A literary walking uphill

A review of 'Not Blessed'

Not Blessed

Not Blessed

by Harold Abromowitz

Les Figues 2010, 81 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-1-934254-13-4


So Delilah cuts Samson’s hair and the Philistines gouge out his eyes. Captive, his hair grows back, his strength returns, he is summoned to the temple to provide amusement, and then the business with the pillars. How, specifically, does Samson, eyeless in Gaza, make his way to his appointment? 

Parallel translations of Judges 16:26 in whole or in part:

“Samson told the young man” (GOD’S WORD ® Translation, 1995)

“Samson said to the servant” (New International Version, 1984)

“Samson said to the young servant” (New Living Translation, 2007)

“Samson said to the young man” (English Standard Version, 2001)

“Samson said to the boy” (New American Standard Bible, 1995)

“And Samson said unto the lad” (King James)

“And he said to the lad that guided his steps: Suffer me to touch the pillars which support the whole house, and let me lean upon them, and rest a little” (Douay-Rheims Bible)

“And Samson said to the lad who held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house resteth”  (Darby Bible Translation)

What is the effect of reading the various translations of the verse in succession? — Who or what rests? Who suffers? What does the servant, young man, lad, boy, look like? What does he feel for Samson, how does he hold his hand, and what does Samson feel for him, being held by the hand, being led, his steps guided, again and again? 

Though he never finished it, Ralph Ellison accumulated at least 2000 pages of a second novel. Posthumously edited, condensed, and published as Juneteenth, the publication obscures what its editor describes as the revisions, reconceptions, entirely rewritten and reworked scenes surrounding a black preacher and his light-skinned protégé turned race-baiting senator. Such inclusion of the repeatedly written and rewritten scenes might have loaned more weight to a scene in which the protégé recalls and cannot let go of, can no longer push away the question — “do you think that little boy got killed? …. What I mean is, do you think old Samson forgot to tell that boy what he was fixing to do?” 


Jorge Luis Borges perhaps understates the case in a prologue to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “He was unusually preoccupied with Abraham’s sacrifice.” 


excerpt from Not Blessed, via Les Figues Press

Harold Abramowitz’s Not Blessed is an eighty-one-page preoccupation with an uphill scene in twenty-eight parts, one for each day of February. There is a boy and some kind of doppelganger on a parallel trail, a grandmother, a hunter, a police officer, a hint of scandal, notoriety, fame, resentment, a future, and a sense of mistranslation. It is an ambiguously worrying story. Where Kierkegaard’s Johannes’s initial difficulty in reconciling the story of Abraham, beginning with four attempts to tell it at the beginning of Fear and Trembling, leads to something of a rich affirmation of the knight of faith, Abramowitz’s story, also a literary walking uphill, grows in its repetition ever more ponderous as we come to suspect we will never arrive. At eighty-one short, clear pages, it should be, but is not, a quick read.


William James reminds us how the memory of an insult often hurts us more than it did when first delivered. It grows heavy with us. This is about the obsession with a story. Pondering, like essaying, if traced to its material root, denotes weighing, and also deliberation — ponder the path. The walk of Not Blessed is, generically, a ponderance.


Its preponderant effect is not one of juxtaposition but of accumulation. It seems less to be about repetition, or even repetition with variation, than an overlaying tramp of a sort. Visually, it is less a Warhol silkscreen, an Elvis (Eleven Times), than something like Corinne Vionnet’s superimposition of hundreds of tourist photographs of world landmarks, providing an effect of vague and ghostly margins over a deepening but now supernatural subject. 


Walking the same road, part of it well worn, but on this day he walks further than he has ever walked. We get a few constant and sure returns. We will always be walking away, and we will never get too far, we will vary a bit, we might see the other boy. We might understand this dispute with the policeman, the nature of our notoriety and our scandal, our fineness and prominence, but such answers cease to matter — that they’re there becomes somehow comforting and sure.

The book is a constitutional. It has a discipline and it’s good for you; it’s done once a day on the cleanest month that gives us a perfect moon cycle. It has the language of asceticism, detached and appearing to lack vanity — “exercise kept him healthy, trim, and fit,”

There is a correlative to what is called muscle memory in the approach to paths, a habitual understanding of steps, of where to go, where to step, where to dip the leg, feel for a click. You walk from bed to bathroom every night in the dark, and while you cannot recount it now, you’ve never counted the steps, you don’t quite know or can’t tell me what all gets in the way, why you slow down and where, what you’ve stubbed a toe on, what side the light switch is on, whether it’s inside our outside the bathroom door, but you actually know it well enough habitually.

