Jerome Rothenberg: Two New Poems from “Divagations”

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:40 AM 0 comments
The Sound of Water

With every new invention* what was long hidden launches into
     Spectacular, the groundlings cry, the baby plutocrats who
live this side of Russia.
     There are so many here, so little time to push your way
between them, trembling,* where the owners of your lives,
intrepid, brutal, face off for a final round.
     The sound of water* was the title but the words were not
the same.*
     In tune with which a long procession follows, baring their
teeth like rows of diamonds, glittery like glass or little
     Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, the banner reads,
back to the dawn of childhood dreams.
     Up stands the captain, head in hands, the thought renewed
in dullness, triggering a voiceless rage.*
     Command, condemn, control.
     The age* of oligarchs begins anew.
     From every corner of the heimat those who buy their
circumstances sally forth.
     All is forgiven, all is not forgiven.
     The word is divagations, is it not?*


* extension * mumbling * slaughter * the name * age * [or is it?]

Where Memory and Dream Are One

In the dream I stretched out almost motionless, the words I
tried to speak caught in my throat and nearly choking me. The
place was filled with faces, like a giant hall,* a kind of night
club with the sound of distant music ringing in my ears.
Someone to the right of me, another sleeping figure, said its
name was Stille or die Stille, which was clear enough in
German but I couldn’t find the proper English* word for it.
Even more puzzling, I was aware, if vaguely, that it was
taking place in Russia, and that the strangers with us were
from the newly minted* class of Russian billionaires. I tried
to point it out to those around me, that this Russia was far
different from the one we once imagined. I was overcome
with grief and longing – emotions in my dreams, rarely in
waking -- and alarmed at the water that had started rising in
the hall. I had long loved the word cockeyed and mouthed
it as a sure* expression of my thoughts. It came back in a
flow of rhyme* I spewed forth for the other sleepers. Was this
hall a mausoleum and the sleepers all of those I knew in life,
now safely stacked away, forever? I stepped down from my
perch and tried to swim among the beds and tables, following
the voices of the rich that led me to an outer courtyard. Even
here the word tsunami rattled in my ears, my fingers groping
for a ladder that was out of reach. Was it the inland sea,* I
wondered, a lake with putrid birds, a bog, a fen, a mash of
crimson bodies, more than I could count? My shoes had
little lights attached,* enough to lead me down a narrow
causeway, the end of which was darkness more dense than
death. Time is abolished was the line that came at me – the
world is o’er. I thought if I could start to sing, the words
would carry me across, but what? A song about a king, a
bird, a fallen tree, all too romantic. The pressure of the
ooze under my feet that pulls me down, that sends an ache
up through my legs,* makes me wonder that my heart can
still keep beating. I would rather sleep or crawl back to
the hall, the place from which I came. But where? in
which direction? with what name to name it? Stille or
die Stille, if they ever found me here, would anybody
understand me?* These were what I feared: the hangman,
the exploding bombs, the curtains blocking sight, the
holy fools, the drifters, the march of time, the rosary of
skulls, the wings of love, the broken blossoms, the
children’s games, the hostile wind, the duendicitos. For
me the oldest memories are those of being lost: a hall
of celebrating giants, a cellar with a furnace burning
bright, a point where memory and dream are one. I
crawl my way toward waking, still bereft.


* a mall   * Yiddish   * favored   * a pure   * of time   * the sea of reeds
* [was it my dream or his?]   * my groin   * [in what language? what account?]

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Dick Higgins: A Taxonomy of Sound Poetry

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:38 AM 0 comments
For Starters, a Sub-History

Most sound poets and observers of the contemporary scene approach sound poetry as if it were a purely contemporary phenomenon, but this neoteric view simply does not hold up. It is true that some kinds of sound poetry are new in the sense of being without formal precedent. But just as "concrete" and other recent visual poetries have their analogues going back into folklore or into (for example) the Bucolic Greek poets, so sound poetry too has its close analogues. This is natural, since it is natural for anyone who is interested in poetry to try, at some point, isolating the sounds of poetry from other aspects of it and to try out the making of poems with sounds more-or-less alone; only if such an experiment were totally artificial could something so basic as a poetry of sound alone be entirely without precedent. But, to start our investigation, let us consider sound poetry not (as might be tempting) by some tight definition that gave a climactic structure to the argument of the critic or poet who offers it-the revelation-of-the-here-to-fore-unknown-truth kind of discussion-and simply use "sound poetry" as, generally, poetry in which the sound is the focus, more than any other aspect of the work.

