Commentaries - August 2011

Looking up from 'sparrow,' with Dan Beachy-Quick

swallow's nest (with an egg that did not hatch) in nesting box
Swallow's Nest

While I said I would write about nomadic poetry architectures, I got caught up reading some books I need to return to the library. One of them is Dan Beachy-Quick’s  This Nest, Swift Passerine, a book-length meditation on love, sparrows, sight, orb spiders, language, self and other, in the transcendentalist tradition Beachy-Quick has made so particularly his own. It is also a thorough demonstration of poetic intertextuality as nesting. (In his previous collection, Mulberry, Beachy-Quick imagines writing poetry as a silkworm’s work, “the weaving back and forth, as the head moves almost unnoticeably left to right and right to left as one reads, of those leaves I had devoured, those pages I read.”) Into his own looping syntax, the poet weaves “Themes” from Charles C. Abbott, Martin Buber, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Meister Eckhart, Ronald Johnson, Edward Taylor, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Wordsworth, amongst others.

Each blank page a month 
Arctic this every January
The sparrows minus zero
In the leafless tree do not 

Move they do not move
In me their summer 
Nest a vocabulary I do
Not know the words for grass

Dried joined to green pinion
Of mud feather down in inner
Curve tendril twined to twig
Cottonwood seed come out within

Now none nest nowhere
Save within themselves
Wind disheveled no song
The sparrows below zero  

One startling phrase on the last page pierces the reflective surface: “there is the grocery list/ from winter sewn into the sparrow’s nest.” “Here,” the poet goes on to write, “are the pages in which I nest.” I like this referencing a brutal material plane, where different orders come into a mute sort of contact. The relationship between bird and human, between the referential and the intertextual nesting (between interspecies and intraspecies), or between nesting somewhere and nesting “within,” is not constrained within the Emersonian surfaces on which the poet chooses to reflect—or so I’d like to think. 

I once wrote an essay on Ronald Johnson’s poem “Ariel’s Songs to Prospero” (ARK 37), comparing the centered forms, stanzas ‘quilted’ from the language of Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds, to birds’ nests. (I was also thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “I was  a Phebe – nothing more – / A Phebe – nothing less – / The little note that others dropt / I fitted into place –”) 

pale ghost-bird of the inner eyrie 
silvery over and over 
body in strong light, radial 
at a distance, only the hollow long-drawn whoooooooo 
tooit-wit winnowing an almost touching elsewhere 
in bright yellow lines, twinking flight to flesh at “window” 
“eyed on back of head” at night in spring
in endless succession 
as it walks 
the rip-tide paradisaea 

Emily Dickinson wrote that the earth is “a Nest, from whose rim we are all falling.” 

But how far do such comparisons take us into ecopoetics? Human fancy delights in the analogy (or, according to Levi-Strauss, human culture actually gets built out of such identifications and differences, in the mirror of nature). The care of poetry for such helpless things as sparrows is nearly a cliché  (passer is actually the latin for sparrow, even if passerine has come to designate the entire order of birds distinguished by feet that are adapted for perching, including all songbirds). Do “ecopoems” (& I’m not necessarily claiming that designation for  This Nest, Swift Passerine; Beachy-Quick himself makes no such claim) walk their talk of care for the natural world? What of the ethical knot of printing a poetical “bird’ nest” on paper pulped from the tree the actual bird nested in? Science, observation, and methods for probing beyond semblance—what do we know about the effects of the publishing industry on bird habitat?—become an ally here. Along with a light production footprint.

More than the transcendentalist riches, it is the poet’s attention to natural history—as in the list of different kinds of spiders’ webs in the first section of Beachy-Quick’s poem (cobweb, triangular, funnel, net, orb) and how these are woven through the surfaces of the poem—that I feel I can perch on. The more the poet draws me in to his web the more I am tasked with noticing phenomena, getting caught up in a nest of relations that are not all human language. “Poetry,” Beachy-Quick writes in his introduction to Mulberry, “riddles oneself with oneself by weaving one voice into many.” Can poetry also riddle someone with somebody by weaving a body into bodies? How do we get from the confusion of voices (the Wittgensteinian theme of “Daybook,” the culminating poem from Beachy-Quick’s first collection, North True South Bright) to a confusion of bodies? (And is such confusion desirable?) The material in Beachy-Quick’s nests that seems to draw sustenance from Ronald Johnson’s example, experimenting with concrete embodiments of “voice,” speaks most directly to me on this point. I also am drawn to those moments when the poem acknowledges that its work is incomplete, unfinished: “I look up from ‘sparrow’ to see sparrow.”  

