Scholars to come

A review of Matt Miller's 'Collage of Myself'

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

Matt Miller

University of Nebraska 2010, 320 pages, $40.00, ISBN 978-0-8032-2534-3

The image on the cover of Matt Miller’s new book, Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, will look especially familiar to anyone who has googled the good gray poet in the past few years. While the William J. Linton engraving of Walt Whitman, itself based on a photograph by George C. Potter, first appeared within the poet's published work in 1875, the last place many of you may have seen this “rough-cut mask” was on the homepage of the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic teaching and research tool that makes Whitman’s work — from his earliest extant manuscripts up through the so-called “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass — available free online.

As a graduate student at the University of Iowa and now as an assistant professor at Yeshiva University, Miller has worked extensively with the Archive, most notably on the transcription, encoding, and dating of Whitman’s earliest notebooks. In ways far more significant than the book’s cover, Collage of Myself — the first full-length study of Whitman’s innovative compositional practice, a collage-like process that Miller establishes as a predecessor to the visual art of Picasso and Braque — is an homage to the Archive and a testament to the promise of digital research in the humanities. Utilizing manuscript material now easily accessible through the Archive — notebooks, drafts, and prose fragments that in the past scholars would have had to travel around the United States to see — Miller has produced a thoughtful examination of Whitman’s theory and practice of collage first developed in and through the poet’s writing shortly before the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

By turning to Whitman’s own notebooks — the most reliable documentation of the poet’s process — for an understanding of how Whitman sprang, seemingly full-grown, onto the poetry scene in 1855, Miller’s book stands as a significant departure from earlier studies that have strained to explain Whitman’s sudden discovery of a signature verse style. In this sense, Miller’s turn inward towards the manuscripts is refreshing and provocative. And it’s through this methodology that he is able to reconstruct for us the collaging Whitman: a poet whose theory of language enabled him to appropriate the writing of others and incorporate it into his own; a poet who also almost compulsively cannibalized his own writing, “packing and unpacking” words, phrases, and even whole lines as he moved closer and closer to the mature style recognizable in poems like (the one eventually titled) “Song of Myself.” For Miller, the evidence of a procedural, collage poetics found in Whitman’s notebooks is a direct extension of the poet’s philosophy of language, a performance of the poet’s approach to “all writing that he both found and wrote.” According to Miller, Whitman: 

extracted phrases and lines that attracted him, and in the process of moving them from their initial sources into new contexts, he filtered and changed their tone and meaning. His appropriation of found text is not a weakness or a disguise; it is something essential to his writing process and reflective of his lifelong involvement with language: as a newspaper writer, a typesetter, an editor, a layman scholar and linguist, and a nomadic young poet who wrote while on the move.

Miller offers several examples of the “radical portability” legible in Whitman’s earliest manuscripts, demonstrating how Whitman “saw the language of his drafts not as a series of interlocking units in an implacable architecture, but as blocks of text to be toyed with, cut and pasted (sometimes literally so) into ever new shapes and forms.” For those hooked on Whitman the Romantic, a bard of divine inspiration and ecstatic revelation whose Leaves of Grass begs to be read in the open air, Miller’s Whitman the Modern will come as a much needed shock. But even if you are reluctant to let go of that caricature of the poet you love (or just as likely hate — he does contain multitudes), Collage of Myself will remain a fundamental gateway to our understanding of Whitman’s proto-modernist poetic project. 

Whitman’s theory of the “poem of materials” (from an original manuscript).

As the characterization of “text” as “blocks” above may suggest, the Whitman that emerges from Collage of Myself is a poet highly attentive to the materiality of language. In his book’s most illuminating chapter, Miller demonstrates how Whitman, approaching language “as something that [preceded] his own creativity, as opposed to originating within himself and flaring up in inspired burst,” continually explored “the material nature of words on the page and the idea of words as materials, the building blocks … of both poems and people.” Whitman’s concept of a “Poem of Materials” — a phrase Miller picks up on from a manuscript in the Trent Collection at Duke University, available on the Archive as well as pictured here — is brought to life through an extended and subtle reading of “Song of the Broad-Axe.” For Miller, Whitman offers readers of “Broad-Axe” “two kinds of poetically reimagined materials — language and the productions of the axe … at the same time [stressing] the material nature of his art.”

But for all we gain from Collage’s turn inward towards Whitman’s writing process, some will be left looking for more comparative context, if not in the form of an overview of popular proto-collage practice during the mid-nineteenth century, at least through a glimpse at manuscript evidence demonstrating the essential differences between Whitman’s writing process and the compositional practices of his literary contemporaries. In one sense, Miller anticipates this critique; acknowledging the role the Archive played in the maturation of his project, he gestures, at least implicitly, toward the current impossibility of a comparable study of a writer like Martin Farquhar Tupper, or, even more surprisingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Miller provides the obligatory discussion of both Emerson and Tupper, two writers contemporaries often associated with Whitman, but nowhere are we given access to their manuscripts as we are to Whitman’s. Even a cursory look at Emerson’s or Tupper’s writing process might be enough to assuage any lingering doubt concerning the true originality of Whitman’s poetic and procedural breakthrough leading up to Leaves of Grass. Perhaps that’s the greatest gauntlet thrown by Collage of Myself: through his example, Miller calls for the creation of large, free, public archives that will enable, not necessarily challenges to his work, but the depth of scholarly engagement, the near total manuscript immersion Collage is able to achieve. For anyone who has spent time digging through Whitman’s manuscripts, digital or otherwise, you are often left wondering just how idiosyncratic Whitman’s tendencies are. Questions spring up ranging from those central to our appreciation of Whitman’s place in literary history — how are other writers “packing and unpacking” their manuscript lines? — to the more banal — could Whitman possibly be alone in drawing these little pointing hands everywhere? Those questions remain beyond the scope of Miller’s project; however, the strength of Collage of Myself lies in its astounding depth, even if at times we are left searching for a broader manuscript context. Collage of Myself thus invites us to create that context, calling poets, scholars, and those at the forefront of the digital humanities to facilitate this level of critical inquiry for a new generation of readers. In this challenge to the future of literary studies, Collage of Myself is worthy of its subject, Walt Whitman, a poet “hungry for equals night and day.”

