Standstill moments

A review of Piotr Gwiazda's 'Messages'

In his first book, Gargarin Street (2005), Piotr Gwiazda, after “meandering slowly from nowhere to nowhere”[1] in a self-deprecating manner, after revealing his motto “Give Chance a chance” (36), and after postulating,

What if the script of human life is full of typos,

missteps, mishaps, false starts, false alarms,
wrong turns, dead ends, distractions, digressions —[2]

(notice the language here playfully falls into that “poetic misstep” of cliché), he tells us how to see the future: “Think of it as an enormous blank, a sort of dream” (60). In his latest book, Messages, Gwiazda enriches his conversation about the future, situating it within the present (and past), as in the last section of the last poem, “Messages”:

Here on this planet,
with no future,

where the wilderness has the color
of worn-out dollar bills,

rivers are covered
with oil and graffiti,

and civilizations of dragonflies
evolve in the parking lot

behind a shopping plaza,
your mission

comes to a standstill:
the horizon.[3]

The horizon is both there (stated in text) and not there (crossed out). And by implication, the future, or a world broadening out from the present (and past), is there and not there. What seems to matter is the present “with no future”; what matters is our deliberative purpose — whatever “mission” that may be — that comes to a “standstill” before this ghost of a future. Gwiazda plays with these “standstill moments” throughout this book. They are observable and delightful (especially through language), contrary, and ever-changing and ultimately unknowable.

Gwiazda frames this book with a long epigraph from Joe Milutis (Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything). Milutis argues that too much analysis (i.e. rationality) leads us to lose connection with each other, connection that seems to form when we allow illusions (i.e. irrational sense) to form. That we have to get back to developing illusion “because within it is a fundamental sense of direction and source of energy” (from the epigraph), which, according to Milutis, allows us to be more like who we are. In the three sections of this book, Gwiazda works towards illusion, or points it out in some form. He rubs and plays into the following paradox: the search for illusion (that irrational sense), and thus an energy of connectedness, is rooted, at least partially, in a search that is inherently rational.

In especially the first section, Gwiazda rarely veers into the personal. Rather, he broadly addresses culture, critiquing its blindness and excess, which can become boring and meaningless in its quest (or assumption) of grandness and rational meaning:

This small round floor that makes us passionate —
IN DEATH OF TODDLER” — is it past reprieve (5)

Even though the speaker is Dante here, these lines reveal a difficulty in this collection: the tendency to tread the border of cultural critique in the language of lecture/instruction, essay, or warning — and less in the language of a particular poem. Gwiazda moves into this problem infrequently, even though this implicit or explicit critique occurs consistently throughout the collection.

“Three Pieces for Two Hands,” the ninth of ten poems in the first section (there are ten in the third section as well), marks a stylistic break. Unlike the other poems in this section, there is no compression in the lines, which are visually expanded and spaced. There is a dreamy quality to this poem, a bit fragmentary in its first two parts. The poem foreshadows the second section of the book, where he creates a space to reflect on time in the only poem in that section, “Time.”

Besides being a spatial break, “Time” seems a break in tone as well. It focuses inward, in the more personal realm. It seems to be showing Gwiazda as he struggles in his role as a poet in which “I observe everything, / record everything” (22) but “I don’t know what I’m feeling // and so reserve comment” (23). He perceives (and perhaps purposefully exaggerates his capabilities) but may not understand or know the depth of his responses. This inward manifestation of the poet seemingly at home in uncertainty contrasts with the rawer, more observational poet of the first section, “a hacker” (3) or “assassin in the boardroom” (3) poet, the outspoken poet.

The third section of the book starts by alternating between cultural infusion and critique with the spatially open “breathable” poems. In these “culture poems” (“Before America,” “Island,” and “Ohio and West”), there is a sense of static, repetitive compression of American cultural history. These poems seem to implode. Gwiazda’s America is the antithesis of Whitman’s expansive America. The language here is at once stimulating and exciting but it also encroaches upon itself, enclosing and suffocating. The spatially open poems (“In Transit” and “Purgatory”) intercede these cultural blocks with a more “breathable” critique:

The banality of morning clouds.
                                            Vivaldi in the shopping mall.
                                                                          Jury duty. (36)

What comes out of these juxtapositions is the poem “Clouds Moving In.” The first section of this poem is the only place in Messages in which Gwiazda mentions Poland, which was an integral place in his first book. Here, Poland is distanced from Gwiazda (as in third person). In the second section of this poem, the scene shifts to “Dear New Yorker” (38), which can be taken as the literary and cultural center of America. It shifts to the first person, yet even here, “What really concerns me though is the way my body reacts / in front of an onrushing car. How it’s wafted by the wind // from late October to early April” (38). The poet is obliterated, almost surreally. There is disintegration, as Gwiazda points out later in an interview at the end of the book: disintegration of the poet and the poet’s culture.

In the third and last section of Messages, Gwiazda delves into the personal, which also stays somewhat impersonal since the speaker refers to his love interest as “X.” This tactic is Gwiazda at his best: on the border of irony, not meaning to be ironic but meaning to get to the essence of experience, struggling for it. That experience itself, at least in his writing, is both there and not there. It changes: “Anything, anything / can be put into a poem” (3). He writes of that trace of anything. He writes the ghosts of experience, enacts it in his writing, especially in the physical cross-outs in his text (“Clouds Moving In,” “Things She Didn’t Say,” and “Messages”). The cultural breaks down into the personal, which ultimately breaks down in the text. There is no “permanent” marker. There are markers of perception, which are ever-changing.

Gwiazda’s language percolates out of the mundane context. He compresses images and lines in many places (e.g., “Ghost Photography” and “Removable Tattoos”), so that when the language becomes “uncompressed,” as in “Time” or “Three Pieces for Two Hands” or in moments elsewhere at the end of “Purgatory” or “In Transit,” the work breathes. Even the pace of his language and form is impermanent.

Gwiazda in most of this book is comic and delightful in his play. In fact, it seems the first part of the collection has a more comic tone, perhaps because its language and form enact the qualities of misperception. It extends the grotesque (“Aardvark, Fat”); it lumps closely together the on-the-surface dissimilar (“now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence, / now a bad cop, now a mullah” [8]); it brings out explicit cultural idiosyncrasies (“Every six months you are required to change / your email password and/or sexual partner” [12]); its titles invite wit (“Three Pieces for Two Hands” or “Life after People”); it sings out a manifesto song (“Ether”) and later critiques poets who align themselves with manifestos (“Removable Tattoos”); it serves irony (in “Dante on a Plane,” Dante looks down from a plane, from the “heavens,” into the “hellish” earth; Dante observes, in essence, from the other side).

Gwiazda’s word choice resonates:

Poetry is silence in drag (27)

Poetry is dressed up (“loud”) in the cultural fringe (as “drag”). At the same time, it is silent, especially in the mainstream. It’s hidden but there. And to stretch these words even further, poetry drags on (in time). Poetry and its silence create a drag, stopping the momentum of mainstream observation. There’s effort in poetry; there’s the dragging of this silence through the throat. Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Gwiazda zooms in on rich, evocative words, exposing the contrariness of experience — from plain to poetic language and even to the made-up word:

Everywhere you turn
only readymade language …

People have organs
and messages inside them. (44)

“Readymade language” is at once natural in its flow, especially to those persons speaking this language. At the same time, it’s as unique and unnatural as the word “readymade.” It’s both sonically mundane and visually not mundane. This phrase enacts a perfect compression of contrariness rooted in experience.

