The lives that include us

Photo of Randall Potts (left) by Emily Dulla.



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

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



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.

Unregulated glamor

On Carrie Lorig's 'The Pulp vs. the Throne'

Last week I was walking through the UC Berkeley campus with a friend who is a birth/care worker. We were on our way to hear Bernadette Mayer read — “our grand-auntie,” we said. We were talking about aspirations, the work my friend aspires to most, and my friend was speaking about helping women decide when and how they want to give birth. She was telling me about all sorts of care methods that I, at thirty years old, knew nothing about.

As we approached a public space with a large concentration of people, my friend stopped, lowered her voice, and whispered, “probably shouldn’t talk about this here.” My friend was speaking of doing work that she loves on her own body and the bodies of others she loves, but was too afraid to continue there among unknown others. The conversation ended as English Department building doors swung shut behind us, just as so many conversations end upon entering public spaces that don’t welcome them. I’ve been Googling since then, searching for the words my friend was saying, suddenly fearful about the closing shut behind my friend.

Carrie Lorig’s first collection, The Pulp vs. the Throne, is an antidote to these kinds of closures, a gasping and shouting collection that insists on talking about everything, and talking about it here. It’s not easy: it’s not usually an easy task to read a book that refuses finishing, a book that refuses closure entirely. Lorig’s is a wide-reaching grasp of a book that attempts this ultimate lack of closure, ultimate engagement and availability.

Lorig’s book takes the form of a set of linked long poems, all of which cite other writers and extensive correspondence (emails, texts, more) to form a massing sense of research and a mind speaking with what has come before it. The poems in The Pulp vs. the Throne are both rigorously careful in their relationship with sources (footnoted, closely explained), and careless in their roll through them, a movement from source to source, an associative roll that evokes a mind amongst peers in thought, a mind reaching for a rigor that makes authentic sense to its individuality.

It is difficult to cite Lorig well outside of her own form (which is a fact, in itself, something authentic to the work) without erasing parts of how it is presented. An image[1] works best:

As above, we read with Lorig. Lorig cites extensively and expands the form of the footnote beyond itself, writing into the footnote — it is another form of relationship to thought, and one that closes in and expands out simultaneously; that shows itself an expert on the body from which it surges forth. It evokes the endnotes in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and the footnotes in Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, among others.

The referential roll of these poems creates a rigor outside how we usually understand reference: a rigor outside of normative expertise. It also asks the reader immediately about legitimacy, and about knowledge: What does it mean to build knowledge upon and with sources? Are we allowed to use sources if we don’t do it with normative expertise, if we don’t do it as is required of experts? Are we allowed to simply read?

Lorig’s expertise is a natural one, and in fact reinvents the word “natural” to an extent that makes it difficult for one to even use that word. It is natural expertise because it demonstrates and requires only a mind, alive, connecting thoughts. It requires only being alive in one’s body, one’s capacity to read, one’s integration of information. It requires only awareness, and this awareness is exactly what qualifies it as expertise, as a voice. Lorig writes,

Without shrinking, I wake up writing to you. (66)

Lorig does not shrink back from what she is aware of and who she addresses. She does not shrink: she wakes up, aware of the act of writing. She creates documents, and refers back to them. She creates a space where she does not have to shrink, where she can wake up to writing.

This is where trauma enters Lorig’s work, too: her poems refer back and refer back — both to cited sources and to Lorig’s repeated phrases — refer back and refer back until their own wrapped form of meaning is made.

but Repetition is never
Repeating Exactly.
It is each sentence Exactly.
what and where is Precise,
but what is Precise
Precisely if it doesn’t
yield and Exactitude?


Each time round is an extraction.
Each time round we find the return.
Each time round the return is immediate.
Each time round the return is brutal.
Each time round the return is near.
Each time round I learn what should be a trap. (29)

Repetition and reinvention and re-understanding: this is how meaning is made from the traumatic, from the unexplainable. Meaning is made by making a highly individual sense of one’s experience, and the repetitive committing of this act can be a common marker of trauma, as Lauren Traetto writes on Caroline Crew: “This poem is full of smashing into things as a way of leaving or of belonging, of changing minds, of disappearing into the heat, of changing into something else.”[2]

And with the “smashing into things” in Lorig’s work, Traetto’s work, Crew’s work, and the work of many others: here we land, now, today, luckily, heartbreakingly, in experimental work that does not turn away from trauma. Work that instead wrenches and smashes to integrate it.

And, inextricably, we land also in the world of social media: a place familiar to many of us involved or following the poetry and/or literary community online as it integrates the knowledge of misogyny and rape culture within its rooms, its readings, its magazines, its worlds. Much of this came to a head publicly in the past year, and especially on social media, especially on the speedy comment chains of Twitter and Facebook and other places that demand and place quick responses to triggering and nuanced issues.

I’d wager that work like Lorig’s — even in a book form, pulled away from the screen, from digital devices, though it includes things like screenshots and texts from them — is a representation also of these conversations: of a literary world struggling to understand itself and its failures, of a literary world struggling to understand that it will actually always be struggling to understand.

That is, in fact, all that these worlds are, and what a mind is: the struggle to understand. Lorig’s work is incredibly generous in presenting us with its struggle to understand, as in:


I write decay, decay, decay so I can
look at it and change my life. (60)

Lorig creates a place for herself to read, to read as an ongoing and unending process. The reader is there with her, reading through these texts and the text of her own experience, integrating, repeating, and integrating again.

