I have often thought of Werner Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum mechanics as the most conceptually radical of the breakthroughs in theoretical physics to emerge in the last and current century, in part, due to its claim that physical reality cannot be observed. This claim challenged Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics and the scientific method, which assumed that physical reality can be observed and tested and that principles of nature can be determined.
Quantum mechanics changed the discourse about physical reality from “what is the truth about nature?” to “what is nature?” in much the same way, perhaps, as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing changed the discourse from “what is the meaning of poetic language?” to “what is poetic language?” In this regard, I see quantum mechanics functioning as a kind of imaginative eco-poetics in physics through its proposal that at subatomic scales, the future position and momentum of particles can only be measured in terms of probability. Today, leading physicists are attempting to reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity into a single theory or description of physical reality.
According to his book, Physics and Philosophy (1958), Heisenberg developed the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics after reading Goethe’s Faust and considering the role of the imagination in scientific discourse. The uncertainty principle articulates that at subatomic scales, a particle’s position and momentum cannot be predicted because the present state of the particle cannot be known without ambiguity. While the mathematics used by Heisenberg’s mechanics was not new, the theory itself was original for developing what Max Born called “symbolic multiplication,” which illustrated that the commutative law of arithmetic (AB equals BA, i.e. 4x3 is the same as 3x4) is not valid in subatomic systems. One outcome of Heisenberg’s symbolic multiplication is that a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum (AB), minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position (BA), was not zero, as it would be if the product of position and momentum commuted. Instead, a particle’s position multiplied by its momentum, minus a particle’s momentum multiplied by its position, is proportional to Planck’s constant, a physical constant of subatomic quanta that is nonzero. Since Planck’s constant is always nonzero, uncertainty is at play in measuring observable subatomic phenomenon of the present. By invalidating causality as well as attempts at measuring non-observable subatomic phenomenon, Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics suggests that the future position and momentum of subatomic particles cannot be calculated because the determining elements of the present cannot be known with certainty. This proposal of quantum mechanics marks a largely unacknowledged shift, in my opinion, of when science became philosophy.
Many writers and readers of poetry consider poetry to be a philosophical activity, one that inhabits its claims through formal properties and contextual frameworks. If physics is the study of physical reality, what happens when physics becomes philosophy and when poetry, as a philosophical activity and symbolic language, becomes a physics? These are some of the central and wilder questions of quantum poetics that I have been developing and which I think are timely to practitioners of both science and literature who want to extend conversations in the contemporary milieu. Acting as a ’pataphysical correspondent, speculative documentarian, and poetry informant for this three-month commentary series, I will be exploring these and other questions about literature and science; introducing what I call U+F+O+L+A+N+G+U+A+G+E; examining contemporary literary movements such as conceptual literature, post-confessional poetry, and visual poetry in relation to quantum poetics; and discussing specific poems, books, and authors who seem to be working—consciously or without intent—from concepts in relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and more.
[Himself on the cusp between “outside” & “inside” poetry & art, Chirot, whose work, both verbal & visual, is a great too often hidden resource, writes from an authoritative if barely visible position in contemporary letters. The Fénéon commentary excerpted here is from a longer essay/talk, “Conceptual Poetry and its Others,” written for a symposium at the Poetry Center of the University of Arizona, 29-31 May 2008 & appeared earlier in the blogger version of Poems and Poetics. The depth & breadth of his more recent work is outstanding. (J.R.)]
From Félix Fénéon’s Faits Divers, circa 1906
Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.
A complaint was sworn by the Persian physician Djai Khan against a compatriot who had stolen from him a tiara.
A dozen hawkers who had been announcing news of a nonexistent anarchist bombing at the Madeleine have been arrested.
A certain madwoman arrested downtown falsely claimed to be nurse Elise Bachmann. The latter is perfectly sane.
On Place du Pantheon, a heated group of voters attempted to roast an effigy of M. Auffray, the losing candidate. They were dispersed.
Arrested in Saint-Germain for petty theft, Joël Guilbert drank sublimate. He was detoxified, but died yesterday of delirium tremens.
The photographer Joachim Berthoud could not get over the death of his wife. He killed himself in Fontanay-sous-Bois.
Reverend Andrieux, of Roannes, near Aurillac, whom a pitiless husband perforated Wednesday with two rifle shots, died last night.
In political disagreements, M. Begouen, journalist, and M. Bepmale, MP, had called one another "thief" and "liar." They have reconciled.
