Commentaries - February 2014
[In the years in which I was working with many others toward the creation of an ethnopoetics, the presence and work of Henry Munn was of extraordinary importance. His death in February puts an end to what had been a life of intellectual questing, carried on in large part without recognition but always with an inquisitiveness & intelligence that contributed immeasurably to the work of others of us who were able to operate in a more public sphere. His translations, along with his brother-in-law Alvaro Estrada, of the chants and oral autobiography of María Sabina will endure beyond his life and ours, but these are only a portion of what continued to be his work until the time of his death. Of his presence as a man and a thinker, his daughter Xochitl Diana has written: “[Henry Munn] was a unique and gentle individual, a man with a deep passion for learning and a sense of wonder that was almost like that of a child -- something very rare to find in an adult. He lived a simple life, in the sense that he was not interested in material goods. As long as he had books to read, paper and a pen to write, access to the best libraries, and the means to visit museum exhibitions, he was a happy man. Nothing energized him more than books and art.”
An independent scholar and writer, Henry Munn arrived in Huautla de Jiménez, the home town of María Sabina, for the first time in 1965. His essays on Mazatec religion and related subjects have appeared in anthologies published by the Oxford University Press and the University of California Press and in journals such as Plural (edited by Octavio Paz),The CoEvolution Quarterly, New Wilderness Letter, and the Journal of Latin American Lore. His essay on María Sabina, “Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet,” has been a beacon for me, as have his extensive and thorough translations of her chanted poetry. The latter are still readily available in María Sabina: Selections, the second volume in the series Poets for the Millennium, edited by myself and Piere Joris for the University of California Press, from which this essay comes as well. (J.R.)]
Since María Sabina is the most renowned Mazatec shaman people tend to think that she is the only one, without realizing that she is part of a living tradition. The comparison of her chants with those of four other shamans I recorded in Huautla between 1967 and 1980 -- one woman and three men -- shows the similarities between her vocabulary and theirs, at the same time as it throws into relief what makes her different from them.
The form of the chant -- short enunciations ending with tso, “it says,” like a vocal punctuation mark in the flow of speech, a reference to the voice speaking through them, is used by all the Mazatec shamans – especially when they shift from speech into song. It is a cultural creation: a way of canalizing the energy released.
There is also a shared vocabulary between shamans and a common stock of standardized expressions that they all draw on in their chants. "Slowly and with care / with sap, with dew / with greenness, with clarity," María Sabina says again and again over the sick boy during the Wasson Velada to create the mood the words evoke. Ho nca inta, ho nca nangui -- "slowly and with care,” literally with one's feet on the ground -- is something that is said to people when they set out on a journey. It is one of the stereotyped expressions commonly used by the shamans. The cluster of words --ntsin: "sap,” the milk inside a plant; xoñon: "dew"; xcoen: "green" in the sense of fresh and tender (the color green is sase); and yova: "clarity" -- expresses the quintessence of the Mazatec shamans' illuminated sense of nature. They all use these words in different combinations in their chants.
Another couple of words that go together in the chants of María Sabina and those of the other Mazatec curanderos are yo – the buds of a flower; and chi?nte -- tender in the sense of what is young, newborn, a plant just shooting up. Mrs. Eloina Estrada de González, who translated the recordings for me, translated this couplet as "offshoots and tenderness." In the chants of María Sabina I render them as "buds and sprouts." These words, which refer to the stages of growth of plants, are used as metaphors for babies and children. This is the view of life of an agricultural community.
Khoa nta -- "grace, goodness" and khoa vihna, khoa visen -- "life and well-being" are correlated in the parallel constructions of the shamanic chants with "sap and dew,” "greenness and clarity." The opposites of these four kernel words are "garbage and dust" (tje, chao); "whirlwind and wind" (xquin, ntjao), -- figures of speech for sickness and disputes. María Sabina frequently asserts that it is the work of her "saints" -- meaning the mushrooms -- to dispel them and clear the air.
