Commentaries - September 2012

The treehouse in El Jardin del Paraiso

So we’re moving out of our apartment of 14 years on E. 4th St., and I’m already nostalgic for it. Yesterday, alone in my apartment during the day for the first time in — months? years? — a single ray of sun fell through the window in the kitchen. I had completely forgotten that the apartment does after all get some light for 20 minutes around midday.

I wrote a sort of pastoral poem once about El Jardin del Paraiso, the community garden across the street. For about three hours, I sat in a treehouse and recorded the happenings, ranging from a fly landing on my paper to a protest parade of people dressed like peas and tomatoes. Various children were “major” characters, recurring over and over as they carried a garden chicken (also a recurrent character) around, climbed into the treehouse, explored the pond and its turtles, or simply threw rocks. So, how is my piece a pastoral and how was it not a pastoral? It was not at the time a pastoral because I was attempting to write in the present, thinking more in an investigative poetics vein. But now, a couple of years later, the piece feels like an Arcadian time now past — the chicken is gone, the kids are older, the buildings across the street that I describe were sold, gutted and developed. (The buildings were owned by the Uranian Phalanstery and had some of the most amazing interiors I’ve ever seen, chock-a-block with paintings, sculptures, ashes, costumes, dead cats, books, masks, a bamboo forest in the back, rain pouring through broken windows, original 19th-century lead paint of a rich and complex texture unknown to this century. Now they are little plain white apartments — ticky tacky boxes — going anywhere from $2600 to $3800 per month according to neighborhood speculation.)  

The garden is still there, of course, protected by its location next to a school, but it’s a difficult place, full of egos and politics and turf fights. The latest is some older woman complaining to everyone she can nab walking by the garden that her tomato plants were torn out by, alternately, the coop board of the building she lives in, and by another woman who lives down the street. So now there’s this bare patch of earth in a huge garden otherwise filled with weeds and overgrowth. I’m outraged, but I also sense there’s a larger explanation — the person she blames is an energetic community organizer who’s done a lot of good things for the gardens on the block, particularly a different garden, where there’s been another kind of fight going on: a nonprofit that owns a vacant lot has been allowing standing water to breed hordes of mosquitoes. So, OK, I wrote the fly, and the leaves, and the changing of the light as it fell through willow branches, and the kids and the chicken, and the people dressed as vegetables, but how do I write into, about, of the baffling, often spiteful, and sometimes threatening (rumors of garden drug-dealing) interactions over “community” land? I joined the garden too, and tended a plot for a time, but the stressful politics drove me out. At first glance, the garden is a fragment (a figment) of pastoral ideal: children playing, chickens, tending the land. Then, you start talking to people — engaging


Remembering a great writer and friend

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

I had already started writing my first commentary for Jacket2. But then I had to begin again.

Earlier today I learnt of the passing of a great poet and a friend: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.

I discovered on the weekend that Arkadii was seriously unwell. As a result, I dedicated the launch party for my book A Common Strangeness that we held in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Monday to him. As part of the launch, the New Zealand poet Cilla McQueen read the first part of his long poem “A Nasturtium as Reality” alongside her own poem “Photon.” It was just the latest in a long line of cross-cultural encounters generated by Arkadii’s work.

Arkadii’s extraordinary collaboration with American poet Lyn Hejinian is well known. (I write about it in A Common Strangenessand elsewhere––as have several others, notably Marjorie Perloff, Gerald Janecek, and Stephanie Sandler.) Lyn and Arkadii translated each other’s work beautifully. And they also wrote dense, intense letters to one another––poems in themselves. Arkadii wrote in Russian, and Lyn in English. In less than a decade (1983–1991), they produced over 1000 pages of letters in what deserves to be recognized as one of the truly great literary correspondences. They also enabled others to share in that connection, facilitating many new links between Russian and American poets.

Perhaps less well known is Arkadii’s work with Evgeny Pavlov to connect Russian and New Zealand poets, an effort that resulted in the marvelous anthology of New Zealand poetry in Russian translation Земля морей (Land of Seas) and, later, a smaller reciprocation in the form of a special Russian issue of the New Zealand literary journal Landfall, which included translations of Russian poetry made in collaboration with New Zealand poets.

Arkadii had links to many other parts of the world as well. In November last year, he visited Hong Kong to participate in the festival International Poetry Nights, organized by the Chinese poet Bei Dao 北島. In his last emails to me, he signed his name in Chinese characters 阿爾卡季•德拉戈莫申科, explaining that his most recent publication was《同義反覆》, published by Oxford UP in conjunction with his visit to Hong Kong––the book is a translation of Тавтология (Tautology), published by Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie in Moscow earlier in 2011.

