"At home" is not a container but a site and an event.
—Sasha Steensen, "I Couldn't Stop Watching"
The family is the history of the species. The family is the history of love & place & force & naming. The family is a history of home— & if home is both "a site and an event," then the family is a history of what happens. In physics, an "event" is a single occurence of a process, a point in spacetime. When & where, & also how the family moves through, how it is moved by history & how it moves history. The family is expansive— if "at home" is not a container, then the family need not (can not) be contained. In the poem "Election Day" in Sasha Steensen's new book House of Deer she writes, "There are children to clothe and dishes to do, and it's just not / the kind of poem where everything belongs." What kind of poem is the kind of poem where everything— including the clothing of children & the doing of dishes— belongs? I think House of Deer is exactly the kind of capacious poem where this everything belongs.
In "Fragments," which immediately follows "Election Day," Steensen writes :
who has my hat
but the little life giggling in the corner
she's so dear to me my daughter tho she fits
barely in the poem
but I force it
so that she might have a small place among you
damn sentimental [...]
The daughter enters the poem with noise. "I force it," Steensen writes, but the daughter (& her sound, her space) is already in the poem— entered the poem totally organically. The speaker questions what belongs, but the daughter "fits" because she is already part of the process. I'm interested in notions of risk in House of Deer. A specific example : In (the brilliant, scorching, tender) "Personal Poem Including Opium's History" she writes (apparently quoting a friend), "Risk sentimentality or who will care about your damn poem?" There is nothing sentimental about or in House of Deer— so I can't stop thinking about these lines. Like the lines in "Election Day" where the daughter laughing in a corner doesn't "fit" even after she is present in the poem, the anxiety of emotion (an unease that emotion is self-indulgent?) when there is no sentimentality in the poems seems to me to be both a part of the poems' process & an anxiety about reception. It is exciting to read the poem & have this sense of Steensen's mind at work— considering the poem, the writing of it, the reading of it, expectations regarding what "fits," etc. It reminded me of Cathy Wagner's great series "Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large," all poems written while someone else was in the room with the poet (she has noted that the person was usually her son). Like Wagner's series, the poems in House of Deer shatter a myth of solitary process (though I imagine lots of poets do write in solitude, I can't remember the last time I did, & I am writing this Commentary in a noisy coffeeshop full of people who appear to be writing too, & I will go home to finish it in the presence of other people).
1978I found them newborn
&whimpering in the tall grass
I had to cleanopen
to the world
The family, familiar, is found, too. In "the ditch daisies & olenaders," "the gnarly nest," "the hole that begins this story." & through long experience, we come to knowledge. The family, though familiar, is still not contained. "It was where they learned to ride a bicycle" ("Family"). "Each time a family member leaves, it takes a body out into the world / and brings back a body to enter the family." The structure of the family is common, shared— but it also bodies forth into the world, taking part of itself & returning, changed, to the familial body. In Lyn Hejinian's My Life she writes, "Every family has its own collection of stories, but not every family has someone to tell them." Steensen writes, "its just oneversion of onefamily / but it's ours" ("On Birth"). The family, here, as history, is not unproblematic, not idealized. The family, here, is also a site & an event— it is also a complex set of narrative fragments, or episodes, & images, & tales— & it is also the telling of those tales, that action, & where & when the telling takes place— the family takes place, & takes to a place— & this is "just oneversion of onefamily," & it reverberates its complexity & uncontainable beauty & force.
I’ve been asked to have a look at Sawako Nakayasu's prose poem "Couch." In a very nice email Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis say they “really hope you will provide your initial approach to the experience of reading and trying to discern or understand or deal with the poem as you encounter it.” Already I feel I’m in trouble. It’s not that I’m afraid to express doubts or show uncertainties or be somehow wrong, but I wonder if there isn’t some lack of clarity in the assignment. They want my “initial approach to the experience of reading,” and I’m not at all sure what that means. Usually, my initial experience is to root around for context — is this what Brian, Craig, and Al want? I’m not sure, because I’m not sure if they’d consider that a part of the experience of reading. I suppose I could ask, but I rather imagine they’d tell me to do what I thought best, so I’m just going to go ahead and read the text without a lot of investigation about the author of “Couch” or even of the collection from which it comes.
