Morse Code

A review of 'After Jack'

After Jack

After Jack

by Garry Thomas Morse

Talonbooks 2010, 184 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-88922-630-2

Many young poets tend to reveal the love affairs they have had with their ancestors to greater or lesser degree in their work. Ezra Pound’s early poetry, to take just one example, is full of bent knees and kissed cheeks for a variety of influential predecessors, from Rossetti and Browning to Swinburne and Ernest Dowson, not to mention the trouvères and troubadours. This is a wholly natural phenomenon, and not to be tut-tutted by anyone unless the obeisance turns into a lifelong devotion that prevents the poet from developing into something sui generis. At a completely different level, poets among and since the high modernists have often used another text or writer, as Joyce did Homer and Pound did Propertius, for a purpose far beyond influence or imitation. Duncan and Stein, Spicer and Lorca, even the Zukofskys and Catullus, comprise writerly doublings that produced highly original and compelling texts that are, in fact, about love before they are about anything else. (“Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case.”) But then influence is about love too (“an affect, wild often / That is so proud he hath Love for a name / Who denys it can hear the truth now.” That’s Pound in Canto XXXVI of course, imitating and reimagining Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega.”) 

Garry Thomas Morse’s After Jack exists somewhere in this territory — part homage, part rewrite of older texts, part confession of love and influence. Like all confessions it is a bit embarrassing at times, a bit sacramental in a gushy sort of way. (Those readers who know their literary history know Spicer’s connection to the British Columbia poetry world. He gave a series of lectures at Warren Tallman’s house during the 1965 Vancouver Poetry Conference (since published), not long before his death — and his “great companion” Robin Blaser emigrated to Canada in 1966 to teach at Simon Fraser University, bringing with him the aesthetics of the Berkeley Renaissance and the cult of the serial poem.) After Jack follows The Collected Books of Jack Spicer relatively closely, transforming and translating Spicer’s actual words at times, riffing on and dancing outside the source text at other times. Just as Spicer used, abused, and transfused poems by Lorca for his book After Lorca (1957), Morse takes Spicer’s own work in the same spirit of alchemical transformation, conversing with his source texts in a number of different ways. The base text is sometimes very much in evidence, as for example in the opening poem. Spicer’s was called “Juan Ramón Jimenez” and began:

In the white endlessness
Snow, seaweed, and salt
He lost his imagination.

The color white. He walks
Upon a soundless carpet made
Of pigeon feathers.

Morse’s is entitled “Clarence Malcolm Lowry,” and begins thus:

Ecstasy in the white
pages of nards, salt
& spunk unlimited

White, the sheet
is moulting black
bird feathers

The “Jimenez” piece is one of the genuine Lorca poems in Spicer’s text (others were made up or combined genuine translation with Spicerian originals), so by turns the “Lowry” poem is Morse transforming Spicer translating Lorca addressing Jiménez (Spicer did not put the accent in the Spanish poet’s surname, but Lorca did), with the additional reference to the author — British by birth, but British Columbian by adoption — of Under the Volcano. This manner of reading, with the Spicer (at least) open on one’s desk, helps one to follow Morse’s process. All the same, Morse has pointed out in an interview with Ken Norris, that Spicer himself was anxious to emphasize that his Lorca workings were “transformations” and not “translations,” and this applies equally to Morse’s own work, mutatis mutandis. Having the base text immediately to hand will nevertheless help one to a certain degree with the poems in After Jack.

The Orphic was Mallarmé’s coefficient for poetry’s future (“The orphic explanation of the earth, which is the poet’s only duty and the literary mechanism par excellence”), and one can sense its presence in Yeats, D. H. Lawrence (“The earth’s long conical shadow is full of souls / that cannot find the way across the sea of change”), Pound, and others, including of course Jack Spicer. That which is Orphic in Spicer — what the critic Catherine Imbriglio has categorized as “descent, lament, dismemberment” — sometimes becomes more obscure in Morse’s transmutations. Lorca’s “Debussy,” for example, which Spicer translated fairly literally, becomes “Wagner” in Morse’s reimagining (a seemingly odd transmigration of composers if the reader doesn’t know music history, and a complicated one if he/she does), with other correspondences being equally strange. For example, where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow came between the frogs and the stars, Morse’s is “ack- / nowledged master of stars” (the syllabification itself is unusual), and where Lorca’s/Spicer’s shadow moves over the water “like a huge / violet-colored mosquito,” Morse’s “moves / like a violet knish.” “Knish” seems like a typical out-of-left-field LangPo word choice, strange and annoying, although Morse is likely taking a swipe at Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The following pair of lines (“A hundred crickets / want gold to go up”) could also refer to Wagner, gold being the central issue of contestation in The Ring of the Nibelungs, though it’s still a peculiar sentence taken literally. A lot of the sentences in these poems, taken literally, strike me as odd, although often they are tied back to Spicer or Lorca and the linguistic context mitigates their weirdness. Whether poetry has any responsibility to be literal is in any case not a question that concerns Morse in the least. (“Feeling goes on behind the words  Were /  the naked words enough for you”). In his conversation with Ken Norris, Morse says that poetry largely is esotericism in his view.

Morse’s transformation of After Lorca includes letters from him to Spicer, unpunctuated (apart from commas) pieces of an aesthetics presented as the words of a lonely poet writing to a dead master (“that beautiful loneliness so necessary to poetry”). He worries at the relationship between the real and the poem, as Spicer did (“the poet’s whole universe is just a merle blanc, a snowy raven, a nonexistent thing which strives to live”), but he worries also about criticism’s tendency to “murder to dissect” (“I can’t bear to see them dissect you”). The poems and letters as a whole comprise not so much a critique of Spicer as a recontextualization of his concerns and, only sometimes, his actual words. The fifth poem in “The Book of Percival,” for example, bears no relationship to the Spicer equivalent and is clearly composed in twenty-first century-speak, despite its Poundian allusion (“bitch” and “slut” surely come from the opening lines of Canto VIII):

What are you doing here
I have never seen you so
Lucid. Are you going to
Get smashed. This is a
New program. Translation
“Bitch” “slut” “fierce”
Can confuse the
Lucid. And they
Suck the fucken
Life outta ya

