Commentaries - May 2013

Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (53): Daniel Paul Schreber (1842 – 1911), from 'Memoirs of My Nervous Illness'


The talking of all free flying birds has persisted without interruption in the past years in which I frequently changed my residence, and it persists to this day … I would now prefer to use the expression “talking bird” to “miraculously created bird” which is used in the text. Earlier on I thought I could not explain the talking of the birds other than by assuming that they were as such created by miracle, that is to say were created anew each time. After what I have observed meantime I consider it more likely that they were birds produced by natural reproduction, into whose bodies the remnants of the “forecourts of heaven,” that is to say erstwhile blessed human souls, had been inserted in some supernatural way or were inserted anew each time. But that these souls [nerves] were actually inside the bodies of these birds [perhaps in addition to the nerves which these birds naturally possess and in any case without awareness of their previous identity] remains as before without any doubt for me for reasons developed in the text.


The system of not-finishing-a-sentence became more and more prevalent in the course of years, the more the souls lacked their own thoughts. In particular, for years single conjunctions or adverbs have been spoken into my nerves thousands of times; those ought only to introduce clauses, but it is left to my nerves to complete them in a manner satisfactory to a thinking mind. Thus for years I have heard daily in hundred-fold repetition incoherent words spoken into my nerves without any context, such as “Why not?,” “Why, if,” “Why, because I,” “Be it,” “With respect to him,” (that is to say that something or other has to be thought or said with respect to myself), further an absolutely senseless “Oh” thrown into my nerves; finally, certain fragments of sentences which were earlier on expressed completely; as for instance

1. “Now I shall,”

2. You were too,”
3. “I shall,”
4. “It will be,”
5. “This of course was,”
6. “Lacking now is,”

etc. In order to give the reader some idea of the original meaning of these incomplete phrases I will add the way they used to be completed, but are not omitted and left to be completed by my nerves. The phrases ought to have been:


1. Now I shall resign myself to being stupid;

2. You were to be represented as denying God, as given to voluptuous excesses, etc.;

3. I shall have to think about that first;

4. It will be done now, the joint of pork;

5. This of course was too much from the soul’s point of view;
6. Lacking now is only the leading idea, that is – we, the rays, have no thou


The infringement of the freedom of human thinking or more correctly thinking nothing, which constitutes the essence of compulsive thinking, became more unbearable in the course of years with the slowing down of the talk of the voices, This is connected with the increased soul-voluptuousness of my body and — despite all writing-down — with the great shortage of speech-materials at the disposal of the rays with which to bridge the vast distances separating the stars, where they are suspended, from my body.


No one who has not personally experienced these phenomena like I have can have any idea of the extent to which speech has slowed down. To say “But naturally” is spoken B.b.b.u.u.u.t.t.t. n.n.n.a.a.a.t.t.t.u.u.u.r.r.r.a.a.a.l.l.l.l.l.l.y.y.y. or “Why do you not then shit?” W.w.w.h.h.h.y.y.y. d.d.d.o.o.o………….; and each requires perhaps thirty to sixty seconds to be completed. This would be bound to cause such nervous impatience in every human being not like myself more and more inventive in using methods of defense, as to make him jump out of his skin …


Translation from German by Ida McAlpine and Richard A Hunter

with John Bloomberg-Rissman

 Source: Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, New York Review Books Classics, 2000.


(1) “In November 1893, Daniel Paul Schreber, recently named presiding judge of the Saxon Supreme Court, was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and entered a Leipzig psychiatric clinic. He would spend the rest of the nineteenth century in mental institutions. Once released, he published his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), a harrowing account of real and delusional persecution, political intrigue, and states of sexual ecstasy as God's private concubine. Freud's famous case study of Schreber elevated the Memoirs into the most important psychiatric textbook of paranoia … Schreber's text becomes legible as a sort of ‘nerve bible’ of fin-de-siècle preoccupations and obsessions, an archive of the very phantasms that would, after the traumas of war, revolution, and the end of empire … cross the threshold of modernity into a pervasive atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty … [It is possible to argue] that Schreber's delusional system--his own private Germany--actually prefigured the totalitarian solution to this defining structural crisis of modernity … [and to show] how this tragic figure succeeded in avoiding the totalitarian temptation by way of his own series of perverse identifications, above all with women and Jews.” (Eric L Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schrebers Secret History of Modernity)


