Commentaries - July 2014

87 Words for John Ashbery at 87



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Robert Creeley in conversation with his mother, 1970 (MP3 oral history)

photos by Jan Erik Vold, Bolinas, Spring 1972

Creeley in conversation with his mother on her first visit to Gloucester, probably summer 1970: 
audio file courtesy PennSound: (32:32):  MP3
(Sidney Goldfarb comes into the conversation at the end.)

For My Mother: Genevieve Jules Creeley 
April 8, 1887 - October 7, 1972

Tender, semi-
articulate flickers
of your

presence, all 
those years

now, eighty-
five, impossible to
count them

one by one, like
addition, sub-
traction, missing

not one. The last
curled up, in
on yourself,

position you take
in the bed, hair
wisped up

on your head, a
top knot, body
skeletal, eyes

closed against,
it must be,
further disturbance––

breathing a skim
of time, lightly
kicks the intervals––

days, days and 
years of it,
work, changes,

sweet flesh caught
at the edges,
dignity's faded

dilemma. It
is your life, oh
no one's

forgotten anything
ever. They want
to make you

happy when 
they remember. Walk
a little, get

up, now, die
easily, into

singleness, too
tired with it
to keep

on and on.
Waves break at
the darkness

under the road, sounds
in the faint
night's softness. Look

at them, catching
the light, white
edge as they turn––

always again
and again. Dead
one, two,

three hours––
all these minutes
pass. Is it,

was it, ever    
you alone
again, how

long you kept
at it, your 
pride, your

lovely, confusing
discretion. Mother, I
love youfor

whatever that

than I know, body
gave me my
own, generous,

inexorable place
of you. I feel
the mouth's sluggish-

ness, slips on
turns of things
said, to you,

too soon, too late,
wants to 
go back to beginning,

smells of the hospital
room, the doctor
she responds

to now, the
order––get me 
there. "Death's 
let you out––"

comes true,
this, that,

endlessly circular
life, and we
came back

to see you one
time, this

time? Your head
it seemed, your

eyes wanted,
I thought,
to see

who it was.
I am here,
and will follow.


This poem originally appear in Away and was collected in the first volume of the University of California Press collected poems. 
© Estate of Robert Creeley. Used with permission. 

Hannah Weiner, Joseph Ceravolo, and Bernadette Mayer from Tape Poems, ed. Eduardo Costa and John Perreault (1969)

One of the many treasures at UbuWeb is an MP3 of this pioneering 4-track audio magazine. I've pulled singles of three of the contributions:

Hannah Weinier: 3 Poems: (5:43): MP3

Bernadette Mayer: Complete Films of Webern, A Movie (4:56): MP3

Joseph Ceravolo: Poems and Background (2:46): MP3

Thanks to Patrick Durgin, whose research on Hannah Weiner led me to this recording. 

Ubu gives the presecient liner notes:


 This is the first collection and the first "publication" of works created specifically for stereophonic tape. The works exist completely in terms of aural phenomenon, rather than in terms of visual systems of signs, thus beginning a new art of the tape recorder that has in common with written literature the fact that it refers to real language.

Some poets have already issued phonograph recordings of readings from their written works. TAPE POEMS, however, do not exist as printed works, Also there are many differences between phonograph recordings and tape recordings. Among other things, a tape recording can be easily erased, edited and re-recorded.

We see TAPE POEMS as the initial exploration of a new medium for the artistic use of language that will co-exist with written literature.

The use of this new medium will call attention to ordinary speech as one of the most important ways of producing aesthetic emotion through language. It will regain for "literature" tones of voice, pitch, and the other characteristics of spoken language that are lost when it is translated into the printed word. These nuances are linguistically relevant, since they can indicate age, sex, class, geographical origin and emotional state of the speaker.

Written literature can be thought of as consisting of some of the possible combinations of the letters of the alphabet arranged on a plane; but aural literature, such as Tape Poems, consists of sounds arranged in space.