Gwiazda’s work shows the convergence between the mundane and not mundane. In “Daylight Saving,” the last poem of the first section, “The apartment replies with pebbles and stars” (17). Gwiazda frames an answer without actually answering a question. He frames an answer in a poetic form that verges on breaking the poetic, a prose poem in five section-vignettes. He frames an answer in the resonance of the poem’s silent answer, and allows the reader to own the answer (and question). All this poem reveals is that an answer will come from the mundane (pebbles) and from the not mundane (stars in the grand universe). Both aspects are so different, yet both are “nothing” or “small,” from where we stand. Both are “far” from our actual, human experience of perception.

Messages revolves around interpretation. In the first section, Gwiazda implicitly looks sometimes broadly, sometimes abstractly, and sometimes (especially at the end) personally at what it means to interpret. He delves into interpretive uncertainty, “a thing unknown” (8). Ultimately we are “beginningless and free” (6). In other words, we are unrooted and open to possibilities. Even in The Golden Age, a world of rationality, we do not achieve certainty; the monuments from faith and irrationality, “These marble hands. These limestone eyes. / The boiling earth. The swollen sun” (10), keep us from understanding the world in more rational certainty, which ends up being “mostly boredom” (10) anyway.

Gwiazda is very conscious of the role of the poet, of himself, and his place in this interpretative scheme of communication, which by itself has a lack of coherent, obvious meaning.

All is not lost, however, when poets —
tired of contests, fed up with manifestos —
improvise in softly toned sprechstimme
song of dubious importance and vague beauty. (12)

Here he beautifully subverts any manifesto or theory he set up in the book’s epigraph and in his first poem “Ether.” Such a perfect word choice: Sprechstimme, a German word meaning “between singing and speaking while using an imprecise pitch.” This word strikes an imprecise balance in the stanza. It is a foreign word which introduces a “foreign” concept — that of an indeterminate, uncertain role of poets who have nowadays been conditioned towards a competitive certainty of theory, or “schools of poetry,” and of winning contests (to get published) and perhaps being viewed as better poets. Gwiazda undercuts this oeuvre in the plain last line, reducing his own importance. His verbal skill and tenacity undercut and destabilize the standstill moments.

Gwiazda repeats and revises throughout the book, moving into the personal by the end so that perhaps cultural becomes personal and personal becomes cultural. He constantly overlays his previous poetic words and ideas through cross-outs, repetitions, reimaginings: “Poetry is a matter of / perspective (perception rather)” (3). Even here, in the first poem, Gwiazda starts to “cross out” and change his interpretation of “perspective.”

Messages concludes with an interview, “Messages Without a Message: An Interview with Piotr Gwiazda.” When I first wrote a draft of this review, I did not read the interview. The title alone told me the danger: this interview interrupts the penchant against analysis with the possibility of analysis. Gwiazda, for his part, must have been aware of this contrariness/juxtaposition by titling the interview as it is. But it’s an informative read that adds a little more depth to my understanding of the book. There are three main points about the book in this interview I found most interesting: 1) There is no message/meaning to a poem but what the work itself does to you, and this take fits well with the enacting of experience in language that Gwiazda employs; 2) How a poem and its “message” — whatever it is — evolves on you, the reader, is the crux of his interest; and 3) These poems try to account for the human capacity for illusion.

By the end of Messages, the future is no longer an “enormous blank, a sort of dream” (Gargarin Street, 60). The future is no longer out there, neither outside the self nor in dreams. Rather, the future is in the “reconstruction of dreams” (4), the ever-changing revisions of perception, and ultimately of consciousness. Gwiazda suggests the interdependence of humans on this earth and environment. The damaging human interaction and continual response of nature has all but wiped out that future’s enormous blank, defraying this dream as a ghost. The future itself has essentially become fixed in time — actually, going along in time — ever-changing as these “standstill moments,” dependent on our present choices and active perceptions.




1. Piotr Gwiazda, Gargarin Street (Washington, DC: Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2005), 12.

2. Ibid., 50.

3. Gwiazda, Messages (Washington, DC: Pond Road Press, 2012), 45.

'This language materialized'

A review of Mary Burger's 'Then Go On'

Mary Burger, right. Photo by Alan Bernheimer.
Mary Burger, right. Photo by Alan Bernheimer.

Then Go On

Then Go On

Mary Burger

Litmus Press 2012, 93 pages, $15, ISBN 9781933959146

In her new book Then Go On, Mary Burger explores how to occupy space and time with language and thought, how to expand the self, transgressing its borders, how to exhaust thought, how to suspend time and the self, and how to exceed language with itself.

As if a harbinger, the following text presented itself a few months prior to Burger’s book, handwritten in kid’s scrawl and posted in a ground-floor window in my neighborhood:

a chrip to chin

wus a pontim
thar wr too
grls tha
wr sistrs
and tha
wnt to
chin and
tha likectit
dsidid that
tha liketit

First I was fascinated to decipher the phonetic spelling, then to consider the author’s radical relationship with words. The story fascinated me too. How liberating: shaping the words, to shape the story, shaping the story as opposite to what we “know” as possible (i.e., kids in California imagine China/“chin”). I love to make these words with my mouth and breath because it feels like the usually ineffable thing is piecing itself together right next to my vocables. Mary Burger writes with the same immediacy. Indeed, two pieces in Then Go On, “Two Little Mice” and “Fire Cat,” begin with facsimiles of Burger’s own phonetic poems written at age seven.

A first word that comes to mind to describe Burger’s new book of poetic prose-prose poems is muscular. The writing has a material quality, and does rigorous work to fill the void with taut braids of itself. What void? That which a being confronts in space and time. I mean both the negative and double negative senses of the word: that is, void as meaningless empirical reality, and void as gap, opening, or rupture of reality, i.e., space of possibility.

In “Necessary,” Burger writes: “This language materialized, or coalesced I suppose, as if a fog had been there all along but gradually became opaque so that the air that I had seen through became instead the thing that I could see” (48).

I often wonder how to spend my time. There’s never enough or else too much, so the wonderment is couched in anxiety. In “Orbital,” Burger writes, “This will take up all the available time for a while. I can see from your face that I’ve made an impression” (56). She’s just discussed “the scale of things entrusted to us [that] staggers even ourselves,” and suggests the gamut from subatomic to outer-orbital. The next strophe proceeds: “This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes” (57). I’m encouraged by the time I fill with Mary Burger’s book, as the flexible, capable word toils to trace the contours of an intricate topography. The sense of effort here is a solace not a suck because it activates the subjectivity of everyone involved. The prose invites me into its gullies of white space and other deferrals — so I’m the living thing that bridges its gaps; the immense tensile strength, poise, and lucidity of Burger’s writing grips and focuses my attention as I cross over.

In the first section of “The Man Without Stumps IV,” Burger outlines how language falls short of her wishes for it: “the alphabet was not the moving topography I’d been imagining” (77). Yet by gathering and applying language materially onto “the vastly featured terrain that shifted around me,” she vanquishes these limitations. The section comprises a single sentence that extends over nineteen lines, kinked with equal parts repetition and caesurae. “This sequence of individual graphemes does not map the parabolic movement of the knife-edge ridge of a sand dune,” but in a sense she casts the dune in negative, parallel impression — unspooling the sentence against it. In other words, torqued by the interplay of repetition and extension, the writing enacts the “parabolic movement,” “striations,” and “shifting” of the terrain with its own sinuous shape.

