Commentaries - May 2013

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

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 –

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 thett 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

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.

Translated from Spanish by Jen Hofer, Christian Nager, and Brian Whitener

[Excerpted from the edition published by Chain Links in 2013]

There are Laws: Taking Down the Pantopia

“There are laws,” begins Olson’s essay “Human Universe” written in Mexico. How does one create the illusion that there are general laws? The foundation of time reduced to space is, precisely, the supposition that there exist laws that function in the same way (homogeneously) across all (heterogeneous) times. If different times are united by the same laws, then, these times are not separated and thus form a single space.

This belief is the basis of totalitarian thought, in all its forms. Television fabricates images—and society fabricates images for television—and the spectacular relations between these fragments produce the fallacy of a commonly held reality: the space of a “nation,” a “territory,” an “epoch.” The takeover of the center of Oaxaca by striking teachers, the flooding in Ciudad Juarez, and civil resistance in Mexico City, in co-existence with the war between Libya and Israel, the state of maximum alert in the United States and England—these events are represented in discourse and the news as symptoms of the same phenomenon, as events related to each other. The pantopia has penetrated deeply into our semi-consciousness and is situated at the border between the unconscious and conscious, in such a way that it permeates, in both directions, human thought. It is thus the Interzone or semi-consciousness that has become the key site in our present-day psyche. Pantopia seems so “natural” to us that doubting that its events are related and even considering that each event might obey its own laws in the space-time in which it is realized, as distinct from other space-times, can only appear a strange or at least very unusual idea.

Olson was not entirely wrong. He had come to Mexico looking for the traces of another concept of time. His error was not having been sufficiently patient to generate a personal time that would be capable of grasping Mesoamerican cultural notions of time, of not leaving behind the time of USAmerican English as he knew it. Moreover, Olson encountered an indigenous culture with an essential similarity to his own: a culture that had mutated towards a notion of imperial time. We have discussed before the ideas of time of the Maya and present-day indigenous communities in Mexico and the United States and we know that the Maya fluctuated between ancient notions of time as plural and an imperial political decision of forming a total calendar—their model of kin. The Maya were a civilization based in a single time, or a set of universal laws which ruled in the same way, macro and micro. However, the greatness of the Maya was that their notion of time captures many models of time—each one functioning in accord with its own process—under a mysterious macro mathematical and poetic model. For the Maya, kin functioned as a cycle of time that turned around itself—and that periodically changed its motor, its god—and this changing cycle functioned as a component of a larger cycle, composed of various smaller cycles, and this new cycle as a component of another larger cycle… And thus, for the ancient Maya time was a series of distinct cycles placed one inside another, concentric or centripetal times. In the Mayan chronovision, imperial notions of time—pantopic—are combined with nomadic understandings. Mayan hegemnemic Time could be defined as an enormous machine of molecular appropriation of other micro-cultural-times.

Imperial ideas transform time into space. Nomadic ideas, on the other hand, tend to understand time as a multiplicity of times. These times—tribes of monads—are autonomous from each other, each one obeying its own laws. (The notion of a single spatialized time is linked to the historical appearance of the State.) The Rarámuri, for example, developed a model based on the existence of more than one internal time, sustaining the existence of various “souls” that simultaneously co-existed within the human body. While the Huichol believe that when a pair of nomad groups meet two different times collide. This understanding of time not only functions to plumb the profound nature of the human animal but also to impede the formation of a unitary political order, a system of centralized control.

For cybermnenetics to be possible, a civilization has to choke off the nomadic notions of space-time and to institute a general calendar, a hegemonic, spatialized notion of time, “universal.” The Maya and Aztecs conserved nomadic notions of plural space-times, although in debased and manipulated forms, used to justify an Imperial centralized order, based in numerical science, just as in Oxidental empires from Greek antiquity to the United States. In the roots of these empires there exists as well nomadic notions of time as polytopic and polychronic, wherein time is represented in diverse forms, precisely, because there is not one time but rather many times, with each forming its own world.

Writing is, certainly, pantopic.

