As a child attending a Catholic primary school in the western suburbs of Sydney my only exposure to poetry arrived via pop music and fiction. I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as poetry but the words to California Girls and WonkaVite were never far from my lips. In fact, the six lines that begin ‘Those rolls of fat around your hips’ remain the only bits of verse I have ever committed to memory. This commitment to never straying far from the grid remained throughout my twenties where, as an undergraduate, the only poems I allowed myself to read came from The Norton Anthology. Again, song lyrics took up the slack. It wasn’t so much the anxiety of influence that kept me focused, I think, but a kind of nervousness about losing track of the few poems that I felt pinned me in place somehow.
Many of the works in The Best Australian Poems 2013 deal with this anxiety of influence – you could say it comes with the ‘Best of’ territory. In organizing the poems alphabetically rather than randomly or in order of a poet’s surname, the editor, poet Lisa Gorton, has expertly managed the potential for anxiety and dissolution by implementing what I think of as a metaleptic structuring device.
Metalepsis is a notoriously difficult trope to define. Harold Bloom has called it ‘a metonymy of a metonymy.’ An early definition comes from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian who dismissed it as ‘by no means to be commended’ and mostly of use in comedy. ‘It is the nature of metalepsis,’ he writes, ‘to form a kind of intermediate step between the term transferred, having no meaning in itself, but merely providing a transition.’ As Fischlin recounts, Quintilian’s contempt for the Grecian trope was ideologically motivated and formulated as part of an ongoing project to maintain the ideal of a “perfect orator” in order to sustain the Institutio oratoria that itself worked to maintain Roman nationalism. ‘We need not waste any time over it,’ he writes.
In The Arte of English Poesie, the sixteenth century rhetorician and notorious lady-hater George Puttenham endeavoured to keep the tradition alive: ‘the sence is much altered and the hearers conceit strangly entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to vse one nerer hand to expresse the matter aswel & plainer.’ For Puttenham, the user of this figure has ‘a desire to please women rather then men: for we vse to say by manner of Prouerbe: things farrefet and deare bought are good for Ladies’. Despite Puttenham’s dodgy feminist credentials, it’s hard not to love the example he provides from Medea:
Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare
Which was the first causer of all my care.
Puttenham critiques what he perceives to be the kind of excessive feminine strategy that eschews straight talking – ‘she might aswell haue said, woe worth our first meeting … and not so farre off as to curse the mountaine that bare the pinetree, that made the mast that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which carried her away.’ As Fischlin points out, Puttenham conveniently sidesteps the Renaissance connotation of “farfet” as meaning ‘rich in deep strategems’.
More recently, the quest for a manageable definition of the metaleptic trope has proven similarly and understandably circuitous. Literary theorists such as Gerard Genette have trade-routed intricate systems between the ports of its many worlds. Metalepsis, in short, has been characterised as ‘the paradoxical transgression of boundaries’ and, more optimistically, productive of a “heterarchy”, a structure distinct from hierarchy in that it possesses no single “highest level”.’
So, when Gorton writes of the anthology as offering ‘an experience of time that is now, and now, and now – instants that replace each other’ we can hear the metaleptic at work, and find as we attempt to navigate the anthology examples of a poetics of belatedness. Jennifer Maiden’s majestic “Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara” provides a model of what is at stake – ‘I would like to read you, but / of course now there is my current worry / that influence might be retrospective’. If you enjoy reading poems more than once but are against dog-earing anthology pages you’re going to have to change your ways. Or do what I did and discover a canny method for routing out a poem’s whereabouts. Anti-spoiler alert: I won’t reveal my strategy.
