Commentaries - January 2014

Portrait drawing of Thomas Meyer by David Hockney
Portrait drawing of Thomas Meyer by David Hockney

[NOTE.  After two years in public view (the project goes back some forty years before that), Thomas Meyer’s translation/transcreation of the Beowulf poem stands out as an extraordinary example of the transposition of a major poem from one language or epoch to another.  It’s my contention further that translation, as here, can serve as a form of composition, to make a new work in which the presence of the old is a necessary underpinning or shadow, as in the words of Gertrude Stein, rather than Pound in this instance: “As it is old it is new, and as it is new it is old, but now [she adds] we have come to be in our own way, which is a completely different way.”  Here it’s the visuality of the work, along with its clarity of language, that first astounds us, or as Meyer has it rightly for this kind of project: “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual.  Deciding to use page layout (recto/verso) as a unit.  Every translation I’d read felt impenetrable to me with its block after block of nearly uniform lines.  Among other quirky decisions made in order to open up the text, the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965.”  In the “fit” or section that follows, I reproduce Meyer’s original typographical version – “[through] the modularity of a typewriter – pace Robert Duncan.”  That the poem remains new, while it renews its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, is a mark of what’s still possible for this kind of composition. (J.R.)]



[From Beowulf: A Translation by Thomas Meyer, edited by David Habdawnik, punctum books, 2012, Brooklyn, NY 2012.] 


Madeline Gins, a poet, architect, and long-time collaborator with artist Arakawa, died this morning. She was 72. The cause of death was cancer.

Gins lived all her life in New York, much of it with Arakawa on a loft on Houston Street. She graduated from Barnard College (1962), where she studied physics and Oriental philosophy. She was also a graduate of the High School of Music and Art. Her first book, a work of conceptual fiction, was Word Rain (1969). She went on to publish several other books of poetry, including What the President Must Say and Do (pdf) and her magnum opus, Helen Keller or Arakawa. With Arakawa, she created the masterpiece The Mechanism of Meaning, a philosophical investigation of the relation of words to meaning. They also published two other works of philosophical and architectural speculation: Architectural Body and Making Dying Illegal

Gins met Arakawa in 1963. Arakawa died in 2010, at the age of 73. Together, they designed and built residences and parks: Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park (1993-5; Gifu Prefecture, Japan), The Bioscleave House (2007; East Hampton, NY), The Reversible Destiny Lofts–Mitaka (2005; Mitaka Japan), and Gins's last work, the Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator for Dover Street Market in New York (December 2013). Their architectural projects formed the basis of the 1997 exhibition "Arakawa + Gins: Reversible Destiny" at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. In 1987, they founded what was to become the Reversible Destiny Foundation.

LINEbreak reading and interview with Charles Bernstein: MP3
Reversible Destiny site (links to books and work)
Gins PennSound page 
Inflexions issue on Arakawa/Gins

The New York Times
McKenzie Wark on Ginz 

Selected Books:

