Pierre Joris: From 'Barzakh' (Poems 2000–2012)

[It is astonishing to me how Pierre Joris, whom I’ve known going back into his jeunesse (& almost into mine) has emerged as an exemplar of a total poetics, at the heart of which is that nomadic poetics which he’s been delivering to us over the last three or four decades with such singular force.  As with many of us who have tried to define ourselves as poets & sentient beings, it is the poetry itself that precedes and determines what we later say about it.  The wonder, then, in Joris’s twenty-first-century book, Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press), is how that poetry has continued to stake out new territory & to demonstrate over & again his ability to seed his work with a wide & meaningful range of times & places, yet with an awareness, never faltering, of the immediate world around him.  In announcing Barzakh on Poems and Poetics, I’ve chosen to excerpt from a longer poem in which a form of traditional alphabetic mysticism (a key source of poetry outside of the normative poetry nexus) is the principal subtext for the work as a whole.  Here in its Arabic/Islamic form it resembles what I’ve pursued as Hebraic gematria in other contexts.  (J.R.)] 



Preamble to an Alphabet


letters arose

says Abu al-Abbas Ahmed al-Bhuni

letters arose

from the light of the pen

inscribed the Grand Destiny

on the Sacred Table


after wandering through the universe

the light transformed

into the letter alif,

source of all the others.


another arrangement of letters

into words and words

into stories has it

that Allah created the angels

according to the name & number

of the letters so that they should

glorify him with an infinite

recitation of themselves as arranged

in the words of the Qu’ran.


and the letters prostrated themselves

and the first to do so was the alif

for which Allah appointed the alif to be

the first letter of His name & of the





Adam is said to have written a number of books three centuries before his death. After the Flood each people discovered the Book that was destined for it. The legend describes a dialogue between the Prophet Muhammad and one of his followers, who asked: ‘By what sign is a prophet distinguished?


   ‘By a revealed book,replied the Prophet. 

   ‘O Prophet, what book was revealed to Adam? 

   ‘A, b… ‘ And the Prophet recited the alphabet. 

   ‘How many letters? 

   ‘Twenty-nine letters/ 

   ‘But, oh Prophet, you have counted only twenty-eight. 

Muhammad grew angry and his eyes became red. 

   ‘O Prophet does this number include the letter alif and the letter lam? 

   ‘Lam-alif is a single letter…. he who shall not believe in the number of twenty-nine letters shall be cast into hell for all eternity. 





and Alif has many seats

under which he is silent

though you cannot call it suffering

suffering rhymes with zero

at least initially

a sweet round perfection

as we like to draw it

doodling one into the other


(newspaper margins of the b&w middle fifties

at Mme Cavaiotti’s  where I wrote

or learned to daily at 5 p.m. whose husband

told me that in the last war (which wasn’t

the last at all) he had been

forced to drink his piss from his boot

in the desert of Libya, his wife linking

zeroes, rounds, in the margins of the daily

Wort,” making, making writing


a chain of nothingness

that is something

and that is our fate und Fluch:


that we have to do something

            even to achieve the nothing

            even if only we doodle

ourselves through life

            while talking on the phone

            to someone doodling elsewhere

            while all we mumble are

            sweet nothings chains

            of linked zeroes


step back &       focus shifts


                          a shape emerges             from the space created


                                      by the two     circles’





                                    wherein stands

            the shape of Celan’s eye, of the fruit

of the almond tree,

            there stood, maybe,

the names of the six kings

of Madyan, make up the letters

of the Arabic



            The nothing, where does it stand?

It stands outside the almond,

it stands in the shells

of the suffer’un

the zero-crescents

above & below


(“Human curl, you’ll not turn gray,

Empty almond, royal-blue”)


fall away

as the almond looms,

yet remain as links

of a chain,


sew mandorla to






What a place that must be,

a something at least, to be in

and if that nothingness

was the hamza

a sort of zag without a zig

a future breath half taken now

with always something more

solid, important coming right

behind it.

a kind of fishing hook.


which puts an odd occasion

on this table:

a fishing hook


a future breath

here lie the roots of another

surrealism yet to come

when we find the zig goes with

the orphaned zag.