A toast to Chip Delany

Chip started teaching at Temple University in 2001. His office is next door to mine, so I know he gives great phone interviews. And I know that no matter who wanders in looking for him — whether an eager fan or a teenage student who hasn’t yet read any of his works — they will receive the same enthusiastic greeting and invitation to come in and sit down. No matter how busy he is, he can always make time to talk about literature. 

Neil Gaiman adores him and because of that agreed to read for the Temple Creative Writing program. Junot Diaz adores him and because of that agreed to read at Temple. Eileen Myles adores him and because of that … well you get where I’m going with this. We, who are gathered here today, are just a small part of his vast army of admirers. But “army” of course is not the right word: not only because Chip is perhaps one of the most gentle gentlemen I know, but also because a military force is charged with supporting a singular cause, and Chip’s writing practice is anything but singular. There are the fans of his science-fiction novels, there are the fans of his non-science-fiction novels, the admirers of his critical works, and admirers of his memoir-writing … the reasons to love Chip’s work are manifold and his audiences are equally various. 

I think one of the questions lurking behind this gathering today is why, when poetry isn’t one of Chip’s writing practices, are poets such big fans of his work? 

His book Dark Reflections is about a poet — but I would argue that the character of Arnold Hawley is the kind of poet who exists only in novels, and whose ideas about poetry seem less relevant to the contemporary poetic enterprise than Delany’s own prose. So what is it that makes Chip’s work feel so relevant to poetry and poetics?

I don’t have time to treat the question with the scholarly rigor it deserves, but I can try to tell you briefly what the answer is for me: 

In the introduction to his memoir The Motion of Light in Water, Chip tells a story about how, in constructing a chronology of his life for two Pennsylvania scholars, he wrote “My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.” The scholars then informed him that this autobiographical fact was impossible — that if he had been born in 1942, he would have been sixteen in 1958, but additionally, his father had actually died in 1960, at which time Delany would have been eighteen. While ruminating on the ramifications of his mistake Delany asks us to “bear in mind two sentences”:

“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.”

“My father died of lung cancer in 1960 when I was eighteen”

The first is incorrect, the second correct.

I am as concerned with truth as anyone — otherwise I would not be going so far to split such hairs. In no way do I feel the incorrect sentence is privileged over the correct one. Yet, even with what I know now, a decade after the letter from Pennsylvania, the wrong sentence still feels to me righter than the right one.

Now a biography or a memoir that contained only the first sentence would be incorrect. But one that omitted it, or did not at least suggest its relation to the second on several informal levels would be incomplete.

This statement asks us to think about knowing as more than the apparent facts; truth is a juxtaposition of the actual and the idea. This may seem like an obvious point, but in a world that values the singularity of armies, we need works like Chip’s, that allow our worlds — literary and otherwise — to be complicated, contradictory, multifarious, and rich.

Samuel R. Delany's worlds: An introduction

One of the great joys, if you’re lucky, of being in academia is being able to thank people and an even greater pleasure to be able to thank the mentors of your mentors.

When Charles Bernstein approached me about organizing this text-based raising of the glass to Samuel R. Delany (aka “Chip” Delany) I was nervous, humbled, and grateful for the chance. This came on the heels of the passing of two other people I looked up to, José Muñoz and Amiri Baraka, whose work Chip also admired. The magnitude of thanks takes on this bigger quality when the air is suffused with the ephemera of those who aren’t corporal, those who inhabit the same space in your heartspace that great art pervades. 

I’m deeply grateful to the contributors to the actual event and to their written considerations published here. (Some are direct transcriptions, while others are reworked for the print edition.) It’s a big deal to talk about a genius and it’s another kind of big deal to put it in print to put it down into words. My own failure to adequately address the magnitude of this organizing is emblematic in my repeated efforts to be, cool and, you know, sophisticated around Mr. Delany. What I can do is put together these thank-you notes, poems, and essays, for the record, and out of love for this great giant among giants.

I’m very grateful, then, for others to speak on his magnitude as part of this collection. All of the people featured here were directly involved in the celebrating of Samuel R. Delany, poetically, in April 2014. (A couple of people were unable to contribute to these published sections, but their energy contributed to the ebullience of that day as much as the smiling faces in the packed house.) It was a beautiful day and the celebration began by the screening of the loving, and extraordinary, documentary about Chip presented by filmmaker Fred Barney Taylor. “The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman,” moved many in the audience to tears. Not only to be in the presence of such gracious, unflinching brilliance, and to see him receive and appreciate praise grounded in the poetic community. Our gathering’s love of his love of language.

The magnitude of Chip’s impact in a variety of fields is impossible to calculate, much less organize into one volume. Here’s hoping for more and more celebrations, compilations, cheers, toasts, and discussions on his monumental work and importance to so many people and at so many stages of their lives. Chip is a constellation that continues to be fixed, yet revolves, for me and for so many lovers of poetry, of resonant words. I’m eternally grateful to be part of bringing these many hands together that have lifted a glass in Samuel R. Delany’s honor during his birth month in 2014, a microcosm of his worlds-full of admirers. As this is coming out in February, a month, in the US, given to emphasizing the experiences of Black people and Black culture, I’m especially glad to share this celebration of one of the world’s great Black thinkers, writers, creators. A maker of many worlds. Worlds for everyone.

This gathering of thoughts and feelings are the text versions of the presentations for “The Motion of Light: Celebrating Samuel R. Delany’s Performative Poetics” held at University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House on April 11, 2014.

Captions without images

On Robert Fitterman's 'Holocaust Museum'

Rob Fitterman reads at the Poetic Research Bureau, Los Angeles, 2008.

As Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag amongst others have told us, when it comes to photographs, the caption is essential in relation to what we think we see: if the contextualizing text is changed, the meaning of the work as such will change significantly. In this light, it might be interesting to ask: what happens to the caption when there is no longer a photograph to contextualize? When the caption is isolated, it now refers to a referent that is no longer there. That is one of the issues raised by the American writer Robert Fitterman in his book Holocaust Museum, first published in 2011 and reprinted several times since in the US and in Great Britain.

Holocaust Museum is a piece of conceptual post-productive witness literature that deals with the representation of Holocaust. In the 124-page-long book, captions are being post-produced. They derive from a smaller selection of the 18,000 available photographs in the online archive at United States Holocaust Museum (USHMM), which is physically situated in Washington, DC. In Fitterman’s book, the captions are reprinted without the photograph they originally were written to stabilize. Three quotes introduce the book: a quote by the Czech-born media philosopher Vilém Flusser, from his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography;a quote by the American author Charles Reznikoff from his Holocaust; and a quote by the Austrian photographer and author Heimrad Bäcker from the English translation of nachschrift; transcript. In his philosophy of photography, Flusser states, among other things, that the photograph is not only a reproducing technology, but is in itself affecting and constituting a reality. That the same to some degree can be said about the caption as a genre may be one of the implicit statements in Holocaust Museum, that the caption both affects and so to speak constitutes the image that it accompanies. As with the references to Reznikoff and Bäcker, Fitterman marks an affinity and most probably also a direct inspiration from their work.

