An identity in relation

Anne Tardos on absence

I Am You

I Am You

Anne Tardos

Salt 2008, 200 pages, $16.95, ISBN 9781844714421

Grief is the most deeply personal condition, and yet it is also the most universal, extending even beyond human experience to the animal kingdom. To write out of grief is equally to find a way out of it. In the curious case of Anne Tardos’s I Am You, it is also to affirm loss as foundational, or rather to affirm that there is no foundation, to affirm that the removal of the other by whom one’s life has been shaped and sustained reveals an emptiness at the very root of existence.

As the Buddhists say, there is no foundation, but something is always given. Or as Anne Tardos writes: “I try and make good use of what life throws at me” (83).

I Am You is not so much a tale of grief as it is a record of the process of emergence from grief into new life. Tardos writes:

At first it’s the death you need to deal with
That incomprehensible act
It’s all fine and good for you to be dead, but how am I going to carry you about? (87)

In a series of outbursts — cantankerous, humorous, loving, detached, foolish — Tardos delineates her experience of a return to life three years after the death of her husband, the poet Jackson Mac Low. Each statement is surrounded by white space — on the page, in time, of the mind — a blankness that gives birth to the occasion of the present moment and then withdraws it just as fast as the eye follows, the voice changes, and the hand turns the page. The pain of lack gives birth to form as possibility:

We need oblivion to escape oblivion
We need plants around us, and large pockets of time
wherein nothing much happens

Then maybe something can happen. (5)

In “Letting Go: A Poem in 100 Parts,” Tardos explains her method up front:

Each page is connected to the next by the
initial appearance of the phrase or concept
of “letting go,” in its various forms.

The rest of the page is free.


For M. (31)

In her perceptive introduction to I Am You, Marie Buck notes the inferred collapse of “For M” into “form” (xiii). The formal constraint of “Letting Go” is a framework for the free play of ideas. Yet the greater boundary between life and death pulls at the writing, forcing it up against the limits of language again and again. Written out of crisis, the work bears the undeniable mark of necessity.

The sudden, permanent absence of the other causes the self to bleed into the recently vacated space — “I am you” — and form a new, hybrid personality. Hybridity feels monstrous. The image of the monster permeates the text:

The monster husband takes my hand

And it feels right (40)

[. . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Intense and prolonged anticipation will either let go of the monster husband’s hand
Or tighten its grip around it and perhaps frighten it (42)

Fear of monsters is common in young children. The loss of the other reduces the subject to a childlike emotional state. The hybrid speaks; the self experiences expression as originating in the other:

What did you just say? I could hear your voice, but couldn’t get the words (56)

Loneliness feels bottomless:

No amount of letting go seems enough (64)

There is, no doubt, a confessional aspect of this work, as Tardos plumbs the depths of despair and longing in ways that are at times almost sensationally personal. Yet this is not your garden-variety, 50s–60s confessionalism, for it is couched within the contexts of process-based, art-making practice and clear-headed philosophical inquiry by a multilingual pan-European-American performance poet of considerable accomplishment. The rapid alternation of spontaneous wit, philosophical depth, and emotional plaint create a platform upon which the truth of the condition of the writing is felt all the more directly, more starkly than if it were expressed solely in the confessional mode, which can so easily become overbearing. Here, by contrast, the reader is respectfully permitted a certain distance that allows the text to breathe like the living thing it actually is.

The result is a kind of philosophical investigation into the multiplicity of time: “Everything rotates around the enormous struggle it is / to get from one moment to the next” (77). When death puts an end to life, it feels to the survivor like a cutting-off — “a breach … a rupture” — that is replicated in fractal by the discontinuous succession of moment-to-moment existence. Alternately, by an act of abstraction the perception of time collapses in on itself:

The moment lets go of the moment and suddenly past present and future are all one (43)

The poet/reader hurtles forward in time. The poem traces the vicissitudes of its own trajectory.

Will I let go of this poem and move on to another one?
Why should I?
Is there something wrong with this poem?

Self-reference is usually frowned upon.
So be it.

I’ll go to a hundred.
Then I’ll stop.
Stop what?
And what is this?
I have no idea.

Words fly like bullets tonight.
I shoot myself in the foot with them.

I try and make good use of what life throws at me. (83)

It occurs to me that I Am You is at once both a loving tribute to Jackson Mac Low the man and an act of liberation from Mac Low’s poetics. Jackson’s work is an epitome of adherence to method, in his case the myriad strategies and processes by which he generated his poems and performances. Fundamental to his poetics was a rejection of self-expression as a model for art-making. This scrupulous stance was based in the rich variety of his studies — Aristotelian logic, Buddhism, anarchism, Kurt Schwitters, John Cage, the Living Theater, Fluxus, Language writing, you name it. Central to his practice was the elimination of the ego as primary determinant.

Of course, Mac Low’s remarkable career, the consistency of his focus and dedication, the prolific output and continuous inventiveness despite all odds of economy and cultural hegemony, would not have been possible without the driving force of a powerful ego. In I Am You, Anne Tardos seems to be trying out proscribed forms of expression in an almost violent transgression of her uniquely intimate education.

I feel I’m getting into a mess by coming out into the open
By coming out into the open, I find myself ever more unsure and vulnerable (86)

I Am You reminds us of something we know but often forget: that identity is formed in relation to others. This truth is more than human; we see it everywhere in the animal kingdom. Sprinkled throughout the text are loving photo images of selected primates — hanging out, bathing, or playing, often with playmates or family. If identity is formed in relationship, what happens when one’s soul mate is suddenly removed from the scene? Who is one now? One possible answer is: “I am you,” where one feels oneself to house the reverberations of the absent other.

Tardos does not shy away from even the strongest, most difficult emotions as she acts out her relationship with her departed husband in terms so visceral that we are almost convinced of his living presence. That is, she insists on examining precisely that which is most unresolved between them — issues of dominance, sexuality, ego, perversion, impotence, poverty, aging, anger, and fear. The tension created through such insistence is relieved periodically by moments of peace in which all is suddenly, albeit provisionally, well.

The crisis seems to be over — for now (178)

Along the way, we get glimpses of a life lived: parental advice, a suicide averted, a memorable handshake, a Django-triggered outburst of love, the life and death of a cat. The final page is a riot: a perfectly compressed pitch of ironic hostility and wistful acceptance. Given its heavy subject matter, I Am You displays a surprisingly light touch. It is inspiringly quick-witted work, the kind that takes courage to write and gives courage to live.

Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in American Book Review 31.3 (March/April 2010) and is reproduced in Jacket2 with permission.

Registers of breath: On origins and concession

A review of 'The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins'

The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins

The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins

Arpine Konyalian Grenier

Otoliths 2011, 84 pages, 16.95, ISBN 978-0-9807651-5-1

Several pages into her new book The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins, Arpine Konyalian Grenier refers to William Bronk’s Life Supports (1981) and Manifest; And Furthermore (1987). Given the flood of information with which she ceaselessly inundates the reader — dovetailing with her decidedly postmodern sensibility and concomitant narrative technique — it would be easy enough to take these allusions simply as further evidence of Grenier’s wide-ranging literary interests and remarkable erudition in general. However, in a characteristic form of hers that might be likened to the Japanese haibun, where prose is followed by haiku that does not always bear an obvious relation, Grenier juxtaposes a rapid-fire assessment of Bronk’s poetry with her own spare verse. Here, however, the connection is rendered overt through simile:

               I sense a conceding that may have eventually led him to silence, spawned and sired.

                                                as if at the concession stand
                                                                           cured of speech[1]

Not only does this trope return us to the title of Grenier’s collection (part of the work’s postmodernity is its contesting of literary boundaries, though generically there are eight essays), but also it suggests a link between Bronk and Grenier that might be overlooked amidst the explosive connections she recurrently makes between writers and ideas, technically expressed through her relentless employment of fractured syntax.

