July 7, 1966

2009 Rose
Berkeley, Calif.
7 Jul 66[1]

ED —
Here at last are two more copies of that photograph of Red Cloud, all that Brodhead had left.[2] I wish there were more, to proliferate that image all around England & the Continent, but then. Hopefully these will help. /  Here everything is very quiet & almost idyllic. I had to go back to Kansas again in May—& while there it not only thunderstormed, as if for me to see it, but it hailed abt hensegg size tearing hell out of the greenhouses and forcing (!) the car dealers into sudden precipitate sales. I’d never noticed till then how different a green the foliage is there, as compared to here, say—how much lighter green it is in Kansas than the very dark here (eucalyptus, evergreens, camellias, fruit trees). On the way back on the bus I stopped off in Placitas, but Bob was still in Europe; the 5 days I spent at Goodell’s[3] were the most peaceful & pleasant possible return to that country — the thirst, appetite, longing, for it, however much submerged & covered over, depressed, by living elsewhere & by the bad things remembered of living there, comes out completely, takes over again — that vista off toward the Jemez, Santa Fe, leave residues forever in one. No wonder Max[4] went back, however desperate Santa Fe is. /  Here, as I say, things are very quiet. I wallow sensually in the weather the way some people do in food & liquor. This is the foggy season but there hasn’t been much till lately. Even so, by noon these days its cleared off & like today you can see Marin clearly, Mt. Tamalpais & Angel Is., & SF; 60 out & the sun out. So I sit here writing this, with all that out both sets of windows, the bay on one side & the hills on the other — listening to John Cage, records out of the public library. /  The library school here at UC has accepted me, so barring catastrophe (like the GI bill money being screwed up somehow) I shd be set for the next year — they’ve given me a research asstship which with the GI money shd be barely enough to get by on. For one year’s work I get a MLS degree which means I can get a librarian job; that pays, that is; without the degree, nothing. & I’ve abt concluded a library job is abt the ideal for me, better than teaching & with access to at least one major source (category) of information; books etc., by its nature. So. /  I’ve also started working on Cabeza de Vaca, with the intent of writing a long poem on, or from, him, his account. I’ve just finished Hodge’s edition of the Relación (T. Buckingham Smith’s translation),[5] & am going through Morris Bishop’s biography;[6] having also read Sauer[7] again (The Road to Cibola), on the western end of his trek; & am trying to get hold of Cleve Hallenbeck’s book[8] on retracing the whole trip (he went out & found that most of the trails are still followable today, were Indian trails used over & over again before & after CdeV). I’ve got Haniel Long’s interlinear here,[9] of course, & I’m pleased (never having read the book before, just looked at it), how much of the central concern that’s brought me to this work, is what Long was dealing with too. It is a study, of course, that could take the rest of my life, and even if Olson says, after 14 years or so on one such subject you’d know it & cd then deal with anything.[10] I dunno how far or long. But already it leads afield, back to WP Webb, of course, and on to Sauer’s new book just out, The Early Spanish Main,[11] dealing with Spanish colonial policy 1492–1519, i.e. up to the conquest of Mexico — as well to a much more firmly grounded botanical study, etc. Well yes. After all, I forget too often, I was born in Texas & lived there almost 4 years before going to Kansas. Maybe this will be, finally, the point I’ve sought & never got to, that will begin to connect all the other points I’ve wandered from & to. /  As a poem, I ain’t sure of much, haven’t written anything yet. The specific appetite came from hearing Bunting[12] (tape) read that wonderful “Chomei at Toyama,”[13] that means of using another man’s words & aromas; but what Ill come to I dunno a-tall. I don’t want some “retelling,” a narrative that wd only dilute the much more compelling & vital original. Long’s is all right, it’s his work, really; & its revelation is demanding. At any rate, the decision finally seems (so I feel now) to have nothing to do with me, my self, will, but comes from the substance of CdeV’s account, that country, his acts, the fact of that relation. /  I’ve abt decided anyway I don’t have anything original or very profound to offer, my own thought that is; I can best work letting what is around me come out, giving that. Somewhere I remember a statement you made something to that effect — was it? //  Not much happening here, but Neruda did read at the campus abt a week ago — Duncan & Bromige came to dinner, & we all went up to hear him — he is a heavy, solidly set man, squarish, with a large, balding head & heavy eyelids. Some actor-fink read the English translations. But Neruda’s own reading was very impressive — he reads in the traditional Spanish dramatic manner, but not melodramatic — rising at times to an almost ecstatic pitch — more like speech, though, than most Spanish declamation ever gets to be. As seems to be typical here, the reading was held in an auditorium that even ahead of time was clearly too small, & many people were turned away at the door; I went out to pee & almost had to fight the ushers to get back in where my coat was on my seat. Ginsberg was there, came over & kissed Duncan, who said, my my people will talk, & Allen sd, o let them. So. /  Last Saturday there was a benefit reading for Sinclair[14] & the Detroit workshop, at which I saw Gino,[15] after months — his left arm in a sling — he looked up one evening & some guy’s hand was coming in the window; he rushed headlong to push the window out against this guy, & ran his own hand clear through the window, slicing it up badly. Whew. /  Tonight I’m going to see the Japanese movie (from Lafcadio Hearn ghost stories) Kwaidan;[16] & tomorrow night 900,000 people are coming to dinner for curry. Sometimes things seem too quiet & easy (easy?), but they really aren’t, so I don’t worry. /
                                How are you all? You’re staying another year I hear. Tell Stuart Montgomery (as if he needs to be told) the books he is putting out are magnificent — that Bunting Loquitur is lovely beyond compare.[17] /
                                                 So, enough. Creeley I hear is coming to SF for abt a month, next month I guess. Hopefully finally Ill be able to see him again, after missing three times in a row. Let me hear from you. Hang loose.