In his Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff’s method is documentary, and he post-produces and modifies real witness testimonies from the Nuremberg trials. Reznikoff divides his poems into twelve subcategories.[1] Fitterman has divided his poems into seventeen related categories.[2] Reznikoff organizes the material in Holocaust[3] in a way that resembles more traditional or conventional poetry with a clearly marked ending, a small blow with the tail so to speak, distinct (line) breaks between both verse and stanza and a clear (poetic) narrative in every poem. The method in nachschrift[4]is different. Heimrad Bäcker isolates, shortens, and sometimes also modifies quotes from various sources. Here the general impression is less explained, much less legible. Bäcker’s text fragments are torn out of different contexts in a way that can be somewhat confusing to the reader, or in a way that might make the reader even more exited and curious. In Reznikoff’s texts, the majority of the necessary information in order to ‘make sense’ of the poem is already present; here it tends to work in concluded sequences that might make it easier to identify as (a) ‘literature’ that through its narration allows the reader to get carried away. To use that metaphor. Fitterman lines up his captions, one after the other, raw, unexplained, unaltered, and only manipulated in their surroundings: they have been removed from their original context, taken away from the photographs and from the American Holocaust Museum (homepage), and moved into the book Holocaust Museum. And then of course, they are manipulated in the selection, in the different sequences and in the order they appear.

On the surface, the book is characterized by a degree of monotony, a tone of a matter-of-factness, and a self-confidence that is probably characteristic of the caption as such: a deictic pointing that also at the same time is being defamiliarized, now the object for the pointing is absent. It’s a textual effect that becomes apparent in the parentheses in a text like this:

Nazi propaganda slide featuring images of Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the NSDAP’s foreign organization in Switzerland (left), and David Frankfurter, the Jewish student who assassinated him in 1936 (right). [Photograph #49763][5]

The referent — the photography — is missing. There’s nowhere for the eyes to wander. No visual details, no foreground or background, only the hard surface of the text; how Wilhelm Gustloff or David Frankfurter looks like, for one thing, is left to the imagination or whatever knowledge the reader may have. Still, Gustloff is probably placed to the left and Frankfurter to the right in that imagination; the stage directionshelps furnish the reader’s inner room, place the seen in the imagined — provided that you are actually imagining anything when you read this. Also notice the reference in the square parentheses that indicates where the photograph is placed in the USHMM collection: this type of text is a recurrent epifor in all the captions of the book. These epifors work as source references, but, at the same time, also function as additional full stops. In itself active parts of the text, that can change what has just been read, as in these examples:

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96898]

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96896][6]

In the above example, the number in the squared parenthesis, the reference to the archive almost becomes a punctum in the Roland Barthian sense of the word: that is the specific experience of the detail and of time in the photography, the thing in the photo that really hits and almost hurt you.[7] It is because of the variation of the last number that we understand it is not the same text, not the same photograph, but another photograph of the same motif. This has both a significant meaning and effect several places in the book, where the texts are either verbatim repetitions or minor variations of other texts already read — but because of the number in the squared parenthesis, they become singular, and hence, via the book’s narrative organization or composition, to which I will return in a moment, in an almost performative manner adds to the amount of text and is not just a repetition of what is already there. More — new — American liberating soldiers, they teem through the text, more bodies, more mass graves, new bodies, more imprisoned SS guards, more female survivors gathering in front of their barracks.[8]

Together, the macro structure of the seventeen sections in Holocaust Museum mimes a chronology. As is also the case of Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which opens with Deportations and end in the grand Marches, as the concentration camps began to be evacuated due to the advancement of the Allied forces,finally we get the Escapes. Holocaust Museum opens with the Propaganda: anti-Jewish, racist, religious, pro Anschluß Österreichs. After that Family Photographs:pre-war portraits, families, parties, school, vacation, leisure. Boycotts:boycotts of Jews and Jewish tradesmen, often conducted physically by the SA. Burning of Books:especially the students are active. The Science of Race:ideological ‘scientifically based’ educational material, eugenics, racial hygiene. Gypsies:gypsies from all over Europe are detained and executed, also people related to gypsies are sterilized and more. Deportation:Jews from all over Europe are being deported to concentration camps, the long, and for many also deadly, journey by train, a for-the-witness literature classical Holocaust topoi.[9] Concentration Camps: initially, the concentration camps are seen from the outside and from above, the pictures derives from the liberations, American soldiers, some bodies and survivors, besides that snapshots of details from the camps. Uniform:from the camp to its inhabitants, a flood of various (types of) uniforms, this complete uniforming appear almost dehumanized — at least, it is always the uniform we see and not the human behind or inside. Shoes:shoes are made from whatever material is available by captives and Jews in camps and ghettoes, piles of shoes from the executed, the things that can be hidden in shoes, in the heels, and the absence of shoes, in the end: barefooted civilian German women forced to watch and walk amongst the reopened mass graves. Jewelry:confiscated jewels and jewelry, crucifixes worn by Jews living in hiding under Nazi occupation. Hair:enormous amounts of women’s hair packed into bales in the storage buildings of Auschwitz, ready to be sent to Germany, members of the French Resistance cutting the hair of a woman accused of ‘collaboration horizontale,’ a Jewish girl in hiding has dyed her hair blond, a plateexplains the deciding genetics behind different hair colors. Zyklon B Canisters: Zyklon B canisters found, the canisters are clearly marked as deadly.

Notice how the last five sections all work metonymically and synecdochically, maybe in an operationalization of another way to comprehend the scale of the dead: the piles of hair, shoes, jewelry. The dehumanization: uniforms rather than individuals. All connected metonymically with these pairs of Zyklon B canisters in the next section, which — almost demonstratively — is the shortest section of the book. Only two texts. These Zyklon B canisters result in the enormous piles of bodies everywhere in the book. In same way as uniforms following a more straight forward logic, marks or symbolizes a certain belonging, so does jewelry and hair (color). And in the same way as a wrong uniform can mean the difference between life and death, so is it the case with the wrong kind of jewelry or hair color. The book continues with Gas Chambers:the architecture of the gas chambers and the crematories, the first presented as baths with piles of clothes in front of them, in the last: piles of body remnants, bones. Mass Graves:after gas chambers and crematories come mass graves. As in the concentration camps-section, it is here evident that the predominant documentary material dates from the liberation, consequently, it is not the establishment of the mass graves, we have photographs of, not the daily operation of the extermination camps, but the re-opening of the mass graves. But also of how they are organized, built, how the corpses are stacked as to create room for as many as possible. Local German civilians are being forced to witness the mass graves by the Allies, the many bodies. American Soldiers:in this and in the following section, there is a strong internal progress, the liberation, the surrender, time passes, you get the feeling of: very quickly. Troops advance through a geography, while the German forces surrender to the Americans. American soldiers in different places in Germany. American soldiers land in Normandy. American soldiers having Thanksgiving in Paris. American soldiers marching through Brandenburger Tor, they meet up with Russian soldiers in Berlin and in Linz. The survivors of the camps together with the American soldiers, American soldiers among the corpses, among the ruins of cities, advancing everywhere throughout Germany and Austria. Liberation: the camps are being liberated, in the beginning there are crosscuts between the French, the Spaniards, the Belgians, the Rumanians, the Dutch, the Russians, the Albanians, the Poles, the Jews, all celebrating everywhere. SS guards are arrested. Mass graves and heaps of corpses by the crematoriums are being revealed. SS guards who burn the captives to death in order to flee themselves. Towards the end of the text there’s a crosscutting between mainly female survivors, gathering in front of the barracks in the liberated camps, and a long line of portraits of the many people in different displaced person camps. The long journey home is about to begin. A journey many will not survive. The returning journey from the camps also holds its own significant place in the Holocaust witness literature.[10]

While the different sections read together in succession, define a clear course from pre-war to post-war, the text that appear in the individual sections are not governed by the same chronology. Here the time has been dissolved: the underlying organizing logic seems to be the search engine at USHMM’s homepage.[11] As we can see, there are two different temporal representational systems present at the same time in Holocaust Museum — the diachronic and the synchronic; both the horizontal (His)story and the vertical database: things we know about Holocaust.

