Articles - August 2014

Poetics and the manifesto

On Pierre Joris and Adrian Clarke

The writings writers write about writing have been curiously misread.

Battling the impossibility of being their own readers, writers are drawn to fuzzy logic when it comes to thinking and externalizing their thinking about the purpose, activity, outcomes, and future of writing that results in text that can be unstable in a variety of ways, and is sometimes difficult to read. However, there is enough commonality among these writings to group them as members of a discourse, one called ‘poetics,’ and a prospective study of poetics is most revealingly conducted using examples that orient themselves in form, towards form, and that reveal themselves as hybrid and playful, fragmented or highly formal.[1]

I want to draw a distinction between poetics and manifestos, to crystallize the nature of each. Manifestos may contain poetics, but poetics itself is a more mercurial discourse: speculative, conjectural, and provocative, suggestive of formal possibilities for the art practice concerned. Mary Ann Caws helps to clarify this discrimination: “As if defining a moment of crisis, the manifesto generally proclaims what it wants to oppose, to leave, to defend, to change. Its oppositional tone is constructed of againstness.”[2] This ‘tone’ is absent from poetics, where, as Stephen Romer reminds us, “we find … a profound reserve before the fact of poetry, and a refusal to be dogmatic.”[3] There may be, of course, provocation in its exhortations; poetics provokes artistic innovation or progression.

Donald Wesling, on the other hand, asserts that “poetics resides largely in the more strident form of the manifesto.”[4] However, his characterization of manifesto poetics since modernism is illustrative, in that he balances what I call the conjectural and speculative nature of poetics against what Caws particularizes as the combative tone of the manifesto:  

The manifestos are histrionic and heuristic. They dare and supplicate the reader as they project into the future a schedule and strategy for personal work. And if, for the writer, they define a field of action, for the reader they afford a gesture of solidarity, suggesting what lenses are necessary for appreciation of the work. Thus to read these productions in a univocal way, to be insulted by them, or to disregard them completely as oversimplifications, is to misunderstand their nature. (104)

Misreading poetics as a unified or simple discourse (as underdeveloped literary criticism, for example) is to miscomprehend the complexity and doubleness of the discourse, its incompleteness, its mercurial nature, its often teasing relationship to the originating writer’s (or writers’) literary productions. But Wesling strikes a false note, despite his nuanced description, when he considers the role of the reader. Manifestos, he says, “are in fact clues, historical and methodological study guides to aid us in our task of reading” (104). This attitude colludes with what Jerome J. McGann calls the “ideological imaginary,” the process by which “literary criticism too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of culture.”[5] By analogy or extension, the speculations of poetics fall prey to a similar petrifying assimilation in Wesling’s description: it is utilized as a “lens” to “appreciate” the resultant work, not seen as cultural work in its own right.

I will proceed with the premise that the only good reasons to show and share a poetics are if it assists in the definition of literariness or if it is of any practico-theoretical use for other practitioners. Readers will perhaps one day read poetics in its own right as a performative discourse, but poetics must never become simply a ‘study guide.’ My ‘episode’ on Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetics in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, “Talk,” ends with a string of unanswered questions:

May one contest a poetics? Crudely put, can we say a poetics is wrong? … What would it mean to challenge O’Sullivan’s shamanistic borrowings as essentialist or partial? Would it matter that her “sources” date from the 1940s? … Put another way, if, as Charles Bernstein says, “The test of a poetics is the poetry and the poetic thinking that results,” are these questions pertinent at all?[6]

I wish to address these questions by looking at Pierre Joris’s “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” (before turning to Adrian Clarke’s angry reaction to it). I will be citing chiefly the text mysteriously numbered “version 2.0b,” which was first published as an issue of Allen Fisher’s Spanner magazine in 1999.[7] Version 4.00 is found in Joris’s 2003 collection of essays A Nomad Poetics, which differs by including interpolations by Brian Massumi.[8] This mutating document is fully congruent with its theme, of course, but I wish to remain largely with the earlier version (the one contested by Clarke). A Nomad Poetics as a whole might be seen as an extension of this text as poetic thinking that results from the poetics.[9]

Joris, who hails from Luxembourg, spent several years in London beginning in 1971, when he formed friendships with poets such as Lee Harwood and Allen Fisher. He edited the ambitious journal Sixpack and continued to write original poems and translations between his four languages: Lëtzebuergesch, French, German, and English. He lived in Algeria for three years before a long-term return to the US, where he had already lived in 1967 and where he is currently domiciled. When he coedited the two-volume Poems for the Millennium anthologies in the late 1990s with Jerome Rothenberg, he was jointly responsible for the fact that at least J. H. Prynne, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, John Cayley, and Maggie O’Sullivan from the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry movements appear in the second volume of this transnational anthology. (I have praised this anthology in a poetics essay of my own, “The End of the Twentieth Century,” as “a loose-leaf anti-canon of World Wide investigative poetries”; I also comment that “Anthologizing is poetics,” emphasizing the constitutive value of the process and its product.)[10]

Joris’s own remarks in “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” on the editorial process with the veteran anthologist Rothenberg make it clear that the anthology is at the heart of a nomadic poetics and should be seen as “a nomadology in action, an event authored by us, which means the two multitudes that Jerry & I are, plus the multiplicities the poets in the book make” (17). He quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s remark in A Thousand Plateaus that those two authors were, like Rothenberg and Joris, “Each of us … several, there was already quite a crowd” (17).[11] The famous “treatise” on nomadology in that book is the source for Joris’s assertion that “A nomadic poetics is a war machine, always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times without stopping” (17). Deleuze and Guattari argue that, unlike the migrant, the nomad (who operates at both a literal and metaphorical level in their argument) deterritorializes, holds to a purely relational sense of the earth as ground, as passage. As opposed to the static military bodies of the State, the nomad (and his mobile war machine) is “itinerant, ambulant,” following (rather than representing) “a flow in a vectoral field” (372); “they are vectors of deterritorialization” that refuse to reterritorialize, unlike the migrant who simply settles elsewhere (382). The spaces they traverse are therefore “smooth,” while the geopolitical divisions of the state result in borders, striations. Deleuze had earlier written of nomadology: “There is no longer a division of that which is distributed but rather a division among those who distribute themselves in an open space — a space that is unlimited, or at least without precise limits.”[12] Many of the US and British poets in the Millennium anthology have often had to organize themselves, operating with a self-distributive sense of literary function — arranging their own networks of publication, for example — against the readymade distributed literary tradition or canon. They perhaps are the “nomads-by-choice” mentioned in Joris’s epigraph in “Notes” from Allen Fisher (2). To these notions, as Joris freely adapts Deleuzoguattarian concepts, he adds qualities of mutability that extend into one of his own poetic concerns: translation.

There is no doubting the stridency of Joris’s ambitions for his twenty-nine-page “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics.” It takes on many of the characteristics of the manifesto and echoes one major art manifesto of modernism. Caws reminds us that “The manifesto is by nature a loud genre, immodest and forceful, exuberant and vivid, attention-grabbing” (xx). She adds: “Immediate and urgent, it never mumbles, is always in overdose and overdrive” (xxi). But Joris also assimilates quieter deterritorialized modes of contemporary poetics, ones that often mime or merge into the poetry that is envisaged. Indeed, Joris has invented the hybrid category of the “manifessay” to describe his text, to reflect his deflection of the manifestic impulse into the poetics essay form.[13] It is indeed made up of “notes,” a form which suggests provisionality, and the “towards” of the title suggests nomadic preference for events of becoming over states of being. Often aphoristic and elliptically allusive, with quotations from poems and other documents, its final pages present a translation from a pre-Islamic ode by Tarafah, “the most modern, rebel of the nomad poets, an early Rimbaud,” according to Joris.[14] Joris’s interest in Arabic and Maghrebian poetry concretises the metaphor of nomadism, makes it literal as well as theoretical. Like much poetics, his hybrid text borrows, steals, and distorts his sources and influences. At times this can be vertiginous, even obfuscating, as when he grafts onto nomadism the Situationist concept of drift, the willed pointlessness of the dérive, so beloved of the psychogeographer, although the point he is making — the “ever more displaced drifting” of language itself — is a pertinent one (3). There is a world of difference between the lines of flight of actual nomads — say, the purposeful, economical tracking between oases — and the deliberate and often delirious abandon of the psychogeographer.

The proliferation of concepts is a Deleuzoguattarian technique — indeed, this activity defines their philosophy — and the development of novel borrowings and neologisms can be observed in many poetics documents. Joris’s “manifessay” does not disappoint, indeed may be largely read through them. To call the nomadic poet a “Noet” is not just a neologistic contraction. It implies a rejection of the place-bound poetics in favour of a space-determined sense of nomadic movement. “There is no difference between inside & outside at the poem’s warp speed,” Joris promises, though it is difficult to relate this to specific textual practices (6). However, this is generally congruent with the views of one contemporary geographer, Doreen Massey, who conceives of space narratively and dynamically as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far,” or as communal Deleuzoguattarian “co-eval becomings,” as she puts it, although Joris does not refer to her work.[15] In fact, he prefers to develop the associative implications of his neologism. “NOET: NO stands for play, for no-saying & guerrilla war techniques,” he writes in a grand refusal, eliding the Deleuzoguattarian war machine with a distantly romanticized sense of guerrilla warfare (“Notes,” 7). Ancient knowledges are hinted at in “gNOsis” and modern ones in “Noetics,” but again, the collocations are vitiated by lack of detail (“noetic” operates also as an adjective from the Greek, nous).

However, there is one citable example: John Cayley’s Indra’s Net. “The nomad poet, the NOET, gives allegiance to INDRA the warrior god,” Joris states, quoting Deleuze and Guattari on Hindu deity Indra as a “pure and immeasurable multiplicity” before he presents Cayley’s description of his cyberpoem: it is mediated through an ever-changing screen of words morphing between languages (13). In essence, the technological advances in cybernetics are applauded by Joris and embraced by Cayley because of programmable media’s ability to generate a mutating textual entity that the reader may operate and — more radically — enter in order to change, so that one copy of the text eventually will be quite different from any other, a true “plastic literary object,” in Cayley’s words (14). Here we have a literal example of “the nomadic poem as ongoing & open-ended chart of the turbulent fluxes the dispersive nature of our realities make inevitable,” though it is worth questioning whether this does not simply amount to a close representation of chaotic and fractal reality rather than an intervention in it (14).

Joris, of course, is not offering cyberpoetics as the only mode for the noet. Elsewhere, he becomes relatively specific about the process of becoming a noet: “The NOET learns & then writes in foreign languages (real or made-up ones) in order to come to the realization that all languages are foreign” (16). As “mother tongue” morphs into “other tongue” through yet more wordplay, language becomes a drifting substance, “consonants” like “continents,” he says. Everything is flux, it seems.

However, Joris does develop a principle of rest and pause: ‘poasis.’ Collocated from the words poem and oasis, and hinting at the poesis from which we name poetics itself, poases are the “refuelling halts” that are necessary for the paths of flight of nomadic writing to be achieved: “They last a night or a day, the time of the poem, & then move on” (3). Joris has ancient authority for this neologism. The tenth-century Sufi term mawqif is modulated through the poetics of the contemporary Tunisian poet Abdelwahab Meddeb, whom Joris has translated, and Joris refashions the term in “his poetics in order to define what the poem is: The mawqif is the pause, the stop-over, the rest, the stay of the wanderer between two moments of movement, two runs, two sites, two places, two states” (17). Thus formulated, the term implies “between-ness as essential nomadic condition,” a condition of not digging down into the territory, but of being strung above it between two points, paradoxically at rest and in transit (6). Thus the poem is not written at rest, but is itself that restless rest, as Olson realized decades ago when he asked: “How to dance / sitting down” (and which Joris quotes approvingly; 18). It is a moment of simultaneous recreation and creation, an exfoliation of poetic potentiality without having roots or taking root. It is “en route.” It is a “moving placement on a smooth space,” to quote Joris in Deleuzoguattarian mode; “it is a (momentary) stance in relation to & with space,” precisely part of the rhizomatic potential of lines of nomadic flight, which, as always, hovers between the literal and the metaphorical. In Nomadic Poetics,Joris reminds us about ancient forms of flight: “This hajara is an exile, but not an exodus, that is to say it is not a flight in search of a goal, a promised land, a telos that would reinscribe all the more forcefully all the lost identities, the unities of the individual, group or state.”[16] In a related essay in the 2003 volume, we find a description of one technique of nomadic poetics. He notes of Picasso’s poetry its

complete obliteration of punctuation marks. This gives his poems the feel of a wide open field, a smooth, non-striated space, or blocks of space, through or along which one can travel unchecked, free to choose one’s own moment of rest, free to create one’s own rhythms of reading. (118)

Effects similar to those achieved by Cayley’s morphing screen are visible on Picasso’s page.