  • Making Dying Illegal (in collaboration with Arakawa). New York: Roof Books, 2006)
  • Architectural Body (in collaboration with Arakawa).  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 2002.
  • Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not to Die (Guggenheim Catalog) (in collaboration with Arakawa).  New York: Abrams, Inc., 1997
  • Helen Keller or Arakawa.  Santa Fe:  Burning Books with East/West Cultural Studies, 1994.
  • To Not To Die (in collaboration with Arakawa).  Paris:  Editions de la Différence, 1987.
  • What the President Will Say and Do!!  New York:  Station Hill Press, 1984
  • The Mechanism of Meaning (in collaboration with Arakawa) (introduction by Lawrence Alloway).  Munich:  Bruckmann, 1971.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979 (2nd edition).  New York:  Abbeville Press, 1989 (3rd edition)
  • Word Rain (or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says).  New York: Grossman/Viking, 1969.
  • [In the first & heady days of ethnopoetics I was led by Gary Snyder into a close association with the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, a covert poet & a major thinker on the limits & pitfalls of civilization as a state of mind & of governance.  For Diamond, while we all recognized its inadequacy, the term “primitive” remained the defining & necessary counterproposition “to understanding,” as he put it, “our contemporary pathology and possibilities.”  For me at that time the two key essays in his oeuvre were “In Search of the Primitive” and “Plato and the Definition of the Primitive,” underlying both of which I found a wide-ranging poetics that became crucial to my own understanding of the work at hand.  Over the years that I knew him, his writings and the conversations that our friendship allowed reinforced my own efforts in that direction, & it was Diamond also who initiated my interactions with the Allegany Senecas in western New York, for which I remain forever grateful.  The pivotal collection of his essays, In Search of the Primitive, remains in print, and the one gathering of his own poetry, Totems, is still available from Station Hill Press.  Of his experience as a poet he wrote, in words reminiscent of the Surrealist master André Breton: “Writing a poem is like trying to describe a totemic column which passes right through and beyond the world. We see it, but its existence is elsewhere.”  The following brief essay gets most of it said.  (J.R.)]


    Primitive is, I believe, the critical term in anthropology, the word around which the field revolves, yet it remains elusive, connoting, but never quite denoting, a series of related social, political, economic, psychological, and psychiatric meanings. That is, primitive implies a certain level of history, and a certain mode of cultural being, which, in this paper, I shall make a further attempt to formulate.


    This mode of cultural being is continuously obliterated or attenuated by the processes of civilization, and more radically so than we are usually able or willing to acknowledge; as a result, the image of an identifiable, cross-cultural, pre-civilized, and, yes, a priori human nature has practically disappeared from our conceptual lexicon. Unyielding cultural relativism, cultural determinism and social scientism are, in part, and each in its own way, rationalizations of a civilization that has forgotten what questions to ask of itself. These attitudes have helped blunt the sense of universal human need, conflict and fulfillment which has been most adequately expressed, in the past, through art and religion. It is, I believe, a singular task of anthropology, no matter what its practitioners call themselves, to assist in the reformulation of pertinent life-preserving questions.


    The search for the primitive is the attempt to define a primary human nature. Without such a model, or, since we are dealing with men and not things, without such a vision, it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate, or even to understand, our contemporary pathology and possibilities. More pertinently, without an anthropology bent on rediscovering the nature of human nature, the science of medicine may survive, but the art of healing will wither away. For healing flows from insight into primary, "pre-civilized" human processes, into a comparative and individualized sense of human needs; that is, it presumes a knowledge of the primitive, a sense of the minimally human, that is, of what is essential to the condition of being human.


    Human consciousness is historical; in order to understand ourselves, to heal ourselves, in this age of abstract horror, we must regain the sense of the totality and the immediacy of human experience.  In order to determine where we are, we must learn, syllable by syllable, where we have been. The sense of history is, for society in crisis, what relentless self-searching, psychoanalytic or otherwise, is for the individual in crisis, that is, it can be releasing and enriching, cathartic and creative; it may be the only thing that can save our lives. History implies exhortation, because it is confession, failure and triumph. It is the measure of our capacity, the link between man and man, the key to ourselves. The lack of the sense of history, or the mechanization of history, that is, the view of its processes as immutable and inevitable, is the death of man. The only inevitable, literally unavoidable, events are, in the cultural sphere, accidents, and certain categories of natural phenomena, which, from the human perspective, have the fatality of accidents.


    Yet, the "post-historic" creature, necessarily congealed in a bureau and reduced to a function, is a common enough plotting of the future. This image of the human termites of tomorrow, each exuding its specialized bit of culture to what is conceived as an infinitely rich and almost palpable social whole, used to be one of Kroeber's favorite predictions, based, as it was, on Wheeler's work with insects, and attitudes toward men. All those who assimilate human history to natural history, or mechanize it, help dull the sense of history and prevent men from confronting themselves. The penalty we pay for blunting the historical sense is dissociation,both social and individual; the tripping of the fuse on the bomb, will, under such conditions, become only the ultimate incident in the course of a chronic cultural illness – something abstract, that we nevertheless do.


