Commentaries - September 2013
Outside & Subterranean Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (57): Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (Persian, 10th century A.D.): from The Divan
FROM THE SECTION: DERELICTION
81. Yâ sirra sirrî
O my secret’s secret, you have dwindled so much you’re hidden from the thought of the living,
and yet a hidden-manifest of you has appeared in all things for all things.
My excuse to you is a profound ignorance, a vast doubt, and total powerlessness.
O you, all’s completeness, you are no different than me! But then, what’s my excuse to myself?
I’m dumbfounded! How can my part hold up my whole
when my earth cannot bear the load of my part?
If there was a palanquin large enough to cover earth,
my heart would have to shrink to stretch out on it.
You impose on heart what the body cannot carry
& the faithful heart shoulders what bodies couldn’t carry.
Could I draw close to those who take shelter in you
by becoming an eye to gaze at you or, better, an ear.
FROM THE SECTION: BLAMES
91. Karfartu bi-dîn Allah
I have reneged on God’s religion! This disbelief’s a necessity for me.
But in the eyes of the Muslims, it’s infamy.
94. Yâ shams
o sun, o full moon, o day
for us you are hell & paradise
to avoid offending you is still an offense to you.
wanting to hide the shame is still to shame you.
a whole people tries to find an excuse in you,
how fares the one who has no excuse?
97. Lastu bi’l-tawhîd
I do not poke fun at the union, nor am I blasé about it.
How could I poke fun or be blasé, given that I am Him.
98. Anâ anta
There is no doubt that I am you, glory for me is therefore glory for you!
Your tawhîd is mine, your revolt is mine,
your anger mine, your pardon mine.
Why oh God should I be scourged and treated like a shameless liar?
FROM THE SECTION: SACRIFICE
112. As-sabb Rabbî
My God, I love the bitter cup that is my fate
it’s an honor to have you hand it to me!
To be chastised in you is my pleasure,
to suffer your distance is my profit.
For me, you resemble my own mind
but you’re much dearer to me than it is.
In truth you are an apple for an eye
and a heart for him who has a heart.
Love’s lot which I receive is me
for when you love, it is I who I love.
FROM THE TAWASIN
The Parable of the Bird
I saw a bird among the birds of sufism. This bird had two wings and was ignorant of my condition while keeping on flying. It came to question me about safā, purity, and I said: “Cut your wings with the scissors of fanā, abolition, otherwise you will not be able to follow me.” It answered: “Thanks to my wings I fly toward my Friend.” I said: “Oh you unhappy one! Nothing resembles Him.” At that moment it fell into the ocean of understanding and drowned there.
Tawhîd is the fundamental tenet of Muslim doctrine that stipulates that God is one (wāḥid) and unique.
Translation by Pierre Joris after the French of Stéphane Ruspoli
SOURCE: Stéphane Ruspoli, Le livre "Tâwasîn" de Hallaj. Dar Albouraq Publishing, Beirut 2007
I am He whom I love /and He whom I love is I: / We are two spirits / dwelling in one body. / If thou seest me, / thou seest Him, / And if thou seest Him, / thou seest us both. (al-Hallaj, Kitab al-Tawasin, in Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam)
(1) Not an outsider to begin with, he was outsidered & put to death for having uttered ana ’l haqq (I am the Truth or the Real = I am God) in the course of his writings & visions. Born in what is now southern Iran & educated in Arab-speaking Iraq, al-Hallaj (literally “the wool-carder”) wrote & traveled widely – from Mecca to India & beyond– before his sufism & visionary utterances & preachings brought him into conflict with normative Islam. After years of imprisonment “for theological error threatening the security of the state,” he was tortured and executed in 922 at the orders of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir.
(2) “When Hallaj’s love for God reached its utmost limit, he became his own enemy and he naughted himself. He said, ‘I am the Real,’ that is, ‘I have been annihilated; the Real remains, nothing else.’ This is extreme humility and the utmost limit of servanthood. It means, ‘He alone is.’ To make a false claim and to be proud is to say, ‘You are God and I am the servant.’ In this way you are affirming your own existence, and duality is the necessary result. If you say, ‘He is the Real,’ that too is duality, for there cannot be a ‘He’ without an ‘I.’ Hence the Real said, ‘I am the Real.’ Other than He, nothing else existed. Hallaj had been annihilated, so those were the words of the Real.” (Rumi, cited in William C. Chiddick, Sufism, 2000)
(3) Pierre Joris: REGRETS FOR THINGS LOST (IFTIQAD)
from Meditations on the 40 Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj
but regret will not bring it back.
nothing left to do but turn your
back on it. tell yourself when you
know where something is
then it is not lost, even though
that something lie at the
bottom of the ocean. Nothing
ever is lost, & that may be
the only thing that is
real cause for regret.
