Death's head, proud flesh

A 'Trouble Songs' addendum

Jeff T. Johnson

Last May we published “Trouble Songs: A Musicological Poetics,” Jeff T. Johnson’s sprawling “investigation of the appearance of the word trouble in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music.” Announcing the piece on PennSound Daily, our own Michael Hennessey hailed the article as “a remarkably ambitious and capacious project that brings together the all-too-often disparate worlds of contemporary poetry and music.” “Within,” he continued, “we find Johnson deftly discussing John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Caroline Bergvall, and William Carlos Williams (among many others) with the same skill he dedicates to St. Vincent, Dock Boggs, Amy Winehouse, and Johnny Cash.”

Now, with so many of us reeling from the deaths of David Bowie and C. D. Wright at the start of this year, Johnson has filed an addendum to “Trouble Songs.” Entitled “Death’s Head, Proud Flesh,” this brief piece pays tributes to these two beloved artists, whose ends came unexpectedly and at high points in their careers. “Death shadows text and trouble emerges, even as it recedes; or the dead recede from trouble, leave it behind for the ones who can’t do without it,” he begins. “In the days after Wright’s and Bowie’s deaths, those who mourn the poet and rock star with the particular, half-guilty displeasure of those who know them only by their works, a number that now includes us all, they dance together into the cabinet. Those left at the station will get there soon enough.”

You can read more here, and if you weren’t already familiar with “Trouble Songs,” this is an excellent time to read the entire piece.


Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir's sculptural poetry

Diktur by Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir
Diktur by Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir

Iceland’s national identity is rooted in its literary history. Stretching from early international saga infamy to a flood of contemporary literature, the nation’s love of books is eagerly supported by a small island population with a near-100% Icelandic-language literacy rate. For Ragnhildur Jóhannsdóttir, hands-on engagement with literature forms the corpus of her work—troubling the division between author and artist. This trouble offers a refreshing makery in a land with so much emphasis on the literary.

Ragnhildur sources books as pre-loved, abandoned hardcovers, found throughout the country’s used bookstores, second-hand shops, and booths of Kolaportið’s flea-market. She then performs vivisections on these texts. To animate the material body of the book, which so often becomes a footnote to a foregrounded semantic, is to pervert the utility of the familiar object. In Ragnhildur’s hands, vintage books undergo transmogrification to give them a second, sensorial, aestheticized existence.

In the fourth winter month of Þorri, when most people slumber through the quiet yawning of increased daily sunlight, Ragnhildur has been busy making things up. Where að dikta is to compose or to write, Ragnhildur has created the neologism diktur to signify objects made through the act of composing or writing. Her bookworks are diktur, unexpected objects resulting from her acts of composing with an X-Acto knife.

Select a book.

Select a knife.

Say what you see.

Mean what you see.

Ragnhildur’s exhibition, DIKTUR, is installed in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland’s cultural and arts centre Hafnarborg, in the ground-floor gallery room Sverrissalur from January 23 to February 28, 2016. From an aerial perspective, Sverrissalur holds the shape of a hard-cover book popping open at window’s side. The window opens onto the town’s main pedestrian drag, inviting eyes to gaze into the room through the shape of a propped-open book.

Icelandic boasts one word to denote collection and museum: safn. In Ragnhildur’s DIKTUR, the safn grows monstrous; reformed book-flesh resonates as a Shelley-esque experiment to reposition the view and tactility of a literary corporeality in a safn within a safn. A collection of treated and altered books, exhibited. Library an exhibition. Safnasafn.

To experience DIKTUR, one approaches Sverrissalur through a door at the left edge of what would be a book’s spine. One enters DIKTUR through the spine. Each body becomes a needle threading stitches through signatures, threading steps through safn. The body threads through the skin of the text, each text a visual poem of Ragnhildur’s devising. 

For every body’s arrival, Ragnhildur has arranged books—books arranged into signatures, books post-binding with hot glue, books pre- hard-cover application (or is it post-?), the hard covers removed. In Sverrissalur, Ragnhildur presents books in partial undress, exposing their seams and scars.

Cut down and coverless, ink bleeds to the boundaries of some book-blocks, marking frenetic lines along the fore edges and heads. Lines as polygraph, spectrograph, seismograph, encephalograph. Rows upon rows of off-cut black books, shaped to the unconventional size of 18cm x 8cm, stand slender yet stunted. Spine-edge hidden, page-edge visible. A shelving reversal.

