Rose Drachler: Two Poems with Numbers & Letters

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:47 AM 0 comments
[Originally published in Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974) and The Choice (1977), both from David Meltzer’s Tree Books]


The counting made
The corners
Of the building

One and one
Two and one

Four horns
One and seven he counted
One and six

The goat stayed fluid
It steamed
Yellow eyes, square pupils
Fringes of flesh at its throat

They beat him with sticks
They threw stones at him
They sent him away
The goats were a gift
Both goats
One to die and one to drive away

One and one
Two and one

The counting was washing
It was clean
It was for the building


Aleph the cow with wide horns
Her milk in the night sky
Walks slowly on clouds
Aleph to the tenth power
She leads with symbolic logic
To the throne of milky pearl
Aleph the sky-cow with lovely eyes
Wide-horned giver she gives mankind
Her sign of is-ness. The cow

Bayz the house snug
Under the heat of the sun
Out of the rain and the snow
We curl up in a corner
Under the roof of Bayz
Out of the daily sorrow
Bayz the comforter
Inhabited by humanity
Cat-like and childlike
Inside of his Bayz

Ghimel the camel
Carries man into the book
The leaves and waves
Of the forest the sea of the book
Boat of the desert the camel
Long traveler drinking the task
Ghimel drinks the dry road of daily observance
It slakes the thirst for communion

Daled the door like a wall
No hinges no handle
Daled the mysterious opener
Into a place with a road
The six hundred and thirteen small roads

I have swallowed Vav the hook
It had something tasty and nourishing on it
A Promise of plenty and friendship
With someone more than myself
I’ve got Vav the hook in my gut shift to rearrange the discomfort
Like a sharp minnow inside
When he draws up the line
Attached to the hook
When he rips the Vav out
There will be strange air around me Burning my gills

Yod the hand
And Koff the palm
Rested gently
On Raish the head
Of Abraham our father
Who crossed over
Burning the idols
Behind him in Ur
He looked upward
At stars sun and moon
Then looked further
For a pat on the head
From Yod and Koff
The unseen hand and palm

In the crook
Of the Lammed leaning forward
I put my neck when I pray
My shepherd makes me meek
He makes my knees bend
H guides me I follow
With the loop of the Lammed
On my throat
I go

Mem is the water
Sweetly obeying
The red-raging water
Which parted
Mem came together
And drowned the pursuers
Stubborn refusers of freedom
The enslavers Mem drowned them
Mem was the water
Brackish tormenting
Sweetened with leaves
By our Moses
The waters of trust
Which he struck from the rock
Mem mayim water

The jelly-glowing eye full of love
Sees past the eye the Ayin
Like a dog it perceives the hidden
It turns and stares at its master
It pleads with him to come home
the longing for certainty
Fills him too full
Return, my master, he says
Your eye to my eye

Peh the mouth speaking hastily
Praying easily fast without reverence
Full of gossip causing estrangement
Let my soul be as dust to Peh
The loud quarreler the prattler
The carrier of tales to and fro
The beguiler the mouth Peh better still

Shin is the tooth
It chews on the word
(With the dot on the left
It is Sin)
So much sharper than Shin the tooth
Is learning in the study
Together by dimlight
Chuckling together at the tooth
The horn that was known to gore
The tooth for a tooth in our story
The sharp-toothed father
Of our fathers
Who was wont to gore in the past

NOTE & AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE. Drachler’s poems are in a line with other works of the 1970s & 1980s that reflected an early fascination with the powers of the Hebrew alphabet (or any other system of writing, by extension), both as letters & as numbers. Their kinship, before we ever knew of her, was to my own Gematria & to aspects of the poetry and poetics of practitioners such as David Meltzer, Nathaniel Tarn, Jackson Mac Low (his magnificent Presidents of the United States of America), or the letter-based collages of Wallace Berman. Her self-effacing & precise “Biographical Note” from her notes to The Choice is clearly worth reprinting here; viz: I am truly a non-person. I have been mistaken for the janitor’s wife, a nurse for dogs, an aunt, a good witch, a poet, a distinguished (dead) actress, a mother. I suffer from the spiteful machinations of my grand piano. I am compelled to continue a needlepoint rug the size of a ballroom by the lust of the eye of the needle for friction with wool. Strangers tell me the most intimate story of their lives and drunken Ukrainians propose marriage to me on the subway on Friday afternoons. I am old and ugly. I was born old but interested. Water loves me. I have been married to it for more than half a century. I know the language of fish and birds. Also squirrels and toads. I am a convert to Orthodox Jewry, also I have tried riding a broomstick. I had a vision of the double Shekhina on Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street. I have taught cooking and sewing to beautiful Cantonese girls and the affectionate daughters of Mafiosi. I am married to an irascible but loving artist. A nay-sayer. My parents drove each other crazy. Me too. Which turned me to books and poetry and I thank them for it.

See also the essay on Drachler’s work by Christine Meilicke, which appeared as the posting on Poems and Poetics for February 1, 2010. A complete version of Burrowing In, Digging Out can be found on Karl Young's Light and Dust web site by clicking here.

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begin to release and realize life begins not arrives at the end of a trip which is why i begin to respin to write-in thousand pages write thousandone pages to end write begin write beginend with writing and so i begin to respinto retrace to rewrite write on writing the future of writings's the tracing the slaving a thousandone nights in a thousandone pages or a page in one night the same nights the same pages same resemblance resemblance reassemblance where the end is begin where to write about writing's not writing about not writing and so i begin to unspin the unknown unbegun and trace me a book where all's chance and perchance all a book maybe maybe not a travel navelof-the-world book a travel navelof-the-book world where tripping's the book and its being's the trip and so i begin since the trip is beguine and i turn and return since the turning's respinning beginning realizing a book is its sense every page is its sense every line of a page every word of a line is the sense of the line of the page of the books which essays any book an essay of essays of the book which is why the begin ends begins and end spins and re-ends and refines and retunes the fine funnel of the begunend spun into de runend in the end of the beginend refines the refined of the final where it finishes beginnish reruns and returns and the finger retraces a thousandone stories an incey wince-story and so count of no account i don't recount the nonstory uncounts me discounts me the reverse of the story is snot can be rot maybe story depends on the moment the glory depends on the now and the never on although and no-go and nowhere and noplace and nihil and nixit and zero and zilch-it and never can nothing be all can be all can be total sum total surprising summation of sumptuous assumption and here i respin i begin to project my echo the wreck oh recurrent echo of the echoing blow the hollows of moreaus the marrow that's beyonder the over the thisaway thataway everywhere neverwhere overhere overthere forward more backward less there in reverse vice verse prosa converse i begin i respin verse begin vice respin so that summated story won't consume consummate saltimbocca bestride me barebackboneberide me begin the beguine of the trip where the travel's the marvel the scrabble's the marble the vigil's the travel the trifle the sparkle the embers of fable discount into nothing account for the story since spinning beginning i'm speaking

