Commentaries - November 2012

[NOTE. The following was originally published in The Exquisite Corpse in 1993 & again in Thus Spake The Corpse (An Exquisite Corpse Reader, 1988-1999). Brought into the present context its central argument – as presented here – has much to say about the nature of language & identity beyond more orthodox ideas of nativism & foreignness. The emphasis on American & Jewish writings rhymes as well with matters of concern to the present editor & touched on from different perspectives in previous postings on Poems and Poetics. It is also an acknowledgement of the role played by major figures in our recent poetry & literature who have come into English writing as a second or even a third language, but in the extract cited here goes well beyond that. A complete version of Nemet-Nejat’s once controversial essay can be found elsewhere on the web. (J.R.)]

 I speak no language like a native. Though I have lived in the States since 1959, my accent still sounds foreign. I was born in Turkey, but I am not Turkish. I am Jewish. In the fifties most Jews in Turkey were Sephardim and spoke Ladino Spanish. But I am not a Sephardi; I am a Persian Jew. My parents had moved to Istanbul on business, and I was born there in a Jewish neighborhood. But I learnt no Ladino, barely understood it. Jewish kids in the neighborhood thought I was Moslem, an outsider. At home, my parents spoke Persian with each other, which also I barely understood. Brothers among ourselves spoke Turkish. My mother spoke in an immigrant's broken Turkish to me (my father barely spoke to me at all). Turkish became my mother tongue. I spoke Turkish in the street. I was, linguistically, most comfortable with other Turks, who mostly despised Jews. My speech became almost Turkish. Loving a language not completely my own was my first act as a Jew. And, despite my almost accentless speech, my first act of rebellion was to tell my Turkish friends I was not one of them. I was a Jew.


 What is, then, writing which has an accent? It is a writing which does not completely identify with the power, authority of the language it uses; but confronts, without glossing over, the gap between the user and the language. Such writing reveals an ambiguity towards power: the writer chooses to embrace a language (because of its pervasive centrality) which he/she knows is not quite his/her own, is insufficient for his/her inner purposes. Accent in writing has little to do with explicit theme or semantic context; it rather has to do with texture, structure, the scratches, distortions, painful gaps (in rhythms, syntax, diction, etc.) caused by the alien relationship between the writer and his/her adopted language. Accent is cracks (many unconscious, the way a speaker is unaware of his or her accent when speaking, does not have to create it ) on the transparent surface.

 Accented Jewish writing embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power. By doing that it creates its accent. Kafka, to me, is the first modern, European writer who reveals the Jew's ambiguity towards power in terms of an accent in the texture of his language. His language of choice as a writer is not Yiddish or Czech but legal German (that of an intricate legal brief), a double embrace of power: first of the cultural mainstream, second, that section of it which codifies its power. But Kafka's accent subverts that legal code, divests it of its meaning, turns the language of the powerful into a language of the victim, of alienation. To me, Kafka's subject is a stylistic dialogue about the ambiguity of power, between the powerful and the victim, a sadomasochistic elaboration of the Book of Job, the chosen man of God also chosen as a victim. Interestingly, Kafka's fiction (as opposed to his diaries) has very few direct references to Jews, almost no semantic, but only stylistic, Jewish content.


 Why did Kafka write Amerika, why was he attracted to the subject of the United States? German also accents Am-erika. What did he hear in the word Oklahoma? A wild, alien, distant sound in German, Oklahoma! At the same time, an intimate sound, one of the rare words in English with vowel harmony, which is also, I imagine, in Czech. Kafka hears in Oklahoma the alien ground in which his private soul can nest itself, the synthesis between the powerful and the victim. That is why he associates his open-ended, endless nirvana of liberation in the Theater (Noah's Ark) of Oklahoma. What is the word Oklahoma after all, but the imprint of the Native American, the victim, the invaded in the language of the master. American English: the language which embodies that peculiar combination, victim and victor possessing the same language, yoked together by fate.

 Using American English as a poet is the outsider, the victim, embracing, emulating the language of the master, being constantly beset by the ambiguities of power.


 What makes this poetry different from others, from French, from English? Here lies its radical ambiguity: American English, as a poetic language, is not a mother tongue in the usual sense but a pseudo-mother, step-mother tongue. It can have no tradition, its vocabulary no public or mythical, only personal, private resonances. It is the language of pervasive power, without resonance, of authority in which the immigrant, the victim must speak. Writing poetry in American English is a continuous act of translating from a radical inside or from a radical beyond. Its well of inspiration is always outside, never in the mining or contributing to the flowerings of a tradition. The reading and the writing of American poetry must always be discontinuous. Accepting a central, authoritative tradition undercuts its balance of power and victimhood.

