Commentaries - June 2014

Mel Nichols, Bicycle Days (Slack Buddha, 2008), 32 pp. $6.00—I meant to write about this modest but compelling chapbook when I was reading through Hank Lazer’s 2002 Lavender Press book, Days. Lazer’s book is a different kind of travelogue/journal, and so the differences between his and Nichols’ work were interesting. Bicycle Days is less “ironic” than some of Nichols’ more recent, dare I say “flarfy,” performances, but as the term “modest” hints at, her more recent work has a confidence and force that is largely absent from this chapbook. That’s not a criticism. It’s precisely the measured uncertainty, the in and out, all about affect of painterly observation that sustains the movement from poem to poem. Nichols is as brutal as Dickinson is (“as the light came in between/the trees at dusk// Sky//I hate you”) and she knows how to use enjambment to mirror the travelogue effect of these poems, stanzas and lines: ”for your legs are tornadoes/ and the backyard becomes a forest in sheets/of blue archers shooting into the dark guild/ pink eastern edges taped to the entrance.” In order to break “the habits of the mind,” Nichols remains vigilant, on the lookout for the moment when “a man trips and/doesn’t fall,” for those moments when the everyday seems suspended in some elsewhere: “what time could it possibly be without money.” Of course, the aesthetic itself can force us to look afresh at what we too often miss in our cars or, the equivalent, staring down at our IPhones, skimming newspapers, skimming books like newspapers: “squander weedy this fluke or         gobbledygook or/ bibliophile or   brain or   wheat-colored/ indeed    ecstatic buckets of daytime/in the ellipsoidal notorious some.” Yes, alliteration and assonance, those old warhorses, can still serve lyric bursts of language. Bicycle Days is a lovely example of what is still possible within those old warhorses.

Emily Abendroth, NOTWITHSTANDING shoring, FLUMMOX (Little Red Leaves Textile Editions, 2012), 26 pp.—Tempted as I might be to read this as a screed, I want to emphasize, at least at first, its formal qualities. Specifically, Abendroth deploys a kind of send-up of the Socratic Method, statements and responses (vertically opposed on the same pages in the first part and horizontally opposed across the recto and verso pages in the second part). But this description belies the shifting rhetorical and syntactical registers on the same page, in the same stanzas, and often enough, within the same sentences. The thrust of the book is broadly ecological, both animal and human, marine and land. At the same time it is also a critique of science, of culture, of, that is, ideology: “The specimen thought, this is how important it can be to posterity/ to make an anomaly conform.” (9) Although she starts with the abuse and destruction of marine and animal life, Abendroth, in the second half of the book,  yokes together experimental formalism and social conformity (“This was the trickery of parataxis, the charade of proximity as pure equivalency”), economic crises and the “health” of racial stereotyping (“Although the stocks collapsed, Tynisha remained inflated. Elated even.”), so that the sentence serves as a microcosm of the formal strategies that organize the book as a whole. NOTWITHSTANDING shoring, FLUMMOX takes no prisoners, takes risks (social critique aside, the penultimate page nestles too close, perhaps, to Wordswortthian romanticism), and takes us all to task. 

[at Segue:]

1) May 13, 1984: James Sherry's Loft, Hosted by Charles Bernstein for International Committee for Poetry (1:27): MP3

[at SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program:]

2) October 8, 1992: Lecture on Hugh Macdiarmid in Charles Bernstein's seminar (second of three lectures; others on Bunting and Jones) (01:34:58): MP3

3) November 2, 1992: Conversation with Robert Creeley (tape begins after start) (1:31): MP3

4) September  23, 1992: Poetry reading, introduction by Robert Creeley, hosted by Charles Bernstein (1:03:55): MP3

Mottram at PennSound
Buffalo Poetics Program Readings at PennSound

Joanna Southcott: “A box of common wood” which holds “the ark of the new covenan
Joanna Southcott: “A box of common wood” which holds “the ark of the new covenant”

June 13th, 1804.                             