Spicer’s “Letters to James Alexander” by contrast sit visibly in the control room behind Morse’s “Letters West,” which, he has said, were written as he was moving back to the West Coast from Ottawa and are addressed to no one. These poems still contain examples of self-conscious overreaching — eg. a line like “I hang around like a favorite mug and try to avoid the chicanery of faux-Delftware” — but in many ways they are the most accessible and most moving pieces in the book. Instead of brittle propositions like “Language / Is / Immediate / Heat / Loss” or “taste me for the itinerary of eternity,” Morse speaks more directly in sentences such as “I am returning to spring and rain and fog and shiny new trains. I am returning under a layer of exquisite ignominy. I am returning to bright hues and the tuberlike promise of regeneration.” (“Exquisite” is a little too self-absorbed, but still…) When Morse cuts off the sentence in section 14 that begins “No one knows better than I do how lonely,” you trust that he deserves the deep feeling in a way that is not always true in After Jack. The conventions of Language Poetry sometimes tend to turn every bit of language into an example of the egotistical sublime, and it is good to finish Morse’s book with the sense that he has extended his work beyond such self-conscious invention.

Apocalypse and/or poiesis

A review of '2000 Years of Mayan Literature'

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

by Dennis Tedlock

University of California Press 2010, 465 pages, $29.95, ISBN 9780520232211

This is an account of loss. Dennis Tedlock’s exegetic anthology of two thousand years of Mayan literature, a book a lifetime in the making, slips too snugly onto the shelf. I think of Legge and Müller’s fifty-volume Sacred Books of the East. A project of similar magnitude would be in order for Mesoamerica. What survived of Mayan literature is, however, scant. What survived of Mayan literature is, for this reason, staggeringly significant. Tedlock’s dedication and diligence has provided these remains with the gravity they merit. It is an epic work reconstructed from a circumscribed set of battered manuscripts, objects and stele. Two thousand years are compressed into a book whose guiding principle is to articulate a narrative or connectivity between its fragments. The Mayans, in their obsession with identifying semi-isomorphic relationships between the fragmented happenings of earth and the supreme mechanics of celestial movement, would have been gratified by such a book. What is more, an anthology can do a great amount with an incomprehensive set of materials if its focus is on a certain process of cultural enrichment and harvesting. Focusing on the way in which the Mayans understood and subsequently wrote about their sense of time passing and things happening, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature is more than an anthology, it is a study of the indigenous Mayan dialectic as a poetics. In this respect, it is one of few works on the Maya germane to a study of poetry today.

The dialectic of the Maya is based on a parallelizing view of time and activity. History does not synthesize, people do not hybridize, but instead live in overlap and nonclosure. There is a tremendously energetic primordial fragmentation that coincides with our unresolved moment in the universe. This is expressed in Mesoamerican philosophy by the poetic concept of “burnt water.” Time spheres, albeit fluid, cannot be synthesized but must exist as converging antinomy. Heriberto Yépez, in his book on Charles Olson and Mesoamerica, calls this the “encontronazo vivo,”[1] or the “living smash.” Tedlock is not the first to attempt to represent this dialectical smash in anthology form. The immanence of energy in nonchronological juxtaposition was the principle underpinning the ethnopoetics anthologies of the 1970s, Technicians of the Sacred and America A Prophecy. But, whereas Quasha and Rothenberg’s anthology wanted to open cognitive “lines of recovery and discovery” by mapping the poetries of the Americas as simultaneous,[2] Tedlock’s anthology restricts itself to a collection of Mayan texts and contexts, and (for the most part) articulates the Mayan dialectic by focusing on parallelizing structures within the works themselves. “Overlapping strands” and non-sequent “jump cuts,” key elements in Mayan poetics, speak for a worldview where an image cannot have an isomorphic relationship to the emotion-thought complex inspiring it but, nonetheless, must reflect that complex.[3] Reflection is accomplished by aggregating divergent likenesses within the poem. “It shines, / it shimmers / in the blackness, / in the night.”[4] This is Ezra Pound looking into an obsidian mirror.

The obsidian mirror reflects but distorts, transforms as it transmits. In its deity aspect it was known as Tezcatlipoca to the Aztecs and Obsidian Scepter to the Maya. As a scepter, it is also emblematic of the power wielded by poets. Tedlock delivers this poetic value in a form recognizable to readers of contemporary poetry by a nimble use of lineation. Guided by Luis Enrique Sam Colop’s experimental transcription of the K’iche’ story of human origins, the Popol Vuh, (i.e. instead of his own translation of the same text in 1996) Tedlock emphasizes the parallelizing method of the early eighteenth century Mayan poem by implementing a complementary technique:

All alone, the Maker,
Resplendent Plumed Serpent,
Begetters are in the water.
Light glitters in the place where they stay,
covered in quetzal feathers,
in blue-green.
Thus the name, Plumed Serpent.
They are great sages,
they are great thinkers in their very being.
And of course there is the sky,
and there is also the Heart of Sky.
This is the name of the icon, as it is spoken.[5]

Using line and (dis-)placement to emphasize the redoubling transformation of the Maker to the Makers, of one to a multiplicity, the translation’s mitotic structure reflects the poem’s spiritual credo: that creation is a dialogical process. And, as I will soon discuss, for the Maya there is dialog before creation. This, of course, differentiates their story of creation from the Judeo-Christian story of creation. This difference is also marked by the suggestive use of the word “icon” over “image.” Where the Spanish Christians destroyed heretical icons while glorifying canonical images, this poem rehabilitates the imagistic force of the “icons” of the Maya, of their mirrors and their scepters.

