A review of Thomas Meyer’s ‘Beowulf’
In being caught between two times, that of composition and circulation, Thomas Meyer’s translation finds itself in harmony with its source text. Meyer translated Beowulf in the 1970s, after completing a 1969 senior thesis at Bard translating the rest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Our introduction to Meyer’s electric translation, however, is more recent, as it was released by punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand publisher, only in 2012. Meyer’s source, Beowulf, survives in only one fragile, burnt manuscript, copied about a thousand years ago, but the poem was composed earlier, though scholars continue to debate how much earlier (possible dates for various portions and composition circumstances range from the seventh to the tenth centuries). This poem’s delayed debut does not diminish its freshness or its power to surprise with a new perspective on a familiar friend. Better still, Meyer connects Beowulf to a history of avant-garde mid-century poetry, especially an inheritance of Poundian Imagism and modernist experiments in long-form poems. Meyer thus also — unintentionally, perhaps — opens up Beowulf to resonances both contemporary and surprisingly medieval. Meyer designates his translation as “commentary,” but “collaboration” might be a better term for the interplay between the Anglo-Saxon original and Meyer’s present-day English version.
By making the poem larger and longer, more about expanses of space and time that need more pauses and divisions to be felt, Meyer also ultimately makes the poem more intimate, more about a specific time and space with its own emotions that must be observed in detail. In the interview published as an appendix in this volume, David Hadbawnik quotes Meyer claiming that “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual,” identifying the look of the poem as “a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965” (264). Yet the oral becomes starkly visible on the page in Meyer’s text. In an oral culture, as depicted in Beowulf, your spoken word is everything because there is nothing else. When Beowulf introduces himself in Heorot, the mead-hall in which most of the first third of the poem takes place, Meyer gives his first words an entire page:
followed by a full page of white space (61). Once Beowulf has the opportunity to address the king himself, Meyer condenses his speech into a column running down the page, a few words per line. He stands upon his reputation and oral self-presentation.
Meyer’s willingness to play with line lengths substitutes his own chosen breaks for the caesura of the original long alliterative lines, with four stresses and three alliterations in specific set patterns. The effect of the visual layout — always thoughtful, never quirky or affected — stresses the poem’s essential orality. The plain, white space opens up the impact of the spoken oaths, boasts, songs of valor, and tense exchanges among the characters, emerging as deeply-freighted units of meaning from existential emptiness. When Beowulf responds to Unferth’s challenge about his past deeds, Meyer’s variation of line length draws attention to the alliteration. One can clearly hear the crisp note of scorn running through Beowulf’s retort to the unfriendly man, doubting that Beowulf really has accomplished so much. Beowulf declares:
Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
so much humiliation or
so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
as hard in battle
as you claim. (79)
Meyer uses alliteration enthusiastically but sparingly, relying upon line spacing to prevent the alliteration and parallel clauses from becoming repetitive and dull. Beowulf explains how he killed Grendel, ripping off his arm:
I’d meant to
wrap my arms around him, bind him
to death’s bed
with a bear’s,
a beewolf’s hug
but his body slipped my grip:
God’s will he
jerked free. (101)
Meyer’s alliteration, assonance, and Anglo-Saxon diction — which emphasizes compounds, kennings, and Germanic vocabulary — keep the feel of the poem close to the original Beowulf, but not slavishly so.
Meyer’s most drastic intervention may be his division of the poem into two sections, “Oversea” and “Homeland.” The emphasis on away versus home sensitizes the reader to time and space, natural landscape versus human-forged structures. The barrow where a dragon slumbers, guarding treasure, eerily collapses these divisions. Resting on a forgotten golden hoard from a died-out civilization, the dragon slept “wallowing / in pagan gold / 300 winters. // His earth encrusted hide / remained as evil / as ever” (186). The menace of the three monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon — comes from their sullying of the lines between civilization and its wild outside, destroying the raw material of creation itself. The mere over Grendel and his mother’s lair has become corrupted by their evil, as Hrothgar explains:
keeps that spot.
Black water spouts
lift off the lake
& lap the clouds
Wind surges into
deadly storms until
all air grows dark.
The skies wail.” (125)
Meyer beautifully sketches the contrast between the natural, dangerous, even malevolent environment and the man-made world of golden rings, shields, weapons, mead, and poetry.
Meyer’s divisions into two sections slow down the poem. In addition to the splitting between “Oversea” and “Homeland,” Meyer further divides the “Oversea” section into twenty-six “fits.” (Meyer wittily names the first introductory section of Beowulf “Forefit.”) These divisions are reminiscent of the second-most famous anonymous English poem from the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is broken into “fitts.” In contrast, “Homeland” has no such breaks, emphasizing the (idealized) wholeness, continuity, and integrity of this space. With these continual breaks, the longer histories embedded in the poem finally have the chance to capture a casual reader’s attention as much as the stories of Beowulf battling the monsters. The monsters, of course, capture our imaginations as readers. Like so many twentieth-century readers, Meyer is alert to another source of tragedy in the poem: the sentience, the internal life of the three monsters Beowulf defeats. Grendel in particular, the outcast antihero, has garnered modern empathy, and Meyer voices Grendel’s death agonies in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Beowulf grapples with Grendel, and Meyer imagines the desperate thoughts of the monster:
Meyer lets us glimpse Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s desperation. Yet Meyer’s translation, perhaps most importantly, allows the larger tragedy of Beowulf to become clear, and it is fundamentally a human tragedy. The constant intimations of danger and destruction — that the mead-hall Heorot will someday be burnt down, that the tribe of the Scyldings will not always be at peace, that Beowulf’s people are doomed to depredations and invasions after his death — gain urgency from the inset narratives about other, earlier feuds and battles. In Meyer’s translation, those narratives stand apart, visible, constantly breaking the headlong line of action and of verse. Recently, lovers of poetry and Beowulf had our own loss of the most famous of Beowulf’s recent translators, Seamus Heaney. Heaney produced what may now be the most familiar and well-known Beowulf translation for a generation of readers, a rendering sensitive to the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon original yet creating something new from it. Yet as Meyer’s translation reminds us, this poem that has survived for so long still has so much to teach us.