It is the sea / this kind of reading / this kind of living with / this kind of studying. A leaking extravagance or a chiseling sprawl. (129)

Lorig’s forms are excavations by footnoting, excavations by addition that allow for the constant integration of new information: we read with an available mind.

Lorig gives us permission to exist in this way, and for that I am grateful. She gives us permission to read/live by integration, as opposed to living by adoption. It is a different, more nuanced — and in some ways more challenging — understanding of reading, living, and knowledge itself.

              I WANTED TO

Lorig splays by slicing open an explicit struggle with what to do with a presentation of the self in writing. She addresses this challenge often through the act of correspondence with another: throughout her book she repeats the line, “I have been thinking about writing to you in this way.” We know Lorig knows how she is writing (again that refusal to shrink back from awareness) and how it works as a delivery system. One poem is itself titled, “A LETTER IS AN UNREGULATED GLAMOR / JULY 30–AUGUST 9,” wrapping itself in a kind of clear air of the knowledge that the writer knows she is writing — and bringing us along.

Many addresses throughout the book are clear addresses: “Dear J,” “Dear B,” “Dear Softening Agent,” and others, and some are signed, “Love, C.” In Lorig’s work the letter itself becomes the delivery system for reading by integration, for integrating information. She reaches outward, both to the sources and to the addressee, and is public in this address.

To resist is to bring myself closer to you. I LIVE WITH YOU NOW / I BUY US BEER AND KISS US / CERTAIN IT IS WILD. I feel unsightly / I don’t mean ugly, / I tell E
in a letter, I mean unpicturable. / I DON’T MEAN UGLY, I MEAN


In a way Lorig expresses both trauma and the most normal experience of trying to interact with humans: that of the tug to be close and also far. I think of Terry Tempest Williams, also a somatic writer in an entirely different register: “Love is a humiliation. I retaliate. If you cannot be intimate, then I will make you run for your life. I want you. I want you gone. I want you here. I want you very far away.”[3]

Romantic love is both specific and metaphoric in Williams and Lorig: it is referenced clearly as a particular relationship but also serves as a window to more of the human. On saying that she is in love with a partner, Lorig writes:

-To write down your name and to follow it
-with Yes, is to think
-for a moment that I would never stop
-growing (67)

Lorig’s poems reach toward a world of endless addition, a world where words do not limit but rather include and add. Lorig includes even the reader, even as she wrenches us away from normative phrasing or language, as in the bulleted format above. She wrenches us toward being human over being normal, to finding our own sense of understanding.

Lorig’s poems ask: What if just the way you are is easy enough to understand? And what if resistance (wrenching) is required in order to access that ease?

To resist is to re-incorporate, to re-position, to move while re-visiting, / to move while reading / the writing, to move while living / the writing. To resist is to pull you closer / through the creation / of an excess of boldness. To resist is to pull you closer / through the creation / of an excess of surface / for us to lie down together on.

To resist is to collapse. (99)

Movement is essential in Lorig’s work — movement beneath and across the page, movement between visual forms, movement of the body — a somatic practice that is continually collapsing in order to prove it is alive. The intersection of the lived with the word here makes me think irretrievably of C. D. Wright (may her memory be a blessing), who also wraps “The Obscure Lives of Poets” so much with body and action-choice in her lists:

One broke faith with the word
before the word could break faith with her, and built
a mountain of detergent in her garage.[4]

Wright’s image of cleaning products weaves easily with Lorig’s work, too — Lorig’s resistance is so clearly also against being cleansed or sanitized. The reader is witness to a voice letting itself off a tight hook of sanitized behavior into an imperative mess:

spill where you are     so full of nearness to them      You Spill

because being this mob surface it hasn’t quite worked out has it (15)

Lorig’s work is not just an easy spill, though: it’s one that works hard at amassing the spill.

It’s difficult to sustain this kind of writing. It is difficult to sustain this poems / this HOT MASS as you like to call them (49)

We are left with a sweaty impression, an impression of a writer deep in imperative work, work that she considers so necessary she must sustain it, even when questioned, even when questioning herself.

Doesn’t it feel like you are creating problems where there aren’t any?
Doesn’t it feel like you are creating where there isn’t anything? (20)

This is familiar language for the many of us who have been told we are “too sensitive,” “making it up,” “uptight,” etc, etc. And yet we know — more and more publicly, thanks to those who are able to speak up — that “problems” (rape culture, among many other concerns) are not made up. They simply don’t have loud enough voices speaking for them, creating where there is something, as Lorig might say.

The imperative in Lorig’s work is to speak/write a world that allows for the speaker’s experience to be real. The reader gets the sense that this book hasto happen in order for the speaker to integrate — and for the reader to survive. This is a book written to stay alive.

As I mend, I can leave language, and I can return to it. As I mend, I am able to chronicle, to be chronic in receiving, to be chronic in unspooling the rising thread that spreads between bodies You and bodies I, to be chronic in knowing the difference between transmitting pain and transforming it. (59)

One has to “chronicle” to learn what one’s own bodies sound like, and Lorig speaks for voices silenced in so many ways, voices told in so many ways that they cannot speak for their own bodies.

Emerging from voices told that what one does with one’s own body is not one’s own — see Rebecca Solnit on the case of the missing perpetrator and many others — Lorig’s work seeks to emerge from a stuckness of objectification and externally controlled body to a body (an embodied language) that can incorporate many meanings, one that allows the writer to rest.