Abramowitz repeats the walk but confuses the muscle in his pronouns, his historical placement, his degree of formality, his verb tenses. 


Consider some of the tellings of one recurring incident in a selection of chapters:

1. I came across a policeman who did not recognize me. But I am my grandmother’s grandson and I have lived in the village my whole life, I told the policeman. The question I should have asked was, who are you?

2. […] a policeman suddenly appeared. The policeman, seeing a young boy alone, was immediately concerned for my well-being. The policeman took me by the hand and asked me my name and where I’d come from. I’d grown up in the village, and this exchange with the policeman came as an almost complete surprise. After all, I was one of the sons of the village, later to become a relatively prominent figure.

3. Suddenly a policeman emerged from the forest. The policeman approached the boy. The policeman asked the boy if he was lost. The policeman asked the boy his name and where he’d come from. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. His grandmother was one of the finest people the village had ever known. He himself would grow up and become a relatively prominent figure. He would, in fact, give the village its first measure of notoriety. How could the policeman not know who he would grow up to become.

7. He was almost to the edge of the forest when he suddenly saw a policeman standing in the middle of the road. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. The policeman spoke gently to the boy. He asked the boy his name where he’d come from. At first, the boy was very angry that the policeman pretended not to know who he was. His grandmother had lived in the village her whole life. The boy would grow up to become a famous and well-respected figure. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. He spoke to him quite gently.

13. I then remember hearing leaves crack and heavy footsteps behind me. I turned around and saw a tall policeman. The policeman asked me my name and where I’d come from. At first I was relieved, and then I was angry. My grandmother had lived in and around the village her whole life, and I could not believe that I should be taken for a stranger by this tall policeman. Surely he must have lived to regret his mistake. The policeman would have to lie over and over again to avoid telling the true story of our meeting that day by the lake. I would, in fact, grow up and become a relatively famous man. I would, in fact, bring the village its first measure of notoriety.

21. The policeman slung the boy over his shoulder, in the manner of a sack, and carried him home. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry.

24. Suddenly, a policeman emerged from the forest with freshly killed game slung over his shoulder, in the manner of a sack. The policeman approached the boy from the opposite end of the road. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. The policeman asked the boy his name and where he’d come from. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. The policeman gathered the boy in his arms. At first the boy was relieved, and then he was angry. How could the policeman not have recognized him. He would grow up to give the village its first measure of notoriety. His grandmother had lived in the village her whole life. The policeman would eventually pay for what he’d done. He would have to lie to his friends at the tavern, he would have to lie to his family. One day the policeman would have to change his story. He would have to lie about what had happened that day in the forest.


In A. K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” about the tellings of the story of Rama, their transposition and reflexivity of one translation upon another, the way that later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings, Ramanujan provides a favorite example from the sixteenth century.

[In this telling,] when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out: “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?” That clinches the argument and she goes with him.


“There is a version of events that will haunt us even in our darkest hours.” Not Blessed seems also about the utter untestability of recalling a story, an incident, how we saw it, what we felt of it, what it did to us, what we remembered at the time, what memory was like before such a dream, such an incident — the impossibility of verifying a dream. 

Maya Deren wrote of her film, Meshes of the Afternoon that it was “concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons.” The subconscious, she writes, “will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” In this way, Not Blessed attempts to elaborate the formality of the eulogy. 

The iterations are also an accumulation of threats. Deren’s Meshes — a curved road, a telephone, a breadknife, oblique disfigured reflections in the knife and mirrored face of the hooded figure, exhausting disorientations in what is really a short piece even when considering all its variants — tires us. The accumulating Mayas, asleep, at the window, translucent in the window’s reflection, watching out the window yet another Maya chase the elusive figure, the last Maya then climbing the stairs to join the others and we await the next iteration — knife, stairs, key, path, stairway to the left. Abramowitz’s Not Blessed gives us a kindred exhaustion.


Iteration is dangerous in literature. It suggests that prophecy is not ingenuous. It suggests lifelessness — “the lifeless iteration of misunderstood doctrines and rites, which kill the soul” as Sarah Austin translates Leopold Ranke’s History of the Reformation of Germany. The ingeminate tale of a boy walking from his grandmother’s house feels scandalous because of its rehearsal and search for the right words that don’t exist because it must all be a lie.

