A review of 'A Book of Unknowing'
The goal of a quest is often return: in John High’s A Book of Unknowing, a mute girl and a one-eyed boy move through a war-marked landscape, orphaned and adopted and orphaned anew. They seek to return not to pre-lapsarian purity but to the vivid articulation of “a brilliance of green across meadow in this / day when we find so much arrangement in myriad trees. Coming to terms with fine / bladed yellow grass” (99). That is, aware that “in order / to get out we have to go through / language,” the characters in High’s poetic sequence “come to terms” with the hardy arrangements underlying innocence and loss. Traveling the “wounded way / back to our beginning” (116), they return to an advanced childhood in which they parent themselves and forgive all, having found “how / a question might endure alive internal workings / in mutual air moving / toward a quiet believing and awe” (111).
This arrival is gorgeous, paradisiacal without the Billy Graham bromides of Beatrice browbeating Dante and that pilgrim’s attendant forgetting of earth. Rather, this arrival remains committed to the world High has been at pains to show, in which “sometimes what / we live in order to affirm / a truth” brings us ashore with scarred clarity. The book’s singular language permits its culminating vision, and High’s breathless neuro-cinematic syntax unifies his story and ideas. Yet the ambitious content at which High arrives is more than a linguistic effect: it shows a place not just made of the book’s guiding questions but made for them to continue in, allowing his readers, as well as his characters, to recover and retain “a sense of awe & condolence” (129). This sense makes the larger questions one may have about poems — why even read? what do you do upon finishing a thrilling volume? — part of the work; it investigates them expansively rather than whittling them away in a perfection of posture. As a result, as in this untitled verse from A Book of Unknowing’s final sequence, High’s lines take on cosmological and moral significance:
Where do we go now the fisher boy
asks looking into a blue winter horizon
rising around wooded vessels moored
over waning flashlights if you have come
this far why stop now the monk says
wings flapping first snow over wing
a woman beside me laughs as the boy
casts nets off a dock drinking coca
cola cormorant flock around him nothing
left to prove no need for approval only
coming back to where we are
touching fingers and reeds as I see her bend
again kiss a scar on his left eye reaching
inside & past all reckon & shame (115)
Pound’s “make it new” may be the most misconstrued statement in poetic history — he was concerned with continuance, not blithe novelty — but High’s “where do we go now” and “if you have come / this far why stop now” take up its truer sense. If a poem, or spiritual journey, culminates because one has moved mindfully through the things of the world, one undercuts that culmination by subsequently turning from those things; you can’t treat emptiness as a view without continually constructing its frame. Thus, the “unknowing” High arrives at knows well the questions and motives it is made of. In this passage, realization does not stop perception but leads it through memory (“again”) to a further moral possibility: the potential loss of shame.
High’s “small insistence” (137) on the ongoingness at the heart of all arrival super-saturates A Book of Unknowing. The moral and philosophical vision he insists upon is “clear” with the true roots of the word — not “easily understood,” but “luminous, bright” and “to summon or call.” I love this book for reminding me that poetry does not need to be flatly wise or flatly wild but can accommodate the luminous summons of “a woman tying her / tennis shoes in a make-believe diary” (65) and of “a boy hungry / for cake & pineapple” who sees in his companion “a 1000 years / of sorrow already ended in / her touch of a finger” (77). The vision, here, sees past itself by the light it makes.
