Articles - May 2011

Sentimental spaces

On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Nest'

“And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man!” — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space[1

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre takes a moment to castigate Gaston Bachelard for an embarrassing failure: Bachelard has a soft spot for the home, sentimentally taking it out of the realm of social space and identifying it with the natural dwelling of animals, the nest. Space, Lefebvre famously argues, is produced. Far from being a neutral and preexisting medium or natural resource available for use, it is both a product and a means of production, fashioned dialectically through a confluence of historical, material, and cultural factors.[2] Yet the home  is all too often made out to be the exception, the space outside production, the space outside space, even. “The [human] dwelling,” Lefebvre charges,

passes everywhere for a special, still sacred, quasi-religious and in fact almost absolute space. […] The contents of the House have an almost ontological dignity in Bachelard: drawers, chests and cabinets are not far removed from their natural analogues, as perceived by the philosopher-poet, namely the basic figures of nest, shell, corner, roundness, and so on.[3]

Bachelard himself is unsentimentally aware that the affective nexus around nests that he describes rests on a certain tautological reason. But Lefebvre is not missing Bachelard’s point so much as reading against the grain, the better to remind us at what cost we naturalize the house when we make of it a “nest.” Lefebvre thus indicts not only a failure of rigor but also the feelings and longings that surely produce that failure, the feelings and longings that are Bachelard’s real objects of analysis: a delight in hiddenness, nostalgia for lost intimacy, the desire to mold space to the body, a longing for safety.[4]

Bachelard and Lefebvre reveal the power with which the figure of the animal — the figure of the bird in particular — triggers actions of metonymy and allegory in an otherwise literal analysis. The birds’ nest becomes an allegory for the home, and the birds and their habitat become a metonym for nature, such that the human home is itself granted the status of nature, absolute space. It is Bachelard’s reliance on metonymic and allegorical logic that leads Lefebvre to call him a “philosopher-poet.” The gesture that makes the home autonomous from capital and exempt from production is also a gesture of slippage, a sleight of hand, visible, yet pardoned for sentimental reasons. The poetic here looks very much like mystification, in other words.

Below: Mei-mei Berssenbruge at KGB Bar, New York, in December 2010. Photo copyright © Lawrence Schwartzwald.

When we read Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 2003 book of poems Nest, we must therefore do so through the complex that the word “nest” conjures up: of domestic space, its reliance on the animal, and its sentimental-poetic failures. Nest is about space, and especially the privileged so-called domestic space, rendered in relation to the animal as well as in relation to the “experimental” poetics for which Berssenbrugge is known. Berssenbrugge’s poetry is often characterized by a scientific and philosophical vocabulary that points toward a commitment to knowledge and, consequently, an experimental tradition associated with sinewy, even ascetic forms. Yet the poems of Nest are neither sinewy nor ascetic, nor even lush in the emotionally satisfying sense we might imagine, but rather something more like “downy.” There is a self-conscious excessiveness to Nest that examines, and toys with inciting, the very longings that Bachelard investigates and Lefebvre fingers with suspicion. Nest is embarrassing, in the way that the “poet-philosopher” Bachelard’s analysis is embarrassing — in the way that the poetic functions triggered by the animal are themselves embarrassing, when we find ourselves using them to sentimental ends. By invoking the old allegory and presenting human dwelling as a nest, Berssenbrugge suggests that domestic spaces depend not only on a nostalgic analytic failure but also on an embarrassed recognition of that failure — that a certain sentimentalism is the necessary concomitant of (as the final three entries of the table of contents read) “SAFETY.”


1. Domestic space

Nest inquires into the human dwelling and the things that make a house a home: enclosed space, light and shadow, family, friends, pets. Domestic space, for Berssenbrugge, is imbricated with its uses, its occupants, and the fleeting energies that traverse it, so that it is at once fundamentally material and easily abstracted, even dematerialized. The opening poem of the book, “Permanent Home,” establishes the precariousness of domestic space’s materiality, as the domestic space that the poem describes constantly slips into translucent impermanence:

I seek a permanent home, but this structure has an appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation, heading toward hopelessness.

The boy pulls an animal on a leash.

The house with a red roof rests between two hills.

I can look through its windows to the sea.

His aggression opposes what in a domestic animal, cold open space, large enough
to work with isolation?

House is the projection, space around it intermediary, theater.

You don’t have to consume the space to exist, distance, point-to-point, in which a beloved ruin is middle ground, for example.[5]

The structure given as a possible permanent home fails: the “appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation” indicates both an aesthetic-structural inadequacy (indifferent compoundedness) and a spatial inadequacy (isolation) whose meanings are ultimately emotional, “heading toward hopelessness,” disclosing the degree to which affections define space. The house is situated in space, “between two hills.” That it is a “projection” encapsulates the contingent physicality of the domestic space; it is at once a projection in the sense of a physical protrusion from the ground and a projection in the sense that it is a set of immaterial forces superimposed on a landscape. The ordinariness of glass windows with an ocean view thus takes on an unsettling significance here; the house can be “look[ed] through,” as if it lacks substance, and yet an ocean view is also an immaterial attribute that adds “material” — that is, monetary — value to the house. The sea and the hills are not interrupted by the presence of the house; “[y]ou don’t have to consume the space to exist,” Berssenbrugge notes, and the home whose permanence is denied seems to be proof of this: it exists, but it does not consume the space that it takes up. The physical space of the home is always partly constituted by immaterial elements.

In this sense, Nest conceives domestic space as a form of social space, which, as Lefebvre describes it, “contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the networks and pathways which facilitate the exchange of material things and information.”[6] But material things and information do not exhaust the description of social space: Berssenbrugge would add to these the pathways of affection, obligation, and need, among humans as well as among animals and the surrounding environment. Externally, the house is situated with respect to hills and sea rather than political or social markers, while internally, it is situated with respect to a child and a pet — specifically the energetic, striving relationship between them, marked by the tension of the animal’s leash. The boy and the pet — surely a dog, but the poem insists on the more abstract term “animal” — seem to intrude into the meditation on space and landscape. At the same time they ballast the scene, centering it in the domestic space, the affective ties between domestic human and domestic animal literalized and visualized by the taut leash. The line of tension between child and dog parallels the lines of sight and the spatial grid that Berssenbrugge evokes in “distance, point-to-point.” Thus affective interactions, too, structure this space, and are indeed perhaps the most solidly physical thing about it.

To insist that the production of space includes an affective dimension would amount to a substantive enough point, but in the special case of domestic space, the stakes are raised, because domestic space always carries with it ideologies that resonate specifically with the notions of affection, obligation, and need. The concept of domesticity and the ideologies of gender, class, and family that it entails have been roundly critiqued, notably by feminist writers and critics, especially when conjured up by way of a comforting (and naturalizing) image of the nest. As Donna Haraway dryly notes, “animal societies have been extensively employed in rationalization and naturalization of the oppressive orders of domination in the human body politic”; thus to invoke the nest is necessarily to call up its history of shoring up an oppressive ideology of domesticity.[7] Yet as Cathy N. Davidson observes out in her introduction to a 1998 special issue of American Literature (pointedly, perhaps exasperatedly, titled “No More Separate Spheres!”), the idea of a “domestic sphere,” whether referring narrowly to the middle-class home or more broadly to a (white, middle-class) feminine cultural domain, has remained a comfortable conceptual model, one to which, as to the imagined nest itself, we constantly return. This is, Davidson points out, in spite of domesticity’s empirical inadequacy to historical evidence, and in spite of repeated, concerted critical efforts to decenter it.[8] The very convention of the domestic home-as-nest takes on a power quite apart from either empirical fitness or philosophical rigor: as Lefebvre puts it, “[t]his memory […] has an obsessive quality: it persists in art, poetry, drama and philosophy” despite everything.[9]

For Berssenbrugge, domestic space is not the separate sphere that we are so tempted to make of it. It is not exempt from the production of space, and if it is defined in part by the pathways of affection that we typically associate with domesticity — a child, a pet — that is only because such pathways always play a role in the production of space. Affective ties are not merely confined to the home, but are rather asserted as a vital component of the social, and as productive of space itself. Thus later in the poem we read of a boy playing with a pet mouse: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground,” the affective tie of desired proximity again structuring the space (12). Yet as Davidson indicates, we are inclined to think of the home as constituting a separate sphere at the slightest instigation, such that the mere conjunction of “affection” and “home” sets off a chain of unrigorous yet dearly treasured associations, associations with which Nest deliberately flirts. Even Lefebvre admits that Bachelard’s and Heidegger’s privileging of the home as an “intimate and absolute space” is “most emotional and indeed moving”; more radically, he even concedes that the home may be in some sense legitimately anachronistic, a little apart from history, an “invariant, surviving or stagnant elemen[t]” in the midst of the unmistakably historical, produced “urban fabric.”[10] But despite this brief interlude of naturalizing domestic space, Lefebvre also observes that the ideology that underwrites the pleasure of Bachelard’s “moving” description is a gendered one, with direct consequences for any serious attempt to analyze the production of space: “In the background […] stands Nature — maternal if not uterine.” Lefebvre’s equivocation — is the image of the nest specifically uterine or more broadly maternal? — marks the very problem that nature always raises: in an image so highly charged, it is difficult to disarticulate the material and symbolic registers, the distinction between uterus and mother. Indeed, as Timothy Morton argues, nature is always “a transcendental term in a material mask,” signaling a refusal to settle for either materiality or abstraction but fluidly transforming the one into the other and back.[11] Consequently, as soon as nature (or its metonym, the nest) is invoked, the femininity of domestic space is almost tautologically confirmed. Domestic space thus becomes the very definition of a separate sphere, a “natural” realm autonomous from the social, exempt from history, feminine, private, immutable.

Thus to recur to affection and need, in the case of the home, always means to recur to the always pre-denied natural metaphor — the home as a “nest” — as well. Nest therefore acknowledges the theoretical claims of, and offers a corrective to, both Lefebvre and Bachelard: that, on the one hand, domestic space is produced, not natural or autonomous from the domain of the social (it is not a “separate sphere”); and that, on the other hand, domestic space cannot be thought apart from networks of affection, and therefore cannot be thought apart from the ideology of separate spheres that so often organizes those networks. To analyze the affective elements of domestic space returns us to an ideology that we either cannot let go, as Davidson and Lefebvre suggest, or that we do not, for sentimental reasons, wish to let go, as Bachelard suggests. Charles Altieri has argued that in Empathy (1989), Berssenbrugge “focus[es] directly on the desire for intimacy — with herself, with other people, and with the reader as an extension of both those projections — while struggling against pressures to theatricalize or thematize or otherwise flatten intimacy into idea.”[12] But in Nest, Berssenbrugge does not so much resist those pressures of theatricalization, thematization, or flattening — what we might succinctly gloss as the pressures of sentimentalism — as open up to them, knowingly succumbing in order to reveal the aesthetic and social implications of the sentimentalization of domestic space.


