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The very variants: A few revisions to Lorine Niedecker's 'Collected Works'

This is a note to readers of Niedecker, particularly those who use the early printings of the Collected Works published by University of California Press in 2002.

A prefatory digression: in 1992, The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas published my account of the Lorine Niedecker holdings in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. I titled the essay “‘The Very Variant’: Lorine Niedecker’s Manuscript Collection,” meaning to echo her line “the very veery” in the poem that begins, “We are what the seas” (240) and to re-echo Niedecker’s play on Stein’s “The Very Valentine” — the precise, the singled out, the necessary, the insisted upon, etc.

Why the witch-hunt against Gertrude Stein?

In 1934, Gertrude Stein was invited to the White House to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. Stein was on a triumphant lecture tour across the United States, following the success of her bestselling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and her fashionable opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The American press proclaimed, “Gertie is Gertie is Gertie!” In the thirties, Gertrude Stein was America’s quirky darling.

How times have changed.

On May 1, 2012, the celebration of Jewish Heritage Month began with an official statement from the White House: “From Aaron Copland to Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein to Justice Louis Brandeis, generations of Jewish Americans have brought to bear some of our country’s greatest achievements and forever enriched our national life.”

A response to 'Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches by Philippe Petain'

Fascinating indeed. My own guess — (I guess we’re all guessing) — is that Gertrude, a political naïf capable of only rough calculation re: nuance in current (’39, ’40, ’41 etc) winds of doctrine, and with very genuine affection for Fay — a very affable  gentleman indeed, (if you remember our brief meeting with him in Paris), and his returned affection for her, his persuasion to do a friend a favor and say nice things — stretching conscience no more than her willingness would permit — to help his dear friend by translating speeches that might show him in his best light for Americans (faced with defeat and Nazi military invasion, Petain was, after all, saying nice things to shore up his nation’s continuing pride in itself even in a time of terrible adversity), and not until the reality of the Occupation, the deportations, the clouds of war, and its meaning for her, given her lifelong American at-one-ness did she lose enthusiasm and feel distaste for the task and took occasion to let the obligation sort of fade away.

'Gertrude Stein's Translations of Speeches' by Philippe Petain

Gertrude Stein (left) and Philippe Pétain (right).

Carefully stowed and catalogued among the 173 boxes of the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are three unremarkable folders containing translations of Philippe Pétain’s Paroles aux Français.[1] Alongside Stein’s introduction,[2] the manuscript notebooks and few typed pages they contain are the corpus delicti of her collaboration with the Vichy regime. Despite their centrality to the controversy over Stein’s war years, however, the contents of these folders (thanks probably, in part, to Stein’s more than usually formidable handwriting) have not been extensively studied or understood.

On 'Penury'

Myung Mi Kim at a Belladonna* reading series event, 2006. Photo by erica kaufman.

For readers of Myung Mi Kim’s work, the publication of Penury in its long form (Omnidawn, 2009) is an unlikely chance to view a poem on the move. Unlikely because the thinking might hold that the publication of a full-length collection is the culmination of the work, rather than another instance of its form. However, with Kim’s book this is arguably not the case. When two small presses issued portions of this project in 2006 (From Penury, published by belladonna* books, and River Antes, by Atticus/Finch),[1] readers were met each time not with a draft, but another countenance of the work. So, too, with Penury. This fact becomes abundantly clear in even a cursory comparison of these books: while an entire section disappears from the poem “fell” in the most recent publication, perhaps more startling is the addition of a diacritical mark resembling an end-repeat in musical notation ( “:|” ) that surfaces incessantly at the left-hand margin, but was nowhere to be found in the belladonna* version. What’s more, the similarities between River Antes and Penury might accurately be described as donation rather than drafting (along the lines of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “donor” system in her long poem, Drafts, where text from previous sections of the poem is repurposed in subsequent sections); even though there is clearly some revision from one book to the next, in many ways these are decidedly different books that happen to share some of the same materials.