Aaron McCollough: A Preface to Jerome Rothenberg’s A Cruel Nirvana

[What follows is Aaron McCollough’s preface to a gathering of three of my earlier books, currently out of print or with a handful of poems preserved in later editions of selected poems. The book – titled A Cruel Nirvana – marks the start of a new publishing venture, SplitLevel Texts, edited by McCollough & Karla Kelsey in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The other announced title in this new series of publications is Alan Gilbert’s The Treatment of Monuments. (J.R.)]

It may seem to us now as if Jerome Rothenberg’s work in Ethnopoetics was a kind of inevitability. As Charles Bernstein has observed, the work has “come to seem more and more prescient for contemporary poetics and literary studies.” There is much more than prophecy afoot here, however. If the work seems prescient, that’s because it helped open the field of possibility for much of what we consider post-colonial discourse, performance theory, etc. In fact, with his earliest work (an anthology, New Young German Poets), Rothenberg was already making “a start” in the sense he and Pierre Joris would associate with all of the post-war writers they gathered in Poems for the Millenium, Volume 2: “the nature of that start was not so much postmodern … as it was post-bomb and post-holocaust.” Rothenberg has been trying to revive overlooked pieces of the human conversation (and succeeding) for his entire career. His work is ever offering alternatives to others. If we feel exhausted by meaningless violence and marketing, Rothenberg shows us wellsprings of meaning and power we missed or just couldn’t see in our exhaustion or disaffection. Bernstein has recently described Rothenberg’s life-project as “a way of recovering from the Second War by refusing to cover over the [domestic] genocide that has allowed a false unity to the idea of American Literature.” But Ethnopoetics and the “Otherings & Variations” twining through Rothenberg’s work are not merely negations. On the contrary, they are offering new connections, new machines for inhabiting a post-bomb, post-holocaust, ever-genocidal human universe, without dogma, yes, but also without cynicism. A cruel Nirvana, indeed.

And so, here is the machine in your hands, the current volume. A Cruel Nirvana both is and is not a new Jerome Rothenberg collection. In other words, almost everything in this collection has been published before. Each of the three major sections (Narratives and Real Theater Pieces, The Notebooks, and Conversations) was originally published individually. Narratives was published in 1977 by Braad Editions (and prior to that in a shorter version by Black Sun Press). Notebooks was published by Membrane Press in 1976, and Conversations was published by Black Sparrow in 1968. All have been out-of-print for many years. The title poem is drawn from A Book of Witness. While this edition’s arrangement of the parts follows a logic that goes beyond reverse chronology of original publication, it’s worth saying that logic isn’t meaningless in itself. So much of Rothenberg’s work has wrestled with the angel of history, or the epistemological regimes of the traditional and the contemporary, it is pleasing enough to see the angel flying in reverse.

The simple, elemental diction of Narrative’s “A Dream Narrative” (“It is dark & I go / It is dark & I don’t go / I go & I don’t go”) indicates a start of the sort mentioned above. A sudden voice emerges from the dark, not exactly bringing light but not not bringing light into the shadow of the wreckage. By the end, Narratives has taken us deeper into that shadow via “Realtheater Pieces,” which detail brutal rituals that blend a “primitive” view of native american practice (reacting perhaps to the sensationalized depiction of Sioux initiation in the 1976 motion picture A Man Called Horse) with the rituals of Christianity (itself a death cult) as well as with more generalized scripted, plotted atrocities that have played themselves out repeatedly in the “modern” era. The ceremonial / total-theater blur that closes Narratives serves as an apt transition “into the darkness of jewish life,” with which the proem of The Notebooks begins. As he notes at the gathering’s end, Rothenberg composed most of The Notebooks as “versified commentaries” on source material he was consulting, sampling, and translating for A Big Jewish Book, which was still in progress at the time. Technicians of the Sacred, essentially the founding document of Rothenbergian ethnopoetics, had been in print for eight years by this point, and Rothenberg had begun his big Jewish project as an “attempt to deal with” European primitive traditions that had not initially made sense in the context of the first anthology. The Notebooks’ sourceworks belong to those “Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen” Rothenberg identified as his own antecedents, a poetic lineage of shamans, prophets, merkabah storytellers, and nihilist messiahs that champions transformative mythopoetic process (what Ernst Cassirer called a “law of metamorphosis”). Ironically enough, as the epigraph to A Big Jewish Book recalls, The Talmud enjoined us to “MAKE IT NEW” long before Pound did. The Notebooks offer this kind of “jewish poems,” poems that merge “magic, myth, & dream: nature, orgy, love; the female presence the Jewish poets named Shekinah” with “the sinister & dangerous sides of existence” to produce new arrangements of traditional ritual energies. Finally, Conversations works a kind of synthetic trick on the two prior volumes. Where Narratives offers one spare, alienated uttering voice and where The Notebooks abruptly juxtaposes appropriated textual fragments with an individual lyric “writing through,” Conversations balances two spare, alienated voices in a dialogue touching both traditional and contemporary concerns without resolution. In “Conversation Fifteen,” the last poem in the book, one speaker begins by saying “I wanted something to eat,” and the other ends with “(I wanted the vindication of the just).” This is politics of bare life against politics of action. Two different notions of autonomy speaking across as much as to one another, ending in a field of immanence, which is really an opening as much as it is a closing.

In her essay “What is Freedom,” Hannah Arendt makes an observation I always return to with fresh admiration: "all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be, namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected" (Between Past and Future, 168). Arendt is working out the problem of autonomy in conversation with Enlightenment and Romantic moral thought (especially Kant, Schelling, and Hegel) as much as she delivering a riposte to Heideggerian phenomenology. Of course, Arendt’s autonomous agent is not just any subject. He/She is a political subject (a political-theological subject, really), free only in the “infinite improbability” of performative emergency—the abandonment of the liberal, private domain (and its securities). I read a productive analogy (if not identity) here between the Arendtian political agent and the poet, and it’s in light of that analogy/identity that I read Jerome Rothenberg’s body of work. I’d willfully bend Arendt to say, in poetry (as in politics) not life but the world is at stake. And the relationship between doing politics and doing poetry most approaches identity in Rothenberg’s work, as both require a courage that he has consistently displayed. It is a kind of political (rather than bioethical) miracle when a poet of such prodigious gifts devotes almost his entire self—imagination, if you like, but his whole person, really—to the belief in a communally driven poetry. And, as Rothenberg himself has always stressed (through the idea of “total translation,” especially) poesis, like politics, can only be complex. As such, poetic autonomy exists (when it exists) in a system, always as a challenge to that system but nevertheless imbricated within it.