 Another difference between aural literature and written literature is that in written literature the author has little control over the speed at which his language is perceived, whereas in aural literature – as in the cinema- the author does have control.

 In the past, documentation was restricted to writing. Now as well as writing we use photography and tape recording to document and to remember. Tape recordings become sound snapshots.

But there is a difference between photo documentation and sound documentation. In a photograph the materiality is not the same as the materiality of the object represented. For instance, a photo of a person is not flesh, but paper. But when we play a tape we have sound as in the original phonic language.

Of course, the fact that the materiality is the same does not mean that when we listen to a tape-recording of language we are listening to the real language. We are only in front of language mediated through a different system of restriction, through another code than that of written language.

The tape recorder is already as necessary as the typewriter. It may soon replace it. In the future it may not be necessary to learn to read and write. Perhaps all we will need to know is how to hold a microphone and push a few buttons.

Homero Aridjis: On Riding the Beast

The search for asylum winds through Mexico
The search for asylum winds through Mexico

[NOTE. Aridjis of course is a major Mexican poet & environmental activist, & his close account of the current border refugee crisis calls further attention to the longer & more difficult part of the journey that the refugees have undertaken.   It seems to me important to see what has been happening in a context other than its relation to domestic United States politics or its coverage by the entertainment news media that so much dominates our political & social thinking & reporting.  Homero’s account appeared first in The Huffington Post (07/08/2014), from which it is respectfully borrowed.  I see it here also as a part of his & our total poetics: a continuation of the work of poetry by other means. (J.R.)] 

The evening news in Mexico regularly features footage of a ramshackle freight train known as La Bestia (The Beast) making its way across the country bearing a cargo of illegal immigrants trying to reach the United States's southern border. One can see hundreds of men, women and children perched on the roof, crammed between the boxcars, clinging to the sides. The trains are loaded with cement, iron, quartz, wheat, corn, diesel, vegetable oil, fertilizer, or wood, but the human cattle along for the ride have no food, drink or guarantee of safety.

To reach the depot at Arriaga, in the state of Chiapas, across the border from Guatemala, from which La Bestia departs every two or three days, migrants walk for days, even skirting mountains to avoid immigration checkpoints and roadblocks. The U.S. border is two weeks from here on the back of the Beast. Along the way pregnant women, mothers with infants, teenagers and adults will sleep on the streets or, if lucky, in makeshift or more permanent church-run shelters. During the long journey, accidents often happen, and passengers tumbling off the roof have their limbs severed. An aid group in Honduras has counted more than 450 migrants who have returned mutilated. Derailments are common, with cars flying off the tracks, leading to injuries and death.

Murders, muggings, extortions, gang rapes of women and kidnappings (some 20,000 a year) are committed by the rapidly expanding Central American Mara Salvatrucha gangs or by Mexican drug traffickers such as the bloodthirsty Zetas. They often infiltrate the groups of travelling migrants on the trains or in shelters, selling them drugs, tricking girls into prostitution, luring boys into gangs or murdering perceived informers. And at each stop, the migrants are prey to local police, who demand bribes up to several hundred dollars a head in exchange for allowing them to continue on their way.

At crowded safe houses along the Beast's route, the migrants' smugglers may coach their charges in how to reply to questioning or fake a Mexican accent. Forged birth certificates and other documents are available at a price, either to migrants or to their traffickers. Everyone knows the road to the American dream runs through the Mexican nightmare and that many passengers on "the train of death" will either perish during the journey, disappear by the wayside or be wounded, robbed or mutilated.

Who reaps the profits from La Bestia? Why do officials turn a blind eye while thousands of women are trafficked inside Mexico or abroad? What laws are broken to allow the transport of undocumented aliens across the country by tri-national smugglers acting as travel agents, risking lives and creating a humanitarian crisis? How much do the railroad engineers charge? Human despair has been turned into a commodity, a flourishing business for illicit enrichment.

