Reviews

The consolation of poetry

A review of two recent books by René Char

The Brittle Age and Returning Upland

The Brittle Age and Returning Upland

by René Char

Counterpath Press 2009, 164 pages, $17.95, ISBN 9781933996110

Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char

Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char

by René Char

Tupelo Press 2010, 101 pages, $16.96, ISBN 9781932195781

“It’s not going so good with me recently,” wrote William Carlos Williams to his friend Fred Miller on January 9, 1953. “What with [the] injury to my right flipper and the trouble they have cooked up for me over the Library of Congress job I’m in a bad way.”[1] He was not exaggerating. Williams was at the nadir of his life. Retired from medicine, convalescing after a particularly bad stroke, and redbaited out of his sinecure at the Library of Congress, his troubles must have seemed endless. Usually so sanguine, Williams’s poems from the period reflect this gloom. In The Desert Music of 1954 we read the apostrophe, “To a Dog Lying Injured in the Street”:

It is myself,
not the poor beast lying there
yelping with pain
that brings me to myself with a start —
as at the explosion
of a bomb, a bomb that has laid
all the world waste.

Gone are the debonair pooches of Paterson peeing on trees and mating in the park. “I can do nothing,” writes Williams — preparing us for a long plaint about his impotence — but then, lifting his head, he turns the sentence around:

but sing about it
and so I am assuaged
from my pain.[2]

Song, or poetry brings Williams consolation. As in the famous lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” — “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there”[3] — Williams discovers here the medicine which he practiced all his life. Doctor though he may be, however, Williams’s treatment in this case is not self-administered. “I think,” he says,

of the poetry
of René Char
and all he must have seen
and suffered
that has brought him
to speak only of
sedgy rivers,
of daffodils and tulips
whose roots they water,
even to the free-flowing river
that laves the rootlets
of those sweet-scented flowers
that people the
milky
way.[4]

The surprising if fitting Virgil to Williams’s Dante is the French poet René Char. I say fitting, because unlike Ezra Pound (who might also have come to mind in this dark hour), Char was a poet who suffered in the Second World War, fighting for the resistance, and yet made it through — pace Adorno — still writing lyric poetry and retaining an unimpeachable dignity and ethical rectitude. What better model for how to fight back, and to hold on to the things of this world with poetry? It is René Char who raises us above the lot of animals.

The cries of a dying dog
are to be blotted out
as best I can.
René Char
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs.
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts … [5]

Rousing sentiments indeed. And a fine recommendation for those of us encountering Char for the first time through Williams — as I myself was introduced to this French poet.

For a long time, this was, in fact, all I knew about René Char, never being quite zealous or miserable enough to look him up in the library. This changed when I saw two new translations of Char’s (predominantly) later poetry on the review shelf for Jacket2. The first was The Brittle Age and Returning Upland translated by Gustaf Sobin (Counterpath Press, 2009), and had, beside an accolade from Maurice Blanchot, the same quotation from Williams that I have just cited on the back cover. The second was Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press, 2010). Both looked refreshingly short, came at a price that I was glad I didn’t have to pay, and had black and grey covers reminiscent of nothing more than funeral invitations. The perfect opportunity to see whether Doc. Williams’s poetic sensibility hadn’t failed him along with his body. And, although I didn’t feel all that much like an injured dog, also of finding out whether Char could still have some therapeutic effect in our day and age.

In this I was not disappointed. Char’s lines cheer you up — which is strange to say, since many of his poems are (my impression from the covers did not lie) about death. Witness the following example from the 1965 collection L’Âge Cassant (The Brittle Age) and its accompanying translation by Gustaf Sobin:

Sois consolé. En mourant, tu rends tout ce qui t’a été prêté, ton amour, tes amis. Jusqu’à ce froid vivant tant de fois recueilli.

Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.[6]

Feeling better? Here’s another:

L’homme: l’air qu’il respire, un jour l’aspire; la terre prend les restes.

Man: the air that he inhales one day inhales him; the earth takes the remainders.

At times The Brittle Age is like a collection of Heraclitean, fatalistic sighs, let slip looking at the stars after a good French dinner with plenty of red wine. Short as they are, they fill one with a kind of somber yearning. It is a yearning which rather than being morbid reminds you of the simple fact that you’re alive:

J’ai de naissance la respiration agressive.

I’ve had, since birth, an aggressive breathing.

What Char wants to say with his “aggressive breathing” is anyone’s guess, but “respiration agressive” gives us a good sense of its sound: a fact which makes me grateful that this work is presented in parallel text. Without the French version here on the verso, to justify — to give the mot juste — to the English recto, we would be floundering in the dark.

That is not to say of course, that Gustaf Sobin’s translations are anything but true. Sobin, who describes himself in the translator’s preface as Char’s “all too grateful protégé,”[7] displays an archeologist’s sensitivity and understanding towards the textures of the original work. There is no ostentation here, his English renditions are delicate and faithful — one trusts them completely. It is humility, however, that also makes these translations subordinate to their French masters. One hears the French version through the English one — often if only because of the odd word order. They wouldn’t stand alone nearly so well. But then, when I come to think of it, neither would the French versions. What is great about this edition of The Brittle Age is that, as presented here, reading the book becomes an act of stereopsis. A single line has a whole page on each side. One is always engaged in the translation back and forth: a codependency or dialogue is set up, which results in a hybrid text. This process slows the reader, makes one think about what Char was saying, think of other possibilities in English, and eventually achieve a much stronger sense of the poem than one would otherwise. It is a text which I believe to be far richer than the experience of reading the work monolingually.