Poetry is central to Mayan religious practice. Creative works are works of Creation. Tedlock offers a rich description of what Mayan writers thought about the relationship between creators and Creation but curbs his language where he might have been more explicit about analogous Western philosophies: the Creators begin with a word (i.e. language) and use their spirit familiars (i.e. genius) to make use of a power called puz or “the power to cut something open with a sharp instrument and reveal what is inside” (i.e. analysis) in order to bring forth new life.[6] This process makes the act of creation less of a fiat and more of a quomodo. And the Mayan Gods, like any creators, indeed deliberate before creating, asking, “How should the sowing be, / and the dawning?”[7] In other words, Quomodo Lux? This process is somewhat akin to Blakean emanationism, where real, holy selves give forth to emanations whom, through poetic analysis and creation (“outward Ceremony”[8]), can be confronted and passed through to return to the eternal vale. (For another take on the relationship between William Blake and the American Indian, see Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man.) The parallels between creators and the Creators afford Mayan poets certain substantiated lexical liberties. They bundle words to form larger concepts (“mountain-valley” for the human body[9]), much like the kennings of Old Norse and Old English poetry (i.e. hron-rad, or “whale-road,” for sea), yet the Mayans used the constructions with subjectivizing implications. They wrote as Gods write. In this respect, they have a nigher parallel in the seventh canto of Vicente Huidobro’s creationist epic, Altazor, where the poet acts as a God in the act of creation, giving birth to words; words whose incomprehensibility confirms their living, material density (“Lunatando / Sensorida”[10]). That is, if they cannot be abstracted to meaning, they must be raw, living things. The Maya, not quite harbingers of creacionismo, nonetheless attributed a power to creativity that was akin to that of the Gods. The power likewise induced a cosmic anxiety. Before creating, the Mayan gods “talked, then they thought, / then they worried.” Puz is also an act of sacrifice. And anybody who knows the rigor of analysis required to write will know the power, anxiety and sacrifice of the act.

Tedlock’s analysis of the texts is structured as an escalating primer in Mayan writing and thought. Beginning with a chapter, “Learning to Read,” he provides a rangy gloss on a variety of “texts,” including calendars, graffiti, jewelry, manuscripts, pottery, oral performance, ornaments, and stele, touching on multiple dimensions of the Mayan episteme, such as agriculture, architecture, art, astronomy, calendric systems, cosmovision, civic organization, historiography, glyph morphology, linguistics, medicine, meteorology, philosophy, poetics, and religion. His method is dialogical. Each chapter builds on, responds to, and modifies the content of that preceding it.

 At the archaeological site of Palenque, in Chiapas, there is an underground aqueduct that runs beneath the temples of the Sixth Sky, the Sun-Eyed Shield, and the Tree of Yellow Corn. Dedicating a chapter to each of the sculpted tablets in the sanctuaries of these temples, Tedlock bears out the narrative which flows, like the water beneath, across that plaza in Palenque. This story tells of the generations of Cormorant or Lady of the Split Place, the celestial mother of the K’inich Janaab’ Pakal or Sun-Eyed Corn Tassel Shield, the father of the Egret Lord, Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar. But, because this is a story stretched out across the space of the plaza, it depends on where you stand in that plaza to determine whether the actions of the Gods bear upon their descendents or whether the actions of the descendents bear upon their Gods. Tedlock frequently refers to this as the “thread [that] runs through both sides of the narrative,” or the “threads of different lengths and compositions [used] to weave [these] tapestries of time,” or “the weaving and unraveling of a textile,”[11] echoing Cecilia Vicuña, for whom “unspun wool is cosmic energy, pure potential.”[12]

The structure of these three chapters as a fabric that modifies itself, weaving the reader back to Cormorant to see her in light of the actions of her children, is a tapestried model of the book’s method. It moves forward while compelling the reader to return and read more deeply. In the first of this chapter triad, we learn that Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar dedicated these temples on (July 21, 690 CE), when his spirit familiar, the constellation centipede (Scorpius), was being crossed by Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon, respectively, the guardian spirits of Cormorant’s triplets and of Cormorant herself. A prime opportunity for Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar to write his story, in the cosmos he could descry confirmation of an ominous text he had received from his ancestors and which his inscription would mirror: a paper stained by the blotted blood of previous rulers, proof of textual embodiment reaching into the time of the Gods. (It was believed that Cormorant had a run a cord through her tongue, whose stains on the paper would offer semantic content for generations to come.) What Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar writes is therefore already written. What unfolds in the following chapters is the story that has already been told and retold by the sky, by the bloodstains, by the stele, and by Tedlock. Literally a text extending from blood to cosmos and back.

In its textile method of approach, 2000 Years emphasizes the tactile dimension of these texts. For the Maya, writing was an extension of body. Cormorant pours blood from her mouth onto paper (a direct transfer of the oral to the textual) that she passes down to her descendents, who do the same, in order to communicate with each other by reading the auguries of the bloodstained, speaking text. This is semantic density. A similar density is found in the Late Classic Mayan pottery which shows examples of what, as Tedlock notes, is today called concrete poetry. “Abandoning sentence structure in favor of a cosmic diagram,” he writes, “the closed code of writing has been opened to the world.”[13] “Lingering on the threshold between sight and sound,”[14] Mayan writers cannulized semantic weight into the shape of words by using their shapes to inflect and pronounce new meanings for the words. In a way, the very concept of words does not satisfy for thinking about the freedom by which Mayan writers could move between visual, logographic and syllabic content, bringing all these together in a linguistic directionality that was unique in that it was nonlinear. Like cities archaeoastronomically designed to highlight, reflect and comment upon celestial movement, concrete Mayan writing designs its materials to weigh in on its message while the message acquires greater density, mass and meaning by the introduction of design.

The weight of language, one of the most distinct elements of classical Mayan thought, is sadly one that was gradually lost in the period of the Conquista. We can trace its diminishment in the attempted standardization and abstraction of glyphs in the Chilam Balam of Maní (page 249 in 2000 Years). J. H. Prynne, in his “Note on Metal,” has pinned the historical moment at which European languages began to lose weight. This is due to the increased abstraction of value.[15] I see a similar reduction of weight in these post-Conquista glyphs. They no longer follow directly from body. They are more abstract. Tedlock is keen to point this out and, taking into consideration that the book provides a comparative context within Mayan literature, readers are offered the educative opportunity to notice it for themselves.