It might seem odd that the central historical figure of European twentieth-century modernism is taken as exemplar of the nomadic “poetics for today and open on tomorrow,”[17] but one of the ironies of poetics is that it has to predicate the future upon the examples of the past. Indeed, Joris inventories what he refuses to jettison from twentieth-century art as he embraces futurity. Among others he wants to keep Burroughs’s exploration of inner states, Dorn’s and Olson’s explorations of space (rather than place), Nathaniel Mackey’s sense of “the imperfect fit of word and world,” Pound’s inclusion of history in the poem, the syntactical play of Gertrude Stein, and the drawing-poems of Henri Michaux, all of which may be found in Poems for the Millennium (31). Version 4.00 of the “notes” includes a passage on Allen Fisher. Joris comments: “We will take the whole of the new century to finally read Allen Fisher’s vast investigation into all our knowledges, the great serial constructive dérive hecalls Gravity as a Consequence of Shape.”[18] When Joris informs us — though latterly Joris has informed me that this is a joke — that “59 pages of commentaries have been deleted” we might feel thankful for this (!) and for his 1999 summary: “From the 20C we will retain everything — in memory. We will forget nothing and we will forgive nothing.”[19] This ethical note, Joris’s refusal of Christian forgiveness, emerges from the sense of our having passed through an era about which one might say, with Muriel Rukeyser, “I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane.”[20]

“Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” opens with a bold but generalized statement, in which we can read both Deleuzoguattarian intent and political judgement:

The days of anything static, form, content, state are over. The past century has shown that anything not involved in continuous transformation hardens and dies. All revolutions have done just that: those that tried to deal with the state as much as the state of poetry.[21]

While the equivalence of the “state of poetry” and the political state may seem rhetorical, the political and ethical imperative is strongly felt if not sharply delineated. The implications of this are far-reaching into the political realm; if the “two major modes of poesis” in the twentieth century involved “love (eros) & strife (nike),” then in the future they will operate as elements of the “stasis that makes movement,” as minor deviations (Joris introduces the Lucretian-Oulipean term ‘clinamen’) in “a world where accident is rule,” as Joris puts it in a poem of his own which he includes here (4–5). We need continuous transformation.

But his final word — he calls it “the fin mot” — incongruously occurs on page 6 rather than at the end of the document and is a quotation from Paul Celan. Joris is one of Celan’s distinguished translators, and it is almost inevitable that any ethical understanding of utterance should turn to this austere and subtle poetic thinker. Joris’s central borrowing from Celan is the umambiguous assertion “Reality is not. It has to be searched for and won.” “Replace ‘reality’ with ‘poetry’ or ‘millennium,’” Joris suggests: “Poetry is not. It has to be searched for and won” by the very nomadic poetic war machine that is described throughout this poetics. “Celan’s phrase,” Joris remarks, “is the quest, as it includes the critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ — & of the whole specular natures of our mis-takes on the real.” This, like other parts of the document, attempts to synthesize too much, but it suggests that Celan’s thinking is a site of resistance to late global capitalism as theorized by Guy Debord and others; that it offers hope of discovering an alternative “reality” (and alternative “poetry,” and new “millennium,” through Joris’s suggested substitutions.)

The millennium has to be searched for and won, and perhaps it is too early to see whether Joris’s millennial poetics will become — as it clearly intends to be — more than simply the thinking behind his own poetic practice or as part of his translation theory, and become part of a zeitgeist poetics. (As we shall see, it is this latter ambition that causes some disquiet.) Certainly in the era after September 11, Joris, as one who translates from Arabic, is well placed “where we have to start to think a new cultural constellation that will, finally, have to include the heritage of the excluded third — Islam & Arab culture.”[22]

Such poetics needs to be searched for and won, too. Joris’s bold attempt to synthesize twentieth-century modernisms, his neologistic play, his playing off of rhetorics of movement against rhetorics of interruption and rest, his ethical appropriations of Celan, and finally his attempt to produce a poetics in serial and branching versions, point to the vitality of his speculative discourse, which situates itself neither within the confines of criticism nor within the extensions of artistic practice (for which they may prove of variable utility).

Adrian Clarke is a British Linguistically Innovative poet who emerged, in many ways, under the sign of Allen Fisher, whose poetics essay Necessary Business  laid the groundwork for more general poetic experiment in the post-1978 era. I have written about Clarke’s work elsewhere, and about his poetics, which largely consists of papers (often delivered to the SubVoicive Colloquia of the early 1990s) that he provocatively published in single volumes with his poetry in a refusal to separate his poetics from poems.[23]Most noteworthy is his adoption of a poetics of the phrase, derived from a reading of Lyotard, whereby abutted phrases avoid grammatical and syntactic cohesion and semantic coherence in a way that keeps the discourse open; on the other hand he adopts modes of word count (derived from the example of Louis Zukofsky) that create stanza shapes of great formal austerity, so that he can play floating phrases against mathematical form, utilizing enjambment to the full. Difficult to demonstrate in excerpt, Clarke’s Skeleton Sonnets (2002, revised and republished in Possession: Poems 1996–2006) evince a combative approach to the global that represents capitalist media and power as obsessed with speed rather than mawqif, a world of threatening connections rather than one of cross-cultural fertilization (or “mated frames”):

global eroded celebrity spells it
out with a black
and white Head
Office module in close
      choice of auto
mated frames
once on the running
board at the speed of receipts[24]

One of Clarke’s poetics documents contains a partial critique of Joris’s “Notes,” and is published in Skeleton Sonnets. It is entitled “Introduction in the Form of an Open Letter to Robert Sheppard on Exile, Nomads & the Demon”; the appearance of my name requires an explanation. The occasion of Clarke’s “letter” was my poetics prose poem “The End of the Twentieth Century,” which is one of the core poetics documents of my millennial project Twentieth Century Blues.[25] Much of Clarke’s letter speaks from his projects (the sonnets particularly and his own millennial sequence “Millennial Shades”) to my project, but at various points he strays into potting a shot or two over the bows of Joris’s millennial poetics, and it is largely towards these remarks I direct my attention.

As noted earlier, “The End of the Twentieth Century” praises the anthology Joris coedited, Poems for the Millennium, as poetics in selective action. By making of it “a prospectus of reading,” I say, “I have constructed a twentieth century more generous than that given to me, to give to others, into the next” (346). Severer than I, Clarke will have none of it, and he tells me why:

I have difficulty both with “ethnopoetics” as copyrighted by Messrs Rothenberg and Joris, inasfar as I grasp its rationale, and with your enthusiasm for their anthology … if not for some of the work collected there. My problem is that the translations … lose much of the strangeness we might value in the source texts as they are accommodated on a plateautude of AGIT-PROP strung with dead International Surrealist light-bulbs.[26]

Clarke suspects that the Deleuzoguattarian planarity operates in order to level the work presented until it flattens out into an unproblematic and homogenized international avant-garde mode; ethnopoetic oral texts are presented as the equivalent of Dada sound poetry, for example. Rather than being released nomadically, these texts are de- and recontextualized, losing their otherness, their formal power. “To translate is, of course, to welcome the work as an other into the same, to transform it from the foreign to the familiar,” Derek Attridge says; “but in doing so, if its otherness and singularity are respected — if, that is, the translation is inventive — the field into which it is welcomed is also transformed in the process.”[27] Clarke suspects that otherness and singularity are suppressed in favour of vampiric assimilation of the other in the service of a single line of argument.

Clarke attacks Joris’s poetics head on: “Facile notions like … nomadic (cyber)poetics … fill me with rage and despair … Or at times a reluctant cynicism” (3). After praising the direct action of the demonstrators at the Seattle World Trade talks, Clarke will have no truck with what he sees as an easy utopianism of connectivity in nomadic poetics. He sees “circulation” as a “key term” in debates about political power, rather than “drift” (2). He tells me:

Joris’s appropriation of the dérive subjects it to an accelerating and “ever more displaced drifting.” Noting the [Situationist] movement’s immediate preference for backstreet labyrinths, underground passageways and houses due for demolition … Vincent Kaufmann remarks of the project Situationist hanging city above its ground-level transportation systems: “Circulation is to take place below the space of everyday life. …” (6)

Thus it seems to Clarke that possibilities of guerrilla action in the sewers of culture, as it were, beneath the level of “everyday life” eulogized by Henri Lefebvre and others, are denied by Joris’s apparent sunny armchair dérive and its faith in technology. Joris, we are told, “waits for the caravan (No more oasis stops needed, boys — metaphoric or otherwise!) to a mathematical plurality in the Electronic Millennium” represented in part by John Cayley’s e-poetry (5). Clarke’s bad-tempered charges expose a danger that the free synthesizing of Joris’s poetics may end up entangled in its own complexity, the mawqif swiftly swapped for the latest poetic fashion.

Joris is no less uncivil in his “Open Letter in Response to Adrian Clarke’s,” which is included in his 2003 book A Nomad Poetics. He tellingly flings the same term of abuse back at Clarke: “facile” (139). He responds to Clarke’s poetics as “your rather facile strictures re ‘dematerialized is immaterial’ which you tease out of Bruce Andrews’s reflections on materiality and graphic immediacy” — which is an accurate description of Clarke’s own poetics, but he adds that this is “maybe pointing out the sleek anorexia of his/your signifieds” (139). It is odd that he says “signifieds,” where one might expect the word signifiers, since Joris is referring to what he describes elsewhere in “Open Letter” as the “trap” of US Language poetry that “runs the risk of remaining stuck exactly … in linguistic auto-referentiality”; he assumes Clarke’s slavish adherence to this poetics or to this simplified critique of its poetics (100). Clarke’s practice, while estranged and difficult, is nevertheless referential, however much it dematerializes its substance and makes its materials immaterial. One of his “Eurochants” of 2010, a sequence which displays a plurilingual internationalism to rival Joris’s, opens with a line which clearly equates the emptiness of New Labour/business school rhetoric with Joris’s central concept, which he presents in scare quotes: “blue skies thinking ‘nomadic.’”[28]

In fact, Clarke’s probing makes Joris more specific about the ethics of his position. Sensing that Clarke suspects him of complicity with theories of postmodernity that demand ever-accelerated speed instead of finding a fixed position from which to mount critique — the mawqif might serve this function — Joris declares that there is no home to return to in language, and that “being” and “dwelling,” Heideggerian terms seemingly valorized by Clarke, are tainted with the fascism his “manifessay” warns us is capable of a strange and powerful return in the new millennium; “being” itself can dangerously serve to aggrandize the self and belittle the other. We are condemned to this unethical position “until we become nomadic, until ‘becoming’ is what we want.”[29] Joris admits that “the enemy (late global capitalism) has been thinking nomadically for a long time,” an assertion that could damage his claims for nomadology as it elides with Clarke’s loathed “blue skies thinking,” but as his attitude to the uses of the internet and e-poetry demonstrates, he envisages using that techno-power against itself (137). Clarke’s stridency on this point in his piece allows Joris to regard him, wrongly, as a technophobe; “simply tuning out is not a solution” (137). Joris suspects “sedentariness” might be an affliction of the British, and assumes a native poetics resistant to poetry’s true “desire to feel everywhere estranged, out of touch/in reach with the other — out of house and home” (140). Clarke is one of the most adventurous and self-estranged of British poets and writers of poetics, but taking sides at this point does not enrich our understanding of conflictual poetics.

Neither of these poets reaches out to the other. Their mutual “perplexity,” an account of which Joris uses to open his letter, is more telling than the actual exchanges, the incomprehension more eloquent than any connection one might elaborate in an attempt to show a relationship of poetics, let alone a fellowship of poets. Neither sees the other’s position, but this is not just a lack of clarity or charity but something that reveals a fundamental characteristic of poetics itself.

The hybrid forms of poetics, its mercurial qualities, militate against it being considered fully a discourse in the specific sense intended by Foucault, although there are enough shared characteristics for it to be regarded as a weak form of discourse. Poetics lacks what Foucault claims as necessary conditions, or effects, for strong forms of discourse: institutions, founding figures of discursivity, originating concepts, principles of recognition and validation — and especially principles of verification and falsification. This lack of conditions, in the case of poetics, I would argue, is fundamentally productive. The nature, or natures, of poetics, in the present examples, seems to support the case that it desires to resist finality of statement: Clarke is gnomically aphoristic, where Joris is expansive and manifestic, but he still claims the provisional status of “notes.” Indeed, it is this combination that makes me uneasy when I consider Joris’s text as a whole. When I think about its parts I am less concerned; for example, his notion of the ‘poasis’ speaks to both my criticism and my poetics. The document teems with good ideas and beneficent attitudes for the contemporary poet but, despite its fragmentary and deterritorializing forms, it approaches the assumed authority of the manifesto; as a fractured totality it is still loud, as Caws would say (even when it is loud with self-deprecating laughter).

Poets, eternal optimists in this sense, trust that poetics might prove the last word (if only to themselves); they treat a provisional position as though it were a theoretical absolute (if only to produce the latest text or brave a creative crisis). But deep inside they know that the fixity is — to borrow Joris’s vocabulary — but an oasis on a long journey of continual transformation: compulsive nomadism, a compulsory “becoming” that steers “continuous transformation.” Joris’s global assertion — itself a deliberate echo of Breton’s rhetorical final sentence in his surrealist novel-manifesto Nadja — that “the millennium will be nomadic or it will not be” is predictive and absolute. It leaves little room for dissent, or possibly even for poetics as a developing practice of paradigm-breaking “becoming,” an unintended consequence of its manifestic “overdose and overdrive.”[30] Already as the twenty-first century crashes on, the irruptive poetics of conceptual writing offers a resistance to many cherished notions of literary postmodernity. It will be interesting to see if nomadic poetics can encompass its assaults on originality, aesthetic facility, and readerly fascination (through work which is breezily derivative, deliberately repetitive and excruciatingly and/or exquisitely boring). One of its central characteristics is also to reverse the relationship between poetics and product: its poetics is often more important than its work; the poetics in a sense is the work. Conceptual writing may offer a victory for poetics that it might have to resist.

