Commentaries - June 2013

Metaphors, metaphorms, metavores, letters which reach

Stephen Nelson's Dance of Past Lives
Dance of Past Lives


Stephen Nelson’s Dance of Past Lives is an array of alphabetic pas de deux. Duets de Y. The letter as body. As body text. An abstract dance, wise metaphorms meta(phor)morpho-singing into stars, trees, other symbols. Y is another. An A. A tittle or jot as ball, sun, rayless star. I-less is another.

Antibodies are y-shaped. Texts are (wh)y-shaped. Y? Not because (Y)YOLO.

An array of past whys. Whysdom. What were our letters in a past life? How did we read?

In what way are the past lives of letters there in each iTteration of the letter, each allograph? How is sound, movement or meaning written in/by our bodies, by our yinscriptions, our yanguage? The infinight in our unfinishedness?


A metaphor is a kind of close reading. A noticing. One of these things is (not like) the other. Is reading always about a connection between two things? A sign and a sound. A shape and a thing? A gesture and the gestarticulated? Jest kidding. A reader and the read.

Thered be the red thered even if you didn’t red it.

Sigh here on the dotted line: reading my name with a sign.

Nelson’s is a dance of signs. Of designs. Sigils. Signs within signs. A metaphysical Kama Sutra of letters.

Two close together become else.

Read. Reader. Readest.

Letters began as metaphors. An A is an inverted ox-head. Y is three ways of looking at a blackbird, all converging in a single point. And Y in Stephen Nelson’s Dance is the lifting of hands. One Y lifts another. An ideogram.

Can we read each letter as a metaphor? An ideogram is a graphic symbol that represents a concept or an idea. Must it represent a completed thought? Can it be a poetic gesture? A feinting toward image or idea? Must it always be a metaphor? Lettaphor? Alphabetaphor?

Or perhaps: metavore. A signifier which consumes its own signification even while it leaves signs of its own insignification. 


This grid of letterforms. Writing as symbol. Nondirectional. Perhaps from an unknown/unknowable writing system. An ancient or future writing. Or how we imagine it. What might appear on a scroll. A door post. A priestly robe. A computer screen.

Yhite Courier typewriter font on black. Made defamiliar because inverse. The night sky and constellations. The page made infinite. Metaphysical. Nongravitational. The page is the body. And it isn't there. 

Everything symmetrical is magic because it is itself while not itself. Like a past life.


On the Princeton Journal Watch blog: There’s “an old question in spectral geometry that asks, roughly, to what extent can the shape of a thing be known from the sound of its acoustic vibrations?... [C]onsider a vase. If one taps a vase with a spoon, it will make a sound that is characteristic of its shape.”

And, in Physical Review Letters, Tejal Bhamre and her coauthors write about a mathematical tool that “could, in principle, determine the shape of spacetime from the perpetual ringing caused by quantum fluctuations, energy shifts that send out little pulses of ‘sound.’”

And what about the inverse? Could we conceive of an imaginary sound, or an imaginary energy shift from a novel letter shape or a yolking together of two letters? Could we conceive of imaginary meaning? Meaning-and-a-half (sequisemantics)? What is the sound of an imaginary letter? What is the weight of half a thought, an irrational meaning?

And are there visual poetry dialects: the local mouth, the regional eye? The bumpersticker on my abecedeLorean car: Write globally, sound locally.

Also: are there alphabets like numbers: imaginary, irrational, fractional and with decimals? The letters between. What about an alphabetic hadron collider? A graphemeutrino? Can we determine the shape of reading? Its 'wait'?

Karma Comma by Stephen Nelson

Stephen Nelson:

The eyes and ears are portals. The brain picks up the signal and the mind processes, but something deeper is touched. If the image or the sound reach far enough, they stimulate something more essential. You might call it the spirit screen, or a blank white sheet of consciousness. You might say it emerges from a source which in itself is pure sound, pure love, though infinite and formless. And so sound meets sound and image meets...formlessness. The Creator receives through our eyes and ears.

I like working visually with letters, noticing how the tiniest detail of the smallest unit of language stirs the mind or the heart. Tiny details are precious, but powerful. One letter relates to the shape of another as we relate to each other, or ourselves, or our own experience of reality. Every gesture speaks, a hand holds a hand, an arm embraces a shoulder, a ‘Y’ lifts another ‘Y’ and spins it joyously around. Everything connects. It all registers somewhere deep within and has the power to shape us or shift us. The eye wants to flicker, glint, twinkle; the heart wants to spark.