[The full interview will appear as a foreword to David Antin’s How Long Is the Present: Selected Talk Poems, edited by Stephen Fredman and scheduled for publication by the University of New Mexico Press in 2014.]
Q. 1 When you began delivering talk poems in the mid-1970s, they seemed quite confrontational. There was a remarkable resistance to the work even among so-called "avant-garde" poets on the West Coast, who seemed, as I recall, to take your questioning of the function and techniques of poetry as a direct affront. What specifically were you doing that was so provocative?
A. 1 I think I was born under the star of controversy. Back In the sixties my pop poems in Code of Flag Behavior provoked controversy because they were too “pop.” Definitions was too intellectual, Meditations was too hermetic. And in 1973 when I performed “what am i doing here” in front of the poetry audience of the San Francisco Poetry Center I was too demotic and also impious. But what else could you expect from a poet who defined myth as “a terrible lie told by a smelly little brown person to a man in a white suit holding a binocular case.”
Q. 2 I’m thinking, in particular, of concerns like beauty, emotion, and poetic form, which were taken extremely seriously by the New American poets and their followers, but which you viewed as extraneous, or, using the ultimate intellectual put-down of that time, as “trivial.” What was the purpose of your assault on such aesthetic notions, and how did other poets react?
A. 2 Since at least the end of the eighteenth century a cluster of ideas has haunted discussions of poetry: that it’s a fundamentally emotionally expressive medium closely related to music; that its origins are mythical, primitive, ritualistic and grounded in our physical being; that these manifest themselves through the genre of song, which derives its strength from the exigencies of its form. This is a grandly imagined conception of poetry. It is in fact a myth. That holds together a community of poets. And is not true. Charles Olson is a powerful member of that community--he’s probably one of the most beautiful poets of the second half of the twentieth century and the Maximus Poems is Olson at his most brilliant. So, look at the Maximus Poems:
Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 19 (A Pastoral Letter
to the care of souls,
He had smiled at us,
each time we were in town, inquired
how the baby was, had two cents
for the weather, wore (besides his automobile)
And a pink face.
It was yesterday
it all came out. The gambit
(as he crossed the street,
after us): “I don’t believe
I know your name.” Given.
How do you do,
how do you do. And then:
“Pardon me, but
do you belong to,
may I ask?”
And the whole street, the town, the cities, the nation
blinked in the afternoon sun, as the gun
was held at them. And I wavered
in the thought.
I sd, you may, sir.
He sd, what, sir.
I sd, none,
And the light was back.
There are brilliant phrase breaks in this poem but there is nothing in it that suggests song.
Gary Snyder is also a distinguished member of this poetical community. And back in 1975 in a discussion following my presentation of “Talking to Discover” at the first Ethnopoetics Conference in Milwaukee, Gary thought to remind me “There’s a useful definition of poetry as we all know, in the largest sense of it. Not definition, but the thing to remember about it is: that it’s song.” A reminder that didn’t impress me at all. Because a search through Gary’s oeuvre reveals very few poems that suggest song. So we are dealing with a myth, and if you don’t believe in that myth you’re not a member of that community. As I was not proposing to claim membership in that community and was not interested in the issues raised by it, I was regarded by some as an enemy of the community. And maybe I was, if my last response to your first question was more than comic hyperbole.
For me poetry was and is the language art and within that arena I was trying to find a poetry of thinking, and I was criticized for an insufficiency of form. Back in 1973 Robert Kroetsch, the co-editor of Boundary 2 specifically objects to a lack of formal constraints in my talk poems, in somewhat the same way Robert Frost characterized free verse as trying to play tennis without a net. A few years later, I was scheduled to be on a panel for the MLA and on my way to the stage I bumped into Denise Levertov. We exchanged a few pleasantries and she asked me what I was there for. When I told her I was on the panel on contemporary poetry, she told me “But what you’re doing is not poetry at all.” A few years later Marjorie Perloff was giving a talk on a program with John Hollander and Harold Bloom at the Folger Library. Marjorie’s paper was on John Cage and me and she had barely begun when Bloom declared that we were not poets and stomped off the stage. I thought this was very funny because I thought all the furor was over. But then somewhat more recently Robert Pinsky, the Lugubrious Laureate, was so enraged at the Boston Review for publishing one of my talk poems that he tried to get the editor fired. I could easily multiply the number of these responses, but what’s the point?
Q.3 I agree with you that there is no “song” per se in the Olson poem. On the contrary, he is so adroit in representations of verbal dialogue and of his own internal thinking. Having listened to poets like you, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley, for instance, I have found you to be the most voluble people I have ever met, and I read the poetry as something like the precipitations from a vast solution of talk. Do you see yourself in a circle of American writers as talkers?