Being Stone,

The slash / is me

trying to lie down/ / / / / / /  / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /  / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / (42)

This slash, which Lorig uses widely, is explained here as a place of rest: a place where options are given that allow the speaker to rest. This goal of rest or ease is not easy itself, though, and does not come without mess. Lorig’s voice is often frightening and confusing in its “HOT MASS,” in its seeking to gather what makes sense to it.

Sometimes I think poetry is afraid of me because I’m real. Because what I believe I write is real. (57)

Lorig’s book asks us: What kind of knowledge counts as real? What kind of knowledge counts?

This question echoes on so many levels. We ask it in academia as we try to figure out who counts as a teacher or expert and who deserves to be reasonably paid for their labor. We ask it as we interrogate rape culture and whose voice gets to decide what counts as rape. We ask it with social media, which allows us all to know a little bit about a lot of things, to have read a lot of headlines but not read the whole article, to see one section of a comment thread — does this count as knowing? Does this count as participating?

As Amy Berkowitz writes in Tender Points of chronic illness and gendered trauma: “All I have to do is tell you. All you have to do is believe what I tell you.”[5] In some ways, it’s very simple, a simplicity which seems to fit Lorig’s hand-sized book with its almost furry cover texture. We can get close to The Pulp vs. the Throne. That’s all we have to do:

I feel myself and the difficult things and the magic things begin to flow into and on top of each other like bewildered area. To be against is to be near. To be against is to bring myself closer to you. (60)

Lorig’s work takes belief. One has to believe it to read it. These poems speak into a world where they expect not to be believed, but speak as if they are believed. This is the magic — and courageousness — of their speech act.

I am writing forward and into a continuum. I feel it peeling against me. (60)

The courageousness of Lorig’s work is in allowing everything to count: to count as knowledge and to count as participation. She opens a space in which it all counts. A space in which an individual’s way of amassing and understanding knowledge counts and deserves public attention — and also will never be fully complete, will never seal off a single set of knowledge.

The book does not end. It grows. It grows wildly or softly through our ability to bring ourselves to writing / to writing a book. It grows through our willingness to risk closeness. (168)

Come inside, Lorig’s collection commands us. You will never finish, but you will count.

1. Carrie Lorig, The Pulp vs. the Throne (Chicago, IL: Artifice Books, 2015), 85.

2. Full disclosure, in a magazine I coedit.

3. Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds (New York, NY: Picador, 2013), 152.

4. C. D. Wright, “The Obscure Lives of Poets,” in Poetry (February 2016).

5. Amy Berkowitz, Tender Points (Oakland, CA: Timeless Infinite Light, 2015), 4.

'the pleasure of / companionship'

A review of 'The Oppens Remembered'

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship

Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis

University of New Mexico Press 2015, 296 pages, $59.95, ISBN 978-0826356239

To understand a poet’s work it is necessary to understand a poet’s life; this is particularly the case with poet George Oppen, whose work, in Michael Heller’s estimation, frequently demonstrates “an urge toward psychic depths” and “take[s] account of contingency, of the life that impinges on us, whether it involves meeting other poets, car wrecks” — referring to Oppen’s poem “Route” (1968) — “or the wrecks of the self and world.”[1]The publication in 1990 of the invaluable Selected Letters, a superb collection of Oppen’s correspondence edited by noted Oppen scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis, helped illustrate how important such impingements were to Oppen; that, in fact, his oft-stated desire of achieving clarity in poetry was not merely an aesthetic or formal consideration, but indeed a deeply existential desire on his part to make his poetry dialogue with himself and others, of bridging a long-widened gap resulting from his twenty-five years of self-imposed exile from poetry. What these remarkable letters suggest is that for Oppen, poetry was not simply a means of conveying experience, but a means of reaching out to others, of overcoming the unbearable loneliness of existence.

Evidence of this need for community is provided throughout DuPlessis’s new volume, The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, which includes essays and reminiscences by those who knew the Oppens personally, including, among others, DuPlessis, Heller, Michael Davidson, Diane Wakoski, David Antin, Sharon Olds, and Paul Auster.

As DuPlessis remarks in her contribution, writing was for Oppen an important means of connection with the world, one that became an almost existential means of commitment to both self and world. Oppen argued with himself and with others through his poetry, which was often filled with contradiction. Yet, as DuPlessis notes, he was also “engaging seriously with poetics and politics in his letters … He needed contact … He needed a circle, a coterie, a cenacle, and he sought actively to sustain that intellectual, social, and poetic network” (195–96). Anthony Rudolf, poet and friend of the Oppens during the 1970s and ’80s, concurs, arguing that “the life and work of this existentialist lodestar seem[s] more dialectically integrated than that of any other writer. By this I mean that his ontological integrity was peculiarly transparent and bound up with the purity of his writerly vision, whether in words or in their absence” (172).

The essays in this present volume form a kind of haphazard biography; nevertheless DuPlessis has done a heroic job of organizing the volume so that it follows a certain narrative trajectory. Given DuPlessis’s stated premise “that any biographical relationship is built from the dynamic space of the encounter, the space of the between,” the constraints and demands of biography, which are significant, are here somewhat less imposing. The Oppens Remembered, she explains,“is not so much the ‘life’ of George Oppen and Mary Oppen” as it is “the establishment of a dialogue, a ‘between,’ at the moment when one’s own life and the lives of the Oppens interacted with particular intensity” (x).