A review of Ethel Rackin’s ‘The Forever Notes’
“My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” from the third and final section of Ethel Rackin’s The Forever Notes, concludes in lines that could serve as a primer to the book’s development of the lyric, especially Rackin’s amendments to its use as an instrument of discovery and dissent. This poem begins singling out for consideration one of many drawings made by a sister with the precise deictic “This,” but ends in three lines hinged by a simile (“like ghosts”) that turns the poem back on itself in a “generative act” like the one described at its center:
This red-lined tree with leaves —
where does it come from
where does it go?
Time we play
queen & servant
for a day —
how I wish
it could be different.
A generative act
splits the street
with no trees at all,
still becomes greener.
Flowers that wilt and bloom.
We learn to grow things
we put things away. (46)
In an act of mental sounding, the poem touches off the final line, moving back up into its one stanza to review the ways we might “learn to grow things / like ghosts” and also “put things away” like ghosts, as well as the ways growing things and putting things away relate to each other. The doubled simile and the repetition of “things” pressurizes the placeholder generalization so that the word that comes closest to meaning merely “nouns” (both concrete and abstract) ripples with curious, competing possibilities: in the context of these multiplying lines, “things” might be living, literal, and sustaining (like flowers and food) or conceptual (like ideas and poems) or alive but lethal and informative (like diseases).
These multitudes draw the eye up through the poem’s expertly broken and syntactically fragmented lines, returning to the surface of the opening question to circle it, as is often done in “red-lined” editorial ink for emphasis, expansion, or deletion. Within the poem’s compressed consideration of sibling play and children’s attractions (their “drawings”) to natural objects, however, Rackin’s lyric also recalls and recasts Emerson’s meditations on the relationships among human sight, imagination, and moral pursuits in “Circles,” an essay that begins, “THE EYE is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end … and under every deep a lower deep opens.” The ungraspable expanses of the natural world may thwart answering “where does it come from / where does it go?” but in Rackin’s poetics the infinitude of experience leads to deeper concentration and more intimate contact with the words and symbols through which the world is known.
In the ambitious re-creation of Emerson’s dual figures of concentricity and depth supporting his contention that the “universe is fluid and volatile,” Rackin’s “My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” like most of the poems of The Forever Notes, exhibits characteristic properties of what Elizabeth Willis has termed the “late lyric,” a descriptor Willis uses to clear up persistent misunderstandings of the lyric as a kind of confessional verse resulting in epiphany and transcendence of personal and historical specifics. Contemporary instances of the late lyric don’t evade their histories, but instead “exis[t] in a present that contains the past” — a past that stirs and is stirred by the present. In the context of Willis’s theory, one that recognizes the universe Emerson sees, the things “we learn to grow” and “we put … away” in Rackin’s poem about sibling role-playing and creative freedom include drawings of trees and youthful wishes for a different world. But among the things cultivated and the things stored out of sight are traces of the dolls, childhood, spool necklace, and Christian name put away in Dickinson’s famous poem of maturity, “I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —.” “My Sister’s Drawings” encourages this association with the famous Dickinson poem of self-confirmation through its trademark em dashes and the syntactic doubling of the lines “with no trees at all” and “like ghosts,” and in the earlier lines’ allusion to the poem’s central trope of a queen who replaces the infant servant to actual and religious fathers. Dickinson’s gestures of dissent against man-made rituals of salvation gather far more quietly in Rackin’s poem about play, representation, and the power of creativity.
In containing the past that holds Dickinson’s lyric, Rackin’s poetics reroutes the expected circuits of intertextuality. The particles and particulars of Dickinson’s poem circulating in “My Sister’s Drawings” don’t so much direct reading to Dickinson as through its shorthand history of American selfhood envisioned as isolate, regal, and aristocratic, in which individuality is always a matter of ascension and separation, from servant “we” to royal “I.” The presence of other mediums in Rackin’s poem — performance (playing queen and servant) and drawing — complicates the poem’s ekphrastic movement to open a horizon of a remediative consideration. Here, Dickinson’s poem that ends in self-coronation and declarations of self-sovereignty (“With Will to choose, or to reject, / And I choose, just a Crown —”) opens into “a lower deep” through Rackin’s reopening of its terms for power, oppression, and childish imitation.
