Commentaries - December 2012

My detour on the way to talking about Lisa Robertson's poem "Wooden Houses"... next time!

Lately I’ve been dipping into Rita Copeland’s  ABC: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics and Translation in the Middle Ages, in which she examines how scholars of the Middle Ages considered the works and culture of Greek and Latin Antiquity, and dissects in formidable fashion how rhetoric (argument, convincing, thus invention) and grammar (fidelity, thus structure, tradition) informed and shaped translation, fashioning a kind of struggle between the same and difference, between the authority of the original text (presumed or constructed) and the positionality of the interpreter or translator as a historically bound actor. And, further, how exegesis (hermeneutics, positioning and explaining) in Medieval times moved translation into the vernacular and opened it to other languages, releasing it from the hold of Latin.

What intrigues is that so many of the struggles and energies of that time echo in the struggles and energies of our own era. Necessary, fruitful struggles!

 “…Roman theory,” writes Copeland, “conceives translation [from Greek, of course] as a rhetorical activity: the object of the translation is difference with the source, and the act of translating is comparable to the act of inventing one’s own argument out of available topics. The aim of translation is to reinvent the source so that, as in rhetorical theory, attention is focused on the active production of a new text endowed with its own affective powers and suited to the particular historical circumstances of its reception.… As a rhetorical act, literary translation seeks to erase the cultural gap from which it emerges by contesting and displacing the source and substituting itself.” (30) At the same time, grammar, and fidelity to movement and sinew of language, is also in attendance. Exegesis, necesssary to reconcile the forces at work, “continually refashions the [studied] text for changing conditions of understanding.” (64)

Sounds a bit like translation into English, to me, unless we tread carefully and let the forms and sounds of the original create a reverse effect, and affect.

Yet, as Copeland says, ahough translation is “necessarily replicative” in trying to “match form and substance in a different language,” in the end, “translation arises from an acknowledgement of difference.” Not from mastery, or from an argument of “loss” or of “untranslatability.”

As she concludes, she sums up the work of the critic, or translator as critic: “the vernacular translation that emerges out of exegesis… introduces interlingual transfer, thereby opening the project of translatio studii to linguistic diversity and exposing the unifying claims of Latinitas as a myth serving the interests of cultural privilege. By introducing linguistic disjunction, translation undermines a more fundamental claim of exegetical practice, its construction as self-effacing service to an authoritative text.” (223)

There is a Moebius-like fold here, where exegesis, the top, ends up on the bottom, when seen through the optic of translation. Hello Derrida! (Though it also can readily end up on top again, for by eliding the translator’s act it “appropriates the text” in ways complicit with traditional orders. But there’s possibility there…. one that post-structural thought opens…)

105 printed pages, in Jacket 40

Atonalist icon
Atonalist icon

What is A Tonalist? The short answer is that it is in some (uncomfortable) way related to lyric, retaining doubt about the possibility of engaging in and with that vexed genre … As you read these poems, you can watch as place is found, made, questioned, left and reasserted … There is also a lot of sex and a huge number of amazing verbs … (from Laura Moriarty’s Introduction)

[»»] Laura Moriarty: A Tonalist Where (and What) Art Thou?
[»»] Taylor Brady: Maps, Jokes and Heavy Armor
[»»] Julian T. Brolaski: Five poems
[»»] Norma Cole: from “More Facts” 
[»»] Brent Cunningham: A Note on the A Tonalist
[»»] Jean Daive: “A Woman with Several Lives,” Tr. Norma Cole
[»»] Ray DiPalma: Obloquium and Committer of Tidings: Seven poems
[»»] Dolores Dorantes: from “Dear Factory” translated by Jen Hofer
[»»] Patrick Durgin: Triptych: A Noir
[»»] E. Tracy Grinnell: from “Helen, A Fugue” 
[»»] Rob Halpern: Literal Hallucination
[»»] Jen Hofer: Resolved: 13 Sentences
[»»] Paul Foster Johnson: Seven poems: Bronx Safe Room / Reversible Destiny Panic Room / Palace of Youth / Underground World Home / Folk Education / Lapidary / Palace of Arts
[»»] Kathleen Miller: Codex Dora (a fragment of a Fragment)
[»»] Geraldine Monk: Decade Dance
[»»] Jocelyn Saidenberg: On Self Sovereignty:
[»»] Standard Schaefer: Feralist Manifesto
[»»] Michael Scharf: Two Poems: Sunday / What Did They Use to Cut Paper in Ancient Rome?
[»»] Jesse Seldess: from “Which Is Exhibited” 
[»»] Roberto Tejada: Lost Continent
[»»] Alli Warren: Three poems: All Matter of Beans / A Nice Quiet Moment for Mom (remix) / Some Greater Social Sharing
[»»] Tyrone Williams: TB

