Reviews

The urban interior-exterior ideal

Photo by Vadim Erent, 2011.

Model City

Model City

Donna Stonecipher

Shearsman Books 2015, 94 pages, $18.50, ISBN 978-1848613881

There is something easygoing about reading Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which leads the reader through the pages as if on a walk. Lured inside this landscape, we are invited to see, to reflect, to ponder, to muse, to sense the spaces in these seventy-two “model cities,” but also outside of the pages in the world which surrounds us. This book of prose poems is comprised of 288 long sentences with commas separating subclauses, all beginning “It was like.” We are in media res, where the “it” in the question posed by a disembodied voice on page 1 — “what was it like?”[1] — is open to interpretation: this voice and its question are part of some world preceding this urban space; a myriad of other potential “its” could be proposed. Is the speaker in the poems returning from traveling? Returning from seeing another, alternate, urban-planned world? Are they simply coming back in the door after stepping outside to look at a space they should have already known like the back of their hand but which suddenly has revealed a myriad of new facets, both architectural and human? What is certain is that Stonecipher deftly explores geographic-architectural-psychological space in a way that includes her reader, invites them to wander and wonder alongside the speaker, to peruse and ponder the shifting perspectives of each poem.

The poems themselves, written in stanza-paragraph-sentences with justified margins spaced four to a page with three centered asterisks to divide them, stand to attention like blocked buildings, eliciting a sense that the white margins and interstanza spaces are walkways. The asterisks take on a lamppost- or perhaps fountain-like quality, providing tiny visual decoration along a mental-linguistic-geographic stroll. What space am I, author, in; I, speaker, in; I, reader, in? Stonecipher asks: What space are you in, reader, speaker, author, in these poems? These lines are what connect us: it is how we belong.

This said, this book is about a disbelonging, about estrangement within the familiar. The collection opens with a sense that around the speaker the city has been rebuilding places not for its residents, its neighborhood inhabitants, or for the future of its citizens, but rather for transients. Only hotels are being constructed. The model city is constructing only “permanent temporariness” (31) for visitors alone. Realizing that every new building is a hotel in the opening poem leads the speaker to say: “It was like thinking about all those empty rooms at night, all those empty rooms being built to hold an absence” (15), and far later “feeling threatened by the rampantly multiplying hotel rooms, as if vacancy were a disease invading the city’s — and therefore your — interior” (49).

As the book develops, the potential parallels between a foreign and native city arise as residents become like model figures, only theoretical inhabitants (37). In these model cities, the author explains, “a home is by definition disappearance” (47). And suddenly it is true, we can see how we each disappear into our homes, hide and hibernate there, shadowforms beyond the walls, passing before windows, visitors, mortal, in these quasi-permanent constructions. “It was like admiring and resisting the machine for living” (33), Stonecipher states in an earlier poem.

As the collection opens, there is no mention of light or dark, yet something about being able to see the vacancy in all of the new hotels evokes a Hopperesque vision which pervades the entire collection. It is a vision of light streaming out of rectangular windows with no one inside. Hollowness pervades Stonecipher’s urban landscapes, eliciting an automated sense of connection and disconnection: one of the major themes in this collection. As Stonecipher writes, “It was like looking at the ‘zu vermieten’ signs and thinking about the organizing principle of the window: organizing light and air, inside and outside, volume and surplus, belonging and not belonging, opaque as glass” (19). Her model cities are filled with glass, stone, marble, socialist blocked buildings, high-rise hotels with their stacks of windows, industrial parks, mazes of courtyards, skylines of “skyscrapers’ staggering heights” (35), “grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that came to nothing” (42), new glass buildings versus bullet-pocked old ones, underground parking garages/the underground city, high-rises, the cité industrielle with all buildings made of concrete.

These urban developments, these model cities, are of course also about how humankind makes choices — determining our days, planning them out. But then something unexpected — like seeing a sign advertising a sugar museum or the uncharacteristic wild animal like a fox or a door never open suddenly gaping — creates a shift. Predetermined fate is thwarted by unprecedented opportunity, via observation. Noting the change and allowing oneself to go towards it is offered to the speaker as an alternate route, a surprising, unprecedented opportunity for perspective change — though at first Stonecipher’s speaker turns away from that new enticing destination as she states: “For its nature is seduction. And yours, renunciation” (22).

In these ways throughout this brilliant, captivating, and at times melancholic volume, the speaker goes about her day thinking and observing the outer world. Her quasi-obsessive linking of outer and inner landscapes absorbs the reader, engulfs them in these model cities and the mind and voice carrying them along these urban landscapes. But there are also dispersed throughout the book moments where the speaker is in her own bed, inside her home, a place that is definitively not ours, but about the persona’s struggle. These are moments of disquiet, when she cannot sleep, so she thinks of something. The sleeplessness reveals an underlying anxiety, an inability to release herself to dream, from the world surrounding her to her own interior imagination, perhaps. There is something hard and sad about this character’s struggle that is at once familiar and strange, paralleling the landscapes the speaker describes, as well as the references to literature (including Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick), or to art (as seen in allusions to photographers Atget or Wegee, drawer/painter Audubon and Leonardo da Vinci), or to architects (such as to the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier, or to Zaha Hadid).

What these layers of artistic allusion add is a dimension of questioning the real and the model/museum/imitation/simulacra wherein the character is “wondering about the authenticity of authenticity” (26). Actual versus factual, real versus synthetic, or “real” and “ideal” partake in a sort of mental mise en abyme, as Stonecipher puts it on page 58. Photography in particular interrogates issues of authenticity and originality, opening up reflections about façades versus interiors, leading the speaker to go as far as comparing buildings to human skeletons (30). Thus the issues of permanence and impermanence are not only about hotels versus long-term habitations, but about mortality versus immortality — what lies underneath surfaces? Stonecipher is asking. What is behind the austere, white paint façades? For humans, it is a constant skeletal smile laughing at the ridiculousness of all of the outer efforts. When applied to buildings damaged by bullets, suddenly the voice states that these bullet-pocked buildings provide an “unexpected apparition of evidence — that history is real” (54). 

