Now poet: Dmitry Golynko and the new social epic

Dmitry Golynko writes about the now. Since his debut in the early 1990s, Golynko’s ear has been tuned with extraordinary sensitivity to present linguistic conditions. His subject has been current social and political experience, which he studies with precise, close concentration. His writing — honed responses to his environment — constitutes a critical analysis, or perhaps an anatomy, of contemporary subjectivity. And as social and political reality, both in Russia and globally, has grown over the past two decades by stages more agonizing, more charged by crisis, and less obviously leading to any predictable or desirable future, Golynko’s work has engaged more and more intensely with this work of critique.

A consideration of the fading utility of the term “post-Soviet” can disclose something of the specificity of Golynko’s writing. For the past half-decade at least, this term has appeared more and more exhausted and less and less capable of grasping the present. The “post-Soviet” both never arrived, and now is emphatically past: the socialist world failed to enter the neoliberal heaven that was promised in the early nineties, and nevertheless (or perhaps precisely for this reason), social, cultural, and political experience has now moved on. But Golynko was never “post-Soviet” in any sense anyhow. Let me explain. Golynko began to publish only in the 1990s (his earliest publication appears to have been the selection of poems published in the journal Smena in 1992), and he therefore may be taken as a representative figure, symptomatic (but never typical) of the poetic condition of the 1990s and beyond in Russia.[1] Certainly, then, he is a poet who took shape outside of the Soviet literary landscape. So why can’t he be said to be “post-Soviet”? Because, in distinction from the great majority of poets who have been described with this term, many of whom began writing in the underground long before the fall of the Soviet Union, Golynko has never defined his practice or his object of inquiry in opposition to Soviet realities. As with any other proclaimed “post-” (including that other ghost of the 1990s, the “postmodern”), the term “post-Soviet” tends to memorialize as much as it does bury, retaining the superseded past as a spectral presence. The post-Soviet generation was composed of poets whose writing continued to depend on the ironic deflation of Soviet official culture, or who sought self-consciously to differentiate themselves from Soviet aesthetic practices by discovering an anti-ideological language, a new sincerity, etc. Golynko, in terms of both biography and poetic voice, is anything but “post-Soviet” in this sense. While others were still fighting old battles, he was picking new fights, both aesthetic and political. From the start, his work aimed to present an unobstructed view of the present and its specificity.[2]

Perhaps, though, we should connect Golynko not only with the present tense, but with the future. The legacy of the early twentieth-century avant-garde is more and more present with us today — not as a result of any specific aesthetic shift, but as a result of the sudden opening up across the globe of what Jürgen Habermas, following Reinhart Koselleck, refers to as the “horizon of future expectations.”[3] Not since the early twentieth century has the future appeared so ill-defined, so unpredictable. After a half-century during which the global political imagination was nothing but a conflict between known futures, alternate programs to be implemented, followed by a decade in which the neoliberal present seemed to have captured all of the future in its predictability, suddenly we have been cast again into the temporal condition that the historical avant-garde occupied a century ago. Propelled out of a past from which ever greater technical possibilities and unresolved political ferment well up, often violently, situated in a present that is characterized by unpredictable, ongoing waves of global crisis — financial, ecological, political — we face a future that is radically unpredictable, that is throwing problems, one after another, at humanity. The avant-garde answers this challenge by means of a radical critique of the present, and the search for new forms, new shapes for future life. Golynko’s answer, over the past decade, has taken the form of what he describes as “applied social poetry” — a poetry that is capable of channeling the raw energy of contemporary language towards its own critical self-disclosure. In other words, Golynko’s portrait of the contemporary is pregnant with futurity.

Before describing where Golynko has arrived most recently with the poem included with this publication and others of his recent works, let’s briefly take account of his past poetic trajectory.[4] Golynko’s work divides into three periods. In the 1990s he wrote what might be described as a form of glam poetry. Much of Golynko’s writing of that decade focused on an urban youth scene of drinking, sex, drugs, gambling, pop music, casinos, etc. His language featured an extraordinary cosmopolitan inventiveness, charged with slangy neologisms and modish-sounding foreign borrow-words that both reproduced the mad influx of non-Russian (largely English) lexicon and went one better with over-the-top multilingual puns (an uncharacteristically translatable instance: “Mickey-Mauser”). One wants to apply the description of a character from his “flagship” work of the 1990s — the long poem “Sashenka; Or, the Diary of An Ephemeral Death,” (1994–1995) — as a definition of Golynko’s own authorial persona of this period:

Here stoops Hermann H., jack of all spades, as of late Count Nullius,
misallied with an elderly countess for the sake of her granddaughter.
He summates in himself Harry Haller and Humbert Humbert
and Svidrigailov, of course — though he’s barely taller than Thumbellina.[5]

Вон валетом пикирует Герман Г., нынче - граф Нулин,
он вступил в мезальянс с престарелой графиней ради её внучки.
Сплюсовались в нем Гарри Галлер и Гумберт Гумберт,
и Свидригайлов, конечно, — а себя-то в нём с нос гулькин.

Here, Golynko self-consciously displays his various literary pedigrees, Petersburgian on the one hand and world-lit-derived, on the other, both of which he tilted towards a stance of decadence, literary and social playfulness, and dandyism: from Pushkin he references the avaricious German from “The Queen of Spades,” from Dostoevsky we get amoral sexual monsters like Svidrigailov, from Nabokov, Humbert Humbert; from Hesse, the multi-planar personality Harry Haller.

The social world that Golynko captured in such works as “Sashenka” was a stylized, hyperbolic version of urban life of the 1990s, taken to extraordinary extremes that allowed for its ironic distancing and aestheticization. Yet he also imprinted, as in a photographic negative, a lyric intensity and elegance that belied the ironic, punning structure of his writing. Golynko’s strategy was in fact the use of the modish, amusing, yet ultimately sterile tropes of sophisticated textual play, amid the social and cultural chaos of that decade, as a screen against which lyricism might recover a degree of intensity that would appear either naïve or ironic if delivered directly. Like Natasha in Tolstoi’s opera house, the falsity of what happens on the stage allowed the innocence of the heart to ring true. Here, at the start of his career, Golynko’s concerns were resolutely presentist. This was about portraiture of 1990s social life and subjectivity, not about ironic deflation of the vanquished heroes of Soviet official culture, or recovery of the poetic traditions of the past. He was also rather optimistic about the potentials of the present for the new creation of human values. If history entered into his writing, it was a neutral history, a ruined past that, although charged with the traumas of the abruptly terminated grand historical narratives of the “short” twentieth century, had no power over the postmodern carnival of the present. And likewise, if the present in poems like “Sashenka” could be described as a kind of ruin, it was simply a ruin, rather than a ruin of the Soviet: a ruin in the midst of which new lyricism and new life were free to grow in a sort of chaotic, feverish fecundity.

Yet this sense of wild, lyric hopefulness failed to outlast the 1990s, either in social reality or in Golynko’s poetry. As the social scene of the 1990s was overtaken by a new model, so too Golynko made what appeared as a sharp left turn in his poetic practices around the end of the 1990s. The signal achievement of this second period of Golynko’s work was the poetic cycle “Elementary Things.” This is an extended series of short lyric meditations on an entity that constitutes a strange hybrid of personhood and philosophical abstraction of materiality. Golynko’s elementary things at times act like people, but at others behave like some sort of enigmatic, cosmic “ding an sich.” This device allows the poet to pursue a concerted exploration of what appears to be a category of extrasocial being. In the first of the series, “EV1,” Golynko offers us one of many definitions of this entity:

elementary things
don’t take up a lot of space
that must be the formula of modernity
not to take up a lot of space
if the place is procreative it
will come into contact with something foreign
if the place spews smoke without fire or cause
it’s handier for it to come into contact with nothing
that’s why the elementary thing is such a ninny
as if it got kept half its life in the nuthouse
discombobulated completely
though with elementary things it’s not so easy to
send ’em packing, lock ’em up in the slammer
they change their places of residence
before the places manage to cover over
like gametes they are[6]

элементарные вещи
много места не занимают
видно, это формула современности
занимать места немного
если место причинное оно
соприкоснется с чем-нибудь посторонним
если место задымлено без огня без причины
ему сподручней с ничем соприкоснуться
потому-то элементарная вещь такая дурында
будто ее полжизни держали в дурдоме
окончательно сбили с панталыку
но элементарные вещи не так-то просто
сбагрить с рук и упечь в кутузку
они меняют места проживанья
прежде, чем место себя заметает
подобно гаметам они

These poems might be characterized as a thought experiment in what remains after the social is extracted — an investigation of the category that Agamben refers to as “bare life.”[7] Or, paradoxically, they might also be seen as an investigation of the precise parameters of social subjectivity, once the illusion of human agency and feeling is extracted from it. In a political and social environment that was at that time increasingly becoming normatively restrictive, one might think of this conflation of a turn at once to the material and the metaphysical as a form of protest. This conception of what the poet was up to here can help to bridge back towards his earlier practices, which may not be as distinct from these later poems in their deeper critical and affective work as they appear to be in their poetic strategies. One may see in the alterity of the “elementary thing” an analogy to the lyric alterity in the works of the 1990s. As the social conditions that formed the basis for Golynko’s poetics in the 1990s were themselves superceded by other, less frenetic and more limiting ones, the poet found in the elementary thing, which “it’s not so easy to / send […] packing, lock […] up in the slammer,” a different avenue for escape than through the rabbit hole of lyricism, one that led to no less vital possibilities for affective and poetic fertility. In this second period, one is again struck by Golynko’s remarkable freedom from the weight of history. With the “elementary thing” he found and took on his social targets in the present, without the burden of a historical experience that extended before the chaos of the 1990s. Indeed, the impulse here was towards transcendence of all experience: this was writing outside of not only the Soviet and the post-Soviet, but beyond the social in any sense.[8]

