Commentaries - January 2013
In celebration of the publication by SplitLevel Texts
A DREAM NARRATIVE
. . . .
It is dark & I go
It is dark & I don’t go
I go & I don’t go
It is dark
& I go
& I don’t go
A FIRST NARRATIVE
He is King.
He is King.
He is King
He is King.
He attends a wedding.
He is King.
He attends a decision.
He is King.
The inheritors dance.
He is King.
We attend a wedding.
He is King.
He is King.
WHICH ONE WAS IN LOVE?
Some had been quarreling for years.
He was old but had impulses, she was never old & the story of her life was
If she cried he would turn from her, if he turned from her she would buy
A table was in the room & was their table.
Their machines were in the kitchen, their clothing was of no special size though it
was often used.
Their clothing was never old.
Their impulses were never certain.
If she spoke on the phone he read a book, if he was at home among friends she
was never at home & they were rarely together.
Their home was their own.
He was rich.
She received him.
Which one was in love?
A POLISH FABLE THEN A POLISH SONG
for Russell Edson
The relation between a man & his wife was always closing. Whichever way he
looked was not his way, whichever way she looked she saw her hands dissolving.
Soon her hands were in a country different from where she had ever been.
So a man & his wife were sometimes living in a garage. The man was taking a tire
from a wall while the wife was putting oil onto a seat. The wife was bathing with an
oil that was an oil for motors.
How many hands begin to shine she tried to tell her husband.
One-two-three-four they sang together, as they had done it once before in Poland.
This is a man I can admire thought the wife.
This is a Polish wife & more answered the man.
A father who had lost a son stopped a group of strangers & asked for directions.
Each stranger had a different opinion, but the youngest told him, “Your son is
So the father mourned for ten years, after which his son returned to him.
“Where have you been?” the father asked in anger.
When the son refused to answer, the father turned from him & walked into his
Later he relented & came outside, but all he found there was a group of strangers.
He arrived that day where there were many Jews.
Some sat on boxes, some sat in carts, some sat looking at their hands, some sat &
sang, some stood & sang, some sang & walked around the market.
Jews spoke first to Jews.
It was sensational & awkward.
Some spoke to some others, who were also Jews & who were speaking to no one
not even to themselves.
When two men had a disputation one man argued for the use of soap.
The other, who was a stranger in that town, countered question with question.
“Will the man who gets clean love his neighbor?” he demanded, & again, “When
Moses was forty years in the desert, did he not bathe with hot sand; & were not the
odors from his loins wafted to Jehovah as a living sacrifice?”
The first man grew silent though his finger still pointed to Leviticus.
The Angel of the Garden was crying in his throat.
WHICH WAS THE KING?
Three men were standing at the corner of the third one’s house.
His door swung open.
Now a third one was crouching with his back to the door.
“I am willing” spoke the second to the first.
The first said “I am King.”
Three kings watched an airplane in the sky.
“I am King” the second said.
Now the door swung shut.
The youngest spun the marble.
Which was the King?
TWO PRAISE POEMS FOR THE OLD COALITION
He was wise.
He was jewish.
He was philanthropical.
He was interested in sofas.
He withdrew & held back.
He is one of our friends.
The stories he tells you have an insistence all their own.
He is moving back & forth back & forth between here &
some other location.
He is most respectful at sunup.
(Most respectful & mostly at sunup.)
(As we like to say.)
We hear of him.
This is good he tells us referring to the items at hand.
He was less willing as a young man.
He is the subject of a sentimental biography.
He wears tight collars but keeps the buttons loose.
He said he was a fool.
He beat his breast.
He bit his fingers.
He bent over & let men kick him in the ass.
Some men giggled with him.
He heard them giggling.
He was remorseful.
He was last.
He knew when he had had enough.
[NOTE. The word has reached me from Aaron McCollough, co-editor with Karla Kelsey of SplitLevel Texts that my new/old book of poems, A Cruel Nirvana, is now officially available for purchase from SPD (http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9780985811112/a-cruel-nirvana.aspx). The editors describe the book as follows: “A CRUEL NIRVANA both is and is not a new Jerome Rothenberg collection. In other words, almost everything in this collection has been published before. Each of the three major sections (Narratives and Real Theater Pieces, The Notebooks, and Conversations) was originally published individually. A CRUEL NIRVANA brings together these long out-of-print smaller gatherings in a way that illuminates their important place in Rothenberg's crucial contribution to Twentieth- and Twenty-first Century poetics. Returning to these poems, properly contextualized, one finds them communicating in one field of immanence. If we feel exhausted by meaningless violence and marketing, A CRUEL NIRVANA shows us wellsprings of meaning and power we missed or just couldn't see in our exhaustion or disaffection.”
