Ongoing 'Planisphere' notebook

At right: John Ashbery. Photo by Arielle Brousse.



John Ashbery

Ecco 2009, 143 pages, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-06-191521-5


People are much too free with the phrase “a great book of poetry.” They think if the book has ten really good pieces in it then it’s a great book.

They don’t talk that way about albums. For it to be a great album it can’t just have some hits. You have to consider the not-hits, too. I wanna say: If you simply skip over the not-hits with no regret whatsoever, you can’t really call it a great album.

Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs has twenty, maybe thirty jewels. Plenty of the not-jewels are more or less unintelligible. Yet you regret skipping them. Somehow they contribute something to the overall presentation; you never wish ’em away. Shakespeare’s sonnets — same thing. Heaven knows one does pick up these books and skip to the best stuff. But one regrets it.

Now compare all that with, for example, Yeats’s The Tower. There, you have plenty of hits, but you skip over the other stuff quite, quite gladly. It’s boring. You have to assign the not-hits to yourself like homework. I do, anyway. Planisphere, meanwhile, is almost exactly the reverse. The hits are in rather short supply — but you really do wish you could take in the whole thing, every time you read any of it.

Trying to pick out anthology pieces from Planisphere would be like trying to take excerpts from a CD of whale songs. You don’t put that stuff on for five minutes.

And actually, you could say this is a large part of the nerviness of Ashbery’s work. He has dared — for fifty years  — to be supremely unportable.


On the other hand, if an editor were prepared to concoct an Ashbery “Selected” in total defiance of any and all expectations — principally the expectation that such a collection ought to contain {pieces representative of the poet’s oeuvre as a whole} + {a more or less even distribution of poems, starting with Some Trees and ending with Planisphere} — if, I say, an editor could forget about all that, he or she could deliver an Ashbery hitherto unsuspected by his detractors, and, to a lesser extent, unsuspected by his admirers.

A fine samizdat project for some enterprising young citizen.

(I recommend including “The Youth’s Magic Horn” from Hotel Lautréamont, and “… By An Earthquake” from Can You Hear, Bird. From Planisphere: “Default Mode.”)


Actually, now that I think of it, another way in which Ashbery is quite portable is on the level of the individual line or ‘bit.’ Nothing easier than to gather neat buttons at the button store. Here’s a grab bag:

I’m barely twenty-six, have been on Oprah
and such. (2)

Call me potatoes and soap.
Call me soap and potatoes. (10)

They were living in America further gone into teats. (17)

Ow. In fact ouch. (44)

Refusing to admit
something is the matter with you is like taking
a life. There are no witnesses. (46)

You say your cunning comportment
is artless? Well then so am I
for containing you, champ. (54)

A love like self-love
upgraded to “pastoral.” (68)

Alongside, something was running.
It had a note in its maw. Hey,
give me that, like a good animal.
That’s fine. Now get lost. (89)

[…] and the boy stands at attention, distracted,
in the sexual chapel surrounded
by correct, cream-colored leaves. (92)

The playoffs — don’t get upset. (96)

He was a very mobile person throughout his life,
instrumental in helping promote the Indians. (98)

What about poisonous sea snakes?
I know one. I bet you do. (107)

Then it’s back to basics, or in
my case forensics. What doesn’t
dapple you makes you strong. (107) 

Or ask Leporello. (107)

It was time to drink,
and drink they did until the heavens reopened
and the stars were raked into a pile. (115) 

Why what a lovely day/street/
blank canvas/pause/orb/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! (119)

So we’ll go no more a-teething. (125)

Claymation is so over. (130)

Here as I have erected
to do is a baseball bat. (132) 

It wasn’t meant to stand for what it stood for.
Only a pup tent could do that. (133) 

If tact is a mortal sin
we shall not miss. (135)

The above nosegay was not created casually. Those twenty-one items were culled from a batch more than three times that length: a comprehensive transcript of all the passages that are neatly underlined in light green ink, in my copy of Planisphere.

Anyone who has read the book is bound to view the above selection with a pleasant combination of recognition and bewilderment. Anyway, about half the time R. reads me choice bits out of his copy, I think Ah?? Now how did that get by me?

After all, though, it’s not too hard to figure that one out. Book’s a forest litter.

4. Some common objectings to Ashbery — answered


(a) Doesn’t all this allegory and code on the subject of poetry-writing itself get a bit wearisome after a while? I mean, it’s not like he’s saying anything bold. And it’s every other poem.

(b) The persona of this book — gentle, quirky, finicky, likable, 100% harmless in every way — don’t you ever get sick of the coyness of all that, the self-satisfaction?

(c) Aren’t seventy or eighty percent of these diction oddities just a bunch of honors-dorm humor?

A stupor like sheep’s nostrils
chases the ground. Day arrives with a thwack
and is left to sit all day. (129)

I’ll have a mustard coke. (134)

  — and so on. —


(a) When people object to poetry about poetry, it’s usually because they don’t like the specific attitude being struck. Anyhow, in my experience, the same readers who reject Ashbery’s devotion to writing about poetrywriting never seem to mind it when, say, Hafez or Han Shan relentlessly handle the exact same theme. The difference is that those two guys never do anything but vaunt poetry’s powers. Meanwhile, Ashbery is a relentless skeptic, both of the art in general and of his own stuff in particular. Which is the very reason he is attractive to some readers. 

