I was asked to write this piece in late December for the January issue of the Harriet blog The Reading List, a feature of Poetry magazine’sEditors’ Blog, as I had Celan prose translations in the January issue:
No matter what else has gone wrong with this year (and much did, obviously, and I won’t dwell on it!), it is going out with a bang: the mailman just handed me today, Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 2:15, a large envelope with a large, gorgeous book: Clark Coolidge, Selected Poems 1962–1985edited by Larry Fagin and Clark Coolidge, and with an introduction by Bill Berkson (Station Hill Press, 2016). A tome that will see me into the new year as I meet work again that has been a major pleasure for decades (but are the poems we read in a Selected ever the same, or exactly the same, as those we read over the years in magazines, chapbooks, or bigger, “normal” collections? I don’t think so.) As Lyn Hejinian says: “What’s in this beautifully edited volume is, for me, the manifestation of art’s ultimate achievement. Clark Coolidge writes a whole art, an all-moment of being somewhere and thinking it.” I will not only read it but will read it aloud, as behooves the work of our finest sonic craftsman.
For a good part of the year I have been delighting in a leisurely meander through the final two volumes of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s long serial poem Drafts, and have finally arrived at “Draft 114,” the final poem (in Surge: Drafts 96–114, Salt Publishing, 2013). Wow! What an achievement: the work deploys a dizzying, infinitely expandable (one could think) series of possibilities — formal and content-wise — just turn a page and you are in an elsewhere you didn’t suspect could exist. If Pound called the long poem — the male epic, that is — a poem with history, then this is l’autre face, a long poem, non-epic, but with herstory. Which she has meanwhile continued with a stunning little tour de force: Poesis (Textile series), a writing-over the exact formal layout of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés. Spoiler alert: Mallarmé’s last line — Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés — becomes “All Books Gloss Insatiable Desires for a Further Edge,” and I’m de préférence with Blau DuPlessis on this, as on many other such choses.
A major work to reach us in 2016, from England this time, is Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a consequence of shape (Reality Street Editions). The poems (sequences always, never single poems) that make up this nearly 600-page opus were composed between 1982 and 2006 and published in many chapbooks and volumes over the years. Thought through ab initio as a coherency with fractal topographies, Gravity combines a vast array of knowledges, be they from biological or physical sciences, or from literature and art, with a most powerful degree of formal invention (procedural structures crossed, bent, enriched and written through by processual activities) coupled with a political and social radicalism and insight that are truly stunning. The work is both immediately enjoyable and demanding of longtime immersion, and the thinking is of a complexity similar to that of a Charles Olson (who was certainly a fire-source for Fisher). Happily, the University of Alabama Press has just published the perfect companion to Gravity: a volume of Allen Fisher’s essays, Imperfect Fit: Aesthetic Function, Feature & Perception in Art and Writing since 1950. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword to this book.) Both these volumes will see you through a good part of 2017, may even give you some hope that a combination of human intelligence and aesthetic facture can offer us what Olson called meta hodos, a methodology for en-vision-ing an exemplary path towards — in a term that originates in Foucault’s last conferences — parrhēsia, truth-telling, even deep inside the dire straights we’re in.
As I’ve mentioned Olson, let me point you to another excellent book just out: Letters for Olson, gathered and edited by Benjamin Hollander (Spuyten Duyvil Press), with Etel Adnan, Ammiel Alcalay, Amiri Baraka, Michael Boughn, Ed Sanders, Ruth Lepson, Kenneth Warren just a few of the contributors. It was to be Hollander’s penultimate bravura piece: Ben passed away in November — a great loss for his friends and for the wider community of engaged poets. I have been rereading his truly prophetic 2013 book In the House Un-American (Clockroot books) and, on the excellent and radical new online magazine of which he was a board member and major contributor, Dispatches, excerpts from his final work, The Letters of Carla, the letter b., A Mystery in Poetrywith a foreword by the Future Guardian of the Letters and an afterword by Benjamin Hollander, to be published later this year from Chax Press. Another old departed friend, the Swiss-Italian poet Franco Beltrametti saw (I know you’re looking, wherever you are!) a Selected Poems 1965–1995 called From Almost Everywhere come out, edited by Stefan Hyner and published by Fondazione Franco Beltrametti and Blackberry Books. As Gary Snyder has it, his “smooth-barked Muse leads him across the grids of latitude and longitude to the source of good medicine poems.”
Another writer I admired intensely left us this year: the Algerian poet and novelist Nabile Farès — should you not know his work, try APassenger from the West, translated by Peter Thompson and including the author’s 1970 interview with James Baldwin (UNO Press) or his Exile and Helplessness (same translator, Dialogos Books). To stay with the Maghreb for a moment: go read the Moroccan poet, essayist, and philosopher Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Tattooed Memory (translated by Peter Thompson, L’Harmattan, 2016), a North African Bildungsroman of the first order.
Two anthologies need mentioning: James Thomas’s Grains of Gold: An Anthology of Occitan Literature, published in late 2015 by Francis Boutle Publishers in London, which reveals to an Anglophone public for the first time the whole wealth of Occitan literature beyond the eleventh/twelfth-century troubadours translated by Pound and Paul Blackburn — newsflash! The latter’s Proensa has just been reissued by NYRB!— a wealth colonialistically (if that word doesn’t exist, it should, and does now) suppressed by France imposing their northern dialect (French) on the whole southern half of the country. The other major anthology of the year is A Sulfur Anthology, edited by Clayton Eshleman (Wesleyan University Press) — full disclosure: there is work of mine in it — and which I reviewed on my blog, Nomadics.
There were of course other books I read this year, most massively in the first part of 2016, the entire oeuvre of Ingeborg Bachmann. The excuse for that breathtaking adventure was the fact that I wrote a play, The Agony of I.B., dealing with her life and death during those first six months. Rereading her — especially the later prose — made it clear that she is one of the absolutely major voices writing in German in the second part of the last century. If you only know the poetry, go check out the novel Malina (translated by Philip Boehm, Holmes & Meier, 1990) and the unfinished the book of franza & requiem for fanny goldmann (translated by Peter Filkins, Northwestern University Press). Two more and we’re done: On my 2016 travels twixt New York, Boise, Paris, Casablanca, and Glasgow, I always had two books of poems in my satchel: Robert Kelly’s Heart Thread (Lunar Chandelier Collective) and his Opening The Seals (Autonomedia). Here, the opening line of poem 85 of Heart Thread: “Every page is precious especially the blank.”