A.3 I’ve said it many times before--that talking is the closest I can come to thinking. So maybe what you’re calling our volubility is a readiness for utterance that draws on a vast reservoir of thinking fed by ongoing conversations with oneself. This said, it still strikes me as strange that the great virtue of Creeley’s poetry is its terseness and ellipticality. It’s as if the free flow of his thinking--his volubility–-is subjected to severe criticism before it is released into the brilliant fragments of his poetry. In this context it’s interesting to compare him to Kenneth Rexroth, another very different voluble poet, whose fluent talking seems to emerge unchecked into his poetry from what must have been a relaxed internal conversation. And yet, I’m not sure how this addresses the experience of discovering while working, while walking or writing, something completely, almost unintelligibly, new.
Q. 6 I want to switch gears now and ask you about something more oriented toward the present. In the era of the typewriter, it made perfect sense to say that sitting in a closet typing was no way to address living human beings. Is that still true in the age of social media, when so many people conduct their social interactions primarily via keyboard and screen? This interview, for example, is taking place not face-to-face but through the input/output devices of electronic media. What kind of “present” is it in which you and I are communicating?
A.6 I’ve never been impressed by McLuhan's media generalizations, but I have no doubt that technological changes in communications media affect us all, though probably in many ways that are not so easy to determine. When I was sixteen I decided I was going to be a poet. So I went out and bought a Roget’s Thesaurus, a Rhyming Dictionary and a rebuilt portable Remington typewriter. From Roget I learned that an abomination referred to an evil, a defilement, an abhorrence, a hate, a turpitude or just plain wrong. That an exiguity referred to a fewness, a littleness, that to rejoice is to jubilate, exult, delight, dance, skip, frisk, frolic, revel, lilt and chirp, and that to despair is to despond, fret, yearn, mope, languish, lament, grieve, ache and bleed. From the rhyming dictionary I learned how to write a sestina, though I never wrote one. And from the little Remington I learned to type thirty words a minute. So it was good for all my high school papers but I didn’t use it for everything I wrote. From some of my classes I had gotten in the habit of keeping a notebook for thinking through things I found interesting or had on my mind. I was a reasonably skilled draftsman and good at lettering. So most of what I was thinking was recorded in my fairly elegant lettering style printing. But a fair number of entries were in cursive and the difference between print and cursive meant something to me. I think the precision of print gave me a feeling of intellectual empowerment, while my entries in cursive had a more casual fluency that was not sufficient for my poems at that time. And then I discovered a third distinction. When I tried to compose a poem, I always worked on the Remington because the pressure I had to exert on the keys gave me a feeling of forcefulness I felt my poetry required. The typewriter also invited complex page design that encouraged many poets in the sixties to flee the left margin to create designed scores for the ever more popular oral performances of their poems. The availability of Xerox and mimeo machines allowed the creation of multiple copies and allowed the escape from those dreadful carbon papers and permitted the spread of cheaply produced magazines. With opaque projectors It also facilitated cut and paste procedural poetry. But we all know this and I only go through this litany of changes to illustrate how many subtle effects have been produced by interactions of different stages of technology. For example, we are making use of computer software to converse in a manner that I somewhere described as a combination of the eighteenth century and the twentieth. You propose that its possibilities seem very different from the face to face communication of the oral tradition. And you’re right. But so is snail mail, and the notebook in which we compose our own thoughts, and the tiny audio tape recorder and even smaller digital recorders that have replaced them. The visual effect of true face to face communication is I think less important than the belief that someone out there is really listening.
The Poetry of Cheena Marie Lo
cheena marie lo sent us selections from two manuscripts: a series of un/natural/disasters and an untitled manuscript we will call its word doc name: they is a word or a form.
direct sunlight looking over 4725 dauphine street creates black shadow straight line broken by either an arch on a porch roof or just the way the light bends
green lines, also peeling, of presumably a doorway and certainly a window perpendicular to eight lines of parallel panels in the frame painted grey and peeling.
Everything is a symbol a gesture a referent. Nothing is a reference to this body.
To take the place of a name. This is a body.
natural disasters, debt foreclosures and gender multiplicities are blurring together.
i want to begin here because of course when i read the actual pages you copied for me they were physically blurred together (meaning the two documents were not titled and they were collated together as if part of one thing).
the blur of distinction between documents makes sense, the movement from the house coming apart to a letter coming in the mail that can suggest foreclosure, although it is bankruptcy—i mean to say that the letter—is it mediated or unmediated—comes, projecting a solution to a 'complicated' situation by hinging itself upon a series of binaries: foreclosed-bankrupt/solvent, masculine/feminine, employed/unemployed, part of /alienated from…language.
who wrote this letter that arrives is a question in lo’s work. to add to the binaries: corporate copy/intimacy of home.