Golynko achieved important technical innovations in this second period of his creative work, which are crucial for comprehension of his latest poetry, illustrated by the new translation published with this essay. Golynko’s writing had always been attuned to the “word of the other” and to the specificity of contemporary language — the language of youth, of the street, of the television and radio of the 1990s — which he subjected to elaborate transformations and alchemical recombination. Yet in his earlier writing the overall linguistic and poetic fabric was defined by a transhistorical and transcultural fund of literary tropes and topoi, which formed an armature on which the vocabulary and social subjectivity of present experience could be hung. In the 2000s, Golynko began to appropriate the language of the everyday in more complete, discursive units: “the elementary thing makes dishes clatter / using a high-class liquid.”[9] This is a form of discourse poetry, in which Golynko rewove the “elementary things” that make up the contemporary prison house of language to show precisely how it is shaped at a rather deeper level than he managed with his fantastical ethnographic excursuses in the 1990s. Golynko’s other technical discovery of the early 2000s was the device of seriality. “Elementary things” was just one of several extended series of compositions (the “Faun” series; the “Respected Categories” series) in which the extended repetition of a single linguistic formula figures as the basic material of a poetic experiment, carried out on a grand scale. The principle of seriality was crucial to Golynko’s critical project, allowing him to mark out the outlines of contemporary subject positions through obsessive iterations of a single nodal point in language and in social discourse, refracted through various angles of attack.

Both of these innovations have been applied in a more intense and focused form in Golynko’s most recent poetic production, which rises organically from the previous period, yet also marks a distinctly new phase. Whereas in the “Elementary things” the word of the other, inserted into the nearly abstract grid of Golynko’s poetic system, is ratcheted up to nearly metaphysical significance, in works like “Whip It Out,” the metaphysical potential (and now it remains only a potential) of the hammering, mantra-like repetition of key elements of the composition — the title phrase and the image of a “man in a black raincoat” — is brought into a far sharper focus, a higher degree of critical resonance, by the extraordinarily abject nature of Golynko’s borrowed utterances, apparently “found” language (the words of multiple, anonymous voices), that form the disquieting basic material of the poem[10]. Golynko’s achievement lies in his extreme stance of attentiveness to language. He has passed far beyond a simple import of neologistic slang, street language, or advertising jingles into poetry, where such “fresh lexical items” can be denatured and turned into a fetish of authenticity, while remaining in general constrained by the poet’s voice and textual authority. Golynko has instead ceded a great deal of poetic authority to the voice of the other, in all the foreignness of its alien politics, erotics, and violence. It’s really a matter of control. Golynko has invited the voice and subjectivity of the other into the heart of his verse in a completely novel manner. As a result, his poetry goes places that literature, nice folk, and refined conversation have seldom been before:

whip it out, yeah, dig it
a man in a black raincoat
looks at the hands of a woman
Asiatic, thin, without a single

blemish, if you blow off the dust
of impunity, everything
is ground to dust, flakes to the floor
the style: doggy[11]

вынь да положь, да наверни
человек в черном плаще
смотрит на руки женщины
азиатки, тонкие, без единой

родинки, если сдунуть с них
пыль безнаказанности, то
все перемелется, труха будет
на полу, стиль собачий

At the start of this essay I wrote that Golynko’s current writing may be seen as a diagnostic procedure applied to contemporary social and political reality. Like many medical procedures, this is a painful one, in which the reader hears the disturbing interior voices of the era.

The purposefulness of this new phase is startling — whereas in his earlier periods, Golynko was oriented towards a certain poetic transformation of the social, in this current phase his work can be better described as a call to arms or even a form of action. If in his earlier poetry he was concerned with the precise description of social realities, his more recent poetry adopts an activist stance that is oriented towards revelation of the lacerations and wounds of contemporary social being. The poet himself has proposed that this new phase might be described as “poetics of sharpened precision” (2006), or an “applied social poetry,” yet I would propose the term “new social epic.”[12] In some ways, my use of the term “epic” is in dialogue with the “new epic” poetry proclaimed in the middle of the last decade by Fedor Swarovski. As in Swarovski’s leading examples of the “new epic,” Golynko’s recent writing operates in a non-lyrical mode (that is, it is not based in the subjective experiences of an authorial persona) and presents a sweeping portrait of an entire scene of human existence and happening. As in Swarovski’s conceptions, Golynko’s writing is grounded in the intuition that the authorial lyric, as such, is a compromised and limited vehicle at present, both for literary and ideological reasons. Yet unlike Swarovski, Golynko’s writing is dedicated to a unique reality principle that links his works to the here and now in no uncertain terms — this is a new social epic.[13] For whereas in his earlier work Golynko was remarkably free from the phantasmatic burdens of past history, in his current period he offers a remarkable, epic historicization of the present.

One of Walter Benjamin’s most influential formulations was his concept of radical history as the backward glance of the Angelus Novus, capable of comprehending the failures, silences, victims, and wounds of the past.[14] In Benjamin’s conception, only such a history of ruins could present an authentic and effective tool for overcoming the inertia of a historical process geared to repetition and reinscription of injustice. Golynko’s most recent work may be described as just such an “effective history,” conducted in the present tense, on an level epic in both scale and political import.[15] This work painfully probes the wounds of the present by means of close scrutiny of contemporary language, combining this disturbing portraiture with an equally disturbing evocation of the absent transcendent moment — whether this takes the form of the historical subject, the grand narrative, or even innocent pleasures, lyric or erotic. The titles of his long serial works of the last years demonstrate, in the mode of “baring the device,” the operations of this negative metaphysics by means of their punning structures, that typically reduce formulae that strive to evoke transcendence — “The Keys to Heaven” («Ключи от рая»), “Acts of mercy” («Акты милосердия») — to awkward references to fallen material objects that both encode the desire for transcendence and frustrate it — “The Keys to Yonder” («Ключи от края»), “Products of Mercy” («Продукты милосердия»).

Yet another absented path to transcendence concerns the poet’s novel aesthetics of radical ugliness. In his past work, as mentioned above, sheer lyricism presented a path to redemption of Golynko’s at times chaotic or disturbing social portraiture. His most recent work resolutely refuses to offer poetic beauty as a justification or legitimization of the social pain he explores. These works present an unblinking inquiry into the painful, the illicit, the immoral, the unethical, the corrupted, and the revolting. Yet Golynko’s rejection of the beautiful does not signal his rejection of the aesthetic — in fact, this radical gesture acts to renovate the aesthetic as a socially potent instrument. Since the fading of the avant-garde project of artistic transformation of the social world in the middle twentieth century, poetic language has too often been restricted to the elevated realm of the reflection and contemplation of the beautiful — a sort of ghetto of the beautiful. The few exceptions to this rule (that for some reason applies to poetry more than any other literary or visual art) include conceptualist works, in which the beautiful is typically replaced by the ironic or the clever, or the works of a few radical voices, such as that of Charles Bukowski, for whom the exploration of frequently obscene settings of social marginality became something of a transcendental quest in its own right — a quest for authenticity or for social realism. Golynko’s recent work, like Bukowski’s, explores the unsightly extremes of social experience, yet he has nothing of the romantic lyric subject that ennobles Bukowski’s quixotic quest. Instead, Golynko offers an unrelenting, epic immersion in the dark matter of present social reality. For this very reason, his work has regained the activist force of avant-garde writing. In parting company with the beautiful, the aesthetic is revealed in these poems as a category of formal richness that is pregnant with analytical potential and future modes of life, understanding, and meaning. The reader has no choice but to meet these worlds of pain head on, in all of their desperation, in a radical baring that must be taken as a call to arms or to action.

We may take “The Keys to Yonder,” which is offered here in translation, as a representative sample and manifesto of Golynko’s latest achievements. The poem is constructed around the opposition between a grotesque everyday reality and the aspiration for its transcendence. The latter is communicated in the obsessive return to the formula of the “keys to yonder” at the start of each stanza, presenting them as mysterious riddles, instruments promising release that somehow always lies just out of reach. The former — the everyday — is presented through a pastiche of borrowed phrases, which present a world of violence, depravity, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness. Via this opposition we gain a glimpse into the nature of present-day social and historical experience — our feeling of being trapped in the inescapable realities of a world afflicted by social disorders of various scales, of having lost our bearings (which way leads forward?), coupled with a perpetual desire to discover new ways to see around our situation, new “keys” that might lead to release from this awful present. No keys are forthcoming, of course. Unless a lucid vision of our present situatedness can be described as a key. For in each of his successive phases of work, Golynko has made possible a critical examination of our existential and political condition. In this most recent phase, he allows us to glimpse the urgency of our wounded, troubled present. He is a poet of the now.



1. Eugene Ostashevsky, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Dmitry Golynko, As It Turned Out, trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebecca Bella, and Simona Schneider (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), ix–xiii.

