The Treasures of Dunhuang: Performance Version

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:35 AM 0 comments

a faceless buddha

a black buddha

buddhas with silver mustaches
& chin hairs

three transvestite buddhas

buddha with heads
around his head –
dozens of whirling heads

2000 buddhas

crouching buddha –
slits for eyes –
looks sleepy

a buddha with a dozen faces
& a thousand hands with eyes

Buddha holds a fern –
he wears a scabbard
& the scabbard grows a hand

rays stream from buddha’s eyes
– or tears

eyes wide in terror
open anguished mouth with fangs
he holds a dish with flaming ryes
but haloed

can this be buddha too?

thin buddha
starving buddha

sitting hand to chin
& smiling


a meditating buddha
a practicing buddha
a preaching buddha
an enlightened buddha
a thinking buddha

a musing buddha
a performing buddha
a didactic buddha
an irradiated buddha
a pragmatic buddha

an absentminded buddha
a fabricating buddha
an authoritative buddha
a radioactive buddha
an obstinate buddha

an oblivious buddha
a counterfeit buddha
an imperative buddha
a degenerate buddha
a disobedient buddha

a paralyzed buddha
a vicarious buddha
a tyrannical buddha
an apostate buddha
an anarchical buddha

an anarchical buddha
a disobedient buddha
an obstinate buddha
a pragmatic buddha
a thinking buddha

an apostate buddha
a degenerate buddha
a radioactive buddha
an irradiated buddha
an enlightened buddha

a tyrannical buddha
an imperative buddha
an authoritative buddha
a didactic buddha
a preaching buddha

a vicarious buddha
a counterfeit buddha
a fabricating buddha
a performing buddha
a practicing buddha

a paralyzed buddha
an oblivious buddha
an absentminded buddha
a musing buddha
a meditating buddha


a buddha behind bars

black buddha face
with marble eyes

five bodhisattvas
in a row
each with a flower

how big this buddha’s hands are

buddha’s palms
lie open
waiting for stigmata

two buddhas sit together
one without a forearm
one without a hand

with knotted muscles
on their chests

a lion face
& baying

like a warrior
in armor

a giant painted

his hands that look
like feet

his feet

push past the garment’s

beneath the image of
a dragon

& a snake

the buddha on the right
is dark with age

an old man’s face
& bald

what does he know of man’s fate
or of woman’s?

beyond the door
buddha lies dying
a choir of mourning monks
behind him

a paradise of buddhas

everlasting bliss

[The lines & stanzas, above, are a shortened & reconstituted version, intended for performance, of the full series, “Treasures of Dunhuang” that are part of my larger gathering, China Notes & the Treasures of Dunhuang,” published by Ahadada Books in 2006. What overwhelmed me. after a visit to the 100 or so caves of Dunhuang filled with Buddhist art & writings & located in the Gobi Desert, was the surprising twist given to images that we thought of as familiar – much like images of Jesus when one sees them in out-of-the-way regions of the Christian world. I had long had in mind, & more so recently, perceptions about the nature of poetry enunciated by poets like Novalis – “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics” -- & referential too, I thought, to how we come at poetry today.

[A traditional version of Buddha images -- equally or more surprising -- can be found in the Poems and Poetics posting for August 5, 2008. (J.R.)]

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David-Baptiste Chirot: Cinema of Catharsis (I-III)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 1:50 AM 0 comments
for Rex Chirot & Jerome Rothenberg


El Colonel is smiling, writing with his cigarette’s smoke in that great page, the sky . . . that great page, ever open to all, in which all eyes may read---and there, their readings being writings . . . find also the writings of others . . . moving, living, in skies of their own among these sometimes shared skies, these skies sometimes encountering each other . . . these writings, readings readers & writers . . . meeting among these skies . . . so that—

So that—El Colonel has often wondered, often written his own “versions”—of his readings which are writings—of these phrases he found underlined in red among the black letterings of a fire-singed Bible in the basement of a bombed-out bookstore in a small provincial town high in the mountains . . . and which are: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”—for, had not El Colonel wondered—what, if, indeed, come face to face, that ‘I’ which became known as also it was known—what if indeed, that ’I’—were an Other . . . for had not he also read, among other books found elsewhere, among other demolished sites . . . had he not read that ‘I is an other’ . . . in which case, El Colonel writes with his cigarette in the sky’s pages . . . in which case might not the “I” be also known as an other . . . an other found continuously in this other that is his writing in the sky . . . a writing read by others . . . who in reading in their turn write . . .


El Colonel is smoking. Writing in the skies, on the varying hues of blue that shift with their proximities to the horizon . . . writing on the clouds scattered carelessly about . . . his eyes like fingers move, inscribing texts often in no known languages, at times in ones he barely knows from tattered texts come across—languages foreign to him—and, at times, even in the two languages he knows well . . . writing in the skies essaying to convey the dream states that float among memories---involuntary memories called out by the random touching of a shadow at the foot of a tree on the ground next to him—events long forgotten vividly alive—

El Colonel is smoking. These memories & dreams he is inscribing in the sky are not of large events at all. Thank God! No!—No, these are all the small events, happenings, that one is unaware for the most part that one is even noticing as they are passing—


In a room, in some other place, a city—somewhere—she is sitting, smoking, writing in her journal . . . some time ago she had begun to interpret her life in terms of events, of writings, of images, documents—come across in her continual perusal and construction of her own “Kennedy Collection”—comprised primarily of books and old magazines, but including also stacks of Xeroxes of fotos of the JFK Assassination, which she keeps for cutting up and rearranging—into collages—and these slowly through time finding their ways into various scrapbooks she keeps—

This “Kennedy Collection” she periodically pours through, finding each time a differing sequence, a differing set of clues as to the “meanings” she is to interpret from them regarding her own existence.