 Even to the powerful, American English is unstable, its power ambiguous. When the Puritan, for example, spoke English, the Puritan saw himself/herself threatened by the geographic and moral wilderness around, which even destabilized the inner certitudes. His/her language is defensive, doubting its ability to embrace, cope with the darkness beyond the ring of light, the ring of reason.

 That alienation, instability between writer and language, a radical skepticism about its ability to reveal inner truth constitute its essential nature. The relation of the poet to the language is inescapably confrontational. American English is the quintessential unnatural, insufficient, weak language which the writer has to bend, distort, to translate into, to interject his or her vision. To me, three nineteenth century writers, none of them Jewish but white protestant, embody this accented writing: Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson. Hawthorne's Puritan English prose is tortured, twisted to assimilate both the wilderness beyond on the continent and the wilderness within. (Read the first pages of House Of The Seven Gables; it is Henry James at his purest. All of Henry James and more is in it.) Melville's compulsive, encyclopedic lists of whaling lore crack up, can not contain the nihilism at the core and must spill into splintered moments of black vision which masquerade as narrative. Dickinson invents a language which only pretends to be English and must be read over and over again to be stripped into its message, a violent sadomasochism. Words are private emblems, the syntax unstable, constantly shifting, not quite an "English" syntax, the smooth "hymnal" surface hiding, shafted with a sadomasochistic violence. All these works are written by writers, though white Christians, for whom the given language is not really their own, not really their "natural," mother tongue.

 Contemporary Jewish writing, embodying the ambiguous relationship to power, is therefore a specific example of American writing. Emily Dickinson, the Protestant spinster completely at home at Amherst but completely out of it, is to me the American poet, the Jew, the sister/neighbor in exile, whose enigmatic, excessive, possessive, distant, recalcitrant company I can take only a few poems at a time.


 American poetics is asocial, therefore, uncanonizable. I am not talking about changing the canon, therefore creating a new structure of power; discontinuous means uncanonizable. I must apply the principle of quantum mechanics here. The moment a style or a poet is canonized, therefore gaining a privileged mainstream position, the language written in that style loses the tension between power and victimhood and stops being American. Writing poetry in American English is not a trade or guild activity to be taught at special schools or communities (while making movies or TV shows is), but an act of personal survival.

 Reading American poets is essentially following a series of distinct, discontinuous personal strategies in language. Tradition in the European sense is an illusion in American poetry. Even the "newest" French or English writer writes with a hope of one day becoming a "classic." Thinking of the future, or even in the traditional sense of the past, thinking of a continuity, are ruinous for an American poet or critic. Therefore, Jabès and Derrida, masters of academic style, tools to create a new canon, have no relevance to an American poet unless as abject objects to be attacked.

 Harold Bloom's paradigm of anxiety of influence, the poet struggling with his linguistic father-predecessor, is wrong. With the possible exception of Allen Ginsberg and Whitman, I know no American poet who has created truly original work as a "flowering" of a previous poet. In a radical sense, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Stein, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Creeley, Ashbery have no American beginnings or ends. The contemporary attempt to create a new canon around, for example, the figures of Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, Dickinson and Stein is to misunderstand their work. The accents (in Susan Howe's word, "hesitations,") in Dickinson's, or any other poet's writing, are unreproduceable, completely idiosyncratic. To think that Stein's repetitions or Ashbery's mellifluously expansive meditations are linguistic tools bequeathed to later poets in terms of a "flowering poetic tradition" is wrong-headed. In American poets these are outside trappings of idiosyncratic, personal solutions, accents, that can be completely ignored by and are only marginally useful to another poet. What unifies the poets is their unchanging, confrontational, aggressive relationship to their language. None of them is writing in his or her mother tongue and must therefore distort, accent it to make it his/her own.


 Creeley calls Zukofsky "the teacher of all of us," but Creeley does not imitate or expand on Zukofsky's poetic style. He undercuts it by creating hesitations, weaknesses (accents) in its architecture. Creeley mishears Zukofsky's reading of his own poems by "hearing" stops at his line breaks. To do that to a Zukofsky poem (to a lyric like "Songs Of Degrees"), in essence, is to demolish (to add excessive stops to) its sound architecture. But vocal hesitations at line ends (independent of syntax) is the core of Creeley's poetic sound, the power of its vulnerable intimacy. In essence, Creeley's relation to Zukofsky is confrontational, accented. What he learns from Zukofsky is, I think, to turn the language he is born to, English, into an alien, slightly abstract structure of sound he can crack, poke into. What he learns from Zukofsky, is American English.

