[numbered sections 1-5 appeared earlier – here – in Poems and Poetics]

Martí again: “The trees must form ranks to keep the giant with seven-league boots from passing!

An ever intriguing model for our global/local/loco poetics, is the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, not the name he was born with but the name he aspired to, who was thrown out of the Scots nationalist party, despite his poetic work in synthetic Scots dialect, for being too international; and thrown out of the communist party for being too localist.

In her collection of Mapuche poets, Elicura Chihuailaf writes that “Poetry does not merely safeguard the cultural identity of a people, it generates it.” In this way, Chihuailaf emphasizes the productive forces of poetry in contrast to the reproductive reflexes of cultural theory. A poetics of the Americas would be less concerned with analyzing the themes and cultural narratives produced in Spanish and English fiction than in listening for – and composing – a collage of distinct language practices across the Americas. In replacing theme and system – “comparison” and “symbology” in Olson’s terms -- with overlays, palimpsests, and collage, I am suggesting that we conceptualize our Americas as a hypertextual or syncretic constellation, with alphabetic, glyphic, and a/oral layers. A constellation is an alternative model for understanding what is often characterized as fragmentation, parataxis, isolation, insularity, atomization, and separate development. Hypertextuality maps a syncretic space that articulates points of contact and that potentiates both spatial connections among discrepant parts and temporal overlays that merge or melt into one another.

The Mapuche volume’s palimpsestic approach emerges directly from the material conditions of the poetics of the Americas: not multiculturalism, but what Chihuailaf usefully calls (in Bierhorst’s English translation of the original Spanish text of this Mapudungun-speaking poet): interculturalism. Indeed, this book is in three languages: English, Spanish and Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche). Mapudungun is the most recent of the three language to be alphabetized, that is, to be transliterated into writing. At first I was confused as to why no translator was listed for the Spanish, but then I realized it was taken for granted that the poets represented in Mapudungun had made their own translations, or more likely worked bilingually in both languages, perhaps moving back from the Spanish into Mapudungum as much as going from a fully original Mapudungum and translated into Spanish, as if it were a foreign language. Perhaps what makes this indigenous for our Americas is not the single strand of the Mapudungum but the braided layers of the aboriginal, the colonial, the immigrant: specifically the joining of any two against a third, which is perceived to be the greater threat. Recall Rothenberg’s lines – a “jew among / the indians.”

Martí speaks of us as laboring with “English breeches, Parisian vest, North America jacket, and Spanish cap [as the] Indian hover[s] near us in silence,” and goes on to emphasize the necessity of rejecting racism by acknowledging not only those here before the Europeans but also those who were violently wrenched from Africa for a rough landing in a New World, those who sojourn “alone and unrecognized among the rivers and wild animals.” Marti is at pains to not the erase of the personhood of those brought to the Americas as slaves. But he also registers that the new worlds of our Americas require an ecopoetics, as Jonathan Skinner proposes in his magazine of that name.

In the imaginary space of our Americas, none has sovereignty, either of suffering or land, for sovereignty is reserved for the ghosts and the wind, which are forever lost both to and in time.

The poetics of the Americas has for hundreds of years been creating syncretic indigenous languages distinct from the received dictions of the languages of conquest or emigration: indigenous in the sense of born in a region, originating in a place. The place of here, the time of now: necessarily a crossroads.

That’s why I would stress, in looking for the threads that interconnect the poetries of the Americas, innovation and over refinement, as a way to register how important ingenuity has been for our Americas. That is, the points of contact that we may find in our mutual inhabitations of the Americas may not be in how we have extended and refined a poetic language we have inherited, for example from Europe, from London’s English or Madrid’s Spanish, or Lisbon’s Portuguese, but rather how these poetries have worked to disrupt the ascent of a literature of refinement and assimilation.

I hope this may suggest a response to a criticism, often heard, to proposals for expanding the study of American literature to the literature of the Americas. If American, in the sense of U.S., literature is understood as an extension or development of earlier, primarily British literature, then we need, necessarily, to look first to the earlier literature of England to understand our own. This is a primary rationale behind the structure of the English department, where the teaching of U.S. literature was itself a hard won battle in the earlier part of the last century. I say U.S., not North American, literature because U.S. English Department’s have paid scant attention to either Canadian or Mexican literature, which are seen, at best, as collateral to, rather than foundational for, the development of U.S. literature.

In a recent essay, Frank Davey points out how few points of contact there have been between U.S. and Canadian poets and almost entirely in after 1950. When they have occurred, these confluences have allowed poets on both sides of the border to put forward a set of shared aesthetic and political engagements against more conservative, if not nativist, poetic positions in their own countries. At the same time, the official narratives of the national poetries of each country have largely been traced as separate and disconnected:

Always latent in Canadian culture are the facts that Canada’s roots began in dissent from the US, and that Canada has been repeatedly re-affirmed by US citizens themselves as the alternate North American nation. … Canada’s first wave of English-speaking immigrants were United Empire Loyalist refugees from the American Revolutionary War. Canada’s formation as a nation in 1867 was in part a response to the large US armies created by the Civil War. Just as Canadian governments have been restricted by this complex cultural history in the extent to which they have been able to affiliate themselves with US policies, Canadian poets have necessarily been both unconsciously and consciously selective in their associations with US poetries and poetics. In general, Canadian poets have avoided association with hegemonic US poetries or poetries that have celebrated the US nation. [“Canadian Poetry and its Relationship to US Poetry,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, 2006]

As Roland Greene argues, the need to reform the disciplinary boundaries of literary study, and move toward what he calls “New World Studies” is urgent. See especially his essay “New World Studies and the Limits of National Literatures” (Stanford Humanities Review, 6:1, 1998), from which I have taken the epigraph from Andrade’s "O trovador":

For new world studies the contact zone is not only the literal places of cultural encounter, but the concatenated spaces where worlds—that is, intellectual or spiritual systems represented by versions through which they can be understood or evaluated—move into critical relation with each other; the coming into play of the term and the concept of "world" is vital to the enterprise.

