A review of Linda Norton's 'The Public Gardens'
Prior to the publication of Linda Norton’s 2007 Etherdome Press chapbook, Hesitation Kit, and her 2011 Pressed Wafer book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, which was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, many readers didn’t know that Norton had already exerted a quiet influence on them in her work as a poetry editor at the University of California Press. Since the 1980s Norton has made her living as a publicist and editor for a variety of publishing houses. Today, she works at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California. All these years, as the reader learns in The Public Gardens — a book that begins with poetry, continues with journals from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, and finishes with more poetry — she was writing and making collages, though few people were aware of this work. As Norton put it in a 2010 interview with Kate Greenstreet, “I like to do readings because I like to participate, to contribute, and I often hear people say, ‘I had no idea you wrote!’ or ‘I had no idea you were a visual artist!’” Norton’s response suggests that she prefers the communal to the individual, a preference that provides shelter to work without the burden of attention. Without a doubt this communal impulse shapes the interrogative quality of Norton’s writing.
Many of the concerns in The Public Gardens start to crystallize in “Landscaping for Privacy,” the first section of the book. Two of the most recurrent themes center on the question of what it means to be a woman who is first a girl and how to make art. The poem “Rose with No Name” contains these lines:
Red roses on a rose bush looped with garden hose —
The first paintings were made with blood,
beauty out of carnage, or was it red ink
from the body of the first girl, from the first
wondering about what was happening
and how it might look and how it might smell.
Throughout The Public Gardens Norton shares with her readers the sense of wonder found here. This sense, though, is not clouded by fanciful idealism or lofty dreams. The earthy wonders are life and the art that people make from it. Norton’s speculations in this poem along these lines are fascinating. Were the first paintings made with blood got from killing? Or, more powerfully, were these paintings made with the menstrual blood of a young girl? As the poem continues it’s clear which question bears further interest:
The heirloom roses in this garden smell old
which means they smell fresh as the first girl
unlike some of the new roses bred to blossom
thornless, fast, synthetically, to resist pests.
Norton goes on to write that these synthetic roses “smell of money and garden hoses” and that “anyone / could do it, could do them; pornographic. / The first girl, the first rose: Sapphic.” In addition to Norton’s focus on the role women play in the arts, these lines mark yet another concern in The Public Gardens: authenticity. Norton often arrives at what she considers genuine by asking questions.
In the prose section of the book, entitled “Brooklyn Journals,” many of her queries focus on the burden of class. It’s particularly clear why in a passage dated October 11, 1987, where she’s reflecting on an interaction with her younger brother, Joey:
He glamorized my conventionality, my oldest sister ways, my pious lapsed Catholicism and my working-class pedestrian nature. But he knew this was not a pose established in order to subvert the establishment. It was something real and stolid and unconscious, something that made me old, and I hated it while I defended it.
The fact that our pasts are real and unconscious mean that they follow us wherever we go like unleashed dogs that somehow know the way home. Norton is always conscious of this in her work.
In her journals it’s particularly compelling how Norton depicts her siblings and their reactions to their shared upbringing. Joey wanted to escape it. Near the end of the October entry Norton recounts the moment when her brother picked up her gloves she had bought at Filene’s Basement: “‘Vinyl,’ he said, smelling the gloves. ‘Can’t you at least try to get real leather gloves?’ I frowned. I hadn’t realized they weren’t made of leather.” This is another of Norton’s strengths, her self-deprecating sense of humor.
Within this frame of class and sibling tension comes perhaps the most startling thread in The Public Gardens, an unfolding story of Joey and his death from AIDS in 1986. In the first journal entry of the book dated May 10, 1987 Norton introduces readers to Joey, or Joseph as he’s referred to in the entry, with an insightful comparison of her and Joey’s notes in the margin of Ulysses — the copy is Norton’s and Joey has borrowed it. Her notes were “parochial — all about Catholicism — the intense familiarity, though we were Americans, of Joyce’s Irishness, names and rituals, guilt and materials,” and his were “all about modernism and European intellectual and literary history.” As “Rose with No Name,” cited above, foregrounds the female, so too does this example, but here the gender difference Norton wants the reader to see is even more direct. Tellingly, the notes Norton made in the margin of Ulysses are recurring concerns in The Public Gardens, and it is a stronger book for it.
In the same October entry discussed above Norton is already asking about Joey’s death: “Was my brother Joseph able to prepare for his death? There was no time. Death by sex, shame, rage.” In the journal entries that follow we learn how bitter Joey had become in his last days. Especially haunting is the entry dated August 23, 1987, when Norton is listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Mass” and remembering that the nurse for her brother at Lenox Hill had told her that Joey’s bed was where Ellington had died. At first, Norton writes, “My brother would have loved to know that.” But, in the following paragraph she rescinds that thought:
No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one right after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere to go — he’d lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work — the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks.
Norton’s entries through the rest of the eighties makes clear how new and confusing AIDS was for her, as well as for society at large. In September 1987 Norton mentions “An emaciated man in a wheelchair with Kaposi’s lesions rolled past me one day in the rain. It’s everywhere. But none of the sick men I see are as young as my brother was. Why?” Then, in August 1990 she touches upon the fact that her family back in Boston refuses to admit that anyone but Joey has died from AIDS, and acknowledges to herself “At least in New York I’m not alone with it.” In the midst of all this the reader learns that Joey died a week before the discovery of AZT.
Norton’s skillful writing in her journals shows the complexity of the AIDS legacy, and more acutely how layered Norton’s difficult memories are concerning her family. The ability to weave these layers as honestly as Norton does in The Public Gardens is rare. How often is one willing to look hard at one’s family and milieu, write about them, and then publish it? Certainly, there are acres of memoirs published every year that proclaim penetrating introspection, but few are as probing as Norton’s.
Alongside entries regarding AIDS, her family, and class Norton also pays considerable attention to issues regarding race and ethnicity in The Public Gardens. In the entry dated October 19, 1990 Norton is waiting for an office-building elevator in Manhattan when a man steps out with “an amazing head of dreds, volumetrically astounding.” Another woman, a suburban blonde, about fifty, awaits the same elevator. Once on the elevator the blonde tries to catch Norton’s eye: “assuming we’ll conspire: ‘These people!’ I look down, avoiding her, because I don’t want to be forced to be white with her.” It’s clear that Norton’s self-awareness, even self-consciousness, is not restricted to class difference or familial tension. It’s as if Norton’s eye specializes in the issues that divide people.
As the journal entries through the early ’90s continue, Norton touches on race and the art world. Much of what she writes on this subject pertains to observations in her then-husband Andrew’s studio and at parties. An entry from June 1992 describes an afternoon with Andrew in his studio when they receive a phone call for his studio mate:
The phone rings and these days it’s always someone asking for Hodge Park. It is currently extremely cool to be anything but white in the art world. I half expect him to start using Ho-jun, the Korean name his parents gave him.
Then in May 1993 a painter friend, Steve, and Nancy visit Norton and Andrew at home. At some point during the visit “the guys grumbled about the plight of young white men in the art world — there’s no place for them now.” On the surface these examples seem to be only about race, but they are also about gender, particularly the white male version. Norton delivers her criticisms on this matter in the book brilliantly by simply observing and writing down what she sees and hears. If one misses what she’s after it’s the fault of a shallow reader.
The most wonderful journal entry comes on June 18, 1994, offering a bit of levity in regards to some of the heavier moments dealing with race and ethnicity. At the time, Norton is five months pregnant, on a business trip to London, and alone. As she’s walking down a road lined with tall row houses in Camden she encounters a young man, “high,” Norton guesses, “but not murderous, or insane,” so she relaxes. He asks, “How are you?” In her response he realizes she must be American, and then wants to know where she’s from. “Brooklyn,” she says. Interestingly, this young man is aware that Baruch Goldstein, “the guy who massacred Arabs in the mosque in Hebron,” is from there, too. Internally, this causes Norton to become a little tense, especially when the man asks, “Are you Jewish?” After wavering on how to answer, Norton replies, “No, I’m not Jewish.” At this point, the man “stopped and scrutinized [Norton’s] face intensely, like a surgeon accustomed to handling warm, throbbing ethnicities with his bare hands while the clock ticks.” The man is spot-on when he asks, “Irish and Sicilian?” When Norton expresses her amazement at his expert “ethnic dissection,” as Norton calls it, the man laughs and asks her “to drop some acid with him.” Norton points out that she is pregnant, so they walk “companionably to the corner, where [they] say goodbye, and good luck to each other.” Norton’s terminology, throbbing ethnicities, is perhaps the most accurate way to describe the ancestral forces that shape, at least in part, who we are. More often it seems that one forgets the throbbing part — the fact that ethnicities are alive — and treats these issues coldly, clinically. In The Public Gardens Norton is compassionate and aware. Like the young Londoner she finds a way to bridge this compassion with a surgeon’s grace in her writing on race.
As the journals come to a close Norton gives birth to a daughter, Isabel. Her description, written on November 18, 1994, of the birth is moving, filled as it is with tension and laughter. At the end of the entry Norton describes Isabel’s significance:
It’s not like she fulfills me, exactly. It’s as if her existence, her coming through my body and out between my legs, authorizes me as an animal.
She cries every night for three or four hours, and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I’m so tired. But her shit really does smell sweet.
In the last section of poems, “The Commons,” Norton continues to share with the reader her relationship with Isabel. “Stanzas in the Form of a Dove,” written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, moves with feelings of thought and love when she describes an evening she “caught a whiff of Isabel, and realized she needed a bath.” Though tired Norton gives her daughter a bath, puts her to bed. Just when she thinks they’ve both fallen asleep Isabel starts talking:
I have a question about being good or bad. I know you should be good,
but if you’re not, what can
they do to you? I mean, my question is: Do I always have to be good?
