A version of this paper by Edward Burns, titled “So I Went on Looking at Pictures: Gertrude Stein’s Last Decade,” was delivered as part of Sundays at the Met, April 29, 2012, in conjunction with the exhibition The Steins Collect.
How did two Jewish lesbian women manage to survive in France during the Second World War, particularly after the line of demarcation ended in November 1942 and the Vichy government began to follow the stricter laws enacted by the Nazi government in Paris? How, too, did a well-known collection of modern art, with masterpieces by Picasso, Juan Gris, and Cézanne escape looting to survive intact during the occupation of Paris? Much has been made in recent years about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas remaining in France during World War II. Their failure to return to the United States in 1939, and the discovery that Stein translated and wrote an introduction to a book of speeches by Marshal Pétain, has raised questions about her politics. Her failure to identify herself in her writings as Jewish has also entered the conversation.
In her thinking about political, social, and economic matters, Stein was a conservative Republican with what her friend William G. Rogers called the mentality of a “rentier,” a person of property. She opposed Roosevelt and the New Deal and was more afraid of communism than of fascism. In spite of her close friendship with Picasso, during the Spanish Civil War she did not denounce the revolt of General Franco against the duly elected Republican government.
In September 1939, when France and England declared war on Germany, Stein and Toklas were in Bilignin, the country house they had rented since the late 1920s. They obtained a forty-eight hour pass to return to Paris to collect their passports, to gather winter clothing, to arrange for bank transfers, and to secure the paintings in their apartment at 5 rue Christine.1 When she arrived in Paris, Stein hastily arranged two meetings. The first was with her friend, the art historian and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Kahnweiler remembers that on entering the apartment he saw Toklas with one foot on the frame of the portrait of Madame Cézanne, trying to remove the canvas. “I stopped her, and set myself to unframing this magnificent work in a less violent manner. They wanted to carry away with them only this picture and the portrait of Stein by Picasso, despite my protestations that they should take at least some small Picassos which would be very easy to wrap and would take up very little room. A happy Providence justified their confidence. The pictures left in Paris survived.” Before he left, Kahnweiler wrapped some of the larger paintings and placed them on the floor; others were covered and stored in cupboards.2
The second person Stein saw during this hurried trip to Paris was her friend Bernard Faÿ. During their visit, it is believed that Stein executed a document in which she placed the care of her pictures in his hands. The original of that document has not survived and only some notes on the back of an envelope attest to what Stein did. When her pass expired, she and Toklas returned to Bilignin. Periodically Faÿ reported to Stein on the safety of her collection (Stein did not return to Paris again until December 1944.)3
Stein wrote about the phony war, la drole de guerre (September 1939 to June 1940), in “The Winner Loses: A Picture of Occupied France” which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1940. The facts are there, but one wants to know more. On June 11, 1940, Stein and Toklas received permission to spend eight days in Bordeaux. They had seriously considered following the advice of the American Embassy that all Americans living in France should present themselves there to prepare to return to the United States. The fact that she had gone to Bordeaux does not appear in the piece. Her decision to remain in France becomes one of those wonderfully arranged Stein stories. Returning from Bordeaux (we have no information on what she did during her stay there), she stopped in Lyon to see the American Consul. “We were stopped every few minutes by the military; they were preparing to blow up bridges and were placing anti-aircraft guns and it all seemed very near and less than ever did I want to go on the road.” Near Bilignin, she meets her friends Dr. Gaston Chaboux and his wife Charlotte. After a discussion about whether to stay or return to the United States, Dr. Chaboux advised them, “I always think the best thing to do is to stay. He went on, everybody knows you here, everybody likes you, we all would help you in every way. Why risk yourself among strangers. Thank you, we said, that is all we need.”4
In June 1940, France was divided into two zones — the Occupied Zone under the direct authority of the Germans, and the Unoccupied or Free Zone officially under French rule which was administered from Vichy. Under the armistice, all French territory was technically subject to Vichy’s laws, so long as those laws remained consistent with German regulations in the Occupied Zone. French officials were required to “collaborate” with their German counterparts.
Marshal Philippe Pétain, a leading military figure of World War I became head of this new French state in June 1940. The new government blamed the Jews and the Popular Front of 1936 for France’s defeat. From the beginning, and without pressure from the Germans, his regime enacted a series of measures openly hostile to Jews — particularly those of foreign birth who had become French citizens. Stein and Toklas, as Americans, were not subject to certain regulations. But naturalized French citizens found that their naturalization could be revoked by a law passed in Vichy in July 1940. The Vichy government was ready to please the Germans, and anti-Semitic propaganda was permitted by a law passed in October 1940. This law defined Jews on the basis of racial criteria, and excluded them from many public service jobs and professions. A law passed in Vichy on October 4, 1940, allowed the French police to arbitrarily arrest “any foreigner of the Jewish race.” At the end of 1940, French officials in the Occupied Zone took a census of Jews — the following year Jews in the Free Zone were subjected to the same census — which in essence meant registration. The mass arrest of Jews was started in May 1941, and in August 1941 a major round-up of foreign Jews took place in Paris. Of these, more than 1,000 were placed in Drancy, a camp in the suburbs of Paris. The deportation of Jews from France did not begin until March 27, 1942 when more than 1,000 people were transported by train to Auschwitz.
How much of this did Stein know is difficult to determine. But it is impossible to believe that even in her small village in southeastern France she was not aware of what was happening around her. The story of Stein’s survival in France during the occupation is really two stories. The story of her relationship with the people in and around Belley whom she had known since the mid-1920s when she first discovered this town in the valley of the Rhone and had spent summers in a local hotel until she rented a house in the nearby hamlet of Bilignin. The sentiments of Dr. Chaboux no doubt express how the people felt about Stein and Toklas. They were never denounced, and their survival is in part due to their being well-liked by the people living in the Bugey, the region around Belley.5 Stein was a familiar figure who roamed the hills with her dog Basket. She talked to farmers, and had a genuine interest in the lives of the people she met. She participated in the life of the community, and she was considered one of their own. The lesbian relationship between Gertrude and Alice was known by many of the local people; it does not seem to have mattered to most of them. Robert O. Paxton, the American historian whose books forced the French to confront the horrors of the Vichy regime, has written about the officials in small towns across France who simply omitted information when it was demanded of them. This was clearly the case for Stein and Toklas.6
The second story, which helps to explain Stein’s ability to live out the war in France, is the story of her relationship with Bernard Faÿ, a friend since the 1920s. Faÿ was a historian of the Eighteenth Century and a specialist in American intellectual history. He came from a family of bankers and lawyers with Royalist and Catholic ties. He was well-connected in the world of power, intellectual circles (he was Professor of American Civilization in the Collège de France), and in the world of the arts. Pétain appointed him Director of the Bibliothèque Nationale after dismissing the Jew, Julien Cain. In this position, Faÿ made frequent trips to Vichy and he became the eyes and ears for the Marshal in Paris.
We do not know the precise circumstances under which Faÿ proposed that Stein translate a volume of speeches by the Marshal, Paroles aux Français. Messages et écrits 1934–1941. But there seems no doubt that he convinced her that it was important for Americans to understand what was happening in France and that Marshal Pétain, whose government at this time still maintained diplomatic relations with the United States, be presented in a favorable light. Did he confide in Stein his fears for what might happen in France as the Germans took command of the government? Probably without articulating it, he must have been convinced that if Stein did this translation it might be a bargaining chip to protect her and Toklas should the time ever arise when they were in danger. We just do not know how he proposed the project to her and what she knew about his motivation.
The translation project would need the approval of Pétain and his staff to go forward, and Stein first began work on an Introduction to present the Marshal to an American audience. On February 7, 1942 Faÿ wrote Stein that he had talked to the Marshal about the proposed translation and that he was pleased with the idea.7 Stein must have worked quickly, because on February 20, 1942, when he was in Vichy, Faÿ sent her Introduction to be reviewed by Dr. Bernard Ménétrel, the Marshal’s private secretary. Faÿ had a private meeting with Ménétrel to discuss a number of matters — one of which was the Stein project.8
Once the Introduction was approved, Stein began translating the speeches, and her notebooks (preserved at Yale) give evidence that she worked hard at finding a fluent English form for them. In November 1942, the Germans occupied all of France. In spite of a rapidly changing political situation inside and outside of France, Stein continued working on the translations. By January 1943, her friend Paul Genin and the sous-prefet of Belley, Maurice Sivan, urged her to abandon the project. They were concerned that it would bring too much attention to her. We do not know why Stein continued to work on the translation (which was never published) as long as she did. In February 1943, she moved from Bilignin to the railway town of Culoz, a few miles from Belley.
The translation of Pétain’s speeches has preoccupied Stein’s detractors in recent years; they have used it as the wedge (along with a clearly ironic remark about Hitler’s deserving the Nobel Peace Prize) to denounce her — the denunciation by extension extends to her literary works. How can one read this writer, they seem to be saying, when she has such odious pro-Vichy, pro-fascist views. Each retelling of the story enlarges what Stein actually did, and rarely cites specific information, sources, or puts the translation project in an historical context. By focusing exclusively on this aspect of Stein’s life, her detractors avoid confronting Stein’s published writings during the war. If they did, they would find that her publishers were exceptional individuals who struggled to maintain the intellectual tradition of freedom of thought and expression.9
A fact rarely mentioned is that Stein’s name appeared in the “Liste OTTO, ” a list of proscribed writers, published on May 10, 1943. Stein is among the list of Jewish authors, “Juedische Autoren, Écrivains Juifs,” writing in the French language whose works were banned. She is listed as “Miss Gertrude Stein” together with the name of Floury, the publisher of her 1938 book Picasso. Listing of writers and specific books which were censored by the Germans, with the complicity of French publishers, began with a “Liste Bernhard” in August 1940.10
Inclusion of a writer’s name on the “Liste OTTO” meant their books could not be sold and were to be removed from libraries. Interestingly, it did not completely forbid publication in journals — or at least that was how the “Liste OTTO” was understood by the poet, René Tavernier (1915–1989) who published translations of some of Stein’s earlier works and some new works in his journal Confluences beginning in July 1942.11 Confluences had been founded in Lyon by Jacques Aubenque in July 1941. Others connected with the journal were Marc Beigbeder, Marc Barbezat, Auguste Anglès, Alain Borne, and Georges Lorris. Confluences was published from 1941 to 1943, and among the writers published in the journal were: Louis Aragon, Pierre Emmanuel, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Françis Ponge, Robert Desnos, Max Jacob, Eugène Guillevic, Andre Frénaud, Jean Wahl, Louis Martin-Chauffier, Jean Paulhan, and Gabriel Marcel. Stein’s poem “Ballade” (translated by the Baroness d’Aiguy) appeared in the same issue as Aragon’s Nymphée (it was the publication of this poem, a thinly disguised attack on the French and on Vichy, which resulted in the journal being temporarily banned). It seems highly unlikely that Tavernier, who visited Stein during the occupation and remained a friend after the war, would have published her if there had been any indication that her behavior towards Vichy and the Germans had not been anything but correct. Journals such as Confluences and Fontaine, which was published in Algiers, appeared in a semi-authorized environment (with the consent of censors) or completely in secret.
Fontaine, the other journal where Stein published during the occupation was edited in Algiers by Max-Pol Fouchet, a classmate of Albert Camus. Fouchet took over the journal Methra (founded in 1938 by Charles Autrand) and renamed it Fontaine. He published writers living in both zones and those living in exile. The journal became the voice of resistance poetry in French North-Africa and drew the fire of Pierre Drieu la Rochelle who, in his position as the collaborationist editor of La Nouvelle revue française, wrote censors denouncing its contents. Éluard’s “Liberté” was published inFontaine. Stein first appeared in Fontaine in issue 11 (October / November 1940). Stein’s other connection in Algiers was Edmond Charlot (1915-2004), a heroic defender of freedom and the owner of the bookstore Les Vraies Richesses, who also published books. He published Stein’s Paris France in October 1941 (trans. Madame d’Aiguy) and her Petits poèmes pour un livre de lecture (trans. Madame d’Aiguy) in April 1944).12
Stein’s “Est Morte,” a translation of her “Is Dead,” appeared in Fontaine 27/28, a special number (June / July 1944) which celebrated writers and poets of the United States including Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Sara Teasdale, Robinson Jeffers, Conrad Aiken, Lola Ridge, Archibald MacLeish, Horace Gregory, Louise Bogan, Carl Sandburg, Allen Tate, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Frederic Prokosch, Marianne Moore, James Agee, Kenneth Patchen, James Laughlin, and Vachel Lindsay. So important was this issue considered as a sign of French-American solidarity, it was reissued by Max-Pol Fouchet after he moved to Paris in 1945. Again, it is difficult to imagine that someone as sensitive to political issues as Fouchet would have published Stein if he did not have confidence in her stand against Vichy and the Germans.
Like other literary journals published during the occupation Marc Barbezat’s L’Arbalète (The Cross-Bow) faced intense scrutiny by censors. There were temporary bans on publication, and police searches of his print shop were a common occurrence. Barbezat, who was encouraged by Tavernier, was a pharmacist in Lyon when in 1940, at the age of twenty-seven, he began hand-printing and assembling his journal. He drew on many of the same writers as Confluences, and he viewed his journal as part of the combat against fascism. It was Barbezat and his wife, the actress Olga Kechelievitch, who in 1943 discovered the work of an unknown prisoner, Jean Genet. In the autumn of 1944, Barbezat published issue 9 of L’Arbalète devoted to American writers and American culture.13 The issue begins with Stein’s “Langage et littérature américains” (“American Language and Literature,” translated by R.-L. Istre) and includes works by Dorothy Baker, Erskine Caldwell, Donald Henderson Clarke, Peter Cheney, Ernest Hemingway, Horace Mac Coy, Walter Edmonds, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston (listed as Norah Zeale Hurston), Henry Miller, Damon Runyon, William Saroyan, Nathanael West, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, and Richard Wright (prefaced by Paul Robeson). The issue was handset by Barbezat and printed in an edition of 2,150 copies. It is evident that the planning began before the liberation of Paris in August 1944. It is hard to believe that Stein would have been included in this volume if there was any question about her political views after the end of the line of demarcation in November 1942.14
The insecurity that Stein felt after the move to Culoz in February 1943 is mirrored in the journal she was keeping, Wars I Have Seen. The rationing of scarce food and fuel enter the book. Neighbor did not talk to neighbor on the telephone fearful that conversations were being monitored. Travel became difficult, and Stein was aware of the forced travel of French workers to factories in Germany. She was aware of the deportations, and she knew the reality of being in a combat zone when the nearby city of Chambéry was bombed on May 26, 1944, and reports of the dead began to filter in the area. Cut off from the United States, and having used the money she had brought with her from Paris in 1939, Stein relied on the generosity of her neighbors Paul and Elena Genin. For almost a year, the Genins, who had moved, with Elena’s daughter Joan Clegg (now Chapman) from Lyon to the hamlet of Chazey-Bons not far from Belley, were Stein’s bankers, lending her money. Fearful that she would be unable to repay them, Stein arranged in late 1943 for a Paris art dealer, César M. de Hauke to come to Culoz to discuss the sale of Cézanne’s portrait of his wife. On January 1, 1944, de Hauke wrote Stein that Madame Cézanne was on his walls.15 Stein was not, as some detractors have stated, buying and selling art during the occupation. The Cézanne was the only work she sold.
In Wars I Have Seen Stein mentions the generosity of Paul Genin, and she also writes that a young member of the Swiss legation in Lyon, François Lachenal, a friend of Tavernier’s, arranged in February 1944 for Stein and Toklas to obtain a Passeport de Protection. This document declared them to be temporary residents in France and therefore entitled to enter Switzerland. The “Passeport” was never used. She speaks, too, about seeing the “mountain boys” — members of the maquis. Raymond Godet, a neighbor of Stein’s in the country and a leader of a resistance group in Grenoble, told me when I spoke with him in 1969, that when he attended the performance of Stein’s two children’s plays on August 29, 1943, at the Château de Béon (his sons Mark and Maurice were in the plays), he spoke to Stein of the willingness of his group to help her escape France if it became necessary.16
Stein and Toklas returned to Paris in mid-December 1944. It was only after their arrival that they learned from Picasso and others that two Gestapo agents entered their apartment on July 19, 1944 with authorization to search for papers. They showed the concierge photographs and demanded to know how these two Jewish women had remained in their apartment. While the Gestapo searched the apartment, the concierge sent her son down the street to alert Picasso. Picasso immediately telephoned to Faÿ at his office in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The Gestapo returned the next day, and before they left they took a small footstool that Toklas had embroidered after a watercolor by Picasso, some pieces of silver, and some linen. They threatened to return in a few days to confiscate the pictures. As documents seized in Faÿ’s office when he was arrested on August 19, 1944 reveal, he alerted two different German agencies and insisted that they each had authority over Stein’s pictures. By the time the Germans had begun to sort out under whose authority the collection fell, the Paris insurrection had begun and the Germans had more important things to think about. In a letter to Picasso written on July 31, 1944, Faÿ details the actions he took, and the specific people he spoke to.17
After his arrest, Faÿ was held in various prisons. His trial was held from November 29 to December 6, 1946. He was charged with an anti-Masonic crusade which provided the Germans with information on the Masons in France. Many of these men and women were brought into custody, charged with crimes and deported. Faÿ was not charged with their deaths or being involved in their deaths; the specific charge against him was giving aid to the enemy between June 16, 1940 and the date of the liberation of Paris. He was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. Stein, not being a French citizen, was not permitted to appear before the court. She did, however, give a deposition on March 14, 1946 to Faÿ’s attorney, Maitre Chresteil in which she spoke of her relationship with Faÿ and her knowledge of his devotion to Franco-American relations. She also credited him with saving her art collection. The two page testimony was sent to the court on April 12, 1946. In numerous court documents Faÿ is credited with saving many “Israelites” — in particular Gertrude Stein, and his role in saving her art collection is also cited in several documents submitted to the court as proof of his loyalty to France and his willingness to help Jews.
After Stein’s death, Alice Toklas continued efforts to have Faÿ’s sentence reduced or commuted. On September 30, 1951, with the help of friends, notably Toklas, Faÿ escaped from prison. He went first to Spain and then to Fribourg, Switzerland, where he lived under an assumed name and, under the protection of the Catholic Church, worked in schools. In 1958, he was pardoned by the then Minister of Justice, François Mitterand, and allowed to return to France.18
In the aftermath of the defeat of 1940, Gertrude Stein, like many people in France, at first took an attentiste position — placing their faith in Pétain to steer France to better days. She was not, by any interpretation of the facts, a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership,” as Alan Dershowitz has asserted in a May 1, 2012 posting, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art.”19 In “Gertrude Stein: September 1942 to September 1944” in the Stein-Wilder letters, Ulla Dydo and I address the Lansing Warren interview with Stein which appeared in the New York Times Magazine of May 6, 1934, in which she said, “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize” (see Stein / Wilder, 414) and the denial by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo that Stein nominated Hitler for the peace prize. Stein’s knowledge of the Gestapo raid on an orphanage in the village of Izieu, about twenty kilometers from Belley, and thirty kilometers from Culoz, in which forty-four Jewish children (ages four to seventeen) and their seven supervisors were seized and sent to death camps, was raised in response to Janet Malcolm’s second article about Stein and Toklas in The New Yorker. Malcolm spoke with Joan Chapman about what Stein might and might not have known at the time. Chapman’s intimate relationship with Stein and Toklas during the last years of the war is a reliable source of information about this tragic moment. Only a handful of people knew about the orphanage in Izieu and the Jewish children hidden there — it could only work if it was a well-kept secret. The horror of the deportation only became widely known after the war. To suggest as Dershowitz does, that Stein had knowledge of what was happening in Izieu, is to fabricate a situation in which Stein was kept informed by some Nazi network of all they were planning.20
In this essay I have emphasized that that Bernard Faÿ is not the only thread in the complex tapestry of Stein’s life during the occupation. I have provided information which calls into question Dershowitz’s description of “Stein’s ignoble role in the Nazi occupation of France.” Stein’s survival during the war was aided to a significant degree by the people of the Bugey who respected her as a friend and did acts large and small to provide for her well-being. The admiration for Stein’s work, as evidenced by her friendship with active members of the French resistance and by those whose publications stood for resistance to fascism are key, and too often overlooked, facts.21
Editor’s note: We have included as part of the Stein dossier a document provided by Edward Burns: Marion Van Renterghem, “Edmund Charlot, éditeur du monde libre,” in Le Monde, February 28, 1997 (“The sign of true wealth, the adventure began in 1936, Algeria: A bookstore, a publishing house, a place of resistance, led by a man of daring, discoverer of Camus, Lorca, Gertrude Stein … ”): [PDF]
1. Stein and Toklas moved from 27 rue de Fleurus in March 1938 to the rue Christine, a street one block long between the rue Dauphine and the rue des Grands Augustins (Picasso lived and had his studio at No. 7).
2. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, introduction to Gertrude Stein’s Painted Lace and Other Pieces [1914–1937] (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955, Volume 5 of the Yale Edition of the Unpublished Writings of Gertrude Stein, ix–xviii, see particularly xvii–xviii).
3. Stein’s complex relationship with Faÿ has been explored in a number of books: see Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo, eds., The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, Appendix IX (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 401–21. See also Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), and Antoine Compagnon, Le Cas Bernard Faÿ: du Collège de France à l’indignité nationale (Paris: Gallimard, 2009). Another useful source of information about Faÿ is Martine Poulain’s Livres pillés, lectures surveillées. Les bibliothèques françaises sous l’Occupation (Paris: Gallimard, 2008). Faÿ writes about his relationship with Stein in his memoir, Les Précieux (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1966).
5. It is important to remember that denunciation sent the poets Robert Desnos and Max Jacob (a Jew who converted to Catholicism) to German death camps. After the Liberation, collaborationist authors were denounced and old scores were settle in trials which resulted in about 1,600 death sentences and 38,000 prison terms. The CNE, Comité national des écrivains (CNE, National Writer’s Committee) established blacklists of collaborationist writers and boycotted any publication that accepted their work. My research has not uncovered any mention of an investigation into Stein’s activities during the war, nor have I located documents which advocated retaliation against her.
6. Dominique Saint-Pierre’s Gertrude Stein, le Bugey, la guerre: d’août 1924 à décembre 1944 (Bourg-en-Bresse, France: Musnier-Gilbert Éditions, 2009) is a meticulously researched account of Stein’s life in this region (once she rented the house in Bilignin, she usually left Paris in May and returned in October).
7. Faÿ’s letters to Stein are in the Gertrude Stein-Alice B. Toklas Papers, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (usually cited as YCAL, the Yale Collection of American Literature).
8. Stein’s Introduction is printed in full in Burns and Dydo, eds. The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, 406–8.
9. Stein’s only publication in a Vichy-sponsored journal was her “La Langue Française,” in Patrie: Revue Mensuelle illustrée de l’Empire (August 10, 1941), 36–7. The magazine was edited in Vichy and in Algeria. In YCAL there are cables from Jean Masson, the editor in Vichy, asking Stein for a photograph. She sent one of her by Carl Van Vechten and the other of her on the terrace at Bilignin which they used and labeled as Stein in her home on Long Island (“dans sa maison de Long-Island, près de New York”). Whether this was a deliberate error I do not know.
10. The most comprehensive study of French publishing during the occupation is Pascal Fouché’s L’Édition Française Sous l’Occupation, 1940–1944 (Paris: Bibliothèque de Littérature française contemporaine de l’Université Paris 7, 1987); this work is part of a series, the numbers for Fouché’s volumes are 3 and 4. Fouché includes reproductions of all of the Liste OTTO as appendices in his first volume (#3 in the series). The Liste Bernhard is named after a German general who, while visiting in Paris, found books hostile to Germany on sale. He prepared a list of these books, and on August 27 and 28, German soldiers, aided by French police, visited publishers, book stores, and libraries to remove them (see Fouché, #3, his Vol. I, pp. 287–90 for a facsimile of the list (in citing the lists I follow the French “Liste.”). The first “Liste OTTO” was issued in September 1940, it was followed by a second list issued on July 8, 1942; the third and final list of undesirable books was published on May 10, 1943. These lists are also reproduced in Fouché (291–347). The background to the lists is given in Fouché’s chapter, “Les Listes d’Interdiction,” –44 (volume #3, his first volume).
11. Details of the specific works can be found in Robert A. Wilson, Gertrude Stein: A Bibliography (Rockville, MD: Quill & Brush, 1994).
12. Charlot was a key figure in French letters, his career as a publisher and his courageous work during the occupation are detailed in Michel Puche’s Edmond Charlot, éditeur, Preface by Jules Roy (Pezenas, France: Domens, 1995).
13. On November 3, 1944, a month before she returned to Paris, Stein was invited by René Tavernier to Lyon to give a lecture, “An American and France.” It was probably at this time that she met Barbezat and arranged for him to translate and to publish the essay. [Ed. note: see, in the Stein dossier, Marion Van Renterghem, “Edmund Charlot, éditeur du monde libre,” in Le Monde, February 28, 1997 (The sign of true wealth, the adventure began in 1936, Algeria: A bookstore, a publishing house, a place of resistance, led by a man of daring, discoverer of Camus, Lorca, Gertrude Stein …): [pdf]
14. Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under the Nazi Occupation by Robert O. Paxton, Olivier Corpet, and Claire Paulhan is the essential volume on this subject (New York: Five Ties Publishing, 2009). The book was published in connection with an exhibition at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street organized by the Library, the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC), and with the cooperation of the Mémorial de Caen. The catalogue presents a nuanced view of literary life under the occupation. Paxton and his colleagues point out that many writers resorted to double lives, working for an official agency during the day and engaging in clandestine activities in the evening. Mrs. Robert Antelme (Marguerite Duras) worked during the day for the agency which allotted paper to publishers. Robert Desnos was employed by the German-sponsored newspaper Aujourd’hui, nevertheless permission to publish his Le Vin est tire was refused.
15. In 1952 de Hauke sold the painting to Emile G. Bührle, the Czech industrialist living in Zurich.
16. Lachenal later founded Éditions des Trois Collines.
17. The trial documents in Faÿ’s case are in the Archives Nationale, Paris.
18. Barbara Will’s book, cited earlier, traces Faÿ’s life in Switzerland. Toklas’s role in selling art works to raise money for Faÿ’s escape is documented in my essay, “Alice Toklas and the Gertrude Stein Collection, 1946–1967” in The Steins Collect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 259–65.
19. I received his statement in an e-mail from a friend.
20. See Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, 182–84. Dershowitz argues that the Metropolitan Museum gives a false explanation of how Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust, and that it “failed to point a finger of blame [for Izieu] at collaborators such as Stein, who made it possible.”
21. I find it curious that Barbara Will, who discusses at length Stein’s brief article which appeared in the Vichy picture magazine Patrie, does not discuss Stein’s appearances in either Confluences or Fontaine.
Poetic engagements with the Holocaust must overcome the argument that language cannot portray the inhumanity of the Nazis’ actions. Poetry must challenge its traditionally humanist pose in order to respond to the dehumanizing Shoah. Poetry can either concentrate on the highly personal — which runs the risk of reducing the scale of the events — touching the reader with the retelling of individual testimony, or it can try and reform language to find a new means of expressing the inexpressible.
Heimrad Bäcker (1925–2003) renounced his former membership of the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party after World War II. He spent the remainder of his life as a poet, editor, and intellectual as a means of confronting his own involvement in how the Nazis used language itself as a means of propagating the Holocaust. Bäcker was a member of the Hitler Youth’s Press and Photography Office before he worked as editor of the Austrian avant-garde press Neue Texte. His Hitler Youth employment exposed him to the anaesthetized prose of the Nazi’s intricate documentation of their Final Solution.
Theodor Adorno’s dictum that all poetry after Auschwitz is immoral embodies the crisis of poetics following the Holocaust. How is European poetry to situate itself? In the Holocaust much literature was as defiled as the authors who had written it; poetry and prose were brought to unwitting service of a culture’s destruction. With Nachschrift (1986) Bäcker poetically argues that the best way to engage with the language of the Holocaust is to present it baldly, without editorializing and without personal intercession. Nachschrift is finally available in English translation as transcript (Dalkey Archive, 2010, translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling).
transcript is a collection of page after mostly empty page, interrupted by brief, aphoristic (strictly documented) quotations from internal Nazi memoranda, private letters and reports presented in the banal, toneless language of bureaucracy. Bäcker referred to his style as dokumentarische dichtung (documentary poetry) and where he revised the original text, every detail is acknowledged in eerie echo of the precision of the source authors.
Bäcker created transcript without knowledge of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975). Reznikoff used a similar compositional strategy but drew from survival testimony at the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Both books are bereft of traditionally poetic language. Reznikoff ’s, however, mines testimony for the stuff of poetry — prosaic sentences with poetic line breaks that testify to traumatic experience. Bäcker rejects the testimony in favor of the corporate, but transcript is as emotionally engaging as any humanist confession. The vast majority of transcript could be excerpted from any obsessively documented corporation pleading for increased shipments where “the times on the train schedule correspond to the hours of the day 0-24” (28) when “it is very difficult at the moment to keep the liquidation figure at the level maintained up to now” (52).
As a forerunner of contemporary conceptual poetry, transcript displays how potent and emotional the corporate can be — and how language simultaneously veil and unveils. Bäcker’s involvement in the Nazi party is implicitly the subject of transcript. His sentence is the Sisyphean task of sifting and resifting banal primary documentation in search of the poetic in the unspeakable.
On Diane Ward
Never without (or) a sensible world, a sentence (or) here
we move in constant this (or) so life is a word
Diane Ward —
On Duke Ellington’s Birthday / np / nd
Trop-I-Dom / Jawbone / 1977
The Light American / Jawbone / 1979
Theory of Emotion / Segue Foundation & O Press / 1979
YES / As Is/So & So / 1983
Never Without One / Roof / 1984
Being Another — Locating In the World / A*bacus / 1986
Relation / Roof / 1989
Crossing / A*bacus / 1990
Imaginary Movie / Potes & Poets / 1992
Human Ceiling / Roof / 1995
Portraits & Maps / ML & NLF / 2000
Portrait As If Through My Own Voice / Margin to Margin /2001
When You Awake / Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs / 2006
Flim-Yoked Scrim / SSSSSSS / 2006
No List (no list) / Seeing Eye Books / 2008
untitled collaboration between Jane Sprague, Diane Ward, Tina Darragh / Belladonna / 2009
A sharp incidence of the personal. Always sharpened / honed / forced (forced) to tell (forced to tell).
But here the personal is elegiac. The ancient Greeks / where a person could keep-time with a person (or with another person) and (and) with the gods. And where / from time-to-time (instance to instance) that god might be an other person.
This is the inverted other / the other that is the self. One’s / own / self.
It is by a maximum of one’s-knowing-of-one’s-self / of her (her) of her self (of her self).
Such that to be a self (any / one / self) is to begin / and to begin again.
Everything rolls to find its own conclusion — everything rolls in order to find its own temporary (its own temporary) conclusion. Words roll.
The world already has synaesthesia in it. The world already has lacunae in it. To recognize them / to give them a place in words — that is what this poetry does. Along with the ephemeral and the essential nodes of the (of any) day.
The smallest things can seem sensual and discrete. The smallest things can seem sensuous and discrete. Can be (be (can be)) sensuous and discrete.
Yet nothing exists outside the mind. Yet nothing (yet nothing of the eye-sort) exists outside the mind’s-eye.
In Diane’s language it is made discreet. So bold / so apparent / so honest and truthful / so so (really) / that in Diane’s language it is all made discreet.
It’s hard to hold any-single-poem in the mind alone. In that sense (in-that-sense-in-and-among-others) the poem is outside the mind (way (?) outside the mind) / and the poem sings its way between. The poem mediates between us and the world — (I suppose that’s been apparent for a long (for a-long-long) time.
The words surround the other words / so that (it’s in that way that) the whole poem grows / and (so) cannot possibly (cannot possibly) be a thing within the mind.
And in the telling a-something is created that we then want to move into and in and through / in a way so-as-to-come-to-be-there-too (so-as to understand / to grow).
Air begins to plow outside as
brightness comes into focus & still & in the room a gray
mostly loudness of recognition. Movement means a place to
move from: a heavy gray that won’t erase. A thick line that
Each of her poems is (we feel) a piece of research. In that way it (neatly) avoids what might have been otherwise merely-confessional (I’m writing this here to forestall anyone’s half-reading leading to the otherwise). Wake up. Diane is waking you up. This is a frightful bit-of-freshness going-around-here / finding-out what-it-itself is / is not. In ways that make the language freshly-moved-over / fervently-uncovered / far-from-the-merely-quotidian (the-merely-mundane). A distinction isn’t easy to unmake.
The language is made to be exaggerated — that’s how it contains. Diane’s lines always seem to be fixing themselves / to be in-the-process-of-getting-it-right (of making-it) / such that rightness is (after-all) trueness to that line itself. Lines of thought / replete with feeling — such that the two are occasioned / are occasioned to be not-two. Thought/feeling = feeling/thought — that kind of way of thinking-(about)-it.
Everything begins with a noun.
A noun is a verb.
Sometimes this adds up (in a chunk (in a chunk of words)) to what’s-almost-a-novel / or like a good bit-of-something out of Shikibu or Shonagon (Diane’s peers). In-other-words / you could take instructions from these words / and sort-of-act-them-out (you could make them be you). And that’s an accomplishment that few have demanded / and that fewer may claim.
Poetry is a way of thinking.
In that way it preceded metaphysics.
Poetry (I’m writing about what-I’m-reading) sort of moves the person through space / and then that movement is (the-making-of) that poem.
The words come-to-have-meaning in the-process-of-the-person-writing-coming-to-be-that-person. The-music-of-the-poem is what-the-person-overhears-(themselves-making)-as-they-become-the-person-making-that-poem. It’s all singular — everything is singular (not spread-out (as with some other poets)). I’m the confiscated tactile agent of / reductive aesthetics.
We all become our own memory / given enough time. That’s all that’s left of us / when we die. [ I don’t mean the-memories-that-others-have-of-us — I mean that we turn into our own (own (our own)) memories / and that is what happens when we die. ] Poets do this all-the-time / (earlier) / when they write. It can be a graceful thing / such-a-graceful-thing-to-behold (to be held-by).
Going into one of Diane’s poems / and then coming back out of it / is (like) going into a breath (into a breath (into one breath)) and then coming back out of it (back out of the breath). It’s (like) breathing.
It’s just time passing / even if it is poetry that’s filling it up. Time to rub them out. Time / considers what gets close & rubs them out. Time is an affect — poetry is an effect. Take that.
Diane makes us look each object / each action — in-the-face. She insists on it. Then you can read the next word — then you get to read the next word. The next line. The next work. Like that.
It’s like with photographs of a person (one’s self (self)) the big thing is attitude — that’s what makes the photo stick. It’s the same with Diane’s poems / except that here (except that there) the photographs are the poems and the things are the words and phrases / and it’s the attitude that makes that (that (that makes that)) stick (stick (that makes that stick)).
In this way (in these ways) the words (come to) build over and on (onto (and onto)) themselves / waves coming at and on a beach (and who / can / tell / which / act / apart? from which). Miniscule amounts of thought make big words move over the page — and out-of-it-all (and out of it all) come the interstices and the interjections and the inter-lacings that (later) make us act. Poetry changes the way we act.
She details the space with words. So the space won’t forget. The words stick — they’re made to stick — that gives them a plastic sort-of-presence (the same sort-of-presence that made them be there (here)).
Her words are peculiarly complete in-the-way-she-does-this (in-the-way-she’s-done-this). They stand as a marker for-that-action (so what’s new?) / but in a-strident-sort-of-way / meaning that they are redolent with her personality (which the-words describe). They are gentle-and-tender but also ardent-and-tough — they don’t mask anything — they create the world in which they find their-own-fulfillment — they cough — they live outright in front of you — they go on — they come back — they are sweet (but-they-cannot-be-taken-advantage-of) — they are strong (and will withstand repeated-dustings). Diane isn’t the-way-that-she-is as-a-result-of-saying-it — she is what she is as (as (she is what she is as (as))) saying it (as saying it).
This language is not a code for something else. A code for something else. This language is not something else. This language is this language.
[ You would think that you could say that about all writing. ]
Diane’s presence comes out of the work.
You spent those
first three weeks in bed alone & the next decade recovering.
You had a five year view from the window. You had
history at your heels.
Diane’s words are evidence of Diane’s unvarying (and unwavering) attention. They are evidence of her attention to the details (and to the-details-as-words) of her lived life.
This attention gives-rise-to sorts of information (about what we call the-world) —
Tomorrow gets familiar soon. Andy Warhol uses Marilyn Monroe’s lips to illustrate mob rule. Loneliness is cumulative. Surplus desolation increases desire to the point of surplus desire one you can stare into for hours.
Little intentional forays into (via) attention / and coming back (sometimes “bloodied” no-doubt) / with the goods (information-to-live-by).
The poetry then (the-forms-of-the-poetry) is about how long these things all took / is about registering (accurately (it goes without saying)) how long these things took / what they felt like / where there were apertures and the like / textures of things and experiences / the way things work / fit together / and (again) how long the bits of this experiencing took (this is where line breaks e.g. come from (come in)).
Words overlap (over lap) sometimes / so that phrases are unnecessary (in the sense of phrases-being-made-separate-one-from-another) / so that instead the sense of the thing can kind-of-run-on — meaning does (does (meaning does)) get-away-from-us at times (which helps us keep it / not lose it). And chunks of language are used to show us how-those-chunks-relate-to-the-world — they’re built up / they build up — and the chunks survive as evidence of all that motion (they contain within-them words-that-contain-all-that-motion).
The words come alive — they’re the actors in a play. The words are alive / so that this-writing-them comes them alive again (on top of / in) that aliveness (an algebraic insistence of life upon life). So that gradually (and then less-rather-than-more-gradually) the words come alive as life — and they act.
A writing-like-this is a sharp inducement to change.
What-kind-of-change? To change this kind of writing / to let this-kind-of-writing be the-kind-that-changes-itself (all-the-time).
To do one thing and one thing only. To do one-thing and one-thing-only. That is not to do two things. To do one-thing-and-one-thing-only. This writing is the instance of its own feeling / its own way-of-being-in-the-world (as (as) feeling (as feeling)).
Diane’s writing conveys the affection she feels for her writing’s words. reversed estrangement
Diane’s writing (this (this “this”)) is a kind-of givenness. Not that it is given (the-given) / (as-opposed-to-that-which-can-not-be-taken-for-granted) — it is its own givenness.
It is given by Diane.
A slice-off-the-ordinary (the quotidian) is taken / and given up / as such. And / as more than that / it abides.
Each moment is shared. A kind-of-quietness. Each moment of the-writing. As-such / and / not-as-such. In that way / nothing is given.
She sweeps the world clear-of-what-doesn’t-matter / with each word that does.
I might recommend
a stay away from ghosts that love you
of incomplete mistakes.