This unusual preoccupation with what we can recognize as a scandal is at the heart of Not Blessed — also an unusual attention to the minor and marginal small triggers of a scandal that emerge prominently because of the form Abramowitz’s book takes. Whatever is new in each piece catches us. Abramowitz takes his book’s title and epigram from Jeremiah’s complaint, where, lamenting that he was born, he curses not his father, not God, not his mother, but the man who brought his father the news that he was born — the unusual preoccupation of a prophet with a newsman. Jeremiah is accused for a false prophet bringing the bad news of Israel’s impeding enslavement, and bitterly walks the streets with a yoke on his neck to mock his own people who will not hear him. 

The repetition of Not Blessed, in its mix of mythic languages — old fishing village and the wisest of women coupled with a dishonest boyhood in the backseat of a car — makes us attend ever more vaguely to the nonrecurrences in each telling, and these will not leave us alone.

Allowing oneself to 'be the city'

A review of 'The City Real & Imagined'

The City Real & Imagined

The City Real & Imagined

by CA Conrad and Frank Sherlock

Factory School 2010, 100 pages, $15.00, ISBN 9781600010736

(Soma)tic Procedure:  Every morning for six days read fifteen pages of The City Real & Imagined as a new and crucial part of your morning routine — whether this be a walking commute, a subway ride cross borough, a bus ride, etc. This addition should feel natural, necessary. Do not be afraid to read while walking — it is morning, the sun is out, people can see you, the streets are watching.  Do not read more than sixteen pages — savor the text, do not try to figure out who is speaking, instead, place yourself inside the conversation, imagine your city is the city of Conrad and Sherlock, because it is. Mark the pages you fall in love with — use hot pink flags to help you remember this. At the end of your day, meaning post-dinner, post-work, post, revisit the pages and passages you’ve flagged. Respond to each of these pages or passages in six words. Revisit these words and see where they travel. Compose an “essay” in six parts, using one outside source per part.

I.  city. shadow. radio. please. working. street.

 I can’t help but think about Williams’s author’s note to Paterson

a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. (xiv)

I think the reason why this book’s opening takes me back to Williams is not necessarily the connection between Conrad and Sherlock’s commitment to place and space, but rather the humanizing and humanist impulse to own and therefore empower the urban landscape by allowing oneself to “be the city.” On the very first page of The City Real & Imagined, we encounter: “dear / impatient / city I / Love?” (7) — an epistolary moment that traverses urban sprawl/spew, with a nod to the chaos we all live amidst, and somehow manage to Love (with a capital “L”). “We are told in many ways that song / is / not enough” (18). The “song / is / not enough” because the song is only one form, one mode of interaction with language and audience. Rob Halpern addresses this move beyond the singular (in terms of author/form/poem/art/space/etc.) as “investigat[ing] strategies for interrupting the reproduction and smooth maintenance of social spaces in and around which lived bodies organize themselves.” The importance of the work that Conrad and Sherlock do, and the idea that they collaborate and move through Philadelphia as two separate bodies, is that more bodies need to be less concerned with “smooth maintenance” and more interested in “interruptions.”

II. decontrol. language. theism. shop. insects. planet. 

Too often we forget about the “human” in human geography. This book reminds us that every city is a peopled space. As Carl Sauer writes in his “Foreword to Historical Geography,” “We know that habitat must be referred to habit, that habit is the activated learning common to a group, and that it may be endlessly subject to change.” What Conrad and Sherlock really enliven in their book is this sense of “activated” or “active learning” that is (and should) be “endlessly subject to change.” Cities change. Places change. “Oh bondage up / yours. We echo this in different languages” (25).


These “different languages” might be our bodies, the way these bodies and languages occupy and engage or challenge space. And, these “different languages” might also take into account the many ways that culture is always in flux — even if a culture becomes an accepted part of a city, “these are processes involving time and not simply chronologic time, but especially those moments of cultural history when the group possesses the energy of invention or the receptivity to acquire new ways” (Sauer). We see through this book of collaboration and conversation that invention does originate in the voice of people/the people. We see that we can write our own “cultural history” by engaging physically with our city our planets. “A chocolate ear is sold as The Mike / Tyson Special. A chocolate man I / think is Teddy Roosevelt is nobody / really, but somebody really. / I’m seeing Masons everywhere” (37)

