Commentaries - March 2013
(Mule Stable Gray)
“One day the demons of America must be placated. The ghosts must be
appeased, the Spirit of Place atoned for…” – D.H. Lawrence
Sources of creeks and rivers. Earth humid black and rich. On the river ahead not
far distant. The wind was hard and against us. Passed through a broken country.
Wood pumice stone lava. Mule stable gray…
They brought balls of cotton thread and parrots and spears. Maps rotten and
spoiled with rain, armor almost eaten through with rust.
(One day in the old times when we could still talk with other creatures)
Soon the news went around that the terrapin had killed the wolf and was using
his ears for spoons.
The spirit of absolutism is everywhere apparent. Shouting his name to the
echoing solitudes. Intrepid conflict with obstacles without. Because he had
thought he had seen a great beehive.
They take the form of stones full of living blood and flesh. The rabbit inside kept
a cloud in the shape
of an old woman
arms extended toward the moon
You, I’ve known you from old
hair full of fish
thighs a woven rumor of feathers
& I’m out walking sleepless
scribbled in the snowy margins
like an insomniac’s
on a street where I imagine
the weird cosmologies
of some kid’s dreams
just manes passing
behind black branches
in tiny yards…)
(just apocrypha drifting
off the city’s edge)
& a moon up there
made of wire
go on shopping
with dark coats
Of the book rubb’d away
Of the lines of the sun and the wrist
the wounded schematic
to a muddy path
that disappeared down into the creekbeds…)
By the persuasion of some of them we went
into ye great river
that divides itself in 2
by flashlight light he recognized
the woods from his dream
where Anna left her dress
on the riverbank
& where he’d gone looking for her
out in the old incunabula
( here is the great tree
our masks from )
…sweated out the fever
in a room
above a dusty hardware
& all of this was
as a notebook
lost in a dream
& if you wish to become an owl
yr little radio’s got
all these ghost songs
& if you wish to become an owl
spell the movie of this forest
with yr eyelids shut
listen how water
in the falling
& snow takes these figures
into its secret
if you wish
to become an owl
sit in the swamp
to become an owl…
[NOTE. With "The Croatoan Song Book" James Cook makes his entry into the tradition & lineage of American epic poetry ("a poem including history"), the focus here on the "lost" Roanoke colony in 16th century Virginia. The notes that follow speak eloquently to his sense of time & structure. (J.R.)]
The Croatoan Songbook: Notes for Jerome Rothenberg
SOME NOTES ON INTENTION:
A prayer for & hymn to America.
A psychogeographical exploration.
An elegy. America as Loss, as Enigma.
DH Lawrence’s ‘one day the Spirit of Place must be atoned for…’
A work whose primary purpose is to exult the handmade, the homemade, the simply felt &
created object as against the mass-produced, the cheap, the homogenous.
Reclamation of language from above.
Affirmation also of the vatic function of the poet. Of his role as a conduit.
Of the poem, as well as the chair or the dulcimer, as well as America itself, as a manifestation
of the tension between the inner world & the outer world.
The Croatoan Songbook as a piece of American folk art, like the Watts Towers or
“The Cuckoo Bird” or an embroidery sampler.
Focus on the Local as a key to the Universal.
An attempt to map the ‘Dream-Time”, the Songlines of America. An attempt to
trace a ‘spiritual’ map of America through the contours of history, including
typically marginalized cultures, indigenous peoples, etc. in order to locate the
moment of essential loss.
A response to Robert Kelly’s imprecation in his book In Time that : “It is the true
annals of magical time that need to be compiled – or if not compiled then duly &
accurately transcribed at each moment, in overlapping palimpsestical overlays,
vast collages of magical time in the dark & light of which we will be able to
perceive authentically as in books of ‘history’, the true history of our race.”
SOME NOTES ON STRUCTURE:
The poem will consist of 32 movements, with each movement broken up serially
or composed of fragmentary gestures toward a lost wholeness.
A movement itself can consist of several individual sections or one long
section=fragments on a charged field of white space.
Picture each movement as a tectonic plate. The location where two plates meet
forms a tension which expresses itself as a geological event. The tension in the
poem results from this boundary. This boundary is also the boundary between
planes of experience, between cultures, between periods of history, between lyric
and narrative, between Phanopoeia, Logopoeia and Melopoeia.
Kristen Gallagher in conversation with Kim Rosenfield
Kristen Gallagher: So this started because we were talking about how we wanted a more historical understanding of the lyric. And so I made you a copy of this essay by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young summarizing Friedrich Kittler’s revolt in German literary criticism, his move from hermeneutics to discourse-analysis, because it leads him to some provocative conclusions about lyric poetry in Germany as a disciplinary effect.
