Commentaries - May 2012

Joan Retallack, "Not a Cage"


One day Joan Retallack decided it was time to discard some books and journals from her personal library. Among them were Martin Buber’s I and Thou; a collection of short stories by David Kranes (Utah Press, 1979) called Hunters in the Snow; a 1974 volume of poems by Richard Howard; a published interview with Rita Dove; 1981 issues of The Socialist Review and Georgia Review; an issue of the Chicago Review that included an important line of Dante; books of poetry by Maxine Kumin, Ai, Burt Hatlen and Thomas McGrath; a 1988 number of Gargoyle magazine in which was published a poem by Angel Gonzalez beginning “The most obscure things have already been said”; Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch; Explanation and Understanding by Georg Henrik von Wright (Cornell, 1971); and others. This act of elimination, which on the contrary turned out to be a recycling and an archiving, produced a poem she came to call “Not a Cage,” after John Cage. Here is what the poet wrote to a colleague about this work:

All the language in it is from books I was culling from the library. I made lists of sentences and phrases from beginnings and endings of books. I was culling a lot, so there were many more beginnings and endings on [my] yellow pad than ultimately went into the poem. I didn't change any words or orders of words within the units I drew from the books, but did decide the length of each. The poem was composed with a combination of chance and intuitive composition on my part. “Not a cage” was a phrase that happened to be at one of the critical sites in one of the books.

Retallack deemed the compositional process to be Cagean, surely, from the start, and yet she found “Not a cage” (in a poem by Richard Howard) using the procedure.  All the talkers this time — Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, and Jonathan Monroe — took this to be remarkable and instructive and (differently) pleasurable. Al Filreis and Danny derived special pleasure from the Google Books-enabled sleuthing that produced a nearly complete bibliography of the disappeared books and deemed such work to be just a further step along the path the poet had already traveled, she whose impulse was to do something archival to “assuage” the “guilt” she felt at the selection. Danny describes a desire to know. Jena observes that the questions have changed, largely because of emergent storage and search technologies, between 1990, the time of the poem, and now. "When she made this piece, it was a question of ‘What will happen if I do this? What coincidences will occur? What sense will be made that I cannot predict?’ And now, you come across something like this, and the question is ‘Where is it from?’” To which Danny replies: “Now there are so many more interesting things, such as [being able to discern] all the discrete little decisions that she makes. You can go back and see, for instance, that she quotes this whole line but breaks it in half.”

So Jena disagreed with Al’s inclination to do what amounts to a biographical (or bio-bibliographical) reading of the poem based on assumptions Al felt could be naturally made about what books the poets wanted to discard — and the desire to make something bona fide Cagean out of a mostly non-Cagean canon. What we make disappear bespeaks what we wish to be all the more present. And Jena disagreed with Danny’s approach, a close cousin to Al’s, which celebrates new capacities enabled by the digital super-archive that warrant a close dissection of procedure-directed choices of non-authorial texts.

Meantime, Jonathan set up an overlapping and yet distinct and challenging binarism — that of the “seminar” approach as distinct from the “workshop” approach to such a poem. He begins his point by pondering — and somewhat doubting the efficacy of — the act of close reading the poem’s enjambments. “Is that maybe more of a workshop question, in relation to reading this poem, than a seminar question? And my question would be more of a seminar question, a hermeneutic question of trying to construct some kind of gestalt of the poem as a whole, and an understanding of the poem as a whole.... I find myself especially recently wanting to encourage [in my students] a kind of distant reading, in a way, to back up from the poem. So I wonder, given the interest of the enjambment here: where do you go from there to an interpretation of the poem as a whole?” In her response, which PoemTalk listeners are encouraged to hear for themselves in the audio recording of our discussion, Jena urged us to consider the works of John Cage, noting that it would be hard to imagine “that paying attention to things that you might not pay attention to otherwise is not key. Cage is about close reading or close listening — or listening differently.” (Pictured above, left to right: Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, Jonathan Monroe.)

Here is the text of “Not a Cage.” PennSound’s Joan Retallack page includes two recordings of her performing the poem: one from a reading given at Buffalo in 1993, another recorded by Aldon Nielsen in 1991.

PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis and is sponsored at the Kelly Writers House (special thanks to Michelle Taransky and Jessica Lowenthal), by PennSound (thanks to Charles Bernstein), the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (thanks to Mingo Reynolds and Chris Martin), and the Poetry Foundation (with thanks to Cathy Halley). Our show this time was engineered by Jeff Boruszak and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

video: SUNY-Buffalo, Poetry Collection, April 20, 2012

Glazier's talk is first; Bernstein begins at 11'50"; discussion follows. Bernstein reads "The Plan Is the Body" and other poems by Creeley, then "Hero of the Local:Robert Creeley and the Persistence of American Poetry," originally published in the Brooklyn Rail. Video by Tammy McGovern.