Though Grenier seems remarkably free of anxiety of influence, her observations about Bronk bring to mind a certain literary line deserving our consideration. William Bronk, as some readers will recall, belongs to the very beginning of the long history of Cid Corman’s Origin magazine.  In fact, a poem by Bronk appeared in Origin 1.1 (Spring 1951), and he was then cofeatured in the third issue of this series (Fall 1951). Interestingly, given Grenier’s lines above (and her title), Corman later wrote that Bronk’s was “a poetry without concessions.”[2]

Charles OlsonThe first featured poet in Origin, however, was Charles Olson, with Robert Creeley following in the second issue. Several of Olson’s letters to Vincent Ferrini were included by Corman in Origin 1.1, and the conclusion to the first of these is highly relevant to Grenier’s technique in Olson’s observations about syntax:

We are huge, and roily. Mixed up. Even by perpendicular penetrations, we are discontinuous.  (What I did not stress — in PV [“Projective Verse”] — enough, perhaps, is this business, of, how, when traditions go, the DISCONTINUOUS becomes the greener place. (For example, all that on syntax, is due to, this: we have to kick sentences in the face here, if we are going to express the going reality from down in you, and me, and any other man who is going for center: which means language has to be found out, anew [...][3]

Consider the following from Grenier’s third essay in her collection, “There but not There”:

Would poetry, therefore, restrain the intent of literary scholars and patrons of cultural institutions since it is a culturally indefinite voyage with no external goal, refusing the tyranny of arrival?  Let intent be the risk quantum levels have taken. Let a new syntax be derived for a new semantics, evolving as we speak — itself and its proxy adding to self while emptying self, interrupting the prevailing homogeneity. (29)

An “Armenian-American from Beirut, Lebanon, where a variety of religions, languages and nationalities coexist(ed) in a rare mixture of oriental simultaneity and occidental individualism” (43), Grenier writes as an ex-centric woman, kicking sentences in the face as she moves away from, yet assaults, the center from the margins. Still, Olson’s reference to his landmark essay “Projective Verse” reminds us of another common ground of their poetics (also shared with Creeley), the importance of breath.

Olson laid down, “that verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath.” Grenier has registered the pressures of her breath in her mastery of the long line:

                                      It is a small and round world indeed
                                                                                       codignly yellow 

there is no resistance when color takes off indifferent to light so
   and only because what is mind shackles time as collateral
     as if to remind the bodiless have entered us and the plot is
             engage think as always bottom up re mind

      states matter to states as they greet parallel brains
          faith based or hope out there serial prudence
                   principled to curate reason

          I belong to and am under the rule of the supernal
               a willingness and acanthus fields (let us play
                   games) sub urban thought provides

                                                                                      fortitude (50-51)

 However, Grenier’s poetry moves in two directions:

If then you scrapped it all
love wills through still
long time bristled
edges of
wit  (15)

In reading the above lines, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt, whom Corman also featured in Origin. An accomplished practitioner of the long line, as in her Steveston poems, as well as short-line verse, Marlatt “used a lot of the etymological Olson side” in her feminist poetry, and found Creeley, with whom she studied as an undergraduate, “one of the great prose stylists.” However, it was from Cid Corman that she learned “the value of the short line with a word at the end at which you pivot meaning.” It’s worth rereading Grenier’s short lines in this light.

When Corman came to Japan in 1958, he carried Olson’s insistence upon the primacy of breath into his new passion for the dramatic art of Noh, even becoming a pupil of utai (the choral element of Noh) under Takashi Kawamura in Kyoto. Corman’s study of Noh has a clear relation to his own poetics. The preliminary material to his and Will Petersen’s translation of Zeami’s Yashima, which appeared in Origin 2.3, includes the following:

This version of a Noh play attempts to give the reader the closest possible sense of the Noh experience. By exact articulation of syllables an idea perhaps is gained of the utai, the sounding of the text, its curious quantities that often break against speech rhythms and even the rhythms we are accustomed to find in the accent of “meaning” in English. If some feeling, then, of strict breathing, of the most careful pacing and intonation, the dance of the words, occur, we shall be content.[4]

Both Corman and Petersen, who was at this time managing editor of Origin, recognized what the latter, in a letter to Corman, described as “the clear contingency of breath as body’s relation to everything.”[5]

This contingency was essential to Corman’s poetics. His pioneering work with oral poetry accentuated his “growing recognition that the fundamental act of poetry, as of everything else, is the affirmation of breathing, the act of living in dying.” He contended:

If your words, your syllables, your lines and stanzas, every comma, every break, do not hang on the spine of breath in them, no plotted or pieced structural model will do any good. The body will be dead and you will have simply painted a corpse, or at best, embalmed it.

To breathe words is to breed words. Invisible flower. Substantive nothingness. To know that every breath, and thus every utterance, IS a matter of life and death. Until this act is recognized and entered, no poetry exists. And when it happens, why everything happens; it is, as it is, an all-poetry [...][6]

Grenier’s poetry clearly recognizes this act, enters this act, and the result is “an all-poetry” that, like Corman’s, embraces emptiness, or mu. (Corman paradoxically saw mu as in fact fullness, stating in a radio interview that “The empty space that you start from is the vastness, is the infinite.”)

Apropos, Grenier writes that, to poets, “language is a vision concerning (but not having) thought, recalling the null from which it comes forth [...]” (12). She quotes Dennis Lee, “a good piece of writing bespeaks encounter with emptiness as its source” (26), adding that when we discover the divine in the fabric of the everyday, “we catch a glimpse of the void itself, that regenerative, all-consuming nothingness from which we all emerge, into which we are destined to return. Poetry allows this moment, this breath for emanated being (Borthwick) — the paradox of locating the site of one’s dwelling in the world by embracing self-forgetting and celebrating one’s estrangement and otherness” (28).

Grenier’s essays are a sustained and challenging expression of her poetics, predicated upon her recognition of “khora, the non-place we arc and ride, the gift and counter-gift (meaning discourse) we inhabit, distorting and often destroying to rework to fit “ (72). Here she leads into another of her haibun-like constructions:

Celebrate the experience, the pre-origin a bastard’s logic dwells in.

                                                orphaned discourse not
                                                       orphaned logos  (72)

Cid CormanAnd then: “The blur between speech and silence is magical then, is life. Be open to its transformation and betrayal” (73). Sound, she posits, “is full when your abdomen rises and muted when it falls across truncated dorsal integuments. Song, always a priority. Each impact an entrance, sudden departure, vigilant eye. Do not be alarmed, eviscerate” (74).

My argument that Grenier’s poetics has multiple connections to Corman and the Origin poets is by no means gratuitous, extending far beyond the nod in her title to what Corman described as Bronk’s theme of “language failure itself and the palpable deception we practise on ourselves through it.”[7] We should not overlook that during the early 1980s Grenier studied poetry under yet another contributor to Origin, Clayton Eshleman, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he was Dreyfuss Poet in Residence.   When I recently queried her about this experience, she replied that she very much liked the way Eshleman taught poetry — “if there’s such a thing as teaching poetry,” she added.

When Cid Corman died in 2004, Eshleman wrote a couple of memorial pieces registering the impact that Origin had upon him from 1960 onward. Eshleman acknowledged that through Origin he was introduced to Olson, Creeley and the Black Mountain poets as well as a number of European poets whose work appeared there in translation. The mentor-apprenticeship association that Corman and he developed dated back to 1961, when he visited Corman in San Francisco, then developed during a period of over two years when Eshleman and his wife resided in Kyoto. There, on a weekly basis, he would walk or motorcycle to The Muse coffee shop, where Corman held court during evenings, influencing Eshleman’s development not only as an editor and translator but also  “as a dedicated worker in the art of poetry.”[8] Curiously, Eshleman doesn’t mention here Corman’s influence as a teacher, for a number of poets in Japan whom I have interviewed over the past few years — Scott Watson and Taylor Mignon come immediately to mind — have remarked upon this dimension of Corman’s mentoring. Presumably what Grenier appreciated in Eshleman’s teaching was not unrelated to what Corman had taught Eshleman about his craft.