2. Interestingly, in Golynko’s own overview of contemporary Russian poetry, he lucidly identifies the civilizational “hangover” of the preceding generation of poets — without, tellingly, articulating his own poetic position in any relationship whatsoever to that historical condition. See his essay with Evgeny Pavlov, “A Poetics of Intense Precision,” Landfall (New Zealand), no. 213 (May 2007): 52–59.

3. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity’s Consciousness of Time and Its Need for Self-Reassurance,” in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 1–22.

4. For other accounts of Golynko’s poetics, see: Илья Кукулин, «Исчезновение спектакля (траектория поэтического сознания)», introduction to: Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон, Бетонные голубки (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003), 5–20; Eugene Ostashevsky,Dmitry Golynko-Volfson and New Petersburg Poetry,” Shark, no. 1 (1998). Also see my more complete account of the earlier periods of Golynko’s poetics in Кевин М. Ф. Платт, «На границе литературоведения, за пределами постсоветского опыта: Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон», Новое литературное обозрение, no. 89 (2008): 213–220.

5. Trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 17.

6. Ibid., 27.

7. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

8. See a description of Golynko’s shift at the start of the 2000s in Дмитрий Бак «Сто поэтов начала столетия. О поэзии Дмитрия Голынко-Вольфсона и Тимура Кибирова», Октябр, no. 9 (2011): 173–179.

9. Trans. Eugene Ostashevsky, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 28.

10. The refrain “man in a black raincoat” responds to the line “who are these people in black raincoats,” from the 1999 work “Partial Objects” by Golynko’s fellow St. Petersburg poet Alexander Skidan. As Artemii Magun has pointed out, Skidan’s line, in turn, refers to Descartes’ musings on how one may know that other thinking beings are concealed beneath clothing, rather than automatons, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, where it forms a part of the derivation of the cogito. From this starting point, Golynko’s poem may be seen in dialogue with Skidan’s concerning the conditions of modern subjectivity. See: Артемий Магун, «Слои сетчатки», Новое литературное обозрение no. 81 (2006): 318–319.

11. Trans. Rebecca Bella Golynko, in Golynko, As It Turned Out, 123.

12.See Golynko’s “A Poetics of Intense Precision,” and Дмитрий Голынко-Вольфсон, «Прикладная социальная поэзия: изобретение политического субъекта», Транслит, no. 10/11 (2012): 180–82.

13. See Федор Сваровский, «Несколько слов о “новом эпосе”» Журнал “РЕЦ”, no. 44 (2007): 3–6. Also see Илья Кукулин «От Сваровского к Жуковскому и обратно: О том, как метод исследования конструирует литературный канон», Новое литературное обозрение, no. 89 (2008): 228–39.

14. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257–58.

15. On effective history, see Habermas, “Modernity’s Consciousness of Time,” 18.

Poetry after the Siege of Leningrad

Montage, ekphrasis, allegory

The theme of war should be named as one of the most urgent and, ironically, productive, for contemporary Russian poetry. We find its various incarnations in the works of such striking and dissimilar poets as Elena Fanailova, Mariia Stepanova, and Stanislav Lvovsky. These poets are primarily preoccupied by the new wars of Russian empire such as the Chechnya campaigns as well as by the unmediated, continuous wars of memory — among which the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany still remains one of the hottest spots both culturally and politically, producing new interpretations and representations.

After one of my recent talks in the US about the culture of the Siege, I was approached by a polite elderly gentleman who asked me a question that at first struck me with its absurdity and then with its absurd sharpness — “has the Siege of Leningrad ended?” he asked. The Siege of Leningrad, a calamity that claimed up to two million lives, one of the most dramatic and controversial military events of the last century, was lifted in January 1944 — and yet, in many ominous ways it is still going on, and morphing, producing new meanings in the imagination of Russians. It has been exhaustively described and discussed, yet it remains a troubling, problematic episode of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany: on par with Stalin’s labor camps, the Siege remains one of the most problematic zones of Soviet history.  

In history and memory of the Siege, categories of dramatic historical magnitude emerge from juxtaposed narratives: order (both allegedly imposed from Moscow and established by the local Party hierarchy) and chaos (the rise of criminal activity of all kinds, from the black market to cannibalism) turned the Siege of Leningrad into a zone of societal repression and taboo, shielded for half a century from sober historical examination or artistic readdressing by the official terms, heroism and stoicism, that obscured grim reality like a funeral shroud. Sociologist Lev Gudkov claims that late Soviet society was glued together by the myth of the victorious war and victorious nation, and that this still remains the case today.[1] Any confrontation or deconstruction of this account elicits radically negative reactions from the majority of Russians. As one young pro-Putin critic puts it in his response to publication of the texts I discuss below: “You won’t resurrect your dead. In the case of two million blokadniki [Siege victims and witnesses] — you can’t understand them, you can’t hear them. But you can pray for them, ask for forgiveness and keep your silence.”[2] Any attempt at frank dialogue with the national past(s) is apt to be received with antagonism, denial, or both, and a quasi-Heideggerian notion of silence turns into an instrument for the control of national memory. One of my interviewees expressed this view sardonically, thus summing up the opinion prevailing in Russia today: “Don’t dare to touch their wounds, since they don’t have any wounds anyway.”

Yet precisely out of spite, inspired by their disagreement with the politics of silence, contemporary Russian poets choose to write about the Siege; the most interesting of these attempts aim at bringing the modern reader closer to the experience and subjectivity of blokadniki: how did they conceive of their situation? What did they feel, see, and hear? What language(s) were coined in that experience, and, crucially, how can these languages be transposed or translated into today’s poetics?

In the present essay I look at the several contemporary poetic texts dedicated to the Siege, analyzing various takes on the task of such a historical gesture as well as the formal qualities adopted by today’s poets for their post-Siege contemplations. The latest publication, Sergei Zavialov’s montage-text “Christmas Fast,” appeared in the leading journal New Literary Review and is directly connected to such phenomena of historical data as the Siege archive, the mass of unprocessed source materials (diaries, letters, works of fiction) still awaiting archiving, publication, reading, interpretation. Zavialov’s quest for an adequate form is inventive, insistent, sometimes humbling, sometimes frustrating — everything that such a complicated search for diction might involve. His piece presents a panoramic montage of various Siege languages. In a bold dialogue-play with the urgency and necessity of authenticity, he reproduces and recombines various layers of the Siege logomorphic machine: 

He said:

                   Alimentary dystrophy is a pathological process, which from the
clinical perspective should be interpreted as a nosological unit. Yakov
Rappoport suggested that this illness has gastrogenic origin. Building on
the contemporary ideas about the diverse functions of the mucous
membrane of the stomach and its role in the nervous and humoral
regulation of the vital processes, the author sees disturbance of the
stomach’s mucous membrane to be the crucial link in the pathogeny of the
alimentary dystrophy.

 She said:

 I am lying here sick. And they: gobble gobble gobble gobble.

 You said:

 Oh, how splendid was the snowfall at dusk,

 The snowflakes that blur the outlines of space.

 Disappearance of lines, fading of shadows, numbing of sounds.

 They said:

                   Yesterday night fragments of the Southern front sector of the
Soviet army under General Kharitnov’s command breached the
fortifications of the Nazi Army and occupied Rostov. General Kleist’s
group is fully annihilated with more than 5,000 dead.

 And then we sang:

 We remember his death,

 We proclaim his resurrection,

 We await his coming in glory.

 Jesus, Lamb of God: have mercy on us.

 Jesus, bearer of our sins: have mercy on us.

Jesus, redeemer, redeemer of the world: give us your peace.[3]  

This striking collage-medley combines discourses of religious hymns, food rations, personal diaries, official communiqués about the glory of Soviet weaponry, and echoes of underground Siege poetry never intended for publication. From this combination a peculiar double effect emerges that blurs in a reader’s mind sensations of “presentness” (as in being “there” and “then”) and estrangement. From a retrospective point of view, radically different ways of Siege sense-making both contradict and highlight each other. This effect of multiglossia, an orchestrated chaos convincingly reproduced by Zavialov, figures in many Siege diaries. The dialogue-defying confidence of official propaganda’s language is contrasted acutely with the sublime diction of poetry that Siege subjects use as “spiritual crutches” and with the aphatic decay of Siege subjects’ consciousness from hunger, disease, and mental decline. The corruption of language in a situation of historical trauma becomes an inevitable stumbling block for anyone who engages the Siege archive: the effect of suffering on language is difficult to ignore. One can observe in the documents how hunger devours the tissues of speech as it does muscle, one grammatical category after another: gender, time, and number fade from view.

How do we sense that Zavialov’s writing is poetry? He builds his text whimsically, brutally, and yet, rigorously, through parallelisms and repetitions that engender new connections, sounding out allusions as in an echo chamber. His task is to approach the meaning and sound of a Siege liturgy. Importantly, Zavialov never imposes the form of religious harmony from outside of the historical process, retrospectively, but rather locates and develops it within the Siege existence where, as various sources demonstrate, intensity of religious practice rose dramatically. Churches functioned in the city even during the months of winter when bakeries, hospitals, and morgues “froze” in stillness.

