Some notes on Lisa Jarnot's 'Sea Lyrics'

Lisa Jarnot. Photo on left by Joan Beard Photography, 2012.

Through my exploration of the poetic sentence and the prose poem, I have become fascinated by the work of American poet Lisa Jarnot, author of the trade poetry collections Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001/Salt Publishing, 2003), Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003), and Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). A New York City poet born in Buffalo, Jarnot is also the author of chapbooks that include Fall of Orpheus (Shuffaloff Books, 1993), Heliopolis (rem press, 1998), Nine Songs (Belladonna, 1999), The New Mannerist Tricycle (with Bill Luoma and Rod Smith; Beautiful Swimmer Press, 2000), The Eightfold Path (a+bend Press, 2000), One’s Own Language (Institute of Further Studies, 2002), Reptile House (BookThug, 2005), Iliad XXII (ATTICUS/FINCH, 2006), Amedellin Nosegay Cooperative (Song Cave, 2010) and Joie de Vivre (Dirty Swan Projects, 2011), as well as the new biography of the poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012).

Opening Jarnot’s collection Ring of Fire, I became struck by the thirty-page prose poem sequence “Sea Lyrics,” previously produced as a chapbook by Situation Press in New York in 1996. Jarnot favors the long sentence, it would seem: each poem but the first is made up of a single, staggered line, and I’d be interested to hear how she managed to read these publicly, whether a combination of quick-pause inhalations at commas or somewhat breathless, or slow enough that her breath becomes more subtle, measured:

I am a partially submerged boat on the waterfront of
Jack London Square on a Sunday morning buying jam.
I am flesh-colored and pale, in an Indian head dress
cracking chestnuts and eating roots, in the fissure
between the bus lines, with the smell of burnt toast in
the can-crushing lot, in the inside-out tomato yards,
where I am riding all the bicycles through tunnels to see
lawn, where I am on a downtown bus, partially
submerged, I am krill and various large birds, the color
grey on the sidewalk, a small opossum, in the breaking
glass in isolation in the sun, I am waiting for the
swamps and smoke of eucalyptus in the breeze, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats on the bay, I am
aimless and have several new tattoos.

In an interview in VERSE magazine (issue 16, no. 3/issue 17, no. 1 [2000]), she says:

Sea Lyrics was written after Some Other Kind of Mission, though I drew it from information (memories) previous to Some Other Kind of Mission. I lived in California for three and a half years (from 1989 through 1992) and Sea Lyrics sorts out all of that. It has some Whitmanisms, but it also has some Ferlinghetti-isms (“I am waiting”) in it. Sea Lyrics was very much a response to living in New York in two ways. Firstly, I had just enough distance on the terrain of California to start to understand how shell-shocked I had been by its culture (in a good way, for the most part). Secondly, I had moved to New York early in 1994 and found myself in the midst of a community of young people who had come into poetry primarily through Language writing, and that also seemed very foreign to me. I realized at readings that it was entirely shocking if someone used the word “I” in a poem, so I decided to run with that, to exhaust the “I” and to bounce it off the particulars of Oakland and San Francisco.

Jarnot plays with the movement of the “I,” and in her “Sea Lyrics,” interplays the narrative “I” with what is seen, “I/eye” echoing a similar binary in Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain’s equally small work The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003). In her chapbook, Quartermain composes shifts such as “Can one ever cease to invent one’s self? Apart from death?” and “Deliberate I am fixed. You are flickering — a light. Him to have slain beside / the haystack the gazers strike. Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid — I, an epic.” It’s interesting to note that Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley, who himself wrote poems replete with the narrative “I” as domestic patter, but with a stripped-down language of point and counterpoint, as opposed to Jarnot’s own collage of point, scatter, and repetition, often looping back to meet itself. The poem pushes forward, in part, through referencing and reworking what has already come. Writing of Ring of Fire in Boston Review (February/March 2002), Andrew Zawacki describes the book as being “replete with poems that move within closed circuits, indulging in the so-called pleasures of merely circulating, of scouting ahead and then doubling back.” He goes on to say:

This issue of the self’s permeable, continually gerrymandered boundaries is revolved and left unresolved in the book’s middle section, “Sea Lyrics.” The epigraph, taken from an eighteenth-century Encyclopedia Brittanica, notes that it is “uncertain” whether California “be a peninsula or an island,” as Jarnot begins inquiring tangentially into the dynamism of the self, which dreams of independence and apartness, but is realized only in locked relation to the landfall of others. Conjuring Donne’s admonition that no man is an island, “Sea Lyrics” equally recalls his “Metempsychosis,” about the transmigration of the soul. The objects, ideas, and atmospheres that this speaker inhabits are seemingly endless, rendering the “self” not lone but legion. Sometimes these temporary incarnations disturb the distinctions between surface and depth: “I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront.” Sometimes they offer a plea, by admitting incapacity: “I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres.” Sometimes these ulterior, alter egos deploy paradox or solicit contradiction, in the service of estrangement or difficulty: “I am dangerous and undangerous also.” Often they figure the self as the sum of its complex itineraries, as in the remark, “I am almost to Japan”; the convoluted admission, “I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of night, I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of rock in avocado night”; and the observation, structured like an ouroboros, “this is from where I came and to which I came.”

Who was it that said the coast is but a line? In responses to “Sea Lyrics,” there seems to be much fixation on Jarnot’s “I,” as David Kaufmann writes in “Repetition, Noise and Pleasure, or Why I like John Yau and Lisa Jarnot,” that “Sea Lyrics plays with the words that people use to make up identities. It shows how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.” Earlier on in the same essay, Kaufmann goes further, specifically targeting the “I”:

What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical in any conventional way (“I am underwater buying jam”). The identities of this “I” range from the whimsical (“I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hall”) to the almost incomprehensible (“I am of the new year sober now”). What is more, this poem can in no way be construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker. Unlike the artist in “830 Fireplace Road,” Jarnot’s “I” is here, there and everywhere and all at once.

Part of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb “to be” (I am) off the present continuous (I am writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the same words can have quite different uses, at the same time that it raises the question of the relation between identity (I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action?

Why is there such a fixation on her narrative “I”? It nearly distracts from what else the poem is doing. Another perspective on Jarnot’s “I” comes from Patrick Pritchett, who reviewed Ring of Fire in Jacket 15 (December 2001), writing:

Yet another of the great pleasures afforded by Ring of Fire is the poet’s anaphoric “I,” that acts like a fractal integer, the secret number divisible by everything it is not. Divide this “I” by any object you choose and come up with a mise-en-abyme, an infinite regress of the same figure — the figure of the Other — across a landscape of mirrors. To say “I am this,” or “I am that,” with such repeated, hungry insistence, is not to say “I” at all. Or if it is, it is to say the little “i.”  The I that has been emptied out, that stands as the sign for its own erasure. The “I” of Sea Lyrics, then, is the kenotic I. Evacuating itself, it permits everything to occur, and all at once.

It is as if the poem opens with uncertainty, citing uncertain placement and impossible grounding. The “I” might be there, but floating, unreliable. It’s as though part of the point of the collage included a lack of interest in any one particular, fixed point of view, which is about as far away from narcissism as one could imagine. What is the purpose of referencing Oakland’s Jack London Square, and then, London himself (who grew up in Oakland)? Throughout the poem, Jarnot repeats and twists references to Jack London, tides, San Francisco’s Cliff House, avocados, waterfront, and tattoos (the latter three mentioned nine times each), turning this poem of the Bay Area back in on itself with some of the same language, in some of the same ways Toronto’s Margaret Christakos resequences her own language. As the fifth poem in Jarnot’s “Sea Lyrics” reads:

I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all
the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and
the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater
buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now
and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.

In a review posted in 2009 on Gently Read Literature, Gwyn McVay refers to the sequence as “terse prose poems” that “meditate on dislocation and violence.” Dislocation, perhaps, but less a violence than a layering of perspectives, overlapping and even overwhelming in places. The twenty-first poem in the sequence reads:

I have been a long time in this story on the bridge inside
tattoos and wearing avocados, and I can think only of
myself, and I can steal the books in bookstores, and I
can collect cans at all the can and crushing lots, and I
am here to wait in line with others near the lawns, and I
am being shot at on the sidestreet, and I am hording all
the plastic pigs, and I am practicing with others for the
dawn, from rooftops where the hills are all on fire with
the most usual of circumstances, where the fish are kept
in large tanks and a black smoke settles on the roof,
where the neighbor harbor pitbulls between the cars,
where the strange small apples bounce across the tar
upon the roof, where opossums cross against the flow of
traffic, where the streetlights blink and flicker on, where
the plastic and the airplanes fill the sky, where we live
beside the most chinese of oceans, where I gamble in the
empty and where winterless I am.

Not a dislocation, but a collage of perspectives, kaleidoscopic and almost allowing the reader to pick and choose which thread to follow. Kevin Varrone ends his review of Ring of Fire in ixnay 6 (summer 2001) with:

Ring of Fire seems to me a testament to rhetoric, to the varied powerfulness of language, to all that is said and is meaningless and that which is said and is not. The matter here, a la Hamlet, is words. And things. There is some sense of Hemingway in Jarnot’s poems for me: Stein, perhaps (the Stein in Hemingway, that is) — something beautiful, conjunctive, repetitive, childlike, intelligent. The things themselves become less themselves as they more become words in a highly wrought rhetoric. In the first poem of Sea Lyrics, the speaker says, “I am aimless and have several new tattoos.” That aimless speaker becomes, in the sequence’s sixth poem, “the foam of / obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am,” then “… how lost I am” in the eighth poem, then “I am not sure where I am” in the final poem of the sequence. But it is just such aimlessness and lack of surety that make Jarnot’s poems so engaging — her willingness and ability to leave readers in a labyrinth or city, in the ocean or the sky. And the fact that there is no real progression toward anything — a speaker is aimless at the start of a thirty-poem sequence and not sure where it is at the end. And so the wandering is both means and end, and the landmarks signal existence, not direction. This is the pervasive sensibility of this book: a writer overwhelmingly involved in the world and the things of the world yet somehow lost in them, in the experience of them, in the saying of them, so that the things become just things and the I’s just I’s: apparitions reminding themselves to identify the things the[y] are seeing: “This is a jumbo prawn,” and “This is the sound of my television.”

Jarnot composes her “Sea Lyrics” as an accumulation, a collage-aspect, with the informative, deceptive “I” stretching less a narrative impulse than a lens that captures a variety of perspectives and reports them, overlapping and contradicting, one by one. “Sea Lyrics” exists as a song that remains firmly on the land, stepping out only as far as the waterfront, barely stepping foot in the water. Even as the narrator becomes submerged, the land is unbearingly close, leaving the threat of open water both an absence and a psychological presence. Is it something in the air? The poem opens with a passage as epigraph from Encyclopedia Brittanica 1768 that reads:

California, a large country of the West Indies, lying between 116º and 138º W. long. and between 23º ad 46º N. lat. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island.