(b) Is Ashbery coy and self-satisfied? Take the case of Ashbery’s references (supposedly much multiplied since Flow Chart, 1990) to his own can’t-be-very-far-off death. Ashbery always handles the theme in exactly the same tonal register:

I guess I must be going. (2)
Now it was time, and there was nothing for it (6)
Don’t forget to write! (64)
I was halfway out the door anyway (70)
There is nothing like putting off a journey (75)
Yet one says, so long (81)
I’ll be on my way (99)
I have to go (108)
Well I can’t stay (129)
We’re moving today (130)
We’d better be getting along before it gets dark (135)
Soon it was time to choose another climate (139)

 Now, obviously the tone here is appealing. Modest, inoffensive, quotidian — and above all, reconciled. (He even has a poem here that begins, “As virtuous men float mildly away. …”) And the question isn’t even whether all this is a sham or not. It’s whether there’s an unseemly self-amusement/self-satisfaction evident.

Say it is a sham. A fantasy of going gently into that good night. As fantasies go, it’s not ignoble. The poet is led away to the common slaughter, his eyes wide open, his mind somewhat fuddled, his mouth full of neither fulsome blessings nor thrilling curses. He says merely Bye now! and Que sais-je?

Sounds like as good a way to go as any. The obnoxious thing would be if Ashbery were rubbing that ideal up the reader’s snout. Certain people can’t help but take it that way, depending on how strongly they think it’s the wrong fantasy. If your aesthetics of deathbed speeches calls for Shakespearean oratory (of one form or another) or zoinks of Zen cold fusion, then you’re bound to feel like Ashbery’s trying to score a point off ol’ Shakespeare or whatever. 

In other words: “self-satisfied”? Sure, if you like. But if you say the li’l guy routine is a smarmy put-on, I say unto you: Examine your conscience. I bet your objection is more to li’l guys than to put-ons and smarm.

(c) Diction oddities and honors-dorm humor. Now, here I’m happy to admit Ashbery’s sense of fun does not do it for me, a whoppin’ percent of the time. Phrases like “mandrills on the turnpike” leave me cold, cold. But there is a very great difference between being left cold and being provoked to the kind of rage represented by a certain familiar illustration from Through the Looking-Glass

That’s how I used to react.

What made me change? That’s easy. I stopped thinking Ashbery was grinding an axe with that stuff. Making a point. Mocking expectations. Being deliberately lame. These days, I just figure he thinks all that stuff is swell, and I calmly disagree. 

I still have Tweedledum-style meltdowns from time to time, but latterly I reserve that kind of thing for situations where I have to listen to the dorks defending the yaks and the thwacks and the mustard cokes by recourse to high-sounding words and philosophy.

(This is actually a deep point about misplaced dislikes of Ashbery. Gotta take care not to hate him when you should be hating the people who smack their silly lips over the worst parts of him.)



Pol. What is the matter my Lord.
Ham. Betweene who.
Pol. I meane the matter you reade my Lord.
Ham. Slaunders sir; for the satericall rogue sayes here, that old men haue gray beards, that their faces are wrinckled, their eyes purging thick Amber, & plumtree gum, & that they haue a plentifull lacke of wit, together with most weake hams, all which sir though I most powerfully and potentlie belieue, yet I hold it not honesty to haue it thus set downe, for your selfe sir shall growe old as I am: if like a Crab you could goe backward.

MRS TEASDALE: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
FIREFLY: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. 

These are samples of bewildering nonsense. Which is not to say there isn’t any sense there. In fact, it’s almost all sense. It’s just strange.

What exactly would have to be left out from those bits to make ’em into Ashbery poems? And what would need to be added? I feel like if I could put my finger on that, I’d really have something.

I think most of what stops the Hamlet and Groucho bits from being Ashbery poems is the jiu-jitsu aspect. In both cases, an affront is being prosecuted, quite single-mindedly. Ashbery would never do that. He only allows bitchiness or obnoxiousness to show their heads for half a second.

You know something?
I don’t care. (12) 

— and the like.

But even if we leave out the aggressive energy, the Groucho/Hamlet things still have too much forward momentum to count as Ashberian. Their logic doesn’t zigzag any old way; rather, it spirals upward and comes to a point, like a sundae with its cherry. The cherry is not ice cream; crabs have nothing to do with it; where did that phonograph needle come from — and there you are. It’s the “and there you are” effect that makes Hamlet or Groucho quite distinct from the author of Planisphere.

Ah. To make a poem that might pass for genuine Ashbery, you have to create speed without momentum. The associations have to move as rapidly as they do in the material quoted above, but they can’t seem to be tumbling downhill. You can have an exciting ending, but it has to come out of nowhere. Or seem to. 

Naturally, the above principle is violated occasionally by the master himself. But when he does so, he produces a poem that would never win a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest. Wouldn’t even make semifinals.

(Young poets should take heed. For many and many a magazine does indeed operate almost exactly like a Pass-Yourself-Off-As-Ashbery Contest.)


Occurs to me to mention: people need to stop talking about Ashbery’s poetry like it mimics the way people think. I mean, I guess it does, in a sense. But.

Here, look at this famous thing out of Hobbes:

For in a Discourse of our present civill warre, what could seem more impertinent, than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman Penny? Yet the Cohærence to me was manifest enough. For the Thought of the warre, introduced the Thought of delivering up the King to his Enemies; The Thought of that, brought in the Thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the Thought of the 30 pence, which was the price of that treason: and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time; for Thought is quick.