The Bestia line once belonged to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which bought the 1,119-mile Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab freight concession in 1999 during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, when the government-owned Ferrocarriles Nacionales was privatized. After the havoc wrought on the track by Hurricane Stan in 2005, GWI sought to end its 30-year concession and suspend freight service. The government threatened sanctions and transferred service to the semi-public Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, and after years of legal wrangling, extended the latter's concession to fifty years. The concession clearly states that it is for carrying freight, not passengers, so the company is in constant violation of the law.

These days many migrants prefer to take a bus and risk detection at a checkpoint, where a payoff may allow them to continue. Others are crammed into airless trucks for the trip north. A former National Migration Institute agent reported that the going fee at each checkpoint for a truckload of migrants is around $20,000 dollars, divvied up "fairly" among the employees. Coyotes and polleros (literally "chicken herders") charge upwards of $5,000 dollars per migrant to shepherd him or her across the U.S. border.

For years refugees have started their journey north by crossing the Suchiate River, the border between Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, in Chiapas. Lately the number of unaccompanied children who pay $1.50 to cross on an inner-tube raft has grown, as has the business that services them. Three ad hoc unions control the crossing, and the rafters, who are also money changers, are on call 7/24 for U.S.-bound migrants or mere shoppers, as well as for running drugs, guns and cash. A Catholic priest working with migrants estimates that 60 percent of the underage children come from Honduras, mostly driven out by extortion or running from gang recruitment. These thousands of migrant children, some barely able to understand Spanish due to their Indian heritage, have been an easy prey.

In Tapachula, half an hour's drive from the border, up to 1000 migrants are held at a time (or "lodged," in official parlance) at the Siglo XXI Migratory Station prior to being repatriated (read: "deported"). Mexico deports 250,000 foreigners a year to Central America. Meanwhile countless girls, young women and boys who have been sold into prostitution are working in Tapachula, which the founder of the Center for Investigation and National Security has compared to Sodom and Gomorrha. Elsewhere in Mexico, corpses of migrants have been found with their organs harvested.

Smugglers have been spreading false rumors about lenient U.S. policies
to drum up business for themselves, convincing parents that after their children turn themselves into the Border Patrol, they will be allowed to remain in the country if they can furnish the name of a relative already in the U.S. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border since the start of the year, more than twice last year's total of 24,000.

Chronic illegal migration and trafficking of persons can only be tackled if the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala work together on combatting the underlying causes: a reign of terror and violence imposed by organized crime, relentless poverty in the migrants' home countries, lack of opportunities and employment, and weak law enforcement and corruption at the official level. Family businesses close as owners can no longer pay off the criminals who threaten them, and even street vendors have to hand over some of their earnings. Teenagers face a future of gangs, prostitution, and drugs. Perhaps the time has come for a Central American Marshall Plan. And what about UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Program?

The situation is very complex. What are the options? Deporting 52,000 children, at least two thirds from Central American countries embroiled in violence tantamount to civil war, to become victims of gangs or sex slaves, with slim chances of survival? They are war refugees and deserve treatment guaranteed by international agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory. Or allowing them to join family members already in the United States, legally or not, sending a message that this is the way to go? And turn the U.S. border into Lampedusa?

The Obama administration has not looked south of the border at failing states.
Human rights experts estimate that 10,000 undocumented immigrants are kidnapped every year during their passage through Mexico. Mexico is legally obliged to guarantee the safety of these migrants. Should Mexico close down the border crossing at the Suchiate River?

Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans escape from hell, journeying through the limbo of Mexico to be held in the purgatory of shelters at the U.S. border, always striving towards the paradise of rejoining family members in the promised land.

Is it morally acceptable -- or even legal -- to send thousands of children back to hell?

Mr. Obama, while you ride in the comfort and safety of The Beast (as the Secret Service calls the armored presidential limousine), give some thought to the hopeful passengers on the Bestia.

After before...

Joel Felix on possibility, poetry and hope....