                                                                 — Ken



1. Along the right margin of this letter, Irby has drawn a flower in black ink, with a handwritten note above it that reads: “(Voodoo Lily ~[see July 16 Scientific American]).” Irby to Dorn, 7 July 1966, box 13, folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

2. See endnotes 2 and 3 (“April 17, 1966”).

3. Larry Goodell (b. 1935), poet and founder of Duende, which ran fourteen issues between 1964 and 1966, published Irby’s The Roadrunner Poem (Duende 4, 1964) and Movements/Sequences (Duende 8, 1965).

4. Max Finstein (1924–1982), American poet.

5. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, La Relación, trans. Thomas Buckingham Smith, in Original Narratives of Early American History series, ed. Frederick W. Hodge (New York: Scribner, 1907).

6. Morris Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (New York: The Century Company, 1933).

7. Carl Ortwin Sauer (1889–1975), cultural geographer who had a very significant impact on Irby’s poetics. For further information, see Irby’s prose pieces on meeting Sauer and Malin elsewhere in this special feature. Sauer, The Road to Cíbola (Berkeley: University of California, 1932).

8. Cleve Hallenbeck, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: the Journey and Route of the European to Cross the Continent of North America, 1534–1536 (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1940).

9. Haniel Long, Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca (Santa Fe: Writers’ Editions, 1936).

10. See Charles Olson, A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1964). Olson writes: “Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it. [//] And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever” (13).

11. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

12. Basil Bunting’s poem, first published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 42 (September 1933).

13. British-born poet David Bromige (1933–2009) shared the 1973 special issue of Vort 3 with Irby.

14. John Sinclair (b. 1941), American poet, manager of the MC5, founder in 1968 of the White Panther Party, an antiracist group organized to assist the Black Panthers.

15. Gino Clays, coeditor (with Drew Wagnon) of Wild Dog, nos. 10–18. See endnote 9 (“October 21, 1964”).

16. Lafcadio Hearn (also Koizumi Yakumo, 1850–1904), author of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904). Japanese film director Masaki Kobayashi adapted Hearn’s stories for his 1965 film Kwaidan.

17. See endnote 9 (“December 26, 1965”). Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press published Bunting’s Loquitur in 1965.

May 14, 1972

14 May 72[1]

ED —

               Curious dream in which yr name occurred — newspaper article, mentioned you (& Duncan McNaughton —!)[2] as war correspondents in Vietnam — also simultaneously engaged in
geophysical investigation of “verves” — large stone ridges — or the people who lived among them —
unclear newsprint photographs accompanied — reports from Elsewhere

                                                                                                                                          Everything winds down to its finalé here at Tufts, amid a bit, finally, of real Spring — i.e. leaves flowers emergence (grass was here all along, actually) — I distrust pushing my truck for another transcontinental traversal, but a student I know’s driving west w/ his girl in a new VW bus in June, returning in August, I may very well travel w/ them — away, at any rate, from here for the summer —
                                                                                                                                The tape from yr reading here has a rather low volume level & a hum when the loudness is boosted, but the audience seems much much more vivacious than on the Brown tape — at any rate, worth saving (esp. since very little was duplicated in the two readings) — I’ll try to get it copied & bring it out in the summer — the quality of Bialy’s tape is definitely high grade (but what a cold sepulchral auditorium that was!) —

                                                                                                                                                                       I seem to keep circling back on the Kansas/Missouri borderland all spring (Sauer once in a dream told me to attend to that area: specifically the Missouri side, a band abt. as deep as Sedalia — it seemed so obvious I didn’t pay much attention for a long time) — not that I really want to in every regard — I begin to feel like the Chamber of Commerce Tourist Bureau — it only seems there again, as a means to get out, or on from, of locality into another distance/dimension — how/where do you think you made that shift yourself? (a translation of dimension/address, it feels to me, after the work in N. Atlantic Turbine[3] or am I purely imagining that?)[4] — much of the time efforts I have made that way seem to me only to have shifted the locale — to another part of the country, say — rather than on off altogether —
                               I’ve got this house, see, that for the moment is in Lawrence, but may be (has been) other places (like early Ft Scott, or Galena, except for a literal glacial edge, at this instant) — & a set of “characters”/operators — Dr Dee[5] definitely, & Delius,[6] & some Haitian sinister notables newly arrived (or abt to arrive) — or John Brown,[7] plus — merely a presence so far, not a person — someone very much like the Whore of Babylon grown old — it’s really her piece/place — all this not a play, not a set of voices — I’m interested in simultaneous rooms — it so far only feels like an assemblage of tokens — if we take the dimension of the local as X, then that aspect of it as simultaneous ages of history/places in geography may not be another dimension altogether, but we might designate X' — X prime — then — it’s the dimension that is beyond that, that all that fiction, of story, seeks, yearns for, yet but there