2. Affective work and the debts of sentimentality

If space is produced in part by networks of affection, then the issue of affective labor necessarily comes into play. “[N]ature,” Lefebvre argues, recapitulating the separate spheres argument in spite of himself, “does not labour […] it creates”; thus “nature does not produce.”[13] But as soon as domestic space is assimilated to nature, it appears to lie outside the realm of production — what Marxist feminists have pointed out is a space in which all work, typically that done by women, falls under the rubric of reproduction. Women’s work in the home is, in Silvia Federici’s words, “defined as non-work,” therefore “appear[ing] as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.”[14] It is not clear whether the naturalization of the home precedes the appropriation of women’s work or the reverse: as we have seen with Bachelard, the two movements are hardly distinguishable. It is not an accident that such work is regarded as reproductive; as Lefebvre points out, nature is “maternal if not uterine.” If, working with Berssenbrugge against the supposition that the “nest” is a sphere apart, we attend to the role of ties of affection in the production of space, then we must see those ties as something other than a pure emanation of nature, however closely they bind us to nature’s metonyms — nests, animals, and the like. We must, in short, register the concept of affective work.[15]

In her 1983 study The Managed Heart, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild observes that the management of feeling requires work. While all adults must engage in emotion work with great frequency, women must do more and different kinds of emotion work than men due to their lower social status. As Hochschild observes, tradition dictates that “Middle-class American women […] feel emotion more than men do”; at the same time — contradictorily — they are also “thought to manage expression and feeling not only better but more often than men do,” for instance in crying to get their way. Women’s emotions are thus suspected of being at once excessively powerful and genuine, on the one hand, and potentially duplicitous, on the other hand, precisely because women are so frequently engaged in emotional work. Hochschild’s key insight is that these emotional patterns do not “simply exist passively in women,” but are rather “signs of a social work that women do” to cope with social circumstances largely beyond their control.[16] In this sense, emotion work located in the home is an instance of domestic work whose status as work is discounted, a powerful element of what Hochschild, in another work that pointedly targeted the ideology of separate spheres, called “the second shift.”[17]

Affective work always involves the application of the will to something classically construed as by definition spontaneous; it is therefore necessarily predicated on a certain affective inauthenticity, one that can be difficult to pin down. There is something inherently contradictory about willing oneself to feel a certain way: if it is willed, then one perhaps does not “really” feel it. Like a synthetic gemstone, the willed feeling is at once “real” and somehow worth less than the spontaneous feeling. Hochschild documents the complexity of this inauthenticity in cases of flight attendants who find themselves unable distinguish between their professional (managed) and private feelings — for the job demands not just smile but a sincere smile.[18] But of course the constraints of affective work are not limited to the sphere of paid work; the need not only to manifest but actually to feel warmth toward a family member, for instance, can be as urgent as the demands of any paid job. There is, moreover, an economic dimension to the gendering of emotion work even when it is unpaid. As Hochschild writes,

lacking other resources, women make a resource out of feeling and offer it to men as a gift in return for the more material resources they lack. (For example, in 1980 only 6 percent of women but 50 percent of men earned over $15,000 a year.) Thus their capacity to manage feeling and to do “relational” work is for them a more important resource.[19]

Affective work thus always crucially, if ambiguously, involves inauthentic feeling — feeling that is really there, perhaps, but elicited, required—sometimes very materially required.

In this sense, affective work replicates the form usually attributed to the sentimental mode, which Oscar Wilde famously characterized as “hav[ing] the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”[20] The emotion evoked by sentimentality is thought to be “cheap,” manipulated, ill-gotten through formulae, in a way that does not seem to apply to the catharsis of tragedy (which is in some sense “earned”). Sentimentality, too, is predicated on inauthentic feeling, and like affective work it also entails leveraging feelings against money one doesn’t have. Thus affective work — traditionally the province of women — also structurally describes the work of sentimentality. Both are a kind of manipulation, if you like, but a kind of manipulation that is effective, one that is work, and one that is in demand — even necessary, as Lauren Berlant argues.[21] Affective work crisscrosses “productive” (public) and “reproductive” (domestic) spheres to “produc[e] social networks, forms of community, biopower,” as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it — and, Nest would suggest, to produce space as well.[22] (Can it be an accident that the foundational study of affective labor is a sociology of flight attendants, whose job it is to traverse continents over and over again, always carrying the performance of domesticity with them?)[23] Thus space, domestic and otherwise, is produced by a thick interaction of material, social, and affective networks hinging in part on affective work (paid or unpaid), the altogether necessary work of inauthentic feeling. As the saying goes, home is where the (managed) heart is.

I recur to the conventional phrase “home is where the heart is” because it foregrounds the forces that continue to work to frame the domestic as a separate sphere. They are forces of the heart, despite the fact that “the heart” ascends toward “the hegemonic position” in global labor, as Hardt and Negri suggest — which is to say that the heart is everywhere, that no place is “home” in the sense of a nest under late capitalism.[24] As Antonella Corsani, among others, has argued, late capitalism is marked by a “feminization of labor” that radically destabilizes the public/private distinction by extending the features of female labor to the general work force — its precariousness and hyperexploitation as well as its affective and reproductive qualities.[25] Yet the total breakdown of any pretense at “separate spheres,” signaled by the broad hegemony of affective labor and other immaterial labor, does little to diminish the power of a phrase like “home is where the heart is.” It is pardoned for sentimental reasons: it is no less necessary than the flight attendant’s smile. Affective work shares the structure of sentimentality, yet while one seems to undermine the ideology of separate spheres by permeating labor, the other seems to shore up separate spheres by drawing on that fund of non-accountability, generating sensations unearned (in this case) by any correspondence with reality. As Berlant describes it, this double action, permitting survival yet complying with that which oppresses, is a feature of sentimentality more generally.

The sentimental mode, in Berlant’s account, hangs on convention: convention supplies a familiarity that is at once an alternative to and a correction for the familiarity of what is real. Conventions need not correspond with lived experience; indeed, they create out of disparate experiences a mass-marketable and often frankly ideological “intimate public” that offers psychic compensation for the inadequacies of individual realities.[26] Yet, as Berlant argues, “[t]he convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation” of a “shared […] imaginary,” a union of readers that exists “in advance of […] a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived.”[27] The temporal displacement of the sentimental subject should perhaps remind us of Bachelard’s reading of a poem by Jean Caubère, which, in speaking to the evanescence of domestic space, also illuminates Berssenbrugge’s “Permanent Home”:

The poet rightly thought that, at the mention of a nest, a bird’s song, and the charms that take us back to the old home, to the first home, a sort of musical chord would sound in the soul of the reader. But in order to make so gentle a comparison between house and nest, one must have lost the house that stood for happiness. So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.[28]

Lost intimacy is a constant and indeed constitutive feature of the nest; the “permanent home” is always somewhere else, unpresent even to itself, always somehow phantasmatic despite its materiality. For Bachelard, the nest is evocative because it is an object of nostalgia, always both idealized and past.

Though Berlant and Bachelard differ on the direction of temporal dislocation, they agree that the work of convention does not consist in fitly describing a present reality. Counterintuitively, convention’s very recognizability and ability to bind lies in its lack of correspondence to present reality. Though it is apt to the occasion, when Bachelard declares that the image of the nest necessarily transports “us” to thoughts of home he displays just the kind of sentimentality that Lefebvre decries. The troubling undertow of that sentimentality is its universalizing impulse, daring to speak not only for “the” reader but also for that reader’s “soul.”[29] Almost predictably — and here Lefebvre’s critique bears fruit — a discussion of the home plays out in the grossest of conventionalities. And though Berssenbrugge’s touch is lighter than Bachelard’s, in the end her own elaboration of the home relies on the same conventions — the identification of the domestic space with a nest in particular. Berssenbrugge rewrites in spatial terms the temporal absence that Bachelard describes, rendering the nest-like permanent home absent, not as a result of time past and memories gone, but rather of an the difficulty of negotiating space, of arriving at a conception of space that is adequate to a human home. Like Jean Caubère, Berssenbrugge “rightly” relies on animal dwellings to evoke a fleeting and longed-for human domesticity. “Rightly” because, as Berlant suggests, “to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world.”[30]

The logic of convention supplies the central tension as well as the central metaphor in Nest because convention is a domain of comfort that inevitably tips over into the hokey and the false. Because convention is constituted through its lack of correspondence to present reality, it never stops being hokey and intellectually suspect, and embarrassingly, it never stops being comforting and, in the end, intellectually powerful as well. As with Bachelard, for Berssenbrugge, figures of animals that have been literally or imaginatively domesticated pointedly reveal the tragicomedy of convention. The compromises of domesticity and domestication appear nowhere more awkwardly than in the second section of “Erring,” in a narrative episode in which an already domesticated family pet, Fluffy, is rendered again as kitsch:

The bell rings and a man delivers a dog made of flowers to me.

My brother rolls over on his back, arms and legs up, tongue out.

He ordered the flowers.

Our dog, whom the flowers resemble, bites his cuff.

I realize relating flowers to our dog is perfectly normal on his part, even
though life hasn’t turned out as he hoped.

Everyone in the room exclaims, so cute! but the resemblance is slight.

Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.

It was part of reality, like Fluffy herself, though blurring with flowers gives some

It’s an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through
which he hopes something will pass for him, but his exhaustion signals. (35)

The section opens with a breach of the home’s boundary: a stranger delivers a floral arrangement in the shape of a dog — modeled after a real dog, it turns out: the family pet, Fluffy. The commissioner of this crime against art is the narrator’s brother, who enacts a second mimesis by rolling over and pretending, himself, to be a dog. In this domestic arena, the terms of artistic or intellectual rigor must be torqued to accommodate the exigencies of love; questions of craft, interpretation, and intertext are out of bounds in this space. A debased mimesis is the only possible criterion for evaluating the flower-dog as an artistic production: how close is its likeness to Fluffy? Berssenbrugge therefore substitutes for art criticism a restrained acknowledgment of the novelty sculpture’s conditions of production: “Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.” These aesthetics find their culmination in the familial judgment, really the only possible judgment for a flower arrangement shaped like the family dog: “so cute!” The conventional impulse is not to create but to mimic, indeed to conform oneself to something recognizable, and thereby ameliorate a life that “hasn’t turned out as [one] hoped.” The work of the familial nest, itself a convention, is to support that ultimately tragic negotiation, and to say “so cute!” when confronted by its metonym in the form of kitsch.

If the failures of the floral dog disturbingly echo misogynistic critiques of women’s art and domestic “women’s culture” — as merely mimetic, sentimental, critically unrigorous, pre-commodified — they are also unmistakably failures, not a recuperable “alternative” aesthetic but forms of retreat from the aesthetic, a domain where aesthetic criteria can find no purchase. “Erring” argues against the theoretical utility — or honesty — of simply revaluing the domestic as a category, even as it acknowledges domesticity’s power to shelter. The gendered notion of the “nest,” which proposes the home as a fundamentally feminine and somehow “natural” sphere separate from an outside, commercial world, produces the necessity of reacting to the kitsch dog with “so cute!” in lieu of a genuine aesthetic response: the necessity of affective work, in short, elicited from “[e]veryone in the room” precisely because they are in the domestic space. What are you going to do, hurt your brother’s feelings?