A syncretic poetics of ingenuity and invention, of collage and palimpsest, is averse to the accumulative and developmental model of literature still reigning in the U.S. literary academy (and elsewhere in the Americas). If we think of literature as developing through cross-fertilization and cannibalization, toward the invention of a synthetic indigenous, of new worlds, then we may find it necessary to consider parallel poetries rather than causal poetries: coincidence will become more significant to us than lineage, points of contact more resonant than common origin. Or anyway: a s   s i g n i f i c a n t. This is why Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s notation of the synchronicity of New York’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981) and Buenos Aires’s Xul (1980-1997) is so appealing: it makes no claim to influence, to cause and effect; these are simultaneous developments, yet structurally and poetically related, even twined. (See Livon-Grosman’s “The Questioning of the Americas” in 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium, which I edited for boundary 2 in1999, which is the starting point for my reflections here.)

The poetics of the Americas that I am imagining is not about comparisons: it is about encounter, and change through the encounter; for if you are the same after such a meeting, then there was no encounter.

The project of America – of the Americas – is a process not yet complete, a process that shall never be finished.

For when it’s finished, it’s over.

Our Americas is still in progress: as a talk, an experiment, an essay. Then again perhaps our Americas is a formal procedure, a hypothesis or conditional, requiring aesthetic intervention, seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, and other-worldly reinvention. And this is why, it could just be, that we see the possibilities of our Americas most acutely in poetry: our poetics viewed under the sign of our exchange.

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Juan Gelman: From “The Poems of Sidney West”

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:37 AM 0 comments
Translation from Spanish by Katherine Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

[The following is from a work created by Juan Gelman and presented in Spanish as a presumed translation from an otherwise unknown American poet. The translation of Gelman’s translation into English is therefore the creation as well of the "original" poem and poet. The complete work, both English and Spanish, appears in The Poems of Sidney West, Salt Publishing, 2009, along with Hedeen’s and Rodríguez Núñez’s essay, “Juan Gelman or Translation as Fidelity,” also excerpted below.]

La traducción, ¿es traición?
La poesía, ¿es traducción?
Po I-Po

Translation, is it treason?
Poetry, is it translation?
Po I-Po

lament for the death of parsifal hoolig

it began to rain cows
and in light of the prevailing situation in the
the agronomy students sowed disorder
the engineering professors proclaimed their
the philosophy janitors oiled the staples of
     intellectual reason
the math teachers verified crying the two
     plus two
the language learners invented good bad

while this was happening
a wave of nostalgia invaded the country’s
and the couples look at each other as
and twilight was served for lunch by
     mothers and fathers
and the pain or the hurt slowly dressed the
     little ones
and the chests fell off some and the backs
     off others and to the rest nothing fell
     off at all
and they found God dead several times
and old men flew through the air holding
     tightly to their dried testicles
and old women hurled exclamations and
     felt painful stitches in their memory
     or oblivion
and various dogs approved and toasted
     with Armenian cognac
and they found a man dead several times

near a carnival Friday ripped from the
under an invasion of autumnal insults
or over blue elephants standing on Mr.
     Hollow’s cheek
or close by the larks in sweet vocal
     challenge with summer
they found that man dead
with his hands openly gray
his hips disordered by the events in
remains of wind in his throat
25 cents in his pocket and its still eagle
with feathers wet from infernal rain

oh dear ones!
that rain fell years and years on the
     pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace
     of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humili-
     ations not even one of the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed
     in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water
     and rot and end!

and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man
and while his obituary did not appear in
     the New York Times and the Chicago
     Tribune paid no attention to him
he did not complain when they picked him
    up in a truck from the city
him and his melancholy look

and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it
     is sad
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven

lament for chester carmichael’s bird

all the young girls sing in Melody Spring
all the young boys dance in Melody Spring
and the old women knit the old men smoke
     their sea foam pipes in Melody Spring
all except chester carmichael dead in the fall of

previously he had lost his leaves as a tree
feathers winds pieces of memory falling all
     around him
the last to fall was a woman or what was left
     of a woman
semi-gnawed chewed dry and even
who illuminated chester carmichael night after
and still could not be extinguished and shines
     where the southern road begins

he is dark:
not so much because of earth and death
time reworked his face as a small angel
and now he is naked without alternatives
     decadences furies
among smooth roots and the rest of his
     seasonal companions

chester carmichael was finished
he left with a spikenard in his hand accom-
     panied by one hundred thousand monkeys
who danced and sang as the young girls and
     boys of Melody Spring
there were no sobs screams flowers over his
only a beautiful bird who would stare at him
and now watches over his head

oh tiny bird!
every so often it bends over chester carmichael
     and hears what he is giving back
calm as the sun