We might know, as readers, the geography of California well enough to know the difference, but the poem doesn’t stray far enough from shore to know, from the openings of the “partially submerged boat” to “I won’t go to the waterfront anymore,” and closing in on the end of the sequence, writing “I am bludgeoned by this most exotic ocean, currently,” to “I am getting better like / the oceans on the sidestreet, I am surrounded by water,” and “down the surge of waterways in dark,” to “the pier with all / the sink hones on the edge,” and “I am at the ocean from the tops of / towers.” With so many references to surf, moisture, fog, rain, water and hottubs, but for the single reference to the actual ocean, these lyrics are more often for an abstract sea, or is she at the waterfront, staring out? Should these, instead, be waterfront or even bay lyrics? The poem stands, but can’t it also swim? Jarnot repeats, rewrites and alters, and her California, it would seem, includes references to San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, Carol Burnett, Huey Newton (the Black Panther cofounder shot in West Oakland in 1989), Huey Lewis (stepson of San Francisco poet Lew Welsh), Lucretius, “the church of Thelonius Monk,” “Lammas Tide” (the tide that comes up on Lammas Day, August 1, referenced also in Romeo and Juliet), “this Saint Ana wind” (a wind that comes up the southern California coast), and Atlantis. Is this “Sea” or “See” lyrics?

Part of this is reminiscent of Sommer Browning’s 2011 sequence “Vale Tudo,” from her first trade poetry collection Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC), a twenty-two-page prose poem sequence that explores a geography not her own (but from a much shorter stay), mixed in with the locale of a late writer who, on the surface, has little to do with the author. More narrative than Jarnot’s piece, Browning’s sequence blends hotels with mixed-martial arts with Walt Whitman, the Walt Whitman Mall, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site:

Some of you will never go to Long Island. Some of you will but will never go to Walt Whitman Mall. Some of you will enter Walt Whitman Mall and head straight for Foot Locker. So let me tell you about the façade of Walt Whitman Mall, how it’s carved with passages from Leaves of Grass, how the block Emigrant Savings Bank sign is bolted to the poem.

A child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?…I do
not know what it is any more than he.

But the best line of Jarnot’s sequence has to be on Susan Gibb’s site, in her 2004 piece “Writing: As One Reads,” where she quotes a source I can’t find:

Katey at One Good Bumblebee says, “And if I write out Lisa Jarnot’s complete Sea Lyrics longhand because mere reading isn’t good enough dammit, it’s okay.”

Book history and the poetry reading

Susan Howe reads at Kelly Writers House in 2010.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common to hear poetry scholars devoting more attention to the phenomenon of the poetry reading in both its live and recorded formats. Depending on the interests of the particular critic, these discussions usually fall into one of two categories: viewing the reading as an extension of the textual history of the work being performed or viewing the event itself as a site of collective agency, as the audience participates in giving meaning to the work being performed.

In Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Peter Middleton asks, “What is the point of ordinary poetry readings in contemporary culture? What accounts for their popularity even when poets read material of such verbal complexity that only the cumulative intensities of silent reading would seem likely to do the texts justice?”[1] For Middleton, the answer lies in a combination of the spectacle of witnessing the performance of authorship and the allure of experiencing what he calls “collective events,” by which he means that an intersubjectivity between audience and poet is created in the act of performance. That intersubjectivity subsequently becomes a fundamental element of the textual history of the performed work.[2]

Surprisingly, however, critics like Middleton rarely analyze actual poetry readings, and they even less frequently include the experience of audience members to provide a glimpse of what the experience means to them. For these reasons, I propose that scholars of contemporary poetry would be well served by adopting methodologies from the field of book history and performing ethnographic studies of actual poetry reading audiences.

A September 13, 2007, reading by the poets Bernadette Mayer and Lee Ann Brown at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House illustrates the sort of cultural work that poetry readings can do, pointing out just how complex the relationship between poet and audience can be to the degree that in this case it temporarily breaks down and audience members become part of the performance itself. Eschewing the traditional format in which the younger poet reads first — usually for a shorter period of time, much like the opening act at a concert — Mayer and Brown trade off, each reading one poem at a time. This structure resembles the way poets Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi would often stage joint readings, a structure Coolidge and Gizzi acknowledged stemmed from the concept of jazz musicians stepping forth to trade solos. Mayer was good friends with both Coolidge and Gizzi and had staged innovative readings with Coolidge in the past. During an event at the Poetry Project in New York on February 24, 1971, for example, which was billed as a reading featuring Mayer and Coolidge, audience members were treated to a film of Mayer and Coolidge chasing one another around Coolidge’s house while reading from the work of Gertrude Stein, with both poets often off camera. A few turns into the their 2007 reading, Mayer and Brown deviate from their established structure when Mayer reads a poem requested by audience member CAConrad. The poem is Mayer’s “Sonnet (You jerk you didn’t call me up),” and she dedicates the poem to Conrad, to whom she refers by first name. After reading the poem, Mayer playfully notes, “We also have the jerk here,” and asks if Conrad wants to read the poem as well. Before launching into a relatively inspired reading of the poem, Conrad says, “You have to imagine twelve — not two or three — twelve electric guitars. There’s this whole thing I have planned for this one day.” Initially an audience member, Conrad becomes part of the performance itself in much the same way that an audience member might sit in with a jazz band for a particular number. In doing so, he takes the nontraditional reading format a step further in reimagining the piece as a sort of performance art rock opera.

The intertexts are thick in this brief interlude. First, there is the nod to Coolidge and Gizzi and their roots in jazz performance. There is the undoing of the standard format in which the older, more established poet serves as a headlining act, a move that highlights the symbiotic aspect of Mayer and Brown’s working relationship. Then there is the sense of poetic lineage on display, Mayer’s feminist critique of the sonnet tradition expanded in this case to include Conrad as an audience member and serving as a nod to the overtly queer content of many of his own poems. My interpretation of the event is informed by personal knowledge of all three parties involved and my own experience as an audience member, but the performance can be taken as a microcosm of what generally happens at poetry readings. The reality of poetry readings is that the majority of audience members are simultaneously producers and consumers of poetic texts, even if they consider themselves amateur rather than professional producers. The moment during Mayer and Brown’s reading in which the barriers between audience, performer, and text breaks down exemplifies the sort of generative community that is formed at such events. The dense intertexts in this moment also suggest the need to pay closer critical attention to these communities.

The sociology of reading

The fields of book history and poetry studies have rarely been paired, largely because their respective trajectories have led them in opposing directions. In its early years, the field of book history was primarily concerned with the evolution of dominant literary forms, relegating poetry to the fringes of literary activity. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) traces the relationship between the rise of a general reading public and the emergence of the novel in eighteenth-century England. According to Watt, the novel’s “formal realism” was the primary reason for its ascent. Watt argues that “the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience,” giving the genre “an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story […] which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms.”[3] This generic feature, which could alternatively be defined as the process through which the language of popular culture became increasingly transparent, both supplied and shaped the demands of an emerging reading public.

The Rise of the Novel is important not only because it was one of the most thorough early studies of this phenomenon, but also — and perhaps more importantly for my purposes here — because its title symbolically fixed the novel as the dominant literary form. If the novel has “risen,” it seems logical to surmise that it has done so at the expense of other literary forms and genres. The “verbal complexity” that Middleton notes in much contemporary poetry seems to have no place amid the “more largely referential use of language” that Watt claims characterizes the dominance of the novel. Watt, of course, has not been the only scholar to tell this story, but this is neither the time nor the place to give a complete account of the novel’s ascent to near ubiquity. Rather, I bring up the rise of the novel in order to turn to a genre that seems to have been all but forgotten in the wake of that rise: lyric poetry. My concern here could be rephrased as a modified version of the Peter Middleton question with which I opened this essay: what is the point of poetry in contemporary society? The answer might be found in looking more closely at poetry’s reception.

The most interesting recent scholarship in the history of the book has been oriented around what is generally called the sociology of reading, on the sociological factors that contribute to the selection of specific leisure reading subjects or genres or on excavating the reading habits of various subaltern social groups. Often, these studies pair a singular group with an equally singular genre, such as Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime-Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1998), or Janice Radway’s study of the female readers of romance novels in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1991). In almost every case, however, the reading material focused on is prose fiction, and most often it is some form of popular fiction. What these scholars often find is that “conservative texts [can] make plebian readers militant and articulate.”[4] While not discounting the immense import of this work, I cannot help but ask one question: why are scholars who are interested in the sociology of reading not focusing on radical readings of radical texts, namely, audience receptions of contemporary poetry?

To sketch an answer this question, it is worth looking at a useful corrective to another burgeoning field in literary criticism: cultural studies. In “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” Charles Bernstein interrogates the role of aesthetics in the changing face of the academy in the mid-1990s. Bernstein does not oppose the practice of cultural studies; in fact, he claims, “The gradual shift from literary studies to cultural and multicultural studies is probably the most useful change within the American academy in the past decade.”[5] At the same time, however, he critiques the limitations of this shift, particularly the sense that the works themselves often play second fiddle to the critic’s particular methodology:

My point is not to relegate criticism or literary theory to secondary status. […] Rather, I am insisting that art not be reduced to secondary status, the “object” of critical projection, but understood as an irreplaceable method of interpreting culture, including other artworks — “poetry as discourse” in Antony Easthope’s useful formation.[6]

My concerns here are very similar to Bernstein’s. I am not against the study of the sociology of reading; as I hinted at before, I consider it to be one of the most fruitful recent developments in the field of literary studies. At the same time, however, the fact that book history and poetry studies have tended to ignore one another is a huge loss to both fields. My goal here is to take a small step toward uniting the two.

Poetry and the public sphere

Both conservative and radical critics alike have written on the decline of poetry, but their work often sounds more like lament than serious critical engagement with the social forces behind that decline. The archetypal works from the conservative side of the field are Vernon Shetley’s After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (1993) and Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992). These two works, especially Shetley’s, treat the “difficulty” of contemporary poetry as an abhorrent symptom of modernity that can only be treated by a return to lucidity, which would in turn make poetry more relevant to contemporary society. Conservative critics like Shetley and Gioia are not the only ones who fall into the general trap of lamenting poetry’s decline. In The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present, for example, Jerome McGann, who generally champions a much more aesthetically radical group of poets than both Shetley and Gioia, criticizes what he sees as “a poetic deficit in contemporary culture, where values of politics and morality are judged prima facie more important than aesthetic values.”[7] In short, critics from both sides of the aesthetic divide end up sounding very similar — and similarly limited — on this issue.

Adrienne Rich (left) and Tomomi Adachi (right) in performance at Kelly Writers House (in 2005 and 2010, respectively).

