The following are the collected letters of poets George Oppen and Charles Tomlinson, as transcribed by Richard Swigg for the feature “Addressing one’s peers: The letters of Charles Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–1981.” This section of the correspondence spans the year 1963.
April 15, 1963
Dear Mr Oppen,
I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your volume The Materials which I’ve gone through (several times) recently. The cleanliness, the clarity, the sureness of line and absence of ‘eloquence’ are very moving indeed. It’s good to see such a book in print and a pleasure to return to it and recommend it to one’s friends.
I wonder if your earlier volume of 1934, noted on the jacket of The Materials, is still obtainable? Conceivably I could buy a copy from you? I am most anxious to get hold of it and would greatly appreciate knowing if it still exists.
With thanks once more and every good wish,
Albuquerque: In 1963 Tomlinson was guest professor at the University of New Mexico and poet in residence at the D. H. Lawrence ranch near Taos. He was on a year’s leave from the University of Bristol, where he taught from 1956 to 1992.
364 Henry Street
April 24, 1963
Dear Mr. Tomlinson:
I have three copies of Discrete Series of which I will gladly send you one …
It’s pleasant to know that you like the Materials: it is wonderfully generous of you to take the trouble to say so. I was troubled while working to know that I had no sense of an audience at all. Hardly a new complaint, of course. One imagines himself addressing his peers, I suppose — surely that might be the definition of ‘seriousness’? I would like, as you see, to convince myself that my pleasure in your response is not plain vanity but the pleasure of being heard, the pleasure of companionship, which seems more honorable.
In any case, an entirely honorable pleasure that you take the trouble to write
With best regards
April 28, 1963
Dear George Oppen,
I was delighted and moved to receive so speedily both your letter and the book. What you say about seriousness implying one’s writing for his peers is extraordinarily good. I’m sure there is no better concept of ‘audience.’ I think, despite what you say, Discrete Series was also writing for one’s peers and I thank you heartily for it. One trusts that among the handful of things you’d want to rescue would be ‘The knowledge not of sorrow …’ (the first), ‘The evening, water in a glass …,’ ‘Closed car — closed in glass —,’ ‘Party on Shipboard’ — ‘homogeneously automatic’ is a splendid phrase — ‘She lies, hip high,’ ‘Fragonard,’ ‘No interval of manner,’ ‘On the water, solid,’ ‘Drawing.’ These are merely my favourites, not all that I liked. How admirable your taste is for unforeseen distinctions:
(As soda-jerking from
the private act
I like also the first part of that poem (beginning P.8). What is remarkable is the consistency of vision (‘What I’ve seen / Is all I’ve found: myself’ — you see, I can quote you by heart) and the growth into ever more substantial clarity in The Materials. I was intrigued in reading and re-reading the latter to know over what period these poems had been written. Not idle curiosity, but curiosity about the roots of excellence which cannot, surely, be wholly bad. I wonder also how conscious a group activity objectivism was? — I see such differences between, say, you and Williams and Reznikoff, I cannot help wondering whether Zukofsky’s objectivist programme was not later than objectivist verse which is so disparate.
These half questions move on the surface of a deep enjoyment that your lovely poems have given me over the past weeks and I apologize for allowing them to intrude into what began as an expression of thanks and pure delight.
Perhaps we may chat of these matters in the not too near future? My wife and I pass thro’ New York on our way back to England in mid-August and if the money lasts conceivably we shall stay for a few days.
I bring out a new book of verse of my own this summer & will send it to you — not for comment, just for friendship.
Again, thank you and every good wish for your work.
a new book of verse: Tomlinson refers to his collection A Peopled Landscape (Oxford University Press, 1963).
May 5, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
‘Happy that company who are intoxicated with each other’s speech; who, through the fermentation of thought, are each other’s wine.’
Sa’ib of Isfahan, the translation by Edward Browne. Or; ‘our language is our country’ I’m not sure of the accuracy of that quotation.
I hadn’t thought the Discrete Series ‘bad,’ but I do think the poems require the help, the very great good will of the reader. Which you generously supply. I had meant to carry the thinking and the form of these poems as far as I could without abandoning the figures of perception for the figures of elocution, or even of mere assertion, which I profoundly distrusted. There seemed at the time a tremendous difficulty of honesty: the whole weight of sincerity seemed to rest on one’s own shoulders. As how should it not? But there was perhaps not a body of honest contemporary work, a sincere and public conversation in which to join. Not, perhaps I should add, that I take truthfulness to be a social virtue. I think very probably it is not. But I think it is poetic: I think really that nothing else is. The sentimentality of an old codger? - - but I was a mere fine broth of a codger at the time.
It’s been pleasant to be invited to talk about oneself - - and to speak with such affection! I see I have rather sneakily accepted praise. But I am reminded, quite against my will, that the poems are, after all, fragmentary and sometimes strained.
As to the ‘Objectivists’ - - the word properly in quotes because the word has caused some confusion: it derived from an insistence on ‘objectification,’ on form, a matter worth mentioning in the wake of the Amy Lowells. Tho’ Zukofsky wrote also of ‘sincerity’ as the ‘epic quality.’
As you suggest, no one’s work altered, so far as I know, after the word was coined. It appeared in - - I think three - - essays that Zukofsky wrote. And of course those are simply Zukofsky’s essays. I must have owed more to Zuk. than either Williams or Rezi could have: both Rezi and Wms being older than Zuk and I younger. I had seen Zuk’s work in Exiles in, I think, 1928 - - being nineteen or twenty at the time - - and had set out to meet him. His conversation and criticism was important to me, was of great importance to me at the time. I don’t remember therefore that the essays themselves came as anything new to me.
I noticed that Williams, in the autobiography, speaks of the first meeting of the Objectivists in an apartment on Columbia Heights. That would have been our apartment, my wife’s and mine. But what we discussed then was the undertaking to print books. The work of course already existed in ms. and the dust jackets of the books carried the explanation, written at that meeting by Reznikoff, that the ‘objectivist press was an organization of writers who had joined together in order to print their own work and that of others which they thought ought to be read.’ It was about as much as could be said. We were of different backgrounds; led and have led different lives. As you say, we don’t much sound alike. But the common factor is well defined in Zuk’s essay. And surely I envy still Williams’ language, Williams’ radiance; Rezi’s lucidness; and frequently Zukofsky’s line-sense.
Those essays, by the way, are reprinted in Kulchur No 7. I had not seen them for some twenty years. I can’t judge their current interest, having known them so long. And the style is crabbed. But they seem to me sound statements.
An essay of mine, slightly referring to these things, will appear in Kulchur 10, incidently.
Not sure if you wanted all this, but I’ll complete the history. The Objectivist Press derived from To Publishers; paper-bound books printed by my wife and me in Toulon. Printed the Objectivist Anthology - - edited by Zukofsky - - and Williams’ Novelette and Other Prose.
Commercially disastrous. Paper-backs were new to the U S, and encountered trouble with the U S customs and the U S customs - - the men on the pier, and the men in the book stores. Both of whom said they are not books. The book stores simply would not stock them, or most would not. Thereafter that meeting on Columbia Heights, etc.
The poems of The Materials were written between 1958 and 1962. As I believe you surmised. Too long, too personal a story to undertake here: I kept nothing of the little I wrote for some twenty five years. That matter of one’s peers - - I have come to believe again, perhaps in more rather than less despair, that the only possible hope is in the conversation with one’s peers. Or in thinking as if one were in contact with one’s peers.
In England, a couple of years ago, I visited Tim Pember, a writer whose work I had seen - - stories - - and he showed me your work among others. I was struck and delighted. Reason for my promptness in reply to your first letter. I have lost Pember’s address, and I don’t know whether he indicated that you knew each other.
I’m sorry, since you will be in New York, that we will be in Maine in August. Unless toward the end of August - - ? You are welcome in Little Deer Island, in our rented cabin, if you could possibly make it.
“our language is our country”: Oppen is partly remembering the line from Tomlinson’s “Return to Hinton,” which he would have seen in Poetry, June 1961 (later collected in A Peopled Landscape, 1963).
Zuk’s essay: “Sincerity and Objectification,” in Poetry, February 1931.
Kulchur 7 (Autumn 1962): Louis Zukofsky’s “Five Statements for Poetry.”
Tim Pember: Timothy Pember, author of the novels The Needle’s Eye (Jonathan Cape, 1948) and Swanson (Cape, 1951).
May 31, 1963
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
I find myself entranced by the poem with which you have presented me. I see myself - - slightly the elder of the two - - talking to myself - - and smoking my pipe, which is a shock. I congratulate the three of us on the whole thing. Perhaps I would want to use it as the epigraph of a book. Just as you have written it; that is, with your uncapitalized lines in contrast to my habit of capitalizing initial letters to emphasize the different ear at work and the effect - - I don’t know if I am expressing this accurately, but I wanted to say, as if it were heard, rather than written - -
We will enquire about an apartment for you. I believe something will turn up. We could offer you the use of our place, but it is impossibly small for a family of four; it would be impossible to put two children in it, unless they should happen to be v-shaped, like corner shelves. I’m afraid you may not have gone to those extremes of planned parenthood. Of course, because you did not plan to stay in New York.
Your response to my ‘Persian quotation’ is a very nice event. It was not Persian. I had meant to quote you, but couldn’t remember where I had seen the poem. It seems I mis-quoted. Of course it was ‘… our language is our land.’ But I am glad your statement - - even mis-quoted - - seemed good to you, as - - even mis-remembered - - it did to me.
the poem with which you have presented me: Tomlinson had sent Oppen a short-line poem composed from two sentences in Oppen’s letter of April 24 (“I would like, as you see, to convince myself … which seems more honorable”). It was published in Oppen’s next book, This in Which (New Directions, 1965), as a collaboration under the title “To C. T.”
[Undated: c. June 1963]
Dear Charles Tomlinson:
Sorry to say we did not find a sub-let for you. Young artist by the name of Peter Young thought he might find something, and will write you if he does. There seems to be a summer rush to New York. Lord knows why. Seemed no more attractive than usual when we left.
c/o Lawrence Ranch
July 9, 1963
Just a line to say thanks for your efforts in seeking us an apartment. Suddenly, out of the blue, a friend in Brooklyn wrote to say he’d be away for summer, wd. we like his …? So we leave for there about the 29th, staying till we sail on Aug 17th. It’s splendid up here — mountains, streams, Spanish graveyards, bears, coyotes. Pity to leave, really, but I wd. like to see a little art in the urbs.
Just reviewing yr book, so I’ve re-read the WORKS and very enjoyable it has been — review the New Mexico Quarterly to appear the Lord Knows when. Will send you my own new book, due Aug 29th, as soon as I get back to England.
What a shame we shall not be able to meet. If you get over là bas, our address is:
Wotton-U-Edge [U for Under]
Are you writing? You owe us (the universal we speaking) more pomes for own good.
All the very best
reviewing yr. book: Tomlinson’s review of Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan, Selected Verse (Charles Boni, 1930) and Oppen’s The Materials (New Directions, 1962), in New Mexico Quarterly 34, no. 1 (1964).
[Undated: c. July 1963]
We’ll be in New York August 1st to the 15th - - a change of plans - -. Let us know how to reach you.
Yes, I’m writing quite a bit. A fair sampling will appear in July Poetry. And elsewhere, but as you say of the Quarterlies, the Lord knows when.
July 27, 1963
I enjoyed very much reading your review. Thanks for sending the copy. I will have a copy made for New Directions-SF Review for the mention of Zuk. They have three or four volumes of prose in the works of which I have just no opinion at all - - in fact my report on the first two mss shown me was that nothing in the world would induce me to read them through. But the first years’ poetry schedule consists of Oppen, Reznikoff and William Bronk, in which my advice is obvious enough. My recommendation of course included Zuk, but the suggestion - - as you see - - has not been acted on. It is by now too awkward for me to discuss the matter with Zuk at all, but it is my impression that they would be more likely to do a Selected than a Collected poems, if only for budgetary reasons. I can’t really urge Louis to submit a ms. since I have no assurance at all that they would accept it. But you might urge him to try it if you think it worth the risk - - to him - - of a rejection. If they had a ms. under consideration I could re-open the discussion.
Look forward to seeing you.
[Undated: c. September 1963]
I want to thank you for a people[d] landscape - - I read the quote from Millet as a statement of realism, of imagism, for a moment, and then its sense began to dawn on - - the meaning of factualness, which I think is the deepest meaning of the poems. I had seen it first in the soldi, soldi, against the sea - -.
We did very much enjoy seeing you (the American plural: youse). It would be well worth the voyage to walk and talk with you (youse) in England. We will try to do it.
With all best wishes, all regards,
your quote from John Cage in Poetry is a considerable contribution to the discussion. I thought rather less of it as a poem than you, but it is the statement of an attitude - - Mary and I have been referring to it incoherently as a ‘fun’ attitude - - which we have been unable to grasp. And which is very much the attitude of most of the young people, the young people around the galleries - -
Can’t live on that, tho. No one can. I don’t mean to deplore or to attack: can’t live on the convictions of the past either. But they cannot live on that. Something will happen. Something. Not impossible that what will happen is that they will cease to live, of course - -. I am not suggesting that we should lie to each other, this is simply where we are. I agree we must say so, I made my own defense in the last poem of my book - - ‘We must talk now’ or we abandon one another. Still, as fun, as hilarity - - There is something I know, in my bones, about that.
the quote from Millet: the epigraph to A Peopled Landscape: “I want the cries of my geese to echo in space. Jean-François Millet.”
soldi, soldi: In “Up at La Serra,” in A Peopled Landscape.
your quote from John Cage in Poetry: In his review, among others, of Harold Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New (Poetry, August 1963) Tomlinson quoted and praised Cage’s poem “On Nothing.”
September [ ], 1963
Dear George and Mary,
What a pleasure it was to get your note — I had imagined you would still be basking at Nassau and here you are, back already beating with the great pulse. Did we really only meet twice? — it seemed qualitatively so much more than that and what was so good about our meetings was the possibility of conversation — dialogue. I began to think that almost nobody in the U.S. ‘went in for’ dialogue: so many literate males — oh, the women are much nicer — simply talk at one: men of my own generation, men younger than me, older men — one becomes their audience and little more. I’d become quite anxious about this self-absorption: one grew to expect it. Ultimately, exasperated, I penned my reply — with as little punctuation as possible, in order that I might get
A WORD IN EDGEWAYS
Tell me about yourself they
say and you begin to
tell them about yourself and
that is just the way I
am is their reply: they play
it all back to you in another
key, their key, and then in mid-
narrative they pay you a
compliment as if to say what a good
listener you are I am
a good listener my stay
here has developed my faculty I will
say that for me I will not
say that every literate male in
America is a soliloquist, a
ventriloquist, a strategic
egotist, an inveterate
campaigner-explainer over and
back again on the terrain of him-
self — what I will
say is they are not un-
interesting: they are simply
unreciprocal and yes it was a
pleasure if not an unmitigated
pleasure and yes I did enjoy our
This is by way of saying YOU weren’t like that. The above is not the sole impression we took home. It was a great year. Perhaps the best we have ever had … Back here, rain has been virtually incessant. Our pipes had burst last winter ruining dining room, ceilings and books. So wetly in wet we wait, mould on every hand, feeling our premature aches and pains. Why, it almost drives one to monologue.
I wonder if you have the address of the San Francisco Review, George? I have an article on a Berkeley painter and I thought I might try them.
As I go up the field for mushrooms I think of your promise to come one day and walk on English ground with an Angle. You will need rubber boots. Come to think of it — there are spares.
Do let us know how things are with you both.
Love from Brenda and myself,
A Word in Edgeways: written June–July 1963, and collected in The Way of a World (Oxford University Press, 1969).
September [ ], 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
Words well wielded edgewise.
In fact I got to laughing too much to be able to read it aloud, and Mary had to read it. So it had a salutary effect: I mean, Mary got a word in edgewise. Not only improved, but comforted me; I was glad to be assured there are many worse than I. Which really I had suspected. Why O why do they do it? Partly the presence of the man from Outside, an opportunity to write their names in the sky, or anyway on something at a considerable distance. Possibly England.
