Commentaries - March 2013
Transcreations from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak
[The appeal to me in the works that follow was in the harshness and fury of Lermontov’s romanticism, but it was just this note of contempt, as in his “iron verses / bursting with bitterness / & rage,” that marked him as a poet who displayed, as Nietzsche wrote of Heine, “that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” It was that spirit – not necessarily our own – that Milos Sovak & I tried to capture in a project to translate Lermontov anew, sadly terminated by Milos’s death in 2009. I’ll present the four poems we did accomplish in two installments. (J.R.)]
spleen & sadness,
not a hand held out
& what’s the good
if any, ever?
Or forever – years lost
& the best of years!
Or maybe love
the time too short,
not worth it
& forever love
to look inside you
deep down, not a trace
of lost time
joys & miseries
turned into nothing
asking: what is passion
that sweet sickness
& how long & whether
it will last or fade
when brought back to your senses
& life too? just wait
& take a long hard look
& see it like it is
noon heat ablaze
here in this gorge
lead in my chest
I lie unmoving
a trace of smoke
& drop by drop
sand in the gorge
I lie alone
the ragged edges
of its cliffs
the circle closing
& the sun is battering
the yellow summits
my dream that’s dead
& in my dream I dreamed
a night of shining lights
an evening feast
into & out of which
a company of women
garlanded with flowers
spoke about me
only one girl
who didn’t speak or laugh
apart from all of them
but sat & pondered
sunk into her dream
made its way
into her soul
god knows what thoughts
her thoughts were raising
when a gorge in Dagestan
a body that she knew
lay in that gorge
& on its breast
an open wound
turning black now
& the black blood flowing
in a stream
& getting colder
[to be continued]
The poet's novel
“A person should think before they call a place Slyvannia” 
This sentence from H.D.’s HERrmione stays with me. Her prose can twirl, as Her Gart, her “heroine” is lost in a landscape she desperately tries to discern. Her “Oread” is here before considering the sea. Her Gart twirls in search of herself. So what makes this a “poet’s novel” beyond the fact that it has been written by a poet? In this case, I’d say the quality of the prose, in terms of movement and image as well as her reasons for writing it. This is H.D. before she calls herself anything beyond “Her.” She writes, “I am Hermione Gart, a failure.”(4). She had failed from Bryn Mawr and returned to a home which no longer fit. She writes about her relationships with George Lowndes (Ezra Pound) and Fayne Rabb (Frances Gregg). Essentially it is a book about unknowing, written in a style which seems clearly in conversation with her verse forms. The book was written in 1927. Her daughter Perdidta Schaffner, who writes an introduction to the work, was old enough to recall the time her mother was writing it. H.D. is writing about a time in her life perfectly unformed, which became stunningly formative.
Though the place this text transports one to in reading is particularly different than the place the poems suggest, one is amply housed within her spare and glittering sentences. Does a novel provide a more immediate abode than a poem? If so what does this abode look like? This is a question I’d like to ask poets writing novels. I have the sense that if I were to ask H.D., she would say that she was not particularly interested in whether or not the reader could locate immediate accommodations in her words.
I have always found myself soundly at home within “the sentence.” Being at home seems to be the opposite objective in Hermione, whose heroine’s most cherished wish is to somehow escape, abandon, and dash from the solid material comforts which bind her. Trees, also keep her from seeing beyond. They hem her in just as “a hedge back home in the suburbs, over which I never could see.” If a sentence could speak back, I believe hers would say very clearly, “go.”
I associate this state of unknowing as a common mode in poet’s novels. Perhaps the writer does not know his or her reasons for writing the text, or what to label oneself: novelist, poet, writer, citizen-documentarian of the inner realms of existence, one who poses questions, relates the narrative in what is often lack or failure of narrative, offers form and intent with the sentence as mode of ambulation. How to walk within a text? What to call it?
1. H.D. HERmione (New York City, New Directions, 1981), 5.
a performance at the Museum of Modern Art on April 3, 2013 at 12:30pm in the Inventing Abstraction show on the sixth floor of the museum, assembling under the Network Connections sign at the beginning of the exhibition. Part of the series Uncontested Spaces: Guerrilla Readings in Kenneth Goldsmith's "Poet Laureate" program. This reading is a supplement to "Disfiguring Abstraction," an essay on the Inventing Abstraction show forthcoming in the Spring 2013 issue of Critical Inquiry (which begins with these aphorisms and first paragraph):
You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.
