Tadeusz Różewicz is the master of purifying poetry. When I read him, I wonder, why is it I like all this filth that sticks to me. Purity, though it seems simpler, in fact incapacitates; it’s hard to shape something with it. Różewicz shapes his sculptures with filth, then washes and smoothens until they look cast in bronze. Conversely Miłosz turns every purity into the purest shit. Must you always combine Miłosz with Różewicz? Yes.
Tadeusz Różewicz is the master. I read, I wonder, it sticks. Always?
Różewicz is. I read for filth.
Translated by Marit MacArthur
In the interview published last year in this magazine, Polish poet, writer, and dramatist Grzegorz Wróblewski refers to Różewicz as a “great poet” and “genuine innovator.” It would be accurate to say that much of his own poetry, which he has been writing since the early 1980s, builds on Różewicz’s example. In many of his poems Wróblewski adopts an austere and straightforward style. He shuns literary ornamentation and traditional forms (even though, unlike his predecessor, he usually follows the rules of punctuation and capitalization.) In terms of philosophical outlook, he gravitates toward existentialism that verges on nihilism. He writes about alienation, anxiety, failure of communication, loss of identity. Although he lacks Różewicz’s firsthand experience of war, he often records the violence and cruelty of the modern world. In this respect, we can consider him a reluctantly moral poet.
Take, for example, the early poem “Decline,” which mixes religious orthodoxy, political ideology, and apocalyptic motif in the form of public communiqué. Or two Copenhagen tableaux from the 1990s, “The Reading Room in Christianshavn” and “A Conspiracy,” which draw an uncomfortably thin line between normal and abnormal human behavior. A later poem “Ostrich Farm” echoes Różewicz’s 1947 classic “The Survivor”; eschewing autobiography, it laments the wholesale devaluation of life at the animal level. “Light in the Cathedral,” written in 2009, shows Wróblewski at his most personal. Yet even here the tone is restrained, to underscore the theme of isolation and misunderstanding.
Wróblewski pays direct homage to Różewicz in one of the prose poems included in Kopenhaga (Zephyr Press, 2013):
There is something strange and indecent about people who suddenly dispose of their libraries. Recently, the well-off R. appeared at my door with a carton of books; he is moving and there is no space for them in his new apartment (which is probably larger than the previous one). This is how Formy [(1958)] by Tadeusz Różewicz […] ended up in Christianshavn. Last sentence of the volume: Through all this din we walk toward silence, toward explanation.
Remarkable in itself, the line from Różewicz can also serve a useful motto by which to read much of Wróblewski’s own work. Echoing the tumult of contemporary civilization, as well as his personal turmoil, it searches for final stillness and clarity.
Face an inch from the earth, fingers
ground down clenched into it.
Crawling, try to push the
earth off me so I can stand
away from it.
— Clark Coolidge and Philip Guston, Baffling Means
the words from home for caves.
— Clark Coolidge, Mine: The One That Enters the Stories
Part I. The mouth of the cave
The Cave, The Crystal Text, A Geology, Keys to the Caverns, Mine: The One That Enters the Stories, Quartz Hearts, Smithsonian Depositions, Solution Passage: Even a brief survey of the titles of Clark Coolidge’s poetry collections reveals a sustained engagement with geological motifs, among which caves take pride of place. Extending this survey to individual poems, one finds similar themes recurring, for example, in “The Death of Floyd Collins,” “Machinations Calcite,” and “Up the Escarpment” from Coolidge’s first book, Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric (Lines / Aram Saroyan, 1966), in “The Caves” and “A Geology” from the recently published A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence Books, 2013), or in “Bowling for Agates” and “Down at Granny’s Cave” from 88 Sonnets (Fence Books, 2012).
While Coolidge’s work is more commonly read in the context of his musical practice or his connections to the visual arts, geological influences on the poetry have hardly gone unexamined. Coolidge himself frequently establishes this link, perhaps most notably in his 1978 lecture, “Arrangement.” In “Arrangement,” Coolidge tells of how he majored in geology for two years in college before becoming disenchanted with the way it “was changing from being a descriptive science to a real high-toned mathematical, geophysical, super-laboratory stress-and-strain type science.” Throughout the talk, Coolidge circles around the geological theme, discussing his early caving experiences at one point, and at another, recalling how Aram Saroyan once insightfully and somewhat erroneously characterized Coolidge’s poems as “cliffs of rock.” The story will be familiar to some, but it’s worth quoting again in this context. As Coolidge explains, Saroyan’s reading was predicated on “a tremendous misconception” because:
what he thought of it as, is that you look at the rock as just one thing. It’s a cliff, okay? You go do something else. The way I look at it, because I’ve had geological interests and some training, is that geologists read the rocks. They can read the layers … and sometimes there are very complicated arrangements of strata and faults and things, and they can read what came first even though it’s all messed up. So when Aram said “Your works are like cliffs of rock,” I thought, yeah, that’s right. They have that particular solid separate arrangement aspect and I read them, and I want people to read them.
Here, as elsewhere, Coolidge articulates a relationship between poetry and geophysical materials — as between poetics (the study of poetry) and geology (the study of earth) — that encompasses and exceeds both simile and metaphor. Not only do his poems share the quality of “solid separate arrangement” found in geophysical terrain and earth strata, but Coolidge also posits that both poem and terrain are legible or signifying structures. Poetry and cliffs are, in a sense, comparative literatures, which is why Coolidge’s background in geology makes him (vis-à-vis Saroyan) the better reader.
This radical yoking of poetics and geology, words and rocks, poems and caves, permeates Coolidge’s writing and thought. In Smithsonian Depositions, Coolidge appropriates and recasts Robert Smithson’s meditations on the homology of language and the geophysical from his 1968 art essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind,” writing: “Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void.” To be clear, it’s not simply that words are like rocks — for example, insofar as one could transfer properties of earth, such as hardness, brittleness, or dryness, etc., metaphorically to words. Rather, words and rocks relate on a structural level, and that structure is their common language. As Coolidge-via-Smithson puts it, both words and rocks contain (or conduct) a language; they are subject to “a syntax,” which is what makes an interrogative out of a group of words, or karst terrain out of limestone.
In “Arrangement,” Coolidge implicitly extends the parallelism between words and rocks to the activities of caving and writing. “In a cave,” he explains, “… [t]he rock has been cut by water, which has followed the line of least resistance, of softest rock. Layers of water have sunk down. There are levels. You’re following the result of a natural process. You go where it goes” (153). While Coolidge is strictly speaking of caving here, an implicit analogy links this anecdote to the the poem as a kind of “solution passage,” a form following “the line of least resistance” and carving its way through the language, as the poet, a sort of language-caver, wends his way through passages, dropping through semantic and structural “levels,” following sound and syntax, “[f]ace an inch from the earth, fingers / ground down clenched into it.”
Given the well-established context, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to learn that Coolidge’s speleophilia runs deep. Books like The Cave give glimpses of his technical training and expertise in caving, while lectures like “Arrangement” shed further light on his lifelong interest in geology and caves. (It is in “Arrangement,” for example, that Coolidge calls attention to his membership in the National Speleological Society.) And yet, despite his frequent recurrence to the subject, the extent of Coolidge’s involvement in caving has never been fully mapped.
If one were, however, to become curious about Coolidge’s caving exploits and his professional affiliation with the National Speleological Society (NSS) — “a group that keeps news between cavers moving, and exchange of maps and equipment and so on” — it wouldn’t take long to turn up something noteworthy: in particular, one might happen upon a small but unexpected parallel engagement in writing, as I did. Intrigued by the frequent allusions to caving in his poetry and lectures, and thinking I might plumb the depths of Coolidge’s involvement in this eccentric, paraprofessional sporting activity, I visited the NSS website and performed a site-wide search for “Clark Coolidge.” Sure enough, the search returned two items, both from an NSS publication called The Northeastern Caver: the first, an interview with Coolidge by editor-in-chief Chuck Porter, from December 2000; and the other, an article, “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” from May 1974.