Part of the fun of this anthology lies in the ways it seduces you into thinking differently about how you’ll read poetry. If you’re after something in particular it challenges you to be inventive about how you’ll go about getting it. If you don’t know what you’re looking for it will unobtrusively lead you away from the language grid and put you in clear sight of the sails of the farrefet. Andy Jackson’s “Edith”, ‘immured in a contraption of steel’ finds that one way to break free is to ‘speak / loudly about poets and composers, as if / your heart was not left there beside that road’. For a poem such as Peter Minter’s “The Roadside Bramble” you need to negotiate the labyrinth in order to become envisioned by what you’ve left behind, ‘A mercury pool shimmering in the wind / The whole reflected world shuddering.’
Jessica L. Wilkinson’s excitable “Jivin’ With Bonny Cassidy etc.” supposes that a cut dress might make for a quick getaway – ‘i cut it off / i los t control—’ while Melinda Bufton’s “Did you mean iteration” suggests it might be more pleasurable to give in to the trance algorithm and allow the mind to take off ‘in some various syntheses’. Certain poems seem to have influenced each other, effecting the transgression of boundaries that is the calling card of latter-day metalepsis. The ‘Napoleonic washbowl’ of Nguyen Tien Hoang’s “Summer” seems to arrive at once before and after Jaya Savige’s ‘Duchamp’ (“On Not Getting my Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash”) and the ‘pre-revolutionary glass’ of Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Last Goodbyes in Havana”. “Women in Classical Chinese Love Poems” by Debbie Lim binds themes of imprisonment, art and death in the figures of waiting women, ‘Sitting, standing, reclining … From girlhood they have known /grief must be sung, all hope / arrives on a west wind.’
The figure of metalepsis is one that is apt to drift. I frequently forget its name and have to think for a long time to recover it. When I’m working to reclaim it I’m drawn to Anne Carson’s translation of Celan’s Matiere de Bretagne
inside it is evening, the nothing
rolls its seas toward devotion,
the bloodsail is heading for you
Admirers of Lisa Gorton’s own intricately wreathed poems will be pleased to discover that this anthology has been formed, in part, ‘with the exactness peculiar to foreboding’ (“The Storm Glass”) that was a feature of her recent Hotel Hyperion.
Outside & Subterranean Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (59): Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Two Dialect Poems, with a note on Sor Juana & the Pitfalls of Translation
Translation from Spanish & related dialects or faux-dialects by Jerome Rothenberg & Cecilia Vicuña. Originally published in the blogger version of Poems and Poetics & later in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman, reprinted here for Jacket2. Final publication of the anthology of outside & subterranean poetry is scheduled for 2014 from Black Widow Press.
from VILLANCICO VII – ENSALADILLA
At the high & holy feast
for their patron saint Nolasco
where the flock of the redeemer
offers high & holy praises,
a black man in the cathedral,
whose demeanor all admired,
shook his calabash & chanted
in the joy of the fiesta:
PUERTO RICO – THE REFRAIN
tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley
where ah’s boricua no more’s ah the slave way
tumba la-léy-ley tumba la-lá-la
where ah’s boricua no more is a slave ah!
Sez today that in Melcedes
all them mercenary fadders
makes fiesta for they padre
face they’s got like a fiesta.
Do she say that she redeem me
such a thing be wonder to me
so ah’s working in dat work house
& them Padre doesn’t free me.
Other night ah play me conga
with no sleeping only thinking
how they don’t want no black people
only them like her be white folk.
Once ah takes off this bandana
den God sees how them be stupid
though we’s black folk we is human
though they say we be like hosses.
What’s me saying, lawdy lawdy,
them old devil wants to fool me
why’s ah whispering so softly
to that sweet redeemer lady.
Let this saint come and forgive me
when mah mouth be talking badly
if ah suffers in this body
then mah soul does rise up freely.
THE INTRODUCTION CONTINUES
Now an Indian assuaged them,
falling down and springing up,
bobbed his head in time and nodded
to the rhythm of the dance,
beat it out on a guitarra,
echos madly out of tune,
tocotín of a mestizo,
Mexican and Spanish mixed.
The Benedictan Padres
has Redeemer sure:
amo nic neltoca
quimatí no Dios.
Only God Pilzíntli
from up high come down
and our tlat-l-acol
pardoned one and all.
