Commentaries - July 2012
Charles Reznikoff, ‘Salmon and red wine’ & ‘During the Second World War, I was going home one night’
Peter Cole, Michelle Taransky, and Henry Steinberg join Al Filreis in this episode of PoemTalk to discuss two poems by Charles Reznikoff. One poem is something of an ars poetica, even though, as Peter points out, its status as metapoetry makes it an unusual effort at statement for Reznikoff, who wrote more often as he did in our second poem, which tells of — and apparently means — only what it is and tends to resist larger conclusion.
The first poem is known as “Salmon and red wine” and it appears as section 23 of Inscriptions. The second poem is known also by its first line, “During the Second World War, I was going home one night,” and it is section 28 of part 2 of a series called By the Well of Living and Seeing — a work published in 1969 in a book that brought together that series along with The Fifth Book of the Maccabees. The recording we discuss of the first poem was made at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University in 1974, although it was written sometime between 1944 and 1956. The recording of the second poem was made when Reznikoff appeared as a guest on Susan Howe’s radio program in 1975. It is a memory of the 1940s.
“Salmon and red wine” appears in Inscriptions (p. 233) with an epigraph the four PoemTalkers discuss but which in our recording Reznikoff omitted for some reason. Here is the text of the epigraph: Thou shalt eat bread with salt and thou shalt drink water by measure, and on the ground shalt thou sleep and thou shalt live a life of trouble … — and the reference Reznikoff then gives is: Mishnah, Aboth 6:4.
The obviously important term “ground” here (and its reappearance in a different context in the poem itself) gives us plenty to discuss. “Those of us without house and ground”: who indeed are they? Are they people of the diaspora? Because “a writer of verse” is said here to require a diet of fasting and measures of water, Al — and to some extent, Michelle and Henry — wonders if the poem affirms dispossession (“without ground”) and wandering (“keep our baggage light”) as a status of necessary suffering for the sake of the modern poetic imagination. Al asks if such an understanding of the poem is “crazy” and Peter takes him up on the suggestion — it is “crazy,” says Peter — whereupon he proceeds to lead us through a discussion of how Reznikoff “is introducing poetry to a place where other people didn’t see poetry” as a function of the Mishnah’s hypergenerous offering of rules and laws and formal guidance on every quotidian act and contingency. “There’s a frame,” observes Peter of Reznikoff’s almost “conceptualist” approach. “The frame is called poetry. Everybody’s looking for it over here where ‘outlast’ and ‘blast’ rhyme. But [Reznikoff]’s saying, ‘No, no, no. Just move the frame,’ as he does in ‘the Second World War.’ And suddenly [poetry is] just ordered in a certain way.”
Al does not disagree but continues to push, seeing the Second World War poem as having something of an unconscious — a hidden or modestly suppressed knowledge of that which is not being said about loss when a Jewish poet in wartime New York City finds himself wandering into an Italian neighborhood and encounters a shopkeeper whose son has been sent to the front and who worries he’ll never return. What comparatively horrific losses are not being worried over? “We’re left to want to understand the gesture,” contends Al — when, later, the son is home safe and the shopkeeper gifts the poet a large apple in response to his plainly kind inquiry about the family. Should we read the gesture of the apple as ironic or insufficient or innocently generous? In answer to this, Michelle Taransky brought forth her teaching (from that very afternoon) of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, and tells us: “I would assume that Reznikoff is not turning the apple-giving into a metaphor or a moment. He’s just saying it happened. It happened just as this other thing that I didn’t write about happened.” And further: “This is just an overheard bit of conversation in the snow of conversation in New York, and Reznikoff, though he is asserting the ‘I’ here, is not saying that I’m the important ‘I’ or that I’m the only ‘I’ but that I’m an ‘I’ and this is another ‘I,’ and we’re talking.”
This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.
Which poems find their way into class?
Things have been a bit less prolific over here than I’d like, but that is only because I’ve been in the classroom much more than behind the computer or the book. I spent one week with a group of amazing teachers at Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, and last week I was working with the Holocaust Educators Network and a group of 24 teachers from all over the world.
As this commentary probably indicates, I’m thoroughly committed to and fascinated by the impact that “experimental” writing (particularly poetry) has in any classroom. At Bard, we worked with poems by Lisa Robertson, Leslie Scalapino, and Cathy Park Hong. My role with the Holocaust Educators Network was different—I worked most closely in a small group with about five high school and junior high school teachers. What struck me was the amount of poetry that these educators use in their classrooms. But, at the same time, I kept finding myself asking—Why poetry? What does the poetry do in your room? What do you, as a teacher, look to poems to do?