 Zukofsky, a foreigner, teaches Creeley, the Puritan, English as a foreign language, a structure of power Creeley does not completely own. At his most original Creeley subverts Zukofsky's powerful architecture of sound to interject his weaknesses, hesitations. For Creeley Zukofsky is the alien, the outside which softens the smug nastiness, the male chauvinism of the early poems in For Love. It brings them ambiguity, restraint, by turning their power driven misogyny inward, into a language of vulnerability and pathos.


 In American poetry the father (tradition) and the mother tongue (the language of intimate and evocative words) are split. This confrontation makes the American poem an attack into the unsayable (socially and spiritually). To evoke what is unnamed is, always, to evoke what is not in the physical body of the language, in its material music. The language of weakness, of the unnamed, must have a Puritanical bias, "Thou shalt not worship graven words." The poet's instinctive love for words, their physicality, is suspect, must be restrained.

 The music of words (of their plasticity) is tradition. The music between words is the language of the outside, the unnamable. That's why Zukofsky, whom Creeley calls the poet with the perfect ear, can be, maybe must be, tone deaf. That's why Dickinson, the supreme American poet, has so few quotable, physically luscious lines. American poem is anti-musical, can not preen its physical achievement like a peacock. Once again, Whitman sticks out against my theories like a sore thumb.

 The American poem (and poet) is always trapped in the space between words, in the crack between his/her vision and the language he/she is using, in the discontinuity (as opposed to cultural unity) between the self and his/her language. His/her soul belongs to somewhere else. That is why if he/she is influenced by another poet, that poet is almost always from another language, French, Indian, Turkish, German, Spanish, Japanese, etc. Or, more often, the mother lode of influence is another medium, cubism or abstractionism in painting, Jazz, photography, movies, TV, etc. American poems are continuous acts of translations from another language or medium or both. In this process, the languages of origin (Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, etc.) or aesthetic philosophies are not hierarchical, canonical, but coexist on the same level. No language is superior over another language. Surrealism is no more relevant than Sufism, deconstructionism or anthropology than Zen, glyphs than photographs, the poets Yunus Emre, Zbigniew Herbert, Xavier Villaurrutia than Arthur Rimbaud.

 As I said, American English is neutral with no personal, cultural associations. No more is this more clear than in Emily Dickinson. What do sun, father, Hunter, He, God, etc. (all images of authority) mean in her work? Nothing. They are essentially blank emblems, a chain of Moby Dicks, completely stripped of their traditional associations, around which the poet weaves her barely decipherable soul. Under the deceptive music of a hymn, of a little embroidering lady, the blankness of these crucial images liberates/unhinges the syntax in the poems, completely privatizes it. What is Moby Dick after all? An attack on whiteness, an asocial, self-destructive pursuit of the unnamable, which all the lists, all the encyclopedias, all the charts, all the lore of the country can not name. Call me Ishmael, the poet, who (I) must a tale unfold/ Whose lightest word... I am thy father. ... Seems, madam? No it's. I have that within me which passeth show. ... Others trappings and suits of woe …”

 The unnamable, ineffable, the radically inner implicate, require, fate, a confrontation with the father tongue. The music is in the ensuing unhinging.

Charles Bernstein & Annie Paradis
Lungfill series at Zinc Bar
Sunday, Nov. 18, at 5:30pm
82 West 3rd Street between Sullivan & Thompson
in New York's Greenwich Village.

Text in the City: Difficult Language » Meta-Talon » Talonbooks
Garry Thomas Morse's omnibus review of Lyn Hejinian, Nikki Reimer, Jan Zwicky, Wayman Chan, Natalie Simpsons, Anis Shivani, & more, along with Attack of the Difficult Poems.

Poem of the Month » Great Moments in Taches Blanches by Charles Bernstein

Commentary by Franklin WInslow. A poem forthcoming in *Recalculating* posted in the Baruch College blog on the occasion of my reading at Baruch on Nov. 7.

Bruce Andrews symposium rescheduled for Dec. 7.