On another wall, sculptural poetry: phrases fray from between page edges. The density of the phrases, excised with speed and exactitude, offers an intense and unexpected reading experience. Each carved book becomes a safn-in-miniature, curating the contents’ interior into feathery visual poems. Light filters through fragile paper, a translucent skin on which words are tattooed.

twisted my head
and more and more
flinging himself into my

Ef þú hefur átt
Hvers konar ljóð

Each body becomes a reader, a threader, patching disparate words and phrases to reassemble meaning.

Overseeing the safn-surgery, Ragnhildur plays the role of an anatomist who carves books to expose their constituents. The result of her surgery is DIKTUR—the book, remade. In DIKTUR, Ragnhildur re-envisions ways to read, ways to write, ways to remake with voice, and ways to rejoin the meaning.

You circle around like that restless sound

The erotics of transcription

Carmen McRae

Gertrude Stein wrote at night; Alice Toklas transcribed during the day. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein has Toklas observe: “As a matter of fact her handwriting has always been illegible and I am very often able to read it when she is not.”

Some Stein scholars  might tell you that several of her manuscripts appear to be written in both Stein’s and Toklas’ handwriting, which has led to even greater contention and consternation about authorship. But I think I might tell you that just writing something down doesn’t make you the text’s author. I also might tell you that I’ve never understood the bother around whether or not Alice meddled with Gertrude’s work. Stein’s is a writing that delights in its reading, and Toklas was her most engaged, and most welcomed, reader. If neither of them minded that “Gertrude Stein,” or occasionally “Alice B. Toklas,” was their joint byline, why should I?

I began this post by thinking about Toklas transcribing Stein and wanting to theorize an “erotics of transcription.” I wanted to say something about how transcription forces you to see words not as words, but as compositions: as rhythms made up of repeating and retreating letters, as a play between interconnected plastic elements. Transcription physically draws you into the process of reading: each letter, each punctuation mark, even each space, catalyzes a movement, demands an active kind of discipline, and ultimately reveals the means by which, and the levels at which, you can control your reading – for example, how you might do a version of “close reading” without taking in the meaning of a single word.

Gertrude Stein tried to copy Three Lives on the typewriter but it was no use, it made her nervous, so Etta Cone came to the rescue. The Miss Etta Cones as Pablo Picasso used to call her and her sister. Etta Cone was a Baltimore connection of Gertrude Stein’s and she was spending a winter in Paris. She was rather lonesome  and she was rather interested . . . Etta Cone offered to typewrite Three Lives and she began. Baltimore is famous for the delicate sensibilities and the conscientiousness of its inhabitants. It suddenly occurred to Gertrude Stein that she had not told Etta Cone to read the manuscript before beginning to typewrite it. She went to see her and there indeed was Etta Cone faithfully copying the manuscript letter by letter so that she might not by any indiscretion become conscious of the meaning.    

Close reading, formalism – I’ve never seen this as a restraint or scholastic imposition. In the face of a predominantly Dead White Male canon (or any canon), this has been my mode of infiltration and posession, as much as it can be my declaration of passion. Every time I’ve been intimidated by philosophy, I’ve started reading its punctuation marks. The dashes and ellipses in On the Geneaology of Morality; the brackets in The Truth in Painting. If you draw them next to you, patiently and intimately, they tell their own story. This is a level of philosophical discourse I can follow. I don’t have, nor want, the intellectual rigor to be a philosopher, so I seek out these moments of pathos, of what is embedded and revealed in the gestures. And do I think I understand Nietzsche and Derrida now? Can I appreciate, admire and even be ardent about their thinking? Oh yes.

But back to transcription: have you seen Diane Samuels’ hand-transcription of the Autobiography, counterpointed by the text from Testimony against Gertrude Stein from Eugene and Maria Jolas’ transition? It’s here. Do you also see the eros (is eros is eros is eros) in it?

