The importance of nouns

A review of 'N7ostradamus'



Travis Macdonald

BlazeVOX 2010, 168 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-60964-009-5

Question Set 1.

Does N7ostradamus, by referring explicitly to Nostradamus’s Les Prophéties — i.e., the Original or in my arcane coding system, Original One (Nostradamus), or OO(N) — and by offering nothing that the reader can decipher as urgent/actionable prophecy, undermine the original and its prophetic pretense/intents?

Does the author/editor of N7ostradamus, by placing the text in the world as poetry but by not fulfilling the most common stereotype of poetry (inspiration/prophecy) thus debunk that stereotype and so bring about a secondary action of metacritique upon two fronts: first, the falsely prophetic and all varieties of quack intellectualism, including but not limited to Medieval scholasticism; and second, by way of analogy, poetry for its pretensions of word-of-God inspiration?

Text as allegory; allegory defined through Benjamin.

OO(N) was written in several languages, including the Green Language, the language of medieval specialists in the occult, a language of play and portents, a language so dense that OO(N) remains largely undecipherable even after 400 years of interpretations.

Authors Travis Macdonald and Nostradamus.

N7ostradamus, or Original One (Macdonald) [OO(M)], presents a text of similarly resistant but pregnant statements.This is achieved first by its declarative syntax: a proposition itself carries prophetic weight — the subject begets the predicate at whose end the sentence concludes with an assertive claim to have described the world.

OO(M) transforms language in one further way: it detaches itself from any necessary real-world reference and so erodes the relationship to the world that language usually demonstrates. Almost any statement in OO(M) becomes full of untold potential. The text becomes allegorical; it verges on the spiritual. Any person, any thing, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else. With this possibility, an annihilating but just verdict is pronounced on the profane world: it is characterized as a world in which the detail is of no great importance. Yet it will be unmistakably apparent, especially to anyone familiar with the exegesis of allegorical texts, that all those signifying stage props, precisely by virtue of their pointing to something else, acquire a power that makes them appear incommensurable with profane things and which can raise them to a higher plane, indeed sanctify them.[1]

For “signifying stage props” read “nouns,” and for “something else” read “the world.” Unmoored, OO(M) exposes language’s double power: a thing in and of itself, and a pointer toward the world. While you could say it points, the reader isn’t sure what to. Maybe Europe. But not any Europe that has ever existed. Maybe only an imaginative Europe to be.

The importance of nouns in creating the effect of coherence.

The text’s beginning presents certain proper nouns that you may read as though characters in a conventional narrative: Mop and Kink, primarily, the first having eleven occurrences and the second, nineteen. Certain common nouns also make for emergent themes: “clairvoyant” and “sundry” are two that repeat (twenty and seven appearances, respectively).[2

The text creates a sustaining coherence through the recurrence of nouns; it becomes a myopic ambient novel: you are simultaneously too close or too far away to sense its narrative goal (the coherence’s totality) but the nouns themselves create the effect of coherence. 

More on noun nature.

OO(M) notes its debt to Jean Lescure, the originator of the OULIPOian “noun+7” replacement technique. This device proves an apt tool to accentuate the nature of nouns, both their tremendous power to generate coherence as well as their quizzical and shape-shifting character. 

Since the text does not provide clear extratextual reference, the reader latches onto nouns to create their own associations. With this, common nouns exceed their commonness: they either become infinite (comprehensive) in reference and not specific (representative) or they become proper characters in their own right and read as proper nouns; they become “sanctif[ied].” 

Proper nouns change in nature as well. In ordinary usage, a proper noun fixes context more narrowly than a common noun: it demands more specific knowledge and marks how cultural difference creates “inside” and “outside” language (and so demonstrates again the powerful fact that culture is rooted in place). But here this assumption shows its flaws.

Certainty III Question 79, OO(M) writes:

The fatal everlasting organ grinder through the chalet
Will come to turn through consistent organ-grinding:
The chalet of Marseilles will be broken:
The clairvoyant taken, the engine at the same tinge. (67)

Look at the nouns: “organ grinder,” “chalet,” “organ-grinding,” “Marseilles,” “clairvoyant,” “engine,” and “tinge.” There are seven nouns, only one of which is proper. Normally the word “Marseilles” would be the most specific of these nouns: only those who know something about France would know this word and what it refers to, while the other words do not demand that the reader know anything about France.