For the first time since embarking on this commentary project, I’m not sure what this post is trying to say. I do know that I keep thinking about the push towards narrative poetry in the classroom, and how much I feel like that is shortchanging students of any level. But then, I also wonder how educators come to select poems (outside of pressures from their institutions and districts). And, what work can a poem really do if it is just read once out loud? Is it better to have a poem in the room than none at all?
I’m also admittedly thinking specifically about the poetry that came up last week in the Holocaust Educators Network summer seminar. One high school history teacher begins every class with a reading of a poem by Davi Walders—poems that are “persona poems” all delving into the “character” of women who fought for human rights. These are the first two lines of the poem we read together last week—
“How important to read of heroes,
women and men who blow up tracks”
Another teacher works with prose poems by Carolyn Forche (“The Colonel”), Czelaw Milosz (“Esse”), and Jamaica Kincaid (“Girl”). Strikingly different selections, clearly, but I’m also intrigued by how different they are from my own (and I also used to work with high school students). I remember teaching Charlotte Delbo, Irena Klepfisz, and Else Lasker-Schüler. I wonder what our three processes look like side by side, particularly in the face of such difficult subject matter to “teach.”
[Early in the game, while I was in the midst of thinking & writing about what I had then come to speak of as “deep image,” I was approached by Robert Duncan, and in 1959, on first visit to San Francisco, I had a chance to meet him & to begin an exchange & friendship that lasted until his death in 1988. That time is long past now, & deep image as a retrieval of aspects of surrealism in the post-World War II era has been absorbed in my thoughts with a range of other, equally meaningful interests, but working more recently with Heriberto Yépez on Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader for Black Widow Press, some part of our exchanges, like the following, comes back again & finds a sure place in my mind & heart. (J.R.)]
Image & Melos: A Letter, 1960, to Robert Duncan
September 27, 1960
... following with great interest your interchange with Kelly. On the basis of your first letter to reach here (only one I’ve seen, other 2 being described) I feel no real disagreement as to melos, etc., being other vehicles for manifestation of “floating world” (source) within the poem, tho if you define yourself as a poet of “word-magic” primarily, my own direction in these last years has probably been toward “image-magic”—yet it doesn’t seem to me that any of the “powers” are totally to be denied, nor can they where the poem is allowed to happen. Certainly I find image occurring at many points in your work, & can only hope for myself that sound & music do not automatically leave where image enters. In the act of uncovering the poem, in fact, my personal experience has been that the other elements we are said to be slighting are especially insistent; where they don’t assert themselves (emerging concurrently) the image feels unreal and slack—a lightweight, lifeless counterfeit.
But image still appears to me as the thing sought once I am into the poem. Or more precisely the under-world of hidden painful (joyful) forms. As in the Thomas gospel:
When you see your likeness, etc.
Here I have to enter without any of the old certainties: to go out and search for that world, never knowing for sure if what I find is real or dross, except in so far as I can accept the data emerging from the poems—mine and others. In this way the poem creates the reality that then exists for us: a unique (one hopes) and certain thing, that can yet be shared. It is, I think, because of the initial disbelief / skepticism (perhaps despair) that prompts the surrender to the under-world (to find & create forms & images therefrom) that I cannot—as you can, perhaps—really utilize other data—allusory, historical, etc.—in the composition of the poem; & in the presence of other poems I can surrender only where the impact of the search & the resultant world it has created overwhelms me with its presence. So for a while much of your writing in the [Opening of the] Field, etc., was closed to me, largely for the “intrusion” of the tradition you prize so highly—and I too, once I understood the way to the source, to the reality of the poems. But, for myself, as a way of making the poem, I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation; in other words, I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it. For this reason, I think, the image becomes for me the prima materia. If I were fixed enough in a tradition (able to write from it, not just in its light) so I might build with blocks of data largely—as I find you doing—then melos, logos, etc. might come first to hand—the image-symbols being there to start with. (This happens in translation.) But it has not yet become, for me, a question of arrangement (I don’t use the word disparagingly) but discovery at every point I meet the poem. Now, where this is really the case (& I find it historically in the poetry of the “deep image,” whether along among 20th Century disbelievers or earlier figures—isolated mystics, etc., figures cut off from the mainstream of dogma), I feel a new power released, nameless for now, a result of that “self-abandonment to that which is not known”. So that I don’t take the “rootlessness” you’ve spoken of in earlier letters as a liability—I don’t assume you mean lack of precedents, history being full of the uprooted—rather it seems to me, once met in its own terms, like the dark voyage Melville described in the great Lee Shore chapter of Moby Dick:
But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, etc.
