Commentaries - October 2012
A Jacket 30 Special Feature
From Gary Sullivan’s Introduction in Jacket 30:
Flarf has been described as the first recognizable movement of the 21st century, as an in-joke among an elite clique, as a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing. The act of writing flarf has been described as collaborating with the culture via the Web, as an imperialist or colonialist gesture, as an unexamined projection of self into others, as the conscious erasure of self or ego. Individual members have been described as brilliant, lazy, and smug, as satirists, fakes, and late-blooming Dadaists. One anonymous reader posting in someone’s blog comments box suggested that I be thrown into a wire cage at Bagram.
Very little of the discussion has dealt in any significant way with the work itself. While the collection that follows can hardly be called representative of five years’ of collective activity, it is hoped that it may provide a small window for anyone curious about what the Collective has been up to.
[»»] Gary Sullivan: Introduction
[»»] Anne Boyer: Three Poems: A Vindication of the Rights of Women / Mom’s Undiminished Lamb Jacket / Everything Nice Has a Crafted Satin Finish
[»»] Chickee Chickston: Three Poems: My Mary Oliver / Truckin’ Poem / My Kangaroo
[»»] Jordan Davis: Three poems: On an 87 Ford Taurus Left Taillight / Poems About Me / Pablo Escobar Shopping T-Shirt
[»»] Katie Degentesh: Three poems: I Loved My Father / No One Cares Much What Happens to You / I Sometimes Tease Animals
[»»] Benjamin Friedlander: Three Poems: Galang / Why Do Jews Reject Jesus as Their Savior? / When a Cop Sees a Black Woman
[»»] Drew Gardner: Three poems: I Am «So» Stupid / Norman Mailer / Dividing My Time
[»»] Nada Gordon: Three poems: Abnormal Discharge / Lick My Face / ‘A Gumby episode’
[»»] Rodney Koeneke: Three poems: The Adorno Corollary / Europe. Memory. Squid Parts. Grace. / Otto of Rose and Lavender
[»»] Michael Magee: Two excerpts: from My Angie Dickinson / Fascist Fairytales #6
[»»] Sharon Mesmer: Two poems: Juan Valdez Has a Little Juan Valdez (i.e., Energy Cannon) in His Pants / Squid Versus Assclown / At Princess Olga’s
[»»] K. Silem Mohammad: Three Poems: ‘The swans come hither in great numbers’ / Goldmine / Anti-Ass
[»»] Rod Smith: Three poems: What’s happening to My Bottom (part 3) / What is Happening to My Bottom? (s’appelle Charles the Bald) / The Exposition of the Question of the Meaning of Being
[»»] Christina Strong: Two Poems: Don’t prufrock me! / You need a valium (or «bored with blogs»)
[»»] Gary Sullivan: Two plays: Gray Matter / PPL in a Depot
[»»] Tarzan: Tarzan Workshop
Playing with translation is learning about one’s own language, one’s own history, how it came to be that certain words emerge from the mouth. I was working this morning on a wee project from last August, started after a research group meeting (working together on the question What is production?) where we considered Hannah Arendt and, inevitably, Heidegger. It brought me back to two things, that meeting last August, to Celan’s poem “Todtnauberg” about his trip to see Heidegger at his house in the mountains in Germany, and to my own childhood and what we called country houses then, “cabins.”
What happens when the word “Hut” with its abruptness becomes the word “Cabin” which has longer legs, and a downbeat, as if these legs were in the act not of walking but of lying down?
And what if I play with the word “in”, by forbidding it, and changing every instance of “in” to a related word. Does it alter the folds of the poem?
What if I introduce words from my childhood like “bushwhack”, for walking in dense bush and clearing a path as you go by, or “swearing”, for “crudeness”? Who is walking now in this poem? The northern muskeg of my country, fit for moose, hard to walk in.
The poem starts with cures. Before every cure, there is a wound, a disenfranchisement of the body. As Celan's was, facing Heidegger. Eyebright I have to look up: a herb used in northern Europe against eye infections, bad memory, and vertigo. Semi-parasitic on the roots of other plants. A variety was brought to Manitoba in the 1950s by the German Army on manoeuvres. A noxious weed, animals won’t eat it, and it overtakes annuals and forage crops. Another variety seen in moist, open areas in Alberta: Euphrasia arctica Lange ex Rostrup. A herb that both cures and wounds, then.
