Peter Quartermain: “Incompletable Text,” a view of Jerome Rothenberg’s Eye of Witness (Part One)

[What follows is the first part of Peter Quartermain’s response to Eye of Witness, an in-depth view that leads me into & beyond areas of my work that needed & still need (for me at least) viewing & amplification from the outside.  Quartermain’s essay is scheduled to appear early in 2015 in Louis Rowan’s Golden Handcuff’s Review (GHR 20), so this is an opportunity to put it into circulation closer to the publication late last year of Eye of Witness & to turn attention to Golden Handcuffs as well.  The second half of Quartermain’s piece will appear here shortly. (J.R.)]


Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and Heriberto Yépez (Boston: Black Widow, 2013).


“My own choice has been to write from the side of a modernism that sees itself as challenging limits and changing ways of speaking / thinking / doing that have too long robbed us of the freedom to be human to the full extent of our powers and yearnings. The struggle is immediate and the objects and attitudes to be destroyed or transformed appear on every side of us.” (Symposium of the Whole, p. xiv.) [1]


Jerome Rothenberg asked, in 1996, “Why has the poet failed us?” (385). There is of course a considerable difference between the poet failing, and the poet failing us, but at first glance the question still seems pretty weird, given the sheer volume, variety, and energy of Rothenberg’s work, a great deal of it sampled and reordered in this absorbing book. He has written and/or edited some 80 or more books and they’re pretty substantial: poetry, prose, interviews, translations, commentaries, prefaces, letters, transliterations, anthologies, libretti, collaborations – to say nothing of his travels, recordings, collages, investigations; his explorations of ritual and theatre; his probing of discontinuities; his stratagems to open up the eye to the ear, to shift the oral onto the page, to shift the strange into let’s call it the familiar or at least recognisable, and the reverse. He’s a great archaeologist of the neglected and the forgotten, retrieving such treasures as “The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi,” and there are some terrific essays – that on “Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel” should be required reading in every English course in the land. Then there’s his remarkable ethnomusicology of wordless as well as worded songs; his pioneering work in ethnopoetics. He’s brought the contemporary and the archaic as well as the non-alphabetic into the resources of American poetry; he’s brought the aleatory as well as the formulaic into the nature and structure of the poem.


      What I list doesn’t even begin to cover the territory, and he has not of course worked alone: collaboration is not simply for him a means of making works, it is a means by which to listen, to learn, and to question. And all this is never-ending: “The work is in no way complete,” he said in the Pre-Face to Symposium of the Whole (xiv). The definitive, with its intolerant authority, is anathema: Eye of Witness more than once quotes Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dadaist call for the “liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power.” The notion of failure seems never to enter Rothenberg’s head, any more than might caution and timidity: with his deeply entrenched opposition to the idea of completeness at the very heart of his poetics, questions of failure or success are irrelevant. “What I come to do,” says a Creeley poem, “is partial, partially kept” – you can’t neglect the pun there. What counts is the doing, and one’s partiality gets in the way.


      That, perhaps, accounts a bit for his great economy of energy, for the drive that produced and still produces (Rothenberg’s in his eighties) these thousands of pages of work. Even the most cursory of readers, casting an eye through the nearly 600 pages of Eye of Witness, will be struck by the sheer urgency of Rothenberg’s thought, and the profound sadness that stirs necessity and informs his affirmation. The first thing you see, on the book’s cover, is Goya’s Asmodea (Goya surely kin to Rothenberg); and one of the first things you might read, the epigraph to the first section of the book (29), is from William Blake, also kin, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. As Rothenberg says in “Je est un autre,” his short talk-piece of 1989 titled after Rimbaud, “there is a politics in this & yet there is no politics” (162). And the politics is impassioned. In 1987, on his first visit to Poland, he went to Treblinka, site of the Nazi extermination and forced labour camps at which close to a million were killed, now “only an empty field & . . . thousands of large stones,” a graveyard of voices, a site of khurbn. Khurbn, a Yiddish-Hebrew word for disaster pure & simple -- what Christians call The Holocaust (implying sacrifice), and Jews call Shoah (a Hebrew word for catastrophe) – is what Rothenberg names “the word as prelude to the scream” (310), the word for the unspeakable, for that which is beyond witness – no sacrifice, no false ennoblement, nothing left to say beyond the word and perhaps not even that, but emptiness. To our dismay, there are other forms and occasions of the unspeakable, other empties, other roots of that “impasse in the soul” (59) Rothenberg faced at around the time he was writing Poland / 1931, in 1961: the sheer impossibility of witness, of bringing to speech, and the inescapable urgent necessity to give the dead their voice. “The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka,” he reports, “are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry” (306).