We do think and talk very seriously of a visit to the Underedge of Wotton. Or Wotton-Underedge. Doesn’t mean we’ll manage to do it. We become very conscious of age, of the limitation of time, of what we want to work out still. But if we should find ourselves feeling or being rich, we might invest in plane tickets for the spectacular extravagance of a one week visit in Spring. What would you think? What would be a good time? Would flying Americans be too much for your nerves? This only asked as wild speculation — I don’t know that we could do it. But we would like to. The Severn adds its lure.
On the S F Review — now an annual. They have had a rule against critical articles of all kinds, but an essay on a Frisco painter - - Berkeley painter - - really should constitute reason for an exception. I’ll talk to June Degnan about it - - I think the policy excluding discussion of art has always been a mistake in any case - -. And I think you should write her offering to send the article if they are interested. Address
June O. Degnan
150 Central Park South
New York City
I should not have bothered you about that poem. I regretted it at the time. But this was the contrivance:
[Oppen inserts a sketch of an elevator door with two globes above it, one crayoned red, one green, with the words “Meaning UP and DOWN,” in a reference to the Discrete Series poem “White. From the.”]
So familiar at the time that I don’t think anyone was puzzled at the time. Printed c 1930 in Poetry. The office building evoked by its lighting effects in those dim days. And its limited alternatives, the limited alternatives of a culture. And its quiet / stone floor. From there to ‘thus’ - - big business - - ‘hides the parts.’
Don’t for the love of Pete let this worry you further. Your version of the child and the ball - - - up, down, up down - - - is a gift, and a good one. I accept. And the other is lost - - it so happens - - in the mists of architectural history. And cannot be restored to the consciousness of any reader without a red crayon. And a two-color print job, which is prohibitively expensive.
- - Similar thing, Louis’ saw horses. Which I think was entirely clear at the time. The A’s, the M’s, the horses, the words, do dance and only thru the verse - - all of which he meant as a programmatic statement for his verse. The primacy of music.
I had heard of Louis delivering half hour diatribes about That Oppen to innocent visitors, one of whom, at least, made a silent and edgewise exit. Not, I hope, to you? But perhaps I had better say that Louis really has no grievance against me, nor has the world, or no greater grievance than it has against anyone in these times of the population explosion. And Louis no greater grievance against me than against anyone who ‘gets printed.’ Awkward for me, tho. And overwhelmingly ironic to discuss my position as ‘a success.’ I hesitated to go into it, fearing I might become an inveterate explainer on the terrain of myself, but hearing that I am less inveterate than some - - - Perhaps the effect of your poem has been more comforting than salutary after all. (and I’ll doubt that I’ll produce another book within quite a few years. Maybe that’ll heal things)
‘This earth, this throne of Kings, this England - -’ You mean the man was looking down at his rubber boots when he said that?
But Mary’s from Oregon, a good deal wetter than anything you can show, and New York is the worst climate in the world. AND has no mushrooms.
with regards to you both
June O. Degnan: Oppen’s sister.
Your version of the child and the ball: In his review of The Materials (New Mexico Quarterly), Tomlinson had mistaken the elevator signs in “White. From the” as the up-down motion of a child bouncing a ball.
Louis’ saw horses: Police saw-horses in Zukofsky’s ‘A’-7.
September 21, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Thanks for yours. I am now dully (how does one spell due-ly?) elevated by your two colour design. Lucidity itself.
Why don’t you come and stay during next Easter vacation? It’d be lovely to have you both. Not Easter week, when the rest of the world is abroad, but one of the other four of our recess. The weather should be springy then and the summer rains will not have begun in full fury. I must check when Easter is next year. DO come. We are painting the guests’ bedroom and will do it with added zest at the prospect of your advent. You wd, I think, love the parish churches round here and the general intimacy of the green landscape with its walls of grey stone.
Thank you so much for Mrs Degnan’s address. I’ll send off the MS. with this.
Tante belle cose,
P.S. How about this?
In Longfellow’s Library
and the Venus de Milo
gaze out past
the scintillations from
the central candelabrum
(on an upper shelf)
in a laurel
from a group
dancing a tarantella, by
the turquoise butterfly
these, the busts of
and Sophocles still
they ambushed Hiawatha.
In Longfellow’s Library: written July 1963 and published in American Scenes (Oxford University Press, 1966).
October 1, 1963
Dear Charles and Brenda:
You better mean it: we accept.
A few details to clear up, but almost anyone - - even a vicar - - can can tell us when Easter is, surely. The guest room painted with Zest takes care of it from A to Z
when love has commen with lent to town, we will be in Gaynest under Gore. And walk in those green fields.
With all our affection,
(Yes: our cultural resources. Longfellow and all. I imagine the butterfly on a pin? but a flimsy affair compared to the word that pins the poem:
October 18, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
Of course we didn’t mean it — Easter don’t exist: it’s just one of those Xtian myths disproved by the 19th Century. April fool!
But, serieusement: my vacation is March 10th to April 20th, Justine will be out of school March 25th – April 13th. Why not come in April, as late as possible if only to make sure of good weather and also to MISS the mass holiday, i.e., Good Friday to Easter Monday, that is March 27th–30th.
I write more briefly than I would like, since term is upon us … We’ve just finished painting ‘the Oppens’ room’ as we call it. Can you stand a babbling brook outside in the garden or shall I have the authorities switch it off?
Love and great anticipation. If Winter comes can George and Mary be far behind.
November 19, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
I’d meant to write long before this to say, yes, April 6–13 wd. be fine for the visit — the visit.
At the moment rain and floods everywhere. I trust they will have dried out by April. Not usually the cruellest month here.
In haste and the desperation of dozens of essays to grade (‘mark’ we say — I spikka da Amurricana fur clarity’s sake).
December 29, 1963
Dear George and Mary,
How very kind of you to send us the Mailer and the very fine poem. We had always intended reading Barbary Shore and now we own a copy we shall do so. We enjoyed Naked and the Dead immensely but found, despite the good bits, The Deer Park was a sad, tired falling off. He’s an interesting chap, hipsterism apart, or maybe hipsterism is a necessary part of getting off the ground these days?
We seem to have had a dreary phase of ‘sore trials’ since our return — first Justine was hospitalised, then detonsilled, then a dock strike immobilised our imported car on a London wharf for three months; then my father fell ill, was operated on, recovered, relapsed with congestion of the lungs and is now slowly coming forward again. Workmen came in to dig us a septic tank, struck three springs, got flooded out. Tedious additions like that. In the middle of the digging + removal of inner wall of the house, frost struck unexpectedly and froze the water supply for three days. Oh, but this is pure grumbling. Really, I begin to ache with self pity: ‘Tell me about yourself they / say …’ Basta.
We do hope you had a nice Christmas. Ours, sandwiched between chaoses, was pleasantly intime and cloistral. Our one visitor, the vicar, brought a bottle of home-made wine; we walked in the afternoon of Xmas day with the children — a lovely, suddenly mild, sunlit time with Ozleworth valley swelling and green despite the recent pressure of frosts, the stone walls very solid yet visionary in the lowering light and the trees looking their brushy, knuckled winter selves.
We look forward to Aprille with hir shoures swote. All the best for 64.
Charles and Brenda
Rukeyser’s innovations in docupoetics
In 1936, just a year after winning the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, the twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser arrived in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history, to work on her next poetry project. That same year The Plow that Broke the Plains was introducing American moviegoers to the documentary film; actors and writers working for the federal Living Newspaper Project were performing documentary theater in the streets; John Steinbeck was finishing The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a newspaper story he had written a few years before; and another winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, James Agee, was traveling through rural Alabama on assignment from Fortune magazine to begin a book on tenant farmers that would change the shape of documentary forever. Rukeyser, too, would leave her mark on documentary with her groundbreaking series of poems inspired by the events in Gauley Bridge, “The Book of the Dead.” Published in her 1938 collection US 1, the work was wrought from congressional testimony, interviews with survivors, quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Paradise Lost, and chronicles of West Virginia history
The term “documentary poetry” has come into fashion in recent years to describe work that “(1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural,” according to poet/critic Joseph Harrington. While documentary poetry has precursors dating back to the ancients, many of its most famous examples were written in the twentieth century, such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Recent interest in such precursors may be in part why there has been a renewed interest in “The Book of the Dead.” The most frequently cited line of the text comes from an early footnote in which Rukeyser declared: “Poetry can extend the document.” Yet this focus on the footnote overlooks other groundbreaking elements of the poems.
“The Book of the Dead” both predates many contemporary characteristics of documentary poetry as well as anticipates continued innovation in the field. In this series of poems, Rukeyser not only shows us how to “extend the document”; she lays bare the documentary act itself, reminding her readers of the limits of representation and calling attention to the historical archive she creates. She offers models for how to investigate place through relational histories and national mythologies, establishing a methodology that predates both Paterson and The Maximus Poems. Finally, she establishes a connection between documentary investigation and activism, anticipating the work of poets such as Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand, and Brenda Hillman.
In addition to highlighting Rukeyser’s contributions to documentary poetry, I am also interested in concretizing her legacy by considering Brenda Coultas’s poem series “The Abolition Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” which sketches a complicated history of race in Coultas’s native southern Indiana and neighboring Kentucky. I make no claim that Coultas considers Rukeyser a direct influence. Yet, in what has become a frequently cited example of contemporary documentary poetics published in 2007, Coultas carries out much of the work Rukeyser directly calls for or suggests by example in “The Book of the Dead.” Ultimately, Coultas demonstrates the ways in which Rukeyser provides a model for what is current in documentary poetics.
Rukeyser’s series of poems was a product of heightened interest in documentary forms prevalent during the 1930s. As critic William Stott notes, “a documentary motive was at work throughout the culture of the time: in the rhetoric of the New Deal and the WPA arts projects; in painting, dance, fiction, and theater; in the new media of radio and picture magazines; in popular thought, education, and advertising.” Rukeyser believed that the poem had a particular power to represent current events, as well as to offer a specific view to them. As critic Shoshana Weschler explains, “For Rukeyser, poetry shares in common with science a heightened quality of vision: the imaginative capacity to recognize knowledge as process, and reciprocity and relationship as fundamental principles of being.”
The forces that drew Rukeyser to “extend the document” did not exert the same pull on other poets. In the years following World War II, both the New York School and Confessional poets turned inward instead of toward outward “processes.” Rukeyser and her work lost footing. Writing in 2003, poet and critic Kristin Prevallet notes Rukeyser’s work “is contemporaneous with the work of the Objectivist/Projectivists, and yet it is often omitted from discussions of the period.” Writers who continued in a documentary mode did not see Rukeyser as a forerunner. She corresponded with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and yet — as Eileen Myles observes — “she wasn’t passed down.” Myles, writing in The Nation in 1997, explained that Rukeyser was “barely represented in either the academic or the experimental poetic canon.”
For example, in the 1970s — during a time when “photographs, dispatches and television reports” exposed “America’s racism and called into doubt our war in Southeast Asia” — poet Edward Sanders coined the term “investigative poetics” and created a methodology for poetic inquiry that included instructions for conducting interviews and creating subject files, as well as for developing “high energy verse grids” and “data clusters.” He finds an ancestor in Pound, “thus Olson, thus Ginsberg, thus Investigative Poetry,” establishing a lineage often repeated.
Considering Rukeyser alongside the work of Coultas may help contemporary documentary poets access their full inheritance as they utilize documentary sources to create something at once speculative and responsive, social as well as personal.
The camera and the archive
By the time Rukeyser set out to write her long sequence of poems about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster in West Virginia, she had already earned a place as a poet and an activist. At the age of nineteen, she was arrested while protesting the racially charged Scottsboro Boys trial in Alabama. She would witness the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona the same year she traveled to West Virginia to document the mining disaster. In Gauley Bridge, exploitative practices in the excavating and mining of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel from 1930 to 1931 resulted in the silicosis poisoning and deaths of anywhere from 764 to 2,000 miners, the majority of whom were African American migrant workers. Although a congressional hearing ended in a favorable judgment for the workers, few victims ever received compensation. As a response to the disaster, Rukeyser wrote a series of poems constructed out of testimony from doctors, employees, and victims’ relatives gathered in a congressional investigation, as well as from interviews with survivors and their families. She included descriptions of the town with its “street of wooden walls and empty windows,” as well as excerpts from regional histories, dizzying equations for falling water (the project included the construction of a dam), and a stock market ticker for the project’s parent company Union Carbide. In a note accompanying the series, Rukeyser explains her desire to demonstrate how “theories, systems and workmen … factors, which are in the end not regional or national” created this community and how, in the end, they lead to its devastation (604).
In this sense, Rukeyser’s work represents more than “extending the document”; it is an attempt to correct the official record (represented by congressional hearings and coverage in the popular media) and provide the reader with a sense of the connections and complicities omitted from official histories. Critic Tim Dayton explains that poetry offers Rukeyser the advantage of “a richness and density of texture enabling a more challenging or searching treatment of the subject,” as well as allowing for “a fragmented subjective response,” or, more specifically, a polyvocal response to the event. The lyric also offers opportunities for Rukeyser to subtly lay bare the process of documentation itself.
For example, in the first poem of the sequence “The Road,” she creates a purely cinematographic opening, taking the reader “past your tall central city’s influence” down the roads of West Virginia to Hawk’s Nest, where the photographer “unpacks camera and case” (74). Rukeyser may have been referring to photographer Nancy Naumburg, who traveled with her to West Virginia. In the 1930s, photographs were one of the premiere modes of social documentary. In fact, photographs were so important to the 1930s documentary book that literary critic Malcolm Cowley believed they became more vital than the text. Cowley explained: “The pictures state the theme of the book, whereas the prose serves as illustrative matter.”
But photographs were never published with Rukeyser’s work. Instead, Rukeyser uses the camera to suggest that despite its importance as a tool for documentation, the reality represented in a photograph is subjective in as much as it is mediated through the choices of the photographer. In other words, in Rukeyser’s poem the camera functions as a symbol through which she lays bare the documentary process. Rukeyser draws our attention to the camera as an instrument of documentation and to the photographer who selects a subject, considers composition, focuses a lens, and decides what to include or crop from the frame. As Stott reminds us, “all documentary photographs, like all propaganda and indeed all exposition, are to some extent biased communication.” In this, the photographer shares with the documentary poet an opportunity to shape the reality that is presented.
For the documentary poet, Harrington suggests, “bias” presents itself in the selection of documents themselves:
Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these … and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry … that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.
By including the image of the camera, Rukeyser reminds her readers that they are being presented with a selected representation of a reality instead of the reality itself. Rukeyser makes her selection of sources (or “archive,” as Harrington calls it) — and the creation of the poem — manifest.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser makes clear the record of her selection and repression, even suggesting how her decisions might confound readers’ expectations. The poem “Gauley Bridge,” a description of a working-class town with its “beerplace” and filling station, ends with the lines:
What do you want — a cliff over a city?
A foreland, slope to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here (78)
Rukeyser addresses her audience: the reader who lives in a “central city” and comes to poetry desirous of the picturesque. By confronting the reader’s expectations, Rukeyser anticipates the work’s tepid reception. For example, reviewer Willard Maas, writing in Poetry in 1938, admired Rukeyser’s “inventiveness” and “intentions, which are ambitious to the point of audacity,” but felt that “the signs of the road lead her into fields that have been more adequately explored and tersely recorded by journalists.” These debates largely continue, a point I will return to later. It is important here to note that Rukeyser was aware of conventional expectations. And by pointing them out, Rukeyser takes responsibility for her archive.
“Gauley Bridge” begins with another reminder of Rukeyser’s documentary choices and offers insight into her particular focus:
Camera at the crossing sees the city
a street of wooden walls and empty windows
the doors shut handles in the empty street
and the deserted Negro standing on the corner (77)
Again, what the camera “sees” is not a matter of chance; even to notice the African American man suggests an awareness of those often marginalized. This point of view was not exclusive to “The Book of the Dead.” In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser affirms her affinity for culture that arises from the margins: “On work gangs, prison gangs, in the nightclubs, on the ships and docks, our songs arise.” In Rukeyser’s viewfinder/poem, the African American man is not “alone” but “deserted” on a street where the doors have closed to him. The image of closed doors suggests a larger condition of negligence born of legalized discrimination and capitalist exploitation, an issue explored throughout the poem series. And yet the man appears square in the center of town. The camera (like Rukeyser herself), placed at crossroads, sees the man. And the poet observes that, like the camera, the man watches, “looking down the track” to see what comes or goes. Thus the African American man and the camera/Rukeyser are featured as observant outsiders, although the African American man is also an economic participant in the society that marginalizes him. The man’s own status as “outsider” is confirmed later in the poem “George Robinson: Blues” that begins, “Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes they let us stand / around on the sidewalks if we are black or brown” (87). (This is the Jim Crow South, and there are laws against loitering.) The act of sympathy is important and suggestive as well of the fact that the condition of the African American might act as a viewfinder through which to judge the American character. As the poem develops, the African American man will not only be seen in the viewfinder but be given voice through those sections culled from congressional testimony.
