Commentaries - May 2014

Introducing PO.EX

detail of collage on PO.EX Todas as leituras page
detail of collage on PO.EX Todas as leituras page,

PO.EX: A Digital Archive of Portuguese Experimental Literature is an important ongoing documentary and educational project initiated in 2005 by Rui Torres, a professor at Universidade Fernando Pessoa, in Porto, Portugal. Torres, working collectively with other Portuguese scholars and programmers, presents much of the archive online, and has also produced artifacts on CD-ROM. PO.EX participates in a larger consortium of research groups focusing on electronic and experimental literature and — via its researchers’ knowledge of the content of these various international initiatives — establishes a thorough approach to the task of building an archive dedicated to vital artistic and scholarly concerns. The intellectual care put into populating and shaping the PO.EX Digital Archive — while maintaining a high level of usability — reflects not only deep consideration and cultivated knowledge of the subject by its producer(s), but a dedication to preserving valuable cultural information and making it available to those without physical access to rare and sparsely distributed historical materials. At present, the archive houses and preserves works by Portugal’s most important experimental poets, including Fernando Aguilar, Ana Hatherly, E. M. de Melo e Castro, Silvestre Pestana, and others. Torres’s vision to locate and represent thousands of literary artifacts related to twenty authors from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s demonstrates how a sophisticated and dense archive can be thoroughly constructed. A particularly notable feature on the PO.EX website is how it dedicates space to presenting contemporary remakes of historical works. For example, one section of the archive, “Leituras da Poesia Experimental Portuguesa,” features visual poems contained in the archive vocally interpreted by contemporary practitioners. In another area, “Arquivo Digital da Literatura Experimental Portuguesa — Releituras,” print-based poems from the archive are animated. Other notable sound and video clips in the PO.EX database include Américo Rodrigues’s Performance at Serralves Museum, Porto, reading the Ideogramas of E. M. de Melo e Castro, and Jorge dos Reis’s interpretive performance “O leitor compulsivo de alfabetos,” of visual poems of Salette Tavares, at Galeria Diferença, Lisbon.

In February 2013, as a consultant for PO.EX (a position previously occupied by US critic Johanna Drucker and Brazilian scholar Jorge Luiz Antonio), I spent a week in Porto learning about, evaluating, and offering critical analysis and feedback on the project. During this time, Torres organized a colloquium at Universidade Fernando Pessoa titled “Poesia Experimental. Materialidades e representaçoes digitais,” which included the participation of several significant artists and critics, including Pedro Barbosa (author of A Ciberliteratura: Criação Literária e Computador and the influential generator SINTEXT) and University of Coimbra professor Manuel Portela (author of the recently published MIT Press volume Scripting Reading Motions: The Codex and the Computer as Self-Reflexive Machines). I presented a "Seminário Transversal" (s0mething like a keynote) as the final campus session. The colloquium’s concluding event featured sound poetry performances staged at a nightclub in the city.

Américo Rodrigues performing at Maus Hábitos, Porto, on February 14, 2013

These recordings, which I made and then produced with Torres, feature contemporary artists aranhiças & elefantes (Bruno Ministro, Liliana Vasques, and Rita Grácio, who have been performing together since 2007) and Américo Rodrigues performing at Maus Hábitos, Porto, on February 14, 2013.

Translation from Polish by Jerome Rothenberg & Arie Galles


La musique est une chose étrange! -- Byron
L'art? ... c'est l'art - et puis, Voilà tout. -- Béranger

Bound to your place those penultimate days
Whose plot was impenetrable –
– Myth-full,
Dawn-pallid …
– Life’s end a whisper summons its start:
“I will not render you – no! I will raise you! …”

Bound to your place, those days so penultimate
Once when you mirrored – each moment, each moment –
That lyre that Orpheus lent us,
Whose force like a missile struggles with song,
And its four strings commune with
Each, striking each other,
By twos – and by twos –
A murmur slipping toward silence:
“Did he begin
To pound out a note? …
Of what sound was he Maestro! whose playing’s repelling? …”

Bound to your place in those days, oh Frederic!
You with your hand alabastered
In whiteness – possessing – and shuffling –
Your touch scarce a touch – ostrich feather like –
Brushing me blurred in my eyes with your ivory
Keyboard …
And you like that figure
From marble’s own womb
As if hammered
Would pull back your chisel
Your genius – eternal Pygmalion!