Kim Rosenfield: Right, that was interesting, how it outlines the uses of lyric poetry as a form of social control. (from Winthrop-Young) “In the name of individual autonomy the enlightened authoritarian state issues a ‘command of free will’” (p.76)
KG: A lot of it seems to come down to what he’s calling “the discursive complicity of education” (76). He identifies a pedagogical strategy linking freedom to the act of writing in the Karlsschule,[i] this early German school, late 18th century, the earliest days of what would become the Romantic period. Part of the pedagogy was that students were assigned personal tutors whose job was to both “become the students' confidantes and report on them,” and to “elicit and receive the love of their students,” by getting the students to write “soul-searching self-analyses” and have long philosophical and confessional talks with them. Kittler saw this as a disciplinary apparatus that worked essentially as a trick: making the students feel they were becoming free, when in fact they were also being observed and groomed to function as self-policing servants and soldiers. He arrives at a similar conclusion about the lyric. For me, this essay describes a few elements of Romanticism that I see as persistent, notions of freedom, a certain idea of musicality, and I wonder why they persist. They get framed as a kind of baseline, the "what we go back to," during periods of wild experimentation. After Language Poetry you get language-lyric, now we have conceptual lyric. Why is this seen as a baseline, or core principle? So I thought we should talk about it.
KR: Yes, this idea also made me think of Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism. She talks about reaction formation and ways people cling to outdated modes because they’re basically trying to avoid a world gone mad. So reading the Winthrop-Young made me feel like while the lyric may have begun as a form of social control, its persistence is a kind of reaction formation against a world that’s gone beyond what most people can manage emotionally. I'm sure I'm mangling her ideas here, but she talks about this promise of the good life, that we all think there’s a way we can still have everyone get a piece of the pie, but in fact the possibilities for that have crumbled around us, and we’re clinging to these ideas even though they’re exhausting us and bankrupting us. That’s the cruel optimism of trying to cling to humanist ideals in a world that’s moved beyond that. I feel like lyric poetry rests on a life-raft kept afloat by ideals of humanism, sincerity, “real” meaning, etc. and I feel like conceptual poetry has come up with a way to weather the fact that the raft is leaky and probably not even our raft in the first place.
KG: Interesting. So both works identify Enlightenment ideals as a problem. Ok, so we're taking a pass on "enlightened man." [...] I’m looking more for work that is imbricated in complex networks, that’s why I think most conceptual writing performs something way bigger than a critique of the author. It’s a poetics that grapples with discursive networks. Where "man "doesn't quite live.
KR: And I also think conceptualism may be more flexible in accommodating the idea that we may be looking at the end of human life on earth as we’ve come to rely on knowing it.
KG: And even if human beings continue to exist, I think we’ve reached a point where it’s not so hard for anyone to have enough information to realize the planet can go on without us. So we want to move past this false idea of the centrality of the human. I love how Winthrop-Young outlines how the lyric worked as a "program" to suggest the centrality of the human to itself. When discipline became the responsibility of the nucelar family, the education of mothers in their new mothering duties emphasized use of the phoneme and the lullaby to focus, stimulate, and calm down babies. Kittler treats this system as a program—think computer program—and examines the lullaby as one of its inputs. He finds there’s a brand of poetic musicality that is its output, and Goethe is one example. Because of its ties to the post-feudal invention of the nuclear family, etc., and its use as a disciplinary strategy—it replaced drugging and-or beating the children, we learn—the lullaby and its poetic outputs are part and parcel of an individuated, Romantic subject.
KR: I love the image of it coming from the mother. You drink it in with the mother’s milk. She teaches you to behave with little songs. The flow of teaching behavior is embedded in us as an idea of humanness and survival.
KG: And, as Kittler has it, it works by creating a particular type of a desire for meaning in a fragmented reality, that goo goo ga ga is the first tease, that first tease of meaning, that there’s wholeness to be found in the world, that it's all coming to you, baby individual, in little fragments, for you to one day make whole. I love this part where he concludes Goethe is simply repeating his mother’s lullabies—such a blasphemous conclusion for a German scholar. To conclude that those poems were written into him by the new program for mothering, to suggest those poems are not naturally occurring, organic insight. This disturbed the waters in its time. For Kittler, the whole Romantic operation was a program whose output was a particular type of subject, one with an idea of a world that holds together, and holds dear to the idea of individual meaning and freedom, but an idea of freedom rooted in creating obedient subjects. There’s the rub, I guess, when your idea of freedom and pursuing your own meaning turns out to be a bit of a trap. And this essay really helped me hear the sound of this program in the lullaby. And that program still runs pretty hard in poetry.
KR: And after Freud, after WWII, the very idea of a self and an identity that we have control over got further deconstructed and I think it is so problematic to hold strongly to that continuity, to the idea that poetry has always been "naturally occurring" so to speak and must continue to be, or has some essential identity, instead of realizing poetry …
KG: … that it’s a historical form, it changes, is subject to history and is not essentially one way at its core ...