A sense of being reminded — that mental return — comes over A Book of Unknowing’s characters as well, enriching their experiences of the present. Sometimes, these reminders come through refrain: early in the book, in a passage that foresees war’s effects in its earliest tidings, High reports, “the TV is alive he shouted out the window / dying in the moment of the images before war / & the girl out there already peeing in an alley” (33). Later, “the mute girl mouths in an alley” (122) and we recall her earlier posture and all that has happened since. Elsewhere, High sows reminders through motifs that, in their use of character and place, recall Nathaniel Mackey’s worlds of displacement and migration. High, though, typically stays more closely with his emblematic figures, for whom there is a “hum breaking thru the poverty / Once settled in the bone of a gone nation” (9). His iconic motifs — pelicans; monks; frogs; Paul Celan, occasionally — crop up in the poems’ continuous present. Their recurrences feel more like memory than outright interruptions, however, because the present adapts around them, becoming larger. High conveys this adaptation through syntax that swells as it lists, making fruitful use of ambiguous but distinct capitalization and punctuation:
As if in an old movie only
the actors ourselves & this
Miraculous set of cliffs who
Could ever unrepresent the
Bell chiming the leaves on
shore the girl in her plaid
Skirt as turtles & pelicans
Gather around her language
forgets itself Celan sips on
a brandy looking out the café (8)
By moving in and out of such lists, High suspends the reader’s knowledge (and perhaps knowledge is an attempt to systematically “unrepresent” the world, to sift it into human sense?) of what is another item in the sequence and what is the beginning of an off-shooting phrase, like the one above beginning “as turtles.” This technique is especially poignant when a long run settles in tenderness, reminding us that the world can arrive there as well, even as the momentum of arrival skids: “One tall sycamore loomed a sparrow lighted / The first utterances the boy read aloud / I love you.” Characteristically, High does not conclude there but just pauses a moment before showing the continuing world. This world now seems changed by the realization of love, so that the resulting “finely tuned” images enlarge human emotion, even if they do not stop for it: “All these figs & mustard seeds / Arising around us in finely-tuned grass” (96). Juxtaposition seems the wrong word for High’s mingling of emotion, memory, and perception, perhaps because language leaves traces more continuous than Eisenstein’s images could, letting High move swiftly among setting, character, and plot. It shows that the possibilities for narrative in verse extend beyond the sturdy detailing of posed moments or plodding gestures at epic. Instead, High mobilizes the elements of story, as though dangling them from a mobile he then spins. You can feel his fondness for the characters and you can also feel as the characters do:
The child reading an autobiography
outside the marquee where in another
city she studies foreign films
flickering across a white screen this
movement located outside time & the
sidewalk cold on her legs tonight a
manuscript (the woman had found it for
her) looking back in her eyes a face
missing all but the last pages of a first
kiss the girl recognizing there a
blossoming of her own life & evening
stars as migratory owls appear above
the theatre ants & grasshoppers
moving south as winter again approaches
the boy walking out of the deserted
storefront now holding a piece of
looted film called Rublev of an icon
painter in the 15th century who he
tells her once saved his life at the movies (58)
Frequently, High orients readers to the wide-ranging present with overt references to vision, allowing us to witness the action rather than decipher it. In this complexly staged passage, for example, High tells us our relation to the whirlwind, bringing us into the moment “where we are seeing”:
Today in a rose bush
& an insight of blighted rain, thrush in
marsh, small feet as a child
walks further & despair, the skin
Of it, a father leaving his peers for war in a
History obliterated now & she laughs & cows
Come forth where we are seeing her (88)
These overt moments of “seeing” function like the ampersands in the passage above: they create clear relationships, so that walking and despair meet like the woman and the cows do. At times, these relationships nest. Here, we see the man because of the monk’s “looking,” the boy because of the woman “who saw,” the monk and the man because of the barn, and the entire scene by the narrator’s interjection:
bring us cookies a monk said looking back
at a man whose own name forgotten in these
last hours autumn & the woman who saw a boy’s tall
figure by arcade lights after many years silent
absence yet now a man & monk talking yes
by a barn we came toward late at night dreaming
rivers & a set of tracks almost empty —
still we saw you (11)
This final line returns us to the narrator’s orienting perspective, much as the boy “after many years silent” returns “yet now a man,” leaving tracks he seems to barely fill even though they are his own.
It would be difficult to film those “almost empty” tracks. Yet the pacing of phrases in A Book of Unknowing suggests a camera drifting into and out of and through the eye. High encourages these cinematic associations with many references to film. His poems suggest that cinema can be a training ground for reading complex linguistic landscapes and for understanding individual experience, as it is for the girl who recognizes a first kiss in the passage quoted above. This instructional dimension — the viewer learns from moviegoing, realizing learning is a kind of recognizing (“wow this is you” ), then reenters the migratory world — echoes the overarching philosophy in High’s writing. The quest returns, we see. In which the quest is return.