I might have been maudlin for
I probably will, my mannerisms attest. You cut easy,
great figure, no longer mind.
I wake up alone think of you and I feel worn.
I back into this (kind of) language / hoping to find there the-kind-of-language-that-will-sustain-me-there — and I find it.
It’s so strong it aches.
She has so-much-to-say that the language can hardly contain it. It swells with that. It speaks / out. Free-of-itself / for that-moment — but (in-that-way) never free-of-us. Diane’s language speaks us.
The voice bears down (a wrench / tightening).
And the words come on / quick-as-verbs. All-of-them (quick as verbs).
The world begins to conform to writing that’s this strong.
The mind thinks emotions. Emotions think the mind. There’s no lateral-hand-off that doesn’t have a feeling in it / that isn’t replete with feelings. Feelings come over the top / a word at a time.
A statement doesn’t have to be long.
Diane’s writing takes place inside space — the space of the city / the space of rooms / the space(s) between people / the-spaces-we-carry-around-inside-ourselves.
Grammar is a kind of space (too). There’s ample evidence Diane is aware of that.
Everything has a mind of its own.
Everything grows into everything else. The language places this beside and then/or into and/or through that — these things being the things the language makes happen (some of them are nouns — some of them are like-nouns — some of them are other-parts-of-speech (some-of-which-are-parting) — some of them are elusive-language-moves (some of which have other-elusive-language-moves in-them)).
It’s as if all-the-experiences-are-thrown-up-into-the-air and come-down-as-words — in that way they have a-kind-of-geography as they chart the-architecture-of-the-space — they’re grand / and elusive / at the same time. And then the words are propped up / using-with-and-against other words — so that they create new (new) architectures in new (new) geometries of the mind’s-spaces-and-times (on the page).
The 2009 Los Angeles Station Fire. Photo by Diane Ward.
These are real words — they live in real spaces — you can see them with your real eyes. I mean they’re out there and they occupy space / and that’s how they get-to-you. And in that these all occur over time / they make a kind of novel (a kind of novel space in your mind).
Where the word which wasn’t interesting belongs as redefinition.
Where speed replaces the idea and becomes it.
Internal is categorically beautiful bombing as we expected them
whole sentences erupt up and fall.
Headlong, concrete piece by concrete piece a sight or irrational pleasure.
Heading away to detail and immediacy.
Another form is untouchable and moves a cage into softness.
A wooden syntax of shadow forms a pillar of its own.
A highly syntax confusing both image and word and detail and notation.
A shape which is rounded off so that corners fall away.
Blank and another ordering attention paying off.
Blank intensity stares.
The words promise that we will have to face ourselves. It’s a confrontation that’s being made / in-that-Diane’s-lived-(written)-by-confronting-herself. So this begets a-kind-of-eagerness / but nothing that goes too fast. The words are staid — they stay (put).
Ideas come in the form of words. So / alright — we already know that. So we have to manufacture more-words (more-ideas) to protect ourselves. There’s a war going on. It’s made up of words.
Diane’s response is to confront (all) this head-on / usually with a great deal of gentleness. Gentleness is her strength — and her-saying-so is how-we-get-to-know-it. Her-saying-so also helps us — it helps us all survive all-of-that. The war of the words.
Thinking (and writing and feeling) occurs over time — and this is really-just-a-definition-(a-partial-definition)-of-time. It’s thinking and writing and feeling that make time — they make time happen / they occur-over-time / they make time be. Grammar is the lived-way-this-happens.
Reading Diane’s writing / the mind becomes attuned to it / and in-such-a-way-that-it-anticipates-(it-begins-to-anticipate)-it. A word will form in the mind of the reader / and bling! / there-it-is. A world will form in-the-mind-of-the-reader / and bling! / there it is. This is an indication that the writing is thinking-itself-going-forward / that it is in-this-way (creating (that it is in this way creating)) itself (itself-being-itself-becoming itself). This is also an indication that the writing is creating the reading.
All of her writing questions living.
All of her writing questions are living.
Diane’s writing project is inclusive / exhaustive. It makes out of words the kinds of details that other peoples (naturalistic novelists e.g.) made out of images (of visual-facts-piled-on-facts). The difference (it-being-done-with-words) is one of degree (for-the-most-part) — things are delegated their particularity / they’re made to stand in-with-and-among other-such-things / and that particularity swells to completeness (to a-kind-of-on-going-completeness (i.e. never done (done (never complete)))). Thorough.
But it’s done (in-a-way) by taking time out of it / by taking time out-of-what-happens / and then (in the writing) by putting it back-in (as grammar) — it’s done in the grammar (of the event (of the-writing-event)).
Maybe this will clarify what I mean.
Sometimes stories emerge — sometimes stories (actually) emerge. And some of them have the obduracy of fact we’ve come to expect from-that —
Once a man fell asleep in his lover’s closet, obsessed with the smell and feel of the empty clothes.
And then there are the ones (and-there-are-a-lot-of-them) where the words are (appropriately) the-actors-in-the-scenes —
A story: one eleven year tear goes unmentioned, one French phrase rolled around in the mind goes unsaid, finally a tiny figure in the clear confusion of middle ground goes away.
Nothing is left undone.
Of course there was nothing to-be-done in-the-first-place. That’s why it had to be done. No one else could have done it. No one else did.
Afterwards this woman exploded because of what she hadn’t said.
Diane’s beautiful essay / Being Another — Locating in the World / relates for us the actions involved for her (by her) in the creating of the world of her writing. Those actions involve perceptions / (in fact) they begin with perceptions / and with an-awareness-of-those-perceptions / and with an-awareness-of-beginning-in-an-awareness-of-those-perceptions. Then the mind makes thinking-feeling / and words / and the work. The primacy of perception in her thinking-explanation is similar to the status accorded it by Merleau-Ponty (in-particular-among-the-phenomenologists). It also has things closely-in-common with Buddhist psychology’s explanation of perception-phenomena — there are / the thing perceived / the perceiving organ / the perceiving sense (that-which-controls-the-organ-and-mediates-between-it-and-the-mind) / (and) there is the mind — these things go-together-to-make perception-of-phenomena possible (with the absence of any one of them / there is no perception / and (in-a-very-real-sense) no phenomena (either)).
She also writes here repeatedly about the object / the-object-of-the-perception that becomes the-object-of-the-writing — and sometimes she uses the figure of a sphere to represent (to substantiate) that object — in-this-way she shows us that she goes-back-to Plato-and-to-his-forms / that writing is a way out of the cave.
I’m not suggesting that Diane owes a debt to these other thinkers / and certainly not that-they-are-needed-in-any-way-as-a-frame-for-her-ideas. But / accepting-them-as-simply-there-(off-to-the-side-(as-it-were)) / we might also want to consider Berkeley / whose statement to be is to be perceived might more-accurately-find-a-home-among-Diane’s-words-as to-be-is-to-perceive. His ideas about the relative nature of perceived-reality / and his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision both bear fruitful consideration in relation to the-ideas-that-Diane’s-writing-puts-forth.
Her essay should be read in its entirety. I will quote some-substantial-chunks-of-it to give a sense of its breadth / its motion(s) / and its substance.
I wonder where I am, I’m without any object. I’m alone, without another, in the selfishness of solitude, the power of solitude. From here, to see is to control. To choose sight is to choose a picture, a frame placed in neat relation to my face giving it substance, meaning. The feet, knees, and organs don’t see this, they are victims of sight. My sight becomes an assault on the world, the world is whatever I see.
Carefully, I eliminate everything, each word, then each possible meaning of each word, until I have what I want. I choose to control all the words I’ve employed. I choose this word to indicate that, this to indicate this, I ignore the worlds absolution, contentment, July because they’re not in my world. These have nothing to do with a view from a window. This isn’t urban writing, though it could be. Tomorrow, in five minutes, absolution, contentment, and July may exist for me, be fitted neatly into the world of what I’m writing. I’m not writing something that’s necessarily artificial — because it will never again exist like this or because it will change. For the moment whatever I imagine, whatever I include, is real, time being controlled.
Breathe, so you can breathe again. I bother to look, to represent, to describe, to react in writing. I want this to occur again, I want to write again. To do, so it may point to what I don’t know, I’ve never thought possible, what I don’t understand. I’m writing the most imperfect text, it seems to go against what I admire, my aspirations, what I know to be correct, to “work”. But things happen. It becomes logical in its own right, in a way I didn’t anticipate. It has a will, it must be mine, an undeniable will to perpetuate and evolve. I’ve somehow made it exist, I’ve felt its presence and then articulated it. …
As I write this, I rely on an order to present itself. I’ve ordered and reordered material fractured from other sources so I may get to this point, the starting point. I will name this and presumably it will have qualities that justify its name. New relationships will begin to present themselves, will sneak in, even will themselves in. The order I seek to identify may pass me by, sail over my head, elude my words. This writing may remain, to my understanding, disorderly, nonsensical; I’ll abandon it as unsuccessful. If I’m inattentive, if I don’t recognize where I am, where my words are, then I fail.
Nothing remains the same, not my body, not my work, body of work.
The object may have nothing to do with me. I subject it to scrutiny, criticism from the possibilities I recognize within me. I stop, integrity belongs to both objects, it and me. Not able to be with it, not able to get inside it, to become it except in a superficial and false way. We’re always apart; I examine it from outside, from where I am, compared to what I am, my weight to its weight.
In the absence of other minds, I force myself into conversational contortions. I contain them actually or potentially. My ability to understand allows me to explore, to place myself in several different positions: that of my social self, my private self, my desirous self — that is, the self I desire to exist. And further, my social self is at times telling jokes, at times demanding payment for work; my private self is variously at ease or in turmoil; I see my potential self at times clearly and at other times vaguely or with many faults. These other selves are my objects in writing. I use these objects metaphorically; that is, they’re not for me exclusively to possess but for the world I write in and about to possess, to become or reject, most importantly to examine, to allow to exist.
Each time, I create something new, maybe something less successful, even these self-defined failures are an addition, an improvement on my understanding, my ability to choose. The creative act itself perpetually becomes new and so changes its relation to whatever I’ve written, whatever I’ve read before. This new relationship between what I do when I write (considerations) and what I write (resolution) changes continually
First, primary, thought is feeling; second, an explanation of feeling.
This isn’t automatic writing, it’s not something that “goes through” me, I’m not its vessel. I feel excited and purposeful, I also feel a little sloppy.
I see only a detail of the object. What its entire, complete shape is, I can only imagine. Whether I can imagine, picture, its wholeness is something I think about. The possibilities of knowing the whole through only a small glimpse of a part, are endless and dependant upon my imagination, my ability to suspend or expand truths, to imagine where the object’s detail could lead, what it could indicate.
I’m responsible for what I see. I’m responsible now for the object’s reputation and representation. I’ve committed myself to its welfare, I’m sympathetic to it. I must not feel destructive, or if I do, I mustn’t confuse my urge with the object’s existence. I must remain committed to feeling and a true rendering of feeling. If I see the object as threatening to me, to my world, if it contradicts what I understand as ‘correct,’ I must continually examine the ‘new’ object that asserts itself, its affect on me, the ‘new’ me, our new relationship. Then I’ll rearrange accordingly.
I must know exactly how I affect my world and how the world affects me.
I’m being generous to myself (with myself) in-quoting-from-her-essay-at-this-length / because it is so-beautiful-an-addition to those-words-that-come-otherwise-from-my-self. At the same time / Diane’s essay is a-critique-of-all-that-I’m-(myself)-writing-about-her-writing — I hope I am making it clear that if you could just read Diane’s essay that would be enough / my words could then go away / could then do something else. This is what-I-have-to-offer.
When reading / thoughts about it come (as if) from elsewhere — the key.
The reality is the it / the-it-that’s-being-read. That it — not this it. That-it turns into this-it / a sort of aside in the passage of life / the-passage-that-we-refer-to-as-forward-(forward-(as-forward)). And it’s all (it’s all (and it’s all)) done with words.
This all means that few words must do the-work-of-many-words / that will remain (that will-to-remain).
lore of other, knife-scored night
given forever, no tranquil edge in sight
collusion’s conformity, petals
wrapped tight, form itself
I, fumbled in speech, embody shadow,
deface a self, out-of-body in love
guarded wealth lines the street — Go Home
fingers, page, turbo greeded gaze
And sometimes (some times) it takes a long time — which means that we all get slowed down a bit / that we all have to learn to take it slow (before we stop). A few words take place over a long time — this is just-another-way-of-saying-that only what must be said must be said.
A neologism isn’t a new word — it’s a new world. And that’s just because sometimes-you-get-to-a-place-where-something-new-has-to-be-said (where-some-new-world-demands-to-be-said). And the rhythming-motions of creating-lines is just that / is part-of-the-way-of-making-that-happen.
To the extent that a poetic text is difficult / that difficulty is a promised contract with the reader / stating that the-reading-of-that-text will be worth it. This is a contract which Diane always keeps.
Often it has to do with the (a) body’s posture in space — the poem is the articulation of that stance into sound. In this way (in this slight way?) what-could-have-been-left-unsaid / isn’t. Writing is always the residue of a body.
Often there’s an elegiac tone. Obviously what’s-spoken is already-passed (what’s-written / as-well). So how can we not feel that longing that that entails? We cannot / not.
And always to say anything (to-say-anything) involves a terrible holding back (holding-back (a-terrible-holding-back)) / in that so much is (somehow) (almost miraculously) being prevented from being said (being-prevented-from-being-said). This restraint can seem coy / but it is meek. This then is its potential (this restraint is).
Leaving things out means a quickening-up. The poems thus teach us to leap-about over and past the lines (at times) / such that even when the lines move slowly (are (all-but) nailed-down) / still they can demand that we move quickly from them (from-one-to-another) in a way that we move through them. This is a common effect in these poems — we are its affect.
at the end of delight, one
who or that which revolves
more than chests have
to heave “… where gold,
dirt, and blood flow
together”! : margins
the family, not personal
the scale of dignity
has no tears, and yet
I have no elevated
language for the moving
staircase, its components
denying to begin and to end
relentless and no language
for my body that jerks short
every floor submits ardently
physicality is me
We might learn from this / and state / that — it is the tense balance between quick moving over the poem and slow moving through the poem / that gives the poem its meanings (its multiple meanings).
[ A principal aim of this kind of writing (Alan’s) / this critical notice of what’s-already-been-written / is simply that it not-interfere-with-what’s-already-there. When it is complete(d) / it should provide an-uninterrupted-view-of-the-text / rather as-if-we-were-looking-down-a-(eg)-cylinder at the text (a cylinder that neither magnifies nor diminishes / nor-does-it-in-any-other-way-distort). ]
[ The words that I’m writing / and the words that Diane wrote / are all about Diane — but in different ways. Diane’s words give a-picture-of-Diane directly (“directly”) as Diane is seeing-herself-in-and-as-writing. My words are at-one-remove-from-that / they give a-picture-of-Diane-(indirectly)-as-she-is-seeing-herself-in-and-as-writing. My words are appropriated (from-her-experience) in a way that her words are not. So what is the use of my words — what is their purpose? Enthusiasm? Enthusiasm — perhaps nothing more (nothing more) than that (perhaps-nothing-more-than-that). ]
Much of Diane’s writing has to do with the-relationships-between-people / and with how-an-individual-responds-to-that — it has to do with feeling. She shows how sometimes the-feeling-goes-from-the-outside-(out-there)-in / and how sometimes it goes-from-the-inside-(in-here)-out — she also shows us that these two tracks (these two tentative tracks) of feeling sometimes converge / and sometimes emerge one-and-the-same / that feeling is what we live in (in (that-feeling-is-what-we-live-in)) — and then she goes on from there.
Hills near Tejon Pass, Southern California. Photo by Diane Ward.
Chunks of her writing are then sometimes (like) quick-takes-of-that / up-close-examination-of-the-quotidian-felt (the-not-so-out-of-the-ordinary-way-of-being-in-the-midst-of-feeling-things that makes us special (in-a-way)). These are feelings that have leached out of the space we inhabit — they contain us. Or is it leeched?
Affection viewed as affectation / and affectation as such — for example. We swim in a swamp of these misgivings (much of the time (I think)) / and Diane is showing them to us in the-nakedness-of-the-words-that-inhabit-them and in the-nakedness-of-the-words-that-they-inhabit — this is just sometimes / it’s not always like that. Feelings are used to glue the silences together / and also to open them up. In this way words work. Words suggest things / and Diane uses those-suggestions to show us in-the-way-how-words-work and-feelings-with-them (feelings right along with them).
A lot of poetry has to do with slowing-down (and (sometimes) with speeding-up) the language. The foot is on the treadle.
Always it is about what is meant. At least that is the way of things here / with Diane’s work.
When we’re reading we’re waiting to see what happens. That’s a large part of the experience of reading. In fiction the-what-happens has to do with narrative and plot and action and events-of-those-sorts. In poetry / the-what-happens is the next word. And the one after that. And the one after that. And-the-one-after-that.
In this sense / in poetry it has more to do with the-spaces-around-the words / and in prose it has more to do with the-spaces-within-the-words. But in other senses / that-would-have-to-be-reconsidered.
Diane is perhaps-most-concerned-with the-person-inside-and-about-all-that. She is concerned with the person’s clothing. She is concerned with the person’s human-relationships. And sometimes she is concerned with the-architectural-spaces (rooms-and-all-that) in which all of that takes place. She has the painter’s concern for (with) space (with spaces).
Human life creates a scene. She’s concerned with that.
It has to do also with how-she-sees-these-things / how the perceptions enter-into-the-world (how-we-might-experience-it-like-that) / come-into-contact-with-the-world / and take-from-the-world-those-things-that-then-become-living-as-thoughts-and-feelings. In this way here writing is always at-the-same-time philosophical / about how-we-know-the-world / about the-limits-of-that-as-possibility / and about how-doing-that-becomes-us (us as instance).
Poetry is a bodily function.
Diane often makes pictures of that. She makes brief-pictures-of-that-happening.
[ People sometimes argue (a-couple-of-people-about-whose-work-I’ve-written have argued) that my essay about their work could have been written about anybody’s-work. But I think that any thoughts given-rise-to by-the-work-one-is-reading are at least tangential to that work / and tell us something-significant about it. This text is in-dialogue-with-Diane’s work — and when you are reading it / it is in-dialogue-with-you-too / so that a multilogue erupts — and all that is written there / and all that is read there / is significant-in-and-with-relation-to all those things (beings) that are now conversing. ]
The mind (thoughts-&-feelings) goes into the poem / and comes out changed. That is why how-to-make-the-poem is a moral choice.
Diane’s poetry puts the reader where she is.
Sometimes the words seem to irradiate around a-thing-not-specified / (perhaps) a thing not (even) present. That thing would be what we would call the-subject-of-the-poem / but here it is more accurately an object (a place-holder for an object). It is (usually) an object of sense.
In cases like this the lines-of-the-poem can perform as a list. Each line refers back to that subject (to that-object) / while still going-about-its-“assigned”-business (the business of being that (that (of being that)) line (the business of being-that-line)). The lines then have-a-kind-of-strength where they begin / where they (as-it-were) stand out from (what-we-might-designate) a stalk — they swing out of that (they often swing clear (clear (swing clear)) of that) — (and) from there they go on. The meaning is then cumulative (being-arrived-at by the ongoing-downness-of-the-poem) as well as being flung out and away-from that-particular-downward-line-of-the-poem — these two conciliatory but abject (I mean being moved-away-from (left alone)) motions of the poem create a vortex that is perhaps (then) the-poem’s-real-meaning.