I also like balanced, symmetrical or flowing composition because it speaks to the internal need for balance, wholeness, and the flow of energy which pours from nowhere and returns to a nowhere which is everywhere. Clutter sends me into panic, so I create clean poems, poems that are small and still, but not rigid, poems that reflect the flow of life around a still point which in itself is a reflection of a point of infinite stillness and singing.

But life is a riot and words are messy when spoken in a riot of living. The words around me are hard, metallic, clanging, muscular, but delivered in mellifluous tones and heartrending rhythms. It doesn’t seem at all difficult blending the cosmic and the quotidian, because it’s all life and the mind and the body are equipped for life because they are constantly being held.

“There is no moment that is not held,” said one of the Scottish poets*.

And we hold our impulses and emotions in words that reflect who we are, where we have come from, what it is that holds us: family, community, history. The Scottish dialect is a sound poem that’s as tough and resilient as a Glasgow street. It’s also concrete. It has shape and the ability to connect or uproot us physically. We are hammered into some sort of shape by words, like ships or sheets of steel. We stay anchored, or we drift off.

Scotland has a history of great concrete poetry and great dialect poetry because each expresses a physicality, an energy that radiates from the land and the people. I’m particularly concerned with how that energy shapes the Self. I’m interested in connecting with environment through sound and shape and movement. I’m interested in the body (or the tiniest visual poem or the roughest, homespun phrase) as a finite house of the infinite.

*Andrew Philip

Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet and musician who lives in Hamilton, Scotland. His blog afterlights features many of his visual poems as well as other writing.

new at Sibyl

Dubravka Djuric's
"I wonna talk to you"

– just published in Sybyl responds to "Talk to Me" a 1999 work of mine in Recalculating, which is a transcription of an improvised poem I did at the Whitney (see below) that talks about a trip James Sherry and I took to Belgrade twenty years ago and my subsequent emails with Dubravka during the NATO bombings.

Djuric's 1999 letters to me from that time were published in Chain 7, Memoir/Antimemoir; Summer 2000. For more on Djuric (poems, audio) go to her EPC Digital Library Page 

Roger Ballen, Squawk (2005)

Up until the publication of my first book this spring, I recoiled at the prospect of giving readings and rarely did — not only out of a universal shyness at public speaking, but also, and moreso, from the acute sense that reading my poems aloud didn’t represent them right and that, without too much conceptual work or production, you could make simple machines of performance that could, as poet David Buuck says through these great thin walls of J2, “activate manifold potentialities in the work, such that each reading is both an interpretation as well as a further investigation into how the poem ‘means’.” Going on a book tour with my publishers and their own new books of poems motivated me to develop and try out alternatives to poetry readings, and to report back on selected performances here, with description and documentation in the style of High Performance or our contemporary incarnation of it, Ugly Duckling Presse’s Emergency Index.

Much inspiration for these performances comes out of studying rituals and liturgy of other cultural and spiritual traditions in which poetry is paramount, and particularly from the time I spent as a student at the San Francisco Zen Center. But it also comes from those artists whose poetics of performance, regardless of discipline or medium, have been especially meaningful to me:  The Fluxus and Regietheatre last works of Christoph Schlingensief, but also his first, My 1. Movie, made at age 7; Klaus Nomi’s new wave opera covers of Donna Summers and Henry Purcell; Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s The Lovers-The Great Wall Walk; the mythologizing and ritual-driven work of Matthew Barney, Joseph Beuys and Yayoi Kusama; John Cage’s radical turning of his Buddhist practice into the avant-garde of American music. The line of influential artists is longer, of course-- partly because when I say poetics of  “performance,” I don’t necessarily always mean something staged as such; sometimes it is an anecdote from the artist’s life, the unconscious, inevitable quality of which suggests her art and life, if seeming so only for that moment or episode, were one and the same and inextricable.  For example, just knowing how Joseph Cornell's boxes, primarily gifts, were miniatures of an idolatry of such magnitude that made accepting them, let alone reciprocation, impossible. That even in his youth, already a serious eagle and master of crush-workthe simple gesture of presenting a bouquet of flowers to a movie-theatre attendant so frightened the attendant that she called the police.

In the months to come, each post I write here will focus on one particular performance, share documentation as well as a brief description of its conceptual origins, context and responses. These will include, among others, a chance-driven mass-chant modeled on Buddhist liturgy for The Diamond Sutra; an oracular enclosure  or — by its street name — poetry glory holes, which used my poems for rhapsodomancy; invented rituals and sets constructed using symbolism from poems written in friend-coded language, resulting in invitations like, Please, this way, through the giant and sequined marshmallow labyrinth.

