Commentaries - April 2012

'When was it that you stopped using the word 'home'?' Yang Lian in Auckland

Crater of the extinct volcano Maungawhau or Mt. Eden, in Auckland

At the recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium in Auckland (see Jack Ross's take here), Jacob Edmond, whose comic-serious talk concerned the literal weights and volumes of long poems, kept asking a single question of other speakers.  “In what way is the work you're talking about local?”  Or, in the case of my presentation, “Do you think your videos [of people in Hawai`i saying back lines of George Oppen's ‘Of Being Numerous’ as best they could] localize the poem in some way?”  Jack Ross argues that the symposium would have been too international had it not included the work of Robert Sullivan and John Adams, writing the interstices between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand.  This discussion felt like home to me, albeit set on a different stage and peopled by very different writers and critics than is the case in Hawai`i.  But of course these distinctions are hard to keep or enforce when (like me) you can leave Auckland at 7 a.m. of a Monday morning and arrive in Honolulu at 7 a.m. the same morning.  Yet Lucas Klein, a scholar and translator of Chinese poetry, quoted the Chinese poet, citizen of New Zealand, and resident of London, Yang Lian, as saying: “There is no international, only different locals.”

Jacob Edmond is one of Yang Lian's translators; he and Hilary Chung published a book of Yang Lian’s Auckland poems and essays in Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland (Auckland University Press, 2006).  Auckland is, of course, a real city.  But to find one's accidental exile there, as Yang Lian did for several years after Tiananmen Square in June 1989, is to enter a place profoundly unlocal in its language, its climate, its watery surround.  The man forced to dig graves during the Cultural Revolution came to live near Grafton Bridge, which goes over a cemetery in Auckland.  As the editors tell us in their introduction, “Grafton Bridge is described with realist accuracy . . . but the bridge and the view also provide the starting point for a hallucination . . . or mirage . . . that transforms the real Auckland landscape and the surreal space of the poem, with its threatening ‘iron’ and ‘stone masters’ that seem to force the final cry ‘for the pain unexpectedly prolonged in the night.’” (8-9).  Later, they add, “Thus ‘City in a Mirage’ [one section of their anthology of his Auckland poems] develops a poetics of exile in which the strange world of exile—the ‘city’—in a sense compensates for the displaced subject’s loss of reality—the ‘mirage’.” (17).  So, while Yang Lian writes in “Grafton Bridge,” of “a sky shrivelled by extinct volcanoes,” a fact of the city’s geography, where volcanoes form “power points” that overlook city and ocean, he maintains in “The Garden This Afternoon,” that “what is not illusory cannot be born” (41).  These are not real gardens with imaginary toads in them, because both garden and toad are real.  But they are gardens in which exilic sight refracts the world where death (loss, exile, silence) meets the imagination (poetry, the freedom that comes of not-freedom).  This is where “the living gather round death’s window and cry,” as he writes in “The Book of Crying and Forgetting,” dedicated to Milan Kundera. 

It's also a place where “when you talk about your childhood it's as if you're not actually talking about yourself but about somebody else hiding inside your body” (76).  Early in the book we see a pencilled sketch of the house at 137 Grafton Road where Yang Lian lived (the drawing is by his wife, Yo Yo).  But in the essay “Ghost Talk,” late in the book, Yang separates those English words, “house” from “home,” to note that, “Whenever you mention this dilapidated old house, you always say ‘there’.” (75).  His exile rendered insubstantial the very structure of the house in which he lived, as it did the language in which he writes.  The result, to cite the title of the book’s last essay, is to live in the “City of One Person,” a city he can't believe exists, even as he climbs the extinct volcano near his house and looks out over its buildings to the sea.  From this house, which exists as structure but not as idea, he looks back at his life, the life that seems more imaginary than real, “blurring your address so it appears to be a place you have never been before” (91).  The poet may be dead, but the dead might never leave:

     who says the dead are dead and gone     the dead

     wandering locked in doomsday are the masters of eternity

     on the four walls hang four of their own faces

     massacre once again     blood

     is still the only famous view

     to sleep into a tomb is fortunate     but to reawaken in

     a tomorrow the birds fear even more

     this is just a very ordinary year     (59)

This is the last stanza of his two stanza poem, “1989.”  That year was hardly ordinary for Yang Lian, other Chinese poets exiled by the government, or anyone “at either end of the refugee horizon” (48), but his “ordinary” is at once deeply ironic and honest.  Auckland is ordinary, as is any city.  But Yang Lian's exile makes of loneliness the unreal city of Edmond and Chung’s title.