In that sense, yes. Ashbery mimics the flow of, etc. But real free associations don’t have anywhere near the kind of verbal body that the poems in Planisphere have. When one is ambling through one’s day, washing dishes, unloading the car, one’s thoughts are like a muddy river on which a few twigs and sticks are being pulled along. Those are words and phrases. The river itself is something else again. If one were to translate the whole river into language, it would look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It certainly wouldn’t look like a Planisphere poem.

I say this with some heat because I have heard Ashbery explained ten billion times in terms implying that the justification for his procedures lies in the way they reveal something about how consciousness operates. As if that’s why he’s good! But how uninteresting Ashbery would be if his explainers were right about him. To me, the exhilaration of the thing is not that it mimics the flow of consciousness; it does something much better. It mimics the flow of a superhuman consciousness. 

This is the thing it has in common with the Hamlet and the Groucho bits. Nobody could make all that stuff up at that speed in real time. If a person pulls it off to the depth of twenty seconds, he or she is said to be in rare form, “on a roll,” and so on. You wanna run off and write down what they said.


The speed of the associations is its own thing. It doesn’t need defending under color of mimesis. But there is one thing about Ashbery’s poems that really is wonderfully mimetic of ordinary mental operations. The strong — and indeed unignorable — presence of banality. Ashbery has found a hundred good uses for that.

I’m reminded of Auden on the subject of Boswell’s journals:

When we read Rousseau or Stendhal or Gide, we are conscious of artful highlights and shadows, and keep asking ourselves, “Now, just what was his secret motive for confessing this or recalling that?” But when we read Boswell, the character presented is as complete and transparent as a character in a novel by Defoe or Dickens; we cannot imagine there being any more to know than we are told.
          Take for example, the following extract:

When I got home, I was shocked to think I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature. I determined to do so no more; but if the Cyprian fury should seize me, to participate my amorous flame with a genteel girl.

An ego-conscious writer like Stendhal would never have allowed himself to write phrases like “the Cyprian fury” or “my amorous flame”; he would have reflected, “These are clichés. Clichés are dishonest. I must put down exactly what I mean in plain words.” But he would have been mistaken, for everyone’s self, including Stendhal’s, does think in clichés and euphemisms […]. 

Auden’s defense of cliché is limited to its deployment in self-portraiture: diaries and the like. He prizes it as evidence of honesty, authenticity. But that’s not what I’m saying about Ashbery. I’m saying Ashbery’s insistent use of phrases like “I kind of liked it, though” and “it was so nice outside” represents THE thing his poems have in common with normal thought. NOT the speed of association.

When it comes to speed, the poems are analogous to thought. The banality, on the other hand, is the thing itself. 


A previous version of this piece first appeared in January 2010 on Digital Emunction (now defunct).

His own shine, her smooth inscrutable

A review of Pattie McCarthy's 'Marybones'

Right: McCarthy reading at the Kelly Writers House on January 23, 2013.



Pattie McCarthy

Berkeley: Apogee Press 2012, 70 pages, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9851007-3-5

I’ve heard people gasp when they first see the cover of Pattie McCarthy’s Marybones. They’re responding to the fabulous and impossible breasts (one in particular) in Jean Fouquet’s 1452 painting.This Madonna is pornographic: anachronistically Barbie-dollish and as gray as a corpse. And the infant on her lap is also morbid, made of a kind of marble, oddly jointed, like a marionette or a sketch for a Pixar character. Like most paintings of Mary, the predominant hue is blue.

There’s nothing human in this picture — nothing that could include you, you who have adored this image in various media — stone, glass, paintings, medallions — forever. Imploring this one woman who is tight with the Trinity: please intercede. Save him, me, them, us. And help me to be more like you — quiet, impenetrable, long-suffering — ye who are unlike all other women.

We turn the page: “The passive banter of saints.” Now we are in new territory — the world of postmodern poet as mother, as uninhibited Catholic, as barker at a carnival of Marian attractions, as chief mourner for all the Marys who’ve ever suffered; poet as historian and meticulous glutton. Mary only had one son, but it seems she had many daughters, including the author of this romp through two thousand years of Maryology.

In Marybones, McCarthy suckles and sees, reading everything from her children’s faces to Samuel Beckett’s letters in the light of the Mother of God. This is unabashedly emotional documentary poetry, triggered and informed by pretty much everything: the work of Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, a fugitive NPR broadcast, Social Security Administration records, paintings, art histories, encyclopedias, an online timeline of the Salem witch trials, and Babar the Elephant (and more — see the note on sources at the back of the book).

McCarthy might have written this book for me, though she didn’t know me. Or else the history of “afflicted girls … possibly mary” who “was in line when FDR shut the banks” (10, like my own grandmother Mary) is so general and vast that it only seems like McCarthy has divined the story of my particular Irish girl in the mosh pit of Marys.

Though individual women are invisible and disposable, “Mary” is everywhere. “Mary / was surprised her son was given CPR since he was shot three / times in the head” (24); Mary is the name of a caulked ship (45); Mary is nursing in every possible and impossible position and medium (56); Mary is suffering:

mary is pregnant when        the mayflower
leaves leiden                      mary gives
birth to a stillborn son                   only ten months
after burying                       an unnamed child
                                                   mary gives
birth to a stillborn son                      while still at anchor
in plymouth harbor           Friday                     22 december
1620                       mary already
has two daughters             named mary (34)

I devoured Marybones the way I devoured Susan Howe’sThe Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History and My Emily Dickinson — prose of historical inquiry and imagination feeding some hunger I didn’t know I had. But Marybones is poetry, and the tone is hectic, partly because it was written in the digital era. Here the Internet flickers like a wacky votive. It’s as if Billy Preston were playing the piano with one hand while fingering the electronic organ with the other (all the while listening to hear if the baby has woken from her nap). There’s a lot going on most of the time. And then, sometimes, things slow down, as in the sisterly lyric “maudlin” (a lullaby that includes the word “intertextual”).