The decidedly American, Whitmanic grain

A review of Matthew Henriksen's 'Ordinary Sun'

Ordinary Sun

Ordinary Sun

Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean 2011, 120 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9844752-2-3

To address Matt Henriksen’s poetry, we start with a passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

… from the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.

I cannot think of a better definition of poetry’s visionary impulse. The poet employs his or her senses in the service of a perception that is not of the order of this world. It is a mode of perception that points to another world right here in our everyday homelessness. The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.

Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain. His first book, Ordinary Sun, is a record of his process of discovery and invention as he has harnessed various strains of the American Visionary. Throughout the book we find Blakean prophecy as filtered through the Beats’ rebellion against the limits of stifled selfhood; we find James Wright’s pessimism bound in pastoral; we find a Stevensian beatitude; we find Romantic Brooklyn (R.I.P.); we find the haunting Southern convulsions of Frank Stanford; and we find the transcendentally homespun observations of the Williams lineage. 

This list of Henriksen’s influences, though incomplete, should indicate the calico quality of Ordinary Sun. Its varied inspirations are never far from the textual surface, while prosodically the poetry bounces between the baroque and the plainspoken. In terms of tone, it is a book of extremes. Take for instance its opening stanza, from the quietly powerful patchwork, “Copse”: 

An eye is not enough.
A hand rubs an unpainted fence. 

Compare this to the book’s final poem, “Ordinary Sun,” a simultaneously propulsive and idling text that at its opening declares:

The Center that Pretends to Start the Engine
Ignores the Regime of Endless Centerlessness.

The contrast between beginning and end should be telling. In “Copse” the straightforward statement that “an eye is not enough,” suggesting an uncanniness of the body (of being homeless in one’s body), gives way to a subtle, visionary treatment of bodies moving through domestic space. In “Ordinary Sun” the center continually gives out as the poem thrashes through various registers, from the bombastically surreal to the plainspoken. The book ends where it begins: with a disarmingly straightforward couplet, suggesting this time a literal homelessness: 

When she came to the curb
I held out my paper cup. 

Between beginning and end is a dappled collection of poetry that stems from a deep engagement with the doubled, dual perception of the sort Whitman espouses in his Preface. If the couplet is the stanzaic form that best conveys both duality and the turning of thought, it is no surprise then that it is the most commonly employed form in the book. Henriksen is a strong turner. Viz:

We’ll miss the world bitterly.
We’ll go on without it.

(“Ordinary Sun”)

Light from the garage: hands from the tree.
Memories stopped making sense.


Sometimes she’d touch
a body in her empty bed.


At such moments Henriksen touches a sort of Stevensian grace. In fact, the Stevensian Moment — when the turning of thought is seduced by a hypnotic prosody — peppers the poems throughout Ordinary Sun. It can be heard in phrases like “all edges edging,” or “cloudless marrow burning stones,” or “Birds beyond the window cried the glass.” At other moments — no less charged with Vision — the rhythms are softer, the images homelier: “A bucket in the garage burned.”

What is interesting about Henriksen’s disparate influences, prosodies, and attentions are the tensions that arise between them. One could dismiss this mottledness as an indication that Henriksen has not absorbed his influences, though the presence of so many lineages converging in his poetry is one thing that makes it unique. It is refreshing to read a contemporary book of poetry that is diverse in its attentions without boasting its diversity. This evidences Matt’s fidelity to poetic process, which is finally a fidelity to poetry. But to place process over product — especially when the poet is not working in fixed forms — will lead to varied results. And the results are varied in Ordinary Sun. Take for instance these four lines from “Carolla in the Midden”:

In refuse we find a hidden refusal
to die, a shape

that never forms, a blinking eye
that will not shut. 

The first turn — “In refuse we find a hidden refusal / to die” — embodies a negative truth on level with Williams. It offers a clean angle on the connection between garbage and death that, though abstract, is married to sense. But “a shape // that never forms” is overly abstract, and “a blinking eye / that will not shut” is easy surrealism. These second and third turns are both abstractions severed from perception — they veer into a realm of entropic symbolism. The impulse here is visionary, but in moments like these Henriksen loses his vision.

While I feel that in these lines Henriksen is attempting to stretch the poetry beyond its impulse, they do stand as further evidence of his motley poetics, combining as he does so many seemingly contradictory influences. One of Jack Spicer’s many characterizations of the act of poetic creation was of the poet wrestling with the limits of the poem. Here Matt is wrestling with the possibilities inherent in past poetic traditions by reconfiguring them in new ways, as he does throughout the book. It just doesn’t always work.

When Henriksen’s attentions follow objects perceived, employing a visionary perception rooted in the senses, the poetry is strongest:

We set our bodies on the grass.
Stones held our breath. 


The plainspoken tone here conveys a densely charged moment. The scene described could be one of astral birth, just as much as bodily death. There are dual undertones of the terror of disembodiment and of creature comfort. It is a true marriage of the quotidian and the visionary, the Of This World and the Of Another World, the core dualities of Henriksen’s purview.

While moments of Ordinary Sun seem oddly abandoned, I find a poetry that makes visible its lacunae — or its scars — much more engaging than another well-wrought urn. Maybe Henriksen knows when the spirit of the work has left him, when the corpse of the words on the page is all that’s left. Rather than cut open the corpse and attempt to Frankenstein a new poem, he lets us readers do what we will with what he has.

