Commentaries - December 2012

Translated by Pierre Joris

(The Ahmed Fragments are my translations/adaptations of a series of monologues improvised in 1972/1973 in front of a tape recorder by Ahmed Taraoui, an Algerian worker “born about 1940,” and published under the title Une vie dalgérien, est-ce un livre que les gens vont lire? [ Does an Algerians Life Make For a Book People Will Read?] by Le Seuil in 1973. Moussa Lebkiri & his Théâtre Nedjma created a play called Et moi, je suis resté comme une chaise based on these texts in 1983. [P.J.])


when one is young
one always looks for the war
one collects red ants black ants
and one says:
that one (the red
is an arab
and that other one is the french.
let’s see who’ll win.
the red one will fight
the black one.
of course you know
that a red ant
will be massacred
in a single second,
will be cut up
carved up piece by piece
— I swear it’s so.
well, if the arab people
if we
don’t have scientists
still we have
all it takes.
all of africa is rich
my friend. full
of gold full
of diamonds.
so why don’t they want
to buy scientists?
or give their children
to the civilized countries
to become scientists?
even if they can’t do that
they can always buy scientists,
even one scientist: they can
pay him billions
and spy on him so that
someone may capture
his profession.
they can I
hope manage
that, no?

but god he
know that the arabs
have only mortal dreams
mean dreams.
that they always itch
for a fight that
they want to destroy the world.
before, okay, the arabs
had a good brain… (oh but then
you know, anyway, that they have been
at war for centuries and centuries)
so god, he know
that at the end they are very
bad. very very very very bad
and that’s why he
made this wind you see a wind it
hit them in the eyes
it entered their ears
it entered their brains
made them forget all that
all the science all the
civilization all of that
forever . it makes them think
only of women. only of women,
only of changing. five
six ten
women a year
each year. an arab be he
sixty or seventy
if he comes he is still
a man:
his cock, it still exists.
still valid.
he can make children
with a girl who is twenty
(but not above. right. from
fourteen to twenty because
above twenty she is old she
can no longer make
children it’s over
from fourteen to twenty
that’s the age
of woman)
                              he’ll think
only of that
only of fucking
only of his cock
so that’s why god
made the wind
he knows
that if they had been scientists
they would have destroyed the whole world.
yes, I don’t think
the world would still exist!
that’s why god
who knows what people become
he has stopped them.

you see, me, I am
the last one.
you won’t believe the illusions
I sometime make.
would you find anybody
talk like I do? sometimes
when I speak people for example
my buddies my work mates my girl friends
they say “this dude you realize
he’s totally crazy! why don’t they’
treat him? lock him
up?” so
what do I talk? me, I
says “if I was like
that napoleon the twenty first
who wants to make roads
to cross to I don’t know where
I would make a kind of radar.
what I think now is not
of today: I thought it
for the first time
in my country though I was
so very stupid I was talking
of such things: a kind of
radar that there is no one
can know of. that radar it
could watch me the whole world
by science by civilization
by illness by everything.
I see everything
the plane
when it takes off from the ground
the ship when it goes
out of the harbor: I can
see it… it doesn’t mean
they all go together: I got
kind of buttons
and I make like in the movies, whammm
I screen switzerland I screen
japan I look at everything at the
same time the harbor
I see the whole harbor
the planes the people etcetera etcetera etcetera
I see everything that happens.

then there won’t be
any illusions
there will be no problems
for people who want to leave
the land or who have finished
to build the land:
one will see those parts
of the land that are empty
(I don’t know how many million
square kilometers) that are
empty or that they don’t manage
to finish.

you see
they want to go up there.
what are they looking for
up there you tell me
you tell me one day
they’ll find an ass
up there and that ass
will piss on them
I’m absolutely sure of that!
if I had that radar
science would be good
like for example medicine
to heal the sick. if I could
I would make a radio that I
carry like a suitcase like.
instead of people bothering
to come and see me
— maybe the sick they would
die while walking —
I’d go myself I’d take
that radio like a suitcase
and the moment I’s get there
I’d see everything,
I’d see the things that circulate
I’d see all things.
that’s how I wanted to do things.

about the art of civilization we’ll stop
here. let’s ask god to give us
another day...

