Through and never through

On Peter Cole's 'The Invention of Influence'

The Invention of Influence

The Invention of Influence

Peter Cole

New Directions 2014, 120 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-8112-2172-6

Peter Cole’s writing exemplifies Charles Olson’s notion that the poet is a transfer station, and that the poem “is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.”[1] Cole channels his own poems’ “several causations” through his experience as a journeyman translator of Hebrew and Arabic language poetries, modern and medieval. If poetry is the scholar’s art, according to Wallace Stevens, then Cole’s work begs the additional question: what if poetry is also the translator’s art?

Cole has written his fourth book of original poems through the core concept of influence. The proximity between influence and translation is something Cole once remarked upon when introducing Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, his translation of the eleventh-century Andalusian Jewish poet-philosopher. “Translation,” according to Cole,

particularly in an age of translation, is not only what hired or inspired workers have rendered into another language; it is also what writers who read in multiple languages translate in thought alone — the force of which is brought to bear on the written language they use. This, granted, is simply influence; in this instance, however, it is influence born of a steady passage across linguistic and regional borders.[2]

Cole’s own poetry comes to us across the porous borders where “thought alone” is formed by all of the languages he knows — traditions which give thought its bearings, music its glossaries, tone its inflections. “Great genial power,” wrote Emerson about Shakespeare, “consists in not being original at all,” but “in being receptive.”[3]

Paired with his previous collection from New Directions, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008), Cole’s book reestablishes him as one of the most receptive poets writing today. His capacity for conducting his own source influences into poems of quiet, philosophical astonishment is something quite riveting. The Invention of Influence is an affirmation of influence, of the strange joys of being “afloat in the foreign.”[4] It offers a corrective to the tragically egocentric anxiety of influence that led the psychoanalyst Victor Tausk (the subject of the book’s long title poem) to kill himself and Sigmund Freud to suppose that “it is one man, the man Moses, who created the Jews.”[5]

The influence of Kabbalah

Only by sucking, not by knowing
can the subtle essence be conveyed[6]
— “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind”

Emerson began his essay “Quotation and Originality” with this odd and wonderful image that reminds me of the attractions and pleasures of Cole’s scholarly temperament:

Whoever looks at the insect world, at flies, aphides, gnats and innumerable parasites, and even at the infant mammals, must have remarked the extreme content they take in suction, which constitutes the main business of their life. If we go into a library or news-room, we see the same function on a higher plane, performed with like ardor, with equal impatience of interruption, indicating the sweetness of the act.[7]

The greatest succor to be drawn from Cole's new poems comes through his immersion in the poetics of Kabbalah. In 2012, Yale University Press published The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, a breathtaking anthology of poems spanning the sixth to the twentieth centuries, all translated by Cole. Kabbalah is itself a vast and bewildering invention. One way that it approaches an unapproachable Godhead is by musing on the surface tension of language, the literal letters of the alphabet which combine to form what Marianne Moore once called a “precipitate of dazzling impressions, / the spontaneous unforced passion of the Hebrew language.”[8] “Actual Angels,” an early poem in Cole’s new collection, imagines letters as angels whose messages are decipherable only in passing, in gaps, seams, and margins.

Are angels evasions of actuality?
Bright denials of our mortality?
Or more like letters linking words
to worlds these heralds help us see?

It’s the freighted angels that elevate.
Opaque with their burdens, they wait

for someone to sense what’s there, between,
until they’re released to the weather again.

Gone is the griffin, the phoenix, the faun.
Only angels in the poem live on

as characters catching the light between things,
as carriers of currents from the wings

of thinking we know where we’re going and then
getting somewhere, despite our intention. (5)

Cole’s disposition is Midrashic, and his exegeses run edgewise. Words don’t illuminate meaning — they insinuate it in glimpses, tears, rumors. Above all, meaning is relational and intertextual.

Angels are like letters, says Abulafia,
in us like mind as the present’s hum.
No one knows what a year will bring,
but the world-to-come is the word to come. (6)

At other times he reads the natural world in the secret key of Wallace Stevens:

The elm slides liquid leaves through its sleeves —
its twig-tips swell with a ruby-like glow;
seraphs of jade then crown this mage,
their wings spreading the shade we know. (7)

No poet so resembles Stevens’ attachment to supreme fictions, or so approaches the celestial pantomime of Stevens’ music: restlessly experimental, but couched in traditional prosodies. Stevens invented an idiosyncratic lyrical substitute to fill the vacuum left by the departed gods. Peter Cole’s supreme fiction is likewise supremely fictional, but his engagement with Jewish textuality makes it a shared and traditional fiction: communal, historical. The elm looming above might sound Stevensian, but this is no solipsistic palm at the end of the mind. Cole is tracing the Kabbalah’s image of an upside-down tree whose roots are in heaven and whose leaves and branches swing low into the actual world.

Cole employs a range of poetic methods derived from Kabbalah, including acrostic poems and invented forms structured by images of the sephirot, the ten emanations of the Godhead. Throughout, Cole aspires to what Kabbalists call tikkun: the restoration of the fragments scattered by the original catastrophe of creation. His strophes imagine a repairing that is both cosmic and interpersonal. By Cole’s lights, a poem is

… that which hovers here
between the “I” of the opening
and the “us” of your possible listening
now, or in the imperfect
tense and tension of what
in fact articulates the eternal
That abstract revelation
and slippery duration
to which, it seems, I’m given
and because of which I’m never
finished with anything, as though living
itself were an endless translation (4)

Translation is a metaphor for a special kind of longing for the other. It anticipates a state of eventual arrival, reception, and completion. But this “word-to-come” is imaginable only through the provisional flowering of slippery word variants, deciduous syllables, the poet’s makeshift decisions, the reader’s temporary gleanings.