[final poem] errata

where it says “he escaped from himself as
     from a prison cell” (page such and such
     verse whatever)
it could say “the tiny tree grew and grew”
     or some other error
as long as it has rhythm
is certain or true

and so sidney west wrote these lines that
     will never love him
in the freshness of a dry dark well
on top of a world blinded by sun
or alone alone alone

where it says “if we were or we were/as
     human faces”
(page such and such verse whatever) it is
     as the ox that ploughed there
not rotted by pain or fury
disguising much of the time in solitude

ah sidney west! here ends (hopefully)
your wretched aspimos leanings
what tiny bit round this man
and what animal within

all those birds that knew how to invent ate
     sidney west
ponina and nino especially
greedy from their state and passion
open sweet as useless

where it says “one day the following happened”
     (page such and such verse whatever)
sadness had happened by before
and that is fatal for the poet
or it was fatal for west’s pain

hey tiny bugs horseflies brilliances greeting
     in the Oak’s cemetery!
there they put sidney west let him sleep
where it says “let him sleep sleep sleep” (page
     such and such verse whatever)
it should say let him sleep and nothing more

and so when west with his first love
headed for sidney sailor
sidney the last in history
spun with west as a water wheel’s donkey

let him sleep and nothing more should be said
     (page such and such verse whatever)
and nothing more let him sleep and nothing
let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep sleep sleep

until his feets grow wings please
let sidney west sleep
until we love one another well
let him sleep sleep sleep

the father breathes it if he really wants to
     breath it
here they lie as before
but let him sleep sleep sleep
let sidney west sleep

where it says “curtains with birds so morning
     enters singing” (page such and such verse
sidney west should turn himself off in the
let him sleep sleep sleep

On Juan Gelman and Sidney West
Translation as Fidelity

Juan Gelman is the most significant, contemporary Argentine intellectual figure and one of the most read and influential poets in the Spanish language. Son of a family of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he grew up like any other porteño, among soccer and tango, in the populous neighborhood of Villa Crespo. He was initiated into reading by his brother Boris, who would often recite Pushkin’s verses to him in Russian. He also received from Boris the works of Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other modern and contemporary classics. At 11, he published his first poem in the magazine Rojo y negro, and in the 1950s formed part of the group of rebel writers, El Pan Duro. He was discovered by Raúl González Túñón, among the most relevant voices of the southern country’s poetic avant-garde, who saw in the young man’s verses “a rich and vivacious lyricism and a principally social content […] that does not elude the richness of fantasy.” ...
     The use of translation as a tool for poetic creation that distinguishes Juan Gelman’s work, reaches its apex with The Poems of Sidney West. María del Carmen Sillato has stressed how this device, along with heteronomy and intertextuality, is “an expression of alterity by recognizing the other-author, the other-text, and the other-language as co-participants in the elaboration of a textual universe.” As for us, we only have left to mention that these translations of Gelman’s translation have been carried out under the most rigorous accuracy. It is this, upon conveying the poetic subject’s message, which makes beautiful expression possible. There is much in these texts that is truly untranslatable, just as surely there was in the imaginary American’s originals. Something must have gotten lost in the translation, and something must have remained, for the whole maintains its power, humanity, lucidity. In sum, we hope this translation is not treason but, on the contrary, an act of fidelity. ...
     The Poems of Sidney West offers us only one clue about when these accounts take place, yet it is significant: chester carmichael “dead in the fall of 1962.” The space is even more precise and determined, always within the real or imagined United States. This territorial emplacement, beyond Argentina’s borders, constitutes a frank questioning by Juan Gelman of the nationalism and populism on the rise during the era. According to this decolonizing political gesture, what is being challenged is not only individualist romanticism but also the collectivist realism promoted by Stalinism and deferred to with its variants by Latin American coreligionists. Ultimately, both this romanticism and realism are based on a voluntarist and thus idealist conception of social movement, which produces a distorted representation of reality. What is sought here is the destruction of the self, a redefinition of the poetic “I” that, like these stories’ characters, experiences a metamorphosis, de/composes to achieve the com/position of the subordinated other.

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Rochelle Owens: from Solitary Workwoman (2011)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:24 AM 0 comments
[The following is the opening section of Owens’ Solitary Workwoman, recently published by Junction Press and printed here by permission of the author.]


This treacherous procession
of words of a HAG
a hag’s words are SEVEN
then she tightens
your black silk hood
Her life is among the ELECT
seen in SCENES of
Daily life in a rural
American town
And then the thought
of mundane domesticity
washes over me
I am WASHED in the
thought of the toil of
women women drawing water
And then the thought
of women dragging waterjugs
their MUSCLES contracting
bigger and bigger
muscles like strong woody cores
And then the thought of
a needle a woman THREADING
a needle wetting the tip
of the thread with her
lips trying seven times
her red and pale mouth
as SMALL as an eye
the needle only a blur
the woman’s eyes of MYOPIA
crossing over to UTOPIA
And then spitting out
a bit of white thread thread
transformed into wet pulp
the shining needle coming
Such difference between those fixations on
HAGS those you see climbing up the ladder
angelic beings with bloody RAGS of
afterbirth You search always the source
‘the fruitful vine’ the hind wing of a
flying ant blending the male and female
spheres spawning BLUE larvae
blue larvae into BONES autonomous
bones washed in saltwater
Is knowledge of the hag a search for
something to grasp—a thickness of
the fat layer beneath the skin her
enormous bunions a callus tearing
like the hymen of a virgin?


And of a hag’s embrace it is LONG smooth
and unyielding her winding arms press
her partner’s body organs
the CRUSH of her knees will fracture
the spine of a youth who cowers
before her but the hero who lies down
beneath her     flattening and pushing
his backbone into the earth like the
roots of a TREE
tensing tensing squeezing squeezing
the muscles of his butt
the hero who lies down beneath her
without sloth or greed and feels LUST
and gazes upwards smiling smiling
with pale and red lips
flickering flickering his long eyelashes
flirting flirting with the hag
singing singing to the hag blowing blowing
kisses singing and blowing kisses
to the GOLDEN belly of the hag
That hero will never creep backwards
on his haunches nor be SORE afraid
he will be redeemed


For a long time the hag’s skills were thought
to be at the very least efficient
able to do good works
You must HOLD onto this idea like you hold
onto the edge of a CLIFF
your attention slips SINISTER
you step on a nail and draw blood