Does she always have to be good? When I was a girl, I knew I must
always be good. Because I was bad.
The filth. Look what original sin has done for me.
So I say to her: “No. You don’t always have to be good. You are good.”
She breathes a sigh of relief: “Thank you!” Then falls right to sleep,
smelling so sweet.
It’s startling how continually aware Norton is of her past, and impressive to see her determination to help shape a life that’s distinct to Isabel, perhaps one less burdened by class anxiety and built-in Catholic guilt. The care that Norton takes with each of her subjects in The Public Gardens — the feminine, art making, and family life to name a few — ought to have much influence on her audience. Norton not only applies the attention of her eyes and mind, she also attunes her heart to these matters. Importantly, she’s never afraid to ask questions of her subjects, even if only to herself. In these ways her book is an achievement built on her years of quietly working in the background, which is to say this book is a testament to patience.
A review of E-Poetry 2013 Festival London
It is a common misconception that digital media writing is about computers, networks, or any given technology. Of course, given that today’s technologies of writing are digital, a poetics to decenter such modes would engage digital processes. However, such a poetics does not begin and end with the digital. It embraces poetic interests from flickering cave signifiers through object-oriented array programming to microscopic tomes etched in chromosomes. The digital is simply the present location for a larger poetic investigation extending across multiple material manifestations: it is — but equally it isn’t — about digital technology. It is this area between the “is” and the “isn’t” to which, singularly, without peer, and without wish for authority, E-Poetry is dedicated. Indeed, the E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London festival is “digital” — it involves new media — but to describe it more accurately, it is about hybrid forms. It is a place for conversation about emergent language, visual expression, translation, code-as-writing, word works, and performance tropes from the point of view of the practitioner and artist-scholar. We’re all knee-deep in this electronic shift; the point is pivot the lens from the consumer to the inventor, from the receiver to the agitator.
In (paper) poetic practice today, it is almost as if we are seeing our emerging writers entering a new type of “lost generation.” Poets now are seen to be either/or — either “hacker-programmers” or “poets,” i.e., one or the other, geeks with programming manuals or successors to page-based innovative forms of practice. As if there were no connecting tissues! But, presently, there is a gap. Those who are digital tend not to have heard of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry; those who are writing page-based texts would never think of coming to E-Poetry. Not to suggest that experiencing E-Poetry is requisite to effectively commanding the present electro-frenzy of the word, but heads-up: there is material here that probably should not be completely overlooked.
Benjamin R. Moreno, “space reader.” Photo by Martin Rieser.
The first and longest-running convocation dedicated to the digital literary arts, E-Poetry is the only festival that seeks to celebrate writing in all forms, attentive to the tuning fork of the digital as material — yes, of course — but equally focused on reaching across the border walls separating print from digital, one culture from another, languages, media, continents, generations, and genres. Innovative literature imagines a world with no boundaries. At E-Poetry, digital literature brandishes no special birthright; it is not autonomous or “purebred” but inherently mixed: whether in performance, via MP3, or on a Savoy “Bop 900 series” 78 rpm, Charlie Parker’s “Thriving on a Riff” continues to resonate with multiple transgressive evocations through an unlimited interweaving of cultural formations.
E-Poetry draws its inspiration not from academic or literary conferences, or institutions, or trade associations, or technology-dependent modes of inquiry. Its spirit extends from the discipline-changing poetry festivals that awakened literature of the ’50s and ’60s to a new sense of voice. Festivals such as the First Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947, the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, 1965, though all organized with specific goals in mind, established an engagement with new fields of poetic vision. They brought poetry from the cerebellum to the solar plexus. They were not only focused on specific media, historic events, personalities, and forms of publication; they expressed a larger vision — literary creation as celebratory, human-centered, how “we,” as an increasingly complex social organism, move forward into the ever richer arenas of imaginative expression.
It is the energy of the above mentioned festivals upon which E-Poetry draws. It is not trying to prove that digital literature has a place in the academy or that it is respectable or that it is the form of the future. Such issues tend to work themselves out. E-Poetry is about the continued practice of innovative forms as an ongoing process. The “here” of E-Poetry encompasses the continuing “there” of poetics, a fluidity of meaning. By this ordering, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson were all digital poets — and some who identify as “digital poets” may not be. Likewise, many of the electronic pioneers (as exploration of their newly established archives is beginning to reveal) are possibly even more paper-based than their historic predecessors. Of course, the issue is not whether a work is digital or not; all media are welcome here. The point is that living on both sides of that line is living in the present.
E-Poetry 2013 poster. Design by María Mencía.
E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London advanced a number of cross-disciplinary and media shattering approaches initiated by the previous E-Poetry 2011 in Buffalo. (Indeed, the previous E-Poetry opened the field to wider forms, contexts, cultures. Only Google glasses could have prevented one seeing it at the time. So much was new, a widened field — Cuban hip-hop, Joan LaBarbara, UK sound poets, a full digital poetry & dance theatre production — the stage was set!) Building on E‑Poetry 2011, the approaches in E-Poetry 2013 extended the spirit of new forms of artistic invention as existing above and beyond specific digital modes — not restricted to Pleistocene web protocols, hacked hermeneutics: not limited to computers but before, inside, and beyond the expressive powers of HTML.
There were no conference themes, no hierarchical keynotes, no parallel sessions. In marked contradistinction to other events where the theme may be somewhat arbitrary, where one voice is deemed more important than others, where presenters may be disappointed by the turnout at their parallel booked session, E-Poetry strives to foster a sense of community, common respect, and celebratory attentiveness. The projects and papers of the participants themselves comprise the theme, a collective wellspring; participants bring to the table issues that have meaning to them at the moment.
E-Poetry facilitates a union of practices, ideas, inflows, energies, formats, forms, projections, words, images, resonances, disturbances, shining in the near-subterranean Kingston ritual kiva, batted about aboard a boat on the Thames, astonishingly evident in its stellar exhibition, resonant at the Royal Festival Hall Poetry Library, honored at Tate Britain, bellowing across the expanse of the Watermans theatre, its great half circle of performance space first glimpsed on the Festival’s opening night at the edge of the out-of-scale verdure of Kew Gardens. For the final day, this theatre was a site of vigil, a morning-to-night series of resonant, sonic, visual word-rushes, filling the theatre with swells of presence. Like waves, the works came one after another, with just enough time in between each performance to catch your breath. But then the next one came, similarly enveloping you, each one different; each a detailed investigation of one facet of a total aesthetic that saturated cultural being; each a component of something larger than itself, something only the collective whole could suggest.
Catherine Siller, “Body Text” (with Ian Hatcher); video still.
E-Poetry advisory board members served as directors of ceremonies for all events. Laura Shackelford served as program coordinator; María Mencía, local convener. There were views from various UK regions, representing the cultural diversity within the isle and its different literary perspectives; there were two special panels of younger practitioners from Russia, hosted by Natalia Fedorova; there was Scott Weintraub’s panel on Latin American electronic literature, and presenters from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Iran, and Hong Kong, as well as the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, France, Australia, Canada, and the US.
Especially exciting was the number of women artists and scholars and emerging practitioners, many who appear in the program in highly visible places. The idea was really to promote an embracing mix of critical perspectives and artistic approaches. There were poetically reflective pieces, step-by-step “readings” of tools of reading. There were unexpected triumphant performances, theatrical moments, journeys through erasure; there was sound-making, live book-production, dances with light; there were spectra upon spectra of ways of entering the word, from portals that provided uncommon views. It was inspiring, comforting, energizing, emotional; its references came through cross-weavings of performance, oratory, introspection, comedy, cacophony, revelatory peeling back of layers. Its events and intriguing installations were all new works; they embodied range, style, diverse conversations, threads, themes, motifs, an impressive range of innovative performances (an E-Poetry feature); they followed twists and turns with revelatory moments amid intertwined paths of expression.
cris cheek, “b a c k l i t.” Photo/collage by Loss Pequeño Glazier.
Included were an unforgettable text-upon-flesh performance by cris cheek, Benjamin R. Moreno’s game-controller irradiation of an iconic seventeenth-century Spanish poem, Catherine Siller’s astonishing multigenre textual physicality, Serge Bouchardon and Pierre Fourny’s inventive word-by-machine antics, Ian Hatcher’s breath-talk-ing increments, Amaranth Borsuk’s evocative Handiwork and her 3-dimensional hovering “Between Page and Screen” (Brad Bouse, programmer), Alexander Mouton’s increasingly self-confident epic “Passings,” the unremitting intensity of Russia’s Machine Libertine, sound poetry from Chile, a book-making performance from Galicia, cooking the books (literally) with kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, and multigenre music-projection-performance from Romania, along with numerous known artists in the field including John Cayley (“Phrase Stitched Writing”), Talan Memmott (“Huckleberry Finnegans Wake,” with Snodgrass and Tempest), and Loss Pequeño Glazier (“On Guillemets”). The Mencía-curated exhibition “Words Unstable on the Table” provided new frames, radically necessary new instabilities of language vision including Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák’s body-scale interactive plunge into writing, “I : * ttter.” A gamut of technologies were used: programming, word performance, dance, web technologies, alphabetic voice, procedure, games, postmodern theory, video production, digital communications theater, concrete concussions, new music, and sound poetry pulsations. All were suspended on “the idea,” the materiality of the text in flux, a new stance towards art-making in the world in which we work, words as radical and experimental they could have equally been written in the sky (or in the mud of the dry tidal tributary outside Watermans).
Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák, “I : * ttter.” Photo courtesy of the artists.
The festival culminated just like a truly rambunctious celebration should close — with us being told to leave the theatre. The last two performances then, via a negotiated extension cord fed to us under a locked door, allowed the festival to coalesce into an introspective and tender nocturnal half-circle on the floor amid glowing screens of colorful exhibition panels. A projector was aimed at the wall — it was all blue light — and the poets performed with the audience seated in a semicircle on the floor around them. The final two presentations, the textual vision of Jason Lewis and the fragile, self-dissecting introspection of David Jhave Johnston, were intimate, without amplification, allowing textures of voice, quiet sounds of exhalations or sighs or astonishment. It was the work in its clearest form. There may have never been a more personal, more direct, or more triumphant moment in recent E-Poetry gatherings. It was engaging to be there, one of those moments when what we came for was simply there. It was a settling of all that had occurred over three and a half days into moments made real by our seated presence in the glow of the imagination.
There were moments of poetry.
David Jhave Johnston, performance. Photo by Scott Weintraub.
E-Poetry 2015 will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 9–12, 2015. Call for proposals forthcoming in 2014 at the Electronic Poetry Center. You may also request being added to the E-Poetry Festival mailing list.
A review of ‘Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition’
A Gertrude Stein renaissance is afoot. It is difficult not to think how celebrated Stein is, to paraphrase her Stanzas in Meditation. During the past two years, she made a cameo (played by Kathy Bates) in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and several exhibitions of her art collection circulated at major museums. One of them, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, spurred a hotly debated scandal about Stein’s so-called “war record,” richly documented on this site. Stein-related monographs, symposia, and panels have proliferated, and the scholarly Gertrude Stein Society is thriving. Paris France (1940) was just reissued to much acclaim for its enduring charm. And several newly edited volumes have appeared that promise to change readers’ view of some of her most crucial works. The freshly corrected edition of her longest work of poetry, a five-part, book-length poem in 164 stanzas titled Stanzas in Meditation (1932), does just that. This skillfully edited volume will help Stanzas take its place as an essential modernist poem.
Stanzas is also a poème à clef. It speaks of a past lover and the drama of choosing just one beloved companion: “The whole of this last end is to say which of two” (248). Although literature built upon thinly veiled, real-life drama has most often taken novelistic form — think of the romans à clef by Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, or Jack Kerouac — some long poems such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock have also been composed around real-life incidents. But whereas Pope’s was distinctly meant to poke fun at contemporary society, it’s not clear that Stein intended her poem to be understood by the public at large as a meditation on one of her past lovers, May Bookstaver (May B.). For her most intimate reader, Alice B. Toklas, however, there was no doubt. Toklas, Stein’s lifelong companion and most privileged decoder (who typed up Stein’s prolific, cacographic manuscripts daily), was furious when she realized that May B.’s presence was deeply woven into Stanzas. Toklas demanded that Stein erase May from Stanzas. And May was erased — not just “May,” but also “may,” “maybe,” and every other form of the phoneme. As editors Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina point out, the most frequent change was to transform the word “may” into “can,” with the original word blackened out by hand, sometimes so vehemently that the typescript paper was torn. In an essay included in the new edition, Joan Retallack reads the “mays” as “sites of confession,” memorably referring to May Bookstaver as “the hypothetical incarnate,” representing all lovers denied — and more broadly, all that is not chosen in art and life.
Ulla Dydo discovered this biographical foundation to Stanzas years ago, as she explains in Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934. Editors Hollister and Setina have followed up on her revelation, preparing a corrected edition that reinstates Stein’s original version of the manuscript. Now readers can enjoy the text as Stein first wrote it, plus the text as she and Toklas agreed upon, and savor the differences between them. The editors recommend “sustained, continuous reading” as a way to facilitate the reader’s work of detecting patterns within the poem (xiv). But they also provide clear notes on all the variants included in an appendix, so that the poem may be read “as the sum of its versions and the story of its textual history. Either way one proceeds, the possibility of another way matters in this poem, for its essential pair of themes — themes whose resonance is both biographical and textual — is the work of choosing and the persistence of other options” (xv–xvi). In addition to changes that relate to “may,” the appendices furnish some real gems of revision: “hate” is revised as “hat” (162), “frustrate” as “punctuate,” and “frogs” as “prays” (281). These could well be due to Stein’s thorny handwriting. But the line “Better have it changed to progress now if the room smokes” becomes the radically different, and rather wonderful, “Better have it changed to pigeons now if the room smokes” (272).
It is hard not to read Stanzas as a poème à clef, once one knows the story. It’s too delicious. Lines such as “This is an autobiography in two instances” (149), “Shall we be three I wonder now” (66), and “If I name names if I name name with them” (65) become revelatory, and the reader experiences the pleasure of puzzling out Stein’s allusions and catching her references to love triangles. In Stein and Toklas’s private idiom, a “cow” was an orgasm, as Dydo has clarified, and in Stanzas it’s worth staying alert for the erotic potential of the bovine: “Once every day there is a coming where cows are” (62). The poem offers insight about relationships that also relates to good writing: “Now that I have written twice / It is not as alike as once” (240). There are self-reflexive hints about Stein’s composition process. We know that she frequently “wrote into given spaces,” allowing the parameters of a notebook to determine the length of a composition. In “Poetry and Grammar” she explains, “An American can fill up a space in having his movement of time by adding unexpectedly anything and yet getting within the included space everything he had intended getting.” And in Stanzas, we find the rather wise reflection that
It is very difficult to plan to write four pages.
Four pages depend upon how many more you use.
You must be careful not to be wasteful.
That is one way of advancing being wasteful
It use up the pages two at a time for four
And if they come to and fro and pass the door
They do so. (168)
Stein drafted these lines in her working notebook just at the point when only five pages remained. A writer who enjoyed the challenge of material constraints and found them generative as she composed, Stein writes in Stanzas of constraining her desires and making erotic choices. And then there’s the spillover: the delectation of a half-ecstatic, half-anxious mantra of a woman yearning for a woman, “May she be mine oh may she may she be” (243). (Move over, Molly Bloom.)
Stanzas is a poem about numbers, about counting lovers and recounting love affairs, but it’s also a poem about time, about the verb tense of possibility (or the tense verbs of possibility), about hypotheticals and wishes — which in English we often express in the past tense, whether we’re articulating a wish for the future (“I wish I could get a job”) or the present (“I wish we were traveling by train”). But it may well have been more than just the play of numbers and tenses that irked Toklas. As the most initiated of Stein’s readers, she would certainly have been sensitive to the characteristic play of Stein’s function words (all words aside from nouns, verbs, and adjectives; as John Ashbery calls them, “colorless connecting words”). Linguists have recently shown that a useful barometer for intimacy in a couple (and between poets) is not just shared vocabulary and pet names (Toklas was Stein’s “birdie” and “little ball”), but also the couple’s level of linguistic synchrony, or how they converge with regard to a couple’s use of language — and language-style matching, in which the use of function words is particularly revelatory. Toklas would have noticed that Stein’s pronouns, which tend to be frolicsome in general, make particularly baroque arabesques in Stanzas. They do-si-do with such verve that their identities seem quite exchangeable. As Stein suggests in part 1, stanza 5, masking one’s identity on the page can be a way to restrain emotion (“We say he and I that we do not cry”), or perhaps, to camouflage real-life figures:
Why can pansies be their aid or paths.
He said paths she had said paths
All liked to do their best with half of the time
A sweeter sweetener came and came in time.
Did she mean that she had nothing.
We say he and I that we do not cry
Because we have just seen him and called him back
He meant to go away
Once now I will tell all which they tell lightly.
How were we when we met.
All of which nobody not we know
But it is so. They cannot be allied
They can be close and chosen.
Once in a while they wait.
He likes it that there is no chance to misunderstand pansies. (63–64)
After the nostalgia-tinged, yet cavorting, meditation, the final line of stanza 5 arrives with surprising and amusing clarity. This is one kind of humor to be relished in Stanzas: the jolt that arrives when what would otherwise be an absurd sentence rings with a crystalline tone. Pansies, which grow alongside roses and pumpkins elsewhere in the poem, create a tongue-in-cheek reference to the slang term for homosexual man, which had been in use since the mid-1920s. Which pansies are not misunderstood, of course, are not specified; and because of the pronoun play, the pansies’ “he” might well be an encoded “her.” (Toklas referred to Stein as her “husband” and “baby boy” in their private love notes.)
Stein plays with traditional rhyming forms, aphorisms, epithets, and nursery rhymes throughout Stanzas. She is often very funny. She half-jests at her own love of celebrity. She describes the already established success of the manuscript she is still in the process of writing (“I feel that this stanza has been well-known” ) and pokes fun at her own cult of genius and desire to be “new”:
I often think how celebrated I am.
It is difficult not to think how celebrated I am.
And if I think how celebrated I am
They know who know that I am new
That is I knew I knew how celebrated I am
And after all it astonishes even me. (170)
When Stein writes of second thoughts, the timing of her delivery does the trick. The pause mid-stride between two one-line stanzas (or monostichs) creates just the necessary delay:
Often as I walk I think
But this does not mean that I think again.
