Interviews

Unrehearsed chemicals

A conversation between Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Rosa Alcalá

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I know that there are a number of manuscripts — half-finished? completed and shelved? — which predate your first book Undocumentaries. What was the evolution of your first book? How many years went into it and how did it develop?

Rosa Alcalá: My first manuscript was my MFA thesis. When I was at Brown, my work started changing, so the thesis poems range from very traditional lyric poems to more experimental ones. Because I learned English shortly after Spanish, and because I’ve always moved between the two, I’ve always been struck by the materiality and aural qualities of language. So, my poems have this thread between them, for me anyway. I’m fond of some of the poems in that thesis (I think it was called In Translation; the title has changed many times since), but I’m just in a different place right now. Still, the concerns of those poems — identity, language, class, etc. — are clearly in Undocumentaries, which I wrote in my first four years teaching at the University of Texas-El Paso. The manuscript that followed the thesis and precedes Undocumentaries, is now titled The Lust of Unsentimental Waters and is forthcoming from Shearsman Books. I wrote it while doing my PhD in English at SUNY–Buffalo, where I was reading lots of translation theory — lots of theory in general — and as a result, the poems, very sparse and economic, are a thinking-through of some of those theories. I started translating in the mid 1990s — after a childhood of interpreting for non-English speaking parents — and as I read Barthes, Glissant, Mignolo, Anzaldúa, Benjamin, Kristeva, others, I felt a real emotional connection to some of those ideas. Sometimes I didn’t understand them very well; I’m sure I misunderstood them or battled with them or couldn’t quite make sense of what they were saying, but I felt like I “got it.” And some of the poems — not all of them — came out of that dialogue with the texts. I was also translating a book of poems (Lourdes Vazquez’s Bestiary) at the same time, so those concerns (anxieties?) are there, too. I think translation is the hardest job in the world. Certainly harder than writing poetry.

Wilkinson: For me, “Undocumentary” resonates somewhere between undocumented laborers and what cannot be documented in a “documentary” — what escapes the document, the record, or even recognition. What is the figure of the “Undocumentary” for you in these poems, and how does this word loom over the book for you?

Alcalá: I like that you use the word “loom,” with its reference to weaving, since this book is full of textile work. All my work is textile work, to some extent.

The book was originally titled Fact & Act, which gets at a similar idea, but Mónica de la Torre suggested Undocumentaries, after the first poem in the book. I love her work, and we translated a book together (Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids), so I do what she tells me. I think her reasoning was that this title could be understood in many ways, including as a reference to undocumented workers. The term “undocumentary,” however, came about as I began to do research for the book. I knew I wanted to write about work/workers, particularly the type of work/workers that are often invisible, not represented in popular media. Rather than rely on my own experience — both my parents were factory workers, in textile and other industries — I felt compelled (fresh off my dissertation) to do research. I read articles, watched documentaries (like American Dream, about the Hormel Food factory strike in Minnesota, which is mentioned in the book), and took notes. But I felt that this didn’t quite get at “it” (and I didn’t know what the “it” was yet). I started weaving my own unstable file of experiences with what I was reading, and this lead to other research, which was woven in as well. I was rereading Williams’s Paterson at the time, so I took his collage technique as a guide. So, the “undocumentary,” for me, is the lyric’s “unrehearsed chemicals,” which in the archive or document becomes “a brighter or stiller image.” I say “brighter” because I think the archive has the ability to seduce with its certainty, its proof, but it’s “stiller,” less able to communicate the slipperiness of experience. The lyric, on the other hand, can continue to act out “the tensions of progress.” And, ultimately, this book — written in my first years as an assistant Professor — acts out those tensions, which felt so dizzying to me at the time, and still do to some extent.

In the end, however, this book is (in part) about the ways in which the working class — including undocumented workers — are not represented at all or are represented in clichéd or one-dimensional ways. I always felt — in very painful ways — the invisibility of my own parents’ working-class/immigrant lives in the representations of “American” identity. I remember someone asking me at Brown what my father “did.” No one had ever asked me that before. In my neighborhood, it just wasn’t a question. Maybe this book is an answer to what he — all those forgotten workers — did. But I don’t think it’s an easy answer — this question of representation — which is why many of these poems are fragmented or discursive, or in Glissant’s term, “errant,” and why the speaker of the last poem contemplates arson. It’s like Williams burning down the library in Paterson, for the possibility of new forms, new knowledge. Because he knows that presenting the “document” — even if that document is the poem — is a risky endeavor, a danger that can lead to a kind of reification of identity and experience. And also because he wants to move on from the past.

Wilkinson: You mention Williams’s Paterson a couple of times, which is where you’re from right? What are the effects of being from a hallowed American poetry city, where Ginsberg is also from. Does that influence your poetic thinking much? Is that something you try to court or escape? Do you recognize your Paterson in Williams’s work?

Alcalá: As I was reading your question, I had this memory of talking to Allen Ginsberg in his apartment in New York many years ago, and he was asking me if such and such place still existed in Paterson, and it felt so incredible to share this place — and to be able to give the “current” Paterson to Ginsberg, who was so well known for being from there. It felt a bit like that moment in Paterson when Ginsberg writes to Williams because he senses a kinship. Like Ginsberg, I always felt a kinship to Williams (who was actually from Rutherford, NJ), but I think it has more to do with the “Carlos” — you know that otherness book-ended by such Englishness. I mean, no matter how many Williamses you shingle onto it, “Carlos” stands out in Anglo-American modernism. He could have removed it from his name for matters of publication, I suppose, but he really would have had to put something in its place, because the measure of that name would have been fatal: William Williams. And in addition to fatal, if he had proceeded without the Carlos, he wouldn’t have been the poet he is, one who interrogates American identity, one who sees “Carlos” as part of the national fabric. And I think Williams was quite aware that this made him different, which Ezra Pound confirms when he says in a letter to him: “And America. What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place.” Although Pound acknowledges in the same letter that Williams, born in New Jersey, is an “Amerkun (same as me),” he also adds, “You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind.”

I mean, on the one hand Pound seems to admire Williams’s work for its opacity, which he says is “not an American quality.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that he reinforces this native/foreign paradigm (alive today!) in American poetry, and Williams is most certainly, to him, not quite American enough. Pound, on the other hand, is a real American because he has had the “virus … of the land” in his blood for nearly “three bleating centuries.” Another real American, according to Pound? Harriet Monroe, who had “the swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear.” The native, as you see, are also the gatekeepers.

In short, Williams does influence me, but I’m aware that my understanding of identity, as well as Paterson (the city, as well as the book), is also tuned by growing up working class, and by having been a girl and now a woman. In Williams’s book the perspective is decidedly male and is certainly privileged and not from the city proper — someone who could walk freely, look around, accrete, ask questions, reconstruct. This “confession” makes me nervous, but I think it’s appropriate here: I was sexually assaulted near the Paterson Falls when I was in my early twenties; I’m aware of the dangers, like most women, of walking around freely, then and now. Even in my own poems.

Sometimes when I read the Cress (Marcia Nardi) letters, I think, oh, that could have been me (“I know myself to be more the woman than the poet,” or “But it’s never so simple as that to get on one’s feet even in the most ordinary practical ways for anyone on my side of the railway tracks — which isn’t your side.”) You know, I always want to identify with the authority of the book’s speaker, with Dr. Williams, but the truth is that perhaps I feel closer to the characters/people Williams puts to use, especially the female ones, even Madame Curie.

This comes up for me often in other ways. For example, the role of the bohemian woman artist in Mad Men (season 1) appeals to me, I want to be her, but I know that I would have more likely been in the secretarial pool. So, in some ways, my book gives voice to the secretarial pool, while the woman constructing the book is the artist; she really runs the show. Therein lies one of the book’s tensions: who can assemble and who is assembled — the gap and similarities between them. That is why so much of the book is informed by avant-garde art practices (land art, performance art, aleatoric practices, etc.): the speakers or characters referenced are imagined as works of art or as works in progress, as artists who work outside of the institutions of art. (As a side note, I recently learned that Williams, who as you know was a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist famously associated with land art! Which just feels perfect to me.) 

Wilkinson: And speaking of place, having met you in El Paso where you now live, what’s changed in your work since moving to the border of Texas and Mexico?

Alcalá: El Paso made the book possible for it created distance in some ways from my own perceived working class identity and from my place of origin.

I envision El Paso coming in more concretely, too in a future project, particularly its textile history. It was one of the primary finishers of jeans in the US prior to NAFTA. So, many of those stonewashed jeans you wore (yes, you) came from here. I just want to find a way to situate myself more fully in the place where I live and I seem to always do it through textile, which, as one person told me recently, is in my blood.

In the last few years here, the level of violence in Juárez, a city in Mexico that can be seen from El Paso, has risen to staggering heights. When I arrived here, there were women, many of them maquiladora workers, being raped and killed, and now the violence has spread throughout the city’s population, mostly related to drug wars. And I’m trying to get my mind around that and what my relationship to it is, how to talk about it in a way that’s meaningful and not exploitative or reductive. Meanwhile, I teach Benjamin Saenz’s The Book of What Remains, which I think takes on this issue, among others, in a complex, yet direct way.

Wilkinson: Obviously, violence and sexual violence must permeate your work — and life — in direct and indirect ways. What are your strategies? What have you learned about how you process violence? How does it shape your work?

Alcalá: That’s a good question. I know that others have detected anger in my work, but violence? I don’t know. Do you see violence in Undocumentaries? I am writing some things now that look at how we are connected to violence that doesn’t affect us directly. I think that violence (in all its forms — towards others in other countries, towards the oceans, etc.), our complicity in it, is very difficult to write about when it hasn’t happened to us, partly because the lyric is often seen (and taught) as a vehicle for first-hand experience. Extending (or reimagining) the “I,” without seeming predatory, romantic, or exploitative is hard (but necessary).

Wilkinson: I think many of the poems in Undocumentaries have a way of articulating a self (or selves) through a violence implicit in other matter of fact activities. As in the lines “Remembering is a trucking / yourself in” or “A dirty song, an ethnic dance. / A disappearance.” It’s not always violence as such, but an implication of it throughout, or a sort of permeation of it through the fabric of the book’s terrain. It doesn’t take long for a poem beginning with a description of John Cage “playing a chance operation” to leap to “My mother, the girl, is bleeding from the procedure.” I think that’s what I mean. A kind of subflooring of violence permeating the poem’s shifts and turns. Does this make sense or resonate for you? Is this conscious in your writing?

Alcalá: A “subflooring of violence”! Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. A subflooring so buried beneath layers of linoleum and tile (writing) that I was hardly aware of it. That isn’t quite true; I’m aware of the violence that is part of the fabric of these lives I’ve represented in the book. After all, the book begins with the bodies of workers scattered beneath lawns. But in my own thinking, when you asked me the question, this violence had become so part of the landscape, this rumbling beneath our feet, that it seemed separate from other acts of violence we were referring to. And, yet, it isn’t.

Wilkinson: I want to ask about the officiality of many of the poem’s titles versus the intimate landscape the poems actually draw from. Titles like “Party Line,” “Economic Crisis,” “National Affair,” “What It Means to Be Civilized,” and “Governance” all hearken to a kind of whitewashed, official idiom. And this seems to allow you a lot of contextual material to pivot from — since these are often very personal, introspective poems artfully belying their very titles. What draws you to titles like these? Do they come before or after you’ve written the poems? How do they work for you?

Alcalá: The titles come mostly after I’ve written the poems. I’ve been reading Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” and thinking of her clever — and complex — assertion that “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” For me — and for others, of course — the self is defined by boundaries; we are labeled in terms of nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. But those boundaries are “frayed,” to use Spivak’s term, in our rhetorical use of the language. For me, poetry is meant to show the fray between the self and larger structures that aim to contain or name or stabilize the self. But also I’m not necessarily interested in telling my “story” but in using the autobiographical as a way to explore these boundaries. That moving out — and that fraying between the language of the “true events” and the rhetorical moves of the poem — disrupt any inherent veracity, but the act of translation that I see as the poem respects that original “story” in a way that mere retelling could not. Spivak urges “intimacy” with the original, a surrender to it, and I think trying to understand what these experiences or lives connected to my own are saying — and not saying — and how they have been shaped by certain things (including my own maneuvers) — is more important than literality.

