Necessary companionship

A review of Laynie Browne's 'Scorpyn Odes'

Scorpyn Odes

Scorpyn Odes

Laynie Browne

Kore Press 2015, 56 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1888553703

A sense of community is everywhere apparent in the poetry world — the desire to share and promote what is offered widely, and to make of poetry a means to transform minds, hearts, and social practice. Fortunately or unfortunately, it can be difficult in all this to find a space quiet enough for a contemplative spirit, an exploratory sense, in the poem, of working through what’s real in how to respond to a world in and through language. For me the value of this is much more than personal, more than the pleasure it affords. I find in it the basis of thought and action, their solid foundation and ultimate sustainability. So while I try to read as variously as possible, it’s always this contemplative work that makes me feel most alive, most at home, and most as if I am getting what’s needed.

This brings me to the work of Laynie Browne, one of our finest poets working in the mode I am calling contemplative poetry (contemplation: “to mark out a space for observation”). By which I mean not necessarily a poetry that is contemplative in the religious sense (though yes, inescapably there is also that in Laynie’s work) but rather in the compositional sense, that is, writing itself, language itself, composition itself, as a form of contemplation, marking a place for observation. Of her own work Laynie has written, “Silence and the invisible are often my imperatives. I aspire to transcribe the illegible, and to hear all that may be compressed within silence or utterance. Which silences, deliberately placed, make a text more audible?”[1]

Scorpyn Odes is a roughly forty-page text which consists of two series in alternation. One, titled “Scorpyn Odes,” is comprised of short poems, all of which are about scorpions from every possible angle. Their history and natural history. Remedies in case of stings, possible medicinal uses of the venom, mythological and astrological reference, etc. A former resident (but not a native) of Tuscon, Arizona, a place in which one’s home is not infrequently habitat for actual scorpions, Laynie (who during the time she lived there had young children) had ample occasion to encounter with some trepidation these strange and storied creatures. Naturally she decided to get to know them not only in the flesh, so to speak, but also by tracing their existence in language, that is to say in the human mind, in books, myths, references of all kinds. A process of working out a relationship, of creating some familiarity, no doubt, against fear, with these rather creepy and intimidating animals, which, we learn, are more than 400 million years old, and therefore carry an enviable genetic pedigree: they’ve been around a lot longer, and possibly more peacefully and successfully, than we have, in their intense silences, lurking secrecy, and straight-ahead sincerity. The opening poem of the book is a quiet lovely ode I’ll quote in full, because it serves as a kind of entry point to all that follows.

I prayed the dictionary
I asked pardon of dream
I feared scorpions in their silence
And walked each morning
into the rising mountain

I vowed not to become
the nullifying silence
But to nullify the other
paralysis being born

To speak with the elevated
precision of silence

From the marrow of consciousness
The living aspect of which appears solid
but isn’t complete
until we have left
the word, the mountain
and the scorpionic premises[2]

This lovely statement, if it is a statement, could be about everything we fear, including death and chaos. To face it, confront it, in prayer (which requires language, the dictionary) and pardon, opening up to the dream (not denying the dream with rationality and technology) and naming the fear, then walking toward it, vowing to speak, but speak in a way that includes silence, the beyond-language, to overcome the paralysis of fear that leaves us frozen. Good advice for these terror-filled times!

Fear paralyzes and creates a silence, a block, unlike the silence, beyond the word, which is creative and precise, contemplative, vibrating in the very marrow of consciousness, which can’t happen until there’s a willingness to leave everything behind, having overcome the fear of departure (see below) and nullification. Which ends up being what this book is about.

The remainder of the book builds on this initial resolve to plunge in, rather than retreat from, the weird and the fearful, to explore — through the soothing and deep encounter with language itself (and the self, construed necessarily through language, if you go deep enough into it to notice) — what it is we are walking toward as the “squares upon calendars / looked back at me” (9).

The second series is titled “Departure.” It consists of prose poems, generally a half page or so in length, on the titled theme. Departure, as word, as concept, as feeling, as thought, as intimate experience, is also a wider and deeper question. What is departure? From what to what do we transfer? And isn’t any departure a death, and does departure ever cease, aren’t we forever departing each moment, off balance continually in the process? All this is suggested and drawn forth in these wonderful prose poems, that include, intermittently, the disaster of contemporary life, in all its exhausting detail — from which we would most passionately wish to depart, if we could.

Possibly no school shootings, possibly funding for National Science Foundation funneled from the war is over. Possibly sleep and not underwritten. More flow into you and less treacherous waters becoming migrant — not at all workers — but the word client was changed to person. The word weapon was changed to mediation. You’d say meadow was a stretch. Go ahead say meadow. Say minimum wage. Say possibly nothing is forgotten. The street across the street and the globe across from that with dental care, insurance. Go ahead, say you'll wait in the meadow for all of that, streaming … (10)

The form of the writing in both series is improvisational, exploratory, paratactic, rich in information and detail, juxtaposed with inner reflection, a groping toward a kind of redemption through engagement with the intense experience of writing itself, which the reader feels, as if composing the poem herself, in the reading of it, following it along, as lights within consciousness go off and on (lights, not necessarily useful ideas of or thoughts about the world, just lights). So that the reading itself is, as least for a reader like me, an exercise in opening to a cheerful possibility in living, as if accompanied by a contemplative voice that’s both inside and outside one’s own head.

