Commentaries - February 2012

Paul Blackburn performed his poem “7th Game : 1960 Series,” written in 1960, on or near the first day of the 1971 baseball season, during a reading he gave at SUNY Cortland. The poem was later republished in Blackburn’s Collected Poems [PDF]. The New York Yankees (Blackburn’s team) were heavy favorites in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and vastly outscored the underdogs in the seven games. But the Pirates won on a home run by a light-hitting second baseman in the final at bat of the final game (what we know call a “walk off”). As Blackburn introduces the poem, his audiences laughs; listeners to the audio-only recording now might be confused by this. I’m guessing that Blackburn had just put on his Yankee cap.

The following exercise was generated for the course I am teaching this semester at School of Visual Arts, which concerns “composition through orality,” or if you prefer Creative Speaking.

It is a “recipe” or constraint of sorts for writing a New York School poem (my class read James Schuyler, Bernadette Mayer, Charles Bernstein, and Dorothea Lasky—a heterodox selection, I realize; and listened to Eileen Myles, Schuyler, Robert Creeley, and Ron Padgett via PennSound).

Students were encouraged to use as many of the following "ingredients" as possible: 

  1. at least one addressee (to which you may or may not wish to dedicate your poem)
  2. use of specific place names and dates (time, day, month, year)--especially the names of places in and around New York City
  3. prolific use of proper names
  4. at least one reminiscence, aside, digression, or anecdote
  5. one or more quotations, especially from things people have said in conversation or through the media
  6. a moment where you call into question at least one thing you have said or proposed throughout your poem so far
  7. something that sounds amazing even if it doesn’t make any sense to you
  8. pop cultural references
  9. consumer goods/services
  10. mention of natural phenomena (in which natural phenomena do not appear ‘natural’)
  11. slang/colloquialism/vernacular/the word "fuck"
  12. at least one celebrity
  13. at least one question directed at the addressee/imagined reader
  14. reference to sex or use of sexual innuendo
  15. the words “life” and “death”
  16. at least one exclamation/declaration of love
  17. references to fine art, theater, music, or film
  18. mention of genitals and body parts
  19. food items
  20. drug references (legal or illegal)
  21. gossip
  22. mention of sleep or dreaming
  23. use of ironic overtones

My hemispheric song

céu da palavra from brunovianna on Vimeo.

The Beacon from Ari Kalinowski's "Occupy the Light"

It may be that only cannibalism unites us, as Oswald insisted, socially, economically, philosophically. (“Só a antropofogia nos une. Socialmente. Economicamente. Philosophicamente.”) But what about geographically? It's winter in earnest up north (so I hear, some places) while in Rio we're readying for Carnaval at the height of summer. Listening to Lenine's “A Ponte/Embolada” (from his 1997 album O Dia Em Que Faremos Contato), I got to thinking about hemispheric exchange.

Lenine’s bridge (ponte) is a place of imaginative crossing. For neither coming nor going, as he sings. Just bridging. The refrain “Nagô, nagô, na Golden Gate” finds the sound of the name for Brazilians of Yoruba descent in/on the San Francisco icon. (The term Nagô is used especially in Lenine's home state of Pernambuco, where it also refers to a style of capoeira and to Xangô, the major Afro-Brazilian religion in Northeast Brazil.) Coconut palms open up on the balconies of the Empire State.

The bridge is a way to leave the island — the island of self, the isolated dwelling, perhaps the insularity long associated with the (is)land of Brazil. “Este lugar é uma maravilha/ mas como é que faz pra sair da ilha?/ Pela ponte, pela ponte.” (This place is a wonder, but how do you get off the island? By the bridge, by the bridge.) Lenine takes advantage in his lyrics of the “ilha” (island) embedded in “maravilha” (marvel or wonder) — a poetic feature of the Portuguese language that has helped perpetuate the historical imagination of Brazil as a “specially endowed island,” as critic Charles Perrone explains in Brazil, Lyric, and the Americas (2010, p.11)). Situating Brazilian poetics in a hemispheric, transamerican frame, Perrone provides an excellent history and analysis of the legacy of Brazil as a perceived island in the Americas, and the resonance of this perception in contemporary Brazilian poetry.