But what we see when we meet “in another film” (108) can also be horrifying revision, as when High describes a film of a child’s rape and tells us the “Narrator fell back without / Sound for what is there anyone / Can ever say in the face of / Such beauty as hers” (73). And yet, it is this terrible beauty that allows the audience and narrator to grasp individual life which one page earlier was lost among corpses “stacked randomly” (72). Film may make “shades of history” (108) disappear, but it can also give them new life, changed by preservation to look back at us with a “necessity / of theory & love” (64) in the face of suffering.
When the Narrator falls silent, High gives us language of the interior that functions as “an imaginary eye,” letting us “myth it together” (124) despite the limits of perception and knowledge. For the figure of the one-eyed boy, language becomes a second eye, providing dimension; language returns us to our senses, even obstructed ones. Because someone must continue speaking for words to continue perceiving, language demands we go on, even if “the best / antidote is nobody to be Nobody / just to live & walk.” But the next moment is already upon us: that evocation of the good life, of an arrival into non-being, immediately also includes “indistinguishable / bombs exploding around my girlfriend” who is then immediately “laughing on a corner near the bar & dropping / her purse” (122). The language of the interior keeps us from asking what is the present by insisting that we must respond to a larger present and what it asks of us:
cry & caterpillars the figs & nettles
look you become a child
she shouts now running toward
sounds from books & love
an empty field where a
boy spots a horse waiting he
thinks to carry all the war’s dead home (98)
We return, thus, to “another & same place / passing cobblestones & nursery rhymes,” thoroughly composed by the “call of leaves & trees / & olives & peaches,” like lips we can hear moving before we can comprehend their words or even read them in silence (136).
A review of two Slack Buddha Press chapbooks
In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, [the worker] cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way.
— Michael de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
La Perruque Editions, the chapbook arm of Cincinnati publisher Slack Buddha, takes its name from philosopher and social critic Michael de Certeau. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau introduces the term “la perruque” to describe the act of individuals using company workspace, time, and materials to pursue their own creative endeavors — all while maintaining the appearance of working for their employer. It’s a humorously subversive name, one that speaks to the basic condition of many contemporary poets and visual artists (even as I type this now at my office, I’m glancing back over my shoulder to see if my boss is about to round the corner).
The concept of “la perruque” deals with a question that often seems to be at the forefront of discussions concerning what it takes for the contemporary creative act to exist, especially in a culture that increasingly devalues it: how to make the time to read, write, publish, or otherwise actively engage oneself with a poetic community when stuck in a cubicle eight or more hours every day? Exemplified by the Flarf Collective, who used their time in office spaces to create an internet-based, email-exchanged poetic practice, or projecting even further back to the image of William Carlos Williams, doctor’s pad in hand, crafting poems in between patients, the time, space, and conditions of contemporary work models have provided poets with new ways to reclaim the everyday vitality of the creative act — ways that also subvert the increasingly mechanized roles of individuals working in the office environment.
Since 2003, La Perruque Editions has released chapbooks by more than thirty poets as well as work by visual and performance artists including Mel Nichols, Ric Royer, Benjamin Friedlander, and Susan M. Schultz. The press’s aesthetic is, for the most part, simple: heavy cardstock, screen-printed or photocopied covers, often with overlays or cutouts, which highlight the idea of each of these works as something tactile, handmade, as coming from an individual or small group. This attention to detail, as well as the work itself, which tends to focus on the visual/concrete and the political, speaks to Slack Buddha’s efforts to craft a catalogue of poetics as community, as a return to conversation and physical exchange between people in an increasingly dissociated time.
In the chapbooks Ladybug Laws by Laura Moriarty and Weak Link by Rob Halpern, this act of reexamining and renewing the interpersonal becomes central to both thematic concerns and prosodic choices.
