Hélène Aji (École normale supérieure)
'Jerome Rothenberg Programmatic'
[First presented at King’s College, London, March 13, 2022, as part of a two-day poetry and music event, “Performed Poetics,” celebrating the work of Jerome Rothenberg and the late poet and scholar Eric Mottram.]
Jerome Rothenberg is one of the very few American poets. He has moved from self-engaged inner poetry to a social poetry in a classic development, until the translation of any culture in American hemispherical geography can take its place within his broad praxis.
These are the opening words of Eric Mottram’s contribution to Barry Alpert’s Vort issue, dedicated to David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg in 1975. The piece entitled “Where the Real Song Begins” is a wild dash across Rothenberg’s work to date, starting with the translation anthology New Young German Poets (1959) and ending with Esther K. Comes to America Poland 1931 (1974). The reading method is astonishing as it proceeds through a reorganization and reactualization of quotations from both the poems and the essays by Rothenberg. The density of citation leads to a fusion of voices and enacts the processes of cultural transfer at work in the poet’s poems, using them as sources for a new form of critical apprehension. Indirectly, what gets redefined is the very notion of an American poet, “anti-imperialistic,” “democratic,” “transnational,” and “transtemporal”. With extreme conceptual clarity, Mottram transitions from the inner and outer explorations that lead to the “vision emerging in the poem.” Playing with the diversity of Rothenberg’s inspirations and influences, Mottram delineates a poetics that, we now know, informs many a development in American poetry as “a passage & an act of desperation”. For Rothenberg, in Mottram’s view, the stakes are high and the balance is fragile between deep exploratory images and the demands of “transmittability”. The eclectic sourcing for the poems and the demand for active erudition on the side of the reader dissolve the poet’s integrity into what Michael Palmer calls a “non-entity”:
As Keats knew in looking toward Shakespeare and Milton, the poet in his or her non-entity is also always double or shadow of another and another. The Whitman of democratic aspiration and open-form poetics recalls the psalmic rhythms of Blake and his commitment to spiritual revolution. Rothenberg’s Tristan Tzara/Sami Rosenstock is at once the Dada poet/performer of the Cabaret Voltaire, chanting the cultural bankruptcy of a world bent on self-annihilation, and the ecstatic singer, the singer outside himself, of the Jewish mystical tradition. He is also without option the Jew in history, witness to diaspora and systematic mass-murder. When Rothenberg echoes and alters Tzara’s voice (or assumes the mystic Hugo Ball’s cape and conical hat), he becomes in his turn, this multiple presence, just as song becomes both Kaddish and dance, mourning and affirmation, the dark and light of an unrepresentable reality. Here too, deeper in shadow, appears the shaman, singing in what Robert Duncan interpreted as a literal psych-osis, a state of psyche or soul where one is double to one’s self.
Constructing the poet into the site of a present reconfiguration of memory is perhaps what synthesizes these few lines and provides a starting point to any reconsideration of Jerome Rothenberg’s work. Beyond the idea of “a usable past” updated to inform the present and help navigate its complexities, the process entails a radical transformation of the poet as he turns from an individuated poetic voice into the medium through which a plurality of voices can make themselves heard. As mystical transmitter, the poet lends himself to what he calls “othering,” both in the sense of becoming other and of making other in a performative and transformative way. So, my project today is to move through the different dimensions of Jerome Rothenberg’s work as they come to embody configurations of memory relevant to the present and effective poetic operations designed to respond to the present’s challenges. With reservations, of course, this dynamic is in keeping with some of Ezra Pound’s initial impulse. In Jerome Rothenberg’s words:
Pound’s paganism, in that sense, was a prettier, clearly more literary proposition, closer to Eliot’s classicism, I suppose, though the drift of his politics was more extreme & dangerous, getting himself bogged down in the Renaissance and so on, then with Fascism and the perpetuation of the nation-state. But think of what he contributes even so: the collage composition of the Cantos, the pivotal breakthroughs in translation, the sense of history as vortex, the transmission of an actual alternative tradition.