Needless to say, The Northeastern Caver is not a title widely held in libraries. This quarterly newsletter, the official publication of the Northeastern Regional Organization (NRO) of the NSS, has been in continuous publication since 1969 and serves to connect Northeast caving communities through the exchange of caving information and culture. (The website copy reads: “THE NORTHEASTERN CAVER is the quarterly newsletter of the NRO, with the latest news on Northeastern caving developments. Issues run around thirty-four pages and are crammed full of articles on new and old cave discoveries, equipment and techniques, meetings and events, cave access details, maps, photos, cartoons and more.”) Though the newsletterproves difficult to find in local libraries, fortunately, editor Chuck Porter is quick to respond to Caver-related inquiries.
It was Porter who had interviewed Coolidge for the December 2000 issue of The Caver, and through our correspondence, I learned that in some circles Coolidge is known not for his poetry but for his low NSS number. Porter explained that he had never met Coolidge in person but had conducted the interview by mail. His interest in Coolidge stemmed from the fact that “he seemed to be an old-time caver, based on his low NSS number.” Porter added: “I am surprised to learn that he is a noted poet. I checked a few of his poems, and they are indeed filled with cave references. Something that gets in one’s blood,” he knowingly surmised, “as I’ve been caving since 1958.” In the course of our email exchange, Porter graciously sent me scans of the interview and Coolidge’s earlier article. Both were fascinating documents but particularly impressive was the 1974 article “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” which included Coolidge’s Knox Cave “sketch-map” from June 1956 (above).
Partly based on an old “mimeo-ed map” Coolidge had obtained from D. C. Robinson, the owner of Knox Cave (“an amazing old guy” who “loved to tell long rambling tales of early NY caving to anyone who’d listen”), Coolidge’s map is almost elegant: his line is sure, the lettering neat, and for a non-scientific map it is remarkably detailed. Coolidge fills the map with descriptive information relating to different cave formations (e.g. “Rimstone Pool,” “Iron-Stained Formations in Ceiling,” “Descending Crawl Blocked by Breakdown”) and vernacular names for various physical features, like “Salamander Crevice,” “Skeleton Passage,” “Fallen Giant,” and “Bat Row.” Dated to June, 1956, Coolidge’s “Sketch-Map” precedes his earliest published writings by nearly a decade and even antedates the period he identifies with his beginnings as a writer, in “Fall 1958–Summer 1959,” when he “began to scribble for [him]self.” Though it is written upon, the sketch-map is not exactly writing. The map is not yet a poem, but it points the way.
In a short essay in Stations #5, a special issue devoted to the poetry of Clark Coolidge, Charles Bernstein writes that “Coolidge’s poetry is ‘part art part limestone’” and that “the cave that recurs in his work, particularly in THE MAINTAINS, is the ‘word mine’ of language.” In “Coolidgean Ex-cavations,” Paul Stephens similarly considers the caves that recur throughout Coolidge’s oeuvre in terms of language: specifically, he sees them as sites “where language is embodied and made material.” As Stephens writes, “the Coolidgean cave is typically figured as a passageway … a site of communication, a place of writing … The cave is radically linguistic, a world of impacted grammar, of non-sequiturs.”
If the cave functions as a figure for language and, more particularly, for writing (the cave as a kind of Ur-site of inscription — of glyphs and drawings, like those found in the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France), Lytle Shaw contends that Coolidge’s poetry also at times enfolds the cave as a figure, figuring itself as cave through a kind of radical mimesis. Focusing on Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s collaborative long poem, The Cave, Shaw argues that
Coolidge and Mayer use the problem of describing a cave to construct a dialogic text that progressively circles back on its own incomplete or inadequate descriptive episodes, treating these as a datum or ground for a series of improvisations and transformations that eventually turns the book itself, in its various layers, into a textual cave.
Putting down travelogue-narrative deposits, epistolary and dialogic fragments along with sedimentations of Wittgenstein, Leibniz, Beckett, Melville, and Hawthorne — passing from the “Cave of Metonymy” to “Purgatory Again,” to the “Paradise of the Last Passage” — the poem continuously circles in on itself, “getting lost off the main passage,” unable to come to any point of closure, “like living in a dictionary.”
The radical imbrication of cave and language emerges in and through Coolidge’s poetics in various “regions” of the poetry, among which I would include: naming, lore, specialist language, descriptive technique, citation, and punning. The first three are related concepts, and I address them as a group; citation and punning are then reviewed, before I close with an exploration of descriptive technique as a point of convergence between caving and writing. Ultimately, I want to suggest that this early, lost document — the sketch-map of Knox Cave and the article in which it was found — provide the “Keys to the Caverns” of Coolidge’s poetics. In the map and in “Remembering Knox Cave in the 50’s,” the broad contours of Coolidge’s poetics have been sketched and many basic features of fifty years of writing to follow recorded in cartographic shorthand.
Part II. A “tite crawl”
In a letter to Paul Metcalf published in Stations #5, Coolidge describes the impetus for a recently written poem, In Virginia, which consists of a series of sentences lifted from the NSS publication, Caves of Virginia. As Coolidge explains:
It struck me that cavers (as any humans closely involved in a particular activity) have a special use of vocabulary & syntax. Thus, In Virginia as a possible presentation of that structure to those (writers I guess I’m thinking of particularly) who wouldn’t come into contact with it otherwise. America, a multi-dimensional grid overlay of many special languages, etc.
A language and culture grow up around caving; for Coolidge, it is already a poetics. The language is technical — there are geophysical formations like chimneys, rimstone pools, and gypsum flowers, and equipment like carbide lamps and pitons — but there’s also a demotic, colloquial language that builds around caves and caving (as evidenced in the names of caves, e.g. “Knox Cave” or “Mammoth Cave,” and the names of cave features, such as “Bat Row” or “Dumbbell Room” on the sketch-map above). Unlike the “hard” geophysical sciences Coolidge abandoned in school, speleology is still a descriptive science dependent on the fieldworker. The line between hobbyist and scientific cave explorer is porous; a spelunker might describe the “field” as shot through with fissures, runnels, and grikes.
In “Recalling Knox Cave in the 50’s,” Coolidge remarks that the “Names for rooms & passages” found on his sketch-map “are those in use at the time” (65). This is not, however, strictly true, as the map shows that Coolidge has taken the liberty of giving the name “Negley’s Lost Passage” to a truncated passage — “a continuation of the joint north of the Alabaster Room” that “soon pinched out in a clay fill obviously never disturbed in human history” (64). Negley, an old time caver who could be found “hanging around” the roller-skating rink on Robinson’s property was, as Coolidge recalled, “a small furtive man who liked to insinuate that he had found passages [in Knox Cave] unknown to other men.” His eponymous passage, which supposedly led to a spot where a person could “lie down … directly under the road and smoke cigarettes and listen to the cars go by,” was a piece of cave lore that Coolidge and his friends discredited, so much so that “even the barest mention of ‘Negley’s Lost Passage’” was “enough to bring [on] sardonic smiles, if not outright pandemonium laughter” (64). While most of the features on the Knox Cave sketch-map are likely the common names in use circa 1956, Coolidge’s participation in caving culture entailed his contribution to the stock of names and lore.
To a certain extent, exaggerated tales are the routine fare exchanged among cavers. Coolidge relates with some fondness how D. C. Robinson (or “Robbie,” as they called him) “told us of huge ‘lost’ rooms ‘just off the main cave’ big enough that ‘you could drive a hay wagon through ’em standing on top of the load with a pitchfork at arm’s length and still not touch the walls or ceiling.’” Rather than deriding such overstatements, Coolidge exclaims: “Robbie really had the caving spirit!” (62). In a sense, then, Coolidge’s commemoration is the perfect rejoinder to Negley’s yarn, as both only add to the cultural store belonging to cavers.
