Commentaries - May 2012
“The Snowflake Age”
“My whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service…but I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. God help me to make good my vow.” Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Daily News, February 7, 1952
She said looking through the monarchy of pronouns
Her halftone face profiles the moment
On our kitchen table headlines mourn the proper
Object of our common vale of memory and becoming
Dots of quiet morning snow outside the window 724
Victoria Street then Kootenay Lake the mountain
Mist-hackled town’s companion traced as Elephant
You take on the words new news so we too
Mark our time momentarily collected public
Memory longs for its own kind of peacefulness
All day soft snow hushes the valley but
For the truck chains clanking up Stanley
The sovereign We “… seemed for a moment
As though the heartbeat of a nation stopped”
That day your other you as white as the snow
Fell over the town and drifted into the bank
Of memory just like the city bus I always needs
Another pronoun for the we is speaking middle
Voice Dominion over CKLN radio’s hourly news
Sanding in progress up Josephine all clear tonight
My Tenderfoot to King’s Scout posing who
Is the many might be the mercy of whose light
Or how to function as the subject of what long
Moment caught within each sentence
Let’s not forget – between – the words the traces
We’ll line them up for their long parade
The street’s been plowed for their cavalcade
I Me You
Your They My We
this rime of snowy faces
Fred Wah finds himself in a strange and what must be not overly comfortable position: he is Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Wah has no end of respect as an artist in this country (and beyond), and has the awards and recognitions to show for it. At the same time he has, both in his work and in his life, remained very much a poet centered in the small community and the backcountry—despite having lived in many cities. In particular, his beloved Kootenay mountains and valleys have remained a touchstone in his work and life, and such explorations of the “local” remain at the heart of a new chapbook, something of a mini “selected poems” put out by Toronto’s BookThug this spring.
In this same chapbook, however, one also finds “The Snowflake Age,” a poem, a back note tells us, “written at the request of the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.”
You get the feeling that the writing of such a poem gave Wah some considerable consternation. That same back note reveals that the new chapbook was gathered for a workshop he taught entitled “How to Write a Poem for the Queen.” Perhaps he was looking for support.
I’m fascinated by the poem for a number of reasons. For starters, if I was asked to write such a poem, I’d have a hard time not writing a screed against the very idea of monarchy and any continuing connection between Canada and such an outmoded institution (or, more likely, something ironic about how what now parades around in the garb of “democracy” is no better than monarchy or any other suit slipped from the Emperor’s new wardrobe). Of course, Canada’s Poet Laureate has no such option, and Wah’s poem seems to offer no overt critique. But interestingly, it is also no fawning celebration.
The poem is “located” in BC’s Kootenays, as it begins with an epigraph citing Queen Elizabeth’s speech upon ascending the throne in 1952, as reported in the poet’s hometown Nelson Daily News. The poem that follows interleaves aspects of the local (street addresses, the names of lakes and mountains) with reflections upon memory and, most significantly, the maze of pronouns threaded through the Queen’s speech. I find that in this way Wah does indeed embed an interesting, however ambiguous, “critique” of the ideas of sovereignty and dominion into his poem.
Part of this ambiguity relates to the doubling, in both the Queen’s address and the poem, of Queen as “subject” and the Queen addressing her “subjects.” Thus the “middle voice” referenced later in the poem as the sovereign’s pronominal games weave a space where “she” and “we” are both in some ways subjects and objects.
I also couldn’t help thinking of that place Canadians most often come across “their” Queen on a daily basis: on our money. The poem’s reference to the Queen’s “halftone face profiles” and the wonderful ambiguity of the line break where we drift “into the bank” (along with the reference to “your other you”) lead me here, whether this is intended or not. The “sovereign” as representation and representative, whose very image guarantees “value” and “wealth” (common or otherwise)—the confusion of monarchy and money is everywhere in the history of coinage. But money is also a “debt-token” (I’m getting this from David Graeber and his excellent book, Debt: the First 5000 Years): the establishing of reciprocal and co-dependent relationships, and what a sovereign “owes” her “subjects” and what her subjects “owe” her, is very much the substance of the Queen’s speech, as it is of the substance of Laureateships (the State offers the honoured position, and the poet in turn “owes” the state poems).