These four components of poetic action that Rothenberg outlines in the Pound heritage help organize his own activity: the anthologies are tradition-making; the translations allow for the implementation of what he calls “total translation”; the sense of history as vortex evolves into a collapse of the past onto the present and the invention of procedures to reconstruct it; the politics of poetics are revisited to converge with what Creeley calls Mottram’s “sociality.” It is from this political angle that I would like to revisit a few of Jerome Rothenberg’s works as they keep responding to our individual and collective quandaries.
What is most special about Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies is that they are active — one might be tempted to say activist — anthologies. They gather under the generic term of “poems,” a wide variety of documents that are systematically shown as interrelated. Their characteristics are shown as spanning thousands of years and roaming a global terrain, reinventing themselves under new conditions in a continuous rather than discontinuous and divisive manner. In Technicians of the Sacred (1968), Shaking the Pumpkin (1972), or America a Prophecy (1973), the exhibits are reconsidered as much more than detached artefacts from an irretrievable past since they combine as practical variations leading to present-day poetic practices. The series entitled “The Pictures” thus transitions from cave paintings to cosmogonic designs and ideogrammic complexes that tie in with early-twentieth-century calligrams or later concrete poems. Every document is the opportunity to propose a possible lineage as well as the occasion to question any notion of qualitative progress. The modes may change, but they do so in response to the conditions of their production rather than according to some delusion of linear improvement. From the Easter Islands to the proposals of William Blake (1825), Hugo Ball (1916), Guillaume Apollinaire (1918), Charles Olson (1953), Augusto de Campos (1964), Seiichi Niikuni (1965), or Nina Yankowitz (1978), what is delineated is a common creative repository equally shared rather than mined through predatory processes of appropriation. With Revolution of the Word, A Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry, 1914-1945, the issue is consequently to acknowledge the path to present experimentation and through this recognition to open the way forward to more comprehensive explorations:
[To] give a sense of how we found our way to new views of our own immediate pre-history, & what aspects of those views this anthology is trying to present. For we are all, in different ways & from our individual perspectives, talking about a virtual revolution in consciousness, & if we can’t remember how we got here, we may be talked into denying where we want to go.
This “revolution in consciousness” sends directly back to a statement by Mina Loy quoted on the cover of the volume, which brings together the inward movement of introspection and the outward movement of awareness. One of the functions of the anthologies is to clarify the poet’s position in time and space rather than to compose the solid foundation for some alternative canon. To this extent, they are provisional records of potentiality in the way that makes Rothenberg refer to Gertrude Stein’s convoluted formulation in Narration to point at the writer’s condition:
The exciting thing about all this is that as it is new it is old and as it is old it is new, but now really we have come to be in our way which is an entirely different way.
The anthologies open onto a revision of one’s understanding of intertextuality in terms of hybridization in such a way that they resonate with Edward Said’s 1994 definition of the “new encyclopedic form” of modernism whose necessity derives from the disruption of ideological universals. However, the investment, according to him, does not imply the development of alternative orthodoxies but rather “a particular sort of nomadic, migratory, and anti-narrative energy”: “this movement resists the already charted and controlled narrative lanes, and skirts the systems of theory, doctrine, and orthodoxy” (Said 2002, 281). The anthologies counter the will to power of imperialistic methods of citation by being seed compositions, consistently recognized as other and susceptible to reorganization and expansion in unpredictable ways.
The migratory dimension stressed by Said is a major component of the impulse to translate and reflect on alternative methods of translation that underpins Rothenberg’s practice of translation as transmission and transfer. In the preface to Shaking the Pumpkin, he emphasizes the emergence of the translated text as a new poem in the target language rather than an attempt at strictly conveying its meaning. This meaning remains putative, intrinsically linked as it is to the translator’s personal perception of the original text. The interference and intervention of the translator as co-creator at least are not seen as unavoidable downsides: they are part and parcel of a whole theory of translation whereby the resulting poem works as a response to the source poem, inscribes itself within the context of present poetics, and exposes itself to the test of its relevance to the preoccupations of that new context.