[Translated from Portuguese by Suzanne Jill Levine (from a basic version by Jon Tolman)]


i close conclude echo here i stand here i stop zero done i don't sing i don't tell i don't want i night i unspring rid myself in the end of this book in this flighti soar spider and fly mineral and mine string in tune a psaltery muse nomorenomore i play out of tune i played fair i played right in this thirst i unsalt i unstart i conclude enclose myself in the end of the world the book ends the bottom the end the book the fate no trace remains no sequel no game of checkers or chess hopscotch blindman's buff ticktacktoe the world ends the book ends love unfeathers and fades the hand moves the table turns truth is the same as lies fiction filament of shears and lyre and the entire mind filled with sapphires and motherofpearl missing the mark singing the bird inside where his song is in tune and his blade more a tongue while the tongue more a blade here i split bay and voice a knotless point against the grain where i sang no more i sing where the summer i make winter a trip turnaroundtrip goingbeyond i echo i don't tell i don't sing i don't want i unbound my book my note-book mirrorbook of mine say of the book that i write in the end of the first book and if in the end of this one another is already messenger of the new the last since even in the first is done slavescribe inkpotman monster old gay storyteller of baloneylegends here you end here you collapse cave in abracadabracrumble open sesame sevenstars each of the sevenkeys sealing near to you next to you next to nothing youvoice youthreevariants your gay science oldplusold teller of words of fibs of proverbs hum of voices you resist false wolf-crier sharp envoy-er in the habit of customs and accustomed to habits youyouryouwithme withuswithyou contingenst est quod potest esse et non esse all ends up in a book rivermouth in that voice in that you of the book that jumps in flows about and waterfalls at the end of that road one does not return from because not going is a turn a return a retrip that turns around because not going is a turn because not going returns the retrip that is made from winding made from wind from stoppage from mirage quillburlap from weavable weavery gaymonster gabby gossiper gulping downyour most garrulous solo here you collapse in this book-end where speechcurdles the hand tremblesthe ship docks bluegreen master oldoldmanword chewer word spender word bender of slack words here you end here you trip and stumble wisecrack knower of nors with your savoir gay your riddles and your swirls your puzzles and your pillage pilferer of fables counterfeiter of fairies loquaciousloon burpboaster burpbrag brewer of science refiner of folly but your soul will be saved your soul is cleansed in that book that's bleached like the whitest star and when you vanish it will devour you when you lock the key it multiopens when you eliminate it it transluminates this dead tongue this ill-starred luck the umbilichord that stuck me to the door for the book is your old port mabuse faustianfaust of language persecuted by yourmephistofamished faithful and thus you made it thus you weaved it thusyou gave it and avrà quasi l'ombra della vera costellazione while themind quasi-rainbow edens in this multibook and della doppia danza

[Translated from Portuguese by Odile Cisneros with Suzanne Jill Levine]


now, you will say, to hear galáxias:

I began the galáxias in 1963, and I finished them in 1976. Not counting the episodic publications in the review Invenção, numbers 4 (1964) and 5 (1966-67); the translation of a few fragments into German (1966), French (1970), Spanish (1978), and English (1976, 1981), and the first gathering of galactic texts in Chess of Stars (Xadrez de estrelas, São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1976), only in 1984 was I able to see my project materialize in functionally adequate conditions thanks to Frederico Nasser's publishing house, Editora Ex Libris. This publication was in a large format, had reading visibility, the verso pages were blank, functioning as an intermittent silence or pause and completing the programmatic total of 100 pages.

An audiovidoetext, videotextogram, the galáxias situate themselves on the border between prose and poetry. In this kaleidoscopic book there's an epic, narrative gesture—mini-stories that articulate and dissolve themselves like the "suspense" of a detective novel (Anatol Rosenfeld); but the image remains, the vision or calling of the epiphanic. In that sense, it is the poetic pole that ends up prevailing in the project, and the result is 50 "galactic cantos," with a total of more than 2000 verses (close to 40 per page). This permutational book has, as its semantic backbone, a recurrent yet always varied theme all along: travel as a book and the book as travel (despite the fact that—for that very reason—it is not exactly a "travel book"…). Two formants, in italics, the initial one (beginning-end: "and here I begin") and the final one (end-beginning-new beginning), encompass the game of moveable pages, interchangeable in their reading, where each isolated fragment introduces its "difference," but contains, in itself, like a watermark, the image of the entire book. which can be seen as from Alephic vantagepoint.

The oralization of the galáxias was always implicit in my project. […] As it will be seen (as it will be heard), this is a book to be read aloud, proposing a rhythm and a prosody, whose "obscure" passages become transparent to reading and whose words, when pronounced, can acquire a talismanic force, incite and seduce like mantras. Not accidentally I invited the poet and musician Alberto Marsicano to accompany me on his sitar while I read the two formants (highlighted in this way): the mobility of Indian ragas, where what is random is controlled by structures of repetition, rhymes with my score-text. Furthermore, only a few referential clues are sufficient to illuminate the galactic journey. With regard to the words and phrases in other languages—always carrying a mantric, 'transmental,' value even when not always apprehensible on a semantic level—those words and phrases are usually translated or glossed in the context, in this way flowing along and into the rhythm of the whole.

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after William Wordsworth

Delicate veil renewed delicate veil

sweet May renewed delicate leafy veil

renewed in the deep dale delicate leafy

veil renewed sweet May blithe

May sweet May blithe May blithe

Flora blithe May blithe Flora blithe

May blithe blithe blithe Flora from

His couch upstarts blithe Flora blithe

May season blithe May season of

renewed delicate leafy blithe May

season of Fancy and Hope Season of

Fancy and of hope blithe May Season

of Fancy and fine touch of hope fine

touch of self-restraining self-restraining

art and hope Season of self-restraining

Season of Fancy and of hope tempering

tempering the years of extremes years extremes

tempering extremes extremes tempering

self-restraining breathes a freshness

a freshness breathes quickening quickening

where love nestles patient patient streams

inmost heart where love nestles

breathes freshness luster and freshness

freshness luster freshness luster freshness

freshness o’er noonday luster o’er noonday

stream that April could not check

could not check quickening luster

scattering scattering scattering hope

scattering luster blithe patient modest May

freshening glee scattering hope and luster

scattering season of fancy entrust fancy

entrust unfinished song deathless song

deathless scattering song unfinished

breathes unfinished luster of inmost heart

of quickening balance of delight How delicate

where love nestles how leafy blithe May

scattering lustres o’er noonday of unfinished

blessed sweet May sweet lustres blithe

May of deathless unfinished song



Between 1826 and 1835 William Wordsworth wrote two poems to the month of May. One begins like this:

While from the purpling east departs

The Star that led the dawn,

Blithe Flora from her couch upstarts,

For May is on the lawn.

A quickening hope, a freshening glee,

Foreran the expected Power,

Whose first-drawn breath, from bush and tree,

Shakes off that pearly shower.

All Nature welcomes Her whose sway,

Tempers the year’s extremes;

Who scattereth lusters o’er noon-day,

Like morning’s dewy gleams;

While mellow warble, sprightly trill,

The tremulous heart excite;

And hums the balmy air to still

The balance of delight.

You can see from these stanzas why people dismiss the late Wordsworth’s poems—inert blocks of predictable Romantic idiom. The following poem, however, builds on a careful review of the manuscripts of the May poems which show that the poet in his late 50s and early 60s had an intensely active and playful revisionary imagination. Here (in the mss. and in the poem that I’ve written) is a world that Wordsworth never wrote but that may have happened instantaneously and then faded into something more stable — we might call what follows a dream of the poems of May. The drafts show how vitally Wordsworth’s images, lines, and stanzas floated and flew through different arrangements. Ought, for example, “blithe” go with “Flora” or with “May”? I have tried to catch the visionary possibilities of words like “hope,” “blithe,” “season,” by placing them in fast-moving stream or electric current.