I mentioned above that Laynie is an engaged spiritual practitioner — in her case mainly of Jewish meditation. That is, silence is for her more than a concept of language-limit; rather, it is an experience, a lived exploration. She writes,

Elemental to my work is this attempt at intimacy requiring corporeal wrestling as well as ethereal and intellectual engagements. The intimate does not necessarily imply the personal, but it does imply attempts at a collective sense of personhood. I aspire to exit the confines of single voice, single perspective, and single consciousness, breaking with the illusory notion of the individual, and fixed concepts of perception.[3]

The themes mentioned here are all in evidence in Scorpyn Odes: intertextuality, the sense of address, confrontation with the unknown, and moving beyond a single voice or perspective into a collective sense of voice. For me all this adds up to an open poetry which neither pressures nor informs me in any particular direction. Rather it gives me the sort of profound companionship I need to keep me going in an impossible world. This is what contemplative poetry is supposed to do, and why it is so important.

1. Laynie Browne, in The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and The Avant-Garde, ed. Lily Hoang and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (New York: Nightboat Boats, 2015).

2. Laynie Browne, Scorpyn Odes (Kore Press: Tucson, 2015), 7.

3. Laynie Browne, Imagining The Jewish God, ed. Leonard V. Kaplan (Maryland: Lexington Books, Graven Images Series; forthcoming).

Multicultural sleep

A review of ‘Fainting with Freedom’ by Ouyang Yu

Fainting with Freedom

Fainting with Freedom

Ouyang Yu

Five Islands Press 2015, 96 pages, $25, ISBN 978-0734050250

Insouciance may be an undervalued poetic quality. In this latest collection by the Chinese Australian poet, novelist, editor, and translator Ouyang Yu, the attitude of insouciance is also a cultural strategy. It reflects Yu’s own movements as a writer and citizen, that is, situated “in Oz or China / Or both.”[1]

In different tones Yu has been dealing with such cultural tension since his first collection of poems in English, Moon over Melbourne. Those early poems are volatile, with dominant and vulnerable notes of anger, bitterness, and elation:

moon over melbourne you bloody australian moon
you hang on you alright you no worries mate
you make me sick home sick for sure

you put every body to a multicultural sleep
who knows not what is meant by
one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow under you

so contented with sharing the feeling
of planting proudly the rag of a flag
among your rocks

never mind their colonising instinct
for they lose you as soon as they touch you
tonight you belong to me[2]

Here, Yu savagely satirizes the myopic perception of an “australian moon”: a metaphor of the sleepily “contented” and “proud” condition of the colonial nation. The moon, of course, belongs to nobody, just as the “colonising” culture is merely a rag among rocks. While Yu goes on to address views of Australia in later work, he shifts from the antagonism of “moon over melbourne” to focus increasingly on “the one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow.” As his poetic oeuvre has grown, its voice has developed a more studied casualness, regarding the condition of the author and his communities from a dedicated position of bemusement. In “Listening to the Lebanese Taxi-driver,” published as part of a sequence by Jacket in 2006, Yu shares his voice with another migrant subject, such that their dialogue becomes fluid:

In botany bay
I went to this big-faced man who said: guess
Just one guess
And if you don’t get it
I’ll tell you
I pinned him down to the middle east
Even though he was mildly indian
He agreed
I narrowed him down to Lebanon
Even though his accent was a bit hard to define
He agreed again

The poem pursues a kind of verbatim poetics, witnessing voices around the poet whilst narrating his interaction with them. Its attitude is more curious than in “moon over melbourne,” but equally unconcerned with gratifying anybody else’s idea of poetry written in, from, or about Australia. If some of Yu’s earlier writing could be contextualized within a tradition of “migrant poetry” including Ania Walwicz and PiO, his more recent work (and theirs) establishes a new position — one that is confidently both within and above a poetics informed by citizenship and location. John Kinsella — who launched Fainting with Freedom in Melbourne, and who carries a history of collaboration with Yu as well as commentary on his work — has labelled Yu’s work as “post-multicultural.”[3] In this regard it finds itself in relation to the writing of John Mateer or Lionel Fogarty, Yan Jun or Michael Farrell. Fainting with Freedom is preoccupied with the acts of writing and publishing, and what it is to do these between Australia and China.

While Fainting with Freedom comprises four sections, its prose poems — which run successively across half the first and most of the second section — constitute a passage of their own. Yu handles the form of the prose poem with invigorating spontaneity and automatism, as in “Biography”:

You are your own unwritten biography by someone your shadow lengthens, unlike the clouds that stain the landscape as they shift their unfocus. On an uncertain future date. This makes you wonder if it’s worth your while keeping this scrap bearing these words: Princess Hwy, New Lake Entrance, Government Rd, then turn left into Malin Rd. (35)

A number of these poems might be better described as micro-essays, de-emphasizing voice in favor of reflection and discursive devices: a long footnote (“Softness”), URLs (“Philosophy” and “Self Publishing”), even the author’s email address (“shi and fei”). In these pieces, Yu frequently comments upon hierarchies of production and authorship. In “Paintings,” he observes image-making and how “those who did not make it are now making it more than they could ever have hoped for” (33). In “Self Publishing,” Yu notes, “the rain self publishing again as it did 3000 million years ago, on the page that is my roof” (41). Paradoxically, it’s the raw and unfinished nature of these poems or essays that is their binding poetic. They are consistently open and leaky, creating a processual, porous space:

books are easier to destroy than words, the latter having the quality of being mind borne and, in some hands, can generate astronomical sales only to suffer posthumous extinction. the wait for a book can take longer than a suicide. books were once buried, later seized as a sign to endorse one’s own superiority without realising that behind the books there lie strewn branches that remind one of pulp or sap. the first pig book has yet to be written by the pig herself. same with the first sheep book the first cow book or the first tea book by tea. (31)