    "When we contemplate the past, that is, history," Hegel said, "the first thing we see is nothing but ruins." Out of these ruins of civilization, we must win through to a whole, but concrete, vision of man. Every thinker of consequence from the beginning of the industrial revolution, to the present has, in one way or another, warned us of this necessity. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Einstein, L. H. Morgan, Tylor, Henry Adams, Paul Tillich, Boas, Kierkegaard, Sartre (We read these names like Moslem beads, but do we understand them?), have, while concentrating on particular problems, urged us to a vision of the unity and autonomy of man. Modern anthropology itself, as Lévi-Strauss has, in effect, argued, probably germinated in a search for the historical contrast to our own intolerable condition, in a search, that is, for the primitive; it was, no doubt, as he also implies, an expression of remorse for the ideological and technical conquest of the planet by western Europeans, themselves restive in a culture they had learned to wield as a weapon. It follows that the anthropologist has been the, disengaged man par excellence. dissatisfied at home, questing abroad.  He is a scout sent out by a civilization in turmoil to find a resting place, and learn the lay of the land. He is, if true to his origins, a type of Ulysses, though, I am sure, more Joycean than Homeric.


    Modern anthropology is the search for man in history. undertaken by society threatened with automatism In broader perspective, anthropology may be said to begin with civilization, certainly with the Greeks, and perhaps with the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the ancient East Indians or the Chinese. It would be instructive to study the records of the latter four non-western civilizations in

    order to determine how far anthropology had advanced among them and what forms it took. Wherever civilization arises, the primitive in Man is subordinated; it withers away, grows attenuated or is replaced. Thus the puzzled search for what is diminished, the search for different ways of being human, for the primitive, which is anthropology, begins. Even Plato, who was probably the most beneficently civilized man in history, pays tribute, in the beginning of The Republic, to the satisfactions of his bucolic version of primitive life, which he feels plausibly constrained to replace by his towering and totally civilized Utopia. Plato understood that, in civilization, we cannot know what has been gained; until we learn what has been lost.


    Later, when brought down to earth in The Laws, the last of the Dialogues, the Heavenly city turns into a rather ominous polity. Plato spent his life trying to define and create a model of civilized man in civilized society. All of his work is a kind of anthropology of civilization, a vast exploration of political society, and it should interest us that it ends on a note of despair. For The Laws is no longer Plato struggling to grasp, to create, civilization as part of an expanding human consciousness; his final social statement is frankly repressive and pragmatic, and prophecy becomes mere prediction. In The Laws, human nature has become the enemy, and we recognize civilization. Freud, had he permitted himself the luxury of philosophizing, would have analyzed the Plato of The Laws perfectly, just as Plato, had he acknowledged the primal necessity of poiesis, of ritual, would have been able to penetrate more deeply into the nature of that “primitive," actually rustic, life which he nostalgically abandons in favor of the ideal state. Yet in

    The Republic, in contrast to The Laws, whether we like it or not, we are caught by a vision of man finding himself in civilization, although in ways that are hardly viable since they exclude, rather than incorporate, the primitive.


    If Plato concerned himself with the problems of civilization, ranging from the aesthetic to the technical and legal, at a time when civilization in Greece had become an insoluble problem, other philosophers, writers, travelers, and historians have been more deeply concerned with uncivilized people. Their descriptions vary immensely, and many are clearly projective, or otherwise distorted, but what runs through them all, whether drawn by Herodotus or Tacitus, Ovid, Seneca, or Horace, Columbus or Camoens, Montaigne or Gide, Rousseau or Monboddo, de Bougainville, or Melville or Conrad, is the sense of contrast. Civilized men are here confronting what they presume to be primordial; they are saying, "this is the way we were before we became what we are, this is the other side of our humanity." That is the anthropological statement, and it will always remain the anthropological question.