Burger’s thoroughness accomplishes an occupation of time and space that yields agency. She starts with nothing, beginning at the beginning — her phonetic protolanguage — and never denies nothing’s constant, in the cracks of contingency to either side of reason or its semblance. “The Man Without Stumps,” for example, foregrounds an absence of legible form. Mid-careen down a crumbling cliff face, the man “notices then that he is not standing on anything, that he is in fact surrounded by nothing … Not just nothing he recognizes, there is nothing at all” (68). The man is nondescript, bouncy, soft, the terrain sliding and loose. Any form they retain is a turbulent blur. In a strophe on raising tents: “Always at the fulcrum of the lift there is a chance someone will give out. One pole will swerve wildly, others will waver, suddenly the whole sky will lurch to one side and collapse” (65). No determinate shape or area is reliable, all’s in flux, spanned by “the cloud of being that dispels millions of colors in gray matter, an atomized mist, [that] surrounds us and is chilly, we can’t separate ourselves from it or feel any perspective, we can’t look at it because we are in it” (69). Burger manages to write in, of, and by this cloud, manifesting not only that form is fluid, but that myriad appearances coexist of a truth that can’t be defined.

The final pages of “The Man Without Stumps” comprise a succession of interpretations of “the graininess in the picture that might be me”:

The graininess in the picture that might be me could be a ball caught in mid-
bounce, a Frisbee powered by a good throw. It could be a dog with a Frisbee in its mouth.

The graininess in the picture that might be me might be a glass of lemonade. That
might be you behind me, reaching for me, a cool glass wet with condensation, the
pale lemony water choked with ice.

The graininess in the picture that might be me is part black part white and faintly crescent-shaped.

The graininess in the picture that might be me, it gives just enough information to
go on, just enough texture and contrast for me to almost hold together. Stay with
me now, I am almost about to exist. (82)

Each reading of the picture is just as true as any other, and just as false. Burger’s communication is authentic not as external fact, but insofar as it activates and engages an I. The rotation of hypotheses answering the anaphora, “the graininess in the picture,” builds a formal concatenation that carries the thinking subject and almost embodies her; constant motion and plurality match the ever-unmade, ever-in-the-making subject.

Revelations, repetitions, questions, contradictions, hesitations, violations: all arise and weigh the same. What matters more than the particular shape of the word-bodied thought, is its engagement in the traversal of time and space. Burger’s word is not “spent” in the sense of expended: extinguished, dead, switched off, etc. Nor is time itself used up or killed. Rather, the word and time may be said to expand — and thereby open vital lacunae in the blah everyday. In turn, in this breaking space, “aesthetic” experience becomes possible.[1]

In “Rusted,” Burger deals explicitly with “pure aesthetic gesture” (4). “We believed the most extravagant, precise, deliberate, but utterly nonutilitarian gesture to be the most perfect” (5), she writes. Pointing to the impracticality and stupidity of “photographs of ourselves sitting on the thing [a defunct pipe] and grinning” (5), the poem celebrates a free realm for play and the suspension of sense-making. In the poem prior, “I Like Purple,” another nonsensical zone blossoms weirdly in “the transformation of an embroidered peasant shawl into a wriggling hallucination — girls lined up, one row above another, as if in the corridors of a cell block, a bar or scarf floating across their middle, and below the heads of the next row, the bars moved and danced with the girls, and it seemed the whole system might split, but it didn’t” (3). A vivid, extraordinary vision defies understanding but endures anyway.

Burger’s writing reaches far, pressing into multiple dimensions. An aphoristic character surrounds sentences with auras of implication, in the way that parables and miniatures are both tidy and infinitely extensible. Still, however resonant with compression, abstraction, and calm, the proffered advice is not easy or reasonable. Burger answers complexity with complexity, with grammar that unwinds and divagates interminably even as it’s wrought with utter precision. As a consequence, where precariousness matches attention to detail, we adopt a discipline of deep focus — or risk substance’s dissolution.

Here again is the book’s substrate: in the face of formlessness, Burger activates the present by way of ideas — contemplating contingencies one by one as they appear — as well as formally, with deftly woven prose. She notes potential pitfalls: inauthenticity, by attempting “to seize the impossibly ephemeral moment, to hold onto a reflection which was not the moment itself” (“A Series of Water Disasters,” 16), excess, or “the nature of mind, that wants to be elsewhere” (“Necessary,” 49), and denial, by answering “the ubiquitous emergency as if it wasn’t happening to us” (“Blush,” 46). In the last, ongoing catastrophe just beyond our scope takes the form of a “subtly pulsating, high-pitched whine,” that provides a constant, abstract threat but no real compromise to sitting “in this shady backyard sharing a meal” (47). Yet the repercussions of the alternative — not to attempt to examine one’s experience, not to question, think, or write — are worse than these habits that the subject strains to break. In Then Go On, Mary Burger coaxes a body of writing as changeable, fluid, serious, and vulnerable as a living body, in evidence of a mindfulness that awakens, in turn, the reader’s reciprocal attention to new spaces of possibility.



1. I understand (via Friedrich Schiller’s definitions, via Jacques Rancière and Claire Bishop) the aesthetic object of free appearance as that which maintains total autonomy from sensible, ordinary, productive modes of reality. As such it creates space for play and pointless activity, questioning and reimagining.

The quiet influence of patience

A review of Linda Norton's 'The Public Gardens'

The Public Gardens: Poems and History

The Public Gardens: Poems and History

Linda Norton

Pressed Wafer $14, ISBN 9780983197515

Prior to the publication of Linda Norton’s 2007 Etherdome Press chapbook, Hesitation Kit, and her 2011 Pressed Wafer book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, which was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, many readers didn’t know that Norton had already exerted a quiet influence on them in her work as a poetry editor at the University of California Press. Since the 1980s Norton has made her living as a publicist and editor for a variety of publishing houses. Today, she works at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California. All these years, as the reader learns in The Public Gardens — a book that begins with poetry, continues with journals from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, and finishes with more poetry — she was writing and making collages, though few people were aware of this work. As Norton put it in a 2010 interview with Kate Greenstreet, “I like to do readings because I like to participate, to contribute, and I often hear people say, ‘I had no idea you wrote!’ or ‘I had no idea you were a visual artist!’” Norton’s response suggests that she prefers the communal to the individual, a preference that provides shelter to work without the burden of attention. Without a doubt this communal impulse shapes the interrogative quality of Norton’s writing.

Many of the concerns in The Public Gardens start to crystallize in “Landscaping for Privacy,” the first section of the book. Two of the most recurrent themes center on the question of what it means to be a woman who is first a girl and how to make art. The poem “Rose with No Name” contains these lines:

Red roses on a rose bush looped with garden hose­­ —
The first paintings were made with blood,
beauty out of carnage, or was it red ink
from the body of the first girl, from the first
wondering about what was happening
and how it might look and how it might smell.

Throughout The Public Gardens Norton shares with her readers the sense of wonder found here. This sense, though, is not clouded by fanciful idealism or lofty dreams. The earthy wonders are life and the art that people make from it. Norton’s speculations in this poem along these lines are fascinating. Were the first paintings made with blood got from killing? Or, more powerfully, were these paintings made with the menstrual blood of a young girl? As the poem continues it’s clear which question bears further interest:

The heirloom roses in this garden smell old
which means they smell fresh as the first girl
unlike some of the new roses bred to blossom
thornless, fast, synthetically, to resist pests.