Four Iroquois chiefs painted from life, circa 1710
Four Iroquois chiefs painted from life, circa 1710

[Part One was posted on May 31 and is available here.]

The existence of the content of Cornplanter’s visions is serendipitous.  A copy of the manuscript (or the original) was in the collection of the Cornplanter family aand was found and recopied by  a young man, Charles Aldrich, in 1849, and sent to Lyman C. Draper who had expressed an interest in collecting memorabilia relevant to a project on the Revolutionary War.  Aldrich offered himself as a reliable local scholar who had access to a series of documents in the possession of William O’Beale, one of Cornplanter’s sons.  Aldrich apologized to Draper for the legibility of the manuscript he sent because, he explained, he was rushed in producing it, but “it is about as legible from the ms from which it is taken.”

Cornplanter called on Henry York to interpret and transcribe his dictation of his visions.  Henry York was a Seneca living at the Cattaraugus Reservation where he was occasionally, but apparently not preferentially, called on to act as an interpreter.  We may assume that York was both bilingual and literate, but the chaotic form of the written document presumably produced by him is likely as much a reflection of his own limitations as it is of Cornplanter’s mental state.  Ethnohistorians are certainly aware of the problem of the intervention of interpreters and the reliability of their productions.      

 The manuscript entitled “A Copy of Cornplanter’s Talk February 12, 1820, it being 328 years after the discovery of America” is quite systematic in its presentation.  This is not the forum for presenting the manuscript in its entirety and so the following is a schematic description, including some explanatory remarks of my own.

 I. PREHISTORY:  Presents The Iroquois Origin Myth of Turtle Island, the origin of Good and Evil personified by the mythical twins, and the creation by the Great Spirit of natural abundance for the Indians.  The absence of intoxicating liquors in that natural abundance indicates that they should be excluded from Indian use.

 II. RECORDED HISTORY:  The section begins with the words that dramatically set the tone for the whole section: “The white man lies when they say that he (the Savior) ordered them to seek out the Island.”  The account that follows describes the coming of the British and French, the deceptions they practiced to involve the Indians in political conflicts that disrupted Indian life, and the distress, including personal family examples, that the Indians suffered from having allowed themselves to get involved in white men’s affairs.  In this section Cornplanter describes a conversation he had with a British general who reassured Cornplanter that he had no cause for remorse in having killed seven people during wars fought for British interests.  Cornplanter’s expressed retrospective conclusion was that killing and warfare were wrong, particularly when it was done to further European interests that ultimately resulted in Indian land losses.

 III:  RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION:   (These are the contents of the visions themselves, reported by Cornpanter as having been received from the Great Spirit for his own behaviorial modification, but also to be imparted by him to the Seneca community.)  a) Reject alcoholic beverages.  b) Destroy tokens of war and gifts from whites that were rewards for participating in and advancing white interests.  Significantly Cornplanter indicates that he was instructed that, “when you destroy anything by my voice (i.e. by my instructions) you must do it publically and not keep it secret, but let all know it …”  I think we are justified in suggesting that when Cornplanter destroys his sword, his French flag, his feathered hat, the documents giving him a commission of captain, and his wife’s family’s wampum, he was not engaged in a private act of madness, but rather in a prepared, public, political event replete with appropriate political symbols designed to influence public opinion and action.

 IV:  PERSONAL STATEMENT OF STRATEGIES FOR FUTURE BEHAVIOR AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE COMMUNITY:  a) Future separation of whites and Indians, particularly around missionary activity among the Indians.  He says, “I do not wish to forbid the ministers to preach among their own people for if I did it would strike them with confusion and might make them take their own lives and so it would be with us if we would quit our own way, we should get into confusion and something would happen or befall us so that we should lose our lives.”  b) No tax payments.  (Insofar as he was a holder of private property who was at that time being faced with tax assessments from which he had believed his property to be exempt, this instruction was likely more a personal declaration, which he repeated in his Warren, Pennsylvania. address, than it was at that time generally relevant to the Seneca community. As a general position with reference to Native American sovereignty, he was certainly being prophetic.)  He says, “They will support themselves and the white people must do that same thing.”  c)  To determine future action, Cornplanter says that he will follow the instructions of the Great Spirit as he understands it, “for I believe him to be my master and if he tells me wrong I cannot help it,” which certainly constitutes a convenient all purpose response to further missionary pressures that was directed not just to religious belief and practice but to all areas of social restructuring.  d) Indians should avoid drinking cow’s milk because it makes them sick, and the more they drink, the worse they feel.