The second half of the Sobin collection is taken up by Char’s 1966 book, Retour Amont, translated here as Returning Upland. These slightly longer poems are less easy to read side by side in two languages, and I found them to be less exciting as a result. Part of the problem is that where, with the haiku-like lyrics of the Brittle Age, the ambiguity is checked by disarming simplicity, here, Char’s possible meanings keep multiplying. Consider for instance the first stanza of “Pause au Chateau Cloaque”:

Le passé retarderait l’éclosion du présent si nos souvenirs érodés n’y sommeillaient sans cesse. Nous nous retournons sur l’un tandis que l’autre marque un élan avant de se jeter sur nous.

The past would delay the present’s unfolding if our eroded memories hadn’t slept there ceaselessly. We turn about on one while the other, before thrusting onto us, takes mark.

While it is easy to see why a collection of poems like the Brittle Age might have appealed to William Carlos Williams, had he been alive to read it, this poem — with its Eliotian echoes and its postsurrealist play with subjectivity brings us to the other side of Char’s vision. It is a reflective poetry, of ideas not only in things, but in words, abstractions, the grey area between questions and half-thought answers. “Against the extensive density of a poisoned somnambulism, would the spirit’s disgust be coded escape; would it, later on, be revolt?” asks Char in the same poem. (Ummm … let me think … yes? no? maybe?) How do we deal with such a question without reducing it to something else? Wallace Stevens or George Oppen, perhaps would be appropriate comparisons, but Char’s philosophical density seems at once more allusive than Stevens’s and more elusive than Oppen’s. He grasps at things and feelings which we have no way of classifying in ordinary speech, things which he isn’t sure of himself, using words as a way of reaching into the unknown. 

This other Char is the one that stands out in Nancy Naomi Carlson’s selection, Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char. Unlike Sobin, Carlson does not stick with Char’s own arrangement of poems, but picks her way through his later career mixing and matching to create a fresh display. Thus Stone Lyre begins with “Invitation” from the 1962 work La Parole en archipel before going back to a few poems from Le Marteau sans Maître (1934) and ending with “Courbet: Les Casseurs de cailloux” from the 1983 collection Dehors la nuit est gouvernée. This rearrangement allows for specific themes to come to the fore — death, time, women, trees, rivers, countryside, night — giving a sense of Char’s full range which is difficult to grasp in the Sobin collection. It also, however, precludes both the biographical satisfaction of chronological development (poems leading from juvenilia up to the author’s laden last words), and the bibliographical satisfaction of having read a work as it appeared in a given time.

Like Sobin, Carlson presents Char's poems in parallel, so that a similar stereoptic reading is possible with each of the individual works. This too, however, highlights a key difference between the translations. Unlike Sobin's position of “protégé,” Calson presents herself in her translator’s introduction as much more of an English mouthpiece for Char’s French, focusing specifically on cadence rather than purely on semantics. “To preserve the rhythm of the French,” writes Carlson, “I tried to end each line with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic.”[8] This ambitious Frenchifying of English results in several brilliant renditions, where the gutter of the book is almost like the wall of a cave, returning an echo of the same sound in a different language. Here is Carlson’s own example of her method, from the poem “Vers l’arbre-frère aux jours comptés” (“To Brother-Tree of Numbered Days”):

Harpe brève des mélèzes,

Sur l’éperon de mousse et de dalles en germe

— Façade des forêts où casse le nuage —

Contrepoint du vide auquel je crois.


Larch tree’s brief harp

On the spur of moss and flagstones in seed

— Forest’s façade where clouds break apart —

Counterpoint paired to the void in which I believe.[9]

For all Carlson’s technical virtuosity this method also, however, at times, gives Char a slightly peculiar character in English, smacking of Gerald Manley Hopkins. And very occasionally the predominance of stressed syllables seems supererogatory to the semantics, as in the first line of the poem “Le Loriot” (“The Oriole”):

Le loriot entra dans la capitale de l’aube.

L’épée de son chant ferma le lit triste:

Tout à jamais prit fin.


The oriole breached dawn’s capital town.

The sword of his song closed the cheerless bed,

All forever came to an end.


Carlson’s method serves her well in the last two lines of this poem, but the word “town” seems extraneous to me, and I can’t help thinking it would have been a better poem without this added stressed syllable.

The paratext of Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char is also very different from that of The Brittle Age and Returning Upland. The Sobin translations are marketed as resolutely local, and intimate. Fidelity to the source is the key. There is an appendix of possible variants at the end, beside also a glossary of place names. And in her preface Mary Ann Caws stresses that “the poetry was, after all, in the names of dwellings like ours and his, and places: le Mont Ventoux, le Thor, Sénaque, Gordes, Buis-les Baronnies, Mérindol,” before going on to talk of tiny hill cottages in the Vaucluse, of Citroën 2CVs and “simple relationships.”[10] One gets the impression here of a bucolic poet, spending his days by the banks of Sorgue, fishing for inspiration among the reeds. In contrast, Carlson’s collection arrives with a more ambitious and political paratext, seeking to place Char in a broader historical context. On the backcover Cole Swenson reminds us that he was an antinuclear activist, and of his wartime resistance fighting — an emphasis repeated by Ilya Kaminsky in her foreword and again by Carlson in her introduction. This Char should be of international significance, and we expect poems with global referents. Yet, when we come to look for them in the poems, we may well be disappointed. Can Char’s references to fig trees really be related to war or nuclear power? I think not. A fig is a fig is a figuier.