Affective work thus limns the domestic space; the delivery from the “outside” corporate (“productive”) source is the center of and the occasion for the convention-bound women’s work of declaring the kitsch dog cute, an aesthetic compromise demanded by affective exigencies. The sentimental artistic modes so often understood as “women’s culture” are at once aesthetically and emotionally “cheap,” and yet also, as Berlant argues, at times a matter of survival. As Berssenbrugge writes, the kitsch dog is “an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through which [my brother] hopes something will pass for him.” The brother’s disappointment with life is briefly held at bay by the aesthetic falsity of the dog, into which “everyone in the room” must now enter, sincerely or otherwise. It is precisely “style,” the flower dog’s debased aesthetics of convention, that “carves a difference in potential” — that is, between reality and what “he hoped.” Convention generates a gap within which to hope for “something [to] pass,” rendering possible a more livable world. Sentimental art, with its aesthetic compromises, structurally mirrors affective work in the willed production of feelings, and thus, likewise, in its ability to serve as emotional compensation for otherwise untenable circumstances.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in New Mexico. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.


3. Kitsch is a bitch

In Nest, that domestic space is produced in part by affective work has aesthetic consequences, as we have seen. Domestic space has an aesthetic analogue in sentimental art, and the two categories find confirmation in one another. And just as we saw an animal anchoring domestic space in “Permanent Home,” repeatedly, animals also serve as catalysts for affective work in Nest, repeating the title’s allegorical action. The home is a nest, fashioned, as the nineteenth-century naturalist and historian Jules Michelet writes, from contact with the body of the animal: “a bird’s tool is its own body, that is, its breast, with which it presses and tightens its materials until they have become absolutely pliant, well-blended, and adapted to the general plan.”[31] This is indeed work of the heart: as if in homage to a human gesture of affection, the home is constructed via the action of pressing materials to the breast. Interspecies affection is therefore conceptually implicated in the construction of domestic space.

Yet “[t]here is nothing more absurd,” Bachelard concedes, “than images that attribute human qualities to a nest.”[32] Why so? Perhaps, as Tobias Menely suggests, “there is something emblematically sentimental about loving animals.”[33] But the sense of absurdity to which Bachelard points is, I would propose, more than a historical curiosity, and more, too, than the gesture of authoritarian anthropocentrism that Menely later implies it is: for loving animals, too, can be anthropocentric, as Berssenbrugge reveals in a poem of excruciatingly self-aware sentimentalism, “Dressing Up Our Pets.” Dressing up pets is the oppressive, sentimental act of love that registers and yet cannot comprehend the animals’ alterity:


I sew a bright hood for my pet mouse.

I make holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.

I stand it on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.

My friend, the white mouse, is iridescent, not an image that began in my intuition
as ready-found material.

I sew a hood for the rabbit, eye and nose holes, sheathed ears.

Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color, burdens this activity of
dressing our pets.

The mouse is old, but its image is light.

Between its alleged color and its alleged visibility is a lining, like the double of a
mouse, latency, flesh.

The surface of the visibility of a family doubles over its whole extension with
invisible reserve.

In my flesh what’s visible, by refolding or padding, exhibits their being as the
complement of possibility.

Since possibility is this situation as thought, as a universal. (23)

In this moment, domesticated animals serve as a site of interpenetration of human and animal domains where ethically suspect sentimental conventions flourish. The act of costuming the animals seems at first to honor the animals’ bodies — “holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.” Yet to honor “[m]y friend, the white mouse” is to hood it in a material alien to it, to dress it up as one might dress up a doll, or, troublingly, a child. The act of dressing up pets is either a quasi-maternal or a quasi-childish anthropomorphization. The speaker stands the mouse “on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.” The speaker seems to approve the independence and competency of the mouse “standing on its own.” Yet the coding of standing on two legs, suggesting vigor and autonomy, is a human one, for mice stand on their own as a matter of course — on four legs.

The relation to animals thus invokes a troubling dialectic of empathy and anthropocentrism, an interplay of affective and epistemological impulses with unclear ethical consequences. If the sentimental mode stands in for an ethically suspect literature of feeling and the so-called experimental mode stands in (as I have argued elsewhere) for an ethically upright literature of thinking, Nest, by its invocation of the animal, wrests these two categories into conversation, formally as well as thematically.[34] As I suggested in the first section of this essay, the conflation of home and nest is at once conventional and, in its power to provoke metonymy and allegory, fundamentally poetic. It thus serves as a conceptual crossroads where kitschy genres and forms — the immersive, formulaic narratives and mechanical feeling-generators (“tear-jerkers”) that are typically characterized as sentimental — come into contact with the non-narrative poetic forms that we often — problematically — call “experimental.”

I am arguing, in other words, that Nest is sentimental poetry in the strong sense that it embeds sentimentalism, with all its problems and embarrassments, into its very structure. This accounts for the elusive yet unmistakably embarrassing quality of a number of syntactic moves that transform the lines of Nest into the downy architectural lines of an all-too-domestic nest-like space. These are all forms of going too far, going on too long, or in some way pushing it, insisting on an explanation, clarification, or narrative not subtended by any strong logical connection. These syntactic moves subvert the forward-moving logic of production, exceeding what is appropriate or necessary and contaminating the lines’ logical tightness with the reproductive and affective intrusions of parataxis, association, and mere juxtaposition. Such moves include a preponderance of sentences that conjoin two independent clauses with the paratactic link of “and”; reliance on narrative connectors that are merely temporal (“then”) rather than causal; and the use of adjective clauses, which conscript the assertive subject-verb pairing for the non-narrative, decorative (we might say domestic) aims of description and modification.

For example, in the first of the trio of poems titled “Safety” that close Nest, we read: “Increasingly in our world, forgiveness is asked, granted, withheld, face-to-face or below the surface, like slow combustion, and I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” (67). The sentence can be granted a certain logical rigor, even as, word by word, the various past participles, and then adjective phrases, accumulate — even when we encounter, in the final adjective phrase, the logical flimsiness of a simile, “like slow combustion.” The sentence can bear no more by the time we arrive at that weak link, “and,” which adds insult to injury with a declaration of need that rests on the least logically rigorous component of the foregoing clause, the simile between forgiveness and combustion. The simile is itself incongruous and faintly inappropriate, for while a metaphor imposes a likeness (“forgiveness is a slow combustion”), a simile relies on a pre-existing likeness. Here, no indication of any real similarity between forgiveness and combustion supports the “like”; ironically, “like” therefore only attenuates the connection. But it is the paratactic tacking on of the second clause — “I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” — that goes too far, by insisting further on the simile while continuing rather ostentatiously to withhold any logical grounding for it. The sentence ends by making a “chain of oxidation” into the site of “I need,” physicalizing and spatializing an emotional state through the kind of empty simile that is sentimentalism’s hallmark.

In this, then, the syntax of Nest delimits a poetic space whose boundaries are in question — poetry threatening to dissolve into sentimentality, poetic form already complicit in the making of sentimentality, not through its “transparency” (as in nineteenth-century sentimental poetry) but precisely insofar as “abstraction” resolves into convention. In doing so this syntax models as well as invokes the myriad pains of the domestic space, its tendency not merely to be read as the product of sentimentalism but in fact to be unavoidably constituted by it, insofar as the abstraction of the dwelling space is always pre-naturalized, pre-gendered, and cast out of the realm of production. To describe the home is to need to seek refuge in abstraction, an impulse we see over and over again in these poems: “the boy” and “an animal” in “Permanent Home” (the animal surely a dog, but called “an animal” nonetheless) (11); “the child” in “Dressing Up Our Pets” (27); the repeated turns to a phenomenological language of perception. We see it, too, in the insistence on abstract relations that seem designed to be substitutable into any story: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground” (12); “There’s a relation between them in which she’s involved” (17); “Each line connects” (27); “By connecting images, not meaning, she transforms her boredom into pure time” (36); and so on. Connection and relation are themselves abstracted and are, in their loss of specificity, rendered as floppy and “downy” as the poetry’s syntax. The sentimental convention is a story, as Berlant puts it, “about the bargain ‘a woman’ makes with femininity, which is to measure out a life in the capital of intimacy, opening herself to a risky series of sexual and emotional transactions that intensify her vulnerability on behalf of securing value, a world and ‘a life’ that are financially, spatially, and environmentally stable and predictable enough.”[35] The ever-contingent boundaries of the nest are shored up by convention, by the abstraction that is “not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but...a profound placeholder”;[36] in other words, the naturalized affective labor that subtends the home, when rendered as sentimental convention, can serve as a near-adequate substitute for the “universal” quality to which Berssenbrugge repeatedly alludes.

It is no accident, I would therefore argue, that the tragicomedy of convention in “Erring” must center on the family pet — the animal — and on what the brother “relate[s]” to it. Sentimentalism is an aesthetic crime and an ethical one: a theft of unearned feeling necessarily committed over and over in order to make ends meet, a domain fictively placed outside the realm of production because the economy of feeling has already failed. The dog, a “domesticated” animal, already belongs inside the domestic space; when its simulacrum, the flower sculpture, intrudes as well, we are shown that the domestic space is already populated not only by a human and animal kin group but also by a commodity system that profits by re-rendering the domestic unit’s reality as convention: “blurring with flowers gives some universality.” Berssenbrugge chooses to name the generic quality of the floral dog by the great artistic desideratum, “universality,” slyly travestied here as mere evidence that the sculpture is after all only a flower arrangement ordered over the phone. Here and elsewhere, we see that “universality” has an unsettling tendency to resolve into the abstractions of commodity and of convention. Fluffy abstracted is Fluffy commodified, and Fluffy commodified is a comfort to the disappointed brother. The faintly aggressive assertion of the real dog in the poem, a live, individual dog capable of biting the brother’s cuff, serves as a reminder of what is being abstracted, and for whose benefit.

The awkward dog episode in “Erring” brings into relief the affective dimension of the spatial problem already posed by Bachelard’s meditation on the nest, the target of Lefebvre’s vigorous critique. “Erring” more broadly meditates on tensions within a family “so wrong in how they’re laid out, no ethos of being together” (33), a complaint that registers affective inadequacies in spatial terms, as if affections could be repaired by improving the way the family is “laid out.” As in “Permanent Home,” the domestic space is inevitably self-distant, even from the vantage point of the living room. The language of distance does double duty as an affective metaphor, mediated by the presence of a camera eye in the poem, which the speaker’s emotionally distant (so to speak) daughter wields. The camera repeatedly appears to record the home with the impersonality of abstraction, reinterpreting domestic space as sheer composition and distance — thus the moment at which the floral dog is delivered is less a snippet of reality than “an unstable image,” a kind of defective photograph that cannot persist through time. When the daughter returns on the scene, the abstraction of space produced by her camera repeats the abstraction of affection embodied in the kitschy flower-dog:

Space between her image and my perception allows her to store other images, by
subtracting what relates to me.