 The recommendation for Indians to avoid drinking cows milk seemed, on its face, so bizarre that it frequently functioned as the clincher argument to prove Cornplanter’s derangement.  The historian, James Axtell, has suggested that cow’s milk may have been the only white introduced item without parallel in prior Seneca experience.  The substitution of hen’s eggs for wild eggs, raised meat for wild, metal tools for wooden or stone, cloth for skins would be acceptable because of the parallelism of the categories, but cow’s milk would be without an appropriate item to fill in its binary slot.  This is not an unattractive suggestion that provides satisfying cultural reasons for cultural behavior and that would probably be totally satisfactory if it were not that the consequences of drinking cow’s milk as described by Cornplanter seem to suggest that he has observed something physical happening to those who drink it.

 Needless to say, the drinking of cow’s milk is non-native in origin, although Cornplanter’s community had 14 cows and other livestock before the Quakers came in 1798.  The Quakers assisted them in accumulating more, but were very critical of their neglect of their cattle, particularly during the winter.  Under these circumstances, milk production must not have been abundant, but milk was probably at least sporadically available  During the nineteenth century cattle stock increased and, after 1860, when the coming of the railroad made possible the commercialization of cheese manufacture, Senecas participated with whites in supplying the milk for this industry. The importance of cheese manufacture for white markets is, however, forty years after Cornplanter singled out cow’s milk for special condemnation specifying that it was detrimental to children and cursed by Christ to revenge himself on the wicked who are blighted by drinking it.  And to repeat: the more of it you drink, the worse it is.

 In our contemporary age of milk substitutes  it is almost hard to believe that lactose intolerance was only first identified in the 1970’s, including the pinpointing of those rare communities that could tolerate dairy products.  The symptoms are familiar and distressing: diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, and excessive bloating.  They vary in severity from individual to individual and, for many years, were taken to be the irrational psychosomatic response of populations who rejected animal milk drinking for cultural reasons.  Certain Native American communities approach estimates of 100% malabsorbers.  Cornplanter described those symptoms and he might have concluded that what was good for white men was not appropriate for Indians no matter what the whites advised.

 The scholars who accepted Cornplanter’s temporary derangement and who were writing before the physical evidence was in looked at this strange injunction against milk-drinking as the confirming evidence to accept the missionary’s statements that his behavior at this time was irrational.  We can, of course, never really know, but I find it more productive to consider what he might have had in mind rather than to accept that he was out of his mind. He was a remarkable man and deserves at least this much respect.

by Angela Hume

Discarded plastic in the UC Berkeley Eucalyptus Grove. Photo by conference participant Jen Coleman.

I have been thinking about afterness, ecopoetics, and ecological crisis. What does it mean to come after? After Katrina? After the BP blowout? After 400 parts per million?[1] After what the philosopher Ray Brassier calls “the fact of extinction” itself?[2] What might it mean for poetry and poetics? In Evelyn Reilly’s words, it’s possible that “we are in a moment of…more and more poetry [relating] to the ecological, that, in an inverse of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz,’ we are in a moment of ‘all poetry after Katrina,’ or the Deepwater Horizon, or Sandy or whatever it is that comes next.”[3] Moreover, what do affective states or feelings of afterness have to do with contemporary environmental conditions and crises? What do they have to do with cultural memory, with grief and mourning, with revolutionary thinking and activity?

According to Nathan Brown, in his Conference on Ecopoetics presentation “Phūsis, Technē, and Poiēsis: Toward a Postmodern Poetics,” true “postmodernity” can only come after capitalism.[4] And since we have not yet moved beyond capitalism, “postmodernity” remains an object to be achieved through struggle, one that will culminate with the displacement of the value form along with all of the ways that it dictates social practices, including the practice of poetry. For Brown, what this means is that the social role of poetry after capitalism will necessarily be understood very differently — “just another practice,” perhaps, “neither called upon to disappear nor to be more than what it is.”

For Myung Mi Kim, on the other hand, in her paper “Deracination, Proliferation, Affiliation: On Ecopoetics, Innovative Practice, and Linguistic Human Rights,” poetry is and will continue to be tasked with the difficult social work of undermining language as a homogenizing, standardizing instrument. In the wake of what Kim names “ecological deracination” — the forced uprooting of humans, animals, plants, and even languages from their native environments — it is the work of poetry (and other tools for linguistic innovation) to uncouple language and narration, make critiques of “mono-lingualism,” and, ultimately, reanimate language as an “unfolding.” In deracination’s aftermath, Kim argues, it becomes our urgent task to strive for a transformative, translocative poetics.