KR: … is just warding off the real fear, the unconscious psychic terror, of what the world has become. I was thinking about the bit about the baby being the receiver of the lullaby, but I guess there’s this idea, I mean, in conceptual poetry too, we don’t assume the receiver is a kind or even a receptive receiver. That seems to me to also be an assumption of lyric poetry, that the poet is some kind of holder of good. I think conceptual writers work in a mode that can handle the idea that the mother or the receiver might be a bad seed, not all is well. Your audience is not one with your milk. You shouldn’t assume that. Conceptualism anticipates there are bad givers and bad receivers.
KG: That’s interesting. Some people have really complained about the kind of language or sentiments reproduced in conceptual writing. Why does Vanessa Place reproduce complicated and-or negated rape narratives, why does Chris Alexander reproduce so many people calling the Panda fat? Poor pandas. Those reactions assume there’s something in poetry that is inherently nice, that its job is to spread political correctness. People might balk at the way I’m phrasing that, but it seems like that is what it boils down to. A lot of people don’t want to deal with anything ugly and confusing in their poetry, as writers or receivers. But if we’re going to say poetry’s supposed to be inherently moral and-or soothing and healing, isn’t that effectively calling for the restoration of a subject engaged in, as you say, warding off the horrors of the contemporary?
KR: It’s not healing it’s colonizing.
KG: Right, and it’s anything but emanating from nature. It’s emanating from discourse. Winthrop-Young asks this great question, on page 79, when he’s talking about how essentially every critic since forever has read Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong” mostly for the content. The musicality, if discussed at all, is discussed to support the message of the content, and that message is that the message comes from nature. But then he asks this great question, “what order of discourse, what mechanisms of speech production, what rituals of language acquisition, have to be in place in order to assume the trees and mountains are brimming with messages that stimulate the soul?”
KR: Right, what is healing in that model? You have to believe that. It keeps you in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. […] So I always learned that the lyric goes back to ancient ideas of music, the lyre, Homer…
KG: Well, I am no expert but I’ve had a few close encounters with ancient ideas, and Dante too. The word lyric has always had a connection to music—because of lyre—but different poetries have all had different musics, and different uses for music, and also very very different concepts of art and experience, ways they saw relations among things we’ve come to think of as distinct arts. Greek, Roman, and medieval poetries have all kinds of weird relationships to religion and state, those discourses control everything, but do we even know how to read them? Some people think it's actually impossible for a contemporary person on earth to imagine what poetry meant for the ancient Greeks. But my point is the musics change over different epochs. So why now, at this time, remain attached to the music of the Romantic lyric? And when people make arguments for a return to "lyric," based on the works they point to, this seems to be the version of lyric they assume. For me, previous musics seem mostly inappropriate for the contemporary moment, maybe certain concepts are translatable, like the idea of being “spoken through” as in the Greek model or the Jack Spicer model, maybe the concept of the siren song, but the lullaby—which this essay has made me hear everywhere over the last few years—doesn’t seem like the hook I want to hang my hat on. It’s too wrapped up in these concepts we’re discussing here.
KR: Yeah, it raises a lot of questions for me as to who/what is being colonized. How do we deal with questions of self when the idea of “self” is so amalgamated, disseminated, rife with conscious and unconscious transmissions of racism, genocide, trauma, transgression, etc. What kind of constructs construct a self? As Winthrop-Young asks the most basic lit/crit question: “Who is speaking?” and I think Conceptual writing would respond “no one in particular” or “everyone at once.” Lyric poets would respond: “I am speaking” and really, who the hell are you, who is the I in your presentation of self?
KG: And the answer for me to “Who is speaking” is “the systems that produce speech.” What is said is what can be said with the mechanisms at hand. For me, this essay made me want to explore things we assume about writing so much that we hardly see them at all, processes that seem invisible but directive, assumptions shaping education or the limits of recognizable “form.” What discourse shapes contemporary practice? What’s in the discourse network right now, and how does that feel? Or how are we being told not to plagiarize when everything at our fingertips says cut/paste/click/pass it on? This situation calls for a very different adventure in speaking than the Romantic one—and that includes the anti-Romantic one, the fragmented lullaby (or even the agro-lullaby—old form, new punch!). Today’s language acquisition framework are more about the screens inside the bellies of the Teletubbies than the lullaby. The recordings in our bellies and brains. They may even be making us sick, but I’m interested in going into that belly, rather than keep it at a supposedly healthy distance, or a righteous one.
So I think maybe this would be a good moment for you to spell out what a reaction formation is, how it works—just in case our readers don’t know—and talk about why you relate it to the persistence of the lyric.