This is not without complication. The documentarian speaking for her subjects has a strong precedence in the 1930s. One of the most problematic examples comes from the classic social documentary book You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, a founding example of the documentary book genre common in the 1930s which used text and image to describe a social condition and invoke sympathy if not political action in middle-class readers.
Stott, a fierce critic of the book, notes that that Caldwell “diminished — brutalized — the sharecropper because his audience expected such a picture.” In a particularly egregious example of such practices, Caldwell and Bourke-White often gave the photographs captions that according to an introductory note “expressed the author’s own conceptions of the sentiments the individuals portrayed.” As Stott observes, “The words Caldwell and Bourke-White put in the tenants’ mouths made them as abject as possible.”
But the difference between the work of Caldwell and Bourke-White and Rukeyser comes primarily from the fact that Caldwell and Bourke-White perform a kind of unannounced ventriloquism. Instead, Rukeyser uses documentary sources for the poem in an attempt to maintain verisimilitude rather than out of a desire to control the reactions of her readers. When Rukeyser utilizes documentary sources, she reminds us of the archive that produced them. For example, the third poem in the series, “Statement: Philippa Allen,” announces its source as congressional testimony. Rukeyser structures the poem as a series of questions and answers from Allen, one of the main researchers/writers to bring the event to national notice:
— You like the State of West Virginia very much, do you?
— I do very much, in the summer time.
— How much time have you spent in West Virginia?
— During the summer of 1934, when I was doing social work down there, I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy, which involved about 2,000 men. (75)
When juxtaposed with poems written in more traditional forms (for example, the three-line stanzas of the opening poem), the Q&A form reminds readers of the source text as well as draws attention to the constructed nature of the poem, thus also reminding readers of the poet who shapes the work instead of employing the ventriloquism of other documentary books.
Elsewhere, Rukeyser quotes from explorers’ journals, settlement checks, and correspondence surrounding the settlement, as well as from the congressional bill itself again, drawing attention to the materiality of the archive. One of the most stunning examples of this comes halfway through the poem “The Dam,” where Rukeyser reproduces the stock ticker for Union Carbide. The ticker appears in a different typeface, creating a typographic break or dam (a “blockage,” as critic Michael Thurston has pointed out), in the middle of the poem’s flow. It also provides a visual pun on the idea of the quote. The line that precedes the ticker reads: “This is the valley’s work, the white, the shining” (101). The numbers force readers to confront the stark economics that drive everything else recorded in the poem; the difference in typography recalls the source for this information.
In this sense, Rukeyser is transparent in her attempt to explain what happened at Gauley Bridge — but also gives readers a sense of the “theories, systems” behind the events. Rukeyser not only lays bare her process through the archival gestures of the poem, but she makes evident her potential biases and intent, “owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it,” as Harrington puts it. Ultimately, she creates a more complete picture of what happened at Gauley Bridge and what might be learned from it by situating events against a backdrop of history and activism as well as revealing the process by through which she acquires knowledge of the event.
Opening up the field of history
The second poem of the sequence, “West Virginia,” traces the state’s history. Here, we begin to understand the philosophy behind the poet’s use of historical documents. Rukeyser believed it was important to set events in their historical contexts and claimed it was vital to understand the present through a clear revaluation of a past. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser writes, “It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories.” (61). As Jane Cooper explains, Rukeyser thought it vital to “acknowledge our own violence” and the divisions upon which this country was founded in order to become nonviolent. So Rukeyser contextualizes the industrial disaster at Gauley Bridge against a history of racial violence, including the Native American genocide and Civil War. It is the kind of historical contextualization that will anticipate both Patterson and The Maximus Poems, with important distinctions. Kristin Prevallet finds Rukeyser’s use of history in her poems an alternative to the totalizing visions of writers such as Olson, who utilize historical fact to serve the poem’s argument. As Prevallet explains:
Looking back at Rukeyser reminds us of how important it is to remember that the inclusion of “history” in the poem was (and is still) practiced by many other works unrelated to Olson’s Black Mountain School trajectory. … Reading the work of these poets opens up the field “history,” demanding an awareness of facts as always linked to specific human experience, and an understanding that appropriating these facts for the sake of a poem does not always tell the whole story.
Nowhere is Rukeyser more adept at linking history to specific human experience than in “The Book of the Dead.” Throughout the sequence Rukeyser not only invokes history but challenges it, offering a model for how the poet/reader/citizen can actively respond to historical narratives.
Take for example her transcription of a marker at the site of John Brown’s execution in the poem “West Virginia.” The mention of the abolitionist becomes an opportunity to modify or penetrate the historical record. Here Rukeyser literally writes in between the language of the marker:
the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION
sabers, apostles, OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE
War’s brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPER’S FERRY (75)
The actual monument provides a fairly bland description of the place, “Site of the Execution of John Brown Leader of the Raid at Harper’s Ferry,” which would seemingly not infuriate those who still feel sympathies with either side of the Civil War. Rukeyser offers a more opinionated view of the site. Dayton notes that, by “interpolating her words” with that of the marker, as an official historical record, Rukeyser presents both “an official skeletal version of the story of John Brown, and her own more nuanced version.” In that “more nuanced version,” as Dayton suggests, Brown is both activist and martyr. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser describes Brown as “that meteor.” She calls the raid itself “that precipitating stroke” that “like the archaic bloody violence of the Greek plays spoke to many lives” (36). In “West Virginia,” Rukeyser’s choice to describe the Harper’s Ferry Raid as “brilliant cloudy” highlights both its success (as a rallying point for the abolitionist cause) and its obvious failure as a raid. (Brown had hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. Instead, Brown and his men were captured. Brown was hanged) But Rukeyser’s “brilliant cloudy” description also references the dualities that will remain throughout the poem between the brilliant power of the dam and the clouds of silica mined in relation to its construction, which killed hundreds if not thousands of miners. In any case, the transcription of the monument illustrates Rukeyser’s ability to do more than cite the official record: it illustrates her ability to respond to it. (Another example of how Rukeyser makes clear her interventions in the archive.) Contesting official histories and rewriting the documentary source is an important tool when confronting source material that is itself part of discourses that legitimated and normalized racial discrimination.
Throughout the series, Rukeyser evidences her sensitivity to a history of racial inequity. Whiteness itself has a presence in the poems as material evidence of the dangerous mining practices. While a legacy of discrimination and racism leads to the conditions that produce the mining disaster, ironically, the toxic silica dust does not discriminate. As one survivor explains: “As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night / with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white” (88).
Gauley Bridge historical marker (photo by Ken Thomas).
Later in the series, white becomes a metaphor for the force of water as well as economic and social control. In the poem “Power” Rukeyser notes: “The power-house stands skin-white at the transmitter’s side / over the rapids the brilliance, the blind foam” (97). The “skin-white” power-house serves as a gateway holding back the “blind” white foam of water fueling this hydroelectric plant. The “blind” white foam of the water represents those “theories” and “systems,” the free-market economy and Jim Crow South that allow a tragedy such as Gauley Bridge to occur. It is not insignificant that the “power-house,” a source of control and regulation as well as a symbol for Union Carbide (the company that owns the dam and uses the silica in their industrial processes), is not just white but white-skinned. It is not coincidence that those who benefited from this work were a corporation run by white men, while those that suffered most were African American. The Fourteenth Amendment, originally written to protect the rights of African Americans, was used to give individual rights to corporations disproportionally owned by white men. The prioritizing of white-owned corporations over the rights of non-white citizens (in the case of Gauley Bridge) is an example of the kind of racial prejudice that became foundational to the local project of building a dam. “This is the valley’s work,” Rukeyser writes later in the poem, “the white, the shining” (101). What force might counteract the raw power of corporate racist America? In Rukeyser’s poem, the answer comes in the form of the activist documentary poet.
“Lightning strikes” of activism
Rukeyser ends “The Book of the Dead” by returning to the figure of Brown. In the series’ penultimate poem, “The Bill,” she reveals that justice was not served to the miners or their survivors. Despite rulings favoring the plaintiffs in suits brought against the operators, the majority of the victims and their families never received a significant settlement. Limits were placed on the claims awarded. The poet quotes from a congressional hearing: “I want to point out that under the statute $500 or / $1000, but no more, may be recovered” (106). Most claimants received much less. The poem “Arthur Peyton” includes these lines from correspondence surrounding the settlement: “Dear Sir, … pleasure … enclosing herewith our check … / payable to you, for $21.59” (94). Rukeyser calls the congressional efforts mere “[w]ords on a monument,” reminding readers of the earlier quotation from the Brown monument — and her need to rewrite its language. Rukeyser declares: “It cannot be enough” (106). The subcommittee’s request for funding and power of subpoena to conduct investigations was denied. Rukeyser ends “The Bill” with a call for activism and a return to the memory of Brown:
The origin of storms is not in clouds
our lightning strikes when the earth rises
spillways free authentic power
dead John Brown’s body walking from a tunnel
to break the armored and concluded mind (106)
Like the storms that originate “not in clouds” justice will not be brought from above — from corrupt institutions — but will rise from the ground, from the grassroots. There is a metaphoric and homophonic level to the stanza with its image of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt liberating the power of water, an act simultaneous with the old abolitionist walking from the tunnel to free consciousness and change opinion. The word “strikes” alludes to organization of workers, John Brown’s organizing against oppressive institutions of slavery and power, as well as to a lightning strike of energy. But the poem does not only aim to stir workers to unionize. Instead, its most excited plea asks readers to become aware of both current examples of injustice as well as the historical contexts that surround them. Rukeyser takes up Brown’s role as instigator when she asks her readers to do what she has done. She explains: “Defense is sight; widen lens and see / standing over the lands of myth and identity / new signals, processes.” Rukeyser calls her readers to action by asking them to look beyond national mythologies and record both injustice and the mechanizations that fuel it.
Here she elevates the documentary to activism, to the notion that seeing will make a difference. She focuses on those often overlooked (miners, workers, and minorities), and she calls upon her readers to do the same. In the final poem she asks: “What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone” (107). Her wide-angle lens encompasses a web of connections and complicities in the disaster, something a mere photograph cannot do. Framing her poem with references to John Brown, she works to extend those connections and complicities beyond corporate misconduct to a national legacy, a failure of “myth and identity.” She asks readers to identify with the legacy of Brown’s activism and to never forget the legacy of oppression.
In addition, Rukeyser’s work establishes the systemic results of this oppression. She shows the connection between the numbers of the ticker tape and the cornfield turned to a burial ground, she links the death of these African American migrant workers to corporate profit margins. She places the camera between herself and her subjects to remind us to see. But she goes beyond the act of recording to suggest that one must interrogate, even rewrite, that which is literally carved in stone, be it law or history. She asks her readers/poets to question their histories and mythologies, offering a more active way of interacting with documentary materials both through the connections she creates between local events and national economies as well as by responding to biases inherent in conventional historical narratives.
Some seventy years later, many poets have taken up Rukeyser’s activist charge in a variety of innovative ways often with a global reach. Mark Nowak, Rukeyser’s closest descendent thematically, writes about a contemporary mining disaster that claimed the lives of twelve men (most through a brutal asphyxiation) in Sago, West Virginia. In Coal Mountain Elementary, Nowak interweaves state testimony from the surviving miners and rescue teams with the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren, newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, and photographs (Nowak calls it “sampling”). The result is a chilling portrait of a global system of danger and exploitation that in the words of the widow of one Chinese miner is “a job for living people working in hell.” Nowak extends that activism off the page in his work organizing and leading creative writing workshops for laborers.
In Remember to Wave, Kaia Sand turns historical investigation into collective exploration by undertaking walks and leading groups on tours through the site of the current Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center, as a way to reflect on its history as a Japanese American internment camp. Sand’s book includes both maps of the area along the Columbia River as well as collages of poetry, photographs, and images of objects found on the site. Sand literally stitched material together in collages, often typing directly onto found materials from a portable typewriter she carried with her on these walks. These collages, faithfully reprinted, give the book the feel of a scrapbook, a work of individual labor, in opposition to the regular typography and design of traditional history books, suggesting another way to challenge the manner in which conventional histories have been written.
For her part, Brenda Hillman turns documentary poetics into “Reportorial Poetry, Trance and Activism” in a section from her collection Practical Water. “Reportorial poetics,” Hillman explains, “can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action and thinking about something else.” Hillman creates poems out of her experience protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the antiwar group Code Pink. For example, in the poem “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” she records: “the prickly intimate hairs … behind (the General’s) ears”, a fly circling the room, and a vision of the goddess Ishtar from Babylon. Hillman provides a view to the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuate war and offers an example of how we might refuse the narratives that are created about these conflicts.
While the work of these poets offers many similarities to Rukeyser’s project and her call to “widen the gaze,” I want to look at one recent collection of documentary poetry by Brenda Coultas that exemplifies Rukeyser’s legacy in its reflections on the documentary process, its treatment of the legacy of national conflict, and its activism.
Contemporary excavations and commemorations
Brenda Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s project of interrogating “myth and identity” in the “The Abolitionist Journal (or, Tracing the Earthworks of My County),” a series of interrelated poems from her collection The Marvelous Bones of Time. In addition to “widening the lens,” she narrows her focus. Coultas was born in the slave-holding state of Kentucky but raised across the border in the “free” state of Indiana. An epigraph from Abraham Lincoln makes clear her intent to understand the legacy of “the very state where grew the bread / that formed my bones.” She embarks on her investigation with the question: “Are there any abolitionists hanging from my family tree?” (17). While she wants to identify with abolitionists from Indiana’s past, with the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln, she does not shy away from the racism of her local history. “I thought of Klansman when I thought of Indiana,” Coultas writes (24).
Identification can be complicated in a nation that scours much of its past from the landscape. Like Rukeyser, Coultas draws attention to the commemorative process itself as well as to its omissions. Like Rukeyser, she excavates while illuminating the process of excavation: “A hundred years hence, will there be markers commemorating where we had borrowed a book?” (23). She references the Underground Railroad, noting what exists now on sites that used to be stops on the journey to freedom, in effect noting what has not been memorialized.
Like Rukeyser with her camera, Coultas documents the documentary act and makes clear the difficulties of trying to comprehend a past that has not been made part of larger local or national history. Coultas reminds us that it is “hard to find a path through the fields 100 years later” (17). So Coultas makes copious lists of what remains in municipal archives, on plaques, in histories of the Underground Railroad, slave narratives, and genealogies, as well as from her own archive and memory. One poem, titled “The Executives of the Anti-Slavery League in Neighboring Counties,” lists the names of local abolitionists; another details a list of items Coultas bought at a market in 1976. The juxtaposition between the information found in a historical document and what one can imagine may have been a scrap of paper found in Coultas’s childhood home is provocative. It mimics Coultas’s overall strategy to insert herself into her investigation/documentation of local and national history. By allowing us to peer into her personal archive, Coultas gives her readers the opportunity to draw our own conclusions about the class, the ethnicity, the ideological positions she inhabits, and how that might influence her selection of documents. If nothing else, the inclusion of the shopping list acts as a stark reminder — a monument — to subjectivity.
If Coultas reveals the difficulties of trying to identify with her local history, the process becomes even more complicated as she tries to identify with figures from national myths:
Lincoln looked out over the river and saw a slave state and he was born in one (Kentucky), like me, but was raised in a free state (Indiana), like me. We were white and so could cross the river (17)
Here Coultas takes up Rukeyser’s claim to interrogate “myth and identity” as well as seek out “new signals, processes” (110). Coultas cannot speak of a “shared” history with Lincoln without invoking the history of those who could not cross that river, understanding larger issues of race. When she notes that she and Lincoln were “white” she recalls privilege and its limits; she excavates a past, constructs a net of relationship and responsibility:
I (am a color that is an uneven beige; have a face with reddish tones) read about a man who is described as colored and free (19).
