Commentaries - January 2013

Celebrating the Publication of Steve McCaffery’s The Darkness of the Present

 The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism, and the Anomaly
Steve McCaffery
6 x 9 · 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5733-7 · $34.95 $24.47 paper
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8642-9 · $34.95 $24.47 ebook

“This book raises important ethical/political issues for the practice of art in the twentieth century. The Darkness of the Present calls them to rigorous attention in a series of critical studies. It finishes in a deliberate move to stand back, in order to reflect on the issues from a cool critical vantage, like Tennyson’s poet at the end of The Palace of Art.”—Jerome McGann, author of Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web and Are the Humanities Inconsequent?: Interpreting Marx’s Riddle of the Dog
Google boosk preview here.

With the purchase of The Darkness of the Present, receive the following related titles at special prices:

The Point is To Change It/Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present
Jerome McGann
978-0-8173-1551-1/Cloth $10.00
978-0-8173-5408-4/Paper $5.00

The Alphabet
Ron Silliman
978-0-8173-5493-0/Paper $10.00



Poetics & Polemics
Jerome Rothenberg
978-0-8173-1627-3/Cloth $10.00
978-0-8173-5507-4/Paper $5.00

Order the following MCP titles at 30% discount:

Phenomenal Reading
Brian M. Reed
978-0-8173-5694-1/Paper $29.95 $20.97

The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed To Be  
Harryette Mullen
978-0-8173-5713-9/Paper $34.95 $24.47


For additional information about these and other MCP titles: Modern and Contemporary Poetics
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Photo of Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold, 1955

Photo of Marilyn Monroe, 1955, Long Island, New York by Eve Arnold. Copyright Ev
Photo of Marilyn Monroe, 1955, Long Island, New York by Eve Arnold. Copyright Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos.

Photographer Eve Arnold had a long and productive life: she died in London in January 2012, aged 99. I was honored to meet her  a few years before she passed on. She took hundreds of photos of Marilyn Monroe, and is responsible for a remarkable 1955 color photo of Marilyn Monroe reading the last chapter of «Ulysses» by James Joyce in a Long Island playground. There is a gentle irony in MM’s choice of the last chapter.

In «Joyce and Popular Culture», R.B. Kershner quotes a letter from Arnold about the day she took the shot:

We worked on a beach on Long Island… I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She she kept «Ulysses» in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it – but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her.

(From:, 2012-01-06)

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

Itō Hiromi (center) with Jeffrey Angles & Jerome Rothenberg
Itō Hiromi (center) with Jeffrey Angles & Jerome Rothenberg

[On March 11, 2011, northeastern Japan suffered a massive earthquake that left nearly 16,000 people dead or missing and many others injured. Soon afterward, the editors of Gendai shi techo (Japan's foremost magazine of contemporary poetry) and the Asahi Shinbun (one of Japan's largest newspapers) collaborated to commission and publish a series of works about the disaster, all written by Japan's foremost poets. The following poem was Hiromi Itō 's contribution to the project. This translation first appeared in Poetry Kanto, vol. 28 (2012). (J.A.)]