One of the things that comes to the fore when reading Holocaust Museum is the many place names: names on places and on ethnical, national, and cultural affiliations, family names. This paratactic tangle of names of European places and more, mimes a Europe in total dissolution; a synchronistic chaos, where people from all over the continent gets that in common that they’re being assembled in these extermination camps. One has to imagine the sound track to these captions as a kind of Kauderwelsch — gibberish — or, as the Polish author Tadeusz Borowski writes in his testimonies about the language being spoken in Auschwitz: a crematoriumEsperanto. The many different types of uniforms that rapidly pass the reader’s eyes in a flutter, in the section Uniforms are creating the same effect, in some sort of visual counterpart to the crematorium Esperanto: prison uniforms, camp uniforms, concentration camp uniforms, uniforms with distinctive badges, uniforms, Ustasa uniforms, uniforms of captains in the Hungarian army, Nazi military uniforms, uniforms of the Arrow Cross, military uniforms, scout uniforms, Polish army uniforms, not in uniforms, French military uniforms, striped prisoner uniforms, school uniforms, British uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Navy, uniforms of the Vichy fascist youth movement Moisson Nouvelles, volunteer service uniforms, uniforms of the Hungarian labor service, army uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Brigade in Sweden, Hashomer Hatzair uniforms, police uniforms, Maccabi Hatzair uniforms, UNRRA uniforms, uniforms of a Hungarian labor battalion.[12]

The place names help to geographically situate what is being documented. And what is being documented is of course different actions, but also, and not the least, the locations where these actions have taken place, and, to some degree, who has been involved. A regular mapping is happening, as when the Deportation-section is being initiated with the names on three ships being used to deport Norwegian Jews to Germany:

View of the SS Gotenland, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Only 25 of the 760 Jews deported from Norway survived. [Photograph #89095]

View of the SS Donau, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. On November 26, 1943 the Donau sailed with 530 Jews aboard, 345 of whom went directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. [Photograph #89094]

View of the SS Monte Rosa, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Of the 760 Jews deported from Norway by ship only 25 survived. [Photograph #89094][13]

Another effect of the many foreign place names is that they implicitly call for the reader to leave the text and begin to research — or at least make a Google search after — historical facts and their geographical contexts. When the images are missing, the reader might get curious enough to not only try to envision them herself, but also to try to actually find them — on the Internet for instance. On just one and a half pages, the following concentration (sub)camps are mentioned: Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Pocking, Novalky, Kaiserwald, Ohrdruf, Neuengamme, Plaszow, Majdanek.[14]

What are those names referring to? The only paratext of real significance the book itself is offering, consists of the blurbs written on the back. Here three advocators give their brief explanations as to why it is a good book, what it’s about, and how it’s about it.[15] Nowhere in the books is it stated that the source text derive from USHMM, even if it, for an American reader, probably would be an apparent association to make, given the title of the book. In his afterword to the English translation of Bäcker’s nachschrift; transcript, the American scholar Patrick Greaney writes that reading the book “knowledge of the Shoah becomes a project”; and the same can be said about Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum.[16] This is not to say that the sole quality of Holocaust Museum lies in its edifying qualities, which urge the reader to seek more knowledge about the Holocaust. That is one of the effects of the book. In the same manner as the reader have to leave the text, as I call it, to search for background knowledge in order to understand what is being read; the reader also and at the same time need to constantly focus on and delve into the text, and read it as a literary work that operates within its own internal dynamics and economy; a work that creates its own literary universe — in parallel with the simultaneous references to concrete historical events and places outside of the book. For instance, a text like the following becomes, in an almost absurd way, comical seen in relation to the surrounding text. It can be read as a commentary on the value of this preoccupation with naming time, place, persons, and relations as accurately as possible — which is one of the characteristics of witness literature as a genre — when we also need to know the name of the dog of the Lagerkommendant:

Majola, the mistress of commandant Amon Goeth, stands on the balcony of his villa in the Plaszow concentration camp with his dog Ralf. [Photograph #05287][17]

In between the more descriptive, distancing texts, all of a sudden other types of narratives evolve; small stories with several times inscribed, that shows compressed images of the Holocaust machinery’s radius and manner of operation; over time and in a kind of chains of cause-and-effect. How does the Nazi regime react, for instance, if it finds out that one of its trusted employees has a Jewish family background:

A German soldier stands guard in front of a castle. Pictured is Kurt Winterstein a member of the donor’s[18] family. He was one of Hitler’s personal drivers. When the Nazis found out that his mother was Gypsy they took him out of the army and sterilized him. [Photograph #33333][19]

Or how the SS guards tried to get rid of evidence and witness in a hasty retreat:

Emaciated body of a prisoner at Landsberg, found by the liberating American 7th Army. Original caption reads: “The Landsberg Atrocity: The emaciated bodies of Jewish prisoners bear evidence of the slow death by starvation they were undergoing before having been locked in their wooden huts by retreating Nazi prison guards, who set the huts afire and left.” [Photograph #496555][20]

And other captions that might look like short descriptive contextualizations of what is seen on the picture, but also in itself raises a number of questions: why Joseph Schleifstein still is wearing his camp uniform one or two years after being liberated,[21] or why the Serbian children are wearing Ustaša-uniforms.[22] And the child in this text, where the smile in itself is unexpected, and therefore may also rock the customary approach one might have, about child survivors from the camps. It creates an uncertainty in the reader, I claim, a Barthian punctum, also outside of the image, this smile:

A child survivor in a uniform stands smiling amid the rubble of Nordhausen concentration camp. [Photograph #42050][23]

Holocaust Museum is not an affirmative work, in the sense that it’s not just confirming our already conceived notions and knowledge. Rather it’s a work that, via captions for images that are so well known to us, that we can (almost) make do without them, destabilize meaning and activates the reader. By simply removing the photographs and leave the captions on their own, Fitterman manages to make the impossible representation of the complex of events we have named Holocaust new to our eyes. Captions are often immediately seen as a neutral appendix to the real work, the real documentation that is the photography. In Holocaust Museum we might actually, and maybe for the first time, read these captions. By swapping foreground and background — by completely removing the foreground — Fitterman provides us with new eyes.