So then, “Couch,” by Sawako Nakayasu. Didn’t she have a book out from Burning Deck a few years back? Burning Deck sends me a lot of books, and I read most of them, but I don’t remember reading Nakayasu. My loss: but already I have some context, despite myself. Stay in the poetry game long enough and there’s not much chance of being a tabula rasa. Given what Burning Deck is all about, I’m guessing “Couch” will be odd, interesting, and in some kind of dialogue with European avant-garde traditions.
As I read I feel pretty confirmed in these presuppositions: “Couch” reads like a French or Belgian Surrealist prose poem. Nakayasu’s name would have led me (perhaps wrongly or stupidly) to assume she’s got some connection to Japanese poetry, but I don’t speak Japanese and have read only the classic Japanese poets in translation, so I wouldn’t be able to tell if she’s relating to what the poets are doing in Nagoya or Osaka nowadays. But I do know enough about Francophone Surrealism to see that Nakayasu’s likely to have some kind of contact with that tradition: the narrative is sort of wry, sideways-funny, and feels like an incomplete allegory. “Couch” has a lot of ordinary, bourgeois realism in it: a couple getting divorced and trying to find a civil way to divide their possession, a domestic setting, and realist cues like exact times of arrival and departure. But it also has an understated wackiness (the powers of the ants). It could almost be something the Piqueray twins wrote back in the fifties.
The most interesting thing about “Couch,” to me, is how it seems to pose a little puzzle. We accept, or at least I do, the premise that ants in the world of the poem have some kind of special status: you can send them off into the world, and they can drop by and help you sort out what to do with your worldly goods. We can take all of that as given, without question, the way we take the transformation of a man into a cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But within this context, there is a question, or series of questions: if the ants themselves were a wedding present, and they’ve been divided up already, hasn’t the couple already found a way to divide their possessions? Aren’t the ants, who are called in to find a solution to the problem of who owns what, already representatives of some kind of solution? So if the couple has divided their ants on some principle, don’t they already have a principle for dividing the property? And if so, why would the need the ants to come and help?
When we get to the end of “Couch,” we find that the ants were part of a “his and hers” gift set, so the questions resolve to a much greater degree than I expected they would: unlike the couple’s other possessions, the ants were pre-divided. Again, it’s easy to take it as a given that we’re in a world where there are his and her ant gift sets. But questions arise: is there an inherent pessimism in “his and her” wedding gifts, a sense that the time may come when things must be divided? Or does the interdependence of the two parts of the gift (there’s no need to label something “his” unless there is a corresponding “hers”) imply a unity that divorce destroys? If so, what are we to make of the usefulness of the division of the ants into “his” and “hers” now, at the moment of divorce? Here, after all, is a gift intended to help unify a couple turning out to have its greatest use as a means of assisting in the dissolution of their marriage. Is there some statement about all actions containing the seeds of their opposites lurking at the heart the poem?
In the end, the piece remains enigmatic on these issues. The whole feel of the piece is enigmatic, and not just because of hermeneutic questions. There is, for example, a nice juxtaposition of tone (deadpan), action (the sad quotidian actions of divorce), and characters (realist people, Surrealist ants). This combines to give us a distance from events, even a kind of comic distance. I like that. So I’m going to find that old Burning Deck book and give it a read.
Robert Archambeau’s books include Home and Variations (Salt Publishing, 2004), and Laureates and Heretics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He has also edited a number of works, including Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing, and Letters of Blood: English Writings of Göran Printz-Påhlson. He teaches at Lake Forest College.
January 25, 1979
Steve Katz (1:02:30): MP3
courtesy PennSound Droll/Kolbert page
[The post-Holocaust fate of Yiddish writing is something that’s troubled my mind since the murders of the last century appeared to have decimated both language & culture. Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010), who fought as a partisan during the years of the khurbn, was one of the outstanding survivors with many kudos & honors in his later years, but the secular mysticism & near surrealism/realism of some of his work wasn’t easy to grasp as he came over to us largely in that more ethnic context & in a translated language not his own. What follows here & has lately caught my attention in Zackary Sholem Berger’s new translations is an example of a poetry-in-prose that opens to what the Surrealist master André Breton spoke of as “the Great Mystery” in which he saw “the future resolution of those two states, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” No mere fantasizing it was central too to what Gary Snyder noted as “the real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind.”
It’s my intention by posting this here to place Sutzkever as well among our predecessors in one of the core projects of what remains to us of international twentieth-century modernism. (J.R.)]