What in that, in what you have played, and then what? –
A first note recited – and what? he’ll express it
However its echoes set themselves up, will be different
From when with your own hand you blessed
Every chord –
And played it through, simple
And perfect like Pericles,
Like a virtue drawn from a deep past,
Set foot in a village, a log cabin home,
Told herself as she entered:
I was reborn in heaven,
Whose gate changed into my harp,
A ribbon – a path …
Where the Host – I could spy through pale wheatblades –
Emanuel he who now dwells
On Mount Tabor!

And Poland within, from that zenith
Perfections of history, ancient, arrayed
Rainbow’s ravishment – Poland –
Wheelwrights transformed!
Selfsame, certain,
Gold bee!

And – now – you’ve ended the song – And I
No longer can see you – only – can hear
Hearing what? – like when boys battle boys –
– The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own
By eighths – then by fifths –
And murmuring: “He – has he started to play?
Or uncaring – cast us aside?”

Oh You! Love’s profile
Fulfillment your name:
These – Art dubs them style,
Who penetrate song, who shape stones …
Oh! You – who in chronicles sign yourself Era,
Where you are, aren’t, history’s Zenith,
Are Spirit and Letter in one,
“Consumatum Est” …
You! Oh – Exquisite fulfillment,
Whichever you are, And where? … Are a sign …
In Phidias? David? Or Chopin?
Or a scene out of Aeschylus? …
Evermore – vengeance upon you: PRIVATION! …
Globe’s Stigma – penury:
How it hurts him! … Fulfillment? …
He – who prefers to begin
Forever to throw out before him – down payed !
– “Ear of Corn”? … like a gold comet ripened,
Wind’s breath barely stirs it,
A rain of wheat sprinkles down grains
Perfection alone sweeps away …

Over here – Frederic, look! … This is – Warsaw:
Under a star blazing forth
A crazed brightness –
– Attend to it, organs in parish halls; look! it’s Your nest:
It’s elsewhere – old houses patrician
As commonwealths,
Pavements of squares deaf and grey,
And Sigismund’s sword in a cloud.

Look! … from alley to alley
Caucasian horses break forth
Like swallows ahead of a storm,
Ahead of their regiments, darting,
By hundreds – by hundreds –
– The town house caught fire, died down,
Then flared up again – And there – Under the wall
Saw the foreheads of widows in mourning
Pushed back by rifle butts –
And again, smokeblinded, I saw,
As it moved past the portal, the pillars,
A contraption that looked like a coffin
They were heaving out … crashing and crushing – your piano!

That one! … that championed Poland, he from the heights
All-Perfections of history
People-bound, anthem ecstatic –
O Poland – of wheelwrights transformed;
That same one – crushed on the granite squares!
– Over there: as the thoughts of the just man
Are drowned in the popular anger
Or as, from age unto age,
All its angers awaken!
And right there – like Orpheus’ body,
A thousand nailed passions tear him to shreds
And each one howling: “Not me! …
Not me!” – with a clatter and chatter of teeth –
Is it you? – is it me? – then let’s strike up a Judgment Day song,
Urge them on: “Rejoice, o you child who will be! …
With groaning – stories gone deaf:
The Ideal – now brought low on the pavement” –


with Jeffrey C. Robinson

All things in this world become beautiful in their patterning after a beauty of a higher order, after non-material beauty. Only when they attain the metaphysical grounding, do they attain their own real being - an infused spiritual beauty, a beauty infused by God. In this manner then, aesthetic beauty becomes fused with moral beauty, with Goodness, with Good itself. ( C.N.)