Her words go together in couplets. These double expressions in which the same thing is said twice in different ways are a characteristic of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican rhetoric. Other common stereotyped expressions that recur from shaman to shaman follow this same pattern: ngui xcoin, ngui ntso?vai -- "beneath your eyes, beneath your mouth"; ma and tao -- "poor and humble (or loved)"; tsin khoa?aon, tsin khoa?nte -- "there is no resentment, there is no rancor"; cjain ni, kishikhoa ni -- "it is certain, it is true.”
They all inherit from their culture a repertory of themes and motifs on which each one works his or her own individual variations. When María Sabina says she is a chjon chjine xki, chjon chjine xca, chjon chjine en, chjon chjine khoa -- "a woman wise in medicine, a woman wise in herbs, a woman wise in words, a woman wise in problems" -- she is stating her culture's concept of the shaman's role. The other Mazatec chota chjine -- "wise ones" -- all define themselves in exactly the same terms.
She often says: "I am a woman of the light, I am a woman of the day." Here she is playing on the Mazatec word for spirit -- sennichi -- by breaking it down into its two component parts: sen -- physiognomy or light, depending on how it is used; and nich i-- day: the destiny of a person determined by the day sign of his or her birth -- the Mazatec equivalent of the Aztec tonalli, which meant light, heat, day, and spirit. She usually says before or afterwards: "I am a woman espíritu,” translating the native concept into Spanish. Other shamans do the same thing. Another wise woman prays: "Bring his appearance, bring his day." A shaman from Loma de Chapultepec on the slopes of the sacred mountain opposite Huautla speaks of "the path of the cane of office, the path of the staff, the path of the light, the path of the day (ntia ya, ntia nise, ntia sen, ntia nichi) of each of his patients.
She herself says of her host during the Folkways Session that he is a "man with a green staff, a staff of clarity ( nise xcoen, nise yova ).” The words of a medicine man from Xochitonalco, a hamlet near Huautla, recall hers; he says to the old couple he is speaking for: "You should take your staff of dew, your staff of fragrant leaves. Grace, life and well-being. Green staff, staff of clarity (nise xcoen, nise yova)." The leaves he is referring to are those used in the steambath to hit the body so as to make the air circulate.
The path is a common motif in the chants of the Mazatec shamans who live in a mountain world of footpaths where people leave the tracks of their bare feet in the brown squishy mud. The experience takes the form of a "trip." One function of the shamanic chant is to guide the effect of the mushrooms on the participants and lead them by suggestion along a good path to a healing cathartic experience. María Sabina speaks frequently of following in the footsteps of Christ. Compare her words with those of the medicine man from Xochitonalco: "It is life and well-being of our Father, says. It is sap and dew, says. It is buds and tenderness, says. It is the path of the tracks, it is the path of the feet of our Christ, says." Sometimes the path is that of the extravagated spirit of the sick, which has to be followed to where the person was frightened. The wise woman sings: "We are going looking for the path, the path of his paws, the path of his claws, from the right side to the left side we are going to work, says." The shaman from the Loma de Chapultepec, sitting in a chair before the family altar in the house where he has been called to give a ceremony, states: "The work I came for is to divine for them, how they are in their door, their dooryard, the path of the tracks of their feet." At one moment in the Folkways Session, María Sabina says: "I am going to receive there in the path / I am going to receive the enchantment / I am going to receive his light, his day / the path of his soles, the path of his feet." She means she is going to reintegrate the person with his or her sennichi-li. For her the path of the hands and the feet is what one does, where one goes.
In Huautla people would explain the similarities in vocabulary and figures of speech between different shamans by saying that it is the mushrooms speaking through them. I don't think we can accept that explanation, which from the scientific point-of-view is a personification into an imaginary entity of the unconscious powers of language. None of the curanderos and curanderas I recorded had heard each other speak, but they had all at one time or another in the past heard other shamans give ceremonies, either when they were children or when they were sick and had to be cured. The uncanny way the couplets of the shamanic chant imprint themselves on the memory of ordinary listeners, even when the exact meaning of the words is beyond them, suggests how the liturgy of the mushroom medicine rites has been transmitted from generation.