In his attempt to find ekphrastic expression for the trauma of the Siege, Zavialov follows the Siege figurations of Elena Shvarts, often called one of the central poetic voices of the Soviet underground since the 1970s. Not long before her untimely death in 2010, Shvarts authored the cycle Portrait of the Siege through Genre, Nature-Morte, and Landscape,[4]which attempts to work with this historical material, not via discursive accumulation and sound poetry as Zavialov does, but as vision:

A twilight of rubbish splashes into the window.
The boy hunches up: he has no patience.
The boy checks the boiling pot, its gurgling sounds:
What do we have today? We have a cat!
When she asked, he said “Rabbit.”
When she ate, he laughed. Wildly, madly.
He died soon. And you on the air
Sketch with the charcoal nature morte (yes, indeed!).
A candle, a fragment of carpenter’s glue,
A bread ration, a handful of lentils.
Rembrandt! I want to live; I want to pray.
Even if turning into ice, into salt, into stone.
(“Nature Morte”)

In order to comprehend Shvarts’s imagery, it is crucial to position the event of the Siege not only within the history of “Soviet Petersburg” (Leningrad, that is) but within its aesthetic mythologies. A city of paradoxes since its conception, it combined two categories of (self-)description — “danger” and “beauty.” Within this paradigm, the Siege became the radical, nightmarish expression of this aesthetic oxymoron.

Many thousands of visual images of the besieged city were created during the Siege in every possible style and technique. Most of these strikingly daring works collect dust to this day in small historical archives of Petersburg. Studying them, one is struck by a reconceptualization of traditional genres’ meaning and significance.

For example, in the Siege diary of Tatiana Glebova, disciple of Pavel Filonov — a paradoxical and proud bearer of the traditions of Russian avant-garde — we read about her seeing new meaning in famous Flemish still lifes in the Hermitage, opulent and glimmering. Through hunger and despair, Glebova finds new meaning and new spirituality in the sensual shapes and colors of food — Shvarts addresses this longing with tragic irony. Her nature morte is one of authenticity rather than of fantasy, of painful lack rather than of dreams and white lies inducing only madness, but, principally, it’s of creative transcendence — the survivor needs only air to conjure up, to organize her somber composition. And Rembrandt appears here for good reason, omnipresent in both writing and as an influence on images that depict the Siege period: the master of the fat shadow and meager light materially existed in the city mostly in his imaginary and mnemonic manifestations. For example, while famous Rembrandts (Danae, Prodigal Son, Saskia as Flora, et al.) had been evacuated from the Hermitage in October 1941, in the winters that followed Hermitage tour guides receiving food from a sympathetic sailor or other visitor would repay this kindness by describing in florid detail the absent paintings, all the while gesturing towards their empty frames.

The dead and empty nature of the Siege existence induced visions that Shvarts sensed and reframed acutely. Shvarts’s quest to represent the Siege as an historical and aesthetic visual event, as a spectacular urban catastrophe, is strongly rooted in the sensibilities of the Siege artists: one of the most interesting creative outcomes, or products of this disaster, to use the distancing notion of Maurice Blanchot, were the hybrid diaries in which artists who had never written expressively before the Siege (and writers who had never sketched) would use the “alternate” artistic mode in order to reconstruct a creative psyche shattered by trauma. Many witnesses of their city’s undoing choose to transgress the border between the visual and the discursive, hoping thereby to preserve their impressions within the dialogic ekphrastic system where the meaning of one’s own trauma can be captured only through the voice of the other or the other voice, i.e., a sign system. (The phenomenon of the compensatory Siege account was exercised widely by the witnesses: ekphrastic diaries by Akeksandr Nikol’skii, Igor’ Chaiko, and Yakov Rubanchik have become crucial bodies of documentation of the Siege tragedy.) Compensatory language operates through detaileddescription of an evasive symbolic subject (i.e., the lighting of the besieged city), pervaded with traumatic associations. For Shvarts, ekphrastic writing again becomes a tool to register the surface terror of the Siege, to define this time and do so aesthetically.

One should note that in terms of reception, both Shvarts’s and Zavialov’s projects went largely unnoticed by the general reading audience. Recently, however, the following peculiar text, a revisionist Siege interpretation by Vitaly Pukhanov, turned into a media event in the Russian blogosphere:

In Leningrad, on Marata Street
In 1943
Somebody ate a plate of soup.
Thus the order of things was broken.

Two cars of militia men emerged:
You shouldn’t eat!
You’ve broken the rules!
We don’t eat meat here.

We are here in defense.
We are here counting the days of war.
We have no interest anymore
For some cat or some crow.

Terrific hunger — the murderer
Defends Leningrad today.
Terrific city — the grave-digger
Scares the enemy away.

Leningrad is disappearing
From the enemy’s vision.
Where’s the Hermitage? Where’s the Summer Garden?
Welcome to a different dimension.

Neither awake, nor dreaming
Can you be here alive?
We will win
Because we won’t eat! 

At the end of time,
Our flesh will turn into stone.
Our enemy will remember
Our transfiguration.[5]

Pukhanov’s text was one of the hottest themes in the blogosphere that week — an uncommon level of buzz for Russian poetry today. Comments were extraordinarily mixed. Some derided the poet for opening the “sacred wounds of history,” while others congratulated him, with equal ardor, on finally allowing Russian poetic diction to distance itself from the historical masquerade of sentimentality, shame, and mnemonic paralysis. Two central factors that disturbed readers the most were the poem’s form (a rhythmic pattern used usually by nursery rhymes) and its uneasy, absurdist allegorical construction of self-induced hunger. Pukhanov uses the allegory for his epistemological purposes: rather than attempt to reenter the event, he toys with it according to the rules of his provocatively ahistorical game. Reading this witty, paradoxical poem of self-induced, self-preserving cathartic experience, one learns things about Siege mythology today (a value in itself) rather than about the Siege as a historical phenomenon. And yet I see this provocation as a healthy gesture: in order to heal the wounds of Siege shame, one should treat them with an attention and humility that cannot exclude that purifying horrific laughter often evident in the texts of blokadniki themselves. These three very different ways to depict the Siege — Zavialov’s quasi-archival montage, Sharts’s morbidly beautiful spectacle as well as Pukhanov’s grotesque allegory — strike me as a very hopeful tendency towards breaking the silence and daring to look back, to speak about and to the historical trauma at the times when the state is trying again to avert its gaze from the many wounds of all kinds that it has inflicted.



1. Lev Gudkov, “Pamiat’ o voine I massovaia identichnost’ rossiian,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas (2005), 40–41.

2. Vadim Levental, “Vospalenia I izverzhenia,” Sol’ (September 27, 2010).

3. Sergey Zavialov, “Rozhdestvenskii Post,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie102(2010).

4. Elena Shvarts,“Portret blokady cherz zhanr, natiurmort i peizazh,” Dikopis’ poslednego vremeni (Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2001).

5. Vitalii Pukhanov, “Kak-to utrom na rassvete,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie96 (2009).

Reactions to Basil King's work

Basil King. Photo by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.


I’m flying.  Curious, in the speed of language, even when the talking seems ordinary / flat, there are echoes — wait a few lines down — words like Quasha and cumquats come up and leave, leaving floral pieces,    and   sky.    Words  a-float  ,/ ,,/ Aegean gods have a kind of influence, and there are the colorful ghosts
in and out of boxes
inhabitants of between
the                     lines
                                     where language

I’ve been rereading Basil King’s work
                                                             words, images
ever since
                         (since I was there, since this began, the promise, the reaction, which now, enfin, finally, I realize canNOT a be a “criticism” or “review” but just this: saying    and leaving spaces for   what   his pages   elicit (draw out / yes, dr-a-w))

from my eyes and mind and hands;     causing me to feel as if I rise above   page after page
not intoxicant
not from trickery
but in a new kind of habitation &
                                                 moving forth,
                            draws the reader / the viewer (seeing / reading / seeing) this way
and other ways as
well.     He doesn’t “discover” but does reveal what the reader finds.
He doesn’t “discover” himself  either,   there in his pages, though, or
any place
            except   occasionally     as if he came  up
                                                                                        with   the words    for himself
but forever
inventing himself                      he seems amused
                                                             by the questions
his words and images raise.

So are we (I mean so am I, but I like to presume the plural after all these years of possibilities in the presentation of his work):  so are we amused way beyond the pleasure inherent.


Paint and canvas, lost and found, names to remember, sudden conversations, inside recollections.    The surreal comes so easily because it arrives inside the (seemingly) mundane, the quiet tones of familiar conversation;  but there is Blackburn and there is Cezanne, there are Baz King’s mother and father too, and Ernest Shackleton who taught him endurance — in the environment, and Steve Jonas suddenly calling King JEW JEW;   and here is Chaucer entering so easily, and we have been on the road with Basil King and his colleagues;  and here are some theories about painting mixed into an overnight in the bushes of New York City or an ironic encounter with highway policemen in Boston.    Identity is a title, but a search for identity is not the issue of Basil King’s work.    He knows, “we know where we are going,” he knows / the speaker knows / who the speaker is, and he can include artists of long ago/  of inside his sweeping gesture.   Just as he knows dots, colors, how they can all connect.   “Paint and canvas”  :   in a few words / in pages of print and reprint / in prints of his images / Basil King gives wisdom larger than …   “War, domesticity, political injustice.”   Basil King the painter / the gardener / the   poet   comes back from “the garden of the Lost and Found” where one book began, and comes around, to tell who-will-listen / who-will-see-the-colors / who-will-join-in-a-knowing   what he can let us know over and over, with Chaucer and Marsden Hartley and “Primrose” (who is Primrose, is that Martha, to begin and end? is that another notion of roses and colors and entering rooms where there are packages that people want to lose?).    No matter what the reader cannot “know” as at a table or a conference:  ENTER the room (or the garden, or the place of “Lost and Found” or a journey from Black Mountain in North Carolina or Basil King’s childhood or NOW) …  enter, listen to the repetitions, follow, and you will find more than Basil Cohen knew, and as much as Basil King may reveal, may strew;   join him as he follows the dots.