Indeed, the Oppens were particularly intense: eloping at a young age, the couple moved to New York City just prior to the Depression; they met poets Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. They then moved to France to publish poetry and prose by Williams and Pound, along with a collection of “Objectivist” poets, a movement designed by Zukofsky for Poetry Magazine, with which Oppen was briefly associated. The Oppens then returned to the United States, and in 1935, spurred by its achievements in organizing the unemployed, George and Mary joined the Communist Party. As members they worked to organize the poor, delivered soapbox speeches, and engaged in rent strikes and milk strikes. This quarter-century political commitment was instigated by a deeply felt obligation to combat the unemployment endemic to the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe during the Second World War. Because the party demanded that artists use their talents in service of the party’s political agenda, Oppen, who did not believe that poetry could fix what was broken — at least politically — decided to stop writing rather than make his poetry a vehicle for didactic political expression. Following the Second World War, in which he fought and was wounded, Oppen chose to devote himself to his role as husband and father. Exile in Mexico in the 1950s, and concern for the well-being of his daughter, Linda, whom he says he did not want to expose to his innermost fears, further postponed his writing.

Following the war, Oppen returned to the United States in a severe state of mental distress and physical trauma. Perhaps because of fears of anti-Semitism and an overall distrust of human motivations, the Oppens decided not to raise their daughter in the crime-ridden and increasingly dangerous postwar New York City, and in 1946, they moved to California. They were at this time politically active, organizing petitions opposing the Korean War and supporting Henry Wallace in his 1948 bid for the presidency. As anticommunist paranoia began to sweep America, the US government stepped up surveillance programs on known communists, including the Oppens. The FBI paid them several visits, inquiring about past and present political activities. Fearing arrest, the Oppens decided to leave the country until the hysteria receded. Thus began a decade-long exile in Mexico.

As recounted in several memoirs included here (most notably, Julian Zimet’s, Stephen Schneider’s, and Linda Oppen’s contributions), the years in Mexico were deeply unhappy. A major reason for this discontent is that the Oppens were unable to enjoy the freedom of movement they had at all times in their lives experienced. They had not gone to Mexico out of choice, and once there, they had their passports seized and were unable to leave. “They felt so out of place because it wasn’t their chosen way of life,” Linda observes; “it took a toll” (237).

In 1958, Oppen suddenly and mysteriously began writing poetry again. He often relied on a reductive explanation for this, referring to an anecdotal dream in which he imagined going through his deceased father’s files and discovering a document detailing the prevention of rust in copper. Oppen related this dream to Mary’s therapist, who provided the interpretation that — put simply — Oppen did not want to corrode. This revelation, which poses a contradiction of sorts, as Oppen was outspokenly distrustful of psychological explanations or motivations for art, apparently prompted Oppen’s decision to write again. Yet what actually fueled most this creative resurgence was his need to reintegrate into a community receptive to what it was that he had to say. Indeed, it might be said that his psychic survival depended on saying certain things and, most especially, on being heard. And what it was he had to say could be said only in the form of poetry. The time for soapbox speeches was over.

By 1960, the Red Scare had lost its momentum. Once in possession of their passports, the Oppens again became permanent, full-time US residents. The exigencies of reintegration into a thriving poetic community and the need for validation for his new body of work encouraged Oppen, during the first few months back in the States, to reach out to literary associates, some of whom he had not spoken to in years, including Zukofsky (to whom he first wrote in August 1958), Reznikoff, Williams, and New Directions publisher James Laughlin.

In discussing this return to writing, Oppen, perhaps tongue in cheek, stated in an unpublished letter from the late 1950s his intent on becoming a “Whitman of the factories,”and several recent essays examine Oppen’s cagey reaction to the immense impact of Whitman’s work on modern poetry. However broadly similar their philosophic and political concerns, Whitman’s poetics, in contrast to Oppen’s, possessed both a naïve idealism and energy far different in both form and subject matter. And while Oppen, in struggling to achieve a new form, could not return to the densely modernist poetry of his youth, neither could he compose derivative urban Whitman poems as did Allen Ginsberg. Stephen Schneider recalls Oppen’s personal discussion of Whitman in the early 1960s, in particular his singling out Whitman’s “On the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” a poem that addresses the inadequacy of human perception. Whitman’s poem argues that because we cannot trust our perceptions, we are alone in them. Moreover, we cannot communicate our experience to one another because of the limitations of words; yet in our interactions with others we somehow overcome this solitude. Oppen’s interest in this poem, Schneider argues, is indicative of his fear of being alone. “Oppen’s particular dread of unreality, or nothingness, and his conviction that real solitude would be ‘lethal,’ owe something to the harms he had suffered” (30). Oppen’s loneliness, Schneider contends, compelled him to form deep, lasting bonds with many younger poets and writers — including Harvey Shapiro, Robert Duncan, Armand Schwerner, and Denise Levertov — relationships that helped to rekindle Oppen’s newfound creativity.

John Crawford, one the earliest of these younger poets to meet the Oppens (61), does not recall seeing any poets the same age as the Oppens, noting how their relationship with Zukofsky was “strained” by that point. It was clear to Crawford that Mary acted as a “buffer between George and the rest of the world” (62), perhaps another indication of his ongoing trauma. Mary, he observes, was a “strong woman who had thrown her life wholeheartedly into her partnership with a brooding, sensitive, intellectually dominating man” (77–78), and so had a right — indeed an obligation — to be protective of him. Where George could lapse into an often lengthy, at times impenetrable silence, Mary was more straightforward and outspoken than her husband.