For, then, this seems to be the great adventure of spirit in our time, & (why not) particularly the burden of the American poet, where the destruction of the old certainties has gone further & strange cultures oppress consciousness with their conflicting demands. In your work I see this answered, partly, by a re-arrangement of older elements—probably not far distant from the new-creations of the deep image poets. In this way I find it stronger and fuller than the early poems of Creeley (before the Door, etc.) where melos, etc., seemed to me to be pursued in isolation from any real sense of deep image, almost as a decoration of the trivial. (Stein seems to me the better example of how far the under-world can be explored without utilization of deep image, & I’m glad for that reason that you mention her.)
The Counter-Dances of Darkness
All life is oriented to the light from which life comes. The bees in
their dances are oriented to the sun and, if it is dark, will dance in
relation to a candle flame.
Robert Duncan, The Day Book
But that the bee could be seeking death, oblivion, was also clear & would, in some sense, make that dance more fierce—more precious too? We noticed other movements as well, movements away from light, of the animals who burrowed in our hill, the night creatures stiffened by beams from my flashlight, the roots of all things curving back into earth’s belly, the penis into the womb of the woman. Could light teach us the whole dance without the counter-dance of darkness?
There is no light or darkness that, in itself, can orient us to where we become, but only a constant shift of planes between the two—light & darkness, life & death, speech & silence, sight & blindness. “The dark,” wrote Lorca, “wants to become light,” but the Gabon pygmies told us, “The light becomes darkness / the night & again the night / the day with hunger tomorrow.”
Both sides are made real—one not subordinated to the other, but as functions of a total movement born from, productive of, each other. That the child is born is no truer than that the man dies; & sometimes the distance between birth & death is no more than a moment, part of an hour at best. Yet the narrow dimensions of that child’s life is no stranger than that our whole universe, whose limits move away from us at speeds approximating to the speed of light, will return someday to the undifferentiated mass of its first beginning, to a heavy & dark brilliance the size of Mars’s orbit. Had Lawrence visioned this when he wrote: EVERYTHING IS MEANT TO DISAPPEAR. EVERY CURVE PLUNGES INTO THE VORTEX AND IS LOST, RE-EMERGES WITH A CERTAIN RELIEF AND TAKES TO THE OPEN, AND THERE IS LOST AGAIN. Between light & darkness we wait, we dance, like the Evening Star he sang of, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE MOON, AND SWAYED BY NEITHER OF THEM...THE EVENING STAR THAT IS SEEN AT THE DIVIDING OF THE DAY AND NIGHT, BUT THEN IS MORE WONDERFUL THAN EITHER.
We are not only the victims of the forces that will destroy us, we are their children. And it is given us, at times of passionate concentration, to celebrate the movements of our being-in-the-world. The light will kill the bee & the darkness guard the root, & it will finally not matter. But the celebration matters NOW—whether darkness is my source, or light my goal, or both—whether I walk between the darknesses & dream of light, or blinded by that light, seek darkness. We are all in movement.
The penis, this other miracle, enters the dark, the body enters
the dark & will soon be wed to the darkness—
which of these will keep sight of the heavens, will seek light as
its first, its only source?
& the root that presses deep in the earth – what does it seek?
The myriad roots that turn from the light – into earth, the
how does the loss of the heavens sit with them? or their place
in the total design?
. . . . . . .
The dancers move forward—I am last in the circle, changing
my body, pretending to be with those who had died in the fire
my love a deceit, starting from the lowest level of what I would
fire, fire, the smoke asleep in their golden veins, as with fire &
Someone to speak to me, someone to answer me where I
your light is a mystery over these hills, twining me,
whispering through me,
the first rain over my hands as it hurries to touch me—
in that light
your shadow had yet to appear, it was a conciliation, but
clearer than that, a beginning.
There is a movement in its rooms no longer—
a locket that was shaken by the wind
& a dead body that rests with the other dead bodies—
evening, my shadow touched by the headlights from a
while across the road other shadows cover other dead
I had forgotten where it began,
I can only remember the ache in your fingers
so cold, so in need of my breath to wake them.