This alteration produces blurring, camera shake.

Door, windows are remembered, blurred. (35)

Blurring, the same faculty that lends the flower-dog “universality,” now characterizes the perception of space itself. The domestic space is in this sense always doubly abstracted, spatially and affectively, into convention.

A loss of specificity then becomes the ameliorating theft that compensates for the originary theft that underwrites sentimentalism: the removal of the home from historical space with its concomitant assimilation of female and affective labor to (appropriable) nature. As soon as we move into the space of the home considered as such, the abstraction of universality resolves into floppy syntax and “blurred” perception, and becomes indistinguishable from the abstraction of sentimental convention. What is work is not work; what would be paid for elsewhere is too priceless to be paid for; what is done with difficulty is natural; what is (domestic) space is not space; thought is feeling; art is kitsch. We pardon these gendered slippages for sentimental reasons, and they are the slippages that constitute sentimental reason, that necessitate sentimental style. These thefts create the deficits that put one in need of a little unearned feeling. Thus in “Dressing Up Our Pets” the sentimental, cute, empathetic/aggressive act of costuming a rodent is freighted with philosophical (abstract) questions about how to perceive the animal: “Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color burdens this activity of dressing our pets” (23).[37] The convention of wearing clothes, and the domestic convention of dressing a being for which one cares, emerges as a moment of deeply inappropriate abstraction. Convention’s abstraction here amounts to a refusal of the pet’s specificity and difference. But how, then, are we to distinguish between the abstraction in this convention and the kind of abstraction that renders dressing a pet a phenomenological problem? It is not so much that Berssenbrugge “raises” sentimentalism to the stature of phenomenology as that phenomenology “burdens” it, intervening in the very physical practicalities of dressing a mouse. It squirms: but in what does squirming consist? Nothing about that question allows us to answer the more pressing one: why are you dressing a mouse? Berssenbrugge thus explicitly flags the way in which a dense passage suffused with the phenomenological terminology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (visible/invisible, extension, flesh) renders “this situation” — the exceedingly sentimental, rather improbable situation of sewing a costume for a pet rodent and making said squirming rodent wear it — “as thought, as a universal” (23),

From the perspective of a longer literary history, then, Nest raises all the ghosts of gender wars past, and especially the tensions within late twentieth-century self-identified “experimental” poetry. In 1983 Kathleen Fraser founded HOW(ever), a journal of feminist poetics, in response to what she and many others diagnosed as a gendered split between an anticapitalist, critique-oriented “language-centered” writing and a commodified “mainstream” poetics.[38] Significantly, these concerns arose in parallel with a feminist poetics of subjectivity founded on the confessional tradition. As Linda Kinnahan puts it, “the framing term feminist poetry has not historically admitted avant-garde/experimental/innovative approaches, while the framing term Language writing [implicitly, also, “experimental”] has generated a history built up around men.”[39] The writing that was, in Kinnahan’s word, “innovative” (might we say “productive”?), was rendered masculine, while regressive, stylistically “conventional,” commodified or at least commodifiable writing — in a word, sentimental writing — was by the same stroke feminized and identified as the site of feminism.[40] Since that time, the division between “experimental” and “feminine” writing has been deconstructed in numerous essays, manifestoes, monographs, and anthologies, in part on the basis of the work of Fraser and many other women writers who have identified strongly with terms like “innovative” and “experimental”; moreover, even the “experimental”/“mainstream” split on which it is founded has been repeatedly refuted, notably by an anthology brought out by the ultimate anthologizer, W. W. Norton.[41] In the literary-critical age of the “post-,” the problem of domestic space has been declared obsolete, along with the other gendered binaries that have structured intellectual life.[42] Yet placing Nest in 2003, when, in Lynn Keller’s words, “we are now a generation past Fraser’s launching of HOW(ever) […] with the Language writers now a senior generation among experimentalists,”[43] we see how easily that chord again sounds within, how swiftly the dwelling is naturalized, and with what difficulty the sentimental may be excluded from the feminine as a category. In 2003, Berssenbrugge could not have quite anticipated the literalism with which your making a “friend” would make Facebook, Inc. profits;[44] yet Nest’s sentimentalism reveals infinite relays of the unearned that underwrite the diffusion of unpaid emotion work and the visualization of affective ties. It still seems “unnatural” to be paid for feeling, even as profiting on the feelings of others is the status quo. The embarrassments of Nest mark that basic contradiction, the gap between what is and what is longed for that sentimentalism both compensates for and creates. If we are “post-” all those gender wars, it is only because that gap now characterizes production of all kinds, conferring on all space the evanescent and sentimental character of the nest that can never quite be a permanent home.





I wish to thank Dan Blanton, Julia Bloch, Eric Falci, Hillary Gravendyk, and Patrick Pritchett for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. This essay was written with support from a Roberta C. Holloway Postdoctoral Fellowship in Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley.





1.  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (1958; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 91.

2.  Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991), 85.

3.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 121.

4.  See Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 98–102.

5.  Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nest (Berkeley: Kelsey Street Press, 2003), 11. Hereafter cited in text.

6.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 77.

7.  Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 11.

 8.  Cathy N. Davidson, “Preface: No More Separate Spheres!,” in “No More Separate Spheres!,” ed. Davidson, special issue, American Literature 70, no. 3 (1998): 443–44. Davidson points specifically to “Politics and Culture in Women’s History: A Symposium,” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980): 26–64, and “Beyond Roles, Beyond Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 46 (July 1989): 565–85. Davidson’s own special issue of American Literature (1998) makes the third such intervention in the series.

9.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 120.

10.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 120–21. I would argue that Lefebvre sets himself up to make this concession as soon as he concedes the existence of an autonomous nature.

11.  Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 14.

12.  Charles Altieri, “Intimacy and Experiment in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Empathy,” in We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 56.

13.  Lefebvre, Production of Space, 70.

14.  Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 97. 

15.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri distinguish sharply between affect and emotion, writing that “[u]nlike emotions, which are mental phenomena, affects refer equally to body and mind. In fact, affects, such as joy and sadness, reveal the present state of life in the entire organism, expressing a certain state of the body along with a certain mode of thinking […]. One can recognize affective labor, for example, in the work of legal assistants, flight attendants, and fast food workers (service with a smile).” From their description, it is clear that what they term “affective” is identical to the “emotional” phenomena Hoschschild observes in her flight attendants. Except when explicitly discussing Hochschild’s work, I will use Hardt and Negri’s terminology. Hardt and Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2005), 108.

16.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 164–65. On emotional and affective work, see also (for example) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Hardt and Negri, Multitude; Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

17.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution in the Home (New York: Viking, 1989).

18.  See especially Hochschild, Managed Heart, 132–36.

19.  Hochschild, Managed Heart, 163.

20.  Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, January–March 1879, in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 768. Part of this famous letter has been published elsewhere under the title “De Profundis.”

21.  Ironically, the sentimental, like emotion work, is “cheap” precisely because it isn’t free. For the price of a movie ticket you can be made to cry; an airfare will buy you unlimited human smiles. As soon as these things are paid for, they lose the status of nature.

22.  Hardt and Negri, Empire, 293.

23.  Hochschild, Managed Heart, 175–76.

24.  Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 109.

25.  Antonella Corsani, “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming Trans-Feminist of (Post-) Marxism,” trans. Timothy S. Murphy, SubStance 36, no. 1 (#112, 2007), 124–26. See also the special section “Devenir-Femme du Travail” in Multitudes 12 (Spring 2003), 125–77.

26.  On the concept of “intimate publics,” see Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 5–13. Chapter 2 of The Female Complaint first appeared in No More Separate Spheres!, cited above.

27.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 3.

28.  Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 100.

29.  Bachelard here echoes Gertrude Stein, specifically in the guise of one speaking for another’s soul: “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them.” See Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 661.

30.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 3.

31.  Quoted in Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 100.

32.  Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 92.

33.  Tobias Menely, “Zoöphilpsychosis: Why Animals Are What’s Wrong with Sentimentality,” Symploke 15, nos. 1–2 (2007), 247.

34.  See Cecire, “A Sense of the Real: Experimental Writing and the Sciences, 1879–1946” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2010).

35.  Berlant, The Female Complaint, 218.

36.  Ibid., 3.

37.  On the mutual aggression implicit in cuteness, see Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 811–47.

38.  On the history of HOW(ever), see Lynn Keller, Thinking Poetry: Reading in Contemporary Women’s Exploratory Poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 3–4; Linda A. Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004), 1–40; and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 1–19.

39.  Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions, 9. This American formation ran rather contrary to contemporaneous French feminist theories of poetics, e.g. Julia Kristeva’s notion of écriture féminine.

40.  That the assertion of a female “I” was not admitted as a kind of “innovation” speaks to the very peculiar ways in which the word “innovation” continues to be used concerning and in the vicinity of poetry.

41.  David St. John and Cole Swensen, eds., American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (New York: Norton, 2009).

42.  See also Jed Rasula, Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), especially chapter 1, “Women, Innovation, and ‘Improbable Evidence.’”

43.  Keller, Thinking Poetry, 4.

44.  Facebook was launched in 2004.

Robert Duncan's notes on Ron Silliman's 'Opening'

In 1974, John Taggart asked Ron Silliman to write an essay for an issue of Maps (#6 - special Robert Duncan issue) on the work of Duncan. Silliman chose to do a close reading of the first poems of Duncan’s Opening of the Field (1960) in which he suggested that Duncan set them out as an argument from which to mount the large, unnamed lifework that was initiated with these poems. Silliman reproduced the text of the Maps essay on his blog on December 6, 2010, a few hours before he presented on Duncan as part of the 1960 symposium at the Kelly Writers House. Duncan took a copy of the Maps essay and annotated it by hand. For Jacket2 Ron Silliman has made available reproductions of the pages of Duncan'scopy of the Maps piece, Opening.  We are grateful to him for permission to reproduce these.  The pages views as a whole, also with Duncans markings, are available as a PDF. As for the version we present just below: please click on any individual page for an enlarged view. A transcription of Duncans notes (produced by Gordon Faylor) can be found below the page scans. — Al Filreis & Gordon Faylor


Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

Page 7

Page 8

Page 9


Page 1
** "dim lands of peace" <— The Imagist anthology took its stand against

1954- **
** What he could "permit" in 1950, he did not admit to his publisht works until 1966. What he could "attain" by 1954, he verifiably could do in 1948 ("The Venice Poem")

While Spicer derives "The Book" idea from me, surely such a derivation was not necessary. It is a perennial idea. Herbert's Temple gave it me.


Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear also!