Wilkinson: I’d love to hear more about the avant-garde practices that most inform the work as well. You mention land and performance art, aleatoric practices — are these approaches in line with the kinds of artistic and working class tensions you cite?

Alcalá: I think that the poems map a kind of ambivalence regarding avant-garde art — any art perhaps, even poetry. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that art and poetry allow us to understand our world and to be in it more fully. That the poems I write are necessary as part of a larger ethical engagement with the world. There’s also a bit of this feeling that maybe poetry and art are inconsequential, especially when they don’t relate to “real lives” — that it’s all about being clever, ironic, “making it new” or “experimental,” writing for each other. My work struggles with these two polarities, and you can see that in the poems. I try not to shy away from it. I vacillate between glib and downright sincere. I want to just say “it” — whatever “it” is — and then I realize I don’t, because that feels false, too.

The other way I think of the book is as a kind of land art or assemblage/performance/installation of memory, which attempts to map out and draw attention to experience or a place in a way that acknowledges my own intervention. The book isn’t about something that “happened” but something that is constructed out of things that are remembered, imagined, invented, found, present. So the artistic or literary references are partially how I make this construction apparent. I am saying, there is a hand at work here. In “Land Art in the Silk City,” there’s a boy who keeps looking for a way to draw attention to both himself, as well as the place in which he lives — he wants to restore it to its original stature, to expose its beauty. He keeps sending away for guides that will allow him to develop special powers, to bring himself and the place that defines him into evidence. I feel the work of this book as connected to that boy’s desires. For me, those special powers can be found in language and art.

Parsing arias

A dialogue through 'abu ghraib arias'

This email correspondence/dialogue elicited by the abu ghraib arias between Iraq War veteran and poet Micah Cavaleri and poet and peace activist Philip Metres took place between June and September 2011. The conversation ranges from poetic analysis of particular poems of the arias to asking larger questions regarding ethics in wartime, in light of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2004. Throughout the dialogue, they engage the theological, political, and aesthetic questions embedded in this book and in the wider poetic practices that employ documentary texts and the voices of others.

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Philip,

Apologies for getting to you a day late. A new baby, a reading, and the chance to teach a philosophy course at Michigan Tech this fall overwhelmed me all at once. Many good things coming at me these days. Which is a good thing as well as a segue into your arias. The religious fragments of your book transform an account of torture into a sort of theodicy, sort of like the Book of Job … an attempt to … not find the good, I suppose, which was how I intended the segue to work, but to confront or transform evil. Although evil may be too big and airy a notion. Disgusting, maybe, is the word. An attempt to confront the disgusting. 

In “The Blues of Charles Graner” there is the explicit acknowledgment of the disagreement between Graner’s Christian values and what he values in his role as a corrections officer: “can’t / help but love / make a grown man / piss himself.” (As an aria, I imagine these words worked over and over, climbing up octaves and then falling down as deep as the human voice can go … which makes me wonder how the idea of an aria is operating in this book.) The arias don’t leave me with a mere conflict of values, however.

The “(echo / ex/)” sections combine ancient religious/moral texts with accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib, which, initially, draws attention to the conflict Graner noted, by the difference on the page between the style of the notes on torture, sometimes faded, sometimes an ordinary black type, while the ancient texts are set in darker lettering or italicized. Strangely, though, the ancient texts intermingle with the Abu Ghraib accounts to produce beautiful, musical pieces, where I am drawn away from the conflict of values and wonder at what is being said about notions of holiness and scripture. For instance, the character of G functions as both Graner the torturer and God the creator and torturer:

G came and laughed

                                                            lo, in her mouth 

                        it will break again

arms behind

                                                broken because I can’t

sever pain

Again, there is this perfect instance of the melding of the role of torturer and creator/life-giver:

In the beginning                                      I was there for 67 days of

████████████                        torture I saw myself on the face

of the deep                   And the darkness he called Night

                                                  And Graner released

my hand from the door and he cuffed my hand in the back. 

The con-fusion of torturer and creator challenges the place of religion as anything like a moral guide at the same time it places religious values next to roles Americans (claim to) value, in this case the role of a soldier at war, undermining the claim to be able to hold both … what … religious values and patriotic/American values? What is most interesting to me, though, at least right now, is the way that your weaving together of what we consider such radically different texts leads to a reading that finds holiness in an act of torture. In the second quote, for example, “67 days of/ torture” resolves itself with the victim falling into some sort of mystical vision where he says “I saw myself on the face / of the deep And the darkness he called Night / And Graner released / my hand from the door.”

I am going to leave my comments here for the moment, as I want to give you a chance to respond. This book is a wonderful challenge for me, so I look forward to digging into it more deeply with you.

Thanks.

Micah

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Dear Micah,

First, congratulations on your new life, both your child’s and yours. It’s strange to think that it was right “in the wake” (as we are wont to say) of September 11, 2001, that my first child was conceived, and so there has been the twinning of my life as a father and the years of the War on Terror. And even stranger to realize a decade later that we’re still very much still “in the wake,” “in the dream” or “in the nightmare.” I think of John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Or Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

But you capture something exactly when you call the “arias” a theodicy, my poetic witness to and struggle with the question of — for lack of a better term — evil, and whether one might believe in a God that would allow such suffering. As I’ve written in the afterword, the “arias” emerged from long meditation on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which I decided that I could not write my way into or out of those photographs of abuse taken by the military police at Abu Ghraib. Only when I stumbled on transcripts of the testimony given by the Iraqi prisoners themselves did I discover a way to slip inside that prison. I think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “through me many long dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, / Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs.”

And yes, the Charles Graner poem highlights the contradictions at the heart of each of us who professes to be Christian and yet finds ourselves acting against the primal love of Jesus. Nowhere is the contradiction of Christian life as extreme as in war — yet ironically, many American soldiers profess to being deeply religious, even devout. (As I’m writing from Northern Ireland, I should just note that Gerry Adams, one of the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, went to mass every Sunday, even as he was planning bombings and assassinations.) Reading the transcripts of Iraqis abused at Abu Ghraib, one feels as if we are reading a perverse version of Genesis, in which God is a decreator. Graner, perhaps, as Obscene Father (to quote Slavoj Žižek).

You’ve put your finger on what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of writing this poem, and perhaps writing any poetry that confronts disaster, that witnesses to violence; are we making such violence beautiful, and therefore somehow missing its profoundly traumatic core? Are we aestheticizing other people’s pain? I hope not, but it’s not for me to say. I recall my annoyance at a dear friend, a poet and a Marine, who is wont to quote Dostoyevsky’s line “beauty will save the world.” Conversations about beauty make me a little uncomfortable, because I’m not sure what anyone means by beauty. Robert Hass’s poem “Winged and Acid Dark” has become for me a guide for how one can write affirmatively and humbly about the difficulty of navigating the horror and beauty that exists simultaneously, always, often in the same spaces and times:

WINGED AND ACID DARK

A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamer Platz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine. 

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

Some poets fetishize horror, and some poets pretend the knowable world is the circumference of grass just outside their studio window. All I know is that I cannot not look away. But the horror of the world is not the (only) truth of the world.

I’m writing to you from Belfast, Northern Ireland and have been leading a group of students and faculty in a course on peacebuilding. For a number of the people that we have met, the moment of metanoia, or conversion, was when they recognized in the pain of the other their own pain, when they saw how they were suffering together. Bill Shaw, a Protestant who grew up in the Unionist enclave of Sandy Row, said “I was 17 before I met a Catholic.” It wasn’t until Bill met “Sean,” a Catholic, at their workplace, that he began to see that Catholics were human beings, that the two of them just wanted to have a pint together and meet girls. Yet every night, after their pint, they each took the bus back to their separate neighborhoods. How long it took for them to be able to reach outside of their enclaves, their boxes, and forge a friendship that would overcome those barriers, both internal and external.

The work of grassroots peacebuilding is fundamentally about relationship, and that the situation of war as we know it constantly ossifies our roles and identities as “national beings.” You know better than I how being a soldier narrows the possibilities of human being, human relation, despite the amazing opportunities that one may have with working with fellow soldiers and local people. I’d be curious to hear how you respond to this poem as a soldier, in particular, if that is not too difficult!

Philip

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Philip,

It is interesting that you bring in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. In some way, it is the ability of Whitman’s “Song” to embrace everything that gives it a claim to the status of scripture in my mind. (My mother always recited bits of the Song when I was a kid, the most important part for me being, of course: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / {I am large, I contain multitudes.}” I took that as permission to be everything.) The embrace of contradictions is at work in abu ghraib arias as well … in a way that brings to light contradictions that are maybe talked about but, usually, talked over at the same time. For instance, in the “(echo /ex/)” sections, which I absolutely love, we read:

of my clothes, even my underwear. They gave me women’s

underwear, that was rose color with flowers in it and they put the

bag over my face. One of them whispered in my ear “today I am

going to fuck you,” thy name shall be and he said this in Arabic.

Whoever was with me experienced the same thing … cuffed my

hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to

the point that my feet were on the ground and I was hanging there

for about five hours just because I asked about the time, because I

wanted to pray … took all  my clothes and took the underwear and

he put it over my head. After he released me I don’t know if they

When I am reading, I distill this section down to read: They gave me / my / ear // thy name shall be / hanging there / over my head.” Which is two acts: an act of torture and a magical act of naming/claiming (or, possibly, an act of creation or blessing) all at once. It is biblical. And the grayed out text is a sort of whisper, the reality of now that is … well, the instantiation of the perverse scripture … which really may not be perverse at all, when compared to scripture. But, yes, I agree, there is a danger of fetishizing horror by taking it into the holy. (The danger of justifying the horror or calling it mere nature … the danger of anything that gives some sort of moral permission or necessity to the torturer.)

The arias tap into a perversion at the heart of holiness, though, which I think is what just a minute ago I was suggesting is acknowledged but talked over. You mentioned, for example, the idea of Graner as a sort of Obscene Father and the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a sort of perverse version of Genesis, an astoundingly visionary insight, by the way! You see Genesis in those transcripts because Genesis is there in those transcripts, I think. I mean, there is the section quoted earlier where an Iraqi sees himself “on the face / of the deep               And the darkness he called Night” after enduring sixty-seven days of torture, a clear reflection of the world before creation, as if the Iraqi is forced out of himself into a mystical state where he sees as God saw. These mirror images return again and again. There is Noah’s flood: “G        pouring / water / screaming  ‘my heart’ / And the waters shall          flood / all flesh.” And Creation, of course, though a sick creation, a nightmarish, disfigurement: “on the third day                         G         came / made me           no clothing / wires on my fingers                         penis.” And so many other echoes, not just of Genesis but the Gospel story of re-creation/redemption.

Strangely, the perversion of scripture is in some way natural to scripture, so that is one of the ways I see the arias questioning holiness, goodness. The perversion is highlighted and interrogated openly. At first, I read these poems as a conflict between two sets of values, Christianity and the American soldier, but then I asked myself, what conflict? Isn’t this an updated scripture? I mean, how twisted are the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, right? The sacrifice of Isaac, a commandment to wipe out the Canaanites, psalms celebrating the murder of infants, and on and on. Familiar stuff, but it is, I think, at the heart of the notion of holiness. The sublime. I am thinking of Kant here right now, his notion of the sublime, that formless object that threatens to overwhelm us.

Hass’s absolutely astounding poem is definitely relevant here. We celebrate soldiers. In America, we have celebrated the Spartan quality of our special operations soldiers. I know that in the army, General Lee is nearly a god … or at least a saint. And the movie “The Last Samurai” idealizes the samurai as grounded in Buddhism. But what are soldiers in reality and what is war? No one seems to want to really answer those questions. Our answers are usually something like the movie “Black Hawk Down,” a wonderful movie that skips over guys going home and beating their wives or killing themselves. “The Last Samurai” ignores the thuggish nature of the samurai as a mercenary. And General Lee … well, he said it best: “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another.” Or, more gently, war and soldiering is:

Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

War is disgusting. The people involved in it are often disgusting. (You see I avoid the word evil.) War and politics (and scripture/holiness) transform everything unrecognizably. I mean, we want to justify our wars, call them moral, but I am not sure how morality applies. War is a sublime, formless object.