Influence in psychoanalysis

The book’s central title poem forms a decisive and fascinating counterpoint. It is a meticulously forensic reconstruction of the life and death of Victor Tausk, one of Freud’s most promising, but most troubled, disciples in the early years of psychoanalysis. After killing himself in 1919 at the age of forty, Tausk was fated to become a tragic footnote in the history of psychoanalysis, chiefly remembered for his paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia.”

Reading Cole’s masterful, polyphonic orchestration of the Tausk-Freud relationship (the poem is fifty pages) feels like experiencing the slow, inexorable slide of Greek tragic drama. This fateful tale is the opposite of Cole’s cherished open-endedness, for the death of Tausk is such a foregone conclusion. Rather, Cole offers us a formally gorgeous, if painstaking, account of the dire consequences that result from the pathological desire for originality and the fear of influence.

Cole mobilizes a vast array of textual resources to do so: he draws on Tausk’s own writings (letters, papers, poems, journals), on Freud’s letters, on the journals and letters of Lou Andreas-Salomé (who had a brief affair with Tausk and entertained a long friendship with Freud), and relies heavily on Paul Roazen’s book Brother Animal, an excavation of the Tausk-Freud relationship which largely blames Freud’s rejection of Tausk for the younger man’s suicide. Freud felt threatened by his student’s pioneering work, Roazen argues, and probably felt other more personal aversions as well, leading him to disown Tausk in a calculated move that partly contributed to the disciple’s death.

“The Invention of Influence: An Agon” opens in a voice that recalls the premonitory authority of the chorus in Greek tragic drama. The prefatory poem is drawn from Tausk’s paper on the “influence machine” which controls the thoughts and feelings of the paranoid schizophrenic:

… Boundaries are called into question
   as though one’s thoughts were “given”
and knowledge implanted from beyond —
   so what’s within is known.
One does nothing on one’s own.
   Strings are pulled and buttons
pressed, all to evade an anxiety
   that rears its head at the heart
of the void in avoidance. The echoes begin:
   The cure as illness, the illness
as cure. Thus the revolving door
   that becomes a lament for the makers —
and for those who fall prey to the powers —
   of this most intricate machine. (32)

Later, Cole parses Freud’s own thoughts about the ways in which a writer may think he’s doing original work when actually he’s just repressing the sources from which his ideas originated (an anxiety Freud himself possessed most acutely).

Precisely this
    afflicts the plagiarist,
or something like
    the X he is:
What’s old and has
    long been known
seems to him new
    and becomes his own.
He’s all reception,
     all alone,
and the fruits are manifold
     though the root is one —
thwarted ambition
     and a sense at heart
the doctor describes
     as a kind of cry:
I cannot bear
     not to have been
the first to have uttered
    a certain thing. (56–57)

Both Freud and Tausk suffered this anxiety with respect to their work — and of course, aversion to influence is a cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis in general, with its fixation upon the Oedipal dilemma that leads the son to attempt to murder his father.

That I am a son, said Tausk,
     around the time he encountered Freud,
         causes me great embarrassment
(it shames me)
when someone calls me by the name
      handed on by my father ...

because a father conceived me
and a mother brought me into this world.
Destiny’s what the eyes can see,
the ears take in, the hands contain —
and still we’re called to account with the elders,
and blood misled, misleads again.

And so with a needle he pierced

that picture’s heart —
his mother

on the wall (33)

The subtitle of the poem, “an Agon,” reminds us of Harold Bloom’s writing on the agonistic aspects of influence, and of the Freudian underpinnings of his theory. In his book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, an elaboration of ideas first established in The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom insisted that

the love of poetry is another variant of the love of power … a particular power, the power of usurpation…. We read to usurp, just as the poet writes to usurp. Usurp what? A place, a stance, a fullness … something we can call our own or even ourselves.”[9]  

This viewpoint, so bent upon claiming a fixed place for oneself, is quite incompatible with Cole’s essential poetics, which practices writing as a form of translation, as a “being between” fixed places, with the poet as a transponder, not an orator, a conduit, not a usurper.

Nevertheless, Bloom’s misprision hovers over Cole’s interrogations of influence because his introduction to the book offers such a strong reading of Cole’s importance. Bloom rightly praises Cole for producing “a specifically Jewish self somehow centered upon translation, with that process reconceived in a sense both broad and cutting” (xi). However, he misreads Cole when imagining a hidden affinity between Cole and Freud:

Our Father Freud fully expected to replace Judaism with psychoanalysis, and the man Moses by the man Solomon Freud. On one level, Cole wonders if the American Jewish poetic quest can evade some affinities with the audacious Freudian project. (xi)

In fact, Cole is not at all driven by a desire to write poetry that is either originally American or originally Jewish. The strength of Cole’s work is partly its eschewal of what Louise Glück has called the “imperatives of self-creation,” American literature which seeks to “break trails, to found dynasties.”[10] For Cole, as for all Kabbalists, “creation” is something divine and unknowable. Writers don’t create. Poet-translators invent; they translate; as often as not, they are “driven by the pulse of another’s poem” (90). They find rather than found.

In the end, Cole bookends the “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” by presenting two slightly different versions of the same poem at the beginning and at the end, as if to contain or to quarantine this Oedipal drama, to prohibit Tausk’s nightmare from taking effect upon us, lest the following equation come to define us:

I.M. — an Influence
    Machine, in short;
and we are what we
    become in its import. (64)

Towards the ecstasies of influence

“I.M.” is a parody of the “I AM” of the Hebrew God whose influence Jewish writers have invented and reinvented down the centuries. Cole follows the Freudian tragedy with his rendering of a seventh-century poem by Yannai, one of the first writers of liturgical poems in the Jewish tradition. Under the title “On What Is Not Consumed,” Cole translates:

Angel of fire devouring fire
Fire Blazing through damp and drier
Fire Candescent in smoke and snow
Fire Drawn like a crouching lion
Fire Evolving through shade after shade
Fateful fire that will not expire
Gleaming fire that wanders far
Hissing fire that sends up sparks …


For Cole, the Jewish mystical imaginary effectively burns off the Romantic’s anxiety of influence. The burning bush is the source of all language for Jewish mysticism. And indeed, Cole understands ordinary language itself — however it comes to us — as the sacred origin of influence.