KR: In a way it’s about doing something that is the opposite when something feels unbearable. To mitigate the impact of the bad thing. So, a crude example might be, if somebody treats me badly, well I’m gonna treat them really great and reach out to them even though I want to murder them. That’s simplistic, but you can see how it’s not necessarily the best idea. The world is broken down, and it seems more so than ever these days. With a reaction formation in poetry, you could say it’s when material is too heated up, so you make it palatable by cutting into little pretty gems. Conceptual writing doesn’t seem to feel like it needs to mediate those complications. It’s blunt about the unspeakable. And it’s not personal. It’s not about the person. The Pandora’s Box of evils don’t have to be one’s own personal experience with them. It’s a bigger project. So lyric poetry is soothing in a world that feels otherwise harsh or in disarray, but it’s just avoiding that feeling. I don’t practice that even in my clinical work. I’m not there to soothe.
KG: That’s what Lacan spoke against in U.S. psychoanalysis, ego psychology, propping up egos.
KR: Well, ego psychology isn't just propping up egos, it's contains an idea of lending an ego, which is more interesting, but I'm of the Relational school in which we are invested in the presence of aggression, which is a whole other interview ... But as a clinician I have to help someone face the dark, I often have to hold their feet to the fire. And I feel like my poetic work is like that too. I don’t pretend to have answers or insights into great themes of life, and I'm not interested in brutal reality checks either, I'm just trying to map the chaos and present as many strange attractors as possible. But that’s another thing. In most of the performances I’ve seen of this kind of work, there’s so much effort put into being loved by the audience. Not only to have the work heard and received and maybe questioned or puzzled over, but to have the poet as a person be loved deeply and responded to. There's a different kind of feeling state in the room--a need for the audience to know you, know your process, know your anxieties, know what you were thinking on the bus/plane/train ride over, know your sources, know your history, a preamble of the personalized as if that proves the sincerity and wisdom of your project as well.
KG: I myself do not like a poetry bent on wisdom. There’s pressure to sound wise, or to try to dispense wisdom. It can be so stilted. But I’m fascinated when you can hear an audience give the learned response to just the sound of it, the rhythm of the emphasis of the wise part, the ‘lull’ if you will, even if wisdom-wise it’s a real dud, a lot of audiences will go for it, just the sound of it.
KR: Right, we can all drink from this breast. We can all relate to this sound wisdom. This is the truth & I am wise and insightful enough to have named it for us all. That to me comes too close to a feeling of imperialism. Why would you assume I relate to your supposed insight? The poet reads his/her wise revelations and we all sigh in recognition. I feel like that’s already a major assumption—that I go to poetry for wisdom—to feel how deep you are. Or to connect with how deep I am. And it just ultimately smacks of values and morals.
KG: The thing Kittler is pointing to is not just the interconnectedness but also the transmission of, while believing in the naturalness of, values and morals.
KR: But it’s a false clinging to a sense that things are connected, that they do make sense, that these values are shared. That’s the reaction formation piece of it for me too. If you can’t see that the world is fragmented and meaning is multiple and beyond our control, then what will happen to you? It’s a scary thought. Better to feel like We Are the World.
KG: So there’s a lot of assuming. Assuming poetry is about the transmission of the supposed wisdom of another individual, assuming that poetry is about values and morals…
KR: It really burns me up. I guess that’s also why I wanted us to talk about it.
KG: I guess part of what we’re getting at is that there are programming questions associated with any approach to poetry, and what’s troubling about this one is that it seems to persist under the guise of freedom, free expression. I suspect you’re also frustrated that certain Romantic ideas of poetry seem to have been programmed into almost everyone. As a writing professor, I can say the persistence of these ideas astounds me. And as an analyst you can see how that becomes a form of institutional power that happens to play on the psyches of people looking for a way to survive in a cruel world. A lingering false promise that through a poetry of authentic self expression one can somehow get free. Not to mention that this program of freedom reproduces, in poetry, infinite variations on Goethe (including anti-Goethe), that it’s a program containing the promise of, working on its audience by triggering the longing for, an ideal mother (or, in the negative, her repudiation).
KR: We’re all interpolated.
KG: And conceptualism has its interpolations too. No one is free. The only thing I’d say on behalf of conceptualism, so-called, the works I’d name, they feel contemporary. It’s a move into the current epoch. They operate under the influence of the time of digital media, whatever they do.
So from Berlant’s perspective, or yours through Berlant, how has the lyric persisted? How are these old psychological forces still so powerful?
KR: I think with lyric poetry there’s not the distance to understand the self as an object.
KG: Interesting. I’ve been thinking of the “self” as an ever-morphing, traveling knot in a network.
KR: Yes. A kink or perturbation in the system.