Elsewhere, Coultas writes: “If in the document, she is described as an old darky, then I might be described as an old whitey” (19). Unlike Rukeyser, who takes up a post behind the camera’s viewfinder, Coultas sets herself in the center of her poems. And out of her desire to learn about her state’s and her family’s relationships to slavery, Coultas begins to unmask a set of assumptions about herself, the place she came from, as well as the relationships that can be gained from such an understanding. Here she moves away from taking up the voice of the oppressed to take a look at her own relationship to oppression. In fact, one of the few African American voices in the poem actually contradicts Coultas’s initial impulse to disparage Kentucky, a former slave state. An African American man whom Coultas encounters on a flight explains that he had moved his family from Los Angeles to Kentucky because it was “heaven” (53).
But while Coultas is careful not to speak for the oppressed, she finds it difficult to identify with the abolitionists and other Civil War heroes. When Coultas writes, “I did not marry Mary Todd, although I have always admired her” (16), it reads as a joke and a reminder. Identification goes only so far.
The series ends with “In a Gaze,” a listing of what Coultas learned from her excavation. Here she writes: “What did I learn about my kinfolk? / Petroglyphs mostly / divided as the bluegrass” (56). Coultas learns that there is both a “slaveholder” and a Union soldier hanging from her family tree. The poem concludes with an image of her native land as it looks from an airplane. From her window view the land appears like “a rough crazy quilt” with “elaborate chicken scratchings,” images that suggest the randomness of an item created out of necessity: a patchwork quilt sewn from scraps, a note scrawled hastily. But the poem’s final gesture moves to an image of the land as she has seen it “inscribed in the plat book of 1815 / a European geography imposed on native curves” (56). A plat book representing the legal ownership of lands in a given area represents the archive or a traditional history; it offers a brusque contrast to the “rough crazy quilt” or “chicken scratchings” of Coultas’s investigation. But the contrast highlights Coultas’s own desire to resist the notion of imposing an “order” upon the data she’s found. In the end, the reader is encouraged to appreciate the work not for its conclusions, but for the process of investigation, the willingness to witness that which could be admired and could be admonished in her local racial history.
As Patrick James Dunagan writes in a review, “By sorting out her own understanding of the historical record via her experience with it, as both text and lived fact, she opens the larger opportunity for a cultural sorting.” The most important map in Coultas’s project is the one she leaves behind for those who might follow her in their own investigations.
In addition to those mentioned, there is no shortage of contemporary documentary poets and no limit to documentary innovations, some of which Rukeyser pioneers. Perhaps like Rukeyser’s generation, caught between two wars and economic upheaval, many poets today turn toward documentary forms as a mode of resistance and activism. As Prevallet suggests, “Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters (or moving to Canada), I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry” Rukeyser shows us that poetry can do much more than document. The activist documentary can contextualize events nationally and globally as well as explore and challenge national, local, and personal histories.
Despite the boom in documentary interest, the old debates remain.
Echoing the criticism of The Book of the Dead, George Szirtes declares in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that the “real life in poems” resists “the world of cause and effect.” The world of the poem should be clearly cordoned off from the “real world.”
Szirtes claims “history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.” Elsewhere the poet/critic Nada Gordon recently complains that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination.”
Much written these days about documentary poetics boils down to a defense. And in trying to defend those who would “extend the document,” many critics do not account for the various ways the document might be stretched, pulled, cut, sampled, marshaled, and limited. Beyond defending the documentary impulse, we might consider the ethics behind the works: are the voices of others used in an act of ventriloquism to serve an argument or to give voice to suppressed perspectives? Does history provide context or become utilized to prove a point? What kind of activism does the work provoke or incite off the page?
Maybe one way to begin to see these nuances is to take a fresh look at our ancestors. In a section of The Life of Poetry entitled “Backgrounds and Sources,” Rukeyser explains that she sees the “truths of conflicts and power over the land, and the truths of possibilities” (64). She goes on to list a variety of locations from those historically remembered as sites of commemoration as well as sites of tragedy. She includes both public memorials and those unremarked locales that serve as reminders of personal experiences. She concludes the passage by declaring: “Many of our poems are such monuments. They offer the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility” (66).
If the poem is a monument, it cannot simply reproduce the words of a historical marker such as the one Rukeyser found at Harper’s Ferry. Following Rukeyser’s example, the poem is made when the monument is defaced, when we have written into it, breaking syntax to allow space for more nuanced meanings.
The best homage to Rukeyser is not only to keep her legacy alive, but to ensure our criticism of her work continues to tell the whole story of her innovations, to formulate a web of connections between the issues and events that inspire our documentary poems and their literary antecedents.
1. Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2.
5. Kristen Prevallet, “Writing Is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics,” Fence 6, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2003).
6. Eileen Myles, “Fear of Poetry,” The Nation, April 14, 1997.
17. Michael Thurston, “All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Book of the Dead’ and the Reinvention of Modernist Poetics,” in “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
28. Patrick James Dunagan, “Books by Jennifer Bartlett, Brenda Coultas, Jennifer Scappettone, and Heidi Lynn Staples,” Galatea Resurrects 10.
30. Nada Gordon, “On Docu-poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” Ululations 20 (February 2009).
An eloquent and intricate mythmaking propels the fame-seeking in the oh-so-precious collection from the classical world, full and rich in four books, of Victory Odes (sometimes known from the Greek as Epinikia) assigned to the Greek poet Pindar. Coming down to us from the fifth century BCE, this trove of wildly appealing poetry is self-celebrated in Pindar’s own person and, whether or not on cue, has been preserved for the modern reader more substantially than some other exemplars of pre-Hellenistic lyric.
From our world of today, we have an outstanding example of mythopoetics in Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem. What is carried down to us in Sikelianos’s book-length poem, moreover, represents a still greater span of time if considered, as the self-named and equally self-realizing poet does, in terms of geologic time (e.g., “Scattered across Precambrian rock …”). Yet this stretching out into the natural world does not prevent her from continuing “Eleni” in her forward self-directing: “Listen: who’s creating the world / here, Eleni or opossums?” (58).
What Eleni Sikelianos lets into her polytropical, megaprotological study of California is both revealing and poetic. Time extended informs the reach of this poem more than as simple horizon and differently from a frame set in place to indicate parameters. Instead, Eleni’s expansions — and confessions and compressions and Cartesian dips — of thoughts of time, history, home, natural history, and landscape combine into an instituting principle to which the poet securely and boldly holds. The quality of her aim lies, in other words, in her very setting forth. And the setting forth itself, even before the many iterations to come, is of great importance. As Eleni begins — transparently having a problem doing so — it is a dream time, the special time of creation myths cornered in illo tempore by specialists in myth, that radiates first place and first form:
I want to tell you about the dream. The California is a paradise lake with colorful animals dream.
The when I go back to my homeland California is a paradise I am happy for you dream
We were going ever so through the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus & shadow road in the
“opposite of blindness” & “relinquished speech” (12)
Greek scholars are foremost in recognizing creation and recreation, initiating and reinitiating, as the proper subjects of mythical transformations. This poet and California her subject undergo a similar retracing. Yet their dream will prove not to pleasure the paradisal state (rarely enjoyed by Greek heroes themselves, it would seem). For Eleni, the mythic invention of all renewing and all healing will not be adequate to a different force she recognizes, an origin if she wants it to be, namely the “hedon eden” that she confers “with my eyes closed” on those heady glories that rush into her spectacular terrain (16). Or will it, this creation-myth status, prove good as gold?
In one of the Sicilian odes Pindar has a golden lyre to go along with his lordly lyre in the important lines quoted below from another Sicilian ode. Maybe Eleni harbors similar prognostications. In any event, she hits the surf enthusiastically and with great blush and foam and fervor in her scurrying, smoothly and not smoothly, while the initial self-renewing vision pre-times many initiations to come. Every feeling of the singing of her California is already guarded, every projection already foreshadowing the squandered and diminishing, the searched and remembered, institutions of light and declamations of light that will reflect and illumine in a historicizing wave-trend showing itself, despite the flux and despite the glamour, to be compromised diversely within the new and the near of her turning and returning.
Eleni’s poem is, to be precise about it, diminished at the outset. By comparison to “Αριστον μεν υδωρ,” “water is best,” so famously revered as the magno-quirky introductory assertion of Pindar and of the Victory Odes, and so full of promise of fecundity and healing, much of California enjoys, among many things good and bad, water in its scarcity. Hence the burden of “the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus,” not to mention Death and heaps of sand and sand dollars and all manner of “sandbox” uncoverings (“[a]ll that happened in the history books … a little sandbox with a bone-tool …” ) and the “world mathematically” understood as “curl of thirstling sound” (100).
But it is not from these aspects alone that Eleni’s means of retrospection outscore and outpartch those origins Pindaric and beyond, however brilliantly they may beam. It is not only the urge and the hope, though they too connect wildly, extensively. It is the state of California seeming to be in a ton of trouble like no other, in a pinch unparalleled in its being hard to grip or even track; for California permits a lengthy attention to history, has come into its being through a far-flung and scattered evolution that, though truly meriting its mythopoetic allure, hotly complicates the poet’s range of choices. California, her the poet’s California — what subject, what panorama, what sensation — effectuates a lengthy inundation of past forwarded to present whose conditions unsettle and then challenge the possibilities for a personal approach to writing.
Writing California is, in short, writing large in a hazardous and disparately bordered field. By contrast, the variations of Pindar are performed from time to time as a kind of service to city-states finding themselves at various stages of still-emerging and still-threatened wealth and grandeur. Professional poet and victory-party impresario are one important side to Pindar’s own mythic dimensions and pretensions. Large but not so overwhelming, in the same breath they surprise and startle in word and metaphor and presence; at the same time they are billed wisely and choreographed not only viscerally but rigorously too.
With some differences, then, but similarly poised atop deep cultural foundations, the poems of Pindar and The California Poem devote their shining projections to the spirit of public poetry. The respective charges of The California Poem ignite a winning and, for a time, easy pursuit of its expansive goals, naming its prizes in vaster and yet ever more precise measure. Of generous length but of a length suited to public occasions, Pindar’s poems do not serve as all-encompassing models for Sikelianos’s project. Pindar frames his historiographies, his typologies, in song and dance and display: all-out revelry, in short, or “κωμος” (Olympian 4, Olympian 6, and Olympian 8). The purpose of the odes thus sets a limiting condition (for us), framing them to be highly enjoyable but marking a jumping off point to something bigger from Sikelianos’s poem while she conceives her own welcoming delights. This much is true, that a festive spirit is not missing from either poet’s stating of their states. By the same token, moreover, a pointed reference to Pindar (“angel but Love but when I laugh the brontosaurus / laughs with me // And just as internal summer shall heal or hinder Pindar” ), and repeated turns on the famous opening to the second Victory Ode from the collection (Olympian 2), key an invitation — by door, by window, by sacred portal — to crucial elements of the historical unfolding that we find so splendidly aspiring to the finish and scope of the poem known as, as it becomes, and finds its tonalities in, “California.” To inquire into Sikelianos’s conception of the famous Pindar is to understand more fully the poet’s own flair for inquiry. And it may illumine even more, this train of expressions from that Greek-speaking, that myth-inducing world.
Where shall we begin? Indeed that is what Pindar himself asks:
τινα θεον, τιν’ ηρωα, τινα δ’ ανδρα κελαδησομεν;
(Olympian 2, ll. 1–2)
The Victory Odes of Pindar confer the values of victory on athlete, crew, and benefactor. They are, above all, instituting forms of happiness. They create the myths, and they create the greatness, both of which they receive gratefully and are proud. Take it as mythico-monumental. They endorse in the very same instituting action the patterns that more than anything else confer these values. The “what … what … what” pattern of the second line blazes chiefly, and most famously, among these poetic discoveries of Pindar’s; and it is this phrasing, of course using the English “what” where Pindar repeats the word “τινα” (in the accusative case), that provides the repeated refrain that ties Eleni’s poem in with the ancient model.
Before showing the pattern in my English version, it should prove helpful to note how Pindar’s meter is widely variable. The poet achieves his aura of splendor and intricate charm through what might be dubbed the “poikilos” effect. One of the words Pindar uses to reflect upon his activities and their extension, ποικιλος means “many-colored” as an effect of embroidery. The partial synonym δαιδαλος is based on knowing and can mean “curiously wrought” and also “dazzling,” to my liking for the Pindaric context. The two occur together in Olympian 1 in association with μυθοι or “tales” or “speeches,” the Greek word that fills in obviously as the basis for the concept of “myth,” although here the entire phrase is pejorative. Thus, as the poet uses the terms, “poikilos” and “daidalos” (the latter used twice in verb forms in Olympian 1 and once in Olympian 2 and connected for us obviously with the well-known Daedalus) may allude to the astonishing flexibility of choice wherein Pindar’s poetics benefit (in part) from the complex system of “choral” meters that is the pride and joy of ancient Greek poetry. By “choral” we mean a general kind of meter or rhythm and in turn think of the dance practice that contributes, with its breathtaking combinations, to what is decidedly thrilling about Pindar’s poetry. Accordingly, my version of these lines to which Sikelianos alludes again and again aims at this rhythmic exuberance. Double choriambs, the “choriamb” being the basic and standard step in Greek “choral” lyric, are hinted at (“[what strutting he]ro” and “[hero what mere] mortal”; brackets inserted to indicate the choriambic echoes), and the stresses and pauses of the second half of the line match the swift lilt of the finishing cretics in the Greek:
Songs of praise and devotion of the championing lyre,
what god what strutting hero what mere mortal shall we celebrate?
Pindar’s second line (see above) is parsed by the editor Alexander Turyn as a dochmiac followed by three cretics. In other words, it exemplifies, as does this particular ode (Olympian 2) generally, a metrical system of individual units being patched together to form medium-length and hypermetrical lines of distinct rhythmic freedom. It is exciting, and the dochmiac is the most werewolfianly wild and the most irregular unit in Greek meter, on top of which the parsing required in this instance sports an option to start either with a short syllable followed by a long syllable (Greek meter being based on a notion of syllable length) or by resolving the long into two shorts and thereby creating a run of three short syllables right at the beginning. Moreover, whereas the next two units are the simple cretic having the form long-short-long (Creeley’s “gotta go” in stress accents), once again the second long is resolved into two shorts as more of these triple-short-syllable actions become part of the scansion, in fact two more instances of this running — all making for wonderful speed and thrill, and even enhancing the majesty of the hypermetrical line.
Among the modern languages, English is well suited to metrical displays of the kind found in Pindar’s Victory Odes. In English, an extensive vocabulary, every different kind of word formation, every different kind of word accent, and the grammar of non-inflected word-end formations together realize an astonishing verbal versatility, along with every possible openness to rhythmic specialty. There are extra wrinkles in ancient Greek metrics, but contemporary Americans can surely do the sparkling ancient formations justice when they feel them and swing to them and syncopate with them.
Blessed, then, with proliferating options, Sikelianos accommodates Pindar’s opulent metrics by treating of an edge, a literary sweep and soar, a flamboyant (even) manner and personality that The California Poem discovers. As noted, the dream begins as a rush to spectacular vision. It would indeed seem that the outpouring is spectacular. Yet the images are thick and glommable and polluted — one way of putting it. It nevertheless is spectacular, if for no other reason than by virtue of these energetic metrics recalling, by feel and to some degree systematically, the style of Pindar, now imposed as a rhythm that could aptly be named earth-shaking. Style and rhythm enable the poet, by design, to involve the mythmaking that is Pindar’s.
Thus in effect, and by its action and movement, the writing reassembles what institutes all the feeling of Sikelianos’s effort to model and refashion a new poem, a really creative poem. Strutting her own brand of confidence, she appeals in her rhythms to that ancient world where shimmering confidence naturally harmonizes and brashly composes the melody of its myths for the celebratory occasion. Here is how Eleni celebrates, and truthfully what sort of world it is to be celebrating:
The dental imprint of California
is gravelly, epileptic, spasm
of a sea-borne bungled broken Coastal Range of ridges & spurs with localized names
parking lots littered of glittering dead dented cadillacs
scum-fringed greenfingered gully muck silent in its ditch by
oak of tentacular brow & birds
shoot up quilling like grapeshot
my trailer park’s in the shady ambrosial arroyo of nothing native
stands of embryonic eucaplyptic bluegums frilling on the ridge &
tractor dust like a dress for us
Everybody’s halfcracked with halfteeth missing and ideas of almost-functioning
shipping & receiving depts. near the train tracks collide, hillsides
scrubbed in wild brighting mustard
unknown modes of road wind back the black hot gila monster tarmac beading up
into ripped hills
pinioned slats & sacks stacked up against
mudslides, the night-
boxed lemons loaded into truck-backs in the dark by brown bodiless hands (18)
This is the rush where the personal feelings, whose importance must not be overlooked, reside and where hope somewhat against hope stands to be clarified. The movement forward is reflected in the sense of sweep that characterizes certain early sections of the poem especially, and that here futures forward for another five pages to the bottom of page 23.