                                                                         I don’t know that stating the situation in these terms is even helpful — one reason I dig around in Dee & Kelly’s skrying session is the intimation of another language there (not just some romantic biography that lures), that is present and all around me if I wd/cd hear it — i.e. all this talk of dimension — the dimensions are of here, this present, this actual — so as the heart leaps, as it warms in me as it attends those places I approach, or merely name, it knows the leap, the warmth, is for, or of, another, coinherent, realm …
                                                                                                                                  “The glory is the thing happening; it is not, though in our talk we seem to make it so and can only believe in it so, an accident of the thing happening. The glory of God is in ‘facts.’”
                                                                                                                   as Charles Williams wrote, I read to my class last week — as Kelly wrote me recently: “Some times I wake up & realize I’ve been living in the profane for weeks …” — ah yes

Dee wrote:
                     «I have oftentymes … and many ways, looked into the State of Earthly
Kingdoms, Generally, the whole World over: … being a Study, of no great Difficulty: But, rather, a purpose, somewhat answerable, to a perfect Cosmographer: to fynde hym selfe, Cosmopolites»[8]


& in another place:

«But … more ample is our Science, than to measure Plaines: and nothyng lesse therin is tought (of purpose) then how to measure Land. An other name, therefore, must nedes be had, for our Mathematicall Science of Magnitudes: which regardeth neither clod, nor turf: neither hill, nor dale: neither earth nor heaven: but is absolute Megethologia: not creping on ground, and dasseling the eye, with pole perche, rod or lyne: but liftying the hart above the heavens, by invisible lines, and immortall beames: meteth with the reflexion, of the light incomprehensible …»

                                                                 (from his preface to Euclid)[9]

•         •         •

     S. Indian Karnatic vina musio on air radio — writing office looking out over the campus SW off the hill — wind fierce, sky cotton-boll clouded — Sunday noon quietudes —

                                                   hope all is well with you all — let me hear from you as you can — & hope to see you out there sometime abt ¾ of the way through June, or subsequent —

Hang loose

                                                                                    love    Ken

(enclose some prose from the local student newspaper)[10]

I reckon you’ve seen Penrose’s article in current Sci.Amer, on Black Holes? (lot of other goodies in this issue) //[11]



1. Irby to Dorn, 14 May 1972, box 13, folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

2. Duncan McNaughton (b. 1942), American poet, cofounder of the New College in San Francisco (where he invited Irby to give three lectures on Whitman in the spring of 1986), and close friend and correspondent of Irby’s.

3. Dorn, The North Atlantic Turbine (London: Fulcrum, 1967). In the jacket note for this book, Dorn writes: “In ‘The North Atlantic Turbine,’ the poems since ‘Geography,’ I have tried to locate another hemisphere. And I want this collection to be the last necessity to work out such locations. I think I can now see my way clear to a spiritual address. I don’t feel that possibility as a ‘mellowing’ but more a transfer from an energy factor of my practice to an altogether direct plane of intensity I hope to find my place on. That non-spatial dimension, intensity, is one of the few singular things which interests me now. […] I have begun to do two things already: 1) Follow the vision of ‘Thesis’ (The poem which leads this collection) and 2) explore the mythification of the Gunslinger.” See Dorn, Collected Poems (London: Carcanet, 2012), 924–925.

4. [Irby’s handwritten note]: i.e., that it was decisive there

5. John Dee (1527–1608), Welsh mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, occultist, navigator, and much more.

6. Frederick Delius (1862–1934), English composer, about whom Irby wrote a lengthy poem, collected in the expanded edition of To Max Douglas.

7. John Brown (1800–1852), abolitionist, organizer of Pottawatomie Massacre and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, for which he was hanged.

8. From Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation, printed by John Day in 1577.

9. From Dee’s “Mathematicall Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara,” the first English edition of Euclid, translated by Henry Billingsley, in 1570.

10. These documents are not included with the archived letter.

11. Roger Penrose, “Black Holes,” Scientific American 226 (May 1972). In the original letter, this addendum appears in the margin at the top of the first page, directly above the date.

September 27, 1973

The Irby family in Denmark, 1974.