“Incongruous Images,” by the American scholars Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, takes its point of departure in the USHMM collection. Hirsch and Spitzer write on how the selection of photographs that are to represent the Holocaust officially takes place. On all levels of the selection, they write, there is a kind of (self-) censorship going on that has to do with how the photographs resemble something we already know before we find them appropriate. The motif has to be simple and easy decodeable; desolate, sullen, and not too complex.[24] When it comes to the conceptual literature that works post-productively, it’s important to ask what is going on: what is it that it does, how does it do it, how is it, so to speak, being curated. One must ask if it is denaturalizing what is being depicted and in that way whether it creates a more complex tissue of meaning that foregrounds aspects of the post-produced material that wasn’t readily available to us before. Or, the opposite: if the effect of the manipulation of the material is affirmative and just makes us stop at the first, best assumption, and only confirms what we thought we already knew without giving us the opportunity to reflect on what that might be. Or mean. How our knowledge is always situated. When a work depends so much on contextualization, as is the case with Holocaust Museum, what does that contextualization do with the work, with the reading of it. This is of course a question one has to ask in front of each individual work. I think that Fitterman’s work, so to speak, is part of complicating the picture of more mainstream Holocaust representation, alone through the way the text is being organized. Take for instance when the actions of the Auschwitz executioners is placed next to that of the French resistance:

Bales of human hair ready for shipment to Germany found in one the [sic] Auschwitz warehouses when the camp was liberated. In Auschwitz 7,000 kilo of human hair was found at liberation. [Photograph #66583]

Bales containing the hair of female prisoners lie in the courtyard of one of the warehouses in Auschwitz after the liberation. [Photograph #10867]

Members of the French resistance shear the hair of a young woman who consorted with the Germans during the occupation. [Photograph #81863][25]

And it becomes even more unsettling in the following text, where one must assume that the woman has no hair because she survived one of the extermination camps, but here the victim of the Nazis (the Jewish woman) oscillates with the victim for the resistance movement (‘the horizontal collaborator’) for a moment:

Jewish women learn to sew in a vocational training workshop in Lodz. The woman in the back has her head fully covered since her hair still has not grown in since the war. [Photograph #60791][26]

Hirsch and Spitzer write about some of the many curators and archivists who work with photographic Holocaust representations:

They display images that readily lend themselves to iconicization and repetition. But while this choice may allow them to stir viewers’ emotions and to gain their sympathetic attention, it also impedes troubling the well-known narratives about this time. It restricts their visitors’ engagement with the Holocaust’s more complex — and less easily categorized — visual and historical landscape. And, in so doing, it delimits the rich interpretive possibilities that this vast archive of private and public photographs can open and enable.[27]

The American scholar and poet Charles Bernstein reads the absence of the images in Holocaust Museum as a metaphor for the concrete loss that the Holocaust has inflicted on the world, the many dead and missing: “Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers create a work more chilling than the original installation (…) Loss — erasure and absence — is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.”[28] As you go through the book, he writes, the lists becomes litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions, which simultaneously seem like the utmost dry and dull thing you could read. A part of the conceptual strategy, as we see it unfold in Holocaust Museum, is, in the words of Vanessa Place, to pour a hot content in a cool container.[29] That way, and with boredom as a kind of developer, it may become possible to see other structures than we usually do, in existing material. And it is this paradox, I suggest, the muted, almost boring (re)presentation of the horrible, that will make us read a work like Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum with our eyes wide open.



1. Reznikoff’s headlines are: Deportation, Invasion, Research, Ghettos, Massacres, Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks, Work Camps, Children, Entertainment, Mass Graves, Marches, Escapes.

2. Fitterman’s headlines are: Propaganda, Family Photographs, Boycotts, Burning of Books, The Science of Race, Gypsies, Deportation, Concetration Camps, Uniforms, Shoes, Jewelry, Hair, Zyklon B Canisters, Gas Chambres, Mass Graves, American Soldiers, Liberation.

3. Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

4. Heimrad Bäcker, Nachschrift (Linz: Ed. Neue Texte, 1986).

5. Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2013), 19.

6. Ibid., 58.

7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

8. For examples of repetition (with light variations), see Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58, 72–74, 93, 98, 100–103, 107–109, 116–118, 121–122.

9. See for example Jorge Semprún’s debut novel, The Cattle Truck (London: Serif, 1993). Also Semprún, The Long Voyage (New York: Grove Press, 1964).

10. See for example Tadeusz Borowski’s Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, trans. Madeline G. Levine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Also see Primo Levi’s The Truce: A Survivor’s Journey Home from Auschwitz (London: Bodley Head, 1965).

11. Charles Bernstein has showed how it’s likely that the texts have been selected. See: Charles Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank,” Jacket2, February 2012.

12. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 62–68.

13. Ibid., 48.

14. Ibid., 58–59.

15. Al Filreis, Vanessa Place, and Tim Atkins each wrote a blurb of approximately ten lines each.

16. Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), 152.

17. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58.

18. Donor here refers to that or those persons who donated the photography to USHMM.

19. Ibid., 43.

20. Ibid., 119–120.

21. Ibid., 64.

22. Ibid., 63. Ustaša is the name of the nationalistic, fascistic inspired Croatian terror organization that with the support of the Axis powers reigned Croatia 1941-45. Ustaša is infamous for comitting massive genocide on especially Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

23. Ibid.

24. Karen Tilmans, Frank Van Vree, and Jay Winter, Performing the Past: Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 170–73.

25. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 84.

26. Ibid., 85.

27. Tilmans, Van Vree, and Winter, Performing the Past, 173.

28. Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank.”

29. Place: “What interests me is what happens when you put a hot content in a cool container,” September 2011, Paris. See Serup, “Hot Content in a Cool Container.”

'Absolutely temporary'

Spicer, Burgess, and the ephemerality of coterie

Jack Spicer.
Jack Spicer.

In an unpublished letter to Robin Blaser and Jim Felts from the mid–1950s, Jack Spicer cautions his addressees against preserving their correspondence for posterity. “This will become a literary document,” he warns, “if you don’t burn it.”[1] Similarly, in a list outlining “What to do with the Boston News Letter” scrawled in one of Spicer’s notebooks, he advises readers of the poetry pamphlet to “[p]ost whatever pages of it you think well of in the most public place you can find — i.e. an art gallery, a bohemian bar, or a lavatory frequented by poets,” and to “[b]urn or give away the pages you do not want to make public. Do not keep them.”[2] In their biography of Spicer, Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham refer to the Boston newsletter as an “exercise in poetic community” marked by “a curious blend of acid raillery and low camp.”[3] If the target of Spicer et al.’s “raillery” was, often, the literary establishment — the canon-defining university literature department and the market-driven major publishing house — then keeping poetry ephemeral, disposable even, was a way to circumvent and to resist co-optation by literary institutions of the social and material sites of avant-garde poetry. And the campy combativeness of the newsletter thus hinges upon its preference for the ephemeral exchange over and above the precious “document.”