Though apparently housebound with small children, McCarthy travels, taking us from vesperbild to pietà, from a Stabat Mater to ebay, from Goya to pie charts of fecundity and mortality in the 1700s. The cult of the Virgin and the imperatives of the Church have yielded millions and millions of babies; half of them seem to be mentioned in this book. Marybones is a maternity ward or a cemetery in a time of plague, a ship packed with emigrant women named Mary. Milk flows and dries up in sentences and lines, a kind of blue wash throughout the book.

There’s a lot of color in the book, because there are a lot of paintings and icons. Lots of names, lots of marvelous Latinate vocabulary and repetition, a kind of syntactical rocking (“rock & hum”).

After reading and loving Marybones, I reread Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s singularity always made her seem lonely to me, and sometimes made me feel lonely too. Now when I think of Jesus’s mother, McCarthy’s “horizontal collaborator,” I will think of George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and Edouard Glissant’s “consent not to be a single being.” There are so many of her. So many of us. 

Of fear in abstraction

A review of Fiona Hile's 'Novelties'

At right, Fiona Hile reading July 3, 2012.



Fiona Hile

Hunter Publishers 2013, 112 pages, $16, ISBN 9780980863994

“Mondrian Green” is the final poem in Fiona Hile’s Novelties,[1] and one of the most significant in this significant book. It refers to the famous absence of green in the Dutch abstract painter’s mature compositions. Mondrian is said to have hated the color, perhaps as a result of having compromised himself for years while young and struggling, painting floral still-lifes for bread and butter. Mondrian, who would apparently sit with his back to windows in order to avoid gazing out at any greenery, said during a 1915 walk in the moonlight that “all in all, nature is a damned wretched affair. I can hardly stand it.”[2] This was part of the justification for his commitment to abstraction: “Non-figurative art,” he wrote, “shows that art is not the expression of the appearance of reality such as we see it, nor of the life which we live, but … the expression of true reality and true life … indefinable, but realizable.”[3] This is typical of Mondrian, the spiritualist and theosophist (and of other pioneers of abstract art — especially Malevich): the retreat from the figurative is grounded in terms of a rejection of the merely physical; abstraction becomes the royal road to ultimate reality, which cannot be depicted or defined.

Of course, there are other ways of understanding Mondrian’s hatred of nature and commitment to abstraction, and psychoanalysts have made very much of the repression of sex they have found at the heart of his project. James Hamilton, for instance, reads Mondrian’s avoidance of diagonals, rejection of secondary and tertiary colours, and refusal of motion in his work as part of a psychic defense against his early exposure to the primal scene (in terms of which he also explains the painter’s ambivalence toward dancing, changing signatures, and obsessive fears of electrical storms, spiders, and eye injury).[4] While Hamilton’s work displays the kind of reductionism that is only too easy to mock (‘primal scene’ turns up nearly sixty times in the book), there must be a grain of truth in it. Part of what I find compelling in Hile’s poems is how they have helped me find this grain: for them, abstraction is always bound up with what it disavows; the mathematical never completely transcends our desire (we might even say it excites it). At the same time, however, abstraction is certainly not denounced here. “Mondrian!” she writes, “There isn’t a poet alive who would disagree/ with your conception of nature.” The word “alive” seems crucial: these poems are alive to themselves, taken up and struck by their own creatureliness. Horror at nature is not just a form of disavowal: in modernity, it may also be one of the few authentic ways in which we can form some kind of relation with the fact of our being alive. The point is not that abstraction must be rejected or unmasked because of how it denies the material; rather, it is that abstraction permits no real escape from anything. If it is a retreat, in other words, it is always a failed retreat, an attempt at getting away that inevitably leads us back again. I think of Freud wandering through “the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town”:

 I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made-up women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However after wandering about for some time without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the piazza I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.[5]

For I submit — and I believe the poems will support me in this — that abstraction is more than a bald refusal of what may be unbearable in the life and desires of the human animal. At the same time, however, it is also less than a means of accessing some Platonic world of forms or spiritual or mathematical truths. Hile’s interest in the mathematics of the infinite is clear enough: the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who inherits a Platonist/Cartesian form of rationalism and subscribes to the idea that mathematics give us the only language in which pure being can be expressed, looms quite large in the book. Yet the poems are not really Platonic, nor entirely rationalist. For them, abstraction is above all a social condition, part of what happens to life, labour, and indeed the physical world itself under the capitalist mode of production. Think of what becomes of things once we start to produce, buy, and sell them on a mass scale as commodities: it becomes possible to say “one coat =twenty yards of linen.” [6] This is a kind of levelling out. When things become measureable in terms of their exchange value, they lose their particularities. A particular coat is no longer irreducibly particular: once it goes on the market, the coat is abstracted; it is not just a coat, but also potentially a certain quantity of linen, or gold, or (literally) whatever. It is this historical sense of abstraction that I believe informs Hile’s book, which is part of why it can get on board with Mondrian while simultaneously teasing him, part of why nature keeps returning even though the poems know — and on one occasion explicitly state — that it does not exist. Take the scribbly gum from “Stripes”:


That scribbly gum is acting
out again, throwing its
fruit, forcing itself to
appear; the vertical fins
outside the library window
won’t stop striping the scene
with dorsal light, shades
of all types filtering the
loss of that blossom
you twirled between your
finger and thumb; collage and
cut-ups can only mean one
thing: what we’re half-seeing
through this collagen
opening is not what we’d
hoped: just another Eucalyptus
, calibrating the
thrill of the cut and paste 

The leaves won’t stop striping the scene even though the blossom has been lost: the gum is not not there, but it isn’t fully there either; it does not present as the irreducible and particular natural object we’d hoped for, but merely as a token of its type — yet it still makes a claim on us. It is half seen. This is the liminal space in which this poet places us as readers: we cannot fully repudiate or transcend the material world, yet we are unable to simply remain embedded in it, caught between the corporeal and the mathematical, the concrete and the abstract, nature and its liquidation. The poems do not let us off the hook.