However that may be, the poem for me turns on just three crucial words: that “middle voice” already mentioned, and the word “Dominion” which follows. “Middle voice” reveals the doubleness of “Dominion”: it is both a place (Canada was in fact officially known as “The Dominion of Canada” until well past the middle of the 20th century) and a relationship of authority (as in “to have dominion over”—Canada as colony). Thus “dominion” is both an object (Canada) and a subject-object relation (to have dominion over Canada).
Dominion, Graeber also reveals, derives from the relationship between Romans and their slaves, with the whole of Roman law and property relations built upon the crucial foundation of slavery. The origins of the idea and justification of “property” as a “thing” a subject “possesses” are found in the need to imaging certain people as “things”—because property always involves a relationship between people (it cannot exist where there is only one).
With the questions of money and power, representation and dominion, hovering in the background of Wah’s poem, how can we help but read lines like
Is the many might be the mercy of whose light
Or how to function as the subject of what long
as openings onto great ontological and political doubts, embodied in an ambiguous and knotted syntax?
Maybe the most important “public” gesture we can make as poets—and the weight of “public” poetry is very much on Fred Wah’s mind these days—is to create spaces of undecidability—through juxtaposition and ambiguity—into which readers are invited to think. Claims upon “public space” are very much of the moment, and here is where Wah fits so nicely into these commentaries on “neighbouring zones.” Placing doubt and complexity in public—via a very “public poem” or, for that matter, via the occupation of a public square—is to head off the public certainties that drive us over social, economic, and ecological brinks. Both poetry and protestors, today, might “occupy” spatial interstices that require re-examination and offer no simple answers.
Wah’s poetry has always been about “hyphens”—racial, cultural, geographical, social spaces “Mr. In-Between” dances into in poem after poem as he explores a world where we are all complex relations. With a wink and a nod to Rimbaud, even when I is not another, “I always needs / Another.” It seems as though the Queen of England agrees—even when it is a fiction (like money), I need you as much as you need me.
with Bessa, Perloff, Cisneros, Dworkin, Bernstein, Helguera
Presentation on the work of Haroldo de Campos, in conjunction with the exhibit" Brazil: Body and Soul,"
Guggenheim Museum, New York, January 12, 2002
- Welcome by Pablo Helguera
- Introduction by Sergio Bessa
- "Auto do Possesso" (Act of the Possessed)," 1950 poem/play. tr. Cisneros and directed by Cynthia Croot
- Craig Dworkin reads his translation of "Signantia quasi coelum / signância quase céu"
- Odile Cisneros reads her translations
- Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein reading "Finismundo" (Bessa's tr.)
- Panel with Perloff and Bernstein, moderated by Bessa
- Organized by Sergio Bessa
- Also of Interest:
De Campos Thou Art Translated (Knot): An Essay by Charles Bernstein on Haroldo de Campos
These sound recordings are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. All rights to this recorded material belong to the individual speakers. © 2012. Used with the permission of all the participants. Distributed by PennSound.
Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (39): From “Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner” by Michael Davidson
[NOTE. Michael Davidson has been a major thinker toward the construction of a new poetics of disability, which raises questions as well as to how disabilities, physical as well as mental, might affect ideas of outsiderness that I’ve been exploring in these postings & that John Bloomberg-Rissman and I are moving toward publication in an anthology still in progress. It is in particular the connection between the physical body and the structure & shape of the poem that Davidson gets at clearly in the following, which should be read as well in connection to an earlier posting in Poems & Poetics. (J.R.)]
how to dance
(Charles Olson, “Tyrian Business”)
My title refers to Larry Eigner, a significant figure in the New American Poetry, who is missing in a number of senses. On a personal level, I miss Larry, who died in February 1996 as a poet whose curiosity and attentiveness remain a model of poetic integrity. Although his movements were extremely restricted due to cerebral palsy contracted at birth, he was by no means “missing” from the poetry world, particularly after his move to Berkeley. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Grenier, Kathleen Frumkin and Jack Foley, Larry was present at many readings, talks, and parties throughout the 1980s. Nor, as those who knew him can attest, was a reticent presence at such events. He was a central influence on the emerging “language-writing” movement of the mid-1970s, publishing in their magazines (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Bezoar, This, Hills) and participating in their talk and reading series. His emphasis on clear, direct presentation of moment-to-moment perceptions also linked him to the older Objectivists (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky) as well as poets of his own generation living in the San Francisco Bay region such as Robert Duncan and Michael McClure.
