "honest official" and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty.
Translation from Chinese by Perry Link
[For a copy of the full text, see http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22210]
Gazing up at one star, let’s stay young!
In the darkness
let’s be our children’s twinkling hearts.
With hearts brimming full,
let’s be hundreds of light years of our fatherland in the middle of night.
Although we may fall, bodies wounded,
now youth is the nearest thing to truth.
All who are alive on land, let’s stay young!
With my eyes streaming tears through the long night,
isn’t our fatherland a joy between that star and me?
Gazing up at a star, let’s stay young!
Let’s make our fatherland’s shining star
that can never be disgraced
that day of your children and mine.
Indeed! The end of this beauty !
all is always born at the end. Let’s be morning.
Our fatherland, with morning sunlight vibrating.
Let’s be the youth of total unity that embraces all here, today.
PREFACE TO ‘TEN THOUSAND LIVES’
An instant that is born between you and me!
There the furthest star rises.
Meetings of people—
in the hundreds of miles of Puyo,
in each village of ancient Mahan’s fifty-four nations.
Since then, our fatherland has seen myriads of meetings of people!
In this ancient land
parting means an expansion.
Procession of endless living,
no one can exist all alone. Tomorrow!
Ah, a man can be a man, a world, only among other people.
All day long she was out in the Man’gyong River’s mudflats,
where there was neither bone nor unhulled grain of rice ;
she came back home after gathering sea-blite ankle-deep in that distant, wretched mud :
Why, it was already early morning, with the Great Bear already setting ! She was exhausted !
With no time to lay down her weary body, she was obliged quickly to hull barley in a mortar ;
the pestle soared up, struck the dark void, came down pounding and pierced the ground.
Drops of sweat fall into the barley, added seasoning:
Well, with food of that taste, the brats should grow fast.
Where, if not here, would our irrepressible lives be maintained ?
A woman’s life surely saves a multitude of lives.
Borne in a palanquin, she crossed over muddy, slow-flowing waters from Changhang,
in Ch’ungchong Province to her husband’s home, and after that hard journey
began married life in a household with not so much as one crock of bean paste or soy sauce.
Two days after delivering her first son, she had to pound barley,
prepare food in a basket and carry it on her head to the paddy-fields
where the second weeding was in progress.
After childbirth the blood kept seeping out,
she had to wash her underclothes secretly five times a day.
But the way she walked, like a clothes pole, was brisk :
look, she was already walking that far, arousing a breeze.
She had no time even to sing as she had to do every job while the spring famine was passing.
If you left the fields untended in summer, why, that was as terrible as raising ten tiger cubs !
Living amidst flourishing grass, amidst poverty, amidst all those damned tasks,
my mother, my mother, how could she be only my mother ?
[A NOTE ON KO UN, AS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JACKET 34, OCTOBER 2007. Born in 1933 in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, Ko Un is Korea’s foremost living writer. After immense suffering during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. His first poems were published in 1958, then a few years later he returned to the world. He became a leading spokesman in the struggle for freedom and democracy during the 1970s and 1980s, in a struggle for which he was often arrested and imprisoned. He has published more than 120 volumes of poems, essays, and fiction. In recent years, selections from his work have been translated into at least fourteen languages, including 5 volumes so far published in English: The Sound of My Waves (Cornell EAS) and Beyond Self: Zen Poems (Parallax) were published in the 1990s, Little Pilgrim (Parallax) and Ten Thousand Lives (Green Integer) were published in 2005. Abiding Places, Korea and North (Tupelo), Flowers of a Moment (BOA Editions, Ltd.), and Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems (UC Press), 2006. He has been invited to talk and give readings of his work at major poetry and literary festivals in numerous countries, and has been nominated for a Nobel several times.]
Ko Un's Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1961-2001 was published by Green Integer Press earlier this year.
[The following paragraphs are excerpted from David Matlin's It Might Do Well With Strawberries, Marick Press 2009.]
Better to decorate yourself with sex and music and if you had hard feelins to lay’em up on a bar before they became the Death Valley summer dead mummifying to a trespass no explanation’ll volunteer to cover. Say breath and being hearing and smell are vapors. Each of them trees waiting for the sap breathed from the Beforetime Others. The ancient women’s discovery of intimacies, intelligences, moistures in their impressions. BreathSouls panted out in mindful wanderings. Drops of saffron for the clitoris in those twilight generations. Crocus. The stigma erect receiver of pollens dried to pungent aroma two and two in the swayings. Let its fragments go hard and dry into the seasons of women who gathered death in their baskets and there was still no knowing how far they had come and gone right under the eyes of a world which might always remain blind to them. The infection traveling. Fat thigh bones of she-goats, necklaces of wove flowerheads, dill shoots for curls, pink-ankled charms. “Hero” “Timas” “Anactoria” “Athis”. All were of “beautiful dances” flowing in the immediacies of said speech on torn papyri destined for garbage and throats of mummified crocodiles. The rebellion waiting for another age like the water signs of the Shoshoni, and the only thing to soak in those neighborhoods is dust of alkali where the children were fed bird tongues for wit and quickness.