    Paradoxically, as civilization increases in depth and scope, anthropology proliferates, but it becomes increasingly professionalized.  The urgency of the central question is lost sight of, it is even denied. This question of our humanity is repressed because of its awful urgency, and the risks we must undergo in attempting to answer it. The very circumstances, then, that lead to the deepening need of the anthropological search, that is, the expansion of civilization, also convert anthropology into a mere discipline with narrowing borders, more mechanical techniques, and more trivial goals. It may even come to pass that the central question, the question of what part of our humanity we have lost, and how and why we have lost it, and how and in what form we may regain it, will soon cease to be a concern of anthropology. Perhaps significant statements about man will no longer be made by anthropologists, just as most sociologists no longer say anything very compelling about society, or political scientists about politics, economists about economics, and so on, precisely because these fields, reflecting the larger division of labor in our culture, and increasingly analytic attitudes, have grown .further and further apart. But man cannot be subdivided endlessly; moreover, the most critical tissues escape the scalpel;. it is the entire organism which must be studied.  Correlatively, history cannot be quantified; we must win back the courage to evaluate.


    In the beginning, bureaucracies counted – people, goods, land, in order to muster, levy and control, to record those facts which became the basis for civil imposition. It follows that in the logic of history, a bureaucratized discipline is, first and foremost, a quantifying one. Later, quantification becomes an end in itself, not just, as it always is in the human sciences, a problematic and limited means. The principle of evaluation is absorbed into, or subordinated by, this numbers game-an abstract ploy of counters that avoids policy, principle and meaning by presuming to rise above them. The new pedantry is the pedantry of the machine.  The danger that anthropology faces, then is literally this: it is

    becoming too civilized, too abstract, too bureaucratized. It is being transformed into just another specialized exercise, a symptom of our civilization, congruent with, rather than antithetical to it.  The latter is its true patrimony, and it should be a vocation of anthropologists to make this truth known.


    My contention, then is that the term primitive has content in anthropology; that it cannot be evaded; and that the attempt to explore its implications remains our central task, precisely because we are so civilized, and so in need of a deeper vision of man. It is in this way that anthropology can remain one· of the most instrumental and useful, though it may often seem the most remote and eccentric, of disciplines.


    [From Diamond's essay, "The Search for the Primitive, " which appeared in full in Ashley Montagu's The Concept of the Primitive, The Free Press, 1968.  This excerpt was later reprinted by Dennis Tedlock and me in the second number of Alcheringa (1971), now available with the complete run of the journal at]


    Thinking of Reznikoff's “Amelia,” and the long essay on this poem by Richard Hyland posted here, and then, yesterday, going to a sewing machine performance of Elena Berriolo, I was remind of a song sung by Fanny Brice (1891-1951) that I have long been planning to write about — as an extension of discussion of Second Wave Modernists in “Objectivist Blues” in Attack of the Difficult Poems. I hope to come back to this song in the context of Brice’s other work, but for now, just the song:

    “The Song of the Sewing Machine”: Orch. dir. by Nat Shilkret. (BVE- 41190-2) – 12/20/27. (3:26). Lyrics by Billy Rose (William Samuel Rosenberg  [1899-1966]) and Ballard MacDonald, music by Jesse Greer. MP3 from

    When I was young, a former son
    Of a land that was milk and honey
    Where people were rolling in money
    All over the billowing sea

    And so one day I sailed away
    With a heart that was light and sunny
    I came to the Land of the Free
    I ask you, is this is liberty?