(2) It is not hard to see Schreber’s encounter with voices & rays & so forth as a crisis of humanist reading. On some level, he seems to have experienced modernist art practice avant la lettre, with a kind of awareness of just how threatening that would be to the humanist project. One could also argue that he not only experienced modernism, he also experienced what came to be called postmodernism & what Jeffrey T. Nealon calls its present “post-postmodern intensification” (Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism). In which case it seems possible to understand Schreber’s memoirs as a kind of reading of a less & less familiar, more & more threatening world, which continues to resonate. And the innovative strategies with language, as presented here, bring it still more surely into our present mix.

Celia Dropkin: From 'In Her White Wake: The Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin'

Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon

[From the bilingual book forthcoming from Tebot Bach Press]



My hands, two little bits

of my body I'm never

ashamed to show. With fingers—

the branches of coral,

fingers—two nests

of white serpents,

fingers—the thoughts

of a nymphomaniac.





Like juicy red apples

my cheeks flare up

in the sun

with a red flame.


I hold on—barely—

to the tree, and not

today, tomorrow,

fall to the ground,

and when someone,

dazzled by my red

cheeks, lifts me up

from the dirt, he then

tosses me aside with disgust

and pity because

my heart is eaten up

by the worms,

and that fat worm—passion—

just won't crawl out

of my juicy body.

I am left, discarded, as it

rots me to death.





You revel, I revel,

in us revels the God

who ruins everything,

who won’t forbid.


Hammer my hands,

nail my feet to a cross:

burn me, be burned,

take all my ardor


and leave me deeply ashamed:

suck it from me and throw it away,

become estranged, alienated

and go your own way.





You plowed deep

into me—fertile earth—

and sowed there.

Tall stalks grew—love-stalks—

with roots down deep in the ground

and golden heads to the sky.

Surrounding  your stalks, red poppies

amazingly bloomed.

You stood, suspicious,

and thought: Who planted poppies?

A wind passed through;

you had an impulse

to show it the way.

A bird flew through;

you followed him

away with your eyes.






you had been fussed over

by many women’s hands

when I came across you,

young Adam. And before I pressed

my lips to you

you pleaded, your face paler

and more gentle

than the gentlest lily:

Don’t bite, don’t bite.

I saw that teethmarks covered

your entire body. Trembling,

I bit into you—you breathed

over me through thin nostrils

and edged up to me

like the hot horizon to a field.







Today in the first light hour after the rain,

the sun shines calmly, softly on me.

The fields in the valleys of Sullivan County

stretch far from the narrow path.

Somewhere out there trees turn blue

on the mountainside. The fields are sown

with raspberries, but it’s often not easy

to eat enough of them: you quickly lose yourself

in a labyrinth of outstretched green stabbing arms,

a braided, thorny wall of branches.

Yet after the rain there are tons of raspberries.

The sun shines calmly, softly on me.

Fresh milk awaits, but I don’t hurry to the farm.

My arm tears on the jagged twigs.





Yellow and red mosaic of fields,

cultivated rows of trees—

here and there a lone tree.

You can barely see the mountain.

A world hemmed in by trees,

the mountain obscured by fog.




No mountains—this is better.

The horizon gets farther, bigger,

in the soft distance.

My soul wanders, aimless.

In the soft distance, it blurs

and lightens. The whole world

swims in a tender gray.


No world—this is better.

My eye gentler, bigger.

In the tender gray,

no world, no earth.

In the tender gray,

I swim undisturbed.




I went up on the mountain and saw

fields like golden rivers

and trees on them like sails on ships:

green sails on golden rivers.

Close, in a deep, green abyss,

the road wound through the endless

seeming forest—a pink serpent

twisting between green sails of ships.

How insignificant, how small

was my valley, my little green valley:

it carried to me, as on wings of wind,

a lamenting sound.

My baby was calling to me.

But I was welded to the mountain,

and for a long time sorrow swung around me

and for a long time the baby cried and called out

until the valley heard my steps again.