Most poets and readers of poetry are not only well aware of the marginal status of their shared activity, but also romanticize that very marginality. The late Lorenzo Thomas makes a very similar suggestion in his discussion of the importance of poetry readings in African American literary traditions:

Thousands of people may, in fact, participate in weekly reading circles or in poetry workshops that meet weekly at branch libraries or in members’ homes, but none of them thinks that their chosen leisure activity carries the same level of societal acceptance as, say, bowling. Most of these people, of course, would be disappointed if it did.[8]

The truth is, however, that people do listen to poetry, even if the group that does so makes up a very small minority of the general reading public. These listeners view poetry as an alternative-space, a space in which they can — if only for a brief period of time — exist outside the confines of dominant popular culture. An interest in poetry gives those who hold that interest access to a sort of imaginary community, a community that often extends beyond geographical bounds and that — for its members, if not for the culture at large — carries an immense amount of cultural capital.

As the antithesis of lamenting poetry’s continued marginalization, Hank Lazer’s “The People’s Poetry” (2004) views the contemporary scene as an “era of radically democratized poetry,” which Lazer claims opens the door to a large number of subversive reading and writing practices. He gives a relatively lengthy list of the various communities in which these practices take place:

the slam scene (which now includes a very popular Broadway show, Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam), the many open-microphone events in nearly every American city, the therapy groups that rely on journals and poems as essential modes of self-expression and healing, the hundreds of creative-writing programs in American colleges and universities, poetry programs in numerous elementary, middle, and secondary schools, poetry programs in prisons, poetry connected to various religious practices (whether the new translation of core religious texts or new devotional writings), poetry for senior citizens, poetry as part of the process of recovering from abuse, and so on.[9]

I have quoted Lazer’s list in its entirety to show both the breadth of poetry’s reach in contemporary society and to show that its reach transcends barriers of class, race, gender, and age. Maria Damon refers to these occasions as “micropoetries,” a term that encapsulates both their marginality and self-sufficiency.[10]

A brief anecdote from my own experience might help illustrate the effect that poetry can have within these various communities. When I was in graduate school, I helped found a Writers in the Schools program whose mission was to bring innovative writing curricula to inner city schools. A group of local poets and writers went into community and educational centers, taught classes on creative reading and writing, hosted public readings, and organized publications of student writing. I worked at a GED prep site for teenage mothers, most of whom were Puerto Rican immigrants. A few years after I left the area, one of my former students sent me an email saying that ever since my class she had been active on the local spoken word scene, that she was recently working in a recording studio on a CD of her work, and that she wanted to know my new address so she could send me a copy of the CD. This was a student who had never written a poem prior to my sessions. She claims that reading the poetry of African American and Latino women, work by people with as difficult and marginalized lives as hers, gave her the tremendous feeling that she too could produce something that would have an equivalent effect on another reader. I have related this particular incident not to brag about the successes of my former students, but rather to show that for many marginalized members of society the discovery of poetry gives them a great sense of agency, so much that consumers of poetic texts often transform into producers of poetic texts.

The problem, Lazer claims, is that “[a]esthetic-differences often splinter these groups into reader-writer islands that have very little to do with one another. […] Such a diversity of practice makes it almost impossible to say what poetry is good or bad without first asking such questions as, for whom? for what uses?”[11] While Lazer’s emphasis on the democratization of poetry is commendable, his stance is compromised by its emphasis on aesthetic value and preference for more elite forms of poetry. He praises the film 8 Mile (2002) for giving “young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry,” but it is clear that he has little knowledge of — or experience with — the sort of work portrayed in the film.[12] Instead, Lazer presents the “poetry-rap” (Lazer’s term) on display in the film as a starter kit for more academic forms of performance-based poetry, particularly the “important Socratic inquiry” of David Antin’s work, most of which pre-dates that featured in 8 Mile.[13] In short, even the most well-meaning poetry critics tend to be out of touch with the times and dogged by personal preferences. Lazer’s analysis would have been well served if he had sat down with the young listeners of 8 Mile to gain an understanding of the uses to which they are putting that visceral experience. The very fact that people do listen to poetry, and that they consider the act of doing so to be an alternative to participating in dominant cultural forms, means that these groups should be seriously studied. We should not only be asking what are they reading or listening to, but how are they reading or listening to it. What role does poetry play in shaping or giving meaning to their experiences?

Bibliography and the poetry reading

Poets have long been aware of the languishing importance of their practice to popular culture at large. In a 1949 symposium at the University of California–Berkeley, for example, Jack Spicer begins with the question, “Why is no one here? Who is listening to us? […] If we were actors or singers or cartoonists of the same relative talent, a sizable number of the students at this University would recognize our names and be familiar with our work.”[14] His answer: “Live poetry is a kind of singing. It differs from prose, as song does, in its complexity of stress and intonation. Poetry demands a human voice to sing it and an audience to hear it. Without these it is naked […] and incomplete — a bore.”[15] A year later, the poet Charles Olson wrote, “What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination.”[16] These comments came only a few years before Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, as if both poets anticipated its concerns and saw the need to emphasize the performative aspects of poetry in order to ensure its survival.

Most poetry readings take place in locations that are temporarily removed from their everyday function: bars, lecture halls, art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores, and so on. The auditor’s experience of the reading is dependent upon a number of contingent factors: PA system quality, background noise, and other various interruptions. A particularly salient example of this comes in Daniel Kane’s description of a reading that Kenneth Koch gave on January 10, 1968, at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York.[17] Koch began the reading with a poem called “To My Audience,” which he had composed specifically for the occasion and which begins with the line “My audience of camel dung and fig newtons.”[18] Not long into the poem, however, Koch was interrupted by a younger poet, Allen Van Newkirk, who entered the church from the rear, pulled out a pistol, and fired two blanks at Koch. After a few moments of general confusion, it became clear from the slogans Newkirk was shouting that he was staging a protest in honor of the poet Amiri Baraka, who had recently been convicted of unlawful possession of firearms during the Newark, New Jersey race riots of 1967. Visibly shaken, Koch resumed the reading at the place where he had left off, but one of the audience members suggested that he start again, to which Koch replied, “I never should have said ‘my audience of camel dung,’”[19] which elicited uproarious laughter and clapping. Koch then went on to say, “I think I better read ‘The Pleasures of Peace’ [his long, anti–Vietnam War poem], I was going to read it later (laughter, clapping). Well, yeah I’m changing the order of readings.”[20] Koch then went on to give a rather animated reading of “Pleasures of Peace.” If one considers Koch’s reading as a “collective event,” to borrow Middleton’s term, one can see how Van Newkirk’s interruption reverberated both forward and backward, altering the way “To My Audience” and “Pleasures of Peace” might be initially characterized in terms of tone or content, perhaps even affecting the way audience members — or those who have heard the recording — read the poems on the page.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Stan Mir at Kelly Writers House in 2011.

Middleton claims that in studying the poetry reading as a text itself, “The different senses of the word ‘reading’ turn out to be more than superficially related.”[21] This claim has fundamental implications for the way in which we think about the materiality of texts. In the contemporary poetry reading, elements of both oral and written cultures exist simultaneously, often in a radically unstable manner. In his description of the reading practices of the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio, Carlo Ginzburg asks the following somewhat rhetorical question: “To what extent did the prevalently oral culture of [the reader’s of Menocchio’s time] interject itself in the use of the text, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence?”[22] The situation of the poetry reading reverses this question: to what extent does the text-based culture of a contemporary listener interject itself in the use of a reading, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence? The fundamental problem that this question introduces is the fact that the most complex models we have for thinking about literature are text-based. An aural form, like the poetry reading, requires the formulation of an entirely new critical vocabulary, one that scholars trained in the art of close reading — and even many who come from a cultural studies perspective — are ill-equipped to develop.

Distant reading

The poet John Giorno is fond of telling a story about attending a poetry reading with Andy Warhol in the early 1960s during which Warhol remarked, “It’s so boring. Why does it have to be so boring?” Anyone who has been to more than a handful of poetry readings has probably felt the same way at some point in his or her life. Giorno’s point is that the average poetry reading — where a lone reader stands in front of a podium reading his or her poems in a fairly monotone delivery — fails to create a spectacle capable of captivating contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, poetry readings survive, like genetically modified soybeans resilient to all manner of pesticides. I would argue that this resilience comes from the fact that poetry readings create — to adapt Benedict Anderson’s term — “imagined communities.” Anderson coins the term in his discussion of the role that literature plays in the development of nation-states. These communities, Anderson argues, are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”[23] The members of the communities created by poetry readings may know a higher percentage of their peers than the members of small nations, but the mental union is still very much the same. These imagined communities are different from Middleton’s “collective events” in the sense that the intersubjectivity between audience and performer is not necessarily the main reason audience members attend the readings, as audiences often attend poetry readings simply to participate in a given community. The featured performers — whose work is occasionally unknown to many audience members — and their performance itself are sometimes secondary to the events surrounding the performance: milling around and chatting before and after the reading, heading to a bar after the event’s organizers shoo everyone out of the original venue, and so on. I am not saying that the performers are not sometimes a big draw, but even in those cases the performance itself is often secondary.

My intention here is not to discredit Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event.” Quite the contrary. But I also think he overstates the importance of performer-audience intersubjectivity at the expense of some of the more external social aspects of the poetry reading. In order to understand what I mean when I say that readings create communities, spend a weekend in any major city hopping from poetry venue to poetry venue and observe how different the various audiences are. The poet Harryette Mullen once categorized this separation as “aesthetic apartheid” and noted that despite the “shared aspirations of social and aesthetic movements that envision a better world,” audiences from one side of the tracks rarely drift over to events on the other side.[24] As a result, we are left with critics like Lazer who seem much more at home discussing the work of David Antin than more popular forms of poetry.

Of course, some interesting work has been done on poetry readings: Maria Damon has given much attention to poetry slams, for example, and Daniel Kane discusses the importance of reading series at Les Deux Mégots and Le Metro in the formation of the literary scene in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Much of this work, however, is devoted to the creation of writing communities, not listening communities, and some of the most interesting work stands to be done in the latter direction. Similarly, recent developments in technology have allowed greater access to historical poetry readings — the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site, for example, offers a large number of poetry readings available to anyone with an Internet connection — but it would be nice to know to what use people were putting these recordings. Are they being used primarily for pedagogical purposes, or are people putting them on their iPods and listening to them on their morning commutes? These are the sorts of questions critics need to begin asking if we hope to understand the role of the poetry reading in a digital era.

Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event” is part of a reading strategy he calls “distant reading,” which essentially means acknowledging the distance that a contemporary critic has from the text, something which traditional close reading tends to abolish, and paying greater attention to both the textual and reception histories of a work. In this way, Middleton argues, criticism does “not represent itself as the fulfillment of the poem but as a partner in the poem’s continuance.”[25] As much as I may agree with Middleton here, his conclusion is not exactly news, as it relies heavily on models of textual scholarship handed down from critics like McGann. Ultimately, Middleton shies away from some of the more interesting aspects of distant reading, particularly its emphasis on reception. To supplement Middleton’s approach, I propose adopting the very different concept of “distant reading” developed by Franco Moretti in his essay “Conjectures on World Literature.” In this essay, Moretti, drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems approach and its characterization of global capitalism as a set of mechanisms that unevenly distributes resources between the periphery and the core, advocates the importation of quantitative methods drawn from the social sciences to the study of literature. In order to map the global evolution of the novel, which is Moretti’s field of expertise, he suggests a synthesis of preexisting work on the development of national literatures, a “second hand” approach that he describes as “a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading.”[26] This approach eschews discussions of individual authors and works in favor of charting large-scale shifts and trends in the development of world literature.

Poetry studies can benefit from a similar attention to what poetry readings have meant to different audiences in different places and times that scholars in the history and sociology of reading have given to the reading practices of other subaltern cultures. It is time that critics of modern and contemporary poetry stop producing criticism as we know it and start sitting down with audiences the way that Janice Radway sat down with the members of a book club in Ohio. These studies should cut as wide a swath as possible in order to account for socioeconomic, educational, and geographic factors. Then some ambitious scholars need to start putting the pieces of these various histories together to build a more complete understanding of poetry’s place amid the changing face of contemporary culture, allowing a much wider swath of literary work to be considered at once and shifting the conversation away from the fracturing that inevitably mars even the most well-meaning literary histories.



1. Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 62.

2. Ibid., 93.

3. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 32.

4. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 39.

5. Charles Bernstein, “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” in Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies, ed. James Soderholm (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 21.

6. Ibid., 31.

7. Jerome McGann, The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), xii.

8. Lorenzo Thomas, “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings,” in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 189.

9. Hank Lazer, “The People’s Poetry,” Boston Review 29, no. 2 (2004).

10. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 123. Of all current poetry scholarship, Damon’s sense of “micropoetries” is perhaps closest to my own concerns in this essay, especially the section “Elegaic Visitations” (195–202), in which Damon discusses the online writings of a Boston bicycle subculture.

11. Lazer, “The People’s Poetry.”

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Jack Spicer, “The Poet and Poetry — A Symposium,” in The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 229.

15. Ibid., 230.

16. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove, 1967), 57.

17. Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 171–73. The Poetry Project itself is a salient example of a way in which a group that exists outside the dominant culture has taken a space defined by that dominant culture and, in Michel de Certeau’s words, has “diverted it without leaving it,” a space where a certain blurring between secular and nonsecular events takes place: poets have been married there or had funeral services or memorial readings held there, but they have also taken LSD there and had sex in the balcony during readings. Often, the fact that the Project’s readings take place in a church affects the actual readings themselves, either through jokes or asides by the poet or audience members, or through poems written specifically for the occasion. At the same time, St. Mark’s Church remains a fully functional site of religious devotion. The Poetry Project only diverts that function temporarily, a fact that is made clear when such events as the annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading must be moved to a different time because New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 32.

18. Kane, All Poets Welcome, 172.

19. Ibid., 173.

20. Ibid.

21. Middleton, Distant Reading, 59.

22. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), xxii.

23. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 6.

24. Harryette Mullen, interview by Daniel Kane, in What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde, ed. Kane (New York: Teachers & Writers, 2003), 134.

25. Middleton, Distant Reading, 24.

26. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 57.

Lena and Lena

Elena Fanailova. Photo by Stanislav Lvovsky.

On Elena Fanailova’s “Lena and Lena” [read the poem in English and in Russian]

How do poets write themselves into their work? It would seem a question with a predictable answer. Either they do, following a Byronic model of controlled image-making and seductive self-fashioning, or they don’t, keeping confession or self-advertising carefully at bay. The latter model of studied impersonality, while not dominant in the twentieth century, had powerful proponents, from Eliot and Pound onward, and it still strikes some as more intellectual, more philosophical, more serious. Not to mention more masculine.

Which is where Elena Fanailova and a host of women poets before her come in. The expectation of intimacy from women poets, which was played to perfection by Russian poets from Anna Akhmatova onwards, makes all self-revelation or even its absence marked. Some women poets play to these expectations with wit and considerable charm (Vera Pavlova), others protect themselves with pseudonyms and extreme forms of anonymity (Nika Skandiaka). Still others have devoted immense energies to translation and scholarship (Olga Sedakova, Anna Glazova), giving their poetry an intellectual heft also usually denied women. 

Fanailova repudiates these choices altogether, nowhere more powerfully than in her latest long poem, “Lena and Lena.” By putting her own name into the poem’s title, but doubling it, she returns to the reader our desires to know the poet’s life, confronting us directly in the poem’s sex scenes. She implies that wanting to know how the poet writes is strangely similar to wanting to know how she has sex: in what positions, with what degree of pleasure, and always, always, with whom. But the poem is more deeply about relationships and friendship, about the ways in which we connect to others who seem similar — who have our same name, or share our interests — but are in their experiences, their ethical choices, and their desires, utterly other.

Fanailova has raised these paradoxical issues in “Lena, or The Poet and the People”  (“Lena i liudi,” translated into English in Aufgabe, 2009). The earlier poem, like the one published here, features two women named Lena: the speaker, a poet, and another Lena, a night-store clerk, from whom the poet Lena buys her late-night supplies of food and alcohol. The clerk finds the poetry by Lena hard to understand, written, as she says, for an insider group. But in the new poem, translated here, “Lena and Lena,” the antipode is a more idealized other, indeed in some ways a person from that inner circle, although she is from Belgrade, where the poem takes place. The international purview of “Lena and Lena” marks it as a poem of post-Soviet Russian experience as well.

The conversational, easy tone of “Lena and Lena” is a trademark in Fanailova’s later work. She has worked as a journalist, including more than a decade with Radio Liberty, and conveys well the unusual details of all these women's lives. She presents the individual cases as typical of contemporary life. We meet a Russian woman who lives and travels in the post-Soviet world of greater freedoms and greater stress; we hear stories cancer and treatment, of life’s prosaic insults and its occasional pleasures. The human-rights worker / lover subtly brings out a whole host of ethical issues that define twenty-first-century public life, but not in a way that recalls the clearly defined notions of good and evil that were the hallmark of twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature. We are all more complicated in our behavior, judgments, desires, and disappointments, the poet suggests.  In these characterizations, Fanailova challenges the expectations we bring to poetry, as opposed to prose, and yet she never loses sight of the ways in which her readers come to poems expecting the “truth” about women’s lives, and about her life in particular.

— Stephanie Sandler



Lena and Lena
Elena Fanailova


Lena is going to Belgrade
To see her lover,
The one she met in Sarajevo
Right in the airport.
They walk around in Kalemegdan
Look at a photo exhibit
Eat in a fish restaurant
On the banks of the Danube
They don’t get as far as Zemun
And end up a little irritated, waiting:
The taxi doesn’t come right away

The center is good for long walks in September
You can’t see the effects of the bombings
But you can see the hope of joining the EU

The lightweight boats on the Danube and the Sava
The lightweight T-shirts on young people
Nights in the Balkans are hotter than in Paris,
Or so sing the musicians on Skadarlija.
People are out all night.

The neighbors hear their lovemaking at night.
They’re secretly proud of themselves,
Of their boldness, of this dalliance
They’re not children after all

She holds on to the radiator
And sees the courtyard outside
From the bedroom window

She holds on to the armchair
And sees Petr Král Street
From the hotel window
As she climaxes again and again
(He takes her from the rear)

He works at the Red Cross
She’s at an international human rights organization
They met in Customs
While waiting for their passports
They listen to Gainsbourg and Birkin
And have sex to Je t’aime

They talk a lot about work
But that doesn’t mean much
They talk a lot about childhood
But this doesn’t mean much, either
They talk a lot about the past:
Why didn’t she have children? Why isn’t she married?
Why did her husband die?
Why was he homosexual?
Who was his first woman?
How he lost his middle child on a Tel Aviv beach
Then found him with the police, nearly losing his mind in that half hour.
How he lived in Kiev when he was eighteen
In a dormitory for foreign students
Sent to the Soviet Union
As one of the best students in Palestine
How he finished graduate school in Leningrad
Who was his first woman in Russia
And how his parents later married him off at home.

How they had separate education at his school
Meeting up with girls only in the upper classes
How his father corresponded with an Englishwoman
Right up until the end of his life
He died three years ago

Sometimes she cries.
Once in that week he got drunk.
She had brought him a tiny bottle of Russian vodka.
His alcohol-induced erection was beyond belief.

He holds on to her knees
When they ride in from the airport
To the house where they are staying
He signs the receipt in the taxi
It will come in handy when it’s time to report back
They can’t get the key into the doors
It’s someone else’s entryway, a rented apartment
They had discussed the place on e-mail:
Center of Belgrade, as noisy as it is convenient
And he says: I’m sorry, my hands are shaking, you really get to me

He runs out for roses at the corner,
Forgot to buy them last night,
While she unpacks, looks around
A spacious, sunny two-room apartment
It’s the beginning of September
There’s an entryway and a kitchen
She takes off her delicate earrings
Puts on her light beige silk
Goes off to the shower

The roses smell painlessly and from afar
They don’t last long
They fade quickly enough,
Even before she departs

She gives him a quick kiss on the shoulder
He’s just barely taller
When he meets her plane
When he doesn’t quite snap her picture with his phone
When she is going through customs

He is starting to learn French
He needs it for his job
But mostly they speak English
A foreign language to both.

A couple of time she regrets being here:
When he refuses to use a condom
When he comes too fast the first time
When he confesses that he has a wife and three children
When she learns that this is his last trip to the Balkans

He’s very smart
He has military experience
And the experience of international negotiations
He’s a children’s doctor
He worked in Israel, England, Georgia
He’s very diplomatic
And very tender
That shape of personality and behavior
That she longed for in the dark

But his face wrenches out of shape
When he hears people speaking Hebrew
And hears their self-confident laughter 
At the next table
Also he has pretty terrible taste
She didn’t want to bring this up
But just to give him some advice

He brought her a completely whorish red dress
And kisses her through the slit in the breast
When they dance
In the room
To Lady in Red
And leads her into the bedroom
And undoes the zipper down her back

Fucking, pure fucking until you see stars
As an instrument of cognition

They act like a couple of tourists
They buy him some shirts, her a cute summer outfit
A few souvenirs
They eat in good restaurants
Make each other breakfast
Drink coffee in bed
Listen to music
Watch a DVD of Lady Hamilton
They settle into good, smooth sex.
They laugh
If something isn’t quite right.
She says:
We’re not actors in a porn flick
So let’s rest a little
And let’s have you do that a little more gently

He goes with her to the airport
The taxi driver is listening to Bésame mucho
On the way she gets her period
He buys her pads in the airport shop

And when she crosses the first security gate
And turns around
She sees
That he
Is pointing her out proudly
To some man he just met
This is understandable:
She’s ten years younger
And not at all bad-looking
Especially at a distance


Lena is going to Hungary
For chemotherapy treatments.
In Moscow she found
A small lump in her armpit.
It turned out to be more serious than she thought.

