Poetic representations of the holocaust

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.

Never without

On Diane Ward

The Los Angeles River. Photo by 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
won’t erase.

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
fallibility leads

to instrumentality
in self-restraint

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).

It stays.

23 March 2011

Basics of definition

The Hubble Space Telescope drifts over the Earth, 2009. Image courtesy of NASA.

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
Absent-minded attention
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
vermin ridden
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
Absent-minded attention
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.

New life writing

From Tan Lin’s "Insomnia and the Aunt."

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.”[1] 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).[2] 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,[3] 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).[4] 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)[5] 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,[6] at others against a parallel scale of artform to somaform.[7] 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.[8]

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.”[9] 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.”[10] 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.)[11]

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.[12] 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).[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.
Black Ace
2.   B.   Is the baby sleeping?
Black Two
3.   C.   I’d better take the dog out. 
Black Three
4.   D.   What do you want? 
Black Four
5.   E.   Let’s have eggs for breakfast.     
Black Five

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.”[16]

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.”[17]

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?
Hello, sweety-baby!
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.” [18]

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.[19] 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).[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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
writing return

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.”[23] 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.[24] On the other, as this poem matures, so “life” is redefined as a “special sense of duration,” a life course.[25] 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;[26] 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.[27]

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.”[28] 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.[29]

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.[30]

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.[31]

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.[32] 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.[33]

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.

             kneading (55)

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

When she
               began a sexual relationship with the earth

Hermeneutics immures
               galore spur
cherry of this adolescent girl

Disassembling layers
               we swirl, girls …
Water mixes sex

               Mistress metamorphose me and my
tricks …

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.”


Composting …
              The circulatory systems of trees lay here
Bamboo pleasure
              showing groin
as sexy as elbow

frothy insect delivery

              fiction … prophecies … lunatic
heavy frothy waves …

              Ruby hard-wired jewel box

              touching phenomena

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
             phantasmal …

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].”[34] 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.[35]

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.”[36]

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).[37]

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 …[38]

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.



1. Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1979), 67.

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.

5. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–48.

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.

7. Liz Kotz, Language to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), especially her discussion of Huebler 231 anon.

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).

9. Joan Retallack, “_______ : _______,” in Crayon 1: A Festschrift for Jackson Mac Low’s 75th Birthday, ed. Bob Harrison and Andrew Levy (New York: Crayon, 1997), 91.

10. Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.

11. Mac Low, “An Essay Begun in 1965,” Paper Air 2, no. 3 (1983): 30.

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.

15. Mac Low, Representative Works (New York: Roof, 1986), 71–79.

16. Ibid., 173.

17. Mac Low, “Daily Life,” MSS 180, box 45, folder 16, Jackson Mac Low Papers.

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.

20. Weiner, Weeks (Madison, WI: Xexoxial Editions, 1990).

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.

24. Mark Scroggins, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Berkeley, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007), 97.

25. Ibid., 101.

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.

31. Yves Michaud, “Art and Biotechnology,” in Signs of Lie: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 393.

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).

33. Charles Olson, The Principle of Measure in Composition by Field: Projective Verse II (Tucson, AZ: Chax Press, 2010), 28, 30, 33.

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.

Before the laws

The secular, sacred and aesthetic cases of Lawrence Joseph

Outside those poems constrained by explicitly procedural and chance operations, a lyrical impulse, which is not to be confused with the lyric per se, dominates almost all the modes of contemporary poetry. Whether explicit or implicit, this impulse, apparent in narrative-, image-driven, and paratactic poetics, is irreducible to any specific subgenre or mode.[1] Though the lyrical impulse differs from the lyric, which can be defined as “a relatively short poem in which the sensual and musical qualities of language are heightened in order to present a subjective, emotionally charged moment, an interior event with lasting resonance,”[2] it functions, like the genre from which it derives, as a “law of poetics,” imposing constraints during the composition of poetry, the judgment of what to publish and what not to publish, the judgment of what is and isn’t poetry, etc. The various practices of poetry under this law habituate authors, publishers, and critics to its apparent inevitability, naturalizing the lyrical impulse, if not the lyric per se, as the sine qua non of poetry in general. These practices tend to calcify into irrepressible, complementary habits of writing and reading which function as “local” laws in relation to the general law of the lyric. These “laws” explain why readers and critics can “trace” or follow motives and motifs in a poet’s career; the final suppression of the lyrical (not the lyric) impulse rarely occurs.[3] The poet returns incessantly to the scene of instruction which is, of course, the scene of the crime, the enabling trauma that enters public life under the mask, in the cage, of the law of the lyric.[4]

The law of the lyric is not the sole law of contemporary poetics; the epic and prophetic,[5] and thus the epical and prophetic impulses, also function as laws of poetics and poetry. But while epical and prophetic impulses may not always be present in what are deemed “successful” poems, it is difficult to find “successful” poems completely void of the lyrical impulse (excepting, again, procedural and chance poetics).[6] It may be helpful to recall, for example, that one of the strategies of early Language poetry relied on agrammatical, nonsyntactical, and proto-surrealist formations to liberate ludic “content” from the constraints of the ego, often — though not entirely — reduced to the grammatical marker “I” and the subgenre “confessionalism.” The resulting “anti-lyric” poetics and poetry did not mean, perhaps could not have meant, the final suppression of a lyrical impulse. Language poetry availed itself of procedural and chance operations in order to decenter — not expel — what Olson called the “individual as ego.”[7] That many readers habituated by the conventions of grammatically and rhetorically “correct” — and thus “clear” — poetry found much of the output of Language writing difficult to decipher is hardly surprising. As noted above, habits of reading and writing are not easily, if ever, jettisoned, but they can be tempered, tamped down, though doing so is difficult.

Other contemporary poets interested in countering the “lyrical interference of the individual as ego” but wary of what they perceive as over-experimentalism in the avant-garde line of modernism (Stein, Zukofsky, Mac Low, etc.) have felt a need to return to, or at least invoke, vatic/prophetic traditions. Indeed, it is not uncommon for American poets to begin their careers writing largely in the lyric mode before moving “outward” to embrace larger social, cultural, or philosophical issues via epical/serial or other narrative modes. For example, the traditional lyrics and narratives that comprise Harryette Mullen’s first book, Tree Tall Woman, do not herald the dizzying syntaxes, prose forms, and social/cultural critiques of later books like Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. On the other hand, social and cultural critique is present from the start in Carl Phillips’s first book, In the Blood, however embedded in traditional narrative and lyric forms. Phillips uses his first book to clear social and cultural space for himself as a gay black writer by taking on normative themes in black writing, a topic he largely abandons in his later, more elliptical, more philosophical, poems and books.[8]

As the example of Phillips indicates, the general failure or inadequacy of social, cultural, and political institutions to address the most pressing concerns of modernity have led some poets to turn to traditional or speculative modes of idealism from the very start of their careers, spirituality and religion being two of the more common ones. As it happens, some of the most interesting, even perplexing, contemporary American poets are those that invoke spiritual/religious traditions in relation to the secular modes of poetry available to them: think of poets as varied as Nathaniel Mackey, Fanny Howe, Elizabeth Robinson, Armand Schwerner, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg.[9] That this list is comprised of those deemed minorities is not coincidental. In Mackey and Schwerner in particular, the law of the lyric and lyrical impulse, the law of the epic and epical impulse, and the law of prophesy and prophetic impulse struggle with, and against, one another. Each law attempts to assert itself as the law, the a priori matrix from which the other laws derive. In their complex negotiations between identity and responsibility, choice and predetermination, the poetries of Mackey and Schwerner are drawn less along racial or ethnic lines (though these are present) than along religious or spiritual lines. Thus, the extent to which these poetics “press” toward an “end,” gesture toward a utopian moment, is the extent to which they confound literary genres.[10] The enduring presence of prophesy and the prophetic as characteristic of certain American poetries indicates that the literary — understood here as primarily the site of aesthetics — is, perhaps always has been, under assault, or receptive to assistance, from without.[11]


Or, should we say, from within? What if prophesy is not a cross a poet takes on, however reluctantly, but the very impetus of his birth as a poet? Such is the unique, if conflicted, argument of Lawrence Joseph’s poetry. By almost any standard Joseph’s poetry is formally quite traditional; it is, by turns, descriptive (though abstractions punctuate each book) and confessional (though not necessarily autobiographical), narrative (despite the collage-effects that increase with each new book) and lyric-driven (as well as driven by lyrical impulses). At the same time it raises the bugaboo of “identity politics” even as it complicates the meanings of both “identity” and “politics.” For Joseph, as with Mackey and Schwerner, the question of identity is not exclusively or even primarily tethered to the usual accidental attributes of race, ethnicity, and/or sex. For Joseph, the question is tied to the accident of birthplace — another traditional feature of the work[12] — and the “choice” of a profession. But in centering so much of his work on the problem of “choice,” will and responsibility in relation to his birthplace, Joseph calls into question the very concepts of accident and choice — that is, his poetry questions the alleged differences between accident and essence, choice and predetermination. His work alternates between affirming and undermining accident, essence, choice, and predetermination, and it draws analogies between these differences and that which obtains between the law, the lawful, and the lawless. As a lawyer, Joseph appears to be particularly drawn to the work of Wallace Stevens, hardly just another lawyer and poet. In the work, and perhaps even life, of Stevens, Joseph finds both justification and condemnation for his “double” life as an attorney and poet. Unlike Stevens, however, Joseph can never sever his ties to that which follows and leads him, spurs him on — his accidental but essential birthplace, Detroit, Michigan.

In contrast to that over which they have no or little control — birthplace, race, ethnicity, sex — artists have generally emphasized their vocations as those of their own choosing. Of course, there is a long tradition of the poet having been chosen by spirits, the gods, the muses, and in more secular cultures, poetry itself. Joseph integrates himself into this tradition by linking the sacred and secular; he explicitly affirms that he was, in some sense, chosen by both. Over the course of his four books of poetry, Joseph is chosen, even as he chooses, to be a poet “born” in Detroit, Michigan. And both choosings originate in at least two sources: the gods (the poet as witness à la Whitman) and aesthetics (the poet as aesthete à la Stevens). Both “callings” will conflict with the secular “call” of the law. In short, Joseph’s quandary is worse than that of, say, Stephen Dedalus who “only” has to decide if he wants to be a shaman-prophet[13] at the service of the gods (sacred or secular) or a godhead-forger of his own creation. Joseph has to decide how, or if, he can serve human laws, divine laws, and aesthetic laws, for in serving one, or even two, sets of laws he betrays the other(s). To be law-abiding he must, in turn, be a lawbreaker.