    There is no sun, there no moon
    There is no May, there is no June
    If you listen to the song of the sewing machine

    The babbling brook, the summertime
    Is just a lazy poet's rhyme
    If you listen to the song of the sewing machine

    All through the day a drizzling rain
    Is playing upon my window pane
    And every drop is saying
    There is no Lover's Lane

    There is no song, there is no birds
    And God is just another word
    If you listen to the song of the sewing machine

    Linen! Linen! Miles of linen!
    Stichin', stichin', cotton pinnin'
    With no end and no beginning
    That's the song of the sewing machine

    Cohen, Cohen, ever sewing
    Going nowhere, always going
    Growing older, without growing
    That's the song of the sewing machine

    Tears, tears and yet more tears
    Nights that last a thousand years
    Heartaches for my souvenirs
    What am I doing? And what does it mean? 

    There is no song, there is no birds
    And God is just another word
    If you listen to the song of the sewing machine

    by Andrew Maxwell, Joseph Mosconi & Ara Shirinyan


    Since 1999, Andrew Maxwell, Joseph Mosconi and Ara Shirinyan have curated various reading series, journals and publications in Los Angeles, often under the banner of the Poetic Research Bureau. For the last few years, the PRB has shared an artist-run storefront with the Public School at 951 Chung King Rd. in Chinatown. Self-styled “Directors,” like canvas-backed Hal Roach rascals in an industry shantytown, they plant a flag in the Northeast of the city, and think back to the precedents.


    PRB haw! The wink was to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of course, whose socialist and utopian enterprise, however retrospective, seemed a perfect matryoshka for a fictive and projective collectivity that assumes a poetic commons is always at hand – portable, mutable, open to revisioning.

    That would become the Poetic Research Bloc – what we made in 1995 as two 20-somethin’ NorCal fellas (Macgregor Card & me), taking “research” to be a marriage of the Proustian and the ‘pataphysical. We attached it to a brief, occasional magazine (The Germ) – a “valise fiction” collecting philosophical toys, obscure exercises, exotic substances. Hobbyist utopia at large; if small-bore, recherché. “Bloc” was to poke fun at the millennial tendency to reduce poetry and community to factional and oppositional enterprises that might somehow defeat transnational capital, as opposed to box-fort punk improvisations built on curiosity, flashing affinities and experimental friendships. Literature as creative commons, open at its face, subject to re-use. Where we were able to succeed, it was always with that spirit – that there are no real authorities or prohibitions in literature – there’s nothing preventing you from just writing John Ashbery and asking him to read in the cavernous art space off skid row you’ve borrowed for weekend readings, and trading him a VHS tape of an old Dick Dix film and Guy Maddin shorts to stand at a podium next to a stuffed spray-painted horse and read from Girls on the Run. He just might say yes (and he did!).


    Mac and I ended up getting jobs on different coasts, the magazine became a reading series that I lugged around to different Los Angeles venues, and the Bloc became a “Bureau” – another pun on the longstanding Angeleno conceit of DIY storefront investigators. For about five years, I had a little bureau-desk from which I’d just write every poet I wanted to hear or meet, ask them to come to LA, write them ridiculous long-form introductions, and pay for it all out of pocket, as opposed to eating or dressing well or getting my teeth fixed. You can fill up a life (or a decade) this way. For a few years, my other lives got busy and the PRB took a nap, but Joe and Ara banged some pots, and woke it up for another go in the late-oughts. Any given literary gig is usually just the work of one or more cuckoos with poor impulse control coaxing strangers together into low-rent forums. That’s still the case, almost two decades later. Cultural tithing, theft, pastiche, appropriation, improvisation – stuffing the fiction into the valise, stringing yourself out in “off-hours”, getting friends to help. Mostly it’s just trying to sustain a portable commons where friendship and freethinking can happen. As “directors” and “curators”, we don’t have to always agree on literary value – and we don’t – but keeping a free space open for encounter, proposition and collaboration – that’s a sustainable premise.


