for Joseph Castronovo & Edward S. Klima, in memoriam

[The great breakthrough resulting from a new signing poetry in Deaf Culture has been to call into question a poetics in which orality & sounding are assumed to be the foundational bases of all poetic expression. That revelation goes back three decades & more, most recently & notably presented in Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. by Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, & Heidi M. Rose (University of California Press, 2006). Still closer to the present is an ASL-oriented web site, Deaf Jam, dedicated to a documentary film of that name, from which the first of the comments, below, is taken. The other two notes presented here represent my own early attempts to bring the poetry of sign into the ethnopoetics that I was promoting in the 1970s & 1980s. They also coincide in a startling way with the exploration of an outsider poetry that has been one of the themes of Poems & Poetics – a poetry distanced enough from the mainstream as to effect substantially our ideas about the nature of poetry itself. (J.R.)]

(1) ASL POETRY is a performance art form utilizing body language, rhythm and movement to create a three dimensional pictorial equivalent to oral poetry. The similarity of hand-shapes can act as alliteration, and using the same hand-shape repetitively works as rhyme. Visual Vernacular (a term and technique originated by Bernard Bragg) involves cinematic concepts. The technique involves references to close-ups, wide shots, images dissolving into other images as well as "cutting" back and forth between characters to show different points of view on a scene.

HISTORY: From 1880 to 1960, American Sign Language Was Suppressed In The Schools And Went Underground, Until Statistics Showed That The Suppression Of Sign Language Was Detrimental To Learning For The Deaf.

Signed poetry grew out of a tradition of playing with the language in Deaf clubs throughout the country, where deaf individuals and their families and friends would congregate for entertainment and to socialize.

ASL poetry has been described "as a kind of writing in space... a language in motion, and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance." (Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, "Poetry Without Sound,” 1983)

*******

Translation for ASL poetry into a written or oral form involves crossing modalities. In ASL poetry the body is the text. It exists in performance or through a video recording, not on paper. Rhyming schemes are based on visual elements such as facial expression, movement, locations of the signs, and hand shapes. Therefore an oral or written translation of an ASL poem can only be an approximation of what is being expressed.

(2) Regarding Ameslan [American Sign Language] poetry, you might check the
anthology Symposium of the Whole (edited by myself & Diane Rothenberg) for the article "Poetry without Sound" by Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi. Bellugi has done terrific work in this area & early contacted me on the relation of signing poetry to the way in which I and others had been approaching oral poetry in the course of doing (so called) "total translation." I then published this piece in my magazine, New Wilderness Letter (a successor to the earlier Alcheringa Ethnopoetics) with my very strong sense that what was involved touched on a dimension of poetry that made pure oralism inadequate, however much we had then been (or continued to be) commited to a speech model. I made an attempt (around 1976/77) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from Ameslan, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets composing in ASL & have been hoping to see how much further it would go. (J.R., 1995)

(3) POETRY WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf" challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its relation to human speech. Ameslan (American Sign Language) represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners, a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language. In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa -- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic language truly in motion and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance. (Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out -- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing": a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.) // The reader may also want to relate this piece to recent discourse about "written-oral dichotomies, etc., but the revelation of Ameslan, in that sense, isn't a denial of the powers of oral poetry but the creation of its possible and equally impermanent companion in performance. (J.R., from Symposium of the Whole, 1983)

[See also the entry “Uncollected Poems (3): ‘The Silent Language’ with a note on poetry & signing” in Poems & Poetics, August 30, 2008. And for those who want to pursue this further, a new online resource is The Deaf Studies Digital Journal, edited by Ben Bahan and Dirksen Bauman, with postings primarily in American Sign Language.]


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A Few Considerations of a Vast Topic

La conscience de soi est une nouvelle modalité du savoir, c’est un savoir de soi, un retour de la conscience depuis l’être-autre.
-- French Wikipedia on Hegel

During the nineteenth century, the figure of Hamlet underwent a shift from being the central character in one of Shakespeare’s most ambitious and exciting plays to being, far more than any of Shakespeare’s explicitly “poet” characters, an emblem of the poet—“lisant,” as Mallarmé put it, “dans le Livre de lui-même” (reading in the Book of himself). What Hamlet represented to Mallarmé was man confronting his “inner life.” He burns with what Wordsworth called “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.”

I think the central issue of Romanticism is the issue Rousseau calls “conscience de soi”: self consciousness. The poetry reaches far back into Christian modes of “confession,” as in Saint Augustine, and attempts to find ways in which “consciousness,” “inwardness” can be brought to light. This poetry includes both the intense desire for self-consciousness (as in Wordsworth) and the fear of it (as in Keats’ “Lamia”). What does selfhood taste like? How can one describe “soul”? There is also of course the demonic aspect of selfhood—its manifestation as a powerful “underground,” as in Baudelaire or even Jack Kerouac (“the subterraneans”). One thinks of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, whose terrifying self-awareness brings him to the anguished point of admitting his primal crime: “With my crossbow / I shot the albatross.”