Diane’s poems impress themselves on you (upon you). The words are an impress — they bear the mark of her attention / and they bear that down on (upon) you. You are the impress of Diane’s poems.
Sometimes the words take back the words — that means that the words are tending-in-one-(in-some)-direction / and that is visible to you (the reader) / and then they shift and go off somewhere else / because they have been smitten by other words. Each poem is a language finding itself. Again / as gain (or is it as loss?).
Poetry precedes what it’s about. What it’s about comes later.
If there’s no about / then the whole thing quickens / becomes immediate / doesn’t-go-off-to-anywhere-else. Diane’s poetry is like this.
Everything makes a difference as-to-how-the-writing-comes-out — the writer specializes in these differences. They’re not really differences / they’re more like distinctions.
Other than being there, the images are of women. Women have mouths, eyes, some have two feet and hold pain closer by gazing upon it at arm’s length and in the narrative they speak to it and coddle it until it becomes really internalized, enlarging the definition of reflection. I have seen this as an act of self-denial and also of self for the purpose of discovering something unknown.
Writing takes things out of the alphabet — it uses them — it puts them back. Out of the glossary. The-glossary-of-all-available-words / plus-new-words — are these then two glossaries or one? Plus changed words? Two glossaries or three? Obviously each individual is the glossary their world makes of them / and then they (the writing individual / Diane) take that back-into-the-world. The world of language is neither inside of us nor outside of us. The world is neither inside of us nor outside of us. That is where it is (is (that is where it is)).
Often Diane is using the language to move people around / in it. This is what narrative does (in part) / and what Diane does is (in part) what-narrative-does. In her case / the language that she uses to do that is heightened by the-verve-and-stuff-she-imparts-to-it (in ways that narrative languages are quite (most) often not) / so that the people are almost flung-up-into-the-air (we might say) / they’re flung-up-into-the-air-of-the-languages-(of-all-the-available-languages). The people get kind-of-washed by the language (by all-that-language). You can see (easily-enough) that I’m having (that I find-that-I’m-having) to resort to metaphors to convey the ways the language has of handling the peoples in it.
Often the fact of being female has to be foregrounded / the power-struggles in (any?) relationship. Even the title / Portrait As If Through My Own Voice / lets us begin (makes-us-begin) to think about that — otherwise / why As If? The language has to (has-to-be-made-to) find a place in it (in its self) for the female as equal to the male — and wouldn’t it be good if we no longer had to even think about all-that? / just being. Diane’s language often tends toward that — it tends toward making that happen / recognizing that it has to ((has to) that it has to) happen (that it has to happen) in the language (where else?). It would be wonderful if everyone could simply-be-safe-to-be-who-they-are / but the language (as-it-is) isn’t letting that happen — the language is still owned by the men / with their male gods / and their male wars / and their men-are-better-than-women thinking embedded-in-them (as-in-the-language) / and all of that / going-on-and-on. The language has to fight back (has to fight that) / and here it does.
Finally he roared, “what are you really trying to say?” but it was tragic, it was inaudible. It was Stage I at last and she was stretching toward the floor, her head’s hair entangled in her eyelashes, in her studio. Lighting wired at every level so no doubt could escape its place within drowsiness. I’m fine, able to stand up, my needs are hanging from every corner of the man-made room, in high, high definition. It wasn’t just a question of how much more room Alfred Hitchcock took up than me. It was how to put myself between my child and the all powerful mind-meldiness of the Channel. Or whether that mattered, distraction being nine-tenths of the dream.
Change has to be narrated — that’s how it happens (that’s how it (largely) happens). We change the meanings of the words / the reality changes / all definitions being between things. It’s how-we-see-the-world makes the world. It goes on. It can’t go on.
Or in an image —
I thought earthquake
but it was a bird’s wings against a cage
movement with nowhere to go
against metal wire
or metal wire unable to allow movement
wire against air and us, our container
Or in this / said broadside / and at —
with no name, we’re not meant to be talking.
Saying that women have to fight to be heard (the volume level the ultimate definition) is not a figure of speech — it is an action which Diane’s writing begins to take (for-all-of-us).
Everything seems to be sliding off toward oblivion — that’s the way it is here (sometimes) in Diane’s world. Prose (her prose) takes us there faster sometimes — that’s the way it is in Diane’s poetry. It all comes-out-faster / but in a way to slow you down (too) so that you-notice-the-motes-of-time-drifting-off-from-the-tip-of-her-tongue. She finds herself in-her-writing (who-of-us doesn’t / or doesn’t-want-to (anyway)) / but in her case sometimes it’s a self in the way of being lost (that’s found) / and sometimes the self just-stays-right-there and you (you / reader) keep on being the one going on around it (as-you-read). Those are some of the ways that can be.
It’s as if she’s always-learning-something. It’s as-if-it’s-that-way because that’s-the-way-it-is. You can viscerally feel Diane learning things (about herself (say)) as you read her-writing-her-poems. She writes them that way.
It’s a present oblivion (though) that things-are-always-seeming-to-be-sliding-off-toward. It’s always very-much-the-present where things are happening in these poems / where-these-poems-are-happening. They make you stay present — they keep you present to it.
The writing comes burdened with a great deal of compassion.
It’s a matter of time. Over time / this compassion accrues in-and-through-and-as the words — they then take over time (and that is compassion).
There is a tone sometimes of almost-waggish-lecturing / as if she is speaking at the world / reminding it of its commonplaces / and asking it why. Why? Indeed. In deed.
It’s a matter of working backwards over the-way-things-were. Of bringing them to life like that / of making sense the datum of sensation / and sensation the fact of existence. From there it goes on / and on / like that.
What are the options? They’re explored in and as language / always backed with (by) a feeling of kindness / that being the sensate (sensational) stance-taken-toward-the-world-(toward-the-lived-world).
The words always open out into a kind of space / a-kind-of-space-the-words-create. But there is a kind of space there (too) that-was-there-before-the-words-were-(got)-there — that is the space of lived timelessness / and Diane is more-than-merely-adroit at explaining (at giving) it to you. You are in your space.
And everywhere / she’s fraught with conscience. Conscience is how time-plays-out as it’s passing (as it’s passed) through space (through spaces). It’s a kind of narrative blunder (really) / but it’s the-kind-of-narrative-blunder-that-cares (that cares-for-you). Take care.
The place where this occurs is relatively dense. Relative to what? — relative to places where other-sorts-of-things (but not this-sort-of-thing) take place. In other words / this writing does not exist in other words.
All writing exists between people (persons) / one-way-or-another. Diane’s writing really existed between-people before that — it comes from between people / from what happens between people / and from what-happens-between-people happening to a person (Diane / the writer).
Things are held together by almost-geometrical-forces — people are held together within and by vectors / lines that move in-relation-to-one-another / that stop / and that make points where people happen (where-people-happen-to-other-people). A lot of this kind of energy is what-goes-into-Diane’s-poems.
to be peopled-out
means to drift
outside the scale of touch
existence in which each side is different
pin-pricks and — drops
love levels outpace themselves
the echo reaches all the way up
just below the sand
that leaves us:
the space beyond the brush’s tip
so sound blows back
to catch all the pieces
So that space is a question the language answers (so that space is a question the language answers to (to (a question the language answers to))).
The words are always placed with delicacy — the words are always placed-with-great-delicacy (this is (remains) true even when they are most firmly places (which they most-often-always-are). Likewise (i.e. like-unto-that-delicacy) the words often have soft spots in them (within them) / places that are (that read-as) almost moist. The writing is like-nothing-so-much as the body that writes it.
Taken away as-such the writing begins to float before our regard. After our-regard / the writing floats / away. With / in / us. The writings (as-such) / us / is our-regard / floats (away).
23 March 2011
Fisher: OK, I understand what is being asked and pretend that I no longer wonder what it is that a poem is and I’m guessing that we don’t all agree about this. It is clear to me that I don’t have a clue.
I think that we might as well agree what the reading limits are. What is being asked for in a selection, 5 or 10 pages each or 1,500 or 3,000 words?
I would be willing to conform to the suggestion of the convener and make a selection of parts, which is how most work first gets peer or public attention and particularly academic attention as “poems,” as unique blocks of substance or as parts from a larger sequence or amorphous mass. I continue to find it interesting that for practical reasons we are continually asked to fragment our work and present the damaged results as the artifact and then we will spend our time deciding what aspects of that damage, from what has been selected, can be named science as part of its content?
Adair: I don’t think it’s a matter of what a poem “is,” or even what “science” is. Surely the idea of potentiality is more productive here. We’ve all seen multiple definitions of what we’re happy enough to recognize, more or less hazily, as a poem, & as many or more disparate exemplifications. But it can happen that at some point, an urgency enters: we’re moved to try to reinvent the very notion of what a poem might be. I’m wondering if somewhere within what prompts that impulse to reinvention, or even to push further some line of investigation that has recently or long ago established itself, is what we might agree, more or less, to call “science” — even if further prompted to question what “science” might be in order to relieve the disquiet.
The reason I was disturbed by the readiness of the PoemTalk discussants of Zukofsky’s poem 12 to confine “condenser” to the realm of metaphor is that it seems to imply a world in which science entirely serves poetry by providing cool metaphors for ideas that have already otherwise been arrived at. The thing is, does anything about science or the scientific approach suggest an aesthetic problem needing radical tinkering with current strategies to address? Even if yes, it’s entirely possible that the “scientific bit” need not be demarcated in the resultant work, which will issue also from other ideas, concerns, aesthetic influences, etc. — from everything going into what Robin Blaser, in his essay on Olson’s use of Whitehead, calls “the fundamental struggle [in poetry] for the nature of the real” — for of course it cld be argued that science, or perhaps better “techne,” extends into the entire fabrics of our lives. Certainly, we find scientific disciplines that exclude what we might reflexively assume are sine qua nons of science itself, such as reliance on empirical investigation (Copernicus didn’t do this; string theory so far can’t), or a primacy placed on the ability to predict, with or without explanation (of little interest to archeology). Not the least interesting of questions is why “science” has come to mean some things to us, out of the many things it plausibly cld? & why “a poem” might have also. A key problem smoldering here, & precisely prompted by the suggestion that a poem is a crippled thing hewn out of “a larger sequence or amorphous mass,” is that of synecdoche. The “practical reasons” for which, with an implicit apology, this has to be resorted to seem to me rather ineradicable condition. This may focus attention on an abiding problem in its various phases.
Fisher: Here’s the extract I referred to earlier today, from “Confidence in Lack.”
Adair: Dear Allen —
Now it’s my turn to miss an attachment here — !
With respect to minding your initial contributions: for sure — their cogency has been repeatedly indirectly demonstrated —
Do send the extract —
Fisher: “Confidence in Lack” is the first essay in a small book of four essays titled Confidence in Lack and published by Writers Forum, Sutton, UK, in 2007. The preliminary work for the essay was to contribute to the proceedings of the Poetry and Public Language conference held at University of Plymouth in 2007 and published by Shearsman Books, in the book that gathered those proceedings, edited by Tony Lopez and Anthony Caleshu, in the same year [for the essay, plus other poems Allen sent to the forum, see the “Poetry Supplement”].
[from Dispossession and Cure (1994), now in Gravity (2004)]
In celebration of the confirmation that the universe is expanding.
Suddenly the sleeper listened intensely
and what took so long
became unexpected what was remembered
No ditch rough but stinging nettles
after an age of waste and decoration
view vectors revenge fought pesticide
Cloned as desperate renditions
Casually breaks vacancy a jet-propelled
climb guessed-at before inject and exhaust
legalises suspected values
Simply rested on grain couch
Without concern for pattern
guessed-at reprieve by indiscreetly rested attention
a pull driver flattens rock
It never becomes too easy
Often lost but momentarily refocused
without position certainties risked onto disparities
holds onto the carpet as it recedes from underneath
So we think the values are clear
and a resounded snap remainders in over-order
in singularities squeezed through the bottle-neck
existence learnt on assumption
The carpet cracks the static underway
A row of tasselled rails to prevent the viewer
evolved from involuntary excuses
in a chord ascending into blossom
But it’s fixed
The rubber the liquids the wind
all this are measured
shackles in the bounce of oblivion
Tousle regretables shut psyche in reason
opinion spat beneath the coving
in the expanse of motorway drainage
From thought ignorant of cure
Repeats ornament what seems like always
recurrence and expectation rebound on each other
a series of soon-to-be continuously on view
Period living becomes style Tonight’s theme is “desire”
Cretinous in bibulous ridden indeterminacy
arums infestation exorcised purely reprieve affection
plant life situation as unexpected attainment
Lambda DASH and FIX clone your DNA
into superior vectors surrounded by
Not I sites that facilitate easy excision
of inserts and rapid gene mapping
Glad at once to be failing in what is heard
Persistence off investing bought has marvelling
habeas-corpus grudge meant respect shuns vegetates plover shelf
mote reality’s adjourn when crag is meant
Desire, applauded and excused
Chaos this scribe eradicates “the precise sphere”
rusted fences vegetate need on
pushed and wrist volts into gracious into Oedipal play eruption
Pyre vent of parade, applauded and excused
Oedipal puns lap cat
each vessel’s limits auricular nerves
building which often told pattern erodes
Plenty pirouetted practicality
No offense you decide in a minute victory spread city
helpless barren and uniformity of phonemes
view play of squawking magnifies situation
FLASH non-radioactive labelling and
Detection system can achieve single
gene detection on your Southerns and Northerns
FeatherVolt to provide all your electrophoresis power needs
Hows planned implode bodily necessity
Pallid fortune expand fortify shields
vial “common view” thrown over perversity
funds power in the self gains domicile station
A quiet space
Taken on board as requirement
without loss of aesthetic function
the feel of confidence
Vectors of acceptance given in to employer’s need
Root and beat rudder
wet fruit can of vested inturn often vernal per fiction
enough of thanatism runs after peace
Inner rip often this appeal meant
The sleeper rapidly becomes the dreamer and then the stag
leaves through the front of his chest
nothing imagined holds away from what it is
Products that take you
From your tissue your cells to high quality
library in the superior ZAP vector
incorporates the unique in-viva excision feature
Volt metering excitement then ecstasy
This is what I expected all the many whiles
rakes posture the trade-in fool nothing in the mire
the pelt perioded discover
Addressed where impediments dove this baggage full
Confirmed by presentation
black star of the intellect peppered post-life-off
the playback interest of the intentions of beauty
Hand shakes the thumbs-up
A list of vitamins with good causes specified
ratify rupture over prop-up objection grudge best
occasionally pitch of desire as foundational
Suddenly he listened
and as ages passed
became freely immediate
as it happens.
Fisher: “Friendly Polemic”: I should start with the physicality and palpable substance of aesthetics and its relation to consciousness and cognition, its cross-disciplinary application, call it poetry or science. I’m going to leave that for another complexity. On the accounts of some of what has been said across this email desk, I may be unqualified to write poetry. I have a formal education in human physiology and contemporary physics, drawing and painting practice and art history, but not in English Literature. I guess I had better sign off now in case I terrorize my neighbors, but I am persuaded otherwise. Scientific concepts, proposals, demonstrations and providing argument through repeatable evidence, present a mismatch of ideas poorly characterized as ‘science’ or any part of a single body of thought. There is no rational basis for agreement between those committed to different paradigms or conceptual schemes. Thomas Kuhn noted that the language in one scientific paradigm is incommensurable with language in a competing paradigm. Nature, the “International Weekly Journal of Science,” as they subtitle it in the UK, was printed on Bible paper when I first started reading it, it was that authorative. Henri Poincaré maintained that Euclidean geometry and an altered physics was needed to keep the total system of beliefs simpler, rather than adopting a non-Euclidean geometry and the theory of relativity. I immediately think of the perpetuation of theoretical and critical writers still convinced of the convention to separate space from time in their sentences. The use of vocabulary in the Nature journal differs considerably through different disciplines and laboratories, if I was to name the linking threads I would caricature their differences into a sameness. I would say that they are writing up their work with a view to getting support from the war machine or its homely counterpart, commerce. You can’t present Quantum Mechanics’ algebraic signs or biotecnologies’ scan-outs across a funding board’s table and expect to get support, you have to spell out the proposed advantages. Baron (C. P.) Snow’s 1959 radio lecture (I don’t think it was a Reith lecture) and its follow up responses in the Listener (the BBC journal at the time that published transcriptions of radio talks) and eventually the responses of the elite literary commentaries around F. R. Leavis, are for me debates about class and privilege. I sometimes appreciate Leavis’s literary criticism, but his social manners, like Snow’s, are out to lunch. J. Z. Young’s great radio talks (Reith Lectures in 1950) were already published as Doubt and Certainty in Science when Snow was broadcasting later in that decade. (Young was a scientist of animal physiology and paid attention at the time to the nervous system in squids. I attended Young’s talks on aesthetics at the Tate, I think they were called “Beauty & the Beast”). They can be pasted against fifties ‘popular’ paperbacks of Weiner Heisenberg’s Nuclear Physics and Hermann Weyl’s Space Time Matter. Before he was rector at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson had attended lectures by Willem De Sitter, had read Albert Einstein’s crucial 1905 and 1910 papers (Einstein declined Olson’s invitation to talk at Black Mountain). Olson was also reading widely, Carl Sauer’s geographies, Wilhelm Reich Cancer Biopathy, Norbert Weiner’s cybernetics. When we had lunch I said, “Surely poets like you aren’t interested in the cosmos or the world or humanity” (only kidding). My point is that Olson had understood that the figurative and imaginative life of poetry directly links to the poet’s physicality. His Proprioception paper is a strong indication of this. It is an understanding that aesthetics is physical and is a component of consciousness.
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, Night Shades, 1957, © 2003 the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.
The whole business of repeatability, exactness and inadequate vocabularies were discussed at breakfast in the late fifties and through the sixties. Henri Poincaré noted that it is our linguistic and inductive practice that makes geometrical claims immune to refutation. He argued that some determinations of simultaneity relations between physical events are simply conventions. In the General Theory of Relativity Euclidean geometry has been replaced by dynamic non-Euclidean geometries. The laws of motion of the theory of relativity and of quantum theory are not the laws of motion that Isaac Newton postulated. Josef Albers (the acting-rector at Black Mountain before Olson) developed a color theory that developed through an understanding of aesthetics through perception as well as measurement. That is a physically understood aesthetics. That is why I question the uncritical use of Golden Section by my contemporaries. Now that’s also of course a whack box for my own stupidity, but the debate now, across the email desk, has moved on, has a new sophistication. My stance among this range of displays varies a lot. The poor conceptual framework for some aspects of bioengineering, the deep philosophical spanner-rattle of Quantum Mechanics and the manipulation of momenergies too small to perceive except through machines are my main difficulties and attention to what is promoted in the journal Nature. John S. Bell, who ran the CERN project with his wife, until he died in 1990, had been explicit about the problem for a long time. (His writing on the speakable and the unspeakable makes this clear.)
I am a poet interested in vocabularies, but I am also engaged in what it is that glows yellow this morning through a quietening mist. What does it mean to be alive, desking activity on the basis of probability of exactness or statistical or Boltzmannian approximations, the outcome is both contingent on successes and fraught with giving damage to humankind in the name of improved food manipulation, better animal, plant and human health, or readiness for the extended alternative to more exploitation. I appreciate the erudite comments from my literary peers and superiors, but I do wonder what assumption I am making. Isn’t all language in the world metaphorical, isn’t metaphor what Jacques Derrida named the white man’s myth? What about the complexity proposed by William Empson? Are scientists, as we charactertize this huge range of competent and irresponsible Cretans (Epimenides the Cretan says “All Cretans are liars.”), really thanked for their improved use of vocabulary. How many of my peers are as angry as I am or as worn out as I get, continue to use antiquated ideas of spacetime in the weird discussion of narrative, in their tragic reiteration of the violence of logic and its perpetuation in a bundle of societies we call civilization? I’m making this sound personal and grumpy about the world, well the world is wonderful and I love it, but that makes me stridently protective. It seems that I am making myself into the bad boy, but really I find literary exchange difficult. I will write again, maybe discussing the matter of aesthetics and health in the community and ethics and perhaps then indicate why I think so-called scientific concepts, proposals, providing argument through repeatable evidence and demonstrations continue to be important, but my premise draws from understanding my aesthetics.