She was working as a producer
In an international communications company in Iraq

Lena’s husband
Is a hotel and restaurant manager
A modest guy, knows a little Russian
Studied it in school.

He was working in Dubai
She came to visit, had a look, but said no:
There’s nothing to do there, just work,
Nothing for a Slavist or reporter,
She didn’t want a woman’s life by Islam’s rules
He went back to Belgrade
With that resume, they were glad to hire him
She was received like a queen
In any restaurant in Skadarlija
Everywhere, all deference and respect
For her, like the boss’s wife
But she carried herself modestly

Lena and Lena are going to the exhibit
Of gifts bestowed on Comrade Tito
In the former Palace of Youth
This was Boris’s suggestion.
It was laughable beyond all words.
Lena remembers
How at the last parade
When she was a Pioneer in Yugoslavia
She was wearing purple Keds with a Batman emblem

When a bomb fell right next to her
She thought: this cannot be.
Bombs were falling in Belgrade,
And then I knew why, and wherefore.
But now in this strange country
With this arrogant American woman
A reporter
With this fool
Who understands nothing
It would be stupid to die right here

She went back to Belgrade, returned to her work as a Slavist
She was translating the Oberiu writers
Kandinsky’s diary

When it dawned on her
That she needed a real man
She met him
In a movie club.
Friends introduced them.

Our wedding, Lena said, was on the Danube and Sava Rivers,
Completely as we wanted it:
Lots of flowers, we were both in white
My brother came, the one Andrei worked with,

But you know, when I got sick
And had to have chemo
My brother couldn’t speak to me
He works in Sarajevo now, in the government

Lena is telling this story
To her lover from the Red Cross
He has no comment.
But he says: she looks wonderful now
Her hair has grown back
Lena herself sees this

Lena returned from Hungary
Chemotherapy is cheaper there
The Belgrade doctors’ assessment:
Complete remission, have no fear
Lena looks a lot better than six months ago:
Her hair has grown back, she’s almost
The same brunette beauty as before.

His daughter in Canada has lymphoma
And is taking a course of steroids
He shows a picture:
A young beauty
At a Muslim wedding

Lena and Lena meet at the corner,
One of the busiest in Belgrade
They have coffee.
They text Andrei about the weather, send love
And go to the university to see Nelly.
Belgrade women
Dress beautifully.
They wear earrings and rings and bracelets
And little black dresses
And little black heels,
Even when they’re going to see the oncologist

Her lover is expecting Lena
Her husband is expecting Lena
They say good-bye on the corner with a strange feeling:
Hope? Friendship? Good will?
Unspoken love,
That catches in the throat?

In former Yugo there was a lot of oncology
After the war
Everyone drinks coffee together
In Sarajevo and Belgrade
And they don’t remember
How it was.
Not long ago a train
Started to run between the two capitals.

That’s why they still don’t like Kusturica in Sarajevo:
It’s shameful to leave the city you love.
Doesn’t matter what nationality
Your mama and papa are.
And his first screenwriter,
The biggest poet in Bosnia,
Old, proud, panting
From emphysema, thin mountain air, cigarettes, and coffee
An uncompromising anti-Soviet
Puffy old Abdullah Sidran,
He won’t speak about him
But he’s eager to talk about the camp
Where they sent his father.

In Russia it’s snowing
Slowly, as in an aquarium.
I can’t sleep, I look out the window
At the bare white trees

I remember this story
So vividly, like in a movie
Like it happened to someone else.


Translator’s note:
“Lena and Lena” appeared in Russian in an earlier version in the journal Zerkalo in 2010. This translation is based on a revised text provided by the poet. I take this occasion to thank her as well for comments and corrections of the translation as it evolved. For a translation of the long poem that is a predecessor to this one, see “Lena, or The Poet and the People,” in Aufgabe (Fall 2009).





Лена едет в Белград
На свидание к любовнику,
С которым познакомилась в Сараево
Прямо в аэропорту.
Они гуляют по Калимегдану
Смотрят фотовыставку
Обедают на Дунае
В рыбном ресторане
Не доезжая Земуна
Немного раздражаются:
Такси не сразу приходит

Город хорош в сентябре в центре для прогулок
Не видно следов бомбардировок
Видно стремление в Евросоюз

Легкие лодки на Саве и Дунае
Легкие футболки на молодежи
Балканские ночи горячее парижских,
Как поют музыканты Скадарлии.
Народ до утра гуляет.

Ночью соседи слушают их любовные крики.
Они втайне гордятся собой,
Своей смелостью, этим приключением
Они ведь уже не дети

Она держится за батарею
И видит внутренний дворик
Из окна спальной

Она держится за подлокотники кресла
И видит улицу Краля Петра
Из окна гостиной
Пока многократно кончает
(Он берет ее сзади)

Он работает в Красном Кресте
Она в международной правозащитной организации
Познакомились на таможне
Пока паспорта задержали
Они слушают Генсбура и Биркин
И трахаются под Je t’amme

Они довольно много говорят о работе
Но это мало что значит
Они довольно много говорят о детстве
Но и это мало что значит
Они много говорят о прошлом:
Почему у нее нет детей? Почему она не замужем?
Почему она похоронила мужа?
Почему он был гомосексуалистом?
Кто была его первая женщина?
Как он потерял среднего ребенка на пляже в Тель-Авиве
И потом нашел его с полицейскими и чуть не сошел с ума в эти полчаса?
Как он жил в восемнадцать лет
В Киеве в общежитии для иностранных студентов
Отправленный в Советский Союз,
Как один из лучших учеников своей Палестины?
Как он заканчивал аспирантуру в Питере
Кто была его первая женщина в России
И как его потом женили дома родители?

Как у них было раздельное обучение в школе
И с девушками они встретились только в старших классах
Как его отец-торговец до конца жизни переписывался с англичанкой
Три года назад он умер

Иногда она плачет.
Один раз за неделю он напился.
Из Шереметьево она привезла ему маленькую русскую водку.
Его алкогольная эрекция была лучше не бывает.

Он держит ее за коленки
Пока они едут из аэропорта
До чуждого дома
Расписывается за чек у таксиста
Пригодится для отчета в конторе
Не может попасть ключом в двери
Чужого подъезда, съемной  квартиры
Обсуждали место по мейлу
И говорит: прости, руки трясутся, так ты меня волнуешь

Бегает за розами на перекресток,
Забыл купить накануне,
Пока она распаковывается, оглядывается
В просторной солнечной двухкомнатной
Начала сентября
С прихожей и кухней
Снимает сложные свои сережки
Надевает для жары шелковое бежевое
Отправляется в душ

Эти розы пахнут далеко и небольно
Стоят недолго
Довольно быстро увядают,
Раньше, чем она успевает уехать

Она его сразу в плечо быстро целует
Он ненамного выше
Когда встречает
Когда он не успевает снять ее на мобильник
Когда она проходит таможню

Он начинает учить французский
Он нужен ему для карьеры
Но вообще они говорят по-английски
На неродном языке для обоих.

Несколько раз она жалеет, что приехала:
Когда он отказывается от презерватива
Когда в первый раз слишком быстро кончает
Когда признается, что у него жена и трое детей
Когда выясняется, что это его последняя командировка на Балканы

Он очень умен
У него военный опыт
И опыт международных переговоров
Он детский врач
Работал в Израиле, Англии, Грузии
Он очень дипломатичен
И очень нежен
Тот рисунок личности и поведения,
Что она как-то во тьме захотела

Только лицо его перекашивает
Когда он слышит иврит
И самоуверенный смех носителей языка
За соседним столиком
И еще у него довольно плохой вкус
Она не хочет это обсуждать
Просто кое-что ему советует

Он привез ей блядское красное платье
И целует ее в вырез груди
Когда с ней танцует
В гостиной
Под Lady in read
И ведет ее в спальню
И расстегивает молнию на спине

Ебля, чистая ебля до синих огней
Как инструмент познания

Они ведут себя как пара туристов
Покупают ему рубашки, ей прелестный летний костюмчик
Несколько сувениров
Обедают в хороших ресторанах
Готовят друг другу завтраки
Пьют кофе в постели
Слушают музыку
Смотрят Леди Гамильтон на дивиди
У них устанавливается хороший ровный секс.
Они смеются,
Если что-то не получается.
Она говорит:
Мы не герои порнофильмов
Давай немного отдохнем
И давай ты будешь делать это немного нежнее

Он едет провожать ее в аэропорт
У таксиста звучит Besa me mucho
По дороге у нее начинаются месячные
Он покупает ей прокладки в аптеке аэропорта

И когда она пересекает первую линию контроля
И оборачивается
То видит,
Что он
С гордостью показывает ее какому-то
Случайному человеку
Это объяснимо:
Она на десять лет моложе
И совсем неплохо выглядит
Особенно издалека


Лена едет в Венгрию
Принимать химиотерапию.
В Москве она обнаружила
Маленький узел подмышкой.
Оказалось, это серьезнее, чем она думала.

Она работала продюсером
Международной телекомпании в Ираке

Муж Лены
Менеджер гостиниц и ресторанов
Скромный парень, немного знает русский,
Учил в школе.

Он работал в Дубае
Она съездила, посмотрела и отказалась:
Там нечего делать, только работать,
Но не слависту и репортеру,
А мусульманской женой она быть не хотела.
Он вернулся в Белград
Его с удовольствием взяли с таким резюме
Ее принимают как королеву
В любом ресторане Скадарлии
Везде ей почет и уваженье,
Как хозяйке
Но она держится очень скромно

Лена и Лена идут на выставку
Подарков товарищу Тито
В бывшем Дворце молодежи
По совету Бориса.
Невероятно смеются.
Лена вспоминает,
Что на последней демонстрации,
Когда она была югославской пионеркой,
На ней были фиолетовые кеды с Бэтменом

Когда рядом с нею упала бомба
Она подумала: не может быть
Бомбы падали в Белграде,
И тогда я знала их промысел.
А в этой чужой стране
С этой высокомерной американкой
С этой дурой
Которая ничего не понимает
Глупо было бы умереть

Она вернулась в Белград, вернулась к профессии слависта
Переводила обериутов
Дневник Кандинского

Когда она поняла,
Что ей нужен настоящий мужчина,
Она его встретила
В киноклубе.
Их познакомили друзья.