Given that he grew up in Detroit during one of the most violent periods in its history, Joseph may be excused for repeatedly returning, in his poetry, to the subject of his family’s fate in his hometown. Though Detroit becomes less and less the focus of Joseph’s poetry over the course of his career thus far, at least one poem in each of his four books explicitly concerns the Motor City. As one of the most infamous (ex-Murder Capital of the United States) and famous (Motown Records, the Big Three automakers) cities in the United States, Detroit has left its mark on Joseph. It would be an obvious mode of oversimplification to reduce Joseph’s decision to become a lawyer to a reflection of his being raised amid urban lawlessness — Monday morning quarterbacking from Dr. Freud’s armchair, so to speak — but it is a fact that all four of his books have as a central concern the tension between his lawful (largely Catholic) upbringing and the apparent unabated lawlessness of urbanity.[14] In the early books Detroit is the site of the crime, but in later books, after Joseph moves to New York City, he discovers that Wall Street is no less lawless, in its own way, than the unforgiving streets of Detroit. From an ethical and moral position, one might suppose that the different modes lawlessness takes would be insignificant, but for Joseph the differences make all the difference in the world: he became a lawyer — not a policeman. Thus, though lawlessness prevails amid a more or less impotent law, law, however, weak, must be endorsed. Insofar as this necessity is psychological, its sources can easily be traced back to Detroit.[15] However, its weak moral foundations suggest that the secular — chosen or choosing — represents itself as inferior to the sacred. But since Joseph offers both realms as sites of potential or possible freedom (we are chosen or we choose in both), why imply that the secular remains “weak” in relation to the sacred?

Because to the extent its foundations are human, not divine, secular law is fundamentally, necessarily, weak in relation to sacred law. Yet this weakness is also its strength. Its human limitations perforce make secular law humane in every sense of the word — that is, both “good” and “bad.” On the other hand, sacred law, by its very nature, is perfect — and inhumane. And since he is human — by choice and not by choice, as we will read — Joseph tends to prefer the vagaries of finite imperfections to the certainty of infinite perfection, a preference which will serve to justify the movement toward the aesthetic in the third and fourth books. He is “born,” however, a prophet utilizing the lyric mode of poetry, reminding us that the gesture toward the horizon of the utopian can be inward as well as outward.[16] And because he will never be able to free himself of the prophetic voice even as he embraces the aesthetic of the lyric, the poet will shuttle back and forth, inward and outward, gesturing toward the lyric and epic: his poems will be written in the frequencies of the lyrical and epical impulses.


Joseph pits the divine against the human in his first book, Shouting at No One (1983). It opens with a pre-genetic “epigraph” whose first line is “I was appointed the poet of heaven.” The phrase “poet of heaven” can be read in at least two ways: heaven’s representative on earth and heaven’s own, singular (“the”) poet. Both readings are supported by the poem. The poet is “appointed” to describe “Theresa’s small roses / as they ben[d] in the wind” but soon tires of this rather pedestrian lyric mode. Requesting a change of duties, he is ordered to “copy” the “breaths” of the angels, only a slight upgrade, from his perspective. However, he does as he is told and, somewhat surprisingly, wins “a public following.” Presumably jealous of his success or just tired of the poet’s failure to please the divine powers, God, or God’s representative, orders the poet to leave heaven.[17]

It’s an old story, of course, one of the oldest myths: the jealousy of a god as the “father” of earthbound poetics. Like Lucifer the poet has been cast out of God’s grace, and like that fallen angel, his spiritual “brother,” the poet too will make a heaven of hell, first by a little revisionist history in the closing stanza of his “Generation”: “So that’s when we got the idea in our heads, / to be born” (24). These lines occur in Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes, a book that, as the title suggests, attempts to heed the call of earthly delights and abominations. Published a decade after Shouting at No One, Before Our Eyes offers a rejoinder not only to his own story — he was ordered out of heaven by God — but also to the more sanguine details of his birth as asserted later in that first book: “I was pulled from the womb / into a city.”[18] Taken together, these lines are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The “divine” idea to be born might well have demanded human help to pull it off. Still, these lines stand in tension with one another, especially when we consider a third variation on this theme as it appears in Joseph’s second book, Curriculum Vitae, published exactly five years after Shouting and five years before Before Our Eyes: “I might have been born in Beirut, / not Detroit, with my right name.”[19] The conditional past participle, separated from two different, if not opposing, simple indicatives by half a decade, can be read as an epic in progress, one in which the hero-poet has “forgotten” the circumstances of his origin and is making it up as he goes along or is ashamed of the circumstances of his origin and is prevaricating to ward off (self) discovery.[20] Everything hinges on this conditional, the very engine of equivocation. Let’s not forget that this string of obfuscating, if not quite self-cancelling, statements began with the poet’s punishment for doing exactly what he was told to do. Thus the Kafka-esque law, the punishment for “failing,” however obedient, is, as it turns out, precisely what the poet must face again on earth and it is not insignificant that the poet finds himself a “son” standing helpless before another fallen father, the origin of the law.


Like Lawrence Joseph, I too “might have been born” in a different country, a different city, “not Detroit, / with my right name.” When I was growing up in the Motor City, Joseph’s Market was a local Detroit grocery store I occasionally frequented though it was not located in my parents’ neighborhood. We had relatives on the east and west sides of town and I would sometimes stop in for snacks before or after visiting my cousins, especially when I was in junior high and high school. It was the stereotypical — therefore, unremarkable — grocery store: owned by immigrants (“Chaldeans” or “Jews,” as my parents would say in those can’t-be-bothered-with-ethnic-distinctions days) who seemed to work hard, complain little, and say even less. Because there were several black-owned grocery stores in my neighborhood, I did not grow up “resenting” immigrants for taking “our” jobs. Having worked in a large grocery store chain (no longer extant) throughout my high school and college years, I would not have minded handing over my job to some eager immigrant upstart. I digress here in order to come clean, a matter of full disclosure, and to contextualize my comments about Joseph’s Market as portrayed in several poems throughout Joseph’s collection, especially in the context of the 1967 riot. To be honest, aside from the name, I barely remember Joseph’s Market — it blurs in my memory with every other mom-and-pop grocery I patronized — but I understand why Joseph cannot forget it. Here indeed is his scene of instruction, the scene of a crime that shattered his family in general, and his father in particular, but that also gave birth to the prophet as lyric poet.

The 1967 riot in Detroit was the culmination of over a decade of frustration for many of the city’s residents. It was a race riot, a class riot and an anti-authoritarian riot: black against white, under-or unemployed against a burgeoning middle class, and citizen against the police.[21] As usual, other ethnic and racial groups, predominantly immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, got caught up in the violence. After 1967 there was no turning back, only a turning inward. Intra-and interracial violence became, more and more, the national image of Detroit as its more legitimate claims to fame, the music and automotive industries, began to wane.

Apparently, Joseph’s grocery store was burned during the riot. A few years later, Joseph’s father was shot and wounded. The explicit references to violence regarding his father occur in the first and last poems, entitled, respectively, “Then” and “Not Yet,” of part 1 of the first book, Shouting at No One. Because “Then” follows the poet’s “expulsion” from heaven, temporality, as “then” and “not yet,” frames the opening section: the poet’s failure in paradise condemns him to birth, to time, to the succession of moments or “nows.” The latter is reflected in the name of the father and the very first act we see him performing, yet another sign of the damnation of earthly life: breathing: “Joseph Joseph breathed slower / as if that would stop / the pain splitting his heart.”[22] “Joseph Joseph” (or now now) is temporal succession in tension with the longing to hit the brakes, to slow, if not stop altogether, the headlong fall toward death. Hence the repetition of the same (Joseph Joseph) even if The Inferno, The Castle, and The Third Policeman,[23] for example, remind us that repetition is itself an index of Hell, that Joseph Joseph was, in some sense, “already” dead.[24] And the enjambment of “those” initiates another theme that will pursue Joseph throughout all four books: the advent of the other. As immigrants, as founders of the grocery store, Joseph’s grandparents were “those” others; “now” (or “then”) they find themselves being driven out of business by other others. Out of the flames of this burning, this exodus, the poet, retroactively, discovers the moment, the “now,” of his birth: “it would take nine years / before you’d realize the voice howling in you / was born then.”