I hope this is readable in this form, I’ve added it as an out-of-date Word attachment in case that helps.
Adair: Dear Allen —
Many thanks for your contributions — so far, no takers (except me, near the beginning) — not least, perhaps, because the younger of those involved may not know of your work — also, perhaps, because of occasional awkwardness of tone (where there’s a mix of professed humility & barely suppressed sarcasm) in a forum iced with a felt need for politeness —
I own up to sarcasm, but it was much more widely meant than an address to this particular Jacket2 group.
I’m never sure where to jump in here — initially I was going to just light the blue touch-paper & retire — I did, in a personal email, call Joan Retallack’s attention to your posting of poems & essay, mainly because “Watusi” seemed a perfect example of her call for “how texts can literally (lettristically, for instance) enact the dynamic principles that a scientific model has been developed to understand.” The poem she posted to exemplify that seemed to me at once very moving & frighteningly remorseless as an elegy, but fairly mechanical in its actual operations, yet not trivially so — there comes back to me a performance Lawrence Upton did concerning his father’s death, with grinding tapes & reiteration of “to be mechanical — to be mechanical — ”
Anyway. The critique you’re advancing is surely valuable for this forum. Let me just propose what I’m thinking that is:
There’s no “science” because there’s no common language across scientific disciplines (if that’s the case there’s probably no “poetry” either);
Yes, I think there is a wider debate saying that we might be more specific in the discussion than simply saying poetry.
I found this startlingly clear at the Royal Geographical Society conference last week. There were three sessions of papers and readings dedicated to Geography and Poetry. But having said that, does the category “science” permit a wider range of disciplines than the category “poetry”? At an epistemological level there are different disciplines in the category “science,” in “poetry” maybe there are fewer.
hence disquiet that “sciences” can be smeared together into something over there that can be raided for cool metaphors or vocab, rather than taken as integral to efforts to engage critically with reality —
If so, it’s to do, as Peter says, with questions of knowledge & how it’s arrived at, inc via an aesthetic predicated on physicality that spreads across the board. I do think all the poems posted so far are informed & shaped by a sense of physicality & would welcome any further take you have on how that relates to health — even if in some sense we all do the best we can, given experience & training arrived at & sought after, & the consequent specificity of the work can (& often should) be rejected by anyone —
Yes, I will consider and respond to this matter of health and also what Tina called citizen.
Pierre recently wrote an essay on my work in terms of health.
(For what it’s worth, I find Empson’s attention to the felt mental palpability of things like rhythm more valuable than the more cognitively-based criticism I remember from Leavis — indeed, Leavis’s dismissal of Milton would relate to insensitivity precisely to mental palpability — but the disquiet I’m sensing from you would also be cognitively related — questions of knowledge are also to do with questions of reference, & the full version of the essay “Strips,” from which Peter posted an extract, includes a consideration of how wide a chasm, in that respect, exists between Olson & the Language poets, insofar as Olson believes he can, if not master a fantastic range of languages of the sciences, participate aesthetically in their findings on some level of intellectual parity, while the Language poets tend to variously aestheticize a fascinated/wary alienation from the opacities of scientific vocabs) —
I haven’t read through all of Peter’s or Joan’s responses yet and will do so tonight.
I see now that your mind, thought upon thought,
is all entangled, and that it awaits
most eagerly the untying of the knot.
— Paradiso, VII (tr. John Ciardi)
Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely sharp images with almost no background light.
— Wikipedia, “Hubble Space Telescope”
I’m making this sound personal and grumpy about the world, well the world is wonderful and I love it, but that makes me stridently protective.
— Allen, “friendly polemic”
No mortal eye, though plunged to the last bounds
of the deepest sea, has ever been so far
from the topmost heaven to which the thunder sounds
as I was then from Beatrice; but there
the distance did not matter, for her image
reached me unblurred by any atmosphere.
— Paradiso, XXXI
The decoherent rendition of this little collage, drastically whittling the real or potential complexities/contradictions: There you go, in christianity was the dream of science.
“Hubble,” one of the six poems from gravity as a consequence of shape sent to this forum, has for subtitle “In celebration of the confirmation that the universe is expanding.” The published text lists among its various resources “Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, the end of Canto 33.” What might they have in common? Evidently “Hubble” looks to an open universe, although it may be working with a constancy of mass/energy whose larger configurations constant expansion at ever-increasing speeds wld itself cause to strand apart, break up. Paradiso, by contrast, appears to culminate in a resolutely closed system, the Mystic Rose of the Empyrean (what lies beyond the last of the physical spheres, the Primum Mobile), wherein all souls of the blessed circulate in bliss forever around the center. Well, not yet “all souls”; the finitude already guaranteed by circularity is underscored by Beatrice when she notes in Canto XXX that every rank of the Rose’s benches “is filled so full / that few are wanted before” it is complete. & this finitude is a requirement of Dante’s own need for apocalypse, the violent cleansing of the Florentine stables. Yet beyond & before apocalypse, where “the laws that govern nature do not pertain,” finitude is given as fusing with eternity, & Euclidean geometry falls short, for at the same time that Mary is distinguished by being on the outer circumference of the Rose whirling around the divine center, everyone is whirling around her — the paradox reiterated in the first line of Canto XXXIII, when St Bernard addresses her as “Virgin Mother, daughter of thy son.”
Also pertinent: Clearly, Paradiso is much more abstract-discursive-cerebral than the richly if variably imagistic Inferno & Purgatorio. In Canto II, this involves what wld later come under the category of “science”: What causes the markings on the surface of the Moon? Beatrice not only gives the answer (I mean, not for us the right answer), she refutes Dante’s speculation with a thoroughness it takes effort (& a good translation, or good notes) to follow. Subsequently, metaphysical/theological/political quandaries are likewise extensively discoursed on in ways that fall under the heading of what Dante wld call arti, i.e., in Ciardi’s words, “the skills, the crafts, and all the methods by which man understands and wins command over nature. It is always distinct from the higher knowledge of faith.” My point is — & I say it as an atheist — that with the beginning of the ascent to the Empyrean in Canto XXX, the reader’s strenuously exercised intellect cld well have been brought to the relief of breaking-point & readiness to flow into glad receptivity to the wonder of endless divine love —
“Hubble,” then. If I’m right, the Dantean ambition is announced in the opening stanza:
Suddenly the sleeper listened intently
and what took so long
became unexpected what was remembered
But it’s hard to hold onto, because the mild semantic trickiness here is as nothing compared to what will follow, both in terms of syntactic trips, curious precisions of vocabulary, & technospeak evocations of the exclusionary professionalism of genetic engineering. But this is to say that the affect perhaps proper to the experience of a recondite content by the non-inititiate is coupled with, is part of what shld nonetheless be well within a poetry reader’s purview. Stanza 2:
No ditch rough but stinging nettles
after an age of waste and decoration
view vectors revenge fought pesticide
The references are harsh, elusive or lurching in terms of scale & actors, hard to find identification with — in the last line forces different in type clash in a field, not a sentence — but the stanza is certainly readable, more than capable of affording pleasures of not-too-long-delayed gratification. Stanza 3 opens “Cloned as desperate renditions,” which seems to indicate a concern, here & in stanza 4 & again in an Olsonian-type field rather than any kind of narrative line, with attention paid or not paid — “attention” is emerging as a major theme of the poem, the call for close attention as its method — to machines: a fault in a jet seems to have been caught in time & either corrected or rubber-banded; elsewhere a tractor, under “indiscreetly rested attention … flattens rock,” which apparently it shouldn’t do but isn’t fatal (“guessed-at reprieve”). Why “guessed-at”? — ‘I guess I was lucky’? — it brings in a minor complication that may slowly, after hesitation (“was this really meant?”), more fully realize the vignette. But what in stanza 3 “[c]asually breaks vacancy,” & what vacancy? “It never becomes too easy” (stanza 5) — no it doesn’t. But in fact, the whole of this stanza comes across as a set of self-reflexive musings:
It never becomes too easy
Often lost but momentarily refocused
without position certainties risked onto disparities
holds onto the carpet as it recedes from underneath
Key here seems to me to be “without position,” at least without a position secured by narrative or any guaranteed route from themes to particulars. A corollary would be that the particulars are, necessarily, what they are, must often seem odd, arbitrary, or just baffling, & are to be dealt with as such — & by “particulars” I include individual words or phrases. “Casually breaks vacancy”? — why not the vacancy of the page before the next phrase, or the vacancy of the imagination that has preoccupations but no relevant particulars until they arrive, “disparate” as they risk being — “OK, I understand what is being asked and pretend that I no longer wonder what it is that a poem is and I’m guessing that we don’t all agree about this …. I continue to find it interesting that for practical reasons we are continually asked to fragment our work and present the damaged results as the artifact and then we will spend our time deciding what aspects of that damage, from what has been selected, can be named science as part of its content?” (from Allen’s initial response to the request for relevant poems). “So we think the values are clear / … / existence learnt on assumption” (stanza 6). I hope my own sense, at least, is now clear — clearer, actually, than it had been before, via this relatively close reading so far of the “damaged result” that is “Hubble” — that the poem’s minute particulars & thorninesses of language, & its choices of content, are not separable in its response to/intervention in the complexities of the world in which the poet states he finds himself; neither object nor method of reference are self-evident things. The next question would be: Where is Hubble, either the man or the space telescope, in all of this? What comment is being made on “the confirmation that the universe is expanding”?
When I first heard this poem read, in ’91 or ’92, Eric Mottram, who was also in the audience, asked, half tongue in cheek, why expansion of the universe shld be celebrated if it wld just mean more of the ghastly same. Allen replied that he wld have to take that on board. In fact, the poem already had. Just as thundering denunciations of papal & other corruptions persist into the late Cantos of Paradiso, pervasive in “Hubble” is the sense of late-Thatcherite England as a scene of environmental degradation regulated by brute recurrences (cloning is the obvious metaphor here, but see also stanza 10, “From thought ignorant of cure / Repeats ornament what seems like always …”), smoldering with grudge & violence (“opinion spat beneath the coving / vermin ridden / in the expanse of motorway drainage”). These are large statements; contexts cld be found in which they wld indeed be “easy,” but “Hubble” strives to not be one of them. Certainly, once we get into this groove the stanzas decode more quickly, but (& it’s not a new innovative-poetic strategy) every stanza presents a challenge, has to be paused over & searched. Stanza 11, for example, takes retro imitations & TV talk shows as representative of the regulatory field, but the anger, the near-viciousness of expression here, given the pervasive determined impression of impersonality, may be missed on a first reading. “Cretinous,” okay. But lines 3 & 4 feature a characteristic verbal music (in stanza 13, it’s downright terrific): it has none of the time-honored poetic servants to the mellifluous, not only in the lack of alliteration, say (when that does come, in stanza 16 — “Plenty pirouetted practicality” — it’s p-p-parodic), but in the clunky clustering, without the aid of normative grammar, of words with multiple syllables:
arums infestation exorcised purely reprieve affection
plant life situation as unexpected attainment
“Reprieve” again: affection is the reprieve but the exorcism hardly pure. Arum is a flowering, berry-bearing plant found in Europe, North Africa, & East Asia, with the highest species diversity of any plant around the Mediterranean; it comes in many variants, & every part of all of them is poisonous. We come into the anger, the bitterness of its sarcasm, thro’ effort of interpretation (the stanza also sets up a series of references to vegetating that will continue in 13 & 14). Stanza 18 (“Hows planned implode bodily necessity”), again without once mentioning human subjects, compactly evokes expanses of locked-in situations of domestic abuse.
A break seems to abruptly come in stanza 19:
A quiet space
Taken on board as requirement
without loss of aesthetic function
the feel of confidence
In the following stanza, this is given as political necessity: “enough of thanatism runs after peace.” Now “the sleeper” returns, in danger of dream-surrender to fantasies that have already surrendered to what prompts them: “arums infestation,” etc, & earlier, in stanza 16, “you decide in a minute victory.” But it’s hard to resist. Yet stanza 23 holds & only to a degree fuses a new set of extreme contrasts:
Volt metering excitement then ecstasy
This is what I expected all the many whiles
rakes posture the trade-in fool nothing in the mire
the pelt perioded discover
Ps again, as the seeker for satisfaction on the terms of consumerist ego finds only signs of mortality on his or her skin. Meanwhile the poet is precisely distributing hints as to what the strenuously exercised reader’s interpretive faculty is now being given permission for release into, such as: “black star of the intellect peppered post-lift-off / the playback interest of the intentions of beauty.” Rupture — “ratify rupture over prop-up objection grudge bent” — is the expansion the poem enacts, in awareness, as Allen writes in his “afterword” to Shuddered by Aodan McCardle, Piers Hugill, & Stephen Mooney (Veer, 2009), that the pursuit of happiness may recognize “that aesthetic function, as a component of consciousness and cognition, becomes subsumed by the plight of others.” Release is at the same time real, “post-lift-off / the playback interest of the intentions of beauty.” As suggested earlier, the reader may already have come to love the experience & memory of the recalcitrances of the language. Release is now into the certainty that the aesthetic is a fundamental mode of human integration into the world, even a world trashed by machines lacking larger attentions; release may be even into a rush of love, wonder, gratitude for the cosmos whose ever-expansion has been ‘confirmed’ by the technical marvels of the ever-absent telescope. Watch for the individualistic caution in the closing line:
Suddenly he listened
and as ages passed
became freely immediate
as it happens.
Catanzano: Dear Allen Fisher:
I was looking at your “Blood Brain Bone” project on microfiche last week. Do you remember giving this to tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE when he visited London for a Neoist apartment festival? The day after you sent your first essay to this group, tentatively mentioned I might be interested in looking at “Blood Brain Bone” when I visited him. I said, Allen Fisher? I have an email from him in my inbox right now!
We looked at the first two fiches in tENT’s library. We were enchanted by the scope of the concept, the way you filtered the medical and scientific data with the performance notes and the graphic sculpturing of the records. The fiches and their manuals reminded me of an apothecary card catalog. We also enjoyed the participatory and non-dogmatic nature of the invitations you pose to the reader/audience. tENT told me about the project’s background. I’m interested in the way you combined your subjective experience with the scientific recording and then made the performance for the Fluxus show. It so happens that tENT has written a number of reviews of your early work on GoodReads. We hope to return to “Blood Brain Bone” and write a review of it together.
Fisher: Dear Amy,
Great to hear this. I will get back to you.
It was a Thursday in 2003 when Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos were giving a reading and conversation at the Buffalo Poetics Program — billed as an eightieth birthday celebration for Mac Low — and someone asked him about his early poem “Sonnet of My Death.” I don’t recall exactly the question, but most of us in the room were disconcerted by it. It wasn’t really about his work, but rather about his views on the afterlife, ostensibly meant to square the content of his poem with his Buddhist devotion to notions of impermanence. Later, alone in a car with Mac Low and Tardos, without thinking it through but with great conviction, I blurted out, “It wasn’t a question about death, it was a question about life,” and that seemed to alleviate lingering frustration. We all agreed, maybe just in consolation, that all questions about death are really questions about life.
My remark now seems explicitly to have stemmed from my obsession with the dialectic between overt motivation (e.g. modeling Buddhist values) and nonintentionality (e.g. procedural composition and “chance operations”). For Mac Low, a primary motivation was to evacuate from the writing process the traces of ego associated with Kantian “taste,” where taste acquires predicative value. As when living life to death, one can’t really hypothesize about the results of composition except quantitatively, never qualitatively. And Mac Low was adamantly interested in poetic quality, prosodic features, aesthetic effects. He sought to make a “thing of beauty,” as his final poetics statement makes abundantly clear. Tardos was right to make Thing of Beauty the title of his posthumous selected works (published five years after his passing, in 2009, by University of California Press), because in his lifetime he had so steadily, thoroughly, and variously disproven Kant’s categorical imperative that he could finally enjoy beauty for what it’s actually worth. And what is that? It must have something to do with the procreative capacity of interpretation, which Mac Low was ever more willing to indulge and affirm. As he put it during an (unpublished) interview I conducted with him in April 2001, “any good performer is … making the work each time, they’re always doing making.” I countered that “many people would call that interpretation.” “I know,” he replied, “That seems to me denigrating the work of the performer, in a sense. I was just listening to Beethoven played by Brendel, and it’s obviously a whole other way of thinking about the pieces, the same tempo marks and that.”
These remarks very near the end of Mac Low’s working life deserve comparison to those from the outset. The language, for instance, that he uses in “Some Remarks to the Dancers” of The Pronouns is explicitly extended to “readers.” As for the number of dancers required to realize them, in some the choice is “obvious” and in “many” it is “somewhat indefinite & [is] to be decided … by careful interpretation of the given text.” This entails “some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line,” abetted by the “seemingly unlimited multiplicity” of judgments as to “degrees of literalness or figurativeness. … [W]hile the text … is completely determinate,” the “actual” realization will be “largely unpredictable” (67–68). By involving interpretation in the constitution of a work, Mac Low retrieves it from its routine status as epiphenomena or, what’s worse, the opportunity to ingratiate presentiments or ideological predispositions. If this is what it means for a text to be “indeterminate,” he uses this interpretive imperative as paradigmatic of, he assured me, not just his own work but “all art.” Any question of his own work is really just a question about work.
When this essay was originally commissioned, and being asked to characterize the poetries of the aughts involving literary-critical projects that have preoccupied me in those ten years, I recalled these episodes from my acquaintance with Mac Low and his work. I have been working toward a theoretical and historical rapprochement between disability studies and radical modernist hermeneutics. For me the former revives the dialectic between social constructionism and proprioception that the latter so spectacularly negotiated from literary experimentalism to the linguistic turn of structuralist and poststructuralist treatments of society and affect. But the conundrum of life’s incessant novelty and the impudent alterity of death, a conundrum amplified by the question of life seeping into the question of work, suggested I think otherwise. It suggested a tangential thought I have now made a critical experiment, turning what was to be a statement on disability poetics into one on a possible new trend I am calling “new life writing.” As the aughts draw to a close, I have been particularly struck by the connections between conceptualism and autobiography or so-called “life writing,” connections that are (perhaps too) historically obvious (to notice) but have been recently, performatively repudiated.
Earlier drafts of this essay tested this claim by dealing, at length, with the tropics of conceptual writing (such as “allegory” and “failure”), the coincidence of Derridean problematics in disability and bio art discourses, and the way disability and poesis are mutually implicated when psyche and socius are transposed in and as ecosystems (whether these systems are of media or natural environment). But I’ve finally settled on the following survey of instances of new life writing that I hope will bring an even wider range of implications into focus, somewhat, while permitting this trend, if it has any currency, to debut where its work is accomplished, in the writing itself. If new life writing exists, it indicates that the proverbial duel between poltical commitment and aesthetic quality has become a negotiation instead. I cannot say what tempered the situation, and won't say tempers no longer flare, bearing in mind things like 2008’s Aggression conference at Small Press Traffic. But what was once the insuperable foil of writing’s authority (said Barthes circa May 1968) now seems a source of it, as if political commitment and aesthetic quality were mutual extremes of legibility. And significantly, if obscurely, in terms of that initial moment of conceptualism when Mac Low’s proceduralism mattered, that is in terms of intentionality as a process of identification, claims for agency, strategies of authorial relinquishment, dispersal and containment.