In the end, perhaps the character seeks the ideal model city. Perhaps the città ideale is finding a way of “moving on past the gutted squat and its gutted ideal” (25) as the author states at one point. If so, then we are left with the question of: to what? What is beyond? The speaker digs and digs through exterior observation as if burrowing into some fundamental unnamed core of the self where time is at work, making history, antiques, in an ultracontemporary parallel to an “ersatz medieval town,” with reliquaries, falling into ruin. Wishing she could explain “how the history resides in your head” (34), Donna Stonecipher’s model city reminds us both of the discomfort and of the comfort of reproduction versus the “so real” (32) version of the world as we each model it in our own minds.


1. Donna Stonecipher, Model City (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2015), 1.

Poetry at the axis of nothing

A review of 'u&i'

u and i

u&i

Cassandra Smith

Omnidawn 2015, 80 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-1632430106

1.

how one might roam. how two might meander. (v)

Poetry as connection: historically, finding kindred spirits and laying claim to literary lineages, while maintaining a critical posture, as a necessary practice of writing under the sign(s) of self and community. The literary as the deeply personal.

2. 

Writing about nothing, a pursuit, nothing that connects and builds. Around that axis, meaning and association are relentless, relationships between positioned and counterpositioned nothingness construct a matrix of their own. Such a matrix of relationships are the basis for philosophically complex investigations of social interaction. The preeminent example of such arrangements is community. Community as an inevitable result of nothing, nothing as it is articulated and distilled for its craft and quality.

Gentrified narratives about community, those that might openly propagate community to no critical end beyond the record of their own political ethos, do not apply. They fall by the wayside under the pressure and threat of thorough investigation. A mode of such investigation takes shape in poems and collections of poems. Cassandra Smith’s u&i is written in this mode, an extension and set of collected connections. Community appears inevitable, not as narrative, but as practice. It would not be a stretch to say a social practice. 

3.

u&i: a network of speech, thought, and affect. Experience: real or projected. And so it extends the boundaries of its immediate network of experience to all parties concerned, existing as an internal network, as networked autonomy, indifferent to the problematics of association, possibly to the point of necessary solipsism.

DEAR U OR I,



i seem to cant go on without you. (xii) 

One is well served to take Smith’s word for it. The idea of going on without you, some you, or kind of you, even if abstracted to the point of being a mere linguistic referent, is a way of exacting connection and the possibility for human connection as a necessary way of existing in the world. It is a way of feeling and remaining carnal amidst serial, and most often digitized, networks and networked social realities that make the sensual diffuse and the intimate public.

 At issue, however, is the transmutational reality of participation in collaborative networks (networks of networks) characterized by constant integrative flow and surplus. The mechanical (programmed) nature of networked activity threatens to render the activity altogether automatic, and devoid of carnality, desire, and artistic specificity. 

Beware, Spain, of your own Spain! — Cesar Vallejo 

4.

To think of a poem, or a collection of poems, as a discrete network is apt: surely internal complexities exist within and across modes of speech and thought where any good writing is concerned, but it’s shortsighted to expect that a network can exist in isolation from other networks. Each immediate or seemingly immediate network of speech and artistic endeavor is made diffuse, and offers little recourse but involuntary access(es) to serial networks and inevitable intercourse with multifarious and seemingly endless associative machinations.

Similarly, poems and relationships network, community may result, or remain inevitable.

We link too many things together. — Agnès Rouzier 

5. 

U&I BEGAN AS A PLACE WHERE THERE WAS NEVER AN ALONE

an alone is made of where things aren’t and u&i in the middle of meadow and forest and wood had never been alone because nothing had ever been taken. in forest and meadow and wood there were only things to look at and things to hold. there was the smallest light to play in and this was the place of holding another closely. worry was a thing to be done only to the things that would enter and when they would enter they would soon prepare to leave. (xlv) 

(u&i, as a reminder to care for your associations and to pull them close, in person, and to press them to your lips, perhaps flesh to flesh, but at least virtually, for at least the skin feels something in addition to and perhaps beyond technologically abstracted desire, and while both may exhilarate, it’s preferable to have choices.)  

Smith cultivates a sensitive expression of human needs and desire; carnality and social experience are the vantage points by which these poems find orientation. u&i, in this light, does not bask in the genius of private innovation but remains somewhat indifferent to such standards of distinction. Smith’s work is concerned with the lyrical possibilities of connection and how connection may be interpolated within the context of social discourse among friends and associates on the margins. It is the poet’s attempt to construct a poetic system that might adequately articulate the demands of such a discourse. And while it’s not an attempt at a perfect system, there is a resonant optimism that suggests an attempt to allude, at the very least, to the possibility of such a utopic system, marred as it may be by human subjectivity, social dilemma, and networks that extend beyond certainty.

6. 

One: under this sign I regard u&i as a significant debut collection of poems that are intimately, and intricately, networked across personal interests and external proximities of personal investment. In this way, u&i is a rendering of experience rather than a documentation of it. Objectivity, in such a case, is moot. Smith’s language thrusts and parries on the periphery of experience and memory, wrangling with its fleeting and impending nature. The poetry and the poet exist in, and through, these poems, closely tethered to each line and thought, tautly, as the title suggests with its lack of spacing: u&i.The title embodies Robert Creeley’s idea of a singular compact: a contiguous though surely fragmented complex, where language, experience, and desire constitute essential verse and existence.

Desire: beyond the singularity of such a compact, Smith offers work that includes not only the breadth of an individual poetic expression and experience but also, importantly, the expression and experience of individuals seeking and finding common accord. 

