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.
In an unpublished letter to Robin Blaser and Jim Felts from the mid–1950s, Jack Spicer cautions his addressees against preserving their correspondence for posterity.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.” 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.”
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,” and similarly for “Skies,” “Every day for one year I looked at the sky & noted what I saw” (1060).
It is difficult to conceive of a literary work spun out of “spatial motion.” To read and consider a poem that defies iconographic metaphor and symbolic interpretation, a poem intrstead composed out of language’s own phenomenal play, is to butt up against traditional values about poetry that still slide toward the pictorially descriptive.
In a recent interview with Jon Curley (The Conversant, April 2014), Joseph Donahue calls our attention to two lines from Emily Dickinson’s short poem “The spry Arms of the Wind”:
I have an errand imminent To an adjoining Zone —
“Each of those terms,” says Donahue, “‘errand,’ ‘immanent,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘zone,’ have for many, many years deeply engaged me. … the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. … Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?”
There’s a revealing error here: Donahue inadvertently reads “imminent” as “immanent,” the latter word designating the manifestation of divine presence inherent in the material world (as opposed to transcendent). But why not read Dickinson’s “errand imminent” — her urgent errand — as a longing to discover the immanent? Donahue has always been concerned with the spiritual dimension of material existence: he is, that rare thing today, a seriously “religious” poet. I want here to look at how this poet’s “errand imminent (immanent)” to those “adjoining zones” works in the opening poem of his new collection, Red Flash on a Black Field (2014).