If the language of caves consists of compounded strata of vernacular, mythological, and specialist sociolects, for Coolidge, caves and language touch like the two sides of a leaf of paper (or, more aptly, like the two sides of a layer of sheet silicate) through punning and other kinds of associative sound-play. In a remarkable passage from Smithsonian Depositions, Coolidge performs the “linguistic turn” on a series of mineral substances, so that the names of minerals begin to dissolve into phrases in a manner that highlights the poetics of scientific naming and the material-sonic properties of words: “Biotite peels from Biot’s sheets … Garnet eats a granular pome ... Olivine shapes an olive suffix ... Prase holds mastery of the Greek leek ... Quartz, the German unknown ... Tourmaline’s, to the Sinhalese, both Carnelian and a suffix ... And Zircon, a silicate of jargon.” This euphonious “riffing” on minerals also reminds us that the cave is not only a “primal” site of writing but is also an exceptional acoustic space, wherein the contours of speech are amplified and deformed by echo, and where punning and wordplay may even emerge as effects of the landscape.
As acoustic spaces, caves also have notable musical properties. From the Gitano musicians and dancers who invented Flamenco in their Andalusian cave-homes to “The Stalacpipe Organ” in the Luray Caverns in Virginia, where Coolidge visited his first cave at age nine, caves function as both musical venue and instrument. Thus, Coolidge writes in The Cave: “Speleothems sing the best songs.” As acoustic space, writing surface, and painting support; as a cultural space constituted by certain activities and practices like exploration, surveying and abiding by NSS regulations, as well as circulating stories, news, and mythology; and as an activity around which a “special vocabulary & syntax” grows, it is arguably caves that constitute the binding thread in Coolidge’s diverse poetic influences.
One place where this convergence is most evident is in the “Notes” section of Coolidge’s book-length poem Quartz Hearts (This Press, 1978). Here, Coolidge explains that an account of “the work’s procession would note the following order of regions,” among which he includes: a number of paintings, writings, and musical pieces (scores and recordings) by famous artists; the mediation of major historical events (“Picasso dead” and “Watergate TV”); the personal influence of his four-year-old daughter; a book on caves in the Ozarks and Black Hills; and a list of caves (and other notable geological features) visited throughout the US, including “Lehman Caves, Arches Utah, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Onondaga Cave, Mammoth Cave, Grapevine Cave; [and] Luray Caverns.” In this leveling of citation, caves and the natural landscape assume a textual position, sandwiched between Hawthorne’s American Notebooks and news of Picasso’s death. Just as punning and wordplay enact a collapse of distance between caves as geophysical and linguistic/discursive sites, citational practices in Coolidge’s poems (not just in Quartz Hearts, but also in The Cave, Smithsonian Depositions, and A Book Beginning What, to a few name others) complicate categorical distinctions between language, media, and terrain — as well as between discrete entities or “things,” on the one hand, and processes and events on the other. Coolidge forges a speleological poetics (a speleopoiesis) through idiosyncratic citational practices, punning, and other forms of associative wordplay, through the mixed use of vernacular and specialized (technical) idioms, and through the circulation of folklore; but it is in the cultivation of descriptive technique that poetry and caving draw closest together.
Part III. Efflux and resurgence
The cave has a “flow,” its passages point directions, and the caver follows along bodily: “Tunnel pointing ahead seems to grab your head & shoot you further in”; “You’re following the result of a natural process. You go where it goes.” Traveling through a cave is a descriptive process — both in terms of the noticing and notating that gets done and in terms of the physical procession that inscribes a path through the cave. In each case, description is part of a responsive engagement with an environment: the cave leads; the caver answers. Exploring through touch, using the body as an instrument to assess the spatial contours of the cave — its directions, distances, breadths, and depths — the caver maneuvers, measures, translates, and negotiates his surroundings. There is “no light, not a photon, without artificials,” so the cave initiates the caver into a feeling sight: “Caves are lighthouses for the blind.”
The cave has a rhythm and a tempo: some caves are defined by “tight passages” and “long crawls,” some are damp, dank, and cold, some are cut wide through “golden limestone,” and some “pinch out” in muddy clay fills. Coolidge’s map of Knox Cave reflects the tempo of the cave, which reads like a poet’s narrative — fragmented, meandering, and inexactly patterned.
Caves have an impetus, a momentum. The caver follows this momentum — the cave’s discursus or discourse. As in speaking, which is a kind of movement in language, the caver is conducted through the cave’s prosody. The cave’s prose, however, is never prosaic because the cave is polysemous and, at the very least, diglossic. “Responsible cavers,” reads the NSS’s Guide to Responsible Caving, “know that every cave is two caves — the one you see entering and the one you see leaving.” The caver is instructed to leave a small cairn to mark the way, especially at forking passages and intersections, so as not to become lost on the return journey. In the cave, description must be continuous, not retrospective, as in recollection; “seeing” and “saying” have to happen simultaneously, as it is a kind of recording that facilitates and furthers exploration. In other words, to describe the cave is to inscribe it. Description becomes a technique for making a way or a course. It is a method of composing that steers between mimesis and diegesis, so that observation-oriented sensation folds forward immediately into poetic activity: as a map unfolds, through time, into a poetic terrain. “In the cave. No. In the room the lights brightened as the pages turned.”
1. Floyd Collins was a famous early-twentieth-century cave explorer who tragically died as a result of a caving accident in Sand Cave (Kentucky) in 1925. As D. S. Lawson notes in his review of A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, Collins’s entrapment in 1925 was one of the first “mass media” events of thetwentieth century, as the weeks-long rescue attempt was broadcast over nationwide radio. Lawson contends that A Book Beginning What opens with the phenomenon of “journalism as mass spectacle” that would “set a paradigm for the coverage of such later events as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Watergate Senate committee hearings, and even 9/11” (np). D. S. Lawson, “In Review: A Book Beginning What and Ending Away by Clark Coolidge.” The Volta, July 1, 2014.
2. As Kit Robinson explains in his afterword to A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, the “longprose” is “composed of 20–30 page sections … arranged in groups of four,” wherein the first section is organized around a particular “subject area,” the second section constitutes a “transition” to the third section, which relates to an “author,” and the fourth section synthesizes the preceding three parts (598). (See: Kit Robinson, “Clark Coolidge, October 15–21, 1979,” in A Book Beginning What and Ending Away [Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2012], 591–599.) Coolidge corroborates Robinson’s account of his method of composition in an interview with John Melillo from 2013 (6). (See: “Operating within the Irreducible: An Interview with Clark Coolidge,” by John Melillo, Poetry Project Newsletter 234 (February/March 2013), 6–11.) One might note the vaguely fugal structure of the longprose work; Coolidge has experimented with fugal form before, most notably in Polaroid.
6. “Karst is a term applied to terrain with distinctive landforms and underground drainage systems that form through the greater solubility in water of certain rock types, particularly limestone. Karst landscapes are sculpted largely by solution, other rock types largely by mechanical erosion. The word ‘karst’ has its origins in pre-Indo-European languages, from kar, meaning ‘rock’” (M. J. Simms, “Sedimentary Processes: Karst and Paleokarst,” in Encyclopedia of Geology, eds. Richard C. Selley, Robin Cocks, and Ian Plimer [Academic Press, 2005], 678–87). Karst terrain is highly generative of caves, which are formed by “solution passages” carving through the soluble rock. Coolidge titles a section of The Cave (his collaborative book with Bernadette Mayer) “KARSTARTS,” which can be read as “karst arts” with a pun on “car starts.” “Karst arts” would seem to refer to the book, as an artwork growing out of a trip to a karst terrain cave, Eldon’s Cave, but it might also refer to the cave or the karst terrain itself, which could be understood as a kind of geological artwork. On this particular pun, see also Lytle Shaw, Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014), 334–35, endnote 64.
9. WorldCat shows copies in three libraries only: at SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Albany, and the library at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I visited the AMNH Library to consult their collection, but it was incomplete, and they were missing the May 1974 issue (Vol. 5, Issue 5) of the Caver.
