Jerome Rothenberg: After Gorky’s 'The Betrothal,' poem & autovariation, 1966 & 2014

Arshile Gorky’s “The Betrothal”
Arshile Gorky’s “The Betrothal”

[Using the procedure of “variations” that I began with The Lorca Variations (1993) I turn it here toward my own earlier work & show, below, both a poem from 1966 & the corresponding autovariation from 2014.   In the present instance I’ve gone back to a poem written & published as part of a book called “The Gorky Poems,” and, as in the  “variations” I’ve done from other poets, I systematically remove all nouns from the original & use them as building blocks or what Jackson Mac Low used to call “nuclei” in the construction of an otherwise “original” poem. 

For this the directive is from Henri Matisse, in an exchange with Gino Severini: “One should be able to rework an old work at least once – to make sure that one has not fallen victim – to one’s nerves or to fate.”  And again: “When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.”]



from The Gorky Poems


     How they began it.  Dead bodies

     moved in the flowerbed, a finger stopping & turning, showing

     a page & an ocean, a longboard covered with stars.  In the

great night
     my heart will go out, will be scooped from me, swept thru the
     follow the plane’s route, a place
     where boats meet like lovers
     in couples, the heart of the diamond, the cyclotron’s heart, its spaces
     cleaving me, leaving me dead.
     I was dead.
     Who steps from the sea to meet me?
     Another dead body, a heart like a cucumber
     cold, green, in the ice-covered room, receiving my heart
     the taste of my blood in her mouth.
     Her dead mouth.
     The passage into her darkness, a gutter
     a rainpassage
     country of clouds & the blue lips of women.
     A hand slides under his shirt.  He grows hard.  The dancers
     forget where the light is
     & fall, the dancers forget
     they falter
     their hands break the glass
     a finger stopping & turning, showing
     a skull.  Lift the hammer
     & over your head lift the icecap.
     Smash thru the air.  The air freezes &
     freezes against you
     covers your hair & your teeth, slits your gums, draws bile
thru your nose.
     To the sound of drums, the cry of walruses, the beating of
a heart
     not my own
     to the beating of a heart not my own
     I was turning.
     In the trunk I was turning.
     Among crushed hat I was turning.
     Under a crushed sun I was turning.
     I turned with the sun.  A faucet
     was turning
     black water spilt from a glass.
     Starting & turning, returning
     & starting.  A penny.
     A seal.
     An umbrella.
     An American flag.
     A wishbone.
     A derrick.
     A place.
     We called it a place by subtraction. 


from The Gorky Variations

he points a finger

at the stars

a cyclotron of racing bodies

like a plane in flight


a darkness in which

lovers struggle

women’s hands

grow hard


the country hides them

hammers strike the air

blood turns into ice

the way the dead do


there is more bile in this

than heretofore

the cry of water

when the sun comes out


crushed hats

will suit no head

no heart beat

like a drum


a black umbrella

place determined by


sealed & sold


the skull has lost

its gums & lips

deprived of air the dancers

search a passage


leading to a passage

where the sea waits

with its boats

a taste for breaking free


leaving his bed behind

to test the water

set the ocean shining

like a diamond


flower for a heart

the places & the spaces

that a heart fills

vacant    heartless


blue cucumber

frozen    rain

that falls so hard

his mouth can’t hold it


ice forms on my shirt
my cap    the beating
of my heart
a feeble sound

teeth clenched

a faucet dripping

pennies clinking in a glass

a trunk half full


where a derrick lifts

the bodies of the dead

abandoned couples

line the route


they watch & wonder

turn a page

that leads them to a room

at night    bewildered


heart in mouth

& hand aquiver

clouds reflected in a glass

sun in the gutter


the hair atop my head
inside my nose
has come alive
my wish is fatal

wounded    split

a false betrothal

ice invades their bodies

down to the bone