Teaching Audre Lorde (part II)

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In Chapter One of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated” (47). For me, the key term in this passage is “reflective participation.” Students cannot simply be told that they must write; they must find their own composing process through “reflective participation.” Students need to ask themselves, “what are the words you do not yet have?” (Sister Outsider 41) and then write their way to an answer. 

My last post focused on one student’s experience using Lorde’s poetry to find her own composing process (within an assignment that simply asked students to find a poem they LOVE and write an academic paper on it). Ideally, when students locate their poem, they will also locate an opportunity for “reflective participation,” a moment when a single poem sparks a connection that leads the writer to explore their own histories and traditions—ultimately opening up a self-generated impassioned line of inquiry. Students are drawn to Lorde, who writes, “A writer by definition is a teacher,” and creates verse that she wants to “share with as many people who can or will hear me” (I Am Your Sister 182). For Lorde, a teacher advocates for the necessity of writing as a way to “define and seek a world in which we all flourish” (Sister Outsider 112). In other words, both writers and teachers should share a common concern with the value of learning to engage with language rather than feeling commanded or controlled by it.

I think of my students as “writers,” whether they know it or not. And, I also think that Lorde’s work has the unique capacity to enable students to move beyond a resistance to writing to a place where writing becomes an important and necessary part of their thinking processes.

Another Student Story

When first delving into my “pick a poem you LOVE” assignment, Marina admitted that she “was not sure what poem to write about” and had been exploring and reading around but “nothing struck” her until she discovered Lorde’s “Power” (first published in the 1976 volume Between Our Selves). Marina admits being unbelievably moved by the poem and “could not hold back tears.” She ultimately wrote an excellent paper that moved between Lorde’s poem (which is based on the 1973 murder of Clifford Glover) and the recent murder of Oksana Makar, an 18-year-old teenager in the Ukraine. In the paper, Marina remembers hearing the news of Makar from her mother (in Russia) and how “there was so much anger and frustration in her speech, but there was no fear.”  Marina also remembers her mother stating, “The power of many can change the world full of injustice.”

Fueled by Lorde’s lines, “But unless I learn to use/the difference between poetry and rhetoric/my power too will run corrupt…,” Marina performed an extensive close reading of the poem as well as a variety of newspaper articles on both cases (Collected Poems 216). In an email to me she indicates that Lorde’s writing has changed her own writing—specifically because she felt as though Lorde called on her “to discover the tremendous source of power within.” And, for Marina, this power came in the form of realizing that she could write—wanting to write, finding a topic that moved her enough to grapple with a variety of issues (including her own story). Marina has only been in New York for about two-years—in Russia she’d “had everything what a twenty-two-year-old girl could dream about: an apartment, a car, a very good job, friends and family.” Yet, Marina chose to challenge herself and decided to move and “start from the beginning because of the new language” she had to learn. In many ways this paper signified that Marina had embraced learning this “new language” (despite its difficulties) and recognized the “power” it could offer her.

Now I find myself left with the following questions: What happens when students interact (independently) with poems that demand action, or what Freire calls “reflective participation”? How might we enable students to realize they can write their way into conversation and recognize their own personal visions? And, finally, can self-defined “non-writers” (or reticent writers) genuinely realize that the act of writing is not a luxury?


**The student mentioned, Marina, collaborated with me on this post—she agreed to have her name included and was generous enough to share some of her own reflective and process writings with me to quote here.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books, 1993.

Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

------. I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. Ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

------. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. Print.

Video of Perednik reading "Poetarzan" by Erneso Livon-Grosman.