Important instances for this discussion are early-mid-1960s projects by Jackson Mac Low and later (1980s) writing by Hannah Weiner, both of whom acquired a new visibility and canonicity in the aughts; I’ll leap forward, through mention of other examples, to readings of work from the late aughts by Tan Lin and Brenda Iijima. Though Iijima’s work is associated more with ecopoetics and somatics, I think one of its primary tasks has been to conceive, in the writing process, a sense of “life” as linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict, so that in both texture and conceit it complements the quasi “life writing” of conceptualist Lin.
It is in the aughts that conceptual writing entirely disentangles the psychosomatic of lived experience from procedural strategy. This follows its expressed debt to historical conceptual art’s remit to emerge from the mechanical austerity of minimalism, to which it was a reaction, at times a reaction against disembodied rationality, at others against a parallel scale of artform to somaform. The barest description of these works would by today’s standards seem oxymoronic: procedural life writing, proprioceptive conceptual writing. In the 1960s, life writing was still called “autobiography”; the vast popularity of the memoir was not yet with us, but conceptual engagements with memory were enthusiastically carried out by the likes of Andy Warhol (a, A Novel) and Bernadette Mayer (Memory). Both were precursors for the aughts’ initial salvo of conceptual writing: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, and its companion piece Soliloquy, both of which I lack time to do justice to here. These works by Goldsmith attempt to exhaust the vital, intentional core of conceptualism by caricaturing, in photo realist mode, somatics. The works of new life writing I will treat here, though decades apart, and while part of the same range of conceptual impulses, are finally about a quasi-historical passage that conceptualism finds itself reckoning now: inheritance, succession, dying, and being born anew.
In his seventy-fifth birthday festschrift, poet-critic and scholar Joan Retallack surmises, despite “the fear of enjoying something in or about language that the author did not mean for you to enjoy in that way, compounded by the fear that said author didn’t entirely know the meaning of the meaning,” Mac Low’s work is exemplary of the ways “words extend the complex orderly and chaotic structure of the brain’s neural network … into the forms of our social world.” Thus it achieves “a spacious indeterminacy” of “reciprocal alterities.” A sort of new life. The proceduralism of contemporary conceptual writing descends from this emphasis, found also in Sol LeWitt’s contention as appropriated by Goldsmith, that “When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the text.” Yet for Mac Low, the “will” is everywhere operative in the performance situation; the ego, per se, is not purged so much as imbricated in the interest of an assumptive “good.” From “Essay Begun in 1965”:
[There is] a continuum from this “nearly pure initiator” — the so-called innovator — to the “interpreter,” whose primary goal is exact & precise actualization of the “initiator’s” intentions, insofar as they are ascertainable, whether from notation or from the “initiator’s” personal instructions. (The degree of “determinateness” is immaterial. Even the most “indeterminate” work has some determinatory intentions of its initiator embodied in it.)
Mac Low’s post-Cartesian blend of somatics and conceptualism strives for or responds to a circumstance so holistic and vital it begs to be called, simply, life. Neither the sum of experiences belonging to an individual nor the mystical force that animates matter; instead we should consider that if life is also these basically static categories, it must also be a concept of novelty checked by death and characterized by endurance (or duration). This is an insight crucial to, even following from, two texts by Mac Low, both “procedural,” both, as it happens, with “life” in the title.
“It is a simple life under the sun all day without decent water to drink or to wash in” is from 1963. Neither collected in Representative Works nor Thing of Beauty, it was probably only ever published in a handout from a performance of it at the New York Public Library on May 22, 1968, a program featuring David Antin, as well, and promising “reading[s] from old and new works, including tape recorder.” “The title,” Mac Low writes in a brief preface, “is a quotation from Herman Benson, writing in his extraordinary newsletter, Union Democracy in Action, about the plight of agricultural workers.” “It is a simple life” is a “chance-acrostic” poem; its vocabulary, line and stanza breaks are dictated by filtering a source text through a “seed text,” usually the title of the source text. An obscure text, we at least know that Mac Low singled it out for the event with Antin, who was at precisely this moment moving from similar deterministic compositional forms to his infamous “talk pieces” — c.f. “the london march” and “talking at pamona.” Antin becomes a sort of current affairs poet. Where the moment takes him becomes what he came to say, even and especially when he came to make art-historical pronouncements. With regard to Mac Low’s text, these talk pieces follow a reverse trajectory. They are not spontaneous discourses on a predetermined theme. “It Is a Simple Life” is a deterministic discourse liable to a “maximum of relatedness,” as he writes with regard to the performance of the next type of poem I want to consider, his “Daily Life” poems. Some lines from the text: “All to water to a without the a to is to to / day sun drink. / Day without drink. / It to life the is water. / It water in It to to wash or water sun all life decent …” The critical question is what is to be done — about migrant agricultural labor exploitation and about the laborious collision of articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc. Refusing to express its passion, the poem recombines the very elements that secure any claim upon life, begging the question that devolves under scrutiny, but persists even after transpositions so severe as to risk illegibility.
Click to view larger versions of manuscript pages of Jackson Mac Low’s “It Is a Simple Life.” Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
The “Daily Life” poems are similarly a template for the generation of an exponentially infinite number of thematic relevancies. In a 1968 note to Jerome Rothenberg, to whom he was sending a carbon of the Daily Life method and an exemplary poem, Mac Low writes, “The ‘piece’ consists not so much in this particular list as in the concept of making such a list and using it to make poems by these or similar methods. I’ve been thinking, in fact, of making a new list drawn from my present daily life to make a few more poems relevant to now.” It was later in the summer of 1963, and then early the following year, that he codified the concept (procedure). The aforementioned “list” refers to the seed text, here spontaneously devised, based on routine utterances in the home among a couple, a family, and the world which radiates from it. His August 6, 1963, example, “Daily Life 1,” which is collected in both Representative Works and Thing of Beauty, begins:
|1. A. I’m going to the store.
|2. B. Is the baby sleeping?
|3. C. I’d better take the dog out.
|4. D. What do you want?
|5. E. Let’s have eggs for breakfast.
And so forth, to 26, Z, Red King, codes corresponding to combinatory methods detailed via the aleatory ploys “Letters,” “Numbers,” and “Playing Cards.” These instructions are printed alongside “Happy New Year 1964 to Barney and Mary Childs — A Daily Life Poem,” with passing reference to an “essay describing a method for using such lists as sources for dramatic presentations.”
A longhand copy of the essay is among the Mac Low papers at UCSD’s special collections. In it, Mac Low describes a method of scripting the play according to the interaction of each individual actor-participant’s personal list of daily life utterances, which then become “framework sentences” giving context to and cuing actions that make sense within the situation. The lists are arrayed (as the lines and stanzas of a daily life poem would be in the “letters” scenario) by “spelling out” one’s name. Note the outward trajectory from proper name, through one’s quotidian perspective, finally to the hustle and bustle of superimposed perspectives, which become generative of a “dramatic presentation,” a poets theater work and model of the good society. In his instructions, he insists that “actions should always be realistic & appropriate to what is being said,” such that both actions and speeches have “some justification”; “Great attention shd be paid by each participant to everything that is said & done by everyone else as well as by himself.” When the framework sentences run out, you do as little as possible and seize the first opportunity to exit, without rudely ignoring — by failing to answer — questions posed by others’ framework sentences. “Entrances,” on the other hand, “are to be made ad libitum.” Get in and get to work as soon as possible, he insists, even if this seems inappropriate — there is an etiquette for leaving, but entering is at once free and compulsory, like daily life itself.
The compulsive reiteration of the simplest commands, queries, and exclamations in any given daily life poem (or list of “framework sentences”) produces a jarring and even claustrophobic effect, as though one’s linguistic day-in-the-life were solely comprised of obsessive hectoring. In any event, Mac Low’s essay appears unfinished. He waffles on the range of what should be considered “appropriate” reason to enter or exit the community, as well as whether or not to encourage — through emphasis in the essay — use of a single list of framework sentences, his own. Crossed out, at the end of the draft, he ponders the eco-genetic import of the concept: “By analogy with natural science, if the particular performance be the ‘individual,’ a realization on the ‘methods’ level can be considered a ‘species,’ and the more general method (e.g. the ‘Letters’ method) its ‘genus.’” Then he offers his address should you wish to send him three dollars for a copy of “DAILY LIFE.”
Click to view larger versions of the essay accompanying Jackson Mac Low’s "Daily Life" poems. Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
In another unpublished “DAILY LIFE” piece entitled “MUSIC FOR SINGER,” an “individual” takes us right inside the Bronx apartment of the poet and his then-wife, Iris Lezak, with their infant, plants, quips, and gripes. He uses the “Letters” method to spell out “Iris Mac Low.”
I’ll see you.
What did you say?
I’ll see you.
Look how this plant has grown!
I’m going to close the window.
I’m going to the store.
I’d better take the dog out.
Did somebody knock on the door?
I wish it wasn’t always so noisy.
Though organized according to the arbitrary placement of letters in a name, how oddly appropriate each stanza appears. Something is reiterated “because” it wasn’t heard the first time — and while we’re on the topic of what we’ll “see” we are invited to “Look.” The second stanza is a sequence of tiny promises that, cumulatively, define one’s familial stature. But before we get out the door, someone knocks on it, belongs inside, and yet, despite the exclamatory homecoming, a residual wish that things were different, at least not always “so noisy.” It’s tough to find a more suggestive love poem. The accident of the proper name equally dictates the predicative value of the supposed randonnée that shapes a day in the life. The chance synchronicity of semiotic cue and lived experience is precisely the center of new life writing’s focus.
Hannah Weiner and Kitella, 1967. Photo copyright © 2002 by Carolee Schneemann.
A landmark of this development from historical conceptual writing to new life writing is Hannah Weiner’s Page. Weiner spent the latter half of the 1980s writing it, finishing in 1990. Its texture is similar to that of her best-known project, the Clairvoyant Journal, yet it differs in several important respects. First, it concerns her immediate family, based in Providence, Rhode Island, rather than her artistic community in New York City. The familial context is the setting for a reminiscence and self-reckoning of her life as a writer to that point, making every semiotic cue in Page doubly anecdotal. In 1984 Weiner’s mother passed away. A year later, so did her aunt, to whom she was also quite close, spending extended summers with both for at least the previous fifteen years. She and her “big brother” survived them. Calling him this despite that she was the older of the two sometimes indicates a negotiation over inheritance of an estate, and certainly a shuffling of the familial hierarchy. It also indicates a conflict between heredity and inheritance, a crisis of succession. She is the diminutive “sis” or, very infrequently, “Sister,” capital S. A good deal of the self-referential, metacritical voice in the poem — a long, three-part serial poem — concerns what “mother would do,” i.e. what she would say or write. Weiner struggles to translate this conditional into an imperative, which is an ubiquitous feature of mourning. The thing to do is what they would have wanted done. Hence the mourner is at an epistemological impasse, dying wishes recast as replies from succeeding “generations.” Knowledge is information in the interest of a choice; for Weiner, the occasion necessitating the choice is what differs, not the condition of knowledge per se, because Page is a memoir (a genre necessarily nostalgic ahead of time); what is wanted to be done becomes an assertion of what has been done. Like the recently unearthed Book of Revelations, the subject matter, as Revelations editor Marta Werner puts it, “is lateness. … [I]n place of the illumination of ultimate mysteries, in place of the Parousia that lies at time’s end, Weiner instead reveals the way in which the world comes into being — or rather, into hiding — as an unseeable totality.” 
A second difference from Clairvoyant Journal is formal. Page is written in verse lines, with a standard three-keystroke spacing between phrasal or lexical units adding to the linebreaks a prosodic and ideational level of signification. And third, the trivocal “large-sheet,” page-as-field format of the Clairvoyant Journal accounts for each voice with standard lower case, all capital, or underlined/italicized text. In Page, at any given moment there are only indications of two separate voices. Superscript or all caps, the two never coincide. The first instance of the superscript reads “parasentence above the” (4). A paragrammatic companion tracing something of the memory of the recently deceased, there is always something “twice” to a line. Later, caps appear and seen words are transcribed, transposed from the ambient event of writing and onto the page, as in her work of the seventies. There is very little superscript, in fact. And the transition from one other to another indicates a partial reemergence of clairvoyance over the latter half of the decade, as though, as many who knew Weiner will tell you, it had periodically subsided. Whole projects were undertaken during these periods, for example Weeks (1986). The episodic integrity of PAGE is reinforced by her claim in her letter accompanying the finished manuscript: “So clear I didn’t number in order. In order sequence written honest.”
Weiner used puns as a means of investigating the drifting cohesion of language and consciousness, the intentionality of speech, reading, writing, and listening, as her Code Poems from her early conceptualist period most obviously demonstrate. The “articles” in Page — “articles” is the title of one section of the book — play upon a fascination she had with the hub of these acts: publication — public language, such as we all might see or hear. “Article” also names the designations of definite and indefinite, subject and object. Naming the designations and designating the name are quite possibly identical acts, but the name, famously obdurate and opaque, embodies the “obediently … honest … conflict.” In this linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict Weiner casts Charles Bernstein as the “hero.” It is to him she addressed her cover letter, entrusting him to see the series through to publication. Yet she signs the letter “Hannah Weiner plus object” — and this signature is reproduced in the book. The inscriptional gesture concerns the ethos that authorizes the heroine as a role within the real, an enclosure or attachment. It is not just that “article” is a polysemous word. A pun is effective to the degree we misidentify one such valence. Puns rely on similitude in order to evoke disjunction and multiplicity. Populating the text’s “public” with author figures objectifies lives as it indexically affirms them.
In Clairvoyant Journal voices collide to create another species of pun: the neologism. In Page the neologisms are the result of reflexive “pages in conflict,” as the first and last sections “page” and “same page” illustrate; similitude is a “convers[ation].” We have, in “Hannah Weiner Statement,” the second half of the dual preface, “adempt” — adept and attempt, I think — and “sumit introyou” — sum, submit, it, and so forth. “ohboy” and “obey” rhyming nicely with “histry sumit despoyed.” As Weiner puts it, these are “seen as i words,” shifting signifiers for the antiheroic roles of a participatory readership. A hierarchy subsists all the same; it is “Mother” who has the first word, or rather is the first word to come between hero and heroine — “Mother teaches simple see introduction enclosed” — that is, see the additional “object.” Together, the “Dear Hero” letter and “Hannah Weiner Statement” plot out the central conflict by decentering contiguous lives through its morbid “perverse period” as well as its novel “introyou.” The drama concerns how “adept” the “attempt.” The eponymous first section is a chronological reckoning of her published output to that date, which instigates a temporal crisis, a “histry”:
in our silence well we dont cancel this girls
page this little book returns sis Im
sis please be
honest with yourself practical very careful
have you been a leadership subliminal
leadership carefulis often sis youre in
a hurry are you being written (3, 6)
In the attempt to differentiate the past from the present, The Fast from “this poem,” Weiner worries the distinction in terms of the future, also retrofitting this memoir to clairvoyance-cum-“clair style” (the abandoned format of the Clairvoyant Journal) — the predicative value of clairvoyance, an aspect of the phenomena emphasized with newfound gravity in light of her mother’s passing. “Careful” says the “parasentence.” What is “languageship” if not a return of the word to itself in writing, the utterance’s afterlife where “leadership” risks didacticism. Hereditary clairvoyance means “you” is becoming “mother” as a psychosomatic act of posterity logically dependent on the difference between inventiveness and the fact of a life where there was not one before. Weiner recursively resigns herself to the fact that her becoming-mother is writerly, is wholly dependent on squaring the difference between creativity and procreation: “did you ever have speedfreak / analysis with a doctor pregnant who were you” (21). This “quarrel” of difference and sameness — which she comes to call “alteritive” — allows Weiner to take as axiomatic the first line of the subsequent poem: “youre very different watch yourself,” a condition that, in the struggle for “control” and the deciphering of the “secret alteritive” to follow, appears as “subliminevocareful” (7).
“[U]underwefit language” is the parasentential “indescribable” that “mother would scribble / inabove”; “mother would be more careful,” perhaps, and so Weiner inscribes a wavy line in place of a noun: “on the [scribble] thats what it looks brain discontinue / I got shots I had abortion I had to quit / thats what woman writes” (11). From young girl to woman, the passage is marked by the frustrated maternal “leadership” that provides the bulk of the book’s drama: “mother / do you forgive did you forscribe did you / describe situations any be more practical” (10). “sis … please be honest with herself … switch sisters … young woman,” Weiner’s aunt, Weiner’s self, becoming mother in terms of guardianship before the inheritance is, apparently, assigned to “big brother.” Mother speaks “inabove”: “poet continue in trance” (15). Weiner writes herself in to the scene of hereditary transference: “sis Im making a funny little girl sis it’s a / big little trouble print sis I had the / advantage of them we twice” (17). Twice the same, as recurrence rendered in “simple” integers must be — pages counted, serial, in sequence, “like language repeats … soblete” (22). Similitude and identity are functions of obsolescence where the false promise of temporal identity that death betrays, “some distinctive person matches,” and “like language” is obeyed (23). The author figure is called to reckoning by language. “[W]hat a lesson to be a / subjectover a manuscript enclosed enclosed” (27). Where in previous books involving motherhood — Spoke especially — she referred to her project as a sort of “novel,” near the end of the eponymous first section of PAGE she admits “sis I cant write a novel anymore until sis / death someone else suggests it” (45). “[T]o do for yourself when your mother dies,” she concludes, is “to handle it like someone” and “make yourself a poet” (46).
By this time, Weiner is recounting the period in which she composed Weeks. Like Page, Weeks concerns seeing one’s life passing before one’s eyes. It is literally a chronicle of sitting before a television set. In keeping watch over Weeks, Page draws a more concise and dire conclusion: “see words / on television must be correct program / like news … hannah thats hard believe keep / secret bullshit why struggle feel guilty / when I die I may be” (60). In the final poem of the “plus title” section, the inheritance is completed: “mother / born and educated november 4 1928,” sis’s birthdate, “two die” (66). She concludes the penultimate section with the “quaint” humor that sweetens the irresolvable dilemma, comparing her signature on the postmortem settlement papers to putting herself under contract as a writer — an analogy, as I see it, between clair-style praxis and serving as an agent of the wire services (109). “Hannah puts her name at the end signed silence” (116). But before this, she announces a sequel, “ONEMORESERIOUS PAGE,” which is the final section, “SAME PAGE.”
This section wants to “keep me alive twice,” folding the puns, caps, and oxymoronic, palindromic event of survival into hardly legible lines sans spaces (124) … “I repeat literature … sismotherwords” (132, 133).
* * *
New life writing can be seen as a continuation of radical modernist practices as they abut the conceptualist moment. In 1967, Louis Zukofsky called “A” “a poem of a life / — and a time” and spoke of its ensuing sections as “words still to be lived … as one breathes without pointing to it before and after.” On one hand, there is in this conception the fusty notion that even as indices of historical particulars, poetry transcends them, “braves time” as Zukofsky critic and biographer Marc Scroggins puts it. On the other, as this poem matures, so “life” is redefined as a “special sense of duration,” a life course. Such early examples of what I’m calling new life writing articulate something that recent works of conceptualism and autobiography do: reassert the interdependence of proprioceptive élan and conceptual austerity, lived experience and proceduralism.
