Commentaries - February 2012
Here is the book. It is a place of forty pages. But look, there are pages within the pages, and there are pages within those pages, and soon there will be a flower growing from within the center of all the pages, and from the outer pages springs of green grass shall sprout, while from between the petals of the flower a variety of birds emerge, sparrows, flycatchers, cardinals, phainopepla, and above the sun emerges from a full cloud to brighten and warm the day, and we read the book in which is written our life story, but how, we ask ourselves, for there are two of us here, no, wait, two and four and 19 groups of two, all asking, how can our life story be written for we have lived no life and know no language, and the peal of the bell, many bells along with stringed instruments calls our attention away from our questioning and brings us back to a single sheet of paper, folded so that we might hold it in our hands while behind us a wave very gradually and without shouting comes onto the shore and a gull comes on the second wave and a boat comes on the third wave and people with brown and white and yellow skin emerge from the boat and ask us what light we walk under, what rain covers us and makes the flowers grow and what a page contains but we can not answer for we only know that the next step we take will cause the ringing of another bell the plucking of another string the gradual quickening of the pace of the rhythm tapped upon the smooth wood of our wandering. And now that a stop has been placed in the river we must stop gazing to the west where the light has again gone behind the cloud and the birds have quieted and the flower has retreated into the pages of a book and the forty pages have closed so that just a face full cheeked and sleepy eyed and with a querulous look is facing us as we close our eyes.
Editors of deceased poets’ collections of papers, essays and letters usually inhabit the background of the material and can be overlooked in the reader's enthusiasm for the topic. These editors are often friends or close colleagues of their subject. I’m interested in what might prompt someone to undertake the laborious and meticulous work of assembling a poet’s writings. Poets and other readers are fascinated by the biographical elements and the intimacy of what were once the private communications of their favourite, influential poets. And of course there is also diverse reception for their critical thinking and opinions about things other than the poetry.
Each of the cover portraits, drawings and painting, are by James Schuyler’s friend, editor and literary executor Darragh Park.
In 2005, having read the particular books, including James Schuyler’s letters which had just been published, I decided to ask three of Schuyler’s editors a series of questions about their motivations and processes and their connection with each other. Simon Pettet, William Corbett and Nathan Kernan were gracious in their responses and we published the resulting questionnaire in Jacket in April 2006.
Here is the link:
Not intertexts, but inhabitations!
As editor of Tinfish Press, which publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific region, I try to put different Pacific poets and poetries in conversation with each other. After 15 years of editing, I no longer think of myself as someone who simply publishes books. Instead, I offer up fields of books, islands of them. The point is to move between these islands, not to stay fixed in one place. In The Radicant, Nicholas Bourriaud (on whom I’ve blogged elsewhere) describes such a poetics this way: “It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination.” He writes of the importance of the “itinerary, the path” (55), and of the need for movement. I would like to use this space on Jacket2 to get some of these conversations moving. Many, but not all, will involve Tinfish authors; webs of connection attract across time and space and small press offices.
My first imagined conversation occurs between Gizelle Gajelonia (13 Ways of Looking at TheBus, Tinfish Press), Timothy Yu (15 Chinese Silences, Tinfish), and Jonathan Stalling (Yingelishi, Counterpath Press). Each of these poets inhabits the words and poems of others or, in Stalling’s case, lives within a Chinese/English that oddly merges the two languages.
Gizelle Gajelonia is a young writer in Hawai`i who has read canonical American poems. But — like so many students at the University of Hawai`i — she does not identify with Connecticut winters or post World War waste lands or Nova Scotia moose sightings or imagined trips to Guadalajara by a poet in New York named John Ashbery. She fails even to quite get a canonical “local” poem by Eric Chock, namely “Tutu on da Curb,” published in the early 1980s about an old woman waiting for TheBus in her mu`umu`u. (This poem can be found via Google.) Hers is "Nana on the Curb, about a Filipina woman. So Gajelonia preserves the husks of these poems, but replaces their internal organs with Hawai`i words, histories, and cultures. The famous ending to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” in Gajelonia’s version, is spoken by Queen Lili`uokalani, whose nation has been taken from her. As she moves from poet to poet, poem to poem, she takes her reader on TheBus, O`ahu's local transportation system. Her poems are bus stop/way stations to canonical travels. My upper-level undergraduate poets recently appreciated Wallace Stevens's “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” much more after they'd read her revision of it.
Where Stevens writes in his VIIth way of looking at the blackbird:
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
O Mufi Hannemann,
Why do you imagine steel-colored trains?