I don’t want to set English words to Indian music, but to respond poem-for-poem in the attempt to work out a « total » translation — not only of the words but of all sounds connected with the poem, including finally the music itself.
As one might infer, the process is in part indebted to Ezra Pound’s practice of translation as it focused on the overall effect of the original text and its interpretation in the time and place of translation. The insistence on the “music” of the poem implies further constraints than the demands of lexicon and syntax as the translation moves beyond replication into the more uncertain grounds of recontextualization and reactualization. The gift of the poem maybe is what translation centers upon and aims to activate, thus defining Rothenberg’s idea of “total translation”:
One way or another translation makes a poem in this place that’s analogous in whole or in part to a poem in that place. The more the translator can perceive of the original — not only the language but, more basically perhaps, the living situation from which it comes &, very much so, the living voice of the singer — the more of it he should be able to deliver. In the same process he will be presenting something — i.e., making something present, or making something as a present — for his own time & place.
The notion of “presentation” is then more complex than it seems at first since it does not limit itself to the introduction of lesser-known texts to a wider readership. Supplemented by the reference to analogy — and the inscription of the poem in the live conditions of its production — the idea of presentation turns into a polysemic reference that includes “presentification” and a gift in the Derridean sense of the term, liberated from the economy of gift and counter-gift that cancels it and restored to its mystical experience of presence. The translation performs this renewal of presence for a text that might otherwise get lost in the flow of time and motion of displacement.
There are many examples of this ethics of translation as Rothenberg implements it with a wide range of texts. One of them is The Lorca Variations that are first introduced as alternative modes of reading. The postface to the volume reminds the reader that the poems also work as a form of homage and as a recognition of indebtedness. Yet, they are radicalizing Rothenberg’s translation theory by dealing with the original texts as “vocabulary,” a repository of words from which one will draw the words of new poems. This extension of the translation act into procedural composition is what makes the translation total, in the sense of complete:
I felt a frustration in not being able to publish my own translations independently, thus diluting whatever sense I had of doing a Lorca homage, etc. With that in mind, I began to compose a series of poems of my own (“variations”) that draw on vocabulary, especially nouns & adjectives, from my translations of the Suites (later from Poet in New York as well) but rearrange them in a variety of ways. [...] these poems both are & aren’t mine, both are & aren’t Lorca. The methods used resemble chance operations but with a margin of flexibility, with total freedom in the case of verbs & adverbs, with occasional addresses to Lorca himself embedded in them. The result isn’t translation or imitation in any narrow sense, but yet another way of making poetry — & for me at least, a way of coming full circle into a discovery that began with Lorca and for which he has stood with certain others as a guide and constant fellow-traveler.
Performing more conventional translations of the poems turns out to be but one step on a longer journey to transfer the Spanish poems into world poems. The return of the text as “itself and not itself” signals the double-bind of presentification: it simultaneously revives the past text and seals its loss, as in the last poem of the volume, “Coda: The Final Lorca Variation”:
the end for Lorca comes
only when we let it helpless
with insomnia we hear him stir we see him
reach for Saturn
no homage can repay what we have lost
This might help us better account for the difficulties of, for instance, the seventh Lorca variation, “Water” dedicated to Charles Bernstein. One is tempted to elucidate the dedication and trace the explicit references to Bernstein’s poetry, which would get reformatted into the language of Lorca. But this might obliterate the way the poem works as an enactment of Bernstein’s theory about absorption and the unperceived ideological discourse inscribed in the very structures of linguistic expression. Despite the Lorcan impulse to free the poem from the strictures of conventionality and recover the energy of elegy through lexical sobriety and the simplicity of images, Rothenberg’s text remains poised on the verge of mystical crystallization, and the reader is prevented from achieving any kind of epiphanic discovery. “Black” rather than “dark,” the text precludes the transparency that could have allowed for transcendence and confines its reader to the materiality of words and images. The “lake” comes with its baggage of pathetic fallacy and meditative topoi, but the mention will not coalesce into intertextual reference because it is not sustained. The iteration of these cognitive disruptions generates the “beehive” effect of a disturbing buzz that imprisons the poetic subject into a “crystal prison.” From the idea of transnational transfer that translation implied, the poet extends the corrosive power of his activity to dissolve more than the boundaries of nation or self, maybe achieving Gayatri Spivak’s “unrestricted economy of same and other” where no text stands ancillary to another.