By now, faithful reader, you have probably read the above slender stanzas in light of the Alice vs. May story. What if you didn’t have it in mind? Not to worry, the themes would emerge even if one didn’t know the backstory and the proper names of those involved: the poem’s preoccupation is with wishing, reflecting, meandering, doubling-back, deliberating, and selecting, as one loves and as one writes. Stanzas is deeply engaged, as poems often are, in teaching the reader to come ashore on its rocky ledge and hear its siren song. One becomes inducted into its world through the process of reading. Or perhaps, to maintain the bilingual pun in the book’s title, one opens the door to Stein’s dwelling, and learns the customs of its rooms (stanzas in Italian), from vestibule to salon.
As one reads Stanzas, one discovers how even a brief line of verse can change between start and finish. Is there a caesura after “them” in the following line, for example? “Lengthened for them welcome in repose” (58). Part of the readerly pleasure is in parsing. As one proceeds more deeply past the antechambers, one begins to hear oneself reading, and to hear oneself echoing and rhyming: “Not only needed in nodding / But not only not very nervous / As they will willingly pass when they are restless” (59). Try those lines aloud and you will hear how the meter and alliteration carry you. One discovers the satisfying sensation of an aphoristic click at the end of a stanza full of lines made entirely of colorless function words, such as “Not any more than so” and “Or not at all or not in with it”: “Four leaf clovers make a Sunday / And that is gone” (60). Noticing this shifting and sashaying is one of the sensual satisfactions of Stanzas. One learns how to listen with a Steinian ear to how “the bird makes the same noise differently” (70).
After a certain number of pages, the same noise does reverberate otherwise, puns begin to sprout, and meaning unfurls. One begins to read lines like “Mine often comes amiss” (59) and “It is not only a mis demeanor” (62), with the suspicion that “a miss” is hiding within it (Miss May B., at times, or Miss Alice B. at others). These calembours cluster and press forward upon the reader — not only because of the poem’s themes, but also because Stein trains the reader to look for the revelations tucked into etymology, by crafting lines like “There should not be this use in uselessness” (67) and “they will be ought and autocratic / Come when they call” (68). Just as thoughts contain second thoughts (“I manage to think twice about everything,” 143) — which is also a theme of Q.E.D., Stein’s early book about May B. — words contain other words, which contain worlds. The play between “word” and “world” is particularly significant in a line from Part One, “Out from the whole wide world I chose thee” (41). Stein revised the line from its earlier version, “Out from the whole wide word I chose thee,” referencing William Wordsworth, as Retallack points out. Precise selection in writing is married to the apt choice of a romantic partner. The alternate titles that Stein considered for the book, including “Stanzas of Meditation” (mentioned in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) and “Stanzas of my ordinary reflections,” “Stanzas of commonplace reflections,” and the mysteriously evocative “Harness” (all handwritten on the covers of her working notebooks, 262–263), indicate a preoccupation with the growing poem as a space of daily deliberation about choices both momentous and minute.
One begins to detect glimpses of later poets’ work through the scrim of Stein’s. There is an intimation of John Ashbery in part 1, stanza 4, where an abruptly disjunctive, discursive voice ruminates. Things happen offstage, so that one has the impression of hearing a door open in an adjacent room for a significant but unexplained purpose:
Should they sustain outwardly no more than for their own
All like what all have told.
For him and to him to him for me.
It is as much for me that I met which
They can call it a regular following met before.
It will be never their own useless that they call
It is made that they change in once in a while. (62)
Ashbery, reviewing Stanzas in a 1956 essay titled “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein,” called it “a poem that is always threatening to become a novel.” But he noted that rather than presenting a sequence of events, Stein was interested in their “way of happening.” “The story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars,” he explains. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”
Ashbery’s one-size-fits-all model brings us to the question of the particularities of particulars, and how indeterminate Stein’s work really is. Although Retallack agrees that for Stanzas, undecidability is a key component of the work, she maintains that its biographical basis doesn’t conflict: “composed indeterminacy doesn’t erase the personal but accommodates it in its complexities and inherent ambiguities.” The idea that Stein’s work is indeterminate, or not “grounded in a coherent discourse,” to draw on Marjorie Perloff’s definition of “indeterminacy,” renders her work either troublesome or progressively subversive, depending on the reader. While Stein’s oeuvre has been interpreted by many scholars as championing indeterminacy, others have shown that her style invites anything but that — and assert that she seeks complete authorial control over the text itself. They point out that for a work to be a “masterpiece,” according to her, it cannot be an open text. Liesl Olson has recently shown that Stein herself “wanted it both ways”: she not only promoted among mainstream readers the idea that each person interprets a text through the filter of his or her own personality, but she also advocated a model of “ideas and impersonality” among academic readers. More broadly, in twentieth-century literary scholarship, Stein’s ambiguity has become an emblem for the many ways in which she, as a figure, as well as her oeuvre, muddies the waters and does not fit a Manichean view of politics or social life.
Texts such as Stanzas are hard to describe as indeterminate, given the tight control the writer wielded over her texts and her desire to bend language to her “own interest.” “I think very well of my way,” she congratulates herself in Stanzas (145). As author, Stein creates a meaning that which will “force itself” upon the reader, as she writes in “Poetry and Grammar.” The complications that she creates “make eventually for simplicity”: “Why if you want the pleasure of concentrating on the final simplicity of excessive complication would you want any artificial aid to bring about that simplicity.” Excessive complication is certainly not the same as indeterminacy. And in this case, the complications are what make Stanzas excessively pleasurable to concentrate on.
Hollister and Setina describe the “principle of choice” and the “principle of accuracy” (of “even generic words”) at work in Stanzas. They write that the principle of choice is what “guides her poetics” more broadly. Stanzas, as well as Ida: A Novel (also recently republished by Yale University Press and newly edited by Logan Esdale) show Stein in all the deliberateness of her composition. These new editions of Stein’s work align with the approach of genetic criticism (critique génétique) which, in its emphasis on manuscripts and other archival documents, treats the published text as part of an unfolding process of composition. The Yale UP editions afford new insight into Stein’s published work and her archives, which, unlike the writer’s renowned biography, have too long been neglected. The current Stein renaissance promises to usher in a new stage in Stein’s ever-unfolding celebrity.
Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition will attract new readers to the delights of Stein’s work, and undoubtedly entice Stein scholars and fans with their revelations. It will also help make room for this significant poem on modernist reading lists, alongside large-scale poetic projects such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, HD’s Trilogy, and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Stein referred to Stanzas as “a long narrative poem” in the vein of Wordsworth, and her version renovates the category of the long poem. It is a harbinger, too, of book-length experimental poems written by women later in the century, such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, and Haryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T. At a moment when some conversations in modernist studies are revisiting old clash-of-the-titanic-poets debates, weighing usual suspects such as Pound, Wallace Stevens, and W. H. Auden against one another, it is useful to see Stein anew.  Happily, today, “a stanza can be bought and taught,” as Stein wrote (197). “I wish to announce stanzas at once.”
4. Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 40–41; Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” in Stein: Writings 1932–1946, Vol. 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 323.
8. Gertrude Stein and Kay Turner, Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 4; cited in Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation: Pressures and Pleasures of the Text,” 7.
9. Molly E. Ireland and James W. Pennebaker, “Language Style Matching in Writing: Synchrony in Essays, Correspondence, and Poetry,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99, no. 3 (2010): 549–571.
10. Retallack describes the book as “an enigmatically choreographed interaction of pronouns performing to a music of meditation so polyvalent it throws that very word/act into exploratory relief.” Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” 3.
11. “Pansy, N. and Adj.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press).
16. “The symbolic evocations generated by words on the page are no longer grounded in a coherent discourse, so that it becomes impossible to decide which of these associations are relevant and which are not.” Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 18.
17. Among the champions of Stein’s indeterminacy are Marjorie Perloff, Joan Retallack, Charles Bernstein, Michael Golston, Steve McCaffrey, and Barret Watten. For another line of interpretation, see Jennifer Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Annalisa Zox-Weaver, Women Modernists and Fascism (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Lisa Siraganian, “Out of Air: Theorizing the Art Object in Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 4 (2003): 657–676.
19.Olson argues for analysis of the historical and sociological factors undergirding this divide in the critical reception of Stein’s difficulty. Liesl Olson, “‘An Invincible Force Meets an Immovable Object’: Gertrude Stein Comes to Chicago,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 2 (2010): 333–334; Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York: Routledge, 2008).
20. Elsewhere, I complicate readings of Steinian style as indeterminate — and therefore either reactionary or politically subversive — by examining archival drafts of Stein’s 1942 translation of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s speeches.
On the poetics of Duncan and O'Hara
(Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan
Frank O’Hara Now: New Essays on the New York Poet
Most welcome and necessary are these two collections of new essays on the poetry of Robert Duncan and Frank O’Hara, respectively. Poets of literary imagination of the first rank, each has contributed divergent but complimentary perspectives to American poetry of the latter half of the twentieth century. Ezra Pound is daddy to them as much as Gertrude Stein is momma. Play, mirth, and wit with plenty of informal as well as formal reading and study inform the gridwork anchoring the poems and lives of these poets. They live according to the life of the poem that is in them, firmly refusing to have any sense of their art as separate from the rest of their daily affairs. In this, these two serve as models beyond compare.
Both poets share in common an open homosexuality, at odds with society of their time, that is central to their identity, along with a predilection for surrounding themselves with visual artists: O’Hara wrote art criticism, worked at MOMA, and modeled for painter friends, the likes of Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan; Duncan settled into setting up a household with his life partner, artist Jess Collins in San Francisco, which lasted until Duncan’s passing in 1988 and during which time together they befriended several San Francisco artists from Wallace Berman’s Semina group to the filmmaker Stan Brahkage, who lived with them for a time in his youth. Each was politically committed in his own fashion, within the poetry world (the infamous feuds between Duncan/Jess and Jack Spicer, later his defense of Zukofsky against Barrett Watten; O’Hara’s social-poetic juxtaposition reading “Poem ‘Lana Turner has collapsed” while sharing the stage with Robert Lowell) as well as the public domain, taking firm stances against the oppressive gloom of the 1950s racial and sexual mores (Duncan’s groundbreaking essay “The Homosexual in Society,” O’Hara’s strident friendship with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka).
