Commentaries - July 2012

Phong Bui on Close Listening.

photos © 2012 Charles Bernstein

Alan Thomas, our University of Chicago editor
took this picture at the book launch, in Los Angeles,
for Antin's essay collection,
Marjoire Perloff's Unoriginal Genius
and my Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions.

just out:
Gerald Bruns reviews Radical Coherence and Attack of the Difficult Poems
 in Jacket2's review section.

David Antin at EPC | Marjorie Perloff at EPCAttack of the Difficult Poems at EPC.

Photo circa 1973

100 + 6 + 6 + 1 + 300 + 1 = 414 = 200 + 214 = 300 + 114

I came
& with him

watched the serpents
& the antelopes

so inflamed

the pit
divines them


our eyes
will bring them down

will multiply
their faces

& we will see
a light

a stone
for divination

we will bring
out of a rock

then we will take
a bone

the ends of which
like wings

or branches
blameless clear

we will scrape off
& swallow

vain like prophets
bare uncircumcised

in the imagination
only & will see

& multiply
like locusts

we will scatter
in the river

: & they saw
: & they shall see

That George Quasha has come to this point & I still ten years ahead of him is an unanticipated delight & one in need of celebration all around. It is also forty years since we joined together in constructing America a Prophecy (1973), which has now come into a rebirth & sits in front of me as I think back to our first meetings & the turbulence of working & playing together on such a multiphasic project. It was in the aftermath of that work that I came to realize that prophecy as we used it in the title was most remarkably a vision, not so much of the future, as of the present & the past – the present foremost, however soon it slips away from us. That present has stuck with us still, & however long it lasts, gives us a chance to expand what we know as mind & voice, toward what I think of now as an omnipoetics , a principle of poetry & life, that I first sensed & fought & questioned in his presence. The poem that gematria has now given me – from the letters of his name spelled out in written Yiddish – is also something that I may come to understand, if ever, not as it first emerges here but as I grapple with it in the days & years to come. The poetry, I mean to say, is in the questions, as the prophecy is also.

For which I want to thank him, as I hope to do again & then again.

Jennifer Moxley, "The Atrophy of Private Life"

Jennifer Moxley


On the chance that PoemTalk’s listeners are ever tempted to stop listening after the main conversation and before we “gather Paradise” (make recommendations), we urge you to stay through to the end of this episode in particular — at which point you will hear Cathy Eisenhower’s short list of Washington, DC, venues for readings and gatherings. And we’ll add, here, belatedly, our intention to travel soon down to DC for an on-the-road PoemTalk.

Yes, so Cathy Eisenhower joined us from DC, and Christopher Schmidt from New York, and Katie Price from just down the campus Walk – to talk about one of the prose poems in Jennifer Moxley’s 2007 book The Line. Moxley had previously authored Imagination Verses (Salt, 2003), The Sense Record and other poems (Salt, 2003), and Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005) among other works. We took up The Line because it would seem to enable us to talk about the situation or state of the poetic line — the poetic unit of language, the aesthetic or politico-aesthetic lineage – and we chose “The Atrophy of Private Life” within that book because the meta-poetic sense of “the line” would have to be at best implicit and we wanted to push ourselves to consider a possible critique of the sorry or depressed state of contemporary private life as itself a kind of line (as in ideological line) in such a way that the three senses of “line” — (1) poetic unit, (2) aesthetic lineage, where a poet fits or doesn’t fit, and (3) political stance — might converge unevenly and uneasily yet revealingly.

Private life is becoming emaciated and “the sets of relations are very limited” (notes Cathy), and so aptly we are in “a house strewn with fashion magazines.” The piece contends, seemingly straight out, that the destruction of the poetical has been mostly caused by the fabulously rich. The poet  unmasks American bounty as actual impoverishment. Is Moxley really suggesting these things directly? Cathy says yes – and also no. “There’s a lot of switching going on — with ‘meaning’ and ‘money.’” If those two terms were “flipped,” adds Cathy, “I’m not sure it would matter that much.” [Below, from left to right: Cathy Eisenhower, Christopher Schmidt, Katie Price in PoemTalk’s garret studio.]