A corollary of this dissolution is a type of haunting of the text that ends up materializing the haunting of the poet himself — and more generally, the condition of haunting that is a shared human condition. This haunting has no specific theme, but with Rothenberg, it is tragically mediated through the internalization of the Holocaust and a succession of attempts to render the claustrophobia of impossible mourning. One might believe, as Eric Mottram suggests it, that the poems of Poland/1931 aim at investigating the poet’s personal version of primitiveness and making it mesh with the collective version that is the make-up of America. From Polish shtetl to New York, hinging around the year of the poet’s own birth, a series of poems constructs a narrative whose main feature is their fantasmatic dimension. In his conclusions about this 1974 collection (the latest at the time of his writing), Eric Mottram points out the collage pictures that insert the poet’s image among the crowd of shtetl men, women, and children as it paradoxically foregrounds both the presence and absence of this lost world. With analogous effects, the exploratory piece “Jews &,” which can be found in the Rothenberg archive at UCSD, summons a list of relations that could be a mode of redefinition of a fluid identity: it does not exist in and per itself but is modelled along its interactions with otherness. The list is presented in reverse alphabetical order, from the Z of “zinc” to the A of “arabs,” somehow retracing the steps of a catastrophic migration from the metal roofs of Polish houses to the conflict and violence of Israel’s creation.
jews & zinc
jews & wounds
jews & willows
jews & weeping
jews & veins
jews & twitches
jews & that
jews & tetanus
jews & teeth
jews & silence
jews & shame
jews & crosses
jews & conscience
jews & bulk
jews & baggage
jews & arabs
The poem reads as some endless litany of unresolved — and potentially insoluble — conjunctions. The words are spelled out, brought forth to consciousness by their materiality and the constant reminder of their inscription in a vocabulary of pain that might be as numerous as the dictionary.
This haunting of language can (and does in Jerome Rothenberg’s work) move into several directions. With Khurbn, the book of disaster, the poet experiences one extreme instance of “othering” as mythologized in the figure of the dybbuk. The silenced voices of Holocaust victims roaming the apparently placid Polish countryside of the 1980s find their channel through the poet’s body, turning him into the medium for their expression.
The absence of the living seemed to create a vacuum in which the dead — the dibbiks who had died before their time — were free to speak. It wasn’t the first time that I thought of poetry as the language of the dead but never so powerfully as now. [...] There was a reason for [not wanting Poland/1931 to be a poem about the Holocaust], as there is now for allowing my uncle’s khurbn to speak through me. The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry.
Khurbn is a gesture of testimony to the impossibility of total erasure, the desire for revenge and rebirth, and the permission given by the living to the dead to inhabit them.
at night their voices
carrying across the fields
to rot your kasha your barley
stricken beneath their acid rains
no holocaust because no sacrifice
no sacrifice to give the lie
of meaning & no meaning after auschwitz
there is only poetry no hope
no other language left to heal
no language & no faces
because no faces left no names
no sudden recognitions on the street
only the dead still swarming only khurbn
Written “after Auschwitz,” it is a response to Adorno’s imperative, its subversion as it begins to envision the new “barbarian” language that is the post-Holocaust language of the poem. It develops into a literalization of this possession with the gematria poems. Temporality is cancelled as all layers of historical experience are shown to cohabit within the very matter of language.
