Commentaries - May 2013

Gertrude Stein and the Marshal

Our Stein dossier on the war years has two new pieces: a detailed study by Vaclav Paris of Stein's aborted translations of Pétain, which ended about the time the FDR administration broke relations with Vichy, and a thoughtful response to the article by noted Stein scholar Leon Katz.

derek beaulieu's 'Prose of the Trans-Canada'

A 1:1 scale road map of language

beaulieu's Prose of the Trans-Canada
derek beaulieu's Prose of the Trans-Canada

derek beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada is an epic inscribed scroll, a graphemic saga as Odyssean and graphic a roadtrip as traveling the eponymous Trans-Canada highway. The 16” x 52” work is named after Blaise Cendrars’ monumental Prose of the Trans-Siberian (1913), a milestone in the history of artists books and visual poetry.

beaulieu writes that naming it after Cendrars' work, “places it within a continuity of engagements with the artist's book (as Cendrars' volume is considered an early progenitor of that form). Cendrars’ Prose of the Trans-Siberian was also a reply to the architecture of modernism: if 150 copies of Cendrars’ volume were placed end-to-end, the result would be the same length as the height of that symbol of Parisian Modernity, the Eiffel Tower. If 150 copies of my work are placed end-to-end, it will be same length as the height of that symbol of Canadian modernity, the Calgary Tower, hardly as monumental.”

detail: Prose of the Trans-Canada

beaulieu’s Prose of the Trans-Canada pulses with the Brownian motion of language. An entomological ‘teaming’. Clouds billowing from an alchemical retort. A Mercator projection of the cerebral cortex–like folds of writing. A cloud-town view of the not-flatland of the alphabet freed from the governance of the invisible hand. A Borgesian one-to-one scale map of language. A CAT-scan or phonological EEG of the submorphemic structures of writing. A glyphic Bayeux tapestry, a pre- or post-codex scrolling trafficking in the prose tattoos of a trans  -cribed, -gressed, -ferred,  -(Cendrars)ent Canadian coast-to-coast (litoral to literal) journey.

Because it was created out of Lettraset (dry-transfer lettering), the work seems a performance of the mark. The hand/mind/written mark in concert. A letter set. There is a rubbing. There is ‘a’ rubbing. The trace of the marks’ creation and the writer’s writing. And, since it is Lettraset, we are reminded that every mark comes from a pre-existing repertoire (indeed there can be observed, close-up, elements of metadata from the Lettraset sheets: the company name, its copyright notices.) A letter hord. Hoard. Horde. Each letter from a particular time and place. A trace. And the page records. It is a locus of the moment of phenomenological realization as a material mark on the page. And because with Lettraset there is no erasing or revising, it is all ‘real time.’)  

The repeating letters, broken free from the up/down Cartesian grid of normative print are instead a rivering of letters riven from a long wail of potential, either given a context or recontextualised. We’re reminded of the writer’s ‘making’ (even in these ‘borrowed’ letters ‘transferred’ from somewhere else) because of the Baroque and virtuoso panoply of letters. The use of all the existing space is Baroque or abstract expressionist in its detailing.

detail: Prose of the Trans-Canada

I recently wrote to beaulieu via email (and our discussion was carried by the regular distribution of letterforms arrayed in a regular order, though displayed before us on a luminous screen.)

How do you conceive of ‘reading’ this work as a text?

Reading visual poetry is a challenge only if we rely solely on the skills we apply in traditional literary reading. The reading techniques necessary in graphic novels and comic books (unexpected juxtaposition, gaps in linearity, chronology jumps inherent in the gutters and margins between panels, etc), in graphic design (the jarring use and combination of letters and symbols in advertising slogans and logos) and resonant repetition (cf. Gertrude Stein) all can inform how we can approach visual poetry at its best.

Could you comment on how you might imagine a 'reader' as approaching the text? 

Approach Prose of the Trans-Canada as you would approach the overwhelming advertising in the streets of Tokyo or Times Square; the way you read the multidirectional cubism of the daily newspaper or the way you read the internet. I aim to create moments of lyric sensitivity within the juxtaposition of serifs and ascenders within the field-covering mass.

Is there such a thing as a visual metaphor and how might it operate in this context?

