Commentaries - December 2012

In Jacket 34

Cover image of Eda
Cover image of Eda

A selection of poems and essays drawn from Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat, published by Talisman House, New Jersey, and available through Small Press Distribution.
“Thinking, speaking in Turkish is a peculiarly visceral activity, a record of thought emerging … Eda is the play of ideas through the body of Turkish. Not only is it the poetics of Turkish poetry in [the twentieth] century, it is the extension of the language itself, the flowering of its inherent potentials as a language. The otherness of Eda is the distance which separates Turkish from English.”
     Read the sample of poems [»»] here.
           Read the essays [»»] here.
                 Buy the book [»»] here!

Also, for VisPo fans, a short non-Jacket presentation of contemporary Turkish visual poetry by Nico Vassilakis:
(When you get there, scroll right to see the presentation.)

Clark Coolidge, "Blues for Alice"


Brian Reed (in from Seattle), Maria Damon (Minnesota), and Craig Dworkin (Utah) joined Al Filreis at the Writers House (Philadelphia) in a rare and — we think — rather fluid convergence of poetic minds prepped to figure out how to talk about an instance of verse bebop. The bop was Charlie Parker’s, as a model for languaged sound (by poet Clark Coolidge), and the template song was “Blues for Alice” (Coolidge’s poem uses the title), and among the possible Alices are Alice Coltrane, Alice Notley, and Alice in Wonderland. We speculate about Alice Coltrane and Alice in Wonderland, but as for Notley: Brian Reed finds evidence that Coolidge meant to dedicate his poem version of the standard bop dedication indeed to Notley. This leads Maria Damon to wonder about all these women dedicatees – these recipients or objects of blues syllabics — in light of such strong male performative struggles, or attempts to “get in on the try,” managed by creative men: Coolidge and Parker, or course, but perhaps Ted Berrigan too, and surely also Jack Kerouac, whose bop-inspired babble flow is very much part of the PoemTalk conversation. The key source for Coolidge’s working out of Kerouac is his important 1995 article published in American Poetry Review on Kerouac’s babble flow and his improvisation generally.

So let’s line up your sources for a full appreciation of this discussion. For especially studious PoemTalk listeners, we might even suggest that you reckon with these materials in this order. First, listen to one of the available recordings of Charlie Parker performing “Blues for Alice.” Then of course read Coolidge's poem (below and also here). Then read at least part of Coolidge’s essay on Kerouac. Then, finally perhaps, read Ron Silliman’s overview of the importance of Coolidge’s critical approach to Kerouac as an aid to our understanding of an “enormous sense of dedication to craft and to the idea that the meaning of form is intimately connected to what you can do with it”; Silliman is talking about Coolidge’s Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds.

Or, alternatively, forget all those ancillary materials; maybe we should all critically “Step down off our whelm lessons.” Perhaps in the end PoemTalk’s 60th episode will serve best as a model for how the meaning of a poem consciously worded from improvised sound can be conveyed through a close reading of its sounds without the producers of such a reading ever shying away from biography, discography and the specific literary histories of influence.

Our engineer for this episode was Chris Martin and our editor, as always, is the incomparable Steve McLaughlin. We wish to correct information conveyed in the discussion: Rachel Blau DuPlessis was indeed the source of the reel-to-reel recording, which she held for many years and then gave to PennSound, whereupon it was digitally converted; she was part of the 1985 symposium at Temple University where Coolidge performed, but did not make the tape.

Blues for Alice, by Clark Coolidge

When you get in on a try you never learn it back
umpteen times the tenth part of a featured world
in black and in back it’s roses and fostered nail
bite rhyme sling slang, a song that teaches without
travail of the tale, the one you longing live
and singing burn
It’s insane to remain a trope, of a rinsing out
or a ringing whatever, it’s those bells that . . .
and other riskier small day and fain would be
of the soap a sky dares
                                               but we remand,
that we a clasp of the silence you and I, all of
tiny sphering rates back, I say to told wall, back
and back and leave my edge, and add an L
Night is so enclosed we’ll never turn its page
its eye, can be mine will be yours, to see all the people
the underneath livid reaching part and past of the lying buildings
the overreacher stops and starts, at in his head, in
in her rhythm
that knowledge is past all of us, so we flare and tap
and top it right up, constant engage and flap in on
keeping pace, our whelming rift, and soil and gleam
and give back the voice, like those eary dead
Step down off our whelm lessons and shortly fired
enter the bristle strum of Corrosion Kingdom
where the last comes by first ever ring, every
race through that tunnel of sun drop and pencil
in the margins of a flare, of higher wish than dare,
the stroked calmings of a line will spin and chime
in blue quicks of a dream blues, the chores
of those whispering gone crenulations
To meet a care is to dial redeem
and we limp in the time sound balms
so out of kilter is my name in the sun, and I win
in the moon and you sing in that other spelling of win
the way a blue is never singular