To which they add the following statement, very moving to me, from Graham Foust: “As a younger person, I discovered the work of Paul Celan by way of John Berryman’s Dream Song 41, but how could Berryman have discovered Celan, other than through Jerome Rothenberg’s 1959 New Young German Poets anthology? I think of Rothenberg’s work – all of it: his writing, his editing, his translating – as one of the singular threads that holds the world’s various poetries together. // Though out of print for many years, much of the early work has not been out of mind, and today it feels entirely relevant and absolutely necessary, as if it had been written sometime just before tomorrow. As someone once said of Bob Dylan, there’s no ‘early’ or ‘late’ Rothenberg, there’s only Rothenberg up ahead of us and us just getting there, wherever it is he’s been.”
Would it were so. (J.R.)]
Unpacking Walter Benjamin's iterations
Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:
Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.
In the essay “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin would at first glance seem to oppose the auratic quality of the book to the new forms of mass reproduction. But by focusing on the individual life of each copy, Benjamin also highlights the tension between mass produced object and each particular instantiation. In “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin describes the collector as one concerned with the editions––that is, particular technological reproductions––rather than the contents of books: “even though the purchaser may be thoroughly acquainted with the book order from a catalogue, the individual copy will always remain a surprise.”
“Unpacking My Library” finds in the book precisely the problem that Benjamin describes in “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.” There, Benjamin writes: “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object form the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.” In “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin “actualizes” the copy in this way: “For [collector], not only books but also copies of books have their fates. And in this sense, the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his own collection. I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.”
“Unpacking My Library” is a work that grapples with the doubleness of the reproduced work: the collector of works seeks the aura of the book, which is only a copy. This doubleness is reinforced by the way Benjamin constructs his essay out of stories of other books. This method of course is central to Benjamin’s collecting practice in Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project). The book functions for Benjamin as both copy and a particular object. Marjorie Perloff has pointed to the similarities between Benjamin’s Arcades Project and contemporary conceptual writing. A key explanation for that similarity, I would like to suggest, lies in Benjamin’s interest in the relationship between mechanical reproduction and the iterability of the book. Benjamin’s insight is similar to Stein’s and anticipates a later, fuller exploration of the literary and artistic possibilities suggested by the relationship between editions, copies, and copying.
From the world of Allen Ginsberg and his many friends among the Beats, from 1969 to Ginsberg’s death in 1997
From the mid-sixties on through, photographer Gordon Ball took thousands of photos of Allen Ginsberg and his many friends and colleagues: Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Herbert Huncke, Philip Whalen, William S. Burroughs, and many others.
“We often think of photography as an individualistic, solitary art — a single man or woman working the alchemy of a dark room, or one with a frequently small sometimes large mostly metal object that has a magical, transforming effect on others before that little ‘click’ is ever heard. We don’t usually speak of Annie Leibowitz and collaborators, of Alfred Eisenstadt and partners, of Robert Frank and co-workers in the writing of light. But much of whatever I may have managed to do in photography involves, in a variety of ways, a debt to others — and wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
More here in Jacket 33.
Como no traducir? How not to/to not translate? I received Andrés Ajens’ curious pirouetting question, which does not settle in English, by email a couple of months ago, announcing an August colloquium in Santiago de Chile. His further question set me wondering. “In this phrase, against our usual transitive interpretation of the verb “to translate,” might there be an inevitable figure of the return, reversal or tumble?” “What if translation,” asked Ajens, “were only “in part”, in part translation and “in part”, something else?
Here I quickly translate Ajens’ ruminatory introduction to an invitation to write, as I am writing. How to translate by not translating? How to translate the invitation to not translate? Its how? How to translate, in not translating? How to refuse translation’s disavowal, in translating? Echoes of the question, in English, are both negative and positive, inseparable.
How to cross that boundary between idioms, gripping a satchel of words? How to live, finally, in the “no traducir”, in the “ne pas traducir”, live with translation’s mise en abyme which is one with its possibility? In order to leave (bereave) possibility open?
Ajens’ question—which I will answer for my part in August in Santiago de Chile by talking of translating the guaraní-inflected portunhol of Wilson Bueno—takes its form from a question-instruction that marks a talk by Jacques Derrida. That talk is “Comment ne pas parler,” given in Jerusalem in 1986 in English (and Jerusalem itself is not without consequence here), which appeared in print in Psyche : Inventions de l’autre (1998 and 2003 in French, 2007 and 2008 in English translation (this particular essay) by Ken Frieden and Elizabeth Rottenberg).
In English, the thought that Derrida announces, and that Ajens leap-echoes, is stoppled. Not stopped but stoppled. Derrida’s question or quest (so necessary to Ajens’) is Comment-ne-pas-parler, and its structure is that of HOW, negation, TO SPEAK. In the standard English, however, the question is rendered as “How to Avoid Speaking?