Repetition — of phrases or words — is not for music or for a cute “I am a poet” stance:  it serves musing (sometimes a-musing) and inclination.     Sometimes there is simultaneous disavowal — as if the speaker affirms and denies, or thinks and doesn’t think, or  believes and doubts.    Like in life!

Does he exist, this writer / artist?   A little boy Cohen, born in England on the verge of war (and danger, no need to point out he’s a Jew;   it comes up later in Identity anyway);   comes to the US deprived — of what he had reached high up and wasn’t allowed to keep;   but deprived over all of place and identity and meaning.   Ergo:  the play of words is a playing with words as crucial — as what there is, only — like a ground, maybe? a grounding?   Paint also.   Color is prismatic, bold, lines draw out (or in) a magic.   There is only that gesture.   (Later the lines will repeat “Paint on canvas.”)

Writing and painting were a way of establishing, grounding, creating.    Not “discovering” but revealing what is deep, what is somehow known.    Breaking the boundaries of who the boy Basil Cohen was, becoming Basil King (his father’s son, his father’s chosen name) here.     An arrival does not have to be announced.     Ideas do not have to be declared.     They are simply spoken.     Insights are quietly included.

Brooklyn Bird, from Basil King’s My Brooklyn series. Mixed media on canvas, 38" h x 50" w, 2003.

Breaking boundaries is itself a cliché that must be bro-ken.  Ken?  Yes, bro’.  (Apologies for playing along, Basil makes me/   allows me   to play!)  Corny?    So what: sew parts together:  gather all, Baz reminds you of knit — didn’t he travel with the weaving teacher? — no need to keep in stitches, not even thoughts, thoughts worth their while (worth a while, a whiling away of time or no-time) are un-even, even ragged, like good muffins or pinafores.   Hems, they skirt a few issues;  many issues return in a package of new ideas.

You require attention.   There is a fine line between cash payment and rugged (or rigid) attending.   To the minutia of most lines.   Skip a few, he won’t be mindful, but you’ll go back, as I have done, time and again (damn, another song coming to mind:  this is no singing matter or any arrangement, certainly not rhyme;  but Baz makes ideas rhyme in new rolling ways, even overboard / cap — sizing and swimming along under currents — a current of political trends, a prophesy for poetics, new art in the clime   where colors gain the roseate glow of an eastern dawn.   (Can I dare say Athenean just because I’m rereading The Odyssey while I’m rereading Basil King?)

Boiling over and yet he goes so easy.   It’s not the repetitions that make him witty, but the wit that allows even the most mundane to crackle, finger-snap.

Quick!    How to describe the rhythms of Basil King’s written work:    like alabaster mixed with the silver of blades?    No …  like alabaster or the feathered albatross?   No …  like the white of background and the dark white of a good solid ground.    Ground and sky, but smooth and rocking and then, sometimes, suddenly, jumping.   As in dot / dot / follow the dots.     Rhythms:   pastels calming into the right places for figures — even the ominous, like up from some other kind of graves, not European, the daring of dark lines where there might have been clouds now there are forms and figures as in wherever he writes these phlogesteron figures go — waft! wafting.   Yes, but they settle also.

I never know where I am when I read him (his work, maybe that is “him”) or where the lines are going, but this is (I know) something to follow.   When I am bored, I dig the hole and climb in the line and there is another ladder — or a tiny painting of someone emerging   from a box.     Not into someplace like cherry blossoms or hibiscus or clematis, but like clouds of distant spring colors / fragrances, flagrant onomatopoeia.     Basil King — how long ago — allowed not everything but some chosen things and one more — into what one finally sees is the poem and all that while you knew it was prose (and yes, you knew it was a poem) lying flat on the line.   Did they know at Black Mountain that prose and poem can be …  What did they allow?   What did they not allow?


Quoted lines taken from the following works by Basil King:

Identity: Text and Art by Basil King (Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 1998)
Learning to Draw / A History
, ed. Daniel Staniforth (Skylight Press, 2011)
“Prologue,” from {poems} Basil King
Warp Spasm
(Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2001)

Avant-Latino poetry

Left to right: J. Michael Martinez (photo by Jensen Larson Photography), Rosa Alcalá (photo by Josh Bowen), and Rodrigo Toscano.

When Vladimir Mayakovsky memorably proclaimed that “without revolutionary form, there is no revolutionary art,” and Renato Poggioli wrote that “the avant-garde image originally remained subordinate, even within the sphere of art, to the ideals of a radicalism which was not cultural but political,”[1] and Marjorie Perloff (now famously) asked “what if, despite the predominance of tepid and unambitious Establishment poetry, there were a powerful avant-garde that takes up, once again, the experimentation of the early twentieth century?,”[2] they weren’t talking about the current work of a new cohort of Latino/a poets who transect extrusions of renegotiated identity consciousness within extremities of conceptual aesthetics.

But, in retrospect, they kind of could have been.

Developments within the past seven or eight years have vastly exceeded the extent of experimental inquiry that had ever existed before in US Latino/a poetry. What by now can be legitimately regarded as an emergent generation of younger Latino/a poets is taking to task the inheritance of academic Latino/a identity and, by gaming its language, rendering this tensile form more pliant in order to better fit the identity of the layered, contested, and changing Latino/a subject in the contemporary world. These poets, by exploring the limits of poetry as well as Latino/a identity through a diversity of aesthetic and cultural incursions in their writing, articulate a new Latino/a poetry that in turn proposes a new view of Latino/a identity, one that grants more agency to divers potentialities than to conformist restrictions imposed from the past: a condition I regard as the avant-Latino.

J. Michael Martínez’s Walt Whitman Award–winning collection Heredities (2010) combines various aesthetic approaches — allusion to colonial manuscripts, juxtaposition of anatomic diagrams, disembodied dialectic, parataxis — to deconstruct the mythologies that had previously defined the foundations of Chicano/a identity. In the poem “Binding of the Reeds: The Banishment of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl,” Martínez presents a new way to regard the Toltec myth of Topiltzin, the tenth-century ruler of the Toltecs. Topiltzin, with his four possible fathers (some divine, some earthly), a historical figure at times recorded as one and the same as Quetzalcoatl, the godly plumed serpent, is distinguished in the Toltec codices as the ruler who abandoned the practice of human sacrifice in spiritual ceremonies. The historical uncertainties of Topiltzin’s existence, lineage, and even era are factors of his legacy reconstituted by Martínez’s poetics of indeterminacy. The poem begins with an epigraph from the sixteenth-century missionary Fray Diego Durán, who seems to confirm the deistic qualities of Topiltzin. The poem itself, spatialized on the page, takes on five distinct parts, insinuating the Five Suns of the world’s history according to Aztec eschatology. (And with vertical dividing lines to add to the effect, it looks a lot like something Apollinaire or Mallarmé might do.) The middle sections in italics denote interactions between the longer myth’s main characters, a story of betrayal and spite. The left and right sides of the page separate, in narratological terms, discourse and story,[3] in other words, what happened and what is recorded. The upper left reads: 

No longer the human
frame for world’s sake
bones    the weight
and bend of sacrifice
my life   for the sky’s fall
between this long dying
flesh in war against flesh
to you I tell in vision
and glance once gone

The corresponding right reads:

He writes: 

                and the dead speak:
relentless horizon: unwilled harrow:

                spindle through the lake
that is wind
                & lineage:

solstice spilled
                 on stone:[4]

The intertextual reference to Fray Durán, alongside the phrasal fragments and use of colons to separate images, takes a Poundian form, that of the Cantos Pound — the poetry coheres through a series of disjunctive sutures — demonstrating what Perloff means by her question about taking up the experimentation of the early twentieth century. This is an ideogrammic method applied to Mesoamerican mythology. The poem is crammed with vagueness, and its strokes lend only the slightest impression of its context.