The good rural housewife is seen making
mustard she measures closely and tightens
the cap of the jar

Step where you are into the hag’s DOMAIN

Isolated feigning to be BELOW ground
and waiting—her wisdom GERMINATING
becoming active VITAL
She is musing on her version of a

Suddenly you hear breaking GLASS
your neck twisting to the side FORCE
of escaping a freak accident hit and miss
hit and miss
You begin horsing around with letters
of the names of the hag STRINGLA greek
VETULA latin
You see two gray forms moving towards you
then fusing into ONE hit and miss hit and miss
You repeat the RITUAL    a gray form moving
towards you SPEEDING up swinging and flinging
her gray wool cape her gray wool cape
saturated with piss
The names of the hag STREGA BRUJA HEXE
illuminate gyrating rotating rising upwards
to the ceiling

She is behind me    her elbows winging out
under the FAMOUS piss saturated gray
wool cape
Now she is standing in front of me
And under the cape are a gray donkey’s legs
hit and miss hit and miss    a gray donkey’s legs
knocking the mustard jar off the table
breaking glass shattering glass
splinters of glass glittering YELLOW
DEADLY women’s stuff


And of a hag’s COUNTING waterjugs it is
a solitary activity during the cold months
light reflecting off GLASS
And then the image of the shape of her
knuckles STYX in my mind red and pale
hexagonal bumps and stretching your fingers
and cracking your knuckles
you ponder on the degenerating cartilage
the bulbous arthritic knuckles of the hag
You FORCE a grimace ETCHED into your face
like the ancient mask of TRAGEDY feeling
the black letters of the word LOSS
LOSS lashing and scourging your body
All flesh is GRASS
To each her own PLAGUE



From the time of her first publications Rochelle Owens has spoken with a voice that seemed to some of us – when first heard – like a fierce and unrelenting force of nature. Coming into the present her latest work – the booklength Solitary Workwoman – adds to this a remarkable sense of form unfolding and expanding in the very process of composition – in the way she picks up, then releases, and again picks up key words and images – a truly dazzling display over the near-epic length of the entire work. There is no one quite like her, as Marjorie Perloff explains in summary: “Rochelle Owens’ writing ... is sui generis. She is, in many ways, a proto-language poet, her marked ellipses, syntactic oddities, and dense and clashing verbal surfaces recalling the long poems of Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman. But Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts, male and female, and she presents herself as curiously non-introspective. Hers is a universe of stark gesture, lightning flash, and uncompromising judgment: it is imperative, in her poetic world, to face up to the horror, even as the point of view is flexible enough to avoid all dogmatism.” That Solitary Workwoman is also her most personal and tragic work is its deeper secret and well worth noting. As in her final stanzas:

The chemical energy
in the crone’s brainstem becomes
heat light and SOUND    And the sound
is a VOICE released by the WOOD
and her burning body

In a medieval town GUTTED by fire
the red and pale sun casts a SHADOW
of a donkey and limping beside the animal
is the hag    She is called Helga-Bruja

Her quest is irregular    evolving

No witnesses    no photographs    no proof

More of Owens’s work, plus an extended commentary, appeared in a December 8, 2008 posting on Poems and Poetics.

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First published in a Spanish translation by Ernesto Livon-Grosman in S/N: New World Poetics 1 (2010) [http://snnewworldpoetics.com/nuestras-americas-nuevos-mundos-todavia-en-formacion/] and included in Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions just out from University of Chicago Press.

“The conceited villager believes the entire world to be his village.”
– José Martí, “Our America

“Sou um tupí tangendo um alaúde!”
(I am a Tupí strumming a lute!)
– Mário de Andrade's "O trovador" ("The Troubadour")

“Tupy, or not tupy that is the question.”
– Oswald de Andrade, “Anthropophagite Manifesto”

One day I want to write an essay called The Americas Still in Process. In this essay, I would explore the still-imaginary cultural space of a “poetics of the Americas” in terms of José Martí’s “Our America” and Emerson’s “moral perfectionism.” My discussion of moral perfectionism, indebted to Stanley Cavell, would no doubt lead to a declaration of interdependence: that the poetics of the Americas cannot be complete, for if we ever arrive at its end, we will have destroyed its promise to be ongoing, regenerating, and self-cannibalizing.

In this essay I would proclaim, like a Dada Edgar Poe dreaming of Nicolàs Guillén doing Google searches, that the poem of the Americas does not exist. For the Americas is an imaginary cultural space whose mutant and multiform manifestations are as evanescent as the last breaths of a dying tongue.

& then I’d say that this is why the imperative for the poets of the Americas – contra conventional wisdom – has been to tell rather than show. For, telling is the task, as Langston Hughes calls us, of a people “in transition.”

In his 1972 anthology Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Jerome Rothenberg articulates, with comic force, a problem that remains a central issue as we move, in the U.S., from an American poetics to a poetics of the Americas:

“For a period of twenty-five years, say, or as long as it takes a new generation to discover where it lives, take the Greek epics out of the undergraduate curricula. & replace them with the great American epics. Study the Popul Vuh where you now study Homer, and study Homer where you know study the Popul Vuh – as exotic anthropology, etc.” (Pre-faces, p. 175)

Rothenberg here echoes the sentiments of José Martí in “Our America,” eighty years earlier:

The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.