7.

Obliquely, these poems (mostly prose blocks) are an approximation of feeling and remembrance (past and future?), while remaining outward in their optimism. An optimism that is not naïve about the world and the crushing realities of inevitable loss and heartbreak, but one that carries forth in the face of despondency and remains committed to the idea of engendering a critical posture open to the possibility of human relationships with all their messiness and reward.

A hope for connection is palpable, while maudlin calls for community-building are eschewed in favor of the pursuit of an adequate articulation of one’s effort to find and unite oneself to others through and across language.

8.

And interruption.

9.

According to these poems there’s a fragility to associative powers that extends to that which is subsequently associated, that which is bound together has been done in the face of uncertainty and remains bound to an uncertain fate, but for human effort and care.

a community of those that have no community. — Georges Bataille 

A generosity of articulation speaks to Smith’s desire for an imagined site, a complex of robust encounters, and a troubled social space where experimentation is not an academic pursuit but a place of precarious (and sometimes perilous) engagement. It is community askew in many ways but a community nonetheless that these poems intend to render. 

10.

U&I BEGAN TO PLUNDER AS IF PLUNDER COULD BECOME A WORD THAT WOULD MEAN A STILLNESS OF EVERYTHING ELSE

u&i as silhouette of laughing and dancing.
u&i in footsteps.
u&i in falling in a garden.
u&i as an object of interruption, a sound but what in this case may be         

following through.

are we an obsession or a device. are we a we if there is no difference
between. (xxiii)           

More on possibility: one with others. 

u&i as the articulation of possibility: it’s the possibility of what one and others can be, as well as what one with others may be when vitalized and informed by generous (and generative) optimism. Language is the mode by which this possibility is expressed but also by which it is made available in the world. One is written full of hopeful possibility, as is one with another, we (are we a we if …) and so exists to fulfill or exceed the parameters of its unselfish circumscription that operates as a form of self-disintegration in a mode of unrelenting inclusivity.

11.

Poetic speech (u&i) as antidote: at stake is the effort to maintain and constantly reentrench the activity’s singularity and its ability to reverse power relations, to act in and perpetuate the resistive safety of singularity. 

Attention paid

R. F. Langley

Complete Poems

Complete Poems

R. F. Langley

Carcanet Press Ltd. 2015, 144 pages, $19.99, ISBN 978-1784100643

The forty-eight poems collected in this volume are the sum total completed by R. F. Langley during his seventy-two-year lifespan, but they contain an outsize vibrancy that intensifies on rereading. They are not well known on this side of the Atlantic, but hopefully this book will start to change that. Their range is not wide — indeed, it is consciously circumscribed (recurring subjects include insects and arachnids, Italian Renaissance art, the Suffolk countryside, church interiors, looking, and writing about looking) — but the attention and thinking they condense is considerable. Although darker intimations do intrude, their typical tone is one of gleeful wonder, always tethered to accurate perception and sustained reflection — a species of serious play:

Often. Often. The same
rubbed round bodies of the
stones. Hit after hit. The
thorough hammering. No
cutlery. Brute conflict
and a restful nonsense.
Now five thousand starlings
no one ever counted
have settled in the reeds.[1]

Personification is incessant in Langley’s work, coupled with doubt over the efficacy (and ethics) of personification. From “Depending on the Weather”:

                                                         Dread hunts my ground as a
tiger beetle, reeves my quiet as a wasp.
I learn their manners and disguise myself as
them. But their movements figure out themselves. They
never choke on cake. It’s a mistake to wish
that they could speak. (98)

This pattern repeats: the urge to identify, the catch of thought, the chastened reformulation — and so on.

Langley has affinities with earlier observers of nature such as John Clare and (especially) Gerard Manley Hopkins, but possesses too a distinctly twentieth-century skepticism about the fraught relationship between object, perception, and imagination. Internal rhyme and alliteration — for Hopkins tokens and guarantees of a unified and deliberate creation — become, in Langley’s poems, semi-ironic reminders of the text’s artificial status, warnings that finding the apt and nonbetraying phrase is the subjective poet’s perpetual task and frustration:

The window. The wineglass. A
yew tree inside it, upside
down, far away and very
distinct. A cautious chaffinch
sits tight through the shift of the
consonants. The needles are
green. The bird knows it is pink. (90)

Yet, to the besotted etymologist, words have life and, observed as actively as one might observe a spider or painting, are as fit — inevitable? — a subject as any. Word, object, sight, contemplation are forever merging and disentangling here, merging and disentangling.

Langley’s technical control — seen clearest in those poems in strict syllabics but evident everywhere — is exemplary, and a sort of synecdoche for his whole approach as poet. As the examples above show, the combination of short and long sentences, fragments, brash alliteration, and abrupt enjambment can feel haphazard and questing during the initial experience of reading, but is always deeply pondered and crafted (and crafty). His lines work a management of surprise:

                         Individuals voice their
scorn mixed now with some satisfaction. They

slaughtered birds but represented very
few. Why paint a sorcerer dancing when
you are a sorcerer and can dance? (142)

(A favorite “trick” is to enjamb a line after an article, starting a new line fresh on a sharp noun or precise adjective: “The stanza is a / born dancer” [106]. Thus, the “real” appears to rear up.)