I read Molly Weigel's translation at the lanuch, last week, for  Shock of the Lenders and Other Poems: (1:08): MP3 


me be poet
me respect language
that be foreign to me
like own

 language, good friend

 language, companion

me no know what language is
but me love her

 language be like sun
me no know sun
know what it does to us

white man teach me read
and me discover there said:
when jungle of letters
cover jungle inside
me know poetarzan never be without jungle

with vegetation of books
catching fever poetarzan write
this sickness be relief and this relief
sickness that not let sick man cure self:
among strange things of world
one be stranger than other:
he who write of sun make other sun
world have more things worry
but things be less and less feared

for those believing fear is accident
understand perplexity of poetarzan

 me write them
"happiness of read no learn from happiness said in books"
me think
"writing dumb when reading speak
reading speak when writing dumb"

everything me write sound strange to poetarzan
foreign and own like life
like leaf

(© 2012, used by permission of Molly Weigel)

On Cecily Nicholson

Here’s a simple pleasure: a few words on what’s perhaps my favorite book of poetry from last year, Cecily Nicholson’s Triage (Talon Books 2011). And it’s a nice fit with this series of commentaries, as Cecil’s is perhaps the very embodiment and quintessential example of what I’m calling “neighbouring zones”—the sometimes overlapping, temporarily concatenated realms of art and activism, poetry and revolution. Long both a poet and an activist/community organizer, Nicholson’s poetry simmers up out of ten years of social work in Vancouver’s notoriously fraught Downtown East Side (“Canada’s poorest zip code,” as it’s often proclaimed).

Such biographical information doesn’t always impress, and isn’t always all that informative—and Nicholson herself might not appreciate my mentioning it—but what I’m fascinated by in her work is its tangled concatenations—the “triage” it performs at once on language, history, and a community under constant assault from developers, bureaucrats, poverty, illness and a disinterested “public.” It’s a matter of resisting in language, and simultaneously resisting language—its co-optations and erasures.

There are poems here that pulsate with the life (and death) of the streets, poems that clearly arise out of organized resistance to the Olympics and rampant gentrification, out of the repercussions of Vancouver’s devastating mining industry (what finance capital is to New York City resource extraction is to Vancouver), and out of the struggles of immigrant life. Everywhere social devastation is brought forward through a broken language that is at once fracturing and reforming into new wholes. I’m going to look at just one poem here—a small poem (many of the poems in Triage are longer sequences) from the middle of the collection which draws so many of the strands of Nicholson’s work together, exemplifying her poetics of “triage” (damage control/damage repair).



Paint beautiful ceiling history assumes
Empty names too labour intensive

Continuing journeys in the hold lists water
Holding cells at Elmina market place

Harmony armada gross supremacy
Temporary tents tourist information

Industry aura articles legless glory
Endures houses empty of blankets

Ordinance curfews leash law park rules
In effect no organized gathering without permit

Stirred investment due west gesture
Return empty equity bases are sameness

Static currency train creeps imperfect
Activities echo last spectre spoke derail

Set afire property secure a priori
Breeding lilacs by the bloody wall

In I own exiles rotten world hate
“So callous a code as gain” undefined terminus

We detach from painted background

May your road be fulfilled
May you grow old as ritual poetry


In a poem like this, it’s as though dislodging any word from the discursive edifices we walk past daily, prying up any stone on any urban sidewalk, reveals compressed layers of history’s exploitations and exclusions. We move quickly across time and space—beginning in the “Elmina market place,” that first colonial port in Africa through which so many African’s were “exported” as slaves, to a contemporary “market” where tourism (“tourist information”) and real estate speculation (“houses empty” / “empty equity”) dominate—a location I have to peg as contemporary Vancouver, a landscape “set afire” by “property.” Along the way war (“armada gross supremacy” / “legless glory”) and nation building (that cliché Canadian marker of the “last spike”—the mythologized completion of the national railway that supposedly “united” the country—here fractured, “echo last spectre spoke derail,” by the ghosts of immigrant labour who brought the project to conclusion) are swept up in the “callous code” of “gain.”

This last line comes from Amiri Baraka’s poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson.” Suddenly a space is revealed in which history, race, and poetry entangle  (Paterson of course invokes Williams and Ginsberg, and those “lilacs” might spring from Eliot, but in this poem they sound more of Whitman)—and poetry is called upon to do significant work, not the least of which is given expression in the prayer of the closing lines. This is where Nicholson’s work takes us—across history, through language and fragmentation and suffering, to sometimes arrive at a place of healing. The poem is both wound and medicine. The patient must be treated fast, decisions made—can this one be saved? I find, reading this work, that I am asking this of poetry itself each time too: can this patient be saved?

Robert Duncan once grandly declared that he “made poems” the way “other men made war” or “love”—“to exercise my faculties at large.” I’ve always found this…a bit too much. But it does come to mind reading Nicholson’s poetry, and makes me think that we can read there the exercise of social faculties that otherwise engaged might make war, love, or perform triage on damaged bodies. The “neighbouring zones” that this poet has passed through—sometimes on a daily basis—reveal an overlapping in which poetry possibly can become social work.