Perrone’s books, in addition to being essential critical resources on Brazilian poetry since Modernism, are the best texts for understanding the close relationship between poetry and music in Brazil. (The relationship that lets me feel free to quote Lenine lyrics here on J2.) In Seven Faces (1996), Perrone explores “the Orphic imperative” whereby music and poetry constantly cross-fertilize in Terra Brasilis (ch.4). Musicians are poets (Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque) and/or poets musicians (Arnaldo Antunes), poets work as lyricists (Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Cícero — who is also a philosopher — are two prominent examples), musicians set poetry to music (including musicalization of Concrete poetry), even Lenine's “A Ponte” is also an “embolada,” a Northeastern folk poetic form in which the poet recites a (usually improvised) poem while accompanying themself on pandeiro (tambourine). The embolada is often an exchange performed by pairs of poets spitting rhymes at each other, competing for the best lines (sometimes along with best bravado).

Besides the embolada-style exchange of singing and recitation (or rapping, as in Lenine’s collaborative performance with GOG, who here takes up the controversial costs of an actual bridge, the Ponte JK in Brasília), the album version of “A Ponte” mixes in the sounds of a dial-up modem and a child talking. It's a bridge across genres and media.

A bridge of poetic light across the Americas.

In early December, I went down to the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) to see Bruno Vianna and Renata Pinheiro's eletropipas — poetry kites. Here in Rio, they were selected to grace the Festival CulturaDigital.Br. “Céu da palavra” (Sky of Words) projects writing by the artists and other poets into the night sky, to be caught and read on the surface of blank white kites flown by visitors. Poetry’s relational potential activates. Kites being wind-dependent, however, and December 2nd being a still night by the bay, the eletropipas didn't lift off. In the video above, taken by the artists in Juazeiro do Norte (not far from Lenine’s hometown of Recife), the kites make whimsical bits of soaring verse.

At the same time as the poetry pipas were trying to fly, Occupy Wall Street was going strong. At Occupy Providence, a poet’s tent lit up the encampment. Ari Kalinowski's “Occupy The Light” projects the words of occupiers onto The Beacon, a white tent aglow with poetry through the night. Like kites, The Beacon travels. The tent has most recently been to Occupy The New Hampshire Primary. Words as shelter, poetry a lighthouse, the voices of America a necessary light in darkness.

Kalinowski also hosts the Intermedia Poetry Project. The term “intermedia” in its context as new media poetry has lesser-known Brazilian roots, traceable to pioneering sound and digital media poet Philadelpho Menezes (1960-2000). In the catalogue of the second edition of his landmark São Paulo show, Poesia Intersignos (1998), Menezes proposes the term intermedia (intermídia) “in substitution for the initial, multimedia stage of digital language exploration, which features more accumulation and overlapping of diverse signs than actual functional-semantic integration between them” (“em substituição ao atual estágio inicial multimídia de exploração da linguagem digital em que há mais o acúmulo e sobreposição de diversos signos do que propriamente integração semântico-funcional entre eles,” Poesia Intersignos: do impresso ao sonoro e ao digital). For Menezes, intermedia poetry features a genuine simultaneity or montage of media—as opposed to "multimedia," which signals a layering or collage of media. His term described the (second) generation of visual/digital poems following Concrete poetry that incorporated new technology. Today, intermedia re-alights in America.

From the same ingredients, a white page illuminated in the night, two American public answers for how to read in the dark.


A happy Valentine’s week to all hemispheres. With no valentines in Brazil (here's a Brazilian Portuguese version why), one waits (til the not-quite-approximate Dia dos Namorados, Lovers' Day, June 12) or makes one’s own.

For Stacy Doris, many xxx’s and ooo’s.

Céu da Palavra (Sky of Words), Bruno Vianna and Renata Pinheiro

Some listenings

Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger
Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger

 “Nature” is the unconscious.

