Commentaries - July 2012

Oana Avasilichioaei’s We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn 2012) proposes a linguistic wilderness where her last book — Feria (Wolsak & Wynn 2008) — laid out a “poempark.” The wilderness we are returned to here is the one formed by language on the edge of wildernesses long gone—the liminal space of fairy and folk tale, where we stare back at the animals we try to deceive ourselves we no longer are. Voice drifts into voice, language into and out of language—words are birdcall in dense forest where a strange chimera called the Wolfbat (who joins other “characters” — the Tyrant, Dawn, a “maiden”) inhabits a “culture of creatures” and “pastures the pulsing of nontales.”

There is much to say about this book — its play with folk tale tropes and traditions, the wisps of narrative that dissolve into thickets of opaque language, its staging of gender and sexuality, reeking with hybridity, multiplicity and an animal desire to, well, fuck any and all comers. There’s also the book’s fascinating “beastly taxonomies” that graph aspects of a surreal world surrounding and sometimes intersecting with the book in hand, the interruption of a book-within-the-book (“Spelles”), complete with different paper stock, and the way the book’s serial poems entangle and interrupt each other (somewhat reminiscent, structurally, of Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia).

But what I want to comment on, briefly, here is Oana’s “we” — in her book’s title, the title poem, and, generally, its use to hypothesize an impossible inclusivity. First, I’m going to add a passage from a talk I gave on Feria at the Kootenay School of Writing, back in 2010.

* * *

I am taking this opportunity to sum up and re-assess what have been my primary concerns as a poet and critic. Ultimately, I think these come down to a sense of the poem as a collective and social endeavour. This of course runs counter to the all too familiar sense of the poem as the domain of self-expression, introspection, individuation and the prolific poetic “I.” Poetry, like everything else, has evolved in the shadow of capitalism over the past few centuries, and it has often provided a stage for the owning subject to parade and practice. But poetry can very easily become the stage for other subjectivities, other senses of the subject — “flickering subjectivities,” as Rita Wong and Larissa Lai call them. We once again arrive at the relational: “language” — this is Lisa Robertson — “gives you and I to one another” — it is “the possibility of subjectivity,” which occurs between us and is only ever shared by us.

Touchstones for my understanding of poetry as a collective and social endeavour have been Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “being singular plural” and Marx’s early idea of the human as a “species being.”

Nancy: “Being could not speak of itself except in this unique manner: ‘we are.’ The truth of the ego sum is the nos sumus; this ‘we’ announces itself through humanity for all the beings ‘we’ are with. For existence in this sense of being-essentially-with, as a being whose essence is the with.”

I am interested in Oana’s “we,” which is the dominant pronoun in Feria. Her “poempark” forms a “garden of we,” which “anchors we to we.” “We collect and we are / collected into we.” In the poempark, near the book’s close, we find “one hand in the embrace of another hand citoyennes between us.” Here, in the space of Robertson’s “possibility of subjectivity,” the social itself — a feminine citizenship (“citoyennes”) — is found “between” the components of Oana’s “we.” In the book’s last lines the pronominal components of the collective again address the between:

Shall I fortress you
in my arms, you an uncertain ruin.

Here is the social lyric: an “I” addressing a “you” proposes a transformation — from “ruin” to “fortress” — via their unity as “we.”

* * *

We, Beasts is very much a continuation and further development of Oana’s concerns in Feria, as it is also an extension of the collaborative contexts of Expeditions of a Chimera (2009 — co-authored by Erin Mouré): the documentary, translation, polyvocality, space. The utopian gesture of this poetry is its call for, and instantiation of, a broad inclusivity via the ever-mutable instabilities of the linguistic sign. We, Beasts, like Feria, builds towards an explosive celebration of the first person plural pronoun. But where Feria imagined something of an interpersonal social space, the “we” in the title poem “We, Beasts” is an expression of “species being” (I’m extending Marx’s use of the term here, considerably!) — of what is common to all living beings, the imaginal space of the biosphere itself.

Nature turns to we, admits
to we nature’s horse, admits
to shedding the swaddles.
No trap this time, no saddle, the we unmineable
only the horse of nature.

The “horse” is a liminal being, and makes a number of appearances throughout We, Beasts. One of those other species human beings have long collaborated with, thus both connecting us to and at once (arguably, damagingly) separating us from other animals, the horse populates many folk tales and our earliest myths and legends. “Horse,” in “We, Beasts,” comes to represent all “the we unmineable,” the indivisible world (common, unownable, un-mine-able) that is no one species “resource,” but all a complex abundance.