27 Sep 73[1]
[Copenhagen, Denmark]

ED —
            Slow getting around to writing, getting settled at last, classes starting etc. Got a good apt finally, after 2 wks of searching, having things slip through my fingers, etc — its a hard place to find housing in, much less being able to afford it — but this place, in Christianshavn, the “bohemian” or “hippie” part of town, an area of cold buildings and canals & the remains of the 17th cent. fortifications and moat, certainly works out very well, with dishes, coffee grinder, utensils etc already in it — at 1000 Kr per month, with the dollar abt 5.7 Kr these days /  The classes don’t amt to much in the way of attendance: 2 in one class 1 (today at any rate) in the other — one Dane, one American, one Canadian! So the year’s my own really to use as I want // […] ANYHOW the days go by glorious & sunny, only a little of the usual Danish rains so far. I want to get the book ms. together for Moritz[2] but also wonder with his marriage split-up what chance there is of him getting anything out for some time to come. Have you got any ideas of other places/people/outfits might be interested — some collection of my stuff 68–72 or thereabouts —? // The trip over on the France was luxuriously a bore, the food good (but not great — the fish, for one thing, was frozen cardboard, no amt of sauce cd disguise —), copious, as was the table wine — drinks in the bar as expensive as NY, except Amer Picon, which I drank up all of their supply of — except for eating, I mostly slept & read Oliver Onions[3] ghost stories, talked with the Hellmans & smoked up the rest of my grass, fearing the customs which in fact did not materialize at all, nothing, neither in Germany nor Denmark. So far the only dope Ive gotten here has been so weak as to be pure fragrance of imagination of better times past fondly remembered, but hope springs eternal // How’s wid y’all? Bialy’s last letter suggested you were living in Riverside, verdad?[4] At any rate Im writing you there as best. /  Did you ever get the piece off to Alpert?[5] If not Id be mildly curious to see it myself, if you cd zip along a xerox //  Have almost 2 wks off the middle of Oct thinking of going with Ruth[6] somewhere warm and “exotic” like Crete, if all the tours aren’t booked up as they tend to be months in advance — have thought also of London but realize I don’t know anyone there except Michael Hamburger[7] and him only slightly — then there’s Jonathan Williams[8] up in Yorkshire […]. The way travel agencies are here, and the way expenses are living here, its really cheaper to travel than stay at home, as long as you take one of these Danes-en masse-lie in the sun and drink-nothing else kinds of sashays. //  Otherwise I haven’t been travelling much so far, only got paid yesterday, for one thing — have slipped over to Sweden on the ferries 3 times, twice to watch birds with a birdfreak friend, once with Ruth to see Carl F. Hill’s extraordinary drawings in the Malmö museum (1849–1911, painted in France, went crazy c. 1878, mad the rest of his life, put away in Lund, his birthplace — the drawings from his years of madness are among the most impressive things I’ve seen in years, crazily prefiguring all sorts of later developments, but a world of their own, regardless of such comparisons). //  Anyhow, things go on comfortably, & certainly Copenhagen is a very lovely city to be in, the pace of existence much less frantic here than US (it is also as you might guess a pretty expensive place to live, too), & the people, if a bit bland, very agreeable. And the pay is good.
                                                                                  / Hope all goes well w/ you — let me hear from you




1. Irby to Dorn, 27 September 1973, box 13, folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

2. John Moritz (1946–2007), poet, student of Dorn’s at the University of Kansas, founder of Lawrence, Kansas–based Tansy Press and magazine, which published six of Irby’s books. See endnote 3 (“February 12, 1971”).

3. Oliver Onion (1873–1961), British novelist.

4. Dorn was regent’s lecturer at University of California, Riverside, 1973–1974.

5. Barry Alpert, founder of Vort, which printed nine issues between 1972 and 1976. Vort 1 featured Dorn and Tom Raworth, and Vort 3 featured Irby and David Bromage.

6. Ruth Palmer, a friend originally from Berkeley, living in Copenhagen with her young son, Tad, and working as a nurse.

7. Michael Hamburger (1924–2007), British translator, poet, and critic.

8. Jonathan Williams (1929–2008), American poet, essayist, publisher, photographer, and founder of Jargon Press.

February 12, 1974

The Irby family taking a walk in Denmark, 1974.

12 Feb 74[1]
[Copenhagen, Denmark]

ED —

              A query: Moritz and I are abt to get started on the reprinting of the Max Douglas poem, figuring to change the format to 5½ x 8, like say a New Dir. pb, and to add “Jesus” and “Delius” (keeping the same overall title though), along lines had been considering for some time (both Harvey Brown[2] and Gerrit[3] had suggested including those other two poems of the same time, two years back) — anyhow, the question is this: can you see using that piece you mentioned you’d done for Vort,[4] but never got to Alpert in time, as a preface, postface, whatever, for this new edition of To Max D.? Since I ain’t seen what you wrote of course I don’t know how it looks etc, but how wd it seem to you?
                         I don’t know Johns schedule on all this, but he seems anxious to get it under way soon — from my end of it, there isn’t much to do, very few revisions in any of the poems.
                                                                                                                                                        … I feel like I’ve been typing with no let up ever since I got back from England the middle, last, whenever, of January, doing the ms. for Callahan,[5] which took an incredible amt of wk for such a short bk — he’s got (I hope, if the mails didn’t go down again) it by now, take a look at it if you wd — any comments wd be appreciated — then on top of that some poobah shit for a talk the Fulbright office[6] rookydooed for me in Brussels, god they’ve wanted one thing after another, summary, bibliography, copies of poems, on & on, all for some pittance in Belg. fr. (which as I fast found out, ain’t the same a-tall as French fr.) — AND starting now on the ms. for the other book Moritz wants to do, the one I wrote you abt in the fall I think, of poem 1968–1973, which is going to be a real bitch to get together[7] — anyhow, um hum and ah ha and on …