KG: A lot of contemporary work falling under the rubric of conceptualism seems to take this for granted, foregrounding intersections of various discursive regimes. I really appreciate the foregrounding of constructionist principles through the strategy of taking everything, or almost everything, from outside, or staging things as a presentation of findings, a filmic capture of a flow of digitally-(or otherwise)-mediated discourse. Something about it feels like it also foregrounds subject formation, maybe because so much of the work contends with discursive influences.
KR: And our brains are being reshaped by this, by what these technologies allow, and our bodies are being reshaped too. So how can we talk about things in the same way? How can you stay rooted in ideas of meaning that are from such a different time?
KG: Right, some basic terms of reading and writing and embodiment are changing. These contemporary writing interventions, as outputs, suggest real systemic change, changes in the systems of writing. They are not mere style choices. You know what I mean? Like Language Poetry used to be threatening to the institutions that policed poetry, but now that disjunction is the new normal, that’s become just another style. It too can be soothing. That’s style, when something is no longer surprising. We’re all disjunctivists now! Well, not all. But for me, the disjunctivization of everything has lost contact with Language Poetry. It’s just how it’s been widely absorbed as mere style.
KR: It’s the new lullaby.
KG: But all around us the conditions for discourse have changed. I think that's why form and content and the whole engagement really has changed so much. It’s funny, another thing Winthrop-Young points out that Kittler found in studying the Karlsschule is that the students there were being trained to write poems complaining about the way their power was being infringed on by the Duke. So the Duke was training instructors, tutors, to train pupils to complain about the Duke, a) so that they would feel free, but b) this was all used to monitor them. They were being trained to monitor themselves through the writing of poems and diaries, which they shared with their tutors, who reported to the Duke.
KR: That’s so funky oedipal—you think you’re killing off the father but he’s actually orchestrating your aggression. So when I think about this and Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism, she surfaces this idea in our culture that fear, terror, and complication have to be accompanied by loving guidance. That loving guidance is seen as an antidote. That’s one idea of how lyric poetry operates for me. And I love this quote from her: “Who can bear to lose the world?” It really is a profound statement of how to stay with the ambivalence/knowledge of that which is beyond our control. Here’s another beaut of a Berlant quote: “... people ... choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to, to syncopate with it, or to be held in a relation of reciprocity, reconciliation, or resignation that does not mean defeat by it. Or perhaps they move toward the narrative form to get numb with the consensual promise and to misrecognize that promise as an achievement.” (p.28) To me that means, the values most people have learned, the program they’re running, will not allow them to tolerate a major disruption to it. Holding oneself in suspense, not knowing where this is all headed, is too hard, so people cling to what is known or familiar, what you’ve been raised with, or what you hold dear and feel that you can achieve mastery this way over a universe that isn’t up to our discretion.
KG: “Loving guidance” is what the tutors at the Karlsschule were being trained in. And I love how she says attachments to familiar forms produce comfort, which is a kind of numbness. This somehow makes me think of attachments to ideas like American individualism and freedom as empty signifiers that get used to manipulate those who believe in them most, just link them metonymically to the thing you want, and bam, for a portion of citizens, it’s logic. Even to the point of getting people to organize against taxation as socialism while the bridge they take to work is collapsing. Things are crumbling and yet ...
KR: That’s why I think of it as imperialism. I 'm using this conceit a bit dramatically here, but bear with me—making the world safe against conceptualism, meaning making the world safe from having to look at its own demise, the demise of language, structure, and forms that are anchoring and recognizable. We can’t really tolerate what’s happening to our ideas of human-ness. We can’t adapt to escalating changes aesthetically, (although isn't it ironic we can adapt to them technologically-- I Phone everybody?) and the idea is that we have to exert a known and comfortable sense of control, or a return to the familiar and known. But that "return" so to speak, feels colonizing or conserving of a way things have always been and continue to need to be done in the name of "truth" "originality" and "insight." We don’t even have the capacity to recognize for the most part what powers we’ve given over to. We just think we do. Conceptual writing does a better job at creating “diverse dramas of adjustment to being postgenre, postnormative, and not knowing entirely how to live.” Lauren Berlant again. (p.28)
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press (2011).
Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. “Implosion and Intoxication: Kittler, a German Classic, and Pink Floyd.” Theory, Culture, and Society. Vol. 23 (7-8) 2006.
[i] The Karlsschule, school of Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, where Schiller received his education and wrote some of his earliest plays poems. It was the first state-sponsored school in Germany, and was designed to provide a mode of discipline for potential civil servants as the feudal state was failing. Students there were assigned tutors (other boys about 3 years their senior) whose job was to both “become the students confidantes and report on them,” to both “elicit and receive the love of their students.” The modes of transmission included writing “soul-searching self-analyses” and regular engagement in long philosophical and confessional talks with their tutors.