Of course I am hypothesizing here, projecting a philosophy of poetic composition onto Henriksen’s practice based entirely on my own bias. Maybe “a blinking eye / that will not shut” will be the one relic from this book to survive a millennium from now, after several apocalypses have occurred and only shreds of shreds of our era remain. If so, so be it.

But here is the point: Ordinary Sun offers a variety of visionary embraces of ordinary life, and in much of its prosody is an acute awareness of the ways inspiration momentarily inhabits and slips away from us. Poetry does not care whether the poet is able to finish the poem. Matt Henriksen not only knows this, he has reckoned — and wrestled — with it within the space of poetry itself. 

These books need to be collaborated with

A review of Debrah Morkun's 'The Ida Pingala' and Aimee Herman's 'to go without blinking'

The Ida Pingala

The Ida Pingala

Debrah Morkun

BlazeVOX 2011, 100 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964074-3

to go without blinking

to go without blinking

Aimee Herman

BlazeVOX 2012, 156 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60-964080-4

Debrah Morkun’s new book enacts commingling (“here is my torn dress made of semen”); is a non-monetary fiduciary — an ethical holding between the Ida Nadi (lunar Nadi, site of comfort, nurturing, said to control mental processes and to be the site of the “feminine” aspects of personality, represented by the color white (“the forest was open”)) and the Pingala Nadi (solar Nadi, stimulating, said to control vital somatic processes and oversee masculine aspects of personality, represented by the color red (“a virile member of the eternally repeated word”)).

This book is: “two ancient things combusting” … “sperm glass egg socket.”

Nadis are not nerves, they are channels; conduits. I often consider Nadis as elongated mini trenches. As veils removed from the vein for the sake of flow. Always to increase flow. If only, to increase flow toward pure desire. Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is a toward. A toward and a through. This toward and through is relevant in considerations and pursuits of Kundalini (coiled/corporeal energy), of which Morkun’s The Ida Pingala is interested.

Kundalini has an extremely compelling relation to the possibility of unlocking or inhabiting pure desire. This desire is not inherently in/of the genitals. It is located in the base of the human spine and needs to be cultivated toward the genitals. The Ida Pingala is a draw by libidinal amplitudes. It is by way of this libidinality that Morkun brings gender and sex (as elements capable of relation with each other and with other elements) into her book.

The content of this book moves in and out of many different types of relations (from “a glittery Honda Civic” to “the halls of saints”). Objects, individuals and sensations interact here. The Ida Pingala (without particular delineation of such movements) funnels and simultaneously switches as matter passes through it. Is this book a handbook for working with the eroses of the psyche from within embodied states?

The Ida Pingala’s cover is comprised of a dual statue: exhibiting both a stone woman and a stone phallus. Here, seeming opposites are brought in aspect-based relation to each other; are in an energetic cull toward uniting. And we, as readers, are swallowed up in this funneling and switching.

The work (with uniting) that Morkun engages here, is something that reveals Morkun’s genius re: torque-instigations of previously perceived oppositions. This book is a virtuous hunt for fusions (“motley firmament”), for strange exposures and disclosures that are revealed by way of unforeseen or odd conjunctions. Whole view focused on overlapping; on certain studded myopias as they are amalgamated.

It is true that as we move from one Nadi to the next (the sunset to the sunrise to the sunset) we can learn to exercise one and two together in personal ways. But, this takes time — takes effort. Takes embodying duration and focus in order to get to “a tradition of eternity … tradition of hoisting.”

Hoisting as a way to host well, a lingam made of petals. A largess, being needfully translated by pearls.


Aimee Herman’s to go without blinking is a particular and fierce calisthenics (a “smothering [of] loins”) being performed around a deeply intended apparatus. Herman states in the intro of the book: “this body of text practices trilingualism and contraction.” I would go so far as to say that the book also practices triangulating and contradiction. With these four activisms acting in combination, we as readers are able to experience tgwb as something that both haunts us and hinges us. I would not go so far as to say that we ever get a hug (or anything approximating it) in this book, but we do get a hinge, and as we move through it we find ourselves desperately swinging.

To move by choice through something of such “sacred disturbance,” as tgwb is, is important. I am saying that this book needs to be collaborated with; needs us to collaborate with it. There are various points (in the process of moving through) where we are seduced into staying. It is almost as if an under-voice says: “just keep reading,” and we do. We must. Herman recognizes that the deep sway of her workings (in twgb) are not nice or simple or pretty. They are violent and juicy (they need to be so). They are “slick back polynomial” driven by an accumulation of jolt-like parts. The aspects of this book perform like a sweaty “bravado of sprouts fondling soil.”

In tgwb we are barraged (I always mean that as a compliment) with gritty and edgy content (“She was persuaded to use her cunt as a cabinet” / “Gabriel from Chickopee tried to fuck the gay out of me and almost got away with it” / “I would tear out my cunt and give you mine just so you could fondle decontamination”) — so much pertinent information regarding identities, genders, aesthetics, wishes, body realities, artifice, suffering, etc. I feel like Herman has somehow gotten it all into this marvelous book!

If we are conscious as we go through metallurgical transformations, what remains? These poems. These poems whereby beauty is able to be an embodiment of disparate aspects: “She thinks of beautiful women, wearing her fingers, wrinkled, like an article of clothing” / “She just wanted to know what it would feel like to be feminine: pigment of wax” / “When the stick of honey is gone, one must turn toward the bitter.” Herman turns us. We are here and we are gathering this butter.

These scenic genital-details are anything but gentle; I can hear my own scream building wildly as I read them. I scream inside of me for the arousal I feel. I scream inside of me for the anger I feel. I scream inside of me for the altered-ness I feel. I am not sure if Herman was meaning to induce readers to such states, but by sharing her life and visions, these scars — it has become impossible that we not feel these things right along with her.