I began this post by wanting to theorize an “erotics of transcription.”  As I think about it and try to practice it, however, I begin to realize that the eros lies not in what’s transcribed but in what eludes the transcribed. Through her drive for mimicry, repetition, reproduction, the transcriber becomes even more sensitive to what she herself experiences but knows will get lost through her endeavor. In Toklas’ case, what falls away from the typewritten page is the illegible handwriting of Stein (“I am very often able to read it when she is not”), or the famously enthralling voice (“It was unlike anyone else’s voice – deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices,” from What Is Remembered). The transcriber must engage her work with this expectation – perhaps with such loss as her pragmatic objective – and she will struggle for a way to address this loss, to make amends, to repair, to mourn, because, above all, she will feel desire. She will sense acutely and intensely that which she knows her own work won’t give. 

Or, at least, this is true for the transcribers I’m interested in. This isn’t all.

Last week my friend Floris Tilanus – a Dutch artist and designer who also happens to be a jazz composer – directed my attention to the song “Melanctha,” sung by Carmen McRae accompanied by Dave Brubeck. The subject line of his email: “Is it her?” Carmen McRae, Dave Brubreck and Gertrude Stein? Is it possible? I uncovered an article from Entertainment Weekly, dating October 19, 1990, that describes McRae and Brubreck’s restored album Take Five: “CBS Records has rescued from undeserved obscurity two oddball albums that are singers’ delights. McRae was never in better voice than during a 1964 engagement at Basin Street East opposite the Dave Brubeck Quartet . . . highlights also include the virtually forgotten ‘Melanctha,’ inspired by the Gertrude Stein story. The composer’s wife, Iola Brubeck, cleverly met the challenge of fitting lyrics to this music.”

Finding little else about the Stein-Brubeck-McRae connection – and the lyrics only on a Japanese website, filled with typos and unable to be Selected for Copying and Pasting – I decided to transcribe the song’s words, to study them more closely against the text of Three Lives. But the first three words destroyed me. Or rather, I mean the first word, repeated three times: “Melanctha, Melanctha, Melanctha.” Listen to how McRae calls out that name, each instance so differently inflected, each syllable drawn out and tenderly spun around, and that voice and its character and its ease in draping itself against, sliding in between, gently pushing aside and then gathering in the notes played by the quartet. How will any transcription record this, how will any score suggest this? 




Come a bit nearer. How will you see that loss? How will you feel that desire?



Gary Giddins, “Recent Jazz Releases.” Entertainment Weekly. October 19, 1900.
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (on Project Gutenberg).
Alice Toklas, What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

The swerve of verse: Lucretius' 'Of Things' Nature' and the necessity of poetic form

In a review of the superb Ronald Melville translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (I offer here a new translation of the title: Of Things' Nature), Richard Jenkyns gives an explanation of why this work was written in verse. (He repeats this explanation in his introduction to Alicia Stalling's 2007 translation.):

Why was philosophy of such quality, presented in such magnificent dress, so entirely neglected as philosophy? The obvious answer seems to be: because it was written in verse. If a philosopher today were to submit an article to a learned journal written in blank verse or heroic couplets, we should think them ready for the funny farm. In the Rome of the first century BC serious philosophy in verse, if not quite as bizarre as it would be now, was none the less markedly eccentric. Back in fifth-century Greece, four hundred years before Lucretius, it was still possible to compose philosophy in verse: Empedocles, much admired by Lucretius, and Parmenides had done so. But by the end of that century it had become clear that prose was the natural medium for history, philosophy and science, and that view has been sustained ever since. Almost all didactic poetry is therefore pseudo-didactic. This was already true in the third and second centuries BC. If you really wanted to know about astronomy, did you consult Aratus’ poem, the Phaenomena? No, you read the prose treatise of Eudoxus. If you were bitten by a snake, did you take the Theriaca of Nicander from the shelf and search for a remedy in his polished hexameters? No, you called a doctor. No one supposes that Virgil’s Georgics is the handbook for farmers that it purports to be; alone among didactic poets, Virgil sought to rival Lucretius in passion, seriousness and moral vision, but since he was not deeply implicated in his subject in the way that Lucretius was, he had to achieve that moral seriousness by other means. 