One final thought was how your Soviet poems have a different aesthetic than these Abu Ghraib poems. The arias are more immediate, felt and horrifying, and the Soviet poems of yours that I have read are moving but also meditative. I am not sure if that is due to how I came to the poems or if that is part of the poems themselves. I do find a subtle and overwhelming meditative/reflective quality in the Abu Ghraib poems, as they reach so deeply into religion, but it is something the Abu Ghraib poems make me work for.

Micah

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Dear Micah,

Speaking of contradictions, I knew the poem was emerging when the arias found their “other half” — that is, the words of the Standard Operating Procedure and of US soldiers. Before that, I’d focused entirely on the language of the prisoners, which was the big gap in the mainstream narrative of Abu Ghraib; yet I wanted to pull back a little, as in that photograph from the Abu Ghraib scandal where Ivan Frederick is visible either clipping his fingernails or looking at a camera, in the foreground of the picture where the infamous picture of the hooded detainee is standing on a box with wires attached to his hands and feet. When that conversation could be seen — between official procedural discourse, soldier testimony, and detainee testimony — something larger emerged; it felt less like a poem of witness and more like a document of the war, writ large.

When I think of perversion at the heart of holiness, I return to Job. In this rather unusual text, God essentially makes a wager with Satan that Job will maintain his faith despite whatever suffering may befall him. So Satan takes away Job’s family, wealth, friends, and physical health, stripping him of all worldly things. Job cries out in protest against his plight to God, and God’s answer is something like, I am mightier than you, mightier than can imagine. Sound familiar? In other words, there is no ethical argument for Job’s suffering. Job does not “deserve” it. It’s one of the most frightening and strange moments in the Bible, right up there with God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, or to the people to commit genocide in the Book of Samuel. This is a very human God, the flipside of Graner.

Which is why being a soldier puts one in the most difficult moral space; one is both Abraham and Isaac, at the same moment; the obedient one who listens to his commanding officer, and the one put in harm’s way. And sometimes, that soldier is also God, in those moments where no God is.

The immediacy of the incommensurable, mediated and yet unmediated, is what I was after in the arias. I wanted the reader to feel very strongly both the ways in which this text was a constructed thing, a borrowed thing, at the same time that it was marked by a human voice, struggling against all “mediations.” My poems about living in Russia were “cooked,” to use Lowell’s distinction, in a kind of distance that took years to develop, but perhaps at times they lost some of the raw wildness, the tangled wilderness, of what it meant to live there at a time of economic implosion and societal crisis.

Philip

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Dear Philip,

I did actually pick up on the SOP sections as the flip-side of the (echo /ex/) parts of the arias. The violence of the (echo /ex/) sections definitely stands in opposition to the care demanded by the SOPs … care that is given to a book or a dead body, but not a person. For instance, we read in the SOPs:

thereby reducing the friction over searching

                        will avoid handling or touching

            may or may not require a language
                                                                                    to
open

pages in an upright manner (as if reading

Or:

like sandalwood                     

the whole body                                   a prayer                                 
                    folded
                                                                                    folded .

These sections are wonderful in how they show a concern with perfection on the part of the military couched in striking, sometimes musical and sometimes strange language. At the same time, the concern with perfection seems proper to art and ethics, but is instead given to the handling of a book, a mere object, or a dead body, more than likely the body of someone killed by the same forces handling the dead man.

Another way the SOPs seem to operate in the arias is that they give us a glimpse of the conflicting directives given to soldiers. So, in “MUSLIM BURIAL” a body is a prayer arising out of … well, so much … out of the way the body is handled, or maybe the way we handle the body is the sort of prayer we make … or the body is a prayer in its amazing folded geometry, geometry found in its chemistry, its DNA. In the same poem, the same Standard Operating Procedure that directs a soldier to handle a body as a prayer, I find a cold diagram of how to prepare a burial trench … not at all prayer-like. The diagram is concerned with perfection, but perfection of action. A coldly formal perfection, maybe, that confuses the ethical description of “the whole body [as] a prayer” with the outward acts of prayer.

“Handling the Koran” also questions the conflicting rules soldiers must work under. It is almost as if the poem is organized in conflicts. The first line, “avoid handling or touching” challenges the last lines, “handle     as if it were fragile / delicate art”. This repeats throughout the poem, so we get “to open the one cover with one hand” impossibly set against using “two hands at all times”, and the lines “in an upright manner (as / if reading” are immediately followed by the order to ignore the text of the Koran: “if reading / not every page is to be.”

Finally, there is the strange way the Koran is treated both with reverence and as an object of ridicule or danger. So we read, again from “Handling the Koran,” that soldiers are to “avoid handling or touching / a language specific.” And earlier on, in “Searching the Koran,” which implies the Koran is either being interrogated or is a source of intelligence regarding the enemy, we learn that “handling or touching / may or may not require a language / to / open” and that “the book is / contours or protrusions / binding / the binding.” That is, the Koran is not a piece of culture to be appreciated and understood. It is a mere object made of leather and paper and ink. We can ignore reaching beyond our own view of the world, via Arabic and the Koran, and remain safely in our own language, English. So, again, while the SOPs demand perfect care, they also deny the value of what is handled.

In all of these contradictions, I continually wonder, what ethic? What ethic guides our actions in war? Is there such a thing? I mean, if we go back to the notion of the sublime as a formless object that threatens to overwhelm us, then, in some way, war and its perversions are not perverse on their own level. And that is why I thought I was too close to justifying disgusting acts by bringing up the sublime earlier. But I do question what it means to talk about ethics at the level of war … as I think the arias do, in how they confront the difficulty of making sense of the perversion of holiness (that is to say, the difficulty of making sense of the notion of holiness as perverse and perverting the notion of holiness).

And maybe that is where your idea of witness or an account of war comes in. That is, the account is all that can be given. But then, where is the value of protest or opposition? (Maybe the value isn’t in the protest at all. Where is it, though? Or is that the wrong question to ask when discussing the poetry of witness and the poetry of protest.)

Micah

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Dear Micah,

I find myself rediscovering the poems through your readings of them; it’s as if I were some sort of mole snuffling through the dirt of the words, and suddenly you open up a light into the tunnel, and I’m blind and I can see all at once.

That the poems have become a way to ask the questions — about ethics in war — seems to me the gift of a thoughtful and ethical reader, since too many of our conversations about poetry tend to reduce poetry to a series of language games or political gestures. When I was in Belfast with the peacebuilding class, a suddenly heated conversation blew up after our visit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the renamed police force (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had a history of being Unionists who committed crimes against Catholics in the North). One student, an ardent supporter of Irish independence and fan of Michael Collins, argued that during the independence movement, it was “acceptable” to order the killing of police. Another student, the wife of a police officer, was appalled, and called him out on it. One of the faculty entered into the fray, and argued that “it is never acceptable to kill anyone.” The situation devolved from there, most of it relating to the intensity of a day in which we spent thinking through what peace might look like from inside a Crimestopper armored police vehicle. I think basically my colleague was right, though his phrasing sounded as absolutist as the student sounded relativist. How can we not be disturbed by the killing of another human being? Can we ever say that it is “acceptable”? We may cede to its necessity, perhaps, but to call it “acceptable” feels like a sudden plunge into rationalization. We could talk about Just War Theory — and we have, for centuries — but we need new paradigms, such as Just Peacemaking, which aims to manage conflict before it comes to killing, and to adjudicate killing within the modes of restorative rather than retributive justice. It’s all easy for me to say, however, from the safe distance of civilian life. Basically, we as citizens have failed our soldiers, when we have failed to brake imperial power, when we rationalize wars of convenience rather than wars of necessity.

Which leads to your question about whether poetry is the right medium to protest, to resist, and whether the witnessing function is in some sense more apt for poetry. I spent an entire book — Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront — exploring these questions, articulating a series of arguments for poetry as a mode of resistance, and a mode of resistance which is most fruitful when in dialogue with the peace movement and when it contains in itself a vision beyond resistance. I hesitate to boil it all down to a couple sentences, but that is a start. The question of efficacy is a torment, because we know of the seemingly-inexorable powers of imperial war — but ours, at the bare minimum, is to refuse to justify the unjustifiable. As Herodotus wrote in his History, I write to “prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion,” striving not only to chronicle what has happened, but also articulate the contours and fleeting images of a more just, peaceful, sustainable world. Naomi Shihab Nye articulated this vision of belatedness and hope well in her poem “Jerusalem”: “it’s late but everything comes next.”

 

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Philip,

Apologies for taking so long to write back. Family visited and everything was pushed to the side and then I was playing catch up on every project, which means everything was neglected.

So I have been thinking about my original reactions to the poems in arias and your last note, especially your discussion of the heated debate between the student who saw it as “acceptable” to order the killing of police officers and the professor who declared killing is never acceptable. In some ways this same debate is present in me and in the arias. In “The Blues of Javal Davis,” you write: “stay open about drawing an opinion ████ / ████████ from / the comforts of your living.” And I often sympathize with Davis’s sentiment … I mean, things we do in war are very different from what we would find acceptable in day-to-day life. And we can’t have war without those usually unacceptable acts, regardless of what people seem to believe regarding just war. (Or, at least, that is my take. We can’t expect people to act like gentlemen when they are focused on dismembering each other.) Normally unacceptable acts are acceptable in times of war, assuming war is ever justified. QED. At the same time, when I was reading the arias for the first time, I was taken in by the mixing of the victims’ statements with the ancient, religious language, but stumbled when I came across the blues sections. I think I read through “The Blues of Lane McCotter” as I would any other poem, taking in the multiple layers of meaning or ways of reading, thinking about how interesting it is that terms are blacked out but easily inferred from the context, reflecting on the ridiculousness of that sort of redaction. But when I read the Javal Davis poem, I thought about how stupid his character is …even though he is a real person. I was offended by him and his lame attempt at self-justification through the statement that others simply don’t understand, as if that provides a justification rather than just shutting people off. I was offended by his argument that “CNN says we’re dumb / poor kids from Garbagecan USA / it didn’t turn out to be that way,” which, to me, indicated a complete lack of self-awareness, as Davis and the other soldiers at Abu Ghraib pretty much proved CNN correct. But I was also offended, at first, by the implication that those soldiers represented soldiers, the implication that soldiers lack any sort of depth or music, beyond their pathetic attempts at singing the blues.

The thing is, I see most soldiers in the way I objected to initially. I remember soldiers telling stories about their tours in Iraq, how one sergeant I worked with recalled looking out over a crowd of civilians during some protest and wishing he could pull the trigger of his .50 cal machine gun just so he could kill someone, or how another sergeant bragged about sabotaging a civilian’s truck out in the middle of the desert just because the truck matched the description of an insurgent’s vehicle. The soldier with the .50 cal even admitted he would have pulled the trigger if his partner would have done so first, which called to mind “The Blues of Lynddie England” and her completely unbelievable denial of any sort of responsibility, as if she had been hypnotized.

No one really talks about the beautiful little girl who was always outside Cedar (a base in Iraq) when we pulled in from our missions early in the morning. The mindset is all about killing and proving yourself. But that is what war is. If I tell guys I thought the desert was beautiful or that really all I wanted to do was practice my Arabic (which didn’t happen much at all), they always look at me as if I lost something.

That is “The Blues of Joe Darby,” I guess. Or the corollary to Joe Darby’s blues. The military is rigged against anyone trying to live out the ideal of the gentleman soldier. Joe Darby was outed and his life put at risk by the same Secretary of Defense who is supposed to enforce the regulations that Darby was attempting to adhere to. That is the way military life and ethics are structured. If your friend shoots into a crowd, you are expected to do so … or at least, you are expected not to say anything. At best, you kick his ass later on for being a hothead. (I often thought about what I would do if my guys stepped over the line. I think it would have been easier to kill them than to turn them in. Luckily it never got that far, although some guys did get too twitchy for my own moral comfort when civilians got too close.) But if someone turns against the unit!