10. Since Coolidge joined the NSS in 1949 (see below), presumably he has been a Northeastern Caver subscriber for its entire run. As Coolidge reports, “The Northeastern Caver as actual newsletter is about to vanish, replaced by an on-line-only deal. I’ll miss it.” (letter to the author, September 2, 2015).
11. As Coolidge relates in his interview, “I was introduced to the NSS by Lydia Neubuck at Adirondack Natural Stone Bridge and Caverns, Pottersville, NY. She recommended me for an Associate membership when I was 10 years old, which is why I have such a low [NSS] number (1294).” “The Northeastern Caver Interviews Clark Coolidge, NSS 1294,” The Northeastern Caver 31, no.4 (December 2000): 136.
19. Paul Stephens, “Coolidgean Ex-Cavations: Landscape, Memory, and Masculinity in the 1970s Poetry of Clark Coolidge,” ThoughtMesh.
21. Drawings and paintings in the Lascaux cave were discovered in 1940 and are dated to circa 15,000 BCE. Those discovered in the Chauvet cave in 1994 have been dated to circa 30,000 BCE. See: Jean Clottes, “Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), last modified October 2002; and Laura Anne Tedesco, “Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, last modified October 2000.
24. Caves of Virginia is a 761-page volume documenting the results of the Virginia Cave Survey, an official NSS project directed by Henry H. Douglas and conducted between 1954 and 1965. Caves of Virginia published descriptions of all caves known to exist in the state of Virginia at that time. Alan Davies reports that “Coolidge’s method of writing IN VIRGINIA” consisted of “select[ing] the sentence he most like[d] of those containing the cave’s name” from each of the 1760 survey reports in Caves of Virginia (Davies, “From the Poetry Project Newsletter,” in Stations #5, 4). An excerpt of this poem was published in William Corbett’s short-lived mimeo magazine, The Boston Eagle, no. 3 (November 1974).
26. From the Greek prasios, meaning “leek-green,” and prason, meaning “leek.” (“prase, n.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., eds. Angus Stevenson and Christine Lindberg [New York: Oxford University Press, 2010]).
28. In literature, the echo-device exploits an ambiguity between sound (as natural) and language (as artificial), so that echo mimics language through partial, altered re-soundings of human speech. Elbridge Colby’s The Echo-Device in Literature (The New York Public Library, 1920) provides a broad survey of the use of echo in poetry and plays in English and other languages (Italian, French, German, Greek and Latin) through the nineteenth century. John Hollander’s The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (University of California Berkley Press, 1981) analyzes the use of echo, primarily in English literature, as a rhetorical figure.
30. Coolidge, The Cave, 24. A speleothem is a cave formation that results from mineral deposits. Stalagmites and stalactites are two kinds of speleothems. As Coolidge relates in “Arrangement,” the Stalacpipe Organ in the Luray Caverns consists of a series of “little electric hammers” set up next to various stalactites and connected to an organ console (152).
31. Coolidge’s references to the culture of caving frequently include nods to a handful of prominent cave explorers, including Bill Austin, Jim Dyer, and, most notably, Floyd Collins. In his 2000 interview with The Northeastern Caver, Coolidge relates his experiences caving with “Bill Austin himself” and “Jim Dyer himself,” emphasizing the near-legendary status of these figures (136). Floyd Collins, on the other hand, reaches mythological proportions in Coolidge’s work, appearing on the cover of Coolidge’s Own Face (as a kind of persona or red herring for the poet’s “own face”), and in numerous poems, perhaps most notably in The Cave, where “Floyd Collins” and “Samuel Beckett” engage in a dialogue on caving and writing, and in A Book Beginning What and Ending Away, where the story of Collins’s entrapment in Sand Cave, Kentucky commands the focus of the book’s first chapter, “The Caves.”
33. For example, Coolidge and Mayer’s The Cave might be read as a work of “process art,” as the text unfolds from an initial site-specific investigation and develops through subsequent correspondence between the authors. Lytle Shaw advances a reading of The Cave in the context of the site-specific work of Robert Smithson in Fieldworks (226–30). Tom Orange gives the extended context for Mayer and Coolidge’s collaboration and similarly connects The Cave to Coolidge’s interest in Smithson’s work in “Clark Coolidge in Context: A New American Poetry 1962–1978” (PhD thesis,University of Western Ontario, 2007), 244–48.
35. From The Cave: “Passage totally in marble now, banded in whorls of blue/black on white. A few dripstone formations, dark tan to yellowish flowstone & a few nub stalactites, kinda worn & hand-rubbed-looking, dropping from narrow alcoves above” (5).
I. Poetry and the mess
The notion that poetry has nothing to do with the “real world” of history and politics is a notion mostly held by a) some poets, and b) some people otherwise invested in poetry (critics/professors). The idea doesn’t come from the “real world” (however that might be artificially constructed), where I have never myself witnessed poetry being dismissed out of hand as an unwanted or alien intrusion. The “regulators” (Whitman) and “legislators” (Shelley) of poetry are poets and poetry critics, who too often second themselves from the mess of the material to an aesthetic realm of their own imagining (not that Whitman and Shelley are the main perpetrators of such an absenting, it should be noted). The mess, I have found, is always welcoming of poetry — if poetry comes, not for poetry’s sake, but for the sake of the mess itself.
It’s one thing to rail against the state, and state and corporate collusion, as life and planet-destroying forces bent on profit at any cost — to access the Blakean “voice of honest indignation,” and throw a little poetry along with the cobblestones flying at the edifices of exploitation. It’s another thing altogether to have the state and corporation stand together, arm and arm in a court of law, and read your railing back at you. Whatever I might think about the role of poetry in social movements, and I intend to offer a few thoughts on this topic here, my recent experiences have made it clear to me that the system of power and wealth structuring the messy “real world” has its own ideas about that role.
II. The Context
The context is a pipeline, and a proposal to replace said pipeline with a new pipeline carrying almost three times the amount of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, over 1150 kilometers to Burnaby and Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, where it is loaded onto supertankers.
The context is a Texas-based oil company — Kinder Morgan (founded by former Enron executive Richard Kinder) — trying to ram their proposal through the approval process against the wishes of local and affected communities along its route. In Burnaby, where I teach at Simon Fraser University, the proposal is opposed by the municipal government and over seventy percent of local residents. In Burnaby, the proposal is to bore the pipeline through Burnaby Mountain — a nature conservation area and park on top of which my university sits.
The context is a federal government in Canada diluting the environmental and community impact review process to next to nothing, so that fossil fuel projects receive rubber-stamp approval — a typically neoliberal government that has reduced its role to little more than a support mechanism for global capitalism.
The context is that British Columbia — across which the majority of the 1150-kilometer pipeline runs — is largely unceded First Nations territory. That is, territory still subject to Aboriginal Title, as no historical treaties ceded these territories to the colonizing power. The vast majority of Indigenous people, across whose territories the pipeline would cross, oppose the proposal.
The context is climate change and the desperate need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy — as quickly as we can possibly manage.
III. Some points along the way
In April 2014, I participated in a “People’s Procession” along the route of the existing pipeline in suburban Burnaby BC — through neighbourhoods, parks, along a golf course, past a school and a church the pipeline passes beneath, and over numerous small creeks the pipeline cuts under. I was a “marshal” for the street march (involving many hundreds of people — mainly local community residents), and at the rally at the end of the march, after several politicians, Indigenous leaders, and community leaders had spoken, I read a poem — “72 Theses Against Tar Sands Pipelines and the Continued Exploitation of Fossil Fuels.” After the rally we marched down to Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal, and I attached a copy of the poem to their gates, completing the Martin Luther/Wittenberg church door performance.
In early September, after Kinder Morgan contractors had entered the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and cut down thirteen trees to make way for seismic testing and helicopter air-drops — against the protestation of the City of Burnaby, in contravention of its city by-laws, and against the wishes of local First Nations who hold the title to the land — I, along with a number of others, took up a watch on the mountain. We were citizen rangers, awaiting the oil company’s return. We walked up the mountain, through the forest along the Gnomes Home Trail, or down the mountain, through the forest from the university. One September morning, sitting in the forest clearing (where bears, coyote, and deer were seen regularly), I wrote a short poem — “13 Lines for 13 Trees.”