The dispute between Joris and Clarke suggests that while there may be debate over some of the terms of poetics, while one poetics may wholly or partly contradict another, or for that matter partly or wholly confirm another (where its terms are expressed propositionally), a poetics as a whole cannot be successfully contested (the more so it includes aesthetic, hybrid, formally nonpropositional or gestural moments) because there is uncertainty about the grounds of the contest. Poetics’ purposes may be practical as well as theoretical; it might provoke or conjecture as much as it argues, and it may gesture or demonstrate as much as propose, leaving epistemological indeterminacy. “Statements” in poetics often have contextual, fiduciary currency. Poetics’ terms are provisional, modified by experience (or influenced by the practice of art-making that is beyond its own terms or scope, but which it provokes). Formally it might defamiliarize content. I am not trying to exalt the discourse of poetics, to position it on an inviolable plane of expression, like a starlet hoisted above the chorus girls at the climax of a musical. This is not a question of discursive purity but of the various impurities found in what is best thought of, pace Foucault, as a weak form of discourse. It is a jostling crowd rather than a debating society, let alone a legislature.

Lyotard developed the concept of the differend to account partly for the situation of incommunicability between two arguments, conducted in two different language games, a contest for which there is no final, higher tribunal. Perhaps something like this — I emphasise my simile — pertains between examples and modalities of poetics (though I do not wish to push the discourse too far into Lyotard’s specific arguments).[31] Because of its forms and functions, overstating cases, understating cases, not stating cases at all, offering thumbnails rather than blueprints, and often demonstrating through formal means, it is rare to find an actual argument between poetics, but not unknown to find mutual incompatibility that verges on incommunicability between artists. The mutual incomprehension of Joris and Clarke may be the effect of their attempting to answer poetics (in all its formal and contentual variety) with argument. In Lyotard’s post-Wittgensteinian terms, they are playing incommensurable language games. It may be possible now to see why it is difficult to contest, or impossible to refute, a poetics. (One is always free to choose whether to use it or not, of course, but that is a different, probably more important, question relating to praxis and poesis.) Refutation is what Clarke is attempting in his “Open Letter,” as is Joris, to a lesser extent, in his response. Joris’s exasperation at Clarke at one point breaks down into his simple request that Clarke reread the original document; it is as though he possessed no new terms to persuade Clarke further, could offer no new moves in the language games of poetics. Stalemate! They are left “to register a differend,” an admirable term used by Clarke himself elsewhere in his poetics.[32] If we remind ourselves, in the words of Richard Rorty, that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change,” we shall see that the survival of poetics depends upon the registering of differences, on paradigm-breaking, not upon the provision of paradigmatic organizing principles, the accumulation of universals or discursive legislation.[33] All poetics is nomadic.



1. See an early version of my The Necessity of Poetics in Pores here.

2. Mary Ann Caws, introduction to Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Caws(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), xxiii.

3. Stephen Romer, “Correctives,” PN Review 27 (1982): 63.

4. Donald Wesling, The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 104.

5. Jerome MacGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 135.

6. Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 166; Robert Sheppard, When Bad Time Made for Good Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011), 177.

7. Pierre Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,”Spanner 38 (Summer 1999): n.p.

8. Pierre Joris, A Nomadic Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

9. In addition to published sources by Joris, see his ongoing Nomadic Poetics blog.

10. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, Poems for the Millennium: Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Robert Sheppard, Complete Twentieth Century Blues (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008), 345–46.

11. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: The Athlone Press, 1988), 3.

12. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton(London and New York: Continuum, 1994), 36.

13. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 128. He does not call it this in the original publication.

14. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 23.

15. Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), 9 and 189.

16. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 129.

17. Ibid., 128.

18. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 34.

19. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 9.

20. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 36.

21. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 2.

22. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 114.

23. Adrian Clarke, Millennial Shades and Three Papers (London: Writers Forum, 1998). See the chapter “Creative Linkage in the Work of Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke, and Ulli Freer in the 1980s and 1990s” in Robert Sheppard, The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), 203–8; and the similar “Colossal Fragments: the Work of Adrian Clarke” in Robert Sheppard, Far Language (Exeter: Stride Research Document, 1999), 45–50.

24. Adrian Clarke, Skeleton Sonnets (London: Writers Forum, 2002) and Possession: Poems 1996–2006 (London: Veer, 2007), 61.

25.Sheppard, Complete Twentieth Century Blues, 331–50.

26. Clarke, Skeleton Sonnets, 6.

27. Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 74.

28. Adrian Clarke, Eurochants (Exeter: Shearsman, 2010), 69.

29. Joris, A Nomadic Poetics, 136.

30. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 1 and 29. The quotation is “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”: Andre Breton, Nadja (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 160. See Caws, Manifesto, xxi.

31. Lyotard’s The Differend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) is a troubling volume whose central concept is illuminating and useful at times. The book is suggestive — Adrian Clarke has found it so, even as he misread ‘phrase’ literally in his concoction of a constructivist poetics — more than it is coherent.

32. Clarke, Millennial Shades and Three Papers, n.p.

33. Quoted in Juliana Spahr, Everybody’s Autonomy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 101.

Monoculture beer no more

Other poetries from Ireland

Left to right: Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Catherine Walsh, Dylan Harris, Kit Fryatt, Susan Connolly.

Discussions of the Irish poetry avant-garde, or avant-garde poetry from Ireland, or avant-garde poetry produced in Ireland, tend to focus on a lineage that begins with the quartet of Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy, and Denis Devlin, before continuing with Michael Smith’s New Writers Press and Trevor Joyce, Randolph Healy, Maurice Scully, Billy Mills, and Catherine Walsh. Sometimes there are extensions to include younger poets like Aodán McCardle and James Cummins. These poets have consistently rejected, or vigorously questioned, aspects that have come to seem inevitable to poetry from Ireland. And apart from one or two cases, their work has not become widely accessible. 

Through multiple extensions, this lineage is slowly bearing an increasing influence to new writing from Ireland, posing a significant challenge to the blueprint of the (let’s call it) Heaney School. Whether there’s value in the type of poetry that still dominates publication, awards, etc., is beside the point; so overwhelming has its influence been on the vast majority of what’s being written — and, crucially, expected to be written — in Ireland that it’s become an unhealthy monolith. Conscious opposition to it seems necessary in order to bring about a liberating distribution of poetic modes.

Key to this shift is a pluralism of approach, plenty of cross-breeding and a geographically-outward attitude. Most of the writers mentioned above have either lived or spent considerable amounts of time outside Ireland: Walsh and Mills have lived in Spain and England; Scully in Italy, Greece, and Africa. Though biographical fact alone does not guarantee an alternative approach to writing, it’s partly due to living through other languages that some of these poets have been able to question the inherent parochialism of the poetry propagated in Ireland. There’s little of the obsession with the idea of Ireland in their work, and while it may address the geography of the country or the poets’ specific connection to it, there appears little attempt to territorialise the poems.

A common characteristic is the rejection of regular narrative modes and what they may signify. In Catherine Walsh’s Optic Verve, A Commentary, in particular, standard approaches to reading and writing are interrogated, as is the nature and function of words:

Whose place was it? To say what is its name is not tantamount to saying I don’t know what it is. Naming is not a speculative art and not necessary, as many seem to assume, to actual comprehension. Understanding. Naming makes communicative interaction a lot less tedious and time consuming. A coded shorthand of the specific, necessary component of the everyday dialectic of our lives.[1]

Words, then, as shorthand, form their own identities, and do not necessarily stand for things. In Walsh’s work, we remain constantly aware of the complexity of linguistic structure and intention by the disorienting effect of fragmentation or hybrid language — she often uses text in English, Irish, and Spanish without translations or explanations, as well as imported symbols and typography. It  questions systems of (re)presentation and apprehension, and insists on an alternative way of reading and writing as an element of political redirection. Walsh’s is also a body of work grounded in immediacy, which views improvisation as a critical element of composition. 

While Walsh’s writing is radical in practice and scope (Optic Verve bleeds into her subsequent book, Astonished Birds)[2]it is also grounded in the physical and even the domestic. These modes aren’t always or necessarily mutually exclusive. Maurice Scully’s work, too, can often be seen to stand apart from the perceived difficulty that accompanies the avant-garde label in that it contains a level of musicality usually expected in the work of writers within the lyrical mainstream — which, in Scully’s case, seems to have to do as much with an innate ear as with the training the poet’s hearing receives as it attempts to process new and changing types and patterns of speech, tones, and accents.

To place an “avant-garde,” then, and a “mainstream” in perpetual opposition would be to miss some fascinating shifts within and between these two vaguely distinct modes. Writers, poets especially, are allocated into groups, factions, or movements largely for the relative irrelevance of categorizing them in literary history books. Vital to recognizing new tendencies in poetry is a dynamic exploration that allows for cross-fertilization between practices. Up to now there have been very few continuous outlets for the exploration of radically different poetics and the spaces and dialogues between them emanating from or focusing on writing in Ireland. Journals and magazines largely fall into the trap of selecting from a narrow band of material, without making much effort to actively seek out or engender work that raises questions or drives a discussion — with a general lack of understanding of the editor’s role as instigator of new ideas and directions the main reason for this.





                    is the font

                                           of that voice?

(Kit Fryatt, “Why I Am Not a Performance Poet”)[3]

It’s fallen to the many spoken word and performance poetry initiatives which have sprung up, particularly in Dublin, over the past five to ten years, to bring about a widening of the perception of how poetry can be written and received. Poets who make innovative use of sound and movement energize language. Their power derives from the ability to communicate with audiences immediately. They can break through barriers of all kinds. And they make use of poetry’s earliest and most basic tools: the voice and the body. Their work benefits from the immediacy and vividness of hip-hop culture — a form of expression that has gained exponential popularity in Ireland — just as it can be limited by some of its more clichéd aspects.

One criticism of performance poetry everywhere is that it suffers from an anti-intellectualist attitude, which leaves the work rooted in the safe realm of the populist. Another is that it places too much emphasis on identity writing with an over-reliance on flourish or a clearly defined, easy-to-follow narrative. Essentially, on manipulating its audience into assent. These are fair criticisms to extend to the Irish spoken word scene. In general, an easily identifiable agenda surrounds the performance poem in Ireland. It brooks no uncertainties regarding its ideological position. In its eagerness to become understood and accepted at once, it eschews nonlinearity or complexity and aims to flatten experience into a series of cause and effect connections. A sense of interrogation taking place in the process of composition is lost through its collapse into a single dimension.

Like everywhere else, the Dublin spoken word scene has its exceptions. Tongue Box is a monthly reading series that has been running for several years in the Smithfield area (though at the time of writing it appears to be dormant). Presented by Raven and Cah-44 — whose collaborative performances of Cah-44’s sound poem “Dublin Onion” became, briefly, something of a scene emblem — the series is characterized by its hosts’ commitment to putting on an entertaining show with poets, artists, and musicians who are witty, energetic, and deadly serious about what they do. As with most such regular events, the quality on offer can be uneven between or within shows, but audiences rarely witness an indifferent performance. Occasionally, relative unknown or visiting poets and artists performing in collaboration will electrify the stage. And there’s an ongoing interest in alternative methods of dissemination, with poets encouraged to present in the medium that serves the work best — which is often anything but paper.

And if anti-intellectualism infects the generic performance poem, Kit Fryatt’s live work offers something of a remedy. Experimenting with personas, translations, updates of medieval lyrics, visual accompaniments, dramatic interpretations, and other devices, Fryatt’s performances seldom provide a single frame of reference. Her multifarious interests and activities as poet, performer, writer, critic, academic, editor, publisher, and much else allow her a range that bestows her work a complex cultural meshwork. Entertainment comes shrouded in mystery and ambivalence, in uncertainties and depreciations, and an intellectual intensity that forms the backbone of her practice.

With concrete or visual, sound, and, especially, forms of poetry that make use of conceptual writing strategies having remained stubbornly rare in Ireland, it’s mystifying how little attention has been paid to poets who have at one time or another adopted them. Evidence that, when prompted, writers here would be keen to engage more with experimental writing processes was seen during the UpStart collective’s poster campaign in the run-up to the February 2011 general election. Many of the text-based material erected then among the party political posters were clear examples of concrete or conceptual poetry. Context and medium were crucial; these were understood, by their authors and readers/viewers, as forms of slogans, with questions of politics, protest, public art, and temporariness vital to their acceptance as poetry.

As far as traditional publishing goes, Susan Connolly is one notable poet to have used the visual form consistently. Throughout The Sun-Artist[4]and in the second half of her previous book Forest Music,[5] the presentation of texts (or “pattern poems,” as Connolly calls them) referring to the landscapes and history of the town of Drogheda in starkly visual terms offers a fusion of the traditional and the avant-garde — a fascinating positioning of lyrical or sentimental content within experimental writing practices. The fact that instances of concrete poetry, in some cases typographical word- or text-art, have as their subject something steeped in Irish tradition renders them strange, almost grotesque. This aspect of Connolly’s work is extraordinary in its rarity among recent writing from Ireland. Discussions of it have been muted within Ireland, with criticism of the work left to reviewers based in Britain.

Susan Connolly, “Tara.”

Anamaría Crowe Serrano’s One Columbus Leap offers a hybrid of formal experimentation, language deconstruction, and political investigation. It reimagines the gestation of Christopher Columbus’s journey from Palos de la Frontera in 1492 to the New World and follows it to its conclusion and beyond, displaying an innovative use of language and an acute understanding of its function. It employs several tools including prose, lists, and typography. The extract below is taken from the section “27 Leagues due West, September 15, 1492.”

The sea can be calm flat rough choppy sparkling and infinitesimal shades of the spectrum. A spectacle of poisoned ink, marco polo murk, mercurial, uncatalogued voyage green and brittle, middle kingdom blue, buddah, tang, ming and warrior glaze, maille grey silver pearl and dashed hope celadon, crackle mutiny ash and fortress slate.