Cockney Keats on Fanny Brawne

In singing never mind the music

devoted to wreckage

Suck or drink in a penchant

for acting stylishly: floridize

Keep your time and play your tune:

Dodge him

Abounding in flowers, spin the irreparable

Her mouth is bad and good

Innocence of all becoming

We have been depleted

We shall floridize soon I hope

Her arms are good her hands baddish

“Figurate” elaborate run and bloom

to fish with a spinning bait

to twirl or whirl

to draw out elaborate evolve

twist (of the Fates) of wool

cast a spell and whirl and twirl

to fabricate from suitable materials

spend time in inactivity

her arms are good her hands baddish

to shoot, spring up (as in blood)

issue in a rapid stream

Grotesque to a curious pitch

Yet still making up a fine whole

Poem is “fulfilled love living in desire”

Frozen words: sign of the fantasy of total control

Among Camels, Turbans, Palm Trees and sands

Draw out and twist fibres of wool

Twisting and untwisting of thoughts

Taken up by chemical action

Some suitable materials blooming

With a penchant for acting stylishly

Pass or be spent quickly

The irreparable: Dodge him

Spend time in inactivity of

Flowers abounding flushed florid

She wants sentiment in every feature

Cast a spell figurate in grace

Monstrous in her behavior

Flying out in all directions

Yet still making up a fine whole

Passage of music running on

Calling people such names

Fish for depletion with a spinning bait

Love is true attention to something or someone

She wants sentiment in every feature

A penchant she has for acting stylishly

And no longer exist apart – play your tune



Keats mimicking Leigh Hunt: “What is this absorbs me quite? O we are spinning on a little, we shall floridize soon I hope” – letter to the George Keatses, Dec. 1818-Jan. 1819. “Shall I give you Miss Brawne?” – same letter (which also contributes to the language of the poem)

“Floridize” occurs neither in Webster’s Unabridged nor in the OED. But “florid” in the Renaissance meant “abounding in or covered with flowers,” and since then has always carried the sense of profusion, bloom, elaboration, decoration, and extravagance. While a florid, flushed, complexion often signalled health, it also could suggest the (sexual) embarrassment associated with Keats and his poetry. Musically it has come to mean “running in rapid figures, divisions, or passages.” Recall Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, Haydn, early opera. “Floridize” may be Cockney poet leader Leigh Hunt’s neologism, it may be the secret “flash” language of boxers and dandies on the edge of Hunt’s circle, or perhaps Keats, friend of Hunt and with an “up-market” yearning, made it up with Hunt in mind. Vincent Novello, an important early nineteenth-century publisher of European Classical Music, and John Byng Gattie with his good singing voice, brought running musical figures to the Cockneys (spinning, drawn out, spent, twisted, produced) in immortal evenings of Bacchic figuration, while Fanny Brawne (of whom as he is dying Keats, absorbed, will say, “the sense of darkness coming over me–I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing”) spins for the first time into view..

-- from Jeffrey Robinson, Untamed Wing (Station Hill Press, scheduled: 2010) -- a further installment of Robinson's "deformations" of a range of Romantic poets.

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Jerome Rothenberg: Metamorphoses, & Other Stories

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:23 AM 0 comments
From A Seneca Journal

Some had changed themselves into a dog or turkey -- & one, a woman, had outrun a train. That last was told her by a white train engineer in Salamanca, & she thought it was the same woman who was shot in the form of a dog. They followed her trail & found her changed back to a woman with a big hole in her side.

Fidelia was maybe six years old & her grandma had this awful toothache. The family was sitting on the porch toward evening, when a very large pig came out of the woods & went to the corral. The pig stood on his hind legs like a man & with his front legs tried to push away the log that they were using for a gate against the horses. The men all chased the pig & tried to catch it but it got away. When her grandma went to see an Indian doctor for the toothache, he removed a long pig bristle from her cheek.

He called the really strong masks “doctor masks” & said that if you wore a doctor mask & handled burning coals they felt like ice to you. One time he passed a hot coal to a man who wore a less strong mask, & though it was like ice for Avery, it burnt the other’s hands.

A sick person heard a horse outside his window. They set a trap for it & shot at it with special bullets. The trail of blood led them to someone’s house. A man was found in bed, & blood was dripping down down from underneath his mattress. Before he died he told them that he was a witch.

She was at home with her three children when she suddenly noticed that a nearby hill had become a volcano & was about to erupt. She put the children in a carriage & tried to get to her mother’s house. As she ran across a bridge, she was surrounded by figures coming toward her whom she recognized as dead people. In the meantime the volcano erupted & lava came down & sizzled in the water around her.

I told him that I thought Floyd’s mask was very beautiful, but he said that it wasn’t because it didn’t have real power. His own father had had a mask that did, until there was a fire in his house & it was burnt to ashes. But his father could still see the features of the mask & so, before it crumbled, he hurried out & carved a second mask. And that second mask was like the first in every detail. Only it had no power.

Few people there had goiters but his daughter had one. It bulged under her neck and made her eyes pop like a frog’s. So one day he took her where he had often seen a black snake in the woods. Sure enough it was there & he had her stand still & called it to come near her. It did & she didn’t move at all but let it climb her leg & circle her waist until she could hardly breathe. Then he went up to it & touched it on the tail. He felt its power in his hand & spoke to it. He said if it would help them he would let it go. After it fell from her waist he took his knife & cut it in a circle underneath its head. He loosened up the skin, then dropped his knife & pulled the old skin free. That night the old man made his daughter wear the skin around her neck. When it was dark she felt it tighten like it was squeezing at her throat. But the goiter grew smaller. She went on wearing the skin for several weeks & finally the goiter disappeared. She never lost her fear of snakes.

The day her foot became infected she saw a tack sticking to the bottom of her shoe. He husband treated it with hot compresses, & once Thelma came to visit while he was changing bandages & found the flesh completely rotted at the bottom of the toes, so bad the bone was showing. A doctor in Salamanca tried to X-ray it, but it opened up & blood & pus poured out. They did two medicine dances – a Little Water & a Dark Dance – but nothing changed at first. Then one night, as Art was working on it, he noticed that a thread was hanging from the wound. At first he didn’t remove it because of the pain it caused her, but after a while he pulled out a piece of twine about a foot long with a triangular piece of glass attached & dropped it in a waste basket. When Thelma came by a little later, the twine & glass had disappeared. They didn’t know who had it in for the sick woman, but someone must have.

He was a poor white coal miner from West Virginia, & from the first years of his marriage & stay at the reservation, he felt a terrific impulse to carve. In particular, he said, to carve a mask. One night, after he had done a lot of carving, he fell out of bed (like a piece of wood, his wife said) & managed, though in awful pain, to make his way over to a chair, where he recovered. Albert Jones thought it might have something to do with the mask & told him that should it reoccur they would have to do a False Face ceremony & allow him to become a member. He was never into masks after that, but he made a few odd-looking statues that people said were nice.