In other ways, we can mark the properness that these nouns would have in everyday speech. In the following list, the most proper appears first and the least, last: 

organ grinder/organ-grinding

“Chalet” requires knowledge of European architecture (it sounds a little funny for a man in Wisconsin to say he’s going to his chalet in the woods for vacation …) and so is somewhat specific to place; “organ grinder” is specific to time; “clairvoyant” isn’t specific to time or place, but its straightforward etymology from French as “clear seer” means that a knowledge of French makes its meaning more potent; “tinge” and lastly “engine” are perhaps the most common of common nouns in our technological age.

This hierarchy of properness — the narrowness of reference — breaks down in OO(M). Nouns even out: the chalet becomes as proper as Marseilles, which becomes as common as any engine. This happens because “the chalet of Marseilles” doesn’t move us any closer to Marseilles, France, than the “fatal everlasting organ grinder” does to any organ grinder anywhere.

Every noun gets infused with an equal possibility for story. Lastly, the word “Printing/printing” appears twenty-two times, seventen times with a capital first letter. Why the variance? It’s a moot point: the text destabilizes extratextual reference to the point that the noun’s properness isn’t at stake. In fact, the text shows that the categories of proper and common noun aren’t absolute: a noun’s narrowness of reference (its properness) is more variable than we are led to believe; it varies based upon the language user’s knowledge of the extratextual world.

Some almost unanswerable questions for the nonspecialist, or, Question Set II.

Language’s meaning is contingent upon extratextual reference and knowledge. That is, text (words) cannot communicate anything without context (social or real-world situations). Nothing can be decided by text itself. 

But what if extratextual reference is stripped? When text loses context, does it paradoxically become all context and so explosively multiple in its referentiality? Is a common noun then never a specific common object but all such objects in the world that fit that heading/noun? Does a proper noun then become equally multiple in its theoretical reference — Paris all real and imaginable Parises? Under such circumstances, does text function primarily to generate context at the expense of literal communication? 

Furthermore, if language has both text and context operating within it simultaneously but in changeable degrees, under what conditions does language’s text operation become most critical, and under what conditions does language’s context-operation become most critical?

Lastly, does language have the ability to create context or must context be supplied from extralinguistic areas? For example, if I don’t know what a banana is and can’t see it before me, can language recreate the context (the experience) needed to know what a banana is, or must you have the experience itself?

Words “out of context.”

Language in OO(M) makes a world of each utterance. Words “out of context” become ripe for the flipping and folding, crimping and clipping, of the imagination. They become like foreign words: they become themselves anew, feeling odd and full of possibility on our tongues. We are forced to read them almost syllable by syllable. We hear them. We feel in them their radical potential for meaning and pleasure.

Certainty IV Question 73

The great network by forecourt will text
The tremor made by the pusillanimous heartthrob:
The Dunce will try Ferrara and Asti,
When the pantomime will take plaid in the evildoer. (86)

Cautionary notes.

Some say that Nostradamus correctly predicted the French Revolution, Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11, and many other events in world history. It’s safe to say that none knew before it was (too) late. 

Travis Macdonald is warning us of something. We ought to figure out what he’s saying.


1. WalterBenjamin, “The Antimonies of Allegorical Exegesis,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y Levin, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 175-9.

2. The word “Printing/printing” appears twenty-two times. More on it later.

Multilingual Latin American poetries

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology

edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman

Oxford University Press 2009, 608 pages, $49.95, ISBN 978-0-19-512454-5

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry opens with an image from the Maya Codex. The figure of a female scribe, her head bowed to her writing task, commands the field of the first page. Undeciphered glyphs float before her bent head. She heralds the mysterious transmissions that all poetries in translation augur. Beyond signaling the acts of translation that make up the anthology, the female scribe locates the origins of Latin American poetries in pre-Columbian writing systems. Reproduced in smaller detail above and below her, the image of the scribal god Pawahtún is taken from a vase in the codex style. The vase serves as a reminder of the Spanish conquerors who read diabolical intent into the unfamiliar forms of Maya writing and set out to destroy these sacred books, largely succeeding.[1]

Several of the anthology’s core concerns are indexed in the centered image of the female scribe: the representation of female and indigenous voices and subjects, the legacy of pre-Columbian writing systems in modern and contemporary Latin American poetries, and the exploration of the interplay between writing and drawing as forms of visual poetics. Maya glyph writing is an indeterminate system which, according to one of the anthology’s editors, is “designed to encourage word play,” as “the system contains tendencies but not absolute rules” (xxxi, n12). To begin the book with this image also suggests a reading strategy for what follows: one delights in the open-ended relationship between image and text, source and translation.