“When you are alone,” Yang writes, “nothing exists except your illusions” (90).  Rather than losing himself alone, he also loses the city he walks in.  “The city of extinct volcanoes, sea and stone is really there. Feeling for them is like feeling your own face. But as you feel for them, they are lost” (90).  Yang can see his dream self, his mirage, but is otherwise blind to the locality he lives in.  Perhaps for that reason, among others, he writes a poem to Michele Leggott, who has been losing her sight for many years, and is now nearly completely blind.  In “Sense of Sight, or, Island No. 5,” which he dedicates to her, he writes (in the mid-2000s), to himself as much as to her:

     it is never the eye that the view awaits

     an island     always mirrors an inverted image of an island inside the heart

     lights are recorded on a poem's silver printing plate

     night pursues a predestined logic     like a dog pursues an eccentricity

     barks wildly     one side of darkness is that point where it begins

     what sunlight once buried     accepts you back first of all

     eyes beautifully open     possess pure loneliness at last     (64)

Yang Lian's Auckland is a place of disorientation, dislocation; rather than “localizing” place, as Jacob suggested many of us had done, Yang dislocalizes Auckland more profoundly than had Baudelaire Paris or Eliot London.  His local and Auckland's local are so different as to make them mutual hallucinations.  But it matters that Yang wrote about Auckland, because Grafton Bridge, the War Memorial Museum, and the extinct (or are they?) volcanoes are local landmarks.  So between the purely local and the purely international, if either actually exists, we find the dis- or dys-localism of Yang Lian's antipodal city.  It merits our reading, if not our touristic gaze. 

Many thanks to Michele Leggott, Lisa Samuels, and Robert Sullivan for organizing the conference and to Brian Flaherty and Tim Page for taking the adventure out of  technology.


Hilary Chung has an essay on Yang Lian and Gu Cheng in the new on-line issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora.  Read it here.

Poetry & comics

It’s only Wednesday, and so far, it’s been a pretty good week as far as poetry and comics are concerned. On Monday, Sommer Browning’s first full-length book of poems (with some comics), Either Way I’m Celebrating, came in the mail direct from Birds, LLC. The press is based in Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and Raleigh. So far Birds, LLC has put out half a dozen books and uphold the opinion that ‘great books are a collaboration between editors and authors.’ I couldn’t agree more—and this is a great book. When I opened it, the first thing I noticed was that Browning has published over twenty books between 1985 and now, but only two are associated with small presses, the others simply identified by date and title on the ‘also by’ page opposite the title page. Where have I been all my life? How could I have missed all of these? My best guess is that those that are not are not associated with a press are self published and/or unique works of art. Either way, Either Way I’m Celebrating was the first book by Browning I’ve read, and yet, by the time I was a third of the way through, I felt like I had known Browning’s work for years, in that funny way that every now and then you encounter a stranger in a strange place, and suddenly there’s nothing strange about the place or the person.

And maybe that’s the other connection (aside from poetry and comics) I see between Browning’s first ‘book-book’ (as people sometimes say) and Joe Brainard’s Collected Writings just out from the Library of America, which arrived in yesterday’s mail. As far as I know, all of Brainard’s writing, with the exception of Granary’s wonderful edition of I Remember, has been out of print for a long, long, time. So long in fact, that for writers of my generation and younger, the only way to read Brainard has been in special collections libraries. On a ‘now or never whim’ I bought a very rare copy Brainard’s Bolinas Journal a few weeks ago, in part, because it was the first book published by Bill Berkson’s by Big Sky Books in 1971. The cover mimics a classic composition notebook, and it includes journal entries and a lot drawings (some comics, some not) and holograph poems from Brainard’s first visit to Bolinas. I was worried that a book with so much graphic complexity wouldn’t be included in The Collected Writings, or worse, that the publisher would reprint the text and omit the images. But happily, it’s here, with all of the images and text that were included in the magnificent first edition, sans cover and colophon. It’s a very ambitious undertaking, a marvel to behold, and I’d like to extend my thanks to Ron Padgett for his dedicated work as editor of this book, as well as The Library of America for producing it with integrity and imagination. Together, they have made it possible for present and future generations to experience The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.  


Mina Loy

Mina Loy, 1917 (photo by Man Ray)
Mina Loy, 1917 (photo by Man Ray)

I first read about Mina Loy in 1987, in Shari Benstock's book about twenty-odd women artists and writers living and working in Paris in the decades 1900 until 1940 - Women of the Left Bank (University of Texas Press, 1986). Of course Gertrude Stein was the prominent or most-known figure in this community. It took many years for some of her less widely read contemporaries to gain notice. London-born Mina Loy was a painter, poet, essayist, sculptor, collagist and a member of the prestigious Salon d'Automne in early twentieth-century Paris. She was in a relationship with the proto-Dadaist poet and pugilist, Arthur Cravan until he disappeared, mysteriously, possibly into the ocean, off the coast of Mexico in 1918. She became involved in the Italian Futurist movement but soon became disillusioned by it and began to write satirically about Futurists' attitudes towards women. Her poetry was praised in journals by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, later, by Kenneth Rexroth. She lived for three decades in France and Italy moving, in 1936, to Lower Manhattan and the Bowery in the United States of America.