Lyn Hejinan writes in The Book of A Thousand Eyes:
“The bed is made of sentences which present themselves as what they are
Some soft, some hardly logical, some broken off
Sentences granting freedom to memories and sights” 
If a bed is made of sentences, then we take rest, converse with the unconscious, locate freedom, the intimate, night, dark, gestational silence, the forming of images and ideas — all within what can be built from an assortment of varied sentences. Sentences become our increment, lumber, and leisure.
Lisa Robertson writes in her recent book, Nilling, “The most temporary membranes serve as shelter.”
What is it about the sentence that encourages one to stretch out?
Is attraction to the sentence part of the appealing lure of the poet’s novel? Are there some novels which do not function at the level of the sentence? More likely there are novels with hybrid or visualized moments, pages, chapters or asides which function at the level of the word, phrase, or repetition of a particular sentence to the point that text becomes an invocation or mandala, challenging how many ways one may read. I’m thinking specifically of the poet’s novel, Language Death Night Outside by Peter Waterhouse (translated from German by Rosmarie Waldrop). For instance:
The space of the pages here create a pause or meditative lull in which the reader is forced to change modes in approaching the text. At the same time, the way this visual text is embedded in the novel stands in to repeat the laborious process of political movement which is described on the pages which come before. When our eyes fall on this amphitheater of text we must climb, as we have climbed through other processes in the text. We are challenged to remain amid the thicket of words in a manner similar to the way that participants in the text are carried through predicaments which circle and continue indefinitely. One could dwell on a page endlessly, or choose to continue on with the speaker. Both aspects of the book are true. Therefore one way to talk about a poet’s novel is a book which allows many possibilities of reading, and by reading I don’t mean interpretation, but the physical process of holding a book and turning pages, rotating a text, and also the question of how much time elapses with the reading of a single page.
Various forms of repetition are employed throughout the text, such as the use of “I” and “we” followed by actions and locations, yet dissociated from any temporal or limited identity. The image above is one instant which departs from the sentence, but for the most part this text relies upon the sentence in order to move fluidly from one scene or impression to another. This text explores identity, consciousness, and historical and political processes mostly through sentences which unfold and pronounce concrete observations without employing chronology, storytelling, or even one location, language or speaker. The “I” and “we” in the text are various, collective, and able to float between passages which shift direction almost mid-thought. The effect is not jarring, but more leaping and associative as one expects in poetry. Reading this text, one is freed of the sense of an individual telling or being, and yet, the work is filled with short clipped musical sentences juxtaposed against each other which impress an embodied and personal relationship to shapes of desire, containment, connection and bewilderment. I want to call this book a moving still life. But nothing in the text is still, inanimate objects sometimes create direction or action, and the concentration is not on the concrete things described but how one relates to one’s surroundings and circumstances at any given moment. Gesture is supreme. Every movement feels immediate, whether it be a walk through a city, an argument, a realization. Language animates thought:
“I said the word brook-bed. The word brook-bed was, like any word, a sudden opening. The word brook-bed gave two sides to the landscape. The word brook-bed placed the shrubbery near to far to the water. The word brook-bed gave moisture to the meadow. The land answered me, the speaker of a single word.” .
One could argue that the speaker, containing a multitude of perspectives, is visiting a life, notions of a life, as if one could walk through and touch passages, persons, memories.
“Grandfather was a memory. Later the earth smacked its lips. One threw something into the pit. I did not want to do that. I looked with both eyes. People standing there had two arms each. The city, too, had two arms. I wondered about that.” .
At the same time observations are not detached and are constantly shifting. The overwhelming sense we have is of a thinking being to which life continues to happen without pause. At times the perspective is as if swooping down from above. At times it is so close as to be almost unbearable. But mostly, a body moves, sees, perplexes. What makes this text habitable, is the connective circuits, which are entirely unlike any I have ever encountered. The speaker perceives something, and then proceeds by an interior analysis of that thing that propels him to the next observation, as if by touch. So we are back again, at this notion of the poet’s novel as linked to extraordinary movement.
But back to the sentence, I return often to the novels of Henry James and also to Proust, when considering the sentence as an abode, a location. This has been my experience as a reader- that this elusive form is in some ways characterized by the use of the sentence as an unorthodox, multi-valent dwelling. While one could be happily lost in the strikingly original connective tissue between the sentences of Peter Waterhouse, one may be elaborately and joyously uncertain in the sentences of James and Proust. A sentence becomes a place to remotely live, to question, and in itself, a form to untangle. Each sentence a small world, a tiny novel or prose poem. This density and unabashed celebration of prosody is a refuge from the whirlwind of novels in which one is propelled by story to come to the end of things. The wanting to know what happens, instead of being a catalytic force turning pages, becomes a journey within each sentence, thus suspended more slowly. An elaborate poetic sentence is like the concentration of deliberate stillness in which much interior movement takes place. To see the movement you have to do more than read. One has to peer into the sentence as if looking through it’s many windows. Sentence becomes dwelling or character. This is the concentration necessitated in reading a poet’s novel, a world we might miss entirely if we do not stop to ask, where is the window? Where is the door? May I climb onto the roof and gaze through the chinks which need patching. Thus the reader becomes at once acrobat, astute upon ladders, a tree climbing parachuting visitor. How to arrive, how to enter, wondering always about vantage, and a carefulness in approach. Waterhouse writes, “What did not express itself, was silent over there, but sounded here, seen from the railroad embankment, like the text of an invitation, like speaking to, pulling toward, saving a place for.” .
