Reviews - October 2011

Not just to see and note the birds but to say them

A review of 'A Reading: Birds'

A Reading: Birds

A Reading: Birds

by Beverly Dahlen

little red leaves 2011, $8, ISBN chapbook

little red leaves / down to bare words

Both the name of this publisher and the first line of the book’s single poem answer each other, in their two four-syllable joinings of language to the natural world. But the words in the book are not so bare, sewn into covers whose outer life consists of light blue and white geometrical patterns that alternatively make me think of abstracted patterns of clouds and a weaving together of the world. Cranes and flowers grace the inner covers, and in the poems, a weaving of words, with little abstraction, though indicating a great and perhaps mystical geometry of nature.

The cranes flying through the fog, out of the sun into the
open valley to feed, with ducks and geese and tundra
swans, the flocks so numerous in the old days they say the
sky was darkened for hours with their passing. (9)

Always, in this book, words as well as birds. The passage above ends,

The legendary, nearly mythical abundance of that time, how to say
it or see it or imagine that time. (9)

first printing of A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen published by Little Red Leaves' textile series, February 2011

“That time” is, at times in this lovely (in all ways) book, ancient, or prehistoric, or the time of the author’s youth (which can also be mythical in one’s mind). Seeing “the great central / valley of California [summer the first time I saw it, men tossing watermelons hand to hand into / a boxcar on the siding: Modesto?]” (7).

Time and memory give way to a presence of all-time, “Standing there in the air.” (13)

Remember, though, in this book that presents and invokes both the real and imagined natural world, the consciousness of writing such a world, the task is not just to see and note the birds but to say them, and not to say them only as an individual, but as part of the human “we.”

we say
“we” say


croaking out of the sky (5–6)

In such saying, we partake of literary imagining, noting, and questioning the natural world, from William Blake’s “Little lamb, who made thee?” (14) to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “I caught this morning morning’s minion” (13), whose very movement of syllables — sprung as they are — calls to mind the flight of birds, particularly its sometimes sudden change of direction.

How does one catch a bird?

            caught it, with words, for Christ’s sake (13)

While Dahlen may not share Hopkins’s quite literal sense that the birds and all the world are “for Christ’s sake,” she manages to suggest the possibility of spiritual presence, a thisness that humans may only approach, or hang onto, in words, in language.

second printing A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen, May 2011

Finally as much as about birds, A Reading: Birds is about us, the humans, who are often stuck outside.

we voyeurs peeking
through our  glasses
there           naming
them       collecting
them with lists  and
cameras  the   birds
their  exotic  rituals (12)

Yet collecting them in lists is not getting there, to the heart of the matter, to the meadow of first permission (as Robert Duncan, another great California poet who invokes childhood memories, might have it). We need all our words, all our imaginings, to get there. We need humility in the face of the natural world. We need to listen, as to the mourning dove.

Softly, thinking of its story,
why does it mourn. Listening. (17)

An endnote to the book presents a story told by the Yurok people of northwestern California, about how the mourning dove came to have its particular call. This tale too is an imagining that catches the bird in its words.

In writing about the work of Beverly Dahlen, I think too, as with observing the birds, I should remain quiet, reading and listening. She is a marvel to apprehend, in all her words. Why?

because they sing
because they fly

because (14)

Getting to know each other better

A review of 'Lovely, Raspberry'

Lovely, Raspberry

Lovely, Raspberry

by Aaron Belz

Persea 2010, 80 pages, $15, ISBN 978-0-89255-359-4

Serious is the name of a former contestant on Flavor of Love. Serious is a misdemeanor. Serious means grave or somber, which Aaron Belz’s second poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry, is not, or it can mean thoughtful, critical and earnest, which the collection is. More importantly, it’s a pleasure to read.

The poems don’t trumpet intentions of grandeur, but through their brightness, musicality, and richness of imagery, they invite connection in an idiosyncratic way. Concern for the reader is never abandoned. Empathy-sans-pandering is the book’s signature style.

Belz’s poems aspire to please, yes, but slyly, self-consciously, personably. Some are conspicuously set up as jokes, such as “the one about the ectoplasm and the osteoblast,” wherein these characters are sitting at — where else? — a bar, discussing their private lives. Getting to know each other better, the osteoblast asks:

Why are you the outer relatively
rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually
held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a sol?”
And the ectoplasm is like, “Wow, that is such
an awkward question.”