Norton goes on to write that these synthetic roses “smell of money and garden hoses” and that “anyone / could do it, could do them; pornographic. / The first girl, the first rose: Sapphic.” In addition to Norton’s focus on the role women play in the arts, these lines mark yet another concern in The Public Gardens: authenticity. Norton often arrives at what she considers genuine by asking questions.

In the prose section of the book, entitled “Brooklyn Journals,” many of her queries focus on the burden of class. It’s particularly clear why in a passage dated October 11, 1987, where she’s reflecting on an interaction with her younger brother, Joey:

He glamorized my conventionality, my oldest sister ways, my pious lapsed Catholicism and my working-class pedestrian nature. But he knew this was not a pose established in order to subvert the establishment. It was something real and stolid and unconscious, something that made me old, and I hated it while I defended it. 

The fact that our pasts are real and unconscious mean that they follow us wherever we go like unleashed dogs that somehow know the way home. Norton is always conscious of this in her work.

In her journals it’s particularly compelling how Norton depicts her siblings and their reactions to their shared upbringing. Joey wanted to escape it. Near the end of the October entry Norton recounts the moment when her brother picked up her gloves she had bought at Filene’s Basement: “‘Vinyl,’ he said, smelling the gloves. ‘Can’t you at least try to get real leather gloves?’ I frowned. I hadn’t realized they weren’t made of leather.” This is another of Norton’s strengths, her self-deprecating sense of humor.

Within this frame of class and sibling tension comes perhaps the most startling thread in The Public Gardens, an unfolding story of Joey and his death from AIDS in 1986. In the first journal entry of the book dated May 10, 1987 Norton introduces readers to Joey, or Joseph as he’s referred to in the entry, with an insightful comparison of her and Joey’s notes in the margin of Ulysses — the copy is Norton’s and Joey has borrowed it. Her notes were “parochial — all about Catholicism — the intense familiarity, though we were Americans, of Joyce’s Irishness, names and rituals, guilt and materials,” and his were “all about modernism and European intellectual and literary history.” As “Rose with No Name,” cited above, foregrounds the female, so too does this example, but here the gender difference Norton wants the reader to see is even more direct. Tellingly, the notes Norton made in the margin of Ulysses are recurring concerns in The Public Gardens, and it is a stronger book for it.

In the same October entry discussed above Norton is already asking about Joey’s death: “Was my brother Joseph able to prepare for his death? There was no time. Death by sex, shame, rage.” In the journal entries that follow we learn how bitter Joey had become in his last days. Especially haunting is the entry dated August 23, 1987, when Norton is listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Mass” and remembering that the nurse for her brother at Lenox Hill had told her that Joey’s bed was where Ellington had died. At first, Norton writes, “My brother would have loved to know that.” But, in the following paragraph she rescinds that thought:

No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one right after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere to go — he’d lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work — the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks.

Norton’s entries through the rest of the eighties makes clear how new and confusing AIDS was for her, as well as for society at large. In September 1987 Norton mentions “An emaciated man in a wheelchair with Kaposi’s lesions rolled past me one day in the rain. It’s everywhere. But none of the sick men I see are as young as my brother was. Why?” Then, in August 1990 she touches upon the fact that her family back in Boston refuses to admit that anyone but Joey has died from AIDS, and acknowledges to herself “At least in New York I’m not alone with it.” In the midst of all this the reader learns that Joey died a week before the discovery of AZT.

Norton’s skillful writing in her journals shows the complexity of the AIDS legacy, and more acutely how layered Norton’s difficult memories are concerning her family. The ability to weave these layers as honestly as Norton does in The Public Gardens is rare. How often is one willing to look hard at one’s family and milieu, write about them, and then publish it? Certainly, there are acres of memoirs published every year that proclaim penetrating introspection, but few are as probing as Norton’s.

Alongside entries regarding AIDS, her family, and class Norton also pays considerable attention to issues regarding race and ethnicity in The Public Gardens. In the entry dated October 19, 1990 Norton is waiting for an office-building elevator in Manhattan when a man steps out with “an amazing head of dreds, volumetrically astounding.” Another woman, a suburban blonde, about fifty, awaits the same elevator. Once on the elevator the blonde tries to catch Norton’s eye: “assuming we’ll conspire: ‘These people!’ I look down, avoiding her, because I don’t want to be forced to be white with her.” It’s clear that Norton’s self-awareness, even self-consciousness, is not restricted to class difference or familial tension. It’s as if Norton’s eye specializes in the issues that divide people. 

As the journal entries through the early ’90s continue, Norton touches on race and the art world. Much of what she writes on this subject pertains to observations in her then-husband Andrew’s studio and at parties. An entry from June 1992 describes an afternoon with Andrew in his studio when they receive a phone call for his studio mate:

The phone rings and these days it’s always someone asking for Hodge Park. It is currently extremely cool to be anything but white in the art world. I half expect him to start using Ho-jun, the Korean name his parents gave him.

Then in May 1993 a painter friend, Steve, and Nancy visit Norton and Andrew at home. At some point during the visit “the guys grumbled about the plight of young white men in the art world — there’s no place for them now.” On the surface these examples seem to be only about race, but they are also about gender, particularly the white male version. Norton delivers her criticisms on this matter in the book brilliantly by simply observing and writing down what she sees and hears. If one misses what she’s after it’s the fault of a shallow reader.

The most wonderful journal entry comes on June 18, 1994, offering a bit of levity in regards to some of the heavier moments dealing with race and ethnicity. At the time, Norton is five months pregnant, on a business trip to London, and alone. As she’s walking down a road lined with tall row houses in Camden she encounters a young man, “high,” Norton guesses, “but not murderous, or insane,” so she relaxes. He asks, “How are you?” In her response he realizes she must be American, and then wants to know where she’s from. “Brooklyn,” she says. Interestingly, this young man is aware that Baruch Goldstein, “the guy who massacred Arabs in the mosque in Hebron,” is from there, too. Internally, this causes Norton to become a little tense, especially when the man asks, “Are you Jewish?” After wavering on how to answer, Norton replies, “No, I’m not Jewish.” At this point, the man “stopped and scrutinized [Norton’s] face intensely, like a surgeon accustomed to handling warm, throbbing ethnicities with his bare hands while the clock ticks.” The man is spot-on when he asks, “Irish and Sicilian?” When Norton expresses her amazement at his expert “ethnic dissection,” as Norton calls it, the man laughs and asks her “to drop some acid with him.” Norton points out that she is pregnant, so they walk “companionably to the corner, where [they] say goodbye, and good luck to each other.” Norton’s terminology, throbbing ethnicities, is perhaps the most accurate way to describe the ancestral forces that shape, at least in part, who we are. More often it seems that one forgets the throbbing part — the fact that ethnicities are alive — and treats these issues coldly, clinically. In The Public Gardens Norton is compassionate and aware. Like the young Londoner she finds a way to bridge this compassion with a surgeon’s grace in her writing on race.

As the journals come to a close Norton gives birth to a daughter, Isabel. Her description, written on November 18, 1994, of the birth is moving, filled as it is with tension and laughter. At the end of the entry Norton describes Isabel’s significance:

It’s not like she fulfills me, exactly. It’s as if her existence, her coming through my body and out between my legs, authorizes me as an animal.