The sense of this statement is often more immediately clear to sculptors, to painters, and to other artists who work with physical materials, than it is to writers – or to scientists.

As one carves the stone or fashions the wood what one desired or feared comes gradually into view, unknowns are realized in the emerging form, an ambient mystery is for that moment determinate, the non-human is realized in its naissance. To speak of birth is already to anthropomorphize, the image at risk of becoming more and more obvious to the extent we begin to mold it to our image. As opposed to an idea of Nature as the given, I want to identify the non-self identical with “Nature” in order to help me distance it from the definition of Nature that would put it in contrast to History.

Nature is the unconscious. Which is to say that when one picks up materials and begins to tinker with them in a certain way: when one picks up language and begins to fiddle with it, as it were absent-mindedly, or by way of automatic writing, or by chance operations, or by working from the black of the page, the unconscious begins to come into view. What was in the dark comes into the arena of humanly generated light. What was coiled in the unconscious enters the social.

This distinction is not the same as that between subjective and objective, or inside and outside: it is closer to that between wilderness and civilization. In other words, I am referring to a distinction that has been abrogated on earth. Wilderness no longer exists in some pure form, not since the invention of the atom bomb: all present forms of wilderness are dependent on a contingent human choice to go on, to resist the death drive as it were, and therefore, are not independent of human choice. “Nature" is where what we know of ourselves as humans leaves off, where what we don’t know of ourselves as human begins, and yet where something is all the same encountered. It means to say that as soon as we know our natures, or Nature itself, Nature has been mapped, and becomes part of civilization, subject to the laws and logics of our maps and ripe for exploitation.

An eco-poetics, perhaps, can conjure up the object of nature from our unconsciousness, without submitting it to this imperative of knowledge.

Representations of nature, of course, are neither natural nor from Nature. Nature poetry defined as such is perhaps at the greatest remove of all from Nature. Only a non-representational art could ever tease Nature into the clearing, realizing in its language something of the force of that unconscious upsurge, without turning it into a simulacrum of itself. Referential no doubt, but not representational… Does this make “nature poetry” then into a kind of pornography, reducing “nature” to the voyeuristically observed and represented, as opposed to something embraced in all the impossibility of such embrace?

Here is a passage from the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who speaks of relation, encounter, and the possibility of a form of language-making in which Being is not turned into object (“It”) or into representation (thing). At first he isn’t sure such a thing is possible:

Life with nature…Here the relation vibrates in the dark and remains below language. The creatures stir across from us, but they are unable to come to us, and the You we say to them sticks to the threshold of language. (Buber, I and Thou)

 Yet later:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground…

I can assign it to a species, and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life…

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

For Buber key relationships are those between the human and the human, and the human and God. Yet something does happen here beyond the quantification, classification, and exploitation of the tree. There is a relation that is formed with the tree. That relationship remains largely… unconscious. Yet still… something happens. I am drawn into a relation of the in between, as opposed to simply having an experience of the thing in myself. In Kantian lingo we can’t say the thing-in-itself is known, and yet it would be wrong to say a transcendental intuition is impossible.

As poets, we will ourselves towards nature. We turn receptive when we feel its approach, putting the will aside, desirous not to leave our fingerprints on the thing, not to render such a thing as an “it” to our “self,” as an “object” to our “subject”: to apprehend the thing, without a human mark or mask. “Not a word said outright,/Yet the whole beauty revealed;/ No mention of self/Yet passion too deep to be borne” as the T’ang poet Sikong Tu phrases it in his The Twenty-Four Modes of Poetry. Not a word said outright, not something that can be represented… the avant-garde has for more than one hundred years sought out a poetic language, a language within the language, on the basis of which such disarticulation could occur. The poetic avant-garde has something crucial to contribute to the formulation of an ecology. The complexity of the environment’s interdependencies offers us a rich metaphor for what happens in language than a view of reading which gives the role of meaning-giver to either author or reader, mind or machine, publisher or critic.