This second birth, the scene of the crime, of instruction, will not be religious, at least not in any traditional sense. This birth will promise no immortality, as both the title and theme of “Not Yet” indicate. However, this second birth is a second chance, not to praise the heavenly powers but to avenge the breaking of their sacred laws. As we might expect, this second chance is compelled, not chosen:

… there is so much
anger in my heart,
so much need
to avenge the holy cross
and the holy card
with its prayers for the dead,
so many words
I have no choice to say. (17)

As he will discover over the course of the next three books, this “chance” will itself be revised. For the poem ends with the invocation of chance as the ambiguous name of the offspring of predetermination and choice: “I don’t want / the angel inside me, sword in hand, / to be silent. / Not yet” (18). Compelled and compelling, chosen and choosing: the difference between these words blur in the potent potion of the imperative and subjunctive. It is the latter that is, of course, yet another sign of damnation, of earthly life, and thus, of temporality. Not surprisingly, then, the “holy cross” and “holy card” will gradually recede from view during the poet’s exodus that will eventually take him to New York. He will take up the law of human institutions and, most important, the law of the lyrical impulse. He will begin his “turn” toward the aesthetic, not in order to abandon the prophetic, much less the secular, impulse (he will remain a lawyer), but in order to make both the prophetic and secular more bearable. The aesthetic — the lyrical impulse — will provide respite (if not only that) from the unsparing demands of the God roaring inside (the epical impulse) as well as the oft-obscene demands of human law.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before the second book, the second (and not the last) chance that is also Curriculum Vitae, before the narrator will learn “to delight in a measured phrase, / to bank the rage in the gut, / to speak more softly, / to waken at three in the morning to think only of her / — in the age of postcapitalism” (3), he will have had to put away childish things. Such are the lessons of the rest of Shouting at No One. But the narrator is human; he suffers memory, and so, nostalgia, wistfulness, even as he propels himself forward, headlong, toward an uncertain, adult future. He looks back through the frame of a frame (“When I was a child / I saw this church through the window of a ’51 Chevrolet,” 5) or propels himself back even further to the pretemporal world of another life (“I was a child when the wolves came / from the north and ate our donkey,” 21). We have, here, then, a “when-when” situation: the signifier — adverbial, conjunctive — modifies the “past” as static moment and bottomless regression. In that sense the boy invoking these “whens” is an adolescent aswirl in the currents of dissolving childhood and simmering adulthood. At the same time it should not escape our notice that these scenes are moments of loss: the grandmother whose “small / soft hands [were] holding [his]” is gone, replaced by “a woman, / … who lowers her head / to spit” (3); the donkey-eating wolves in rural Lebanon are merely prototypes for “those” burning Joseph’s Food Market in urban America. Indeed, in poem after poem in Shouting at No One (and, as seen below, in Curriculum Vitae), “those” others are brothers, cousins and strangers, so eloquently put at the end of what is probably Joseph’s best known poem, “Sand Nigger”:

… a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger. (29)

The alternating alliances (we will see another example of this later) are matters of chance and circumstance that are not, here, mystifications of history that pit a permanent “good” against an intractable “evil.” These ever-widening conflicts in which allies and foes are interchangeable, a matter of dates and places, derive from ancient antipathies that apparently predate blood relations and cultural values. “Lebanese,” like “American,” tells one nothing about regional, geographical or intra-ethnic differences. Thus the gesture “out” of, or “before,” history points toward the prelapsarian paradise referred to in “I was appointed the poet of heaven.” But as noted above, Joseph’s overarching myth is not a religion of the closed Book; there will be no reappointment to his former post as “the poet of heaven.” This point is driven home in the most provocatively titled poem in the first book: “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much.” As we recall, the poet “was pulled from the womb / into this city.” Buffeted about amid sin, guilt and atonement, the poet confesses that he “was a system of laws / [he] hated” (43). For the law, secular or Christian, forbids the self-regard implicit in revenge. And since only God avenges through self-reproduction in the fullness of time (the “coming” or “return” of the Son), the poet, trapped in temporality, feels betrayed. Yes, the city “pulled,” but perhaps either God or the narrator’s mother, did not struggle enough, if at all, to hold him back. Thus the sweeping condemnation of his judgment: “I measure you according to your creation.” Given the mixture of guilt, anger, and self-recrimination encapsulated in the poem, it is difficult to exclude anything or anyone from Joseph’s wrath. This line could apply to his father and mother as well as to the city in which he was born, to say nothing of God. Yet, perhaps the line refers first and foremost to the poet, for this book ends with another admission: “It’s not me shouting at no one / in Cadillac Square: it’s God / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone” (55). God, Author of the closed Book, is inside the poet. Hence he is a prophetic declaimer of the Law by which God, through him, measures and judges. That Joseph does not avail himself of vehicles appropriate for the prophet-poet, that he declaims within the lyric, tells us the God inside him is not (yet? ever?) fused with the poet. Nor, perhaps not coincidentally, is the vengeful, bargaining and gambling God of Abraham, Moses, and Job reconciled with the loving, forgiving and self-sacrificing God of Mary, Peter, and Jesus of Nazareth. Either this God is not omnipotent (the poet’s resistance to fusion is too strong) or this God is, in fact, no God, at least not the God of Judaic, Islamic, or Christian theology. This God would be some indeterminate force, perhaps the id catapulted into the godhead, determined to avenge the past, a folio of unresolved cold cases. Yet, the poet admits that the holy roar within may simply be the prolonged cry of existential loneliness, which is to say, a loneliness only partially alleviated by another human being, a beloved: God as the first lyric poet. Eventually this God or godhead will undergo metamorphosis, will be eroded by age, love, and/or, ruthlessly decapitated, will become, but only in part, a godless aesthetic, a law of the lyric that is only a copy of a copy (secular law) of sacred law.


We are still ahead of ourselves. Before the exteriority of an exodus there is “internal” exile, which is to say, the silence and cunning of a Stephen Dedalus or a prophet biding his time. Joseph goes to work in the infamous plants of the (formerly) Big Three automakers and quickly learns that who and what he is or, more to the point, isn’t — “What’s the matter, Rabbi?” a coworker inquires — doesn’t matter. The uniformity of “those” from the point of view of the “family” is reflected back to Joseph in the uniformity of the machines as well as the uniform(s)ity of the machine operators. In this industrialized Detroit, there are “only” blacks, whites and Jews, workers and bosses. Thus, “When a stranger asks / ‘Why’s someone young as you work here?’ / don’t answer. You don’t answer / when he answers ‘You’re a factory rat like me.’” (12) But as indicated by the very next poem, “I’ve Already Said More Than I Should,” which is situated in New York, this Dedalus-esque strategy will apparently be necessary even “after” the exodus. New York will turn out to be another turn in a journey of exile without end, another verse in an interminable song:

It isn’t for nothing that I deny
interior theological dialogue, doubt

the existence of the new aeon,
don’t sleep past dawn anymore.

In the offices of the great firm
whose name might matter

I won’t reveal what I abhor,
or my desire, if I can’t be rich,

to be, instead, moral or famous (14–15)

Here, the contemptuous sneer of “moral,” just another option squeezed in between “rich” and “famous,” tells us that the vatic/prophetic voice, however receded or suppressed, has followed our narrator to New York and into the law firm. The secular lawyer is hounded by the vatic voice of divine responsibility, next to which human morality is a mere shadow. Though he will not acknowledge it until Before Our Eyes, he is now double: a lawyer and a prophet. Having been “trained” for New York by Detroit (and later, in Ann Arbor, by the University of Michigan Law School), he understands what it takes to survive: “I stuffed the crisp ten dollar bill / he paid me into my pocket. / I knew where it came from. / I knew that much was mine.”

This Machiavellian ethos will be reinforced in the third book, Before Our Eyes. Thus the first stanza of “Over Darkening Gold”:

So here we are. Thieves stealing from thieves
in a society of complex spheres,
wondering what you should do. And still
stars blown outside the eye’s corner. (20)

The uniformity of the family, of the factory, will extend to the law office — “I couldn’t help but overhear / my thoughts and opinions” — and suggest that differences dissolve under the intense pressures of those old standbys, land and money: “What if poverty and anger / and the desire for thrills, / and tribal attitudes, exist / not only on the streets but innately / — inherent, if you will, / within the boundaries of the nation, / social and economic classes, our time?” (19) Thus the threat of a life as a mere secular automaton butts heads with the necessity to resuscitate the God roaring inside him even if the latter appears to be, here, on life support. In Curriculum Vitae both the automaton and prophet — the birth of the aesthete will occur in Before Our Eyes — vie for the poet’s soul, which in this context is his voice. On the one hand, a poem like “That’s All,” with its world-weary title, appears to offer the automaton the consolation of memory, if nothing else: “I work and I remember, that’s all.” The penultimate line, however, tells us that this attitude is the result of the blurring of accident and choice: “I don’t know why I choose who I am” (35). Here, the poet is not a prophet; moreover, he heralds none, foreshadows no one: “No spirit leaped with me in the womb” (34). He goes to work; he gets paid for his use of words as a lawyer, as a teacher. Still, the God roaring inside will not be so easily appeased: “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price. // When the ancient fury persists, / I pay the price” (43). The prophetic law within is an incessant reminder that he, a law-abiding citizen, is, in the fullness of time, a lawbreaker. Small wonder that Joseph insists, at the end of the second book’s title poem, “Curriculum Vitae,” “I am as good as the unemployed / who wait in long lines for money” (8). The consolations of secular law — the “people” avenge the wrongs done to the individual, the individual has his day in court before the “people” — cannot assuage the ancient injustice of the burning of Joseph’s Food Market. A lawyer, he has yet to find employment suitable to the abatement of that ancient fury. Just as human morality lacks the rigor of divine responsibility, so too secular law is a weak imitation of divine righteousness.


 Joseph serves three masters, surrenders himself to three law systems, the laws of secular, sacred, and aesthetic adjudication. The gods he appeases, however, are not the objects of any positivistic theology. But while, and because, it relegates the sacred (as religion) to its “proper” place within the private sphere, the secular has no place for either aesthetic play or prophetic railing. Indeed, the secular is wary of this impish renegade that refuses to recognize borderlines: “I had to tell him to lower his voice. / Imagination split forever — one side fear, the other, hope; no one knows / how to decide even within oneself” (65). Here the secular and prophetic (whose voice is always too loud, too public) struggle for the soul of the narrator even as they shield one another: the secular voice of “reason” disguises the divine wrath of the prophet while prophetic righteousness, sotto voce, steadies the secular lawyer assaulted on a daily basis by the ordinary lies and half-truths (i.e., secular law) that pass for the (divine) law. For the poet, then, for the aesthete who has not (yet?) freed himself of either secular rationalization or prophetic inspiration, the psychic conflicts suppressed in order to function in “objective” public life achieve a kind of volatile but homeostatic equilibrium. Out of this interminable but apparently manageable crisis poetry is born, a poetry that confounds generic distinctions precisely to the degree it partakes of the lyrical, epical, and prophetic. From the point of view of the general public, however, it is the practice and teaching of law that constitutes maturity which, as Freud reminds us, depends upon the suppression of play, the patrolling of the aesthetic.[25] And, as Max Weber reminds us, maturity under the Protestant ethic depends upon the privatization of evangelistic fervor. There is, in the “disenchantment” of “becoming mature,” nothing shameful, even if shame is one of the weapons the “healthy” self deploys against its ugly duckling siblings, id and alter ego.