The Chinese edition is, as I understand it (though I don’t yet have a copy), a dual language edition. There couldn’t be a more appropriate title for such an edition. Arkadii was a great exploiter of the tautologies, iterations, translations, and repetitions we live by. A poem he used as something of a calling card and which he gave to me to translate in 2000 begins:

Everything was in decline.

Even the talk about everything being in decline.

Arkadii's writing was––is––an education in itself, always making me think again. But he taught me in other ways too. He looked after me very generously when, at the age of 22, I first met him in St Petersburg in 2000 and proposed, rather naively, to write about his work. His passing is a great loss. My thoughts are with Zina, Ostap, the rest of the family, and his many friends.


Аркадий Трофимович Драгомощенко
Arkadii Dragomoshchenko



Read Cilla McQueen's poem to Dragomoshchenko here.

Read his work (in Russian) at Vavilon.

Listen to his work (Russian and English translations) at PennSound.

Asphodel flowers.
Asphodel flowers.

By the time we got to the long, apologetic love poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in the Williams class, I was beginning to worry about the relatively short amount of time we had spent on the variable foot. So before diving into the poem I subjected my students to a crash course in Williams’s approach to metrics, returning to his essay “The Poem as a Field of Action,” in which Williams famously insists “there is no such thing as free verse.” Moreover: “Imagism was not structural: that was the reason for its disappearance.” (Throwing out imagism as inconsequential is always a little startling for students, given that we are so conditioned to read for its significance throughout early modernism.) Williams suggests that the only enduring, far-reaching poetics is one that can refine modern life the way chemistry refines new elements: “we are about to make some discoveries,” he notes hopefully. One of those discoveries is that we can attempt to detach the poetic foot from the very notion of rhythm.

So then, we went on to attempt to identify what Williams means by “the variable foot” in Asphodel. Moving from the chem lab to the field. We consider the role of this drab yet overdetermined flower in Williams’s poem. From an article by Gertrude Slaughter in The North American Review, December 1916:

As a flower of earth, the asphodel depends for its beauty upon its surroundings. It fades at the mere touch of the commonplace. Growing by a dusty roadside, it is colorless and coarse. It lacks distinction and has barely the power to arrest the eye. While the broom or the gentian conquers the shadow of dust and rises boldly to match the sun or the sky, the asphodel is reduced to nothingness, to a dull and graceless shadow. But rising among the fallen columns of a Greek temple, these clusters of dim blossoms possess a rare and unforgettable beauty. […] The legend of the asphodel-meadows is typical of a people in whose imaginative grasp of truth poetry and religion were united. They did not attempt to deny the existence of evil and misfortune, of disease and death, but they subdued the grim realization of these things to a tender melancholy. 

“It is a curious odor, / a moral odor,” Williams writes in Asphodel of bringing flowers to his wife. Elsewhere: “The beauty of girls seemed the same to me as the beauty of a poem.” Does the “moral odor” of William Carlos Williams’s Asphodel eclipse the “field of action” of his poetics? 

And, by the way, addressed in today’s class: what is the proper mode of citing a poem without line numbers, according to the MLA Style Manual?

Two questions combined in a closing student comment (a comment that anticipates the Charles Bernstein essay we read at the course’s end):

“The MLA does not support the variable foot.”

Nicolas Desprez, Attractor Poisson Saturne
Nicolas Desprez, Attractor Poisson Saturne