                                                        I left here just after Xmas for Paris, where I stayed first with Clarence Brown, the Russian translator, a friend through my brother from Princeton,[8] who was getting ready to head back to the US, his wife & kids already gone back, had the whole apt (Ionesco’s![9]) thus empty, spent a week there (rue de Rivoli, just where it starts, in the Marais, not down by the Louvre), mostly walking around digging the place, the incredible produce in the mkts in the streets, whew! esp after the Barren North, drove around in his truck some, etc, then spent abt a week with the Eshlemans[10] in their place (Cavalcanti’s[11] apt!) in Montmartre, during which time ate magnificently (except for one record and some postcards, that’s all I spent any money on in Paris: food and drink) though never more than one star Michelin, but lawsy what goodies, esp. the game, venison and wild boar. A memorable visit, all around.                                                                                                                                                                           Then to England, crossing the Channel on one of those damned hovercraft, people barfing all around me and me feeling like my kidneys were going to bounce out my mouth, worst storms, I later heard, in 30 yrs, etc — went up to Yorkshire to visit Jonathan Williams[12] in his “cottage,” 2 floors 2 baths and a sauna, which was very comfortable, the dales lushly green, the weather mild, incredibly soft and mild — back to London, stayed with Pierre Joris,[13] the Luxembourg poet editor, via Bard, (Sixpack), where found Tom Pickard[14] also staying so got to meet and talk with him, spent one day wandering around some together, and stayed over to hear him read at that Poetry Society outfit in Earls Court, a curious scene, but his reading great — in fact found Tom altogether, of course, a lovely memorable person I instantly liked and got on with — also saw the huge Munch exhibit at the Hayward, worth, as they say, the whole trip just to see, esp the late work, Id never seen even reprod. of before & bought records, books, a silk sq on sale in Liberty for Ruth, a fancy facsimile of the 1870 ed of Lady Cadogan’s Illustrated Games of Patience, for Tad, etc — had a great time all around, though London was dark dark and the sense of impending civil scrimmage building … & if the Irish start hitting the subways instead of scattered buses, ah me indeed …[15]
                           &  back here to the typing mill. How’s with you all? Bob sd you were looking for a place in SF, without luck (at that point, but since he sent the letter by regular mail it took almost 6 wks to get here — so what’s happening now? & such — I reckon you’ve got the big baby anthology Quasha and Rothenberg’ve done, which I must say I’ve dug digging around in, a lot, and as I said to Bob, any such compilation that puts me in between Emerson and Rexroth cant be all wrong.[16]


So — basta for now — do let me hear soon /                                                                                  


My best to Holbrook,[17] whom I’ll be writing soon anyway (now that I finally got his address from Callahan) — hope the neck is ok again (how that happened Bob didn’t say)! Keep well!![18]



1. Irby to Dorn, 12 February 1974, box 13, folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

2. See endnote 7 (“February 12, 1971”).

3. Gerrit Lansing (b. 1928), poet, essayist, founder of Set, “funky scholiast,” and close friend and correspondent of Irby’s (see: “[Some Notes on House and Woods]  for Gerrit,” in The Intent On, 657–659).

4. “Kenneth Irby/David Bromige,” special issue, Vort 3 (Summer 1973); see endnote 5 (“September 27, 1973”).

5. Bob Callahan (1942–2008), writer, teacher, publisher, editor of New American Journal, cofounder (with Eileen Callahan) of Mudra Press, and founder of the Turtle Island Foundation, which published, among numerous other titles: Carl Sauer’s Northern Mists (1973); Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974); and Brakhage’s Film Biographies (1977), for which Creeley, Dorn, and Guy Davenport supplied section introductions. It’s likely Irby is referring to his work on Sauer’s Seventeenth-Century North America book, which Turtle Island published posthumously. For further information, see the introduction to Irby’s prose pieces about meeting Carl Sauer and James Malin, elsewhere in this issue.

6. Irby received a Fulbright travel grant in 1974.

7. This book will eventually become Catalpa.

8. Clarence Brown, translator, arrived at Princeton as an instructor the same year as Irby’s brother, James, in 1959, and both promoted to assistant professor in 1962. Irby (Kenneth) and Brown shared an interest in Mandelstam: in 1965, Brown had translated and published, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (Princeton University Press), and in 1973, his critical study, Mandelstam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973). In 1974, his cotranslation of the Selected Poems of Mandelstam (Macmillan), with W. S. Merwin, was imminent.

9. Eùgene Ionesco (1909–1994), Romanian playwright.

10. Clayton (b. 1935) and Caryl Eschleman. Clayton Eschleman is an American poet and translator who founded Caterpillar magazine, which published twenty issues between 1967 and 1973.

11. Alberto Cavalcanti (1897–1982), Brazilian-born film director and producer.

12. See endnote 8 (“September 27, 1973”).

13. Pierre Joris (b. 1946), born in France and raised in Luxembourg, poet, translator, essayist, cofounder and coeditor (with William Prescott) of Sixpack, which was active from 1972 through 1977, and a close friend of Irby.

14. Tom Pickard (b. 1946), British poet and filmmaker, founder of the Morden Tower Book Room.

15. [Irby’s handwritten note]: for the most part the inter-city trains weren’t heavily affected at that pt, though slow [After a thirty year hiatus, the IRA began an aggressive bombing campaign in London in March 1973. According to the BBC, “[o]ne of the most horrific bombings came in February 1974 when an IRA unit planted a bomb on a coach carrying servicemen and their families, killing eleven people” (“The IRA Campaigns in England,” BBC News World Edition, Sunday, 4 March 2001).]

16. Irby’s poem “Relation” appeared in between R. W. Emerson’s “Hamatreya” and Kenneth Rexroth’s “A Lesson in Geography” in the anthology America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, ed. George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg (New York: Random House, 1973), 61–63.

17. Holbrook Teter (1930–1999), activist, printer, social worker, renaissance man, and cofounder, with artist Michael Myers, of Zephyrus Image, which produced hundreds of books, pamphlets, posters, and other printed items. Myers illustrated Dorn’s 1974 quasi-comic book edition of Recollections of Gran Apacheria, published by Bob Callahan’s Turtle Island Foundation. Teter designed the complete edition of Dorn’s Slinger (San Francisco: Wingbow Press, 1975), which remains unchanged in each reprint [Gunslinger (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989), and Collected Poems (London: Carcanet, 2012)].