The bartender interrupts to take their beverage order, recommending a fresh keg of the new brew:

They both break into fits of laughter. “Oh my gosh!”
says the osteoblast, “Dead Buy is a German-style
Maibock that’s deep honey in color with a malty
aroma, rich hearty flavor and a well-balanced finish.
Now does that sound like the kind of beer we drink?”

The biological facts of these absurd characters reveal that cytoplasm makes up the outer layer of a cell and osteoblasts are responsible for bone formation. If you choose to probe this angle, the poem discusses differences in nature and behavior; it can be interpreted as a parody of the struggles of selfhood. Or, it’s simply a thrilling bon mot about temporary social allegiances and awkward attempts of fumbling towards intimacy.

This choose-your-own-depth layering is the most striking feature of Lovely, Raspberry. Light surrealism contributes to this effect, as does the conversational tone, dry humor, and queasy punch lines. In another poem, “i met katharine hepburn for cocktails last night,” the speaker is imbibing with the late, great actress. Hepburn has developed a tremor, however, resulting in a headshake to nearly every question or proposal, ranging from drink offers to sexual solicitations.

In Belz’s poetry, interactions are regularly misunderstood, expectations are shot down and unpredicted situations rise from the ashes. We never do discover Hepburn’s intentions. These poems inhabit a world where every confession manages to be both serious and not, balancing on a razor’s edge between froth and deep melancholy. “I kissed her cheek one time when it came my way,” is how the poem closes, on a note of uncertainty, of grand gestures swept aside, of affection swiped but quickly returned.

“Mr. Fibitz” begins with a resolute divulgence:

I no longer say that my beer
has “head”; I say it has a foamy
top. I say these is a goodly froth
in the uppermost portion,
that it seems almost whipped.

No, I don’t say that my beer
seems “whipped” or that it has
“head,” even as I never ask
if people are “coming.”
“I am having a big party —

are you coming?” seems
horribly confusing to me.

While this may be perceived as — and indeed, is — a series of mildly bawdy jokes, Belz here puts pressure on the representational nature of language. Stanza breaks add tension and wit. We regularly recognize double, even triple, meanings to simple diction, just as we might in social exchanges. Belz’s craftsmanship has a light touch, but serves to problematize the very effort to communicate. As with any salty humor, it’s impossible to please all readers, but Belz sallies forth with impressive audacity. It is precisely his piquant love of humanity that disallows boredom.

So the poem continues, rising in action and stakes. After dissecting various terms, the appearance of — what else? — a donkey, the title character Mr. Fibitz heightens the play. The narrator explicitly does not (and by explication, of course, does) refer to him as an “ass,” which he does not “mount,” in avoidance of the phrase, “ride / some ass.” In the end, the narrator admits:

It’s confusing
for the listener, and the listener
is whom I care about. However,
sitting erect on Mr. Fibitz I do feel gay
happy enough to ride him for hours —
it’s just no longer what I say. 

The listener is whom he cares about, emphasized by the singular repetition of that word in one tidy line. That’s why the speaker is willing to don the rodeo clown’s costume, flag down the danger, reveal misunderstandings and affections, and yet distract you from their violence, all in a colorful rush.

Lovely, Raspberry begins on a tender note, gently but with a direct apostrophe, reassuring his readers that they are not irrelevant:

You expect me to tell you about the interior of the room
in which I’m typing this, and connect that to my feelings
but I’d rather tell you about the interior of your room
and use that as a symbol for something less abstract.

Actually, here’s a better idea. Let’s put our heads together
and try to think up a third room unknown to either of us

The poem clarifies the importance of the relationship between reader and writer, and the emergence of a third element. Call it intimacy. Call it independent meaning-making. But such a triangulation amends Joseph Conrad’s old equation that, “one writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader.” Lovely, Raspberry, for whatever its connotations, is an audience-driven book that takes great care to use imagery and voice to make connections through text.

“Reinventing the Wheel” describes a paradigm in which two characters switch bodies and temperaments. The addressee becomes “taller and less confident, / with a shopkeeper’s eye and shiny skin.” The speaker, in turn, transforms into “what I had wanted to be, / a pensive, slightly overweight woman / with a knack for arcane geography.” The poem continues, swelling from plainspoken description to a nearly-satiric, pulpy-romantic conclusion:

Will we be happy as our new selves?
I ask myself as we lean back with brandies
on a moonlit night; I think we will,
I think to myself, though I’m thinking it as you,
and you’re looking down on me as I would,
as if at any minute I might steal something,
but still not knowing what is in my mind —
a peninsula where it rains but never snows.