Slack Buddha Press is located in a nineteenth-century brewery-cum-ice cream factory in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Laura Moriarty, Ladybug Laws
Examining the life of patterns and color, Moriarty’s poems in Ladybug Laws suggest the various intersections of both backdrop and detail, or what can also be seen as the interplay between an autonomous unit and its larger environmental setting. These concerns persist throughout the chap: how the dot patterns play (or write) upon a red field of the shell; how both the small and the large react to and alter aspects of each other, much like the proverbial butterfly who, by flapping its wings, creates a monsoon thousands of miles away: “I produce enormous events” (“Smitten”). Ladybug Laws spells out a basic connectivity that is, at once, neither absolute nor categorical. Instead, Moriarty’s ladybugs move in spaces of indeterminacy, of fluidity: “Coating Thoreau / With herself preferably / A verb now […]. Swaps thy for thou / thee for me” (“Green Lady”). The space between the body of the poet and bug shrinks until it becomes virtually nonexistent, in a lighter, more conceptual take on David Cronenburg’s phantasmagoria: “Ladybug obvious / Hybrid of bug and lady / Unthinkable state […]” and “Not of but was / Jeff Goldblum / Sloughs off // his Human in / the Fly —” (“Flown”). Or the space between selves fills with the endless reproductions of life, as in her response to the Andrew Bird song “Imitosis”: “Read as the green / Of the creatures / Between us.” Imitating mitosis, on the level of relationship, invokes the sense of an aggregate body; Moriarty’s ontological examination is filtered through the perspective of a swarm, imagining how the individual positions herself in relation to another. Incorporating the language of other writers, such as Elizabeth Robinson in “Green Lady” or Alan Halsey in “Ladybug Honey” and “Ladybug’s Lament,” also evokes the sense of a swarm or colony: the language of others becomes part of the poet’s own movement throughout the poem as different source words work together to enact ever-changing structures.
A focus on blurring the borders of voice and body gives interrogative shape to this collection. However, the sonic and referential porosity of words further defines this shape: “Read red as read / Lady as later // Song as wrong” (“Ladybug Song”). The words bleed into each other, drawing attention to the inherently elusive act of definition. The chapbook’s repeated theme of “read” versus “red,” its use of homophony to shift or morph meanings, emphasizes Moriarty’s inquiry into the act of recording: “We can barely see what’s out there / Overwhelmed as we are by repetition / Though I depend on it for what sense / Of continuity remains to me when / I see you I know I am at work” (“Ladybug Laws”). Moriarty’s consistent use of mondegreens and homonyms also illustrates both the cloudy repetitiveness of perception and the infinite, subtle variations that occur both in the creative act and in the natural world. The action of navigating currents of musical, social, and biological variations sustains these poems’ presences, their immediacies; it also makes for a beautifully lyrical, intellectually astute, and finely detailed reading experience.
Rob Halpern, Weak Link
It’s time that intellectual discourse of the left learn from the operatic emotionality of the right.
— Dodie Bellamy, “Body Language”
In a remarkable combination of emotional and theoretical speech, Rob Halpern’s chapbook Weak Link calls attention to a series of erosions, social spots that have lost their stability. In the wake of overwhelming U.S. military violence and political abuses within an increasingly apathetic and amnesiac culture, Halpern reconnects the experiences of the body to these larger, political movements, effectively drawing the reader back into their immediate physical existence. Through this embodied reconnecting, Halpern’s poetry enacts a social critique that doesn’t proselytize or dictate, but rather reminds the reader, like Charles Olson before him, that the root of politics, the “polis” (sharing a source term with the Ancient Greek for “pelvis”) is always centered in the physical.
Weak Link opens with a quote that is attributed to, as Halpern notes, a “Forgotten Source.” This draws immediate attention to and simultaneously obscures the authority of a outside source voice, one that could otherwise provide an accurate point of introduction to the concerns of these poems. Decentered from the very beginning, Halpern’s book next provides a stylized “Legend” for the work, which functions as a sort of list poem and apophatic description of the collection’s prevalent use of em dashes surrounded by brackets. This prefatory piece moves through statements of what a weak link does not equal, and in doing so allows the occurrence of each weak link in the chap (visually represented by the bracketed em dash throughout the poems) to function as a space of, often, indefinable loss.