A huge earthquake, a huge tsunami
People die and just moments later
There’s the nuclear meltdown
Drawn-out fear assaults us
Each time I go to Tokyo
It is darker
Hot and humid there
It stings
In Tokyo
Everyone was afraid
Everybody was angry
Neko has been my close friend for thirty years
Cooking is her profession
I had a dream, she said
We were coming home after going to see the giant sequoias
I was driving
She was nodding off next to me but then suddenly woke
And began saying, when I was young
I had a dream
I had a baby
The baby was with me
But I couldn’t breastfeed it
The baby was dying right before my eyes
But I couldn’t breastfeed it
That was how the dream went
That was from a past life
And that karma
Is the reason I now cook
Morning and night like this
Feeding the children
Of other people
Now she is doing something
She calls the “Nicomaru Cookie” project
First she called the young women in Tokyo
In Tokyo all alone
All alone and anxious
And unable to stand it any longer
All of them in Tokyo
All of them made cookies
And sold them
And sent the proceeds to the disaster zone
And then she changed gears and brought to Tokyo
The food the people in the disaster zone had made
And sold it in the city
She worked her fingers to the bone
And hired some staff
And went to the disaster zone
And cooked
She went into town
And started collecting signatures for an anti-nuclear petition
She made dozens of dishes each day
Even though she had her parents to care for
Even though she was working
Her fingers to the bone
She moves around, in the crisis
The only thing she knew to do
Was to cook like that
The only thing she could do
She couldn’t help but cook
And work her fingers to the bone
And I watched her do it
Powerless, useless
There is an expression
Take the dirt from under someone’s nails
Boil it and make it into tea
It means to admire someone so much
You would do those things
I asked her for some and she gave it to me
When I made it into tea
It was sour and sweet
Poets wrote poetry
The thoughts rained down continuously
Drenching us to the bone
So many poems were written
Like Kaneko Misuzu
Even easier to understand than Kaneko Misuzu
Unsightly poems
Boring poems
But still they were read
They say people read them and wept
I heard lots of stories like that
Don’t cry
Don’t write
Don’t miss out
From that perspective
They cannot say no
The poets
Who can do nothing but write
Cannot say no to writing
They cannot relate except
Through writing
They must not
Say no
They must not
Fail to be read
Yesterday Jeffrey
Asked me to help him with a translation
Some American poet had written a poem about the disaster
I tried reading it, but it was a complete cliché
That guy
Had not even been to Japan
He wrote the poem looking at pictures
Complete cliché
But that guy had seen pictures of the disaster
He saw them
And his heart was moved
So he had no choice but write
The clichés he tried to convey
In a clichéd way ended up clichés
But still it was a good poem
I could not write
After all, the places I live
Are in California and Kumamoto
There was no shaking
The radioactivity didn’t reach us
I didn’t want to write
I couldn’t write
A clichéd poem
Like that guy in America
I could not do a thing
The only thing I did
Was to translate and read out loud the second part of
An Account of My Ten-Square Foot Hut
I took that old text that depicted so vividly
The earthquakes
The tsunamis
Nine hundred years ago
Put it into my own voice
And sent out my voice like this
              Around the same time, we suffered another terrible
              Unparalleled in its force
              The mountains collapsed, the rivers were buried
              The sea crashed in, inundating the land
              The earth broke, water bubbled up
              The boulders split and tumbled into the valleys
              The boats plying the water were tossed by the
              The horses traveling the roads were unable to keep
their footing
              In one area of the capital, no place, no building
              Escaped unscathed, they collapsed or leaned to the
              Dust and ashes and smoke billowed up
              Both the sound of the moving earth and the
collapsing houses
              Were just like peals of thunder
              Those who were inside were crushed on the spot
              Those who ran were swallowed up by the cracks in
the earth …
              The worst of the shaking continued for a while
then stopped
              The aftershocks continued for some time
              Everyday, twenty, thirty times a day
              There were aftershocks large enough to terrify us
              Ten days went by, twenty days went by, receeding
into the past
              There were four or five aftershocks per day,
then two or three
              Then every other day, then two or three days in
              The aftershocks continued for three months
This way
The earthquake
The tsunami
Crept into my body (just a little)
And then I read the Buddhist classics
For instance, the Lotus Sutra, I am always
Asking myself, how can I
Share the truth with living beings
Share the Buddha’s teachings
Or the Amida Sutra, All who want
To be born in the land of happiness
Or all who will one day request that
Or who are requesting that right now
They will all awake to the truth, they will not return
To the confusion
Or the Nirvana Sutra, Each and every living being
Has the heart of the Buddha
That’s right, it was Mahayana Buddhism
That said so clearly to the Buddhists of the time
During an era when they were reading for all they were
Not sure if they understood or not
But obsessed with grasping the truth
You are wrong
Entirely wrong
First you help people
That is what it is to be a bodhisattva
All I’ve experienced is an earthquake and tsunami nine
hundred years ago
But if I were to put into my own words
And deliver a message to
This wounded
Trembling society
That’s no doubt what it would be
That would be best
So I hope
If not then
I would not even know
Which direction to turn

NOTE. Over the last three decades Hiromi Itō has emerged as one of the most important & highly regarded poets in Japan. Since her sensational debut in the late 1970s as “a free-spirited and intelligent female poet with shamanistic qualities” (Yasuhiro Yotsumoto), she has been “consistently expanding her creative spheres … : from the relationship between the sexes, motherhood, the oral traditions of Native Americans, and pop songs from the 1960’s, to the lifecycles of plants, just to name a few.” As the critic Nobuaki Tochigi points out, “she is an omnivorous poet who can transmit and transform a variety of literary legacies”. From the early 1990s on, she has divided her time between Japan and her second home as our neighbor & close friend in Encinitas, California. The poem & account of the aftermath to the 2011 earthquake & tsunami in Japan is accordingly an important testament to the horrific event & the responses to it – a remarkable & necessary act of witness.

Itō’s first book of poems in English, Killing Kanoko, is still in print from Action Books, & a number of postings from other works, also translated by Jeffrey Angles, have appeared several times on Poems and Poetics.

cover of Rosalía de Castro's Galician Songs
to appear in February 2013 from Small Stations Press and the Xunta de Galicia

Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885) attends her ear to the smallest of musics: rhythms of words and how they operate in transporting song and conversation into the page. How line-breaks work. Rhyme. How a copla or popular ditty might function as a break or cut, a secession, as Chus Pato might say. In translating her Cantares Gallegos (1863), her Galician Songs, I follow her with my ear, my eye, opening to the textures and rhythms.

The 1872 edition of Cantares Gallegos [1] is my favourite, with its delicate textures and textility of the page. Often, the verses are separated, allowing them to stand on their own as well as exist inside their poem. In a sense they appear as popular songs were once sung, when each listener was also a singer and could raise a voice to add a stanza to embellish or move forward the stanza of the previous one.