Except, here, “which” is the ego, the alter ego, the id? The general stance of the poems in the last two books is that of a lawyer (ego), but this does not tell us how the remaining two “selves” (the aesthete and the prophet) line up with the alter ego and id. Because the latter can never appear as such except in the guise of an alter ego and because Joseph clearly distinguishes between the appeal of the aesthetic and the duty of the prophet, we can posit the presence of two alter egos, one aesthetic and one prophetic. The latter avenge themselves, “roaring” as two gods or a split God, judging not only the world but also the healthy ego as unhealthy, as unworthy of a secret it keeps in reserve: “”I’ll let you in on a secret. One’s deepest secret / is a certainty that protects against the world” (54). These lines, from “A Year Ago This June” in Joseph’s fourth book, Into It, point to the untold, the matrix of what might one day be said,[26] projected into an indeterminate future: “But that’s another story” (54). The alter egos spin tale after tale that, far from revealing, enwrap themselves in layer after layer of language. These two alter egos, the sacred and aesthetic, constitute an alliance of convenience against the secular ego. By the time we reach Into It, the secular will be ceded the “actual”; that is, the sacred will be in retreat, resigning itself to the Protestant ethic.[27] The withdrawal of the epical will clear ground for the advent of the lyrical. The secular ego will be left with one alter ego and the trace of the other alter ego.

That trace of the other accounts for the elegiac tone that permeates much of Into It. Although the muses of Into It are Wallace Stevens and Ovid, neither the celebrant of a post-religious humanity nor the advocate of aesthetic pleasure would have endorsed the figure of the “fallen” poet. Nor would either have endorsed the powers of observation as “consolations” for any alleged lost paradise, sacred or secular, as seen in Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes. That book, as its title suggests, begins as homage to the consolations of phenomenology and enabling “observation,” that is, to a lyrical alter ego and epical alter ego: what is seen consoles or outrages. We cannot imagine Stevens, the hardboiled author of “the the,” “the nothing that is,” writing this conclusion to “Before Our Eyes”: “For the time being / let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes” (5). Joseph’s qualifications — “For the time being,” “just,” — are not, could never have been, Stevens’s.[28]

Given what we observed above concerning the problematic “place” of the aesthetic and the sacred vis-à-vis the secular, it is not surprising that the figure of the “double” arises explicitly in the third book, largely set in New York, at the same time that Joseph begins his, if you will, aesthetic turn. Because the ego and its alter egos enforce, respectively, secular, lyrical, and epical laws, the “double,” as we observed above, is itself doubled; it veils the competing powers of the lyrical and epical impulses, consigned to the aesthetic and prophetic respectively. Moreover, as we will see, the secular (legal scholar and professor) ego, the sacralized (prophetic) alter ego, and the aestheticized alter ego take turns hiding behind or shielding one another.[29] Their differences subvert any positive identities we might be tempted to read in them; everything depends on the position from which Joseph writes. Most of the time he positions himself as a lawyer writing poetry, but sometimes he is a poet practicing law, or a prophet pretending to be both a lawyer and a poet. No single poem can juggle all these balls at once. However, several of the poems in Before Our Eyes and especially in Into It attempt just such a feat. For example, the opening title poem of Before Our Eyes can be read as an attempt to locate secular adjudication and aesthetic claritas[30] within the social, to proffer both as res publica:

                The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract.

However, a few lines later, after affirming the link between inside and outside, subjective and objective, private and public, aesthetic and secular law — “By written I mean made, by made I mean felt; / concealed things, sweet sleep of colors” — the poet admits that the prophet indeed risks dishonor in his own country:

So you will be, perhaps appropriately,
dismissed for it, a morality of seeing,
laying it on. (3)

Here the “you” seems more pointedly self-referential, acknowledging more keenly its doubled (tripled) existence. The rest of the book affirms this hypothesis. The double lives of the lawyer/poet//poet/prophet (it isn’t clear that the poet that doubles as a lawyer is the “same” poet that doubles as a prophet), is linked to the dyad of predetermination/choice: these duplicities tend to enforce silence, cunning, though it isn’t always clear “who” remains silent, “who” resorts to cunning: “A lot of substance / chooses you. And it’s no one’s business // judging the secrets each of us needs: / I don’t know what I’d do without my Double” (13). Given the asymmetrical balance of cultural and social power between these selves, it isn’t surprising that the public ego/secular lawyer is forced to chastise and ridicule its epical, prophetic, alter ego — “So you rampage within yourself — you think / you should be thanked for it?” (67). Even language partakes of this doubleness: “words are talk and words themselves / forms of feeling” (16).[31] If all is “feeling,” mere “talk,” it isn’t surprising that an escape valve from the law office might depend on withdrawing from humanity until some crisis rouses one: “I surfaced from my reflections to see / wartime” (27). What had once been a sub rosa strategy, however failed (“I’ve Already Said More Than I Should”), however compromised by having (been) chosen, “in a badly measured time / human form over non-being” (24), has become, here, a disfigured form of the subaltern, if not quite submarine, “life.”[32] And, of course, there is the other temptation of the poet: to not only be a prophet but to be a politician, to measure the impact of his sayings: “Exactly how much one poet’s thinking has influenced / what’s in the air” (31). These lines come from “Whose Performance Am I Watching,” taken directly from a Fernando Pessoa poem, but they also echo the existential dread of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”:[33] to live as an inconsequential automaton.[34] For Joseph, however, the dilemma is even more acute: on the one hand, secular law is not only ineffective but, worse, it collaborates with the unlawful; on the other, the sacred law is, at best, irrelevant to those pursuing the mirages of the gold standard (“The filtered sunlight insinuating opulence”), which renders the epical-prophetic mode outdated.

At the beginning of this essay we noted how the lyrical impulse finds its way into any number of disparate poetics because, presumably, it is perceived as a, if not the, primary site of the aesthetic per se. We also noted that it is precisely because of its aestheticism that the lyric and the lyrical impulse have been viewed by some poets as incapable, or inadequate to the task, of representing the social, political and cultural crises of the modern era. In the context of Before Our Eyes, however, only the law of the lyric, the common measure of compromised, inauthentic selves, appears inviolate. Moreover, it provides plenty of opportunities for the self-lacerations of guilt: in the face of the interminable tragedy that is human existence, the poet, shorn of his prophetic-sacred powers, can only play with language: “What / do I see? A baby’s / mysterious inability to open his eyes. / What do I do? / Mysteriously, a month-old baby / can’t open his eyes.”[35] (41)


After so much apparent exhaustion before the ordinary horrors of daily life (“you won’t kill their love of the actual”), can the prophet be blamed for retreating, however momentarily, to the play and pleasures of the poet, from both secular and sacred law to the law of the lyric, especially since he has already discovered that, at a certain point, the secular, sacred, and aesthetic realms of adjudication intersect? As we will see below in a poem that marks a crucial transformation in the way the poet imagines the three sets of laws he tries to serve, the word “sentences” will mark the site where the secular, sacred, and aesthetic meet. This is not, however, a meeting of equals. Here, the human realms of the secular and aesthetic are inflated, the sacred, deflated, and so the poet praises the ordinary earthly light of perception, knowledge and what’s “before our eyes”:

And that’s the law. To bring to light
most hidden depths. The juror screaming
defendant’s the devil staring at her
making her insane. The intense strain
phrasing the truth, the whole truth, nothing
but sentences, endless sentences. (43)

Here, the roaring God of the prophet-poet gazes upon its reflection in diminutive form, a “juror screaming”; both are, as we have seen, town criers, wracked with anger, anguish, and however futile their bellowing, bellow they must. Each has only the power to hand out, write out, “endless sentences,” or as the poem’s title makes clear, to enact “Variations on Variations on a Theme.” This poem is a turning point in the book and in Joseph’s career. It signals his farewell to the prophet-poet, which will not mean the end of social critique, as Into It makes clear. Rather it marks another scene of instruction: the impotence of the poet in the face of the actual is converted into the very source of his transcendental powers.[36] But first, a last prophetic gesture of refusal:

… the sun continues its journey. You won’t
kill their love of the actual. Let them go
conquer the world, march with Alexander:
  there is Ur, the Chaldean city, a bronze
flake on a rock; there are millions, millions
  plunged and numbed by dreams of blood. (44)

This “last” gesture is repeated in Into It, for like all performances (including linguistic) within the temporal world, terms like first and last can only refer to idealized terminal points “outside” this hell of repetitions. But hell this is, and so, too, repetition: “The realization — the state of the physical world / depends on shifts in the delusional thinking / of very small groups” (25) and “I know of no // defense against those addicted to death” (36). As we will see more forcefully, more explicitly, in Into It, Wallace Stevens will have already become the enabling muse that justifies this swerve, this movement “away” from the “actual.”[37] Taken together, the lines above clarify the first poem in Before Our Eyes: the phenomena of beings cannot be conflated with the “actual” since, for Joseph, the former refers to the occulted, which must be revealed (in the court, in the poem, and so forth) while the latter refers to the occulting sediment the world takes for the totality of existents. I believe the Heideggerean language is appropriate here since Before Our Eyes shuttles back and forth between occultation and revelation, between warring ideas of lawlessness and lawfulness, between those who obfuscate and those who clarify. However, exactly what these terms mean, exactly what is being occulted, being revealed, is a matter of perspective, positioning, whose borders or parameters constitute legality and illegality, licit and illicit, fidelity and infidelity, etc. Joseph cannot give himself entirely over to lyric clarity, which would be tantamount to conflating the legal and illegal, licit and illicit; at the same time he distances himself (somewhat) from epic occultation, from the supposed purifying oppositions of legal/illegal, licit/illicit, and so forth. Hence the movement toward a diminished prophetic mode, diminished precisely to the extent it confines itself to, even as it tests the limits of, the lyric. As a result, this inflated lyric (the lyrical), this weakened epic (the epical), will always risk a bloated rhetoric and enfeebled ethos as it returns to the scene of instruction.