A second dimension to my title refers to the Eigner missing from discussions of postwar poetry. Although he was centrally identified with the Black Mountain movement and corresponded with Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Corman and others, he is seldom mentioned in synoptic studies (including my own work) of that generation. What few critical accounts exist of his work come from poets. Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Clark Coolidge, Cid Corman, Charles Bernstein, Robert Hass, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten have all written appreciations of his work, but he has had little response from the critics. And although he was aligned with language writing later in his life, his name seldom appears in books or articles about that movement. Perhaps most surprisingly, given his centrality in the New American poetry, he is seldom included in discussions of disability arts. With the exception of an appearance in Kenny Fries’ anthology of disability writing, Staring Back, he is not included in major treatments of disability arts.
This brings me to the tertiary level of my title — the absence of cerebral palsy in discussions of Eigner’s poetry. In what little critical treatment of his work exists, the fact of his physical condition is seldom mentioned. The lack of reference to cerebral palsy leads me to ask how one might theorize disability where least apparent: how to retrieve from recalcitrant silences, markers of a neurological condition that mediated all aspects of Eigner’s life. In the process, we might discover ways of retrieving other social markers — of race, sexuality, class — where not immediately apparent. Eigner by no means adhered to New Critical warnings about the biographical fallacy–the idea that poems should finesse biographical or historical contexts through formal, rhetorical means. At the same time, he seldom foregrounded his mediated physical condition–his daily regimes of physical exercise, his limited mobility, his slurred speech — preferring to record real-time perception and observation. In order to retrieve disability from this lacuna we need to “crip” cultural forms, not simply to find disability references but to see the ways Eigner’s work unseats normalizing discourses of embodiment. Cripping Larry Eigner allows us to read the body of his work in terms of his “different” body and to understand how the silences surrounding his poetry are, in some way, a dimension of — perhaps a refusal of — that embodiment.
To confront this issue, I have appropriated Barrett Watten’s important essay, “Missing ‘X’,” which locates the salient features of Eigner’s writing in its suppression of predication and syntactic closure. According to Watten, the most characteristic feature of Eigner’s poetry is its truncation or effacement of rhetorical connectives, creating a “predicate for which the act of reference is located outside of or is generalized by the entire poem” (178). One could supply an “X” for elements outside the poem that are nevertheless implicit in the phrase-to-phrase, stanza-to-stanza movement. Hence, to take Watten’s example, Eigner’s lines “Imagination heavy with / worn power” could be rewritten as “an element of the world is ‘Imagination heavy with /worn power.’” The couplet “the wind tugging / leaves” could be rewritten as “an element of this poem is ‘the wind tugging / leaves.’” The suppression of subjects and predicates allows Eigner’s noun phrases to function independently of any overarching narrative, creating unexpected links and suturing discontinuous phrases. To some extent, Eigner’s use of abbreviated phrases resembles the practice of language-writers — including Watten — who restrict the logical and rhetorical completion of a period, leaving shards to be recombined in new structures.
The implications of Watten’s argument are significant for differentiating Eigner’s poetry from that of more traditional poets for whom metaphor often contextualizes the outside within the poem. For someone like Hart Crane, as Watten observes, predication is propositional; all grammatical elements work to render an idealized object. An object (Crane’s “Royal Palm” is his example) may be invoked by discontinuous means; nevertheless, it organizes the processes of predication and metaphorization. All figures, however oblique, point toward a single focal point. Eigner, on the other hand, creates a mobile grammatical structure in which subjects and predicates occupy multiple positions. “In Eigner an absolute object is not referred to in the poem. Rather the entire idiom is predicated on the lack of such reference”. But what is the nature of this “outside” that serves as an absent cause for partial phrases? What are the implications for the disabled poet when we base predication on “lack”? Is the mobility of noun phrases strictly a function of indeterminate syntax, or a register of alternative modes of mobility and cognition in a world based on performance? The danger of providing concrete answers to these questions is that they make Eigner’s poetry a compensatory response for physical limits rather than a critical engagement with them. Conscious of this danger, I want to extend Watten’s useful speculations about predication to describe the ways that the “missing X” could also refer to an unstated physical condition that organizes all responses to a present world. And since that world is defined by compulsory able-bodiedness, not referring to its coherence and unity may indicate a nascent critique.