She cries every night for three or four hours, and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I’m so tired. But her shit really does smell sweet.

In the last section of poems, “The Commons,” Norton continues to share with the reader her relationship with Isabel. “Stanzas in the Form of a Dove,” written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, moves with feelings of thought and love when she describes an evening she “caught a whiff of Isabel, and realized she needed a bath.” Though tired Norton gives her daughter a bath, puts her to bed. Just when she thinks they’ve both fallen asleep Isabel starts talking:

I have a question about being good or bad. I know you should be good,
        but if you’re not, what can

they do to you? I mean, my question is: Do I always have to be good?

Does she always have to be good? When I was a girl, I knew I must
        always be good. Because I was bad.

The filth. Look what original sin has done for me.

So I say to her: “No. You don’t always have to be good. You are good.”

She breathes a sigh of relief: “Thank you!” Then falls right to sleep,
        smelling so sweet.

It’s startling how continually aware Norton is of her past, and impressive to see her determination to help shape a life that’s distinct to Isabel, perhaps one less burdened by class anxiety and built-in Catholic guilt. The care that Norton takes with each of her subjects in The Public Gardens — the feminine, art making, and family life to name a few — ought to have much influence on her audience. Norton not only applies the attention of her eyes and mind, she also attunes her heart to these matters. Importantly, she’s never afraid to ask questions of her subjects, even if only to herself. In these ways her book is an achievement built on her years of quietly working in the background, which is to say this book is a testament to patience.

Tangible expressions of a present poetic

A review of E-Poetry 2013 Festival London

Loss Pequeño Glazier, “Four Guillemets”; screen capture/programming: the artist
Loss Pequeño Glazier, “On Four Guillemets”; screen capture.

E-Poetry 2013 Festival London

E-Poetry 2013 Festival London

June 17–20, 2013

at Kingston University-London

It is a common misconception that digital media writing is about computers, networks, or any given technology. Of course, given that today’s technologies of writing are digital, a poetics to decenter such modes would engage digital processes. However, such a poetics does not begin and end with the digital. It embraces poetic interests from flickering cave signifiers through object-oriented array programming to microscopic tomes etched in chromosomes. The digital is simply the present location for a larger poetic investigation extending across multiple material manifestations: it is — but equally it isn’t — about digital technology. It is this area between the “is” and the “isn’t” to which, singularly, without peer, and without wish for authority, E-Poetry is dedicated. Indeed, the E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London festival is “digital” — it involves new media — but to describe it more accurately, it is about hybrid forms. It is a place for conversation about emergent language, visual expression, translation, code-as-writing, word works, and performance tropes from the point of view of the practitioner and artist-scholar. We’re all knee-deep in this electronic shift; the point is pivot the lens from the consumer to the inventor, from the receiver to the agitator.

In (paper) poetic practice today, it is almost as if we are seeing our emerging writers entering a new type of “lost generation.” Poets now are seen to be either/or — either “hacker-programmers” or “poets,” i.e., one or the other, geeks with programming manuals or successors to page-based innovative forms of practice. As if there were no connecting tissues! But, presently, there is a gap. Those who are digital tend not to have heard of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry; those who are writing page-based texts would never think of coming to E-Poetry. Not to suggest that experiencing E-Poetry is requisite to effectively commanding the present electro-frenzy of the word, but heads-up: there is material here that probably should not be completely overlooked.

Benjamin R. Moreno, “space reader.” Photo by Martin Rieser.

The first and longest-running convocation dedicated to the digital literary arts, E-Poetry is the only festival that seeks to celebrate writing in all forms, attentive to the tuning fork of the digital as material — yes, of course — but equally focused on reaching across the border walls separating print from digital, one culture from another, languages, media, continents, generations, and genres. Innovative literature imagines a world with no boundaries. At E-Poetry, digital literature brandishes no special birthright; it is not autonomous or “purebred” but inherently mixed: whether in performance, via MP3, or on a Savoy “Bop 900 series” 78 rpm, Charlie Parker’s “Thriving on a Riff” continues to resonate with multiple transgressive evocations through an unlimited interweaving of cultural formations.

E-Poetry draws its inspiration not from academic or literary conferences, or institutions, or trade associations, or technology-dependent modes of inquiry. Its spirit extends from the discipline-changing poetry festivals that awakened literature of the ’50s and ’60s to a new sense of voice. Festivals such as the First Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947, the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, and the Berkeley Poetry Conference, 1965, though all organized with specific goals in mind, established an engagement with new fields of poetic vision. They brought poetry from the cerebellum to the solar plexus. They were not only focused on specific media, historic events, personalities, and forms of publication; they expressed a larger vision — literary creation as celebratory, human-centered, how “we,” as an increasingly complex social organism, move forward into the ever richer arenas of imaginative expression.

It is the energy of the above mentioned festivals upon which E-Poetry draws. It is not trying to prove that digital literature has a place in the academy or that it is respectable or that it is the form of the future. Such issues tend to work themselves out. E-Poetry is about the continued practice of innovative forms as an ongoing process. The “here” of E-Poetry encompasses the continuing “there” of poetics, a fluidity of meaning. By this ordering, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson were all digital poets — and some who identify as “digital poets” may not be. Likewise, many of the electronic pioneers (as exploration of their newly established archives is beginning to reveal) are possibly even more paper-based than their historic predecessors. Of course, the issue is not whether a work is digital or not; all media are welcome here. The point is that living on both sides of that line is living in the present.

E-Poetry 2013 poster. Design by María Mencía.

E-Poetry 2013 Kingston-London advanced a number of cross-disciplinary and media shattering approaches initiated by the previous E-Poetry 2011 in Buffalo. (Indeed, the previous E-Poetry opened the field to wider forms, contexts, cultures. Only Google glasses could have prevented one seeing it at the time. So much was new, a widened field — Cuban hip-hop, Joan LaBarbara, UK sound poets, a full digital poetry & dance theatre production — the stage was set!) Building on E‑Poetry 2011, the approaches in E-Poetry 2013 extended the spirit of new forms of artistic invention as existing above and beyond specific digital modes — not restricted to Pleistocene web protocols, hacked hermeneutics: not limited to computers but before, inside, and beyond the expressive powers of HTML.

There were no conference themes, no hierarchical keynotes, no parallel sessions. In marked contradistinction to other events where the theme may be somewhat arbitrary, where one voice is deemed more important than others, where presenters may be disappointed by the turnout at their parallel booked session, E-Poetry strives to foster a sense of community, common respect, and celebratory attentiveness. The projects and papers of the participants themselves comprise the theme, a collective wellspring; participants bring to the table issues that have meaning to them at the moment.

E-Poetry facilitates a union of practices, ideas, inflows, energies, formats, forms, projections, words, images, resonances, disturbances, shining in the near-subterranean Kingston ritual kiva, batted about aboard a boat on the Thames, astonishingly evident in its stellar exhibition, resonant at the Royal Festival Hall Poetry Library, honored at Tate Britain, bellowing across the expanse of the Watermans theatre, its great half circle of performance space first glimpsed on the Festival’s opening night at the edge of the out-of-scale verdure of Kew Gardens. For the final day, this theatre was a site of vigil, a morning-to-night series of resonant, sonic, visual word-rushes, filling the theatre with swells of presence. Like waves, the works came one after another, with just enough time in between each performance to catch your breath. But then the next one came, similarly enveloping you, each one different; each a detailed investigation of one facet of a total aesthetic that saturated cultural being; each a component of something larger than itself, something only the collective whole could suggest.