But these Teopíxqui
says in sermon talk
that this Saint Nolasco
mi-echtín hath bought.
I to Saint will offer
much devotion big
and from Sempual xúchil
a xúchil I will give.
Tehuátl be the only
one that says he stay
with them dogs los Moros
impan this holy day.
Mati dios if somewhere
I was to be like you
cen sontle I kill-um
beat-um black and blue
And no one be thinking
I make crazy talk,
ca ni like a baker
got so many thought.
Huel ni machicahuac
I am not talk smart
not teco qui mati
mine am hero heart.
One of my compañeros
he defy you sure
and with one big knockout
make you talk no more.
Also from the Governor
Topil come to ask
caipampa to make me
pay him money tax.
But I go and hit him
with a cuihuat-l
ipam i sonteco
don’t know if I kill.
And I want to buy now
Saint Redeemer pure
yuhqui from the altar
with his blessing sure.
A NOTE ON SOR JUANA & THE PITFALLS OF TRANSLATION
The centrality of Sor Juana to the poetry of the Americas is by now unquestioned, the great summation coming in Octavio Paz’s epical biography: “In her lifetime, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1651-1695] was read and admired not only in Mexico but in Spain and all the countries where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Then for nearly two hundred years her works were forgotten. After  taste changed again and she began to be seen for what she really is: a universal poet. When I started writing, around 1930, her poetry was no longer a mere historical relic but had once again become a ‘living text.’”
In the translation, above, another side of her work emerges – one of less concern to Paz than to the present translators: her experiments with a constructed Afro-Hispanic dialect & with the incorporation of native (Nahuatl) elements into her poetry. Here the translation question comes up as well, not only the issue of political aptness, which may also be raised where the class & status of the poet & her subject are at odds, but something at the heart of the translation process as such. For it is with dialect that translation – always a challenge to poetic composition – becomes or seems to become most elusive. Though many dialects approach the autonomous status of languages, there is always the presence behind them of the official, dominant language, which can make them, in the hands of a poet like Sor Juana (as with a Belli or a Burns in a European context), an instrument for the subversion both of language & of mores. Their particularity is nearly impossible for the translator to emulate, even while bringing up similar particularities in the dialects or faux-dialects into which he translates them.
The wordings in the villanicos (carols) presented here are faux-dialects with a vengeance, while their intention (or hers, to be more precise) seems obviously liberatory in practice. We have chosen therefore to approximate both the measure in which the poems were written & the spirit of invention & play through which the dialects were constructed. For this our principal models for transcription & composition come from nineteenth-century American & African-American dialect poetry & practice, much of it as artifactual & inauthentic as our approximations here. Our view, like that of Sor Juana four centuries before, is from the outside, looking in.
In my last post I discussed Vito Acconci’s concept of the “activist flaneur” and I mentioned how the figure of the flaneur is said to have originated with Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” Poe’s narrator, while engaged in categorizing the faces that pass his cafe window (using a particularly 19th century set of assumptions about character traits), is suddenly taken aback by a face that defies classification. He quickly grabs his coat and spends the night following the man through various crowd scenes, trying to determine what kind of man this could be. I won't give away the answer for those who haven’t read the story, but I’d like to make a connection between that act of following and several others — including Acconci’s 1969 “Following Piece.”
Acconci described the procedure of the work this way: “Once a day wherever I happen to be, I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street. Each day I follow a different person; I keep following until that person disappears into a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can no longer follow…episodes of following ranged from 2 or 3 minutes — when someone got into a car and I couldn’t grab a taxi fast enough… — to 7 or 8 hours — when a person went to a restaurant, a movie…” Acconci enacted this procedure for a month, and he recorded the details of each “episode.”
Ten years later the artist Sophie Calle performed her own extended following piece in Suite Venitienne. At a party in Paris, Calle meets “Henri B.,” who announces that he is leaving for Venice the next day. Calle also goes to Venice and after some detective work, figures out the hotel at which Henri B. is staying. She disguises herself and follows him through the city, photodocumenting along the way. The published account of this particular pursuit is part diary, part photo-novel, part investigative reportage.
In Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, an author named Quinn is mistaken for the detective Paul Auster. On a whim, Quinn takes the case and finds himself following Stillman, tracking his movements with the same details as Acconci. But Stillman’s movements are quite erratic and seem to have no logic to them. Once Quinn tracks the coordinates of Stillman’s walks on a map, he discovers that Stillman is tracing letters with his movements and spelling out a phrase.*
Each of these followings was performed with varying degrees of investment in the person being pursued. For Acconci and Auster, the subject of pursuit is random, and so we learn much more about the pursuer than the pursued in these cases. Auster’s detective, however, senses that a puzzle could be solved if he could understand the motivations of his mark. In this regard, he has more in common with Poe’s 19th century narrator, who eventually discovers that his “man of the crowd” has no existence outside of the crowd; the crowd is lifeblood. Such a plight resonates in the era of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We are all followers now. Which leads me to one last following piece: Geolocation by photographers Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman. The project begins by collecting and tracking digital breadcrumbs. Here’s their description:
“Using publicly available embedded geotag information in Twitter updates, we track the locations of users through their GPS coordinates and make a photograph to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text. We think of these photographs as historical monuments to small lived moments, selecting texts that reveal something about the personal nature of the users’ lives or the national climate of the United States. It also grounds the virtual reality of social networking data streams in their originating locations in the physical world while examining how the nature of one’s physical space may influence online presence.”
I’ve been trying to think of poetic projects that are analogous to this photographic digital following project. Although I’m not sure it’s a perfect match, the works produced by the Troll Thread Collective mine and recontextualize the language evidence of our virtual landscape in a way that allows us to follow (and see ourselves in) the crowd.
* If Quinn had been tailing Stillman today, a GPS tracker or an app like “Map My Run” could have made his transcribing a lot easier.
We are pleased to publish the first of five first readings of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin,” collected in Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011). The text of the poem appears below. It happens that Armantrout’s PennSound page includes a recording of her performing the poem: here is that recording. Jennifer Ashton teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2005) and edited The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945 (Cambridge, 2013). Her most recent article, “Poetry and the Price of Milk,” on the politics of contemporary poetry, can be found on nonsite.org, where she is a founding member of the board. She is currently at work on a new book, “Labor and the Lyric.” — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
First reading of “Spin,” by Jennifer Ashton
First: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which.”
Next (glancing quickly down to the last word of the poem): “That” … “there.”
I think to myself, the two together are like an answer to a question. “Which?” “That there.” The combination of the first word and the last forms a phrase that is strikingly idiomatic.
* * *
The email inviting me to participate in this exercise arrived while my husband and I were having a drink in a restaurant bar before meeting a friend for dinner (as it happens, the poet Roger Reeves).
JA: This should be fun. Look, the poem starts with “that” and ends with “there.” So it’s like the whole poem is a way of saying “That there!”.
WBM: Hugh Kenner used to call that the Jane cord. He said you could learn something about any text by looking at the first and last word.
JA: The Jane chord? Is that a real thing? How’s it spelled?
WBM: J-A-N-E. It was invented by Jane Brakhage — the wife of the Canadian filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
JA: What about “chord”?
JA: Oh, “cord” like a string or a rope —
WBM: Yes, because it stretches from the beginning to end of the poem and it’s like the whole poem hangs on it, like it’s strung along a wire. Wait, what did you think it was?
JA: I was thinking “chord” with an “h.” Like the first and last word are the opening and closing notes from the poem, hit at the same time, as if you were listening to them being played together.
WBM: I never saw it written down, but I’m pretty sure it’s “cord” with no “h.” [Picks up phone, types in “brakhage jane cord.”] Nothing much comes up.
JA: What if you include ”Kenner”? Did you try typing “chord” with an “h”?