Actually, I was talking to an army doctor about these problems not all that long ago, saying that I hated working with these kinds of people, that I was tired of their view of the world. The response was similar to what you write in “The Blues of Ken Davis”: “they say talk to a chaplain / they say it’s all your perception / it’s how you perceive.” But I did not have any sort of glamorous notion of America’s Army when I joined … I just wanted to “live the dream” as we say. War was neither good nor bad to me … it just was. What I objected to wasn’t due to a great shift in my moral perceptions, as the doctor suggested in an attempt to explain away my disgust with the people I worked with. My objection was to the contradiction between the quality of the people in the military as well as those in charge of it and the (probably impossible) ideal of the gentleman soldier who goes out to fight a war, regardless of its causes, in a way that demonstrates courage and a concern for honest humanity and a fascination with all aspects of life.

So my initial reading of the arias was a mixture of fascination at the uses of found texts and the melding of different sorts of language with a confused set of reactions that both recognized the depravity of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and their all-too-common view of “the enemy” as well as a knee-jerk desire to somehow complicate soldiers and defend them. With everything I have said, though, I do think there may be a way of deepening our view of soldiers. I just don’t think it is going to be done by pretending they are morally outstanding people. They are just people. Maybe the way to complicate them is to see how ordinary people behave in times of war. Ideals just don’t have a place?

I just now noticed that I haven’t said anything about poetry as witnessing …which is something I think I definitely want to tackle, but in another email.

Micah

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Micah,

I imagine that this last message had been working its way out of you for a little while, and I’m glad for it. It’s funny, because at the same time that it enraged you for its moral relativism and excuse-making, “The Blues of Javal Davis” worked aesthetically and ethically for me as a kind of admonishment, to slow down my judgment, to remind myself that I should be careful that my personal distance from the atrocity of Abu Ghraib didn’t become a shield from the morally complex position in which soldiers found themselves, and the range of responses to that moral complexity.

There was, in addition to Darby — the kind of classic voice of conscience — a man named Joyner (the “J” of the poem), who would give a blanket to prisoners who had been stripped or beaten the night before. Joyner didn’t blow the whistle as Darby had, but he did act humanely toward these prisoners. But could he have gone further? Maybe. But he knew, as Darby invariably knew, that crossing the line of silence would expel him forever from the brotherhood, the brotherhood and all its conditional love.

So there are Darbys and Joyners and Davises and Graners, and each ultimately has to live with what they did. Some have had to serve time in prison. And of course, as we all know, there are the unnamed operatives who are culpable for acts not only of torture but also of murder who have borne no punishment, because they have acted with the blessing of the state. And of course, this problem is not new to the Iraq War; Achilles’s rage at Agamemnon’s abuse of power is what opens The Iliad.

Maybe you will be the writer to continue to complicate our vision of what soldiering is like, in ways that we civilians can only imagine!

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Philip,

I will definitely add more to the conversation in the next week. I am off to Minnesota for a week, so I will once again be moving slowly but I will have time in the evenings to write. Just to be sure, the response as a soldier was honest but does not reflect any sort of unfriendliness to you or your work. I just wanted to be clear about that as email and not actually having met each other in person can make these sorts of exchanges strange.

Micah

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Micah,

No offense taken, truly and earnestly. If war, and the conditions of war, do not enrage, perplex and cause us grief, then it is not war. And if the poetry of war does not enrage, perplex, and cause us grief, it is not truthful!

Philip

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Philip,

So I want to shift gears slightly for a bit, though I am sure we will someday have to come back to the gut-based reactions to the arias. I want to look for a bit at the arias as a purely aesthetic work … if that is possible. You discussed the notion of witness and finding the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a way to “slip inside the prison.” But the poems are not just an act of reporting, given the haunting but beautiful text and linguistically layered form. Since the texts are documents that are there as a witness on their own … why poetry? Is there something to the act of making use of a text, juxtaposing it with other texts, cutting the text strategically that does something more? Are there aesthetic or theoretical motivations for the choice of texts you worked with that can be separated from the moral/ethical concerns of the arias?

Micah

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Micah,

I came to this textual strategy as a result of my years of researching war and war resistance poetry (in Behind the Lines). My increasing interest in the employment of documentary materials in poetry (see my article, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy” at the Poetry Foundation website) came partly from the exhaustion of the lyric — or its misemployment by civilian poets distant from the scene of battle.

I’m thinking in particular of Denise Levertov’s struggle to find an adequate position from which to write about the Vietnam War, and the concomitant resistance to it. In Behind the Lines, she becomes a figure of the Romantic excesses of the New Left’s relationship to the Vietnamese struggle. In short, while she was a fine poet, and wrote some important antiwar poems, she also wrote a number of poems that were bad in all the ways that antiwar poems can be bad — self-righteous, dichotomous (“us” / “them”), blood-lusting, unbelievable, naively idealizing, etc. But one poem she wrote during the Persian Gulf War, “News Report,” always stuck with me, for its cut-up of a news story about the mass burial of living Iraqi soldiers holed up in a trench. I saw in poems like that, and of course in Reznikoff and Rukeyser, an acknowledgment of the distance and mediatization that marks most peoples’ experience of war, while still acting as a kind of witness.

One of my arguments about documentary poetry is from Muriel Rukeyser’s notion of a poetry that “extends the document,” — that gives the factual another life. I would not know about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster without Rukeyser’s great “Book of the Dead,” nor would I have been introduced so aesthetically, so empathetically to Steve Biko were it not for Peter Gabriel, or Bloody Sunday without U2, or the Mothers of the Disappeared without Sting (yes, sadly, ironically, Sting contributed to my political awareness!). Perhaps I’m mixing pop and politics, documentary and songs too fluidly here, since documentary poetry is often considered part of the Objectivist tradition, in which one allows for the language to speak for itself, almost in a machine-line way, and popular music is such an affect-laden mode. Yet what each can do is that they direct our attention to other voices not always given the stage in our grand narratives.

Perhaps the most notable difference in the arias from typical documentary poetry (if there is such a thing) is in the attention to affect. All documentary poetry engages in revision, juxtaposition and collage. But the arias are pretty busy, with cut voices (the tortured), more fully-syntaxed voices (the soldiers, mostly), operational legalese (the Standard Operating Procedure Manual), Biblical quotes (almost entirely from Genesis). I kept moving from minimalism (typical of documentary verse) to maximalism (where noise was turned up to eleven). My hope is that the mixing and mashing work to cumulative effect, and not too much to the loss of those Iraqis voices, already contorted, translated, and subject to loss. The ethical concern remains part of the equation, attempting to leap the abyss between appropriating (the modernist “great artists steal” mantra) and representing/signifying/crying out (the postmodernist desire to open the voice to polyvocality).

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Philip,

So while we are having this conversation I am also working my way through your book Behind the Lines. It is quite informative to hear you discuss your theoretical background together with Behind the Lines as a resource. The arias are so layered, it is a very satisfying experience … although I have to confess that I struggle to keep up with the conversation. 

Levertov, as you mentioned, is viewed as an example of the failed use of lyrical poetry as a mode of resistance in Behind the Lines. I take it, though, that you view her as evolving and learning from her earlier mistakes, attempting to rebuild her poetry in light of the “dictum that the best war poems in a television age foreground the very mediatization of the imagery of war.” The fragmentation in your work is also an attempt to take that same dictum seriously, I think, maybe learning from Levertov and pushing forward to give “the factual another life.” I mean, as noted before, the documents you are drawing from are there in the public domain for anyone to read. But you are certainly giving new life to them by reworking them and highlighting deeper possibilities of meaning vis-à-vis our beliefs regarding the place of religion, ethics and individuals in the face of war (and don’t let me forget to add the life you give to the documents by uncovering their interesting lyrical possibilities). To say it another way, those documents taken separately tell us about ancient Middle Eastern religion and law, legal and practical principles guiding US military intelligence, or the testimony of a “single” horrific event, Abu Ghraib. But separated in that way for the purposes of presentation and digestion, which they are not in reality, the full challenge of Abu Ghraib goes unrealized … the result of a “few bad apples,” maybe even the effect of bad policy, but never a reflection of an entire corrupted culture. Whether that corrupted culture is limited in its scope to that of the military and the war or is national (the United States) or worldwide in reach is unclear. But the critique is there.

I think the use of language and collage throughout the arias is also interesting in that the cutting up and rewriting/remixing of texts allows that, as the arias say themselves, “the meaning of some words / further clarify / names.” At the same time, the arias “don’t translate proverbs word for word/don’t translate poems word for word” as they work “to translate letters, not / analyze them” by a method that “clearly and legibly   skips lines / as close as possible / to the original.” (An absolutely brilliant formula, by the way.)

So maybe I am off here, but part of the challenge of the arias as I read them is how we treat linguistic and cultural artifacts (and I mean this in an aesthetic rather than ethical sense). The method of the arias is to take words as building blocks, bits of syntax rather than semantic units … and the meaning arises after the bits are brought together as a whole. The prohibition not to translate word for word and the demand to skip lines are taken from one of the SOP sections of the arias, so it reflects a practical, military-oriented vision of meaning and language as a set of tools to communicate actionable intelligence, which may be hidden within poems and proverbs, while the culture in its literary and linguistic forms is unimportant, irrelevant. That same set of rules at work in the SOP is also at work in the construction of the arias, but to a different effect, and that is the challenge. Where the SOP’s intent is “to translate letters, not / analyze them,” the arias wish to uncover meanings through working to “further clarify / names.” But the arias must first approach pieces of language as building blocks rather than bits which are meaningful on their own and untranslatable from one context to another. Which is, maybe, one of the fascinating aspects of language that poetry has worked to uncover … language is at once completely void of fixed meaning and able to be reworked almost as we see fit as well as forcing itself and its meanings on us as we see in the many-layered, polyphonic arias.

I hope that is intelligible … at least a little. I am off to Austin for a week, but I hope to hear from you soon.

Micah

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Micah,

Your reading of the arias is precisely what I hoped for. And your distinction — that the Standard Operating Procedure is centrally concerned with “actionable” intelligence, rather than something else — is the knife that separates the kind of thinking required of military intelligence and the intelligences outside of its ken. I’m reminded that my father, while teaching counterinsurgency after his active service in the Vietnam War (1967–1968), focused on the writings and theories of Ho Chi Minh; it was critical, the US counterinsurgency theory went, to know the enemy … in order to win the war. Not to know the enemy to know the enemy, but to anticipate the enemy’s future moves.

I’m struck, to move obliquely from the point, that in the warrior tradition, there often was a great deal of respect for the “worthy” enemy, who demonstrated courage and nobility, because defeating such an enemy would make the victory more honorable (and even defeat, perhaps, less dishonorable).

With modern war, technowar, bureaucratic drone war, insurgency/counterinsurgency, it would appear that the enemy is reduced to body counts (or worse, not even worthy of counting). Similarly, the term “actionable” in this context means something that one might use for defeating the enemy. What is the opposite of “actionable”? The useless? The beautiful?

Actually, the original title of the arias was “   u   r  arias.” On this version’s title page, the “u” and “r” are printed in the “bold” font, the rest is in “ghost” grayscale font; for me, the poem has always been a mirror, in which we see ourselves. The way we look, and how we read, and what we do, reflects back upon us, whether we like it or not. We always hope our reading and our action moves us outside of ourselves, but does it? Also, I hoped to echo the idea of an “ur text” — all of the documents to which the poem points — which itself points back to the original Ur, one of the earliest cities of human civilization. As long as we have had writing, we’ve had laments about war, beginning with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s “Lament to the Spirit of War.” Perhaps Thomas Merton was right: “that which is oldest is most young and most new. There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty … It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.”

Philip

Disciplinary pertinence; required expertise

Inside the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (image courtesy of CERN PhotoLab).

Which scientific discipline(s) do you find particularly helpful or urgent at the present time & why? How versed in the relevant expertise do you have to be to earn the right to use it (them) in a poem?