Nevertheless the Conquista was not the end of Mayan literature. Many important texts were transcribed long after the Europeans had arrived. The single surviving manuscript of the Popol Vuh, for instance, was written in 1701. I suspect that at this point when the Gods worry in creating humans they might have the catastrophe of European contact somewhere in their minds. This is at least the context for the text: Mayans writing about creation after the apocalypse had already occurred. What Norman Brown, who wrote of “apocalyptic syncretism,” might have identified as the secret revelation of these texts: “or where the two waters meet, the water of life and the water of death.”[16] Burnt water. In analyzing the Mayan story of creation, Tedlock consults a K’iche’ daykeeper, Andrés Xiloj Peruch, whose commentary suggests that the creation of the earth is trussed by its unraveling: “It’s just the way it is right now: there are clouds, then the clouds part, piece by piece, and now the sky is clear … Haven’t you seen that when the water passes, a rainstorm, and then it clears, a vapor comes out from among the trees? The clouds come out from among the mountains, among the trees.”[17] The earth is revealed in the dissolution of its elements. It is born in revelation. But to be revealed it must be disintegrated. The earth “arose suddenly, just like a cloud, / just like a mist now forming, / unfolding.”[18] The textile unraveling: life woven into its devastation. That is its poiesis. A Mayan poet is ch'amay, a harvester of mist. The harvest, the great loss. A harvester of mist is likewise a Mayan poet. In the preface to his 1978 Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians, Tedlock wrote that “the reopening of possibilities in our language” will arise from an openness to the traditions of “the same continent where we are now learning, however slowly, how to become natives.”[19] Regardless of whether such naturalization is even possible, the challenge of attending to indigenous experimental literary models and methods as indigenous to this continent continues to be a tremendous and tremendously rewarding challenge for twenty-first century poetry and poetics. The reopening of poetic possibilities continues.



[1] Heriberto Yépez, El Imperio de la N eomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007), 187.

[2] Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, eds., America A Prophecy (New York: Random House, 1973).

[3] Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1–3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 315.

[6] Ibid., 309.

[7] Ibid., 317.

[8] William Blake, “The Laocoön,” The Complete Poetry and Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 274.

[9] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[10] Vicente Huidobro, Altazor, o el viaje en paracaídas (Madrid: Petròpolis, 2010), 92.

[11] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 65, 79.

[12] Cecilia Vicuña, El Quipu Menstrual.

[13] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 119, 116.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] J. H. Prynne, “A Note on Metal [1968],” Poems (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997), 127–131.

[16] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 78, 81.

[17] Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[18] Ibid., 317.

[19] Tedlock, Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), xi. (italics mine)

Cookies and vortices

A review of 'The Madeleine Poems'

The Madeleine Poems

The Madeleine Poems

by Paul Legault

Omnidawn 2009, 72 pages, $15.95, ISBN 9781890650483

And I begin to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished.
— Marcel Proust, Swan’s Way

It’s hard to think about the Madeleine of Paul Legault’s The Madeleine Poems without thinking about Proust’s madeleine cookie in Swan’s Way. Proust’s madeleine serves as a type of wormhole that propels the narrator through time and space to an otherwise irretrievable memory. Legault’s Madeline, however, is more of a vortex, a presence that presides over the collection, which simultaneously gathers and vaporizes the poem’s subject matter, leaving essences, memories, shadows. Take for example, these lines (from “Madeleine as the Homosexuals”):

They have not lost each other as we will expect them to
These were their names: Paul, Gabriel, or Lance (16)

and midway through the poem:

Or have they a language
or a symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation (…)

They have
fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of

salt into water. This was
the place of them. (16)

In both instances, Legault’s lines form panoply of presence and absence wherein memory is simultaneously negated even as it phosphoresces in the foreground of his language. This seems present in the poem’s opening line, where past and present are oxymoronically mixed via Legault’s application of tenses. “They have not,” roots the initial thought in the present continuous, but the preceding future perfect “as we will expect them to” drives the line into an ambiguous future, creating a lingual mobius strip in which “Paul, Gabriel, and Lance” are “lost” to each other while simultaneously held together in the amber of the poem’s continuous present. This is indicative of the collection of a whole. One finds that many of the poems and or their constituent parts serve as markers or beacons afloat on a tumultuous sea of time (“They have / fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of / salt into water. This was / the place of them.”), or perhaps, more specifically, within the Madeline vortex that encapsulates and holds the poem’s content in synchronicity. Madeleine becomes the presence that holds and preserves “Paul, Gabriel and Lance,” even as it replaces them as the “symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation.” 

Here is Proust again, from Swan’s Way:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

With this passage in mind, Proust’s madeleine cookie seems more congruous with Legault’s. Though the cookie’s presence is wormhole-like (it collapses the time and space between two disparate points into a singularity) and Legault’s Madeleine vortex, panoptic in the manner it enables one to view a cross-section of a continuous present (albeit in a manner which reorganizes and or obliterates the experience from which the poem came), the two share a similar resultant effect: to recreate a “vast structure of recollection” (from “Madeleine as Crusoe”):


It shows it forth—both

the possibility of non-
existence and logic, at once the two

of them that can depict this
wide menagerie of things: yes or no,

and of picture of things: yes or no,

yes or no, yes or no, yes—
burgundy. (49)

Here, the aims of The Madeleine Poems are embodied, beginning with the section’s opening line: “It shows forth it — both.” Initially, in the beginning of this line, the pronoun “it” is used referentially, that is, to refer to an objective, unnamed thing outside the poem. But after the recalibrating em dash, the word “both” comes to represent the presence of the referred to “it” as well as its absence, “It shows it …” Thusly “it” is given a miraculous, simultaneous, impossible status of presence/absence, or rather, perhaps as it’s more succinctly put in the poems final line, “burgundy.”

“Burgundy,” as it is put forth in the final line, contains many of the contradictions of the preceding lines, making them seem less impossible with regards to the aforementioned “impossible status of presence/absence.” Colors contain no ideas. They offer reflection, they bare connotation, but they are nothing more than phenomena. In this sense, “burgundy” is similar to the overarching Madeleine-vortex in the manner in which it summates the “presence/absence” of the “it,” the poem’s ostensible subject. “Burgundy,” aside from its humorous application as a sort of unabashedly clunky deus ex machina, elegantly reconstitutes the poem’s subject matter (the “it”). Burgundy, the word, cannot replace that actual color; it can only serve as a marker for our own recollection of the color. What is important, here, is that the word brings forth the color and not the other way around. Because of its placement at the end of the poem, “burgundy” sends one into a meditation on the color burgundy and all its mysterious associations and connotations, just as the madeleine cookie sends Proust’s narrator back to his childhood memory with all its felicity and charm.

While the comparison between Proust and Legault may be, at best, an intellectual exercise, it sheds light on the overall aim of The Madeleine Poems: to recreate an architecture in which mercurial experience can be reconstituted and preserved and in some cases amplified, an aim that is full of pathos, heroism, and beauty.