18. In the original letter, this addendum appears in the margin at the top of the first page, directly above the date.

Defaced/refaced books

The erasure practices of Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle

At the 2013 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, I wandered among rows of bright, strange, and intriguing books piled high on independent poetry press tables. Hand-stamped, letter-pressed, spray-painted, ripped, sewn, and covered in tinfoil; poems shaped like boxes, poems printed on records, poems made into pop-ups or puzzles, or rolled as cigarettes — I even spotted a tiny book hidden inside a plastic egg. The small presses occupying real estate at the AWP book fair represent a fraction of the artistic output that marks what can be seen as a resurgence of the handmade book and the book as art object in contemporary poetry practice. The exciting variety of these book-object wares suggests a vital world of poetry, visual art, bookmaking, and communal production. In these composed book-works, techniques of production, including design, collaboration, and distribution, are part of the poem. The paper, binding, page sequence, gutter, and cover all contribute to our understanding and experience of the poetic text. Acknowledging this necessitates a reading practice newly attentive to the material nature of bookmaking in order to understand works whose compositional practices consciously incorporate physical book structures into the made poem.

Precedents for the practice of bookmaking as poetic composition include the innovative practices and ideas of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century writer-bookmakers actively creating a poetics of the book and directly engaged with the codex form and print technologies, including William Blake, William Morris, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Poetry as an art form already strives to “thicken the medium” as much as possible by using all of its visual and verbal features to create meaning and evoke sensation.[1] This medium sensitivity inherent in poetry makes it uniquely suited to self-reflexively engage the symbolic and social functions of the codex form, and poetry’s intersection with such book arts practices as collaborative construction, manual printing, assemblage, and defacement allows for the creation of poetry book-works that, taking full advantage of poetry’s linguistic play, construct a reading experience of immediacy and physicality, of interruption, irruption, and potential. The physical and conceptual potential of the codex allows poets to deploy the paradox of the book’s cultural associations of fixity, stability, and spirituality and those of its physical intimacy, ephemerality, and corporeality in order to provide an encounter with the poem that is both tactile and conceptual, disorienting and familiar, mundane, exotic, ecstatic, and erotic. The poetry book as art object thus revises what it means to encounter a poem, insisting that to read is to move through the space of the book, to touch, to listen, to navigate, in short, to encounter a “full-bodied literature.”[2]

By writing about two such poetry book-works, Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow[3]and Jen Bervin’s The Desert,[4] I ultimately want to offer a record of encounter, a thinking through and with the book objects at hand. Each of these works takes an earlier book as its physical and conceptual impetus, sewing or painting over existing text and so making a new work from a previously obscure or forgotten text. Marcel Broodthaers’s purely graphical recreation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1969)[5] and the altered book-works of Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips from the 1970s and 1980s are perhaps the most emblematic examples of this practice and perhaps the most famous. Each employs Duchampian and neo-Dadaist notions of the defaced book in order to enact the ways in which works of art and literature are always already a reshaping of the tradition. Others have written about the relationship between original text and altered image in Phillips’s work A Humument,[6] but its status as an inspirational prototype has yet to be fully assessed in light of later defaced book-works.[7] The same is true for Ronald Johnson’s Radi os,[8] a book-length rewriting by excision of Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Phillips’s and Johnson’s excisions can be read as unrepeatable conceptual acts (what was conceptual had to do with their newness as well), there is no doubt that erasure has taken on the weight of a new genre within poetry practice.

A spread from Broodthaers’s
Un Coup de Dés (1969).

In recent articles, Travis McDonald[9] and Marjorie Perloff[10] each locate the origins of what’s commonly called “erasure poetry” in conceptual models of appropriative or restraint-based poetry such as Oulipo or Flarf. While this is certainly a valid entrance point into a still little-discussed topic, I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect. By subverting our expectations for reading within a codex, these defaced (or even re-faced/re-surfaced) books promote new forms of tactile reading in the service of phenomenological investigation and often offer an experience of time with greater fidelity to the process of duration as it occurs in everyday life.

Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow appeared in 2006 from Wave Books as a digital reproduction of Ruefle’s initial erasure. With its high-resolution reprint, Wave Books attempts to render visible the three-dimensional textures of the original text, maintaining an awareness of the poet’s hand in the poetic undertaking. In 2008, Granary Books published Bervin’s book, The Desert, with the help of a team of seamstresses, as the colophon states, in a digitally printed, machine-sewn, and hand-bound edition of forty, combining new technologies with traditional book arts practices, and, like Ruefle’s text, retaining an awareness of the poet’s composition method in the resulting artifact. Deploying the defaced book as phenomenological investigation, Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Bervin’s The Desert begin, like A Humument, with nearly forgotten books. Each work utilizes texts that are over one hundred years old and have escaped the notice of most contemporary readers. As such, each project can be read as an act of reclamation as well as renovation.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).

The Desert takes as its primary text John Van Dyke’s 1901 book of the same name, a detailed account of his journeys through the deserts of America. Rather than working directly on the original edition, Bervin digitally reprints the first seven chapters of Van Dyke’s book on handmade abaca paper. The text of each of these new books is then sewn over row-by-row with more than five thousand yards of light blue silk. The cover is wrapped in the same rough abaca paper and bleached to the color of sand, the title is hand-punched with small holes that form the letters. No ink or thread appear and the author’s name is also absent; instead, the negative space of the holes represents the book’s name, as if it had drained like sand into the pages that follow. The cover of the book alludes to the visual landscape of the desert and to the simultaneous presence and absence of Van Dyke’s original record. It also demonstrates the hand’s role as one of removal — the rough paper has been leached of color, the title is punched out rather than inscribed, the look, entire, suggesting absence. And yet, upon opening the book, we experience the beauty and abundance of a field of blue silk zigzags.