In "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire is the first to define Modernism and does so as a conjunction of the eternal and the ephemeral. To find that element of the eternal in the ephemeral which Baudelaire saw as embodying modernity, he turns to an emphasis on the particular form of the living art/art as living of the Dandy. The Dandy is the non-separation of art and life in the conceiving of one's existence as Performance Art. The Dandy becomes not an expression of Romantic personality and individuality, but a form of becoming an animated Other, an impersonator going about performing the actions of a concept, rather than producing the objects of a conception.
This stylized impersonating, non-producing figure begins to appear dramatically" in the works of Wilde and Jarry and in many ways in the "life and works" of a Félix Fénéon, who "creates at a distance" via anonymous newspaper faits divers (discovered to be his and republished posthumously as "Nouvelles en trois lignes" [News/Novellas in Three Lines]), pseudonymous articles in differing registers of language (working class argot, standardized French) in Anarchist and mainstream journals, unsigned translations, and the barely noted in their own pages of his editing of journals featuring the early efforts of rising stars of French literature. Quitting his camouflaged and concealed writing activities, Fénéon works the rest of his life as a seller in an art gallery.
The actual "works" of Fénéon, then, are not written objects per se, but anonymous actions, ephemeral pseudonymous "appearances in print," and the works of others which he affects a passage for in his editorship and translations, in his promoting and selling the art works of others. This "accumulation" which one finds "at a distance" in time as his "complete works," is often unobserved and unknown to his contemporaries, who know of him primarily via his "way of acting," his manner of dressing, his speech mannerisms, and as the public triptych of images of him existing as a painted portrait by Signac, a Dandy-pose photo and a mug shot taken when tried as part of an Anarchist "conspiracy." Fénéon's "identity as a writer" does not exist as "an author," but as a series of "performances," "appearances" and "influences," many of them "unrecognized" and "unattributed."
Ironically, it his most "clandestine" activity—his Anarchist activities—which brings him the most in to the public and tabloid spotlight. As one of "The Thirty" accused and tried for "conspiracy" in a much publicized trial, it is Fénéon's severe mug shot that for a time presents his "public face."
The severe mug facing the viewer is actually producing a Conceptual Poetry "at a distance." By not penning a single line, by simply "facing the music" to which others pen the lyrics, Fénéon, in doing nothing more than facing the camera "capturing" his image, proceeds to enact a series of dramas "projected" on to him, a series of "identities," and "revelations" which use the documentary material to produce a series of mass-published fictions.
The possible prison term facing the "Félix Fénéon" in the inmate-numbered "anonymous" mug shot, "presents its face" to the viewer, a face "taken," "imprisoned" and "caught" by the image and its publicity. This publicized face facing camera and viewer and possible hard time, is "taken to be" the photo of the face of a being from whom the mask of the clandestine and conspiratorial have been torn off, revealing "the cold hard truth" of Félix Fénéon.
Facing trial, however, all that is learned of this imprisoned face is that it is "the
wrong man, an innocent man." This fixed image, acquitted of its "sensational"
charges, is revealed not as a truth, but instead as simply a mask, a mask operating
like a screen or blank sheet of paper, onto which are projected the dramas, fictions and "think piece" writings of others. Nothing is revealed other than an "identity" which shifts, travels, changes from one set of captions to another. It is via these captions written by others under his image in the papers and placards, that Fénéon continues his "writing at a distance." Simply by facing the camera, facing charges, "facing the music," facing his accusers at trial and facing the verdict and judgment, Fénéon is "writing" a myriad captions, breaking news items, commentaries, editorials, all of which change with wild speeds as they race to be as "up-to-minute" as the events themselves are in "unfolding."
The professionals, these writers, these journalists and reporters of "reality," chase desperately, breathlessly, after the unfolding drama in which the mug shot is "framed," and in so doing produce texts of "speculative fiction," a serial Conceptual Poetry with as its "star player" a writer whose own texts are deliberately written to be unrecognized, hidden, camouflaged, unknown. And all the while, this writer writing nothing is producing vast heaps of writing via the work of others, as yet another form of camouflaged clandestine Conceptual Poetry, "hot off the press."
Rimbaud writes of a concept of the poetry of the future in which poetry would precede action—which in a sense he proceeds to "perform" himself. If one reads his letters written after he stopped writing poetry, one finds Rimbaud living out, or through, one after another of what now seem to be "the prophecies" of his own poetry. That is, the poetry is the "conceptual framework" for what becomes his "silence" as a poet, and is instead his "life of action."
In these examples, one finds forms of a "conceptual poetry" in which the poetry is in large part an abandonment of language, of words, of masses of "personally signed" "poetry objects," "poetry products." One finds instead a vanishing, a disappearance of both language and "poet" and the emergence of that "some one else" Rimbaud recognized prophetically, preceding the action--in writing—in the
"Lettre du voyant," "the Seer's letter"—as "I is an other."