The patterns in Pindar’s odes are similar and different, perhaps like jazz-informed swirls of similarity and difference. Thus they also unfold in sweeping fashion, but in formalizing bridges over bridges of strophe, antistrophe, and epode one after another in strict metrical succession, although often with metrical variation, and in any event with so much line-to-line variety that the formalism seems hardly to bear the term. The first strophe of Olympian 1 looks a lot on the page like the passage quoted above (with, on the page printed in landscape, “unknown modes … ripped hills” appearing as one very long line). The resemblance between sections of Sikelianos’s poem and Pindar, it would clearly appear, is not at all insignificant. The line-shaping of this strophe, with editor Alexander Turyn’s wide-angled lens, is relevant and instructive:
Αριστον μεν υδωρ, ο δε χρυσος αιθομενον πυρ
ατε διαπρεπει νυκτι μεγανορος εξοχα πλουτου· 
ει δ’ αεθλα γαρυειν
ελδεαι, φιλον ητορ,
μηκεθ’ αλιου σκοπει
αλλο θαλπνοτερον εν αμεραι φαεννον αστρον ερημας δι’ αιθερος,
μηδ’ Ολυμπιας αγωνα φερτερον αυδασομεν·
οθεν ο πολυφατος υμνος αμφιβαλλεται
σοφων μητιεσσι, κελαδειν
Κρονου παιδ’ ες αφνεαν ικομενους
μακαιραν Ιερωνος εστιαν,
Remember that Greek meter is based on syllable length. Shown here is the scheme for this first strophe (actually for each of the strophes and antistrophes in Olympian 1). Short syllables get a curved bowl, long syllables a bar, and, where there is an option of one or the other or of a resolution of one long into two shorts, the one indicator is placed on top of the other:
The first line, in which water stands forth and so does gold as a gleaming blaze, linked in the next line with “leading men of great wealth” (as translated a bit adventurously), signals the choral scheme because of the presence of the “choriamb.” Four syllables are arranged chiastically as two shorts skipping in between the accompanying two longs. With the “iamb,” by contrast, the basic unit for dialogue in ancient Greek drama, you get alternating shorts and longs, also in a four-syllable group, though also with certain permitted variations and with the first syllable in fact being either short or long.
To return to the magnificence of this first strophe, the first line unfolds as a choriambic grouping identified as “glyconic” followed by a choriambic grouping identified as “pherecratean,” and the two make up the wonderful rolling length of what is called, with appropriate excitement, a “priapean.” Meanwhile, the magnificence, along with dazzling rhythms, along with “poikilos” arrangements, develops as a theme. First of all, understand wealth and success as enjoying honor in the poet’s moral universe where they come with “areta.” This accompanying “virtue” takes manifold forms. It is presupposed that the triumphant subject of the Victory Ode bring into the picture not only skill in the contest, but skill in warfare and outstanding exhibition of generosity, particularly with respect to civic life (where it is the tyrannos, or properly βασιλευς, a sort of king who is being celebrated: βασιλευς twice in Olympian 1, and elsewhere; “tyrannos” with general reference in Pythian 3), including the provision of material abundance, crops and sheep and so forth, in addition to an honest and just mode of conduct generally. By nature meant to love and admire (maybe by duty), the poet-singer either praises these traits or in more than one instance encourages the leader to act in his best interests. Often piquant mythical examples, more often persuasive gnomic utterances, push these reminders.
The rest of the strophe plays indirectly to advice of this kind by posing the prominence of the sun, surprisingly conspicuous day-star in pale, empty sky-stream, in relation to the son of Kronos and all-administrating god-procurer of extensive holdings. Zeus holds and holds dear his Olympia and also his Syrakusa, Sicilian seat of his divinity and the prosperous seat (ες αφνεαν ... εστιαν) of his favorite the tyrannos (βασιλευς) Hieron. By adding praise and blame to the process, the poet and entertainer includes himself in that devotion of good and bright and strong properties and qualities, and with his plenteous and tricky skills does what is themis, just as in the next verses, marking the first antistrophe in the ode’s scheme of things and illuminations, Hieron could and does attend to this just and right scepter (θεμιστειον ος αμφεπει σκαπτον). In this splendid manner Hieron both bestows benefits on his community and lives up to his individual calling and renewed fame. They are his and the poet’s glory and audience both.
It is easy to miss the penetrating nature of the correspondences among divine plotholder, tyrannos (or βασιλευς) new on the western scene establishing his emerging city-state, and Pindar the poet, though from elsewhere, being part of it all. It is not just that the different actors in excellence (whether identified as “areta” or, as is the case here, by a descriptive phrase, “gold above the wealth that comes with a great man” [χρυσος … μεγανορος εξοχα πλουτου], which could imply for the leader a shiny wealth greater than wealth itself) are depicted in combined and parallel performances. It is not that mutatis mutandis we are in the same boat, even though coming over to Sicily in a boat had a lot to do with it. God, hero, and human do not simply inhabit corresponding spheres. It is, better, what Mary Lefkowitz describes in stirring detail as an overlapping of roles coming out of Pindar’s “remarkable ability to express more contemporary concerns by restructuring traditional myth and language.” The coordinated relations establish a pulse of back and forth and give and take. This kind of interaction will inform our observations, but not of what it is, not fully appreciated it would seem, if not concomitantly felt in the special and variable rhythms that Pindar discovers.
Remember, therefore, that it is the poet who makes this happen while he creates it, creates, for example, a performance suitable to the occasion. Pindar creates an order of lineation and syntactical groups prescribing involved connections in varied and complicated metrical designs, in layers of form that though touching base in pregnant contrasts ineluctably repeat throughout a particular ode, such being their importance for the most part. Quick interchanges are possible, always and in addition, and are key. Complex and often visually striking, the forms realize the very same rhythm of back and forth and give and take. Indeed, they donate that rhythm. The hypermetrical lines are of this sort; and the medium-length structures are of that sort; even a shorter and yet entreating type will be thrown in now and then. All of the differences of line length, all of the patterning decked out in various ways while consistently forwardly surging, reflect and have a large role in displaying the mutually dependent relations and their happy and, if for monitory purposes, persuasive connections.
Two lines not from Olympian 1 but from the first antistrophe of Olympian 2 illustrate simply the principle:
οφθαλμος, αιων δ’ εφεπε μορσιμος, πλουτον τε και χαριν αγων
γνησιαις επ’ αρεταις.
In the context of acknowledging Theron’s success (with the help of his family before him) in settling and enriching the city of Akragas, the modern Agrigento, in Sicily, the poet salutes good fortune, wealth, and favor coming upon recognized acts of areta or recognized qualities of areta. Thus the long line contains the idea of wealth, to which the idea of areta pays back a short line, a contrasting or, better, “bouncing-back” short line.
Meanwhile, the connections the poet of Olympian 1 makes are something of the myth the poet makes, in reviving myths known and found of course, but in instituting those corresponding origins, where the son of Kronos and the gleaming sky are evoked, and in reinstituting them as if creating a reality both from those origins and also for all the players (including especially the poet himself), he does so as if for the first time.
All this and repeated references to shining (cf., for the moment, the Californian’s “having no tan to work on I was / working on my self, shiny shiny ), to appearances, and to Zeus’s place in the order, all with allusions not just to heroics but to cosmogonic and theogonic myths, as well as the evocative origins of a single place, the place to be demonstrated, to be lived in (and as, so to speak), even for the professional poet, and to be celebrated. So it goes in California, the reader can sense, if inclined to seek the poem’s order, that of the poem that becomes and is California, a sort of access enjoyed today but not quite similarly by Pindar.
Eleni’s line arrangements and order of purpose seek the finding of lived origins. They sense, they tactilely sense, the finding of the place California and of her place in it, and achieve much the same rhythmic and musical effects, although, at least in the long line from the passage quoted above, they will do so in and for a disturbed, messy, mucky, and earthily sensed and intuited landscape. California brings some aspects of myth, of feeling and of displacing in a world that, if great, is nevertheless compromised in its rapid descent to gunk and decay, when you look at it honestly: “scum-fringed greenfingered gully muck silent in its ditch by” (18; from the passage quoted above). The bright cosmogony that Pindar takes from myth by recreating the birth of Zeus and associated plots and theogonies linked thereto, e.g., Κρονου παιδ’ from the tenth line of the strophe quoted above, here devolves into a geography that is on the one hand more richly descriptive than anything in Greek poetry (due to the sheer accumulation of junk should you not accept the other reasons), and yet on the other hand is debased, and ripe for repair: “I made // birthmarks at the napes of the necks” (129, from an important stretch of writing continuing through 131). Both features, the power of the description and the difficult appeal of what is to be described and named, are the result of an immense amount of time. Both appear in the poem as a result of the poet’s late and supremely advanced historicity. Yet, above it all or through it all, the stirring of rhythmic patterns, the whole dance, the very shaping itself, come in clearly from Pindar, and you can see evidence of the effects due to different line lengths here just as in Pindar.
What is more, the special hypermetrical line just quoted features a pronounced choriambic moment (in my brackets), “[greenfingered gul]ly,” which is itself part of the glyconic that is the standard line-type of Greek choral lyric. These features are followed in the second half of the line by a rhythm similar to what was noted in the master allusion to Pindar, from Olympian 2, and which my version imitates. Pindar’s line and Sikelianos’s line both veer swiftly toward a conclusion (albeit with a strong enjambment in Sikelianos’s line), the acceleration in both helped by a striking syntactical group containing a string of three short syllables: “silent in its ditch by.” Little syllables in a row are not supposed, by habit and by some good insight, to belong to the poetic line in English, but the case is different here for what Eleni Sikelianos is attempting, substantially by design. Conveniently apt for comparison, her line has the further merit of expressing syllable length in addition to stress accent to complete the metrical form.
In general (it would seem), Eleni’s use of ancient Greek forms is by design and reflects a good deal of exquisite attention, but not that of a direct passage from a poem of the 2000s CE to a poem from the 470s BCE. Her use of Pindar serves not as strict formal device but as a guide for what, in practical terms, is the construction of a beautiful statement from many possible sources. Pindar’s Victory Odes are first or nearly first in our long and lengthening (we hope) literary past just waiting to leap into California’s arms. One fortunate exemplar, and she will pan for others almost without telling herself to, is James Joyce’s strict application of Homer’s dactylic hexameter. So in Ulysses the repeated phrase “cracked lookingglass of a servant” (cf. Eleni’s “halfcracked” ) stands out. As an epic formula attending exquisitely to the second half or homeward turn of Homer’s line, Joyce’s image could fill the last three-and-a-half dactylic feet out of six, and since there are only a few choices in this regular meter, the rhythm resonates brilliantly and unmistakably. Meanwhile, the phrase stings with irony; so too Eleni’s phrase, which likens to Joyce’s major idiom, particularly the word “greenfingered,” and which can be either taken as communicating the choriambic unit or as encompassing the complete line unit known as the glyconic, elevates its form in the service of a dissipated and thusly revealing image.
All of this is rich, and has to be. Poetry as verbal plasticity and metrical bedazzlement, and of penetrating multiplicity and complication, is very, very rich, and the metrical scheme tabulating the numbers of the verbal reach in Pindar’s Olympian 1, as shown above, or something very like it, could serve very well for this page (18). In all its brilliance and invigoration it is one of the most stellar passages, however earthy it may be, in Sikelianos’s long and industrious poem.
As mythopoetics, to return to the shine of a major discourse, Eleni’s poetry-making in The California Poem illustrates, and in so doing enacts, her initiation into the sacredness of her world. Hers the big and glowing other, her world entertains the idea of California and then becomes California, as it only can be, as when her writing repeats the changes that are the creation of the world California. Indeed, the poem’s “Prologue” speaks to an absorbing newness, in images that will be probed and polluted (as noted), and has the flavor of the opening chapters of Genesis (“After the last light on clouds, darkness came laying over the known world” ) while calling, in restricted lines centered on the page almost vertically and closing the prologue, for regenerative tones:
Now: to let go what we knew
to not be tight, but
toney; to find a world, a word
we didn’t know (9)
A project of poignant emotional quickness, the poem of California is the poetry of Eleni is the phenomenological, because it “shines,” recreation and sanctification-cum-stratification of the world, in time. Sassy-driving, and sad, not Sadducee but a saddened she coming down from mountain mists (16), Eleni duly tells her California anew. She saves it when she creates it. She breaks it forth to her heart’s content and rue; and it is on this effort that the melancholy of historicity, i.e., hers, that of her being in time, that of her California in full and infinity-hailing extension, shines. Not a rolling up of the past, but a presence in meant time, her California can now be nothing other than a starting over, if only for starters.
Historicity, oddly over and over again, is Eleni’s personalized stamp of writing, is writing “her story,” or better “(t)history.” The historicity of California is where the place — her place — renews and relives origins, and so not expressly but only impliedly is devoted to the supplementarity that defines all writing. How the poem reaches to mythopoetics is not easy to determine. It is perhaps because it seems so unusual in its sacralizing commitment, showing the attempt, provided the reader may really look through it, of herself creating the world by this very extended poem, that it acquires this commitment to explanatory depth as well. By piercing through but paradoxically encompassing all forms of the poetry and the world, Eleni writes herself and writes California, as instance and initiation, without which nothing else can be, and almost surreptitiously with which, no pressure from angling aside, the story, what she calls again and again her “dream” (even when it seems no longer to be that vision’s aspect), can be sold, in other words, can be enriched and magnified, told, retold, firstly told, to the end, obvious but not so easy of refined expression as with which she, Eleni, may still glow, of realizing it, but by all means, if possible, of fully realizing it, fully standing in the chances before it dissolves.
Yet you will see that Eleni, not only lifted but in beauty tumbling, has other birds to fly. History being an inquiry, it aims for its own method in its being in time. The surpassing of all curiosity thought visibly possible, Eleni’s poem aims for a kind of Dasein whereby it defines place and existence in conspicuous measure of all-out risk-taking. As a consequence, it is not at all surprising that Eleni’s place and her and California’s origins are altogether much about geometry, hers being the measure of earth, metrics in earth wisdom, the earth standing and the earth as yet another adventure, in shapes too primal and too rich for numbers were it not for their rhythm. A moving forward in waves of splendid writing entails impression of land, and so ocean is a watery land, even dust and light gloriously afloat from geometry (130). Such rhythms may signal the geodic aspect, the earth-song geometry that Eleni affirms, e.g., to cordon off a later section with
Bright spores of daylight,
Belle de Nature, come see
4 x 4 destruction:
or not so evidently imbued with sorrow (and not so much later but in a transitional forward-gesturing section), the phrase “a cool geometry” closing an inner segment and putting the observer in time-space with eyes heading left-right (82) that graces a one-page section propped in turn on two pages of elaborate “Timetable.” In this section’s close, the “phenomenological” theme of creative appearing sheds a tentative hopefulness: “(An earthly beauty shines / through the broken lights)” (82). The references to “earth” in such enclosings, such delineations, do not prove but rather contribute to the “geodic,” earth-singing character of The California Poem. So in the section-ending affirmation of “horology” as opposed to “geology,” thinking of pattern and shape supports the feeling: “In this horology, ‘twist the tide pool and the stars into the pattern of paleontology and time’” (174), where the all-important bordering — and oozing and murky and soft — seashore participates in poetic form, and not only this once. Or in a landscape, as in “country measured out” (139), this geometry is defined, with more of that measuring, and with a scientifically secure instrumentation in numbers, where Eleni images and imagines for herself (it will also be her shelf):
now empty California
of its patterns
in my little 2 ft. x 2 ft. plot
of thought (106)
The interest in myth as California seems to point to the Chumash, the people and language of the place (52; 80–81), as well as to flora and fauna regarded in their special illuminations, how they occasion eloquence in discursive maneuvers among life-science questions. More intuitively, the myth and origins of California take expressive form as this “cool geometry,” this taking a stand by means of taking measure of very Earth, of precious and beloved Earth. This from Edmund Husserl’s essay, famous among his shorter compositions, titled “The Origin of Geometry,” bears on the metaphorical position toward which Sikelianos grounds her own assertions. Uncertainty, in support of confidence and feeling, remains alive and well with Sikelianos, whereas uncertainty and a concern with grounds and horizons trouble the philosopher no end:
All questioning and demonstrating which is in the usual sense historical presupposes history [Geschichte] as the universal horizon of questioning, not explicitly, but still as a horizon of implicit certainty, which, in spite of all vague background-indeterminacy, is the presupposition of all determinability, or of all intention to seek and to establish determined facts.