Bervin writes in the colophon: “John Van Dyke writes of the American deserts as necessary breathing spaces; my sewn poem is narrated by the air.” Describing her erasure as a single poem “narrated by air,” she refers to the project’s attempt to create its own elemental landscape within Van Dyke’s depiction of American wilderness. On an early page, Van Dyke’s text has been sewn over line-by-line to reveal only two words, each an utterance that is equally speech and exhalation: “Ah! / Air!”[11] Out of the reconstituted landscape of the page, speech erupts, forming its own breathing space, furthering Van Dyke’s conceptual project, and creating a space of release for the body of the text within the landscape of the page.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).

Not only does Bervin make tangible Van Dyke’s poetic attention to visual phenomena, she creates sensations within the act of reading through the haptic quality of the erasure. Bervin’s erasure enacts, in the book’s own archeological terms, both a burial and an excavation. Covering over the bulk of Van Dyke’s record of his wanderings in the desert, the three-dimensional, textured surface of the blue stitching lures the reader’s hands to participate in the text. In these raised blue fields, we also find pockets of text that have been left open or have been sewn over and subsequently uncovered once more, the pockmarks of the removed thread still visible. These pockets of text exist as fragments, such as the single legible word on page 26: “missing.” In most instances, however, the visible fragments can be read across the page to form longer (often self-reflexive) statements about observation and composition. Texturally they exist as spaces of absence or flatness within the book. Visually, however, they form the darkest marks on the page and draw the eye to read the poem as an excavation in the midst of the blue field of stitches. Van Dyke’s text exists as one man’s record of his senses, which Bervin’s attentive erasure excavates to further reveal a meditation on light, vision, composition, and ultimately, the body’s absence in the landscape of the wilderness.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008)Back side of page 16/17.

Within this meditation, the tensions between the revealed words, the absented/covered words, and the textures of the glacial silk continually push the reader to recognize the reconstitution of form as a legitimate investigative and poetic endeavor. Bervin’s page, which contains what was in Van Dyke’s original a spread of pages 28 and 29, demonstrates just such an awareness of its constructed nature.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).

In this excerpt, “showing —” physically demonstrates the excavation — the needle marks around the word do in fact show us where the thread has been sewn then ripped out to uncover the word. A small black tail also hangs from the end of the word, a half-hidden em dash partially sewn over which looks in its semi-visibility like a black thread running horizontal to the vertical zigzag of Bervin’s stitches, forming a visual echo in which the text itself looks as though it might have been sewn onto the page. In a chapter retaining its original title, “The Make of the Desert,” we find further demonstration of the intervention of the poet’s hand and eye in the construction of meaning.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).

Here Bervin leaves the entire em dash uncovered, the threading together of the text indicated in a visual pun and followed by a verbal pun upon the needles, the spear-points, the instruments of the hand that have punctured the text and transformed it from inscribed word to observable action. The text instructs us to take notice of the blue threads folding back into the page and the pages folding into the book as a whole.  Ultimately, we are being asked to pay attention to the inquiries the text is able to perform or suggest by what the hand veils or leaves open to air.

Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).

That Bervin considers the erasure a collaboration is evident from the title page on which her name and Van Dyke’s are presented side-by-side as authors. Mary Ruefle’s erasure, A Little White Shadow, presents itself less as a collaboration between living author and dead than as a renewal of the book’s surfaces, a refreshing of each page’s semantic possibilities, a recalling of life force from a text long forgotten, left for dead. On the title page, the name of the original author has been covered over with correction fluid and Ruefle has signed her name on top of this in black ink. Much of the rest of the title page has also been put under erasure and what remains reads: “So much the less complete / First Edition / WAVE BOOKS / Seattle & New York / 2006.” The title page not only insists on a new author who replaces the original but on a new first edition dated 2006 rather than 1889, A Little White Shadow’s original publication date. Taking into account the ironies of correction fluid versus thread, we must recognize that where Bervin seizes the original material and stitches together a coherent poem from the text, Ruefle obscures the text with correction fluid, creating a rough base where a revision or re-seeing of the text might occur. Rather than a burial and excavation of the text, Ruefle performs a masking, applying a ghosted surface, leaving the uncovered phrases to act as new activations of syntax and sense. The thick application of the correction fluid and its visible brushstrokes resemble impasto on canvas, the bright white of the fluid always fresh against the brown, tea-stained look of the book’s aged paper. The drama of the white fluid on the rough background resembles Robert Ryman’s attempts to access an experience of presence by offering an immediate awareness of light and surface in the subtle textures of his white paint.

Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.

In A Little White Shadow, Ruefle concerns herself with the absence of that which the text has never been able to make present. On an early page spread, the reader encounters ghosts of the text’s absent bodies: “seven centuries of / sobbing / gathered / in the / twilight. / and / had their / pages / wandered, / through.”[12]  And on the facing page: “the / dead. / borrow so little from / the past / as if they were alive.”[13] Ruefle embarks on an investigation of the absence always already a part of our temporal existence.

Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.