And arnica, of course, against bruising. It too grows in the Alberta mountains and in the north. And to run into the hills. A path bruises its hill too. To walk on fragile spongy ground, repeatedly, scars the hill for decades. (I should say too that I use dictionaries, GoogleTranslate, and wonder to translate from German. Every translation is a geneology that the links here can only hint at.)
CABIN (Paul Celan, trans. by a kid from Alberta, for Robert Kroetsch)
Arnica, eye bright, a
thirst slaked from the well
die-cut with the star,
inside the book
–whose name did it receive
there before mine?–
into this book
name written within
a hope, here,
of a thoughtful
at the heart,
bush turf, jagged paths,
orchis by orchis,
swearing, later, while driving
one of us, man, hears
the sound of it,
trampled trail bush-
whacked into the spongy hill,
In August of 1994, President Clinton’s Crime Bill destroyed the monies designated on a nation-wide basis for all Prison Education programs. The Federal or Pell Grants were for books; without books, like it or not, there are no programs. Those monies constituted less than one percent of all federal funds designated for higher education and were beginning to offer proof, at least in the program of which I was a part, that this form of rehabilitation might be the cheapest, most far reaching yet devised. For a man like Kenneth, these programs opened up a new world and offered a restoration of chances, not just for himself personally, but for ourselves. He literally devoured the readings offered to him, as if they were the nutrient he’d been waiting for, and began asking for compilations of myths, stories, and legends that would demand further study. He went to William Carlos Williams’ Imaginations in hopes of finding direction. His collection of first poems based on his experience as a “grunt” in Vietnam offers little comfort. Instead, what is given is a transmission so deeply formed and composed that the reader becomes inextricably shadowed by the living arrangement of things which at once possess and bind us to their crisis:
resemble so much
This thing about honor, less clearly defined:
Honor is the
sight of red-gray matter
in small jellied
from the waist
of a mango tree
like opaque snot
Honor is …
There is no ornamentation here, nothing unnecessary. The detail of parts, the breath-by-breath construction of the poet’s awareness and how he directs this language toward an actual act of seeing and how this act attracts reality, offers us no escapable device. At the same time, through his rigor, he sounds out “This thing about honor” far more intimately than the policy arrangements of an “honor” that brought him to stand inside the “sickly falling” clumps of his and our condition of shattered minds that can think up no more than an industrial future whose central jewel is prison. Kenneth also anticipates and answers Robert McNamara, who In Retrospect says, “… Obviously there are things you cannot quantify: honor and beauty, for example …” McNamara’s precious order and distance become an even more realized distortion before the account of this poem and its beauty of first consequences that cannot be impeded, nor will it succumb to the lures of the obvious where a whole geography, to the men who had to slog through it, became know as the “slab.”
Often have wondered
how NVA treat captured
beyond print, and the
less than three days
of an ambushed
staked to the ground,
hand & foot
who had neither time
with captured GI’s:
tucked them away
for safe keeping
fate’s a bitch
the grunts laughed.
Kenneth wrote about these poems, “I am attempting to discover what LINE is, what SYLLABLE is supposed to be; the above is a reflection of the exploration. I think I do very much want to write, but my problem is separating ideas from things — and where does the medium lie, for the sake of poetic creativity, between those extremes?” Perhaps in hoping to “tuck” this man, and others like him, in a penal banishment, we can contrive relief, or failing that, the vague symptoms of reassurance that instruct us that Kenneth’s presence and worth as a man doesn’t matter. His poems tell us, however, about a vacuum off contrivances and dismissals that rule us in their despoil.
[This excerpt is from David Matlin’s Prisons: Inside the New America from Vernooykill Creek to Abu Ghraib, Chapter IV: Nerve Endings. His masterful study is described by the publisher, North Atlantic Books, as follows: “This powerful exposè reveals how America's ailing prison system undermines the public trust. For ten years, David Matlin taught at a maximum-security prison, where he confronted daily the nature of society, crime, and violence. Based on his experiences, this book examines the history of prisons in the United States and shows the terrible price a lethal combination of degradation, abuse, and corruption inflicts on inmates and society as a whole. Matlin argues that privatization of the prison industry has led to irreversible tragedy both at home and abroad, weakening our national identity and shattering public trust in the American justice system. Engulfing and enraging, the book challenges readers to take a long look at the culture of crime and punishment.”