III. station. woman. lollipop. emblem. half-life. queer. (40–56)

By titling this collection, The City Real & and Imagined, it is evident that Conrad and Sherlock are presenting the reader with a simultaneous construction of real physical and social space, while at the same time inviting readers to collaborate in their imaginative re-visioning of that same locale. As Maya Deren writes in “Cinema as an Independent Art Form,” “A truly creative work of art creates a new reality and itself constitutes an experience, in contrast to the merely descriptive effort which produces an existent reality or adventure” (245). Although Deren is writing about film and cinematography, Conrad and Sherlock’s work of investigation and visualization speaks directly to how she constructs the difference between creativity and reality. If a “truly creative work of art creates a new reality,” then lines like “this man this statue keeps me company on a Locust” (44) and “working Elvis into / everything is easy” (47) envelop the reader into the experience of [This] City Real & Imagined. Conrad and Sherlock alternate through the open field of the page, creating a collusion of description so real it can and can’t possibly be so. This book presents a variant and variable experience, offering readers tangibles like “the paint chips that rust / between these fingers / reveal a structural half-life” (49) and “how many poems / did I write on / South Street Bridge / feeling a current / enter our city?” (54).

IV. powder. gurney. milk. polarity. curbline. personally.

Aren’t we all just tourists in our own minds? Aren’t we all just tourists of our own right? Rights? “We meet it simply/by entering an unlocked gate” (59). In an interview that touches on the composition of this book, Frank Sherlock mentions, “the city was a place for [Conrad] to escape to, while this work was a chance for me to re-imagine the city I grew up in.” So, while the two are walking through Philadelphia, the text becomes the walk and the walk becomes the collaboration. Here I’m reminded of Michel de Certeau’s investigation of “walking in the city,” where he writes, “Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future” (91). Although de Certeau is writing about New York City, he presents us with a description that invokes the amount of movement any given cityscape creates. Because “everyone’s good / old days smells / of a purer state / of tyranny” (60), we know and walk through the changes that surround us, via line breaks, gentrification, the time the sun sets on any given day. De Certeau continues “walking in the city” by taking a closer look at the connection between “power” and “urbanization,” ultimately positing, “walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it speaks” (99). So, when encountering lines like, “each Philadelphian / makes these streets / by seeing them/with our lives” (69), I can’t help but be overcome by the notion that the civic statement of walking enables the public rewriting of even the most familiar streets. This is activism, activeness, and the repossession of the necessity that we all occupy and embrace a certain public seat. Remember, “Beliefs / even false ones / aren’t mistakes” (63–4).

V. tavern. banjo. housewife. conjurers. relics. earmark.

Thom Donovan writes,

In The City Real and Imagined a polyphony of voices speak through Conrad’s and Frank’s exchanges. Or, to be more specific, Conrad and Frank speak with these voices; such voices are not just ethnographic curiosities but come from people the poets see around, talk with, and with whom they share a conversation. Through this conversation with Philadelphia’s neglected, Conrad and Frank argue for an open public discourse against American hermeticism. 

So, when “I can’t help but recite the first / weather and breaking news” (74), the sense the reader gets is that one needs to be committed to the public, as well as to the political. One needs the line break after “first,” emphasizing the power of the recitation, and isolating the too often absurdities of the “weather and breaking news.” It is also important to remember that the location of this text, these walks, lines, is indeed Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” the place William Penn promised would bring the rarity of both religious freedom and economic opportunity. Almost 330 years later, Conrad and Sherlock’s words are imperative — “I’m bored with / dissatisfaction / but fear its / dull foe / complacency.” (76–7) And, that they echo Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” indicating that complacency should never be an option because “does the skyline really change?” (88). And, if activism takes place in physical acts of walking and documenting the streets, we must keep in mind David Harvey’s idea that, “the body can then be viewed as a nexus through which the possibilities for an emancipatory politics can be approached” (130). So, power is human, proletariat, “building is built from bone / Skin steams away in no time / but the relics stay around much longer” (86).