In many of these prose texts there is a sense that form and voice might collapse or wash away. It’s a precarious sensation, one in which Yu’s writing constantly points out rhetorical directions and possibilities, moving with the moment of the poem. At one point, in “Philosophy,” Yu asserts that he is “determined to leave unfinished” the poem, and “see if it does not grow by itself.” In the same breath, he invites readers to “unite and trash” the poem (29). It’s as though the poetic space is an organism that will continue to revive or at least morph and struggle on, like a polluted creek.

One way this occurs is through semiotic layering. Yu’s work as a translator has been pioneering for Australian audiences. In the mid-1990s he founded the bilingual Chinese-Australian journal Otherland, which has been followed by projects such as the recent anthology he edited and translated, Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China. Translation is a constant presence and influence upon Yu’s poems, and is unsurprisingly a part of his discourse upon literary production in Fainting with Freedom. He explicitly discusses translation in poems such as “Serendipity,” “Softness,” “shi and fei,” and “Round,” occasionally employing Chinese characters. These poems reflect Yu’s method of so-called direct translation, in which he avoids lyrical interpretation of the source language in favor of literal or direct correlation of vocabulary and grammar. He composes English in a comparable way, avoiding linguistic elegance in favor of functional description.

In doing so Yu likes to press the language through itself, calling into comparison Fogarty’s resistant response to English as a colonizing vehicle. Like Fogarty, Yu revels in the momentum of pun and conjugation, as well as sonic play: “many that is manying and bad / That is badded … Feet, personalities that pee till they are peeled” (55). Yu demands that we consider how accent, vernacular, and broken or mixed vocabulary are gifts to Australian English, providing it with new modes of being “efficient.” “Stuff the English then,” Yu writes in “shi and fei,” “not a very efficient language” (57), and so he goes on to bend it to his will. Whereas in earlier poems he was interested in exploring this view through found speech and performative confessionalism, Fainting with Freedom harnesses metaphor and analogy to talk about the condition of language for one moving between Australia and China. This approach is memorably represented in the poem, “Four”:

Boat, oh, boat
Come and assault the sky
Of an incorruptible corruptness, pickled in poetry (62)

It is essential for contemporary poetry in Australia to absorb the multiple versions of English that a postcolonial, migrant-built community with a refugee intake might contain. We are pickled in poetry and are learning to listen for it. Yu takes this up in a barbed poem, “The Boat Project,” which narrates a conversation about effective tactics for a “boat person” (a pejorative epithet for a refugee who travels to Australia by sea, ironically the same way that colonial invasion arrived). This poem yokes Yu’s casual tone to subtle satirical purposes. The poem’s speaker suggests that permanent residence in Australia could be achieved by undertaking a boat journey as a work of performance art:

And install yourself in it
Like part of it
Row it ashore
And try
To catch the attention of coast
Wear tattered clothes
Don’t bring an interpreter
Bring a camera, a video one


The high-heeled man
Artist stared at me with his removed lip
Stick and laughed
So much
One of his heels
Came off his

A good detail, I said
That could be used for the
Benefit of the boat (66–67)

While the high-heeled artist is a good set-up for Yu’s punchline, the real substance of the poem is the extended, staccato voice of the speaker. Its truncated lines mimic the spontaneity of speech — a concept coming together — and the dark humor of the noted “detail.” In this composition the artist or listener is but a platform.

In the opening poem of Fainting with Freedom,Yu asserts: “you are your own alter-ego” (11). All of his writing has relied upon this principle, drawing from his reality and rendering it by turns absurd, surreal, and lyrically analytical. In “Digging,” Yu takes Victoria’s colonial goldfields (well-populated by Chinese) as an emblem of Australia’s mythos of prosperity or the “lucky country.” He asserts his independence from that history, rejecting its racism towards Chinese migrants as well as the notion of fatefully happy assimilation:

After they made good and came home in brocade robes
It is even less likely that I would have bothered coming to any part of Australia
Which is why I didn’t come and my name was never recorded
In any part of that country’s history
Looking at the sign showing the routes to the goldfields
I told me once again that I would not have been bothered
If I had not been bothered in 1851 or subsequently
Digging is a beautiful thing
But not for gold
Not for me (34)

Here, the poem’s insouciant lack of “bother” actually constitutes a firm positing of the self over nation: “Not for me.”

While “The Boat Project” and “Digging” are highlights of the collection, the monotony of Yu’s impassive, first-person voice becomes wearing across this many poems. For the purposes of a book-length collection, the voice could have benefited from some tonal or positional shifts. A sense of shapelessness is unaided by the book’s subtitled sections, which create only a false sense of variety. There are plenty of resonant and innovative images to be found, particularly of place (“a sexy spring full of / green-colored jealousy” [46], or “1 colored bird sucking a pink flock / of flowers” [14]), but the price of insouciance might be a kind of blandness, in which the poet’s alter-ego cloaks image, persona, and line. When this happens the poem fails to grow by itself.