In order to discuss Eigner’s poetry in terms of disability we must first honor his own reticence on the subject. Throughout his memoirs, interviews, and poetry, the subject of his cerebral palsy seldom appears. In his author’s biography at the end of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry Eigner describes himself as a “shut-in partly,” (436). Bob Grenier observes that “Larry’s work does not derive from his palsy,” but on the other hand, his poetry cannot help but be affected by it. In order to discover disability where it is not present, it is first necessary to find where it is — in Eigner’s numerous prose writings, memoirs, and stories. Consider the following passage from his 1969 memoir, “What a Time, Distance”:
Cigarette cigar signs stores mostly Variety groceries and how many things candy a little not much good might very well be a good deal everything smelled bread was designed with packaged loaf fresh and down the street daily paper words flashes and then sentence dateline dispatches...
Here, Eigner remembers childhood experiences in a variety store, the sights and smells of products and signage rendered in quick succession. One might imagine such passages divided into lines and splayed out over a page, but these memories are constantly mediated by conditions of restricted motion, regimes of physiotherapy and exercise, which frame his access to such “variety”:
Over the toilet rim in the bathroom at home into the bowl his weemer between large knuckles, cigarette shifted to mouth preparatory or in other of grandfather’s hands. Coffee label. Good to the last drop. Waste not want not. To go as long as you could manage it. Bread is the staff of life, Grampa said many times buttering it at the beginning of dinner. Relax, try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything in being walked to different rooms the times he wasn’t creeping to do it yourself as soon as possible, idea to make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agreed to a walk as he ought to have, sort of homework from the therapy exercising not to sit back need to start all over to come from behind. Thimble yarn darn stocking waterglass stretch wrongside patch, cocoon tobacco cellophane bullet wake finger ring.
A series of Joycean associations mark this passage — from peeing, with his grandfather’s help, to a coffee label and its ad (“Good to the last drop”), to Depression era adages about thrift (“Waste not want not”) and health (“Bread is the staff of life”). These axioms rhyme with internalized parental imperatives regarding physical control (“Relax”) and self-motivation (“do it yourself”), which for the young boy with motor impairment mark his distance from an able-bodied world. Those difficulties are rendered syntactically in the phrase “try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything,” which may provide some verbal equivalent of the child’s anxiety over muscular control.  Adult advice to “make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agree[s] to a walk,” express a world of agency where everything from urinating to walking requires assistance.
This brief passage could serve as the “missing X” for many poems in which reference to physical limits has been evacuated, leaving only the “variety” of the Variety store on the page. In his prose, Eigner merges sensuous associations with things seen and felt (“thimble yarn darn stocking...”) with physical contexts of their apprehension. In his poetry, specific references to those contexts drops away, leaving acts of attention and cognition paramount. Those acts are deployed through three interrelated spaces: the page on which he worked, the room in which he lived, the weather or landscape he saw from that room. I would like to look for Larry in these three frames.
Eigner’s is decisively a poetry of the page, a field of intense activity produced entirely with his right index finger, the one digit over which he had some control. The page — specifically the 8 ½” by 11" typewriter page — is the measure of the poem, determining its lineation, length and typographic organization.  Although a few poems run on for several pages, often as not Eigner continues the poem as a second column on the same page.  Nor is the machine by which he produced those pages insignificant. Because Eigner needed to lean on the keys and peer closely at the sheet of paper, he could not use an electric typewriter and thus worked with a succession of Royal or Remington portables that permitted him a degree of flexibility in composition. The manual typewriter also allowed him to release the platen occasionally and adjust the spacing between words or lines, jamming letters or punctuation together or running one line onto the next. Eigner’s careful spacing of letters and words, his indentations and double columns, could be seen as typographic idiosyncracy, a variation on Charles Olson’s “field” poetics, but they are also cognitive maps of his internally distanced relation to space. In a video of Eigner’s funeral made by Cloud House productions, the film maker, Kush, returns to Eigner’s house following the gravesite ceremony, and trains his camera on Eigner’s typewriter for several minutes, a cenotaph for the poet’s living remains.
1. Benjamin Friedlander notes that in 1962 Eigner underwent cryosurgery to freeze part of his brain in order to control his spastic movements. The successful operation is described in a letter to Douglas Blazek:
Sept. 62 cryosurgery, frostbite in the thalamus (awakened to see if i was numbed, test whether they had right spot, felt much like killing of a tooth nerve!), tamed (and numbed some) my wild left side, since when I can sit still without effort, and have more capacity for anger etc. Before, I had to be extrovert, or anyway hold the self off on a side, in this very concrete, perpetual sense. A puzzlement of the will.