Seeping from the cells of your skyscrapers

is golden honey, light,

through millions of windows,

as through the cells of gigantic honey-combs,

you can see golden honey,

human honey, light.

Immense bees built their beehives here,

a forest of beehives,

and filled them until they overflowed with honey,

human honey—light.

The Hudson at night is black as pitch,

and the honey flows

and swallows the pitch on the shores of New York.


*          *          *


Trees like these with golden fruit,

a forest of golden fruit,

gigantic cedars

hung with lanterns.


[NOTE. Among the more experimental Yiddish poets in early twentieth-century New York, Dropkin (1887-1956) was significant both for her exploration of open verse as a compositional strategy & for her assertions of female desire beyond the limits observed by most of her contemporaries, both in Yiddish & in English. Born Zipporah Levine in present-day Belarus, she wrote first in Russian but turned to Yiddish on arrival in New York circa 1910, where she participated in the already active Yiddish poetry world, including the experimental In-Zikh (Introspectivist) poets, while developing more markedly transgressive themes than theirs: sexuality, depression, guilt & longing, fury, violence, even at its limits the representation of sado-masochism & other taboo, once hidden subjects. Her work in that sense is a further confirmation of Kenneth Rexroth’s observation of a Yiddish avant-garde & Futurist presence in his own early years in New York: “A good case could be made for the claim that the best writing done in America in the first quarter of the [twentieth] century was in Yiddish. I don’t think it’s really true, but it is sufficiently true to be passionately arguable in one of those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream in the Café Royale.” And despite Kenneth’s charmingly flippant tone, the active historical presence of two languages & their attendant poetries in a single American city is itself worth noting. (J.R.)]


cover image by Susan Bee, photo by Alan Thomas


Best of 2013
Rae Armantrout, Volta
Patrick Pritchett,  Writing the Messianic
Todd Swift, Eyewear
Jake Marmer, The Forward
Pierre Joris, Nomadics


Mark FordTLS, Nov. 22, 2013
rob mclennan's blog
Kacy Muir, Northeast Pennsylvania Weekender  (The Times Leader, Wilkes Barre, PA) April 3, 2013, rated WWWWW (5 star/highest)  [Wilkes-Barre, PA]
Al Filries, introduction to April 16 Penn launch.
Caleb Beckwith, Volta
Josh Cook, Bookslut (May 2013)
Frank Davey, London Open Mic (May 2013) 
Tom Beckett, Galatea Resurrects #20 (May 2013)
Jake Marmer, "Charles Bernstein Makes Lovely Cacophony in his Latest Collection: Secular Avant Garde Poet's Most Jewish Work" in The Jewish Daily Forward
Reed Cooley, American Reader vol 1, 5/6  May/June 2013
Jed Rasula, Provincetown Arts Summer 2013: pdf
Mary Weston, Cleaver, #2, Summer 2013
Sean Singer, The Rumpus, Nov. 8, 2013 
Adam Fitzgerald, The American Reader, January 2014 

In 1978, Bernstein and fellow avant-gardist Bruce Andrews founded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine as a place to oppose the “confessional” voice and lyrical verse popular at the time. In dozens of books over the course of nearly 40 years, Bernstein has inspired and puzzled, annoyed and amused readers by rethinking what poetry is and what language can do. While difficult to define, we find a clue to Bernstein’s aesthetic in the epigraph to a new poem, which “adapts a line from Judith Malina’s 1967 translation of Brecht’s 1948 version of Hölderlin’s 1804 translation of Sophocles’s Antigone.” For Bernstein, historical works, interpretation, and adaptation all contribute to the cacophony of contemporary life. This collection contains a characteristically wide range of innovative verse, including formal stanzas with predictable end rhymes, columns of replicated phrases, essays in verse, axiomatic maxims, zen koans, and translations of Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and Catullus. Throughout, Bernstein usurps expectations and even anticipates, jokingly, how skeptical readers might receive his work: “I try to get them to see it as formal, structural, historical, collaborative, and ideological. What a downer!”--Diego Báez

Grace Cavalieri, Washington Independent Review of Books (pdf) (March 2013)

Charles Bernstein’s poetry is language that breaks thought into meaning in spite of itself.... Reading through I’m struck with his generosity in telling us everything, letting his brain register what it will, and done beautifully. He’s also a philosopher and gives us bullets that stay –from Strike, ‘every hope begins with a disappointment.’ … Bernstein is a stylist, a man on a quest, a trailblazer. His poems are a system of methodologies and theories, fueled by a set of dynamics that are intuitive and progressive. He recreates before he creates. One thing is true. Bernstein is wild with sensations and writes as if there’s no eternity. I know better than to argue with that.