foundation damaged by force of flood, yellow house leaning forward.
the inventory of the house and the damage done to the house is listed in a way that makes it hard to stretch the fact. this seems similar to the body not knowing how to be or change inside itself but tries by pushing inward.
lo explicitly makes these connection between a series of un/natural/disasters: the natural disaster, the breakdown of a house, the foreclosure of a home, the ambiguity of community, the loss of work and the impossibility of gender definition:
i am learning how to be in my own body in relation to foreclosure and underwater mortgage rates. i am learning how to be in my own body in relation to 1 in every 730 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in september 2012.
the poetry is a house that holds it all—even the mail you want to not see or the way it clutters. like the binder compression shirt that comes in the mail has a funny insert label, a description of its double efficacy:
two full powerful powernet panels throughout the front provide extra chest and mid-section compression for full binding effect.
inside they is a word or a form it’s always a question thrown back at the body and the body is never ready. in reference to how having a sometimes bulging chest lo writes:
i don’t connect with the way that they look on my body, how they pull my shirt open in between the second and third buttons, how they mark me as something that i’m not sure i want to be marked as.
they as a referent can then take on the they as pronoun:
they is paying attention to the rules.
only they can say which side they are on.
they get tired of saying so most of the time.
i don't want to call it dysphoria in they is a word or a form because it's more a continual proclamation of non-resolution. what i mean is when something is "new" but not "new" to the person experiencing it. the difference between shifting and refreshing. starting at a new job means less explaining—of the older (outgoing?) version of a self.
what do you think about commentary that gets distracted from itself? “they,” a pronoun plus, as a meditation, not a definition.
i think the repetition of all the never-ending and different types of “they” gets pitted against one’s desire for arrival. (for me, this—the impossible arrival—is the, or is one very good, definition of poetry.)
the repetition starts to be an intense and confusing play on words like sharpening a tool, against arrival or blithe use, as in contracts that refuse the soft body (the ambivalence toward the binder's hardening/calcifying the body). another example of a repetition that sharpens without hardening: lo’s use of 'social media': throughout the poems, lo repeats "it's complicated" which is one of the tags you may use for your 'relationship status' on facebook. from a series of un/natural/disasters, a series of possible social relations, made more present by social media:
It is complicated
I am learning how to be in my own body in relation to people I love fiercely and people I really like and people I kind of like and people I don’t respect and people who I never even think about and people I’ve never met and people I’d like to meet someday and people who I see from afar, in passing and people who will show up in the important ways and people who will show up only sometimes and people who will disappoint and people who will leave eventually
There are exceptions
this calls up the wrangling one must do to get xir/their/her/his 'official' category to be neither m or f – i still haven't figured out how to do this on facebook and so there i go by he, thinking this throws into question gender marking but of course it is flawed.
one of the reasons i am not on fb is because i stop at the gender selection f/m and think this system was born broken and i'm not going to rebirth some version of myself within it.
i have had a lot of conversations about the using of the pronoun "they" recently as i am using it also. how to introduce it, how to defend it. i wonder if lo’s work, with its quoting of instructional manuals, form letters, phrases from the internet, statistics, could demonstrate the failure and yet necessity on poetic terms for a “they” guide.
at one point in time i wondered if 'they' as marker for trans people did not originate alongside by the facebook platform, helped along by it being one way out from the she-he binary in that site, ‘they’ an option for a single ‘profile’ while other terms invented by trans people, for examples, xee or zee or s/he, were not. it seems that i was very wrong about this origin and yet, i do think that lo is pointing to the power, incursions into language usage, that these platforms exert by the repeated use of terms like 'it's complicated.'
They is inside of it.
They is also outside.
Graham Nash visited the Kelly Writers House on Friday, September 20, 2013, for an interview/conversation moderated by Anthony DeCurtis as part of KWH’s annual Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium. At the end of the conversation, as we'd hoped, Nash played two songs: “Back Home,” an elegy for Levon Helm, and “Teach Your Children.” Below are video recordings of the two songs. Here are other recordings:
Issue 3.21 features:
- poems by Sina Queyras, rob mclennan, Sylvia Legris, and others
- a short story by George Bowering: read an excerpt here
- images and text from Michael Turner's guest-curated show "A Postcard from Victoria" including work by Geoffrey Farmer, Julia Freyer, Raymond Boisjoly, and others
- poems and scores from Michael Park and Ray Hsu's venturesome Art Song Lab: listen to the accompanying recordings here
plus Robert McTavish's interview with me on Charles Olson and the Vancouver Poetry Conference 1963, made as part of his film on the conference, The Line Has Shattered: read an excerpt from the interview here
- Susan Bee and I are feaured in an earlier issue of TCR with an interview on our living near Vancouver in 1973, which includes early paintings by Susan and poems by me.