Lyrik-Rettungsschirm wird Vertrauen der Leser wiederherstellen |

New poem by Norbert Lange. Hölderlin variations by Filips, Prynne, Thill & this from Google: "man dwells / on this earth. But pure is not the shadow of the night / with the stars, if I may say so, as a man, / height of an image of the deity" (You can sure say that again). PLUS: :::::::S=P=R=A=C=H=E::::::: "Poetry Bailout" from Attack of the Difficult Poems tr. by Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich : "Illiquid Lyrikanlagen unterbrechen den für unsere Literatur so lebenswichtigen Phantasiefluss. ... Mein Name ist Charles Bernstein und ich stehe hinter dieser Mitteilung" in new issue of Karawa.Net, along with tr. of a recent essay by Bruce Andrews from Columbia poetics conference and my "Dollar Value of Poetry" <>: "Oder aber diese Formationen (die von »den Medien« durch die Form in der sie »Informationen« »Fakten« »kommunizieren« dauerhaft mitgetragen wird) übernehmen unsere Lebensform (siehe Invasion of the Body Snatchers und Dawn of the Dead als jüngste Beiträge zu diesem Thema), wie durch posthypnotische Suggestion finden wir uns plötzlich im Griff der – und leben – fühlen – die Attitüden, die mittels der Phrasen und ihrer Sequentialisierung permanent wiederholt und in uns hinein programmiert werden – Sprachüberwachung = Gedankenüberwachung = Realitätskontrolle: Sie muss »dezentriert«, »kollektiv kontrolliert« und dem Dienst des kapitalistischen Projekts entrissen werden. Fürs Erste: eine Idee für das Anti-Virus: unverdaulich, unversöhnlich." With intro by Büscher-Ulbrich. & more!

I. Augustus

Caesar of ribald songs & nose & blemishes
of seven birthmarks on his stomach
gravel in his urine
negligent of personal appearance when granted
an audience with the Great Bear
& on dropping off in summer
slept with the bedroom door open
to protect himself
especially by not bathing with an oil rub
after which he took a douche of water
(sulfur water)
on a wooden bath seat
with a sharp sprint in the company of little boys
regarding them as freaks
& his hair yellowish & rather curly
one did not realize
how small a man he was
unless his body
said to have been marred by chest & stomach
had a weakness
caused him great distress
but always
wore a broad-brimmed hat
his feet uncovered
lying sleepless in the dark
his limit was a pint
or a slice of cucumber
if he ever exceeded this he would deliberately
he had a weakness in his left hip
suggesting ringworm
but this is an exaggeration
caused by an itching of his skin
& as a rule
preferred the food of the common people
or the heart of a young lettuce
or a slice of cucumber
fresh hand-pressed cheese
& green figs of the second crop
but his shoes had rather thick soles woven & sewn for him
or merely lengths of goat-hair cloth
or sponges
“not even a jew farts so scrupulously on his sabbaths
(fasts, I mean) as I have done today”
his limit was a pint
& when the civil wars were over
stripped the mothers of their clothes
or softened the hair on his legs
by singeing
lying sleepless in the dark
& as a rule
preferred his invert’s finger
“Look! the gods have gobbled
all the left hip, thigh & leg
for gross debauchery”
a joke?
a wild boar?
running sores?
the gods?
Mark Antony alleged that Julius Caesar
made him submit to gross debauchery
one did not realize
how small a man he was
for gross debauchery the gods
have gobbled Caesar
& this invert’s finger sways the world!

II. Nero

When he staged “The Fire”
also a ballet performance by certain young Greeks
& simultaneously opened the baths
but refused the titled “Father of his Country”
Nero, not satisfied with the passion he felt for his mother
raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria.
And this was because of his youth
& a wild beast hunt in the circus:
this was when he shaved for the first time
presided at shows of this sort
planned only two foreign tours
likewise expelled from the city all “food of the gods.”
A naturally cruel heart
ugly omens were voted him:
he actually raced four-camel chariots!
& the password he gave the colonel on duty was
“The Best of Mothers.”
He had reached the age of 17.
Giving Claudius a lavish funeral
Nero watched from the top of the proscenium
a Roman play by Afranius called “The Fire”
& occupied the hindquarters of a hollow wooden heifer
(he early developed a taste for it)
wearing masks
would address the judges,
played a flute
on one occasion fractured a praetor’s skull.
Clearly the true Nero
because one of his games
(from noon ‘til midnight)
was to drop the bodies down sewers:
a turban party, yes
a rose banquet.
Also forced noblewomen,
cruised past brothels
tried to turn Sporus into a girl by castration
with stones & broken bottles.
Gradually Nero’s vices gained the upper hand.
A rather amusing joke:
the passion he felt for his mother
(“The Best of Mothers” the password
he gave the colonel on duty)
now lasted from noon till midnight
was notorious.
Nero practiced every kind of obscenity:
skins of men & women in the same litter
incest with Agrippina
(“the best of mothers”)
he imitated the screams & moans of a girl being deflowered.
Snow-cooled water.
Feasts from noon till midnight.
Artificial lakes.
A handkerchief.
A rain of flowers, bracelets, sulfur water.
1000 assorted birds daily.
Pearls, paintings, slaves.
Ceilings of fretted ivory.
City tenements.
The state of his clothes every time they rode in the same litter.
He also had men at work on a covered bath
& condescended to remark:
the food of the gods!
now at last
I can begin to live like a human being!”
Jeers & catcalls.
“I really must get back to Baiae.”
At last he tried it on a pig:
the screams & moans of a girl being deflowered
& showed equal generosity to his monkey-faced banker.
Agrippina to be killed:
handling her arms & legs, discussing their good & bad points:
Now mother may come & kiss my natural resources.
A cough mixture.
A comet.
The baths which he had built.
The Fall of Illium.
Orestes the Matricide.
Oedipus Blinded.
And “The Fire” a Roman play by Afranius
in which the actor playing Icarus
while attempting his first flight
fell beside Nero’s couch & spattered him
with blood.