At one of the white churches there were witchcraft sessions. His wife once went as a girl, & when she laughed at the visiting preacher’s horns & tail, he stared real hard at her & took her mind. Even now if he himself went into local homes (as he did, often, to install the cable T.V.), he might see a room with the walls painted black & on the floor a painted glowing circle. I said I was surprised to hear it. You’d be surprised, he said.

[NOTE. The stories & the story tellers go back to the years spent on the Seneca Indian Reservation in Western New York State (late 1960s to middle 1970s) & appeared in much this form in A Seneca Journal (New Directions, 1978). In the construction of New Selected Poems (1986), these & other poems were set aside, but can now start to be retrieved. The principal Seneca voices that appear here are those of Thelma (Ledsome) Shane, Art Johnny John, Floyd John, Fidelia Jimerson, Avery Jimerson, & Effie Johnson.]

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Speaking beings are bodies infested with tonguessssshhhiiiisssss. The snake in the garden was not sexe but The Word(s). Speaking beings are embodied one/s who relate -- within --language. Litteral Poetics is a praxis of relating -- within -- language through corporeal recreation, with oneself and others through endlessly exploring the potentials of one’s own tongue. Before examining Litteral Poetics, a few words about some other linguistic methods.

Many approaches to language have been followed. Some focus on its historical origins. Others on its conceptual limits, where and how Sense fades into Non-sense. “Il était roparant, et les vliqueux tarands// Allaient en gibroyant et en brimbulkdriquant,” (A. Artaud translating L. Carroll). Still others emphasize the relations between language and logic. “Either All language is logical, Or Some language is Not logical.” This is a True statement, but does it mean anything? Such speculations include the attempt to formulate lists of fundamental “categories,” concepts so general it would be impossible to think without them; “drawn with a fine haired-brush, having just knocked over the milk jug, belonging to the Emperor, etc.” Then there are the relations between language, thought, perception and sense. “He thought he saw an Argument that proved he was the Pope: He looked again, and found it was a Bar of Mottled Soap,” (L. Carroll). And language and the body, “oui oui oui oui all the way home,” or “Ratara ratara ratara Atara tatara rara Otara otara…,” (A. Artaud). Above all, what are we to make of the fact that there is not One Language, but a Babel, composed of literally thousands of different “small l” language-s, if not millions, when you count the dialects and made-up tongues, or conlangs now so wildly proliferating? (See:

For all that Master Narratives may be said to have died in the 20th century, one survived, or perhaps was invented to compensate for the death of the others. Not language with a small l --Sanscrit, Hindi, Aramaic, Japanese --but Language was the subject of much 20th century Continental linguistic speculation, particularly Structuralism. In this view Language is formulated as a system (albeit open) composed of many small iterations of difference; “difference” being conceived as the distinction between that-which-makes-a-distinction/difference, and that-which-does-not: the difference between the differentiated and the un-differentiated (which is simply the mark of distinction tself). Interestingly, on the other side of the English Channel, those working in the logic of computing came to exactly the same conclusion, despite the Continentals’ belief in Structuralism as a replacement for Logic. The classic here is “The Laws of Form” by mathematician George Spencer-Brown, in which all of classical logic, imaginary numbers (so important in computing) and even self-referentiality are derived from a single mark (see J. Rasula and S. McCaffery, Imagining Language for a taste of its end). Indeed, all computer languages are ultimately built from the single simple mark “1,” indicating a flow of electricity. The “0,” which indexes the non-flow of electrons is simply there in the printed form to enable readers to track their places. While such formalisms are clearly enough to make the trains run on time, lose rockets behind Mars, or calculate the trajectory of someone’s latest tweet, are they really enough to account for the fact that language is also embodied in a tongue?

The problem with Structuralism and its more formalized counterpart is its representation of difference as a universal foundation for meaning. “Either something is distinguished/differentiated, Or it is Not.” This is a modernized version of the Law of the Excluded Middle, One either Is, Or One Is Not, a proposition Beckett has definitively shown to be inapplicable to the human condition, where One can both be and not-be at the same time. Formal Deductive Logic and Structuralism may account for Language, but they cannot account for the infestation of bodies by tongues, the object of Litteral Poetics.

Litteral poetics does not deal with Language or universal theories of meaning, formal or otherwise. It is neither a general system designed to analyze others, nor a calculating tool to help us perform life better, faster, kill, kill, kill. Litteral poetics is simply a practice of linguistic self-analysis in which those who are infested with a tongue explore, through play, precisely what their own linguistic organs can do, including what they cannot help but do, that to which they are so habituated they do not know they are doing it. The emphasis here is neither on history nor Structure, but on the interactions between a tongue and those it infests, those who include this member in their organ-ization. In this approach no categorical distinction is assumed between a language, a tongue, an organ, and a body. Neither is a clear-cut difference made between a physical and a social body, or an individual and a collective one. Litteral poetics is thus not a science, for it does not deal with universal laws, but only with the unique contributions of specific tongues to specific bodies. The question for the litteralist is simply, how? How does a specific tongue participate in the organization of some body?

The principles of Litteral Poetics were articulated in the first century BC by Lucretius [in De Natura Rerum]:

For the same Seeds compose both Earth and Seas
The Sun, and Moon, Fruits, Animals and Trees,
But their contexture, or their motion disagrees.
So in my Verse are Letters common found
To many words unlike in sense and sound;
Such great variety bare change affords
Of order in th’ few Elements of Words.

And hence, as We discourse’d before, we find
It matters much with what first Seeds we joyn’d,
Or how, or what position they maintain,
What motion give, and what receive again:
And that the Seeds remaining still the same,
Their order change’d of wood are turn’d to flame.
Just as the letters little change affords
Ignis and lignum two quite different words.

Here the poet-philosopher shows, or at least he believes he shows, that Latin offers proof of the non-impossibility of Democritus’s famous hypothesis about matter being composed of the arrangements and rearrangements of a set of atomic elements. For while technology had not then advanced to the point where physical atoms could be detected, the fact that a language can be composed by the rearrangements of a set of atomic characters or letters shows the soundness of the general principle.

Even more important in Lucretius’s argument is the fact that the shift from one letter-arrangement or word to another is not arbitrary. The example he gives is the shift from the word for wood, lignum, to the word for fire, ignis. Just as flames were perceived by Democritians as rearrangements of the atomic components of burning wood (with perhaps some subtraction or addition of small amounts of other elements), so the word ignis is a rearrangement of the atomic components of the word lignum, (with some subtraction and addition of other elements). Lucretian linguistics is thus a theory of relations even more than it is a theory of monadic particles, characters or letters. Even more, it is a theory of the relations between relations, or the ratios of ratios, for the relationships between words are seen as similar to the physical relations between material substances, what we would call their chemistry. Lucretian linguistics is thus utterly rational. To put it another way, the way one word can be transformed into another in linguistic chemistry is in some sense isomorphic with material chemistry. Ignis is to lignum what flame is to wood.

ignis ≈ flame
lignum wood

The focus of attention here is neither referential nor systemic meaning, but meaning-shift, how one word transforms into another. Clearly the basis for this view cannot be a single simple principle of “difference,” for difference is precisely what prevents such transformations. There is the or there is the Other, and the two can only meet in a mutual negation or cancelling out; hence the necessity to postulate various intermediary characters such as differances and differends. But when we start our linguistic investigations by acknowledging the inherent mutability of words we adopt a different approach. Of course this tendency of words to slithe into others, the tendency for meaning to slip and change, has been noticed by many observers, not least of whom are the poets, especially of the Non-sense and Modernist varieties. It has also been noted by many theoreticians who have dubbed it variously, lalangue, delire, babel and even babellebab. Litteral Poetics is merely another in the line, and it won’t be the last.