[—] pumping my disturbance with phonation
Days go by, open vowels, not generating much future
Sound [—] losses where all this will have happened
Any common place [—] strung out on being still
Produced disfigured gently now my ratcheted dejecta
[—] his leg becomes my fluted stump, my lip
His anal spur [—] missing tongues insert the word
Whose shock force grids resistant salvage, ours
Being squandered in advance, we molt in network
Fibers, having traced the place of future action
What can't be named in a field of roots, so come
Inside my fjord of mannered stools [—] watch
—the eyes peel back, so pasted to the blazing. (13)
This focus on the ineffable and its correlation to the embodied, as well as the collection’s varied use of caesura and enjambment for corollary meanings across lines, creates a natural affinity between this chap and Halpern’s excellent book-length Disaster Suites (Palm Press, 2009), a lyrical engagement struggling to speak in spaces of disaster and dis-ease.
In Weak Link, the dialectic between the lyrical and the disastrous event occurs as a blurring or merging of the two, often describing a tandem loss of physical and emotional space: “Here we feel the pressing [—] the loss of woodland / Scenery under national, yr transmission // Just bellies up and dies” (8). The body moves from the arboreal to the mechanical, and loss— the breaking down of self-contained systems, in conceptions of both nature and industry— occurs concurrently. The mechanical mirrors the loss of the natural, as the transmission (word/message or gear system) reveals itself to be alive, organic, ultimately dying “belly-up.” Here Halpern fills in the space between often opposing concepts to get at the root of weakness, of the inherent vulnerability at the foundation of all systems, as well as the necessary loss of illusionary control this entails.
The intersection of the abstracted/mechanical and the immediate/physical also frame moments of intense intimacy between individuals in these pieces: “I have / Sown dark clouds above our bed the beautiful // Sounds of circuits memory and capital my treat- / Ment of the subject won’t save us from the total / Oblivion in becoming objective social fact” (20). In lines that introduce another core dialectic at play—the body/mind dynamic—especially as it speaks to historical record in the act of writing, Halpern makes a strikingly pointed statement about the opaque, endlessly complex relationships between the physical body and the body politic: “In public we reckon impossible tense, shame // On our white floors, becoming impossible / Bodies extracted by the thousands” (7). What is so effectively brought into focus here is the extreme reality of lost life: a body displaced or victimized by war and foreign occupation is consistently abstracted into conceptual forms such as “alien,” “enemy,” or “collateral.” This is a process of “othering” that Halpern draws close attention to, a system used to reduce or negate individuals’ basic humanity, which, in turn, serves to “weaken the links” in social consciousness, allowing for untold abuses by a hypermilitarized state. Ultimately, in this system it is never just the “other” but also the self, the connected “our,” that is labeled suspect: “Skins glow, organs crave yr foresworn illegal / Touch, they’ve traced powder in our stools // Therein lies the nation’s intelligence, a gap in stills” (24). In this charged journeying between philosophical concerns and the immediate processes of the sensate body, a closeness that reaches past obscure rhetorical gesture is delineated. The poems in Weak Link call for a movement of the heart, engaging readers to perceptually restrengthen the links within themselves.
A review of 'New Depths of Deadpan'
Although I haven’t read it since I was fifteen, I vividly remember how the hero of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a human being raised among Martians, was able to mentally take hold of anything — a bad guy, an ashtray, a car — and effortlessly turn it out of existence, so that it was “ninety degrees from everything else.” I had forgotten all about this until I was reminded of it on almost every page of Michael Gizzi’s New Depths of Deadpan. Lines begin someplace intelligible and just — turn, until they seem to be perpendicular to everything in existence. “These here blew in from the French / Revolution to stack up over this canary yellow hum cover” (29) Gizzi writes, or, “A popular corrective to self-focusing // would be love, and your beloved // a tugboat with a dab of Cornish hysteria” (62).
Photo of Michael Gizzi by Steve Evans.