Armantrout: It seems to me that there are two main ways to approach the use of science in poetry. The first is empirical, the way of the specimen collector. A poet with this tendency might learn the precise names of the flora of a region and the facts about its distribution and reproduction. Or she/he might study the types of minerals and use their names and characteristics in poems. The second way is more theoretical and abstract.  I am of the second type — though I often envy the first and imagine joining that group. But I find myself interested by what happens at the boundaries of knowledge; I’m attracted to things glimpsed and only provisionally understood. So I’m drawn to theoretical physics, astrophysics, and cognitive science. I guess I like to have my mind boggled! Obviously, I’m not an expert in any of these subjects. As I said in my last answer, math is the language of physics and, regrettably, it’s a foreign language to me. I do, however, read articles in scientific journals and such books as physicists (or neurologists) write for a lay audience. Sometimes I use the language I find in such sources against itself in my work. But, even then, one doesn’t want to be an ignorant skeptic. I’ve been accused once, by someone writing in the comment stream on Silliman’s Blog, of combining angst with a “rudimentary knowledge of science” in my poems. I could say that I know of no one who is both a physicist and a poet. And if I did demonstrate an expert’s grasp of the subject, what would that look like in a poem? As Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.” But that doesn’t mean I want to be a dumb bunny either. I too  get annoyed when people use some widely known term of quantum mechanics, like, say, “the uncertainly principle,” to justify some New Age fantasy. So how well do we need to know a scientific discipline to invoke it in our poems? I’m not sure. I do know that it’s fun, for me at least, to try to understand difficult things, even if I fail. If any of you out there who know more than I do see a place where I’ve got it quite wrong, please send me an email.

Durand: Thanks for your emails. I too have gotten the “don’t write of what you don’t know of” critique when writing in and about science. BUT I very seriously disagree with this attitude. I think it’s essential to bring creativity into the realm of science. Science has become so very specialized and rigorous, with specific languages, codes, codes of behavior, rules for each specific medium, sub-medium, sub-sub-sub medium, that they risk becoming completely atomized and discrete, with no percolation, cross-pollination, or communication. There’s so much paradigm-shifting work going on in science that is not being “translated” into the common realm. While poets may not be seen as the ideal conduit for funneling scientific discoveries into general culture, in some ways, as I’ve argued before, we actually are, b/c as overlooked and under-the-radar creative practitioners, we can “play” — experimenting with juxtaposing outré (or what seems outré) scientific terms/ideas — to see what happens when placed in a poem. A poet may be the first person to use creatively a term like neutrino, and thus break it into more general usage. Quantum physics maybe especially does not have the language to fit it — maybe we poets can help with that! I’m also interested in unacknowledged creativity within the scientific community. For instance, I’ve written about “false-color views” produced by astronomers. Basically, they take streams of data — mathematical  — and “translate” them into visual images, which they then color, highlight, manipulate to indicate, say, the different kinds of gases in a star (this also happens with images of sub-particles). During some interviews I did for an essay on this, I got the impression that scientists are very hesitant to reveal there’s anything creative about this process for fear of not being taken seriously. But I found it amazing that our images of most natural phenomena are mediated in this way. (One scientist said that the data streams could be rendered as music, too, but that people most easily absorb visual representation.)

Anyway, LOTS more to say …

Armantrout: Dear Marcella,

I’ve thought about those astronomical images too. It would be wonderful to hear them rendered as music. 

Harvey: Clearly there should be no barrier to using scientific knowledge in poetry but accuracy of use has great advantages because it gives the vocabulary used greater substantiation and coherence on a wider plain. Once understood the science can then be stretched almost to breaking point or even beyond creating fantasies.

Backing up scientific models with the aural, visual and rhetorical effects, exaggeration, juxtaposition and metaphor etc. in the poem can increase the feeling of substantiality of the words and meanings (as John Cayley expressed so well with (im)materiality of language [in “Science-Informed Readings”]).

It is dealing with contents as it would behave in reality that makes using science in poetry so interesting where the same limits don’t apply. Learning about the limits of the laws of nature for the first time whilst writing a poem (and then maybe even ignoring them but being aware of them) often brings very interesting results as both are explored with their different tensions at the same time. But also fluency in a scientific discipline might bring just as interesting results when in poetry, maybe more so, and science is always exploring new concepts.

The last paragraph I wrote at the end of Question One about ‘emergence’ was rushed and needs further explication, for me at least, while it still remains poetic. Ian Stewart in “Life’s Other Secret” says “Emergence is not the absence of causality; rather, it is a web of causality so intricate that the human mind can’t grasp it.” The feeling of this for me in Apollinaire’s “little car” in the poem, is due in a large extent to the overlapping of the writing and picture on paper where the complexity of connection and influence can’t be apprehended.

The mind often ‘grasps’ things without establishing them, maybe refining an original understanding with further research, maybe not. This ‘grasping’ of the mind is closer to Goethe’s approach to science than to Bacon’s empirical approach. (I certainly would not wish to be without Goethe.) Keeping an open mind to the effects (an empirical approach) can have distinct advantages in poetry, for example when using collage.

I am most interested in Biological sciences. This is what I studied as a degree. I think it has the advantage of being of living systems. The appearance of life, in both senses, as complexity increases, limits to self-sufficiency of organisms, and how genes work with the environment, internal and external, from gravity and chemistry to predators are a few examples of what I find fascinating.

PS I’m sorry for my straying from one question to another when answering each question.

Armantrout: I’m about to go have lunch with a real astrophysicist. If I am fool enough, I will ask him two or three questions. Gilbert suggested I wear a wire, but I don’t think I’m up to that.

[…]

Well, I talked to astrophysicist Brian Keating yesterday. I left feeling a bit more confused than when I came — which I guess I should have expected. I’ve been trying to understand the concept of “branes” in string theory. Anyway, my discussion with him caused me to change a couple of lines in a poem I was writing. I guess that’s all I can expect. I sent him some follow-up questions. If he writes back anything interesting and intelligible, I’ll quote it here.


Dr. Lisa Randall visits the ATLAS experiment at CERN, 2007 (image courtesy of CERN PhotoLab).

Catanzano: Rae, thanks for your comments on my poems. Funny, I’ve been doing research on “branes” for the last few years. In 2008 I attended a lecture by Dr. Lisa Randall, a Harvard particle physicist who had just returned from CERN. She helped coin the term “brane.” From what I gathered, “brane” is short for “membrane” and describes the borders between universes; I think it also refers to the open and closed strings in the multiverse proposed by string theory. I have been playing with the homophonic possibilities of the term, the brain also being a membrane, perhaps a nonlinear border that joins rather than divides consciousness to imagination, as well as an organ that helps manage electricity within the human body. I wondered what would happen if Dr. Randall was attentive to the term as a homophone in her investigations of how branes interact with gravity and electromagnetism. In her presentation on string theory she used crude, two dimensional graphs of wiggly strings to depict eleven-dimensional concepts, asking us to “use our imaginations” to get it. I was thinking how much clearer her ideas would have been if she had, say, shown a Picasso painting to illustrate simultaneity, a Chagall painting to depict the difference between a high-gravity universe and a low-gravity universe, and Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” to illuminate how a particle might be shot around and around a high-energy accelerator …

Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky, photo © 1997 Elsa Dorfman at the Electronic Poetry Center.

Is there anything you want to say about poem 12 from Anew?

Adair: I’ve just re-listened to the PoemTalk program #22  that started this off, and was struck by the prominence of references to quantum physics and relativity as informing what Charles calls “the doubleness of different things” that is pervasive in the poem. I should make clear why — directly related to that — I think it’s worth looking up the meanings of the scientific term “condenser,” which my Collins dictionary at the time informed me had the following meanings:

1. an apparatus for reducing gases to liquid or solid form by abstracting (removing) heat, as in refrigerator unit;
2. a lens for concentrating light into a small area;
3. a device for accumulating an electric charge via two conducting surfaces separated by a dialectric (a nonconducting substance or insulator).

So here are devices functioning at our own molecular level, visible with the naked eye, which resonate in multiple ways with themes of the poem: gas/liquid transformations, focal perception, things that conduct force but wear down (a glimpse of entropy, which in 1944 Zukofsky could parallel with the unusable depths of the ocean floor). But I should also stress that these are definitions I can seem to understand as long as the conversation would not stray too far outside them — at which point I’d be found lacking in some basic points of knowledge.

I think that for many of us, the same could be said for quantum physics and special and general relativity; and that this poem could usefully be thot of in terms of knowledge we seem to have (inc re relativity and q.m.), that sufficiently buoys us up in limited areas. Zukofsky himself allows that as the theories become more difficult to fathom, he at once sees a plurality of things “Or nothing” — or perhaps and nothing. If he is trying to locate himself and his family in the unseeable massiveness of modern America, that is certainly relevant. I would suggest, then, that twentieth-century physics gives him a way, based in what he and we take to be reality — not religion, not anything inviting a mystical response — to be true to his own cultural experience, but that it also fascinates him in and of itself; to be able to explore what is both invisible and substantially pervasive, even as one discovers everywhere post-Newtonian metamorphoses, without straying into mysticism (or worse, the mystificatory), is in my opinion, a valuable thing.

Middleton: Although I hadn’t had time to respond to the discussion here about Louis Zukofsky’s poem, nor to listen to the talk that sparked this off, I thought I knew where I stood. It did make sense to look up the meaning of the word condenser if you were not aware of its various scientific usages especially as an earlier term for capacitor, one of the staples of almost any electronic circuit, but the poem quickly moved past issues of definition. And it probably made as much sense to have in mind the condenser homonymically almost present in Pound’s aphorism “dichten = condensare,” or the line describing the poet’s workshop as a “condensery” written by Lorine Niedecker, a close friend and correspondent of Zukofsky, as the dictionary definitions. But then as chance would have it I picked up a book published in 1940, Why Smash Atoms? by A. K. Solomon (and later reprinted in Pelican) from a charity bookstall in what remains of the cloister at Winchester Cathedral, and realized that there is a whole chapter on condensers and their crucial role in the development of “atom smashers.” We are told endearingly that “a simple glass fruit-jar coated on the bottom and halfway up the inside and out with tinfoil makes a serviceable Leyden jar, a condenser,” as if we might be considering our kitchen table cyclotron. And reading the chapter I grasped that condensers were exciting things back in the early 1940s when Zukofsky composed his poem, and that the small condensers that smooth electric currents and act as gateways in radio and amplifier circuits to pass alternating currents and stop direct currents, are distant relations to the large condensers that step up voltages across their spark gaps to create the two million volt discharges used to study nuclei. These large condensers apparently created laboratory environments that looked “like a Hollywood director’s idea of the world of tomorrow.” I don’t know if Zukofsky read this particular book (it’s more likely he read Rutherford’s The Newer Alchemy), but finding it, and reading it alongside Zukofsky re-emphasised for me the importance of understanding the changing history of sciences that have influenced poets. So I think we do need (someone) to look up condenser, not only in a dictionary, but also in the sciences of his time.

I had also previously written a couple of paragraphs on Zukofsky’s poem for my book on science and poetry. It’s a poem that I love for its unusual combination of scrupulous attention to an accurate rendition of the complexities of physics, and avoidance of simply appropriating the metaphors for one’s own expressive purposes, with a willingness to admit to one’s own limitations that include the tendency to substitute easier images for the obscurities, and to be tempted into other sorts of physics envy. This is some of what I wrote. (It seems inadequate in the face of the waves of certainty and uncertainty in the poem, and I haven’t tried to mitigate the expository tone. Apologies!)