However, Litteral Poetics is not just a theory about this transformational quality. It is a form of linguistic play bent on discovering how linguistic transformations function in the constitution of actual social meanings, i.e., in the structures of existing social bodies and institutions. Litteral Poetics proposes, à la Lucretius, that there is indeed an isomorphism between language and reality, not of matter, but of social relations. Thus it is like Nonsense in that it takes linguistic slithering seriously, and not just as slips of the tongue. Moreover, it aims, through playing with a tongue, to expose and celebrate the capacity of bodies and institutions for morphing and flow(er)ing rather than fix(at)ing. The question is, what kinds of tongue-play can reveal what kinds of social slitheryness? What could an application of the Lucretian principle to English reveal about modern society? What can the proposition


tell us about the relations of gender and generation in a society infested with an English tongue?

[to be continued]

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From March 17 through 20 I will be in Kumamoto, Japan, engaging in a renshi-writing collaboration with Japanese poets Shuntaro Tanikawa, Hiromi Ito, Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, Wakako Kaku, and the American translator Jeffrey Angles. This will be followed by a series of readings and lectures:

On March 22 a reading for the Japan International Poetry Society, at the Heartpia Kyoto, Conference Room #3, in Kyoto; on March 26, a talk and group discussion at Josai International University, Tokyo; and on March 27 a reading with Ryuta Imafuku and Keijiro Suga at Meiji University, also in Tokyo.

During my time away, postings on Poems and Poetics will continue without interruption, as follows:

March 13 Christine Wertheim: The Infestation of Bodies by Tongues (Part One)
March 17 Jerome Rothenberg: Metamorphoses & Other Stories
March 20 Reconfiguring Romanticism (39): Jeffrey C. Robinson, Two Poems with Notes after Wordsworth and Keats
March 24 Haroldo de Campos: from Galáxias, 2 poems & an author’s note
March 28 Rose Drachler, Two Poems with Numbers & Letters

The following is a variation on a poem for the first round of renshi and an open tribute to the masters of the game:

soon to be with you
on Aso
not Death Mountain
in the other poem

beneath which looms the shadow
of a visionary fish


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[a commentary on Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Marc Falkoff, University of Iowa Press, 2007]

(towards a non-reading - American abolition of "non-literatures" - an entry in the Annals of the New Extreme Experimental Poetry)

"The blank and ruin we see in Nature is within our own eye."
--R.W. Emerson, "Nature"

Isolation is the condition from which and into which the Guantanamo poets and poems emerge and become re-confined. The book of poems is treated as an "isolated" event, outside of the forms of critique and reading that constitute a "normalized" poetry's "reception." The circumstances of the poets, the Pentagon supervision of censorships, legal translators, "stand in the way" of the poems finding a context in which to be read as more than one more addition to the shelves of "prison poetry." "Put off to the side," it is hoped they may quickly "go unread" rather than participate in a questioning of the War on Terror and American language and writing's responses—or lack of them—to the Global conflict.

The poems, however, are not "an isolated event" at all, but integrally "bound" to the ongoing contexts of the Invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the unbounded Global War on Terror. Their language needs to be read in relation to the writing which was and is used in the construction and maintenance of the GWAT and Homeland Security. This is a language "already written" and at the same time as yet unrecognized as an American writing, one by which an isolated and isolationist America paradoxically becomes part of a world it "crusades" to have no part of. By examining this unrecognized language in terms of its various manifestations as both "documents" and "fictions," what emerges is a "New" Extreme American Poetry of which the Guantanamo Poems are very much a part.

"As usual,"says Pasolini, "the only symptoms we had to go on were in the language." In The Moro Affair, Leonardo Sciascia makes use of Pasolini's example in examining the texts generated by the 1978 kidnapping and execution by the Red Brigades of the Italian premier Aldo Moro. By examining the language of Moro's letters, Sciascia "develops," as from a negative, the realization by Moro of the full "exposure" of Power "hidden in plain sight." Paradoxically hidden in plain sight, for Moro himself is hidden in plain sight, both physically, and through his uses of language, in which he essays to "reveal his location" and his desire to be freed through an exchange for Leftist Prisoners.

Inevitably, the longer his words seem to remain obscure, the more they show themselves becoming aware that those looking for him are only going through the motions. It is not the Red Brigade which wants his execution, but his own Party, his own friends. At first writing from a presumed position of solidarity, Moro's language finds its way to his true condition, that of isolation:

He was obliged to express himself in a language of non-expression, to make himself understood by the same means he had sought and tested to in order not to be understood. He had to communicate through the language of non-communication. Out of necessity. That is through censorship and self-censorship. As a prisoner. As a spy in enemy territory and under enemy supervision.

With the Guantanamo Poems, as Flagg Miller suggests in his excellent preface, it is not only censorship which is involved, but a self-censorship on the part of the poets. While the military plays its part as censor, the poets "of necessity" are forced to counter with a self-censorship which may make it possible "to communicate through the language of non-communication" which may pass the censor. Seeking to expunge every sign of "poetry" as carrying a perhaps concealed message, the censors force the detainees to choose "non-poetry" which communicates the existence of a "real poetry" which is not allowed to show itself. As Sciascia notes: ". . . obliged to express himself in a language of non-expression," the poet must "make himself understood by the same means he had sought and tested in order not to be understood."

The great majority of reviewers, even when sympathetic to the plight of the poets, express the finding that the "poems" are not "poetry." Even giving the poets a "break" for writing in traditions foreign to Americans, and their being translated by non-literary translators, most critics agree there is "no poetry here." For a number of these critics, the "real poet" responsible for this non-poetry is the Pentagon. This in effect, cancels out the meaning of the poems' publication. Ultimately, it may be –and has been--regarded as a "protest" not to even read the poems.

Sciascia's reading of Moro's letters suggests however that the very existence of poetry is possible in the poems' language of non-poetry. This is because the poet is forced to write a "language of non-expression," (a non-poetry), in order to "make himself understood by the same means he had sought and tested in order not to be understood."

The words "sought and tested" indicate that a language has been chosen through "experiment" and "experience" for its effectiveness as a "non-expression" "in order not to be understood." Consider the poets' situation in its relationship to censorship. The isolation, torture and strict control of every aspect of the detainees' existence and language is not meant to "silence" them, but to FORCE THEM TO SPEAK. If one is being forced to speak, the sole means of resistance is to speak so as not to be understood, to communicate via "non-expression."

Forced to speak, the detainee seems to the torturers, guards and Pentagon supervisors, to be doing exactly what is demanded of him. Yet, forced to speak, the detainee must find a way to do so without being" understood," and at the same time produce a "non-expression" which is on the surface "acceptable" and "understood" by the torturers.

This "sought and tested" non-expression that is not understood is what is the "real poetry" of the detainees, and why it is not recognized when it appears. Since one of the military's greatest fears is that poetry by its poetical means as poetry possesses a built-in capacity for the smuggling out of concealed messages, only the most non-poetical non-poetry will be allowed to be released to the American non-reader of even the most insidiously "poetically" concealed conceits.

