As the Coolidge-Palmer correspondence housed at SUNY-Buffalo indicates, one challenge faced by the young editors of Joglars was coming up with a name for their publication. In the letter to Palmer dated November 26, 1963, Coolidge writes: “NAME for the 'creature' still hangs me -- maybe (a la tzara) open dictionary, aleatory style? I agree tho -- staying away from pop-toon, & intellecto titles.” As Palmer explains in his interview with Peter Gizzi:
I’ve always been drawn to circus performers, but also to that aspect of poetry which has to do with juggling and tumbling. In doing Joglars with Clark, we were proposing that other side. There was the magazine Trobar, which suggests the more auratic sense of the poet, of the troubadour, the fashioning of trobar. The joglar was the clown and camp follower who went along and performed and ripped off other people’s songs; but that’s also a side of the poet. (Exact Change Yearbook #1 , 175)
Perhaps, if Coolidge and Palmer had agreed to avoid “intellecto titles,” they nevertheless took a rather educated route to convey the clowning side of poetry. Then and now, readers of the magazine are often uncertain how to pronounce the title (zho-GLAR).
While the journal's name is obviously an important issue, greater significance lies with aesthetics and politics that younger poet-publishers need to work through in order to define and shape the literary field as they not only see it but emerge into it. We can see Coolidge go through this process at length in a letter to Palmer dated December 28, 1963.
What interests me tho, “now”, that ole saw: “the personal” -- how far you can run with that (like, in most poesy I wanta see signs of the man hisself -- voice, eyes, lips, etc. -- all else seems so much literatour) (forget GROUPS!) & of course -- the MUSIKS (Zukofsky: best field general) or more simply, inclusively, -- sounds -- what kinda sound organization can be got to -- what happens, then, to meanings (Z’s cats?) -- so here’s where the aleatory gang (Cage, Wolff, Feldman --) interests me (Burroughs too?) -- almost despite any natural desire for control...... -- Well -- two points of attack -- contradict each other maybe? maybe, but it keeps me hoppin’.
Beyond the individualist stance (“forget GROUPS!”) and the dismissal of mere “literatour” that echoes, however consciously, the French Symbolist Verlaine (“all the rest is lierature”), Coolidge clearly demonstrates the oppositions he is working through here--between “the personal” and “sounds,” intentionality (authorial control) and non-intentionality (the chance procedural methods of the New York School of composers and William Burroughs), and what might customarily be thought of as form versus content but might in this context be more fruitfully thought in terms of sound versus sense, “what kinda sound organization can be got to” versus “what happens, then, to meanings.”
Notice the implications of Coolidge’s specific phrasing here: different kinds of sound organization are an objective, goal or destination, something that one “gets to,” with the result that something then happens to meanings. To begin with sound and then see what happens to sense as a result is already to place a poetics in an experimental mode that runs counter to many other poetries. As I will show later, Coolidge is here already reiterating a line of thinking that he came upon and described in a notebook over a year and a half prior to this December 1963 letter to Palmer; what he may not have known then is that his life’s work as a poet will be spent working through these very issues.
Scholars frequently cite the importance of the little magazines for literary production but, with some noteworthy exceptions--Steve Evans, Alan Golding, Daniel Kane, Libbie Rifkin, Linda Russo, Susan Vanderborg--rarely spend time much considering them in-depth. The correspondence between Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer, who co-edited Joglars (1964-1966), offers a unique glimpse into the activity of two young poet-publishers sizing up the literary field as they find it. Their letters (housed at the SUNY-Buffalo Poetry Collection) are filled with discussions of whom to solicit work from as well as favorable reactions to the magazine from poets and artists spanning several generations and affiliations. And though it ran for only three issues in two years, Joglars telescopes into that short space a long view of post-New American poetries, occasionally looking back to Modernist precursors of the Allen anthology but most often looking ahead to where the work was going.