VI. stilts. attempt. seductive. purchase. translates. new.

Because the City Real & Imagined is such a testament to the importance of urban landscapes and the way the cities we walk through walk through more than we realize. Because the City Real & Imagined is a text of heretics, hermeneutics, heroicism, as well a daybook of conversation, rare real friendship in action in dialogue. Paul Thek says, “We accept our thingness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.” This book asks readers to accept the “thingness” of our human bodies, and to let them walk through space and place. Yet, this book also asks that we remember that all bodies matter. That, “it’s chaos / who gets the / earmark / never the / Daily Beauties” (89) or “I am here to be new to / the city that birthed me & new to / this case that has carried me through” (91). The City Real & Imagined is a volume that belongs in every hand on every street in every city. It speaks to us and says, “I will live / with you like / war has finally / ended please / meet me / there.” (31–2)



Works Cited


De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” In The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Deren, Maya. “Cinema as an Independent Art Form.” In Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: McPherson, 2005.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Sauer, Carl O. “Foreword to Historical Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 31 (1941): 1–24.

Swenson, Gene R. “Beneath the Skin: Interview with Paul Thek.” Artnews 65, no. 2 (April 1966): 35.

Williams, William Carlos. “A Statement by William Carlos Williams About the Poem Paterson.” In Paterson, xiv. New York: New Directions, 1995.

The longing, in language, for a connection

A review of 'Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan'

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop

Burning Deck 2009, 136 pages, $14, ISBN 978-1-886224-97-1

Any discussion of Jean Daive’s Under The Dome: Walks with Paul Celan must start with admiration for the work of the translator. For the French poet Daive’s chronicle of Paris walks with the great German-language poet Celan is a treatise on the question of translation, operating at precisely the point where translation meets poetry. That is, at the edge of the incommunicable. The allure of this odd chronicle has to do in part with an endlessly short-circuited intimacy during a half-decade of Paris walks — a failure that is clearly a trope for the difficulty of language to transmit over deep and definite gulfs. Each poet is conversant in the other’s language, indeed, translates the other. Yet so many of their conversations are riddled with ellipses, with gaps, with odd performative reaches, that the reader is endlessly aware of the tension between languages, between systems and ways of speaking. Rosmarie Waldrop does a remarkable job of scoring the sense of moving between systems, through all that gets left in the abyss. One can literally feel in the brilliant Waldrop English-language version of Sous la coupole that restlessness of the mind, that reach that involves a continual motion between different strives toward poetic gesture. Her translation of this chronicle which is so much, in itself, about translation, is one of those exemplary renderings from one language to another that adds as much or more than gets subtracted.

My first encounter with Rosmarie Waldrop’s writing was A Key Into The Language of America, a poetic reinscription of a colonial document about an essentially missing indigenous language in the Rhode Island region. I was at first troubled reading the text, which is both poetry and essay, by the inference that what is left of the missing “Indian” is alone (my italics) difficult place names. But the German-born American poet Waldrop’s project turned out to involve a language-focused reveal of the limits of consciousness  prevailing in her adopted culture vis-à-vis the indigenous Other. It was a serious interrogation and poetic re-splicing of a “progressive” 1643 chronicle about the “Indians” of the region and their language, written by Roger Williams, whose very presence as a colonizer of Indian land augured the cultural genocide to come. A good example of the layers of time and thinking involved in translation.

In translating Daive’s Under The Dome, Waldrop is acting in the more usual translator mode of directly channeling into English a French-language story involving a German-Jewish poet refugee from a mid-twentieth-century European genocide. It would be tempting as a translator to smooth over the gaps, the awkwardnesses, the misfires, a little, for the sake of clarity. But this important translation excavates what Benjamin called the poetic essential of the text by deploying language that very quietly, unobtrusively, has the effect of metonymically underscoring the layers of transliteration already present in Jean Daive’s recounting of his 1965–1970 Paris walks with the great Celan. Written twenty years after the fact, in prose fragments that often recall, in tone, the discursive language acts of nouvelle vague cinema, the translation is in turn taking place a couple of decades after the text is written. But time cannot alter the longing, in language, for connection. I find myself almost physically experiencing the actual sense of continual transition between systems of thinking, which is, indeed, the poetic secret of the text and of Waldrop’s adroit translation. Precisely because the effect is cumulative, is a metonymic progression, it is difficult to provide an analysis in this space of how she accomplishes this task. Sometimes, it is with what seems to me an odd choice for an English rendering. Here is a tiny instance of that:

— There is a trap. There is a trap between Paul and me.

I might have been tempted, here, to reach a little more. The English “There is a trap between Paul and me” is odd. Speculating on the French version, which I have not seen, I might have said: “There is a serious complication with Paul.” But Waldrop, the poet, does not water the surface language for the sake of “message”; she takes it to the other extreme, and may, in so doing, reveal the text’s most profound measure.