Rothenberg’s two early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred (1967) and Shaking the Pumpkin (1972) insisted on the immediate (rather than simply historical or anthropological) relevance of the "tribal" poetries of Native Americans (on both American continents), Africans, and peoples of Oceania. As such, they should be read as crucial poetic documents of the 1960s and 70s, works that accelerated a reconceptualization of American poetry as a poetics of the Americas. Rothenberg presented a concerted assault on the primacy of Western high culture and an active attempt to find, in other, non-Western/non-Oriental cultures, what seemed missing from our own. Moreover, the "recovery" of Native American culture by a Jewish Brooklyn-born first-generation poet-as-anthologist (in Rothenberg's words -- "a jew among / the indians"), whose aesthetic roots were in the European avant-garde, implicitly acknowledges our domestic genocide, on both continents of the Americas, as part of the process of recovery from both Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Rothenberg's anthologies investigate a pluricultural grounding for the Americas, just as they explicitly reject Eurosupremacism from within a European perspective. At the same time Rothenberg’s work is notable for rejecting outright the popular, but nonetheless demagogic, rejection of Europe and Europeanness among U.S. poets, that is, for rejecting Europe in favor of an idealized and singular "America."

The singular, unitary idea of American literature is based on a set of often violent Anglonormative erasures: of pre-Conquest cultures, of the Middle Passage, of the languages of immigration, and of newly emerging tongues.

In 1951, Charles Olson’s visit to the Yucatan inspired a significant and influential move toward a Poetics of the Americas, the most important, among U.S. poets, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Olson’s expansive rejection of the trap of what Robin Blaser, in an essay on Olson, calls “The Western Box,” both echoes Marti and anticipates Rothenberg:

It is not the Greeks I blame. What it comes to is ourselves, that we do not find ways to hew to experience as it is, in our definition and expression of it, in other words, find ways to stay in the human universe, and not be lead to partition reality at any point, in any way. For this is just what we do, this is the real issue of what has been, and the process, as it now asserts itself, can be exposed. It is the function, comparison, or its bigger name, symbology. These are the false faces, too much seen, which hide and keep from use the active intellectual states, metaphor and performance. [“Human Universe,” in Collected Prose, p 157]

Olson went on to articulate a poetics of place that rejects the metaphysical in favor of the historical and particular. Coming into direct contact with Our Americas, he realized that the way in is not by analogy but through a process of active juxtaposition that produces a third term.

Our Americas is a performance.

I want to insist on the word Americas not just to encompass North and South America, but also as a way to register the multiplicity of our senses of America, as a way of registering this multiplicity, not comparison, as foundational for the poetics of our Americas.

In Ül: four mapuche poets, ed. Cecilia Vicuña, tr. John Bierhorst (Pittsburgh: Poetry in Indigenous Languages Series, Latin American Literary Review Press,1998), Vicuña quotes Jorge Teiller: “… my weapon against the world is another vision of the world” (21). What poetry lacks in efficacy it makes up for in conceptual power, Blake’s “Mental Fight.” Or, as Martí puts it in “Our America”: “ … weapons of the mind, which conquer all others. Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones.”

No issue has dogged poetry so much in the past two decades as identity – national, social, ethnic, racial, and local. Like the Americas, identity is always plural. And like the Americas, identity is necessarily, a priori, syncretic and braided, indeed, self-cannibalizing, as surely as the DNA that flows in our psyches and concatenates our mental projections.

In developing not only our thinking of a poetics of the Americas but also, far more importantly, in our activities in creating a poetics of Americas we would do well to keep in mind Teiller’s remark, that we are creating another vision of the world, one that in its globalism does not follow the dictates of the World Trade Organization and World Bank and in its localism does not become the site of the creation of strange fruits for export, but rather commits itself to a cannibalizing process of self-creation, as first defense against the “Western Box.” A possibility never better set out than in Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Anthropophagite – cannibalism – Manifesto:

Only anthropophagy unites us. …

Against all importers of canned consciousness. The palpable existence of life. And the pre-logical mentality for Mr. Levi Bruhl to study. …

Against the truth of missionary peoples, defined by the sagacity of an anthropophagite …

But they who came were not crusaders. They were fugitives from a civilization that we are eating, because we are strong and vengeful as a Jabuti.
[Tr. Adriano Pedrosa and Veronica Cordeiro]


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[Excerpted from Chapter 5, “Modernist Visions: Mikhl Likht at the Threshold,” in Recovering ‘Yiddishland’: Threshold Moments in American Literature (Syracuse University Press 2008) pages 187-190. More of/by Likht appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics, as an attempt, along with this, to recover a New York based experimental poet, whose work from the 20s & 30s was far more radical in structure & content than that of all but a handful of his American counterparts & to some degree predated most of them.  With this in mind Merle Bachman & I are engaging in an effort to bring his long poem, Processions, into English.  (J.R.)]

Yitskhok Libman, the editor of the avant-garde, New York City-based literary journal Unzer Bukh, called Mikhl Likht “[t]he most solid Yiddish verse-and-word-virtuoso of the twentieth century ...” (1954, 25), while renowned Yiddish literary critic Sh. Niger described him as an “... incomprehensible ‘babbler’ and mere ‘scribbler’” (qted in Libman, 26).

Other critics debated him as follows: Emanuel Fershleyser depicted Likht as an “individualistic rebel, [creeping] all the deeper into the extremes of modernism,” (1958, 102), while Sh. Tenenboym saw him as someone who “doesn’t go in the well-trod paths of most poets” (1949, 480).

The modernist poet Yankev Glatshteyn simply wrote: “There lived a Yiddish poet Mikhl Likht, who chose for himself the path of loneliness and aloneness.” (1953).

Who was Mikhl Likht?

Even if all you know about Yiddish is that it’s written in Hebrew letters from right to left (which is more knowledge than most people might have), you notice something different about many of Likht’s poems: there are blank spaces in the middle of lines; lines scatter across a page; some poems look like prose, others like an indented list. English words, citations, quotations, pop up here and there. No other Yiddish poets, no matter how “modern” their style, have poems that look quite like his.