A raven announces territory
As deep distancing echo
Gnomes are not seen
But they are evening
Shadow on mountain trails
Black bears were first to find
This cutting — they’ve left
A woolly presence in the clearing
Where thirteen trees lie
On forest floor and thirteen
Shadows still hold up the sky
Holding off the helicopter world
Dropping — oily — in their midst
It was morning. I walked up the mountain to the university, where I was scheduled to speak on a university radio station broadcast. I read the poem I had written, in the clearing, not an hour ago, and then posted it on my Facebook wall. The poem was immediately read, shared, commented on. It is not an especially remarkable poem; but every day there were small things happening that were building, piece by piece, into something larger, and that in-the-moment composition, performance, and distribution of a poem was one small thing (and one example amidst many, of poems embedded in the performance of activism); and there’s something about its momentariness, its direct, almost gestural participation in what was unfolding, that tells me something about poetry and social movements: it’s not so much the work itself that matters — it’s the context in which the work functions, the ways it circulates, how it is taken up, the small work of building capacity that it engages in.
Eventually, near the end of October, Kinder Morgan’s contractors returned, and we blocked them from working on the mountain. A barricade of found materials was built at the proposed work-site in the park, tents and tarps erected behind it. My role had become one of spokesperson, and I spent the day speaking to the media, as the small confrontation had turned into a national issue in Canada. The next day, sitting in my university office, I was served with court papers: an application for an injunction, and a civil suit. Kinder Morgan was suing me, and four other named defendants, for $5.6 million. The court case, naming me as some sort of “mastermind,” was built largely on words I had said and written. Over three days in court, I became quite tired of hearing my name and words read aloud.
IV. Underneath the poetry a description of how the barricade was made
Submissions for the plaintiff by Mr. Kaplan
I’m quite aware, My Lord, that these are not direct quotes from Mr. Collis. There is evidence I will take you through where he says these things directly. He’s posted a YouTube — I’ll call it interview, if you will, where much of what is here is confirmed. And so then Exhibit T is a website called Beating the Bounds, which is actually a website maintained by Mr. Collis, and so the first page is the “About” page where it references occasional notes, and then one of the notes posted is a note that on the website talks about the last barrel of oil on Burnaby Mountain.
Sometimes the world narrows to a very fine point, a certain slant of slight, the head of a needle you need to pass through. I don’t care right now about the National Energy Board of Canada, merely a corporate tool for shoehorning global energy projects into other people’s territories, a funnel for money from the public to the private sector. I don’t care about this or that court of law, appeals, and constitutional challenges. I don’t care about the drones, unmarked cars, or CSIS agents. I don’t even care that much about the rain.
And then flip over the page:
I care about the people who have come together to stand in the forest on a mountain in the path of a pipeline.
And he describes why he cares about them. And the next paragraph:
As has been our intention all along, we will occupy public land, a city park, and prevent Kinder Morgan from carrying out its destructive work, work opposed by local First Nations, opposed by the City of Burnaby, and opposed by the majority of Burnaby residents. While the case goes back and forth in the courts, our intention is to keep Kinder Morgan wrapped up dealing with us, either until a court somewhere sides with the people against this mega-corporation or until the NEB’s December 1 deadline for KM’s complete application.
He describes his views about protecting the local environment, and then on the bottom:
As barricades were assembled from garbage dumped down a hillside from a parking lot in Burnaby Mountain … an old rusted oil barrel was uncovered and rolled up the hill. It’s a talisman, a symbol of the old world we are trying to resist and change. It is, we hope, the last oil barrel that will have anything to do with this mountain forest.
So underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed.
V. Down by law
Territory shadows helicopters
Lines strewn shadows for
Lines of piped fire fused
Earth water stream bears
The dead singing sad songs
At abandoned mills still seen
As somebody’s capital no not
Some body but portfolio or like
How the absence of money can be
Bundled bought and sold as trees
Shadow those bodies not bodies
But ossifying metabolic structures housing
Actual liquid moments of arboreal bliss
Poets have been persecuted before — from Plato’s banishing them from his ideal republic to Lorca’s horrific murder during the Spanish Civil War. And while I “got off easy,” all things considered, the chill I felt and still feel is one that resonates through time because it is so often and specifically the state — in its role of protecting and facilitating the private accumulation of capital by an elite and dominant class — that the poet winds up facing in these moments. And it is all the more alienating when it takes the form of a wall of bureaucratic procedure and legalese (I had no idea what “tortious” meant before it began tripping, regularly, off the tongue of the oil company’s lawyer) — a situation in which everyone seems to be playing some inevitable and irresistible role in a play being directed from some unknown and Kafkaesque castle.
During the 1909 IWW-led Spokane Free Speech Fight, Edith Frenette, a radical about whom we know preciously little, was arrested and tried for disorderly conduct after singing “The Red Flag” in front of a school where many arrested men were being held. During her trial the chief of police and other officers testified that Frenette “acted as if she were drunk, that she had carried on in a disorderly manner on the streets since this trouble started, and one said she acted like ‘a lewd woman.’” Frenette recited “The Red Flag” by request of the court and did so “with such dramatic force that the Judge was horrified at its treasonable and unpatriotic sentiment.” Frenette was then sentenced to thirty days and a one-hundred-dollar fine.
In 1967, Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People” was read by the court and entered into evidence during his trial (for illegal possession of a firearm) in the wake of the Newark riots. While the contexts and stakes are entirely different — nothing about my situation is at all comparable to mid-1960s, or even present-day, systemic US racism, or the serious consequences Baraka faced (three years in jail) — nevertheless, structurally, in terms of the court’s function and the deployment of poetry as evidence, the similarities are there. Baraka’s poem was presented as evidence that he was “a participant in formulating a plot to ignite” the 1967 riots. So my “poem” was entered as evidence of my intentional and tortious behavior in encouraging people to ignore the legal system and blockade the construction of a pipeline.
Nothing I was involved in had the same stakes as these other examples — it was only money, after all, that I was on the hook for. But, as in the cases of Frenette and Baraka, what I’m curious about is the performance of a poem/song in the court, its reading there as the significant act, and its embedding, both in a discourse of “guilt” being constructed in a court of law, and in the political acts, in the “real world,” being condemned by that discourse.
VI. Embedded Poetry
Maybe this is a long and torturous road to get to a simple point about poetry and the political. I have, slowly, come to think of this nexus as less about the content of poetry — not even a matter of the form of poetry — so much as it is a question of distribution and reception. Poetry’s political function has more to do with the contexts in which it is performed, heard, and read. My work as both a poet and political activist/organizer has come to be one in which I imagine myself as an embedded poet: I write and perform poetry, yes, but I do so increasingly within the context of an active social movement (a grassroots climate justice movement, organized alongside and in collaboration with Indigenous land defenders attempting to stop new fossil fuel extraction on and infrastructure crossing their traditional lands). I am a “poet,” but that is inseparable from the work I do as an “activist,” and when I am writing and performing poetry I am doing so as part of an active social movement. My commitments, in writing, are less and less, specifically, to a community of poets and a literary history than they are to a community of resistance and a history of social struggles.
Ravens hone tree sound from
Gnomes home trail then
Coloured graphs of Fukushima
Tendrils crossing the Pacific warn
Each step helicopters us closer
To turn dumps to be ourselves
Decaying animals the market
Hands off every thing so let’s
Opt out of opting out again
And throw metallurgy after
Scant agency or renewed animality
Rattle cry bray at the dark edges
Afire and together as trees shadows
Another way of looking at this would be through the lens of “militant research.” The Argentinian research collective Colectivo Situaciones describes militant research as follows:
Militant research distances itself from those circuits of academic production — of course, neither opposing nor ignoring them. Far from disavowing or negating university research, it is a question of encouraging another relation with popular knowledges. While knowledges (conocimientos) produced by academia usually constitute a block linked to the market and to scientific discourse (scorning any other forms), what characterizes militant research is the quest for the points in which those knowledges can be composed with popular ones. Militant research attempts to work under alternative conditions, created by the collective itself and by the ties to counter power in which it is inscribed, pursuing its own efficacy in the production of knowledges useful to the struggles.