As for editing, Eshleman went on to produce Caterpillar during the late 1960s and early 1970s, then founded Sulfur during the time Grenier was studying with him at Cal Tech. (Some of her earlier poems appeared in Sulfur, which ran until the year 2000.) Significantly, Eshlemam notes that Cid’s poetics, “based for the most part on the lyric short poem,” did not accommodate his own “sense of the wide-ranging diversity in 20th century international poetry.”[9] This aspect of Eshleman’s poetics — reflected in his editorial choices — connects to an important feature of Grenier’s work that has not gone unnoticed by critics. Perhaps the best-known assessment of her writing has been Kevin Killian’s description of “her explosive gift of shooting words at the page in glee, the gift for metaphor and a complimentary [sic] one that knows how to organize sprawling material [...] takes us out of our provincial concentration on American life to encompass broader social and geopolitical issues.”[10]

Of course, subsequent to his “poetic apprenticeship” under Corman, Eshleman has equally distinguished himself as a translator. His cotranslation of César Vallejo’s Complete Posthumous Poetry received the National Book Award in 1979 and, more recently, Eshleman’s translation of The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo won the 2008 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, as well as being shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Without pressing the point too much, one might note that the second essay in Grenier’s book, titled “TB as Something Willed,” addresses the whole business of translation with concerns redolent of those raised by Corman and Eshleman:

With translating, every word, phrase or metrical decision reinforces the difference between one’s interpretation and the original. Often, giving in to the rules of, say English, is a deterrent to the potency of the poem in translation — to its casting of a spell. There is no law or grammar where writing happens. The translator is outside the stasis translating imposes on the text, rips and all, outside of what’s controllable or not, what’s orderable or not, link to link to ding ding in nothing but authenticity, dropping code to let the lines breathe, to re-form. (23-24)


Translation bastardization works because it creates movement that eludes measures of control. It escapes the gravitational field of historicity and cultural difference. (24)

I am here reminded of Eshleman’s comments on Volume One of Corman’s monumental OF, where he “was shocked to find Cid’s translations there  — of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, Tao Chi’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Bashõ, Mallarmé, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro — treated as Corman poems.”[11] Mightn’t Grenier’s observations be used to rationalize Corman’s appropriations?

That Grenier also trained as a scientist in the field of chemistry and physics, being particularly influenced by Peter Higgs of the “Higgs field” and Higgs mechanism — a consequence of which is the theoretical Higgs boson — directs us to another crucial aspect of her writing, the application of science to her poetics. (Here the word “field” applies more to the poetry of Michael McClure and Chris Dewdney than to the theoretical constructs of Charles Olson.) I don’t pretend to understand the full implications of, say, Grenier’s references to Schroedinger’s cat, yet it is impossible to ignore this dimension of her work:

Ever to bring about the (horizontal) wisdom of a matriarchy, not in contrast to, but collaboration with the vertical/ patriarchal, ever to consider the feminine as life's (fluid) currency through the pluralities of voice and culture, modulating as the turbulent orients in space where it simultaneously emanates and observes itself. There lies magic. Not unlike DNA, it reconfigures to differentiate. There can be no prediction even under the maximum conditions of control. Magic, that's something else. Let's maintain the magic of possibility, a curatorial possibility. As thought relates to language after the fact, like Schroedinger's cat does (to Schroedinger), one abs it (thought), as in ab-solve. My hope thrives in such obligation, in such moot obligation to produce a perfect poem I know full well I will never come by.  (8)

Feeling helplessly out of my league in trying to come to terms with quantum mechanics, I finally broke down and sent Grenier an electronic message inquiring about the relation of science to her writing. She replied, “yes science as in Higgs’ field (which they also call the God particle and i so despise the phrase...Peter Higgs is still alive) and all those other references...which by the way are in nature and life and not just in scientific findings...actually it happens in reverse with science...for which reason I abandoned it for is sooo much more alive and kicking :):)”

Still, consider the subtitle of Grenier’s book. How many readers will admit to not knowing the meaning of “exaptation”?  It’s not the sort of word one finds in Urban Dictionary. However, the American Heritage Dictionary lists it as a biological term meaning “the utilization of a structure or feature for a function other than that for which it was developed through natural selection.” I queried Grenier about her subtitle at the same time I wrote her about Higgs and Schroedinger’s cat. She replied, “with exaptation there is a component of ‘will’ as i introduce it...similar to Nietzsche maybe but a bit more human and artful as opposed to Germanic and existential...more transverse.”

Where is this all leading? Where exactly is the exaptation at the margins? Clearly Grenier is writing about and because of the evolution of language, of syntax:

However, the act of writing continues. One is always en face de X, scraping against deaf matter, responding to its systole and diastole with vigor and swagger. If we were to look up the word “oppressed” in Arabic, the dictionary (al-qamous) would indicate the root and related words like press, depress, repress, impress, suppress. “Oppressed” is different, however. Oppressed people’s voices are muffled because with oppression, soul and spirit are implicated. What oppresses does not occlude either, as one is always in the process of willing the other into existence, through language. Love is at play here and is catching. (9)

Grenier’s sophisticated commingling of science and etymology is a fixture of her writing, exhibiting a larger assimilative tendency that has also not gone unnoticed. As Gerald Locklin has written on the back cover:

Arpine is one of the few living American writers to whose works the term “profound” may be meaningfully affixed. She has as capacious a consciousness as any I have ever encountered: Science weds Philosophy and yields the Poetic and the Fictive (in Wallace Stevens’ sense). Her mind is fertile like the garden and pond of Giverny. To fully appreciate her writings one must strive to emulate her genius for synthesizing the currents of a personal and intellectual history.

At the same time, Grenier frequently disarms us with forthright, axiomatic (almost homiletic) observations, some her own and others borrowed or reinterpreted, that strike the reader as the sort of thoughts Thoreau might have entertained had he found himself stranded in post-history. My favorites include:

Beware of judgment, lean on art, someone said. And J.F. Kennedy said, When power leads man to his arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations, when power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of experience. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. Smell the cologne, I’ll say. (13)

Beware of matter that breeds identity as Baal demands total allegiance. (20)


Narcissism with many faces but no wings, for which reason, the misconception of power has driven mankind to (external) power, to dominate. Fear has dampened our wisdom, and guilt has buried our moral reach. We feel the symptoms of our dis-ease yet do not know where to turn, do not want to know either. We are stars that wallow in sophisticated metaphors, lest we shed our fear-laden mask of sterility (it is our haven, an energy and emotion impoverished heaven). But there’s hope and wishes for every reality gone mad, and reverence, not to respect but to honor those very histories that brought us to where we are. Let us rid our selves from anti-concepts, ask questions instead of providing information or judging some agenda. Let us feel the warmth of our blood, salute its preciousness so reason and emotion can dance together, the cognitive and the normative. (33)

These ruminations build upon each other to extend our understanding of Grenier’s poetics.

Even the penultimate essay in the collection, the one chapter that initially seems at odds with the others, serves this function. An account of Grenier’s participation in the 2009 Dink Memorial Workshop at Sabanci University in Istanbul, “A Place in the Sun, Malgre Sangre” contains a good deal of what might be termed travelogue, detailing Grenier’s experience of Istanbul — visits to restaurants and cafés, Misir Carsisi (the Spice Bazaar), Galata Tower, the Hyppodrome, Haghia Sophia, Yerebatan Sarnici, Topkapi Palace, and other places — as well as a short trip to the cities of Konya and Aksaray; still, it serves an integral purpose within the larger design of the essays. For it is in this essay that Grenier, coming from an oppressive marginalized culture, the daughter of an Armenian genocide survivor, lovingly records the minutiae of her icli (hearty) and tatli (sweet) maiden visit to Turkey, whose relation to Armenia certainly requires no gloss.