One’s first impressions of these two books, then, are belied by the poems themselves, which fit neither the purely local emplacement of the one, nor the activist ethics of the other. Indeed, what emerges in the end from a comparative reading, is — perhaps surprisingly considering the differences in selection, methodology of translation, and presentation — a single poet whose idiosyncratic style eludes all the nets. Consider the one poem which appears in both collections: “Devancier”:

J’ai reconnu dans un rocher la mort fugée et mensurable, le lit ouvert de ses petits comparses sous la retraite d’un figuier. Nul signe de tailleur: chaque matin de la terre ouvrait ses ailes au bas des marches de la nuit.

Sans redite, allégé  de la peur de hommes, je creuse dans l’air ma tombe et mon retour.

PRECURSOR

In a rock I recognized death, fugued and measurable, the open bed of its little accomplices beneath the shelter of a fig tree. Not a sign of a carver; at the base of night’s stairway each morning of earth opened its wings.

Without repeating, freed of the fear of men, I dig in the air my tomb and my return. 

(The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, 107)

ANCESTOR     

I have recognized death — fugal and measured — inside a rock, and the open bed of its little assistants beneath the shade of a fig tree. No sign of the one who cuts stone; each of earth’s mornings would open its wings at the foot of night’s steps.

Without refrain, freed of mortal dread, I dig in the air my grave and my return.

(Stone Lyre, 97)

Judge for yourself, gentle reader, which you feel to be the better translation. They are different. There are merits to both. What interests me, is the way in which, despite the difficulty of the poem (it’s not clear what René Char is talking about), Char’s voice still sounds through in both, remaining despite the semantic, rhythmic and linguistic barriers and despite the different choices made by the translators. No theory of who Char was, or what Char wanted to say can quite correspond to this sense that Char himself is still there saying it — making himself available for us to listen to. Char, it seems, is truly buried in this poem as its own ancestor, returning through his translations — a revenant — to speak to us. I understand now, why William Carlos Williams felt that Char was such a support: at bottom there is René Char and his poetry. He is irreducible. Char remains.

 


1. qtd. in Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), 657.

2. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Vol. 2, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 255.

3. Ibid., 318.

4. Ibid., 256.

5. Ibid., 257.

6. René Char, The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, trans. Gustaf Sobin (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2009), 30–31. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically.

7. Gustaf Sobin, “Translator’s Preface” in The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, x.

8. Nancy Naomi Carlson, intoduction to René Char, Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char, trans. Nancy Naomi Carlson (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2010), xviii.

9. René Char, Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char, 82–83. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically.

10. Mary Ann Caws, “Foreword: The Just Place,” in The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, viii.

On 'Both Sides and the Center'

A review of the festival, part two

Amina Cain (l) and Teresa Carmody. Photos by Harold Abramowitz.

Both Sides and the Center

Both Sides and The Center

at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House

West Hollywood, CA, August 19-21, 2011

Andrea Quaid in conversation with Amina Cain and Teresa Carmody about curation, collaboration, and their recent project, Both Sides and The Center, at the Schindler House in Los Angeles.

Andrea Quaid: Amina and Teresa, you both have extensive experience as curators with events ranging from reading series to large-scale festivals. Amina co-curated (with Jen Karmin) the Red Rover Series and When Does It or You Begin? (Memory as Innovation), a writing, performance, and video festival. Last summer, Amina co-curated (again, with Jen Karmin), Unnatural Acts, an installation and performance for Les Figues Press’s Not Content. Teresa, in addition to many, smaller events, from a monthly salon, to literary garden parties, to house readings and lectures, co-curated The Smell Reading Series, Mommy, Mommy!, and Not Content at Hollywood’s LACE gallery. Most recently, you came together to work on a three-day experimental literary festival at the Schindler House. What was the genesis of Both Sides and The Center?

Amina Cain: Teresa and I both knew we wanted to work on something together and she approached me with the thought of curating an event (or events) at the Schindler House. I had never been to the house, but was excited about the idea. When I finally saw it, I knew instantly it would be an amazing setting for a literary festival. In the house, because of the way inside and outside spaces are in relationship to each other, and because of the way the rest of the house was designed, there are all of these opportunities for different kinds of watching and listening. What you can see through glass, you might not be able to hear. What you can hear, you might not be able to see if it is taking place on the roof (in one of the sleeping baskets), or in the nursery (with walls that don’t go all the way up to the ceiling). The house allowed us to think of questions around closeness and distance, the public versus private, and voyeurism, and how these things might lend themselves to literary performance. And then we went from there.

Teresa Carmody: I think the ideas behind Both Sides were also influenced by Not Content at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood. That project explored the way language functioned in public and private spheres, but it happened within the context of a public art gallery/space located on Hollywood Blvd. LACE is box-like, big, an obvious gallery space with store-front windows; it is surrounded by restaurants and stores, selling wigs, shoes, lingerie and more. Alternatively, the MAK Center Schindler House is on a residential street; you can’t see the house from the street, and even though the building is now a gallery, it’s a house turned-into-a-gallery. I was interested in seeing how these ideas of public/private, or interior/exterior, would read differently within a more intimate space.

Quaid: What were your intentions for the project?

