Commentaries - June 2013

from Christian Bök’s Odalisques
from Odalisques by Christian Bök

The visual poems in Christian Bök’s series, Odalisques, fascinate me, both as texts in themselves and because these resting female bodies appear so different from the rest of his body of work.

These pieces, as representations of female nudes, are mimetic and seem to engage with notions of representation of gender (the female body and more specifically, the ‘male gaze’), both in visual art and in language. Is the body — specifically here, a woman’s body — concubined by language? Are women trapped in its semantic (sementic) harem (-scarum)? Trapped by a kind of economy, a commodifying calligraphy?

Or is it the other way around: language itself is the concubine that must give pleasure to its master, that must live in the seraglio of its grammatical sultan?

Or is language a virus, a semantically transmitted disease of textual interaction?

These Odalisques are made of mouth shapes, of mouth movements — the sounds of letters. Do these glyphs — and their articulating tongue — drool ownership and domination, or is the lingual, rather, a kind of erotic or emotion osculation?

I asked Christian about his Odalisques. How does he conceive of their representationality, their portrayal of the female body and how do they relate to the pictorial tradition of the odalisque?  How, in general, does he conceive of ‘reading’ a visual text. What does ‘reading’ mean to him in this context? How is reading a kind of language-related looking, decoding, and visual engagement?

Christian Bök:

The Odalisques constitute a playful project (performed, as a kind of distraction, when I might have needed a break from more onerous writing). Each of the nudes in the series has been created by rearranging the 21 components used by typographers to design the letterforms of the alphabet. Each figure represents a permutation of exactly the same set of curves and shapes, each scaled and turned, perhaps overlapped, without being repeated or inverted. I am trying to evoke a nude form by drawing according to a constraint, using only a fixed array of “brushstrokes.” I am trying, in effect, to evoke the female figure as a kind of difficult, aesthetic potential, imminent within the beauty of a fractured alphabet. I have drawn these images with the toy found online at Type Is Art.  

The Odalisques represent, for me, works of apprenticeship, in which I try to emulate the experience of a student, learning how to draw a naked, human model in a studio, doing so by practising the basics of anatomical proportion. The typical gallery of images archived at Type Is Art consist mostly of amateur doodles, executed offhandedly by visitors to the website, with hardly any attention paid to either formalist skill or aesthetic merit—and in response, I have simply tried to push the potential of this limited palette toward a more figural realism (simply because such a task seems much more challenging, given the restrictions of the toy itself). I think that, by striving to draw the female figure under constraint, I testify to my own desire to explore the limits of such a visual medium.

from Christian Bok's Odalisques

Aesthetic criticism has, of course, remarked at length upon the role of the nude in the history of art, describing the ways in which the body of the woman has become a cipher for both the idealized values of formal “beauty” and the subaltern values of erotic “desire.” I suppose that some feminist readings of my glyphs might argue that I am simply reiterating the male gaze, objectifying female bodies, by placing them under the duress of my own rulebound obsession — (when in fact, I think that these works support a more ambivalent evaluation). I think that, in addition to such scopophilia, they also testify to the libidinal upheavals that derange the grammar of letters, highlighting the underlying jouissance of a discourse, set free from any drive toward the transmission of meaning.

Taylor Lane, for example, is a British company, specializing in graphic designs for advertisers, and the company (now defunct) has won an Epica Award for publishing a calendar that features twelve pin-ups, each one derived from one of twelve different typefonts. Like every centerfold in porn-mags, each image features a shorthand biography about the adult model—except that, in this case, each bio describes the provenance of the typefont itself. “Miss Bodoni,” for example, is “often seen in Paris and Milan, and her face regularly appears in leading style magazines” (because, of course, Bodoni is one of the preferred typefonts used by Vogue). The company advertises its skills by literally depicting a “bodytext,” corporealizing language for a decadent clientele.  

Miss Bodoni

“Miss Bodoni” might showcase the degree to which language has taken on a subaltern character, finding itself “prostituted” for use in both artistry and business (and thus such ironic images in this calendar might make explicit the degree to which both supermodels and centerfolds find themselves shaped and formed by the language of patriarchal advertising) — but for me, the Odalisques also suggest the extreme degrees to which a poet might begin to fetishize the sensual, optical appeals of language itself, admiring the contours of letterforms in a manner reminiscent of obsessive, libidinal fixations. The letters in the captions of erotic photos from a magazine begin to displace the nude body itself, behaving like it rather than referring to it, posing as the seducer of readers.