I agree with Paul de Man (a mentor of mine at Cornell) that “What sets out as a claim to overcome Romanticism often turns out to be merely an expansion of our understanding of the movement” and that Modernism—despite its frequent explicit rejection of Romanticism—is in fact a thorough-going example of it. In general Romanticism marks the shift from thinking of poetry as a “craft” (and of the poet as “maker”) to thinking of it as a provoker of consciousness, even a creator of consciousness.

From a historical point of view, the notion that poetry is the expression of the “hidden self,” of a “deeper” consciousness, was initially liberating: the sense that we each had an “inner” life that was different from our “outer” life, our life with people, and of poetry as expressing that inner life. Wordsworth could make “the growth of a poet’s mind” his primary subject; Thomas de Quincey could make dreams his. Yet the notion of exactly what constitutes an “inner” life becomes extremely complicated during the 20th century. Various people (Freud among others) discover that some parts of “the mind” are completely unaware of what other parts of “the mind” are doing. The “inner life” of the 20th century is divided, complex, multiple—and what we think we believe, what we assert with our “egos,” may well be colored by feelings and drives of which we are unaware. How can artists assert a fullness of mind? How can we allow those unrecognized areas of the mind to speak alongside the areas we recognize?

If poetry is particularly the domain of the “inner life,” then it is precisely not the domain of the I. The notion that poetry is the domain of the I comes from the ideology of individualism—a term whose etymology insists that we are “not divided.” If we are individuals, then of course we are most authentic when we speak from the point of view of our individuality, from the point of view of our I. But what if the I is in fact multiple, divided, full of many contradictory elements not all of which are even recognized? What if the I is not the unity that the word I presupposes it to be? What sort of poetry is generated by such a conception of the “inner life”? What was the “Romantic” stance about such matters?

The “inwardness” professed by the Romantics has many sources, but one of the most important is Shakespeare’s plays. The many radical contradictions that haunt a play such as Hamlet suggest a consciousness at home in incoherence. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is not usually read in that way, but I think it’s possible to do so.

Keats begins with desire, sexuality: “Thou still unravished bride....” The violence implied by the word “ravished” is immediately “quieted,” however, with an abstraction about quietness: “...bride of quietness.” In the second line, “foster child”--a phenomenon of our world--is balanced against the abstractions “silence and slow time.” Each stanza--an Italian sonnet minus a quatrain--has a feeling of great formality: one expects abstractions and elegance from such forms, and Keats supplies them in abundance. Nothing is terribly “real” in this deliberately artificial context.

The assertion that the urn can “express...A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” is a graceful compliment—the sort of “flowery” compliment one might pay to a woman one wishes to interest, not something anyone takes to be quite true. Something of the same thing can be said of Keats’ “deities or mortals”: we understand that these are literary or “artistic” figures—figures, not people—though the sexuality of “still unravished” is now given greater emphasis: “What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit?...What wild ecstasy?”

The second and third stanzas gave us light paradoxes which are not meant to be thought of too deeply or challenged in any way. Are “unheard” melodies sweeter than “heard melodies”? What is an unheard melody anyway? Keats assures us with a cliché: an unheard melody is something addressed “not to the sensual ear” but “to the spirit.” Again, we are not to question too much. We are in some sort of vague version of idealism—some sort of conception in which the “ideal” is to be preferred to the “real.” And the urn seems to express that idealism. Nothing is ever consummated—we are still in the realm of the “unravished bride”—but, on the other hand, desire is never quenched. Such a state, Keats argues lightly, is better than a situation in which consummation occurs. Had the scene on the urn presented forever an image of Blake’s “gratified desire,” Keats’ poem would have been profoundly altered: instead of perpetual desire we would have had perpetual orgasm—a state which is not so easily identified with “idealism.” Doesn’t Keats have a body?

He does, and it surfaces a few lines later. He attempts to put the best face possible on his assertion about the desirability of a state of perpetual sexual frustration by linking it to a state of eternal springtime—a state of paradise, though not quite the paradise of Genesis. He remains in a Classical context: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu….” The “happy melodist” reminds us of the “shepherd” of pastoral poetry—the kind of thing both Spenser and Milton wrote. Yet the moment “human passion” is mentioned, the poem suddenly takes on a quality it has not had before. These lines are not fanciful, artificial or playfully paradoxical; they are utterly real:

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


That “burning forehead” and “parching tongue” might well be characteristics of a frustrated lover, though they also suggest human diseases with which Keats was certainly familiar. It is as if the poet’s own sexual frustration, which he has been attempting to disguise as idealism, suddenly bursts forth in the form of bodily illness.

But like the earlier phrase “foster child,” the lines’ touch of reality is only momentary; the poem is not yet ready to take on such questions. In relief perhaps, Keats turns to another side of the urn and attempts to regain the balance and control of the opening lines:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies…?