Monday October 3rd 2005: Spent the afternoon at the Sea; full of marvels-washed up kelp and stone and millions of exposed sand clams, each one like a snow flake, no two alike in their remarkable colors. Water very warm and clean but surf so small and slow no throb to hold the body.
The destruction of the army is in accordance with the civilian leadership. “The army has decided to accept a greater number of recruits who score near the bottom of military aptitude tests.” The administration’s explanation for this is an astounding maze of further disorientation. The original standards (“They really weren’t standards. They were just guidelines,” said Army Secretary, Francis Harvey) were “established to prevent the military services from meeting recruit quotas by accepting too many people with low IQs …” In this mad twisted sales pitch are we sending our most heavily armed cretins to “spread democracy”?
“Democracy in America was never the same as Liberty in Europe. In Europe Liberty was a great life throb. But in America Democracy was always something anti-life. The greatest democrats, like Abraham Lincoln, had always a sacrificial, self-murdering note in their voices. American Democracy was a form of self-murder, always. Or of murdering somebody else.” This heaped up American phantasmagoria, phantoms to be let loose with their night gear over the Mesopotamian oilfirs and how harsh or misplaced is Lawrence’s statement if one examines the “Black Sites” “Abu Ghraib” “Bangram” the grotesque of the democracy similar to the description of the Pequod under Peleg’s chief mateship:
“A cannibal craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies…”
Robert Duncan’s observation in “Man’s Fullfilment in Order and Strife” is also of use here (though this poet too despaired over “our manner of speech” as a “cover” for the ruthless wastes and pollutions which are the more livid and lasting guarantee of our freedoms: witness the “forever problems” of the present technological age - fiend tombs for the tons of plutonium wastes and our contemporary search for a “warning symbol” that might adequately speak to a projected 100,000 to 150,000 year future; our present paranoias of Alert Theory crazed with images of cyborg feminist corporations poised in that “then” refusing to believe the ancient male warnings about to infect them and digging into the still potently fatal “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” or WIPP salt caverns stuffed with the sludges of nuclear weapons production ready to wreck planets and galaxies – the cannibal tricks of our world and the drama of our deep sicknesses being played out in these scenarios of future murky feminism incapable of “reading” or “thinking” as the present players imagine it in their game scenarios of what to do with world-wide waste hazard sites).
“Blake looking into the beginning of the American Revolution saw the Revolution of the States as belonging to the drama of the deep sickness of Europe ‘where the horrible darkness is impressed with the reflections of desire.’ Blake’s vision is of a confusion of intents and powers that strikes true to the confusion in which America was born. At first seeing Washington, Franklin, Paine as heroes rising in the flames of unfulfilled desire, rising to liberate Man from his bonds of repression, Blake came in his lifetime to see Washington as he saw Napoleon, as a ‘heroic villains’ for following the subsidence of the American and French Revolutions came no liberation of Man’s nature from the external repressions of social law or the internal repressions of the super ego …”
Further, Duncan says, “The angel Albion appears in Blake’s America 'a dragon form, clashing his scales'; and the shadowy Daughter of Urthona, ‘Dark Virgin,’ the suffering spirit of America, appears as the Bride enslaved addressing her groom:
I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go.