María Sabina when she was a child heard shamans sing like many Mazatec children who have lain awake at night listening to the strange words of medicine men and women singing in the darkness under the din of the rain on the thatch roof or with the chirp of the crickets in the background. The raw psycho-physiological experience is shaped by cultural models. When she began to eat the mushrooms herself, she already knew the form of the chant and the type of things that are said.
What then distinguishes her from her contemporaries?
First of all, her musicality. Within the traditional framework of the ritual, developed to utilize the psychoactive medicine for therapeutic social purposes, each shaman has his or her own magic song, distinctive voice, personal melody and individual manner of conducting a ceremony . Nevertheless, the melodiousness of María Sabina's chants, their rhythmical transporting effect, is unsurpassed except at moments by other singers.
The effect of the mushrooms she has eaten for the power to cure make the body vibrate. Hence her humming -- a way of tuning herself in to the energy flowing through her. When she invokes the Virgins and the Saints, she draws out the endings of their names into reverberant tones. At the same time she marks the intensified pulse beat of her physical existence by clapping and uttering sequences of vocables: ecstatic phonation, articulatory play, a vocalization of impulses, a rhythmical syllabification of energy.
So so so si are the component parts of Jesusi -- a common exclamation of Mazatec women. Ki ko ka ka ki form Kristo. Ma ma ma mai become madre.
The syllables are used as beats; meaning is broken down into pure sounds and recomposed from them again. The vocables sometimes seem to go back to the babble of babies. In her repetition of santo santa the binary alternation of sounds is what she likes, the contrast of to and ta. This is a level of vocalization I have heard in no other Mazatec shaman. The large part played by percussion, humming, and the enunciation of syllables in her ceremonies exemplifies her expressionistic creativity and distinguishes her performances from those of her contemporaries.
What is not on the printed page is the sensorial condition of heightened sensitivity in which her words are spoken and heard: their resonance. In many passages the lilt of her voice carries a force, conveys a sense of enthusiasm that is not present in just the words themselves. It is the music of the shamanic chant, its rhythm and melody, that moves the listeners as much as the words and cures them by the power of song to uplift and transport the soul.
She alone of all the shamans says: "I am a trumpet woman, I am a drum woman, I am a woman violinist." Her words bring to mind the mushroom ceremony pictured at the center of the Codex Vindobonensis Obverse -- an ancient Mixtec pictographic book from an area of what is now the state of Oaxaca not far from the Mazatec mountains -- where 9 Wind -- the Mixtec culture hero -- dressed in the attributes of the wind deity the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl -- is shown officiating as a shaman, playing on a rasp with a human skull for a resonator, the volutes of speech coming out of his mouth.
Wasson describes her dancing as she sings, turning around in the middle of the dark room, lifting her arms in gestures of adoration and imploration. Her activity of expression is total: musical and gestural as well as verbal. The whole body speaks. Listening to her talk in ordinary life, without understanding what she was saying, I was struck by the idiosyncratic gestures she would make with her hands and fingers. Of all living Mazatec shamans, María Sabina was unquestionably the greatest because of her radical, extreme personality.
One of the most distinctive features of her chants is how she assumes the being of the phenomena she names by saying "I am" this or that. One shaman -- by day a shopkeeper in the market -- asserted "I am he who speaks with the mountains" (a male perogative, the women kneel on their mats, imploring), but even though he evoked eagles and vortices of colors, he did not identify with them. The level of discourse of the other chota chjine is practical, functional. They emphasize what they do -- cure -- and what they want -- to get rid of sickness. In the chants of none of the other shamans I have recorded does the "I am" have the same importance it does in the words of María Sabina.
Her identifications are like the masks the Tlingit and Eskimo shamans put on and took off (bear spirit, deer spirit, moon, kingfisher, raven, eagle, old woman, cloud spirit, the spirit of the driftwood, even bubbles). This is Coleridge's "Infinite I am" of the "primary imagination." The "I is an other" of Rimbaud.