Letters, poems 1952-1955 (the Preface being written in 1956) is contemporaneous with later Stein imitations and Faust Foutu and previous to Black Mountain (1956) where Medea was written.

Page 2

here he is right on. I was concerned with "orchestration" in The Opening of the Field particularly.

??? <— this is a meadow I return to in dreams and memorial thought!

*"Field" composition of the poem

*but see, "Structure of Rime" II, page 13: "He brings his young to the opening of the field."

Page 3
self and Self, mine, me, I belong to the grammar and lexicon of ideas.

<— is not mind!

{ acutal

["mind" is the whole-body intelligence]


see above: "Mind" has heart in it. the heart is not "mine"


in fact, one!

<— I am a most active (watchful) watcher of what I am doing (making) and maker.

*the play of "mine" and "not mine" turns upon questioning Pluto's proposition of the given character of ideas and the proposition that ideas are creatively assembled as "mind"

Page 4
Ron Sillyman's aversion to Mother ("aka mom" or, later, "the offensiveness of his mystification of the female principle"  and child ("kid's play") derails him in his reading.


Friedl in her teaching the dance becomes "Leader of the Dance" hence "Beloved"


<— this is a single long line!

* In his refusal to allow that this meadow is a fact of a dream that leads to his dismissing as mere "revery" and "kid's play" the crucial definition of the poem.

** the poem is a set of propositions, not explanations.

Page 5
but, no dancer, Sillyman misses that lama creative of dancing feet i follow

why "Zukofskian"?

OK here!

Who is Quine? I don't know.

<— O.K.!

** "I'll slip away..." = James Joyce, Finnegan

* In no way do I see numbers as "abstract" in dancing, one TWO three, ONE two three, one two THREE are actual counts or else!

Page 6
Sillyman has the major d[ ]ity of being unable to image the dancers and the Dance.

The Dance!

*He has no idea of "laws" passed by legislatures and legislators that can be found to be [sure] before our sense of lawful relations. The Constitution (of the U.S., here)

Page 7
[In 1956, Spring, when the poem was written Rock-Drill (Cantos 85-95) was just out, in the Milan edition which I got in London January 1956: tho I cannot relate the passage as specific]

Jefferson and Adams [both] saw would be unfortunately taken to be the measure of the lawfulness of laws, in place of the active & creative sense of lawfulness in each man.

Page 8
the "boy" in "Boyg" and the "land" beyond "lad" are inqemuties of Silliman's reading in which he sees more than I had observed as possible. O.K.

(His contempt for my world renders him unintelligent here) —>

* He cannot allow for the law one knows whereby laws and men (even "I") are found unlawful. What else is proprioception than one's "self". Knowledge that

Page 9
Who is Pynchon? Cld he be of the series Pound —> Tolkien proposed by Sillyman?

Poor Friedl don't get to be a then-live person.
Marianne Moore and Edith Sitwell were both certainly alive ("The Maiden" 27-29)

self is in order or out of order?

** I propose no passive [undergoing], but an active wrestling with the angel, the what is, tho it twist and name the wrestler anew in his confrontation.


All the pages above, with Robert Duncan's markings, are available as a PDF.

Introduction to the poetry and poetics of 1960

Two months before 1960 commenced, Stanley Kunitz in Harper’s Magazine redefined the word “experimental” to mean the inevitable resistance to any prevailing style for the sake of “keep[ing] it supple.” Yet at the time of his writing, the turn of this new decade, “the nature of that resistance is in effect a backward look.” The recent Pulitzer Prize winner added: “This happens not to be a time of great innovation in poetic technique: it is rather a period in which the technical gains of past decades, particularly the twenties, are being tested and consolidated.”

By using the phrase “the twenties” Kunitz was referring to modernism’s American heyday. He meant expatriation, avid rule-breaking, aesthetic hijinx coinciding with social high hilarity. The Sixties, starting now, he averred, would be a time of modest “consolidation” rather than of experiment.  Kunitz’s historical generalization would make better sense, as a lament, if he had been seeking to position himself as an inheritor of modernism or had he been commending a contemporary avant-garde. But Stanley Kunitz was certainly not an experimenter; nor did he hope for the new ascendancy of heterodox verse. He gratefully noted widespread popular praise of Robert Frost. On January 20, 1961, that genuine conservative would somewhat confusingly conclude the year in question, traveling to Washington to help inaugurate a supposedly Make It New sort of US president. Poetry took political center stage momentarily at the culmination of the election year we celebrate tonight, and yet, as Kunitz lamented at the beginning of the same year, “I don’t detect many signs of [Frost’s] influence” among the young writers of 1960.  Instead, disappointingly, the new poets “have found it easier to raid [William Carlos] Williams.” In short, modernism had become the new status quo, a false stand-in for politically relevant traditionalism. [1]

Faced with Kunitz’s impressionistic and unevidenced assertion that a “pivotal” year was a time of “consolidat[ing]” and standardizing the modern poetic mode, it remains for contemporary poets and literary historians to construct specific bibliographical and interpretive contexts for testing such claims, eschewing grand cross-generational generalizations (such as Kunitz’s own) that tend to follow the largest contours of aesthetic movements and thus subdue the unlikely convergences that occur at any given moment along the continuum of aesthetic ideologies maturing and then waning at different rates of speed. Whereas Kunitz contends that “resistance” had by 1960 become retrospect, had become a longing rather than a looking forward, a literary history operating from such a constraint, preferring deep to wide (exactly as we prefer through tonight’s format), might serve as a resistance to such a sense of resistance. To be sure, listeners, viewers and readers of tonight’s presentations will hardly be shocked to learn, through consideration of actual lines and stanzas of poetry written and published that year, that Kunitz was plainly wrong when he contended that experimentalism had become static and had reached a dead end.  But they might be surprised by the extraordinary degree to which he was misguided by an antimodernist ideology, which held that it had to be, and should be celebrated as, a dull and derivative time. Our listeners and readers might be startled, too, by — conversely — the remarkable dynamism and ardent heresy in new poetry; by the freshness of the late work, just then, of aging High Modernists (such as Ezra Pound who was making a sort of comeback with Thrones and by Marianne Moore who put out a great book in 1959); by the subtle mix (as opposed to rejection or exhaustion) of modernist modes in emergent works of postmodernism; and by the unshy awareness and progressive consciousness with which young poets defied gloomy and “mature” predictions of the coming “end of ideology” — the title of sociologist Daniel Bell’s book arguing that “among the intellectuals, the old passions are spent” (also published in 1960).  Bell’s titular phrase had already moved quickly into common use by those affirming political centrism and rejecting as immature all forms of “apocalyptic and chiliastic visions.” At the dead-end of ideology, no longer does social reform have “any unifying appeal”; nor does it “give a younger generation the outlet for ‘self-expression’ and ‘self-definition’ that it wants.”

From roughly 1945 (some would argue 1939) to the end of the 1950s, modernism’s association with cultural and political heterodoxy in the 1930s had been condemned, sometimes with an hysteria borrowed from (or the same as) McCarthyism, and a fantasized cleaner, purer, prepolitical modernism was sought (in, for instance, 1920s writing) to redress the alleged imbalance.  In 1960 we see, I think, a surprisingly sudden turn against the logic of that Cold War-era separation, against the designation of advocates of “the old passions” as “terrible simplifiers” (in Bell’s terms) and, concurrently, an explosion of poetic activity — and, rather than a culture war between modernists and emergent postmodernists (“New American” poets; beats; New York School writers; latter-day Dadaists and surrealists; post-Duchampian conceptual poets; and others), we discover a disorganized but nonetheless effective collaboration of historically distinct avant-gardes now prepared, seemingly, to restate cultural and political terms that after fifteen postwar years of “consolidation” had become idiomatic, naturalized—in the air poets were supposed to breathe. [2]

I asked a group of today’s poets to breathe again some of that air.  They were each assigned to re-read a book of poetry published in 1960 — and to write, in effect, a retrospective review.  A brief critical reassessment fifty years later.  A short one, too — no more than 750 words.  I will not introduce them in turn, nor in any detail — but will identify them along with the book each reconsidered — and then will leave it to them each to take a turn at the podium.  After these eleven mini-talks I will moderate a discussion.  You are invited to make comments both general and specific, or to ask questions of the group or of individuals.  The commentaries themselves, but also a selected and edited transcript of the discussion will be published later in Jacket2 — as will a set of responses I will commission from others who are not here in the room with us tonight but who will have listened to the event when it is posted on PennSound.

Now here are our poets:

— Bob Perelman on The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen
— Ron Silliman on The Opening of the Field by Robert Duncan
— Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Second Avenue by Frank O'Hara
— Chris Funkhouser on Stanzas for Iris Lezak by Jackson Mac Low
— Erica Kaufman on The Location of Things by Barbara Guest
— Judith Goldman on The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks 

— Kristen Gallagher on Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones
— Danny Snelson on Cartridge Music by John Cage
— Michael S. Hennessey on A New Folder edited by Daisy Aldan
— Charles Bernstein on On My Eyes by Larry Eigner
— Mel Nichols on Hymns of St. Bridget by Bill Berkson & Frank O'Hara
— and Kenneth Goldsmith, who could not be here tonight, has written and sent us a retrospective review of Brion Gysin & William Burroughs’s Minutes to Go



[1] Stanley Kunitz. “American Poetry’s Silver Age.” Harper’s Magazine, October 1959, 17379.
[2] Daniel Bell, “The End of Ideology in the West,” The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Collier Books, 1961), 404405.

The Baroness in little magazine history

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, thistle down flight (detail). Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

The Little Review magazine published Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry during the height of a dialectic phase in little magazine culture when conversations about the nature of literature and “the literary” were ubiquitous. In particular, readers contested the value of Dada poetry and “the Baroness” became coterminous with what some considered the worst of this experimental movement. In January 1922, for example, Harriet Monroe wrote in Poetry that “the Little Review […] is headed straight for Dada; but we could forgive even that if it would drop Else von Freytag-Loringhoven on the way.”[1]Jane Heap, editor of The Little Review, responded in a brief piece entitled “Dada” that “[w]e do intend to drop the baroness — right into the middle of the history of American poetry,” for the very reason that “the Baroness,” whom Heap calls “the first American dada,” represents lived art: she is “the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.”[2]

The Baroness has been the focus of much cultural study in the last decade by art historians and feminist scholars who wish to reclaim her place as an influential member of the New York Dada scene, but discussions about her poetry are few.[3] With this Jacket2 feature, we further the work done by the editors and readers of The Little Review in the 1920s who sought to locate the Baroness’s poetry within experimental trends, but we also critique the narrative of American poetry history out of which the Baroness’s poetry has often been dropped. We locate and situate her poetry in previous and current literary trends by introducing three previously unpublished poems, new and groundbreaking biographical facts concerning the Baroness’s German poetry, a rereading of her Dadaist poetry that situates it within the frame of feminist performance art, and a contemporary poetic response to her work.