Yet each poet remains distinguishable from the other, most notably by way of how personality manifests itself in the work, a matter of style and taste. O’Hara is very much the singular poet of Manhattan and all the protoplasmic buzz of activity that’s to be found there, while San Francisco with that ever-vibrant West Coast ethos is indelibly tied to Duncan’s poetic mythos. O’Hara’s poems are fast, full of witty remarks, quick moving, and in the world in which he is living. Current events are abundant, both personal and public. Duncan’s poems are shrouded in a projection of his own life’s reading, deeply otherworldly while ever pursuing profoundly mystical insight. Events occurring within the poems are timeless as he weaves references from ancient lore on up through the entire Western tradition of thought into a seamless blanketed cape of his own uniquely startling vision. The discussion of the poetry behind these charismatic figures will be long-lasting and not likely exhaustible any time soon.
While the great wealth of critical material readily available on O’Hara is continually expanding, rarely does the writing measure up to what’s on hand in this collection, superbly gathered by Robert Hampson and Will Montgomery. All the essays are exemplarily readable and nearly as entertaining reading as O’Hara’s work itself, making the book tremendously rewarding and quite the surprise. Hampson and Montgomery note that “the O’Hara that is quite so widely known and loved is often not quite the same O’Hara that we, in our separate ways, have loved” (3). They set out looking “to suggest that O’Hara is not as easily assimilable — or indeed as friendly — as he might appear” (4). There should be no doubt that they do indeed succeed in achieving this goal. As they point out, O’Hara’s “poems can be difficult and recalcitrant, their surface fluency concealing obdurate lacunae and hesitation. O’Hara’s cheerfulness is the cheerfulness of one who has encountered and embraced suffering. The ready wit conceals doubt and uncertainties” (4). And one essential component of their success in presenting a fresher, broader view of the poet is contained in their “desire to produce a response to O’Hara that had a transatlantic dimension” so when seeking contributions they drew in “established and emerging voices from both sides of the Atlantic,” resisting any easy slide into formulaic flack (5). It is not overstating the case to declare this collection an indispensable contribution to O’Hara studies.
For each subsequent generation of poets O’Hara’s work consistently proves an energizing force, fertile ground over and over again for sparking lively poems derived from reading his own, the best of which resist being wholly imitative. O’Hara is often cast as “Frank” in such work as if he’s readily around, a pal these poets might be meeting for a commiserating drink during a rough patch, personal and poetic. Reading these essays leaves the feeling that the writer approaches writing on O’Hara as if the essay-form might allow itself to be a poem. I’m not saying these essays are in any way hybrid or otherwise experimental in form, but the overall charge that is felt, the vibe as leaps in connections are made and the abundant quotes of O’Hara and others in relation to him pour forth, unleashes a steady thrill that long outlasts first reading.
David Herd’s “Stepping out with O’Hara” centers around the demonstration “that in O’Hara’s poetry he allows his thought to settle around the gesture of the step” (71). Much as mentioned above, his poems are occasions full of such charge that the reader feels as if they’re out for a stroll with the poet himself. As Herd says, “one quite readily finds oneself thinking about the way he places his feet” and “one thinks about it because he [O’Hara] thinks about it” (71). O’Hara’s projected presence is so near viscerally manifest within his poems. It is not surprising that when speaking of O’Hara’s “Poem [light clarity avocado salad in the morning]” Josh Robinson offers up a reading of “O’Hara’s Poetics of Breath” wagering that in an O’Hara poem “breath is presented as essential to cognition, which is itself something almost immediate, a bodily state of being” and “the speaker presents an intense degree of familiarity not with the absent addressee but rather with his own body: ‘and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement / I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing’” (153). Adding to Herd’s comments on O’Hara’s “step,” Rod Mengham notes how “In O’Hara, the poet-as-walker and his reveries are equally mobile. In fact, the later poet maintains an equilibrium between the claims of the virtual and the real” (55).
O’Hara enjoyed having a body and celebrating its occupation of space. The preponderance of instances of his likeness being conveyed in artworks by friends and associates, and which he no doubt took much pleasure in, mirrors the prevalent physicality of presence within his writing. As Redell Olsen’s essay focusing on O’Hara and the painter Grace Hartigan reminds us, “O’Hara is similarly noted for his collaborative self-staging through both photography and art. The artists Jane Freilicher, Nell Blane, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Phillip Guston, Alez Katz, and Fairfield Porter all painted portraits of O’Hara” (188). Reading O’Hara’s poems the references to his body are inescapable, as are those to artist friends who convey its image in numerous works of art. There’s no commentary possible which refuses to acknowledge the actions of O’Hara’s busy social life amongst artists. As John Wilkinson comments, in “O’Hara’s Odes works of art are presented and become present as at once marmoreal and pulsing, exact, mobile, and sexual — and this is true of the Odes themselves” (104). He continues arguing that the Odes “work within a Romantic project, and a secular one: the confusion of unborn, living, dead and undead, and the unbinding of tenses” (105). Wilkinson sees the odes demonstrative of O’Hara’s poems as physical manifestations that exist in the instant: “The artwork lives and dies only in encounter” (105).
Undeniably it is in the encounter that O’Hara thrives. A humming electiveness that in Nick Selby’s consideration of memorial artworks to O’Hara by Jasper Johns and Joe Brainard shows itself in
the pressure of such a reimagining of the poet’s body that we have seen in relation to the work of Joe Brainard and Jasper Johns that is, I want to argue, absolutely critical to the power and affectivity of “In Memory of My Feelings.” By continually renegotiating its relationship to the poet’s actual body this is a poem that courts ambiguity, and juxtaposition, in order to discover the poetic possibilities of living as variously as possible. The closing lines of the poem resonate powerfully because of their ability to demonstrate feelingly how O’Hara’s sense of being in the poem is subject to his exploration of a complex set of relationships between performative positions available to him as poet. While sounding sincere, authentically troubled by the sense of lost feelings and the poetic occasion that calls for their memorializing, the poem’s closing moments also announce that its nostalgia for a lost self is a mere performance, a ruse in which intimacy and feeling-ness, even the body itself, are exposed as effects of the poet’s textual negotiations:
and I have lost what is and always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
Daniel Kane’s extensive commentary on O’Hara’s collaboration with film artist Alfred Leslie on The Last Clean Shirt probes similar territory, as O’Hara mined lines from “In Memory of My Feelings” for the subtitles he provides for the film where “film becomes poetry — or film interacts with poetry. Or poetry extends film” (174). As Kane describes: “such moves invite the spectator/reader experiencing the no-longer-autonomous work of art to ‘pay attention,’ to participate in making meaning in response to a form that no longer adheres to conventional definitions of genre” (174). It is such challenging and subversive tendencies which draw in readers ensuring there will always be an audience for O’Hara’s work. He sticks you full throttle behind the moving set-changes of the poem, revealing and concealing as the surprises keep arriving. There’s nothing quite like it.
The fast-moving flexibility in the best of these essays responds in kind to this energy embodied by O’Hara’s poems; working through the poems with the same quickness of combining careful logic with fast action, risking absurdity, perhaps, but nonetheless making connections not matched — at least in energy — by previous critics. Will Montgomery’s tackling of the comparison and relationship of O’Hara’s verse to that of avant-garde composer Morton Feldman provides an example:
Although O’Hara rejects an all-encompassing “poetics,” I think it is possible to identify an important attraction to instability in his thinking in his praise of a quasi-metaphysical “unpredictability” in Feldman. Feldman sought to let “sounds exist in themselves — not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.” His aim in this early work to “unfix” the formal relationships between “rhythm, pitch, dynamics” is broadly comparable to O’Hara’s rejection of a “poetics” of “form, measure, sound, yardage, placement, and ear.” Feldman too scorns metre, seeking to recover a more complex and subjective experience of temporality: “I am not a clockmaker. I am interested in getting to time in its jungle — not in the zoo.” In this last statement, Feldman is close, I think, to the formal and conceptual negations of some of O’Hara’s poems — the nihilism of “Hatred,” for example, the darkness that fringes some of the Odes, or the dizzying temporal and referential leaps of “Second Avenue” or “Biotherm.” (201)
It is high time for such fabulous reading of terrific work. Frank O’Hara Now serves its purpose and then some. These essays bring acuity combined with a strong dose of good cheer. There’s a new standard set here, not only in future critical assessment of O’Hara, but that of his contemporaries as well.
After what feels as a slight lapse of critical attention from academics as well as publishers, Robert Duncan’s work is garnering further well-deserved notice. Publication of his seminal study The H.D. Book as the first of a promised multivolume Collected Writings by University of California Press finally saw the light of day in 2011. Lisa Jarnot’s long-overdue biography appeared from the same press in 2012. There’s also a “collected interviews” promised for publication by North Atlantic Books. This is the time for celebrating the worthy contributions Duncan’s work continues to offer. An ongoing cause that (Re:)Working the Ground is in part the product of, as editor James Maynard notes: “This book began as a series of papers presented at a three-day symposium entitled ‘(Re:)Working the Ground: A Conference on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan,’ which took place in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo April 20–22, 2006. This event celebrated the single-volume republication by New Directions of Ground Work: Before the War/In the Dark” (10), Duncan’s final two collections of poems published together in a singular volume. Stephen Fredman reminds us how Duncan himself established the significance of the original 1983 publication of the first of these final volumes of his poems, writing in 1972 “I do not intend to issue another collection of my work since Bending the Bow until 1983 at which time fifteen years will have passed” (59).