      The second volume of Poems for the Millennium, edited with Pierre Joris, closes with these lines from 1996 (they are also in Eye of Witness, 387);  it all – anthologies, collaborations, essays, poems, talks, everything – makes but one work:  


A woman's breast & honey.
She in whose mouth the murderers stuffed gravel
who will no longer speak.
The poet is the only witness to that death,
writes every line
as though the only witness.


      Silence: the blank subtext which has ever since suffused our lives, which we attempt to pass over, to cover as best we can with noise and empty chatter. The very first entry for “attend” in the OED is “to turn one’s ear to, to listen”; the word also means to heed, as well as to serve. In the graveyard of voices (the phrase is from page 38) which is the world, the eye of witness is also an ear, perhaps an ear most of all; an eye and an ear of attendance, and of retrieval; by that it is an eye and ear of discovery, revealing that which is to be found. “The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka” were carried by the wind, by the stones, by the grass. By memory, and by imagining. So the task of the poem is to conjure, to conjure the absent, the silent, the forgotten and the lost. One early meaning of “conjure” is to swear together, to conspire – Wycliffe used it that way in his translation of the Bible – and in his time as in ours it also meant to call forth angelic or demonic spirits into one’s presence, to invoke and body forth powers of the invisible world. It would take some three or four hundred years, suggests the OED, for it to mean beseech. Eye of Witness constitutes  Rothenberg’s pact with the reader, and that pact demands conjuration in all the senses I just proposed. There can be no idle reading of this book.


      That’s where the energy comes from, then; not only Rothenberg’s astonishingly productive energy that drives these multitudes of pages, but the very energy in the writing itself. The sheer urgency of the task is assuredly source, and that urgency burdens the poem with its task the way a groundswell of rhythm and tonality might carry an undersong across and through the wordless silence of the abeyant gap between stanza and stanza, like the unvoiced silent beat between the lines of nursery rhymes like “Hickory Dickory Dock” or “Mary had a Little Lamb.” That urgency is dire: it carries through the writing and carries the writing through; when the Muse has to say something, that gist may be inescapable. But at the same time and perhaps by the same token it may not be voicable nor even tellable; then language fails; it cannot be sufficient.  “Take the legacy of Auschwitz,” Rothenberg enjoins, “as a call to vigilance against all forms of chauvinism and racism” (394). Eye of Witness is a call to arms – “Why has the poet failed us?” indeed. Such pressures break the poem open, call for any resource or recourse, so that aesthetics inevitably play second fiddle. It hardly needs saying, surely, that testimony and a sheer necessity for accuracy of witness sit very uneasily, to say the least, with the idea of a masterpiece and a hunger for the beautiful – thus Rothenberg, in an essay on the poetics of performance, talks of “a move-away from the idea of ‘masterpiece’ to one of transientness and self-obsolescence of the poem as art-work as performed.” Permanence doesn’t come into it at all, for “life,” as William Carlos Williams told Harriet Monroe in 1913, “is above all things else at any moment subversive of life as it was the moment before  -- always new, irregular." [2] Rothenberg takes that a step further: “The work past its moment becomes a document (mere history).”  Hence “the value of a work of art isn’t inherent in its formal or aesthetic characteristics . . . but in what it does,” (209) and what it does includes the act of composition as well as performance as well as reading or looking, and the artist will use whatever means come to hand, as those means come to hand.