The scene of instruction has its instructors, however belated:[38] no doubt his wife, a painter, Ovid, and Stevens, our Virgil of the post-Romantic imagination. We can thus read the second person pronoun in the penultimate line of “Variations” in the plural: “Within the intensity you showed me / both cloudiness and transparency can be painted” (45). This motif will dominate Into It, from the aesthetic play of poems like “The Bronze-Green-Gold-Green Foreground” (“opaque, though clear, painted language”) to the political commentary of poems like “The Game Changed” (“Neither impenetrable nor opacity / nor absolute transparency. I know what I’m after.”). Transparency, opacity — which of these, we might ask, validates the secular, the sacred? Within the secular realm there is an entire history that has validated transparency and clarity as the sine qua non of Western poetry in general, the lyric in particular. However, as we indicated above, the sacred realm, especially (but not exclusively) the religions of the (closed) Book, elevates “cloudiness” to a principle of fidelity in relation to the occult (we see as through a glass darkly, etc.). Thus, what may be generally lawful in the secular realm, transparency — whether we mean the world of legal opinions or aesthetic judgments — is generally lawless in the sacred — and vice versa.[39] The qualification “generally” is necessary here because if things were that simple, an algebra of equivalences among transparency and cloudiness, secular life and sacred hope, one could easily render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, unto God what was God’s, and, for the artist, unto aesthetics what was aesthetics’. But in actuality obfuscation and occultation serve, for example, the state apparatus — including the legal system — quite well, and clarity and revelation have been used to justify political and religious wars, for example, since time immemorial. Hence both transparency and cloudiness must be used cunningly by the poet, that is, at the “right” time, in the “right” place, just as the political, literary and religious powers do.


In Before Our Eyes, “Sentimental Education” attempts to enact this strategy, cleverly deploying both transparency and opacity. It begins with a return to the past, to Detroit and the scene of instruction, a spiritual initiation sans religion:

… My baptism by fire
in the ancient manner,
at my father’s side in a burning city,
nothing sacramental about it. (33)

The simple past tense shifts into the prophetic-epical mode of the past perfect — “But first, back to Henry Ford” — and then a proleptic leap — “But back, first, to Marvin Gaye, / during an interview in Brussels” (34). The tone of these lines is one of compulsion, as though the poet is forced to return, here, to two of the enabling figures of a particular history, Detroit’s, yes, but also a general, if capsule, history of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. What is “occulted” and “unveiled” here, what remains hidden and open, like Poe’s purloined letter, is the common denominator of the factory system: Ford Motor Company and Motown Records.[40] A prophet here, the poet reveals and hides this tacit conjunction by sleight of hand (“But first, back …” and “But back, first, …”), by bait and switch:

Of the world-famous Highland Park Plant
Otto Moog, the German engineer,
in 1923 proclaimed (Vladimir
Lenin thought so too): “No symphony
compares to the music hammering
through the colossal workplace”
— proof, so to speak,
that speech propels the purposes
by which it’s been shaped. (34)

The conjoining of compulsion and volition, imperative and subjunctive, in the last two lines “fulfill” the promise of Ford and Gaye, the Motor City and Motown, as the price of greatness, determined and willed, like the relationship between the grammatical variations on the “simple” past. The shuttle effect — from New York to the Detroit of “first” Ford, “then” Gaye, from the “symphony” of old Europe to the “music hammering” of upstart America — is compelled; not so the next-to-last stanza where the return to the past is willfully summoned forth:

Back to, because you want to,
Grand Boulevard, excessive sky
hot and indigo, poured out
onto Hendrie.

We have returned to the lyrical mode which, according to the tradition of Western literature cited above, demands clarity, transparency. However, this mode cannot be realized as an ideal for the poem besieged, like the poet, by epical impulses from within; it will have already been, will always be, infiltrated by what it supposedly had fortified itself against: the first five predominantly prophetic-epical stanzas. Here is the rest of the sixth stanza:

Grandpa lifts you into his arms,
small as a single summer Sunday,
a kind of memory trance truly
dark, deep and dark, steel dark,
not as pure, but almost as pure,
as pure unattainable light. (35)

How to make a heaven of hell? By repeatedly insisting — “not as pure,” “almost as pure,” “as pure” — that that which is “steel dark” is “almost as pure, / as pure unattainable light.” However, as Joseph’s use of commas is rigorously purposeful, we risk misreading these lines if we ignore that last comma; it blocks any facile reading that would turn those last two phrases into one: the apophantic “as” serves as an impasse to the simile “as.” An essential difference between these last two clauses is maintained; so too the difference between the first stanza’s reference to light — “Detroit’s achromatic / sky …” — and the sixth’s stanza’s reference to “pure unattainable light.” A sky without color can still emit light, which is why, to the young Joseph, it “glowed,” even if it does so because “the city is burning” (33). Hence the necessity of affirming the dark and the light, the “achromatic sky” and “excessive sky / hot and indigo.” Here is the movement of memory from scene to scene, from the simple past of the father to the past perfect of the grandfather, from a city burning to “a single summer Sunday,” however “small.”

Thus, as seen above, the formal strategy of blending the prophetic and sacred with the lyrical and personal will demand the suspension of temporality to a “now” and the reduction of spatiality to a “here.” In earlier poems like “Then” the procedure was achieved by repetition; we will see this procedure again (e.g., “Why Not Say What Happens”). In “Sentimental Education” the procedure will depend upon “a kind of memory trance.” This “trance” functions along the historical axis in the same way both “transparency” and “opacity” function along the spatial axis: they both collapse perspective toward a single moment, a single “here.” As such, the “trance” functions as a kind of mimicry of paradise where time and space are forever ceasing to exist. For example, although I have linked the simple past to the father and the past perfect to the grandfather, I want to stress that it would not matter if the memory of a summer Sunday with the grandparent occurred “after” the riot associated with the father and the grocery store. The terms of tense, as noted above, refer to idealized states “outside” history in “some kind of memory trance.” Even if that “summer Sunday” occurred, say, in 1970, it is still, literally, for all intents and purposes, prior to the father inside his burning store in 1967. For the period of absolute happiness is always before. In Joseph’s mythic cosmogony, this “before” applies even to the eternity of paradise. Recall that the epigraph/poem that opens Shouting at No One describes temporal events in heaven. There “is,” apparently, a happier time prior to the happiest timelessness promised by all the major world religions. Not only memory, then; history, too, “works” this way, or rather, is worked this way. The point of ritual celebration — the Fourth of July — or mourning — 9/11 — is to insist on the eternal presence of the past, which is why a year (1776, 2001) is rarely attached to the epigrammatic and sacralized event. In memory, as in history, in condensation, as in abbreviation, the health of the (psychological/social) body depends upon “some kind of memory trance,” some mode of suspended disbelief that would collapse outside the hermeneutically sealed spheres of memory and history. Thus, as a poem like “In a Fit of My Own Vividness” suggests, a “memory trance” cocoons the poet within the scene of the crime — “So much for a family market / reduced to the poverty line / by a freeway” (46) — even if “This discord enacts no measure,” another swerve from the actual which cannot be melded to an aesthetic. Yes, “There’s refuge in observation,” if “Just That” and nothing else since, as,

                                                                     … It turns out
Joseph’s Market is as free as the boy with one arm
kissing the tangerine my father gives him.
The entire place — upside down. Only money
and credit move around, part of the future. (61)

The actual is confined to place and time; not so “money and credit.” But what of language, one of the realms of the aesthetic? As it turns out, it too belongs to the actual: “You wait and see. That language doesn’t work / anymore, its century is over” (61). Note: Joseph leaves open the possibility of some other language that might be put to work inside history. The specific reference in the poem is to the language of industrialized or monetary capital and one of its foundations, the small proprietor. The shift to financial, that is, liquid, capital renders its older, more material, sibling marginal, if not irrelevant: “As for the economies on which my parents’ lives depended, / they won’t be found / in any book” (29). These lines, from “Why Not Say What Happens?” in Into It, echo the divide between memory and history, ground and figure, monetary and financial capital, and so forth. As we will see when we return to Into It, the same will be said of the normative language of transparency, the traditional lyric mode, even as the poems in that fourth book, infused with a lyrical impulse, represent some of Joseph’s most transparent and most opaque language.

Given that these essential revisions of lyric transparency and epic opacity may be found in the toolbox of both the civilized victors and barbaric losers of history, we find ourselves in the presence of that old saw: can the tools of the master dismantle his house? Can obfuscation and clarification, used so well by the economic, political, cultural and, not insignificantly, literary powers, be used with cunning by the artist who offers his work as social critique and enlightenment without the pretense to, or hope of, prophecy? The question is, obviously, rhetorical; it remains open to a future never absolutely determined in advance. Still, the issue arises for most poets at some moment in their careers and Joseph is no exception.