Poets renew its “normal magic” whenever they sit down to restoke its fires, to bank its light and its heat. In this way, Cole’s ongoing invention of an English-language Jewish-Kabbalistic poetics demands that he continue becoming traditional while remaining what he is: a thoroughly experimental connoisseur of bewilderment and errancy. The project is open-ended, its undertaking is never through. Toward the end of the new book, “The Perfect State” reminds us of this in many ways:

The perfect state of being human isn’t perfection,
it’s becoming, the Greeks say, ever more real
in nearing but never quite reaching a certain ideal,
like translation. It’s deficient. A chronic affection.

Perfection for the Kabbalist is reached
only when the fortress is breached
to the brokenness, the husks, the Other Side.
so imperfection becomes a guide (88) [...]

Perfection, the feeling philosopher says,
suggests an openness to endless change—
the self in radical revolution
within a self it soon finds strange. (89)

With The Invention of Influence, Cole turns the “radical revolution” of American poetry in new directions, writing with the same spiritual ardor, the same skepticism, and the same sublime craftsmanship that illuminates the work of the illustrious company he shares most: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Susan Howe. He enlarges American poetry considerably, too, by demonstrating the kindred spirit shared by the Jewish mystical imagination and the restless agnosticism that defines the best of all our contemporary poetry.

1. Charles Olson, Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 240.

2. Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, trans. Peter Cole (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 23.

3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 711.

4. Peter Cole, The Invention of Influence (New York: New Directions, 2014), 90.

5. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Knopf, 1939), 168.

6. Peter Cole, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New York: New Directions, 2008), 3.

7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Quotation and Originality,” Emerson Central, March 22, 2014.

8. Marianne Moore, The Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Grace Schulman (New York: Viking, 2003), 153.

9. Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 17.

10. Louise Glück, “American Originality,” The Threepenny Review, no. 87 (Fall 2001): 9.

'My mother's mother-of-pearl'

A review of Gro Dahle's 'A Hundred Thousand Hours'

A Hundred Thousand Hours

A Hundred Thousand Hours

Gro Dahle. Translated by Rebecca Wadlinger

Ugly Duckling Presse 2013, 192 pages, $17, ISBN 9781937027247

The statistics for literature in translation in the United States aren’t good. As Anna Clark, writing for the Pacific-Standard, points out in her article “You’re Missing Out on Great Literature,” a slim 3 percent of books published per year in the US are works in translation.[1] Some readers and translation publishers are already aware of this number. Open Letter, for example, based at the University of Rochester, hosts a blog called Three Percent that focuses on translation-related topics. Interestingly, Clark parses the percentage to show what types of books make up that number. The majority of those works, as it turns out, are computer and technical manuals. After that there are novels, and then books of poetry.[2] It would seem that translators of novels (whether genre or literary) must receive some encouragement from publishers because there is the possibility of turning some profit. For literary translators, though, the money, or the lack thereof, is most likely not the attraction. Perhaps the drive for the translation of technical manuals isn’t from publishers; instead, translators are likely driven by the need from tech companies to provide clear instructional language for users. With such a meager percentage of poetry being translated per year, I started to wonder what role chance plays for poetry translators? How do they discover the work to translate?

For Rebecca Wadlinger, the translator of the recently published A Hundred Thousand Hours, by the Norwegian poet and writer Gro Dahle, chance played an intriguing role in her decision to translate Dahle’s book. Wadlinger, a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, discovered the Norwegian’s work while on fellowship at the University of Oslo. In an interview for The Kenyon Review, she describes how she found Dahle’s work in the basement of the university library near the end of her stay. By that time, Wadlinger had already read through many books of poems in the library stacks, but when she found A Hundred Thousand Hours she said, “I was floored. I remember marveling at Dahle’s intelligence, morbidity, and imagination. I knew this manuscript would appeal to so many American readers — I needed to translate it!”[3] As fate would have it, Dahle’s book had been out of print for years. Wadlinger decided to transcribe the poems by hand from the Bokmål dialect,[4] an official written standard of Norwegian. So, it’s not simply chance that brought Dahle into English, it’s also Wadlinger’s curiosity in the basement of that library and her commitment to producing a hard copy of the poems to bring home.

While Dahle is virtually unknown in the United States, she is well known as the author of over thirty books in Norway. Audience, her first book of poems, was published in 1987. The daughter of Øystein Dahle, a former executive for Esso and a fellow of the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences, she has collaborated with her husband and illustrator Svein Nyhus on a popular series of children’s books. Two of these collaborations have received national prizes in Norway. Nice received the Brage Prize in 2002 and Angry Man, a book addressing domestic violence from a young boy’s perspective, won the Best Children’s Book Prize from the Norwegian Ministry of Culture in 2003. Much of Dahle’s work, whether for children or adults, if these distinctions even apply for a writer such as Dahle, is from the child’s perspective.

In A Hundred Thousand Hours, a book-length work of short poems, Dahle alternates perspectives between the young daughter and the mother she becomes. These perspectives draw from the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship. ‘Complexities,’ though, isn’t quite the right word for a work with lines like these:

I stitch my child onto my body. She is an extra
arm. She is an extra breast. And I breathe
through her. I smile with her mouth.
The world is only as big as the space between
her forehead and my mouth. (79)

Like the above, much of Dahle’s description of the mother-daughter relationship is characterized by spare and direct language that suggests claustrophobic closeness. In the background, as I read these poems, I hear the following refrain: get away from me; I love you.

In addition to her focus on the physicality of the mother-daughter relationship, Dahle creates a constricted atmosphere with her detailed attention to the rooms, furniture, and accouterments that surround the relationship:

When I wake up, the room stands and waits for me.
The moulding, doorsteps and parallel lines. When
morning light falls in a trapezoid on the floor, it touches
the corner of a button. My mother’s mother-of-pearl button.