Yet, coming after assertions of intense bodily distress, the word “sacrifice” and the heifer’s noisy “lowing at the skies” have overtones they would not have had under other circumstances. Doesn’t disease cause the “sacrifice” of people? Wasn’t Keats, who had been trained as a doctor, aware of such sacrifice? The feelings of desolation, of pain and sacrifice which have entered the poem almost against the poet’s wishes suddenly have a new place to express themselves. The town the people leave—which isn’t even represented on the urn—is suddenly seen not merely as empty but as desolate:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.


“Death,” says Hamlet, “is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Death (and perhaps a reference to Hamlet) has suddenly entered Keats’ poem: “not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.” The artificiality of the paradise Keats was trying to describe protects us against death. Yet that paradise utterly shatters against the actual presence of death in the poem—a presence which both we and Keats know to the bone and which is linked to sexual frustration, itself a kind of death.

To paraphrase Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the word “desolate” “is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self”—to the very mortality the poet has been trying to escape by writing the poem. “The fancy,” he complains in the Nightingale Ode, “cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do.” What began as simple description—this is what is on the urn, it’s only a description—has suddenly turned upon him and revealed the very sources which the poem existed to evade. Keats didn’t know why he was writing the poem, and the poem’s language is now telling him something about his own consciousness—manifesting conscience de soi. He has nowhere to go but back to a confrontation with the urn as a whole—with this enigmatic thing which, like Poe’s raven, has brought him news of his own death.

In the last stanza the urn is called a “silent form,” though in the concluding lines it “speaks”: “thou say’st.” Perhaps the most telling phrase of the stanza is “Cold Pastoral!” At this point the urn is almost a tombstone, something which extends beyond the life of the humans who constructed it and extends as well into the midst of “other woe / Than ours.” If it is “a friend to man,” it is also cold, like stone, lacking human warmth.

My own feeling about the line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—or part of my feeling about it—is that the statement is spoken entirely by the urn, and that Keats is addressing the urn when he says, “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Humans, who suffer and die like the lowing “heifer,” have very different modes of knowledge. For the urn, “beauty” and “truth” can be identical because the “truth” expressed there is of a limited, artificial sort—something which evades the “truth” of mortality: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves….”

Such a “truth” is by no means comforting since a good deal of the poem is devoted to demonstrating its limitations—even its inadequacy. Yet the lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” sound as though they ought to be comforting. Keats’ designation of the urn as “a friend to man”—as opposed to a “Cold Pastoral!”—now becomes important. Surely a “friend” would not attack us: it would offer us comfort in our misery. The concluding lines of the poem are not only, as Paul de Man remarked, “gnomic” but deliberately evasive. There is no comfort against mortality; it is a stark fact which cannot be avoided—and there is nothing in the poem which suggests the possibility of a blissful afterlife. The poem is without comfort of any kind. And yet: the concluding lines don’t “know” that. We are given a “moral” which is in fact not the moral of the poem at all—and it allows us, in its deception, to exit without tears or anger. Beauty, truth—how nice to think that they are identical, and how nice not to have to think anything more about it.

I am suggesting here that Keats’ method is to some extent to abnegate control as he writes his poem: he is writing “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as a kind of field in which various things may happen—opening a space in which various possibilities arise. In doing so, he is radically shifting contexts. What results is a kind of rich incoherence in which various incompatible positions are all expressed—but none so emphatically that we are forced to choose one as opposed to the others. As Keats writes his poem, the words he selects lead him into contexts which are different from the one in which he began—and, instead of trying to control this tendency and to force the words back into the original context (as one might in prose), he simply allows it to happen.

Is it any wonder that he had such a profound effect on Charles Olson?

[The foregoing is the prequel to an eight-part series on Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, prepared by Jack Foley for presentation on Cover to Cover, his longrunning program on KPFA-FM (Pacifica Radio) in San Francisco. The full list of readers includes Bill Berkson, e.e. cummings, Diane Di Prima, Jack & Adelle Foley, Katherine Hastings, Michael McClure, Michael Palmer, Jeffrey Robinson, Jerome Rothenberg, Leslie Scalapino, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whiman. Show times are consecutive Wednesdays from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. beginning on April 14, for which a detailed listing of program contents will be presented here at a later date. ]

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Abdellatif Laâbi: from Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 8:34 AM 0 comments
Translation from French by Gordon Hadfield & Nancy Hadfield

FRAGMENT 1

In the beginning was the cry
and already discord

Which tore
the marriage of fire

Confused
violation
sordid struggles of separation
and staggering blows of solitude

Sky drew back from fire
water drew back from sky
earth drew back from water
idea drew back from clay
and the form surged
cut in two

One half was retained
the other thrown in the abyss

No one thought of good
or evil

Who could have done otherwise?

It was necessary to pile
embers against embers
to awaken this unshakeable
fire in the eyes

The prey softens and submits
offers its hairy neck
to the belly’s
voracious germination

Everything devours everything
each cunningly takes its turn
the gluttonous sounds of swallowing

Vast was the destruction

The tadpole
in its stagnant pool
could not fathom

If only he had an antenna
with a small lens attached to the end
he could have …
But what would that accomplish?