The ability to turn a phrase unexpectedly while refraining from overtly disjunctive syntax is one of the chief feats of this book. Enjambments roll out to a tempo of continual rerouting. In this poem, the close repetition of “thinking” indicates both the sincere interiority of relationships and a baroque joke; in fact, estrangement becomes the punch line. The ending is left ambiguous, because these conundrums — identity, compromise, suspicion, the lure of greener pastures — don’t have a neat resolution. We must look away, towards the surrealism of the situation, towards lovely, maudlin details (“brandies / on a moonlit night”), towards a mental geography where feelings precipitate and ideas are fluid.

Belz’s poems are driven equally by anecdotal content and language play, as if our capacity for verbal invention can lead to more beautiful surprises in our lives. And for many readers, it does. Even the title, Lovely, Raspberry, was nipped from the found juxtaposition of his daughter’s shoebox. The color was raspberry; the make was labeled lovely. The title is, once again, a site for double meaning, one in praise of a natural phenomenon, one naming a sputtering noise whose intention — flirtation? contempt? — is contingent.

Belz is a generous writer whose work is indiscriminately influenced by John Donne and Mark Twain, Odgen Nash and John Ashbery, Richard Brautigan and Wallace Stevens.

Lovely, Raspberry proves that a worthwhile reading experience does not require research or obfuscation. In short, Belz is refreshingly unpretentious, just a nerd who loves words and is, at turns, confounded and delighted by the nature of utterance. 

Morse Code

A review of 'After Jack'

After Jack

After Jack

by Garry Thomas Morse

Talonbooks 2010, 184 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-88922-630-2

Many young poets tend to reveal the love affairs they have had with their ancestors to greater or lesser degree in their work. Ezra Pound’s early poetry, to take just one example, is full of bent knees and kissed cheeks for a variety of influential predecessors, from Rossetti and Browning to Swinburne and Ernest Dowson, not to mention the trouvères and troubadours. This is a wholly natural phenomenon, and not to be tut-tutted by anyone unless the obeisance turns into a lifelong devotion that prevents the poet from developing into something sui generis. At a completely different level, poets among and since the high modernists have often used another text or writer, as Joyce did Homer and Pound did Propertius, for a purpose far beyond influence or imitation. Duncan and Stein, Spicer and Lorca, even the Zukofskys and Catullus, comprise writerly doublings that produced highly original and compelling texts that are, in fact, about love before they are about anything else. (“Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case.”) But then influence is about love too (“an affect, wild often / That is so proud he hath Love for a name / Who denys it can hear the truth now.” That’s Pound in Canto XXXVI of course, imitating and reimagining Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega.”) 

Garry Thomas Morse’s After Jack exists somewhere in this territory — part homage, part rewrite of older texts, part confession of love and influence. Like all confessions it is a bit embarrassing at times, a bit sacramental in a gushy sort of way. (Those readers who know their literary history know Spicer’s connection to the British Columbia poetry world. He gave a series of lectures at Warren Tallman’s house during the 1965 Vancouver Poetry Conference (since published), not long before his death — and his “great companion” Robin Blaser emigrated to Canada in 1966 to teach at Simon Fraser University, bringing with him the aesthetics of the Berkeley Renaissance and the cult of the serial poem.) After Jack follows The Collected Books of Jack Spicer relatively closely, transforming and translating Spicer’s actual words at times, riffing on and dancing outside the source text at other times. Just as Spicer used, abused, and transfused poems by Lorca for his book After Lorca (1957), Morse takes Spicer’s own work in the same spirit of alchemical transformation, conversing with his source texts in a number of different ways. The base text is sometimes very much in evidence, as for example in the opening poem. Spicer’s was called “Juan Ramón Jimenez” and began:

In the white endlessness
Snow, seaweed, and salt
He lost his imagination.

The color white. He walks
Upon a soundless carpet made
Of pigeon feathers.

Morse’s is entitled “Clarence Malcolm Lowry,” and begins thus:

Ecstasy in the white
pages of nards, salt
& spunk unlimited

White, the sheet
is moulting black
bird feathers

The “Jimenez” piece is one of the genuine Lorca poems in Spicer’s text (others were made up or combined genuine translation with Spicerian originals), so by turns the “Lowry” poem is Morse transforming Spicer translating Lorca addressing Jiménez (Spicer did not put the accent in the Spanish poet’s surname, but Lorca did), with the additional reference to the author — British by birth, but British Columbian by adoption — of Under the Volcano. This manner of reading, with the Spicer (at least) open on one’s desk, helps one to follow Morse’s process. All the same, Morse has pointed out in an interview with Ken Norris, that Spicer himself was anxious to emphasize that his Lorca workings were “transformations” and not “translations,” and this applies equally to Morse’s own work, mutatis mutandis. Having the base text immediately to hand will nevertheless help one to a certain degree with the poems in After Jack.