(1) In the search for which, Norwid (1821-1883) developed a complex surface in his poems – hard to conceive for those of us cut off from him by language – whose darkness, verging on a self-proclaimed obscurity (sancta obscuritas he called it), brought him ineluctably to a new knowledge & practice of reality. If that was his goal, the means he used involved a panoply of what the twentieth-century Russian (Chuvash) poet Gennady Aygi called Norwid’s “poetry of sound,” or Czeslaw Milosz: “the impenetrable obscurity of his style and his jarring syntax, until no one would publish him.” Writes Danuta Zamojska-Hutchins of the range displayed here: “Latinizing syntax, ellipses, foreign language infusions, multiple neologisms, twisted sentences often contrary to the grammar of the Polish language, the use of inversions and punctuation antics, but, above all, variations of the morphological and syntactic functions, the exploitation of the rhythmophonic and expressive qualities of language , all of these are the key emblems of Norwid's poetics of darkness.” (Italics ours.) But the attempt here, in a line from the Romantics to the present, was not only to make the writing new, but to renew the language – or language itself – by repeated & precise acts of defamiliarization, & through that altered, often nonabsorptive language to renew our image of the world. A poet of “Socratic Christliness,” as Bogdan Czaykowski names him, “he thought of himself as a reader of signs, of traces left by God for human beings to recognize and decipher.”

The comparison to Hopkins, often made, seems to hold true on many levels.

(2) Like other Polish Romantic artists including Adam Mickiewicz, Norwid – poet, dramatist, painter, sculptor – spent a life in voluntary exile, a Polish nationalist at a distance, leaving Poland at 21, wandering through Europe & even the U.S., settling at length in Paris where he died in poverty. In that Paris milieu, however, he became an intimate of Frederic Chopin, who fulfilled for him the definition of a modern artist – Norwid wrote about him in at least three pieces – totally absorbed in the lyric “perfection” of the composer’s work which nonetheless, he thought, “voiced Poland,” vulnerable to contemporary brutality yet impervious to it over time. And his remarkable free-verse experiment “Chopin’s Piano,” presented here, dramatizes the impinging turbulence that modifies but does not destroy Chopin’s music as his piano is (actually was) hurled to the Warsaw streets by the army of the Russian Tsar. Little of Norwid’s poetry appeared during his lifetime; indeed, scholars published the complete edition of his poems only in 1962.


[Reprinted from Poems for the Millennium, volume 3]

Alison Calder was born in London, England, and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies, including Breathing Fire: Canada's New Poets and Exposed, and has twice circulated on Winnipeg city buses. She is the editor of Desire Never Leaves: The Poetry of Tim Lilburn, and a critical edition of Frederick Philip Grove's 1924 novel Settlers of the Marsh, and the co-editor of History, Literature, and the Writing of the Canadian Prairies. Calder’s first collection, Wolf Tree, won two Manitoba Book Awards and was a finalist for both the Gerald Lampert Award and the Pat Lowther Award for Canadian poetry.

A University of Manitoba article describes her second poetry book In the Tiger Park:

English prof Alison Calder’s poetry is known for shining the light of the poet’s curiosity on all manner of “natural occurrences,” which nevertheless stand out. Her new book of poetry, In the Tiger Park, is about what exists at the edges of human experience, what’s out there but is largely unseen by the average human. It’s about ghosts, how these things operate as ghosts to us now, in this age — things that might have, in another age, occupied a more central place in our lives.

That, and she met my stringent criteria of having written three poems in her book about the CFL.

In the Tiger Park by Alison Calder (Coteau Books, 2014, Page 20)


Step back in the pocket, calm eye

of the storm, rock in a seething tide,

shipwreck’s lone survivor, slo-mo

in the beat-box strobe of split second strikes.

Receivers peel from the line, routes tattooed

on the field’s bicep. Hold on and on and on

before the throw, receivers running, tide crashing,

tunnel forming, chopper whump-whumping in your chest,

clock a ball a bird a bullet,

receivers down, routes jumped, a hole,

no hole, hold on.