In Gematrias Complete (2009), Jerome Rothenberg indeed presents as a coherent whole poems composed over more than fifteen years and published in installments since 1994. All of the poems expand from a method consistently used notably to compose the poems of 14 Stations, a series based on the fourteen names of fourteen Nazi death camps, and their transcriptions into Yiddish. All of them are written according to a complex compositional strategy that starts from the Hebraic transcription or translation of a word, often a name or a noun, that is then processed as a seed word for further combinations and compositions. The use of the Hebrew alphabet for transcription — and of Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, as the target language — opens the door to a mystical world of Kabbalah whereby alternative modes of textual interpretation can be developed using the numerical value of Hebrew letters and the total value of words as additions of their letters’ value. Words of identical value can then be hunted through the text of Torah, which works as a vocabulary or word repository. These words can be used to compose poems built on the links thus created so that words are related to one another that would otherwise have remained unrelated. The numerical logics create a web of signification that is counterintuitive, divorced from the free association of lexical fields or poetic inspiration. In the specific case of the Nazi death camps, selecting the words of equal value to the name of the camp allows to build a vocabulary of “related” words of equal value in the Hebrew of the Biblical text, which once translated into English makes up poems that speak to the original name but do not directly express individual affect or the subject’s perception of the disaster of Holocaust.
This process of linguistic circulation imprints on the poems the seal of estrangement, defamiliarization, and alienation in language as well as in the apocalyptic landscape of post-Holocaust poetics. Yet, when moving on from the names of death camps to the names of fellow-artists and poets, or to common nouns, the poet expands the purview of his initial intuition from a recognizable historical disaster to the conditions of ordinary living: the complex modes of expression and linguistic manipulations convey the difficult day-to-day survival of a consciousness. The potentially infinite poetic series unfolds texts that constantly remind their reader of the loss of the source text and metonymically of the loss of original experience through the practices of iterated derivation and interpretation.
As an import from Hebrew and a practice of reading and interpreting texts in non-linear, paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic fashion, gematria upsets conventional modes of approaching texts, as well as provides hypotheses for post-deconstructive reconstructions. According to Jerome Rothenberg it is a “poetry of numbers” based on the numerical value of words and the relations that can be traced between words of equal numerical value as they appear in the text of Jewish Torah. The networks of signification thus outlined can be deemed subliminal, not so much in the sense of being perceived unconsciously but — quite on the contrary — in the sense of being imperceptible but through intense deliberate investigation and calculation.
While numerical gematria and coded temura come easily in a language like Hebrew which is written without vowels, the possibility of similar workings in English shouldn’t be discounted. Gematria-generated poems can also be composed by translation from Hebrew [...]. The fact of translation may, in fact, add to the apparent “distance & power” of the combinations, a direct relationship that twentieth-century poets like Reverdy saw as the basis of the poetic image.
For myself the numbers have been a presence beneath speech, but I have known them also, being Jewish, in the letters of the alphabet I work with. My father drew them with his finger on the kitchen table. And I have lain awake like him & counted numbers in sequences that play on mind & body until the rhythm of numbers, letters, shapes, & forms is inescapable — as still another source of naming.
More than any other strategy maybe, gematria combines the mechanical techniques of depersonalization, which cancel personal choice and inspiration, with highly idiosyncratic formal decisions, which generate tense poems reflecting a verbal haunting. In this context, the Torah provides for a vocabulary to restore the un-narrativized and possibly un-narrativizable complexity of human experience, while gematria-generated poems produce a potentially infinite array of alternative discourses to approximate it.
On one level, Rothenberg’s gematrias are memorial poems, which send the reader back to a tradition, intrinsically linked to a collective Jewish textual world, to the patriarchal word, and to his personal initiation into the poetic. On another level, though, the poems witness the remanence of a disappeared object, subject, or event that has lingered in the very letter of each and every word. The tension is thus figuratively inscribed in language itself between the autonomy of the single word and its relational intensity, as each word is objectively linked to an unexpected and largely unsuspected lexical network. This lexical network generates other paradigms and, as Rothenberg puts it, an alternative way of “naming” or defining. A single word can radiate and resonate into several possible relational constructs that are springboards for interpretive variations and alternatives.
THE VOICE (1) THE VOICE (2)
will answer A voice.