These are poems that find true wit, not in Pope’s formulation of “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” but in expressing what ne’er, e’er, e’er was thought, and with style. Whether or not a reader agrees that these poems are witty will depend on whether or not she enjoys thinking such singular thoughts and having them light up new terrain in the brain. Gizzi deserves readers who do, because he is a funny and smart and pleasurable writer — and he needs them, because these poems are demanding, in a low-key, “Hey, it’s all right there on the surface” way. The demands being made aren’t so much intellectual as gustatory. You don’t need a degree to get lines like “Would you believe a cicerone in his cups under a claudicated anvil fixin’ to fulgurate a lunch loaf?” (29) But you do need to be open to the possibility that you can be funny without telling a joke. Also: to the possibility that stupidity, in the hands of smart people, can be smarter than your average Difficult Poet. Also: you need ears. This isn’t the kind of writing that sets out to investigate, say, the phenomenology of being; it’s more like it sets out to inseminate the phenomenal glee of beans.
New Depths of Deadpan is deeply concerned with what’s on the surface — what we seem to see, what we think we hear — and with how surfaces can be tweaked and spun. Maybe new depths are just new lows with better PR, you know? Either way, Gizzi can stoop. “Samsonite had balls as big as the Carrier Dome” (41) is pretty snort-worthy, but most of Gizzi’s quips are in a quieter register: “Who has time for space?” for example, or “A cow cut into calves” (44). Your dad’s puns, with their tidy zing, aren’t really what Gizzi’s after, though; he’s more interested in the pun as a mode of thought. And if the principle of punning is to hear harmony in incongruity and exploit it for yuks, Gizzi’s mind seeks out the cracked note within that harmony.
The book’s opener gets at all of these concerns and others:
A reflection blinds a gardening correspondent. Shade requires a
starting point. The elementary particle makes to leave and its
Aliens write in puns we now know are curly fries. Drive-up
windows make this clear.
War with its lights out eschews imagination. All our buds lost
their heads in the flower of their youth.
So we got this apartment on Jockey Street. They used to race
But we’re not going to jaw about Ovid or the rosy steps of mother,
her microscopic brand of honey. We expect you to understand.
See you over the next hill. (11)
Rae Armantrout says in an interview in Reconfigurations that the poetry in her (highly segmented) poems lies in the way the sections relate to one another. Similarly, the poetry in Gizzi’s poems often resides in the shifts in affect, the abrupt movement from tone to tone. “The Deep” begins with a set of flat, textbooky assertions that purport to be factual. In a few terse, prose-like stanzas, it goes from that dubious objectivity to serious silliness (“Aliens write in puns we now know are curly fries”) to something that might in fact be pretty deep (“War with its lights out eschews imagination”), which is capitalized upon by being followed by a classically deadpan half-elegy-half-execrable-pun (“All our buds lost their heads in the flower of their youth”).
This gives way to what reads at once like autobiography and the setup for a lame joke — “So we got this apartment on Jockey Street.” Of course, it pays off: “They used to race houses there.” Ba-dum-ching! There’s a moment of self-correction — “But we’re not going to jaw about” — that doesn’t quite follow (were we even thinking about jawing about Ovid?). Next, the poem veers suddenly into a mysterious gorgeousness: “Ovid or the rosy steps of mother, her microscopic brand of honey.” Then the real self-correction occurs, when this new take on a retrograde impulse, beauty for beauty’s sake, is violently stifled by one of our most debased idioms, the language of corporate appeasement. The underlying menace of the anonymous appeaser is made scarily apparent here: it’s not “We thank you for your understanding,” but “We expect you to understand.”
The poem closes with a little Ashberyan nothing: “See you over the next hill.” It’s an ambiguous gesture, an outstretched hand that at once invites the reader and keeps her at bay: I’ll meet you there, but I won’t go with you. Please keep reading, but figure it out for yourself. That same confusing near-distance is enacted in the poem’s pronouns, too, as the initially distant third-person narration is displaced by a number of first-person plurals: the We of shared knowledge, then of clique, of family, of interlocutors, and of the faceless We of big business. The poem finally ends on a note of apparent comfort: I, the Poet, am talking to You, the Reader, in a folksy manner, and assuring you that we are in this together. Which doesn’t comfort so well when we realize it means We are in this together, so long as we stay apart.