Increasingly, her own days are intercut, shot through, with those “Days in Dallas”—especially as Autumn advances, inexorably—to the annual return of That Day—among “Those Days”—yet not only “those Days”—but all the Days surrounding them through time—the entire lifetime especially of Lee Harvey Oswald dominates certain areas of her consciousness, including the continually growing storehouse of memories which she associates directly with the Life of Oswald.

Thus, one October, during visits to her sister’s, she became aware that certain patterns in the linoleum were directly related with constellations which must have been embedded in the kitchen, say, of the houses where Marina Oswald had been living with, say, Ruth Paine—and others, perhaps also—where the Oswalds had lived after their New Life in America had begun--and these intersecting patterns and constellations found in linoleums were in fact reconstructions of some other events in consciousness, a consciousness greater than her own—indeed, one comprising, as it were, chunks of the Twentieth Century itself . . . even though now well into the Twenty-first century, she felt that these secrets exuded from expiring linoleums scattered through time and across the “interior landscapes of the late Twentieth Century” . . . yes—she distinctly, most definitely felt!—that these secrets being exuded had traversed the “line between Centuries,” as though transgressing a forbidden, or, at least—forbidding-- border—not unlike, say the border that Oswald crossed from Finland into the Soviet Union during his “defection”---yes!-- she felt, she distinctly felt-- these “secrets” had been, were continually—seeping, invading surreptitiously, as though entering in as soldiers do in moving through ground brush, on their bellies . . . that these secrets were arriving, day by day, night by night, at the very entrance to the battered small house she lived in on a battered small side street in a battered small section of the battered small city which she envisioned always as the one sacred place where these rites could take place, observed and participated in only by herself, their one initiate . . .

One October Sunday . . . as the late afternoon golden glow began to fade from the hallucinatory reds, oranges, dark greens and near-blacks of the heavy leaves—as the first shadows of the suddenly much cooler twilight began to etch their ways across the small battered lawn . . . one October Sunday, she indeed felt more strongly than ever the presence of the seeping secrets exuded by the linoleums of those kitchens Lee Harvey Oswald had entered in, in visiting with his estranged wife and children . . . she felt that these secrets were unfolding before her very eyes there on the shadow etched small battered lawn . . . sounds were reaching her from a neighbor’s TV—set to the NFL football games . . . Oswald she remembered had watched football during his last visits with his family . . . (more likely college football, on Saturdays? . . . some part of her mind registered the question—hanging there in the air—have to look it up, some part of her mind muttered, making a mental note of it—almost certain of it—were after all the pro games on then, before there was more than just the one then much smaller pro league . . . ? an important detail to come back to--)—yes—Oswald had watched football games . . . her eyes moved among the patterns etched by the twilight shadows on the small battered lawn, seeing in them the slow emergence of patterns seeping in from those long ago linoleums . . . as though the “action” of the plans gathering in Oswald’s mind—whether his own or those being planned and planted there by others---as though the action now was moving outdoors . . . from out of those rooms in the cheaply furnished homes, those flimsily constructed rooming houses he moved among . . . was moving outdoors and there, in the gathering twilight, taking form, gathering its thoughts as it were, in the patterns emerging—the very same patterns that had been observed in the linoleum—she now saw quite distinctly etched there, there in the backyard, on the small battered lawn . . .


El Colonel is smoking . . . from the stream of involuntary memories which he is writing in the sky with his eyes . . . begin to emerge, at first in clusters, closely clumped, tightly gathered—begin to emerge small constellations of images, images each so sharp, so clearly distinct, that its facets, diamond-like, begin to etch into, cut open, the adjacent images in the constellation---releasing sudden erupting streams—like those lone spraying spumes suddenly sliced open and squirting forth from the sun---those long trails of raging, burning, appallingly beautiful reds and oranges . . . blasting into space---pure Heraclitean fires . . . of being---Being released into the infinite of Space---traveling with such incredible storm-powered speeds that they seem to scream into the eyes . . . and out of these searing images . . . as though they are cooling in an acceleration of “the evolution of Time” —out of these released images emerge suddenly, in single file, as though a slide show being shown in the skies—images, images long forgotten—no longer singular images, but ones which open up—as the mouths of caves are said to open—and reveal within them depths . . .

El Colonel is smoking . . . leaning, leaning into the slight breezes which are now coming up over the edges of the hill . . . leaning the better to see—to see within this opening now so vividly before him—

It is a cinema, its entrance like a cave mouth—embedded in a seeming cliff, which is in actuality as its image becomes more distinct to the hard-peering eyes of El Colonel—which is in actuality the tightly spaced wall of a series of buildings on a street he had once found in a bombed out small city . . . it came to him now in a howling rush of clarity—the entrance to this Cinema of Catharsis as he had thought of it, even before entering into it and finding himself, first, in a lobby entrance, a very long, extended hallway—at the end of which was the glass enclosed small booth where a ticket taker would be standing when a show was in progress—at the start of shows, also—and at all times in between—time now heaving and buckling, in time with the heaving and buckling of the parquet floor of the long hallway leading to the interior entrance where the ticket taker’s booth was standing . . .a heaving and buckling which, nonetheless, did nothing to disturb the immense lobby card images hanging on the roughly painted walls of the long hall of the lobby . . . these images, each one of them belonging apparently to completely different films—gave evidence of the long history of this particular Cinema—as some of them dated back to the era of Silent Films—while others showed more recent productions—most of them cheap B jobs . . . El Colonel finds himself, via the intensity of his gaze, “entering into” the area beyond the ticket taker’s booth—

El Colonel’s figure, leaning into the breezes, leaning into the sky—looks for all the world to those eyes outside himself which he often finds looking at himself—from himself—his own eyes, detached, as it were—and located at some distance—find his leaning figure for all the world to look like some shadow figure, a silhouetted shadow puppet on a wall of infinite space---a wall of pale depths . . .