If Daive’s memoir already suggests, with its semantic leaps, the “trap” of gaps or abysses experienced in conversations with Celan, the quite lovely prose fragments recounting those Paris walks also blur time. And the French poet’s refusal to make the slightest concession to the linear draw of prose releases the (non)meaning from the “trap” of that relationship. Like the donkey that Daive watches while writing the chronicle in a Greek Island café two decades later, Celan augments distance by remaining a static image that “does not let anything encroach …” Though he [the donkey!] “cries, he weeps, he brays,” what the chronicler Daive hears, in the untranslatable braying, is the anguish of the “still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.” The mass is Celan’s suiciding body. That the braying stands in for the poet in itself gives pause. A pause full of telling vectors about Daive’s take on the relationship. Celan is always leaving. That is, he is always disappearing into the obliquity of his own interior, reappearing seemingly with effort, with a certain pomp that may simply be the awkardness, again, of transiting syntax, so conversation seems performed:

— For it is said you shall translate on the seventh day.

— In which passage of the Bible is this written?

— A passage in my head.

— Ah.

And Jean Daive, the acolyte, panting for acknowlegement, appreciation, suffers from this distance, yet in that inimitable French way of seeing things for what they are, knows himself how to keep an ironic distance. He notes how often Celan, as they take leave of each other in front of the older poet’s apartment building, suggests “with perfectly controlled embarrassment, (that) I don’t come up because the cleaning woman didn’t come today.” Daive insists over and over again on Celan’s reticence. Re: the wartime deportation of his parents, for example, which he dislikes talking about. Or, Celan citing a remembered poster: “The One Alone exists.” — I listen, says Daive. I listen above all to his jerky diction that detaches every word, almost every syllable. The words so detached plunge into a state of waiting that indefinitely prolongs my listening. Paul creates an aquarium effect that muffles what he communicates, makes it hard to hold onto, hold onto immediately. He summons Celan’s morbidity — recounting how a dormitory nurse would wake the children mornings with Debout les morts (Up, you corpses).  Daive, watching the donkey, recalls, one more time, the report of Celan disappearing, then of his body found in the Seine.

Yet, there is nothing morbid about the walks. — As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and its move toward loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it. It requires an availability that is scorching, says Celan, while Daive contemplates the golden light (that) falls on our approaching fingers, fingers about to disturb with a golden-yellow handshake the usual distance. Always the hope of gold. The gold of poetry. The gold of a sunset. The gold of wonder around the next corner. One can feel the still (then) compelling shadow of surrealism on Daive’s recounting of their movements about the city. The strangeness of “hazard (risk)” that we, contemporaneously, trust less and less. Their walks awaken in the reader the retro desire to live as they seemed to. With time to sit and stroll and seek, in verbal exchanges that sometimes border on nonsense, the better to allow whatever can to surface. The better to find that place where angst meets pleasure in endless awkward conversations (cited extensively by Daive decades later — was he taking notes all the time?) that seem to be the map of their quest. — The search for groundlights is not enough (Celan). There’s the axis to be followed and … forgotten. You must above all find lightness — buoyancy — The permanent defiance of gravity.

We can't do it without the rose

A review of the film 'Under Foot & Overstory'

Under Foot & Understory

Under Foot & Overstory

a film written by Jason Livingston

16mm, 34:30 min, 2005

I’ve been captivated by the title of a Joseph Beuys lithograph since I saw it years ago. The image features the artist at his Documenta V desk in 1972, where for a hundred days he tirelessly debated radical politics with gallery visitors. An alert, focused Beuys anchors the bottom center; a section of the back of a head (his conversant) dominates the left foreground.  On the tabletop separating them, a single long-stemmed rose reaches up into the blank top portion of the composition, slicing the image in half. We can’t do it without the rose. What can’t be done without the flower and why must it go unnamed? Why the plural pronoun: “we”? Two heads converge with the help of a plant — and visuality is implicated. The image itself would wilt without the graphic aid of the flower — its diagonal stem line, tight crowd of petals, leaves pushing back at the picture plane in every direction. The rose is essential for some constellation of conversation, communion and composition.