Three basic types of sound poetry from the relative past come to mind immediately: folk varieties, onomatopoetic or mimetic types, and nonsense poetries. The folk roots of sound poetry may be seen in the lyrics of certain folk songs, such as the Horse Songs of the Navajos or in the Mongolian materials collected by the Sven Hedin expedition. We have some of this kind of thing in our own culture, where sound poetry fragments are apt to be used at the ends of stanzas, such as the French "il ron ron ron petit patte à pont" in "Il était une bergère," or the English "heigh down hoe down derry derry down" in "The Keeper." Similarly, in Black American music there is a sound poetry tradition, possibly based originally on work calls, which we find metatacized into the skat singing styles of the popular music of the 1930's, in the long nonsense-like passages in Cab Calloway's singing of "Minnie the Moocher," for example.

In written literature, by contrast, most of the sound poetry fragments are brief, onomatopoetic imitations of natural or other sounds, for example the "Brekekex ko-ax ko-ax" of the frogs in Aristophanes' drama, or the "jug jug jugs" of the birds among the Elizabethans. This use of sound has no semantic sense to speak of, although, on occasion, its freshness consists of possible overlaps between nonsense and sense. Even some recent sound poetry has an onomatopoetic element. For example, my own Requiem for Wagner the Criminal Mayor is above all a structural piece, but its sounds resemble the fighting of cats and also the so-called "Bronx cheer" of traditional calumny.

Some of the most interesting sound poetry is the purely nonsense writing of the periods in Western literature when nonsemantic styles and forms were not supposed to be taken in full earnest. One of their delights is the art with which they parody the styles of their authors' native tongues. Try this English example, for instance, from the Victorian, Edward Lear:

Thrippsy pillowins, Inky tinky pobblebookle abblesquabs?
Flosky! beebul trimple flosky!-Okul scratcha-
bibblebongebo, viddle squibble tog-a-tog, ferrymoyassity
amsky flamsky ramsky damsky crocklefether squiggs.
Flunkywisty poom.

While not set up as verse and therefore not exactly sound poetry, this text is from the period when prose poems were re-developed, and it tropes the style of a conventional polite letter of its period quite admirably. Another well-known example from its time would be the nonsense words in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky --'Twas brillig in the slithy toves. . ." and that kind of thing. The protagonist is equipped with a "vorpal" sword, and speculation on that kind of sword has been abundant ever since. When I was a child I had a science fiction magazine in my possession-long since vanished-in which two genius children invented a "vorpal" sword to protect themselves against an invasion of creatures from another dimension, and there are currently even a literary magazine in California and an art gallery in New York City named-what else?-Vorpal. Thus though no meaning has ever been assigned definitively to "vorpal," the word has become familiar as a sort of empty word, significant for its lack of meaning and for its harmony in a sentence of other, more semantically significant English words.

Similarly, in Christian Morgenstern's "Gespräch einer Haussechnecke mit sich selbst," from the famous Galgenlieder, a snail asks if it should dwell in its shell, but the word fragments progress arid compress into strange, decidedly ungrammatical constructs; these use a sort of inner ear and inner grammar of the German language which reveal a great deal about the sounds and potential of that language:

Soll i aus meim Hause raus
Soll i aus meim Hause nit raus?
Einen Schritt raus?
Lieber nit raus?
Rauserauserauserause ...
which Max Knight has translated as follows:
Shall I dwell in my shell?
Shall I not dwell in my shell?
Dwell in shell?
Rather not dwell?
Shall I not dwell,
shall I dwell,
dwell in shell
shall I shell,
shall IshellIshallIshellIshallI...

Of course in German the last five words can be perfectly compressed into one invented word each, which cannot be done to the same extent in English. This illustrates not only the uniqueness of the German language but also the unique relationship between successful sound poetry and the effective use of the linguistic potentialities in any given language.