At its core, tgwb is much like the heartfelt narratives of Lidia Yuknavitch’s novels, but Herman’s pieces are schisms of a form slowly coming together. By body, by light, by night. No Aimee, you are not the “only one to notice the night.” Because you are showing it, sharing it by way of tgwb, I notice this night with you.

And yes, dear Aimee, when you die, I will play at your funeral.  The song will be a full-handed violin melody reminiscent of the image of whole fruits inside of an enormous, ever elongating mouth: “washing [your psychic] mouth with fruit carcass” as a way to counteract all effects of the impositions you have encountered.

Architecture rings true

A review of Carol Watts's 'Occasionals'



Carol Watts

Reality Street 2011, 90 pages, $12.50, ISBN 978-1874400523

When the occasion arises, or for a particular occasion, or perhaps once in a while, or in the case of Carol Watts’s Occasionals, poems written from September 2006 until September 2007, or not poems but a poem in rigorously regular “cuts,” sixty-eight altogether, divided into four equal segments: “autumncuts,” “wintercuts,” “springcuts,” and “summercuts.”
The opening cut/poem begins with the largest durational sentence:

So sit down with your green tea
as if this was your last day, leave
the ledgers unfinished and overdue,
and tell me what you take with you,
now, the sounds of instruments ringing
on pavements, a crow mulling over
trails of aeroplanes, everyone out
in the town, and sirens going.                         (“autumncuts” I) 

The lines invoke Ezra Pound’s “And then went down to the ship,” but instead of setting keel to adventure on the sea, we are home, domestic, with “green tea” and “ledgers unfinished.” We are in a writer’s mind highly cognizant of the natural world, where “spiders hang / in mating season” and “Hydrangeas shoot pale green flowers.” Indeed the specific things in the occasional world are a part of the great delight a reader experiences in the poem. Specific, even in this first poem, in evocation of domestic, economic, personal, urban, aeronautic, and noisy domains. Yet all the things that invoke such a world are, as well, “words.” 

                                                  waiting for
replacement, by someone else, words.

Once into the poem, into its words and world, one finds not a simple definition or inhabitation of domestic and natural spaces, but a linguistic experience, akin to a Language poetry environment, except articulating not quite what one might expect of a language poem as, while the reality of the depicted world is constrained, it is also fully constructed and present, or at least its presence is fully indicated, fully gestured. And, as any painter knows, gesture carries a world of meaning.
Consider a passage from “springcuts” IV:

Memories, the warmth on green feathers
spreads, the cries. Of distant. Calling,
screeing of swifts, piling over. Sycamores,
so many green bunches of keys, floating.
Might unlock depth, is it now. That seasons
give way to density, will they. Flow,
as they did once. On another scale,
dropping. Wax, the way it cools, skin.
Rucking into something monumental later.

Divided by periods and commas, the representation of the real and of ideas remains fairly close to complete. The real is thus presented as something constructed, yet construction itself is called into question, and the markers we call punctuation also function simply as timing devices. Flow, that which we think of as continuous, stops and starts again. But not quite. “Of distant. Calling.” works as impediment to flow, yet also shows the partialness involved in memory. The whole and the fragment (the partial). Both are here. It is as though Watts has taken, from Louis Zukofsky, both “the” and “A,” and given us “this.” As the next cut, “springcuts” V has it, “In the nature of this.” The natural has a thisness about it, becomes a sign, lifted up.
Perhaps I am presenting Watts’s work as a philosophical idea, or even a demonstration of a poetic. And, while it might be that, it also contains the personal, which comes through in glimpses, inferences, double entendres.

                                       You think you have it.
Taped, then it returns and you see. Your
self, approaching. Unconscious, a deer
in the undergrowth, or embarrassed at.
Meeting, didn’t you just come by the other.
Other way, she might say, you. Answer, yes.
Are you caught out by each. But time goes,
it does not unpick from. Skin is older,
ready to crepe up behind you.                  (“springcuts” VIII) 

There occurs an urgent, sometimes joyous, sometimes startling physicality in Occasionals, with “cells bursting out of” (“springcuts” X), “vital heaving in city bodies” (“springcuts” XV). Yet if there occurs intense eroticism, it signals not just a personal experience, but the world as erotic embrace, as when “birds adapt, raid / brief tongue incursions. Sheltering, from. / Battery, then they dart in open. Dares, / how many. Sound, bound, soar more.” The erotic is, in this instance, a matter of language as well, so that, while the “tongue incursions” seem obvious, the climactic release powers through in “Sound, bound, soar more,” a culmination of openness and escape, linguistically speaking as well as literally soaring.
Toward the end of Occasionals Watts writes, “Life signs. It will be mayhem” (“summercuts” XVI). Rich life, in all its clarity, and all its messiness. Yet though rich and fulfilling, one always desires more. Fulfillment is momentary.

                        The way dancing spreads your
shoulders, is never enough.                           (“summercuts” XVII) 

Finally, no matter the thisness of the world, there is an implication of something else. The poem ends, 

                            Steam rises from the cup. Tell me who is.
Here, now. This. When my sheet is full. 

Here and now, but when? Where? This, but what? “My sheet” is my list of duties, but also the cover to my bed, and a metaphor for my life.
I have seldom read a poetry so exact, yet so longing, expressive of what just might be, somewhere. So abundant, yet with such awareness of our partialness. A poetry that makes of its sentences an architecture that invokes, at the same time, brokenness and clarity. Robert Duncan writes, in “Apprehensions”:

is a building. The architecture of the sentence
personal details,   portals
reverent and enchanting
construction from what lies at hand
                            to stand
for what rings true. 