Gender, Politics and Play: The Baroness and The Little Review 

True to Dada form, the Baroness’s poems sparked debate by representing and performing scandalous literary performances. For example, the January 1919 issue of The Little Review features the “Letrygonians” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the first episode to be officially censored by the postal authorities in New York because of passages that mock the King of England and detail Leopold Bloom’s memories of an amorous meeting with Molly. Published just a short time later, in May 1919, the Baroness’s poem “King Adam” contains a lacuna masking a bawdy reference to cunnilingus alongside the warning “donated to the censor”.[4] In the context in which “King Adam” is written, the danger of censorship is more than potential: it is actual. The Baroness’s poem calls for censorship by being “vulgar,” enacts it by incorporating lacunae, and comments upon it by directly addressing the censor. The poem engenders the scenario but it also enacts it.

By including provocative pieces by the Baroness, the editors of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, placed their little magazine in the center of literary debate. “Holy Skirts,” which discusses sexuality in terms of the Catholic church, was printed in the July–August 1920 issue and represents a poem with an increasingly irreverent sense of play and obvious criticism for more traditional cultural institutions.[5] It is also a poem that alludes to the most talked-about literary court case in history since the same issue also contains a section from the “Nausicaa” episode of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom has an orgasm while looking up a young woman’s skirt as she leans back to look at a fireworks display. This was the last section of Ulysses to be printed by The Little Review before Heap and Anderson were taken to court and sued over the excerpts. Specifically, the presences of this irreverent poem as well as a photograph of a seminude Baroness on the frontispiece of the same issue in which Heap’s article “Art and the Law”[6] appeared, helped foreground the editors’ belief that the Ulysses censorship trial was about “women’s issues” and “claiming sexual pleasure and agency for American women.”[7] In thinking back on to why she started The Little Review, Margaret Anderson sees dialogue as central: “It was the moment. The epoch needed it. The thing I wanted — would die without — was conversation.”[8] “King Adam” (May 1919) and “Holy Skirts” (July–August 1920) ask general, provocative questions about the role — the value — of women and sex in modernist society, but their presence also creates a space in the magazine in which Heap and Anderson could employ the Baroness’s poetry and presence to encourage, enact, and comment on the controversy surrounding excerpts of James Joyce’s Ulysses published in The Little Review in the 1920s.

Certainly, with Dadaism, the act of art is intricately tied with the artist’s ability to provoke a response from fellow Dadaists and the bourgeois culture. Heap addresses this aspect of the Baroness’s poetry in her 1922 piece “Dada” when she suggests that perhaps Monroe’s critique of the Baroness (described above) is really a defensive comment meant to uphold the more traditional notion of literature to which the magazine Poetry ascribes. Heap asserts that Monroe does not like the Baroness’s poetry because “dada laughs, jeers, grimaces, gibbers, denounces, explodes, introduces ridicule into a too churchly game.”[9] By publishing poems that were, despite Heap’s comments, rejected by the magazine’s editors in the 1920s and by including more recent criticism in this collection, we are employing the Baroness’s poetics to critique the narrative of American poetry history from which the Baroness has often been dropped. The following provides a brief introduction to the three poems that are published here.


“Aphrodite to Mars”

Though the Baroness had written other poems meant to provoke the magazine’s readers, Anderson and Heap began to reject the Baroness’s poetry after the Ulysses trial. For instance, the editors rejected the Baroness’s poem “Aphrodite to Mars” (also called “Aphrodite Chants to Mars” in other versions). “Aphrodite” represents a period of the Baroness’s creative development in which she was deeply interested in gender politics but also interested in what she regarded as the false art of high modernists such as William Carlos Williams. as well as in the modernist trend to employ Greek and Roman mythologies. This poem points to the popular story of Aphrodite and Ares (or Venus and Mars) in which Aphrodite, the goddess of love who was born from the sea foam created by her father Uranus’s cast-off genitals, has an affair with Ares (Mars). Aphrodite and Ares are eventually trapped by Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus, who creates a web around their bed (one possible reading of the “Flexible tenderness web” in “Aphrodite”) and keeps them ensnared in order to expose and disgrace them before all the gods. Zeus finally lets Mars go at the urging of Poseidon, and Aphrodite is, according to Homer’s Iliad, sent to the island of Kypros, where she is bathed by the Graces.

Though the gods play a significant role in “Aphrodite,” a more humanist perspective on gender and sexuality is emphasized over serious consideration for the myth. Signifying the poem’s irreverence for the myth’s origins as well as high Modernist literary culture, the Greek name “Aphrodite” is erroneously coupled with the Roman “Mars.” In addition, popular slang, including repeated references to Mars’s “blade” and its reception into the “Artistocratic fit” and the “elastic” “Suckdisks” associated with Aphrodite, emphasizes the sexual imagery that was, in the original telling, the plot of serious life-and-death drama. In contrast to the mythological telling, “Aphrodite” reads more as a baudy comedy, a humorous battle of the sexes (or genitals), with the strong “arm” of weapons that Mars brandishes pitted against the “receptive keenness” and “ecstatic elasticity” with which Aphrodite envelops him on the humorously described battle site or “Tournament dale” the “Mattress.” One may easily read Aphrodite’s stance as a recuperative “feminine” elasticity victorious over the pseudonymous “Victor” (Mars) just before the fast pace of this frolicking poem pauses and takes a breath in a beautiful stanza describing the calm seas of azure and the postcoital glow in which Mars lies asleep. Then, quite abruptly, the poetic voice announces “Aphrodite I hail!” as if she had taken both the reader and Mars unawares in this moment of peace. Here we see Aphrodite as victor in her gendered role as “Mistress — mother — / Master — mistress / To / Man” over Mars in his capacity as “Son / Father / Lover / Mate” and, ultimately, in his capacity as “Victor.” Even though its themes of irreverent play and literary commentary would have been familiar to readers who sought out the Baroness’s poetry, the explicit nature of this poem’s sexual metaphors in a time of increasing censorship were quite possibly too extreme for Heap and Anderson. Additionally, the poem’s irreverent take on Greek and Roman mythologies may have been too critical of what had become a deep-seated regard for the antiquities in the increasingly high culture represented by the magazine’s readership. 


Dada, the Act of Nonsense, and “Astride”

Tension within the 1920s literary community around the value of Dada art is never more apparent than in the discourse that followed the 1919 publication of the Baroness’s poem “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover.”[10] The discussion ensued in The Little Review in December 1919 and January 1920 under the title “The Art of Madness” and included Heap, Maxwell Bodenheim, Evelyn Scott, and the Baroness, among others. It was sparked by Heap’s response in “The Reader Critic” — the section of the magazine reserved for reader comments — to readers who thought “Cast-Iron Lover” was written by someone who was in “a condition of disease and mania”.[11] In response, Heap argues that the Baroness is merely “unhampered by sanity” and able to “work” insanity “to produce Art.” Heap calls her work “the Art of Madness,” asserting: “It wouldn’t be the art of madness if it were merely an insanity”: in fact, Heap writes, “Madness is her chosen state of consciousness.”[12] In other words, Heap believed that there was method to and thoughtful craft behind the chaos of the Baroness’s Dada poems. Heap appreciated early what David Escoffery today calls the “rhetoric” of the Baroness’s poems. Escoffery argues that in Dada the “rhetoric of nonsense” is the “key factor determining the character of a performance event,” since it describes that which may be perceived as random or chaotic, as a tactic that persuades audiences to participate and collaborate in the Dada performance.[13] By not making sense, Dada performance breaks through the “fourth wall” of theater, the “wall” that separates the play from the reality or the actors from the audience. By not making sense, Dada poetry and art requires audience participation.

In “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover,” for example, the Baroness achieves what may be considered a “simultaneous poem” that evokes aspects of tonal poetry by synchronizing the multiple voices of “the self,” “the soul,” and “the body.” A Dada technique used frequently by Huelsenbeck, Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hans Arp and others, the simultaneous poem was traditionally a simultaneous recitation by multiple poets of multiple poems to a live audience. The goal was to create a bizarre effect that appeared nonsensical but ultimately made sense. As such, the simultaneous poem proved the fact “that an organic work of art has a will of its own, and also illustrates the decisive role played by accompaniment,” which represents the conscious will of the artists to structure and make meaningful the combined recitations.[14]

Appearing in a prose-like format that comprises nine full pages of The Little Review, the overall, chaotic effect of “Cast-Iron Lover” is due in large part to its confusion of voices. For example, two of the voices are recognizable in the following lines as “mine soul” (who “touches” through the body’s eyes) and “mine body” (whose “sensual” eyes provide for the soul’s song):

MINE SOUL—MINE SOUL—thou maketh me shiver—thus it can it not be! dost thou
remember that song of his hair which made mine eyes thine fingers?
Thine eyes made mine song—mine body—thine eyes. TOUCH! guard thine eyes—mine
body—guard thine sensual eyes!
Sing thine sensual song—mine soul—thus it ran:

Tonal poetry — which may be defined as three or more voices speaking at once to create a cacophony of bizarre or funny sounds — often employs words that when mixed sound nonsensical. As this poem progresses, the Baroness achieves the same tonal affect on an ontological level by blurring the differences between the “soul” voice and that of the “body” voice, thus creating an intermingled voice that represents an intermingled identity. The body cries “I am tired of wisdom!” The body thinks and is philosophical. The soul speaks and sings and has a “sensual” song and “fingers.” While these two voices are not overlaid on the page, their identities are certainly overlapping. The Baroness further mingles their voices and therefore their identities by punctuating each speech with referents to the direct object of the speech or the “listening” character, set off from the speech by dashes: “—mine soul—” or “mine body—”. While this structure functions to demarcate the speaker, it does not make the cacophony of second person references — “thou” — any less confusing; in fact it adds a ludicrous dimension of emphasis on the listener as the subject of each speech. Making the “you” the primary subject of each “I” statement emphasizes the overlay of identities. In order to understand who is speaking, the reader must pay particular attention to the subject and referent or object of each line:

Mine body—thou maketh me sad—thou VERILY hast made sad—thine soul—! Mine
body—alas!—I bid theee—GO!
THOU—mine soul?!
I—mine body.

Because the reader is forced to pay closer attention, to be an active reader who must order the subject and object of each speech, she becomes immersed in the intermingled identities and voices, thus experiencing the tonal aspect of the poetry.

Finally, though the piece is titled “MINESELF—MINESOUL,” “mineself” is never mentioned in the poem until the poem’s conclusion: “Upright we stand—slander we flare—thine body and thou—mine soul—hissing!— / thus—mine soul—is mine song to thee—thus its end!!” Here, “We” is the third voice — “mineself” — speaking to the referent of the speech “minesoul” and talking about “thine body” (the “minebody” that has been the referent of “minesoul” throughout the poem thus far). All become “We” as the speaker (the “self”) confirms that the poem has been the self’s song to the soul about its codependence with the body. Its form necessitates a performance or reading of the poem since understanding who is speaking is impossible without experiencing the pauses (the dashes and line breaks) that help to impose some order with which the reader may make sense of the chaos. Consequently, the performance of the poem, which relies on splitting the “self,” the “soul,” and the “body,” introduces a tension on the page and the work becomes a simultaneous poem that embodies the reconnection of these forces.