A passage from Charles Olson’s Maximus suggests that “the social function of the little magazine” was a preoccupation for many postwar poets:

A magazine does have this ‘life’ to it (proper to it), does have streets,
can show lights, movie houses, bars, and, occasionally,

                        for those of us who do live our life quite properly in print

                        as properly, say, as Gloucester people live in Gloucester

you do meet someone

and I met you

on a printed page.[4]

Echoing Olson’s metaphoric mapping of the social space of the magazine, Jack Spicer declared, in his lecture on “Poetry and Politics” at the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, that “a magazine is a society.”[5] These references to the social spaces and chance meetings out of which poetry emerges speak to the tension — found in much of the coterie poetry of the postwar period — between an attempt to formally recreate the spontaneity of social relations on the page, and the impossibility of capturing in print something that is, by its very nature, fleeting. One thinks of Frank O’Hara’s breathless exchanges with friends on the street, or the brief and ultimately unfulfilling pleasure of a one-night stand that Spicer uses as a metaphor for his early lyrics. Thus, we might read coterie poems, poems that can seem almost exclusionary in their persistent references to people and places unfamiliar to the uninitiated reader, as extensions of social life and as forms of social relation in and of themselves. And the fact that the beautiful-but-slapdash mimeographed journals and small press editions in which many of these poems were initially published were so insistently transitory — meant to be exchanged among friends and cast aside, and avowedly out of place in the university archive — raises, in another register, the same question of futurity that the poems themselves often raise. In response to a question about “the nature of a society like the Open Space society” in the same lecture I quoted above (Open Space being one of the short-lived print organs of the Spicer circle), Spicer rejects “[t]he idea of making things last,” and asserts that any desire for endurance “is something which just has to be conquered. The idea of Open Space was that these things would not last.”[6]

I want to locate a “secret history” of postwar coteries and their print media — in particular, the West Coast strain of the New American poetry — in the self-consciously ephemeral journals (or “bibelots”) of the fin de siècle.[7] Though “bibelots” were in no short supply at the close of the nineteenth century (Moods, The Fad, Impressions, A Little Spasm, Snap Shots, and Whims, to list a few with particularly apt titles), I focus here on those produced by San Francisco poet and humorist Gelett Burgess and his circle: The Lark and its spinoff, Le Petit Journal des Refusées, a chapbook printed on wallpaper which claims to feature work that had been rejected by several other journals, but which contains, in actuality, work by Burgess and a few of his friends. Both publications foreground their own construction as material and social artifacts and document the humor, gossip, and ribaldry generated among Burgess’s lively gang of artists and writers. They are also, crucially, parodies of literary institutions on par with Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and wry critiques of the ways in which certain literary forms and formats are gendered.

Burgess and his band of pranksters quip, in the poem “Our Clubbing List,” from Le Petit Journal: “E is for Editor; what does it mean? / Everyone now runs his own magazine.”[8] Though it was published in 1896, this could just as easily be a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the period roughly between 1960 and 1980, when the ubiquity of mimeograph and xerox machines allowed poets to quickly and cheaply publish and distribute new work. Later in the same poem, Burgess et al. seem at once to satirize and to embrace the ephemerality of their contribution to American letters: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.”[9]

My sense of what these unusual publications share with Spicer’s work as a poet and editor began to crystallize around a curious biographical detail. In Poet, Be Like God, Killian and Ellingham mention the Spicer’s use of the term “goops” to refer, somewhat derogatorily, to his intimate, and often incestuous, cohort. George Stanley, one of the poets in the Spicer circle, is quoted as saying that Spicer’s derision was a response to one of the many romantic disappointments that punctuated his life (and helped generate some of his best work). In 1959, Spicer’s then lover and muse, the much younger Jim Alexander, began an affair with one of the comparatively few women in Spicer’s orbit. This woman, Dora Geissler, was also the partner of poet Harold Dull — the “Hal” of Spicer’s poem “For Hal” in Admonitions. That Spicer’s response to sexual betrayal was a brief disavowal of his (too?) closely-knit coterie and its claustrophobic insularity is not particularly surprising given Spicer’s ambivalence about collectivity (see, as example, the final poem in A Book of Magazine Verse). What is striking about Spicer’s wounded dismissal of the members of his coterie is the curious term he uses to slur them: “goops.” Ellingham and Killian indicate in their footnote that an acquaintance of Spicer’s told them, “without factual support, only [from] memory,” that Spicer associated the term with Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. But they also speculate that Spicer may have been familiar with Burgess’s 1900 book Goops and How to Be Them.[10] It seems fairly likely that Spicer was at the very least aware of Burgess’s writing, and of the arabesque, humanoid illustrations that grace the pages of his books and comprise the colophon for The Lark — figures that Burgess referred to as “goops.” Burgess’s goops are indistinguishable from one another in appearance and are often depicted in circular configurations, the limbs of one figure flowing seamlessly into those of another. Spicer’s use of the word “goop” in his poem “They Came to the Briers and the Briers Couldn’t Find ’Em” suggests that he might have derived the term from Burgess rather than from Hitchcock: “The goop is an international criminal organization / that talks to each other, makes passes at each other, / sings to each other, clings to each other, is as / absolutely alien to each other as a stone in Australia.”[11] The gloss that lurks spectrally below the poem proper — “In hell it is difficult to tell people from other people” — further reinforces the connection between Burgess’s goops and Spicer’s biting critique of coterie. It is a slippery slope, Spicer seems to warn in “They Came to the Briers,” from collectivity to alienation, from consensus to homogeneity. And Burgess’s illustrations serve as an apt metaphor for the circle of poets so closely abutted as to have congealed into a single, sticky mass.

“Les Jeunes,” the moniker for the somewhat fluid group of writers, artists, and bohemians in league with Burgess — including Bruce Porter, Willis Polk, Porter Garnett, and Yone Noguchi, among others — cleverly riffs on “yellow” (“jaune” in French) journalism (the sensationalism of which was often parodied in The Lark’s advertisements), and the freewheeling bohemian youth culture (“jeune” being French for “young”) the group can be said to embody, despite the fact that Burgess was nearly thirty in 1895, the year The Lark was founded.[12] Like “Les Jeunes” before them, Spicer and his cohort of self-proclaimed initiators of the “Berkeley Renaissance” were integral to the Bay Area bohemian milieu of the mid-twentieth century. The names that both coteries gave themselves reflect the combination of ribaldry and serious literary commitment, of self-parody and self-conscious mythmaking, that they share — indeed, the tongues of the original Berkeley Renaissance troika of Spicer, Duncan, and Blaser were only partially in their cheeks when they dubbed their nascent scene a “Renaissance.”

While I can only speculate about whether or not Spicer actually read Burgess, the uncanny biographical parallels between the two writers reveal certain shared sensibilities vis-à-vis coterie and career. While neither Spicer nor Burgess was born in the Bay Area, both considered the region their spiritual home. Born in Los Angeles, Spicer spent his first two years of college at the University of Redlands. In the fall of 1945, he transferred to UC Berkeley, and during that academic year, met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser and later referred to that transformative year and the relationships it nurtured as the year of his birth.[13] If somewhat less mythologized, Burgess’s relocation to the Bay Area was no less of a homecoming. “One finds in San Francisco,” he once remarked, “whatever one looks for. I was young and ardent. I found Romance. I found Adventure. I found Bohemia.”[14] I can’t help but hear an echo of Burgess in Spicer’s repurposing of W. B. Yeats’s praise for philosopher George Berkeley (“All the philosophy one needs is in Berkeley”) as an epigraph to “Imaginary Elegies.” The in-jokey humor of this sleight-of-hand recontextualization of a proper name wittily highlights the centrality of the poet’s locale, and of the coterie networks that flourished within it, to his creative and intellectual practice. And since the energy generated in the apartments, seminar rooms, and bars of Berkeley and San Francisco’s North Beach could not, for Spicer at least, be separated from the persistent sense of its being always-about-to-end or always-already-over, a poetic tone I want to describe as insouciantly elegiac comes to characterize much of Spicer’s work. “Berkeley in a Time of Plague” and “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance,” short lyrics written early in Spicer’s career, evoke losses not utterly irrevocable, but wistful, at times painful, all the same. Not irrevocable because, in the former, the speaker (a collective “we”) addresses us from a time after plague has come and gone and “taken [them]” to an otherworldly place — a kind of ghost Berkeley in the sky — from which poetry might still be written and transmitted. The shift from lament in the first stanza (“Plague took us and the land from under us, / Rose like a boil, enclosing us within”) to something like a cautious celebration of the generative power of transformation in the last (“Plague took us, laughed and reproportioned us, / Swelled us to dizzy, unaccustomed size. / We died prodigiously; it hurt awhile / But left a certain quiet in our eyes”) feels more like an embrace of the ephemerality of social relations than a fist raised, raging against it.[15]