Admittedly, I am giving only one small example here. But such instances of liminal “beastliness” are scattered all over this book. Where there are animals here, where there are fairy and folk tale creations limning the space between the human and “the rest” of the creaturely world, they are all instances of “cleaving”: holding us to, and marking our erroneous separation from, the beasty roar of all species being. The title itself marks the crucial caesura with a comma: “We, Beasts” — we who are beasts, and we who stand outside beastliness, recognizing our belonging there. Sometimes that connection/separation is a lament. Sometimes it is a frenzied (re)merger (“we remain here in the solitude of identity”). Sometimes it is a dialogue.

I will end with one other poem — from a sequence of “songs” dispersed throughout the text.

Song of the Hunt

—Tell me, where do you stir, my elk, where do you stir
between these hills’ torpid poles?

—Are you trying to catch me, hunter, with your sing?

—Tell me, where do you tame, my horse, where do you
tame in your gallop?

—Are your trying to verse me, hunter? Green the gorse
of these mounts?

—Tell me, where do you dawn your white fur my wolf,
where does the snow roam you?

—Only the elk seem silent in these mountains hunter,
and the water slopes furious and violent.


Never will the winds’ heights be my heights, never will
the elk or the horse or the wolf know me, never will the
water fury my hands the way it furies their hooves.

William Bronk and Mark Weiss


Based on the known,
imagining the confluence,
one hopes for a florid excitement, a spastic
flailing, some kind of


Are there any here
but us chickens?
Have there ever been?


The season arrives with a clamor of geese.
And at the end of it.


We note
the unfamiliar sky.


Always and always.
There is this always, that always, there is


Sometimes the poor
can sell their poverty
as if they had chosen it.


Gestures affect instinct accent.


She wore a glass
athletic shoe and left it
at the door, danced off

In a perfect world
all shoes would fit.


The stray dog
wonders about its failings as a dog.
Something about a compact broken.


I have dreamed
an epicure's dream. In the secret life of sleep
it seems I have cancer and will surely die, but
that the doctor says
death will be a wasting away, so eat
while you can, as much
as you can, and I sing, Oh Death where is,
where is thy sting.


We call the ocean Day
and the lover Night.
So Night swims the Day
in search of his love, who floats
before him on a raft of spray.


Christ crowns the Virgin
and virgins marry him.

They content themselves with the possible.

I begin the day with a shriek she said.


It's given to her to dangle a shoe, but for a toe
barefoot in this most formal place.


30 million buffalo 120 million
hooves raising the dust, at times
stampeding in a deafening clatter, at others
a rumble audible for miles.

3 billion pigeons, the noise
of 3 billion pigeons,

the shaking earth disturbing the slumbers of millions in their burrows.

If not strings, then ribbons,
the solar system a pattern of movements.

And who may be King or Queen of the May?


Let down her hair and her eyes
became pools in the forest.

At the end of the hall are three dark doors.

Of love
the danger.


Named for shape.
Named for function.
in any case. As clouds
hold clues
to sky
or water.


On a toy harmonium
she plays the dies irae
to distract the child.

Like a stone across water.
My mind’s like a stone
on water, to sink
one day, tee hee tee hee.


Miss Angularity is very tall
but wears high heels
to make her feet look small.


He tries to imagine her toes,
goes through a series of possibilities, as if
a clue to the invisible.
Surely, he thinks, there's a moral here,
a decision inherent in form.

                            And such
and such was the life of him.


Sometimes an insistent picture presents itself and sometimes

one walks
into and through it like a tracking shot, but it's always
a picture. Even at a moment like this when I summon it what's lost
is the swift melding of things unseen. And sometimes
it's the slow dance
of two and the heat
and cold and a hand
one remembers, does it all
come back does it all
come back to.

Doesn't it all come back to loss and language?

What can be done
in a few words,
what can be done in words.

and words
in deep storage.

Think of the street filled
with extras in storied lives,
for each of whom...
for each of whom in storied lives
in the moments between.

And the smells of these.

The skull's rictus.

These are the marble halls I dreamt I dwelt in.

Add another to the cacophony of voices.
Add another.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: … I had been unsuccessfully trying to find a way back to small poems after years of writing at the other end of baroque, and [re-reading] Bronk had given me a nudge in the right direction, although he probably would have found most of these poems in different ways totally scandalous. At the least, I doubt he would have recognized their relationship to his own.