In his most recent collection, Into It, Joseph confronts this question with what appears to be, at first glance, a concession to transparency: “Why Not Say What Happens?”[41] While “A Sentimental Education,” from Before Our Eyes, faithfully reproduces, even as it condenses, the philosophical, if not empirical, flaws intrinsic to Flaubert’s, Rousseau’s and Sterne’s projects,[42] the new book’s “Why Not Say What Happens” explains both why the poet must say what happens and why he cannot. This poem begins within, so to speak, the endless sentences” of “Variations on Variations on a Theme,” in a mock-prophetic-epical mode:

Of icons. Of divination. Of Gods. Repetitions
without end. I have it in my notes,
a translation from the Latin, a commentary
on the Book of Revelation — “the greater
the concentration of power on earth,
the more truth is stripped of its power,
the holiest innocent, in eternity,
is ‘as though slain …’”
It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic.
The seven-headed beast from the sea,
the two-horned beast from the earth, have always —
I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.
Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images. (24)

Framed by the signs of original sin (“Of icons,” “particular images”), by the desire for knowledge, the poet, stripped of divine prophetic powers, only has access to an enfeebled scholarly apparatus (“a translation from the Latin, a commentary”), to “Repetitions / without end.” He is thus, de facto and de jure, an accessory before and after the fact of the crime. Still, this gnostic, however much a diminished knower, knows something: we were always ahead of ourselves. The future anterior of prophecy is thus rendered superfluous — “it doesn’t take much these days to be a prophet” — for monstrosities “have always — / I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.” The last days, the end times, are “now,” as is the past, which “has no existence / except in the present.” History, as we know it, is over — perhaps fulfilled, perhaps simply irrelevant. In either case the prophet is essentially unemployable. But what of “History For Another Time”? Humankind may have run its course but not existence, or “life,” for new worlds, new possibilities, already exist:

                                          … If the creation
of the universe happens outside time,
it must happen all the time, the big bang
here and now, the foundation of every instant …

Here, now, at the end of history, the temptation to interpret the apocalypse in fire-and-brimstone terms would erase the admittedly self-serving distinction between the lawful and lawless. Joseph insists, however, on the distinction, however self-serving:

                                                       Neither seriousness
nor laughter is much help, either. You need only
be approached by one of the beggars
in Pennsylvania Station to see that certain rules
prevail in our midst. Still, I,
for one, don’t condone cut-off ears … (61)

No prophet could — except as a form of judgment after one’s words fall on deaf ears. The hardened hearts of a stubborn people are themselves so many “cut-off ears,” severed from the many-headed, headlong plunge into greed, selfishness, murder, terror, etc. Thus, as foretold above, the withdrawal from the world is accomplished in Into It via two paths of retreat: “into” the play of aesthetics and “into” the trances of memory. These maneuvers can only be justified before the law by presenting a compelling case for withdrawing; hence, Into It is Joseph’s most prophetic and lyrical, “political” and “personal,” book of poems. And as we have already seen, and see again in “Why Not Say What Happens,” Exhibit A is the fate of Joseph’s Market:

My father? My father was a worker. I can still hear him
getting up in the morning to go to work.
Sadness, too, has to be learned,
and it took my father time to learn it,
but he did, though when he did
his tears were never chronic. (29)

Sandwiched in between police brutality, terrorist threats, 9/11, his grandmother’s death and the over-mortgaged house of mirrors that is capital (“a dream, it’s a dream, the dream / of a dream song, the dream of a dream”), this memory trance (“My father? My father,” “but he did … when he did”) serves as a bulwark against a world too much with, too much for, too much against, the poet. This world has many faces, none of which is perhaps more riveting than the one described in the extraordinary last section of “Why Not Say What Happens.” Here, the commodification of nature — the first mode of primitive accumulation — reaches a fever pitch in the monstrosity of the factory figured against a sunny backdrop blending memory, perception, and illusion:

I remember it — the gold burnt gold,
the gold on gold and on white and yellow,
an incandescence condensing the sunlight,
outburning the sunlight, the factory
molten, the sun behind it, in it, thin,
gold, pig iron, a spray of fire, flywheels
revolving through the floor, rims almost
reaching the roof, enormous engines
throwing great pounding cylindrical arms
back and forth, as if the machines
are playing a game, trying to see how much
momentum can be withstood before one
or the other gives way. (32)

Here the factory is not only one site among many where the abstraction of human labor finds its material form; the pitched swings of the flywheels conjure up some wild, insane, coupled dance always about to fly apart and reengage as the sweet science. Dancing or boxing with the actual, the poet remains engaged, implicated, a latter-day Ezekiel who realizes the vanity of both lyrical expressionism and political critique. The irrelevance of the aesthetic is analogous to the impotence of the prophetic. Yet, following Stevens, whose words serve as the epigraph to this book, the poet/lawyer, aesthete/prophet, chooses, is chosen, by the former. Hence the crowning irony, actuality’s crown of thorns: all that is actual melts into aesthetics. The revenge of the aesthete is that he finds beauty in the secular; the secular is adorned with precisely that for which it has no use:

                                                         The sky blue, dark blue
yet pure in color, not blackened
or tarnished, above the low, old
buildings, like a painting of something
solid rather than the solid thing itself,
a high and low composition. But what
light there is in that landscape … (32)

Aestheticized, the actual withers beneath the dismissive glare of this latter-day prophet: “A monk, say, of Hue, who, to protest / the killing of innocents, is dragging / an altar — yes, it was, Hillside Avenue. / So what else is new?” In the next stanza, part 2, the poet admits that “Two things, the two things that are interesting / are history and grammar.” One can manipulate the latter, not the former: “In among the foundations of the intelligence / the chemistries of words: ‘The fault lines / of risk concealed in a monetary landscape …’ / What of it?” (6) The world-weariness evident in these lines from “When One Is Feeling One’s Way” leads to the temptation to reduce history to the repetitions of the same:

                                                       Nothing but the same resistance
since the time of the Gracchis —
against the arrogation by private interests
of the common wealth,
against the precious and the turgid language
of pseudoerudition (thugs,
thugs are what they are,
false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks
who think not at all about what they bring down). (6–7)

The endless tragedies that constitute history may well be worth bringing to light — even in the Ezekiel-Jesus-Marx rhetoric — but this negative service pales next to the nigh-pure light, the “endless sentences,” of the lyrical aesthetic which, at its most abstract, can paradoxically create its own positive, concrete, world. Thus the very next poem is the aforementioned “The Bronze-Green Gold-Green Foreground” and it begins as homage to a unique aesthetics:

The bronze-green gold-green foreground:
what can only be said in that language,
opaque, though clear, transparent language. (9)

The refuge of this singular image which both occults and reveals becomes, traditionally, a kind of Grecian urn, gesturing toward a beyond, an outside of history, as the very next poem, “I Note In A Notebook,” suggests. Here, repetition is a comfort:

Pink sunlight, blue sky, snowed-upon January morning.
The romantic restated — a woman and a man
by themselves, each alone in the other. Those
transcriptions of the inexpressible — perhaps
the experience of having heaven
is just simply perfect luck … (10)

As a great epic-prophet poet like Wordsworth knew, the “romantic restated” must be foregrounded against a world too much with the two.[43] Tragedy depends on the sublime, puny human desire up against, and outmatched by, forces (historical, natural, divine, etc.) scarcely conceivable. Thus, the very next words in the poem tiptoe outwardly, tentatively, to encompass other possible modes of the “romantic restated.” One may access the romantic alone, insolated, like “ice floes” on Belle Isle on the Detroit River or, as one, “a figure in motion, / muted reds and grays” in Angel Park. But in stepping outside the lyrical cocoon of “a woman and a man / by themselves,” the poet cannot prevent his perceptions and memories of the world from rushing headlong toward the epical. Thus, once again, memories of his father, of the Twin Towers, flood the romantic island. But the contamination of the romantic by the political defines epic, if not prophecy (the holy is contaminated by sin). Thus the poem ends with a heroic gesture toward this tainted romance, toward epic, suggesting that like the dialectic of opaqueness and transparency, the two may interpenetrate in the secular realm. The “perfect luck” of “having heaven” notwithstanding, this is not the one-way possession of the narrator by a roaring God:

                                                                     An epical
turn, so great a turn — her voice in him,
his voice in her — the vista, a city,
the city, taking a shape and burning … (11)

The complement of the other’s voice in one is an instance of the lyrical impulse understood as communication between humans. It is neither the monologue of self-expression (the traditional lyric) nor the monologue of an inspired prophet (the traditional epic). However, since the “vista,” the background, is, in the epic-tragic mode, always “a city,” indeed, “the city,” one may imagine New York City in 2001, Detroit in 1967, Rome at the end of the empire, or, in more literary terms, the Los Angeles of Day of the Locust. Tod’s painting of the burning city of Los Angeles appears prophetic when the city burns at the end of West’s novel. Here, Joseph’s sparse rendition of 9/11 is equally stirring if only elegiac (because belated). The endless return of “Nothing but the same” in both the secular and aesthetic worlds? Exactly halfway through Into It, the poem “In A Mood” concludes with another, or the “same,” apocalyptic gesture: “A man and a woman beside the river … / A line consisting of the burning sky, // a sky on fire … the sky is on fire! / Then what, and then what, unfolded …” (34)

A mere “man and a woman,” their lyric potentialities, can never appease entirely the poet who was born with a God roaring inside him. That internal(ized) law cannot be satisfied by the throes of romantic love. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Joseph must still, this late in the game (which indeed has changed), defend the very possibility of poetry under the “endless sentences” of wartime:

              And, yes, it brings to mind I am constantly aware of,
in making the poem, Brecht’s point, to write about trees —
implicitly too, to write about pleasure —
in times of killing like these is a crime;
and Paul Celan’s response, that for Brecht a leaf
is a leaf without a tree, that what kinds of times
are these when a conversation — Celan believed a poem
is a conversation — what kinds of times are these
when a poem is a crime because it includes
what must be made explicit. (12)

At the end, in the last days, all is, or should be, revealed. The poet-prophet is responsible for making sure that the sinful, the defilers, the bosses, murderers, and muckrakers, have a last chance for salvation. But here, at least, the prophet has vanished, replaced by a conversationalist, a lyric poet for whom the lyrical impulse is not self-expression but dialogue. Still, as we have seen, the promise and hope of conversing with “those” others, instilled in these lines from “Inclined To Speak,” a title that itself marks the exact middle between compulsion and choice (inclined to kneel in prayer or arch his back, the better to bellow?), are immediately undercut as the poet admits to his failings as a prophet, as even a conversationalist, or admits to our failings as hearers, as though we too walked around without ears:

                                                                                      The immense enlargement
of our perspective is confronted
by a reduction in our powers of action, which reduces
a voice to an inner voice inclined to speak only
to those closest to us. (12)

Here, the circle seems complete; the curse of knowledge, as the gods tried to tell us at the beginning of history, is that it is the knowledge of all we cannot — or will not — convey or do. From the “voice” of a roaring God to the “inner voice” of lyrical outrage, lyrical resignation, this Joseph is perhaps not worthy even of Joseph Joseph whose name, while bearing the stamp of repetition as the principle punishment of hell, also bears the insignia of God, the great “I Am Who I Am.” Like Lucifer, like Satan, like Beelzebub, Lawrence is singularity fallen into temporality, a first and last name: Lawrence Joseph. As for “those closest to us” — are these other poets (the literary references escalate in Into It), other artists — including his partner, a painter — and other friends? The lyrical turn will not be the last turn — we are only at the beginning of this book — but it does augur a tendency throughout Into It, a predilection toward, for, the personal, the aesthetic, a turn of the heart, if not the head, away from the world and toward those “closest to us.”