“Your teeth are bars of bone. Behind them, in a crystal cell, your chained words. Remember the advice of an elder: the guilty ones, who put poisoned pearls in your goblet -- let them free. As thanks for the pardon, they will build your eternity; but those others, the innocent ones, who falsely chirp like nightingales over a grave -- don’t spare them. String them up, be their hangman! Because as soon as you let them out of your mouth, or your pen, they’ll become demons. May the stars not fall if I speak the truth!”
Years ago, I was left this will in the lively city of my birth by an old bachelor, a poet somewhat touched in the head, with a long ponytail in back like a fresh birch broom. No one knew his name, where he came from. I only know that he wrote rhyming notes to God in Aramaic, dropped them into the red mailbox near the green bridge, and thoughtfully, patiently strolled by the Vilia, waiting for the mailman in Heaven to bring him an answer.
“Walk through words like through a minefield: one false step, one false move, and all the words which you have threaded onto your veins your whole life will be torn apart, and you with them...”
That’s what my very own shadow whispered to me, when both of us, blinded by the reflector-windmills, traveled by night through a bloody minefield, and every stride of mine set down for life or death gouged my heart like a nail into a violin.
But no one warned me to be careful of words drunk from otherworldly poppy-blossoms. Thus I became the servant of their will. And I can’t understand their will. Certainly not the secret, whether they love or hate me. They wage war in my skull like termites in a desert. Their battlefield pours out of my eyes with the radiance of rubies. And children go gray from fear when I tell them, Good-dreaming.
Recently, on an ordinary day, when I was lying in the garden, with a branch of oranges over me - or was it kids playing with golden soap bubbles - I felt a movement in my soul. All right, my words are heading out! Since they had won a victory over somebody, they obviously decided to take up positions where no words could previously. On people, angels, and why not stars? Their fantasy plays, drunk on otherworldly poppy-blossoms.
Torches like burning birds.
Accompanied by lines. Frames of music.
I fell to my knees before one of those words, apparently the overlord, who was riding ahead in a crown in which my tears were sparkling.
“That’s how you leave me, no goodbye, no see-you-later, no nothing? We wandered together for years, you ate from my time, so before we break up, before you go off to conquer worlds -- one request! Give your word you won’t turn it down.”
“Agreed. I give my word. But without long sentences. Because the sun is bending on the blue branch and in just a moment it will fall into the abyss.”
“I want to see the dead!”
“That’s quite a wish...okay, fine. My word is more important to me …. See now!”
A green knife cut open the earth.
It turned green.
Greenness of dark pines through a fog;
Greenness of a cloud with a burst gallbladder;
Greenness of mossy stones in rain;
Greenness revealed by a hoop rolled by a seven-year-old girl;
Greenness of cabbage leaves in splinters of dew that bloody the fingers;
First greenness of melted snow in a circledance around a blue flower;
Greenness of a half-moon, seen with green eyes from under a wave;
And celebratory greenness of grasses hemmed around a grave
Greennesses stream into greennesses. Body into body. And the whole earth has now turned into a green aquarium.
Closer, closer to the green swarming!
I look in: people are swimming here like fish. Numberless phosphorescent faces. Young. Old. And young-old together. Everyone who I saw my whole life, anointed by death with green existence; they are all swimming in the green aquarium, in a kind of silky, airy music.
Here, the dead are alive!
Under them rivers, forests, cities -- a giant plastic map, and the sun floating above them in the shape of a fiery person.
I recognize acquaintances and friends and doff my straw hat to them:
They answer with green smiles, like a well answers a stone with broken rings.
My eyes slap with silver oars, race, float among all the faces. They search, looking for one face.
Found it, found it! Here is the dream of my dream...
“It’s me, darling, me, me! The wrinkles are just a nest for my longing.”
My lips, swollen with blood, are drawn to hers. But - oh, no - they are stuck on the glass of the aquarium.
Her lips swim to mine too. I feel the breath of burning punch. The glass is a cold cleaver between us.
“I want to read you a poem, about you, you’ve got to hear it!”
“Darling, I know it by heart, I’m the one who gave you the words.”
“I want to feel your body one more time!”
“We can’t get any closer, the glass, the glass...”
“No, the border will soon disappear, I’m going to smash the green glass with my head...”
The aquarium shattered after the twelfth smash.
Where are the lips, the voice?
And the dead, the dead - did they die?
Nobody. Facing me - grass, and overhead, an orange branch, or is it kids playing with golden soap bubbles.
[Published originally in Baltimore Review, Spring 2013.]