El Colonel is smiling to himself, smiling as he enters into the area beyond the ticket taker’s booth—an area where the once red plush rug is now worn thread bare—literally thread bare, El Colonel finds himself smiling to himself, smiling to find the time worn phrase, itself not a bit “threadbare”—to be in actuality, there before him, the most vivid illustration he has ever found of that thread bare phrase—and, on this thread bare surface, are scattered the kernels of long ago pop corn, the ashes of ancient cigarettes, the air still redolent with the scents of both—the heavy clinging haze of the popcorn smells intermingled with the ashy tastes, acrid and acrimonious, of the cigarette ashes held in suspension among the interstices of the threadbare rug . . .

El Colonel smiles, and, pushing on, as he smilingly puts it to himself: “as his actions, reversing Aristotelian Poetics, imitate the words—push on”—pushing through the heavily covered door that opens somewhat unwillingly into the Cinema itself . . . before entering, El Colonel’s eyes take in this dim lit arena—picking out the shadowy tops of the lines of the seats—here and there, like rows of broken teeth—betraying the presence of seats which, due to the excited or angry gestures of some patron, dim, jerky, faraway—some patron’s having pounded on them, beaten them, into a kind of slouching submission—so that the rows of seats are broken up by these gaps, these craggy monuments of remaining teeth-like chairs—jagged and raw—their blank spaces staring at the Cinema screen—gaping from their gaps into the as yet dim presence looming there in the shadows at some distance from El Colonel, who remains for some moments standing at the entrance . . .

[To Be Continued]

NOTE. David-Baptiste Chirot –born Lafayette, Indiana, grew up in Vermont, lived also Gottingen, Germany, Arles & Paris, France, Wroclaw, Poland, Hastveda, Sweden, Boston and Milwaukee. Since 1997 essays, Visual & sound poetry, Performance Scores, prose poetry, poetry and book reviews in 70+ different print and online journals in USA, Brazil, England, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Australia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Turkey, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Uruguay. David-Baptiste Chirot's own blog can be found at, & previous works have appeared on Poems & Poetics with more to come in the future.

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Translated with Commentary by Rowan Eryn Laurie

My true Cauldron of Incubation
It has been taken by the Gods from the mysteries of the elemental abyss
A fitting decision that ennobles one from one's center
that pours forth a terrifying stream of speech from the mouth.

I am Amirgen White-knee
pale of substance, gray of hair,
accomplishing my incubation
in proper poetic forms
in diverse color.

The Gods do not apportion the same to everyone --
tipped, inverted, right-side-up;
no knowledge, half-knowledge, full-knowledge --
for Eber and Donn,
the making of fearful poetry,
vast, mighty draughts of death-spells
in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between,
in the proper construction of rhyme,
in this way it narrates the path and function of my cauldron.

I sing of the Cauldron of Wisdom
which bestows the merit of every art,
through which treasure increases,
which magnifies every common artisan,
which builds up a person through their gift.

Where is the root of poetry in a person; in the body or in the soul? They say it is in the soul, for the body does nothing without the soul. Others say it is in the body where the arts are learned, passed through the bodies of our ancestors. It is said this is the seat of what remains over the root of poetry; and the good knowledge in every person's ancestry comes not into everyone, but comes into every other person.

What then is the root of poetry and every other wisdom? Not hard; three cauldrons are born in every person, i.e., the Cauldron of Incubation, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom.

The Cauldron of Incubation is born upright in a person from the beginning. It distributes wisdom to people in their youth.

The Cauldron of Motion, however, after turning increases. That is to say it is born tipped on its side in a person.

The Cauldron of Wisdom is born on its lips (upside-down) and it distributes wisdom in every art besides (in addition to) poetry.

The Cauldron of Motion, then, in every other person is on its lips, i.e., in ignorant people. It is side-slanting in people of bardcraft and strophes (mid-level poetry). It is on its back in the "great streams" (highest poetic grades) of great wisdom and poetry. On account of this not every mid-level person has it on its back because the Cauldron of Motion must be turned by sorrow or joy.

Question: How many divisions of sorrow that turn the cauldrons of sages? Not hard; four. Longing, grief, the sorrows of jealousy and the discipline of pilgrimage to holy places. It is internally that these are borne although the cause is from outside.

There are then two divisions of joy that turn the Cauldron of Wisdom, i.e., divine joy and human joy.

In human joy there are four divisions among the wise. Sexual intimacy; the joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft; the joy of the binding principle of wisdom after good (poetic) construction; and, joy of fitting poetic frenzy from the grinding away at the fair nuts of the nine hazels on the Well of Segais in the Sìdhe realm. They cast themselves in great quantities like a ram's fleece upon the ridges of the Boyne, moving against the stream swifter than racehorses driven in the middle-month on the magnificent day every seven years.

The Gods touch a person through divine and human joys so that they are able to speak prophetic poems and dispense wisdom and perform miracles, as well as offering wise judgment and giving precedents and wisdom in answer to everyone's wishes. But the source of these joys (the Gods) is outside the person although the actual cause of the joy is internal.