Translation from French by Clayton Eshleman & A. James Arnold with a Note on the Original by the Translators

     At the end of first light, the wind of long ago—of betrayed trusts, of uncertain 
evasive duty and that other dawn in Europe—arises…

     To leave. My heart was humming with emphatic generosities. To leave… I would
arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land whose
loam is part of my flesh: “I have wandered for a long time and I am coming back
to the deserted hideousness of your sores.”
     I would come to this land of mine and I would say to it: “Embrace me without
fear… And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak.”
     And again I would say:
     “My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth, my voice
the freedom of those who break down in the prison holes of despair.”
     And on the way I would say to myself:
     “And above all, my body as well as my soul beware of assuming the sterile
attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a
proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear…”
     And behold here I am come home!

     Once again this life hobbling before me, what am I saying this life, this death,
this death without meaning or piety, this death that so pathetically falls short
of greatness, the dazzling pettiness of this death, this death hobbling from pettiness
to pettiness; these shovelfuls of petty greeds over the conquistador; these
shovelfuls of petty flunkies over the great savage; these shovelfuls of petty souls
over the three-souled Carib,*
and all these deaths futile
absurdities under the splashing of my open conscience
tragic futilities lit up by this single noctiluca
and I alone, sudden stage of this first light
where the apocalypse of monsters cavorts
then, capsized, hushes
warm election of cinders, of ruins and collapses

     —One more thing! only one, but please make it only one; I have no right to
measure life by my sooty finger span; to reduce myself to this little ellipsoidal
nothing trembling four fingers above the line,* I a man to so overturn creation,
that I include myself between latitude and longitude!

     At the end of first light,
the male thirst and the desire stubborn,
here I am, severed from the cool oases of brotherhood
this so modest nothing bristles with hard splinters
this too sure horizon shudders like a jailer.

     Your last triumph, tenacious crow of Treason.
     What is mine, these few thousand deathbearers who mill in the calabash of an
island and mine too the archipelago arched with an anguished desire to negate
itself, as if from maternal anxiety to protect this impossibly delicate tenuity
separating one America from the other; and these loins which secrete for Europe
the hearty liquor of a Gulf Stream, and one of the two slopes of incandescence
between which the Equator tightropewalks toward Africa. And my non-closure
island, its brave audacity standing at the stern of this Polynesia, before it,
Guadeloupe split in two down its dorsal line and equal in poverty to us, Haiti
where negritude rose for the first time* and stated that it believed in its humanity
and the funny little tail of Florida where the strangulation of a nigger is being
completed, and Africa gigantically caterpillaring up to the Hispanic foot of
Europe, its nakedness where death scythes widely.*

     And I say to myself Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool
and New York and San Francisco*
not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint and my calcaneus on the spines
of skyscrapers and my filth in the glitter of gems!
Who can boast of being better off than I?
Virginia. Tennessee. Georgia. Alabama.
Monstrous putrefactions of revolts stymied,
marshes of putrid blood
trumpets absurdly muted
Land red, sanguineous, consanguineous land

     What is also mine: a little cell in the Jura,* a little cell, the snow lines it with
white bars
the snow is a white jailer mounting guard before a prison
What is mine
a lone man imprisoned in whiteness
a lone man defying the white screams of white death
a man who mesmerizes the white sparrow hawk of white death
a man alone in the sterile sea of white sand
an old black man standing up to the waters of the sky
Death traces a shining circle above this man
death stars softly above his head
death breathes in the ripened cane of his arms
death gallops in the prison like a white horse
death gleams in the dark like the eyes of a cat
death hiccups like water under the Keys*
death is a struck bird
death wanes
death vacillates
death is a shy patyura*
death expires in a white pool of silence.

     Swellings of night in the four corners of this first light
convulsions of congealed death
tenacious fate
screams erect from mute earth
the splendor of this blood will it not blast forth?


Here are nine strophes from our translation of Aimé Césaire’s 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. This 725 line poem is a work of immense cultural significance and beauty. To date commentary on it has focused on its Cold War and anticolonialist rhetoric, material that Césaire only added to the revised 1956 text which turns out to be the fourth, and until now, primarily known version of the work.