This opening and circling are generative acts of the intellectual imagination animating The Forever Notes, not only redrawing poetic relationships but also reviving the lyric’s most basic elements. Repetition of words and phrases within poems and from poem to poem demonstrates the late lyric’s capacity to “evoke alternate experiences” and to “provoke an excess of meaning.” In poems “You lie in a tree told sure,” “Story where I kept you,” and “You and the laborious night of trees,” Rackin avoids enjambment in favor of lines beginning traditionally with capitalized words but ending openly, unpunctuated, as in “You and the laborious night of trees”:
Trees and the night around you
You and the laborious night of trees
Trees and the night around you
You and the trees (19)
Emerson’s cosmic horizons seem to intersect at several points with Stein’s insistence, her method of rolling words over and over a line to fill various syntactical positions, gaining and halting momentum in ways that shake habits of consciousness to expose the luxuriance of the everyday. Rackin’s lyric pressurizes this play of reference, shifting “you,” “trees,” “laborious,” and “night” to provoke many simultaneous identities for speaker and addressee. In other poems, like “Leaflets,” repetition operates in ways similar to patterns established in HD’s early poems in which desire fuels vision in violent bursts:
There are those whom I need
to be singing
there are those who are singing
so I tear myself — (48)
The rending of self and song and of self by song illustrates the late lyric’s tendency to push and rupture the boundaries of identity rather than to repair or preserve them. Rackin’s work scatters the speaking self sometimes violently, sometimes playfully, often joyfully. These are volatile poems, but their explosiveness often drives toward hope and receptivity. “A generative act / splits the street” and in splitting the street, traffic moves more freely, more dangerously and unpredictably, in two or more directions, like infinite lines radiating from the vanishing point of a sister’s drawing.
In these poems, the foundational materials of the lyric seem in a continual state of regeneration. Even the most poetically handled words, like “tree,” “flowers,” “dreams,” “leaves,” or “sea,” become not just revived but disturbing and uncontainable, detonated within the ample margins. The vocabulary of the idyll so frequently occupies Rackin’s poetry that, when terms from the modern world of consumerism and entertainment appear (as they occasionally and discreetly do), a vibrant recirculation of temporal and perceptual modes takes place, as in “How wonderful to go riding”:
And to feel the sadness
That loneliness leaves
When it leaves
How wonderful to go riding
To fall into that sadness and know it
The breath of fall and the buds that spring
To experience sales also
In the adrift of language’s departments
How wonderful to feel sadness
That springs from summer monuments (10)
The setting is almost entirely impressionistic, although the sense of lushness and intensity of understanding is certain. Images of the Romantic natural world press into the poem’s emotional alertness, although there’s little that explicitly ties the poem to a remote countryside where riding is an experience of being carried along for the ride rather than driving or pedaling to a destination. Pleasure seems central to this poem, especially the pleasure in opportunities to move at a speed that allows one to notice subtle shifts in season and to recognize layers of emotion, “to feel the sadness / That loneliness leaves / When it leaves,” layers condensed by contemporary (and literary) inclinations towards closure and the contentedness emotional clarity is supposed to bring. Wonder, the roots of which mean either “a sight” or “a panic,” is clearly separate from private happiness or a release from the modern world of consumerism and bureaucracy. There is wonder in “sales” and in the lingo of contemporary popular discourse, too — “the adrift of language’s departments” is an ingenious clause, letting “adrift” drift out of modifying departments and into double occupation as subject of the prepositional phrase and newly minted noun, conspicuously awkward in its unfamiliar pose.
Rackin’s orientation in widely recognizable poetic materials accomplishes The Forever Notes’ greatest renovations of the lyric, its ability to gesture toward and even coax into view the untapped, untraveled expanses of perception. This embrace of old, even clichéd matters defies the new and improved, “fresh” and “emergent” criteria dominating contemporary poetry, but in Rackin’s poetics, that defiance is far from reactionary. Instead, The Forever Notes argues, implicitly and persuasively, that the lyric, even stripped down, remains a potent resource for imagination, beauty, and explorations of consciousness. Rather than find new subjects and forms for poetry, this stance implies, we must look harder at the ones we think we already know. “Meet me in the cabin,” the book’s first poem, presents a tiny, puzzling accumulation of repetition and metaphor (that also demonstrates Rackin’s archaic but multifunctional presentation of titles) that directs attention to some of the lyric’s most primitive matters — desire, love, and the struggle for immersion in the present:
Meet me in the sea
Meet me where our love’s a shirt
Drenched, dried out, and drenched once more (5)
Structuring this love lyric urging an erotic reunion, the miniature anaphora of “Meet me” turns the public emphasis of repetition marking the epic into the lyric’s intimate voice. Familiarity itself is the poem’s focus; familiarity comes from repetition and wear, like the homely (and metaphorically compounded) love shirt drenched and dried, over and over again. The poem’s delight comes from its speaker’s expectation of the cycles of meeting, love, drenching, and drying — of what’s known, but not completely, ever. Rackin sets aside the epiphany’s shock of recognition to wring from the lyric the slow, fluid volatility of knowing — our widest, most complex and elusive horizon of recognizing — what we see and feel, for days and for centuries, again and again, once more.
2. Elizabeth Willis, “The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric,” Telling It Slant, Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, eds. J. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 225.
3. In her Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Cristanne Miller identifies Dickinson’s use of “a single phrase to cover two nonparallel syntactic contexts or to describe two different subjects” (37) and names this technique “syntactic doubling.”
A review of Mary Burger's 'Then Go On'
In her new book Then Go On, Mary Burger explores how to occupy space and time with language and thought, how to expand the self, transgressing its borders, how to exhaust thought, how to suspend time and the self, and how to exceed language with itself.
As if a harbinger, the following text presented itself a few months prior to Burger’s book, handwritten in kid’s scrawl and posted in a ground-floor window in my neighborhood:
a chrip to chin
wus a pontim
thar wr too
First I was fascinated to decipher the phonetic spelling, then to consider the author’s radical relationship with words. The story fascinated me too. How liberating: shaping the words, to shape the story, shaping the story as opposite to what we “know” as possible (i.e., kids in California imagine China/“chin”). I love to make these words with my mouth and breath because it feels like the usually ineffable thing is piecing itself together right next to my vocables. Mary Burger writes with the same immediacy. Indeed, two pieces in Then Go On, “Two Little Mice” and “Fire Cat,” begin with facsimiles of Burger’s own phonetic poems written at age seven.