From the portrait provided by this volume, Oppen could be an imposing presence. He often attended readings attired in a three-piece suit and tie, giving him the appearance — particularly among the more colorful attire of the 1960s — of being a relic from another era. His wry wit provided a certain levity that contrasted with his war-torn visage and his deep-set, penetrative eyes. “George was wiry and wily,” explains DuPlessis, and “did not suffer fools gladly” (195). To John Crawford, Oppen’s humor was “self-effacing,” though discussions of politics, “if allowed into the conversation at all” — given their years of political persecution the Oppens were perhaps understandably paranoid and reticent to bring up politics in polite conversation, lest discussion turn toward their years as communists — were “always a serious business” (59). He notes Oppen’s “quiet magnetism, his buried passion, his very real silences” (60), qualities that were perhaps outward signs of his ongoing, unspoken trauma.

To be sure, the trauma inflicted by the immensity of the Depression and war is a major theme of Oppen’s post-silence work, which provides an ongoing critique of the isolation of modernity, anxieties arguably intensified by the social and political turmoil of the Cold War, Vietnam, and Civil Rights eras. In his discussions with other poets — some tantalizingly recounted in this present volume — and in his private papers, Oppen repeatedly addressed the metaphysical implications of these crises. The tensions between the singular and the numerous, the human as individual and as part of a collective, are subjects he obsessed over during the 1960s. Oppen’s new work — which on the surface recalls the same modernist aesthetic that informed the poetry of Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky — consists of a metaphysical and political consciousness shaped by his experiences from the 1930s to the 1950s, one that speaks directly to the increasingly radical political beliefs of this subsequent generation of poets. Observes Henry Weinfeld, “even though [Oppen] wrote nothing while he was in the Party, it was this experience, positive and negative, that gave him what he needed to begin afresh as a poet” (156), as it helped him to define the narrow efficacy of art, while simultaneously providing him with the undergirdings of political action.

Oppen hoped that his poetry, in grappling with these and other moral concerns, could restore certain core values to this idea of “humanity,” namely compassion for one another and the condemnation of violence and ruination. To do so effectively requires clarity, a criterion present throughout Oppen’s body of work, from the early, Objectivist-influenced poems of Discrete Series (1934), to the spare, enigmatic poems of Primitive (1978), his final book of poems.Ted Pearson perceptively observes in his contribution to The Oppens Remembered that “[i]mplicit in Oppen’s stated desire for poetry ‘to achieve clarity’ is his commitment to the process of clarification, the constant testing of one’s materials that makes such clarity possible — and perceptible to one’s readers” (138). Pearson points to the lines “the pleasure of being heard / the pleasure of / companionship” from Oppen’s poem “To C. T.” (1965),[2] noting that their success above all requires that a reader is able to “recognize those moments when a work actually achieves clarity” (138). At the same time, Pearson continues, as Oppen noted in “Route” (1968), a poem that largely concerns Oppen’s wartime experience, the “heartlessness of words” is that they “cannot be wholly transparent.”[3] In other words, one must wrestle between the achievement of “linguistic transparency” and the ability to effectively convey meaning. Instead of becoming discouraged by this seeming irreconcilability, Oppen took it as a challenge. Argues Pearson, his “distrust of words … his sense of them as ‘enemies’ to be persuaded from unethical misuse … and his no less intransigent ‘faith’ in the referential probity of the ‘little words’ he favored and trusted to bear the weight of his thought” resulted in an “apparently productive tension” (138).

With the poem “Of Being Numerous” (1968), Oppen intentionally set out to write — and arguably achieved — the defining poem of the 1960s. DuPlessis remarks that the poem “belong[s] to the thought of a generation ripped apart by the Vietnam War” and that it represents Oppen “giving his thinking back to some of that generation … the unfinished business of radical hopes brought forward and yet infinitely compromised and compressed” (196). In interviews, letters, and personal papers, Oppen ruminated on the poem’s source and meaning, explaining that “Numerous” represents the culmination of his thinking during his twenty-five-year silence, that he wrote the poem — indeed much of his post-silence work — to answer once and for all the question of whether or not there is an objective humanity apart from its concept.[4]

To DuPlessis, however, the content of the poem is rather less abstract. In her view, “Numerous” is a “ferocious meditation” on such things as “government malfeasance and lies; realpolitik calculation; aggression that, as always, rebounds; the literal horrors of war, with the backdrop being a historically rupturing assassination of a popular president and other significant, change-oriented political figures as well: Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr” (196–97). While crowded, DuPlessis’s argument does speak to the decidedly political undertones of the poem, and, certainly, “Numerous” addresses the sociological and cultural crises of its era. Yet the sublimity of “Numerous” is its metaphysical incisiveness, its ability to address history without becoming mired in specifics. Oppen’s larger concern is to question the cause and meaning of, for example, violence, war, assassination, political misconduct, and what they reveal about humanity. In fact, what “Numerous” is above all concerned with are the implications and effects of urbanism (it initially began as an earlier poem, 1965’s “Another Language of New York”), and of the relationship between the one and the many (here epitomized by the solitary lyric poet and society). This concern is due in part to Oppen’s representation of the modern, postindustrial city — specifically New York — as representing vast networks of practical, financial, and sociocultural exchanges. These networks present the poet with a useful convergence of energies that illustrate human relationships, both personal and impersonal. As Kathleen Fraser neatly summarizes, “Oppen turned our minds with the force of a magnet toward the difficult, unavoidable evidence of the human condition — in particular, the terrible uses of America’s wealth and power enacted during our own overlapping lifetimes of war” (87).