A little farther on, the text depicts an image, or depicts the depiction of an image:  “I had been / sketching / tall pink / heather, / her hat being the only thing moving.”[14] As we read the line “her hat being the only thing moving” our eyes suddenly register the flow of text (or the movement of our eyes along the stream of text) as the only thing that is in fact moving in the blank field of the whited-out page. The facing page seems to address the strange tension in which the messy white blocks of correction fluid and the crisp black lines of text exist and interact. “I was brought in contact with the phenomenon peculiar to / “A           shadow.” The blank, whited-out spot between “A” and “shadow” suggests we fill in the image for the word, supplying “white” for the stroke of white that has interrupted the phrase. As our eyes then travel across the next field of white, we read “Everyone you met was sure, sooner or later, to speak / the / time —.”[15]  If each page operates as both a visual space and a readable text, then we as viewers and readers become aware of the ways in which the nontemporal medium of paint interrupts the linear duration of the verbal medium, creating visual pauses which read as verbal delays across the enjambed lines.

Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.

 If we compare the pacing of A Little White Shadow to that of The Desert, the fluidity of Bervin’s text across pages illuminates the dramatic fragmenting of Ruefle’s text. Each text has been turned from verbal to plastic art: in the bas relief of silk weaving in the one case, in the virtual “painting out” of the page in the other — so that in the latter case, digitally reproduced, Ruefle’s book is more like a set of plates in an art monograph than a set of pages, with all its haptic lure intact. Many of the pages function as text/image works which stand alone and, although the book is readable as a coherent text, it does not read as a single poem. The text’s fragmentation allows us to experience the disruption of duration so that we become aware of our expectations for the book’s form and for syntax in general. The correction fluid interrupts the temporality of the movement of words across the page and, in turn, disrupts our expectations for the time it will take to vocalize the text. Syntax, then, is equated with time, and erasure here functions as a mimetic activity for the erasure of time itself. A Little White Shadow is able, through the interaction of its visual and verbal elements, to enact an experience of time with greater fidelity to the process of duration as it occurs in lived experience. Ruefle registers the experience of the body in time.

Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.

Although the brushstrokes in the correction fluid look three-dimensional, the book’s haptic quality is illusory in its digital reproduction. Even so, the book’s look encourages the fingers to at least try to feel the grooves on the page, and our eyes still remain sensitive to its textures. At points the text also encourages us to move our eyes over the shapes of the correction fluid. On page 22, the text reads: “Think me / lazy / always idle; but / my brain / grows weary / just thinking how to make / thought” and, between each line, the patterns of white seem to form the shapes of words as they have not done on the rest of the page. The correction fluid forms illegible script-like shapes that register as readable lines rather than elided text, and we feel compelled, as we read through the lines, to strain the eyes, pushing the white images to resolve into a readability which the images ultimately deny us. On the facing page, it is as if the text has decided to answer our efforts with an explanation of its methods: “very simply, / ‘It’s always noon with me. / pale, and deformed but very interesting, / ’”.[16] Noon appears opposite the reader’s struggle to simultaneously read and see both text and image at once.

On the book’s final page, Ruefle again turns our attention to the book as an object in time and to the archive from which it has been pulled, the archive to which it will return upon its closure. On the last page, the word “END” is mirrored and distorted by a strange boxed phrase Ruefle pastes below it: “on    end.” The phrase calls up weaving, end-on-end denoting a fabric woven by alternating colored yarn and white yarn to created a checkered effect and smooth texture. While Ruefle’s erasure does in some ways weave her white shadows with the text, we are not left with a smooth texture, and this definition might better suit the fluid stitching of Bervin’s poem. The phrase also brings to mind the notion of setting a book on its end.

Mary Ruefle’s 
A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books

Each act of erasure transforms the archive while simultaneously preserving the artifact. In this action, we recognize a larger commentary on language as occlusion — as a drama of both blotting out and inscription. The books enact the truth that everything that comes into presence necessitates an absence. We must then look at erasure in the context of what the poets preserve, the words, phrases, poems selected and revealed, in order to understand the practice of erasure, of art and aesthetics, as a method of selection that provides, if not a goal of complete retention and recollection, then an affirmation and preservation of what might otherwise be lost. The act of preservation exists as participation — a transformation of the material and of our own experience of the material. Ultimately, the books want to be readable. They describe an aesthetics, even an ethics, of active selection — of world-fashioning — and are, therefore, affirmative even as they interrogate the processes and politics of the act of selection itself, of who and what we choose to foreground.



1. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 14. McGann’s conception of the work of poetic language is especially useful: “[Poets] draw attention to that quality of self-embodiment that is so central to the nature of texts … The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible — literally to put the resources of the medium on full display to exhibit the process of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which texts are.”

2. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 26. Hayles argues that what is at stake in transforming literary theory into material practice through an attention to literary works that foreground and thematize their status as material artifacts is “nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature.”

3. Mary Ruefle, A Little White Shadow (Seattle: Wave Books, 2006).

4. Jen Bervin, The Desert (New York: Granary Books, 2008).

5. Marcel Broodthaers, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (Antwerp: Wide White Space Gallery, 1969).

6. Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987).

7. For two such discussions, see William H. Gass, “A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, 1973,” Artforum 35, no. 3 (November 1996), and Hayles, Writing Machines, 2002.

8. Ronald Johnson, Radi os (Albany: Sand Dollar, 1997; reissued Chicago: Flood Editions, 2005).

9. Travis McDonald, “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” Jacket 38 (2009).

10. Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink,” Boston Review, June 2012.

11. Bervin, The Desert, 16 and 17.

12. Ruefle, A Little White Shadow, 8.

13. Ibid., 9.

14. Ibid., 14.

15. Ibid., 15.

16. Ibid., 23.