The Orphic was Mallarmé’s coefficient for poetry’s future (“The orphic explanation of the earth, which is the poet’s only duty and the literary mechanism par excellence”), and one can sense its presence in Yeats, D. H. Lawrence (“The earth’s long conical shadow is full of souls / that cannot find the way across the sea of change”), Pound, and others, including of course Jack Spicer. That which is Orphic in Spicer — what the critic Catherine Imbriglio has categorized as “descent, lament, dismemberment” — sometimes becomes more obscure in Morse’s transmutations. Lorca’s “Debussy,” for example, which Spicer translated fairly literally, becomes “Wagner” in Morse’s reimagining (a seemingly odd transmigration of composers if the reader doesn’t know music history, and a complicated one if he/she does), with other correspondences being equally strange. For example, where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow came between the frogs and the stars, Morse’s is “ack- / nowledged master of stars” (the syllabification itself is unusual), and where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow moves over the water “like a huge / violet-colored mosquito,” Morse’s “moves / like a violet knish.” “Knish” seems like a typical out-of-left-field LangPo word choice, strange and annoying, although Morse is likely taking a swipe at Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The following pair of lines (“A hundred crickets / want gold to go up”) could also refer to Wagner, gold being the central issue of contestation in The Ring of the Nibelungs, though it’s still a peculiar sentence taken literally. A lot of the sentences in these poems, taken literally, strike me as odd, although often they are tied back to Spicer or Lorca and the linguistic context mitigates their weirdness. Whether poetry has any responsibility to be literal is in any case not a question that concerns Morse in the least. (“Feeling goes on behind the words  Were /  the naked words enough for you”). In his conversation with Ken Norris, Morse says that poetry largely is esotericism in his view.

Morse’s transformation of After Lorca includes letters from him to Spicer, unpunctuated (apart from commas) pieces of an aesthetics presented as the words of a lonely poet writing to a dead master (“that beautiful loneliness so necessary to poetry”). He worries at the relationship between the real and the poem, as Spicer did (“the poet’s whole universe is just a merle blanc, a snowy raven, a nonexistent thing which strives to live”), but he worries also about criticism’s tendency to “murder to dissect” (“I can’t bear to see them dissect you”). The poems and letters as a whole comprise not so much a critique of Spicer as a recontextualization of his concerns and, only sometimes, his actual words. The fifth poem in “The Book of Percival,” for example, bears no relationship to the Spicer equivalent and is clearly composed in twenty-first century-speak, despite its Poundian allusion (“bitch” and “slut” surely come from the opening lines of Canto VIII):

What are you doing here
I have never seen you so
Lucid. Are you going to
Get smashed. This is a
New program. Translation
“Bitch” “slut” “fierce”
Can confuse the
Lucid. And they
Suck the fucken
Life outta ya

Spicer’s “Letters to James Alexander” by contrast sit visibly in the control room behind Morse’s “Letters West,” which, he has said, were written as he was moving back to the West Coast from Ottawa and are addressed to no one. These poems still contain examples of self-conscious overreaching — eg. a line like “I hang around like a favorite mug and try to avoid the chicanery of faux-Delftware” — but in many ways they are the most accessible and most moving pieces in the book. Instead of brittle propositions like “Language / Is / Immediate / Heat / Loss” or “taste me for the itinerary of eternity,” Morse speaks more directly in sentences such as “I am returning to spring and rain and fog and shiny new trains. I am returning under a layer of exquisite ignominy. I am returning to bright hues and the tuberlike promise of regeneration.” (“Exquisite” is a little too self-absorbed, but still…) When Morse cuts off the sentence in section 14 that begins “No one knows better than I do how lonely,” you trust that he deserves the deep feeling in a way that is not always true in After Jack. The conventions of Language Poetry sometimes tend to turn every bit of language into an example of the egotistical sublime, and it is good to finish Morse’s book with the sense that he has extended his work beyond such self-conscious invention.