Destruction
sole witness to destruction


With this indictment the water returns
cloaking the unsavory spectacle


Amplifying the disorder

These purposeless waves

For a lapse in eternity
there was nothing but waves

A wineskin
its contents shaken
as if something begrudged its roots

With somber jaws
the waves cut to the quick
stifling these stammers
mixing and remixing

For which fleeting idea did they seek revenge?

The waves mixed primal decline
excess of matter
meagerness of memory

This upheaval spawns Hybrid
arch menace
cauldron of pure insanity

Hybrid frolicked
proliferated
color is invented
by a simple rustle of light
free from its form
the gaze rises from the offal
mouths adorned
by either a retractable vulva
or an edible penis
Organs mirthfully
exchanged
One even hears snatches
of clear music

Being sculpts Being

Limbless life
examines itself

Like a vital flowering
with a sprig of intelligence
and immediate love

There were only dreaming leaps
in the dance of origins

Body of all bodies
Hybrid
the possible denying the impossible
progress from the horizon to the whole
genesis in love with genesis


But a darkening
from flashes of rage
and a flood of meteorites
What endures great trials
will last
Then the waves ebbed
abandoning the earth
that overturned cauldron
with its bloodless population

Why this confusion?

[NOTE. That the origins of poetry go back to a poetry of origins is a point often made, not least in musings by the present editor in books like Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, & A Big Jewish Book. If cosmology & cosmogeny, once the domain of poets, are now firmly in the grip of a developed science with a narrative & poetics of its own, there are poets in our time who pursue still vibrant forms of poesis to create new myths of origin, human & cosmic. or barring that, to use parody or collage from older sources as a kind of “transcreation” (H. de Campos) in a mind-enthralling play of origins. Abdellatif Laâbi’s Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis, newly translated & published by Leafe Press in Nottingham, UK, and Claremont, Calfiornia, enters a field inhabited by Blake’s prophetic books, Hugo’s Dieu, Poe's Eureka, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Olson’s Maximus, & Harold de Campos’s Galaxias, among others then as well as now. A heroic figure through years of imprisonment & exile from his native Morocco, Laâbi, as his translators describe his Fragments, carries forward “the plight of the prisoner … one who has been tortured and silenced, who must somehow create hope.” But above all, Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis is “a surrealistic refiguring of Genesis presented in twenty-six fragments … a mystical yet cynical revisioning of both the Old Testament and the Koran.” Or Laâbi himself: “Le cauchemar / Epouse un cercle parfait // Cela se nomme l’éternité // Un bocal hermétique / qu’aucune magie ne peut ouvrir” ("The nightmare / has come full circle // This is what we call eternity // An impenetrable jar / no magic will open"). In 2009 Laâbi was awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize for Poetry.]

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Uncollected Poems (14): Dream Notes

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:07 AM 0 comments

I was determined to dream & I did, in the hope that the time spent dreaming would free me but fearful that the trap might spring & would drag me still further down. There remained the bed to hold us up, to sustain us for the troubled days ahead. “You” was the name of someone but she used another name. I was exposed to it as well, angry enough to cut the dream short but willing to pursue it where it led. A friend attempted to be rational, yet the attempt itself was the cause of his depression & what made it so hard to bear. Here was a phenomenon no doubt but more than that a constant urge. Apart from being gracious the opportunity arose to tip our hand – much less our hats. A thousand thousand pardons. Is your brother in that group of young men leaning against a wall as nonchalant as in a photograph from years ago but unapproachable? A trip to somewhere – Italy, Mexico, I can’t remember—but did that make the wonder less extreme?

We were watching a movie in which three young men were featured – a young Jew & two others. A discussion followed after a failed phone call to Isaac Bashevis Singer, to see if we could meet him at his new apartment on the Lower East Side. I tried to point out to the others that the film’s director cast a blond-haired actor as his medieval Jew (Jews are not supposed to be blond), but the others wouldn’t let me finish my sentence. Feeling on edge I walked outside & smoked a cigarette.

I was on a train soon after, heading for Bremerhaven I thought, but I couldn’t remember at which station I should exit. I checked the directions I had written down, and they said Convent Avenue. But I seemed to have been traveling too long. I must have passed it, I thought, and I got off at the next station, which was clearly not what I wanted. I checked a large map on the wall opposite the track but Convent Avenue wasn’t on it. Was it still ahead or had I already passed it? I knew I had to ask someone, but the platform had already emptied out.

The streets around our old apartment house were covered with a dark green moss – something uncanny, that if I touched it, would burn or paralyze my fingers. I knew that the river was only a few blocks away & that if I reached it, there would be a chance of cleansing. But the child at my side – not Matthew but a dark-faced girl I didn’t recognize – kept pulling in the opposite direction. I felt that this was wrong, but I could do nothing else but follow.