Joel Felix, Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die (Verge Books, 2013), 90 pp. $15.00—Imagine that Russell Atkins had a child with Charles Olson, midwifed by Laura Riding. That might be Joel Felix.  His first book is a moving meditation on the impossibility and necessity of poetry, on history as “enslavement without end,” and the possibility, however unlikely, that there remains, its brutalities notwithstanding, a truth-telling residue in language. The occasions for Felix’s thoughts are the civil wars that engulfed late classical Rome and the “late” Civil Rights Movement (1950s-1960s) that almost tore apart the United States. The allegorical link between these struggles over the civic, itself an epiphenomenon of the social, economic and political spheres, is the peculiar, if not altogether unique, history and properties of the apple. Just as the Romans grafted “choice fruit” to “unproductive trees,” Felix, working with an Olson-Atkins concept of field poetics, grafts “fleeting fantasies of liberty” and “constituencies of democratic violences” to “the languages of everyday performances, uncontained but conditioned by geography.” However, just as each generation of apples “forgets its former juices,” confounding horticulture, so too history is, here, a kind of inevitable, albeit necessary, “forgetting.” The bulk of the above is gleaned and lifted from the “Afterword,” but the contexts it provides are hardly necessary to grasp and appreciate the crippled lyricism, the damaged insights of these poems, prose narratives and what Felix calls “field notes.” The latter marks his travels from Chicago to the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery by way of Cairo, Illinois; the intrinsic fantasy of Huckleberry Finn’s and Jim's escapades pn the Mississippi serve as prelude to, and matrix for, Bull Connor and the deaths of four black girls in a church basement.  That is, literature does not get a "pass' in terms of how it serves larger cultural, political and social forms of control and management. Thus, glossing Blanchot and Agamben (though neither appears as such in the book), Felix recovers history as “horror,” foundation and first step for a kind of moral and aesthetic courage to face ideology per se. The actual poems included here will remind readers of both Emily Dickinson (“if I fear,/the fear in my open mouth,/vomits Him.”) and Ronald Johnson (“’Holly’/’Holly’/behind you// I chew my/dew claw”), but the recent musings of Rob Halpern are not far from poems like “Matthew Brady Poses The Dead” and “Seps Carnivale”: “now up to the knees in/our ordinary occupations of the soldier/on Aff-/ric march.” The apple poems—Spitzenburg, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, etc.—are interspersed among more explicitly “political” poems—like those listed above—but, truth to tell, all the poems resonate with social commentary, emphasizing that the migration of the apple across continents and though world history traces the march of war and violence and the possibility, however fleeting, that what is torn asunder may be reconciled. Thus “Spitzenburg (Apple)”: “The soil thumps like a belly/up the Hudson.// Follow the sound Sojourner;/ avoid fracturing/fugitive joy—…“ But the cost of reconciliation cannot be overestimated. As Felix becomes increasingly self-conscious of his white skin the closer he gets to the Civil War Museum, he reminds himself that becoming “less white” is often less a matter of ethical choices (and thus a kind if privilege) than panicky reactions to collapsing safety nets. Thus Felix appropriates a chat from the Stormfront website; the writer is a soon-to-be-single white woman with two children under the age of two, struggling to pay her bills: “I’m afraid that tomorrow that I’m going to the local welfare office to apply for food stamps and maybe a check to tide us over until I find a job. Does this make less [sic] a WN if I get food stamps or a check? I just feel less white just thinking about it.” For Felix, the distance between his “whiteness” and that of this anonymous writer is a matter of degrees, not kind. However, one may interpret this “fall” otherwise, as Felix does: less a plunge into shame than an abdication of unearned privilege, a stepping down, however enforced, from the throne. In doing so, one enters the unexplored terrain of the actual. As British novelist Julian Barnes puts it, one abandons the consolations of myth for the uncertainties of reality. In Felix's terms, one moves from “Less White” to “Least Wind” where “era is ova,” the very image of the projective (e.g.,  the Riemann sphere that has served as the "trademark" of this column all summer) and possiblity,  however chained to the past and present.