Or take “Entrances North.” This short, rather sardonic poem sets a bourgeois conversation about real estate against a seascape that is progressively emptied of content: we get an image of the void of outer space; we get “Pale ontologies”; we get “The surf club car park” which is “littered with empty”; we get “indifferent” surf; and I’m not sure, but perhaps in the “reverse fossilized sprays of / ancestral Fred Williams” we also get Quentin Meillasoux, Badiou’s philosophical protégé. The talk that ensues is typical of this particular brand of Australian whimsy: “‘Why don’t the four of us buy that unit over- / looking the ocean?’”; “Isn’t / there just a tiny bit of gravity in outer space?” someone asks as the surf “gambles on the negative / gearing of light over sound.” This confluence of ontological musing with talk about property investment — the combination of real estate speculation and speculative realist metaphysics — is already pure Hile, but then we get the land as a G-string, and finish with a weird pun masquerading as a Freudian mondegreen: “Love is assault, you think / he said, or maybe — love is a sought.” As the abstraction of ontology and mathematics give way to the financial abstraction of the property market, we move via abstract painting and the question of what it is to view a landscape to sex and, finally, love. This is the crazy confluence of registers these poems get the reader working with. As usual, however, it is more than just postmodernist collage. Hile does not simply mine discourses for linguistic gems, though of course that is part of her procedure. It seems to me that the poem really means it: it really wants to think what abstraction might entail, and how it might be connected to the social and economic totality in which we find ourselves. And of course, it wants to know where desire fits in — or rather, it wants to know the precise way in which desire doesn’t fit in at all. This is to say that Hile’s work carries out genuine poetic thinking, and it does it with grace, humour, and relentlessness.

As these poems show, poetic thinking has to be more than a simple dressing up of cognitive, theoretical, or philosophical content. It is not about taking abstract ideas and putting them into the form of verse, and it is not simply about referring to the work of philosophers and thinkers; rather, poetic form just is part of how poetry thinks. And if form is essential to poetic thinking, it will mean that, unlike perhaps in philosophy, the same thought cannot be expressed in two different ways: rather, the thought and its expression are inextricable; there is no separating what one says fromhow one says it. Or put more strongly: what one says just is how one says it; the what and the how are the same. This is why a thinking poem demonstrates something that traditional philosophy can’t fully countenance: there is a thinking that happens not in but as language, a thinking that always takes place in a particular context of reading and/or performance. Poetic thinking, when it happens, happens as an event: in particular places, with and on particular bodies and minds. When it happens, it is a material encounter: an encounter with the unique cognitive capacities evoked by a writing that resists the philosophical ideal of transparency, and the distinctions between mind and matter, consciousness and embodiment, with which philosophy has defined itself. So another way of formulating this is: poetic thinking is a type of embodied cognition. There is a line from Peter Minter’s poem “Garden Estates” that sticks with me: “the head is awake in the heart.” This is a perfect motto of poetic thought, and I have found this awakening again and again in Hile’s poems. Here are the opening stanzas from “The Owl of Lascaux”: 

I imagine you chopping the head off eel
catfish blossoming from the underside of fir
trees tangling with the pneumatic branches of the law
wasted pornographic observations instilled as the capital of excess
profanation. The political task of your right to capitalism
remains slipping through the shadow

of, the potential for the transformation of a polity
huddled like a worthless slave in the bed of speech.
Destitute poppies, my spoken limbs are available
for prophylactic conveyance. These poor hands,
they quiver thus: trouble my protrusions and turn
my paint to flesh. In lieu of actual declension

The cyclical head wants lopping, the imagination bears
the loss with patience, declares all allegiance to a merciless
conclusion sweeter than the listing of the earth’s difference
from itself. I gave you a book and you wrote in the back of the book:

Infiltrated by the idea of prose, barking like an owl …

It’s quite an astonishing poem. And there are a few things to be said about its references. Lascaux, obviously, names the French cave complex famous for its Upper Paleolithic art. There is an owl depicted in the caves, but I also wonder if Hile’s title may refer to the “Owl of Minerva” which — because it only spreads its wings at night — provided Hegel with a metaphor for how philosophy always misses its moment. The profanation of the first stanza is a nod to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who describes it as “the political task of the coming generation,”[7] a phrase Hile cheekily changes into “The political task of your right to capitalism.” The “idea of prose” mentioned in the fourth stanza is another borrowing from Agamben.[8] Later in the poem we get a series of references to Daniel Paul Schreber, the German judge whose memoirs of psychosis were hugely important for Freud.[9] “The cyclical head” sounds like an allusion to John Forbes.