Husserl aims at the ideal structure of the foundation of geometrical science. Revealing the structural principles of this origin, which reserves for itself its occurrence, and as origin its status of having necessarily taken place and being determinate and knowable with apodictic certainty, would apply an equivalent status to the origins of the other sciences and of all knowledge in general. To sustain, or imagine, the origin of geometry, Husserl relies on historicism as speaking directly to a historical a priori which, importantly, establishes and pays homage to horizons for its historical meaning-content. A crucial undertaking grabs hold, necessary to save philosophy and to save western culture in their time of need; it relates to a concept of horizons insofar as they provide a basis for constructing the ideal (and true) knowledge of not only geometrical science but indeed all of the cultural constructs that are in this crisis.
What Husserl means by the concept of horizons, however, is something like a vast extending out in all directions. To be sure, it would have to be from a certain perspective that this extending outward is understood. Indeed, in his short essay “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” Husserl considers all the angles, or mentions them. The historicity of a subject finding a home in the world, the kind there is for humans and shouting of horizons, would offer accounts for many relations and many perspectives on spatiality. Yet the levels of experience thus examined devolve to the observation that people, however individually constituted, “all exist for one another in open, undetermined horizons of earth-space” (228). Openness and indeterminacy of horizons thus phrased do not produce a clear picture. By contrast, “The Origin of Geometry” offers in addition a negative focus, having that much as analytical advantage, where Husserl links “horizon” with a “surrounding,” a present surrounded by history, and furthermore “surrounded by an openly endless horizon of unknown actualities” (266). Appearances of existence to Husserl thus signal the importance of existence in its own right, but in an overly stretched frame. Nevertheless, seeing phenomenologically looks forward to sensibilities about life, and specifically about horizons, and thus occasions much further tightened and expanded inquiry.
So for The California Poem, to the extent this picture arrives true to form, all the blows and blossomings of a poetry on full alert, motivated and energized in a historicity of, in a sense, knowing the not-there (e.g., but only in one sense, “my ideal dream of a landscape dream in which / I am not” ); in a self-consuming and self-conscious attitude towards drawing the California that is one’s subject in the form of eloquent actualities; and in all manner of thrilling and deeply sobering facts and situations, determined anthropologically, personally, through documentation, in the study of natural history, in any number of ways made available and all of them richly poetical, all these determined as the actualities of beautiful expressive formations, are or could be thought of as conditioned by the horizon of the unknown. Husserl identifies the situation in time and space that gives rise to the science of geometry as the factual and ideal fiction of what is a priori self-evident and apodictically certain. He gives it to us as a fiction, upon which, granted, epistemological inquiry may build. But what he gives is conceived out of an “openly endless horizon.” Including everything and therefore nothing merely frames the experience without elucidating or, say, realizing it while having the merit of affording for the tester of realities a two-fold insight into Dasein as at once In-the-World and Not-in-the-World. Although it is possible to be struck by the endlessness of horizons, the task becomes one of enjoying the concept of horizon as pertaining already, as Husserl himself might notice, to the “cool geometry” of this heady rush and glory of the writing of a place in the world, in California, its, Sikelianos’s, and ours. Known or unknown, we may grasp these horizons such as they are. We may approach, even as a starting out and repeating initiation, the horizons of our In-the-World experience for what they truthfully are.
What, then, is the character, what is the Gestalt, what are the revealingly and shiningly configured horizons that we may seek to celebrate California? By the way, it could be an actual horizon in a geographically defined space, such as the special horizon of sea and earth, and specifically the California coastline that so fascinates the poet and institutes some of her best writing in the sand.
Eleni’s poem is historical in the form in which she as subject relates to the land as subject. The presentation of her own character, along with the state of California as character, defines this history, this (t)history, in certain relations to a span of time reaching to its greatest extent and considered from a number of different perspectives, and as the coordination of them. As temporality this writing, so too as spatiality or as the geography that is naturally one of its aspects, relates to its subject in terms of a formation or perhaps Gestalt for which the concept of geometry, when she names it, serves as a clear, distinct, and appropriate metaphor. Her writing succeeds most importantly as a mapping of horizons, a precise drawing of the “curve of horizon.” The spatiality and temporality connect in the form that constitutes the historicity of her undertaking. The historicity of Eleni’s writing is worthy of Dasein in the sense that her existence is a defining and constitution of her place in California, her geometrical, one could say, and brilliant appearance in the vastness of time and space of California; not, however, as precisely this extension but rather as the horizons that are so beautifully rendered in the poem, that emerge front and center in and through the writing’s sweep and panache, and assume this particular constitutive form that can only be understood as the writing develops, as it shines and appears, to stay with the phenomenological theme in which the mythmaking may be pursued.
On the one hand, the myth is this shining, and so is recreative. On the other hand, the very layout of text, image, and signs expresses this covalent geometry. The poet may illustrate the nature of her existence in history with a geometrical situating. Further to those moments of emblematic elegance, she unfurls her eloquent writing in section after section, as this geographical and geological outpouring of crucial fact and fictions, all playing into a context, the context of her poem and her California, where the writing positions itself geometrically. This geometry, this discovered and creative form of her measuring her Earth and her place in it, is borne out, one may feel. The poem really draws its measures and its horizons out and really configures them, as opposed to a type of metaphorical prospect not aptly describing the approach here taken, that of inviting the reader merely to interpret the poem in such terms.
Horizons take their meaning, and a kind of place, though many places at once, from an openness to something. It is not an indiscriminate openness to a totality sensed. Totality can never be achieved, but it can be sensed, and its being there perforce reconnoiters as a willy-nilly openness; but it is not that kind of openness for which a poem may become a myth of creation. Horizons for Sikelianos have a connection to which her historical belonging opens itself as a meant and constituted openness, Martin Heidegger’s strictly constituted character of openness as “Erschlossenheit,” the character and means of Dasein being a part of being In-the-World and, still the world, one’s self-existence therein, or in California if you will. The leap into dance-rhythm and bedazzlement finds its potential, by act and by pure confidence, in being there where a really sensed sense — a personal and also geological historicity — mounts.
That way you can look to other horizons, the only way of finding California. Choice is quiet; Dasein is quiet; it has within it the wherewithal to go somewhere else, it has that as its constitutional invite, to find what it has to say, an agenbite of inwit bedeviled in the squelching, squiggly tallow-mulch of sea and sand.
The trick of a poem of this kind may be not to make the writing of the writing unravel in a series, not to take experience in as flowing, even of the exposition of writing as if one is merely to follow and follow some more. This writing of the writing of California compounds its back and forth, therefore, its give and take, in the coordinated backtracking, looking-through-to and anticipating, if we are lucky. Conceiving the poem of California ushers in its temporality, or Zeitlichkeit, what living and writing and writing California is and has and can become.
The California Poem is big, spanning the scores of feelings, of heartbreaks, the makings of hundreds of pages, hundreds of years, hundreds of lifetimes. It is magical from personal weight. The historicity that is its targeted subject comes from this weight and this involving emphasis, articulated in so many different ways, in so many forms of attention to the beauty of it. The beauty of it, who knew? And here attending could assume the face of caring:
Earlier, I had my elbow in the yellowest California, we talked
about the coin-shaped trapdoors on gastropods, as the possible versions
of a virgin California slipped away from me
into the geranium, scraggly
nasturtiums on the fire escape. Here in this living-
room there is no sea. Who
cares about the sea?
because the sea
makes us land-like but think
sea-like because I can only ever think
about things swimming there; Delphinidae, which herald love, diligence
(and the constellation delphinus in the sky)
Issuing from the mouth of this animal is a flower: jessant, of a
jerkwater town at the back
of a branch-line train
where runny stars rain by
like eggs, golden
& locked, a hometown is a waiting place, a waiting place is
static inside the heel
I therefore developed longer toes for walking on floating vegetation (jacanidae)
the ancient celadon-and-shining agave lining the path all the way down to the sea (56)
Another passage apt for comparison, this page of writing points to the elemental themes, including fire dear to Heraclitus, that are the familiar architecture of Pindar’s Olympian 1. There is a big difference, however. Sea is her target, savior and hero of sorts, a certain gray and as we know “brackish” type of water, useful and generative but not by itself appropriate to what is connoted in Pindar’s “best water.” Thus water’s wonder introduces gorgeous writing in a section dedicated to flora and fauna issues and bearing the title “Biotic Community: Freshwater Marsh.” Water is an idea, true, but more plangently a swell of fascination for replete description:
Wherever shallow, standing water remains; along the coast in brackish loops, around
springs, ponds, lakes, and sluggish streams.
Common Tule, Bulrush, Cattails, sedge and spike rush, pondweed
Predaceous diving beetle, Giant Water Bug, toadbug
Gallinule, Coot, Marsh Wren, Redwinged Blackbird, Yellowthroat
Pond turtles, Treefrogs, Garter snakes (104)
A simple list is presented, and a charming place-form appears. Lines of exuberant rhythm, though not Pindaric, initiate hope in a world of exuberance by simply naming the names of life, the poet’s life. A section a few pages further on (110–11) will feature rhythms resembling Pindar’s choral variety and offer their own kind of difficult, scratched-out hope (What / is appearing [i.e., not disappearing]? This remains to be / named and seen.”; phrase in brackets mine, but supplied from passage’s context). Here on page 104 water, as it continues down the page as a theme, along with the everpresent “Gold Ruin,” governs as concept for a Dasein expressing itself in relations that, implying a history of essential import, are no different from other sets of relations constituted in history.
Whereas Sikelianos, poet, relates to sea, surge, and source in biodiverse and biometric life determinately known as topic of revered, sacred talk and form of scientific knowledge and naming, Pindar, poet, relates water to high flash and vector of Zeus and human scepter-bearing and heights-endowing brightness, both for renewal and recreation in πολυμαλωι Σικελιαι, “Sicily rich in apple-fruits or rousing of sheep-flocking,” the Sicily here named sounding like and being Sikelianos’s family’s namesake. Elementals and fertility and origins constitutively abide, with a difference in form of language and a boost in fact in discursive intricacy, wholly different as a yellowest form by contrast to bright goldenest gleaming, where the brightness beckons there and water supports, and like it or not in Pindar a different Dasein and different historicity, but Pindar’s not merely past and present and future in that order either, not by a long shot for Eleni Sikelianos in her hosting paradigms and processes that count vitally. So we find The California Poem stylized in anticipation of the ancient counterpart Sikelianos prompts, if she does not quite plot it, as well as flourishing out to a more fully informed history and a more fully directed historicity in its brave encounter with terrible time, but also and sweetly resonating Pindar, healing, even if just barely doing so, or just barely getting to the settling down to what has been done, what to do, what sing. Remarkably, Sikelianos’s poem aspires awash in a courageous uncertainty over the whole questioning brightness of it, the whole, to use the word from Pindar’s Greek and bannering the California mystique, “biotos.”
The California Poem is a poem of facts. It is a poem of science. It is a poem of the life sciences. It is a poem of βιοτος thus extended as potentiality for, perhaps, creation anew in Sikelianos’s “biotic communities” reenlivened in patches of anticipatory and impassioned writing. The poem is, at times, a poem of the geometry of the world in the formations that take place in tandem with the poet finding her lived, remembered, and felt place in the world, in her particular world (even when that also includes “purr Eddie” who “lies [lost] in the land of covalent ditches” ; bracketed insertion is mine). Strangely, a poem that means to assume great importance in the world of poetry today is a poem that does, or must, once the poet gets that feeling, which is a feeling despite the strangeness of it, include science as a major developmental theme. Historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) and temporality (Zeitlichkeit) come together in a brilliant succession of forms. Attending to the forms in a certain way, the Gestalt the writing shows itself to observe will open itself to possibilities and choice. Openness of horizons to writing of advanced historicity means that the choice comes and is taken. Historicity means overwhelming love for the task of California, whether or not there is another subject like it in fullness and sadness, and for terrain and sealand the brows thickening in loss.
Thus a geological-geodesical and geopolitical-anthropological timetable, celebrating as an all-encompassing and truthful history, leaves no sphere or region out, beginning with 12,500 years ago, when “[t]he Channel Islands are settled, ‘fire-reddened earth’; ‘glaciers tie up earth’s water’ (thus the islands were closer to shore)” (80). Thus having the form and appearance of leaving nothing out, the timetable goes simply, completely to “CURRENTLY” with plans at the Vandenberg Air Force Base and a connection thereto, not for the first time in the poem, from the aboriginal Chumash language, thus a truly native origin as historically posited in form and appearance. Thusly incorporating the discourse of science for its form and appearance splendored in aesthetic beauty, in appearance and form as the all-encompassing, really felt history of major moments of “Timetable,” the poem leaves no doubt as to the phenomenological, twice-truthful character of what it means by history, by California hers and ours. Science will loom large, burden especially of life science, saddened in its mythmaking preoccupation because of life’s diminishing; but note that in illuminating and enacting these colorful grounds the poem has blended into its sources, either gloaming or positively unglooming, this unexpected, this inescapably necessary, this indescribably celebratory charm.
Regardless of these and other great spans of time, the strength of The California Poem lies in its intimacy, insofar as the personality of the poet writing with her precise accents of advanced historicity develops by the guidance of poignant moments. How this exacting personal tone, both studious, to be very sure, and a flavor or affair of fun, of teenage and young-adult fun with many qualifications, can rate so highly with the aggressive paleontology of California writ immense is the question. Its (t)history provides the sure answer, where it is “horizon” in a meant sense that adds the real and the persuasive time to the poem and makes it great. It alone does that.
Poetry appears in grasp of Zeitlichkeit, for Eleni and for us. Her existence in California is the condition for her writing The California Poem, and this existence is effectively, it should become clear as the writing of the poem progresses, not that of being situated in this place during a particular time, her life, insofar as she leads her life in California, which would in turn be related to the whole life of California, namely its history, and therefore her history and our history. The poem’s beauty lies in relations that are in place very much to the contrary of that form of evident situating in this place and this time and the whole time. Eleni’s place in California comes through, and shines through, not as a datum in a continuum but as a direction and a forum, as the character and quality of her interest in California, and so as the topics or the topology of this interest. For Eleni, being in the world introduces concern, for our edulcoration, perhaps as being situated but not secured, conveyed in one’s place in the bolstering of confidence, not as existence always and everywhere, but because it is this beautiful California that is given and giving, for her place, and in a manner of speaking for our place:
What the little dangers what the large What medicines will be
needed, collecting California in the littoral
indicated on the tide charts
under bridges, in bays, in North Beach
Chinatown, what was writ
in water, under wharves with
mussels clinging by byssus threads, stringy
grit-filled frilly girl lips (“The orange flesh of this mussel makes fine
fish bait and is also excellent as human food”) (170–71)
With this brand of interest, amplified by all of her special concerns, it comes about that all of the feelings about California take center stage; the melancholy, and joy and humor, and all of that great sadness in Eleni’s inevitable response to the impending loss and extinction, to that unavoidable loss, make their appearance. They persuade us with their beauty, and with their depth and charm, just as California is a destined realm hovering to persuade of belief in beauty. They and California join, in the Dasein-fleeting-floating movement and rhythm celebratory, all because of the way they emerge out of the repeated telling; because of the way, in gorgeous and exceedingly varied yet somehow consistent rhythms, they dream their interest in her California, and her poignantly illuminated caring for California. California and the idea of California, inside these gestures, form the instituting and empowering span of time in which these attempts at definition situate themselves.