[NOTE. The preceding poems, after a long hiatus, appear in the forthcoming A Cruel Nirvana (SplitLevel Texts, Ann Arbor), a compendium of three of my otherwise unavailable books from years gone by. The obvious source of this one is Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, and the procedure is one of appropriation & extreme reassemblage – my first deliberate move in that direction. Beyond that, the poems were originally published in 1977 by Braad Editions in France (and prior to that in an aborted shorter version by Black Sun Press). To all of whom I am forever grateful. (J.R.)]

(Curiosity and melancholy too)

archive notebook
O leixaprén

“There is a certain curiosity in it that exceeds melancholy.” I took this quote out of a notebook of mine, my “Praha” Moleskine that has never seen Prague, for I translate a “Praha” out of wherever I am, going to Prague by simply writing always in the pages of Praha, even when I am elsewhere, knitting these elsewheres together into Prague or Praha. At times I even take out the map of the city and use it to find where I am, though I am nowhere near Prague.

What does Prague and a notebook I bought on The Danforth in Toronto (a reject)—and have no right to use—have to do with translation, you ask? Perhaps all translation has to do with curiosity and melancholy, I respond.

I open the notebook two pages further on and find a quote from Giorgio Agamben scribbled there, from page 340 of his Puissance de la pensée: “La facticité est la condition de ce qui demeure caché dans son ouverture, de ce qui est exposé par son retrait même.”

“Facticity is the condition of that which remains concealed in its opening, of that which is exposed by its very retreat.”

I look up Agamben’s book in English, excited. It is called Potentialities (which is the “power of thinking,” of course, I nod)… and Agamben is talking on page 185 about Heidegger’s concept of facticity, which is not factual, but returns to the sense of fact as facere, as making, and thus as non-original. Agamben beckons past Husserl, he says, to Augustine, who was caught saying “the soul is made”.

“In some ways, ‘irreducible opacity’. In some ways, ‘the incommensurate.’” “A constellation charged with tensions.”  “Refusal.” “The labour of poetry.” And “the face.” (All from Praha, at random.)

This facticity, in Augustine and in Agamben, via Heidegger, is set in opposition to nativity, the native. Ah, now you know why I am writing this. What is translated has no nativity, is language with no native tongue. Thus it is factual. A made thing. Like a soul.

Suddenly, I think, too: “Robert Duncan” and remember working as a youngster as a dishwasher on a train and shouting into the wilderness near Prince Rupert, BC the words to a Duncan poem:

“that is not mine, but is a made place

that is mine, it is so near to the heart.”

Edited by Linda Russo

Joanne Kyger, photo by Bill Berkson, Angel Hair, 1970
Joanne Kyger, photo by Bill Berkson, Angel Hair, 1970

"Peter Orlofsky locks himself in the bathroom all night and smokes opium and then vomits all the next morning so we travel slowly."

Linda Russo: Introduction
Joanne Kyger — poem — “Man” from Man/Women
Kevin Killian — The “Carola Letters"
Charlie Vermont — “Form/id/able” and Joanne Kyger
Linda Russo — an interview with Joanne Kyger

Andrew Schelling on Joanne Kyger’s Portable Poetics
Stephen Vincent — The Work of Joanne Kyger
Dale Smith — an interview with Joanne Kyger
Joanne Kyger — poem — “Phillip Whalen’s Hat"
Dan Coffey — on Joanne Kyger’s Phenomenological
Jonathan Skinner — The Travel Poems
Anne Waldman — Introduction to Joanne Kyger’s Japan and India Journals
Joanne Kyger’s “Letter to Nemi April 10 1962” from The Japan and India Journals
Also see Joanne Kyger’s Author Page at the Electronic Poetry Center at the State University of New York in Buffalo at for a selection her poems, a bibliography, and a selection writing on her work including essays by Alice Notley and Ron Silliman.