The sea. Favourable. Spectered. Quadrant algae-rhythm underhue. Astrolabe and sextant turf, welkin samphire cirrus winds. Auspicious, haruspicious and benevolent.[6]

One Columbus Leap was published by the Paris-born and now Luxembourg-based Corrupt Press, run by Dylan Harris — who while living in Dublin attempted, in partnership with Kit Fryatt, to vitalize the scene with a series of readings they dubbed Wurm im Apfel. Through their events, including the Wurmfest weekend festival in December 2009, they introduced poets such as Jaap Blonk and derek beaulieu to Dublin audiences. Since Harris left Dublin in 2010, Wurm im Apfel has been run solely by Fryatt. Harris’s book antwerp contains a poem — part of which was erected as a poster in Dublin’s Dawson Street during the UpStart campaign — that articulates concisely much of what’s being discussed here.

ierland is geen belgië


body bag bread
monoculture beer

organic routes
malicious utilities

civilian trap
horseless guards

neighbourhood fear
armoured islands

easy talk
uncommon games


the problem is it’s just one colour
now the colour is fine as a colour
but you might just stare at the black all night
and wish for the evening’s amber dawn[7]

Multilingualism and cosmopolitanism are strong features of Harris’s work; in antwerp there are poems “set” in Ireland, England, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. He writes in “new city”: “gotta stop / being English // Engels.” The chapbook that preceded it, also from Wurm Press, is titled europe.[8] Harris has lived around the continent and views both place and language through the illuminative lens of a serial explorer. Rarely, though, does place come before language. And he is comfortable across forms: he has published work that fuses poetry and photography, while his interest in computer programming bears an influence. An advocate of the Creative Commons, Harris seeks through his work as publisher of Corrupt Press to promote work in English from poets whose first language isn’t English or who live in non-Anglophone territories, aware of the aesthetic and conceptual richness that may result through approaching language or cultural entitlement at a slant. It’s a wonder this idea, championed by Beckett among many, still seems such a novelty.


an impositional narrative
what other kind

(Catherine Walsh, Optic Verve, A Commentary)

When networks of poets, publishers, editors, and critics start to resemble ghettos or exclusive clubs, then it’s time for a shakeup. Past experience suggests those operating in the margins who come to the attention of the mainstream are not before long lured into its workings. That the conditions for the emergence of a self-sustaining alternative, or for the growth of an ideology that resists such dichotomies, just don’t exist. In a poetry world as small as Ireland’s this has perhaps been especially the case. It’s an environment that presents those whose writing starts to outgrow the conditions that spawned it, but who don’t wish to compromise their practices, with a problem. Some of the most innovative writers are fleeing the country’s confined spaces, whether in intellectual or physical terms, to a large extent because of what they perceive as a lack of urgency in shifting this state of affairs. Not just a recent phenomenon, of course, but nevertheless worth remarking on after the huge wave of migration into Ireland over the past twenty years.

This is not unconnected from a sense of hierarchy that continues to dominate a general understanding of poetry as well as other aspects of public life — though outside influences and a new eagerness to question orthodoxies are beginning to throw things off course. It’s not a coincidence that most of the poets leading this change have minds and bodies present in more than one territory. The monoculture that brews poems arranged in neat lines and depicting closed systems, with their anecdotal, moralistic, sentimental, inward- or backward-looking tendencies, their preoccupations with homely things and things of home, their repeated use of specific metaphors and particular words — this monoculture is no longer sustainable. I’d argue that in these unstable, highly political, nationalism-infused times, it’s also rather dangerous. Just repatriating some kind of native perception into poetry is not enough; it cannot be expected to be of relevance or interest in the long run.

Driven by a few committed individuals, there begins to emerge a vital and disparate counter-scene that takes its tune from a newly honed political restlessness. Increasingly, writers who have entered the workings of “Irish poetry” from elsewhere are making their mark with hard-to-ignore activities and statements, while boundaries between poetic practices, genres, interests, and art forms are being — slowly — erased. Political writing does not only take the form of spoken word anthems or performance pieces looking for consensus. Despite much work that still relies on a traditional understanding of what a poem is or how it may come about, with a reluctance to experiment with processes and interrogate forms as well as the minutiae of language and how it’s employed persisting, a stirring has begun.



1. Catherine Walsh, Optic Verve: A Commentary (Exeter: Shearsman, 2009), 23.

2. Walsh, Astonished Birds: Cara, Jane, Bob and James (Limerick: HardPressed Poetry, 2012).

3. Kit Fryatt, Rain Down Can (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2012).

4. Susan Connolly, The Sun-Artist: A Book of Pattern Poems (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013).

5. Connolly, Forest Music (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009).

6. Anamaría Crowe Serrano, One Columbus Leap (Paris: Corrupt Press, 2011).

7. Dylan Harris, Antwerp (Dublin: Wurm Press, 2009), 56–57.

8. Harris, europe (Dublin: Wurm Press, 2008).

Andrée Chedid and the contradictions of translation

One is the first positive odd number, an integer not evenly divisible by two. Odd, from the Old Norse oddi, point of land, triangle, the odd point sticking out, not lining up. As Dr. Math explains, the words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.[1]

In English, the numeral 1 resembles the letter I. The picture I makes is the shape of first person, singular. When spoken, the shape of the mouth draws apart, one’s two lips separating in what looks to be either the start of a smile or one’s initial pain.

To write what translates as I in French requires two letters: j and e. Placed side by side, these letters compose je, which takes the place of I, but is not quite the same. The transaction is more approximation than equal exchange. If I were a mathematician, I might illustrate with equations:

j + e = je
j + e ≠ I
≈ I

If I were a linguist, I might note a difference of phonetics, how je ends with an open silence, a sound some might interpret as that which is possible, an invitation, infinite.

When spoken, the shape of je resembles the start of a kiss. I will not diagram that, not yet.


The one who is this American I first met the poet Andrée Chedid in France, a country to which neither of us is native but to where both of us were drawn. Born in 1920 in Egypt and of Lebanese descent, Chedid “was known to many in Paris as La dame des deux rives: the woman who came from the banks of two rivers, the Seine and the Nile. Raised in three languages — Arabic, English, and French —” Chedid lived in France from 1946 to the end of her life in 2011.[2]

Did I say she was alive when we met? If it is true that our work survives our deaths, I suppose Chedid was — and remains — very much alive. In her 1987 book, which was placed into my 2013 hands, Chedid felt to me as vivante as any living friend I made in France.

During those sixty years in which she made Paris her home, Chedid wrote the millions of words that would be published in over twenty collections of poetry, a dozen-odd novels, eight plays, nine children’s books, and seven books of short stories. One of the novels, Le Sixième Jour, was adapted for film.

In 2009, Chedid was appointed a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur. Then-president Sarkozy paid tribute to her as one of the “generation of cosmopolitan intellectuals who chose France as their adopted land after the war, helping bring about a literary renaissance in our country.”[3] The literary prizes awarded to Chedid by her adopted country number twenty-one, including the Prix Goncourt — awarded twice, once in 1979 and again in 2002 for her entire works of poetry.

The first of those works, On the Trails of My Fancy, was published in Cairo in 1943, shortly after Chedid completed a degree in journalism at the American University and married her life partner, physician Louis Chedid. This book was published in English under the pen name A. Lake, but when Chedid and I met, I could not yet read the language in which she published after that. Even so, I recognized it. And perhaps it recognized me, even as I was and was not who I was before.


« Tu présides à toute naissance » reads the line addressed to a face that might have been translated into English as “the first one,” but is not. All the translations I’ve seen render « Visage premier » as “Primal Face.” Primal, easily confused with primeval, resembles a shortened version of primordial. Webster’s English defines it as original, primitive, first in importance, primary.

In mathematics, a prime number is a positive integer that has exactly two positive integer factors: 1 and itself. Three is the first number that is both odd and prime.

When divided by two, an odd number will result in a fraction. In other words, something other than one of two categories, not either/or, one or the other, but a quality of something else entirely — some third entity, something inter, something both, something merged. “Primal face, you preside at every birth.”[4]


In 1965, the year I was born, Chedid published a collection titled Double-Pays —in English, Dual Country. It is in such a place where one branches into change. “When extended to the limit of all our lives / You will disappear on the crest of extreme metamorphosis.”

Chedid’s contemporary, Yves Bonnefoy, might call such a place “L’Arrière-pays,” the title of his 1972 pivotal work, sometimes translated as The Land Beyond (and sometimes not translated at all, as in the 2012 English translation by British poet Stephen Romer).[5]

Paul Ricoeur, another contemporary of Chedid, might liken such singular duality to translation itself, whereby we “approach the mysteries of a language that is full of life, and at the same time [give] an account of the phenomenon of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation.”[6]

Yet a third contemporary, Édouard Glissant, writes of this place as the one in which the dissolution of the self engenders mergence with the Other: “When the poet travels to the ends where there is no country, he opens with the more deserved relation, in that space of an absolute elsewhere in which each can attempt to reach [her].”[7]

For Chedid, such doubleness resides not only in two countries, Egypt and France, but two states of being: inner and outer, oneself and another, quotidian and dream. The dual country represents “the convergence of experience lived simultaneously on earth and in the psychic ailleurs, or elsewhere of the poem.” This is how translator Judy Cochran notes Chedid’s poetry working as it links personal experience with collective memory.[8]

In Chedid’s translated words, “I have felt, from a stable core, determined to pursue a route that flares into multiple paths, branching. From unity to complexity and back … All human adventure seems to me drawn between these two poles.”[9]

In the language of numbers, such a doubling might be drawn like this: [22 >], which is to say two-squared is greater than.


In Webster’s English, odd is first defined as being without a corresponding mate, left over after others are paired or grouped.

In Collins French, the first offering for odd is strange: bizarre, curieux (or -euse, if the odd one is female). As a number, odd is impair [which to an American ear sounds less than, <]. Also: left over; not of a set; the odd one out, l’exception, feminine.


In 1949, Chedid published her first collection of poetry in French, Textes pour une figure. One translation of figure is picture or diagram. Another is face. A figure de rhétorique is a figure of speech.

If I were a rhetorician, I might be using Roman numerals. Or maybe if I were a philosopher — say, Gaston Bachelard — who uses them in The Poetics of Reverie and lived in Paris during many of the same years as Chedid.[10] I am neither of these, though I do as the Romans do because I am not from here when I am in France. Je ne suis pas d’ici. When I am in France, I am from somewhere else, une étrangerère, a stranger, odd, curieuse. Collins might also translate my state as inconnue, meaning not known.

In France, there is a practice of publishing the photographs of authors on the spines of their books. I noticed this one day when looking for any book by Andrée Chedid and seeing only rows of male faces. Curious stranger, who are you looking for, one who looks like you? On this shelf of books, spines facing the world, where is a face that resembles your own visage premier?


I did not find Chedid in a bookshop, but in the library of a man whose face does indeed grace the cover of a book. But it was a woman who introduced us when asked who were among her favorite poets. She was a woman I met in France, a woman who raised children, works a day job, and reads and writes when she can. She spoke as little English as I did French, but she wrote down Chedid’s name in my little notebook/carnet. This interchange might be expressed as P:F, meaning the field P extends the field F.

This may also be written as P ≥ F.

In this case, F might stand for figure or face, or maybe femme. It might stand for foreign. It might be understood as friend. In this case, P is the initial of the woman’s first name.


We did not meet in translation. Even our introduction took place in another tongue. But three poems in the book that came to be placed into my hands spoke immediately as belonging to two countries at once: the language in which they were composed and the language of the stranger. The étrangère I was in France recognized these poems at once, even though she could not yet read them. Form was the bridge of recognition.

Valéry might explain its crossing: “What is ‘form’ for anyone else is ‘content’ for me.”[11]


In fact, we met by accident. Call it roundabout if you like, or maybe kismet. I had travelled to France in search of a poet who wrote there centuries before either Chedid or I arrived. Like both of us, however, Christine de Pizan was native to another land. Maybe she was waiting for at least one of us to find her.

Born in Venice in 1365, Christine was brought to Paris as a child after her father was summoned by the court to serve as an astrologer for King Charles V. It was in this court that the young Christine was educated at her father’s knee. After his death and that of her husband, Christine put this education to practical use, writing poems commissioned by royal patrons to secure the financial protection of her three small children, elderly mother, and a niece left in her care.

Between 1394 and 1418, Christine produced over forty manuscripts that are still being read and translated today.[12] It was in one of these translations that I first saw the poem that would bring me to Chedid.

In 1418, the violent events of the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war caused Christine to flee Paris and her public writing life for sanctuary at the Dominican abbey of St. Louis at Poissy, where she remained until her death in 1430. It is here that Christine wrote what scholars believe to be the first poem to relay the triumphant victory of Jeanne d’Arc at Orléans: Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc.

Le Ditié is one of two known poems in this period of an otherwise twelve-year silence. Its form takes the shape of brief, sequenced prose lyrics linked by Arabic numerals. It is the exact form of the poem I recognized in Chedid’s book, composed over 500 years later. It begins: Je, Christine.

Scholars believe it to be the last poem of Christine’s life. Did I say Christine was dead when we met? The last phrase of section 1 translates as: I begin now for the first time to laugh.


In his 1996 address, “Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness,” Ricoeur linked the complexities of translation to the title of Antoine Berman’s 1984 work, L’Épreuve de l’étranger: “These difficulties are accurately summarized in the term ‘test’ [épreuve], in the double sense of ‘ordeal’ [peine endurée] and ‘probation’: testing period, as we say, of a plan, of a desire or perhaps even of an urge, the urge to translate.”[13]

And so Christine begins to laugh her happiness in section 1, but she does not drop the challenge of happiness’ charge before arriving at its source. The poem must still be written, the effort endured. So too in translation, in which not only the translator is tested, but also the translated.