File under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on

A review of 'Electro Þerdix'

Electro Þerdix

Electro Þerdix

by Christopher Funkhouser

Least Weasel 2011, 43 pages, $9.00, ISBN chapbook

Christopher Funkhouser is a poet engaged in exploring the multiple possibilities of digital language. That involves not only writing pieces using word-processing software but also sound-design and the composition of visual pieces in video—and not rarely he mixes both media. File him under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on.

Besides this intense creative output, Funkhouser is a serious and attentive researcher of his own poetical and artistical genealogy. An excellent example of his deep research is Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995, where the author displays comprehensive erudition. His knowledge with the most interesting tradition of modernist poetics, particularly that one engaged into exploring on different levels the artistic drive towards experimentation, is intimate. His paideuma brings together diverse sources and approaches such as OuLiPo, concrete poetry, cut-up ontology and anthropophagy.

Obviously, this bio-bibliographical introduction wouldn’t be necessary if you’re familiar with the changes in perception, thinking and cultural patterns provoked by digital media. Texts like Electro Þerdix are self-referent and as long as one is acquainted with postmodern communication systems, one will easily recognise la règle du jeu in action and recognise the whole textual scenario in which this work takes place. These texts reflect so much the ambivalencies of our times — particularly towards the social relevance of writing — that we’re caught in the middle of them like we’re caught in the streams of broken narratives of social networks, in the SOS signs implicit in cynical but inconsequential tweetying and pop philosophy (to make sure anything can be metamorphosed into marchandise pour les masses), in the paradox of velocity being reified and sold in the global market.

Electro Þerdix is a welcome book due not only to its aesthetical achievements (and they’re not a few but actually quite many that make the book simply one of the best references when the subject is the direct link between digital language and poetry) but also to the field of discussion that it opens up in front of our conceptual machinery for reading poetry.

Aesthetically, it’s impossible not to notice the fractured and/or hypercubic rhythms. They compose a series of truly interesting experiments in phrase-building and collapsing, in a way very similar to drawing and modelling a sound wave in musical software, via the attack and decay commands, so that the rhythmical assymetry produces not only graphical results but also musical occurrences. It’s like the phonemes have been electronically induced by the broken beats which freefloat on the page. As long as the results are as important as the process, the whole set of poems surely functions as a sort of pocket digital Gesamtkunstwerk, where one finds assymetrical rhythm patterns, sonic and phonetic design, graphical dance of words and unusual imagery acting upon one an other.

Those texts remind me of another highly experimental work by Funkhouser, his blog, Freeholderville. There, he piles feedback-driven layers of a smoky narrative — also a worthy achievement in terms of aleatory narrative string, composed from selected blog posts written by people in his region.

But what strikes me most in Electro Þerdix is the general sense of cut. As the majority of the raw material is — let’s say — borrowed words (or samples, if you want to establish since this very moment the relations that are so evident between Funkhouser’s verbal opus and fringe electronic+rock music, particularly of the improvisational kind), one is necessarily striken by the absence of an autorship as traditionally perceived and dictated by hegemonic western culture paradigm. In Electro Þerdix one finds an operator of multiple choices whose final montages take over the read through the pungence of his absence. It’s really like bassplaying, since when you play the bass you’re obliged to not only produce sound but also silence — or not be there.

This sense of an onipresent Absence is probably tricked by the use of what I like to call Language Black Box, the real motif of the book. Some word combinations conduct sinister mindscapes and I dare say it’s as difficult to translate some of these poems as it is to translate into any human language a fragment by Joyce (I know it sounds a little bit out of context here, but consider it specifically in function of linguistic density) or the most radical cut-up experiments by William S. Burroughs. But “into” (id est: in their nucleus) these texts you won't find a Presence — as you find in “automatic writing” (where you supposedly end up finding Unconscious as The Other) or in Burroughsian cut-ups (where you risk to end up finding The Other as Word in the state of virus). On the contrary, these texts compound something like a book of prayers for a universe where the idea of transcendence was devastatingly swept away but poetry has survived as a matter of possibility (even organically speaking). Just don’t think this is tragic, because it definitely is not. As long as the samples are wildly skewed, the slant of meaning comes up with new possibilities of what seemed to be an exhausted system. Poetry has survived.

That’s the reason why humour plays a particular place in Funkhouser’s works. To counterbalance the angst driven by the sinister LANGUAGE BLACK BOX motif which envelopes creations like Electro Þerdix, one has to explore a work such as his transcreation of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances.” It’s supposed to be a transcreation of one of Baudelaire’s most celebrated poems — itself a sort of remix of Swedenborgian and gnostic tones into a fresh brand new French tune. We know that transcreation means not translation but essentially self-permition for creation on behalf of the transcreator. We also know that the exercise of this self-permission, the exercise of this liberty, is what truly interests in this kind of semiotical intervention — and eventually has its influence on the result of being or not being a failed communicational experiment. Obviously, it can devolve into a trick (more or less aesthetically convincing) and even become a consolidated formula.

The final result of the recreation of “Correspondances” is puzzling: the image of a sinister duck and a sort of subtitle (like an artifact fallen from a silent and nostalgic galaxy lost in time) following the image. It’s like a twisted drink since the correspondence is not where it is supposed to be (creating a strange and disturbing ressonance between iconic information and verbal information), it’s somewhere else, de-conditioning reading patterns and frustrating cognitive expectations. It has a lot to do with de-assembling a formulae, since “correspondence” became sort of a formulae/recipe from the late XIXth poets onwards.

As already detected in the discursive texts, it’s surprisingly interesting to notice how a single image (which is the poem, or its transcreation) can retain so many connections and iconic-verbal puns. E.g.: Lautréamont (proto punk-rock hero for maudit poets) is inscribed in it (through a pun — Mal the error => Maldoror), and you also have a duck (a quite weird one) instead of an albatross (a typical Baudelarian bird). It's like consciously denying or erasing the easiest and most banal levels of intertextuality predictable in a transcreation.

Of course, this “impertinent duck” says “uh oh” and never “never more.” And all these references and signs are anthropophagised in a style of transcreation whose results remind me directly of the Primeiro caderno de poesia do aluno Oswald de Andrade (not by coincidence the self-titled book of a student and so much a testimony of the contacts of the poet with the LANGUAGE BLACK BOX) — at least for its iconoclastic humor, its high level of semiotic compression and the quest for fresh language. This makes things not easier — but harder, since Funkhouser is an attentive reader of Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, and is fully aware of the aesthetic consequences of the Brazilian author’s cultural project.