Although subtitled “Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan” and while the focus throughout is on the poetry found in Groundwork, the majority of contributions take advantage of the quite circular nature of Duncan’s poetic practice in order to revisit earlier writings while in the process addressing the later work. The result is that unfamiliar readers are not left behind in the larger discussion. These explorative essays into Duncan’s oeuvre serve to provoke initial readings of the poems and entice a fresh generation of scholars as well as poets into their own explorations of the wonders spun in Duncan’s arcana. This is especially the case since Groundwork is not so much a life’s summation of poetic work, as The H.D. Book is a midlife’s summation of reading, but rather a realization of the work’s own being. In these later poems, Duncan is as if afloat among texts whose language comes to life adrift around him as he samples as he may. These essays assist with gaining a firm foothold amidst the swirling wonder that is Duncan’s work.
This collection notably brings to print a previously unpublished preface which at one point was intended for the original publication of Before the War. Drafted in a notebook by Duncan and left off incomplete, for those readers dedicated to as complete an understanding as possible of the weave Duncan throws across his writing, this is the cat’s meow. Reminiscent of Duncan’s reading diary style he implements in The H.D. Book, as well as previous prefaces to his earlier volumes, even left incomplete, there’s plenty here offering fresh introspection into Duncan’s practice. In this preface, Duncan recognizes O’Hara’s work as an essential resource in time of need, holding it up as essential mythic poet lore in line with Whitman as well as “Old World gods” (a lineage in which Duncan views his own work aligned).
Whitman calls for an end of the Old World gods, the thralldom of ancient bonds to the codes of what the Lord abominates or the relentless Goddess demands, and Frank O’Hara, in this a true fellow to Whitman, in my own time called again for such a Liberation in Time of Emergency.
Also printed here is a short poem, “In Passage,” which was originally intended as a preface for In the Dark. The closing line demonstrates the subtle powers shaping the exchanges between Duncan’s reading and writing, where he situates a statement of prime intent he holds to in all his work: “what I divine I come into and change” (26).
Maynard’s telling of the source for Duncan’s inspiration for the title In the Dark gives example of Duncan’s tendency to “divine” and thereby have rights to “change,” making his own claim to use whatever material serves his purposes:
[D]espite its many suggestive associations with alchemy, Norman Austin’s book Archery at the Dark of the Moon (1975), James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld (1979), and its appearance in several different contexts throughout these same notebooks — the phrase “in the dark” officially announced itself to Duncan from one of his favorite pulp genres: science fiction. In this case, it was the opening chapter of Andre Norton’s novel Forerunner Foray (1973), with its description of the protagonist Ziantha’s membership in an intergalactic organization of psychically gifted thieves: “She was part of an organization that operated across the galaxy in a loose confederacy of shadows and underworlds. Governments might rise and fall, but the Guild remained, sometimes powerful enough to juggle the governments themselves, sometimes driven undercover to build in the dark.” Compare this passage to one of Duncan’s earlier descriptions of Ground Work: “Underground Work, the ‘new book’ might be called: not the ‘underground’ of the Revolution, but the underground of a life not in tune with the powers that rule above.” (8)
In full confirmation of this being Duncan’s source, Maynard relates in a footnote: “this exact quotation, dated March 25, , appears in Notebook 66 with the note: ‘In the opening chapter of Andre Norton’s Forerunner Foray I think I have found the title of Ground Work II: ‘in the dark’” (13n29). For Duncan the separation of literature into distinction of genres, some considered more literary than others, bears little merit when it comes to what’s fuel for furthering his own writings. He pulls from all over as needed, and as come upon. At times, as seen above, readings of a later date might lead to alteration and expansion upon an earlier idea or thought in writing. Nothing for Duncan is textually static, but rather fluid, and thus in eternal transformation as the interactions of reading and writing continually feed off each other, propelling the comprehensively combined action of which Groundwork is accumulative example.
As Eric Keenaghan picks up on, “For Duncan, poetic composition is first and foremost an act of reading, which itself is the cornerstone of secular humanism” (111). A few pages further on Keenaghan continues:
Ultimately, we are readers. Our own reading praxes can be read in light of how Duncan himself would characterize that activity as an engaged participation in the process of life itself — rather than a removed position of Kantian judgment — and how he characterized reading as the means for bringing his own agency as a writer and a humanist into a productively aporetic crisis. It even produces a new kind of political engagement. (115)
Or as Robert J. Bertholf summarizes a passage from Duncan’s poem-series “The Regulators”: “The appeal is for the Muse to enter history and change the nature of our lives by altering what government regulates so that the message of the song will be present and available ‘where we wonder’” (38). Duncan expects others to continue the practice his own project takes up. At least in part, Duncan seeks to breed responsibility into his readers. There’s an urgency to respond in kind that’s welcomed and called for by the work. Duncan intends his poetry to participate ad infinitum as part of an ongoing conversation to engage with and alter the world’s imagination.
This is a conversation Devin Johnston expands on in his discussion of “Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s ‘Moly’” (written during Duncan’s unanticipated immersion in an interactive reading of Thom Gunn’s “Moly,” during a long bus trip): “In terms of compositional practice, Duncan did not make firm distinctions between marginalia, inspiration, and translation: for him, all three constitute responsive or reactive dimensions of poetry. By habit and conviction, he thought that writing should arise spontaneously from reading, blurring the line between the two activities” (99). In his closing Johnston emphasizes: “for Duncan as for Gunn, poetry proposes no settled relations or certain origins but remains essentially reactive or responsive. It might include translation from one language to another or a mysterious transference of love from one person to another, according to the rhymes and resemblances that run throughout Duncan’s writing.” (107)
The looping nature of Duncan’s poems being given to reach out and draw from texts he’s reading in order to service the needs of his writing led to his referring to himself as “a derivative poet.” Stephen Collis argues this self-identification of Duncan’s is evidence of his worry over “poetry’s ‘real estate.’” Collis suggests we “see in Duncan’s use of the term a concern for the status of poetry as property. Indeed, I suggest that this was very much his increasing concern during the 1970s and his ‘slow down’ in production between 1968 and 1984. Duncan, in this reading, is revealed to be a critic of intellectual property and a defender of the poetic commons” (42). Collis distinguishes between “Duncan’s most extreme expressions of derivation and literary ‘commoning’ — his ‘emulations, imitations, reconstruals,’ et cetera of the metaphysical poets and Dante” and the “outright appropriation of found materials” claiming that “Duncan’s ‘duplications’ operate within a quasi-academic ‘citational economy,’ with the poet, in most instances, acknowledging his sources” (47). In his own work, both critical and creative, Collis pursues the use of just such means to reach active results of which Duncan would no doubt approve.
There’s a new wealth of interest in writing on Duncan by poet-scholars such as Collis, following in the wake of figures such as Nathaniel Mackey and Lisa Jarnot. This work continues to yield a bevy of potential readings for the future which prove Duncan’s weighty presence remains quite lively. Duncan’s hands, as it were, are alive in the vivid influence he plays in such writing, much as they are in his own. So it is that Peter O’Leary’s unpacking of the appropriation of angelology in “Duncan’s Celestial Hierarchy” rightly gives fair warning that “Duncan’s approach to these angelic powers is predatory — but the ‘gnostic’ invasion he imagines stains his later work not as a form of knowledge but as one of disease” (140); but as he points out, “the pleasure of these poems doesn’t come from solving them or answering them but from reading them” (133). Readers infected, as O’Leary argues, by Duncan’s “disease” suffer in delight. As Duncan writes in the poem intended but not included as preface of In the Dark, “in time you must terrify” (26). This directive is to: the poem, the poet, as well as the reader of the poem; all three after all are in some sense the same. Accepting Duncan’s terms on the level he literally did himself, i.e. life or death, no joke; it should come as no surprise if we do “terrify” ourselves on occasion. These are times without solace.
Duncan’s work demands of readers, as it should, as total an embrace as he himself gives. His willingness to release hold when writing, no clinging “to the self,” is reflected in Brian M. Reed’s study of correlations between Duncan’s work and that of Gertrude Stein. Duncan, “like Stein in the late 1920s, more narrowly inquires into the act of composition and corollary problems of identity and representation. He works from the premise that ‘ideas’ and ‘the self’ are not independent entities that an author can mirror in a poem. Instead, they come into being in the very process of ‘writing writing’” (173). Writing is never an activity Duncan takes lightly. He seeks a universal depth transcending present realities in his role of poet-as-assembler. Working on the poems in Groundwork his sense of purpose only intensified. As Clément Oudart quotes from a letter Duncan writes to his friend, Australian poet Chris Edwards:
With a note of urgency in his remark, Duncan pointed out that besides an essential ‘kindred strain … the art needs too the foundational — to address the ‘ground’ — and the declaration and carrying through of an architecture.’ Duncan’s constant grappling with the origin of creation (poiesis) — his perpetual attempt to find, found, and sound the ground(s) of his restless poetic practice — is embedded in his (at times abyssal) grounding in intertextuality. (151)
Readers should not to be turned off by Duncan’s intensive realignment of sources but rather recognize the openly inviting greeting in his wanton collaging of texts that is his intention. Dennis Tedlock relates hearing from Robert Bertholf how “when [Duncan] took a notebook with him somewhere, he often left it behind, which is why he was careful to write ‘Return to Robert Duncan’ and his street address on the first page of each notebook” (201–2). A trick to up the ante on the writing the notebook contains or a sign of willingness to have the writing be freed of ownership? I myself know poet friends who would be inclined to use such a trick to compel a soft edginess into their current manuscripts; intentionally introducing the threat that their handwritten drafts of poems might be found in the hands of indiscriminate strangers. A threat which while perhaps minor is nonetheless real all the same: even imaginary, such a threat might swell a manuscript with force that would otherwise be absent. While impossible to fully ascertain Duncan’s intention behind the practice it is clear he relished the freedom provided by so relinquishing his personal ownership of writing.