Just a few examples of new life writing that are, to speak plainly, newer: Dolores Dorantes’s long form poem Dolores Dorantes structurally is as complex as anything in Gertrude Stein’s most hermetically autobiographical works; Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation might be another example of new life writing, with moments of loopy exhilaration comparable to Craig Dworkin’s supposedly “unreadable” Parse; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a major influence on Spahr’s writing, reads today as though it could have been conceived in the aughts of the twenty-first century, rather than the late 1970s conceptual and performance scene; some of CAConrad’s somatic poetry exercises seem germane here, as well as Mark Nowak’s visceral, collaborative, and procedural texts; Tracie Morris’s performances are undoubtedly as conceptually rigorous as they are actuated on several experiential planes; Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog and Renee Gladman’s toaf (to After That) pick up where Bernadette Mayer’s Memory and Studying Hunger left off, collapsing commemoration and innovation into prose as thoughtform. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and My Life in the Nineties undoubtedly do the same, though with a “conceptual,” numerical, and procedural precision that evokes dendochronology rather than autobiography.
New life writing might not be a specifically US American trend. I am thinking of two North American poets: the Canadian Christian Bök and Mexican Ofelía Pérez Sepúlveda. Bök’s “Piecemeal Bard” sees new media conceptualism as an extension of Oulipo-inflected poetics of constraint, but with more up to date claims regarding the ramifications for the agency of authors and readerships: “When cybernetics has effectively discredited the romantic paradigm of inspiration, poets must take refuge in a new set of aesthetic metaphors for the unconscious, adapting by adopting a machinic attitude, placing the mind on autopilot in order to follow a remote-controlled navigation-system of mechanical procedures: automatic writing, aleatoric writing, mannerist writing, etc.” Elaborating on the deployment of automated compositional tools by late-twentieth-century conceptualists like Mac Low, John Cage, and George Hartman, Bök asserts that “prosthetic automation does not simply assist in the process of writing, so much as replace the concept of writing itself. The text is no longer simply a message produced by, and for, a reading person, so much as it is a program compiled by, and for, a parsing device. … We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers” (15, 17). Now at decade’s end, Bök is working on a rather literal revivification (or vivisection?) of cybernetic artifice by seeking to encode a poem directly into the DNA of bacteria that will not only outlast its author but perpetuate and succeed itself by birthing a poem in response, ad infinitum.
By contrast, Sepúlveda’s 2000 series Funerarium, set in a quasi-necrophiliac metaphysical laboratory that resembles a factory-like coroner’s theater, dramatizes both the poet’s inspiration and a readerly intentionality by permuting the romantic caution — “we murder to dissect.” The poem constitutes a neo-baroque play of identification between eros and death; the series is about a self in dispute with its romantic self-regard. Excerpts from the third and fourth sections exhibit, literally, the morbid erotic charge of new life as gendered, yet beholden to the general text of self as it dissipates into its particular “reasons”:
She is of the continent, around her everything is light and I observe her
atop the slab in the image of her body.
I am pleased by the landscape of the lingering down between her legs.
May this be the night and I her guide.
Atop other tables new cadavers, in other rooms new surgeons.
They seek reasons …
I hold a piece of paper and a knife …
I approach and dissect and kiss the striated organ, I kiss her feet, then her
but butterflies of death come into me and I write in the notebook that an
attack of the myocardium,
that between her lips was as much death as there are insects populating my
Let’s call him something …
Let’s observe the concretion and the utter expression of dream and
Without angels or mirrors.
Without false devotions, just a lizard resting between the legs…
Let’s say that the light travels along its legs and articulates tendons,
renews them, dies them.
As different as the surface values of Bök’s constraint-based work and Sepúlveda’s freely engaged lyricism are, they do not present uniform views of the metaphysics of life; Bök presents an apocalyptic check on Liebnitzian plenitude, while Sepúlveda flirts with the Kantian suggestion that nature acknowledges the attention we grant it. Their readership might equally agree that while we can’t know what life is, living (writing) is a matter of positioning one (another) to acquire such knowledge. Therein, simply that ineffable epistemological quality we call beautiful has endured in this decade, and these are just two overt if variously turgid examples of its fate when its putative ameliorative force is put in service of the social. Praxis, for both poets, resides in respectfully and progressively conflating what the French theorist and art critic Yves Michaud calls “the metaphor or the staging of science” with the “real … transgenic manipulations” of bio art:
To see the artist, filmed in a white outfit in a research center, commenting sententiously on his or her work and his or her ideas does not give an innocent representation of either the artist or of the scientist. It not only makes the artist a “knower,” “showy” in a classical representation of his or her mission (very nineteenth century, a mage and romantic prophet, cold and clean in light of pasteurization and immunology), but also makes the scientist a wondermaker, largely immunized against what effectively determines most of the scientific research today — the competition between research teams and the profit of investors.
Although the most prevalent model of poetic research today is the creative writing industry where perhaps certain MFA and PhD programs constitute “research teams” and institutional cash cows like the Poetry Foundation and the Associated Writing Programs or Modern Language Association serve as hubs for material and ideological investment, the return of conceptualism to the domain of life and the ambition of novelty relevant to this domain is rather invested in certain utopic engagements because it has, even beyond its bedrock critique of embodiment, a new concept of life as its motive.
Reviewing her 2010 collection If Not Metamorphic for Tarpaulin Sky, Patrick Dunagan lauds the sophistication of Brenda Iijima’s interrogation of “the connections between perceptions and how they pass through consciousness via the body,” differentiating her project from what he calls “easily-packaged-for-reader-consumption-introspective-gleaning trite,” which he claims to be, at present, endemic. Dunagan ends his review with a perfectly apt evocation of Charles Olson, quoting him, in fact, and calling their project a shared one. I think the comparison is apt and, paradoxically, timely; in 2010 Iijima’s book is published and so is the unfinished “Projective Verse II” (edited by Olson/Whitehead scholar Joshua Hoeynck). In some of the more metaphysically strident and ecologically minded declarations of the proprioceptive method he famously espoused, this unfinished text does lend insight into what I take to be the indicative poem of Iijima’s book, “Tertium Organum.” Olson:
By strain I mean what happens literally to the body’s geometry. You know, off-balance etc. The wit(ness) of the body … suddenly the field of construction is a field as experience itself! … A poem, then, can be, if called & seen as a strain-locus, as appropriation of the straight lines, flat loci, & time factors of anything it now is, including the tensors of sound each word its uses then make a new “world” of (an occasion being no less than whatever algae or brown kelp in “life” used to discover herself, and began. … What makes it worth doing … is the new relationships, unrealized in our experiences [which] through the poem introduce into the universe new types of order.
If what in mid-twentieth century found one “off-balance” so pervasively that, “you know,” it went more or less unmentioned, in the aughts it equally contaminated the circuits of self-discovery — experience itself — that which seemed once life-engendering. In other words, the reification of the observer’s paradox is upon us. It deserves recalling the post-Euclidean paradox of finding oneself in the field one had put under observation, complicating and resonating within the results, culpable in all that followed Whitehead’s debate against Einstein and the “discovery” and militarization of the atom.
The title “Tertium Organum” is borrowed from the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s major opus, which braved the ridiculous extremes of Einsteinian relativity and posited a systematic ethics based in an understanding of the fourth dimension (temporality), a major point of contention for metaphysicians like Whitehead and Henri Bergson. Ouspensky’s morality is proprioceptive only to a certain in fact hermetic end. Iijima’s appropriation is, as Dunagan points out, a timely reversal. While on the surface utopic, the poem begins “Roughly everywhere, sky / border, borderland sky,” grafting topos to topos, intersecting in an “indictment” of “each encasement” of natural “law” — “A sentence can’t handle this fall” (51). Hence, her updating of “open field” poetics: Iijima’s verse makes use of the visual field of the page in a way that has been rarely seen in recent years. Unafraid of the overdetermination of idiom, she proposes writing as “Ethics pursued by other means” (58). Exploding and variously returning to a columnar structure which more than a little recalls Williams’s breath-based line (a precursor to the truly “open” field to come), she seeks to “Shrink the definition of death” (57). Shrunk to the binary structure of the determinate/indeterminate, mirrored in the very indentation/grid one reads, writing becomes an heuristic cycle whose instrumentality asserts that momentum is novelty; there is no life where there was not one before.
Unlike nature poetry, there is no operative imagery here, at least not in a conventional sense. Instead, the list permits the reading eye to do what the language seems to wish upon itself. Nominals go verbal: wave might as well be an imperative, tenses sliding via phonemic autosuggestion right into and out of substantives, to conclude with a gerund poised exactly between the two. This would-be (procreative) imagery comes in for scrutiny in the very act of procreation contemplated in the poem, rendering the whole allegorical in the sense that conceptualism has been found to rewrite itself in terms of its figural meaning.
Sex glistened in a theory
slated for production I has been extricated from
gesture, endures as a symptom
began a sexual relationship with the earth
cherry of this adolescent girl
we swirl, girls …
Water mixes sex
Mistress metamorphose me and my
I shall be living always (62, 63, 66–7)
So the proprioceptive subjectivity is a function of endurance rather than of simple (arrested) locus, which permits the idiomatic (“cherry,” “tricks”) to live its symptom. What is narrated in the poem is not a set of interconnected lives, nor a “theory / slated” of the organism (a mystical life force). What is narrated is a mode (“always”) that can, for lack of a better term, be called “living.”
The circulatory systems of trees lay here
as sexy as elbow
frothy insect delivery
fiction … prophecies … lunatic
heavy frothy waves …
Ruby hard-wired jewel box
rebellion (71, 72, 74)
Like the “Anesthetized truly, Lake Shore Drive” of my hometown Chicago, the chimera of bordering ecosystems is psychosomatically reinforced by the very “Erotic / rebellion” that “Otherwise” holds such promise (75). How does one subvert or extend an open field, anyway?
Two texts usher in congeniality as various specifics
of meaning begin to meld. Essentiality becomes
So, among the brook and hemlock outcroppings
wildness hindered unhindered and spiraling
dance spur beyond an abyss of an act itself
animal vitality freely — objects are blind effects …
Forests have no detritus (75, 76, 88)
The tertium organum then subverts itself in its existential (rather than essential) recycling, “blind effects” consecrating what has no remainder, no anterior motive or reference. Two “touching” sections of the poem, almost exactly midway through it, shore up, as it were, the gendered idiomatic play of the poem. Wittgenstein’s observation that that which dare not speak its name sits precociously on the surface of the visible — what can be shown cannot be said — leads to the seminal hypothesis of the book as a whole (which is a negative, “If Not …” hypothesis):
That is when
your mother who is a man
who your father
could have been (84)
An entire stanza/section, the clause would appear truncated, grammatically, but its logic has been developed throughout. The rest of the poem, bookending this section, predicates it. One reads “Tertium Organum” radially, a reading method that “could have” been at play all along the linear route through its pages. The columnar verse form amplifies as much, allegorizes the text.
The poem’s objects (would-be images) now proliferate.
Now we ruby and blend
you ruby I reminisce
designated for rigors
risk axis — tear out mind loosely by engaging
ears Semblance, a bare relevance
held together …
With all that spawns finality
happenstance is cropped
Tears are integers of feeling
The simulacrum demands this expulsion (101, 104)
The poem’s objecthood solicits its corresponding subject, exactly us. And with a readership at its epicenter (like Bök’s parsing machines stemmed from authorial mechanisms), we must “risk axis — tear out mind” and assume the simulacrum we deserve. The poem recuses itself of its own witness work. And this is what makes the “ruby” and “cherry” images less poetic imagery and more an interpretive imaginary. It obliges us to meet it with a promise so familiar as to appear a “reminisce[nce].” Weiner might have called this obedience, but the connotation of such a term seems extravagant in Iijima’s case. Rather, it is a structure of recurrence and desire that aligns it with other examples of new life writing, even those with apparently different aesthetic values or political commitments. Which brings me to the last example I can offer here.
A prose memoir or, as its catalog copy reads, “a conceptualist take on immigrant literature,” you wouldn’t initially recognize that Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt was an installment in a project with implications for contemporary poetry, unless you knew of its place in his ongoing “Ambient Stylistics” project. The first book in that project, Blipsoak01, scrolls verse across page spreads rather than the silent grid of traditional prosody, collapsing metadata and imagery. Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the next, contains mostly prose and reminds one of Heriberto Yepez’s contention, in “Poetry in a Time of Crisis,” that “poetry exclusively occurs when it is discussed. [i.e. ‘Poetry’ as a privileged structure is an anachronistic notion. I can only stand poetry in the context of prose].” Insomnia and the Aunt extends the generic but also the argumentative reach of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, so to understand the newer of the two, the memoir, the former deserves some attention here.
The first section of that book, “A Field Guide to American Painting,” entertains the “forms of non-reading” the environment (or ambience) accommodating contemporary media exchanges (literary production) might take; but a characteristic ploy of the book is to advocate for the ambient as a style, hence periodic reference to ambient music tropes, such as dub (overlay/splicing/phasing) techniques, to mimic the textual condition of contemporary poetics: “Poetry should aspire to the most synthetic forms” (26). Always on analogy with other art forms, especially those tending toward design (new media, architecture, e.g.), Lin gives poetry an ultimatum with respect to its relevance in a time-space rendering most reading acts as subliminal, a kind of involuntary looking — the placards in public buildings, the advertisements on sides of buses half-noticed from the sidewalk, the peripheral semiosis of Facebook, and each and every reading practice that produces, for the economic superstructure, a demographic trace of a non-self. But in a fittingly soothing, nondidactic, even encouraging way that transmogrifies instead of personifies.
Private spaces are over-elaborated and under-inhabited. Public spaces are under-elaborated and lack sufficient feedback. Things that are living vs. things that are dead vs. languor.
For this reason, poetry (like a beautiful painting) ought to be replaced by the walls that surround it and doors that lead into empty rooms, kitchens and hypnosis. A poem should be camouflaged into the feelings that the room is having, like drapes, silverware, or candlesticks …
It would be nice to imagine a painting that didn’t need to be looked at but could be sampled, like the newspaper, the television or the weather … As anyone who has ever sequenced a painting will tell you, perceptual mistakes are never sublime. A painting should expire just before we look at it, just like the drapes. The most annoying thing at an art museum is always the wall with a painting hanging on it. (26)
… The interval [of “a strobe light going off”] can be beautiful because the interval can be dubbed. Relaxation like non-designed home décor, has no real bounds. It supplements that thing known as real life. That is why it is so pleasurable to read.
Someone (I think) said the time for poems written with words and the era of reading poems with feelings in them is long gone. Today, no poem should be written to be read and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them … televisions and computers do this … (24)
… It would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats. The most exasperating thing at a poetry reading is always the sound of a poet reading. (16)
The dystopic lull Lin seemingly reinforces and explains ceases to seem so new after all, once one recognizes that ambient stylistics responds to a sociopolitical environment in which reinforcement and explanation are redundant activities, because permission is granted ad libitum, i.e., where permission was never required (like entrances/exits to/from Mac Low’s “daily life”). Literature attains, then, to the status of information, the quality of the contemporary quantum of social mitigation, which Lin often poignantly associates with racial and intercultural identity politics (the first of the Library of Congress metadata tags for the book, printed incongruously on its cover, is “China — Poetry” and the second is “Mass Media and Language”):
In the world outside the west, it is understood that all reading practices shall be non-time-based and decorative. In that way they can be made ever more abstract and vague, like the non-illusionistic theatres of the east … Generic information is perfect information. Most books, unfortunately, are very imperfect: that is why they are read more than once. The surface is simulated, i.e., restricted by its own surface reflections/variants or logos/editions. (102)
The surface should be allowed to shed the burden of ethical depth, to be “perfect” where the illusion of perfection is too peculiar. The fluidity of the surface matches the attraction to identity construction, and disintegration, that has been, until Insomnia’s appearance, a displaced motif of “Ambient Stylistics.”
On the New York City program Ceptuetics Radio, reading with Kareem Estefan from another book in the series, plagiarism/outsource, Estefan asks Lin about the subject’s compromise, as such, and the paradoxical use of autobiographical details in his writing. The demands of new media dovetail, he replies, with Asian-American “notion[s] of identity”; identity has to be “invented,” and there is a tradition of this “ever since the ‘Paper Sons’ episode … when the records were lost in 1906 and people had to reconstruct a whole series of lineages based on imagined relatives, which was — they were able to bring relatives [from China to the United States], they weren’t really their relatives.” Like the RSS feed piping chatter surrounding the death of film star Heath Ledger — source material for the book — celebrity is a cipher around which anonymous (plagiarized) affect, or family, national, and racial identity are organized. A poetics arising from this recognition would be a poetics of readership, concerned with “how can one read something and participate in it somehow … It’s not really literature. So much of what we read on any given day, it’s not sort of considered meaningful, it’s not eternal, it’s not meant to last. And yet we — I find that I’m incredibly affectively attached to a lot of this material.” Lin even mentions a favorite exercise, “I would rewrite NYTimes stories very loosely and pretend that they happened to me.”
This deployment of social autobiography is precisely why “Ambient Stylistics” and “Tertium Organum” can be legibly called conceptualist projects. Conceptualism in writing, as poet-critic Thom Donovan would have it:
Whereas conceptual art prioritized the dematerialization of the art object as a means of overcoming art-as-commodity, conceptualist practices in recent poetry deconstruct the authority of author and text by prioritizing ideas as the principle source of a work’s authority. Doing so, conceptualist writers invite their erstwhile readership into a discourse about poetry’s function as a site of institutional, epistemic, pedagogical, and social authority (rather than into debates about how “good” or “bad” a poem may be).
But the ideational/(craft-based) formal dichotomy was, from conceptual writing’s outset, exhausted by proceduralism. By the aughts, this dichotomy emerges in the wake of the battle against commodification, the literary commodity having been sublimated by the dematerialization of readerly attention as well as capitalist exchange. Kenneth Goldsmith, also in the virtual pages of BOMB, exploits this abnegated materiality by means of analogy with the reification of creativity (in the persistence of enlightenment values of personal expression), which opportunely abnegates the matter at hand:
Conceptual writing treats words as material objects, not simply carriers of meaning. For us, words are both material and carriers of meaning; it’s language and you can’t get rid of meaning no matter how hard you try. This is made manifest by the digital environment where, since the dawn of media, we’ve had more on our plates than we could ever consume, but something has radically changed: never before has language had so much materiality — fluidity, plasticity, malleability — begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different today when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container …
Rather than the content-provider of old, today’s literary author holds a sort of lower-middle-management position that affirms organizing principles, concepts. Were we to elaborate the affinities of Lin’s recent work with conceptual writing, a similar analogy is required. In an April 2010 interview featured on the Poetry Foundation website, Lin does just this, but extends it to an immigrant/familial life course:
Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats: i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment … coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed- and non-printed formats, people, meta data tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.”
Insomnia and the Aunt, as a logical extension of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, parses adoration, dissipation, and assimilation from the same (Google reverse-searched) nostalgic predisposition that social media entrepreneurs (each instantly monumentalized in narrative caress) exploit. What if, say, my fatal anonymity were overcome? What if, then, I could raise capital and, indeed, be a contender? And even if the contest had another outcome, I would have affirmed the meritocratic promise of “free trade”? Kickstarter. The democratization of “futures” is a fee structure of personality, a subjection of life-course to profit motive, where to nap is to die; one is never not on the clock. The aunt’s universe of commodity exchange, as a motel-keeper in rural Washington state, is already, if in miniature, insomniac and based on endurance more than labor time. She likes that she isn’t the professional she was in China — no one sleeps in motels — she rents time to oneself. In this sense, she is a perfect structural cipher for reality television, about which Seven Controlled Vocabularies contains a long and hilarious analysis whose conceptual adjacency to poetry is either chilling or invigorating, depending on who you ask.