A few words about two points I deem medullar in any discussion concerned with Electro Þerdix are still necessary.

The first one is the title, with its extravagant typographical word-shaping (Þerdix) and its portmanteau ambivalencies (Perdix being both a bird, a medicine, and a bit of mythology and having its meaning radically metamorphosed with the addiction of that strange mineral character). The appearence of the letter thorn (Þ) remits so much to a techno-fetishist computer language sign (impression stressed by the word “electro” by its side) as to an archaic (which in fact it is) and totemic language symbol. As the hero of a German expressionist novel says “P for Pumpernickel”, one can surely say “Þ for Þerdix”. And that’s where Funkhouser’s creative output is placed — in between: aware and reverential to a certain modernist and post-modernist lignage but causing effects beyond it and its limitations.

The second and last point is about the fact that Electro Þerdix displays some texts written collectively. The superb art work also shows a collaborative interaction between the visual artists Amy Hufnagel and Karen Pava Randall, in which they converge and combine their processes and approaches to image making. This particularity is an interesting move from the isolationism currently in force among digital experimentalists. The effort for placing writing in a collective perspective is something that shouldn’t be underestimated since it’s one of the paths that seems to signal a possible reinsertion of poetry in a social context and might lead to a horizon of regaining social relevance for the act of writing.

The letters of the alphabet and letters to the dead

A review of 'Two'



by Paul Vangelisti

Talisman House 2010, 91 pages, $14.95, ISBN 9781584980773

 I: Two slim volumes

Paul Vangelisti’s newest collection, Two, despite being only ninety some pages long, is comprised of two distinct, chapbook length sequences. The cover design reflects this by superimposing the black numeral “2” over a yellow “Two” on a bright red background. But the mood of the contents is much more subdued. Maybe characterizeable as a muted palette blend of the cover colors—resulting in a quiet, brooding Burgundy with glints of winter sun?

The two sections of Two are very different, but what they do have in common is a quizzical maturity on the cusp of aging. A sense that memory’s a meager compensation for what’s lost. And that the better part of what’s to be gained in life, has probably already been gained. This isn’t “late life” work. Vangelisti has only just turned sixty-five and the material in Two goes back some years. The tone seems more reminiscent of that George Simenon memoir, When I was Old, which ends around the age of sixty with Simenon’s nagging sense of mistrust for what may come. In contrast with the same author’s late life Intimate Memoirs. That Simenon tome, despite some true intervening miseries, ends with the now really old storyteller, intimately and serenely consoled and warmed by his young Italian housekeeper-mistress.

II: A is an Angel

Letters and Letters

 Alabaster, the first half of Two consists of twenty-six musings loosely inspired by a sequence of alphabetically sequenced words — from Alabaster … through Pall, Quotidian, Reliquary, Sacristy, Tabernacle, Unction, Voluntary, Xystus, Yes, Zuchettto.

 The second portion of Two, is cryptically entitled A Capable Hand, Or Maps for a Lost Dog. This section is comprised of XXXIV Roman numeral designated posthumous letters to Adriano Spatola, an Italian poet and close friend of Vangelisti who died suddenly in 1988. From a poetic standpoint their friendship was deepened by translation.  Vangelisti and Spatola each translated each other, and Spatola introduced Vangelisti to other contemporary avant-garde Italian poets, who he translated and published over the years.

In Two, Spatola seems both a friend still mourned and a friendship still cultivated. In 1996, Vangelisti began a large project — the translation of Spatola’s collected poems. Although Vangelisti had translated and published a number of the Spatola pieces previously, he set out to begin afresh, rereading and retranslating rather than simply revising. The project was assisted by a translation grant from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the result, Adriano Spatola The Position of Things: Collected Poems 1961–1992, published by Green Integer in 2008, won the prestigious American Academy of Poets Raiziss / de Palchi prize in 2010.

Translation as Conversation

The letters to Spatola in Two represent a ten-year plus, ongoing conversation with the friend Vangelisti was simultaneously translating. But perhaps, “letter” isn’t the best descriptive. Each piece begins and ends with a stanza of poetry. As in V:

How heavily the foot is accented,
don’t let the message stop you
this far into the service,
morning has been sentenced to love

 This is followed by a prose reminiscence of attending a Christmas Mass at St. Peter & Paul’s in San Francisco offered by an Italian-accented priest:

“Christ,” said the Italian priest at the Chinese Mass on Christmas morning, “died on the cross because he ‘lafed’ …”  The entire Mass was in Chinese, except for a few minutes of the sermon in heavily accented English. I was there with my father. It had been many years since I set foot in church. I couldn’t keep the tears out of my eyes the more Chinese I heard. Only the English stopped me. God is ‘laf’, said the priest repeating the Christmas message. When the service began, I stood in the pew glaring straight ahead, a loaf of bread we had just bought under my arm. My father kept repeating something like ‘amon’ along with the Chinese until I asked to leave. Amon, Egyptian god of life and reproduction, revealed as a man with a ram’s head.” Christ’s”, concluded the priest, “is the kingdom of heaven ‘an dearth’.

All those years at the kitchen table,
only mothers and fathers asked to leave,
there with a loaf of bread under my arm
until just now your laughter catches me.

At a recent reading from Two, Vangelisti explained that in this portion he wanted to present both a prose and poetry version of the same piece. What I’m also struck by, especially in the multilingual aspects of the piece quoted above, is the parallel between the process of translating poetry: The migration from the original poem to a prose “trot”, a sort of conversation with the poet you’re translating. Then, after the necessary internalization, a rebirth as a poem in a new language.

A recurring alphabet and recurring letters

Those familiar with Vangelisti’s previous work, especially readers of his selected poems, Embarrassment of Survival will quickly recall both the themes of an alphabet sequence (Aleph Again 1999) and of letters (Villa 1991). Aleph Again, in fact, is dedicated to Spatola and begins:

A is an angel who wants absolutely nothing. She looks elegant in torn trousers and almost never answers the phone. She seldom speaks, especially when spoken to. Right now A’s on Adriano’s lap making him laugh.

III: Stevens and Williams

Two lines of descent?