––Gertrude Stein to Alfred Barr
No painting is so figurative that under certain conditions it will not look abstract.
––after Oscar Wilde
What color is abstraction? It can’t just be white. Its invention in time (for example, 1910 or 1912) only means that it creates a holding space for abstractions from other times and places. To centrally locate one locus of abstraction would be to diminish the radicality of abstraction’s connections to its others – or its engendering of its others.
Spring 2013, Vol. 39, No. 3: 486-497
published by the University of Chicago Press
Part One: Refiguring Abstraction –– Networks and Origins
•William Blake, “The Human Abstract” from Song of Experience (1794)
•Wallace Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," preface and the first part, "It Must Be Abstract" (1942)
•Three short “sounds” works from Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania, ed. Jerome Rothenberg (1968): Aboriginal, Shaker, Navaho
•William Carlos Williams, "The Great Figure" (1921)
•Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, in honor of the centennial of the work
____________“Arthur A. Grammar” (1931)
•Samuel Greenberg, “Spirituality” (1915)
•Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, from Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings, ed. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo (poems for the 1920s): "A Dozen Cocktails Please" (1927)
•Mina Loy, "Aphorisms of Futurism" (1914) & "Songs of Johannes" [“Love Songs”] (1915-1917)
•Nicolàs Guillén, "Sensemayá" (1934), tr. Langston Hughes
•Vicente Huidobro "Altazor," canto VII (1931)
•Cab Calloway, "Minnie the Moocher" (1931), my adpation as "Abstraction the Moocher"
Part Two: Re-Inventing Abstraction (poems of artists/poets included in the Inventing Abstraction show)
Stéphane Mallarmé, “Salute” (1893), my adaption
Velimir Khelbnikov, “Incantation by Laughter” (1908-09) (my translation)
F.T. Marinetti, "Futurist Manifeto" (1909) & "VIve La France" (19 [parole en liberté]
Wassily Kandinsky, "Song" from Klänge (1912) (my adaption)
Blaise Cendrars, "Prose of the Transiberian” (1913) (tr .Ron Padgett)
Guillaume Apollinaire: “Le Pont Mirabeau” (1913) (my translation)
Alexei Khruchenik, Pomade (1913)
Francis Picabia, “Staircase” from I Am A Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation, tr. Mark Lowenthal
Kurt Schwitters, Ur Sonate (1922-1932)
James Joyce, Finnigans Wake (1922-1939)
Pablo Picasso, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Writings, ed. and tr. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (1935-1959)
Marsden Hartley: “Indian Point” and "As the Buck Lay Dead" (prob. late 1930s or early 40s)
Because of time limitations, only part of this program was performed.
Note links to earlier MoMA performances of Loy and Marinetti.
The performance dedicated to the memory of Thomas McEvilley.
photos © Lawrence Schwartzwald; may not be used without permission.
and of related interest:
my conversation with Dominique Fourcade, "La poétique, l'écriture de la poésie et l'invention du modernism" (Poetics, the writing of poetry, and the invention of modernism) presentated at the Gertrude Stein and the Arts conference, which was part of the Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso... L’aventure des Stein at the Grand Palais in Paris.
101. Forget to die. Repeat and live forever.
— Lucky Pierre, Actions for Chicago Torture Justice
Another potential use of the score which I’m increasingly interested in is in the realm of political activism. How might the performance writing form of ‘action’ expand beyond the recognizable activist performance model (scripts for street theater, etc.) and/or the much more militant and confrontational modes of direct action which are generally discussed in terms of efficacy (symbolic &/or material) rather than ‘as performance’ (as if the latter threatens to turn the political into the ‘merely’ aesthetic)?1
One recent example of new thinking along this continuum uses the instruction-art model to propose actions that range from the more conventionally confrontational political activism to ‘symbolic’ art-actions to the seemingly impossible/ ‘imaginational’2 / ‘unthinkable.’