Take as another example Martínez’s seven-part, seven-page poem “Aporia,” which begins with the following section:

[1] The Signified Seeks the Body

I said, The Chicano shapes identity like an icicle fingering down from the roof’s edge. Pushing the hair back from your face, you said, Yes, translucence freezes about its own boundaries, declaring the noun from the water. I said, The name seeks to root in the arterial cavity; the tendons turn from the blood like foreshadowing.[5]

All seven parts of this prose poem proceed in this manner of disembodied dialectic — an indeterminate I and an indeterminate you — thereby expressing the feeling of doubt denoted by the title and asserting identity in essentially interrogative terms, rendering the affirmation of identity as interstitial. The three sentences, less a thesis-antithesis-synthesis than a Grecian strophe-antistrophe-epode, treat the nominal subject of Chicano/a identity with indirect gestures and invoke metaphors that are wholly unfamiliar. The first sentence likens the growth of Chicano/a consciousness to ice pulled down by gravity, a far cry from the hot-blooded, tropical clichés to which we’re so accustomed. The second sentence distinguishes water from “the noun” it forms as it freezes, treating water as a dynamic, the whole phenomenon a reminder of how fluid and translucent identity invariably is. The third sentence avoids the term heart and its wealth of connotations, opting instead for the more surgical “arterial cavity,” emphasizing corporeality, while the ambiguity in the word “turn” and the disconnect that hinges in the word “foreshadowing” leave one with a feeling akin to synesthesia. In this vein (sorry), the poem concludes with the following section:

[7] History Gathers in the Name We Never Are

You said, An infinity with origin is the speech you foster. I said, I don’t speak Spanish, I am Hispanic. You said, Pan hisses in the center, the Gods rise like bread from the noun; our syntax is the bond to the divinity we are. I said, Sin taxes the soul, the name; our grammar is a construct of guilt. You said, Teach the children to read the sin. I pick up my coat, empty the pockets of lint, pennies. Icicles finger down from the roof’s edge.[6]

Like Martínez’s Heredities, Rosa Alcalá’s collection Undocumentary (2008) invokes multiplicity and indeterminacy in its construction of a new Latino/a poetic. Richly textured with abstractions and visual arrangements, Undocumentary blends the connotations of “documentary” and “undocumented” to suggest an intercourse between genres as well as classes. The title poem of the collection includes the lines

Keys strike against
the footage of the past
to defer the weight
of the camera

Asking, who is
the scab of me
when no meatpacking walkout
can suffice?[7]

Like Martínez’s poems, Alcalá’s poem sidesteps directness, ironically through the presentation of particulars; there is no reason akin to syllogism that unites theme and specifics — the poetics in operation are of suggestion. Furthermore, there is double entendre everywhere; keys, strike, footage, weight, scab, and meatpacking are all words with simultaneous, multiplicitous meanings, and the stanzas lean on these confusions. Engaging avant-Latino poetics, the ambiguities brought about by the poem’s vocabulary — and ending with an interrogative statement — branch out in Deleuzean rhizomatic dimensions,[8] performing a gamut of insinuations that all tangentially pertain to class concerns grounded in the Latino/a context that Alcalá and her chapbook establish ipso facto.

Alcalá ends her collection with the poem “Job #4”:

How to transcribe tragedy?
(A secretary, a good secretary, asks.)

Do I use a dictation machine?
Look blankly at the boss
and let fingers for a moment feel
reproach? How can I plan my wedding
as I cross out crutch words? When will I depill
my jacket? When everyone is dead
will the droopy bow of compliance
get caught in the material
of inquiry? There is no line of escape,
holidays are finite systems
blurring supermarket cake
into rising
rent. The body, charged
with documentation, has its own shorthand:
now the turncoat gland, now the gut’s
tactlessness. What’s the worry?
The transcript never gets read
for what it is: a stutter relieved
of spare consonants,
the art of rote aversion.[9]

Here Alcalá enacts an important aspect of the avant-Latino: that of being a discourse that is not centrally, or even nominally, or even peripherally, Latino/a. The circumstances of cultural identity and context are available to the reader, but the poem exhibits no urge to posture in an inherited, ethnocentric discourse of oppression; there is a latent sense of gender conflict, but even this is intuited rather than explicit. In her essay “Avant-Garde or Borderguard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” Maria Damon claims that while “poetry as a discourse enables subjectivist expression, this does not mean that people simply talk about their experiences, but that they create experience and subjectivity in the process of meaning-making, of poeisis.”[10] In “Job #4,” Alcalá transforms a rich philosophical question into a minute sliver of ostensible experience, reversing the dynamic of Proustian digression; Alcalá moves from big to small, synthesizing the sum of questions into a surprising conclusion: “the art of rote aversion.” Her poem, as is true of the whole of Undocumentary, plays with metonymy and synecdoche. She crafts bits and pieces of language, thoughts, and what feel like experiences into a part-for-the-whole representation that the reader can glean is not totally accurate in scale. It often feels like the book is stone sober in its faithful representation of issues you can’t quite put your finger on. In Undocumentary, Alcalá’s invocation of the cinematic is supported by a style reminiscent of Eisensteinian montage — that is to say, the clarity of the image and the drama of the cut stand out more than the substance of a story.

The conflation of artistic genres within conceptual Latino/a poetry is most dynamically presented in Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (2008), where the text doubles as poetry and stage directions, emphasizing subversive ideas such as “social-psychological crisis,” the “trans-modern,” and the drive to “recombine” paradigms of thought along a proletarian historical continuum. Selected by Marjorie Welish for the National Poetry Series, Collapsible Poetics Theater has been publicly performed — with ensemble performers holding scripts in their hands, thereby not truly embodying the text and hence not deeply performing it. But setting aside critical judgment of its public performance, the written text of Collapsible Poetics Theater as a transcript of hybridities — hybridities of genres, languages, and politics — is remarkably subversive and thoughtful. As Carlos Gallego has noted (before Collapsible Poetics Theater was published, granted), “Toscano’s poetry, rather than reinforce conventional notions of what is understood as the Chicana/o experience, questions the ideological necessity for such identity reinforcement.”[11]

Consider the part of Collapsible Poetics Theater called “Pig Angels of the Americlypse: An Anti-Masque for Four Players.” By calling it an “anti-masque,” Toscano signals that this will invert the proportions of a traditional Jonsonian masque by paring down the set and amplifying the dialogue. And by beginning with stage directions (opening with the assertion that the players “can be of any age, gender, or accent”[12]), the piece immediately introduces a salient power dynamic laced with a wryness evocative of Beckett: a subversive authority meting out instructions that commence the play before the play can commence. Then there’s a dimension of visual poetics, instructed by the statement that “Text in {brackets} is either contact zone/stage instructions or translation of text {not to be pronounced during performance},”[13] distinguishing a hierarchy of reading when this book is regarded as poetry. The spoken parts immediately introduce code switching between English and Spanish; the play hinges on absurdities rendered through translation (e.g. “puercos […] sin destino” meaning “pigs without destiny”), the discourse working toward the statement that “Se busca (por lo mínimo) un Brasileiro mas Mexicano que un Argentino gringo” “looking (at least) for a Brazilian more Mexican than an Argentine gringo.”[14] As the text of an anti-masque, the dialogue is essentially anti-dialogue, building images from a palette of multilayered Latino/a sensibility that resists meaning in the manner of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of Bruce Andrews or Steve McCaffery. Of this kind of radical poetry, Ming Qian Ma argues that “the risk of losing meaning as such, to the extent that it is a critique of meaning, has to be absolute or irreversible; and the getting beyond the established meaning, insofar as it is a questioning of the productive mechanisms of meaning, precludes any promise or possibility of a return to meaning.”[15] And while it is certainly true that Toscano’s collapsible poetry does mutate through variances of non-meaning, his “Pig Angels of the Americlypse” ends on a note that sums up quite well the new poetics of the avant-Latino, even if spoken in switching codes suitably uncertain in its tenor:

{P1} The way out?
{P2} Art goes art goes
{P3} Away …
{P2} And back …
{P1} In …
{P3} And out …
{P4} “Yo persigo una forma que no encuentra mi estilo,
              botón de pensamiento que busca ser la rosa” —

               I pursue a form that doesn’t find my style,
               mind’s stem that strives to be the rose
{P2} Contrive
                the themelets
{P3} Se busca …
{P1} Songlets of sorts, yeah?
{P4} Yeah …
{P2} Mm hmm …[16]

1. Renato Poggioli, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981), 9.

2. Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden: Blackwell Manifestos, 2002), 4.

3. Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York: Routledge, 2003), 115.

4. J. Michael Martínez, Heredities (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 24.

5. Ibid., 11.

6. Ibid., 17.

7. Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentary (San Marcos: Dos Press, 2008), n.p.

8. Gilles Deleuze Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 7.

9. Alcalá, Undocumentary, n.p.

10. Maria Damon, “Avant-Garde or Border Guard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (1998): 479.

11. Carlos Gallego, “From Identity to Situatedness: Rodrigo Toscano and the New Chicana/o Poetics,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 32, no. 2 (2007): 130.

12. Rodrigo Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater (Albany: Fence Books, 2008), 35.

13. Ibid., 36.

14. Ibid.

15. Ming-Quian Ma, Poetry as Re-Reading: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Poetics of Counter-Method (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 175–76.

16. Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater, 4.

This poem is a song an act a work of love

Taggart and repetition

Taggart’s “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” from ‘Peace on Earth’ (Turtle Island, 1981).

Reading the poetry of John Taggart involves the pleasures of repetition, as well as the mysteries and agitations of repeated presences: of language, of ideas, of sound forms, of song. To open a book of Taggart’s poetry is to invite a round of singing and a round of thinking about what the poem does when it is sounded out, what elements of thought it welcomes in. A retrospective consideration of his work must necessarily involve the recognition that repetition is what rings the changes in the poems and what signals those changes themselves that the poems enable. Repetition can be used as a compass to guide you through Taggart’s poetry; it’s a tool, an orienting device. But it also works as a major theme in the poetry; as such, more than a tool, it’s a current, a form of fluidity and a generator of sustaining power for the work itself, figuring the musical practices that Taggart works and reworks in his poetry.

Repetition embraces compulsion as much as it enacts transformation. Where it is a technique it can also be a symptom — symptomatic of a pathology or indicative of an effort to surpass the compulsion to repeat, a sign or token to make something new. (Symptom from syn, together, and piptein, to fall.) In one of his essays on analytical technique, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud considers the relationship between repetition and the “motive for remembering,” suggesting that as these forces are transferred, during analysis, they become “harmless, and indeed useful,” by giving them the right to be asserted “in a definite field.” He calls this field a “playground,” in which the compulsion to repeat is “allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything … that is hidden in the … mind.”[1] Freud recognized that repetitions in his patients were combinations of repressed memories and a resistance to remember them. Rather than curbing these repetitions, he sought to transform them in the “harmless” space of analysis.