An interesting take on a conceptual poetry in writing is found in one of Pascal's Pensees, #542:
"Thoughts come at random, and go at random. No device for holding on to them or for having them. A thought has escaped: I was trying to write it down: instead I write that it has
The writing is a notation of the "escaped" concept's absence, its escape that is a line of flight that is a "flight out of time" as Hugo Ball entitles his Dada diaries. Writing not as a method of remembering, of "capturing thought," but as the notation of the flight of the concept at the approach of its notation.
Writing, then, as an absence— an absence of the concept. A Conceptual Poetry of writing as "absent-mindedness"!—A writing which does nothing more than elucidate that the escaping of thoughts "which come at random, and go at random" has occurred.
This flight of the concept faced with its notation—indicates a line of flight among the examples of Rimbaud—a "flight into the desert" as it were, of silence as a poet—and of Fénéon—the flight into anonymous writing of very small newspaper "faits divers" items punningly entitled "Nouvelles en trois lignes" (News/Novels in Three Lines), of pseudonymous writings in differing guises at the same time according to the journals in which they appear, and as translator and editor as well as "salesperson" in a gallery of "art objects," a conceptual masquerader among the art-objects embodying "concepts" and becoming no longer "concepts' but "consumer items." Fénéon's framed mug shot on to whose mug is projected a "serial crime novel," written by others and "starring" the mug in the mug shot, a writer of unknown and unrecognized texts who now vanishes into a feverish series of captions and headlines.
Anonymity, pseudonyms, impersonations, poets who write their own coming silence and "disappearance" as an "I is an other," the deliberately unrecognized and unrecognizable poet whose mug shot becomes the mass published and distributed "crime scene" for police blotters and headlines, speculative fictions and ideological diatribes, the writing which is a notation of the flight of the concept, the writing of non-writers who "never wrote a word," yet whose concepts may be found camouflaged, doubled, mirrored, shadowed, anonymously existing hidden in plain site/sight/cite—these nomadic elements which appear and disappear comprise a Conceptual Poetry in which the concepts and poets both impersonate Others and reappear as "Somebody Else," an Other unrecognized and unrecognizable found hidden in plain site/sight/cite.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language poetry, Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs, contains a beguiling mix of furtive fright and holistic grace in its visit to the North End in Winnipeg, Manitoba. What is particular refreshing about the book is that its spare language invites the reader into intimate spaces, at times touching and in a number of cases, disconcerting. Transcending the more common rhetoric of national politicking, this text reveals firsthand some of the complex struggles with family, identity, and surrounding authoritarianism that continue to haunt aboriginal peoples, amid delicate glimmers of optimism in a prairie neighbourhood. Perhaps this book explores what Louis Zukofsky attributed to the “North American Indian,” use of the verb “to not-be.”
North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette (The Muses’ Company, 2012, page 65)
the bird is called
cedar wax wing
the anishnaabe name it
and give it
a place of honour
in their stories
though no one can
Geomantic Riposte: respect
the raven on Gordon road has not quite taken to me
but no longer scolds me there is less privilege here
less larks no time for imitating traffic lights every
thing where there is less is kind of augury semi-
comical hubris then some islands or realms get
created here in this sea-lack here in this harbour
there is a silent eloquence that floods the ears i
know that is one way of calling forth what has been
forgotten for ages
we may show respect for our
respective dead and then have first pick of the
David A. Colón
David Colón here presents the first of five first readings of a new poem in our series — Sawako Nakayasu’s “Couch,” a prose-poem in Insect Country (A) (Dusie, 2006). We will subsequently publish first readings of “Couch” by Lee Ann Brown, Hank Lazer, K. Silem Mohammad, and Robert Archambeau. — Al Filreis, Brian Reed, and Craig Dworkin.
* * *
There’s a moment, a fraction of a second, when I first look at a page and recognize the thing. Ah, a poem. It’s the form of the white space that registers as much as the black. Words taking shape? Poem, poem, poem. My pupils spread, irises thin, no doubt some region in my brain changing color.
I start to think the way I think a reader of a poem ought to think. I quiet myself, tamp down my sense of humor, prepare to take the poem in on its own terms and issue judgment on whether I think it “works” or not: works in the sense of doing something, of seeing to it that there are results; and works in the sense of earning my trust by implying an awareness of the possibilities and limits of its own aesthetic invention. (The closer this awareness is to imperceptibility without altogether vanishing, the smarter it makes me feel upon noticing it.) As a reader, I try to blend both of these senses of work together, hoping the poem gets to where it needs to go — the core of itself. That’s why I’m most pleased when I discern in a poem a dynamic that I could only characterize as a Mobius strip of intentions. (I’m sure someone in a theory seminar I took in the ’90s would want to impale me for using a word like intention, but I don’t care. I like to imagine that poems can try to do things.)