When I spill sugar on the floor, I take it as a good
sign. But in my side-sight I see the furniture ready to run. (11)

The emphasis on small details, the trapezoidal morning light touching the corner of a button, and the use of alliterative repetition in “My mother’s mother-of pearl button” depict a highly observant daughter. It seems, too, that the speaker attaches a divined, yet panicked, significance to the spilled sugar when she takes it “as a good / sign.” This divination appears throughout the book and often seems to stem from the need for the daughter, and sometimes for the mother, to feel as if they have gained a sense of control.

Even though many readers will be unfamiliar with how to read Norwegian, or even how it sounds, this bilingual edition allows one to see the source of “My mother’s mother-of-pearl,” which reads as follows: “Min mors perlemorknapp” (10). Wadlinger, in her translation, maintains the several m-sounds in that line. On the whole, she displays throughout the book an astute ear for the sonic elements within Dahle’s work, and skillfully renders English-language poems. One of the pleasures of bilingual editions for readers, particularly when one isn’t familiar with the language being translated from, is looking at the originals and translations as (mirror) images, not to compare for visual accuracy, but simply to see what shapes the translator had to work with, and what types of decisions she might have had to make about the visual presentation of the work. In Wadlinger’s case, she seems to have replicated the finely honed shapes of Dahle’s originals. As I move from one poem to the next, my eyes feel the pleasure of carrying the shadow-image of the Norwegian into the English.

A Hundred Thousand Hours is Dahle’s first appearance in English, as well as Wadlinger’s first published book of translations. Judging from this work, they are a good pairing, which makes me hope Wadlinger will continue to bring Dahle into English. To everyone’s advantage, though, the translator will not need to rely on chance, at least not as much as she did the first time around when she waded into those stacks in Oslo. Perhaps Wadlinger, by now, has also been tipped off to other Norwegian works that would help readers to develop a stronger sense of Dahle’s generation of writers, a generation that includes the bestselling crime novelist Jo Nesbø. Norway’s iconoclastic literary tradition is too little known here in the United States. Prior to Nesbø’s international success, Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun are most likely the only other Norwegian writers with name recognition for American readers. Judging from this short, but male-dominated, list, we could certainly benefit from becoming more aware of women’s writing in Norway. Rebecca Wadlinger, with her translation of A Hundred Thousand Hours, has provided readers the necessary introduction.

1. Anna Clark, “You’re Missing Out on Great Literature,” Pacific-Standard, February 11, 2014.

2. Ibid.

3. Hannah Withers, “Translating Immediacy and Manic Delight: A Micro-Interview with Rebecca Wadlinger,” May 20, 2011.

4. Ibid.

Text in the age of inst@bility

A review of 'A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction'

A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Jerome McGann

Harvard University Press 2014, 256 pages, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-72869-1

How we preserve material history in a digital ecology is one of the most pressing issues facing archival institutions in the twenty-first century. Material artifacts — as objects of memory — remain highly integral to textual criticism. Yet as emergent information technologies have become ever-present tools of academic scholarship, archives are faced with the challenge to integrate physical records with the digital environment. Recalibrating the documentary record to meet these demands requires that technicians, scholars, librarians, and educators of the humanities work in tandem to develop a comprehensive understanding of the similar social forces that “power and structure” bibliographic records and the digital environment (22). At stake is not only the sustained preservation of cultural memory but also the optimization of methodologies and the vocabularies needed to reflect upon the literary text.

Jerome McGann’s A New Republic of Letters provides, then, a much-need intervention into the current state of the humanities by undertaking a lively, humorous, and at times personal exploration of the potentials and faultlines of critical inquiry in the digital age. Developing an appreciation of our digital archival culture need not necessitate the “end of books” — a claim that has remained current since Octave Uzanne’s 1894 article that takes it name from the phrase — but it does presume a novel reorientation toward our bibliographic records in order to meet efficaciously the technological demands made on traditional institutions of knowledge and memory. Meeting these demands, McGann proposes, requires the practice of “philology in a new key” (3): a discipline that addresses not only the text and its deployment of language but also its historical networks and cultural registers, so as to adopt a long-view perspective on the intersections between the bibliographic and digital records, as well as the sociohistorical fields that continue to inform them. A philology 2.0 specially rebooted for our digital condition acknowledges both the curatorial limitations of cultural memory and the need for mnemonic agents — the institutions of the archive and their technical apparatuses — to carve out a dedicated scholarly space for the material objects of memory. This space must remain in the sights of scholars and educators of the humanities if we are to design and build successfully the archival software and interfaces needed to preserve our cultural legacies. 

I want to undertake first a summation of the key ideas in A New Republic of Letters before I offer what I think is the critical foci of the book and their implications for the field. To this end, I settle somewhere between an academic review and a personal response to the central thesis of McGann’s claims. Indeed, McGann advocates for a novel direction in humanities research, one that builds upon a philological foundation of the social text in a digital ecology. By way of a broad introduction, then, A New Republic of Letters has a three-part structure with each section offering a set of questions concerning the relation of theory to method with accompanying analyses of relevant texts and archival organizations. Part one engages the conflict between the respective historical claims of philosophy and philology to textual criticism. Part two provides a detailed exploration of the performative relationships between theory and method, and part three interrogates explicitly the practical issues facing textual criticism within and without the digital environment. In each of these sections, McGann displays his characteristic intellectual expertise by yoking together discussions on variegated sources, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Creeley, the Ojibwe Digital Archive, Mark Twain, and William Wordsworth. The diversity of McGann’s textual selections, and their interlocking social relations, underscores the need to foreground the materials of textual criticism as they are imported into and distributed throughout the technical apparatuses of digital environments.    