Do you not see how The (rainbow) Bus
Efficiently transports the bodies
Of the people around you?
Reading the poem in this context makes students aware that Stevens's poem was about a place; Haddam is a town. According to its website, Haddam is “one of the hidden treasures of Connecticut.” Haddam may have thin men, but O`ahu had as its mayor one Mufi Hannamann, who is very tall and not especially thin; he favored building rail, a still contentious issue. In Gajelonia's rendering, he favors the “gold colored” (and priced) trains to the ordinary blackbirds of TheBus.
So Gajelonia has honored Stevens's poem even as she pokes fun at it. Timothy Yu is more pointed in his rewriting of Billy Collins's poems in 15 Chinese Silences. As he notes at the back of the chapbook, “These poems . . . were begun in response to Billy Collins's poem “Grave.” The speaker of the poem describes the ‘one hundred kinds of silence / according to the Chinese belief,’ but then admits at the end of the poem that these Chinese silences were something he had 'just made up.' I took it upon myself to write these 100 Chinese silences.”
Like Gajelonia, Yu burrows into the pre-existing condition of poem, revising, parodying, ultimately rewriting it as witty riposte. He does not attack Billy Collins ad hominem, for that would be too easy and too narrow a task, but he scathingly critiques poems in which Collins references Chinese culture. Take the opening of Collins's poem “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant,” which the reader can find on a German website (of all places):
I am glad I resisted the temptation,
if it was a temptation when I was young,
to write a poem about an old man
eating alone at a corner table in a Chinese restaurant.
To which Yu responds:
I have resisted the temptation
to write a poem about an old man
eating alone at the unwiped counter
of an American restaurant.
In his treatment of Collins's “In the Room of a Thousand Miles,” namely “Chinese Silence No. 10,” Yu takes a poem in which Collins begins by claiming to be happy writing at home, then moves very far afield, ending with a reference to China:
I visualize a lion rampant on an iron shield,
a quiet battlefield, a granite monument.
And then—just between you and me--
I take a swallow of cold tea
and in the manner of the ancient Chinese
pick up my thin pen
and write down that bird I hear outside,
the one that sings,
and then sings again.
To which Yu responds, deflating Collins's lyric gestures, especially his bird's song:
I visualize a dragon swallowing San Francisco,
gnawing the Golden Gate, choking on Coit Tower.
And then—don't tell anyone--
I smile into my diet cola
and in the manner of the ancient Chinese
pick up my dried-out pen
and tattoo on the skin of my palm
a character that means
“A journey of a thousand miles
is really, really long.”
I hear Gizelle Gajelonia and Timothy Yu talking to one another from within their hauntings of canonical (or wannabe canonical) poems. They're laughing at the canon, and their laughter offers a homeopathic cure to what earlier poems leave out, or add in. But I also hear a third voice entering the conversation, that of Jonathan Stalling, whose book Yingelishi has the bravura wit of the other poets' work, but who brings Chinese and American texts into conversation with one another not by way of translation but of transliteration. In a way, Stalling is also talking to Collins, demanding he attend to Chinese culture, not his invention of it. But he also sets up a conversation (if one can call it that) between the Chinese and English languages, between the languages of business and those of poetry. Stalling, a scholar of Chinese and of American poetry, hears transliterations of English in a business English handbook, then transforms those sounds back into poems in Chinese. Hence, from the business English of “please forgive me,” he gleans “Vast private profits, Buddha offer impermanent mysteries,” and from “thief! Thief!” he gets “Farmer! Farmer!” Stalling's motive is both artistic and pedagogical: “I feel strongly that one must intervene in the normal cultural ways of hearing to interrupt the dismissive impulse that seeks to deflate the anxieties that arise when hearing these accent lines. Through singing the work, I believe new structures of feeling can be built to house heterocultural ways of hearing that will move us toward greater transpacific consciousness” (6-7). This is not Collins’s timeless-but-solitary bird that “sings again,” but an actual Chinese opera singer with an audience. You can find the opera here on-line and listen. Or, as Nicholas Bourriaud puts it, quoting Claude Levi-Strauss: “‘The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment is to be alone’” (36).
Tom Raworth, "Errory"
For our 50th episode, Charles Bernstein, Michael Hennessey, and Marjorie Perloff gathered at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Tom Raworth’s poem, “Errory.” The poem was published in Clean & Well Lit in 1996, and has been reprinted in the Carcanet Press Collected Poems (2003). Our recording of “Errory” comes from audio material produced in 2004 by the Contemporary Poetics Research Center (CPRC) at Birkbeck College of the University of London, and we thank Colin Still for making these recordings available to PennSound.