AT the time the horror of the devil was upon me, I felt I could not bear my existence: therefore I desired Mrs. Underwood to take away every knife out of the room; that, in my despairing moments, I might not lay violent hands on myself. As soon as she was gone, I fell on my knees in prayer, and could not avoid crying aloud; but could not express all with my tongue, what I felt in my heart: but, finding I had no answer to my prayers, I arose, and was silent for some minutes, listening if I could hear “the small still VOICE OF THE LORD.” But, feeling no comfort, and hearing no answer, I opened the door, and desired Mrs. Underwood to send the letters by their own directions, as none were given to me. Mrs. Underwood, in floods of tears, said, we cannot direct ourselves; and no more letters shall go out of the house, unless the Lord, in His unbounded Love, Mercy, and Goodness, will direct us through thee. She then went and told Miss Townley, no answer was given, no more directions from the Lord. The Lord had hid his face from us, and no more letters shall go out of this house: for she felt in her heart, if the Lord would not be pleased to direct us, we would not direct ourselves.  She then came back to me, and told me, that Miss Townley was upon her knees in prayer and tears, when Mrs. Underwood came back with this word. Here all were alarmed; and they would do nothing of themselves, without the directions of the Lord.  Then the Light of the Lord broke in upon me; and I walked the room in tears, speaking these words :

“I feel my JESUS is not gone;

I feel my SAVIOUR will return;

He’th hid his face, but now he's come; —

A tedious night shall a bright morning have:

Then my soul shall take its old abode,

And, cloth’d in flesh, I shall behold my God.”


My repeating these words, Underwood fell down upon her knees, to return thanks to the Lord: and, in an instant, a Spirit entered me, that took my senses; and I felt strength enough in me, as though I could crush the world to atoms. The

Spirit spoke with power and fury, “I’ll chain the rebel to his den.” I walked up and down the room, and shook the whole house; for I was not myself.  I could not stop my fury; words flew too fast to utter against the power of darkness: and I felt in myself power, that I thought, if he was present, that I could tear him to pieces; and should not have feared, had there been ten thousand men and devils before me. After this power ceased, I laid myself upon the bed, to compose myself for a little while. I soon was ordered to rise and write. The first words I penned, were, “Dear Lord! what Spirit hath been so powerful in me, this day.” I was answered,  “The shadow of the substance to come in all. The horror of hell that thou hast felt this day, some will come against thee in, by temptations — then as a God I shall appear in thee, and cast the devils out of men by my power, as I broke in thee: but as I knew these things were too high for thee, without a veil between, I caused Foley's illness, for thou to judge it a pleasing dream. Now I must explain that, before I go any further, Mr. Foley's illness, with the other confusions, gave Satan the advantage over me: and, as I had written the day before that the Lord had ordained the thing concerning the book, and then to feel that horror and misery after, threw me into a dreadful state of despair.  And now I shall go on, as it is spoke in verse.


“And now I tell thee how I shall appear

In much more power then they all shall see:

Than now, this day I entered into thee.

Because, in power, I did now appear,

And now’s the time I’ll shake the earth once more.

And they shall find ME in the woman’s form;

For hell shall tremble now it shall be known.

For now, I say, I'll chain the rebel down,

And men shall tremble at my every sound;

For every heart I shall much stronger shake,

Than ere thy walking in this room did make:

And much more fury every foe will see,

Than ere this day did now appear in thee. …



SOURCE: Letters, and Communications of Joanna Southcott, the Prophetess of Exeter, printed by J. Heming, Stourbridge, 1804.

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered..... And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. (Rev 12:1,2,5)


A self-named prophetess & a prolific writer, she came late in life to an understanding of herself as the “woman clothed with the sun” in the Book of Revelation & of her child-to-be as the newly returning messiah (thereafter named Shiloh).  From a family of poor farmers, with little education & with much of her life spent in domestic service, she came to her visions at the age of forty-two, along with a drive to set them down in words, which she did in an extensive series of books, principal among them the eight she called The Strange Effects of Faith.  The writing there (and elsewhere, as is made apparent by the above) is a striking mix of prose & verse – a kind of visionary combination not uncommon in the writing of outsider or vernacular mystics. Her greatest work, however, now effectively lost or hidden by later generations of Southcottian followers, was the “ark of the new covenant” (so-called), “a box of common wood” in which many of her writings & other objects of power & prophecy were selectively placed & sealed away. It is, if we choose to see it as such, reminiscent of the paleolithic cave (Trois Frères) in which the image that opens this anthology is found, or, at a still greater stretch, Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box or his Boîte-en-valise, as yet another artifact on the border between art & life.

Allen Ginsberg, accompanying himself on the harmonium, chants his “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag”: MP3.