Commentaries - September 2009
Primo Levi's great book, Survival in Auschwitz, at one point depicts a range of four kinds of typical survivors - those who are in some way adaptable to the strange Babel of languages in the camp, to its bizarre and complex social and economic hierarchies, and its subtle constant rewriting of behaviorial rules, the breaking of which could lead to instant death. One guy whom Primo knew at the camp, a cunning, beautiful young man whose great talent was that he could create pity in others (even hardened criminal Kapos and even members of the SS), was someone Levi called "Henri." Later, after this mean survived the war, went on with his life, heard about Levi's mostly negative account of him, he showed himself and wrote his own account. His name, it turns out, is Paul Steinberg. His book appeared in 2000 (years after Primo killed himself). Speak You Also. In October 2000 Martin Arnold published a piece in the New York Times about it, and here is a link to it.
The Cincinnati-based engineer Aryanil Mukherjee has built a web site featuring translations of Bengali poetry. Aryanil listened to the recent PoemTalk episode on Zukofsky and responded as someone knowledgeable about electro-magnetics. Word from PennSound's Managing Editor Mike Hennessey is that we will soon have a Aryanil Mukherjee author page (readings of translations). So stay tuned.
Writing in response to PoemTalk #22 on Zukofsky,the Cincinnati-based engineer Aryanil Mukherjee, whose site featuring translations of Bengali poetry we admire, sent us some helpful observations:
I thought I would share this with you if it makes any sense or sheds any new light with which certain aspects of the poem might be reviewed. The opening line [Its hard to see but think of a sea condensed..] made me think of exactly how an electrical condenser [ also known as a capacitor] works. Although, in the next line Zukofsky moves on to the transmission of light and waves, refers to electric stress, finally conditioning it with "unless the space the stresses cross is air". I thought that the construction and functioning of an electric condenser remains central to these lines.
Condensers build voltage and store energy [electric stress] with no real "material" actually conducting electricity. Their construction shows an air gap between the two walls across which the voltage or voltaic stress is preserved. In physics, when we compare electric circuits to elastodynamic spring-mass systems the condenser is equal to a damper which plays a similar role of dampening/amplifying a force [by reducing acceleration].
George Gamow, the Russian born American nuclear physicist, wrote a great deal of popular science. In one of these books [can't remember the title] he describes wave propagation comparing the sea to an electric circuit [and a mechanical spring-mass system] with several layers of capacitors or condencers in parallel. I thought Zukofsky's description of the sea came very close to Gamow's model especially where he talks about "many condensers large and small"...etc.
That a great deal of electric stress [and light] can be stored in between the surface waves and the seabed in layers and all of that can be actually "transmitted" without a real "felt" medium in between is perhaps not just scientific truth but also poetic electricity.
Some readers will remember that a few months ago I was asked by George Lensing to chose just three poems by Wallace Stevens I would most urgently commend to others. A crazy task, but I did it (because I like George, for one thing). A short essay about these three poems will soon be published in the Wallace Stevens Journal. Here is a sneak preview.
A poem of mine, "Pleasure Dome," was published in a gorgeous letterpress production of The Common Press, of which the Kelly Writers House is a partner. The book is called Philacentrik and it's a catalogue of nine views of Philadelphia. It is also the first Common Book, an annual project by the Common Press, the letterpress studio at Penn; Common Books will be produced to showcase the integration of writing, printmaking and design at the press." Here is a scan of my poem and the illustration on the facing verso. The Writers House imprint within the Common Press collaborative is called "The 15th Room Press".