CA Conrad's '(Soma)tic Midge' considered, plus links to all audio recordings of the poet reading the work

The jacket of the Faux Press edition of "(Soma)tic Midge"

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” Mark Twain wrote that. C. A. Conrad’s book of poems (Soma)tic Midge proves that exactly the opposite (opposite in every element) is probably the truth. Eat what you must, and let the food fight it out on the outside. Fortunately for us, the outside is this writing.

The Faux Press of Cambridge, Mass., published Conrad's chapbook, the earliest work in a series he has been writing under the general rubric “somatic poetics.” Poetry of the body, by the body, maybe even for the body — although while the first two effects can be discerned in the writing, the latter of course can only be guessed from it. But I'm guessing this work has felt to the poet to be for the body also. Work that is done to the body.

Before and after the Faux Press publication of the book, Conrad read parts of it at various readings, and PennSound’s Conrad author page features a number of recordings of these sections. See, below, for links to all these — brought together in one linked list.

In the (Soma)tic Midge sequence, Conrad writes whatever he wants under the vague (that is to say, only generally defined) somatic influence of foods of a certain color. To write the poem partly titled “distorted torque of FLORA’S red,” he ate only “red foods for a day” — and in that instance subjected himself to the additional rule or compositional constraint of being “under the influence of” a red wig, worn a certain way.

So these poems are rule-bound — procedural poetry — but the effect is left to the reader to understand according to his or her belief (if “belief” be the word) in the idea that we are what we eat. To exactly the extent one believes we are what we eat these poems will seem specifically somatic.

The poems don’t at all participate in the traditional symbolism of colors. The red (red food day) poem is not about love; the yellow poem is not about cowardice; the green poem is not any more verdant or natural than any of the others.

I dig rule-based verse at the level of the series/project, though sometimes less so at the level of the stanza and line in such a poem. But in (Soma)tic Midge I dig it sometimes at the level of the line as well. My mind is working all the time: this or that never-quite-explicable stanza always stands in some kind of relation to the poem's color, the food I'm imagining Conrad had to eat that day to write it. The juxtaposition doesn't keep the poem from going where it will go but commands alertness to juxtaposition--not juxtaposition of poetic elements set side by side and operating on same plane, but rather this: (1) words in front of you, “under the influence of” (2) the body consuming food of a certain resonant-but-not-symbolic color. The effect is hard to describe and I’m sure I have failed here. In the yellow poem, is the “something” in

might hinder this
emphasis of

all that yellow food--grits with butter, wax beans, bananas? Is “this” the poem that tries to stand against what yellow typically means? We ain't foolin’ around. The poet who wrote those lines spent the day eating yellow food (enough to make m

e feel a loose bowel movement coming on) and, I should add, “while under the influence” of a yellow condom tucked into his left sock. Anyone who met C. A. Conrad that day wouldn't have known of the latter “influence” — it’s between us, shall we say; we are let in on a close-by secret and I for one find myself under its strange influence too. I too “look under / pain and / find me.”

As we move through these drastically colored days, the conditions seem to increase in extremity. For his blue day he subjects himself to the continuously looping sound of Bobby Vinton's “Blue Velvet.” For white, the final poem, the food is at its most awful blandness (although I love turnips if they are pureed) and the ultimate bodily white — semen — is written on the poet’s forehead. A life-embracing somatic twist on Kafka’s notion of penal punishment. This final poem is devastating:

Dear Admiral White Pants
thanks for
the field
guide to

you make me the
belly who
birds push
through at last

White is war. It’s

also the color of the truce flag, announcing the withdrawal from the agonistic field. In C. A. Conrad's white (white food day) poem, the speaker is rebuk

ed by a martial uncle who thinks his nephew would make a bad soldier, and we have no doubt by that point that he is right. But then again, think of th

e discipline required. That he's got aplenty. He takes over white--takes it over from the militarizers. Finally, in the end, in the final lines, white is in fact peace, as “a dove / lands but / I say nothing” and “no spell [is] / broken.” We are back to the great traditions of poetry: the end of the poem is the coming down softly of language, swerving but with surprising grace, upon extended wings.