In the two “voice”-based gematrias, voice is simultaneously defined as existing only as part of a dialogical communication system, as a singular instance, and not as a generic abstract notion. Doubly, the mathematical links between the words (or within the word itself as a matter of fact) posit definitory statements that can be seen as complementary (1) and divergent (2).
So, it is significant that the first experimentation with gematria as a compositional mode should have happened with “14 Stations.” The poems occur as part of another series of poetic attempts to provide some modicum of poetic witnessing for the missing witnesses so eloquently evoked by Girogio Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz. Agamben reflects with Primo Levi on the witness by proxy that is the defective witness of the Holocaust: beyond the horror, one must confront the paradox of witnesses whose reliability is compromised by the very fact that they remain as witnesses. The “value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks,” says Agamben. The total witness cannot rise from the dead to bear witness; the testimony of the defective witness is threatened because it is mediate. It is threatened but not cancelled, however, since it falls into the category of speech acts. According to Agamben following Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), the testimony is valid as a verbal event, an enunciation that can be studied as a positioning of the subject, beyond the linguistic modes of text analysis, by focusing on the “taking place” of discourse. With Jerome Rothenberg’s gematrias, the mathematics of language generate the discourse for the impossible witnessing by imprinting the horror in the words themselves and, as a consequence, in all words so that poems change in their very nature as they deny consolation and remain forever bogged in disaster. The process goes as far as to contaminate the sacred word repository that does not contain them since the names of the death camps are not in Torah: they are out of bounds in that sense, but the text does circulate their numerical equivalents. The words of the prayer, to extrapolate, are literally reinvested by death itself, which they indirectly state rather than compensate.
With “14 Stations,” history is collapsed into a textual projection that imprints the unspeakable past onto all of language, all its uses, and all its users. Once it has happened, it may remain enclosed and be lost in the memory of the deceased, but it will also vividly resurface as it has stayed imprinted onto every word of a shared language through a system of linguistic equivalence. The distressing side effect of this procedure is that the names of the camps do stay out of reach of the analytic voices, as well as of the poetic voices, but still make themselves heard everywhere: the event and the words for it are erased and activated at the same time, a figuration of the aporetic witnessing that presents and substracts the event in one and the same gesture.
THE THIRD STATION: BUCHENWALD
lords of fat
Through the use of the gematria-related modes of composition, Jerome Rothenberg brings in historicized components, as well as an organization that might temporarily narrativize them, but he also generates conditions of testimony not unlike those articulated by Giorgio Agamben in Remnants of Auschwitz:
We give the name testimony to the system of relations between the inside and the outside of langue, between the sayable and the unsayable in every language — that is between a potentiality of speech and its existence, between a possibility and an impossibility of speech. To think a potentiality in act as potentiality, to think enunciation on the plane of langue is to inscribe a caesura in possibility, a caesura that divides into a possibility and an impossibility, into a potentiality and an impotentiality; and it is to situate a subject in this very caesura.
Thus, the open-ended processes of Rothenberg’s “othering” outline the paradigmatic potentialities that characterize a reconfigured rapport to language. They speak against authority for a consideration of the human in its many guises and disguises. In that sense, they are powerfully reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s warning against totalitarianism and its propensity to “invent a system in which all men are equally superfluous”. What Rothenberg’s poetic gestures are consistently attempting is, in Arendt’s words, “to create — not merely discover — a new foundation for community as such”. One is then impressed by the clairvoyance of Eric Mottram’s reading of Jerome Rothenberg’s early poetry and his use of concepts that have come to full visibility and relevance in the more recent poems of The President of Desolation & Other Poems: the texts stand witness to an enduring commitment to the poetic as “inclusive,” “connective,” and “intersectional” and as the means to postpone disaster yet a little longer. But the poems also remind us of the precariousness of this temporary equilibrium since we are all sleeping in a room of mirrors, which is also Hitler’s room “at the Hotel Monopol in Breslau”:
In the room
Where Hitler slept
Dreams didn’t come
Broke from the walls