The first lines of Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” (a series begun in 1948 and completed in 1954) overturn the classical conceit of poetry as preservation fantasy: as, in other words, a medium that — unlike love, friendship, flesh, etc. — endures.[16] Instead of the “living record of … memory” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54, or the “black lines” that keep the speaker’s beloved “green” in Sonnet 63, Spicer gives us “Poetry [that], almost blind like a camera / Is alive in sight for only a second.” A little later in the poem, he writes: “One can only worship / These cold eternals for their support of / What is absolutely temporary.”[17] “These cold eternals” refer here to what Spicer calls, elsewhere, “pure poetry”: poetry devoid of the warmth and vitality of the friends, lovers, and fellow travelers for and about whom it ought to be written.[18] The following poem, from Spicer’s 1957 book Admonitions, gives us a more fully articulated version of Spicerian ephemerality:

For Hal

Is no excuse for such things
Weigh like strawberries
On a shortcake.
To the root of the matter
Get laid
Have a friend
Do anything
But be a free fucking agent.
No one
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.[19]

Written for and addressed to one of the young poetic initiates who formed the small circle around Spicer during the decades following WWII, the poem links mortality to poetic ephemerality (poem as lit cigarette), and both of those things to coterie (having a few friends or lays), as well as to something like political autonomy (“free fucking agent”). This special collocation of concerns could be said to emerge in part from Spicer’s interest in the poem as an occasion rather than an artifact, as one friend (or rival, or lover) talking to another.


I want to devote the remainder of this essay to The Lark and to the ways in which its editors’ remarks in the journal’s final issue — known as the “Epi-Lark” — register, both rhetorically and tonally, their sense of the “ultimate fate” referred to in the lines from “Our Clubbing List”: “O’s for Oblivion — ultimate fate / Of most of the magazines published of late.” Johns Hopkins University’s Special Collections owns all but five of The Lark’s twenty-five issues. They are ephemeral in every sense. No matter how delicately I handled them, their brittle edges and spines inevitably cracked and crumbled, due in part to their age but also to the gossamer bamboo paper on which the journal is printed. Since the pages are nearly transparent — more reminiscent of rough silk than of paper — each is printed on one side only. The epigraph (from The Taming of the Shrew) on the cover of the ninth issue — “What, is the jay more precious than the lark, because his feathers are more beautiful?” — seems a celebration of the magazine’s understated, homely charm. While typographical features like the “ragged right-hand margin” distinguish it, as the editors indicate in the “Epi-Lark,” from most other publications of the era, to a contemporary reader, there is a kind of beauty in its playful asymmetries.

The advertisements for Le Petit Journal des Refusées featured in The Lark are at once mock-sensationalist and self-effacing. An advertisement in issue thirteen boasts that the forthcoming publication will feature “A new Size. A new Paper. A new Shape. A new Type. … A new EVERYTHING!” and will be “The Sensation of the Century!” Its editors insist that it will be “More artistic than a Bicycle Catalog. More ingenious than the Lark. Weird as a Hasheesh Dream, or a Circus Dodger. An impossible Literary Prodigy.” These humorously bombastic claims for the magazine’s exemplarity are tempered in another ad, which markets Le Petit Journal as “the smallest and most extraordinary magazine in existence … [t]he margins … very, very wide, the cover almost impossible.”[20] It was small in the sense of there being only one issue, and very few copies of it at that, but this curious description of the projected publication — with its “impossible” combination of Lilliputian dimensions and gargantuan margins — evokes something like the inverse of Mallarmé’s equally impossible Livre. Burgess gives us the little magazine as a self-consciously and exaggeratedly marginal, minor enterprise, as rare and “homegrown” as an iris on the slopes of the Presidio (which was Bruce Porter’s metaphor for the magazine in his statement in the “Epi-Lark”), with a lifespan almost as brief and a circulation limited to the “blessed few” of the editors’ coterie.[21]

In his editorial statement for the “Epi-Lark,” Burgess attempts to situate the magazine’s minority as particularly timely — befitting an era punctuated by a series of fashions and fads:

For it has been a decade of small things and minor poesy, and the Lark was too amateurish an effort to stand for much more than a sincerity of impulse. But, though small, it has been a positive protest, — not in the debased meaning of the word, but in its original significance. It has protested the joy of life, the gladness of youth and love, and the belief that these shall endure.[22]

But what I want to call The Lark’s radical ephemerality was not merely symptomatic of a general trend — the decade of decadence’s “craze for odd sizes and shapes, freak illustrations, wide margins, uncut pages, Jenson types, scurrilous abuse and petty jealousies, impossible prose and doggerel rhyme,” as Burgess puts it — but a “revolt against the commonplace [which] aimed to overthrow the staid respectability of the larger magazines and to open to younger writers opportunities to be heard before they had obtained recognition from the autocratic editors.”[23]

Burgess begins his final remarks on the magazine by comparing it to a piece of music — a “short score” or a “brief song.” The figurative language employed in the closing paragraphs, however, is distinctly martial, as phrases like “riot of Decadence” and “revolt against the commonplace” thicken into a tableau of naval onslaught and retreat which serves as an extended metaphor for avant-garde fomentation:

But the war is almost over now, and the little wasp-like privateers that have swarmed the seas of Journalism are nearly all silenced; the freak fleet has disarmed, but who knows how many are missing? Not a port but gave help to the uprising and mustered its volunteers in the fight against Convention. It was a tea-pot tempest that made them and wrecked them, and yet, when the history of the Nineteenth Century decadence is written, these tiny eruptions of revolt, these pamphleteering amateurs cannot remain unnoticed, for their outbreak was a symptom of the discontent of the times, a wide-felt protest of emancipation from the dictates of the old literary tribunals. Little enough good has come of it that one can see at present, but the sedition is broached, and the next rebellion may have more blood to spill.[24]

It is difficult not to hear in Burgess’s fevered rhetoric the words of Mallarmé, another fin-de-siècle maverick whose influence on the print media of the period continues to be the subject of scholarly investigation: “I know of no other bomb but the book.” I also hear something along the lines of Rob Halpern’s coda to his 2009 book of poems, Disaster Suites. Halpern’s closing remarks speak, I think, to the contradiction at the heart of Spicer’s and Burgess’s preoccupation with ephemerality: that it is at once a state of affairs about which we are likely to feel ambivalent, perhaps even dismayed, and one that is also desirable. Desirable because whether a poem or a magazine endures or not depends at least in part upon the endurance of the historical conditions that make the poem or the magazine (or the friendship or the coterie) possible and necessary in the first place. This ambivalence is captured in Spicer’s second letter to Lorca, in which he writes that “[a] poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer,”[25] and more movingly still in Halpern’s: “I hope these poems don’t persist. Or rather, I hope the conditions that make them readable do not.”[26] If coterie writers like Burgess, Spicer, and others between and since battle against “Convention,” against the “dictates of the old literary tribunals,” against “the English Department of the spirit,”— and if poems, magazines, and coteries act as forms of resistance against things as they are — then an embrace of transience might reveal a more hopeful than resigned, a more cautiously utopian than nihilistic attitude about things as they might someday be.