Zukofsky’s theme in this brilliant poem is the experience of trying hard to learn more about the new physics and its wave/particle hypothesis, and realizing that this science demands a continual relearning of what you thought you had understood. In the first part of the poem he adopts the tone of a patient expositor speaking from a position of knowledge. As someone familiar with electronics and the workings of capacitors or condensers, a writer of technical manuals, he feels confident at first that he can extrapolate his understanding of the new science of wave/particle fields. So he takes an image familiar to everyone, the wave motion of the sea, and links it to the more technical but still reasonably familiar idea of the condenser that works with the wave motions of electrons. How strange that light can have waves like the sea and yet can also be studied as material particles, invisible motes. Then he reflects on what it is like to engage with this science by comparing the awkwardness of the poet and nonscientist to the difficulty anyone encounters when gathering the blossoms of a tiny weed that falls off the stem as you try and pick it. The poem’s clever use of such traditional poetic metaphors in this new context underlines the sense of strain involved in trying to understand quantum mechanics. Zukofsky’s poem addresses the problem that Daniel Tiffany calls “the crisis of the equation of materialism and realism” made acute by the new physics: “as long as quantum mechanics failed to provide pictures of an invisible material world, it failed to constitute a new reality.” (Toy Medium, 268) Atoms were difficult enough to visualize; quantum effects resist modeling altogether. In the final lines of the poem Zukofsky folds the poem back on its author, the poet attempting not to be surprised into ignorance by the dilemma of a theory about the supersensible that exceeds the capacity of even the skill of poetry to find a cognitive diagram. The new science reduces him to the wonderment of a child when he realizes that there is “nothing” to see, a feeling of helplessness compounded by the need to keep learning afresh because the rapid growth of scientific knowledge constantly overturns previous facts and certainties. Knowledge of this kind appears to offer no more than a speculative “perhaps.” For Zukofsky, sciences like the new physics challenge the poet because they can carelessly undermine the bonds between sensory experience and understanding. One task for poets is therefore to rethink poetry’s relation to knowledge.

Armantrout: I wonder, was Zukofsky one of the first poets to struggle to understand the quantum world using images? I’m moved by the poem’s earnestness and modesty, the way he tries very sincerely to understand — and then recognizes defeat. It’s natural that he tries to conceive of what he’s reading about quantum mechanics in terms of what he already knows about science, about waves, about electricity, etc. But can an electric charge or “stress” be “worn down” like a common physical object? In lines 25–34 he stops trying to understand the new physics in the terms of whatever science he’s learned previously, and he moves farther afield to the image of the weed with its many, tiny seeds, impossible to count, easily “shed to the touch.” This is an image of the quantum (I suppose) before which he surrenders. The rest of the poem is about realizing that he’s faced with something he can’t grasp. That experience feels strange to him.

We, on the other hand, come prepared for the bizarre. We’re pre-defeated and ready to enjoy our quandary. Maybe we’re too ready to embrace what we don’t get as some version of “mystery.” As for me, I really do try to follow the latest version of string theory, say, but I know that bafflement is waiting around the next corner. When I write poetry in response to my bafflement which I do, I will sometimes turn to the absurd at that point, or the ludic, let the poem take a pratfall, make myself the butt of a cosmic joke, if that’s how it’s got to be.

Harvey: Looking up and trying to understand the science in Anew 12, although not needed to a great depth for a basic understanding of the poem, can play a part in the experiencing of the poem. The waves, particles and condensers etc. are held together by the language with enough flexibility for more detailed understanding of the parts to be acknowledged, and the poem still work/conduct/cohere.

But there comes a point, implied with the delicacy of the flowers on one stalk metaphor, where a limit is being reached, all this might be lost. This might be a limit of the following: of the reader’s understanding, experiencing the poem and trying to understand the science; of Zukofsky’s recall and personal understanding at the time of writing; of scientists’ understanding so far; of the tractability of the science, that can’t be put into words, or all these at once.

And these can also paradoxically be acknowledged by this poem.

The fragile flowers on one stalk metaphor brings to mind dendritic growth. The plant growing hitting a point in its own structure and the outside environment where its symmetry is broken, but if it carries on growing becomes a more complicated structure.

The mind of the artist and the scientist come together at this point: with how far do they understand the system they are looking at at one time? Do they understand what they are looking at well enough to move the parts around in respect to each other, their symmetry, well enough to form a model that includes all the parts that will stay in the mind long enough to be recorded? How much can they lose, or want to lose, and the system, however loose or limited, still cohere?

To reiterate what I wrote in my earlier response to question one, by quoting Eric Mottram — and I have had to reconsider much taking part in this forum which I thank everyone for — that scientists do more than measure they also design.

Catanzano: Gilbert asked me to discuss the tesseract image in my borealis, and I will, but first:

Rae’s earlier comments about the turn in Zukofsky’s poem, when the discussion of the science dissolves through the image of the innumerable seeds of the weed — when the unfamiliar experience isn’t understood — Rae points out our acceptance of bafflement and how this can turn her toward the absurd. I think about Alfred Jarry, as I often do!, and how his exposition of absurdity branches the fantastical to the point that I no longer expect bafflement but ease into “learning” his language of infinite combinations, which changes my relationship to the unknown, in the poem and in life, because I am no longer measuring what I don’t understand against the flower’s hard stem. The innumerable seeds introduce a novel approach to understanding that can’t be, like the child at the end of Zukofsky’s poem, stared at by ordinary means. Absurdity, a playful acceptance of the unknown, becomes an eye for learning, and it might also be why poems grow and die like Zukofsky’s “nothing / Which is a forever,” why Rae makes herself “the butt of a cosmic joke, if that’s how it’s got to be,” because by surrendering to “nothing,” which is a “forever,” to the space (“nothing”) time (“forever”) of physical reality — to the spacetime of physics — we can be time machines, we can turn the “pages back.” If we are lucky, if we are like Zukofsky in his poem, we don’t have to turn to the “last” page as if it were a precipice. The absurdity of the book keeps us gathering somewhere/nowhere in the middle (defined broadly as between the first and last page) until we see that the book is more like a “sea” than a perfect-bound (or saddle-stitched or duct-taped or hand-sewn or digitally-mastered) “speck.” This might make us simultaneously shipwrecked (via Oppen) while sailing to the dangerous ocean’s “edge” (via “Columbus”) until we get there, of course, because we are poets. The horizon keeps on bending. If we are more than lucky, if we are “… like another, and another, who has finished learning / and just begun to learn,” we feel the strength of the salt air …

I struggle with how to “teach” this to my students. The writing exercises, the readings, the thought experiments, the programs, the politics: how do they account for Zukofsky’s nothingforever?

My question about teaching relates to my discovery of the tesseract as a cipher for one of the writers in my borealis. Gilbert asked me to write to our group about my tesseract, but it’s personal, so I must cipher my comments about the cipher. You know.

A tesseract is a 4-D analogue of a cube. Think Salvador Dali’s hybercube christ or Doctor Who’s police box, which is bigger on the inside than the outside. The idea of a tesseract has always been important to me, because poems can be bigger on the inside than the outside. They can alter what I call the “spacetime of the page” in ways that subvert the page as a 2-D context by becoming hyperdimensional. I suspect poems can also affect spacetime, not just the spacetime of the page. This might account for my recent interest in experimenting outside of the page. Which is to say I think poems affect physical reality, hence my interest in physics. So, for me, the tesseract is a metaphor for the poem on one scale, and it’s also a simile, which can approximate physical reality but cannot fully describe it. As such, the tesseract operates at the parameters of perception. The writer I selected to be represented by the tesseract in my borealis also performs his poetry like a line of demarcation. I have a poem titled, “Borealis: Working Notes,” which describes my relationship to the tesseract more than these notes can attempt. Maybe I’ll post it [see the “Poetry Supplement” for the poem].

Retallack: I’ve enjoyed and benefited from reading the five responses to Anew 12. (Are there others? I’ve had difficulties — not only temporal — getting around this website and feel sure there’s much I’ve missed.) A reply to Amy’s pedagogical question — I think a good way to start with this poem in a class — after reading it many times over and discussing and writing “first thoughts” and a “need to know” list — would be to direct students to these responses.

I hereby throw a speculative response into the cauldron.

Puzzling over 12 in conjunction with these readings reminds me how much the work of productive attention — interpretive/associative/researched — requires trust in the author. If one considers 12 an investigative or exploratory poem and, so to speak, takes the poet at his word — then one notices a poet who is wondering in a state of partial knowledge about quantum mechanics as though in a constrained thought experiment, locked in a room without access to books or a friendly physicist eager to explain.

One way to construe this is that the poet is conducting an experimental wager: I will try to understand as much as I can about quantum physics by way of my present fund of poetic knowledge and poetic praxis, nothing more or less. Could this be an enactment of the radical question whether one can come to know certain things by means of poetry alone? Where poetic language is believed to be so funded with intuition, so coherent with the collective consciousness of the times, so intimate with the harmonics of nature, that the following, akin to a Pythagorean system of progressive relations among numbers, can occur: The lettristic first line where “see” and “sea” are permutative variations analogous to the visual presence of “sea” being physiologically dependent on “see” situates the mind itself as a kind of condenser, with its reception and selection processes of all (sound and light waves) the air brings its way. From this position of the mind’s acute receptivity — e.g., to the flowers further along — any instance (mote) radiates limitless possibily.

Specks and motes, of course are metaphors in this context, they don’t behave like particles in complementarity with quantum mechanical waves which are particles just as particles are waves. I’ve come to feel that Zukofsky is not really seeking after the technical terms or the technical knowledge they point to in descriptions of how quantum mechanics works. It seems, if this is a thought experiment of the sort I’ve suggested (and it may not be), Zukofsky doesn’t care if it fails. Or perhaps wants it to fail. He seems to exit the pressures of theoretical physics with a kind of poetic abandon, even a touch of the romantic, bypassing (lower limit?) science for (upper limit?) poetry. He knows his experimental (applied) physics — that of condensers. He knows that frequencies (radio waves) become sound that’s more pleasing with the assistance of condensers. It’s the music he cares about; quantum mechanics may explain something about the action of “phonons,” and “photons” but it doesn’t explain the beauty of the sound, nor does it help with the experience of the “sea” that “see” can become in the transit of light to the retina; nor the experience of the delicious splitting of the homophones see/sea which implies the separation of the presence that is seen from the presence that is heard. We know from physicists that one sees the sea before one hears it. The explanation for that scientific fact doesn’t seem to interest LZ. It’s a speed differential that one can’t register on an experiential level as one can register one’s (and one’s loved one’s) response to a field of flowers. The science in that, as presented in 12, is entirely metaphorical.

More Qs: What is Zukofsky’s (or his persona’s) position with respect to the state of his knowledge as temporally bracketed in this poem? The things he suggests he does and doesn’t know don’t necessarily point to the facts of physics — applied or classical or quantum. On the evidence of Anew 12, I somehow don’t really think Zukofsky wants to learn quantum physics. “Waves of a speck of sea” isn’t quantum physics. Everything about that line, including “or what,” strikes me as humor. What meaning does the poet wish to turn to? It seems he has turned to an observable aesthetics, away from theory by the end of the poem. Though there is that final “Perhaps.” The puzzle doesn’t end, perhaps the thought experiment goes on and it is called poetry of a certain kind, whose relation to science is in question.

NOTE: before writing this, I went to Mark Scroggins’s Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge. Could find nothing about Anew 12, condensers, quantum physics, science … Next went to a clunky book I’ve had for almost forty years — The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology — to review the many kinds of condensers and their pretty diagrams. Next I went to an article on the web on condensers in radio transmission and, after a bit more muddling about, to the excerpt I’ve pasted below. All the while more and more aware of the fact that LZ (or his persona) could have done the equivalent of this kind of search, but clearly chose not to.

Electromagnetic waves and sound waves have an obvious resemblance, and the concepts and techniques used in optics are often brought into the acoustic domain and vice versa. One can immediately think of the obvious correspondences between acoustic and optical microscopes, between radar and sonar, and such concepts as electrical and acoustic impedances, all of which highlight this “son et lumière” similarity. Using the language of classical physics, this similarity is a consequence of the fact that the same wave equation governs oscillations of atoms, ions, and molecules in a sound wave and the oscillation of electrical and magnetic fields in an optical wave. And in the language of modern quantum physics the basic quanta of light (photons) and sound (phonons) obey the same rules describing all bosons — particles with integer spin. The most striking consequence of the quantum nature of light is the ability of matter to emit coherent photons of identical frequencies and phases, a process predicted in 1917 by Albert Einstein, who called it “stimulated emission.” (Jacob B. Khurgin, “Phonon Lasers Gain a Sound Foundation,” American Physical Society, February 22, 2010)

Definition of basics

Nick Montfort with the code for his "PPG-256-1 (Perl Poetry Generator in 256 characters)."