Thou art the image of God who dwells in the darkness of Africa,
And thou art fall’n to give me life in regions of dark death …
Blake saw the soul of America as a shadowy bride whose black husband is in chains; or a black bride whose true groom is the enslaved spirit of Europe hidden in Africa. The reality of our history appeared in flames and agony where a spiritual alchemy was at work to unite in marriage Heaven and Hell or the Righteous and the Damned …”
Blake in his prophetic rage also saw that rebellion against empire begets empire anew, Revolution condemned to age as an “Eternal Viper self-renew’d”:
Heavens; Eternal Viper self-renewed, rolling in clouds
I see thee in thick clouds and darkness on America’s shore
Writhing in pangs of abhorred birth; red flames the crest rebellious
And eyes of death …
The Poet recognized the future plagues of obedience and conformity surging up in America and Europe. He knew these were horrible visions of stern torments accompanied by the images of rulers “glowing with blood.” Though I think this made him sometimes despair over the repugnant visionary burdens of his art's fullness he was still able to proclaim in the abyss of unutterable shambles and convulsions an aptitude for a more thorough archaic matrix of visionary stamina starkly uniting him to his personal devotions and that would not make him immune to cynicism (I don’t know how that can be possible) but lessened the complicities between rage and cynicism that charges the Prophecies not with fulfillment but with the tricks of their impersonations making of the intelligences rage can hold a perishing invasion of the Polypus who lures each human creature passing before it into murdering its own soul with the sensuous afflictions of cruelty and contempt. Blake allowing himself to be caught in the Loom of these forces and their slumbers sings:
For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life;
Because the soul of sweet delight can never be defiled …
The tones of speech offer the first reawakenings of primordial dissuasions and release from ancient and constantly imperiling propaganda as well as poised endurances by which to disarm the forces and ruling slumbers which Blake understood would enslave us in our time. Their energy informs us that once we are able to realize and proclaim that the Behemoth Rich who have stolen our Time and World and the Deepest Hells of violence they are willing to unleash to preserve themselves no longer matter to our lives that we can in that instance begin to imagine another world and to cut ourselves away from the Mystery tyrants and their waves of foaming blood until “not one” as the poet says in his “Four Zoas” (p.373) is “left on Earth.” We have “Jerusalem” “The Four Zoas” the horror strangeness of “The Book of Ahania” so often accompanied by very thin readings to this day. But Blake (as Shakespeare and Dante) seems to read his Age as few rarely have. His “Epics” and “Prophecies” in the magnitude of their challenge presents a new storehouse of perils measured defined weighed as taxonomic specimens along with their paleontology no matter how complex or murky. The recital is often devastating in terms of a possible mutagenic apocalypse of Being and the angelic confrontation Blake knew must be made Public in order to invent himself in the force of his own recognitions to make Life come true once more. He identifies a crisis of immemorial Beginnings and their endurance and makes of it a new composure to be shared and used.
There seems in this too, a further stance of consideration in relationship to Paleolithic art. When one regards the practices of various American tribal Peoples and their studies can this open up a new range of cooperative resonances toward much of the now ever enlarging orphaned storehouse of human experience? I am thinking for instance of how an individual tribal woman or man would have studied as I understand the information a pond or small lake and the lore such a body of water invoked from one generation to another over hundreds and even thousands of years. Each sharing population would have observed the other creatures; animals, plants, insects, fish, birds, and passage of those generations noting the cycles of health and disease, new migrants and transformations, the forms of weather, colors of sky. The documentation afforded a sense of projective imagination and by that applicable and even masterful meanings. As example one might think of a young girl who learns of such a pond or lake from her mother and grandmother and because of that extends their calling to fascination life-long care and womanly lore. She notes over her lifetime the whole creaturely web including herself and expanding that active intellectual/visionary achievement imagines more particularly what this immediate geography might look like in a thousand or five thousand years-and what would be alive extending the energy of that care far beyond anything our own assumptions can presently hold or dismiss. Such senses of future personally felt and extended, the rigor of a Self foreseeing the continued living fullness of a world was part of communal sounding and creative extremity inseparable from daily life. Do the Cro-Magnon images carry a similar sense of creative extremities and generative call for awareness in order to avoid the tyrannies of barrenness that otherwise wait for human generations who might attempt to enslave and conscript what was so long ago recorded in those caves into cravings for sustained ruins and is this another way we can regard this art as it confronts the constantly transforming human aptitudes for oppression?
STIRRING THE ASHES
4 SONGS OF THE DAWN SOCIETY
THE BEAR ROBE
had no claws
THE BUFFALO ROBE
paddles & ashes
fire a rifle
touch the sun
THE BIG HEADS
THE BIG HEADS SEND A MESSAGE:
HELLO / STAY CLEAN / DON’T BE CONFUSED
DON’T STEP ON THINGS WHEN MOVING
(signed) YOUR UNCLES
his paw up
to the sun
like the mud
he stamps in
on men’s room wall
[The preceding represents half of a series of short poems originally published in A Seneca Journal (New Directions, 1978) but dropped from circulation when a selection of poems from that volume was included in the author’s New Selected Poems. The midwinter poems derive from observations of ceremonies during a number of years of residence at the Allegany Seneca Reservation in western New York state. I was led through these by various Seneca friends & companions, but in particular by Richard Johnny John, with whom I collaborated on several translation projects and who acted as my ceremonial Seneca father. Looking back at these, there is a kind of lightheadedness in the work, which I hope comes across still as playful rather than in any sense disrespectful. I remain mindful of the words of Ed Curry, who was then the Longhouse leader and who stressed for me the idea of play as lying at the heart of ceremony: “If everything’s all right, the one who says the prayer tells the people: I leave it up to you folks, & if you want to have a good time, have a good time!” A second series of midwinter poems will appear in a forthcoming posting on Poems & Poetics. - J.R.]