Gerald Janecek on the 'Alphabet' poems

Andrei and Dmitri Prigov
Dmitri Prigov and Andrei Prigov (PMP Group––also including Natalia Mali), video still from Narod i vlast' sovmestno lepiat obraz novoi Rossii (The people and the state together are building an image of the new Russia), 2003. DVD, 8 minutes.

Today I present a guest post from Gerald Janecek, who has contributed so much to our understanding of the visual, verbal, and sonic breadth of Russian avant-garde poetry from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Jerry’s and my shared interests include the work of the conceptual artist and writer Dmitri Prigov, whose iterative practice spanned a vast range of genres and media from sculpture to performance, poetry to theatre. Some time ago, Jerry shared with me an extraordinary video of Prigov performing with the musician Vladimir Tarasov in the apartment studio of Ilya Kabakov in Moscow in 1986. Below, I present part of this video: Prigov and Tarasov’s performance of the 49-aya azbuka or 49th Alphabet from Prigov’s Alphabet series (you can read the Russian text here). Jerry’s commentary on the work and its performance follows. Together I hope they will serve as an introduction to a writer and artist who deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.


Gerald Janecek

While seriality as a principle of production is not unique to conceptualism, it is certainly one of its favorite devices.  One thinks, for instance, of Roman Opalka's number paintings, of On Kawara's date paintings and postcards to friends detailing when and where he woke up on a given day, of the Bechers' collections of photographs of cooling towers and other common vernacular architecture, of Edward Ruscha’s photos of gas stations and swimming pools, or, in Pop Art, of Warhol’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, and portraits.  In the Russian sphere we have Bakhchanyan’s Diary (1981), a daily mug shot of the author over a year that was designed to continue for the rest of his life and to conclude with a photo of him in his coffin, but was interrupted and ended when a roll of film failed to develop.  And perhaps most famously, Grisha Bruskin’s Fundamental Lexicon, part of which was sold at the Sotheby's Moscow auction in 1988 for nearly half a million dollars and, more locally, his triptych for the renovated Reichstag [1999].  Dmitry Prigov was an active participant in this genre both in the visual arts and in poetry.  His effort to write 24,000 poems by the end of the millenium was surely aided by his inclination toward serial production and no doubt each item in a series was counted in the total, even if it was ultimately discarded into one of his Little Coffins of Rejected Poems. (For more on these Coffins, see my discussion of them in A Common Strangeness––J.E.)

The serial forms were used by Prigov numerous times throughout his career in varied and creative ways, but here I would like to focus on his Azbuki or Alphabets.  The principle involved is rather well known and even traditional: going through the alphabet (in this case the Cyrillic alphabet) and extending each letter to involve words beginning with that letter.  Prigov evidently wrote over 80 such works.  To date some 60 are available, primarily on Prigov's website, but also in print.  They date from 1980 to a publication in 2007 (written in 2003, it seems), with by far the largest number dating to 1985 (over 40 items).  In terms of serial form, each Alphabet is a member of the whole series, but the fixed sequence of the letters in alphabetic order also forms its own internal series within each member of the series.  Arguably each Alphabet is also to some extent a cycle, like a sonnet cycle, in that alphabetic order provides a form, but little in the way of content except a letter for each entry.  In Prigov's works the entry under each letter in the alphabetic sequence can range from merely the letter itself, to whole paragraphs of text-extension, even to mini-plays.

As the series of Alphabets went on, and as Prigov gave more and more recitals for friends and the general public, their performative aspects began to take on greater significance.  By performative aspects I mean those that features that are provided only or primarily by the author's oral delivery and are largely absent in the printed text.  Fortunately, many of these have been recorded on audio and videotape for posterity.  At the same time, Prigov can be seen to increase the structural and semantic complexity of the work.  The Forty-Ninth Alphabet (1985) is particularly interesting and effective in both its performative and structural features.