Geomantic Riposte:  Sheer


Growing up without any pianissimo only that tennis ball striking

head at five and years of crunchy but abysmal Canucks games

instead of Bach’s Passacaglia I got Passaglia instead of a flute I

got the Flutie feud so in spite of inflicting random opera upon

others this is a betrayal in the shadow of my dad to dominate

living room on a Sunday yelling at imaginary situations on the

tube             mysteriously enraged over Goltz's tie-adjusting TD

routine and Premier Wall's hilariously ill-advised Deliverance

banjo because I don’t know how that sheer green got in my

blood and I still don’t understand those technicalities in the

rule book where worries about an illegal substance mostly

involve adhesive stuffs, rosin bags, tacky cloth, anything

greasy but I need to know what every Rider thinks about

what’s happened today and it was inspirational for Geroy

to quit BC with the sheer will to win the Cup over here and

it must be brutal to fall a hair short of the NFL height reqs

in a scout’s eye and then take the heat for years leading up

to sheer victory but hustling the Arts scene you do spot them

who support you and also them who know what they can do

Robert Grenier’s Sentences (1978, complete text) from Whale Cloth Press. In 2003, twenty-five years after its publication of the original edition of 500 boxed 5" x 8" index cards, Whale Cloth Press made available a web-based version of this crucial work. Before viewing the web version, please read the note on the web version of this poem. Also see images of the original box.

Grenier is a contemporary American poet generally associated with the Language School. He was founding co-editor (with Barrett Watten) of the influential magazine This (1971–1974). Many contend that this was a watershed moment in the history of recent American poetry, providing one of the first gatherings in print of various writers, artists, and poets now identified (or loosely referred to) as the Language poets.  Grenier is the co-editor of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, Volumes 1-4 published by Stanford University Press in 2010, and was the editor of Robert Creeley’s Selected Poems, published in 1976. Grenier’s early work, influenced by Creeley, is noted for its minimalism. Grenier’s recent work, however, is as much visual as verbal, involving multicolor “drawn” poems in special (and not always reproducible) formats.

Joanna Lilley has lived north of the 60th parallel in Whitehorse, Yukon, since she emigrated from the UK in 2006. Her poems and stories have been published in numerous journals and anthologies and she is recipient of various prizes for her poems. Lilley helps coordinate the Whitehorse Poetry Festival and is on the advisory board of the Cascadia Poetry Festival. In addition to her playfully wry poetry collection The Fleece Era, she has a collection of short fiction forthcoming in 2015.

In a review for Quill & Quire, this is some of what Adebe D.A. had to say about The Fleece Era:

Winter weaves itself into the form and content of several poems in phrases that land on the reader’s consciousness like snow: lightly at first, then heavily in their accumulation. Several poems situation the reader in the midst of the protagonist’s own personal winter, a counterpoint to the book’s sketches of life in the Great White North.

In her poem “Neo-Colonialist”, Joanna Lilley brushes aside her sensitivities and concerns and adopts a comical tone that is (self-)critical of tropes associated with historical and economical privilege, bringing about a marvelous effect, and this crafty poetic approach amid our obsession with everything North is to be found throughout her collection.


The Fleece Era by Joanna Lilley (Brick Books, 2014, Page 97)


We’d never experienced grocery store

trauma before. We had to shop at Walmart

and save Canadian Tire money.


At last we listened to the rumour of the north.

Now, our government jobs keep Canis lupus

from the door and our coats lined,

the Subaru fuelled and the skis waxed.

We love the smell of spruce sap

in the morning.


Canada is the perfect place to come to

now that England is full up.

The towns are ugly, but

there’s space for everyone

in this megaland. We might go

country residential next year.

Clear some trees so we can see

the mountains but not the neighbours.


Geomantic Riposte:  Hankies


Bloody well get on with it so I can see the Sunday Corrie recap

speaking as the only Bakwas in the room you end up listening

to loads of acknowledgements and hand-wringing when you’d

really like to hear more about Haydn’s piano sonatas     Rot on

dangling shingles suspended over fetid sloughs in Faulknerian

glimpses of farming life with the First Nations used as imagistic

hankies for dabbing one tear as if echoing old Cree petroglyph   

so let me first thank this government for keeping me in ethno-

graphers and the mewling babes of British Lords my ancestral

diet demands because in those days we were all a bit Ugolino

chowing down on cute kids and replacing their memory with

fresh brood        as for the marginalized       Swounds show me

what thou’lt do  Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t

tear thyself? Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?  I will out-

nightmare your Colonial nightmares with piping hot horrors

table talk that nearly upset the RCMP dinner talk of Mountie

Barbie   WOOT!  there’s a handbook for writing pre-Colonial

elegies for grant judge and prize jury      it’s next to systemic