[NOTE. Dick Higgins (1938-1998) was a key figure in the international Fluxus movement of the 1950s & 1960s, a continuingly resourceful poet, artist, composer, & performer, whose experimental works included early forays into intermedia (a word of his coining & a marker of his art) & computer- & chance-generated verbal & visual compositions.  He was also the publisher of the highly influential Something Else Press & the compiler & editor of Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature, a classic assemblage of concrete & visual poetry (or their near analogues) going back to ancient Greece & Egypt.  In my own case I knew him as a friend & as the publisher of work of mine that coincided with aspects of his own extraordinarily diverse project.  With him too I engaged in a series of conversations that helped to clarify my own relation to traditional & modern (experimental) approaches to poetry & performance. (J.R.)]

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Allow me these fragments
They are my poem
My poem is pieces
Here & there
Chips off the old blockhead
One wall cracks apart
Not from despair but rain
Plaster falling on the floor
Reminds me of a poem
I write whenever I get
Time to sit down.


Others balance by
Kneeling to pray
I allow them their poem
This is mine
A patchwork poem
Dream flesh sewn to
Flesh of wounds whose edges
Cut against the mouth
Don’t turn away.
My blood mixes with plaster
Sealing the poem together.


One letter, one word
One line at a time
Held in the page
When I sew pieces together
They remain fragments.

Typewriter strikes paper
Needle thru cloth
Allow it.
My grandmother was a seamstress
My grandfather a tailor
My father sat before his table
Sewing jokes into the air
Something like satori
To think of it
Splinters my brain.
No judgment
Let me be with my pieces
Spread upon my table


A puzzle no matter
How I move it
Never solves itself.


Time unbends me
My fragments make no difference
They are children
Laughing against knowledge
Shadows grow large in the field
My window watches
Sunset swallow song
Stars arise
Page after page of my book
Writes thru time
Lights sewn together
My poem is bits & splinters
Darkness allows me.


Into dawn
The door opens.
Quail in pairs
Wobble out for seed
Scattered like stars
In random swirls around the green
Grace of bamboo
Moving supple in the wind.


Question my poem
For words to describe it
The page is in pieces
Praises, sorrows, joys
Corny sincere
Spirals of aura dust
Fragments & whispers
Thumb book of holy hints
All are my poem
& they bend to a moment
Ready for distraction


White clouds
Blue sky
Yellow buds
French broom
[NOTE.  My own celebration of Meltzer’s life & work appears elsewhere in Poems and Poetics as the pre-face to David’s Copy, his 2008 volume of selected poems.  In the present instance the work continues with a new book, When I Was a Poet, that brings together poems both new & old – “a primal book,” writes Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “[with which] Meltzer takes his place among the great poets of his generation.”  It is also volume 60 in City Lights’ fabled Pocket Poets Series, to which I owe my own first publication & my ongoing gratitude for the work of others whom I first read in this format.  The poem printed here gives a hint of Meltzer’s grace of mind & the life of poetry that underlies it; the book makes the case complete. (J.R.)]

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In many languages, it is said, there is no nonsense poetry, and there is not a great deal of it even in English. The bulk of it is in nursery rhymes and scraps of folk poetry, some of which may not have been strictly nonsensical at the start, but have become so because their original application has been forgotten. For example, the rhyme about Margery Daw:

See-saw, Margery Daw,
Dobbin shall have a new master.
He shall have but a penny a day
Because he can’t go any faster.

Or the other version that I learned in Oxfordshire as a little boy:

See-saw, Margery Daw,
Sold her bed and lay upon straw.
Wasn’t she a silly slut
To sell her bed and lie upon dirt?

It may be that there was once a real person called Margery Daw, and perhaps there was even a Dobbin who somehow came into the story. When Shakespeare makes Edgar in King Lear quote “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill”, and similar fragments, he is uttering nonsense, but no doubt these fragments come from forgotten ballads in which they once had a meaning. The typical scrap of folk poetry which one quotes almost unconsciously is not exactly nonsense but a sort of musical comment on some recurring event, such as “One a penny, two a penny, Hot-Cross buns”, or “Polly, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea”. Some of these seemingly frivolous rhymes actually express a deeply pessimistic view of life, the churchyard wisdom of the peasant. For instance:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.

which is a gloomy story, but remarkably similar to yours or mine.

Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common. This gives a special position to Edward Lear ... who was ... one of the first writers to deal in pure fantasy, with imaginary countries and made-up words, without any satirical purpose. His poems are not all of them equally nonsensical; some of them get their effect by a perversion of logic, but they are all alike in that their underlying feeling is sad and not bitter. They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd. Lear could fairly be called the originator of the limerick, though verses in almost the same metrical form are to be found in earlier writers, and what is sometimes considered a weakness in his limericks—that is, the fact that the rhyme is the same in the first and last lines—is part of their charm. The very slight change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some striking surprise. For example:

There was a young lady of Portugal
Whose ideas were excessively nautical;
She climbed up a tree
To examine the sea,
But declared she would never leave Portugal.

It is significant that almost no limericks since Lear’s have been both printable and funny enough to seem worth quoting. But he is really seen at his best in certain longer poems, such as “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” or “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo”:

On the Coast of Coromandel,
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Two old chairs, and half a candle—
One old jug without a handle—
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

Later there appears a lady with some white Dorking hens, and an inconclusive love affair follows. Mr R.L. Megroz [editor of The Lear Omnibus] thinks, plausibly enough, that this may refer to some incident in Lear’s own life. He never married, and it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life. A psychiatrist could no doubt find all kinds of significance in his drawings and in the recurrence of certain made-up words such as “runcible”. His health was bad, and as he was the youngest of twenty-one children in a poor family, he must have known anxiety and hardship in very early life. It is clear that he was unhappy and by nature solitary, in spite of having good friends.

Aldous Huxley, in praising Lear’s fantasies as a sort of assertion of freedom, has pointed out that the “They” of the limericks represent common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. “They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do. Herbert Read has also praised Lear, and is inclined to prefer his verse to that of Lewis Carroll, as being purer fantasy. For myself, I must say that I find Lear funniest when he is least arbitrary and when a touch of burlesque or perverted logic makes its appearance. When he gives his fancy free play, as in his imaginary names, or in things like “Three Receipts for Domestic Cookery”, he can be silly and tiresome. “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” is haunted by the ghost of logic, and I think it is the element of sense in it that makes it funny. The Pobble, it may be remembered, went fishing in the Bristol Channel:

And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side—
“He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”

The thing that is funny here is the burlesque touch, the Admirals. What is arbitrary—the word “runcible”, and the cat’s crimson whiskers—is merely rather embarrassing. While the Pobble was in the water some unidentified creatures came and ate his toes off, and when he got home his aunt remarked:

“It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes,”

which once again is funny because it has a meaning, and one might even say a political significance. For the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes. So also with the well-known limerick:

There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.

It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.

The writer closest to Lear among his contemporaries was Lewis Carroll, who, however, was less essentially fantastic—and, in my opinion, funnier. Since then, as Mr Megroz points out in his Introduction, Lear’s influence has been considerable, but it is hard to believe that it has been altogether good. The silly whimsiness of present-day children’s books could perhaps be partly traced back to him. At any rate, the idea of deliberately setting out to write nonsense, though it came off in Lear’s case, is a doubtful one. Probably the best nonsense poetry is produced gradually and accidentally, by communities rather than by individuals. As a comic draughtsman, on the other hand, Lear’s influence must have been beneficial. James Thurber, for instance, must surely owe something to Lear, directly or indirectly.

[NOTE. More on Lear at and, among other sites on the internet.]

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Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

Pilgrim on earth, thy name is heaven,
Stranger, thou art the guest of God.
—Mary Baker Eddy

The shade of sooty quince
The bloom of dusty roses
——And beyond that
A fence of metal wire     entwined with vines
Of spiderwort     or knotgrass perhaps?

There     tossed among the plants
Reclining     in a weather-worn wooden armchair
Hands folded at his abdomen     like a dead man
Who could he be     this man who looks as if
He was washed here from some distant world?
This man is a decrepit adolescent     a broken angel
Swept here by the ark of dreams     a boat in the shape of a box
When was that?     Yesterday     or a hundred years ago?