When Coolidge met George Palmer (who then went by his first rather than middle name) at the so-called Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, they hit it off immediately. As Palmer recalls in an interview with Peter Gizzi,
we took to each other instantly and started immediately talking about, well, jazz of course, John Cage, and composing aleatory works on the typewriter as people had conversations, and that sort of thing. The musical connection--both jazz and new music--was an immediate opening for both of us because we were both very much involved in that world. (Exact Change Yearbook #1 , 172)
Charles Olson encouraged Coolidge, Palmer and Fred Wah (a poet and editor who had been involved wth the TISH group in Vancouver) to start their own magazine, largely, Coolidge recalls, to publish Olson and his contemporaries. But the physical distance between countries and coasts (Coolidge and Palmer both living in New England at the time), along with other logistical difficulties, quickly proved insurmountable, and Wah had to bow out of the project.
By November 1963, Coolidge writes Palmer with insistent encouragement from another of the elder poets they met in Vancouver: “Already Creeley writes me: ‘I thought you people were going to start something--not to bug you, but do keep moving--otherwise things begin to clog, and one is left stuck etc.’” Here is one of the cardinal tenets of projective verse, “to keep moving,” in a most practical application.
A few weeks later, Coolidge writes Palmer with news of solicitations that begin to give a sense of the editorial sensibilities that will shape Joglars: “Have also letters out to [Ron] Loewinsohn, Phil W[halen], Jonathan [Williams], etc.” One of the more exciting prospects is a submission from the under-acknowleged modernist master Zukofsky: “Louis Z. says all new work is presently committed elsewhere but he wants in, very much.” Four days later, Coolidge elaborates:
Can’t remember if I wrote you of Louis’ reply (?) anyhoo he says: “I’ve no new work that’s not committed, but we’ll talk about it in time. Go on, if you will, with your newsletter for the others, meanwhile, get settled, prosper, etc. . . . . love, etc.” He also says -- come see him when in NYC, talk, etc. Knowing Louis, it sounds promising, sympathetic, etc.
In this same letter Coolidge responds favorably to what is apparently a suggestion from Palmer to solicit another under-acknowledged modernist master: “Lorine Niedecker!!! -- yes! sure, why didn’t I think of her? She’s a friend of Louis’ -- maybe thru him. . . . (or reprint some poems from old ‘New Goose’ (?)),” and then continuing that he is “still awaiting word from Whalen (Allen & McClure), Loewinsohn, Olson, Jonathan. Any other idees?”
At this point we can begin to get a sense of the view that Coolidge and Palmer were taking of the poetic field and the picture of it they were trying to capture and create in their magazine. The names that Coolidge mentions in these letters point to three distinct areas of the New American poetic landscape. First, there is Black Mountain poetics as represented by Olson, Creeley, and Jonathan Williams. Second are poets from the Bay area and with Beat affiliations (even if Donald Allen did not place them all in the Beat section of his anthology), namely Philip Whalen, Ron Loewinsohn, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. Third, and already alluded to earlier, are the modernists Zukofsky and Niedecker, very much fellow travelers in the Objectivist poetics that the former first outlined in the celebrated February 1931 special issue of Poetry magazine that Zukofsky edited. After roughly two decade in which a number of the original Objectivist poets either toiled in almost complete obscurity (Zukofsky and Niedecker) or stopped writing poetry altogether (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi), something of an Objectivist renaissance began in the early 1960s.
As Ron Silliman writes, somewhat hyperbolically, “Objectivism’s third or renaissance period was marked by the resurrection of the works of Zukofsky, Oppen, Basil Bunting, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker to public attention virtually overnight in the early 1960s” (New Sentence 136). In fact, this renaissance might be seen taking place less “virtually overnight in the early 1960s” than over the course of said decade, with Oppen’s winning the 1969 Pulitzer Prize as a culminating achievement. In any case, what should be noted here is that by targeting Zukofsky and Niedecker for submissions to their magazine in late 1963, Coolidge and Palmer are staking out a position in the literary field that attempts to reassert the value of Zukofsky and Niedecker and thus make a decisive contribution to the Objectivist renaissance.
[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!”