This is obviously an oversimplification, but for explication it might be helpful to think of two lines of descent from two early century modernists for two approaches to contemporary American poetry. One, coming from Wallace Stevens, tending towards the abstract, the cerebral, conceptual. A lyrics of ideation. The practitioners of language oriented poetry would fall into this camp.

The other lineage, descending from William Carlos Williams, tends toward more concrete, narrative, discursive images. A poetics in which all other aspects are subordinate to communication. A broader, more transparently outgoing, reader-centric group. Vangelisti, as a poet and also as an editor has always seemed to manage to have a foot in both camps and still walk, even dance, without stumbling.

Alabaster, the alphabet sequence that constitutes the first half of Two, tilts toward the aesthetics of ideation as opposed to imagery. “Tilts” rather than embraces that aesthetic, because while Vangelisti may flirt with a “language” aesthetic, his willingness to wholeheartedly embrace it seems always undercut by his sense of humor. While humor may be subtle, it’s never hermetic. It mocks self absorption and can only live by communicating.

Alabaster opens with an epigraph by Ray Di Palma that seems a good summation of the attitude Vangelisti wants to explore with this sequence: “Hey, Presto, where’s the elephant? / And what have you done with the other half of the girl?”

A matter of form.

In an after-note to the alphabet sequence Vangelisti talks about “moving outside the approved forms toward a different vision of language, an alphabetic burlesque of constraint” where “the text resists with words speaking in time and place, at once language’s conscience and its promised land.” This last is, for me, a maybe overly cerebral pronouncement. But what follows quickly redeems it: “To paraphrase Orson Welles, this must be Los Angeles; my horoscope at breakfast told me to choose words carefully when speaking to myself.”

It took several poems to spot what Vangelisti meant by “moving outside … approved forms” into “an alphabetic burlesque of constraint.” The alphabet is present not only in the sequenced titles, but in two other ways. Each poem consists of twenty-six lines. And each line begins with a sequenced letter. As in the “ABCDE” opening sentence of the poem Alabaster.

Almost anything between joy and survival, / both anxiously here to needle a tragic bearing, / comfortable besides with things, speechless things face up or / down, commonly lavender or sometimes blue with that/ everyday delirium born from the briefest pleasure …

And its “VWXYZ” ending with: "Various unfulfilled desires exposed in a remodeling / without vain hope beyond profit, a lump, a spasm in the night, / xeric, that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt, / zealous you find that inch of satisfaction in contriving."

Into or Out of a Form?

Inveterate sonneteers sometimes remark that an unanticipated conclusion of a poem, even the sonnet’s turn, often occurs to them as an adjunct to the rhyme scheme—that in trying to find a rhyme something new and elemental can appear out of nowhere. In trying to find metaphors for the difficulty of translating formal poetry into formal poetry, I once threw out the concept that poetry was: “language that talks back to you with something that can’t be said any other way.” And that the craft of formalism required writing “out of” rather than “into” a form.

Although both camps would resist the comparison, I’ve often thought of the new formalists as simplistic second cousins of the language poets. At their extremes, both schools share a self conscious addiction to theory that can defeat practice by stifling the germ of poetry. The danger for the retro neo-formalist is that of writing into rather than out of a form. Of settling for obvious rhymes and metronomic meter, because the form rather than the poem becomes the goal. The danger for the language poet, I think, is a coy opacity, an aristocratic refusal to name anything by its common name. This also can remove huge energy sources.

So has Vangelisti — writing language oriented poetry with his new (as opposed to received) form — managed to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of both schools?

Is Vangelisti writing into or out of his new form? I would say, mostly out of. How else could an obscure adjective like xeric (deficient in moisture) marvelously appear? And is xeric’s languagesque characterization as “that mauve citizen of ritual and doubt” too opaque? I think it’s not only the smile of burlesque that saves it, but the weight of common, charged language in the, albeit, oblique image. 

If there’s any criticism I might have of the way Vangelisti navigates the triple-alphabet concept, it’s that to fully enjoy some of the poems it helps to be conscious of the form. But in others, such as Hermitage, the lines work without any consciousness of form:

A bit like I came, I saw, I got swankered in this place / best Asia Minor of the intellect money and fear / can buy. Kiss me once and kiss me twice and the third O the third / doesn’t count for much besides nostalgia for bread buttered / evenly down both sides

Or Sacristy:

About beauty they often had so little to tell us / beyond a laconic smile that took your breath away, / covering belatedly the occasion of whim left / desperately coveting even the glimpse of a faux heaven

You might, by the way, wonder how Vangelisti handled twenty-six xs. There aren’t, after all, that many x words. As he observed in his 1999 Alephs Again:

X is too imposing for words. There’s only one under X in my thesaurus, X-shaped, and that’s too chiasmal.

Chiasm another word I had to look up, an x-shaped intersection or crossing. Merriam Webster online offers that it rhymes with orgasm, phantasm, sarcasm. See how easy it is to get caught up in this stuff? But as far as X-words in the twenty-six-poem sequence, Vangelisti conveniently uses his unique form’s counterpart of off-rhyme: words like expectations, exfoliation, exaltation. Although in other poems. he does manage:

x-rayed with their derbies, fedoras, even children’s messy heads


X looks delirious with longing for your dreamy boulevards.

Not to mention a sort of “XYZ — burlesque” tour de force in the ending of Yes:

Exactly X willing the ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-a ling-a / yes with your work and someone who loves you genuinely much / zip zap, pretty blue skylight outpacing the elemental.


Smack in the midst of all this wordplay, halfway through the alphabet, unexplained and plaintive, is Misericord. A title word which Vangelisti notes at the bottom of the poem has two meanings:

“1. A bracket attached to the underside of a hinged seat in a church stall, against which a standing person may lean. 2. A narrow dagger used in medieval times to deliver the death stroke to a seriously wounded knight.”