Prior to her departure to Turkey, Grenier knows what she’s after: “Having already noticed how much we’re alike, I now want and need to learn to accept that, to accept and love the unknown I come from” (55).  Upon hearing an announcement in French at the airport in Dallas, she reflects:

I’m surrounded by languages I recognize or don’t. Have I been too long away from these sounds and minds? Always a misfit this I and yet, this here feels fit/ unfit and familiar in its strangeness. So, to be familiar with a strangeness or to find strangeness in the familiar, that’s all pulse, isn’t it? Otherwise, life is unbearable. Agency is fluid, remember?  Moving (velocity?) allows sight when screens are in the way. (55)

In Turkey, she will be experiencing not only the culture of her ancestry but also the culture from which she had run away. The people she encounters there will prove agents of connection.

In this essay Grenier foregrounds the binding relationships she develops with participants in the workshop on Gender, Ethnicity and the Nation-State: Anatolia and its Neighboring Regions, a theme that brings together representatives of fifteen countries, with a commingling of Turks and Armenians. When asked to participate in an artist’s diasporan video project, Grenier rejoins, “But everyone is diasporan [...] there but not there, clueless, ortancil (in the middle), and older is not necessarily elder! I want to loosen and undo matter, I also need glue” (58). Adhesion comes through group solidarity; on the last evening of the workshop, she enjoys holding onto others, refusing to let go, on a rush-hour train ride to a café where the group is entertained by a gypsy family’s “songs and dances full of love and hope and passion,”  another reminder that “[w]e’re all alike as we’re different” (59).  She now wants and needs “to learn to love” this condition, “shifting and turning without undoing myself, without unseeing and dismissing others either. That will help me love myself someday, love and accept the oppression I come from, the oppression that has released these new days for me (us).” (60)

Grenier feels immediately at home with the locals, both in and without Istanbul. She also describes with great affection her guides on her excursions — Burcu, a Turkish woman who shows her about Istanbul, and Kadir, a twenty-year old Konya University student volunteer who squires her about Konya, from which Grenier’s father heralded, as well as Aksaray. She parts from Burcu with a hug, knowing they will remain in touch, and regards Kadir as “a reflection of what Turkey is slowing becoming these days — the best of the East and the West” (66). In telling Burcu about a Turkish and Armenian organization called Biz Myassine (We Together), Grenier espouses, “Connection is a basic need, humbling and addictive yes, but there is beauty in the connect. I am after that beauty” (62). She comes away from Turkey remembering “that agency is fluid, and that the functionality of identities is identity too, a gate that can slam shut or open. I’ll go through it not knowing what’s on the other side. Who is to say when which creates, what. The only what I know is the gill I breathe from” (67). We are back to breath.

In her first essay, Grenier reflects, “Not part of a qualified culture nor speaking on behalf of one, busy with dimension while weary and leery of its shadow, I live with the urgency to fuse what is outside of time with what is within, often at the expense of meaning or syntax, to reconcile as if, in response to be wounded” (13). Wounded by (and yet a survivor of) the historic past, she, as poet, “is calling, calling at unbearable proximity to the need to do something about all that does not follow the routine of civilization, the functions of circumscribe/ control/ eliminate. By nature the poet is healer, yes, but who sponsors the healer when the lights go out?” (11)

In her final essay, in many ways a coda to the previous seven, Grenier addresses the plight of the poet in a world irreverent toward bardic magic and healing. Here she muses upon the “asthmatic climate” created by convictions and “those things done in the name of love, of son or daughter, of God, of country” (70):

Shall we replace or redefine morality then? Laws cannot define history anymore than history can define laws, humans do that. Do not confuse depth with complexity, describing is different from explaining. Power laws can only be described, not explained. Often depth and complexity are in competition. Remember Gell-Mann’s sympathetic magic. Theorizing is as futile as rationalizing. Moreover, selection pressures are not consistent and often do not make sense. Logic is for the birds that do not fly but think they do. (71)

She concludes in her (postmodern) homiletic Thoreauvian and scientific vein:

Consider self part of the other, all seems fair then, the purgative, the illuminative, the unitive. Seeking retroactive meaning is toil and trouble, so are building techniques, recipes, rites, amulets. Let’s scratch off to a blank slate instead, let’s interrupt and disrupt the scraps. They’re throbbing to rebuild. Do not look at the whole to annotate, look at the parts and pretend. Think of how matter behaves differently under different conditions. You are such matter. Center and periphery are mythical allusions. No pole position survives physicality, forehead to ground, the fez. (72)

Yes, yes, the beauty’s actually in the connect, for which reason, one is often paralyzed by the passion that drives it. So passion yes. Detachment, only as non-attachment. No anger, yes admiration, sympathy, so much sympathy. Nothing casual, never casual, simply liberated from the tyranny of words and logic, after what really matters, after what comes next  — the boundless, creeping along realities withholding echo. Exorcised pulse. Mind angle and trajectory as switch and turn are about to follow [...] Breathe love. Noise will subside. (73)

We need contact dear, yeah contact. That develops syntax far lovelier than biology or facts, as love does not fail and sentences do not restrict the soul to just word parsings [...] Speech exerts to overcome excess. Replace the chatter with the silence of those who could but did not speak, undo mimetic shackles to experience all of history — the now, and (Derrida’s) what is yet to come. (81)

In these passages we are at the heart of Grenier’s poetics. There are all sorts of nuances here, and in her quotation of Zen Master Daisetz Suzuki — “discard fact, go after legend and imagination, then you are dying and not dying, otherwise you are living your death” (77) — I am again reminded of Cid Corman, whose poetics is best summed up by his mantra “Poetry is life, life is poetry,” as well as by the title of one of his best-known collections, Livingdying. (Corman’s minimalism, a sustained assault on verbal deception, replaces poetic chatter with the silence of Noh, the interval, or ma.) 

Returning to the Origin poets Charles Olson and William Bronk: both were strongly rooted in place — Olson’s Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Bronk’s Hudson Falls, New York State. (Another of the early Origin poets, Gary Snyder, evinces this sense of place through his bioregionalism.) Sense of place gives way in Grenier’s writing to an overwhelming and decidedly postmodern sense of deracination. The Armenian-American from Beirut writes,

I have no mother tongue as my mother tongue has lost me. I implode with this loss, seeking the chaos sustaining the world of languages with a voice that has the body and place of an absent body, after a derivative of the past whereby the new would occur, time and history abolished because of what escapes or survives the disintegration of experience. (43)

(One of her real joys in Turkey was reclaiming part of her linguistic heritage.) On the same page she further records, “As daughter of orphaned parents, I experience identity as a self consuming artifact that hopes to deliver cross-cultural connections while it curates itself, the curating hopefully endorsing commonality as a continuous and inclusive enterprise rather than a dichotomous or hierarchical one, the longing to connect just because we’re human overshadowing the politic of the human.”

I find a connection here between her writing and that of the environmental theorist Ursula Heise, who argues that

the environmentalist emphasis on restoring individuals’ sense of place [...] becomes a visionary dead end if it is understood as a founding ideological principle or a principal didactic means of guiding individuals and communities back to nature. Rather than focusing on the recuperation of a sense of place, environmentalism needs to foster an understanding of how a wide variety of both natural and cultural places and processes are connected and shape each other around the world, and how human impact affects and changes this connectedness.[12]

It is exactly this sort of awareness that informs Grenier’s poetics. If we take the famous formula that was passed from Creeley to Denise Levertov — “Form is never more than the extension of content” becoming “Form is never more than the revelation of content” — we can see that Grenier’s search for liberation from the tyranny of words and logic is inextricably tied to her quest for contact and connectedness. This need eschews capitalist globalization as “stop-child to the digital world” (15), being cosmopolitan in nature. Grenier “open[s] hearts and minds to explore shared and intersecting pasts” (47). To return to her title:

The poet wants to appropriate the universality of ontology in order to testify to a universal destiny within l’experience vecu, continually redeeming the you and the me into a (Buber) us, facing a new space-time, that of hunger and light by the concession stand where, through the ethics of love, all and its trade-offs are laid out, for mutuality.  (11-12)




1. Arpine Konyalian Grenier, The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins (Rockhampton, Australia: Otoliths, 2011), 10.