Kierkegaard juxtaposed repetition with recollection. He claimed that the Greeks “taught that all knowing is a recollecting” but that “modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition.” The difference between repetition and recollection, in Kierkegaard’s mind, was neither a matter of degree nor of kind, but of direction. “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.” Repetition, because it moves forward, has the possibility of making a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.[2] If there is a credo to Taggart’s work, it’s move forward. In the brief introductory remarks to a rare poetry reading in 2001 at the occasion of Taggart’s retirement from teaching, Pam Rehm, who had been one of Taggart’s students at Shippensburg University, said, “John always taught me that the important thing is to move forward. So that’s what I’m going to do.” At which point, she started her reading.[3] Expanding into a defined field of almost complete freedom and moving forward: these are the creative results of repetition.

Mark Rothko, in a statement about his paintings, once referred to his art as “a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” The immense freedoms represented in the repetitions in his paintings seemingly moved into the future. Taggart, confessing himself “tremendously moved” by Rothko’s assertion, admits to having wanted to make a poem worthy of it. “As I moved closer to the composition of such a poem,” he writes, “it became clear to me that I would have to find ways to translate the qualities inhering not only in stained glass and Rothko’s painting, but also those in Gregorian chant and Meister Eckhart. These qualities would have to come to exist in language as sound. It occurs to me that all my work, before and since this poem, involves translation, or, more accurately, transformation to make a poem ‘a sound object.’”[4]

The poem whose composition he moved closer to is “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” which appeared originally in Peace on Earth, published in 1981 by Turtle Island, a book usefully measured as Taggart’s creative turning point. Consider the opening stanza of “Slow Song for Mark Rothko”:

To breathe and stretch one’s arms again

 to breath through the mouth to breathe to

 breathe through the mouth to utter in

 the most quiet way not to whisper not to whisper

 to breathe through the mouth in the most quiet way to

 breathe to sing to breathe to sing to breathe

 to sing the most quiet way.[5]


It’s possible today to speak of the “Taggart line,” which can be described as a line of poetry built from “atomic” units of words and phrases repeated in a way to give rhythm and structure to the poem, which are then overturned in subsequent lines that test, resist, stretch, and repeat these elements. In Taggart’s poetry, repetition almost never means literally repeating. Rather, as Taggart describes it, the atomic phrases function so that “no one of them [is] complete as with a sentence, but [each is] kept continually in motion toward completion.”[6] This motion toward completion generates the sonic and intellectual properties of the definite field or playground of Taggart’s poems, something that is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom. Genuine repetition is recollected forward. As he puts it in section 15 of  “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” from There Are Birds:

sequence = one after

 another set of things that belong together that are put together

 that are made to hold together …

 repetition of a phrase a unit/part of a melody at a higher or lower pitch

 a phrase-mark a line linking notes that belong together

 dependence of a subordinate verb according to rules of tense for the principle verb

 the principle verb is think[7]


The relationship between liberating expression and carefully repeated atomic phrases transforms Taggart’s poems from rote litany into the incantatory petition his work so frequently invokes. Take these lines from “Precious Lord,” in which Taggart rings through changes on the word “epiphany”:

Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the words and the music

 Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the essential word

 wrote “precious” not “blessed” the essential word is “precious”

 this was meant to be enshrined as a moment of epiphany

 moment when he wrote the better sounding word

 moment of epiphanie epiphania epiphano epiphaneia epiphanies

 moment of epiphany essential word shining picture

 Dorsey: “that thing like something hit me and went all over me

 that thing must be that same thing went all over him.[8]


Much as the Taggart line starts from certain words the poet fixates on — precious, epiphany, saint, want — to develop from a line into a stanza into a progression, the effect is experienced not as fixation (or as a compulsion to repeat) but as cantillation, in which the struck bells of the words and phrases resound as other bells of words ring out, in rhythmical, repeated sequences that drift into harmony, but then unsettle into slight dissonance.

John Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin: Taggart notes, “this was 1975 at Sylvester’s Cove, Maine. We had been visiting Ted at his place in Temple (Maine — Denise and Mitch Goodman lived not far away) and agreed to meet with George and Mary for a picnic. They sailed over from their summer place at Little Deer Isle” (photo by Jennifer Taggart).

To suggest there is only one Taggart line, however, would be misleading. I think Taggart’s work can usefully be organized into three major periods, albeit ones with intermediate periods that incorporate elements from previous periods into the next. Taggart’s early poetry is characterized as Objectivist experiment, to put it one way. Objectivist writing, which is probably the single most important influence on Taggart’s work, is a label applied to a group of second-generation Modernists who began to work in the 1930s but whose major works tended to be produced in the 1960s, including Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and, to a lesser degree, Basil Bunting, whose work emphasized the treatment of the poem as an object, and whose most significant predecessors were William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Taggart’s poetry in an identifiably Objectivist mode encompasses a decade of work, beginning with To Construct a Clock, which appeared in 1971 when the poet was twenty-nine years old, through The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, The Prism and the Pine Twig, into Dodeka, which was published in 1979. Two of these books, To Construct a Clock and The Prism and the Pine Twig, include shorter lyric poems that reflect Taggart’s investment in the work of George Oppen. Both Pyramid and Dodeka are more distinctly informed by a craft inspired by Louis Zukofsky, in that the books — each made up of one single serial poem apiece — involve complex compositional systems that place considerable demands — and stress — on the poems themselves.

Peace on Earth, from 1981, as I’ve already indicated, is a turning point. This book, comprised of four poems, signaled a seemingly enormous change in Taggart’s work. Gone were the short, Objectivist lyrics. Gone too were the complex systems, and the constraining boxes around the poems. Here were poems that breathed and stretched their arms, even as they took on grave subjects, such as the cost and aftermath of the Vietnam War explored in the title poem. The mode that Taggart discovered at this time directed his work for the next fifteen years, culminating in the publication of Loop in 1991. This is a massive book of poetry — over 230 pages — that gathers most of Taggart’s work from the 1980s, including one of his most memorable works, “The Rothko Chapel Poem.” He continued to explore this opened line in two subsequent books, Standing Wave and Crosses, the latter of which, despite being recently published (2005), contains work from the early to mid-1990s. If Taggart’s first period were to be labeled Objectivist experiment, this second period might profitably be called minimalist incantation. I first heard Taggart read his poetry in the early nineties; the effect of listening to his poems spoken aloud was to understand the mesmerizing, hypnagogic modality at work in these compositions.

Music, of course, has been a recurrent feature in Taggart’s work, from medieval plainchant, to modal jazz and John Coltrane, to Beethoven, to Olivier Messiaen, to gospel and R&B. A musical discovery signaled the change that brought Taggart into his third, present period. Commissioned to write a poem about Coltrane’s epic “A Love Supreme,” Taggart found himself grieving for the loss of a friend, the sculptor Bradford Graves. At the same time, Taggart began listening to the music of Sainte-Colombe, the eighteenth-century French composer and master of the viole da gambe, a prototype of the cello, as well as the bass viol, which he legendarily modified by adding a seventh, lower string, to give the instrument an even deeper melancholic timbre than it already presented. Taggart worked these elements — Coltrane, grief and loss, rose gardening, and Sainte-Colombe, among many others — into a singularly powerful long poem, When the Saints (1999), that added to the repetitive line of his middle period a much shorter line that in turn generates shorter stanzas, allowing for increased expressivity in his poetry (of grief, of course, but also a bittersweet humor) resembling less the minimalism of his middle period but more the variable musical forms that characterize Beethoven’s late string quartets (an enduring source of inspiration for Taggart’s poetry), as well as the choruses of Rhythm & Blues. This form came fully to life in Pastorelles (2004), which joins another musical/literary form, the medieval French pastourelle — a lyric that depicts scenes of rural life or that is expressive of that atmosphere — with the broader musical concept of the pastoral, something Beethoven famously brought to life in his Pastoral Symphony in 1808. The recurring subject of these poems is the drought that in the late 1990s hit south-central Pennsylvania, where Taggart has lived for several decades, particularly as the drought affected Taggart’s carefully cultivated gardens. This current mode, which might be labeled meditative plaint, has been especially fruitful for Taggart, in spite of its source in drought and grief, producing some of his most memorable poetry. He has continued to expand and to explore this mode in There Are Birds (2008), where his sonic, musical notations have given way to botanical, horticultural reflections, most vividly in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the long poem that comprises most of the volume, but also in the shorter lyrics which, like the longer poem, signal Taggart’s indebtedness to his poetic ancestors, including poems addressed to the recently deceased Robert Creeley, and also to Zukofsky, who we learn is the subject of “the one/only photograph on my wall.” Having browsed the shelves and seen the desks where Taggart composes his letters and poems in his rural Pennsylvania home, I can attest to this fact: the only photograph on the walls of his study is the portrait of Zukofsky he describes in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”

To view Taggart’s uses of repetition — genuine repetition is recollected forward — it’s time to look more closely at some poetry. I choose three poems from the most recent of Taggart’s periods, the one I’m calling meditative plaint. The first two come from Pastorelles, probably one of Taggart’s most successful books and certainly one of his best. This book represents a breakthrough of sorts: a collection of shorter lyrics unified around the theme of drought and the havoc it wreaked on his extensive gardens. The tone of these poems is one of wry resignation and associative clarities — as in previous books, the phrase remains the sonic unit but in these poems the phrases are bound less often by direct repetition and more often by thematic and tonal repetitions. Here is “Pastorelle 15,” a short poem:

The Chinese

 in the drought of 1876–1879 reportedly confused

 rustling of dry leaves for rain

 when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated in the morning

 late at night or very early in the morning

 it sounds like rain.[9]


A splendid little poem. Its lyric surprise relies on the unwinding of the syntax to the last line, which repeats the key word, “rain,” the sound of which in the mind mimics the actuality of the dry leaves clattering in the morning or evening breezes. The poem begins to expand syntactically and imagistically in the fourth line, “when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated,” aided by the absence of punctuation, such that the phrases connect and compound. (Minimal use of punctuation is a trait consistent throughout Taggart’s work.) The pairing of adulterated/unadulterated is important to the poem: initially, it suggests sexual corruption (or its lack) and by extension, the sense of being tainted/untainted. But it’s also a botanical word, used to describe hybrids and pure breeds in flower growing, for instance. The ear not yet stained by the day or tuned to the sensitivities of the day, moving forward into the day, at first hears rain. The genuine repetition in this poem is not only the word “rain” but the idea of its sound carried through the whole.