A first word that comes to mind to describe Burger’s new book of poetic prose-prose poems is muscular. The writing has a material quality, and does rigorous work to fill the void with taut braids of itself. What void? That which a being confronts in space and time. I mean both the negative and double negative senses of the word: that is, void as meaningless empirical reality, and void as gap, opening, or rupture of reality, i.e., space of possibility.
In “Necessary,” Burger writes: “This language materialized, or coalesced I suppose, as if a fog had been there all along but gradually became opaque so that the air that I had seen through became instead the thing that I could see” (48).
I often wonder how to spend my time. There’s never enough or else too much, so the wonderment is couched in anxiety. In “Orbital,” Burger writes, “This will take up all the available time for a while. I can see from your face that I’ve made an impression” (56). She’s just discussed “the scale of things entrusted to us [that] staggers even ourselves,” and suggests the gamut from subatomic to outer-orbital. The next strophe proceeds: “This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes” (57). I’m encouraged by the time I fill with Mary Burger’s book, as the flexible, capable word toils to trace the contours of an intricate topography. The sense of effort here is a solace not a suck because it activates the subjectivity of everyone involved. The prose invites me into its gullies of white space and other deferrals — so I’m the living thing that bridges its gaps; the immense tensile strength, poise, and lucidity of Burger’s writing grips and focuses my attention as I cross over.
In the first section of “The Man Without Stumps IV,” Burger outlines how language falls short of her wishes for it: “the alphabet was not the moving topography I’d been imagining” (77). Yet by gathering and applying language materially onto “the vastly featured terrain that shifted around me,” she vanquishes these limitations. The section comprises a single sentence that extends over nineteen lines, kinked with equal parts repetition and caesurae. “This sequence of individual graphemes does not map the parabolic movement of the knife-edge ridge of a sand dune,” but in a sense she casts the dune in negative, parallel impression — unspooling the sentence against it. In other words, torqued by the interplay of repetition and extension, the writing enacts the “parabolic movement,” “striations,” and “shifting” of the terrain with its own sinuous shape.
Burger’s thoroughness accomplishes an occupation of time and space that yields agency. She starts with nothing, beginning at the beginning — her phonetic protolanguage — and never denies nothing’s constant, in the cracks of contingency to either side of reason or its semblance. “The Man Without Stumps,” for example, foregrounds an absence of legible form. Mid-careen down a crumbling cliff face, the man “notices then that he is not standing on anything, that he is in fact surrounded by nothing … Not just nothing he recognizes, there is nothing at all” (68). The man is nondescript, bouncy, soft, the terrain sliding and loose. Any form they retain is a turbulent blur. In a strophe on raising tents: “Always at the fulcrum of the lift there is a chance someone will give out. One pole will swerve wildly, others will waver, suddenly the whole sky will lurch to one side and collapse” (65). No determinate shape or area is reliable, all’s in flux, spanned by “the cloud of being that dispels millions of colors in gray matter, an atomized mist, [that] surrounds us and is chilly, we can’t separate ourselves from it or feel any perspective, we can’t look at it because we are in it” (69). Burger manages to write in, of, and by this cloud, manifesting not only that form is fluid, but that myriad appearances coexist of a truth that can’t be defined.
The final pages of “The Man Without Stumps” comprise a succession of interpretations of “the graininess in the picture that might be me”:
The graininess in the picture that might be me could be a ball caught in mid-
bounce, a Frisbee powered by a good throw. It could be a dog with a Frisbee in its mouth.
The graininess in the picture that might be me might be a glass of lemonade. That
might be you behind me, reaching for me, a cool glass wet with condensation, the
pale lemony water choked with ice.
The graininess in the picture that might be me is part black part white and faintly crescent-shaped.
The graininess in the picture that might be me, it gives just enough information to
go on, just enough texture and contrast for me to almost hold together. Stay with
me now, I am almost about to exist. (82)
Each reading of the picture is just as true as any other, and just as false. Burger’s communication is authentic not as external fact, but insofar as it activates and engages an I. The rotation of hypotheses answering the anaphora, “the graininess in the picture,” builds a formal concatenation that carries the thinking subject and almost embodies her; constant motion and plurality match the ever-unmade, ever-in-the-making subject.
Revelations, repetitions, questions, contradictions, hesitations, violations: all arise and weigh the same. What matters more than the particular shape of the word-bodied thought, is its engagement in the traversal of time and space. Burger’s word is not “spent” in the sense of expended: extinguished, dead, switched off, etc. Nor is time itself used up or killed. Rather, the word and time may be said to expand — and thereby open vital lacunae in the blah everyday. In turn, in this breaking space, “aesthetic” experience becomes possible.
In “Rusted,” Burger deals explicitly with “pure aesthetic gesture” (4). “We believed the most extravagant, precise, deliberate, but utterly nonutilitarian gesture to be the most perfect” (5), she writes. Pointing to the impracticality and stupidity of “photographs of ourselves sitting on the thing [a defunct pipe] and grinning” (5), the poem celebrates a free realm for play and the suspension of sense-making. In the poem prior, “I Like Purple,” another nonsensical zone blossoms weirdly in “the transformation of an embroidered peasant shawl into a wriggling hallucination — girls lined up, one row above another, as if in the corridors of a cell block, a bar or scarf floating across their middle, and below the heads of the next row, the bars moved and danced with the girls, and it seemed the whole system might split, but it didn’t” (3). A vivid, extraordinary vision defies understanding but endures anyway.