Likht died in 1953 at the age of sixty. I am looking through his “collection” at the YIVO Institute in New York City, which consists of two boxes, filled with twenty-odd modest files -- a small archive, compared to those of his colleagues Glatshteyn, Leyeles, and Minkov, whose papers measure up to nine feet thick. At the time of his death, he hadn’t been productive as a writer for nearly twenty years, because of a degenerative heart condition. His best work, according to Libman, appeared in Unzer Bukh (Our Book), 1925-1930, a modernist “little magazine” similar to Inzikh, to which Likht was a frequent contributor.Glatshteyn called him the “most forgotten” of Yiddish writers, yet at his death he received “poetic justice”: an obituary in the New York Times, detailing his entire oeuvre (1953).

Who was Mikhl Likht? -- among a group of scarcely remembered writers, the “most forgotten”...

He was born in Plisk, a village in the Ukraine, in 1893, but was raised by his aunt and uncle, who lived in Bilizerke. He was educated at home by both secular and religious (Jewish) teachers. At eight years of age, he started writing poetry in Russian. In 1913, at the age of twenty, he came to New York with his family, where he had planned to stay only a short time before returning to Europe to study -- but World War I broke out, altering his course (as it did for so many others). Likht studied at the City College of New York and the New School for Social Research, becoming fluent in English and also a scholar of philosophy, history, sociology, and economics, as well as music (about which he was passionate). He published poems in English, under the pseudonyms of M. Likht-Sonin and M. Sonin in “avant-garde” magazines like Pagan, Playboy [?], and Smart Set (Kagan 1986, 138)

Likht’s colleague and close friend N. B. Minkov wrote in his foreword to Likht’stranslations of American poetry:

American English poetry was very close to Likht. As a poet, he himself ripened during its renaissance. He began his poetic journey with poems in English, published in the most modern avant-garde journals....Even after crossing over completely into Yiddish poetry, he still took a deep interest in every publication of American English poetry. ... [H]e read everything that was published in American poetry. What he liked, he translated. (Likht 1954, 9).

Likht “began” in English--was it his third, fourth, or fifth language? Russian, German, French, and Italian rumble around in his poems. He “crossed over completely” into Yiddish. It was his choice, as it was the choice of his colleagues from Inzikh, who had also attended college in New York and knew English quite well. Did he feel most at-home in Yiddish? “His poems read as if he’s thinking in English and writing in Yiddish,” a professor of Yiddish literature once told me. What does “home” mean, in a poetry like Likht’s?

where does the Jew go
goy, where
somewhere     echo     nowhere

(somewhere) with 36 righteous volumes
crammed with hints one and zeroes in
with astrological sign-shrouds
the whole kit-and-kaboodle     in-the-
     beginning things
with pure reason thoroughly explicated
with history      (the Rebbe with his leather
with samovars     ships
telephone and radio ...
        (From section B(1) in “Procession Three”; trans. Bachman)

Likht’s words “somewhere echo nowhere”: the poet who wrote Yiddish in a force-field of English, who translated T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, who best represents a threshold poetics, is also the “most forgotten.” His poetic practice, his enthusiastic and dense essays on American literature, his translations, all bring him so close to the American word. Why aren’t his poems found in English translation? Why is he so unknown, on both sides of the threshold?

Works Cited in this Excerpt

Fershlayser, Emanuel.“Leynendik Mikhl Likhtn,”(Reading
Mikhl Likht). In Oyf  Shrayberishe Shliyakhn (On Writerly
Paths), by Emanuel Fershlayser, 100-106. New York: Farlag
haSoyfer, 1958.
Glatshteyn, Yankev. Column, Prost un Poshet. “Poetishe
Gerekhtikayt” (Poetic Justice). Tog-Morgn-Zhurnal, Sunday,
June 21, 1953. Mikhl Likht Archive, YIVO Institute for Jewish
Libman, Yitskhok (Yitschok Liebman). Column: Boyer un
Shafer fun Mayn Dor (Builders and Creators of My
Generation). “Mikhl Likht.” Nyu-Yorker Vokhnblat (undated;
probably 1954). Mikhl Likht Archive at YIVO Institute for
Jewish Research.
Likht, Mikhl. Moderne Amerikaner Poeziye. Lider Ibergezetst
fun Mikhl Likht (Modern American Poetry. Poems Translated
by Mikhl Likht). Edited with introduction by N. B. Minkov.
Buenos Aires: Farlag Geliye, 1954.

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Translation from Chinese by Lucas Klein

On False Causality and True Chance in a Dark Room

26. In a dark room, I put my ear to the wall, listening in, but don’t hear anything stirring in the neighbor’s home next door. Then suddenly I hear someone next door with an ear to the wall as well. Quickly I pull my ear back, sure to behave like an upright and proper man.

27. In a dark room, I should not wake from a good dream while my father wakes from a bad one. He reprimands me, and his reprimands are valid; I turn introspective, completely loyal and filial. I tell him my good dream, so he could have his own, but his good dream was already forgotten in the bathroom.

28. After a brush with death an ascetic becomes a philanderer.

29. One handsome young man kills two handsome young men just because they all look the same.

30. In a dark room I have a séance with smoke and mirrors. Some fool really does walk in the door and kneel down before me. I kick him away, continuing my indulgence, when another fool breaks down the door, wielding a butcher-knife to overthrow me.

31. In a dark room, I turn on the radio. Its melodramatic love story awakens my self-pity. Just then a burglar crawls out from under my bed, engages me in a discussion of the meaning of life, and vows right then to turn over a new leaf.

32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.

33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.

34. In a dark room, I fawn over a dead man. He was not my ancestor but my neighbor. I create for him a life of glory, his cast-iron face flushed with pink. Many years later, I overeat at the home of his grandson.