In one respect this was a philosophy which lent itself especially well to verse treatment: because of its immersion in the physical reality perceived by our senses, it enabled Lucretius to celebrate both the immensity of the universe (no one relishes infinity quite as be does) and the curious detail of the world – puddles in the street, sheep on a distant hillside, the aqueous light under an awning on a sunny day. Yet to many of his contemporaries, Epicureanism must have given the impression of a peculiarly unpoetic doctrine: the pursuit of pleasure, unlike the Stoic pursuit of virtue, might seem to lack nobility, while Epicurus’ remorseless materialism appeared to suck all the magic, mystery and numinousness out of the world. Lucretius counters this by presenting Epicureanism as a poetic faith, and he opens his work with an enormous hymn of prayer and praise to Venus, symbol of the world’s energy and creativity. The doctrine is materialist, but Lucretius’ colouring is religious.

His choice of verse form may have another purpose, too, though it is not one which is easily described in a few words. Epicureanism is a formidably complete and coherent system (too complete and tidy, some may feel), but it has two distinct weaknesses. The claim made about death is very strong: not only that we should not fear it, but that it does not matter to us. But if life is good and death is final extinction, it seems that death must be an ill, even if it is one that can be faced calmly. The other great difficulty is the problem of altruism. I have no rational grounds for considering anyone’s pleasure but my own; indeed, I ought not even to be moved by the suffering of others, as Lucretius explains in a famous passage. ….

You cannot command someone into a feeling, however. Lucretius can no more order me to feel myself kin to all nature than he can order me to fall in love with Miss Jones. Instead, he must coax and seduce. His purpose is to recast Epicureanism to show that it can be apprehended religiously and poetically; and the only way to do that was to write a poetic masterpiece. That is why De Rerum Natura must be in verse: here is a case where the medium really is the message. And for the same reason a translation, too, needs to be in verse. [Emphasis mine.]

What's odd about this account is that Of Things' Nature was written at the time Cicero, the greatest advocate (and teacher) of oratorical/rhetorical prose. If the point was to "coax and seduce" readers of the truth of Epicurus's and Demosthenes's views, then why not follow Cicero's approach to eloquence and persuasion? Indeed, the de-versification of Lucretius -- treating it as prose -- is an unintended theme of the most famous contemporary account of Of Things' Nature, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011). Greenblatt begins The Swerve with his youthful discovery of Lucretius through Martin Ferguson Smith's excellent prose translation. Greenblatt pretty much sticks to citing this prose version, despite his nod to Dryden as the best for conveying Lucretius's "ardor" and Greenblatt's noting that he consulted all the translations. 

Greenblatt provides several page of a lucid, useful, and judicious summary of Lucretius's doctrines in Of Things' Nature (likewise, Smith's edition provides a helpful and detailed outline of each book of the poem).  Of course, I swerve from Greenblatt's basic orientation here. The Swerve is principally an engrossing yarn about the discovery of the manuscript of the poem by Poggio Bracciolini in the 15th century. Greenblatt's précis is a text-book case of the heresy of paraphrase -- a heresy, if that is what it is, that pervades the book, and its appreciation of Lucretius for his "dangerous" ideas, ideas that appeal to Greenblatt as much as me in their apparently proto-secular humanism (or proto-materialism). (I first got hooked on Lucretius in 1971 with the Door's song, "Atoms in the Void" ["Into this world we're thrown / Like a dog without a bone"]).  . . . Apart from Greenblatt's swooning appreciation of the beauty of the poem, though, he does not address why it's a poem or the uses Lucretius makes of poetic form. But my questions are – what is it about the poem that is changed by its form? -- or is the form just cosmetic? -- a spoonful of poetry makes the medicine go down -– but in that case, is the medicine (the doctrine) unaffected by the verse?

Round, angular, soft, brittle, dry, cold, warm,
Things are their qualities: things are their form
And these in combination, even as bees,
Not singly but combined, make up the swarm
—Lucretius, tr. William Mallock  (1900)

Prose suggests unambiguous
doctrine or
description. Verse
allows for an
of in-
determinacy. Verse
is swerve. 
Verse echoes
Lucretius's cosmology. 
Prose's faster.