I’d been told that the poem is titled “Couch” and written by Sawako Nakayasu. This brought on me a great deal of shame. I’d never heard of Sawako Nakayasu, never read anything written by her. I quickly and complacently justified my ignorance by telling myself that professional demands have turned my attention to other works of literature and besides, it might be best that the field of a First Reading be unsown.
It says, “Couch.” I’ve always regarded the title of any poem as a signpost of an allegory in miniature, so I list meanings of the word as a frame of reference. The dedication is for Maggie Siegel, who Google reveals is a muralist with qualifications in glassblowing, if that in fact is her. Who knows. I wonder how Sawako Nakayasu knows the real Maggie Siegel, and how well. If a title signposts an allegory in miniature, a dedication is a tempered inside joke.
The lines assume I’ll read it left to right, top to bottom, so I do. It’s in English.
After countless days and nights of living
I like that, in part because it’s impossible.
together, a couple decides to get divorced.
Oh snap. Been there, done that. My poetic sensibility competes with narrative: close reading and generative reading. Rarely is a line break used so well for effect; the two lines at once fit each other seamlessly and, conversely, disjoin as if pieces of different poems. The word “together” finishes the line break’s accomplishment, which opens the possibility of “together” as a squinting modifier. I have no impulse to re-lineate, and meanings of the verb to couch come to mind.
It takes a little over a few hours of nego-
tiating over their material possessions
To split that word in half does at least three things: underscores the importance of line breaks like the first, folds irony into the poem (“negotiating” being a specie of conciliation), and controls the visual tempo of the jagged right margin. The repetition of the word “over” for some reason reminds me of the stanza break of a sestina, the straightjacket of verse. I can’t help noticing the play between careful lineation and the casual, conversational tone of phrasing, but I feel guilty paying so much attention to form when there’s a drama here.
before they give up and decide to call the
ants. She gets on the phone and calls up
“Ants.” Like a colony. Complex collective behavior. Unwelcome at a picnic. On the spectrum of homophones, a familiar one defamiliarized.
her ants, he gets up and calls his ants from
(And then a page break.)
his cell phone. The ants arrive at 8am on
the following Monday, and quickly set
to work. […]
The industriousness of “ants” redefines aunts. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of aunts this way but I can see how other people would. The more I read, the more the poem resists my attention to form, although I do anticipate the conceit to turn. Why did I say conceit and not objective correlative or even story?
I count the lines: eighteen. A heroic sonnet? A couched heroic sonnet?
[…] Around 4pm, the two return and
So now it’s Monday, a different day, but the bookends “8am” and “4pm” remind me of the Classical unity of time. I’m starting to feel like a beachcomber with a metal detector. Can there really be so much archaic poetics buried within such a contemporary poem?
enter gingerly, wondering if any progress
has been made. While questions still fly
about the room as to what will happen to
the refrigerator, the records, and the tele-
The word “[w]hile” is a signal. More than a signal — a promise. It’s the first time the syntax attempts simultaneity.
[…] they find that the couch has been
There it is. The turn. Problem, volta, resolution.
broken down into small chunks, neat little
couch chunks, all thanks to the his and her
ant set they had received as a wedding gift.
The couch is taken apart. Why? To unpack a pair of knotted lives by unpacking the dimensions of this single word? Yes, and more, an inquiry worth a second reading. I’m left feeling this poem has been sneaky, but a good kind of sneaky, maybe the best kind (J. M. Coetzee once used the phrase “honest cunning” — that’s precisely it). And what is sneaky if not diligent and alert? So yes, in both senses of work, “Couch” works. “While questions still fly.”
from Sawako Nakayasu, Insect Country [PDF]
David A. Colón is Assistant Professor of English and Latino/a Studies at TCU. His poems have appeared in DIAGRAM, Score, and Latino Stuff Review; in Dan Waber’s this is visual poetry chapbook series; and elsewhere. He has edited Between Day and Night: New and Selected Poems, 1946–2010 by Miguel González-Gerth (2013); authored a novel, The Lost Men (2012), nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award; and published articles in Cultural Critique, Transmodernity, The Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, The Journal of Latino/Latin American Studies, How2, and other journals. He is a contributor to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and the forthcoming volumes The Routledge Companion to Teaching Latino/a Literature and The Cambridge History of Latina/o Literature. He exposes himself at tcu.academia.edu/DavidColon.