Occasionals rings true. Truth is beauty, or truth is an architecture of beauty.

A language bent to its own unique use

A review of 'Between Words: Juan Gelman's Public Letter'

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public LetterBetween Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Juan Gelman

Coimbra Editions 2010, 126 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9826556-2-7

Juan Gelman is an Argentine poet, born in 1930. Although he began writing and publishing at an early age, he seems to have received major recognition only rather late in life. In 1997 he won the Argentine National Poetry Prize, followed by several other prestigious awards, culminating with what’s considered the highest Spanish language literary award, the Cervantes Prize, in 2007.

Considering this level of acclaim, English translations are still fairly sparse. Amazon has only two listings besides the volume at hand. One, “Unthinkable Tenderness,” is a 1997 University of California Press broad selection, edited and translated by the late Joan Lindgren. The other is “The Poems of Sidney West,” a 1969 sequence styled a “pseudo-translation” in which Gelman assumes the persona of a cowboyish United States poet he pretends to be translating. The English translation by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Nuñez was published in 2009 by Salt Publishing in the UK. Not listed is an earlier Coimbra Editions selection, “Commentaries and Citations, also translated by Lisa Bradford.

A Google search will reward the querier with a downloadable PDF version of Sidney West. And, also, translations of various individual poems by Hardie St. Martin, most notably at Michael Rothenberg’s e-zine Big Bridge.

Because it includes representative poems from various phases of his life along with a detailed timeline, “Unthinkable Tenderness” may be the most useful English introduction to Gelman. But it necessarily provides only selected nibbles from Gelman’s twenty-some books. It also lacks Spanish enface, and given the translation quandaries posed by Gelman’s innovative language, and discussed below, this is a real drawback to a more than casual reader.

“Between Words,” a bilingual edition, consists of a single short twenty-five-poem sequence, an extensive introduction by the translator, and a long afterword “conversation” between Gelman and Bradford. It stands well on its own, but the sequence gains additional weight when read in the context of Gelman’s life’s work as presented in Lindgren’s edition.

The legacy of the disappeared

On April 12, 1995, Juan Gelman used his column in the Buenos Aires newspaper Pagina /12 to write “An Open Letter to My Grandson or Granddaughter.” Some excerpts might, perhaps, provide a useful introduction to “Between Words”:

Within the next six months you will turn nineteen. You would have been born one day in October 1976 in an army concentration camp, El Pozo de Quilmes, almost certainly. A little before or a little after they assassinated your father with a shot in the head from less than a half meter’s distance. He was helpless and a military detail assassinated him, perhaps the same one that kidnapped him along with your mother in Buenos Aires that 24th of August …

Your father’s name was Marcelo; your mother’s, Claudia. Each was twenty years old at the time, and you were six months in your mother’s womb when this happened. They moved her — and you within her — to Quilmes when she was about to give birth. She must have given birth there under the eyes of some doctor/accomplice of the military dictatorship. They took you from her then, and you were placed — it usually happened like this — in the hands of some sterile couple, military or police force, or some judge or journalist friendly to police or military …

Thirteen years have passed since the military left the government, and nothing is known of your mother. On the other hand, in a sixty-gallon oil drum which the military filled with sand and concrete and threw into the San Fernando River your father’s remains were found thirteen years after the fact. He is buried now in La Tablada. At least in his case there is that much certainty.

It is very strange for me to be speaking of my children as your parents-who-never-were. I do not know if you are a boy or a girl. I know you were born. Father Fiorello Cavalli of the Secretariat of the Vatican State assured me of that fact in February 1978. What has been your destiny since, I ask myself. … I suppose that you have been lied to a lot …

I have wondered all these years what I would do if you were found — whether to drag you out of the home you knew; whether to speak with your adoptive parents and establish visiting rights, always on the basis of your knowing who you were and where you came from. The dilemma came up and circled around time and time again, whenever the possibility arose that the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo had found you. I would work it out differently each time, according to your age at the moment. It would worry me that you’d be too small or not small enough to understand what had happened, to understand why your parents, whom you believed to be your parents, were not, even though you might want them to be. I was worried you would suffer a double wound that way, one that would cause structural damage to your identity as it was forming …

You are almost as old now as your parents were when they killed them, and soon you will be older than they got to be, they who have stayed twenty forever. They had dreams for you and for a world more suitable and habitable. I would like to talk to you about them and to have you tell me about yourself; to be able to recognize in you my own son and to let you find in me what I have of your father — both of us are his orphans …

An earlier open letter

In the late 1970s, Gelman began writing a sequence of poems addressed to his lost son, Marcelo, that would be published in 1980 under the title Carta Abierta, a mi hijo. At the time, he was a de facto exile from Argentina, living in Europe. He had been sent to Rome as a public relations representative by the newly restored Peronist government, just before its factional descent into the civil “Dirty War.” Gelman’s loyalties were on the wrong side of the military junta that took control in 1976 and began kidnapping and eliminating “subversives,” many of whom were simply disaffected youths and students with perceived leftist sympathies. Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law were among the tens of thousands who subsequently “disappeared.”

While writing Carta Abierta, Gelman, who turned fifty in 1980, was suffering not only the loss of his son and son’s family, but the loss of his country. Although not officially proscribed, his left-revolutionary sympathies — expressed journalistically as well as poetically — were well known, and he would likely have been “eliminated” if he returned to Argentina. The lists of the “disappeared” were never public.

Given the immediacy of these wounds, Carta Abierta seems an almost superhumanly heroic undertaking. It’s not the “open letter” you might expect in the circumstances. There’s no polemic, no politics, no obvious rage. Simply a conversation between father and son and a tangible, whispering loss. Redeemed not by solidarity or cause or country, but by a certain sensed music reminiscent, say, of a stabat mater. Or, maybe more consciously, in Gelman’s case, a mourning tango strain in which Argentina bears implicit musical witness.