Reading thus becomes illicit, devolving into little more than the ogling of pretty bodies upon the page — and “the pleasures of the text” (so championed by Roland Barthes) begin to feel more sleazy than erotic. Readers might even feel obliged to take offense at the prurient conceits of such nudes, especially when the unveiling of their meaning begins to resemble the attraction of a striptease. To peruse visual poetry is to linger over the body of the word, perceiving it as an alluring, but detached, ideal—the fantasy of a meaningful connection, presented to us in all its nakedness, promising to be possessed, but nevertheless asserting its absolute autonomy from our own desires. We may believe that we are the sultans of poetry itself—but we are, in fact, all thralls to its charms.


Christian Bök is the author not only of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, but also of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry (particularly the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters). His conceptual artworks (which include books built out of Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks) have appeared at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. His The Xenotext Experiment is a poem that will be coded, translated, and constructed into a genetic sequence, and then implanted onto a bacterium. The Utne Reader has recently included Bök in its list of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Bök teaches English at the University of Calgary.

Yesterday, during a poetry reading at Tibor de Nagy Gallery for Jane Freilicher, “Painter among Poets,” Lawrence Schwartzwald photographed Freilicher, now 88, gazing at the iconic image taken in 1952 by photographer Walter Silver of her and John Ashbery at Tibor de Nagy. (Photographs should not be reproduced without consent of the photographer.)

H. Heine (1797 – 1856) on cover of Die Jugend, 1906
H. Heine (1797– 1856) on cover of Die Jugend, 1906

[To be noted: the high credit that Heine gave to Gerard de Nerval for his French prose versions after the German rhymed verses, much as Goethe found Nerval’s prose transcreations of Faust its perfect translation.] 

The Castaway 

Longing & love!  

It’s all broken: I’m lying here sprawled on the shore, deserted & naked, a corpse that the sea has spit up with contempt.  

Before me the ocean fans out, a vast desert of water, while in back of me nothing but exile & grief, & over my head clouds sail by, grey & formless, the daughters of air, who draw water up from the sea, whisps of fog that they lift with great effort, then let them fall back on the sea, exquisite & useless, just like my life. 

Waves murmur, gulls caw, old memories seize me, dreams forgotten, snuffed out, images slow to return, sad & tender. 

Up north there’s a beautiful woman, regal & beautiful, wearing a white robe, voluptuous, circling her frail cypress waist; her hair in black curls unloosening, blesst like the night, from her head crowned with  tresses, wind blowing capriciously, touching her tender pale face, & there in her tender pale face an eye large & powerful shines, a black sun

Black sun, how many times have your flames turned against me, your ardors consumed me, how many times was I left here staggering, drunk from your juices!  

But just then a trace of a smile crossed her lips fiercely arched like a child’s, sweet but fiercely arched, breathing out words faint as moonlight & gentle as attar of roses. 

My soul then came forth & glided rejoicing up to the sky. 

Be silent, you waves & you gulls!  

Joy & hope! love & longing! everything comes to a close. 

I lie down on the earth, a miserable castaway, pressing my face still aflame on the watersoaked sand.  