Chedid claimed épreuve as a “touchstone” word and translated it not as test but as proof, something more elastic, contingent, and enduring. She explains her choice of the word as the title of her 1983 collection Épreuves du vivant: “The resources of the word ‘proofs’ are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted? How can we fail to delve into this word so rich in exhortations, risks, pathways to be explored? Poetry reveals itself in our destinies by repeatedly making appeals to life; poetry is all at once the spur, the hope, and the proof of the Living.”[14]


As a member of the Living, the étrangère may share the desires, hopes, and tests of the native-born, but she is not to be entirely trusted, nor are any kin under the stranger’s purview. As Jane Hirshfield points out: “Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. They open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought.”[15]

If one were in Rome, Hirshfield notes, she might very well be thus accused: “Traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor).”

For the potential betrayal that resides in translation, Ricoeur proposes linguistic hospitality as a remedy: “I am inclined to favor entry through the foreign door, that is for sure … [W]ithout the test of the foreign, would we be sensitive to the strangeness of our own language? … [W]ithout that test, would we not be in danger of shutting ourselves away in the sourness of a monologue, alone with our books?”[16]

The mathematical symbol that resembles an 11 is used to indicate both parallel relationship and incomparability. It is by way of this symbol that a host might become both parallel to and incomparable with a traitor:


And it is in this very way of seeing oddness doubled that makes possible both the offering of an invitation and its acceptance: “Linguistic hospitality, therefore, is the act of inhabiting the word of the Other paralleled by the act of receiving the word of the Other into one’s own home, one’s own dwelling.”[17]


When I was in France, I had a hard time keeping track of the hour. The French use a twenty-four-hour clock, and I’m terrible at math.

Compound a lack of numerical facility with unfamiliar sound combinations, and you might imagine the cacophony of time in which I wandered my host city of Tours. A simple request could toss me into linguistic panic: À quelle heure? Did a correct response involve subtraction or addition? Was I to arrive at dinner at vingt heures quarante-cinq or vingt et un heures moins le quart? And what was a quart of time? Another way of saying quinze minutes, which translated to fifteen minutes and which still required some sort of equation for me to function in a socially acceptable manner?

If the proving grounds of this particular étrangère were to include math tests, perhaps it should be known that during my high school algebra exam, I was the one to faint out of her chair.

Midi kept me upright, centered. Smack dab in the middle of the day — shops closed, cafés open — I could look up in the noon-hour sky to know exactly what time it was. Avant, après, I could count from there. All at once circle cut by radius, midi offered a figure I could read. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes.


Little wonder Chedid’s “Au midi des contradictions” seemed to wave to me from its pages in the volume located finally in the library of the man with his photograph on the cover of at least one book. Not only was the structural form of the poem familiar, so too were the shapes of the words in the title: midi and contradiction.

If I were Walter Benjamin, I might designate such qualities as translatability, “which is not to say that … [certain works] be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.”[18]

If I were Jane Hirshfield, I might consider mystery as an accompaniment to form: “The act of writing is a making but also a following: of the mystery of source as it emerges into form. … Translation asks a similar leap of faith. It becomes possible only if we trust that poetry lives both in its words and beyond them, and that at least some portion of this ur-poem can cross the abyss between one verbal body and another.”[19]

It’s true I possessed the desire to find the poet adored by my new friend P, but that this desire would be realized in this particular form is a mystery that Chedid herself speaks to in explaining the genesis of the name of the book I now held in my hand:

For two collections, which cover forty years (1949–1991), I chose these two titles: Texts for a Poem and Poems for a Text, wanting to say that poetry, which forms one body with our existence, remains — in the same way as life — free, moving, never cordoned off. No key can open the mystery of one or the other.[20]

For several weeks I had been an odd one out, searching for faces I might call friend. Now that I held the first of these collections — Textes pour un poème — in my hand, mystery intermingled with desire to bring the text I could not yet read into a shape I could comprehend. In this case, Chedid’s title would prove absolutely correct: texts for a poem; or, more exactly, the act of constructing a text would bring me to the poem.

Where ⋈ indicates a natural joining:

desire ⋈ mystery ⋈ form ⋈ body ⋈ text ⋈ existence ⋈ poem


The form I held in my hand was not its first incarnation. As contextualized by translator Renée Linkhorn, “Au midi des contradictions” first appeared as part of a longer sequence titled Terre et Poésie, published separately in 1956 and later included in the 1972 collection Visage premier. Fifteen years later, it resurfaced in the book I now held, no doubt bearing the mark of its original face.[21]

In revising Terre et Poésie for the 1987 Textes pour un poème, Chedid divided its seventy-eight stanzas into three sections: “La poésie, le poème”; “Les vivants”; and “Au midi des contradictions.” For this last, Chedid settled on twenty-three sections. As Linkhorn explains, Chedid “eliminated a few passages and made minor stylistic changes in others.” What she did not do was change its primal form.


Nor did Chedid depart from the poem’s images, intrinsic to form as they find shape in words. In the words of Bachelard: “In their splendor, images effect a very simple communion of souls. Two vocabularies should be organized to study knowledge and poetry. But these vocabularies do not correspond. And it would be useless to compose dictionaries to translate from one language to the other. The language of the poets must be learned directly and very precisely like the language of the souls.”[22]

Even without a dictionary, the splendid images of the poem’s title had already placed me in the brilliant center of contradiction, a country that in its naming offered both the fullness of midday and a wide embrace of opposing forces. The soul who had gathered these images was one whose house I wanted to enter.

The man in whose library the book was found allowed me to take it from his house into my own. And there, in a cozy room in a country other than my own, I undertook a correspondence of language, which is to say: a correspondence of self and other, étrangère and native born, personal and collective. In the words of Chedid: “an inner freedom that defies definition.” She continues:

As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, we are “real and unreal,” and if we do not combine the real and the unreal, we are traumatized because we are incomplete. Through writing we bring together our body and our mind. Poetry is an act of love, and love gives you inspiration. This is not just love between two people, but universal love.[23]

This is what I was trying to do. But I did not know that then. Only later. For now, I set to work, constructing Chedid’s text in the language of my stranger’s house.


“Au midi des contradictions” resides on page 137 of Textes pour un poème; in her division of the longer sequence of which it was a part, Chedid ordered “Au midi” as the last of three sections. I examined again the title of the whole: “Terre et poésie.” Poésie seemed evident enough: poem or poetry. Terre, too, I thought meant earth, as in terra firma. I thought, too, of the English word, territory, its implications of ownership and invasion. But Collins relayed that terre can also be translated as soil, land, ground, that into which something is planted — in some contexts, a kind of clay.

In “Proofs of the Face,” Chedid asks: 

Quel visage
Viellant par-delà sa vue
Nous restitue
Quel visage
Surgi du fond des nôtres
Ancré dans l’argile
S’offre à l’horizon?

What face
Past vision
Stands in vigil
For our face
What face
Of our face
Feet of clay
Beholds the horizon

This particular translation, a beautiful one by Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner, was found in a book published in my own land, my own city, in fact — Los Angeles — by Green Integer Press. Introducing her work, the translators note:

Chedid’s uprooting and replanting in herself and her poetry a certain spirit she wishes to carry forward seems to us an excellent model of the translation process we experienced while working with her poems. More broadly, that process itself reflects her consistent realization that dialogue with the Other, that deliberate act of allowing oneself to be called into question, requires continual destruction and recreation of forms.[24]

Later I understood that this particular proof might be translated differently. But for now, wearing this face of the stranger, with the two words terre et poésie, I understood poetry — and by correspondence, translation — required a vigil, vision, risk. It required, too, and at once, a firm stance in the deep clay of one’s being and a generous offering to what lay beyond.


In “Au Midi des contradictions,” under the number 1:

Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.

First, there was something that was not, that was sure. Fatale I understood as death; mer recognized from the 1946 chanson, « La mer »; and forêt resembled the English word forest. Illustre — something with pictures, illustrated, or illustrating — an image. Certainly, the splendor of these images offered a risk I was willing to enter. My desire to follow the promise of their vision exceeded any fear of wandering into unknown, possibly unfriendly, territory. Somewhere beyond the sea … Collins lay before me, a friend in what Ricoeur names the “construction of the comparable.”[25]

As I searched the dictionary’s entries, this is the construction that emerged:

There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.

A construction built by comparing that which is at once opposite and of the same family, at once foreign and related. A poem wrought by a comparison of the incomparable, which is to say a poem translates the untranslatable.

Which is to say: “So there remains a final untranslatable that we discover through the construction of the comparable.”[26]

Which is to approach congruence, whose mathematical symbol parallels approximately equal.

≅ ∥ ≈

[See step one of this proof for a prior example: je ≈ I]

Which is to say I am and am not who I was before — the infinite possible, untranslatable.


This transformation is, likely, a natural function of inviting poetry into one’s house.

The mystery of it occurs in poems in one’s own language. And it occurs always in those poems that find their way to us across language and across time. That is why they find us. As Antoine Berman notes in Novalis’s 1797 letter to A. W. Schlegel:“One translates out of a love for the beautiful and for the literature of one’s home country. Translation is as much poetry as the creation of one’s own works — and more difficult, more rare. In the final analysis, all poetry is translation.”[27]

Chedid explains the phenomenon in a dialogue conducted in English in 1997:

Poetry is asking questions at the deepest level, an attempt to get to the bottom of things. The act of writing is a moment of purification, deployment, and self-condensation during which the writer is balanced on a thin wire strung between alpha and omega.[28]

In the language of Dr. Math, this might be represented as aleph-0:

{0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, …}

Where appears as an aleph, it represents an infinite cardinality: ℵ–0, which looks like No but means all, yes, everything.


In relaying the simultaneity of all and nothing that is poetry, Jane Hirshfield quotes Sung dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, as translated by Jonathan Chaves: “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.”[29]

In “Au midi des contradictions,” Chedid conveys the confluence of disappearance and presence as a function of love: « Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres » (Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings).[30]

It is this sort of unknotting that allows one to set out into the sojourn of the strange: « Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer » (Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea).

And it is only in such a remote place where the figure of love, and all she has to offer, can be pictured: « C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir » (Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future).


How to track that which has no material being? Cardinal numbers are for counting things, and, in the words of Dr. Math, the finite ones are “also great for ordering.” As anyone who has ever waited in a long line knows, sequencing is all: two plus zero might be understood as two, but if we are talking placement then 2 + 0 might just as well equal 20.

And if we were to extrapolate this concept of sequence to the alphabet, the order of two letters might mean the difference between nonsense and one who is able to venture into the world.

e + j = 0 – 1
j + e = je

Chedid might say this ordering of the world is a search je undertakes with another: « L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée » (The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time).

Ricoeur might liken such a search to “the arc of translation [that] epitomizes this journey from self through the other, reminding us of the irreducible finitude and contingency of all language.”[31]

In other words, one ventures as a stranger into the remote world and finds another. This can be oneself or an autre, perhaps a friend one brings back to her house, both strange and familiar.


And so it was one afternoon, I met a new friend — let’s call her S — in the land in which I was étrangère. In fact, we met in three places that day: S’s apartment, constructed sometime during the age of Christine de Pizan; my cozy rooms a few blocks away; and a small garden in the middle of a busy intersection of Tours, where we were living at the time. In none of these locations did we speak the same language, and yet the stories we shared proved absolutely otherwise.

We talked of our lives, the ones we had loved, and loved still, what it was to be a woman alone and attached in the world. We shared a table set with chocolate and tiny strawberries and un apératif. I set out also a small dish of pistachios, green flesh protected by white shells. I had found them in a neighborhood grocer and smiled when I read the package: Aux États-unis. Back in California, pistachios were a dime a dozen, but their voyage here cost their compatriot a tiny fortune. No matter — S and I both adored them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, S and I had been introduced by the man with his photograph on the cover of a book. As afternoon meandered into evening, I showed S the book of Chedid’s he had loaned me. S admitted to not reading much poetry, but when she regarded “Au Midi” she asked if she might borrow the book when I was finished. Somehow Chedid’s was a language we both understood. But this, too, was not surprising: the language was love.

There is a mathematical symbol for such occasions. It consists of three dots arranged as a triangle sometimes used in proofs before logical consequences; for example:

understanding ∴ love

Which is to say, understanding is a logical consequence of love. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Which is to say, the one who faints out of her chair during a high school math test might not be the best candidate to resolve une épreuve de l’étranger. Better to serve as a linguistic pistachio host.


I have no photographs of that afternoon, only a clear trace, an impression of the souvenir. It is proof enough, perhaps.

Chedid arranged “Au Midi des contradictions” using Arabic numerals as an ordering system, and how this form translates is as a sequence of related events, not random occurrences, but a series of uncovering. Each passage functions at once with its own integrity and as linked with the others that come before and after — as does each one of us, les vivants (the living), wherever we journey in the world. Each one can be counted and each one counts. And it is in this dual nature of counting that the fullness of the picture is revealed.

Imagine a constellation as dot-to-dot drawing. Or maybe imagine again the word proof, whose resources, Chedid reminds us, “are infinite. How can we not be reminded of photography, of images being inverted?” Imagine an image as it emerges on Polaroid film, snapped by a Land Camera in, say, 1956:

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.