Perhaps it’s a truism to say that Yu’s writing is empowered by the attitude which threatens its energy. I’m willing to follow these dips of quality within his style, since they frequently retrieve something original and surprising, even from shakier poems. It would be a mistake to go looking here for an activist message, as we might do in Kinsella’s and Fogarty’s poetries. The cover of Fainting with Freedom is a photo by Yu himself, of red sap oozing from a spotted eucalypt (gum tree). The image and its title, “Gumblood,” are reminiscent of a line in Mateer’s sequence, “In the Presence,” which addresses the slain Noongar warrior, Yagan: “Even if I stab a bloody gum tree you will not speak.”[4] The idea of flora bleeding — of it having a hidden internal life that resembles our own — is an uneasy image of empathy, as powerful as that of self-publishing rain. Coupled with the book’s title, however, it creates an ironic tension — for what is it to be so free you are unconscious? The poems in Fainting with Freedom emphasize that empathy is not sameness, just as dwelling should not be confused with belonging, nor language with unity. Rather, the “state” to which Yu belongs is the poem itself.

1. Ouyang Yu, Fainting with Freedom (Parkville Vic., Australia: Five Islands Press, 2015), 67.

2. Ouyang Yu, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems (Melbourne: Papyrus Publishing, 1995), 8. See Australian Poetry Library.

3. John Kinsella, “Multicultural Poetry,” on John Kinsella’s website.

4. John Mateer, The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009 (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010), 97.

Timed instants

A review of Cole Swensen's 'Landscapes on a Train'

Landscapes on a Train

Landscapes on a Train

Cole Swensen

Nightboat Books 2015, 74 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-1937658410

I am on the TGV Lyria from Paris to Mulhouse reading Cole Swensen’s newest poetry collection, Landscapes on a Train. I am awash in “The infinite splitting of finite things”[1] as these one to five long-lined prose poems pass before my eyes with the rush and rumble of the train, the staccato catch and jostle of unexpected punctuation, the blur of the greens outside echoed in:

Green. Cut. And I count: the green of the lake the green of the sky and the field
Which is green and is breaking. (7)

Swensen’s anaphora is both visual and audible. The turning of the train’s wheels, the up-and-down of the hills, the words and end-stops, the rise and fall of gears and gaskets, noun and verb like metal pressing metal, run the train faster and faster through the landscape until outside is confounded and melds into such twinned, twined images as: “A / Train across open land opens night. (A train lands all night across an open field)” (11).

The first lines of Swensen’s book which I quoted above undercut potential casual normative prosy language with the delightful, surprising “is breaking” — so the field is splitting or else is rising up and breaking like a wave against the shores of our perception. It is the subtle crash of verbs and nouns in this book which undoes the potentially simple observations from a train and makes landscape, light, color, and language open themselves to new possibilities. Cause and effect skew, become the unexpected — so the train makes night open, or a train lands (like a plane or bird) but in a way that is ongoing, as “all night” in the second couplet quoted above suggests. We are “in a landscape almost held,” Swensen writes,“… By things that move / More slowly than trees” (13).

In fact, Swensen’s uses of timed instants pitted against instants of prolonged time play with the seen, so transformations are not just visual, but temporal. Landscapes are stopped, shrunken, held in the palm of a hand. The gaze, the eye, catches the land in an instant, but then that instant is taken up by “things that move,” indicating speed — that of the train again — but then already that which has momentum seems unnaturally slowed, stalled, caught, as Swensen’s “more slowly than trees” states. This fragment indicates a time so slow our human eye cannot in a natural state notice the transformation, and yet trees grow and surround us. Trees in a state of emerging partake of how this book is about a landscape rising and falling — not just alongside some train on its singular journey but through all time, as Swensen indicates with “The light is an accident because the trees are old” (9). Here, the age of the trees and an accident of light are yoked together in a paradox of cause and effect, and of what can and cannot be perceived or known from a single train ride and rider in its passing. Things are lost or emerge over vast swaths of time along quickly perceived landscapes, as “There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape” (17), or “One more house. Fallen down. Goes falling on” (20), or “And there goes a village of sand. Broke / The ruined ruin” (29) show. The green with which Swensen opens her book is a green being left, released to the air as she writes: “left sound, left the green alive / With houses, small, all stone and backing up on a green built of dust” (29).

Such fabulously engaging sensual-intellectual work is not surprising from a poet like Swensen, who often fragments and uses syntax which jars and forces new ways of seeing, especially of seeing history; take for example the historical figures and places explored in her collections Gravesend or Such Rich Hour. However, in this subtly powerful new book Landscapes on a Train, perceptions of historical rebuilding and fading away feel modulated, and their modulations are directed by her subject itself — how trains make landscapes rush and blur one into another — hill, field, cloud, lake, bush, village, castle, turret, spire, tree, grass, “Dovecote grey in wind, now mill, now wall” (27). These are taken as the basis of moments where what is perceived is grounded in the world one sees so clearly from a train. Yet sometimes it is not the train or the person on the train in motion but the landscape itself; “A line of hills that / Pulls away” (9) ends one poem, while the next begins “Shore as it pulls away” (10) — and farther on, through the open windows of the train, “herd / And run, the hills” (31). The reader is constantly surprised and excited by the unexpected dynamism of what is usually passive landscape. Even plant life which is usually, by definition and nature, planted, seems to be arriving or moving on, as in “the landed tree” (13), or later, “Stand trees in a line / Migrating through rain” (25).