Apocalypse and/or poiesis

A review of '2000 Years of Mayan Literature'

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

by Dennis Tedlock

University of California Press 2010, 465 pages, $29.95, ISBN 9780520232211

This is an account of loss. Dennis Tedlock’s exegetic anthology of two thousand years of Mayan literature, a book a lifetime in the making, slips too snugly onto the shelf. I think of Legge and Müller’s fifty-volume Sacred Books of the East. A project of similar magnitude would be in order for Mesoamerica. What survived of Mayan literature is, however, scant. What survived of Mayan literature is, for this reason, staggeringly significant. Tedlock’s dedication and diligence has provided these remains with the gravity they merit. It is an epic work reconstructed from a circumscribed set of battered manuscripts, objects and stele. Two thousand years are compressed into a book whose guiding principle is to articulate a narrative or connectivity between its fragments. The Mayans, in their obsession with identifying semi-isomorphic relationships between the fragmented happenings of earth and the supreme mechanics of celestial movement, would have been gratified by such a book. What is more, an anthology can do a great amount with an incomprehensive set of materials if its focus is on a certain process of cultural enrichment and harvesting. Focusing on the way in which the Mayans understood and subsequently wrote about their sense of time passing and things happening, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature is more than an anthology, it is a study of the indigenous Mayan dialectic as a poetics. In this respect, it is one of few works on the Maya germane to a study of poetry today.

The dialectic of the Maya is based on a parallelizing view of time and activity. History does not synthesize, people do not hybridize, but instead live in overlap and nonclosure. There is a tremendously energetic primordial fragmentation that coincides with our unresolved moment in the universe. This is expressed in Mesoamerican philosophy by the poetic concept of “burnt water.” Time spheres, albeit fluid, cannot be synthesized but must exist as converging antinomy. Heriberto Yépez, in his book on Charles Olson and Mesoamerica, calls this the “encontronazo vivo,”[1] or the “living smash.” Tedlock is not the first to attempt to represent this dialectical smash in anthology form. The immanence of energy in nonchronological juxtaposition was the principle underpinning the ethnopoetics anthologies of the 1970s, Technicians of the Sacred and America A Prophecy. But, whereas Quasha and Rothenberg’s anthology wanted to open cognitive “lines of recovery and discovery” by mapping the poetries of the Americas as simultaneous,[2] Tedlock’s anthology restricts itself to a collection of Mayan texts and contexts, and (for the most part) articulates the Mayan dialectic by focusing on parallelizing structures within the works themselves. “Overlapping strands” and non-sequent “jump cuts,” key elements in Mayan poetics, speak for a worldview where an image cannot have an isomorphic relationship to the emotion-thought complex inspiring it but, nonetheless, must reflect that complex.[3] Reflection is accomplished by aggregating divergent likenesses within the poem. “It shines, / it shimmers / in the blackness, / in the night.”[4] This is Ezra Pound looking into an obsidian mirror.

The obsidian mirror reflects but distorts, transforms as it transmits. In its deity aspect it was known as Tezcatlipoca to the Aztecs and Obsidian Scepter to the Maya. As a scepter, it is also emblematic of the power wielded by poets. Tedlock delivers this poetic value in a form recognizable to readers of contemporary poetry by a nimble use of lineation. Guided by Luis Enrique Sam Colop’s experimental transcription of the K’iche’ story of human origins, the Popol Vuh, (i.e. instead of his own translation of the same text in 1996) Tedlock emphasizes the parallelizing method of the early eighteenth century Mayan poem by implementing a complementary technique:

All alone, the Maker,
Resplendent Plumed Serpent,
Begetters are in the water.
Light glitters in the place where they stay,
covered in quetzal feathers,
in blue-green.
Thus the name, Plumed Serpent.
They are great sages,
they are great thinkers in their very being.
And of course there is the sky,
and there is also the Heart of Sky.
This is the name of the icon, as it is spoken.[5]

Using line and (dis-)placement to emphasize the redoubling transformation of the Maker to the Makers, of one to a multiplicity, the translation’s mitotic structure reflects the poem’s spiritual credo: that creation is a dialogical process. And, as I will soon discuss, for the Maya there is dialog before creation. This, of course, differentiates their story of creation from the Judeo-Christian story of creation. This difference is also marked by the suggestive use of the word “icon” over “image.” Where the Spanish Christians destroyed heretical icons while glorifying canonical images, this poem rehabilitates the imagistic force of the “icons” of the Maya, of their mirrors and their scepters.