It is an image that can be rendered into another form not by “an equivalence of meaning,” but only through a “construction through the comparable,” which is to say the imagination. Le dénué d’amour: equivocally speaking, Collins defines dénué as “lacking in, devoid of.” But, as the man with his photo on a book explains, such choices lack nuance. « Dénué implique quelque perte légère, comme un déshabillage — l’idée de nu, de pauvreté, et aussi de pureté (nudité — dénuement) »,which I translate to mean: “Le dénué involves a slight loss, as an undressing — the idea of nakedness, as in poverty, as well as purity (nudity — destitution).”[32] In Collins, the entry just above dénué is dénuder: to bare. Chedid’s construction seems to be one of adjective, noun, and verb.

And so I make my choice to construct this picture:

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.

To imagine love revealing us as it is revealed in turn. To imagine its baring and its being born. To imagine it being carried into the world, stripped pure, enduring and endured. Bare love, unadorned. I think these images are not outside the realm of what Chedid might have wanted for us to see. As for the circles, look up. Imagine the widening arc of a compass, radius extending beyond diameter. Imagine circles of les vivants being dawn together by le dénué d’amour. Imagine two lovers kissing in the midday sun —


— the brightness confusing dénuement with denouement, defined by Webster’s English as “the outcome of a complex sequence of events.”


Did I say I could look up to know the time of day? Did I suggest you do the same? Silly me, or maybe I am simply what the French would call une folle d’amour. One could not look up into the noonday sun, for to do so one would be blinded.

To see anything clearly — circles, lovers, the hour — one might look better to what Chedid names as “this extraordinary mystery” immersed in “all these fleeting moments with others that nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void”:[33]

« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

I keep French quotation marks because they look like double greater and lesser signs in reverse. They look like the shape of encompass. The words we use are pictures of the shapes a number makes. Such an equation might look like this:

love = life x mystery x ∞

As far as time goes, vingt-trois heures corresponds to eleven o’clock. The hour just before the last, but not. In American time, the eleventh hour is also idiomatic for the last possible moment, which might be taken to mean: the last hour and the fullest. Contradiction. Composed of two together and a third thing entirely — 2 + 3, sequenced one after another.

Imagine looking into the sun for a number such as that! Somewhere I can hear Christine’s je as she begins to laugh. Or maybe Chedid, constructing a bridge in the land beyond:

The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.

« Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions. »

[which means end of proof; in Latin: QED, or quod erat demonstrandum, originating from the Greek, analogous to hóper édei deîxai (ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι), meaning which had to be demonstrated]




In the Noon of Contradictions

Andrée Chedid
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956

Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2013



There is no wave more fatal than the sea; no tree more illustrious than the forest.


Neither silt nor star; we take after one & the other, both at once.

Opposites overrun our paths; our way is made by the slow pace of choice.


The angels alone are without shadow; their light is nothing to us.


Breath short, we walk by stopping places; the gaze impatient, we know not how to stay.

Move forward, recover joy, brave obstacles, perhaps defeat, then begin afresh: such present our possibilities.

Let us love the rays of a threatened sun; precious for us is the pond that retains its share of sky.


In our grown children quiver sailboats of impatience; our drawing back for their open passage gifts another birth.

Our place is no longer where their duel begins.


Beauty is never as beautiful as its image. By fair measure, ugliness is never as ugly.


Old age will come.

May she rise from a fierce earth to secure the living; a land of high grass provides the future.


Uncertain of our sources, what will we have to give over to the night?

Perhaps those faint lights that denounced the opaque, perhaps the blue trace of happiness is fleeing.


Our unknown realm is composed of thousands of roots, too tangled for the cutting of a single path.

There, the original flower risks its lifetime chance.


A feather of hope, and there we are left crop dusters skimming the avarice of time. A spot of shadow, and here we are captives of brambles that rivet the heart.


However much — as the tree born wise — we suspect the grimaces of destiny, we have not yet learned to smile at simple injuries of the heart.

The storm lays us down, opens the flesh of happiness.

But new water invents the mornings.


Rather the claws of the falcon than the trawl net of the sly.


May we shield those who failed us the whole mystery of their face. Injured and at fault, we are thereby judges, donning the bitter mask.

The weaknesses of others, when they scratch our tender skins, press us to deny all past accord. Turned toward possession, we are without vision and without pardon.


Sometimes absent — the other side of notice — , we leave as guaranteed bonds our ancestral features, reassuring as habits.

But the journey is not measured by distances; and the look back barters neither uncultivated regions nor impassioned lands.


The unreasonable is our fundamental flower. The reasons are our keys.


« Love is all of life » it is useless to claim other balances.

The baring of love draws circles everywhere whose center is not.


If love’s passion is like the wandering foam, nothing but born — swallowed by the sands — here she dies soon.

Only in the country beyond can she take shape; draw later, a future.


Those who love each other unknot, in their finest season, all moorings.

Strange & tender space. Intermingled, the rivers already sing the sea.


In spite of the numerous, loneliness reigns, & so perhaps are men calling without ever consenting — with green hearts — to listen.


The heart makes light at the absurdity. Her truth is in the noon of contradictions.


Without a companion who speaks our language, the spring is without mercy, the road unenchanted.

The waters of love yield words that confuse the impossible; but we must find them together & at the same time.


To look, to listen, they are a bit the same: passionate attention to the translucence of a friend.


Love is like death — that sails out of time — smoothing our brows, refining our faces.

At the edge of what is vast, the gaze no longer wanders; & the breath, accomplice of anguish and of days, finds at last her peace.




Au midi des contradictions

Andrée Chedid
[extrait de Terre et poésie, 1956]



Il n’y a pas de vague plus fatale que la mer; pas d’arbre plus illustre que la forêt.


Ni du limon, ni de l’étoile; nous tenons de l’un et l’autre à la fois.

Les contraires embroussaillent nos chemins; notre avance se réalise à la lente cadence du choix.


Seuls les anges sont privés d’ombre; leur lumière ne nous est rien.


Le souffle court, nous ne marchons que par étapes; le regard impatient, nous ne savons pas séjourner.

Avancer, reprendre joie, défier l’obstacle, peut-être le vaincre, puis aller de nouveau : tels sont nos possibles.

Aimons les rayons d’un soleil menacé; qu’il nous soit cher l’étang qui retient sa part de ciel.


En nos enfants grandis tressaillent les voiliers d’impatience. Nous écarter pour leur ouvrir passage, c’est leur faire don d’une autre naissance.

Notre place n’est plus où commence leur combat singulier.


Le beau n’est jamais aussi beau que son image. Par un juste rachat, le laid n’est jamais aussi laid.


Viendra la vieillesse.

Qu’elle surgisse d’une terre acharnée à se garder vivante; une terre d’herbe forte qui crédite le futur.


Incertains de nos sources, qu’aurons-nous à livrer à la nuit?

Peut-être ces lueurs qui dénoncèrent l’opaque, peut-être la trace bleue d’un bonheur qui fuit.


Notre domaine inconnu se compose de milliers de racines, trop enchevêtrées pour le coupant d’une seule route.

La fleur originelle y court chance de vie.


Un duvet d’espoir, et nous voilà parties à rase-mottes effleurant l’avarice du temps. Un grain d’ombre, et nous voici captifs des ronces qui rivent le cœur.


Nous avons beau — comme l’arbre qui est né sage — soupçonner les grimaces du destin, nous n’avons pas encore appris à sourire des simples blessures du cœur.

L’orage nous terrasse, entame la chair du bonheur.

Mais l’eau nouvelle s’invente des matins.


Plutôt les serres du faucon à la nasse des roués.


Sauvegardons à ceux qui nous ont failli le mystère entier de leur visage. Blessés et en cause, nous voici juges, les affublant du masque odieux.

Les faiblesses d’autrui, quand elles égratignent notre susceptible peau, nous poussent à renier tout un passé d’entente. Tournés vers la possession, nous sommes sans perspective et sans recours.


Parfois, absents — de l’autre côté du regard — , nous laissons en gage d’alliance nos traits de chair, rassurants comme l’habitude.

Mais le voyage ne se mesure pas aux distances; l’arrière-regard ne marchande ni ses régions incultes, ni sa lande passionnée.


La déraison est notre fleur capitale. Les raisons sont nos clefs.


« L’amour est toute la vie », il est vain de prétendre qu’il y a d’autres équilibres.

Le dénué d’amour trace partout des cercles dont le centre n’est pas.


Si la passion d’amour est semblable à l’errante écume, rien que de naître — engloutie par les sables — la voilà morte bientôt.

C’est uniquement dans l’arrière-pays qu’elle peut prendre substance; puiser, plus tard, un avenir.


Ceux qui s’aiment dénouent, en leur saison privilégiée, toutes les amarres.

Étrange et doux espace. S’entremêlant, les fleuves chantent déjà la mer.


Puisqu’en dépit du nombre la solitude règne, c’est peut-être que les hommes appellent sans jamais consentir — d’un cœur naissant — à écouter.


Le cœur se rit de l’absurde. Sa vérité est au midi des contradictions.


Dépourvu du compagnon qui parle notre langage, le printemps est sans clémence, la route décharmée.

L’eau d’amour donne les mots qui confondent l’impossible; mais il nous faut la trouver ensemble et pour la même durée.


Regarder, écouter, c’est un peu la même chose : une attention passionnée à la transparence de l’ami.


L’amour comme la mort — qui naviguent hors du temps — lissent nos fronts, affinent nos visages.

Au bord de ce qui est vaste, le regard n’erre plus; et le souffle, complice de l’angoisse et des jours, trouve enfin sa paix.

Andrée Chedid, “Au midi des contradictions,” in “Terre et poésie,”
Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.



1. The Math Forum @ Drexel/“Ask Dr. Math” is an online source hosted by Drexel University. Additional information about mathematical symbols found at Wikipedia’s “List of Mathematical Symbols.”

2. Marco Werman and Lisa Mullins, “Franco-Egyptian Poet Andrée Chedid Dies in Paris,” Public Radio International, February 8, 2011.

3. Ibid.

4.Andrée Chedid, Fugitive Suns: Selected Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Lynne Goodhart and Jon Wagner (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999), 59.

5. Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-Pays, trans. Stephen Romer (London: Seagull Books, 2012).

6. Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, introduction by Richard Kearney (London: Routledge, 2006), 24.

7. Édouard Glissant, Poetic Intention, trans. Nathalie Stephens (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 17.

8.Andrée Chedid, Selected Poems of Andrée Chedid, ed. Judy Cochran (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), viii.

9.Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Bettina Knapp, Andrée Chedid: Collection Monographique Rodopi en Littérature Française Contemporaine (Amsterdam: Rophie, 1984), epigraph.

10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, trans. Daniel Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

11. Paul Valéry, “A Poet’s Notebook,” in The Art of Poetry, ed. Jackson Matthews, trans. Denise Folliot (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 183.

12. See for example Nadia Margolis’s An Introduction to Christine de Pizan (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2011). Scholar Karen Green recently makes an excellent case for Christine taking refuge not at Poissy but in another region of France. Wherever she remained secluded in the years after 1418, Christine did not return to Paris or her public writing life before her death. See “Was Christine de Pizan at Poissy? 1418–1429?,” Medium Aevum 83, no. 1 (2014): 93–103. For an English translation of Le Dité de Jehanne d’Arc, see The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 252–262.

13. Ricoeur, On Translation, 3. The work to which Ricoeur refers is Antoine Berman’s L’épreuve de l’étranger, translated into English by S. Heyvaert as The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

14. “Proofs of the Title,” in The Prose and Poetry of Andrée Chedid, trans. Renée Linkhorn (Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1990), 92.

15. Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation,” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 55.

16. Ricoeur, On Translation, 20.

17. Ibid., xvi.

18. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1955), 71.

19. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

20. Andrée Chedid, qtd. in Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women, ed. and trans. Martin Sorrell (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), 64–65.

21. Andrée Chedid, Textes pour un poème: 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

22. Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, 15.

23. Chedid, interviewed by Martine Leca in “An Inner Freedom,” The UNESCO Courier 50, no. 11 (November 1977): 48–50.

24. Goodhart and Wagner, Fugitive Suns, 24–25.

25. Ricoeur, On Translation, 38.

26. Ibid.

27. Berman, The Experience of the Foreign, 105.

28. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”

29. Hirshfield, “The World Is Large,” 57.

30. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of “Au midi des contradictions” in this essay are by the author.

31. Ricoeur, On Translation, xix.

32. Email communication with Alain Borer, whose face appears on the cover of the novel Koba (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

33. Chedid, “An Inner Freedom.”

Alexander Vvedensky's 'The Soldier Ay Bee See'

The poetry of Alexander Vvedensky, cofounder of Russia’s last avant-garde group OBERIU, became available to Russian readers only a half-century after his death under arrest in 1941. Inheriting the utopian energies and ideas of the avant-garde, his work also provides the earliest example of its functioning after the collapse of the avant-garde project. His realization that the language of his time was indelibly compromised by outside power, and his success in coaxing truths out of such suspect material, make his experience particularly relevant for today.

English translations of Vvedensky’s late writings open my OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. This year, NYRB Poets put out An Invitation for Me to Think,a selection of Vvedensky’s poems that Matvei Yankelevich and I have translated. Under this short note you will find “The Soldier Ay Bee See,” which he composed in late 1937 or early 1938 for his newborn son.

Born in 1904 in Saint Petersburg, Vvedensky began to write poetry in the decade following the Russian Revolution when avant-garde art positioned itself as the laboratory of a new language for a new world. He and the young poets Daniil Kharms and Nikolai Zabolotsky led a group devoted to radical formal experimentation and inspired, to considerable extent, by the ideas and practices of Kazimir Malevich. They called their group OBERIU, an acronym for Association of Real Art (“real” here serving as the antonym of “realist”).