I was watching a movie on or by Yosano Akiko, when people started rushing out & others rushing in, & I remembered that I’d forgotten the paper I was going to deliver at the poetry conference of which this was a part, along with an expert in Italian literature, a little swarthy man who was only now arriving.

Startled by the noise the old woman looked up & saw: the television screen was black & the basket on top of it was empty. She said: I know who did it, that young girl did it. Then she began to scream, or I did as a warning, & the women servants came running, & the household pets came running. And one of us kept screaming till I woke up.

In Germany again, with Ammiel or someone who looks like Ammiel, going to hear & meet an Arab poet. We are traveling by trolley to check out the performance space, and once we find it, we go to a street café around the corner to get a bite to eat. After we’ve ordered I realize suddenly that I not only don’t have money for the meal but nothing for the reading & the reader. I decide to go back home and leave, making my way back to a main street, where I ask directions in German and someone points me to a wide boulevard, where a trolley or a bus should be running. But when I get there I find that the road is under construction and have to make my way down a steep ploughed-up ditch in order to cross it. Trying to find the bus, trying to remember the number of the building for the reading, to which I must return. It’s number 403! – I’m almost sure of it – but I decide to wake up instead and to end the dilemma.

A group of young men leaning against a wall as if in a photograph but unapproachable, & I realize that I met them years ago on a forgotten trip to somewhere – Italy, Mexico, I can’t remember.

[These poems were recovered, along with numerous others, for Retrievals, a volume of Uncollected & New Poems 1955-2005, to be published later this year by Mark Weiss & Junction Press. Thirteen previous installments have appeared since 2008 on Poems and Poetics, & all of "Dream Notes" is being published simultaneously on Robert Kelly's & Lynn Behrendt's Annandale Dream Gazette: Poets' Blog of Dreams.]

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Holding
A long
Rod, he was

Beating
The ground
As he walked.

A
Number of
Unconventional playing techniques

Are
Utilised, perhaps
Most notably in

The
Case of
The piano during

The
Closing bars,
Which requires a

Pencil
Or a
Similar object to

Be
Dropped onto
The strings whilst

They
Are simultaneously
Fanned with a

Wire
Brush, struck
With a timpani

Stick
And plucked
With the fingers.

It
Saturated life.
Accomplished itself. All

The
Things had
Accomplished the impossible …

Like
The first
Time I was

Swallowed
Whole ... some
Japanese gardens include

The
Landscape outside
Their borders ... low

Flock
Of clouds
Before the downpour.

I
Smiled and
Threw money into

The
Paper cup.
Toru used to

Jokingly
Describe the
Style of this

Piece
To me
As “schizo-eclectic”.

Knowing
Its splendour
Is vain, one

Adores
Colour … there
Is no shadow.

From
The silence
Of the womb

A
Child is
Born and the

Insane
Fellow will
Begin to bellow

About
Life floating
Through dangers and

Humanity’s
Fickleness alienated
From its five

Fingers.
Some of
The units are

Characterized
By a
Sense of fragility

And
Some form
Intricate skeins of

Heterophonic
Polyphony. A
Further characterization is

A
Disoriented, deliberately
Naïve and rudimental

Consonant
Tonal simplicity
Which indeed is

A
Feature of
The work as

A
Whole, as
Is the impression

Of
“Memory”, and …
This is what

Must
Be done
Or permitted to

Happen;
And at
The same stroke,

Allow
Us to
Hear just how

Precarious
These delicate
Polychromies are, that

They
Emanate from
A blind void

And
Are going
To return to

Vanish
In it,
Vanishing towards Black.

[NOTE. An extreme example of what I’ve elsewhere called “othering” or, borrowing the phrase from John Cage, “writing through,” Bloomberg-Rissman’s No Sounds of My Own Making is a 200 page work constructed (almost) entirely from words or sounds appropriated from other writers. That this is done without any sacrifice of coherence or feeling or intelligence & in a voice that remains unified & “personal” throughout is a testament to the communal nature of language & thought of which our individualities are a crucial if sometimes questioned part. While Bloomberg-Rissman is not alone in the pursuit of such an outcome, his beautifully wrought & linked three-line stanzas present what may well remain a milestone of a new communal poetics. (J.R.) No Sounds of My Own Making was published in 2007 by Leafe Press of Nottingham, U.K. and Claremont, California.]

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Homero Aridjis: Poems of the Double

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:08 AM 0 comments
Translation from Spanish by Jerome Rothenberg

1
I grabbed my face
and brought it to the mirror

Searched my eyes
but did not know them

Observed my gestures
weak from terror

He was frightened
of my self

2
You walk at night alone
your own self's equal

counting out your hearbeats
in the windows' faded wings

on turning around a corner
a man tears off your face

beheaded you remain
at the foot of your own shadow

while someone in the distance
looks at you through your eyes

3
your hands a pair of crows
in the other’s pockets

sufferings unseen
in a deaf man's ear

but don't believe that it was you
sorrows rich dust dispossessed

in any nook of day
you also become dark

4
The years like crows’ feet
pass from me to you

my tears do not stop falling
rolling down your cheeks

only a breath dividing
mirror & reflection

5
in a corner of the window
memories are breaking up
beneath the old bed
teenaged girls are sleeping
broken is desire's jug
tablecloth soaked through
& in the picture's upper part
tears falling without eyes

6
I closed the door & waited for my double
but instead of the expected face
a macaw burst forth from the white wall
the color of red fire.