In 2010, former Chicago Chief of Police Jon Burge was convicted for crimes related to decades of torture during his tenure, including 110 confirmed cases of torture by white cops of African-Americans held in custody. In response, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project began tracking the case histories, including victim testimonies and cases of torture and police repression that have continued long after Burge left the force. Additionally, the Project called for proposals for a ‘speculative monument’ to memorialize the victims and honor the twenty-nine year battle for justice. By opening the call to the widest possible interpretation of what a ‘speculative monument’ might look like, numerous artists have submitted plans, proposals for public sculpture, sound pieces, and the like, in a compelling example of how the proposal itself might move from the bureaucratic realm of the grant application/competition to the aesthetic-activist realm of the speculative (in the sense that with no budget or state backing, it is unlikely that many of the proposals will actually be made), such that a collection of proposals might activate the affective and political imagination and serve their intended function as memorialization without requiring the (often watered-down-by-committee) object/action to be actualized.
This brings me to the example of a written score for political action-art I want to look at — Lucky Pierre’s 100 Actions for Chicago Torture Justice, published by the indefatigable cultural workers Temporary Services. The booklet collects 100 instructions for how one might respond to the legacy of torture by the CPD, but as a work of writing it is much more than that. Far from being a how-you-can-help pamphlet or a simple set of suggestions, the actions — not tips, legal remedies, social movement slogans — push the boundary of what might normally be considered political actions or cultural propaganda, or even realistically feasible art actions:
Still other actions put the reader in the uneasy shoes of the torturer, whether as a supporter of the international network of torture (as in #18 above), or more chillingly, ‘performing’ the action itself. For instance, the instruction “Go to a pet store, buy a puppy, bring it home, burn it with cigarettes” is (presumably) not intended to be performed, but it is not simply parodic or cynical. By aiming the directive at the reader, one must imagine one's complicity in forms of torture. The action is not unimaginable as much as ‘unthinkable’ — at least in the realm of liberal moral discourse — and yet here it is very much ‘thinkable,’ just as torture performed by the CPD (and by the US more broadly) is not only imaginable and thinkable, but continues to be performed.
If we think of the booklet in relation to works of performance writing, the project raises many questions that I find productive for thinking critically about what language art can do beyond/outside the frames of avant-garde art practices, in a way that such practices and more overtly political work can helpfully provoke each other:
1 This is a gross generalization, of course, and there certainly are assessments of the aesthetic and performative nature of direct action activism, though interestingly coming more often from anthropology than from performance studies, which tends to focus on the more explicitly aesthetic forms of protest such as street theater
by Gillian Osborne
Then the poem growled. Woods escalated from a screen to a wall to a page where an invisible hand was drawing. A book backed off onto roadside stones. An island absorbed a microphone. The poem had a body. The body a lens big enough to swallow something. Its eyes scaled trees. The trees were not hollow but sunk with echoes.
When Michel McClure read his poems to lions in the San Francisco Zoo in the 1960s, he growled and growled. (In a video of this event, the lions appear agitated, pacing and tossing their heads. Their cages are cages, metal boxes bracing fierceness; today they inhabit glassed-in miniatures of savannas.) An earlier moment of a poem tearing itself open via sound, an invitation to linguistic margins, and inhuman otherness.
Throughout the Conference on Ecopoetics, poems could be seen, heard, felt, along these margins; migrating from, around, above, within, a page. This post provides an overview of some of those migrations, and swoops down on a few.
In an overview of “The Book, Ecopoetic Instrument,” Jared Stanley (presenting alongside Richard Greenfield, Brenda Ijima, and Tyrone Williams), writes that the panel set out to investigate work “outside, beyond, and in excess of conventional textuality.” One place from which these outsides and excesses draw their exuberance, Stanley suggests, is “the body” as a “multi-locational and ever-changing” thought machine. CA Conrad’s (soma)tic poems, which he read from during the “Thingness of Things” roundtable (many more can be found here, and in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon) are emblematic of this body/mind/poem continuum, in which the work of poetry actually begins in a body’s motions, memories, its staged or surprise encounters. Conrad’s (soma)tics merge experience and writing in ways that blur the beginnings or endings of poems along with “instruction” and “inspiration” as formative forces. (Arielle Greenberg’s “dirty” garden poems, some of which she read Friday night, offer another trajectory for poetic experiments grounded in the body). These investments in the body of a poet, or the bodies of other humans and non-humans encountered by that poet en-route to her poem, necessitate an expansion of poetic boundaries, frequently before the poem even begins.