Hinging Langley’s lifework was the discovery of the character “Jack,” and it is a happy consequence of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s loving curatorship — choosing to go with the text of 1994’s Twelve Poems rather than the earlier chapbook publications or later Collected Poems (2002) — that this Complete Poems opens with his advent in “Man Jack”:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.
And he must come along, and he must stay
close, be quick and right, your little cousin
Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on
edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn
face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the
folded leaf, the important straw. (5)

The four further poems that feature Jack explicitly sustain this high pitch of energetic involvement and music, as Jack operates as combination avatar and irritant, scout and conscience, alter ego and unruly charge. Always potential in the earlier poems and lingering in spirit even after Langley retires him, Jack embodies a key aspect of this poetry: that it successfully dramatizes — projects — what are essentially interior philosophic and aesthetic ruminations, and makes them urgent, necessary, universal even. One senses Shakespeare — always a lodestar (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream might still be the answer to everything”[2]) — behind this. Langley’s natural fit is the mid-length “conversation poem,” and even the occasional shorter poems are more considered meditations than blurted lyrics. Yet there is nothing flat or maudlin about them; all is spark and illumination. There is something paradoxical in this; if one imagines the “scene” of most of these poems, one is likely to picture stillness, quiet, intense concentration. Somehow the disjunction — over which Jack resides as familiar spirit — only renders the poems more attractive.

So, all — all! — this book represents is both a set of discrete, wrought objects and a record of one individual human’s irreplaceable sensibility and experience of experience. They are, in the words of one perfect early title, “ecstasy inventories” (15) — welcoming repositories of great gusto and “loved Philology.”[3] Their world is inhabited, minutely, and waiting:

a heron wades and

his deliberations are
proposing ripples

which reflect on
him, run silver

collars up his
neck, chuckle his

chin, then thin to
sting the silence

where he points
his beak.

His round
and rigid eye.

Perhaps he knows
he is caressed. (130)




1. R. F. Langley, Complete Poems, ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2015), 113.

2. See “R. F. Langley,” The Poetry Archive.

3. Emily Dickinson, “A word made flesh is seldom,” Dickinson Electronic Archives.

The lives that include us

Photo of Randall Potts (left) by Emily Dulla.

Trickster

Trickster

Randall Potts

University of Iowa Press 2014, 82 pages, $18.50, ISBN 978-1609382841

Our review-dialogue grew out of a conversation on Randall Potts’s work. After sharing topics of interest with each other — including Trickster’s treatment of animal imagery, the preservation of the natural world, Buddhist precepts, and the place of incantation or song in Potts’s imaginary — we developed our conversation into a book review. Although we covered many more topics than there is room to include in this space, we hope that this collaboration begins a larger discussion of Potts’s visionary work.

Ethel Rackin: Randall Potts’s collection, Trickster, begins with an epigraph from Wakdjunkaga, the Winnebago trickster character, whose tales are recorded in Paul Radin’s Winnebago Notebooks. The quotation used for the epigraph, “I was not created for this, but I did this …” comes at the end of this Trickster cycle and immediately after Wakdjunkaga’s statement:

“I have stayed here up to now, as for a long time I have remained here. About now, I myself will go wandering around the earth,” he said. “In any case, here all of my children have already grown up,” he said.[1]

Thus, Potts frames the first section of his collection as both a beginning and an ending: a beginning of wandering, following an ending of the cycles of creation. Set on a kind of permanent roam-state, the speaker of Potts’s collection commences an often-nightmarish journey of a series of departures, discoveries, and dead ends.

The first poem, itself the title poem of the collection, reinforces the centrality of the Trickster figure:

The more I struggle
The worse it gets.
I buy a coat, then
I’m too thin to wear it.
I buy a house, then
Wind covers it in smoke.
I make a garden, then
Wind covers it in smoke.
I sit in my house coughing.
I write a poem, then
You assume my poem
Is about you, then
You hate my poem.
“You’re a liar,” you say.
How was I to know
You were thin, your garden
Was covered in smoke
That you sat in your house
Coughing?[2]

A tragic comedian — not unlike Beckett — Potts’s speaker introduces us to a particular kind of loss: the loss of false starts, reversals, chance-induced repetitions, and misunderstandings. Here is a world in which struggle leads to more struggle; possession leads to dispossession; nature is capricious; the traditional lyric contract between speaker and interlocutor is disrupted by narcissism and resentment; and all of these seemingly unrelated occurrences come together in bad faith of the poetic ending.

We have been warned; the journey we have commenced will be full of such contradictions, and, in this regard, the world Potts has created bears striking resemblance to our own. In Potts’s prescient imaginary, as a trope, the figure of the trickster records the ways poetic voice functions under various kinds of pressure. As Lewis Hyde puts it in his landmark study, Trickster Makes This World, “Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.”[3]

Kasey Jueds: The book’s title poem, the one you quoted in full, is one I’ve returned to again and again, one which seems — despite its brevity and the relative straightforwardness of its language — different every time. Lewis Hyde’s description of Trickster perfectly fits my experience of this poem’s shape-shifting ability. The action of the poem seems both mythic and actual, a doubleness especially present in the interaction between the speaker and the poem’s “you.” I can easily imagine this relationship as existing between two actual humans, and yet I experience it equally as a relationship between a human speaker and Trickster energy, or between conflicted internal aspects of a single person. Sometimes, too, the poem’s “you” seems to be addressing — rather than an “other” in the form of the poem’s speaker—me, the reader. And by the end of the poem, the poem’s “I” and “you” have — “merged” is not exactly the word I’m looking for — but have come so close that the boundaries between them seem to have blurred. They exhibit the same behavior, the same symptoms, the same radical dis-ease and discomfort.

The title poem’s structure, its use of repetition and song, form the building blocks of its wonderfully — and painfully — contradictory nature. The instances of “I do this, then this happens” lend the poem a sort of mathematical precision. And at the same time, almost nothing in the poem lives in the realm of logic. What follows the word “then” — always precisely placed at the end of a line — is each time not just surprising, but jarring and disorienting. Building a house, creating a garden — both, traditionally, acts of homemaking, of making oneself at home in the world — lead not to a sense of home but of estrangement and confusion, of being covered in smoke. It’s as if the poem, in the way it leans on its logical foundations, longs to enact that sort of logic — the type of logic that would help the speaker, and the reader, find that sense of home. Instead, as you said, struggling leads inevitably to more struggling, and possession to dispossession.