The world to which this man really belongs     is not here
The world to which this man really belongs
Is far away     through the fissures of dream
Guarded by sensible, steadfast parents
This man wearing a starched collar     is a clever boy
He has two beautiful younger sisters
And a younger brother with an upright spirit
This family of angels with wings hidden under their fancy dress
Is enveloped in golden happiness
That world     of distant memories
Is like a box     floating in a galaxy of tears


One morning suddenly     that box-shaped boat ran ashore
In the doorway to that timeless world of happiness
When was that?    A second     or a hundred million years ago?
Dreams are always nightmares     interlopers with foul intent
Drawn by death     the father was pulled backward
And the rest of the family were dragged quickly away
It was here they disembarked     the backyard of a sickly city
Here     not even angels could escape human fate
The mother grew ill from anxiety     the sisters grew thin
And wrinkles spread across the brother’s spotless soul


In this false world perched atop the scales
This man was the quiet, noble head of the household
Working harder     growing old faster than everyone else
But     that was not the reality of who he was
His real self is hidden     under the disguise of an old man
Strewn across his chair     seated like a corpse
He inhales the blue-green seas     of his own world of reality
Watches clouds trailing behind airplanes     over the sea
And pricks up his ears to overhear the daytime dialogue of the


This man suddenly stands from his chair
And slowly descends     through the fallen leaves
Underground     he finds his own private box-like world
With objects     neatly stored in shelves and drawers
Candy boxes     pill boxes     candle boxes
Cut-outs from old images     musical scores     lost wooden blocks
Shells     brass rings     sky blue marbles
Cracked glasses     soap bubble sets——
These too are fragments of the real world
Drifted here through the fissures of dream
This man     gives himself plenty of time
How long?     One week     or thirty years?
He chooses the fragments     then puts them together
In just the right place     in just the right box
While the faint reflection     of the golden happiness
Belonging to the real world so far away
Turns into pale afternoon sunlight     and falls
Upon his deftly moving fingers


Is this man no longer at his chair in the garden?
Is he no longer at his basement table?
If he is nowhere to be found
This man     must never have been here at all
What we thought we saw was nothing more
Than the shadow of his real self
His shadowy eyelashes drawing the bow of vision toward the real
His shadowy hands caressing the flotsam from the real world
It is not for us to lament his absence
Like little birds     we should descend into the garden to bathe as
And play on his basement window     like light


Then     what about these boxes?
The objects captured inside     the princesses
The ballerinas     the rabbit princes
The parrots     the honeybees     the butterflies
Does this man     lodge inside them
Borrowing the forms of these ephemeral creatures?
Like the garden and basement     these boxes are also
Cheap hotel rooms inhabited briefly    by this man’s shadow
It swings upon the roost     pours some sand
Creates nimble cracks across the panes of glass
And then vanishes
The destination for his shadow is the real world
These wistfully nostalgic boxes before us are
The frames around the well through which
We peer into that world and are drawn in

A NOTE ON THE PRECEDING (from the original Japanese publication)
One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work. Takahashi originally wrote the poem “This World, or the Man of the Boxes” for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website:

Mutsuo TAKAHASHI (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English, including the recent Irish publication On Two Shores: New and Selected Poems, translated by Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell (Dedalus Press, 2006). A translation of his memoirs is forthcoming in 2012 from University of Minnesota Press.

Jeffrey ANGLES (1971- ) is an associate professor of Japanese literature and translation at Western Michigan University. He is the translator of Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako (University of California, 2010), Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō (Action Books, 2009), Soul Dance: Poems by Takako Arai (Mi’Te Press, 2008), and numerous other works of poetry and prose. His translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s memoirs, Twelve Views from the Distance, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.