2. Cid Corman, William Bronk: An Essay (Carrboro, NC: Truck Press, 1976), v.

3. Charles Olson, letter to Vincent Ferrini, 7 November 1950, Origin 1, no. 1 (Spring 1951): 6.

4. Cid Corman [and Will Petersen], “Translators’ Note [to Yashima]” Origin 2, No. 3 (October 1961): 17.

5. Will Petersen. Letter to Cid Corman, 27 December 1960. MS. Corman Collection, III, The Lilly Library, Indiana University. Qtd. by permission.

6. Cid Corman, “From a Letter, November 1959.” Mimeograph, Real Theatre notebook, author’s collection of Corman mss., 6.

7. Corman, William Bronk, 13.

8. Clayton Eshleman’s two published tributes to Corman were “What Brought You Here Will Take You Hence: A Poetic Apprenticeship in Kyoto,” Poets & Writers (January/February 2005): 56- 61, and “Cid,” Cipher Journal. The quotation is taken from page one of the latter.

9. Eshleman, “Cid”: 1.

10. Kevin Killian, qtd. in “New Volume of Poetry by Arpine Konyalian Grenier,” Armenian Poetry Project, 30 December 2007.

11. Eshleman, “What Brought You Here Will Take You Hence,” 60.

12. Ursula K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 21.

Contagious poetry

A review of 'Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers'

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

Action Books 2008, 80 pages, $12, ISBN 978-0-9799755-1-6

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agency and instrument of all these as well, or the site where “doing” and “being done to” become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own […] [V]iolence is, always, an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.
             — Judith Butler, Undoing Gender[1]

I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit (Kim, 45)

Kim Hyesoon’s poetry is hungry. In saying this, I don’t offer hunger as a metaphor for passionate engagement, heightened physicality, or uninhibited desire — though these qualities certainly fill her words, breeding with one another till their progeny creep to the margins of each page. No, the hunger I mean is a great deal more literal. Her poems begin inside the gut. They emerge from the point where the body confronts its own most intense dissatisfaction, the gut emptiness that signals the need to devour. Since that point of emptiness propels mouths and teeth into world-consuming action, her poems reside at that place where the body’s innermost recesses paradoxically present themselves as its outermost limits. If I am hungry, I am hungry at the edge of me, at a place where I almost am not, where I seek to eradicate what I am not by making it me. Poetic appetite is the body’s desire to reach beyond itself, to eat, absorb, expand, and assimilate. Kim’s poems, whether lineated or in prose, whether mythic or idiosyncratic (though rarely only one of these for long), reside at precisely those places between what the body is and what it is not, between the corporeal machinery by which meaning is generated and the meanings which thus emerge, tethered to the body by a string of cat guts and vibrating words.

Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is preoccupied with the dual actions of burrowing and broadening, marrying those deep recesses of hunger with the outward reach of consumption. As titles like “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream” and “A Hole” suggest, Kim’s poems relentlessly pursue the interiors of things, persons, and, especially, bodies. The result is as philosophical as it is personal: “The you inside you pulls you tight into the inside, so your fingernails curl inward and your outer ears swirl into the inside of your body you would probably leave this life the moment the you inside you lets go of the hand that grabs you” (70). At the same time that these poems shove a curious nose into the warm strangeness within the body, they also portray bodies that bleed out around the edges, expanding and invading the space beyond. In poems like “To Patients with Contagious Diseases,” the verbal matter of Kim’s writing tests the coherent bodies of individual words, as rendered in Don Mee Choi’s translation:

Life, leavesthenreturns, departsthenarrives, and, the, sick, body, burns, up, then, takes, on, life, and, runs, out, again! Look, over there, there. Happiness, painted, in oil, is, inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine. Of happiness, flows, like. a. ri. ver. Into, my, blood. If someone, asks, Is anyone alive? Break, your, head, open, and, show, your, ten, ta, cle. (51)

The patient’s disease threatens to reach out beyond the body and invade others, moving with the force of a river that cannot be dammed even when the word river is carefully broken up. Meaning manages to leak out even in the face of verbal mutilation and constant interruption, so that the poem operates by a contagion that spreads among words and makes collective sense of them.[2] Poetry is a virus, its semiotic contagion infusing bodies and connecting us to one another and to the language with which we are infected. Viewed in this way, poetry is both an intimately corporeal act and a guerilla-style revolution in the politics of expression.

Most powerful are those moments in Kim’s poetry that reach out from the body and into it simultaneously. Some of these moments are mournful and intimate, as when the speaker of “Face” reflects, “The you inside you is so strong that the I inside me is about to get dragged into your inside” (70). The act of negotiating intimacy around the boundaries of bodies in flux similarly informs “When the Plug Gets Unplugged,” which chronicles the interactions between two people whose bodies rot around them, exposing their insides to each other’s view (32).

Kim, a major figure in the South Korean feminist movement, is quick to connect this digging into private bodies with the individual’s psycho-physical binds to the state. In “Asura, Yi Je-Hah, Spring,” Kim’s multidirectional bodily drive, both inward and outward, appears alongside references to the suicide pact of twenty-four North Koreans whose submarine crept into South Korean waters in 1996. In Kim’s poem, the speaker’s body pushes hard at its own edges just after this geographical border crossing:

At once the tunnel explodes black like a black aquarium. There is no mountain or tunnel. There is no road or sky. My entire body wants to shoot out of my face. I want to lie down. A scream floats up from somewhere inside of my body like the way a frog flattened in an illustration swells up into life. That thing, that slippery green light, that thing with thousands of heads, that thing with ten thousand fingers closes my eyes and ears and licks my face with its tongue. With its other tongue it licks my hair. It licks my chest. Its several hundred hands strangle me as it plants a heavy kiss on my eyelids. I let go of the steering wheel and clutch onto that thing. I bite into it. (34)

Kim HyesoonThe speaker’s comments operate like palimpsests, each piled onto the one previous, nearly contradicting at every turn yet holding together. The speaker is somewhere and nowhere, is active and passive, desiring both bodily projection (“My entire body wants to shoot out of my face”) and corporeal resignation (“I want to lie down”). The surrealism slips almost imperceptibly into comical absurdity, as when a simile frog comes to life, grows heads, and tries to devour the body that gave it birth.

Kim’s poetry is most charged in moments like these, and she acknowledges the marriage of whimsy and critique in her approach to the politics of poetry. “What I wrote about was cooking,” she says, “and my ingredient was death … I tried to turn the heaviness of oppression into something playful and light, so that I ended up with a type of poetry that did not appear to be political.”[3] With her careful balance of playfulness and gravity, Kim harnesses conflicting forces until pressure explodes them, challenging bodily unity and poetic genre, pointing to the violence at work in discourse itself. As a poet who has worked under the threat of governmental censorship, she offers poems in which language itself is a form of violent protest. The speaker of one poem comments, “I want to shove a finger into the silence and make it vomit” (45).