In the late Chilean exile Roberto Bolaño's novella Distant Star (itself an extension of the last chapter in Nazi Literatures of the Americas), the poet narrator is enlisted by a former Chilean detective who had been honored by Allende and imprisoned three years under Pinochet, to help track down and kill the enigmatic Carlos Wieder aka Juan Ruiz-Tagles, among a long series of pseudonyms. Wieder had for a while been a "Distant Star" in the Chilean horizon, the creator of a New Chilean Poetry which runs the gamut of what has become the New Extreme American Poetry of 9/11's hi-jacked planes, the atrocity images of Abu Ghraib and the use of plagiarized, forged, and distranslated texts in creating the "evidence" making it "absolutely necessary" to invade and occupy Iraq before it "was too late."

While a Lieutenant in the Chilean Air Force, the underground avant-garde poet turned aviation hero created the first exhibition of the new Chilean Poetry. After a performance of sky writing during an ominous storm, selected guests are invited to attend a soiree given by the poet-hero. One at a time at first, the guests enter a room into which they are locked with walls and ceiling covered by photographs of the victims of torture, many posed in a dismembered state in front of the same anonymous backgrounds. A few of the victims, horribly disfigured, even seem to be still living. Among them are a number of "missing" young female poets. Forced to leave the Air Force, Welder's poetry, plays, essays and photographs of his aerial feats are forced to go "underground," appearing under a bewildering array of pseudonyms in extreme Right Wing publications ranging from biker zines to opulently produced but clandestine journals. Eventually Wieder vanishes from the "Nazi Literatures of the Americas" and resurfaces among an equally extreme and strange variety of publications from many of the European countries. He appears, though unseen, as a second cameraman, to be connected with the unsolved murders of an Italian porn film company's actors and technicians. He also appears at one point as Jules Defoe, amalgam of the two great authors of fictional "travel literatures," (Jules Verne and Daniel Defoe), whose works in themselves were amalgams of fact, fiction, and science fiction. Defoe appears, once as essayist, once as poet, in two organ of the French "school of barbaric writing," founded during May 1968 in Paris by a former legionnaire.

Barbaric writing itself is born of a "trial by fire" not unlike a self imposed torture session in which the participants are the writer-to-be and the texts of great literature. The barbaric writer is to lock him or herself in a room or apartment, singly or in small groups, and spend a week tearing apart, destroying, books by great authors and shitting, pissing, masturbating, spilling blood on the pages, to roll among them and so to become "immersed" in writing. Emerging from this baptism, the newly born barbaric writer then proceeds to contribute to its underground journals distributed via public book fairs and stalls. The barbaric writers are drawn from the working class, and in one journal, under the rubric "Profession: Amateur," Their photos are police file passport style images, at once "identifying" and strangely anonymous. They are the opposite, notes the poet narrator, of what are considered to be "professional" "author's photos." The notorious Wieder-Jules Defoe, who has become a Latin American cult figure frequently sought after and as yet undetected despite swirling rumors of his presence and activities around the globe, does not appear among them.

In a jerky and ferocious style, [Defoe's] essay argued that literature should be written by non-literary people, just as politics should be and indeed was being taken over by non-politicians, as (Defoe) was delighted to observe. The corresponding revolution in writing, Defoe went on to say, would, in a sense, abolish literature itself. When poetry is written by non-poets and read by non-readers.

Another way of thinking of this is that the poems express a refusal to be forced into giving "good" poetry to the torturers. When Robert Pinsky remarks about the Guantanamo Poems that there are "no Mandelstams here," a remark repeated by several others—with a mixed sense of relief and triumph--might this not be a refusal to provide a Mandelstam to the Americans?

Give the Americans what they really want—no Mandelstams, no "great poetry" to be produced by their Gulag/ Guantanamo. Treat me like a nothing—and I will give you nothing. For it is you, "hypocrite reader, mon semblable, mon frere" who is a nothing and will receive the nothing you deserve. In this case it is not the poets who are producing a non-poetry, but their American readers. Ironically, reading the poems as "bad poetry" in a sense hides the real poetry of the refusal. What stares back at the reader is the "non-poetry" of his own inability to read the poetry's refusal.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the “groundbreaking" essay "Nature":"The blank and ruin we see in Nature is within our own eye." The "blank and ruin" of the Poems from Guantanamo is in the American reader's own eye -- a "blank and ruin" which is projected outward from this eye so that the world it sees becomes a mirror of its own eye. Rather than experiencing being a "Transparent Eyeball," as Emerson did, the contemporary American vision is imprisoned in a blank and ruin which is its own mirror image.

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[Born & raised in Japan, Yuko Otomo has worked for many years in New York as an independent poet & artist, whose transition to English resembles that of other “nomadic poets” (P.Joris) over the last century & a half. The context she provides for a reconfiguration of romanticism, previously unpublished, throws a new/old light on a world constantly in flux but where “all ages are contemporaneous in the mind.” (E. Pound)]

“Romantic? Postromantic? Why now? An anachronism! A nostalgia trip! We are in the Postmodern era, aren’t we? Why dig up old bones?” You want to protest, I know. Go ahead. But before & after you do that, just pay attention to the terminologies you are facing here. Can you read them right? It’s “Romantic”, not “Neo-Romantic”. It’s “Postromantic”, not “Late-Romantic”. You see how the subtle shifts in the nuances of words make a big difference.

Now you are confused, rubbing your eyes & scratching your head? Great! You’ll be the best candidate for this big book. Just pick up a copy & look first at the mysterious engraving by Blake on the cover, then feel the weight of the book in your hands. As you do that, pay attention to the word “For” between “Poems” & “The Millennium” Now you are set, open the book.

* * *

This book: Volume 3 is the most recent installment of the Poems for the Millennium series by University of California Press, following Vol.1/The UC Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry: From Fin-de-Siele to Negritude (1995) & Vol.2/The UC Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry: From Postwar to Millennium (1998). The core editor of this anthology series is the prominent poet, scholar/professor, translator, Jerome Rothenberg. For 1 & 2, he was joined by poet & translator Pierre Joris & for this volume by Jeffrey C. Robinson. Its main claim is to bring our attention back to the origin of modern consciousness, poetic, cultural, social or political, guiding us to re-investigate the spirit of Romanticism (including its precursors) & to examine how it segues into Modernism & Postmodernism.

I usually do not care for reading the introduction to a book too much, but for this one, I decided to read it thoroughly to clarify the intention of the editors. “As the twentieth century fades out, the nineteenth begins, again. It is as if nothing happened …” it starts. As I went through it, 2 things relating to my own cultural/poetic heritage as a Japanese came to my mind. One is “Onko-Chishin”: “Warming the old to know the new”; the famed saying from Rongo: The Analects of Confucius. Another is 3 major anthologies compiled more than a millennium ago in Japan. Mannyo-Shu (Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves, 8th Century), Kokin-Waka-Shu (Anthology of Old & New Tanka, 10th Century) & Shin-Kokin-Waka-Shu (New Anthology of Old & New Tanka, 13th Century) & how they refined the course of Japanese poetry “Onko-Chishin” is one of the most valued methods in the east to learn/study/know anything in any field in true depth, encouraging a student to visit the past to learn the new. 3 Anthologies (20 Volumes each) complied such a long time ago, though it almost sounds unbelievable, still are remarkably influential, shaping & reshaping Japanese poetry, not just Tanka, but the whole sense of what poetry is, even today. Especially, this Romantic & Postromatic poetry anthology reminds me of Manyo-Shu (which contains poems by anonymous commoners along with the ones by aristocrats) because they deal with the roots of poetic heritage & also share the similar democratic & inclusionary (instead of exclusionary) attitude in the selection.