But I take all that to have explained little: it may (or may not) be interesting background information; it may tell you why certain phrases from Hile’s poem have caught my ear or eye (or hers in the first place); it may explain some of the terms at work in it; it might help you like the poem (as if you needed any help!). What it doesn’t do is tell you anything binding or definitive about the meaning or significance of the work. References do not explicate in this way; it’s not as though finding and listing them explains — if anything, references just call out for further explanation. Even though the poem refers to philosophy, then, I don’t take this to be where it does its most philosophically interesting thinking. There is something, for instance, in the enjambment of the first couplet that is resistant to prose paraphrase. Perhaps most obviously, it repeats in a strikingly physical way the very act described in the lines themselves. But that’s not all. I’ll admit I was not even aware of the existence of eel catfishes before reading this poem. Wikipedia assures me they are real, but the enjambment does too: it underscores beautifully my sense of shock at the possibility of such a weird creature — a shock that, I think, might tell us more about the poem than any of its references. Embodiment is crucial here, along once again with the category of nature. If this poem is ‘about’ anything, I would say that it’s about creatureliness, about what it’s like to be (and to be confronted by) a creature, to be a member of an animal species for whom animality provokes anxiety. And of course, to be shocked at the mere fact of one’s aliveness is to experience an abstract sort of shock. It is a shock at something that has been emptied of all content, a shock at something that makes no particular claim on us at all, even though it certainly makes a claim. There is something in this thinking that just isn’t quite captured in the philosophical texts that Hile is referencing, even as it speaks to the ideas in them. This is what poetic thought does: it calls out for philosophical reflection even as it adamantly resists it.

There is an orthodoxy in contemporary poetics which says that abstraction in poetry is something to be avoided: it is awkward and pretentious; it is unmusical, relying as it often does on clunky Latinate terms; above all it fails to do what poetry should — render immediate human experience with the greatest possible degree of intensity. “Go in fear of abstractions”[10] may be the most quoted bit of Pound. And no doubt it is good advice (if there is anything that Hile’s poems show, it is that abstraction is shot through with fear). But it has been interpreted in unforgivably anti-intellectual, provincial terms. Part of the achievement of these poems is to show that abstraction in poetry is in no way opposed to beauty and pleasure, nor just occasionally necessary, but absolutely crucial if one wants to muster anything resembling an authentic response to contemporary life. In any case, what could be more abstract than the demand that we avoid the abstract, the demand that we ‘be concrete’? As these poems show, abstraction is just basic to what it is to be a member now of that deranged species we humans call the human.



1. Fiona Hile, Novelties (Melbourne: Hunter, 2013).

2. Quoted in Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy — From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (London: Random House, 2007), 137. 

3. Piet Mondrian, “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” in Modern Artists on Art, ed. Robert Herbert (Mineola: Dover, 2000), 163.

4. See James Hamilton, A Psychoanalytic Approach to Visual Artists (London: Karnac, 2012), 45–47.

5. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (London: Penguin, 2003), 144.

6. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One (Regnery: Washington DC, 2000), 41.

7. Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 92.

8. See Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, trans. M. Sullivan and S. Whittsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

9. See Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, trans. and ed. I. Macalpine and R. Hunter (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2000).

10. Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts from an Imagiste,” first published in Poetry 1, no. 6 (March 1913): 201.

Fits of imagination

A review of Thomas Meyer's 'Beowulf'

Beowulf: A Translation

Beowulf: A Translation

Thomas Meyer

punctum books 2012, 297 pages, $15.00 in print or free open-access e-book, ISBN 978-0615612652

In being caught between two times, that of composition and circulation, Thomas Meyer’s translation finds itself in harmony with its source text. Meyer translated Beowulf in the 1970s, after completing a 1969 senior thesis at Bard translating the rest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Our introduction to Meyer’s electric translation, however, is more recent, as it was released by punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand publisher, only in 2012. Meyer’s source, Beowulf, survives in only one fragile, burnt manuscript, copied about a thousand years ago, but the poem was composed earlier, though scholars continue to debate how much earlier (possible dates for various portions and composition circumstances range from the seventh to the tenth centuries). This poem’s delayed debut does not diminish its freshness or its power to surprise with a new perspective on a familiar friend. Better still, Meyer connects Beowulf to a history of avant-garde mid-century poetry, especially an inheritance of Poundian Imagism and modernist experiments in long-form poems. Meyer thus also — unintentionally, perhaps — opens up Beowulf to resonances both contemporary and surprisingly medieval. Meyer designates his translation as “commentary,” but “collaboration” might be a better term for the interplay between the Anglo-Saxon original and Meyer’s present-day English version.

By making the poem larger and longer, more about expanses of space and time that need more pauses and divisions to be felt, Meyer also ultimately makes the poem more intimate, more about a specific time and space with its own emotions that must be observed in detail. In the interview published as an appendix in this volume, David Hadbawnik quotes Meyer claiming that “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual,” identifying the look of the poem as “a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965” (264). Yet the oral becomes starkly visible on the page in Meyer’s text. In an oral culture, as depicted in Beowulf, your spoken word is everything because there is nothing else. When Beowulf introduces himself in Heorot, the mead-hall in which most of the first third of the poem takes place, Meyer gives his first words an entire page:


my name

followed by a full page of white space (61). Once Beowulf has the opportunity to address the king himself, Meyer condenses his speech into a column running down the page, a few words per line. He stands upon his reputation and oral self-presentation.

