Leonard Schwartz

Cross Cultural Poetics Commentary

Martine Bellen's 'The Vulnerability of Order'

An interview with Martine Bellen

Episode #40 of CCP was entitled “The Contemporary Logos,” a title borrowed from an essay by Fanny Howe, the first guest for the show. That conversation was transcribed many years back and published in Jacket (issue 28). In Fall 2011 Evergreen student Samantha Siciliano had a chance to transcribe the second half of that key program: an interview with poet Martine Bellen on her book of that year The Vulnerability of Order, published by Copper Canyon Press. I'm happy to be able to present that interview here. Certainly one of the preoccupations of CCP has been the use of “spiritual” vocabularies in the act of making poetry (without any quotation marks around the poem).

Leonard Schwartz: Martine Bellen is the author of numerous collections of poetry including most recently, The Vulnerability of Order published by Copper Canyon Press. The Vulnerability of Order according to Ann Lauterbach “...Brings to contemporary poetics an acute, agile intelligence revealed in a dazzling array of linguistic orders, as vulnerable as they are powerful. Her inquiry into the nature of spirit is informed by arcs of interlocking knowledge, from a variety of religious practices to biographical incidents in the lives of seven heretical women.” Welcome, Martine Bellen.

'So Translating'

Zhang Er and Bill Ransom in conversation

Zhang Er Photo by Star Black.

Zhang Er’s book So Translating Rivers and Cities was published by Zephyr Press in 2007, the original Chinese poems and the English translations en face. We spoke about the book for  CCP episode 161 in 2008 (listen there for her reading in Chinese of the poem).  Novelist and poet Bill Ransom was one of the co-translators, and he joined us for the drama in studio that day. (Other co-translators who contributed to the book are Bob Holman, Arpine Grenier, Timothy Liu, Susan Schultz, and myself.)  The transcription was done by Claire Sammons, now a graduate student at Columbia College in Chicago. 

Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guests in studio are Zhang Er and Bill Ransom. Zhang Er has a new book out, entitled So Translating Rivers and Cities. The poems are translated from the Chinese by a number of people, including Bill Ransom, poet, author of six novels and six collections of poet. Both are in studio. Welcome Zhang-Er.

Zhang Er: Thank you, Leonard.

Schwartz: And welcome, Bill Ransom.

Bill Ransom: Yes, thanks Leonard.

Schwartz: Great to have you both here and thinking on your feet, literally in the studio. Zhang Er, So Translating Rivers and Cities brings together a number of different periods of your writing, and a number of different books, as I mentioned published by Zephyr Press. I was hoping that you and Bill could read the extended poem, “Mother Event” from the book. Can you say a little about the poem, Zhang Er, and Bill could you say a little about the translation process?

Listening to the Arabic

To say that the transcendental is historically constituted amounts to saying that universality cannot be assigned to it; it is necessary to think of a particular transcendental. But after all, there is nothing more mysterious than what is collectively called a culture.  — Guy Lardeau, “L’histoire comme nuit de Walpurgis”

In such manner Guy Lardeau invites us to contemplate a contradiction – the particular transcendental. Contradiction, because one of the attributes of the transcendental is held to be its universal grounds. Contemplation, because that is what the mind does, at least one committed to both a cognitive process and a mode of thought that goes beyond the simply analytical. One concept that may occur to us here is “strategic transcendentalism”: one holds a condition to be transcendental or necessary to perception itself for specific political or tactical purposes. Another phenomenon that may come to mind here is that of the lyric poem: the lyric poem is a construct capable of maintaining equilibrium among contradictions and as such is singly able to accommodate the needs of such a slippery imperative (“negative capability”). Surely the allure of the poem is partly this, and the concomitant promise of mystery without belief. Our texts are the living evidence of an ethics of ambiguity.

I positioned the transcendental lyric in like manner in my essay from the 1990’s “A Flicker At The Edge Of Things.” Things here — “here” variously meaning in what passes for my mind, the room in which I sit and write, America, the shifting continents — flicker, and poetry is still the flicker at the edge.

Scenes from the Balkan Wars

On Christopher Merrill's 'Only The Nails Remain'

I interviewed Christopher Merrill on his book Only The Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars in June 0f 2004 (Cross Cultural Poetics #39). To my mind his remains the best book on those conflicts, and the fact that his journalistic efforts focus so centrally on the activities of the poets in that region is noteworthy. (I plan to speak with him again soon about his new book The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, which takes us with him on his travels through Malaysia, China, and The Middle East.) At the same time that conversation, and the transcript we did of that interview, also serves to remind us of our own political dilemmas of the not very distant past. It follows here:

Leonard Schwartz: Christopher Merrill is a poet and critic, and the author and translator of more than a dozen books, including the highly praised Only The Nails Remain: Scenes From The Balkan Wars. He is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Welcome, Christopher Merrill. 

Christopher Merrill: It’s nice to be here, Leonard. 

Schwartz: Your book, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes From the Balkan Wars, is an extraordinary book. The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle wrote, “a poet who has journeyed often on foot through the Balkans, Merrill presents anecdotes from ordinary people encountered during his wanderings, as well as from friends in the arts, and political leaders.

CCP and eco-poetics

Some listenings

Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger
Photo credit: Ariel Goldberger

 “Nature” is the unconscious.

The sense of this statement is often more immediately clear to sculptors, to painters, and to other artists who work with physical materials, than it is to writers – or to scientists.

As one carves the stone or fashions the wood what one desired or feared comes gradually into view, unknowns are realized in the emerging form, an ambient mystery is for that moment determinate, the non-human is realized in its naissance. To speak of birth is already to anthropomorphize, the image at risk of becoming more and more obvious to the extent we begin to mold it to our image. As opposed to an idea of Nature as the given, I want to identify the non-self identical with “Nature” in order to help me distance it from the definition of Nature that would put it in contrast to History.

Nature is the unconscious. Which is to say that when one picks up materials and begins to tinker with them in a certain way: when one picks up language and begins to fiddle with it, as it were absent-mindedly, or by way of automatic writing, or by chance operations, or by working from the black of the page, the unconscious begins to come into view. What was in the dark comes into the arena of humanly generated light. What was coiled in the unconscious enters the social.

This distinction is not the same as that between subjective and objective, or inside and outside: it is closer to that between wilderness and civilization. In other words, I am referring to a distinction that has been abrogated on earth. Wilderness no longer exists in some pure form, not since the invention of the atom bomb: all present forms of wilderness are dependent on a contingent human choice to go on, to resist the death drive as it were, and therefore, are not independent of human choice. “Nature" is where what we know of ourselves as humans leaves off, where what we don’t know of ourselves as human begins, and yet where something is all the same encountered.