Commentaries - November 2012

The city in and of nature

New York, East River moonlight by George Barker
New York, East River moonlight by George Barker

Monday night around 8:40 pm, I watched the East River flood its banks. It’s funny to think of the East River as even having banks. For so much of my life, I hardly thought of it as a river—or estuary, really. It was completely off limits—I didn’t drink from it, would never have swum in it and didn’t boat on it. I thought of it as sort of a giant drainage pipe, if I thought about it at all. But one week ago, like a “real” river, it flooded and was an amazing thing to see. There is a park that runs along the river, and inside the park are soccer fields and on those soccer fields were giant floodlights illuminating what had turned from a strictly bounded river into a contiguous field of water. I had to look twice as it was such an unexpected sight. On the other side, I could see water coming over the FDR drive and into a parking lot, then halfway into a basketball court behind my building. Just as I was wondering whether it would make it to me, yes, me personally, a giant flash lit up the sky and the power cut out. I can’t remember if there was an actual “zzzzt!” but it sure seemed like it.

The next day the power still wasn’t on, and slowly, through a series of encounters with neighbors and friends while walking the streets, as what else does one do in New York City when there’s been a disaster but walk, we found out the scale of the damage.  The City had been breached by Nature, definitively, and it was an unsettling thing. Later, we talked to Anselm Berrigan and Karen Weiser, neighbors and friends. Anselm, like me, had also grown up in New York, and we talked about how the subway always seemed to run, no matter what horrors outside, and we didn’t remember trees falling, or limbs falling from trees (of course, there were a lot less trees back then—an old postcard I kept on my wall at college showed the exact same street scene variously captioned “New York in Summer/New York in Winter/New York in Fall” and so on). I don’t remember hawks living in parks, mosquitoes or small crabs in the water at Coney Island. Instead, NYC was all relentless urbanity, stretching for miles until we could escape through a tunnel into the mysterious green lands beyond.

So now they’re talking about building a giant wall to protect Manhattan. But the water would bounce off this wall and drown parts of Brooklyn and Queens instead. “Zone A” evacuation zones in Manhattan are more often than not public housing. On the map, there’s a strange “zone A” blob that pushes away from the river and into the East Village proper—more public housing, perhaps located on an ancient stream bed that was never properly filled in. So there was a certain awareness of the treacherous geological dips and valleys when planning the city. As for Battery Park City, the “exception,” well, someone fucked up and forgot not to build high-income housing in flood areas.

Nature's been creeping into the city, via bedbug, mosquitoe and green roofs, but this has been a giant slap: Here is the river, and wind, and water rises and trees fall, and heat causes all this. While the storm was nature, it was not natural--a hurricane in New York in October is not natural, and ironically because of it, the price of gasoline dropped a penny (or whatever) and power usage in the Northeast dropped drastically to probably what it should be to keep storms like this from happening more.

British poet Basil Bunting

Spying for MI6 and the CIA

Basil Bunting, Cumbria, UK, 1980. Photograph (c) Jonathan Williams
Basil Bunting, Cumbria, UK, 1980. Photograph (c) Jonathan Williams

British poet Basil Bunting was part of the plot engineered by the CIA, MI6 and Anglo Oil to depose Prime Minister (of Iran) Mossadeq, whose administration, as Wikipedia says, “introduced a wide range of social reforms but is most notable for its nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC/AIOC) (later British Petroleum or BP).” They go on to say that Mossadeq “was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the United States CIA at the request of the British MI6.” Soon Shah Pahlevi and the CIA-trained SAVAK, his repressive secret police force, took power. [ More on my homepage ]

Anne-Marie Albiach (1937-2012)

The great French poet Anne-Marie Albiach died today, after a long illness. 

Albiach was born in 1937 and for many years lived in Neuilly sur Seine on the outskirts of Paris.  Her major collections include Etat (Mercure de France, 1971; republished 1988), Mezza voce (Flammarion, 1984), Anawratha (Spectres Familiers, 1984) and Figure vocative (1985; reissued by Fourbis, 1991), and Figurations de l'image (Flammarion, 2004). She edited Siècle à mains with Claude Royet-Journoud & Michel Courturier.  Royet-Journoud writes that, for him, the 1971 publication of Etat  “changed the ‘face’ of poetry.”  