Kim’s poetry has consistently triangulated the act of representation, the politics of her country, and the body itself—particularly the female body. The first of Kim’s poems to appear in the three-author volume Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women offers a portrait of the body exhausted. “Song of Skin” reads:

The open lips find my breasts
though they weren’t told where mine were,
draining sweet water from my body.
They want to suckle again right after they’ve eaten.
First the saliva evaporates inside my mouth,
tears vanish from my eyes,
veins shrivel,
blood fades,
trees and plants collapse,
the Naktong River dries up,
and its floor shrieks as it explodes.
My whole body is pumped out.
Even though you vomit what you’ve just eaten,
your open lips still hang onto my nipples
till my body is emptied
of everything but dry bones and skin,
till the heaven’s castle splits
and the Milky Way shatters,
till I can think of nothing
and my soul withers and dies.[4]

The body in the poem operates as conductor, a siphon, a funneling point. In this parasitic relationship, the “open lips” of the speaker’s counterpart drains not breast milk, but all the moisture that makes up the speaker’s body, and then reaches beyond the body to access both the natural world and the known universe, all through the weary flesh of the mouthed nipple. The body becomes not simply a metaphor for the personal attributes of the speaker that are emotionally drained (leaving her without thoughts or soul), but also the border between her counterpart and the entire world beyond. The body is a physical border between two warring parties, as is hinted at in the reference to the Naktong River, a key geographical barrier to North Korea’s movement against South Korea. As if responding to the thousands of poems which have historically conflated the female body and landscape, “Song of Skin” points to the exploitation of both woman and world that occurs when the body is used as a metaphor, as a means of reaching into the representational beyond.

Kim defines her approach to the body, both as a writer and within her writing, as part of her feminist project:

One of the characteristics of Korean men's poetry is that the poets don't handle their subject matters with their bodies. They handle their subjects with their eyes only. So when they see a landscape, they freely carve out what they want from it. Based on their thoughts and poetic intentions, the men poets carve out what they want from nature despite the fact that nature has its own independent existence from them. After they cut out the part they want, they describe it and then add aphorisms to it […]. But within this powerful male tradition, Korean women poets treat nature in a different way. Women let nature be itself and let her own nature be itself — nature and her nature are left alone as they are. And from that position they speak about the meetings and interactions between them through their bodies.[5]

Kim’s desire to reorient the relationship of the body in poetry is here connected to her response to the masculine poetic conventions of Korea. In a discussion of the experience that eventually led to the composition of “A Very Old Hotel” (which is not collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers), Kim tells Don Mee Choi about the inspiring hotel:

It was so beautiful there that I wanted to write a poem about the place, but what I ended up writing was written from a Korean male perspective with a male language and male poetic sensibility. I captured a scene, a landscape with my eyes and then manipulated it. This kind of language and approach suffocates me, my body. I threw away the poem and wrote another poem in the plane.[6]

Though Kim doesn’t discuss the potential conflation of landscape and body in the quoted passage, the hunt to “capture” and “manipulate” the world through male language has an immediate, “suffocating” effect on her own female body. Throwing away this use of language, the new poem she writes exerts intense Don Mee Choipressure on the metaphoric uses to which the body is put, and the position of the female subject within those metaphors. The speaker’s heart is described as a hotel in which she takes up residence, so that she is physically bound by the metaphor through which her body is described. Within this cardiac architecture, the speaker struggles with her own lack of control: “The room keys of the hotel in my heart are kept at the front, and I have a bundle of invisible keys in my pocket, but I can’t freely open the rooms of the hotel inside my heart.”[7] Her relationship with her counterpart is less clear than the relationship in “Song of Skin,” but it appears similarly one-sided, centered in the exploitation of the speaker’s body-as-metaphor. “When I open all the windows inside my body, beneath the gable roof, you stick your head out from every square as if appearing from graph paper with a roof attached — that kind of hotel.”

Compared to “Song of Skin” and “A Very Old Hotel,” those poems collected in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers would seem to constitute the body’s revenge. The unidirectional exploitation of the body is here replaced with a body no longer confined to the borderline between persons, but instead a body enveloping the fluid interplay between people, ideas, and corporeality itself. In the poem “Inside Inside Inside of a Dream,” Kim writes:

The moon enters the depth of my eyes
and strokes the fish flowing in every blood vessel
because it wants to touch the bones beneath my flesh
This must be the inside of Mommy’s dream
The wave that rises and falls
The wave that is giving birth to a sea in a sea
The inside of Mommy’s dream that gives birth to me like a rising tide
then embraces me like a receding tide then embraces me again like a rising tide
My body that will be swathed in the red fluid of the womb when the sun rises
When I lay my head down on my fluffy pillow on top of Mommy’s and Mommy’s and Mommy’s ripple (21)

In contrast to the speaker whose body is the point of access for the heavens in “Song of Skin,” this speaker is physically entered by the heavens themselves, and this entrance yields not existential absorption but corporeal contact. A key difference, here, is Kim’s shift toward the maternal body as the governing metaphor for this interaction. This speaker’s body is under considerably less duress when safely “swathed in the red fluid of the womb.” The mother’s body is one that already incorporates two subjects in one, emphasizing both their distinction and their interdependence. The self-within-the-body-within-the-self that appears in “A Very Old Hotel” is transformed here by a cooperative approach to bodily containment, which allows the subject to both hold and be held without constraining its agency. The architectural structures that govern the body structures in “A Very Old Hotel,” rendering its interior inescapable, reappear in the title poem of Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers:

At Mommy’s house, the floors are also mommy, the dust that floats around the rooms is also mommy, when you open the door of Mommy’s house I’m under Mommy’s feathers like an unhatched egg. All the dreams that are dreamt in Mommy’s house come from Mommy’s fountain, the fountain at Mommy’s house is never dry. (19)

The envelopment of the fetus by a pregnant mother’s body is here extended to a maternal body which encompasses everything, enfolds every corner of the metaphor, so that the house no longer stands for the body but is engulfed in the body, housed in Mommy. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, as a collection, is similarly swaddled in the body of the constantly present “Mommy.”

Kim’s repurposing of the body, so often through recourse to the maternal in this collection, is not without its own dangers. Violence is not eradicated from this vision of the body; it is, in fact, nearly as omnipresent in this collection as the body itself. Violence colors the speaker’s relationship with both herself and with the act of metaphor in “Boiling”:

I almost dip my hand into the boiling water
for the boiling water looks so cold
Instead I dip my head inside the pot and say something
Are thousands of layers of ear membranes boiling?
Or are they a metaphor for birth and death? (76)

The grotesque image of a body losing its layers to boiling water not only sets Kim’s poetry apart from the “‘pretty’ language” expected of yoryu sinin (female poets, as discussed in an interview with Don Mee Choi), but offers itself as a potential means of understanding the act of representation itself, of decoding “birth” and “death” through this visceral “metaphor.” Another image of bodily mutilation similarly brings birth and death into conversation in “This Night”:

A rat devours a piglet that has fallen into a pot of porridge
(now, chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina,
babies that shiver from their first contact with air,
fattened chunks of flesh,
tasty, warm chunks that bleed when ripped into)
A rat devours the new baby in the cradle
Mommy has gone to the restaurant to wash dishes
A rat slips in and out of a freshly buried corpse (24)

In the absence of the mother, the violence of the rat highlights the vulnerability of the body in the act of birth, showing babies that are devoured before they have fully exited the vagina and entered the world. In fact, these babies have not even fully entered discourse; Kim separates them from the sentence by cradling them in parentheses — grammatical labia that echo the physical ones. The violence Kim describes is as frank as it is morbid, and this poem neither offers a clear protest against it nor a perverse celebration of it. In so many of her poems, the body itself seems to breed these moments of bloody evisceration. Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers both asserts the body’s inescapability, giving voice to the corporeality that is left out of Korean men’s poetry, while at the same time emphasizing the violence to which the body remains vulnerable even when sheathed in language, because language itself opens up new paths to violence. These two qualities of Kim’s poetic bodies do not necessarily work at cross-purposes, but rather suggest that violence is, as Judith Butler puts it, “an exploitation of that primary tie, that primary way in which we are, as bodies, outside ourselves, for one another.”[8]


1. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 21–22.

2. This poem is also collected in Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women, by Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, trans. Don Mee Choi (Brookline: Zephyr Press, 2006). This edition indicates using facing-page translation that the punctuation is Kim’s own, not a feature of Choi’s translation.

3. Don Mee Choi, “Korean Women — Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun,” positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003): 539.

4. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 69.

5. Choi, 535.

6. Ibid., 533.

7. Kim, Ch’oe Sung-ja, and Yi Yon-ju, 105.

8. Butler, 22.

Exiting the sacred wood

A review of 'On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry'

On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

Norman Finkelstein

University of Iowa Press 2010, 294 pages, $39.95, ISBN 1-58729-857-0

One of the abiding legacies of modernist poetry is the figure of the poet as rebellious intellectual, eager to dissolve pieties that typify the status quo. Another legacy, carried over from Romanticism, is that of the poet as force of counterenlightenment, vesting poetry with the task of binding and reenchanting communal life in the face of scientific materialism and economic liberalism. The manifestation of these tendencies spanned left to right on the political spectrum. Williams’s Spring and All might want to rescue the rose from the accreted associations of science and “poetry,” but it also describes the modernist revolution of the imagination in the language of eschatology, and cinemas as descendants of cathedrals. Pound’s The Cantos is simultaneously a schoolbook for princes at the nonaccredited Ezuversity and a discerning reader’s initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. The coexistence of intellectual iconoclasm and enchantment differs from the dialectic of doubt and faith in devotional verse because the modernist poet asserts a measure of control over divine forces.

Importing this problematic to contemporary poetry, Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry advances the argument that American experimental poets continue to dwell on the sacred, even in a secular age. Finkelstein’s preference for the categorical term “experimental” over “avant-garde” and “postmodern” preserves this coexistence, figuring formally radical poetry as rogue lab work. In other words, not only is religious experience still relevant, but it is also the concern of poetic communities that privilege innovation. The book’s author-centered chapters demonstrate that conviction about the necessary cultural role of sacral thought has fed off old traditions of dissident religious movements. Finkelstein draws on Steven M. Wasserstrom’s idea of religion after religion, the theosophy-like integration of beliefs from numerous religions in the name of a higher unity, in order to suggest a canon of American poets concerned with forms of the sacred: Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Jack Spicer, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Armand Schwerner. As Finkelstein puts it, representations of the sacred in writings by these poets are “heterodox, syncretic, and revisionary” (7), frequently steeped in the language and imagery of Gnosticism. Wasserstrom describes the upshot of this higher unity as “a religion resistant to rupture” (quoted on 6).

Finkelstein’s introduction begins in the nineteenth century at the moment when leading writers began to challenge the cultural hegemony of Christianity in favor of radically different modes of religious thought. The founder of this tradition in American literature is Emerson, the lapsed Unitarian, who in 1844 declared poets “liberating gods.” Their newly asserted power entailed, according to Finkelstein, “an emphasis on the spirituality of things as revealed by the poet, and on the eternal embodied in the immediate and in the person of the American individual, as opposed to the ‘play,’ or drama of the Christian alpha and omega, Genesis and Apocalypse” (9). Commonly enough, Finkelstein identifies Whitman and Dickinson as poets who aspire to assume the power promised by Emerson. Through a reading of several poems by both, he also provides a new account of how their dynamic and transgressive relations to the sacred involve preoccupations — materiality, ordinariness, and the self’s lack of integrity — that would become ubiquitous in twentieth-century poetry, especially among the postwar avant-garde. Modernists placed in the same orbit are Stevens, Crane, and, most influentially, H.D., whose pride of place is a marker of the book’s timeliness. This line of influence is distinguished from the one connecting Arnold and Eliot, which locates religious authority outside the self and holds art up to standards set by religion.

In addition to Wasserstrom, Finkelstein’s commitments in defining terms like “sacred” and “religion” rest with Harold Bloom and Eric Santner. Throughout his career, Bloom has forcefully argued for the dependence of religion on the resources of poetry, and hence for poetry’s conceptual precedence. According to Finkelstein, this makes poetry the choice cultural medium through which to effect widespread change in perceptions of the sacred. Likewise, Santner proposes what he calls a “psychotheology” derived from Freud and Rosenzweig that purports to model how this change occurs: namely, by discovering “remnants,” or thoughts, feelings, and myths that open a vista onto that which the prevailing social and cosmic order cannot accommodate. In Trilogy, Finkelstein reminds us, H.D. characterizes poets as the “living remnant // of the inner band / of the sanctuaries initiate” (qtd. on 25), where “living remnant” is both a loaded, layered Gnostic phrase and a generative paradox. The three tropes that generate psychotheological poetry, which are interwoven throughout the book’s chapters, are the poet as medium of divinity (prophet, Spicer’s radio, spiritualist, shaman, translator), as Orphic artificer of kosmos, and as imperfect subject of gnosis.

With the exception of Spicer’s poems, the key texts date from the 1970s or later, up to Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem (2006), as a result of which the book’s purchase is remarkably current. Chapter 1 argues that the radical stylistic shift in late Duncan — specifically, the two volumes of Ground Work — represents his attempt to write serial poems that approach the form of scripture, enacting the poet’s self-sacrifice as a means to salvation. Here and in the following chapters, care is taken to distinguish between poetry that interprets or reflects religious experience — and hence can meet the approval of critics like Arnold or Eliot — and poetry like Duncan’s that purports to enact religious experience formally (15). To this end, chapter 1 also gives an interesting account of Duncan’s debt to Stein’s compositional techniques, linking scripture to écriture. Chapter 2 details Ronald Johnson’s relationship to Duncan and explores the architecture of Johnson’s ARK as an Orphic melding of cosmic and natural history with Objectivist influences. Interweaving backward glances to Dickinson and forward glances to Howe, chapter 3 explores Spicer’s concept of dictation through the theologies of Gnosticism and Calvinism, arguing that his overriding poetic concern is the painful otherness of divinity and grace. Chapter 4 frames a range of Howe’s writing, from My Emily Dickinson through The Nonconformist’s Memorial, with reference to the forum of a particular type of medium, the spiritualist séance. What he adds to the growing critical literature on Howe is a valuable discussion of the play between attraction and repulsion to sacred violence, compounded by anxieties about complicity in the histories her books revive.

Leaving Howe’s Protestant conception of antinomianism for one that signifies rigorous skepticism about any belief system, chapter 5 argues that opposition to linguistic and metaphysical orthodoxy is Michael Palmer’s form of heresy, in which intimations of divine presence are whittled down to their own absence. Particularly under attack is the figure of the lyric poet as prophet. According to Finkelstein, Palmer’s Sun is the culmination of the trajectory of this attack, stretching from Baudelaire’s heroic rejection of aura and the modernist poet’s heroic self-sacrifice into the poem to Palmer’s foregoing of heroism entirely for the vagaries of the Derridean trace. The sacred becomes indistinguishable from the continual rendering of disillusionment in poetic form. Chapter 6 considers Nathaniel Mackey as a shaman, or, in the terms of ethnopoetics, a “technician of the sacred,” bent on mass healing and the establishment of a collective mythology that blends the belief systems of the African Diaspora with the cosmogonic spiritual exile fundamental to Gnosticism. The interplay between Mackey’s two ongoing serial poems, “mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou, signifies physical and spiritual travel between utopian spaces and the legacy of historical catastrophe. Chapter 7 concentrates on a poet whose attraction to ethnopoetics is conditioned by a more ironic stance toward archaic records of sacred discourse, Armand Schwerner. Finkelstein argues that Schwerner’s The Tablets, a critique and parody of modernist archaeologism, is an elegy for what Derrida calls “the civilization of the book” that probes the complexity of “translating” revelation into intelligibility. Schwerner’s poetics applies Stevens’ approach to the “real” to the historical and mythical materials of Eliot and Pound, circumventing their nostalgia for the completeness of older belief systems.