It begins, as do most Prigov series and cycles, with a preduvedomlenie, or author’s introduction, that in this case emphasizes the present moment of the performance.  The author looks around the room and points out the various familiar faces of friends and colleagues who are “his heroes.”  Then, surprisingly and with humorous anachronism, he claims that these are also the heroes of “Pushkin, Lermontov and Tchaikovsky,” who in a fit of continuing hyperbole and oratorical bathos is made to have composed ten piano concertos (instead of the actual three, Op. 23, 44, 75).  At this point the recitation of the alphabet begins, initially in a triple beat (“A-tsa-tsa,” which is soon varied and expanded to include lines (I-K-L) in iambic tetrameter (the Onegin meter) ending in –tsa rhymes. The semantic evolution of –tsa includes a joke under M from an entirely cultural milieu (matzo) and an encoded message under N (no ne ni-ko-gda).  The rhythm and patterning break off at O with a triple exclamation, which then introduces the famous opening melody of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, performed with vigorous vocalism by the poet.  This is perhaps the first aspect of the work that is not and cannot be adequately conveyed by the printed text.  What then develops is a counterpoint between the Tchaikovsky melody and Prigov's short synopsis of the plot of Eugene Onegin.  The overheated, melodramatic delivery of the latter portions suggests that the author-speaker might have in mind more the Romantic Tchaikovsky opera than the cooler, more elegant and ironic Pushkin novel.  The hyperbolic delivery reaches a peak under letter T with the repeated screaming exclamation “Death!” as the poor hero's only exit from the painful situation of having missed his chance at true love with Tatiana.  Thereafter the tone settles down to its initial rhythms, once again including a humorous reference, this time to an obscenity under letter X, finally coming to rest at YA on a catalog of famous names with which the speaker identifies himself. Beginning with YA, he then moves on to other letters, particularly G.  Here Prigov inserts a humorous jab at Andrei Voznesensky and his most famous poem, “Ia—Goiia” (“I Am Goya”; 1958), thereby satirizing what was and is a serious poem by placing its title and first line in a context which does Voznesensky any number of times better in terms of egotistical exaggeration.  Prigov's catalog of great names, including of course Pushkin, whose name is used to once more sing the Tchaikovsky melody, eventually returns to the composer and in the end to the people in the room whom he had termed his “heroes” and who are now his “golden heroes.”

While perhaps initially unclear in its direction, this work turns out to be rather tightly structured in its layers of content.  The unexpected appearance and parody of Eugene Onegin is prepared for by the connection to Tchaikovsky and his opera based on the novel and by the meter of the first “content” lines (I-K-L).  And the return to Tchaikovsky is prepared for by the inclusion of Pushkin in the list of famous names under YA.  Tchaikovsky is the common thread linking the introduction and all the other elements of the work.  It should be noted that the level of cultural reference here is intentionally at a low level of sophistication: Russia’s most famous and popular composer and his warhorse concerto, Russia's greatest poet and one of his most famous works, and a list of other historical and cultural figures likely to be known by any school child or factory worker.  The excitement and drama with which this well-known material is presented pushes it over the top in the direction of burlesque and parody.  Yet the intensity and seriousness of Prigov's performance calls the parodic intent into question.  Moreover, it is likely to elicit a counter-reaction: how dare he make fun of these great works and people!  This uncertain balance of factors is intriguing and quite typical of Prigov in general.

In terms of form, the alphabet is decidedly linear, yet in its modern Cyrillic version it conceals the potential for a return to the beginning.  YA (Я) is a iotized form of the vowel A, and is also the first person singular pronoun which returns us to the concept of authorship usually highlighted in the introduction.  Thus in the example we have just discussed, the linear alphabet is strongly counteracted by a structure of concentric contexts.  The largest circle is the context of the given performance highlighted in the introduction and returned to in the conclusion.  Within that is the context of Tchaikovsky and his concerto with its melody and rhythm of the alphabet and his opera Eugene Onegin.  Within the opera is the novel and Pushkin, and within that is the emotion-laden dream and the hero's projected death.