I propose a radical swerve from Greenblatt and Jenkyns: that the doctrine is there to ensnare, to pull readers into an aesthetic experience that cannot be put into prose.  Verse is the clinamen in action. A couple of lines in Book V (lines 735 and 736) help to make that point. These lines are difficult to translate for a reason that goes to the heart of what the poem is doing (swerving not saying). Think of translations of Lucretius offer a set of commentaries on his poem. The subject of the passage from Book V can be read as the problem of translating a non-sensuous view of reality into words. A central problem for Lucretius was how to articulate a view of the world that is aversive to (that swerve from) what is visible, to what intuitively seems to be the case. This is the Lucretian imperative. Lucretius confronts a problem that scientists and mathematicians have faced from well before his time. Let's put it this way: You can't put into believable descriptive prose E=MC2, much less algebra or calculus or, well, non-Euclidean geometry or, as here's the rub, evolution, Mr. Darwin's dangerous theory (or for that matter Mr. Marx's or Mr. Spinoza's).  Once you go beyond the visible reality of "ratio" -- as Blake so powerfully notes in his visionary physics (to use Donald Ault's phrase), all prose bets are off.  The alternative to "ratio" and to the direct evidence of the senses is not irrationalism or religion or superstition -- but reason. And reason is neither visible nor consistent.  

Reason without poetry is like the body without a soul. 

I include here two new translations by Richard Tuttle. In 2014, Tuttle and I collaborated on "Echologs," after the poetry match in Virgil’s Eclogs, III (to be published in Fulcrum #8, forthcoming). Tuttle's gleanings are possible because Of Things' Nature is poetry not doctrine. His versions locate precisely Lucretius's poetics.  

Book V: 735/736 
difficilest ratione docere et vincere verbis,
ordine cum videas tam certo multa creari.

root words
difficilest  ratione  docere  et    vincere   verbis,

difficult    rational  teach   and  conquer  words
ordine cum videas tam certo   multa  creari.
order   with  see     so   certain much  created

difficult to teach rationally and subdue words 
seeing so certain an order in so much created

Literal / Tim Chandler (2015)
It is difficult to teach with reason and prevail with words
when you see many things to be created with so certain an order

Richard Tuttle (2015)
It is difficult to accept words can
describe what can repeat itself
but cannot describe what cannot

John Selby Watson (1851)
Further, when you see so many things produced in a certain order, it is difficult to demonstrate by reason, and to evince by argument, why a new moon may not be generated every day ...

John Mason Good (1851)
Both words and reasoning arduous find alike, 
Since things throughout in order flow precise.

H.A.J. Munro (1866/1891)
it is not easy to teach by reasoning or prove by words, since so many things can be born in such a regular succession.

William Elory Leonard (1916)
Can be create with fixed successions:
To prove absurd – since, lo, so many things'
Tis hard to show by reason, or by words

W.D. Ross (1924)
... it is difficult to explain by reasoning and to prove in words, seeing that one sees many things produced in so fixed an order.

Martin Ferguson Smith (1969)
Lastly, it is difficult to give any convincing reason why a new moon should not be created every day, with a fixed succession of phases and forms, each new-created moon being extinguished each day and replaced by another: one sees many things created in so fixed an order.  

Ronald Melville (1997)
That is difficult to explain by reasoning
And prove by words, seeing that many things 
Are created in so fixed and sure an order.

Alicia Stallings (2007)
You’d have your work cut out for you to prove it can’t be so,
When so many other things arise in order, as you know:


quo minus est mirum se certo tempore luna
gignitur et certo deletur tempore rursus,
cum fieri possint tam certo tempore multa 

Smith (1969)
Seeing that many things can occur at so fixed a time, it is not surprising if the moon is created at a fixed time and again at a fixed time is destroyed.

Melville (1997)
No marvel then, if at fixed times the moon
Is born and at fixed times again destroyed,
Seeing that in this world so many things
Come into being at so fixed a time

Tuttle (2015)
How great to see uncertainty
when everything else is fixed!


720 versarique potest, globus ut, si forte, pilai
dimidia ex parti candenti lumine tinctus,
versandoque globum variantis edere formas,
donique eam partem, quae cumque est ignibus aucta,
ad speciem vertit nobis oculosque patentis;
725 inde minutatim retro contorquet et aufert
luciferam partem glomeraminis atque pilai;
ut Babylonica Chaldaeum doctrina refutans
astrologorum artem contra convincere tendit,
proinde quasi id fieri nequeat quod pugnat uterque
730 aut minus hoc illo sit cur amplectier ausis.
denique cur nequeat semper nova luna creari
ordine formarum certo certisque figuris
inque dies privos aborisci quaeque creata
atque alia illius reparari in parte locoque,
735 difficilest ratione docere et vincere verbis,
ordine cum videas tam certo multa creari.
it Ver et Venus et Veneris praenuntius ante
pennatus graditur, Zephyri vestigia propter
Flora quibus mater praespargens ante viai
740 cuncta coloribus egregiis et odoribus opplet.
inde loci sequitur Calor aridus et comes una
pulverulenta Ceres et etesia flabra aquilonum.
inde Autumnus adit, graditur simul Euhius Euan.