This tension between formal structure and disorienting emotional content exists in so many of the poems. I’m thinking especially of the book’s three pantoums: “The Inquisitor,” “Song of Ticks,” and “The Trouble with You.” In each of these, musicality and repetition contrast with the speaker’s conflicted relationship with self and world. “Math” draws not only on the logic of repetition but on the logic of numbers as a stay against chaos, and as a desperate attempt to keep from doing harm. There’s a dictum in Buddhism to “leave no traces,” and the speaker in “Math” longs to follow this path: “I put 0 and 0 together / And arrived at nothing. / Nothing was accomplished. / I had done it perfectly. / I made 0 disappear into 0. / I made sure nothing was left” (41). But soon things get, as the speaker puts it, “complicated”: “everything I touched became / Itself plus me.” Finally,

I settled on the number one.
I refused all manner of addition.
I was careful to touch nothing.
“That’s impossible,” someone said.
I knew someone was right.

How can we live in the world adding nothing, touching nothing? This is, as “someone” points out, impossible. But to simply acquiesce — without question or struggle — to touching and adding to the world, and thus inevitably damaging it, is equally impossible for Potts’s speaker.

Rackin: The constantly thwarted desire not to harm, in the face of natural and human-driven cycles of life and death, seems to constitute a central theme of Potts’s collection. Trickster’s multiple fables, along with poems such as “A Natural History,” “The Ranch,” “Counting the Animals,” and “Washroom (Oil Spill),” deal with the subject of wildlife destruction and preservation directly. Take the opening section of “A Natural History”:

Salmon, farmed & wild, lie gill-to-gill
sliced open on white butcher shop ice —
wild twice the size of farmed, one white
the other a deep orange — “it’s Shellfish
they feed on makes them orange”
the Butcher says, shrugging his shoulders
“the wild ones, they eat whatever they want”
everything passing through everything else
(no one shape left alone) always food & self.
He points to a seam along the silver scales
“every Fish has one,” he says
“a way in — ” (5)

Here, the blurring between self and other that you mention is further complicated by the ecology of “food & self.” The violence that we perpetrate against animals finds its “way in” to us, physically and metaphysically. And the poem too, as a retelling of such violence, is itself implicated. As Potts puts it in the prose-poem “Diary,” “The language of words is the language of consumption …” (62).

And whereas documentary poems such as “A Natural History” rely less explicitly on traditions of song than others in the collection, their steady, loosely syllabic lines and slant-rhymes (“ice”/“white”; “else”/”self”), as well as their use of dialogue, put me in mind of some of Frost’s most subtly disturbing poems, such as “Mending Wall.” (“The work of hunters is another thing: / I have come after them and made repair / Where they have left not one stone on a stone, / But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, / To please the yelping dogs.”[4]Like Frost, Potts’s formidable control of the music of the line renders his poems’ complex, emotionally raw material all the more haunting. We are easily hooked on the poems’ music, and the more we think about the subject of a Potts poem, the more trenchant it becomes.

Jueds: Reading “A Natural History” again, I’m reminded of another Buddhist dictum: this time, the first of the Buddhist precepts, which forbids killing. As soon as one starts to unpack this precept, one runs up against a double bind, a phrase Potts often uses to describe his work. We must eat, obviously, in order to live — and in order to eat we must kill, directly or indirectly. If we don’t eat, we’re killing ourselves. How to live with this knowledge, that one of our most basic needs inevitably causes harm? Potts’s poems seem to me — not an answer to this question, because there is no answer — but a grappling with it, an attempt to engage, if not come to terms, with this most fundamental pain.

I want to continue the discussion of nonhuman animals you began above in your reading of “A Natural History.” Animals populate Trickster throughout, appearing in nearly every poem. I think you’re so right that the poems often concern themselves with the violence we inflict on the animal and natural realms. And yet this violence, too, is complicated from the start. It’s complicated, as you point out, by the implication of not only ourselves but of poetry and language as well. It’s further complicated by the shape-shifting nature of the animals who dwell inside Potts’s poems. Often, Potts chooses to capitalize the animals’ names, so that the Robins, Spiders, Pigs, Worms, and Orange Cat who appear in Trickster appear not only as themselves but as more-than-themselves: mythic or archetypal animals or animal energies.

These nonhuman animals interact with Trickster’s human speaker in myriad ways. As we’ve said, at times they are victims of human cruelty or thoughtlessness, victims the speaker tries to help — as in “Washroom (Oil Spill)” and “Tanka” — or himself harms, often simply, it seems, by virtue of being human — as in “Nest” and “The Good Life.” In the latter poem, being “sure of … allegiances,” nurturing certain plants and animals in the speaker’s garden, means that other living beings must be harmed or even killed (“I take a hacksaw to the Laurel, make visible / a path — this was our plan, after all, I must / prune the garden of uselessness, guilty …,” 6).

And sometimes, movingly, these nonhuman presences serve as intimate companions for the speaker, as guides and friends. In “Utopia Parkway,” the book’s final poem, “the old dog licks my hand / to keep walking,” encouraging and accompanying the speaker on his path (72). And in “Diary,” not only Cat but the other beings that fill the poem — Maple, Magnolia, Climbing Rose — move with the speaker in a wordless space of communion: “We are not one and the other; there is no addition or subtraction, only Life and the life within our life and the Lives that include us” (63).

I’m a bit concerned that quoting these gorgeous lines out of context makes them seem slighter than they are: a sort of easy wisdom. The truth is that within the poem itself, and the entire context of Trickster, which confronts so many of the heartbreaking and terrifying aspects of our relationship with the natural world, they are beautifully and rigorously earned. In these lines — and in such poems as “Utopia Parkway,” “Diary,” and “Familiar” — another facet of the shape-shifting Trickster is revealed: one in which, somehow, harmony and hope exist, in spite of the world’s brutality. Trickster, in its complexity, intelligence, and richness, is capacious enough to hold all its seeming contradictions, and to help us feel that this damaged world deserves our love — is worth, still, living in. 