Cain: I think more than anything I wanted to explore what the relationship might be between writing, performance, and the setting of a house — the Schindler House in particular. One of the ideas I felt most attached to was “house as stage,” and the house did become a stage, one on which the audience moved, continuously, from one room to another, getting as close to or distant from the performances or installations as they wanted. From the dark lawn, one could listen to the phonograph music coming from Jen Hofer and Myriam Moscona’s performance in the Chase studio. One could see people sitting in the nursery looking at Amarnath Ravva’s time-lapse photography of night skies on the floor. One could talk with Anna Joy Springer while alone in a bathroom, without being able to see her. One could gather on a sloped lawn to watch through large windows Bhanu Kapil’s “knife ballet,” her red-fabric form moving on a butcher table. One could gaze at Michael du Plessis, bound and gagged, while he could not gaze back, and later one could listen to him give a personal reading in the very same spot.

Carmody: I was also interested in exploring subjectivity, and the way narrative structure informs experience. So at the Friday group reading, for example, the audience sat together, within the same space and time, thus participating in a “group” experience. The performances on Saturday, however, were structured so every person would obviously have an individual experience, depending on when they arrived, how long they stayed, etc. Yet it’s interesting to note that the stories and feedback I received regarding both nights were remarkably similar (and overwhelmingly positive). Perhaps this is because I was one of the curators, and people didn’t want to air critical comments in my direction. Or perhaps this is a phenomenon of Los Angeles, where there is plenty of space for the unsaid to go unspoken.

On Sunday, we had a small salon with additional members of the literary and art community, which we recorded and which was also bilingual, thanks to the services of interpreters John Pluecker and Eva Cisneros. We were using interpretation equipment (graciously offered by Jen Hofer), and I found the material fact of this equipment to be significant. I could put in my earpiece and hear our conversation in Spanish, and not understand. Alternatively, I could listen in English and have the illusion of understanding.

Strangely enough, one of my most startling realizations from the salon was the fact that I had encountered the whole weekend through language. The artist Simon Leung was talking about Bhanu Kapil’s Saturday performance, and he said that as it continued, the language fell away as the visual became, for him, increasingly important. I had quite a different experience; as the reading repeated, the language became increasingly significant, I could see the language’s structure as a matrix, and I was caught in a sticky web of sound.

Carmody: What were you anticipating from the weekend? Were your expectations realized?

Quaid: I went into the event interested to see how the guest writers would work with a set of themes (as previously listed: public versus private, proximity, the house as a stage), expressed differently through the various approaches they were asked to take — from Friday’s more traditional reading, to Saturday’s installations and performances, to Sunday’s conversation-as-performance. I found this aspect of the curatorial vision the most compelling: the same writer/performer asked to present work in thematically linked but distinct modes of representation, which resulted in dynamic individual projects and a successful event overall. As a listener/viewer, the invitation to inhabit the space and immerse myself in the event, in an extended, experiential engagement with others, produced a more unexpected effect. I had a heighted awareness of my own embodied presence, particularly during Saturday’s installations and performances. Amina commented on the continual movement through the house, which I not only observed but experienced. I became aware of my own constant movement through the rooms, the yards, from one performance to another and back again. Amanda Ackerman pointed out that the chairs from Friday’s reading were gone. So, intentional or not, the lack of chairs kept one’s body moving and moving again through the space, to the work, back to the work, into conversations and experiences with others that might not have occurred if one could opt out, as they say, for a small, often solitary, rest. Looking back, I think how the festival encouraged experiences of shared, communal space and ideas very much realized Schindler’s intentions for the house.

Cain: This is a question that I heard several people ask each other over the course of the weekend and that I was endlessly curious about as well. Could you live in the Schindler House? What do you think it would be like?

Quaid: I love the concept of the house as a live and work space with studios, common areas, and kitchen to be shared with others. It is particularly appealing as a home that counters the lone couple or single-family model. To envision myself living in the house requires that I suspend time and imagine it both then and now. For example, in 1922, I could retire to a sleeping basket each night, on the roof, open to the sky, but it is more difficult to picture that today on King’s Road in West Hollywood. As a practical matter, I felt myself adapt to the structure of the house the longer I was there. At first, the low ceilings were startling. However, in terms of the floor plan, I could easily live in the space with its concrete floors, angular architecture, beautiful outdoor “rooms,” and natural light — though I would have to wear flats, always.

Quaid: Please talk about the collaboration process between the two of you.

Cain: The process feels fairly simple, basic. We pass ideas back and forth, we pass the work back and forth, we talk. I enjoy it immensely. In addition to our collaboration on Both Sides and The Center, Teresa and I are writing something together. I like being able to work in these different forms with someone, though perhaps they are not so different, as they both have to do with how literature might manifest itself, whether physically emerging into a space, or on a piece of paper.

Carmody: I’ll chime in and say: Yes! It’s been a remarkably unfettered collaboration.

Quaid: To what extent did you, as curators, work in collaboration with the guest writers?

Cain: Though we provided the guest writers with questions and ideas we wanted them to consider (about proximity, public versus private, the performance of domesticity, voyeurism, house as stage), the end result was left up to them. As a curator and organizer, part of my process of working with others is to let go of my expectations of what will happen and experience what materializes just as the audience will.

Carmody: How did the curation for this event compare to curation of other festivals and events you’ve done?