Sikelianos’s writing thus makes possible instead an attitude — a positioning and a projection — to the total circumstances of becoming California, as an awareness of the historicity of one’s being California. The poet’s relation to her subject is a matter of choice and hence interest, but expressly to the state of California as California’s historicity. Every observation and assertion in the poem creates anew, again and again, the relation of the poet’s being to California, and also the relation of California’s being to the whole history of California as the existence of Californians in California in the act of their taking stock, in all relations they conceive in that whole time considered at once in some way, perhaps as a time for them, of the being California.
All of this explains how the writing becomes so complicated and so beautiful. It explains how the writing comes across as a beautiful adventure and yet also as a soberly, carefully sustained reentry into our being, in California, as part of the elaborate, and hence delightful however grimy, matter, the occasional piked expression of her quality of being in California. The California Poem admits of scientific writing and lists and tables, all a taking stock for Sikelianos. It admits of detailed, riveting, eloquent, and even metaphorically enlivening writing of natural history, and so taking stock with a purpose toward redefining life among exquisite and surprising paradigms. It admits of passages like this page:
sine & cosine & radian argument
non-knowledge engulfs me
In the trackless desert will I see
a pillar of light [endnote omitted]
burning tumbleweed blowing across the Great
Basin; “plainly men lived here, women
I think it’s too late
to make this poem
into a specific traffic (pall
of bright melancholy)
to know where I falls
on the inside or outside of time/space
too late — the marked
of the land has
submitted its own
dream & question
seize me a city from that pale corridor, the future, traveling headfirst
into the magnetized sun’s dizzying pits (73)
Following the strict geometrical coordinates of the epigraph, the poet heads down to the directional time of “too late,” not time past or lost but acknowledgement and backtracking to past time’s “Da-gewesen.” It happened there, it happened, it is as Dasein, as considered, felt, there. The speaker is found there, found and lost and delivers herself in her historically conditioned “melancholy,” her personal historicity of being “too late” but really thereby taken back into the presentation of the land and of the dream that equals and plans coordinates with that land. Plus, directed not only backward but inward and forward, perhaps in non-expiring even non-actual (uneigentlich) hope, Sikelianos achieves in and through her sadness her full unreal and fully real presence, her being where she is not, being “too late” but more really on time than ever, even when sneaking around in the corner in government subsidies (49), even when “like a piece of cardboard” (51), in this exquisitely timely too-lateness.
The end of the extraordinary page of writing just quoted above, establishing a mildly “poikilos” flair and tapping in at least two places into Sikelianos’s major Pindaric dance-rhythm, does not end the section. After it, on the next page and all by itself and smack up against the upper-left corner, show forth these amazing, and these piquantly even vengefully awkward, dialectics in extreme brief of California becoming poem and poem becoming California:
Instructions: Write the character’s death scene, character
California, what would Character California
egret flown from
the lake, what regret? (74)
How can a character’s death scene become such a glorious dream, here as more and more melancholy, but revealed as potentiality in dream by the mere but greatly earned existence of the poem as long, big book itself? The answer, a profound feeling escaping irony, is, of course, one of the handful of pastiches on the “what … what … what” paradigm from Pindar’s Olympian 2. Here the “what” scheme that marks the poet’s reinitiating circumstances gleams transparent and undimmed by context and, what is more, equates California, as historicity, with this all-totalizing, richly existing sadness, this well-spent sadness. What you get, then, is the immensity of time (of California) made available (for the first time, as it were) to a poem, incorporating natural history equating with the thought of extinction naturally leading to a personal history, as the Dasein of the historicity of the feeling itself.
Thusly may we find what we are looking for. Heidegger marrying historicity with temporality truly lived (Geistlichkeit and Zeitlichkeit) recaptures sense fully grown through the directedness of Dasein, of unactual or actual sense of existence where you are not, where you are coming, what has been lived and done. Writing can only be living. It can only beam into a horizon as a coming together to place this Earth as California. It only comes in openness to a truer history as time-presence right there, where being same as here is there in this pacing, this patching and practicing, and is a (t)history, according to Sikelianos, recovering what Husserl does not envision, much less let it slip in, as the horizon of geometry. Yet it is by Husserl’s, and earlier Immanuel Kant’s, example that Heidegger could provide the platform of a constructive horizon functioning within a schema of existence in time, and not directionless as a surround, but still directionless and at the same time even more directed than ever. Sikelianos’s geometry, creating against opposable odds her “bright melancholy,” is not a pulling through an endless and hopeless succession of spaces and times, part of what “specific traffic” (73, the page of writing just quoted) would amount to, and so is not at all an unfolding flow of “time/space” dynamism and urgency, but something else again, and nevertheless, and now for yet another first time, gloriously entering into a glowing time and expanse, as if led by that “pillar of light” (73).
Whatever this could be, it is what it has to be in The California Poem. Upon considered reading, there is no doubt of it. If “into the magnetized sun’s dizzying pits” (73) symbolizes adequately Heidegger’s discovery of these geometrics, it also clearly realizes and grasps and finds, finding itself as well, the pillars of Pindar’s oh-so-famous description (from the strophe given above) of “εν αμεραι φαεννον αστρον ερημας δι’ αιθερος.”
For Kant, the intuition of space is the necessary condition for the principles of geometry. This space is necessarily infinite. It simply is that way (as it is “given to our senses”). Thus being so vast, space as presented by Kant in the beginning expositions of Critique of Pure Reason  would not serve well as a horizon for the directedness of thinking through and living through existence in what would have to be considered as a form of place. One’s choice of spatiality is crucial to understanding The California Poem by Eleni Silkelianos because she often explicitly and also often implicitly records her experiences geometrically. The task for the reader in turn is to form a picture of Eleni’s geometry and thus, even, to experience along, in some fashion, her being-lived life. Trying to live a life, or thinking or writing about doing so, in unlimited space, or even in any kind of surround, a notion so vaguely delineating, would be meaningless.
To live in and hence draw the shape in and of a detached, dry world filled with light of another order, a thirstling curl of a world as we have seen, requires a practice. So only the meant and directed activity, governed as mathematical and therewith a considered geometry, can fashion the precise “curve of horizon” (100). Leaping into this world measures the form in, and of, the horizon, and so finds the historicity, with the sought empowerment, of Dasein, always a kind of place in the world, always a self-constituting and, indeed, originating world itself, the space and the time of it always poetically informed, possibly. The horizon that the poem seeks may be said to constitute its Dasein in its raised temporality of taking back, anticipating and creating the moment, past, future and present richly understood (Heidegger talking about a horizontal schema of time), and always as a plus the renewed, the redreamt elsewhere and nowhere:
When it “breaks,” we can say it “shatters,”
but there is behind the breaking line the
blind horizon line
and no thing will be broken again
till another shore (miles and miles past rough sea)
border curve — world’s curve — his voice curving past … (101)
The poet sketches a concept of horizon in these pages by means of her choice, and somewhat elusive, turns of phrase and image. The writing in these pages does not, however, prove a subjective experience that would lay claim to a boldly persuasive or strongly impressive instantiating of California depicted. While thrilling, these notions do not themselves compel. Searching and powerful in their approach, they are a kind of mounting evidence urging the project forward. As talking points the projected images might serve the going ahead and doing, by initiating (once again) a form of inquiry that proceeds by inviting the reader to consider how well — and how precisely, intricately, convincingly, and movingly — The California Poem does indeed draw a sufficient curve of horizon. Method and manner lend themselves to finding of home and place. Constituted in vectors and felt in an exquisite geometry of telling, guided by coordinated factors among which the notion of horizon especially compels (“For my pelagic perfect cosine wave / that holothurian travel game // there may be dust on that border between South and Central / but the dividing line between land and sea is no line at all” ), Eleni’s efforts to dream her real, historically realized California press on. Thus a shorter section, concentrated and centered vertically (almost) on one page, a well-wrought imagistic poem of sorts, expresses the seeking after paradise and so provides in turn evidence of the nature of the telling, with almost a hint of substantiating geologic time:
In my seekness I
salutate California as Empire
which rendered us capsized
to sizes of hipses & thighses
but like a burger I will rise
in bits of bodily heat such as
god’s abstinence to show
the Sun’s always a virgin in this assembled
paradise and every gray whale is gorging
on amphipods amidst the quantum foam (79)
Poem as sequencing, with educated pace and timing, accumulates to a mythmaking in the service of recreating origins. The how of this telling determines the horizon as a configuration, again aligned with Dasein as poem as California as Eleni as earth. The reader assumes the task of realizing how well this telling unfolds, the quality and character, with California as main character, of a passionate “mythologizing,” a term Eleni employs although when making an apparent wrong turn: “mythologizing the landscape beyond recognition” (95).
It should come as no surprise that the question of California could feature so importantly as a question of horizons. To the extent the concept of horizon contributes to, is already a part of, existence as temporality, with a bead on interest and even caring towards past, future, present, any concern of existence in time rates in the question of horizons. The functional horizon for Pindar’s Olympian 2, as it also functions not unrelatedly though distantly for Heidegger, is Death. So, Death is the Death Valley part of The California Poem, but really more as continuing involvement with sand and dust, and extinction, and it is also the uncounted sands (ψαμμος αριθμον περιπεφευγεν) that serve as horizon for the poet of Olympian 2. To celebrate with ethical and aesthetic distinction is to attend to a concept of recompense. In his giving back, the poet himself shall take care that his arrows do not misfire, for consider the misfortunes endured after Oedipus’s long-foretold slip, and conversely imagine the easy fortune and prosperity of Kadmos’s daughters Semele and Ino, followed by shocks and then followed by honor and a blessed eternal life (βιοτον αφθιτον). Spectacularly, and evidently drawing on mysteries creating in this part of the world a liaison with the beyond, Pindar’s poem takes up the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, to which his private fear of offending by κορος, by presumption in the amount and elevation of his claims, gives ear. The poem ends humbly in the recognition of an unnumbered immensity imaged as sands on the shore and identified with Zeus and for which the poet has no answer except that his power does not extend that far. Sand is his horizon as totality mythically embodied, and so focused and clearly affirmed, and against which the poet speaks in the optative, and thereby both confidently affirms and admits to the uncertainty that without a doubt controls:
επει ψαμμος αριθμον περιπεφευγεν,
και κεινος οσα χαρματ’ αλλοις εθεκεν,
τις αν φρασαι δυναιτο; 
This Victory Ode is special for dwelling so forcefully on conduct and rewards. The poet sets an affirmation of responsibility towards matching pleasure or counter-matching comeuppance against a background of myth hierarchically defined with Zeus at the top. The kind of authority that Zeus embodies in Greek mythology is much qualified and assuaged. The three-person threads of fate or mysterious power of “Moira” itself (this goddess making appearances in Olympian 2) are either beyond Zeus himself or put up there as things go. Yet it is significant where Theron stands, as parallel to where the Olympian wields authority and as a fit subject for praise, on the dispensing of wealth and prosperity ablaze in areta:
ο μαν πλουτος αρεταις δεδαιδαλµενος φερει των τε και των
καιρον, βαθειαν υπεχων μεριμναν αγροτεραν,
αστηρ αριζηλος, ετυμωτατον
It is all brightness and light and imagination and brilliance connoting the areta, but proper use of one’s good fortune and staying in the path of one’s shining accomplishments, one’s ολβος you might say, stands firmly behind this presence that Pindar celebrates. The poet performs excellent service in all directions, in memory and awareness, in new and everpresent mythmaking. Whereas the types may come into their own, the reenactment of just and fateful consequences by way of cautioning against irredeemable offenses and by showing what happens in the case of αλιτρα, and also how you can get to the other prize of undimming ease and enjoyment, brings the study and the gesturing of ordered benefactions closest to home.
Taking her cue from her namesake world, which is Pindar’s new home from home from the home of Thebes from which he travels across the sea (like a piece of cork hopping a fence in another ode), Sikelianos models her own form of responsibility in some ways on that of Pindar. In a soaring and bountiful early section, she cuts her own boat adrift to relive and to describe not a geological or pantheological success but rather the materials of a “green geometry” (31). Against a backdrop of her own life, and personal illumination, and personal character as philosopher, she finds the history, both human and natural, of California. The mythology of sleep and dreams would be the sandman, while dream is littoral and fecund and thus not too much unlike the threaded rim of the sea. Sand and dream hold the answer here. The mythology of time would include the hourglass, time running out and yet time practiced and held and always in new creation as the temple of recurring and return. These little kernels of sand afford a different look from that of the uncountable sands of the poet Pindar’s approaching. Zeus and other fates and distancings as all-powerful are all well and good and connect to a vibrant personified form, indeed, of historicity the like of which doubles as groves of possibility for Sikelianos.
In the following page from The California Poem, taking to its close a seminal and reinitiating stretch of writing for an understanding in best time, the practice of seeking the profound questions and answers of the day in the form “what … what … what,” as absorbed from Pindar, allows a revealing chink in the mythopoetic armor. So the first one is not a little desperate. Instead of “What friend” it becomes, with significant appeal, “What, friend?” The entire page is fraught with those delightful difficulties abetted by that charm of rhythmic largeness and variety that has made its mark in Eleni’s hopes:
Yo, thou thouest
little bird in the earth black back
of the car — Oh, what’s this — the
car is an earth! the bird is a self! the
mask is human! & shows the
insuperable nest next to the second
ago, shattered, saying, “What, friend?” “What
precision” “What art” in proper names we repeat
tea habits over complex
centuries in gold = discovery, gold =
luminosity, gold = grief, greed, the
killer at the back of the sea, say, says
words do describe my aversion to drag rag-
dolls down to the river, a river
sibling over the middle waters
It cleans “you”
Now I’m planning on not being that person that I was
So you, so you go
toward the music, human
It was distant & luminous beyond
an 8-year-old of my position to move across
it down toward the sea.
the sea. or
that is how I remember it, what
I remember I believed (35)
The existence that offers itself to situating in California, from eons ago and in this time of critical mass for living in California in all forms, includes wealth named as money and greed, and therefore without accompanying areta, to be absolutely sure. The horizons known as California include the thirstling curve of horizon in which the dust- and heat-laden aroma of imperiled land finding its horizon features the “eucalyptus” as renowned resurrection plant. If truth unfold, it is from the lignotubers and their many dormant epicormic buds that the eucalyptus grows back after a fire. As words unfold, mythopoetics may return and recapture these origins, these recreation imperatives, as expressing a hope different from the “apocalyptic” moment we are used to calling our time, and so not “bursting apart” but holding fine and secure and “well-wrapped” as it were, in this moment. Myth can express itself as symbol where “eucalyptus,” without too much cleverness, can take place as Dasein, hence of beautiful unfolding and infolding all held in poise and confidence. In the meantime, there is still this very time and temporality (Zeitlichkeit) constituted in and with this historicity (Geschichtlichkeit), by way of the coinage “(t)history” as we have noted, and directed metaphorically as science and measure of earth with tangible results always, an all-constituting geometry necessary for the poem to assume its truthful form and place, with the shining gold, of Pindar’s interest and caring, however tarnished, and the best water now a best and complexly mixed solution of our fecund and immemorially generative sea, scientifically speaking among other aspects, and the target of Eleni’s remembering.
The poet’s initiation into and assumed completion of The California Poem, the California of all life-forms not to be forgotten, fields a deep responsibility extending the ancient Greek poet’s ploys and plays and concerns, in turn undertaking a full assignment of responsibility for its debt to this brilliant model. It is now her brilliance, moreover, in present and perfect struggle, defining prosperity and life by courageously tapping into that gleam of money, a new and different tyrant and not the generous “tyrannos” (or properly “βασιλευς”) trimmed and cleaned to a sparkle by another poet in another time. As Eleni closes another compelling early section of the poem marking her purpose and course, she thus reinitiates, for many occasions and in pure homage to her occasions, her living in the world as understanding of California, hers and ours; she thus redefines the history of her being, tries yet again the Earth-song, hers and ours:
I might find “occasion to
sing war & perfect soldiers”—
the war that wages over the
face of the Earth, against
every edible turtle &
movable tree, the tyranny
of money (43)
4. It is hoped that the reader (and particularly the reader of ancient Greek) will make allowances for the fact that quotations in this essay are presented without accent and breath marks. Also, iota subscript will be indicated with the letter iota after the respective vowel. In the text quoted here, moreover, please note that the Greek word for “water” (the third word) would be written with the aspirated breath mark, so that a corresponding word like our “hydroponic” is spelled, as you can see, with an “h” to deliver the sound that comes simply with the breath mark at the beginning of the Greek word.