      “Write carelessly,” Williams said in Book Three of Paterson (129), “so that nothing that is not green will survive”; he too cared above all for the energy of the poem. Like Blake, he is a constant presence throughout Eye of Witness, a provocative and welcome model of urgent inventiveness – his disturbances of convention and form, his transgressions, and his deployment of what Blake in “A Descriptive Catalogue” called “the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements” (550) – leaping its own limits. “Write carelessly” does not mean “write without care”; it shifts priorities and reconstitutes the aesthetic. Some years ago Jacques Attali proposed that "subversion in musical production opposes a new syntax to the existing syntax, from the point of view of which it is noise" [3] – a comment that surely gets at the neglect of Williams for most of his lifetime. Paterson in its expansive inclusiveness crosses generic boundaries, including as it does personal letters, geological reports, newspaper clippings, lyric, laments, narrative, pastoral, dialogue, and who knows what else besides; Rothenberg may have first got permission for his genre-and-other transgressions from Williams, but in his extraordinary diversity of output and range of reading and listening he stands alone.


     But despite its rich diversity, Eye of Witness at first glance can be a bit frustrating. For one thing, the book necessarily prints extracts as well as whole poems and essays, but it does not always give their source. If you want to follow something up, or restore a passage to its context, you can’t do that at all easily. But it is, after all, “A Jerome Rothenberg Reader,” and like any other such it makes no claim to completeness. If, like me, you want to know what book a particular poem or prose piece might be from (perhaps because you do want to follow it up), or want to know when it was written, the book frequently doesn’t tell you; the relationship of one work to another in the Rothenberg canon (which work came first, say) is often not at all clear. A chronology, sketchily implicit as a substratum to the book, is scrambled in deference to thematic considerations. The seventy pages of “Gallery One: Prolegomena to a Poetics,” for instance, are followed by sixty-five pages of “A Book of Otherings” which are followed by forty pages of “Poetry and Polemics 1: Toward an Ethnopoetics” which in turn are followed by more than a hundred pages of “Gallery Two: The World Turned Upside Down.” Work in any given section may be from the 1960s or the early 2000s, you can’t necessarily tell which, and it is hard to find your way around the book even though there’s an analytic Table of Contents constructed along the lines of those in the three volumes of Poems For the Millennium. There is no index of titles and first lines, there is no bibliography, not even a checklist of the books the works come from. Overall, this lends the book a kind of slapdash homogeneity – write carelessly, perhaps -- but the careful organisation along other than chronological or conventionally canonical lines suggests that Rothenberg’s work here has been carefully groomed into a unity, and that very unity draws the reader – this reader at any rate – to read straight through, a sequential reading of the whole book. That grooming obeys Rothenberg’s recognition, some time around the mid-1960s, that ethnopoetics, a word he coined “circa 1967” (171), is “a necessary part of a poetics (an idea of poetry),” and his discovery, not made by him alone,  that “ethnopoetics, once it had entered our work, altered the nature of that work in all its aspects” (Symposium, xv).


                TO BE CONTINUED


[NOTE. Peter Quartermain is the editor of  The Collected Poetry and Plays of Robert Duncan (two volumes, 2012 & 2013, from University of California Press), and the University of Alabama Press has recently published his collection of essays, Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde.  For thirty years he taught contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of British Columbia, before retiring in 1999, and he has written or edited numerous articles and several earlier books, including Basil Bunting: Poet of the North (1990) and Disjunctive Poetics (1992).  With the English poet Richard Caddel he edited Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), and, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).]

                [1] Jerome Rothenberg. “Pre-Face.” Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics. Edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg & Diane Rothenberg (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), xiv). All quotations except those otherwise identified are from Eye of Witness.

                [2] William Carlos Williams. Selected Letters, ed. John C. Thirlwall (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957) 23-24.


                [3] Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music, tr. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985) 34.