Loss in reverse (PoemTalk #40)

Susan Schultz, 'Dementia Blog'

Susan Schultz and her mother
Susan Schultz and her mother


Norman Fischer’s super-coherent overview of the book called Dementia Blog by Susan Schultz is a good way to begin: “Following the odd form of the blog, which is written forward in time but read backwards, it charts the fragmented disorienting progression (if this is the word) of her mother's dementia. Schultz sees through her family's personal tragedy to the profound social and philosophical implications of the unraveling of sense and soul: a deranged nation, so unmoored from coherence that it is unable to feel the difference between political rhetoric and the destructiveness of war.”

For our 40th episode of PoemTalk, we gathered Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Michelle Taransky and Leonard Schwartz and discussed two relatively early blog entries in this work.

Leonard responds to the matter of Schultz’s discovery of dementia as poetic form and he quotes Schultz on this point: “Reverse Stein. Not insistence but repetition.” “Stein,” says Leonard, “who insists it’s not repetition, that there is no repetition” but Schultz reverses that, based on the neurological reality facing her. Is this repeal of Stein a “big breakthrough”? asks Al - to which Leonard replies that it’s not really a critique of Stein, because finally “this book honors a kind of indeterminacy as ethics.”

Jamie-Lee argues that for Schultz memory is community and the state of being without memory is isolation. In the post-Holocaust sense, we won’t understand, and cannot successfully convey, what we write down about the trauma we witness. Schultz nonetheless chooses testimony a mode, and blog as form, not so much because she believes in the efficacy of bearing witness but because she wants to be part of this community and to stave off remoteness.

Michelle follows this by wondering if we can understand such writing as lyric – as embodying the qualities of the lyric poem. How is Schultz “somehow both expressing something personal – relating it to herself, her mother turning into not-her-mother – and at the same time there’s the very public [function, so that] someone else with a mother with dementia might read this and relate. Thus there’s somehow that ability to both be lyrical and to be poethical at the same time.” Michaelle isn’t certain that the blog form is what makes that convergence possible, but she suspects it might be.

Al had already written about the book on his own blog, where he concluded, perhaps a little too cutely, that “[t]he illness is the medium” – and then pondered the project’s novelistic aspects:

As you read this work you go backwards into the daughter's recent past to a point just when the mother begins to lose a grasp on her past. Ironically, conventional novelistic progression is repurposed for the digital mode that would normally undermine it. As we move toward the end (the beginning: Susan's return home from a vacation abroad to deal with her mother's first crises), we arrive at wholeness. Not Pip realizing his realistic place in London, nor Emma right-sizing the world into appropriate family pairings, nor even Clarissa Dalloway's party bringing the whole fractured cast together, but a happy-ever-after that is a moment in time just before the decline begins. In the end are things as they were.

The book can be purchased through Small Press Distribution. It was published by Singing Horse Press in 2008. PennSound’s Susan Schultz page is here; she recorded nine sections, or blog entries, specifically for PennSound – including, of course, the two we discuss. For his radio show, “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” produced in the studios of KAOS-FM at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and made available through PennSound, Leonard Schwartz has interviewed Schultz several times. During the 180th show, he spoke with her about Dementia Blog and that interview is very much worth hearing along with this PoemTalk.<--break- />

[A few days later: we’re glad to see that already this discussion and of course the book itself are being recommended in a letter to the editor of Slate in response to an article about the experience of living with someone suffering from dementia.]

PoemTalk’s 40th episode was directed and engineered once again by James LaMarre and edited as always by Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Richard Sieburth, Kaplan Harris and Rachel Blau DuPlessis talk with Al about the third canto of Ezra Pound. Stay tuned for that one.

After the night years (PoemTalk #39)

Etheridge Knight's 'The Sun Came' and Gwendolyn Brooks' 'Truth'


On PennSound’s Etheridge Knight page we offer single downloadable MP3 recordings of every poem Knight read at a memorable February 25, 1986 reading. The introduction to the reading was given by Gwendolyn Brooks herself — she who had long been an encourager of Knight. “Don’t let us lack hard rock,” she says at one point in this intro, addressing herself directly to Knight. She reminded her audience of a poem Knight had written in response to her very early poem, “truth,” in which she (as she reminded us in ‘86) had equated truth with sunshine. And Brooks read the opening lines of Knight’s “The Sun Came,” and then invited Knight up to the podium with the command to “open your mouth.” Open it he did, Etheridge Knight did, and along the way performed “The Sun Came” himself.

