Commentaries - January 2013
as the "inconvenient elder"
When he ceded control of the group, Francis [Saint Francis of Assisi, AD 1181–1226] hoped that he could still lead the men by example, but his influence quickly waned. This enraged him. “Who are these who have ripped my order and my brothers out of my hands?” he shouted. Once, when he saw a new building that he thought the community had erected for itself, in disregard of the rule of poverty, he climbed up to the roof and began prying off the tiles and throwing them to the ground. Breaking with his earlier, gentle practice, he cursed people who opposed his ideas.
Francis was a good example of what, in the annals of history, might be called the “inconvenient elder”: the person who starts the revolution and then, once it succeeds, becomes an inconvenience, even an embarrassment, to the next generation. (Think of Gandhi.) They honor him — they have to — but they wish he would go away, so that they could “work within the system” and relax a little. [– From “Rich Man, Poor Man: the radical vision of St Francis” by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, January 14, 2013. Page 75. Image: flickr photo by dawnzy58]
A question for Trisha Low
One segment for this Jacket2 column will be titled “WHY__________?” in which I will ask certain people Why questions. Participant responses must be between 100-300 words. One of the first people I had a Why question for was Trisha Low. Because it’s a thread running through all her writing and performance work (she reads their diaries, their feminist blog comments, their love letters; she dresses like one in performance then throws up fake blood on herself) I asked her: Why Teenage Girls? Here’s her answer.
After Tiqqun’s Theory of a Young Girl, I think Poetry thinks of teenage girls the way some magazine editor looks at a contact sheet, selecting the spectacle and then pulling it up on the screen for the airbrusher going “INFLATE HER HAIR SO WE CAN SEE THAT FRAGILE VACUITY. I WANT TO SEE THOSE CAPITALISTIC PROCESSES NOT THAT CELLULITE. HAVE THIS SHIT ON MY DESK BY 2.” It’s apt that when I sit down to answer this WHY question, it’s 5.51 pm, I’m listening to slowcore and unwrapping a new tattoo, one that I acquired because of a certain amount of emotional distress, leaking blood and ink while I’m looking at the ‘real’ image reflected in my computer screen of me writing about ‘real emotional’ teenage girls, because what I’m really interested in is the cultural demarcation of the confessional genre. The tension between our structures of feeling (ie. the artificial way in which these feelings will be aestheticised or they will be bullshit) and the socially unfit waste of the feminine, the excess that is created in tandem with these scripted confessions. I have no patience with looking for a sufficiently ethical poetic representation but I’m interested in how your 'ethical' poetic representation is just a fantasy of reparation. As Mary Jacobus writes on Klein: “to make reparation would be such an all-consuming task that an unending, fake analysis is preferable to ‘cure’.” How is Poetry complicit in the urge to falsely ‘heal’ societal wounds into the silent fixity of It Gets Better? What better place to look than the teen girl, whose cut wrist is an abject fuck-you; whose cute Band-Aid and its artificial ‘healing’ is really just your sentimental fantasy – a palatable performance of narrative object that could really just be your worst nightmare. This is also how I do kissing nbd.
Prologue: IPS Talk by Charles Bernstein (1981)
With P. Inman, Lynne Dreyer and others
Preliminary to the PennSound recordings of the New School talk, this is a recording of a 1981 presentation at the Institue of Policy Studies in Washington, DC., part of a 1981-1982 series called "Politics and Language" that also included talks (not recoded) by James Sherry and Bruce Andrews.
note: recording is incomplete
Jerome Rothenberg, "Ethnopoetics & Politics / The Politics of Ethnopoetics"
September 30, 1988
- complete recording (2:01:24): MP3
Bruce Andrews, "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis"
October 8, 1988
- complete recording (2:05:48): MP3
Erica Hunt, "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics"
October 14, 1988
Nicole Brossard, "Poetic Politics"
October 21, 1988
Jerome McGann, "Private Poetry, Public Deception"
October 28, 1988
- complete recording (2:07:54): MP3
Susan Howe, "Encloser"
November 4, 1988
Ron Silliman, "Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared"
November 11, 1988
Rosmarie Waldrop, "Alarms & Excursions"
November 18, 1988
Charles Bernstein, "Comedy and the Poetics of Politcal Form"
December 21, 1988
Of related interest, talk series I curated on PennSound:
New York Talk
St. Mark's Talks
Nathaniel Mackey's "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol"
presented at St. Mark's Talks on April 24, 1985
was also included in the Roof book; recording on that page.