“Why Trees Weep,” also from Pastorelles, returns to the idea of rain, albeit by association. Here, as in “Pastorelle 15,” the elements of the poem, including its ideas (its logopoeia), are kept in motion until the poem is completed:

Because they’re listening to Sainte Columbe’s “Les Pleurs”

 because those they would love don’t

 love them flee

 from them

 because their neighbors are beset with illness/disease experience

 pain in movement or

 can’t move can only sit in gardens going to weeds

 Niobe lost all her children.[10]


This poem depends on the simple gesture of three answers to the implied question of the title, each introduced by the repeated anaphora of “because.” The patent absurdity of the first response takes us back into one of the repeated engagements of When the Saints, the book-length poem published prior to Pastorelles: Taggart’s involvement with the music of Sainte-Columbe, the reclusive seventeenth-century viol da gambe innovator. When the Saints is Taggart’s elegy to his friend, sculptor Bradford Graves. In this book he introduces the mode of meditative plaint he perfects in Pastorelles. Sainte-Columbe caught his attention because of the superbly melancholic timbre of his music, resulting as many believe from the seventh string in a lower register he added to the viol da gambe, which Taggart describes in When the Saints:

Sainte Columbe added a string

 seventh string

 Sainte Columbe added a string to the viol


 six + one

 added a vibration

 six vibrations

 six vibrations + one vibration

 added a vibration and changed the vibration

 added harmony and changed harmony

 changed the destination of the music

 the destination changed

 became inward


 inward and secret destination.[11]


We can take changing the destination of the music as a phrase synonymous with genuine repetition is recollected forward. The inward, secret destination of the music awaits the reader in the poems of Pastorelles, where inwardness is meditation and plaint, at least in “Why Trees Weep.”

Niobe was the wife of the Theban king Amphion, mother of seven sons and seven daughters. So proud she was of her children that one day she was boasting to Leto, daughter of Titans and mother merely to twins but sired by Zeus: Apollo and Artemis. Robert Graves sets the vivid scene: “Mante, the prophetic daughter of Teiresias, overhearing this rash remark, advised the Theban women to placate Leto and her children at once: burning frankincense and wreathing their hair with laurel branches. When the scent of incense was already floating in the air, Niobe appeared, followed by a throng of attendants and dressed in a splendid Phrygian robe, her long hair flowing loose. She interrupted the sacrifice and furiously asked why Leto, a woman of obscure parentage, with a mannish daughter and a womanish son, should be preferred to her, Niobe, grandchild of Zeus and Atlas, the dread of the Phrygians, and a queen of Cadmus’s royal house? Though fate or ill-luck might carry off two or three of her children, would she not still remain the richer?”[12] Leto was not placated. Before Niobe could do anything about it, her superior twins, armed with bows, were seeking and destroying Niobe’s children, slaying them all. In her grief, Niobe wept until she was turned into a column of stone.

Taggart’s poem works together into a gloss the myth of Niobe, the mystery of Sainte-Columbe’s music, and the fact of trees, whose anthropomorphism in his poem casts them as Ovidian actors in his own transformation of music into an inward summons. Besides sound repetitions, Taggart avails mythic, thematic repetitions: Niobe’s loss anticipates Sainte Columbe’s melancholic music anticipates the death of Taggart’s friend, Bradford Graves, anticipates his recollection of that loss in this little poem.

The third poem I’d like to consider in terms of its repetitions is “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” from There Are Birds. This poem belongs in the company of other recent poems functioning partly as homage and partly as what might be called “an autobiography of my lineage.” Despite a habit of writing essays in which he wrestles his ancestors, in his poetry Taggart is more forthcoming about his debts. In Pastorelles, there is a poem entitled “William Bronk” and another entitled “Lorine Niedecker.” There Are Birds includes a poem for Louis Zukofsky, a long poem called “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” and “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley.” Reading and reciting poetry are other forms of repetition, ones that deepen a poet’s sense of the work he values. Taggart describes this in the opening lines of another poem from Pastorelles, “The Compulsion to Repeat”:

Gradually how gradually

 one comes to understand the poets

 as gradually as

 the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat[13]


The Robert Creeley poem, written as an elegy after the poet’s death in 2005, is atypically autobiographical, telling the story of Taggart as a young man experiencing a first deep recognition while reading a poem of Creeley’s. The scene of the poem is Aspen, Colorado in the 1960s. He writes:

this is me then young man young poet

 beside the Roaring Fork or a tributary the open blue and white For Love

book in one hand

 the other in a gesture of appeal

 the assignment show and tell show what

 you love

 this poem “A Song”

 fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words

 their sounds and arrayment

 Monk/Mozart refinement of the shifting pitches of this poem all fitted

together quiet and


 and unheard/cannot be heard over the white noise steady roar of the


 up white water[14]


The repetitions and prolongations in the line, “fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words,” demonstrate a poetic gesture typical of Taggart’s work: preserving the structure of a phrase to push a thought forward, always slightly altered and adjusted. Much like some of the gestures of classic-period minimalist music.

Creeley’s poem, “A Song,” from For Love, which Taggart’s poem deliberately echoes, is both a provocation and a summons, both especially potent for a susceptible young poet to receive.

I had wanted a quiet testament

 and I had wanted, among other things,

 a song.

              That was to be

 of a like monotony.

                                       (A grace

 Simply. Very very quiet.

                                               A murmur of some lost

 thrush, though I have never seen one.

 Which was you then. Sitting

 and so, at peace, so very much now this same quiet.

 A song.

 And of you the sign now, surely, of a gross


                             (which is not reluctant, or if it is,

 it is no longer important.

 A song.

 Which one sings, if he sings it,

 with care.[15]


With great tenderness and unabashed grief, the older poet looks back on the image of the younger poet he was, sitting by the side of the river, and remembers being provoked and summoned by Creeley’s poem. The potential for bathos in such a poem is great unless handled with honesty and care. “[H]ear me now all these years later,” he says. “[R]eading with older/different eyes / which see what they see through/after tears the locked the unacknowledged.”[16] Unacknowledged is the grace received at that moment from Creeley’s poem about “a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart.”[17] The poet’s death and the memory of this moment trigger in Taggart a “motive for remembering” (to use Freud’s phrase again) that allows him to work through his grief. The conclusion to the poem is a highlight in Taggart’s oeuvre.

a poet’s thinking the long labor with words

 the tenses

 want wanted have/had wanted not what a young man was so wanting and

wanting but what a

 song wants just a few a spoonful of the right the rough and the smooth

 words in the right order here and

 there a rest making room for breath and letting a few of the words sink in

 careful/with care how a song is to be sung if one sings it and

 the last of the requirements

 for care is clear having come through the ambiguities/tears having had to

learn the meaning

 of the blues

 what will fit on a bracelet a simple inscription

 all these years later

 hear me now having stepped back and needing to come forward

 this poem is a song an


 a work of love[18]


Taggart is one of the most important innovators in American poetry in the past fifty years, the author, in the words of Robert Duncan, “of the larger dream-song of a transmission that goes back surely to Herakleitos and Pythagoras,” carrying forward into the present “a received content of our poetic imperative.”[19] His poems define my sense of experimentation and revelation in a life devoted to poetry, poems that incant, in compulsive repetitions expanding into freedom, the dimensions of a definite field, a playground of language, wherein we might discover, if not everything, at least many of the things that lay hidden in the mind.



1. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 154.

2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 131.

3. At Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, April 7, 2001.

4. John Taggart, “A Preface,” in Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 71–72.

5. Taggart, Is Music: Selected Poems, ed. Peter O’Leary (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 35.

6. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 72.

7. Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 23.

8. Taggart, Is Music, 203.

9. Ibid., 273.

10. Ibid., 275.

11. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 24.

12. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 1 (New York: Penguin, 1960), 2589.

13. Taggart, Is Music, 256.

14. Ibid., 309; note the lineation quoted reproduces the text in There Are Birds, 83–4. The text in the Copper Canyon edition is inaccurate.

15. Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems 1945–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 112.

16. Taggart, Is Music, 310.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 311–2.

19. Robert Duncan, “Introduction,” in Dodeka (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1979), v.