          Since 1956, readers of Césaire’s masterwork have had to wrestle with what is, in effect, a palimpsest. On three occasions after the poem’s first publication in the literary journal “Volontés” on the eve of World War II, the poet revised the carefully composed original text in a new spirit and with different aims. In 1947, the Paris bookseller Brentano’s, which published in New York City during the war, brought out the first book edition of the poem with an English translation by L. Abel and Y. Goll prefaced by André Breton’s essay, “A Great Negro Poet.” A few weeks later, Bordas, in Paris, brought out a third edition based on a different (no longer extant) typescript.

          Whereas the two 1947 editions were revised exclusively by the addition of new elements to heighten certain effects, the 1956 edition published by Présence africaine in Paris (until now taken to be the definitive text) excised much of the earlier additions and substituted for them blocks of text that would align the poem with the poet’s new political position, one which embraced the immediate decolonization of Africa in militant tones. Most notably the visible traces of a spiritual discourse were obliterated, and the sexual metaphors that characterized carnal passages addressing the speaker’s union with nature were replaced by new material that introduced an entirely new socialist perspective focused on the wretched of the earth.

          Our intention in offering the 1939 French text of the Notebook, translated for the first time into English, is to strip away decades of rewriting that introduced an ideological purpose absent from the original. We do not claim to reveal what the poem ultimately means but rather how it was meant to be read in 1939. Reading with the poem’s first audience, so to speak, will finally permit a new generation to judge its enduring power a century after the poet’s birth.

--A.J.A and C.E, November 2012

 [A bilingual edition of the original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman will be published by Wesleyan University Press in the spring of 2013 in conjunction with an international Césaire conference to be held on the Wesleyan campus April 5/6.]

Pascal Quignard's INTER.

That title is my favourite of the three translations I made of the title of Pascal Quignard’s poem Inter Aerias FagosAmong Aerial Beeches, or In the Canopy of Beeches — republished in 2011 in the beautiful volume INTER, and slipped to me recently by poet Chantal Neveu. “You should write about this,” she said. Its title opens up to air, the partage or sharing of air and branch, for in Latin the word Aerias includes not just towering branches but the air in and between the branches.

This poem by Quignard (one of Chus Pato’s favourite writers, by the way) was composed in Paris in 1976-77, in Latin, when Q was, as he recounts in the introduction, combatting a depression following his departure from a publishing job. The work was published by Emmanuel Hocquard at Orange Export Ltd in 1979, along with Hocquard’s own translation, Dans l’air entre les branches des hêtres. In both cases, French and Latin, it was a poem of beeches, that tree which in early Germanic culture was used to create tablets for writing, before paper existed. Beech and book are related words in many northern languages to this day. Hocquard, too, in his French, doubled the Latin “aerias” into “air” and “branches” to catch its spirit more fully.

The book then disappeared from view, a rarity.

In 1988, poet and editor Bénédicte Gorrillot proposed a book to Quignard that would republish not only Inter aerias fagos, but seven translations from Latin into French by seven French poets, including Gorrillot, along with Hocquard, Pierre Alferi, Christian Prigent, Michel Deguy, Éric Clemens and Jude Stéfan.

With its introductory epistle by Quignard and its concluding essay by Gorrillot, the new volume is a magnificent proof of the rupture and slippage that occurs in even one language—French—while translating. The translations are like different Latin poems, says Gorrillot. The Latin both slips, is present, and escapes any settled mode of inscription in French. The original work is vertical, airy, seems to ascend and descend the page. As if its translators had to climb the vertical face of the poem with ropes, crampons, chalked toes. And as each translator is different in body and fears, each translator finds different holds and crevices, and the wall crumbles under the weight of each climber differently.

It is a poem of anxiety and sadness about the book and the air of the book, about what compels us to writing and what sends us to despair: the “savage word and sombre treasure.”  What is it that words hold that is not like words and not in words but is between them, as air is in the high canopy of the beeches? How do books offer us words? They release their readers (us!) into the spaces between the words and pages, of course.

As Gorillot says in her essay (good thoughts on translation here)… “INTER privileges the human subject over what is translated, in other words, the translating consciousness and the act of enunciation over the translated enunciation.” The reign of Babel, she says, affects not only national languages but also reigns within a single national language because of the individuality of its speakers.

Translation is the kind of work that teaches us so much about the very possibilities of communicating sounds that coalesce into meanings, not in and of us, but between us: inter aerias fagos.

INTER is a book to look up to. It is a small — to use an expression of Chus Pato’s — republic of trees.

A 6-minute segment on ModPo was aired on The Today Show on Monday morning, December 10. Later it was made available through the MSNBC web site here.