Cain: Well, I worked with you for one thing. As Andrea mentioned above, all the rest of my curatorial endeavors have happened with Jennifer Karmin, and in Chicago, though I have also had the chance to work with Anna Joy Springer, while helping her organize the 2011 &Now Festival of New Writing which took place at UC-San Diego this autumn. All of these experiences have been good ones and I have felt very grateful for them. One thing I have been happy for in Los Angeles and certainly in curating an event with you, Teresa, is that there is less of a divide between poetry and prose or fiction, or even other kinds of writing. I never felt that divide with Jen, who is a poet, and in fact we like that we are rooted in different areas, but sometimes in Chicago and beyond, I’ve felt myself come up against that limit. Teresa, I don’t think we once talked about categories when thinking about the participants and their work. I like that.

Cain: What about for you?

Carmody: The level of concentration felt different. We had more time to plan (than I’ve had for other projects), even as the event existed within a more concentrated period. The engagement between the participants felt more intense too. It seems really important for artists and writers to be in conversation right now. Writing is becoming increasingly visual as the book object becomes just that — an intentional object. So writers have a lot to learn from artists. And many artists are using language and/or narrative strategies in their work, and this is where they can learn from writers.

On a more prosaic but still important level, this was the first event I curated that was funded. We received a grant from the city of West Hollywood, which meant we could invite people from out of town and cover their travel costs. It was very exciting to write invitations that included the promise of at least some financial support!

Quaid: How does your work as a curator connect (or not) to your writing life?

Cain: For me there’s a very big connection. At a certain point I realized that I like to create environments so that things can then happen within them. Setting is very important in my stories, and it’s important within my curatorial endeavors as well. This is why the Schindler House was such an exciting space in which to organize a literary festival. For me, it felt like the set of a play.

Carmody: As a writer, I like it when I find myself in unfamiliar territory. As a curator, I like to create these “unfamiliar” opportunities for other writers.

Quaid: And finally, what current curatorial projects are you at work on?

Cain: I’m going to take a break from curating. I love doing it, but I miss writing. I have the feeling I will tuck myself away this winter for a period of hibernation. I will, however, continue on with The Empty Globe, a reading/performance/film and video series I started last spring. The events will happen a little less frequently than they did during the summer, only four to six times a year, and when I have the opportunity I’d like to think more about what other kind/s of relationship/s the series might have to writing and art and the performance of them. This thinking will be part of my hibernation.

Carmody: I see publishing — and design — as a kind of curation, and of course I’m continuing with Les Figues. We’re finishing up the 2011 TrenchArt series now, with work by Frances Richard, Myriam Moscona and Jen Hofer, Doug Nufer, Alex Forman, and Renee Petropoulos. The 2012 series is coming soon (featuring Melissa Buzzeo, Matias Viegener, Kim Rosenfield, Michael du Plessis, Klaus Killisch, and Mark Rutkoski). I’m also working with the Metabolic Studio on a book about land use issues at the Veteran’s Association of West Los Angeles, and of course, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.

Quaid: Thank you Amina and Teresa!

A poem is a sacred attempt at communicating what is impossible to communicate

A review of Laura Solomon's 'The Hermit'

The Hermit

The Hermit

by Laura Solomon

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 88 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933254784

“Begin with dreams,” writes Laura Solomon in “Dream Ear, Part III.” The things going on in our dreams are often crazy and impossible, but our dreams are not lies, they are true, physical events going on in our brains and they are entirely untethered to the scientific possibilities of truth in the physical universe. In other words, dreams are a lot like poems. The poems in The Hermit work by allowing us into the strange landscape of emotionally arresting instances of crisis and sadness — lost love, emotional and geographical displacement, fear and anxiety, the wild and absurd sense that time is flying by and staying still. They are gorgeous, daring poems. Reading this book I constantly have the sense that these are poems I would not, myself, have the courage to write because of their openness and generosity; they are uncharted but crystal clear — even as they allude to the world of our dreams, those dreams feel a lot like real life. In “Dream Ear III,” in a dream, on a train, a woman next to the speaker is “sleep-writing”:

a dream is a mirror
that doesn’t belong to you
anymore than words do
after you say them
you forget them but
not always but always
the mirror forgets you
after you leave it
do the words forget too
you after you after you
say them you leave them
with or without a trace

This passage is filled with traces, and traces are questions. What happens to the words after we say them? What truth is there in the illusion that our presence anywhere is indelible? Truth itself is tricky; “it is true, it is true, it is true,” writes Solomon in “French Sentences,” but “sentences are the neediest […] for example, it is true.” It’s a paradox that keeps coming up in The Hermit: words are both so meaningful and so meaningless. Later in “Dream Ear, Part III,” Solomon writes, “in the dream you are becoming / don‘t become just words.” When the words start to feel like they are just words, you run the risk of being full of shit, and to be full of shit is not good if you are trying to communicate. She writes,

you were speaking of a nest I’ve read
with use the nest becomes rimmed and filled with excrement
this serves as a reminder of the humble origins
of all architecture no it doesn’t why are you speaking
of architecture you are full of shit

but it is too late already
you are already forgetting the dream in this poem
you are becoming a dark sooty chimney
with a dark sooty agenda

To be full of shit is to forget that it is sacred to say anything. A poem is a sacred attempt at communicating what is impossible to communicate. The speaker in “Dream Ear, Part III” wants to trim the utterance of all metaphor the way dreams are free from the analyses we graft onto them once we wake up, the way our aspirations (dreams) are free from the problems of possibility.