Meyer’s willingness to play with line lengths substitutes his own chosen breaks for the caesura of the original long alliterative lines, with four stresses and three alliterations in specific set patterns. The effect of the visual layout — always thoughtful, never quirky or affected — stresses the poem’s essential orality. The plain, white space opens up the impact of the spoken oaths, boasts, songs of valor, and tense exchanges among the characters, emerging as deeply-freighted units of meaning from existential emptiness. When Beowulf responds to Unferth’s challenge about his past deeds, Meyer’s variation of line length draws attention to the alliteration. One can clearly hear the crisp note of scorn running through Beowulf’s retort to the unfriendly man, doubting that Beowulf really has accomplished so much. Beowulf declares:

Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
           so much humiliation or
          so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
          as hard in battle
          as you claim. (79)

Meyer uses alliteration enthusiastically but sparingly, relying upon line spacing to prevent the alliteration and parallel clauses from becoming repetitive and dull. Beowulf explains how he killed Grendel, ripping off his arm:

I’d meant to
wrap my arms around him, bind him
to death’s bed
           with a bear’s,

a beewolf’s hug
but his body slipped my grip:
God’s will he   
          jerked free. (101)

Meyer’s alliteration, assonance, and Anglo-Saxon diction — which emphasizes compounds, kennings, and Germanic vocabulary — keep the feel of the poem close to the original Beowulf, but not slavishly so.

Meyer’s most drastic intervention may be his division of the poem into two sections, “Oversea” and “Homeland.” The emphasis on away versus home sensitizes the reader to time and space, natural landscape versus human-forged structures. The barrow where a dragon slumbers, guarding treasure, eerily collapses these divisions. Resting on a forgotten golden hoard from a died-out civilization, the dragon slept “wallowing / in pagan gold / 300 winters. // His earth encrusted hide / remained as evil / as ever” (186). The menace of the three monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon — comes from their sullying of the lines between civilization and its wild outside, destroying the raw material of creation itself. The mere over Grendel and his mother’s lair has become corrupted by their evil, as Hrothgar explains:

keeps that spot. 

Black water spouts
lift off the lake
& lap the clouds

 Wind surges into
 deadly storms until
 all air grows dark.

 The skies wail.” (125)

Meyer beautifully sketches the contrast between the natural, dangerous, even malevolent environment and the man-made world of golden rings, shields, weapons, mead, and poetry.

Meyer’s divisions into two sections slow down the poem. In addition to the splitting between “Oversea” and “Homeland,” Meyer further divides the “Oversea” section into twenty-six “fits.” (Meyer wittily names the first introductory section of Beowulf “Forefit.”) These divisions are reminiscent of the second-most famous anonymous English poem from the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is broken into “fitts.” In contrast, “Homeland” has no such breaks, emphasizing the (idealized) wholeness, continuity, and integrity of this space. With these continual breaks, the longer histories embedded in the poem finally have the chance to capture a casual reader’s attention as much as the stories of Beowulf battling the monsters. The monsters, of course, capture our imaginations as readers. Like so many twentieth-century readers, Meyer is alert to another source of tragedy in the poem: the sentience, the internal life of the three monsters Beowulf defeats. Grendel in particular, the outcast antihero, has garnered modern empathy, and Meyer voices Grendel’s death agonies in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Beowulf grapples with Grendel, and Meyer imagines the desperate thoughts of the monster:

squeezeletgowantnotcomesadgobadhallrunrun (89)

Meyer lets us glimpse Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s desperation. Yet Meyer’s translation, perhaps most importantly, allows the larger tragedy of Beowulf to become clear, and it is fundamentally a human tragedy. The constant intimations of danger and destruction — that the mead-hall Heorot will someday be burnt down, that the tribe of the Scyldings will not always be at peace, that Beowulf’s people are doomed to depredations and invasions after his death — gain urgency from the inset narratives about other, earlier feuds and battles. In Meyer’s translation, those narratives stand apart, visible, constantly breaking the headlong line of action and of verse. Recently, lovers of poetry and Beowulf had our own loss of the most famous of Beowulf’s recent translators, Seamus Heaney. Heaney produced what may now be the most familiar and well-known Beowulf translation for a generation of readers, a rendering sensitive to the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon original yet creating something new from it. Yet as Meyer’s translation reminds us, this poem that has survived for so long still has so much to teach us.

Transitionary framings, a case

A review of Geoffrey Gatza's 'House of Forgetting'

House of Forgetting

House of Forgetting

Geoffrey Gatza

BlazeVOX [books] 2012, 38 pages, free at, ISBN 978-1-60964-099-6

For readers of Gatza who have already come to expect the unexpected; for those fascinated with emerging innovation in book-structured polygraphies, then House of Forgetting is yet another contribution to what is becoming a prodigious oeuvre. For those who have come recently to poetry and poetics, or desire a greater understanding of Intermedia poetry, House of Forgetting offers an attractive entrée.

While there is a “heart” to House of Forgetting (human figures with human concerns) and an ekphrastic narrative (the death of a beautiful woman/gifted revenant), there are also elements of language-image that transform temporal and human identity. Such transformations themselves form book “frames”; generate a hypertextuality, (“of moving frame to frame”) as Charles Bernstein notes; an alternative to the perceptual limitations of “frame fixation” and “frame lock.” Such transformations seem to invite the display of “an art of transition through and among [interpretative] frames.”[1]

The idea of elastic, transitionary frames in which material assumes the provisional form of the book is as true of this collection as it is of Gatza’s other work: the five seasons of rewoven myth in Black Diamond Golden Boy Takes Bull By Horns; the hagiography of saints and celebs among word images (coinages consisting of gray-scale mutations and other unique treatments), seemingly aleatory and unrelated, found in Secrets of my Prison House, and the most notable of these may be Kenmore: Poem Unlimited, that four-volume satire on American suburbia, a pataphoric world risen on a foundation of assumptions, fantastic as they are amusing, revealing angles of cultural significance.