In English, it is with the words ditties (from French, dite, a thing spoken) and doggerel (botched verse) that high literary culture takes its distance from popular verses, chants, ditties, proverbs and sayings. Rosalía de Castro, radical, dares to treat popular tradition as worthy of exploring as contemporary poetry. She doesn’t merely present readers with recuperated songs; she listens acutely and writes her own in a kind of transmission-loop that belies any notion of “original.” In their textures and complexities, their varied ways of revealing their content and object, her poems glint, echo, coil, uncoil, move, refract. She pulls on all the strengths of popular culture to create occasions for the glint of ambivalence that keeps us alive, for double meanings, for social criticism, and to create social space, a commons. We are original, she knows, because we copy, we echo, we repurpose texts and so renew them, originally. As she does so, Rosalía de Castro honours the orality and transmission not of one but of a great number of forms, and she does it—most critically—in the language of her own space/time continuum that was not thought to be truly literary: Galician.

In Malaise dans l’esthétique, Jacques Rancière views the relation between art and politics in a way that helps me understand the common denigration of popular culture, Rosalía’s revolutionary use of it, and how and why her work is useful to us today. “Always,” says Rancière, “the refusal to consider certain categories of people as political beings starts with the refusal to understand the sounds coming from their mouths as discourse.” He continues, more hopefully: “Politics exists when those who “don’t have” time [artisans, workers] take this time required to position themselves as inhabitants of common space and to demonstrate that their mouths indeed emit speech that enunciates the commons and not just singular voices that signal pain. This distribution and redistribution of places and identities, this division and redivision of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of noise and speech constitutes what I call the distribution of the sensible.”

Rosalía enacts a redistribution of space and time. In her poems, Galician villagers perhaps do not yet occupy the Rancièrean space of the commons, but we hear its gentle crescendo, and not just the voice of pain. Though politics had not arrived for ordinary working Galicians in her time, Rosalía’s work acknowledges the agency of their discourse. In this, she’s exemplary not in the Western European literature of her day. Rosalía’s could be considered a feminist move, as well, one that had to await the feminist arguments of twentieth-century literature to assume its place.

It is the voice of a Galician Spring, murmured: an Occupy Galicia. Even in the poems identified by critics as autobiographical, the lyric “I” is not just Rosalía’s “I,” but an “I” played in an open key. It is a folding, in which Rosalía iterates her own immersion among the Galician speakers of whom she sings. The poems can’t simply be defined as rural songs, explorations of identity and home, works on the economic and social condition of women, and of men. The poems are complex rhythmic and sound gestures, movements which, in their material condition as language, speak to us even when translated, as users of our own language, English, today.

I've learned so much from translating it! And am honoured by what this small book has given me.

[1] In the public domain, free as a pdf at

Or of the last page of Ulysses as a translation of Ulysses


In post 7, I quoted Sergio Waisman from Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery: “Like any act of writing, translation is always undertaken from a specific site: the translator’s language, but also the entire cultural and sociohistorical context in which translators perform their task.” In the in-traduisible, we translate the intra-duisible. Induce the text through the veil of the nuisible.

Which makes it almost impossible to answer the question of who the translator serves. The reader-cannibal-flesh/word-eater? Or the mercenary-writer who uses the translator (sometimes from beyond the grave) to pull a hat over her or his own face? Translating, one wishes to serve the text itself, but the conditions of reception in one’s own language make the process like shuffling a deck of cards with your arms behind a curtain.

The translation that results bears the memory of the original, and also incorporates into its fibre the resistance of the reader to let the foreign into their language, the resistance that is a cauterization of any reading practice from its very start: because we live somewhere. Somewhere translates itself into the translation. The prescription of untranslatability may haunt the translator, but as I translate, no, I am not haunted, I turn and wear the text, making its fibre into my fibre.

I think here of Borges, who in January of 1925 published the first translation in the Spanish-speaking world (so many sites!) of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the Argentinian magazine Proa, nine years before the book was available in English in North America (its first printing was burned as obscene on arrival from Europe).

Yet, to tell the truth, it was almost twenty years after Borges’ publication that the first full translation of the Joyce work appeared in Spanish. For Borges, admitting he hadn’t read the whole book, translated for Spanish-speaking readers only the last page of Joyce’s novel. It was a decision of the translator, responding to the text through the curtain. Pulling the hand back after shuffling the deck. Holding the ace of spades.

As if one page, in the Argentinian context, contained such riches that it was, in a paradoxical sense, an entire translation. Not full, but entire.

To translate a whole book by translating only its final page! And change the course of Argentinian literature. Here a border literature, the Argentinian, leans into another border literature, the Irish, and insists on its accent. Borges ingeniously picks up the burr of Joyce’s own English by using the voseo of the Río de la Plata, the second-person pronomial form that marks the text as non-international, as local, as Argentinian. Sited. And he leaves out English words that translate badly into Spanish. In the outpouring of the tea and mantilla and sea that, even in English, crosses so many borders (for Joyce’s work is already the result of multiple translations), Borges captures something riveting, then stops. For the book is over. Again, Sergio Waisman:  “Paradoxically, not only do Borges’s creative infidelities lead to a new version, they also produce an unexpected sense of hyperfidelity to the source text.”

His translation, though not full is far from empty, for it is complete, entire.