As I dreamed my stature (mad dream!) as in the
pasture at night
among the freaks, the many-headed cattle, loiterers—
that I could match their size—that bewildering
could be set apart where I walked to be mocked—
this monster, this debaser, broken & degenerate &
eternally damned & alone—
only not to be whole—a part of that order, the goad
for its senseless stars—
not to give life & watch it taken back again—
what wars in a single lifetime! what slow deaths
worse than all wars!
what bliss as the body dissolves, turns sour,
returns to its pitiless earth!
does a flower offend you?
does the sun make you cringe that opens every
inch of you with careless fingers
for this I had made myself monstrous!
how many others must die to force one moment
of doubt to your throat?
The silence will open—as a hand will open against
though its fingers will not open—or will open only
to my breath that moves them
or as the wind moves the curtains to show a field,
the corner of this sky
the corner of your eye that sleeps inside me—
in the shadow of the eaves the trigger spoke,
uncoiled the spring broke loose,
clouds big with thunder, golden shapes of birds
fell & crushed themselves against my hands—
still others will crush themselves against my
& when the dead return, there will be other
ways of telling time
& many strange words then—
& there will be a language also—of our own.
The existence of the horrible in every particle
among its roots, submerged in droplets—vision!
You were not immune to it—neither at evening
with the rain still in your hair
nor in the garden at noon—not the first to be
spared, to raise a cry
against its stars—what imbecile regrets for all
your nights of silence!
No one had dreamed your pain then—how it
would draw the fingers back
would drive its roots inside you—muscle &
joint, the knot, the hard enclosure—death?
Around you the air was suddenly alive—
whole cities full of the “luckless dead” —
but your heart couldn’t contain it—like the
universe it shrank, became your fist
abandoned in the rain, the odor clings to it—
& there are places in the dark where no light
where a hand moves slowly through the
silence, on the wall
a pressure that was like the earth, took
color from it—
your shadow in my blood—for we were
someone’s dream of vengeance.
Not in a meadow—the dead who are dead
& the dead who will be dead
& the bull driven to a slope below the
house, a dark, terrible shadow
& your darker shadow, the moon—
for this we delayed, for the night, just
started, to end
for time to lose all dimension—only the
kiss at your throat, the warm touch
curve of my blood through yours—but
the dead were with us from the start
it was a circle, a habit of repetition,
first sensed in the breaking of bread,
the heifer’s dance into life
the mother cow swollen her bag hanging
down to the earth
also a root through the earth—all
swollen, all broken
you woke to it under the moon, but
in darkness it had begun—in darkness,
in darkness it will be ended.
A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Contemporary Literature by Jacob Edmond
just out from Fordham University Press
I. Yang Lian and the FLlneur in Exile 15
2. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Poetic Correspondences 44
3. Lyn Hejinian and Russian Estrangement 72
4. Bei Dao and World Literature 95
5. Dmitri Prigov and Cross-Cultural Conceptualism 125
6. Charles Bernstein and Broken English 164
An earlier and shorter version of chapter 2 is on-line here). Edmond expalins that it focuses on Dragomoshchenko’s correspondences. These correspondences include both his 1,000 page correspondence with Lyn Hejinian and his development of the modernist complication—as exemplified by Baudelaire’s “Correspondances”—of romanticism’s stress on correspondence between language and the world. Interestingly, as I explore in the essay, this double meaning of “correspondence” does not work in Russian, which has two distinct terms: perepiska and sootvetstvie.
"A Common Strangeness is unique among studies of contemporary poetics in being genuinely global in its perspective and its reach. At home in Russian and Chinese as well as American poetry and that of his native New Zealand, Jacob Edmond pinpoints the crucial relationships that exist between what are seemingly disparate poetic cultures. The Chinese poet Yang Lian, who lived in exile in Auckland, is read under the sign of Benjamin and Baudelaire. The American Language poet Lyn Hejinian's important dialogue with the Russian avant-gardist Arkadii Dragomoshchenko is studied carefully, and Bei Dao, Dmitri Prigov, and Charles Bernstein are treated as representative figures of cross-cultural thinking in the age of globalism. Edmond's is a provocative, exciting, and genuinely original study of the new poetics; we will all be learning from it!"-Marjorie Perloff, Professor Emerita, Stanford University
"This bold triangulation of six Chinese, Russian, and American poets advances lively current debates about global literature by exploring encounters that challenge the old binarisms and chart possibilities of literary singularities for a future poetics. Edmond's shrewd account of literary crossings in post-Cold War history helps us imagine how we can experience the challenge of new literary configurations."-Jonathan Culler, Cornell University
"Jacob Edmond addresses what he calls 'forms of textual strangeness' across contemporary poems of beautiful complexity and staying power. This theoretically astute book challenges us to read with a keener eye and to recognize how much poetry can tell us about political catastrophes, national dislocations, and promises of cultural renewal."-Stephanie Sandler, Harvard University
"Edmond differs from most scholars who make a point of crossing national and linguistic boundaries to speak of a new 'world literature' in that he deals with non-Anglophone as well as Anglophone writers and can give close readings of the former as well as the latter because he knows their languages and the histories of their literatures. The fact that he applies this knowledge to a number of representative poems makes his study unique. . . . He makes significant contributions in the areas of literary history, textual analysis, and a theory of comparative literature that 'negates commensurability in favor of superimposition, encounter, and touch."--Michael Heim, University of California, Los Angeles
"Ultimately the readings support an interpretation of Benjamin as authority for interpreting the experience of globalization, or "common strangeness" as that experience appears in poetry. The close readings are . . . also very worthwhile in the context of critical discussion of World Literature." -Edward M. Gunn, Cornell University
"One of this book's secrets: it is, above all, a long essay on the relation between the general and the particular after deconstruction. What is it possible to say about poetry, or the global, in the face of the poem and the individual? As an antidote to these dichotomies, A Common Strangeness gives us triangles, operating in varied scales. Edmond's analysis of poets from the US, Russia, and China allows him to shed new light on the patterns of literary making and cosmopolitan thinking that drive the aesthetics of globalization today. Overlapping, Edmond's philosophical and linguistic triangles become hexagons, enneagons, dodecagons. These multiplying shapes provide fertile new ground for anyone interested in comparative poetics after 1989."-Eric Hayot, Penn State University
It’s the second week of the Williams class, and I’ve asked my students to blog about Williams the doctor in pieces such as “The Dead Baby” and “The Use of Force.” What does he see, and does he see differently from the Williams of short, sensory poems such as “Lines” or “Smell!”? We seem to be focusing on the notion of empathy, which could be heightened or dampened by the medicalizing gaze. Last week, we ended with the very short 1934 poem “Between Walls” (subject of the first PoemTalk podcast):
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
Williams’s poem refuses to pin our sight on one depiction of the hospital: as we discussed in class, it’s never entirely clear whether we’re inside or outside, whether the wings belong to the architecture or to a hovering bird (or otherworldly creature), or whether that bottle signals the absence or presence of new growth in a bleak medicalized landscape. In his 1954 reading Williams really lingers over the word shine, taking the emphasis off the poem’s objects and instead placing it on what they do.
It’s an environmental poem in some senses; literally, about a place. In Interviews with William Carlos Williams, we read this claim for a specifically American language of place:
I couldn’t speak like the academy. It had to be modified by the conversation about me. As Marianne Moore used to say, a language dogs and cats could understand. So I think she agrees with me fundamentally. Not the speech of English country people which would have something artificial about it; not that, but language modified by our environment; the American environment.
After taking us out of the academy and into the American environment, Williams goes on to suggest we need a new kind of American academy:
Obviously the first thing to do is to establish a department of the American language: a Chair, that is, of our language which would have primacy over the teachings of all other languages at the university. Under this would come other languages bearing on our own: German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and of course, English.
Next, Williams says, comes the task of differentiating American prosody (and throwing off the notion that the English own prosody, a notion that leaves us “impotent”) — and then:
Next we must establish in our minds the historical fact that the American Language invaded both English and French in the nineteenth century.
American writers (Stein, Hemingway, Pound) “penetrated” the European literary modes, he goes on to say, and this is the history that Williams insists must be rewritten.
We talk a lot about the role of fact in this class: the doctrine of the image, the realist mode of many of Williams’s stories, and the notion that poetry can show rather than illuminate. We talk a lot about Williams’s extrainstitutional leanings. We’ve talked less, so far, about the possibility that his American idiom has a progress narrative, or that poetic facts can add up to something that resembles exceptionalism. Could those facts be used to bolster a rhetoric for a new kind of university?