35. In a dark room, I paint a portrait of a fictitious girl. An acquaintance says he recognizes the girl in the picture: she lives in the East District, 35 Springweed Lane. I find the place, but her neighbor says she’s just left on a long journey.

36. Faced with an emptied grave the giddy graverobber has nothing to do.

37. With nothing to do the line cook goes back to his dark room.

38. In a dark room, my gold ring, passed down for three generations, rolls onto the floor, never to be seen again. Therefore I suspect that beneath my dark room is another dark room; therefore I suspect that everyone who ever wore a gold ring lives beneath me.

39. In a dark room, some guy comes in the wrong door but tries to make the most of it. He puts down his backpack, washes his face and brushes his teeth, and then orders me to get out. I say that this is my home, this is my lifeline, I’m not going anywhere. And so we start to wrestle in the darkness.

On My Meaningless Life

88. In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

89. I fall asleep as soon as it gets dark, I get up as soon as it’s light out. I always dream of a doctor with a fever and a mail carrier with a toothache, and then I meet them; so in order to meet myself, I must dream of myself, but dreaming of oneself is so embarrassing.

90. Once, I had a dream in which a blind man asked about someone. I replied that I had heard of but did not know this person. When I awoke, I howled in shock: it was me that the blind man was looking for!

91. Only when a nail pierced through my hand did my hand reveal the truth; only when black smoke choked me to tears could I feel my existence. Riding sidesaddle on a white horse ten fairies tore up my heart.

92. For this I have changed my name, concealed my identity, wandered lonely as a cloud, resigned myself to fate.

93. I once demanded of a boss lady at an inn that I be the boss of the inn. To her enduring surprise I also demanded she provide me with room and board at no charge. She asked: “Who are you? Where do you come from?” I said: “I’m just the man who makes these two demands. You choose.”

94. I once found myself astray in a gloomy abode, like a mercenary upsetting its order, like a ruffian arousing ladies’ fears. At this time I could taste a different kind of astray—astray from happiness, I forgot all disorder and fear.

95. I once was caught in a besieged city, and once I ran into an aged scholar. When I pointed out our “plight” and “lonesomeness,” he said his sole concern was the fortune of all god’s children. So I spit into the mouth of the crow.

96. I once asked a magistrate about the key to promotions, and he told me to go back home and be a good little citizen. I asked him: “Do you want to know how to turn stone into gold?” And when he revealed the greed behind his eyes, I said: “I too know how to keep secrets.”

97. If you can sit down then sit down, if you can lie down then lie down. Just to get by, every day I work more than three jobs. But every time I finish, someone takes my remuneration.

98. The wise men say: “To fly intoxicates the eagle.” Wrong, flying does not intoxicate the eagle, any more than walking intoxicates the human.

99. So please let me stay in your room for an hour, since an eagle plans to live in one of my ventricles for a week. If you accept me, I’ll change into any form you wish, but not for too long, or my true form will be revealed.

Xi Chuan西川 (the penname of Liu Jun 刘军), a poet, essayist, and translator, was born in 1963 in Jiangsu province, and graduated from the English Department of Peking University in 1985. Formerly a visiting adjunct professor to New York University (2007) and Orion Visiting artist at University of Victoria, Canada (2009), he now teaches Classical and Modern Chinese literature at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Xi Chuan has published four collections of poems, including A Fictitious Family Tree (1997) and Roughly Speaking (1997), two books of essays, and one book of criticism, in addition to a play and translations ranging from Ezra Pound to Jorge Luis Borges to Czeslaw Milosz. His own poetry and essays have also been widely anthologized and translated. His the prizes, honors, and fellowships include the Modern Chinese Poetry Award (1994), UNESCO-ASCHBERG bursaries of artists (1997), the national Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001), and the ZhuangZhongwen Prize for Literature (2003). He was also named one of the top ten winners of the Weimar International Essay Prize Contest (Germany, 1999).

Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor of CipherJournal.com. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at Cerise, Jacket, and Drunken Boat, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues. A graduate of Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), he is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong. Endure, a small collection of Bei Dao poems translated with Clayton Eshleman, is now out from Black Widow Press, and in addition to Xi Chuan he is at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin.

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[Hugo’s “Preface to Cromwell,” reprinted from the old Harvard Classics edition of Famous Prefaces, circa 1909-1914. At the heart of French romanticism, Hugo points here and elsewhere toward an exploration of the dark and ugly sides of human experience that will also be mined by early and experimental modernists like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Whitman and Melville. An excerpt from this essay/manifesto appeared in volume 3 of Poems for the Millennium, but the preface as a whole is worth a re-reading at this juncture. For the record. (J.R.)]

Behold, then, a new religion, a new society; upon this twofold foundation there must inevitably spring up a new poetry. Previously—we beg pardon for setting forth a result which the reader has probably already foreseen from what has been said above—previously, following therein the course pursued by the ancient polytheism and philosophy, the purely epic muse of the ancients had studied nature in only a single aspect, casting aside without pity almost everything in art which, in the world subjected to its imitation, had not relation to a certain type of beauty. A type which was magnificent at first, but, as always happens with everything systematic, became in later times false, trivial and conventional. Christianity leads poetry to the truth. Like it, the modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected.

Thus, then, we see a principle unknown to the ancients, a new type, introduced in poetry; and as an additional element in anything modifies the whole of the thing, a new form of the art is developed. This type is the grotesque; its new form is comedy.

And we beg leave to dwell upon this point; for we have now indicated the significant feature, the fundamental difference which, in our opinion, separates modern from ancient art, the present form from the defunct form; or, to use less definite but more popular terms, romantic literature from classical literature.