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Jerome Rothenberg: Five Eastern Ikons (poems & note)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:00 AM 0 comments

points at
parts of bodies

legs without
a torso
standing upright

headless naked
figure on
a pedestal

& bending over
a crown

a naked
woman’s body
with no head

& on the stairs
2 heads
an arm

a torso
a hand


Mary in the sky
like God
above the dying

with babe in arms
stands by her bed

A Silver Glove

Mary’s hand
in silver
like her halo

saints in battle
flash the eyes
of babes

The Last Supper

Mary seated
in the center with
her saints


his right arm
holds a babe
who wears
a golden crown,
a fleur-de-lis
a flower
in his other hand

two babes
fly by in air
on either side of him,
a gold sky
on the right,
blue earth below


pink horse pale rider
black horse white mask
two saints with faces
like a babe’s

three rings
from which a hand
pokes out –
as from a cloud


angels catch
his blood in cups
from every hole

devils emerge
from mouths
of saints

NOTE. Since some time in the 1980s – but possibly earlier – my attention has been drawn to images of gods and saints that throw our more familiar iconographies into question. Culled mostly from western or Christian sources and largely glimpsed in travels through churches and monasteries or in no small part in great museum collections, these have struck me as both intensifying and subverting the kinds of images that we too often take for granted. The notes I began to write down on those occasions morphed quickly into short poems and into series of poems with titles like “Ikons” and “Altar Pieces,” collaged into books of my own poems that I was then assembling. An ample number of such poems appear in Retrievals: Uncollected and New Poems 1955-2010, to which the poems above could easily be added. Their immediate source, if I remember correctly, was an exhibition, Icônes arabes: art chrétien du Levant (May-August 2003), at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. I have more recently taken the same approach to images from Buddhist and other iconic traditions, some of which have appeared earlier in Poems and Poetics. Many of the poems in The Burning Babe have a similar derivation. (J.R.)

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What is the nature of the night?

Might it be the boundless destruction of existence in the origin of the universe?

Is it an infusion brewed of cosmic darkness, initially articulated by those shamans who, spanning the abyss of the Fall, reconnected, if only in vision, humankind with its animal matrix?

Is earth but a tear in mad Ophelia’s mangled target eye as she crawls the Milky Way searching eternally for the right black hole in which to deposit the God-crisis in her being?

O light, you are oasis!

Descending / ascending, a plumb line through our minds, the axis mundi longings to connect that antlered shaman buried in ice with the morning stars all singing hosanna together.

Is there a basic dream?

An animal dives deep into primal waters, brings up earth…
I tumble into a hole, turn my body into a womb; while in this cave
I begin to daub its walls,    out of my body
                                I begin to make a world…


What was my dream in my mother’s womb?
To know my double Gemini, my Clayton double, Ira?
But I was unnamed then, of the non-named,
tuned into placenta static with the chaos of my pillow.
Did my coming into being dream at all?
If so, it was a fetal fantasy of ingesting mother morays, yes,
the eels of the mother right, the right to be,
a dream of eels wavering upright, in mother left,
wavering and reeling. Was I fearing to be left in mother as an eel?
Or to lose my eel while emerging, to be without eelity,
an ash lemon? No, I did not know this then,
I knew nothing but the daemon moray amassing in my umbilical
the eel passing between my mother and the meander becoming
the whelping mortar, placental nog, rich with her tissue,
the gift I was taking in, her life, I was converting into a moray


November 7, 1970     Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis

Walked into C 743. She was in a single railed bed, picking at covers, trying to sit up—most of her hair gone—moth-eaten stringy clumps sticking out straight—dyed-brown, skull showing. Acorn, monkey: these words now cross my mind—then, to my horror, I only saw my mother possibly mad in a short hospital gown, sitting, helplessly picking at whatever, eyes wide, seeing, not seeing, skull-head on tiny shoulders—legs bruised, dark splotches, big feet, large dead toenails, legs like helpless clubs sticking out.