Natural elements thus act in spectacularly unexpected ways because of Swensen’s verb choices. This practice continues throughout the book in lines such as “Three trees erode the sky” (61) or “In flower are the birds” (64). Both of these lines give way to images we can imagine — the way a tree as it grows shades the land or a house, stretching into the sky, thus literally eroding what can be seen of a sky from a given point; or, in the second snippet, how birds in flight, white, or colorful, burst and fade not unlike the blooming and closing of flowers. But these verbs, “erode” and “flower,” make us see anew, in unusual ways, both the noun and the verb. Thus Swensen constantly reminds her reader that these landscapes are still and always language; as Swensen writes early in the collection, “Birds smalled down to words / Come back. Flowered in cloud” (12).

In a similar quixotic manner in these poems, “light / Runs aground” (12), “Light keeps up” (24) “Light slices” (33), “Light … is an approach” (33), while “stone” is “blind until left lined up in pieces …” (41) and “Rain draws” (53), “All white moves” (32), “Grain runs” (25), “A lake folds” (26), and the sky is brought “back to the ground” (28). Even the animals such as “solid birds” (might these be sculpted?) are suddenly “holding on / To the sky” (37) in places which Swensen writes “are torn. / From light keeping time … in line” (51). All of these verb-noun-temporal combinations excite the mind and the imagination as they renew the force and interest in language and how it makes up and can skew a world, transform it within the page itself, the 2D surface along which Swensen’s poems run. Pressing this idea even farther, Swensen proposes in one image that it is also the train and its palpable existence which are called into question, or transformed from a 3D to a 2D existence, as the train is absorbed into a paper map: “A map on the wall that forms the end of the train, and so, on it goes” (58).

In the end, it is not the train which is cutting through the landscape, but these landscapes which return to “cut into lives” (28) both of the passengers on the train and of Swensen’s readers, crisscrossing in our minds and via our ears. For these poems are rich with music, manipulating a synesthetic quality to connect and merge sound and vision: “House in a hurl of green” (37), “Quiet lights the fog, washes the grey” (39), and “Along an inlet headed inward. / With the silence of a window” (60). The final result is that these are not landscapes seen from a train but are, as her title suggests, “on a train” itself — thus transformed and imprinted onto the train, into, within it, and its passengers, the reader. From within, then, “A window opens a train” (11) to the world beyond, behind, and in front of it where, as Swensen echoes Alain Badiou: “a man, in / Time, turns to space. By any means necessary” (59). I cannot recommend more highly this new collection to readers, those travelling, or those wanting to be taken on a voyage via this striking new book.

1. Cole Swensen, Landscapes on a Train (New York : Nightboat Books, 2015), 23.

On reading Christian Bök's 'The Xenotext: Book 1' ten thousand years later

A xenoreview

The Xenotext: Book 1

The Xenotext: Book 1

Christian Bök

Coach House Books 2015, 160 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-1552453216

My first impression that I cannot shake each time I open The Xenotext: Book 1: this is not the book I thought it would be. The bioart project became well-known in its time: to implant a poem inside the DNA of bacterium d. radiodurans that would be read by the organism each time its genome replicated, expressing another poem as RNA pairs up for transcription. The bacteria would become an archive of a certain idea of poetry, a poem actually alive, a poem that would likely endure longer than any reader or any concept of poetry (d. radiodurans can withstand heavy doses of radiation, survive in extreme environments, and will in all probability outlast humans).

But The Xenotext: Book 1 is not that story, not that poem. I did not know that Bök would not tell in this work the lengths he has gone to strive for this project and the success and failures encountered along the way. All along it was understood that the poem was not going to be the verbal icon, and not the book either, but the work of the poem in its trying to get made. Poeisis included: all the computer programming, grant writing, art exhibits, promotional tweets, interviews, preposterous claims, raised eyebrows, and bioethical murmurings. The poem project also involved aiming to survive at least ten thousand years later with enough of these subroutines still running to keep the poem’s grammar warm and agential.

It is strange then that most of that work on the bioart poem goes unmentioned in Book 1. Instead, the book consists of five sections containing a mix of prose and poetry, whose form and content are structured in varying degrees by some aspects of genomics. There is also a “vita explicata” where Bök details his methods and states that he sees Book 1 as “an ‘infernal grimoire,’ introducing readers to the concepts for this experiment” (151). With the genome as muse and medium, this is really a DNA text. The book fits somewhere in the early twenty-first century between J. Craig Venter’s genome cowboying and GMO redemption rhetoric and Donna Haraway’s accusatory “fetishism of the gene,” the feminist eco-technoscience-inspired rejection of masculinized selfish genes and synthetic genome rescue operations in favor of a decentered, pluralized, and environmentally embedded sense of coming to know what genotypes and phenotypes can do.