Other presenters tarried with afterness as well. As part of the panel “The Ghost in the (Drum) Machine,” Katy Didden, Lisa Brown, Joshua Bennett, Ross Gay, and Patrick Rosal reflected on artistic practices of erasure, reuse, and remix, methods that (they argue) draw attention to the afterness of any artwork — the way the work is “always looking over its own shoulder,” to quote Bennett on hip-hop artist Frank Ocean’s remix project Nostalgia, Ultra. On a different panel, and in an attempt to problematize conceptions of “reuse” in art, Joshua Schuster’s paper “After Recycling: Environmental Conceptual Poetics” resisted the idea that because any text can be recycled it can therefore always also be a model for a kind of environmental ethics. Instead, Schuster suggested, we might turn our attention to the “purposeful purposelessness” of some conceptual practices of reuse, practices that in his view create a space for new ecological perspectives.

As history shows, and as many philosophers have noted, knowledge and historical understanding are always constructed retrospectively. Perhaps this fact has to do with the “irreducible belatedness” of language, as Gerhard Richter argues in his book Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics.[5] (In Walter Benjamin’s words: “knowledge comes only in lightening flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”[6]) For Richter, afterness — a particular figure of modernity, one always bound up with succession and survival — may be read as figuring a certain crisis of experience itself. In my view, this idea is particularly useful for ecocritical thought: how to think the crisis time of the present, in which all experience is experience after the onset of ecological collapse?

On Margaret Ronda’s reading, this is precisely the type of thinking that contemporary ecopoetics is registering today. In her conference paper “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Ronda links ecopoetics itself to afterness.[7] Upon examining what she calls the “end-of-nature thesis” that (she asserts) begins to predominate in the late 20th century, Ronda argues that the literature of this paradigm is none other than ecopoetics, for which nature-as-an-imaginative-resource’s “meanings” become available only as afterimage, or elegiac, “negative” thinking.

In the end, the Conference on Ecopoetics, like any historical object (even “nature”), only exists for us in and through its afterlife. In recent months, Gillian, Margaret, and I have been struck by the impulse among conference participants to archive and critically reflect upon conference proceedings. From one-time blog posts that work to creatively synthesize some of what came up over the weekend (see, for example, Catherine Owen’s “rhizomatic blogs” at Barzakh) to efforts by literary blogs like OmniVerse and THE DISINHIBITOR to publish series of participant presentations (Tyrone Williams’ and Evelyn Reilly’s presentations are now up at OmniVerse, and Jonathan Skinner’s, Brian Teare’s, Rob Halpern’s, C.J. Martin’s, and Laura Moriarty’s are up at the THE DISINHIBITOR), many people have been active in the collective construction of a robust conference afterlife. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out links to participant archives, collaborations, and reflections, updated regularly at the Post-Conference webpage.

[1] Just last month, scientific instruments registered carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million — well above the upper safety limit of 350 ppm and the highest concentration of the gas in the atmosphere in several million years.

[2] Brassier, in his book Nihil Unbound, tarries with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s claim that, in a sense, everything is dead already due to the very fact of extinction — the fact that 4.5 billion years from now, the sun, and therefore all terrestrial life, will die. See Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (New York Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). For Lyotard, because science tells us that the conditions of possibility for our lives on earth will be annihilated, extinction — whether due to solar catastrophe or some other catastrophe (which seems the more likely possibility today) — can only be thought as that which has already happened, if the life of the mind, or philosophical questioning, dies out with the sun. Brassier’s interest in Lyotard’s discussion has to do with what Brassier calls extinction’s “objectifying power.” On Brassier’s reading, everything is dead already because the fact of extinction is a leveling power in itself, negating the difference between mind and world and, in Brassier’s words, “turning thinking inside out, objectifying it as a perishable thing in the world like any other” (229). Therefore, extinction unfolds in what Brassier calls “anterior posteriority” — a kind of before-afterness, corroding human thought’s ability to project any sort of traditional future (230, my emphasis).

[3] Evelyn Reilly, “Environmental Dreamscapes and Ecopoetic Grief,” first delivered at the Conference on Ecopoetics and subsequently published at OmniVerse (spring 2013),

[4] Brown revises Fredric Jameson’s now-canonical formulation, according to which postmodernism is a unique manifestation of late (but not post) capitalism. See Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

[5] See Gerhard Richter, Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 456.

[7] Margaret Ronda, “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Post45 (spring 2013),