"Language and Politics" a forum with Jackson Mac Low, P. Inman, Hannah Weiner, James Sherry, and Nick Piombino
St. Mark's Talks on Oct. 25, 1984
was also was the basis for several short essays included in the Roof book. Recording on that page.
Recorded by Charles Bernstein. © 2012 Charles Bernstein and the authors. These sound recordings are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. Used with permission of the editor. All rights to this recorded material belong to the editor and authors. Distributed by PennSound.
Yang Lian and John Cayley's iterations
The long poem “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” 大海停止之处 by Yang Lian 杨炼 and its transformation into the collaborative digital and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate an iterative response to digital technologies and globalization. The iterative structure of Yang Lian’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change.
The long poem comprises four poems, each entitled “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” (“Where the Sea Stands Still”). There is no numbering: each poem’s title is identical to all the others. Each has three sections and ends with “zhi chu” 之处 (where/the place where). These final characters combine stillness, spatial and temporal arrest with the sea’s ceaseless repetitive movements. The poem’s repeated images, title, final words, and structure produce a fluid sense of space: they leave the reader unsure of his or her place within the text because the usual markers of progression––such as progressive numbering, varied titles, or changes in subject matter––are absent. Adding another layer to these iterations, Yang gave the same title, Dahai tingzhi zhi chu / Where the Sea Stands Still, to the collection in which the poem first appeared. Thus each poem entitled Where the Sea Stands Still appears within the long poem Where the Sea Stands Still, which is in turn within the collection Where the Sea Stands Still. Each poem relates to all the others in wave-like expanding circles of meaning.
The poem’s repeating, expanding form is mirrored in an expanding sense of geographic and oceanic space. “Where the Sea Stands Still” is located in Sydney, Australia, where Yang held the position of writer-in-residence in 1993. He even gives his address:
King Street 一直走
Enmore Road 右转
Cambridge Street 14 号
The shift to roman script emphasizes the geographic and cultural movement between Sydney and Beijing. Elsewhere Yang contrasts Auckland, another harbor city and the place he first lived after June Fourth 1989, with “that ancient city buried in dust and yellow earth” where the “sea is only a myth.” The sea marks his geographical displacement from dry northern Beijing and his “floating life” (piaobo 漂泊)––a Chinese term for wandering or exile that chimes with the maritime theme.
Through its iterative form, the poem’s precise geographic and temporal location opens into modernity at large and into a global system of oceanic currents and geographic interrelations. Yang’s subsequent collaboration with John Cayley (and also Brian Holton, who provided the English translation, and Gao Xingjian 高行健, who supplied some of the images for the project) further expands the geographical reach of the poem, as a multimedia collaboration now encompassing China, Australia, Canada, the UK, and France. Here is a clip from the work, as performed by Yang and Cayley at the ICA in London in 1997:
This geographical constellation went truly global when Cayley subsequently published a hypertext version on the World Wide Web.
These multi-media iterations of Where the Sea Stands Still fuse new media technology with Orientalist imaginings of China (marked especially by the computer technology, multiple screens and calligraphy). In this, the poem recalls “the intersection of . . . technological and ethnographic imaginaries” in what Chris Bush calls the “ideographic modernism” of Pound and other Western modernists. Like ideographic modernism, Yang’s poem stresses the link between “the real and the really made up.” As Bush argues, Chinese writing links the figural China in modernist orientalism to China’s “very real part in modernism’s world.” Likewise, in Yang’s poem, language and sea as media of figuration also figure the literal transoceanic patterns of travel and trade in our current era of globalization.
Yang’s poem also engages directly with this history. The text of Where the Sea Stands Still bears the mark of Yang’s exile years. It exchanges the fixity of the earth and Chinese history in his earlier work for the fluidity and transnational reach of the sea. It is written in the shadow of the events of June Fourth 1989, but also of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 trip to the south that ushered in China’s subsequent economic expansion and our current era of globalization. That it was first published in London and in English as well as Chinese itself marks the historical period of flux that it traverses and the problems of intercultural mediation for which the sea is both a figure and a concrete reality.