In a section titled “The Nucleobases,” for example, Bök supplies a visual of each nucleotide and crafts a short poem on tightly restricted terms: only nine-letter words beginning with the first letter of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen in proportion to the nucleobase’s chemical formula, and including some content that rhapsodizes bees (the fate of bees is a thread that runs throughout Book 1). Here is “Adenine (C5H5N5)”:

creatures, honeybees
cocooning nectarous honeydews — heartsome
cunningly harvested,
numbingly hypnoidal (87)

Reading Bök’s many DNA poems, we realize that all our bodies are made from highly restricted vocabularies. Bök wrote in the time of the first generation to witness the great bee die-off, when the chemical genius of bees was undone by other chemical geniuses who decided to spread insecticidal neonicotinoids everywhere. This was a time when one could openly question whether skill at synthetic genetic modification or care for a biodiverse world stood as the highest mark of intelligence.

Bök seeks to collaborate with the genome, writing along with it rather than through and over it. Many of the poems in the book take on the visual and organizational feel of nucleic material. Writing with the genome requires working with its generative and generational properties that occur at micro and macro scales. Bök’s project embraced writing with biological longevity and epochal time frames as enabling constraints. How do you write and read for (at least) a ten-thousand-year time span? There are clocks made to keep time for ten thousand years, and writings inscribed on tombs for radioactive nuclear waste meant for any possible reader who might stumble upon such a toxic archive. There are epic poems that believed themselves to be immortal and unforgettable and are long lost, while a fragment of an exchange of glances caught in Sappho’s scroll — “for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me” — still carries an erotic charge thousands of years later. Although Bök has sometimes claimed he aimed to write a poem that would effectively become immortal, the writing of poetry has never been about striving for one temporality or one version of longevity.

Bök’s The Xenotext helped open the field of xenopoetics in its time. Xenopoetics involves reading and writing in varying time scales and from varying points of view in addition to the human perspective. All texts have xenopoetic qualities as they ask: how would an individual, human or nonhuman, read X after time Y has elapsed? Xenopoetics amplifies concerns about the durability of a poem’s medium, message, and range of transmission. In addition to form and content, the question of contact becomes paramount for the poem. Xenopoetics considers the aesthetic and material properties that enable poems to send an image, a feeling, or a message to an unknown reader in an unknown time across an unknown cultural gap situated in an unknown land. The xenopoem, with Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 as an example, stresses the conjunction of form, content, and contact. Xenopoetics engages the medium to transmit the message and questions what message transmission might mean at species and planetary levels.[1]

Bök’s “Alpha Helix” instantiates xenopoetics by casting the helix as one of the primary forms of the cosmos, a swirl of matter-energy that can offer a platform for anything from bad weather to biological lifelines. The helix form, here iterated by the pronoun “it,” bears writing and life across the universe:

Whatever lives must also write. It must strive to leave its gorgeous mark upon the eclogues and the georgics already written for us by some ancestral wordsmith. (140)

It is the little vortex that can torque the course of evolution for every micrococcus. (141)

It is but a fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever, the primacord escorting a spark through every padlock on every doorway shut against the future. (141)

It is but a tightrope that crosses all abysses. It is but a tether that lets us undertake this spacewalk. Do not be afraid when we unbraid it. (146)

Bök believed that the poem and the genome could together extend the xenopoetic properties of both into new time signatures and new aesthetic conditions. Bök wonders throughout Book 1 that DNA may already be a xenotext, and perhaps already has a message encoded within, or can be a message-medium in the future. Probably all advanced civilizations in the universe manipulate the composite living elements of their existence, and they all probably question why such manipulation should be done at all and what the problematic consequences of such power can entail. But maybe the genome itself already has such questions and concerns embedded in it, as Bök writes:

Tell me, Wraith and Reader, tell me: Will love save us from our fear that we are here alone? What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos? What if such a beacon goes unnoticed, like a dying flame in the darkness? What if only the most wicked people in the world (the pharaohs, the warlocks, the assassins) ever get to read this signal from outer space? What if the message, when decoded, says nothing but a single phrase repeated: ‘We despise you! We despise you!’ What if we find the evidence for such hate embedded in our genomes? Even now, colonies of dark ants from a species called Mystrium shadow feed themselves upon the blood of their young. Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. (19)

How long does that “you” last? That address, that mode of lyrical speaking, that personified word, that body, that intimate other, that way of reading and being read, that form among forms. How can poems and genomes be ways of transmitting that “you” for ten thousand years?

Let me harken back to a lovely tweet from Bök that I keep returning to, where he states: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan.”

But recall Sappho’s burning eyes: a furtive look can last longer than the records of kings. Already we see patterns of divorce are having planetary effects — that is what geologists in Bök’s time called the Anthropocene. No one knows for sure what ephemeral messages may end up enduring longer than messages borne in a microbe’s practically immortal genetic coils. Like cave paintings that record the story of a hunt for a shamanic animal that has now long since gone extinct, poems are things for capturing amazement, sometimes ephemeral and sometimes monumental, in the amber of overly formalized language. So, for this xenoreview, I leave this for the next unknown reader in an unknown time:

I am still amazed that astrocapitalists insist on mining yet another asteroid, when poets on Earth struggle to write about their devotion to remain tied to a single wobbly planet.

I am still amazed that yet another new synthetic form of bacterial life intended to produce and store energy has been generated in a lab, when luminous colonies of coral keep living and dying in the ocean, trying to maintain themselves between stone and bone as the seas digest all our discarded polymers.

I am still amazed that space agencies insist on sending more robots on one-way missions out of the galaxy, when a planet full of people keep falling in love, divorcing, or otherwise pouring out their desires in the billions to anyone who will listen.