John Selby Watson (1851)
And the moon may possibly revolve upon her axis, like a ball3 tinged with shining light only on one side, and may, by turning her orb, present to us her various phases. Thus, progressively, she turns that part which is illuminated, so as to behold us with full aspect and open eye ;4 then, by degrees, she turns away and removes from us the brilliant side of her orb;5 as, indeed, the Babylonish doctrine of the Chaldasans taught, which, refuting the method of the Greek astrologers, labours to support this hypothesis in opposition to it; just as if that, for which each contends, might not be true, or as if there were any reason why you should choose to embrace one opinion less than the other.  

Further, when you see so many things produced in a certain order, it is difficult to demonstrate by reason, and to evince by argument, why a new moon may not be generated every day, with a certain succession of phases and figures, and each moon, as it diurnally arises, diurnally decay, and another be reproduced in its place and station.

H. A. J. Monro (1866)
She may also revolve, like it may be to a spherical ball steeped over one half in shining light, and as she rolls round this sphere she may present changing phases, until she has turned that half which is illu minated full towards our sight and open eyes; then by slow steps she whirls back and withdraws the light-fraught half of the spherical ball; as the Babylonian science of the Chaldees refuting the system of the astronomers essays to prove in op position to them; just as though that which each party fights for might not be equally true, or there were any reason why you should venture to embrace the one theory less than the other. 'Again, why a new moon should not be born every day after a regular succession of forms and regular phases, and each day the one which is born perish and another be produced in its room and stead, it is not easy to teach by reasoning or prove by words, since so many things can be born in such a regular succession. Spring and Venus go their way, and spring's har binger winged zephyr steps on before; and along the path they tread mother Flora straws all the way before them and covers it over with the choicest colours and odours.

Loeb / William Ellory Leonard (1916):
722 Again, she may revolve upon herself,
Like to a ball's sphere - if perchance that be -
One half of her dyed o'er with glowing light,
725 And by the revolution of that sphere
She may beget for us her varying shapes,
Until she turns that fiery part of her
Full to the sight and open eyes of men;
Thence by slow stages round and back she whirls,
Withdrawing thus the luminiferous part
Of her sphered mass and ball, as, verily,
730 The Babylonian doctrine of Chaldees,
Refuting the art of Greek astrologers,
Labours, in opposition, to prove sure -
As if, forsooth, the thing for which each fights,
Might not alike be true, - or aught there were
Wherefore thou mightest risk embracing one
735 More than the other notion. Then, again,
Why a new moon might not forevermore
Created be with fixed successions there
Of shapes and with configurations fixed,
And why each day that bright created moon
Might not miscarry and another be,
740 In its stead and place, engendered anew,
'Tis hard to show by reason, or by words
To prove absurd – since, lo, so many things
Can be create with fixed successions:
Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus' boy,
The winged harbinger, steps on before,
745 And hard on Zephyr's foot-prints Mother Flora,
Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all
With colours and with odours excellent;

W.D. Ross (1924) (revised M.F. Smith) 
[715] It is also possible that she may revolve in light or with her own light, obscured by the passing of a satellite, of her own, and yet offer various phases of brightness; for there may be another moving body which glides along with her, obstructing and hampering her in all sorts of ways, yet is not visible because it moves without light. Possibly she may revolve like a roundor having a light half and a dark half which face us as she revolves; ball it may be, one half of which is bathed in bright light, and by turning her globe may display the various phases, until that part which is endowed with fire is turned to our sight and open eyes; then by small degrees she turns this behind and takes away the light-bringing part of the spherical ball; which the Babylonish doctrine of the Chaldeans tries to prove as against the science of the astronomers which it refutes; as if that for which each fights might not be true, or as if there were any reason why you should venture to embrace this rather than that.
[731] Lastly, why a new moon should not be always or fresh moons may be made daily, in succession, created with a fixed succession of phases in fixed shapes, why every single day the one which has been made should not vanish and another be restored in its place and station, it is difficult to explain by reasoning and to prove in words, seeing that one sees many things produced in so fixed an order. On come Spring and Venus, and Venus’ winged harbinger marching before, with Zephyr and mother Flora a pace behind him strewing the whole path in front and filling it with brilliant colours and scents.