1. Paul Radin, “Wakdjunkaga,” Winnebago Notebooks, Winnebago 5, no. 7, trans. John Baptiste (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, ca. 1912), 567–68. Used with permission of the copyright holder, American Philosophical Society.

2. Randall Potts, Trickster (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 3.

3. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 7.

4. Robert Frost, North of Boston (London: David Nutt, 1914). 

Translating difficulty

On Ouyang Jianghe

Doubled Shadows

Doubled Shadows

Ouyang Jianghe, trans. Austin Woerner

Zephyr Press 2012, 168 pages, $15.00, ISBN 9780981552170

Phoenix

Phoenix

Ouyang Jianghe, trans. Austin Woerner

Zephyr Press 2015, 62 pages, $15.00, ISBN 9781938890048

[I]f there are strong ambiguities in the original poem, there’s no need to select only one possible sense and then translate that: instead, translate one ambiguity into another! Don’t try to solve the problem: translate it! — J. H. Prynne[1] 

While reading both Zephyr Press volumes by Ouyang Jianghe — Doubled Shadows, a collection of poems spanning a presumably significant, if undated, period of time, and Phoenix, a new, long poem — I repeatedly thought of J. H. Prynne’s lecture on translation given to university students in Hebei Province, China. What an adventurous thing to say, considering the difficulties of second-language acquisition: to tempt students with irresolution, with leaving things as they are, instead of the conceits of understanding and control. Of course, I also thought, difficulties for one aren’t always difficulties for another, and one translation that leaves perceived ambiguities in place may just be a reflection of the translator’s lack of understanding of the source text, not to say the source language. On the other hand, such translations probably reflect more apparently a translator’s beliefs about what poetry is, and what it can and should say.

Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry presents to any translator the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue his work as a language artifact to be translated as close to literally as possible, or whether to amplify its implicit beliefs, and its abstractions — through a historical lens, or otherwise. But since he is said by translator Austin Woerner to be known as the “most hermetic of the Chinese hermetic poets,” we can expect a pronounced “cryptic language” that doesn’t easily yield access to, as Woerner describes it, “the poem’s mystery.”[2] In such a case, translating in a straightforward manner may be an unproductive task. So, in Woerner’s case, he decides to “show only enough [of the original] to tempt the imagination, inviting the reader to see in it what she wishes,” using the poem as “a tool for contemplation, a mandala or maze among whose many turnings the reader can pick her own path” (23).

This third approach to a translation, and moreover to poetry in general, where the focus moves away from language and towards reception, is reflected in Woerner’s translation of the poem “Handgun,” which he himself notes for what he calls its “wordplay” and opacity.[3] It appears in two different versions, as well as an appendixed, “literal” version. Even the beginnings of each version illustrate the choices, or preferences, of the translator: each version allows the reader to forge a new interpretation. 

you can take a-
part a handgun, break it
in two, into
a hand              a gun

paint the hand black, you’ve got
a faction —[4]

a handgun can be disassembled
into unrelated things:
a hand, a gun
a hand plus its opposite equals a weapon
a gun plus its opposite equals itself (91)

a handgun can be taken apart
into two unrelated things
a hand and a gun
a gun lengthened becomes a Party (107)

Noting that each version shows a different aspect of the poem, Woerner is upfront about his decisions. As he discusses the poem “Glass Factory” in his introduction to Doubled Shadows, he says that poetry does not “state the obvious,” but “gives the mind pause, opens room for imagination” (xvi). Thus in the first two versions of “Handgun,” we are given different poems which, as readers, we shape according to our predilections, or, in such a manner as Woerner describes, we at least “pause.” In which case, for those who don’t read Chinese, “faction” should presumably cast a wider imaginative net than “Party.” The actual Chinese term used, 党, instead of functioning as a social or political determinant, accommodates ideas outside the historical context of the source language. This is reasonable if one believes that poetry should appeal to a broadly defined imagination, and is primarily oriented around the reader.

So the initial dichotomy between a translation of linguistic raw material and a translation of ideas is thereby shown to be false, unsuitable to Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry, and unsuitable to poetry as a genre: poetry is that through which “the reader can pick her own path.” What becomes of abstractions, like “faction,” that have as their source a specific or historical reality, is that they are “lengthened” to maximize their appeal beyond those specific historical implications. And this is so even when Woerner notes certain facts of Ouyang Jianghe’s life: even though he loves Western classical music, is from Sichuan province, and writes in the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre, this is tangential to the reading. Although statements of fact inform how Woerner himself thinks of Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry (which he describes as “fugues” [20]), in his translations he prefers to focus on the suasions of speech over the actual said. As he notes: 

The translator’s job is to create a new lens through which readers in his language can see the same thing. But Ouyang’s poetry — like the best “abstract” or “difficult” modern Western poetry (from Crane and Stevens to Palmer and Armantrout), and like some of the most powerful traditional Chinese poetry — functions like a prism or kaleidoscope. It bends, refracts, and sometimes scatters the light of meaning; through it the reader perceives not one thing but numerous shifting images cast by their own imagination. What the reader sees is less important than the manner in which the prism bends the light. My role is to replicate the shape of the prism. In other words, it’s to just translate the words. (xv) 

Woerner is again clear about his poetics. He intends for the reader to have a mental or retinal version of the original poem, although that version may not immediately cohere. In which case we can compare Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry to certain Western poets whose works we are presumably more comfortable with, possibly for their lack of Chinese context. Knowing that, we should feel free to more or less run with what we think or see, since these are emanations of our individuality as prompted by reading the translated poem. The poem then functions primarily as an index, but to ourselves; or, the words condition our imaginative reading, but do not necessarily draw us into the world of the poem, and do not determine what we think or imagine. This, then, would be an acceptable mode of reading because Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry “relies upon chance associations between words particular to the language in which it was written.”[5] In other words, if the poetry is in any way aleatory, a reading can so also be, especially one in which a foreign language ceases to confront the reader through grammar, history, or any kind of Verfremdungseffekt.