The question “Why does textual scholarship matter?” frames the discussions in chapter one. As McGann accurately observes, paper-based records are migrating into digital archival systems, a move that “is now being carried out by agents who act, by will or by mistake, quite against the interests of scholars and educators — and in that respect, against the general good of society” (21). Educators and scholars, in other words, must retain their particular stakes in shaping cultural record keeping as well as their “access to and understanding of cultural materials” (23). McGann’s alarm, it seems, is well founded. As Guy Peseech has suggested elsewhere, contemporary archival management is currently experiencing a radical paradigm shift towards commercial and private institutions of memory — exemplified by Google, Corbis, and Getty Images — that tend to favor centralized groups that are “able to reproduce, leverage, and manipulate their social dominance from one generation to the another.”[1] By way of teasing out the relations of bibliographic records to the digital environment, McGann offers an elegant reading of the variegated sociohistorical networks in J. C. C. May’s edition of Coleridge’s works, The Rossetti Archive, and the digital scholarly organization NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship), which itself exemplifies a type of memory institution dedicated to cultivating the links between documentary record and scholarship upon philological modes of inquiry.

Chapters two and three revisit the historical foundations for the tensions between the disciplines of philology and philosophy. McGann begins with an analysis of the institutional fractures that sprang from Jean-François Lyotard’s promotion of postmodern science and the obsession of the academy to ‘make it new,’ following it with a meditation on Bernard Steigler and the “inorganic organization of memory” that “produces an open documentary archive of human self-study” (40). Chapter three further interrogates the nineteenth-century controversy that arose from Wilamowitz’s polemical attack on Friedrich Nietchze’s challenge to classical philology. McGann argues that the controversy exposed the inherent instability underlying “a supreme achievement of secular enlightenment — the historicist method of German scholarship” (61). That instability continues to reverberate within twenty-first-century academia as the twin poles of pragmatism and theory exert competing demands upon the discipline of philology.

Chapters four, five, and six shift attention to the marked fields of the text and the sociohistorical and performative operations of interpretation. Here, the “inevitable failure of interpretive ‘adequacy’” must be acknowledged, McGann argues, as a prerequisite for working “toward discovering new interpretive virtues” (89). Chapter five explores the differences between book and TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) markup.[2] Traditional textuality, as McGann observes, “provides us with autopoietic models that have been engineered as effective analytic tools” (98). Yet the difficulty arises when we endeavor to imagine the ways in which we can remodel these tools for a digital environment. “To do that,” McGann proposes, “we have to conceive formal models for autopoietic processes that can be written as computer software programs” (98).  Chapter six builds upon these interlocking arguments by once more returning to J. C. C. May’s edition of Coleridge’s poetic works. Reimagining May’s edition in a digital form, in effect, illustrates the current gaps in technology to optimize scholarly editing. As McGann suggests, “We are not even close to developing browser interfaces to compare with the interfaces that have evolved in the past 500 years of print technology” (118). How do we manage the vastness of our material history — let alone examine the objects of memory with the sympathetic digital acuity — when the technological apparatuses are insufficient to respond to the demands of the social text? Lastly, chapters eight and nine offer two separate tour de force readings on the cultural registers of Edgar Poe and James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pioneers. Both chapters highlight McGann’s careful and detailed attention to the very different sociohistorical networks that are integrated into the social text.

I have deliberately skipped chapter seven because McGann’s arguments in this section offer what I believe are the central concerns of the book as a whole. McGann proposes that while 

digital technology is introducing new critical methods and procedures, it does not fundamentally alter the sociologies of scholarship and education nor their institutional mechanism. Studying the history of philology itself is especially pertinent now, as is a broad critical reflection on the current institutional state of humanities education. (144)

While McGann invokes a broad set of concerns, the pedagogical function of the digital archive is particularly fundamental to his claims. How can the systems and structures of digital humanities dovetail into the educational and scholarly mission of the humanities? How might scholars and educators elide the gaps between traditional scholarship and digital infrastructures that are increasingly being exploited to sustain cultural memory? The need “to integrate online humanities scholarship into the programmatic heart of the university” (144) requires a brave willingness to develop and enact policies and strategies to install scholarly digital ecologies into public education. Indeed, developing a programmatic collaboration of social agents with the institution of the archive is vital so to support the rich deposits of global cultural memory. Such a mission is all the more urgent as commercial enterprises — and the Google Book Project is an appropriate example, here — undertake and overtake traditional archival management.

McGann’s shrewd familiarity with both the technologies of the archive and literary history is certainly one of the strengths of this book. And it is easy to lose sight of the social and political resonances in textual artifacts when the digital mechanisms of preservation, editing, and analysis offer excitingly novel forms of curation. This is not to say that a microscopic focus on digital apparatuses is not outside of inquiry. Indeed, the successful preservation of material artifacts remains dependent on the development of digital structures and conventions that can encode the historical networks in which the text operates. Yet this book brings into clarity the pivotal moment now bearing rapidly upon us, as scholars of the humanities, when practical decisions as to the preservation of literary histories have to be made. And to this end, A New Republic of Letters gestures towards the futurity of digital humanities as much as it reflects upon our cultural legacies.   

1. Guy Pessach, “[Networked] Memory Institutions: Social Remembering, Privatization and Its Discontents,” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 26, no. 1 (2008): 74.

2.  TEI is an international organization that develops and publishes standards for encoding machine-readable texts; it also refers to the technical guidelines and schema used for marking up text.

Sound matters

A review of Deborah Meadows's 'Translation, the bass accompaniment'

Right: photo by Douglas Messerli.

Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems  

Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems  

Deborah Meadows

Shearsman Books 2013, 236 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1848612808

“Frequency.” This single-word line begins one of Deborah Meadows’s poems and suggests radio listening as a poetics: an act of receptive agency, tuning in, selecting from a cloth of constant notes, words, thoughts, events, static. Meadows’s Translation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems is the sounding of consciousness, but not singular, not just her own: these poems are patterns pulled from texts in order to make a new accompaniment, to expose “the syntax of exploratory thought” (9).