While “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover” employs the rhetoric of nonsense through multiple, nonsensical voices, the poem “Astride” employs a rhetoric of nonsense through optophonetics. Optophonetic poetry provided a written form for the very popular “sound poetry” that Dadaists Tristan Tzara, Huelsenbeck, Janco, and others performed at the Cabaret Voltaire. In his desire to emphasize the abstract nature of language, Dadaist Raoul Hausman created optophonetics with annotations that used typographic variations to signal certain sound effects, much like musical notation. Kurt Schwitters followed behind, creating what he called Merz, a multigenre, multimedia poem that incorporated optophonetics with pictures, nails, and even sentences, often cut from the newspaper or a pamphlet. The Baroness (who was much enraged by Schwitters’s rising popularity with the editors of The Little Review during the years of her decline from their favor)[15] nevertheless incorporates optophonetics into her own work in the Schwitters fashion. In “A Dozen Cocktails – Please,” she writes: “Serpentine aircurrents -- -- -- / Hhhhhphssssssss! The very word penetrates.” The word, with its low-slung “p” in the middle and its swerving queue of “s,” evokes the penetrating snake it mimics. In “Astride,” the Baroness similarly attempts the sound of a “Straddling/Neighing/Stallion”:

         /      \

The “straddling” appears to happen at the end of this section where the HÜ “bucks” from the line. Before this point, the “neighing” begins with softer “s” sounds, and, though the poem is written primarily in English, it includes German umlauts here as if the guttural sound of the “ü” were more precisely the sound she seeks to represent during the act of straddling. The poem concludes with the “shill” crickets indicating that a warning is spreading through the forest. The “HARK!” demands that the reader listen with some care to the stallion’s whinny but the fact that the whinny is in “thickets” invites the reader to revisit those characters on the page that represent the stallion’s neigh, those characters which can be found in a veritable “thicket” of letters — one cannot understand the poem without taking its visual manifestation into account. The poem employs the rhetoric of nonsense and draws in its audience much the same way that “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover” does. That is, in order to navigate the potential meanings intended by the textual markings and their corresponding sounds, a reader must negotiate both the presentation of the text and the sounds these letters make together by performing these utterances.


Versioning, Transtextual Reading, and “Hell’s Wisdom”

Different versions of the Baroness’s manuscript poems reflect different moments in time rather than a sequence that points to the teleological evolution of a poem. Djuna Barnes once wrote that the Baroness’s manuscripts “are al [sic] sixes and sevens. She wrote very unevenly,”[16] but Hans Richter calls this process of revision Dadaist and describes it as more dreamlike than fancy. “What is important,” he writes, “is the poem-work, the way in which the latent content of the poem undergoes transformation according to concealed mechanisms,” transformations “that work the way dream-work strategies operate — through condensation, displacement, and the submission of the whole of the text to secondary revision.”[17] Certainly the different forms within her poetry and between versions were meaningful to the Baroness. “Hell’s Wisdom,” for instance, exists within alternatively titled versions of the unpublished poems “Purgatory Lilt” and “Statements on Circumstanced Me,” each comprising multiple versions written either as prose in paragraphs or structured into more traditional stanza-and-line formats. The Baroness writes in a note on a version of “Purgatory Lilt” she has included in a letter to Barnes that “This is not a poem but an essay-statement. Maybe — it were better not to print it in this cut form — perpendicular but in usual sentence line — horizontal?”[18] On another occasion, the Baroness writes to Barnes about combining different versions of a poem into one reading by printing her poems “Firstling” and “He” on one printed page: “What is interesting about the 2 together,” she writes, “is their vast difference of emotion — time knowledge — pain. That is why they should be printed together. For they are 1 + 2 the same poem — person sentiment life stretch between one — divided — assembled — dissembled.”[19] As these comments show, versioning for the Baroness was more than a method to arrive at some final, perfect poem. The process of creating different versions and the transtextual dialog that resulted between poems and versions of poems engaged the Baroness and became a method for expression that incorporated significant elements of time.

As a result, reading different poems such as “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine—— Cast-Iron Lover” or “Astride” or versions of the same poem in comparison is a useful method for entering into the poetic conversation of a Baroness poem. For instance, one can read the first lines of “Hell’s Wisdom” (“My ‘Derangement’ dwells in absence — as — under circumstances existing — normally — it should be present”) as a reflection of her opinion of Germany by noting that the first line of “Hell’s Wisdom” appears in the second half of “Statements by Circumstanced Me,” after what appears to be a version of “Purgatory Lilt.” This comparison is significant because “Purgatory Lilt” begins with Germany: “Germany’s remain is permeated by decay reek throughout. / Effect of brainstorming backslide —” and proceeds to describe the Baroness’s despondency or the cause of her “derangement” in terms of Germany’s postwar ruin.

Of equal importance is the fact that “Purgatory Lilt” concludes with the Baroness’s more hopeful perspective on America, which she has at the time of its writing left behind forever. Living in late 1920s Berlin, the Baroness often reflected on what she saw as her happier times in the States. Writing to Barnes about a collection she assumes Barnes will be editing, the Baroness encourages her to include “Hell’s Wisdom” because it is “just precisely printing out where I stand in the universe — and why — so precariously!”[20] In her letter to Barnes, the Baroness explains her derangement as the result of her conflicting experience within German and American culture: while “Hell’s Wisdom” speaks of her derangement, “Purgatory Lilt” is “proving my devotion to America — and the rotting — you see — I am deranged — Djuna — temporarily.”[21] Both the devotion and the sense of rotting are present in the concluding lines of “Purgatory Lilt,” which discuss the stifling air (“wheeze I”) the Baroness perceives in the atmosphere of postwar Germany. While Germany’s architecture and its “ghosts” or culture is decaying, the Baroness might take root and conceivably flourish in the “sweet soil” of America. In an undated letter to Barnes from Germany she writes of her love for America:

It is pluck! It is life! The German is not even capable of it! He is in tradition rotten
shrunken dignity a dapper grave — exhausted fool — who dies of “conviction” without
to know what about — he has become too comfortably dull — has forgotten to move —
fight — except in that mechanical war fashion with weapons[22]

Reflecting the Dadaist contempt for stale tradition, the Baroness loves this idea of the United States as a culture that is not so mired in what she sees reflected in the destroyed Germany around her where “dull” and “rotten” traditions have lost their meaning. She perceives America as a culture of action, a trait she admires and to which she aspires. While “Purgatory Lilt” uses America as a trope for a hopeful future, “Hell’s Wisdom” points to the bittersweet hope that retrospective “wisdom” affords. It is ultimately between these two poles (and between these two versions) where the poem is located.

Reading different versions or entirely different poems helps us read a poem like “Hell’s Wisdom,” because in the Baroness’s poetry, a text is often a manifestation of experiments on a theme. This mode of experimentation means that one version’s relationship to another represents an instance of alternative choices rather than a system of rough drafts leading to final versions. For instance, for Dadaists and modernists alike, science and technology functions in opposition to the elements of chance that were associated with creative impulse and everyday lived life. Tristan Tzara writes that “Dada was born of a moral need, an implacable will to achieve a moral absolute, of a profound sentiment that man, at the center of all creations of the spirit, must affirm his primacy over notions emptied of all human substance, over dead objects and ill-gotten gains.”[xxiii]

The interplay among historical, personal, scientific, and creative forces in “Hell’s Wisdom” points to themes inspired by the Baroness’s fellow Dadaists, but it is difficult to decipher the abstract logic that the arithmetic in a poem like “Hell’s Wisdom” represents unless one also reads the Baroness’s short unpublished poem “Cosmic Arithmetic”:[24]

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Cosmic Arithmetic, 1927. Djuna Barnes Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

 Cosmic Arithmetic

1 = 2 = sex
2 = 1 = potency
1 = 3 = Holy Ghost

In both poems, antiteleological perspectives are coupled with traditional uses of science and technology to create striking contrasts. In “Cosmic Arithmetic,” we see some of the same elements that appear in “Hell’s Wisdom,” such as religion (“damnation” and “blood sacrificial”), the sexual potency of “star-shaped” female sexuality (“Lone I — enhanced shrouded earth — by own atmosphere mine self’s own self — out-of circumstance cosmic star - volve revolve — evolve — I do — by starshaped pride”), and the celestial elements of the cosmos (“star,” “moon,” and “sun”). In “Cosmic Arithmetic,” however, the moral absolute of the Trinity is represented in the conciseness that a number can convey—the number three. For instance, in “Hell’s Wisdom,” the same entity is engaged by the three interlaced x’s and the association with X-ray crystallography (“Matter at ever higher level put / Until cristal state —”), a scientific methodology that was discussed by artists in the nineteen-teens since “both cubism and X-ray crystallography rely on the analysis and juxtaposition of two-dimensional slices in order to examine the three-dimensional structure of common objects.”[25] Numbers are similarly abstract representations, and by equating the same numerical combinations (2 + 1 = 3) with terms such as “sex” and “potency,” the Baroness interrogates the “absolute” morality that the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) represents, given the way the “father” and “son” relationship reflects religious patriarchal institutions in which cultural negotiations between power and gender are played out. In its mathematical articulation of culturally significant words such as “sex,” “potency,” and “Holy Ghost,” “Cosmic Arithmetic” reflects the Baroness’s desire to appeal to the modernist and Dadaist need to express abstract truths with concision. Reading the two-dimensional slices provided by “Cosmic Arithmetic” alongside the more fleshed out response in “Hell’s Wisdom” allows us perspective into the poem’s method for making meaning through abstract variables.



“Ostentatious; Westward:; Eastward:; Agog” (published in transition, June 1929) marks the last poem by the Baroness printed in a little magazine; it also marks a change in the philosophy that governed 1920s notions of experimental poetry.[26] “In 1929 in Paris,” Margaret Anderson writes, “I decided that the time had come to end The Little Review. Our mission was accomplished; contemporary art had arrived; for a hundred years, perhaps, the literary world would produce only repetition.”[27] Indeed the more provocative, informal, and public conversation about poetry between artists had been fading for years, and criticism was becoming formalized in magazine culture just as it would soon become formalized in the academy. Longer arguments about art in The Dial and The Egoist took the place of more conversation-like letters that comprised sections like “The Reader Critic” in The Little Review. In fact, the spring 1925 issue of The Little Review, which featured its last poem by the Baroness, was also the last issue that contained “The Reader Critic” section, the center point for discussion, debate, and responses from readers, editors, and artists. After The Little Review stopped publishing her work, the Baroness concluded that she was not appreciated in New York. She wrote to Barnes, “I have not become ‘known enough’ and so I am forgotten,” because “I had fame that kept me admired, jeered at, feared, and poor.”[28] Finally, with a loan from William Carlos Williams, the Baroness returned to Germany only to discover that her father had disinherited her. Until 1926, she was despondent, selling newspapers on the street in Berlin until Barnes and others raised enough money to send her to Paris, where she subsequently died, in 1927, allegedly by suicide. This collection represents a reappraisal of the appreciation and thought and art that the poetry of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven inspired and inspires.