Why “The Romantics”? Why now? The editors explain why, giving us the vision of family tree & a map of Modern Poetry; where the roots are; how it grew; how the branches stemmed out; how it opened up geographically; etc. & how amazing to re-recognize our poetical heritage, lineage & its inheritance through them. Yes, indeed, we all do come from this upheaval of human consciousness of the romantics: the yearnings & desire to have “a better world than this” despite the differences in destinations we claim to have reached.

As is the nature of anthologies in general, you can’t have everything. So, you might find some problems over “who’s in & who’s out”. Since it carries such a big vision, almost too big for one book, it has created certain complications in its structure (which reminds me of a “floor plan” of a big art show). For those who want to skip the rather academic & quite long introduction, the whole thing could be a bit confusing. But, don’t worry. If you don’t want to follow the linear flow of the book, be “Romantic”! Take a rebellious, radical, experimental, visionary attitude & open to a page randomly & jump into the stream. In this massive anthology with over 900 pages, which starts with the line: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” (Social Contract) by Rousseau & ends with the line: “ You must change your life” (An Archaic Torso of Apollo) by Rilke, there are plenty of treasure to suit everyone’s taste/style/idea of poetry & poetics.

Let me list some of the poets &writers who illuminate this anthology. Diderot, Sade, Goethe, Blake, Worthsworth, Novalis, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Heine, Adam Mickiewicz (my first encounter with his work here), Pushkin, Longfellow, Hugo, Nerval, Emerson, Poe, Kierkegaard, Whitman, Melville, Baudelaire, Sousandrade (another new encounter for me. Read his “O Guesa Errante: The Wall Street Inferno”), Jose Marti (another new encounter), E. Dickinson, Mallarme, Strindberg, Lafcadio Hearn, Rimbaud, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Verlaine, Lautreamont, Jarry, Stein, Rilke, Yosano Akiko (One of the most vital & important figures who shaped the new poetic consciousness in Japan. Read “The Woman” & other work by her. I am moved to see her following Rilke & followed by Apollinaire in this book, not in the usual “Asian Women Poetry Anthology” setting, but in a more substantial context!) & more. It also includes sections for “Some Asian Poets” & “Outsider Poets” to cross boundaries & further expand the map. It also provides visual art by Blake & Goya as well as visual poetry by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll & Apollinaire.

The book ends with a coda of “Manifestos & Poetics” by Goethe, Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud & others. Do you remember the volcanic & electrifying emotional charge you felt when you first encountered the voice of Rimbaud proclaiming the future of Poetry saying “You must be absolutely modern!”? Literarily, doing Onko-Chishin, looking back into the past in a newly focused light, we learn to be truly “Absolutely Modern” & to go beyond & beyond & beyond! 1000 years! It seems so long, but, remember that Mannyo-Shu is still alive, being read & loved by specialists & the general public alike & actively effecting the minds of our time even today. Hopefully, the series of Poems for the Millennium as a whole & especially this volume which deals with the roots of the tree will be alive & well in a similar way in the vastly wide open field called the future.

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Some New & Forthcoming Publications by Jerome Rothenberg

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 9:40 AM 0 comments
I have two new appearances of work in magazines (online and off) that may be of interest to some here:

(1) All of the translation-derived versions of Navajo horse-songs (five in all) in the current issue of Bombay Gin out of Naropa. These have never appeared together except in an artist’s edition by Ian Tyson back in the 1970s & are presented here, along with a reprint of my “total translation” essay, through the good offices of Andrew Schelling and Amy Catanzano. (Copies can be ordered by checking their web site:

(2) A new interview conducted by Mark Weiss & presently posted on Aryanil Mukherjee’s Kaurab magazine ( This gives me a particular chance to speak for an international school of poetry & poetics, plus some other things.

There are also two new books of poems scheduled for 2010: Concealments & Caprichos from Black Widow Press and Retrievals: Uncollected & New Poems 1955-2010 from Junction Press, as well as a substantial Prosa Selecta from Editorial Aldus in Mexico, translated into Spanish by Heriberto Yépez. Another volume of poems, Gematria Complete, was published by Marick Press at the end of last year.

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Marjorie Perloff: An Afterword for Rae Armantrout

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 4:17 AM 0 comments

[Written for Narrativ, Rae Armantrout’s selected poems translated into German by Uda Strätling und Matthias Göritz and published in a blingual edition by Luxbooks, Wiesbaden, Germany, in 2009]

Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman once observed “belongs to what might be characterized as the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities.”

“Vertical anti-lyric” is an apt term for Armantrout’s unique form of minimalist poetry—a poetry like no one else’s. Although she began her writing career as one of the West Coast Language poets, a member of the important circle that included Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, and Silliman himself, and although she has remained very close to these poets, collaborating with them, for example, on the current group autobiographical project The Grand Piano, Armantrout has always been different. Just how different has become clear in the last decade or so when, without in any way renouncing—or even qualifying- her aesthetic principles, she has found herself increasingly admired by the Establishment—by Ivy League critics, mainstream publishing houses, and The New Yorker. Today, Armantrout is considered—as she should be-- one of the finest poets writing in the USA.

How did it happen? (Mary) Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California in 1947 and grew up in San Diego. An only child, she has given an unsparing, if not unsympathetic portrait of her parents in her memoir True (1998). Her working-class father was Chief Petty Office on the local naval base, her mother worked in a candy store; both were people of limited means, interests and aspirations, and her father drank heavily. By the time she was an adolescent, Armantrout, an avid reader, was quite alienated from her family, her dreary suburban neighborhood and its third-rate public schools. But she seems never to have felt sorry for herself or considered herself a victim. On the contrary, she invented various romantic scenarios for her future, enrolled at San Diego State University and then, on a whim, applied to, and was accepted by, the University of California at Berkeley, at that time a Mecca for intellectuals, radical poets, and anti-war activists. Armantrout soon found herself studying with one of her youthful idols, Denise Levertov, and making friends with poets like Silliman and Hejinian. For a young girl who grew up in tract housing communities with names like Allied Gardens, it was a great time and place to be alive in. Armantrout received an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State in 1975 and published her first book Extremities in Berkeley in 1978.

But then she did something surprising. Having married her San Diego State sweetheart Chuck Korkegian, she moved back home, and she and Chuck, a book dealer, have lived in San Diego, where their son Aaron was born in 1979, ever since. Partly, as she suggests in True, her return was motivated by a sense of class difference: unlike many of her poet friends, she couldn’t afford to travel or to be a poetry groupie in New York or San Francisco. Then, too, Armantrout evidently felt most comfortable in her familiar environment, taking as her subject matter the cartoonish—but also poignant--world of roadside diners, fenced yards, and crabgrass “tipped with green” she knew so well. In this respect, she resembles the poet who in many ways provided her with her lyric paradigm, William Carlos Williams of Paterson, New Jersey.