In many ways, the poem seems an ex post facto meditation and act of contrition for Oppen’s decades-long poetic silence, while simultaneously providing a measure of the efficacy of art in a time of crisis. For John Crawford, Oppen’s poem “melds together the sense of several disasters,” among them the need “to find a new acceptance of life, however perilous” in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the face of nuclear annihilation, an acceptance that involves “a commitment to the creation of art and beauty in the midst of estrangement and catastrophe, [and] a recognition that life ends in a kind of failure that only commitment can justify.” For Crawford, Oppen’s citation in the poem of Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati,the idea of eternal recurrence, or, as Oppen describes it, the “love of fate”[5] underlines Oppen’s “embrace of existence despite the ultimate cost.” Oppen’s use of the phrase “the bright light of shipwreck,” Crawford maintains, suggests that “the destruction of the isolated individual is transfigured into the existence of one among many in the city, the commonality of creation and re-creation despite the failure of each in time … The individual is doomed to failure, the collective bodies shorn of their freedom. Art is the basis of a kind of survival narrative, a series of steps that together create ‘the isolation of the actual’” (77).

In the years following the war, George Oppen was living his own survival narrative. Suffering from guilt induced by his failure to act as he had anticipated — which is to say, heroically — Oppen wrote very little about his experiences in war, only a handful of poems and letters. Crawford suspects that Oppen, “through images [in his poetry] of natural affinity, simplicity, and trust … was seeking a recovery of equilibrium” (68); that in a sense — though he would adamantly oppose a simplistic psychological interpretation of art — his later writing involved a working through various traumas, most profoundly his experiences of war and the decade of exile in Mexico. As Oppen developed the war poems in The Materials (1962), This in Which (1965), and Of Being Numerous (1968), Crawford writes, “he found a great deal of personal integration. It appeared in the form it did as a kind of rebirth through suffering and horror. It spoke to ethical questions and the shock of existence” (76; italics mine).

As a number of the contributors here note, “Of Being Numerous” is arguably the central work in Oppen’s oeuvre, a culmination of his new poetic form and an eloquent summary of his lifelong struggle with certain metaphysical and political concerns. The poem also signaled a stylistic turning point. In the late 1960s, the Oppens moved to San Francisco, the site of Oppen’s adolescence. Poems written following this move and published in a second trio of collections — Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972), Myth of the Blaze (1975), and Primitive (1979) — are increasingly fragmented and elliptical; often beginning in media res, sometimes midsentence, lines are comprised almost entirely of sentence fragments, their syntax structurally eccentric and oblique. There are gaps and fissures, white areas on the page meant to indicate silence, most often the inexpressible. According to Ted Pearson,  

George struggled — and said he felt obliged — to change his approach to the poetic line. He wanted distance from what had come to be seen by many readers as his signature style, an outcome he had never intended. He said he did not want the form of work to be “predictable,” that is, to allow the reader to make a priori assumptions about its content. He was looking, he said, for “a different key,” one better suited to his present circumstances, including his and Mary’s life in San Francisco, for which “a language of New York” was impossible. (145)

Once in San Francisco, the Oppens immersed themselves in the city’s dynamic literary scene. His relationship with West Coast poets encouraged him to resume his literary activities, such as taking part in interviews and readings. Despite his ambivalence concerning self-promotion (and a stated dislike of attending poetry readings, according to Sharon Olds [165]), these readings and radio interviews had the effect of introducing Oppen’s work to an ever-larger and more admiring audience.

During this time Oppen also spent time in the Big Sur area with his half-sister June Oppen Degnan, who was instrumental in promoting her brother’s new work; her San Francisco Review in 1960 and 1961 would publish much of her brother’s earliest post-silence work, including copublishing, with New Directions, Oppen’s The Materials and This in Which. Degnan, writes DuPlessis, was “deeply, deeply invested” (194) in her brother’s literary career. “She had her own version of what that would be: that George would be like Norman Mailer [or James Jones, whom she knew] with his big novel about the war was a central figuration of that fantasy” (211, n. 3). Degnan brought Oppen’s work to the attention of the New York literati; moreover, she lobbied on her brother’s behalf in his nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, an award, it appears, Oppen neither sought, nor was entirely pleased to receive. Ted Pearson here observes that Oppen, while honored by the award, in a way “felt co-opted” by it, as it was founded and financed by an “establishment” publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose papers often resorted to yellow journalism, and who for Oppen represented a “class and ideology that he had long since rejected, vigorously opposed, and whose recent ‘approval’ of his work he could only find disturbing” (136). Oppen’s lack of enthusiasm concerning the award — and subsequent cancellations of a series of readings meant to capitalize on the attention it had given him — was apparently taken by Degnan as a slight. Yet Oppen did not write for awards, for “desire of approval,” nor “plain vanity,” argues Pearson. Rather, what he sought through his writing was “the possibility of ‘addressing [one’s] peers’ and ‘the pleasure of being heard.’”[6]

Whatever his feelings about the Pulitzer, it did help to legitimize Oppen’s new work, gaining him a wider audience among readers and critics. In April 1968, Oppen would make important inroads into the Midwest, attending the aforementioned conference on the “Objectivists” in Wisconsin in 1968, and in the summer of 1973 he attended a National Poetry Festival in Michigan. By 1969, Oppen’s work began to accumulate interest outside the US. His first Collected Poems was published by UK-based publisher Fulcrum in 1972, and in May 1973, the Oppens visited England to take part in readings and the Modern American Poetry Conference.