Burger’s writing reaches far, pressing into multiple dimensions. An aphoristic character surrounds sentences with auras of implication, in the way that parables and miniatures are both tidy and infinitely extensible. Still, however resonant with compression, abstraction, and calm, the proffered advice is not easy or reasonable. Burger answers complexity with complexity, with grammar that unwinds and divagates interminably even as it’s wrought with utter precision. As a consequence, where precariousness matches attention to detail, we adopt a discipline of deep focus — or risk substance’s dissolution.
Here again is the book’s substrate: in the face of formlessness, Burger activates the present by way of ideas — contemplating contingencies one by one as they appear — as well as formally, with deftly woven prose. She notes potential pitfalls: inauthenticity, by attempting “to seize the impossibly ephemeral moment, to hold onto a reflection which was not the moment itself” (“A Series of Water Disasters,” 16), excess, or “the nature of mind, that wants to be elsewhere” (“Necessary,” 49), and denial, by answering “the ubiquitous emergency as if it wasn’t happening to us” (“Blush,” 46). In the last, ongoing catastrophe just beyond our scope takes the form of a “subtly pulsating, high-pitched whine,” that provides a constant, abstract threat but no real compromise to sitting “in this shady backyard sharing a meal” (47). Yet the repercussions of the alternative — not to attempt to examine one’s experience, not to question, think, or write — are worse than these habits that the subject strains to break. In Then Go On, Mary Burger coaxes a body of writing as changeable, fluid, serious, and vulnerable as a living body, in evidence of a mindfulness that awakens, in turn, the reader’s reciprocal attention to new spaces of possibility.
1. I understand (via Friedrich Schiller’s definitions, via Jacques Rancière and Claire Bishop) the aesthetic object of free appearance as that which maintains total autonomy from sensible, ordinary, productive modes of reality. As such it creates space for play and pointless activity, questioning and reimagining.
A review of Linda Norton's 'The Public Gardens'
Prior to the publication of Linda Norton’s 2007 Etherdome Press chapbook, Hesitation Kit, and her 2011 Pressed Wafer book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, which was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, many readers didn’t know that Norton had already exerted a quiet influence on them in her work as a poetry editor at the University of California Press. Since the 1980s Norton has made her living as a publicist and editor for a variety of publishing houses. Today, she works at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California. All these years, as the reader learns in The Public Gardens — a book that begins with poetry, continues with journals from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, and finishes with more poetry — she was writing and making collages, though few people were aware of this work. As Norton put it in a 2010 interview with Kate Greenstreet, “I like to do readings because I like to participate, to contribute, and I often hear people say, ‘I had no idea you wrote!’ or ‘I had no idea you were a visual artist!’” Norton’s response suggests that she prefers the communal to the individual, a preference that provides shelter to work without the burden of attention. Without a doubt this communal impulse shapes the interrogative quality of Norton’s writing.
Many of the concerns in The Public Gardens start to crystallize in “Landscaping for Privacy,” the first section of the book. Two of the most recurrent themes center on the question of what it means to be a woman who is first a girl and how to make art. The poem “Rose with No Name” contains these lines:
Red roses on a rose bush looped with garden hose —
The first paintings were made with blood,
beauty out of carnage, or was it red ink
from the body of the first girl, from the first
wondering about what was happening
and how it might look and how it might smell.
Throughout The Public Gardens Norton shares with her readers the sense of wonder found here. This sense, though, is not clouded by fanciful idealism or lofty dreams. The earthy wonders are life and the art that people make from it. Norton’s speculations in this poem along these lines are fascinating. Were the first paintings made with blood got from killing? Or, more powerfully, were these paintings made with the menstrual blood of a young girl? As the poem continues it’s clear which question bears further interest:
The heirloom roses in this garden smell old
which means they smell fresh as the first girl
unlike some of the new roses bred to blossom
thornless, fast, synthetically, to resist pests.
Norton goes on to write that these synthetic roses “smell of money and garden hoses” and that “anyone / could do it, could do them; pornographic. / The first girl, the first rose: Sapphic.” In addition to Norton’s focus on the role women play in the arts, these lines mark yet another concern in The Public Gardens: authenticity. Norton often arrives at what she considers genuine by asking questions.
In the prose section of the book, entitled “Brooklyn Journals,” many of her queries focus on the burden of class. It’s particularly clear why in a passage dated October 11, 1987, where she’s reflecting on an interaction with her younger brother, Joey:
He glamorized my conventionality, my oldest sister ways, my pious lapsed Catholicism and my working-class pedestrian nature. But he knew this was not a pose established in order to subvert the establishment. It was something real and stolid and unconscious, something that made me old, and I hated it while I defended it.
The fact that our pasts are real and unconscious mean that they follow us wherever we go like unleashed dogs that somehow know the way home. Norton is always conscious of this in her work.
In her journals it’s particularly compelling how Norton depicts her siblings and their reactions to their shared upbringing. Joey wanted to escape it. Near the end of the October entry Norton recounts the moment when her brother picked up her gloves she had bought at Filene’s Basement: “‘Vinyl,’ he said, smelling the gloves. ‘Can’t you at least try to get real leather gloves?’ I frowned. I hadn’t realized they weren’t made of leather.” This is another of Norton’s strengths, her self-deprecating sense of humor.
Within this frame of class and sibling tension comes perhaps the most startling thread in The Public Gardens, an unfolding story of Joey and his death from AIDS in 1986. In the first journal entry of the book dated May 10, 1987 Norton introduces readers to Joey, or Joseph as he’s referred to in the entry, with an insightful comparison of her and Joey’s notes in the margin of Ulysses — the copy is Norton’s and Joey has borrowed it. Her notes were “parochial — all about Catholicism — the intense familiarity, though we were Americans, of Joyce’s Irishness, names and rituals, guilt and materials,” and his were “all about modernism and European intellectual and literary history.” As “Rose with No Name,” cited above, foregrounds the female, so too does this example, but here the gender difference Norton wants the reader to see is even more direct. Tellingly, the notes Norton made in the margin of Ulysses are recurring concerns in The Public Gardens, and it is a stronger book for it.