For Duncan, as with O’Hara, poems are fleeting and ethereal yet sustained as acts; grounded byways where the dedication of the poet’s life to the writing is clearly unveiled. The work holds an imbued hue which clings to the world long after the poet’s own physical presence has departed. The poems are too of this world to ever remain long gone from out it. The daily activity the poetry proves propels it into our lives easy as air and hard as stone. The poems represent the rarest of happenings, elevated beyond any transcendent feeling by the matter-of-fact occurrences of their making. In The Maximus Poems Charles Olson declares “I believe in religion, not magic or science / I believe in both man and society as religious.” Reading Duncan and O’Hara we approach an understanding of Olson’s terms not limited by parochial concerns of current political debate or filtered through academic acerbity. Caught up in the vast breach of our mundane separation from things; when it is things themselves we most long to have and hold. We’re thrown off guard, surprised that poetry might so deeply embrace gossip on one hand, as with O’Hara, yet also clamber after the counter-draw found in Duncan’s enchantments which reach roots of the imaginative core of our being. Yet it is with both our identities enjoin, reveling in the heady pleasure of bearing witness to lasting realities so gracing the page.
A review of ‘This Constellation Is a Name’ by Michael Heller
Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 is a culmination of over forty years of poetic exploration by a major voice in contemporary poetry. From his experimental poems of the 1960s to the more assured (though no less experimental) work of recent decades, Heller’s poems wrestle with all the implications of “history and the constellated night,” as he writes in “Gloss.”
Heller draws on lyric, epic, and prophetic traditions of poetry as they inform the modernist writers he most admires: Walter Benjamin and George Oppen primarily, but also Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale and a host of older sources from Heraclitus to Blake to Montaigne. Like these writers, Heller continuously attempts to locate, as Oppen calls them, “handholds” and “footholds” with which to navigate the elusiveness of being in the whirlwinds of history. His work is haunted by the past, by historical forces with which we must contend yet never quite understand, and by the mediation and interrogation of the events via poetic language.
Heller in an interview with Edward Foster offers what might suffice as his ars poetica:
I tend to think first in my poetry about meaning or personal and public discovery and in terms of a vocabulary of self, history, terms which in the present critical climate are often viewed as irrelevant or debased … I’m someone on a quest, my energies directed at what can be said about one’s life or about how the act of writing might impinge or enlarge … one’s life.
Heller, who studied engineering prior to his career as poet, sees similarities in the process of discovery in both science and poetry as requiring “tremendous precision” (51). Both involve a fusing of the rational and intuitive — of knowledge and creativity — with a willingness to forgo past results in order to clarify and articulate new understandings or discoveries. Heller sees that articulating an “upsurge of the world” is accomplished by remaining open to possibility. We live with language and not in it, Heller insists. Writing therefore becomes an act of “individual witness” (52) dependent on honesty, clarity, and sincerity, the same virtues Heller’s so-called “Objectivist” forebears espouse.
Heller’s work is complex and always fascinating. The work collected here means to upset our habitual and nearly always under-scrutinized use of language; how it obfuscates, or worse. His poems restore the tension that exists between the potential for truth and clarity in language and its degradation, its capacity to confuse or deceive. As Heller’s practice demonstrates, the uncertainty that comes with all exploration and the concomitant excitement of discovery exists in the relationship between word and world, the poetic solitude of the “estranged observer” surveying events. By observing, the poet alters events through perception, assigning meaning via complexities of language, the attenuations of its sounds and rhythms, all the discrete adjustments one makes in the careful calibration of thought-event into object-poem. Accordingly, the poet seeks (but may never attain) synthesis, totality, and truth.
The earliest poems collected here date from the mid-1960s, and fit well with the avant-garde poetry and art of its time. Some of these poems (as Heller’s helpful and enlightening notes to this volume tell us) were written in Nerja, a Spanish seaside village, from September 1965 to October 1966. “In my late twenties,” writes Heller, “I came to poetry via a bizarre, accidental and blundering path that began with meeting former students of Louis Zukofsky who worked, as I did, at Sperry Gyroscope in Garden City, Long Island.” On their automobile rides to and from work, Heller and these former students discussed poetry. Heller began writing, taking one workshop at the New School in 1964 with Kenneth Koch and then, soon after, leaving for Europe, where he published his early poems in The Paris Review. “I try to imagine what went into these poems,” he reminisces of this work, later collected in 2006 under the title A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off: “my love of Webern’s ‘pointillist’ music, the background, not yet fully formed, in my love of poets like Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, Zukofsky” (553). Indeed, with titles like “OK Everybody Let’s Do the Mondrian Stomp” (containing such lines as “small red block / beside a long / white block” [Heller 2012, 4]) or the four-line poem “To My Auto Horn” (which reads “Be beep // preserve / my / radiance” ), these poems capture the unbounded creativity of improvised jazz and the repetitive thematics of that heady era, as well as some of its more self-indulgent tendencies. Thus, the primary interest of these early poems is of witnessing Heller’s evolution, and suggestions of his eventual maturation, juxtaposed with the initial approach of certain themes. “Weather Eye,” for example, shows, in its crystalline language, a meditation on the relationship between word, world, and self, particularly in the captivating lines “All things written / in their own lines // perhaps we, one day … // a resembling // the rhymes of many things // … convinced of a common // clarity // before it rains” (14).
Earth and Cave, composed in 1966 while the author was in transition from Europe back to the United States, is a remarkable book, published in 2006 in a handsome edition by Dos Madres Press, which contains both illustrations and prose interpolations between the poems (not included in This Constellation). This work, Heller tells us, begun in Nerja, was completed upon his return to New York City in the fall of 1966. The book’s introduction, reprinted here, points to his original intent: “These pages … are a quick register, haiku-like and notational, of the dissonances not only in the transformations I sensed going on around me” — meaning the political disasters of Franco’s Spain, then in its twilight — “but also of the twists and turns within me as a would-be-poet, semi-tourist, and sentimental traveler” (555).
Heller’s first full-length collection, Accidental Center, published in 1972, received high praise, most notably from Heller’s mentor George Oppen, who described its contents as consisting of “tone perfect poems.” Heller struck up a friendship with Oppen in the late 1960s, which also began a notable correspondence. By now, Heller had worked through his youthful approximations of others’ voices (Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, and Zukofsky), but by that weird alchemy of influence managed to develop his own voice, which made its initial appearance amidst all the echoes and imitations of his forebears. Accidental Center is Heller’s first mature work and it contains, to date, some of his strongest poetry. The assurance of his voice is already apparent, and his work here is fully formed.
Interspersed among its pages are some poems beholden to the pressures of that experimentalist era (notably “Pressure” — reminiscent somewhat of Paul Blackburn’s work). There are also poems comprised of discrete sections, as Oppen often employs, but by now Heller already commands a fiercely original vision, one that at times borders on the surreal: “the way frost coats / a tree // to the finest tendrils / of its branches” (“The Cardiac Poem,” 57). Heller, in these poems, evinces a willingness to explore, always in pursuit of discovery, but at times also displaying a levity that refreshingly sets it apart from most other poetry with a metaphysical bent. He is in his first book confident enough to risk irreverence, playing against tradition, testing it. Always the poems’ integrity trumps the dictates of its idiom. Also apparent here is Heller’s gift for prose poetry, as in “Three Bar Reflections on John Coltrane,” the most impressive of which is the last:
History is a joke. Personal history: unfunny.
Knowing everyone to be serious when sick and banging
on the bed for some stranger, but that he should be
like ourselves. And come get drunk or delirious, falling
into someone resembles us. On this, the heart realizes
itself meaningless — its words have moved off beyond
their meanings, as in the music, the whorls of sound
are an eternal trope — an eternal equivalent. Not to be
admitted to my world — I come to his. (69)
The title of Heller’s memoir, Living Root (2000), reflects a dynamic everywhere apparent in Heller’s careful, attenuated writings, something that is at once fixed and ever-changing. The “fixed” aspect is, as Burt Kimmelman has noted, Heller’s Jewish heritage, something that, from the collection Knowledge (1979) forward, particularly Heller’s much-praised poem “Bialystok Stanzas” (originally published in Accidental Center and reprinted and unpacked by the author in Living Root), is an increasingly prominent aspect in his later work. That poem, subtitled “from a book of old pictures,” is a haunting meditation on Jewish identity in twentieth-century America — in particular, what it means to be tied to a heritage that is without place, in possession of an identity that at times seems fixed in textuality only. For Heller, the Torah and the commentaries upon it are central defining works holding together a people whose culture, post-Diasporic, consists of a continuous struggle to maintain cohesiveness and identity. This dichotomy within the fixedness of identity based in textuality and separateness from a place (an ongoing theme in Heller’s poetry from this era forward) binds the Jew to the written word, making the text into an almost living presence. From “Bialystok Stanzas”:
The scene filled with photographer’s light
The sparsely furnished room
In the corner of which
A china-closet Ark
The old men
Under green shaded bulbs
The prayers are simple,
To what they think larger
— the place almost bare,
The flat white light
Adds no increment
But attention (135)
Another poem, this one from In the Builded Place (1989), entitled “For Uncle Nat,” perhaps most succinctly summarizes Heller’s view of what it means to be a post-Diaspora, second-generation Jewish American:
… Not to make
Too much of it, but I know history
Stamps and restamps the Jew, our ways
Are rife with a momentary deliverance
May I borrow you for a moment Nat. We’ll celebrate
By twos, the world’s an Ark. We’ll talk in slant
American accent to code the hidden language of the Word. (274)
Because of the entwining of Jewish history and world history (and history as text, as narrative), the past is like the word: another living presence. Thus, the more Heller explores what it means to be Jewish, in particular a Jewish writer, the more memory comes into play in the poems.