By the mid- to late 1970s, Oppen enjoyed considerable acclaim. He published in celebrated journals, and he took part in several major interviews, often accompanied by Mary. In May 1980, Oppen was recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for “creative work in literature” and in July received, along with eight others, an award acknowledging his “extraordinary contribution” to American letters. Oppen would also receive the PEN/West Rediscovery Award in 1982.[7]

Despite the awards, the respect of his peers, and a modicum of commercial success, a lingering sense of failure continued to haunt Oppen, a failure that was personal and political, internal and external. This same complex of emotions also contributed to his lengthy creative silence, and nowhere were they felt more intensely than his fear of failing at poetry. While his body of work, six collections over a sixteen-year period, remained small in number, its content is immeasurable. Oppen wrote slowly, Mary told Olds, “over and over and over,” trying to get the poems right. “What I have,” Olds quotes George as saying, “is a tireless ear” (167). This practice points to a sense of engagement and conversation in the poems, of working through various ideas, in various stages of completion.

Yet just as Oppen began to receive wider attention for his work, his mental state began to decline. By the time the Oppens sat down for an interview with Paul Auster for the Paris Review in 1980, his condition had deteriorated to the extent that Auster reconsidered publishing the interview (xx), which remains unreleased.[8] Oppen, diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, was eventually hospitalized. He would die in a convalescent home on July 7, 1984.

The Oppens Remembered is a moving and insightful consideration of George and Mary’s life and work, and a reminder that good biography is its own art: what we choose to select, and to omit, possibly says more about the biographer than the subject on whom he or she is writing. Beginning with the bare facts of a life, and by means of this primary data, the biographer must interpret — and intuit — the origin and development of the poet’s thoughts. There are considerable drawbacks: the legitimacy of any biography depends greatly on the cogency and veracity of the biographer’s explanations. In each of the essays in The Oppens Remembered, however, the contributors, given the range of perspectives, and of course the intricacies of their subjects, provide an intriguing, multifaceted portrait of George and Mary Oppen, conveying their humanity, those little details which, even if they cannot adequately summarize their lives, help to at least enrich one’s sense of them, and to suggest further interpretations of Oppen’s unparalleled art. 

1. Michael Heller, in The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), 45. 

2. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 158.  

3. Ibid., 194.

4. George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 111, 263, 386.  

5. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 166–67.

6. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 194, 158, qtd. in DuPlessis, The Oppens Remembered,137.

7. Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen, 346.

8. Richard Swigg, editor of the Oppen audio library at PennSound, informs me that this interview will be published at Jacket2 at some future date.

A lot of things happened

A review of Lisa Rogal's 'Morning Ritual'

Photo of Lisa Rogal (right) courtesy of

Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Lisa Rogal

United Artists Books 2015, 112 pages, $15, ISBN 0-935992375

The title of Morning Ritual superimposes the divine and the mundane: one thinks simultaneously of a prayer to greet the sunrise and of brushing one’s teeth. In this book, however, Rogal is firmly rooted in the quotidian: it’s toothbrushing that she’s interested in, and she resists the urge to give daily “rituals” like this more than their usual significance. What she shows us by doing so is that their usual significance, though minor, is nonetheless an essential part of the tapestry of our experience and worth exploring.

The opening piece, called “I woke up this morning,” is a series of alternative scenarios in which a frustrated tenant faces a plumbing malfunction. Most of them begin with these lines: “I woke up this morning and ran the faucet. It was the fourth day without hot water, and I wanted to kill my landlord.”[1] From here, the speaker wheels through a wide array of possibilities: in some scenarios, she tries and fails to fix the plumbing herself; in some, she goes for a run and tries to forget about it; in one, she goes sunbathing on the roof and runs into a hallucinatory dreamscape of nostalgia; and in one, she actually does kill her landlord. These are only a few of the alternatives, and the effect is like a splintering of time. At one point, the speaker contemplates the flow from her tap in a way that is suggestive of Rogal’s technique in this piece:

I woke up this morning and ran the faucet. I let the faucet run and run and the sound and sight of continual water turns into a trance. I keep inserting my fingers into the stream to see it ruined and restored over and over. I want to ruin it over and over forever and play with it to make it become other things. It insists on being water, on being movement and stillness at once, on coming forever though eventually it will end … (21–22)

This is the way time works in “I woke up this morning.” Rogal dips her fingers into the stream of time and interrupts it: the first sentence is definitively in the past tense, while the second begins with the ambiguous tense of “I let the faucet run” and transforms into the present as the “sound and sight of continual water turns into a trance.” In this piece, Rogal plays with possibility, letting all these alternative versions of the morning coexist in the present, even though only one will become the definitive past.

Rogal’s crafting of everyday experience into the stuff of poetry certainly owes something to modernists such as Gertrude Stein, as well as the Oulipian writers. The iterative technique of “I woke up this morning” brings to mind Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, though Rogal’s style throughout this book is relentlessly plain and colloquial. One also thinks of Stein’s The Making of Americans, a book in which Stein claimed that she had created a sense of a “continuous present” by “beginning again and again.”[2] Rogal implicitly acknowledges another modernist influence:

I can’t help but be of two minds / three minds
like a tree / all white
no leaves to lose / no birds
some of these trunks smell like alcohol (86)

This is a play on the second stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.[3]

Rogal’s version muddies what for Stevens was a crystal-clear image: for him, three distinct minds are like three distinct birds; for her, two minds blur into three, the tree is barren, and its relationship to the minds is obscure — and furthermore, somebody’s been drinking. Rogal’s project is not one of disciplined focus on crystalline moments; rather, not unlike Stein’s work, Morning Ritual exposes the difficulty of such focus and suggests that a wide-ranging and creatively distractible mind might be a more interesting lens on the world.