Indeed, in the preface, Meadows identifies her poetics and a whole chorus of influences: “The bass guitar creates patterns that make music into a visceral experience — they are what infect the body” (9). She continues, explaining that the works “are in dialog with other authors, and here, experimental poetry engages logician Quine, encyclopedic novelist Melville, philosophers Irigaray and Deleuze, theologian and synthetic philosopher Aquinas, poets Dragomoschenko, Hejinian, Raworth, Baudelaire, and Celan, Soviet cinematographer Vertov, video artist Bill Viola, and others” (9).

I first heard Deborah Meadows read in 2011. I wrote, then, that I felt I had a lot to learn from her, and this collection solidifies my belief that many of us do. This capstone book looks back on Meadows’s prolific writing life, and I believe that Meadows’s poetry stands out among contemporary experimental poetry in two ways: in her treatment of matter, including political and economic realities, and in her use of and trust in sound. A member of the liberal studies faculty at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, she is not situated in a creative writing department. She is not stringently aligned with any new poetics or movements of the moment, and her inspirations are vast and multidisciplinary. This is all the more reason to tune in to her work.

“Clear the whole”

Translation is comprised of eleven sections, and the first five sections are a through-writing of Moby Dick. In “Invocation,” I read a key to the multichapter sequence: “Clear the whole / Clear where you wrote ‘that and what’” (17). Here is another call to release language from the ideal of “whole” capture, from the possibility to own, where the aural slippage between “whole” and “hole” is also not insignificant: clearing a space in order to receive or take in something new.

These lines imply a beginning again, into compositional practices that challenge authorial control. In “Chapter 110,” Meadows outlines this process: “To copy text from text: a departure / from graphic marks to truths that turn / on poise and difference. Can makers / know sense of their senses?” (56). Her questioning invokes language as sensing where “to know” is to question and not to possess. In “Chapter 126,” Meadows takes the image of the coffin and extends it toward writing itself:

The lid implies body as witness
            to cobbling “beneath”
carpenters; dignity balks
at buoyed air, eclipsed signs of late.
            His coffin can endure
bedsteads I forgot — no caps
            at sea nor job-shop,
stash, or lee. One speaker
displays local pikes abroad.
Novel structure
                        cyclopic or
encyclopedic? (62)

The lyricism of this passage — notice the internal rhymes — pulls the reader through at a rapid pace. Therefore Meadows enacts the question of this poem via sound, and quite literally via the notion that writers, as “carpenters,” construct reality. Here “novel structure” can be read as referring to the novel as source, but also to the project of making something new, lyrical, constrained, and intensified through poetry.

The poem ends with a question, a bent note, an upward turn, and an “answer” could go either way. In fact, doubt — and it is almost pedagogical to me, in that I am thinking of a teacher’s aim to invite students in to the space of questioning — is invoked throughout Translation.

In the subsequent poem, “Chapter 127,” which begins by taking up the previous poem’s question “On the state of the novel as a coffin,” Meadows once again turns to language as sound intensity:

From cabin to shop, believe in
            sufficient music, in caulking
or sounding out the unpronounceable.
            Hark, all things come right
with a test upon waters for central
lines, radiant riggings. (63)

Reading this work, I asked myself again and again: to what extent do we trust the ear as able to organize language toward meanings? To study Meadows’s selected works is to research this question.

A poetry of matter/that matters

In such a fluxing field as sound, it may seem that meanings are not easily construed. Meadows is certainly working out of the lineage of Language poetry, with its characteristic indeterminacy and treatment of language as matter, allowing coauthorship between writer and reader. A nondirective space, a space in which meaning is constructed through choice and where language itself is active, is the politics, goes the thinking.

But I do not read Meadows’s works in this light entirely. If she uses found text, it is incorporated to a significant degree, and chance operations are in no way privileged or showcased as a move of clever authorship. Her edges are sharp, her tone and pace are at times desperate; I read clear political intentions, and she is willing to sound the alarm. Simultaneously lyrical and conceptual, Meadows’s work is exemplary among contemporary poetry. In fact, it challenges the clunky, western-world, Cartesian construct that would differentiate between somatic experience and conceptual practice.

The urgency in her work becomes most clear to me in the middle of the book, in the section from Goodbye Tissues. This is one of my favorite books by Meadows, also published by Shearsman in 2009. The “tissues” of the title calls to mind the “soft tissues” of the body, their vulnerability, and at the same time, saying “goodbye tissues” issues a farewell to pathos.

This section begins with “American Possessions,” whose first line is indented, as if a continuation of the title, yet sandwiches nearly a half page of white space — as if there has been a whole other text in between the titling and the beginning of the poem:

            far, black lung
                                    knot-spent, gas paltry

decimal, organelle, go?
                        convey the stepped day
by horn blast, retinal
                                                hinder written or damned
“already”- town. (127)

Here sounding is a way to live inside the body who senses, who listens to the vibrations between words and underneath proclamations.

Many of the sequences gathered in Translation address things that “matter”: political and economic systems impinging on citizen bodies. Meadows’s biography includes that she grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a working-class family, and throughout the book, she engages struggle without romanticizing disenfranchisement, and without relying on narrative witness work. There is something hard fought in her work, as if she is aware of the risk of disconnection with one’s tribe that often accompanies the movement into a poetry of this risk, especially when one simultaneously refuses to suppress firsthand Rust Belt America experience.

For example, in the sequence “Procuratio” from Depleted Burden Down, Meadows intermixes her dissatisfaction with traditional narrative as well as material political realities: “But a substitution theory: the word for the thing, the thing for the other thing, has a ‘universal’ appeal. It’s money. And little in the way of theorizing can interrupt its commerce, its erotic appeal” (163). She continues, issuing either a poetics or a warning, or both: “Haul and scrape good Word for importation to godhead, poached and re-set, spring mechanisms and all. Executed by market track, human capital, finance group, our prize, seminar on human entourage if you have the software, foundlings’ Houdini, erased land, term professor, robot message” (163).