I sing of the Cauldron of Motion
understanding grace,
accumulating knowledge
streaming poetic inspiration as milk from the breast,
it is the tide-water point of knowledge
union of sages
stream of sovereignty
glory of the lowly
mastery of words
swift understanding
reddening satire
craftsman of histories
cherishing pupils
looking after binding principles
distinguishing the intricacies of language
moving toward music
propagation of good wisdom
enriching nobility
ennobling non-nobles
exalting names
relating praises
through the working of law
comparing of ranks
pure weighing of nobility
with fair words of the wise
with streams of sages,
the noble brew in which is boiled
the true root of all knowledge
which bestows after duty
which is climbed after diligence
which poetic ecstasy sets in motion
which joy turns
which is revealed through sorrow;
it is lasting power
undiminishing protection
I sing of the Cauldron of Motion

What is this motion? Not hard; an artistic turning or artistic after-turning or artistic journey, i.e., it bestows good wisdom and nobility and honor after turning.

The Cauldron of Motion
bestows, is bestowed
extends, is extended
nourishes, is nourished
magnifies, is magnified
invokes, is invoked
sings, is sung
preserves, is preserved
arranges, is arranged
supports, is supported.

Good is the well of measuring
good is the dwelling of speech
good is the confluence of power
which builds up strength.

It is greater than every domain
it is better than every inheritance,
it brings one to knowledge
adventuring away from ignorance.

NOTE. During the 7th century CE, an Irish fili or sacred poet composed a poem on one of the mysteries of the Irish wisdom tradition. This poem is preserved in a 16th century manuscript, along with the glosses in 11th century language explaining some of its more obscure references. When it was finally "discovered" by modern scholars, it was named "The Cauldron of Poesy" for its references to poetry being created in three internal cauldrons.

Three translations of this text exist, published by the Celtic scholars P.L. Henry and Liam Breatnach, and by the well-known occultist Caitlin Matthews. I am aware of two other discussions of the text in the Pagan press, one by the Canadian druid Sean O'Tuathail and the other in my own work under the name Erynn Darkstar. [In the preceding], I offer my own translation of the poem and commentary, along with some theories and suggestions for working with the internal cauldrons as a path to poetic and magical achievement.

There is some debate in the scholarly community about whether the filidh were a subclass of druid, or an independent order of poets and magicians. Fili is cognate with vates, a Gaulish religious functionary, and ovate, a similar British station. The highest ranking filidh were called ollamh . The word fili probably means "seer." The word derives from the Archaic Irish *weis by way of the Insular Celtic word *wel- which had the original imperative meaning "see!" or "look at!" and is related to the Irish verb to be. Their work included divination, blessing and blasting magic, creating praise poetry for their patrons, the preservation of lore and genealogies, and occasionally the rendering of judgments. Cormac's Glossary derives fili from "fi, 'poison' in satire, and li, 'splendor' in praise, and it is these variously that the poet proclaims."

The early Irish filidh wore cloaks of birds' feathers called tugen and were sometimes ecstatic hermits known as geilta, composing their poetry and seeking mantic visions through various techniques involving incubatory darkness, liminal times or places such as dawn and dusk or doorways, and the ingestion of raw substances such as the meat of sacrificed animals. The chewing or eating of raw flesh is apparently a link to the Otherworld, for spirits and the inhabitants of the Sídhe mounds are said to eat raw foods. By the 14th century, the filidh were divided into seven grades of achievement, requiring at least twelve years of study to attain the highest grades. During the eighth year of study, mantic and divinatory techniques began to be taught, and those capable of practicing them were known as ollamh . This title is still in use in Ireland to denote a university professor.

During the time of the Christianization of Ireland, the druids were repressed or absorbed, and the filidh subsumed many of their social functions and status in Irish society. Filidh were often associated with monasteries, and this association was maintained until at least the 17th century, when the English began earnest attempts to destroy Irish Catholicism.

[The full text with extensive and admittedly personal commentaries can be found at (J.R.)]

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Demosthenes Agrafiotis: from Now 1/3

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 4:22 PM 0 comments
Translated from Greek by John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis


the week ends
the century ends
the millennium ends

cycles close
cycles open

travelers to galaxies
(microscales, macroscales)
make the moments unbearable
adolescence persists
in spite of all the confusion
in spite of all the insolence
outlet to old age
apprehension for the unavoidable

and the ones who have crossed the river and
...........speak from the side of darkness
and see specks
conflagrations, flames
recoiling, turbulence
chimeras, flesh, agonies, pleasures

neither consolation

so many answers (platitudes)

the luxury of obedience
..................of disaster
perhaps lighthearted insouciance
and like
instructions iterated a thousand times
and the intention underestimates the discovery
it does not erase the road and the borders
and from the start
silence would be the easiest solution.


1 month
30 days
(30 x 24) 720 hours
43200’ minutes



of hands and thoughts
happy end


decision for the writing
so many excuses
leave a slippery substrate


the prescribed
difficulty and in one moment
the critical points are moved
risky references
now the diagnosis triumphs
so much time
greediness for nothing
disappearance of trust
“good morning”
“you are not in a position to…”
center and periphery
galaxy and beaches
without a safety net.

NOTE. Demosthenes Agrafiotis was born on 28 December 1946 in Karpenissi of Evrytania, Greece. He is active in the fields of literature & the visual arts with books of poetry & exhibitions of photography, paintings, drawings, actions & installations, including a collaboration with Jerome Rothenberg, An Oracle for Delphi (Membrane Press, 1995). He has a special interest in the relation between art & new technologies, for multimedia or intermedia projects & also for performances. His essays are dedicated to analysis of different art forms as cultural phenomena. He has participated in various artistic activities, such as publications, small press initiatives, mail-art & alternative art projects. His magazine Clinamen (1980-90), co-published by Erato Publications in Athens (1991-1994), was active for over two decades as an amalgam of Greek poetry & art with new poetry & art from Europe & America. His second book to appear in English, Chinese Notebook, translated by John Sakkis & Angelos Sakkis, has just been published by Ugly Duckling Press, & he has continued over the years to be an active & influential figure in the European avant-garde. A complete translation of Now 1/3 is scheduled for early publication by BlazeVOX Books.