Because we can’t possibly say how we feel, exactly, and in poems we say how we feel. To have an agenda is to predict rather than experience, to try to see what hasn’t happened yet in retrospect. We might want that privilege, but it doesn’t belong to us. Throughout The Hermit, Solomon gives us the gift of poetry-as-experience so that even though the circumstances are foreign to us, they might feel true. In “Philadelphia,” she writes,

at any rate the only
way it will work will be
if he decides to come to me
then I will know he knows
though I’m not sure
that he’s going to come
all along I guess
I’ve just been wrong
but no I haven’t Dottie

Here we have a poem that feels like a letter, but it unfolds line-by-line, broken and charged with Solomon’s knack for breaking lines so that they move out in all directions, without agendas, a step back once in a while for all the stepping forward. The lines leave traces of themselves that appear and vanish according to the whims of our own experience of reading them. In another poet’s hands, the specificity of “Dottie” might make me feel as though I am not included, but the revelatory quality of Solomon’s progression from line to line makes my experience of “Dottie” feel lived and present. As she writes elsewhere in “Philadelphia,” “protons had to collide in time / to make you you.” The chance encounter of life and time together is the center of the experience of being alive. It’s rare that I pay attention to the fact that I don’t actually know what will happen to me in the next moment of my life; it’s rare that a poem works that way.

Forget though, for a moment, the dreams and the physical laws and think about what you are willing to have revealed to you in a poem. Think about all the times you’ve thought about whether a poem was good or bad, trying to come to some sort of a judgment without ever considering what sort of mood you were in or what sort of experience you were willing to go through. In her essay “Voice” Alice Notley excerpts a short, untitled poem of her own and then explains something about truth and poetry:

Clouds, big ones oh it’s
blowing up wild outside.
Be something for me
this time. Change me,
wind. Change me, rain.

A specific feeling and occasion prompted [this poem], and it still embodies something I can feel; but I wrote it hoping it would be as if spoken by anyone — hoping anyone could “use” it. That is, I know it sounds like me, but while being read it might live inside anyone, being some voice of theirs almost, through sympathy and imagination. But when I wrote it there was a real storm outside.

Reading a poem can allow you to experience sympathy, but you have to be willing to do that. The poems in The Hermit ask a great deal of us. When you come to a line like, “how I’ve wanted to encounter you,” are you willing to take the passage wherever the pronoun takes you, and simultaneously are you touching the poem sympathetically? Who is the you you are thinking of? Where, I mean, are your thoughts? Isn’t this important? Isn’t it great?

Europe's shadows vs. America's dreams

A review of Andrew Ervin's 'Extraordinary Renditions'

Extraordinary Renditions

Extraordinary Renditions

by Andrew Ervin

Coffee House Press 2010, 192 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-56689-246-9

What amazed me most about Hungary is that history is not history there. The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn’t even imagine at first. — Andrew Ervin, Press Release

Europe. It’s impossible to underestimate its allure. And equally impossible to measure the influence of this continent’s history and power on countries like the United States of America. Andrew Ervin’s debut novel Extraordinary Renditions is set in contemporary Budapest, the capital of Hungary. A country that has experienced the glorious highs of classical Europe and the worst of late twentieth century savagery, political intrigue and Cold War disaffection. Extraordinary Renditions is both a homage to this very European country and a journey into history that ultimately sheds more light on contemporary America than on contemporary Europe.

This novel takes its place in the rich “American voyagers in Europe genre.” This genre is a product of America’s fascination with the culture and history of Europe and an attempt to wrest away the best qualities from the old world and revive the uniquely American dream. Ervin is a strong writer in awe of Europe. His novel is immeasurably bettered by the fact that he lived in Budapest for many years and knows its streets and architecture, its moods, and its history intimately.

In this challenging period in America’s history, when America must redefine itself and its position on the world stage, Ervin presents us with the stories of three original characters whose stories are linked by situational coincidences in the narrative: the émigré, the American soldier and the young musician.

In “14 Bagatelles,” (the title is taken from, arguably, Hungary’s greatest composer Béla Bartók’s piano piece “14 Bagatelles, Op. 6”) the first story in this trio of connected stories, a world renowned composer, Harkályi, returns to his birthplace for the first production of his opera The Golden Lotus.

Harkályi was a young Jewish music prodigy when World War II erupted into his personal world. He survived the war largely thanks to his musical ability and the love and insight of his mentor Zoltán Kodály. Harkályi left his family and fled Hungary for the relative safety of America: the safe harbour for many of Europe’s wounded, disposed and displaced after the war.

Portraying a Holocaust survivor is no easy task but Ervin does so sympathetically and concisely. Providing just enough insight into the day-to-day horrors of life lived in captivity and the rare moments when joy invaded the camp thanks to the musicians and their passion. As Harkályi walks the alternatively familiar and garishly foreign streets, we see the composer as a young man in a concentration camp and as an adult in self-imposed isolation within the inner world of music and notation and spaces between notes. He is estranged from the country of his birth and estranged from his religion. While in the camp he invented a novel system of musical notation. One that preserved the musical history of his culture and country and one that was sufficiently flexible and expansive to change and recreate itself as the composer grew, matured and reinvented himself in America.

 It is a smart piece of plotting to bring Harkályi back to Budapest for the first performance of his opera The Golden Lotus. The performance of this opera does indeed provide a stupendous climax to the novel. Ervin employs another structural device whereby all three stories are linked in time and space. The story is set during Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. This works as a structural device, but it’s rather labored and by the end, polemical in a distracting fashion. However, this device can be used subtly and unobtrusively. I think of two recent examples: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Nicole Krauss’s latest novel Great House.