Friedlander notes that prior to the surgery, “Typing, of all activities, provided relief from the wildness, from the distraction of the flailing, and from the effort of holding the body still, or trying to”.
2. According to Bob Grenier, who edited the recent edition of Eigner’s collected poems, Stanford University Press agreed to honor his page size by printing all three volumes in an 8 ½” by 11" format and in a font that approximates his typewriter font (personal communication, 1/7/06).
Well letters get crowded just from attempt to save time, i.e., cover less space, avoid putting another sheet in the typewriter for a few more words as I at least hope there will only be. There’ve always been so many things to do. For instance with only my right index finger to type with I never could write very fast — to say what I want to when I think of it, before I forget it or how to say it; I sometimes say 2 things at about the same time, in two columns. It’ll be from not deciding or being unable to decide quickly anyway what to say first, or next. Or an after thought might as well be an insert, and thus go in the margin, especially when otherwise you’d need one or more extra words to refer to a topic again.
Here is a good instance of how a textual parataxis that one associates with the Pound/Olson tradition can be read differently by a poet for whom the act of changing a sheet of paper or typing a few more words is a considerably more difficult task. The desire to render the phenomenological moment remains the same for Eigner and Olson, and certainly the look of the page is similar, but the physical circumstance of writing must be factored in as well.
Observing and composing via Brainard
In the opening paragraph of his introduction to The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, Paul Auster writes, “I Remember is inexhaustible, one of those rare books that can never be used up." I think that all of Brainard’s work shares that tireless quality—I can reread and reread and always find something new. The variety of tangible and relatable “forms” that Brainard invents lend themselves to the classroom. I usually work with some excerpt of I Remember, the prompt—“fill 2 pages with sentences that begin with “I remember...” is one I remember from my own experiences as student, and one that always produces unbelievably powerful and direct writing from my own students.
I think that one of the gifts that reading Brainard gives to students is a chance to read a text that defies normative generic definitions. In Forming, Thinking, Writing, Ann Berthoff describes the magic of the composing process as “include[ing] being puzzled, being mistaken, and then suddenly seeing things for what they probably are…you learn to make words behave the way you want them to behave and to say what you want them to say…” (3-4). Berthoff then parallels the experience of this process to that of drawing—particularly drawing without “looking at the paper.” Berthoff’s descriptions of these moments of intense observing (that are integral to the composing process) encouraged me to take a break from my usual “I Remember” prompt and turn to Brainard’s amazing “Ten Imaginary Still Lifes.”
The reason why I think I was drawn to this piece is because of the way Brainard uses candid language to depict detail and observations. And, how these observations are not predictable and for me, at least, ask me to rethink what I notice both when my eyes are open and closed.
What we did.
The loose theme of this class was “pay attention”—so, all semester we read texts that dealt with what Cathy Davidson calls “the brain science of attention.”
We began this class session by writing about the following: How do you pay attention to something? Or, what does it mean (for you) to pay attention?
We then distributed a stack of ten post-it notes to each person, and wrote one specific detail or image on each--these could be a series of descriptive words or a sentence demonstrating an observation or scene that resonated for the writer. The notes were redistributed so everyone had 10 new post-its.
I hand out copies of Brainard’s “Ten Imaginary Still Lifes.” One volunteer reads the entire piece. We then read the piece out loud sentence by sentence; every voice in the room participates. We then write about the following: What is a still life? What is an imaginary still life? When sharing our writing, most students linked “still life” to art—mentioning that a still life is realistic and detailed—a form of visual description. Someone in the room mentioned that each "Still Life" begins with "I close my eyes." So, as a class, we then decided to close our eyes and write "still lifes."
We then decided to, as a class, write “32 Imaginary Still Lifes” and the prompt was to begin each piece with “I close my eyes” and to only work with the language from the writing we did with our eyes closed + the language from the post-it notes.
We read these all out loud and then did a piece of process writing—why write an “imaginary still life”? Why is it important that we include “imaginary”?
The students’ writing was specific and clear, and they also seemed to “interpret” their own observations through “showing not telling.” And, they noticed this in their own writing. One student shared, “I always get the comment—why are you telling the reader what you’ll do, just do it!—and now I think I know how to just do it!” Another student, “I guess if you write with the idea that your reader will want to see the picture behind the words, good things happen.”
Berthoff, Ann E. Forming, Thinking, Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.
Brainard, Joe. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Ed. Ron Padgett. [New York, N.Y.]: Library of America, 2012. Print.
Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.