Catherine Siller, “Body Text” (with Ian Hatcher); video still.

E-Poetry advisory board members served as directors of ceremonies for all events. Laura Shackelford served as program coordinator; María Mencía, local convener. There were views from various UK regions, representing the cultural diversity within the isle and its different literary perspectives; there were two special panels of younger practitioners from Russia, hosted by Natalia Fedorova; there was Scott Weintraub’s panel on Latin American electronic literature, and presenters from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Iran, and Hong Kong, as well as the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, France, Australia, Canada, and the US.

Especially exciting was the number of women artists and scholars and emerging practitioners, many who appear in the program in highly visible places. The idea was really to promote an embracing mix of critical perspectives and artistic approaches. There were poetically reflective pieces, step-by-step “readings” of tools of reading. There were unexpected triumphant performances, theatrical moments, journeys through erasure; there was sound-making, live book-production, dances with light; there were spectra upon spectra of ways of entering the word, from portals that provided uncommon views. It was inspiring, comforting, energizing, emotional; its references came through cross-weavings of performance, oratory, introspection, comedy, cacophony, revelatory peeling back of layers. Its events and intriguing installations were all new works; they embodied range, style, diverse conversations, threads, themes, motifs, an impressive range of innovative performances (an E-Poetry feature); they followed twists and turns with revelatory moments amid intertwined paths of expression.

cris cheek, “b a c k l i t.” Photo/collage by Loss Pequeño Glazier.

Included were an unforgettable text-upon-flesh performance by cris cheek, Benjamin R. Moreno’s game-controller irradiation of an iconic seventeenth-century Spanish poem, Catherine Siller’s astonishing multigenre textual physicality, Serge Bouchardon and Pierre Fourny’s inventive word-by-machine antics, Ian Hatcher’s breath-talk-ing increments, Amaranth Borsuk’s evocative Handiwork and her 3-dimensional hovering “Between Page and Screen” (Brad Bouse, programmer), Alexander Mouton’s increasingly self-confident epic “Passings,” the unremitting intensity of Russia’s Machine Libertine, sound poetry from Chile, a book-making performance from Galicia, cooking the books (literally) with kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, and multigenre music-projection-performance from Romania, along with numerous known artists in the field including John Cayley (“Phrase Stitched Writing”), Talan Memmott (“Huckleberry Finnegans Wake,” with Snodgrass and Tempest), and Loss Pequeño Glazier (“On Guillemets”). The Mencía-curated exhibition “Words Unstable on the Table” provided new frames, radically necessary new instabilities of language vision including Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák’s body-scale interactive plunge into writing, “I : * ttter.” A gamut of technologies were used: programming, word performance, dance, web technologies, alphabetic voice, procedure, games, postmodern theory, video production, digital communications theater, concrete concussions, new music, and sound poetry pulsations. All were suspended on “the idea,” the materiality of the text in flux, a new stance towards art-making in the world in which we work, words as radical and experimental they could have equally been written in the sky (or in the mud of the dry tidal tributary outside Watermans).

Zuzana Husárová and Ľubomír Panák, “I : * ttter.” Photo courtesy of the artists.

The festival culminated just like a truly rambunctious celebration should close — with us being told to leave the theatre. The last two performances then, via a negotiated extension cord fed to us under a locked door, allowed the festival to coalesce into an introspective and tender nocturnal half-circle on the floor amid glowing screens of colorful exhibition panels. A projector was aimed at the wall — it was all blue light — and the poets performed with the audience seated in a semicircle on the floor around them. The final two presentations, the textual vision of Jason Lewis and the fragile, self-dissecting introspection of David Jhave Johnston, were intimate, without amplification, allowing textures of voice, quiet sounds of exhalations or sighs or astonishment. It was the work in its clearest form. There may have never been a more personal, more direct, or more triumphant moment in recent E-Poetry gatherings. It was engaging to be there, one of those moments when what we came for was simply there. It was a settling of all that had occurred over three and a half days into moments made real by our seated presence in the glow of the imagination.

There were moments of poetry.

David Jhave Johnston, performance. Photo by Scott Weintraub.

E-Poetry 2015 will take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 9–12, 2015. Call for proposals forthcoming in 2014 at the Electronic Poetry Center. You may also request being added to the E-Poetry Festival mailing list.

Gertrude Stein anew

A review of 'Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition'

Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition

Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition

Gertrude Stein, Edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina

Yale University Press 2012, 379 pages, ISBN 9780300153095

A Gertrude Stein renaissance is afoot. It is difficult not to think how celebrated Stein is, to paraphrase her Stanzas in Meditation.[1]During the past two years, she made a cameo (played by Kathy Bates) in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and several exhibitions of her art collection circulated at major museums. One of them, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, spurred a hotly debated scandal about Stein’s so-called “war record,” richly documented on this site. Stein-related monographs, symposia, and panels have proliferated, and the scholarly Gertrude Stein Society is thriving. Paris France (1940) was just reissued to much acclaim for its enduring charm. And several newly edited volumes have appeared that promise to change readers’ view of some of her most crucial works. The freshly corrected edition of her longest work of poetry, a five-part, book-length poem in 164 stanzas titled Stanzas in Meditation (1932), does just that. This skillfully edited volume will help Stanzas take its place as an essential modernist poem.

Stanzas is also a poème à clef. It speaks of a past lover and the drama of choosing just one beloved companion: “The whole of this last end is to say which of two” (248). Although literature built upon thinly veiled, real-life drama has most often taken novelistic form — think of the romans à clef by Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, or Jack Kerouac — some long poems such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock have also been composed around real-life incidents. But whereas Pope’s was distinctly meant to poke fun at contemporary society, it’s not clear that Stein intended her poem to be understood by the public at large as a meditation on one of her past lovers, May Bookstaver (May B.). For her most intimate reader, Alice B. Toklas, however, there was no doubt. Toklas, Stein’s lifelong companion and most privileged decoder (who typed up Stein’s prolific, cacographic manuscripts daily), was furious when she realized that May B.’s presence was deeply woven into Stanzas. Toklas demanded that Stein erase May from Stanzas. And May was erased — not just “May,” but also “may,” “maybe,” and every other form of the phoneme. As editors Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina point out, the most frequent change was to transform the word “may” into “can,” with the original word blackened out by hand, sometimes so vehemently that the typescript paper was torn. In an essay included in the new edition, Joan Retallack reads the “mays” as “sites of confession,”[2] memorably referring to May Bookstaver as “the hypothetical incarnate,” representing all lovers denied — and more broadly, all that is not chosen in art and life.[3]

Ulla Dydo discovered this biographical foundation to Stanzas years ago, as she explains in Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934. Editors Hollister and Setina have followed up on her revelation, preparing a corrected edition that reinstates Stein’s original version of the manuscript. Now readers can enjoy the text as Stein first wrote it, plus the text as she and Toklas agreed upon, and savor the differences between them. The editors recommend “sustained, continuous reading” as a way to facilitate the reader’s work of detecting patterns within the poem (xiv). But they also provide clear notes on all the variants included in an appendix, so that the poem may be read “as the sum of its versions and the story of its textual history. Either way one proceeds, the possibility of another way matters in this poem, for its essential pair of themes — themes whose resonance is both biographical and textual — is the work of choosing and the persistence of other options” (xv–xvi). In addition to changes that relate to “may,” the appendices furnish some real gems of revision: “hate” is revised as “hat” (162), “frustrate” as “punctuate,” and “frogs” as “prays” (281). These could well be due to Stein’s thorny handwriting. But the line “Better have it changed to progress now if the room smokes” becomes the radically different, and rather wonderful, “Better have it changed to pigeonsnow if the room smokes” (272).