We embraced—I held her a long time, a minute it seemed—two minutes—she was a little crumpled and loosened pack of faggots. I sat down, instant knowledge that she was my mother and also no longer was—but she recognized me and told me, her mouth and face slack and tense at once, that she was surprised and happy to see me. I held her hand. Her grip strong two weeks ago was somewhat gone, but her fingers held—sheer bone—her loose skinned wrist mottled brown. I wanted to cry right off but kept almost savoring the duality: this was the first time I had never clearly seen her as my mother. In spite of her growing old, aging until now did not essentially change her--even as she grew stiff, and would walk leaning backwards, I still regarded her essentially as I had from childhood, babyhood even, on----but today, at 5:00 PM Death had moved in—was now more than 51%? in and of her. I thought immediately of Sam Abrams’ youngest child Joshua who at ten can’t talk and has an acorn monkey fidgety muscle gesture look. Death as an interior other, coming alive—no—not alive, but as if, as a tree dies, another form of its withering emerges—as if dying/withering at a certain point becomes an image which is not simply the loss of life. This is horrible—more horrible than if I had walked into the room, saw her head bent over and she had looked up without a face. But it was not a blankness either that shook me—I couldn’t say she had de-evolved and was now a wild child, or an animal crazed with disease in the woods. Again, that would have saved me from seeing her. No, it was my mother acting like a child—that is, she no longer had any protocol. She did not cross her legs, she had no underwear on and if I had tried to do so she would not have stopped me from looking at her cunt. Later she ate with her fingers and let me help her to the toilet. I lifted up the hospital gown and helped her sit down. In our whole life together I had never seen her undressed or had been with her while either of us performed a function in the bathroom. She was so out of it, so overtaken by biological ravage, that I had no context in which to place her. The yet that most profoundly resounds is: she was my mother. Death was Gladys Maine Spencer.

I sat down and held her hand. She again tried to get up into a sitting position, seemingly to read the hospital stamp on the sheet edge. I kept holding her hand and at a certain point my eyes were so flushed I let the cry come. I dropped her hand, buried my face in my own hands and wept. Not as long as when I realized in 1966 that I could not live with Barbara and Matthew, and not as convulsively. She patted my shoulder and said: “There, there, don’t feel bad.” I started to laugh in the midst of my tears, saying “You! You’re telling me not to cry!” I awkwardly told her that I was crying because she was so sick. Then she said: “The greatest pleasure in my life has been to be your mother.” I replied: “I guess (and I weighted that word) I’ve really liked being your son”—which I immediately corrected to: “I’ve loved being your son.” Very quietly she said: “I know that.” Then her mouth slacked and twitched, and she stared off, eyes wide open, into the dim wall…

I wish I could render her state more totally. I was struck by how her otherness was so close to that of many young people I’ve met briefly, when I have thought that they were out of it, drugs or whatever. When I finally made contact with the nurse, a very starched woman in her late 50s, squat and simplistic in the way she acted (telling my mother to be a “big girl”), she seemed just as out of it! After the nurse left, I helped my mother eat some of the smelly hospital fish they gave her. At one point, I looked out of the window and watched in the darkness seven stories below a large heavy black woman slowly cross the parking lot—it’s all dead—that is the phrase that came to me, as if the nature of life—including the imagination that had opened to me when I was twenty-two— was that of death, as if that which lives and goes on is death. My mother was now a puppet, jerked by the cords of Death.

The shit on her hospital gown didn’t upset me, nor did the single tooth that appeared to be the last one left in her mouth. It was when I remembered, thought of her as the person I had known more consequently than any other—thirty-five years—that I felt scared and sick. As long as I stayed in touch with what I immediately saw, I felt somewhat numb, as if memory is part of our lives and we repress whole memory out of not being able to stand the discrepancy between it and what we see. It was ok to watch her drowse. I was kind of charmed that she would eat with her fingers and would let me help her to the toilet with its frightening diagonal aluminum bar along the wall for the dying to grasp as they lowered themselves down.


I put my life into my mother’s tomb. Her furniture: frozen animals. The atmosphere? I pulled the WC udder-chain of iron-geared clouds. It began to drizzle aftermath, inner math, registries of Wabash glades. Her bones, milk-soft, were xylophone to my mental tongs.

[NOTE. The complete text of the 35-section “Anatomy of Night” will be published in January 2012 by Black Widow Press, part of a new collection of poetry and prose, The Price of Experience, and a testament to Eshleman’s ongoing power as a poet and explorer of hidden selves and worlds. Born Ira Clayton Eshleman Jr. on June 1, 1935, in Indianapolis, Indiana, he is the only child of Gladys and Clayton Eshleman, to which the preceding excerpt bears sufficient witness. Earlier postings on Poems and Poetics can be found here and here and here, along with an essay of mine on his work as a translator. His own web site is available at (J.R.)]