Is Knight’s poem a rejoinder or counterargument to Brooks’ “truth” in any sense? There is no easy answer to this question. For this episode of PoemTalk Al Filreis gathered Tracie Morris, Josephine Park, and Herman Beavers to talk through the relationship between the two poems and between these two poets. Enabled by Tracie’s sense of the lived authority of Knight’s voice (“the Joe Williams of modern poetry”), by Jo’s close reading of his performed meter, and by Herman’s attention to the jailed figure of Knight, we soon realize that Brooks invites a dialogue by way of a key religious trope, and that Knight has responded by figuring Malcolm X as Jesus Christ. Summoned by Brooks to testify about Jesus, Knight associates Malcolm with the end of darkness. Christian regret (we did not sufficiently know him until after death) sparks Knight’s angry, sad, sorrowful expression of our having “goofed the whole thing” — that our ears should have been, but weren’t, equipped to hear the “fierce hammering.” The sun comes. So Malcolm comes. Did the light of each or either reach the cell of the speaker? It seems that it did not (although the poem itself is our only evidence otherwise). Who comes? Mal (evil, danger, etc.) comes. (The way Knight emphasizes the repeated “MALcolm” makes this double sense clear.)

But back to the question of possible rebuke. Herman hears some counterargument in Knight, Tracie less so. One of those rare disagreements on PoemTalk. The discussion among all four is at its most interesting here, and there’s some good talk about Brooks’ sheer power and pull as a poetic personage. Finally, Herman summarizes this segment of the discussion as follows, speaking in Knight's voice: “I’m honoring your influence by taking it in a direction that you would not take it.” It = the problem of the instance of the sun; the possibility of radical opportunities.<--break- />

Here is the recording of Knight reading his poem. And here is Brooks’ introduction. And here is a PDF of the text of the Knight poem provided by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and also here below:

If nothing ever ended (PoemTalk #38)

Norman Fischer, 'I'd Like to See It'


Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock joined Al to talk about a poem published in Norman Fischer’s book Turn Left in Order to Turn Right (O Books, 1989). The poem is “I’d Like to See It” (text; audio). When Fischer was interviewed by Charles Bernstein for a Close Listening program in 2006, he read six poems from that 1989 book, including our poem. These six readings, and a great many more, are available on Fischer’s PennSound author page. His own website also includes other recordings of poetry, and also talks.

Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and is the founder of and a teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of communities and projects. He began publishing poetry in the late 1970s and in those early years especially his writing was associated with that of the Bay Area Language Poets.

Fischer wrote the following prefatory statement to Turn Left in Order to Go Right: “Occasionally when people ask me about Zen practice I say it’s not the usual kind of activity in that you can’t really try to do it. If you try to move toward it it always seems to be somewhere else. The harder you try the worse it gets. But you can’t not make any effort either; in fact you have to make a mighty effort, but in another direction. It’s a little like turning left in order to go right.”

This sense of quasi-nonintentional misdirection, our Talkers felt, is a key to understanding the way Fischer in “I’d Like to See It” deploys the refrain “I’d like to see it that way.” Does it demand or expect the seer to see a certain way? Does it express desire? And how variously? Does it imply a program for a better future? Ah, but — as Linh Dinh points out — it seeks an end to war but wonders if wanting war to end would ever end it: “[W]ould my wanting / To end it ever end if nothing ever ended / I’d like to see it that way.” Julia Bloch observes that the refrain both “swerves away from the intention” going on in any line preceding it “and also modifies it.” At one point, grappling with the poem’s refrain, Al puts it this way: “What I have now is not the way I’d like to see it. Or it could mean: the way I’m seeing it is the way I’d like the world to be, which happens to be the way it is because I observed it. One way or other, there is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world is if he is able to see it the way he’d like ”

Frank Sherlock reminds us that Zen practice and jazz, cognate fields and modes of (non)thought especially in the US, produce a series of variations that focus our attention on modes of thought rather than on the subject matter of the poem (war, air pressure, one’s “daily objects,” a chimney). Frank reminds us of Fischer’s “To be without content, but full of ” where light equals (in this case) compositional process, the proceedings of a thought variously through unanticipated contexts.<--break->

Steve McLaughlin engineered this episode of PoemTalk, and, as always, edited it. Next time on PoemTalk, Tracie Morris, Herman Beavers, and Josephine Park talk with Al about a poem Etheridge Knight wrote as a direct response to Gwendolyn Brooks, and we’ll treat our listeners to a recording of a poetry reading in which Brooks introduced Knight and mentions (and quotes from) his rejoinder-poem.