In the same October entry discussed above Norton is already asking about Joey’s death: “Was my brother Joseph able to prepare for his death? There was no time. Death by sex, shame, rage.” In the journal entries that follow we learn how bitter Joey had become in his last days. Especially haunting is the entry dated August 23, 1987, when Norton is listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Mass” and remembering that the nurse for her brother at Lenox Hill had told her that Joey’s bed was where Ellington had died. At first, Norton writes, “My brother would have loved to know that.” But, in the following paragraph she rescinds that thought:
No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one right after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere to go — he’d lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work — the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks.
Norton’s entries through the rest of the eighties makes clear how new and confusing AIDS was for her, as well as for society at large. In September 1987 Norton mentions “An emaciated man in a wheelchair with Kaposi’s lesions rolled past me one day in the rain. It’s everywhere. But none of the sick men I see are as young as my brother was. Why?” Then, in August 1990 she touches upon the fact that her family back in Boston refuses to admit that anyone but Joey has died from AIDS, and acknowledges to herself “At least in New York I’m not alone with it.” In the midst of all this the reader learns that Joey died a week before the discovery of AZT.
Norton’s skillful writing in her journals shows the complexity of the AIDS legacy, and more acutely how layered Norton’s difficult memories are concerning her family. The ability to weave these layers as honestly as Norton does in The Public Gardens is rare. How often is one willing to look hard at one’s family and milieu, write about them, and then publish it? Certainly, there are acres of memoirs published every year that proclaim penetrating introspection, but few are as probing as Norton’s.
Alongside entries regarding AIDS, her family, and class Norton also pays considerable attention to issues regarding race and ethnicity in The Public Gardens. In the entry dated October 19, 1990 Norton is waiting for an office-building elevator in Manhattan when a man steps out with “an amazing head of dreds, volumetrically astounding.” Another woman, a suburban blonde, about fifty, awaits the same elevator. Once on the elevator the blonde tries to catch Norton’s eye: “assuming we’ll conspire: ‘These people!’ I look down, avoiding her, because I don’t want to be forced to be white with her.” It’s clear that Norton’s self-awareness, even self-consciousness, is not restricted to class difference or familial tension. It’s as if Norton’s eye specializes in the issues that divide people.
As the journal entries through the early ’90s continue, Norton touches on race and the art world. Much of what she writes on this subject pertains to observations in her then-husband Andrew’s studio and at parties. An entry from June 1992 describes an afternoon with Andrew in his studio when they receive a phone call for his studio mate:
The phone rings and these days it’s always someone asking for Hodge Park. It is currently extremely cool to be anything but white in the art world. I half expect him to start using Ho-jun, the Korean name his parents gave him.
Then in May 1993 a painter friend, Steve, and Nancy visit Norton and Andrew at home. At some point during the visit “the guys grumbled about the plight of young white men in the art world — there’s no place for them now.” On the surface these examples seem to be only about race, but they are also about gender, particularly the white male version. Norton delivers her criticisms on this matter in the book brilliantly by simply observing and writing down what she sees and hears. If one misses what she’s after it’s the fault of a shallow reader.
The most wonderful journal entry comes on June 18, 1994, offering a bit of levity in regards to some of the heavier moments dealing with race and ethnicity. At the time, Norton is five months pregnant, on a business trip to London, and alone. As she’s walking down a road lined with tall row houses in Camden she encounters a young man, “high,” Norton guesses, “but not murderous, or insane,” so she relaxes. He asks, “How are you?” In her response he realizes she must be American, and then wants to know where she’s from. “Brooklyn,” she says. Interestingly, this young man is aware that Baruch Goldstein, “the guy who massacred Arabs in the mosque in Hebron,” is from there, too. Internally, this causes Norton to become a little tense, especially when the man asks, “Are you Jewish?” After wavering on how to answer, Norton replies, “No, I’m not Jewish.” At this point, the man “stopped and scrutinized [Norton’s] face intensely, like a surgeon accustomed to handling warm, throbbing ethnicities with his bare hands while the clock ticks.” The man is spot-on when he asks, “Irish and Sicilian?” When Norton expresses her amazement at his expert “ethnic dissection,” as Norton calls it, the man laughs and asks her “to drop some acid with him.” Norton points out that she is pregnant, so they walk “companionably to the corner, where [they] say goodbye, and good luck to each other.” Norton’s terminology, throbbing ethnicities, is perhaps the most accurate way to describe the ancestral forces that shape, at least in part, who we are. More often it seems that one forgets the throbbing part — the fact that ethnicities are alive — and treats these issues coldly, clinically. In The Public Gardens Norton is compassionate and aware. Like the young Londoner she finds a way to bridge this compassion with a surgeon’s grace in her writing on race.
As the journals come to a close Norton gives birth to a daughter, Isabel. Her description, written on November 18, 1994, of the birth is moving, filled as it is with tension and laughter. At the end of the entry Norton describes Isabel’s significance:
It’s not like she fulfills me, exactly. It’s as if her existence, her coming through my body and out between my legs, authorizes me as an animal.
She cries every night for three or four hours, and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I’m so tired. But her shit really does smell sweet.