It is hard not to read Stanzas as a poème à clef, once one knows the story. It’s too delicious. Lines such as “This is an autobiography in two instances” (149), “Shall we be three I wonder now” (66), and “If I name names if I name name with them” (65) become revelatory, and the reader experiences the pleasure of puzzling out Stein’s allusions and catching her references to love triangles. In Stein and Toklas’s private idiom, a “cow” was an orgasm, as Dydo has clarified, and in Stanzas it’s worth staying alert for the erotic potential of the bovine: “Once every day there is a coming where cows are” (62). The poem offers insight about relationships that also relates to good writing: “Now that I have written twice / It is not as alike as once” (240). There are self-reflexive hints about Stein’s composition process. We know that she frequently “wrote into given spaces,” allowing the parameters of a notebook to determine the length of a composition.[4] In “Poetry and Grammar” she explains, “An American can fill up a space in having his movement of time by adding unexpectedly anything and yet getting within the included space everything he had intended getting.”[5] And in Stanzas, we find the rather wise reflection that

It is very difficult to plan to write four pages.
Four pages depend upon how many more you use.
You must be careful not to be wasteful.
That is one way of advancing being wasteful
It use up the pages two at a time for four
And if they come to and fro and pass the door
They do so. (168)

Stein drafted these lines in her working notebook just at the point when only five pages remained.[6] A writer who enjoyed the challenge of material constraints and found them generative as she composed, Stein writes in Stanzas of constraining her desires and making erotic choices. And then there’s the spillover: the delectation of a half-ecstatic, half-anxious mantra of a woman yearning for a woman, “May she be mine oh may she may she be” (243). (Move over, Molly Bloom.)

Stanzas is a poem about numbers, about counting lovers and recounting love affairs, but it’s also a poem about time, about the verb tense of possibility (or the tense verbs of possibility), about hypotheticals and wishes — which in English we often express in the past tense, whether we’re articulating a wish for the future (“I wish I could get a job”) or the present (“I wish we were traveling by train”). But it may well have been more than just the play of numbers and tenses that irked Toklas. As the most initiated of Stein’s readers, she would certainly have been sensitive to the characteristic play of Stein’s function words (all words aside from nouns, verbs, and adjectives; as John Ashbery calls them, “colorless connecting words”).[7] Linguists have recently shown that a useful barometer for intimacy in a couple (and between poets) is not just shared vocabulary and pet names (Toklas was Stein’s “birdie” and “little ball”),[8] but also the couples level of linguistic synchrony, or how they converge with regard to a couple’s use of language — and language-style matching, in which the use of function words is particularly revelatory.[9] Toklas would have noticed that Stein’s pronouns, which tend to be frolicsome in general, make particularly baroque arabesques in Stanzas. They do-si-do with such verve that their identities seem quite exchangeable.[10] As Stein suggests in part 1, stanza 5, masking one’s identity on the page can be a way to restrain emotion (“We say he and I that we do not cry”), or perhaps, to camouflage real-life figures:

Why can pansies be their aid or paths.
He said paths she had said paths
All liked to do their best with half of the time
A sweeter sweetener came and came in time.
Did she mean that she had nothing.
We say he and I that we do not cry
Because we have just seen him and called him back
He meant to go away
Once now I will tell all which they tell lightly.
How were we when we met.
All of which nobody not we know
But it is so. They cannot be allied
They can be close and chosen.
Once in a while they wait.
He likes it that there is no chance to misunderstand pansies. (63–64)

After the nostalgia-tinged, yet cavorting, meditation, the final line of stanza 5 arrives with surprising and amusing clarity. This is one kind of humor to be relished in Stanzas: the jolt that arrives when what would otherwise be an absurd sentence rings with a crystalline tone. Pansies, which grow alongside roses and pumpkins elsewhere in the poem, create a tongue-in-cheek reference to the slang term for homosexual man, which had been in use since the mid-1920s.[11] Which pansies are not misunderstood, of course, are not specified; and because of the pronoun play, the pansies’ “he” might well be an encoded “her.” (Toklas referred to Stein as her “husband” and “baby boy” in their private love notes.)[12]

Stein plays with traditional rhyming forms, aphorisms, epithets, and nursery rhymes throughout Stanzas. She is often very funny. She half-jests at her own love of celebrity. She describes the already established success of the manuscript she is still in the process of writing (“I feel that this stanza has been well-known” [184]) and pokes fun at her own cult of genius and desire to be “new”:

I often think how celebrated I am.
It is difficult not to think how celebrated I am.
And if I think how celebrated I am
They know who know that I am new
That is I knew I knew how celebrated I am
And after all it astonishes even me. (170)

When Stein writes of second thoughts, the timing of her delivery does the trick. The pause mid-stride between two one-line stanzas (or monostichs) creates just the necessary delay: 

Often as I walk I think

But this does not mean that I think again.

By now, faithful reader, you have probably read the above slender stanzas in light of the Alice vs. May story. What if you didn’t have it in mind? Not to worry, the themes would emerge even if one didn’t know the backstory and the proper names of those involved: the poem’s preoccupation is with wishing, reflecting, meandering, doubling-back, deliberating, and selecting, as one loves and as one writes. Stanzas is deeply engaged, as poems often are, in teaching the reader to come ashore on its rocky ledge and hear its siren song. One becomes inducted into its world through the process of reading. Or perhaps, to maintain the bilingual pun in the book’s title, one opens the door to Stein’s dwelling, and learns the customs of its rooms (stanzas in Italian), from vestibule to salon.

As one reads Stanzas, one discovers how even a brief line of verse can change between start and finish. Is there a caesura after “them” in the following line, for example? “Lengthened for them welcome in repose” (58). Part of the readerly pleasure is in parsing. As one proceeds more deeply past the antechambers, one begins to hear oneself reading, and to hear oneself echoing and rhyming: “Not only needed in nodding / But not only not very nervous / As they will willingly pass when they are restless” (59). Try those lines aloud and you will hear how the meter and alliteration carry you. One discovers the satisfying sensation of an aphoristic click at the end of a stanza full of lines made entirely of colorless function words, such as “Not any more than so” and “Or not at all or not in with it”: “Four leaf clovers make a Sunday / And that is gone” (60). Noticing this shifting and sashaying is one of the sensual satisfactions of Stanzas. One learns how to listen with a Steinian ear to how “the bird makes the same noise differently” (70).