The sequence opens:

hablarte o desharblarte / dolor mio/
manera de tenerte/ destenerte ;
pasión que munda su castigo como
hijo que vuela por quietudes/ por

arrobamientos/ voces /sequedades /…

… paredes
donde tu rostro suave de pavor
estella de furor/ a dioses / alma

to tell you or untell you /my sorrow/
a way of having you/ unhaving you/
passion that worlds its punishment like
a son who soars through serenes/ through

reveries/ voices / aridities …

… walls
where your fear soft face
explodes in fury / ah dieux / soul

Wordplay and word work

The passage above gives an initial sense of a language bent to its own unique use. The “slashes,” a hallmark of Gelman’s poetry, are explained by Gelman in the afterword interview: “As you know, slashes in poetry mean that the words below are part of the previous line that is too long to fit … I began to introduce them in the middle of a line, sometimes various lines, and at the end … to mark rhythms, sever concepts in order to show more than one of their faces, give a work the possibility to not fly, to show its skeleton, to signal a deficiency. I don’t know. This is how I see it now. One shouldn’t place too much credit in a poet’s explanation of why he writes as he does.”

The explanation is clear enough, but I think Gelman’s qualification beginning with “I don’t know …” adds a salient element. Bradford’s translator’s Orientation discusses Gelman’s “manipulation” of language in Carta Abierta at length. She notes an “exacerbation … of diminutives, hyperboles, archaisms, and grammatical gender disagreement, which gives the sensation of feminine discourse, as if the poet were trying to speak to his dead son in a mothering tongue …” And “to read this collection of poems in Spanish is an act of faith: ambiguity hovers above all meaning and demands an active participation in the deciphering of uncanny images and ‘amphibian’ words that grow out of permutations of words in combination or unorthodox grammatical forms.”

Bradford’s acceptance of this challenge is no doubt a major reason her translation was awarded the 2011 National Translation Award by the American Literary Translators Association. She raises several parallels, among them the “opaque and aleatory verse” of Language poetry and the complex “multi-perspectivity” of Celan.

I think Celan — who famously struggled with the inexpressibility of his mother’s murder in her murderers’ mother tongue — provides a closer frame of reference to Carta Abierta than Language poetry. Gelman’s “amphibian words” (his own term) are certainly not random-aleatory, here. An example, above, might be “a dioses” (ah gods), or Gelman’s slight variance on “adioses” (goodbyes) — which Bradford nicely renders as “ah dieux.” And unlike Language poetry, the work isn’t driven by an academic experimentation. Gelman’s comment on “not placing too much credit in a poet’s explanation” seems to imply a poetics driven by sub-articulate need. I can’t picture a serious Language poet so casually dismissing theory. As he also does elsewhere in the interview, on the subject of “amphibian” words: “As I’ve often said, in my case there are no philosophies; there are only necessities.”

But despite obvious emotional similarities with Celan, the “slashes” and neologisms (at least as translated here) seem communicative rather than hermetic innovations, enabling rather than confounding the reader. Bradford references Pierre Joris’s translation of Celan as a sometimes model, but I remember Joris, at an ALTA panel talk, expounding something along the lines of “If what you’ve translated makes sense, then you haven’t translated Celan properly.” Conversely, Bradford’s Gelman seems to speak in a language clarified by its eccentricity.

The translator’s conversation

Every successful poetry translation entails an active conversation between translator and source; and requires the interpreter to take on, as ably as possible, a personal attempt at poetry. If poetry is anything, it’s flight, and the chasm between prosaic reiteration and poetry in the target language can’t be methodically bridged by engineering. In this case, Gelman is already conversing with his lost son. If that elusive conversation between living and dead is to be maintained as the heart of the poems, adding a translator’s voice — even as a whisper — is tricky.

Bradford seems uniquely suited for the task. She’s an Ohio-born American who’s made her home in Argentina for years, where she not only teaches comparative literature at the university level, but also raises horses and cattle. Her sense of Argentine culture and idiom is probably as deep as any immigrant’s can be. She also had the advantage of direct contact with Gelman, so her “conversation” isn’t just with the text.

The first sense of her gently interjected voice comes with the title (which she mentioned she vacillated over throughout the project). The direct translation of Carta Abierta is simply “open letter.” “Public letter” is a much less often used variant in English. Her explanation for the final choice is straightforward: “What made me decide was … the political implication of his having become such a public figure, and since he so often works with paradoxes and opposites, it even seemed more poignant that [the poem] should become public, when it hasn’t been for years.”

For me, there are even more shades of appropriateness. An “open” letter is most often a complaint, directed to an institutional or personal offender. Carta Abierta is, on surface, apolitical, deeply personal, almost “private.” It’s written, not to the offenders, but to their victim. Its political implications are present only in the delicate probing of a wound caused by the oppressors’ bullet. It’s an “open” letter in the way that, say, the first Corinthian epistle is an open letter. St. Paul’s audience was gathered in the context of the crucifixion, and Gelman’s context is a national as well as a personal atrocity; an official, if secret, execution. But Gelman’s sequence, as with St. Paul’s “tongues of men and angels,” speaks to profundities beyond the crime. Beyond even the ironies that Bradford cites, “public” rather than “open” seems a more neutral, quizzical entree to the sequence, leaving the reader with less preconception.