Cayley: Although not writing in ignorance of the questions that have been addressed to us and some of the responses, forgive me if, for a further contribution, I continue with a second part to the prose I began in my last posting, while nonetheless using Gilbert’s “Do you find that words are sufficient … ?” as a particular stimulus. In some sense, after all, I’m here to represent writing [in/of/for] digital[/other] media.

When I wrote, previously, that “language is the medium of poetry,” there might seem to be an implication that words are sufficient. They are. Poetry is, chiefly, aesthetic symbolic practice played out in the specific human-cultural domain of language. Many linguistics will say, with Chao Yuen Ren, that “Language is linear. It is one-dimensional.”[1] Language is, in my own interpretation of this claim, linear at the temporally moving instants of both production and reception. It would be a little more accurate to say that, at these moments, it is two-dimensional, having one of extension and one of time. I agree that this quality is fundamental to language, and that any nonlinearity or extra-dimensionality of syntactic constructs (like this one) is a matter of pre- and post-production and that, more fundamentally, extra dimensions of language are both indeterminate and divorced from any materiality of language that is proper to it, at least in the sense that a linguist (a type of scientist) would acknowledge. However this ‘proper’ materiality of language is purely historical and most linguists would agree with me unreservedly when I wrote that “any relationship between language and media is arbitrary.” I did mean any relation including the culturally (conventionally) recognized association of words with particular significance and affect. The linguist studies an arbitrary, indeterminate but historically inscribed materiality, while bracketing extra-arbitrary, extra-indeterminate dimensions of language that are also conventional (dependent on human discursive agreements) but which are generated at multiple indeterminate and arbitrary points of production and reception. Words are sufficient, but anything can be a word, in any number of dimensions.

There has to be a (back)ground against which the traces of these other dimensions can be remarked. I’m already going deeper than I wanted, and so I will desist from further amateur philosophy (philosophy=science? linguistic philosophy=science?) by asserting that the ground we need consists in those “operations of our subjectivities … typically … deemed to be private or internal.” “The trick of being alive is something about having an outside which can be witnessed, and an inside that can’t.”[2] I do seem to be claiming that science-as-technological-mediation engages with poetry at precisely the point where science-as-affectless-denial-of-an-inside is least capable of bearing witness to any potential blossomings of virtuality and aesthetics.

(Self-)sufficient words generate extra-dimensionalities of language. Moreover, just as ‘mere’ convention establishes particular natural languages as uncontested objects of scientific study, there is an extra sufficiency of habitual literary practice that allows other dimensions of texts to be distinctly appreciable — to criticism, if not to science. Singularly, traditionally, these dimensions remain ‘beyond’ the words themselves, emergent as a function of humanistic interpretation. Such phenomena exist, virtually. New media may, arbitrarily, materialize virtual dimensions of poetic practice, and this is what we have seen taking place — selectively, arbitrarily — since programmable machines became accessible to writers. To take an obvious example: the screen-based temporal presentation of textual events materializes a virtual performativity of graphic writing practices, both remediating and recalling actual performances of orality, and restoring a restructured time-based dimension to language, one that is at least ostensibly or potentially more complex than the apparently resolved or resolvable linearity of print. In general, this restructuring, in language, of the human culture of time is, in my opinion, one of the few recent developments in aesthetic language practices that requires a fundamental rethinking of the object of literary criticism — of those that are enabled by programmable media, that is. More and more (poetic) writing will be, literally, materially, time-based, and it will be inappropriate if not impossible to address many literary objects/processes as established texts, or as texts in a ‘before,’ ‘after,’ or any other state.

But even this vital, inalienable, if until recently ‘stunned,’ dimension of written language was always, I would claim, virtually present and available to all language practice, regardless of media. This is equally true of the familiar varieties of simultaneous relationship between linguistic items, such as those described as metaphoric. They are ever-present effervescent lexical and allusive tori, haloing the syntagmatic flow. Despite and apart from any technological ‘affordances,’ the flow remains capable of generating a bewildering and uncharted variety of significant and affective dimensions. This makes it difficult for any particular technology to gain an established status. For me, recently, one proof of this strange state of affairs has been revealed in the disregard or, perhaps, misdirected regard that writers have for typography as a productive dimension of writing. Typographic sensitivity is taken as evidence for attention to the graphic materiality of language (a problematic concept: is the materiality graphic or linguistic?); whereas I believe that the typographic is an established, but insufficiently acknowledged dimension of linguistic practice, a structured field in which syntagmatic flow has long been seen and felt to exist, and which allows it to generate and elaborate significant and affective relations precisely in a typographic dimension that is oblique to both time and syntactic extension. Further proof that this historically established practice is not sufficiently appreciated is demonstrated by the common practice of ditching established typographic principles as soon as other new technologies become available; I mean technologies that may be seen to serve the relational purposes typography once served, or that highlight other ‘newer’ or more fashionable textual relations. The situation may be improving, but think of the standard unschooled typographic engagement of animated, kinetic textuality — more concerned with concrete poetic figures (language-as-graphics miming animate, kinetic objects) than with poetics per se (assuming poetics represents thinking through aesthetic linguistic practice from a comprehensive and open perspective).

Thus, a recent long-term collaboration, with Daniel C. Howe, still in its initial stages, The Readers Project, is, in some measure, a poetic exploration and visualization of the typographic dimension of selected linguistic practices. However, more importantly for the present discussion, other aspects of this project exemplify certain ways in which programmable media, accessing indexed language on the Internet, enable different modes of engagement with poetic process. It’s conceivable to me that these generative modes can be characterized in terms of what we currently recognize as practices of science.

Procedure is well established as an aspect of innovative poetic practice and in so far as procedure is an externalization and objectification of compositional artifice — the fabrication of poetic automata — it may share the pretended affectlessness of science, although at the risk of literary inconsequence, unless, for example, a demonstrable mastery of arbitrary formal constraint redeems a ludic gesture as high art. Think OuLiPo. But arguably, and arguably only recently, digitally mediated access to language in the sense of an implicitly comprehensive (all of the Net) indexed corpus allows a significant shift in the relationship between procedure and language as such. Rather than seeing procedural poetry as a literalization of the “machine made of words” we might think of certain procedures or processes as poetically, aesthetically inclined instruments for observing and manipulating language, ways of working with the external world of language that allows us to see differently. Here I mean instrument in the sense of scientific instrument, rather than musical; not something you play in order to be able to make or recite a distinct piece of art in performance, but a construction that alters our perception of whatever is presented to us, in this case language, allowing us to perceive and experience what is already there and to know it differently, if not necessarily ‘better.’

Is it the case that one of those things that the indexed Internet allows us to do is to have a sense of an ‘all of language’ in the manner that we have a sense of the all of nature? Those instruments of science that have been developed during and since the enlightenment have only relatively recently given us a generative sense of “all of our (spherical) earth,” orbiting a star, in a galaxy, in an expanding universe, (im)possibly one of innumerable multiverses. Now, although what is visible language — like visible matter — is only a tiny faction of the dark words that must surely be everywhere, nonetheless our perspective has been shifted radically by the existence of the Net and by the instruments at our near-free disposal which index and structure this universe.

And does this now entail our being able to see language as more like nature than we had previously? Perhaps even more at one with nature than we had considered? I mean this not in terms of any spurious human/natural dichotomy, but in terms of what the Chinese have called ziran, the “self-so,” phenomena which simply are what they are, lacking any concern for the human or whatever-might-be-opposed-to-it, for the outside-inside subjective dialectics of any particular living species.

I find myself implicitly making great claims for what, in terms of actual poetic production are still only tiny gestures. I’m appending a few texts made using very simple programs. There is an explicit intention here, inspired in part by Nick Montfort’s more OuLiPian ppg256 project, to keep the engineered artifice of the machine itself as compact and as simple as possible, allowing structures in language itself to be revealed by these instruments, like lenses that simply magnify the images passing through them; always assuming there is present a complementary perceptual system — an eye or a poetic sensibility — to further appreciate the resulting anamorphic retinal impressions.

Or, if I could, I would make a programmatic instrument that was like the naturally articulated granite outcrop of a small lakeland island, where light, breeze-formed waves of language would ebb and flow in chaotically braided coils, through faults and channels in the long-worn rock. Watching and listening to this moving water: Is this science? Or poetry? What is the knowledge or aesthetics that such processes enfold?

Zero-Count Stitcher 1 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 7 • 8

knuckles graze bare
me here hung
empty water yet
reaches out hung
knowledge — halyard
alone to seagulls
hovers over island
bare island shallows
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged
 

 
edge by expectant
knowledge — halyard
alone to seagulls
hovers over island
bare island shallows
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged
 

 
imagined ochres later
reach this wondering
wondering in lost
other happy grasp
he falls pilgrim
until he misspelt
words drifting only
reached her top-sail
to entropy child
sinking and pitched
that gives hovers
his hand mouthful
until he misspelt
words drifting why
until he misspelt
words drifting pictures
 

 
Neurath’s pilgrim choking
her first selves
selves and landings
though unfocused pulled
turning the cushion-shaped
 
stone which textuality
that gives hovers
 
until he misspelt
to entropy child
languages for forbidden
night head hook
his expectant turns
he falls pilgrim
sailing to bloated
a choking pine
rock from lacing
just below tracing
your hand rose-tinged
 

 
circling turning hold
overboard and body
pulled back entropy
just below tracing
his hand mouthful
out then islanded
knowledge — halyard
through empty circling
just below tracing
her first selves
 
breaks the asked
wondering in lost
words drifting only
near her granite
her first selves
reaches out hung
another father expected
misunderstanding and texts
another father expected
her first selves
breaks the asked
her waist halyard
 
breaks the asked
pulled back entropy
 
just below tracing
 
that gives hovers
hovers over pine
rock from lacing
until he misspelt
her first selves
 
overboard and islanded
 

 
words drifting corpse
out then islanded
 
knowledge — halyard
turns in misunderstanding
words drifting darkness
he falls pilgrim
wondering in lost
reach that pilgrim
reached her circling
hand hovers selves
knowledge — halyard
swim his ledge
a choking pine
he falls pilgrim
just below tracing
me here hung
her waist halyard
until he misspelt
words drifting darkness
reached it sloping
edge by expectant

Thousands of specially constructed three-word phrases, named in the course of our developing practice digrams, were generated from John Cayley’s prose poem “Misspelt Landings” by combining all of this text’s two-word syntagms with every unique word in the text. (“ — ” was at this point treated as a ‘word.’) These were then searched-for programmatically, double-quoted, in Google Books (shamelessly defying certain “terms of use”*) and the counts were collected. (This was originally done to give a simple ‘skewed-Markov’ statistical ‘intelligence’ to autonomous readers that were being made in the context of a larger project.) All of the three-word digrams that make up the lines of the above poems (poems?) were selected, manually, from amongst zero-count digrams, i.e. those not (yet) found in the Google-indexed ‘corpus.’ The total number of selected, potential zero-count lines was (for this experiment) only two hundred. (Early days.) A simple program, the Zero-Count Stitcher, first picks one of these at random and then iteratively hunts through the remainder for a next line for which the count of {line n, word 2 + word 3 + line n+1, word 1} or {line n, word 3 + line n+1, word 1 + word 2}, searched-for programmatically in Google, is above a certain threshold (3 or 5 in these cases), i.e. the programs hunts for an attested ‘natural language’ enjambment. Numbers in the title are the serial numbers of the Stitcher’s runs. In later runs ‘stanza’ breaks are generated whenever it took the Stitcher more than thirty searches to find a line with suitable enjambment.

Poetics or science? I can see it as placing simple but craftily fashioned obstacles into natural flows of language — as garnered from Google using instruments of linguistic=scientific observation — and producing, arguably, an uncannily aesthetic turbulence.

*This is a work of the Natural Language Liberation Front (NLLF). These texts were collected with instruments made, at the point of immediate production, by John Cayley, but as a spin off from his major collaboration with Daniel C. Howe, The Readers Project, and fundamentally dependent on Howe’s extraordinary RiTa libraries for Processing.