Misericord breaks the sequence with 26 lines of un-patterned verse and accessible, evocative images. Going back to the Stevens / Carlos Williams metaphor: A good portion of the alphabet sequence challenges the reader’s attention, not unusual for a descendant in the Stevens thread. Misericord on the other hand is an exception that whispers in what might be the reader’s own voice. Misericord begins:

All along, beautiful mountains may crumble but our love
isn’t at all where it ought to be holding up the whole
damn baggage — stars below in the street, the echoing house,
the shimmering O my desert, a small door, a gentle rain
twice blest, heartbreak or lemons in the fog, those graceless
repetitions plus or minus thirty-two. Where is the harm,
where the tenderness in losing oneself for so many years
in lost causes, in winning forgeries for endowing
a life of rime? My littlest sister, when just a wrinkle …

And ends:

What do you see besides a guy who’s been winning and losing
the territory for too many years, who hasn’t forgotten
even if it took his appetite more than fifty years to
remember to? Have any of us, even in this
second-hand city, any idea of how you break my heart.

IV: Spatola again

Ghosts and Epigraphs

The second section of Two also opens with an epigraph, three actually, and in contrast to the Di Palma epigraph, they’re almost funereal:
The first from Dante’s New Life: “I would give expression to my grief and send it to this friend of mine, so that it would seem I had written it for him.”
Then, a quote from a Spatola’s Stalin Poem: “silence is no better than lying.”
And a Jack Spicer line: “We ghosts, lovers, and casual strangers to the poem”.
So there’s not much surprise when the first prose conversation with Spatola opens:

Look Andriano, it’s what I said to them: the dead prefer restaurants when they’re closed. A Sunday morning after a rain, restaurants like the one we were sitting in, ran along the avenue like banks or Presbyterian churches with their parking lots empty and that postcard blue sky. They like bread almost exclusively, in fact I’ve never heard of them eating anything else. This time it looked like both of them might smile. What do you think, I said, that the dead will swallow anything? Just because they listen and seem to agree with whatever we say doesn’t mean they’re gullible. It’s just good manners

For me, this conjured echoes of Rilke’s Orpheus Sonnet #6:1: “At night, when you go to bed, never leave bread, never leave milk on the table. It draws the dead.”* The opening epigraphs were appropriate: This is a big, traditional theme and, as Joseph Brodsky once observed, we write as much, if not more, to impress our poetic forebears as posterity. Isn’t poetry of a certain ambition, always an implicit conversation with the dead?

Still, the unpretentious conversational tone of Misericord carries forward in the second portion of Two. And why not? These are, after all, quiet conversation with a dead friend and translatee. Sometimes we’re not sure who’s translating whom. From II:

What was it Pasolini called death, “the alibi of Catholic slaves?” Writing must make you uncomfortable. So Catholic of me. And what about translation? Think of all the days and years: to fly 7000 miles and ride several trains, to arrive at a river in a valley at the foot of mountains, to sit in a millhouse before a glass of wine and a poem and start translating

Who do we talk to when we talk to dead people?

Whether or not you believe in an afterlife or ghosts or lingering protoplasm, after you reach a certain age you find parents and close friends you’ve lost never seem to really depart your dreams. I guess there’s a difference between conjuring the dead while awake or in dreams, but I’m not sure what it might be. And, really, if it happens — either dreaming or daydreaming — isn’t conversation with a dead person the only truly guileless conversation you can have? We, don’t so much lie, but — can really never manage the unembellished truth with our living friends, lovers, parents, kids. And we do lie to ourselves all the time.

There’s a certain generosity between the dead and the living that seems courted by the funeral banquet. I remember my mother’s banquet outside Queen of Heaven cemetery in Chicago; a sad-eyed, exquisitely gentle Mexican waiter urging a comfort bowl of mashed potatoes on me while fraternally squeezing my shoulder. Did I sense my mother was passing the bowl when I realized all our petty, generational quarrels had not only evaporated like incense, but were henceforth impossible?

It’s only in discussions with the dead that complete openness is possible. The visiting ghost understands us beyond any possible designs on us, an alter ego that only asks to be acknowledged. And if, to boot, that ghost is a poet who brings poems to be translated, then he, indeed may seem to be something akin to Orpheus in Rilke’s Sonnet 7:1:

one of the enduring messengers. A friend,
who deep within the portals of the dead, still
offers the glorious fruit and the brimming bowl.*

Or as Vangelisti’s II continues:

It was as if this game of metaphrase and two-mindedness, played at your kitchen table or mine, continents and years apart, came before or sometimes replaced how are you, what have you been doing, how does it feel to be living alone? Sure Pasolini postured and exaggerated, but don’t we all when we’re alive? Did I mention, by the way, that I had been hired to teach creative writing at Occidental College? Where your “Seduction Seducteur,” if you recall, was done as a dance. It’s a private college, founded some 120 years ago, Presbyterian in intent, meant to spawn upright, successful young men and women. Robinson Jeffers attended in 1904, brought here by his father … The old man picked the college for moral reputation … Anyway, Jeffers attended though I don’t think graduated before running off with a friend’s wife. So we translated from a day or so after we first met, April 2, 1975 to that last stifling afternoon in Sant’llario, drinking Pernod and repairing someone else’s translation, Thursday, July 21, 1988. Time being at the moment parenthetical, I write in English without translation. Odd how in death a word seems more than what was available in life. Animal in the dusk, is it you or me with a house and a job and the right wine glasses finally?

By the way, did I mention the need
for parentheses, like the possibility
of running off with a friend’s wife,
untainted by time after time of
replacing how are you with what
are you going to do with that bottle?

And what was Adriano saying all this time?

Ghosts, after all, visit us from a place we’re in no hurry to get to, and their end of the conversation isn’t always all that sunny. Their very presence is a memento mori. Maybe to get a feel for the poet Vangelisti was talking to, and for some of the messages he was delivering, it might be well to give Adriano Spatola the last word.

Vangelisti chose a recurring phrase from Spatola’s, circa 1970, poem The Next Sickness (La prossima malata) as the title of his collected translations. The second and third stanzas of that six stanza poem seem to serve as well as anything as an example of Spatola as poet and Vangelistis as translator, in duet.

2. consider first of all the position of things
the common cold the saw mill screeching in your ears
the syllabic clamor of water from the faucet
presence and absence shortness of breath digestion
a wet body’s odor is synonymous with perversion
or excessive prudence or a spark in the retina
something beats on the temples we must open the head

3. consider first of all the position of things
you’ve become cordial you’re not complaining you smile
behind the house the grass begins to grow
with its sweet lice green like the green of the grass
this itching that you scratch is called spring
jeweler and hydrochloric acid silver and clay
be careful of drafts to the heart to your thoughts


* Rilke: my own translations