Наша свадьба, Лена говорит, на Дунае и Саве
Была совсем в нашем вкусе:
Много цветов, и оба мы были в белом
Приехал мой брат, с которым Андрей работал

Но знаешь, когда я заболела
И проходила химиотерапию
Брат совсем не мог со мной говорить
Он сейчас работает в Сараево, в правительстве

Лена рассказывает
Эту историю своему любовнику
Из Красного Креста.
Он не комментирует.
Просто говорит: она сейчас прекрасно выглядит
У нее чудесно отросли волосы
Лена и сама это видит

Лена вернулась из Венгрии
Химиотерапия там дешевле
Врачи говорят в Белграде:
Стойкая ремиссия, не сомневайтесь
Лена выглядит много лучше, чем полгода назад:
Волосы отросли, почти такая
Красотка-брюнетка, как раньше.

У его дочки в Канаде лимфома
Принимает кортикостероиды
Показывает фото:
Юная красавица
На мусульманской свадьбе

Лена и Лена встречаются на перекрестке,
Одном из самых оживленных в Белграде.
Пьют кофе.
Быстро посылают смс о любви и погоде Андрею
И идут на кафедру к Нелли.
Белградские девушки
Прекрасно одеты.
У них серьги и кольца и браслеты
И маленькие черные платья
И маленькие черные каблучки,
Даже когда у них визит к онкологу

Лену ждет любовник
Лену ждет муж
Они прощаются на углу с каким-то странным чувством:
Надежды? Приязни?
Любви, у которой нет голоса,
Он перехвачен?

В бывшей Юге много онкологии
После войны
Все пьют кофе вместе
В Сараево и Белграде
И не вспоминают,
Что оно было.
И недавно пошел поезд
Между обеих столиц.

За что в Сараево до сих пор не любят Кустурицу:
Стыдно покинуть город, который любишь.
И неважно, кто по национальности
Твои мама и папа.
И его первый сценарист,
Главный поэт Боснии
Старый, надменный и задыхающийся
От эмфиземы, горного воздуха, от сигарет и кофе
Бескомпромиссный антисоветчик
Одутловатый Абдула Сидран,
Вообще не хочет о нем говорить
Но с удовольствием рассказывает о лагере,
В котором сидел его отец.

В России идет снег
Медленно, как в аквариуме.
Я не сплю, смотрю за окно
На голые белые деревья

Я помню эту историю
Так отчетливо, как кино
Как если бы она была не со мною

Bashō's Pheasant

Cid Corman and Kyōto

Sorting old papers, I found the fragment of a letter I wrote (and presumably sent) to poet, editor and translator Cid Corman shortly after we met during the summer of 1977 in Kyōto, Japan. He had been editing the small (nearly underground) but influential magazine Origin since 1950, publishing an international array of poets from the sort of subterranean worlds I unconsciously (though perhaps sometimes very conscientiously in adolescence) inhabited, basically stumbling into things by following my nose, more curious hick than knowing hipster. Origin was a window into the type of poetry and world literature that preoccupied me, and Corman was, to the very frayed end of his life (though educated and de-educated at university), a voracious autodidact and self-propelled world citizen of the first order — a member of my kind of scattered tribe. We became friends as soon as we met, and remained so for the rest of his life, though our contact existed mainly in epistolary space, the cyber space of an earlier, now-gone era, though it wasn’t really that long ago — not like, say, the fifties or sixties, which now seem like truly ancient times, though I know young people who already think of the 2000s as antiquity.

A native of Boston, Corman was a permanent resident in Japan, married to a remarkable Japanese woman, Shizumi Corman (née Konishi), a former Japanese television news editor (possibly a news presenter as well, something I vaguely remember being told but can’t confirm) and a Kyōto native. I was on an independent voyage there with no fixed end date, a visit that would last a little over a year, writing endless drafts of a lost epic road poem about “America,” studying Japanese language, culture and literature, and practicing the Japanese martial art Aikido, which I first learned in the United States. I was also intent on exploring Kyōto and its nearby towns and cities, traveling by foot, bicycle, train, and thumb. Japan was then a hitchhiker’s paradise. You had only to put out your thumb and someone would stop almost immediately. The Japanese weren’t always sure what it was you might be doing with your hand up by the side of the road, and would stop to see if you needed help, then, not infrequently, drive miles out of their way to take you where you were going — one had to be mindful not to take advantage of such concern. Although there were those who picked me up just to practice their English (a fair trade I thought), most Japanese, historically protective of foreigners, were just being kind.

I arrived in Kyōto from San Francisco with a shaky teaching contract from a private English language school (a company with students of all ages and backgrounds, though my students were adults), and wound up leading a culturally rich but Spartan existence in the northwestern section of the city, studying Japanese language and literature while practicing Aikido at two dōjō centers (practice halls) in different parts of the city. After a few initial weeks of living in an ancient farmhouse in a village south of Kyōto, commuting on a slow milk train, I moved to the city and spent the rest of my time there living in an unheated, tiny but exquisitely beautiful old Japanese house rented for next to nothing (the Japanese wisely wanted modern housing, so there was little competition), close to Ryōanji, the famous Zen rock garden temple.

I extricated myself from the shaky language school contract, and patched together a livelihood with private English conversation lessons. When I wasn’t working, I followed a self-imposed schedule as tight and complex as Japanese joinery, and every night sat cross-legged on a flat pillow, bent over writing or reading, shirtless in summer at a foot high desk, and through the fall and dead of winter bundled in a padded farmer’s haori (a thick half-kimono jacket), knees under the cover of a kotatsu, wind gusts (sometimes snow) bursting through the seams of the shoji screen walls, beyond which were drafty glass doors that slid open to the outside. I often sat there until dawn, surrounded by dictionaries and books spread open on the tatami mats, centered under a hanging single bulb inside a paper and bamboo shade, writing, typing, or trying to decipher poetry from a gone world and era. 


I certainly must have asked Corman questions about Kyōto, considering I was there without reliable connections, but it astounds me that I didn’t take more advantage of his almost native knowledge about surviving there, though I think my determination to find my own way partly attracted him to our friendship. I later realized he would have gladly helped me unravel a few everyday mysteries about Japan, but I probably had a richer experience figuring things out on my own. On the other hand, I took full advantage of his freely offered literary knowledge, through letters — we talked by phone sometimes, but mainly corresponded from the start, back and forth across the neighborhoods between us.

Up to that point I had not met a poet with such complete knowledge of the art, coupled with absolute devotion to it. His perspective (no doubt modeled on Ezra Pound’s example) was rooted in broad reading and constant writing, translating and editing, reinforced by a seemingly limitless network of friends that included writers, artists, publishers, intellectuals, and public figures, even though he spent his life in relative isolation and obscurity.

He was opinionated to a degree that drove some to fury (my impression was that he made and lost friends regularly, but had a steady base of devotees), and though our interests and tastes weren’t always the same, we got along easily enough. From the start I let him have his head on the subject of poetry (he was the older, seasoned writer after all, and earned his chops long before I appeared), and in return he allowed mine (however wrongheaded I might have been), without interference or much advice. Nonetheless, he could be demanding (expecting younger writers to keep up intellectually or move on), and though sometimes pushy and hard to deal with, he was not (as I’ve heard him described) arrogant, nor was he unfair. I was more likely to be the arrogant one in those days, but if I ever felt he was out of line and said so, he simply clarified what he meant or apologized. By then he already had his fill of literary conflict. The Cid Corman I knew appreciated friendship, and expected unflinching, unhesitating loyalty only to poetry and one’s own writing, not to him. Poetry was the point of everything as far as he was concerned, and we were entirely simpatico on that front. We had disagreements and rough patches over the years of our friendship, but recovered quickly because the point was the art, always the art — to go on with it, to continue, even though it often met with silence.

It wasn’t unusual for younger writers and artists passing through the ancient capital to seek him out, and my turning up was not remarkable, but there was an immediate spark of recognition between us that was enough to keep us in touch, although we were both too busy to spend time together. I lived in Japan twice, just over a year each time (the first period in 1977, the second in 1980), and Corman was living in Boston throughout my second visit, which was not in Kyōto at any rate — during that period I was studying Japanese poetry on a Monbusho Fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, living on the north coast of Kyūshū, Japan’s southernmost main island. We met only once in Japan, and only two more times over the years, both times in San Francisco, and so the essence of our friendship existed in correspondence, beginning after our first encounter and continuing with varying degrees of intensity and regularity for the rest of his life. He sent a last note to me just days before his fatal heart attack twenty-six years later.

Among other things, we shared an interest in epistolary writing (as poetry, viz. Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, and communication), but weren’t self-conscious about what was going on in our correspondence — we were communicating, not writing for posterity the way, say, Olson sometimes did with Cid (and as an admirer of Olson’s work, I don’t mean that negatively). I view all correspondence — even e-versions, in any format — as a way to keep the tools sharp, so to speak, and staying in touch with Corman was demanding practice because he was very good at it, an inveterate correspondent who was persistent and reliable. Letters were his main means of staying in touch with the outside world (in many ways they were intellectual lifelines), and he corresponded extensively with many people, living a vital part of his life through the post.


I don’t recall why I kept a copy of that particular section of the 1977 letter I found, but probably because it addressed ideas I intended to come back to with Corman, or because our early correspondence was, as much as anything, an intense discussion, and we were in the middle of something I didn’t want to lose the thread of in a nomadic period during which many things were lost. However pretentious the fragment sounds (which it does to me in places), I’m glad I kept it because it reminds me of a year of tremendous adventure in Japan, and the beginning of a decades-long conversation with a treasured friend.

Before that first trip to Japan, I trained at an American run Aikido dōjō in San Francisco, and in Kyōto was trying to earn a black belt, training twice a day or more at the two different dōjō spots mentioned earlier, after being completely stripped of rank earned in the US and forced to start over at zero. The two practice halls were located in opposite parts of town, and I was most passionately attached to the smallest, an obscure, primitive looking dōjō in the railroad yards around Kyōto Tower. It was a challenging group with a demanding teacher, discovered by wandering around with a phrase book and map — I was the only foreigner member, and gaining acceptance there was both ordeal and education.

The letter fragment refers to events during a ritual pilgrimage I made with a group from that dōjō (including the master teacher) to Kōyasan (Mount Kōya), an important, temple area in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula south of Ōsaka, an event that would mark my complete acceptance into the dōjō. The subject of the letter is a Matsuo Bashō haiku carved in stone, discovered during a late night hiking ritual through Okunoin, the largest graveyard in Japan, burial place of the monk Kōbō Daishi (aka Kūkai), founder of Shingon Buddhism, poet and artist, and traditionally attributed inventor of the Japanese kana writing systems (katakana and hiragana), syllabic “alphabets” wedded to Chinese characters and primary to all written Japanese. He was also the AD 819 founder of Kōyasan.