1.  Harriet Monroe, “New International Magazines,” Poetry 19, no. 4 (January 1922), 227.

2.  Jane Heap, “Dada,” The Little Review 6, no. 6 (1919): 46.

3.  This scholarly trajectory begins with Robert Reiss’s “‘My Baroness’: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven,” Dada surrealism 14 (1985): 81–101; Amelia Jones’s Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); and a handful of articles written by her biographer Irene Gammel: “The Baroness Elsa and the Politics of Transgressive Body Talk,” in American Modernism Across the Arts, ed. Jay Bochner and Justin Edwards (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 73–96; “Breaking the Bonds of Discretion: Baroness Elsa and the Female Confession,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 14, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 149–66; “Limbswishing Dada in New York: Baroness Elsa’s Gender Performance,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 29, no. 1 (2002): 3–24; and “‘No Woman Lover’: Baroness Elsa’s Intimate Biography,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (1994): 1–17. In addition, an exhibition titled Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York, curated by Francis Naumann with Beth Venn, was put up at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York in 1997. The Baroness’s poetry is examined somewhat in Gammel’s Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—a Cultural Biography Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) and more specifically in Gammel’s “She Strips Naked: The Poetry of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven,” The Literary Review 46, no. 3 (Spring 2003): 468–80.

4.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “King Adam,” The Little Review 6, no. 1 (May 1919): 73.

5.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Holy Skirts,” The Little Review 7, no. 2 (July–August 1920): 28–29.

6.  Heap, “Art and the Law,” The Little Review 7, no. 3 (September–December 1920): 8–16.

7.  Gammel, “German Extravagance Confronts American Modernism: The Poetics of Baroness Else,” in Pioneering North America: Mediators of European Culture and Literature, ed. Klaus Martens (Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 2000), 65.

8.  The Little Review Anthology, ed. Margaret Anderson (New York: Horizon Press, 1970), 351.

9.  Heap, “Dada,” 46.

10.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover,” The Little Review 6, no. 5 (September 1919): 3–11.

11.  Quoted in Anderson, Thirty Years War, 322.

12.  Heap, “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 6, no. 6 (October 1919): 56.

13.  David Escoffery, “Dada Performance and the Rhetoric of Nonsense: Tearing Down the Wall at the Cabaret Voltaire,” in Images and Imagery: Frames, Borders, Limits: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Corrado Federici, Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons, and Ernesto Virgulti (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 3.

14.  Hugo Ball quoted in Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 30.

15.  It is evident from a letter from the Baroness to Djuna Barnes that she saw some of Schwitters’s collages in an exhibition held in New York at the Little Review Gallery. For no apparent reason other than jealousy, she calls his work “utterly mediocre” and “undistinguished vulgar bohemianism” (Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, emphasis in original).

16.  Ibid.

17.  Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, 80.

18.  Freytag-Loringhoven papers, UMD.

19.  Ibid., emphasis in original.

20.  Ibid.

21.  Ibid.

22.  Ibid.

23.  Tristan Tzara, “An Introduction to Dada,” in The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Motherwell (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), 394.

24.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Cosmic Arithmetic,” in In Transition: Selected Poems by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ed. Tanya Clement (College Park: University of Maryland Libraries, 2008).

25.  Suzanne Black, “Domesticating the Crystal: Sir Lawrence Bragg and the Aesthetics of ‘X-ray Analysis,’” Configurations 13, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 257.

26.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Ostentatious; Westward:; Eastward:; Agog,” transition 16–17 (1929): 24.

27.  Anderson, The Little Review Anthology, 349.

28.  Freytag-Loringhoven, “Selections from the Letters of Elsa Baroness Von Freytag-Loringhoven,” ed. Djuna Barnes, transition 11 (1928): 25, 26.

Bringing Harry Mathews to PennSound (and you)

Chris Funkhouser working with the Mathews tapes. Photo by Anna Baechtold.

Editorial note: Today, we’re very happy to unveil a new PennSound author page for author Harry Mathews.  While the page contains one reading previously available on the site (a 2002 reading from the Lytle Shaw-curated Line Reading Series), the majority of these materials were gathered by PennSound senior editor Chris Funkhouser, and I’ve asked him to write about his experience discovering these recordings in Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. — Michael S. Hennessey

Teaching a course at University of Pennsylvania in fall 2010, I made weekly pilgrimages to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Early on, I met John Pollack, public services specialist of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (housed at Van Pelt), who cordially welcomed me and facilitated my research in this archive throughout the term.

Since I am a scholar of modern and postmodern poetics, Pollack steered me toward the William Carlos Williams Research Collection — where I encountered some beautiful artifacts (including some unpublished poetry, sweet valentines, and wonderful letters from Pound to Flossie, which apart from other qualities illustrate how EP’s abbreviations are clear predecessors to SMS). The real prize for me, however, was when Pollack mentioned Penn’s acquisition of Harry Mathews’s “papers.” For many years a student and practitioner of Oulipian procedures, I knew exploring this aspect of the archive would be bountiful — and it was.

The library’s cataloguing of the Mathews materials is still in its early stages. As of last fall, Mathews’s letters — stored in twenty archival boxes, containing letters from about 925 individuals, groups, or publishers — have been sorted, logged, and organized into folders by correspondent; a twenty-two-page printed index is available. During my first two sessions with the Mathews collection, I reviewed seven of these boxes, including those containing missives pertaining to my own research interests: letters by Marc Adrian, John Ashbery, John Baldessari, Charles Bernstein, Ted Berrigan, John Cage, Augusto de Campos, Henri Chopin, Robert Coover, Ray Johnson, Alex Katz, Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank O’Hara, and Locus Solus and Oulipo group correspondences and publication proofs, to name just a few. The Ashbery letters, which he signs with dozens of playful pseudonyms, are particularly colorful, and, as of yet, I can only imagine how they were stirred by equally vibrant and gaudy letters by Mathews. The de Campos folder contains some early Brazilian Concrete poetry publications (e.g., 1964 works by Azeredo, Grunewald, and Pignitari), which differ in appearance and affect from their more commonly seen and accessible book-form iterations.

My interest in these letters, and Mathews’s work in general, led to a meeting with Nancy Shawcross (curator of manuscripts in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library), who gave me a tour of the behind-the-scenes holdings in mid-October, where, amidst dozens of large cartons, folders, and objets d'art (e.g., assorted sheet music, oversized creations and “ephemera” of all sorts), I noticed a small box labeled “Tapes + CDs.” As a senior editor at PennSound, almost immediately I realized the importance of finding a way to transfer, in digital form, the contents of whatever this package contained across campus — over to PennSound’s servers located at the other end of Locust Walk. Two weeks later Mathews’s “Tapes + CDs” were dispensed to the Rare Books reading room, and the process of archive-to-archive conversion began.

Another upshot from my initial meeting with Dr. Shawcross was her suggestion to make direct contact with Mathews, who she believed could help me locate materials pertaining to some specific research questions I had regarding the influence of computer technology (software or other) on Oulipian composition and process. She gave me his email address, and a few days later I struck up a correspondence: Mathews welcomed my inquiries and was willing to consider the possibility of sharing on the Web the recordings I’d found, but, reasonably, wanted to hear them before authorizing us to do so.

Harry Mathews. Photo by Anna Wasilewska.

Opening the coffer of Mathews’s recordings during the first of many review and work sessions, I was pleased to find a number of cassettes, a videotape, and a CD-ROM (as well as printed matter related to “Composing: Harry Mathews’ Words and Worlds,” a gallery installation of artifacts selected from the archive by Nick Montfort in 2004). The cassettes include Mathews’s 1998 appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm program (hosted by Michael Silverblatt), his February 1999 Friends of the Library reading at Penn (multiple copies), a fall 1999 reading at MIT, and Ashbery’s 1986 interview with Mathews. The CD-ROM contains Mathews family photos, and the videotape, titled “On n’attend que toi,” is a 2003 production by Daniela Franco (coincidentally a collaborator of mine at E-Poetry 2007), on which the audio features Mathews’s “Jack’s reminders to the King of Karactika” (read by Ian Monk). While I was somewhat surprised there were not more audio materials, what I found myself hearing was nothing short of brilliant.

However, with the exception of the professionally produced KCRW program, sound quality on the cassettes left a lot to be desired. The Ashbery interview is particularly difficult to hear, and once I discovered that the interview had already been transcribed, published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (vol. 7, no. 3, fall 1987) and posted online, I decided that the effort to salvage the conversation’s audibility could wait since there was plenty else to do.

In early November — after reviewing, making notes on the recordings, informing other editors what I had uncovered (suggesting we find a way to add these to PennSound) — I inquired about obtaining digital copies of the cassettes. Shawcross and her assistants graciously and promptly responded, and in mid-November I picked up three CDs containing WAV files of the Bookworm, Friends of the Library, and MIT readings. Creating the MP3 files now included in PennSound’s archive, I proceeded to optimize their sonic properties, improving vocal quality and removing extraneous noise as best I could. In December, the MP3s were delivered to Mathews, who reviewed them over the winter and in March agreed to let PennSound produce an online archive based on the audio documentation of events I happened upon in the fall.

Indeed, Mathews has been completely helpful during the months of labor required to bring these recordings to PennSound, for which we are tremendously grateful. In fact it was his suggestion we add to the archive some of the recordings he produced for a CD included with first issue of the journal The Sienese Shredder (2007). This addition, supported by the editors of The Sienese Shredder (Brice Brown and Trevor Winkfield), marvelously rounds out our Mathews compendium. Mathews amiably provided the WAV files for this series of poems, written over the course of his literary career, which I then converted to MP3, boosting their amplitude for better online replay and making some needed surgical repairs. 

Eventually someone would have transported these recordings from Penn’s library to PennSound; serendipity brought me the opportunity and privilege to tackle — and have all-around support for — this multitiered, intrainstitutional task. Seeing the procedural underpinnings, such as original sketches of Mathews’s algorithm (i.e., done in his own hand), diagrammatic poems, the foundational materials of books such as Tlooth and The Conversions, and corresponding with Mathews has been informative, to say the least. To have good reason to consume a plenitude of Mathews’s refined, inventive, creative procedures in notebooks, and to have them reverberating in ears and mind brought unanticipated stimulation and inspiration. My 2011 blog Freeholderville, which largely engages Oulipian procedures via computer algorithm, is but one of many tangible learning outcomes resulting from the experience. Hearing Mathews’s distinctive voice and meticulous reading style transports us through many worlds and cultures, introducing a range of linguistic prospects and extremities — “snowballs with irregularity” — from which everyone should benefit.