A father’s mothering voice

As with any parent absorbing the death of a grown child, Gelman heartbreakingly revisits his son’s infancy, speaking at times in the pre-grammatical voice parents will use with toddlers and mixing genders, referring at one point to his son as “nina” and himself as “la padre.” As Bradford puts it: “we find the repeated use of diminutives and superlatives, typical of a woman’s speech when talking to a child, but sounding uncomfortably sentimental in English.” Perhaps, or maybe not. But Gelman’s word-bending requires “active” translation and Bradford’s perception of sentimentality coaxed her to add her own “motherly tone,” consistent, maybe, with the way a hip, educated contemporary mother might phrase things. For “hijito” (little son), she says “kindertot,” a usage that finds itself up to Gelman’s several coined word variations.

In poem III:

… ¿como reamarte/ amor callado en

lo que compraste con tu sangre nina?/ …

… how to retender you/ tenderness silenced in

what you bought with your kinderblood?/ …


… ¿almita que volas fuera de mi?/
¿tan me desfuiste que ya no veré
crepuscularte suave como hijo
companandome a pulso? /¿delantales

que la manana manano de sol?/

¿bacas que te pacieron la dulzura? /

little soul that flies beyond me? /
you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand? / kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?/

kows that grazed on your sweetness? / …

Bradford’s misspelling of “cows” follows Gelman’s toddlertalk, “bacas” for “vacas.”

To slash or not?

Reading the excerpts above, the question occurs: Are Gelman’s “slashes” more obtrusive in English than Spanish? Is their purpose equally served in both languages? If not, should a translator look for a more productive equivalent?

The conventional use Gelman describes for the Spanish slash — an indicator that a poem’s long line had to be broken to fit page space — is usually addressed in English simply by indenting the continued line or with a bracket. Would, something as simple as replacing the slash with a space read more naturally in English? Then, the lines above would read something like:

little soul that flies beyond me?
   you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand?   kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?
   kows that grazed on your sweetness?

Comparing the two, I think not. The slashes are, after all, probably as odd in Spanish as in English. And to my maybe overly imaginative ear, Gelman’s slashes are reminiscent of the breaths a tango squeezebox sucks in between notes. Or the wheeze of an old pedaled pipe organ; an earthbound counterpoint to fugue.

A sacramental saudade

There is no indication that Gelman, who is of Jewish heritage, is observant or has any particular religious affiliation. But Bradford’s observation that the sequence is akin to an “act of faith” is apt. In the afterword interview, Gelman references his reading of various mystic poets:

I became attracted to … Jewish medieval poets because of their expression of exile, particularly the early ones, and the mystic poetry of Saint John, Saint Teresa, the Beguines of Antwerp and other troubadours of God, Master Eckhart, etc. All of them manifested what I like to refer to as the absent presence of the beloved, and they kept me company. For them, God was absent. For me, it was my country, my friends and relatives who’d “disappeared” … And I would listen to the tango poets on a tape recorder — not only then and not out of mere nostalgia. I enjoy tango a great deal.

Gelman’s touchstone is tango, but his “absent presence” is probably as close a definition as possible of the supposedly inexpressible essence of tango’s Brazilian-Portuguese cousin saudade as expressed in fado.

As the sequence builds, the word alma (soul) appears more and more, not as the traditional solace of immortality, but as an ongoing organ of human pain and wandering loss. As in IV:

con la cabeza gacha ardiendo mi alma
moja un dedo en tu nombre /escribe las
paredes de la noche con tu nombre/
sirve de nada / sangra seriamente/

alma a alma te mira …

with head hung low my burning soul
dips a finger in your name/ scrawls
your name on the walls of night/
amounting to nothing/ solemnly bleeding/

soul to soul she watches you … 

Though secular in context, the tone here doesn’t seem all that incompatible with, say, Saint John of the Cross and the experience of spirituality as wound. But as the sequence progresses, Gelman’s conversation with the dead seems to conjure echoes of Rilke — especially some of the Sonnets to Orpheus and the passage in the first of the Duino Elegies that speaks about the “thwarted destinies” of dead youths, the strangeness: “For someone once held in endlessly apprehensive hands — to no longer exist, even your very own name tossed aside like a broken toy.” And in death: “Strange to see everything coherent fluttering loose around the room this way.”

In Rilke’s elegy, “Angels … often don’t know whether they’re traveling among the living or the dead.” And Gelman, in mourning, lives in that coexistent country. As in XIII:

… ¿puedo yo
desasirme de mi para ya asirte

por arrabales/ plazas donde busco?/
¿quedo pensando porque no te halle?/
¿ gano tu pérdida para perderme?/
¿desalmåndome llegue a tu almitar?

… son of mine/
are you flying around these sorrowings? / can i
unaffix me from myself to finally fix you

in the outskirts/ the parks where i search for you?/
do i win your loss to lose myself?/
unsouling myself to reach your shut eyed soul?

Or, in XXIV:

te destrabajo de la muerte como
puedo / pobre de vos le alma carmina
dentro de sî / y ojalå resplandezcan
piedras que pulo con tu respirar/

i unwork you out of death as best
i can /deprived of you the soul goes walking
within herself / and hopefully these stones

shine as i buff them with your breath/ …. 

At some invisible point leading up XXIV, the sequence has already begun to move from mourning to something akin to sacrament and consecration. As they near the end of the sequence, the poems seem to take on the role of a priest holding up the host at Mass. Gelman’s lost son seems to join “the ones” (in Rilke’s sonnet no. 14:1) “who sleep in the roots and grant us … this hybrid of speechless strength and kisses.” And Gelman the wounded exile seems to be finally able to bring himself to address his wounded homeland in the ending to XXIV:

… compañero
de los creidos/ de los afligidos/

por tu pobrear se alzan los soles que
illuminaban rostros/ sufrideras /
para que nadie se humillara / fuera
ternura que estuvieras / vivo / sos

… companion
to the staunch/ to the downtrodden/

because of you deprivings suns rise up /
illumine faces / sufferingblocks /
so no one need face humiliation / it would be
tenderness that you were / alive / you are

And in the ending to the final poem, XXV:

¿almas? / ¿bellisimo? / te descånsaspec
del desamor? / ¿amås? /¿alma que tierra/
¿abierta al sol de la justicia? / ¿hijas? /
¿incansable de puro desufrir?

do you soul? / bellisimo? / are you resting
from the unlove? / do you love? / soul that earths /
open to the sun of justice? / are you sonning? /
unwearied from pure unsuffering?