Every corporate logo is a visual metaphor for consumerism and the highly-crafted emotional responses solicited by the designer; poets need to learn the same skills.

[beaulieu expands on this in an interview elsewhere: “Like logos for the corporate sponsors of Jorge Luis Borges’ library, my concrete poems use the particles of language to represent and promote goods and corporations just out of reach. These imaginary businesses, and the advertising campaigns that support them, promote a poetic dreamscape of alphabetic ostranenie.”]

How might you imagine the reading process to unfold? 

The same way we read everything except the literary [to quote bpNichol]:

every(all at(toge(forever)ther) once)thing

*      *      *

And, in truth, perhaps what derek beaulieu says is true of all reading: if it's not every(all at(toge(forever)ther) once)thing, it's an other.

If you'd like to read more about Prose of the Trans-Canada, I'd recommend the marvelous close reading by the poet and critic Geof Huth, which can be found at his blog. The images that appear in this post have been reproduced from there through his kind permission.

derek beaulieu is a Canadian writer, critic, and publisher. In 2013 Wilfrid Laurier University Press published Please, no more poetry: the poetry of derek beaulieu as edited by Kit Dobson. beaulieu teaches at Mount Royal University and the Alberta College of Art + Design. More about him can be found at his website

Jerome Rothenberg: Some addenda to 'A Seneca Journal'

Original cover drawing by Allan D’Arcangelo
Original cover drawing by Allan D’Arcangelo

[In advance of the forthcoming reprint by Nine Point Publishing of my 1978 book, A Seneca Journal, the following are some of the poems omitted from the original publication & now ready to be seen anew.  Other work from the Seneca years has appeared since then in Shaking the Pumpkin & elsewhere. (J.R.)]

A Seneca Memory

At Harry Watt’s old place

above the Allegany River

Leo Cooper tells me:

“I could have been the first

“American Indian

“rabbi    were it not for my love

“of pork                                                                                                                                                


circa 1972, Salamanca NY


For A Seneca Journal: “The Grandfather” 

Bucktooth, about middling height,

spare & thin, hair cut close to his head, quite white.  He resides near the mouth of

     Bucktooth Creek

8 miles above Coldspring on the northern bank of the Allegany near his cabin are

     the Bucktooth Mills

Bucktooth Hotel & Bucktooth Postoffice

So his name is likely to have a local celebrity long after he shall have passed away.

     Memo.  Old Bucktooth died June 1851.  Ben Williams letter, Sept. 4, 1851.



In the Direction of the Equator but My Feet Still Facing North 

pale eyes.  the tree

is friendly

friend Jerome    he says

my watch says


I walk to the old corner of Main Street

past the Seneca

Theater & cross

the bridge.  hello

you citizens of


hello the dog says.

he is the tree’s friend

& mine.

he is a silly yellow

color.  eyes are shining

lightly into eyes.

in Yucatan the skies are never

empty & the trees

of Yucatan talk Mayan.

someone tells us:

you are going on a trip. 


Two Sky Poems 



the sky is a large


             we live

under its tongue




my tongue is a large



is how we see the sky



The Beaver 1-12 



They shall eat it.





In her womb.





And the sand lizard.





He comes running.





Someone slain.





Their father.





His sins.





A harlot.





In the heat.





He shall lead.





The prophet.





And he built.


[composed by gematria]


Ritual Poem


dead dog –

– my enemy –

dead stone

dead stallion

– my deliverer –

dead mind

dead metal

dead appendage

– king of promises –

–  my burden –

first & foremost

–  my dead star –

Bones Will Crow: Burmese poets Zeyar Lynn & Khin Aung Aye on Close Listening

Close Listening, with Zeyar Lynn, Khin Aung Aye, and James Byrne:

Zeyar Lynn poems:

"My History Is Not Mine": MP3
"Slightly Lopsided but a More Accurate Portrait": MP3
"Big Sister Have You Been to Laiza": MP3

Zeyar Lynn in conversation with Charles Bernstein
(37:35):  MP3

Khin Aung Aye  and James Byrne in conversation with Charles Bernstein:
(53:05): MP3

Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, edited by ko ko thett and James Byrne and just out from North Illinois University Press, is a game-changing anthology and one of the best anthologies  I have seen in years. Much credit goes to the translators, who have created works in English that are precisely and wittily connected to contemporary innovative poetics in English.More remarkable,  many of the Burmese poets in this anthology are in a dialog with poetry inside  and outside of Myanmar and seem to have at their disposal the full range of formal choices, tones and techniques, that we work with on the other side of the globe. This anthology is neither Western or Eastern but something far more remarkable: neither or both/and. It speaks to and in a nonnational present in poetry and establishes definite lines of affinity that are much greater between us than we may have with many of our fellow poets in our own countries.