    For years, the reading series at Dawson’s Books run by Andrew Maxwell seemed to be the only poetry series worth attending in Los Angeles. Occasionally Douglas Messerli would host a salon at his cramped offices near the tar pits, usually featuring a reader from his deep roster of Green Integer poets, but those events were invite-only, and you weren’t always invited, and anyway everyone there was from an older generation, had different concerns, creaky aesthetic tendencies. As great as it was to see, say, Bruce Andrews declaim the classics, attending always felt like crashing someone’s mid-century dinner party. The open readings hosted by Andrew turned out to be a considerable education. At Dawson’s you never knew who might show up: Tom Raworth, Eileen Myles, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Harry Matthews, Will Alexander and younger writers like Macgregor Card, Katie Degentesh or David Larsen. One time Stephen Rodefer appeared with a bag of what looked like obsidian and silt. He said it was Lautréamont’s ashes.

    Joseph Mosconi, Andrew Maxwell & Ara Shirinyan

    At some point all that ended. But the city, because it is a bright and guilty place, is resilient. Beyond Baroque was always an option. Jane Sprague started up a reading series at her house out in Long Beach. Jen Hofer used to hold these big parties at her place in Cypress Park where you could see jug bands, avant-garde poets, experimental films, puppetry, all kinds of crazy stuff. I met Ara Shirinyan at one of those parties. I’d only known him online previously, through the network of poetry blogs everyone seemed to have at the time, even though we only lived a few miles apart. He told me about a reading series he ran with Stan Apps and Teresa Carmody at this punk club downtown called the Smell, and I started going to those. You could hardly hear the readers over the cumbia blasting through the walls of the dive bar next door, but it was a relief to attend a consistent experimental reading series again. Around that time I began editing a journal with Rita Gonzalez centered on poetry and visual art called Area Sneaks. But what really seemed to bring the whole scene together was the series of conferences Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim held at the Redcat theater downtown: Séance, Noulipo, Impunities, Feminaissance. That’s where I first met Mathew Timmons, Amanda Ackerman, Harold Abramowitz, Allison Carter, Aaron Kunin...all these writers who now seem such constant presences in Los Angeles. Now there are so many poetry events spread throughout the city that it’s impossible to attend them all.


    I started publishing Make Now Press about 13 or 14 years ago. I knew it was possible to run an independent press because I had come up in the punk scene in Los Angeles and to me the operation was much like running a small record label. Exactly. In those days I was hanging out with Stan Apps a lot, knew Andrew Maxwell through music first (our bands had toured together) and then through his Dawson’s series. Joseph Thomas and Catherine Daly too. The first three books I published were: Raymond Federman’s The Precipice, Ian Monk’s Family Archaeology and Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather. That was 2003. Soon after I met everybody else: Mathew Timmons, Christine Wertheim, Matias Viegener at a reading I had organized for Joseph Thomas, Ian Monk, and Kenneth Goldsmith. I met Joseph Mosconi at a party at Jen Hofer’s house and later at a Green Integer launch for the Southern California Poetry Anthology. Only two poets under 35 were included in that anthology.


    “The Smell Last Sunday Reading Series” started some time in early 2004. Originally Catherine Daly and I curated the downtown series until Stan Apps stepped in to help. I had met Stan at a party in the late 90s, I think. Then, after publishing the Federman book, or during the design phase of it, I ran into him on my way to lunch one day in Silver Lake. It was meant to be. Then Catherine Daly stepped away and Teresa Carmody joined the series. After Apps left, Teresa and I asked Joseph Mosconi to help us; he seemed already part of it anyway. After Carmody left the curatorship (Teresa started a new reading series with Anna Joy Springer and Janice Lee called Mommy, Mommy!), we merged the operations with Andrew Maxwell and moved the series to Glendale. That’s when we became the PRB. We are now based in Chinatown.

    The aim is simple. We value literature serious in its experiment. What we do comes after Object, Mountain, Language, Concept. Our operation is spurry, ‘pata-physical, meta-quixotic, but always mindful of the Commons, as Mr. Maxwell would have it.