Furthermore, Morning Ritual’s epigraph from Georgia O’Keefe insists on duration rather than an instantaneous image: “Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small it takes time — and we haven’t time — and to see takes time — like to have a friend takes time” (9). One poem titled “I’m talking” seems to track a series of conversation topics from the frivolous to the intimate, perhaps in demonstration of this point about friendship. It opens this way:

I’m talking nihilism
I’m talking botany
I’m talking television
I’m talking Nazis
I’m talking talking
I’m talking Vaseline
I’m talking glasses
                                    two pairs for less (55)

It goes on like this for a while, before abruptly making a brief turn for the serious:

I’m talking cookies n’ cream gelato
I’m talking you
                        have a different experience
                        than me    different reality
I’m talking yeah
                        isn’t it true    and well
                        I have to reject interesting things though
                        they’re nice to think about
I’m talking look how far we’ve come guys
I’m talking bottomless hunger
I’m talking bottomless coffee
                        on Tuesdays (56)

Rogal transforms a conversation into a meta-monologue by reducing speech to its topics, and by leaving out the responses of the speaker’s interlocutor(s). The rapid-fire parts make the speaker sound a little like a used car salesman (“I’m talking four-wheel drive; I’m talking no money down”), and by extension make the conversation feel cursory, impersonal, and perhaps self-interested — but when the topic shifts from gelato to a reflection on experience and reality, the pace slows down and we suddenly hear the speaker’s actual voice as the conversation gets more intimate for a moment before returning definitively to the quotidian with the mention of “bottomless coffee.” Rogal shows us that it doesn’t necessarily take the intense focus of Stevens on a blackbird to elevate the quotidian into the significant, but that we all do it all the time. Shifts in register, focus, and intensity like these populate our everyday conversations and experiences, and are worth documenting in part because they are how we forge real connections with one another. By the end of the poem, the subjects of conversation have gotten quite intimate:

I’m talking empathy
                        and how we will unwind
I’m talking about the candles we burned to
                        the wick in the night
I’m talking space heater — space heater
                        fire because
                        we laid
                        our cold bras across it
I’m talking cupping warm mugs
                        your hands are freezing
I’m talking all these phrases
                        living with me
I’m talking a thing
                                                you can’t escape
I’m talking Tahiti
                                                close your eyes
                                                to what you can’t imagine (58)

Here we have a literal and figurative thawing; the conversation that at first careened from nihilism to botany to television to Nazis is now focused on these moments of warmth and intimacy. The last few lines are a little puzzling: are the relatively grim far-indented lines part of the speaker’s monologue? The voice of the interlocutor at last? Some of the phrases that “live with” the speaker? The poem, like many in this book, resists neat closure, but it succeeds at capturing the texture of conversation: the shifts in topic and tone, from the mundane to the philosophical to the intimately personal, that make up our day-to-day connections to one another.

The final piece of the collection, “A lot of things happened,” acknowledges another explorer of the everyday: Georges Perec. The piece begins with what turns out to be a reference to his work: “A lot of things happened today. I mean, I feel I exhausted the day in some sense, seeing as I started it one way and transformed several times since then” (98). The speaker goes on to recount her day in comprehensive detail, which includes her picking up and beginning to read an unnamed book of Perec’s in which he is described as “[sitting] for three days in the café eating sausage sandwiches, drinking beer and coffee, writing, and just staring for long swaths of time” (112). The book must therefore be An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, in which this was precisely his project — to try to take notes on every person, object, event, and weather pattern that passed before his eyes over the course of three days of sitting in cafés in Paris’s Place Saint-Sulpice. Perec explained that in his book he wanted to investigate “what happens when nothing happens”[4] — and in the title of Rogal’s piece, we have her answer: “A lot of things happened.” The “things” that she describes are by definition not very monumental or even very interesting: she walks her dog, gets back a phone that she’d lost the night before, has sex with her boyfriend, picks up some books (including Perec’s), goes to a café to read them, and overhears some conversations there. At the end of this piece, which is the end of her book, the speaker has dissolved into Perec; she is reading his book while sitting at a café and observing the people and things around her just like he did. Furthermore, she explains how Perec himself dissolved: “He could see everything and nothing saw him, except through his own observations, imagining himself through his own eyes, a self-determined self, a solid self, documenting changes as they swirled around him” (112). In this final image, the act of observation empties out the self, and what causes it to become “solid” again is only one’s own imagining. What seems more real than “self” here is the tapestry of observations about the changing minutiae of the plaza. As Rogal vanishes into Perec, as her observations vanish into his, and as both speakers vanish into their observations, we learn that it’s the act of attention itself that may be more important than the details of Perec’s Paris or Rogal’s New York. We need not pretend that these details are fascinating in order for them to be worthy of our attention, for we live among them and they can always show us more about who we are.

1. Lisa Rogal, Morning Ritual (New York: United Artists Books, 2015), 13.

2. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Writings 1903–1932, ed. Harriet Chessman and Catherine Simpson, (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 524–25.

3. Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1990), 92.

4. See Erik Morse, “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec,” Bookforum (September 24, 2010).