Founded in 1927, OBERIU folded three years later, a casualty of Stalin’s campaign to place cultural production under the management of the Soviet state, with propaganda as the end, and an idealized, easily legible mimeticism as the only permissible style. Vvedensky and Kharms spent the years 1931–1933 under various forms of internment for the inclusion of nonsense in, primarily, the children’s poetry they composed to make a living.

Their lives as poets in the Stalinist culture of the 1930s took place out of the public eye, and in the company of friends with whom they conducted conversations that were both philosophical and ludic. Holding terms, notions, tropes, and positions in common, they were developing a philosophy whose distrust of one-truth models was driven by disgust with the language of Soviet power. The work consisted in what Vvedensky called “the poetic critique of reason” (or else, of language), as well as phenomenological analyses, whimsical forays into scientific thinking, and, last but not least, the shared conceptual mythology of messengers, neighboring worlds, and the manifold nature of reality. Kharms and Vvedensky died after arrest by the panicking secret police during the German invasion of 1941.

Much of Vvedensky’s work has vanished. “The Soldier Ay Bee See” was preserved by his last wife. She said he sang their son to sleep with the song at the end of it. It starts with a lower-case letter and ends mid-word: a fragment, but perhaps by design rather than by accident of history.

“The Soldier Ay Bee See” is shockingly lyrical. It is about language, loneliness, and love. Also about how nothing fits: neither words to things, nor things to things, nor people to people. And so everything is alone, even everything that loves. Also, it is about time, the suddenness, totality, and irreversibility of temporal change.

In Russian the soldier is called Az Buki Vedi, the archaic names of the first three letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.Together, they mean something like “I know letters,” with the first-person singular present vedi also invoking the name of the author. Actually, it does more: it connects “Vvedensky” with the old verb vedeti, which in the Russian tradition links poetry and prophecy.

The soldier’s name is not the only word game of the original. “The shore of the sounding sea” that Ay Bee See walks on cites book IX of The Iliad, with its setting of authority in crisis. Conversely, in the next and more jarring sentence, “He had a main directing thought about nuts,” the double adjective “main directing” comes from the phrasebook of Stalinism, where it stands for top-down, centralized leadership, and means, literally, “fundamentally hand-guiding” (as in “directing the hand of ...”). Stalin famously called the Bolshevik Party “the main directing force in the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (1926). During industrialization, “directing” became the term of choice for what management did: for example, on October 29, 1937 Stalin raised a toast to the “directing workers … of the metal and coal industry,” meaning factory bosses.

Vvedensky renders the Stalinist expression “main directing” both apt and absurd in several ways. Modifying “thought” returns “directing” to its literal meaning, since thought governs the motion of one’s hand, especially for a writer. But Vvedensky takes the “directing” part into redundancy: “He walked deep in … the main directing him thought about nuts,” that is, deep in the thought that was his main one and that was directing him. The fact that the thought concerns something as unheroic as nuts (see below) subverts the metaphor of leadership even further. Whatever politics the poet might be intending here, his poetics are those of estrangement of language and from language. (Although Vvedensky knew Shklovsky and his concept of estrangement, his linguistic operations here are more redolent of Andrey Platonov, whom he did not know.)

Most of Vvedensky’s linguistic games, however, are more philosophical than immediately political. Take the combination which I rendered as “They intently ate.” The adverb that “intently” is translates from, pristal’no,describes the act of looking — it is the “intently” in “they looked intently at him.” It cannot describe the act of eating. The five fishermen who are intently “looking and/or eating” are named Andrey, Bandrey, Bendrey, Gandrey, and Kudedrey. Their daughters are named Lialya, Talya, Balya, Kialya, and Salya. The first member of each series is a common, even banal, name in Russian, but the rest are constructed by increasingly complex addition or substitution of elements. Although the names have a fairy-tale feel, they also evoke the iterative motion of machinery generating ever stranger results, growing more and more abstract and dysfunctional.

The seas likewise form a series of five: “sounding,” “black,” “caspian,” “mediterranean,” and “adriatic.” Their series starts with a common adjective (“sounding”), progresses to one that may be either common or proper (“black”), and then proceeds with three proper adjectives increasing in syllable count and lexical complexity. The seas are said to be uniform and interchangeable, at least inasmuch as it does not matter which one the fishermen sail. The fishermen are also more or less interchangeable. When four of them address Ay Bee See, the text clinches their uniformity by employing past-tense verbs in the singular: postuchal rather than postuchali. In English this violation of syntax is impossible: the verb is the same whether he knocked or they knocked. (I compensated by introducing a singular pronoun: “rapped his fist”).

Serial membership makes the fishermen, their daughters, and the seas they sail resemble logical constructs more than really existing objects. The soldier Ay Bee See lives in a world alienated by human reason and language. Human reason and language cannot convey particulars but operate only in general categories. They try to describe the world but keep contradicting and correcting themselves, producing ever more copia, ever more generalities. The painfully and/or risibly convoluted sentences, vainly gesturing to explain when the fishermen live at home and when they light candles, engage in excessive specification that provides nothing other than redundancy. Human reason and language are exhausted. The world, which consists only of particulars, eludes them. It plays Eurydice to their Orpheus.

Such a world cannot be held subject to laws, since the essence of law is, as Kant asserted, generality. Hence “The Soldier Ay Bee See” casts doubt on not only linguistic reference but also logical inference when it asks whether something called a “nut song” must be about nuts. The answer — “it is far from being so always, but in this case it follows” — renders each instance of “following” a unique event that has no obligation to repeat. This Hume-like gesture is characteristic not only of Vvedensky, but of his whole group, manifesting itself most clearly in Kharms’s treatment of numerical succession.[1]

The particular and the general again come to blows in the nut song itself. Admittedly, the soldier compares two species, and therefore two general constructs — the Brazil nut and the walnut (“American” and “Greek nut” in Russian, respectively). Yet it is an issue for Vvedensky and his friends that the procedure of comparison foregrounds commonality while eliding irreducible uniqueness, necessarily misconstruing the objects being compared. Hence Kharms, in a fragment that starts with “numbers are not bound by their order,” argues that no natural object is the same as any other. Therefore Ay Bee See’s song primarily concerns the inexhaustibility of difference, rather like the Mad Hatter’s riddle of the raven and the writing desk.

Finally, the soldier’s transformation into a father, although clearly autobiographical, is shaped by the same philosophical attitudes. In being irreducibly unique, every event is sundered from those before or after it, with linear time becoming yet another error of generalization. On the philosophical level, it is this discontinuity between what his friends called “intervals” that Vvedensky expressed in the abruptness of the soldier’s change that, even more strangely, reverses in the last line of the piece. On the psychological level, I take this experience of temporal absurdity to be a familiar one.

 Perhaps my readers have noted the correspondence between the philosophical tendencies briefly delineated here and the ’pataphysics invented by Alfred Jarry as “the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.” No direct influence of Jarry can be traced on Vvedensky and his friends; rather, they share a skepticism with respect to both scientific methodology and its rhetorical employment in putting forth truth claims. Such skepticism lends a political sting to even the more abstruse philosophical themes in the writings of Kharms and Vvedensky. In the situation where political power presents itself as the inevitable result of the laws of history, any critique of law, inevitability, or generality may be construed by an outside observer as critical of the regime. Although the arrests of Kharms and Vvedensky cannot be used as evidence that the critique was either intended or understood — plenty of perfectly loyal people were executed or perished in the camps — the authorities that were seeking out ideological resistance appear, in this case, to have found it.

An earlier draft of this translation appeared in A Public Space. Another has been included in An Invitation for Me to Think. This version introduces several new corrections.



1. Eugene Ostashevsky, “‘Numbers Are Not Bound by Order’: The Mathematical Play of Daniil Kharms and His Associates,” Slavic and East European Journal 57, no. 1 (2013): 28–48.

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko: Poet and photographer

When Arkadii Dragomoshchenko died in September 2012, his many friends, readers, admirers, and fellow poets expressed both immense sadness at the loss, which felt terrible and sudden, and a sense of wonder at his rich accomplishments. Few Russian poets, probably few poets anywhere, have left us a legacy of such intense cooperation across countries and continents. For weeks in late summer and early autumn, the Petersburg poet and critic Aleksandr Skidan posted favorite poems by Dragomoshchenko on Facebook, often daily. It was a powerful way of keeping him alive, of holding him in our imaginations and, at least figuratively, of holding him close.

Skidan also posted a number of Dragomoshchenko’s photographs, and he continued to add photographs after Arkadii died. The hope of keeping him alive was gone, but a different fantasy took its place: that there would be new work to discover, that a poet whose vast creative and intellectual energy had sustained so many people would, even after his death, continue to send forth new provocations to thought and to our own creative work.

It is the provocation to thought that stays with me as a defining trait of the work, and by “work” I mean to include poems and photographs. Both challenge us to reflect on how thoughts unfold, and both register the work of the mind in comparable ways. The poems and photographs become translations from the discourse of philosophy, which permeates Dragomoshchenko’s creative work in ways both obvious and barely visible. Making things visible is the work of photography, so I begin with the images as a way to set up readings of the poems. One poem is discussed here in detail, and readers will find fresh translations of others in the accompanying selection.

Dragomoshchenko is a familiar name to many readers of Jacket2, but perhaps it is still worth reminding ourselves of some basic biographical facts, particularly as they help us define his rather unusual position in the context of Russian poetry. He was born in Potsdam in 1946, studied at the Leningrad Institute for Theater, Music, and Film and, like many who came to the capital for their education, remained in the city his whole life. He participated in the poetry underground beginning in the late 1960s, but he also stood apart.[1] He won the first Andrei Belyi Prize, awarded in 1978, an extravagantly marginal event created by underground poets, but for prose (Viktor Kruvilin [1944–2001] won in poetry that year). The prize was awarded for his novel Disposition among Houses and Trees (Raspolozhenie sredi domov i derev’ev), circulated in typescript (“published” feels almost too grand a word for the carbon-copied pages) in 1978 as an “addendum” to the underground journal Chasy (Clock). A facsimile of the text is posted to a website for Chasy, and it is a thrill to find scanned images of those slightly blurred typed pages.

Dragomoshchenko went on to publish nine books of prose and poetry in Russian. His work has been translated into multiple languages, most prominently English, with the participation of American poets, particularly Lyn Hejinian. Their long-standing relationship of mutual translation and rich conversation is one of the most interesting facts of American-Russian poetic cooperation in the late twentieth century.[2]

His deep affinities with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were grounded in personal connections with the poets. His work resembles theirs in important ways: he rejects ideas of a unified, singular authorial voice; resists rhyme and meter as supreme poetic markers (and explores prose poetry); probes sensory experience and the workings of consciousness. That last is crucial: Dragomoshchenko tests philosophies of mind and phenomenology, alongside literary, cultural, and linguistic theories.[3]

His last book was Tavtologiia, which means Tautology; the previous book’s title was the word for Description.[4] These terms point to the role of abstraction, to the work of thinking in categories, in Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, and also, I believe, his photography. Early in his long poem To Xenia, Dragomoshchenko wrote “poetry is not a confession of love / to language and the beloved / but an inquiry” (“poeziia ne / priznan’e v liubvi ‘iazyku i vozliublennoi,’ / no doznanie”).[5] To say outright that poetry is not a confession of love is to distance this poem, which is presented as direct address, from traditional love poetry; but to say that it is not a confession of love for language is to reject poetic traditions, which could motivate a poet like Joseph Brodsky to say of poets, casually but also proudly, “we all work for the dictionary.”[6] For Dragomoshchenko, there is no such employer.[7] Poetry as inquiry is in a sense poetry as philosophy. How to understand the nature of that inquiry? My hypothesis is that it is an ontological inquiry, an inquiry into the nature of self and other, an inquiry into the place of the self in a world of otherness.

In emphasizing philosophy, I have in mind a particular strand of contemporary philosophy, led by the pioneering, enduring work of Stanley Cavell. He often described it as anti-philosophy. I follow Cavell into a contemplation of a kind of philosophy with affinities to Emerson, Thoreau, and especially Wittgenstein, who was important to Dragomoshchenko. It is a kind of philosophy associated with skepticism. Cavell described the skeptic as “craving the emptiness of language, as ridding himself of the responsibilities of meaning, as being drawn to annihilate externality or otherness.”[8] That “emptiness of language” is paradoxically the center of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, where it is often expressed by sudden changes of motif or theme, and thus by a kind of cognitive restlessness. Art, Cavell argues, shows us how to resist skepticism. The turn to art is thus ever a hopeful turn, and that intonation is also pervasive in Dragomoshchenko’s work — it is surely one reason for his huge body of work, and for his extensive correspondences with poets and others.[9] That paradox of hopeful skepticism was expressed well in an essay about Cavell by David Rodowick: skepticism “opens the possibility of once again being present to self or acknowledging how we may again become present to ourselves.”[10]

Dragomoshchenko searches out those moments when self-presence seems possible. He takes such tasks seriously, but he is not a systematic or consistent philosopher. He invokes philosophical terms and ideas, but not so as to build a system of truths. He circles around philosophical truths, he entertains them, living with them long enough to write a poem, and then he writes another poem. Or revises one — his changeability in this regard is legendary. That unfinalizability of creative work, that sense that all is always in process, is more readily clear in the poetry than in the photography, but even there, Dragomoshchenko is often seeking what Neil Hertz called, in another context, “figures for the unrepresentable.”[11] How to get that mass of sensation, impression, perception, and memory into visibility?