Adair: Hi John —

It may reflect no more than my ignorance of the field of computer poetry, but I find interesting in the poems you’ve sent the types of constraints built in: specifying, for example, parts of speech that are to be brought into conjunction; requiring the programs to apply various natural language criteria; setting a limit on the amount of failed searches before a cut-off point is reached, producing thus both stanzas & entire poems. Such constraints throw limits at (to quote your first essay) the infinity of “flow [which] remains capable of generating a bewildering & uncharted variety of significant & affective dimensions,” with a degree of micro-management unfamiliar to me from, say, the most complex aleatoric methodologies of Cage, which often seem to be after conditions that will encourage maximal strangeness; thus in Etudes Boreales — thinking (me, not Cage) of Amy — he uses separate operations to determine, as cellist Frances-Marie Utti puts it, “exact pitch, duration, articulation, color & dynamic … for each sound,” making where any piece will go after the present note impossible to anticipate on a number of levels at once. Likewise the natural language constraints of “Zero Count Stitcher” preclude the radical kind of word-to-word disjunctions & intricate musicality found in, for example, Coolidge’s The Maintains (1974) (I don’t know what Coolidge’s method was here); & your use of Google Books notwithstanding, your methods, not least the linear word-counts, rule out any hint of flarfiness — tho’ there are surrealist (presurrealist?) glimpses aplenty: “he falls pilgrim / sailing to bloated / a choking pine / just below tracing / your hand rose-tinged” (“ZCS”) — Baudelaire’s Cythera in the screen of some electronic glow? — obviously signifier precedes signified here, meanings in search of flitting referents that adjacent lines may quasi-stabilize —

These poems offer me several focuses: the linear consistencies and cut-off points that give units; the generative system that adapts itself to the effectively infinite flow — what happens to imports of a line or stanza or poem when its beginning was in “thousands of specially constructed three-word phrases”? More emphatically than the other poems you send, “ZCS” undercuts any fantasy of uniqueness/individuality of line or subject position by its structure of repetitions/rearrangements, most powerfully in the first two stanzas given, where so full-throated a repetition seems to drain the lines of meaning; or perhaps more accurately, it’s hard the second time to work up the same degree of enthusiasm for what had the first time appeared as intriguingly evocative lines; so that if Joyce was right that there were more languages to begin with than were absolutely necessary, there were also never nearly as many as were needed. But then there’s a third reading, preferably some time later, when the lines can be productively recontemplated (something that with poems otherwise structured can usually be done on the second reading, no matter how soon after the first) —

The poems also offer the focus of vocabulary, of what kinds of words are being used, & that opens up more variances & nuances than I can indicate here. But it always intrigued me that in “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” about to launch into The Cantos, Pound judged that “certain facts give one a sudden insight into circumjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence & law …. These facts are hard to find. They are swift & easy of transmission. They govern knowledge as the switchboard governs the electric circuit.” The epic would then be “a poem including history,” as opposed to “about history,” by coalescing around these “luminous details,” the nodal lightnings where history’s complexities got things done. Other sciences besides electrical engineering, & for their own ends — the need to get a handle on discontinuous processes (turbulence in aerodynamics) or heterogeneous mixtures (alloys) — had also been shifting the notion of ‘information’ away from referential models toward something like clutches of differential quantities, directly performative in the process in question. This makes it fairly easy to link information & the Second Law (“to entropy child,” “ZCS”). Cybernetics, coupling communications with control, got going in the 40s; Austin theorized “performative utterances” — thinking of Joan (ditto caveat) — in How to Do Things with Words (1962). Not that such utterances hadn’t, to nearly all intents & purposes, previously functioned — the point was that now they were discernible, definable, & thus evocable as they hadn’t been before. Negentropy.

But there’s also a parallel to this often fairly macho stuff in the resolutely ordinary, superficially unlearned vocabularies with which Stein did such extraordinary things. Multiple influences could be proposed here: domestic space, the vaunted democratic sociality back across the Atlantic & the place (Bob’s investigation) of genius within it, anti-Wagnerian tendencies, Cezanne obviously, a perceptible distribution of certain technologies … but hard to rule out extraordinary hypotheses about a novel autonomy of the impossibly small coming from quantum mechanics, or even the self-sufficiency of local fittedness coming from Darwin — which themselves fed into whatever provoked the assertion of Eric Mottram cited by James near the beginning of this thing, that “most concrete poetry abjures the grip of sentence as a main basis of design, and design is a term which art and science have in common.” Obviously such hypotheses of influence can’t interlock with any click, only radiate more or less grazing. But both Stein and (before her) concrete poetry introduced a baldness of the word, or the letter, unknown before, a baring of each mundane unit to tensile & active vulnerability, requiring for each a scrutiny that could turn to marveling (or not), given the odds against such prominence in a literary text. This seems to me a more compelling aesthetic reason for the abjuring of uppercase letters than the affectation hostile critics so often put it down to (tho’ “i” I do now think is an affectation). The words without preamble, yet also appearing in clutches of formal consistency both visual (the look of the page) & audial (the rough length of poems in a series, for instance) which we could count as waves or locales. Andrews, Inman, gender, frame. But with Coolidge’s caveat from “The Case of the Surrealist Bundling” in Odes of Roba: “Apollinaire’s belief held that snacks are a mystery. / How could countless certainties be settling right now?”

I should add I don’t want to give the impression of thinking that form is there to ward off or mask actual infinity, even if various aesthetics have had an eye to the problem of some variant of infinity for a century or more. I think form is there to make function. Perhaps someone could take odds with the intolerable generality of this.  

Catanzano:

“There has to be a (back)ground against which the traces of these other dimensions can be remarked. I’m already going deeper than I wanted, and so I will desist from further amateur philosophy (philosophy=science? linguistic philosophy=science?) by asserting that the ground we need consists in those ‘operations of our subjectivities … typically … deemed to be private or internal.’”

I see this claim for private and internal subjectivities in relation to my borealis project …

“The trick of being alive is something about having an outside which can be witnessed, and an inside that can’t.”

Can the inside do this outside witnessing?

“I do seem to be claiming that science-as-technological-mediation engages with poetry at precisely the point where science-as-affectless-denial-of-an-inside is least capable of bearing witness to any potential blossomings of virtuality and aesthetics.

“(Self-)sufficient words generate extra-dimensionalities of language. Moreover, just as ‘mere’ convention establishes particular natural languages as uncontested objects of scientific study, there is an extra sufficiency of habitual literary practice that allows other dimensions of texts to be distinctly appreciable — to criticism, if not to science. Singularly, traditionally, these dimensions remain ‘beyond’ the words themselves, emergent as a function of humanistic interpretation. Such phenomena exist, virtually. New media may, arbitrarily, materialize virtual dimensions of poetic practice, and this is what we have seen taking place — selectively, arbitrarily — since programmable machines became accessible to writers. To take an obvious example: the screen-based temporal presentation of textual events materializes a virtual performativity of graphic writing practices, both remediating and recalling actual performances of orality, and restoring a restructured time-based dimension to language, one that is at least ostensibly or potentially more complex than the apparently resolved or resolvable linearity of print. In general, this restructuring, in language, of the human culture of time is, in my opinion, one of the few recent developments in aesthetic language practices that requires a fundamental rethinking of the object of literary criticism — of those that are enabled by programmable media, that is. More and more (poetic) writing will be, literally, materially, time-based, and it will be inappropriate if not impossible to address many literary objects/processes as established texts, or as texts in a ‘before,’ ‘after,’ or any other state.”

Another way to think of it, based on your idea that the text can’t be in any state, is that writing deforms time. But this may be an Adamitic approach to language.

“But even this vital, inalienable, if until recently ‘stunned,’ dimension of written language was always, I would claim, virtually present and available to all language practice, regardless of media. This is equally true of the familiar varieties of simultaneous relationship between linguistic items, such as those described as metaphoric. They are ever-present effervescent lexical and allusive tori, haloing the syntagmatic flow. Despite and apart from any technological ‘affordances,’ the flow remains capable of generating a bewildering and uncharted variety of significant and affective dimensions. This makes it difficult for any particular technology to gain an established status. For me, recently, one proof of this strange state of affairs has been revealed in the disregard or, perhaps, misdirected regard that writers have for typography as a productive dimension of writing. Typographic sensitivity is taken as evidence for attention to the graphic materiality of language (a problematic concept: is the materiality graphic or linguistic?); whereas I believe that the typographic is an established, but insufficiently acknowledged dimension of linguistic practice, a structured field in which syntagmatic flow has long been seen and felt to exist, and which allows it to generate and elaborate significant and affective relations precisely in a typographic dimension that is oblique to both time and syntactic extension. Further proof that this historically established practice is not sufficiently appreciated is demonstrated by the common practice of ditching established typographic principles as soon as other new technologies become available; I mean technologies that may be seen to serve the relational purposes typography once served, or that highlight other ‘newer’ or more fashionable textual relations. The situation may be improving, but think of the standard unschooled typographic engagement of animated, kinetic textuality — more concerned with concrete poetic figures (language-as-graphics miming animate, kinetic objects) than with poetics per se (assuming poetics represents thinking through aesthetic linguistic practice from a comprehensive and open perspective).”

I wonder if this notion of typography as materiality could be extended to any imagistic representation of language. When does the poem become a picture, and is it still a poem? I always say “yes.”

“Thus, a recent long-term collaboration, with Daniel C. Howe, still in its initial stages, The Readers Project, is, in some measure, a poetic exploration and visualization of the typographic dimension of selected linguistic practices. However, more importantly for the present discussion, other aspects of this project exemplify certain ways in which programmable media, accessing indexed language on the internet, enable different modes of engagement with poetic process. It’s conceivable to me that these generative modes can be characterized in terms of what we currently recognize as practices of science.” […]

“Is it the case that one of those things that the indexed internet allows us to do is to have a sense of an ‘all of language’ in the manner that we have a sense of the all of nature? Those instruments of science that have been developed during and since the enlightenment have only relatively recently given us a generative sense of ‘all of our (spherical) earth,’ orbiting a star, in a galaxy, in an expanding universe, (im)possibly one of innumerable multiverses. Now, although what is visible language — like visible matter — is only a tiny faction of the dark words that must surely be everywhere, nonetheless our perspective has been shifted radically by the existence of the Net and by the instruments at our near-free disposal which index and structure this universe.”

I have a poem called “Objects of the Visible Language.” One of my primary concerns is the difference between the invisible universe of dark matter and the visible language of utility. I might argue that in both cases there is no “all,” only innumerable.

“And does this now entail our being able to see language as more like nature than we had previously?”

In this the “all of nature view” you reference above?

“Perhaps even more at one with nature than we had considered? I mean this not in terms of any spurious human/natural dichotomy, but in terms of what the Chinese have called ziran, the ‘self-so,’ phenomena which simply are what they are, lacking any concern for the human or whatever-might-be-opposed-to-it, for the outside-inside subjective dialectics of any particular living species.”

Fascinating! Regarding this “self-so,” isn’t the self also a construct of nature, which might be called physical reality (in physics, anyway)?

“I find myself implicitly making great claims for what, in terms of actual poetic production are still only tiny gestures.”

Curious: isn’t the “great claim” also the poem to some extent?

“I’m appending a few texts made using very simple programs. There is an explicit intention here, inspired in part by Nick Montfort’s more OuLiPian ppg256 project, to keep the engineered artifice of the machine itself as compact and as simple as possible, allowing structures in language itself to be revealed by these instruments, like lenses that simply magnify the images passing through them; always assuming there is present a complementary perceptual system — an eye or a poetic sensibility — to further appreciate the resulting anamorphic retinal impressions.

“Or, if I could, I would make a programmatic instrument that was like the naturally articulated granite outcrop of a small lakeland island, where light, breeze-formed waves of language would ebb and flow in chaotically braided coils, through faults and channels in the long-worn rock.”

By writing this have you made such an instrument?

“Watching and listening to this moving water: Is this science? Or poetry? What is the knowledge or aesthetics that such processes enfold?”

My instinct to your question is that the redefinition of science and poetry is needed to perceive the water moving through such braided coils, otherwise we lose “sight” of the “lakeland” island, forgetting we are simultaneously on both “lake” and “land.”

 


 

1. Yuen Ren Chao, Language and Symbolic Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 3.

2.Thalia Field, Bird Lovers, Backyard (New York: New Directions, 2010), 72.