A multilingual anthology featuring more than 120 poets and many poems that have not previously been translated into English, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry is an essential resource for any English-language reader interested in broadening or deepening her knowledge of Latin American poetries.[2] Alongside the traditionally canonized male poets writing in Spanish and Portuguese, editors Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman present the voices and writings of poets who have often been excluded — despite their innovative compositions — from the canons of Latin American poetry: namely, the poor, the indigenous, and women. This unique selection advances a richer and more diverse mapping of the poetic territory than has previously been offered in any single edition of Latin American poetry in English.

Spanning more than 500 years of poetry, the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry introduces English-language readers to a poetics born of mestizaje.[3] The bulk of the anthology (more than 400 of its 500-plus pages) is dedicated to twentieth-century poetry, indicating the artistic flourishing that followed independence (as variously achieved throughout the region in the nineteenth century) and the diversity of voices that independence unleashed, whether or not these poets were officially recognized in their lifetimes. Of the pre-twentieth-century poets represented in the anthology, more than a third are anonymous, and write in non-European languages and/or in combined drawing and writing systems. This selection of predecessors prepares us for the attention that visual poetics, oral poetry, and indigenous forms receive in the twentieth-century selections. Of the most recent works, nearly half of the selections come from oral poets or indigenous poets composing in their native languages.

Ernesto  Livon-Grosman

In their broad conception of Latin American poetries, editors Vicuña and Livon-Grosman refuse to entrench the separation of indigenous-derived oral poetries and European-influenced text-based production that dominates most Latin American poetry anthologies. Their selections are based on a rejection of modernity’s erasure of the indigenous. In this way, the anthology functions to recover the indigenous poetic traditions at the heart of Latin American experimentation, rewriting the singular focus on European-derived models without denying their importance. The aim of the anthology is clearly to introduce an English-language readership to these mixed traditions: “Latin America has a complex and prolific poetic tradition that is little known outside its geographic and linguistic boundaries” (xvii). Thus, indigenous poetic practices and languages, from pre-Columbian times to the present, are integrated with the presentation of poetry written in Spanish and Portuguese.

At an event celebrating 500 years of Latin American poetry at Poets House in New York in late fall 2009, Vicuña described the anthology as a “journey into the heart and soul of the forgotten.” Following a brief video presentation of visual poetry,[4] local poets and translators performed highlights from the book, presenting female, indigenous, and anonymous voices alongside the male modernists more familiar to a US audience. Sound artist LaTasha Nevada Diggs performed an anonymous Inca song translated into Quechua ,and Rodrigo Toscano read from the work of Cesar Vallejo and Vicente Huidobro. Bob Holman recited contemporary Guarani poetry and Anne Waldman performed poetry by Rosa Araneda, a nineteenth-century Chilean peasant whose once-popular works are now largely forgotten.

Michelle Gil-Montero shared her own stunning translation of Maria Mercedes Carranza’s poem “La Patria” (Homeland), which opens, “This house with its thick colonial walls / and nineteenth-century patio with azaleas / has been collapsing for centuries” (470). The anthology’s biographical note for Carranza explains that she “was born in Bogotá, Colombia, where she also took her own life, haunted by ‘country pain’ — the torrent of violence and death of the undeclared civil war of her country” (470). Vicuña’s revelation that Carranza was a friend of hers made her editorial vision of a poetics of resistance register more intimately for those of us present in the room. The diverse selection of readings that evening is indicative of Vicuña’s interest in theorizing a “mestizo poetics” that undoes the binary between European-influenced modernist verse and more traditional or “native” poetics, as she explains in the pages of her immensely engaging and provocative introduction to the anthology.

According to Vicuña, the term “mestizo poetics” is a “loaded phrase” that describes “works that emerged from the clash of cultures in Latin America” (xix). Much like the performance scholars featured in Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance, who aim to “move [away] from a Eurocentric to a transnational conception of the avant-garde,” Vicuña’s editorial work “recognizes that the sites of artistic innovation associated with the avant-garde tend to be sites of unacknowledged cultural hybridity and negotiation.”[5] She cites, for example, Brazilian concrete poetry as “a modern manifestation of indigenous tradition,” comparing it to the playfulness of the Maya glyph writing system (xxv). She acknowledges that concrete poets in Brazil were in dialogue with European poets and that the concrete movement developed internationally in the 1950s, but also reminds us of the “forgotten forbearers” of these visual poets (xxv).                                         