1. Jack Spicer Papers, BANC MSS 2004/209, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

2. Ibid.

3. Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet, Be Like God (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 75.

4. Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 28.

5. Peter Gizzi, ed., The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 157.

6. Ibid., 166.

7. This is not to overlook the fact that many modernist magazines were, to a certain extent, ephemeral — precarious operations with limited budgets and short life spans. As the editors of American Prefaces observed in 1940, “the average influential little magazine flashes brightly for a year, like Seven Arts, then passes. For those who survive the first winter, the fourth-year mortality is a fearful danger; Emerson’s Dial fell victim to it.” (Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, qtd. in Suzanne W. Churchill and Adam McKible, eds., Little Magazines and Modernism [Ashgate 2007], 9). Part of the difference, I think, between the modernist magazine and the postwar variety has to do with the latter’s self-awareness about the aesthetics and politics of ephemerality and its links to coterie. Some recent studies that marry close attention to the hybrid forms of postwar American poetry with informed considerations of the social, political, and personal milieus out of which it has emerged include Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: Poetics of Coterie (2006), Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (2009), Stephen Voyce’s Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (2013), and Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry (2013), a collection of scholarly essays about the often messy relations among poetry, gender, and sociality, edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin.

8. James Marrion, ed., Le Petit Journal des Refusées (San Francisco, 1896). James Marrion was one of Burgess’s pseudonyms. High resolution scans of Le Petit Journal are available online at the Modernist Journals Project. For more on Burgess and Le Petit Journal, see Johanna Drucker’s “Bohemian by Design: Gelett Burgess and Le Petit Journal des Refusées.”

9. Ibid.

10. Ellingham and Killian, Poet, 397.

11. Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 255.

12. Gelett Burgess, Bayside Bohemia: Fin de siècle San Francisco and its Little Magazines (San Francisco: Black Vine Press, 1954), vi.

13. Ellingham and Killian, Poet, 11.

14. Burgess, Bayside Bohemia, x.

15. Spicer, Vocabulary, 5.

16. I take the term “preservation fantasy” from Aaron Kunin’s article “Shakespeare’s Preservation Fantasy,” published in PMLA 124, no. 1 (January 2009).

17. Spicer, Vocabulary, 26

18. Spicer complained, in a short presentation for a symposium on “The Poet and Poetry” in 1949, that the New Critics “have completed the job of denuding [poetry] of any remaining connection to person place and time. What is left is proudly exhibited in their essays — the dull horror of naked, pure poetry.”

19. Spicer, Vocabulary, 167.

20. Gelett Burgess, ed., The Lark 13 (San Francisco: William F. Doxey, 1896).

21. The phrase “blessed few” comes from Burgess’s poem “Ballade of the Cognoscenti: To an Unknown Correspondent,” from issue 21 of The Lark. The poem depicts a friendship between two individuals whose “souls illumined” serve as a metaphor for the knowledge shared among a small group of initiates. Though Burgess’s diction is more reminiscent of Duncan than of Spicer, the poem’s depiction of friendship and/or coterie as gnosis is very much in the proverbial wheelhouses of both postwar poets:

So soul to soul doth boldly kinship claim
For them that know the Master Word and Clue;
So secret friendship kindles into flame

22. Gelett Burgess, ed., Epi-Lark (San Francisco: William F. Doxey, 1897).

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Spicer, Vocabulary, 122.

26. Rob Halpern, Disaster Suites (Palm Press, 2009). 

Time-lapse poemography

Ron Silliman's poetry of accretion

Two poems in Ron Silliman’s poetry collection The Alphabet,“Jones” and “Skies,” are yearlong projects. For “Jones,” as Silliman writes in his notes, “Every day for a year I looked at the ground,”[1] and similarly for “Skies,” “Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw” (1060). Other poems in the collection are similarly crafted: “You” (“One paragraph a day, one section a week for a year” [1062]) and “Paradise” (“literally begun on New Year’s Day, completed on New Year’s Eve” [1060]). This article’s title points to this effort to put writing back into poetry: graphy — “processes … of writing, drawing or … representation.”[2] This is a poetry of the transformation of looking into writing. I call it time-lapse poemography because it takes daily verbal “snapshots” and accretes them into a composite of a year. The interval is the day, though for motifs, it is the month. The exposure length is the moment of looking and the slightly longer moment of recording. The frame is the field of vision, largely the poet’s window, door or porch, but sometimes a plane window or the view of wherever he happens to be on that day. The bracketing is the focus of the viewpoint, in the case of these two poems, either looking up or looking down.

Time-span. Time-lapse photography selects subject matter that changes over time and that has some kind of beginning and concluding state. A typical image is that of a flower in bud, photographed in carefully timed intervals to record its blooming. A year is the time-span for these poems because of its importance in human life units, but unlike the photograph’s subject, there is no opening or closing moment, such as birth or death; there is only the beginning and ending by date, a cultural designation.

The method of yearlong or longer daily projects is established in the visual and performance arts, as in On Kawara’s Today series, for which he painted the date every day, or his I Got Up series, for which he sent postcards every day between 1966 and 1979. Tehching Hsieh is a master of the one-year form: he spent 1978–1979 in a barred cell, punched a time card every hour on the hour in 1980–1981, stayed outdoors with only a sleeping bag and no transportation in 1981–1982, was tied to Linda Montano by the waist in 1983–1984, and did not look at or talk about art in 1985–1986. Since then, the one-year project has been embraced by popular culture, including No Impact Man, Living Oprah, and wearing the same dress (brown or black, according to the project), among others.

Tracking. Time-lapse photography records change over time. Through the year’s span, Silliman’s writing-each-day-for-a-year poems record change as well, but change through the destruction or mangling (in “Jones”) of that which are at once reconfigured into this new space. The poem becomes these layers with the depths of strata overlying strata, the detritus of urban existence, the craft of the description of perpetual destruction. These poems are anti-object but use objects to create a fusion: “the sufficiency of nature / like this hand towel rotting in the gutter / the narrative implicit, indeterminate, complete” (130). These are objects in the process of merging into the field.

Destruction transpires through the energy of the verbs. These might be verbs of compression, dissolution, decay, and breakages, but the description’s matter-of-fact tone lifts them into charged experience and creates positivity through destruction. This is a “cornucopia” of the city and of human life (113). The cement and asphalt are riddled with cracks, webs, and veins. They are amalgamated through the “pulpy mush” (133) of mashed, crushed, gouged, flattened, embedded (129), and thinly sliced pink dildos. The palette, aside from occasional bits of pink (gum, dildos), is a muted brown, gray, black, largely discolored and freckled: “spots on the sidewalk soon fade to gray” (121); this is a “sullen spectra” (134); “the street itself is a collage of dozens of greys” (133).