Martin Ferguson Smith (1969)
It is also possible that as she [the moon] revolves she may shine with her own light and present various phases of brightness. For she may be accompanied by another body, which glides along with her, continually occulting and obstructing her, but which is invisible because it moves devoid of light; [720] or she may possibly rotate like a ball, one half of whose surface is tinged with gleaming light, and by rotating her sphere present her various phases, until she turns to our wakeful eyes the half that is illuminated before gradually twisting back and withdrawing the luminous part of her sphere. This is the theory that the Babylonian teaching of the Chaldaeans attempts to prove in opposition to the hypothesis of the Greek astronomers –– [730] as though the view championed by either party might not be correct, or as though there were any reason why you should venture to embrace the one opinion less than the other. Lastly, it is difficult to give any convincing reason why a new moon should not be created every day, with a fixed succession of phases and forms, each new-created moon being extinguished each day and replaced by another: one sees many things created in so fixed an order. Spring comes and Venus, preceded by Venus' winged harbinger, and mother Flora, following hard on the heels of Zephyr, prepares the way for them, strewing all their path with a profusion of exquisite hues and scents. [740]  

Ronald Melville (1997)
Then gradually as it turns it bears away    725
The luminous surface of its rounded globe.
This do the Babylonian Chaldees
 Maintain, refuting the astronomers,
 And trying to prove their art is all in vain.
 As if each of these contentions might not be true,
 Or there were any reason why you should dare
 To embrace one of them rather than another   730
 Lastly, why should not a new moon every day
 Be created, with fixed phases and fixed shapes,
 And every single day the new creation
 Perish, and a new one take its place?
That is difficult to explain by reasoning
 And prove by words, seeing that many things    735
 Are created in so fixed and sure an order.
 Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ harbinger
 Winged Cupid runs in front, in Zephyr’s steps,
 And mother Flora strews the path before them
 With choicest scents and colours everywhere  740

Alicia Stallings (2007):
720 Another possibility: she turns round like a ball,
Only one half of which has been dipped in a radiant glow,
And it is by revolving that the different phases show,
Until the hemisphere that is endowed with a fiery blaze
Is turned towards our open eyes and fully meets our gaze.
And then she turns this face behind, removing from our sight
Little by little the surface of the ball that gives off light,
730 Or so the teaching of the Babylonians avers,
Seeking to disprove the science of astronomers.
(As if the champions of both theories did not have their case,
Or there were any reason one should hazard to embrace
One theory over the other!) Indeed why couldn’t it be true
That each of the lunar phases is a fresh moon fashioned new,
And that each new-created moon then disappears each day,
And another’s formed to take the place of one which passed away?
You’d have your work cut out for you to prove it can’t be so,
When so many other things arise in order, as you know:
Spring and Venus come, and wingèd Cupid leads the way,
And Mother Flora, in Zephyr’s footsteps, scatters a bouquet
Of blossoms coloured bright to catch the eye, and smelling sweet,
740 Carpeting the path that stretches out before their feet.

Web of translations

Of the translations: I prefer Smith's prose to Alicia Stallings's verse, which is too cute and cloying; but I also love the Mallock adaption, which creates a kind of self-help or wisdom verse modeled on Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat.  I like Melville best.

Perseus: bilingual; toggle top English on upper right for William Elory Leonard tr.; links to English translations
Leonard/Guttenberg (1916)
William Mallock's 1900 adaption (note opening here is beg. of book 2)
Martin Ferguson Smith (1969): prose; see intro and outline of themes preceding each book. 
John Selby Watson, prose, and John Mason Good verse (1851)
H. A. J. Munro (1866/1891) (prose) Latin
Cyril Bailey Latin (1920)

See also:

Henri Bergson, Extraits de Lucrèce, Paris, Delagrave (1884); English tr. The Philosphy of Poetry
George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (1910)

Jim Hinch, "The Swerve : How the World Became Modern,"  Los Angeles Review of Books

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.): Principal Doctrines | Vatican Sayings | Letter to Menoeceus | Letter to Herodotus | Letter to Pythocles | Letter to Idomeneus | Last Will & also here. Bilingual verison of Principal Doctrines, Cyril Bailey edn

From Dada to Daesh: One hundred years ago today in...