Here is the CPRC/PennSound recording of Raworth performing “Errory,” at somewhat more than his usual breakneck speed. Listen to “Out of a Sudden,” for instance — from the same recording session — and you'll notice a more deliberate pace. The 32-minute recording of “Writing,” read at typical Raworthian canter, is certainly worth hearing for similarities to the aural feel of “Errory”: urgent, converging, phrases “clawing back,” “free-falling into mind,” “vibrations of division,” “small notes to the rhythm of the train,” “things whiz past.” These are all, of course, phrases from our poem, which is, in a sense, in addition to everything else that it is, a poem about the urgency of its soundings. The pace of Raworth’s delivery is clearly a crucial aspect of the signifying, and, as if anyone needed further evidence, underscores the importance of close listening in the sound archive.
Michael and Marjorie are especially interested in “Errory” as a war poem of some sort. Michael reminds us of Raworth’s childhood experiences of the Blitz. All the talkers comment on the use of a vocabulary and diction of martial industrial (not post-industrial) mechanism. Al sees, as well, a embedded sequence of landscapes, and Al and Charles note that, if the poem is slowed way down (Charles performs this briefly), we’ll hear little seemingly set-piece nature lyrics — lyrics that are, of course, challenged by the ubiquitous presence of “landing sites” and “transmitting unit[s].” The “scanty pastures” with which the poem ends are sites on which communication is destroyed “more easily” than otherwise.
“Errory,” as Marjorie points out, is so much more than a single fault or misdirection, indicated by the conventional term “error”; “errory” is, rather, an ongoing condition or state of error, a continuous striking of the so-called false note, “free-falling into mind” to the point where it becomes a “joined harmonising.”
PoemTalk was edited this time, as forty-nine times previously, by Steve McLaughlin. The show is produced at the Kelly Writers House in collaboration with the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation.
I’m reading about hearing loss, and creative use of hearing and listening, in essays in Beauty is a Verb, ed. by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (a must-read book!). Thinking about how all hearing is probably mis-hearing, and all movement from one source to another (poem in head to poem on page, poem from poet to poem in book by publisher, poem read in book to poem in reader's head, poem uttered in reading to poem heard in reading) involves evolution, change. Laurie Clements Lambeth, in her essay “Reshaping the Outline,” in this book, speaks of this with grace and clarity, including the creative potential of such transmission, or, if you like, mistransmission.
I find myself reading Norma Cole's essay in the book, “Why I am Not a Translator II,” and echoing its words as I go, according to thoughts I'm developing about the book's (in a large sense) openness and impermanance, maybe the idea's openness and impermanence. From this point, until and not including the last line, I have taken excerpts from Norma Cole's writing, including that essay, and the following poem, also included in Beauty is a Verb, titled “Speech Production Themes and Variations,” and those excerpts appear first, not in parentheses, with my echoing of them following in parentheses.
Word-seeds. Sphota. ( ideas seeds flax paper book )
one has ideas before one has words to say them. . . . No tabula rasa. ( the book is always pre-content )
Ideas that pre-exist words and objects. ( Book is word-object / book is spoken / book is convention, convened, convection, convict, closed case, open mind )
why shouldn’t one pass from the word in the first language straight to the word in the second language, without even thinking about ideas? ( first page to second page , books as simple as turning pages, from page to next page is a translation )
“The ‘body’ of the poem is created from ‘sounds and meanings’” (Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” Language in Literature, p. 97), whether it is a translation or not. But it’s all translation anyhow. Crooked translation. ( body is a book , translation is the small stuff, and don’t sweat the small stuff, but it's all small stuff. crooked is fluent, fluctuating, flux, flow. Book = Verbal Art, = Verbal Sign = Verbal Time )
ribbons of scandal ( typewriter ribbons, ink ribbons )
exhibitions: temporary inhibitions, my semblables: collective guilt ( mon semblable, mon frere, my self, my selves, my solvents )
quote / quotation / quit / quoting / quit it / unscripted / quoted unscripted / quote script? ( BOOK, quit book, unbook, unbind the book, unpage the book )
Sonata: a musical composition in contrasted movements ( a composition / a made thing / a poem / a book )
postcards, newspapers, my cane, myself? ( my color my self, a made thing, a meadow, a book)
This is not an essay about a book. This is an essay about a book.