Militant research thus modifies its position: it tries to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves and, consequently, to recapture and disseminate the advances and productions of other social practices.
I take poetry to be a form of “research,” an important mode of counter knowledge, and I read it, in its social engagements, in just these terms: as part of a pursuit of “the production of knowledges useful to the struggles” and as an attempt “to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves.” I increasingly seek to produce a poetry that is written from within social movements, addressed to those engaged in social movements. This is not the entirety of what I write, and other projects and longer-term forms of poetic research continue to unfold within specifically literary communities and history — but I am increasingly experiencing the writing of poetry as being embedded in the work of social struggle, composed by and for “conditions created by the collective itself.”
VII. Riot dogs
I am simply writing here of and from my own experiences in collective action and organization — of being a poet engaged in a struggle taken up with many others where my presence as a poet is as welcome and no more and no less significant as the next person’s presence as a cook, say, or as a stonemason or whatever. The cook brings some delicious food they have made to the resistance camp early in the morning and it is welcomed and appreciated as food and as a gesture of solidarity. The stonemason gets serious about the barricade that is being built, and works on anchoring the corners of a canopy with some concrete blocks someone has found down in the gulley. They, queer calm and unassuming, are appreciated for their skill and solidarity. And I bring a poem, composed from the matrix of what we are all experiencing together, to read by the sacred fire Indigenous land defenders have built and maintain to cleanse the space — and later I post the poem on a blog or on the movement’s Facebook page — and it is appreciated and shared as a piece of writing and as an act of solidarity.
I am not saying that this is the only way anyone should write, and I am not saying it is the only way I write — though it is increasingly how and where I want to write. I am saying that poetry’s politics is not in some particular radical content, although I enjoy and engage with radical contents in poetry — and I am not saying poetry’s politics lies in a suitably radical form, though I continue to enjoy and engage with radical forms and most often find myself feeling sheepishly old-fashioned in my enjoyment of the dialectical interweavings of both form and content. I am saying that poetry’s politics is to be found in where we find poetry — in the communal spaces it becomes a part of, the struggles it has some currency in.
I am attracted to Commune Editions’ description of political poetry as a riot dog. A collective publishing venture out of Oakland California, Commune Editions suggests that the “poetry and other writings” they publish — work that is “antagonistic to capital and the state” — plays a role similar to the riot dogs of Athens, “accompanying” the “movement of the streets, providing support and strangeness, and perhaps, on occasion, biting the leg of a cop.” This way we don’t let our sense of the political potency of poetry get blown out of proportion: it’s nice that poems are there, “accompanying” the struggle. It’s also nice that some stray dogs have joined in (and some cooks and stonemasons, for that matter). All are simply things that build our capacity, individuals who add to that capacity with their words and actions.
But capacity-building is important, even fundamental, in so many ways. Howard Caygill, in his recent book On Resistance, suggests that resistance is — beyond any given specific act of resistance — really a process of continually building the capacity to resist. Resistance is focused on building the capacity to resist: on ensuring that resistant communities have and maintain the capacity to continue to resist.
Caygill also invokes Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness to note that, in the context of “an historical tendency towards the reification of life and consciousness” (Lukacs), the theory of resistance as capacity-building is “crucial to any attempt to defy the tendency.” The building of the capacity to resist “looks less to the possibility of changing consciousness than to identifying the sites, places, or moments where resistance to reification can emerge. These are moments of invention that explode in a culture dedicated to calculation — whether political invention in the Workers Councils or Soviets … or by leaps of artistic imagination beyond reification.”
The embedded poetry I write attempts little leaps of invention, seeks to give voice to resistant subjectivities, and so build the capacity of movements to resist. In doing so it performs the riot dog’s resistant defense of its territory, as well as its friendly tail-wagging solidarity — it brings its delicious meal to the resistance camp, or builds a solid structure others can count on in wind and rain. It’s no more and no less. It just happens to be what I can do. So I do it. I embed myself in the mess of real-world struggles — and write what I can from and for that place of resistance.
4. Colectivo Situaciones, “On the Researcher-Militant,” trans. Sebastian Touza, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, September 2003.
« Les vivants » (“The Living”) is the second sequence in the poetry triptych that comprises Andrée Chedid’s 1956 work, Terre et poésie (Earth and Poetry). Comprised of twenty lyrical sections, the poem gains force as might an aggregate of elements — water, air, fire, earth — without which the living cannot exist. In « Les vivants », the elemental realm provides not simply the material resources for human survival, but a means of regeneration through engaged interaction between the physical and imaginative worlds. For Chedid then, poetry becomes both means and creation, a kind of genesis story of its own making — what the ancient alchemists might name a fifth element: “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. It is a moment to ask questions about the purpose and the essence of things.”
If, as Yves Bonnefoy claims, translation is a creative act, then it too will ask such questions, not with the aim of replicating the poem in a new language (a foolhardy and unattainable act in any case), but of following an initial yearning, of “reliving the act which both gave rise to [the poem] and remains enmeshed in it.” With « Les vivants », the first question arises in translating the title, which also serves as the first two words of the poem. Reverso may confirm my English phrasing, but the question of creation remains to be asked: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the choice of “The Living”?
Others have asked this question. This repetition of inquiry seems right of any poem that compels us to translation. A poem may require solitude for its creation, but poetry is not a solitary endeavor, either in the language of its genesis or in the language of its reception. As Bonnefoy notes: “At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence. … and what we gain [through translation, however lacking] is the very thing we cannot grasp: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.”
In the language of Chedid’s poetry, a language she adopted after emigrating from Cairo to Paris as a young woman, the words les vivants serve not only as title to the 1956 sequence, but throughout Chedid’s work, an oeuvre spanning sixty-plus years. For Chedid, poetry is not separated from life but woven into it; or, perhaps even more fitting, made of the same fabric. Of her choice to title two collections encompassing forty of those years, Textes pour un poème (1949–1970) and Poèmes pour un texte (1970–1991), Chedid explains: “I wanted to say that poetry which forms one body with our existence remains — in the same way as life — free, mobile, never cordoned off. No key can open the door onto the mystery of either.”
And so the question remains, a kind of stubborn first step of the scientific method: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the translation of « Les vivants » to “The Living”? What is lost? What is gained? Translating Chedid’s 1983 Épreuves du vivant into English, Rene Linkhorn attempts a response:
… the “vivant” of Chedid’s title is not “life” and is not “person alive” and definitely not “the lively.” This “vivant” — here a substantive — is not an everyday word; it is generally encountered in scientific or philosophical contexts to signify — impersonally — that which is “endowed with life,” with a broader meaning than simply “living things.” In fact “vivant” comes to signify the very essence of life, the enigmatic phenomenon that makes matter break away from inertia.
Such a response speaks not to what is lost and what is gained so much as to the dynamism generated by an intentional expenditure of energy, which is to say, an imaginative engagement with the world, both material and dream.
The imagination of matter and the frisson created through an interaction of reality and reverie are subjects Gaston Bachelard explores in his series of book-length essays originally published during the years 1938–1948: The Psychoanalysis of Fire; Water and Dreams; Air and Dreams; Earth and Reveries of Repose; and Earth and Reveries of Will. In her forward to the last of these, Joanne Stroud articulates “the crux of [Bachelard’s hypothesis] — matter engages our imagination and summons the personhood of each of us, providing the will to action. We are not … passive in our engagement with matter. Imagination is supercharged by interaction with the material world.” Stroud relays that Bachelard was a teacher of high-school physics and chemistry before earning a doctorate at the age of forty-three. He went on to be appointed to the chair of philosophy and science at the Sorbonne and to be remembered as one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century. Bachelard called himself “a philosopher who loves only that in life which fills him with wonder.”