This is problematic because Woerner states that he wishes he could “be a fly on the inside of another’s skull,”[6] and has consulted “knowledgeable ‘informants’”[7] regarding his translations. He personally desires a high degree of impersonal, and informed, consistency in his translations, but doesn’t expect the same attitude from a reader. This is problematic because, if he decouples the reader from the text, a new dichotomy between poem and reader appears. In which case there will be little reason to be exacting in translation, and any reading of anything, especially in a case where process itself is ostensibly the poem’s subject, would yield results that are only in turns self-driven and self-focused.

So my quarrel with Woerner here is not over his translations per se — his Chinese is fantastic, Ouyang Jianghe is a difficult poet, and Woerner’s translation methods are up-front and consistent. My quarrel is with Woerner’s poetics, which relies upon clichés about the mysterious quality of poetry and the imagination in order to, as he ironically says, “reduce poetry to its purest essence” — an essence that apparently resides in readers’ faculties. In the poem “The Burning Kite,” for example, we get only a howler of an opener: “What a thing it would be, if we all could fly.”[8] Such renditions say more about the translator’s ideas of how poetry sounds than they do Ouyang Jianghe’s, and, more importantly, deflate any ambitious poetic work that may be happening in the Chinese. Should the reader, unaware of the details of the Chinese language or its material context, be expected to do any better? Or is the supposed “mystery” of this line the beginning of a rewarding imaginative journey?

In Ouyang Jianghe’s long poem sequence “Phoenix,” after a sculpture by the artist Xu Bing, we do get to see a more sustained effort on the part of the translator to engage with the kind of philosophical thinking that is at the heart of so much of Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry. In the deep consideration that is characteristic of the sequence, the world that precedes the poem is allowed to emerge more fully intact, and the historical facets that are obscured in Doubled Shadows are brought to light. Woerner more often translates terms that are less easy to negotiate than “faction,” and also includes notes following the poem, for a number of important details. For example, from section 16 of the poem we learn in the notes that Wangjing is “[t]he neighborhood in northeast Beijing where Ouyang lives.”[9] We do not learn, however, that it is also Beijing’s Koreatown, that it’s a neighborhood known for its nouveau riche, or that in the late ’90s many of the city’s professoriate were assigned housing in one of the high-rise complexes there. Of course, those facts are not crucial to a basic understanding of the poem, so one can’t fault Woerner for not including those details. But for anyone who does want to learn about those additional aspects of Wangjing, the poem will certainly offer up a more nuanced, and even more imaginative, reading — and one that is grounded more firmly in the original language of the text: 

Flying toward the living means remaining singular.
So the phoenix flies from the avant-garde
into extinction, from limitless reality to the limited;
its flight shrinks Beijing smaller than Wangjing,
nations to the size of leaves.[10]

Of course how much to say in excess of a source text is a question, and in my own translations I tend to err on the side of slavishness, rarely including notes, in the hopes that the reader will take it upon themself to go to a library (or at least check Wikipedia). So I only mean to point out that translation may work best when at least pointing to the richness of a textual context, instead of substituting vagaries. In the end, however, no one knows to what degree the inclusion of notes will move a reading of “Phoenix” away from the poem’s “insularity,”[11] as Woerner calls it, and towards either a supposedly more inclusive general reading, as with many of the poems in Doubled Shadows, or to close readings inspired by detail. 

Whatever the case, Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry is served best by sticking to the language of particulars precisely because it renders the text more vivid, and leaves a lingering curiosity. The reason for this is because the text’s complexities, like Prynne’s “ambiguity,” show the poem better than, again, any conflation of ideas into generalities made for a lackluster general reader. Finally, none of this is an indication of a bad translation — indeed, the translation differs greatly between Doubled Shadows and Phoenix — but instead indicates a philosophy of translation and a poetics that I find to often be couched in platitudes, that displays a lack of adventurousness about poetry in general, and in particular does a disservice to the abundance of poetry’s material and imaginative histories.

For another example of the kind of negotiation a poem can do between history and thought, Woerner has rendered section 12 of “Phoenix” more or less as ambiguous, or particular, as its original — much closer to the “literal” version of “Handgun” previously supplied only in an appendix. In it we see a number of terms that readers may be unfamiliar with, and ideas they may be uncomfortable with, since the author appears to be critical of political affiliations. It presents the range of Ouyang Jianghe’s thought in a more complicated manner than anything in Doubled Shadows. And it is this mental image of poetry that emerges out of Phoenix that ties our imaginations to the source text while at the same time letting them move away from it, as if the imagination, for all intents and purposes, is rendered ineffable, and not sculpted into a figure of the reading subject. This is, in my opinion, letting the writing perform its method through its translation, as opposed to superimposing an already designated idea of poetry that is bound up with unexamined notions of subjecthood:

A coin throws the Politburo into the sky:
how long till its members
drop back down out of the clouds?
Did Lenin see the phoenix? Did the Trotskyites?
Revolution or Capital — which yearns more for its roots?
To measure a revolution in the East
on a scale to which Time genuflects
one has to leap free of time. Behold the lone runner:
a wheelchair-bound amputee
feeling an abyssal, phantom pain
racing like a panther in his severed legs.
The squandering of spacetime ends at its beginning.
In the twenty-first century, some read pre-Qin letters.
In Beijing, some read the Paris manuscripts.
Many more sit in the night sky
reading Das Kapital.
“To read is to disappear with writing.” (43)

By translating the same kind of logic that appears in section 16 of “Phoenix” (where “limitless” and “limited” are portrayed as unstable signifieds), Ouyang Jianghe can fully explore what appear to be contradictory notions of measurement, physical ability, and even contemporaneity — as if only by displacing the particular need can the abstraction be realized in the concrete. Likewise, the relational status of the poem, as a composition as well as an object in the physical world, is allowed to take its place as the driver of the writing. This becomes a triumph, then, of the poem over the individual, inasmuch as the poem is composed of ideas that exploit things. The reading subject here is less important than the subject as another referent or node of the physical world that performs the act of reading.