In Into It, then, the need to be “explicit” seems to have less to do with prophetic/political responsibility than with the desire to make the case: turning away is justified by both the horrors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the “same” horrors that comprise history, and the irrelevance and impotence of the epical-prophetic voice. Moreover, the facticity of the event which hits too close to home, which has not been temporalized, spatialized, “enough,” resists its historicization and thus, by association, if not implication, its aestheticization: “What isn’t separated, what isn’t / scribbled, what will not be metamorphosed, // reduced, occurring, it will be said, / unyieldingly fixed, unyieldingly present” (37). Call it the revenge of the actual. Under these circumstances the law of the lyric and the law of the epic appear inadequate to the task of rendering what resists representation. Under these circumstances, then, senility — “The past / rearranged by hardening arteries” — or catatonia — “some kind of memory trance” — may be two examples of that “perfect luck” of “having heaven.” To be wounded by history is not the same thing as knowing — or here, not knowing — that one has been wounded by history. This “heaven,” a diminished paradise, can be reached by the “perfect luck” of senility or the catatonia of a “memory trance.” By making explicit the tenor of these end times, the epical prophet fulfills his duties, his responsibilities (“But, don’t forget, there’s evil. / Do you think a muse // will avoid evil? One’s imagination / polluted, one’s imagination unhinged?”) (47), freeing the lyrical poet (“The world once more / the means by which the meek are to be // brought to their knees. Not the poet / espousing simplicities, shifting the props.”) (52). He can turn back, retrace his steps back over the mountain, even though he can never return to Egypt. But in turning back, in retreating to the desert, the poet disappears and the prophet returns. In the desert, life thrives, teems, however discredited. “There,” the prophet can make, or find, oases, even as, and because, he implements his own spartan, if hardly draconian, laws:

When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write
will not exist. I did my work, lived

as if the day, my own day, had come. I was, I am,
who I will be. I will not be eternally condemned. (52)


In the last poem of Into It, “Once Again,” we find ourselves in a proto-Stevens poem, human beings beneath a sky emptied of the divine. This poem accepts, as it repeat, our inescapable destiny: to make new myths — “endless sentences” — to replace the old ones. “Once Again” we finds ourselves borne forward on the “current” of a “sky,” as if we had no other choice but to give in to our fate, to our faith, for what always remains “before our eyes” is precisely what remains out of sight: “The sea is beyond // the sunset’s light —” Earlier, in our discussion of the poem “Why Not Say What Happens,” we noted that the conflicted lawyer/poet/prophet discovers in language the site where the secular, aesthetic and sacred intersect. There we cited the phrase “endless sentences” as one of those intersections. Faith would be another word necessary to the myths of all three realms. Still, there are “sites” where the conflicts among the three systems remain unabated. For example, the strophes of verse resist, however futile, “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving, / force’s writhing wheel” (66). Moreover, in opposition to the obfuscating repetitions of the secular (“Capital? Careful! Capital capitalizes”) (30) or the transparent fantasy of personal salvation (“The final words of the book are being written — / have I made it? — light and sorrow and dream”) (50) that underlies religious fanaticism, the poem,

… is the dream, a dream technique;

the primary soul-substance
on which our attention is fixed —

supernal, metaphysical — in other words,
a representation,

as we have seen,
of mythical origins. (66)

The inadequacy of the aesthetic to represent the actual is compensated for by its dovetailing with the “supernal, metaphysical — in other words” those “endless sentences.” For secular law, as much as aesthetic law, rests, finally, on metaphysical foundations, on faith, on assumptions which are given to us in advance. The inadequacy of the aesthetic — whether we mean its limited abilities to influence or to represent — is only an instance of the inadequacies of the secular and sacred. There was never any secular justice for the burning of Joseph’s Food Market. Even if there had been a trial of the perpetrators, no legal brief could adequately “represent” the labor that went into the building up of Joseph’s Food Market (hence the “compensation” of money for “pain and injury”). Likewise, no prophet could adequately represent the outrage of a roaring God. And indeed, insofar as God apparently needs representatives, the divine itself cannot avoid the inadequacies of mediation (a son, a prophet, etc.) of language.

We are left then with “a woman, a man, / love’s characters, the myth // their own” (67). We repeat the story of love despite, because of, all its foibles. It is, for better or worse, our story. In this narrative, we are “characters” pitting our wills against fate, and as with any good detective or mystery or romance, we know the outcome. The pleasure we derive from living out this story is precisely in the living out. In this story, repeated ad infinitum, we use words, use dialogue, to propel the narrative forward even as we know all too well the inadequacy of language to represent our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and fears. In this story every other narrative — including those collected in books — serves as potential, if inadequate, mirrors of who and what we imagine — in the strongest sense of the word — ourselves to be. And though the Book is often an emblem of a law we swear by, we know that “love” is finally one of our ineffable dreams:

We place our hands

on the silence
and, once again, repeat the vow.



1. Though she does not reduce the debates about the function of poetry during the 1980s to infighting over familial law, Lisa Steinman is concerned with the underlying ontological and epistemological strata that link poetics often defined in opposition to one another. See her article “‘Telling the Time’: Narrative and Lyric in the Poetry of Lawrence Joseph.” More generally and specifically, my ideas regarding the persistent lyrical impulse in contemporary American poetry owe a great deal to my reading and my understanding (not his, so he is absolved of responsibility) of Norman Finkelstein’s two books on the lyric tradition and the utopian gesture of that poetry. See his Lyrical Interference and The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry.

2. Finkelstein, Lyrical Interference: Essays on Poetics (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2003), 140.

3. It is precisely the constraints of habit that led to the deployment of chance and procedural poetics in poets like Jackson Mac Low, Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage, et al.

4. I am thinking of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s two most famous “Standard English” poems, “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask.” While the latter is generally read as referring to the price African Americans pay to enter a predominantly white public sphere, I read both poems as also referring to Dunbar’s frustrations that only the “lowly lyrics” of his black dialect poems were well received during his lifetime. Dunbar aspired to poetic greatness which he conflated with writing in standard English.

5. Below I note that the prophetic is not, strictly speaking, a literary genre; it belongs to theology. In acknowledging this division I concede to the historical secularization of poetry in the West. As my argument will make apparent, poets have not always conceded this division, however institutionalized it may be.

6. Of course, ruled-based or chance poetics are explicitly constrained; they are clearly driven by laws of composition (even if the law is that there are no laws). Because they represent the only mode of poetics potentially absent of any lyrical content these modes have often been deemed — by both detractors and proponents — as an “anti” or “non”-poetics or poetry. This suggests that the lyric is considered a necessary, if not sufficient, component or attribute of poetics and poetry per se.

7. A cursory reading of the writers assembled under the manifesto In the American Tree (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986) shows how motivated so many of the pieces are. This is an effect of not only habit — we have had almost a quarter of a century to learn how to read this anthology — but also of the interminable nature of the Language writing project itself. Olson wrote that he was after “the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.” That participle indicates that Olson was aware of the ongoing nature of his project which he dubbed objectism.

8. See Harryette Mullen, Recyclopedia (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006), and Carl Phillips, In the Blood (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992). Justifiably or not, almost all the articles in the original 2009 University of Cincinnati Law Review symposium that are concerned with an overview of Lawrence Joseph’s four books of poetry (some include a fifth, the selected, in their analyses) generally see a movement from the personal and local to the social and historical over the course of his career as a poet.

9. Norman Finkelstein argues for a generalized religious — not just spiritual — turn in twentieth-century poetics and poetry in his recent study On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010). None of the poets I cite are part of his study which focuses, in part, more narrowly on what we might call the “Duncan line” insofar as it includes Spicer, Palmer, and Mackey, among others. Roger Gilbert also discusses the “turn” to religion as it manifests itself as the term “angel” featured in the titles of a plethora of books of poetry (he lists nearly twenty). Gilbert considers this phenomenon as less an indication of a return to traditional religion than a generalized elegy for the demise of spiritual transcendence. In these poets’ titles and poems, angels seem to mediate between “lyricism and dissonance, tradition and its subversion.” See his “Awash in Angels: The Religious Turn in Nineties Poetry,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 239–269.

10. Finkelstein makes this point in both Lyrical Interference and The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1988).

11. As the term identity politics suggests, to focus on one’s “accidental” attributes within aesthetic forms is perforce to “contaminate” the aesthetic with the political, for the aesthetic is presumed to be concerned with the “essential” attributes of human existence. Though New Criticism is often cited as the primary source of this line of thinking, it, in fact, can be traced back to the very origins of the Enlightenment.

12. Richard Hugo’s influential book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992) can stand in here as an exemplary argument, within the lyric tradition, of the immanent and transcendental resources associated with the poetry of place.

13. Andrew Krivak labels this prophetic tradition “Catholic,” by which he means a visionary poet with a “necessary kinship to the social and the contemplative poets.” Since so many non-Catholic, to say nothing of non-Christian and non-religious, poets in the visionary or “contemplative” tradition are also concerned with the “social,” Krivak’s reductionism seems to be merely a form of imperial annexation even if, in the case of Joseph, it is valid. See Krivak’s “The Language of Redemption,” Commonweal 130, no. 9 (2003): 12–16.

14. For Norman Finkelstein, Joseph’s narrator(s) is a latter-day flaneur, a Baudelairean consciousness roaming among the urban crowd to which he longs to be connected but for which he has utter contempt. See Finkelstein’s “Ground Zero Baudelaire” elsewhere in this symposium on Joseph.

15. Nonetheless, Lebanon, especially its civil wars, also figures prominently as a motif in Joseph’s oeuvre. Frank Rashid emphasizes Joseph’s wider geopolitical and historical context in his article “Transparent Eye, Voice Howling Within: Codes of Violence in Lawrence Joseph’s Poetry,” PMLA 123, no. 5 (October 2008): 1611–20. Rashid also emphasizes that the themes in Shouting at No One surface repeatedly throughout Joseph’s work, implicitly rejecting any “developmental” model for understanding the four books of poetry.