6. See A. D. Morrison, Performances and Audiences in Pindar’s Sicilian Victory Odes (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2007), 5–19. In his survey of scholarship on the question of performance, Morrison notes the view emphasizing dance and song elements in performance at page 7. The arguments pro and con may become intricate. For my liking, “dance” being the basic meaning of “choral” is enough to suggest how the splendor of physical movement may be sensed in Pindar’s forms by the reader. It may be enough, in other words, that dance simply be thought of as being essential to the form, regardless of the debate over historical practice.
The text of “Democracy” was delivered as a talk at Oxford University’s La Maison française, as part of the colloquium “Littérature, espace(s) public(s) et démocratie” — Literature, Public Space(s) and Democracy — held November 1–2, 2013. For me, it concerns raising a voice of resistance to the illusions of capitalist “democracy,” which is the air we breathe. And evoking an experimental poetic practice that contributes to the permanent invention of a truly democratic space. — Jean-Marie Gleize
There is, in Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a text called “Democracy.” We know little of this text’s composition, as the manuscript is lost. It was published belatedly in a journal (La Vogue, 1889), but we are scarcely surprised to encounter a text of this title from the quill of that democrat Rimbaud, virulently hostile to Napoléon III’s dictatorship, radically aligned with the insurrectionary movement of the Paris Commune — with, one might say, an insurgent, revolutionary democracy. As Bernard Noël has suggested, Rimbaud is a communard “not only in his opinion, but in his being.” Now the particularity of this poem is in being the only one in the collection entirely within quotation marks. It is democracy who speaks. It concerns prosopopoeia. Upon recognizing this, the Rimbaud specialists are perplexed, their opinions contradictory.
To revisit the formulation of one (Pierre Brunel): “Rimbaud’s intention seems particularly difficult to grasp.” In effect, the text expresses imperialist and capitalist violence, announces the massacre of the “logical revolts” … Does Rimbaud affirm and take up the mantle of a conquering warrior for democracy, a manifestation of the people’s power (according to his native, regular scheme: the necessity for destruction/detonation toward a regeneration or a later reconstruction)? Does he take a malign pleasure in transcribing the caricature of democracy delivered by his bourgeois adversaries, evoking the horror and terror it inspires in them? Here we must return to the quotation marks. If Rimbaud expressed himself in his own name, as he does in all of Illuminations’ other poems, he would do so without divagation. In this poem it must be democracy who speaks, saying that which it is and does, its fearsome civilizing program. The result is finally that the reader is led to transfer the quotation marks to the only word in the text which does not bear them: its title.
“Democracy” is by no means the power of the people but the instrument of the people’s domination and oppression; “democracy” is not democracy. This fact allows us to return to the ambiguity of the writer’s gesture, ambiguity that is at once voluntary (the rhetorical work’s deployment of prosopopoeia as concerted device) and inevitable, already having happened: the Illuminations speak at once the unacceptable character of “the rest of the world,” of the world as it is, its violence and the counterviolence necessarily entrained, the more or less utopic visions that it arouses, etc. If something like democracy exists, it doubtless supposes other struggles, other forms of life of which the labor of poetry can make only confused or oblique reports. Exigency, malaise, anxiety, anger, semantic and rhythmic troubles, critical opacity: such are some of the symptoms of this state of discomfiting resistance where one finds the “horrible workers” to whom Rimbaud is brother.
For those who persist “like” Rimbaud, after the flood, in the hive-chaos of big cities, modern industrial and postindustrial societies, those of the western “democratic” empire, the leading sentiment remains that results from the fact that democracy signifies for the moment capitalism, the regime of liberty and liberalism (work, finance, exploitation, profit) — and this democratic capitalism, the polluted air which we breathe, moreover appears as the ultimate and definitive, and for that matter “natural,” form of social life. There is, there will have been, no alternative. Thus the necessity to qualify, to specify: parliamentary, or rather, today, mediatic-parliamentary, democracy, liberal democracy, but also, because quotation marks are there if we try to retrieve, that is to say reappropriate, the word and the thing, “true democracy,” as Marx said, or “wild democracy,” or “radical democracy,” or “insurgent democracy” (as Miguel Abensour suggested, democracy in a permanent state of emergence and constructive critique), or even “democracy without limits” as proposed by Rosa Luxemburg in opposition to “bourgeois democracy.” She subjected “democracy” under quotation marks to an examination of limits and internal contradictions wherein she observed, as did Rimbaud, two closely linked antidemocratic dimensions: militarism and colonialism, the importance of the military apparatus being linked on the one hand to the containment and repression of popular insurrectionary movements, and on the other hand to imposing on the colonized by force of arms the benefits of western economic exploitation and domination.
Thus there is for those, among whom I am one, who continue to read and write within that which we name poetry (that is to say, who situate themselves marginally within the practice of literature itself grown culturally secondary and minor), essentially the consciousness of not being much in phase with democracy as ambient value, as political ideology and as form of government, the feeling of being in no regard represented by the professional politicians and others who themselves are manipulated and ventriloquized by the holds of real power (that of the globalized economy), and with an insuperable sense of paralysis or choking powerlessness. The words slide around, it is enough just to listen. For example this kid from the Maghreb who participated in the 2005 banlieue riots around Paris: he speaks of his parents and the society which would “incarcerate” them. He means to say “integrate” them. This slip understands that such integration might be felt as a process of confinement and violent maintenance of inferior social status. It’s all too evidently symptomatic when some contrarily affirm (against all visible evidence, in situations of extreme material and mental precarity, in the suffocating context of our quote-unquote “democracy”) the actuality of their emancipation. I want to underscore indelibly this phrase in the contemporary poetry journal Nioques from poet Christophe Tarkos, who died prematurely in 2004: “I am not squeezed, I do not choke myself, I am not shattered, I am not buried, I am not surrounded, I am not crushed, I breathe.” He personally supports this affirmation, based on the denial of crushing in its many forms. And if he can support this position, if he can affirm so strongly the negation of the negation, it is because he writes, and because this practice of poetry he understands and lives as insurgent and emancipatory. This incites us to grasp precisely that what initially renders poetry political for Christophe Tarkos is that it is an act, and that this act of language is (or at least may be) singular affirmation, demand for autonomy, form of life and of survival in hostile surroundings.
We must perhaps return swiftly to some naïve distinctions. There has been in our recent history something like a poetry engagé, that of the Resistance, committed to direct communication (simple forms, combat lyricism) with a people awaiting democracy. Before this, when surrealism had wished to articulate itself seriously in the real movement of history, it declared itself “in the service” of Revolution (without retreat, nonetheless, from the ardent necessity of transgression or formal subversion). After the war we see Paul Eluard publishing a book called Political Poems, with a preface by Aragon. The communist poet does not neglect to underline what “politics” means for Eluard, for himself, for his comrades, and the sense of the slogan “from the horizon of one to the horizon of all” (which could equally be the broad slogan for a “democratic poetry”). He does not omit Isidore Ducasse’s encouraging watchword: “poetry must take for its goal the practical truth,” interpreted as enunciating or announcing the passage of eras (a romantic thought) from utopias to that of “human efficiency.” It is patently obvious that the standard poetic ideology, from historical avant-gardes to the neo-avant-gardes of the sixties and seventies, from lyricism engagé to political poetry or the theorization of the “revolution in poetic language” consonant with the desire for Revolution, is one of “efficiency” (to reclaim Aragon’s word) for poetry, more or less immediate or oblique, more or less direct or restrained.
Yet it is no less clear that around the eighties there was what I shall call a sequence of burgeoning euphoria (combinatorial transgression, subversion, experimentation, invention, action), thanks to varied collapses of that to which it would be anyway pointless to return. The field of contemporary poetry then reconstituted itself (as do families) around two principal poles: that of return (what I call re-poetry) to the fundamentals of a poetry restored to itself, and thus restored to the public, to the common reader, after the disfiguration and aggravation of divorce, and that endeavoring not to break with the heritage of research and adventure, recusing itself from the dogmatic stances and political illusions of the night before and the night before that. We note then the emergence of a generation of poets, published in journals such as Java, or Facial, or Quaderno, or even the Revue de littérature générale of Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi, clearly experimental in orientation but also clearly apolitical, practicing criticism (that of social and/or genre conventions) via modes of ironic distance or parody and derision. Poetry or more broadly forms of critical art in effect posed particularly the question of the cultural hierarchy separating the major from the minor or “popular” modes of expression. An “eccentric essay” (as the author himself defined it) titled “Parodic Art” (published in 1996 under the name Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux) tried to describe and theoretically legitimate some of these practices of a systematic reversal of values (or of confounding registers and genres) that spread in this period of a post-avant-gardism that was a bit skeptical, or at least suspicious regarding the high seriousness of previous generations.
It would likely not be mistaken to say that the poets of preceding generations took somewhat for granted (against divergent strategic choices regarding the logic of their practice, their modes of realization, etc.) an adherence to a principle, explicitly formulated or remaining implicit, something like an ideal of real democracy, while accepting as largely inevitable the fate of renouncing a large audience, and the much-hurled accusation of “elitism.” The poets of the generation whereof I speak, those I have just said have taken their distance (and not ordered their work according to the expectations of some given belief), found themselves to be subjects of a sort for a practical “democracy” in the sense that they actively refused to ignore the current modes of expression and mass culture (media, screens, collections of official statements, assemblage, sampling, various détournements, etc.). The great question is whether the apparent ideological “retreat,” which at first glance characterizes this body of text, indicates a neutral stance, an indifference to concerns of content (even an unspoken adherence to what they do convey), or whether to the contrary these poets subscribe to a perspective comprising a form of active “resistance” to these formats, these contents, these modes of circulation and public display, etc. These “after-writings” — after the dissolution of dogmas, after the last wave of avant-garde theorizing and sectarians, with faces both of the “ironic” and of the “serious” (collage-writing, investigative or documentary writing) — can doubtless be read as critical but no less as preserving for the reader their share of ambiguity and constitutive undecidability.
What can be seen, in these writings “after” (and the occasional taking of certain concrete positions on social struggles or alternative movements), is a definite return of the notion of resistance. As all around us gestures of “civil disobedience” develop (from Athens to Tunis and to Cairo, from New York, Occupy Wall Street, from Tarnac to Notre Dame des Landes …) which are like mass protests in the name of democracy without quotes against the decisions or “laws” or official conditions imposed by the police and the court of “democracy,” that Rimbauldian prosopopoeia within which we are always citizens, we notice, in the regime called the poetic, or post-poetic, the fact that the imaginary of resistance continues to resist. It may be necessary here to revisit Francis Ponge’s propositions announced in a number of his “proems” from the thirties — so near us today where we see democratic elections bringing to power religious fanatics, where left governments are anxious to expel foreigners, what is basically a “democratic” progression toward municipal fascism. Ponge, rather than suggesting to his surrealist friends of the time the pseudo-“liberating” whisper (automatic writing) advocated “resistance against words,” that is to say we ought not speak the ideology that speaks us (doxa, stereotypes, clichés conveyed by the mediasphere) but contrarily to work contra-words, on contra-usage, to practice, if needed, “the art of violating [words] and the submission to them.” Such a poetic remains fresh, in the face of the “order of things,” which he qualified as “monstrous” and “sordid,” wherein he said that people kill themselves “having been ruined” by these “governments of wheeler-dealers and merchants,” the very “democratic capitalism” that I mentioned earlier.
Resistance against words, therefore, opposes the silence of writing to the noise of words, or even unmaking and remaking the ceaseless superflux of immaterial information to recover if possible the meanings of the words, the meanings of things and situations and events. But resisting just the same images, the ceaseless flow of images, those which “occupy” our space and our eyes, screen-walls that separate us from each other and from reality. Bearing in mind that these images “constitute part” of this reality from which they also separate us. And therefore it is a matter of working with and on and against these images through superimposition, overprinting, decomposition, etc. Finally, the resistance against images means equally — and I revisit here the “position” of dislocation according to diverse variations and stances of commitment — renouncing the narcotizing magic of nationalist visions, those which nurtured and carried our imaginary political utopia. We renounce this so as to confront clearly our lot: the traversal — using for our writing the contingencies of terrain, of context, of circumstance — of the opaque thicket, that of real contradiction, conflictual and violent. This is one meaning of the phrase borrowed from an artist and installation or intermedia poet (Philippe Castellin): “Poetry isn’t a solution.” If we understand the enduring and insistent and even resistant practice of writing poetry (in the context where it has become a socially minor practice) as a critical and restricted contribution, half-blind, to the permanent invention of a democratic space, we know quite well that there is no solution, and that writing has no purpose but to intensify the questions.
This hypothesis makes sense only if we think of democratic space (the possibility of democracy) as outside of political institutions bearing the name, and if we imagine the concrete reality here and now of autonomous, self-managed “communes” where we can experiment freely with new forms of sensory experience, new forms of exchange, expression, communication, collective activity, life. Such islands of life and action, moreover of reflection and struggle, exist already. Experimental politics, at significant distance from political institutions, are or should be in principle like experimental art and poetry, by definition. It is for us to build our own cabins and the paths which connect them (these may be journals, editorial microstructures, alternative circuits of distribution), and if our cabins are destroyed, we rebuild them elsewhere without becoming discouraged.
And since I began this text with Rimbaud, I end within those quotation marks and logical revolts. The question, poetic and political, is that of words’ meanings. Those given them, or those inflicted. And that which we would like to make. It can arise from this long and “ferocious” sequence (that which develops the Rimbauldian prosopopeia) called by the poet the “logical revolts,” those of the colonized, the exploited, the displaced, the oppressed, then, and now, and everywhere.
Logical, that is to say, inescapable.
Logical as well because that names a return, a reversal, an overcoming, in language, in words, in writing, in traces.
Translated from the French by Joshua Clover.
Erica Hunt sets this reading up by calling Alexander a metaphysician. One of her students said “like Jimi Hendrix.” Hunt says yes and also Aimé Césaire, Jayne Cortez. How are they all metaphysicians? What permutation of Black Magic is this political postmodern grimoire? What is it evoking?
Just before reading my bullet points and notes on Will Alexander’s poem, I read a story, saw a video that speculated on how Mars looked before it lost its atmosphere. There are speculations about how this happened, how it lost its magnetic poles, but it went from earthlike with seas and air and clouds to a rusty tomb, where our small land robots search for evidence of microfossils from billions of years ago. I thought about this kind of sifting from a whole to atomic, from the big bang’s busting to dust.
When I read a poem like this from Will Alexander, it evokes so many, many expressions of Black people about/in space, coming from outer space, being not extraterrestrial but superterrestrial. Not the first humans, but beings that, larger than life, made humans possible, not in a protohuman, Darwinian hierarchical way. In the overshadowing way that human parents make blastocysts.
The first stanza reminds me of another story. When Barak Obama got elected for the first time, a Black male friend of mine says: “The day after the election, I was walking down the street and a White woman saw me. I mean she actually saw me. She looked in my eyes and saw me.” We talked about this and he briefly mentioned how he is so often unseen, often by White women. Their eyes glide past, around.
To make someone in front of you invisible, in that classical Ellison sense, is a form of magic. (Of course you make yourself disappear, too. Is this White magic? Is this Glenda or a death hallow?) It’s disappearing action, in the way that iterations of the disappeared have been in South America. In fact, this action is a precursor to the other.
The second stanza: at first I thought it was an incomplete line that led to the third stanza, but then I realized I was wrong. I read “like” as simile when it’s a verb. I came to this when I chose the parenthetical phrase because Will left it open. If I were to excise it for clarification, for a second, it would be: “My perception through … that I ingest like(s) a blackened preexistence or (likes) collected hawks through assignation.” Or even: “My perception through … through assignation.” And so do we simply dismiss the hawks? Why such a terrestrial reference in this scope? I thought of them in the way that Etheridge Knight’s “crows” grounded us in a poem also comments on race, Knight’s “On the Black Male Being the #1 Sex Object in America.” This complements Alexander’s work. Knight’s protagonist is in high relief, right here on earth, as the visible object among “snow janes” and “crow janes.” The birds, the chicks, but also in both hawks and crows, soaring black. Or the metaphor for the unforgiving wind that blasts out through Chicago from the stratosphere. What kind of word is “like”? What does it evoke similarities/similes/smiles to?