There are no roses in Jason Livingston’s 16mm film Under Foot & Overstory (2005), but there are dozens of tall wild flowers in full and distinct bloom. Delighted, saturated, undeniably first-person views of burgundy and fuchsia petaled plants, Queen Anne’s Lace, bluebells, dandelions — as well as insects that roam them — punctuate this work in which the filmmaker himself is a double-headed creature, sitting at both sides of the table. He is both observer and participant as he documents the process by which the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which he is a member, struggle to produce a mission statement to protect two hundred acres of untouched land in Iowa City, currently threatened by development. His own “I” comes and goes willingly as he listens carefully to the way language works. The sound track consists, in part, of fragments from the transcript of collaborative composition-in-process, swaths from the stream of mission statement deliberation. Members labor over sentence construction and word choice. “I have a small issue with using the word natural twice,” the filmmaker himself declares. Others weigh in: “I’m a believer in bullets, colons.” “It doesn't have to be poetry — it’s a mission statement.”

Perhaps not, but poetry is strewn throughout the film, less an object or intention than a force — an animating presence. Livingston is an essayist, but his eyes are set firmly on the poetic mobility of language shards — he’s a collector and reassembler of samples from multiple and contradictory sources of mind-in-nature and he asks us to read them all. Accompanying the conversations of the convening Friends are images from a larger constellation of park-talk that turn language-making into something we can see: the printing press production of park calendars; journalists jotting on legal pads; views of a hand-scripted park journal written by a local outlaw; and a charades sequence, shot in black and white in the snowy woods, that dominates the film’s middle section (bracketed on each end by a piece of paper announcing “intermission”). Each is a fragment of inscription, a close up of the meeting place where the chaotic stream of language meets the ground of materiality.

… encouraging the well being of physical and mental — mind, body and spirit, if we want to go — go in that — crazy little thing — well-being — of mind, body and spirit — that’s good — encouraging? well-being. enhancing? I like enhancing. enhancing, that’s great. ok. would it be a mistake to move into words like contemplation? exercise? relaxation? contemplation. reflection? reflection is a nice word.

everybody could come up with a list of … these words, that they get out of it. by saying just well-being, we leave that open to — I think that’s right — open to personal interpretation. enhancement of personal well-being. overall well-being. I just rather — without getting into those touchy-feely words that — not that I’m opposed to them.

this is an interesting struggle we’re having here. I don’t mind using the word spiritual. I don’t mind using the word spirit. It’s that phrase — it connotes too much. yep. uh huh. but I think promoting well-being might be something …

which in itself has … carries meaning. it’s not empty. well-being.

does anyone feel like we've lost something significant? 

do we have a word processor?

We enter Under Foot and Overstory on a dirt path cutting through an emerald swath of woods, the image slightly rising and falling with the motion of what feels like the filmmaker’s feet. The up-and-down treading reappears, enlarged, in the ongoing joining of ground and sky in the film — from bare feet (again, the filmmaker’s, it seems) landing on grass to upward views of a snow-caked tree and towering flowers resting against a sky that couldn’t be bluer. This vertical travel is abstract as well: the film’s reverential consideration of the lush parkland (its spiritual potential) is joined by a steady taking-in of its most mundane and material elements — clipboards, throat clearings, bullet points.

The distinction between the filmmaker’s own feet and those of others blurs; the first-person singular morphs into the plural (again: we can’t do it without the rose). The rhythm of Livingston’s opening walk catalyzes a cascade of park-traversal from every direction and at every rhythm: a woman repeatedly roams its fields with a camera; a little boy bounces down a walkway with his father; a monarch jaggedly flutters; cross-country skiers glide by. Wheelbarrows, tractors, and shovels also make their own tracks in the land — at this point the “we” of the film includes the developers, too. All these crossings of the park, all the indentations made in the ground, are part of the cosmos of inscription that Livingston is following. 

The variety of language threads and registers present in the film — bureaucratic, poetic, public, private, spoken, written — stems in part from Livingston’s insistence on relentless listening over stylistic continuity. He describes Under Foot & Overstory as an experiment with placing “intervals of very subjective visionary-inflected styles of shooting” side by side with the reformist and persuasive impulses of documentary. As one of the mission statement writers says: “the problem with having a lot of voices — you end up with different styles.”

Toward the end of the film, the Friends of Hickory Hill Park struggle to know how or if “permanence” should appear in the mission statement — can they demand the infinite protection of this public land? But in the final moments, next to views of the sun dropping in a burnt orange sky, text informs us that “soon only a handful of private homeowners will see this sunset — developers bought this vantage point.” Livingston returns to the emerald path of the film’s first shot — but this time makes a 360-degree rotation, revealing the fact that there are multiple paths at this juncture.  He chooses one, and soon we are out of the woods, and the dirt path turns to a new stretch of sidewalk. The camera finds the place where ground and concrete meet and pivots, so that the screen is split in two.