The novel is open to criticism that it is three thematically linked novellas rather than a novel in the traditional sense but I don’t see any merit in this argument. Ervin’s novel is a further contribution to this genre whose formally strict structure is constantly evolving. However, for his future novels, I hope Ervin pays closer attention to the subtleties of plot and dramatic devices.

Ervin is profoundly sensitive to music and exceptionally talented in translating into words the sensations and mechanisms of musical notes. So it is no surprise that like a jazz musician doffing his cap to the progenitors of his religion, Ervin evokes the spirit of Kafka. Another beloved son of the region, Kafka was born in Prague, Bohemia, which was then part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka’s prose style and philosophy is evidenced in the very strong chapter “Brooking the Devil.”

There is more than a touch of the desperate film noir thriller in the powerful and poignant story of Private First Class Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson of the United States Army: African American, accidental soldier, philosopher, poet, outsider, loner. Ervin analytically exposes a morally and criminally corrupt US Army culture that has been exported to Hungary and the world in the name of protecting freedom and fighting the “war on terror.”

Along with Levi’s, Marlboro cowboys, Coca Cola, and McDonald’s, to name a few, the American Army has been sold to the world as the pure and true deterrent to the opponents of democracy as it has evolved in Euro-influenced countries. America has always been a country of exceptional salesmen and women. A land where a ponderously named lad called Samuel Langhorne Clemens reinvented himself into the great and iconic Mark Twain. Ervin successfully juxtaposes images of savage bloodletting from WWII with the equally hideous modern devices from the so-called War on Terror.

Sergeant Brutus, with a nickname that evokes the classical elegance and wisdom of Shakespeare, and a patter that reads more Bronx gangster than Philadelphia brother to this non-American ear is marooned in Hungary. An intelligent young man seduced by Army recruiters spruiking freedom, solidarity, money, nobility and a pass to college. In eloquent passages, Brutus details the many ways in which Uncle Sam has proved to be another incarnation of “the Man”: the oppressive, dangerous and irrational racism that pervades American history, politics and culture.

The soldiers are outsiders but not resistance fighters, and cliques abound: whites only, officers only, and so on. Brutus’s experiences are graphic examples of the penalties for standing out in the “vanilla crowd.” Difference is celebrated in sound bites in most democratic and liberal countries but a black, articulate and intelligent man is doomed within the enormous machinery of the American military. The American military’s own mythology and its romanticism by Hollywood usually ignore the stark, brutal and vile abuses of power and desecration of personal dignity and humanity that are committed in the interests of “keeping the peace,” or in this epoch, “wining the war on terror.”

Brutus is the innocent young American abroad who is plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Brutus’s descent into a maelstrom brings out some of Ervin’s best prose: a combination of contemporary American gangster rap and descriptions of Budapest that powerfully evoke the Cold War.

In ‘The Empty Chairs” we meet the final character in Ervin’s triumvirate. Melanie Scholes: violinist, American, young, bisexual, white, outsider/loner, and the novel’s only genuine spark of hope that a fulfilling and generous future is possible.

Although this is probably the weakest of Ervin’s “renditions” (it is obvious that Ervin named his novel after the legal term for the systematic abduction and extrajudicial transfer of persons from one nation to another, but I prefer to think of his characters as renditions, powerful reimaginings of classic tales) it concludes the novel with a pièce de résistance of timing, evocation and prose mastery.

Melanie is one of the musicians tasked with performing Harkályi’s new opera, The Golden Lotus. In a quicksilver night/day of her life, we meet her lover and glimpse their claustrophobic and pointless affair. She is a vexed artist, drifting aimlessly in Budapest’s monochrome world of émigrés and disaffected affluent American youth.

In a masterful and controlled example of character exposition, Melanie evolves from an uninteresting and pathetic figure into the unlikely heroine of the novel. Freed from her inertia by the ecstasy of music and her hitherto dormant ability to reinterpret and transform musical nuance and notation, she explodes orthodoxy and convention in a powerful scene in which the past and future are welded together in the revolutionary power of music to be beautiful whilst uniting people irrespective of color, creed and nationality.

Ervin has written a powerful and sophisticated meditation on identity, nationalism and personal responsibility. Memorable characters and icons: composer, soldier, and musician they are a glimpse into the darkest of human capabilities and the possibility of redemption, however remote. Ervin is a very promising young writer — a uniquely, American writer.

"Say what you know"

A review of Eleanor Wilner's "A Tourist in Hell"

Tourist in Hell

Tourist in Hell

by Eleanor Wilner

The University of Chicago Press 2011, 103 pages, $18, ISBN 978-0-226-90032-2.

Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poems are adventures. These adventures include almost every subject imaginable: war, peace, nature, knitting, mountain climbing, insects and intellectuals. It is an adventure into the labyrinth of an amazing mind. Each poem starts off directly enough; soon you don’t know where the poem is going; then it leads from one surprise to another; until the whole evolves organically into one or more revelations that expand your understanding of what was broached at the beginning of the poem. She writes with the eyes of someone who just got there. But she arrives there with a depth of intelligence. For instance, the poem that begins The Girl with Bees in Her Hair prepares us as though “everything is starting up again.”

The snow is filthy now; it has been
drinking oil and soot and car exhaust
for days, and dogs have marked it
with their special blend of brilliant
yellow piss;

for a week after it fell,
the snow stood in frozen horror
at the icy chill, and hardened
on the top, and then, today, the thaw;
now everything is starting
up again —

The process of writing this review began with a reading of the several books by Wilner. Whoever has had the pleasure, indeed the privilege and emotional/intellectual satisfaction of reading  Wilner’s poems will not need to be told that her work is poetry or that her poems provide remarkable surprises and insights.