In the last section of poems, “The Commons,” Norton continues to share with the reader her relationship with Isabel. “Stanzas in the Form of a Dove,” written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, moves with feelings of thought and love when she describes an evening she “caught a whiff of Isabel, and realized she needed a bath.” Though tired Norton gives her daughter a bath, puts her to bed. Just when she thinks they’ve both fallen asleep Isabel starts talking:
I have a question about being good or bad. I know you should be good,
but if you’re not, what can
they do to you? I mean, my question is: Do I always have to be good?
Does she always have to be good? When I was a girl, I knew I must
always be good. Because I was bad.
The filth. Look what original sin has done for me.
So I say to her: “No. You don’t always have to be good. You are good.”
She breathes a sigh of relief: “Thank you!” Then falls right to sleep,
smelling so sweet.
It’s startling how continually aware Norton is of her past, and impressive to see her determination to help shape a life that’s distinct to Isabel, perhaps one less burdened by class anxiety and built-in Catholic guilt. The care that Norton takes with each of her subjects in The Public Gardens — the feminine, art making, and family life to name a few — ought to have much influence on her audience. Norton not only applies the attention of her eyes and mind, she also attunes her heart to these matters. Importantly, she’s never afraid to ask questions of her subjects, even if only to herself. In these ways her book is an achievement built on her years of quietly working in the background, which is to say this book is a testament to patience.
A review of E-Poetry 2013 Festival London
It is a common misconception that digital media writing is about computers, networks, or any given technology. Of course, given that today’s technologies of writing are digital, a poetics to decenter such modes would engage digital processes. However, such a poetics does not begin and end with the digital. It embraces poetic interests from flickering cave signifiers through object-oriented array programming to microscopic tomes etched in chromosomes. The digital is simply the present location for a larger poetic investigation extending across multiple material manifestations: it is — but equally it isn’t — about digital technology. It is this area between the “is” and the “isn’t” to which, singularly, without peer, and without wish for authority, E-Poetry is dedicated. Indeed, the E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London festival is “digital” — it involves new media — but to describe it more accurately, it is about hybrid forms. It is a place for conversation about emergent language, visual expression, translation, code-as-writing, word works, and performance tropes from the point of view of the practitioner and artist-scholar. We’re all knee-deep in this electronic shift; the point is pivot the lens from the consumer to the inventor, from the receiver to the agitator.
In (paper) poetic practice today, it is almost as if we are seeing our emerging writers entering a new type of “lost generation.” Poets now are seen to be either/or — either “hacker-programmers” or “poets,” i.e., one or the other, geeks with programming manuals or successors to page-based innovative forms of practice. As if there were no connecting tissues! But, presently, there is a gap. Those who are digital tend not to have heard of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry; those who are writing page-based texts would never think of coming to E-Poetry. Not to suggest that experiencing E-Poetry is requisite to effectively commanding the present electro-frenzy of the word, but heads-up: there is material here that probably should not be completely overlooked.
Benjamin R. Moreno, “space reader.” Photo by Martin Rieser.
The first and longest-running convocation dedicated to the digital literary arts, E-Poetry is the only festival that seeks to celebrate writing in all forms, attentive to the tuning fork of the digital as material — yes, of course — but equally focused on reaching across the border walls separating print from digital, one culture from another, languages, media, continents, generations, and genres. Innovative literature imagines a world with no boundaries. At E-Poetry, digital literature brandishes no special birthright; it is not autonomous or “purebred” but inherently mixed: whether in performance, via MP3, or on a Savoy “Bop 900 series” 78 rpm, Charlie Parker’s “Thriving on a Riff” continues to resonate with multiple transgressive evocations through an unlimited interweaving of cultural formations.
E-Poetry draws its inspiration not from academic or literary conferences, or institutions, or trade associations, or technology-dependent modes of inquiry. Its spirit extends from the discipline-changing poetry festivals that awakened literature of the ’50s and ’60s to a new sense of voice. Festivals such as the First Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947, the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, 1965, though all organized with specific goals in mind, established an engagement with new fields of poetic vision. They brought poetry from the cerebellum to the solar plexus. They were not only focused on specific media, historic events, personalities, and forms of publication; they expressed a larger vision — literary creation as celebratory, human-centered, how “we,” as an increasingly complex social organism, move forward into the ever richer arenas of imaginative expression.
It is the energy of the above mentioned festivals upon which E-Poetry draws. It is not trying to prove that digital literature has a place in the academy or that it is respectable or that it is the form of the future. Such issues tend to work themselves out. E-Poetry is about the continued practice of innovative forms as an ongoing process. The “here” of E-Poetry encompasses the continuing “there” of poetics, a fluidity of meaning. By this ordering, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson were all digital poets — and some who identify as “digital poets” may not be. Likewise, many of the electronic pioneers (as exploration of their newly established archives is beginning to reveal) are possibly even more paper-based than their historic predecessors. Of course, the issue is not whether a work is digital or not; all media are welcome here. The point is that living on both sides of that line is living in the present.
E-Poetry 2013 poster. Design by María Mencía.
E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London advanced a number of cross-disciplinary and media shattering approaches initiated by the previous E-Poetry 2011 in Buffalo. (Indeed, the previous E-Poetry opened the field to wider forms, contexts, cultures. Only Google glasses could have prevented one seeing it at the time. So much was new, a widened field — Cuban hip-hop, Joan LaBarbara, UK sound poets, a full digital poetry & dance theatre production — the stage was set!) Building on E‑Poetry 2011, the approaches in E-Poetry 2013 extended the spirit of new forms of artistic invention as existing above and beyond specific digital modes — not restricted to Pleistocene web protocols, hacked hermeneutics: not limited to computers but before, inside, and beyond the expressive powers of HTML.