Finding the words (PoemTalk #37)

Jena Osman, 'Dropping Leaflets'


For an event held at the Writers House on November 7, 2001, Jena Osman composed a new poem — one might say thus that it’s an occasional poem. The occasion was given the overall title “Finding the Words” (as in: how can writers find words to bespeak a response to 9/11?) and Osman’s poem was “Dropping Leaflets.”

Here is verbatim what Osman said as she introduced the poem at the Writers House: “The title of this program is ‘Finding the Words.’ Every day I look in the newspapers. I keep sensing the presence of what's not being told... ‘Help me come up with a strategy to get through this white noise.’ I don't have that strategy, except to call attention to components of that white noise so we can hear it for what it is. In the spirit of Marianne Moore, who often incorporated what she was reading into her poems, I’m going to read a piece made of words I found when I read transcripts of press conferences given by Bush, Ridge, Rumsfeld, and Cheney in the last few days. I read the transcripts, printed them out, I tore them up, and then I stood on a chair, and then I bombed my office floor with them as if they were leaflets and the leaflets told me what to do. So this piece is called ‘Dropping Leaflets.’”

The text of the poem is given here. It was published subsequently in a book, An Essay in Asterisks (Roof Books, 2004). The recording made on November 7, 2001, is available on Osman’s PennSound author page and linked here.

Al Filreis convened Mark Nowak, Emily Abendroth and Jessica Lowenthal to talk about this poem and more generally some aspects of documentary poetics. They considered, among other things, what happens to such a historically specific writing when some of the context fades as a memory — and whether the aesthetic qualities of the poem become a primary impression. And yet the poem’s rhetoric — if that's the right term for a poem constructed of found phrases — speaks to the very question of how we can make ourselves heard in all the centralizing, nationalistic white noise at such a moment.<--break- />

This episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by James LaMarre and edited by Steve McLaughlin.

Writing through imagism (PoemTalk #36)

Jennifer Scappettone's 'Vase Poppies' and H.D.'s 'Sea Poppies'


For this episode of PoemTalk, we took the show on the road — to Chicago — where David Pavelich hosted us at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, a favorite haunt of an archive-obsessed Al Filreis over many years. (The Modern Poetry collection includes, of course, the papers of Poetry magazine up until 1962 or so, among other gems.) Thanks to David for hosting us! We were joined by Don Share and Judith Goldman and we talked about two poems, one written through the other: H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” and Jennifer Scappettone’s “Vase Poppies.” Here’s H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” (1916):  

Amber husk
fluted with gold,
fruit on the sand
marked with a rich grain,

spilled near the shrub-pines
to bleach on the boulders:

your stalk has caught root
among wet pebbles
and drift flung by the sea
and grated shells
and split conch-shells.

Beautiful, wide-spread,
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?<--break- />

And here is Jennifer Scappettone’s “Vase Poppies” (2002):

Lavenderish dusk
strapped for stays,
pomegranates under the rubberband
chucked for a glass Oz,

splayed by the pillar-shelves
to page upon the ottoman:

his talk has wrought suit
amid citrus gapes
and pall dunked in the bowl
and grated sage
or cleaved clear paleo-pines.

Postgeist, upcast
California upon weed,
what banker yields
so fragrant a cant
as this vagrant cant?

Scappettone wrote through H.D.’s poem, substituting words but always keeping to parts of speech. She echoes the original at certain moments, creating some rhymes and in a few cases what amounts to a homonymic (“husk”/“dusk”) and quasi-synonymic translation (“sought root”/“wrought suit”). The poem is a meta-commentary on imagism, a way of decorating or over-elaborating H.D. whose imagistic lines convey a “piety that veers into preciosity” (the poet’s phrase).** Conch-shells become paleo-pines. “Fire on leaf” becomes “California upon weed.” “Vase” can rhyme with “maze” or with “Oz,” depending on your class. (Scappettone has introduced the poem at readings sometimes by mentioning this valence, seeming to contribute to the notion that it is a commentary on imagism's social preciousness.)

Photo above and at left: Don Share and Al Filreis taking questions after presentations on the work of Poetry editor Henry Rago — in Chicago at a conference hosted by David Pavelich held after we recorded this episode of PoemTalk.

** Quoting from an email sent to Al Filreis by Jennifer Scappettone.