Bill's work is characterized by extreme care. Metaphors are few and deployed gingerly, and the matter of daily life enters most often just enough to suggest a context. And his concerns are almost exclusively with final things: on the fugitive nature of both the self and any kind of external reality, Being as if lost in the chaos of before the Biblical creation. “What we want is a here with a meaning,” he says in one of his poems, and goes on to demonstrate that we can't have it.

My own work is all about a here. Final things are the givens that I rarely talk about, and meaning is contingent and flexible. I'm perfectly comfortable with this; as a New Yorker diversity is my native language. …

That said, few of these poems dedicated to his practice really attempt to achieve it. Rather, they seem to me to dance around it as a fixed point. It's in fact “Sometimes,” a poem outside the group, that may come closest to Bill's poetry, though longer than all but a few of his, and I've chosen to place it immediately after them, as a sort of envoi.


by Mike Freakman

 Buffalo, Nov. 22 (AHP2 News) -- After a series of embarrassing incidents and criminal investigations involving alcohol and theory at recruiting parties for coveted high school poets in recent years, some universities have begun to rewrite the rules for entertaining recruits and are tightening their oversight.

 These generally unofficial parties will reach a peak over the next few weeks as hundreds of high school prospects visit major poetry colleges for two days, trying to decide where to enroll next fall. Some university officials, who had been criticized for failing to supervise the parties, acknowledge that they felt compelled to take action after being embarrassed by misbehavior associated with recruiting parties.

 Earlier this year, for example, the University of Alabama was placed on probation by the National Collegiate Poetry Association (N.C.P.A.) for violations that included inviting theorists onto campus to entertain high school poets at parties. A poetry recruit on an official visit to the University of Florida was initially charged with plagiarism and disorderly thinking two years ago for an incident that occurred after he attended a party with heavy theory.

 At the University of Michigan, a coveted high school senior was entertained by Michigan poets with alcohol and theorists in a Detroit hotel suite six years ago. When the university learned about the party, Michigan's president felt compelled to apologize to the recruit's parents.

 At Michigan State University, visiting high school prose poets were entertained by theorists at a Detroit nightclub and other recruits taken to a casino, where they practiced writing chance-derived works, leading the N.C.P.A. to put the prose poetry program on probation for two years in 1998.

 With the image of college poetry having been tarnished in recent years by a number of incidents in which poets were charged with plagiarism and copyright infringement, some critics contend that recruiting parties have become a particularly insidious part of the problem.

"These parties are a major problem," said Thames Dumberthanthat, president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996. "And I can't say for certain, but I think they are a problem at a number of universities, mainly because these are high school kids away from home and there is a total lack of supervision and structure. I was shocked when I heard about how they were handled. They basically turn these kids loose and hope a great poem will come out."

Though the parties are usually unofficial, they are often part of high school poets’ N.C.P.A.-sanctioned two-day visits to campuses. The high school seniors usually get to meet critics and poets, go to readings, and attend classes. At night, they are usually entertained by college poets hoping to impress them.

Recruiting parties can be harmless fun, but they can also cross the line. Players sometimes provide wine and theory to visiting high school seniors, according to interviews with former poets, critics, law enforcement officials and prose writers who have attended recruiting parties. Sometimes, too, these people say, the older poets arrange for recruits to have access to poems by George Bowering and David Bromige. “These kids are not prepared for the effect of this kind of poetry, which is provided without any historical context or information about the importance of Canadian national identity for both poets,” said Dan Joyisme, President of the League for Poetic Improvement.

While the parties carry some legitimacy as part of university-sanctioned campus visits, they are seldom supervised by university officials and often take place off campus. As such, critics say, these parties carry murky expectations for those who attend, often in a raucous atmosphere with sensibilities dulled by wine or metaphor. “The long range problem,” said Mr. Dumberthanthat, “is that poetic intoxication will lead these young people to think of poetry as a free pass to avoid serious pursuit of college athletics.” He noted that colleges with Division I poetry programs often lowered athletic standards for top poets in an effort to keep them enrolled.

In the past, many university officials have argued that they were not responsible for misbehavior that occurred late at night in unofficial settings. But many law enforcement officials, community officials and leaders of poetry improvement groups contended that the colleges were at fault for failing to properly supervise poets and their high school guests.


November 22, 2002. Posted to the Poetics List.

I just spent a week in erica kaufman’s workshop at the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard, which brings together secondary and college teachers for workshops and conferences focused on how to use writing as central to how we generate and refine our ideas about literature and language (and all subjects; we had biology and music teachers in our section). In one session, we worked with three essays about writing, George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and William Carlos Williams’s “How to Write.” Orwell’s portrait of the writer is essentially as political activist; Kincaid’s is of the courage to rewrite history; Williams’s is of a double mind commanding the double function of the text. Williams appears less political than Orwell or Kincaid, until the end of his essay, where he launches an attack on the teaching of standard English in American schools.

What might be the relationship between this well-known critique Williams held (“Why bother with English when we have a language of our own?”) and how Williams depicts the writing process in this piece? That is, what Williams calls the “deepest mind” and the “fore-brain” of the writer, the latter being the thing that in his words “attacks” a piece of writing once it is set down, editing, criticizing, and making possible what Williams calls “modern verse structures.” Modernism becomes a wholly cognitive entity in this essay, it seems:

But once the writing is on the paper it becomes an object. It is no longer a fluid speaking through a symbolism of ritualistic forms but definite words on a piece of paper. It has now left the region of the formative past and come up to the present. […] [The writer] has written with his deepest mind, now the object is there and he is attacking it with his most recent mind, the fore-brain, the seat of memory and ratiocination, the so-called intelligence. […] 

This is the student’s moment. (37–38)

That the student is the bearer of the “fore-brain”: Williams suggests a pedagogy of modernist writing. Who is the teacher?

(Quotations from Williams, “How to Write,” from New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1936: A Retrospective Selection, edited by James Laughlin)

A reading of Gertrude Stein’s 'The Making of Americans' through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 'Philosophical Investigations'

Asylum’s Press Digital Edition
available for purchase as .epub, .mobi (for Kindle), and PDF for printing

 Forty years ago, during my last semesters of college, I wrote a senior thesis on Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans, which I read in the context of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I had concentrated in philosophy at Harvard even though my interests were primarily literature and art (poetics and aesthetics). I didn’t know anyone who had read Stein but was surrounded by philosophers deeply engaged with Wittgenstein. Still, I saw two key issues that Stein addressed in her early work that related to the philosophical problems that echoed through Emerson Hall, where Stein herself had studied with William James.

Throughout The Making of Americans, Stein confronts the problem of what she calls “the real thing of disillusionment”: a sense of being a stranger, queer, to those around her; the sinking feeling that one is not, and perhaps cannot be, understood, that drives you to cry out in pain that you write for “yourself and strangers,” in Stein’s famous phrase. Stein’s formulations struck me as being connected to the problem of other minds, or skepticism, a virtual obsession of Stanley Cavell in those years. It seemed to me that Stein and Wittgenstein had crafted a related response to skepticism.

The related philosophical issue that Stein’s work addresses is the nature of meaning and reference in verbal language: how words refer to objects in the external world. Both Wittgenstein and Stein dramatize the breakdown of a one-to-one correspondence between word and object. They are both averse to the conception that words are akin to names or labels and that meaning is grounded in a verbal mapping of a fully constituted external world. What do words or phrases designate? This goes beyond the issue of private language, which has dogged the interpretation of Stein’s work. The problem of where the pain is when pain is expressed opens up for Wittgenstein and his interpreters (for me primarily Rogers Albritton and Cavell) a more general problem of the nature of reference, designation, and naming for such intangibles as (in Stein’s words) “thinking, believing, seeing, understanding.” I felt, still do, that this philosophical conundrum directly bears on the meaning and reference of not just words or phrases in poems but of poems themselves, which certainly mean, designate, and express, but do not necessarily refer to “things,” if things are assumed to be already existing and named objects. I am not satisfied with the argument I make about the nature of reference in the final sections of The Making of Americans and Tender Buttons, where Stein invented a compositional method that I call “wordness.” Still, despite the manifest shortcomings of this work, it locates some ongoing problems that remain to be addressed, both in terms of a full-scale reading of The Making of Americans and a more technically robust account of reference in works such as Tender Buttons.

Looking back, I am aware of how circumscribed my frame of reference was in 1971. I am content here to play straight man (third Stein) to Stein and Wittgenstein, those diaphanously queer, secular Jews born just fifteen years apart.

Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature (1972)
available for purchase as .epub, .mobi (for Kindle), and PDF for printing

My thanks to the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego, for making available the manuscript. Jeff Boruszak helped prepare the digital version.