For me the verb “executed,” with its two possible meanings, is the key to Meadows’s complication: is the “good Word” destroyed by market forces? Or is poetry actually made by these same devices? The last line of this passage suggests that the answer is both: “Hard to see the go-between we are” (163). 

“voluptuous, but now a recession”

The book’s final sequence, “Lamb Notes,” which Meadows articulates in her introduction as “a poem that hints at a version of tomorrow” (9), is inspired by a lecture given by designers Zoe Coombes and David Boira at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles in 2010. “Lamb Notes” is a sparse sequence, and very delicately Meadows draws a relationship between “lamb” and “lamp.” In those two words, separated only by a more pronounced popping of the lips, Meadows connects Catholicism’s Agnes Dei image and illumination. Meadows’s “lamp, perfection / lamb, order // dirt experiments, less / controlled, more tactile” (231) eventually leads to a final page inscribed with just these lines and an asterisk:

three parts for chopping block
symmetrical paired
voluptuous, but now a recession (234)

I have come to the end of Translation, the bass accompaniment with an overwhelming desire for more poetry: to live inside this world of music, text-making, reading, noticing, and delicate strength.

If elsewhere in this volume Meadows has asked, “When did coherence displace constancy, meaning unseat duration?” (89), she answers with the book’s cover image, a print by Meadows herself entitled “Nightingale Sound Print, Heart Sound Print Over Ancient Calligraphy” and on the book’s final page—

“voluptuous, but now a recession” (234)

Beautifully excessive matter and desire, at times temporally withdrawn — receding — remain imprinted despite exposures to surrounding regimes of the rational. Deborah Meadows’s poetry is for this awareness.

Code as such

A review of 'Dragon Logic'

Dragon Logic

Dragon Logic

Stephanie Strickland

Ahsahta Press 2013, 120 pages, $18, ISBN 978-1-934103-45-6

The poetry of Stephanie Strickland demonstrates a poetic intelligence that captures not only the lyrical moment in algorithms but also the pervasive quietness of scientific vocabularies. Her work has, thus far, touched on the systems of distributed knowledge — the variegated institutions of knowing, including the natural and virtual geographies into which we embed our cultural memories; the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and astronomy; visual media; and the technologies of language. Dragon Logic is, however, her boldest gesture to date towards the extreme limits of the known universe, one that significantly broadens the limited perception of our ecology to include the virtual interfaces, imagined presences, and online architectures where you cannot “take your own movement for granted” (6).

I am taken in by poetry that denies the reader certain actualities, overt explanations of how imaginations must function in a digital world where our soft analogue bodies appear to recede. The tendency to over-fetishize scientific vocabularies erases the possibilities of the poetic form to explore the momentary warping when such disciplines attempt to explicate the precisions of the abstracted world through natural languages. Dragon Logic, however, resists the over-privileging of abstracted knowledge by interrogating its fantastic predilections for feeling. The book’s structure mirrors an Incan quipu by knotting multifarious knowledge-forms in a way that

tunes “a data-dense medium whose clarity did not depend on
expansion into words” (79)  

Divided, then, into six sections — “e-Dragons,” “Sea Dragons,” “Dragon Maps,” “Alive Inside the Dragons,” “°Codemakers,” and  “Afterword” — this collection presents to the reader an imagined cartography that recalls the mythic inscriptions of medieval maps, “here be dragons” (74) — or, more precisely, HC SVNT DRACONES — that denote the limits of our known world and the dangerous, exotic, and uncharted territories that lie outside human knowledge. Such imagined artifacts — and there only two instances of this phrase on extant maps, both of which date from the post-Columbus period[1] — hark back to an era when an understanding of the Earth’s geography was still amorphous. Yet arguably, twenty-first-century spaces remain equally flexible and strange as the perceived threshold between virtual ecologies and the ‘real world’ begins to overlap. Reading Dragon Logic is thus a pleasurable disorientation of what it means not just to know but to read in a confusing social world in which the infinite digital expanse, leaking into material ecosystems, complicates conventional modes of literacy and knowledge.

I have grappled with using a normative mode of reading to respond to a poetry collection that simply resists settled definitions. Yet the only appropriate response is perhaps a personal one. In this case, I offer a speculative ludic reading that treats this book as hypertextual artifact, to open it at any point, at any page, and to read the text without expectation but with an eye for its potentialities, as one does when one logs onto the World Wide Web. Such a non-normative reading underscores the fluid lyricism of Dragon Logic, its openness of form, its circularity, its intrepid and at times concrete visual presentations, and its playful linguistic richness that dissects the inner life of language. Indeed, this collection takes the reader on a hunt for “the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical” dragon (49) along the multifarious pathways that lead to and from a comprehensive “wordhoard treasure” (74) of real and mythic knowledges. What exactly this dragon is, and what form it might take, is perhaps moot. It is the quest for this cryptozoological creature — a journey toward possible expression — that drives the poetic thesis.

Dragon Logic thus performs a poetic voyage of rediscovery of the lacunae between so-called finite knowledges and the terror of mystery to cultivate a grappling of meaning that our twenty-first-century immersion into virtual geographies has sharply foregrounded. Cyberspace in this collection emerges from a dark architecture in which myth and imagination confront and subvert the systems of preconfigured pathways, algorithms, and preexistent sign systems that dovetail into the knowledge systems of exactitude and precision. To this end, this collection interrogates hard quantitative sciences (such as the fields of computing, physics, and mathematics); professional sciences such as architecture; and the indigenous systems of knowledge that include Celtic, Mayan, and Greek mythology, and Māori whakataukī (proverbs). The title Dragon Logic names at once this collusion of digital protocols, scientific inquiry, and technologies of computing with traditional knowledge databases. This concatenation of knowledge systems underscores the struggle for, and translation of, meaning in our contemporary social world. Indeed, the title’s allusion to the speech-to-text software Dragon Dictate or Dragon NaturallySpeaking should not be ignored; the poem as dictation software suggests procedural execution, a knotting of human vocality with the cool utterances of our machines. In these mediations of technological imagination, language becomes filtered through ecosystems of forms, disciplines, fields of knowing, and digital mechanisms. Strickland’s poetic form is transformed into a sensory computer that simultaneously measures and erodes communication. Dragon Logic explores our negligent metaphorical use of words as uncontested markers of knowing. Indeed, the collection raises urgent questions about the authority of our western systems of knowledge, and their legitimating orthodoxies, to rest on a horrifying possibility: how do we really know what we know?    