Arlene Keizer’s first reading of Philip’s Zong! #6 is the second in a series of five such readings we are currently publishing. Recently we published Evie Shockley’s, and soon we will publish pieces by Kathy Lou Schultz, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Gary Barwin. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
The Bone Alphabet
I came to M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) with too much knowledge to offer the text the complete and utter astonishment it deserves. When I received the invitation to write about Zong! #6, I was already thinking about the way Philip’s book disassembles language and forces readers to consider how “un-telling” the already partial and fragmented tale of an obscene, unspeakable sea voyage might shake the structures that made such a voyage possible (structures that have been altered but are still in place). Thus I’m not sure what follows can be termed a “first reading” of this poem; my encounter with Zong! seems to have always been in medias res.
What I knew: Philip challenged herself to assemble her poems out of the words of Gregson v. Gilbert, the only document that remains from the Zong case. Her choice to confine her source of letters and words to a subset of the Roman alphabet was altered only by her need to propose names for the Africans who died en route to Jamaica: those who died of thirst, those who threw themselves overboard in “frenzy,” and those who were thrown overboard to protect the interests of the ship’s owners. These names travel across the bottom of the poems in the “Os” (Bone) section of Zong! and return at the end of the “Ferrum” (Iron) section. We might call them a running foot (wish fulfillment), underscoring the competing principles of overlap and incommensurability that drive Philip’s project forward. These fugitive footnotes are the strongest reminder of the African people and linguistic worlds lost to the Atlantic Ocean. Having been offered them at the beginning, we miss them in the sections where they don’t appear.
Zong! #6 opens and closes with the injunction to “question therefore / the age,” a call that at first seems simple, given the context of the eighteenth century and its assent to the categories of the classical world: its acceptance that a human being could be placed into the category of res (thing), that an African could be a human res. But when did this age end?
The number six makes me wonder about the length of the sequence. Upon counting, I ask “Why are there twenty-six ‘bones,’ as Philip calls the first set of poems?” Considering the number twenty-six in light of Philip’s obsession with language gives me a flash of insight: these first poems are what I now call Zong!’s “bone alphabet.” They provide the conditions of possibility for the pieces that follow. (Philip calls the four subsequent sections “a translation of the opacity of those early poems.”) And as I slide along the tragic Moebius strip of this book, I cannot forget that this bone alphabet is drawn from Gregson v. Gilbert and numerically matched to the Roman alphabet.
This draws my eye down to the bottom of the page, to the running feet of “Zuka Tuwalole Urbi Femi Chuma.” My next question is “Why these names and not others?” From her “Notanda,” I know that Philip researched Yoruba names. Knowing little about African languages, I begin to wonder if, though written in Roman letters, these names might clearly mark linguistic difference in some ways not immediately apparent.
At this point, I have to confess to my obsessive nature, a hallmark of my character and one of the deepest adjuncts to my creativity and critical drive. Some texts — the ones I love best — fill me with the need to KNOW. I want to tear them open, climb inside, and stitch the pieces back together over me, understanding them through wild immersion and imaginative reconstruction. Zong! seems to invite this. I copy down all 250 names, longhand. I check to see which letters appear in them, and realize that “q” and “v” are missing. What might their absence signify?
I begin to do some research on Bantu languages, the group of languages spread across the widest swath of the African continent. What I learn quickly is that the Roman letters “q,” “v,” and “x” do not correspond to Bantu-language sounds. Of course, there are also Bantu sounds that cannot be rendered with individual Roman letters. When I come upon this information, I become lost, for a moment, in admiration of Philip’s devoted invention, her ameliorative yet anti-lyric practice. I am inside the poem; it settles over me like a polyglot net. These names fracture time, mixing the living and the recent dead into the story of those lost in 1781. (I know some of these names.) These names break the bone alphabet, the Roman alphabet. Reading Zong! #6 with this understanding makes me notice that “question” and “evidence,” two of the most important words in the poem, use letters missing from Bantu sounds. What do I make of this? (And “x” has made it into Zong!’s subscript pantheon — clearly we cannot write any history of the African Diaspora without this letter and its Cartesian violence.)