The presiding spirit of the anthology is Zeyar Lynn (right), who spoke at a May 5 PEN event and the next day on Close Listening (links below) with great lucidity about the situation of contemporary Burmese poetry. As I heard Zeyar Lynn speak I felt an uncannily immediate engagement with his views; we are in the same conversation. Of course, this is partly because Zeyar Lynn is so conversant with the expanded field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E  (see his Jacket2 essay from last year on this point). But this itself is possible because we share a common set of readings and literary traditions, as well as a very divergent set.

 Some highlights from Bones Will Crow:

§The first stanza of “Redundant Sentences” by Thitsar Ni (b. 1946) --

Not unlike fish
Which do not know they live in the water
Know everything
Except ignorance.

§Maung Chaw Nwe (1949-2002) calls poetry “a karmic disorder and a leprosy of retribution.”

§Khin Aung Aye (b. 1956) (pictured left), who came to New York for the PEN launch and for Close Listening and has some of the wildest work in the anthology -- prose-format pastiche of pop culture, Marxist cant and cans and can'ts. (Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn read this poem on Close Listening):


§Moe Way (b. 1969): "Prices began at 999,000 ... / ...  Looking at the road from the road." "The moonlight peals off like old paint from a wall."

§ko ko thett (b. 1972), the collection's co-editor and main translator: see his "Funeral of Rugged Gold" that I published at Sibila. He lives in Vienna and writes in English. Commenting on the discussion of the elasticity of American identity in the Zeyar Lynn Close Listening program, ko ko thet writes: "Unfortunately  we Burmese do not have such a pride due to the failure of state building that entails building a consensual sense of national identity. To this day most Burmese citizen's primary identity remains ethnicity or religion (that is now being negotiated with their ideas of global citizenship).

§Pandora (b. 1974) & me in November:

Pandora –– a true delight in this collection –– recently published Tunign, an anthology of Burmese women poets, &, with Trisha Low, is working on an exchange between U.S. and Burmese poets. Zeyar Lynn reads her marvelous poem "The Daft" on the PEN May 5 recording.

§The anthology, ordered chronologically, starts out with Tin Moe (1933-2007). Here is a stanza from “The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn” (tr. Vicky Bowman):

Along the shore,
Gathering up fallen blossoms,
Drinking water from the spring, this joy I had;
But having is but for a moment
Not having is for a lifetime –

It is the space of “not having” that we share across worlds.

 Zeyar Lynn (left) & Khin Aung Aye, along with anthology co-editor James Byrne, read poems and talked about contemporary Burmese poetry at a launch for Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets. PennSound recorded the reading, which took place at the New York Public Theater and was part of the PEN World Voices festival:

(1:27): MP3


photos © 2013 Charles Bernstein / PennSound

Robert Browning as performed by Aaron Kramer

To help celebrate the 150th birthday of Robert Browning, poet Aaron Kramer went into the studios of WNYC in New York on May 3, 1962, and performed three of Browning’s poems — and offered commentary on each.

  1. introduction (1:16): MP3
  2. comment on “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1:32): MP3 [text]
  3. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (16:24): MP3
  4. comment on “Andrea del Sarto” (1:52): MP3 [text]
  5. “Andrea del Sarto” (18:25): MP3
  6. comment on “Abt Vogler” (1:30): MP3 [text]
  7. “Abt Vogler” (10:50): MP3
  8. closing remarks (1:15): MP3

Kramer got a copy of the program from WNYC and kept it; after his death, Laura Kramer, the poet’s daughter, found the tape and generously permitted PennSound to make it available, along with a great many other readings now featured on PennSound’s Kramer page.