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For a week this coming January I will be visiting the Mexican Caribbean town of Tulum in Quintana Roo & participating with a number of other poets from the United States & Mexico in a series of workshops, discussions & poetry readings. Among the faculty from the United States are Diane Wakoski, Mark Weiss, Paul Hoover, & Jen Hofer, & the poets from Mexico include Luis Cortés Bargalló, Rocío Cerón, Carla Faesler, & the Mayan poet Feliciano Sánchez Chan.

My own contribution will be a series of three discussion sessions (conversations rather than workshops), as follows:

1. Translation as Composition & Other Forms of Othering: A discussion of various procedures for bringing a range of other voices into the work of the poet as individual author.

2. Ethnopoetics at the Millennium: A review of ethnopoetics four decades after its introduction into poetic theory & practice.

3. The Anthology as Collage & Manifesto: A personal account of how the anthology can serve as an epic form of composition & as a means of transforming our ideas of poetry as such.

In the words of the organizers: “U.S. Poets in Mexico brings American and Mexican poets together to collaborate, work to strengthen their own writing, to expand public audiences for poetry from both nations, and to further literary cultural awareness between Mexico and the United States.”

Further information & procedures for enrollment can be found at

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[continued from postings on 10/17/10 and 10/29/10]

But there is another side to improvisational poetics, one that seems to gender the whole phenomenon: the poetry of the improvvisatrici calls attention to improvisation’s ephemerality--a poetry that cannot be preserved--and, by an inevitable metonymy, to the poet’s own mortality. The improvvisatrici and even more their followers in written poetry sometimes wedded improvisation to the death of the performer. In this regard women’s poetry as improvisation becomes embedded in two popular 18th-century and Romantic paradigms for the woman poet: the nightingale and, even more, Sappho. In both cases, and unlike the Byronic model, poetry and human life become mutually exclusive. Unlike a Byron or a Procter, the “annihilation,” in Keats’s negatively capable term and in the experience of the improvvisatore totally absorbed in his or her performance, seemed for some woman poets a reality. As L.E.L., often given the epithet Sappho, wrote of a woman’s poetic career: “Your songs sink on the ear, and then they die, / A flower’s sweetness, but a flower’s life.” The ephemeral sweetness produced tragically, like the songs of Sappho, equates to the brevity of the life of its author. Similarly, of Felicia Hemans’s superb late lyrics about poetry as ephemeral sweetness, the 19th-century’s George Gilfillan said: “the sweet sounds often overpowered the meaning, kissing it, as it were, to death.” What counts here as her particularly poetic effect is something non-semantic, erotic; meaning, like the life of the poet as improvvisatrice, dies in and of poetry’s embrace. Hemans, it might be added, also saw her own life as a “waste,” again the wasted life equating to a poetry of supplement (music, kisses, not meaning), what Bataille calls “sacred waste.”

At this point, I wish to rethink this what I might call Sapphic economics as something less lugubrious, less tragic, and more indicative of a new poetics, based upon the principles and associations of improvisation. What, let us ask, constitutes the trajectory of this poetry? Given its performative origins, it most pointedly establishes registers of success by the response of the audience; in other words it directs itself away from the performer-poet. In the imagery of the poetry of improvisation, the falling cataract permanently leaves its source, “a fine mind,” in L.E.L.’s [Laetitia Landon's] words, that “wastes itself away,” to end up “A noble stream which, unconfined / Makes fertile its rich banks, and glads the face / Of nature round; but not so when its wave / Is lost in artificial waterfalls.” (History of the Lyre) Elsewhere she refers to “the hand / That can call forth the tones, yet cannot tell / Whether they go, or if they live or die.” This other-directedness, fertilizing river banks, refuses to replenish the poet herself, just as the ecstatic performance becomes a self-annihilation. But suppose that a female poet could replace the Sapphic poetic economy of scarcity with a comic one? One feels in the late lyrics of Hemans and the poetry of L.E.L., and in the fact that people perceived them as improvvisatrici, that part of what wants to die off is the very idea of self as a necessary fact of lyric celebration. The history of experimental or open-form poetry by women would indicate the possibility of a different outcome from the Sapphic one, one in which the mobility, the libidinal onrush, the spontaneity and ecstasy, the supplemental quality of the verse, would put forth not a self in an act of self-depletion but rather a mind-in-motion. No one equates the destabilized self as a poetry of the ephemeral better than Felicia Hemans in “The Dying Improvisatore”; even the quatrain, with its distended middle of two five-stress lines and slighter first and fourth lines of three stresses, images a passing wave:

Pouring itself away
As a wild bird amidst the foliage turns
That which within him triumphs, beats, or burns,
Into a fleeting lay. . . .

Similarly L.E.L. in Erinna, a long poem based on the ancient Greek lyric woman poet, proposes “to trace the thoughts which are the workings of the poet’s mind.”

One must note here that the imagery of “flowing” belongs generally to Romantic improvisational poetics and should not be equated with an essentialist feminism. “Flow,” in this instance is a metaphor, as it were, for metonymy as juxtaposition, contiguity, linkages—what Landon and, as we shall presently see, the contemporary poets Lyn Hejinian and Rae Armantrout all argue for in a feminist poetics.