In photography, Dragomoshchenko often explored texture, as in the safety pin and netting that created the cover of Tavtologiia. Its gently draped, off-kilter bit of netting takes what might otherwise be the suggestion of a grid, a repeating intersection of horizontal and vertical lines, and makes instead a pattern of tiny square demarcations that never seem fully to straighten out.

the pin (tautology), © Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

The image is most marked by its small tear, an inverted v-shape that is repeated in the safety pin piercing the net, open but hanging securely. The safety pin could emblematize repair, the work of reconnecting torn bits of fabric such as the hole seen next to the pin. But it is open, the gesture of repair refused, and we might read that detail as Dragomoshchenko’s way of including, indeed praising, the element of flaw, or what he calls in his poetry “error.” He writes, for example, in the poem “Accidia” that “everything begins in an error of vision.”[12] The capacity to savor deviations and mistakes is consonant with the Formalists’ argument that poetic language is deformed language, and the photograph encourages such an argument in visual terms. Our eye is drawn down the image toward the pin, and then still further, traveling to the two horizontal white stripes that seem to ground the image, stabilizing its thin, flimsily material nature.

One can especially appreciate the airiness and insubstantiality of the netting when it is compared to another beautifully textured image, one that Dragomoshchenko called “dry snow.”

dry snow, © Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

What is most mysterious and beautiful about this image, to my eye, is its indeterminate solidity. The debris and leaves seem not so much stuck into hardened snow as paused on a surface of foam.

This spongy texture should be considered for its potential likeness to the workings of the mind. Elaine Scarry has written memorably about the capacity of verbal instruction to elicit mental images in us, and she emphasizes flowers as having just the right texture and thinness for easy representation.[13] Dragomoshchenko is after something more resistant to imagination, and when he gives us filmy surfaces, as in the next image, he often complicates our reception of them by introducing something almost inappropriate. Both these forms of insisting on the unexpected recur in the poems; the photographs can teach us to be better readers of such incongruities.

goodbye tissues, © Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

In this beautiful black tissue overlay, the allegory has less to do with the mind’s work than with an aesthetic principle, of stopped time in photography. The image obscures but also doubles time’s captured instant: the dim circle of a watch face at the bottom of the image creates a sense of time’s echoing reverberations, if not its repetitions. Here is time plus textile, time crumpled as the surface of the filmy blackness is crumpled, the differing shapes and designs of light caught at odd angles suggesting process, movement rather than any arrest of chronology.

Something similar happens in the filmy and reflective surfaces in this next image, although by a different method: here, the photograph separates out textile from glass, giving us two surfaces, one rippling and one smooth. Both let us “see through” to the outside.

dress / window, © Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

Like the image of dry snow, this photograph wants us to think about the uncertain nature of surfaces, which are layered here, soft against hard, flowing against flat. Like the safety pin and netting, the dress image seems stabilized by the horizontal bar of buildings at the bottom and the wires above them. Those telephone wires are duplicated by the lines of the wire hanger, a visual metonymy that surely pleased the poet. But the water on the window glass catches our attention more firmly if we look closely at the picture’s bottom. Similarly, the crossbar of the window, which should hold things firmly, is blurred at the center, softening its powers to stabilize. The dress itself, like the tissue surface over the watch, barely covers what is behind it, but we are looking at something far less abstract. The dress suggests not just a bit of fabric, but a person. The dress is held up to the light as a translucent shape of fabric that would envelop the body. The dress seems to measure the light against the absent person, whom it would clothe.[14]

Again, we confront the work of imagination, very much like Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book, with its account of language’s ability to get us to picture textures, folds, and depths. Dragomoshchenko’s photography, at least in these examples, displays not the impulse to use photography to catch something that is (Roland Barthes’s definition in Camera Lucida). Rather, it’s always a kind of second-order representation in the photograph, so that the photograph is the idea of the thing, the representation of our mind’s work. Each photograph becomes a mind’s assertion of its own reality.[15] Each photograph projects a world of the imagination, a play of surfaces and textures, of haptic as much as visual power. Photography is doing ontological work for this poet, asserting the pleasures and the spaces of being.

We are a long way from knowing in any depth the nature and role of place in Dragomoshchenko’s poetic world. It is no mere geographical space, that’s for sure, as we could tell from the title of his 2005 book, On the Shores of Unfounded River (Na beregakh iskliuchennoi reki). I want to look at one poem from that book. It begins with the assertion that there is no escaping the place where one is. That place is the place of the page and of the camera, which is to say there is no escaping who one is, a man who makes things hunched over a page, a man who pecks at letters, making poems, who has “all sorts of photo cameras.” Tellingly, nothing specifies the place of poems and cameras. Many signals of landscape description can be found in Dragomoshchenko’s poetry, but in this poem they are reduced to “shadows” and “green leaf.”

And it’s not like I can run off somewhere. First,

 I’m poring over the page this is written on.

 Second, all sorts of photo cameras, silver spoons, shadows.

 Letters that are pecked out among shadows, various …

 reflections even, just in case. Also I see

 a window. And I have a headache. And I have more of a headache.

 “Not like I can run off somewhere” becomes

 a kind of opera singing. Why should I even need to

 run off somewhere. Better my head split “in two.”

 To sing — better, without seeing anybody — something like “farewell”

 then, it’s faster and easier that way. And occasionally some wine

 and a green leaf. To feel it in my hands,

 and then light up a cigarette.


 Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky


A мне и не убежать никуда. Во-первых,

 рассматриваю страницу, на которой это написано.

 Во-вторых, разные фотокамеры, серебряные ложки, тени.

 Буквы, которые расклеваны между теней, разное …

 даже и отражение на всякий случай. Я вижу еще —

 окно. И у меня болит голова. И она болит сильнее.

 «Не убежать никуда» становится

 неким оперным пением. А мне и не нужно

 никуда убегать. Лучше — чтобы голова «пополам».

 И петь, а лучше никого не видеть, типа «прощай»

 тогда, — быстрее и легче. А иногда вина

 и зеленый лист. Подержать в руках,

 а потом зажечь сигарету. 


The poem invokes photography, not by means of ekphrasis, thus not by recreating or instructing us to think about a photograph, but by referring to “all sorts of photo cameras.” To draw attention to the machines that make pictures is to invoke the key aesthetic argument about photography, whether it is art at all because it relies on the work of the machine rather than the will of the artist.[16] But Dragomoshchenko takes the question of will elsewhere. These cameras deny agency no more than the implied keyboard that lets the poet peck out words. Neither can be escaped; both compel the poet toward creation. The silver spoons and shadows revive the possibility of ekphrasis, instructing us to imagine two elements of a photograph that would gleam and darken before us. The objects that make poems also make photographs: reflecting surfaces, more shadows, a window. The window points to an outside world, but the poet closes off any escape, closed in by the sense that he is locked inside his own head, a head he knows by its pain.

When words from the first line are repeated, like a refrain but in quotation marks, we realize that the poet is having a conversation with himself. The head splitting in two serves as an image for that internal conversation (we note how much, elsewhere, there is conversation and letter-writing in Dragomoshchenko’s work),[17] but here the chatter is lonely, a wish to say farewell to someone unseen. The desired speech act is in fact a song, an opera song.[18] It could be any aria, or it could be the famous aria that emphasizes that word “farewell” / “proshchai” — Lensky’s aria in Eugene Onegin.[19] For Dragomoshchenko, the specificity of the source is less important than the phenomenology of the event, and we would be well to remember the account of singing, especially of the aria, offered by Stanley Cavell, as conveying “the sense of being pressed or stretched between worlds.”[20] The poet fantasizes singing the perfect operatic word, farewell, out into dark nothingness, performing an act of valediction. We should resist the temptation to read this poem, published seven years before any sign of illness, as if Dragomoshchenko know we would be mourning him. Pain and death hover, but only as they always do when questions of being are contemplated.

The sung word is more than a distraction from an aching head, because its immediate force is to return the poet to himself, but to a self seen as if from afar. As we could have predicted from Cavell’s argument about skepticism, the poet is quickly and easily, as his own adverbs have it, brought to an immediate apprehension of his own being. He looks to his hands, to his accoutrements of wine and cigarettes, for which the hands seem almost to reach.[21] Not Keats’s living hand, reaching toward readers, insisting on the word’s supreme power to live on, but the poet’s reminder to himself of his own capacity for touch, the sensation that his photographs explore.

The poems published alongside this short essay will allow you to follow similar pathways, inspired by the photographs, through Dragomoshchenko’s poetry. In “Dreams Photographers Appear To,” the poet foregrounds the paradoxes of place, not unlike the evasions of “And it’s not like I can run off somewhere.” He locates the poem in a place of transit, a “Casablanca” of the movies but also of the mind. The prose poem “Agora” presents a different paradox, of cultural public space for conversation but also the space for an exchange of ideas. “Dreams Photographers Appear To” reaches across aesthetic boundaries, but “Agora” reaches across time, back to the ancient world where philosophy was born. Its strongest emblem of second-order representation is the photograph, a found object that is doubly distanced from its subject, lines of poetry. Nowhere more than here, the poems loop back and forth between the verbal and the visual and, like the photographs, they take up metaphors for translation — between art and philosophy, between cultural eras, between tangible realities and imagined myths. American readers will get another occasion soon to read more poems — I take this occasion to express my gratitude to Eugene Ostashevsky for sharing his knowledge of Dragomoshchenko with me, and for allowing some of the translations forthcoming in Endarkenment to appear here.[22]



1. Dragomoshchenko’s name turns up in histories of the famous Leninground Cafe Saigon, and his work appeared in the well-known samizdat journal Chasy, created by members of the Leningrad Underground, more on which see below. But he was more associated with the theory-oriented journal Kommentarii, and he was closely connected to Mitin zhurnal and its editor, Dmitrii Volchek.

2. Their connection informs two chapters of Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature, 1st ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). See also Jacob Edmond, “‘A Meaning Alliance’: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Lyn Hejinian’s Poetics of Translation,” Slavic and East European Journal 46, no. 3 (2002): 551–63.

3. Many L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were also engaged with issues of political critique and social justice; Dragomoshchenko rarely followed suit, in part because of the very different associations for political poetry in the heavily ideologized spheres of official Soviet poetry. But he did evince a concern for matters of power and hierarchy, often represented by his layering of linguistic registers and by the kind of “characters” fleetingly created in his work.

4. Description was also the title chosen by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova for their translated volume of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Description, trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova, 1st ed. (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sun & Moon Press, 1990). For the Russian books, see Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Tavtologiia: Stikhotvoreniia, Esse (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011). Also Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie (St. Petersburg: Gumanitarnaia Akademiia, 2000).

5. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Xenia, trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), 11; Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie, 150.

6. Joseph Brodsky, “The Condition We Call Exile,” in On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 33.

7. Thus, Dragomoshchenko can write, in a poem from Xenia, “To speak of poetry is to speak of nothing” / «govorit’ o poezii oznachaet govorit’ o nichto» (Dragomoshchenko, Xenia, 28; Dragomoshchenko, Opisanie, 162). That poem goes on to include a line that would make Brodsky roll over in his grave: “The words are repulsive” / “Slova otvratitel’ny” (30, 163).

8. Stanley Cavell, “Benjamin and Wittgenstein: Signals and Affinities,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (Winter 1999): 235–46, qtd. from 237.

9. Elena Fanailova had this quality in mind when she wrote, in response to Dragomoshchenko’s death, that he was a peerless educator («kak prosvetitel' ne imeet ravnykh»). See Fanailova, «Velichie smerti i ee zhe nichtozhnost',» Colta (September 13, 2012).

10. D. N. Rodowick, “Ethics in Film Philosophy (Cavell, Deleuze, Levinas),” nd, 3. It can be found on a site maintained by Rodowick.

11. Neil Hertz, “Some Words in George Eliot: Nullify, Neutral, Numb, Number,” George Eliot’s Pulse (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 284.

12. Dragomoshchenko, Description, 83. The citation comes from a poem dedicated to Hejinian. Dragomoshchenko only published the Russian version once, in an almanac: see Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, “Accidia,” in 25 Tverskoi Bul’var: Golosa Molodykh (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990), 216–21.

13. Scarry writes about literary texts, but her account of images’ suitability to mental representation is an apt approach to the photography work of a poet like Dragomoshchenko. I would argue that the same is true of poet and photographer Anna Glazova. See Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).

14. It bears mention that persons appear often in Dragomoshchenko’s photographs: actual persons — friends, acquaintances — and masks, substitute persons. For many more images, click here.

15. For a different approach to the poet’s photographs, and a much more detailed and sustained account of the work, see Dennis Ioffe, “Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Photography: A New Visuality and a Poetics of Metaphysical Inebriation,” Slavic and East European Journal 55, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 583–613.

16. That original argument, by Roger Scruton in 1981 and Kendall Walton in 1984, is compactly presented and challenged in Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen, “Introduction: Photography Between Art History and Philosophy,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 4 (Summer 2012): 679–94.

17. Another theme could be discussed here at length, signalled by Cavell’s work on companionship and ethical conversation. Both are, I believe, critically important in Dragomoshchenko’s writings, but I leave this topic for another occasion.

18. That operatic performance shows Dragomoshchenko doing something else that is typical of his poetry — enacting a translation, in this case between art forms, a translation of the voice from the conversational to the singing register. Note that the poet does not drift into praise of song as something beautiful, as we would find in Symbolist and post-Symbolist poems where music is the emblem of art’s highest achievements.

19. As noted by Julie Buckler, in response to an earlier version of this paper.

20. Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 144.

21. Those wine and cigarettes are typical signs of the writing life, shown often in the poet’s photographs. See Ioffe, “Dragomoshchenko’s Photography.”

22. Endarkenment: Selected Poems appeared in January 2014 from Wesleyan University Press.