The public aspect

The sequence ends with a brief postscript dedication: the 24th of August, 1976, my son marcelo ariel and his wife claudia, pregnant, were kidnapped in buenos aires by a military commando squad. the son of both was born in a concentration camp. just as dozens of thousands of similar cases, the military dictatorship never officially recognized the “disappeared.” it spoke of “those forever absent.” until I see their bodies, or their murderers, I will never give them up for dead.

Although Carta Abierta can be read as a private meditation, it’s implicit in the title and the end dedication that it achieves its full strength as a public document. Gelman presents himself primarily as a mourning father, but he mourns as one of many Argentinians who were either directly or indirectly faced with what must have been the major cultural crisis of their generation. Argentina, of course, had a history of coups and military “praetorianism.” Yet the systemized process of violence that began in 1976 was unprecedented in both breadth and cruel efficiency.

The callousness seems particularly shocking in the extra-legal, but still official, process suffered by Gelman’s daughter-in-law: Abducted in the final trimester of pregnancy, presumably subjected to interrogation, and sentenced to death at parturition.

Whether openly condemned or not, how could she not have suspected? There’s something almost medieval, Inquisitorial, about such a killing. And what danger could a twenty-year-old present to the state that could justify such summary death sentences? As far as can be determined, Claudia was only one of several hundred pregnant young women, similarly “processed.”

Gelman’s body of work is large and diverse, he draws inspiration as much from history and poetic ancestors as from current events. Elsewhere, he filters his own exile and alienation through his “com /positions,” “commentaries” and “citations,” more or less collaborative translations, interjecting himself into poems by Saint Teresa and Jewish mystics.

The lively, wide ranging interview that ends “Between Words” makes clear that while Gelman’s poetry has always been involved with politics, he’s gone well beyond partisanship and isms. He may be left-sympathetic, but talks of departing “the CP” before being expelled. Talking about his own tastes in literature, he notes the independence of the muse from faction, refusing to criticize Borges for being insufficiently political; admits to enjoying both Pound and Celine despite their fascism and anti-Semitism: “You can read so many supposedly leftist poets, who are perfectly awful; frankly I’d much rather read Ezra Pound.” He evokes Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva as examples of poets responding to political oppression — a historic and human phenomenon plaguing right and left indifferently, and certainly not unique to Argentina.

Even so, browsing Joan Lindgren’s selections you become aware that the Carta Abierta sequence, while arguably the heart of the matter, is only a small part of Gelman’s response to the shock of the Junta years. In “Sheets,” a poem that appears to precede Carta Abierta, he begins: “sleep my son between sheets of grappa / I will protect you if it takes the whole bottle / while death surrounds this house …”

In another poem of the period, “Noises”: “those steps, are they looking for him? / that car, is it stopping at his door? / those men in the street: are they after him …”

Then, later in 1980 in “They Wait”: “we’re going to begin the fight again / the enemy / is clear and we’re going to begin again / we’re going to correct the errors of the soul / its pain / its disasters / so many little friends wasted / little sons wasted … we’re going to begin all of us / against the great defeat of the world / little compañeros who never end / or who burn like fire in the memory / again / and again / and again.” 

The public record

On February 28, 2011, The Guardian in London ran a lengthy story headed “Argentine Dictators Go on Trial for Baby Thefts.” Some excerpts follow:

Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone are accused in 34 cases of infants who were taken from mothers held in Argentina’s largest clandestine torture and detention centers. … Also on trial are five military figures and a doctor who attended to the detainees.

The case was opened 14 years ago at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a leading human rights group. It may take up to a year to hear testimony from about 370 witnesses … this is the first trial focused on the alleged plan to steal as many as 400 infants from leftists who were kidnapped, tortured and made to disappear during the junta’s crackdown on political dissent. …

The dictatorship generally drew the line at killing children, but the existence of babies belonging to people who officially no longer existed created a problem for the junta leaders. The indictment alleges they solved it by falsifying paperwork and arranging illegal adoptions by people sympathetic to the military regime.

… Some 500 women were known to be pregnant before they disappeared, according to formal complaints from their families or other official witness accounts. To date, 102 people born to vanished dissidents have since recovered their true identities with the aid of the Grandmothers, which helped create a national database of DNA evidence to match children with their birth families.

The stolen grandchildren of Estela de Carlotto, co-founder of the Grandmothers, and poet Juan Gelman are among the cases cited in this trial.

And, earlier, here’s an excerpt from an April 25, 2008, Canadian Press article on the award ceremony for Gelman receiving the Cervantes Prize in Spain:

Gelman’s son Marcelo and daughter-in-law Maria Claudia were killed during the Argentine dictatorship. Gelman spent years tracking down a granddaughter born of that marriage and reared in adoption in neighbouring Uruguay.

It is one of Argentina’s most famous cases of babies being born to political dissidents, taken from their mothers and given up for adoption. Gelman met his granddaughter Macarena for the first time in 2000. When she learned the poet was her grandfather, she changed her last name to Gelman. Macarena Gelman was among relatives of the poet who attended Wednesday’s ceremony.

A happy, though bittersweet, ending of sorts, but even so, as the article goes on to quote Gelman’s Cervantes Prize acceptance talk: “The wounds are still not closed. They beat in society’s foundations like a cancer that does not rest. The only treatment is truth. And then, justice.”