Another example of this triumph appears in “Notes toward a Fiction of the Market Economy,” in Doubled Shadows. Although Doubled Shadows is dominated both by a lyric sensibility as well as by a theory of translation which privileges both translator and reader over the work as an artifact, “Notes toward a Fiction of the Market Economy” is nevertheless a serial poem which demonstrates the tenuousness of those positions. In it, what appears to be the wisdom of value-added transactions becomes a synecdoche for displaced personal action. The bankers appealed to in the beginning, with their presumed litany of “common sense” objections to a planned economy, are nevertheless bankers driven by another impersonal system of relations, whether or not they realize it. Section 2 reads in its entirety: 

Will the bankers raise their voices in dissent
against the penny-saved penny-earned political ideals
of planned economics? Spend what you’ve made, then spend
what you owe. Spend it again and you’ll find you have even more
than if you’d deposited it in the bank. But no matter how much
money you make, count it up and you’ll find it’s all fake.
It’s all growth and change: except for a plastic revolver,
it’s bullets spent; a nickel pulled from a magic hat.
Masked autobiography has seeped to the root of the public interest,
subtracting time from personal savings, subtracting foresight
and cold common sense. Don’t wait for nothing and you’ll find happiness
steadily shrinking. Give thanks for your meal. Desire no bounty. (49) 

It’s interesting to note that, even when all we have to read is “the poem itself,” whether or not one can read the original text, the reading subject is interpellated by the same ideological actors which informed the artifact. For example, in the case of Americans reading the poem, not many will know the details of China’s financial sector — whether the housing market will go bust, whether multiple investments in State enterprises will yield a personal “bounty.” Yet it’s possible that the event of the reading of the poem, in which all of those factors are simultaneously latent and present, is when our expectations are most decisive in rendering the poem’s meaning. This is different, however, from an interpretation driven by the individual. 

For example, the poem “Phoenix” refers explicitly to Xu Bing’s artwork of the same name. In fact, the artist and artwork were present at a celebratory reading in New York with Ouyang Jianghe and other Chinese and American poets. In that case, the poem should be rendered fairly legible, at least inasmuch as we have an image of the poem’s dialogue: the author reading to us about the artwork in the room. Yet the address, however direct, paradoxically requires that the reader remove oneself from his or her expectation of understanding in order to understand it. In other words, we may think we are “getting” the poem, but what we are getting is the event in which we expect ourselves to get the poem. To really get it, expectations need be cast away so that obstacles to understanding it become clear. When one sees those obstacles, then one is on a level playing field with the poem.

To illustrate this, in section 14 of the poem is what can only be described as a study of Xu Bing’s process, however embellished: 

Now we turn to Xu Bing. See how from bird entrails
he pulls crustacean components,
strings of microchips, annotations, ammunition
(because, even after the dismantling of war,
one must assemble a phoenix like an army); watch
as from inner realities he pulls far-flung provinces,
foreign nations, outer space.
Ransacks the void till no emptiness remains,
while prestidigitating truths from thin air;
conjures the water and electricity of Life
then walks over to Aesthetics and pulls the plug. (47)

Ouyang Jianghe again gives us synecdoche (the generality of “Aesthetics” standing in for the physical action of artistic creation), as well as contradictory logic[12] (“Ransacks the void until no emptiness remains”). He also gives us comparisons of kind (“from bird entrails … microchips”), in which compatibility is flouted. As with the reader whose obstacles appear before the poem, it is only by accepting, and not disregarding, those obstacles that the poem can be what it is, namely, another collection of obstacles — just like the actual reading subject, in fact. Perhaps more to the point, to pretend those obstacles are not there would be to disregard the actual materials of the artwork,[13] as well as its status as assemblage.

But it is the over-translation of “prestidigitating”[14] that may point to both the difficulties of Woerner’s translations as well as one of the central qualities of Ouyang Jianghe’s works — in both Doubled Shadows and Phoenix. The invention of a term in one of Ouyang Jianghe’s poems may not be appropriate, but possibly nothing is appropriate: another obstacle not to be overcome, but simply to be recognized. The ironies of translating poetry may, in the end, be little different from the ironies of reading or writing it. 


1. J. H. Prynne, “Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems,” Cambridge Literary Review 1, no. 3 (2010): 151–66.

2. Austin Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” in Ouyang Jianghe, Phoenix, trans. Austin Woerner (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2014), 19.

3. Austin Woerner, “Translator’s Forward,” in Ouyang Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, trans. Austin Woerner (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2012), 107.

4. Ouyang Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, 11.

5. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 21.

6. Woerner,“Translator’s Forward,” xiii.

7. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 24.

8. Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, 63. For comparison, here’s my “literal” translation: “Flying: it would be nice to be able to fly.”

9. Woerner, Phoenix, 61n16.

10. Jianghe, Phoenix, 49.

11. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 23.

12. Discussed by Woerner on page 20 of Phoenix as beilun 悖论, the kind of argumentation first employed by the philosopher Zhuangzi.

13. Which Woerner also discusses on page 20 of Phoenix.

14. Despite Ouyang Jianghe’s reputation for difficulty, his vocabulary is fairly restricted.