Yang and Cayley’s multi-media performance piece engages another chapter in recent Chinese history. It was commissioned by the ICA as part of a series to mark Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. The ICA performance re-contextualizes the work in relation to this later historic moment. The sea becomes a figure for the southern seaport of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is juxtaposed to its new capital, through Yang’s Mandarin Chinese and Beijing accent, and to its old colonial master, London, through the performance’s setting and through Cayley’s Anglo-Canadian accent. Refracted through this new historical moment, Where the Sea Stands Still comes to confront the entrapment threatened by both Chinese and Western traditions: the “wound of all the past,” as the poem puts it. Rather than mimesis we have here what Haun Saussy calls a digestive model of cross-cultural exchange. In the poem’s words, “the carcass” is “always picked clean by the very last line.” The pounding waves warn that there is “no sea that doesn’t slip into the void of the poem,” no context that it might not consume in a subsequent reiteration.
We might say, then, that Where the Sea Stands Still is about the iterations of translation in its broader sense. Cosima Bruno has written beautifully about the complex choices involved in translating Yang Lian’s poetry. Her method of reading Yang’s poetry emerges out of reading the many English translations of his work. Bruno thereby adopts an approach to reading that likewise emphasizes iteration and so seems particularly appropriate to his work. For Bruno, “a successful translation cannot be regarded as a model to which all translations must confirm, because every translation is always instant specific.” Similarly, as Yang and Cayley’s collaboration suggests, even the same translation is reframed and refracted by the shifting sands of media and historical contexts, arresting us with each new wave of reading.
Translation & Note by John Solt
[Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), whom Pound admired & renamed Kit Kat, was on his own grounds a major, truly experimental poet & artist. Beyond that, in the 1950s, he designed the first four covers of Black Mountain Review, & Robert Creeley’s Divers Press published a book of his poems in his own English translations & containing a few of his colored drawings (or”katto” [cuts] as they say in Japanese – or so John Solt informs me). To get a sense of what should be his prominent place in international avant-garde check out the full range of selections in oceans beyond monotonous space at http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/japan/kitasono.htm along with John Solt’s “Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue. A full presentation of his visual & plastic poems is also long overdue. (J.R.)]
in the mirror
of my location
is full of
an extremely fast
of white cone's
needle of bread and
top of smashed plates
hot glass bottle
extraordinarily visible burst
OU UNE SOLITUDE
(followed by sample pages of original typography and notes)
ON THE TYPOGRAPHY OF BLACK FIRE
from John Solt's Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning
Each page (of Black Fire) contains only one or two lines, positioned near the top of the page. These fill approximately 5 percent of the page, thus creating a tension between the type and the blank space. If Katue had not shortened the page, the disproportion between print and emptiness would have been even more pronounced. Another striking feature of the design is that the poem titles are printed in red ink and the poems in black, thus reinforcing the theme of a "black fire."
More radical than the short line lengths and the two-color lettering is the innovative way the poems of Kuroi hi are to be read: top to bottom and right to left. For other modern Japanese poetry, the eyes move vertically and then shift a line to the left and proceed down it, and a page is read right to left; or, when the type is laid out sideways as in the case of European languages (common these days), it is read from left to right. Katue essentially throws his readers off-balance by forcing their eyes to move horizontally in the "unnatural" direction of right to left. (On the rare occasions when Japanese was written horizontally in the past, the common direction was from right to left, and in a sense Katue was reverting to an old practice; it is, however, new to modern poetry.) He was the first poet in Japanese, as far as I know, to use a "double axis" of vertically down and horizontally right to left, thus rattling the reading process. Following is a transcription into directional signs for reading (down and right to left) "Kuroi shozo" (Black Portrait), one of the most extreme poems in the double-axis mode. Each letter or number stands for one graph; letters are read vertically (top to bottom) and numbers are read horizontally (right to left), starting at the top right-hand corner. The common form by other poets could include a string of letters ad infinitum, but would never have a number higher than 1.