Albiach has been fortunate in her American translators.  Keith Waldrop worked for 12 years on Etat (Awede, 1989).  Mezza Voce (Post-Apollo, 1988) was translated by Joey Simas in collaboration with Lydia Davis, Anthony Barnett and Douglas Oliver.  Vocative Figure (Allardyce-Barnett, UK, 1992) was translated by Anthony Barnett and Joey Simas. Rosmarie Waldrop has published a translation of Travail Vertical et Blanc in her Série d'Écriture (#4, Spectacular Diseases, 1990).

Jean-Marie Gleize's Albiach was the first book on her complete work (Editions Belin, Paris, 1995).  In the U.S., essays on her work have been written by Keith Waldrop, Paul Auster, Benjamin Hollander, Geoffrey O'Brien, Joseph Simas, Norma Cole, Michael Palmer, Alan Davies, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Gale Nelson, Rosmarie Waldrop, Jonathan Skinner, Don Wellman,  Peter Ramos, Cole Swenson and others.

I wrote this on Post-Apollo's publication of Figured Image:

Anne-Marie Albiach’s words are never alone on the page, having each other for company, just as they find here ideal companionship in Keith Waldrop’s translation. In Figurations de l’Image, Albiach pursues her rigorous investigation into the possibilities of measure, the perceptible, luminescence, vulnerability, memory, contour, ardor, breath, oscillation, remonstration, trajectory, disparity, abstraction, antecedence, disparity, refraction, trace, tapestry, rehearsal, reverberation, and the irreparable. In these poems, the figures refute image as they bank, relapse, surge, palsy, recollect. Albiach scores space to twine time, abjures rhyme to make blank shimmer in the mark.

Anne-Marie Albiach - Selections from ETAT (ENIGME IX) and MEZZA VOCE (Esquisse: << le froid >> ) - Read by the author in her mother’s apartment on the rue de l'Hotel de Ville in Neuilly, France, on July 29, 2000 and July 31, 2001 and recorded by Jonathan Skinner. MP3 (6:57)

Le Monde obit.

Memorials in Berlin

Earlier this year I wrote about Rob Fitterman's "Holocaust Museum," Heimrad Backer's "Transcript," Christian Boltanski's "To be a Jew in Paris in 1939," and the documentary poetics of Raul Hilberg in a commentary called "The Picture Intentionally Left Blank." Like many, I resist the expressive deceptions of traditional memorials, which is why Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial is for me the more perfect embodiment of what is possible, not so much negative capability as negative dialectics. For this reason, I also appreciate Brian Tolle's Irish Hunger Memorial in lower New York (just a block south of Poet's House). I also turn again to Marcel Ophuls's Sorrow and the Pity, Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It and, above all, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

Susan Bee and I were recently in Berlin, where by chance we stayed at quite near Ahava Kindersheim, the Jewish  children's home where Susan's mother took refuge as a child. As Susan writes:  "My mother, Miriam Laufer, lived there from about 1927 to 1934, when she was 14 the whole home moved to Palestine, rescuing many of the children, including my mother. Ahava, which means 'love' in Hebrew, still exists in Israel." With this building as our touchstone, the whole Mitte district took on the quality of a memorial, a shadow world under whatever we were seeing. It is unlikely that people of our generation would ever be able, much less want to, get out from under this shadow. For this reason, the most powerful works of memorial art I found in Berlin were the dispersed "stumbling stones" (Stolpersteine)– small obtruding plaques embedded in pavement, created by Gunter Demnig. Each brass plate acknowledges one individual, noting that he or she lived just here, and giving date of birth and of abduction or murder (if known). This too is a more perfect memorial. And the snapshots, like my not very good one, become part of the process of mourning.

I was far more skeptical of the official Berlin memorial, Peter Eisenman's Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europa, which is in the center of the city. The afternoon we went, it was a mellow scene: Berliners ate their boxed lunches on the edge while children were blithefully playing tag, or maybe  hide and seek, amidst the unevenly sized and placed blank slates, which suggest grave stones without names (just the opposite of the stumbling stones: the abstract idea removed from concrete particulars). I was going to suggest that instead of a game of "Marco!!" –– "Polo"!! –– the kids try out a call and refrain of "Adolf!!"–– "Hitler!" –– but there was nothing about this site to disturb a child's sleep. Bland abstraction of this kind -- nothing troubled, nothing gained –– seems so well meaning as to be worst than nothing. Perhaps it was just as well that the underground information center was closed. 

In contrast, the oldest Berlin Jewish cemetery (pictured also above) was not more perfect, it was just plain perfect. The gestapo had trampled the stones in this cemetery in 1943 and it has been left to its own devices, with the exception of  a replica of Moses Mendelssohns's grave and one extant original grave.