... on February 2nd 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, the following announcement, written by Hugo Ball appeared in the local press:

“The Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals.” [Hugo Ball,La fuite hors du temps ([1946], 1993) 111].

This was the beginning of Dada, one of the most exemplary, forceful & investigative movements in poetry (& extending to, dis- & in-corporating, de-turning all the other arts, thus in a profound way introducing multimedia & performance art & the most interesting methods of investigating the relations between art and world). It was a time of war — the "Great War" or the war to end all wars — though of course it did not end wars, and dada's inspiration or better, its counter-push was based on the horror of a war in which there was no good, right, "patriotic" side (as there nearly never are in wars).

We too are living again in a time of war, in an age even more deliriously scary because of its global insanity. There are a dozen or more lethal conflicts raging simultaneously all over the world right now, conflicts even more gruesome than those of WWI in which conscripted armies slaughtered each other by the million for the supposed benefit of a few kings & arms dealers under the totally hypocritical guise of "patriotism." Today the wars, even the local ones such as the conflict wrecking Syria, are total & the "innocent bystanders," the civilians, women and children are slaughtered as fiercely as the soldiers, while whole ethnic groups are threatened & subjected to genocide. In this country, supposedly at "peace," the police has declared open season on young African-americans, while permitting any sane or insane person to buy war-weapons with which to start mass-slaughters in schools, movie-houses or any other public place of their choosing. As always the profits accrue to the weapons manufacturers with late global capitalism's greed for untrammeled profits having pushed its cynicism so far as to obliterate any difference between wars of aggression &/or defense against external opponents and internal, civil wars.

All of this & more is sold to the people camouflaged under the medievalist mantle of righteous religious ideology — vide last night's Republican winner of the Iowa Caucus, Ted Cruz, saying that the truth did not lie with either or any political party but with the judeo-christian god, a non-existing fiction resurrected again and again to fool the people and cover up lies, rip-offs and destruction. The difference between the various theologically-based totalitarianisms that are the official "enemy" of these United States — be it the Iranian Islamo-fascism, or the Saudi Wahhabite-islamo-fascism, or Daesh/IS itself — and the ideology of early 21C America is vanishing. And it would seem that all the alarms sounded by sane people the world over are drowned out by the din of hysterical rhetoric and the noise of explosions.

All of which noise covers — & I think that this cover-up is very consciously created by international capitalism, i.e. the global corporations that own not only the wealth of the world but also our "representatives" i.e. the politicians — what is the human species' most destructive war: that against earth, the only place it has to live, a war ironically, tragically, insanely by now nearly won, i.e. the ecological disaster that is the outcome of this war against earth is upon us.

Given this situation I was wondering this morning as I think back on those 1916 days of the birth of Dada as a reaction against the insanity of WWI, I was wondering where are the poets today, what are they doing in the face of this absolute disaster, where are the young who should be creating a 21C Dada to try to bring some sanity into our world? Not that I have any illusions as to the power of art to save the world. But unless there is an art commensurate with the horrors surrounding us, how to live in this world, how not to despair? There needs to be a space where another, a saner world can be imagined, can be sketched out, can be proposed. As Jerome Rothenberg & I wrote in our commentary on Dada in Vol. 1 of Poems for the Millennium, the strategy of Dada — & I believe this strategy is worth considering & putting back into action today — is what the poet Ed Sanders later called "a total assault on the culture" or in the words of Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the original dadas, "the liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power."

And Jerome Rothenberg himself put it as follows in his manifesto-program, and which should be the aim of poetry and of all art, today more so than ever:

1) I will change your mind;

2) any means (= methods) to that end;

3) to oppose the “devourers” = bureaucrats, systemmakers, priests, etc. (W. Blake);

4) “& if thou wdst understand that wch is me, know this: all that I have sd I have uttered playfully - & I was by no means ashamed of it.” (J. C. to his disciples,The Acts of St. John)

Let meend with a poem by Paul Celan from the early sixties, a poem with prophetic insight into the exact condition, ecologically & beyond, we find ourselves in today. It also tells us that no matter how dire the situation — & it is dire — there still remains something to be done:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond