In his element

A review of 'The Astonishment Tapes'

Photo of Robin Blaser (left) courtesy of the Electronic Poetry Center.

The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends

The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends

Robin Blaser, ed. Miriam Nichols

University of Alabama Press 2015, 344 pages, $49.95, ISBN 978-0817358099

Robin Blaser is in his element in these monologues in interview format — personable, pedagogic, and himself a “high-energy construct,” to not-quite-cite Charles Olson. By virtue of this book, the reader experiences Blaser as a unique force field of magnetic knowledge and charismatic charm. He is at home among the poets, themselves practitioners and friends, meeting in 1974 at someone’s house in Vancouver. The agenda is mixed: the taped sessions from which these talks are transcribed were apparently proposed by Warren Tallman to constitute or contribute to Blaser’s autobiographical memoir, and probably to dig into the complex nexus of a famous triad: Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Blaser. Their comradeship, quarrels, spites, and splits (among those involving other intimates) are one tale of the formation and impact of the “Berkeley” or “San Francisco Renaissance” in the New [North] American Poetry, a poetics and practice — with its accompanying lore — that energized these Canadian poets in distinctive ways.

As performer, talker, essayist, and poet, Blaser will not stay domesticated in literary history. The 1974 Vancouver tapes are therefore rangy, suggestive, allusive, and metamorphic. So the other part of the agenda for these meetings is both more buried and irruptive. Blaser is direct: “An autobiography is as much the intellectual loves as the personal loves.”[1] As if he were running a high-level seminar in the humanities and poesis, Blaser immerses his audience in poetics and poetry from Dante to Shelley, Mallarmé to seriality, touching on such poets as Olson, Pound, and Levertov, but also encompassing Western poetic and philosophic traditions. Blaser wants, needs, and desires to talk broadly, taking the defining interests of Duncan, Spicer, and himself as exemplary of the problematic of Western civilization after “religion” loses its binding force: what can the human be ontologically and epistemologically in the post-humanist period? And what, therefore, are the tasks of poetry? Indeed, Blaser’s Dantean framework became quite clear to me in reading this book — not sure why this book particularly, but there it is. In fact, Blaser is one of the striking users of Dante among contemporary poets, but unlike John Kinsella’s or James Merrill’s, his Dante is somehow distributed into and saturated within “Image-Nation,” the serial poem pulsing at irregular intervals through his collected poems, The Holy Forest.

At his best in these tapes, Blaser is like the angelic imp of poetry itself, offering dynamic and inspired discussions of “wild logos” (e.g., 190, 197), of poetry as “noetic” (knowledge-bearing; 81, 192), and offering intense broad-brush interventions in the history of ideas. The slight abrasion between holding Blaser strictly to the fuss and minutiae of personal autobiography (which leads to some clarification at times — the “straight story,” as Tallman says, straight-faced) and Blaser’s far grander aspirations to articulate his life as one poetic allegory of soul-making are part of the intensity and charm of this book. Blaser’s task is to embody the sense of — yes — astonishment, blessing, and ethical order without dependency on religious revelation.

The book gives a little window into the workings of a poetry group, and the findings are incomplete but recognizable. There are moments of intense seriousness and there are moments of jocular undercutting. Tallman’s antic moments sometimes grate. But withal, this is a necessary book for the poetics of interrogative openness in language. Blaser’s career and the stories generated are wonderful artifacts all their own: life on a railroad siding somewhere in Idaho, a gay boychild from a strivingly literate family on the frontier, a mixed-up mythos including Catholicism and a touch of the Book of Mormon, are just some strands braiding up a major poet of critical sensibility, urbane sophistication, and invincible intelligence. The mutual self-fashioning among Spicer and Duncan and Blaser constitutes another key story, all under the influence or thrall of Ernst Kantorowicz, a professor of medieval intellectual and political history who came from Germany to the US in the forced Jewish diaspora of the Nazi-fascist era. Striking to me is Blaser’s infinitely patient loyalty to both Duncan and Spicer: no matter what provocation, he will speak no evil of either. “Jack,” particularly, has a talismanic function for Blaser — something between a guardian saint and an exemplary warning, a bleeding statue one puts in a niche in one’s house.

Insofar as a review is a guide to reading, it’s worth noting that in these discussions, a word that takes some transposition for 2016 ears is Blaser’s use of the term “manhood” — a non-gendered synonym for the highest human sensibility (the “man” in “human” is a useful mnemonic). It is really “personhood,” never meant as a gender-exclusive term. His interlocutors are never only men from this group — women are full participants — and Blaser himself has a genderqueer soul.

Miriam Nichols’s editing of these transcribed tapes is a marvel of discretion and intelligence, informed by her important work on Blaser — her edition of The Holy Forest and of The Fire, his essays; her book Radical Affections, “On the Poetics of Outside.” (The full transcription of these tapes is held in the Contemporary Literary Collection at Simon Fraser University.) Nichols offers about as full a description and set of apparatuses as one could desire: exact bibliographic account of the materials as available (disintegrating, poor-quality audiotapes); the reasons for her specific selections from these tapes, along with a useful summary of transcript materials not included in this book; excellent thumbnail sketches of the participants and of the allusions Blaser makes to friends and thinkers, poets, political figures (e.g., who is Hugh of St. Victor? and so forth); and extremely deft annotations in her endnotes. Among the other decisions enhancing the book’s scholarly usefulness are the categories for “Blaser” in the index: poetics, poetry and philosophy, poetry and politics, poetry and religion, relations to other writers, romantic relationships, works by, and then a set of “Blaser and places,” including Berkeley, Boise, Boston right through the alphabet.

There are so few scholarly glitches that I feel churlish obeying the convention for reviewing these kinds of texts and noting the very few that I found. In the list of names there is no entry on Dante, although of course he appears repeatedly in the index; the same is true of James Joyce. It is, however, much more valuable to have annotations for now obscure friends and acquaintances once on the scene than to have sketches of these extremely well-known people — but nonetheless it seems that only a few such major figures are missing and could have been present. As for literary history, a citation by Thomas Nashe (1567–1601) is attributed to poet and novelist Mary Butts (279–80, note 3). “Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair” are lines any poet would long to have written, but they actually come from Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague.” Finally, in the very important “I, John, saw” discussion between Blaser and Duncan, the crucial, exact citation that Nichols needed here is from H.D.’s Trilogy, in “Tribute to the Angels” (first published 1945), in sections 3 and 43.[2] The line signals a crucial motif in H.D.’s critique of the closing of the book (that is, the Bible). This closure is one John declared along with his witnessing, and in her text, this line foregrounds H.D.’s resistance to John’s claim and her insistence on the sense of continuing revelation that animates her poetic work. Of course, Duncan knew well this specific work of H.D., and both he and Blaser held to the sense of continuing revelation.

Part of Blaser’s charisma is his joy: a sense of having been endowed with “absolute blessing” (203) and of offering back “love” (218). Another endowment is his wicked and frank wit. We are lucky to have the traces of Blaser’s astonishment and poetic intelligence preserved in this text, with thanks to the patient editing and scholarly understanding of Miriam Nichols.

1. Robin Blaser, The Astonishment Tapes: Talks on Poetry and Autobiography with Robin Blaser and Friends, ed. Miriam Nichols (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 130.

2. See Nichols’s surmises and discussion on 190 and 287, note 24.

Necessary companionship

A review of Laynie Browne's 'Scorpyn Odes'

Scorpyn Odes

Scorpyn Odes

Laynie Browne

Kore Press 2015, 56 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1888553703

A sense of community is everywhere apparent in the poetry world — the desire to share and promote what is offered widely, and to make of poetry a means to transform minds, hearts, and social practice. Fortunately or unfortunately, it can be difficult in all this to find a space quiet enough for a contemplative spirit, an exploratory sense, in the poem, of working through what’s real in how to respond to a world in and through language. For me the value of this is much more than personal, more than the pleasure it affords. I find in it the basis of thought and action, their solid foundation and ultimate sustainability. So while I try to read as variously as possible, it’s always this contemplative work that makes me feel most alive, most at home, and most as if I am getting what’s needed.

This brings me to the work of Laynie Browne, one of our finest poets working in the mode I am calling contemplative poetry (contemplation: “to mark out a space for observation”). By which I mean not necessarily a poetry that is contemplative in the religious sense (though yes, inescapably there is also that in Laynie’s work) but rather in the compositional sense, that is, writing itself, language itself, composition itself, as a form of contemplation, marking a place for observation. Of her own work Laynie has written, “Silence and the invisible are often my imperatives. I aspire to transcribe the illegible, and to hear all that may be compressed within silence or utterance. Which silences, deliberately placed, make a text more audible?”[1]

Scorpyn Odes is a roughly forty-page text which consists of two series in alternation. One, titled “Scorpyn Odes,” is comprised of short poems, all of which are about scorpions from every possible angle. Their history and natural history. Remedies in case of stings, possible medicinal uses of the venom, mythological and astrological reference, etc. A former resident (but not a native) of Tuscon, Arizona, a place in which one’s home is not infrequently habitat for actual scorpions, Laynie (who during the time she lived there had young children) had ample occasion to encounter with some trepidation these strange and storied creatures. Naturally she decided to get to know them not only in the flesh, so to speak, but also by tracing their existence in language, that is to say in the human mind, in books, myths, references of all kinds. A process of working out a relationship, of creating some familiarity, no doubt, against fear, with these rather creepy and intimidating animals, which, we learn, are more than 400 million years old, and therefore carry an enviable genetic pedigree: they’ve been around a lot longer, and possibly more peacefully and successfully, than we have, in their intense silences, lurking secrecy, and straight-ahead sincerity. The opening poem of the book is a quiet lovely ode I’ll quote in full, because it serves as a kind of entry point to all that follows.

I prayed the dictionary
I asked pardon of dream
I feared scorpions in their silence
And walked each morning
into the rising mountain

I vowed not to become
the nullifying silence
But to nullify the other
paralysis being born

To speak with the elevated
precision of silence

From the marrow of consciousness
The living aspect of which appears solid
but isn’t complete
until we have left
the word, the mountain
and the scorpionic premises[2]

This lovely statement, if it is a statement, could be about everything we fear, including death and chaos. To face it, confront it, in prayer (which requires language, the dictionary) and pardon, opening up to the dream (not denying the dream with rationality and technology) and naming the fear, then walking toward it, vowing to speak, but speak in a way that includes silence, the beyond-language, to overcome the paralysis of fear that leaves us frozen. Good advice for these terror-filled times!

Fear paralyzes and creates a silence, a block, unlike the silence, beyond the word, which is creative and precise, contemplative, vibrating in the very marrow of consciousness, which can’t happen until there’s a willingness to leave everything behind, having overcome the fear of departure (see below) and nullification. Which ends up being what this book is about.

The remainder of the book builds on this initial resolve to plunge in, rather than retreat from, the weird and the fearful, to explore — through the soothing and deep encounter with language itself (and the self, construed necessarily through language, if you go deep enough into it to notice) — what it is we are walking toward as the “squares upon calendars / looked back at me” (9).

The second series is titled “Departure.” It consists of prose poems, generally a half page or so in length, on the titled theme. Departure, as word, as concept, as feeling, as thought, as intimate experience, is also a wider and deeper question. What is departure? From what to what do we transfer? And isn’t any departure a death, and does departure ever cease, aren’t we forever departing each moment, off balance continually in the process? All this is suggested and drawn forth in these wonderful prose poems, that include, intermittently, the disaster of contemporary life, in all its exhausting detail — from which we would most passionately wish to depart, if we could.

Possibly no school shootings, possibly funding for National Science Foundation funneled from the war is over. Possibly sleep and not underwritten. More flow into you and less treacherous waters becoming migrant — not at all workers — but the word client was changed to person. The word weapon was changed to mediation. You’d say meadow was a stretch. Go ahead say meadow. Say minimum wage. Say possibly nothing is forgotten. The street across the street and the globe across from that with dental care, insurance. Go ahead, say you'll wait in the meadow for all of that, streaming … (10)

The form of the writing in both series is improvisational, exploratory, paratactic, rich in information and detail, juxtaposed with inner reflection, a groping toward a kind of redemption through engagement with the intense experience of writing itself, which the reader feels, as if composing the poem herself, in the reading of it, following it along, as lights within consciousness go off and on (lights, not necessarily useful ideas of or thoughts about the world, just lights). So that the reading itself is, as least for a reader like me, an exercise in opening to a cheerful possibility in living, as if accompanied by a contemplative voice that’s both inside and outside one’s own head.

I mentioned above that Laynie is an engaged spiritual practitioner — in her case mainly of Jewish meditation. That is, silence is for her more than a concept of language-limit; rather, it is an experience, a lived exploration. She writes,

Elemental to my work is this attempt at intimacy requiring corporeal wrestling as well as ethereal and intellectual engagements. The intimate does not necessarily imply the personal, but it does imply attempts at a collective sense of personhood. I aspire to exit the confines of single voice, single perspective, and single consciousness, breaking with the illusory notion of the individual, and fixed concepts of perception.[3]

The themes mentioned here are all in evidence in Scorpyn Odes: intertextuality, the sense of address, confrontation with the unknown, and moving beyond a single voice or perspective into a collective sense of voice. For me all this adds up to an open poetry which neither pressures nor informs me in any particular direction. Rather it gives me the sort of profound companionship I need to keep me going in an impossible world. This is what contemplative poetry is supposed to do, and why it is so important.

1. Laynie Browne, in The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and The Avant-Garde, ed. Lily Hoang and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (New York: Nightboat Boats, 2015).

2. Laynie Browne, Scorpyn Odes (Kore Press: Tucson, 2015), 7.

3. Laynie Browne, Imagining The Jewish God, ed. Leonard V. Kaplan (Maryland: Lexington Books, Graven Images Series; forthcoming).

Multicultural sleep

A review of 'Fainting with Freedom' by Ouyang Yu

Fainting with Freedom

Fainting with Freedom

Ouyang Yu

Five Islands Press 2015, 96 pages, $25, ISBN 978-0734050250

Insouciance may be an undervalued poetic quality. In this latest collection by the Chinese Australian poet, novelist, editor, and translator Ouyang Yu, the attitude of insouciance is also a cultural strategy. It reflects Yu’s own movements as a writer and citizen, that is, situated “in Oz or China / Or both.”[1]

In different tones Yu has been dealing with such cultural tension since his first collection of poems in English, Moon over Melbourne. Those early poems are volatile, with dominant and vulnerable notes of anger, bitterness, and elation:

moon over melbourne you bloody australian moon
you hang on you alright you no worries mate
you make me sick home sick for sure

you put every body to a multicultural sleep
who knows not what is meant by
one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow under you

so contented with sharing the feeling
of planting proudly the rag of a flag
among your rocks

never mind their colonising instinct
for they lose you as soon as they touch you
tonight you belong to me[2]

Here, Yu savagely satirizes the myopic perception of an “australian moon”: a metaphor of the sleepily “contented” and “proud” condition of the colonial nation. The moon, of course, belongs to nobody, just as the “colonising” culture is merely a rag among rocks. While Yu goes on to address views of Australia in later work, he shifts from the antagonism of “moon over melbourne” to focus increasingly on “the one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow.” As his poetic oeuvre has grown, its voice has developed a more studied casualness, regarding the condition of the author and his communities from a dedicated position of bemusement. In “Listening to the Lebanese Taxi-driver,” published as part of a sequence by Jacket in 2006, Yu shares his voice with another migrant subject, such that their dialogue becomes fluid:

In botany bay
I went to this big-faced man who said: guess
Just one guess
And if you don’t get it
I’ll tell you
I pinned him down to the middle east
Even though he was mildly indian
He agreed
I narrowed him down to Lebanon
Even though his accent was a bit hard to define
He agreed again

The poem pursues a kind of verbatim poetics, witnessing voices around the poet whilst narrating his interaction with them. Its attitude is more curious than in “moon over melbourne,” but equally unconcerned with gratifying anybody else’s idea of poetry written in, from, or about Australia. If some of Yu’s earlier writing could be contextualized within a tradition of “migrant poetry” including Ania Walwicz and PiO, his more recent work (and theirs) establishes a new position — one that is confidently both within and above a poetics informed by citizenship and location. John Kinsella — who launched Fainting with Freedom in Melbourne, and who carries a history of collaboration with Yu as well as commentary on his work — has labelled Yu’s work as “post-multicultural.”[3] In this regard it finds itself in relation to the writing of John Mateer or Lionel Fogarty, Yan Jun or Michael Farrell. Fainting with Freedom is preoccupied with the acts of writing and publishing, and what it is to do these between Australia and China.

While Fainting with Freedom comprises four sections, its prose poems — which run successively across half the first and most of the second section — constitute a passage of their own. Yu handles the form of the prose poem with invigorating spontaneity and automatism, as in “Biography”:

You are your own unwritten biography by someone your shadow lengthens, unlike the clouds that stain the landscape as they shift their unfocus. On an uncertain future date. This makes you wonder if it’s worth your while keeping this scrap bearing these words: Princess Hwy, New Lake Entrance, Government Rd, then turn left into Malin Rd. (35)

A number of these poems might be better described as micro-essays, de-emphasizing voice in favor of reflection and discursive devices: a long footnote (“Softness”), URLs (“Philosophy” and “Self Publishing”), even the author’s email address (“shi and fei”). In these pieces, Yu frequently comments upon hierarchies of production and authorship. In “Paintings,” he observes image-making and how “those who did not make it are now making it more than they could ever have hoped for” (33). In “Self Publishing,” Yu notes, “the rain self publishing again as it did 3000 million years ago, on the page that is my roof” (41). Paradoxically, it’s the raw and unfinished nature of these poems or essays that is their binding poetic. They are consistently open and leaky, creating a processual, porous space:

books are easier to destroy than words, the latter having the quality of being mind borne and, in some hands, can generate astronomical sales only to suffer posthumous extinction. the wait for a book can take longer than a suicide. books were once buried, later seized as a sign to endorse one’s own superiority without realising that behind the books there lie strewn branches that remind one of pulp or sap. the first pig book has yet to be written by the pig herself. same with the first sheep book the first cow book or the first tea book by tea. (31)

In many of these prose texts there is a sense that form and voice might collapse or wash away. It’s a precarious sensation, one in which Yu’s writing constantly points out rhetorical directions and possibilities, moving with the moment of the poem. At one point, in “Philosophy,” Yu asserts that he is “determined to leave unfinished” the poem, and “see if it does not grow by itself.” In the same breath, he invites readers to “unite and trash” the poem (29). It’s as though the poetic space is an organism that will continue to revive or at least morph and struggle on, like a polluted creek.

One way this occurs is through semiotic layering. Yu’s work as a translator has been pioneering for Australian audiences. In the mid-1990s he founded the bilingual Chinese-Australian journal Otherland, which has been followed by projects such as the recent anthology he edited and translated, Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China. Translation is a constant presence and influence upon Yu’s poems, and is unsurprisingly a part of his discourse upon literary production in Fainting with Freedom. He explicitly discusses translation in poems such as “Serendipity,” “Softness,” “shi and fei,” and “Round,” occasionally employing Chinese characters. These poems reflect Yu’s method of so-called direct translation, in which he avoids lyrical interpretation of the source language in favor of literal or direct correlation of vocabulary and grammar. He composes English in a comparable way, avoiding linguistic elegance in favor of functional description.

In doing so Yu likes to press the language through itself, calling into comparison Fogarty’s resistant response to English as a colonizing vehicle. Like Fogarty, Yu revels in the momentum of pun and conjugation, as well as sonic play: “many that is manying and bad / That is badded … Feet, personalities that pee till they are peeled” (55). Yu demands that we consider how accent, vernacular, and broken or mixed vocabulary are gifts to Australian English, providing it with new modes of being “efficient.” “Stuff the English then,” Yu writes in “shi and fei,” “not a very efficient language” (57), and so he goes on to bend it to his will. Whereas in earlier poems he was interested in exploring this view through found speech and performative confessionalism, Fainting with Freedom harnesses metaphor and analogy to talk about the condition of language for one moving between Australia and China. This approach is memorably represented in the poem, “Four”:

Boat, oh, boat
Come and assault the sky
Of an incorruptible corruptness, pickled in poetry (62)

It is essential for contemporary poetry in Australia to absorb the multiple versions of English that a postcolonial, migrant-built community with a refugee intake might contain. We are pickled in poetry and are learning to listen for it. Yu takes this up in a barbed poem, “The Boat Project,” which narrates a conversation about effective tactics for a “boat person” (a pejorative epithet for a refugee who travels to Australia by sea, ironically the same way that colonial invasion arrived). This poem yokes Yu’s casual tone to subtle satirical purposes. The poem’s speaker suggests that permanent residence in Australia could be achieved by undertaking a boat journey as a work of performance art:

And install yourself in it
Like part of it
Row it ashore
And try
To catch the attention of coast
Wear tattered clothes
Don’t bring an interpreter
Bring a camera, a video one


The high-heeled man
Artist stared at me with his removed lip
Stick and laughed
So much
One of his heels
Came off his

A good detail, I said
That could be used for the
Benefit of the boat (66–67)

While the high-heeled artist is a good set-up for Yu’s punchline, the real substance of the poem is the extended, staccato voice of the speaker. Its truncated lines mimic the spontaneity of speech — a concept coming together — and the dark humor of the noted “detail.” In this composition the artist or listener is but a platform.

In the opening poem of Fainting with Freedom,Yu asserts: “you are your own alter-ego” (11). All of his writing has relied upon this principle, drawing from his reality and rendering it by turns absurd, surreal, and lyrically analytical. In “Digging,” Yu takes Victoria’s colonial goldfields (well-populated by Chinese) as an emblem of Australia’s mythos of prosperity or the “lucky country.” He asserts his independence from that history, rejecting its racism towards Chinese migrants as well as the notion of fatefully happy assimilation:

After they made good and came home in brocade robes
It is even less likely that I would have bothered coming to any part of Australia
Which is why I didn’t come and my name was never recorded
In any part of that country’s history
Looking at the sign showing the routes to the goldfields
I told me once again that I would not have been bothered
If I had not been bothered in 1851 or subsequently
Digging is a beautiful thing
But not for gold
Not for me (34)

Here, the poem’s insouciant lack of “bother” actually constitutes a firm positing of the self over nation: “Not for me.”

While “The Boat Project” and “Digging” are highlights of the collection, the monotony of Yu’s impassive, first-person voice becomes wearing across this many poems. For the purposes of a book-length collection, the voice could have benefited from some tonal or positional shifts. A sense of shapelessness is unaided by the book’s subtitled sections, which create only a false sense of variety. There are plenty of resonant and innovative images to be found, particularly of place (“a sexy spring full of / green-colored jealousy” [46], or “1 colored bird sucking a pink flock / of flowers” [14]), but the price of insouciance might be a kind of blandness, in which the poet’s alter-ego cloaks image, persona, and line. When this happens the poem fails to grow by itself.

Perhaps it’s a truism to say that Yu’s writing is empowered by the attitude which threatens its energy. I’m willing to follow these dips of quality within his style, since they frequently retrieve something original and surprising, even from shakier poems. It would be a mistake to go looking here for an activist message, as we might do in Kinsella’s and Fogarty’s poetries. The cover of Fainting with Freedom is a photo by Yu himself, of red sap oozing from a spotted eucalypt (gum tree). The image and its title, “Gumblood,” are reminiscent of a line in Mateer’s sequence, “In the Presence,” which addresses the slain Noongar warrior, Yagan: “Even if I stab a bloody gum tree you will not speak.”[4] The idea of flora bleeding — of it having a hidden internal life that resembles our own — is an uneasy image of empathy, as powerful as that of self-publishing rain. Coupled with the book’s title, however, it creates an ironic tension — for what is it to be so free you are unconscious? The poems in Fainting with Freedom emphasize that empathy is not sameness, just as dwelling should not be confused with belonging, nor language with unity. Rather, the “state” to which Yu belongs is the poem itself.

1. Ouyang Yu, Fainting with Freedom (Parkville Vic., Australia: Five Islands Press, 2015), 67.

2. Ouyang Yu, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems (Melbourne: Papyrus Publishing, 1995), 8. See Australian Poetry Library.

3. John Kinsella, “Multicultural Poetry,” on John Kinsella’s website.

4. John Mateer, The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009 (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010), 97.

Timed instants

A review of Cole Swensen's 'Landscapes on a Train'

Landscapes on a Train

Landscapes on a Train

Cole Swensen

Nightboat Books 2015, 74 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-1937658410

I am on the TGV Lyria from Paris to Mulhouse reading Cole Swensen’s newest poetry collection, Landscapes on a Train. I am awash in “The infinite splitting of finite things”[1] as these one to five long-lined prose poems pass before my eyes with the rush and rumble of the train, the staccato catch and jostle of unexpected punctuation, the blur of the greens outside echoed in:

Green. Cut. And I count: the green of the lake the green of the sky and the field
Which is green and is breaking. (7)

Swensen’s anaphora is both visual and audible. The turning of the train’s wheels, the up-and-down of the hills, the words and end-stops, the rise and fall of gears and gaskets, noun and verb like metal pressing metal, run the train faster and faster through the landscape until outside is confounded and melds into such twinned, twined images as: “A / Train across open land opens night. (A train lands all night across an open field)” (11).

The first lines of Swensen’s book which I quoted above undercut potential casual normative prosy language with the delightful, surprising “is breaking” — so the field is splitting or else is rising up and breaking like a wave against the shores of our perception. It is the subtle crash of verbs and nouns in this book which undoes the potentially simple observations from a train and makes landscape, light, color, and language open themselves to new possibilities. Cause and effect skew, become the unexpected — so the train makes night open, or a train lands (like a plane or bird) but in a way that is ongoing, as “all night” in the second couplet quoted above suggests. We are “in a landscape almost held,” Swensen writes,“… By things that move / More slowly than trees” (13).

In fact, Swensen’s uses of timed instants pitted against instants of prolonged time play with the seen, so transformations are not just visual, but temporal. Landscapes are stopped, shrunken, held in the palm of a hand. The gaze, the eye, catches the land in an instant, but then that instant is taken up by “things that move,” indicating speed — that of the train again — but then already that which has momentum seems unnaturally slowed, stalled, caught, as Swensen’s “more slowly than trees” states. This fragment indicates a time so slow our human eye cannot in a natural state notice the transformation, and yet trees grow and surround us. Trees in a state of emerging partake of how this book is about a landscape rising and falling — not just alongside some train on its singular journey but through all time, as Swensen indicates with “The light is an accident because the trees are old” (9). Here, the age of the trees and an accident of light are yoked together in a paradox of cause and effect, and of what can and cannot be perceived or known from a single train ride and rider in its passing. Things are lost or emerge over vast swaths of time along quickly perceived landscapes, as “There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape” (17), or “One more house. Fallen down. Goes falling on” (20), or “And there goes a village of sand. Broke / The ruined ruin” (29) show. The green with which Swensen opens her book is a green being left, released to the air as she writes: “left sound, left the green alive / With houses, small, all stone and backing up on a green built of dust” (29).

Such fabulously engaging sensual-intellectual work is not surprising from a poet like Swensen, who often fragments and uses syntax which jars and forces new ways of seeing, especially of seeing history; take for example the historical figures and places explored in her collections Gravesend or Such Rich Hour. However, in this subtly powerful new book Landscapes on a Train, perceptions of historical rebuilding and fading away feel modulated, and their modulations are directed by her subject itself — how trains make landscapes rush and blur one into another — hill, field, cloud, lake, bush, village, castle, turret, spire, tree, grass, “Dovecote grey in wind, now mill, now wall” (27). These are taken as the basis of moments where what is perceived is grounded in the world one sees so clearly from a train. Yet sometimes it is not the train or the person on the train in motion but the landscape itself; “A line of hills that / Pulls away” (9) ends one poem, while the next begins “Shore as it pulls away” (10) — and farther on, through the open windows of the train, “herd / And run, the hills” (31). The reader is constantly surprised and excited by the unexpected dynamism of what is usually passive landscape. Even plant life which is usually, by definition and nature, planted, seems to be arriving or moving on, as in “the landed tree” (13), or later, “Stand trees in a line / Migrating through rain” (25).

Natural elements thus act in spectacularly unexpected ways because of Swensen’s verb choices. This practice continues throughout the book in lines such as “Three trees erode the sky” (61) or “In flower are the birds” (64). Both of these lines give way to images we can imagine — the way a tree as it grows shades the land or a house, stretching into the sky, thus literally eroding what can be seen of a sky from a given point; or, in the second snippet, how birds in flight, white, or colorful, burst and fade not unlike the blooming and closing of flowers. But these verbs, “erode” and “flower,” make us see anew, in unusual ways, both the noun and the verb. Thus Swensen constantly reminds her reader that these landscapes are still and always language; as Swensen writes early in the collection, “Birds smalled down to words / Come back. Flowered in cloud” (12).

In a similar quixotic manner in these poems, “light / Runs aground” (12), “Light keeps up” (24) “Light slices” (33), “Light … is an approach” (33), while “stone” is “blind until left lined up in pieces …” (41) and “Rain draws” (53), “All white moves” (32), “Grain runs” (25), “A lake folds” (26), and the sky is brought “back to the ground” (28). Even the animals such as “solid birds” (might these be sculpted?) are suddenly “holding on / To the sky” (37) in places which Swensen writes “are torn. / From light keeping time … in line” (51). All of these verb-noun-temporal combinations excite the mind and the imagination as they renew the force and interest in language and how it makes up and can skew a world, transform it within the page itself, the 2D surface along which Swensen’s poems run. Pressing this idea even farther, Swensen proposes in one image that it is also the train and its palpable existence which are called into question, or transformed from a 3D to a 2D existence, as the train is absorbed into a paper map: “A map on the wall that forms the end of the train, and so, on it goes” (58).

In the end, it is not the train which is cutting through the landscape, but these landscapes which return to “cut into lives” (28) both of the passengers on the train and of Swensen’s readers, crisscrossing in our minds and via our ears. For these poems are rich with music, manipulating a synesthetic quality to connect and merge sound and vision: “House in a hurl of green” (37), “Quiet lights the fog, washes the grey” (39), and “Along an inlet headed inward. / With the silence of a window” (60). The final result is that these are not landscapes seen from a train but are, as her title suggests, “on a train” itself — thus transformed and imprinted onto the train, into, within it, and its passengers, the reader. From within, then, “A window opens a train” (11) to the world beyond, behind, and in front of it where, as Swensen echoes Alain Badiou: “a man, in / Time, turns to space. By any means necessary” (59). I cannot recommend more highly this new collection to readers, those travelling, or those wanting to be taken on a voyage via this striking new book.

1. Cole Swensen, Landscapes on a Train (New York : Nightboat Books, 2015), 23.

On reading Christian Bök's 'The Xenotext: Book 1' ten thousand years later

A xenoreview

The Xenotext: Book 1

The Xenotext: Book 1

Christian Bök

Coach House Books 2015, 160 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-1552453216

My first impression that I cannot shake each time I open The Xenotext: Book 1: this is not the book I thought it would be. The bioart project became well-known in its time: to implant a poem inside the DNA of bacterium d. radiodurans that would be read by the organism each time its genome replicated, expressing another poem as RNA pairs up for transcription. The bacteria would become an archive of a certain idea of poetry, a poem actually alive, a poem that would likely endure longer than any reader or any concept of poetry (d. radiodurans can withstand heavy doses of radiation, survive in extreme environments, and will in all probability outlast humans).

But The Xenotext: Book 1 is not that story, not that poem. I did not know that Bök would not tell in this work the lengths he has gone to strive for this project and the success and failures encountered along the way. All along it was understood that the poem was not going to be the verbal icon, and not the book either, but the work of the poem in its trying to get made. Poeisis included: all the computer programming, grant writing, art exhibits, promotional tweets, interviews, preposterous claims, raised eyebrows, and bioethical murmurings. The poem project also involved aiming to survive at least ten thousand years later with enough of these subroutines still running to keep the poem’s grammar warm and agential.

It is strange then that most of that work on the bioart poem goes unmentioned in Book 1. Instead, the book consists of five sections containing a mix of prose and poetry, whose form and content are structured in varying degrees by some aspects of genomics. There is also a “vita explicata” where Bök details his methods and states that he sees Book 1 as “an ‘infernal grimoire,’ introducing readers to the concepts for this experiment” (151). With the genome as muse and medium, this is really a DNA text. The book fits somewhere in the early twenty-first century between J. Craig Venter’s genome cowboying and GMO redemption rhetoric and Donna Haraway’s accusatory “fetishism of the gene,” the feminist eco-technoscience-inspired rejection of masculinized selfish genes and synthetic genome rescue operations in favor of a decentered, pluralized, and environmentally embedded sense of coming to know what genotypes and phenotypes can do.

In a section titled “The Nucleobases,” for example, Bök supplies a visual of each nucleotide and crafts a short poem on tightly restricted terms: only nine-letter words beginning with the first letter of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, or hydrogen in proportion to the nucleobase’s chemical formula, and including some content that rhapsodizes bees (the fate of bees is a thread that runs throughout Book 1). Here is “Adenine (C5H5N5)”:

creatures, honeybees
cocooning nectarous honeydews — heartsome
cunningly harvested,
numbingly hypnoidal (87)

Reading Bök’s many DNA poems, we realize that all our bodies are made from highly restricted vocabularies. Bök wrote in the time of the first generation to witness the great bee die-off, when the chemical genius of bees was undone by other chemical geniuses who decided to spread insecticidal neonicotinoids everywhere. This was a time when one could openly question whether skill at synthetic genetic modification or care for a biodiverse world stood as the highest mark of intelligence.

Bök seeks to collaborate with the genome, writing along with it rather than through and over it. Many of the poems in the book take on the visual and organizational feel of nucleic material. Writing with the genome requires working with its generative and generational properties that occur at micro and macro scales. Bök’s project embraced writing with biological longevity and epochal time frames as enabling constraints. How do you write and read for (at least) a ten-thousand-year time span? There are clocks made to keep time for ten thousand years, and writings inscribed on tombs for radioactive nuclear waste meant for any possible reader who might stumble upon such a toxic archive. There are epic poems that believed themselves to be immortal and unforgettable and are long lost, while a fragment of an exchange of glances caught in Sappho’s scroll — “for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me” — still carries an erotic charge thousands of years later. Although Bök has sometimes claimed he aimed to write a poem that would effectively become immortal, the writing of poetry has never been about striving for one temporality or one version of longevity.

Bök’s The Xenotext helped open the field of xenopoetics in its time. Xenopoetics involves reading and writing in varying time scales and from varying points of view in addition to the human perspective. All texts have xenopoetic qualities as they ask: how would an individual, human or nonhuman, read X after time Y has elapsed? Xenopoetics amplifies concerns about the durability of a poem’s medium, message, and range of transmission. In addition to form and content, the question of contact becomes paramount for the poem. Xenopoetics considers the aesthetic and material properties that enable poems to send an image, a feeling, or a message to an unknown reader in an unknown time across an unknown cultural gap situated in an unknown land. The xenopoem, with Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 as an example, stresses the conjunction of form, content, and contact. Xenopoetics engages the medium to transmit the message and questions what message transmission might mean at species and planetary levels.[1]

Bök’s “Alpha Helix” instantiates xenopoetics by casting the helix as one of the primary forms of the cosmos, a swirl of matter-energy that can offer a platform for anything from bad weather to biological lifelines. The helix form, here iterated by the pronoun “it,” bears writing and life across the universe:

Whatever lives must also write. It must strive to leave its gorgeous mark upon the eclogues and the georgics already written for us by some ancestral wordsmith. (140)

It is the little vortex that can torque the course of evolution for every micrococcus. (141)

It is but a fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever, the primacord escorting a spark through every padlock on every doorway shut against the future. (141)

It is but a tightrope that crosses all abysses. It is but a tether that lets us undertake this spacewalk. Do not be afraid when we unbraid it. (146)

Bök believed that the poem and the genome could together extend the xenopoetic properties of both into new time signatures and new aesthetic conditions. Bök wonders throughout Book 1 that DNA may already be a xenotext, and perhaps already has a message encoded within, or can be a message-medium in the future. Probably all advanced civilizations in the universe manipulate the composite living elements of their existence, and they all probably question why such manipulation should be done at all and what the problematic consequences of such power can entail. But maybe the genome itself already has such questions and concerns embedded in it, as Bök writes:

Tell me, Wraith and Reader, tell me: Will love save us from our fear that we are here alone? What then if we peer into the sky at night but see no distant lantern blinking at us from the far end of the cosmos? What if such a beacon goes unnoticed, like a dying flame in the darkness? What if only the most wicked people in the world (the pharaohs, the warlocks, the assassins) ever get to read this signal from outer space? What if the message, when decoded, says nothing but a single phrase repeated: ‘We despise you! We despise you!’ What if we find the evidence for such hate embedded in our genomes? Even now, colonies of dark ants from a species called Mystrium shadow feed themselves upon the blood of their young. Even now, my love, these words confess to you that the universe without you in it is but a merciless explosion. (19)

How long does that “you” last? That address, that mode of lyrical speaking, that personified word, that body, that intimate other, that way of reading and being read, that form among forms. How can poems and genomes be ways of transmitting that “you” for ten thousand years?

Let me harken back to a lovely tweet from Bök that I keep returning to, where he states: “I am still amazed that poets insist on writing about their divorces, when robots are taking pictures of orange, ethane lakes on Titan.”

But recall Sappho’s burning eyes: a furtive look can last longer than the records of kings. Already we see patterns of divorce are having planetary effects — that is what geologists in Bök’s time called the Anthropocene. No one knows for sure what ephemeral messages may end up enduring longer than messages borne in a microbe’s practically immortal genetic coils. Like cave paintings that record the story of a hunt for a shamanic animal that has now long since gone extinct, poems are things for capturing amazement, sometimes ephemeral and sometimes monumental, in the amber of overly formalized language. So, for this xenoreview, I leave this for the next unknown reader in an unknown time:

I am still amazed that astrocapitalists insist on mining yet another asteroid, when poets on Earth struggle to write about their devotion to remain tied to a single wobbly planet.

I am still amazed that yet another new synthetic form of bacterial life intended to produce and store energy has been generated in a lab, when luminous colonies of coral keep living and dying in the ocean, trying to maintain themselves between stone and bone as the seas digest all our discarded polymers.

I am still amazed that space agencies insist on sending more robots on one-way missions out of the galaxy, when a planet full of people keep falling in love, divorcing, or otherwise pouring out their desires in the billions to anyone who will listen.

1. For other examples of xenopoetics in Bök’s era, see Will Alexander, Mari-Lou Rowley, Jack Spicer, Ed Roberson, and Aimé Césaire.