[In advance of the forthcoming republication of Shaking the Pumpkin by Station Hill Press of Barrytown I’m posting again the following selection which appeared, with accompanying commentaries, in a recent issue of Poetry International, San Diego State University, & as an excerpt on Poems and Poetics. Additional excerpts from Shaking the Pumpkin were posted earlier & more will be posted here between now & the actual republication.]
In the aftermath of Technicians of the Sacred (1968) the next step I took toward the construction of an experimental ethnopoetics was an assemblage of traditional works and commentaries thereon focused entirely on one of the world’s still surviving and incredibly diverse “deep cultures.” The resultant work, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, was published by Doubleday Anchor in 1972 and in revised versions by Alfred van der Marck Editions (1986) and the University of New Mexico Press (1991). As with Technicians I drew from a wide range of previously published materials, supplemented in this instance by direct translations of my own and by those of later and very significant translators such as Dennis Tedlock and Howard Norman. I also continued to be freed by the opening of poetry among us to expand the range of what we saw as poetry elsewhere including sound works, visual works, and event and performance pieces on the model of contemporary happenings and performance art. My own translations – “total” and otherwise – from Seneca (with songmaker and ritual performer Richard Johnny John) and from Navajo (through the good offices of ethnomusicologist David McAllester) were also first presented here, and the commentaries, much like those in Technicians, provided analogues to other primal cultures and to the work of contemporary avantgardists. In the process I made no pretense about my own connection to the Indian nations in question, though for a period of a decade and more it was far from trivial, and my next ethnopoetic assemblage, A Big Jewish Book (later republished as Exiled in the Word) was in fact an exploration of ancestral sources of my own “in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.”
After three decades in print the life of Shaking the Pumpkin came to a natural closure several years ago, though a new edition has remained a tempting possibility since then. The following excerpts, not easily accessible until now, will give some sense of the range of work in this and other of our ethnopoetic gatherings – part of a process of composition that I’ve spoken of elsewhere as “othering” and that the great Brazilian avantgardist Haroldo de Campos has aptly termed “transcreation.” Such approaches, as we view them, have appeared to us not as a distortion or falsification of the original work but as the most poetic – and therefore the most honest way – to bring it forward. As we move further into a new century and millennium the works shown here move from being an odd discovery to take on the status of genuine American classics – the oldest and truest that we have. (J.R.)
Uitoto Indian (Colombia)
In the beginning the word gave origin to the father.
A phantasm, nothing else existed in the beginning: the Father touched an illusion, he grasped something mysterious. Nothing existed. Through the agency of a dream our Father Nai-mu-ena kept the mirage to his body, and he pondered long and thought deeply.
Nothing existed, not even a stick to support the vision: our Father attached the illusion to the thread of a dream and kept it by the aid of his breath. He sounded to reach the bottom of the appearance, but there was nothing. Nothing existed.
Then the Father again investigated the bottom of the mystery. He tied the empty illusion to the dream thread and pressed the magical substance upon it. Then by the aid of his dream he held it like a wisp of raw cotton.
Then he seized the mirage bottom and stamped upon it repeatedly, sitting down at last on his dreamed earth.
The earth phantasm was his now, and he spat out saliva repeatedly so that the forests might grow. Then he lay down on his earth and covered it with the roof of heaven. As he was the owner of the earth he placed above it the blue and the white sky.
Thereupon Rafu-emas, the man-who-has-the-narratives, sitting at the base of the sky, pondered and he created this story so that we might listen to it here upon earth.