Zong! #6 takes its words from the argument in favor of the murderous captain and his complicit crew. The lawyers for the captain and the ship’s owners try to set aside the question of the morality of slavery: “It has been decided, whether wisely or unwisely is not now the question, that a portion of our fellow-creatures may become the subject of property. This, therefore, was a throwing overboard of goods, and of part to save the residue. The voyage was eighteen weeks instead of six …” You cannot write “overboard,” “save,” or “voyage” without the Roman “v”: “question / therefore / the age.”
I close the book. My “first reading” of Zong! #6 has been a vertiginous journey.
I drink in the uncanny beauty of Zong!’s cover: the lower part of a femur and the upper ends of a tibia and fibula are set against a silver-grey ocean. A scarlet circle highlights the fanciful knee joint, which looks like a winged vertebra. Eventually, that red punctum pushes a memory to the surface. Taking the place of the knee is another form of articulation altogether — an adinkra symbol from the Akan of Ghana: Gye Nyame, translated into English as “I fear none except God.”
Arlene Keizer is associate professor of English, comparative literature, and African American Studies in the School of Humanities at the University of California at Irvine. Her current book project analyzes the work of the African American visual artist Kara Walker as a window into black postmodernism. Other projects include essays on the ways in which African Diaspora intellectuals have engaged with psychoanalytic theory and practice and essays on memory and theory.
Stephen Burt’s short essay on Rae Armantrout’s “Spin” is the fifth of five first readings of that poem we are publishing in this new series. The series page can be found here. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
That we are composed
Composed: put together, by someone, like novels, cantatas, or poems; or else put together by no one, as rocks are composed of chemically and geologically distinct minerals, as atoms are composed of electron shells around a nucleus. We have distinct and separable elements (we contain multitudes). We may not know it. What are those elements?
of dimensionless points
Six syllables, after five: do we have syllabics? We do not, but we will soon have a normative line length (six-ish) and a normative beat count (three), from which deviations will stand out.
Point: the goal of an argument, the demonstrandum, QED. In general, such points in Armantrout are no sooner made than undermined: they tend to disappear under examination, they rely on unproven assumptions, they have no depth, they are “dimensionless.”
Mathematical points are also “dimensionless,” by definition — no contradiction there.
So far we have a phrase that permits us to read it as a value-neutral statement about ideas from mathematics or physics, but also permits us to read it as a controversial claim about our ability to hold, indeed to organize our lives around, poorly supported beliefs.
Is the whole poem going to proceed along these double lines? Will the whole poem turn out to be a flipping sentence, like Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit, a controversial and political claim about how we think (from one direction) that becomes an explanation of physics and math (from another)?
These are points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
With “space” comes blank space, as the poem violates its line-length norm. With “nonetheless” comes insistence: these things are real, they exist, though they may not be “things.”
Our selves, our loci of consciousness and emotion, are “composed” of claims for which we have no warrant, pieces of “spin” meaning rhetoric or suasion, claims that correspond to nothing material, nothing beyond dispute, nothing in the mathematical nor in the physical world.
According to the model that Armantrout explicates (a form of superstring theory), the most basic components of mass-energy have spin (like quarks) but no volume (no dimensions). We cannot assign them a size, though we can assign them a probabilistic location
which is a mapping
“A mapping”: not a map, not a thing you could map and then walk away holding, but a process of mapping, something produced by, and something that in turn produces, the model we have “in our heads” of the thing that we believe we have seen, or known, “out there in the world.”
Once you know what Armantrout says, you can listen for how: astringent, unsettled, reluctant, uneasily terse.
So far the physics and math have been up front, the implications about human rhetoric, politics, selfhood, decisions upstage. Now they’re going to change places.
The pundit says
the candidate’s speech
“all the right points,”
If you’re used to Armantrout’s effects this stanza might strike you as almost predictable, too pat, too easily framed and too easily undermined: in case you had not noticed that “spin” could belong to politicians (not just to quarks), “points” to speech-makers (not just geometers), you’ll notice it now.