I arrived later than the most of our dōjō group, accompanied by two other members, friends who hung back to meet and travel with me by later train than the others because we all had to work that day. They were, coincidentally, the best (and only) English speakers in the dōjō, though all of our conversations were multilingual and conducted with the help of pocket dictionaries and phrase books. From the start I was under pressure from the master teacher to either learn Japanese or quit his dōjō, and although I was clearly making a serious effort, effort alone counts for little in budō (Japanese martial arts culture), so I was also trying to prove myself in other ways. My willingness to take that complicated journey to Kōyasan, an annual trip for all dōjō branches affiliated with our main dōjō in Ōsaka, symbolized my trust of fellow dōjō members and the teacher, who had challenged (if not ordered) me to go with them to prove myself. It was heady stuff, and sounds very macho, but there were also a few women present. One of my traveling companions was a woman, an accomplished martial artist, and the teacher’s wife, a high ranking and respected teacher in her own right, was scheduled to demonstrate multiple‑opponent fighting skills on the temple grounds next morning.

The relatively remote Kōyasan (at least it was remote then) is a sacred mountain complex of more than a hundred Buddhist temples, one of which we all spent the night in. I was steeped in warrior culture there, especially during a ritual night hike through vast and misty Okunoin, burial place of numerous historical figures, including famous samurai warriors, represented by actual graves or symbolic tributes — it contains, for example, a memorial tomb for the famed forty seven Ronin, their tombstones arranged around a stone for Asano Naganori, the master they served and famously died for in 1703.

We had traveled to Kōyasan by train and funicular, and went immediately to a temple to join other dōjō members and a crowd of martial artists from other branches of our main school, headquartered in Ōsaka. After a hot public bath and changing into temple yukata (cotton kimonos) and geta (wooden sandals) distributed by silent monks, we joined what I can only describe as a drunken but innocent debauch (eating, drinking, singing, spontaneous fight demonstrations), everyone sitting cross legged at long, low tables that filled the great hall of the dimly lit ancient temple.

Told to eat and drink quickly, our teacher ordered the three of us — the latecomers — to do what everyone else had already done: visit and pay respects at Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum in the heart of vast Okunoin, and we had to get there before midnight. The first leg was a long walk to the graveyard gate. He accompanied us with a few friends, the wooden teeth of our geta sounding like a train on the roadbed, and left us at the gate to go the rest of the way alone. It was a long hike into the heart of the sprawling graveyard, misty but illuminated by a full moon, and we encountered many others (notably a large, chilling procession of white‑robed, chanting pilgrims who could be seen marching towards us like an army of ghosts from a quarter mile away). The hike included a series of traditional ceremonies performed at various shrines and historical places throughout the graveyard, one of which took us past the Bashō poem, leading to my letter about it to Cid.


Although he returned to Boston to live for a spell in the early 1980s, Kyōto was his true home. He led an economically stressed life there, but the ever patient, supportive Shizumi was dedicated to him in a way so obvious and moving it was impossible to imagine them apart. A demure, cultured woman of considerable intelligence and beauty, her Kyōto roots were indispensible for their long‑term survival in an ancient city that functioned on connections as much as anything else. I heard it muttered more than once that Japanese families who lived there for even a century were considered newcomers and interlopers by “true” natives, whatever that meant (a thousand years of residence perhaps), and more recent transplants weren’t even worth considering.

Foreigners (or gaijin, literally “outsiders”) were treated politely and often with excessive generosity in Kyōto, but were thought of as barbaric (not always an unfair assessment). Corman was an exception. He appeared to be fully embraced by the Japanese in Kyōto (no small accomplishment for nonnative Japanese, let alone foreigners), no doubt helped by the fact that he was thought of as a poet there, a shijin, and that description assured him a particular eminence in the culture. I don’t remember him ever complaining to me about the Japanese, and he had nothing negative to say about the country — it struck me that he was in his element there. Along with full days of writing, editing, corresponding, and translating, he helped run a little family cafe, CC’s, but Shizumi was the real mainstay of their shop, as he called it, and his mainstay too.

I actually knew very little about him before we met. I knew of his magazine Origin of course (anyone interested in contemporary poetry did), though it wasn’t as active then as it once was — I later heard criticism that it wasn’t as vital either, but never met a serious young poet who didn’t want to be published in it. I was also aware of his link with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley (poets whose work I admired), had read Olson’s 1969 Letters for Origin by then, and a friend once lent me copies of Corman’s Elizabeth Press books. I liked his work. It was epiphanic with a spark of duende running through. It rippled, so to speak, and I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t the sort of poetry I was interested in writing.

I knew little about his personal life, and had no idea he lived in Kyōto. I discovered that fact by happening into a conversation about Japanese poetry with a young Harvard scholar who was passing through. I only remember his name was Michael, and we met in one of the coffee shops around Kawaramachi where I went to listen to jazz or classical music after work. I mentioned an interest in Japanese travel diaries, and he said his favorite was Cid Corman’s translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, a version I hadn’t read. I was familiar only with the serviceable Penguin Classic edition, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, translator of at least one other Edo era haibun masterpiece I was very interested in, Kobayashi Issa’s Oraga haru, which he translated as Year of My Life.

We went to a nearby Maruzen bookstore. I couldn’t afford to buy anything, let alone English language books, almost as expensive as melons and apples, the prices of which were surreal, but I wanted a look at Corman’s Bashō. I would read it standing in the store if I had to, no matter how long it took. Reading in bookstore aisles is a time-honored Japanese tradition that can be witnessed at any Japanese bookstore in the world, though the draw is mainly manga, Japanese comic books.

Unfortunately, Maruzen didn’t have Corman’s Bashō. In fact, they didn’t have any Corman books, which numbered in the dozens. Michael said he’d heard Corman’s books were for sale at his cafe, a place called CC’s — eponymous initials — and he’d figured out how to get there, wanting to meet Corman before leaving town. He was game to guide if I was game to go, so we agreed to meet the next morning on Sanjo Bridge, not far from the ryokan (traditional inn) where he was staying. We’d walk from there. Clouds started gathering at dawn that morning, and a storm was poised to hit just as we met, but he reckoned we could make it. Unfortunately, his sense of distance was off, and halfway there the storm broke. It was more like icy sheets falling from the sky than rain, and we reached CC’s freezing wet. It was closed. I tapped the window anyway, and at the back a friendly face appeared between the flaps of a noren (split curtains hung in doorways in Japanese restaurants). It was Shizumi.

She immediately opened the door and waved us in, motioning us towards the warmest table, where she gave us towels, then disappeared into the kitchen, returning with steaming bowls of local stew. She hovered with concern while we ate. Ravenous as always, I tried to eat in a proper Japanese manner, suppressing my barbarian ways, hoping my tail wouldn’t show. If anything, she seemed amused, fussing over us, giving us more stew, more towels, and hot tea. Speaking English, she asked a battery of friendly questions she’d probably asked any number of would‑be poets who’d stumbled into CC’s over the years looking for Cid, and in the end told us, in a disappointed tone, he wouldn’t be in that day, though she was certain he would want to meet us. Why, I couldn’t imagine — we looked like we crawled out of a sewer.

She was so friendly and welcoming we hung around a while, impressed with ourselves and pleased by our luck, flipping through the many poetry books and magazines that sat on racks, all written by Cid and his friends. Except for the fact that we didn’t meet Cid, we thought the visit was a great success, and though we didn’t have much between us, we pooled resources for the food. Shizumi refused our money and wouldn’t discuss it. She repeated several times that we should return when Cid was there, insisting he would want to meet us.

Thinking we should at least buy a book as a gesture of gratitude, we started going through the collection until Michael excitedly yanked a used book from one of the racks. It was a copy of the bilingual Mushinsha edition of Cid’s translation of Bashō’s travel diary we’d been looking for at Maruzen. I grabbed and started flipping through it, excited, then Michael got excited too, searching for another copy, but there was only one. I flipped through it a little longer, noting it was co‑translated with Japanese scholar Kamaike Susumu, then gave it to Michael — if anybody deserved that book, he did. We agreed to split the cost, but when Shizumi told us the price we dropped the whole idea — we didn’t have enough between us — but promised to come back.

The storm had passed, and as we left we thanked Shizumi so profusely we embarrassed her. Outside we agreed to meet and come back again, but Michael was leaving in a couple days and I couldn’t make it that soon. He would have to come alone. We exchanged addresses and agreed to stay in touch, even meet in the States someday, then shook hands and took off forever in opposite directions. The day had been a bit like one of Bashō’s brief encounters with kindred spirits on the road.

A couple days later, I brazenly sent Corman some poems. He quickly dropped back an encouraging note, inviting me to CC’s whenever I could make it again. I went a week or so later and we spent a long afternoon together, discussing poetry and the world, from early afternoon to well past dark. We hit it off like old friends and promised to stay in touch. I made plenty of promises like that in Japan that never panned out, but Cid Corman was different, willing to stay in touch with just about any writer he met. We started corresponding that week, and it wasn’t long before he was making plans to feature my work in Origin. But that was for the future, and there was a great deal to talk about in the meantime.

His title for Bashō’s travel diary is Back Roads to Far Towns, and when I finally got a copy (he sent one as a gift), it turned out to be my favorite translation of that masterpiece, even after I was able to begin deciphering the original during my second stay in Japan, studying classical poetry (mainly Bashō) at a university in Kyūshū. Corman’s translation is lively as well as accurate, and easily holds its ground against other efforts. We never discussed his methodology, but he did his homework — I know because I checked. Like Kenneth Rexroth, he simply had an instinct for Japanese poetry.

Something that always appealed to me was his aversion to publicity and self-promotion. Some mistook it for crabbiness, pretension, stubbornness, or as a cynical ploy for attention. It wasn’t. It’s a very real Japanese trait that he absorbed. He could be self‑centered, but was not self‑indulgent. Still, he lived in marginal economic circumstances all his adult life, aware that it was his choice, his own doing, yet complained about it at times, and because of often profound financial straits, came across like the uncrowned champ of Horace’s genus irritabile vatum. He had contemporaries and friends who, by contrast, genuinely were nasty, but he was not and could never be. It wasn’t in his nature. Poetry was his religion, philosophy, and life. It was air itself, and all other elements combined, not to be poisoned by personal ambition, literary jealousy, or competition. He didn’t mind a little gossip, but only a little, and never of the cruel or vicious sort. Literary politics held next to no interest for him. His writing projects were all that mattered, along with his friends and massive correspondence. The only thing in the world he cared more about than poetry was Shizumi. He was no saint, but she was, to him at least (of the Buddhist sort no doubt), as he was to her — a reality that stood out in letters and in person.