Do you see the nub of difficulty here? The stopple? In the English title, there is the idea of avoidance that is not in the French—though it does occur in the essay's text as co-question among other, as "Comment ne rien dire?/How to avoid speaking?". But it is not the title question in French. There is such a void in that avoidance: the English rendering of the title avoids issues that the French, in its sinews as language, grapples mightily to raise!
It would be better perhaps to say, but to say aloud and not write it: How to disavow speaking? Here the “ow” (or “ouch”) in How echoes in the new, trespassing disavow. The new word would also have the advantage of containing a negative particle, the dis.
Which leads me further! For the full title of Derrida’s essay contains one more word than the question which Ajens offered me in Spanish. Derrida’s full title is “Comment ne pas parler : Dénégations”. In English, that last word is translated as “Denials”, an accurate translation, yet one that loses the double sense in the French word, of not just negating (action de dénier quelque chose) but of de-negating. Not un-negating, and this is important: not removing a negation. But de-negating it. (The de- in French is the dis-, in English, which is not an un-.) Negating, then retracting the negation. A denegation proposes and retracts in the same move. It refuses, in effect, by naming.
This, to me, has something vital to do with translation, and the ability of a translator (a human consciousness) to carry and lose meaning, and culture, simultaneously. The very name, inscribed by the translator in a new language, refuses something in that new language. Refuses to be given over into it.
The English rendering of the Derrida title, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” certainly avoids inscribing a lot of things. It would have been better, perhaps, to title the essay: “How not to/to not Speak: Denegations”. In French, the title both offers and withdraws; it works through a rhetorical claim that is not only a mise en scène but a mise en abyme. The English denies us this working.
The word “dénégation,” as well, points to Althusser, and from Althusser to Freud, who uses the German word verneinung, translated into French mostly as "dénégation" since "negation," its literal translation, doesn't quite do it. (Others, such as Mark C. Taylor, have already put their finger on the difficulties of translating "verneinung.") In Althusser, "negation (denegation)" is applied to a process that locates us always in ideology; in Freud, "dénégation" locates a mirror recognition-mechanism in language, paradoxical, as its very enunciation intends its opposite. More a revocation, a "dénégation" is something stated and then denied in one move.
A lot of useful reasoning in our world uses forms of denegation. Even Derrida’s essay shows how various of these devices work, for he enacts them; they appear as a hesitancy and shying away, a move forward and sideways.
Like translation, in a way. Forward, yet sideways. Enunciating that which it cannot possibly contain, and must, at the same moment, renounce, in order for its utterance to be heard. Enunciating, disannouncing, rencouncing... what? The ghost signature of the original.
I leave you with this ghost. To work onward in silence. Like Peter Rabbit, I now tumble under the fence with one eye on a carrot, leaving my Jacket snagged on the rail. For this is my last post, or pirouette, here, on translation.
 The translation of Derrida’s Comment ne pas dire, given spontaneously during a telephone call from Jerusalem in response to a request for a title for his intervention there; he states that he thought of it in French, where the word "avoidance" does not appear.
Nothing could be more purely poetic than the line, so it is perhaps less a metaphor than usual to think of Elena Berriolo's performance as a reflection on the verse line. Charles Olson was once asked, how long is a line? He put his chalk to the board and ran a line to the end and continues, chalk in hand, to walk out of the room. Berriolo's work had something of that quality, though more whimsical: I was reminded of Mary Poppins flying with and umbrella as well as 1960s performance work by Charlotte Moorman or Yoko Ono. Or then again, as the line flew away in the sky, the sky writing poems of David Antin.
Berriolo's "Transcription of Piero Manzoni's Infinite Line with Sewing Machine" was performed today at Kunsthalle Galapagos in Dumbo (Brooklyn). This is how she describes the work (she chose blue for the balloons in tribute to Yves Klein):
It’s also significant that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Manzoni’s death and the 80th of his birth. In 1959, Manzoni started a project titled The Infinite Line, which represented his desire to appropriate space and time. His long-term project was to produce a line as long as the Prime Meridian, the geographic line on which Greenwich Mean Time is based. Since one of his greatest challenges was finding a way to produce an uninterrupted line of a great length, he used a newspaper printer and other mechanical devices. Berriolo asks: “Why did he not think about the sewing machine? This simple and economical instrument allows you to produce an uninterrupted line while joining together an infinite number of sections.” Berriolo’s Infinite Line will be stitched onto a cloth ribbon as it passes through her sewing machine. At regular intervals, helium-filled balloons will be sewn onto the ribbon without ever interrupting the line. Once the floating line has stretched across the length of the exhibition space, it will be cut and members of the audience will be invited to hold the line in their hands, carry it outside, and release it to the elements, and let it draw itself up into the infinite.
photos by Charles Bernstein