Here are links to recordings of Conrad reading parts of (Soma)tic Midge at various events, all of which are available, too, at PennSound:

  1. Introduction (1:46): MP3
  2. Distorted Torque of Flora’s Red (1:57): MP3
  3. A Little Orange Bag, Believe it or Not, Can Hold all that Remains  (2:22): MP3
  4. We're on the Brink of Utter Befuddlement, Yellow Hanky Style  (2:01): MP3
  5. Say it with Green Paint for the Comfort and Healing of their Wounds (2:01): MP3
  6. Rehab Saved his Life but Drugs Saved Mine at the Blue Hour  (2:54): MP3
  7. We're on the Brink of Utter Befuddlement, Yellow Hanky Style  (2:31): MP3
  8. Say it with Green Paint for the Comfort and Healing of their Wounds  (1:53): MP3

distorted torque of FLORA’S red (1:46): MP3
a little orange bag believe it or not CAN hold all that remains (2:15): MP3
we're on the brink of UTTER befuddlement yellow hankie style (1:26): MP3
say it with grEEn paint for the comfort and healing of their wounds (2:03): MP3
rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (1:54): MP3
smells of summer crotch smells of new car's purple MAjestY (2:05): MP3
from the womb not the anus WHITE asbestos snowfall on 911 (1:44): MP3

Zoe Strauss at the Kelly Writers House

The artist Zoe Strauss spoke for sixteen minutes recently about Bruce Springsteen’s song “Youngstown.” The program notes for the event, and links to video recordings of the individual presentations are available on the Kelly Writers House web calendar. There you have links to 10-minute presentations as follows: Greg Djanikian on “Born in the USA,” Grace Ambrose on “Spirit in the Night,” Dan Sheehan performing “Matamoras Banks,” Max McKenna on “Candy’s Room.” Anthony DeCurtis on “Tunnel of Love,” Matt Chylak performing “Backstreets,” Nate Chinen on “The Promise,” and myself speaking about “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Here again is the link to the Zoe Strauss video: video.

In Jacket 16

Joe Brainard image
Joe Brainard image

From Pressed Wafer:

Bill Corbett, Introduction
Anselm Berrigan, “I remember hearing Joe read”
Lee Ann Brown, “Joe Over Easy”
Tom Carey, “Joe B.”
Maxine Chernoff, “Sonnet: Some Things I Miss About Joe”
Tom Clark, “My Joe Brainards”
Elaine Equi, “A Freshly Painted Poem”
Paul Hoover, “Winter (Mirror)”
Nathan Kernan, “Premonition” 
Wayne Koestenbaum, “Two Little Elegies for Joe Brainard”
David Lehman, “For Joe Brainard”
Ange Mlinko, “Boston Flower Market”
Eileen Myles, “Worst Seat in the House”
Charles North, “Romantic Note 1”
Ron Padgett, “About S”
Jerome Sala, “I’m Glad I Don’t Understand the Writing of Joe Brainard”
David Trinidad, “9 Cigarettes”
Anne Waldman, “& color changed ...”

Other material:
Bill Berkson: Working with Joe
Kristin Prevallet: interviews Kenward Elmslie
Kristin Prevallet: Joe Brainard & Poetry

The complete supplement, containing pieces by thirty-six authors, was first published in Pressed Wafer annual, issue 2. This selection for Jacket magazine amounts to about a third of the original material, and was chosen by Jacket editor John Tranter. The editorial offices of Pressed Wafer are at 9 Columbus Square, Boston MS 02116, USA. Editorial Board: Daniel Bouchard, William Corbett, Joseph Torra. Guest Editors: Elaine Equi, David Trinidad. Jacket is grateful to the guest editors and the editorial board of Pressed Wafer and to the individual authors for permission to reprint here.