Like an arrow tipped in blue
- hyacinth hallucination -
a parrot with yellow eyes
landed on the table.

The Kandinskys then arrived
wings spread wide & blue
belly orange, head in purple
their throats a breathless J.

A melody of greens
the undisputed parrot came,
its chest, its beak, its neck,
its head & all in green.

Not a single one needed to show
credentials of who he was. There was
a congress of parrots in my mind.
They were going to pick the most handsome.

They began to discuss the value
of begreen, waxgreen, fieldgreen,
bluegreen, cardinalgreen, lividgreen.

In view of all such circumstances
I postponed until the next day
the encounter with my double.

7
I opened his eyes
saw
my living darkness

is there a boatman anywhere
able to shift the light
from limit unto limit?

yes
or
no?

8
Beyond you
I do not exist not even I
there is no definite horizon
nor hands to touch the light

all being is a surface
a place a stone that's all

Beyond me
you do not exist not even you

9
to breathe out the ghost
is the task of the living

to drink memories
from eyes
is the role of the dead

in my mouth today
we break
the bread of illusion

10
one hour
hurls shadows
onto another

one butterfly wing
is setting
at my eyes’ horizons

when the double has vanished
at the end of the road
all blackness is mine

Mexico, Saturday-Sunday 6-7-8 of March 1999

NOTE. I first met Homero Aridjis in 1960, when he had just turned twenty & I was not yet thirty. This was my first visit to Mexico, & a letter from Paul Blackburn brought me to the office of Ramón Xirau at the Centro Mexicano de Escritores. Nothing much happened there, but at the end of a brief conversation, Xirau introduced me to Homero, who was in the capitol on a beca (fellowship) & otherwise unknown. Diane & I had been staying near Avenida Juarez & would drop in from time to time to a small coffee shop on the avenue (Café las Americas if I remember correctly), where our attention fell on a group of young men who seemed to be there regularly. There was nothing exceptional in their appearance – as there might have been a few years later – but something in the way they moved & spoke that made us think of them as poets. It was no surprise, then, that after we started talking to Homero he suggested that we continue the conversation at that same café, & when we got there we instantly became part of the group, which included the American poet Philip Lamantia, then living in D.F., & another young poet Juan Martínez, who would become a legendary underground writer & artist over the next several decades. Six or seven of us all told, who spent the next number of evenings together, but in the aftermath of that visit & serendipitous meeting it was only Homero who remained a good friend & correspondent down to the present. He also became, over that span, a poet & writer of truly international dimensions: poet, novelist, essayist, & in the tradition of other Mexican & South American poets, an impressively public figure: ambassador to the Netherlands & to Switzerland, president for six consecutive years of PEN International, & until recently the Mexican ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. Beyond that too he & his wife Betty Ferber co-founded & have continued to direct the Grupo de los Cien, an association of one hundred artists & intellectuals that became heavily involved in trying to draw attention to & solve environmental problems in Mexico & beyond. Their work to preserve the habitats of grey whales in Baja California & migrating monarch butterflies in his native Michoacan is an amazing hands-on example, however threatened, of the successful intersection of poetry & ecology in our time.

The preceding translation was prepared in 2000 for inclusion in Aridjis’s Eyes To See Otherwise (selected poems from New Directions, 2002) and is still in print.

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“Do you have any books by Rose Drachler,” I ask the book dealer in a New York second-hand bookshop that is known for its immense collection. “Rose what?” “Drachler.” “Never heard of her.” Nevertheless, I go to the bookshelf and scrutinize all poetry under the rubric “D.” Nothing there. Suddenly I notice a book behind the row. There is more! I move the first row only to find what I was looking for—The Collected Poems of Rose Drachler besides a number of other forgotten books.

For most Jewish poets, the name Rose Drachler does not ring a bell. In literature circles, she was probably never known except by a small group of avant-garde poets and writers in the ’70s and ’80s, such as, Charles Doria, Jackson Mac Low, David Meltzer, Charlie Morrow, Rochelle Ratner, Armand Schwerner, Diane and Jerome Rothenberg as well as John Yau and John Ashbery. They encouraged her writing and published it wherever they could.

Drachler wrote in a variety of styles that demonstrate her awareness of innovative, contemporary poetry. Some of her poems are composed in a prose style, while others are lyrical (in fact, they are reminiscent of Rilke or Yeats). Some poems appropriate Jewish texts, while others deal with purely personal subjects. Certainly, the poet’s far-ranging experimentation deserves attention.

I first saw a poem by Drachler in Rothenberg’s anthology A Big Jewish Book. It was a very weird poem about ritual counting:

The counting made
The corners
Of the building
True

One
One and one
Two
Two and one
[...]”