[Fragment of a letter to Cid Corman, Kyōto, Summer 1977. Transcribed with minor corrections and additions, the original was typed on one side, single spaced without paragraph breaks, with typed translations and handwritten Japanese poems on the reverse (hiragana in my hand, calligraphy in someone else’s) — the copy is two pages stapled; the original was one sheet.]

[…] sending here translations of haiku done with the idea that haiku can be correctly translated into several stanzas [versions], picking up, highlighting, different inherent and/or obvious aspects, qualities and meanings of that dense, ostensibly minimalist form. English can also suggest a universe with brevity, but my understanding of haiku is one that tends towards the impression that meaning can be lost and/or not communicated as completely as possible if translated into English with brevity similar to the original. It’s the type of poem that creates a room one enters and is then overwhelmed by possibilities. I can imagine a book-length translation of one haiku. This is not to be critical of any other means of haiku rendering. It’s only experiment and delight — mostly because I’ve been my own teacher of Japanese and probably won’t be able to actually read the poetry (or calligraphy) with any facility for a couple more years. I could never add anything to your knowledge of the form, but perhaps you can to mine. This would be an absurd approach to any other translation (meaning anything but the briefest poetry we have to my knowledge), but here it engages me as a notion of interesting possibilities. Each stanza, or extension of the translation, can move the poem in a larger or more limited direction, whichever is intended, and thereby evolve a completely new poem that functions/lives as its own poetry, but always beholding to the original for inspiration, meaning and direction. As a form of meditation on the elements of the original, I think it’s valuable for the personal emotional experience alone. As scholarship it cannot even be considered, but as poetry: that’s another thing and remains to be seen. The argument that it — the result — is anything but haiku is one I would share, but one must play. If each link illuminates the poetry, it’s successful. Ideally, for haiku, mood of place and historical perspective are necessary for complete translation. That could involve a journey and a great deal of study. To me a wholly acceptable ideal. Anyway: on a visit to Kōyasan in Wakayama, during a ritual night hike to Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum in Okunoin, I found this Bashō poem engraved on a stone. If you’ve been there you know the immensity and beauty of the place. The giant cedars, the acres of old tombs and monuments, the warrior mythology that permeates it, the emotional experience of walking the long distance through the haka [graves] to Kōbō Daishi’s wooden tomb, and the ritual of walking around its veranda in total silence under many paper lanterns suspended from the rafters, giving the place a magical ambience. I spent the night in a temple with my teacher and fellow students, and walked through Okunoin late at night on a full moon with two Japanese friends. We were there nearly three hours because there is so much to see, so many ceremonies (tasks actually) to perform, and because we met other people and stopped many times to talk, to explain things to each other, or just to sit in silence. I know Bashō visited Kōyasan during his 1687–88 journey and believe the poem was written then. One of my friends there said it was part of a haibun. Maybe you know which. (A note I scribbled says it’s from a work titled Kōya nite.) I’m going on the premise I have to dig harder for context, and will, but send this in the meantime. Scholarship will improve as my reading does. My friends helped transcribe it, standing, we assumed, where Bashō stood. Well, I’ll stop and let you read the translations (other side). If the idea strikes you, maybe you could suggest a couple other haiku to work with. If anything, it might help me develop acuteness. By the way, where can I find your Back Roads to Far Towns? The only copy in your shop was sold before I got back to it. Someone took it to Wyoming.

Bashō’s haiku (transcribed from the Kōyasan stone, with some modern era characters):

父母の  しきりにこひし  雉子の声

In rōmaji (Romanized letters):

chichi haha no shikirini koishi kiji no koe


Pilgrimage to Kōyasan

I hear a pheasant cry
and yearn for my dead
father and mother


father      mother
the bird‑sound
tells what is gone


cry of a pheasant,
from now on
I’ll always be old


we are like fog
on the trees
and the hidden pheasant

— Matsuo Bashō, Okunoin, Kōyasan

Reclaiming Corman

Cid Corman's Dorchester past

Where exactly in Dorchester is the campus? Hard to think of a spot where it cd be, unless something else was removed. At least from my time. The old insane asylum? In Franklin Park golf course? Or the removal of Franklin field? The areas have changed a good deal, of course, since my childhood. Yes, it has little sense of my ever having been there.

These words, typed on the thin onionskin of the old aerogamme envelope arrived on my desk in early winter 2002, its heading reading: “Winter Solstice 2002.” I’d written Corman a month before about his letters and papers, the poet, George Evans having brought me back to Corman’s work, reminding me of our connections: the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, Boston Latin School, WMEX Radio, Dorchester. I

I mentioned these connections when I wrote to Corman, in hopes that he’d respond. I told him of how I’d spent many afternoons in the fifties reading at the old West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, then located in the Old West Church on Cambridge St, (the venue from which he’d launched his poetry readings), like him had attended Boston Latin School, spent my evenings listening to WMEX, and, that through the eighties and nineties, I’d had been living in Dorchester, about a mile away from his old house. I mentioned all this as well as the fact that I worked at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, located in Dorchester, and hope there might be the possibility of bringing some of his papers to the campus, bringing them back home so to speak.

Corman’s was skeptical, of the idea. Boston had never taken to him, he thought. “Boston has famously been — from the start — least interested in me. The West Coast picked me up much more — and NZ/Australia, etc.,” he wrote.

Corman was right, of course. Lowell, Emerson, Longfellow, Bishop, all cast long shadows across the scene and true, there was little sense of Corman’s ever having been here. Yet, Corman, was here, and was both shaped and shaper of the city’s history, and a few of us — Bill Corbett, Askold Melnyczyk, Mark Pawlak, Joe Torra, Taylor Stoehr, and myself — had begun thinking of ways that we might reclaim Cid’s space. We even developed a plan for a Cid Corman Poetry Room in the university library.

For myself, the effort meant finding my way back to Boston Latin to find some traces of Cid Corman’s passage there. It was a hot day in the middle of summer, and the school was closed for construction, but the librarian devised a way to sneak me in. He’d already copied out some documents.

Cid Corman is “Sid” in that 1941 Boston Latin School Yearbook. He’s pictured on the page, his hair neatly cut in a slight pompadour, in wire-framed glasses, wearing a sport coat and tie, mandatory dress for what was an all-boys school up until the 1980s. His photo appears at the top of the page, below him are the photos and entries for his classmates: Robert Francis — “Baby-Face” — Coughlin, Sylvester — “Syl” — Robert Curran, and Nicholas “Mad Turk” Rocco DeBiccari. It’s 1941 and the shadow of World War II is already cast across their faces, future destinations etched out in college choices: the Coast Guard Academy and West Point.

His activities include the Senior History Club, the Chess and Checker Club, the Class Committee, and the Art Club.

Latin Schoolers passing Room 221 on Wednesday afternoons may have seen other boys sketching and posing, and yet never have thought of entering the room. This failure to take advantage to take advantage of a great opportunity is too bad, because art is everyone’s soul, and an Art Club should be encouraged in a school where such great stress is placed on the humanities. — Boston Latin School Yearbook, 1941

I’m not sure if Corman wrote the entry for the Art Club. He is listed as the vice president of the Art Club Yearbook. Though there are black box theaters, music rooms, and studios at the school now, Art was not a subject taught at Boston Latin in Cid’s or even my own day. Yet here on the page seventeen boys and their advisor, Mr. Sternoff of Massachusetts Art School, pose in suit and tie for the Art Club photo. Corman is at the center, the vice president. In the text, Corman’s role in the club is spelled out in more detail.

 “The club enjoyed many interesting talks concerning color, and shading techniques given by Mr. Sternoff. Khirallah spoke on tones and their effects on the observor, and Corman discussed modern art and artists.”

Corman’s was a member of the Class Day Committee, responsible for penning the class oration, a document of remarkable prescience, which focuses on the importance of the preservation free speech in times of war.

“The greatest strength of a democracy may also be an incurable weakness. The tolerance of political belief guaranteed by the Constitution is, as it should be, irrevocable; but this may also be used as a weapon against that people that assured it. Nevertheless, this right should not and must not in any degree be curbed or impaired.”

One can imagine Corman behind these lines, or his classmate, Nat Hentoff, Hentoff, jazz commentator, First Amendment activist, and columnist for The Village Voice. Hentoff was friend and classmate of Corman at Latin School Days and for years after. Corman credits Hentoff with getting him the poetry show he would host on WMEX from 1949–1951 and with being part of the discussion group he started at the age of seventeen. Hentoff’s memoir, Another Boy’s Boston offers a glimpse of the world the two inhabited, in what Hentoff refers to than as “the most anti-Semitic city in the nation.” Hentoff’s book plays off the title of another well-known memoir: Samuel Eliot Morrison’s One Boy’s Boston. Hentoff’s memoir describes, not the worlds of Beacon Hill or Back Bay, but the world of Jewish Boston, a geography of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, marked by shops, temples, shuls, immigrant households, a Boston of old jazz clubs, record stores, late night afterhours gathering places, racial borders, politics of left and right.

That world is gone, though I went seeking it recently, on a kind of pilgrimage. As Corman says, much has changed. The old trolley routes out to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan have disappeared, and with them the ease of connection of these neighborhoods to the city. The last of the city’s elevated lines through Roxbury came down a few years ago and the temple have moved to the suburbs. The golf course Corman mentions suffered years of decline, and was saved and resurrected in the eighties and nineties by the African American golfers and community members who refused to see it closed. The old insane asylum is long closed. Community gardens and housing developments sprawl across its old grounds. A few years back artists were invited to create installations in its wards. Former Celtic Tom Sanders, created a tennis program at the old Franklin Field in the worst days of the Roxbury-Dorchester gangs.

Corman’s old house, 51 Jones Avenue, remains. It’s a duplex now, located at the end of the street, one side only retains the number 51 address, that place from where Corman sent out the copy of those early printings of Origin, the pages filled with writing by Creeley, Olson, Levertov and others.

My visit occasioned some curiosity: who was this white-haired man standing in the street taking pictures of the house on the corner? I stopped people on the street, and knocked on doors, but no one remembered Cid. One middle-aged man, brought me in to talk to his aunt, translating from her Spanish, that she was happy to know that such a poet had lived right next door.

It was from this small house that Cid Corman’s writing life took off, spreading its influence over Boston, Buffalo, San Francisco, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, his works eventually translated into a dozen languages. Sixty-one years of writing poetry every day. And all that correspondence, only the very early letters his mother “compelled him to throw away” missing.

Sadly, the bureaucracy quickly nixed our plan for a Cid Corman poetry room. I think Corman would not have been surprised. Still, we managed to find an angel and purchase a set of all of Cid’s books from Bob Arnold. They form a neat line in the university special collections department now, where, slowly, and rightfully, Corman may be beginning to reclaim his space, there to remind us every day:

Life is poetry
and poetry is life – O –            = Love =
awaken – children!