16. See Finkelstein, The Utopian Moment, 24.

17. This atemporal, “eternal” locus of this poem appears on an unpaginated page prior to part 1 of the book; pagination, enumeration, is another index of the fall into time. Joseph, Shouting at No One (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).

18. Joseph, Before Our Eyes (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 42.

19. Joseph, Curriculum Vitae (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 7.

20. This is, of course, the classic dilemma and background plot of Oedipus.

21. In Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), Joseph asks, rhetorically, in “Woodward Avenue,” a poem that refers to the main thoroughfare dividing east and west Detroit, “Am I not correct in saying that for purposes / of insurance there was considerable dispute / as to whether it was a war, a riot,/ or an insurrection?” (16).

22. Eric Selinger suggests that the slow breathing of the father, contrasted with the angels’ breath in “I Was Appointed the Poet of Heaven,” is another sign of the poet’s demotion to the fallen world. As far as I know, Selinger is the only critic of Shouting at No One that gives this poem the careful, meticulous reading it deserves. See his essay “Several Kinds of Chronicler, He’s Been: The Books and Selves of Lawrence Joseph.”

23. See Franz Kafka, The Castle (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), and Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (Chicago: Dalkey Archive, 1967).

24. Hence Stephen Dedalus’s idealized concept, per Aquinas, of the aesthetic as “certainly a stasis and not a kinesis.” As we recall, Stephen goes on to define an evolutionary concept of the aesthetic, per Aristotle, that depends on the gradual extinction of the artist’s “personality” and its regeneration in “characters. Thus the dramatic form is the highest or final form toward which the literary arts aspire. As for the “epical” (the exact form of the word Joseph employs), it is the nodal point between the lyrical and dramatic. To the extent Joseph’s poetry is filled with multiple voices, especially in Into it, one could make a case that his work in general becomes less and less “autobiographical” with each book. I argue differently; for me each book evokes the lyrical, the epical and what I deem as the prophetic. I neither affirm nor deny the argument that the later work teems with “other” voices. See James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin, 1976), 207–15.

25. See Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969).

26. At the end of Into It, in the poem “Once Again,” a title that, like the “secret,” can be read in at least two different ways, with two different registers, neither of excludes the other, the poet appears to choose the silence of human love over the living speech of divine prophecy.

27. How to live as a Catholic under a predominantly Protestant society is a motif in Joseph’s poetry we cannot pursue here; suffice it to say that the prophetic epical alter ego is largely if not entirely Catholic in orientation and content.

28. There is, however, at least one notable exception in Stevens: “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea …” This qualification from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1982, 380–408) determines the necessity of the transience of all reality, including language, Hence poems must be constantly written, constantly reread, to reach, “For a moment,” that “first idea.” This is quite different from Joseph’s “For the time being,” written under the pressures of an apparent endless parade of human disasters, foibles, and calamities. In brief, Stevens’s supreme fiction displaces the myth of divinity as the final cause or end of human triumphs and failures; in “Two or Three Ideas,” from Opus Posthumous (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1982), he writes, “To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences” (206). Joseph’s desire to focus on just what’s “before our eyes” is a form of responsibility to human existence but also, as I argue later, a form of case-building to justify the lyrical turning away from larger social and political realities even if the transitory per se outrages the prophetic/epical id, always looking back toward the past, toward the pre-birth amniotic warmth of the womb, the pre-conception eternity of paradise.

29. That is, sometimes the alter egos and sometimes the ego is the figure of sacred prophecy, and so on. Truth to tell, however, it is rarely the ego since this is the social self constructed to facilitate one’s public offices. Unlike, say, Denmark where it is possible to be “employed” as an artist by the state, that possibility rarely (there are the “temporary” employment opportunities of NEH, NEA and other federal, as well as some private, grants) holds in the United States.

30. This Aristotelian term is used by Stephen Dedalus during his discussion of aesthetics in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (see note 17). Joseph himself has used this term to describe his own ars poetica.

31. A number of commentators have noted the motif of the double in Joseph’s poetry. See, for example, Fred Muratori’s review of the selected Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), in American Book Review (“Self and the City,” September–October 2006, 16–17, and Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, The Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” 38, Legal Studies Forum. Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, the Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” Legal Studies Forum 30, no. 1/2 (2006): 9–45.Eric Selinger also discusses the double in his article cited above.

32. The poet is poised, then, “between” the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders, precisely the “field” of play. Thus, from a Lacanian perspective, the poem gestures toward the amniotic even as it, from a Freudian perspective, aspires “to myth” (Selinger, “Several Kinds of Chronicler, He’s Been”), to an order either pre-birth (as we see, for example, in Wordsworth) or after life: post-postlapsarian. Selinger’s emphasis on the preposition reminds us, as I argue throughout the article, that reunion with, or achievement as, myth is, by definition, impossible. See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

33. See Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light (Warner Brothers, 1980).

34. Nathanael West was among the first literary artists to realize that the philosophies and values associated with the traditional humanities would resurface, however abbreviated, in the modes of popular culture, rendering the literary prophet — and West, for all his cynicism, can be read as a prophet — superfluous. Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions, 1962).

35. Is it mere coincidence that the Lacanian reconceptualization of the Freudian fort/da as objet petit a occurs in lines about an infirmed infant, one not “blind” but simply unable (unwilling?) to open its eyes? This poem alone deserves an essay. For now we will just affirm Freud, Lacan, and Derrida, to say nothing of Dickinson, Stevens, H.D., Duncan, Howe (Susan), Mackey, and a host of others: the playing with language is an index of the fact that the play of language resists the intelligence almost. A fixed, rigorous language, what hovers beyond the grasp of every Tower of Babel and Twin Towers, every spire and minaret, like “pure light,” is, as Joseph himself makes explicit, “the unattainable.”

36. Stevens himself makes this point in his essay on the poet, poetry and social responsibility, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1965). Joseph buttresses Stevens’s argument throughout Into It; see, for example, the opening of ”Inclined To Speak” where Celan’s retort to Brecht is generalized as every post-Holocaust poet’s response to Adorno’s severe injunction regarding poetry in an age of systematic terror.

37. As we will see below, this swerve “away” from the “actual” will demand a hearing before the law. Thus the focus of many of the poems in Into It will indeed constitute a confrontation with, a putting on trial of, the “actual.”

38. The analysand who is supposed to know arrives at self-knowledge by way of a detour through the other, the analyst. Outside the psychoanalytic space (an office) and time (an hour) the others are, for the artist, other artists, other “significant others,” however delayed their arrival at the scene of the crime and instruction.

39. What is terrorism and military adventurism but the deliberate occultation of “divine” purpose, divine “right”? God promised futility to His messengers; He would harden the hearts of the backsliding Israelites to prophecy. So too the architects of state-sponsored and tribalized slaughter; the lines in the sand will be drawn in blood.

40. See Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” in Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Washington Square Books/Simon & Schuster, 1983).

41. As Eric Selinger pointed out in his commentary on a draft of this essay, the poem is a revision of Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” which contains the line “Why not say what happened?” Selinger notes that the present tense of Joseph’s title suggests that memory, as the underpinning of post-Romantic lyric, won’t be the crucial term here. According to Selinger, “What happened can be clarified by memory, turned into representational art; what happens is messier, has more vocabularies and systems at work at any given moment” (note to the author). Since the Lowell poem concerns the problem of fidelity of perspective and concerns, in part, the painter Vermeer, it is not surprising that Joseph, whose wife is a painter and whose book Into It is full of “painterly” images, revises Lowell to suit his purposes.

42. I take “A Sentimental Education” as a reworking of the nineteenth century’s concern with the risks of formal “learning” as evinced in Flaubert’s and Rousseau’s projects (A Sentimental Education and Emile; Or Treatise on Education) in relation to both the eighteenth century’s concern with this issue (Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey) and, a century earlier, Milton’s “forensics” poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” which debate the two forms of heroism available to men: military distinction or excellence in letters and arts. An Enlightenment value, sentiment, like sympathy, is conceived of as one of the essential attributes of “human nature” even though both, like “book learning,” must be cultivated. The implicit tension at the heart of the terms — an essence subject to the accidents of cultivation — can be seen in the major literary texts that debate, as it were, the value of the literary “text”: from Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare to Sidney, Pope, and Blake. Of course, this “debate” is one of the central issues at the heart of the high modernism of Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. See Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education: The Story of a Young Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile; Or Treatise on Education (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003); Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), ed. Graham Petrie (New York: Penguin, 1768); John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis, IN: Odyssey Press/Bobbs-Merrill, 1957).

43. As the stakes rise in the social, cultural and political conflicts that beset the world, the romantic image, the singular detail, offers respite. From the perspective of the world, this kind of response can seem trite, if not irresponsible. Thus David Yezzi’s review of Before Our Eyes is entitled “A Morality of Seeing,” taken from the book’s eponymous poem, and it sets the tone of his piece. Generalizing from this single line in a single poem, Yezzi praises Joseph’s social conscience as enacted in most of the poems in the book; his only complaint is precisely when Joseph offers “pure” romantic images and details, so much “uncut sugar” after the poet’s castigating “salt.” Yezzi misses the import of the last lines of “Before Our Eyes”: “For the time being/ let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes.” The “sugar” isn’t, as much as the poet might desire it to be so, “uncut.” The romance, no more than the epical, cannot be read, because it does not appear, in isolation in Joseph’s work. Those brief moments of apparent bliss or respite, of “uncut sugar,” are just that, moments. Even though Yezzi, like some other critics, reads “Our Eyes” as indicative of the poet’s broadening perspective in his third book, that “Our” is always in dialectic with the poet’s “my.” In this regard, the difference between the first two books and this third book is Joseph’s insistence here that others adopt his strategies of silence and cunning (if not exile). The lines right before the ones quoted above read, “The soft, subtle twilight / only the bearer feels, broken into angles, / best kept to oneself.” That “oneself” mediates “our” and “my”; it is both the other and the self. See Yezzi, “The Morality of Seeing,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 19, no. 2 (1994): 83–90.