No one has ever successfully explained to me why it is that certain techniques are more palatable in visual art than in writing. A painting is apprehended in an instant, I am told, while a poem unfolds over time. A book requires literacy; a drawing demands only eyes. “Gary, my sponge, toddles beneath a happenstance of ugh” is composed of semantic units that cannot help but signify, so that you have meaning and meanings and meaninglessness and texture and sound, whereas [insert squiggle here] simply is. And so on.
But these explanations don’t satisfy. I imagine that if something gives you pleasure in one medium, it will give you pleasure in another. New Depths of Deadpan raises this question for me over and over because I find the compositional strategies that drive it sometimes exasperating, yet they’re the same strategies that generate a lot of my favorite art and music. When describing his own work, Gizzi speaks of his connection to “the spontaneous immediacy of jazz” and to making use of techniques “from the plastic arts: collaboration, improvisation, juxtaposition, etc.” So why is it that I can be so easily compelled and charmed by, I don’t know, a gold cigar band glued to a blue ticket stub on a backdrop of scrawled-on Peanuts strips or whatever, but when confronted with something like
Please join us in the Drowning Room, reconstructed in this rarefied
May the man with the blue hair come too? Life is unbearable without
Growth rings and tear drinking are pattern languages. She’d like
to give birth to food. She tried speaking to spareribs, but who
really lives in her forehead? (37)
I get to twiddling my thumbs and muttering “Come off it, already!” Sure, I like the materials well enough, but the arrangement fails to engage me. Isn’t this running on the same gas as my hypothetical artwork? And yet isn’t it nowhere near as charming?
Fortunately, the book has range, and every time its sharp turns and violent juxtapositions cause it to feel rickety, you come across a sturdily framed poem, some relatively coherent scenario or set piece or speaker that props up the whole endeavor. Take, for example, the deliciously dumb “Cloistered in an Oyster”:
Another sleepless night with the top down.
He has a headache that could write its own biography. How long
can one inhabit a dumb-waiter? His mother Pearl plumps his
Eyes lie through their teeth. Is it so important to be unfortunate?
Is shucks not enough? Perhaps he could import a diver to yank
him out of bed?
Another clammy night. (38)
Arrant goofiness is a great virtue, but there are others on display. “Dig the King” is a hypnotic little song for Elvis, in which “digging” and “rock” and Presley’s beach movies all get mixed up with the elements of a classically portentous homage:
The king that sounded
Most like the king
The king in the ear
Of musical things
Bring on the king
The king who was playing
The king on the beach
A mineral king, king of digging
Remember the king
Like a mood ring
A natural king (22)
Not infrequently, Gizzi punctuates his welter of warped aphorisms and broken-off narratives with an old-fashioned lyric beauty. These moments are all the more exquisite for how they startle. “Hubble approaches lilac time” (13) is, to my mind, pretty unimprovable, as is “The moon said in an opal voice, I pedal along, // a ribbon in my mouth. I chew it in the rain” (57). It’s not an easy beauty, but it’s about as pure as one could want.
The word “deadpan” derives from an old usage of “pan” for “face.” It is a physical, visual description that also means something tonal, audible, and abstract, and Gizzi returns again and again to that intersection, where the senses are conflated and the impossible is made palpable. Declaring that “One can’t adventure with images anymore,” he tries to write as if “the eye were a tongue,” as if one could “[translate] ideas into things” (15, 37, 17).
Because he is a writer who has no program beyond, as he puts it elsewhere, “[pursuing] the radical possibility that anything is possible,” Gizzi is wildly free in the choices he makes. Sometimes the pursuit doesn’t pan out, and when it doesn’t, all that freedom makes me itch for greater strictures. But to watch him in the attempt, to watch him write with absolute liberty what happens when “the King’s English goes native to the grammar of his heartbeat” (64), is always exhilarating.
A review of 'N7ostradamus'
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.
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).
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:
“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)
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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, 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.” 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, 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. 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.
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.”
4. The video surveyed Painted Ideas, an exhibit curated by Vicuña that featured visual poetry from the anthology (see http://www.ceciliadetorres.com/paintedideas/paintedideas_ex.html).