The things described are less important than the excavation — “objects are pointless evident to anyone” (114), “open-ended as in free-falling, in search of punctuation or an object” (127) — but this is an excavation in reverse, a time-lapse run backward like the drop of water film that starts with the ripples in the liquid and then draws up into the initiating droplet that is now its culmination. Through the act of describing these layers, the poet creates them: “planet’s skin thick as the rind of a tangelo, thin as that of a potato, or all skin, layer within layer, like flesh, like an onion” (123); “a view from which the surface is no surface at all, but an endless, soft, off-white layering of cloud” (115); “pry into a primal scene” (128). “In Baltimore, where I am not,” the poem explains, “there’s an exhibit near the aquarium, the Visible Street, … a cross section, layered as flesh is layered, pipes, tubing, wires beneath the dark meat of asphalt (not only hokey but false: skin’s dead layer flakes away while here, in Baltimore, not Berkeley, it’s simply piled on, the newest flesh is at the outer edge, tender, alive with root and worm)” (127). This “newest flesh” is the focus of the poet’s looking down and depicting; layers “piled on” over time, the poem’s layers in the same manner.

Layers are also set up through the repeated incorporation of text inside parentheses, as in the previous quotation from the poem. This text is designated by the enclosed spaces as asides, and therefore not to be taken as the primary focus of the poems. To set up this hierarchy, words in parentheses are read with lower voice inflections. However, just as in a Jackson Pollock painting a glimpse of red or bare canvas will leap through the overlaying drips, these parenthetical layers in the text create depth and burst through the neutral description, bearing the weight of the poems, that “ground defined by my relation to it” (114); “who knows what a fact is, solid ground” (123).

Subject. Tracking is the movement of the camera over time in time-lapse photography, so that the created film takes into account not merely change over time, but follows a passage in depicting time and space at once. Time-lapse photography is meant to provide a close view of events that occur too slowly for our eyes to track them. Descriptions are the poet’s tool to create a clearer view of change over time. Silliman says in “Skies”: “I want to describe description, what is already there (sound, light, weather) … (metonymy is the problem of choice)” (469), but later he says, “(I am not interested in description, but detail, transition, all the nameless, half-known tones reducible to blue)” (474). By description he means, therefore, not simply the effort to depict what he sees, feels, smells, and hears, but to go into what the process of creating that depiction might mean.

The poem “Skies” is even more invested in this focus than “Jones.” As with “Jones,” which I call the “looking down poem,” the poet sets himself a task to look up and write every day about what he saw for a year in forming the poem “Skies.” Looking down in a city provides endless fodder for description, and a city is so busy that adhering largely to the visual provides ample material; looking up put the poet against the wall of description. Here is a restricted palette; here are restricted objects of focus. The poet turns to the senses to expand the options: sounds, smells, physical sensations. Motifs shape the poem through their recursion: a plum tree, laundry hanging out to dry, jets, spiders.

The poem is composed as well, as in composing the shot: “(against selection I want to pose the partial determination of what I find beyond these doors)” (470); “I scratch these words out and try others” (469). In “Skies” Silliman refers to his concern with “sentence type” (469).[3] Bob Perelman writes that for Silliman, “Sentences are semi-autonomous units, but they are not atomized into sameness: they are variously expressive, analytic, and narrative.”[4] “I prefer,” Silliman says in “Skies,” “the prepositional form of possession’s discreteness, adjectives are not aspects (but projections)” (469). Intriguing here is the reliance on parentheses, mentioned earlier, but clearly the tool for insertion of metapoetics. These descriptions of sentence, sentence type, and word type draw the reader’s focus to the particulars of the language, but also, as Perelman suggests, force attention to individual sentences by disaggregating them from the poems’ welter of sentences and images.

Adding time, tracking. The poem follows routes through these daily entries merged into masses of text, though in “Skies,” as the poem says, with a space between sections to indicate months. These routes, these passages, are called “paths” in the poems. The matter-of-fact tone and this approach to experience take their lead from religious lessons, the “light’s path” (122). This is, the poem says, “not a straight line but like the logic of chess, each more (each word) opens entire sequences, others shut forever (train plunges into the tunnel) and reversing your steps can never take you back” (133). Even in tasks as restricted as the ones set in these two poems (looking up and looking down), infinite options present themselves to the poet; those selected can never be undone, but have instead created the course of existence: “walk in any direction in a straight line and you will arrive at the edge, but no path is harder than a path to define” (128). John Ashbery describes this process in less shaping but similar terms: “It’s getting from one place to another, from one moment to another. … It happens by itself and we’re part of its happening.”[5]

Stuttered time-lapse. The motion of the time-lapse in these poems is stuttered, for the frame intervals are at 365 per year, so that following one motif over the year’s span reflects this jerky sensation (motifs are even more stuttered as they are spaced into month-long intervals): “Heat will cause the plums to drop” (457); “Everything blisters in a rare heat (leaves on the plum tree curl & crackle …)” (460); “plum tree’s branch bobs into view” (460); “Hummingbirds in the plum tree” (464); “the jet in the plum tree exits” (464); “Leaves fall from the plum tree, drifting into the snail-chewed spinach” (466); “one bird somewhere in the plum tree” (468); “shimmer of a spider’s thread in the plum tree light” (468); “the wind drives the last leaves from the plum tree” (469); “the night sky against the plum tree is deep grey against deeper grey” (473); “A light gust rattles the plum tree” (478); “Plums have fallen where the onions have just started to sprout” (479). The plum tree, standing outside Silliman’s house, becomes his regular filter for his daily shots of the sky. While the tree itself is stationary and recurs nearly monthly in the poem, its state is never static. It stands in the heat and wind, day and night. It frames the birds, jets, and spiders. It contrasts with the sky behind it. It orients the poet, between the ground of the garden, over which it stands, and the sky that rises through it, above it, and beyond it. The plum represents, therefore, the change of the seasons, the erratic nature of the weather, and the constant outside activity, as well as a grounding of a type found in “Jones.”

This is a coming into existence out of the expanded scope of the sky, the diminished options of topics. The poem becomes about the path, about description; it is time-lapse poetry. “Repetition flags the theme … Repetition flogs the theme / the intent thickens / as the cement hardens” (129). In “Skies,” the poet wrestles with repetition because looking up provides, as he says, an “unbroken sameness” (457), a “restricted palette” (457). Within the constraints of this repetition, a compressed color scheme and a paucity of elements, the sentences in their endless distinctiveness, changing over time, over days, over the year’s span, form the texture of the year. “[G]rammar is weather” (470), he says.

The point of these poems is, therefore, that human existence is this layering of experience, this compression through time and memory into sedimentation. In creating the layers of the poem through the layering of days and description and moments of physical experience, Silliman creates the reverse of an archaeological dig. The “whole of word enclosed” (122), he says, is contained in the poem, and as “the world is revealed in in- / crements” (469–70), this “theory [of description that creates a path of existence] fertilizes a seed of intuition” (127). These are timescapes, what the poet sees over time. The objects flicker in and out of the frame as the year passes, marked by glimpses of hanging wash, the plum tree, the spiders, the jets, appearing and reappearing, always mutated by the difference of the day, the light, the time of year, the framing. This is time-lapse poemography, not just looking up and looking down, but looking backwards and forwards at once.



1. Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008), 1058. All other references to this work are cited by page number in the text.

2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “graphy.”

3. Also reflected in Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987).

4. Bob Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” in The Ends of Theory,ed. Jerry Herron, Dorothy Huson, Ross Pudaloff, and Robert Strozier (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 250.

5. John Ashbery, “An Interview in Warsaw,” interview by Piotr Sommer, in Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics, ed. Michael Palmer (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 1983), 313.