Poetry is central to Mayan religious practice. Creative works are works of Creation. Tedlock offers a rich description of what Mayan writers thought about the relationship between creators and Creation but curbs his language where he might have been more explicit about analogous Western philosophies: the Creators begin with a word (i.e. language) and use their spirit familiars (i.e. genius) to make use of a power called puz or “the power to cut something open with a sharp instrument and reveal what is inside” (i.e. analysis) in order to bring forth new life.[6] This process makes the act of creation less of a fiat and more of a quomodo. And the Mayan Gods, like any creators, indeed deliberate before creating, asking, “How should the sowing be, / and the dawning?”[7] In other words, Quomodo Lux? This process is somewhat akin to Blakean emanationism, where real, holy selves give forth to emanations whom, through poetic analysis and creation (“outward Ceremony”[8]), can be confronted and passed through to return to the eternal vale. (For another take on the relationship between William Blake and the American Indian, see Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man.) The parallels between creators and the Creators afford Mayan poets certain substantiated lexical liberties. They bundle words to form larger concepts (“mountain-valley” for the human body[9]), much like the kennings of Old Norse and Old English poetry (i.e. hron-rad, or “whale-road,” for sea), yet the Mayans used the constructions with subjectivizing implications. They wrote as Gods write. In this respect, they have a nigher parallel in the seventh canto of Vicente Huidobro’s creationist epic, Altazor, where the poet acts as a God in the act of creation, giving birth to words; words whose incomprehensibility confirms their living, material density (“Lunatando / Sensorida”[10]). That is, if they cannot be abstracted to meaning, they must be raw, living things. The Maya, not quite harbingers of creacionismo, nonetheless attributed a power to creativity that was akin to that of the Gods. The power likewise induced a cosmic anxiety. Before creating, the Mayan gods “talked, then they thought, / then they worried.” Puz is also an act of sacrifice. And anybody who knows the rigor of analysis required to write will know the power, anxiety and sacrifice of the act.

Tedlock’s analysis of the texts is structured as an escalating primer in Mayan writing and thought. Beginning with a chapter, “Learning to Read,” he provides a rangy gloss on a variety of “texts,” including calendars, graffiti, jewelry, manuscripts, pottery, oral performance, ornaments, and stele, touching on multiple dimensions of the Mayan episteme, such as agriculture, architecture, art, astronomy, calendric systems, cosmovision, civic organization, historiography, glyph morphology, linguistics, medicine, meteorology, philosophy, poetics, and religion. His method is dialogical. Each chapter builds on, responds to, and modifies the content of that preceding it.

 At the archaeological site of Palenque, in Chiapas, there is an underground aqueduct that runs beneath the temples of the Sixth Sky, the Sun-Eyed Shield, and the Tree of Yellow Corn. Dedicating a chapter to each of the sculpted tablets in the sanctuaries of these temples, Tedlock bears out the narrative which flows, like the water beneath, across that plaza in Palenque. This story tells of the generations of Cormorant or Lady of the Split Place, the celestial mother of the K’inich Janaab’ Pakal or Sun-Eyed Corn Tassel Shield, the father of the Egret Lord, Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar. But, because this is a story stretched out across the space of the plaza, it depends on where you stand in that plaza to determine whether the actions of the Gods bear upon their descendents or whether the actions of the descendents bear upon their Gods. Tedlock frequently refers to this as the “thread [that] runs through both sides of the narrative,” or the “threads of different lengths and compositions [used] to weave [these] tapestries of time,” or “the weaving and unraveling of a textile,”[11] echoing Cecilia Vicuña, for whom “unspun wool is cosmic energy, pure potential.”[12]

The structure of these three chapters as a fabric that modifies itself, weaving the reader back to Cormorant to see her in light of the actions of her children, is a tapestried model of the book’s method. It moves forward while compelling the reader to return and read more deeply. In the first of this chapter triad, we learn that Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar dedicated these temples on (July 21, 690 CE), when his spirit familiar, the constellation centipede (Scorpius), was being crossed by Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon, respectively, the guardian spirits of Cormorant’s triplets and of Cormorant herself. A prime opportunity for Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar to write his story, in the cosmos he could descry confirmation of an ominous text he had received from his ancestors and which his inscription would mirror: a paper stained by the blotted blood of previous rulers, proof of textual embodiment reaching into the time of the Gods. (It was believed that Cormorant had a run a cord through her tongue, whose stains on the paper would offer semantic content for generations to come.) What Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar writes is therefore already written. What unfolds in the following chapters is the story that has already been told and retold by the sky, by the bloodstains, by the stele, and by Tedlock. Literally a text extending from blood to cosmos and back.