When I open the book randomly, then, I turn surprisingly not to a poem but to an untitled email from Internet artist and poet Alan Sondheim:

Infinitely thin projective slice of difficult equation. The compression comes to grip[s] with it. There may be shadows of the future, I don’t know … coordinates are always variable. When the space moves, the[y] become ill. Don’t they?

Elsewhere, the real renders. Here it has already given up.

Dragon Logic explodes with these moments of appropriated, recycled, polyvocal textuality — what Brian Reed has termed as “redirected language”[2]  — that in the information age underlie a system of pointing to prior contexts of meaning. Here, the hypertextual sediments — the URLs that direct the reader along a preconfigured highway to Alan Sondheim’s movie files — lose their original functionality in the materiality of the book. Rendered now passive on the page, they nonetheless continue to speak to their digital operations, their mechanisms that move web users to another ‘page.’ Typing these URLs, however, into the address bar of my browser reveals that these markers are broken links, inoperative like their counterparts on the material page. The “coordinates” of spaces indeed “are always variable.” Strickland demonstrates the inherently instabilities of language as technologies mediate and leave their textual residue on linguistic systems. And it may seem obvious to state that the text, in both print and digital networks, never retains its stable presence. But I am particularly struck by the collaborative and quasi-conversational nature of this collection that points to our social networked conditions. Sondheim’s email underscores the impossible compression of contemporary writing into singular voices and subject positions, and so embraces instead the inevitable variabilities of network culture.

As I open the book again, I come to the poem “Rara Avis.” Underneath the title is a short paratextual note, “telepresence installation by Eduardo Kac°”:

not the old vicarial
              Holy Communion
nor the older
               another newer way to enter each other to share
                the same
                ( telematic ) co-ordinates
to share
                 via circuitry and hardware ( these
                 vary ) surveillance an ambience physical robots and avatars
wander (10)

As the note suggests, the poem refers to an art installation by poet and multimodal artist Eduardo Kac. The installation “Rara Avis” (1996) enabled participants, remotely and locally, to experience an aviary from the perspective of a telerobotic macaw.[3] Telepresence describes emergent technologies that allow a person to participate or mediate a location remotely. Such machines augment not only our soft bodies but also our subjectivities to foreground posthuman and nonhuman points of view. In this opening sequence, Strickland yokes together the regimes of the physical — surgery, pregnancy, and sex — that suggest the ways that we enter multiple materialities and manipulate the thresholds of our epidermal surfaces. Far from losing sight of the material body, and its spiritual aura, in the bodies of information, Strickland recuperates the body’s physical ambience in virtual spaces. Subjectivities multiply, proliferate, and disperse: our “composite unfragmented” selves are “neither // all-here not all-there sliding in // shifts” (10).

The degree symbol (°) is also worth noting here, since it illustrates the multiple sign-systems operating in this collection. This typographical mark represents degrees of arc (in geographic coordinate systems), hours, temperatures, or the diminished quality in musical harmony. In Dragon Logic, the mark is also an indexical signifier that transports the reader to satellite information in the back matter. In this sense, the (°) not only articulates the degrees of presence, boundaries, and borders that call out to the surrounding space — the multiple dimensions of information — but also the “°Codemakers”: the configurational and fictional, the human and the divine characters who have been responsible for knowledge production.

In one final gesture, I turn to the poem “Line spears nets knots have knots.” Several lines especially stand out:

the tatting aunt bore to her grave for want
of a human relay
      vital connection correct protocol
transmission fear of dissipation dissolution drizzle lethal
error (74)

Each successive line points to the ever-changing states of the linguistic ecology with increasing lyrical playfulness. This poem appears to be drawn from an essay by Sally Jane Norman, “Kupenga, Knots, Have Knots,” in which she argues that

In Maori [sic] culture (as in many cultures with strongly articulated transmission protocols), fear of the dissolution of treasured knowledge through its wholesale delivery to the world at large is in some cases leading to quiet death of that knowledge, borne to the grave for want of a sufficiently comprehensive human relay, a vital new carrier.[4]

Strickland’s performative remediation of this language seems suspicious of potential loss and breakdown of communication, and suggests instead that acts of dissolution and the errors of the “vital connections” nonetheless refresh the opportunities for the formation of new word-hoards. The intertwinedness of language, and the natural redundancies of information flows, do not beget loss in errors of transmission, but, rather, offer new linguistic relations, new relays, and recursive exchanges in cultural regeneration.

It is fair to say that Dragon Logic enunciates the pleasure of the loud ambiguities, the moments of almost-knowing, the tip-of-the-tongues, the perhapses, and the abstractions that navigate a concrete horizon of scientific exactitude. Strickland has designed a lyrical 3-D sculpture where “every junction is a number a corner a vertex” (28). Every coordinate is simultaneously a beginning, middle, and ending.

I want more than a box with door
on it, or a minimized surface; although
so many would be glad for it, content to lose

rooms within rooms onto rooms (24–25)

1. See Kim Meeri, “Oldest Globe To Depict The New World May Have Been Discovered,” Washington Post, August 19, 2013.

2. Brian Reed, “In Other Words: Postmillennial Poetry and Redirected Language,” Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 767.

3. Eduardo Kac, “Rara Avis.”  

4. Sally Jane Norman, “Kupenga, Knots, Have Nots (Kupenga means net in Maori),” in Intertwinedness: Reflecting the Structure of the Net, ed. Margarete Jahrmann and Christa Schneebauer (Klagenfurt: Ritter Verlag, 2000), 79–80.