"Charles Bernstein is on a mission to tear down and build back up everything we know, believe and love about poetry. His first collection in seven years uses translations, homages, and manifestoes to write a new poetry future. Witty and daring. Playful and brilliant. Recalculating will be in the discussion for all the major poetry awards this year." –– Porter Square Books

Eliabeth Burns in conversation with Bernstein on Recalculating, from Summer 2013 Rain Taxi

is Charles Bernstein’s first full-length collection of new poems in seven years. As a result of this lengthy time under construction, the scope, scale, and stylistic variation of the poems  surpasses Bernstein’s previous work. Together, the poems of Recalculating take readers on a journey through the history and poetics of the decades since the end of the Cold War as seen through the lens of social and personal turbulence and tragedy.
The collection’s title, the now–familiar GPS expression, suggests a change in direction due to a mistaken or unexpected turn. For Bernstein, formal invention is a necessary swerve in the midst of difficulty. As in all his work since the 1970s, he makes palpable the idea that radically new structures, appropriated forms, an aversion to received ideas and conventions, political engagement, and syntactic novelty will open the doors of perception to exuberance and resonance, from giddiness to pleasure to grief. But at the same time he cautions, with typical deflationary ardor, “The pen is tinier than the sword.” In these poems, Bernstein makes good on his claim that “the poetry is not in speaking to the dead but listening to the dead.” In doing so, Recalculating incorporates translations and adaptations of Baudelaire, Cole Porter, Mandelstam, and Paul Celan, as well as several tributes to writers crucial to Bernstein’s work and a set of epigrammatic verse essays that combine poetics with wry observation, caustic satire, and aesthetic slapstick.
Formally stunning and emotionally charged, Recalculating makes the familiar strange—and in a startling way, makes the strange familiar. Into these poems, brimming with sonic and rhythmic intensity, philosophical wit, and multiple personae, life events intrude, breaking down any easy distinction between artifice and the real. With works that range from elegy to comedy, conceptual to metrical, expressionist to ambient, uproarious to procedural, aphoristic to lyric, Bernstein has created a journey throug the dark striated by bolts of imaginative invention and pure delight.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

“The ethos and critique are of poetry, which becomes a rich dark with a phosphorescence of lyric as witness.”

Susan Stewart
“The English word ‘calculate’ has a double life: in standard English it means to ‘reckon’ or ‘intend’ and in dialect it means ‘to guess.’ These contrary, wayward, definitions—the first so full of certainty, the second so full of ironic doubt—shimmer and clash on every page of Charles Bernstein's obsessive, brilliant new book of poems, Recalculating. Through responses, translations, adaptations, and occasional pieces, through little hymns and tragic litanies, Bernstein measures and dreams a circle: a community of readers and writers who spin within a world built from the living history of words.”|

Rae Armantrout
Recalculating gathers a substantial selection of (mostly) new poems—a few go as far back as the 80s and 90s—in a remarkably coherent and enlightening collection—though I’m certain Bernstein would abjure both of those adjectives. He has always rejected the idea of the poem as honed and polished object, and the poems in this book are as open as life itself. One thing that Recalculating makes clear is that, though Bernstein can deliver some ‘killer’ aphorisms, he is primarily a poet of abjection. He has always been drawn, as he puts it here, to the ‘painfully clumsy, clumpsy.’ Slapstick is bunkmates with failure and even heartbreak. This is especially evident in recent poems such as “Recalculating” and “Before You Go” which directly or indirectly reference the sudden death of the poet’s daughter. It is breathtaking—disturbing and admirable—that grief appears in these poems, as it does in life, alongside—well, alongside everything.”
Eileen Myles
“Charles Bernstein is writing in the simplest of forms—so simple they become radical. I love reading his work because he’s writing on the cusp of what poetry is.”
Kenneth Goldsmith
  “I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. Originality may be the only course when loss is the mother of invention. These are not my words but I mean them."