In its textile method of approach, 2000 Years emphasizes the tactile dimension of these texts. For the Maya, writing was an extension of body. Cormorant pours blood from her mouth onto paper (a direct transfer of the oral to the textual) that she passes down to her descendents, who do the same, in order to communicate with each other by reading the auguries of the bloodstained, speaking text. This is semantic density. A similar density is found in the Late Classic Mayan pottery which shows examples of what, as Tedlock notes, is today called concrete poetry. “Abandoning sentence structure in favor of a cosmic diagram,” he writes, “the closed code of writing has been opened to the world.”[13] “Lingering on the threshold between sight and sound,”[14] Mayan writers cannulized semantic weight into the shape of words by using their shapes to inflect and pronounce new meanings for the words. In a way, the very concept of words does not satisfy for thinking about the freedom by which Mayan writers could move between visual, logographic and syllabic content, bringing all these together in a linguistic directionality that was unique in that it was nonlinear. Like cities archaeoastronomically designed to highlight, reflect and comment upon celestial movement, concrete Mayan writing designs its materials to weigh in on its message while the message acquires greater density, mass and meaning by the introduction of design.

The weight of language, one of the most distinct elements of classical Mayan thought, is sadly one that was gradually lost in the period of the Conquista. We can trace its diminishment in the attempted standardization and abstraction of glyphs in the Chilam Balam of Maní (page 249 in 2000 Years). J. H. Prynne, in his “Note on Metal,” has pinned the historical moment at which European languages began to lose weight. This is due to the increased abstraction of value.[15] I see a similar reduction of weight in these post-Conquista glyphs. They no longer follow directly from body. They are more abstract. Tedlock is keen to point this out and, taking into consideration that the book provides a comparative context within Mayan literature, readers are offered the educative opportunity to notice it for themselves.

Nevertheless the Conquista was not the end of Mayan literature. Many important texts were transcribed long after the Europeans had arrived. The single surviving manuscript of the Popol Vuh, for instance, was written in 1701. I suspect that at this point when the Gods worry in creating humans they might have the catastrophe of European contact somewhere in their minds. This is at least the context for the text: Mayans writing about creation after the apocalypse had already occurred. What Norman Brown, who wrote of “apocalyptic syncretism,” might have identified as the secret revelation of these texts: “or where the two waters meet, the water of life and the water of death.”[16] Burnt water. In analyzing the Mayan story of creation, Tedlock consults a K’iche’ daykeeper, Andrés Xiloj Peruch, whose commentary suggests that the creation of the earth is trussed by its unraveling: “It’s just the way it is right now: there are clouds, then the clouds part, piece by piece, and now the sky is clear … Haven’t you seen that when the water passes, a rainstorm, and then it clears, a vapor comes out from among the trees? The clouds come out from among the mountains, among the trees.”[17] The earth is revealed in the dissolution of its elements. It is born in revelation. But to be revealed it must be disintegrated. The earth “arose suddenly, just like a cloud, / just like a mist now forming, / unfolding.”[18] The textile unraveling: life woven into its devastation. That is its poiesis. A Mayan poet is ch'amay, a harvester of mist. The harvest, the great loss. A harvester of mist is likewise a Mayan poet. In the preface to his 1978 Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians, Tedlock wrote that “the reopening of possibilities in our language” will arise from an openness to the traditions of “the same continent where we are now learning, however slowly, how to become natives.”[19] Regardless of whether such naturalization is even possible, the challenge of attending to indigenous experimental literary models and methods as indigenous to this continent continues to be a tremendous and tremendously rewarding challenge for twenty-first century poetry and poetics. The reopening of poetic possibilities continues.



[1] Heriberto Yépez, El Imperio de la N eomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007), 187.

[2] Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, eds., America A Prophecy (New York: Random House, 1973).

[3] Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1–3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 315.

[6] Ibid., 309.

[7] Ibid., 317.

[8] William Blake, “The Laocoön,” The Complete Poetry and Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 274.

[9] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[10] Vicente Huidobro, Altazor, o el viaje en paracaídas (Madrid: Petròpolis, 2010), 92.

[11] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 65, 79.

[12] Cecilia Vicuña, El Quipu Menstrual.

[13] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 119, 116.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] J. H. Prynne, “A Note on Metal [1968],” Poems (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997), 127–131.

[16] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 78, 81.