This relationship between history and text for Heller has as a precursor the work of Walter Benjamin, a writer “whose thought,” explains Heller in Living Root, “flutters inextricably through my own work.” Heller writes of his first encounter with Benjamin’s work while living in Nerja: he found in Benjamin something that “paralleled my own early thoughts on the modern poet’s role one where the poet was no longer able to tell the tale of the tribe but rather had to relate the tale of the tribe’s uncertainty, of its adjustments and compensations to a transformed socio-political and cultural world.” Benjamin’s writing helped Heller to realize that the modern poet was adrift in what Heller calls “a field of disorientations and linguistic traps created by media, culture — the very arts themselves — and the debasement of thought and language in the public realm” (161), in particular the difficulty in language of capturing an increasingly elusive and fragile notion of truth.
In many ways, Heller’s next collection, the appropriately titled Wordflow (1997), represents a culmination (it was his first “new and selected”) of these concerns. The powerful “Without Ozymandias” is a gathering of artifacts treated as a poem, replete with stunning aphorisms and imagery that pulses with a newfound confidence:
Ink and effacement
— only companions
of last things owned
Sand has its texts
mica and feldspar,
stars and nestled bones
to write you to your shadow (This Constellation, 344)
In these later poems, Heller is more willing to trust the poem to its own logic and, I would argue, the poems from this collection forward are experimental in a more original way than his sixties output, more willing to challenge notions of what a poem can mean. With experience, confidence, and less need for caution, by now Heller knows the handholds and footholds well enough to turn his attention away from the immediate footing and gaze out at the distances below and above him.
Wordflow represents a major turn in Heller’s oeuvre. The books that precede it (Accidental Center, Knowledge, and In the Builded Place, from which Wordflow selects) might adequately be considered a kind of trilogy. Aside from another selected, Exigent Futures (2003), Heller did not publish another full-length collection until Eschaton (2009), some twenty years after In the Builded Place, and with that work Heller has arguably achieved his masterpiece, both a culmination and an enlargement of his major themes — history, memory, the limits of language and knowledge — and of decades of increased sophistication, maturation, and sublimity. In his notes, Heller remarks of the title poem that Eschaton “is from the Greek … meaning to be about last things. In some contexts, the word refers to a dramatic transformation of reality from what has been known or imagined” (564). Heller captures this transformation in poems rife with temporal shifts, quizzical ponderings, jarring transitions, and philosophical struggle, animated by an ever-incisive wit. The poems’ temporal awareness is often juxtaposed with the burden of history, their visual equivalent that of a tapestry or a mural. The collection’s opening poem, “Looking at Some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House,” questions the concept of language reduced to some idea of its own materiality, that is, as anything more than “just stuff and the proof of stuff” (385). The petroglyphs, a human record of a desire to communicate, are “just there, exposing all this / and we are deluded for thinking elsewise,” and it is only love of the world, of others that “is at the end of it” (386). In “On a Phrase of Milosz’s” (the phrase being “He is not disinherited, / for he has not found a home,” an epigraph on page 387), Heller remarks how “History has mucked up” language’s ability to “resolve” experience: “the words / on the way to language dangling possibility” (387; note the intentional reference to Heidegger’s book On the Way to Language, a study of the metaphysical properties of language). Words are at best potentialities; we cannot resolve language, Heller contends, because “Being is / incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward” (387). We cannot be disinherited, Heller implies, because we never had a home to begin with; we have always been stranded among the ruins of a discourse that cannot possibly bridge the gap between word and world. Yet what the words do afford us, Heller maintains, is a “desperate situation … clarified.” “The worst thing is to feel only irony can save,” Heller concludes, and one cannot help but feel the statement is directed at much of modern discourse, poetry included. “The worst thing,” Heller warns, “is to feel only irony” (388).
“Stanzas Without Ozymandias” (a recasting of the earlier “Without Ozymandias”), another of Heller’s finest poems, is inspired in part by the Shelleyan image of the broken statue of Ozymandias in the Egyptian desert and the desertscapes of southern Colorado, where Heller, a New York City native, typically spends his summers. Here, Heller utilizes the image of sand as representative of text: “grain fixed to speech,” “the geometer / who mourned the mirror’s lack” … “only the colorless semblances of their desires” (443). The word is a pale shadow of an already muted recollection of experience. Of this poem, Heller remarks: “The unwarrantable sermons are what that kind of natural world tells us — remembering that what we derive from that world is already our projection on to it.” The poem is ambiguous without losing any of its clarity and rewards repeated readings, as does “Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin.” (This poem derives from and distils a much longer work, Heller’s libretto for the opera Benjamin, itself derived from Benjamin’s letters.) The italicized dream portion of the poem (“He climbed a labyrinth, / a labyrinth of stairs, / past other stairways / descending” [Heller 2012, 462]) is almost verbatim from one of Benjamin’s recordings of this dream. In the libretto, it is the very last thing said/sung. The poem appears to be an extended meditation on the Fall that is also a fall of language, the separation of language from object, as in “unknowable names” that should have been knowable, that might have kept us in an Eden of logos. Benjamin’s lamentations concerning politics and politicians, though they derive from circumstances quite dissimilar from our own, take on an eerie familiarity to our difficult times:
They too have created infinities, blind alleys, endless monuments to
iniquities, a multitude of pains for others to bear.
They will outlive their brief immortality and leave a grubby ration of
murderous hopes (460)
In the last poem of the collection, the stark, grief-stricken prose poem “Mourning Field, Note Card,” Heller addresses the tragedy of those events on that September day in 2001, a poem that defies clichés or unearned sentimentality. It was rightfully included in the major anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and to this day stands out as a heartbreaking meditation on that day’s implications, not just for the city or the nation, but also for humanity itself. For we are all, regardless of our separate identities, contained in this world and subject to history’s machinations, even in the smallest, imperceptible ways. Walking past the iron railings bordering the walkways of Union Square plastered with photos of lost family members, Heller observes:
... the faces of lost ones gazed out of photos. Grim details surrounded these: the company worked for, a floor in one of the World Trade Center towers, and saddest of all, identifying body marks, scars and moles. With words, the dead were being washed as in a funeral home, swathed in language, touched in secret places by words that only lovers or family members usually know. The disaster had traduced all intimacy. Similar photos and details papered the city. They covered phone booths and kiosks and were taped to the plate glass windows of storefronts and banks.
Like many faces on the notices, most of those in the park were young. They stood and milled around as young people do. And they spoke, and their writings on the long rolls of paper spoke, with that intensity only the young seem able to summon at such times as these. A few guitars were being strummed, playing old folk plaints of solidarity, weariness, and misery. Overheard, the thick canopy of leaves, black against the night, absorbed these sounds, compounded and cupped them in the sickly-sweet smell of incense and burning wax. The crowds had driven off the pigeons, but in Union Square, the notices of the dead flapping in the breeze formed a new immense flock of anguish and grief roosting together. (473)
Heller considers his obligation as poet to register these small, nearly imperceptible encounters, and he does so with exceptional acuity. The poetry on display in Eschaton is rare, striking, and subtle, and, as such, Eschaton registers the increasing refinement of this contemporary master. Moreover, Eschaton is also evidence that Heller shows no sign of slowing down; Beckmann Variations and Other Poems (2010) followed soon on its heels. This work in its original form consists of prose meditations and poetry on the paintings by German painter Max Beckmann. According to his notes, Heller based this poem on Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae, with its “interweavings” of poetry and prose, and its “ruminations on power and violence” (566), the same qualities Heller saw in Beckmann’s paintings. The thesis of the book is helpfully summarized by a quote from Beckmann included in the book’s first poem, “Space”: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, wrote Beckmann, / you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible” (480). In the following poem, “Every So Often,” which consists almost entirely of quotations from Beckmann, Heller quotes the following: “Ugh, this unending void whose foreground we constantly have to fill / with stuff of some sort in order not to notice its horrifying depth” (481). The poems here find humanity populating its world with Gods and kings in an attempt to buffer themselves from the blind force of physics, and the unsettling knowledge that in fact no one is in charge. From the poem “The King”: “Kings bear the force of statuary. Statuary seals up the force of kings” (483). Beckmann Variations is Heller at his most existential; not since Beckett perhaps has there been as convincing a portrait of the remoteness of the world from human consciousness, the ineffectiveness and relative unimportance of human action and experience in relation to the vast experience of the universe or to geologic time. What is it kings do — “how can I still make the planetary systems tremble?” asks Heller. “Only by this — surrender” (483).
Heller’s achievement is having strived to express, if not that which is inexpressible, than at the least the expressible, in an original, insightful, and challenging way, in poems whose torsions with the ineffable manage to extract radiant nodes of poetic language that open up new vistas, new avenues of expression that can only be described as visionary. Heller sets a high bar for himself, and with rare exception, always meets his own strenuous criteria.