Armantrout has written about the special advantage of a truly feminist poetics: women poets may choose to reject a poetry of the unitary subject which, ironically, reinforces the stable view, positive or negative, that patriarchy has of them, and instead may consider writing a poetry of their actual, perhaps less comfortable but more generative, subject-position on society’s periphery—a poetry of destabilizations, in the language of improvisation, of flowings, in the words of Lyn Hejinian, a metonymic poetry: “Metonomy moves attention from thing to thing. . . .Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonomy preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship. . . . the metonymic world is unstable.” Hejinian’s poetry, says Armantrout, speaks to the experience and the vision of many women in that, with a critical allusion to the Coleridgean imagination, “opposites and discordant life experiences can be encompassed without being distorted by resolution.” The poems of Lorine Niedecker, she says, “achieve a brilliant clarity, not because of the predominance of a single image or a subordinating metaphor, but because they follow the labyrinthian twists of thought and circumstance with great agility.”

For the later Romantics poetry is a pouring forth of words that reside at the periphery of ordinary consciousness and supplemental to it, at the threshold of speech, the lips, at the break of day, but authentic as the fluctuations, the “changes,” as L.E.L. says, of being. Words are not discrete from but blend with thought, just as they blend with bird song and nature sounds. “I feel / My spirit would have pour’d itself in song, / Have learn’d a language from the rustling leaves, / The singing of the birds, and of the tide.” Landon and Shelley, moreover, speak of poetry in terms of links and chains, so that the tracing of the thoughts of a person occurs as metonomy. As Landon says: “Thoughts are Life’s great human links, / And mingle with our feelings.”

A metonymic poetry functioning to image the mind-in-motion seems to have two important outcomes in later Romantic poetry: the first as a sign of a feminist poetry of the destabilization of self and the second, more generally, as taking the form of blank verse in a function new for Romanticism. Mme. De Stael’s Corinne (1811) embraces both outcomes. In the midst of her performance in the Naples Countryside, the protagonist and female genius, Corinne, an improvvisatrice, abruptly stops her song on the tragic masculine history of Italy: “Corinne was suddenly gripped by an irresistible emotion; she looked round at the enchanting place and wonderful evening, at Oswald who was there but perhaps would not always be there, and tears flowed from her eyes. Even the common people, who had just applauded her so noisily, respected her emotion, and they all waited silently for her words to tell them of her feelings. For a time she played a prelude on her lyre, and no longer dividing her song into eight-line stanzas, in her poetry she gave herself up to an uninterrupted flow”—an exchange, presumably of ottava rima for something akin to blank verse (or perhaps even “free” verse), more obviously a verse image of the linkage of thoughts. The next phase of her song features the history of women. It is as if she is proposing a subversive poetry of and by women, one that refuses fixed identities and meanings and instead follows the labyrinthian twists of female thought and circumstance.

The British Romantic women poets associated with improvisation do not choose the ottava rima form. Instead they opt for shorter, less complicated, stanzas and occasionally blank verse (see L.E.L.’s Erinna)—forms that move more quickly down the page. This suggests to me that they are more interested in the movement of mind, link by link, “now” to “now,” than they are in the freedom of mind as registered by extravagant play marked by the foregrounding of non-semantic elements. It is striking to me that Erinna and the strange poem “Orpheus,” thought to have been improvised by P. B. Shelley and transcribed by Mary Shelley (both in blank verse), recast the function of blank-verse monologues from the 1790s—from a domestic poem of quotidian meditation by an actual person in real time to a monologue from history or mythology, a voice from the collective. Here blank verse seems to function less to solidify in a monumental (Miltonic) verse form the democratic person as free-standing agent and more to catch before they vanish the ephemeral energies of one going out of his or her own nature. At such moments the risk-taking side of Romanticism urges poetry and its readers towards an “unwinding of imagination,” the habit of mind required for the perpetual reconsideration of our world.

Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities; Gioia Angeletti, “Byron, Improvisation, and Romanticism”; Charles Bernstein, ed.; Close Listening; Mme. De Stael, Corinne; or, Italy; Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans. Jacques Barzun; Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan Wolfson; Steve McCaffery, “Language Writing from Productive to Libidinal Economy”; Friedrich Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry

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1. white as the land looks | the vultures | white also | circle above | each one a soul | glows white | on horizon | or on page

2. the land is the land | it is white | thunderheads cover it | drumbeats | joining the land | & the sky

3. sky receptive to thunder | drumbeats to sky | white to colors | faces to eyes | sand turning white | like the sky

4. green is also | a color | like flesh | stung by thorns | my body | or yours | sparks a rage | like a drumbeat | violent | mineral | white

5. uproots trees | marks the land | like a body | shattered by lightning | the word | once proclaimed | white turns yellow

6. those who beat | on a waterdrum | spines tightly pressed | to a wall | & the drumbeat | spreads violet ash | on the sky | a sun glowing white

7. language | a desert | pink everywhere | seeds in your mouth | like white crows | & more drumbeats | a flute | turns everything white



1. A clarity | of all the senses | lingers | leaving on the mouth & face | a white precipitation | sculptures crystal-thin | blank space | translucid whirlpools

2. Is it a pilgrimage | that brings us | dancing in a ring | into a forest | where our thoughts | are white | the only signs | our steps | that break the silence

3. Green would be better | a slim defile | through which we pass | an archipelago | the shadow of a syllable | a white reflection

4. Is it red | or is it blue | this dazzlement | that blinds us | numbers | dancing in the void | like things | a final clarity | no longer white

5. Thoughts fade | winds cease | forgetfulness erases truth | there is a deeper music in the words we speak | yellow isn’t white | & amethyst | is just a color



1. Presentiment & penumbra | hide the river | where the sand | still white | buries a palm | a pike emerging | skewers our vowels | as we speak

2. Blood fills the mouth | the chest counts anxious minutes | as the dead might | undulations | of a copper lamp | high overhead | casting a shadow

3. Transparency in daylight | where a river | seeks a river | poles apart | the consonants feel heavy | water vanishes | the drought starts up

4. The Spanish centuries | remain anonymous | against my forehead | silt obscures a castle | coal burns yellow | patience ends | a white confusion | covers all