— Translation after K.T. Preuss, Die Religion und Mythologie der Uitoto (1921)
Sweat-House Ritual No.1
listen old man listen
you rock listen
old man listen
listen didn't i teach all their children
to follow me listen
listen unmoving time-without-end listen
you old man sitting there listen
on the roads where all the winds come rushing
at the heart of the winds where you're sitting listen
old man listen
listen there's short grasses growing all over you listen
you're sitting there living inside them listen
listen i mean you're sitting there covered with birdshit listen
head’s rimmed with soft feathers of birds listen
old man listen
you standing there next in command listen
listen you water listen
you water that keeps on flowing
from time out of mind listen
listen the children have fed off you
no one’s come on our secret
the children go mad for your touch listen
listen standing like somebody's house listen
just like somewhere to live listen
you great animal listen
listen you making a covering over us listen
saying let the thoughts of those children live with me
and let them love me listen
listen you tent-frame listen
you standing with back bent you over us
stooping your shoulders you bending over us
you really standing
you saying thus shall my little ones speak of me
you brushing the hair back from your forehead listen
the hair of your head
the grass growing over you
you with your hair turning white listen
the hair growing over your head listen
o you roads the children will be walking on listen
all the ways they'll run to be safe listen
they'll escape their shoulders bending with age where they walk
walking where others have walked
their hands shading their brows
while they walk and are old listen
because they're wanting to share in your strength listen
the children want to be close by your side listen
be very old and listen
— English working by Jerome Rothenberg, from Alice Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche
Before They Made Things Be Alive They Spoke
by Lucario Cuevish
Earth woman lying flat her feet were to the north her head was to the South sky brother sitting on her right hand side he said Yes sister you must Tell me who you are she answered I am Tomaiyowit she asked him Who Are you? He answered I am Tukmit. Then she said:
I stretch out flat to the Horizon.
I shake I make a noise like thunder.
I am Earthquake.
I am round and roll around.
I vanish and return.
Then Tukmit said:
I arch above you like a lid.
I deck you like a hat.
I go up high and higher.
I am death I gulp it in one bite.
I grab men from the east andscatter them.
My name is Death.
Then they made things be alive.
-- English working by Jerome Rothenberg, after Constance G. DuBois
A Song from Red Ant Way
The red young men under the ground
decorated with red wheels
and decorated with red feathers
at the center of the cone-shaped house
I gave them a beautiful red stone—
when someone does the same for me
I'll walk the earth
The black young women under the ground
decorated with black wheels
and decorated with black feathers
at the center of the flat-topped house
I gave them an abalone shell—
when someone does the same for me
I'll walk the earth
From deep under the earth they're starting off
the old men under the earth are starting off
they're decorated with red wheels and starting off
at the center of the cone-shaped house they're starting off
because I gave them a beautiful red stone they're starting off
when someone does the same for me I'll walk the earth like them
and starting off
On the red road and on the road they're starting off
The black old women under the earth are starting off
they're decorated with black wheels and starting off
decorated with black feathers and starting off
at the center of the flat-topped house they're starting off
because I gave them an abalone shell they're starting off
when someone does the same for me I'll walk the earth like them
and starting off
from deep under the earth they're starting off
—English working by Jerome Rothenberg, after Harry Hoijer
From Flower World Variations: Song of a Dead Man
I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
want to move
I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
want to move
I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
want to move
out in the flower world
over a road of flowers
I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
want to move
I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
want to move
—English version by Jerome Rothenberg
(A girl looking through a spyglass says)
You cannot see mountains and valleys in the clouds,
I see the clouds as big as trees.
When I look far away I see the clouds like cliffs of high, gray rocks.
I see a cloud that looks like a coconut tree.
The clouds come up and come up in different shapes.
There are clouds that look like breakers,
You don't see the colors and shapes of the clouds,
I see them like people moving and bending, they come up just like people.
There are clouds like many people walking.
I see them every time I look out to sea with the glass.
Sometimes a cloud comes up like a ghost, and sometimes like a ship.
I look far off through the glass and see everything.
I see a cloud that looks like a sea horse, a wild sea horse that lives in the
I see a cloud like a deer with branching horns.
(The boy beside her says)
You don't see that at all.
(But the girl says)
From the time I was a child I didn't think I would see such things as
If I don't look through the glass I can't see them.
Now I find out the different things the clouds make.
Do you want to see them too?
(The boy says)
All right. I want to see them too. (He looks through the glass.)
Now I see funny things.
(The girl says)
Now you see all those funny things.
(Then the boy says to a younger girl)
You want to see them too?
(But she says)
I'm too young.
(The boy says to the older girl)
Look down into the water with the glass.
(The older girl says)
Now I see strange things under the water.
I see things moving around as though they were live animals.
I see things there that look like little bugs – many strange animals under the sea.
Translation by Frances Densmore
Navajo Animal Songs
Chipmunk can't drag it along
can't drag it along
Chipmunk holds back his ears
Chipmunk was standing
jerking his feet
he's a very short chipmunk
Mole makes his pole redhot
Says: I'll shove it up your ass
Says: feel how it shakes your belly
Wildcat was walking
He ran down here
He got his feet in the water
Wow, wow! says Wildcat
A turkey is dancing near the rocks
shoves out his pelvis
woops-a-daisy we all go crazy
Big Rabbit goes to see his baby
pissing all around him
Pinionjay shits pebbles
now he's empty
English versions by Jerome Rothenberg, after David McAllester