While not all of Prigov’s Alphabets are quite so interesting and successful (some in fact grow tedious and predictable before their conclusion), many are surprisingly inventive, elaborately structured and semantically complex.   The controlling factor of the alphabet is reflected in the “extensions” to each letter, which are themselves composed of letters and therefore also reflect the history of alphabetic writing, issues of authorship, power, and thought in written language within a specific social context, factors more explicitly dealt with in some of the other Alphabets.  Prigov’s Alphabets series shows him brilliantly and, it seems, exhaustively exploring the issues involved in alphabetic writing from numerous angles and on numerous levels. When looked at as individual works, as we have done here, they are often fascinating, but when they are seen as a whole series, one cannot help but be amazed by the artistic potential Prigov has uncovered in what would seem to be such a modest and inflexible serial form.

58 printed pages in Jacket 40

Susan Howe; courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo
Susan Howe; courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo

The last of the old Jackets, Jacket 40, had a 58 printed-page feature on poet Susan Howe:

[»»] Hélène Aji: “I [will not] Gather the Limbs of Osiris” Susan Howe’s Transcendent History

[»»] Isabelle Alfandary: Reading «My Emily Dickinson» by Susan Howe

[»»] Antoine Cazé: Susan Howe:TransParencies: Leafing Through

[»»] Redell Olsen: Book-Parks and Non-sites: Susan Howe’s Scripted Enclosures

An open letter by Daniel Bergmann

Note: I met Daniel Bergmann through my 10-week free and open online course – “ModPo,” a study of modern and contemporary American poetry taught through a collaboration of the University of Pennsylvania and Coursera. He was one of 36,000 students. He submitted his first essay — a close reading of “I taste a liquor never brewed” by Emily Dickinson — and it was a fine short essay on the poem. I happened to comment on it; I don't comment on all the essays, I can assure you, but I happened to notice Daniel's and thought it noteworthy. The student on the other end of my comments, posted to the ModPo discussion forum, was ecstatic. So were his parents, a New York-based film-maker and a sculptor. They were aware of this teacher-student exchange because one of them helps Daniel communicate through an iPad configured with special software enabling Daniel to type one letter at a time with one finger. Daniel doesn't speak and indeed he had never written an essay before. It took him a long time. The affirmation pushed him further. He kept up with the course and became one of the most widely recognized participants. He and his parents visited the Kelly Writers House to join us for a live webcast session — to be in the in-house audience for what is otherwise a virtual synchronous gathering hosted through Google Hangout/YouTube and enhanced by twitter and our virtual forums as well as a phone line. Daniel enjoyed that, stayed for my afternoon Penn class on the same poetry, and then spent some time with me in my office at the Writers House (photo above). He returned for the final webcast session and there met a number of his classmates. At the end of the session, when people were invited to create two-word poem-like sayings to summarize the experience of this experimental course, Daniel actual spoke into the microphone — haltingly, but clearly: “Not impossible” was his poem. I challenged him to write about his ModPo experience, and, although it took some time, he has done it.  He wrote the words you find below.  He is also writing an essay, which I hope to publish in Jacket2, on Ron Silliman's prose-poem “BART,” about which Daniel has a lot to say. He has tasted a liquor never brewed — fine, discerning writing — so it is hardly surprising that he is enebriate of this new air.


Dear Professor Filreis,

Please tell Coursera and Penn my story. I am a seventeen-year-old boy emerging from autism. I can't yet sit still in a classroom so ModPo was my first real course ever. During the course I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard-of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world. 

The Coursera format allowed me to say I was autistic in some essays and not others so I could see what life is like with and without my handicap being visible (I had never before written an essay). The students, following your lead when I visited, made me feel welcome and I started to dream about a life in an academic setting where I might someday be of use to others as so many people have been of use to me. The effect is that I feel dramatically less isolated. Your notion that digital learning need not be isolating is very right where I am concerned.

Now the specifics of your course were no less transforming. My father asked me the other day whether ModPo had had an effect on my openness and I was astonished to realize it had.