5. What does the vase hold? | blood & bones | not flowers | the sad reality of words | a language of atonement | silences & syllables | white as this dust

6. No further clarity | than this | no histories or hieroglyphs | to guide us | dunes & water all around | conspiracies of light | absent survivors

7. White bones | appeasement hard to find | or patience | when we climb the ladder | mineshafts open up | below | a red hand beckons

8. His source is Mexico | his language set apart from | all the others | white on white

9. pulsebeat quickens | on the playing card he holds | a foliage unfolds for him | a language no one reads | a river rife with whitecaps | rolling by


NOTE. The preceding poems were commisioned and prepared for "Trans-Poetic Exchange: A Colloquium on Haroldo de Campos and Octavio Paz's poem 'Blanco'" at Stanford University, January 29-30, 2010. An invitation toward what de Campos called "transcreation" and I call "othering," the method employed here is one I've used in The Lorca Variations and elsewhere.   (J.R.)]

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Translation from the Dutch by Jerome Rothenberg


All muddled up
A glass of tea
Some cups
Some pots
And get a fresh look
at what’s lying there –
This is the shadow
of the shadow of
a candlestick!
A piece of paper
& a can in blue
white &
An ash tray with
a pipe stem
& a very heavy book
in blue & yellow
with something that looks brown
inside a black can

And the candle there!
The light! The light!

And a mist around them
& their glow
Some spoons
Something that’s gleaming
on the gold rim of the
And there’s another piece of paper

on which lies: a red match
a couple of blue pamphlets
a little piece of string atop
a small red box
And then the cloth!
Half a chair
there in the mist
a little further back
And how the yellow cloth becomes
& that much softer
And then here
........................and here
here on the paper’s
garish white
are two black nails
one that looks real & one a silhouette
my hand
my hand
a hill with murky caves
in which a rafter lies
between two clumps of clay
wedged tight


moon falls in shape of little metal plates against my face
a slender lurid black whore dances foxtrots backs of heads
.................................................................... bob up & down
bloodnaked half the barroom’s bodies torn apart
..............We..................................................... White
white napkins cut me cut you cut all there is in two
electric lights burn shamelessly into your body parts
gawk gawk gawk
........ here & there an arm sticks up & there a hand grabs hold & there a finger pulses
........glimmers glitters & makes light

........ A JOKE
a paradise of toads at night
these figures crowded into separateness
phenomena of push & pull
Gigantic Toad
“And now?”
Greedily as we slurp these things down
we eat each other up
we eat knives saucers plates
we eat lamps tables chairs
we eat men women things

........o hunger stirred by feastings in the founts of night
I greet your small blind everlastingness
& through my rigid jaws drink God’s green blood

NOTE. Van Doesburg’s 1920s movement De Stijl can, like Kurt Schwitters’ Merz, be viewed as an offshoot of earlier European Dada, linked to it also by van Doesburg himself. Close to the mark or not, Pierre Joris and I presented it as such in the first volume of Poems for the Millennium, in which these two translations first appeared. Reprinting them here is to set van Doesburg (poet, artist, architect) alongside other Dada artists & poets (or artist-poets) who have previously appeared in Poems and Poetics. Like Schwitters too, to whom he was very close, van Doesburg was an anti-artist on the side of art, who wrote in What Is Dada?: “Dada is yes-no, a bird on four legs, a ladder without steps, a square without angels. Dada possesses as many positives as negatives. To think that Dada simply means destruction is to misunderstand life, of which Dada is the expression.” (J.R.)

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Michael Davidson: On a Poetics of Disability

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:06 AM 0 comments
[The following, from Davidson’s pioneering essay “Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner,” was an opening to an area of poetic concern previously outside the range of critical consideration. It later appeared in his Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (University of Michigan Press, 2008) & is echoed by much else in Davidson’s ongoing contributions toward a new & vitalized poetics. The full essay is available on-line at, & underlying the poetics are key works of poetry such as The Prose of Fact, The Landing of Rochambeau, & The Arcades from the 1980s & 1990s. It’s worth noting too, as a followup to Davidson’s opening sentence, that 2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

how to dance
sitting down
(Charles Olson, “Tyrian Business”)

The year 2000 marked the tenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an event commemorated in June by a twenty-four city relay by disabled athletes and activists. The torch for this relay arrived in Southern California, carried by Sarah Will in a jet ski on Venice Beach. After handing the torch to another disabled athlete, Will was lifted into her wheelchair to join a trek down Venice Boulevard to the Western Center for Independent Living. Although some disability activists might criticize the triumphalist character of this celebration––crippled athletes hitting the beach in jet skis––the event’s climax at an Independent Living center was a fitting destination for persons who came out of various medical closets in the 1960s and began living together in communal spaces and public housing. The Center for Independent Living is, coincidentally, the same venue that brought the poet Larry Eigner from his home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1978 to live in Berkeley, California, where he spent his last years.

The passage of the ADA in 1990 capped three decades of activism by persons who, for physical or psychological reasons, had been denied access to public buildings, insurance policies, housing, medical treatment, signage, education, marriage, sexuality, and childbearing––not to mention legal representation and respect. Activism on their behalf began in social movements of the 1960s, but unlike anti-war, feminist, and civil rights struggles, the disability rights movement has not–until recently––received the same attention by historians of civil rights, This silence is odd since the disabled community cuts across all demographic, racial and class lines and, potentially, includes everyone. It may be that the very pervasiveness of disability contributes to its marginal status as a rights claiming category.