WBM: [Types “kenner,” adds an “h” to “cord.”] Here’s something, a letter from Hugh to Bill Buckley. It says “you calculate it by combining the first and last words of ‘any book by any mortal,’ and if it is ‘a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.’”
JA: So it is “C-H-O-R-D.”
WBM [reluctantly]: I guess so — if that’s how Hugh spells it in the letter. I’d sort of like to see the actual letter. I still can’t quite believe it. Ever since Santa Barbara, I’ve had this image of the poem strung along a wire and that was the cord.
JA: But even though “cord” and “chord” with an “h” are totally different, it’s actually not all that different if you’re just thinking about how the two words work for the poem. Oh, there’s Roger [my “first reading” will have to wait].
* * *
I start where I left off: “That,” “which,” “which,” “which” and “That” … “there!” Now I also see that two of the “which”s are paired with “nonetheless.” I also notice another vertical stack of three (“hit”) along the left margin in the section below.
So I glance again at the “which”s in the first section and notice the repetition of “dimension”-based words at the beginning and ending of the section: “That we are composed / of dimensionless points” and “which is a mapping of dimensions.” Taken together with the two intervening segments (“which nonetheless spin” and “which nontheless exist / in space”), it’s as if the first section offers up a framing or sandwiching device of sorts, with “dimension” words supplying roughly symmetrical top and bottom brackets, and the “which nonetheless” segments marking the roughly homogenous space between them.
Now I detect the homophonic pun, “mention,” contained in “dimensionless” and “dimensions.” I immediately think of the title of the poem, “Spin” (also notably repeated as the verb of the clause formed by the first “which”), and notice in the second section the pundit speaking of a candidate’s speeches (“The pundit says / the candiate’s speech / hit / ‘all the right points’”). The idea that the repetition of “dimension” might also be designed to invoke the noun or verb “mention,” with its associations of what is (or isn’t) said, hardly seems a stretch.
Now I realize that the poem’s first line begins with an assertion — “we are composed” — nonetheless “dimensionless,” and that we end the first section with a definition: “which is a mapping / of dimensions,” which in turn is subordinate to a subordinated clause. Heavily subordinated in fact, because it hangs on three earlier subordinate clauses. Moreover, the independent clause that should serve as the grammatical support of all four subordinate ones is nowhere to be found. Unless, that is, we read the poem’s title, “Spin,” as an imperative and treat it as an independent clause with an implied you as its subject and the first subordinate clause as its direct object: “[You] spin that we are composed / of dimensionless points …”
At this point, I still haven’t read the poem through, taking in every line.
Now, in doing so, I first hear its rhythms, multiple instances of the same stress pattern, vaguely anapestic (- / -- /): “that we are composed,” “dimensionless points,” “the candidate’s speech,” “hit / ‘all the right points’”, “’not hearkening back’”. The list even includes the last line of the poem (the stress placement might be ambiguous were it not for the italics of “there”): “and we say, ‘Look there!’” Considering that the second section of the poem contains the clearest reference to what we might call, based on the poem’s title, its subject matter (“spin” as in political campaign discourse), we can see how the poet’s establishment of this stress pattern works, by the end, to spin the reader’s ear into hearing things a certain way.
At the same time that I had been taking in the emerging rhythm of the poem in my first reading, some of my attention was drawn to the slant rhymes that operate in the first line of each section (“-posed,” “says,” “eyes”). At this point I want to go back to the beginning, to look for more aural and visual patterns, certainly, but now also to think about the relationship between the manifest subject matter of the poem in the second section (political “spin”) and its relation to the much more abstract workings of the first section, particularly the movement from “dimensionless points” to “a mapping of dimensions.”
But that would mean rereading.
And that would require further discussion. I find myself thinking about something one of my own graduate teachers, Allen Grossman, often said at the beginning of his seminars: “We are here to engage in a conversation. Poems, after all, are meant to be discussed.”
* * *
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!”