House of Forgetting consists of two temporal frames: each interacts with the other in transfiguring human form and identity. The first is “The Twelve-Hour Transformation of Clare,” a woman who morphs into words, and the second section, “Recipe for Water,” is that of an artist who is drawing his wife’s portrait while she is in her deathbed, beginning “Now,” going into the past (“17 Days Ago,” “Last Saturday,” and fragments with similar titles) to conclude with “Five Years From Now” told in the voice of cultural assumption: a radio announcer. The “artist” becomes a reported figure; the “subject,” a fictional image no less real than the figure it re-presents. These are not pairs, but multiples. Their reappearance in alternative contexts suggests, rather strongly, an operative multeity of figures, an ongoing dance with interchangeable partners.

Clare (“after Clare of Assisi,” 26) is, at noon, the “last day of January twenty twelve … staring in her v[s]anity mirror” (12), and the other face she sees becomes, six hours later, the notable American painter and poet Dorothea Tanning,[2] who died on the day the poem begins. Clare is transformed by newsprint, by Tanning’s obituary, and the features attributed to Tanning are hers also:

Her dark hair is a tangled thicket of possibility (20)

This thicket may be seen not only in her hair, but the folds of her dress, like roots, primal, exposed, and tangled, the cover image equivalent of what we find of “her” in

music peace, words, and resistance (26–27).

By “Midnight” (the concluding poem to the first section), Clare has morphed into Tanning, but leaves, in the last line, this disclosure:

Your face was an illusion that lingers still, bless you my darling angle (28)

The subject of the sacred angel of perspective occurs again in the recollection of the artist-announcer’s wife in Recipe of Water. On “Our third date” his wife claims that “When I dance for them they see an angle” (32). By this association, the three women — Clare, Tanning, and the artist’s wife — speak for the presentation of their own emergence as shapes of sense; art is technique.

The cluster of surreal images that morph into others, changing perspective in a continual pattern throughout House of Forgetting, absorbs the factorialization of time as it appears (often comically and ironically) in the fragment titles; assumes the space occupied by predication, the syntax of tense, and the insanity of grief derived from thinking in linear time.

Perspective is both subject and result of the surreal shuffle; images that float, collide, attach themselves to others until we experience the reality of continual interchangeability in an atmosphere of the metatemporal, a supra-reality:

… Forgetting
We are all the same, we are one (27)

All human identity may be derived from the same letters of an alphabet. The same may be said of titles, chronological time, even texts. Art has no owner.

There are Dada echoes in the house, the surreal (as seen in the only word collage),

and in the Flarf-like assembly of words,

thanking thankless thanklessly thanks thanksgiving
triggered triggerhappy troubleshooting troublesome
troublesomeness troubling trite trounce triumphalism
zigzag zippy zips zither zithers zombi zombie zombies
zonal zone zoned zones zoology zoom (23)

may easily lead to an incomplete reading, if these word ensembles were regarded as Da-Daesque, or Flarfist alone.

The cluster of words (15) approximate an oval, as might be found in the shape of a mirror, Clare’s mirror, and re-present her transformation into words, the ultimate “Birthday” portrait of her noetic ontogeny. Other clusters (23) convey the frenzy and meaning of her revenant nature; how it is that similarity (their alphabetic closeness) disperses in new morphemic graftings, like those root-tentacles in the cover portrait, the differentiations in her seemingly endless extensions of experience. The displacement of meaning may be seen clearly over six stanzas, and thirty lines, arranged in a similar manner, beginning with Latin and Spanish, moving into French, and concluding in Latvian which suggests the isolation of the subject beyond itself, and thus the frustration of the subject-language, and subsequently, its/her freedom. There remains, among and through the chains of innovation, if not truly original word ensembles (which beg for new classifications), the glimpse of hysteria, and the place it plays in establishing an equilibrium, the way laughter bursts out during the worst of our tragedies, a neurological compulsion, a survival. The last entry:

Ohmigodohmigodohmigod! No, you do not understand, I lived
those moments they are my memories. Not this false vision. It
was Tuesday and hot, and she was cold and we were late. … It
would be painfully banal if it were not her last moments on earth (36)

Among all this, there emerges with some frequency what the formalist might understand, if not accept — dare it be said — as a kind of wisdom, that is with the provision that such wisdom is often irony itself and uttered by the poem’s personae:

… black speckles, words upon words metastasize her body (13)

… the eyes of the living are as clear as the eyes of the dead (30)

The trees are infected and the leaves are turning orange and falling,

[and] To be a great poet, one would have to keep
One’s mouth shut (36)

In the poetry of art perspective, House of Forgetting is itself “an object of pure conception” (11) and extends language in a visual art substance whose dimensions create ongoing multiples of sensory experience, expanding as they do so, and it is in this context that Gatza’s book-“frame” polygraphies continue to absorb, intrigue, and proliferate.



1. Charles Bernstein, My Way, Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 44.

2. Dorothea Tanning, 1910–2012, had not given a title to her painting, a self-portrait created for her thirtieth birthday and the cover image of Gatza’s collection. When Max Ernst saw the painting in Tanning’s New York studio in 1942, he gave it the title “Birthday.” Tanning and the surrealist became lovers shortly thereafter.