You can hit a point, or hit a baseball, or be a hit with people (compare “How Come You’re Such a Hit with the Boys, Jane?,” the great, sarcastic 1983 non-hit by the English band Dolly Mixture). But you should not hit people. Is suasion like hitting? Is rhetoric like violence? Is rearranging somebody’s ideas anything like rearranging — or threatening to rearrange — their face? Why does “hit” have a line all its own, and why will it become the key into which the poem modulates (replacing “point”)?
hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”
Why did the politician’s speech succeed? She or he had studied the nostalgias; he or she expressed some kind of frustration (“I’m fed-up and I’m not going to take it any more”) without sounding tragic, or passive, or resigned.
Armantrout can sound fed-up, if not indeed bitter, herself: could she use a distraction? Should we keep ourselves apart from, aloof from, politicians’ distractions?
Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!”
Is the light an illusion? Is it a mistake, a distraction, to think that we can be enlightened, that we can speak without casting illusions?
At the level of physics, space as we know it may be a mathematical construct, different from different perspectives, abstract, “unreal,” so that “there” and “here” are effects of “our eyes.”
At the level of politics, metaphysics, psychology, what looks like enlightenment could be just distraction, what seem like new truths just effects propagated by people with some interest in changing our minds.
Armantrout’s poetry conserves some sympathy for the Sophists, the ancient and modern thinkers who insist that ideas are instruments, rhetoric everywhere, no such thing as disembodied, constant, knowable truth …
And yet against that (literal) sophistry (which can make other writers despondent, or playful) Armantrout gives us the affect of an austere ironist, or even a moralist: she wants to be sure that we recognize illusions as illusions, that by them we do no (or at least that we do less) harm.
If we are to distract ourselves — by ideas, by sounds, by works of art — let them at least reveal their means of illusion; let them shed this sharply defined, this wryly wielded, light.
* * *
Rae Armantrout, “Spin”
That we are composed
of dimensionless points
which nonetheless spin,
which nonetheless exist
which is a mapping
The pundit says
the candidate's speech
“all the right points,”
hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”
Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!”
Reading the Difficulties
Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry
Edited by Thomas Fink (CUNY), Judith Halden-Sullivan (Millersville University, PA)
Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series: Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer, series editors
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On Reading the Difficulties:
Definitions of what constitutes innovative poetry are innumerable and are offered from every quarter. Some critics and poets argue that innovative poetry concerns free association (John Ashbery), others that experimental poetry is a "re-staging" of language (Bruce Andrews) or a syntactic and cognitive break with the past (Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian). The tenets of new poetry abound. But what of the new reading that such poetry demands? Essays in Reading the Difficulties ask what kinds of stances allow readers to interact with verse that deliberately removes many of the comfortable cues to comprehension-poetry that is frequently nonnarrative, nonrepresentational, and indeterminate in subject, theme, or message. Some essays in Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan's collection address issues of reader reception and the way specific stances toward reading support or complement the aesthetic of each poet. Others suggest how we can be open readers, how innovative poetic texts change the very nature of reader and reading, and how critical language can capture this metamorphosis. Some contributors consider how the reader changes innovative poetry, what language reveals about this interaction, which new reading strategies unfold for the audiences of innovative verse, and what questions readers should ask of innovative verse and of events and experiences that we might bring to reading it.