A detour from more traditional paths of composition

A review of 'An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris'

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

by Georges Perec. translated by Marc Lowenthal.

Wakefield Press 2010, 72 pages, 12.95, ISBN 978-0-9841155-2-5

The objective of a Baudelairian flâneur or Situationist psychogeographer might be described as the revelation of what’s hidden in plain sight. With their modern walkabouts, these conceptual strollers break free of the direct lines of commuter travel and instead happily wallow in an inefficient dawdle. A close cousin, the aspirations of constraint-based writing can be said to be the exploration of the “potential” literature created via similarly artificial detours from more traditional paths of composition.

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris was written by Georges Perec during a gray Parisian weekend in October 1974. The stated intention was to “describe … that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” A nonambulatory flâneur, Perec sets himself up at a cafe in Place Saint-Sulpice to do as his directive epigraph of Life: A User’s Manual orders us to do also: “Look with all your eyes, look.”

Of course the underlying joke of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is the absolute impossibility of exhaustively documenting any environment, however quotidian, or any instant of time, however short, especially with the beautifully linear and limited tool of language. While pretending a goal and attitude of rigor, Perec’s simultaneous assumption of futility colors the work with a shade of melancholic comedy — a cosmic joke with failure and constant loss as the punchline.

Take for instance his quickly (and quietly) abandoned categories from the morning of the first day: “Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things,” (which includes letters and numbers) “Trajectories,” (which includes the direction of the buses, and “Colors” (which are reductively plain, e.g. a “blue bag” and a “green raincoat”). These arbitrary categories slyly underscore their own arbitrariness (you could even say their own silliness). By beginning his project immediately with a feint at cataloging the infinite (e.g. trajectories) Perec initiates a one-person epistemological Laurel and Hardy routine.

Part of the comedy too is the Sisyphean cycle of trying, giving up, and then starting all over again. A poignant example of this occurs with Perec’s observation of buses through the city square. He’s constantly noting them:

The 96 goes to Montparnasse station (6).
A 63 passes by. A 96 passes by
A 70 goes by, full

In the middle of the work he interrupts to comment parenthetically:

(why count the buses? Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they
   cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re
The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they
  have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag
  marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a customer to order a coffee instead
  of a beer…)

But then the following morning:

Buses pass by. I’ve lost all interest in them (29).

Yet soon enough he’s back to noting them:

A bus: “Percival Tours” (31).
A 96 goes by
The 63
The 96

Constraint-based writing might also be described as the poetic residue of someone else’s thought experiment. So in addition to the re-realization of his chosen task’s impossibility, in Perec’s shifting categories and evolving real-time commentary, we’re also privy to other discoveries. For instance, due to Perec’s time-stamped headers, we get a sense of the speed of thought, at least of Perec’s, which feels both leisurely and focused. The reader gets, in other words, a very real sense of how long it takes Perec to write an entry so that, despite the noted impossibility, a rather vicarious understanding of Perec’s weekend is achieved.

Ultimately then the inherently doomed objective goal of exhausting a place in Paris leads us surprisingly to the successful portrait of a particular subjectivity. It’s a stunning and bittersweet act of intimacy and remembrance. For example in the following passage: the startling moment of Perec’s inclusion of the word “splendid.” Interrupting the stream of so-called facts, this simple adjective for a moment sights Paris pigeons uniquely through Perec’s eyes:

An 87. A 70. A 63.
Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange.

A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86.

The wind is making the leaves on the trees move.
A 70.
It is one fifty.

SNCF parcels service.
The people from the funeral procession have entered the church
Passage of a driving-school car, a 96, a 63, a florist’s van, blue, which parks next
   to the undertaker’s van and from which a funeral wreath is taken.

In splendid unity, the pigeons go round the square and return to settle on the
   district council building’s gutter.
There are five taxis at the taxi stand.
An 87 goes by, a 63 goes by.

This handsomely designed book from Wakefield Press also includes a moving translator’s afterword, which argues (thought provokingly if not entirely convincingly) that An Attempt can be seen as an “inverted version” of Perec’s masterwork Life: A User’s Manual. Certainly larger than its slim dimensions indicate, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is, in the end, less a strategically flawed urban snapshot than a mysterious and craftily unauthorized autobiography.