1. For other examples of xenopoetics in Bök’s era, see Will Alexander, Mari-Lou Rowley, Jack Spicer, Ed Roberson, and Aimé Césaire. 

Brian Teare's critical ekphrasis

A review of 'The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven'

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Photo of Brian Teare (right) by Ryan Collerd, courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven: Reading Agnes Martin

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven: Reading Agnes Martin

Brian Teare

Ahsahta Press 2015, 98 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-1934103623

The Agnes effect

We all have our sacred texts — not necessarily religious in derivation — texts that offer comfort, that answer an unarticulated need. In Brian Teare’s fifth book, he charts his shifting relationship to the painter Agnes Martin, to whom he turns in the midst of a devastating and illegible illness. Teare’s book functions as a record of this experience and an interrogation of it. Martin’s interpretation of the value of suffering informs his decision to turn away from her: “Agnes is my teacher until she isn’t.”[1]

If you have never read any of Agnes Martin’s writings,[2] it is possible that none of this will make sense to you. Martin’s voice contains an incredible amount of charisma. It’s the combination of eccentricity and conviction that makes her so loveable, in my experience. Her short essays, lineated so that they look suspiciously like poems,[3] manage to be both didactic and deeply spiritual, punishing and idealistic — think Gertrude Stein’s bossiness and inclination towards repetition, Matsuo Basho’s haiku of the solitary traveler, crossed with the lyric pedagogy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In short, reading these writings, it feels like Martin is talking to you. She positions herself as a teacher — and in fact, many of her writings were originally composed as lectures. 

Teare is certainly not alone in his obsession with Martin; since her exodus to New Mexico in the late ’60s, she has served as guide/guru/muse for many artists and writers. The mythography built up around Martin is understandable given her rejection of social life (not easy to do in the art world), her withholding of biographical information, her esoteric writings, and her highly singular style of painting (the grid) and working (constantly).

In 2015, one year after the tenth anniversary of her death, Nancy Princenthal published a biography of Martin,[4] and an extensive exhibition with a corresponding monograph opened at the Tate Modern.[5] Both of these projects attempt to take on Martin somewhat comprehensively (for Princenthal, this includes an accounting of Martin’s struggles with mental illness). I’m sure I won’t shock anyone by noting that poetry, unlike mainstream publishing and the art economy at large, is not a particularly profit-driven market. That being so, how does Teare’s project both overlap with and veer off from the others? Who will read it, I wonder? Admirers of Agnes Martin who are not scared of poetry? Readers of poetry who regularly engage with the visual arts? You?

“rectangle and square / a thinking couple” (45)

My formats are square but the grids never are absolutely
square; they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a
sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do
it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it
lightens the weight of the square, it destroys its power.[6]

Teare stages the drama of his illness graphically in his poem “There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work as a result.” While the overall shape of the poem is a box (square or rectangle, hard to say), two discrete sections make up this shape. The first, identifying the “clinic a proscenium / I return to as audience / to watch my body” (8), resembles a right-angled r or sideways L, double-spaced and reaching into the corners. The performance of healing described in the first section is just that — an empty gesture.

The second stanza, square and single-spaced, occupies the bottom-right corner. The setting is the poet’s bathroom, where, in another nod to Martin, the tiles are “blue square framed in white.” The thinking body moves from being a spectator to a producer of somatic knowledge: “the sharp pure urge to puke.” And yet, this knowledge yields no answers, only repetition and a growing disidentification with the body’s (il)logic: “my body fits to itself roughly / a blade chafing its sheath” (8). Again, we see the uneasy fit of one shape to another, unity achieved at the cost of a chafing rub.

Most of the titles of these poems are single lines extracted from Martin’s writings; some of the others are names of paintings or drawings (where “name” is either “Untitled” or a list of dimensions and materials). The titles hover above Teare’s poems, grey to the poem’s black ink, of a larger, thinner font, almost translucent. Their function is similar, suggesting loose relations, a conversation, starting points. Teare’s typography is utterly attentive to the page as compositional field — the design of the book, wider than standard, stretches the page into an almost square. The form of the poems endlessly deviates from, and yet always point back to, Martin’s “thinking couple,” so that the negative space is just as visible as the text.

Teare investigates the field of composition from his very first poem — in a deictic gesture, he calls attention to “where my body first enters the picture” (3). Alluding to the juxtaposition between what is felt and what is seen, he invokes “the loom upon which materiality turns / pictorial.” Even within the more discursive “field of consciousness” (22), Teare is still aware of the visual field of his own poem: “the frame as white as the time / I spent under anesthesia.” The presence of the body as an interruption is depicted in the image of the “white hospital bed / before I get into it” (19). Here, the pristine surface, or “a really empty painting” transcends its two-dimensional state and “the picture fills up” (19). The intrusion of the body into the field speaks to the material traces or markings left behind by the painter/writer, but at the same time reveals the absence, or rather, the marked exclusion of, the body, in Martin’s writings.

“a form that pains” (26)

Illness shapes time: “illness keeps / a little calendar” (14), but we see that the poems also serve to give form to illness: “the grid’s a little calendar I put each minute into” (25). “I don’t experience pain as repetition” (31), Teare writes, and yet: “my body becomes / a repeated thought” (53). Learning to be with pain, Teare attempts to articulate in language that which is inexpressible, to work within a form that takes into account the rupture and repetition of illness: “I mean I’ve had to fashion a form that pains.” While repetition and seriality emerge as primary concerns in The Empty Form, creating another hinge with Martin, for Teare, adherence to a strict form appears to function more like an irritant than a salve.