Chris is interested in the mask in the poem. In Marx, the commodity masks real relationships. So that is the leftist line (another “line”) Moxley nods at, and possibly contends, but she’s also troubled with the notion and trend of masking in poetry: the languaged or non-transparent selfhood of the writer apparently never discernible.  Doubt that much-accepted concept, Moxley explores didacticism as an alternative to and resistance to a certain dominant “fashion” in the world of poetry itself, not merely, in other words, in the world of the fabulously rich. In this way, say Chris and Katie both, the mask represents the poetics of surface at which Moxley clearly excels (through her own excellent training as a writer) but which she also regrets. (Is that regret the source of the “depression” we all sensed — as did reviewers — in The Line?) Katie adds that Moxley is suspicious of the image and the language becoming “almost too pleasurable.” A line can be pleasurable and through the pleasure derived from it seem to say one thing, and then (here’s the resistance) it can be seen as saying the opposite.

Our recording of Moxley’s performance of the poem comes from a November 2004 reading (prior to the publication of The Line) held in Brooklyn for “Radio Poetique.” And here is the text:

The Atrophy of Private LIfe

In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word “money,” but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as “meaning.” Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
       Awareness, always awareness. Don’t you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for the eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
       It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.

PoemTalk #55 was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

Adapted by Pierre Joris from Y. Georges Kerhuel's French version

Editorial note: The following is part of Pierre Joris’s ongoing exploration of North African (Maghreb) culture, a work as big & multifaceted as his own sense of the dynamics & far reach of poetic imagination & fancy. Yet the stakes here, as with much real poetry, go well beyond poesis as such, to exemplify & expose an area of religion & sexuality that has been a given in many parts of the world, “from origins to present.” Here the azria (courtesan) asserts the role of the outsider, still not forgotten, to raise new/old powers of body & mind in the service of vision & desire. (J.R.)

I am beautiful Azria
I am unfaithful Azria
I am the tender fruit
of a tree with tight clusters
I smile at everyone
I hate marriage
& for no price
will I admit slavery
I wear no veil
I hate all cloth
my happiness is
beauty and youth
my black eyes’
mysterious gaze
has the power
to enthrall my lovers
my Queen Kahina face
is more than bait
my mouth is made of honey
perfectly real
he who tastes it once
will return for more
my chest & its high breasts
draws in the holiest looks
while below my belt
lies nature’s sacred temple
where the faithful come to sin
in love my heart
often lies for
I am Azria
remorseless Azria
I accept the weak and the strong
I am carefree Azria
and my life is my life
my pride comes from my freedom
my life is crazy gaiety
from the most noble to the ugliest
my lovers are innumerable
I am Azria the dancer
who makes women jealous
I am the singer
I am the crooner
my gorgeous voice
opens all doors


[Writes Joris selbst]: “This eponymous song, arranged by Y. Georges Kerhuel & included in the Encyclopédie de lamour en islam Tome 1 (edit. Malek Chabel), speaks to the specific situation of Shawia Berber society in the Aurès mountains (northeastern Algeria). Mathéa Gaudry, a lawyer at the Appellate Court in Algiers, wrote about the Shawia courtesans in a treatise on Aurès culture in the 1920s: ‘The power of the Shawia woman does not pale with time. Knowledge of occult sciences, the prerogative of the elder, only reinforces it. […] The azria is a courtesan who received who she wants and goes where she wants. She sings, dances, plays cards, smokes and goes to cafés. No triviality in her manners; to the contrary: a tranquil self-assurance and often a natural distinction are her mark. Her courtiers’ enthusiasm surrounds her. They all show her a quasi-religious submission. When she intervenes, a fight will stop immediately.’”