a page from This Nest, Swift Passerine

Video portrait of David Antin (Feb. 18, 2008)

David and I met for lunch in SoH0, near Ellie's gallery. Much of our conversation focussed on David's essay collection; there were enough works for two books, so which to leave out? David was never much interested in talking about collecting his essays; his focus was always on what he doing now, what he was doing next. That's partly why it took him so long to gather together the pieces in that book. But I was persistent and brought up the essay collection just about every time we met. After a while, we walked outside and wound our way, slowly, toward Houston, talking all the while. I asked David about his sky-writing poems.

video portrait of Lev Rubinstein, 11/18/07

Matvei Yankelevitch asked me to join Lev Rubinstein in a memorial tribute to Dmitri Prigov at the Bowery Poetry Club. Rubinstein's is a poetry of changing parts that ensnares the evanescent uncanniness of the everyday (in ways that bring to mind the seriality of both Reznikoff and Grenier). By means of rhythmically foregrounding a central device — the basic unit of the work is the index card — Rubinstein continuously re-makes actual for us a flickering now time that is both intimate and strange.
November 18, 2007

Portraits page 1 : Regis Bonvicino, George Lakoff, Heny Hills, Mimi Gross, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Caroline Bervgvall
Portraits page 2
: Pierre Joris, Wysten Curnow, Levhi Lehto, Robert Grenier, James Sherry, Johanna Drucker
Portraits page 3
: Ann Lauterbach, Karen Mac Cormack, Steve McCaffery, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nick Piombino, Richard Tuttle
Portraits page 4
: Rd Smith, Nicole Brossard, Douglad Messerli, Peter Middleton, Norman Fischer, Tina Darragh
Portraits page 5
: Myung Mi Kim, Charles Alexander, Alan Davies, P. Inman, Phong Bui, Bob Perelman
Portraits page 6:
Kennth Goldsmith, John Yau, Peter Gizzi,  Dubravka Djuric,  Elizabeth Willis, Tan Lin
Portraits page 7: John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Emma Bee Bernstein, Susan Howe, Sigmund Laufer
Portraits page 8: Maggie O'Sullivan, Christian Bök, Darren Wershler, Tony Foster, Marty Ehrlich & Erica Hunt, Lev Rubinstein

N. S., Nathalie Stephens, Nathanaël composes in English and French, sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in the permeable ache between, amidst multiple voiced and embodied pronouns, and in the space of in-between, which she calls l’entre genre. As preposition, entre, can mean between or among, as prefix, it can denote the idea of reciprocity or of being in the middle of two things, as verb, to enter, to go into, to begin. As well, genre does not only signify a category of artistic composition or literature, but also a general kind or type. Biologically it also refers to genus; linguistically to gender.  As such, Stephens enters this space of in-between-kind not to occupy what we may easily confuse at first as a binary (poetry/prose, English/French, female body/male body) but rather to explore the porosity between multiple genres, languages, bodies, voices. In the porosity, a dislocation; in the dislocation unease; in the unease a fruitful and unexpected altering.

In her work, Stephens troubles the idea of the singular mother tongue, singular body, singular place/home, singular desire. The tongue of her language is neither and both English and French, for her vocabulary may at times look like one but be syntactically the other, or sound like one but be the other, or behave like one but shadow the other.

“What is a fuckable text and is it only fuckable in English ? Is there such thing as a literary hard-on ? Who wants Nathanaël ? I do I do. Only he doesn’t exist. He is not kissing you. He leaves no fold on your mattress. He doesn’t break your heart. The tiled floor is cold and your feet are bare. Nathanaël is long gone he was never here not even once. He is a queer boy a loveable boy maybe even a fuckable boy and we are all wet or hard turning pages imagining his breath.” (from Je Nathanaël, published mostly in English by BookThug, 2006)

“Qui veut Nathanaël? I do I do. Seulement il n’existe pas. Il ne t’embrasse pas. Il ne laisse aucun pli sur ton matelas. Il ne te trahit pas. Le plancher carrelé est froid tu es pieds nus. Nathanaël est déjà loin il n’a jamais été ici pas une seule fois. C’est un garçon queer un garçon aimable maybe even a fuckable boy et on bande et on mouille en tournant les pages en imaginant son souffle.” (from Je Nathanaël, publié mostly en français par l’Hexagone, 2003)

In the contours between language, tongue, body and place, desire. A desire that is silent, voiced, enacted and translated.

Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) is the author of many books including We Press Ourselves Plainly (Nightboat, 2010), Carnet de désaccords (Le Quartanier, 2009), At Alberta (BookThug, 2008), ...s’arréte? Je (l’Hexagone, 2007) and Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006). Some of he work exists in Basque, Slovene, and Spanish with book-length translations in Bulgarian and Brazilian Portuguese. In addition to translating herself, Stephens has translated Catherine Mavrikakis, Gail Scott, John Keene, and Édouard Clissant.

Daniel Ellsberg performs a magic trick at Whitman College
Daniel Ellsberg performs a magic trick at Whitman College

Kaia Sand

Maybe the poets could come up with a better term than ‘whistle-blower?’ That’s what I recall Daniel Ellsberg asking.

It was the spring of 2005 in Walla Walla, Washington, when I had the luxury of a day’s conversations with Daniel Ellsberg, famed for releasing the Pentagon Papers in an effort to end the Vietnam War by revealing how high-level officials were misleading the public. Ellsberg was visiting Jules’s class and giving a lecture at Whitman College, where Jules was employed, and because Jules was employed, he was busy, and I was not so busy, and, thus… I discussed poetry with Ellsberg over green tea. He was an early publisher of Frank O’Hara’s at the Harvard Advocate, he recited lines of poetry from memory, and he urged me to read Robinson Jeffers.

Whistle-blower. If a whistle is blown in a sporting event, someone may have fouled or the half is over or there’s some extra time. But in most instances these offenses are within the bounds of a game, which would be a generous reading of the acts that Ellsberg exposed. War is a game, this metaphor conveys.

I batted around (to continue the sporting metaphor) the idea of finding a new term with some poets, but we never came up with anything else (although I recall Daniel Bouchard suggested employing Ellsberg’s name as a synecdoche). ‘Whistle-blower’ has some things going for it, after all: the image is rich, and appeals to the auditory sense as well.

I’m intrigued by this Ellsbergian task for poets, for those of us who do dwell with words according to soundplay and connotation and rhythm and allusion and connective thinking … how might our care with words circulate?

Take Global Warming. Take Climate Change. Both terms fall short.

The term Global Warming incites furious letters-to-the-editor during snowstorms and other not-hot weather disasters. The term carries with it a need for explanation: a rise in climatic temperature is over the long-term, but what we experience immediately and sensorily is weather, which, as part of the overall phenomenon, is not always hotter, but more chaotic. While "weather is personal experience,” as climatologist Heidi Cullen writes in The Weather of the Future, while climate is a “focus on weather timescales beyond the memory of the atmosphere, which is only about a week” (8). So to speak of a climate heating up is to speak of long-term statistics, not our daily experience of weather.

Climate Change is a term that has been used to describe large-scale shifts in the climate, which include the non-human-caused ice ages etc. Climate Change, as a term for our current and future human-caused predicament is, well, awfully understated, as Republican language strategist Frank Luntz intended it would be. In the same memo in which he suggested Republicans emphasize “scientific uncertainty,” he also wrote “‘Climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming.’ ... While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge” (142). 

Climate Disruption is a bit more accurate (& rhythmically pretty nice), but not image-rich. Climate Chaos is alliterative, with nice trochees….  

Ideas, poets?

It is with this interest in how poetic images circulate in everyday and activist uses that I am intrigued with the care that Craig Santos Perez developed a metaphor when he addressed the United Nations in 2008 regarding the impact of the military impact of Guam, and how his poetic work infused his activist work, and his activist work, his poetic work.

I will explore that in my next commentary.

works cited
Cullen, Heidi. The Weather of the Future. NY: Harper, 2010.

Luntz, Frank. “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America.” 2002. Accessed Aug 6, 2011. Environmental Working Group.