contemporary poetry
insert: poem here
insert: essay here call it:
essay-poem insert:
appropriated text
call it: poetry insert:
sound poem call it:
wave score insert:
visual poem call it:
if sound could see
claim: the text is dead
just schrödinger: the text!
insert: tired formatting
like strikethrough
fade: your erasures
use: basic font variations
insert: another footnote
please instead please
insert: some nu-sonnets
inject: the bacterium!
insert: interactive
irony call it: data
plan allow for:
confession perform:
nothing call it or
do not call it: silence
sing: off-key call it:
a speech call the page:
canvas buy: more
hard-drives consider:
a book trailer make:
a movie get: a bit
scientific call it:
quantum allow for:
uncertainty but do not
hesitate never:
hesitate make:
confident declarations
to get the job call it:
criticism stand by:
your assertions
never: waver never:
mistranslate: consciously
multiply: the I write:
reviews never: review
suck: up suck: in curl:
the tongue display:
                                      a mistake call it:
necessary failure
                                      reject: “Genius”
for “Unoriginal Genius” reject:
“Unoriginal Genius” for “SubGenius”
have: more slack!
launch another:
break: the line
never: break lines
reject: poetry accept:
multi-genre accept: poetry
accept: document insert:
a memoir try: hy-bric-a-brac
refute: the subject
have: a subject but never
one subject position
have: one subject position
call it: language gesture:
but do not speak speak:
but do not gesture say:
complicate: say: resonate:
do not be so: quotidian!
set: all of your poems
in the future write:
as if you are from outer
space frame: your
process refute: everything
except procedure call it:
refute: everything
except experiment
call it: kool kitsch
it: up call it: trashy
make: a mask use:
the monster transgress:
culture defy: authority
protest: imperialism
protest: authenticity
protest: artifice reclaim:
agency protest: agency
protest: protest
invoke: aleatoric
construct: constraints
tighten: your form
sometimes: self-efface
memorize: your poems
read from your smart
phone do not under
any circumstances:
read from that smart
phone check: your voice:
check your context
check: your ethics reject:
all ethics check: your
poethics make: more
rules believe: in god
check: your god reject:
god know: your censors!
be: difficult, elegiac, or eco
and non/representational
but never: pretentious
or worse: whispers: precious
revel: pretentiously fake:
your pretenses write:

[NOTE. Amy Catanzano has appeared often in these pages & represents an important move toward the reconciliation of poetry & speculative & experimental thought across the arts & sciences. Of the work, above, she writes: “The poem represents my attempt to explore what I am thinking of as the poetics of poetics, the varying authoritative directives and propositions within contemporary poetry, including approaches I work with and also ones I want to challenge. I address, for example, Vanessa Place's recent declaration that the text is dead (I say ‘just schrödinger: the text!’) and Marjorie Perloff's Unoriginal Genius (I advocate, instead, for the SubGenius).” Other excerpts from her four-part seminal essay “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light” have previously appeared on Poems and Poetics & on Jacket2 as part of a collaborative poetry/science discussion project.

Of the present excerpt she writes further: “The poem is part of a manuscript called ‘Quantum Poetics: The Word and Its Earthwork,’ where I insert poems between each paragraph of my four-part essay on quantum poetics. By writing this poem in strikethrough I am trying to challenge both proscriptive reading tendencies and what I see as an unimaginative formal device. To read a strikethrough one must get beyond a physical limitation with the line being partially occluded. However, the strikethrough itself requires little thought and effort to produce (it’s just a click away); integrating it and similar formatting techniques into poems these days without more robust contexts feels, to me, just as generic as centering a poem on a page. By using the strikethrough in my poem and simultaneously critiquing it, I’m invoking a kind of reverse engineering in my process. I’m taking a pre-existing gesture I see as obsolete and repurposing it as a way to explore poetics by starting from the original gesture (the strikethrough that displays a deletion) and deducing more possibilities for the gesture (my poem) without solely relying on former associations connected to the original. The reader might view the strikethrough as an occlusion to transparency, even a metaphor for difficulty, but in my poem I confront it as a tired typographical gimmick. There's a quantum poetics to my logic, a Schrödinger's cat I am embedding into my poem. (Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, with its more familiar concepts, challenged Werner Heisenberg’s abstract matrix mechanics, though soon after this challenge Heisenberg presented his groundbreaking uncertainty principle, which led to wider acceptance of Heisenberg’s formulation of quantum mechanics. Nonetheless.) Schrödinger's cat is alive and dead at the same time. The poem is readable and not. The strikethrough is simultaneously a gesture and a gimmick. I would argue that strikethroughs have been successfully incorporated into typographical and theoretical experiments in poetry, especially before the proliferation of electronic word-processing programs. What I am questioning is if it and other formatting techniques one finds on the toolbar can be interesting if used in isolation—as they often are—from more complex approaches to visual experimentation on the page, such as what we find in visual poetry or in a score from a sound poem. In my poem I am aiming to explore what forms and processes writers and readers of poetry are interpreting as relevant to contemporary and even future contexts—technological, aesthetic, transhuman.”]

It was with great sadness that I heard this heartbreaking news. From when I first met Arkadii in the 1980s, to his semester-long stay with his wife Xena in Buffalo in the early 1990s, to Susan, Felix and my visit to St. Petersburg in 2001, to his recent visit to New York and to Penn two years ago, I have felt a deep kinship with Arkadii, a poetic and personal affinity that goes beyond any national or linguistic borders. A great companion in life and poetry has left the earth but not the world.

ATD’s death was reported about three hours ago on Facebook by Aleksandr Skidan and Mikhail Iossel.


[photo above by Dragomoshchenko; Dragomoshchenko photo by me from Nov. 2010]