I have never forgotten the strangeness of this piece and found it repeated over and over again when I read her work. Drachler’s poems are lucid on the surface, but complex and opaque if one really tries to comprehend them. The poet pays a lot of attention to detail and makes use of an excruciatingly precise language. To invoke the specificity of her materials, she takes particular care to name plants, animals, and places correctly. Whether she writes about ritual prescriptions or about her garden, she never becomes vague. Yet she is always mysterious:

Touched I ooze
Sticky, I dry rubbery
A nuisance, exposed to air
Coagulate

As sowthistle, Brimstone-wart
Sunspurge, North American scelpius
Videlicet milkweed

[...]

To appreciate these poems on plants and animals, we need to feel with them. We need to “feel ourselves into” an old cat, an inchworm, a llama, a dog, a shark, an oak tree woodbine, or shrubbery, as they evoke emotions or symbolize certain states of being. Imagine, for instance, the “Llama:”

[...]
It looks far along its nose but sees best
Inward
Does not appreciate companionship other
Than llamas.

Perhaps the serenity of Drachler’s poems results from such introspection and her highly reflective character. In his preface to The Collected Poems, Rothenberg calls her “a genuine kabbalist: a poet whose work is totally comprehensible--& totally mysterious.” It was the mystical side of her poetry that fascinated a group of young American-Jewish poets who were deeply involved with kabbalah and with making their own canon of Jewish writing.

Surprisingly, Drachler only began to publish poetry when she was in her sixties. Her first publisher was a young poet—David Meltzer, the editor of the kabbalistic magazine Tree and publisher of Tree books. Drachler’s first books were two chapbooks, Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974) and The Choice (1977).

To Meltzer and his friends, Drachler personified a riddle full of contradictions: On the one hand, Drachler was an orthodox woman steeped in tradition (her father was a rabbi), on the other, she was an innovative poet open to new thoughts. Besides poetry, she read philosophical and historical literature as well as literary criticism. Her unconventional and original thinking is revealed in her correspondence with her peers as well as in her diary. The following passage from her journal demonstrates the breath and depth of her reflections. Drachler writes about her difficulties in gaining insight from the torah service and then goes on to think about the role of inspiration:

Sometimes a passage will glow up new and sharp, jump out of the run of loaded, time-filling custom. Even so there is a good, calm feeling of accomplishment, even on the least inspired Saturday. Inspired! Breath, full of breath. When a passage is strongly felt I perceive a change in my breathing. I breathe more shallowly and much less. [...] When I used to come to the unwanted and premature ending of one of my pregnancies, after a number of such occurrences, I learned how, by slow deep breathing, I could help the inevitable [...]. Breathing, too, is related to orgasm. Incorrect breathing can impede its oncoming. In certain societies where the focus is on these natural accomplishments it may be that instruction in breath-control is part of the secret learning of adolescents [...].

Her interest in anthropology and archeology connects Drachler with the Jewish poets of the ethnopoetics movement. Their common goal was to try to find meaning by forging a link with the past. Drachler finds continuity by writing poems on natural history as well as prehistoric and archaic themes. But she also dwells on her own ancestral history—the history of the Jews from biblical times onwards. Her poetic imagination is captured by midrashim about the patriarchs and prophets. Other poems deal with the biblical history of the temple, and the captivity, exile, and return of the Israelites as well as the coming of the messiah. To avoid sentimentality, Drachler undercuts the solemnity of her subjects with fantastic images: she envisions the messiah wearing “an Italian silk / suit cut in the latest mode / and drive a fine, white sports.”

However, other poems are permeated by a sense of melancholy and a feeling of loss, for the temple is no longer there. The past of the Jewish people needs to be consciously repossessed—through prayer, ritual and meditation. Thus, Drachler tries to come to terms with the modern condition: “We cannot see that wall [of the temple] / Those curtains, that time.” Here Drachler’s consciousness meets with that of her young Jewish supporters, who likewise attempt to reappropriate Jewish tradition, yet often in a much less observant way. In an unpublished letter to Rothenberg, Drachler suggests to the Jewish avant-garde poet that he should translate “the impossible, stuffy, Latinate translations in the Siddur” into strong contemporary poetry.

Meanwhile, Drachler continued to write her own liturgical poetry. In these Jewish poems, she meditates on the texts of the Jewish prayer book or the weekly torah portion; she ponders the sacred and anthropological significance of ancient sacrificial and purification rituals. Their purpose is to invoke a sense of the sacred and the numinous. Several poems conclude with a scene of deep awe, with “[h]alf a shudder.” They summon the God of Hiob and the Psalms: “The blast of His nostrils breaks the windows of the sky / He sends hail, snow, vapours, stormy winds obeying His word.”