Perhaps because of Finkelstein’s dependence on the paradox of religion after religion, contemporary poets’ relations to institutional forms of the sacred are not explored in On Mount Vision. There is an important theological difference between syncretic religious discourse on one hand and ecumenical or interfaith discourse on the other, but Finkelstein’s description of Eliot as the head of a tradition counter to Emerson’s might be taken to suggest that these alternatives amount to crypto-orthodoxy (17–18). It would be interesting to know whether Finkelstein thinks that a poet like Fanny Howe, who identifies as a Catholic, is similarly eligible to intervene in the discourse of the sacred, or what a consideration of poets with more popular religious affiliations would add to his project. This might be accomplished for the poets he does treat through more attention to the circulation and sociality of esoteric religious poetry, such as Mackey’s bid to “recruit” initiates through extensive explicatory interviews, and to the social setting of religious tropes and terms that are treated on a strictly discursive level. For instance, it is not clear whether observing that Palmer’s approach to writing “resemble[s] that of a mystic” uncomplicatedly relates to the chapter’s overriding argument that he is a heretic (142). And if he espouses a “heretical secularism” (183), then what is the opposing dogma, and who enforces it? To borrow a schematic from Bruce Lincoln, what practices, communities, and institutions realize these terms at different historical moments? How do these poets think it happens that “a sect of one” can “renew or redeem human potential” (18, 26)?

The book also left me with questions about national poetries and periodization. When Finkelstein introduces Emerson as the writer who “establishes the American difference in literature” (7), I wanted to ask to what if any degree the book’s selection of forms of the sacred subscribes to a version of American exceptionalism. What would it mean to say that experimental poets in search of sacred truths are shaped by decisively national forces? Is it possible that these forms’ idiosyncratic configurations of belief match a theological (or theologized) individualism that prevails among Americans generally? Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, which Finkelstein mentions briefly in another regard, speculates that American-born Christian denominations are theologically akin to Gnosticism, whereas Charles Taylor argues that the mixture of sacred and profane is endemic to life throughout the West in a secular age. Taylor offers the example of Christian scriptural literalists who use putatively scientific methods to discern the calendar date of the Creation four thousand years ago. In other words, are these forms of the sacred uniquely American, and if so, why? Does that mean that H.D.’s Gnostic modernism is importantly American, despite her expatriation?

These questions are meant to suggest a few directions for further inquiry, and to bring the book’s successes into sharp relief. Finkelstein pushes back against the idea that religion is dead, intellectually retrograde, or, according to numerous species of ideological critique, empty. He establishes beyond doubt the importance of religious expression to considerations of what is vital in contemporary American poetry. And, as he points out in his chapter on Nathaniel Mackey, with the resurgence of religious justifications for domestic and international political conflict, the need to gain a better understanding of how different forms of the sacred function in culture is only growing. The alertness and detail of his readings, their mapping out of the finer points of elaborate personal mythologies, and the convincing construction of a larger literary tradition into which contemporary poets fall significantly improve our ability to frame our engagement with a wide range of poems. Regardless of conceptual priority, the history of religion is crucial to understanding the development of modern poetry, and, as On Mount Vision affirms, present forms of the sacred are as numerous as ever.

Works Cited

 Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Finkelstein, Norman. On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

 Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap, 2007.

There is a war. There is a Neighbor.

A review of 'Neighbor'



by Rachel Levitsky

Ugly Duckling Presse 2009, 96 pages, $15, ISBN 1-933254-49-4

In Rachel Levitsky’s Neighbor, there is a baby born and being born, there is an apartment, there is a fire escape, there is a creaking floor, there are levels, there is a nation. There is a war. There are lovers, and there is the neighbor, who is sometimes a lover, sometimes noisy, sometimes screaming, and always intimate.

The quotidian immediacy of the neighbor occurs within a larger community that also consists of the government. As Claudia Rankine has said in an interview on, “I believe that where we are, how we are allowed to live, is determined by the politics of the land — the big politics and the little politics.” Levitsky captures the small chaos of the politics that take place within hallways and walls. But there are also politics so large as to be fearsome and almost unknowable, the kind of politics that get us into wars and make us pay taxes, be obedient, and subversive. The sometimes-telephoned police are like obelisks, interlocutors between the national and the local, channeling civic energy to the populace. But then the actual encounter between us/them, me/you, law/freedom comes down to the neighbor — the ungovernable neighbor.

We can become those who report on our neighbor.
Their noise, their fucking noise. (44)

Relations with the neighbor take myriad forms — litigious, indifferent, fearful, sexual, violent, educational, mysterious. Relations with the neighbor are continually negotiated around complexities of gender, income, class, ethnicity, religion: all the multiples of community that outline the individual, the resident who speaks and writes, or tries to, anyway, through the conversational static generated by many. 

Today Neighbor has forgotten my name
while we were fucking.

I think we were.
He called me something.

Sweetie. No…. Teacher.

Make up your mind.

And then snored some more.
I couldn’t bear it.

I cried out the window…. Please! (34)

The original architecture of this book, which Levitsky acknowledges in her notes was mostly gotten rid of (or “leveled”), is still reflected in these poems’ vertiginous distances between private and public within physically proximate communities. Neighbor includes details of close living, but simultaneously, we, as in “in the United States / which calls itself America. // United Statesians known as / Americans, and Canadians, // Canadians, Mexicans / Mexicans” (20) are neighbors on a larger — national, global — scale. We can love our neighbors, or we can report them to the government, and then they can be drafted, and they, or “we,” can go to war.

Levitsky interrogates just about every nut and bolt that goes into community, civic and otherwise, and incorporates political theory gently into Neighbor, particularly Giorgio Agamben (and her sly and irresistible sense of humor certainly makes us aware of the double entendre behind The Coming Community). “God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority,” Agamben writes. The neighbor insists on the private made public, public made private, and in that movement, inflicted upon both self and other, is the taking-place, taking of place. In a sort of neighborly chain of communication, Agamben quotes Ernst Bloch quoting a story told by Walter Benjamin that he heard from Gershom Sholem, quoting the messianic rabbis: “A rabbi, a real cabalist, once said that in order to establish the reign of peace it is not necessary to destroy everything nor to begin a completely new world. It is sufficient to displace this cup or this bush or this stone just a little, and thus everything. But this small displacement is so difficult to achieve and its measure is so difficult to find that with regard the world, humans are incapable of it and it is necessary that the messiah come.”

Rachel Levitsky
Rachel Levitsky photographed by Benjamin Burrill

Somewhere in the public/private exchanges of Neighbor/neighbor is/are this small shift(s) (can change be plural?) of what doesn’t/does happen. Again, Agamben: “humans are guilty for what they lack, for an act they have not committed.” In addressing how the word is made flesh, so to speak — a perennially difficult, or impossible, task in poetry — Levitsky collapses the distance between analysis and actuality. But for Levitsky, that task is also just about irresistible, so much so that it seems inevitable without being predictable.

I hang back to get behind her
noise, to watch her, from behind.

Better view
quieter. (53)

Thus the “noise” of community, of multiplicity, is quelled at the moment of perception, a moment with an undertone of desire — until the cops show up again, and objective law is re-established, temporarily.

Structure(s), whether legal, familial or physical, is both important to and rebelled against in Neighbor — what does it mean to write a work mimetic of physical structure, and then to move away from that precision of the material? Again, scaffolding —architecture – begins the book, and that architecture is then inhabited by people, by language. Its shape begins to change, to adjust, to break down, to bulge, which reveals the unpredictable entropy of use. Levitsky even points our attention to the process: the poem moves between transparency and reflection without allowing the objective correlative, architecture, to keep its integrity.

At the time I type this
I’ve been at it for one year

the last six months
completely in my head

where there are many levels.
The problem is whether they

are connected or if
they are levels

at all. “A level” may connote a
piece in a unified structure,

or unity of disconnected parts
firmly housed. By what?

The State or me
or if I am the State.

I am a collection
of desire

housed. (13)

If anyone or anything in Neighbor is going to learn something, it’s the “I,” who often shades into the poem — the poem becomes an I watching its own writing, even as the writing, like the building, takes shape around the humans within and about it.