The span of Bachelard’s life (1884–1962) overlapped with Chedid’s (1920–2011), and so did his poetics. If an interdependence of imagination and will were key for Bachelard, so too was an interdependence of writing and life for Chedid. In recalling how his ideas paralleled her own, Chedid commented:
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. When I go out into the street, when I mingle with the crowds, I love others. I observe them. I immerse myself in them. … All these fleeting moments with others nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void …
In fact, the collective is exactly where “The Living” begins, and Chedid locates us there in the first line — “Les poètes sont de la cité(The poets are of the city)” — to propose something of what poetry might offer, something we’ve lost in the process of constructing a civilization together. If such a proposition might be termed a poetical hypothesis, this one suggests that undertaking the imaginative example of the poet will help us recover the full tapestry of our lives. As Chedid offers in a 1995 interview: “In reply to the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Saint-John Perse said: ‘The poet’s answer will invariably be the shortest: To live better.’”
While no error of even rudimentary translation can mistake this initial location, this cityof “The Living” is notable not for what it includes but for what is left out. No street is described, no building, no park bench. Rather, this city is one upon which the reader might imagine her own landmarks, and in this way become an active participant in recovering one “very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.”
And so the procedure of imagination is not one absence but of presence. Chedid’s poets of “The Living” do not “escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary”; rather, they show us a means of being, fully integrated into the elements that compriseboth that world and the imaginary. In this way, her poet is not unlike Bachelard’s: “A true poet is not satisfied with this escapist imagination. He [or she] wants the imagination to be a journey. Every poet must give us [the] invitation to journey. Through this invitation, our inner being gets a gentle push, which throws off balance and sets in motion a healthy, really dynamic reverie.” Such a procedure, naturally, involves movement.
Where Chedid takes us, almost immediately, is to the threshold of death. This is not a death from which to recoil, however, no straw-man ghost called forth to validate the superiority of life. No, the reason for this underworld pit stop is so that we might gain nourishment from the visit, that we might learn to cherish death “as we do life”: in other words, as we go about living. How poetry accomplishes such a task is by unmasking those elements that deserve reverent attention: the inorganic compounds that comprise our living, breathing beings. In this way, too, poetry itself comes into being: “Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard (To exist, poetry awaits only our observance).”
Any valid analysis, however, would require an understanding of exactly what merits our observation. As a sort of scientist of poetics, Bachelard offers the following for examination: “[Those] … images [that] are completely new, alive with the life of living language. We experience them as actively lyrical through their ability to renew our hearts and souls. These literary images add hope to a feeling, a special vigor to our decision to be a person, even have a tonic effect on our physique.” The alchemists were after similar curatives in their materials, and while Chedid’s aims for her images are more in keeping with Bachelard’s, their transformative power is no less potent than an alchemy that turns metal into gold — and no less impossible. And yet, as Chedid’s poets of “The Living” urge, it is to the “Zone of the impossible from where we must return.” Only in such a laboratory will we uncover imaginative data worthy of analysis: “The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.”
This is an imperfect translation. Not for lack of effort, but nonetheless this version falls short. If, however, as Bonnefoy claims about his own failings to adequately translate the poem of one language into another, “I will be reproached for impoverishing the text,” then so be it: after all reproach is not far from rapprochement, and in the language of the alchemists, a translation is not a rendering but a transformation. For that kind of alchemy, we must travel to the source. We must drink from poetry itself: “She is the water of our second thirst.” The first was that desire by which we entered into the material world: “Perpetual fever that burns to become.”
And if, on this journey, we find ourselves impetuous visitors in a forest where a great stag speeds, indistinguishable from the rustling leaves that formulate the oxygen we breathe? The alchemists might say we were in the presence of Mercurius, “the transformative intermediary soul substance”; that we were on a “pilgrimage or initiation path … circuitous, indirect, constantly shifting direction, or, like the deer, disappearing altogether.” How to respond to such ephemeral presence? As would the forest: “adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.” All things are made of contingency; only our effort fixes them into form, sometimes called gold, sometimes called language. This is how, as Bachelard explains, “poetic language, when it is used to translate material images, becomes a veritable incantation to the forces of energy.”
“In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.”
This, too, is an imperfect translation. There is no fonderie in Chedid’s stanza 15, only the action of making: Tandis que se fait le poème. … Which is to say, while the poem is being made; which might also be to say, the poem forges its own making as it travels between the imaginative and material worlds.Perhaps. Mercurius. “The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.” Even the language in which the poem is made does not promise a straightforward flight. My aim in translating « Les vivants » is to transport it into English as clearly as language (and my skills) will permit, and yet the poem itself cautions: “Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?”
The miracle of writing, perhaps, which Chedid likens to “the act of love, which amplifies, sublimates life and gives it a luminous tension. It puts me in step with this inner vibration, this desire that I feel deep within me. Without it, purely material life is incomplete.” But what miracle transmutes writing into love? The miracle of presence. In the case of translation, an initial hypothesis confirmed: the presence of “the very thing we cannot grasp or hold: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.” In the case of poetry, the presence of other humans, to whom “the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport and the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.”
And if those others should ask, in any language, “What existence … is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?”
Chedid would not place the alchemist’s stone in our hand; even if it existed, it would not provide adequate conclusion for this imagined scientific method, for its transformative powers would preclude those created by our own imaging. Rather, she would place us at the edge of the world, fire on the horizon, a “reality, untouched since the morning of men.” She would place us as one element among others, and she would ask us to consider the element on which we stand: “this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?” With the quickness of Mercurius, she would then place us within the sails of poetry itself. On that boat — made (perhaps) of that same forest wood born from an ancient mixture of fire, air, earth, and water — she would urge us forward: “Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.” And by the transformative power of that image, and the language that compels it, at least two of us will.
That Chedid is no longer living does not make her watch any less present. The work she leaves proves the truth of her hypothesis: “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.” And if I (admittedly, irrationally) miss the woman I never met, I have only to read that element of hers that remains present, her words:
My work is a step forward in this world, not in the hereafter. It is this side of our existence that concerns me. We keep on asking ourselves the same questions — where have we come from? where are we going? — and no philosopher, scientist, or poet has ever answered them satisfactorily. I am amazed every day that I exist as a physical being through this combination of molecules that I am made of. … I wonder how this factory of being with all its complicated mechanisms has managed to take shape. This extraordinary mystery is enough for me.
And still the source remains. If it is no longer possible to ask directly — for Chedid spoke English and could have responded without a linguistic intermediary — if she would have preferred sunbeam to sunlight, the thirst for her poetry nonetheless leads me to the foundry, leaves me at “the source, a beginning rich with possibility.” In the language of hypothesis, If poetry is a kind of alchemy, then translation “is merely poetry re-begun.”
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956
Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2015
The poets are of the city.
It is false that they escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary; rather, they recover one very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.
The poets have the face of the living.
They undertake their century, its duties; but not its formulations.
Lend them trust.
Their cause — reconsidered at every dawn — cannot be altered, is that of the always human.
The desire to create, is it not first of all challenges to death and passion to last?
Later — setting free other prospects — the poet’s opening revives us, tames disquiet, and, leading us to the threshold of that death she unmasks, teaches us to cherish it as we do life.
Poetry is natural.
She is the water of our second thirst.
It is vital for the poet to raise echoes, and to know it.
No one better accords with solitude; but also, no one has more need that her land be visited.
To exist, poetry awaits only our observance.
Despite days of obligation, the poet safeguardsthe passage of available. From this essential place, poetry claims itself.
Living too much on the other side of appearances, we awaken sometimes in the margin; spectator to our own pageant. All seems empty then that surges not from the depths and haunts not the source.
Zone of the impossible from where we must return.
Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?
The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.
The outermost — haunt of the poet — resides beyond limits; still, without final hope, she continues to ride on.