The three sections of the book punctuate a movement away from Martin and Western medicine and towards teachers and texts that are associated with Chinese medicine and Eastern spiritual practices. Teare traces out the development of his somatic knowledge in the transmission of the healing practice of acupuncture, a markedly different experience from visiting a public clinic: “each needle // the healer sets / in my flesh // is a fact / I feel” (29). Acupuncture needles, figured by forward and backwards slashes, are brought into the poems as borders, and the porousness of the body as well as the page is acknowledged.

The response to pain and its attendant affect, suffering, prompts a sharp turn away from Martin’s doctrines. In “The Untroubled Mind,” the essay that introduced Teare to Martin, she writes: “suffering is necessary for freedom from suffering.”[7] Martin’s conception of suffering infuses it with meaning, and even more, value. Combining the tenets of a Christian belief system with Martin’s teachings, Teare writes:

sometimes I still feel
very why me about it

very Christian I mean
I’m convinced

I believe suffering
interpreted correctly

could be really useful (39)

Because the influences and sources of Martin’s writings are so varied (and even, at times, contradictory), incorporating “a range of life-views, including Old Testament Calvinism, expressions of visionary Christianity, Platonism, transcendentalism, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and last but not least Taoism,”[8] it is impossible to place her in an exclusively “Eastern” or “Western” philosophical framework. It may be that in his dealings with Martin, Teare, like the artist herself, conflates and bifurcates according to his own design.

Teare places his experience of illness alongside Martin’s idealism in a single column:

I know she believed

art is better hungry

before I became ill

I could eat without fear

my lover could enter me

and I desired nothing else (17)

But to move from this stuck place, he must reconsider the split that he has come to believe in: his life before and after pain: “perhaps I was not yet conscious of it / the way a wire kept the rose upright in bloom” (43). In his closing poem, he undoes illness from its association of a fall/The Fall, redirecting his language away from a narrative of inevitable decline: “it took a long time     to arrive at being ill / without falling” (72).

The value of solitude, the rejection of society and companionship, is key to Martin’s path. The isolation of illness however, is not chosen. The unnamed illness that Teare deals with in this book removes even the comfort of diagnosis, and the community that could spring up around a shared illness or disability.[9] And yet, Teare refuses to choose the stance that he feels Martin advocates in the poem title “People that look out with their backs to the world represent something that isn’t possible in this world.” Teare, conversely, maintains: “there’s nowhere the world doesn’t hold me here” (64).

Just as his experience of illness can’t be processed without outside reference (clinics, symptoms), his work — that is, his poems — is likewise involved in the world, a striking departure from Martin’s doctrine of inspiration (the work arrives premade to the waiting artist). Teare, however, emphasizes inextricability and interdependence: “as though a body or lyric / doesn’t begin outside itself” (27).

“needle each word / until it bleeds” (52)

Teare’s wrestling with the lyric has been a conspicuous and conscious element of his work for some time. In his second book, Pleasure, where he pushes up against the limits of the elegy, he writes, in a poem titled “Dreamt Dead Eden” of “the lyric, which can’t keep anything / alive.”[10] This struggle is in evidence here too, from the very first poem: “I insert a knot / between the warp and weft of the observed surface words / to stop the work of the lyric” (3). There is something about a too-shiny and too-neat object that Teare distrusts.

Perhaps this distrust is what initially draws him to Martin — and also what causes him to reject her. Martin did not romanticize or elevate the natural world, nor did she prioritize somatic knowledge, preferring to dwell within the realm of the ideal form. But I wonder, returning to the paintings themselves, if Martin’s desire to unlock the grid and undermine the square, if her frayed margins and stray lines don’t bear a similarity to Teare’s need to break open the lyric, to “needle each word / until it bleeds.”

though lyric is a woven grid
hard stresses threading weft
through the warp of stacked
lines the last stanza finished
I put my ear to its little box (55)

The placement of Teare’s ear reveals a relationship between the artist and the art object that is tactile and dynamic. For Martin, the work is totally distinct from its maker; the intellect and the body are not to be sources for the work: “All human knowledge is useless in artwork.”[11] Teare’s poetics emphasize proximity and interrelation. Here, artistic production is inseparable from the body’s sensations, and suffering, the “human knowledge” at the center of these poems, “means nothing at all” (60).

1. Brian Teare, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven: Reading Agnes Martin (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2015), 69.

2. The most widely known collection, and the one to which I refer here: Agnes Martin, Writings/Schriften, ed. Dieter Schwartz (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 1992).

3. “The Untroubled Mind” was composed via dictation. Jaquelynn Baas, “Agnes Martin: Reading for Writings,” in Agnes Martin, ed. Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell (New York: DAP, 2015), 225.

4. Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015).

5. The show is coming to LACMA in April 2016 and the Guggenheim in New York the following October.

6. Martin, Writings/Schriften, 29.

7. Martin, “Untroubled Mind,” 41.

8. Bass, “Agnes Martin,” 224.

9. In his book Pleasure (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2010), for example, Teare situates the loss of his partner to AIDS within the context of the AIDS epidemic.

10. Brian Teare, Pleasure, 7.

11. Martin, 153.