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry offers an unparalleled selection of Latin American vernacular, visual, and oral poetics that upsets our expectations of what such an anthology can do. Not only are many of the poets here rarely canonized, but even for those we expect to find in such an anthology, a series of new translations draws attention to previously ignored or understudied aspects of the work. The seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz provides an interesting case. An excerpt from her major work “Primero Sueño” (First Dream) and her sonnets are represented in translations by Samuel Beckett. These are followed by a poem in the voices of a “black man” and “an Indian” translated by Jerome Rothenberg and Cecilia Vicuña. Written in a mix of vernacular Spanish and Nahuatl, this excerpt from Sor Juana’s series of villancicos is startling in its chanting rhythms — “tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley” — and bold diction — “Huel ni machicahuac / I am not talk smart / not teco qui mati / mine am hero heart” (33–35).

Similarly, the selection of Pablo Neruda’s poems does not reproduce work from The Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or the fanciful odes to everyday objects or the later love sonnets that English-language readers are most familiar with, but puts forward three darkly surrealist works. A posthumously published poem entitled “Right, Comrade, It’s the Hour of the Garden” (“Sí, camarada, es hora de jardín”) ends: “Ours is a lank country / and on the naked edge of her knife / our frail flag burns” (translated by Forrest Gander, 238). The biographical note for Neruda reminds us that the Chilean poet “died in Santiago a few days after the military coup of September 11, 1973” (234). If nothing else, this final poem and note retrieve Neruda from his reputation as a universal lyricist and situate him within his own historical context.

An excerpt from the collective poem amereida, composed by an anonymous group of Chilean poets and architects in 1965, brings poetry off the page. The introductory note tells us that the poem inspired a series of “travesías” or “poetic journeys modeled after the early practices of André Breton and the surrealists but carried out with the expressed purpose of discovering the ‘interior sea,’ the largely unoccupied territory at the center of South America” (362). These journeys incorporated poetry performances and ephemeral art installations, recalling Vicuña’s introductory comments about performance “works that interact specifically with place in a way that echoes the indigenous practices” (xxvii). A series of photographs accompanies this poem and suggests ritual interactions with dramatic landscapes. The poem itself queries a concept of discovery that occludes what is already present and gestures instead toward more occult forms of knowing: “we must clear the path — / and what may be spoken of / here / is a vast sea, a mare magnum / but hidden / because, though visible, / mostly ignored / the names —” (translated by Simon Pettet and Cecilia Vicuña, 364). Typographically, the words of the poem reach across the field of the page, creating an architecture of possibility that inspired the installations that followed in its wake.

Best known as a poet and visual artist, Vicuña links the midcentury move toward performance in Latin America not only to trends in the United States and Europe, but also to indigenous traditions. Exiled from her native Chile during the Pinochet years, Vicuña draws on Andean forms such as the quipu in her own work, negating boundaries between orality and writing, indigenous and Western forms. The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry includes two photographs of her “metaphors in space,” one of which (“The earth listening to us,” Con cón, Chile, 1966) is an ephemeral installation on a coastal beach in central Chile in which the poet engages in a dialogue with her physical surroundings, making use of the natural debris found there, drawing spirals in the sand and propping feathers and sticks into sculptural forms (478). Committed to the promotion of Chile’s indigenous cultures, Vicuña has previously edited an anthology of Mapuche poetry, and is the cocreator of OYSI, a new online resource facilitating the transmission of indigenous forms of knowledge.

In addition to this commitment to indigenous languages, forms, and practices, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry also spotlights Latin American contributions to international modernism, especially in its representation of the innovative visual poetics of Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and Uruguayan poet Joaquín Torres García. Tablada was “a major contributor to the international symbolist movement” who “popularized caligrammes (picture-poems) and brought the haiku structure from Japan to Mexico” (101). In “Impresión de la Habana” (Havana Impressions), a sensuous yet ominously historical description of alighting upon Havana’s shores composes the text that forms a picture of the same with a lighthouse, palm tree, cliffs, waves, and seagulls: description aligns with design, so that the poetic line referring to seagulls, for example, outlines a winged formation in the sky. Both this poem and Tablada’s “Ideogram Lantern” are presented in Spanish, with the English translation below echoing but not replicating the visual layout of the original.