  • On-line poems from Recalculating:
    "The Truth in Pudding" in Poems & Poetics
    "Recalculating" (Conjunctions, 2011)
    "Before You Go" (ArtCritical.Com, 2011)
    tr. of Khelbnikov's "Incanttion by Laughter" (2009)
    tr. Hugo's "Tomorrow, dawn ..." with Rothenberg commentary (2009)
    tr. Baudelaire's "Be Drunken"
    Three poems in the final issue of Electronic Poetry Review (2008) ("You Say Insipid, I say Inscripsit," "What makes a Poem a Poem?" and "Up High Down Low Too Slow")
    "A Theory's Evolution" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2006) and Jewish Journal (2014)
    "Great Moments in Taches Blanches" (Reconfigurations, 2007); commentary by Franklin Winslow at Baruch blog
    Sane as Tugged Vat, Your Love (homophonic translation of Leevi Lehto's Finish) (from RIF/T 4.1) (forthcoming in Recalculating)
    "Armed Stasis" in Plume (2013)
    "Strike!" in The Baffler 19 (2012) 
    "On Election Day": video and text 
    "Breathtails": pdf; Anne LeBarron on the collaboration: pdf  

    Recalculating launch at Kelly Writers House, April 16, 2013. Intro Al Filreis followed by reading:


    MP3 audio

     E-book $7.00 to $18.00: Nook  | Kindle & Chicago


    Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein, ed. William Allegrezza

  • Charles Olson, Poemas, tr. Jorge Santiago Perednick and Ernesto Livon Grosman

    S/N: NewWorldPoetics
    EPC Digital Library
    is pleased to make available a free pdf

    Charles Olson
    Spanish translation  by
    Jorge Santiago Perednik and Ernesto Livon Grosman
    introduction by 
    Jorge Santiago Perednik
    Buenos Aires: Tres Haches, 1997

    Etel Adnan's 'Paris, When It’s Naked'

    The poet's novel

    A novel in which the subject is Paris.  A collage novel.  A list novel.  A novel of various forms of hopefulness and despair. 

    “We’re moving towards something that does not exist.  The voyage is infinite. The passenger is not.” [1].

    Where has Adnan taken the form of the novel, as a poet of many countries and languages?  She has chosen place for character. She has chosen Paris, all of Paris.  Her gaze penetrates the beauty and limitations.  She does not ignore Paris as “the heart of a lingering colonial power.”  She has taken the reader not only to the streets of Paris, but to the skies, and to the passing thoughts of the relocated Parisian who writes through circumstances, concerns, observations. 

    “Some rare evenings, the glow is so strong that pink hue, an after hue, an illumination made of color and fire, seeps between the buildings, these evenings which are an illumination for the whole body, not only the eyes.”  [2].

    That no other persons come into focus for more than a moment creates an experimental cinematic sense of the city.  We are lured toward  not merely a visual surface but a detailed map of luminosities and gravities

    “Paris has to be reduced to energy points, has to be obliterated, and then rebuilt by one’s mind in order to be livable. Otherwise you become car fumes, pornographic junk, a ball of hatred, the most fallen of the banished angels.” [3]. 

    At the same time the body of the speaker is walking through the streets, taking part in what she observes by embodying many possibilities of experience, she is also composing questions about existence, language, and perception.  This novel, located in a city extends outward from that city to exist on many planes, locations, and modes of consciousness.  She writes:

    “I was trying this morning to figure out how one could think without words. A noble desire, I thought.  I wanted to get close to what I presume could be forms of animal thinking: what happens in a cat’s brain when a cat decides between jumping and not jumping?  Does his whole body think?   [4]

    Apparently, the entire body of the poet speaks through this gem-like prismatic work.

     “Our dying is imperceptible” [5]



    1.  Etel Adnan, Paris, When It’s Naked, (Sausalito, CA, Post-Apollo Press, 1993). 94.

    2. Ibid., 46.

    3. Ibid., 105.

    4. Ibid., 52.

    5. Ibid., 94.