The Dream 

A dream passing strange enraptured my mind, filled my body with dread.  Many an image rose up before me & made my heart quaver.
            Here was a marvelous garden – so beautiful I wanted to walk through it absent all care; so many beautiful flowers were watching.  Enraptured I watched them in turn.
            There were birds there that trilled softly, sweetly.  A red sun that shone on a background of gold streaked the lawn with a medley of colors.
            Perfumed the grasses sprang up.  The air was sweet & caressing, & everything opened, everything smiled, everything called me to share its magnificence.
            In the midst of a border of flowers I could make out a clear marble fountain.  There I saw a lovely young girl who was washing some kind of white garment.
            With ruby red cheeks, with clear eyes & curly blond hair, an image of holiness! – And as I watched her, she seemed like a stranger, yet somehow familiar.
            The lovely young girl kept working & singing a very strange song: “Run, water, run in your fountain, wash out this white linen cloth.”
            I went up to her, spoke to her softly: “O tell me then, sweet lovely girl, why this garment is white?”
            And she answered straight off: “Prepare yourself well.  The garment I wash is your death shroud.”  And once she had spoken, all that vision vanished like mist.        
            And I saw myself carried by magic to to the heart of a murky dark forest.  The trees rose up to the sky, & caught by surprise, I stood there & pondered, stood there & pondered.
            But listen: what a muffled sound!  The echo of an axe out in the distance.  And running through the bushes and the thickets I came on an open space.
            In the middle of a verdant clearing, a gigantic oak! & look, my marvelous young girl was hacking at it with an axe.
            Blow after blow, & brandishing her axe & swinging down she sang: “Steel bright, steel clear, cut me a plank to make a bier.”
            I moved up close to her & spoke in a low voice: “Tell me, lovely young girl, why you’re making this oak chest?”
            And she answered straight off: “Time runs on.  And what I’m making here will be your coffin.”  And no sooner had she said that when the vision vanished like mist.
            I saw a wasteland then, on every side of me, colorless & pale.  I had no sense of how I got there.  I hesitated frozen in my tracks & shivering.  And when I managed to go on, directionless, I saw a white form up ahead & ran to reach it.  There it was and I could see it was that lovely young girl once again.  She was bending over, facing the pale ground & busy with a pickaxe, cutting through the clay.  I moved up slowly, staring at her once again.  She was at once a thing of beauty & of horror.
            Now the lovely young girl sang another strange refrain: “Pickaxe, iron pickaxe, large & sharp, dig out a hole for me that’s large & deep.”
            I moved up close to her & spoke in a low voice: “Tell me, lovely sweet young girl, what does this hole you’re digging mean?”  She answered me: “Easy, rest easy, I’m digging your grave.” 
            And as she said it I could see the hole grow wider, gaping, gaping.
            I looked into that hollow space, and as I did a quake of terror seized me, & I felt myself pulled down into the darkness of the grave.

 English versions by Jerome Rothenberg after Nerval

 * * *
with Jeffrey C. Robinson

I don’t care very much about my fame as a poet, nor am I concerned whether my songs will be praised or blamed. But you shall lay a sword on my grave, for I have been a good soldier in the war of liberation of mankind. (H. H., The Voyage from Munich to Genoa) And again: I am the son of the Revolution, and I take up the charmed weapons upon which my mother has pronounced her magic blessing. (H. H., The Romantic School)

(1) A turning from Romanticism as previously practiced & a reminder of how much tension existed in such movements, both within & across generations. But with Heine selbst the drama of poetry (& of “the poet”) took its own particular twists, & after sentimental (“romantic”) early lieder, he became in works such as Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844) a satirist/ironist who, as Nietzsche wrote of him. “possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” His, then, was a further example of an oppositional, often courageous practice marked by a strong impulse toward dismissal & invective — against his literary & philosophical predecesors (The Romantic School, etc.) & the cultural & political milieu that banned his work & drove him into twenty-five years of Paris exile.

Growing up in a period of post-Napoleonic reaction & with a sense of betrayal by earlier Romantics, much like what was felt by Shelley’s generation in England, he was a supporter of later revolutions (1830, 1848) & of a nascent socialism & communism. His turn toward materialism & a kind of art-&-life continuum was a counter both to his own romantic questing & to those “Goethians” & Jena School Romantics (“priests and petty nobility, who conspire against the religious and political freedom of Europe”) who “allowed themselves to be misled into oclaiming the supremacy of art and turning away from the demands of that original real world which, after all, must take precedence.” In saying which he revived & transcended the older Romanticism while pointing to a conflict that has still to be resolved.

“Yes, if a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his
opinion, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.
Remember Heine? You have admired him. He walked through
a revolution too. He didn’t have his eyes left, and he
wasn’t as gay as you. It was paresis laid him low. (What
got you?) He left what he called his mattress grave and
found his way, blind, through the bullets in the street,
it was 1848, to the Louvre. He did it, he took the risk,
to have another look at Venus. What were you looking at
in a broadcasting studio?”
Charles Olson, from “A Lustrum for You, E. P.” [Ezra Pound]

(3) His close relationship with Gerard de Nerval with whom he collaborated on the translation of many of his lyrics as prose poems, is the basis of the translations presented here. [Other translations by Ezra Pound lie behind Olson's Lustrum.]