The unconscious also gives birth to many monsters: we should not aestheticize nature as the beautiful, or imagine the poem as the only translation of the unconscious… I have already also employed the Freudian rhetoric of “death drive.” City planners and industrial managers believe themselves to be making conscious choices but of course they are – we all are – caught up inside mechanisms much larger than those of our conscious choices.  The unconscious is neither good nor evil. The unconscious harbors many of the violent impulses Freud accredited to it. The unconscious also harbors Eros, which, at bottom, is the impulse to live, and in living to encounter the Other, as opposed to Thanatos, which is the urge to move towards and destroy the other. Could Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents contain a workable eco-poetics? I’m not sure. Throughout Freud there is a desire to map the unconscious. Mapping the unconscious is as necessary as studying the patterns of global warming. Except that poetry has to remain poetry, not a map, to be effective here.

As poets it is our responsibility – where responsibility means the ability to respond - to renew our desires, to take nothing for granted – to remain lovers of bodies, of elements and faces, of goddesses, animals and plants, as opposed to becoming devotees of gadgets, commerce, power, our own rather prodigious experiential and fantasy lives. Who else is there but us to carry on this practice? Who else is there left to sound the complexity of language? What is marvelous ecology is the insistence of its study, which is upon the complexity and interdependence of things, in which inanimate and animate, vegetal and nervous-systemed, are revealed as sensually and mortally intertwined. Language is just as complicated, reader and noun: author and verb, printer and poet, phoneme and symbol all interdependent, a system whose mystery is unfathomable and transparent at once.

A subtle subtext of CCP these last few years has been the exploration of an eco-poetics. None of my guests have expressed views exactly as I have above. But a CCP primer or playlist on the question from multiple perspectives would certainly include: 

Cecilia Vicuña on water, #26; Robin Blaser on The Holy Forest, #57 and #133; Thomas Meyer discussing the dao de jing, #130; Allen Weiss on Mt. Ventoux, Rene Char, Petrarch, and Gustaf Sobin #140; Jed Rasula on This Compost, #149; Julie Patton on the language of gardens, #157; Lila Zemborain, #164; Cole Swensen on poetry and gardens, #207; Nalini Nadkarni, rainforest biologist, #212; Anne Waldman, on Manatee/Humanity, #213; Raul Zurita, #219, #234; Jonathon Skinner on the third landscape and Nightboat’s Eco-Poetics Reader, #221; Camille Dungy on Black Nature, #221; Kiki Smith on animals and nature, #226; and Susan Gevirtz on the sky, #237.

Reading Larry Eigner's 'Areas Lights Heights' ten years later

Photo of Larry Eigner © Alastair Johnston
Photo of Larry Eigner © Alastair Johnston

Like an audio feed, I read you close, was your feelings tones, breath struggles, how this becomes our body


Too easy to forget, all the lines little deaths, no author knows, typing with their toes


Really though there is no death, just you transmit the trees two feet of dirt around you, this is what it means to live


To not escape into those particulars, to make them universalize the nostalgia for anything not seen out your window, not heard on NPR



Reads the big print, doesn’t have a dominant mode, spacing is signature is spirit, typing leads to more typing like they say “the more you work the more you work”


When I write I wonder who I am, what I inherited from your “differently abled” body


I think of the Hobbesian lie in bodies, how Ed Cohen points out in his book A Body Worth Defending that the person should rather be defined by the environment it is constantly moving through, being more porous than somatic enclosure


Mainly I think what I’ve become I’ve become because of those bodies not my own — that this is poetics


Madeline Gins asks me, “If only our politicians’ purpose were to prolong their life would they be so arrogant?”


Living by poetic means, this joy I mean — Eigner — having not been your body obviously, but having been this desiring tendency to your grammar


What does embodiment mean when we imitate/emulate another writer, take-up their syntax or style?


Patiently we see the clouds trees streets struggling in your struggle, punctuationless made breezy


Some kind of horizon heard, for what were you listening your body alone could hear — the spaces cleaving perception?


Constraint is not silent nor at rest — a radical appropriation of Olson’s projectivism


I often wonder are we still dealing with embodiment if we are no longer dealing with the line, the space of the page extending spaces off the page?