What imperial documents—from official histories to poets and mass media, from films to nightly news—do is make sequential images of distinct space-times, creating the mediatic simulation that they belong to the same visual horizon of events. The creation of the illusion of a total space-time simultaneously shared by all is a lie that builds up a social coexistence. It is this fantasy that I have called pantopia: the notion of a total space, individuated from every other space, which contains all things, all events, ordered under the same set of laws, under the same empire. This idea, of course, is the cruelest of all of them. The pantopia is absolute control: the pantopia is the inexistence of time.

In the pantopic fantasy, time does not annihilate things, allowing death to liberate the world from itself and allowing the world to be always incomplete, which should be the idea that governs us, incompleteness not Totality. Without death, beings are allowed to share, cryogenetically, the same site, forever. In the pantopia, time as individual measure, as autochronology, in which each being lives its own chaosmos, is not allowed to exist.

In the pantopia, time as death and the successive forgetting of each world have disappeared, and time as its own-law, as individual-time, not determined by the laws of another time has disappeared as well. The pantopic is the fantasy of creating a space—whose avatar can be a poetics or a global empire—from which nothing can escape.

As in the house in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, once one enters, for some unknown reason, one cannot leave. In Olson, the pantopia took the form of not a totalizing agglomeration (as in the theory of the black hole or the vortex in Pound or in the Aleph of Borges) but in the gaze. Again and again in his work, Olson speaks of a gaze that can hoard everything it falls upon. The pantopic is thought throughout his work more and more in terms of a screen.

In the present state of civilization, the pantopia is reenforced daily by television. I am not referring exclusively to the device that plays the role of pater familias, but to television in a broader sense and of which the contemporary television set is but a rudimentary precursor of coming televisions. Television makes it possible—as state legislation, monolinguism, and writing once did—for distinct space-times that do not share common laws to appear to possess one via the daily compiling and updating of images that produce the cinematographic illusion of real time and a common omni-space, amongst what are, in reality, dissimilar realities, separate-cosmos.

If images are the units of pantopia, then to undo its regime it is indispensable, before anything less, to impede the formation of images, thereby destroying spectacle. Impeding the function of empires signifies preserving languages alive and increasing the number of them, as in the passage from one language to another—in the impossibility of translation—supposedly common notions, shared images are destroyed, undone. Languages are the primordial defense against the pantopia, as each language is its own chaosmos. And if not letting go of memory produces pantopias, ergo, the cure is to forget.

[NOTE. Over he last two decades Heriberto Yépez has emerged as a new & provocative voice in Mexican letters & as a thinker about writing, art & performance, & a range of literary, philosophical and social issues.  Over that same span he has published in a wide variety of genres – fiction, poetry, essays, translation, criticism, & theory, & has proven to be a controversial literary artist & critic in Mexico, while the range of his critical interests covers both Latin American & North American issues, extending into works of experimental & political interest on both sides of the border & beyond.  His innovative writing & his critical essays have won him – at latest count – some fourteen awards in Mexico, including four national literary awards over the last decade, & he has received increasing recognition among experimental & younger writers in the United States.  With all of this in mind the distinguished Mexican critic Evodio Escalante has written that “there is no question that Heriberto Yépez is one of the most powerful literary intelligences now active in our country.”                                                                                   

The Empire of Neomemory begins as a sometimes harsh critique of Olson’s experience of Mexico but expands into what the Chain editors describe as “a breathtaking investigation of the relation between USAmerican poetry and Empire that careens idiosyncratically through the great men of empire—not just Olson, but those many other men who also traveled to Mexico, such as William Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, D. H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, and Ray Bradbury.”  Writes Yépez himself in summary: “Olson is part of the American dream, the dream of expansionism in all its variants. It is with the purpose of understanding this empire that I have written this book. Olson in and of himself does not interest me; I am interested in his character as a microanalogy for decoding the psychopoetics of Empire. Philosophy tries to comprehend reality through a discussion of abstract concepts produced by floating masculine heads (decapitalisms); in contrast, what I want to understand is the present via concrete bodies, historical microanalysis via the hunt for biosymbols. Using the text, I want to see through it to glimpse the substructure and the superstructure.”  And the Chain editors again: “This work is a dismantling of Olson, and of empire, and yet it is also clearly an inside job, a book that could only be written by someone who had spent hours thinking with and through—and beyond—Olson.” (J.R.)]