“At last!” exclaim the people who for some time past have seen what we were coming at, “at last we have you—you are caught in the act. So then you put forward the ugly as a type for imitation, you make the grotesque an element of art. But the graces; but good taste! Don’t you know that art should correct nature? that we must ennoble art? that we must select? Did the ancients ever exhibit the ugly or the grotesque? Did they ever mingle comedy and tragedy? The example of the ancients, gentlemen! and Aristotle, too; and Boileau; and La Harpe. Upon my word!”

These arguments are sound, doubtless, and, above all, of extraordinary novelty. But it is not our place to reply to them. We are constructing no system here—God protect us from systems! We are stating a fact. We are a historian, not a critic. Whether the fact is agreeable or not matters little; it is a fact. Let us resume, therefore, and try to prove that it is of the fruitful union of the grotesque and the sublime types that modern genius is born—so complex, so diverse in its forms, so inexhaustible in its creations; and therein directly opposed to the uniform simplicity of the genius of the ancients; let us show that that is the point from which we must set out to establish the real and radical difference between the two forms of literature.

Not that it is strictly true that comedy and the grotesque were entirely unknown to the ancients. In fact, such a thing would be impossible. Nothing grows without a root; the germ of the second epoch always exists in the first. In the Iliad Thersites and Vulcan furnish comedy, one to the mortals, the other to the gods. There is too much nature and originality in the Greek tragedy for there not to be an occasional touch of comedy in it. For example, to cite only what we happen to recall, the scene between Menelaus and the portress of the palace. (Helen, Act I), and the scene of the Phrygian (Orestes, Act IV). The Tritons, the Satyrs, the Cyclops are grotesque; Polyphemus is a terrifying, Silenus a farcical grotesque.

But one feels that this part of the art is still in its infancy. The epic, which at this period imposes its form on everything, the epic weighs heavily upon it and stifles it. The ancient grotesque is timid and forever trying to keep out of sight. It is plain that it is not on familiar ground, because it is not in its natural surroundings. It conceals itself as much as it can. The Satyrs, the Tritons, and the Sirens are hardly abnormal in form. The Fates and the Harpies are hideous in their attributes rather than in feature; the Furies are beautiful, and are called Eumenides, that is to say, gentle, beneficent. There is a veil of grandeur or of divinity over other grotesques. Polyphemus is a giant, Midas a king, Silenus a god.

Thus comedy is almost imperceptible in the great epic ensemble of ancient times. What is the barrow of Thespis beside the Olympian chariots? What are Aristophanes and Plautus, beside the Homeric colossi, Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides? Homer bears them along with him, as Hercules bore the pygmies, hidden in his lion’s skin!

In the idea of men of modern times, however, the grotesque plays an enormous part. It is found everywhere; on the one hand it creates the abnormal and the horrible, on the other the comic and the burlesque. It fastens upon religion a thousand original superstitions, upon poetry a thousand picturesque fancies. It is the grotesque which scatters lavishly, in air, water, earth, fire, those myriads of intermediary creatures which we find all alive in the popular traditions of the Middle Ages; it is the grotesque which impels the ghastly antics of the witches’ revels, which gives Satan his horns, his cloven foot and his bat’s wings. It is the grotesque, still the grotesque, which now casts into the Christian hell the frightful faces which the severe genius of Dante and Milton will evoke, and again peoples it with those laughter-moving figures amid which Callot, the burlesque Michelangelo, will disport himself. If it passes from the world of imagination to the real world, it unfolds an inexhaustible supply of parodies of mankind. Creations of its fantasy are the Scaramouches, Crispins and Harlequins, grinning silhouettes of man, types altogether unknown to serious-minded antiquity, although they originated in classic Italy. It is the grotesque, lastly, which, colouring the same drama with the fancies of the North and of the South in turn, exhibits Sganarelle capering about Don Juan and Mephistopheles crawling about Faust.

And how free and open it is in its bearing! how boldly it brings into relief all the strange forms which the preceding age had timidly wrapped in swaddling-clothes! Ancient poetry, compelled to provide the lame Vulcan with companions, tried to disguise their deformity by distributing it, so to speak, upon gigantic proportions. Modern genius retains this myth of the supernatural smiths, but gives it an entirely different character and one which makes it even more striking; it changes the giants to dwarfs and makes gnomes of the Cyclops. With like originality, it substitutes for the somewhat commonplace Lernæan hydra all the local dragons of our national legends—the gargoyle of Rouen, the gra-ouilli of Metz, the chair sallée of Troyes, the drée of Montlhéry, the tarasque of Tarascon—monsters of forms so diverse, whose outlandish names are an additional attribute. All these creations draw from their own nature that energetic and significant expression before which antiquity seems sometimes to have recoiled. Certain it is that the Greek Eumenides are much less horrible, and consequently less true, than the witches in Macbeth. Pluto is not the devil.

In our opinion a most novel book might be written upon the employment of the grotesque in the arts. One might point out the powerful effects the moderns have obtained from that fruitful type, upon which narrow-minded criticism continues to wage war even in our own day. It may be that we shall be led by our subject to call attention in passing to some features of this vast picture. We will simply say here that, as a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer art. Rubens so understood it, doubtless, when it pleased him to introduce the hideous features of a court dwarf amid his exhibitions of royal magnificence, coronations and splendid ceremonial. The universal beauty which the ancients solemnly laid upon everything, is not without monotony; the same impression repeated again and again may prove fatiguing at last. Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful. On the other hand, the grotesque seems to be a halting-place, a mean term, a starting-point whence one rises toward the beautiful with a fresher and keener perception. The salamander gives relief to the water-sprite; the gnome heightens the charm of the sylph.

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