The poet’s actual name, presented here with the pseudonym “Kenneth,” is William Blount].
in Jacket 36
Feature: Denise Levertov
Also see: Denise Levertov (poem): Eros, in Jacket 16
Also see: Robert J. Bertholf: From Robert Duncan’s Notebooks: On Denise Levertov, in Jacket 28
Also see: Robert J. Bertholf: The Robert Duncan / Denise Levertov Correspondence: Duncan’s View, in Jacket 28
Editor: Kevin Gallagher. From his Introduction:
Levertov had numerous careers as a poet, and each has made a lasting mark on a different poetry community. This collection has at least one discussion of each of these periods, except a discussion of her neo-Romantic British period. Here you can find memoirs and reflections on her work by friends, criticism by scholars and biographers who may have never known her, and tributes from afar.
Kevin Gallagher:Templum: Introduction to Denise Levertov Feature
Anne-Marie Cusac: Reading Levertov in Wartime
Anne Dewey: Gender Difference and the Construction of Social Space in Levertov’s Writing after the Duncan-Levertov Debate
John Felstiner: “that witnessing presence”: Life Illumined Around Denise Levertov
Sam Hamill: In Her Company: Denise Levertov
Donna Krolik Hollenberg: A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov: An excerpt from Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s biography: from Part Two: Chapter Seven
Rachelle K. Lerner: Ecstasy of Attention: Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth
Dick Lourie: Two poems
Mark Pawlak: Draft: From «Glover Circle Notebooks»
José Rodríguez Herrera: In Homage to Levertov: Translating Sands of the Well
Ron Silliman: Unerasing Early Levertov
Tino Villanueva: Poet in the World: A Tribute to Denise Levertov
Translators translate not just from one language to another, but from one space-time continuum into another. It’s a slippery movement, an open jaw, a stammer or wince whose sound is heard (mistakenly) as clear. “Like any act of writing,” writes Sergio Waisman in Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery, “translation is always undertaken from a specific site: the translator’s language, but also the entire cultural and sociohistorical context in which translators perform their task.”
In peering with care into Jorge Luis Borges’ two essays on translation from almost eighty years ago, Waisman reminds us how Borges long ago insisted on the intricate cultural and social weight of words and culture in the transposition of text across languages. To read Borges’ essays is to depart forever from the old saw traduttore, traditore.
Borges published “Las Versiones Homéricas” in 1932. He speaks there of the richness of the texts that for him are Homer, rich because he receives Homer in a plentitude of versions. Whereas he receives the famed opening words of Don Quixote in one unchanging Spanish version. Borges asserts: “Presuponer que toda recombinación de elementos es obligatoriamente inferior a su original, es presuponer que el borrador 9 es obligatoriamente inferior al borrador H—ya que no puede haber sino borradores. El concepto de texto definitivo no corresponde sino a la religión o al cansancio.”
In my English: “To presuppose that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original is like deciding draft 9 is necessarily inferior to draft H—when drafts are all there ever are. The idea of the definitive text belongs only to religion or exhaustion.”
Perhaps any writing process that relies on the “purity” of an “original” bears the scent of tired religion. When the site of reading moves, when its time and place shift, writing also shifts, as do translations. New versions emerge through the body of a translator who, in a sited moment, responds to existing text, and responds by writing. When Barrett Watten, in “Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art and Conceptual Writing,” asks “If all representations of the present depend on periodizing logics, how can there be any such thing as ‘present time’ in a form of representation?” I answer: “in translation.” The plenitude of versions is the present tense, moving, historical, sited. Then time moves on.
Waisman translates Borges differently: “The concept of the definitive text corresponds only to religion or fatigue.” His translation, more literal, carries over the Spanish use of the verb “correspond” in ways that my English doesn't do. My translation wants to transpose the cadence of Borges’ speech into Canadian English as I hear it around me. For when I pick up Borges to read him today, I read him as my contemporary. As all books are contemporary to us in the moment of reading.