Taking the route towards the horizonless earth, each sunrise transforms the daily land, the unmarked: ivy on her free skin, hindrance at the heart.
If the poem’s call does not constrain, that poetry is from a breath.
Perpetual fever that burns to become.
The form — unless a science experiment is wished — must not foretell the poem; but order itself afterward to fit the momentum.
As the forest — indistinguishable & rustling about the great stag who speeds there — must welcome the impetuous visitor; then adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.
In her ploughed earth, the poet — for a time — calms in the cry it urges, poem in her night.
Before her lined face, the poet knows old age; she has lived death well before dying.
Still, daybreak kindles new life, gift of the phoenix —beautiful, fragile bird — in accordance with mornings.
The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.
Experience suggests the plunge foretells the rise. But, in darkest distress, this reminder is meager rescue.
In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.
The illusion is in motion, the earth a spangled constellation. The unspoken will find — this time — in the verb its rightful transformation.
Alas! At the scene of the poem, soon the sober return. The torch flames to ash, the escape artist collides with the walls. Where then do certainties drown?
It is to others the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport & the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.
What existence, you say, is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?
Your reasons will not suffice.
Even in remote countries, the poet cannot become attached to trails. Take away everything but that thirst, grace from which, enclosed in this world, she partakes in the whole of life.
The final victory of poetry would be groundless, having only the quality of a breath, vulnerable and yet — forever — suspended beyond our brows.
It is to be the soundly defeated who lift poetry & unite us with its beauty.
Poetry — by ways uneven & muffled — leads us toward daybreak in the country of the first time.
To see in poetry is to give rightness to reversed images.
Water that opens to all reflections of this world and extends them infinitely, water that flows without ceasing is sister of poetry.
Why would poetry be more ghostly than days relentless at her loss? Her reality, untouched since the morning of men, has always set fire to the horizon. And this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?
Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.
Les poètes sont de la cité.
Il est faux qu’ils échappent à notre monde par quelque jonglerie de l’imaginaire; c’est plutôt qu’ils retrouvent une trame très lisse que d’autres, au contraire, ont perdue.
Les poètes ont visage de vivant.
Ils assument leur siècle, ses responsabilités; mais non ses formules.
Leur cause — reconsidérée à chaque aurore — ne peut s’altérer, elle est celle de l’homme de toujours.
Le désir de créer, n’est-ce pas tout d’abord défi à la mort et passion de durer?
Plus tard — libérant d’autres perspectives — l’oeuvre nous aère, apprivoise l’inquiétude et, nous menant jusqu’au seuil de cette mort, qu’elle démasque, nous apprend à la chérir au même titre que la vie.
La poésie est naturelle.
Elle est l’eau de notre seconde soif.
Il est vital pour le poète de lever des échos, et de le savoir.
Nul mieux que lui ne s’accorde aux solitudes; mais aussi, nul n’a plus besoin que sa terre soit visitée.
Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard.
Malgré les jours qui l’engagent, le poèt sauvegarde la passe du disponible. C’est de ce lieu essentiel que se réclame la poésie.
A trop vivre de l’autre côté des apparences, on s’éveille parfois en marge; spectateur de son propre spectacle. Tout semble vain alors qui ne surgit des profondeurs et que ne hante la source.
Zone de l’impossible d’où il faut revenir.
La lucidité n’y suffirait pas. L’esprit veille, mais comme à travers une vitre, et ne peut — privé d’aide — amorcer un retour. Quel miracle reste-t-il à souhaiter?
Le naturel d’un rayon de soleil, d’une voix d’enfant, d’une main amie, le printemps d’une herbe, l’appel d’une détresse ou la découverte d’un amour peut devenir cette raison qui — accordant une rive à l’autre — permet, une fois de plus, que l’on consente à sa vie.
L’extrême — hantise du poète — demeure au-delà de ses limites; cependant, sans espoir final, il continue d’aller.
Prenant route vers la terre sans horizon, chaque aube métamorphose sa terre quotidienne, la démarquée: lierre sur sa peau libre, entrave à son coeur.
Si l’appel du poème n’est pas contraignant, celui de la poésie est d’une haleine.
Fièvre perpétuelle qui brûle de devenir.
La forme — à moins d’en souhaiter l’expérience — ne devrait pas augurer du poème; mais s’ordonner ensuite pour épouser l’élan.
Comme la forêt — indifférenciée et bruissante autour du grand cerf qui s’y précipite — elle doit accueillir l’impétueux visiteur; puis le parer, amoureusement, d’un choix d’ombres favorites et de brûlantes clartés.
En sa terre labourée, le poète — pour un temps — s’apaise du cri qu’il pousse, poème dans sa nuit.
Avant les rides le poèt a connu la vieillesse; il a vécu la mort bien avant de mourir.
Pourtant l’aube le ranime, lui fait don du phénix — bel oiseau fragile — accordé aux matins.
Le poète avance par saccades: coups d’ailes et retombées.
L’expérience lui suggère que la chute présage de l’essor. Mais, au plus sombre d’une détresse, cette mémoire est de maigre secours.
Tandis que se fait le poème, une fièvre heureuse enchante l’âme et chaque mot irradie.
L’illusion est en marche, la terre constellée. L’inexprimé trouvera — cette fois — dans le verbe sa juste métamorphose.
Hélas! Sur les lieux du poème, bientôt c’est le sobre retour. Le flambeau s’est fait cendres, l’échappée heurte aux murs. Où donc se noient les certitudes?
C’est aux autres que le poète confie les lendemains de son poème. Pour eux les transports et la magie perdue. Seuls les autres rendront le poète à cette Poésie, dont il ne sera jamais que l'incertain et très soucieux artisan.
Quelle existence, direz-vous, est celle du poète! Et cet enjeu — pierre de inaccessible — ne vaudrait-il pas mieux y renoncer?
Vos raisons n’y suffiront pas.
Même en pays perdu, le poète ne peut s’attacher aux pistes. Qu’on lui ôte tout, plutôt que cette soif, grâce à laquelle, enclos en ce monde, il participe à l'entière vie.
La victoire finale de la poésie serait sans objet et ne pourrait avoir que la qualité d’un souffle, vulnérable et cependant — à jamais — suspendu au-delà de nos fronts.
C’est d’être la grande vaincue qui fait à la poésie sa noblesse, et nous rend solidaires de sa beauté.
La poésie — par des voies inégales et feutrées — nous mène vers la pointe du jour au pays de la première fois.
Regarder en poésie, c’est se donner droit au revers des images.
L’eau qui s’ouvre aux reflets de ce monde et les prolonge infiniment, l’eau qui va sans cesse est soeur de poésie.
Pourquoi la poésie serait-elle plus fantomatique que les jours acharnés à sa perte? Sa réalité, intacte depuis le matin des hommes, a mis depuis toujours le feu à l’horizon. Et cette terre même — que nous reconnaissons sans mal et qui nous rive par le plus étrange des complots — n’est-elle pas balayée de souffles inconnaissables, couronnée de ciel libre, propice aux lointains?
Sans répit, il nous faut tirer la poésie des marécages de l’événement. Refuser qu’elle ne sombre, debout, dans ses voiles; veiller.
Andrée Chedid, “Les vivants,” in “Terre et poésie,” Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.
6. The “imagination of matter” is Bachelard’s own term for his subject of investigation; he defines it as “the imagination of the four elements which philosophy and the ancient sciences, later represented by the science of alchemy, have regarded as the basis of all things.” Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Kenneth Haltman, ed. Joanne H. Stroud (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 1. Originally published in 1943 as La terre et les rêveries de la volonté, essai sur l'imagination de la matière and then in 1947 by the Librairie José Corti, Paris.
9. Chedid, « Les vivants », from Terre et Poésie (1956), republished in Textes pour un poème 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion 1987), 129–36. Unless otherwise stated, all translations in this essay are my own.
11. Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 3. Originally published in 1943 as L’Air et les songes, essaai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1943).