Incidentally, Drachler perfectly fulfills Cynthia Ozick’s requirements for an American Jewish literature as voiced in her essay “Toward a New Yiddish”: “[Liturgical literature] is meant not to have only a private voice. Liturgy has a choral voice, a communal voice: the echo of the voice of the Lord of History. Poetry shuns judgment and memory and seizes the moment.” Ozick’s definition of Jewish literature in terms of liturgy may be criticized for being too narrow, but it certainly fits Drachler’s work, which strives to transcend the confines of the poet’s individual life by merging her into the chain of tradition.

Many of Drachler’s poems reveal that as an observant Jew, she feels a sense of duty toward the God of Israel. Yet this loyalty is threatened by the experience of history, especially the Holocaust. Drachler elaborates a story by Emmanuel Levinas in her powerful poem “We Love Him Absent.” The sardonic tone of this piece expresses the persistence of faith. The grandmother — a woman! — battles with God, but continues to believe in justice; she strives to live a just life, even if God himself seems unjust:

[...]

She scrubs away suffering sent by a veiled and
distant God. She renounces all beneficial manifestations.
God does not triumph except as tidiness.

That is her conscience, to bring order from chaos.
She is Jewish because that is what she insists on being
a daily follower of order. The suffering of the just for

justice makes her Jewish. God does not love her.
She loves God. There is no tenderness here.
They are not equals. There is no sentimentality.

That strain of defiance against God makes Drachler’s poetry impressive and memorable. Rebellion and doubt, even bitterness, are balanced out by faith, obedience, and acceptance. Meltzer comments [in an email correspondence]: “The 'control' in her poetry was the ambix for her deep 'out of control' knowing.”

Some of these contradictions and paradoxes vouch for Drachler’s appeal to the poets of the Jewish counterculture, who published in Meltzer’s journal Tree. No simple affirmations. Nevertheless, she was a natural kabbalist and a feminist, who applied her visonary imagination to ancient archetypes and symbols. Many of her poems portray the feeling of being overwhelmed by some spiritual or natural power—by God, by inspiration, by strong passions, or by water — waves, rain and tears: “rising and swelling / we drown to be born.” Drachler’s poems fuse the spiritual and the sensuous:

In the tunnel
Light is haloed
Sound dissolved
The skin of separation
Is softened

Thought approaches
Airy and bright
Soft but pervasive
It penetrates rock

[…]

Reading Drachler’s poems is like meditating. Each poem deserves attention and elaboration; each poem can be read over and over again. Drachler reveals and conceals at the same time. In fact, concealment and obscurity run through her life. The poet and her husband, the book artist Jacob Drachler, lived a quiet and withdrawn life in a gated community (Seagate in Brooklyn). Drachler regularly went to synagogue, but she did not really belong to any local literary scene and often felt isolated. Out of this loneliness, Drachler created poems and shared them with young poets who admired her poetry and her wisdom. Thus Rothenberg writes in the preface to her poems: “The voice is quiet, not insistent, yet the poet’s wildness sounds beneath it.” It was that wildness and passion that enabled Drachler to have close friendships with poets twenty or thirty years her juniors.

Despite Meltzer’s sustained endeavors to familiarize the poetry world with Drachler’s work, she has been almost completely forgotten. This is surprising as the quality of her writing surpasses much of the poetry featured in Jewish journals and anthologies today. Was it Drachler’s pious modesty (tsni’ut in Hebrew) and her tendency toward self-deprecation that prevented her from advancing her own work? Or was this oversight motivated by the fact that she associated with the non-canonized avant-garde?

For the small group of admirers who continue to cite her as influential on their own writing, she represented a “poet’s poet.” Her marginality appealed to the poets of the Jewish counterculture. When Drachler died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 71, she was greatly missed by everyone who knew her. The Collected Poems were published one year later as a kind of last tribute to her. However, neither this assemblage of poems nor the fact that she briefly studied with John Ashbery, who thought highly of her writing, seems to have sufficed to popularize her poetry. Drachler envisioned herself in an image that still is an apt description of a role in Jewish literary culture: “In the sea, far out. I am alone with a gull.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE. Rose Drachler’s virtual disappearance in death is one of those inevitable but disturbing realities that confronts a number of heroic & gifted artists. Her presence in her final years, as Christine Meilicke testifies, was important for many of us – not only the Jewish poets among us but many others as well. John Ashbery wrote of her: “Rose Drachler’s poems are strong and sweet, firm and quirky, but this oddness soon comes to be perceived by the reader as a new canon.” And my own assessment in a preface to her posthumous collected poems is one from which I wouldn’t back away, even now, a quarter of a century past her death: “Her book — like all poem-books since Whitman brought the message home — is the life, the song of herself created in the work. ‘My own,’ she says, ‘I do not conceal/ Or deny what I am’: a Jewish woman into her late 60s: who has been (for how long?) like those secret wise men in each generation, one of the 36 poets whose work stays hidden in the world.” If possible to do so, some of Drachler’s poems will appear here in the coming months, but in advance of that the full text of Burrowing In, Digging Out can be found on Karl Young's Light & Dust web site by clicking here. (J.R.)]

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