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[The following will call attention to Foley’s extraordinary chronology and history of California literary activity – largely poetry – from 1940 to 2005. Encyclopedic in the best sense, the work, published in two volumes earlier this year, weighs in with 1300 combined pages and a rich array of events and citations for the many poets and writers who lived and worked in California over a span of 65 years. My own comment, as it appears on the books’ back covers reads: “This is absolutely stunning, overwhelming ... so much so that I hardly know where to begin or how to end ... probably never. I expect that I'll continue to pore through this for years to come.” It only remains for Foley himself to give his version of the news, below. (J.R.)]

I mean the disorder in which a large number
of possible orders glitter separately.
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things:
An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

Visions and Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line—Poets and Poetry 1940-2005 is a chronoencyclopedia of a scene that stretches over sixty-five years. People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth’s first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. “California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.” ...

A version of this time line appeared in my book, O Powerful Western Star (Pantograph, 2000). That version has been corrected and considerably amplified for this book. Nevertheless, I’m sure that my prejudices and errors are still on display. When I felt passages from articles I have published on various individual writers or themes would help illustrate the intellectual life of this region, I have not hesitated to include them. Unfortunately, despite the size of the book, there are many important figures I do not discuss at length—often simply because of my ignorance of their work. I have tried to give space and commentary to as many people as I could—to honor what Eleana Kim calls “the legitimacy of differing representations of reality”—and I have deliberately not limited myself only to the “famous.” I realize that I have necessarily been unfair to many; may books other than mine give them their proper place in the California sun! Since I have been a part of this poetry scene for more than twenty years, I often appear as a third-person presence in the manner of Henry Adams in the Education. I have worked hard to be inclusive and even “objective,” but Visions & Affiliations is necessarily an image of my own experience: if the book were to have any depth, it had to come from there, and so it is in a sense a running history of my involvement with California poetry. I ask the reader to forgive the many lists that dot the book—and, even more, to forgive the lists that should be in it and are not. I have tried to supply names and publications wherever I could. There is no way to represent a deep, exciting chaos except by being—at least a little—chaotic. Even a time line can be a—but not the—tale of the tribe. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.


The problem with doing a book like this is that you’re always digging up new things which sometimes contradict what you thought you “had.” Nothing is “secure.”
      If you let yourself be too aware of the utter endlessness of the project, you’re lost—you’ll stop doing it—so you keep saying, “Ok, that’s fine, it’s finished now.” But of course there are many instances in which what seems to be “finished” turns out to be merely the beginning of something. You know the project is endless—and constantly getting away from you—but you do what you can to forget that fact. And you comfort yourself with the momentary, perhaps illusory insights that arise as you go through. Slippery history!
      When songwriter/performer Marshall Barer blandly asked a young woman in his audience, “What’s your sign, dear?” she answered, “Slippery when wet!” Trying to write history is dealing with wet. That’s why historians so often rely on the work of “colleagues.” The work of others offers some foundation. But colleagues too are often nothing but apple carts waiting to be upset.
      I think that all this activity reflects that self-questioning which lies at the heart of Heidegger’s “Dasein”—a being which places its own being in question. It’s not that there is no “ground,” but that any “ground” you find is tentative, temporary, temporal. For many years, God was the Urgrund, the ground of grounds. But once God goes—and God is gone—innumerable grounds appear, each with its bit of truth and untruth:
      Things are cast adrift, more or less like one another without any
of them being able to claim the privileged status of “model” for the
rest. Hierarchy gives way….
      —James Harkness, introduction to Michel Foucault, This is Not
a Pipe (UC Press, 1983)
      If there is any Urgrund in this book, it is the constantly changing, endlessly conflictive fabric of time.

[N.B. Copies of the two-volume work can presently be purchased at, while a section of the 1960s entry appeared in a recent edition of Michael Rothenberg’s Big Bridge, available here.  Since this posting it has also become available through]

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