[17] Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[18] Ibid., 317.

[19] Tedlock, Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), xi. (italics mine)

Cookies and vortices

A review of 'The Madeleine Poems'

The Madeleine Poems

The Madeleine Poems

by Paul Legault

Omnidawn 2009, 72 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650483

And I begin to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished.
— Marcel Proust, Swan’s Way

It’s hard to think about the Madeleine of Paul Legault’s The Madeleine Poems without thinking about Proust’s madeleine cookie in Swan’s Way. Proust’s madeleine serves as a type of wormhole that propels the narrator through time and space to an otherwise irretrievable memory. Legault’s Madeline, however, is more of a vortex, a presence that presides over the collection, which simultaneously gathers and vaporizes the poem’s subject matter, leaving essences, memories, shadows. Take for example, these lines (from “Madeleine as the Homosexuals”):

They have not lost each other as we will expect them to
These were their names: Paul, Gabriel, or Lance (16)

and midway through the poem:

Or have they a language
or a symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation (…)

They have
fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of

salt into water. This was
the place of them. (16)

In both instances, Legault’s lines form panoply of presence and absence wherein memory is simultaneously negated even as it phosphoresces in the foreground of his language. This seems present in the poem’s opening line, where past and present are oxymoronically mixed via Legault’s application of tenses. “They have not,” roots the initial thought in the present continuous, but the preceding future perfect “as we will expect them to” drives the line into an ambiguous future, creating a lingual mobius strip in which “Paul, Gabriel, and Lance” are “lost” to each other while simultaneously held together in the amber of the poem’s continuous present. This is indicative of the collection of a whole. One finds that many of the poems and or their constituent parts serve as markers or beacons afloat on a tumultuous sea of time (“They have / fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of / salt into water. This was / the place of them.”), or perhaps, more specifically, within the Madeline vortex that encapsulates and holds the poem’s content in synchronicity. Madeleine becomes the presence that holds and preserves “Paul, Gabriel and Lance,” even as it replaces them as the “symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation.” 

Here is Proust again, from Swan’s Way:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

With this passage in mind, Proust’s madeleine cookie seems more congruous with Legault’s. Though the cookie’s presence is wormhole-like (it collapses the time and space between two disparate points into a singularity) and Legault’s Madeleine vortex, panoptic in the manner it enables one to view a cross-section of a continuous present (albeit in a manner which reorganizes and or obliterates the experience from which the poem came), the two share a similar resultant effect: to recreate a “vast structure of recollection” (from “Madeleine as Crusoe”):


It shows it forth—both

the possibility of non-
existence and logic, at once the two

of them that can depict this
wide menagerie of things: yes or no,

and of picture of things: yes or no,

yes or no, yes or no, yes—
burgundy. (49)

Here, the aims of The Madeleine Poems are embodied, beginning with the section’s opening line: “It shows forth it — both.” Initially, in the beginning of this line, the pronoun “it” is used referentially, that is, to refer to an objective, unnamed thing outside the poem. But after the recalibrating em dash, the word “both” comes to represent the presence of the referred to “it” as well as its absence, “It shows it …” Thusly “it” is given a miraculous, simultaneous, impossible status of presence/absence, or rather, perhaps as it’s more succinctly put in the poems final line, “burgundy.”

“Burgundy,” as it is put forth in the final line, contains many of the contradictions of the preceding lines, making them seem less impossible with regards to the aforementioned “impossible status of presence/absence.” Colors contain no ideas. They offer reflection, they bare connotation, but they are nothing more than phenomena. In this sense, “burgundy” is similar to the overarching Madeleine-vortex in the manner in which it summates the “presence/absence” of the “it,” the poem’s ostensible subject. “Burgundy,” aside from its humorous application as a sort of unabashedly clunky deus ex machina, elegantly reconstitutes the poem’s subject matter (the “it”). Burgundy, the word, cannot replace that actual color; it can only serve as a marker for our own recollection of the color. What is important, here, is that the word brings forth the color and not the other way around. Because of its placement at the end of the poem, “burgundy” sends one into a meditation on the color burgundy and all its mysterious associations and connotations, just as the madeleine cookie sends Proust’s narrator back to his childhood memory with all its felicity and charm.

While the comparison between Proust and Legault may be, at best, an intellectual exercise, it sheds light on the overall aim of The Madeleine Poems: to recreate an architecture in which mercurial experience can be reconstituted and preserved and in some cases amplified, an aim that is full of pathos, heroism, and beauty.