A catalogue of other expansions/explosions: The “excursions” which launced the weekend relocated the conference onto fire-trails, a meadow, an urban farm, an island, a marsh, a coast. (Descriptions of these can be found in the full program here). A tree walk led by Robert Hass around the campus on Saturday emphasized touching and smelling trees, in addition to learning their natural (and cultural) histories, and forms. And the service project to restore Strawberry Creek which Hilary Kaplan directed on Sunday allowed participants to walk away from the weekend with dirty hands. During conference sessions themselves, a number of panels and roundtables devoted attention to rethinking the materials of poetic form. “The Troping of Ecopoetic Form,” “The Ghost in the (Drum) Machine,” “Poetic Labor,” and “Composition/ Decomposition” all considered ways of making/remaking/unmaking emerging from “poeisis.” (These panels participants and paper-titles can be found on the program.) “Groundwork: A Collaborative Lab” collaborated not only with participants beyond the lab’s four presenters (Jolie Kaytes, Laura Mullen, Linda Russo and Hazel White), but also with a eucalyptus grove on campus. And more examples of mixed forms from “The Thingness of Things” roundtable (see Angela’s last posting for others): Jen Hofer shared her “Shrouds” project; and Jen Coleman showed her video, "Marine Life Dramaturgy," which meshes ideas, images, and language of the ocean and financial crisis, culminating in a chilling encantation of sound-bites: “Too big to fail,” “Too big to fail,” "Too big to fail.”
Given the proliferation of screens in most of our lives, it’s not surprising that moving pictures emerged in a number of panels and presentations. In particular, “The Ecopoetics of Film,” directly considered the melding of poetic and filmic modes, showcasing “poemfilms” by Peter Burghardt, Rusty Morrison, Forrest Gander, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. (Some of Gander’s films can be seen here; and check out Wilkinson’s “Wolf Dust,” from the first issue of rabbit light movies, a former editorial project of the poet’s which has recently evolved into the “Medium” section on The Volta.)
Of all the panels I was able to attend (and unfortunately, some of the reporting above is based on second-hand accounts; despite all these expansions of poems and bodies I wasn’t able to split myself asunder and attend multiple panels at once), “Field Laboratory for Esoteric Ecologies” most emphatically explored expansions of poetic boundaries along multiple vectors. Presentations by Kathleen Brown, Erin Robinsong (and their collaborators, musician David Ip-Fung-Chun, and projection artist Sean Frey), Adam Dickinson, Jonathan Skinner, and a rawlings combined (respectively) music, dance, video, painting, equations for polymers, animal songs and sounds, photography, internet installation, and audio records.
During a twenty-minute version of the hour long piece, “Osculations on a Theory of Islands,” a giant white tarp morphed variously into an island, an ocean, a mountain, a phantom, a cloud, an inhuman embrace. (Check back here for video recording of this piece). Kathleen Brown and Erin Robinsong danced, spoke, disappeared into this morphing plastic presence in front of a screen whose images of woods and water wandered upwards toward the ceiling, or were interrupted by white lines that sometimes seemed to be the tarp itself, or a window through the digital woods into the hallway, or beyond.
The theme of “islands” (eye-lands, is-lands, I-lands) that soldered together this work also emerged in work on a rawlings’s Gibber site, an interactive website compiled during a residency in Queensland, Australia. In the “Land” section of “Gibberland” a central term—Land—turns color, fades, and returns as prefixes, suffixes and additional words flank or follow it alphabetically, producing variants like “Barren Island," or "Edens Landing.” Brown, Robinsong and rawlings question the “isolation” that supposedly an island is (and that no man is); and they remind us of the materials over which we “write” (or dance, or draw, or float, or sing).
This work takes word play seriously. (For another example, see Erin Robinsong’s “Variable Whethers,” from which an “able ether” emerges as letters spin, rain, absorb; where whether is weather, and both conjectural and concrete). At the same time, rawlings in particular is acutely aware of the violence that linguistic structure, sign, and even play, are capable of enacting on inhuman space. On the Gibber site, she places words in vials, places transparent phrases into branches, or in waves, puts words onto the ears of cattle, as the impetus for naming, branding, and thereby, owning, becomes transparent. Bubbles sink into the sand.
Jared Stanley concluded his paper for “The Book, Ecopoetic Instrument” with an invocation of not only an expanded book, but of who or what a "reader" might be: “Outside the book, but still within the idea “Book”," he writes, "we can properly sidle up to our fellowship with others, human and otherwise – perhaps we shall call them readers, even the plants, even the pebbles – then we could practice a public writing, in which “public” is everything, denizens among denizens, active entities: all of us readers.”