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, 2009. For further information check the following URL:]

By Andrew Levy

Andrew Levy, courtesy EOAGH Reading Series

Below is a short essay written by Andrew Levy about improvisation, first published published in W Magazine at the Kootenay School of Writing some years ago (which we here gratefully acknowledge: W #12 “ALL MUSIC,” 2007). He revived the old note after having read Jake Marmer’s piece made available recently in Jacket2 in this commentary: “Improvised poetry: palimpsest of drafts.”  Levy’s original note had been inspired by something Anthony Braxton had said: the idea that some people believe jazz improvisers are simply making it all up in the moment, that they are somehow tuned in via a form of trance or something, that it’s an expression of their personal genius. He dismissed that notion of spontaneity. For him improv is a form of hearing and thinking. It is  making measure in the familiarity of one’s attention. “If I were to revise my essay today,” Andrew wrote me recently, “I might search for a different word than ‘constructivist’ with which to counter the notion of spontaneity. It has an art historical resonance that might be unnecessary.”

Notes on improvisation in poetry

In the recordings of Thelonious Monk, Paul Motian, and Paul Bley, one can hear the musicians listen to one another.  Monk and Bley, for example, are exceptionally clear in the emphasis placed upon listening to the degree of silence that completes their songs; Motian in varying the rhythm, tempo and number of times he strikes his trap set within every bar.  There’s an active waiting, a gathering in time made brilliantly audible, and flexible.  In such improvisations there is a whole world of relationships among the things we feel and know, and of the ways in which they might fit. 

What interests me as a writer and performer of poetry is an improvisatory foregrounding of content and technique.  Mapping new pathways of listening to urban and media landscapes as configurations that can never be heard or seen all at once; and reimagining ways of inheriting what has far too often been violently repressed.  Writing and reading, seen this way, is lovemaking — a sensual and erotic connection with the matter necessary to understanding one’s life.  It improvises a plurality of “reals” in a world moving into a continuous transformation and dialogue.  No matter how ruptured or abstracted that life may sometimes appear, or not appear, it’s all in the mix.

The idea of improvisation seems incompatible with the idea of “spontaneity,” a concept most readily linked to the lyric and its valuation of self-expression predicated on the notion of the unitary, intending subject.  Rather, the emphasis is on doing research — of “digging,” both on the possibilities of an art form and on the possibilities of subjectivity.  In such an evolving model, one discovers the desire for that which has not yet, and may indeed, never arrive — and which itself can be read as the basis for an idea of postmodernity: a figurative participation between writer and reader, a recollection forwards.  An improvisational poetics is constructivist, not at all spontaneist — something that all great improvisers, Charlie Parker to Anthony Braxton to Steve Benson to Julie Patton, have understood.

There's also the 'influence' of the context of that which one listens to – be it a phrase that catches one's ear on television, comments passed between elderly women gathered on a stoop in Brooklyn, the dozens of literary blogs, to one's own dreams and inner voices.  The voices of one’s parents, the voices of one’s children.  Of the people you love, and hate.  It's not necessary to listen to the stars.  Today, there may be some urgency in the value of listening carefully to “lesser” voices.  The mediating factor between composition and improvisation is one's attitude of attending to the voices one hears. 

Composition depends upon the exercise of listening to oneself and to others and implies a basic trust, inevitably a hope.  My aim is for the kind of immediacy that is not dependent upon an explanatory voice-over or revelatory dialogue to provide orientation or an overview.  Improvisation helps me feel my limitation as a mortal being.  It’s kind of rough around the edges, but it is right there, a kind of beauty — bathtub full of Brussels sprouts — smooth bark — an apprenticeship with appellation — beyond completeness — a depository returning every breath — the loveless dust–the abstract embrace of nothing — pretext back into you — the passing world — an arousal in unintended duration — bedroom intimacy — the unnoticed end the merest possession of would empty from warmth.  To tell a story, to be a delicate pen and honest, to use past, present and future in a brevity; it’s impure, a suppliance that partially rests its existence in air, in stormy weather.

How can one justify the time it takes to read poetry in a global culture ensconced in language diets of implemental efficiency, of productivity, of excellence? 

Dining on the verandah of “Romanelli’s by the Sea” for my father-in-laws 85th birthday, partially blinded in the glistening white of the marina, its boat masts piercing the blue sky, seated around a table, with my two daughters, enjoying treats from the raw bar.  Overhearing a father at an adjacent table discussing in unbridled enthusiasm with his two sons, about eight and twelve years of age, and their grandfather, the marksmanship of snipers hitting a person “between the eyes” at 200 yards, then changing tact and speaking to the waitress with kindness and consideration.  Where’s the path between my memory of that experience and the way I will hope to have rendered it as story? 

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