My whole intellectual life as I've started to emerge from the misty darkness of autism has been an adventure in beauty housed in form and structure. My most favorite curative activity was listening to my father read Shakespeare and ask me to describe the symbols, poetic devices and structures which make the plays work, so I came to ModPo comfortable with close reading. I get my parents to take me to the Uffizi so I can study Botticelli, my music theory teacher shows me how Mozart is structured, so it is not surprising that until I took your class I thought poetry was words stuffed into forms. 

Structured art was what I needed to develop my mind, but you showed me a larger world.

In special ed they love to talk about the least restrictive environment a child can function in and you have taught me to function in a greatly expanded artistic one.

Thank you and please let me know how I can help and participate in what, on the whole, is one of the most exciting and worthwhile endeavors that I know about. 

Love and thanks to all of you,


* *

See this article also.

Reading Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman, 2011, photo by Gianluca Battista

Thinking today about Argentinian poet Juan Gelman and crossing borders, following the small essay yesterday on his work in the Madrid newspaper El País. To quote a footnote (already also a border) in Wikipedia on Gelman—(I suggest reading the whole article!): “ ‘I am the only Argentinian in the family. My parents and my two siblings were Ukrainian. They immigrated in 1928.’  In the same brief autobiographical text, Gelman states that his mother was a student of medicine and the daughter of a rabbi from a small town. ‘[My parents] never shut us up in a ghetto, culturally or otherwise. [...] I received no religious education.’ Gelman would later write some poems in Ladino, i.e., Judeo-Spanish; he is also known for being sharply critical of Israel.”

The article quotes a Gelman poem in its entirety, Confianzas, a word that in Spanish has so many echoes: confidences, liberties, intimacies, trusts: “se sienta a la mesa y escribe / ‘con este poema no tomarás el poder’ dice / ‘con estos versos no harás la Revolución’ dice / ‘ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución’ dice // y más: esos versos no han de servirle para / que peones maestros hacheros vivan mejor / coman mejor o él mismo coma viva mejor / ni para enamorar a una le servirán // no ganará plata con ellos / no entrará al cine gratis con ellos / no le darán ropa por ellos / no conseguirá tabaco o vino por ellos // ni papagayos ni bufandas ni barcos / ni toros ni paraguas conseguirá por ellos / si por ellos fuera la lluvia lo mojará / no alcanzará perdón o gracia por ellos // ‘con este poema no tomarás el poder’ dice / ‘con estos versos no harás la Revolución’ dice / ‘ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución’ dice / se sienta a la mesa y escribe”.

This poem appears in the U Cal Press translation of Gelman by Joan Lindgren that you can read here, by clicking on page 10: 

That English version of the poem startled me; it wasn’t the poem I read in Spanish! It throws up borders of pronoun standardization according to the patriarchal norm. Perhaps it was written that way, or she imagines it as written that way, but we must instead, in my view, imagine our own reading of it and what the poem itself as text, as material, leaves open to us. Here I take advantage of the fact that Spanish doesn’t require us to precede verbs all the time with pronouns, so we can indeed, and I do, read the poem as more open:

Confidences, Juan Gelman, trans. through Erín Moure's neural architecture....

the poet sits down at the table and writes
“with this poem you won’t seize power,” she writes
“with these verses you won’t make the Revolution,” she writes
“not with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution,” she writes

and what’s more: these poems won’t give
workers teachers and sappers a better life
better food or let the poet live better
nor fall in love with another

she won’t earn money with them
won’t get into the movies for free with them
they aren’t exchangeable for clothing
or for cigarettes or wine

nor parrots nor scarves nor boats
nor bulls nor umbrellas can be obtained for them
if you go with poems into the rain you get wet
no one will forgive you or give you grace in exchange for them

“with this poem they won’t seize power” the page reads
“with this poem they won’t make the Revolution” it reads
“with a thousand verses they won’t make the Revolution” it says
so she sits down at the table and she writes

Gelman’s parents and his siblings emigrated from Ukraine one year before my mother’s family did the same in 1929. Here poetry and translation are a bond across time with Ukrainian lands. I think I’ll go out now and get wet in the rain....