But unlike Williams (or Levertov), Armantrout was never a poet of concrete particulars: from the first, her minimalist lyrics were breaking the Williams mold. Consider the early little poem “Dusk” (Dämmern):

spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
rests intently
and so purely alone.

I’m not like that!

[Spinne auf kaltem Geviert aus Glas, oben im dritten Stock ruht so gebannt Und vollkommen bei sich. So bin ich nicht!]

Williams would have tracked the spider’s movement, keeping his eye on the object as he does in “As the cat. . .” (first the right forefoot / then the hind. . .”). But Armantrout begins with what is a rather surreal image (how does one notice a spider at such a distance?), only to turn inward, viewing the insect in human terms, “rest[ng] intently,” “so purely alone,” and then suddenly turning the whole situation inside out with the exclamation, “I’m not like that!” What can this explanation mean? Is the spider rebuking the poet for thinking it is “like that” (intent, alone)? Or, conversely, is the poet saying, “How dare you think of me in spider terms! I’m not like that!” Or again, “I’m not going to metaphorize about spiders as Robert Frost did in “Design” (“I caught a dimpled spider…”). Or does the exclamation refer to making poetry: I’m not going to get involved in a lot of Romantic Einfühlung about spiders! I’m not like that!”

However we construe these four little words, the line is genuinely startling—the declaration of a poet who refuses to go with the flow. Here is a more complex example from a later poem, “Close,” in Next Life (2007):

CLOSE (Dicht)


As if a single scream
gave birth

to whole families of traits

such as “flavor,” “color,”

and this tendency to cling.

[Wie wenn ein einziger Schrei die Geburt ganzer Familien von Eigenschaften wäre “Geschmack,” “Farbe,” “Dreh” Und dieser Drang zu klammern]


Dry white frazzle
in a blue vase--


a frozen swarm
of incommensurate wishes.

[Verdörrte weiße Franzen in blauer Vase— Schön— ein gefrorener Schwarm inkomensurabler Wünsche.]


Slow, blue, stiff
are forms
of crowd behavior

Come close.

The crowd is made of
little gods

and there is still
no heaven

[Schwer, blau, steif sind Formen Massenhysterie. Komm dichter ran. Die Mengen sind kleine Götter und noch immer nirgends ein Himmel]

In a recent interview, Armantrout described her writing process this way: “I make desultory notes for awhile, over the course of days or weeks, and see what emerges, see what sticks to what, what sort of units form. Most often the parts out of which the poem is composed retain some autonomy. They are arranged as a series separated by numbers or asterisks.” In “Close,” the three sections (7, 5, and 9 lines respectively, with no line having more than 5 words) seem at first quite unrelated. The setting in which the poet’s thoughts occur is not given, but one surmises that someone (perhaps the poet’s mother who wants her daughter to feel “close’ to her) is suggesting that the “single scream” of birth gives way “to whole families / of traits.” Or that the speaker herself wonders if it her fate to inherit those traits, punningly said to come in “families.” But the cliché of family likeness is immediately repudiated because the “traits” evoked are not character traits at all but rather matters of taste, which can, of course, be acculturated. Flavor, color, and spin: in the nomenclature of physics, these are the traits ascribed to sub-atomic particles. But the line break undercuts this triad too: the argument for genetic predisposition, Armantrout implies, is just a lot of “spin.” As for the fourth, “this tendency to cling”: that’s the sort of trait one doesn’t want to inherit!

Here are the “sinister possibilities” Silliman spoke of with reference to Armantrout’s “vertical anti-lyric.” The poet’s “conversation,” broken and partial as it is, reveals the absurdity, but also the pathos, of the familial relationship. In #2, the scene seems to shift slightly as the poet (perhaps visiting her mother in the hospital?) dutifully admires the “dry white” flowers in a blue vase. What can one say but “beautiful,” and who says it? Underneath the politeness, the speaker is cruelly characterizing the “Dry, white frazzle” of flowers as “a frozen swarm / of incommensurate wishes.” Whose wishes, the poet’s or her interlocutor’s? One cannot know for sure, but the poem bristles with an understated hostility, a sense of fracture.

The third section provides yet another twist to this narrative. “Slow, blue, stiff,” referring back to the vase of flowers, are now seen, by metaphorical extension, as “forms / of crowd behavior.” Not the screaming crowd of political rallies or ball games, of course, but perhaps the moving crowd in a Fascist parade or in a religious procession. These have a sort of beauty too, don’t they? And the participants think of themselves as special people—“little gods.” But—and here is Armantrout deflating her picture still further-- “there is still no heaven.” The poet’s mother may be close to death, but there is no religious consolation.

“My poetry,” Armantrout remarked in an essay called “Cheshire Poetics,” involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. It’s a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known, and what it is to know. That double-bind.” This is an apt analysis of what happens in a poem like “Close.” So much depends, here and in Armantrout’s other poems, on what is not said. Silence (or the white space of the page) is a central element in these lyrics, which usually begin in medias res. “As if a single scream / gave birth.” To what is the scream being compared? And who is making the comparison? Armantrout’s is, in John Ashbery’s words on Gertrude Stein, “an open field of narrative possibilities.” We can say that “Close” is “about” family tension, ritual, and self-delusion, and that for this poet, family rites and their religious counterpart are closely linked. “Close” is also a poem about the difficulty of communication, of reaching out to a loved one, and getting what feels like a busy signal. But so evocative are the words in their short abrupt lines, that many readings are possible.

In keeping with the indeterminacy of its “Cheshire poetics,” Armantrout’s is a lyric at once local and global. Her San Diego is neither the beautiful beach resort La Jolla, above which the University of California, where Armantrout teaches, is located, nor the gateway to Mexico further south. Rather, this is a world of “flimsy backporches linked / by skeletal stairways” of “honeysuckle, thrown like an arm / around a chain-link fence,” of a “young girl listening / to ‘Angel Baby” / on a pink plastic radio / while staring out her window / at the planet Venus,” or again, a “wood pole’s / rosy crossbar, / shouldering a complement of knobs, / like clothespins / or Xmas lights.” One could find these telephone poles anywhere today, and yet they seem indigenous to this place, where the poet lives. And she responds to such sights and sounds, not with despair or disgust, but with a certain bemusement, sometimes tinged by irritation. Yes, she seems to be telling her readers, these telephone poles are really eyesores, and the words like “Hi Fishy!” overheard in the local café, are hardly profound. But for the attentive poet, those words may just trigger, as they do in the poem “Co-Existence,” some really interesting—and surprising-- responses. The main thing is to X-Ray the scene—to get rid of stock response, cliché, the expected feeling. As Armantrout puts it in “My Problem”:

It is my responsibility
to squeeze
the present from the past
by demanding particulars

When the dog is used
to represent the inner
man, I need to ask
“What kind of dog is it?”

[Es liegt an mir heute aus gestern zu pressen auf Details versessen Wenn der Hund bennutzt wird als Chiffre fürs Innen leben, muss ich fragen: “Was für ein Hund?”]

No symbols, where none intended, as Beckett said. Before you use a given word metaphorically, Armantrout cautions, you had better know what it refers to literally—what it is. It is this extraordinary attentiveness to nuance, coupled with a total absence of condescension, that makes Armantrout such a beguiling poet. Her voice—and she would immediately object that she doesn’t believe in lyric “voice”—is entirely her own.

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