There were no conference themes, no hierarchical keynotes, no parallel sessions. In marked contradistinction to other events where the theme may be somewhat arbitrary, where one voice is deemed more important than others, where presenters may be disappointed by the turnout at their parallel booked session, E-Poetry strives to foster a sense of community, common respect, and celebratory attentiveness. The projects and papers of the participants themselves comprise the theme, a collective wellspring; participants bring to the table issues that have meaning to them at the moment.
E-Poetry facilitates a union of practices, ideas, inflows, energies, formats, forms, projections, words, images, resonances, disturbances, shining in the near-subterranean Kingston ritual kiva, batted about aboard a boat on the Thames, astonishingly evident in its stellar exhibition, resonant at the Royal Festival Hall Poetry Library, honored at Tate Britain, bellowing across the expanse of the Watermans theatre, its great half circle of performance space first glimpsed on the Festival’s opening night at the edge of the out-of-scale verdure of Kew Gardens. For the final day, this theatre was a site of vigil, a morning-to-night series of resonant, sonic, visual word-rushes, filling the theatre with swells of presence. Like waves, the works came one after another, with just enough time in between each performance to catch your breath. But then the next one came, similarly enveloping you, each one different; each a detailed investigation of one facet of a total aesthetic that saturated cultural being; each a component of something larger than itself, something only the collective whole could suggest.
Catherine Siller, “Body Text” (with Ian Hatcher); video still.
E-Poetry advisory board members served as directors of ceremonies for all events. Laura Shackelford served as program coordinator; María Mencía, local convener. There were views from various UK regions, representing the cultural diversity within the isle and its different literary perspectives; there were two special panels of younger practitioners from Russia, hosted by Natalia Fedorova; there was Scott Weintraub’s panel on Latin American electronic literature, and presenters from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Iran, and Hong Kong, as well as the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, France, Australia, Canada, and the US.
Especially exciting was the number of women artists and scholars and emerging practitioners, many who appear in the program in highly visible places. The idea was really to promote an embracing mix of critical perspectives and artistic approaches. There were poetically reflective pieces, step-by-step “readings” of tools of reading. There were unexpected triumphant performances, theatrical moments, journeys through erasure; there was sound-making, live book-production, dances with light; there were spectra upon spectra of ways of entering the word, from portals that provided uncommon views. It was inspiring, comforting, energizing, emotional; its references came through cross-weavings of performance, oratory, introspection, comedy, cacophony, revelatory peeling back of layers. Its events and intriguing installations were all new works; they embodied range, style, diverse conversations, threads, themes, motifs, an impressive range of innovative performances (an E-Poetry feature); they followed twists and turns with revelatory moments amid intertwined paths of expression.
cris cheek, “b a c k l i t.” Photo/collage by Loss Pequeño Glazier.
Included were an unforgettable text-upon-flesh performance by cris cheek, Benjamin R. Moreno’s game-controller irradiation of an iconic seventeenth-century Spanish poem, Catherine Siller’s astonishing multigenre textual physicality, Serge Bouchardon and Pierre Fourny’s inventive word-by-machine antics, Ian Hatcher’s breath-talk-ing increments, Amaranth Borsuk’s evocative Handiwork and her 3-dimensional hovering “Between Page and Screen” (Brad Bouse, programmer), Alexander Mouton’s increasingly self-confident epic “Passings,” the unremitting intensity of Russia’s Machine Libertine, sound poetry from Chile, a book-making performance from Galicia, cooking the books (literally) with kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, and multigenre music-projection-performance from Romania, along with numerous known artists in the field including John Cayley (“Phrase Stitched Writing”), Talan Memmott (“Huckleberry Finnegans Wake,” with Snodgrass and Tempest), and Loss Pequeño Glazier (“On Guillemets”). The Mencía-curated exhibition “Words Unstable on the Table” provided new frames, radically necessary new instabilities of language vision including Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák’s body-scale interactive plunge into writing, “I : * ttter.” A gamut of technologies were used: programming, word performance, dance, web technologies, alphabetic voice, procedure, games, postmodern theory, video production, digital communications theater, concrete concussions, new music, and sound poetry pulsations. All were suspended on “the idea,” the materiality of the text in flux, a new stance towards art-making in the world in which we work, words as radical and experimental they could have equally been written in the sky (or in the mud of the dry tidal tributary outside Watermans).
Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák, “I : * ttter.” Photo courtesy of the artists.
The festival culminated just like a truly rambunctious celebration should close — with us being told to leave the theatre. The last two performances then, via a negotiated extension cord fed to us under a locked door, allowed the festival to coalesce into an introspective and tender nocturnal half-circle on the floor amid glowing screens of colorful exhibition panels. A projector was aimed at the wall — it was all blue light — and the poets performed with the audience seated in a semicircle on the floor around them. The final two presentations, the textual vision of Jason Lewis and the fragile, self-dissecting introspection of David Jhave Johnston, were intimate, without amplification, allowing textures of voice, quiet sounds of exhalations or sighs or astonishment. It was the work in its clearest form. There may have never been a more personal, more direct, or more triumphant moment in recent E-Poetry gatherings. It was engaging to be there, one of those moments when what we came for was simply there. It was a settling of all that had occurred over three and a half days into moments made real by our seated presence in the glow of the imagination.
There were moments of poetry.
David Jhave Johnston, performance. Photo by Scott Weintraub.
E-Poetry 2015 will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 9–12, 2015. Call for proposals forthcoming in 2014 at the Electronic Poetry Center. You may also request being added to the E-Poetry Festival mailing list.