Reading the Difficulties -- Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan
Thank You for Saying Thank You -- Charles Bernstein
Reading and Reading -- Elizabeth Robinson
Of Course Poetry Is Difficult / Poetry Is Not Difficult -- Hank Lazer
Articulating a Radical and a Secular Jewish Poetics:Walter Benjamin, Charles Bernstein, and the Weak Messiah as Girly Man -- Stephen Paul Miller
Reading the Posthuman Subject in The Alphabet -- Burt Kimmelman
Cooking a Book with Low-Level Durational Energy;or, How to Read Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies -- Kristen Gallagher
Engaging with (the Content of) John Bloomberg-Rissman’s 2nd NOTICE OFMODIFICATIONS TO TEXT OF PROPOSED REGULATIONS -- Eileen R. Tabios
Bursting at the Seams: Exploding the Confines of Reification with Creative Constraints in Sleeping with the Dictionary -- Carrie Conners
The Game of Self-Forgetting:Reading Innovative Poetry Reading Gadamer -- Judith Halden-Sullivan
The Utopian Textures and Civic Commons of Lisa Robertson’s Soft Architecture -- Christopher Schmidt
Problems of Context and the Will to Parsimony: Reading “Difficult” Recent U.S. Poetry -- Thomas Fink
Some Notes on bpNichol, (Captain) Poetry, and Comics -- Paolo Javier
Crossing the Corpus Callosum: The Musical Phenomenology of Lisa Jarnot -- Jessica Lewis Luck
Extrapolatia -- Sheila E. Murphy
"The question of how to read difficult poetry (in this case, poetry written explicitly in the Modernist, or avant-garde, tradition) is a familiar subject, so a volume of this kind is a significant contribution to the field." --Joel Bettridge, author of Reading as Belief: Language Writing, Poetics, Faith
"One of the strongest aspects of this project is the inclusion of critical assessments of very new work, such as Kristen Gallagher's on Tan Lin's Seven Controlled Vocabularies. This high standard of contemporaneousness is how and where I set my mark as I read across the essays." --Al Filreis, author of Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960
I remember being able (late 1990s) to return to Solution Passage more productively after reading Barrett Watten’s essay in Total Syntax and seeing more representative samples of Coolidge’s early writing there, in In The American Tree and in the xeroxes of complete early books and chapbooks I made at the University of Louisville poetry collection.
I particularly remember grooving on the poems found towards the end of Part Four and the beginning of Part Five. I wish I could remember a specific poem, but in hindsight I imagine a poem like “The Lid” being such a one:
The lid is the bed. The heights of notions stint in twine
above the brand sack. You could slight here forever
over bell doom zenith and raise a new sundering
crop of cries. Match last an avenue, phone
not to listen. Nations predacious on a bottle of gel.
Bed as helictite, and bed as a smell
to a snail. When question of slumber is raised
who will be eager to bow at its beams?
The sparrow is an awning to the village roof.
I have no doubt but what my doubts will provide.
The cough race is over, it was won by a clam.
As the Law wil be finished by a single clattering claim.
So fold your limbs and bell out over the dripping pendule.
Beneath are the seething plumbings our dailiness harbors. (220)
A structure of sleep: "lid" as part of the eye and divider of seen from unseen. Abstraction enspaced, "heights of notions," putting in short time ("stint" as a verb) with wonderful short-and-long "i" sounds modulating through the nasal consonant "n" to the hard and flat short "a"s and terminal plosive consonants of "brand sack."
Like "stint," "slight" performing verbal labor with three common letters. The classic Beat-inflected noun stack of "bell doom zenith." See also CC's celebrated "constellation" poem "ounce code orange" (from Space) and the subsequent Naropa lecture likening a phrase-structure like that to "Ice Station Zebra." The dual elevating and leveling of "raise" with "sundering" reinforcing the latter, in an agriculture of emotion ("crop of cries"). The flattening continues with short "a"s in "Match last an avenue," lengthening out as "nations predacious." CC the speleologist brings in "helictite," a mineral formation in limestone caves. Smell--snail--slumber, all working sibilant-liquid-nasal terrain. Sleep returns as a more defined structure, a dwelling even, with raised beams warranting a reverent "bow." Then extended from individual to the social/animal level, with "sparrow" serving as community shelter.
The "volta" in this sonnet turns late (line 10) as the speaker emerges in simultaneous refusal and embrace of doubt. Competition ("cough race") and the juridical have run their course or been rendered terminal by a mere "clam" and "clattering claim" respectively; life goes on. Limbs folded in satisfied judgment, a trajectory is plotted: "bell out over the dripping pendule," i.e. mere hanging ornament, timepiece, or mountaineering maneuver. There is much to explore in "the seething plumbings our dailiness harbors."