After a certain number of pages, the same noise does reverberate otherwise, puns begin to sprout, and meaning unfurls. One begins to read lines like “Mine often comes amiss” (59) and “It is not only a mis demeanor” (62), with the suspicion that “a miss” is hiding within it (Miss May B., at times, or Miss Alice B. at others). These calembours cluster and press forward upon the reader — not only because of the poem’s themes, but also because Stein trains the reader to look for the revelations tucked into etymology, by crafting lines like “There should not be this use in uselessness” (67) and “they will be ought and autocratic / Come when they call” (68). Just as thoughts contain second thoughts (“I manage to think twice about everything,” 143) — which is also a theme of Q.E.D., Stein’s early book about May B. — words contain other words, which contain worlds. The play between “word” and “world” is particularly significant in a line from Part One, “Out from the whole wide world I chose thee” (41). Stein revised the line from its earlier version, “Out from the whole wide word I chose thee,” referencing William Wordsworth, as Retallack points out. Precise selection in writing is married to the apt choice of a romantic partner. The alternate titles that Stein considered for the book, including “Stanzas of Meditation” (mentioned in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas)and “Stanzas of my ordinary reflections,” “Stanzas of commonplace reflections,” and the mysteriously evocative “Harness” (all handwritten on the covers of her working notebooks, 262–263), indicate a preoccupation with the growing poem as a space of daily deliberation about choices both momentous and minute.

One begins to detect glimpses of later poets’ work through the scrim of Stein’s. There is an intimation of John Ashbery in part 1, stanza 4, where an abruptly disjunctive, discursive voice ruminates. Things happen offstage, so that one has the impression of hearing a door open in an adjacent room for a significant but unexplained purpose:

Should they sustain outwardly no more than for their own
All like what all have told.
For him and to him to him for me.
It is as much for me that I met which
They can call it a regular following met before.
It will be never their own useless that they call
It is made that they change in once in a while. (62)

Ashbery, reviewing Stanzas in a 1956 essay titled “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein,” called it “a poem that is always threatening to become a novel.”[13] But he noted that rather than presenting a sequence of events, Stein was interested in their “way of happening.” “The story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars,” he explains. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”[14]

Ashbery’s one-size-fits-all model brings us to the question of the particularities of particulars, and how indeterminate Stein’s work really is. Although Retallack agrees that for Stanzas, undecidability is a key component of the work, she maintains that its biographical basis doesn’t conflict: “composed indeterminacy doesn’t erase the personal but accommodates it in its complexities and inherent ambiguities.”[15] The idea that Stein’s work is indeterminate, or not “grounded in a coherent discourse,” to draw on Marjorie Perloff’s definition of “indeterminacy,”[16] renders her work either troublesome or progressively subversive, depending on the reader. While Stein’s oeuvre has been interpreted by many scholars as championing indeterminacy, others have shown that her style invites anything but that — and assert that she seeks complete authorial control over the text itself.[17] They point out that for a work to be a “masterpiece,” according to her, it cannot be an open text.[18] Liesl Olson has recently shown that Stein herself “wanted it both ways”: she not only promoted among mainstream readers the idea that each person interprets a text through the filter of his or her own personality, but she also advocated a model of “ideas and impersonality” among academic readers.[19] More broadly, in twentieth-century literary scholarship, Stein’s ambiguity has become an emblem for the many ways in which she, as a figure, as well as her oeuvre, muddies the waters and does not fit a Manichean view of politics or social life.[20]

Texts such as Stanzas are hard to describe as indeterminate, given the tight control the writer wielded over her texts and her desire to bend language to her “own interest.”[21] “I think very well of my way,” she congratulates herself in Stanzas (145). As author, Stein creates a meaning that which will “force itself” upon the reader, as she writes in “Poetry and Grammar.”[22] The complications that she creates “make eventually for simplicity”: “Why if you want the pleasure of concentrating on the final simplicity of excessive complication would you want any artificial aid to bring about that simplicity.”[23] Excessive complication is certainly not the same as indeterminacy. And in this case, the complications are what make Stanzas excessively pleasurable to concentrate on.

Hollister and Setina describe the “principle of choice” and the “principle of accuracy” (of “even generic words”)[24] at work in Stanzas. They write that the principle of choice is what “guides her poetics” more broadly.[25] Stanzas, as well as Ida: A Novel (also recently republished by Yale University Press and newly edited by Logan Esdale)show Stein in all the deliberateness of her composition. These new editions of Stein’s work align with the approach of genetic criticism (critique génétique)which, in its emphasis on manuscripts and other archival documents, treats the published text as part of an unfolding process of composition. The Yale UP editions afford new insight into Stein’s published work and her archives, which, unlike the writer’s renowned biography, have too long been neglected. The current Stein renaissance promises to usher in a new stage in Stein’s ever-unfolding celebrity. 

Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition will attract new readers to the delights of Stein’s work, and undoubtedly entice Stein scholars and fans with their revelations. It will also help make room for this significant poem on modernist reading lists, alongside large-scale poetic projects such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, HD’s Trilogy, and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Stein referred to Stanzas as “a long narrative poem” in the vein of Wordsworth, and her version renovates the category of the long poem. It is a harbinger, too, of book-length experimental poems written by women later in the century, such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, and Haryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T. At a moment when some conversations in modernist studies are revisiting old clash-of-the-titanic-poets debates, weighing usual suspects such as Pound, Wallace Stevens, and W. H. Auden against one another, it is useful to see Stein anew. [26] Happily, today, “a stanza can be bought and taught,” as Stein wrote (197). “I wish to announce stanzas at once.”  



1. Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, ed. Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 170.

2. Joan Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation: Pressures and Pleasures of the Text,” in Hollister and Setina, Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, 12.

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 40–41; Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” in Stein: Writings 1932–1946, Vol. 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 323.

5. Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” 323.

6. Dydo, Gertrude Stein, 504.

7. John Ashbery, “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein,” in Hollister and Setina, Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, 50.

8. Gertrude Stein and Kay Turner, Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 4; cited in Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation: Pressures and Pleasures of the Text,” 7.

9. Molly E. Ireland and James W. Pennebaker, “Language Style Matching in Writing: Synchrony in Essays, Correspondence, and Poetry,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99, no. 3 (2010): 549–571.

10. Retallack describes the book as “an enigmatically choreographed interaction of pronouns performing to a music of meditation so polyvalent it throws that very word/act into exploratory relief.” Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” 3.

11. “Pansy, N. and Adj.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press).

12. Stein and Turner, Baby Precious Always Shines, 4; cited in Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” 7.

13. Ashbery, “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein,” 52.

14. Ibid.

15. Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” 7.

16. “The symbolic evocations generated by words on the page are no longer grounded in a coherent discourse, so that it becomes impossible to decide which of these associations are relevant and which are not.” Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 18.

17. Among the champions of Stein’s indeterminacy are Marjorie Perloff, Joan Retallack, Charles Bernstein, Michael Golston, Steve McCaffery, and Barret Watten. For another line of interpretation, see Jennifer Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Annalisa Zox-Weaver, Women Modernists and Fascism (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Lisa Siraganian, “Out of Air: Theorizing the Art Object in Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 4 (2003): 657–676.  

18. Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism, 7–9; 67–68.

19.Olson argues for analysis of the historical and sociological factors undergirding this divide in the critical reception of Stein’s difficulty. Liesl Olson, “‘An Invincible Force Meets an Immovable Object’: Gertrude Stein Comes to Chicago,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 2 (2010): 333–334; Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York: Routledge, 2008).

20. Elsewhere, I complicate readings of Steinian style as indeterminate — and therefore either reactionary or politically subversive — by examining archival drafts of Stein’s 1942 translation of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s speeches.

21. Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” 320.

22. Ibid., 321.

23. Ibid.

24. Hollister and Setina, “Preface,” xi.

25. Ibid., xi.

26. Galvin, “Stevens, Auden: Whose Age Was It Anyway  and Why Do We Care?Wallace Stevens Journal 37.2 (October 2013), 155–166.