Similarly, the visual poetry of Joaquín Torres García is reproduced in Spanish with the English translation subordinated. These examples suggest the resistance of visual poetry to translation — an intransigent density resists being carried over because of the arbitrary ways in which meanings, shapes, and sounds line up in any language. While Torres García lived in Spain for much of his adult life, he returned to Uruguay at the ripe age of sixty and invented “his own theory of constructive universalism — an art inspired by the pre-Columbian traditions of the Americas” (107). The interaction of text and drawing in his work resonates with pre-Columbian writing systems, while its disjunctive syntax and informal speech registers as distinctly modern.

Violeta Parra, another major twentieth-century Chilean poet, typifies the anthology’s recognition of popular or folk forms of poetry. Here, she is positioned among other Latin American poets who valorize the culture of the rural poor. Parra, whose brother Nicanor is famous for his anti-poetry,[6] writes in décimas, an improvisational oral form that requires leaps of wit and humor. Another innovator of popular forms, Brazilian poet Apolônio Alves dos Santos, wrote and sold cordel poetry, which he would string between posts in market places. These hanging poems were ballad-like narratives accompanied by illustrations. Later adopted by urban poets, the cordel continues to be practiced in Brazil today, according to the editors.

While Violeta Parra brought oral improvisational forms to the page, the opposite process is recorded in the works of poet and healer María Sabina, whose words were transcribed in the 1970s. An excerpt from Sabina’s visionary work Vida (Life) begins, “I am wise even from within the womb of my mother. I am the woman of the winds, of the water, of the paths, because I am known in heaven, because I am a doctor woman” (178). Though an oral autobiography, here María Sabina speaks in many voices, and their bold claims are echoed in the oral poetries of contemporary Tzotzil poets.

The last pages of the anthology offer selections from four female Mayan oral poets recorded and transcribed in Tzotzil, then translated into Spanish and English by Ámbar Past. With titles like “Prayer So My Man Won’t Have to Cross the Line” and “Pexi Kola Magic,” by Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’ and Loxa Jiménes Lópes, respectively, these poems allude to the unevenness of the free market system that directly links the poets to the anthology’s readers, even though the poems themselves must travel across multiple acts of transcription and translation. Both poems are addressed to the gods: one is a plea to not be forced to cross the Mexico-US border for work, and the other is a prayer that the poet’s soft drinks will sell.

The major drawback of this anthology is that only the English translations are presented in lineated form while the original versions of the poems are presented in blocks of texts with single and double slash marks to indicate line breaks and stanza breaks, making going back and forth between the originals and translations quite cumbersome.[7] The substantial number of multilingual translations from an indigenous language first into Spanish and then into English presents a formatting challenge that bilingual anthologies can avoid with a simple side-by-side presentation. However, traditional side-by-side presentation would come at the cost of significantly reducing the number of contributors due to spatial concerns. Because this anthology has the potential to arouse many readers’ interests in new and unfamiliar poets (whose principal works are recommended for further reading in the biographical notes), the less-than-ideal formatting seems the lesser evil precisely because it allows for a greater range of exposure. 

The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry is an essential resource for US teachers and students of poetry as we move away from the study of an isolated American poetry and toward the teaching of a more inclusive poetry of the Americas. The relative isolation in which the poetries of the United States and Latin America have traditionally been studied no longer fits our contemporary moment of intensified intrahemispheric cultural contact. Indeed, this isolationist model can be seen as a relic of Cold War mappings as much as an effect of language differences. The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry serves as a compass for those of us interested in remapping the hemisphere to reflect our actual connections and relations in and across languages. An anonymous female Maya scribe offers to carry us over into this multitemporal, multigeographical zone — that is, when we’re ready to heed her glyphs.



1. The content of these books, in which the Maya recorded their histories and myths, has largely survived through reproductions on murals and vases predating the conquest.

2. The subtitle of “a bilingual anthology” is simply inaccurate. In addition to the English translations of Spanish and Portuguese, there are poems translated from Quechua, Guarani, Mapudungun, Nahuatl, and several Maya languages, including Yucatec, K’iche’, and Tzotzil. To be fair, however, the book jacket acknowledges that this “is the first anthology to present a full range of multilingual poetries from Latin America.”

3. Mestizaje here broadly refers to the mixing of European and indigenous cultures that occurred as a consequence of colonization in the Americas.

4. The video surveyed Painted Ideas, an exhibit curated by Vicuña that featured visual poetry from the anthology (see

5. See James M. Harding and John Rouse’s introduction to Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 2.

6. Also included in the anthology, Nicanor Parra’s anti-poetry mobilizes colloquial forms of speech.

7. The exceptions to the rule are certain visual poems; as I mention above, visual poems necessitate the opposite approach, where the translation appears beneath the image as a block of text.

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.