There are a number of reasons why the subject of disability is often omitted in the roster of 1960s social movements, although this absence is being corrected in a number of recent books dealing with disability history. Civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s could invoke long traditions of advocacy going back to antebellum abolitionism; the anti-war movement grew out of pacifist and anti-imperialist politics of the nineteenth-century; feminism grew out of suffragism and the labor movement. Disabled persons, however, were treated as medical “cases,” best kept out of sight, their wheelchairs, braces, and oxygen tents sequestered in hospitals, clinics and asylums. Individual disabilities were treated independently of one another, balkanized by separate regimes of treatment, therapy and social service. Social support often came from charity movements and parental groups that reinforced a paternalist ethos of the disabled person as innocent victim or child rather than fully vested citizen. Nor was the disability community unified in its goals and social agendas. Persons with occasional or non-apparent disabilities may choose to pass in able-bodied culture and refuse the protections of social legislation; someone who loses sight late in life may lack the same institutional and cultural support as someone blind from birth; Deaf persons often do not want to be viewed as disabled, preferring to see themselves as a linguistic minority; persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities are often separated from those with physical impairments. Forging alliances among such disparate populations was, needless to say, difficult for early disability rights activists who sought coalitional formations across medical lines yet honored material differences among separate disabilities.

Beyond these factors, there were economic disincentives to recognizing disability as a civil right since redress required pro-active investment in infrastructure modification, technologies, sign language interpreters, transportation and other accommodations. Providing ramps and elevators for wheelchairs, TDDs, and braille signage would cost businesses money, and many legislators felt that federal funds should not be spent when private philanthropy could serve the same function. As Lennard Davis points out, both the political left and right perceived the disabled body as “unproductive,” which, in a world based upon instrumentality and capitalization, was not a basis upon which class analysis or public policy could be forged.). As I suggest in chapter seven “universal design” means more than ramps for wheelchair users or “talking” traffic signals for deaf persons; it implies breaking the hold of stigma in order to examine the ways in which a rhetoric of normalcy infects social attitudes and thwarts the forming of community. Recently, one of my colleagues who is active in the field of minority rights complained about the university administration’s insensitivity to diversity: “It was like talking to a deaf person,” he said, linking authorities who won’t listen to people who can’t. The idea that the deaf are “dumb,” in any sense of that term, is precisely the stigma that needs to be erased if alliances between traditional civil rights based on class, race, gender, and sexuality are to be forged with disability.

Which is why a poetics -- as much as a politics -- of disability is important: because it theorizes the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language. A poetics of disability might unsettle the thematics of embodiment as it appeared in any number of literary and artistic movements of the 1960s. This same thematics was shared with the New Left in its stress on the physical body as localized site of the social. Whether in feminism’s focus on reproductive rights, youth culture’s fetish of sexual liberation, cultural nationalist celebrations of “race men,” or the anti-war movement’s politics of heroic resistance, the healthy, preferably young body becomes a marker of political agency. Within the world of art, this same emphasis on a normalized body emerged through a set of imbricated metaphors––gesture, breath, orality, performance, “leaping” poetry, “action” painting, projective verse, deep image, happenings, spontaneous bop prosody––that organized what Daniel Belgrad has called “the culture of spontaneity” in the 1960s. While a poetics of embodiment foregrounds the body as source for artistic production, it nevertheless calls for some unmediated physical or mental core unhampered by prostheses, breathing tubes, or electric scooters.

What would happen if we subjected a poetics of embodiment to the actual bodies and mental conditions of its authors. What would it mean to read the 1960s poetics of process and expression for its dependence on ableist models, while recognizing its celebration of idiosyncrasy and difference? By this optic, we might see Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman not only as confessional poets but as persons who lived with depression or bi-polar disorders, for whom personal testimony was accompanied by hospitalization, medicalization, and family trauma. What would it mean to think of Charles Olson’s “breath” line as coming from someone with chronic emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking? What if we added to Audre Lorde’s multicultural description of herself as a Black, lesbian, mother, “sister outsider,” a person with breast cancer (as she herself does in The Cancer Journals)? Robert Creeley’s lines in “The Immoral Proposition,” “to look at it is more / than it was,” mean something very particular when we know that their author has only one eye. To what extent are Elizabeth Bishop’s numerous references to suffocation and claustrophobia in her poems an outgrowth of a life with severe asthma? Robert Duncan’s phrase “I see always the underside turning” may refer to his interest in theosophy and the occult, but it also derives from the poet’s visual disorder, in which one eye sees the near and the other far. Was William Carlos Williams’s development of the triadic stepped foot in his later career a dimension of his prosody or a typographical response to speech disorders resulting from a series of strokes? It is worth remembering that the signature poem of the era was not only a poem about the madness of the best minds of the poet’s generation, but about the carceral and therapeutic controls that defined those minds as mad, written by someone who was himself “expelled from the academies for crazy.” And if we include in our list the effects of alcoholism and substance abuse, a good deal of critical discussion of 1960s poetry could be enlisted around disability issues.

I am not suggesting that a focus on the disabled body is the only way to read postwar poetry, but it is worth noting that its poetics of embodiment brought a renewed focus on the vicissitudes of hand and eye, musculature and voice, as dimensions of the poetic. The salient feature of poetries generated out of Beat, Black Mountain, New York School, Deep Image and other non-formalist poetries was a belief in the poem’s registration of physiological and cognitive response, the line as “score for the voice,” the poem as act or gesture. Charles Olson’s assertion that “Limits / are what any of us / are inside of” speaks as much for the creative potential of the disabled artist as it does for the American self-reliant hero of his Maximus Poems. Perhaps it would be more balanced to say that the self-evident status of a certain kind of body has often underwritten an expressivist poetics whose romantic origins can be traced to a tubercular Keats, syphilitic Shelley and Nietzsche, clubfooted Byron, and mad John Clare and Gerard de Nerval.

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