In Tourist in Hell, her seventh book, Wilner examines history, current events, literature, mythology, and religion. As with the best poets, she skillfully combines autobiographical details into a larger context. About Wilner’s work, the poet Tony Hoagland has remarked, “Wilner […] has a deep and heroic belief in the transformative power of language and myth. She paddles her surfboard outside the reef where most poets stop; she rides the big waves.” Indeed, to ride the “big waves” with her is an experience that is highly exhilarating. Her poetry and each of her poems is brilliant, erudite, passionate, and amazing. 

In reading through her several books, however, it is remarkable to note the consistency of her voice and the wide grasp of her subject matter throughout, from Maya to Tourist in Hell. Wilner speaks directly to the reader, whether from her own insight or through the insight of another’s voice. Or sometimes, she tells a poignant story in a way not thought of before, for example that of Iphigenia. Iphigenia, best known as the daughter Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to be sacrificed in order to appease Artemis. According to the legend, when the sacrifice is about to be made, however, Iphigenia is miraculously transported to Taurus, a city on the Black Sea, and an animal is sent to replace her (lucky for her!).

In Wilner’s poem “Iphigenia, Setting the Record Straight” (Maya) Wilner tells Iphigenia’s story with unexpected poignancy; two snippets from the poem may make my point. The first sets the stage while the final stanza brings you face-to-face with the gist of Iphigenia’s story and her bitter observation:

The towers waiting, shimmering just
beyond the edge of vision.
It was only a question
of wind, of the command of trade routes,
a narrow isthmus between two seas, possession
of the gold that men called Helen.

Iphigenia then states at the end:

I have been living, quiet, in this little village
on goats I keep for cheese and sell for wine, unknown —
the praise of me on every lip, the me
my father made up in his mind
and sacrificed for the wind.

It’s a shame to truncate this poem; however, it also highlights another aspect of Wilner’s background and interest — her knowledge and love of the classics. She is equally able to speak to the reader about her commitment to speaking truth to truth; for example, her poem “Love Uncommanded” (again in Maya):

Extraordinary, our friends
the skeptics, who are
ourselves, such an extravagance
of feints, the perfectly spun
glass, exquisite complications, saying
they know that they know nothing,
the oldest ruse, let it go.
Say what you know.

For once, be rid of the urn
with beauty chased in half-relief, the urn
with the false bottom, the ancient goad
to thirst — the right word turned
exactly on itself. Say what you know.

What more cogent advice to writers, especially poets: “Say what you know!” In Tourist in Hell,” her most recent book, the poems are more concerned with war and several of them with the Bush/Cheney administration. “Establishment” is a good example, of which only the first half of the first stanza is quoted:

Death had established himself in the Red Room,
the White House having become his natural
abode: chalk-white façade, pillars lime the bones
of extinct empires, armed men crawling its halls
or looking down, with suspicion, from its roof;
its immense luxury, thick carpets, its plush velvet chairs —
all this made Death comfortable, bony as he is, a fact
you’d barely notice, his camouflage a veil of flesh
drawn over him, its tailor so adroit, and he so elegant

But the one I like best in the Tourist in Hell collection is “Saturday Night,” a chilling poem about war and our seeming distance from it. Again, only quoted are the first introductory lines and then the last, but all in between is full of drama and … nightmare:

Moonlit rocks, sand, and a web of shadows
thrown over the world from the cottonwoods,
the manzanita, the ocotillo; it is
the hour of the tarantula, a rising
as predictable as tide; irritable as
moon drag.  And if this were
an SF film, the spider would be
huge as a water tank, it would loom
red-eyed and horrible, its mandables […]

but now as the film
runs down, in a rush of stale air
the hydraulic spider deflates, the saline
leaks from the implants of the bed-
room blonde, the moon’s projection
clicks off, and the night is as it was,
a place where fear takes its many
forms, and the warships gather in
a distant gulf, where a small man
with more arms than a Hindu god,
has set a desert night alight, and grief booms;
while here, the theatres are full
of horror on the screen, and you can hear —
over the sinister canned music,
the chainsaws, and the screams —
the sound of Coke sucked up through straws,
your own jaws moving as you chew.

There is something riveting about Wilner’s poetry, and I believe it comes from her dictum to herself as to others, in the earlier cited poem “Love Uncommanded:” “Say what you know.”

Well, perhaps this review has quoted enough to give an idea of the range and depth of Wilner’s work. But I would be remiss if I left unmentioned the delightful poems in her book Otherwise that speak to issues such as “How to Get in the Best Magazines,” “Muse,” “Ambition,” and “Those who come After,” just to mention a few of what’s in store for the curious reader or for the devotee who is stirred to enjoy again Wilner’s humor as well as her experience and erudition.

One of my favorite books of hers, The Girl with the Bees in her Hair, is interesting for her playfulness with form as well as with images. Or, take for example the lines “He had made it through so many winters, / an optimist in the blizzard’s heart, staying on — “In this book she keeps introducing the reader to the next possibility, although the last poem in this book, the very fact of life’s limit comes into view:

A window
open on the sea, out there, blue wave on blue,
beyond — more blue, a chair scrapes, breaks
the spell. Words spill: So little time. So much to do.

For the reader who wants to start with an inclusive view of her work, Reserving the Spell is a compilation of her new and selected poems (over three hundred pages) taken from the several books mentioned. — That said, let the adventure begin!