In 1989 I was spending a weekend in a house in the bush at Bullaburra in the Blue Mountains, about 100 kilometres outside Sydney. The house was owned by publisher and book importer/distributor Pat Woolley. Among the books and magazines there, I found a copy of  Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society 1982 edition of  Mina Loy's The Last Lunar Baedecker. Although I had heard of Mina Loy, until then I had not read her work and I was astounded by the poetry, especially 'Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose', and her short essays and notations ('Ready Mades') and profiles of other writers and artists.

I began to research Mina Loy and found a couple of articles by Carolyn Greenstein, later  Carolyn Burke. It transpired that Carolyn Burke was working on a biography of Mina Loy. Serendipitously, in 1995 I noticed that Carolyn Burke was launching a magazine for a University of Western Sydney women writers group at gleebooks in Sydney. I introduced myself to her at the launch and asked if she would be willing to be interviewed. I had no idea of where the interview could be published but I was keen to find out as much as possible about Mina Loy. I borrowed a tape recorder and we met in  Carolyn's tiny borrowed flat in King's Cross.

Mina Loy 1957, (photo by Jonathan Williams)

Carolyn Burke's exhaustive and illuminating biography, Becoming Modern : The Life of Mina Loy, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1996.

In 1984  Carolyn Burke had published an essay, Without Commas, on the friendship and literary connection between Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein in issue four of Poetics Journal. She wrote that when Gertrude Stein was visiting Mina and her then husband, painter Stephen Haweis, in Florence in 1911, Haweis thought that The Making of Americans needed commas.  Mina though 'was able to understand the absence of commas'.  Later, the essay was incorporated into Becoming Modern (P129) in an extended piece on the relationship between Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. Here is a brief extract -

      "Meeting Gertrude for the first time at the [Mabel] Dodge's, Mina, too, felt an affinity with this large, intelligent woman. It was not until she received a formal letter of introduction from Alice Woods Ullmann, their mutual friend, that she wrote to invite the Stein household to the Cosa San Giorgio. Since Leo was busy, Gertrude and Alice came without him. Recalling the day with pleasure, Toklas noted that "a friendship with her commenced that lasted over years." Mina regained her high spirits in their company: she was, Alice wrote, a charming companion, "beautiful, intelligent, sympathetic and gay." On another occasion, when Mabel asked Gertrude, Alice and Mina to dine with André Gide, Alice watched their hostess drape herself on the chaise longue to converse with the Frenchman while Mina, "who thought this highly ridiculous," danced behind them with an imaginary partner.

      Gertrude later recalled that the Haweises were "among the very earliest to be interested in Gertrude Stein." Although she had published Three Lives in 1909, the book sold poorly, and so few readers had responded positively to The Making of Americans that Gertrude noted, "I am writing for myself and strangers." When Stephen pleaded for the insertion of commas in her long, unpunctuated sentences, Gertrude replied that "commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath." Following this mimetic demonstration of her principles, Gertrude added that while she had granted Stephen two commas in exchange for a painting, on rereading the manuscript she took them out. The passage concludes: "Mina Loy equally interested was able to understand without the commas. She has always been able to understand."

                                                                                  *    *    *

After my disappointing failure in finding an Australian magazine interested in publishing our interview, a friend of Carolyn's published it in the Boston Review and then I published it on my web site in 1996. The following year John Tranter offered to re-issue the interview in Jacket magazine.

Carolyn Burke has continued to write biographies. Her book about photographer Lee Miller has been translated into French and most recently she has published No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf.

Recently, I mentioned Mina Loy's two pieces on Gertrude Stein - they are linked here on my blog, the deletions.

        To revisit the featurette on Mina Loy here are the links to issue 5 of Jacket magazine :

        My (illustrated) interview with Carolyn Burke

        Keith Tuma's review of Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Edited by Roger L. Conover         
       (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996)

        Marjorie Perloff on 'Mongro-Angels and the Rose'

Jhave interview with Charles Bernstein on media studies and media practice

plus reading of "Pinky's Rule"

recorded in New York on Feb. 7, 2012

Charles Bernstein (pt 1) from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo.
part 1 video on PennSound


Charles Bernstein (pt 1) from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo.
part 2 video on PennSound


Charles Bernstein reads "Pinky's Rule" from David (Jhave) Johnston on Vimeo. (Video on PennSound.)
An animated drawing of "Pinky's Rule" by Amy Sillman &  Bernstein, 2011 can be viewed here.

Jhave's related  video intereviews for CAPTA (conversations about poets on technology)  with Christian Bok, John Cayley, Brian Stefans, Steve McCaffery, Christopher Funkhouser, JR Carpenter, Andrew Klobucar, && Video on PennSound.