Being on reality TV is the newest format of class-based identity branding in which people become goods, work is alchemically “removed” from life, and labor is camouflaged as a mediated, i.e., prime-time, leisure format …
The networks are well aware that subjective events like emotions are relatively easy to control and standardize in a viewer … it’s the void at the center of the viewer’s experience that counts. As most network executives can tell you, the mediation of a life on television — like an emotion — is short-lived, and the reality behind the play reality is hardly a luxury because it is about transforming something into nothing: each minute of the viewer’s unpaid leisure time becomes work time in order that we may resemble quasi-celebrities like ourselves. (122, 222)
Insomnia and the Aunt chronicles our nephew-narrator’s overnight hours spent with his aunt in front of a television in the Bear Park Motel office. She is “half-Chinese, half-English,” and it is unclear whether she is related to his mother by blood or “just a Chinese auntie.” The unnamed aunt’s invitations extended to the unnamed mother are written on post cards; the book is illustrated with numerous photos and postcards, each of which is not quite what is mentioned in the text, but a generic stand-in. The aunt is described in a photo wearing a “white cowboy hat and dark sunglasses,” whereas the book opens with a photo of a young man and older woman, hatless and prim, both with warm, not happy, facial expressions, but perhaps one generation previous to the late-twentieth-century adolescence evoked by the text. Numerous motor lodges are depicted, none of them the Bear Park which, being located in the town of Concrete, Washington, is signaled by the first postcard, of the Lake Washington Pontoon Bridge in Seattle, the “only concrete pontoon bridge in the world,” according to the card’s caption. (As the facing text depicts the nephew-narrator embarking in a rental car, heading out from Seattle’s airport toward Concrete, the route is unlikely to take him over the bridge.)
A simulacral scrapbook, Insomnia and the Aunt’s illustrations float in an illusionistic embarrassment which, like the photo of the non-nephew and anti-aunt, evokes a temporal quandary to match the bewildering durance of insomnia itself. This is mirrored in the generic oscillation between (nephew’s) memoir and (aunt’s) biography. If the visual apparatus resists facticity, the narrator’s groping for a suitable backstory for his beloved relative is continually frustrated. And it would stay that way if the dissipating traces of his memory didn’t fall into a relief — like a Man Ray “rayograph” — illustrating an apprehension of love. The apprehension is the cumulative effect of a set of moments of simple comprehension. One such moment follows an account of the aunt’s “linguistic life, the only part of her that I can recollect,” and the one which
makes her appear as a type of linguistic biography that is not much written today but was prevalent during the nineteenth century, a biography where nothing is awestruck because nothing is hidden or concealed from view. In this sense, my aunt resembles the biography of a dead person where the dead person has somehow forgotten to die. She speaks casually, like the speech of a language without a speaker. There is no original Chinese word for “motel,” and no Chinese word for “concrete” either, and so my aunt pronounced the English words as if they already existed in Chinese, thus making out of them a concrete poem …
As any linguist can tell you, it is possible to read a thing without being able to speak it and it is possible to speak a thing without knowing what it is, and this is in fact how many people learn their second and third languages, which they suddenly hear, as if for the first time, when the meanings to words pronounced for hours in a classroom are delivered by a dictionary into an understanding. And this is how my aunt’s understanding of her life in America was arrived at, as a delay in the speed of an understanding.
Ostensibly “Asian” insofar as one is “good at killing emotions,” the aunt’s “uncontrollable wailing” at the arrival of the nephew is one of the only “actions” of the book (beyond viewing television, writing poems, reading them, and stocking a vending machine), and “give[s] off, like the paradox surrounding a guess, the appearance of slightness inside moments that have already happened …” “Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen” except as reruns, spent affective relays whose truth value becomes a figure for and of the television’s mediation of practically everything in the book. The screen’s teleportation effect summons extinct memories like the sentient ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
As such, celebrity speech functions like the wishes of the dead do in Weiner’s Page. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, especially, and the spectral voice of Ronald Reagan bleeding over from the obscure uncle “Bing-bing’s” room. “For my aunt, and I think for Robert Redford, lying was a specific thing, like a baby crying in a room or an animal with a soul or, at the least, those mental states that scientists believe trigger particular actions …” (A postcard of Reagan the actor feeding a baby’s bottle to a chimp illustrates this passage.) Reportedly Redford’s process involved the body lying to the mind rather than the reverse, but here the process is reversed, thus acting is distinguished from truth; “lying is the most sincere way of expressing oneself, and the best way anyone has of connecting one thing to another. As Paul Newman said, lying is a highly flirtatious and mechanical form that the body has of creating a gene pool. For this reason lying is never natural (in the reproductive sense) …” Here we find the first of ten footnotes consisting of Google reverse searches that bear only the queasiest pertinence to the passage that happens to share their diction: a blithe search term brings up police lie detection truisms, such as excessive speech to paper over the truth. The nephew is led to assert that, “distinct from the somaform,” the eyes, though “everyone thinks you can make love with” them, really are only a vehicle for lies: “To lie and have sex at the same time is one of the greatest things anyone can do.” The erotic charge of the aunt and nephew’s overnight vigils, otherwise tremendously bland, binds the “genealogical” to the grammatical perspectives contemplated and deployed through the narrative. It “holds the parts of a family together,” like a sentence.
The paratactic — “involuntary and achronological” — viewing routines caused by poor reception conditions the syntactic “anthropological dumb show” of the networked programming. For instance, during an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on African game animals, the mercilessly prolonged death of a gazelle (a lion is toying with it) finds the nephew squirming, but the suspense is lost on the aunt. “Already dead,” she bluntly explains.
My aunt has trouble understanding when something is dying on TV and when something is dead in real life and that already dead is not the same thing as the fiction of watching it on TV. “They won’t show that on TV.” “Gazelle. Already dead,” my aunt says. She adds, “not already dying.”
Likewise, the aunt “dislikes live broadcasts” because they “feel canned … as if they have been rehearsed once in real life and once on television, or, in other words, once in somebody else’s life and once in ours.” Hence this “aunt seems to be a part of the anthropology of somebody else’s TV set.” The truth-value of “the aunt” rests on its lack of specificity. The television in this memoir/biography is not a conduit of images, then, but a specific object, a piece of “furniture that moves like a glacier through American life, picking up all sorts of magnetized debris … America … basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it.” It is also why, given the canned quality of even purportedly real time transmissions, such as reports of the Vietnam War, the aunt “has very few memories of violence or even racism in America. TV has made her forget all these things.”
But the great highlight of their viewing recalled here (with the possible exception of a “shiatsu guy” stunning an MTV presenter ill-prepared to translate/convey the metaphysical reality of their physical propinquity) is the Late Show with Conan O’Brien. O’Brien’s social ineptitude and dismal sense of humor are, rather than lampooned, made a figure for the “uses of pleasure” and “versions of happiness I thought a family would have.” His lack of timing is a cherished emotional “delay” in the “communal family chore” of laughter and crying, “which is why the networks invented laugh tracks and why in certain countries you hire mourners to come to a funeral and weep for you. Less distant relatives like my aunt are usually too grief stricken to grieve in the present, which is why most grieving takes place long before or many years after someone has died.” In the meantime, the “relaxing” effect of television stems from its use as a repository of lies, its nonillusionistic mechanisms. “TV, and I think all TV is great, is not about having emotions but escaping from your least predictable emotions.” And in a nod to Eliotonian impersonality, Lin adds, “Of course, only someone who watches a lot of TV like my aunt knows what it means to escape from an emotion.” Just as it “has taught her how to lie,” it has “helped her invent a new life,” an example so enduring that the nephew-narrator admits, in the eleventh footnote (the only non-Google reverse search),
I still prefer, to this day, reading anthologies rather than individual books. A poem like a person in an anthology has forgotten its author. Like a rerun or a flea market photo, it receives coaching from things next to it that probably don’t like or can’t understand it.
No one considers real life a given, but in an age of reality programming and social media the high modernist imputation of numerous realisms echoes in the refractory mediation of postmodern experience. If lived experience is basically entrepreneurial, which is I think how Lin describes it, transgression is redundant. Any realism is redundant, which leads to the temporal paradoxes first essayed in Seven Controlled Vocabularies and then exploited in Insomnia and the Aunt. New life is not reinvention, claiming an epistemological standpoint, e.g. disability, hyphenated ethnic-nationality, or class consciousness. Insomnia and the Aunt displaces immigrant witness work with a view toward the way ego broadcasts citizenship and identity. In this sense, it is one of the most sophisticated adjudications of contemporary “life,” both a prospect contingent upon its environment’s obsolescence and a supple contraption consisting of meta data, affect, and the event horizon of (re)birth. And this is why, like Iijima’s ecopoetics, it demands an ethics of — rather than protest against — reification.
2. The poetics Mac Low describes sounds uncannily like the poetics of “deterritorialization” described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “When Glenn Gould speeds up the performance of a piece, he is not just displaying virtuosity, he is transforming the musical points into lines, he is making the whole piece proliferate … [in] a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2, trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], 8, 25). The refusal to relegate interpretation to epiphenomenal events of literary production is the first in a set of precursors to a concept of “new” life.
3. The premise of scrutinizing the aughts would not have occurred to me without this commission which, since it was separate from my offering the essay that resulted, deserves mention and even produced the following description as offered to Al Filreis of Jacket2. I wrote, “it grew from thinking about disability poetics, abandoned that discourse in particular, and then conceived a generalized trend tentatively called ‘new life writing’ that closes a gap between expressivist and conceptualist poetics. It is something of a proposal — the concept or trend of ‘new life writing’ is in the works as the essay moves along. So its claims are a bit open-ended, designed very specifically to provoke rather than summarize (unlike other trend-spotting proposals e.g. ‘Elliptical Poets’). It is not polemical, but not entirely speculative or scholarly (somewhere in between). It is perhaps slightly idiosyncratic, then, but I think that’s one of its virtues. The glass half full: it is as theoretical as it is a work of literary criticism. Still, there is very little recourse to ‘critical theory’; it doesn’t put the works I analyze in the service of existing theoretical discourse that nonetheless spirits it. A companion essay is possible at some point (if I can find the time) that does the work of folding ‘new life writing’ back onto disability studies discourse, which has a wealth of important arguments concerning what is more traditionally thought of as ‘life writing.’”
4. On conceptual writing as allegorical writing, see Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), and Steve Zultanski, “Polemic for P-Queue,” P-Queue 7 (2010): 89–98. Both make “strategies of failure” central to the “poetic” ethos of conceptualism. See Owens for a fuller discussion of the link between the avoidance of epiphenomenal hermeneutics and allegory: “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980): 67–86; “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Part 2,” October 13 (Summer 1980): 58–80. For the reemergence of Jacques Derrida’s work in disability and other sociopolitical identity-based discourses, compare his trope of “the time of the promise” in Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), and Judith Butler, “Finishing, Starting,” in Derrida and the Time of the Political, ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 291–396. Cary Wolfe’s contribution to bioethical quandaries of bio art is informative; he revisits the famous Austin-Derrida-Searle debate, treated at length in Derrida’s Limited Inc. (trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffery Mehlman; Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988) and haunting such later and fully germane essays as “Psyche: Invention of the Other” (in Psyche: Invention of the Other, vol. 1 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007], 1–47). See Wolfe, “Bioethics and the Posthumanist Imperative,” in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 95–114. I point to Brenda Iijima’s use of disability as a critical category of ecopoetics in note 32 below.
6. Kaplan Harris, “‘JGT Very glad of your company’: A Sequence of Code Signals for the Conceptual Writing of Hannah Weiner,” paper presented at the Hannah Weiner Symposium, Buffalo, NY, October 29, 2010.
8. See Andy Warhol, a, A Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1968); Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1975); Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000); and Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001).
10. Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.
12. See Tyrus Miller, Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo Avant Garde (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009) for a brilliant analysis of Mac Low’s quasi-intentionality as it impinges on discourses of incarnation.
13. Mark Priestley appropriates a standard sociological usage to propose a “life course” approach to disability. Social institutions and independently driven transitions from “stages” of life dialectically produce “a critical understanding of disability” that, as the course between these stages comes into focus, renders “life” an extensive (social and ontologically changeable) rather than an intensive (individual and ontologically static) quality (Disability: A Life Course Approach [Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003], 26–27). Priestely’s chapter “Life, death and disability” is especially evocative; it permits us to critique “life expectancy” as an atemporal normalization of, not least, poetic agency in light of its relinquishment, dispersal, and democratization on conceptualist grounds. Life course has a crucial conceptual affinity with bio art that might also delineate new life writing. Both bio art and conceptualism face the ramifications of working outside of “the well defined domain of objecthood — but rather in the more complex and fluid zone of subjecthood” (Eduardo Kac, “Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics,” in Signs of Lie: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007], 12). Though the distinction between “living art,” say of Eiko and Koma (Naked) or Vito Acconci (Follow Piece), or conceptualism, both of which use traditional (if sometimes “new,” i.e. digital) media, “bio art is in vivo,” creating “new life” objects as much as “new subjects,” such that its emphasis on “the dialogical and relational” qualities of embodied components that will enter and alter evolutionary processes writ large to encompass the sociopolitical fields of global networks shape the “material and formal qualities of art” itself (3, 9, 19). Like biology per se, whose purview is the continuum of the somaform rather than abberrance or medicinal correction, bio art — but by analogy disability culture and conceptual poetics — challenged the “assumed typicality” of beauty and merge representation with poesis at ontic extremes (from the sign to the cell). Cybernetic, biotechnical, and pathogenic infiltration of the circuits of conventionally defined artistic agency come into focus when “new” modifies “life” at any distance, as it did at the turn of the last century when scientific positivism confronted the novel’s charge, via Emile Zola, of “heredity and environment … to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation,” begging the question of “determinism” and “vitalism” (The Experimental Novel and Other Essays [New York: Cassell Publishing, 1893], 21, 18).
14. Mac Low, “It Is a Simple Life,” MSS 180, box 49, folder 23, Jackson Mac Low Papers. Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California at San Diego Library. In an odd coincidence, the poem was dedicated forty years to the day before Mac Low’s eightieth birthday celebration at Buffalo, when we concurred that questions about death are questions of a life; 1963 is also the year that Weiner claims to have begun writing poetry.
18. See Hannah Weiner, Page (New York: Roof Books, 2002), Clairvoyant Journal (New York: Angel Hair, 1978), and The Fast (New York: United Artists Books, 1992); Marta Werner, “The Landscape of Hannah Weiner’s Late Work,” Jacket2 (April 7, 2011).
In a 1995 exchange with Bernstein for his Linebreak radio program, Weiner insists on the collusion of new life writing and conceptualism:
HW: When I became clairvoyant I just started keeping a journal of everything that was happening.
CB: What interested you about the kinds of diaristic materials that would normally be excluded from poetry, that you’ve put in? The things that most people would edit out. Lots of the Clairvoyant Journal consists of things that in a conventional poetic and literary context would be edited out.
HW: It came from conceptual art, when there was an idea in the late 60s and early 70s to document everything. Or to make documents of things. And so that’s what I did. And then I edited out. For example, The Fast, I edited out forty-five pages from a thousand handwritten ones. And there’s another book following that that’s coming out soon.
19. For analyses of the role of “seen words” in Weiner’s “clairvoyant” writing, see Judith Goldman, “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–68, and Patrick Durgin, “Avant-Garde Journalism: Hannah Weiner’s Early and Clairvoyant Journals,” in The Early and Clairvoyant Journals, Archive for New Poetry, UCSD Libraries Special Collections, 2004.
21. Weiner, Code Poems (Barrytown, NY: Open Book Publications, 1982). See also Rodney Koeneke, “Hannah Weiner and Basic English,” Electronic Poetry Center.
22. Yet in her later projects, Weiner was especially fond of neologisms. In her stories of astral visions and conversations with or about her friend “Paw” the polar bear, for instance, they playfully further plot, emplot voices, and even set micro-prosodic parameters: a very suggestive example being her reference to herself as “ma,” picking up a convenient rhyme. Her biographical preface to silent teachers / remembered sequel (Providence, RI: Tender Buttons, 1994) ends with a golden nod to the self-congratulation inherent to the genre of the short bio: “gosh ma shes a real female tarpsichordist.”
23. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions + The Collected Critical Essays, ed. Mark Scroggins (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 228. William Carlos Williams, in Spring and All (in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I: 1909–1939 [New York: New Directions, 1991], 177–236), definitively develops the motif of a life where there was not one before as a model of radical modernist aesthetic inventiveness:
One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
In a 1929 letter detailing “our need” to preserve this and other, eventually extracted, verse sections of Spring and All for a planned collection he would edit, Zukofsky pointed to “To Elsie” as a “complete poem” (The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, ed. Barry Ahearn [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003], 40). This putative “need” is really a revisionary collocation of lines into a poem of a life and not a “repetition of a group of poems” (ibid.) It could be said that Zukofsky’s proposal was akin to appropriative, recombinatory conceptualism, though he made the mistake of seeking permission from the author. In other words, the “poem of a life” is not an accumulation, not a career retrospective, but a critical intervention motivated by a successive generation.
26. Sianne Ngai has written on Spahr’s “networked” autobiography in light of actor-network theory; see “Network Aesthetics: Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,” Modern Language Association, 2008. Paul Stephen argues that Dworkin’s prior work of conceptual writing, Dure, “enacts something along the lines of a return to expressive autobiography.” See “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin,” Postmodern Culture 19, no. 3 (May 2009).
27. See Dolores Dorantes, sexoPURO / sexoVELOZ and Septiembre: A Bilingual Edition of Books Two and Three of Dolores Dorantes, trans. Jen Hofer (Denver and Chicago: Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2008); Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001); Susan Schultz, Dementia Blog (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 2008); Renee Gladman, To After That (toaf) (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002) and My Life in the Nineties (New York: Shark Books, 2003).
28. Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed,” Object 10 (2002), 11.
29. Bök, “The Xenotext Experiment,” SCRIPTed 5, no. 2, #227 (2008).
30. Ofelía Pérez, Sepúlveda, “Four Poems,” in Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women, ed. and trans. Jen Hofer (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 168–71.
32. Patrick Dunagan, “Brenda Iijima’s If Not Metamorphic reviewed by Patrick Dunagan,” Tarpaulin Sky. The conceptual reach and procedural rigor of this stance is echoed in Iijima’s essay “Metamorphic Morphology,” where she “propose[s] the term re-enable-ment” to point to the epistemological values of the poles of “ability” under scrutiny by the social model of disability studies: “Dysfunction can bring about different sorts of functionality that rebel against categorization.” See Iijima, “Metamorphic Morphology,” in eco language reader, ed. Iijima (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010), 277–78, and Iijima, If Not Metamorphic (Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2010).
34. Heriberto Yepez, “Poetry in Time of Crisis.” Yepez’s Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers. (New York: Factory School, 2007) is exemplary new life writing.
35. Tan Lin, Blipsoak01 (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2003), Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2003. The Joy of Cooking (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), and Insomnia and the Aunt (Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2011).
36. Tan Lin, appearance on Ceptuetics Radio, September 24, 2008, PennSound; see also Lin, Heath: plagiarism/outsource, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Untitled Heath Ledger Project, a history of the search engine, disco OS (La Laguna, Canary Islands: Zaesterle, 2007).
37. Thom Donovan, review of Notes on Conceptualisms, Bombsite, March 18, 2011.
38. Katherine Elaine Sanders, “So What Exactly Is Conceptual Writing?: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” Bomblog.